Ex-NCMP's new book reveals details on WP's inner workings

The Workers' Party Mr Yee Jenn Jong with a copy of his book. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - When erstwhile Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang announced he would not run in the election this year, it was not a decision sparked by a fall at home, according to a new book by WP member and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

The veteran politician's plan to step down had already been in the works from as early as 2016 following a leadership challenge at the leading opposition party.

The high degree of planning has come to define the WP brand.

This and other lesser-known facts are revealed in "Journey In Blue: A Peek Into The Workers' Party Of Singapore" by WP member and Non-Constituency MP Yee Jenn Jong.

The book, which chronicles Mr Yee's journey in politics, goes some way towards lifting the veil surrounding the inner workings of the WP, a party that is well known for keeping a tight lid on its affairs.

The book confirms for the first time that there had been a group of members who felt the party's MPs had mishandled matters at the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC), which involved financial and governance lapses.

The issue, which is the subject of an ongoing court case, as well as unhappiness over how Mr Low had weeded out some members in the past, and the party's lacklustre showing in the 2015 election, created the lightning rod for the leadership challenge of 2016.

Mr Yee, 55, writes: "There was always a segment unhappy with Low, but they needed a leader with a chance to overthrow him. Their camp was too small in numbers. They needed at least an MP level candidate to root from behind to win others over."

The group coalesced behind Mr Low's fellow Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao, who faced off with Mr Low in the party's internal elections in 2016.

While party leaders have down-played the episode publicly, Mr Yee's book describes the tense mood at the election, where the tabulation of votes was projected live onto a big screen as ballots were read.

Mr Low had left his fate in the hands of the 106 other cadres present that day, and had held up his unused ballot for all to see.

Asked at an interview on Monday (Dec 21) how this episode affected relations between Mr Chen and the rest of the party leadership, Mr Yee demurred and added: "I didn't feel disappointed so didn't feel a need to ask him why he challenged."

Mr Low stepped down as party chief in 2018, but retired from electoral politics ahead of the election this year.

Mr Yee also told The Straits Times he did not think anyone would challenge current party leader Pritam Singh at the party's upcoming election on Sunday.

He added that Mr Low had been sure of his decision to retire from elections because Mr Singh had proven himself as party chief.

Mr Yee said there is a lack of political education in Singapore and hopes his book will shed light on opposition politics, as well as assuage the fears of those who may be hesitant to vote for the opposition or join its ranks.

His own wife and parents had found his decision to join the WP in 2011 and run as its candidate for Joo Chiat hard to accept.

Mr Yee said his dad had pleaded with him, saying in Mandarin "I beg of you, I beg of you."

"It was most difficult to have to say no to him. I've always had a mind of my own, but at their age, you just want as much as possible to comply with what they want, But I couldn't do it, not after I had promised the party and been put forward," he told The Straits Times.

Both his parents and his wife came around eventually and helped in his campaign. Mr Yee did well enough in the 2011 election to gain an NCMP seat.

During his time as an NCMP, he was assigned to oversee the Education Ministry among others.

He describes how each WP MP was assigned ministries for which they had to track bills, file questions, and make related proposals for Parliament.

The WP eventually built up a policy group headed by former NCMP and National University of Singapore Associate Professor Daniel Goh, who stepped down this year for health reasons.

This policy team has become fertile ground for recruitment, with current MPs Dennis Tan, Leon Perera and He Ting Ru all having been discovered there.

During the 2013 debate on the population white paper, Dr Goh and a few volunteers came up with an alternative population model, which allowed the WP MPs to make counter proposals in Parliament instead of just poking holes in the Government's model, Yee says in the book.

He reveals that Mr Low had been very concerned that the numbers and calculations be rigorous enough, or they would risk being torn to shreds by the Government.

He was so worried that when Dr Goh came up with a new model late in the day, he and Mr Yee decided to keep it from Mr Low, for fear that he would lose confidence in them and decide to just revert to attacking the Government's proposal.

Other major debate included those over the AHTC matter. He writes: "It was rather painful for me, watching the entire debate as the PAP rained one blow after another in this modern-day gladiator arena."

But Mr Yee says he, as well as fellow WP NCMP Gerald Giam, were instructed to stay out of the debate as they were not part of the town council.

He said during such sessions, the WP MPs would keep to themselves in the Parliament House's tea room as it was awkward to mingle.

Otherwise, they mostly got along with the PAP MPs.

Mr Yee, who says he will not contest future elections, was part of the WP's Marine Parade GRC team in 2015 and this year, though he says he would have preferred to run in a single-member constituency.

The decision on where to field candidates was largely made by Mr Low and Ms Lim, he says in the book.

He also described how both the top leaders objected to him involving Ms Nicole Seah in house visits during the 2015 election.

Ms Seah, a one-time National Solidarity Party candidate in Marine Parade GRC, had offered her help to Mr Yee in her personal capacity.

But when Mr Low and Ms Lim got wind of it, the had vigorously objected, warning that it would detract from the WP's campaign.

In the end, Ms Seah was only allowed to help distribute flyers in Opera Estate with Mr Yee's daughters. He wrote: "She was obviously not happy."

Despite the episode, Ms Seah eventually became a WP member and was fielded in East Coast GRC in this year's election.

Asked if his political career might have turned out differently if he had been fielded in the more high profile constituencies or if he had been given more leeway to run his own campaign, Mr Yee said he had no regrets.

"As a politician in a political party, you are like a soldier. If you are picked to fight in an area, you just try to do your best," he said.

"Journey In Blue: A Peek Into The Workers' Party Of Singapore", published by World Scientific, is available at all major bookstores and https://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/12096

Price S$58 (hardcover) and S$28 (paperback), excluding GST.

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