Searching for Singapore’s invisible opposition

Photo: William Cho/CC BY-SA 2.0

Singapore has long prospered under the government of the People’s Action Party and few convincing opposition figures or groups ever challenge the status quo. Opposing voices always seem to be transient. 

By Tan Zhi Xin

The one-party state description of Singapore is not unfounded. Since independence, the People’s Action Party (PAP) has had an overwhelming majority in any election. In fact, until 1984 it held every seat in the parliament.

And even after the turning point election in the mid-eighties, PAP has retained most of the seats on offer and left only a paltry few for the opposition. This inability to get a seat means these groups quickly leave the public eye and opposition parties go missing right after an election while the PAP is virtually omnipresent.

Before an election, the public sees the springing up of new candidates who appear to be aspiring, promising and determined. Yet this is often just a flawless public façade that masks their covert half-heartedness and unwillingness to commit.

Appear then disappear

Take for instance, the General Election 2015 (GE2015). It saw new faces emerge like single-parent advocate Kevryn Lim from the National Solidarity Party (NSP); infamous blogger Roy Ngerng from the Reform Party (RP); and social worker Ravi Philemon from the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), to just name a few.

These people caught the attention of the public and had their fifteen minutes of fame. But after the election, they vanished from the political scene at such lightning speed that opposition supporters could barely mourn their loss. Within a month of the end of GE2015, Lim had already returned to work as a public relations manager at an events management and digital marketing firm. “The General Election 2015 is over. However, to all, life continues, nothing changed”, she wrote on Facebook.

Ngerng, on the other hand, had to continue searching for a job after a defamation suit brought the termination of his contract with Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Philemon was also on the hunt for gainful employment before quickly becoming lead editor at the sociopolitical website, The Independent Singapore.

Of course, one could easily call to mind names like Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Kiang and Chee Soon Juan, who could be considered the forefathers of the wave of opposition wave in Singapore. However, they are also minority politicians who were determined to commit their life to the cause, no matter what obstacles and failures they faced.

On the other hand, the younger generation of opposition politicians prioritises results over serving the people. As such, when they do contest an election, they invest all of their energy and efforts into winning a seat. Then, if they do not win, they get so wrapped up in their emotions and loss that they burn out. The only solution is then to leave the political scene and return to their civilian life. This leaves people with the impression that they are unwilling to commit.

Opportunistic and fickle-minded

From the public view, opposition politicians tend to be opportunistic and hop around the scene – engaging wherever they feel would provide them with more opportunities. “Opposition parties come and go like nomads. Nomads will not have an interest in the people’s welfare”, explains Emeritus Senior Minister, Goh Chok Tong. This frequent change of loyalty means that not only are they unable to connect with their voters, but possible alliances between them are fractured. 

One classic example is that of Jeannette Chong-Aldross. She started her political career by joining The Reform Party (RP) in 2010 but resigned in 2011 and turned to the NSP. But she did not stay long with them either, resigning after she failed to secure the position as the party’s President. She went on to join the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) and stood for them during GE2015. Nobody knows when she will change her mind again.

But this fickle-mindedness is not exclusive to Chong-Aldross. In fact, it seems more like a characteristic of the opposition in Singapore. The current secretary-general of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Benjamin Pwee, was a promising catch for SPP but following a difference of opinion after GE2011 he joined the DPP. Another approach is simply to set up your own party like Tan Jee Say. He contested GE2011 as a candidate for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), but soon after he left and launched Singaporeans First (SingFirst)

A lack of political competency

The final flaw to consider is that most opposition parties only focus on short-term goals, like winning a seat to maintain a “check-and-balance” on PAP. While they noisily point out the various problems in Singapore, such as the Central Provision Fund, an influx of foreigners, or issues with transparency and accountability, they often do not have concrete goals that show what they stand for. Hence, they appear just to be angry at the government rather than hungry for change.

Perhaps one could attribute this to a lack of political experience. After all, very few opposition politicians have reached parliament.  But overall this means that the opposition has yet to prove their competency while PAP is a safer choice. Singaporeans are not born risk-takers and this explains why so many are always inclined to vote for the dominant party, despite their own unhappiness.