Low Thia Khiang won in parliament again, can he repeat his magic in the next GE?

An old American aphorism has it that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. In S'pore, the poetry is Low's territory while the ruling party governs in clunky prose.

Martino Tan| May 28, 05:57 PM

Workers’ Party chief Low Thia Khiang has set the political agenda again.

His speech in parliament and the two words - "constructive politics" -  dominated discussion in the papers and in the social media yesterday.

Why did Low focus on "constructive politics" in the first place?

It was highlighted by Low because President Tony Tan mentioned in his address to parliament two weeks ago about the need to uphold constructive politics in Singapore.

So here is a summary of the speech that got everyone excited:

- Constructive Politics: Low believes that politics comes in many shapes and forms but what was important to him was the outcome of the political process. He argued that constructive politics does not happen by the order of the government, or through a national conversation or a public consultation. Everyone across society has their part to play.

- Three aspects to Constructive Politics: To achieve the outcome of constructive politics in a diverse and open society, there are three aspects - political values, political culture, and impartial institutions trusted by the people.

- Political Values, Political Culture, Impartial Institutions: It requires inculcating politcal values in youth, building a political culture free from bullying, abuse of power or fear; and establishing institutions that are impartial.


Time and again, Low has proven to be politically-savvy to:

Highlight an issue that appeals to Singaporeans

As Straits Times assistant political editor Robin Chan observed in his commentary ("Fiery debate puts focus on 'constructive politics'", 27 May): "19 MPs rose to speak on a variety of issues...", but "it is likely that Mr Low's speech  will be the one most people remembered".

Chan said that Low "spoke on an issue that appeals to a younger generation who want more space for political debate and more competition".


Find an issue that could get the ruling party worked up.

This is obvious because not one but three MPs (including Prime Minister Lee) rebutted Low after his speech.

1) Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah:

"Constructive politics is putting Singaporeans at the heart of what we do by, first, offering practical alternatives; second, acknowledging trade-offs and being responsible. It means not flip-flopping when convenient". 

2) Sembawang GRC MP Vikram Nair:

"It would be tragic if the focus was on politics and not policies that help people. Constructive politics is about working together and not bringing down people who are trying to solve the problem".

3) PM Lee in his Facebook post:

"Constructive politics is key to realising our dreams. The purpose of politics is to make a difference to people’s lives, to build a better Singapore. Politics purely for the sake of power, without any notion of what we want Singapore to become, will lead us to disaster"


Provide a coherent alternative to the ruling party's narrative

The ruling party's narrative is in President Tan's address, which is to "maintain constructive politics that puts our nation and our people first". The address does not however propose how the ideal of "constructive politics" could be achieved.

Low has clearly defined his interpretation of constructive politics. In fact he has laid a roadmap (political values, political culture, impartial institutions) to achieve this objective.

However, none of the PAP MPs have provided a coherent counterpoint to Low's speech. Instead, they provided hints of what constructive politics is not.

For instance, PM Lee said that constructive politics is NOT about power. SMS Indranee said that constructive politics "should NOT be purely opportunistic, NOT populist".


Okay...If this is the campaigning week of the General Election (GE), Low would have won the first day.

There are only eight days of political campaigning during the General Elections (GE). Can the ruling party afford to let WP dictate the terms of discussion in the next GE campaign?

If there was a defining slogan in the last GE, it was WP's "First World Parliament" slogan.

The analogy that stuck?

Low's analogy about how a co-driver was essential, to illustrate the need for more Opposition voices in Parliament.

In other words, a coherent political message matters because it sets the terms of the discussion among Singaporeans. It dictates the topic online and in the evening papers that dominates coffeeshop/forum talk.

If the message captures the moment and mood of the people, it could very well mobilise the people to support the cause and even the party.

After GE 2011,  socio-political blogger and activist Alex Au provided an analysis of the opposition parties' electoral success.

He observed how WP chose to present itself as "middle-of-the-road policy-wise, thus a 'slightly to the left of the PAP' brand position".

He added that while "its manifesto was extensive", WP "hardly mentioned any of it" during the campaign. Instead, its messaging was stripped down to the need for an opposition presence in parliament and its dependability at the local level.

With this recent parliamentary speech, Low has once again found a way to present WP to Singaporeans and appeal to their idealistic hearts.


Top photo is a screenshot from here.

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