Singapore's politics of personality

Another half-year and another round of resignations among Singapore’s opposition parties. This time, four ex-Central Executive Council members of the National Solidarity Party resigned in the hopes of joining the Singapore People’s Party. This mass resignations recall the mass defection of Benjamin Pwee and several SPP members to the Democratic People’s Party, Nicole Seah leaving the NSP to focus on her work in Bangkok, and Vincent Wijeysingha returning to the civil sphere after a stint in the Singapore Democratic Party.

Whenever I see events like these in the news, I can’t hep but wonder if the reasons for resignations lie less in the political field and more in personality conflicts. 

Quoting from the article, Ms Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss said, “I wanted to introduce some innovative ways of reaching out to people, but the comfort level was not there… The opposition parties are all closely connected and it is easy to talk to one another. There are no major ideological differences among the various parties…but Mrs Chiam is someone I respect a lot. And I would like to help her in whatever areas she needs help with.”

Chong-Aruldoss’ comments are telling. Singapore’s opposition political parties are defined less by politics than they are by their personalities.

Consider: when people hear Workers’ Party they think Low Thia Khiang, the Singapore People’s Party is intricately linked with Chiam See Tong, the Singapore Democratic Party is linked to Chee Soon Juan, and so on and so forth. What they do not think of is politics.

Where does the Workers’ Party stand on LGBTQ issues? They have famously remained silent. Does the Reform Party have a concrete plan for balancing migration with the economy? How does the SDP propose to reduce National Service to one year and still maintain a sufficiently large number of well-trained soldiers beyond simply ‘expanding the professional army’ AND be able to afford it?

For the past decade I’ve been following Singapore’s politics, it seems to me that most of the time the majority of Singapore’s opposition parties either produce policy positions in response to the government after the latter has announced its position, or not at all. These alternative policy positions only come to the forefront during Parliamentary debates, periods of controversy, or the elections. In quiet periods, they sink into obscurity.

This is a shame. Elsewhere, major political parties defined by policies, not personality, are remembered even in low-key political periods. The Scottish National Party stands for secession from the United Kingdom, the Republican Party in America claims to stand for smaller government and free trade, the Liberal Democratic Party pursues a platform of free trade and cooperation with the United States, the People’s Action Party consistently stands for a strong government and economic growth.

But in Singapore? Personalities aside, there seems to be no political difference between, say, the National Solidarity Party and the Singapore People’s Party.

Chong-Aruldoss’ statement that ‘there are no major ideological differences among the various parties’ is a telling one. Singapore’s opposition parties are defined not by politics, but by personalities. Given the sheer number of political parties in Singapore, multi-cornered contests will soon the norm. In such a situation, just why will the people vote for a given opposition party over another — especially when they already know what the PAP stands for? Sure, a sparkling character with force of personality may be able to sway some votes her way, but as Hazel Poa, Vincent Wijeysingha, Chiam See Tong, Kenneth Jeyaratnam, and other politicians have learned, it is nowhere near enough to challenge the Establishment.  

These resignations seem to be the natural outcome of political parties defined by personalities. At some point different people will come to loggerheads over their visions and aspirations for the party. Without a policy framework to define a party, disputes are resolved through popularity contests instead of whether someone better fits the party’s policies and overall vision for the country. Similarly, without a policy framework, parties will have lax entry and exit guidelines, setting the stage for more such resignations and defections in the future. The People’s Action Party is famous for interviewing potential candidates before acceding them to political roles; it is also equally noteworthy that very few of its members have resigned due to personal or internal conflicts, and a PAP member defecting to the opposition is unheard of. The PAP presents a united front because it has an identity and is defined by policies; the opposition remains fragmented and is prone to resignations and defections due to their lack of policies. Perhaps the sole exception to the rule is the Workers’ Party, but the WP is still not large enough to effectively challenge the PAP all by itself.

Singapore’s opposition parties need to go beyond personalities and start thinking about policies. That, after all, is the purpose of a political party: to guide and to pass national policies. If the opposition touches politics only when Parliament is in session or when a newsworthy event occurs, they are not much better than bloggers — and have to compete with those same bloggers to get their message out. I think the opposition parties, collectively and individually, need to figure out what they really stand for and work on policies that they can hammer home at every possible moment. Including the political off-periods between each session of Parliament. 

The closest the opposition parties have come to this is conducting regular walkabouts and meet-the-people sessions. While listening to residents and understanding their needs is important, and so is taking action to take care of them, elsewhere this is the work of social workers, volunteers and advocates. While Singaporeans do tend to focus more on personal and municipal issues instead of national ones at the ground level, for a political party that aspires to compete at the national level it has to be able to address national issues as effectively as local ones. The SPP, for instance, banked on Chiam See Tong’s persona to compete in the 2011 General Elections, but personality was not enough to allow the SPP to break out of its traditional stronghold of Potong Pasir; in fact, this strategy backfired, as his wife Lina Chiam could not win enough ground support to retain the SPP’s seat. Competing on the basis of personality tends to be effective only in areas in which the party had had a long-time presence and a history of success — otherwise, the party has to focus on issues that appeal to Singaporeans across the board.

Rumour has it that the next General Elections are fast approaching. If the opposition wants to establish a greater footprint in Parliament, they need to act now. They have to start by establishing a broad policy framework and promoting the members they want to send to the hustings. They need to study the art of marketing communications and apply them now, before the campaigning begins, to spread desired memes and prepare the ground. They need to find a way to stand out, not just from the PAP, but also from potential competitors in the event of a three-way election.

In short: they need to start being political parties, not personality parties.

Singapore's politics of personality
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