by David Lim
Now that Low Thia Kiang has announced that he is stepping down as Secretary-General of the Worker’s Party, paving an open pathway for leadership renewal, and offering an opening for some directional change, a key question remains whether the party can reinvent itself so that it can compete successfully in future elections. As it arrives on the cusp of a fresh future, with a new generation of young leaders from a diverse range of backgrounds, what can be done so that the party can present itself to a wider range of voters while navigating present obstacles?
By all means, the 2015 General Election has not been very good for the Worker’s Party. In Aljunied GRC its percentage winning margin of the vote was reduced to less than 1%, down from almost 5% previously. In East Coast GRC, where a stellar team of highly visible and qualified candidates ran, the party lost in percentage terms by more than 10%. In Punggol East SMC, Li Li Lian, who won a by-election in 2013 quite comfortably, lost to Charles Chong from the PAP. In the stronghold of Hougang, the party’s winning margin fell by more than 7%.
Leaving the possible singular effect of the passing of Lee Kuan Yew aside, how can a centre-left party navigate a terrain and differentiate itself sufficiently in the context of which government has substantial cross-holdings in the provision of goods, services and property? In many Western democracies, political contests are often about whether and to what extent public services and ownership of goods should be privatized, such as for instance in healthcare; in Singapore, the debate is often about how the provision of services should be more effectively managed by what already operates under the purview of government entities and the public interest.
The Worker’s Party thus needs to distinguish itself more strongly and prominently. First, it needs to send a clear message across to the electorate that it is the only legitimate, not one out of many, opposition parties out there. It needs to be more confident about the policy proposals that it puts out, track the evolution of those policies, and lay claim to policies whenever it is adopted successfully, rather than letting it be claimed by someone else. Legitimacy comes from claiming substantive ideas and arguing forcefully for the ideas one thinks is good for all.
Second, the party needs to appeal to larger groups of voters. If democratic results from other countries are to go by, it needs to appeal more to women, the young, minorities, employees from all walks of life, and appeal to liberal minded parts of the electorate. Likewise, there needs to be a sound, thoroughly considered and forward-looking engagement with businesses large and small, with fair business policies to improve the living conditions of employees, and assistance in improving the prospects of good employers. Winning over the middle also means having policies that work both for the middle and working classes.
Third, the party needs to be more innovative. It is quite clear by now and throughout its history that it is working within severe institutional constrains in how it can operate, both in raising funds and in terms of publicity. By using the range of social media available, and working with what is possible now, the party needs to project itself more freshly. This will enable the drawing in of talent from all walks of life which is crucial for party renewal. That means also repackaging itself and reaching out to those who may not necessarily be concerned about economic issues that the party is aligned with but can easily identify with its ideas.
Fourth, the party should drastically reduce the costs for highly qualified people to join its ranks. Currently, those who join its ranks face the problem of monetary, reputational, and other intangible costs that comes associated with the party that is beyond its control. These costs are partly a result of the political terrain that has been established of which it has little influence over. What the party can then do is to learn to pool together its social and economic capital from the networks that it already has and building its resources so that it can withstand increasingly larger shocks and pressures.
Though the challenges faced by the party is hard and road tedious, there is a possibility that prospects for the party may improve. If it can present itself as the party that has the interest of most people staying and working in Singapore at heart, articulating its ideas convincingly and fluently, it can attract more highly qualified and ambitious members. If it can project itself more professionally and navigate a treacherous political terrain more nimbly, and stay sharply focused on building itself up, there is no reason to think why it would not do well in future political contestations if it can organize better than its competitors.