The WP has finally announced Lee Li Lian as its candidate for the Punggol East BE. I believe that the selection of Li Lian, who had earlier contested Punggol East SMC in GE 2011, is one of WP’s wisest political moves to date. Li Lian is the best choice not because she is an outstanding WP candidate (because it is hard to believe that she is a better politician/MP than Gerald Giam or YJJ), but precisely because she is so…expendable. (Sorry Li Lian)
Allow me to explain. It would have been a mistake for WP to announce its candidate too early because WP should wait to see what the other opposition parties are planning. If the election was going to be a straight-fight between PAP and WP, then WP should field its best and most prolific candidate since it would have a reasonable chance of toppling the PAP. This meant that WP would nominate one of its NCMPs like Gerald Giam or YJJ to contest Punggol East, which would be a gamble since there is no guarantee that a NCMP who lost in a BE can still remain as a NCMP.
However, the BE is likely to be a multi-party contest with the RP and SDP also competing for votes. Since the conventional wisdom is that the PAP would win in a multi-corner fight, it wouldn’t make sense for WP to put forth its NCMPs for a near-guaranteed loss as this would also mean one less WP voice in Parliament. Instead, it should nominate someone more expendable. Of all of WP’s expendable candidates, Li Lian is the best choice since she had a track record of contesting for Punggol East previously.
The deeper issue within this BE is the spectre of multi-cornered fights.
Firstly, recent events has shown that the concept of opposition party unity is simply a myth. SDP’s “utterly stupid proposal” and RP’s “even-more-stupid comment that it had thought of SDP’s stupid proposal first” shows that most major opposition parties will showcase themselves at the expense of opposition unity. Opposition unity is made unlikely by the headstrong strong personalities of the SDP’s and RP’s leaders (which will ultimately lead to their individual downfall). The scars of the pre-BE events will haunt the opposition parties in GE 2016.
Secondly, the conventional wisdom that the PAP would win in a multi-corner fight underscores the fact that the opposition parties suffer from weak identities and branding. Today, the only trait that strongly defines our opposition parties is that they are anti-PAP. It is much harder to define an individual party on what it believes or advocates. All opposition parties claim to be pro-Singaporean, but each party (other than the SDP) has provided scant detail on the policy ideas that they would champion to achieve their pro-Singaporean goal. Without sufficient branding and product differentiation, it is therefore too easy for the average voter to lump the opposition parties together, thus forcing the opposition parties to contest for the same bloc of votes.