"TOC Features" are articles written by practitioners in their fields of work or expertise.
By Bernard Chen
This article acknowledges the rich historical heritage of the Workers’ Party; the various challenges it had faced and overcame and the contributions of simple Singaporeans who have stood by the Party, openly or discreetly over the last half a century.
50 years. Half a century of involvment in Singapore politics. The survival of the Workers’ Party in these fifty years of a difficult political climate is in itself worth commemorating.
A look at the key cornerstones in the history of the Workers’ Party over the last 50 years tells us a lot about the resilience, commitment and determination of the various individuals in the party to do something for the people of Singapore.
1957 – A new star is born
The Workers’ Party was formed in November 1957 by David Marshall, a lawyer and the first Chief Minister of Singapore.
What was significant about the birth of the Workers’ Party is this: a broad-based political ideology which fought for the equalisation of opportunities for the individual for full and free development within the framework of respect for the rights of all, truly representative of Singapore society and ensuring equal respect for all racial cultures was given a concrete form.
The party’s main objectives were to seek the unity of the workers of Singapore, to promote the political, social and economic emancipation of the people of Singapore and particularly of the workers who depend directly on their exertion for their livelihood and most importantly, to improve the living standards of Singapore’s workers to a standard compatible with human dignity and the exceptional wealth of Singapore.
Until this day, the founding philosophy and objectives remains as the guiding light for the party and serve to remind each and every member and candidate the huge responsibility that the party has towards all Singaporeans.
The Workers’ Party since its birth was clear about its role as a prominent oppositon party in Singapore; opposing the governing administration for the right reason and supporting the ruling government on issues that is beneficial to the interests of Singaporeans.
1981 – The Workers’ Party folktale
1981 will forever be a emotional year for all related to the Party. It was the first time since 1965 that an opposition candidate (J.B. Jeyaretnam) breached the 50% mark in a general election.
It was the resolute commitment and dedication of the Party to provide Singaporeans with a credible choice that the Party was able to create history in Singapore politics.
Singaporeans for the first time was given a glimpse of what the opposition can do if they were given a chance.
There remains to this day, men and women of courage and conviction who are able and willing to stand as election candidates against the ruling party. Certainly, a feeble contest or even a no contest is out of the question. The Workers’ Party strives to provide Singaporeans with the best alternative choice.
1988: The beginning of the end of the Workers’ Party?
The years preceding 1988 saw the greatest challenge to the long-term viablity and survival of the Party. Faced with the disqualification of then Secretary-General J. B. Jeyaretnam, the arrest of 22 Marxists and the introduction of the Group Representation Constituencies(GRCs), the Party was at its lowest point in its history.
Despite that the Party did not flinch from its mission. The Workers’ Party rallied its supporters and gave the ruling government a great scare at the 1988 General Elections with a vote count of 49.11% in Eunos GRC. The Workers’ Party was a wisker away from beating the PAP at its own game.
1991 - 2006: A new hope, A bright future
The Workers’ Party ushered in the beginning of a new political style; from the confrontational approach adopted by J.B. Jeyaretnam to the cautious and media-shyness of Low Thia Khiang.
With this approach, Low took the Workers’ Party to consecutive victories in Hougang in 1991, 1997, 2001 and 2006. Some may disagree with Low’s approach and may accused him of being too conservative and short of ideas but the fact remains that in his own silent and steady way, he has managed to rebrand the Workers’ Party as a serious opposition which has the interests of the Singaporeans at heart. He knows full well the toxic arena surrounding him and most importantly, the survival of the Party and providing Singaporeans an alternative voice is at stake.
Is this approach still valid in Singapore politics in the years to come? Only time will tell.
2006: The march forward
What can I say about GE 2006? It was, in my opinion, a breakthrough for the Party as a whole.
The political environment was different, the candidates were different, the attitudes of Singaporeans were different and although the results were the same in the favour of the ruling party, Singaporeans renewed their hopes and desire for an alternative government.
Singaporeans saw in the Workers’ Party credibility, character, capability, passion, public spiritedness, youthfulness, commitment, courage, conviction; a break from the irresponsible opposition politics of the past. The renewal of the party was given a major shot in the arm and it is now well in place to bring Singapore into the next lap.
The attitudes of Singaporeans towards the Workers’ Party prior and after GE2006 is encouraging and full of promise. This only adds to the heavy burden on the shoulders of the Workers’ Party to outdo its performance at GE2006.
However, in order for the Workers’ Party to finally tear down the wall of unconstitutionality, in terms of the obstacles placed in our paths, in the various forms such as the political donations act, the GRCs system etc, etc, etc and etc Singaporeans have to discard the mentality of “We need opposition voices in parliament, as long as it is not in my backyard.”
At the end of the day, it takes two hands to clap. A determined, sincere and committed Workers’ Party coupled with the votes of the electorate will usher in something of a political upheaval in the next half century of the Party’s political presence in Singapore.
I have a dream; that Singapore politics will be one built upon accomodation and tolerance of diverse political views and opinions.
As one of the youngest member of the Workers’ Party, I am proud to be associated with the Party’s historical past. I salute each and every Singaporean who in their very own way played a part in the Party’s birth, growth, development and progress. Let the Workers’ Party and our ideals of social parliamentary democracy be our way of life.
At this critical juncture in the history of the Workers’ Party and Singapore’s political development in general, We have to ask ourselves this fundamental question. What does the Workers’ Party stand for and what role does the Workers’ Party play in the future of Singapore?
Fundamentally, the Workers’ Party stands for Credibility, Capability, Character, Passion and Public spiritedness and the main purpose of the party at this juncture in history is a simple one; to be an effective, vigorous and constructive opposition which will protect and speak out for Singaporeans against the arrogance of unchallenged power.
Read also: “The young can turn WP into faster machine” in the Straits Times (free).
About the author: Bernard is a member of the WP’s Youth Wing Executive Council. He wrote this piece for TOC in his personal capacity.