Can the SDP become a mainstream opposition party?

Written by Ng E-Jay
11 May 2011

In the 2011 general elections, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) was the most improved party. Not only did they field 11 candidates in a bid for 2 GRCs and 2 SMCs, they managed to increase their percentage share of the votes in the constituencies they contested from 23.2% in GE2006 to 36.8% in GE2011.

While their performance still does not match WP or NSP, it clearly means the SDP has totally cast aside its underdog status and it now has the potential to become a mainstream opposition party. With continued hard work, they have the potential to become a household name and anchor themselves firmly in Singapore opposition politics.

However, the road ahead will not be easy. The SDP faces not just the PAP, but also the WP and NSP in an effort to brand and market itself to Singaporean voters.

The 2011 elections have shown that elections is a numbers game. The more candidates a party can potentially field, the more bargaining power it has at the negotiation table in deciding which party gets to contest which constituencies to avoid 3 cornered fights.

In this round, the WP and NSP had the most bargaining power because they have the most potential candidates on their slate. Parties like SDP and RP were left to pick up the crumbs.

The next time round, if the SDP wishes to expand its contest areas, it needs to greatly increase its slate of potential candidates. That not only means embarking on a serious recruitment drive over the next 5 years, but also getting top notch potential candidates into its fold.

In GE2011, the SDP had a pleasant surprise for the electorate, in the form of Vincent Wijeysingha, Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan, and Michelle Lee. In GE2016, if the SDP wishes to be on par with WP and NSP at the bargaining table, they must recruit several more Vincent Wijeysinghas and Michelle Lees, and show not just voters but also other opposition parties they can attract serious talent into the SDP team.

Intra-party capacity building therefore must be an over-riding objective of the SDP between now and the next general elections.

Another area that the SDP must look into is ground work, working the grassroots and engaging the residents in the long quiet years in-between the polls. It is during this time, when the glare of the media is turned away, that the party must reach out to residents and begin the slow and arduous process of establishing themselves at the ground level. There will be no immediate gratification during this period. Only during the polls will the rewards come.

A third aspect the SDP must seriously consider is divesting itself completely from its chequered past. That means giving up its previous civil rights agenda, and studiously avoiding being associated with any sectarian interests, so as to avoid annoying the electorate.

In particular, the SDP cannot go back to street demonstrations or campaigning for freedom of assembly, however important the freedom of assembly is in order for democracy to be established. The electorate is not ready, and not willing, to consider such ideals yet.

The resources of SDP are much better spent fighting the electoral battle and fighting to win the hearts and minds of residents, rather than getting arrested and trying to turn the Subordinate Courts into a political theater.

If the SDP can focus squarely on bread-and-butter issues, and be seen as engaging the electorate rather than as confronting the government, that will go a long way toward re-branding SDP as a credible and respectable opposition party.

SDP – A very unique party

The SDP is a very unique party. Its political ideology is very rigourous, being founded on the concept of equality and justice for all Singaporeans. The SDP has the most well articulated and well reasoned manifesto out of all the political parties.

The SDP can articulate its values with a kind of precision and intellectual rigour that no other opposition party, not even the WP, can duplicate as yet.

Furthermore, the quality of candidates that the SDP attracts can easily match those of any political political party — PAP or opposition.

I have enormous faith that if the SDP:

  1. performs its grassroots work diligently,
  2. maintains its level of intellectual rigour
  3. maintains its party discipline,
  4. continues to expand the party aggressively, and
  5. commits itself to fight electoral politics constructively and credibly,

there is no doubt victory will be within reach at the next general elections


12 Comments on Can the SDP become a mainstream opposition party?

  1. The Next Lap on Wed, 11th May 2011 9:09 am
  2. Ideally, there should not be more than two main opposition parties just like most of the established demoncratic countries in the world. Branding is also important. Work on your party brand and reputation. Most of us, new or old citizens is very familiar with the PAP brand, like it or not. PAP kept “selling” their brand, true or untrue, in the last 50 years. So, by fielding people like TPL, MG Chan and many other lousy candidates, a lot of people still vote for them.

  3. Daily SG: 11 May 2011 « The Singapore Daily on Wed, 11th May 2011 11:03 am
  4. […] 2011 GE Analysis – Yawning Bread: How and when did you decide? Part 1 – Sgpolitics: Can the SDP become a mainstream opposition party? – Figuring how faith fits into this world: Post-General Elections 2011 : Reflections of a […]

  5. Latio on Wed, 11th May 2011 11:10 am
  6. The esteemed writer is spot-on in his analysis. I fully agree.

  7. Bernard on Wed, 11th May 2011 1:25 pm
  8. No such chance, in my opinion, unless CSJ is out of the party. His brand of “crazy wild-eyed” loud rhetoric doesn’t sit well with most Singaporeans.

    JBJ was the original hope for an alternative voice but lost the ground when he allowed himself to be “baited” and the fight got too personal and self-indulgent. CSJ is dismissed by the swing-vote middle ground for much the same reasons.

    This elections, the party made some headway because the candidates were a little more restraint and didn’t come across as radicals or “crazies”. However, the party is still viewed with mush suspicion.

  9. Jackson Tan on Wed, 11th May 2011 6:57 pm
  10. Two comments with regards to SDP in the political scene.

    First, it still has to convince older citizens of its new image. When I spoke to my mother who does not use the Internet, the impression she has of the party is still poor, mostly because of its history. SDP will have to figure out how to win over people like her.

    Second, I question if SDP, being a party that relies on principles, can assume the role of the main opposition party. First-past-the-post parliamentary systems tend to settle in a two-party equilibrium (e.g. UK, Australia), and they’re typically rather pragmatic in their policies. If we “fit” Singapore’s political scene into Australia’s, we can see PAP as the Coalition (fiscally liberal, socially conservative), WP as Labor (slightly more progressive but still largely pragmatic), and SDP as the Greens (which is a liberal-minded and principled party).

  11. Jackson Tan on Wed, 11th May 2011 7:02 pm
  12. Continuing from my previous comment (didn’t know what I left it uncompleted…), the Australian government will revolve around Labor and Coalition. The Greens usually have substantial support but never enough to win seats in the House of Representatives. The only exception is the recent 2010 federal elections which saw the Greens gain 1 out of 150 seats (it secured 12% nationwide votes). In a way, it is not unlike UK’s Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem situation.

  13. Mr Teo on Wed, 11th May 2011 8:28 pm
  14. I completely…except for this:

    “In particular, the SDP cannot go back to street demonstrations or campaigning for freedom of assembly, however important the freedom of assembly is in order for democracy to be established. The electorate is not ready, and not willing, to consider such ideals yet.”

    I believe the electorate is ready, why? Just take a look at opposition rallies during the GE, it speaks volume of how Singaporeans can demostrate peacefully!

    My favourite party is SDP. I think many people feel that CSJ is “crazy”, but actually he is not. It’s how the MSM has painted him that make people believe he is “crazy”. He is passionate about what he does, just like JBJ. Same thing for LKY, he speaks passionately as well, especially those of you who have seen him speak when he was younger years in the 80s 90s, no different from CSJ or JBJ.

    Only problem here is, when CSJ does it with his people, it give the MSM and the garment a chance to demonise him and his party, kinda like “sitting ducks” for CSJ, and always the wrong timing. Therefore I agree that CSJ should stop allowing himself and his party to be “sitting ducks” if their main obective is to perform well in GE, don’t give the chance to MSM and establishment to “shoot” them. It worked for WP, SDP should learn from them, get into Parliament, that is what his party is for!

    I really hope the next GE, more opposition in Parliament, and I hope it will be SDP.

  15. Mas on Wed, 11th May 2011 10:35 pm
  16. The question about CSJ being seen as an albatross in the future growth of the SDP is moot. He is financially embarrassed so he can’t be actively involved in the general elections. I believe he plays a much better role as the big picture strategist for SDP. I think we have not heard yet how critical a role he played for SDP in this recent GE.

  17. Muse on Thu, 12th May 2011 12:36 am
  18. The SDP looks good, but having read its manifesto personally I am not convinced by it, but that is just my opinion.

  19. lawless on Thu, 12th May 2011 12:55 pm
  20. I submitted my comments below in one of yawningbread’s recent posts but its publication has been withheld for reasons best known only to the blog moderator:

    I wonder why you consider Vincent Wijeysingha a strong candidate and not a liability to the SDP team. Commons sense and intuition tells one that at least 50% of the voters from the over-50 generations are still uncomfortable with voting for a gay, given their “conservative upbringing” biasedness. Assuming that the over-50 voters form at least 20% of the electorate, that would translate to at least a 10% vote swing against the SDP purely due to the discrimination against gays by this older and more “conservative” segment of the electorate. That means SDP could easily have won the Holland GRC if they had simply swapped Vincent with Dr.Gomez as a matter of prudence.

    The problems u mentioned in your article such as the lack of face-to face engagement is not unique to Holland GRC. The opposition teams in Marine Parade and Moulmein GRCs, etc. were also put up at the last minute and yet they did better than SDP Holland despite their unknown candidates having comparatively poor credentials.

    Consider these other factors which were overwhelmingly in favour of SDP Holland: (1) in terms of background and quality, the SDP Holland team is arguably the strongest amongst ALL the opposition GRC teams bar none (possibly stronger than LTK’s team and way stronger than the opposition teams in East Coast, Moulmein, Tampines n Marine Parade GRCs; (2) the background, quality and importance of the PAP team in Holland are nowhere comparable to those of George Yeo’s team, meaning that PAP Holland is comparatively weak (3) nobody has anything bad to say about George Yeo while Vivian Balakrishnan is smeared with 3 very big black marks – YOG , the “foodcourt” comment and the allegations of a suppressed video. (4) PAP heavyweights went all out to support George Yeo while Vivian was left to fend for himself; (5) while Low focused mainly on 1 issue only (need for a First World Parliament), the SDP had comprehensive programs for almost everything under the sun (eg. shadow budget, shadow health program, Tan’s economic paper) (6) all other big issues like municipal issues and national resentment towards the PAP apply equally to both GRCs and therefore could not have been a big differential factor for the opposition in either constituency.

    Yet, the final result for Holland GRC has befuddled most political observers (including the SDP’s own assessment) who are all expecting a very close fight, if not a win for the SDP. In the end, SDP Holland polled way much lower than WP Aljunied and also worse than the low-quality teams such as the WP’s and NSP’s in East Coast, Moulmein, Marine Parade and Tampines GRCs (all of which were helmed by heavy-weight PAP ministers unlike Holland GRC). Inexplicable? Not if u factor in the biasedness of voters from the over-50 generations against gays.

    Looking back, it is no wonder that the PAP did not regard Holland GRC as a
    hotspot despite the above-mentioned factors which strongly favoured SDP . The PAP must have guessed correctly that the moment Vincent’s sexuality was revealed to the public (great move from Vivian), the SDP Holland’s campaign was doomed to fail as they could not possibly overcome the huge hurdle posed by the big chunk of voters from the over-50 generations.

    I feel sorry for the SDP and Dr.Chee. Banging their heads against the wall when the time is not yet ripe for a gay MP. As evidenced by the 6% swing in votes nationwide against the PAP, the ground was incredibly sweet for the opposition this GE due to the long list of cock-ups by the PAP in the last 5 years. I cannot recall a sweeter ground for the opposition in the last 30 years or so. WP grabbed the opportunity of a lifetime. SDP did not.

    The sad thing is that the ground may never again be so sweet for the opposition for another 30 years or more, especially if the PAP learns from this GE and reforms itself as promised.

  21. The Singapore Daily » Daily SG 11 May 2011 on Sat, 14th May 2011 2:57 pm
  22. […] 2011 GE Analysis – Yawning Bread: How and when did you decide? Part 1 – Sgpolitics: Can the SDP become a mainstream opposition party? – Figuring how faith fits into this world: Post-General Elections 2011 : Reflections of a […]

  23. Mr K on Wed, 19th Oct 2011 1:06 pm
  24. Possible targets for the SDP by 2016…….
    -Holland-Bukit Timah
    -Tanjong Pagar-Buona Vista(hope Reform may stay out as Buona Vista and Holland V is just fringe within Holland-Bukit Timah)
    -Jurong(most likely,as Jurong East is much nearer,however may be ceded to NSP)
    Certain new SMCs such as
    -Bukit Merah(possibly multi cornered fight with Reform,NSP and Socialist)
    -Thomson(possibly a three-cornered fight with SPP)
    -Bukit Panjang
    -Radin Mas(possibly a multi cornered fight with Reform and NSP too,as Radin Mas is much closer to both Bukit Merah and Tanjong Pagar GRC)

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