Looking to Malaysia, Singapore’s opposition comes together

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Then presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock greets the public before a rally speech in Singapore in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Simin Wang

The May 9 election triumph of Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, marking the country’s first-ever transition of power since achieving independence in 1957, was perhaps most closely watched in neighboring Singapore, where the People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled uninterrupted since 1959.

With the fall of Malaysia’s long-dominant Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, the PAP is now the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia. But the BN’s unexpected loss has caused many in Singapore to ponder the possibility of the PAP one day losing power, a prospect local opposition parties hope to realize at the next polls.

“The people of Singapore, like the people in Malaysia, must be tired of having the same government, the same party since independence,” newly elected Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad remarked in an interview after returning to office. He is remembered in Singapore for acerbic remarks that frequently needled the rich city-state during his previous 22-year tenure.

Though political conditions in the two neighbors differ in important ways, the parallels are apparently close enough for the leaders of Singapore’s disparate opposition parties to look to Pakatan Harapan’s strategy and tactics as a roadmap, in spite of the PAP’s asymmetric dominance in parliament and ironclad control over the state bureaucracy.

Seven opposition parties announced plans in late July to form a new coalition with Tan Cheng Bock, a respected former parliamentarian and presidential candidate-turned-government critic, leading the proposed alliance. He lost the 2011 presidential election to PAP-backed Tony Tan Keng Yam by a razor-thin margin of 0.34%.

A former medical doctor, Tan, 78, won six consecutive elections as the PAP’s candidate in the Ayer Rajah constituency from 1980-2001, each time garnering at least 70% of the vote. He is widely regarded as a popular and charismatic politician, a figure that opposition parties believe will unify and legitimize the proposed alliance.

Chee Soon Juan, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), waves to a lunch time crowd at a rally in the financial district of Raffles Place ahead of Singapore's September 11 election, on September 7, 2015. Campaigning for Singapore's September 11 election began September 1, with a resurgent opposition seeking a greater political role as voters chafe at immigration and high living costs. AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN

Singapore Democratic Party’s Secretary General Chee Soon Juan in a 2015 file photo. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

Last month’s gathering of the seven opposition parties was hosted by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), led by firebrand opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. At the event, he said that forging a “competent and credible oppositional force” would signify a “historic advancement in Singapore’s politics.”

The opposition parties involved in the alliance talks include the SDP, the National Solidarity Party (NSP), the People’s Power Party (PPP), the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Reform Party (RP), the Singaporeans First Party (SFP), and the new, as-yet-unregistered People’s Voice Party (PVP).

In July, the SDP hosted a private event featuring Malaysian politician and long-time activist Tian Chua, vice president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest component party of the newly-elected ruling coalition. He gave a lecture on how Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan worked with civil society groups to mobilize support for a reform agenda that won at the ballot box.

Malaysia’s political transition was “an important catalyst” for Singapore’s opposition parties, said PPP secretary-general Goh Meng Seng, who was quoted in local media reports. “It opened our minds to the possibilities of coalition politics. We also saw the need for a steady hand leading the coalition, someone voters can trust as prime minister.”

Political analysts see the proposed opposition coalition’s move to recruit Tan as a page taken from Pakatan Harapan’s playbook. Malaysia’s then-opposition invited veteran politician Mahathir to lead the coalition, with the expectation that his popularity and experience would impart credibility and lure rural Malay voters away from the BN.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad meets with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Perdana Leadership Foundation in Putrajaya, Malaysia on May 19, 2018 in this handout photo. Singapore's Ministry of Communication and Information/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad with Singapore’s premier Lee Hsien Loong, Putrajaya, Malaysia, May 19, 2018. Photo: Government Handout via Reuters

To be sure, Tan’s political stature cannot be compared to Mahathir, who was Malaysia’s longest-serving premier from 1981-2003 before his return to office at the age of 92. Tan is still undecided on whether to lead the proposed coalition, writing on Facebook that he sees “a small window of opportunity” for change and would regret missing a chance to “make a difference.”

Despite certain optimism, Singapore’s small opposition parties face high hurdles in replicating Pakatan Harapan’s electoral feat. Notably, none of the seven parties aiming to form the opposition pact has captured a parliamentary seat in the past decade. The Workers’ Party (WP), the only opposition party with a presence in Parliament, shunned an invitation to attend the alliance pact meeting.

The WP, Singapore’s second-oldest active party, is known to be averse toward working with other opposition parties. Low Thia Khiang, the party’s former chief, previously dismissed the notion of a unified opposition coalition as an “unworkable concept.” That stance seems unchanged under the party’s newly-elected secretary general Pritam Singh.

“In the age of the unpredictable, Tan’s switch to the opposition could easily have a significant impact if it is managed properly,” says Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University in Australia. “We know from the presidential election of 2011 that he is capable of peeling off votes from the PAP.”

Barr believes Tan would be an effective opposition coalition front-man and that his standing could “firm up opposition politics as an ongoing and relatively cohesive force.” Still, “it would be tricky to manage,” he says, given that the tightly disciplined WP continues to be the “leading anti-PAP brand” and is still the key player in Singapore’s opposition politics.

Low Thia Khiang, chief of the opposition Worker's Party (WP) speaks at a rally ahead of the general election in Singapore on September 2, 2015. Campaigning for Singapore's September 11 election began September 1, with a resurgent opposition seeking a greater political role as voters chafe at immigration and high living costs. AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN

Worker’s Party former chief Low Thia Khiang in campaign mode, September 2, 2015. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman

“An opposition coalition that did not either include the WP or did not have a close working relationship with the WP would not make much of an impact,” he predicts, adding, “I don’t see that the WP would have much to gain from joining this coalition, but it would be in its interests to cooperate with it.”

Woo Jun Jie, an assistant professor of humanities and social sciences at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, believes WP’s cold shoulder owes to the party’s relative success. “Having won several seats in parliament, it is unlikely that they will want to cooperate with parties that they deem to be weaker,” he says.

“The formation of a new opposition coalition is unprecedented in Singapore and could signify a shift in Singaporean politics towards greater coordination among opposition parties,” Woo believes. “If the coalition works, we may see a strong challenge to the PAP at the next general elections.”

Singapore’s next general election must be held by January 2021 but could be called earlier for various reasons. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of deceased national founder and long-time premier Lee Kuan Yew, plans to make way for a successor sometime after the contest. Several younger PAP ministers have been shortlisted for the top job, though no obvious front runner has emerged.

Speculation on who will replace Lee, 66, who has served consecutively as premier since 2004, has been rife for months. The lack of clarity has fed grist to the rumor mill and buoyed perceptions of indecision that have done little to inspire confidence in the ruling party’s “fourth generation”, or “4G”, leaders.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong attends the opening session of the 20th ASEAN-JAPAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, November 13, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

Though PAP political leaders have not been personally hit by corruption allegations, a key factor that turned the tide against the BN in Malaysia – there is dissatisfaction among Singaporeans over fast rising living costs, similar to the popular gripes that drove many Malaysians to embrace the opposition.

Rising utility prices and a planned hike of the goods and services tax (GST) from 7% to 9% have compounded public frustrations. In his National Day message to Singaporeans on August 8, Lee emphasized ongoing government efforts to contain living costs, an indication that the leadership is attempting to address a potential lightning rod issue.

Lee’s address also acknowledged “clouds on the horizon” due to trade tensions between major economies that could hit Singapore’s export-reliant and manufacturing-heavy economy. The premier broke with convention by omitting economic forecast growth figures for the year, which he has presented in past National Day messages.

Though a PAP victory at the next election is still the consensus scenario, a new opposition alliance will be well-placed to leverage popular fears and complaints. That could push the next election into more competitive terrain, denting the ruling party’s dominance ahead of a crucial succession that – barring an electoral upset – will likely define Singapore’s political landscape over the next decade.

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