The need to label the SDP as confrontational
06 September 2011
Monday’s Straits Times‘ report ‘SDP’s new CEC under scrutiny’ is yet another example of how the press is used to help the PAP maintain its grip on power.
The report cited Mr Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University, as saying that the new CEC line-up was a sign that “moderate voices” are being “sidelined” in the party.
Is this true? Are there “radicals” and “moderates” within the SDP? What, in the first place, is a radical or a moderate in Singapore’s political context?
To answer these questions, we must first examine the media’s intentions. It is clear that more and more Singaporeans are beginning to understand and support the SDP’s coherent and well-defined alternative ideology.
Among some of the objectives that we are working towards is an egalitarian economic system where wealth is not amassed in the hands of a few, a democratic polity where citizens are the boss, and a social/educational system that ensures equal opportunity and a fair go for all.
If the SDP is successful in achieving our objectives, it would mean the dismantling of the PAP’s autocratic, elitist and non-transparent system.
Thus to ensure that the PAP’s power remains unthreatened, the ruling party finds in necessary to portray the SDP as a radical or confrontational party. It does this through labels like:
confrontational = destructive = bad
moderate = constructive = good
Once it has planted this notion in the public’s head, it can then peddle the falsehood that the SDP is confrontational and, therefore, one that must be rejected because we are out to destroy Singapore. Not only is the party confrontational, but moderates within our ranks have been sidelined. This is the classic divide-and-conquer tactic.
Singaporeans must be aware of this PAP strategem and not be misled. Is what the SDP does radical? Is it our policies make us confrontational?
We pivoted our GE2011 campaign on alternative policies such as implementing a Singaporeans First policy, introducing minimum wage, and reducing or abolishing the GST — policies that establishment figures (and even the PAP) have now embraced.
Ambassador Tommy Koh, for instance, has joined in our call for minimum wage; the NTUC, President Tony Tan, and Dr Tan Cheng Bock are all now echoing our call for Singaporeans First; and some PAP MPs have even voiced their support for a reduction in the GST.
If what we propose are now repeated by the establishment, can we really be radical?
If not our policies, then perhaps it is our defiance of the PAP’s ban on public protests that make us extreme? Again the evidence does not bear this out.
By challenging the prohibition on public protest, the SDP has pressured the Government to relent on the ban and allow demonstrations at Speakers’ Corner.
Myriads of groups including opposition parties have since used the venue to stage protests. As a result, protests are no longer viewed with fear, protesting at Hong Lim Park is no longer such a radical idea.
Again, if what the Singapre Democrats championed becomes the accepted norm, can we really be all that radical?
The truth is that we must guard against the PAP’s continued hijacking of the political discourse in Singapore. We must not allow it to define what is right and what is wrong, what is acceptable and what is not.
Think about it: Prior to the PAP announcing the relaxation of rules at Speakers’ Corner in 2008, protests were illegal and unacceptable. After the announcement, protests at Hong Lim Park suddenly become legal and acceptable. Why do we judge what is good and bad according to the PAP’s say-so? Can we not think independently and critically?
In a similar vein, we must break from the ruling party’s characterisation of what is radical and moderate opposition.
The truth is that opposition parties that it deems a threat will be labelled confrontational and bad. Parties that it approves of will be complimented as moderate and good.
Mr Lee Hsien Loong admitted as much during the TV forum just before the elections in May 2011: “Not all opposition parties are the same. Some work within our system and try to play a constructive role; others try to pull down the system and bring it into disrepute. And I think there’s a difference in the way they approach politics and the way we approach them.”
Singaporeans must not fall into this trap. Just because we seek to change the system – a system designed by the PAP for its own benefit rather than for the benefit of the people – does not make the SDP radical or confrontational.
Rather, it makes us effective and responsible.
SDP’s new committee under scrutiny
By Tessa Wong, Political Correspondent
WHAT does the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) election of a new central executive committee (CEC) say about its future direction?
Political observers are divided on this question.
The new CEC, formed two weeks ago, comprises a mix of old and new faces. Mr Jufrie Mahmood, a veteran opposition member, is now its chairman, while Mr Vincent Cheng, a former detainee and newcomer to opposition politics, is vice-chairman.
Civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha, another newcomer to opposition politics, has been promoted to treasurer.
Mr John Law, another newcomer, fills in Dr Wijeysingha’s previous post as assistant treasurer.
Among the old faces: Dr Chee Soon Juan and Mr John Tan remain as secretary-general and assistant secretary-general respectively, and Ms Chee Siok Chin and Mr Mohamed Isa as CEC members.
Former vice-chairman Francis Yong is now a CEC member.
Excluded from the CEC line-up are Dr Ang Yong Guan and Ms Michelle Lee, who were among a number of highly qualified former establishment moderates who recently joined the party to contest the May General Election.
Dr Ang is a psychiatrist and retired army colonel, and Ms Lee a former Monetary Authority of Singapore officer.
The two of them, together with Dr Wijeysingha and Mr Tan Jee Say, formed the SDP’s A-team in the General Election and stood in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. Mr Tan quit the party in July to run for president.
The prominence of these candidates played a part in attracting more young professionals with moderate liberal views to the SDP, both during and after the election.
Dr Ang and Ms Lee were among those in this moderate group, and some speculated that they might take up leadership positions in the SDP.
But the two told The Straits Times that they did not wish to run for the CEC, preferring to be involved in newly set-up subcommittees.
Ms Lee said she also needed more time to concentrate on her family and work. She currently teaches at a private school.
‘(The party leaders) discussed with us, and said there was a two-track system. They said they wanted to see how things go. And it’s vice versa. We also want to find out where we can best contribute,’ said Dr Ang.
SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan said that the SDP has seen a ‘dramatic expansion’ of its ranks, and hence now needs a larger structure to ensure ‘a high quality of management across all the party’s work streams’.
‘As such, capable members are being deployed across a much wider leadership team outside of the CEC,’ he said.
He said new members are now holding key positions in subcommittees.
Dr Ang heads a health care advisory panel, and Ms Lee facilitates a fund-raising group. Academic James Gomez coordinates a policy studies subcommittee and Mr Alec Tok, who owns a theatre company, is involved with a training and development subcommittee.
Dr Gomez joined the SDP last year, while Mr Tok joined right before the General Election.
Political observer Alex Au noted that the party appears to be opting for ‘stability rather than an abrupt shift’ by voting in familiar faces known to be ‘steadfast to a certain political standard’.
‘There has not been any wholesale change, and I’m not surprised. We have to consider the membership base, where the moderates are probably not that significant in number,’ he said.
The SDP declined to reveal membership figures.
Assistant law professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University, however, views the new CEC line-up as a sign that moderate voices are being ‘sidelined’ in the party.
As this was the first committee elected after the May General Election, it would have been ‘a powerful signal’ if more moderates occupied CEC positions. But the new line-up ‘suggests that the moderate ascendancy during the May General Election was but a false dawn’, he said.
In the run-up to the election, the SDP started playing down its erstwhile activist image and projected a more accessible, moderate tone. It also moved away from human rights advocacy and put more emphasis on bread-and-butter issues.
The new CEC line-up shows that a human rights agenda is still central to the party’s philosophy, noted political analyst Derek da Cunha.
Mr Au, however, pointed out that, unlike some other SDP members, Dr Wijeysingha and Mr Jufrie, while holding strong views on human rights issues, are not known to advocate public demonstrations.
Dr Wong Wee Nam, a medical doctor who follows opposition politics closely, believes the SDP is willing to continue the change that started before the General Election, and is aiming for ‘gradual renewal’.
He said: ‘This is not an issue of moderates versus hardcore supporters… I think the SDP is taking a long-term view, because if people are bogged down by day-to-day running of the party, they may not be able to spend time on more important things like socio-economic and health-care programmes, which they have to develop.’