COMMENT: Pritam Singh – Leader of the (friendly) Opposition?

SINGAPORE - JULY 07:  Workers' Party Secretary-General, Pritam Singh speaks to reporters during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election on July 7, 2020 in Singapore. Singapore will go to the polls on July 10 as the ruling party, People's Action Party seeks a fresh mandate amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. As of July 6, the total number of COVID-19 cases in the country stands at 44,983.  (Photo by Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty Images)
Workers' Party Secretary-General, Pritam Singh speaks to reporters during a campaign walkabout ahead of the general election on 7 July, 2020 in Singapore. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — The conclusion to the recent tempestuous and tiresome parliamentary debate between the government and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) over the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) summed up the dilemma faced by the Workers' Party (WP).

Even though some of the WP Members of Parliament (MPs) had initially wanted to join the debate, the biggest opposition party stayed out of it – wisely, in this reporter's opinion – right till the end, when Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh pointed out that circulating falsehoods can be easily rectified by the early release of pertinent information by the government.

And while Health Minister Ong Ye Kung conceded this point, it was the sight of him noting that the WP was in agreement with People's Action Party's (PAP) points on CECA and free trade agreements that raised eyebrows. "If you disagree, and I misrepresented you, please jump up and correct me. I don't think you will," said Ong with a chuckle.

The cameras did not capture Singh's reaction, but one can only hope that the 44-year-old grimaced. This is not the confrontational WP of JB Jeyaratnam, but the last thing any opposition party wants to be accused of is being overly in concert with the ruling party.

Or to use Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan's jibe from last year's General Election, being PAP-lite.

Parliamentary imbalance

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - JULY 11: In jubilant mood amid the pandemic, the Workers' Party supporters take to the streets in a north-eastern part of Singapore nestled in public housing on July 11, 2020. Based on early sample counts, the main opposition party has a chance to win 10 seats in parliament, the most ever in history in Singapore, Singapore on July 10, 2020. (Photo by Zakaria Zainal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
In jubilant mood amid the pandemic, the Workers' Party supporters take to the streets in a north-eastern part of Singapore nestled in public housing on 11 July, 2020. (Photo by Zakaria Zainal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

More than a year after being anointed as LO, the verdict is still out on Singh's effectiveness as leader of the 10 WP MPs and – nominally at least – two Non-Constituency MPs. Veteran journalist and Yahoo News Singapore contributor PN Balji characterised Singh's approach as good-cop-bad-cop: using a softer and more responsible tone, but letting his parliamentary colleagues raise the tempo when the need arises.

Having observed the WP in Parliament many times, this reporter sees it more as the equivalent of – to use a footballing metaphor – settling for a draw. After an initial probing question from the WP, followed by at times passive-aggressive responses from the PAP, the WP often seems content to let matters rest after a follow-up of one or two questions.

The WP sometimes seems akin to Gareth Southgate's England team: a good side filled with talented individuals but overly cautious in its approach. This does take great discipline, as the WP often knows how far it would push an issue, and no further.

But Singh ought to be wary of excessive caution; after all, a WP that does not ask too many difficult questions would suit the ruling party just fine. For instance, WP is perceived to be rarely in disagreement with the PAP on other issues such as foreign affairs and defence.

When to take on the PAP

Singh declined Yahoo News Singapore's request for an interview for its series of stories about the one-year anniversary of last year's GE. But a party source said that while there is general cohesiveness in the WP around Singh's measured style, there is a sense that its 10 MPs are still figuring out how far they can push things, and not all feel the same way.

Some senior party volunteers wish that Singh was more inclined to go on the offensive in Parliament. Perhaps they miss the finely honed political instincts of former WP chief Low Thia Khiang, who was always ready with expertly timed pithy remarks aimed at the ministers.

Now, this is not to say that the WP under Singh does not raise pertinent issues, nor indeed that the PAP is going soft on the opposition. Sengkang MP Jamus Lim, in particular, seems to be a lightning rod for PAP attacks. I have lost count of the number of times multiple PAP MPs have risen to rebut even the most innocuous of remarks by Lim.

Last September, in an extended back and forth, Singh pushed back against Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s description of opposition voters as “free riders”. “I'm not desperate for power, Prime Minister," he said pointedly.

In February, Singh also raised the “disquiet, unhappiness and cynicism” generated by the TraceTogether fiasco. But while he remains a highly visible LO in Parliament, Singh has sometimes been more outspoken on social media.

Last month, in response to Finance Minister Lawrence Wong's remarks on the necessity of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system, Singh said on Facebook, "One cannot help but to conclude that in the case of GRCs, minority representation is a Trojan Horse for the PAP’s political objectives."

Navigating a minefield

Even on its best days, parliamentary debates – and this is hardly unique to Singapore – are often filled with false binaries, fallacious arguments, an exasperating lack of hard data, and passive-aggressive rhetoric.

For example, during the recent debate on the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP), the WP expressed its desire for the EIP to be eventually scrapped. In response, Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean asked Singh, "Should (we) allow ethnic enclaves to form, just to see what happens by abolishing the EIP today, and then reach a situation where we were 50 years ago, 60 years ago...and then try and correct it?"

At the risk of stating the obvious, the WP must carefully choose its battles. Throwing caution to the wind will only lead to dead ends and brick walls, and possibly even parliamentary sanction. This is not 11 v 11, it is an 83 v 12 PAP-opposition line-up.

Perhaps Singh simply requires more time to grow into the role and fine-tune the WP's strategy. To return to the footballing analogy, he should bear in mind the fate of England at the recent European Championships final.

Sitting back in your own half is all well and good, but settling for a stalemate ultimately leads to nowhere. Without a change in course as time drags on, WP could face much higher risks akin to the uncertainty of a penalty shootout.

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