Andrew Loh / Pictures by Terry Xu
“Succession planning has been in progress,” says Mr Low Thia Khiang, Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party (WP). He was replying to a question from The Online Citizen (TOC) about whether he is looking for someone to succeed him as leader of the WP.
“It is important for a political party,” Mr Low says, referring to the issue of leadership renewal. “And this is another important issue and [an] important consideration for voters to look at.”
Mr Low was speaking to the media after the party's walkabout at New Upper Changi Road in East Coast Group Representation Constituency (GRC) on Sunday morning. Led by Mr Low, the group of some 30 members and volunteers visited the hawker centre and several coffeeshops in the area, introducing themselves to residents there and handing out fliers.
Among those at Sunday’s walkabout were several potential WP candidates who are expected to contest East Coast GRC. They include Mr Eric Tan, 55, who led the WP team there in the last General Election (GE); Mr Gerald Giam, 34; Ms Angela Oon, 32; Mr Png Eng Huat, 49; and Mr Fazli Talip, 29. The Online Citizen understands that Ms Glenda Han and Mr Brandon Siow, who was a candidate with the East Coast team in 2006, are also involved with the East Coast team.
WP garnered 36.1 per cent of the votes in the GRC in 2006.
“Mr Chiam is already well in his 70s. I am already [in my] 50s,” Mr Low, 55, says. “By the next elections, I’ll be in [my] 60s. So, it is important that voters also look at succession, look at how opposition can renew. So you have a younger slate of players in the opposition who can give them an alternative choice and who can lead the opposition movement in the future. Especially for the younger generation of voters, I think they should be concerned about this.”
Leadership renewal is also one of the reasons why the WP has declared winning a GRC as one of its goals.
“[The] opposition can capture single seats like Potong Pasir and Hougang, but to make progress, it’s not that easy,” Mr Low explains. “The question always [comes] back: What if something happen to Mr Chiam or something happens to me? Will we be able to retain Hougang? There’s always this question. If you’re in a GRC, you can ensure a smoother renewal and continuity. This is why we find that it is important and strategic for the opposition to capture a GRC, if the opposition is to play a role in the future.”
Mr Low added, "[The] GRC has been the trump card of the PAP and also a mechanism of gerrymandering. We have to break through that."
After the last General Election, where the party received huge support, especially at its nightly rallies, the WP saw an influx of new members joining the party. Its first post-election Central Executive Council (CEC) saw eight new members elected. Its Youth Wing was also given a boost by many new recruits. Is this internal party renewal process still on course?
“Oh, we have done very well, in terms of renewal,” Mr Low says. “You can see that the Old Guards have all retired. They’re now playing supporting roles at the back. And you look at our CEC - much younger people. What we’re trying to do now is trying to inject certain depth into the party. You will see that Workers’ Party is not led by just Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim. There’ll be other younger leaders. We want to promote a leadership team. In the next elections, you will see that the party, besides a younger team of leaders, probably will have newer members who can play leadership roles with maturity and experience. So, we will have certain depth [in] in the Workers’ Party, moving forward.”
In its 2006 General Election manifesto, the WP declared that it wants to be an “alternative government” in time to come. When asked if this is a goal the party intends to fulfill, Mr Low said, “We are not seeking to form the next government or an alternative government at this point of time. But of course, for any political party, their long-term objective is to [be] an alternative government but we’re being realistic. We want to build gradually, to build up the party.”
When asked if he has ambitions to be Prime Minister one day, Mr Low was unequivocal. “I have no ambition to be the Prime Minister,” he says. “Lets make it clear here. I have to be honest with voters.”
In the meantime, he says the party’s role is “to provide a check and balance, and to improve the functionality of the political system here.”
Rebutting Prime Minister’s Lee Hsien Loong's claims that a “two-party system will not work in Singapore, which is much better off with 'one dominant, clean and good party,” Mr Low said:
“Singapore needs a strong government and also a strong opposition, to check on the government and [bring] the government to account. How does it square that you need a strong government and you do not need an opposition? What system is this? Is he proposing a communist system?”
As far as the upcoming General Election is concerned, Mr Low reiterated several times that he “does not want to speculate” on how well he expects his party to do, nor about his own performance in Hougang. When queried about WP’s potential candidates in East Coast GRC, Mr Low said, “You want to know who stands where, that will be Nomination Day.”
He would only reveal that the WP “always looks for balanced configuration, to provide a credible team, a credible choice to the people” in each of the constituencies it will be contesting. “This will have a balance between mature candidates and younger candidates,” he adds.
When pressed to elaborate further and to provide some clues on its slate of candidates for the elections, Mr Low said, “First of all, the Workers’ Party will select its best candidates to be fielded in the election. And we select our candidates in a cautious [way]. We are not fielding [just] anyone who come forward and want to be a candidate. As to the quality of the candidates, I feel this should be judged by voters.”
Mr Low did, however, reveal that “there will be some professionals, lawyers, researchers,” in the party’s line-up. However, he emphasised that these may not be fielded in the elections as nothing has been firmed up yet.
The party will also be presenting its election manifesto in due time, Mr Low confirms. “We have been reviewing it,” he says. “We have had a second review. We did a preliminary review one or two years ago and now we’re doing a final review.”
The People’s Action Party is expected to field a new, younger candidate in Mr Low’s Single-member ward. Unionist Mr Desmond Choo, 34, is slated to challenge Mr Low in the next elections, stepping into the shoes of Mr Eric Low who lost to Mr Low in the last two contests.
What does the MP for Hougang think of his potential new challenger and how well does he hope to do this time round?
“I have not met him,” Mr Low says. “I do not want to speculate [on] the outcome of the election.”
With the birth of new political parties and the changes to the electoral system which, among other things, will see the presence of more Non-constituency MPs in the House, Mr Low says the party is not distracted and is focused on its goals.
“Our direction is very clear: we want to provide a choice to the people,” he says. “We want to build and show people that we are a rational, responsible and respectable party. That has been the direction of the party. It has not changed.”
The WP is in a tussle with the National Solidarity Party (NSP) over the right to contest the newly-created Moulmein-Kallang GRC against the People's Action Party. When asked about this, Mr Low would only say that "there have been communications" between the WP and the NSP and he does not want to comment about it through the media.
As for sentiments on the ground in East Coast GRC, Mr Low says: “My gut feel is that they [residents] welcome contests. They want to exercise their right to vote. So fundamentally, they welcome the Workers’ Party here. They are prepared to support [us] because they know – if you want a choice, you got to support Workers’ Party. Then we will come back and provide you a choice. Because without support, we probably won’t be able to come back again, right? I think they know that. I appreciate that.”
Mr Low’s first foray into electoral politics was to contest the three-member Tiong Bahru GRC in 1988, the year the GRC system was introduced in Singapore. In that election, his team scored 42.2 per cent of the votes against the PAP’s outfit.
Will Mr Low lead a GRC team again?
“I have declared to the press long ago,” Mr Low says, “that the option is always open to me."
Workers' Party website.
Workers' Party Facebook.
Channel Newsasia's report on the WP walkabout. (Click to enlarge),