Workers' Party (WP) leaders yesterday apologised for not sending a representative to a televised live debate in Mandarin on Wednesday.
WP leader Pritam Singh said that while the party has members who are comfortable making speeches and communicating to residents in Mandarin, the "quality of the proficiency required to participate in a live debate is of a higher order".
Speaking to reporters before starting a walkabout in Aljunied GRC, he asked for the forbearance of the party's Mandarin-speaking supporters, and added: "I'm very grateful for the support of our Mandarin-only-speaking supporters."
The party's East Coast GRC candidate Kenneth Foo spoke at a dialogue organised by Singapore Press Holdings' Chinese Media Group NewsHub last night, making good on a promise by Mr Singh to send someone to the event.
The issue is a particularly sensitive one for the WP, which had gained a following among Chinese-speaking Singaporeans under former party chief Low Thia Khiang, a Teochew-speaking businessman who graduated from the former Nanyang University (Nantah). It is widely believed that part of his appeal in the WP's Hougang stronghold, where he was first elected into Parliament in 1991, was his ability to connect with the large population of Teochew Singaporeans who were resettled there after the pig farms in the area were cleared out.
Yesterday, a photo-shopped picture was circulating on the Whatsapp messaging platform, depicting a packet of WP-branded potato chips with the label "kantang" or potato. The term is common parlance used to describe Singaporeans who are Westernised and speak only English.
Mr Chan Soo Sen, a Chinese-educated former People's Action Party MP, told The Straits Times he did not think the Chinese ground was angered as much as surprised by the move. "The sentiment of the Chinese community would likely be... a sense of regret that as the campaign goes online, less Chinese and dialects are used," he said, adding that there was still time to make amends.
WP chairman Sylvia Lim, speaking in Mandarin yesterday, called on voters to support the party, saying that it would encourage more talented Singaporeans to join its ranks. Mr Singh said Mr Low had himself joined in the early 1980s because he wanted to help shore up the quality of the party's Chinese pamphlets. "We hope more bicultural Singaporeans do so as well," he added.
Asked about the issue during her walkabout, WP Punggol West candidate Tan Chen Chen - who spoke in Mandarin during her candidate introduction and has said she is more comfortable with the language - acknowledged the party could have fallen short in the matter. On why she was not sent to the debate, Ms Tan said such decisions are made by the party's media team and leaders.
She added that her mother too had lamented at times that the WP's posts on Facebook are seldom in Chinese. "We are always trying to do better; there are definitely things we can improve on," she said.
During the dialogue broadcast on Zaobao.sg, Mr Foo was asked if the WP's absence from the debate signalled that it no longer cared about Chinese-speaking voters.
One even asked if Mr Low had perhaps retired too early, and noted the WP has also been fielding candidates from the ranks of the English-educated elite.
To these questions, Mr Foo repeated Mr Singh's explanation and apology, adding: "It doesn't mean we don't care about Chinese voters. To us no matter what race you are, you are equally important."
As to the charges of being elite, he questioned if it was really the case, saying that many WP candidates had worked their way up from the bottom. He gave the example of a former candidate who is in the funeral industry and is now a researcher. "Their experiences are similar to that of many Singaporeans. So it may not be that many of them are elite," he said.