Singapore

Opposition enters contest after biggest overhaul in decades

This article is more than 12 months old

It has gone through biggest overhaul in decades, with two stalwarts now either retired or in diminished roles

With its two stalwarts now either retired or playing diminished roles, and with an influx of new parties forcing a reshuffling of the pack, the opposition enters the upcoming electoral contest having gone through its biggest overhaul in decades.

The Workers' Party (WP), the largest opposition force and the only one with Parliament seats, is facing its first election with a new secretary-general since 2001, with Mr Low Thia Khiang having handed the reins in 2018 to Mr Pritam Singh.

It is also unclear if the party's biggest personality will contest the election after suffering a fall that landed him in hospital earlier this year.

For the first time since 1984, there will also be no candidate named Chiam on the ballot, as both opposition veteran Chiam See Tong and his wife Lina Chiam are sitting out the contest.

At the same time, there has been an influx of new parties since the last elections, with Dr Tan Cheng Bock's Progress Singapore Party (PSP) the most significant newcomer.

The party said yesterday it is set to contest nine constituencies, fielding 24 candidates instead of the 44 it said initially.

They are West Coast GRC, Tanjong Pagar GRC, Chua Chu Kang GRC, and single-member constituencies Hong Kah North, Pioneer, Marymount, Yio Chu Kang and Kebun Baru.

The crowded field of political parties and a decision to proceed without their traditional pow-wow also mean that multiple seats could be headed for three-cornered fights.

Add to the mix the looming uncertainty caused by the global pandemic, elections taking place without the excitement of rallies and a lead-up that was disrupted by the circuit breaker, and observers say the opposition is heading into the elections less prepared and less coordinated than the last one.

LEADERSHIP RENEWAL

Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said this time round, a lot of the parties have a strong focus on newer leaders taking the reins.

He cited WP chief Pritam Singh, 43, National Solidarity Party secretary-general Spencer Ng, 41, and Singapore People's Party chairman Jose Raymond, 48, as examples of leaders from the new generation.

He also noted that the Singapore Democratic Party has been placing chairman Paul Tambyah at the forefront of its activities, with much less of a reliance on secretary-general Chee Soon Juan.

Associate Professor Bilveer Singh, from the National University of Singapore's (NUS) political science department, said that the new leaders are entering the fray at a challenging time.

IMPACT OF COVID-19

Dr Singh said most of the issues that dominated headlines before the pandemic struck, such as the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council saga and the issues surrounding the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (Pofma), are unlikely to be on the minds of the voters this time round.

"Fortunately or unfortunately, Covid-19 has closed every major issue... This is a Covid-19 election... for the majority of Singaporeans it's about bread and butter."

Dr Tan of SIM Global Education said basic issues affecting the daily lives of Singaporeans, beyond just Covid-19, must also be addressed if the parties want to reach voters.

"Unfortunately a lot of issues will revolve around Covid-19, but there should be a focus on GST (goods and services tax) rise, education, housing and transportation. These shouldn't take the back seat," he said.

MORE MULTI-CORNERED FIGHTS?

While some progress has been made by opposition parties to avoid three-cornered fights, there are some looming.

For example, the PSP and Reform Party have both staked claims to West Coast GRC, while Peoples Voice and Singapore Democratic Alliance both have their eyes on Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC.

The newly-created Marymount ward has also drawn the interest of the Democratic Progressive Party and the PSP.

IMPACT OF PSP AND NEWCOMERS

Founded by Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former People's Action Party MP, the PSP was launched in August last year to much hype because of its secretary-general's star power.

The party has also been publicly supported by Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Associate Professor of Law Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University said if Dr Tan can assure voters that PSP is more than just him, it will live up to its billing as the party to watch in this election.

GENERAL ELECTION 2020