News analysis

Calculations behind WP's move to keep Aljunied team intact

Workers' Party leaders Sylvia Lim (third from left) and Low Thia Khiang greeting People's Action Party members during a walkabout at MacPherson Market and Food Centre on Aug 7.
Workers' Party leaders Sylvia Lim (third from left) and Low Thia Khiang greeting People's Action Party members during a walkabout at MacPherson Market and Food Centre on Aug 7.ST FILE PHOTO

Repaying the faith of Aljunied GRC voters was the only reason publicly cited by Workers' Party (WP) leaders Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim to explain why its five-member team is defending the GRC at the next general election.

But other factors are at play too.

The opposition party went through a complex analysis of risks and benefits before reaching the eventual decision, say sources.

These include the need to consolidate its support base in Aljunied GRC, and to allow its younger members and new candidates to take centre stage at the polls, thereby advancing its leadership succession process.

Contrary to speculation among some that at least one of the Aljunied GRC MPs might leave to lead the charge elsewhere, party insiders told The Straits Times that the WP team had already been hinting at least a year ago that they were going nowhere.

They say the move dovetails with Mr Low's philosophy and the WP's approach to patiently build up its presence in its strongholds, as he did by staying in the Hougang single ward from 1991 before he left to contest Aljunied GRC in 2011.

The WP team of Mr Low, Ms Lim, Mr Chen Show Mao, Mr Pritam Singh and Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap won against the People's Action Party with 54.7 per cent of the vote share.

The ongoing spat with the Government over the WP-run Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) may also have played a part.

Uncomfortable questions will surface if the WP team breaks up at a time when the AHPETC is still ironing out the problems that remain with its accounts.

And though the WP maintains that it has not short-changed residents in terms of estate maintenance, it will want all hands on deck to weather criticisms that the ruling PAP is likely to continue to raise at the hustings.

The WP would have calculated that the less uncertainty over the composition of its GRC MPs at this point, the better.

What also explains why the WP chose to announce an unchanged Aljunied slate so early in the game, is that it did not want residents to form the wrong impression - and see the move by an MP so close to the polls as a case of bailing out.

A court case pitting the Ministry of National Development (MND) against the AHPETC has also been weighing on the minds of the Aljunied MPs, say sources.

If the Court of Appeal rules to appoint independent accountants to the AHPETC and delivers the verdict during the campaign, it would throw a spanner in the works of the WP election strategy.

Another reason for the WP wanting its MPs to stay put is that it wants to avoid comparisons with the PAP's practice of having an anchor minister in GRCs, by not deploying a WP heavyweight from Aljunied GRC elsewhere.

Opposition parties often accuse the PAP of having its rookies ride on the coat-tails of anchor ministers into Parliament.

By keeping its senior leaders in Aljunied, the WP can also unearth more future leaders if their candidates are able to perform credibly on their own steam.

But there are potential drawbacks to keeping the WP team intact. For one thing, the party could be seen as conservative, and thus disappoint supporters who hope it will build on the momentum from its 2011 GRC breakthrough, and the two by-election victories that followed.

It could also signal to voters the WP is worried about the AHPETC's impact at the polls and, in turn, make them think harder about supporting the party and have it run a town council elsewhere.

But the biggest risk is that, by placing all its bets on Aljunied backing them again, any misjudgment of ground sentiment there will cost them five experienced MPs at one go.

Too much is at stake and there is more to the party's decision for its MPs to hold the line in Aljunied than it simply being a gesture of gratitude to the residents.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2015, with the headline 'Calculations behind WP's move to keep Aljunied team intact'. Print Edition | Subscribe