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    Jul 29, 2014

    Discontent among WP's old guard

    PARTY elections within the Workers' Party (WP) are usually non-events.

    And, by all accounts, it was business as usual on Sunday with Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang being returned unchallenged as chairman and secretary-general, respectively.

    But something has been brewing since 2011, and it came to a boil with the older cadres openly expressing their unhappiness at how they said they had been treated by the party's bigwigs.

    How bad was it?

    Cadres, who have voting rights, spoke candidly to The New Paper (TNP). And this was done at a coffee shop under the party's headquarters in Syed Alwi Road.

    They voiced their displeasure at how the party had sidelined its veterans, some of whom have been around for more than 15 years, since the time of former party leader J. B. Jeyaretnam.

    "We are trying to do something (in the election). See for yourself later," said cadre John Gan, who was formerly chairman of the party, alongside Mr Jeyaretnam.

    Six newer members of the Central Executive Council (CEC) did not get the votes they needed to be returned to their positions while two members of the "old guard" were elected.

    At the 2012 election, there were 18 CEC members. Twelve of those 18 were re-elected on Sunday. Two older members - L. Somasundaram, 51, and John Yam, 52 - were also elected, taking the total number to 14.

    Said Mr Gan: "The younger members are not ready for the party. They think highly of themselves."

    The members listed the reasons for their unhappiness:

    Newer and younger members who hold degrees are preferred over veterans.

    Candidates are parachuted in, despite not having walked the ground, unlike the veterans who have done so for years, but are not rewarded with a position.

    They said older members believe that if they are in the CEC, there is a stronger likelihood they will be fielded in constituencies where they stand a chance of winning in an election.

    A party insider told The New Paper that because of the unhappiness, Poh Lee Guan, the former assistant secretary-general, tried to contest the 2012 Hougang by-election as a spare candidate, without the party's permission.

    Older WP members had previously suggested that Dr Poh, who had been working the Hougang ground for more than a decade, was unhappy at being bypassed by Yaw Shin Leong and later by Png Eng Huat.

    Following the incident, Dr Poh was sacked by the party.

    The insider, who claimed to be a veteran cadre, said: "Poh worked so hard and for so many years in Hougang, and Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim supported Png Eng Huat to become an MP.

    "He was not the only veteran aggrieved by the parachuting in of graduates."

    Even before that, older members were unhappy that another veteran, Eric Tan, was bypassed for the Non-Constituency MP seat. That went instead to a younger Gerald Giam.

    Soon after, a number of veterans left the party, including Mr Tan, Mohamed Fazli Talip and Sajeev Kamalasanan.

    Mr Sajeev, a project manager, told TNP that he quit the party in 2012 because he was unhappy with Mr Low and Ms Lim for preferring the newer members over the experienced ones when it came to the CEC positions.

    "I asked Sylvia and Low why weren't those who contested as candidates before offered recognition, but to this date I have not got a reply from them," he said.

    "I was asking only for fairness, not for myself but for others. If you want to make your own people cadres (who can vote for the council), you must also be fair to those who stood for election in the past."

    According to an e-mail message from the insider, the sentiment was so bad that Ms Lim had to appeal for unity on Sunday.

    In a speech delivered behind closed doors, she called for the veterans to be mature and to welcome new blood.

    She also told the 70-odd party members who turned up that the WP could not afford to have internal problems or disunity. This was confirmed by two other cadres.

    Political observer Eugene Tan said Sunday's result could be a significant sign that the party leaders were being forced to pay attention to the old guard's concerns that they were being sidelined.

    Said the Singapore Management University associate law professor: "They could be trying to strike a balance between the long-serving older members and their younger ones, especially with the rise of the party's fortunes over the past two elections.

    "But it doesn't mean that those who were voted out are not good enough."

    Prof Tan added that this CEC would be the one determining the policies and strategies leading up to the next general election.

    "The party may have felt this is its best line-up to reach out to audiences within and outside WP," he said.

    So is there a split?

    WP member Johnny Chew, 62, a retiree, said the party was "united in its goal".

    But he also told TNP: "The new blood should cooperate with the others. Don't do things that can spoil the party's unity."

    Ms Lim admitted that the election had been "fiercely contested" but denied there was a rift in the party.

    Mr Low declined to comment when approached.