Kopi-tiam pundits hedge bets on Singapore polls outcome

Home-grown brand Kopitiam (Strait Times)

Home-grown brand Kopitiam (Straits Times)

By Ivan Lim
Former AJA President, Contributor to AsiaN 

SINGAPORE: The kopi-tiam, Singapore’s well-known name for the coffee shop, is the go-to place in the city-state to get your latest update on engrossing political gossip. Freshly brewed events come alive, with arm-chair critics holding forth, in between sips of kopi-O (black) orteh-tarik (pulled tea), on politics of the day, the centre of attention at the moment being the coming general election.

A grass-roots leader told me: “The PAP (ruling People’s Action Party) will make a clean sweep of the polls,” said a voluble Vincent Samy (not his real name), shaking his head. “No chance for the Opposition.”

In the absence of pre-election polls, this extreme forecast is matched by another that holds that theelitist PAP may soon meet its Waterloo.

This scenario gained some credence following the Malay-tsunami election in Malaysia on May 9, 2018 when the Barisan National coalition helmed by United Malay National Organisation (Umno)was toppled by the Pakata Harapan (Alliance of Hope).
Kopi-tiam and social media pundits began spinning narratives that what happened in Malaysia could play out in Singapore too.Never mind that the circumstances, such as voters’ unhappiness over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state fund scandal that bedevilled Umno, were different.

To be sure, the astute pundits noted that the Malaysian electorate was willing to ditch the scandal-tainted Najib Razak government because they knew the new PH government taking over would be headed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Accordingly, to ensure that Singapore voters would feel confident to vote out the incumbent party, those calling for a tsunami-style change canvassed for a Singapore “Mahathir” to lead the charge against the PAP.

After discounting former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong,79, from that role as he is still Emeritus Senior Ministerin the government, they looked to well-respected former PAP veteran parliamentarian, Dr Tan Cheng Bock,80, to play the part. Like Dr Mahathir, Dr Tan was a medical practitioner, and he is equally outspoken.

In 2011, Dr Tan had contested the presidential elections against the PAP candidate, Dr Tony Tan, but lost by just 0.35 per cent of the votes. To keep up
his public profile and standing as a PAP critic, he helped coach opposition candidates contesting the 2011 and 2015 general elections which the PAP handsomely won.
In March 2019, Dr Tan launched his Progress Singapore Party, proclaiming he was coming out of retirement to serve the people and country. Even as Mr Goh, his former classmate and buddy, commented he had “lost his way” politically, Dr Tan   rapped the PAP for its “erosion of transparency, independence and accountability.”

In the light of the May 9, 2018 Malay-tsunami election in Malaysia, the fractured Opposition began to ponder whether the political ground in the city-state was also becoming ripe for change. If they combined resources under Dr Tan, they might be able to replicate Mahathir’s feat to overthrow the incumbent government.

The initial liberal democratic reforms pursued by the new Pakatan Harapan government, including abolition of the Seditions Act that allows for arrest and detention of dissidents, and of the death penalty, fell very much in line with Singapore opposition’s goals of changing similar repressive laws.

Picking up momentum, Dr Tan met leader of six opposition parties to explore the idea of a united front to challenge the PAP in the general election that must be called by April 2021 under the Constitution.

The prospect of a Pakatan Harapan-like opposition alliance led by Dr Tan was seen by kopi-tiam pundits as ready to be a potential game-changer in squaring off with the new fourth generation leaders being groomed to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s team.

Then came the unexpected shock resignation of Dr Mahathir on Feb 24 as the PH government fell apart over demands for the 94-year-old prime minister to set a definite timeline for handing over to Anwar Ibrahim,72, under their electoral pact.

There followed an intense jockeying for power that culminated in an unexpected  take-over by Muhyiddin Yassin,72, who led a breakaway PH party faction to  join forces with former foes in Umno and the Islamic Party of Malaysia.

Amid claims that a majority of Members of Parliament backed him to form a government, he was sworn in by the Agong (king) as Malaysia’s eighth Prime Minister on March 1.

Thereby hangs a tale of the element of surprise in politics. Even professional pollsters had been wide off the mark in their forecast of election or voting outcomes like in Brexit and the 2016 US presidential contest.
Don’t blame our amateur forecaster Vincent Samy for now hedging his bets on the outlook for the Singapore Opposition coalition even as the government gears up to hold the general election in the face of the constitutional deadline and defying the overhanging Corvid-19 “hurricane.”

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