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The WP – being effective, in and out of Parliament

A “GE2011 One Year On” special report

~ By Gordon Lee ~

One year ago, the Workers’ Party made history and headlines with their first-ever victory of a GRC - Aljunied GRC. In one fell swoop, this sent five of their members into the House of Parliament.

The WP now had to live up to the promises made, the hopes created and the expectations built. Yet, everything that they have since done (or not done) has now been vastly overshadowed by the poorly-handled Yaw Shin Leong saga.

The Party took the decisive action of expelling Yaw Shin Leong for failing to “account to the Party and the people” regarding allegations made about his private life. (here)

Under the Constitution, this meant that Yaw Shin Leong also lost his seat as a Member of Parliament - so it was a considerable gamble that the WP took.

For a very brief moment, the WP was able to demonstrate their commitment to transparency and accountability - and they certainly hoped to be compared favourably to the incumbent Government on these points.

WP Chairman Sylvia Lim, a lawyer and former law lecturer, made a humiliating error in her letter to Today saying “Article 49 of the Constitution mandates that a vacant seat "shall", not "may", be filled by a by-election. It is not optional.” (here)

Instead, what the Constitution actually says is that a vacant seat “shall be filled by election”. Filled by a by-election ≠ Filled by election.

More importantly, this suggests that the WP may have played their cards wrongly by assuming that there will be a quick by-election (if at all).

At the mercy of the Government

Instead, it is now clear that the Prime Minister has the sole discretion when it comes to the calling of a by-election over Hougang, if at all.

The Prime Minister has indicated that he intends to call for one, although he has yet to decide on when to hold it (if at all). 

Standing by, the helplessness of the WP now seem in stark contrast to their decisive action in expelling Yaw Shin Leong. The criticisms over the Government’s dallying over the issues have also simmered down, in a blow to the Party’s strategic aims.

The turning of the tides

Wanting to gain the upperhand on the issue, Sylvia Lim pointed out to the Prime Minister the under-representation of Hougang voters.

He replied, “If that is an issue, I would have thought it is something which the Workers’ Party would have considered before deciding to expel Mr Yaw Shin Leong... If we are in this situation today, it is because the Workers’ Party has caused this situation to happen, knowing the consequences.” (here) Gradually, it would appear that some of the impatience and blame has now been shifted over to the WP.

Meanwhile, over in Hougang, hearts and minds (or rather stomachs) are being won over by “free” PAP porridge - replicating the success of Sitoh Yih Pin porridge politics in Potong Pasir before the elections. (here)

Verdict on the Yaw Shin Leong saga: It was a massive blunder caused by the WP’s assumption that a speedy by-election would be called. They have apparently failed to do their homework to check the Constitution, and read up the history of by-election in this country (the PAP has on several occasions simply not called for by-elections).

Parliamentary performance

With more parliamentary proceedings being shown online, and the natural spotlight being on the WP and their colleagues on the opposition benches, the general sentiment is that the Party has done well in representing their voters, values and views. Key issues having been debated include ministerial pay (something which the WP has fought on for years).

So far so good. At least they have not started telling stories in Parliament about frogs, trees and mushrooms.

 

Party management

Right after the General Elections, the Party was given the option to nominate a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), they chose the younger Gerald Giam over Eric Tan - citing the need for “leadership renewal”.

I think that this was a misguided decision. Leadership renewal is important, but what is also important is for the Party to operate in a fair and consistent manner. It is natural to expect that the man whom the Party trusted to lead the East Coast GRC team, should also be the man whom the Party trusts to be an effective NCMP. Just as Governments have to act in a way that is in line with expectations (so as to preserve confidence), a party which intends to form the future Government of Singapore should also act in a consistent manner.

Moreover, I also do not think that age is a big issue - on the contrary, I think older candidates are better able to command more respect. Low Thia Kiang is, himself, aged only a year younger than Eric Tan. Young voters do not necessarily like young candidates - that is something which all parties (including the PAP) assume wrongly, and at their own detriment.

The NCMP selection issue highlights what some people already suspect, that the WP is not well managed - and that certain individuals seem to be able to call the shots in the Party. Over the years, this has led several if its prominent former members to leave it - including Eric Tan.

It would be easy to point the accusatory finger at Eric Tan, but the fact is that he is one in a string of members to be disillusioned with the way the WP is run.

Strategy and PR

Although the WP has a level of natural support, they have not been able to get the electorate to rally around them on certain issues. The WP’s website has a newsroom which currently lists about 100 of their MPs’ speeches in Parliament - be it on the President’s address at the opening of each Parliamentary session outlining Government policy, or on the Committee of Supply which debates departmental budgets.

Yet, few if any have made an impact on political debate outside the walls of Parliament. What the WP needs to do is to strategically focus their PR machinery on championing a few selected issues in the public domain, and to generate considerable public debate. It needs to be able to show the electorate that it is in touch with the public, cares strongly about certain important issues, and to get the public to agree with their policies on these issues.

Despite the Party’s online presence and favourable online reception, they have failed to do this. Instead, their website and Facebook page is simply a ticker feed. A boring deluge!

Even when the WP was gifted on a silver plate with the ongoing public transport scandal and the tsunami of train breakdowns, it has failed to make any political capital on the issue. It should be seen being out and about, helping Lui Tuck Yew to give “eye power” during disruptions, talking to affected commuters, voicing out their concerns, and pressing the Government on the problems.

In effect, the politics of Singapore has not yet matured, and neither have the political parties. On strategy and PR, the WP is doing no better than the Government.

Conclusion

By this time, most democratically-elected Governments should have experienced a slide in the polls since the elections, with the opposition making gains in public opinion. Unfortunately, the Workers’ Party is still under the shadows of the Yaw Shin Leong saga.

Whilst the WP has managed to fulfil their responsibilities, they have failed to lead (or participate meaningfully in) the important and popular debate on house prices, immigration, wages and transport. A successful party is one that controls the debate, a mediocre party is one that follows the debate, and an irrelevant party is one that is left out of the debate.

 

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