The Worker’s Party has come under flak recently for “not doing enough”. It was seen by some observers for not responding fast enough with a media statement on the strike by the SMRT bus drivers. Many commented that Low Thia Khiang’s comments about Michael Palmer’s shock resignation was tame. While the SDP has come up with many alternative public policies that they have widely publicized, WP has come up with none. Because of these inadequacies, WP has been derided by commentators on social and new media who call it the “approved opposition” or, as Kenneth Jeyaretnam put it, “PAP’s B Team”.
Privately, WP supporters have been explaining to their friends and skeptics the reasons for the conservatism of WP. In addition, a recent post was also written to highlight the fact that WP wasn’t doing nothing, and had in fact done a lot in the past year since GE 2011.
I wish to address in this post the apparent mismatch between the impressions of opposition supporters who argue that WP should “do more” to challenge the PAP on the one hand, and the apparent continued stubborn conservatism of WP on the other. I argue that this mismatch of expectations is a result of two other intellectual disconnects between opposition supporters and WP = (1) what it takes to win in elections in Singapore, (2) the coercive machinery of the state.
What it takes to win elections in Singapore
Opposition supporters in general (particularly the more die-hard ones) and the WP have divergent views of what it takes to win elections in Singapore.
For the WP, winning elections means walking the ground and painstakingly earning the trust of fellow citizens through direct face-to-face contact. It means going to coffeeshops and markets to sell the Hammer newsletter, to shake hands and discuss about issues that concern the common auntie and uncle and shopowners. It means organizing durian eating trips to Malaysia, 2D1N trips to Malacca, to talk to aunties and uncles during these trips, to build a relationship and trust. It also includes the weekly meet-the-people’s sessions.
One cannot fault WP for adopting such a strategy. Afterall, the Hougang by-election has shown that the the trust that Hougang residents has in Low Thia Khiang and the WP brand has remained solidly strong despite the disgrace of Yaw Shin Leong. Moreover, does one think that the PAP pours millions of dollars into maintaining its grassroots network through the PA for nothing? The PAP knows that it takes grassroots trust to win elections in Singapore and the PA is their vehicle for that.
Therefore, adopting such a strategy also meant that the other tactics are not to its natural competitive advantages. In Parliament, WP has stuck to asking pointed questions about specific issues, gradually picking their way through, after many of its first time inexperienced MPs were struck back by PAP MPs in early parliamentary sessions. Recall how Gerald Giam, Chen Show Mao and Pritam Singh were hounded in Parliament for their wavering stance on the ministerial salary and other issues. Public policy has also not been WP’s forte simply by virtue of the fact that the PAP has its own army of scholar-civil-servants who is ready to spew out talking points to rebut every suggestion made, no matter how rhetorical those talkings points are. To put it simply, the PAP has the luxury of leaving the thinking to the civil servants.
For die-hard opposition supporters however, winning elections means challenging the PAP on each and every pressing issue national of the day. They care about the nitty-gritty details of various public policies and also about “softer” issues such as human rights. The fierce urgency for reform “now” means that every PAP mistake must be flogged for its full potential. They do not care much about the role of town councils and their maintenance of the cleanliness of housing estates. The narrow concerns of the common aunties and uncles are treated as unenlightened and burdensome.
As an example, see Alex Au’s recent piece of his participation in the national conversation. As he described, the aunties and uncles in his group constantly griped about being on the receiving end of poor public policies, but rarely delved into why the public policies were poor in the first place and what could be done about it. In the end, Alex Au concludes that “There were too many “no go” areas in the Conversation. We avoid self-reflection. We are too timid. We are afraid to see the structural underpinnings of our present state, and therefore fail to diagnose the true causes of our malaise.”
The above perspective, bordering on the derogatory, is the main intellectual disconnect between die-hard opposition supporters in general and the realities of the Singaporean median public. The alternative truth is that the common auntie and uncle doesn’t even know the meaning of “malaise” in the first place! They may or may not care about the reasons why there are so many problems with Singapore society, but they are united by their common understanding that they want those problems to be fixed and their lives to be better. They probably do not care about HOW those problems are fixed as long as they are fixed.
The coercive machinery of the state
Opposition supporters in general (particularly the more die-hard ones) and the WP also have divergent views of the coercive capacity of the PAP state and their propensity to use it.
For WP, their each and every movement is subject to scrutiny by the PAP-controlled mainstream press, who are only too happy to twist meanings into the words that they use and image that they project. Furthermore, the speed at which MHA/AGC prosecuted and jailed the workers on strike is also a reminder of how fast the long arms of the state can coordinate together to shut a group of people up. By virtue of their prominent positions in parliament, the WP has the most to lose if the state machinery coordinates to demonise it. Also recall MHA/ISD’s interference with the Catholic bishop’s supporting letter to Function 8.
For opposition supporters who mainly restrict their commentary and reporting to the online world, there is much less to lose. They have no offices to lose, no residents/supporters to disappoint, and no estates to maintain. Because they have been taking advantage of the government’s “light touch” to the Internet, they constantly seek to push the boundaries of conversation, sometimes incurring lawyer’s letters from government ministers.
The mismatch in expectations between the WP and opposition supporters in general stems from the different perspectives that both groups have in the first place. The WP is intent on growing and consolidating in a slow and steady manner, fiercely protective of the trust it has built with its constituents, while opposition supporters are all too eager to let lose in the online world, challenging the PAP every step of the way.
Both sides must understand each other’s different perspectives and positions, and not fight each other on account for their different strategies. In fact, the divergent strategies of both sides should be seen as complementary to each other, with both sides attacking a common enemy from different directions.