News analysis

Singapore GE2020: Time will tell what Low Thia Khiang's legacy in politics is


When news broke on Thursday of opposition stalwart Low Thia Khiang's retirement from electoral politics, a big question on the minds of many political pundits was how this would affect the chances of the Workers' Party (WP).

For years, Mr Low, 63, has been the face of the party.

Even now, nine years after he left Hougang SMC to lead a team at Aljunied GRC in 2011, some Hougang residents declare that they will vote for any WP candidate there, just because they trust the man they affectionately refer to as "Ah Low".

But is it merely a cult of personality that draws voters to the party?

Asked on Thursday how his decision to step down would affect the WP at the polls, Mr Low said with a laugh: "I do not know how many voters vote solely because of me."

He added: "I have always maintained that a party cannot depend on just an individual or a few individuals."

It is a position he has hewed closely to.

As a member of the party since 1982, he had witnessed first-hand how disruptive it could be if a party's fate was tied too closely to a personality.

When he took over as party chief in 2001, the WP was in disarray.

Its erstwhile secretary-general J.B. Jeyaretnam had been bankrupted by lawsuits and could not contest elections.

The resulting internal strife, with Mr Low blamed for not doing enough to help Mr Jeyaretnam, almost caused the opposition to become "extinct", Mr Low had said.


Knowing full well how dangerous it could be to turn politics into a game of personality, he set out very early to renew the party's ranks.

In 2001, he, at age 45, was among the youngest in the party's top decision-making body.

The party's current central executive committee has five members in their 40s.

Although many deemed he had a few good years left, Mr Low stepped down as party chief in 2018, making way for current secretary-general Pritam Singh.

Since then, he has kept a low profile in Parliament, perhaps to ensure his successor is not eclipsed by him.

On Thursday, Mr Low said he was once asked by a reporter what the WP could do for voters with just one person in Parliament.

"My answer was, the reality is that what a party can do depends on how the people sustain it. Of course, as one person, there are limitations to what I can do.

"With more people... the People's Action Party (PAP) will see that voters have more support for the opposition... and they will rethink their policies."

To attract enough of the middle ground to sustain the WP, he had also set out to transform the WP into what he has described as a "responsible opposition party" that people would respect.

The first change along this direction was a seemingly insignificant one - changing the sartorial style of WP members.

In a 2011 interview with The Straits Times, Mr Low said one of his earliest tasks as party chief was to nag WP members to dress more neatly for walkabouts instead of doing it in their preferred attire of T-shirts and slippers.

"I think if we want to move together as a party and you want people to look at you, to respect you, you have to respect yourself with more discipline," he added.

When he joined the WP, the party under Mr Jeyaretnam took a more adversarial approach.

But Mr Low never believed in opposing for the sake of doing so, and transformed the party in his mould.

Under his leadership, the WP has taken a more moderate line and in the process created a brand of opposition politics based on constructive criticism.

Even the PAP has described him as a "constructive opposition politician".


Describing how the party has evolved on Thursday, Mr Low acknowledged that less combative, aggressive politics is what the new generation of Singaporeans want.

"I would think that I am more aggressive, but the younger generation like Pritam and Leon, maybe they want a different approach, which I think is not a bad thing," he said, referring to Mr Singh and Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera.

"They respond appropriately and they make a point, although they don't go for some attack here and there like me. But never mind, lah."

After taking over, Mr Singh has often reiterated that he would continue on the path Mr Low has set to make the WP "a loyal opposition which is interested in Singapore and Singaporeans".

It has been nine years since Mr Low left Hougang to lead the WP's charge in neighbouring Aljunied GRC, and since then, Hougang has gone through two other WP MPs and will see a third WP candidate this coming election.

Yet, there continues to be die-hard supporters in Hougang who have kept their allegiance to Mr Low, even after his departure from the single-seat constituency.

While he still remains a WP member, his stepping down from electoral politics may not have much effect on their vote.

But in Aljunied GRC, where he has not gained the same traction, there is a chance that some voters, who have voted for the WP to keep Mr Low in Parliament, may no longer feel the need to do so.

Just how this "Low Thia Khiang effect" will affect the WP's chances at the ballot box is anyone's guess.

For many, his biggest achievement as a politician is in leading an opposition party to victory in Aljunied GRC in 2011.

But it remains to be seen if his biggest contribution to Singapore's political development will be in building up an opposition party larger than himself, and creating a brand of constructive politics that will survive the test of time.

It is undeniable that the WP of today has the imprint of Mr Low all over it.

As his influence slowly fades, it is up to the WP's current leaders to show they will remain steadfast to these values so that voters will know that even without Mr Low, they will get in the WP an opposition that wants to serve as a check on the Government, and not replace it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2020, with the headline 'Time will tell what Low Thia Khiang's legacy in politics is'. Subscribe