The long march of Singapore’s Opposition

Surekha A. Yadav
·3-min read
Surekha A. Yadav
Surekha A. Yadav

JULY 5 — Should an opposition party set out to win, every time? In most democracies, this is a given. The goal is to become the government.

In Singapore, things are a little different. Since independence, the country has seen just one party in power — and for most of her years, the Opposition was seen as a dangerous outlier. 

A “climate of fear” was often referenced as a reason why the Opposition struggled to find candidates though much of the 80s and 90s. 

Opposition stalwarts like JB Jeyeratnam and Chiam See Tong were seen as exceptions and these men put a lot on the line just to contest.  

However, the last few election cycles have seen some changes. Opposition parties seem to be more accepted and far more people seem to be coming forward to contest as Opposition candidates. As in 2015, this year’s election will see every electorate in the country contested. 

The calibre and profile of Opposition candidates is also impressive. Pritam Singh (Workers' Party), as leader of the Opposition since 2018, has been performing creditably and articulately for some time. Paul Tambyah (Singapore Democratic Party) was recently elected as president of the US-based International Society of Infectious Diseases (ISID) and Jamus Lim’s performance at the televised four-way debate earned him fans across Singapore 

During the debate which saw Vivian Balakrishnan (People's Action Party), Jamus Lim (Workers' Party), Francis Yuen (Progress Singapore Party), Chee Soon Juan (Singapore Democratic Party) put forward their visions for Singapore, Lim said: 

“We don’t mind giving the PAP a mandate. We just don’t want to give it a blank cheque.”

In the context of most political debates, this was a stunning admission. Effectively, the main opposition (the WP is the only opposition party with seats in parliament) has stated that they also want PAP to win.

This never happens except in Singapore. In the past too, Opposition politicians have claimed they want merely to serve as a check on the ruling party’s power — not to rule, themselves. 

Now people have taken decidedly different stands on this. Some say that any Opposition not willing to state their intention to win is either being 1) deceitful or 2) ineffective. While others say that Singapore is just not ready for an Opposition that is looking to replace the PAP.  

The response to that being; after 55 years of independence and the longest-serving ruling party outside of any country that isn’t an absolute monarchy or communist state — how can we not be ready for an Opposition that truly opposes and not simply advises? 

How can a democracy consist of one incumbent party and secondary parties that claim they do not want to win?  

To many outsiders this seems absurd, but I understand the position. Singapore has thrived under our ruling party. We are among the richest nations in the world and while there are certainly inequalities, the vast majority of Singaporeans have benefited in various ways from our economic growth. 

Given the instability we see in the world and the countries around us, why should people move away from the safety, familiarity, and proven track record of PAP rule?  

So, the Opposition's role is to provide independent oversight, its mission is to help the ruling party rule better by providing fresh insights and perspectives.  

As the idea of an Opposition and the role it can play takes root in the minds of Singaporeans, they become more likely to vote for Opposition parties. As more Opposition MPs appear in parliament, the idea of other parties becomes normalised. 

Parliament becomes a forum for debate and once citizens see the Opposition engaging in this forum, they may begin to consider the possibility of a non-PAP government.  

Now, it remains to be seen what Singaporeans think of this approach. 

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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