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SDP's "win-win-win" strategy is "lose-lose"

Posted on Jan 12, 2013 7:10 PM Updated: Apr 18, 2013 10:20 PM

IT would be an understatement to say many were surprised when the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) tabled its "unity candidate" proposal on Friday night.

Jaws dropped when the SDP suggested that it field a candidate for the Punggol East by-election in a joint campaign with the Workers' Party (WP). If he won, he would represent the SDP in Parliament, while the WP would run the town council.

It is hard to see how exactly this is a fair and equal arrangement for both parties, despite SDP's claims that they are "cutting it down the middle" and that it is a "win-win-win" situation.

Many consider town council work, where the MP ensures the estate remains clean and efficiently run, as grunt work. It is the oft-unseen and unglamorous part of the job. Meanwhile, the chance to bask in the national spotlight every month in Parliamentary debates - not to mention the hefty MP salary - are seen as perks of the job.

The SDP says that it is suggesting this for the sake of "opposition unity". But it runs the risk of attracting accusations that its ultimate aim is anything but this goal.

Even in the traditionally pro-opposition blogosphere, the radical suggestion was roundly derided by netizens, many whom accused the SDP of making a mockery of the electoral system. Online satirist Mr Brown took a potshot, suggesting they approach the PAP instead. Only a few lone voices thought the idea had its merits.

Not surprisingly, the WP has politely told SDP it would continue to focus efforts on its own campaign.

That this proposal would only fail should have been manifest right from the start. So if the SDP was serious about contesting the election, why did it suggest it in the first place?

The reason lies in how the SDP views itself in comparison to the WP, and the latter's performance in Parliament since the general election.

The SDP has always touted itself as the party with real alternative policies, having rolled out comprehensive plans in healthcare and housing. Similar policy papers on immigration and education are also in the works.

On the other hand, the WP is popular and, on the ground, its ability to build rapport with residents and take care of their day-to-day needs is well-known but its performance in Parliament has been criticised by some. They have been surprised by its cautious approach and somewhat underwhelming presence in the House.

It is in this context that the SDP sees itself as the "brain" while the WP can play to its advantage as being the "brawn" in any potential partnership.

WP's earlier rebuff of SDP's requests for talks to avoid a three-cornered fight could also have been a factor. Having first been given the cold shoulder by WP chairman Sylvia Lim, the SDP proceeded to publicise its letters evidently in the hopes of gaining public support for a meeting.

When this too failed, the party probably figured it had nothing to lose by tossing up its joint unity candidate proposal, in the belief that the public would support it and perhaps even see SDP as the "better man" for pushing for opposition unity.

Another possible theory floated is that the SDP was never serious about contesting in the first place, and only wanted to extract concessions from WP for the next general election. When talks did not materialise, an embarrassed SDP could have deliberately suggested an idea that it knew WP would never agree to, in order to give itself a face-saving way out.

Whatever the reason may be, it is now apparent that this was a miscalculation. It not only inadvertently sends the message that SDP cannot run a town council on its own, but also reveals a lack of understanding of the average voter's mindset and how he views the role of the MP.

But there may be a silver lining for the party.

SDP's proposal prompts questions of what voters really want in an opposition MP. Are they merely content with someone who can take care of their municipal needs as well as the PAP? Or do they also want that person to be able to advocate policy reform and go up against the PAP on bigger national issues?

There is a possibility that this train of thought may benefit SDP in the long run.

But for now, it will have to contend with the fallout. The WP, which in the last general election ignored the Singapore Democratic Alliance's pleas to leave Punggol East to them, is unlikely to change its mind.

The SDP will have to decide between cutting its losses and pulling out of the election - which would be embarrassing, given its bluster about its serious intentions to contest - or soldier on with a dent in its credibility, making its battle to win the constituency even harder.

Either way, rather than this being the "win-win-win" scenario it had hoped for, the situation SDP now faces is more "lose-lose".