Singapore election: The parties taking on the PAP on July 10

PHOTO: The Straits Times

The nomination process for Singapore’s July 10 general election closed on Tuesday with 192 candidates filing their papers to contest the 93 parliamentary seats.

For the second consecutive election – and only the second time since the country’s independence – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s People’s Action Party (PAP) will face opponents in all seats.

Many political observers expect the ruling party to comfortably extend its uninterrupted rule of Singapore that stretches back to 1959.

On polling day, 10 parties will vie with the PAP for 17 group representation constituencies (GRCs) that each consist of four or five seats, and 14 single-seat constituencies.

The Workers’ Party (WP) and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) – the biggest of these small opposition groups – together will contest 45 seats, or about 50 per cent of parliamentary districts.

The Workers' Party: Biggest threat?

Pritam Singh, leader of the Workers’ Party. PHOTO: Reuters

The Workers’ Party, with its six MPs, was the sole opposition group in the last parliament. It will contest 21 seats in six constituencies, down from 28 seats in the 2015 election.

The polls are a watershed for the party as its long-time icon and former leader, Low Thia Khiang, will not be contesting.

The 63-year-old last week said he was retiring as an MP after 29 years, as part of a leadership renewal process in the party.

The businessman, a skilled orator who often delivers his speeches in Mandarin, is credited for turning the small opposition group into a potent force after he took the reins in 2001.

Low restructured the party and propelled it in 2011 to become the first non-PAP party to win a GRC. He stepped down as party chief in 2018, handing the position of secretary general to MP Pritam Singh.

The election comes amid legal troubles for Low, his successor Singh, and party chairman Sylvia Lim.

Last year, the High Court found the trio liable for millions of dollars in damages in a civil suit over the mismanagement of municipal funds. They are appealing.

Mr Low Thia Khiang. PHOTO: The Straits Times

Observers have described the party’s Aljunied GRC slate, comprising Singh, incumbent MPs Lim and Faisal Manap, as well as election veterans Leon Perera and Gerald Giam, as its “A-team”.

The party’s showing in Aljunied GRC will indicate whether the decline in its vote share in 2015 was due to a nationwide swing in favour of the PAP, or dwindling support on the back of its leaders’ legal troubles.

The party won Aljunied with 50.96 per cent of total votes cast in 2015, down from 55 per cent in 2011.

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The party will face off with Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, the designated successor to Prime Minister Lee, in the five-seat East Coast GRC.

The move was a surprise as 59-year-old Heng was expected to remain in Tampines GRC, where he is the incumbent.

East Coast is seen as among the seats where the PAP is expected to face a fierce contest, though it won the district with a comfortable 60.7 per cent of the vote in 2015.

Loke Hoe Yeong, a London-based political analyst, said the WP’s “near-death experience” had strengthened it.

He cited the transition of leadership from Low to Singh.

“This is the very first time in Singapore’s opposition history where there has been a smooth leadership transition,” he said.

“It speaks well of their succession planning and credibility, and I think voters do see that.”

The party’s slogan for the election is “Make Your Vote Count”. Singh on Sunday said it reflected the party’s message that Singaporeans needed to vote for the party to avoid a “wipeout” of opposition voices in the PAP-dominated parliament.

Progress Singapore Party: Ambitious new player

Dr Tan Cheng Bock.  PHOTO: The Straits Times

The Progress Singapore Party (PSP), founded last year by former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bock, will contest 24 seats in nine constituencies.

Tan, 80, is helming the party’s “A-team” in the five-seat West Coast GRC against the incumbent information minister S. Iswaran’s team.

The ex-PAP backbench MP stunned the country last year when he founded the new party in response to what he claimed was “good governance gone astray” under the incumbent administration.

He was a vocal dissenter within the PAP during his 1980-2006 tenure as a backbench MP, and nearly defeated the ruling party’s preferred candidate in a presidential poll in 2011.

Last week, the party caused a stir when it announced that Lee Hsien Yang, the estranged brother of Prime Minister Lee, had joined the group.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang (centre) and Progress Singapore Party chief Tan Cheng Bock at Tiong Bahru Market on June 24, 2020. PHOTO: The Straits Times

The brothers and their sister Lee Wei Ling are the children of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s late independence leader and founding prime minister.

Lee Hsien Yang, the youngest of the three children, will not be contesting the election.

“I have chosen not to stand for political office because I believe Singapore does not need another Lee,” said the 62-year-old former corporate figure in a Facebook post on June 30.

Prime Minister Lee and his younger two siblings remain publicly at odds over the future of their father’s old bungalow.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang (left) being presented with a Progress Singapore Party membership card by PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock at Tiong Bahru Market on June 24, 2020. PHOTO: The Straits Times

Before campaigning began, political observers’ attention was on internal discontent within the PSP.

In June, two of its former members formed a new party, Red Dot United. Ravi Philemon, one of the departees, said he left after having “asked too many questions”.

The PSP’s high-profile candidates include assistant secretary general Leong Mun Wai, managing partner of an investment firm, former civil servant Hazel Poa, and Kumaran Pillai, the former publisher of local news aggregation portal theindependent.sg.

SDP and SPP: Election veterans

Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) led by veteran politician Chee Soon Juan will contest 11 seats, while the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) will contest five seats.

They are the only two opposition groups, apart from the Workers’ Party, to have won elected seats in recent decades.

Chee, 57, has been in active politics since 1992, though he has never been elected to parliament.

The former university lecturer has long been the target of the PAP’s hardest hitting attacks against the opposition.

In past elections, the ruling party’s leaders took aim at him for his strident advocacy in the 1990s and 2000s for the use of civil disobedience as a political tactic, and for the libel suits he lost against former prime ministers including Prime Minister Lee and his father.

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Among the surprises on Nomination Day was the SDP’s fielding of its chairman, Paul Tambyah, in the single-seat ward of Bukit Panjang.

Tambyah, a leading infectious diseases expert, is widely recognised in the country for his authoritative public commentary on the coronavirus pandemic.

He was recently elected the next president of the International Society of Infectious Diseases.

In this election, the SDP has questioned the government’s US$65 billion (S$91 billion) coronavirus stimulus, saying it represented a “bailout” of government-linked companies rather than direct aid to citizens.

Among its policy recommendations is a retrenchment benefits scheme in which citizens who have been laid off will receive a payout for 18 months.

It is also calling for dramatic shifts in the PAP’s policies on education, transport and health care policies.

The SPP, the other party that previously had parliamentary representation, will be contesting the four-seat Bishan-Toa Payoh ward and the single-seat ward of Potong Pasir – held by ex-leader Chiam See Tong from 1984 to 2011.

Contesting in Potong Pasir is Jose Raymond, a former journalist.

The fringe

Smaller parties, like the PSP splinter outfit Red Dot United, will be hoping that even if they fail to win a seat, they can use the election campaign to promote their policies.

Other parties include the Reform Party, the National Solidarity Party, the Singapore Democratic Alliance, the People’s Power Party and People’s Voice.

Leaders of Singaporeans First (SingFirst), a nativist group founded in 2014, last week said it would fold after members joined other parties. Another party, the Democratic Progressive Party, said it would sit out the polls.

In a photo taken on Sept 11, 2015, during the general election, people cast their votes at Jing Shan Primary School. PHOTO: The Straits Times

Political observer Woo Jun Jie said these groups – which mostly lean towards “liberal-democratic” philosophies – were encumbered by limited membership and poor funding.

Felix Tan, an associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said the smaller parties often appeared too radical and confrontational.

“Some of these opposition parties have come out very strongly to admonish, push back, and criticise the PAP, and it can be off-putting for Singaporeans when they have no solutions to offer,” he said.

Pillai, the PSP candidate, earlier in June had said while there was a “loose alliance of sorts” among larger parties to avoid three-cornered fights, this was not the case among the smaller groups.

“It is very reckless of them. But, this is democracy and they should contest if they really feel that they are bringing something extra to the table,” he wrote on Facebook.

“Plurality of voices is a good thing. I encourage it and may the best man/woman win.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.