Just a renewal process

SINGAPORE - They rarely speak to the media about the party.

Indeed, The Workers' Party official channels ignored several attempts by The New Paper to speak about their internal election on July 27.

Why is a private election within a party even an issue now?

It is because WP is in transition and observers are keen to know what the changes within mean for the dominant opposition party that has seven seats in Parliament.

Political observer Eugene Tan, who is a Singapore Management University associate law professor, said: "People will be keen to see the balance of experience and youth within the party. Not just political observers, but everyone will want to see how WP gets their yin and yang correct."

Something changed on July 27.

Cadre members, with voting rights, spoke openly about their unhappiness and several followed up with interviews with TNP over the next few days.

They spoke of renewal within the party - even that of the secretary-general position held by Mr Low Thia Khiang.

They also talked candidly about their wish to see the party engage more with the People's Action Party (PAP) rather than just give advice, as one veteran member put it.

And they spoke of the rise of Mr Chen Show Mao, Mr Low's running mate in Aljunied GRC, and how he went from a Central Executive Council member two years ago to being appointed Treasurer after garnering the most votes during the internal election.

But only one of the seven WP cadre members who spoke to TNP agreed to go on record.

The others said they did not want to harm their chances of being selected by the party leadership as candidates in choice seats in the next GE.

Former chairman John Gan spoke candidly on five occasions including twice at his home. He was the bridge between the Workers' Party of old, under Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam, and the present.

Mr Low took over from the late Mr Jeyaretnam as secretary-general in 2001.

Was the party's internal election last Sunday a watershed event?

Yes, he said, but it's a party going through a renewal process.

After all, following the success of GE2011, the party attracted a number of highly qualified candidates, including lawyers and university professors.

"The party members are the ones who decide who will lead. If you are not performing and not doing your duty well, then it is up to the members to judge," said Mr Gan.

"Being in WP means you have to work hard. We did not create our name today from nothing.

"We worked hard every weekend to meet and know the people and have them know what we stand for."

Some younger and less experienced members were booted out of the CEC - some handpicked by Mr Low himself.

Organising secretaries Ng Swee Bee and Toh Hong Boon did not get re-elected, while Ms Jane Leong, vice-chair of the WP's media team, and Mr Koh Choong Yong also did not receive enough votes to be returned to the CEC.

"It keeps performances in check. The members will appreciate and can see for themselves if the leaders are performing," he said.

Only Ms Lim's chairmanship and secretary-general Low were not challenged. Did talk of the renewal process include these positions?

Said Mr Gan: "Yes, there was such talk by other members (about challenging Mr Low's position). But it is really up to the members to decide."

Nobody should be spared the renewal process, he added.


"Like when I was the party chairman (from 1990-1992) and they didn't want me (for a second term).

"They wanted Tan Bin Seng, whom they felt was better. I was happy to step down.

"The leaders have to respect the members because they are the ones who vote and put you there."

Would Mr Low have accepted the decision? After all, he is credited with taking the party from a single member constituency (Hougang) to winning a group representative seat (Aljunied) and a second SMC (Punggol East).

"If there's a better man the members can trust, then there will be no hard feelings. No grudges," said Mr Gan.

"But it's very important that the person taking over must be able to perform. After all, the party comes first."

Party insiders said on Sunday that older members considered putting up a challenge for Mr Low's position.

TNP was told this by cadre members at a coffee shop under the party headquarters along Syed Alwi Road.

Said a party veteran who declined to be named: "The plan was for Low to be out (of the party leadership). We (the old guard) are supposed to be the ones to do that."

Mr Gan too had heard of such a proposal, but said he was not involved.

If not Mr Low, who then?

If it was a popularity contest, then Mr Chen, the former corporate lawyer, stood out. He had the most votes, with about 90 per cent, cadre members told TNP.

He also received the most votes at the previous WP party elections in 2012.

Said Mr Gan: "He's one of the future men of Singapore's politics. He's very humble and approachable.

"I help him out with his meet-the-people sessions and I can see he connects very well with his Aljunied residents.

"They love him."

Mr Chen was made the treasurer of the CEC after its first meeting as the new council on Tuesday. Previously, he did not hold any office in the council.

WP leadership declined to be interviewed for this report, but chairman Sylvia Lim had earlier described the internal election as "fiercely contested", with many cadre members putting themselves up for election.

About 70 cadre members had attended the election.

She said: "I would think that this is part of the democratic process and we are glad. The cadres have made their decision and we are moving forward."

Who is John Gan?

- Former water polo player who represented Singapore in the 1956 Olympics and in four Asian Games from 1958 to 1970

- Joined WP in 1984

- WP chairman from 1990 to 1992

- Contested in four elections with WP (1984, 1988, 1991, 1997)

This article was first published on Aug 9, 2014.
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