Straits Times: Fresh faces in Workers’ Party

INSIGHT FRIDAY
PEOPLE & POLITICS

The Workers’ Party started a new youth wing last month. As election talk hots up, the party is gearing up to appeal to younger voters. Sue-Ann Chia, Li Xueying and Peh Shing Huei talk to three young professionals on the party’s central executive committee.


PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
YOUNG ONES: Workers’ Party members, like (from left) Mr Tan Wui-Hua, 39; Mr Goh Meng Seng, 35; Mr James Gomez, 40 and Mr Chia Ti Lik, 31, hope to attract the younger voters in the next General Election. The party set up a youth wing last month and there are now between 20 and 30 members.

THE Workers’ Party may have only one MP in Parliament now, but it has big plans.

The party set up a youth wing last month. There are now 20 to 30 active members, including professionals, entrepreneurs and academics.

Youth wing chairman Tan Wui-Hua, 39, believes the younger members will refresh the party with new ideas and appeal to younger voters.

Setting up a youth wing was a milestone for the 48-year-old political party, one of the longest-surviving here.

WP chief and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang believes the party’s biggest achievement is managing to survive and renew itself, to provide voters with a choice during elections.

This is despite what he sees as the “tight political constraints and unfriendly macro environment”, he tells Insight.

As part of its renewal process, the party is now in the midst of writing its manifesto for the upcoming general election. It is also updating its constitution.

Second assistant secretary-general James Gomez, 40, is working on this.

“One of the changes is to review the rhetoric to make it more contemporary and relevant,” he says, adding that the constitution was still stuck in the 1950s, reflecting the outdated struggle for independence.

Party members are keeping mum about the new manifesto, saying it is still being refined.

But one hint of the line they may take comes from comments by some of them that Singaporeans would be poorer without the WP.

They reckon the WP has done its job “squeezing” the Government into giving out goodies like shares and funds for the poor.

The party’s paper on the “new poor” – the middle income group who became poor when recession hit – was the foundation of its election manifesto in the 2001 polls.

Recent surveys have shown that the incomes of the bottom 20 per cent households fell in the last five years, even as average income rose across the board. The PAP government recently unveiled additional measures to help low-wage workers.

“If our observation of that phenomenon has been accurate and taken forward, the WP is happy to share that observation, and I think we look forward to working with everybody to try to resolve it,” says Mr Gomez, who was a PAP member in the Telok Blangah branch in the late 1990s.

He adds: “As a party which is not in power, there’s very little we can do. What we are trying to do is to grow and be in a position where we can put more members in Parliament, so we can increase the level of debate on policies.”

WP chairman Sylvia Lim notes: “The younger leaders must be able to convince voters that a vote for the WP is a rational choice and good for Singapore.”

sueann@sph.com.sg
xueying@sph.com.sg
shpeh@sph.com.sg


The outspoken one

Tan Wui-Hua
Age: 39
Role in WP: Treasurer and Youth Wing president
Occupation: Financial controller
Family: Married to a bank manager, 34. They have a 13-month-old son.

IT WAS only Mr Tan Wui-Hua’s second Workers’ Party meeting.

Standing up, the political rookie publicly disagreed with party veterans, including WP secretary-general and Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang.

That was three years ago.

“Too outspoken!” Mr Tan, 39, now WP’s treasurer, says when asked how he differs from older WP leaders. “A lot of people have great respect for Mr Low. When I was co-opted they realised, I think for the first time, not everyone has to agree with him.”

And this, he says, points to the “democratic nature” of the party. “It doesn’t matter who’s more senior. Logic and common sense prevail.”

Mr Tan cannot recall what that debate three years ago was about. But he remains willing to depart from the party line on issues.

One: the integrated resorts. Mr Tan was the only central executive committee member in favour of a casino, albeit the “Korea model” where only foreigners are allowed entry, thus minimising social ills.

He was overruled.

Two: whether the WP should invite the People’s Action Party to its 45th anniversary dinner. Other political parties were asked.

WP leaders, speaking from experience, said that PAP MPs would not turn up, so “it’d be a waste of effort”, recounted Mr Tan, a financial controller.

“I feel that we should not hold back on inviting them. Whether they choose to attend, that’s up to them.”

It was put to a vote. The invitations were sent. The veterans were right: The PAP did not show up.

The mild-mannered holder of double degrees in economics and science and a master’s in accounting, believes his outspokenness led to his appointment as president of the Workers’ Party Youth Wing, set up last month. It now has 20 to 30 members, aged 18 to 40.

Asked what impact he has made on the ground, he says matter-of-factly: “Not being the elected MP, our impact has only been meaningful but not earth-shattering.”


The Netizen

Goh Meng Seng
Age: 35
Role in WP: Assistant organising secretary
Occupation: Businessman
Family: Married to a public relations officer, 34. They have an 18-month-old daughter.

MR GOH Meng Seng, once known by his online moniker “madcow”, may be well-known on the Internet, but he is not besotted with the medium.

“I will not be an Internet MP if elected,” says the 35-year-old Workers’ Party assistant organising secretary, who is a regular on various online forums.

“The ground is more real. The Internet is just a very small representation of the population. You can get some views from it, but you must always double check to see if people really feel that way.”

The businessman who owns two computer retail shops in Tampines and Ang Mo Kio, spends much of his spare time online.

“It’s a habit since my university days,” says the National University of Singapore economics honours graduate, who has an 18-month-old daughter. He was elected to the WP central executive committee in May, after joining the party during the 2001 General Election.

“We used to talk about serious matters online. Now, it’s just mostly mud-slinging.”

While frowning on personal attacks online, he does not shy away from biting comments when talking about the People’s Action Party.

“It’s up to the people to decide,” he says, sporting two large jade rings on his middle fingers.

“Either they give the PAP the mandate to squeeze them, or they give us the mandate to squeeze the PAP. The PAP can’t squeeze themselves.”

He reckons that it is the opposition’s “squeezing” that has forced the Government to dish out goodies like the ComCare fund to help the poor, and the Economic Restructuring Shares.

And he says that in places where the the WP operates, “the PAP works hard”.

“Residents get free breakfast and shark’s fin soup for $1,” he says, referring to two programmes started by PAP grassroots advisers in opposition-held Hougang and Potong Pasir.


New poster boy?

Chia Ti Lik
Age: 31
Role in WP: Assistant organising secretary and Youth Wing vice-president
Occupation: Litigation lawyer
Family: Married to a 24-year-old business management graduate.

WHEN lawyer Chia Ti Lik was with the Young PAP (YP), he thought the party was out of touch. He had joined its youth wing in 2000, helping out at the Fengshan branch.

By the time elections were held in November 2001, he concluded that the party was “out of touch” on issues such as the cost of living and foreign talent.

He thought he knew better. He wanted to form an independent party to challenge the People’s Action Party and asked some of his YP friends to join him in his crusade. His goal: win a GRC.

But it was “heresy” to his YP mates, he said. They dissuaded him, saying it was easier to change the system from within. His non-YP friends were not keen either.

But he pressed on and met some opposition groups.

He spent “1,000 nights ruminating upon the heavens and stars” before making the switch from the YP to the Workers’ Party. He said he was drawn to the WP by its reputation for putting up strong electoral fights.

But when he finally signed up with it last year, he kept his previous political affiliation under wraps.

“I didn’t want to alarm them unnecessarily,” he says with a laugh.

He was “exposed” after two months, but WP members did not question his intentions.

Now, the clean-shaven man with a crew cut hopes to be a poster boy for the opposition. He wants to inspire other politically minded young Singaporeans to do what he did, and join the opposition.

But they must be prepared for a hard fight as it is the only way to tip the balance in a Parliament dominated by the PAP, he said.

“We want to remind the PAP that if you do not look after the people, there will always be people like us who will be there to challenge you.

“Nothing beats a good and hard challenge to the PAP for them to take note of what is happening and what are the concerns and grouses of the people.”

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