On top of these there is the bigger picture - that of political strategy to gain and maintain power over the longer term. You have a bad strategy, you're going to spend a lot of time and money to get inferior outcomes.
The PAP govt deliberately designed a system with odds heavily stacked against the opposition and laden with political minefields that makes it easy for govt to dispose of opponents. For opposition to win, they have to overcome the pro-PAP media, upgrading for votes carrots, redefinition of electoral boundaries, GRC system etc. If you become prominent, you have to worry about attacks on your character and ability - they publicized Chiam See Tong so-so "O" level results to embarrass and discredit him, just last year they tried to link Png Eng Huat and Tan Jee Say with a few defunct companies to show they have poor management ability, they got Andrew Kuan's employers to speak out against his work performance to discredit him when he wanted to run for the presidency...the examples are numerous. The PAP govt moved the management of town councils from the HDB to the hands of elected MPs - the PAP has all the resources and experience to run these and argues that the opposition has none - giving more opportunity to take down the opposition's reputation using the MSM should they mismanage the town councils...the loss of millions in minibond investment by PAP run town councils was a non-issue, but the arrears in WP's AHTC caused by the termination of town council was a big issue - the ability to inflict damage is asymmetric. If some thing like AIM-PAP had occurred on the WP side, the WP would have been crushed.
If the opposition over-stretch themselves by accusing the govt of something that cannot be proven - most of the time nobody can prove intent - our defamation laws makes it easy for the PAP bankrupt opponents with limited financial resources. There is also the problem of a fearful, sometimes apathetic, population....if you take on the PAP system head on like JBJ did after he became an elected representative, in any other developed democratic country, if the govt had done what they did to JBJ, protests and marches would have erupted and the govt's hand would have been weakened. But the PAP had been able to jail socialists for multi-decades without trial in the past...and they could arrest and bankrupt opposition members without a whimper of protest from Singaporeans. You can't get Singaporeans to "Occupy" Raffles Place to make a statement despite having the highest inequality among developed countries - when thousands protested in countries where inequality is far lower than in Singapore. Members of the opposition who get repressed find themselves more or less alone in their fight...you will not see a groundswell of support emerging from the people. Even someone of JBJ stature had to end up selling his books alone at the street corner. In the 1997 election, JBJ's WP team attracted massive crowds like the ones we see at recent WP rallies. The WP team was narrowly defeated, When the PAP govt decided to go after members of the team, nobody could stop them - no massive crowds to stop the persecution.
For those who suggest that the WP fight the PAP harder on AIM, or use it as an isuue in the by election, you should remember 1997. Before the elections, there was the HPL saga in which some politicians received discounts for condos that was higher than other buyers. They tried to close the case by explaining that the units they bought were of inferior facing, odd shapes etc. the developer, HPL, confirmed this was so. Several members of the opposition refused to allow the govt to move on and the atmosphere for the 1997 election became acrimonious. The PAP concentrated their attacks on a member of the WP known as Tang Liang Hong [Link]accusing him of being a Chinese chauvinist and a threat to racial harmony. Tang was part of the WP Chang San GRC team with JBJ. The crowd turn out was massive during the rallies. They lost narrowly and the govt when after Tang who had to flee to Australia and bankrupted JBJ for remarks defending Tang during the election. Most of the characters in the PAP involved in this episode are still in power, the mechanisms that enabled them to cripple the opposition are still there.
A series of PAP missteps in various policies and the ability of the opposition to recruit good people have seen the fortunes of opposition parties rising again led again by the WP. To put things in perspective, the WP, today, has only won SMC and one GRC with 6 elected MPs out of 87. While this is the most any opposition party has held in Singapore for 4 decades, it is still a very small number. Not only small, we must not forget how fragile this is. While the WP is busy working hard to find ways to improve the management of the estates and identify cracks in govt policy, you can be sure their powerful opponent is also finding ways to discredit and weaken them - and they have the money and resources to succeed if given the smallest chance.
"I don't see any strong views or alternatives being presented by the opposition, whether it's the NCMPs or the elected MPs," - PM Lee taking a swipe at the WP.[Link]
In GE2011, MP Low and the WP campaigned to be the "co-driver" of the govt. If you remember his exact words, they said "the driver has to be slapped if he falls asleep". This is a very humble goal and the WP did just that after they got into parliament. They vigorously questioned the govt on all new policies introduced. A lot of the data we have today on things like scholarship for foreign students, manpower numbers, medical care cost etc resulted from questions from members of the opposition. They appear quiet only because the coverage on the main stream media is not complete. The one thing they have not done is challenge the govt on something major like a revamp of CPF. If you read their manifesto released during the 2006 elections and 2011 elections[Link], there are specific and major changes to the existing system. Given how things are unfolding in Singapore, the demand for change is rising and the electorate is getting impatient with the PAP and wants the "co-driver" to steer the driver in the right direction.
Right now with 1 SMC and 1 GRC, the WP have access to a decent pool of citizens they can interact with and learn about their problems. This will give them an insight to the changes that are needed in govt policy and put pressure on the govt to close the cracks. If the opposition can win more seats, they will have greater strength to push for changes. It is however pre-mature for the opposition in parliament to propose something like a major overhaul of the CPF system. Such ideas will be shot down as there are too few of them get it through. The other problem is there is an asymmetry of data, the govt in power have access to information not available to the opposition and can cherry pick data to counter their arguments. Take the example of an opposition MP who proposed that NS be reduced sometime in the 1990s. The minister in charge countered the idea by saying that experts in the SAF a shorter NS period would result in insufficient training resulting in higher casualties. The media portrayed the opposition MP as irresponsible for making such a proposal. Years later, the govt did reduce the NS duration to 2 years saying that new training methods no longer need 2.5 years to prepare a soldier.
In days leading to the nomination of candidates for PE, the SDP said they want their candidates to be in parliament to make policy proposals in housing and healthcare. This makes opposition supporters ask themselves if the WP is doing too little. All of us appreciate the SDP efforts to formulate policies and have them discussed public forums so that alternative ideas can be explored. However, to take these ideas to parliament with 81 PAP MPs and ministers waiting to tear it apart is another matter. The SDP healthcare proposal requires a 50% cut in defense spending - the is no expertise outside govt that is able to say how much our defense spending can be cut and a lot of data on healthcare costs etc is just not available to the public. There is a high risk of getting discredited when you take on such a big task with too few opposition MPs in parliament even when you're putting up a plan that is workable.
Although it is quite a few days since my last post, I've watching the PE by-election closely. A workable strategy for opposition to win a seat as demonstrated by by Chiam See Tong some 30 years ago. You don't need to mount some dramatic challenge against the PAP and you don't have to show yourself to be smarter (academically and otherwise) than your opponent to get votes - LKY release Chiam's O level results to it was inferior to Mah Bow Tan. What you need is to show is you're someone people can trust to put their interest above everything else. You don't have to promise them something you cannot deliver but you have to show that you understand the problems they are facing. Chiam took 3 elections to win his seat at a time when the PAP was extremely popular and held on for 27 years. Some opposition politicians today still do not understand that they should not fight battles they cannot win, give the opponent opportunity to hurt their credibility and sometimes they hurt their own credibility doing things they shouldn't do. One candidate in the current by-election paid youngsters to join him in walkabouts to artificially boost his image, but it defy common sense how he can expect not to caught by vigilant netizens and the media[Link] - that's bad strategy... spending money to achieve negative results.
I don't expect the opposition to take the Punggol East seat from the PAP due to the 4 corner fight unless the discontent at the ground has risen faster than I expected. This by-election like the many elections of the past holds important lessons for opposition parties and their supporters. You make progress only when you're able to learn, build on your strengths and stop repeating old mistakes. I am not sure what the opposition parties will look like 10 years from now, Where they will be is a function of their strategy - doing the right things at the right time, selecting the right battles to fight and avoiding the minefields that their powerful opponent, the PAP, has laid out. The wind has been blowing in the right direction for opposition parties for the last few years and perhaps until GE2016 due to bad policies of the PAP that will take time to fix, but the wind can also change direction. We all hope to see opposition parties put in the right strategies, like avoiding multi-corner fights, avoid pulling each other down to get on top and putting in place sensible effective strategies to win.