Is opposition unity a myth?
By Dr Wong Wee Nam
16 January 2013
When the by-election for the constituency of Punggol East was called, the Worker’s Party was the first opposition party to announce that it was going to contest the ward. Subsequently, the SDA and the Reform Party also made their intentions known. There was little reaction to these latter announcements.
Then the Singapore Democratic Party decided to join in the fray. This was when all of a sudden, panicky cries for opposition unity started coming out from everywhere, especially online. SDP was called to withdraw from the contest. The critics claimed it would be in the interest of opposition unity that SDP did so. Furthermore, this needed to be done for the sake of the national interest.
What national interest are these people talking about? Is it in the national interest to deny voters the choice of good candidates and a good platform just because we want to show how angry we are with the PAP and want to kick them out? If this is the case, isn’t it better for voters to be given a choice so that they could choose, from amongst the many, the candidate most able to express their feelings in Parliament and have the intellect to debate the PAP on policies?
Alas, when people called for opposition unity, it was not really about calling for a united front to fight the PAP or for the best candidate to be fielded. The idea appeared to be for everyone to get out of the fray and leave it to the Worker’s Party to do the battle. This is ironic as the Worker’s Party did not make overtures to other parties to stay out of the by-election. The claim that WP can only win in a 1 to 1 fight and PAP will win in a multi-cornered fight made the rest look like spoilers if they were to continue to contest.
Thus, when the SDP asked the WP to negotiate, many people were furious. Why should this be so? If there was a genuine interest in opposition unity, why didn’t the supporters of opposition unity push the parties to come to the negotiation table instead of asking one of the parties to leave without listening to what each had to say?
I know what unity or disunity is about. One year before the 2011 general election, I made some attempts to get the opposition parties together for unity talks. The idea was not to discuss arrangements to avoid multi-cornered fights in the next general election but to get the opposition parties to feel comfortable with each other. It was hoped that through such a meeting, the parties could see their common areas of agreement and forge a common platform to offer to Singaporeans an alternative. The first meeting was attended by the chiefs of the Singapore People’s Party, the National Solidarity Party, the Singapore Democratic Party, and the United Singapore Democrats.
Subsequent meetings did not materialise because some participants felt that without the Worker’s Party’s participation, opposition unity was meaningless. And WP is only interested in going it alone.
Politics in Singapore will not mature if political parties continue to shun the idea of coalitions.
All political parties are made up of coalitions of different interest groups or factions, even parties like the Conservatives, the Labour Party and the Liberal-Democratic Party in United Kingdom. This is the same of many governments, including the government of China. If the opposition parties want to be a serious alternative to the PAP in 2016, then they have to stop behaving like tribal chiefs happy with their tiny fiefdoms and come together. If Singaporeans want to see a united opposition force, then they should come together and speak up to force such a co-operation with genuine give and take from all sides, instead of just supporting one tribal chief.
When the SDP proposed to the WP to work together to find a unity candidate, it was severely criticised. Many observers called the idea “laughable”, “ridiculous”, “hare-brained”, etc. Some even labelled, very unfairly I think, Dr Chee Soon Juan as delusional, mad, etc.
Such exaggerated labels and personal attacks merely play into the propaganda of the mainstream media and prevent people from taking an objective and rational look at the proposal. The proposal of a unity candidate may not be as ridiculous as people think.
Each opposition party has its strengths and weakness. If a formidable united front is to be formed, the strengths must complement each other.
All of us know that the SDP and WP have distinct beliefs and focus. But they share a common belief that the PAP is not doing right for Singapore. With the support of pro-opposition supporters, surely the two parties can find common ground and explore how they can work together despite their differences. They should, because to all pro-opposition Singaporeans, there is only one common foe.
In the world of political governance, coalitions abound. In Germany, for example, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) runs a coalition government with the Free Democrat Party (FDP). Both parties have different ideologies and policies — the CDU is conservative while the FDP is liberal in its orientation — but they have found common ground to work for the country’s greater good. Even in Malaysia, the Pakatan Rakyat brings together the liberal DAP and the very conservative PAS.
It may well turn out that in the not-too-distant future, Singapore will have to turn to a coalition of parties to form the government where power and responsibilities are shared. If parties cannot work to serve the residents despite their differences, what do we do if an election results in no party garnering more than 50 percent of the seats in Parliament?
Thus I would see SDP’s proposal as an idea to get the opposition parties to learn how to work together. It may have been an idea which was difficult to grasp and easily misunderstood but the principle was that everything should be on the table. Opposition unity should not merely mean meeting once in five years just before an election to parcel out constituencies for contest.
The idea of a unity candidate may be novel and untried, but that does not mean it cannot work. It should be examined rather than ridiculed and dismissed out-of-hand.
If the Worker’s Party had agreed to meet the SDP to negotiate with an open mind, who knows what the final proposal might look like? But one thing is for sure: it would be one big baby step to true opposition unity for a more accountable government and a better Singapore.