When Sylvia Lim entered Singapore politics in 2001 as an opposition member, her father said he would visit her in jail, recalling how past adversaries of the ruling People’s Action Party were sued, bankrupted or imprisoned.
“It was half in jest because when you get involved in opposition politics, you never know where the road may lead,” said Lim, 47, who became Singapore’s first elected female opposition lawmaker last year. “We grew up in an era where we saw certain opposition figures being more or less crucified.”
Now the Workers’ Party’s No. 2 official, Lim avoided the fate that befell some predecessors even after her tenacity earned a comparison with a legendary female Chinese general. Key to success has been softening socialist rhetoric that kept the party at the margins of influence in past decades, says Terence Lee, who teaches politics at National University of Singapore.
The party said a free-market system has its benefits in a manifesto before winning its best election result since independence in 1965 last year, taking after parties from the German Social Democrats to Britain’s Labour that have moderated platforms to broaden support. The Workers’ Party’s rising stature has seen the government shift toward its central concern: a widening wealth gap. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pledged in an annual address in August to boost social spending.
“Sylvia is very gutsy and a shrewd political tactician,” said Eugene Tan, a Singapore Management University assistant law professor and a non-elected lawmaker with limited voting rights. “The Workers’ Party’s rise has a catalytic effect on the political landscape. It has forced the ruling party to raise its game, to focus more on social policies and try to take the wind out of the Workers’ Party’s sails. We are in uncharted waters in Singapore politics.”
To woo a population that has benefited from a 44-fold increase in gross domestic product under the PAP’s stewardship, the Workers’ Party has toned down the rhetoric against Singapore’s governmental system espoused by its former leader, the late J.B. Jeyaretnam.
Jeyaretnam, who quit the party in 2001, criticized restrictions on freedoms of expression and favored a stronger role for parliament relative to the executive branch. He was found guilty of defaming at least one senior member of the PAP in remarks made while campaigning for the 1997 general election, and was later declared a bankrupt.
Lim commends Singapore’s economic success while saying more needs to be done on social policies.
“You have to give credit where credit is due,” she said. “I think the PAP is very proactive in macro-economic issues and finding niches to make Singapore globally relevant and competitive. It’s more on the social justice side that we don’t think they’re doing enough.”
Lim credits a book by U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman that caught her eye at Hong Kong’s airport with helping shape her political thinking. Lieberman wrote in his “In Praise of Public Life” that the U.S. Democratic Party reconnected with voters and regained the White House after recognizing in the mid-1980s that it had moved too far to the left in prior decades.
The Democrats won the White House in 1992, when Bill Clinton unseated George H.W. Bush. Lieberman, an independent senator for Connecticut and former Democrat, declined to comment for this article. Lieberman ran as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee on the ticket headed by Al Gore in 2000, and was the first Jewish candidate on a major national political party’s presidential ticket. He isn’t running for re-election this year to the seat he has held for four terms.
“I’m quite clear that if we want to contribute towards substantive reform in a certain policy area, we don’t necessarily take the confrontational route,” Lim, who practices a martial art called wing chun, said in an interview in her office in June. “If you feel you really want to achieve some policy change, you have to use various ways of getting there.”
Under Lim and the party’s secretary-general, Low Thia Khiang, the party advocates higher pay for lower-income Singaporeans, public housing affordability, reduced reliance on government-linked and multinational companies, comprehensive hospital insurance and a slowing in the pace of immigration.
“There’s less rhetoric and more focus on policy issues and limitations,” said Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies who conducts surveys on political attitudes of Singaporeans. “It’s still focused on the welfare of the Singapore population but it’s less of making extreme arguments saying you need an overthrow of the system.”
The party made its greatest impact to date last year when it won the most seats of any opposition group on record, and contributed to drawing 39.9 percent of the popular vote away from the PAP -- the most since Singapore broke from Malaysia in 1965 in the aftermath of the end of British rule.
Since the elections, Lee’s government has implemented stricter policies on foreign workers and cut ministerial pay. The prime minister also made permanent a program to provide cash, utility rebates and medical funds for the elderly and low-income households. In August, he pledged to ensure citizens’ access to sufficient affordable housing, invest in pre-school education and add nursing homes.
“We have slowed down the intake of foreigners but we will continue taking in foreigners at a pace” that citizens “find comfortable,” former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, 89, said last month. He is the father of Lee Hsien Loong, the current leader.
The ruling party’s shift, and the Workers’ Party’s relative size, reduces the likelihood its recent success will translate into running Singapore anytime soon. The opposition group fielded 23 candidates for the 87 seats up last year. They now hold six elected seats, in comparison with the PAP’s 81, rendering them powerless to change any legislation or block bills they oppose.
On the party eventually taking the island’s helm, “at this point we’re definitely not ready,” Lim said. “While we have made progress in attracting new blood, we do not have the critical mass in terms of forming a cabinet at this point.”
Lim’s efforts haven’t gone unappreciated. Before she spoke at a campaign rally in May, a man handed her a painting of his mounted on cardboard. She identified it as a portrait of Mu Guiying, a female general in Imperial-era China as recognizable to Chinese as Hua Mulan, who was memorialized in the 1998 Walt Disney Co. movie.
The supporter said it was to encourage her to continue fighting for greater political discourse and a better life for Singaporeans.
“I was very, very touched,” said Lim, who has the work displayed in her office. “I’ve forgotten the anger part that made me join politics. But we know that the political system still needs more balance -- that keeps me going.”
“The Workers’ Party has carved out a niche for themselves,” said Lee at National University of Singapore. “It’s an alternative, an outlet where Singaporeans who are unhappy can express their displeasure without feeling as if they have to cast a vote for the devil” in exchange for having more opposition politicians in Parliament, he said.
Born the year Singapore gained independence, the eldest child of a nurse and a police inspector-turned-criminal lawyer, Lim grew up listening to her father’s monologues on politicians and current affairs at family dinners. She credits an early education at a Catholic convent with imbuing a spirit of activism and individual responsibility to right perceived wrongs.
Her interest in politics deepened when the government pushed through a change in the constitution to prevent judicial reviews of decisions or actions under the Internal Security Act.
The Internal Security Department in May 1987 arrested 16 people authorities said were involved in a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who led the country to independence, the Straits Times reported then. The Internal Security Act allows the government to detain people without trial. After some detainees challenged their imprisonment in Singapore’s courts, parliament amended a law to abolish judicial reviews in matters of internal security.
“What is the constitution after all, what protection does it really give?” Lim said. The incident “set me thinking about checks and balances on the government and how the system really works and how it’s supposed to work,” she said.
Singapore cannot afford a U.S. model of checks where the constitution is very difficult to amend and it takes some time to reach a consensus, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said in February. Executive power is intentionally made strong because the “government has to adapt to changing needs, and change laws and seize opportunities,” he said.
Lim has made law her specialty, earning a law degree at the National University of Singapore, a postgraduate degree in the field at the University of London, and is even today pursuing a master’s degree in criminal justice from Michigan State University. After being called to the Singapore Bar in 1991, her interest in criminal justice led her to follow in her father’s path and become a police officer.
The decision angered her dad, who “felt I was selling myself short” and barred her from home, according to Lim. Rather than give in, she stayed at the police academy. After three years on the police force, she practiced civil and criminal litigation for four years, then lectured in law at Temasek Polytechnic.
After years of interest in politics, Lim became an active participant after a 2001 election in which the government in less than 20 days redrew electoral constituency boundaries, dissolved parliament and went to the polls. Opposition parties only managed to field candidates for 29 of 84 seats, and won two.
“That really made me angry because I just don’t think elections should be like that,” Lim said. “That pushed me to join the Workers’ Party because I think there’s really a need for us to ensure that our elections don’t become a farce.”
She met Secretary-General Low for lunch after the 2001 elections and submitted her forms to join the party the same day. Less than two years later, she was elected party chairman.
“To operate in a political landscape where men have been very dominant and for her to be able to rise up within the party hierarchy in such a short time obviously required her to demonstrate that she was more than capable and that gender was not an issue,” said Tan at Singapore Management University.