Tan Cheng Bock, a 79-year-old veteran politician and retired medical doctor, believes the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) he was a member of for over two decades has “changed” for the worse.
Speaking at a launch event on August 3, the charismatic septuagenarian explained why his newly formed opposition party is pushing for political change in Singapore.
“The style of government has changed, the processes of government have gone astray, because there has been an erosion of the three pillars of good governance: transparency, independence, and accountability,” he said at the new Progress Singapore Party’s (PSP) official launch.
Analysts believe the new political outfit could make an impact at the ballot box amid talk of Singapore’s fragmented opposition parties organizing a loose alliance. Among the PSP’s several hundred members are former ruling party cadres, an apparent indication of rising elite dissatisfaction with the direction of the current PAP government.
Tan described an “underlying disquiet” in the country, claiming that Singaporeans are fearful of publicly criticizing their government, the longest-governing incumbent party in Southeast Asia. “People fear for their jobs, their promotions, their grants, their rental premises, and getting sued,” he said.
“Singaporeans complain in whispers,” he claimed, lamenting a lack of “open political discourse” in the city-state. “Before talking, they look around to see if anyone is listening and hesitate to discuss government policies. But we should not behave like ostriches, burying our heads in the sand and pretending that nothing is wrong.”
Singapore’s next general election must be held before April 2021, though speculation is rife that a snap poll could be just months away. The coming polls are seen by some as a referendum on the ruling party’s fourth generation (4G) leaders who are expected to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 67, who plans to retire before turning 70.
A key pre-election twist is that Lee’s estranged younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, has publicly backed Tan’s PSP amid a bitter first family feud that has been fought in fits-and-starts over social media.
Many speculate the younger Lee could even stand as an opposition candidate, opening the way for an unprecedented contest pitting the children of Singapore’s first premier, Lee Kuan Yew, against one another.
“I wholeheartedly support the principles and values of the Progress Singapore Party. Today’s PAP is no longer the PAP of my father. It has lost its way,” the premier’s estranged brother wrote in a Facebook post late last month.
Lee Hsien Yang, a Cambridge and Stanford University graduate and former SingTel chief executive officer, said this year that Tan is “the leader Singapore deserves.” The younger Lee, however, has not yet indicated whether he will officially enter politics.
Lee Hsien Yang and his sister, Lee Wei Ling, allege that their elder brother “misused his power as prime minister” in connection with a bitter public quarrel over the fate of their parents’ residence at 38 Oxley Road. Their statesmen father, who died in 2015, stated publicly and in his will that he wanted the house to be demolished after his death.
The Lee siblings accuse their elder brother of abusing his executive power to preserve the house for political gain, a charge strongly denied by the prime minister, who has held power since 2004. A government panel has been set up to consider the future of the property, where key meetings of first generation PAP leaders were held in the 1950s.
“Lee Hsien Yang’s presence is very worrying for the government. His face and name is a constant, silent reminder that the Lee family is divided,” said Michael Barr, an associate professor of international relations at Flinders University, who added that the Oxley Road episode had “tarnished” the prime minister’s legacy.
“The message of the PAP having lost its way is likely to be powerful. It is simple and it will resonate across the age spectrum,” believes Barr. “Tan is superbly placed to deliver this message. He is perhaps looking back with rose-colored glasses, but I think there is a general disappointment with the Lee government.”
Other experts and observers said that while Tan is indeed a popular and charismatic politician, it is still unlikely that the PSP will be regarded as a major threat by the PAP, which has maintained overwhelming parliamentary supermajorities since Singapore achieved independence in 1965.
At elections in 2015, the PAP won 83 of parliament’s 89 seats after capturing nearly 70% of total votes cast.
“The fact that Tan has generated interest and excitement with his establishing of a new opposition party is indicative of Singaporeans’ appreciation for a more competitive political landscape,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University (SMU).
“The PAP still retains a relatively healthy level of trust and confidence with voters. But the assertion that the PAP has lost its way will resonate with voters who are disappointed with the ruling party for not keeping to the high standards laid down by the founders of the PAP,” he told Asia Times.
“Being a well-regarded and popular former PAP MP, it would be foolhardy of the PAP to take his being an opposition politician lightly,” the academic said of Tan, who won six consecutive elections as the PAP’s candidate in the Ayer Rajah constituency from 1980 to 2006 and came within a hair’s breadth of winning the elected presidency in 2011.
Some critics, however, are unconvinced that the PAP will face any serious challenge to its ongoing rule as it moves to secure its 15th consecutive term in office, owing to various institutional hurdles that opposition politicians have faced in the past which undergird Singapore’s reputation as one of Asia’s most asymmetrical democracies.
“I don’t think the kind of threat that is posed by any opposition party would be significant at this stage,” believes civil activist and community worker Jolovan Wham. “Perhaps the PSP is seen as a bit more of a threat because of Tan’s previous PAP credentials, but the opposition is still weak because there’s been decades of disempowerment.”
Wham takes issue with the notion of the PAP having gone astray because, he says, “the problems that we are facing now are a result of things Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership put in place, and the same kind of systemic problems still remain.”
“The press behaves like a party newsletter and the unions and grassroots organizations are still controlled. Civil society has to tiptoe around the government and the party for fear of retaliation. There is no transparency and a lot of information which should be made public is still kept a secret. We’re a democracy in structure but not in substance,” he claimed.
“To say that the party has changed, to me, isn’t convincing at all,” Wham told Asia Times.
“For those who say the PAP has changed, it’s probably because they don’t trust the current prime minister. Lee Kuan Yew may have abused his power, but it is widely accepted that he did this out of benevolence and the greater good, whereas the same consideration is not given to Lee Hsien Loong,” he said.
Wham was convicted for contempt of court in connection with a Facebook post he made last April in which he compared Singapore’s judicial independence to that of Malaysia for cases with political implications. He faces a maximum penalty of S$100,000 (US$72,127) fine and up to three years’ imprisonment.
Lee Hsien Yang notably donated S$20,000 (US$14,425) to the activist in May to cover the legal costs of appealing his conviction. The younger Lee also donated a “meaningful sum” to blogger Leong Sze Hian, who faces a defamation suit filed by the elder Lee in connection with an article he shared on Facebook.
“I think it’s great that Lee Hsien Yang is showing a lot of support for the opposition and for civil society in general. But I wouldn’t encourage him to run as a candidate in the next general elections,” said Wham.
“This is because he will be portrayed as someone who is seeking office to spite his brother, rather than someone who has a genuine vision of a more progressive Singapore and this may turn voters off. It’s also much healthier for us not to perpetuate dynastic rule and have another member of the Lee family in politics anymore.”
When asked at a press conference last month whether Lee Hsien Yang could potentially contest under the PSP banner, Tan described him as a good friend and said he would be welcomed, provided his “philosophy is the same as mine, and he does not allow his personal agenda to come into my PSP.”
Among the policies floated by Tan at his new party’s launch were proposals to lower the voting age from 21 to 18 and support for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). As fears of an economic recession rise in the city-state, Tan said the PSP’s utmost priority would be to create jobs and implement policies for unemployed workers.
Tan also said last month that it was his party’s intention to form “a very loose alliance” of opposition parties, likely with the goal of cooperating to avoid three-cornered fights during the election. It is still unclear what role the Workers’ Party (WP), Singapore’s only opposition party with seats in parliament, or the electorally insignificant Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), may play in such an alliance.
Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies, described the formation of a coalition as a “litmus test for the PSP and Tan Cheng Bock on whether they can unite the disparate opposition parties and perhaps even compete electorally under one campaign banner.”
“It is however easier said than done because of the traditional dominance of the party in government and the continued fragility of the political opposition. For the PSP to win seats in a general election, they cannot just criticize the government but also sell to the electorate their own program for formulating public policy and governing the country,” he said.
Criticizing the government as having lost its way is “catchy and effective messaging,” says Mustafa, adding however that it will “not be sufficient enough to make a dent in the dominance of the party in government come election time.” The quality of parties and their candidates, he says, will determine whether Singapore is in for a competitive election cycle.
“If the PSP is able to grow from strength to strength and provide the statesmanship necessary to serve as a fulcrum in unifying the different opposition political parties in a loose coalition, the upcoming election in Singapore would indeed be a lot more competitive,” he told Asia Times.