Workers' Party

Singapore Infopedia

by Faridah Ibrahim


The Workers’ Party (WP) was formed on 3 November 1957 by David Saul Marshall, with the inauguration held at the Hokkien Association Hall on Telok Ayer Street.1 The founding executive committee of the party comprised 20 trade unionists and 10 non-unionists. The party’s principles during its formative years were merdeka (Malay for “independence”), parliamentary democracy and socialism. Marshall was subsequently elected to head the party as its chairman.2 In 1981, the party’s secretary-general, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, won the 1981 Anson by-election and became the first opposition member of Parliament in post-independence Singapore.3 The party celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017, and is currently led by secretary-general Pritam Singh.4

Marshall, who was Singapore’s chief minister from 6 April 1955 to 7 June 1956, mooted the idea of forming a “political party whose membership is exclusively trade unionists”.5 The proposed party was to be called the Workers’ Party and a draft constitution was sent a month later to more than 200 registered trade unions in Singapore. N. S. N. Nair was nominated as the convenor for the new party and, according to a statement by the Army Civil Service Union, the WP would seek the elimination of man’s exploitation of man; the recognition in practice of the basic equality of all human beings; and equal opportunities for the individual for full and free development within the framework of respect for the rights of all.6

Early developments: 1957–1980
The first election contested by the WP was the 1957 City Council election held on 21 December 1957, in which the young party surprised everyone by winning four out of the five seats it contested.7 However, the party suffered a major blow when its vice-chairman and city councillor for Kallang, Chang Yuen Tong, abruptly resigned from the party in March 1958, supposedly due to differences of opinion with his party colleagues, which sparked off a series of mass resignations.8 The party lost badly in the subsequent Kallang by-election, with its candidate obtaining only 3.4 percent of the valid votes from the four-cornered fight. The seat went to the candidate from the People’s Action Party (PAP).9

In the 1959 Legislative Assembly general election, the WP lost all three of the seats it contested.10 Marshall, who contested in Cairnhill, lost by 2,355 votes to then Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock of the Singapore People’s Alliance.11 Marshall returned to the Legislative Assembly two years later when he won the 1961 Anson by-election.12 He remained as the WP assemblyman for Anson until January 1963 when he resigned from the party due to clashes of opinion with his party comrades over the issue of Singapore’s merger with the Federation of Malaya.13

From 1964 to 1970, the WP was led by Chiang Seok Keong.14 In 1971, the party was rejuvenated with the election of senior lawyer Jeyaretnam as its secretary-general. He assembled a team of able and like-minded compatriots, comprising businessmen, architects and trade unionists, to draft the 1971 party manifesto.15 Jeyaretnam became the first person since 1963 to beat the PAP at the polls when he won the 1981 Anson by-election.16

Elections 1981–2017
The Anson by-election in 1981 saw Jeyaretnam garnering 51.95 percent of the votes to become the member of Parliament for the Anson constituency. This was a breakthrough for the party and a watershed in Singapore’s political history, as the PAP’s monopoly in Parliament was finally broken with the election of the first-ever opposition parliamentarian since independence. Jeyaretnam was re-elected the member of Parliament for Anson in the 1984 general election when he won the election with 56.81 percent of the votes.17 However, he lost his parliamentary seat two years later in November 1986 when he was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and a fine of S$5,000 by the High Court for falsifying party accounts.18 In the same election, Jeyaretnam’s WP colleague, M. P. D. Nair, obtained the highest proportion of opposition votes in the Jalan Kayu constituency, and was offered the non-constituency member of Parliament (NCMP) seat, but he did not take up the offer.19

In 1988, the Singapore United Front and the Barisan Sosialis merged with the WP following the introduction of the group representation constituency (GRC) scheme, whereby members are voted into Parliament as a team and at least one member has to belong to a minority racial group.20 Although the WP did not win any seats in the 1988 general election, its candidates for the Eunos GRC won the highest percentage of opposition votes.21 As a result, Lee Siew Choh and Francis Seow were offered the NCMP seats.22 However, Seow ceased to be an NCMP from December 1988 in view of his tax-evasion conviction, for which he was fined S$19,000. Lee held the NCMP post until 1991.23

In the 1991 general election, WP’s then organising secretary Low Thia Kiang, a teacher-turned-businessman, won the seat for the Hougang single-member constituency (SMC).24 He managed to retain the Hougang seat in the 1997, 2001 and 2006 general elections, and was the town’s MP for 20 years.25 In 1997, the party’s team contesting in the Cheng San GRC captured 45.2 percent (44,132 votes) of the valid votes. Hence, the WP emerged as the top opposition loser in the general election held that year and was eligible for an NCMP seat for Cheng San. The party elected Jeyaretnam to take up this seat.26 In 2001, Jeyaretnam had to vacate his NCMP seat when he lost the appeal against an order of bankruptcy filed against him.27

In May 2001, Low replaced Jeyaretnam as the WP’s secretary-general, and the latter resigned from the party later that year after falling out with its leadership.28 Two years later in 2003, the party’s central executive committee elected law lecturer Sylvia Lim as its chairman.29 In the 2006 general election, Lim became an NCMP after her team garnered the highest number of opposition votes (43.9 percent) in Aljunied GRC.30

The 2011 general election saw the party increasing its presence. Low left the Hougang constituency to join Lim in the running for Aljunied GRC.31 The WP team eventually won at the polls, marking the first-ever capture of a GRC by an opposition party.32 The party also retained the Hougang seat through its candidate Yaw Shin Leong.33 The party’s candidate for the Joo Chiat SMC, Yee Jenn Jong, and a member of its East Coast GRC team, Gerald Giam, were named as NCMPs.34

However, the party lost its seat in the Hougang constituency in February 2012, when Yaw was expelled from the party over allegations of infidelity.35 In the by-election that followed on 26 May, WP candidate Png Eng Huat beat his PAP rival and recaptured the Hougang seat.36 WP candidate Lee Li Lian also won the by-election for Punggol East SMC in January 2013.37

In the 2015 elections, the WP retained its Aljunied GRC and became the only opposition party in the 13th Parliament. Png Eng Huat also retained his seat in the Hougang constituency, while Lee Li Lian lost her seat in Punggol East. The WP, being the best performing opposition party, were awarded three NCMP seats which saw Dennis Tan and Leon Perera taking up the offer. Lee declined the seat.38

On 8 April 2018, Pritam Singh – a 41-year-old lawyer – succeeded Low as the WP secretary-general at the party’s biennial party conference where he was elected unopposed.39 Singh became a member of Parliament in 2011, a year after joining the party, when his team won the Aljunied GRC.40

As at 2018, the WP is the biggest opposition party with six elected MPs and three NCMPs.41

Party structure
The WP is governed by the executive council, which is elected during the Conference of Organisers, and comprises 14 members including the chairman and the secretary-general.42

The party’s newsletter, Hammer, was launched in March 1972, serving as the party’s outreach organ to the public.43 Though it had ceased publication in August 1995, Hammer was revived in 2001 and its contents revamped to include speeches delivered by WP parliamentarians and topics of national interest. Community outreach activities organised by the party are also featured.44

The WP was founded as a political party to represent the interests of trade unionists.45 The party’s principles during its formative years were merdeka, parliamentary democracy and socialism.46 In its 1971 manifesto, the party included proposals focusing on improving labour law, greater welfare for Singaporeans in various aspects such as health and education, and sought amendments to Singapore’s legal system.47

3 Nov 1957:
Inauguration of WP by David Marshall.

Dec 1957: WP emerges victorious in seats for Cairnhill, Kallang, Delta and Telok Ayer at the City Council election.
Mar 1958: By-election is held following the resignation of WP’s city councillors, vice-chairman Chang Yuen Tong, and triggering a by-election in Kallang. WP suffers a heavy defeat in this by-election.
30 May 1959: Marshall loses in the election for the Cairnhill constituency.
15 Jul 1961: Marshall wins the Anson by-election.
19 Jan 1963: Marshall resigns from WP.
1971: A new manifesto is drafted under the party’s new leader, Jeyaretnam.
2 Sep 1972: Party captures 24 percent of the total votes with its 26 candidates, the strongest show for an opposition party since independence.48
31 Oct 1981: Jeyaretnam wins Anson by-election.
22 Dec 1984: Jeyaretnam re-elected MP for Anson in the year’s general election.
Sept 1988: Lee Siew Choh and Francis Seow take up the NCMP seat following the year’s election results.
17 Dec 1988: Seow is removed from his NCMP position.
1991: Low wins the seat for Hougang SMC in the year’s general election.
1997: Jeyaretnam takes up the NCMP position when the party emerged as the top opposition loser in the general election, running in Cheng San GRC.
May 2001: Low replaces Jeyaretnam as WP’s secretary-general after the latter’s resignation.
2006: Sylvia Lim becomes an NCMP after leading the party’s Aljunied GRC team to garner the highest number of opposition votes in the general election.
2011: WP captures Aljunied GRC in the general election, the first-ever opposition party to win in a GRC.
2012: Png Eng Huat wins the Hougang by-election.
2013: Lee Li Lian wins in the by-election for Punggol East.
2015: WP retains Aljunied GRC in the general election and its Hougang SMC MPs are joined by Dennis Tan and Leon Perera as NCMPs.49
2018: WP is the largest opposition party in Singapore with six elected MPs and three NCMPs.
8 Apr 2018: Pritam Singh succeeds Low as WP’s secretary-general.

Faridah Ibrahim

1. Workers’ Party (Singapore), The Workers’ Party: 50th Anniversary Commemorative Book, 1957–2007 (Singapore: The Workers’ Party, 2007), 20–21 (Call no. RSING 324.25957 WOR); “Birth of New Party,” Singapore Free Press, 2 November 1957, 2; “Marshall Is Back in Politics,” Straits Times, 4 November 1957, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 20–21.
3. Jeremy Au Yong, “His Integrity and Passion Praised,” Straits Times, 1 October 2008, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Daniel Goh, ed., Walking with Singapore: The Worker’s Party’s 60th Anniversary (Singapore: Pagesetters Services Pte Ltd, 2017), 138. (Call no. RSING 324.25957 WAL)
5. “Marshall: A Party for Union Men Only,” Straits Times, 24 June 1957, 7; “The Marshall Diary,” Straits Times, 6 June 1956, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
6. “New Party for Workers Only,” Straits Times, 28 July 1957, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 21; “500,000 Vote Today,” Straits Times, 21 December 1957, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 21; “Council Man Quits His Party,” (1958, May 28). Straits Times, 28 May 1958, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Power to the People: 40th Anniversary of the Workers’ Party (Singapore: Workers’ Party, 1997), 3 (Call no. RSING q324.25957 WOR); “Victory for PAP,” Straits Times, 27 July 1958, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Power to the People, 3; “People’s Action Party to Contest All the 51 Seats...Two Constituencies Have 7 Candidates,” Straits Times, 26 April 1959, 11; “People’s Action Party to Contest All the 51 Seats...Two Constituencies Have 7 Candidates,” Straits Times, 26 April 1959, 11; “Merdeka – Then Leaders Are Chaired in the Streets,” Straits Times, 31 May 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Power to the People, 3; “Lim Opposes Marshall in Cairnhill: Lee in Tanjong Pagar,” Straits Times, 26 April 1959, 1; “The Results: All You Want to Know,” Straits Times, 31 May 1959, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 21; Jackie Sam and Ee Boon Lee, “Marshall Back in Assembly,” Straits Times, 16 July 16, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 22; Soh Tiang Keng, “Marshall Quits as Workers’  Party Chairman,” Straits Times, 18 January 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Power to the People, 5.
15. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 23.
16. Leslie Fong, et al., “Jeyaretnam Takes Anson,” Straits Times, 1 November 1981, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 24, 43; “PAP Wins All But Two,” Straits Times, 23 December 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Power to the People, 12; “Jeya’s Disqualification Came into Effect on Nov 10,” Business Times, 10 December 1986, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Non-Elected MP: Offer Lapses,” Straits Times, 5 March 1985, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Two Opposition Parties to Merge,” Straits Times, 11 January 1988, 13; Cheng Soon Tat, “Barisan to Go under the Hammer,” Straits Times, 8 May 1988, 20; “13 GRCs for Next General Election,” Straits Times, 15 June 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Power to the People, 15; Leslie Fong, “PAP Landslide,” Straits Times, 4 September 1988, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
22. “It’s Back to Parliament for Siew Choh after 25 Years,” Straits Times, 8 January 1989, 10; “Francis Seow and Siew Choh Made Non-Constituency MPs,” Straits Times, 18 September 1988, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
23. “Seow No Longer Non-Constituency MP,” Business Times, 10 January 1989, 3; “Other NCMPS,” New Paper, 11 November 2001, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Leslie Fong, “PAP Wins All but 4; Share of Votes Dips to 61%,” Straits Times, 1 September 1991, 1 (From NewspaperSG); Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 29.
25. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 100–106; Elgin Toh, “‘Confronting Tigers’ and Making History with Bold GRC Win,” Straits Times, 5 November 2017, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “JBJ in Parliament,” New Paper, 15 January 1997, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Workers’ Party (Singapore), Power to the People, 23.
27. “JBJ Loses His NCMP Seat,” Business Times, 26 July 2001, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 31; Francis Kan, “JBJ Quits WP,” Today, 24 October 2001, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Ahmad Osman, “Now More Youthful, WP Gets First Woman Chairman,” Straits Times, 2 June 2003, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
30. “WP Picks Sylvia Lim as Next NCMP,” New Paper, 10 May 2006, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Kor Kian Beng, “Battle Royale.,” Straits Times, 28 April 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “81–6,” Straits Times, 8 May 2011, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Fiona Chan, Grace Chua and Teh Joo Lin, “WP Retains Ward with Strong Win,” Straits Times, 8 May 2011, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “Opposition Trio Named as NCMPs,” Straits Times, 17 May 2011, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Andrea Ong, “Workers’ Party Expels Yaw,” Straits Times, 16 February 2012, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
36. Lydia Lim, “WP Wins 62.1%,” Straits Times, 27 May 2012, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Jeremy Au Yong, “WP Sweeps Punggol East with 54.5%,” Straits Times, 27 January 2013, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Goh, Walking with Singapore, 195–200.
39. Tham Yuen-C, Ng Jun Sen and Yuen Sin, “Pritam Singh Elected New WP Chief: Current Phase of Leadership Renewal Completed,” Straits Times, 8 April 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
40. Tham Yuen-C and Ng Jun Sen, “The Rise of Pritam Singh as Front Runner for Top Worker’s Party Post,” Straits Times, 15 February 2018; Tham Yuen-C and Ng Jun Sen, “Pritam Singh Emerging as Top Choice for WP,” Straits Times, 13 February 2018. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
41. “Parliamentary Elections Results,” Elections Department Singapore, 2017; 2012 Parliamentary By-Election Results,” Elections Department Singapore, 2012.
42. “Our Constitution,” Workers’ Party, accessed 21 May 2018.
43. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 23; Goh, Walking with Singapore, 23, 116.
44. Goh, Walking with Singapore, 116–18.
45. “Party for Union Men Only”; “Marshall Diary.”
46. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 20–21.
47. Workers’ Party (Singapore), Workers’ Party, 23.
48. Goh, Walking with Singapore, 24.
49. Goh, Walking with Singapore, 195–200.

The information in this article is valid as at 11 June 2018 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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