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Singapore PM Lee faces fight with new party backed by his brother

Challenger blasts 'erosion of transparency' but is greeted with skepticism

Progress Singapore Party leader Tan Cheng Bock, center, introduces his party to the media on July 26. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto) 

SINGAPORE -- A new party supported by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's estranged brother has officially formed in Singapore on July 26, in an attempt to shake up the city-state's politics after five decades of People's Action Party rule.

The Progress Singapore Party, led by political veteran and former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock, will contest the next general election which must be called by early 2021. "I worry because I see the foundations of good governance eroding," Tan told reporters at a news conference held to announce the launch of the party. "Specifically, there is an erosion of transparency, independence and accountability."

Tan apparently has the backing of Lee Hsien Yang, the premier's younger brother. In January, when Tan announced his intention to establish a party, the younger Lee posted on Facebook: "I have known Cheng Bock for many years and he has consistently put the interests of the people first. We are fortunate that he has stepped forward to serve Singapore."

Lee Hsien Yang also described Tan as "the leader Singapore deserves."

At the news conference on July 26, Tan had pointed words for the Lee Hsien Loong government. As an example of poor transparency, Tan questioned the appointment of Prime Minister Lee's wife, Ho Ching, as CEO of state investment fund Temasek Holdings. "Many of you are wondering why" she was put in charge of a fund that "is part of our reserve," he said.

While criticizing the government, the 79-year-old declined to detail his own party's policies, saying he would do so at a public launch event in early August. He described Lee Hsien Yang as a "good friend" and said he was welcome to join the party.

The Progress party is clearly looking to tap into public discontent amid an economic slowdown, but experts are divided over whether it can make much of an impact.

The PAP has run Singapore since independence in 1965. Much of that time was spent under the leadership of the Lee brothers' father, Lee Kuan Yew, who oversaw the tiny country's growth into a major financial center but was criticized internationally for maintaining a "developmental dictatorship." The brothers have been caught up in a family feud over their father's will, after he died in 2015.

In the last general election in 2015, the ruling party won 83 of the 89 seats up for grabs. The remaining seats were taken by the Workers' Party, the largest opposition group.

Tan himself was a PAP member of parliament for 26 years. In 2011, he ran for the mostly ceremonial job of president and lost by a razor-thin margin to former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan. He announced another run in 2016, but failed to follow through after the government changed the process to keep the presidency from being dominated by ethnic Chinese, who make up the majority of the population.

As far as the next election is concerned, Tan Cheng Bock said opposition parties need to take a combined one-third of the seats to spur change. He did not say how many candidates the Progress party would field.

"Given his experience, standing and popularity, Tan will be a formidable opponent at the polls," said Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at Singapore Management University.

"The big question is whether his personal popularity will translate to votes for his party and, generally, the opposition," the professor said. "Singaporeans know that he is concerned about the future of Singapore but he has not quite explained or shown why he is now seeking to contest against his former party."

Members of the Progress Singapore Party: The group has yet to reveal its policy platform. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

Meredith Weiss, professor of political science at the State University of New York in Albany, observed: "The deciding factors for the Progress Singapore Party will be, first and foremost, whether Tan Cheng Bock and his colleagues really can lure significant numbers to defect from the PAP, and second, how closely Progress Singapore and other opposition parties, especially the Workers' Party, cooperate."

For now, the outlook is hazy, she suggested. "We really have no way of knowing yet how many strong candidates Progress Singapore will be able to field, and with how much ground support from members."

Garry Rodan, emeritus professor at Australia's Murdoch University, offered a harsh assessment of the party's chances. "There is no prospect of this party winning this election," he said. "It would do remarkably well to win any seats at all."

Rodan argued the party's launch will only split the votes among the opposition, to the benefit of the PAP. Tan Cheng Bock emphasized that he would try to avoid that by working with other opposition groups.

Leading the fight for the PAP will be Heng Swee Keat, Singapore's deputy prime minister, who was promoted last year to the party's No. 2 position.

On July 24, at a party event, Heng stressed the PAP must retain the public's trust by implementing policies that promote the longer-term interests of Singaporeans, according to the Straits Times newspaper. "We must resist a downward spiral towards populism, and not hesitate to call out those who deal with empty promises and shallow slogans," Heng was quoted as saying.

The pressure on the PAP is growing as the export-reliant economy slumps. Gross domestic product growth in the second quarter hit a 10-year low of 0.1% due to the U.S.-China trade war.

Even the skeptical Rodan conceded the economic woes might create a political opening, with strategies for engineering a turnaround expected to be a focus of the campaign.

"Opposition parties," he said, "can certainly highlight the lack of a clear and convincing government strategy as yet to address these problems."

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