The lead up to Low Thia Khiang stepping down as WP's Sec-Gen, as told by party insider Yee Jenn Jong

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | December 26, 2020, 03:30 PM

Commentary: In the wake of GE2015, Low Thia Khiang, the former Secretary-General of the Workers' Party was challenged for his position by Chen Show Mao at the Workers' Party Organising Members' Conference (OMC) of 2016.

We reproduce an excerpt from the book Journey in Blue in which former NCMP Yee Jenn Jong reveals why the challenge was launched and how Pritam Singh came to be selected for the position of Assistant Secretary-General in the wake of the OMC.

Yee also elaborates at length about how Low was planning for retirement from his position as far back as 2016.

Journey in Blue: A Peek into the Workers' Party of Singapore is published by World Scientific and you can get a copy of it here.

By Yee Jenn Jong

During the Organising Members’ Conference (OMC) of 2016, Chen Show Mao challenged Low Thia Khiang for the position of secretary-general (SG).

It made big news in Singapore. The SG position had not been challenged for many years. It was vacated by J. B. Jeyaratnam in 2001. Low had never been challenged.

Was I surprised at the challenge? Not really. But I was also not sure if it would come to pass until it happened.

There were warning signs before that. At each OMC, cadre members would be approached for votes.

I was approached as usual and it was to vote for the cadre interested to contest as a CEC member. It was nothing abnormal.

Then I received an invitation by a friend for lunch. He said that he would bring another friend along, someone interested in politics.

I meet new people all the time. We talked about Singapore politics and other matters of a general nature. Then they opined that the WP had been too conservative and posed the question as to whether the WP was ready for a change of leadership.

People began lobbying for Chen Show Mao to be Secretary-General of WP

Chen Show Mao’s name was suggested as the possible new leader.

I was surprised. I was with two non-party members. People in the WP knew that I would likely be supportive of Low. I was not fixated on Low having to be the leader. I did not consider anyone else suitable at that time.

I told them that I was not able to discuss matters of the party and changed the topic.

Obviously, there were those interested enough to mount a campaign to even lobby people outside of the party to check out my allegiance.

Soon, the lobbying became obvious. Different cadre members started sharing that they were being approached.

I did not exactly go around canvassing support for Low. I did not think he needed it from me, nor was I asked by anyone to canvass support. However, any cadre that came to me asking for my opinion, I expressed why I would not support a change of SG at that time.

We overstretched ourselves in GE2015

Yes, we had a bad GE2015. In any democracy, after a general election, leaders of parties which did not do as well as expected will become vulnerable.

There were always some members who felt that the WP should challenge every seat since we were the opposition party with by far the highest number of Parliament seats.

After the successes in the 2011 election and the 2012 and 2013 by-elections, people got carried away with unrealistic expectations. For whatever successes we had, it was not even 10 percent of the Parliament seats.

I definitely did not agree that we should overstretch ourselves. Challenging for all seats before we were ready for it would bring a swift and certain death to the WP.

In 2015, we contested too many seats. I was guilty of misjudging the situation myself.

Prior to GE2015, Low once asked how many candidates I thought we should field. I cited a third of all seats to show our ambition to deny the PAP their two-third majority. I wanted exposure for younger candidates who could use 2015 as a base to contest in future general elections.

Low told me that would be overstretching the party’s resources. He said that there will not be enough volunteers to support so many candidates and not enough rally exposure for them.

Low had his detractors within the party

We need solid candidates. Having weak candidates will leave us vulnerable to attacks. Having too many weak candidates would deter good ones from joining the party to gear up for future general elections.

Other than that, there were also older members who felt ignored and unappreciated.

Some were not happy with Low because he was a strict disciplinarian and had weeded out members in the past as he went about rebuilding the party. Some also felt that certain WP MPs had mishandled the Town Council matters.

There was always a segment unhappy with Low, but they needed a leader with a chance to overthrow him. Their camp was too small in numbers. They needed at least an MP level candidate to root from behind to win others over.

The Secretary-General must be able to engage in verbal combat in Parliament

To me, anyone wishing to be SG must be able to withstand fierce attacks by the PAP and must be able to counter-attack when needed.

I had observed some fierce verbal sparring in Parliament. The SG must first pass this test. The WP will be finished off very quickly if we keep losing in the gladiator arena of verbal sparring with the PAP.

Politics is a constant fight for the mindshare of the electorate. I did not see anyone then capable to be the new SG who could come close to what Low had achieved.

Low still won his position

So, we waited to see what would happen on that OMC of May 29, 2016. We wondered if Sylvia Lim would be challenged for the chairperson position. She was not.

Then the challenge was made when it came to the SG position. As reported in the press, the vote was 61 to Low and 45 to Chen. Each vote pulled out of the ballot box was immediately added to the spreadsheet tabulating the live score and projected onto the big screen.

Initially, the count was close and the mood tense. Then, Low’s votes started to pull apart midway through the counting.

There were 107 cadres present that day. Low himself did not vote. He held up his unused ballot paper at the end of the counting for all to see and explained that he left it to others to decide if he had done enough to remain as SG.

Afterwards, Pritam was appointed as assistant Secretary-General

After the 2016 CEC election, at the first CEC meeting, Pritam Singh was appointed as assistant SG, a post that had been left vacant for many years since it was last held by Poh Li Guan in 2006.

Low had at that time said that there was no need for the position as the CEC then was relatively young and needed time to develop. The CEC in 2006 indeed consisted of mostly young people, many who later became candidates in 2011.

The assistant SG post carried with it some expectation that the person may succeed the SG. Low must have felt that none was suitable in 2006 and for many years to come.

Ten years later, Low was ready to move Singh to a bigger role with higher expectations.

At the WP’s 60th year celebration dinner in 2017, Low announced that he would not contest the SG post in the next CEC. It was a surprise to many members and the public.

All eyes looked to Singh, the assistant SG. After the leadership challenge of 2016, we wondered if a fresh challenge for the SG title would be mounted in the OMC of 2018.

It was better not to be left to chance. Those of us who were more concerned about the leadership plans checked around to see who would be interested.

Race was not a factor in the appointment of Singh

Sylvia Lim was not interested. Many who supported Low supported Singh as he was seen to be shadowing Low in the party’s leadership role, and he had also taken on more of the attacks by the PAP in Parliament.

Were we concerned that the leadership would move from a Chinese-educated leader to an English-speaking Indian/Sikh?

Not for me, nor for many of the senior members in the party. Those with Parliament experience especially felt that our biggest selection criteria would be how the person could stand up to attacks by the PAP.

We are, after all, a political party with a very powerful opponent. There would also be the need for the person to be able to connect with and inspire confidence in members.

In fact, for several of us, Leon Perera also featured high on our list of possible successors, given his good Parliament performance. The disadvantage that Perera would face was that he was an NCMP at that time.

With elected MPs in the WP, the SG should preferably be an elected MP who could have a ground to be rooted in.

Since Singh was able to take the role and was the best fit, many of us decided to put our support behind him. Race never came into our consideration. Two of our preferred candidates for the SG post were non-Chinese.

During the 2018 CEC election, Low and Singh kept their positions, uncontested

We went into the 2018 CEC election waiting to see if there would be any fireworks. There were none.

The chairperson and SG positions went to Lim and Singh uncontested, respectively. The transition was almost complete.

After Low had stepped down as SG, people wondered if Low would contest in the next general election. I knew that there was a very high chance that he would not.

Around the end of 2016 after the leadership challenge, Low invited me for lunch.

He had met with a few of us individually to hear our views about leadership change. He was already planning his retirement from Parliament. He wanted my opinion of him not contesting at the next general election.

Low would just be in his early 60s at the next general election, which I felt was still quite young to retire from Parliament. But I understood his thought process.

Low wanted to have leadership renewal within the party

He wanted to force leadership renewal and make way for more new talent. He did not say so himself, but his retirement would send another fear of an opposition wipe-out.

By not contesting, he would help clear the way for more to come in. For someone so respected as an opposition politician, he was also quite forthright.

He said that he should let the newer generation do things differently, that he did not even want to do his own social media channels.

I did not try to discourage him from his plans. It might be risky but not necessarily a bad thing for the WP.

It had also been a super tough job for him. As I write this book, the lawsuit from the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council is still ongoing. It can potentially bankrupt Low and Lim, as well as the other defendants.

For the next three years, when I followed all that was happening, including Low’s announcement in 2017 that he would step down as SG in 2018 and Singh’s successful accession to the SG post in 2018, I viewed them with the privileged information from that lunch meeting.

Low’s unfortunate serious injury after a fall in 2020 had nothing to do with him not contesting in GE2020. He had already been formulating a plan to do so since 2016.

He just needed to see if the leadership transfer would be smooth and if Singh would be able to step up. The SG position is a hot seat. Low would be leaving behind big shoes to be filled.

In 2020, Low was convinced that his mission to hand over leadership was successful and that he was not needed to contest for Parliament anymore.

Singh went on to pass his first major test with flying colours as the SG in GE2020 after the WP won the new Sengkang GRC, as well as the seats it had held in 2015.

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Top collage left and right photos from WP Facebook, central photo by Sulaiman Daud