Weekend TODAY: A touch of blue, a matter of choice

INTERVIEW/BY NG BOON YIAN

New WP chief Sylvia Lim on what it takes to win an election or convince someone to vote for you


TODAY photo by WEE TECK HIAN

JUST back from climbing Mount Kinabalu and white water rafting down Padas River, Ms Sylvia Lim (picture) from the Workers’ Party (WP) was game for yet another interview, despite nursing a hurt ankle.

Ever since the sporty lady was elected as WP’s new Chairman, the 38-year-old has been willy-nilly swept up in media attention – flooded by interview requests, even from women’s magazines.

Over lunch, Ms Lim casually mused over the stir in the media caused by her entry into opposition politics. It showed how “politically-backward” Singapore was, she said.

It would not have happened anywhere else in the world.

“So, are we really first world or not?” Ms Lim asked with her easy laughter.

Well, not yet in terms of politics, seemed to be the Temasek Polytechnic law lecturer’s verdict.

To correct the balance, her party is going in for a makeover of sorts.

From the new party brochure to the revamped WP website to the shirt that Ms Lim was wearing, they are all washed in the party colour of blue, blue and blue – a consistency worthy of brand campaigning.

And the image polishing is all part of a renewal crucial for WP to keep pace with an emerging generation of Singaporeans, said Ms Lim.

“Most people know that our party is ageing. So, we must keep up with the public and still remain relevant. We know from statistics that by the next election, about 60 per cent of the voting public will be born after Independence,” she said.

Of course, the renewal goes beyond the surface.

Fresh blood, including 20-somethings, have also been infused into the party ranks.

Organisationally, more sub-committees on areas such as policies and current affairs have been set up.

More importantly, the party is stepping up its efforts to work the ground.

Not only are there public outreach programmes every Sunday, WP has also started house visits recently, said Ms Lim. “We have to start work early because the public also needs time to assess us to see whether we are sincere.”

And because of the uncertainty over possible redrawing of constituency boundaries, WP is working on the “larger areas” too so that if some unexpected demarcation takes place before the elections, there will hopefully be “some spillover effects” from the earlier efforts, said Ms Lim.

“We have been making progress but we still need to reach a critical mass. We are not there yet,” said Ms Lim.

But all this ground work has left her reflecting on what it takes to win votes.

“In the past one and a half years, I have come to realise that to win an election or convince someone to vote for you, it may not be so important to the people to have grand ideas about policies sometimes,” she said.

It might be more important to convince Singaporeans of one’s sincerity and to engage them in everyday concerns like healthcare costs, said Ms Lim.

The former police inspector has dealt with people from different walks of life but as someone who is English-educated, Ms Lim does face some limitations in the heartlands.

Now, not only is she brushing up her Mandarin with tuition, Ms Lim, a Teochew, is also learning to say specific terms like Central Provident Fund in dialect.

The renewal notwithstanding, Ms Lim stressed that WP’s traditional commitment to speak up for the underprivileged and working classes will not change.

At the same time, the party is also not going to neglect the so-called “New Poor” too, an idea first brought up last election, much to the withering scorn of People’s Action Party.

Referring to Singaporeans made poorer by hard times – from the retrenched middle-class professionals to the jobless graduates – Ms Lim said that it is “a very real phenomenon” that WP would still focus on.

But WP wants to hammer home another point first. That there is a need for opposition parties, especially now that former Government critics like Mr Vivian Balakrishnan and Mr Raymond Lim have been roped into the PAP.

But Ms Lim does not think that will satisfy Singaporeans’ desire for more alternative voices.

She argued: “The thing is: Ultimately at election time, there’s no choice if there are no candidates from another party.

“At the end of the day, we will be living in a system where the PAP can decide what we can discuss, when we can discuss it and who they want to hear from.

“And that is subjugating people to a level of dependency where we are depending on the patronage of the PAP to give us the freedom to discuss.

“I think that is wrong. The people should realise that it is their right to express either approval or disapproval with the Government at the ballot box,” she added.

It’s an idea that the opposition has been pushing for some time and it remains to be seen how far the renewed WP can take it by the next election.

Straits Times: Erasing the fear factor

INSIGHT

OB MARKERS REVISITED

Whether they are real or perceived, the Remaking Singapore committee wants clarity on out-of-bound or OB markers so that ordinary people can talk politics without fear of reprisal. Senior Political Correspondent LYDIA LIM looks at the issue and those who crossed the OB markers and lived to tell the tale.

THERE are two views on the out-of-bounds or OB markers that have, for so long, delimited political discussion here.

The first is that the OB markers are real, as real as the out-of-bounds line at golf courses, from which the phrase was first borrowed.

A golfer who hits a ball out of bounds is deemed out of play and incurs a penalty.

Similarly, some Singaporeans fear reprisal if they should unwittingly stray beyond the political OB markers in word or deed. That is why they want the Government to define these markers clearly.

The second view is that OB markers exist only in the minds of “thick-skinned” Singaporeans, who want a guarantee that what they say will not invite a rebuttal from the Government.

Those who subscribe to this view say that Singaporeans should stop using OB markers as an excuse for their lack of courage.

Reflecting these divergent views, members of the Remaking Singapore committee were themselves split over how best to encourage more open discussions.

Should they do so by urging Singaporeans to claim their right as citizens to speak up on all issues, as long as they stayed within the law?

Or should they place the onus on the Government to clear the fairways of political discourse by defining the boundaries?

Mr Raymond Lim, who chaired the panel that dealt with this issue, says his personal preference was for the first approach.

In an e-mail reply to Insight, he writes: “I see citizen engagement as organic and relational and as such, it would evolve and turn not just on the say-so of the Government but by people exercising their right to speak up and be heard.”

Despite this, he decided to support his panel members’ proposal for a green lane, red lane approach to defining political OB markers.

The red lane is for those engaged in big P politics – that is action and speech directly linked to electioneering and party politics. These will get closer scrutiny.

The green lane is to enable free-flowing discussions on small p politics, including debates on government policies. The only caveat – these discussions must not compromise sovereignty, security and religious or ethnic harmony.

Mr Warren Fernandez, a member of Mr Lim’s panel, explained that the members wanted to craft a “broad enabling statement” to encourage Singaporeans to speak up.

But they also felt the need to reassure the many who remain wary of doing so because of incidents like the 1994 Catherine Lim affair, during which Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong challenged the writer to join a political party if she wanted to comment regularly on politics.

This happened not long after the Government said it was in favour of more openness and consultation.

Since then, other critical Singaporeans have received sharp words from the Government. Most of them are none the worse for it, saying that they were not deterred.

However, the resulting public perception is that commenting on politics is a risky enterprise.

Mr Fernandez, who is also The Straits Times Foreign Editor, says that the panel first tried to draw up a list of OB markers but found it to be “a near-impossible task”.

They asked themselves if race and religion, for example, should be beyond OB markers, or policies such as transport-fare hikes and streaming in schools, or the People’s Action Party and its leaders.

Their conclusion: clearly not.

They found that “any attempt to define the OB markers would be fraught with disputes about where the markers should lie, and when and how they should be moved”.

In the end, they felt the best approach was to employ the big P, small p distinction, and open up a green lane for the majority of Singaporeans who want their say on policies but have no intentions of contesting for power.

Some like Ms Chang Li Lin, a researcher at the Institute of Policy Studies, hopes the Government will accept the panel’s proposal.

It will, she says, be a “strong signal” that there is now more space for a free exchange of views.

“However, even without this political gesture, there is already a smaller group of people who are using and negotiating the current space,” she notes.

Insight catches up with three of these individuals who have, in their own way, been trying to remake political discourse here.


‘Markers exist only in people’s minds’


Hauled up twice by the police for questioning regarding his political activities, Mr James Gomez remains unfazed.

WHEN Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong chided the Think Centre in 2001 for being “one-sided in its presentation of articles and views”, the group’s founder, Mr James Gomez, cheered.

The Government’s criticism came at a time when Mr Gomez was handing over the organisation to new leaders. “I distinctly remember telling the next team: ‘The Think Centre has come of age to be mentioned in the National Day Rally’,” he told Insight in a telephone interview from Bangkok.

While the public perceived Mr Gomez and the Think Centre to have crossed the political OB markers and thereby invited unpleasant repercussions, the 38-year-old activist saw things differently.

He denied that the centre had crossed any line, and added that he did not feel crushed, embarrassed or afraid. Nor did his friends, colleagues or family members tell him to back off lest he further offend the authorities, he said.

In fact, the centre released a statement rebutting PM Goh’s comments just a day later, saying PM Goh had misinterpreted the centre as being openly critical of the Government.

“To me, the whole concept of OB markers is problematic,” said Mr Gomez. The concept does not exist in law, he noted. “It exists in some people’s minds, but that’s their problem,” he said.

So he is unfazed, even though he has been hauled up by the police for questioning on two consecutive days after a seminar organised by the Roundtable and a Human Rights Day demonstration at Hong Lim Park which the police deemed “an illegal assembly”.

And when he and his comrades ran into walls while organising the Save JBJ rally, they pressed on.

The smooth-talking regional communications manager said repeatedly they study the law very carefully and avoid transgressing it. Yet his actions so far are probably more than other Singaporeans would dare to copy, even if they agreed with his views.

He attributes his courageous streak to his father, a union leader.

“I grew up in a household whose philosophy was that nothing is impossible,” he said.

Mr Gomez is also one of the few civil society activists who decided to venture into partisan politics. He joined the Workers’ Party, and is now an assistant secretary-general of the WP.

“I felt it was the most effective way to contribute to the legislation process,” he said. – NEO HUI MIN

Straits Times: A passion for politics… and the underdog

Among the new Workers’ Party faces elected to office last week is a woman – to the post of chairman. HELMI YUSOF susses out the bright new opposition hope.


JACQUELINE ONG
Making history as the first woman to be elected chairman of a political party here, Miss Lim is now the WP’s No. 2, behind secretary-general Low Thia Khiang.

RISING opposition star Sylvia Lim’s life has in the last year and a half taken two big twists.

The first happened after Nov 3, 2001, when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) romped home at the polls.

“The PAP getting 75 per cent of the votes was the last straw for me,” she recalls feeling at the time, after the final tally was shown on television at around midnight.

Her voice shows some of the steel that may account for her choosing this often-fraught path of politics.

Although she had considered joining politics since the 1997 General Election, she held back until the landslide gave her the final push: She wrote to the Workers’ Party (WP) to ask about signing up.

“I decided it was time to make a contribution,” she said in an interview earlier this week with The Straits Times, in a tone which made it sound like it was an easy thing to do.

“There is no point wishing for a strong and credible opposition if one is not prepared to do something.”

The WP welcomed her with open arms.

Then came Miss Lim’s second turning point.

Last week, she made history as the first woman to be elected chairman of a political party here.

It catapulted the hitherto unknown to No. 2, behind the WP’s secretary-general and Hougang Member of Parliament Low Thia Khiang.

It has also put her under the spotlight, prompting a flood of the inevitable questions which would face anyone bold or energetic enough to venture into opposition politics here: Who is this intrepid woman? What made her take the plunge? Will she have the wherewithal?

When we met at a cafe in Tampines earlier this week, she tried to answer a few of them.

A single woman, Miss Lim, 38, is a National University of Singapore law graduate, with a master’s degree from the University of London.

She was a police inspector and a practising lawyer, before taking up her current job at Temasek Polytechnic as a law lecturer in 1998.

While coy about her private life, declining to discuss singlehood or how the polytechnic will take to her entering politics, she was otherwise happy to talk about aspects of her life, especially how she became interested in politics.

This she attributes to dinner at home as a child, when the food at the table was dished up with lively discussions on national issues between her father, now a retired criminal lawyer, and her mother, now a retired nurse, as well as her two younger siblings.

“Debating issues was a norm in our family,” she remembers with fondness.

But her friends weren’t interested.

“They would rather talk about food.”

Her early education at the Convent of Our Lady of Good Counsel and St Joseph’s Convent taught her charity towards the poor, she said.

In her undergraduate and postgraduate days, she did volunteer work for the Spastic Children’s Association, the Salvation Army Home for the Aged and the University College Hospital in London.

A fitness enthusiast who goes to the gym three times a week, she now spends a good part of her time helping Mr Low prepare his parliamentary speeches, attends party meetings and rolls up her sleeves each weekend to sell the party’s newsletter, The Hammer.

Former chairman Tan Bin Seng, 50, is full of praise for her, saying she is the natural choice for Mr Low’s right-hand woman. “She’s young and energetic. During our council meetings, she showed herself to be intelligent and confident,” he said.

Well-groomed, articulate and passionate about her beliefs, she wouldn’t look amiss wearing the PAP all-whites.

“I don’t agree with some of PAP’s elitist policies, so I wouldn’t want to join the PAP,” she said, when this suggestion was made to her.

Her affinity is for the WP, which she feels has fought for the working class and disadvantaged.

Besides being against specific policies – streaming, and passing on rising costs, such as health-care and tertiary-education costs, to citizens – she also sees a more general need for checks against government power.

“Singapore needs the Opposition to scrutinise government policies constructively and pressure the Government to serve the people better.”

Does she fear that being the one doing the scrutiny will get her into trouble?

She revealed that well-meaning friends had warned her about being made bankrupt or being jailed, adding that she was aware of the trials and tribulations of those like Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam and Mr Tang Liang Hong.

But that has only spurred her on, she said.

“I want to express this hope that, in time to come, people won’t be saying such things about joining the Opposition any more.”

Not that she is naive about the potential pitfalls.

“As long as I speak carefully, using facts, logic and compassion, I think I should be all right. I am, after all, pro-Singapore.”

It helps that she can draw strength from the person who inspired her political inclinations in the first place – her father.

He has told her he is very proud of her, she said, adding with a laugh: “Although he did once joke that I would land up in prison.”

Then, turning serious, she said: “I have no such intention.”


Trailblazers

MS SYLVIA Lim’s appointment as Workers’ Party (WP) chairman may be seen as a victory for women, as no woman has ever been made chairman of a political party here before.

But there have been a few other trailblazers in Singapore’s history of opposition politics.

In the first Legislative Assembly elections in 1959, the year Singapore became self-governing, Mrs Seow Peck Leng of the Singapore People’s Alliance Party became the only woman on the opposition benches. A fervent champion of women’s rights, she left politics in 1963 to pursue social and charity work full-time.

Another woman who figured large in the 1950s and 1960s was Mrs Felice Leon-Soh, the Liberal Socialist Party’s secretary-general. She never won a seat in the Legislative Assembly, but she is best remembered for her scathing comments about then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew over the 1963 merger with Malaysia.

The 1960s and 1970s saw fewer women going into politics. In 1968, only one ran for office. In 1972, there were two women in a field of 138 candidates for 57 seats. Both were from the WP. Neither won.

In 1980, things started to look up, ironically after then-Minister of Trade and Industry Goh Chok Tong made remarks suggesting women were not made for politics. It sparked a controversy as women activists and academics tried to prove him wrong. Both the People’s Action Party (PAP) and Opposition started to field more women.

In the 1980s, the number of women candidates rose. The PAP, for example, fielded three women in 1984, four in 1988, and then three in 1991.

That year, Madam Yu-Foo Yee Shoon almost lost her seat to Ms Toh Kiam Kiat of the Singapore Democratic Party. In the 2001 election, the PAP had 10 women candidates, while the Opposition had one, Siok Chin, Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan’s sister.

New Paper on Sunday: The new ‘life’ of the Party

Sylvia Lim’s quick rise to become Workers’ Party Chairman

Is it PR? Or is it strategy? It’s more, she says

BY TEO HWEE NAK


Why opposition politics?
It was a moment of great catharsis. The pent-up political calling was finally being ventilated.
– Ms Sylvia Lim

FEMALE. Politician. Leader of an opposition party.

So, does she see herself as Singapore’s Aung San Suu Kyi?

Don’t even suggest that to Ms Sylvia Lim, the new chairman of the Workers’ Party.

The eloquent, witty law lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic is one very self-assured lady, thank you very much.

But she’s hardly an Aung San Suu Kyi.

She may gush with admiration for the Myanmar opposition leader, but that’s it.

Said Ms Lim, 37: “Dynamic leadership, commitment, brave sacrifices. A great lady. I do admire her, but sorry, I’m not really keen to model myself on anyone.”

But surely there must be someone she admires and wants to emulate?

“No-one. I think I will find my own way,” she said firmly.

In a way, the vivacious Ms Lim is already a trailblazer. The first woman to take the helm in the Workers’ Party’s 45-year history, Ms Lim is perhaps also the only woman to hold such a key position in a political party in Singapore. And she did it within 18 months of joining the party.

Is the Workers’ Party trying to make a statement? Or is it hoping to carve a niche for itself? A strategic move to engage the public’s attention, perhaps?

Ms Lim took all these suggestions in her stride.

She said in her rapid-fire way: “I’m not very sure whether in the past there have been other women who have held any posts in any party, but I don’t recall any. So you see, we’re very progressive.”

“But I don’t think it’s so much about women in a political way. In this whole episode, there are some things which I’m very proud of. Our party’s organising members are predominantly male, and some of them are fairly old.

“But looking at the way they have voted, they are not constrained by any mindsets about who should lead, whether it has to be guy. I can’t speculate on why they voted for me, but obviously they’re entrusting me with a huge responsibility. Under our party constitution, the chairman has a fairly large say over how the party is run.

“Putting me there just for PR (public relations) purposes would be a big risk to the party. It has to be more than that.”

WHY NO WOMEN?

But while she tries to distance her phenomenal 18-month climb from the gender issue, the straight-talking Ms Lim couldn’t help but lament the lack of top woman politicians in Parliament.

“I must say I don’t like this state of affairs. Since the Cabinet now is quite large, surely there must be some opportunity to put a woman there. We see women holding important roles in business and in professional fields, so why should politics be any different?” she said.

The fact that she’s single helps, she admitted. The decision to make that leap into politics, and opposition politics at that, would be a more difficult one if she were married with kids.

“A single person, especially a woman, can devote more time to doing public work,” said Ms Lim, who lives in a private apartment in Bukit Batok with her younger brother.

Not that she has not made any sacrifices.

The active woman who exercises three times a week and sings in her church choir now spends her weekends poring over parliamentary bills, doing research and helping party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang prepare for his debates.

She has also been working the ground, wading into various estates islandwide to sell The Hammer, the party’s publication, which she also writes for.

Describing her decision to join the Workers’ Party, she said: “It was a moment of great catharsis. The pent-up political calling was finally being ventilated.”

Politics was something she grew up with at dinner tables, where her lawyer father would discuss current affairs with her and her younger sister and brother. In fact, she thinks her father is proud of her move.

“His friends tell me he would proudly announce that his daughter has joined the opposition,” she said, laughing.

She plans to make full use of her experience as a lawyer and the three years she spent in the police force as an inspector and later, staff officer to the Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID).

But she doesn’t intend to go in for former party secretary-general J B Jeyaretnam’s fire-brand type of politics.

Instead, she wants to be known as a persuasive politician who can back her words with facts and figures.

Throughout the interview at the Bukit Batok Nature Park, where she goes for her jogs, Ms Lim was animated and quick in her replies, laughed and joked heartily, and appeared completely at ease with the reporter and photographer, something rarely seen in even a seasoned politician.

When told that, she laughed and replied: “It’s something you have to be prepared to do once you enter politics, isn’t it?”


‘Shrewd move by WP’

IT’S time for a woman to take on a key role in Singapore politics, say observers.

Only in recent years have we seen more women filling the seats in Parliament. Still, none of them hold any top positions.

There are no female ministers, not even ministers of state.

There are also no women holding either of the key positions of party secretary-general or chairman in any of the other political parties.

Although the secretary-general in a political party is the one who holds the reins and steers the ship, the chairman’s role is also a crucial and visible one.

Ms Lim’s appointment is an interesting development, said Dr Ooi Giok Ling, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies.

She said: “Electing a woman chairman has its functions. In Singapore, the role of gender in politics is often downplayed. We’ve not given as much prominence to the fact that gender actually matters in electoral outcomes.

“But there are enough women here, young and educated, who may want this outlet. It may be a shrewd move on the party’s part.”

The Workers’ Party may also be taking the cue from the move of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to include more women in its Member of Parliament line-up, she said.

“The Workers’ Party is also reading the ground the same way. Mr Low Thia Khiang is known to be very good in feeling the ground,” said Dr Ooi.

WHY SO LONG?

And while Mr Seah Chiang Nee, who runs news and information website Littlespeck, was not surprised at the appointment, he wondered why it did not happen earlier.

“Women have chased and overtaken men in many other areas. But the question is why they have not done so earlier in politics. Indonesia, for example, has a female president. We’re far behind,” he noted.

Still, male or female, the key is whether Ms Lim can lead one of the oldest parties in Singapore to new heights.

“It’s not an easy position, especially in the opposition party,” said Dr Ooi.

Streats: WP gets first chairwoman

TEMASEK Polytechnic law lecturer Sylvia Lim, 38, was elected chairman of the Workers’ Party yesterday, the first woman to hold the key post in the party’s 45-year history.

The Straits Times today reports that another seven new faces were also elected into the 14-member central executive council, giving the policy-making heart of the opposition party are more youthful face as most of the eight are in their 30s, with one as young as 24.

A potential candidate for the General Election due by 2007, Ms Lim expressed the hope that her victory will reduce the fear among some Singaporeans in joining opposition parties.

Straits Times: Now more youthful, WP gets first woman chairman

The law lecturer is among the eight newcomers in the opposition party’s 14-member central executive council

By AHMAD OSMAN


STEVEN LEE
A law lecturer, Ms Lim is the new Workers’ Party chairman.

LAW lecturer Sylvia Lim, 38, was elected chairman of the Workers’ Party yesterday, the first woman to hold the key post in the party’s 45-year history.

Another seven new faces were also elected to the 14-member central executive council, rejuvenating the policy-making heart of the opposition party almost overnight with a more youthful face.

Most of the eight elected for the first time into the council are in their 30s, with one of them as young as 24.

“The election shows the party is open and is prepared to accept new blood and to support them to move the party forward,” said Mr Low Thia Khiang, the MP for Hougang who retained his post as secretary-general of the party.

Dr Tan Bin Seng, 52, who showed no rancour at having lost the chairman post to Ms Lim, said: “With the younger image, we hope to attract more talented young people to join us.”

Dr Tan has been the chairman since 1992. He will continue to be a council member.

The party’s self-renewal has been hastened since Mr Low took over the reins in May 2001. He became secretary-general after the departure of Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam, who quit after 30 years of leading the party.

With the latest line-up, the party has clearly moved beyond the former secretary-general and any residual influence he has on the party is insubstantial, if not completely dissipated.

The results of yesterday’s election at the cadres conference, held once every two years, also reflect the strong support for Mr Low’s aim to step up the pace of self-renewal.

He said: “My message to the conference is that to serve Singapore well… we need to have new blood. I think the conference got the message.”

Ms Lim, who is single and lectures at Temasek Polytechnic, joined the WP after the last General Election in 2001.

Commenting on her role as chairman, she said she would work with Mr Low, the top man in the WP, and the other council members to chart the direction of the party.

She can also speak up for the party and continue to build up its role “as a credible check on the Government” whenever it is necessary to do this.

She expressed the hope that her victory would reduce the fear among some Singaporeans of joining the opposition. “A few of us have taken the step and we are still around,” she said.

Mr Low, who does not adopt Mr Jeyaretnam’s confrontational style, chippped in: “You take the correct approach, you are responsible, even if you are in the opposition, you are okay.”

The other new council members are: Miss Lee Wai Leng, 24, a journalist in a private publishing company, Mr Yaw Shin Leong, 27, who is Mr Low’s legislative assistant, WP activist Melvin Tan, 29, Ms Jane Leong, a managing director of a firm who is in her 40s, researcher James Gomez, 37, financial controller Tan Wui-Hua, 37 and Dr Poh Lee-Guan, 41, a training consultant.