WP: On the path to leadership renewal

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

What are the calculations behind installing its two youngest elected MPs, Pritam Singh and Faisal Manap, in key posts?

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.
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.

The assistant secretary-general post was left vacant for 10 years.

It appears to have been a symbolic gesture not to anoint someone from the next generation of leaders to be first-among-equals.

Until now.

Mr Singh is also climbing the party's leadership structure in a similar way as Mr Low once did. Mr Singh was previously the organising secretary, a post Mr Low himself once held before becoming secretary-general in 2001.

Analysts say that in deciding who to elevate within the WP leadership, Mr Low has made a shrewd move. By shining the light on Mr Singh and Mr Faisal - both second-term MPs - he is essentially saying the WP wants to vest its future in those with a track record in constituency work, and who are able to contest and win elections.

This blunts the argument among some disgruntled quarters of the party that Mr Low has, in recent years, sidelined older, more experienced members to make way for untested newcomers.

Mr Low himself pointed out that Mr Singh is "suitable" for the assistant secretary-general's post, given the duties he shouldered thus far.

"He's been chairman of a town council, has experience in managing town council, and he has been active in the grassroots work, Parliament," said Mr Low. "So if you consider in terms of the totality, I think Mr Singh is suitable to be the ASG."

What was left unsaid was Mr Singh's solid performance in GE2015: His Eunos ward attained the highest vote-share for the WP of Aljunied GRC's five wards.

As chairman and the de facto face of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council, Mr Singh has also had ample opportunity to spar with PAP and government types outside the relative safety of Parliament.

While party insiders concede that the town council's woes may have cost the WP votes in GE2015, many were of the view that Mr Singh acquitted himself well despite numerous challenges and showed stamina for a protracted fight, and they noted that the town council is on track to solve its financial woes with the help of audit firm KPMG.

Political scientist Bilveer Singh points out, though, that the appointment as assistant secretary-general is no guarantee that he is the successor. Rather, it is a signal that his ability to lead will now be closely scrutinised. "It is not surprising that he is now positioned as the ASG. But he must now perform as a party leader and not just as a party worker," said Dr Singh.

"He is key in the driving seat and he is a front runner. But by no means has the decision been made. For that, we must wait for the next GE."

Mr Low, 59, said it is essential for his successor to have the support of the party, something which Mr Singh certainly has. He was re-elected to the CEC with the most number of votes at the May 29 election.

While he declined to provide a timeline for when the baton will be passed, he hinted that it could happen sooner rather than later.

Mr Low told the media that the assistant secretary-general's position was left vacant for the past decade "because we were still developing, we were still cultivating, moulding the new leadership core".

But the new core now appears to have taken shape: Aside from Mr Singh and Mr Faisal , four fresh faces have been tasked to understudy more experienced WP leaders. They include deputy organising secretary Kenneth Foo, 39, who led the Nee Soon GRC team in GE2015, and Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Leon Perera, 45, who has been appointed deputy chair of WP's media team.

That both men were co-opted into the decision-making body in 2015 and re-elected last month signalled that the challenge for the WP's top job did not derail the party's planned succession process.

Other new faces who made the cut also add to the narrative that Mr Low does not want the WP to regress to the state it was in when he took over in 2001. That year, the party was able to contest only two seats in the general election.

NCMP Dennis Tan, 45, one of the best performers among those who lost in GE2015, was named deputy treasurer, while chocolate factory boss Firuz Khan, 49, was appointed deputy webmaster.

"The line-up has shown that the party has successfully cultivated a younger leadership core which will be able to succeed the older leadership when the time comes," said Mr Low. Even as he played it coy when asked when the deputies would take over key portfolios, the decision to seed them into the CEC showed that Mr Low recognises the importance - and urgency - of getting the next- generation leaders and his identified successors out in the open.

This is so that they can be assessed and accepted not only within the party, but also by the public.

"Whoever succeeds me as party leader, for that matter anyone who becomes (part of the) leadership core, will need to have a favourable public opinion so that the public will continue to support the WP," said Mr Low. "We are a political party, so that's a reality."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 12, 2016, with the headline 'Party's core of next-gen leaders takes shape'. Print Edition | Subscribe