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!
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.
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 $$ and subsequently ask the public for funds to cover one’s expenses, with a promise to publish a statement of accounts and to give up any “excess” donations.
Political donations are not about reimbursing an unsuccessful candidate’s expenses. People donated to Sun because they believed in his cause– to set up a new Republic of China. They didn’t ask him to publish a statement of accounts stating how their donations were used. They donated because they wanted the revolution to succeed. Ordinary Chinese– peasants, labourers, coolies– donated their hard-earned savings because they believed in the cause.
In fact, by only asking for donations after an election, a candidate is basically asking others to pay for the price of his failure. Why should people pay for your failure?
The purpose of political donations is to build up a war chest so that one can fight for victory. People donate to you because they believe in you, and they want you to win. To ask people to donate to you after you’ve lost makes no sense. To ask people only for money to reimburse your expenses makes no sense.
2. You need a strong sales pitch. You probably can’t use 民族 民權 民生 any more, but you got to come up with something memorable, believable and compelling. “First World Parliament” is not a bad start. Other parties have to come up with something equally catchy.
One thing I can say for sure: Dr Sun did not say that he wanted to be a “check and balance” to the Qing Govt. That is not a vision to rally voters around.
3. You need presence in the local communities. That’s why PAP has branches all over Singapore. As the photo below shows, political parties have a presence even in the most remote village in Cambodia. Name me one “opposition” party that has presence at more than one location in Singapore.
The reason they don’t have more than one branch? You guess it– $$$. 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.