Walking with Singapore
60 Years of History
Walking With Workers (1953 - 1963)
The 1950s was a period of political upheaval in the colonial island state of Singapore. The city was invigorated with the conferment of limited self-government by the British, which allowed the people of Singapore to vote and be elected into the Legislative Assembly. This began several years of campaigning and negotiations geared by many political parties towards gaining independence from the British.
Towards the end of the decade and in the early 60s, merger with Malaya, Borneo, Sabah and Sarawak as a route to independence was widely debated by the various political parties, and also became a key issue within The Workers’ Party.
Rendel Constitution was introduced to Singapore’s legislation, conferring limited self-governance to Singapore. The Legislative Council was replaced with the Legislative Assembly, and all local citizens were given the right to vote.
David Saul Marshall’s Labour Front emerged victorious as the largest party in the Legislative Assembly, but was short of a majority. Bolstered by support from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), Marshall formed a new government, thus becoming Singapore’s first Chief Minister.
Having failed to secure self-government for Singapore after several rounds of talks in London, in accordance with a promise he made to the people of Singapore, Marshall stepped down from the post of Chief Minister.
Due to his dissatisfaction with the terms of agreement borne out of Lim Yew Hock’s Merdeka talks in London, Marshall quit the Labour Front and sat instead as an independent in the Legislative Assembly.
Marshall challenged Lee Kuan Yew of the People’s Action Party (PAP) to a by-election contest Tanjong Pagar to test the popularity of his views. This resulted to unexpected public clashes between trade unions. Not wanting to fuel further public discord, Marshall resigns from his seat in Cairnhill.
While addressing the delegates of the Army Civil Service Union at a conference, Marshall said, “We can evolve a plan whereby we can create a political party whose membership is exclusively confined to members of the trade unions… and which would never be manipulated by the communists… I will co-operate with you in making this idea a reality.”
Headed by David Saul Marshall, the party was launched at the Hokkien Association Hall in Telok Ayer street in the presence of 800 members, pledging founding principles of Merdeka, Parliamentary Democracy, and Socialism.
WP performed well in its maiden election, winning four out of five of its contested seats in Cairnhill, Kallang, Delta and Telok Ayer.
WP’s vice-chairman and city councillor, Chang Yuen Tong, abruptly resigns in May 1958 upon the instigation of communist leader, Fang Chuang Pi. Lee Kuan Yew had asked Fang Chuang Pi to do so to prove that he was not using WP as a vehicle to run the People’s Action Party (PAP) down at the polls. This triggered a by-election in Kallang.
David Marshall contests in Cairnhill against Lim Yew Hock and loses with only 26.7% of the valid votes. After successful negotiations with the British, Singapore was now granted full internal self-governance under the new constitution. PAP wins the elections by a landslide, forming government for the first time.
After PAP assemblyman Baharuddin Mohammed Ariff passes unexpectedly, a by-election was called in Anson. David Marshall contests against four others and won, the first win for WP in the new legislature of Singapore.
Marshall was elected at a time when merger with the Malayan Federation was being fervently debated. Strongly against PAP’s brand of merger for fear that Singaporeans will be disadvantaged, Marshall proposed for complete merger, or for Singapore to be independent. He fell into an uneasy compromise with other leaders within the party, resulting in supporting the White Paper for merger in Parliament, but urged voters to cast blank votes at the referendum. This was heavily criticised by PAP.
Although Marshall was re-elected as Chairman, the previously ousted Chua Chin Kiat returned to the party and was elected as Secretary-General of WP as its organising members meeting. Marshall was extremely disappointed by this outcome, and resigns only half an hour after he was elected.
He felt that WP was “no longer the appropriate medium for the destination of the concept of democracy” and it was taken over by the “industrial Chinese-speaking people” whom he deemed were “deaf to reason and sense”.
After discovering that his party colleague mistranslated his speeches, Marshall writes to the executive council of the party on 4 September 1962, demanding the expulsion of Sum Chong Heng and Chua Chin Kiat. The two eventually resigned.
Marshall stands in Anson as an independent, and loses. WP following Marshall’s resignation falls into decline, with only 3 candidates in the election, polling an average of 1% of the valid votes.
Voice of Democracy (1971 - 1988)
After Marshall’s exit, The Workers’ Party went into a period of dormancy, and was sustained only by a handful of individuals. In 1971, lawyer and former district judge Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam led a team of professionals and businessmen to revive the party. The Workers’ Party’s participation in subsequent elections became more robust, cumulating into Jeyaretnam’s victory in the Anson by-election in 1981. This ended the People’s Action Party’s monopoly over Parliament, and the 80s saw to heightened political activity in Singapore.
Several changes were introduced to Singapore’s electoral system during this period, such as the Group Representative Constituency, the Non-Constituency Member of Parliament, and the Nominated Member of Parliament. The People’s Action Party also faced heavy criticisms during this period, as it attempted to introduce a few unpopular policies, such as the Graduate Mothers’ Scheme.
WP was largely dormant since Marshall’s exit. It was only revived when Senior Lawyer, graduate of University College London, and former First District Judge, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam (JBJ) joins WP. Soon after JBJ’s entry, the party produces a new line-up, comprising businessmen and trade unionists, and put forward the 1971 Manifesto.
The inaugural issue of the party’s newsletter, Hammer, was released. The publication was intended to counter-balance the mainstream media while also being a platform for WP’s outreach.
Rejuvenated by JBJ’s leadership, WP gains some momentum, and gains 24.5% of the valid votes for its 26 candidates, the greatest opposition showing since independence.
A group of WP members leaves the party to form their own – United Front. They are led by Ng Ho and Seow Kee Leng.
WP fields 22 candidates at the elections, and increase its vote share slightly to 27.9%.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew takes JBJ to court for defamation. JBJ allegedly defamed Lee during an election rally on 18 December 1976.
Despite fielding much lesser candidates than the previous election, WP manages to increase its vote share. With only 8 candidates, they secured 29.2% of the valid votes.
Following Devan Nair’s appointment as President of Singapore, the electoral seat for Anson was vacated on 23 October 1981, prompting yet another by-election. After a three-corner fight between WP’s JBJ, PAP’s Pang Kim Hin and United People’s Front’s Harbans Singh, WP wins the seat with 51.9% of the valid votes. WP’s victory marks a significant milestone for opposition parties in Singapore, ending PAP’s 15-year-long monopoly over Parliament.
After HDB disallowed JBJ from using the office that was previously used by PAP MP, constituents and supporters helped to set up JBJ’s office within the ward at Blk 145 Jalan Bukit Merah.
Not long after the end of PAP monopoly on Parliament, the government begun to introduce several revisions to Singapore’s legislation. The first of these was the NCMP scheme, which specified that should the opposition fail to secure a Parliamentary seat, the three best performing opposition candidates would be able to seat in Parliament. The scheme was intended to improve the quality of parliamentary debates and guarantee an ‘opposition voice’ in Parliament.
Yet another landmark election in Singapore’s electoral history, WP manages to retain its seat in Anson, while the Singapore Democratic Party’s Chiam See Tong wins another in Potong Pasir. PAP’s vote share also dips by more than 10%. Many suggest that this was due to the ‘Graduate Mothers Scheme’ that PAP attempted to introduce in the year prior, which pushed for policies favouring the children of graduate women.
JBJ and WP Chairman, Wong Hong Toy, were each fined $5000 and sentenced to one month’s imprisonment for making false declaration of WP’s accounts. Due to this, JBJ is disqualified and WP loses its only seat in parliament.
22 young activists were arrested by the Internal Security Department on allegations that they were linked to a Marxist network aimed at subverting the state through communist united front tactics. Among those arrested, some were volunteers of WP. WP spoke out against the arrest, arguing that ‘detention of persons without trial is an abrogation of the rue of law and can only be justified where the whole fabric of society is threatened’. JBJ also refuted any claims that the party has allowed itself to be utilised for subversive purposes.
Chairman of WP, Wong Hong Toy, quit the party after failing to admit three members into the Central Executive Council (CEC). Wong accused JBJ of being resistant to rejuvenate the party leadership, which JBJ refuted with evidence that the CEC included several professionals, including Low Thia Khiang. Wong’s exit saw close to 20 members leaving with him, all of them joining the Singapore Democratic Party.
Barisan Sosialis, the left-wing breakaway group of PAP, led by Lee Siew Choh, joined WP.
Group Representation Constituency (GRC) was introduced into Singapore’s constitution. Its main objective was to ensure minority representation in Parliament. However, the GRC system was met with many criticisms. WP has been against it since it was first brought up in Parliament.
Seow Khee Leng, leader of the Singapore United Front, joined WP along with seven other members.
WP ran an intense campaign, fielding 32 candidates, taking 38.5% of the popular vote. Eunos GRC was one of the hotly contested constituencies, seeing a face-off between PAP’s Tay Eng Soon, Chew Heng Ching, and Zulkifli bin Mohamed, and WP’s Francis Seow, Lee Siew Choh and Mohd Khalit bin Mohd Baboo. Francis Seow, former Solicitor-General and Law Society President was the party’s star candidate, but also faced heavy criticism by PAP, especially for his association with the Marxist Conspiracy. The 3-man team narrowly lost with 49.1% of the votes.
Lee Siew Choh and Francis Seow were offered the Non-Constituency MP seats. However, Francis Seow was disqualified due to tax evasion charges. Lee Siew Choh became the first NCMP, marking 25 years since his last stint with PAP and Barisan.
Winning Hougang (1990 - 1997)
Despite initial successes in the 80s, the Workers’ Party had little presence in Parliament as J.B. Jeyaretnam was removed from Parliament in 1986 following a jail sentence. From 1988 to 1991, Lee Siew Choh was the only representative from the Workers’ Party in Parliament as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. However, the tides soon turned when Organising Secretary, Low Thia Khiang, was elected in Hougang in 1991 amidst a nationwide swing against the People’s Action Party. This was a new beginning for The Workers’ Party as they focused heavily on building a strong foundation and grassroots in Hougang.
The government introduced the NMP scheme, which allows for non-partisan, non-contesting individuals to be Members of Parliament. These individuals would need to be distinguished professionals of their field. Their participation was aimed at increasing opportunities for political participation, and to nurture a more consensual style of governance where alternative and constructive dissenting opinions are included in national discourse.
JBJ was not allowed to contest in the 1991 GE due to a parliamentary ban owing to his numerous lawsuits from PAP members. Low Thia Khiang overcame the odds to be elected as Member of Parliament for the constituency of Hougang. Low, at that point WP Organising Secretary, defeated PAP’s Tan Guan Seng with 52.8% of the votes and won the seat of Hougang. WP also came extremely close in Eunos GRC yet again, as well as Changi SMC. It helps to reverse the tide of waning morale in WP’s ranks.
Soon after becoming the MP for Hougang, Low was served a notice from HDB to move Hougang Town Council out of the office at Blk 810 Hougang Central. The Managing Agent for the Town Council, which was previously part of HDB before privatisation, terminated its contract. These actions mean the newly-elected MP has no one to manage the estate and no office to operate from. Low rose to the challenge to build the office in line with his role as developer, and in 45 days, legally handed over the premises at Blk 701 Hougang Ave 2 to the HDB, as owner, and with the HDB then renting it to Hougang Town Council as its new office.
Hougang Constituency Committee (HGCC) was formed to improve the welfare of residents and forge a bond amongst the community by organising annual festive functions and get-together trips such as one-day temple tours where residents can mingle freely with their MP and also give feedback to him.
Hougang Constituency Education Trust (HCET) – a culmination of goodwill efforts by charitable residents who wished to do more for the less privileged in Hougang. HCET has been giving out bursaries yearly to children from needy families and funds have been raised from the generous donations of sponsors who would bid for HCET’s specially-made plaques during the lunar seven-month dinners.
Low was appointed by the government to the Cost Review Committee, which was set up in response to the outcry over increases in the cost of living at the 1991 GE. By being on board this Cost Review Committee, which was convened in October 1992 and lasted about a year, Low could put forward WP’s views on the rising costs of housing, education, healthcare and transportation in the aftermath of the government’s privatisation of public services and this culminated in an independent report which WP wrote and published alongside the main committee’s report.
The by-election was called after the resignation of all four MPs of the GRC from their seats, including then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. The election was expected to mark the return of JBJ to electoral politics. However, WP ended up not being able to contest as one of its candidates turned up late on nomination day, preventing the party from registering for the election.
A new style of positive engagement was adopted by WP at a public rally held on 3rd April 1993 to debate the highly controversial Bill on Goods and Services Tax (GST).
WP found itself the object of defamation suits filed by PAP Indian MPs and a Minister, and members of the Organising Committee of the Tamil Language Week, due to an article written in Tamil and published in The Hammer concerning their efforts in promoting the Tamil language. WP engaged in two protracted legal battles, lost one suit and had a judgment entered against it in the other suit. The total costs and damages amounted to more than half a million dollars. As a result of the lawsuits, Hammer, the mouthpiece of WP, ceased publication.
Low retained his seat as MP for Hougang by increasing his vote share to from 52.8% to 58%. The party also polled strongly in Cheng San GRC, with JBJ as one of the candidates, and garnered a commendable 45.2% vote share. This returned JBJ to parliament as a NCMP since WP was the best performing opposition party during the election.
Taking Aljunied (2001 - 2008)
The 2000s was a period of transition for The Workers’ Party. In 2001, Secretary-General of 30 years, J. B. Jeyaretnam, stepped down from his post and resigned from the party due to disagreements. Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang took over the helm. Shortly after, Law Lecturer Sylvia Lim also joined the party and eventually became its Chairman. The Workers’ Party was also rejuvenated by an influx of younger members during this period, especially after the 2006 elections.
To combat the constraints of a state-controlled media, Hammer, which ceased to be published since 1996 because of the defamation legal suits over an article written in the Tamil language, was revamped and re-published, under a new Chief Editor.
The re-election of the CEC at the Conference of Organisers was then due, and the Secretary General, JBJ, who was removed from his Cheng San NCMP seat after being made bankrupt from libel suits by PAP members, thereby effectively disallowing him from running in an election, announced to organising members that he would not be seeking re-election as Secretary General. The Conference which convened on 27 May 2001 elected Low Thia Khiang as Secretary-General.
A few days before the Nomination Day of GE 2001, JBJ announced his resignation from WP.
WP’s theme for GE 2001 was “Power to the People”, but fielded just two candidates, including Low, who had been the MP of Hougang since 1991. Low was re-elected in Hougang SMC with 55% of valid votes, down from 58% in 1997. The Party lost in Nee Soon East SMC and was disqualified in Aljunied GRC for filing incomplete papers. The Party had decided to contest in Aljunied GRC as it did well in the 1988 GE having chalked up 49% of the valid vote in what was known as Eunos GRC then.
After GE 2001, WP had to constrain its limited resources to its targeted constituencies, and a new strategy had to be drafted in view of the unique Group Representation Constituencies (GRC) system where electoral boundaries would be redrawn just before every election. 3 Area Committees were set up to become operationally effective platforms for aspiring candidates to step up on grassroots engagement.
With the arrival of the internet, it was also vital for WP to spearhead a free-flow of information along this superhighway. Hammer Online was unveiled together with a brand new WP website www.wp.org.sg. To reach out to youths, a WP blog was created as an unofficial website for WP supporters to exchange news and views and forge greater solidarity for a common cause.
Rejuvenated by the injection of new blood, WP soon underwent a leadership renewal, which saw a group of young professionals co-opted into the 22nd Central Executive Council (CEC). They include Sylvia Lim, Yaw Shin Leong, Poh Lee Guan and James Gomez. Sylvia Lim moved on to become the first-ever female Chairman of WP, stepping up on its pace of renewal and creating a fresh and exciting atmosphere in the political scene.
A Public Consultation Exercise was held on the topic of New Poor and Social Cohesion.
A Public Forum was held as an alternative avenue for Singaporeans to have their say on the government’s proposal to build a casino.
WP’s very first Youth Wing was set up to produce an alternative youth platform with its own niche and to organise national, political, grassroots, social and community activities to increase awareness among youths.
Public forum entitled “Elections and Your Vote: A Token or Taken Right?”
Launch of a new WP Manifesto, aptly titled “You Have a Choice” in line with WP’s theme for the 2006 elections.
WP fielded 15 new faces of whom 10 were professionals and 6 were below 31 years old. Although none of WP candidates were returned elected except for Low in Hougang, the results showed that there was growing support for WP. The incumbent PAP team was returned to Aljunied GRC by a narrow margin of 6.1% of votes over WP. As the leader of the highest-scoring opposition team who lost, Sylvia Lim accepted the Non-Constituency MP appointment in accordance with a decision by the CEC.
A Public Forum was held to discuss the draft Penal Code Amendment Bill, which raised concerns over excessive punishment, gender bias and an overemphasis on prosecution over defence.
Youth Wing held its inaugural YouthQuake forum. The first in a series of public forums, this forum focused on the question: “Should Singaporean Youths be allowed to vote at 18?”
The New Normal? (2011 - present)
The 2010s began with a sense of great expectation and change. The rise of new media allowed for greater participation and discussion on politics. There was also increasing unhappiness over the burgeoning population, and lack of adequate public housing, among many other issues. Riding on the support from the previous election, The Workers’ Party had also expanded significantly. The composition of the party changed as youths and professionals joined its ranks. In the 2011 General Elections, The Workers’ Party campaigned on the message, “Towards a First World Parliament”. With a calculated risk, Low Thia Khiang left his stronghold in Hougang to contest in Aljunied GRC alongside Sylvia Lim, and new members Pritam Singh, Muhammad Faisal bin Manap, and Chen Show Mao. Their victory marked a watershed in Singapore’s history, as it was the first time that an opposition party had won a GRC.
After nine days of intense campaigning and a day of cooling-off, Singaporeans went to the polls with much anticipation on the results. WP made a historic win in Aljunied GRC with 54.72% of the valid votes. They were the first opposition party to win in a GRC since the system was introduced in 1988. Those from WP voted into Parliament were: Low Thia Khiang, Sylvia Lim, Chen Show Mao, Muhamad Faisal Bin Abdul Manap and Pritam Singh for Aljunied GRC, and Yaw Shin Leong for Hougang SMC. The Party had fielded 23 candidates in 4 GRCs and 4 SMCs and achieved 46.6% of the valid votes.
The Aljunied Constituency Committee (AJCC) was created to serve the residents of Aljunied GRC. Helmed by five elected MPs, AJCC’s main role is to assist in organising community events and activities for residents, and to foster a sense of community in the constituency.
WP formally takes over the Town Council from PAP, and merges it with Hougang, forming the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council. The Town Council oversees Bedok Reservoir-Punggol, Eunos, Kaki Bukit, Paya Lebar, Serangoon Divisions, and Hougang SMC.
The newly elected WP members for Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC are sworn into Parliament. Members Yee Jenn Jong and Gerald Giam take up the two NCMP posts offered for their performance in Joo Chiat SMC and East Coast GRC respectively.
Yaw Shin Leong, MP for Hougang SMC, was expelled from WP for failing to uphold transparency and accountability. This was after he failed to present himself to the Central Executive Committee to explain and discuss the allegations that he had an extramarital affair. Due to the expulsion, the seat for Hougang SMC would be vacated, triggering a by-election.
WP announces that Png Eng Huat will be the candidate for Hougang by-election. Png Eng Huat has been with the party since 2006.
Despite the challenges, Png Eng Huat won the by-election, garnering a 62.08% vote share. WP continues to retain its stronghold held since 1991.
WP held a matinee and evening concert at the Jubilee Hall of Raffles Hotel, titled “Bricks in Blue: Building a New Generation”. The concert was put up by the Members of Parliament, party members and volunteers. It was aimed at raising funds to support plans of purchasing a permanent space for the party’s headquarters.
A by-election was called for Punggol East SMC. Michael Palmer, MP for Punggol-East SMC and Speaker of Parliament resigned earlier in December due to an improper relationship he had with a staff member of People’s Association.
WP announced that Lee Li Lian would be the candidate for the Punggol-East by-election. Lee Li Lian previously contested in the constituency in the 2011 General Election, and has been with the party since 2006.
Lee Li Lian wins the Punggol-East by-election, and is also the first female opposition member to win a single-member seat. Despite a four cornered fight and facing off opponents Koh Poh Koon from PAP, Kenneth Jeyaretnam from the Reform Party and Desmond Lim from the Singapore Democratic Alliance, Lee Li Lian won with a substantial swing, garnering 54.52% of the valid votes.
WP retained Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC, but lost Punggol-East SMC. Overall, WP’s share of the popular vote slipped by 6.8 points to 39.8%. There was a national swing back to PAP, who garnered 69.9 per cent of the popular vote, almost 10 percent more than its 2011 electoral performance.