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A common manifesto, a common website and common activities. These were some of the ideas that were floated at the public forum held yesterday at the Copthorne Orchid Hotel. A panel of nine speakers took to the microphone and called for greater cooperation among the opposition parties.
Ranging from political party representatives to civil society actors and bloggers, the speakers grappled with the idea of opposition unity in a political environment dominated by the PAP.
The presentations started off with the political parties. The chairman of the Reform Party, Mr Ng Teck Siong, established by the late J B Jeyaretnam, branded the system in Singapore as totalitarian and mooted the idea of a common manifesto for the opposition.
Mr Sin Kek Tong took a swipe at the GRC system and labelled it a “Group Representation Conspiracy”. The chairman of the Singapore People’s Party said that apart from the opposition parties, civil society and the blogging community must share responsibility in helping to build up an opposition to the PAP.
Singapore Democrats chair, Mr Gandhi Ambalam, talked about the dictatorial system of the PAP and urged opposition to work closer together.
“Can we do a ‘Malaysia’?” asked Mr Jufrie Mahmood, referring to the unprecedented gains the Malaysian opposition made in the 2008 elections. He cited that parties as diverse as the Islamic PAS and the Chinese-based DAP had come together to offer the people an alternative platform.
“Why can’t we in Singapore do likewise?” he asked.
Lawyer and activist, Mr Chia Ti Lik spoke next and said that opposition cooperation must lead to a more assertive alternative to the PAP. But he warned that when parties come together, there is a danger of collective inactiviity.
Blogger Mr Ng E-jay pointed out that the blogging community should think of ways to make their views avaliable to the mainstream public as the mass media were still very much in the hands of the PAP.
The youngest speaker in the panel, Mr Seelan Palay, said that he would mobilise the youth in Singapore and work towards democracy: “That’s our promise to the opposition.”
He added: “What we want is for the opposition to promise that it will be more cohesive and focus on the common enemy.”
Financial activist Mr Tan Kin Lian said that it was important for the opposition to adopt a common set of values based on honesty and accountability, justice and fairness, a commitment to work for the people instead of for ourselves, and an attitude to be positive and constructive.
He added that the opposition should focus on educating the public about their rights and responsibilities as citizens, as well as the goals and alternatives of the opposition.
The last speaker was Dr Wong Wee Nam who stood for elections under the National Solidarity Party in 1997. He said that Singapore’s politics comprised of “one loud voice and many squeaks.” He echoed the view that fragmented groups cannot give rise to unity and urged opposition parties and NGOs to form a united front.
“If you come together, you do Singapore a great service. But if you keep separate, then you will not be of service to anyone,” said Dr Wong.
Following a short break, the session resumed with Q&A. Most of the comments expressed the need for greater unity amongst the opposition components. Mr Ramli wanted to know how news about the opposition could reach people like him and his friends who did not have ready access to the Internet.
With limited resources and little access to the mass media, this problem continues to plague the opposition in Singapore, Mr Jufrie responded, adding: “I should do more to get down to the void decks and engage our youths.”
Another questioner wanted to know how we could eradicate the fear among Singaporeans for voting for the opposition.
Dr Wong acknowledged that fear was still a problem and said that it lay with the serial numbers appearing on voting slips. He recounted how a young professional couple had told him that they had intended to vote for him in 1997 but balked at the last minute when their names were read out at the polling booth. He called on Singaporeans to overcome that fear.
One floor member drew applause when he said that he could have emigrated but chose to stay because he wanted to see democracy come to Singapore: “I want to see the end of the authoritarian system here and we should all do our part.”
The approximately 100 people who attended the forum were obviously keen to see greater cooperation among the opposition parties. The discussion was the first of its kind but it should not be the last.