COMMENT: Will Cheng Bock’s appeal to the Merdeka generation work?

Former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock addresses reporters at the launch of the Progress Singapore Party on Friday, 26 July 2019. PHOTO: Dhany Osman/Yahoo News Singapore

I am very used to opposition parties listing all the People’s Action Party’s failings from way back when, and being scant with praise. So I thought Dr Tan Cheng Bock had an interesting pitch, particularly for the Merdeka Generation and older. The 50 to 60 somethings had all been beneficiaries of the PAP system and they should have noticed that the PAP has “changed” in recent years. It is therefore incumbent that they make sure the country is back on track, to put back the “soul” into the “beautiful facade”.

Here’s the punchline: They should join him (Dr Tan) and his Progress Singapore Party, because the PAP has lost its way.

There was no drastic tearing down of the G’s policies at this morning’s press conference at Merchant Court hotel to launch the party, beyond a reminder that he had been an early critic of the G’s foreign talent policy. Programme proposals would come later, Dr Tan promised.

Instead, he gave broad brushstrokes on why he decided to form his own party. It had to do with the erosion of the governance system, particularly over issues of transparency and accountability.

Pressed on this, he spoke about the opaque process of appointing office-holders, mentioning Temasek Holdings’ Madam Ho Ching, wife of the Prime Minister, by name.

Later, he referred to the FamiLEE fight over the fate of the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road House. Parliament, he said, shouldn’t be used as a platform to air family disputes, referring to the Parliamentary session in July 2017 held for PM Lee Hsien Loong to answer questions of abuse of power, accusations levelled by his two siblings.

Another example he gave: the constitutional changes to the office of the elected presidency to include multi-racial representation which, when it was first conceived, was a position based on merit. He probably had this in mind when he spoke about the ball always being passed to the courts to make decisions which should be within Parliament’s ambit; he had unsuccessfully challenged the G’s decision to date the timing of the elected presidency in such a manner as to require a Malay president.

So is Singapore’s newest political party the last throw of the dice by a 79 year old with an axe to grind against former party comrades? He would have joined the Workers’ Party or the Singapore Democratic Party if so, he said in answer to a question about being labelled a PAP “traitor”.

“I didn’t change; the PAP changed.”

I’ve known Dr Tan since the days I was a rookie reporter in The Straits Times many moons ago. Then, he was known as Mr Feedback (the predecessor of Reach). Parliament meetings in the 80s and 90s were rather more colourful despite the almost non-existent opposition, because of backbenchers like Dr Tan, Mr Heng Chiang Meng and Mr Chng Hee Kok, who took on the front bench as equals. I empathised with Doc (as he is known) when he voted against the Nominated MPs Bill in 1989 despite the party whip being in place, and felt glad when the compromise was that it was for every Parliament to decide if they wanted such members within in the House. I wondered how he felt when the NMP was institutionalised as a permanent feature in 2010, four years after he left Parliament.

He is like a dog who refuses to let go of his bone. I have seen this in his feisty exchanges with ministers in Parliament. Then he threw his hat in the ring for elected presidency in 2012, and staked a “claim” on contesting the next presidential election in 2017. He went to court to argue against the timing of the presidential election. He failed. He’s now gunning for a place in Parliament as head of a political party.

Bull terrier.

Perhaps, he wanted to get his back on the G for depriving him of the presidential route into politics? Or maybe he was inspired by Dr Mahathir Mohamad who effected regime change in neighbouring Malaysia? The media pressed him with such questions about his motivations, to which he had a standard answer: He was entering (re-entering?) politics for the good of the Singapore people. From most people, I would consider such phrases as typical of politicians trying to win votes. From Dr Tan, however, I confess to hearing a ring of sincerity. This is a man who could be enjoying retirement and the company of grandchildren, but is instead going up against the political party he belonged to for close to 30 years.

Dr Tan acknowledged that he is no spring chicken and that he worries about the fate of the party without him. He denied that his party comprised mainly grey heads who might not be able to appeal to the younger generation, despite the grey heads forming the majority of his red-and-white tee-shirt contingent. He said the younger ones will be unveiled over time. (He would have done better to pass the mic to members of the party’s Central Executive Committee who were on stage with him, if he wanted to dispel the perception of the party as a “one-man show”).

And while he might balk against joining opposition parties, he isn’t averse to having their members cross over. In the CEC were Ms Michelle Lee, formerly of the SDP and Ms Hazel Poa, formerly of the National Solidarity Party.

Hearing Dr Tan speak, he seems to have plenty of support, including from the enigmatic Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who has been accompanying him on a couple of his morning jaunts. Mr Lee, Dr Tan said, isn’t a party member but he is welcome to join – on the party’s terms and not to advance any personal agenda.

But what exactly are his party’s terms? What are its aspirations? Who is he fielding?

His opening remarks painted a picture of a political party ready to take over, a “unifying alternative”. The PAP cannot be the only option for Singapore, he said.

But those remarks were tempered during the question-and-answer session, with Dr Tan saying he was open to having a loose alliance with other parties and gaining at least one-third of the seats in the next election to deny the PAP the ability to amend the Constitution. He also doesn’t want to be Prime Minister. I suppose he is a gardener planting the seeds of a political party that would be the PAP of old, with the values of its founders.

He wouldn’t be drawn into talking about the number of candidates or constituencies it would be contesting besides denouncing as ”fake news” reports that the party was eyeing certain GRCs, such as West Coast where his old Ayer Rajah ward is located.

Now it remains to be seen how his remarks about a “changed” PAP go down with the people, especially the Merdeka generation. I think his examples of recent political events will resonate, even with members of the Establishment. Methinks he has “ammunition”, but there is one big thing going against him: the economy.

He confessed that a worsening economy would make people worry about changing the status quo. It was something his party had talked about – and factored in, he said adding that details would be given later.

I think a lot of people would like to know about concrete plans the party has that would alleviate their bread-and-butter problems. For most folks, charges of concentration of power, possible abuses or even a “changed” PAP, would have to be weighed against material advantages that a strong government can bring to the country. That’s a fact given the pragmatic culture we have here that places a premium on comfort.

Still, politics is going to get more interesting here.

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