Singapore – A new opposition party seeking to challenge the government in Singapore has been launched amid speculation that a general election due by 2021 could be announced earlier.
Politician Tan Cheng Bock, a 79-year-old retired medical doctor, on Saturday launched the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), which is backed by the estranged brother of the country’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
“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,” Tan told a group of supporters.
He said there was a lack of “open political discourse” and claimed people were “fearful of publicly criticising the government”.
“People fear for their jobs, their promotions, their grants, their rental premises, and getting sued,” he said.
“Singaporeans complain in whispers. 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.”
A supporter present at Saturday’s launch said she lacked confidence in the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders.
“The upcoming leadership promoted by the current government seems to be repeating the visions and statements of the previous leaders”, said 42-year-old lawyer Wendy Low. “People are looking for a renewal of vision and a more complex understanding of the change in the global climate.”
Feud in ruling family
The newly-created PSP is backed by Lee Hsien Yang, the 62-year-old younger brother of Prime Minister Lee. The brothers fell out following a public feud in 2017 over their late father Lee Kuan Yew‘s legacy.
Since its independence 54 years ago, the city-state of Singapore has been run by a single family, whose patriarch Lee Kuan Yew co-founded the PAP in the 1950s, with the party winning every national election by an average of 60 percent of votes.
After a 31-year tenure as Singapore’s first prime minister marked by allegations of reduced civil liberties and free speech, Lee in 2004 handed over power to his 67-year-old son Lee Hsien Loong, who wants to pass on the reins to a hand-picked successor.
“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,” Lee Hsien Yang wrote on July 28 in a Facebook post.
Tan ran for president in the 2011 elections and nearly defeated the PAP’s candidate in a four-way contest. This time, Tan hopes to unite Singapore’s traditionally fractured opposition parties and offer a unified political alternative in Singapore.
Since his departure from PAP in 2006, Tan became one of its most vocal critics. He questioned the appointment of the prime minister’s wife, Ho Ching, as the CEO of government-owned investment company, Temasek Holdings, as well as the use of parliament to debate the family feud over Lee Kuan Yew’s residence.
Analysts say Tan stands to play a significant role in the next election.
“The big picture back story here is Tan’s use of words like transparency, accountability and independence – words the PAP government has touted for its evergreen existence in power since 1959,” wrote analyst PN Balji.
Steven Oliver, assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, said it was never a good sign for the ruling party when elites join forces as critics.
“The decision by Tan Cheng Bock to establish PSP and enter the electoral arena obviously points to elite dissatisfaction with the direction of the current government. Yet it is unclear how widespread this dissatisfaction is within the ranks of current and former members of the ruling party,” he said.
Stephan Ortmann, assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong and author of two books on Singapore politics, said the country’s opposition parties faced a lack of funding as well as grassroots workers, and had also received uneven coverage by the state-regulated media.
“Tan Cheng Bock has sought to create unity but the Workers’ Party, the strongest opposition party … has not shown willingness to be a part of the coalition,” he said.
“They may fear that creating a coalition might make some Singaporeans less willing to vote for the opposition as there are quite a few who only want a strong opposition and not a change in the ruling party.”
Young voters ‘slowly changing’
A question also remains over whether the emergence of an opposition party in Singapore will appeal to young voters.
Jiang Haolie, 23, a third-year student at Yale-NUS College, said young Singaporeans supported social change on issues ranging from LGBT rights to freedom of expression.
“But that doesn’t translate into direct political involvement,” he said. “You’re prosperous, you’re safe, you don’t have gun violence. People don’t really see the necessity to engage in any democratic process. It’s a general mood that is slowly, gradually changing.”
Joel Yew, also 23 and a student at the same institution, said politicians generally did not try to appeal to young voters on issues such as economy or civil liberties.
The voting age in Singapore is 21, while Tan wants to lower it to 18.
Analysts said the opposition might see gains in the next election, but warned not to expect an electoral upset – an assessment even Tan seems to agree with.
“We are starting an evolution of change, not a revolution,” he told supporters on Saturday.
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