TL;DR – Whoever takes over him will have big shoes to fill.
I’ve always believed that it’s important to have some opposition MPs. No political party is perfect. No matter how good any political party is, they can always be better. And I firmly believe that progress and improvement can only come about when there is a contest of ideas.
And one great way for us to have that contest is to have opposition MPs questioning the government and reminding them that if they don’t keep improving, they might find themselves being the opposition.
There is of course the concern that we might have the gridlocks faced by USA if we have a two-party system. Thankfully, that didn’t happen in Singapore. Because the opposition party in Singapore, the Workers’ Party (WP) have, by and large, been a pretty responsible opposition. And the credit for that must go to the WP’s leader – Mr Low Thia Khiang.
Mr Low is a Chinese-educated businessman. Before he went into business, he was actually a teacher. It was his experience as the last batch of Nanyang University (also know as Nantah) students and as a teacher that drove him to politics. In the documentary “Walking With Singapore: Road to 2011” produced by WP, Mr Low said:
“We thought it was short-sighted of the government to only have one university. I even wrote to the press but horrendously, nothing came out.
That’s the situation. If the govenrment wanted to push something down, no matter what you say you can just cover up. And nobody would know given the fact that those days, it was only the media, the newspapers or the television.
So to me, practically I mean, I’m experiencing first-hand how the government can really 一手遮天 (Chinese idiom which means to hide the truth from the masses using power and authority).
I went into IE those days, the Institute of Education. I became a teacher. Then maybe I’m suay la, I mean I always kena stuck by that you know. In came the streaming policy… I see my students, I know they are not second-class, or they are not slow learners. But because of the system, they will fail.
I know they will fail because many of them come from poor backgrounds. And you’re going to assess them based on their results and stream them and not even give them a second chance. I think that’s not fair.
Okay, that is the… That was the last straw for me. I decided I probably will be happier in life rather than remain as a teacher. Because I have seen my students every day. Every class I tell them “Look, work harder!” But I know the system will kill you no matter how hard you work.
So you are sacrificing the whole generation. And what do we have? Manpower.
So I thought it was unbecoming of the government to do this to your own citizens and your future generations of Singaporeans.”
And that’s how Mr Low came to enter politics.
Mr Low joined the Workers’ Party (WP) in 1982, and was subsequently appointed its Organising Secretary.
At the 1984 general election, he was the election agent for the party’s then Secretary-General, J. B. Jeyaretnam, in Mr Jeyaretnam’s successful campaign to win the parliamentary constituency of Anson.
In the 1991 General Elections, Low, as the Workers’ Party’s Assistant Secretary-General, won the Hougang constituency.
As a politician, Mr Low was known for giving fiery speeches. His election rallies drew large crowds, such as this at the last WP rally of the 2006 General Elections.
Unfortunately, that large crowd didn’t translate to votes for the WP. Mr Low remained the only WP MP. After much deliberation, he felt that he needed to make a bold move. He said:
“And I find myself obsolete in a sense, if I continue to talk and debate in Parliament and I know people are suffering and things are not changing, so what’s the point?
There’s a disconnect somewhere, that they believe that things are alright, but on the ground, that is not the case, and I’m coming from the ground, but they don’t believe. So who to believe
I came to a conclusion. You can talk until the cows come home, debate until the cows come home in Parliament. The PAP will not change. It is the people, the electorate that have to show them, they have to change.”
And that is when Mr Low made the decision to leave his stronghold of Hougang to contest in Aljunied GRC during the 2011 General Elections. That was a move that could have ended WP’s presence in Parliament.
But WP triumphed. The WP not only managed to retain Hougang, they also managed to do what no opposition party has done before them – win a GRC.
The PAP denies it, but many people think that the loss of a GRC triggered PAP’s “shift to the left”, and made the PAP slow down the growth of foreign manpower. Whatever the case is, with that move, Mr Low showed that WP can be a credible opposition that is able to attract some very talented people. In fact, some people have said that candidates such as Mr Chen Show Mao, Mr Pritam Singh, Ms He Ting Ru, Mr Leon Perera, Dr Daniel Goh, could very well have been PAP candidates.
As an MP, Mr Low, along with his other WP MPs have continuously sought to be a reasonable, rational opposition. He explained it in this exchange with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong:
Mr Low pointed out that the WP does not come up with wild policies or suggestions. Neither does the WP oppose all policies.
Instead, WP oppose policies only if they see the need to do so and to have a positive effect on the future of Singapore. In those cases, WP MPs will debate policies vigorously, offer suggestions, but never suggestions that would bankrupt the country’s coffers.
Mr Low also highlighted that the WP seeks to be a sincere and honest check against the government. Mr Low also emphasised that the WP, as a responsible opposition, is careful not to “jam up the government”, but, after giving their views and debating the policies, to allow the government to move forward.
Indeed, even though PM Lee and his PAP MPs often have fierce debates with Mr Low, PM Lee himself isn’t shy to admit that Mr Low does deliver good speeches. PM Lee praised the speech Mr Low delivered for the Budget Debate 2018, where Mr Low spoke about how Singapore must respond as China grows in prosperity and influence. PM Lee said that Mr Low’s speech was cogent, and balanced, firmly based on Singapore’s interests and perspectives, and could have been delivered by a PAP MP.
The WP has certainly come a long way under Mr Low’s leadership. His last responsibility is to hand over to a new generation of leaders to bring WP further. Mr Low has been holding the position of the party’s Secretary-General for some 17 years.
You see, the WP will be holding their leadership election to elect a new Secretary-General on 8th April. Yeaps, in time for the new session of Parliament when it opens in May.
Whoever succeeds Mr Low will have big shoes to fill.