I’ve never liked the Workers’ Party

By Ethan Tay


My impression of the Workers’ Party was tainted after watching their election rally speeches on television. Its politicians always seemed to be on short fuses as they made their speeches. They would shout and shake their fists in the air, rousing their supporters to respond likewise. I would have thought they were screaming vulgarities if the audio was muted.

Two WP politicians stood out to me — MPs for Aljunied GRC Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim. Perhaps, it was their perpetual frowns that made them look threatening, unfriendly and arrogant. I relied solely on their appearances to form my impression about the WP, as I couldn’t quite follow the topics they raised. Hey, I was too busy with schoolwork to be up to scratch on current affairs.

My parents told me that the WP was an ungrateful bunch who only knew how to find fault with the government; that should they ever get elected, they would fail at governing the country. They thought the WP politicians loved to accuse the government of hoarding the reserves and not spending them on Singaporeans, to gain popular support at the expense of saving up for the proverbial rainy day.

The consistent narrative I absorbed was that the WP would demonize the good intentions of the government and influence people to think otherwise. To me, it was absurd that the politicians were conveniently ignoring the virtue of prudence for the sake of present pleasures. Equally preposterous was the number of people who supported their policy stances.

When the GST hike was announced by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat in 2018, the WP MPs voted against it, for three reasons. One of which was that the reserves could be used instead to support Singaporeans.

Here they go again.

I sympathized with the People’s Action Party, which I felt was constantly being bullied by the WP and misunderstood by the people. I wished the PAP politicians were more aggressive in their rally speeches and had hit out at the WP as sharply as the WP did to them.

Earlier this year, I enrolled in a news reporting class taught by veteran journalist Bertha Henson. In that class, we worked on feature articles on Singapore politics. I was determined to maintain an objective stance, which is strange in hindsight, since I already had a bad impression of the Opposition.

From the get-go, the class was split into multiple teams, each tasked with tracking the developments of one particular political party. I volunteered to join the Workers’ Party group.

I soon met the first WP MP in person, and he turned out to be the one that I feared the most — former WP chief Low Thia Khiang. My group met him during a field trip to a Neighbourhood Renewal Programme exhibition at the Bedok Reservoir-Punggol ward in Aljunied GRC. Our task was to observe how he interacted with the residents there.

I spotted Mr Low the moment we got there. He turned, locked eyes with me, and smiled. I smiled back and quickly looked away. My group and I decided to stand at the sidelines to observe Mr Low from a distance. Somehow, we still caught his attention. This time, he approached to say hello. I nervously returned the acknowledgement. Only then did I notice that he had a pair of hearing aids on. It dawned on me that he was a perfectly normal human being, subjected to the same human afflictions as everyone else.

Later, I spotted another familiar face in the crowd. It was a man in his mid-forties donning a light blue polo tee, a typical outfit of a WP member. I vaguely recall seeing his rally speeches on TV. I mustered the courage to ask if he was a volunteer. He said he was, and that his name was Adrian Sim.

Mr Sim told me he contested in Jalan Besar in the 2015 general election, but has decided not to contest in future elections because of the emotional stress involved. He said that being fielded as an opposition candidate isn’t as glamorous as it seems, because the PAP politicians would scrutinise what they said in their rallies to pick bones with them.

That was new. I used to think that these opposition politicians loved to play hero under the spotlight. It didn’t occur to me that they were putting their personal reputations on the line.

Interestingly, Mr Sim said he was afraid of a change of flags in the government. That caught me by surprise. As an opposition candidate, surely he would want a parliamentary seat and harbour hopes of overthrowing the incumbent? Instead, he admitted that WP currently doesn’t have the experience and isn’t thinking so far.

Perhaps, he was just sticking to the party line. MP for Aljunied GRC and WP chief Pritam Singh said earlier this year that the WP’s medium-term plan isn’t to become the government. Instead, its goal is to secure at least one-third of the elected seats, so that the government doesn’t have a ‘blank cheque’ to make changes to the constitution. Mr Singh was referring to the changes that allowed only Malay candidates to vie for presidency in 2017, which he said was to prevent former presidential candidate, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, from contesting.

That the WP admitted to not being ready to form a majority government contradicted my perception of the party as arrogant. I don’t think it is up to the task either and would certainly not vote for their candidates if it insisted otherwise.

On another fieldwork, we were told to observe how WP MPs conducted their Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS). We visited the sessions conducted by Mr Singh and MP for Hougang SMC Png Eng Huat. Other WP members were in attendance as well, including Non-constituency Member of Parliament Dennis Tan, who had contested unsuccessfully for the Fengshan seat in 2015.

We found out that there were six People’s Association grassroot advisors in Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, including four defeated PAP candidates. Unlike the elected opposition MPs, the advisers are privy to certain resources such as community centres (CC) and the network of Residents’ Committees (RC), which come under the aegis of the People’s Association.

Interestingly, the PA grassroot advisors also hold MPS sessions for the residents, and two of them schedule theirs on the same day and time as the MPS held by the WP MPs. But while they meet the residents in air-conditioned PCF kindergartens, the MPs make do with a table and some chairs at the void-deck. To me, it was a humble arrangement and a humbling process for the WP, which once again contradicted my impression of them as unfriendly and arrogant.

It also exemplified how entrenched the PAP was at the ground level.

The PAP argument has always been that the grassroots network belongs to the PA, which is apolitical in nature, and that the WP should cultivate its own network and utilise its own resources to build themselves offices. While there is no reason for the PAP to help the opposition, it goes to show the uphill task the opposition has in sinking roots.

RELATED STORY: Face-off in Aljunied, Hougang

On February 26 and 27, I attended the Budget debate in Parliament, which lasted from noon to about 6pm on both days. Sitting at the public gallery facing the backbenchers, I paid attention to their movements during the two days. Those who came at the start left by 3pm, while those who came later in the afternoon stayed until the end. There were a handful who stayed for less than an hour before leaving and were never seen again for the day.

No one stayed throughout the whole debate on both days, except for WP chief Pritam Singh, who left for no more than 10 minutes on a few occasions. That shifted my perspective of Mr Singh and the WP. He may not be an officeholder, but he was diligent about honouring his parliamentary duties.

On day two of the Budget debate, MP for Pioneer SMC Cedric Foo explained the importance of fiscal prudence in managing the nation’s foreign reserves. NCMP Leon Perera from the WP later stood up to ask if the government was being too prudent. Mr Perera said he wasn’t suggesting that the reserves be drawn down, but that some leeway be given to slow its growth, so that Singaporeans aren’t deprived of funds that could be invested in them instead.

I thought Mr Perera raised a valid point of striving for a balance between long-term fiscal prudence and investments for the present. It isn’t necessarily always favourable to err on the side of caution by saving as much as possible. Listening to Mr Perera’s speech made me realise how well informed he was about Singapore’s reserves.

His party boss Mr Singh pushed for the government to reveal the dollar value of the reserves, stating that transparency and accountability to its citizens is key in a democratic society. Only then can citizens be equipped to explore solutions with the government, he added. Mr Singh said this to clarify one of WP’s reasons in rejecting the GST hike – the “lack of information on alternate revenue streams”.

His suggestion sits uncomfortably with me as it was akin to asking an individual to publicly announce all the money in his bank account. I don’t think this is the right way to encourage citizens' engagement in policies. However, I do agree that we deserve more information to evaluate if the GST hike is really needed.

My takeaway from the Budget debate: The WP isn’t ignorant about the rationale behind government policies. And they weren’t rejecting policies just because it was the job of the opposition to do so.

Then came March 13, when the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee report was released. Many opposition parties accused the government of using the Covid-19 outbreak to further its political agendas. I thought it was a bit of an overreaction by the opposition parties, who again took the opportunity to find fault with the government.

I expected the WP to fire its guns likewise, but instead, it chose a more placid narrative. The WP said that it was ready for the election despite the outbreak and that its campaigns will be adjusted to ensure the safety of the citizens. It also urged the government to put in place safety measures if an election was called. To me, that displayed readiness.

The WP did raise a complaint about the disappearance of three single-seat wards — Fengshan, Sengkang West, and Punggol East — where various WP politicians have been walking the ground for many years.

I wouldn’t totally discount partisan politics from this move. But self-preservation instincts are present in most governments, and perhaps the WP would have done the same to cement its incumbency, if it was the one who held the throne.

“The Workers’ Party takes the world for what it is and not what we wish it to be,” Mr Singh wrote on his Facebook page regarding the change of boundaries. Such maturity and flexibility were seemingly absent from other opposition rhetoric.

This WP I know now is nothing like the party I watched on television screens. They seem to have a quiet humility, taking knocks as they come, like the saga over the town council finances which looks like it will be dragged out through the coming general election. The High Court had issued a judgement holding various WP leaders liable for damages worth millions of dollars. The WP has appealed the decision.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, or that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Likewise, I’ve learnt not to form my judgement based on just what the media brought to light.

My youthful perceptions of the opposition have changed. I actually have some admiration for them now.

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