Chan Jia Hui
Fans of Jin Yong’s martial arts novel, The Smiling Proud Wanderer, would probably have been familiar with the exploits of the story’s protagonist, Linghu Chong. Chong had his fortunes and misadventures and one of his fortunes (though it later became a source of troubles for him) was to receive the tutelage of the former Huashan grandmaster, Feng Qingyang. Feng Qingyang imparted to Chong a top level sword art – the nine swords of Dugu. This art has 9 different stances.
Each of the 9 stances is meant to counter different kinds of weapons, there is a stance to counter maces, another to counter spears and yet another to counter the whip. The second stance, the sword breaking stance, has an interesting concept in one of its moves, as you can see in this translation of the novel.
“Linghu Chong knew too well that he had no strength left with his arms. If he reached his sword out to block, his sword would be instantly knocked out of his grip. So seeing that the sword tip came toward his throat, without much thinking, he also thrust his sword toward Cong Buqi’s throat – a move that would end in a common ruin for both of them. His thrust was not specifically quick, but the positioning was simply dazzling – it was none other than the “Sword-breaking Stance” out of the Dugu Nine Swords. Cong Buqi was stunned. He had never anticipated such a sudden counter attack from the young man covered in mud. Out of desperation, he dived down the ground and rolled till he was over ten feet away, and finally was able to dodge the thrust. If he had come up with his solution only one second slower, he would not have survived it.”
English translation of The Smiling Proud Wanderer, courtesy of Lannyland
This concept of common ruin is quite a popular one. However, I will revisit this later.
Some time ago, an announcement of Workers’ Party (WP) intention to contest Tampines GRC created quite a stir. Some were of the opinion that since WP is the best performing opposition party, it deserves a crack at Tampines. Others further advance this position, claiming that WP is in a prime position to be the other counterpart of the PAP in what they believe to be an evolution towards a potential two-party system in Singapore.
In addition, some commentaries which obviously took on a pro-WP flavour suggested that the National Solidarity Party (NSP), which contested Tampines GRC during the last elections, already had their chance and screwed up with 42.78% of the votes. And there are others who couldn’t resist a rub of salt in NSP’s wounds, claiming that Mr Mah Bow Tan was a less popular figure, and thus, “easier meat” than Mr George Yeo and yet NSP could only afford a paltry return.
Let us wind the clock back 11 years ago. The WP had set its sights on Aljunied GRC. What was the end result? A walkover win for the PAP because WP failed to file complete nomination forms. Hence, even WP also has its cock-ups. In fact, it was an even bigger cock-up that handed victory on the platter to the PAP, which makes NSP’s underperformance in 2011 pale in comparison.
Yet, opposition parties realise the importance of avoiding three-corner fights, which could only benefit the PAP. This has always been the mutual understanding between opposition parties. Hence, can we say that WP has been the beneficiary of this mutual understanding in that it has been allowed to contest Aljunied the first time in 2006 and subsequently in 2011 in peace without the potentially destructive three-corner fight? Hell, yes.
In 2001, WP was at its low point as it emerged from the post-Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ) era, where the latter had internal disagreements within the party. Credit should be given where credit is due as WP has come thus far today, but it is important not to lose sight of this important mutual understanding between opposition parties. Imagine what would have happened if another opposition party had sent a team to contest Aljunied in 2006 and 2011. Sylvia Lim probably wouldn’t have become Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) and George Yeo would still be our Minister for Foreign Affairs.
Why did Sylvia announce so early ahead of time WP’s intention to contest Tampines GRC? Was NSP too wishy-washy about signalling its intention to contest the Hougang by-election that prompted Sylvia to announce the intention early? Thus, was it meant as a covert threat to force NSP to avoid Hougang so that it will not suffer a reprisal in future in Tampines where WP may possibly send a team there?
I really hope this is the case. Furthermore, now that NSP has declined contesting the Hougang by-election, it would be regrettable if WP proceeds to carry out its intention. I do not find it surprising if NSP naysayers suggest that the party should step aside and let WP contest Tampines…let the better man contest, as they say.
Tampines is to NSP as to what Aljunied is to WP. NSP obviously has it in its vision to capture the GRC one day. However, in the event of WP clearly demonstrating an intention of contesting Tampines, is NSP really at a losing end? My answer is no. In fact, the ball is actually in NSP’s court, and I will argue this using an analogy from the sword-breaking stance of Dugu Nine Swords as brought up earlier.
If NSP desires so, it can also issue a counter threat – send a team to Aljunied GRC, yes, so Sylvia will be staring at the prospect of a three way contest, and at the possibility of losing her Aljunied seat. If things escalate to this level, it will be the most regrettable scenario, but the principles of this move is that when faced with the threat of common ruin, the aggressor will probably think twice about continuing with his attack. This was why when Cong Buqi duelled with Chong, when the latter utilised such a move from the sword-breaking stance, it made Cong perform a desperate dodge and avoid a ruinous situation for the both of them.
What are the NSP’s chances if they do indeed send a team to Aljunied GRC in retaliation for WP’s insistence on contesting Tampines? You can argue that NSP a little bit like WP years ago, with a new secretary-general in Miss Hazel Poa at the helm. Poa, was a former overseas scholar in the administration service of Singapore’s Civil Service. Having been involved in personnel policies in the civil service, she is no stranger to policy making. A visit to her blog will see her active engagement of government policies, and in one instance, she eloquently argued against WP’s suggested nationalised transport policies.
If we analyse WP’s current margins at Aljunied, its 54.72% versus PAP’s 45.28% is not really a robust lead. A 65%-35% margin is a healthier one that is less susceptible to disruption in the event of a three-horse race. A lot of people may think that even if NSP contests Aljunied, it will be blown away from the contest. That is not really true. The ones, who can make or break a party in Aljunied, or anywhere else in Singapore for that matter, are the middle ground voters which make up a sizable chunk. No one in his right frame of mind should underestimate Poa of NSP. If she and her team come up with good credible policies, she may just convince a segment of middle ground voters to vote for NSP, and this could be enough to end WP’s tenure.
If we believe Sylvia’s claims about having the personnel to contest Tampines, it is safe to assume that WP may have more numbers in its ranks. Instead of creating a row at Tampines, why not better utilise these numbers in a think tank unit?
The reason for my suggestion is simple – I consider WP a featherweight in the policy-making arena. Pro-WP apologists may claim that WP holds the most seats in parliament, but I argue that there is more to it to policy-making than it meets the eye. Good policies come from engagement of stakeholders on the ground, having a good team of researchers to collect and process data, etc. This is why in many first world democracies, major political parties have at least one think tank attached or if not, affiliated to them. And these think-tanks have produced ground-breaking work in policy-making.
For example, in terms of healthcare debate, it is the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) who is making the best progress among the opposition. The party who had members having been embroiled in a number of law suits in the past has focused its efforts towards policies. Among all the opposition parties, none, not even WP, produced anything more substantial than Mr Tan Jee Say’s New Economy paper. Tan contested as an SDP candidate.
As the ground becomes more sophisticated, the demand for good policies will inevitably increase. WP can no longer remain a featherweight in the policy debate. Keeping quiet, and not taking the same approach of organising policy forums and actively engaging the citizenry like other opposition parties is going to hurt the party in the long run. Its 2011 elections tagline “Towards a first world parliament” is going to sound nothing more than a mere Motherhood rhetoric if it has no first world policies to offer.
Going back to the issue of Tampines, NSP has started on a fresh slate with Poa at the helm less than a year ago. NSP do deserve another shot, and for it to benefit, it requires mutual understanding and cooperation among members of the opposition. Let Poa and the others continue the work at Tampines. NSP has seen good additions like Poa’s husband, Mr Tony Tan Lay Thiam, Miss Jeanette Aruldoss Chong and Miss Nicole Seah.
If Sylvia together with the likes of WP insist on Tampines, then in my opinion there is no choice but to utilise the “sword breaking stance” aimed at the threat of common ruin at Aljunied. It is a threat aimed to get WP to seriously consider against disregarding the interests of other opposition parties. Although WP is the best performing opposition party so far, it still needs the cooperation of other political parties to retain its seats, which means avoiding three-cornered fights.
The risk WP is taking with Sylvia’s statement on Tampines is the loss of goodwill. And contrary to what others commonly believe, the ball is actually in NSP’s court on how to counteract WP’s Tampines ambition. WP has more to lose, 5 seats to be exact, and will end up with a bloodier nose of the two. Yes, so Sylvia and her WP mates if they ever read this essay will know of the “sword breaking stance”, which will hopefully send a warning about wanting to contest Tampines during the next elections. It is not too late to retract.
Photo courtesy of the Workers’ Party.