5 possible reasons why the Workers’ Party didn’t do as well as expected

Our young writer shares her take on the WP's defeat at the polls.

By Lee Wan Sim | September 16, 2015

Editor’s note: Mothership.sg called for young Singaporeans to step up and provide their voice in written form for GE2015. The aim of such an endeavour is to provide our readers a means to view GE2015 through the lens of young Singaporeans, warts, sparkles and all.

The election results have been shocking, to say the least, in the Workers’ Party (WP) not gaining more seats and even losing an incumbent MP in Lee Li Lian of Punggol East SMC. And it happened in what many claimed to to be a watershed election, a turning point and change of the status quo after 2011.

Here are some possible reasons why the WP didn’t do as well as expected.


1. Their performance in Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council (AHPETC) and how it was harped upon by everyone and their mothers.

Photo by Pandora Wong for Mothership.sg
Photo by Pandora Wong for Mothership.sg

The WP probably felt besieged as People’s Action Party (PAP) politicians went on the offensive with the WP’s management of AHPETC. Sylvia Lim, chairwoman of WP and sitter of a self-proclaimed “hot seat”, hit the nail on the head when she said:

“Voters everywhere by now should be convinced that any Opposition town council will be well-scrutinised to ensure proper management.”

Low Thia Khiang, secretary-general of WP, was forced to (in a very showy manner), show that Punggol East SMC’s accounts were in a deficit before it was passed over to the WP after the 2013 by-election.

ltk where is the money

This was then rebutted by PAP candidate for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC Zainal Sapari, when he said Punggol East SMC was in “good financial health when the whole set of accounts handed over to AHPETC is read together”. According to him, although there was a deficit in the accumulated routine fund of $282,009, the same set of accounts also showed an amount of $303,372 claimable as reimbursement from the CIPC fund, which PRPGTC had already secured for Punggol East SMC, which would result in a actual net surplus of $21,363.

Even the most benign or indifferent voters would have second thoughts on WP’s ability to manage town councils with that major back and forth on AHPETC between the WP and PAP, as well as AHPETC’s ongoing case against the Ministry of National Development (MND). The MND had brought an application to court to appoint independent accountants to AHPETC. Although their application was rejected by the High Court, MND has appealed before the Court of Appeal and the judgement has been reserved (ie. the result is yet unknown).


2. The (largely) false perception of WP’s lacklustre performance in Parliament debates.

Chen Show Mao 30 May

The late Lee Kuan Yew said of Chen Show Mao in his book:

“Chen, however, has not turned out to be so brilliant. In Parliament, he makes good prepared speeches, with a written script, but in the follow-up, he is all over the place. It simply does not gel for him. The weight of public expectation of the man, given his rather impressive résumé, has probably added to the disappointment.”

Criticism of that level, from Singapore’s founding Prime Minister (PM) would eat at any self-respecting man’s self-esteem.

Nonetheless, even Chen Show Mao has spoken at 45 out 108 parliament sittings attended, with a 93.9% attendance rate. This is in comparison with the perennial absentee PAP MP Raymond Lim, who stepped down from being Transport Minister in 2011 and retired from politics in 2015. He spoke up for 0 out of 82 parliament sittings attended, with a 71.3% attendance rate.

Of course, in addition to attending Parliament sitting and speaking up, the WP MPs are not toothless in Parliament debates either, as seen from Low Thia Khiang’s fiery exchanges with PM Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament. Those who look forward to more opposition in Parliament would probably savour the tense dialogue between the 2 party leaders on May 28, 2014.

Photo by Mindy Tan
Photo by Mindy Tan

PM Lee: Madam Speaker, I am very grateful for the extremely reasonable explanation from the member. I hope he takes an equally reasonable approach when he comes to election rallies because the Workers’ Party approach has been to be extremely reasonable, indeed low-profile in Parliament, but come election time to turn into tigers and heroes.

Low: Madam Speaker, I thank the Prime Minister for praising the Workers’ Party’s ability to fight in the elections. We have no intention to hide ourselves in Parliament. We seek the mandate for people to come to Parliament to check against the Government and we have done it honestly and sincerely, we have not turned this place into a theatre — that shows we are responsible and we will behave continuously as a rational and responsible party and members should.

I believe members will agree that the Workers’ Party has been rational. We have not come here with some wild policies or wild suggestions. We debate the policies, we came out with some suggestions but these are not bankrupting the government coffers or suggesting to use the reserves.

Elections — I think we are also rational, we don’t accuse the PAP of something that we cannot substantiate or I know we will get sued. So I think we are fair. And elections (are) elections and I thank the Prime Minister for noting that we can fight elections. I am sure the PAP can too. You are the Government and you have been the governing party for 50 years and you have got more, much people, talented people than the Workers’ Party! How can you say that we are tigers and we are something else in Parliament? I am sure the PAP can equally be tigers or lions.

Those few rare instances of excitement in Singapore’s Parliament are a tempting glimpse into what may occur with more seats to the Opposition in Parliament.


3. Lack of any exciting campaign moves.

The next 5 years starts today. Thank you Aljunied! #ReasonsToWin

A photo posted by Sylvia Lim (@sylvialim65) on


In 2011, Low Thia Khiang created a buzz when he left his stronghold of Hougang to attack Aljunied GRC with an ‘A’ team along with chairwoman Sylvia Lim and then star catch Chen Show Mao. This gamble paid off as they won Aljunied with 54.72% of the vote.

In this election, despite Sylvia Lim teasing that she may run in Fengshan SMC with her orh luak photo, all the incumbent MPs stayed to compete in their seats. Even though star candidates such as National University of Singapore (NUS) sociology associate professor Daniel Goh and business consultancy CEO Leon Perera ran in East Coast GRC, perhaps voters were unconvinced by how party bigwigs like Low and Sylvia Lim did not venture out to unchartered territories.

There was perhaps a slight commotion around the poison pen letter attack on Daniel Goh, but other than that, the remaining WP candidates did not face a baptism of fire.

Comic by Dan Wong/A Good Citizen
Comic by Dan Wong/A Good Citizen


Instead, the focus went back to AHPETC, along with many analogies on ships- gambling ships, cruise ships, the Titanic, sampans.


4. Perceived arrogance as the leading opposition party in Singapore.

Here’s The Workers’ Party chairperson Sylvia Lim addressing the media on their absence from the opposition horse-trading meeting on Thursday night. #GE2015

Posted by Mothership.sg on Thursday, 6 August 2015

The WP might have been perceived as arrogant when they skipped the second round of horse-trading talks between the opposition parties, intended to avoid 3-cornered fights.

Low Thia Khiang then poured metaphorical salt into the wounds of the other opposition parties by saying that the multi-cornered fights in Punggol East SMC in both the 2011 GE and a by-election in 2013 were a “waste of resources”. He added: “I suppose we can better use … resources to focus on giving a choice to the people.”

Screenshot from video

ESM Goh also weighed in on WP’s supposed arrogance when he said: “They (Workers’ Party) are stronger than the NSP (National Solidarity Party), there’s no doubt about that. There’s a certain arrogance in them… Will that same arrogance be able to replace me in Marine Parade? Let them try.”

This perception of arrogance may have swayed voters from voting for WP as they fear that if WP has more MPs in Parliament, they would become more confrontational towards the PAP, disrupting the smooth running of the nation.


5. Voters can’t relate as well to the new candidates.

The die-hard supporters of WP seem to mostly be heartland uncles and aunties. For them, they can relate better to the Teochew and Hokkien-speaking Low and Png Eng Huat, rather than the “Oxbridge-educated” candidates like He Ting Ru and Leon Perera. One could say that the WP’s fielding of candidates with PAP-like credentials was to boost its reputation as a “credible, responsible opposition”.

Photo by Mindy Tan
Photo by Mindy Tan

However, that may have come at the price of not attracting certain segments of the population, particularly voters who perceive these credentials as a mark of elitism, similar to the PAP. WP candidates like academics (Associate Professor Daniel Goh) and lawyers (Dennis Tan, Terence Tan, He Ting Ru) cannot really be differentiated from the usual PAP crop of lawyers and doctors as of now.

Photo by Sean Yeo for Mothership.sg
Photo by Sean Yeo for Mothership.sg

To their credit though, the WP has tried to assuage concerns that their new candidates may be elitist. Dennis Tan, candidate for Fengshan SMC and former Raffles Institution boy, in his rally speech, emphasised that WP MPs, along with the rank and file of the party, worked to stack chairs after community events. He said: “Being a product of a good school does not mean that one has to be an elitist. It all boils down to a person’s attitude towards other people.”

In a way, with the lack of differentiation between the similarly-credentialed WP and PAP candidates, some voters may just decide to go for “the real deal” in the PAP, who have the added advantage of mentors with experience in running town councils and the vast grassroots machinery of the PAP as support. Therefore, these swing voters may just choose to stick with the status quo in the PAP, rather than to take a risk with untested opposition MPs.

Professionals, managers, executives and technicians (or PMETs) may also have not been fully convinced by the new candidates fielded by WP. After all, they come in untested, without mentoring in running town councils or with the vast grassroots machinery of the PAP as support. Voters might think that credentials, after all, do not necessarily translate to competence.



Top photo by Edwin Koo.

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About Lee Wan Sim

Wan Sim is studying to be a lawyer but is mindful that she may end up wiping tables instead. Unabashedly uncharismatic, she is too ambitious for her own good and likes to see the best in everything.

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