Response to Peh Shing Huei’s ST column on “The partitioning of the opposition”
Today, the Straits Times Insight page ran an article written by Peh Shing Huei entitled “The partitioning of the opposition”. The link to the online edition of the article as well as the full text of the article is appended below this blog post.
Peh Shing Huei wrote that in recent months, the opposition has been deeply divided into two camps, which he calls the “moderates” and the “radicals”. According to Peh, the moderates, which comprise the WP, NSP and SDA, are not exactly happy with the status quo and the electoral system, but have opted to “stay within the laws”. What does Peh mean by staying within the laws? By this, he means: challenging the government only through participation in elections and using the Parliamentary setting to voice their views. Peh says that the moderates focus more on bread-and-butter issues, with a low-key delivery, and have a preference for quiet grassroots work. While bread-and-butter issues and grassroots work are certainly topics or activities that all opposition parties should be engaged in, Peh apparently is trying to imply that only the likes of WP and NSP are interested in them.
On the other hand, Peh says that the radicals, which comprise the SDP and the soon-to-be-formed Reform Party, “prefer to operate around the edges of the law”, in his own words. What does Peh mean by operating around the law? By this he means: an eagerness to play to an international audience, and taking a more hardline approach to the PAP, including street protests.
The manner and tone of language used by Peh Shing Huei to summarize the divisions existing in the opposition camp is shallow and utterly devoid of any substance whatsoever. By using the phrases “staying within the laws” and “operating around the edges of the law” to describe the so-called moderates and radicals respectively, Peh has insidiously attempted to tar the SDP and Reform Party with an unsavoury brush, even though his article never really delves into what exactly SDP and Reform Party stand for, what their political ideologies are, and the methods they will use to achieve their aims.
The common folk, if they had not been closely following SDP’s activities and public forums in the past as well as the press statements that the Reform Party has made, might be mislead into thinking SDP and Reform Party have a disrespect for the law, which is most certainly not the case. Instead, it is precisely because the SDP and Reform Party have such great respect for the constitutional rights of Singaporeans, that they are very willing and eager to challenge the government to return to Singaporeans their civil liberties and fundamental freedoms that our constitution in fact guarantees them. The freedom of speech and expression, assembly, and the right to form associations are accorded to all Singaporeans under Article 14 of part IV of the Singapore Constitution.
The SDP has campaigned for the civil and economic rights of Singaporeans through public forums, petitions, as well as through peaceful protests which they take pains to ensure does not inconvenience the lives of ordinary citizens. The government retaliates by constantly changing the law to further restrict the freedom of Singaporeans to assemble in public, including placing even more stringent and ridiculous rules regarding assembling in so-called “gazetted areas”, like not allowing more than one person to gather in front of the Istana without a permit. The police also frequently uses excessive force to monitor and clamp down on the activities of peaceful protesters, like how they deployed a dozen policewomen to surround Chee Siok Chin at Speaker’s Corner during the IMF-World Bank meetings in 2006. The PAP has also resorted to fear-mongering, with DPM Wong Kan Seng recently reiterating in Parliament that even one demonstration turned violent is one too many. The government’s methods of instilling fear into the people and detracting from the real issue of the constitution rights of Singaporeans by frequently changing the law and using excessive police force on peaceful protesters must be challenged. Is this challenge by the SDP and Reform Party for Singaporeans to be returned their constitutional rights what Peh Shing Huei calls “operating around the edges of the law”? Is that all he has to say about this?
Contrary to what Peh is suggesting, Parliament is not the only legitimate avenue to express political views. Political parties can also use various other channels, such as organizing public forums and petitions, and calling for the establishment of informal working groups to address specific issues. So far, only the SDP has been active in using these channels of communication with the public. The WP, NSP and SDA have concentrated solely on expressing their political stand in Parliament itself, with cursory updates of their websites from time to time. The WP in particular, even though they have one MP and one NMP in Parliament, has frequently remained silent on many outstanding issues that affect Singaporeans, and only bothered to give at most cursory remarks in Parliament that PAP MPs conveniently sweep aside without much challenge from them. As Peh Shing Huei himself wrote some months ago in an article published on the day of WP’s 50th Anniversary Dinner, a silent hammer is but an unused tool.
Peh’s insinuation that only WP, NSP and SDA are interested in bread-and-butter issues is a grave misrepresentation as well. The SDP has touched on a broad spectrum of bread-and-butter issues faced by Singaporeans, as can be seen from their website, which is very much more frequently updated than those of the WP and NSP. Like most Singaporeans, the SDP is very much concerned by issues like inflation and the rising cost of living, and has vowed to take steps in 2008 to address these issues.
Peh Shing Huei also wrote in his Straits Times article: “The radicals have gained fans among the online community in the past year, drawing street cred for their brazen actions flouting the law. In contrast, the rhetoric found on Internet forums against the non-confrontational stance of WP chief Low Thia Khiang has gone up a notch, slamming the Hougang MP and his party for being non-existent and ineffectual.”
I would beg to differ. Although I cannot speak for other members of the online community, I support the SDP and Reform Party not simply because they have engaged what Peh calls “brazen actions”, but because they dare to challenge what is wrong or deficient in our political system, and call for political power to be returned to the people. The SDP and Reform Party are not content with merely operating within the system prescribed by the ruling party and playing second fiddle to the PAP.
Peh wrote: “The partition may add much colour to the opposition scene, but it is a black eye to their hopes of eroding the PAP’s support.” Peh even quoted a 2001 statement made by Chiam See Tong that “Singaporeans do not want small parties but a strong group against the PAP.”
My contention is that the opposition camp will become much stronger if parties like the WP and NSP are prepared to work with the SDP and Reform Party to address pertinent issues that affect all Singaporeans such as electoral reform and our constitutional rights, rather than using the mainstream press to make rude remarks at the SDP like calling SDP’s Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan a “mad dog”. The SDP has already done its part by calling for greater participation and joint work with all opposition parties, but so far, the WP, NSP and SDA have not heeded their call. The ball in is the court of the so-called “moderates” to step forward. It is now up to them whether they want to toe the line of the PAP and stick to the status quo, or whether they want to play an even larger role in shaping Singapore’s political landscape. The SDP is more than ready to put aside any differences with them in order to address the key issues of the day that impact the lives of all Singaporeans. Are the “moderates” prepared to do the same?
Peh rounds up his article by saying: “In politics, a divided enemy means victory. The sooner the opposition realises this, the better.”
That is finally something I can agree, although one objectively written sentence hardly makes up for paragraphs of blatant biases.
EDITOR’S NOTE: I updated my last paragraph in response to a comment posted by a reader.
The partitioning of the opposition
By Peh Shing Huei
Feb 29, 2008
JUST when it seems Singapore’s opposition parties here cannot split themselves any further, they prove that if there is a will, they can divide.
True, they have never been united despite decades of battling a common enemy. But events of recent months indicate that the cleavages have grown more pronounced.
Broadly speaking, the opposition has been partitioned into two loose groups – the moderates and the radicals – with widely different ideologies and strategies in their bids to dilute the dominance of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).
Among the moderates are the three biggest opposition parties now – the Workers’ Party (WP), the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) and the National Solidarity Party (NSP).
While far from happy with the status quo and the electoral system, they have opted to stay within the laws. They limit their challenges to the Government to constitutional means, contesting elections for seats in the legislature and using the latter to voice their views.
They focus more on bread-and-butter issues, with low-key delivery and a general preference for quiet grassroots work.
Not so for the radicals.
Without any representation in the Parliament, the likes of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the yet-to-be-formed Reform Party of Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, and some former candidates of the WP prefer to operate around the edges of the law.
With an emphasis on human rights issues, this grouping is eager to play to an international audience, wants a more hardline approach towards the PAP, and is not afraid to take its protests to the streets.
As Mr Jeyaretnam told me in an interview last month: ‘At the moment, the other parties, barring SDP, seem to give the impression that they’ll go along with the system. I’m not prepared to go along with the system.’
He added: ‘Allowing the people to be heard is vital to any democracy. And of course, you know, if necessary, we would call for a peaceful assembly – and if that’s denied, we might challenge it.’
While the differences between the two groups are not new, the divide has grown starker in the last few months with the radical clique growing in ranks.
Previously, it was occupied solely by Dr Chee Soon Juan’s SDP.
Now, it has been bolstered by the return of Mr Jeyaretnam to politics after years crippled by bankruptcy, as well as young activists such as former WP candidate Chia Ti Lik, leader of advocacy group SG Human Rights, who prefers the more combative style of Dr Chee.
The radicals have gained fans among the online community in the past year, drawing street cred for their brazen actions flouting the law.
In contrast, the rhetoric found on Internet forums against the non-confrontational stance of WP chief Low Thia Khiang has gone up a notch, slamming the Hougang MP and his party for being non-existent and ineffectual.
The divide was clearest in a forum organised by the SDP last month.
Although invitations were sent to leaders of the moderate parties, none accepted and the panellists took shots at the moderates.
Mr Chia, one of the panellists, lambasted opposition MPs Chiam See Tong and Low as ‘PAP apologists’ who ‘played by the rules’ and got nowhere.
Another former WP candidate, Mr Jufrie Mahmood, went as far as to say that the duo ‘did not deserve the label’ of opposition.
Similarly, when the WP celebrated its 50th anniversary in November last year, only leaders of the moderate parties attended. Dr Chee and Mr Jeyaretnam were both absent.
The partition may add much colour to the opposition scene, but it is a black eye to their hopes of eroding the PAP’s support.
Mr Chiam said it best when forming the SDA in 2001, bringing together four parties under an umbrella alliance: ‘Singaporeans do not want small parties but a strong group against the PAP.’
Some young members of the WP and the SDA are also cognisant of the need to unite, forming civil society group Project Breakthrough in 2006 to pool their parties’ information and resources for the General Election.
Indeed, if the opposition is serious about taking a chunk out of the PAP instead of its periodic mosquito bites, unity is a prerequisite.
Against a hegemon like the PAP, inter- and intra-party fighting is unnecessary, if not downright suicidal.
While it is natural to have diversity in a political system, with different parties adopting different platforms and strategies, there is room for cooperation and respect.
After all, no matter what their leanings are, both groups are still keen to contest elections and should focus their attention on the polls instead of personal grudges and petty bickering.
In politics, a divided enemy means victory. The sooner the opposition realises this, the better.