SINGAPORE — The Workers’ Party of Singapore was once written off as too left wing for a country that had built its success on unabashed capitalism: to many, even its symbol of a bright yellow hammer on a red background looked just a sickle short of communism.
But now, as this wealthy city-state heads into an election on Friday, the “WP” could be about to give the People’s Action Party (PAP) its stiffest competition yet in 50 years of uninterrupted and virtually unchallenged rule.
That could put pressure on the newly elected government to focus more on social welfare and to restrict the flow of foreign workers, who it says are needed to underpin growth as the population greys and the workforce shrinks.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s party will win the lion’s share of parliament’s 89 seats, no one doubts that. For one thing, the WP is only fielding candidates for 28 seats.
Still, the Workers’ Party is hoping that its parliament tally will jump into double figures from just seven now after a shift to the centre, where it appeals to a “sandwich class” of swing voters feeling squeezed by high prices and competition for jobs as growth slows.
A WP campaign rally on a field beside public housing blocks this week had the air of a genteel evening get-together rather than a meeting of opposition hotheads.
Grey-haired men and women on foldable chairs chatted as young office workers munched on snacks, college students huddled and giggled, and mothers chased toddlers running amok.
The PAP itself has inched to the left to avoid losing the support of such people, dishing out more on healthcare, the elderly and low paid since its share of the popular vote tumbled to a record low of 60.1 percent in the 2011 election.
It is under Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang that the Workers’ Party has picked on the PAP’s most exposed flank.
“The Workers’ Party will represent you in a manner befitting a rational, responsible and respectable political party,” Low told the rally in a measured speech that might have made his more combative predecessors blanche.
“We believe that parliament is not a place for MPs to roar at one another, it is a platform for dignified and civilised discussions.”
The WP says its stronger voice in parliament—in 2011 six of its members were elected and one more won in a by-election two years later—has already forced the government to become more welfarist and curb the flow of foreign workers, whom many blame for taking jobs, depressing wages and pushing up prices.
“It is impossible for a party to do checks on itself,” said a man in his 50s at the rally who gave his family name as Goh.
“The changes in policies in the past few years took place largely due to the presence of opposition. We can’t put all the eggs in one basket, and we need to send more blue eggs into parliament,” he said, referring to the Workers’ Party signature blue-collar colour.
Besides calling for a more diverse legislature, the Workers’ Party campaigns for minimum wages and making healthcare and public housing more affordable.
That resonates with the “sandwich class”, which sprang up as Singapore’s growth-at-all-costs narrative wore thin.
“Singapore is still a good place to live, but the cost of living is very high and it is hard for us in the sandwich class to catch up,” said 37-year-old Elena Foo, who joined the Workers’ Party rally but was still undecided on her vote.
Founded in 1957, the WP has seen a string of illustrious leaders, including J.B. Jeyaretnam, the first opposition politician in post-independence Singapore to win a parliament seat and a fierce critic of its steely co-founder, Lee Kuan Yew.
In the 1980s and 1990s, its leaders faced crippling legal challenges from the ruling party, including one that led to Jeyaretnam’s bankruptcy.
Under Low, however, the party has moved away from its combustible old days and now woos a middle ground where voters are more worried about bread-and-butter issues than principles such as freedom of speech and right of assembly.
“The WP has astutely stayed focused on the swing voters: the middle 50 percent who used to vote PAP still want the PAP in government, but also want more opposition as a check and balance,” said Cherian George, author of “Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation” and an associate professor at the department of journalism at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“This has clearly paid off. Opposition parties that are more strident may appeal to hardcore anti-PAP segments, but come across to crucial swing voters as too extreme.”