PEOPLE & POLITICS
In the war of words this week between the People’s Action Party and the Workers’ Party, Ms Sylvia Lim has been accused of just “fronting” the WP. She tells Aaron Low and Lydia Lim where she stands
PHOTOS: ALBERT SIM
NOT “FRONTING” FOR ANYBODY: Ms Lim points out that she and Mr Low are on the same wavelength politically, even though their backgrounds may differ.
WHEN the General Election is called, one of the first things Workers’ Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim will do is quit her law lecturer job at Temasek Polytechnic.
The reason? Government employees cannot hold political office.
“I knew that and I was prepared,” says the 40-year-old chairman of the Workers’ Party.
If she does get elected, the single woman intends to be a full-time MP.
But yes, that is racing ahead of the game. Right now she is focused on making sure she can stand her ground – fending off charges the People’s Action Party has levelled at her and winning over constituents she meets during her weekly house-to-house visits.
Ms Lim is caught in a maelstrom that began unexpectedly last Saturday. Dr Ng Eng Hen, PAP organising secretary (special duties), lambasted the WP for its manifesto that had four proposals – to scrap grassroots organisations, ethnic integration policies and the elected presidency, and to raise subsidies – he deemed as “dangerous and wrong”.
He urged the WP to reconsider these “time bombs” that could tear apart Singapore’s multiracial society.
The WP refused to yield. Ms Lim signed a two-page statement a day later saying essentially, thanks, but no thanks.
On Monday, Dr Ng fired back, again urging the WP to rethink its position. When The Straits Times met WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang and Ms Lim that night, she was subdued, letting him take charge.
But Dr Ng had singled her out, asking Ms Lim if hers was a “carefully thought out and sincerely held position”. Or was she “just regurgitating ill-conceived positions and fronting for the party”?
If she is rattled, Ms Lim is not about to show it. She is clear about this: No light can come between her and the party’s stand.
So, on the WP’s calls to do away with both the ethnic quota for housing and group representation constituencies (GRCs), she says she believes Singapore society has matured and does not need such policies.
The different races have “integrated naturally”, she says, by going to the same schools and doing national service, for example.
The party wants the ethnic quota for housing scrapped because it makes it difficult for some Singaporeans to sell their HDB flats. It is unfair, plain and simple, she says.
The PAP has maintained that the policy, even if painful to some, is crucial to ensure there is racial mixing in housing estates.
As for GRCs, she says they skew elections in favour of larger political parties, increase the likelihood of walkovers by the PAP and frustrate the desire of citizens to exercise their vote.
What about the PAP’s argument that GRCs help ensure minorities are represented in Parliament?
“If there is a need to ensure minority representation, there are other ways. If the Government says only GRCs can assure it, you know that’s wrong,” she says.
On the WP’s proposal to abolish the office of the Elected President (EP), Ms Lim sees it this way: “It’s clear the EP is meant to jam up a non-PAP government in its first term. If people want a change and elect a new government, then why should it be subject to all these?”
Dr Ng also accused the WP of calling for higher subsidies for a whole range of public goods and services without explaining how it planned to pay for this “expensive shopping trip”.
The WP has proposed subsidies in a number of areas. They include a proposal for the Government to co-pay the premiums for a basic hospitalisation insurance scheme.
But Ms Lim denies the WP will binge-spend.
“We respect the fact that we should be fiscally prudent,” she says.
She says what the WP objects to is the PAP Government’s position of only helping the needy when there are Budget surpluses.
“If you are saying you will only help the less fortunate in good times, then I think it’s not the correct principle.”
On scrapping of grassroots organisations, Ms Lim says she is an advocate of non-political groups: “We encourage the community to vote for their own leaders and have their MP just as an adviser.”
Throughout the interview, Ms Lim takes pains to point out that she and Mr Low are on the same wavelength politically, even though their backgrounds may differ.
She is English-educated, a one-time police officer and trained as a lawyer. He is Chinese-educated, a one-time teacher and now a businessman.
She is taking Mandarin lessons, but adds: “If you look at the WP Central Executive Council now, many more people are English-educated. In a way, we are reflecting changes in the population.”
“And Mr Low is also quite interesting… He now sounds quite English-educated because of some of the jokes he cracks. So I think there is some kind of mutual influence.”
So, she says, she does not understand what Dr Ng means about her just “fronting” the party.
Even if she and Mr Low are different, she knows well the value of party discipline.
Hence she gives away little. She is non-committal when asked if the WP will fight the election on these four “time-bomb” issues, as Dr Ng has challenged it to.
“We have other things in the manifesto which we think are important, and when the election is called, we will make them known,” she says.
These and other issues are more “time critical” and the party could lose the advantage if it reveals them too early.
For now, she is just trying to get a lead on the ground. She spends weekends and sometimes weekday nights on house-to-house visits in Aljunied GRC, she says to accusations by Dr Ng that she is out of touch with the ground.
Throughout the interview at her Toh Tuck condominium, Ms Lim is cool and collected. She parlays political quips readily, like when she finds out that two press people are Catholic. She is one too, and referring to the arrests in 1987 of a group of Catholics, she says: “Oh, two more and we’ll have a Marxist conspiracy.”
It is no surprise she can recall such events easily. After all, growing up, current affairs took up dinner conversations in her family of two younger siblings, mother and lawyer father.
Still, she admits she was taken aback by the PAP this week.
“I mean, to have a few different ministers coming out… it was quite interesting to see that.”
Sylvia Lim on ties with Low Thia Khiang, Workers’ Party plans for upcoming election
>> Dr Ng Eng Hen accused you of being a front for the rest of the party. What do you have to say to that?
What I can tell you is that because I was involved in the drafting and discussion for this manifesto from day one, I’m comfortable with what we have done and I will defend it. I stand by it, definitely. This is part of collective responsibility, isn’t it? And I’ve been elected as chairman of the party so that’s the party position.
>> Of the four “time bombs”, one of the most controversial is race relations. If race relations are as healthy as you say they are, why don’t you ask for other policies besides the ethnic quota on housing to be abolished?
You mean like the Internal Security Act and all?
But that’s very different from allowing people to live where they want to live. It’s quite a different thing.
>> But there are a whole range of policies that exist to ensure racial harmony.
You may be right but I don’t know which laws specifically you are referring to. Now just allowing people to choose where they want to live is definitely on a different scale and we have seen people suffer under the policy. If they want to move, if they can’t find someone of the same race, they are stuck there. And then whatever price they get offered by an eligible buyer, they should think about it seriously. So the question is about fairness.
>> With the focus now on the four “time bombs”, do you think you’ve lost the initiative to set the agenda?
It’s quite funny because we’ve had a lot of calls and e-mails. Some people called up to say, keep your cool, don’t get dragged in, that sort of stuff. But of course there are also people who come in to voice their views on the four issues. Right now we have put the manifesto online so people can read for themselves what we have said and take things in the proper context.
As for losing initiative, someone told me Singaporeans will be able to see whether they are “time bombs” or not. So let’s leave it at that.
>> Dr Ng also kept asking you and other members to speak out if you felt uncomfortable with the proposals. Does he know something about the unity of your party that we don’t?
I don’t know where he got that from, so you have to ask him. It’s quite interesting for us to hear that too.
>> So what is your relationship like with Mr Low Thia Khiang?
We get along very well, I would say. It’s quite interesting because in some ways, people think our backgrounds are very different, which is true. But I think we have quite a good mutual understanding.
>> What are some of the things you have in common?
Fundamentally, we have the same view of the role of the Workers’ Party and we believe in being careful in the things we do and say in public. We believe in being constructive and we don’t believe in reflexive reactions, in that sense. Also, we know what we are doing in the WP is for Singapore and it may not happen, you never have successes overnight. So we are prepared to take the long view and do things carefully.
>> Have you ever disagreed with him?
We have different views on certain things but of course, after we have had a discussion and a decision is made, then if we present it to the public, we will defend it.
>> That sounds a lot like what the PAP does. Disagree in private, but stay united in public.
I think that’s the way we should all work.
>> So how are you preparing for the general election?
On the general level, I think it has already been quite well reported that we have been working, we have not been sleeping, doing a fair amount of groundwork, whether it is through selling our party papers or doing home visits and all that.
>> How many blocks have you visited?
A lot, lah. I don’t want to disclose those things. But I’ve been doing it for quite a while already.
>> The last time Mr Low was asked where the WP will contest, he said four GRCs.
He said we are eyeing those four areas, but whether we actually contest in them is not confirmed.
>> Where will you contest? Aljunied GRC?
Possibly, yes of course. (laughs) It is likely I will be in a GRC, because currently there are only nine single member constituencies and there are quite a few other parties in Singapore. Also there is an understanding that certain parties have closer ties with different areas and we tend to defer to that.
So right now, we are looking at three of the single seats, Hougang, Nee Soon East and Joo Chiat. Because of this, the rest of us have to contest in GRCs.
But it is quite exciting. It raises the stakes in a contest for a GRC.
It is quite nice to know that because in a GRC, the population can range between 90,000 and 180,000. All these people get to vote. So it is quite meaningful.
About the WP manifesto…
COMMUNITY BUILDING: Ms Lim with (from left) friend and supporter John Law, and WP members Joseph Teo and Ismail Salleh during a walkabout in Aljunied GRC on Wednesday night.
THE first line of the Workers’ Party’s 2006 manifesto states:
“As a political party, the long-term goal of the Workers’ Party (WP) is to be an alternative government.”
As befits an opposition party which has set its sights on being an alternative to the People’s Action Party (PAP), the WP’s 52-page, 14-chapter manifesto is entitled You Have A Choice.
It is a document that includes proposals on many aspects of government policy. These range from government and civil liberties to law and order, labour policies, economics, education, public housing, health care, transport and society.
Launched by the WP on Jan 14, the manifesto has attracted criticism on two fronts.
First, that it contains four “time bombs” that threaten Singapore society.
Second, that it contains other ideas the WP “copied” from the PAP.
Party chairman Sylvia Lim brushes off the second charge.
“We do our own research and we write what we believe in. Whether the PAP happens to believe in the same things or not, that’s coincidental to us,” she says.
She points out that her party started work on its manifesto way back in 2002. It held forums to consult the public on issues such as the “new poor”, public housing and transport.
Its six-member manifesto committee then split up the work of drafting the 14 chapters, with each person taking charge of a few chapters. The team comprised WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, Ms Lim, executive council members Poh Lee Guan, James Gomez, Tan Wui-Hua and one other person who preferred not to be named.
Ms Lim refused to identify the chapters each of them was responsible for.
Last year, they met over two months for intensive discussions that often stretched past midnight, “to ensure we were comfortable with all the paragraphs in there”, she says.
At the same time, she admits the party chose to unveil the manifesto as soon as it was ready because some of its proposals were already implemented by the Government.
“If we wait, more and more of the things we are proposing are going to be implemented. We don’t want to be in that position,” she says.
What does the manifesto contain that is new or different from what the PAP Government is already doing?
For starters, it calls for increased spending and other changes to improve the lot of groups the WP regards as needy and vulnerable. This includes workers, the low-income, elderly and disabled.
The introduction to the manifesto sets out in broad terms why the party thinks many policies need to be adjusted.
“Those with economic power tend to congregate with those with political power, resulting in a power elite network. The consequence of such a structure is imbalance in policy formulation,” it says.
Many of its proposals flow from this starting point.
The chapter on health, for instance, quotes the refrain of many heartlanders that they “can die but cannot afford to be sick”.
It calls for the Government to raise spending on health care and proposes it co-pay the premiums of a basic hospitalisation insurance scheme for all.
On education, the WP wants more funding and support for neighbourhood schools.
The chapter on labour policy says the WP believes unions should be independent and empowered to protect the rights of workers. It also wants to amend the Employment Act to ensure more protection for workers in areas such as retrenchment benefits and overtime pay.
Several ideas will entail much higher spending by the Government, none more so than the proposals in the chapter on public housing.
The WP wants cash grants for all first-time flat buyers equivalent to 10 per cent of the average selling price of a four-room resale flat. Second-time buyers should get a subsidy equivalent to 5 per cent, it says.
It does not make clear whether these grants should be in addition to or in place of current grants the Housing Board gives to first-time buyers who purchase from the open market.
The WP also wants a second cash grant to help Singaporeans plan for their retirement needs, so they do not have to downgrade to smaller flats for cash.
The rationale for all this extra spending? The manifesto recounts how many people rushed to buy bigger flats at the height of the property boom because they “believed in the PAP’s propaganda of enhancing of their assets”. They were hit hard when property prices crashed.
It also notes the way the Government is “limiting” its role in public housing and says “more resources could be focused on achieving home ownership”.
This chapter is also where the proposal to scrap the ethnic quota on housing appears.
The manifesto says the policy is no longer needed because “society has now attained a level of multiracial integration” and Singaporeans should have “equal freedom of choice of home locations”.
Another important plank in the manifesto is political participation and competition.
That is why the WP wants GRCs and the office of Elected President abolished.
The presidency should revert to a ceremonial post, it says, because “the power of Parliament as the people’s representative should be unfettered”.
As for GRCs, they “dilute the individual voters’ voice”.
“Instead, elections should be run on single seats,” the WP says.
What the manifesto does not explain is how the party will ensure minorities are represented in Parliament, once the GRCs are dismantled.
It throws up an alternative system of proportional representation that New Zealand uses to “handle Maori seats”, without giving a clear sense of how this can be applied to Singapore.
The call to scrap GRCs also appears in another chapter entitled Society, which focuses to a large extent on community building.
It also calls for doing away with GRCs so as to “revert to constituencies based on geographical areas”.
The chapter also contains the proposal to abolish grassroots network of residents’ committees (RCs) and citizens’ consultative committees (CCCs).
These groups serve as “eyes and ears of the Government” and “cripple the growth of natural community leadership”.
It suggests they be replaced by a revamped system of community centre management committees, whose members are elected by the community through local polls.