It is unprecedented that a leader of a political opposition party in Singapore would invoke the name of the architect of the ruling party in his battle cry in rallying the troops.
But that was what happened on 3 August 2019 in Singapore, when Dr Tan Cheng Bock launched the newest political party in the island, the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
Speaking at the event, Dr Tan said he was now making the same call the late Lee Kuan Yew made to him many years ago – for young and old to step up and join him and his party in bringing the country forward.
“I need you to come forward, to take Singapore to the next level of growth,” Dr Tan said, relating what the former prime minister had told him in the 1970s. “[He] impressed me with a passion to serve this country, to help him build this country up.”
“That call was so touching and so strong that I joined him,” recalled Dr Tan, who entered politics shortly, in the 1980 elections.
“His call was for good people to join him,” Dr Tan continued. “Today, it’s my call for Singaporeans to come up and join me.”
It was a passionate, and shrewd, speech by the 79-year old former stalwart of the PAP, whose electoral record spanning 2 decades and 6 general elections is impressive.
In invoking the name of Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Tan was probably trying to emphasise that his and his party’s values align with Lee Kuan Yew’s.
But what has stirred the former Central Executive Committee member of the PAP to once again don the fatigue of battle, this time on the other side of the line?
“There seems to be an erosion of trust between the people and the government,” Dr Tan explained in his speech at the party’s launch.
“The style of government has changed, the processes of government have gone astray, because there has been an erosion of the 3 pillars of good governance: namely transparency, independence and accountability,” he said. “3 very important pillars of governance.”
The Edelman Trust Barometer report in March this year found that trust in the government here has fallen by 8 percentage points from the previous year, from 76% to 67% in 2018.
It is an issue which the government seems to be well aware of too, with leaders speaking about it in recent months, urging that there needs to be a “renewed bond of trust” between itself and the people.
But what has eroded such trust, and how can the PSP (and other opposition parties) capitalise on it?
There are several causes of why trust in the PAP has slid, as Dr Tan explained.
Besides the erosion of the “3 pillars” of transparency, independence and accountability, there are also the uncertainty of the future and even how the government has managed certain recent incidents and issues which had surfaced in the public sphere.
These include the Reserved Election which was introduced to ostensibly ensure minority-race presidents, although many saw this as a political manoeuvre by the PAP to prevent Dr Tan from running for the office; the “fake news” legislation which gives government ministers wide and unprecedented powers to issue take-down orders to anyone and any online site; and the appointment of the prime minister’s personal lawyer as the Attorney General; the appointment of a former PAP MP as deputy Attorney General; the very public squabbles of the Prime Minister and his siblings over their father’s house.
But the withholding of trust by Singaporeans could also be from a lack of confidence in the so-called “4th generation” leadership of the PAP. There are signs, critics say, that all is not well within the PAP in its leadership renewal exercise.
Heng Swee Keat, for example, is touted as the next party leader. He is, however, seen by some as a compromise head to assuage different factions in the party which are unable to come to an agreement, unanimous or otherwise, on who should lead them.
The present vacant post for a second deputy prime minister is also indicative of internal uncertainties, some say. Leaving it vacant was also another compromise, until the factions can decide internally who should inherit the post.
And to more watchful observers, the “4G” ministers are still very much dependent on the more seasoned senior ministers when it comes to handling major issues or incidents. Recent examples would be the deaths in the SAF, the Terrex incident with China, the introduction of the Bill on the Reserved Election, the fake news legislations, the “brownface” advert, and so on.
None of the “4G” ministers have impressed thus far.
Some like Trade and Industry MInister Chan Chun Sing, once held up as the frontrunner for the PM post, are still seen as bumbling their way through, and those like Josephine Teo and Grace Fu not as capable as their predecessors. Younger “4G” ministers are still being mentored.
Even Heng himself was seen in Parliament apparently needing to be advised/tutored by PM Lee Hsien Loong on how to rebut Workers’ Party chairman Sylvia Lim during the “trial balloon” debacle this year. And Heng’s 2017 report of the Committee on the Future Economy, a blueprint for Singapore moving forward, was thrashed by economists for being a regurgitation of old ideas.
So, how should the opposition, PSP included, capitalise on this erosion of trust in the PAP?
They should focus on issues which Singaporeans are deeply concerned about. These would be bread-and-butter, daily living struggles. And besides healthcare, the one thing which occupies their mind most would be jobs, or job security.
But opposition parties should be careful in the issues they raise, and here this writer would like to caution PSP when it raises the trade agreement between Singapore and India, called the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, or CECA.
“PSP will call for a review of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA),” Dr Tan told his audience, putting the spotlight on the deputy prime minister.
“Now this agreement, you must understand, was negotiated by our current Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat, and signed in 2005,” Dr Tan explained. “Among the terms of CECA: allow the free movement of professionals in 127 sectors to enter and work in Singapore. This has brought a lot of unhappiness with Singaporean PMETs, who feel vulnerable in their jobs and are anxious for their future.”
“How many local jobs have gone to Indian professionals and how many Singaporeans have gone to India?” he asked, to laughter from the audience.
“We need accountability.”
While it may be good to raise questions about the agreement, it should also be noted that the government had explained the benefits of the deal, as recently as September last year when the third review of it was made.
“[CECA] fast-tracked Singapore banks in India’s phased banking liberalisation programme, accorded special tax benefits to Singapore-based companies and included an agreement on investment promotion and protection,” the Straits Times reported.
“It also included an agreement to eliminate or substantially reduce tariffs on three-quarters of Singapore exports to India over five years.”
In 2017, bilateral trade amounted to S$25.2 billion. India was also Singapore’s largest trading partner in South Asia, while Singapore was India’s second-largest trading partner within ASEAN.
Nonetheless, Dr Tan’s questions about CECA are valid. And he is right in telling his audience, and Singaporeans, that all this would be just talk if they were not in Parliament.
“You have to get us into Parliament,” Dr Tan exhorted Singaporeans. “This is important.”
Without being in Parliament, it would not be possible to get access to relevant information and data to understand issues better, and to raise better questions about them.
Only by electing more opposition party members into Parliament will the 3 pillars of transparency, independence, and accountability be given meaning.
Dr Tan and his party will need to persuade Singaporeans why these 3 pillars are important and relevant. And the example of CECA is a good one, to show that without transparency – which can only come from a larger presence of opposition MPs in Parliament – the ruling party can make trade agreements which may directly impact Singaporeans’ livelihood negatively.
It is this – persuading Singaporeans and doing so convincingly – that is the hard work which lay ahead for the PSP.
“I believe I am able to do something for the country,” Dr Tan said at the beginning of his speech.
“The task ahead is challenging, but I love this country, like many of you. So, to shy away from doing something, especially when I am aware something isn’t right, will not be true to myself. And that is not my style.”
Dr Tan has created a buzz with the launch of his party. Now begins the grueling work, with hands and feet on the ground, shoulder to the wheel.