Political suicide or political maturity?

Andrew Loh

TOC interviews Workers’ Party members.

When Yaw Shin Leong of the Workers’ Party (WP) revealed on his blog that he had voted for the People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate, Dr Teo Ho Pin, in the 2006 General Elections, it sparked an outcry among Singaporeans.

Many have criticized him for betrayal and hypocrisy, among other things. Others were more understanding and supportive.

Yaw is no ordinary WP member. He joined the WP in 2001 and is currently its Organising Secretary, a Central Executive Council member, and he headed the WP’s Ang Mo Kio GRC team in the 2006 elections.

What do WP members themselves feel about what Yaw did?

The Online Citizen (TOC) sought the views of 22 WP members, including its chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim. Seven responded. The rest, including its chairman, either did not respond at the time of this writing or declined to comment.

Of those who responded to TOC, their views are divided between being supportive of Yaw and outright anger at his revelation – one senior member described his reaction as “extreme shock and [a] sense of disbelief”.

“An unapologetic blithering idiot”

According to member Mr Marcus Yap, Yaw “was an unapologetic blithering idiot.” Yap was also of the view that Yaw’s political future was “dead as a coffin nail”.

As for whether he felt that what Yaw did was right, in revealing who he voted for to the public or that he voted for the PAP candidate, Yap says, “He was an idiot confusing his personal private views with the views of a politician.”

Two other members echoed Yap’s strong views. “To some extent, people will doubt his credibility as an opposition member”, said one of them.

“I don’t think what Shin Leong has done was ‘right’. How could an opposition candidate who was rallying thousands of voters to vote against [the] PAP, himself voted for [the] PAP?”, said the other, who wishes to be known only by the moniker “Ramseth”.

“This I find irreconcilable”, he added.

“Yaw has shown political maturity”

Support for Yaw came from Mr Perry Tong and Mr Koh Choong Yong, president and vice-president of the WP Youth Wing, respectively.

Tong feels that Yaw has shown “political maturity” in making the decision to vote for Teo and that the consequences of this episode were “likely to be positive” for Yaw. “His candidature in Ang Mo Kio, providing Singaporeans with a choice, was a greater contribution than any perceived shortcomings arising from this episode”, he said.

Emphasising that his views were his own and not the party’s, Koh saw it as an issue of transparency. “Letting the public know of his voting decision might or might not be a good thing, judging from both the positive and negative reactions to this”, he said. “However, in the name of transparency, since he was asked by someone who he voted for in GE2006, I think he has provided a good explanation of what went through his mind when making the decision.”

Consequences for Yaw and the WP

What then of Yaw’s political future and the consequences for the WP in future elections? Again the views were split. Ramseth said, “I think he has unnecessarily loaded himself with quite a heavy-liability luggage for the next and coming elections. He has to carry the bulk of the weight himself and finding willing help is going to be even more challenging.”

But Koh disagrees. “On the contrary, I believe there would be some “converts” who respect the way he thinks and choose to support WP.”

On whether the party should take action against Yaw, however, there was some agreement among the members. Tong said that he saw “no real reason to do anything”, as far as disciplinary actions are concerned, a view shared by Koh. “In my opinion, he has done nothing terribly wrong. There is nothing the party needs to do with him”, he said.

Lilian Lee, another WP member, also defended Yaw. “If the party felt that he is in the wrong, then all the more he should stay as Org Sec to make up for his mistakes. Remember Wong Kan Seng was not sacked but left to repent his mistakes”, she said, referring to the Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs minister.

Ramseth offered an alternative to disciplinary action for Yaw. “I think that WP shouldn’t be seen to be punishing or censuring its member for exercising legally-entitled freedom of choice with his ballot paper. However, any WP cadre who disagrees with Shin Leong can always stand against him in the CEC election and let fellow cadres decide who’s right and what’s the party’s position and direction.”

Yap, however, was of a different view. He said, “Discipline him, fire him, ask him to resign [and] fall on his own sword. Who cares how he goes but he should go.”

A bigger issue – or a confused party?

Yap, who is believed to be a member close to the party’s leadership, also questioned the party’s “loyalty to Singapore” stance. “I believe that YSL [Yaw Shin Leong] is symbolic of a party that has confused loyalty to Singapore with mediocre mildness.”

Lee, however, disagreed. “There is no 100 per cent wrong or 100 per cent right to anything that one does; the same applies in this case. The thing that I think he did wrong was to make it public. The thing that he did right was he voted what to him was right.”

Koh, however, preferred to look at the episode differently. He said it highlighted a bigger issue which he feels is more important. “The debate of whether one should be voting blindly for the opposition camp or one should be voting responsibly, has been brought to the attention of many, including the mainstream media. To me, I think that is the largest positive effect of the revelation. This is not a witch hunt, so maybe the media can focus less on whether Shin Leong has done something wrong, and instead focus on the issue of responsible voting.”

Bernard Chen, a WP Youth Wing member, agrees. “The question is: Do Singaporeans prefer an opposition that opposes just for the sake of opposing, seeking to rally the people around an agenda that is based on hatred for the incumbent, or rather a mature and responsible opposition that has the interests of Singaporeans at the core of its agenda?”

So far, the party’s leadership has been relatively silent on the issue. Its chairman Sylvia Lim was quoted by the New Paper as saying:

We respect that our members have the right to decide how to exercise their vote.

However, we would expect that if they live in a constituency which WP is contesting in, they would vote for the WP candidate(s).

An opportunity for the WP

A long-time supporter who helped the party in the last elections sees the episode as an opportunity for the WP “to crystalise and clarify its branding.” While agreeing that Yaw will face difficulties in the next elections if he runs, he advised that “the party should not just look into Shin Leong’s case in isolation.”

“It is not a matter of what the party should do with him, it is a matter of what the party should do about its image: clarify it, strengthen it, change it?”

“We need to build an inclusive democracy with those from [the] PAP who want to help change society into a kinder and [a] more democratic one”, he says. “Is WP playing this alternative party card for this group of PAP [supporters]?”

He nonetheless feels that the party also has to acknowledge that Yaw’s actions are politically incorrect in the eyes of a lot of people.

Asked if the WP’s oft- repeated stance of being a “responsible party” includes, in some people’s views, hypocrisy, he said that this was a question the party will have to address. However, he explained that asking Singaporeans to vote against the PAP was a “general appeal”, unlike Yaw’s personal views in his personal blog. “It is one of the factors voters should consider”, he said.

Still, he warned that “WP will be facing problems from within the opposition circle and from the general public.”

“This saga may be the last straw that spells the total defeat of WP in the online community and makes it difficult [for the WP] to use the Internet to reach out to the public.”

Suicide or survive?

Yaw’s Ang Mo Kio GRC team was dubbed “The Suicide Squad” by the mainstream media during the 2006 elections. The question some, within and without the party, are asking is:

Has Yaw Shin Leong committed political suicide, for himself and his party?

Time will tell.


Note: All the WP members interviewed for this article were speaking in their private and personal capacities and their views do not represent those of the Workers’ Party.

The author, Andrew Loh, was himself a WP member until April 2008.

Read also:

I voted for the PAP in 2006 election: WP candidate by the Straits Times.

I knew because he told me by The New Paper.


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