Sunday, May 22, 2011

Anguish and agony paved Low's road to victory

May 21, 2011
By Kor Kian Beng

CONFIDENT as he may be, even Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang was not completely sure if he was going to win the ultimate battle of his political career.

On the afternoon of May 7, Polling Day, he wrote two speeches. One was for victory and the other, if he was defeated in the contest for Aljunied GRC.

Speaking to The Straits Times in an exclusive interview yesterday, Mr Low said: 'I'm always prepared to lose and I prepared both speeches.'

History has on record his winning speech, which he delivered to thunderous cheers and applause at Hougang Stadium in the early hours of May 8, when Singapore heard that the WP had become the first opposition party to capture a group representation constituency (GRC).

But the road to victory is paved with much anguish and agony, said the opposition veteran, speaking for the first time on the General Election results, in an interview at which his tears and emotions flowed freely.

As he spoke about the tough decision he had to make on whether to leave single-seat Hougang and its residents for a GRC bid, tears welled up in his eyes as the memories of his 20 years as an MP in the constituency came flooding back.

Overwhelmed, the usually jocular Mr Low left the meeting room at the Hougang Town Council office for 10 minutes to compose himself. When he returned, he said he wanted the interview to continue outside the office.

'I miss a lot of things in Hougang, but I have to move on,' said Mr Low, 54.

A key factor in his anguish was the opposition he faced from detractors of his GRC bid, with some telling him pointedly to his face that should he fail, he would become a 'li shi jui ren'. The Chinese saying loosely means 'a sinner in historical records'.

They felt his action could land Singapore with no elected opposition MP, as both he and long-serving Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong were leaving their strongholds to contest in GRCs.

But Mr Low persisted as he believed a GRC win was necessary for the opposition to play an effective, long-term role in Parliament, as a check on the ruling party or in forming an alternative government in the future.

He also believed he would be shortchanging the people of Hougang and their aspirations, had he stayed put.

'I think Hougang wanted me to represent them and also to play a role. So I can't just say 'never mind, stay here'. I think it's not correct.'

A heavy load is now off his back, following his triumph as the leader of the first opposition party to win, with 54.7 per cent of votes, against a People's Action Party (PAP) team led by two ministers: Mr George Yeo and Mrs Lim Hwee Hua.

Others on the WP team were law lecturer Sylvia Lim, 46; top corporate lawyer Chen Show Mao, 50; postgraduate law student Pritam Singh, 34; and family counsellor Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, 35.

But going down in history as the first opposition leader to win a GRC did not figure in Mr Low's decision to gun for Aljunied GRC: 'It's not important because you'll die one day. So what?'

The party had also discussed and prepared itself for the worst-case scenario of it losing in all the eight constituencies it contested, including Aljunied GRC and Hougang, said Mr Low.

In the end, it felt its leadership renewal process was in place for the party to move forward as 'a viable platform for Singaporeans who want to participate in politics'.

Said Mr Low: 'So we thought that even in the worst-case scenario, let's say, we lost Hougang and Aljunied, our assessment is that the party would be able to carry on to serve Singaporeans.'

Asked if he would have quit politics had he lost, he shot back: 'No. I think that would be irresponsible of me, throw and then cabut (flee in Malay), retire. No, I'm not doing that.'

On Polling Day, Mr Low, who was at two counting stations in the Bedok Reservoir-Hougang division of the GRC, said he knew the WP was possibly headed for victory, judging from the number of ballot slips bearing a tick for the WP.

The outcome has, however, brought an end to the political career of the PAP's Mr Yeo, whom he described as 'a respectable opponent'.

But Mr Low said the result represented the wishes and aspirations of Singaporeans for Singapore, adding that 'in everything that you do, including election, there's always a trade-off and the PAP knows trade-off very well'.

He became subdued when asked about the significance of the WP's GRC feat. While admitting that it has allowed more opposition into Parliament at one fell swoop, he pointed out that the opposition has six elected MPs against 81 PAP MPs in a 'grossly imbalanced' Parliament.

'So if you're talking about significance, I think we still have miles to go compared to that.'

But he said the GE has helped cement the WP's leadership renewal efforts by putting its younger leaders, such as Mr Singh, into strategic positions, both in Parliament and in the party's central executive committee.

He was, however, coy about his potential successor, declining to say whether he had begun the search or identified anyone in the party.

For now, he is focused on running the Aljunied and Hougang constituencies well, saying 'we have made our pledge known to Singaporeans as well as to the residents of Aljunied GRC that we will serve to the best of our ability'.

He added: 'Because if we fail, we're not only failing the Workers' Party, but also the aspirations of Singaporeans. So we must not fail.'

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