On the campaign trail - Workers' Party: Leon Perera

Speaks softly but holds strong views

Workers' Party candidate Leon Perera (at microphone) and team members Gerald Giam (blocked), Mohamed Fairoz Shariff and Daniel Goh are standing for election in East Coast GRC.
Workers' Party candidate Leon Perera (at microphone) and team members Gerald Giam (blocked), Mohamed Fairoz Shariff and Daniel Goh are standing for election in East Coast GRC.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

His voice may be soft, but Workers' Party (WP) candidate Leon Perera says it belies the firm views that he has and his determination to be heard.

"I have a soft voice, I inherited that from my father. But that doesn't mean that I'm meek. I'm clear about what I think is right and wrong, and I'm prepared to stand up for that," said the chief of a consultancy and research firm.

These beliefs include the need for balance in the political system and the responsibilities of citizenship.

Mr Perera, 44, grew up in a Commonwealth Drive three-room flat, where his primary school teacher parents introduced him and his elder sister to books on economics and philosophy from a young age. "It was a household full of ideas and debate and discussion, including about political issues," he recalled.

He was 11 when he became aware of politics, when the WP's


We need to take citizenship seriously, we have responsibilities as citizens. But we've become a nation of residents passively consuming services from our town council, from our politicians. But I think we are more than just residents. We should see ourselves as citizens.

MR LEON PERERA, on the responsibility of citizens

J. B. Jeyaretnam won the 1981 Anson by-election, becoming the first opposition politician to beat the People's Action Party since independence.

"I remember shouts coming from the neighbouring blocks when the results were announced... I had never seen or heard anything like that before," said Mr Perera, whose family lived in Telok Blangah then.

The avid reader's interest in politics and social issues grew throughout his years in Anglo-Chinese School and Hwa Chong Junior College.

By the time he left for the University of Oxford in 1989 to study philosophy, politics and economics on a government scholarship, he was already "seized by the need for politial balance".

Without this notion of balance, he felt, a large swathe of Singaporeans could be alienated and feel they have no say in the direction the nation is headed.

"It runs the risk of a governance system where the citizens of the country look around them - at the institutions, at the policies of the Government as well - and don't recognise themselves in there. They say, 'I don't know where this is coming from, this doesn't reflect my aspirations.'"

He cited the unease over the number of foreign workers in Singapore as an example of how a lack of "democratic buy-in" can breed negativity. "There should be social consensus before we move ahead with such a bold change as increasing the population," he said.

As a student in Britain, he dabbled in student activism, joining discussion groups and lobbying the British government to change its policy on the war in Cambodia at the time.

Returning home in 1992, he worked for the Economic Development Board doing planning and policy work on the economies in the region. Three years later, after serving most of his bond, he "liquidated the final part, which is a small portion", he said without elaborating.

He then left to head the consulting arm of a private company before setting up Spire - which specialises in research and consultancy for global emerging markets - in 2000.

He also volunteered with a family service centre where, he said, he witnessed poverty and other harder realities that he had only understood at a theoretical level before.

There were also stints with several non-profit organisations.

His parents, he said, had drummed into him that citizens have responsibilities.

"We have a choice. We can sit back and not do anything and just be a spectator and just retreat to our homes, to our private life... Or we can go outside and engage."

His entry into politics is his way of fulfilling the obligations that come with active citizenship.

He felt that issues such as an ageing society and having enough to live on in retirement require solutions not just from the Government but from citizens and civil society as well.

When asked for specific remedies, he pointed to the WP's manifesto which outlines proposals such as reducing the reliance on foreign workers by getting more Singaporean senior citizens and women to work, and lowering the Central Provident Fund payout eligibility age from 65 to 60.

Mr Perera started volunteering with the WP in early 2013 and became a party member half a year later. He said he joined the party because he believed there was a need for more people to come forward and build a more responsible opposition.

Besides, he added with a grin, the PAP had no lack of good people. He also sees the increasing number of professionals entering opposition politics as "a sign of the maturing of the country".

"People realise that at the end of the day we are a country. We are not just an extension of one political party. We need to express our political aspirations if we want the country to be like what we aspire to be," he said.

Married to a 41-year-old public relations freelancer, he has been priming their 10-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son for the fact that he is standing for election.

He has given his daughter her first lesson on voting. She had come home one day from school, recounting how her teacher made them elect their class monitor.

Mr Perera took the opportunity to explain the process further by staging an election involving her toys. "She loved it. And my son loved it as well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2015, with the headline 'Speaks softly but holds strong views'. Print Edition | Subscribe