Singapore Splinter Parties Consolidate to Fight General Election
But even together, they hardly move the needle
With an election apparently looming in the next few months, four of Singapore’s splintered opposition parties, none of which has a seat in parliament, have banded together to form what they call the People's Alliance in a bid to take on the powerful People's Action Party, which has ruled the island Republic since it won its independence in 1965.
The four are the People’s Voice, the Reform Party, the People’s Power Party, and Democratic Progressive. Remaining outside the alliance are the country's strongest opposition parties, the Worker Party, which has 10 seats in parliament; the Singapore Democratic Party, which although it has no seats in parliament has played a longtime leading role in opposition; and the Singapore Progress party, headed by former PAP stalwart Tan Cheng Bok, who broke away from the PAP two years ago to form what has been regarded as the opposition party with the most potential.
“We agreed on the most critical issues affecting the prosperity of our people and country in the coming decades,” the group said in a prepared release. “We hope that the Alliance will form meaningful alliances with other parties for the benefit of our country so that finally, Singaporeans’ long-held dream of a united opposition will be fulfilled.” Previous attempts for the fractured opposition had gone nowhere to forge such an alliance, most recently in 2018, when seven parties came together for talks that went nowhere.
Kenneth Jeyaretnam, a former hedge fund manager and head of the opposition Reform Party, is to serve as chairman. He is the elder son of the late J B Jeyaretnam, arguably the country’s most prominent opposition politician and a mortal foe of the late Lee Kuan Yew, the longtime authoritarian who ran the island for decades. Others are Peter Soh, the vice-chairman, Lim Tean, the secretary-general, and Yasmine Valentina, assistant secretary-general.
“I see some good points and bad points on this,” said a longtime political analyst. “These are all parties which gained few votes in previous elections and they still suffer from a widespread image in Singapore, encouraged by the pro-government local press, of being a bunch of lightweight clowns and jokers. But unity creates strength, and it should boost the number of votes they get. If they are lucky, perhaps this alliance may win at least one seat in the next election, which already would be major progress.”
A general election is not due in Singapore until November 2025. However, it is clear that election fever has been growing across the country almost since the first of the year. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last week directed Singapore’s Registration Officer to revise the Registers of Electors on or before July 31 to bring them up to date, which ostensibly is in preparation for an election for the country’s president, whose six-year term ends in September, separately from the parliamentary elections. However, speeches in parliament by Lee and his designated successor, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, and growing district activity on the part of rank-and-file PAP MPs are being taken as cues for general polls before the end of the year, if not concurrent with the presidential one.
The common wisdom is that government leaders are seeking to push the election forward because of growing economic headwinds that resulted in first-quarter GDP falling by 0.7 percent and with momentum clearly fading. At the same time, stubbornly high inflation has continued to dog the economy, as it has much of the industrialized world, from the holdover of the Covid-19 coronavirus crisis. There are widespread complaints about housing prices, with unaffordability driving some renters across the Causeway to the Malaysian state of Johor.
In a national address in May, Wong acknowledged that prices have soared, but said incomes have kept pace, which many Singaporeans dispute, to the point where housing prices may be the biggest single issue facing the government. “In Singapore, the prime minister has to be a real estate agent,” he said. “So I’m learning and brushing up my skills.”
Softer global demand is forcing exports to contract. Weak export figures, in a country where exports typically amount to up to 180 percent of GDP, have resulted in declining industrial production that has slowed growth further. All that has pushed government leaders to reckon it may be wiser to get the election out of the way sooner rather than later.
At the same time, according to multiple sources, there is growing irritation with Lee, who first offered to depart the prime ministership in 2017, saying he would step down within a couple of years to allow succession to continue away from the Lee dynasty begun by his father, Lee Kuan Yew, decades before. However, 2019 came and went with the onset of the Covid crisis and Lee said he would stay on to manage the crisis. He then dumped his designated successor and didn't anoint a new one – Wong – until last June. Lee has continued as premier despite Wong’s anointment, raising suspicions that at the age of 71, he has no intention of stepping down at all. That has raised impatience and irritation inside the PAP, which despite outward appearances would like to move on from the Lee family era.
“We have heeded the calls of Singaporeans and decided that the time for talking about opposition unity without the formation of an alliance is long past,” said Lim Tean. “Today, we are pleased to inform Singapore that our four parties have agreed to form an alliance and that we are taking steps to register our Alliance with the Registry of Societies. We intend to contest the next General Election under the banner of The Alliance. We agreed on the most critical issues affecting the prosperity of our people and country in the coming decades. We have a ready manifesto to take to the country for the General Election.”