Quiet reformer does it his way

Low's efforts have transformed the Workers' Party into arguably Singapore's most credible opposition party.

WHEN Low Thia Khiang took over the reins of the Workers' Party (WP) in 2001, one of his earliest tasks was to play fashion police to his party members.

Members of Singapore's oldest surviving opposition party preferred slippers and T-shirts on their walkabouts. But to Low, a former Chinese teacher, such a rag-tag appearance was unbefitting of a political party.

“I think if we want to move together as a party and you want people to look at you, to respect you, you have to respect yourself with more discipline,” Low said.

Gradually, the members came round, sporting the party's signature sky-blue polo tees with proper shoes. In recent years, they have even started wearing trendy blue wristbands. Besides looking neat, Low has transformed WP into arguably the country's most credible opposition party.

He also holds the more secure opposition seat, Hougang, which is expected to let him celebrate his 20th anniversary as an MP this August if he chooses to stay put.

When he first took over, WP was at a low. Relations with his predecessor, the late J.B. Jeyaretnam, were strained. The erstwhile secretary- general had been bankrupted by lawsuits, preventing him from contesting elections.

Jeyaretnam accused Low of not doing enough to help him clear his debts. At the 2001 polls, the party fielded just two candidates, including Low, who had been the MP of Hougang since 1991.

“We were almost extinct . . . the opposition just could not compete,” he said of the 2001 polls. The ruling People's Action Party enjoyed walkovers in most of the seats that year.

Despite his holding on to Hougang for 10 years, many wondered if Low was a worthy successor to the larger-than-life JBJ'.

Compared with his leonine predecessor, Low, a Chinese-educated Nantah graduate, was understated. But bit by bit, from clothing to culture, he set about transforming his team.

Instead of an ideological party of “isms”, as he called it, he stressed simpler concepts like respect, tolerance and power to the people. “I will not go for confrontation or taking an adversarial approach for the sake of doing it to show I'm opposition. No, I don't believe in that,” he said.

Renewal was stepped up. In 2001, Low at 45, was among the youngest in the party's central executive committee. Now he is about the oldest in the 15-man council, with eight under 40 years old.

The clearest sign of the party makeover came in the 2006 elections. Besides star catch Sylvia Lim, the 54-yearold party rolled out 20 candidates, including 15 rookies, many of whom were graduates, bilingual and professional.

The electorate liked what it saw, giving WP candidates the highest votes 38.4% of any opposition party. Low retained his Hougang perch with his biggest win ever 62.7% of valid votes and Lim, a law lecturer, earned a non-constituency seat in Parliament as the best loser.

For the coming polls, WP may again lead the opposition charge, ready to field at least 23 candidates including possibly more than 10 new faces. Again, a star recruit has been reeled in top lawyer Chen Show Mao, 50.

The changes have drawn bouquets, but also brickbats. Some have criticised the Low-era WP for being too moderate and not deviating enough from the PAP's line.

But in fact, going by the WP's manifesto for the upcoming election, the party is opposed to many of the PAP's fundamental policies: It wants to abolish the elected presidency, the GRC system, the Internal Security Act and some grassroots groups, and says the public transport system should be nationalised.

Responding to the criticisms, Low retorted: “If they're saying that WP is disciplined and moving together as a party like the PAP, I think that's a compliment to me.” Political observer Dr Wong Wee Nam, when contacted, said Low's low-profile approach has been a double-edged sword for the WP.

While it has helped the party attract new faces, he said it may have also limited its ability to draw in more high-calibre candidates who prefer a more robust approach.

Dr Wong said: “Actually, there are enough good people' coming out in the opposition, like former government scholarship holders, but they are joining other parties. Why? That says something about the WP leadership.”

Low's political views have remained steadfast over the years: to see a robust parliamentary system with the opposition able to provide effective checks and balances on the Government so that policies would benefit Singaporeans.

While he has said winning a GRC would help achieve this aim, Low was coy about how he would swing in his decision or his own assessment of the WP's performance at the next general election.

“Of course, we hope to have more elected MPs but we don't set targets,” he said. He is at least certain that his life won't be like a blank examination paper, he said, when asked to rate his own political career so far.

“I don't judge my performance but I'm satisfied with my life . . . Whatever way people look at me, whether I'm stupid, it doesn't matter. “But I know I've done what I need to do.

I've responded to the call of my generation. Other than that, how people look at me, never mind lah. ” The Straits Times

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