How have the PAP, WP & PSP fared since GE2020?

We ask several political observers for their views.

Joshua Lee | August 21, 2021, 08:58 AM

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The 2020 General Election was a unique affair for Singapore and Singaporeans. We went to the polls without experiencing any election rallies.

The Worker's Party (WP) gained a bigger voice in Parliament by capturing Sengkang GRC, and having its chief Pritam Singh being appointed as the official Leader of the Opposition.

The newly-formed Progress Singapore Party (PSP) also managed to get into Parliament by taking up two Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats — filled by members Leong Mun Wai and Hazel Poa.

The People's Action Party (PAP) remained the dominant ruling party with 83 out of 93 seats in Parliament. And while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called it a "clear mandate", the result was pretty bruising: The loss of ten seats was PAP's highest since Singapore's independence. It was also the first time the party lost two GRCs.

Now more than a year on, the fanfare of the 2020 General Election has died down but the parties are without a doubt already sowing the seeds for the next election. But how are they doing?

We ask political observers Elvin Ong and Howard Lee, and Mothership's correspondent Sulaiman Daud to assess the parties' progress in three key areas: Performance in Parliament, social media outreach, leadership succession.

But before we start, it's worth noting that an assessment of all three parties has to take into account the uneven playing field.

PAP, being the incumbent party can draw on massive resources, like its grassroots movement and the public service, which are not available to WP and PSP.

The ruling party has resources like grassroots organisation The People's Association, which give it an added advantage. Image via People's Association/Facebook.

Lee, who is a lecturer at Murdoch University in Perth and former editor at socio-political site The Online Citizen, said that he does not evaluate the PAP on the same scale as the WP or PSP because he has much higher expectations of the former as the incumbent government.

Even between opposition parties, there is some disparity.

Ong, who is an assistant professor from the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences said that one has to consider three things when assessing both the WP and PSP:

"Their experience (which WP has and PSP does not have), their size (both parties are minute relative to the PAP), and their resources (both have much less resources relative to the PAP, but WP is better resourced than the PSP)."

1. Performance in Parliament

PAP's performance in Parliament

Between Lee and Sulaiman, the perception of PAP's performance in Parliament was quite varied.

Lee said that the PAP's performance in Parliament lacks "the conviction it needs to inspire confidence", adding that he had expected the party to push for "new and inventive approaches to address key post-pandemic challenge".

He gave the example of Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng, whose approach of promoting trade at all cost was too traditional. Instead, Lee said that he could have talked about how trade should evolve in the face of current internal needs and external trends.

On the other hand, Sulaiman said that in the face of the pandemic and poorer responses from other countries like the U.S., UK, and India, the PAP has done well.

"They have not been perfect (worker dorms were a big blind spot) but their pre-planning meant that we had a head start on vaccines and the restrictions, while damaging, have not tanked the economy either."

He also pointed out that the PAP dominated discussions, with the new crop of MPs frequently making speeches and contributing to debate. PAP ministers also delivered impactful ministerial statements on key topics including the Ethnic Integration Policy and free trade agreements.

WP's performance in Parliament

All three agree that WP has done well in Parliament.

"At the minimum, its MPs have filed probing questions on a range of issues and have also raised important suggestions during the budget debates," said Ong.

Furthermore, he pointed out that WP MPs have motivated debate on important topics of the day, for instance, filing adjournment motions on sexuality education in schools and healthcare costs, as well as a full motion on the criminal justice system.

Sulaiman praised the WP for laying out its position on a host of issues, from the economy to defence, during the Budget, and focusing on bread-and-butter issues (like petrol duties and CDC vouchers) to bigger ideals (use of reserves, rights of foreign workers) but still backing the government of the day on matters that need to be moved quickly:

"They have backed the government on important issues, such as Covid-19 bills. Where possible, they have set out their differences with the PAP, such as the use of TraceTogether data or a review of the Ethnic Integration Policy"

Lee singled out new WP MP Gerald Giam, praising him for his professionalism, which he attributed to Giam's former experience as an NCMP.

He also praised the WP for maintaining its brand of "urgent progressiveness", evidently by pushing for policies like gender-neutral parental leave, income-contingent student loans, and, of course, minimum wage.

PSP's performance in Parliament

Both Ong and Lee agree that the two new NCMPs, Poa and Leong, have held their own in Parliament despite their lack of experience and access to information.

"While they have not filed any adjournment motion or motions, they have asked important questions in Parliament, and also participated adequately in the budget debates," said Ong.

More recently, they also pressed the PAP to make ministerial statements and clarifications on free trade agreements, the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (or CECA), and PMET jobs in Singapore.

However, Lee opined that both Leong and Poa did not make full use of the CECA debate to state the party's unequivocal position on immigration and population issues clearly.

"Leong Mun Wai appears to be leading the party's agenda in Parliament, but their position seems to be cast in opposition to the government, rather than standing on its own merit."

Sulaiman agreed that Leong did not come off looking good during the CECA debate, where he refused to give a clear answer on basic points laid out in the text of the CECA agreement.

He also pointed out that Leong's responses were often long and rambling, and making points that don't seem relevant.

2. Social media outreach

PAP's social media outreach

Lee said that the PAP's social media performance must be evaluated as the government's social media performance because various ministries are responsible for communicating the policies of the government of the day.

"On this count, the government's use of social media as a tool to whip and cudgel public opinion into its preferred form — the Hari Raya wedding standee incident was a clear example of this effort — leaves much to be desired."

For Sulaiman, the PAP's issue with social media is its lack of consistent social media strategy.

"So you'll have someone like Baey Yam Keng on TikTok while Shamsul Kamar makes a gaffe on Facebook."

WP's social media outreach

In general, the WP is a "well-seasoned team of communicators", said Ong.

It has proven to be particular adept at providing regular and engaging communications across various social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, as well as news alert platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram.

While the WP has fewer resources, its social media presence rivals the PAP, said Sulaiman, adding that it channels are regularly updated after each Parliament sitting and also when a big issue seizes the national consciousness.

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A post shared by The Workers' Party, Singapore (@wpsgp)

Lee further pointed out that members like Jamus Lim and Raeesah Khan have imbued public issues with their personal take, which endears them to the public.

"Like it or not, this draws them closer on a personal level to their audiences, and reflects the WP's confidence in using digital platforms since GE2020."

PSP's social media outreach

"PSP has more to go in terms of the consistency and quality in engaging its supporters through their various communication channels," said Ong, pointing out that the party's WhatsApp and Telegram channels were last updated in April and June respectively.

The party also needs to better curate its content on YouTube, he added.

"Currently, it is a mish-mash of parliamentary speeches, TikTok videos, event speeches, and awkward music videos.

The personability that Lee praised in WP parliamentarians is not present in PSP. He noted that both Leong and Poa depend too much on the party line.

"While this lends a professional appeal, it doesn't endear them to the people in a way that social media allows them to."

Sulaiman also said that PSP founder Tan Cheng Bok's "hypebeast" persona on the GE2020 campaign trail was quite a hit among voters but it seems to have worn off.

3. Leadership succession

PAP's leadership succession

The PAP is currently plagued by the issue of selecting a new prime minister. And while the three frontrunners — Ong Ye Kung, Lawrence Wong, and Chan Chun Sing — have put up a united front, one wonders why they haven't settled the issue, said Sulaiman.

According to Lee, the issue lies in how the 4G leadership team appears too stiff and by-the-book, leaving the impression that they are unable to stand on their own:

"This is perhaps the single greatest impediment to the PAP's succession plan — it is not just a matter of who leads, but who is different enough to demonstrate the one true attribute Singaporeans so desperately need from their government now: The attitude, aptitude and inventiveness to brave new challenges."

WP's leadership succession

Ong praised the WP's Central Executive Committee (CEC) for having a good balance of experienced and new faces, including four females, four ethnic minorities and all the new Sengkang GRC MPs.

Lee called the WP a breath of fresh air since GE2020, and while the WP is currently appears to be slightly conservative to appeal to more of the majority, he felt that WP chief Pritam Singh embodies an " independent streak and simmering desire to try new approaches" which might translate into refreshing takes on government policies in the future.

PSP's leadership succession

While the PSP has a generally balanced CEC (five females and only two ethnic minorities), Ong said that recent reports of PSP members being unhappy with Leong's speeches reflect that internal communications are lacking.

On the other hand, no one in the party has been able to fill the space that founder Tan Cheng Bock left when he stepped back, said Lee, and hence, the party doesn't seem to be heading in a clear direction.

"This has little to do with handing over the leadership to a specific person — as a new party, we can expect the PSP to take some time to sort it out. The question is one of actualising the PSP persona."

On public perception

On the issue of public perception, trust in the Singapore government is consistently high.

Sulaiman said that the ruling party's effective Covid-19 response and their careful managing of sensitive issues like racism and immigration have "struck all the right note so far" and managed to reassure the "silent majority".

However Lee pointed out that trust in government might not mean the same thing in Singapore as it does in other societies.

"It is more accurate to say that Singaporeans trust the government and the opposition parties alike to keep things running smoothly, be it the economy or the town councils. This is unfortunate, as it sets a rather low bar for political performance, not to mention political excellence."

Using the example of the TraceTogether privacy issue in January this year, he said that Singaporeans "opted for the path of least resistance, so long as both the government and the opposition do what is necessary to keep us safe from the pandemic" instead of demanding for accountability and privacy protection.

On the Worker's Party, Ong said that the party provides a textbook example which other opposition parties in Singapore can emulate.

"Few people recognize that what opposition parties can do in a dominant party system like ours is largely circumscribed by what the dominant party allows it to do," he said.

"More importantly, few people recognize the extensive degree to which the dominant party controls the narrative, institutions, and resources. Lastly, opposition party strategy are also circumscribed by what they perceive citizens will accept, who in turn take their cue from the dominant party."

Top image: Mothershp file photo

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