SINGAPORE - Former Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang and fellow MPs Chen Show Mao and Png Eng Huat will not be standing as candidates in the general election, paving the way for the party's younger leaders to take their place as the opposition party pushes ahead with renewal.
Taking Mr Low and Mr Chen's place in the Aljunied GRC slate will be Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Leon Perera, while Mr Png will be replaced in Hougang by Mr Dennis Tan.
WP secretary-general Pritam Singh made the announcement on Thursday (June 25) in the party's first press conference this election, confirming speculation that has been swirling on the ground that the three stalwarts have asked to sit out the election.
Describing it as a collective decision anchored on the continued success of the WP, Mr Singh said the move would allow the party to broaden its leadership base and also remain in touch with the ground as Singapore's population changes.
"For the party to grow, new and younger leaders require parliamentary and town council experience. If there is no renewal of Workers' Party MPs, over time the party will not be able to attract new members to join and aspire to serve Singapore and Singaporeans as opposition MPs.
"The absence of new blood will set the party back in its growth as a credible and institutionalised opposition in Singapore," he said.
Mr Singh added that Mr Low himself had persuaded him on the importance of refreshing the party's line up of MPs for the WP to remain relevant to all Singaporeans.
"He was concerned that as the elder generation of the party ages, even as values and wisdom remain timeless, a Member of Parliament must have his or her pulse on Singapore society.
"If a Workers' Party MP becomes too detached from new norms and the changing shape of society, the Workers' Party will be less effective in speaking for Singaporeans in Parliament and run the risk of becoming irrelevant," he said, relating Mr Low's advice.
All three men had expressed their wish to step down at the end of this term of Parliament, and Mr Singh stressed that this "is not a retirement".
He said the trio will continue to mentor and train the party's next generation leaders.
"The time is right for the Workers' Party to have senior leaders contribute in a different capacity. They remain critical as the party's resource of information and experience," he added.
Mr Low's candidacy in Aljunied had been unclear after he sustained a head injury from a fall at home on April 30. He was admitted to the intensive care unit of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, and discharged after 21 days.
He is said to be on the mend, and a recent photograph posted by People's Action Party member and Speaker of Parliament Tan Chuan-Jin showed him in good spirits.
But some party members had said Mr Low was contemplating stepping down even before the accident.
The battle-hardened politician, known for his Teochew rally speeches and down-to-earth manner, had joined politics some 40 years ago. He has been an elected MP for 29 years - the longest-serving opposition MP in Singapore.
First elected into Parliament in Hougang in 1991, he left the constituency in 2011 to lead a team to Aljunied GRC, and in recent years has called on voters to help the party renew its ranks by voting in its younger members.
Under him, the WP became the first opposition party to win a group representation constituency.
Another of his big achievements as party chief was attracting Mr Chen, a top corporate lawyer, to its ranks.
With his credentials, Mr Chen was seen as the type of star catch that only the People's Action Party would field, and his candidacy with the WP in 2011 is thought to have played a critical part in securing a win in Aljunied GRC.
But in 2016, Mr Chen mounted a challenge against Mr Low during the party's internal elections, sparking talk of a rift in the party.
Meanwhile, Mr Png, who joined WP in 2006, was first fielded as a candidate in 2011 in East Coast GRC, but did not win. He was fielded against as the party's candidate in the Hougang by-election in 2012, and has been an MP in the ward since then.
The three younger candidates who will be taking their place - Mr Giam, Mr Perera and Mr Tan - have all had parliamentary experience as Non-Constituency MPs, and have been touted as its next generation leaders.
Mr Perera had been shadowing Ms Lim in her Serangoon ward in Aljunied GRC for the past few years, while Mr Tan has been shadowing Mr Png in Hougang.
Meanwhile, Mr Giam has been spotted walking the ground in Mr Low's Bedok Resrvoir-Punggol ward, and has been knocking on doors and giving out flyers with his photo, name and contact number to residents in the area.
Thanking the three senior leaders, Mr Singh said: "The Workers' Party and our supporters have been fortunate to count on the leadership of Mr Low, Mr Chen and Mr Png for many years. And many Singaporeans are in their debt for their decision to serve the country through the Workers' Party."
"The party leadership, chair Sylvia Lim and myself, and all of us at the Workers' Party will continue working and walking together, standing on the shoulders of the values Mr Low and other elder members have built. We will strengthen and carry the Workers' Party forward to greater heights."
News of the three stalwarts stepping down on Thursday eclipsed the party's first candidate introduction session, which saw two new faces and two familiar faces announced.
The first two new candidates unveiled were equity analyst Louis Chua Kheng Wee, 33, as well as Grab driver and small business owner Muhammad Azhar Bin Abdul Latip, 33.
The party will also be fielding its former NCMP and two-time candidate Yee Jenn Jong, 55, as well as advertising executive Nicole Seah, 33, who had contested the 2011 election with the National Solidarity Party.
Mr Singh, who was joined by party chairman Sylvia Lim at the press conference held over the Zoom videoconferencing application, did not say where the candidates would be fielded.
But Mr Yee, who had contested in Joo Chiat SMC in 2011 and Marine Parade GRC in 2015, said he was "back for a third time" signalling his likely candidacy in the GRC.
Mr Singh also revealed on Thursday that the party would contest four GRCs - Aljunied, East Coast, Marine Parade and Sengkang - as well as two SMCs: Hougang and Punggol West.
He added that the upcoming election, held amid the coronavirus pandemic, would present challenges for the WP, which has typically held large mass rallies to get its message out.
"The upcoming elections will be a tough and challenging one for the Workers Party. Arising from Covid-19, physical rallies will no longer take place. The party will proceed to campaign as best we can focusing on walking the coffee shops and markets during campaigning abiding by the safe distancing requirements of the authorities," he said.