WP:Onthe path to leadership renewal

Workers' Party's leadership renewal: After the challenge, where to next?

Emerging from the Workers' Party's HQ last Tuesday were (from the front) Mr Low Thia Khiang, Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Chen Show Mao, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap and Mr Pritam Singh.
Emerging from the Workers' Party's HQ last Tuesday were (from the front) Mr Low Thia Khiang, Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Chen Show Mao, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap and Mr Pritam Singh.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh has been named assistant secretary-general of the WP, a post that had been vacant since 2006.
Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh has been named assistant secretary-general of the WP, a post that had been vacant since 2006.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
The newly elected MPs for Aljunied GRC – (from left) Chen Show Mao, Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang and Pritam Singh – thanking supporters after the 2015 polls. The WP retained Aljunied with a razor-thin margin and can ill
The newly elected MPs for Aljunied GRC – (from left) Chen Show Mao, Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, Sylvia Lim, Low Thia Khiang and Pritam Singh – thanking supporters after the 2015 polls. The WP retained Aljunied with a razor-thin margin and can ill afford to have any continued signs of disunion between Mr Low and Mr Chen – or between any two opposing camps for that matter. ST FILE PHOTO
WP chief Low Thia Khiang has emphasised leadership renewal in recent years. (From far left) WP stalwarts He Ting Ru, Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, Gerald Giam, Daniel Goh, Leon Perera and Kenneth Foo at the launch of the WP’s 2015 poll manifesto.
WP chief Low Thia Khiang has emphasised leadership renewal in recent years. (From far left) WP stalwarts He Ting Ru, Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, Gerald Giam, Daniel Goh, Leon Perera and Kenneth Foo at the launch of the WP’s 2015 poll manifesto. ST FILE PHOTO

The Sunday Times looks at the events of May 29, what led up to them, and what this means now for the WP.

It was two hours into the Workers' Party's (WP) biennial conference on Sunday, May 29, and party cadres had sat through lengthy reports from office-holders such as the secretary-general and treasurer.

The next item on the agenda - electing the party's top two leaders - was supposed to be quick and routine.

Ever since Mr Low Thia Khiang took on the mantle of secretary-general in 2001 and Ms Sylvia Lim became chairman in 2003, no one has challenged their positions.

The election of the chairman was up first and, as expected, Ms Lim was returned unopposed.

But when it came to the secretary-general's post, a hand shot up from among the 100 or so cadres gathered at a rented conference room in Cecil Street.

  • MILESTONES

  • 1957: The Workers' Party (WP) is formed by former chief minister David Marshall. It takes part in its first election and wins four out of five seats it contests in the City Council.

    1971: Lawyer J. B. Jeyaretnam takes over as secretary- general, a post he holds for 30 years.

    1981: The WP wins the Anson by-election, the first time the opposition wins a seat since Independence. But Mr Jeyaretnam loses the seat in 1986 after being fined $5,000 for making a false declaration on WP accounts in 1982.

    1991: Mr Low Thia Khiang wins the Hougang seat, which he would hold for 20 years.

    2001: Mr Jeyaretnam quits the party and Mr Low takes over as secretary-general.

    2011: The WP wins Aljunied GRC, the opposition's first victory in a group representation constituency.

    2012: The party retains its Hougang seat in a by-election.

    2013: The WP wins the Punggol East by-election, thus having a total of seven elected seats in Parliament, the highest number held by an opposition party since Independence.

    2015: The WP retains the Aljunied and Hougang constituencies but loses Punggol East. The results give the party six elected MPs and three Non-Constituency MPs, establishing it as the only opposition party with a parliamentary presence.

    2016: Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao challenges Mr Low for the secretary-general position, the first time the post is contested in 15 years. Mr Low prevails with 61 votes to Mr Chen's 45.

    Chong Zi Liang

Deputy treasurer L. Somasundaram nominated outgoing treasurer Chen Show Mao for the position. This was promptly seconded by Central Executive Council (CEC) member John Yam.

There was a stunned silence.

One cadre said it "lasted just seconds but felt like a minute" .

The challenge came out of the blue to many who were there. But to some, it was not a total surprise.

One senior party member, who asked not to be named, revealed to The Sunday Times that, prior to the meeting, he had been consulted extensively about a leadership fight by some of those who backed Mr Chen.

Yet Mr Chen kept his cards so close to his chest that this senior member, among others, did not know until that very moment if Mr Chen would follow through and actually throw his hat into the ring.

Ms Lim was the first to react and asked Mr Chen if he would accept the nomination.

Yes, came the reply, and he asked to speak to the cadres.

Ms Lim said it was against protocol, but Mr Chen managed to squeeze in a few words of thanks for the nomination.

A few cadres then tried to question the impending contest, but Ms Lim again cited rules and proceeded with a vote.

After the voting was over, and Mr Low prevailed with 61 votes to Mr Chen's 45, a section of the room broke out in applause and cheers.

Mr Low then addressed the cadres, saying he was prepared to accept any outcome, as he revealed that he had abstained from voting.

If he had done so, he would have nudged his winning margin to 17 votes.

Turning then to his opponent, he thanked Mr Chen for giving the cadres a chance to cast their ballots for the party chief for the first time in 15 years.

ASSESSING THE IMPACT

The challenge for the secretary-general's post, not surprisingly, grabbed the headlines and the public's attention. But it is polls for 12 other positions within the CEC, which took place immediately after that, which arguably has the more lasting impact on the party.

The WP, under Mr Low's stewardship, began to emphasise leadership renewal in recent years.

And this new CEC now has more younger leaders in the line-up than the previous one.

In the September 2015 General Election, Mr Low earmarked candidates standing in the Fengshan single-seat constituency and in five-man East Coast GRC as future leaders of the party.

All of them, except for former librarian Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, were successfully elected into the CEC on May 29.

Both of those who nominated Mr Chen for the party chief's post - Mr Somasundaram, 53, and Mr Yam, 54 - lost their CEC re-election bids.

This means the WP's top decision-making body now appears to be more aligned with Mr Low and his vision for the future of the party.

Mr Low's confidence that his succession plans remain on track is also reflected in his move to revive the post of assistant secretary-general after a 10-year absence.

He explained last week that he did not see the need for the post this past decade because the party was still moulding a new leadership core.

But it has now successfully cultivated one.

And so despite the challenge to Mr Low's position, the party's overall direction has not wavered.

SIZEABLE DISCONTENT

Still, Mr Chen's 45 votes show there is a significant number who disapprove of Mr Low's leadership or are at least displeased enough to vote against him.

Indeed, Mr Low's 61 votes appears to be a lacklustre endorsement considering that the party inducted 28 new cadres - members with the right to vote for the CEC - in April, an unusually high number.

These new cadres were believed to be mostly supportive of Mr Low's style of running the party.

Which raises the question, so who backed Mr Chen?

Some of those who voted for Mr Chen, who did not want to be named, told The Sunday Times that they are stalwarts who have become disgruntled over several issues.

They believe their long party membership should be recognised and they want to be consulted on weighty party matters such as crafting the election manifesto and selecting electoral candidates.

Currently, they say, Mr Low consults only a small band of people - his inner circle - and he also has the final word on who gets fielded in elections.

Some also suggested that the party has favoured those with professional qualifications such as lawyers and academics in recent years, and neglected those with a more grassroots background.

Additionally, they feel that Mr Low mishandled the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council saga, where a special audit by the Auditor-General's Office in February last year uncovered governance and financial lapses.

They claim that they had asked the party leaders to explain themselves on several occasions, but did not get satisfactory responses.

The town council is in the process of fixing these issues with the help of audit firm KPMG.

These cadres feel that this controversy in its crown jewel - Aljunied GRC - provided the ruling People's Action Party with ample opportunity to discredit the WP, reflected badly on the party and impacted on the party's performance in the 2015 General Election.

Mr Low's allies, however, counter that the party rewards those who contribute their time and effort tangibly.

The number of years someone chalks up as a party member does not count for much without recent active participation.

They also point out that there were candidates in last year's and previous general elections who were from "humble" backgrounds and not mainly those who work in professional fields.

Also, they noted, if the grievances of this group were truly about there being too many professionals, then it was ironic that they hitched themselves to Mr Chen - the opposition party's star catch in 2011, who was a Rhodes Scholar and is a high-flying corporate lawyer.

WHAT NOW?

Are these differences deep enough to splinter the party, as has happened with a number of other political parties here when their leaders fell out with each other?

For now, that is an unlikely scenario as most of the prominent members of the WP are firmly in Mr Low's camp.

Mr Chen also has his parliamentary seat to consider, as he will lose his status as an MP should he quit the party. The public backlash that could ensue for weakening Singapore's only opposition party with a parliamentary presence could also be unforgiving.

The challenge, coming this early in the general election cycle, could limit any potential damage to the party. Given that the next national polls must be held by January 2021, there is ample time for factions to sort out differences.

This includes putting to rest perceptions that a split exists between Mr Chen and his fellow Aljunied GRC MPs, and that if this is unresolved, it could weigh negatively on voters' minds the next time they go to the polls.

But even if Mr Low and his supporters believe, looking ahead, that their path is what is best for the party, in the short term they still have to face the inconvenient truth that there appears to be a rift between themselves and a group of cadres which they must try and bridge.

After all, the party chief held on to his position with 57.5 per cent of the vote. Mr Chen, or anyone with sufficient ambition for that matter, could feel emboldened enough to mount a second leadership challenge at the next conference of cadres in two years' time.

Such a move would rock the stability of the party even further at a time when the next general election would be on the horizon.

The WP retained Aljunied GRC with a razor-thin margin at last September's polls and can ill afford to have any continued signs of disunion between Mr Low and Mr Chen - or between any two opposing camps for that matter.

Whether there will indeed be a second challenge also depends on Mr Chen's motivation for contesting against Mr Low in the first place - something that he has not responded to despite repeated questioning from the press.

If he is truly politically ambitious and in it to win it, then he would feel encouraged that he has to persuade only about 10 cadres to switch sides.

But he could also be merely flexing his political muscle to gain more bargaining power and say within the party. Mr Chen has, after all, consistently been one of the top vote-getters in party elections since he joined the WP.

So if Mr Low proves to be receptive to the signalling, Mr Chen could be happy not to run for the secretary-general's post in 2018.

PUBLIC UNITY

For now, Mr Low and Mr Chen are downplaying the leadership contest and making a public show of unity.

Moments after the May 29 party conference, both portrayed the challenge as a simple case of democracy in action.

But beyond what was said to reporters, perhaps what was more telling was that they appeared before the press separately.

Mr Low was flanked by the chairman, Ms Lim, and Mr Pritam Singh, who was appointed assistant secretary-general on June 7, nine days after the party conference.

Mr Chen, on his part, offered only brief remarks to the media as he made a quick exit before Mr Low emerged.

Mr Somasundaram and Mr Yam, the duo who had backed his failed bid for the party leadership, were also one of the first cadres to leave the conference venue.


Workers' Party's leadership renewal: Chen Show Mao’s leadership bid has longer-term consequences


Mr Chen struck a conciliatory note after his defeat in the WP internal elections, saying he and the leaders have "a shared vision". TNP FILE PHOTO

Ever the enigma, Mr Chen Show Mao has kept his reasons for mounting a leadership challenge close to his chest.

When asked by reporters a day after his failed bid why he had stood for the post of secretary-general, he first gave a non-specific reply: "It gave us an opportunity to exercise our democratic rights."

But, in words hinting at possible discontent among some quarters in the Workers' Party (WP), he added that the Central Executive Council (CEC) election gave members a chance to "choose how to govern ourselves for the next two years".

READ MORE HERE 


Workers' Party's core of next-gen leaders takes shape


Workers' Party members (from left) He Ting Ru, Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, Gerald Giam, Daniel Goh, Leon Perera and Kenneth Foo at the launch of the party's 2015 election manifesto at its headquarters in Syed Alwi Road on Aug 29, 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE

The Workers' Party's (WP) two youngest elected MPs - Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap - are now in key party positions following last month's internal elections.

Mr Singh, 40, was named the WP's assistant secretary-general (ASG), while fellow Aljunied GRC MP, Mr Faisal, also 40, was appointed vice-chairman.

Even though Mr Low downplayed the significance of Mr Singh's appointment as assistant secretary- general - pitching it as being part of the party's renewal process - analysts say that filling a position that was long dormant is a strong signal of who Mr Low wants to succeed him when he steps down.

READ MORE HERE 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'After the challenge, where to next?'. Print Edition | Subscribe