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Singapore's new opposition calls for curbs on foreign labor

Progress party unveils agenda as it looks to challenge People’s Action Party

Progress Singapore Party leader Tan Cheng Bock said the country's economic agreement with India should be reviewed as he laid out the party's agenda party on August 3. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto)

SINGAPORE -- Singapore's new opposition party struck a nationalist tone at its launch event Saturday, calling for tighter controls on foreign labor as it hopes to challenge the country's entrenched ruling party in the next election.

The Progress Singapore Party, backed by the estranged brother of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, laid out its agenda at the event as it looks to shake up the Lion City's political scene that has seen the People’s Action Party in power since 1959. 

"For the working population, we need to ensure job priority for Singaporeans," said the 79-year-old Progress party leader Tan Cheng Bock, who was a longtime member of the ruling party.

He said the party would call for a review of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement, which allows Indian professionals to live and work in Singapore. This has brought "a lot of unhappiness" to Singaporean professionals and made them anxious about their future, Tan said.

In Singapore, where about 30% of the population are foreigners -- excluding permanent residents, foreign labor is often brought up as an election issue. An influx of foreign workers has been cited as potentially leading to fewer jobs for locals as well as raising the cost of living.

Tan proposed more support for homegrown companies, saying that they deserve preferential treatment when awarding government contracts, drawing applause from the audience.

Regarding foreign policy, he said he always supports ASEAN, the 10 member regional economic bloc. "All neighbors are very important. We should always have very close ties with Malaysia, very close ties with Indonesia, Thailand and so on."

Tan also said his party wants to lower the country's voting age to 18 from 21, to give younger citizens a voice in politics. "This is the voting age of most countries around the world and in the ASEAN countries." 

He did not mention specific election strategies, such as how many candidates the party will field and which constituency Tan will contest. If elected, Tan said, his top priority would be job creation, noting that the Singapore economy is slowing.

500 people registered for the launch event, according to Progress Singapore Party. (Photo by Kentaro Iwamoto) 

The political veteran, who also ran for the 2011 presidential election, in January announced his intention of creating a new party to challenge the ruling PAP, led by Prime Minister Lee, the elder son of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

Tan criticized the government at a Progress party news conference on July 26, saying that "the foundations of good governance [are] eroding" and that "there is an erosion of transparency, independence and accountability."

Two days later, the prime minister's estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang, expressed support for the new party. "I wholeheartedly support the principles and values of the Progress Singapore Party," he wrote on Facebook. "Today's PAP is no longer the PAP of my father. It has lost its way."

The brothers have been caught up in a family feud over their father's estate after Lee Kuan Yew died in 2015. 

People attending Saturday's event said they were looking for a different view after 60 years of rule by the same party. A man in his 60s told the Nikkei Asian Review that he supports the Progress party because it "gives us an alternative" to the PAP-led government. Another man in his 60s said that he was politically neutral but wanted to hear the new party's proposals because "everyone wants to see a better future."

The next general election must be called by early 2021. Leading the fight for the ruling PAP will be Heng Swee Keat, Singapore's deputy prime minister, who was promoted last year to the party's No. 2 position.

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

Tan said at the July 26 news conference that his party wants to cooperate with other opposition parties and together take a third of the seats in parliament.

"At the end of the day, we must work as a team," Tan said on Saturday.

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