Weekend TODAY: No-nonsense man

LOW THIA KHIANG

Teo Hwee Nak, Deputy News Editor
hweenak@newstoday.com.sg

THE first thing that greets you when you enter his air-conditioned office is the lingering whiff of smoke from the freshly-stubbed cigarette.

And you can’t help but notice that the warm water the amiable auntie puts down before you is served in a Tsing Tao Beer glass. Then, Mr Low Thia Khiang, the Workers’ Party chief and opposition MP – who replies to emails in crisp and formal English, polite but sometimes bordering on aloofness – takes you by surprise when he leans forward and asks: “That round thing, is it stone or what?”

I was wearing a necklace made of two round pieces of shell in pink and red, and told him so.

“Very attractive,” the Hougang MP said, nodding his approval.

With that, the 48-year-old, who runs a signage business, leans back in his chair, his body language signalling that he is ready for the interview.

‘We’re suckers, aren’t we?’

He’s the kind of politician most Singaporeans have come to expect. Not always politically correct; doesn’t care if he isn’t. No attempt to hide that stubbed-out cigarette in the ashtray, no apologies for serving water in whatever glass is available in his pantry.

With Mr Low Thia Khiang, what you see is what you get.

He tackles questions in much the same way: Straight-talking, no-nonsense, but always considered, his replies punctuated by long, thoughtful pauses.

This is the man, who, a few months ago, launched a stinging criticism of SingPower for the way it distributed its $30 utility vouchers aimed at helping needy families.

SingPower gave the vouchers to grassroots organisations listed under the People’s Association and incurred the ire of Mr Low and Mr Chiam See Tong, the other opposition MP, when the media reported that only 30 per cent of the vouchers were used.

Grassroots organisations in opposition wards are run by advisers appointed by the People’s Action Party (PAP), not by the elected MP as in other wards.

In a press statement, Mr Low asked if the move was “a new strategy to help the PAP MPs and grassroots advisers in opposition wards win votes for future elections”.

While the coffeeshop speculation is that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will call an election soon, Mr Low does not think so.

But his party is nonetheless prepared, with its officials and volunteers actively working the ground in various wards. He said he aims to get more WP members into Parliament, but is tight-lipped on the details.

What he does speak readily about is the increasingly challenging climate for the opposition.

The biggest challenge, said Mr Low, is reaching out to an apolitical younger generation that has grown up equating the PAP with Government – “even the kindergarten they go through is PCF” (PAP Community Foundation).

“The soul of any political party is the people. Today, the state of the opposition in Singapore reflects the state of Singapore as it is,” he said.

“In the past, though Singaporeans may not have been as highly educated as Singaporeans today, they went through the political process of independence and the political vibrancy of that era.

“They understand the importance of political competition, of having their say through their votes. The younger generation hasn’t gone through that era. And because the level of participation in elections has gone down, people don’t care.”

In the last GE in 2001, only 33 per cent of eligible voters voted, with just 29 of 84 seats contested – the lowest number ever.

When asked if he thought the new Prime Minister would call an early election in order to get the people’s mandate, he replied: “Mandate? I think the PAP has got a walkover mandate. And when you go for elections, you elect the party, you don’t elect the Prime Minister.

So, logically, it’s not so much a mandate for the Prime Minister, but for the PAP as a ruling party. And if you’re talking about an individual mandate, what mandate are you talking about when you hold elections and you walk over in Ang Mo Kio?”

Likening the life of an opposition politician to being in “a sampan in a treacherous sea”, Mr Low pointed – as opposition politicians around the world tend to do – to the electoral rules as a factor that serves to “deplete slowly the strength of the opposition”.

He has done a study of the redrawing of the electoral boundaries over the years and said it has ensured that opposition supporters are always the minority in elections.

“In many other countries, you have election commissions. Here, the party, being the Government, decides. And this is fair? No.”

The PAP has always maintained that the Elections Department, as part of the civil service, is free from party political interference and that the electoral map is redrawn based on changes in population distribution.

While he cannot change the electoral rules, Mr Low said he believes that as long as elections continue to be held, Singaporeans will understand the practical use of the vote – even if they have no idea what democracy is about.

“Singaporeans may not understand the role of the opposition, but they do understand that when elections come, there will be a lot of goodies, that when you vote for the PAP, there will be upgrading. They understand that when elections come, then the Government will become gentler, and their complaints will get attended to very efficiently.

“This makes up a practical education process that helps them understand the reality of politics, the usefulness and function of the opposition, and how they can bargain with the Government through the opposition with their vote. But the next question is, how do they vote? They want the opposition, but they also want the goodies. They know when to use you, they also know when to discard you.”

He paused, then said with a resigned laugh: “We’re suckers, aren’t we?”

So, why serve a bunch of suckers, Mr Low?

“That’s the challenge, my friend. That’s the challenge. To do something different, but worthwhile. And the experience of involvement and participation in the election process as an opposition member is a tremendous life experience.”

But finding enough people ready to take the road he has taken for the last 20 years is a challenge.

Time is just one factor.

“The other factor is, people do not see (participation in the) opposition as being able to further their personal development, their careers. They see it as a losing cause. These are people who are of a high calibre and who are ambitious in life, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

“Joining the opposition, there’s no reward. Joining the PAP, there are some rewards, I suppose. But joining the opposition, you lose your time, your money. You contribute, but I can’t see any rewards.”

Which is why the opposition calls for “a different breed of people”.

“People who are prepared to say, okay, I’m prepared to take a challenge in life, I think that this is a cause for me, and democracy is important. People who have the guts to say: ‘Okay, let’s do it’. And what’s most important: ‘We’re prepared to lose’.”

But most Singaporeans aren’t. They go for the tried-and-tested and established, whether it is choosing a university (Mr Low cited a recent survey that showed students prefer the near century-old NUS to the two younger universities) or a career path or joining a political party.

“There’s a false sense of security that if the PAP is around, we’ll be all right. It may be so now, but are we sure it will be 50 years down the road? Because of the management and style of Government in the past – top-down and directing people as to what they should do rather than allowing genuine responses from the ground, whether in terms of civic organisation, civil society development – our society has lost the initiative by itself,” said Mr Low.

Years of reliance on guidance from the Government has created a breed of Singaporean that is always looking for help, he said. Hence, the resilience and vibrancy, which is necessary for the long-term survival of Singapore in the face of globalisation, is not there.

Singaporeans, however, don’t understand this.

“All people are concerned about is whether they’re going against the law … (Rules) have to be something explicit, then people know what to do. When they’re not, people say, I’d better not do it. It becomes a culture.”

The response to the rule that old windows be retrofitted showed Singaporeans’ immaturity, he said, referring to reports that many homeowners were misled by contractors into making unnecessary changes.

“All you have to do is say, I’m from the HDB, then gao dim (Cantonese for “settled”) already lor. Why are people so afraid of the Government? People forget that what is important is to make sure windows are safe.

“They think: Okay, since you say I have to rivet, I rivet already ah, so window fall, fall lah. I’ve already done what you told me to do. I rivet, I’ve done my part. But they miss the point, that it’s their responsibility to make sure that the window doesn’t fall and hit somebody.

“We may be a First-World economy, but in terms of society and how we behave, we have not reached First World.”