GE2020: Leader of the Opposition role reflects WP's coming of age, say analysts

Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh speaking at a media doorstop on Tuesday (7 July). (PHOTO: Nicholas Tan for Yahoo News Singapore)
Workers' Party chief Pritam Singh speaking at a media doorstop on Tuesday (7 July). (PHOTO: Nicholas Tan for Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — The creation of an office of the Leader of the Opposition in post-independent Singapore heralds a new era in the Republic’s politics but the role can only be credible if the Workers’ Party (WP) steps up to the plate as an effective force in Parliament, say analysts.

At a press conference early on Saturday morning (11 July) after the final results of the General Election (GE) were announced, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he had called WP chief Pritam Singh to congratulate him on his party’s good showing and offered him the official designation as Leader of the Opposition. The WP chief would be provided with “appropriate staff support and resources to perform these duties”, said Lee.

While the details of the new office have yet to be announced, political observers told Yahoo News Singapore that it should enable the WP to gain more access to information. Consequently, the quality of the opposition should improve, as alluded to by former prime minister Goh Chok Tong in a Facebook post on Saturday. And how well the WP chief performs in the role will in turn also affect the growth of the opposition party, the analysts noted.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan said, “Legislation will have to be passed to officially recognise such a parliamentary position and to enable the allocation of public funds to support such an office.” But there will also be high expectations of the WP as public funds will go to the new office, analysts told Yahoo News Singapore.

Under the Westminster parliamentary system, which Singapore adopted from the British, the leader of the largest political party in the House which is not in government holds the official role of Leader of the Opposition. The person occupying that role is seen as the alternative prime minister to the incumbent, or a prime minister in-waiting. He or she also heads an alternative to the government, known as a Shadow Cabinet.

The WP garnered 10 seats in the House out of the 21 it contested, including winning the newly created four-member Sengkang group representation constituency. It will have just over 10 per cent of constituency seats in Parliament.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) will have 83 Members of Parliament after garnering 61.24 per cent of votes. The loss of 10 seats to the opposition was its biggest since Singapore’s independence.

Two non-constituency seats will go to the Progress Singapore Party’s team from West Coast GRC as the best performing losers.

In a Facebook post on Saturday evening, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said, “The outcome of GE2020 is good for Singapore and our parliamentary democracy.”

He added that “opposition MPs and NCMPs will now have to go beyond merely serving as a check-and-balance. They can put forward their alternative policies and solutions so that Singaporeans would know the choices available besides the government’s.”

WP’s increased responsibilities

“The formal institution of this role serves notice that the PAP is recognising the WP as a serious party (if not yet an equal) that the ruling party should constructively engage and work with,” said National University of Singapore (NUS) political scientist Reuben Wong.

Similarly, NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said, “My sense is that it is intended to facilitate a better working relationship with the opposition. It also signifies that the ruling party recognises the consolidation of the WP as a second party, rather than a ‘coming alive during elections’ party.”

He added that the creation of the role also recognises that “a sizeable presence of elected opposition MPs is a permanent feature in Parliament, and that the WP could be the second party in a future two-party system”.

Likewise, SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan said the new office will recognise “the role of a loyal and responsible opposition in our system of government”.

He opined that the appointment “may signal the PAP government's recognition that Singapore should prepare for its evolution from a one-party dominant system to a two-party or multi-party democracy”.

The law don said the appointment signals that the government wants to mould the development of the role of the opposition and collaborate with it for the good of Singapore.

But he added, “To be clear, this is not about having the opposition ‘on its side’ – no opposition party will ever agree to it – but more about developing the rights and responsibilities of the parliamentary opposition.”

Noting that the role is well-established in other Commonwealth countries, where the Leader of the Opposition leads a Shadow Cabinet, Assoc Prof Wong said, “I would expect Pritam Singh to have WP MPs assigned to specialise in specific ministerial portfolios, and to present a clear and thorough alternative to any policy or law that the sitting government proposes.”

SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan said tweaks may be made to Parliament’s Standing Orders such as the Leader of the Opposition having precedence to speak ahead of other MPs, after the front bench has spoken.

He added that for key parliamentary bills or motions, the PAP may be expected to seek the support of the Leader of the Opposition. “Policy-making still remains the prerogative of the government but getting buy-in from the opposition is also useful in ensuring a policy has a good start.”

Meanwhile, NUS political scientist Chong Ja Ian said, “Ultimately, the role of the Leader of the Opposition is to coordinate oversight of the ruling party, in particular the executive branch of government...The opposition is also responsible for making sure minority interests receive sufficient attention to avoid tyranny of the majority.”

The Workers' Party (WP) supporters in Hougang Ave 5 celebrating after sample counts are announced on 11 July 2020. (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)
The Workers' Party (WP) supporters in Hougang Ave 5 celebrating after sample counts are announced on 11 July 2020. (PHOTO: Don Wong for Yahoo News Singapore)

Higher expectations

While the creation of the role reflects that the PAP has come to accept “the new realities of politics in Singapore”, it remains to be seen whether the opposition is ready and prepared to take on the role, said political scientist Felix Tan of SIM Global Education.

Nonetheless, the role will definitely help grow the WP's appeal as a credible opposition and political party among Singaporeans, he said.

“The Workers' Party will also be able to garner more support from those still sitting on the fence. The party might also attract more credible members with a strong portfolio and diversity of experiences,” he added.

Similarly, Assoc Prof Wong said the formal appointment would lend prestige to the party and its leader. “I would also expect more visiting foreign dignitaries to request for meetings with the Leader of the Opposition, in order to better understand the context and politics behind policies in Singapore,” he added.

Assoc Prof Chong however cautioned that there will be a lot of responsibility and expectations on the WP. “The degree to which they can use the role to increase their appeal depends on how well they perform, whether they end up being perceived as complicit in the passage of less popular PAP laws, and their ability to represent minority interests effectively,” he said.

He also pointed out that the PAP still has a supermajority in the House. “That means that there is little the WP practically can do when the PAP pushes a bill. In effect, all the PAP needs to do is to answer a few more questions,” he said.

At press conferences after the the results of the GE, WP chief Pritam Singh indicated his awareness of the uphill task ahead. “I'm not feeling euphoric at all. In fact, I think there's a lot of work to do,” he said early on Saturday morning, adding that the WP’s performance was not a “quantum leap”.

The next day, he told reporters that the WP would be doing “soul searching” and that “we have to look at the results very carefully and determine how the party wants to move forward for the next five years”.

Quoting from former WP chief Low Thia Khiang, he said, “Singaporeans don't want us to fail, so let's not fail them.”

The WP can grow its role with more resources at its disposal for parliamentary work and better scrutinise government laws and policies, SMU’s Assoc Prof Tan noted. “But it also means that all eyes will be on the WP, especially when it comes to proposing alternative policies.”

SIM’s Dr Tan said the role can only be effective ultimately if the WP continues to grow as a credible political party and is able to field candidates in more constituencies over the next couple of elections.

He added, “It needs to be an opposition (party) that can seriously take on the PAP on a one-to-one basis. Otherwise, the role will simply be just 'all bark and no bite'.”

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