1. Wrong Vision
Singapore seems to be the only country where its “opposition” parties see their vision as providing a “check and balance” to the “ruling” party.
A check with the Labour Party in the UK shows it has ambitions to form the next Govt. And further checks with the Liberal Democrats, who obviously do not have the numbers to form a Govt, show that they do not see themselves as a “check and balance”, but they aspire to be kingmakers.
I suppose the “check and balance” mentality among “opposition” politicians is an overt acceptance of the overwhelming dominance of the PAP and also a belief that the people still want a PAP govt, but one that will take their concerns into account instead of just railroading through unpopular policies.
“Opposition” politicians probably also rationalise the “check and balance” role as the best they can do under the circumstances, and the strategy that is most likely to win them seats in Parliament.
I believe this attitude is self-defeating and wrong, that it has not worked in the last 50 years, and it won’t work for the next 50.
2. Wrong People
It’s this wrong vision leads to parties having the wrong people.
Politics in Singapore, especially “opposition” politics, demands huge personal sacrifices and great financial risks. If the reward is not commensurate, why should a capable or talented person join a political party?
Thus “opposition” parties have ranks filled with blue collar workers, self-employed small businessmen and retirees.
Indeed, the “check and balance” vision seems to attract mostly disgruntled and vocal critics, who relish the “check and balance” role because they have many axes to grind with the PAP.
“Opposition” parties have blamed the “climate of fear” for their inability to attract quality members and candidates.
But have they ever done any self-examination? If they did, I think they’ll see that they are also to blame for why they can’t attract talented recruits.
Their wrong vision is the one key reason why few ambitious, well-educated and talented professionals have joined “opposition” parties.
Talented people are not keen to act as “check and balance” to anyone. They want to do what they think is right. They want to be in charge. And they want to be recognised for success. They’re do-ers, not armchair critics.
“Opposition” parties thus need a reboot on this point.
My assertion is that if you don’t have an aim of forming the next Govt, if all you want is to air concerns in Parliament and act as “check and balance”, you can forget about attracting talented members. And your party will always be playing in the Third Division, not in the Premier League.
3. Wrong Strategy
For a long time now, the business world has lived by the mantra “Consolidate or Die!”. Hence the relentless pace of mergers and acquisitions to enable companies to survive brutal business competition.
In Singapore, it’s quite clear that the rules of the game favour large, well-funded political parties and are extremely tough on start-ups. And yet, instead of recognising the realities, “opposition” leaders continue to form new startup parties.
Let’s be very clear on this. There’s always room for niche parties in a mature democracy (Greens, etc). But Singapore is not a mature democracy, and the parties being formed do not purport to represent niche interests.
Hence the prognosis for these parties is very simple: they will waste members’ time and money and they will not achieve anything.
Notwithstanding the folly of the startups, even the established but (compared to PAP) small “opposition” parties seem to be in no hurry to consolidate, unlike their analogues in the business world who are furiously engaged in M&A.
Perhaps this is because unlike companies, “opposition” parties aren’t listed and do not have share prices which get pummeled by the market for poor performance. They also have very forgiving shareholders who seem to think that one seat after 25 years of being in the market is a satisfactory return for their efforts.
When you compare a product made by a quality company like BMW against a similar product made by an inferior company like Cherry, the superior product wins every time, despite its higher price tag.
No wonder the rational voting public in Singapore do not wish to buy (ie vote) the products (candidates) being sold (promoted) by the “opposition” parties.
4. Wrong Tactics
To add insult to injury, “opposition” parties even use completely wrong tactics to promote their inferior products.
They seem to think that they can get votes by focusing on constituencies of ministers associated with unpopular policies, or where the MP’s are unable to solve local issues.
Hence, this year (2010), expect Mah Bow Tan to be targeted due to high HDB prices, and Yaacob Ibrahim to be targeted for flood-related unhappiness. Add to that Bukit Panjang for the fracas over Sheng Siong’s takeover of wet markets there.
These tactics are wrong because they insult the intelligence of voters. And they expose the parties behind them as opportunists, running from one constituency to another in search of “sweet” ground.
Of course, this phenomenon is uniquely Singapore. In any other democracy, every seat would be contested.
Nevertheless, such a tactic is counterproductive because it does not facilitate a bond between the party and its potential voters.
Rational voters will ask themselves, does the party/candidate really want to serve me, or is he here to profit from my dissatisfaction? Will voters trust a candidate who is announced at the last possible moment and only shows his face during the nine-day campaign period? Or do voters vote for people they know and trust?
In mature democracies, candidates stand in the same constituencies for decades. They know the constituents by name. That creates a bond with the candidate. That personal bond is far more important than any political advertising. It creates trust, it strengthens the belief that the candidate is one of the community.
That’s why in the US, certain states are very safe Republican seats and certain states are safe Democrat seats. Because the senators have been there over 20 years, and they’ve built a bond with the people. And thus they get votes based on the trust they’ve accummulated.
Staying power is key to winning elections. Few candidates are voted in on their first attempt. It may take two or three elections, ie 10-15 years of working the same ground with the same group of residents and voters, before one can get the necessary trust to be voted in.
So “opposition” parties who run around chasing the latest hot issue are fooling themselves if they think their tactic will net them any seats.
PAP candidates have generally stood in the same constituency for many years and they know their residents well. Ditto for Mr Low and Mr Chiam.
“Opposition” candidates would do well to follow these examples. Else, it would not be wrong to say “opposition” candidates are fly-by-night opportunists who only crawl out of the woodwork whenever an election is called.
5. Wrong Use Of Time and Money
I’m totally confounded by “opposition” parties who spend time attending overseas “symposiums”, “conferences” and “round-table discussions” held by human rights organisations and loose groupings of political parties such as CALD.
What in the world do these parties hope to gain by spending time and money on such activities?
No voter in Singapore cares about what these organisations say about Singapore or the PAP.
No voter in Singapore will vote for you or your party because Amnesty International has praised your efforts in your democratic struggle in Singapore.
And there is nothing such foreign groupings can do to help you win seats. They can’t give you money, and they don’t know enough about Singapore’s unique political system to give you sound advice.
So why do these parties waste their time and money on activities which do not generate any positive return?
It is truly inexplicable to me.
Rather than going on such junkets, “opposition” parties would do well to spend the time and money to better understand local residents and build stronger bonds with them.
The only thing voters care about on Polling Day is, what can your party do for me, and do I know or trust your candidate?