PSP renewal: Tan Cheng Bock still the ‘chief’ amid reports of internal rift

Tan Cheng Bock, Francis Yuen at PSP CEC press conference.
The Progress Singapore Party's chairman Dr Tan Cheng Bock (left) and new secretary-general Francis Yuen, along with the PSP central executive committee, address reporters at the party HQ on Saturday, 3 April 2021. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — Former Progress Singapore Party (PSP) secretary-general Dr Tan Cheng Bock remains the dominant figure in the PSP despite being replaced as secretary-general, as the fledgling opposition party addressed reports of an internal rift on Saturday (2 April).

Asked by Yahoo News Singapore if party members had tried to dissuade him from stepping down as party chief, the 80-year-old, who is now party chair, had a firm answer, "Of course I am still the party chief. But I want to reposition."

"It must be clear: the party is not my party. The party is for Singaporeans who believe that this country can be made better, if we make certain changes."

The secretary-general is regarded as the leader of a party and is typically referred to as the party chief.

Addressing reporters at PSP headquarters in Bukit Timah Shopping Centre, Dr Tan and new secretary-general Francis Yuen were seated front and centre, alongside the party's Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa, with the rest of the PSP central executive committee (CEC) behind them.

Dr Tan, who will now focus on mobilising grassroots support for the party, stressed that he was not done with politics just yet. "When I first started this party, I was quite clear where we're coming from, (and) that is, to build a better Singapore. So I haven't finished it. I always say, I just started. I went back into politics only last year. I can't be stepping down, I got this mission I must fulfill."

He quipped, "Maybe the PAP (People's Action Party) will be quite worried if I'm continuing."

Pre-empting questions about his health, the former PAP MP also stressed that he had undergone a "series of thorough check-ups" after last year's general election. "My doctor said I am still young," he quipped, adding that he would stand in the next election if he remains "relevant" and healthy.

Yuen, a former Republic of Singapore Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, was appointed the new party chief after the PSP's party conference on 28 March, which saw six new faces elected into the CEC. They are Dr Ang Yong Guan, Kayla Low Shu Yu, Jess Chua, Wendy Low, Phang Yew Huat and Harish Pillay.

The CEC will serve until March 2023.

Dr Tan not 'coerced' to step down

Amid multiple questions about online news portal Redwire Times' articles alleging that party cadres had sought to force Dr Tan out as secretary-general, Yuen said it was a "natural transition", with Dr Tan claiming that he had been planning leadership succession from the day he formed the party.

Yuen said, "Nothing is further from the truth that Doc is coerced into making this decision. It is his plan all the while, he has closely consulted myself, Mun Wai, Hazel and a few of the senior people."

Asked if there was indeed a schism in the party, Dr Tan, a former presidential candidate, said that the issue had been "played up by the press". Nevertheless, he acknowledged, "One or two people in the party, a bit rattled, they're angry because when they come and join the party, some of them got their own agenda."

"But if you're not a team player, I don't take you. So there will be... a few disgruntled people."

As to claims that some party members wanted him out, Dr Tan replied, "I think everybody's entitled to their own opinions. But (you) must be backed up by good reasons, and not just because you have some personal agenda."

"And to be honest with you, the people who also stood (for the CEC) lost badly (and) were rejected totally."

Given that Yuen is only nine years younger, Dr Tan was asked why the party had not chosen a younger successor, or considered NCMPs Leong and Poa as secretary-general. Calling Yuen "steady as a rock", and "dependable and competent", he said, "He has done a fantastic job restructuring the party, and introducing new incentives to allow political talent to surface... he is full of composure and instills quiet confidence."

Praising Leong as a "tenacious politician" and Poa as a "deep and clear thinker", he added, "The job of running the party is now on the shoulders of Francis and all the other young leaders here, and I'm very confident."

Performance in GE2020

PSP's new CEC at a press conference on Saturday, 3 April 2021.
The Progress Singapore Party's new central executive committee addresses reporters at the party HQ on Saturday, 3 April 2021. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)

In last year's polls, PSP lost all 24 seats that it contested to the incumbent People’s Action Party – in four Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs) and five Single Member Constituencies (SMCs).

In West Coast GRC – where Dr Tan led the PSP team – the party took 48.31 per cent of the vote share against PAP’s 51.69 per cent.

Yuen, 71, contested as part of the PSP's slate of candidates in Chua Chu Kang GRC. The PSP team there received 41.36 per cent of the vote share, against PAP's 58.64 per cent.

Commenting on the party’s overall performance then, Dr Tan had said that he was "quite proud" of the achievement. He added that he would not be handing over leadership of the team "so fast", and that the party had a succession plan in place with a ready pool of young talent.

Elaborating on his vision for PSP, Yuen said on Saturday that the next two years would be a period of consolidation. The party now has about 2,000 members, he added, with a membership committee formed to ensure that "the right people are coming in".

He noted, "Doc's greatest asset is... his goodwill with the people. His reputation, his network, his political experience: all these cannot be not leveraged at all."

"We have committed ourselves to make PSP the party of choice. We don't want to... be elected... by default... because (voters are) angry with a particular party in power.

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