What next for Singapore’s opposition after Low Thia Kiang steps down

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At the 60th anniversary celebration of the founding of the Workers’ Party, Low Thia Khiang announced he would step down as Secretary-General next year. It marked the end of an era.

Editorial

By the end of the year, Low Thia Khiang would be the longest-serving opposition Member of Parliament (MP) in Singapore, surpassing the tenure of 26 years and four months of Chiam See Tong, another opposition giant. Chiam contested his last election in 2011, in which he lost in a gamble to expand his base to the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) of Bishan-Toa Payoh.

As the two opposition giants step down from the limelight, how will they be assessed in the annals of Singapore’s political history?

Comparisons with Anwar Ibrahim, Aung San Suu Kyi

To get some perspective, one could compare them to Anwar Ibrahim of Malaysia and Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar. Quite obviously, Low and Chiam do not enjoy the same gravitas internationally as their Malaysian and Burmese counterparts.

No doubt the reputation of Anwar’s cause was the result of his high profile dismissal as Deputy Prime Minister in 1998 by his then-nemesis, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Ms Suu Kyi derived much of her aura from her father, the independence hero Aung San, even before her success at the 1991 elections which was infamously nullified by the Burmese military junta.

But where Anwar and Ms Suu Kyi had endured long periods of incarceration, the same cannot be said of Messrs Low and Chiam, who had never been jailed a day in their lives. In this regard, the more appropriate Singaporean comparison might be Chee Soon Juan, the firebrand leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), who spent many stints in jail for various acts of civil disobedience.

But Chee has never made any electoral headway ever since his debut in 1992, nor has his party ever commanded the sort of sway of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) of Anwar, or the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Ms Suu Kyi, since Chee took over the leadership of the SDP in 1993.

All this seem to point to the serious underperformance of Singapore’s opposition. To be sure, Singapore’s political system is a sui generis one – a depoliticised “administrative state”, as the academic and diplomat Chan Heng Chee had described back in the 1970s, compared to its more rambunctious regional counterparts. Perhaps one may also presume that the economic affluence in Singapore simply presents no burning desire on the part of voters, or potential opposition politicians alike, to build up an opposition force.

Indeed, the political order as envisaged by the People’s Action Party (PAP), the city-state’s omnipotent ruling party, has long been one of having “one party and many small [opposition] parties to keep us on our toes”, as articulated by former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1992.

Big shoes to fill – but who will?

None of this is to play down some significant milestones in Low Thia Khiang’s announcement of 3 November. For the first time since independence, there will be a leadership transition of sorts in a Singaporean opposition party.

Previously, opposition parties were not allowed by circumstances to survive beyond one leader. Chiam, the previous opposition giant, was in 1993 expelled from the SDP, the party he founded, under controversial circumstances relating to intra-party infighting. The party he subsequently joined, the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), never attained the same heights that the SDP scaled. Today he remains the SPP Secretary-General, without a successor in sight.

Going further back, there was J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party, who was disqualified from Parliament in 1986. The party moderates led by Low Thia Khiang, who eventually took over the Workers’ Party in 2001, proceeded build up a very different party from the firebrand one that Jeyaretnam led for almost three decades.

But Low leaves big shoes to fill. While he has many MPs to choose from, there is no clear frontrunner currently in sight.

There are two ways to read this. The first is that this was a planned scenario, in which no one as domineering as Low was allowed to rise to power in the party ranks. A loyal coterie of party cadres around Low will continue to run the party tightly, regardless of who the new Secretary-General is.

The second is that this was unplanned – an accident that no clear successor has been groomed, because of the party’s surprisingly poor results of the 2015 general election, as was the case for the opposition as a whole. This meant that the sitting Workers’ Party MPs were weakened, without vote shares to boast of or to use in laying claim to lead the party. New, young stars in the party were not given the right conditions to grow. (The Workers’ Party team that contested East Coast GRC polled surprisingly poorly, contrary to expectations that it would be the next GRC to fall to the opposition after Aljunied GRC in 2011.)

Herein perhaps lies the PAP’s masterful, Machiavellian stroke. Without resorting to the kind of heavy-handed tactics that had befallen an Anwar Ibrahim or an Aung San Suu Kyi, it has engineered a political landscape for the opposition which has never grown beyond a few members at a go.