Straits Times: A passion for politics… and the underdog

Among the new Workers’ Party faces elected to office last week is a woman – to the post of chairman. HELMI YUSOF susses out the bright new opposition hope.

Making history as the first woman to be elected chairman of a political party here, Miss Lim is now the WP’s No. 2, behind secretary-general Low Thia Khiang.

RISING opposition star Sylvia Lim’s life has in the last year and a half taken two big twists.

The first happened after Nov 3, 2001, when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) romped home at the polls.

“The PAP getting 75 per cent of the votes was the last straw for me,” she recalls feeling at the time, after the final tally was shown on television at around midnight.

Her voice shows some of the steel that may account for her choosing this often-fraught path of politics.

Although she had considered joining politics since the 1997 General Election, she held back until the landslide gave her the final push: She wrote to the Workers’ Party (WP) to ask about signing up.

“I decided it was time to make a contribution,” she said in an interview earlier this week with The Straits Times, in a tone which made it sound like it was an easy thing to do.

“There is no point wishing for a strong and credible opposition if one is not prepared to do something.”

The WP welcomed her with open arms.

Then came Miss Lim’s second turning point.

Last week, she made history as the first woman to be elected chairman of a political party here.

It catapulted the hitherto unknown to No. 2, behind the WP’s secretary-general and Hougang Member of Parliament Low Thia Khiang.

It has also put her under the spotlight, prompting a flood of the inevitable questions which would face anyone bold or energetic enough to venture into opposition politics here: Who is this intrepid woman? What made her take the plunge? Will she have the wherewithal?

When we met at a cafe in Tampines earlier this week, she tried to answer a few of them.

A single woman, Miss Lim, 38, is a National University of Singapore law graduate, with a master’s degree from the University of London.

She was a police inspector and a practising lawyer, before taking up her current job at Temasek Polytechnic as a law lecturer in 1998.

While coy about her private life, declining to discuss singlehood or how the polytechnic will take to her entering politics, she was otherwise happy to talk about aspects of her life, especially how she became interested in politics.

This she attributes to dinner at home as a child, when the food at the table was dished up with lively discussions on national issues between her father, now a retired criminal lawyer, and her mother, now a retired nurse, as well as her two younger siblings.

“Debating issues was a norm in our family,” she remembers with fondness.

But her friends weren’t interested.

“They would rather talk about food.”

Her early education at the Convent of Our Lady of Good Counsel and St Joseph’s Convent taught her charity towards the poor, she said.

In her undergraduate and postgraduate days, she did volunteer work for the Spastic Children’s Association, the Salvation Army Home for the Aged and the University College Hospital in London.

A fitness enthusiast who goes to the gym three times a week, she now spends a good part of her time helping Mr Low prepare his parliamentary speeches, attends party meetings and rolls up her sleeves each weekend to sell the party’s newsletter, The Hammer.

Former chairman Tan Bin Seng, 50, is full of praise for her, saying she is the natural choice for Mr Low’s right-hand woman. “She’s young and energetic. During our council meetings, she showed herself to be intelligent and confident,” he said.

Well-groomed, articulate and passionate about her beliefs, she wouldn’t look amiss wearing the PAP all-whites.

“I don’t agree with some of PAP’s elitist policies, so I wouldn’t want to join the PAP,” she said, when this suggestion was made to her.

Her affinity is for the WP, which she feels has fought for the working class and disadvantaged.

Besides being against specific policies – streaming, and passing on rising costs, such as health-care and tertiary-education costs, to citizens – she also sees a more general need for checks against government power.

“Singapore needs the Opposition to scrutinise government policies constructively and pressure the Government to serve the people better.”

Does she fear that being the one doing the scrutiny will get her into trouble?

She revealed that well-meaning friends had warned her about being made bankrupt or being jailed, adding that she was aware of the trials and tribulations of those like Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam and Mr Tang Liang Hong.

But that has only spurred her on, she said.

“I want to express this hope that, in time to come, people won’t be saying such things about joining the Opposition any more.”

Not that she is naive about the potential pitfalls.

“As long as I speak carefully, using facts, logic and compassion, I think I should be all right. I am, after all, pro-Singapore.”

It helps that she can draw strength from the person who inspired her political inclinations in the first place – her father.

He has told her he is very proud of her, she said, adding with a laugh: “Although he did once joke that I would land up in prison.”

Then, turning serious, she said: “I have no such intention.”


MS SYLVIA Lim’s appointment as Workers’ Party (WP) chairman may be seen as a victory for women, as no woman has ever been made chairman of a political party here before.

But there have been a few other trailblazers in Singapore’s history of opposition politics.

In the first Legislative Assembly elections in 1959, the year Singapore became self-governing, Mrs Seow Peck Leng of the Singapore People’s Alliance Party became the only woman on the opposition benches. A fervent champion of women’s rights, she left politics in 1963 to pursue social and charity work full-time.

Another woman who figured large in the 1950s and 1960s was Mrs Felice Leon-Soh, the Liberal Socialist Party’s secretary-general. She never won a seat in the Legislative Assembly, but she is best remembered for her scathing comments about then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew over the 1963 merger with Malaysia.

The 1960s and 1970s saw fewer women going into politics. In 1968, only one ran for office. In 1972, there were two women in a field of 138 candidates for 57 seats. Both were from the WP. Neither won.

In 1980, things started to look up, ironically after then-Minister of Trade and Industry Goh Chok Tong made remarks suggesting women were not made for politics. It sparked a controversy as women activists and academics tried to prove him wrong. Both the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Opposition started to field more women.

In the 1980s, the number of women candidates rose. The PAP, for example, fielded three women in 1984, four in 1988, and then three in 1991.

That year, Madam Yu-Foo Yee Shoon almost lost her seat to Ms Toh Kiam Kiat of the Singapore Democratic Party. In the 2001 election, the PAP had 10 women candidates, while the Opposition had one, Siok Chin, Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan’s sister.

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