Workers' Party trying to move forward

WP Non-Constituency MPs Dennis Tan (right) and Leon Perera (third from right) at the swearing in of the new Cabinet at the Istana on Oct 1. The two men are part of the party's next-generation leaders, and the party's renewal plans appear to be on tra
WP Non-Constituency MPs Dennis Tan (right) and Leon Perera (third from right) at the swearing in of the new Cabinet at the Istana on Oct 1. The two men are part of the party's next-generation leaders, and the party's renewal plans appear to be on track.ST FILE PHOTO

Speak to any Workers' Party activist now, and they are likely to try and find out how you voted in the general election.

It is not that the party does not want to move on, but rather that its performance at the ballot box appears to have dealt a blow to its confidence about how to proceed.

As a volunteer said right after the party's weaker-than-expected poll showing: "I wonder whether what we're doing is worth it if it is not what people want."

Singapore's dominant opposition party had held such high hopes for the Sept 11 polls. But in the end the WP gained no ground and even narrowly lost Punggol East single-member constituency, which it won in a by-election in 2013. As for its crown jewel of Aljunied GRC, it only managed to hang on to this with a reduced winning margin, as was also the case with Hougang SMC.

But while the WP is in soul-searching mode, it is making an effort to look forward.

Some party members lament that they have misread sentiment and vastly over-estimated support. This has shaken confidence in the party's ability to read the ground. Although it has not launched an official fact-finding exercise, party members and volunteers have fanned out on their own to speak to residents.

In the month since that Sept 11 blow, it has trained new volunteers, held a youth wing election, co-opted three new faces into its top decision-making body, and started walking the ground again.

In Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, meet-the-people sessions and community activities have also started in earnest. And work is under way to separate the accounts of Punggol East - which has gone back to the People's Action Party - from the WP's newly reconstituted Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC).

Still, the burning question is, Why the spurning? Activists say that, so far, the reasons thrown up from the ad-hoc conversations include the SG50 effect, the death of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, and the change in government policies over the last four years.

Former Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Yee Jenn Jong also said on a Facebook post that the one noticeable difference during campaigning was that voters were less angry compared to 2011.

DID TOWN COUNCIL SAGA MATTER?

But one thing missing in discussions is what part was played by the party's handling of town council finances. Following the results, the WP had publicly maintained that it had little impact on voters' choice.

But some senior members now privately concede that voters could have been swayed by the negative news about the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) issues.

Since taking over management of Aljunied after winning the GRC in 2011, independent auditors hired by the town council have been unable to verify its accounts, including the latest statements for financial year 2014/2015.

Party chairman Sylvia Lim, who was also chairman of AHPETC, has said that progress has been made and most of the remaining disclaimers were due to information gaps when the Aljunied Town Council was handed over.

But party insiders are worried that many voters do not have the time for such details and have little patience for lengthy explanations.

Meanwhile, the party has been busy working to close its Punggol East town council office, and plans to redeploy its staff to the other offices under AHTC. It has 90 days from the election to hand over the management of Punggol East to the PAP, and has hired external auditors to work on separating the accounts of the constituency.

Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh - who has taken over as AHTC chairman from Ms Lim - as well as the other Aljunied MPs has pledged to "serve the residents to the best of their ability".

A week after the election, the MPs' weekly meet-the-people sessions had resumed. During the Mid-Autumn Festival last month, the party's town council had also organised parties for residents.

MIDDLE-CLASS SNUB

Party leaders have also been analysing the results from polling districts within constituencies to discern the voting patterns of different areas within a ward.

Sources say that support from residents living in private property fell across the board in all constituencies contested by the WP. This was in stark contrast to the 2011 General Election, when those living in condominiums and landed homes gave strong backing to the party. For instance, the WP lost in the Joo Chiat single seat by just 388 votes in 2011. This time, its vote share in the area, which was absorbed into Marine Parade GRC, fell markedly.

Likewise, voters living in larger four-room and five-room Housing Board flats also swung against the WP, signalling that the party may have lost ground with these middle-class voters in general.

In estates comprising mostly smaller flats, the party did not gain or lose ground, compared to 2011.

Some party members lament that they have misread sentiment and vastly overestimated support. This has shaken confidence in the party's ability to read the ground.

Although it has not launched an official fact-finding exercise, party members and volunteers have fanned out on their own to speak to residents. In Fengshan SMC and East Coast GRC, WP candidates fielded there such as shipping lawyer Dennis Tan, 45, and Non-Constituency MP and consultancy firm chief executive Leon Perera, 45, have been spotted making their rounds in the past few weeks, speaking to residents at coffeeshops and housing estates.

RENEWING THE TEAM

Amid this, the WP has pressed on with its renewal plans. During a meeting last Tuesday, Mr Perera, and former librarian Mohamed Fairoz Shariff, 36, were both co-opted into its Central Executive Council (CEC). Both were part of its ill-fated East Coast slate that party leaders had hailed as containing its future leaders. But the team got only 39.3 per cent of the vote, failing to get elected into Parliament as party chief Low Thia Khiang had hoped.

Voluntary welfare organisation manager Kenneth Foo, 38, who was part of the Nee Soon GRC team that polled 33.2 per cent of the vote, was also co-opted into the executive.

He is said to have impressed party leaders with his organisation skills, having guided a team of election rookies in Nee Soon despite being a new face himself. He is also seen as someone with strong grassroots links and is comfortable interacting with residents from all walks of life.

Observers say the party is hoping the trio will project a mix of youth, policy know-how, and minority representation.

It is also, perhaps, trying to send a signal about the importance of party discipline, insiders say.

They point to how its Marine Parade team was also made up of highly-qualified candidates - including crowd favourite, legal counsel He Ting Ru, 32 - none of whom were brought into the CEC. The team was apparently plagued by simmering discord among members, which displeased party leaders, who have always prized tight discipline and frowned upon power play.

Meanwhile, the party has also put sociology professor Daniel Goh, 42, in charge of its media team, one of several changes to membership of its CEC sub-committees. That the outspoken academic was picked signals that the party could be moving away from its old, reticent approach of dealing with the press and publicity.

On the grassroots front, the party has started to train its new volunteers, such as those in Mr Chen Show Mao's Paya Lebar ward under Aljunied GRC.

It has also started recruiting more aggressively, with individual candidates roping in volunteers online, and the party setting up a volunteer network Facebook page giving updates.

With the co-opting done, and two of the party's next-generation leaders - Mr Tan and Mr Perera - in Parliament via the Non-Constituency MP scheme, the party's renewal plans appear to be on track.

The next challenge may well be yet another election - an internal one. Party cadres will elect a new CEC every two years and the next Organising Members' Conference is due in the middle of next year.

While there was post-election talk of possible challenges against Mr Low and Ms Lim, the recent moves in the party show that they still hold considerable sway, say sources close to the party.

With its East Coast and Fengshan candidates - singled out as future leaders by Mr Low and Ms Lim - now all in the CEC, this possibly consolidates the duo's power.

•Additional reporting by Tham Yuen-C

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 11, 2015, with the headline 'Workers' Party trying to move forward'. Print Edition | Subscribe