Straits Times: WP to take fresh tack, field new faces

New leader Low Thia Khiang has roped in young professionals to make an impact on middle-class voters and first-timers

POLL WATCH
By AHMAD OSMAN and G. SIVAKUMARAN

NEW faces and a fresh approach can be expected from the Workers’ Party (WP) in the coming campaign for the General Election (GE).

That is the direct result of the leadership change which has seen Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang, 45, taking over from lawyer J.B. Jeyaretnam, 76, who had been its secretary-general for 30 years.

Mr Low has been busy rejuvenating a party packed with ageing cadres who see blue-collar workers and low-income Singaporeans as their constituency.

He has recruited young professionals with different ideas on how the party can spruce up its image and make a bigger impact on middle-class voters and first-timers.

The party wants to recapture those who lost interest in Mr Jeyaretnam’s rhetorical statements on the lack of human rights in Singapore.

Sources say at least five to six new cadres may be fielded as candidates in the next GE that is widely expected to be held next month.

They include Mr James Gomez, 36, a political activist, and Mr Yaw Shin Leong, 25, an arts graduate and a former president of the National University of Singapore’s Democratic Socialist Club.

Both are former directors of the political-discussion group Think Centre who want to develop an alternative to the People’s Action Party (PAP).

The line-up of 15 or so could-be candidates also includes Dr Tan Bin Seng, the WP chairman, and Mr Huang Seow Kwang, a businessman who studied engineering in Japan on a government scholarship.

Dr Tan, Mr Huang, Mr Jeyaretnam and lawyer Tang Liang Hong were on the WP team that took 45.1 per cent of the vote in a close battle with the PAP in Cheng San GRC in the 1997 GE.

One of the new faces is Dr Poh Lee Guan, 40, a management consultant, who has just been elected assistant secretary-general of the WP. He was the election agent for Mr Chia Shi Teck, who stood in 1997 as an independent candidate in Chua Chu Kang.

Sources say the new candidates will focus on voters they term Singapore’s “new poor” – people in the 30 to 50 age group who feel or actually are poorer now because of the worsening recession.

The WP’s election campaign will highlight the problems that the “new poor” face and counter the PAP’s previous promises of more good years for Singaporeans.

This is what the party will ask the voters:

• Are you really richer now?

• Are you happy with the quality of your life?

• Where is Singapore heading?

• What can be done to make life better for you?

The party will elaborate on measures to help Singaporeans, sources say, including better protection for workers, once its candidates hit the campaign trail.

It may field three teams in three GRCs, including Cheng San and Bishan-Toa Payoh. Apart from keeping Hougang, it does not seem interested in the other single seats that are so coveted by the other opposition parties.

Mr Low’s leadership will be tested from within in the coming polls. There is a minority of cadres who would rather be led by Mr Jeyaretnam, the first opposition politician to break the PAP’s stranglehold on Parliament.

In 1997, Mr Low did the best among all opposition candidates and was re-elected with about 58 per cent of the valid votes, a larger margin and especially impressive when seen against the increase in electoral support for the PAP from 61 per cent to 65 per cent.

But he may be hardpressed to bring in more than just his Hougang seat under the under the party’s banner this time.

He can leave Hougang to another WP candidate, such as Dr Tan, and lead a team to contest a GRC, but he may do that only if he is confident that his hold on Hougang is strong enough to sweep in a new WP candidate. Alternatively, he could stay in Hougang and lend his support to WP candidates elsewhere.

Should Hougang be absorbed into a GRC, after the electoral boundaries are re-drawn, Mr Low will, most likely, head a WP team contesting in that constituency.

“Whatever the changes in the electoral map, we will continue to focus on Cheng San and Hougang,” said one WP cadre. “That is where our strength is.”

Its weakness is that it is short of strong Malay candidates who can be fielded in GRCs such as Cheng San.

While Mr Low is busy drawing up his plans, Mr Jeyaretnam is working hard to raise the $480,508 he needs to pay off damages and legal costs to eight organisers of the 1995 Tamil Language Week who were defamed by the party.

Mr Jeyaretnam lost his parliamentary seat as a Non-Constituency MP because he did not settle this massive debt. It also bars him from standing as an election candidate.

He appears undaunted by the mammoth task of raising such a sum in a deepening economic slump. He has approached several people to stand with him in a GRC, if he can pay off his debt.

There is speculation that he may leave the party and lead a team of independents or stand as a candidate of the Singapore Democratic Party led by his friend, Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Though Mr Jeyaretnam is no longer the WP chief, his financial problems continue to dog the party. If he cannot pay up, his creditors can try to have the WP wound up if it does not have the money.

In this worst-case scenario, the WP would no longer exist, and any MP who represents the party can be asked to vacate his seat in the House.

And that is a nightmare that cannot be too far from Mr Low’s mind.


PARTY PEOPLE

The line-up of 15 or so could-be candidates of the Workers’ Party includes its party chairman and two former directors of the Think Centre group.


The new leader of the WP, Mr Low is busy rejuvenating the organisation.


Tan Bin Seng: The party chairman is likely to be one of the GE candidates.


James Gomez: A political activist, he had earlier headed the Think Centre.


Yaw Shin Leong: He is a former president of NUS’ Democratic Socialist Club.


Huang Seow Kwang: He is a businessman who studied in Japan on a scholarship.

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