Tan Cheng Bock: Sowing the seeds of PSP's future to challenge PAP

On 10 July last year, the Progress Singapore Party contested in a General Election for the first time. One year on, Yahoo News Singapore spoke with PSP chairman Dr Tan Cheng Bock in an interview on issues ranging from the PSP NCMPs to the party’s future.

SINGAPORE — Dr Tan Cheng Bock is fond of the fruit trees that have blossomed in the veteran politician's garden over the years under his loving care.

Just before his interview with Yahoo News Singapore at his single-storey landed home in Ghim Moh area earlier this week, the chairman of Progress Singapore Party (PSP) spoke passionately with this reporter about his mango and other trees. The evergreen octogenarian once even posted a TikTok video of himself plucking several mangoes from his garden.

Wearing a mandarin-collared cream shirt, Dr Tan proudly tapped his chest to show a newly minted pin of the opposition party's palm tree logo. He hosts his party members at his house to discuss various party and national issues at their weekly meetings.

In a way, the passionate gardener has been sowing the seeds of PSP's future growth since he decided to step back from being its leader. It is now up to Secretary-General Francis Yuen, Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMP) Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa, and other key party members to position the PSP for future electoral battles, with Dr Tan playing the role of a mentor.

Credible performance by PSP's NCMPs

When asked about the performance of Leong and Poa since the opening of Parliament on 24 August last year, Dr Tan, 81, said the NCMPs have performed credibly in their debates with ministers, and managed to articulate PSP's positions on various issues.

He gave his assessment of how the NCMPs, who are also part of the PSP’s central executive committee (CEC), have conducted themselves at parliamentary sessions.

“So Mun Wai is quite cautious, he has all these figures, and it's up to the government to challenge him. And I find that they (the ministers) have not been able to challenge him so well.

“And then Hazel is very, very quiet, in her own way, not confrontational but she will tell you something I think the government will have to take note. Look at her educational speeches.”

Dr Tan, a retired general practitioner, recalled the advice he had imparted to Leong and Poa after their entry into Parliament. He advised them that being under intense scrutiny in Parliament is par for the course as they are a minority among the MPs, and they should always stay calm and collected when debating issues.

“You will get a lot of parliamentary wounds, you will get hit. But don't worry, this is part and parcel of the growing up process of any NCMP in Parliament. But it is important that they maintain their stature and cool, because they will be the example, where many people are watching (them) and they are hoping that they will be of value as MPs in the future. So it's a tough journey.”

In last year’s general election (GE), the PSP garnered 40.86 per cent of the vote in nine constituencies that it contested. As a result of its best performance at West Coast GRC – where Dr Tan, Poa and Leong were fielded – with the PSP scoring 48.32 percent against the ruling People Action Party’s (PAP) 51.68 per cent, PSP was offered the NCMP positions. After Dr Tan declined to take up the position, the PSP appointed Leong and Poa to be NCMPs.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Progress Singapore Party chairman. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)
Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Progress Singapore Party chairman. (PHOTO: Dhany Osman / Yahoo News Singapore)

PSP being targeted

To date, Leong and Poa have debated in Parliament on an array of issues ranging from education, migrant workers, the economy to sustainability.

Arguably, the one issue that has put the PSP in the spotlight more than any others recently is the India–Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) and its supposed impact on Singapore's workforce.

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who told Leong that what had been said about CECA was false, in May challenged the NCMP to debate CECA. Without naming anyone, Shanmugam said certain "parties" were engaged in "dangerous" actions over the issue. Leong accepted the challenge and said CECA and other Free Trade Agreements have affected the jobs and livelihoods of Singaporeans.

The CECA issue led to separate Ministerial Statements by Health Minister Ong Ye Kung and Manpower Minister Minister Tan See Leng on Tuesday (6 July) to defend the government's position on CECA. Ong accused the PSP of using CECA as a “political scapegoat” to discredit the PAP.

Asked if he had a role in encouraging Leong to accept the challenge, Dr Tan said, “I think to a large extent he was also influenced by my opening remarks when I wanted to form the party (a few years ago) and said one of the areas that we should really look into is this review (of) CECA, on our employment of PMETs.

“I'm happy for him, I am glad he took the challenge. If he didn’t take the challenge I would have scolded him,” Dr Tan said with a chuckle.

But Dr Tan acknowledged it was a daunting challenge for Leong to face off the ministers. “I think Shanmugam is a bully…It’s the manner he posed that question to him, it’s very not gentleman for a minister,” said Dr Tan.

It is a good sign that ministers are challenging the PSP and that the PAP is worried about the opposition party, said Dr Tan. “They know that the PSP is not just a fly-by-night party now."

Dr Tan said the NCMPs have strong support from others in the party to prepare for parliamentary debates. "You think Mun Wai, when he goes to Parliament he's not backed by people? Of course I have a team to back him. I have a special parliamentary team manned by very good people, smart people, to give him the ammunition…for both of them.”

While the PSP may not have “great debaters”, the important thing was that it strives to represent the concerns of Singaporeans, according to Dr Tan. “This is what the people have told us, so this is what we are telling you."

Pandemic and PSP's future

Since its inception in 2019, the PSP has gone through a COVID-19 pandemic GE and continues to be hampered in its on-the-ground outreach efforts. The party has been more active than before on social media and other online platforms to reach out to people.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic is a subject of great interest to Dr Tan.

He pointed out that even if Singapore were to achieve herd immunity, the rest of the world might not have reached the same level as the city-state. As such, he emphasised the need for Singapore to collaborate with Asean countries to tackle COVID-19.

On the availability of the Sinovac vaccine in Singapore, Dr Tan said those who take the Chinese-made vaccine should be accorded the same privileges as those who are given the Moderna and Pfizer jabs. Unlike the latter two, the Sinovac vaccine is not covered under the national vaccination drive but is available at a number of medical services providers. Those who take the Sinovac vaccine are not covered under the Vaccine Injury Financial Assistance Programme.

Dr Tan also spoke about a group of doctors who had called for a halt in vaccinating youths. The reactions to the doctors' appeal were published in several local media reports. Parts of these reports came across as “overly dismissive” of the doctors, Dr Tan said in a Facebook post on 30 June.

Reiterating on the need for public airing of diverse views about vaccinations, Dr Tan said during this interview that the feelings of those who have taken different positions must be taken into account and the focus should not just be on the numbers.

“You cannot blame those people, those doctors or whoever...but if it's asking questions and they are put down in such a manner. How are we going to create this trust? You want me to support you, you must convince me.”

As PSP continues to step up its efforts in the community and Parliament, Dr Tan is focusing on cultivating the party's network with external associations and professionals. This is part of PSP's long-term goals to steer it away from a party that has been closely associated with him, he said.

“PSP was formed by Tan Cheng Bock but it is the people’s party, not my party… and Singaporeans must come to realise there is hope in joining this party because we are giving a different perspective of how things should be managed and how things should be run,” he said.

Ultimately, Dr Tan added that he hopes that his and the PSP's efforts will bear fruit at future elections.

“This is very important, must get that message across that there is an alternative to the PAP. The PAP has got no prerogative to run, to rule this country forever.”

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