Straits Times: Veteran MP wants to play the role of watchdog

INSIGHT FRIDAY
PEOPLE & POLITICS

The Workers’ Party has been touted as the opposition party to watch at the next general election. Its leader, Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang, outlines to Li Xueying his long-term vision for the party


WORKING FOR SUPPORT: Opposition MP Low Thia Khiang selling copies of the Workers’ Party newsletter, The Hammer, at a hawker centre in Bedok. While a few residents edge away from his group or wave them off, many others are politely receptive – a situation “already much improved” from the past, says Mr Low.

HIS tanned face creased in an affable smile and his light-blue shirt damp with perspiration, Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang is hard at work connecting with hawkers, yuppies and other residents in Bedok.

“Would you like to buy The Hammer? One dollar,” he calls out.

A woman passes him a $2 note to be placed in the tin can, and he tells her good-humouredly: “I don’t have change for you.”

She shrugs and smiles.

It is a Sunday morning. Amid talk of an impending general election, the Workers’ Party (WP) secretary-general and his entourage are meeting residents and selling the party newsletter at a hawker centre in Bedok North, which is part of the ruling People’s Action Party’s East Coast GRC.

While a few residents edge away from the group or wave them off, many others are politely receptive, if not supportive.

Information technology specialist M. Chua, 34, who opposes having casinos here on religious grounds, buys a copy “to find out more about what the other side thinks”.

Madam Tay Kia Bee, 68, rushes up to Mr Low to pump his hand and pronounces herself a fervent supporter.

Yi si teochew nang (He is a Teochew),” she says.

But aren’t there Teochews among PAP MPs too?

“Yes,” she replies. “But I’ve never met them.”

But a stigma of being seen with the opposition lingers.

One young couple buy the newsletter, but do not want their photograph taken. And while another resident and his daughter loudly pronounce their support, they decline to speak with Insight.

But things are already much improved, says Mr Low.

“In the past, people would ask me, ‘Is this legal or not?'” he says with a chuckle, referring to The Hammer.

In an interview at his Hougang Town Council office earlier, he said there was a climate of “fear” when he first entered politics in the 1980s.

As the election agent for former WP chief J.B. Jeyaretnam in 1985, his photographs often appeared in the press.

The Nanyang University graduate was then also a Chinese-language teacher at Peidao Secondary School.

“I know my vice-principal would always cut out newspaper reports and place them in my file. So I was waiting to see whether anything would happen,” recalls the 50-year-old.

“I was waiting to be sacked.”

He was not. But he resigned in 1986 to set up a construction business.

His wife, Madam Han Mui Keow, was then a customer service executive. One of her directors warned her that Mr Low was embarking on “a path of no return”, using the Chinese term si bu de fan sheng.

“So when I was elected in 1991, I told my wife, ‘You go and tell your boss – si yu fan sheng (a dead fish has turned)’. Have you ever seen a fish which looks like it’s dead? But suddenly, it turns and it moves?”

Evident in that remark is a “never say die” attitude, a party philosophy that has made the WP, which was set up in 1957, Singapore’s longest-surviving opposition party, says Mr Low.

There is also a certain colloquial style which, despite the grammatical errors or fractured delivery, has kept Mr Low popular with residents, and made him a force to be reckoned with.

His efforts to bond with Hougang’s constituents extend to attending funeral wakes.

His election rallies, filled with Teochew anecdotes, are heartland draws.

In Parliament, he is seen as quick to probe ministers on issues, whether on a shortage of beds in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, or the implications of having integrated resorts here.

But his performance is calibrated, says Mr Low, who does not believe in opposing government policies “just because you are the opposition”.

“I don’t believe that opposition has to be a mad dog. You have to be a watchdog.”

It is a style that has led him, and long-serving Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong, to be regarded as opposition politicians acceptable to the ruling PAP.

In 1992, then-senior minister Lee Kuan Yew noted that while both might disagree with the Government over certain issues, the differences were within reasonable limits and over how to solve problems, not whether the problems existed.

Mr Low says the element of “fear” still exists – the result of libel suits against past opposition politicians – but he has little sympathy for those who use it as a reason for not joining opposition politics:

“The fact is that there are so many opposition members around, including myself, who are still alive and kicking, walking around. So?”

His view must be convincing. In recent years, the WP has attracted a number of young Singaporeans, many of them professionals.

Its youth wing, set up last August, has 20 to 30 active members, out of a total active party membership of 200. This, together with a notable efficiency in marshalling resources to mount weekly constituency walkabouts and regular public forums, has led political observers, and even PAP MPs, to regard the WP as the opposition party likely to pose the strongest challenge to the PAP at the next polls.

But Mr Low is a mix of caution and candour.

He refuses to discuss his party’s chances at the next election, the issues it will raise, or even to go into detail about his relationship with Mr Chiam.

He will say only that they “are friends” who confide in each other about problems they face on the political stage.

But give him some time to warm up, and Mr Low does drop some nuggets about the WP’s plans.

He confirms that at the next election, it wants to contest in four GRCs – Sembawang, East Coast, Aljunied and Ang Mo Kio – and the single wards of Hougang, Nee Soon East and Joo Chiat.

The WP was set up in 1957 by former chief minister David Marshall. But it was only in 1971, when Mr Jeyaretnam took over, that the party published its first manifesto.

In 1981, Mr Jeyaretnam won the Anson by-election, becoming the first opposition member elected to Parliament since independence. But in 1986, he had to vacate his seat after being convicted for false declaration of party accounts.

The party re-established its parliamentary presence when Dr Lee Siew Choh was sworn in as a Non-Constituency MP in 1989 – and when Mr Low won in Hougang in the 1991 General Election.

A split occurred in 2001 when Mr Jeyaretnam left the party. He was bankrupted by a libel suit and unable to stand for elections. The veteran politician accused the WP leadership – including Mr Low, who took over as secretary-general – of not helping with his debts.

On the episode’s repercussions, Mr Low says he does not believe the split was so serious as to result in a “major public backlash against the party”.

Preferring to look ahead instead, he spoke of his vision for the WP’s future:

“In the long term, I hope the party will evolve to become something like a civic political institution which contributes to society, not just on a political platform but, with more manpower resources, also to some charitable and community causes.”

To date, members have quietly participated in community work under the WP banner, including helping Mercy Relief to raise funds in the aftermath of the Dec 26, 2004 tsunami.

Said Mr Low of such moves: “In politics, our political opponent is the PAP. But beyond that, there’s a larger national interest. I think as a political party, you also have to play a role and be part of it.”

Mr Low, a Buddhist and who was once described by the Chinese press as “an angry Teochew man”, admits to being “quite emotional” and aggressive at times.

“But I learn,” he says. “You need to have a clear mind as far as politics goes.”

xueying@sph.com.sg


‘Party has survived, evolved and stayed relevant’

>> What do you think the Workers’ Party (WP) has achieved in the last 49 years?

First, we’ve managed to survive. No other local opposition parties from that era have done so. And we’re still alive and kicking today.

That is no mean feat given the political environment we are in.

>> How has the party changed since 1957?

It has evolved with the times, stayed relevant with the issues of the day – yet remained committed to participating in the democratic process.

When Singapore became independent, we came out in the 1970s with the concept of moving “Towards A Caring Society”.

Then it was “Power To The People”, in which we focused on the underprivileged.

Today, on a conceptual level, our platform is “You Have A Choice” – you have a choice to help keep Singapore’s democratic system alive.

>> The Government has also been focusing on the poor and the needy. Do you think your approach is becoming irrelevant?

There will always be an underprivileged segment in society, despite changed circumstances and especially with the advent of globalisation. We will highlight the plight of such groups…and get the PAP to look at them carefully. They may then win them over. Then, we’ll look for new issues. I think that’s our job. I’m quite happy to do that.

But I’m not one who will go around and create issues. I think it’s meaningless. If there are no issues, I’ll keep quiet.

>> Do you see a maturing of Singapore society and politics here?

In the past, candidates took each other on often like enemies. I believe we have evolved. Singaporeans also wish to see more political participation, and in a more mature manner.

This means yes, we are political opponents, but we are not enemies. We may have different views but we are all Singaporeans first and foremost. This change in political culture will make it easier for people to participate.

>> Has the WP considered merging with other opposition parties, be part of the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) for example, to consolidate resources?

In theory, it may be a good idea. But such a change has to evolve naturally.

There were some suggestions in the past about joining SDA. The WP looked at it, discussed the issue and decided that it may be better for us to continue going it alone. It is every party’s right to take whichever approach it wants in politics. I believe in diversity.

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