By Andrew Loh
When the Workers’ Party Secretary-General Mr Low Thia Khiang introduced his party’s slate of candidates for the General Elections last May, he said:
“These are people who have the international perspective, who are able to travel internationally for employment. But they are prepared to join the WP, prepared to lose. This is the spirit. It's something the PAP candidates are lacking.” (Channel NewsAsia)
Seen in this light, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s jibe at the WP’s “A” Team in Aljunied GRC for going “AWOL” (Absent Without Official Leave) somehow rings hollow. PM Lee was replying to a question from a veteran PAP member, Mr Png Wee Chor, about the WP’s declared aim of winning a GRC in the next elections.
The government’s own exhortation for Singaporeans to venture overseas contradicts PM Lee’s rather childish jibe at the WP. It is cheap political point-scoring. One might say that PM Lee himself is guilty of going AWOL – Answering With Oversimplified Logic.
It is over-simplification to say that because the WP’s candidates are now overseas that they have thus gone AWOL.
First, as have been brought up by several people already, the acronym AWOL stands for Absence Without Official Leave. The key word is “official”. The WP candidates did not win the elections in Aljunied GRC. Thus, they have no official duties or positions in Aljunied GRC. They are not the MPs of the GRC. So, how can they be accused of going absent without official leave? In any case, to whom should they “officially” apply in order to leave for work overseas?
Second, the WP Aljunied team consisted of Sylvia Lim, Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob, Tan Wui Hua, James Gomez and Goh Meng Seng. Ms Lim and Mr Rahizan have been and still are working the ground in Aljunied and helping the party sell its newspaper, The Hammer, on weekends, besides their other commitments. Ms Lim is a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament and has made regular attendance and speeches in Parliament. Mr Rahizan has since been elected Vice-Chairman of the WP with added responsibilities, naturally.
Mr Tan (picture, right) is currently working in the United Arab Emirates as Senior Vice-President (Finance), Omniyat Holdings, Mr Gomez is working in Sweden with the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, and Mr Goh, a businessman, is now actively involved with the National Solidarity Party (NSP).
I do not think that any reasonable person would begrudge the members their right to seek out their livelihood in any place they feel is best for them and their families. Besides, one should be mindful that all 5 were actively working the ground years prior to GE 2006 as well. So, there is no reason to believe or insinuate that they are given to absenting themselves from doing groundwork.
Third, implicit in PM Lee’s words perhaps is the accusation that the WP has been missing since the elections. It is nothing new. PAP MPs have said this before. In fact, during the run-up to the elections last May, the same issue was brought up from some “PAP quarters”, according to a Channel NewsAsia report:
“Still, at Tuesday's news conference, Ms Lim and WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang refuted comments from PAP quarters that the Opposition only appeared during the election period.
Citing a 2004 PAP internal report on the Opposition, which noted that their activities have intensified, Ms Lim said: "Their own intelligence in written form says something else." (Channel NewsAsia)
Unfortunately, the PAP, as far as I can recall, did not refute or explain what “their own intelligence” said.
Taking all of these together, one can see that PM Lee’s words were nothing more than mere politicking, especially if one considers that his words were in reply to Mr Png's remarks about the PAP's MP in Aljunied, Mr George Yeo, who "is too busy and hardly had time to meet the residents." (Straits Times) Mr Lee was probably trying to deflect any criticisms of the PAP MPs in Aljunied.
Making a distinction
The distinction must be made between opposition candidates and PAP MPs. If one were to compare the two, one would be comparing apples with oranges – as Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies said in the Straits Times report of November 17, 2007 (“Has the opposition gone Awol?”):
“You have to worry about social stigma, your employers especially if you work in a GLC (government-linked company) and an uneven playing field. If you’re a PAP candidate, on the other hand, you’re virtually guaranteed a place in Parliament if you’re in a GRC.”
In short, opposition candidates face not just political obstacles, some of which are unfair, they also have to face personal choices, some of which are harder for opposition candidates than PAP ones.
Seen in this light, it is indeed commendable that such qualified people with “international perspectives” would even join the opposition. It is thus very unfortunate that the prime minister would find it necessary to make such disparaging remarks about them.
The bigger question is: What is the impact of such remarks on the wider goal of getting people more involved in politics – a problem faced by both the ruling party and the opposition?
That is something that we should focus on, and not be trying to score cheap political points.
About the author: The writer is a member of the Workers’ Party and the opinion/views expressed in the article are his own.
Read also: "AWOL? Look in own backyard" by The Hammersphere.