Anyone watching party politics over the last couple of years would have seen the signs: the Singapore Democratic Party was heading for a comeback. Even if it didn’t ace the examination that is the General Elections, it was going to win the prize for most improved performance and mount a serious challenge for the Workers’ Party’s position at the head of the Opposition class.

The writing was on the wall. The SDP’s Facebook wall, that is. Plus its website, publications and videos, and its steady flow of events, together upending the stereotype of Opposition parties as hibernating in between elections. Set aside the question of whether you agree or disagree with the SDP’s mission or its messages. Even if few were listening and fewer were persuaded, the simple fact is that such a level of activity would not have been possible without a critical mass of people, talent and organisational ability.

With the GE less than two weeks ago, the even clearer sign of the SDP’s resurgence is the slate that it has put together. Following its dismal showings in the last three GEs, the SDP appeared unelectable. Chee Soon Juan’s brand of angry idealism may have helped place important issues such as freedom of expression on the agenda, but the electorate’s rebuff was unequivocal. Chee was rubbing middle-of-the-road swing voters the wrong way. They rejected the SDP wherever it stood. After GE 2006, it looked as if any heavyweight opposition wannabe would join the WP and avoid the SDP like the bird flu.

Yet, in the run-up to GE 2011, a surprising number of serious contenders have tied their immediate futures to Chee’s party. Clearly, they’ve seen new promise in the SDP. It’s also possible that they’ve found the WP too lacking in internal democracy. Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim seem cautious to a fault, desperate to avoid any lightning rods that would expose the WP yet again to the explosions that greeted the more confrontational politics of J. B. Jeyaretnam, Francis Seow and Tang Liang Hong.

PAP ready to exploit any differences

The SDP’s new energy will generate interesting dynamics in the coming GE and beyond.

The ruling party will demand to know SDP candidates’ stand on their party leader, who it believes is a destructive force. The PAP will say that Chee has repeatedly broken the law in order to win for himself the attention of foreign human rights groups; that he has run down Singapore in international fora; and that his methods are rejected even by other Opposition leaders. Thus, the PAP will attempt to shake SDP candidates’ allegiance to Chee and divide the party.

The truth is, the SDP will have a tough time addressing this issue. Political novice Tan Jee Say took a swing at it in his introductory press conference, and scored what to Chee must have felt like an own goal. Tan said that Chee and the SDP had “changed”, which was of course tantamount to admitting that the vintage SDP hadn’t been doing things right.

Chee tried to kick the ball out of the net by blaming the media – who else – for the poor impression that Singaporeans had of him. It is one thing to claim that any shortcomings in press coverage played a decisive role in a close fight. That would be quite plausible. However, when you have polled some 15 percentage points behind the leading Opposition party, it strains credibility to claim that you’ve been misrepresented and misunderstood.

It’s also implying that a rather large chunk of Singaporeans are too dumb to see past government propaganda – not a clever tactic when you are asking for their votes. And it doesn’t explain why J. B. Jeyaretnam – who was given a far rougher ride by the PAP and the media – secured much higher support from the electorate than Chee ever has. As difficult as it is for Chee and his supporters to admit, a more realistic appraisal would have to conclude that his methods – from his early hunger strike, to heckling the prime minister, public protests and so on – have simply not connected with Singapore’s middle ground. And just as the customer is always right in business, it’s not good politics to say that so many Singaporeans have got it wrong.

Political cost of SDP’s activist strand

Chee has created a fundamental tension within the SDP that is both the source of its dynamism as well as the dynamite that could blow it up. On the one hand, he inherited a political party with the goal of winning seats in Parliament. On the other hand – perhaps as a result of his electoral failure and then disqualification – he has fashioned the SDP into a protest movement committed to extra-parliamentary struggle. So far, he has been more impactful in the latter mission than in the former.

Since progressive issues are not necessarily populist issues – take gay rights and capital punishment, for example – Chee’s willingness to look beyond votes in picking his battles has helped to broaden Singapore’s political debate. This activist strand, however, has exacted a heavy toll on his party’s ability to achieve its primary Parliamentary goals. His strategy of civil disobedience, in particular, has guaranteed his party front row seats in the government’s firing line. By refusing to work within laws it considers unjust, the SDP has lurched from one crisis to another.

Lately, the SDP has been relatively quiet on this front, so it is not surprising to see Tan Jee Say musing that Chee had changed.

A more illuminating explanation can be found in an in-depth interview with Chee by The Online Citizen in February.

In it, Chee maintains that democratic change would not come through elections alone. “If you read history… elections had to come as a result of change, it’s not a means of change,” he says. There is a role for civil disobedience, he adds – but it is a matter of timing. “You don’t try to do this before and when the elections are coming,” he notes, explaining that the run-up to a GE is instead a time to position the party for the election campaign. After an election, he says, would be the time for activists to pressure the ruling party to play by democratic rules, using such strategies as non-violent protest.

If Chee sticks to this playbook, we can expect to see the protest movement side of the SDP resurface after the polls. This time, though, there is a strong chance of a significant SDP presence in Parliament, as either elected or non-constituency MPs. There will be a Parliamentary SDP, perhaps led by Vincent Wijeysinghe, and the non-parliamentary activists led by its secretary general.

The record shows that Opposition MPs tend to be unwilling to jeopardise their hard-earned seats through reckless actions by their parties. It would not be surprising if SDP’s MPs or NCMPs are afflicted by this same bird-in-the-hand syndrome, and plead with Chee to stop thrashing about in the bush. It’s even less far fetched to predict that the PAP will overlook no opportunity to exploit the slightest schism and drive a wedge through the heart of the party. The PAP will demand to know whether those representing the new credible face of the party sympathise with Chee’s methods.

It wouldn’t be the first time that SDP has been divided by different perspectives on Chee. One of the main disagreements that led party founder Chiam See Tong to quit its top post in a huff was over Chee’s sacking by NUS and his subsequent hunger strike protest. Chiam disagreed with others in the leadership that the party should stand by Chee in his hour of need. Although subsequently characterised as a power-grab by an ungrateful and ambitious Chee, Chiam’s departure actually reflected fundamental differences over party strategy.

Since a one-party-two-systems position wouldn’t fly, the SDP will have two choices. Either its Parliamentary wing must be prepared to defend the actions of its leader and steel itself for the onslaught that will follow. Or, its leader must disavow civil disobedience – to save face, Chee could say that those methods have outlived their purpose and are no longer needed. Whichever tack is taken will shape Opposition politics for the next several years.