It’s hammer time

“Thor, Odin’s son, my heir, my first born. So long entrusted with the mighty hammer, Mjöllnir, forged in the heart of a dying star. It’s power has no equal! It’s a weapon to destroy or as a tool to build. It is a fit companion for a king.” (Odin, at Thor’s coronation, Thor)

(Last Wednesday, I asked, “If the Workers’ Party hold a screening of Thor on Friday, the cooling off day, will it break the rule?” And it turned out that the WP candidates did watch Thor together at Iluma on Friday. I am prophetic, ain’t I? If you are not convinced yet, days before the election I wrote to Peter, saying that the result of this election would be 80-7 with the opposition winning Potong Pasir, Hougang, and Aljunied. It turns out that I missed Potong Pasir result by 114 votes. Well, if you need any 4D advice, try 8106.)

The Workers’ Party made a history last Saturday when they became the first opposition party ever to capture a GRC since its introduction in 1988. With 6 elected MPs (and 2 NCMPs, if they accepted the offer, which I think they would), WP is looking to form the largest opposition faction since Barisan Sosialis (with 13 seats) in 1963. The GRC system, so LKY argued, was designed to ensure that the minority would be represented in the parliament, which was a lame reason, since the first elected opposition MP was an Indian ethnic. (I guess what he truly meant was for an affirmative action for the Malays.) But then it has evolved into a system of getting rookie candidates into the parliament by riding the coat-tail of PAP heavyweights. In the process, this GRC system has exponentially made life tougher for the opposition to contest a GRC in the election. For example, each candidate in the 2011 election must pay $16k deposit, and they will only get the deposit back if they can obtain more than 12.5% vote. Fair enough, since you want to discourage opportunists from anyhow contesting the election. So, in AMK GRC, which fields 6 members per team, each party must pay a hefty $96k simply to contest the GRC. Thus you could imagine the historical significance of an opposition party finally winning a GRC in this risk-averse country which puts its trust in PAP and PAP alone.

(Thus, as the PAP has bitten its own medicine, many wonder whether it will reduce the average size of a GRC for the next election. In 2006, the average size was 5.4. In 2011, the average size is 5. Here’s hoping that they could reduce it further to the average of 4 in 2016. In the beginning, by the way, the size of GRC was 3!)

This result must have upset LKY so much such that, when he was asked how the PAP would work with the Workers’ Party which has secured eight seats in Parliament, he replied, “You believe the Workers’ Party is in Parliament to help the good of Singaporeans, or oppose the PAP?”

And this is the kind of response which makes me wonder whether or not the more MM Lee speaks today, the more people will resent him and the PAP even further (his “repent” comment might have doomed PAP’s team in Aljunied and double-confirmed opposition victory). Of course, on the surface, his concern is valid. There are still a few opposition parties which exist for the sake of opposing. After all, in his own words, “Singaporeans are champion grumblers.” (December 2009, National Geographic Magazine) We love to complain about practically everything. But I guess somehow he is still trapped in the past with his image of opposition parties at that time. Perhaps he is referring to J. B. Jeyaretnam, the first elected opposition MP who was the patriarch of Workers’ Party and well-known for his fierce and confrontational style — indeed, not unlike the MM himself. Notwithstanding the unfairness of which JBJ had been perceived and painted by the ruling party (many would argue that JBJ was not a pure anti-PAP opposition), I guess what MM has in mind and wants to see is all opposition exists for the sake of opposing. He believes and wants Singaporeans to believe that opposition is inherently bad for the country. And of course this is at best a half truth and indeed no longer the truth — if it ever was.

Indeed, on his post-election press conference, commenting on a similar question, PM Lee said that “the PAP has always worked in the interest of Singaporeans. The Workers’ Party has said it will too. . . And we look forward to them presenting, arguing, offering alternatives and helping to improve the debate in a constructive manner, as Mr Low Thia Khiang and the Workers’ Party have undertaken to do.”

And, perhaps coincidentally, on the same day Low Thia Khiang, the secretary general of WP, said that WP does not “oppose for the sake of opposing.” It does not believe “believe in grandstanding . . . trying to show people that they are confrontational” simply because they are an opposition party. (And, thus, ironically, WP have been chided for being too soft against the PAP.)

So, to put it in Odin’s words in the Thor film, the mighty hammer can be used as “a weapon to destroy or as a tool to build.” Is an opposition which exists solely to oppose feasible? I would argue it is. The case in point is the recent 2010-11 Arab Spring which has toppled down the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The sheer negative force against the despotic regimes is a legitimate political force an sich. As Slavoj Zizek puts it, the revolutionaries “don’t have an opinion – they themselves are the truth of the situation in Egypt.” A weapon to destroy is needed at times. But Singaporeans won’t be impressed with a hammer which can only be used to destroy. It’s easy to criticize but it is an altogether different ball game when it comes to build something up. The prophetic call must come together with a regal mandate. To show that WP can be trusted as the real feasible alternative to the PAP, it must show how the mighty hammer can be used as a tool to build. It has built its track record in and through Hougang SMC since 1991. And now the voters have given them the chance to do it again in the neighboring and a significantly larger electorate: Aljunied GRC. The WP has seriously got their work cut out for them. Aljunied GRC’s population is six times larger than Hougang SMC. Given that Singaporeans’ political imagination is myopic to some extent, as the PAP is the only trusted brand so far and no other brand comes close to them, WP now has the chance to show that an alternative way for Singapore to go forward does exist.

On the other hand, if they didn’t do the job well, I think it will make the 2011 election a mere history to be remembered, as the voters will return to the good ol’ brand for the next few decades before the next catharsis. Sylvia Lim, chairman of WP, has said that the 2011 election is similar to the 1991 election, when the opposition parties won 4 seats in the parliament and 39% popular vote, the best performance of the opposition at that time. Indeed, the results so far have indicated that they are pretty similar to some extent (although, again, one must never discount the entirely different, psychological effect of an opposition finally winning a GRC, which has been seen as a bulletproof strategy of the PAP). But, look what happened after 1991. The ruling party responded swiftly, and its popularity rose again under the leadership of PM Goh, which reached its peak at 75% popular vote in 2001 (and that PM Lee has managed to swing it back by -15% in 10 years). The opposition parties are much stronger and more organized now, no doubt about that, but we shall never forget that although the PAP might be a sleeping giant now, it is still a giant! What happens if you wake up the giant? No fun at all. It will kick you back in the ass.

So, WP not only needs to prove that in the municipal level they can run a GRC well and in the national level they can work constructively for the sake of the whole nation, but they have a daunting prospect of facing a resurgence of the men in white. Of course, I suppose this kind of competition will be good for Singaporeans (after all, the government encourages competition in all walks of life, true or not?). But it makes the task doubly more difficult for WP to persuade Singaporeans of its vision that multi-party system (at least two for now) is the best way for Singapore to go. This is the clash of two different political visions altogether. The PAP believes in a de facto one-party system, where the opposition functions only as a feedback channel to the government (thus the NCMP and NMP schemes). WP believes that alternative voices in the parliament are essential for nation-building. It’s the clash between “father-knows-best” (which has evolved into “government-knows-best”) and “we-have-something-to-say” system. In 2011, the voters are willing to give a chance for a budding two-party system. And now it’s the time for WP to return the favor. The king might say that he doesn’t need the hammer, but I hope eventually he, too, will be convinced that the hammer is a fit companion to the king. It’s hammer time.

(Singaporeans, a resistant-to-change bunch they are, don’t believe in multi-party system — yet, as reflected in Punggol East SMC result, where the third candidate, from a weaker opposition party, only obtained 4.5% vote and hence lost his $16k deposit. Ouch.)


2 thoughts on “It’s hammer time

    1. septian Post author

      Less than one week after the election, two members of PAP Aljunied team, George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua had decided to retire from politics and then criticized the PAP (for being out of touch, never listen to the people, etc). Zainul Abidin Rasheed, another member of the team, didn’t retire but he, too, had criticized the party (esp. MM’s comment about the Malays in his recent book).

      I guess it shows how much the PAPians fear MM while they are within it.


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