Stepping into the interview in a bright pink chinois jacket and a pair of jeans, Sylvia Lim looks relaxed and unassuming—nothing like the persona portrayed during the nine-day hustings. Personable and eloquent, answers easily roll off her tongue when asked about politics and the work of her party. But delve into Sylvia Lim the person, and long pauses and hesitation fill the air.
Realistic and practical, she typifies the composed party leader with her feet (and ear) firmly on the ground. Don’t expect her to be championing women’s causes in Parliament. Her passion lies in the bread and butter issues of the regular Joe. And bring up the fact that she is the first woman opposition MP since 1963, she retorts, “So what if I am male or female. It doesn’t make a difference.”
From a supporter who donated bottles of birds’ nest drinks for each Workers’ Party candidate, to an anonymous man who sent Lim constructive feedback on her rally speeches every day via email, to the hordes that attended the nightly rallies, these actions surprised, touched and affirmed her cause in giving Singaporeans another voice in politics.
Did you feel that you were given justified media coverage during the elections?
I think this round, generally, the English and Chinese papers did not represent the Workers’ Party in a bad light. And because of this, it affected voters’ perception of us as well. So people started to think, “Hey, Workers’ Party is not crazy.” But then, we could have had more coverage vis a vis PAP, but that’s the way things are.
“The way things are.” Is that a resigned statement or …?
It’s born out of a sense of realism and also from having worked with people who have been in opposition politics longer. They’ll tell you “Oh, it’s so much better than the previous elections, don’t complain.” So there is a little bit of taking the scraps that fall from the table, that kind of thing. Of course we want things to improve, but we can’t expect things to improve in quantum leaps overnight, so we try to push the boundaries. I find sometimes also that because people are too resigned to the fact that the status quo will remain, that there’s no inclination for change, and that’s wrong. Because if you’ve ever tried to push the boundaries, you will realize that things can happen. If you’re there and you’re prepared to take a risk, things will happen.
What part of campaigning did you find enjoyable?
I think it was enjoyable to know that a party of our size—which is nothing compared to the PAP—can make some waves. So it’s always good to know that you don’t have to have a lot of money or a lot of manpower to make some difference. Even little steps do matter. People are prepared to come forward to join the party and stand as candidates against the PAP. These are the pillars on which bigger things will be founded.
What was the high point for you?
I found the Serangoon Stadium rally quite a high point for me. It was the final rally, first of all. Secondly, it was the one and only rally site that we had where we could see the audience, because the stadium was very well lit and we could see people’s faces. That was very very uplifting. And we ended off the whole thing with the pledge—and I think there was some sense of unity of purpose, some solidarity with the people.
What was the lowest point?
For me personally, I think there were times when I thought that I didn’t do as well as I could. For example, for the party political broadcast on TV, the feedback was that I came across as arrogant, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t intend to be so, but I realized that it’s got a lot to do with media training. Other than that, what I imagined the campaign to be eventually turned out to be not as scary as I thought.
Were you scared?
I wasn’t scared at all. But initially, you know, when you think of it in vacuo, you think that the PAP is going to dig out everything you’ve done from the time you were in kindergarten or whatever. I was waiting for that, but nothing came. In the end, they were just harping on the James Gomez thing.
What is your feeling on the outcome of the James Gomez incident?
I was surprised that the police gave him a warning. Not because I felt that he had done anything wrong.
Was there any point in time when you thought, “Yah, we actually have a chance of winning.”
Such thoughts do cross my mind, but generally I know that we really need to be prepared for the worst, because if we don’t win or if our margins are poor or whatever, we still have to face the media and the people. And we have to be composed at that point, you see. So it’s always important to be prepared for all eventualities.
Were you pleased that you actually met your 40 percent target?
I wouldn’t say it was a target, but we are pleased that the voters showed that they were prepared to support us. We were not really surprised by the results, but I think we still hoped that we could have done better.
How did you feel when the Party decided that you would be the NCMP?
I felt a sense of responsibility, that I have to do it properly. And also not to let down the people who had voted for us.
What can we expect from you in Parliament? What kind of issues will you be championing?
The traditional concerns that WP tends to raise, i.e. to speak up for those who are not doing very well under the free market economy. So we’ll be watching issues like cost of living, health care costs, retirement concerns. At the same time also, because I’m legally trained, I will be reviewing the legislation concerning Parliament, which I’ve been helping Mr Low to do for the past few years anyway. So I’ll be speaking up on that. And personally, I guess I will take an interest in some of the law and order debates. But I must add that I’m not there to canvass my own causes.
What is your mantra, speaking generally?
Fairness. I think people should be treated fairly. I think that’s the fundamental principle.
Do you think you’re misunderstood?
No, not really (laughs). I don’t think people’s impressions of me have fossilized yet. It’s hard to put this in a neutral way. People have come up to me after the elections, in public places, and told me things like “Thank you for what you’re doing,” “Thank you for giving us a choice,” and “Don’t give up.” So for whatever reason, I think that they believe that what we’re doing is actually something for them. Which I think is really (pause) it! We’re not in this for ourselves because, frankly speaking, the benefits you get are (laughs), you know, let’s not talk about that. There are some sacrifices made, because we think that it is probably better for Singaporeans in Singapore if there are elections where people have choices. And because of that, if the people perceive it, then I think we’ve achieved quite a lot.
That speaks of the party, but what about you?
Similarly too, I think, okay, I don’t know about everyone, and I’m sure some people hate me, but ah …
Does that concern you?
You can’t please everyone, so that’s okay. But I think so long as the average person believes that I am sincere in what I’m trying to do on the Workers’ Party platform, that is try to advance their interest and keep the government accountable, so long as people believe that, I think that would be good enough.
Do you think people believe this?
It may be too early to form a definitive judgment, but I think, based on the elections feedback and all that, that people do believe that I’m sincere in what I’m trying to do. It’s something that is a long haul thing, you know. Of course I’m not saying that I’m going to be around forever. I think, personally, I would commit my time and energy if I feel that there’s support for the things we’re trying to do and we’re making headway. But if I find that we’re not making headway, then what’s the point. I mean, we all have lives to lead, right?
You’re a public figure now. How does that make you feel?
I think that’s alright. I think I can still bear with that. But I suppose I have to be more circumspect in the things I do. So I guess you can expect me to be going out of Singapore more (hearty laughs). Like just yesterday I went down to my neighborhood coffee shop dressed in my home clothes. I put on sunglasses to try to look as unrecognizable as possible. I was waiting for my mother, actually, and along came this group of retirees, and they said “Oh, we finally get to meet you” or something like that. It was very, very touching. They were supporters of Workers’ Party. And they told me about the rallies they had attended and gave me feedback. It’s useful to remain in contact and be approachable. We don’t want that to change.
So who is Sylvia Lim?
I’m idealistic, but I’m also a very practical person. So I would make sacrifices for my ideals, but still try not to break the law in doing that.
Is being Chairman of WP and lecturer at Temasek Polytechnic your entire life? Or is there more to it?
No, no, it isn’t. I would say it takes up quite a lot of my time. I still have time left over, which I save for a few things like my family, close friends and myself. And I will always leave that pocket there, because I think that’s very important for my sanity.