Journey in Blue by Yee Jenn Jong
Yee Jenn Jong is a Singaporean politician and a member of the opposition Workers’ Party. He is notable for being a Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) of the 12th Parliament of Singapore. In the foreword of Journey in Blue, Prof Kenneth Paul Tan stated that the Workers’ Party is the most successful opposition political party in Singapore. While some may dispute that, there is no doubt that the WP is currently the only one with elected members in Parliament. Its MPs are in Hougang SMC, Aljunied and Sengkang GRC.
A party that portrays itself as flawless is probably hiding something. In Journey in Blue, Yee Jenn Jong gives a surprisingly candid account of his entry into the WP and his involvement in elections and parliamentary debates. He did not shy from revealing the not so flattering facts. For this reason alone, I decided that this book is worthy of my time.
Yee holds 2 Masters degrees, one in Computer Science and one MBA. He gave up his PhD programme halfway to go into business, mainly in early education. Like most Singaporeans of his calibre, he had no quarrel with the system which rewarded his skills and efforts handsomely. Yee confessed that he voted for the PAP and regarded Americans who criticised the lack of freedom in Singapore as arrogant. He had little interest in digging up the ruling party’s skeletons. In fact, Yee admitted that it was only after joining the WP that he first got interested in the so-called “Marxist conspiracy” of 1987.
Later in his career, Yee would be increasingly uncomfortable with the government’s estate upgrading practices and other policies which he thought were blatantly unfair. He started writing to the print media and having his letters published. He started off with our first presidential elections; about the time I stopped reading newsPAPers, so I must say that I’m not familiar with him prior to GE2011. The most interesting letter I might have regretted missing is the one in which he commented on SM Lee Kuan Yew’s suggestion of releasing government scholars into the GLCs and turn them into “entrepreneurs”. Back then, I was already aware that this move of encouraging creativity, entrepreneurship and putting up with mavericks didn’t really apply to the plebeians.
Later Yee felt that this approach was inadequate. He wanted to challenge the ruling party and after considering a few of the opposition parties out there, he decided that it would be WP or nothing. As GE2011 approached, Yee was so excited about participating in the elections that he wrote an email to Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim, but received no reply from them. It was only after knowing Eric Tan that Yee was introduced to the party. After meeting with Low, Yee was slated to run in Joo Chiat SMC.
GE2011, Landmark Election
Not surprisingly, objection to his candidacy came from his family. Most of Yee’s family members supported the PAP either out of fear or resignation. Yee’s wife was especially worried about what might happen to him if he ran against the PAP. His father had a delayed reaction, pleading with him to quit days after giving a neutral response. Yee did not go into too much detail about how he managed to allay his family members’ fears, but he was determined to go for it. The WP’s campaign slogan for GE2011 was “Towards a First World Parliament”. Yee suspected that party chief Low Thia Khiang was up to something.
On Nomination Day, Yee Jenn Jong overheard Goh Chok Tong expressing shock that Low Thia Khiang had left Hougang for Aljunied. Yee claimed that he knew it all along. It was an uphill task by any measure. Yee seemed to manage it well, doing house visits, dealing with the press etc. At first, he only had a handful of friends to help him with the campaigning. By the end of the elections, he had 40 regular volunteers, some of whom later joined the WP.
He narrowly lost to his PAP opponent Charles Chong. After Yee took up the NCMP post, Eric Tan left the party. Yee described Eric Tan’s departure in much milder words than other media reports. Yee then goes into considerable detail vis-a-vis the work he had done as an NCMP with excerpts of his parliamentary debates and blog postings. Well, they are excerpts, but you’ll need quite a bit of time and effort to go through. Just imagine the time and effort Yee put into his proposals made in Parliament! Yee also revealed that an issue with a junior college which he highlighted in Parliament was later “taken offline” by Indranee Rajah and quietly resolved. Yee had also warned about social enterprises not doing what they’re supposed to do and Minister Vivian Balakrishnan’s assurance came to nought when Makansutra’s KF Seetoh blew the lid off their exploitative practices in 2018. It’s a pity that most members of the public are not aware of the myriad of significant issues brought up by opposition members. The perception that the opposition is not doing anything stems from the fact that these folks are not bothering to read and find out things that are not thrust into their faces by the mainstream media.
Yee Jenn Jong proudly substantiated his claim with numbers. He was the parliamentarian who made the most speeches in Singapore’s 12th Parliament (after Lee Bee Wah).
The AIM Saga
The details of the AIM saga are readily available online (but few people bother to read) and going into detail with it would be beyond the scope of a review, but I wish to touch on Yee’s insights on this highly controversial finding. Everyone should read the exchange between Yee and Khaw Boon Wan who was trying to defend the tender process by which AIM acquired the software from the TCs. Apart from his ludicrous suggestion that the WP could buy the software off the shelf themselves, Khaw also asserted that AIM was originally involved in the development of the TC management system. Being an insider in this area, Yee had information that another company developed the system without any AIM involvement.
It’s an interesting exchange in which Yee certainly managed to make Khaw look “mediocre” whether intentionally or not. I think this is an issue that would make anyone with a conscience sit up and watch/read carefully. It was an issue that stirred quite a number of Singaporeans (sadly not enough). He wrote much later in 2020 that:
“Exiting stakeholders cannot have the right to press any button to trigger destruction in their old organisation! Whether the old stakeholders did push the button or not is irrelevant. They should never have the right to the button.”
The ruling party would later have their revenge in the FMSS saga. Yee cited a weakness in the WP approach. He would rather have the TC own and run its own system. After the court judgement in 2019, crowdfunding for the WP MPs’ legal costs brought in over a million dollars in just 3 days.
GE2015 & The Battle For Marine Parade
What do you call a shock that is not surprising? Joo Chiat SMC was gone in 2015. A PLP friend of mine used to say that the opposition cannot win under the ruling party allows it to. In a way, that’s true because the government can certainly throw even more obstacles in their path, gerrymandering being one of them. However, what my PLP friend meant to say is that the opposition does not actually deserve to win and that the government actually helped them. That’s not just illogical. It’s literally 睁着眼睛说瞎话。
After failing to find a suitable SMC for himself this time, Yee Jenn Jong had the impossible task of leading a team to contest a PAP stronghold anchored by none other than our not mediocre and very popular former ESM Goh Chok Tong. That was also when former NSP star Nicole Seah thought of joining the WP. Readers might be surprised that while Yee thought it was a great idea getting her to help with the campaigning, Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim were strongly against it.
Yee explained: “WP did not welcome stars. They must first come in to the WP, work as a team with the WP and do it the WP’s way.”
Low was a strict disciplinarian. He might be humble and approachable, but make no mistake, he also held a whip over his party. While he seemed to allow a certain degree of autonomy and dissenting input, the ground rules were set in stone. In order for WP to survive, it must not be seen as a threat to PAP domination. To get as many voters on their side as possible, they must not be seen as confrontational. The PAP’s risk averse and fiscally conservative approach must not be challenged as Singaporeans are themselves are scared stiff by bold ideas and revolutionary moves. For these reasons, I’m not terribly ecstatic about WP victories. Nicole Seah was turned away during GE2015.
It’s painful for me to recall the GE2015 results. Yee described himself as “devastated”. The buzz on social media certainly pointed to a bigger win for the opposition than that in 2011. We were shocked. Punggol Eat was gone. Aljunied was almost lost. How did that happen? Was it the Lee Kuan Yew effect? Was it the SG50 celebration? Was it the goodies doled out for the Pioneer Generation? It was a sad moment for the conscience of this country. And Yee summed up the reluctant voter’s sentiment very nicely by quoting one of them:
“If this is an SMC, I will vote differently. In a GRC, there are other things to consider.”
Other things to consider. Yes, people look forward to grand new buildings like community hubs in their estates when ministers descend upon them. I think that deep down, people do have a conscience. They do stand up for the weak and bullied. They do have principles vis-a-vis playing fair, but again, it’s the risk averse nature of Singaporeans that brings about the final decision. Given enough pull and push factors in a certain direction, they can mute their conscience and shroud their principles.
GE2020, Covid Election
He attributed the PAP’s success in elections to it being able to capitalise on bad news and voter anxiety. 2001 was after the 911 attacks on the US. 2015 was on LKY’s death. 2020 was of course the Covid-19 pandemic. He pointed out (and I agree fully) that “we grew up with a risk-averse culture”.
Yee figured that “If the Covid-19 cases had not exploded necessitating the circuit breaker in early April, the PAP would have won big time with a snap election.” Yee believed that had GE2020 been held in early 2020 when Covid infections were just rising, he believed that the PAP could have seen better results. Low, Png Eng Huat and Chen Show Mao had also stepped aside. It was a courageous move to test the new candidates. Interestingly, Yee observed a surprisingly large number of volunteers this time. There were highly educated professionals and corporate executives among them.
With campaigning options limited and the government having a hold on mainstream media, Yee was less confident of GE2020 than the other two GEs. They tried to do online shows, but the videos did not go viral. Nevertheless, WP took 2 GRCs this time. Yee believes that Vivian Balakrishnan’s calling the WP “PAP Lite” helped the party. Risk-averse Singaporean voters are afraid of “confrontational politics” in which candidates come up with revolutionary ideas very different from those of the PAP.
With Pritam Singh being honoured as Leader of the Opposition, many PLPs saw that as an indication that the PAP is gracious. Alas, the devil is in the details. The allowances given to the aides were paltry, there is still no access to important data and their attacks in Parliament had grown more vicious. Overall, I don’t think the results of GE2020 constitute a big win for WP. The same post-GE moves were made. Nothing has changed. Nothing was learned.
Yee then gives us some insights into what the WP is really like. I shall not go into the structure and formation of the CEC and the politics within the party – something given too much attention by mainstream journalists. The chapter ends with a far more interesting myths, perceptions and questions segment. Yee Jenn Jong observed that some Singaporeans still think that the opposition and their supporters are disloyal Singaporeans who are out to disrupt the work of the government. Others get the idea that opposition MPs only appear once every 5 years. As someone who follows them on social media, I find them even more active than their PAP counterparts, most of whom are just part-time MPs. The fact that our mainstream media does not cover them does not mean that they are not doing work in their constituencies. Opposition candidates also come up with their own money to run campaigns. To suggest that they run for the elections eyeing the MP allowance is ludicrous as many of them also earn more in the job they are giving up.
As for the WP being PAP lite, Yee Jenn Jong argues that it’s the PAP that had gone WP lite to regain lost ground. Not to seem like a champion for freedom and democracy, Yee revealed that the WP also has a party whip to ensure that members vote with the party. Some voters may feel that the WP doesn’t make proposals. Again, these are people who have never landed on the party’s website or follow it on social media. One cannot expect to read about them in the newsPAPers.
The only two points with which I may disagree are 1. one’s career is not affected by joining the opposition and 2. the perception that the WP is not aggressive enough. In an earlier chapter, Yee himself mentioned that a potential teammate had to consult his employer who was worried that the company might be subjected more stringent and frequent audits. Nobody is perfect and if there is a mistake that the government can latch on to, it would be difficult to show that the punishment is politically motivated. Personally, I don’t find the WP to be drastically different from the PAP. Their ideas are never bold or revolutionary. It’s just a kinder variation of the risk-averse PAP theme. Ironically, that’s the reason for its success, both under the watchful eye of the government and the risk-averse majority.
The final chapter included Yee’s blog postings. He discussed the Punggol East election results, the embarrassing Elected Presidency and political education for Singaporeans to instill a healthy diversity of views. Opposition unity is also an issue he touched on. After Low took over as secretary general after winning the 2001 elections, he started shaping the party, giving it a new image and direction. In the process, he had offended many people. Yee Jenn Jong could appreciate these moves and justified why they could not merge with other opposition parties.
Journey in Blue is a really easy to read. Yee Jenn Jong’s style is straightforward and he writes pretty well on technical issues. The language is not sophisticated, but readable. The quote below touched my heart.
“I did not begin my adult life as an alternative party supporter. I voted for the PAP in my first GE. Several things done by the PAP that I felt were not right moved me gradually away from them. The tipping point was upgrading for votes. This is using the people’s money to hold them hostage. Philosophically, I could not accept any party that practises unfairness to this level.”