Former govt stalwart seeks to form new party

SINGAPORE: A former stalwart of Singapore’s long-ruling government and ex-presidential candidate said yesterday he is seeking to form a new party ahead of elections expected as early as this year.

Analysts said the move by Tan Cheng Bock, who almost beat the ruling party’s de facto candidate in the 2011 presidential race, could represent a challenge to the government’s dominance of the political system.

The People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled the affluent city-state since 1959 and has a tight grip on power. The forthcoming election, which they are widely expected to win, must be held by 2021 – but speculation is mounting it will be this year.

This file photo taken on August 28, 2011 shows Singaporean presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock (2nd left) greeting his supporters as he waits for the results of the presidential elections at Jurong east Stadium in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Tan’s move will heap extra pressure on the government, however, with the poll coming at a sensitive time as the country’s founding Lee family prepares to hand over the premiership to a new generation of leaders. Announcing he had applied Wednesday to register the new group, called the “Progress Singapore Party”, Tan said the move was out of a “sense of duty” to address concerns of ordinary Singaporeans.

He said 12 people had filed the application, including other former ruling party members.

“Over the years a group of us have been walking the ground, meeting many Singaporeans from all walks of life,” said the medical doctor, 78, who was a ruling party lawmaker for over two decades.

Tan said he decided to form his own party despite offers from other groups, but added that “we will extend our hand of co-operation in the future”.

His return to politics may help revive Singapore’s fragmented opposition. Several groups have been trying with little success to make headway against the PAP for years, with The Workers’ Party the only one to have won any parliament seats.

They have won six, compared to the ruling party’s 82.

Last year, local media reported that seven opposition parties discussed the possibility of forming a coalition headed by Tan.

Lee Morgenbesser, a Southeast Asia expert from Griffith University in Australia, said the move was “significant, mainly because Tan Cheng Bock has been such an influential PAP figure”.

“It could provide a legitimate alternative to the PAP,” he said, but cautioned this was unlikely to happen immediately.

Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert from John Cabot University, said the important question now was whether Tan “works for fostering greater unity in the opposition as a whole and whether he can continue to attract support from the PAP’s political base”.

“The opposition is highly unlikely to win government, but the chance of strengthening opposition representation in parliament has gained traction,” she added.

Under the PAP, Singapore has become one of the world’s wealthiest societies and the party still enjoys solid support.

But critics accuse them of tactics such as gerrymandering and seeking to bankrupt opponents through civil lawsuits to maintain their hold on power. – AFP