It is almost a given that photographs never quite give us the full picture. All the smiles and conviviality at the doorstop after Pritam Singh was elected as the new secretary-general of the Workers Party on Sunday (8 April) hid the shadows hovering over the new leadership.
As Singh himself said, Low Thia Khiang’s shoes are not easy to fill. For 27 years, first as a Member of Parliament and then as WP chief, the former Opposition leader has displayed an uncanny understanding of the Singaporean voter and a shrewd sense of political timing. He knew what to say to appeal to the masses and when to make that strategic move for a big killing at the polls.
Low became a political folk hero after he led his team to victory against former Foreign Minister George Yeo and his People’s Action Party team in Aljunied in 2011 – a feat that must have embarrassed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as a Group Representation Constituency had never been lost under the two previous prime ministers. It is that long shadow Low casts that will follow Singh as he tries to run the party. Despite all the talk of leadership renewal, the adjustment won’t be easy.
The party will be considerably distracted with the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) court case posing the possibility – some say a remote possibility – of bankrupting Low and Chairman Sylvia Lim, rendering them ineligible to stand for the next election. Low must have done his sums. Better step down now rather than be forced by circumstances at the last minute and leave the party’s election plans in disarray. It is this kind of an uncertain future that Singh has been thrust into. How he manoeuvres out of this tricky situation will define his leadership.
Perhaps, he might want to take a leaf out of former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s book. When he became PM in 1990, Goh decided to carve for himself a position that was very different from that of the late Lee Kuan Yew. He said he wanted to build a gentler and consensus-building society. Although it was more style than substance, Goh managed to make himself very popular. The new WP leader might well take this route as he spoke about wanting to reach out to party members to get a sense of their views of and wishes for the party.
Then there is the shadow of Singh’s fellow Aljunied MP Chen Show Mao, which is always lurking in the background. He made the politically right move by not challenging Singh for the top post so as not to muddy the waters during a crucial transition, but indicated immediately after the party election what line the new leadership should take. He said in a Facebook post that he hoped for a “more forward looking progressive leadership” which is “more open to new ideas, people and ways to doing things”. The message was clear: let us move away from the shadow of Low. And the subtle threat was also clear: if things don’t change, expect a leadership challenge again.
The air was filled with excitement when the Harvard-Oxford-Stanford educated Chen joined WP to fight the 2011 elections. Many expected that he would be an intellectual heavyweight for the WP in Parliament. That fizzled out as he hardly spoke in the Chamber, turning out to be a pussycat in the process. There were some who felt that Low was a stumbling block as their ideologies and styles clashed. Then came the direct challenge to Low for the secretary-general’s post in the WP leadership election two years ago. It was a contest Chen lost, only after Low brought 28 new cadres into the voting ranks.
Finally, WP’s performance at the next general election might just be the tipping point for an opposition party that has made tremendous strides in the last few years. If Low and Sylvia are unable to contest and if the party loses the prized seat of Aljunied GRC, it will be a big blow for Singh, the party and the Opposition at large. When people are pushed into a corner, as Singh will be, the best or worst parts of their character will emerge. What will happen in Singh’s case?
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.