Written by Ng E-Jay
23 June 2009
In his no-holes-barred masterpiece Requiem for an unbending Singaporean, former President C.V. Devan Nair recounted how, after J.B. Jeyaretnam had won the 1981 Anson by-election, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said that he would make him “crawl on his bended knees, and beg for mercy“.
But the former Worker’s Party leader was made of far sterner stuff, and in Devan Nair’s own words, “he never did crawl on bended knees, or ever begged for mercy, and it is to Lee Kuan Yew’s eternal shame that Jeyaretnam will leave the political scene with his head held high, enjoying a martyrdom conferred on him by Lee.”
Today, it still remains to be seen whether the Worker’s Party is able to live up to J.B. Jeyaretnam’s principles and embody the same kind of moral rectitude and courage so consistently displayed by its former stalwart.
Not much progress after ending GE 2006 on a high note
The Worker’s Party fielded 20 candidates in the 2006 General Elections and obtained an average of 38.43% of the valid votes cast in all the constituencies they contested.
The Worker’s Party’s successful attempt at renewal and their ability to field a fresh slate of younger candidates at the 2006 General Elections led many to believe that they had finally come of age.
However, despite ending GE 2006 on a high note, the Worker’s Party has thus far been unable to capitalize on the new-found momentum and rising wave of anti-establishment sentiment.
Not long after the 2006 elections, two WP candidates, Mr Chia Ti Lik and Mr Goh Meng Seng, resigned from the party due to internal party differences.
Recently this year in March, at least four other WP members also resigned from the party, including Mr Abdul Salim Harun and Ms Lee Wai Leng, both of whom had stood in Ang Mo Kio GRC against PM Lee Hsien Loong’s team in GE 2006.
The Worker’s Party has to find a way of stepping up its recruitment to make up for the loss of these young, promising party cadres.
There is an urgent need for WP to address the way it retains talents within its ranks. If the WP is truly serious about continuing the party rejuvenation and growth started after its poor showing in the 2001 elections, it must make its existing members feel appreciated and give them every motivation to remain with and contribute to the party. Human capital is its only enduring resource.
An Approved Opposition?
The Worker’s Party has also been unable to shed its image of being overly moderate and being unwilling to be hard-hitting where necessary.
To be fair, the WP has been consistently making their voices heard in Parliament and criticizing Government policies where they feel criticism is due. Their Parliamentary speeches are also generally well thought-out given the time constraints imposed in Parliament.
However, the WP has made it known that they are willing to work within the system. Throughout the years, their track record has shown that they are not keen on challenging the fundamentals of our political system, despite the fact that:
- elections not being free and fair, and are still under the sole purview of the Prime Minister’s Office,
- there is little separation of powers between the judiciary, the legislature and the Executive, and
- we do not have a free and independent media.
While I acknowledge the WP’s efforts in providing constructive criticism of Government policies, their implicit support of the system only serves to enable the PAP to entrench the system further.
Before WP’s 50th Anniversary dinner in 2007, Mr Low Thia Khiang gave the PAP a “passing grade” in governance, and even called certain opposition leaders “mad dogs”, a remark that was reported by the Straits Times.
During the Mas Selamat saga in 2008, Mr Low Thia Khiang also refused to answer PM Lee’s question on whether he thought DPM Wong Kan Seng should resign. PM Lee sacarstically remarked: “No answer. So I guess that settles the point“.
These examples, including Organizing Secretary’s Yaw Shin Leong’s public confession that he had voted for the PAP in the last election, only serve to reinforce the perception that WP is an “approved opposition“.
Sylvia Lim: “The laws are fair and just”
The Worker’s Party’s tendency to lend credibility and support to PAP’s system of government was clearly on display at the 2007 International Bar Association (IBA) Annual Conference in Singapore.
During the conference, WP chairperson Sylvia Lim was making a point about checks on executive power when she observed that as much as she desired political reforms, these have to be pushed within the boundaries of the law. She also said that election outcomes must be respected.
After claiming that Singapore’s laws are fair and just, Sylvia Lim went on to say that Singapore does not need any external help in the rule of law, and that “we Singaporeans are quite capable of deciding what kind of country we want … I don’t think we need anyone outside to canvass our agenda for us.”
Earlier, Sylvia Lim had prefaced her speech by saying she wished to “draw a balance” between the rule-of-law positions held by Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar and Singapore Democratic Party politicians, who had questioned Singapore’s rule of law. (Straits Times, “We don’t need outside interference, says Sylvia Lim“, 20 Oct 2007.)
In a country where basic civil rights such as the freedom of speech and assembly are regularly denied, it is astounding how Sylvia Lim could have come up with such a blatantly one-sided assessment of the situation that conveniently forgets all the bad things that the ruling PAP has done to civil rights activists and democracy advocates in Singapore.
Sylvia Lim’s remarks drew a strong rebuttal from the Singapore Democratic Party, which posted a message on its website stating:
The truth is that Singaporeans, while wanting to decide what kind of country we want for ourselves, have been unable to do so because our rights, including our right to free and fair elections have been crushed by the PAP.
It is therefore disappointing that as an opposition leader, Ms Lim feels that the election system is acceptable and that the outcome must be respected. We may not be able to do anything to change the election outcome but we do not have to respect it.
We need to fight to win back these rights and we need to change our political system. In short, we need reform.
It is true that the PAP says it doesn’t want foreign interference. It is also a lie. What do you call the National Wages Council having American, German and Japanese business representatives sitting on its board deciding the wage levels of Singaporean workers?
Help for Singaporeans so that they can be empowered to speak up against the suffocating grip of the PAP is not interference. Interference is when a foreign government supports one party over another as the British did with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his wing in the PAP.
For the record, the SDP welcomes support for efforts to democratise Singapore. Beyond that we reject attempts to influence the policies of any political party by outsiders.
It is disappointing that the Chairman of the Workers’ Party cannot see this distinction but instead parrots what the PAP so disingenuously advocates.
Appeasing the PAP so that we can be an acceptable opposition is not to “draw a balance” as Ms Lim claims. It is rather an unfortunate tactic that will be conveniently exploited by the PAP.
The SDP said it before and we say it again: Singapore’s Opposition cannot stand up for the people on bended knees.
A party that chooses to remain aloof
The Worker’s Party has thus far chosen to remain aloof, seldom cooperating publicly with other opposition parties except during an election period when everyone wants to avoid 3 cornered fights.
For example, the WP has consistently avoided participating in seminars and forums organized by the SDP, such as the forum on electoral reform held on 20 Jan 2008 and the Opposition Unity forum held earlier this year. They also did not participate in the Budget forum organized by the Reform Party on 28 Feb 2009.
So what is WP’s strategy?
All this discussion begs the question: So what exactly is WP’s political strategy?
The Worker’s Party appears content at playing the role of a “moderate” opposition party that appeals to the middle ground — people who are neither very pro-PAP nor very pro-opposition, but open to ideas from both sides of the fence.
The WP might believe that the largest share of votes can be captured from this segment of the voting population, hence they have chosen to concentrate all their efforts on winning hearts and minds here.
They may also believe that by playing the role of a moderate opposition that only challenges Government policies but never questions the health or integrity of the political system, they would be allowed a space under PAP’s umbrella.
In other words, they believe that political change can only come about by working within the framework designed by the PAP. They may also believe that the majority of voters want opposition parties to follow this path.
The WP strategy of “standing up for the people on bended knees” might be nothing more than very shrewd political calculation on their part.
The Worker’s Party knows that it does not appeal to “fringe” voters who want a vociferous opposition, but it also knows that when it comes to voting, the majority of fringe voters will still cast their vote for whichever opposition party stands in their constituency, including the WP.
The WP can thus let vociferous opposition parties like the SDP canvass support from the fringe segments of the voting population, whilst sitting back and collecting the benefits during the elections. It is a win-win situation for the WP: it can enjoy the result of work done by others, but avoid antagonizing the PAP.
The WP knows that after the period of renewal and rejuvenation, it is the opposition party that has the most numbers on its side, and can field a credible slate of candidates during elections. It might therefore think that there is no necessity to cooperate with other opposition parties in between elections, because during election time, others will have to come knocking on its door.
However, the day will eventually come when the people of Singapore want a more robust challenge to the PAP and want mainstream opposition parties to start playing a greater role in building a better political and economic system for all Singaporeans.
If the Worker’s Party remains content at playing its current role of being a non-confrontational party that avoids challenging the system even though the system is blatantly flawed, it will one day start to lose mind-share to more progressive and outspoken parties like the SDP.
If Mr Low Thia Khiang and the Worker’s Party wish to build an enduring legacy for themselves, that is something they should think about seriously.