Finding the Peoples Voice

With Lim Tean’s announcement on the launch of his new party—Peoples Voice (PV)—the number of active political parties in Singapore has grown to ten. That’s ten parties for two million voters. To put this in perspective, New Zealand (with a voter turnout of two million) has 12 parties. However, on closer inspection, we see that there are clear differences between the various parties. From cannabis legalisation to Maori rights: each presents a clear ideological stance—a specific contribution to political discourse in New Zealand.

For this NAPS Review, we spoke to a representative of Peoples Voice to find out more about the effect PV will have on Singapore’s political scene, what it can contribute, and what it aims to achieve.

Peoples Voice: No incremental change

Tean has stated that PV’s main aim is to fundamentally change governance in Singapore: PV does not intend to be a mere “check and balance to the PAP”—it intends to be in government. But can Peoples Voice, realistically, be in government (likely under the banner of Tan Cheng Bock’s proposed coalition) come the next General Election? And what are some of its main goals if it does get in?

Bringing direct democracy to Singapore

One of PV’s most innovative proposals is its plan to use referenda, in which Tean calls for the implementation of a national e-referendum system. Such a system would be similar to e-voting platforms being developed in Estonia and other countries. According to Tean, a key use of such referenda would be in deciding the abolition or retention of the elected presidency.

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A PV government will aim to introduce e-voting for elections and referendums. Image: gov.sg.

However, on the one hand, before PV can even call for a referendum, the implied non-PAP government would already be a pivotal moment in Singapore’s political history. On the other hand, another pivotal moment would be the significance of the use of a referendum itself. Would Singapore’s political system be able to handle two massive political upheavals happening one after the other?

Here, PV finds it surprising that a non-PAP government would be seen as unstable. In fact, PV shared how it believes that “a President who hold[s] office without a mandate from the people” is actually a greater source of instability. For PV, a referendum would mean “empowering Singaporeans… giving them the very rights this nation has granted them”.

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Estonia has already implemented electronic voting, allowing voters to quickly vote and go back to work. Image: CNN.

That being said, we believe that it would be interesting to observe the potential development of an e-voting initiative in Singapore. Would such a policy help make voting more convenient? Or would it simply open up Singapore’s electoral system to possible cyber-attack? Would Singaporeans even participate in politics more actively in such a direct democracy?

These considerations are especially poignant when we consider that Tean attacked the government vehemently regarding the SingHealth cyber-attack scandal. Does this make Tean’s e-voting proposal hypocritical? To this, PV’s response is that “[they] will prioritize [their] technological infrastructure and not shy away from innovating it”.

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It’s been 55 years since Singapore’s last referendum. PV’s aim of re-introducing referendums could shake-up governance in Singapore. Image: The Online Citizen.

When doing what is right is also doing what is popular

In fact, the use of referenda seems to be just one aspect of what appears to be PV’s ‘populist’ orientation. Other promises that PV have made include; the return of CPF to Singaporeans at the age of 55, scrapping the planned 2% GST increase, slashing ministerial pay, the implementation of a minimum wage, and reviewing planned utility and transport hikes. These are all promises that other opposition parties have made before and have at some point been labelled by the government as ‘populist’.

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Far from the Trumps and Bolsanaros of the world, Corbyn’s style of populism has shocked the British political system. Corbyn’s 2016 leadership election saw him gain the highest support amongst any other Labour leader (61.8%), surpassing even Blair’s 1994 leadership result (57%). Could PV cause a similar shock? Only time will tell. Image: CNN.

Responding to claims that it is a populist party, PV fully embraces the label, which it believes is unfairly portrayed by the media as being simply an “unsustainable, neo-fascist, neo-communist, radical response to governments in power today”. Instead, PV interprets populism as the prerequisite “energy and movement of a people to pressure the government”. According to PV, a government, under populism, will “legislate according to what the people want and deserve”.

Populism in itself does not necessarily invoke negative connotations, but what will be important for Peoples Voice is how it can defend and justify its proposals as also being responsible and sustainable. If it can do so robustly, then its populist proposals may serve as significant assets, otherwise, they might become PV’s greatest liabilities.

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Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party was expected to shake up the Dutch political establishment. In the end, he gained only 13.1% of the votes in the election. A disappointment to many of his supporters. Image: The Independent.

On defence and making Singapore the “Switzerland of Asia”

When asked about its foreign policy plans, PV told us that its policies will be focused on making Singapore the “Switzerland of Asia”. Unlike other political parties, PV intends to “[draw] a hard line against being weak on defence. The defence of this country is inseparable to our survival”.

Opposition parties rarely venture into foreign policy, at the risk of getting shot-down by prominent diplomats, but PV does seem to have an established stance on the issue of defence. However, to do a detailed analysis of PV foreign policy while the party is still in its infancy would be premature.

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Few, if any, of the opposition parties dare venture into foreign or defence policy, but PV boldly claims that it seeks to enhance, not weaken national defence. Image: youth.sg.

Another one bites the dust?

With the exception of ‘mainstream’ opposition parties like the Workers’ Party (WP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), opposition parties are largely relegated to obscurity and are sometimes even accused of opposing for the sake of opposing. Put simply, opposition parties come and go. And in line with this trend, something interesting happens when you visit some of the opposition parties’ websites.

Many of these websites are down or lack party manifestos or newspapers, potentially hindering electors from reviewing information about these political parties. This lack of activity and strategy from other opposition parties (e.g. NSP, SingFirst, SDA, and DPP) might allow Peoples Voice to fill the vacuum left behind. Here, Lim Tean’s clear plans for PV, as mentioned in his announcement, and his online presence can allow Peoples Voice to position itself as a potentially ‘credible’ political party.

More views than LHL, but more votes?

Adding to Tean’s credibility has been his ability to put the NSP debacle (in which Lim Tean resigned from the party over “fundamental differences”) behind him. He has cultivated a decent following online since. Of note is that Tean’s National Day Rally speech reached 309,000 views online: an impressive figure when you consider that Chee Soon Juan’s speech reached only 167,000, while PM Lee’s speech reached only 107,000.

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Lim Tean’s budget speech has also ostensibly reignited his political career—a pivotal moment in the wake of his debacle with NSP. Image: YouTube, Singaporean Voices.

But how can PV turn its leader’s online support into real-world votes? In this regard, PV seems to be acutely aware that, as their representative puts it; “in Singapore, many people criticize politicians and those in power for only talking and not taking action, NATO (no action talk only)”. What’s PV’s solution to this then?: to ensure that their support online translates into support offline. By “giv[ing] the people a voice and set[ting] the party agenda to what people in this country need and deserve” says Peoples Voice.

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On-the-ground as well or purely online? How will PV shape the next election, especially amidst opposition stalwarts like the WP? Image: Facebook, @WorkersParty.

A lack of on-the-ground presence in any specific constituency may also hurt its chances, unlike the WP and SPP who already have active grassroots networks. In regards to this, PV is more elusive on its on-the-ground efforts, stating merely that it aims “to be a modern political party with a progressive agenda”, and that this will entail using “the power of social media while simultaneously walking the ground”. This ambiguity, however, seems to be due to “a short election period”, and all PV can do now is to ensure that it is “tactical on where the resources go”.

Peoples Voice may be able to rally support from netizens, but can this translate into actual votes? And if so, will these votes even be concentrated into a specific constituency? Only time will tell.

Party of one or party of none?

Yet, another hurdle facing PV is one that many other opposition parties have struggled with. Since the rise of opposition politics in the 1980s, opposition parties have largely relied on their leader’s image. This image is usually cultivated through a focus on the personality and history of opposition politicians. For example, during the battle for Potong Pasir in GE 1984, then-leader of the SDP, Chiam See Tong, had his O-level scores publicly compared with those of PAP candidate Mah Bow Tan. The leader’s image plays a pivotal role—especially for newly formed parties which lack brand awareness.

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The entrance of J.B. Jeyaretnam (right) and Chiam See Tong (left) into Parliament signalled the birth of a new opposition in 1984, however, what progress has the opposition made since then? Image: Mothership.

A leader-centric focus might hinder PV: the electorate might view PV as simply Lim Tean’s party, preventing the party from growing beyond Lim Tean and pegging PV’s performance solely against the actions of Lim Tean. Essentially, for Peoples Voice, there is the great risk that it will become dominated solely by the image of Tean, potentially stunting the growth of the party.

We’ve seen this before. In the 1990s, the Workers’ Party was seen as the J.B. Jeyaretnam party. Following JBJ’s ousting from the party, Low Thia Kiang became the face of WP. Put simply, leader-centric parties hinder the political growth of these opposition parties. People tend to associate only with the leader, rather than with the party, preventing the growth of talents and possibly creating fault lines within the party. For almost 20 years, the opposition was relegated to only two members in parliament. It would take an influx of new talent into the WP before their watershed victory in Aljunied GRC.

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A 2003 study by students from NTU’s Nanyang Business School found that many Hougang residents could not identify any other members of the WP besides Low Thia Kiang. Image: NTU, Nanyang Business School.

In addressing this, PV claims to be moving away from a “character-centric party” and that there will be no “cadre system”. Such a move could reshape politics, but allows potentially allows PV to be taken over by a large influx of members that may not share the party’s ideology. However, if it succeeds, it might usher in a new era of opposition politics in Singapore, one dominated by ideological difference and not personality politics.

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The cadre system has been the model for nearly every political party in Singapore, and PV is the first to do away it. Source: Today.

The Coalition of Many

More importantly, the dominance of personality politics in other opposition parties could hinder efforts by Tan Cheng Bock (former Presidential candidate and ex-PAP MP) to create a ‘grand coalition’. A clash of personalities could occur amidst outspoken figures like Chee Soon Juan (SDP) and Kenneth Jeryenthnam (RP).

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A ‘grand coalition’? Image: The Independent Singapore.

Here, despite the challenges that face this ‘grand’ idea, the PV “is proud to be a part of the coalition in the making”. It believes that “the way to move forward with the coalition is to ensure that our policies align under one simple mantra, that it is within the interests of Singaporeans and is potent enough to bring about much-needed change in the country”. Specifically, PV doesn’t seem to discount WP joining the potential coalition: “we hope that after the dust has settled with their current matters that they can join forces with us, we remain open and optimistic”.

Will Peoples Voice pull a Socialist Front?

Singapore once had the short-lived Socialist Front party (no relation to Barisan Socialis). The party launched with huge fanfare and was expected to contest GE 2015. However, internal strife over the contestation of areas led to the party becoming dormant. The Socialist Front’s chairman, Mr Chia Ti Lik, has not published anything of note since 2015. Their story is now a cautionary tale in Singaporean opposition politics.

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The Socialist Front was widely expected to contest GE 2015, but internal strife ultimately resulted in the party’s dormancy. Image: YouTube, Uncle Yap.

It seems that promising parties often fizzle out here in Singapore. While Singapore has ten active parties, there are 29 registered political parties. For PV to flourish in Singapore’s political scene, it will have to consider how to plant its foot on the ground without also causing the ground to give way.

Ryan


What are your thoughts on this new entrant into Singapore’s political scene? Do you think Peoples Voice will be able to carve out its own demographic, or will it go the way of so many other parties before it?

Send your opinions to NAPS here.


Featured image: Facebook, @MrLimTean

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