Monday, September 5, 2011

SDP's new committee under scrutiny

Tessa Wong - The Straits Times

WHAT does the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) election of a new central executive committee (CEC) say about its future direction?

Political observers are divided on this question.

The new CEC, formed two weeks ago, comprises a mix of old and new faces. Mr Jufrie Mahmood, a veteran opposition member, is now its chairman, while Mr Vincent Cheng, a former detainee and newcomer to opposition politics, is vice-chairman.

Civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha, another newcomer to opposition politics, has been promoted to treasurer.

Mr John Law, another newcomer, fills in Dr Wijeysingha's previous post as assistant treasurer.

Among the old faces: Dr Chee Soon Juan and Mr John Tan remain as secretary-general and assistant secretary-general respectively, and Ms Chee Siok Chin and Mr Mohamed Isa as CEC members.

Former vice-chairman Francis Yong is now a CEC member.

Excluded from the CEC line-up are Dr Ang Yong Guan and Ms Michelle Lee, who were among a number of highly qualified former establishment moderates who recently joined the party to contest the May General Election.

Dr Ang is a psychiatrist and retired army colonel, and Ms Lee a former Monetary Authority of Singapore officer.

The two of them, together with Dr Wijeysingha and Mr Tan Jee Say, formed the SDP's A-team in the General Election and stood in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. Mr Tan quit the party in July to run for president.

The prominence of these candidates played a part in attracting more young professionals with moderate liberal views to the SDP, both during and after the election.

Dr Ang and Ms Lee were among those in this moderate group, and some speculated that they might take up leadership positions in the SDP.

But the two told The Straits Times that they did not wish to run for the CEC, preferring to be involved in newly set-up subcommittees.

Ms Lee said she also needed more time to concentrate on her family and work. She currently teaches at a private school.

'(The party leaders) discussed with us, and said there was a two-track system. They said they wanted to see how things go. And it's vice versa. We also want to find out where we can best contribute,' said Dr Ang.

SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan said that the SDP has seen a 'dramatic expansion' of its ranks, and hence now needs a larger structure to ensure 'a high quality of management across all the party's work streams'.

'As such, capable members are being deployed across a much wider leadership team outside of the CEC,' he said.

He said new members are now holding key positions in subcommittees.

Dr Ang heads a health care advisory panel, and Ms Lee facilitates a fund-raising group. Academic James Gomez coordinates a policy studies subcommittee and Mr Alec Tok, who owns a theatre company, is involved with a training and development subcommittee.

Dr Gomez joined the SDP last year, while Mr Tok joined right before the General Election.

Political observer Alex Au noted that the party appears to be opting for 'stability rather than an abrupt shift' by voting in familiar faces known to be 'steadfast to a certain political standard'.

'There has not been any wholesale change, and I'm not surprised. We have to consider the membership base, where the moderates are probably not that significant in number,' he said.

The SDP declined to reveal membership figures.

Assistant law professor Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University, however, views the new CEC line-up as a sign that moderate voices are being 'sidelined' in the party.

As this was the first committee elected after the May General Election, it would have been 'a powerful signal' if more moderates occupied CEC positions. But the new line-up 'suggests that the moderate ascendancy during the May General Election was but a false dawn', he said.

In the run-up to the election, the SDP started playing down its erstwhile activist image and projected a more accessible, moderate tone. It also moved away from human rights advocacy and put more emphasis on bread-and-butter issues.

The new CEC line-up shows that a human rights agenda is still central to the party's philosophy, noted political analyst Derek da Cunha.

Mr Au, however, pointed out that, unlike some other SDP members, Dr Wijeysingha and Mr Jufrie, while holding strong views on human rights issues, are not known to advocate public demonstrations.

Dr Wong Wee Nam, a medical doctor who follows opposition politics closely, believes the SDP is willing to continue the change that started before the General Election, and is aiming for 'gradual renewal'.

He said: 'This is not an issue of moderates versus hardcore supporters... I think the SDP is taking a long-term view, because if people are bogged down by day-to-day running of the party, they may not be able to spend time on more important things like socio-economic and health-care programmes, which they have to develop.'

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