SINGAPORE: On November 3, 1957, about a year after he resigned as Singapore’s first Chief Minister, David Marshall launched the Workers’ Party.
On Friday (Nov 3), the Party celebrated 60 eventful years with a dinner and the launch of a commemorative book. While the event was dominated by Low Thia Khiang's announcement that he will step down as secretary-general, there was also plenty of reflection on the progress made by the party, which is reflected in the book.
Titled ‘Walking with Singapore’, it documents the party’s journey so far - from its inception by Mr Marshall, to Mr JB Jeyaretnam’s revival of the party only to face a series of setbacks and Mr Low’s entry into politics and the party’s breakthrough of winning a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) in 2011.
“There is no reveling in glories, no indulging in righteous indignations here,” said editor-in-chief Daniel Goh in the book's preface.
“This book presents the facts in a history of growth and decline, disappointment and revival. By looking back honestly at the past, while celebrating the present and modest achievements against massive odds, it is hoped that we would learn to do better to empower Singaporeans for the future.”
With black and white pictures and numerous interviews with the senior party leadership as well as its pioneer members, the book offers an insight into its achievements and failures.
Here are some highlights of the commemorative book.
THE EARLY YEARS: OF MARSHALL, JBJ AND THE ‘ANSON AWAKENING’
The book goes into some detail of Mr Marshall’s foray into politics, from his idealistic convictions to his victory in forming a government that led to his appointment as the first Chief Minister.
It also documents the events leading to his stepping down in 1956, after his failure to secure self-government for Singapore.
When the party was formed in 1957, Mr Marshall saw great scope for the Party playing a “moderate and alternative role to the left-wing PAP and the right-wing Labour Front”.
“This is perhaps the last chance for many years for the workers and people of Singapore to seek strength in union in a truly nationalist party,” Mr Marshall is quoted as saying.
While he would go on to win the Anson seat in 1961, Mr Marshall resigned from the party just two years later, and lost when he stood in Anson as an independent candidate.
Mr Marshall’s leadership void in the Party was filled by fiery lawyer JB Jeyaretnam, and he and his team went to work immediately.
The book accounts his contributions, including the launch of the party’s newsletter, ‘Hammer’ in 1972.
While Mr Jeyaretnam would go on to lose elections and was sued by former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew for slander in 1977, his perseverance paid off. Ten years after he joined the party, Mr Jeyaretnam won the Anson seat in a by-election in 1981.
His time in parliament was marred by several legal battles, and in 1986, he was disqualified from office. With the introduction of the GRC system in 1988 and the detainment of some party volunteers under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for their alleged roles in a ‘Marxist conspiracy’ a year before, it would take the party many years to re-establish itself as an opposition force.
And that would come when a Chinese-educated teacher, who joined the party in 1982 and had volunteered as Mr Jeyaretnam’s driver, would make party history in 1991.
FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH: MR LOW ON WINNING HOUGANG
Perhaps the most illuminating details of the party’s milestones come from a series of interviews with Low Thia Khiang.
The book’s narrative is complemented with Mr Low’s thoughts in three separate interviews, and provides a first-hand account of its achievements as well as how past and current challenges have made an impact.
Mr Low, who joined as a reluctant member in 1982 only did so to improve the Chinese edition of the party’s newsletter. But eventually, he rose through the ranks and became Organising Secretary in 1988.
It was also the same year that he stood in Tiong Bahru when the GRC system was implemented. But his entry into the political fray was not without challenges.
“It was a nightmare... On nomination day, 3am in the morning, I still did not know who was confirmed as my partner,” Mr Low is quoted saying.
Mr Low said the third potential candidate, a legal adviser for a “group of companies” could not make up his mind about standing.
“His boss had told him, that if he stood under the Workers’ Party ticket, he would be sacked, because their company had projects with the government… That was the situation of the day.”
So when it came to the 1991 election, Mr Low convinced Mr Jeyaretnam to let him contest a single seat instead - in Hougang. Running on the theme of, ‘Power to the People’, the book describes the party’s shift towards an alternative form of governance.
Mr Low won the Hougang seat from the People’s Action Party’s Tang Guan Seng with 52.8 per cent of the popular vote. And with that, he sealed the Party’s stronghold over the constituency.
BUILDING UP TOWARDS A GRC WIN
Mr Low eventually became secretary-general in 2001, after Mr Jeyaretnam stepped down. And with a change in leadership came a shift in the party’s style, from aggressive to “acting as a moderate opposition”.
The elections in the 2000s were marked by several attempts at garnering a GRC win, but were marred by disqualifications due to the filing of incomplete papers and controversy surrounding the submission of minority-race papers by candidate James Gomez.
But the period was also a time for leadership renewal, the revival of its newsletter and the formation of the Youth Wing.
While the WP lost the 2006 election in Aljunied GRC with 43.9 per cent of the votes, the result meant a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament seat for Sylvia Lim.
The 2006 election would set the stage for the battle for Aljunied come 2011. In the book, Mr Low says the party “went for broke” with the decision for him to move out of Hougang, which the party had held comfortably for many years, and into Aljunied GRC, which was then helmed by the PAP’s Foreign Affairs Minister, George Yeo.
“There was a lot of secrecy about who was going to contest in Aljunied,” recalls Vice-Chairman and Aljunied GRC MP Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap in the book.
“I can recall one time, we had just finished our house visits in Kaki Bukit area. At that point it was myself, Pritam and a few others. Sylvia told me to meet at her place later in the evening…In the end when I went to her house, there were five of us; myself, Sylvia, Pritam, Show Mao, and… Mr Low.”
Mr Faisal said it was only then, late at night, that Mr Low told the team he was going to be that fifth candidate, a move that surprised him.
“Mr Low did share with some of us that he was heavy-hearted leaving Hougang. He knew how much people there have been supporting him, and, you know, how much the Hougang residents have sacrificed and their difficulties just to keep supporting Mr Low. So I think… it was a very sad thing for him to do, to leave the people he had served for many years, to make the sacrifice and to open up a new path - to break into Aljunied GRC.”
2011 turned out to be a watershed election for the party, as it secured a GRC for the first time with 54.7 per cent of the popular vote against the PAP’s 45.3 per cent.
TOWN COUNCIL ISSUES AND THE WAY FORWARD
The high of winning a GRC was short-lived. In 2012, a government report singled out the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council for “poor corporate governance”.
The party also faced issues in selecting a managing agent for the Town Council, and eventually awarded the contract to FM Solutions and and Services (FMSS).
In 2015, the Party just managed to retain the GRC, and the long-drawn saga over the alleged mismanagement of the town council has been cited as a reason by observers for its narrower win.
Still, the party said it is looking forward to the future.
“We have different people doing different things. There is more than one driver, and that’s the difference. We are moving more towards of an organisation base rather than personality base,” Mr Low said.
On whether the party can eventually form an alternative government, Mr Low said he is “realistic” about it.
“We do have that foundation now and for the next milestone, if there is one, is to see if we can win another GRC. That would be a sign. It’s not easy. People think it is (easy) and it’s like domino theory, but that is not the case! If the government of the day has done well, people will usually not want to change.”
The commemorative book is available at bookstores and during the party’s 60th anniversary open house at its headquarters every Friday from Nov 10 until February next year.