1911: Lessons For S’pore’s Opposition

Dr Sun_Yat-sen

Dr Sun_Yat-sen, President of the Republic of China, 1911-1912


Second only to armed uprisings, that was what Sun Yat Sen spent the bulk of his time on when he fought to bring down the Qing Dynasty to found a new republic of China.

Dr Sun is acknowledged by all Chinese to be the father of modern China. In 1911, after more than 15 years of struggle and over 10 failed bloody uprisings, he finally succeeded in overthrowing the last dynasty, and became the first President of the Republic of China.

While he was more of a revolutionary than a brilliant politician, how he succeeded in bringing down the Qing dynasty still provides many pertinent lessons for Singapore’s “opposition” parties.

First, Dr Sun recognised that a revolution cannot succeed without money. His uprisings needed lots of money for arms and supplies, which he bought from Japan and Taiwan. He needed money to pay for passage for overseas Chinese to reach China to join the uprisings, and he also needed money to help failed revolutionaries escape China.

In short, money was the life blood of the revolution, and he travelled all over Asia– and even to the United States– to raise funds for the revolution. In fact, he was still fundraising in the United States when the 1911 revolution succeeded in toppling the Qing Govt!

Timeline of the 1911 Revolution. Note the numerous failed uprisings

Second, he sold a compelling vision to all Chinese, one of unity and dignity. His memorable sales pitch was 民族 (nationhood), 民權 (citizen’s rights) and 民生 (welfare)– something every Chinese could remember, believe in and rally around.

Third, he founded a network of overseas branches of his 同盟会 (United League) throughout Asia, led by leaders he handpicked, so that they could continue fundraising efforts and recruitment long after his visits. These 同盟会 not only provided funds and men for uprisings, but also helped receive those who had to flee China in the wake of failed uprisings, by helping them resettle in Southeast Asia.

Fourth, he conducted an effective propaganda campaign by publishing his own Chinese newspapers through 同盟会 so that overseas Chinese were not only informed of developments in China, but could be swayed and persuaded to support the cause. His newspapers not only carried critical commentary of the Qing Govt, but also political cartoons mocking the Qing govt. This was to reach out to the Chinese labourers and others who were not educated.

Revolutionary newspaper published by Dr Sun's movement with not only critical commentary but also political cartoons mocking the Qing Govt.

Fifth, Sun made friends with everyone he could. He successfully merged many small bands of revolutionaries into a large movement. He had allies among the Japanese, British, Americans and Taiwanese, who not only helped him escape the assassins sent by the Qing govt, but also facilitated his travels in Southeast Asia at a time when he was banned from visiting some countries. Sun even worked with the Triads in one of his early uprisings!

What Singapore “Opposition” Parties can learn from Sun

1. Fundraising is key to politics. That’s where politicians like Nicole Seah don’t get it. One does not run for election on a shoestring budget using just one’s own $$ and subsequently ask the public for funds to cover one’s expenses, with a promise to publish a statement of accounts and to give up any “excess” donations.

Political donations are not about reimbursing an unsuccessful candidate’s expenses. People donated to Sun because they believed in his cause– to set up a new Republic of China. They didn’t ask him to publish a statement of accounts stating how their donations were used. They donated because they wanted the revolution to succeed. Ordinary Chinese– peasants, labourers, coolies– donated their hard-earned savings because they believed in the cause.

In fact, by only asking for donations after an election, a candidate is basically asking others to pay for the price of his failure. Why should people pay for your failure?

The purpose of political donations is to build up a war chest so that one can fight for victory. People donate to you because they believe in you, and they want you to win. To ask people to donate to you after you’ve lost makes no sense. To ask people only for money to reimburse your expenses makes no sense.

2. You need a strong sales pitch. You probably can’t use 民族 民權 民生 any more, but you got to come up with something memorable, believable and compelling. “First World Parliament” is not a bad start. Other parties have to come up with something equally catchy.

One thing I can say for sure: Dr Sun did not say that he wanted to be a “check and balance” to the Qing Govt. That is not a vision to rally voters around.

3. You need presence in the local communities. That’s why PAP has branches all over Singapore. As the photo below shows, political parties have a presence even in the most remote village in Cambodia. Name me one “opposition” party that has presence at more than one location in Singapore.

Politics in Cambodia: Even in the remotest villages, one can find political party branches. In contrast, apart from PAP, no other parties maintain branches across Singapore.

The reason they don’t have more than one branch? You guess it– $$$. Actually it’s more than that. Sun Yat Sen didn’t fund the headquarters of all the 同盟会 throughout Southeast Asia by himself. It was Sun’s generous allies, who included businessmen and leaders of local Chinese communities, that usually provided the premises.

4. You need effective marketing. Yes, the Govt controls the media but parties have unlimited reign on the Internet. Are they making full use of it? In this respect, I’d say SDP has the best online presence, while SDA, SPP, etc have the worst. The Singaporean people are just out there, craving to learn about you and your party, to see whether you have anything to worthwhile to say to them. If you have nothing of value to say to them, why should they vote for you?

5. Merge for Victory Dr Sun was not the only one who wanted to overthrow the Qing govt. His greatest achievement was his ability to merge a number of revolutionary groups into a unified movement. As mentioned, he was even willing to ally with the Triads, and when warlord Yuan Shi Kai seized power after 1911, Sun also joined forces with the Communist Party of China to fight for a unified China.

In short, he was willing to do almost anything and work with anyone to achieve his goal of a unified China.

Compared to this our “opposition” parties squabbles just seem so petty, and their inability to unite to fight the PAP seem so pathetic.


As I said earlier, he was a good revolutionary but not a brilliant politician. He could not control the warlords, and he had to give up his President position in 1912 to Yuan Shi Kai, just a few months after after the revolution. He again tried to reunify the country through force, even allying with the Soviets and the Communist Party, but he died in 1925 with this dream unachieved.

Nevertheless, Dr Sun is still revered by all Chinese and his ability to rally an entire people to support a cause provides strong lessons for “opposition” political parties in Singapore.

Dr Sun visited Singapore several times and stayed at Wan Qing Yuan near Balestier. Among his supporters was Lim Nee Soon (he of Nee Soon/Yishun Road fame).


About politicalwritings

Someone who sees beyond PAP and "opposition" in Singapore politics. To understand more please see the Top 10 link below.
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20 Responses to 1911: Lessons For S’pore’s Opposition

  1. 大军未动,粮草先行。
    Below is my 2 videos on Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and Zhongshang Park:
    There’s “opposition” politicians do not ever think of winning parliament seats, including those contested more than 2 times.

    op2torch / market2garden / clarinet2concerto

  2. cy says:

    Just to add one more point, you need some luck too. Qing Dynasty was crumbling at that point but numerous attempts by the revolutionaries failed. Ironically,the revolution finally succeeded because of a blunder by the Qing dynasty and Sun Yat Sen has no direct part in it.

    From Wikipedia
    “Hubei New Army units were ordered to neighboring Sichuan to quell the Railway Protection Movement, a mass protest against the Qing government’s seizure and handover of local railway development ventures to foreign powers.”

    The mobilization of New Army troops from Hubei forced underground revolutionary groups there to expedite their planned uprising. The diversion of New Army troops weakened defenses in Wuhan but also took away some of the army units sympathetic to the revolutionaries. On October 10, 1911, revolutionaries in the New Army units that remained in Wuhan launched the Wuchang Uprising.”

    So,for the opposition to succeed, PAP must make a blunder, for eg. Housing prices falling drastically which will hurt people’s pockets.

    • Luck comes to those who deserve it, ie those who persist and those who know how to seize the opportunity when fortune smiles on them. Like most successful people, Dr Sun persisted in the face of numerous failures. If he had given up, he would not have succeeded after 15 years.

      Notwithstanding the above, Dr Sun did not personally lead any of his uprisings. In this case, the key uprising of the revolution was led by his lieutenant Huang Xing. Dr Sun succeeded because he was able to rally people to his cause, and raise money to keep it going.

  3. Excellent article. It seems like a manual or blueprint of success based on logic and common sense. It is the sure win recipe if only opposition care to take heed. The lessons are there for all to learn and emulate! They shld thank you for your forthright!

    Who says history has no relevance? Brilliant ppl always refer back to history for its valuable lessons!

    However, I would like to add this.
    知己知彼, 百战百胜
    That is also important. There also must throw a leader like Dr Sun. Hope we do have.

    Hear! Hear !

  4. georgia tong says:

    Your article provides very good insight. If only our local alternative political parties will take up your views – it will be good for all of us. It is only through unity that we can look forward to the end of PAP dynasty.

  5. Raphael says:

    Well, it is easier to say than done. What you have mentioned was practice by the PAP before they come into power. Do you think the old Lee will give you a chance to carry out what you mentioned? It is obvious you have ideas but so have many who have tried before and failed. In this era it is a different ball game altogether. Opposition parties don’t topple government, it is the people that would。When the people are in such comfort zone, they only want status quo. To be in the thick of action rather than an armchair critic would open eyes.

    • I disagree. If you want me to fight for 25 years and never have a chance to smell power, I will tell you forget it. I think that’s why “opp” parties can’t attract enough talent. Because those who are talented aren’t content to be soneone’s check and balance.

      Those who are real talents become md’s, ceo’s, top lawyers, top bankers, top civil servants. Do you think such people would be content to spend 25 years in opposition, earning a paltry $15k per month? Do you think they would sign up to join a party or parties whose only aim is to be in opposition for 25 years?

      If “opp” parties can’t understand this, they will never break out of “opposition”. They forever blame the system for not allowing them to attract talent when in reality, they don’t have a compelling vision to attract talent in the first place.

  6. Pingback: Daily SG: 21 Feb 2012 « The Singapore Daily

  7. henry says:

    Donations to political organisations registered in Singapore must be from Singaporeans only.
    This means no anonymous donations.
    Political organisations are not allowed to set up offices at void deck spaces or require permission to rent space/ shophouses at HDB estates.
    These are barriers errected to discourage political presence and funding. The Gov of the day uses the People’s Association to advertise its presence. The PA is not registered as a political organisation.

    In other words, everything is calculated to dampen and supress any challenge.
    In days of yore, there were many other loopholes that political parties could take advantage.
    However, now the machinery is very well oiled and it would take greater innovation to overcome these hurdles.

    In time, it may happen. I see only 2 ways:

    The Government tacitly allows the growth of political parties
    The electorate votes a new party into power.

    Educating the electorate via blogs such as this, is one avenue, but this will take a very long time, and action is not likely. Yet it has its uses.

    Politics appears to be about others and nation, in reality it is about self. “what is it in it for me?”
    and attracting people to join a cause is not enough.. they need to be paid, they need to have certainty that 1 million bucks or more waits for them at the end of the tunnel.
    Ask the generals in Myanmar.

    • I understand your points but I feel you let them overwhelm you.

      No foreign donations? Why should that bother anyone? Do you think you really want to get into power on the back of foreign donations? Can you hide foreign donations in an age of Wikileaks?

      Anonymous donations? Why should that bother anyone? First, the law is ineffective to begin with, ie can you really stop it if politicians don’t declare, or if you sell toothpicks for $100 each? Second, do you really want to rise to power on the back of anonymous donations?

      I also don’t see why you can’t rent hdb shophouse as office premises, but if not, one can rent commercial premises. So?

      The govt of the day uses PA for non political purposes, like courses and programs. Of course they have dinners and events where mp’s are guests of honor. But everyone does that, even wp has dinners and temple events where its mp’s are the stars.

      Rather than harp on the difficulties, one should ask probing questions. The fundamental reason why parties have no presence is money. Why not? Why don’t people want to donate to them? Is it because of political donations act? Or something else?

      I think the act is not the reason people don’t donate. If you read my story of how Alex Tan raised the election deposit of $96000 in two days, you’ll know that’s not true.

  8. thelittlenonya says:

    Very interesting insights but I do have to disagree with you on a few points:
    Firstly, you said that the opposition needs to have a “strong sales pitch”. However, PAP government policies have marginalized the party’s political opponents’ boundaries of “sale pitches” in the interest of protecting the fragile fabric of society. Hence, playing on the traditional cleavages of race and religion in Singapore is clearly out of bounds, hence narrowing the Opposition’s argument and “sales pitch” against the ruling PAP to simply acting as a “check and balance” on the government.
    Moreover, you added that the Opposition has to have “presence in the local communities” in order to gain influence and that they are unable to do because of the lack of money. However, that is not the case. The PAP has well-established grassroots and organisations including the People’s Association, CCCs and RCs that act as tools to keep Opposition members way behind the PAP in the race to “get to the ground”. Moreover, you cannot impose a parallel between the political situation in Sun Yat Sen’s time and Singapore’s political situation – Sun Yat Sen could gather rich, affluent and influential allies from all around the world and escape from the Qing dynasty’s capture but in Singapore, who can the Opposition form allies with? Who will be willing to help the Opposition? There is simply no cause for anyone to help the Opposition at all. Moreover, the PAP has done well in bringing economic, political, as well as social stability to the nation and there are simply no incentives for anyone to support or help the Opposition.
    In addition, you mentioned that “parties have unlimited reign on the Internet”. As seen in the lawyer’s letters sent to Alex Au of Yawning Bread and to the editors of TRE, we can see that the PAP has a lot of control and power over the Internet and can press charges against the Opposition should they seem to go overboard or even pose a threat to the PAP.
    HOWEVER, I do agree with you that if the Opposition wants to be a more impactful, influential force, the parties will have to MERGE. There are Opposition party members who have high calibre and potential but unfortunately, they are split among the various political parties. If they merged and fought for a common cause together, they will definitely make an impactful change.

    I’m not here to downplay your insights and arguments, which I think, are truly interesting and insightful. But I just think some of your arguments are too ideal.

    • Thank you for comments. I respect your views but humbly disagree.

      Why does a sale pitch have to involve race or religion? What good will a sales pitch do for you if it targets one race or slights a religion? Why does excluding race or religion means one’s sales pitch becomes “check and balance”? As I said, “First World Parliament” is not a bad start. “To be a govt of the people, by the people and with the people” is another good pitch.

      I do not think ccc’s, rc’s etc are here to preach politics. Most of them are staffed by ah sous and uncles who just want to help residents. They organize events and dinners where mp’s are guests of honor, but those are just social events and they do not talk politics at all. Of course, it gives the pap presence. But as i said above, that’s a privilege of elected office. Wp mp’s hold constituency dinners and events as well, they also grace temple events etc. Even if the rc doesn’t want to work with them, they still get their party machinery to do it, and their elected office gives them the credibility to do such events.

      There is certainly nothing to prevent parties from holding events, such as RP has done with film screenings at Sinema. But you can’t muscle in on other people’s turf for sure. Even if you want to hold an event in wp’s constituencies, they would not be happy. Nevertheless, it does not mean you can’t have a party political office in the heartlands, the question is whether you can afford it.

      You’re right that it’s hard to get rich donors to support “opp” parties. Two impt reasons: 1. They succeeded because of pap, and 2. You are not worth supporting. You can’t help the former, but you can do something about the latter. Tell me, would you support a party like pkms or sjp if you had the money? Why on earth would you do such a thing? But people supported wp, businessmen even took out an ad in the papers to congratulate them on their victory. Why?

      Why do you cite examples of Alex Au and TRE as controls by the pap? I find it amusing. Do you read SDP website? Or perhaps Sgpolitics.net? Do you know how critical they are of pap? Yet, have they been sued? Why not?

      Pap has been very clear. You can call them stupid, incompetent, etc and that’s what sdp has done for many years on it’s website. But you can’t call them corrupt, cheats, etc if you can’t prove what you said. Because the former is an opinion or an evaluation of someone, while the latter is an allegation.

      If someone publishes an allegation about a minister without the ability to back it up, why should he expect to get away with it, Internet or otherwise? When I say free reign, I mean you are not subject to restrictions of length, editing or other constraints imposed by msm. I don’t mean you can just spread lies and falsehoods.

      • hika6ru says:

        Just last year a CC’s CCC Chairman (This CC is located at Southern of SIngapore) introduced a man to a lady (apparently new resident, not sure whether new citizen or new PR) around the pick-up point in CC premise). Spoken in eloquent Mandarin, the chairman specially mentioned the man as Secretary of a branch of PAP in the constituency and ”
        encourage” the lady to meet the man frequently. Because I was familiar face (always walk around CC) to the chairman, he felt at ease talking to them. And this chairman is the the same person ushered Mr Tony Tan in the Bedok Stadiun during Presidential Election last year.
        So what’s your opinion?

      • Opinion of what? That the CCC chairman is close to the PAP? I don’t see a problem with someone introducing others to new residents. The government wants its statutory boards (of which PA is one) to work with only ruling party MPs, they have admitted that publicly and it is for voters to decide whether that is the kind of attitude they want to vote for. You can be sure in Qing dynasty days, court officials were doing similar things.

  9. paul says:

    it should be 同盟会,not 同门会。

  10. This is Anfield says:

    The various alternative parties here hold on to very different mission statements, vision, values and philosophies. Everyone wants to be the leader, and no one wants to be lead. Right now, I don’t see anyone charismatic enough (like Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia) to be the glue that hold the various disparate parties together. And I’m sorry to say this : Tan Jee Say is a charlatan and a hoax.

  11. Godwin says:

    I think there are two other factors:

    1. The people must want a change of government.

    2. It’s not who topples the government that counts, but who is ready to take over.

    In China as well as Russia it weren’t the parties that eventually took power that directly toppled the government. You don’t just have the muscles to bring down the government, you need to be able to take over the entire apparatus of government – that’s why parties have shadow cabinets.

    • 1. People want a change of govt only if you can sell yourself to them. To use cars as an analogy– there’s only two reasons to change you car. Either your current car is falling apart, or you think the new car is more sexy. Either or both motivations can work, but to wait for the PAP to fall apart could take a long time. So better for you to try to make a more sexy car.

      2. Exactly. That’s why a bunch of checkers and balancers will not do.

      • Godwin says:

        1. Yes, that’s true. Unfortunately the salesmen here are trying to sell us co-drivers only…

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