Opposition's approach more guarded

If the Sept 11 General Election were a football game, most opposition parties, including the Workers' Party (WP), would be set up to play a defensive game.

But their match strategies could cost some of them at the polls.

The tactics are evident from the rhetoric and strategies revealed by the various parties since the electoral boundaries report was released on July 24, and effectively set the election process in motion.

The WP, for instance, has decided to keep its Aljunied team intact to defend the group representation constituency (GRC) it snagged at the 2011 polls.

Their move was contrary to expectations that one of its heavyweights there would leave to lead a battle elsewhere, and build on the momentum that the WP gained by beating the People's Action Party (PAP) in a GRC.

The decision suggests the WP sees a stronger need for consolidation and defence of its turf rather than expansion and attack, even though it is fielding more candidates this time: 28 compared with 23 in 2011.

The WP's early announcement on its Aljunied MPs staying put is also proof of a non-attacking game strategy. For a party previously known for keeping the deployment of its candidates secret until Nomination Day, its early revelations lose it the element of surprise.

The WP is also set to be busy defending itself against expected criticism from the PAP over its handling of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) finances in Aljunied GRC.

A 10-month audit by the Auditor- General's Office found major lapses in governance and compliance by AHPETC, such as not making timely transfers to the sinking fund and poor governance of related party transactions leading to conflicts of interest.

Here, too, the defensive stance has been evident as the WP tended to respond to government criticism about AHPETC only when it was sought out by the media.

There are also mixed reviews as to whether the WP - whose 2011 campaign slogan was "Towards a First World Parliament" - has led by example and lifted the quality of parliamentary debate in the past four years, or by proposing effective alternative plans and policies.

The Aljunied team comprises WP chairman Sylvia Lim, secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, Mr Chen Show Mao, Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap.

Hougang MP Png Eng Huat, Punggol East MP Lee Li Lian, and Non- Constituency MPs Gerald Giam and Yee Jenn Jong round up the party's presence in Parliament.

Other opposition parties have also been busier defending their reputations or fending off the WP from encroaching into their area of interest, than attacking the PAP on issues.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) has been preoccupied with resolving a potential three-cornered fight with the WP in MacPherson SMC.

A series of U-turns on this led to acting secretary-general Hazel Poa and council member Mohamed Fazli Talip quitting. Such developments have dented the party's image.

The impression that some in the opposition are more obsessed with leadership posts and power than working for Singapore's interests may also have hardened.

There are as many as nine opposition parties set to contest the polls - a record since independence - though most leaders of recently established parties, such as Singaporeans First, were previously members of other parties.

If the parties cannot shake off these negative perceptions and be in a position to switch into attack mode quickly, their chances of good results will be low.

And especially if their disunity robs Singaporeans of the opportunity to vote.

As of now, the opposition is set to contest all 89 seats, which will be the first time since 1963 that there is no walkover.

The defensive mode in the opposition is in stark contrast to 2011 when many went on the offensive against the PAP by exploiting the pent-up anger that existed over hot-button issues such as immigration and housing.

The difference between 2015 and 2011 also likely reflects the impact of policy tweaks and new schemes introduced by the Government in the past four years in response to that public outcry, thus giving the opposition less ammunition this time.

The prevailing defensive mode among opposition parties has led many political watchers to conclude that this general election could be less exciting to watch.

That is because playing defensive rarely wins games.

Yes, it is early days and the opposition, especially the WP, could still surprise everyone with an attacking game when the campaign begins on Nomination Day next Tuesday.

But for now, the odds are the WP has decided to focus on defence at this election, because of the need to consolidate its power base in Aljunied after just four years there.

Sure, there are risks for the WP as hardcore opposition voters might be disappointed by its strategy and possibly slower progress.

But the party is likely to have made a conscious decision to pace itself and to not overstretch in an effort to build a strong, sustainable opposition.

Attack is often regarded as the best form of defence. But the WP could think of defence to be the fulcrum of a more sustained charm offensive.

This article was first published on August 26, 2015.
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