A combined opposition force robust enough to face off with the PAP is preferred by supporters and some opposition parties.
Naturally, unity of the alternative is always desired in countries where the government is overwhelmingly dominant. Not a few, however, would argue that at the present moment, the attainment of a true united opposition in Singapore is a long way off.
So what are the root causes for this?
Absence of agreed methodology
It would not be surprising that many of the opposition supporters - or even opposition leaders - when advocating for "opposition unity", have no idea what the two words really mean.
There are many ways to come together - agreeing that this is desirable is but only the first step. You are still left with the challenge of agreeing on the methodology of unity. Unity can mean anything - from merger to avoiding three-cornered fights - but each means very different things. Furthermore, these may contradict one another - for example, you cannot have both a coalition and a merger - it has to be one or the other.
Should an alliance of parties come together with an eventual aim of merger, they have to agree upon it even before coming together and then work towards it. Having one partner harbour a secret intention of remaining loosely tied to its partners would not be healthy for the entire alliance aiming for merger in the long run.
Furthermore, it is pertinent to define what an alliance among key opposition parties - and not the entire opposition camp – would mean. Would, for example, welcoming any registered party as long as it is contactable constitute an alliance? Key initiators would have to be cautious about being too populist and inclusive - as an entity is always as good as its lowest common denominator or its weakest link.
Absence of commitment
Let’s face it - a lot of commitment is required to make any co-operation a success.
This is difficult to achieve for various reasons: incoming members add to the problem because they join different parties in almost equally-divided numbers, thereby making each party equally viable which satisfies its respective leaders that they can survive on their own.
Without ideology, small differences become magnified, and they are largely harder to bridge exactly because they are small – and because of their subjective nature. For example, opposition parties are divided on which one raises more pertinent issues or which party is more confrontational towards the PAP and so on. These are aspects that can be dismissed as long as the issues are addressed - but not in Singapore's case, because there is no overriding ideology for the cluster and direction of issues raised. This is not the common practice in politics here.
Absence of leading catalyst
Many political alliances have what is called a "pillar" or a significantly stronger leading party, which acts as a glue holding the group together. The UMNO holds the Barisan Nasional together, the KMT in Taiwan holds the Pan Blue Camp and same goes for the Australian Liberals-Nationals, where the Liberals call the bigger shot.
In Singapore, the most prominent opposition party - the Workers' Party - has not initiated such an arrangement nor has it accepted invitations to do so. . The rest of the parties are relatively equal in standing among themselves with none of them prominent enough to be the glue for any alliance or merged entities.
Absence of guaranteed success
One thing is for sure, at least in Singapore: opposition unity doesn't stand for "oppo-unity" (opportunity for short), pun intended.
When the PAP took power in 1959, it did so by itself. Ironically, being an opposition party, its more established opponents - SPA, Liberal Democrats and others - were the ones more concerned about coming together - failing spectacularly, without surprise.
After the Barisan Sosialis split from the PAP, it only struck a token alliance with Parti Rakyat, which did not win any seats. The only alliance in 1963 came in last in the elections among the big four players, which included the United People's Party.
When the SDP and WP became the main opposition parties in 1991 and 2011 respectively, setting new heights for winning an unprecedented amount of seats, they also achieved this without being allied to any other party.
On the other hand, the now-defunct United National Front of the seventies and the Singapore Democratic Alliance have not reached the same success. Forcing any two people who cannot work together to work together could turn out to be counter-productive.
Without any convincing proof that coming together necessarily means more seats won, it would be difficult to convince many that coming together of the opposition fraternity necessarily spells electoral success, which is the ultimate benchmark for political parties.
Absence of achievement
It might sound odd to Singaporeans that an alliance is more relevant when you have a certain amount of success than vice versa, but the truth is so indeed. This is because many a time, the parties which have elected Members of Parliament are forced to form usually a governing bloc but may also be an alternative bloc for practical purposes.
For example, if all opposition parties have no seats in Parliament as in the case of the Singapore opposition except WP, this scenario would not be relevant and hence not occur. Presently, the Workers’ Party does not need to court anyone since there is only one other non-WP (NC)MP. Imagine if WP had 25 seats and SPP had 5. WP would be compelled to court SPP because together the two parties would have a total of 30 seats - or more than one-third - to defeat Bills tabled by the PAP. Then you have opposition unity of WP-SPP.
In the UK, the pair of strange bedfellows - the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats - came together or they would face the risk of an immediate snap election in which the newly ousted Labour may get re-elected. In Japan, the fragmented opposition individually took on the dominant LDP for a long time before four major parties separately found a foothold in the Diet, which then merged to form the DPJ.
In Malaysia, the ruling BN began as a unity of parties already in the Dewan Rakyat and no one really bothered with parties without seats. At subsequent elections, some smaller parties within the BN lost their only seats but remained in the coalition. For them, party sovereignty takes a back seat when they have the opportunity of riding on a bigger party into the legislature.
In Singapore, not only are most opposition parties unrepresented in Parliament, and face prolonged difficulty in winning seats in elections, it also makes little difference to the players, in reality, whether they remain on their own or are part of an alliance. In short, they have nothing to lose from not doing so. Singaporeans, in any case, see no danger of missing anything given the present state the opposition parties are in.
In conclusion, where Singapore is concerned, an "opposition united" or a single [united] opposition party contesting the elections appears to remain an elusive target.
By Melvin Tan / Andrew Loh
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