Low Thia Khiang will be the longest-serving opposition MP in Singapore’s history by end of 2017
He has won six election victories, beginning in 1991.
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The role of Leader of the Opposition is not a formalised one in Singapore politics as it is in the UK. But if there was anyone who has a claim to that title, Low Thia Khiang would.
As the Secretary-General of the largest opposition party in Parliament, Low has become almost a permanent fixture in the modern Singapore political scene.
Come end of this year, he will be the longest-serving opposition Member of Parliament in Singapore’s history, beating a record of 26 years and 4 months, held by another veteran oppposition leader, former Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong.
Founded in 1957, WP is one of Singapore’s one of the oldest opposition parties in Singapore.
At the opening of their new party headquarters and also the unveiling of an exhibition of the WP’s 60 year history on Sept. 29, a pensive Low was one of the WP leaders to make a speech. Speaking in Mandarin, he said:
“This year happens to be the WP’s 60th anniversary. In the last 60 years, WP has gone through a rough and bumpy journey, but nevertheless served Singapore despite hardships. This HQ is an affirmation by Singaporeans of WP’s efforts in walking step by step, and going through thick and thin with Singapore.”
He was describing the long and meandering path WP has taken, which in a way is also a reflection of his own personal journey in politics.
The 1988 and 1991 General Election
Low joined the WP in 1982 and was appointed the party’s Organising Secretary.
In 1984, he had a hand in then WP Secretary-General JB Jeyaretnam’s (JBJ) memorable re-election win in Anson constituency, serving as JBJ’s election agent.
In the 1988 GE, Low ran for Parliament for the first time as part of a three-member team challenging for the GRC of Tiong Bahru. This was the first GE where the GRC scheme was in place. The WP’s team lost after winning 42.2% of the vote, but Low was not done.
After being found guilty of misreporting his party accounts and incurring a one-month jail sentence, JBJ was removed from Parliament and barred from running for Parliament in the 1991 GE.
Despite these setbacks for the party, Low experienced personal triumph in Aug 1991, when he was elected as a Member of Parliament for the first time in Hougang’s Single Member Constituency, defeating the PAP’s Tang Guan Seng with 52.82% of the vote.
As the results were confirmed, Low would be the only member of the WP in Parliament, and the only opposition politician besides Chiam See Tong, then representing the Singapore Democratic Party in Potong Pasir.
The 1997 General Election
As the new MP for Hougang, Low formed two new organisations. The first was the Hougang Constituency Committee, which organised functions and trips where residents could meet with Low. The second was the Hougang Constituency Education Trust, where people could donate towards providing bursaries for needy students.
By the 1997 General Election, Low was ready to contest Hougang SMC for the second time. The PAP sent a new man, Heng Chee How to challenge him. Following a heated contest, Low managed to increase his share of the vote to 58.02%, defending Hougang SMC for the first time.
Although JBJ led a WP team in Cheng San GRC, the WP only secured 45.18% of the vote there.
Low returned to Parliament as the WP’s only MP. Chiam, who had left the SDP and joined the Singapore People’s Party continued to be the only other opposition MP.
The 2001 General Election
The early 2000s were a turbulent time for the WP. Following defamation lawsuits and a declaration of bankruptcy, JBJ was removed from his position as a Non-Constituency MP and was barred from standing in the 2001 General Election.
In May 2001, JBJ announced that he would not be seeking re-election as Secretary-General. The party would then elect Low as the new Secretary-General of the WP. JBJ left the WP in Oct. 2001.
In the Nov. 2001 election, Low contested Hougang SMC for the third time, his first contest as the new leader of the WP. Although the WP experienced disappointments with their Aljunied GRC team disqualified for filing incomplete papers and losing in Nee Soon East SMC, Low managed to defend Hougang and retain his seat in Parliament.
Again, he would be just one of two opposition MPs in Parliament alongside Chiam, whose SPP became part of the Singapore Democratic Alliance.
The 2006 General Election
The 2006 GE was the first which Lee Hsien Loong would contest as Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the PAP. Then-Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was given the “special task” of winning back the two opposition-held wards of Hougang and Potong Pasir.
Speaking at the opening of the Serangoon Community Club in March 2006, Goh said he would “work out some strategies” with PAP candidates Eric Low and Sitoh Yih Pin to see how they could win their contests.
Despite the PAP’s added focus on the ward, Low successfully defended Hougang, winning with 62.74% of the vote, his highest vote share so far.
The WP team lost in Aljunied GRC, but as the leader of the best-performing opposition team which lost, party chairman Sylvia Lim accepted the post of an NCMP, joining Low in Parliament.
The 2011 General Election
The 2011 General Election was a significant milestone in both the WP’s history and Low’s own personal record. Low had made the heavy decision of leaving his “stronghold” of Hougang SMC to contest a GRC, for the first time since his very first contest in 1988.
Low and the WP returned to Aljunied GRC, where Lim’s team had received just 43.91% of the votes in 2006. However, Aljunied was also the contest where the PAP secured their narrowest margin of victory during that GE. Low fielded a team including himself, Lim, Pritam Singh, Chen Show Mao and Muhd Faisal bin Abdul Manap.
Despite going up against a strong PAP team headed by then-Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo, Low and his team triumphed with 54.72% of the vote. This was the first time in Singapore’s history that an opposition party had won a GRC contest.
The 2015 General Election and beyond
Low and his team defended Aljunied GRC in the 2015 GE, although there were rumours that he might leave to contest other wards.
The PAP fielded a relatively low-profile team to contest Aljunied, but it pushed the WP team to the brink of defeat, riding on the feel-good factor of SG50, the reflective mood after passing of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and perhaps more importantly, negative public sentiments toward WP’s town council management issues.
The WP team led by Low retained their seats in Aljunied GRC with a razor-thin margin, garnering 50.96% of the vote. It was the last result to be confirmed, as there was a recount owing to the closeness of the result.
With a string of four SMC and two GRC wins under his belt, Low has had an illustrious political career spanning nearly three-decades.
However, given that he is currently embroiled in a series of lawsuits related to the financial management of WP’s town council, together with Lim and Pritam, there is increasing uncertainty about his political future, and much will depend on the proceedings and outcome of the court cases when it comes to the next GE.
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Top image by Sulaiman Daud.