TODAY: Not afraid to speak his mind

Yaw Shin Leong wants to do ‘something’ for S’pore and believes that political competition is the way to go


STRONG CONVICTION: Mr Yaw Shin Leong of Workers’ Party says he decided to enter politics after ‘Cheng San 1997’.

BARELY six months after joining the Workers’ Party, an ambitious Yaw Shin Leong got into a heated argument with party chief Low Thia Khiang.

Mr Yaw had grand plans for the party after being appointed chairman of the WP’s youth action committee in December 2001.

He wanted to have WP chapters in Nee Soon, Sembawang and beyond. But secretary-general Mr Low disagreed. A huge debate erupted.

“I said we should expand, we can’t be so passive, we can’t be so conservative, we need to have more. I was thinking: Why doesn’t he see where I’m coming from?” he said.

“Within less than a few months, I realised where he was coming from. I tried (to expand). It wasn’t as easy as I had thought.”

These days, Mr Yaw, 30, is nonetheless as energetic and enthusiastic as before.

The secretary and co-secretary of WP’s northern and eastern area committee respectively has been seen recently working the ground in East Coast, Sembawang and Ang Mo Kio.

He will probably stand in one of these GRCs at the upcoming polls.

He now agrees with Mr Low, the MP for Hougang, that the party must first consolidate and “build from the core” rather than scatter its resources – a sign of how important Aljunied GRC, which surrounds Hougang, will be at the General Election (GE).

It is not the first time Mr Yaw has changed his views on politics.

When he was about 12, he began reading books on “Maoism, Stalinism, communism and democracy”. He “particularly grew quite attached” to socialism and communism.

But came June 4, 1989 – the Tiananmen Square massacre – and his nascent political views came crashing down.

“I was deeply disappointed. How could paradise on earth, supposedly in the construct of communist utopia, end in the bloodshed of innocent lives? I began to question,” he said.

“Of course, I was young and toying with ideas. I became more of a democratic socialist without realising it.”

As a National University of Singapore undergraduate, he joined the Democratic Socialist Club and became its president.

After Speakers’ Corner opened in 2000, Mr Yaw became a regular speaker. He also joined civil activist group Think Centre.

However, the event that stiffened his resolve to enter politics was “Cheng San 1997”. “The chain of events leading up to Polling Day convinced me that I must do something for my country,” he said, choosing his words carefully.

Probed further, he added, “There was a sense of political unjustness in terms of the political climate – how political campaigns were conducted at that point in time.”

Cheng San was the scene of the most heated contest in the 1997 GE. The rallies held by the WP team of Mr J B Jeyaretnam, Mr Tang Liang Hong, Dr Tan Bin Seng, Mr Huang Seow Kwang and Mr Abdul Rahim Osman drew huge crowds, and eventually, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had to step into the fray and up the stakes by putting his whole government on the line.

Mr Tang, labelled a dangerous Chinese chauvinist by the leaders, was sued for defamation and fled Singapore.

In 1999, Mr Yaw became a Potong Pasir grassroots volunteer for MP Chiam See Tong. But he later asked “Uncle Chiam” to terminate his membership due to his mother’s objections.

“It was nightmarish for my mum,” he said. “She used to pray and fast for me. She would tell me: ‘Son, I don’t mind you entering politics, but why don’t you join the PAP’.”

Mr Yaw still remembers the day his mother – who single-handedly raised him and his younger sister after his father died when he was 13 – gave him her blessings to join the Opposition: June 2, 2001.

Twenty days later, he joined the WP.

Explaining his switch within the opposition ranks, the e-business analyst, who is married, said: “WP gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling in terms of its ideological platform.”

Mr Yaw and his party colleagues helped to conceptualise and vet the WP manifesto (

For his part, he feels the political pillar is missing in Singapore’s total defence – a concept in which he firmly believes.

“Political defence, in the context of political competition, enhances a country’s survival,” he said.

He hopes to inculcate a robust political culture here is via Project Breakthrough – a team-up between the WP and Singapore People’s Party to open the communication lines between the two parties.

Though it is mostly younger opposition members who seem keen on this, he still draws inspiration from his veteran opposition colleagues.

Referring to his big debate with Mr Low, he gave his boss credit for allowing him to try new things. “We may sometimes have differences in approach, but that episode told me that if he has thought of it and disagrees, there must be valid reasons … So I’d rather take a few steps back and understand why,” said Mr Yaw.

“There is mutual respect.”

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