Early moves by opposition before GE is the right step: analysts

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
PHOTO: Yahoo News Singapore / Getty Editorial

SINGAPORE — While the date of Singapore’s next General Election (GE) has not been confirmed, political analysts say that early moves by several opposition parties will work to their advantage.

Associate Professor Michael Barr of Flinders University in Adelaide told Yahoo News Singapore that he is unconvinced that a General Election will be called this year. The government must call for an election by 15 April 2021.

Nevertheless, the long-time Singapore watcher added, “There is absolutely no reason to think that the opposition is preparing too early. Considering how short the time is for nominations and campaigning, they need to start early.”

Over the weekend, Tan Cheng Bock and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) held a public event to mark the party’s official launch. It was attended by some 500 people.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) announced its intention to stand in the same five constituencies that it contested in the 2015 GE. SDP chief Chee Soon Juan went on the attack, telling reporters that Singaporeans’ confidence in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been shaken.

Dr Chee also advocated the formation of an opposition alliance.

Both the PSP and SDP have moved early in order to capture the “broader political rhetoric”, noted Murdoch University's Associate Professor Terence Lee, who specialises in Singapore and Malaysia politics. “Election campaign periods (in Singapore) are very short, making each election effectively a snap poll. This gives opposition parties a very short lead time to campaign.

“For this reason alone, it is important for the opposition, and indeed the People’s Action Party, to 'work the ground' early. If they emerge from the shadows too close to nomination day, they get accused of being opportunistic.”

Short on details

While the PSP has already held two events, it has not provided many details of its policy proposals.

Garry Rodan, emeritus professor at Australia’s Murdoch University, said, “It is hard to ideologically distinguish the PSP from other existing opposition parties. Its potential impact rests more on further normalising and encouraging opposition politics through Tan’s reputation for integrity and grassroots links.”

But both Prof Barr and Prof Lee reckon that a lack of details at this stage will not be a hindrance to the PSP, and is in fact a strategic move.

“I doubt that Tan is going to get very detailed on policy. Nor should he. Electorates don’t vote for oppositions because they like their policies, but because they are disenchanted with the government,” said Prof Barr.

“On the other hand they might be scared off by detailed opposition policies, as happened in the recent Australian federal election where the opposition lost an ‘unloseable’ election, substantially because they scared the electorate with detailed policies.”

Prof Lee called the lack of details “clever politics” for several reasons, pointing to the fact that there is no date for the GE yet, as well as the “short attention spans” of voters. “Interested voters - and indeed, the media - will tune back in to source for updates, which will (see) PSP 'trending' going forward.

“At this point already, the million dollar question is whether Lee Hsien Yang will throw his hat in the ring to run as a candidate.”

Lee Hsien Yang: will he or won’t he?

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - JUNE 29: Lee Hsien Yang, the brother of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, together with his wife and second son Li Huanwu and his husband Heng Yirui attend the Pink Dot event held at the Speaker's Corner in Hong Lim Park on June 29, 2019 in Singapore. PHOTO: Ore Huiying/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the recent opposition moves: Lee Hsien Yang, who has declared his ‘wholehearted’ support for Tan Cheng Bock and the PSP. Could the estranged younger brother of PM Lee possibly stand for election against the PAP?

Prof Rodan cautioned that the support of the younger Lee poses a substantial risk for the PSP. “It needs to keep the focus on governance issues without being sucked into the intra-Lee family feud.”

Calling their alliance “unexpected but also not surprising”, Prof Lee said, “While I personally cannot envisage Lee Hsien Yang offering himself as a candidate in the GE, stranger things have happened in Singapore politics, so we cannot discount that possibility.”

Prof Barr even held out the tantalising possibility of Hsien Yang taking on his nephew Li Hongyi in an electoral contest. There has been persistent rumours that Li is being groomed for higher office, alongside accusations by Hsien Yang that PM Lee wants to start a political dynasty.

“If he found himself standing in the same constituency as Li Hongyi, it would be a devastating blow for Hongyi’s credibility... Hsien Yang’s presence would make it impossible for everyone to overlook everything that Hsien Yang and Wei Ling have been saying about Lee Hsien Loong’s longer term ambitions for his son.”

The reputation of Tan Cheng Bock

Like many of the opposition parties in the Republic, there is a certain cult of personality that surrounds the PSP. “Currently, the appeal of the PSP rests almost solely on Tan Cheng Bock's personality and reputation - in relation to his many years as a likeable and formidable PAP MP, as well as his near-success at the 2011 Presidential campaign. But this may change somewhat depending on the slate of candidates unveiled closer to the GE.”

Prof Barr says that the “simple messaging” of the PSP thus far, designed to pick up on the “widespread sense” that the PAP of today is not what it used to be, will work to its advantage. “Tan is popular and always was, based very much on his independent streak, and, frankly, being such a nice person. This is really his message. He is like the PAP but nicer.”

He added, “This is very simple messaging, but it is such simple messaging that generally cuts through. Whether this translates into votes, who knows? But it will certainly resonate, and his name and face are universally pretty well known across Singapore.”

Related stories

'It saddens me to see how Tan Cheng Bock has lost his way': ESM Goh Chok Tong

COMMENT: Tan Cheng Bock and the Lee Hsien Yang factor

Presidential Election, Oxley Road saga are key issues that show 'drastic change' in the PAP: Tan Cheng Bock

'We are good friends': Tan Cheng Bock on Lee Hsien Yang