Weekend TODAY: 50 years on … what keeps Workers’ Party going



HALF a century is a long time in politics. Very long if that is opposition politics. And an eternity if the politics happens to be in a country where the ruling party has been in power for 48 uninterrupted years, delivering an economic miracle and breathing life into nearly every corner of the physical, social, economic and political environment and fighting its rivals tooth and nail.

Then, how did the Workers’ Party (WP) – put together by a pipe-smoking criminal lawyer called David Marshall on Nov 7, 1957, to promote workers’ welfare – manage not just to survive but keep its parliamentary presence for a very long 26 years?

The answer may rest in the fact that in nearly every election, about a third of voters do not support the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), said Dr Terence Chong from the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas). “Opposition parties have survived on the votes of this 30 to 40 per cent of Singaporeans,” he added.

The permanent anti-PAP bloc aside, the WP has also been kept alive by the presence of leaders who were able to provide the party and its supporters with what was needed at that time.

Mr Marshall was an idealist who thought there was room for another party amid a highly-charged political landscape. The next WP leader, Mr J B Jeyaretnam, threw in his lot with confrontational politics at a time when the political scene was bereft of opposition politicians who exhibited a sense of bravado to take on the PAP heavyweights.

And now there is Mr Low Thia Khiang, who is a major departure from his predecessors with his non-confrontational style. He prefers to let his grassroots walking do all the talking – a strategy that has gone down well with his constituents voting for him in four successive elections, the last one with an increased majority.

In the late 1950s, Mr Marshall, who had quit the Labour Front, discovered that there was a niche to be carved between the two extremes of the political spectrum – the left-wing PAP and the right-wing Labour Front government. And the quickest way to do that was through the communist-infested trade unions. Thus, the WP was born.

Despite a bright start that saw the party winning four of five seats it contested in the City Council Elections, the WP lost support dramatically once the communists threw their support behind the PAP. As political historian Hussin Mutalib notes in his book Parties and Politics, Mr Marshall’s centrist stance failed to woo the populace, “at a time when the agitative political climate was looking for more radical leaders”.

Mr Marshall was to go on to win the Anson seat in 1961 but, two years later, he was forced out of the WP after the party disagreed with his “all-or-nothing” position on the merger with Malaysia. Mr Marshall had wanted Singapore to either seek a complete merger with Malaysia or seek its own independence.

Divided and shorn of its most prominent face, the WP went into disarray and Mr Marshall was trounced at the 1963 elections in which he stood as an independent candidate.

The party remained rudderless until 1971, when a flamboyant former District Judge by the name of Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam brought with him a group of English-educated professionals into WP’s fold.

Armed with a 14-point manifesto that sought to “amend and repeal” some of the PAP’s policies, the WP under JBJ – as he came to be known – was cheered from the fringes but failed to grab any parliamentary seats in an election just months after the leadership change.

The party tried to make an impression in the 1976 elections with its platform of “Towards a Caring Society”. The campaign saw JBJ winning the highest percentage (40 per cent) of votes for an opposition politician but it was not enough to win him a ticket to Parliament.

JBJ was not to be denied five years later, when he won the Anson by-election, breaking the PAP’s 15-year-old monopoly in the chamber.

He wrote a boisterous chapter in WP history during his term in Parliament when he made his presence felt, frequently engaging senior Cabinet Ministers, including Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in fiery debates.

But while his term in Parliament kept him in the limelight, his confrontational approach towards the Government led to his downfall.

Mr Jeyaretnam was forced to relinquish his Anson seat in 1986, when he was found guilty of false declarations of the WP’s accounts – a conviction the Privy Council in Britain overturned but which was upheld here.

Still, he led a one-man crusade against the PAP. By roping in outspoken individuals who had an axe to grind, including former Solicitor-General Francis Seow, Mr Jufrie Mahmood and Mr Tang Liang Hong, the party established itself as the biggest – if not the loudest – opposition voice.

The exception was Mr Low Thia Khiang. Mr Jeyaretnam might rue the day he brought Mr Low into the party, since this set in motion a renewal process that indirectly led to his exit as WP leader.

Mr Jeyaretnam, who handed the reins to Mr Low in 2001, was bankrupted by defamation lawsuits while Mr Seow and Mr Tang fled Singapore.

Dr Hussin, in his book that was first published in 2003, argues the WP was often let down by the poor quality of its election candidates and its “spray-gun” approach against PAP policies. One exception was the WP’s call for a “caring society” in the 1980s, which offered Singaporeans an alternative policy.

But even this platform was somewhat usurped by the PAP Government when then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong took the reins in 1990 and unveiled a vision for a “gracious society”.

If Mr Jeyaretnam, with all his passion and fearless attitude, could not take the WP to greater heights, many doubted if the mild-mannered, Teochew-speaking Mr Low could take it anywhere at all.

After six years at the helm, Mr Low has proven his critics wrong. One need only look at last year’s General Election to see how far Mr Low has helped to revive the WP’s fortunes. Even the presence of Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong during the Hougang hustings in support of the PAP candidate and the dangling of juicy carrots before voters could not swing the votes against Mr Low.

Mr Low’s restrained ways have reshaped the WP brand – moving it away from firebrand politics and, consequently, unnecessary and costly legal battles. His stoic approach to the PAP’s attacks also won him fans.

While observers, such as Iseas’ Dr Chong, have no doubt the WP, under Mr Low, is the strongest opposition party today, the key questions many are asking as the party celebrates its 50th birthday in November are: Where can it go from here?

The PAP – like any other ruling political party – cannot be expected to make life easier for the WP. For some observers, the WP may find succour in something beyond PAP’s control – the forces of globalisation.

Dr Chong said: “As Singapore becomes more open, will there be a gradual resistance to globalisation among Singaporeans? Will the WP be able to take advantage of the inequalities and side-effects it brings?”

Even in this area, the PAP is unlikely to concede space with the Government already taking the high ground by introducing measures such as Workfare to provide relief to lower-income Singaporeans.

While the odds are stacked against the WP’s efforts to make a major impact on national policies, there are signs the party have started to adopt an approach that may seem modest at first glance but could pay big dividends eventually. And that is its strategy of “going local”.

That means working the ground – Mr Low reportedly attends as many funerals as he can in Hougang – and convincing the constituents that its members can do as good a job, if not better than, their PAP counterparts in running an estate and helping them solve their municipal problems through non-governmental means. But the biggest hurdle the WP faces is a ruling party that is likely to be tenacious in defending its ground vigorously. Still, as the hardline Old Guard exit the political stage, how the successive generations of leaders – brought up in an entirely different era – deal with the opposition will play a part in the latter’s durability.

Like everything else in Singapore, it’s results that matter. So, like JBJ’s victory in 1981, securing the party’s survival for another 50 years might hinge on the party winning a Group Representation Constituency.

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