Leader of the Opposition and Political Evolution in Singapore

The appointment of Pritam Singh, the Workers’ Party (WP) chief, as the formal Leader of the Opposition (LO) is undoubtedly a significant step in the maturing of the political system in Singapore. Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong’s gesture showed a recognition of the desire of the electorate for greater opposition representation. Subsequently, details emerged on what the position entailed: more speaking time in Parliament, access to select confidential security briefings, and an increase in salary (double that of an ordinary Member of Parliament or MP). Pritam decided to publicly announce that he would donate half of the increase in salary, triggering much discussion amongst Singaporeans. Beyond the pay rise, what exactly does the LO position mean for Singapore?

It is strange that many Singaporeans were debating as to whether Pritam’s donation was ‘political’ in nature. Of course it was: Pritam is, after all, a politician, and anything he does is obviously ‘political’. So was PM Lee’s decision to institute a formal LO position. To be sure, putting in place the LO is not merely a gesture of goodwill from the PM to his political adversary; it was a decidedly political move which was partly meant to assuage voters that the government recognised their aspirations to be represented by a variety of voices in Parliament, and partly meant to apply more pressure on the opposition. Already, People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders have repeatedly said that now the WP needs to not just critique government policies, but give constructive suggestions too. The premise of the call is tenuous of course, since the WP and other opposition parties have always provided alternative policy proposals. But evidently, what the government intends to achieve is that the public imposes higher expectations on the WP.

And rightly so. The public should demand more from our elected representatives, from the government or the opposition.

As is typically the case, the results of the 2020 General Election (GE2020) have gotten people excited, and the phrase ‘new normal’ is bandied about rather liberally. Commentators point toward the formalisation of the LO post; the loss of an additional GRC to the WP; the increase in vote share in the opposition parties in the West, which has long thought to be impenetrable; the failure of harsh tactics deployed against the opposition, prompting Minister Shanmugam to declare that the PAP needed to engage in “soul-searching”; and of course, the nationwide drop in support for the ruling party. All of those are true, of course. However, to say that there has been a transformation in the political scene in Singapore would be hyperbolic. The PAP still holds almost 90% of the elected seats in Parliament; the opposition is nowhere near denying the PAP’s super-majority; all the major institutions in the country are dominated by the ruling party; and so on. Thus, while GE2020 was significant in many ways, in others, it represented continuity. To use the term ‘transformation’ would thus be a misnomer. Even the LO position, while new in its formalisation, had been mooted before by PM Lee: he had wanted to recognise Low Thia Khiang, the previous WP chief, as the informal LO, but Low declined.

A better way of interpreting the events that had transpired since GE2020 is the evolution of the political system in Singapore. Just like any evolution, it is a gradual, and can be a painfully slow process; yet when analysed in the longue durée, we can see changes which have happened. The opposition has slowly become more mainstream in the psyches of Singaporean, even if not fully so.

A word of caution is due, however. One must never assume that the democratisation process is unidirectional, and that the opposition will only go from strength to strength henceforth. Many analysts made that mistake in 2011, when the PAP suffered its worst electoral showing in the post-independence history of Singapore, projecting that there was a ‘new normal’ in the country. In 2015, those expectations were overturned, as the PAP recovered strongly and the WP barely held on to six of its seven seats, and lost one. There is no reason that the PAP cannot recover from the results of GE2020. Of course, for it to do so, it would have to follow through on its promises of rethinking its views and approach toward politics, which many today, especially the young, are uncomfortable with. If it does, and the opposition does not continue to improve, the party can definitely come back stronger.

For the opposition, what it needs to do is to continue attracting credible candidates, which for the WP, would be considerably easier now since success attracts people; perform well in Parliament; manage their constituencies well; and for Pritam, continue to be a national leader and show that he can rise above petty politics. The other opposition parties can take a leaf out of WP’s book and slowly build their credibility, and perhaps concentrate their resources on winning one single member constituency seat first, and then move forward from there. Electoral success requires a long and arduous journey.

GE2020 has thrown up lots of questions for Singapore society, which need to be confronted. How should race and religion be navigated with a younger generation which demands more open discussions? Should punitive actions be the first recourse for the government when it deems that its political opponents have crossed the line? What should the fourth generation PAP leaders do to reconnect with the ground, and regain the support that their predecessors had from the public? How do we handle the candidates who grew up in a social media environment, like Raeesah Khan, and their previous posts on social media? As anyone who has used social media before would know, everyone must have said something silly on those platforms. Should what someone wrote many years ago be disqualifying? These are the questions all of us have to reckon with.

Crucial to the process of discovering the answers to these questions is the LO, and his party. Pritam should be an important player – together with the PAP leaders – in finding the answers to existential questions which the country has to face. The LO is not meant to represent just the people of Aljunied, who voted him in, but all Singaporeans, as a responsible and constructive voice in Parliament, being a counter-weight to the PAP when required, and supporting the government when it is the right thing to do.

Expectations on the LO should be realistic too. Calls for a shadow cabinet in the vein of the opposition in the UK or Australia seem rather premature at the moment, with only 10 elected WP MPs. It does not make much sense to have a shadow cabinet when the opposition does not even have enough numbers to do so. What is more realistic is to expect the LO to help shape the national narrative, and be a check and balance against the PAP, articulating opinions which represent segments of Singapore society.

An interesting dynamic to witness is the relationship between the opposition parties. Already, we see some positive rapprochement between WP and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), the only other opposition party which has parliamentary representation (the party has two Non-Constituency MPs). How WP manages its relationships with other parties, especially the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), will be fascinating. A formal coalition between WP and other opposition parties is extremely unlikely at the moment; as it stands, the WP does not stand to gain from formalising relations with the others, and just on a purely cost-benefit analysis, it does not seem like the WP would want or need an opposition alliance. Informal cooperation, however, is likely to continue, in the form of coordinating to avoid three-cornered fights in electoral constituencies, and in critiquing government policies in Parliament.

The instituting of the LO position is most definitely, overall, something which should be celebrated. It also should tell Singaporeans something which should have been obvious all along: elections have consequences. Voters sent a message to the PAP through their votes, and judging from what we have heard from its senior leaders, and the formalisation of the LO, it seems that the message was well-received. ⬛


Dr Walid Jumblatt Abdullah is an Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Program at Nanyang Technological University. He works on state-Islam relations, and political parties and elections, with particular focus on Singapore and Malaysia.

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