Internal election drama at Workers' Party headquarters

Party elections within the Workers' Party (WP) are usually non-events.

And by all accounts, it was business as usual yesterday with Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Low Thia Khiang being returned unchallenged as chairman and secretary-general respectively.

But something has been brewing since 2011 and it came to a boil with the older guard openly expressing their unhappiness at how they say they have been treated by the party bigwigs.

How bad was it?

Cadre members, who have voting rights, spoke candidly with The New Paper. And this was done yesterday at a coffee shop under the party headquarters along Syed Alwi Road.

They voiced their displeasure at how the party had sidelined its veterans, some of whom have been around for more than 15 years since the time of former party leader J. B. Jeyaretnam.

"We are trying to do something (in the election). See for yourself later," said cadre member John Gan, who was formerly the chairman of the party alongside Mr Jeyaretnam.

Did they succeed?

Six newer members of the Central Executive Council (CEC) did not get the votes they needed to be returned to their positions on the council while two members of the "old guard" were elected. (See report on facing page.) 

At the 2012 election, there were 18 CEC members. Twelve of those 18 were re-elected yesterday. Two older members - Mr L. Somasundaram, 51, and Dr John Yam Poh Nam, 52, - were also elected, bringing the total number in CEC now to 14.

Said Mr Gan: "The younger members are not ready for the party. They think highly of themselves."

Then they listed the reasons for their unhappiness. They said: Newer and younger members who hold a degree are preferred over the veteran ones.

Candidates are parachuted in, having not walked the ground, unlike the veterans who have done so for years, but are not rewarded with a position.

Older members believe that if they are in the CEC, there is a stronger likelihood they will be fielded in the constituencies where they stand a chance to win at an election.


WP members rarely break ranks. They rarely speak to the media unless it has been sanctioned by the party bigwigs.

But speak they did. And among them was a writer who wrote to The New Paper claiming to be a party insider.

The writer said that because of the unhappiness, Dr Poh Lee Guan, the former assistant secretary-general, tried to contest as a spare candidate in the 2012 Hougang by-election without his party's permission.

Older WP members had previously suggested that Dr Poh was unhappy at being bypassed by Mr Yaw Shin Leong and later by Mr Png Eng Huat.

Dr Poh had been working the Hougang ground for more than a decade. Following the incident, Dr Poh was sacked by the party.

The writer, who claimed to be a veteran cadre of the party, said: "Poh worked so hard and so many years in Hougang and Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim supported Png Eng Huat to become MP.

"He was not the only veteran aggrieved by those graduates parachuted in."

Even before that, older members were unhappy that another veteran, Mr Eric Tan, was bypassed for the NCMP seat. Instead, a younger Gerald Giam got the seat.

Soon after, a number of veterans left the party, including Mr Eric Tan, Mr Mohamed Fazli Talip and Mr Sajeev Kamalasanan.

Mr Sajeev, who now works as a project manager, told TNP that he quit the party in 2012 because he was unhappy with Mr Low and Ms Lim for preferring the newer members over the experienced ones for a CEC position.

"I asked Sylvia and Low why weren't those who contested as candidates before offered recognition, but till this date I have not got a reply from them."

"I was only asking for fairness, not for myself but for others. If you want to make your own people cadre members (who can vote for the council), you must also be fair to those who stood up for the elections in the past."

According to an e-mail by the writer, the sentiment was so bad, Ms Lim had to appeal for unity yesterday.

In a speech delivered behind closed doors, Ms Lim called for the veterans to be mature and to welcome new blood.

She also pleaded to the 70-odd party members who turned up that the WP cannot afford to have internal problems or disunity. This was confirmed by two other cadre members.


Political observer Eugene Tan said that yesterday's result could also be a significant sign that the party leaders are being forced to pay attention to the old guard's concerns that they were feeling sidelined.

Said the Singapore Management University associate law professor: "They could be trying to strike a balance between the long-serving older members and their younger ones, especially with the rise of the party's fortunes over the past two elections.

"But it doesn't mean that those who were voted out are not good enough."

Prof Tan added that this CEC would be the one determining the policies and strategies leading up to the next general election.

"The party may have felt this is their best line-up to reach out to audiences within and outside WP," he said.

So is there a split?

Cadre member, retiree Johnny Chew, 62, said it was "united in its goal".

But he also told TNP: "The new blood should cooperate with the others. Don't do things that can spoil the party's unity."

WP chairman Sylvia Lim said the election had been "fiercely contested" with many people putting themselves up for selection.

But she denied the rift in the party and said such talk were just rumours.

"There will always be such rumours, but the CEC election (result) speaks for itself," she said.

Mr Low declined to comment when approached.

Who is in the Workers' Party CEC


Ms Sylvia Lim, 49


Mr Low Thia Khiang, 57

Remains in the Central Executive Council:

Mr Chen Show Mao, 53

Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, 38

Mr Gerald Giam, 36

Dr Daniel Goh, 41

Ms Lee Li Lian, 36

Mr Png Eng Huat, 52

Mr Mohammed Rahizan Yaacob, 58

Mr Pritam Singh, 38

Mr Yee Jenn Jong, 49

Mr Dennis Tan, 43


Mr L. Somasundaram, 51

Dr John Yam, 52


Ms Frieda Chan, 38

Ms Ng Swee Bee, 33

Ms Jane Leong, 55

Mr Koh Choong Yong, 41

Ms Glenda Han, 38

Mr Toh Hong Boon, 35

Whistle blowers in the party?

In 2012, a writer claiming to be a party insider sent a Workers' Party document to the media, detailing minutes of a meeting of the party's central executive council (CEC) held on May 12, 2011.

It was to decide on the two Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) seats offered to the party after the General Election on May 7.

The older members felt then that Mr Eric Tan should get the seat for his years of contribution.

The seat eventually went to Mr Gerald Giam who, like Mr Tan, was from the losing East Coast GRC team.

The election was decided after a secret ballot by the 14 CEC members who were present. Mr Giam received seven votes, Mr Tan received five and one vote went to Mr Png Eng Huat.

Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang later confirmed that the minutes were authentic.

Mr Tan quit in May 2011 after he was overlooked as a nominee for an NCMP seat.

This article was first published on July 28, 2014.
Get The New Paper for more stories.