By Gabriel Choo
SINGAPORE — It’s the end of an era: for the first time since 1988, former Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang will not be contesting a general election (GE).
The signs had been there for a while. Low is still recovering from serious injuries sustained after a fall at home on 30 April. But the 63-year-old had already stepped down from party leadership in 2017, in the wake of the long-running Aljunied-Hougang Town Council (AHTC) saga.
And while WP chief Pritam Singh stressed that Low’s decision is not akin to a retirement, he also stressed the importance of leadership renewal at a virtual press conference on Thursday (25 June).
Destined to go down in history as the man who masterminded the 2011 electoral victory in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC), Low was a fiery, charismatic speaker who had crossed swords on numerous occasions with People’s Action Party (PAP) Members of Parliament, including the late Lee Kuan Yew, who famously gave no quarter.
An eloquent speaker in both Mandarin and Teochew, and no slouch in English either, Low set a new standard for political rhetoric in Singapore. Here are some of his best moments.
‘Pay a banana, can still get a monkey’
In 2007, during a parliamentary debate on the always controversial topic of ministerial salaries, Low questioned the practice of benchmarking civil servants’ annual pay against individuals who had performed well during that year. “Sir, do not forget that even if you do not pay peanuts, but pay with a bigger piece, say, a banana instead, you can still get a monkey.”
The late Lee, then the Minister Mentor, jumped out of his seat to challenge Low in an extended back and forth.
‘There is a tiger at the mountain’
It was the boldest political move in Singapore in decades: Low left the WP stronghold of Hougang to lead a team to contest Aljunied at GE2011. Asked why he had done so, the former teacher memorably quoted the Chinese proverb 明知山有虎, 偏向虎山, which literally means to advance on the mountain despite knowing there is a tiger there. It is a metaphor for taking on a great challenge despite knowing the difficulties.
His PAP opponent and Aljunied incumbent George Yeo, then the Foreign Minister, told reporters in response, “Do we look like tigers? We are rather mild, friendly people.”
Upon hearing this, Low told a raucous rally crowd in Mandarin, “I would like to explain to the minister: in Chinese, this is called a metaphor”. He then proceeded to painstakingly explain the said metaphor to peals of laughter.
‘Slap the driver’
Seizing on Singaporeans’ unhappiness over a myriad of issues, from the state of public transport to public housing, Low coined the memorable analogy that came to define GE2011. Describing the WP as the co-driver in Parliament, Low said during a party rally, “A co-driver is there to slap the driver when he drives off course or when he falls asleep or drives dangerously."
This led Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam to respond that this could result in the bus crashing instead of enjoying a smooth drive as the WP promises. "Do you really want a co-driver who will be fighting with the driver to take over the wheel and slapping, kicking him? Is this the way forward?"
‘Cruise ship is over capacity limit’
In another transport reference before GE2015, Low likened the PAP to the Titanic, after Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong commented that the PAP was a cruise ship with a destination while the WP was like a gambling ship that goes nowhere.
"I'm afraid the cruise ship is over capacity limit. It used to be a luxury cruise ship. The designer claimed that it's not sinkable,” said Low, who added that the PAP was not prepared for failure.
ESM Goh hit back in a Facebook post saying, “Titanic sank on its maiden voyage. The PAP cruised over fifty years under three captains. All onboard are safe.”
Fearful to have coffee shop talk
Debating in parliament over the Administration of Justice (Protection) Bill in 2016, Low sought clarification over what does or does not constitute as contempt of court. He claimed that conversations online and even at coffeeshops would change as people might be concerned that their comments might be construed as contempt of court.
In response, Shanmugam cited an example when coffeeshop talk could result in prosecution. “You catch hold of a witness, you bring him to the coffee shop and you threaten him, yes, it is publication and it is interference of proceeding.” Other than that, Shanmugam told Low to “let’s get real”.
‘Sue until your pants drop’
During the July 2017 special parliamentary session called for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to defend himself against his siblings’ allegations of abuse of power, Low questioned the very purpose of the session. “There’s no investigation done, it’s ownself defend ownself in Parliament, with the PAP MPs. I mean, I wonder how would you want to convince me, my party and Singaporeans that it’s conclusive, and it’s something that we can (be) convinced entirely.”
He further questioned why the PM was not suing his siblings Hsien Yang and Wei Ling over their allegations, when PAP MPs have launched defamation suits against opposition politicians on multiple occasions.
“By using family, does this not also show that blood is thicker than water? Own siblings cannot sue…but political opponents and critics, sue until your pants drop,” said Low.
‘Scare the monkey by slaughtering the chicken’
During the parliamentary debate over the Protection against Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill in May 2017, Low slammed the proposed law, saying it would curb freedom of expression and compel people to protect themselves by engaging in self-censorship.
Referring to a Chinese proverb 杀鸡儆猴, Low argued, “The government can selectively punish a few offenders to achieve a chilling effect, to scare the monkey by slaughtering the chicken.”
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