The Workers’ Party was recently hit by the resignation of two senior members. Does it hint of trouble in the party? Peh Shing Huei and Ken Kwek investigate.
PREVIOUSLY SEEN AS RISING STARS in the Workers’ Party, lawyer Chia Ti Lik (left) and businessman Goh Meng Seng’s recent departures have sparked comments that there has been jockeying among younger party members for bigger roles in the party’s activities. Others say some members are trying to draw closer to the senior leadership which decides who works in which area.
WHEN Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan launched a three-day stand-off with the police at the Speakers’ Corner two months ago, Mr Abdul Salim Harun became a little curious.
It was during the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings here, and Dr Chee had wanted to march from the Speakers’ Corner to Parliament House.
“I had never seen such a demonstration, and wanted to experience what it was like,” said the 25-year-old Workers’ Party (WP) central executive council (CEC) member.
But Mr Abdul Salim, a WP candidate in Ang Mo Kio GRC during the May General Election, did more than just look.
Along with some other young WP members, he bought some cold cheng tng for Dr Chee and comrades, a gesture that was highlighted, with thanks, on the SDP website.
The cheng tng overture received an icy reception from the WP leaders.
Sources told The Sunday Times that WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang was displeased. He has always eschewed Dr Chee’s aggressive approach to politics, and was loath to have his party’s name linked to the SDP’s latest stunt.
Mr Low’s own brand of leadership has been regarded as a key reason for the WP’s rise. But, less than six months after its strong election showing, the Hougang MP is finding his tight WP outfit fraying at the edges.
During the elections, the opposition party had impressed the public and observers with its discipline and unity.
Its team of young, educated candidates burnished the 49-year-old party’s reputation, allowing it to retain the Hougang seat with an increased vote share, and garner the Non-Constituency MP position for being the best-performing loser in the opposition camp.
But since the hustings, the WP leadership has found it trickier to rein in young members eager to flex their political muscles.
They want to participate in Internet forums; they want to engage the media more pro-actively; and they are not afraid to show their support for another opposition party.
Said Mr Abdul Salim about the party leaders: “In terms of allowing different voices and criticisms within the party, I do feel they are a little conservative. But at the same time, I think they know there is a need to open up. It’s just that the process takes time.”
That process may be moving too slowly for some.
Last week, two young CEC members told The Straits Times they had quit the party.
Lawyer Chia Ti Lik, 32, resigned on Thursday in protest over the party’s new regulations curtailing CEC members’ Internet activities.
Computer retail businessman Goh Meng Seng, 36, left because he felt his harsh online postings had created a bad image for the party.
Both were rising stars in the party, with Mr Chia leading the East Coast GRC team to score 36.1 per cent of the votes in the General Election, and Mr Goh a part of the WP “A Team” which garnered 43.9 per cent in Aljunied GRC.
Nanyang Technological University Associate Professor Ho Khai Leong, an observer of opposition politics here, did not find their reasons for resignation convincing.
He said: “It seems trivial and petty, to the point of being laughable. Would a party member in Parliament resign because there is a party whip imposed? That is the rule of the game, which members have to accept.”
But besides the Internet regulations, members also point to other instances of unhappiness.
Sources close to the party say there has recently been jockeying among younger members for a bigger role in party activities in Aljunied GRC. After the departure of candidates James Gomez and Tan Wui-Hua for overseas job postings, party members have been vying for places in the next “A Team”.
One source said: “After the GE, there was a sudden change in the alignment of some people. People seemed to want to draw closer to the senior leadership which decides who is assigned to work in which area.”
There have also been certain apprehensions about Mr Low’s style of leadership. He may be recognised as the unofficial leader of the opposition in the new Parliament, but he is not above criticism within his own ranks.
“I think the party leadership is overly conservative,” said Mr Chia. “Some might say that it’s about being cautious. But I think sometimes you can be too cautious, shy away from important issues, and you don’t perform as an opposition should.”
He added: “When we’re discussing issues among ourselves, there is less tolerance for differences of opinion.”
Mr Low disagreed. He told The Sunday Times yesterday: “It’s the same as managing any organisation. You can’t please everybody. But we give everyone a stake, let them say what they want to say at meetings, then set a direction and course of action.”
Regarding the “slow and tedious process of clearance” that Mr Chia claimed CEC members are subjected to if they want to respond to any public issue, Mr Low believes it is a trade-off the party has to accept if it wants to arrive at consensus within a “collective leadership”.
Caution must also be exercised by party members to avoid libel suits, he said. “If a party member issues a public statement and is sued for defamation, everyone is implicated, not just the one person.”
But Mr Chia, who recently posted a statement online attacking People’s Action Party MP Wee Siew Kim’s defence of his daughter, said that being too cautious amounted to paying “lip service” to the call for alternative views, and for checks and balances.
He argued: “The opposition at the moment does not live up to its role. It is too silent or too restrained in its criticism of the Government.”
WP chairman Sylvia Lim yesterday told The Sunday Times there was no restriction on members issuing critical statements on personal blogs.
The only restriction imposed on CEC members was that they should not participate in online forums, which she felt should be kept non-partisan.
Observers are divided on how these rumblings of discontent and the recent resignations will affect the WP. Prof Ho said that unless damage control is done soon, it would “cast a long shadow on the credibility of the party”.
But Dr Terence Chong, a fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, did not think there will be a major impact.
“The reasons for resignation are not scandalous or criminal, but of personal differences and expectations. Most Singaporeans understand this,” he said.
Both Mr Low and Ms Lim are sanguine about the recent turn of events, saying they are merely “teething problems” of a growing party.
But the unavoidable fact for the leadership is that if the WP wants to expand beyond its two parliamentary seats, it must find a way to accommodate an increasing number of contending personalities.
Party leaders will have to figure out how to cater to different modes of expression, while containing the internal tussles for influence and public exposure.
WP leaders: It’s part and parcel of the growing process
An interview with Workers’ Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang and chairman Sylvia Lim yesterday
MS LIM is confident of the party pushing forward despite losing two members recently.
MR LOW says the WP isn’t based on individuals but on collective leadership.
Q: Can you give your comments on the recent resignations of Mr Goh Meng Seng and Mr Chia Ti Lik from your party?
Ms Sylvia Lim: I think this is part and parcel of the growing process. As any organisation grows, there will be some teething problems. Generally, although the members may feel a bit sad, I think they’re still committed to pushing forward.
Mr Low Thia Khiang: I don’t think we should expect any person who stands as a candidate to always be with the party.
Q: Mr Chia had a certain following in East Coast GRC and among the young, while Mr Goh had a certain appeal among the Mandarin-speaking crowd. How do you intend to recover some of the lost ground?
Mr Low: You will know when the next election comes. We do have younger members and many of them are pretty active. It’s premature at this time to say who will replace them, or how to replace them. The party is a whole, an organisation, and isn’t based on individuals. We believe in collective leadership, and we hope people will look at us as the Workers’ Party rather than as different individuals.
Q: Some WP members have said they feel the leadership is a little conservative, a little too controlling of dissenting views within the party.
Mr Low: It’s the same as managing any organisation. You can’t please everybody. But we give everyone a stake, we let them say what they want to say in whatever discussions we hold, we set a direction and decide on a course of actions.
Ms Lim: We have said that members should be free within the party to bring out whatever views they want. But when you engage outside as an organisation, there should be a unified stand.
Q: Mr Chia felt that he needed to be able to legitimise his statements (on the Internet) by using his own name?
Ms Lim: We have been thinking about this issue for a number of weeks. The other side we see from people who take part in these forums is that they value the anonymity, because they can say what they want. And the presence of WP office holders there makes them feel very uncomfortable. We have to respect people who are not in political parties, give them that space, let them go and debate things. It shouldn’t be partisan.
Party’s dos and don’ts on the Internet
INTERNET guidelines for Workers’ Party Central Executive Council (CEC) members, as told to The Sunday Times by party chief Low Thia Khiang and party chairman Sylvia Lim:
• CEC members should not participate in online forums in their own names as partisan postings can make others “feel uncomfortable”.
• CEC members are allowed to have their own personal blogs.
• CEC members are allowed to write letters to the media in their personal capacities or to post them on their own blogs.
• If CEC members wish to make any public statement on behalf of the party, whether to the mainstream media or on the Internet, they must first clear it with the party leadership.