Opposition leader Low Thia Khiang’s decision to step down as Workers’ Party secretary-general next year draws the curtain on a man whose impeccable reading of the political tea leaves has made him a rare folk hero in a political system that is more science than art.
Low is a master of the moment, knowing when to push the button forcefully and when to maintain a stoic silence. He is a shrewd gambler, knowing when to strike and when to pull back. The opposition veteran’s ability to switch from a grassroots setting to a national platform in Parliament is legendary. Not to mention that he and fellow opposition veteran Chiam See Tong forged an effective middle path in Opposition politics, moving away from the hammer-and-tongs approach of the late J B Jeyaretnam and Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan.
The master gambler’s decision in 2011 to leave his safe seat of Hougang, move to Aljunied GRC and eventually win it against People’s Action Party (PAP) heavyweights like George Yeo will be remembered as a gravity-defying electoral feat. WP chairman Sylvia Lim, who followed Low to contest Aljunied, gave a good insight into the party’s calculations in “Walking with Singapore”, the commemorative book that marked the party’s 60th anniversary. “The overcrowding, the high presence of foreigners in Singapore and also the ministerial salaries were making people angry. It was also linked to the Mas Selamat issue because he had escaped and people were thinking if the ministers are so talented and need such high pay, then shouldn’t somebody take the rap for this ridiculous mistake.”
Low’s announcement on Friday (3 November), though a surprise, should have been expected. He has often talked about leadership renewal and has followed up by enticing young and highly-educated candidates like Chen Show Mao, Daniel Goh and Leon Perera to stand in the 2011 and 2015 elections. He knew some older party members were upset but he pressed on. He said in 2011: “We have done very well, in terms of renewal. You can see that the Old Guards have all retired. You look at our central executive committee – much younger people.”
Outside the realm of leadership succession, there is the longstanding issue of the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC). Low’s sharp sense of timing must have told him that with the $33 million legal suit hanging over the party’s head, there can’t be a better time to step aside. He can maintain his reputation and simultaneously allow the party to look for a fresh face to take the party into the next election.
After Aljunied was won, the master tactician seemed to have forgotten how officialdom works in Singapore. WP’s hopes for a smooth handover of town council affairs via the computer system and a continuation of the existing agreement with former managing agent CPG did not materialise. In a hurry to get the town council up and running, Low and WP took certain steps for which they are now paying a heavy price.
A lot rests on Aljunied for both Low and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The GRC was lost under Lee’s watch, the first ever that his party has lost. With the PM saying he wants to step down after the next election, winning Aljunied must be a matter of pride for him. For Low, losing Aljunied will not be just a loss of face but a horrible way to end his political career.
Then there is the question of what the WP will be like without Low, who is still a youthful 61, as the leader. If the challenge for party leadership by Chen Show Mao last year is any indication, then the transition might not be a smooth one. And that is not something the largest opposition party in Singapore can afford as the PAP throws everything into the ring to retake Aljunied.
The party’s future doesn’t look bright, at least in the short term, unless the master of the moment can conjure up something unimaginable, something impossible.
P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today, as well as an editor at The New Paper. He is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.