The political system of Singapore has been pretty much a one-party show since independence in 1965, with the People’s Action Party achieving parliamentary supermajority in every elections since then.
The political opposition in Singapore is a ragtag bunch of multiple small parties that struggle to make headway, with none managing to main a foothold in parliament with the current sole exception being the Worker’s Party, which has managed to make some gains beyond a single seat since 2011.
It is no secret that the PAP has taken various actions, fair or unfair to entrench itself in power. Things such as the GRC system of block-voting, cooling off day measures, and the heavy use of litigation and media control to fix political oppositions have been discussed to the death by Singaporean netizens.
Despite what defenders of the incumbent might like to assert, any reasonable person with a basic grasp of common sense will know that it isn’t a fair fight. It is an uphill fight for the political opposition to gain any ground.
But this isn’t really the reason why the opposition fail. The brutal truth is that even if all these handicaps were taken away, it is likely that the opposition would still be defeated at the ballot box, for reasons that are entirely the fault of themselves and their supporters.
And these reasons are what we will examine here.
Small Time Creole Personality Politics
Most of the opposition parties here are run around a singular individual that serves as a idealogical and leadership figurehead. The problem is that these parties very soon start to take on the character of their leaders and serve their individualistic purposes, as opposed to achieving their aims as a political party.
These singular leaders dictate the direction of their parties and promote who they see as being loyal, filling their ranks with yes people as opposed to true talent. It could be said that the opposition in Singapore is run more on personalities than ideas, hence the following they attract are largely limited to the extent of their charisma and influence (which tend to be limited).
A good example of opposition Creole Personality Policies can be seen in prominent local opposition figures such as Chiam See Tong and Chee Soon Juan, with the former having a strong brand name but yet switching through multiple parties and not finding a successor to his political legacy despite having decades to find one, and the latter single-handedly leading his own party (The SDP) to political irrelevancy based on personal activism before getting smarter in recent elections cycles.
There is of course also Kenneth Jeyaretnam, who has single-handedly squandered his father’s legacy by making a bizarre bid to run the Reform Party basically as a one-man platform to express his unhappiness with everything while the rest are just along for the ride.
Even the WP is showing signs of struggling with such internal politics, with evidence that there is growing unrest within the ranks with Low Thia Khiang’s brand of leadership, most of which revolve around his personality as a figurehead for the WP.
The result of such creole politics is that the opposition will have difficulty finding and promoting true talent, as well as thinking out of the box as they are invariably limited to the paradigms and interests of the few central opposition leaders in the limelight.
The PAP also has it’s own form of personality cult in the late Lee Kuan Yew, but that man was far more pragmatic in how he exploited that in order to achieve tangible political outcomes.
Right now, the same personality cult is just hurting the opposition.
The opposition in Singapore has a bad habit of over-promising on how it can make things better versus the job the PAP is currently doing.
The problem is that Singaporeans by and large are not stupid people and they can tell when you have a solid plan and where you have just pulled something out of your ass based on a whole truckload of assumptions.
Also, while some people may buy the whole “vote us and everything will be unicorns” sales pitch, most Singaporeans are far more skeptical.
Opposition parties like the SDP have of late moved on from a strategy of purely critiquing the incumbent to that of trying to suggest alternate proposals, people still find it hard to believe that they can really deliver on these promises, especially given they don’t have all the data to work with unlike the incumbent.
Like Amos Yee pointed out, actually admitting that you don’t know everything and but are willing to be sympathetic to the incumbent’s policies once you have the data and work within these limitations might actually get the opposition more credibility points than promising people that they fix everything.
Alienating The Silent Majority
This one is a particular problem with hardcore opposition supporters, who in the run up to GE 2015 went out of their way to denigrate anybody who even showed any sign of not being fully on the opposition bandwagon.
What they didn’t realise is that a lot of the votes the opposition got during the GE 2011 came from the practical swing voters who felt the PAP needed to be taught a lesson. These people vote based on outcome and not because they ideologically support the opposition and think that they can actually solve the issues.
In a parallel of SJW behaviour, hardcore opposition supporters thought they had a lot more support than they actually did and launched on a full out attack on anybody who didn’t fully support the opposition cause. Even rational critiques of the viability of opposition politics were attacked in the rising tide of partisan hate from opposition hardcore supporters. Nicole Seah’s shoddy treatment by opposition supporters when she started expounding more moderate views after her time in politics is a good example of this.
The end result? They alienated the ground and the swing voters went back to the PAP, who had been working hard to regain lost ground since 2011.
Hardcore opposition supporters were shellshocked, expecting even more seats to go to the opposition but were faced with a wipeout instead. They didn’t realise that spending years insulting people for not being on your cause will not win hearts and minds.
Small Picture View
Singapore is an island republic with no natural resources in a region with potentially unstable geopolitics. As such it cannot be merely insular in it’s national policies and need to balance domestic issues along with how it navigates itself in an increasingly globalised world.
Unfortunately, most opposition parties are still stuck in a small picture view of mainly addressing domestic issues and finding ways based on that to convince people to vote for them over the PAP. Most of them are silent on international issues, with the exception being supporting various liberal causes on the part of the SDP. A common driving point for the opposition is attempting to use the Nordic policy models as an example of what Singapore should strive for ignoring the vast situational differences between Singapore and the Nords.
This small picture view and lack of commentary of how Singapore should meet existential issues that come from outside it’s borders add to the impression of opposition parties being not credible.
No Sense of The Ground
Opposition parties and their supporters have a bad habit of preaching to the choir, of largely just reaching out to demographics that already agree with them.
This leads to intellectual stagnation and a distorted view of what the ground really is like, causing them to go into battle without realising that they actually don’t have the support of the people.
This is best seen in Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s surprised reaction to his poor showing at the ballot box. He had assumed people were on his side.
He doubles down on this ignorance of ground realities by proceeding with a sour-grapes insult the electorate by saying they deserve who they voted for.
Lack of Innovation
Opposition parties have largely stuck to one play throughout the history of Singapore: Criticise the PAP. Most of the opposition rhetoric has largely been variations of such a tactic.
What they don’t realise is that there are many more ways to approach the electorate, and many of them have little to do with just convincing people that the PAP is bad. This lack of creative thinking in how to unseat the incumbent just further reenforces the perception of incompetence in the minds of the electorate, many of whom don’t actually like the PAP all that much, but see the opposition as a much worse choice.
Lack of Self-Awareness
The opposition and it’s supporters lacks awareness of all these flaws, attributing all problems that they face to external factors such as the machinations of the PAP. Any attempt to point out problems with the opposition is usually met with hostility.
This means that they will never be aware of their own weaknesses and never take steps to improve on them, meaning their mediocre performance will continue.
These are just some of the problems with the opposition and their supporters. While it is true that the PAP isn’t the paragon of political fair play, the opposition really only has itself to blame for it’s general lack of success.
The opposition needs to realise that for it to have any realistic chance of success it needs to shape up, dump creole politics, innovate, rein in the excesses of its supporters, and move beyond just attacking the PAP.
Sun Tzu mentions awareness of the enemy and oneself is key to success in battle, right now the opposition does not even have both, which is why they will fail.