WP did not do as well in GE2015 as they would hope to. They were looking to increase the number of WP MPs to 20. Before polling day, judging by the comments online and the massive turn out at their rallies, one would be forgiven for thinking that WP did have a decent chance of achieving their goal. Instead, on polling day, they lost one MP and the number of WP MPs was reduced to six. They saw their vote share drop from GE2011.
While the reasons for WP losing ground was probably due to a nationwide swing toward PAP, this loss of ground does have very real practical implications about the future for WP. It cannot keep depending on Hougang to send its members into parliament. What can WP do to keep it a viable opposition party? I suggest the following seven ways
Be good town councillors
While it is true that the primary duty of MPs in most other countries is to make laws, the reality in Singapore is that MPs are also expected to manage municipal issues. WP may hope that this is not the reality, but, for whatever reasons, that is what Singaporean voters have come to expect. No point trying to argue against this reality. Better to accept it and perform the tasks of being town councilors well.
This means that WP will have to sort out the accounts of the town council as best as possible. I think most Singaporeans do understand that there may have been some issues during the handing over in 2011 and may forgive the WP for not being able to sort out the accounts because of those handing over issues.
That said, I think Singaporeans expect WP to be completely above reproach regarding related party transactions. I think Singaporeans expect WP to have proper systems in place to handle cheques, get the best value for money when awarding contracts, and transfer money to the sinking funds promptly. Other than the opening statements of the accounts, which, as Low Thia Khiang pointed out in his rally speech, I think Singaporeans expect every other aspect of the accounts to be clear and beyond question.
Bread and butter issues matter to Singaporeans. And one of the bread and butter issues is precisely the condition of the estate we live in. Therefore, for municipal issues (e.g. estate cleanliness, corridor lights, lifts), WP must ensure that things are working well. If possible, bring about some estate upgrading. Keep the residents in the area they are MPs of happy with the estate.
Be master social workers
In addition to being good town councilors, Singaporeans expect our MPs to be master social workers. I cannot emphasize enough that most of us do not care much for abstract notions of democracy and human rights. What we do care about are tangible bread and butter issues.
When we face issues such as having bills that we cannot pay, having difficulty finding jobs, not being able to get into the schools of our choice, we expect our MPs to be able to put up credible effort to help us. We expect our MPs to sort out our issues with our neighbours, and even our families. When we see elderly or less advantaged people in our neighbourhood facing whatever difficulties, we expect our MPs to extend a warm, gentle helping hand.
It does not matter that PAP, with its control over various government institutions (e.g. PA, grassroots organisations), may have put numerous obstacles in the way of WP. Singaporeans still expect WP MPs to be master social workers and help solve their bread and butter issues.
Do a great job in Parliament
In parliament, the WP MPs should ask hard questions. It is not enough to have high attendance rates. It is not enough to have spoken up a lot. Quality does indeed matter more than quantity. WP will need to get together teams of people to research and draft speeches. Ensure that speeches are consistent and cannot be perceived as flip-flopping. Anticipate the reactions and questions from PAP MPs and work out reasonable responses.
More than just asking questions, WP MPs should move motions for debate on important issues. Even then-NMP Mr Viswa Sadasivan has done so. His motion got a heated discussion in Parliament, getting even the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew to speak in Parliament. In so doing, Mr Viswa Sadasivan gained much respect from Singaporeans.
Lastly, WP MPs should introduce a (few) Private Member’s Bill. Ideally, these bills should benefit Singaporeans in a tangible way. If that is not possible, at least these bills should be seen to be beneficial for the long-term interests of Singapore. These could include bills for electoral reforms (e.g. getting rid of the GRC system). Even if the chances of these bills passing are slim, it shows that at least WP MPs are willing and capable of introducing bills.
Focus on one more GRC and a few SMCs
I believe that WP was too ambitious in GE2015. It overstretched itself by aiming for Marine Parade GRC and East Coast GRC at the same time. By doing so, it had spread its talents too thinly. It also reflected what some people think to be arrogance.
In the next GE, unless for whatever reasons, there is palpable anger against the PAP that is stronger than those in the lead up to GE2011, WP should focus keeping Hougang and Aljunied and aim for one more GRC and perhaps a couple of SMCs. This concentrates the talent and resources of WP. Also, it avoids a “by-stander” effect, where voters in one GRC think that it is ok for them not to vote WP because voters in another GRC can do it to send WP candidates into parliament. In fact, I believed that this is precisely the strategy that helped WP win Aljunied – voters then believed that if they had not voted for WP, then there really may not be any opposition MPs.
Walk the ground early
For the areas that the WP wants to make some headway in, their potential candidates need to start walking the ground early. Yes, there is a possibility that the electoral boundaries may be redrawn, SMCs disappear and GRCs broken up, and all the hard work of walking the ground early may go down the drain. But it is wishful thinking to expect Singaporeans to accept someone they have not seen, have not gotten to know, have not gotten to like as a person, as their MP.
So WP should go out and knock on doors starting from now. WP should start talking to people in other constituencies. WP should find creative ways to organize events that benefit people in the constituencies that it wants to make headways in. Get to know the people in those constituencies. Let the people get to know and like WP and WP’s potential candidates as early as possible.
Retain and continue to attract good members to put up as candidates
WP has managed to attract great candidates so far. He Ting Ru, Leon Perera and Daniel Goh have gained much traction amongst Singaporeans. I hope these candidates will continue to stay in WP and keep working the ground.
In addition to these very capable candidates, I would hope to see WP attract two other groups of people to be candidates.
Firstly, I hope to see WP attract candidates who have significant NGO/VWO background. PAP did well in attracting Louis Ng as a candidate. It breaks the stereotype of PAP candidates. That really helped PAP improve its image. Having a candidate of this sort of background would be helpful because this person should have the track record of galvanizing people to help out certain segments of society in different ways that could inspire trust in people.
Secondly, I hope to see WP attract candidates who are not well-educated but are successful businessmen nonetheless. It seems that our parliament is short of such people to represent a segment of Singapore who took an alternative route to success. I believe that this type of candidate can offer very useful perspectives on policy making.
Be humble and gracious
For whatever reasons, Singaporeans have come to perceive WP to be arrogant. In 2011, people voted for WP because they felt that the PAP was getting too big for its britches. In 2015, it seems that people felt that WP was suffering from the very syndrome that turned them away from the PAP. I know of voters who voted for WP in 2011 and voted for PAP precisely because they wanted to send a signal to WP to not be arrogant. WP should think of why people consider this way and how it can rectify this issue.
WP and its supporters also need to learn to be gracious. The jeering at the nomination centres and the vitriol hurled at PAP at the WP rallies turn swing voters off. To win over swing voters, WP will need to stop appearing to be divisive and fear mongering. Daniel Goh’s post GE Facebook post was a prime example of what needs to be done.
WP has its task cut out. It faces considerable headwinds. But for the long-term interests and viability of Singapore, I hope that WP will rise to the challenge and come back even stronger in the next GE.