Comment: As PSP's new Sec-Gen, will Leong Mun Wai pivot away from provocateur role?

Which way will he go?

Sulaiman Daud | April 16, 2023, 10:16 PM

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Well, that was never in doubt.

This was after news emerged that 73-year old Francis Yuen, erstwhile Secretary-General of the Progress Singapore Party, was looking to step down from his post.

With founder Tan Cheng Bock, 82, seemingly signalling that he will take a step back (he said that he will "change gear" when he stepped down as the Sec-Gen in 2021), that left only one plausible younger leader, who had been PSP's assistant secretary general previously.

In fact, he was Yuen's predecessor as Asst. Sec-Gen.

Step up, Leong Mun Wai.

Change at the helm

The PSP has gone through several leadership changes since its relatively recent inception in 2019. Leong, 64, is the third PSP Sec-Gen. Contrast that with the PAP with its much longer history and just four Sec-Gens (and one of those only serving for 21 days).

Their first party Sec-Gen, Tan Cheng Bock, served for two years before stepping aside for Yuen in 2021. Yuen himself served for about two years.

Will Leong's tenure be any different?

Keeping hold of talent

One of Leong's top priorities as PSP chief has to be preparing for the next General Election (GE) and reducing the turnover within the party.

While change is a constant and new blood is usually a good thing, PSP has gone through an eyebrow-raising amount of churn.

In its early days, prominent members like Michelle Lee (former PSP vice-chair) and Ravi Philemon left the party, and set up their own.

Another member, Brad Bowyer, left the party over a controversial social media post a year later.

Youth head Terence Soon, a GE 2020 candidate, also resigned from his post and the party, citing employment and family reasons.

Kayla Low, who was a CEC member and party Treasurer, also resigned for similar reasons in 2021.

PSP or career opportunity?

During its 2021 CEC meeting, six new members were elected to the CEC. Three members stepped down, namely Yuen, Wang Swee Chuang (who was PSP's Vice-Chair) and Jess Chua (the head of the party's Youth Wing).

Leong has a double-headed challenge in front of him. The first is to assure continuity and stability in terms of CEC leadership positions.

The second is to make the PSP a place where members don't feel they have to choose between their party duties and their careers.

Yuen's situation, in particular, encapsulates both challenges as he left the top job in the party for an employment opportunity.

Regardless of individual circumstance, the optics aren't good for PSP, especially if they are looking to recruit new talent. But perhaps Leong can turn that around.

High risk, high reward

Much has been made of Leong's combative style as a parliamentarian. Former Nominated Member of Parliament and associate law professor Eugene Tan noted in a Straits Times column that Leong's appointment could herald a more "confrontational" style of politics.

Observers of the 14th Parliament of Singapore cannot have failed to notice the many, many verbal battles Leong has waged against the incumbent PAP members, on subjects from immigration to Keppel OM.

Bruising wars of words in the House is not new to Singaporean politics, as older Singaporeans who witnessed JB Jeyaretnam versus Lee Kuan Yew can attest.

With JBJ's Workers' Party heir, Pritam Singh, opting for a less abrasive approach, Leong appears to have taken up the mantle.

Leong has won supporters for his preferred tactics, as any casual glance at his social media accounts will demonstrate.

Apologies and retractions

But a pattern of making unsubstantiated allegations has landed Leong in hot water in the past.

Leong edited a March 2023 Facebook post after alleging that Minister K Shanmugam had brought up the Parti Liyani case to "muddy the waters".

In 2022, Leong apologised for comments in a Facebook post that impugned the Speaker of Parliament, Tan Chuan-Jin, and deleted the post.

In Jan. 2021, Leong made allegations that some children in schools were subject to vaccination differentiated safe management measures (VDS), which Education Minister Chan Chun Sing confirmed was not government policy.

Leong admitted that he had not verified whether the allegation was true, nor did he find out what school this was supposed to have taken place before bringing it up in Parliament.

Winning seats

As one of the party's two representatives in Parliament, Leong's fiery approach may have been an advantage in drawing eyeballs and public attention to the PSP brand.

Many political parties around the world have followed a similar tactic. For example, during the U.S. Obama Administration, then Vice-President Joe Biden hammered opponent Mitt Romney while President Obama himself remained above the fray.

But that's the idea -- the party leader remains elevated above the rough and tumble while others roll up their sleeves and do the brawling. Other parties have gone the other way instead, with the leader (like Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim) no stranger to the odd verbal clash.

Will Leong pivot as his new role demands, or will he continue his confrontational style?

There are upsides and downsides to both.

Ultimately, the PSP's goal has to be winning more seats in Parliament, whether in SMCs or taking a GRC, as WP has done.

Leong may choose to continue in his bellicose manner, but he may be making the Trumpian mistake of appealing to his core support while turning away the greater mass of voters.

And the choices are not many for the PSP, as they only have two representatives in parliament.

For instance, will his parliamentary partner and new PSP vice-chair Hazel Poa take on a more prominent and confrontational role?

Starting on April 17, there will be a debate in Parliament on the President's Address and the Addenda from various ministries.

Many eyes will be on Leong to see which path he and PSP will take.

Top image from PSP social media.