The General Elections this year will be known in Singapore’s history as a watershed election. For starters, it saw the Workers’ Party gaining a foothold in yet another constituency—the newly partitioned Sengkang GRC—in addition to their stronghold in Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC. The newly founded Progress Singapore Party (PSP) also saw strong support in West Coast GRC, losing by just a narrow margin in the electoral contest. Furthermore, other smaller Opposition parties came out stronger than expected in terms of their received vote share in several constituencies, though it was still insufficient to see them become elected as Members of Parliament (MPs). In spite of these gains, the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) managed to retain their supermajority in Parliament. Yet the question that remains in the minds of many is: will this be the start of a new dawn for the Opposition in Singapore? Will there ever come a time when the Opposition comes to be at the forefront of Singapore’s politics?
According to political scientist Professor Bilveer Singh at the National University of Singapore (NUS), this may very well be Singapore’s reality somewhere down the road. However, he stresses that certain conditions need to be fulfilled in order for this to occur.
An Opposition coalition needs to be formed
From a strategic standpoint, a properly formed coalition of Opposition parties improves the political standing of the Opposition as a whole. This may allow the Opposition to make critical decisions more strategically and decisively. In turn, this could give it the boost it needs to edge out its competition and perform better during elections.
There are two main ways an Opposition coalition may come about. The first way is via an electoral pact — a short-term and informal coalition. Opposition parties come together before an election to discuss the best way to compete, such that they avoid unnecessary competition amongst each other, or what is otherwise known as a three-corner fight against the PAP. In this manner, the Opposition can emerge stronger as one to capture a larger percentage of the vote share.
Another more effective and long-term approach is the establishment of a power sharing arrangement where Opposition parties merge to form a new party. This creates a two-party competition in the Singapore political arena— the PAP versus the Opposition (coalition). For an Opposition coalition to remain sustainable in the long run, Professor Singh emphasised that it must have the following:
(a) a strong leader with good foresight to steer the coalition in the right direction. It is important that the leader has the ability to recruit candidates with aptitude and the right character to push the team forward. It is also crucial that the leader is seen as one with the people. A humble and down to earth image will certainly attract the support of Singaporeans. Additionally, Professor Singh specifically pointed out that a transfer of leadership must occur from the old generation of Opposition leaders to a new generation of leaders for the coalition to work. According to him, the older generation of Opposition leaders have personalities that are too strong-minded, which would likely create problems within the alliance. The transfer of leadership will rid the coalition of personal egos that will hinder the success of the party moving forward. In the initial stages of the coalition, it is also imperative that the new leadership is capable of balancing the power between the various Opposition parties within the alliance.
(b) a manifesto that resonates with everyday Singaporeans.
(c) good management of its electoral campaign. For the most part, this requires extensive efforts targeted at increasing engagement on the ground. Face-to-face interaction increases the visibility and credibility of the party and is highly valued by the elderly in particular, who form a sizable part of the electorate.
However, Professor Singh remains pessimistic about the formation of an Opposition coalition in the near future. He voiced out that it would be incredibly challenging to incorporate the many small Opposition parties into a coalition and have them aligned with the direction of the most formidable Opposition party – the Workers’ Party. The party had opted out of discussions regarding the possible formation of an Opposition alliance in the past, choosing instead to focus on their internal matters. Attempts have been made previously to establish an Opposition coalition, but none have worked out with much success. For instance, the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) created in 2001 “fractured and faded away” after its formation. More recently, the strategic Opposition alliance proposed by Dr Tan Cheng Bock, the leader of the PSP, also failed to come to fruition.
A split in the PAP
According to Professor Singh, an Opposition coalition will likely be formed in the event where splits exist in the ruling PAP. A party split can produce much tension, division of talent, and split loyalties among the public, which can potentially destroy the one-party political hegemony established by the PAP. The reason for such splits may be attributed to sharp and irreconcilable differences in policy approaches over key issues, such as the management of income inequality and the country’s openness to foreigners. The rise of conflict with neighbouring countries, foreign policy crises, and economic woes could also add intense additional pressure to the PAP, who may fail to unify behind a common leader and/or action plan, widening the cracks within the party.
When such splits occur, a faction may break off from the PAP to form their own political party to champion views alternative to those held by the incumbent party. It is probable that this faction may lead the way for an Opposition coalition, one that is led by deflected PAP leaders who may capture the support of the people. We have seen a small glimpse of this in the recent elections, where former PAP MP Dr Tan Cheng Bock saw strong support for his candidacy. Such situations could spell disaster in future elections for the PAP, as any PAP loyalty among the public would be split, making it much harder for the PAP to continue its hold onto political dominance. When this occurs, it may pave the way for a stronger Opposition in Singapore, one with an increased presence in Parliament.
However, to put things into context, Singapore’s ruling elite has been extremely close-knit and compact when compared to other semi-authoritarian regimes. This is exceptional considering that even the Chinese Communist Party and Malaysia’s UMNO (up till the 2018 General Election) have experienced factionalism from time to time. Thus far, there has been no public leadership challenges within the PAP. The party comes out in an united front to support the anointed Prime Minister. Leaks about disagreements within the cabinet is practically unheard of – with denouncations and public spats never really happening. Considering all of this, it becomes clear that there needs to be a substantial change in the status quo for a split within the PAP to occur.
While there are definitely other factors at play – including the government’s performance and integrity – to Professor Singh, unity both within the PAP and the opposition seems to be an important determinant of electoral success. As Singapore takes tiny strides towards a more pluralistic political system, it will be interesting to watch whether this unity within parties can be maintained, and whether they’ll be rewarded for it. Regardless, don’t expect these changes to happen over the next few election cycles – the current political situation doesn’t favour either a split within the PAP or a grand opposition coalition.