Sylvia Lim’s quick rise to become Workers’ Party Chairman
Is it PR? Or is it strategy? It’s more, she says
BY TEO HWEE NAK
Why opposition politics?
It was a moment of great catharsis. The pent-up political calling was finally being ventilated.
– Ms Sylvia Lim
FEMALE. Politician. Leader of an opposition party.
So, does she see herself as Singapore’s Aung San Suu Kyi?
Don’t even suggest that to Ms Sylvia Lim, the new chairman of the Workers’ Party.
The eloquent, witty law lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic is one very self-assured lady, thank you very much.
But she’s hardly an Aung San Suu Kyi.
She may gush with admiration for the Myanmar opposition leader, but that’s it.
Said Ms Lim, 37: “Dynamic leadership, commitment, brave sacrifices. A great lady. I do admire her, but sorry, I’m not really keen to model myself on anyone.”
But surely there must be someone she admires and wants to emulate?
“No-one. I think I will find my own way,” she said firmly.
In a way, the vivacious Ms Lim is already a trailblazer. The first woman to take the helm in the Workers’ Party’s 45-year history, Ms Lim is perhaps also the only woman to hold such a key position in a political party in Singapore. And she did it within 18 months of joining the party.
Is the Workers’ Party trying to make a statement? Or is it hoping to carve a niche for itself? A strategic move to engage the public’s attention, perhaps?
Ms Lim took all these suggestions in her stride.
She said in her rapid-fire way: “I’m not very sure whether in the past there have been other women who have held any posts in any party, but I don’t recall any. So you see, we’re very progressive.”
“But I don’t think it’s so much about women in a political way. In this whole episode, there are some things which I’m very proud of. Our party’s organising members are predominantly male, and some of them are fairly old.
“But looking at the way they have voted, they are not constrained by any mindsets about who should lead, whether it has to be guy. I can’t speculate on why they voted for me, but obviously they’re entrusting me with a huge responsibility. Under our party constitution, the chairman has a fairly large say over how the party is run.
“Putting me there just for PR (public relations) purposes would be a big risk to the party. It has to be more than that.”
WHY NO WOMEN?
But while she tries to distance her phenomenal 18-month climb from the gender issue, the straight-talking Ms Lim couldn’t help but lament the lack of top woman politicians in Parliament.
“I must say I don’t like this state of affairs. Since the Cabinet now is quite large, surely there must be some opportunity to put a woman there. We see women holding important roles in business and in professional fields, so why should politics be any different?” she said.
The fact that she’s single helps, she admitted. The decision to make that leap into politics, and opposition politics at that, would be a more difficult one if she were married with kids.
“A single person, especially a woman, can devote more time to doing public work,” said Ms Lim, who lives in a private apartment in Bukit Batok with her younger brother.
Not that she has not made any sacrifices.
The active woman who exercises three times a week and sings in her church choir now spends her weekends poring over parliamentary bills, doing research and helping party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang prepare for his debates.
She has also been working the ground, wading into various estates islandwide to sell The Hammer, the party’s publication, which she also writes for.
Describing her decision to join the Workers’ Party, she said: “It was a moment of great catharsis. The pent-up political calling was finally being ventilated.”
Politics was something she grew up with at dinner tables, where her lawyer father would discuss current affairs with her and her younger sister and brother. In fact, she thinks her father is proud of her move.
“His friends tell me he would proudly announce that his daughter has joined the opposition,” she said, laughing.
She plans to make full use of her experience as a lawyer and the three years she spent in the police force as an inspector and later, staff officer to the Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
But she doesn’t intend to go in for former party secretary-general J B Jeyaretnam’s fire-brand type of politics.
Instead, she wants to be known as a persuasive politician who can back her words with facts and figures.
Throughout the interview at the Bukit Batok Nature Park, where she goes for her jogs, Ms Lim was animated and quick in her replies, laughed and joked heartily, and appeared completely at ease with the reporter and photographer, something rarely seen in even a seasoned politician.
When told that, she laughed and replied: “It’s something you have to be prepared to do once you enter politics, isn’t it?”
‘Shrewd move by WP’
IT’S time for a woman to take on a key role in Singapore politics, say observers.
Only in recent years have we seen more women filling the seats in Parliament. Still, none of them hold any top positions.
There are no female ministers, not even ministers of state.
There are also no women holding either of the key positions of party secretary-general or chairman in any of the other political parties.
Although the secretary-general in a political party is the one who holds the reins and steers the ship, the chairman’s role is also a crucial and visible one.
Ms Lim’s appointment is an interesting development, said Dr Ooi Giok Ling, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.
She said: “Electing a woman chairman has its functions. In Singapore, the role of gender in politics is often downplayed. We’ve not given as much prominence to the fact that gender actually matters in electoral outcomes.
“But there are enough women here, young and educated, who may want this outlet. It may be a shrewd move on the party’s part.”
The Workers’ Party may also be taking the cue from the move of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to include more women in its Member of Parliament line-up, she said.
“The Workers’ Party is also reading the ground the same way. Mr Low Thia Khiang is known to be very good in feeling the ground,” said Dr Ooi.
WHY SO LONG?
And while Mr Seah Chiang Nee, who runs news and information website Littlespeck, was not surprised at the appointment, he wondered why it did not happen earlier.
“Women have chased and overtaken men in many other areas. But the question is why they have not done so earlier in politics. Indonesia, for example, has a female president. We’re far behind,” he noted.
Still, male or female, the key is whether Ms Lim can lead one of the oldest parties in Singapore to new heights.
“It’s not an easy position, especially in the opposition party,” said Dr Ooi.