We recently had a chat with veteran Workers’ Party (WP) politician Yee Jenn Jong who announced in November that he is coming out with a book which documents his ten years’ journey in opposition politics as a business man who had no prior knowledge of politics to one who had been baptised through the fire in Parliament and worked his way up the ranks of the party to receive recognition from seasoned political veterans.
Titled, Journey in Blue: A peek into the Workers’ Party of Singapore, Yee takes a deep dive into the workings of a political party from candidate selection and allocation in the past three elections, the much talked about leadership challenge by Chen Show Mai against Low Thia Khiang in the party’s 2016 central executive committee election and more.
After reading this book, I would conclude this journal is a must-read for aspiring politicians in Singapore—a dummy guide for those who wish to understand the requirements, challenges and what to expect if one were to run as a candidate in alternative parties and have a reasonable chance of winning in a totally unlevelled political playing field. There are simply far too many aspiring candidates who underestimate the amount of effort and planning that goes behind contesting in a General Election.
As a first-time candidate in 2011 whose name only popped up on nomination day, Yee garnered an amazing percentage score of 48.98 against 51.02 of People’s Action Party (PAP)’s Charles Chong at Joo Chiat Single Member Constituency. His results granted him the chance to take up the seat of a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) but also likely compelled the dissolution of the SMC in the GE2015, as it was merged with Marine Parade GRC. All these incidents and Yee’s thought are revealed in the book.
These lessons are expressed through his recollection of how he mobilised volunteers to help with his campaign when all he had was an assistant from the party in GE2011, how he sold himself to his electorates and used the mainstream media to his advantage. In fact, Yee notes in the book how Dennis Tan, MP for Hougang, was initially a volunteer whom he scouted during GE2011 who then became a member of WP and a political candidate in the subsequent elections.
Other than practical knowledge on how to walk the ground, Yee also shares lessons on how to behave and present one’s self as a viable candidate for the voters.
Yee said to TOC that he wrote the book for the purpose of providing political education for the public, noting, “I hope this book can open up Singaporeans’ understanding of the role of alternative voices and why we need to build alternatives to have a more resilient democratic system,”
To allow a better understanding of what is it like in the alternative camp, he documents various incidents in his personal experience as a politician from an alternative party and examples of how individuals had formed impressions of him and his party simply based on mainstream media reports.
Yee covers a magnitude of topics in his book. Other stories you will find in those pages include his attempts in the past three elections since 2011, insight into the party’s inner working from his perspective, his thoughts over various challenges faced by WP such as the handling of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and the AIM Saga and his views on how certain policies can be tweaked to improve the current situation based on his observations.
Other fascinating stories that the pages tell include an incident in 2012 which Yee kept to himself for eight years regarding his alma mater, Temasek Junior College, delaying its presentation of the Distinguished Alumni Award to him for a year simply because the institution felt it would be “awkward” to have then-Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, who was the guest of honour that year, to present the award to a member of an opposition political party.
One myth out of the many that he wishes to dispel is that WP only criticises and does not make any proposals. Yee’s book shows that apart from being just critical, WP has done far more than the public gives them credit for. The examples of changes which he had brought about from his questions in Parliament will further clarify these myths.
While the book is written from Yee’s personal point of view and is not endorsed by the Workers’ Party, it provides a peek into the inner workings of the most successful alternative party in Singapore since independence which has now ten Parliamentary seats following the General Election 2020. This is a rare insight given how tight lipped its party members are and how the occasional “leaks” from the party cannot be fully trusted.
Touching on the origins of the book, Mr Yee said that it began “as a casual conversation with a friend in the publishing business” around two weeks after the general election this year. Observing his friend’s “keen interest” in the stories he had to tell about his general election campaign, Mr Yee’s friend suggested he compile these experiences in a book.
“He linked me with World Scientific. I wrote the outline and some sample chapters within a week and it was accepted. I then spent 3 weeks intensely writing all 10 chapters,” recounted the veteran politician.
Regarding his own journey, Yee talks about his experiences as a newbie opposition politician with aspirations and how he faced challenges from the establishment. He also talks about the political strategies employed by WP and its ideology. These are things we have known all along but it helps to hear it from someone who has been in the Central Executive Committee of the party.
A supporter of the PAP in his twenties, Yee describes how he gradually turned away as a voter after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how key members of the opposition such as J B Jeyaratnam, Francis Seow, Tang Liang Hong and others were treated by the establishment. He felt, too, that the PAP’s policy of using HDB upgrades to win votes too extreme and he describes his discomfort with how democratic processes are being manipulated through the Group Representative Constituency (GRC) system.
As someone who had been supporting a credible opposition from the back, Yee describes how he took the plunge in GE2011 as he wished to provide the electorate with a real choice in the ballots. He understands the feeling of wanting to vote for a party other than the PAP but at the same time having reservation over the ability of an opposition candidate to run the constituency and govern the country.
He also mentions how he had to talk his family into supporting his bid in standing as a candidate due to their pre-existing fears which he describes as the fear instilled in ordinary people by the PAP over the decades, about what could potentially happen to them if they contested against the ruling party.
Yee, by the end of his term as NCMP in 2015, had delivered the most number of speeches in Parliament—on par with former PAP MP Lee Bee Wah—and also asked the most number of questions in Parliament despite the challenge he had in getting the actual answers for the questions.
His questions and speeches—although not acknowledged by the government—had arguably brought about changes within the system which Yee documents, such as the number of scholarships given out by the government to foreign scholars and student care in Primary schools.
And although he expresses his unhappiness and disagreement with how the incumbent conduct itself in various instances in the book, Yee firmly believes that opposition politicians like him are not disruptive to the running of the country, and even though there are differences in views, it does not mean the other side cannot have discussions or endorsements on views and ideals. To express this view, Yee got members and supporters from the PAP to pen their thoughts on the book such as current and former Members of Parliament Teo Ser Luck, Inderjit Singh and former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng.
Just like Loke Hoe Yeong’s The First Wave: JBJ, Chiam & the Opposition in Singapore, Journey in Blue is another gem that adds to the limited literature of opposition politics in modern Singapore.
The book also fills in the gaps of the story behind Low stepping down from the helm of the party in 2018 and his step back from parliamentary politics this year — which Yee describes his book as the closest record of to that of Low’s political story, though adds that as it is still too early for the latter to to pen a book detailing his political career.
However, this book marks the end of Yee’s aspirations for political office, as he commented that a book like this is something that is written at the end of one’s journey. The 55-year-old entrepreneur shared that many young and qualified members have since joined the party and the old should make way for those with greater potential and as Yee reasoned that he would be close to 60 by the next election. However, he told us that he will continue to serve as a member and contribute in whatever way that he can.
The book which is published by World Scientific, is slated to be available in bookshops from Wednesday (23 Dec) onwards. Or you can also get directly from Yee at https://tinyurl.com/yeejj-journey.