SINGAPORE — There is an old Chinese saying: 时势造英雄, essentially meaning a hero is needed at a moment in time. Workers’ Party (WP) chief Pritam Singh, successor to such a skilled Chinese orator in Low Thia Khiang, would surely appreciate the analogy.
At the hour of his and the WP’s greatest triumph, surrounded by reporters outside the party’s headquarters at 4am on Saturday (11 July), the 43-year-old remained unflappable in the sweltering heat. While opposition supporters revelled in a carnival atmosphere in Hougang after the General Election (GE), Singh struck a sombre tone in Geylang Road.
“I'm not feeling euphoric at all. In fact, I think there's a lot of work to do,” said Singh, pointing out that even the historic presence of 10 opposition members in the House is hardly a “quantum leap”. Judging by the glumness of his words, one might have thought that the WP had lost all of the seats it contested.
But if all the world’s a stage, then Singh is, for now, firmly at the centre of Singapore’s political scene. He has learnt well at the feet of Low, whom Yahoo News Singapore columnist PN Balji called the master of the moment. Singh well and truly deserves the title of Leader of the Opposition.
The student has become the master
This reporter observed Singh up close at doorstops and walkabouts during the nine-day election campaign. The lawyer took questions like a pro, answering queries off the cuff and deftly deflecting the ones he didn’t want to address. He even had the presence of mind to remind state broadcaster CNA to lower its boom mike during a doorstop, and to relocate the event to a spot with better lighting.
It was all reminiscent of Low at his best: picking his moments to speak, though with slightly less flair. Where Low deals in juicy soundbites such as Singaporean voters giving the government a “tight slap”, Singh was far more restrained. “Mr Low has a way with words,” he said with a chuckle during a doorstop.
But media savviness aside, Singh also did not put a tactical foot wrong. The campaign began with the party playing up its underdog role, and dire warnings of a 93-0 wipeout in Parliament, a message which seemed to have resonated with voters.
Then came crunch time: when police reports were lodged against Sengkang GRC candidate Raeesah Khan for her alleged racially divisive comments on social media, Singh wasted little time in calling for a press conference. After an apology from the candidate, the party chief took any and all queries, rapidly defusing a situation that could have torpedoed their campaign.
Contrast this with the PAP’s handling of the controversy over would-be candidate Ivan Lim, who was hung out to dry and eventually forced to withdraw after DPM Heng Swee Keat said Lim needed to respond to the accusations against him.
Even when the PAP demanded that the WP make its stand on Khan’s statements clear, Singh did not take the bait. With a quiet swagger, a personable demeanour and a perfect sense of timing, he led the party to historic gains.
Far from perfect
It was not always this way. Once upon a time, Singh was better known for fiery rhetoric, memorably latching on to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s contentious claim that the PAP can be its own check. “Is this the future that we want for Singapore or our children in the next 50 years? Ownself check ownself?” he roared to a baying rally crowd in GE2015.
He also made a gaffe in Parliament in 2015 when, under persistent questioning by Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam on the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) saga, Singh said that he would answer his queries if the Minister were a resident. Now-retired Radin Mas MP Sam Tan immediately retorted that he was a resident of Aljunied GRC and demanded answers.
And for all the WP’s talk of press freedom, there were grumblings in the campaign - not for the first time - from reporters about a lack of access. At times, the WP was reminiscent of the PAP, which jealously guarded access to its candidates as if they were endangered species in need of protection.
No curtain call
On Sunday morning, Singh was still refusing to take a bow. Emphasising the hard work ahead, he told a virtual press conference that the ruling party cannot be counted out. “We've lived with the PAP all our lives, and we know how powerful they are.”
Singh is right. The PAP is like a wounded animal, quietly licking its injuries after the loss of three office-holders. Talk of soul searching is all well and good, but Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also spoke of the need for reflection after the historic loss of Aljunied GRC in GE2011.
Then they came roaring back, latching on to the AHTC saga like a dog with the bit between its teeth and carrying out repeated attacks on WP in and outside Parliament. At the same time, the PAP launched populist policies such as the Pioneer Generation Package. It all paid off in GE2015 with the PAP securing 69.9 per cent of the votes, while the WP retained Aljunied GRC by just a narrow winning margin of 2,162 votes.
In the years since, the government has also pushed controversial policies such as the reserved presidency and POFMA, an anti-fake news law, which was invoked several times during the election campaign.
It was the right move for WP to project gratitude and humility, while once again emphasising its underdog status. The PAP will need to carefully consider its next move if it does not want to come off as the bully again.
The long road ahead
There are a number of pressing issues that Singh and the WP will need to deal with.
Firstly, the need to establish a town council for Sengkang GRC. “I think the experience of 2011 should make us wiser as to how we should manage the handover, and we'll keep that in mind,” said Singh, in response to my query on whether he expected another difficult handover. The last thing the WP wants is a repeat of the AHTC saga, but this is not entirely in its hands.
Secondly, the police investigation into Khan’s posts. Such investigations typically take months, and the issue may resurface at the most inopportune moment for the WP. With his legal training, Singh would not be drawn into commenting on the matter, but he would be well aware that Khan can still potentially be disqualified as an MP if she is found guilty of a criminal offence.
Thirdly, the outcome of an appeal against a High Court ruling which found Low and party chair Sylvia Lim guilty of a conflict of interest in employing “conflicted persons” to run AHTC and overpaying the managing agent, possibly to the tune of millions. The duo could still be found financially liable for their actions and facing bankruptcy. If so, Lim could be disqualified as an MP. In the case of Singh, the High Court ruled that he had breached his duties of skill and care in the hiring of the town council’s managing agent FM Solutions & Services.
And last but not least - the role of Leader of the Opposition. It is a prestigious title, but what exactly will it entail? PM Lee had said Singh is entitled to “appropriate staff support and resources”. With Lee’s comments on polling night that a responsible opposition is crucial to winning investors’ confidence, is this all part of a strategy to shape the kind of opposition the PAP wants?
Pritam Singh is the man of the moment. Play his cards right, and he might just become the most significant opposition figure since Singapore's independence.