New Paper on Sunday: New face of WP? We’re just ordinary Joes say youth wing members

Ng Tze Yong


David Marshall

JB Jeyaretnam

Everyday folk: Mr Koh Choong Yong (far right) and Mr Bernard Chen.

Party hearty: Party chairman Sylvia Lim (far left) and secretary general Low Thia Khiang (far right) mingling with party supporters last night.

pictures | kenneth koh, ng sze yong

THE new face of opposition politics is one you might miss in a crowd.

Mr Koh Choong Yong, the 34-year-old vice-president of the Workers’ Party (WP) youth wing, is gently guiding his pregnant wife down the Marina Square escalator.

Mr Koh, who runs a two-man IT consultancy firm from his home, is carrying a square, brown canvas bag and wearing Crocs.

He drives a grey Nissan Latio.

He seems to have little in common with the firebrand opposition politicians of the past.

As WP turned 50 yesterday, the political observer might well ask what happened to the battle-scarred warriors of the past. Like former leader JB Jeyaretnam who used to hawk his book outside Centrepoint Shopping Centre.

But today’s young guns are more like Mr Bernard Chen, WP’s youth wing organising secretary.

The 21-year-old had come from Temasek Polytechnic, where he is into his second year studying leisure and resort management.

He said: “I see my role as offering an entry point of sorts for ordinary young people. I want to show them opposition politics is something very normal.”

An everyman politician as a counter to the elite figures offered by the ruling party?

“Many WP members aren’t the high-flying elites that get co-opted into the PAP but ordinary everyday folks you see in the coffee shops,” noted Dr Terence Chong, a sociologist with the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

Ordinary Joes. No loudhailers. No theatrics. Quite different from the WP of 50 years ago. The party’s founder was firebrand lawyer David Marshall.

WP did not have any seats in independent Singapore until 1981.

That was when Mr Jeyaretnam became the first opposition MP to enter Parliament since 1963.

WP embarked on a renewal process in later years, with rising star Low Thia Khiang, a Teochew-speaking businessman.

Today, WP has two members in Parliament: Mr Low, who has been MP for Hougang since 1991, and Ms Sylvia Lim, a Non-Constituency MP.

“The WP has a brand differentiation from SDA and SDP,” said Dr Chong.

“It is seen as the most cohesive opposition party today while SDP has a more confrontational strategy and the SDA has been rather quiet.”

But looking forward to the next 50 years, what’s the plan for succession?

Mr Koh readily admitted the party can’t attract the best.

“But then again, what do people mean by ‘the best’?” Mr Chen shoots back. “Academically?”

He played down the divide between WP’s youth wing and Young PAP.

To engage the post-65 Singaporean, Young PAP events have been held at hip places like Dragonfly and Indo-Chine.

Where do WP’s young guns hang out then?

“Hawker centres. KTVs, sometimes, when it’s someone’s birthday,” said Mr Chen.

Last night’s 50th anniversary dinner was held at Fortunate Restaurant on Toa Payoh Lorong 4.

The 700-odd well-wishers, many of them in their 50s, broke out in spontaneous cheers during the course of the night, as they tucked into shark’s fin, abalone and drunken prawns.

It resembled a boisterous wedding party. The audience was treated to a sideshow showing WP’s “birth”. Outside, old friends gathered for a smoke under giant red lanterns at the restaurant entrance.

Politics is not a high-brow business, said Mr Koh. It is about telling people how their lives are being affected.

Said Mr Chen: “People cannot join us for material benefits, to get their kid into the right school.

“Politics should be about helping Singaporean. Nothing else. Full stop.”

It’s not that Singaporeans are apathetic, said Mr Chen. They just don’t know what to do about their grievances.

“When people ask us how to join WP and we give them an application form, they’re surprised. They ask: Wah, so easy, ah?”

So what do these young guns want to do in WP? Mr Koh wants to increase environmental awareness while Mr Chen wants to engage the young.

But what about the economy, the main plank of Singapore’s success?

“A country is more than about budget surpluses and deficits. A country is about people and people have emotions,” said Mr Chen.

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