Sending out a special issue to Milo Peng Funders on the heels of the wrap this morning. I couldn't include this in the wrap since it happened this afternoon, but decided not to hold it to next week's wrap, so here we are!
It is a “uniquely Singapore” feature of politics that you attend an event organised by opposition political parties and they are quick to assure you, unprompted, that they're not looking to form the next government. It’s a feature that distorts local understanding of the raison d’être of a political party, but it’s just how things are in this country at this point in time. The ruling People’s Action Party is so dominant, so much a fixture in Singaporeans’ political imagination after over 60 years in power, that it’s not considered good strategy for an opposition party to make big declarations about taking over. Much better to focus on the more resonant message of providing some alternative under PAP hegemony.
That’s what leaders of the National Solidarity Party, Red Dot United, Singapore People’s Party and Singapore United Party emphasised this afternoon when they gathered to sign a memorandum of understanding to work together as The Coalition. “I think, in this stage of our democratic growth, Singapore is not ready to have a change of government,” said Ravi Philemon of Red Dot United (RDU). “The intention of this coalition is not to push for a change in government but to push for more checks and balances.”
Opposition alliances and cooperation aren’t new to Singapore; in fact, they’re a staple part of ‘general election coming?’ vibes, a growing restlessness that builds until the prime minister finally lets the news drop. The Coalition isn’t even the first to be announced this year: in June, Peoples Voice, Reform Party, People’s Power Party and Democratic Progressive Party said that they’d come together to form the People’s Alliance (they included an apostrophe in the name, thank !$#%). The Coalition, though, says that it’s different from the usual opposition alliances in that they aren't going to form a new and blended central executive committee. Instead, it’s a “non-formal partnership”, where each party still keeps its own identity, branding and operations, and everyone works together as equal partners. Decisions are made by consensus between the leaders of each party (who will presumably have to consult with their own party’s central executive committees). “Sometimes things may move a bit slow because we have to get everybody to agree, but it’s a unifying agreement… and we move collectively in the right direction,” said Steve Chia of the Singapore People’s Party.
It’s an arrangement that I hope, for everybody’s sakes, will work. Where it absolutely makes sense is in sharing resources, such as training volunteers to be polling or counting agents together. It could be tricky, though, when it comes to doing some of the things that The Coalition says they’ll do, like putting out a “comprehensive joint manifesto” and exploring the possibility of sharing candidates during the election. How would this ‘it’s a non-formal partnership, we’re together but still different’ message be clearly communicated to voters who will more likely than not see The Coalition as one body, especially when the parties are also banking on The Coalition to make them look unified, stronger and more credible to Singaporeans?
This is one of many questions to which the answer appears to be, “Wait and see.” As with so many political endeavours, such opposition collaboration is an experiment, a trial-and-error in which parties take it as it comes and work, for better or worse, with what they have. The reality is that the parties are operating in murky territory, limiting the amount of prep they can do. What they can prep for, they keep close to their chests; the PAP already has too many cards in their hand for any opposition party to want to give them forewarning of any tactic or strategy. When asked about the recruitment and selection of potential candidates, all four parties were cagey, but pointed out that we have no idea whether, or how, the electoral boundaries are going to shift ahead of the next election, making it a little premature to talk about candidates and constituencies.
Basically, everyone is flailing (hopefully purposefully, but still flailing) in an environment where there is neither clarity nor transparency. The prime minister has the prerogative to call the election, which means that the timing will be whatever suits his party. Campaigning periods are incredibly short, so every other party just has to be on standby for a sudden sprint. Constituency boundaries shift every election, so the ground that you were working on before might turn out to not actually be the ground you’re contesting after all. Everyone, except the PAP, can only exist in this suspended state of not knowing yet having to be primed for action.
“No one here knows when the next GE will be called, but we know that the next GE is nearer than the previous GE,” Ravi Philemon said. “We have to be prepared and I think there can be no better time than now to announce this coalition, to say we are prepared to face the contest.”
I asked the four parties if they could give some idea of the big issues they’d be addressing in their joint manifesto; while it’s nice to talk about “support, synergy and respect”, that’s not a political platform for the electorate to consider. The response was that they’ve had “some preliminary discussion” about the manifesto, but can’t say too much right now since many things are still in development. What they did say, though, was that “bread and butter” issues were key (as always): cost of living, inflation and salaries. Other likely inclusions will be matters like POFMA, the highly problematic anti-“fake news” law, and the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA). Again, we’re going to have to wait and see to get something more concrete.
Alliances and talk of cooperation have come and go, relationships have been formed and broken down. At this point there is no saying how successful (or not) The Coalition will be. But I think it’s generally a good thing that there’s this sort of activity in opposition circles; it reflects a growing desire to break the overwhelming PAP dominance that we’ve lived under for such a long time. Even if the goal of breaking the PAP’s two-thirds majority seems very pathetic compared to the highly competitive politics in mature democracies, this is what we’re working with in Singapore. Achieving it would already be such a political earthquake.