Workers' Party begins conference to elect new chief; Low Thia Khiang says he is in 'a good mood'

Asked how he feels about today's elections, Mr Low, who will step down after 17 years at the helm, said: "Happy!" ST VIDEO: NG JUN SEN
Pritam Singh speaking to reporters as he arrives at the WP headquarters on April 8, 2018.
Pritam Singh speaking to reporters as he arrives at the WP headquarters on April 8, 2018.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID
WP chairman Sylvia Lim arriving at the Workers' Party headquarters on April 8, 2018.
WP chairman Sylvia Lim arriving at the Workers' Party headquarters on April 8, 2018.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID
Chen Show Mao arrives at the WP headquarters on April 8, 2018.
Chen Show Mao arrives at the WP headquarters on April 8, 2018.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID
WP chief Low Thia Kiang arrives at the party's headquarters on April 8, 2018.
WP chief Low Thia Kiang arrives at the party's headquarters on April 8, 2018.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - The Workers' Party began its biennal party conference on Sunday afternoon (April 8), where it will be electing a new leader for the first time in 17 years.

Cadres arrived at its new headquarters at the four-storey Teambuild Centre at 701 Geylang Road shortly before 2pm. Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, due to step down after the internal polls, was all smiles, saying in Mandarin that he is in a "good mood".

"Wah, so many people here, like during general election," the 61-year-old quipped with a laugh, when he saw the media scrum waiting for him.

His likely successor, current assistant secretary-general Pritam Singh, was less chatty, saying "no comments" - with a grin - when asked if he will run for the position or accept nominations.

Fellow Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao, seen as a possible challenger, arrived right after him looking relaxed and cheerful. Mr Chen had contested Mr Low for the post of party chief at the last party election in 2016, and it is not clear if he will do so again this time around.

Whatever the case, the WP will see its first leadership change in almost two decades.

Mr Singh, 41, has surfaced as the front runner for secretary-general ever since Mr Low surprised Singaporeans last November by announcing that he will be stepping down. He has been in charge since 2001.

But Mr Singh may yet face a challenge by Mr Chen.

The 2016 contest, fresh in the minds of cadres and members and the only one Mr Low has faced, has generated some uncertainty about how the party's first leadership transition in nearly two decades will go.

Both Mr Singh and Mr Chen have consistently declined to say if they would run in the election when asked, though Mr Chen's supporters have told The Straits Times that he had told them in a meeting two weeks ago that he will not battle Mr Singh for the role.

Party insiders who spoke to The Straits Times said Mr Singh has the support of the majority of cadres and other party leaders. Non-Constituency MPs Daniel Goh, 44, Leon Perera, 46, and Dennis Tan, 47, for instance, are among those who have openly thrown their support behind him.

The party last saw a smooth handover of power in 2001 when Mr Low was returned unopposed as the successor to Mr J. B. Jeyaretnam.

Though some members later made noise about the validity of the election, the Chinese-educated, Teochew-speaking businessman took his party to unprecedented heights when he led a WP team to victory in Aljunied GRC in the 2011 General Election.

 
 
 
 

The stakes this transition are thus higher as the WP now has more representatives in Parliament - six MPs and three NCMPs, making it Singapore's most successful opposition party since Independence to date.

Mr Low's decision to retire as secretary-general took many Singaporeans by surprise.

Though he has not spoken about what future role he will play in the party, many are expecting that he will stay on in its top decision-making body so the party can still benefit from his experience.

Mr Low can either have his name put up for the central executive council election today, or be co-opted into its ranks at the first council meeting.

Announcing his intention to retire as party chief last year, he said that he had accomplished the goals he set for himself - party renewal and electoral progress - and it was now time to "step aside for the younger generation of leaders to step up to the steering wheel to move the party forward".

But it has not stopped speculation among those who wonder why he would step aside to let a less experienced person lead the party into the next general election, due by 2021.

Observers said the handover could help the party hedge uncertainties over the ongoing Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) civil suit. The independent panel representing the town council has asked Mr Low and WP chairman Sylvia Lim to account for over $33 million, and they can be made bankrupt if they lose and cannot repay the sum.

Another consideration, according to some party members, could have to do with Mr Chen's unprecedented challenge.

Though Mr Low had successfully defended his position with 61 votes to Mr Chen's 45, the contest had exposed a split in the highly disciplined and secretive party.

 
 

His retirement as party chief could go some way in placating the group that did not agree with his leadership style and backed Mr Chen, possibly helping to heal the rifts, some members suggest.

Besides a new party chief, the WP will also be choosing its chairman and central executive council at the party conference, to be held at its new headquarters in Geylang Road.

Ms Lim, 53, who has been chairman since 2003, has said she intends to run for her current post. This is expected to lend some stability to the party's leadership transition.

The posts of secretary-general and chairman are elected separately.

Meanwhile, any cadre who is at the meeting, and with a seconder, can be nominated for the other 12 seats on the central executive council. The 12 with the highest votes will be selected.