The Workers’ Party celebrates its 50th anniversary tonight. Peh Shing Huei surveys the opposition party’s fortunes as it greets its golden year, including whether it will enlarge its presence beyond Hougang to win more seats or even a GRC
WHEN Mr Eric Tan began planning for the 50th anniversary of the Workers’ Party early this year, he was bursting with ideas.
A “Youth Parliament” for students to debate; a cycling event along East Coast Park; and a snazzy video to be played during the commemorative dinner.
But the debate was canned because schools and parents were hesitant to be part of an opposition party’s event; cycling was disallowed because the authorities refused to give a permit; and the video was a no-go because it could be deemed a “party political film”, contravening the Films Act.
The only event left is a dinner tonight at the Fortunate Restaurant in Toa Payoh, with just a simple slideshow as entertainment.
“Reality sinks in,” says the party treasurer, also the organising chairman of the celebrations, with a chuckle.
Reality, indeed, has often been an unforgiving check on the WP for the last five decades.
Despite half a century as an active political party here – second only to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) – its record struggles to pass muster.
Limping through obscurity for the early half of its existence, the WP has never managed to snag more than one elected seat in Parliament at any one time.
But at last year’s elections, it mounted the strongest challenge among the opposition parties, capturing an average of 38.4 per cent of the votes in the wards contested.
It also made a brave, albeit suicidal, attempt at gunning for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Ang Mo Kio GRC and put up a fierce fight in Aljunied GRC.
As it crosses a milestone tonight, the question flashing before members’ minds must be: Is the party ready to break from its past?
The quiet Hammer?
WHILE it is not surprising to see antiestablishment postings on the online forums and blogs on Singapore, it is a tad odd when the criticism is directed at an underdog like the WP.
After PM Lee announced the Central Provident Fund (CPF) changes in his National Day Rally speech in August, forum postings wondered why the WP – known by its party logo, the Hammer – was so quiet.
“Does it agree or disagree with the PAP?”, asked one, days after the Rally.
Another said: “An opposition party should be proactive and always take the initiative to counter the Government instead of lazing around waiting for things to happen.
“Just look around at the spontaneous outpouring of views from forumers. If the WP cannot perform even up to the standard of these anonymous netizens, it should seriously consider de-registering itself as a political party.”
It was, to be fair, an overzealous remark.
But it points towards a gradually changing electorate and society, which demand instant answers compatible with their broadband speed.
As former British prime minister Tony Blair said in June: “When I fought the 1997 election – just 10 years ago – we took an issue a day. In 2005, we had to have one for the morning, another for the afternoon and by the evening the agenda had already moved on. You have to respond to stories also in real time.”
All these are contrary to the current WP model, one fashioned after the views and experiences of its leader Low Thia Khiang.
The Hougang MP swept to a surprise victory in 1991, a little-known Chinese-educated former teacher contesting in only his second election.
His win, achieved largely away from any media glare, paved the way fora modus operandi that the WP subsequently adopted when he took over from Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam as secretary-general in 2001.
Low’s Way has four main characteristics: wariness of the media; quiet, even secretive, ground work; an avowedly pro-Singapore stance; and non-confrontational politics.
It is a radical departure from Mr Jeyaretnam’s style, which favoured a combative approach towards the PAP.
The former WP leader, who left the party acrimoniously, declined to comment on the present leadership except to say cryptically that “it was a great party”.
Going Low’s Way?
THE party’s activities this year suggest that Low’s Way remains very much in vogue.
Only one forum (on Penal Code changes) was held and only two public statements – on Myanmar and a Labour Day message – were issued.
Locations of its weekly public outreach programmes to sell its Hammer newsletters have been removed from the party website. Party members would tell Insight only that they did it for “security and tactical” reasons.
Says organising secretary Yaw Shin Leong: “The media is not reporting our activities on the ground and we do not want the media to report.”
In short, after last year’s General Election, the WP has gone, as the netizens say, into a quiet mode.
This, in a year where the Government announced three controversial policies – an increase in goods and services tax, a hike in ministerial pay and the recent CPF reforms.
Besides parliamentary speeches by Mr Low and party chairman Sylvia Lim, as a Non-Constituency MP, not much has emanated from its Syed Alwi Road headquarters.
Ms Lim tells Insight that it is not a deliberate move by the party to limit the focus on just herself and Mr Low.
“As and when a policy matter is scheduled for parliamentary debate, we may deliberately defer public statements to the debate itself for various reasons,” she says.
“Specifically on CPF, after PM Lee made his general remarks at the National Day Rally, there were further details in later days by the Manpower Minister. We did not want to just jump in prematurely, when the matter was coming up for debate anyway.”
The Low’s Way has both supporters and detractors.
Says political scientist Ho Khai Leong from the Nanyang Technological University: “It is a conservative approach to survival, but given the limitations imposed on the opposition parties in the city state, the WP seems to be holding up.”
WP Youth Wing president Perry Tong also agrees with the strategy, citing proof of its strength in the party’s vote share last year.
Law lecturer Eugene Tan of the Singapore Management University calls its “pragmatic non-overreach” as the party consolidates after the unrealistic exuberance of the elections.
“They do not have the machinery and resources of the PAP – it is quite clear that they are opting for an incremental approach in terms of raising their public profile on the political landscape here.”
But at the same time, he believes that the party needs to have a greater presence beyond Parliament.
“Lying low does not do the opposition any good,” he says. “It is important for Singaporeans to know that the WP is not just functioning for elections.
“It is about having the party being on people’s mental maps and making the party relevant in between elections.”
By falling off Singaporeans’ mental maps and disappearing from conversations, it is hard to see how the party can continue to recruit and retain talent – arguably its most critical task in the face of a behemoth PAP.
Although hundreds thronged its open house after the elections, the flow has now trickled to a few a week and there are only about two dozen members volunteering regularly.
While the PAP’s man in Hougang, Mr Eric Low, observes new faces among his opponent’s volunteers, five of the WP’s most prominent young election candidates have dropped out.
Lawyer Chia Ti Lik, 34, who led the team in East Coast GRC, left the party late last year due to differences over Internet regulations.
Ditto for businessman Goh Meng Seng, 36, who was part of the the WP’s “Team A” led by Ms Lim, which claimed 43.9 per cent of the valid votes in Aljunied GRC.
Researcher James Gomez, 41, and financial controller Tan Wui-Hua, 40, who were also part of the Aljunied team, are working overseas.
Business manager Lian Chin Way, 37, the only rookie to contest in a single- ward in the polls, is not in the party central executive council or involved in party work.
As Mr Low tells Insight, the challenge of the party is not just to recruit young talent, but also to keep them actively involved.
The next 50 years?
TO DO that, observers believe the party needs to tweak Low’s model by having a higher party profile which would excite the young and sustain interest in the five long years between polls.
There remain murmurings among the party ranks of impatience with Mr Low’s perceived conservative and overly cautious stance.
Says Mr Eugene Tan: “Low’s approach has worked well for him in Hougang and it may be sustainable for him but only in that electoral ward. This is because he has a standing and reputation with his constituents who have largely supported him since 1991.
“This will not work, however, in constituencies where the WP is trying to make inroads and trying to reach out and win over the “un-converted”. Doing ground work in an area can be enhanced if there is some level of visibility.”
A way forward is to set the agenda and not just react to the PAP, he adds.
Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies agrees:
“Singaporeans do not look to the WP to fine-tune PAP policies, that’s what the Administrative Service is for. They look to the WP to offer radical alternatives and to expand their political vocabulary.”
Mr Tan cites the Hougang constituency as a possible test bed for different ideas, ranging from operation of the town council to the party’s engagement with residents.
Thus far, the Hougang experience – as is the case with the other opposition ward in Potong Pasir – is still very much modelled after the PAP’s, with weekly Meet-The-People sessions and community events similar to the PAP’s, albeit on a much smaller scale.
ANOTHER space to exploit is the Internet. Mr Tan Tarn How, a senior research fellow with the Institute of Policy Studies specialising in the Internet, observes that the WP has done a good job with its website, using four languages and featuring unique articles on their election campaign.
But after the polls, the party has chosen a more “laid-back stance” with its website, he says.
He suggests that the WP keep voter interest up by exploiting the interactivity of the Internet with online discussions and surveys.
These moves do not necessarily need to be done by the party itself. Instead, the WP can choose to be faster and more aggressive, and yet not sacrifice its moderate stance, by giving its Youth Wing freer rein.
Its president Perry Tong, 35, already labels the Youth Wing a more “liberal” element of the party.
Mr Low can extend the young ones greater independence to issue statements and organise events that would veer to the left of the party’s stand.
This would provide the party a platform to be more visible, jazzing up its image and at the same time assuring more conservative elements in the party that the main body remains moderate.
The aim, of course, is to ensure that the WP would score bigger electoral successes and break the PAP’s stranglehold on the GRCs.
To bid to take over the Government now would sound sexy, but wildly unrealistic. As Mr Low said earlier this week, his party would need some 20 years before it can challenge the PAP as an alternative party to vote into power.
Says Associate Professor Ho: “The WP’s strategy in the next elections should be to win a GRC. If this happens, it would be a breakthrough, not just for the WP, but also for Singapore’s political development.”
Sources close to the party say that young members harbour hopes of Mr Low leaving Hougang and joining them in a GRC fight.
It is an aspiration that Mr Low has never snuffed out, saying on more than one occasion over the years that he is open to that possibility.
But insiders believe that it is highly unlikely, and that it is merely a carrot that Mr Low dangles to sustain his younger members’ passion, as they jockey to be picked as part of the dream team.
He dismisses such claims, telling Insight: “Well, I think the passion has to be their own. And they must have the political passion to serve. They can’t depend on whether I would join them one day or not. That is hypothetical.”
Asked by Insight if he would be like Mr Chiam See Tong and stay in Hougang like how the latter remained in Potong Pasir, Mr Low declines to comment, saying only that “you will know when the time comes”.
FOR now, most of the younger members want to give Mr Low their full support.
But if they do not see results at the next General Election, either in the capture of another seat or the biggest prize yet, a GRC, impatience may grow and more pressure will mount on Mr Low to deliver.
As a member tells Insight, the bottom line is clear:
“The young ones have been sacrificing their time and they want to be MPs.”
But whatever the party does, its fortunes in the next 50 years remain dependent to a considerable extent on the PAP, says Associate Professor Hussin Mutalib of the National University of Singapore, who authored Parties And Politics, the only book on opposition parties here.
Therein lies the quandary for the WP going forward.
Its rise hinges in no small measure on missteps by the PAP that may or may not happen and with no timetable as reference.
But between surrendering passively to the PAP’s own performance and having unrealistic expectations of being the alternative party in a two-party system, there appears to be a lot more that the party can do.
That would entail a Hammer that bangs louder and more frequently, reminding Singaporeans that while it may not be ready to be the next government, it is prepared, qualified and eager to stake its claim for more seats in Parliament.
Otherwise, a quiet hammer is just an unused tool.
>> INTERVIEW WITH WP CHIEF LOW THIA KHIANG
The young can turn WP into faster machine
‘A RESPONSIBLE PARTY’: It’s no mean feat that the Workers’ Party has survived until now, says Mr Low. It has been in the opposition since 1959.
>> You gave the PAP a passing grade earlier this week. But you also mentioned that they can be more tolerant. In what areas would you like to see more tolerance?
They can be more tolerant towards political activities by political parties, such as when we wanted to apply to cycle at East Coast Park, the permit was not granted. I’m sure that isn’t going to threaten public security.
So I believe there is room where the Government can look into allowing more political space, to a have more open and consultative kind of environment, where they allow some activities like peaceful demonstrations in an area. Currently, they may allow you to do so at the Speakers’ Corner. But I’m sure we can afford to have more than one Speakers’ Corner here.
>> How is your party’s recruitment efforts? Do people reject you now because of fear?
No. People do come forward to join us. The challenge really is whether people who join us will remain and be actively involved in the party activities because I think everybody is hard- pressed for time. We are all volunteers.
We do have young people joining us. But I believe we don’t have a sufficient number yet to have the critical mass of manpower that we want.
>> You have said that you might one day contest in a GRC. How serious are you about that?
Well, my answer, as I have said before, is that I do not rule out the possibility that one day I might contest in a GRC. Many people are very interested to know when it would happen. My answer is you would know on Nomination Day.
>> But what is the likelihood of that happening?
Well, I don’t want to speculate because there is still some time before the next election.
>> Some wonder if you might be just like Mr Chiam See Tong and stay in Hougang like he is staying in Potong Pasir?
You will know when the time comes.
>> But wouldn’t your younger members very much love you to join them and contest a GRC?
Then perhaps you can ask my younger members whether they like me or they think I am lao-kok-kok (old and stuttering) already – “You join us, you may spoil the chance”.
>> But by keeping the option open that you may one day join them in a GRC, is that one way that you encourage them, to sustain their passion in WP?
Well, I think the passion has to be their own. And they must have the political passion to serve. They can’t depend on whether I would join them one day or not. That is hypothetical.
>> The PAP is only three years older than the WP. Why do you think the two parties are so different in what they’ve accomplished?
You cannot compare at all because one is a ruling party, monopolising the power and the resources since 1959. The Workers’ Party has been the opposition since 1959.
And you know what the PAP has done after becoming government. They have moved to capture the ground in terms of grassroots, in terms of regulation, restriction and all that, curtailing the development of the whole political process.
I think it is no mean feat that the Workers’ Party has survived until now. And you look at the other political parties at the point in time, where are they? What happened? Why? I think people must ask these questions.
>> Over the last few months, quite a few netizens online wonder why the Workers’ Party has been very quiet, especially in the wake of the CPF changes. What is your response?
First of all, the Workers’ Party is a responsible party and I do not believe in just making statements, just making comments for the sake of making noise, or of being labelled or afraid of being labelled inactive or quiet, in particular for the CPF issue.
When the PM spoke at the National Day Rally, not all details were out. It is imprudent for a responsible political party to start jumping up and down without even knowing what are the details, what is the concrete plan.
We have made an informed statement and we can properly represent the public and tell the public what is our stand. I know this is the Internet age but I think we can’t just respond because people want us to respond.
>> But what if that is precisely what some people want now – speed, fast, instant?
I don’t know, but I think, I’m a bit slow, I have to admit that. I have to admit that I am slow. And people who want it faster should perhaps consider joining the Workers’ Party.
I’m old, maybe slower. The younger ones will be faster, so we have more younger ones, perhaps maybe the Workers’ Party will move faster. So those people who think that we are slower, well, come and join the Workers’ Party to make it faster.
PEH SHING HUEI
50 YEARS of the Workers’ Party
1957: Formation of the Workers’ Party with former chief minister David Marshall as leader
1971: Former district judge J.B. Jeyaretnam (JBJ) joins and revives the dormant party hibernating since Marshall’s departure in 1963.
1981: JBJ wins Anson by-election, ending the People’s Action Party’s 15-year parliamentary monopoly.
1986: JBJ loses Anson seat after being sentenced to a month in jail for false declaration of the WP’s accounts.
1987: The Marxist Conspiracy sees 22 arrested, some of whom were actively helping the WP. Party chairman Wong Hong Toy defects, joining the Singapore Democratic Party with close to 20 members in tow.
1988: The Barisan Sosialis and the Singapore United Front merge with the WP. The WP fails to take Eunos GRC with 49.11 per cent of the votes – the closest the opposition has been to winning a GRC.
1991: Former teacher Low Thia Khiang wins Hougang. The WP is back in Parliament after an absence of five years.
1997: JBJ returns to elections in Cheng San GRC, and loses, but takes up post of Non-Constituency MP as best loser.
2001: JBJ loses NCMP seat when he fails to pay damages to PAP leaders in a libel suit. He resigns as WP leader bitterly, claiming that the party and Mr Low did not help him enough in paying off the damages. Mr Low succeeds him as secretary-general.
2006: WP fields 20 candidates in the General Election, its biggest slate since 1988. Only Mr Low wins, retaining Hougang. Party chairman Sylvia Lim gets the NCMP seat as the best loser.
2007: WP’s 50th anniversary