Afterthoughts – Punggol East By-Election

Finally found some time to put my thoughts down…

“Take me to the magic of the moment
On a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away
in the wind of change”

– Excerpts, Winds of Change
(by Scorpions)

As the Workers’ Party did not have an assembly center and gathering point last Saturday (26 Jan 2013), a friend and I made our way to the unofficial one at the coffee shop in Blk 322, Hougang Avenue 5. We met at Hougang MRT station, and had our dinner at Hougang Mall. On hindsight, we should just have eaten at that coffee shop instead since we might have gotten a table in front of the TV. When I was on my way, another friend has asked me in sms why I am wasting my time to go to Hougang (from Jurong), and I told him I just want to be there to witness a historical moment – regardless whether the WP win or not. A part of the Winds of Change lyrics basically summarizes what I thought. Ya, I know I am very corny, even lame.

As we were having dinner, my friend and I discussed much, and on one occasion we spoke about the reasons why the other two candidates (i.e. Kenneth Jeyaretnam and Desmond Lim) insisted on contesting even when most felt it would be futile. I said it was purely foolishness and they did so for personal glory. My friend pointed out that he doesn’t see it that way. He explained that even really intelligent people at times are blind to the fact that there are just things that they are incapable of. If not, then some capable people just do not realise they aren’t cut out for some roles. He has a good point, because the PAP has too often made us believe that academic qualifications not only equate to capabilities, but capabilities in everything. Unfortunately, qualifications and capabilities are really very different things. Academic qualifications is used to gauge a person’s capabilities simply because there are no better yardsticks.

On the other hand, being very capable in some of things you do doesn’t mean diddly-squat for the role of an MP as well. So all that talk about one’s success in other fields (whether you are the top hedge fund manager or the best colorectal surgeon), or what one has done in another town council is rather irrelevant. In fact, self-understanding – as in having the knowledge of what one is not cut out to do – is important. I understand that many gurus will say I am wrong because if people just simply give up when they fail then no one would have ever made it. It is understandable, since they need to justify that success story they are trying to sell everyone. To put it in a simple analogy, you can try using your teeth to chew on a piece of steel to get it into the shape you want, and die trying. But the knowledge that a diamond cutter would do the job and your jaws just can’t is another matter entirely.

The WP “Party Herald”

Anyway, we arrived at the unofficial “assembly center and gathering point” slightly after 7pm. When we arrived, there was no indication that any Workers’ Party [WP] supporters are around. Even though I can count at most 4 to 5 people in light blue shirts, it’s hard to tell whether they were there to support WP. It remained that way until 8 plus, after polling closed and the polling boxes were underway to the counting centers that the “Party Herald”that chap with the drum and trumpet – showed up. Suddenly the coffee shop erupted into cheers for the “Workers’ Party!!!” and we knew we are at the right place – the unofficial ‘Workers’ Party Canteen’.

More people start filing in after that. People with cameras at first, then members of the press (I saw a guy with a CNA camera). Though I couldn’t tell how many people there were from my position, I told my friend that times have indeed changed because I suspect in the past the riot police would probably have showed up and disperse the crowd standing around the coffee shop. By 11pm, there were actually enough people there for a successful political rally and all of us have probably violated the public gathering laws more times than we can count with our fingers.

The atmosphere was electrifying. People broke into Hokkien songs, cheers for the Workers’ Party and its candidate Lee Lilian from time to time. While I have often felt that Singaporeans are far less passionate about elections in the past, my impression completely changed at that coffee shop. The crowd was generally orderly, since they would make way for people who just simply want to be on their way without much a fuss. The only thing that I really dislike would be when they boo’ed and jeered at the other candidates when they appeared on TV. Incidentally, that reminded me of one of the WP speakers who had made fun of Dr Koh’s name. I simply felt we can be above that, in spite of our frustration and prejudices. Perhaps I was expecting too much, since there’s simply still a long way for democratic ideals to grow and take root after so many years of one-party rule.

While that was a low point, there was also a high. At one point, just a few minutes before the results were announced, the crowd even broke out singing the National Anthem. For a moment it was like we won the Malaysian Cup, and the patriotism almost brought tears to my eyes. To me, I felt we turned out that night not just for our displeasure (or even dislike) of the PAP, but rather for a common belief that there can be alternatives to make our country better.

That reminds me of a memorable conversation with one of the supporters at the coffee shop. As the crowd sings and more people filed in, my friend told me that slowly and surely the blue sky (the Workers’ Party) is melting away the white glaciers (the PAP). A Workers Party volunteer who has been chit-chatting with us, heard him and turned around and told us she understood the analogy. She told us she does not wish to see the PAP go in a bang, but would rather it goes like the polar ice cap or glaciers melt away. The reason is that the PAP has sunken its roots into many aspects in Singapore, both economically and socially. No one would expect that tree to be suddenly uprooted. That resonates our thoughts as well, and I dare say that is the typical profile of the WP supporter – rational and thoughtful. None of us are loonies, and in fact we do not want to see the PAP go abruptly even when some of us feel it is inevitable it will lose its grip on political domination.

Anyway, we went there without expecting a WP win that night. Rumors were flying fast and furious by 9:30pm, when one chap put his beer on our table and told us that a WP victory is confirmed and that Lilian has won 16000 votes. We though the chap was drunk so we ignored him. After that there were rumors that the PAP was leading by 2% and vice versa. By 10pm, we were sort of convinced that the WP has won because I recalled that the results for Hougang’s by-election was out way earlier and we were speculating that the votes are so close that a recount is underway. I failed to noticed that another friend who was a counting agent had sent me a Whatsapp message saying that there isn’t a recount. I suspect by then he was already released from the counting center and was free to text anyone. The wait dragged on and the crowd begin to chant the name of the returning officer – Mr Yam Ah Mee. I was prepared to hunker down for a long night when another friend who has just arrived called to ask us where we are.

It wasn’t long after he made his way through the crowd to our table that the results were released. The crowd literally exploded, and even cars driving past were honking in sync with the whistles and chanting of “Workers’ Party”. It was almost as if the country has emerged victorious from a long war.

The crowd stayed on in jubilant celebration as my friends and I hastily made our way to the MRT station while the trains are still in service. We pondered upon some of the reasons why the PAP has lost. Other than the fact that this is a by-election and everyone knew for sure it wouldn’t seriously impact the government, the PAP faces a rather serious problem. That is, it is seen as a party that is elitist and that it no longer cared. That has made it doubly hard for Dr Koh to connect with voters. The repeated emphasis on Dr Koh’s success story only served to distance him further from the voters. On the other hand, I met Lee Lilian more than half a decade ago at the WP HQ and she gives me the impression of being an approachable, affable person. She was the first person to not only welcome me, but made me feel at home, even introducing me to some of the other party members as if she has known me for a long time. There are just certain things a person cannot fake and her personality, plus her life story on how she worked her way to her degree would have endeared her to the voters. If Dr Koh is the Son of Punggol, then Lee Lilian is our sister, if not the people’s daughter. Even though this by-election is no indication of how Singaporeans will vote in the future, the PAP has an uphill battle to fight to earn the hearts and minds of Singaporeans again. In light of recent failures and oversight, the PAP should realise that its image as the ‘political party of the elite’ is already bankrupt. The electorate wants a person to serve and deal with their problems, and has very little respect for credentials.

As for the Workers’ Party, do not be proud. The electorate has given you the fourth chance to prove yourself. When we would only scrutinise the WP closely in the past, now we will be scrutinising it even closer with a magnifying glass. The Singapore Democratic Party [SDP] had its time of glory back in 1991, and it was subsequently found to be wanting. By the next election, all of its MPs were swept out of Parliament.

The will of the people is as fickle as the weather. As an ancient Chinese minister Wei Zheng (魏徵) once told the Emperor Taizong of the Tang Dynasty (唐太宗) in a discussion: “The will of the people is like water. Water can carry a boat as well as it can capsize it.”

The WP should also expect underhanded attacks from supporters of other parties, if not the other political parties themselves. After all, everyone has the same objective and none of these parties will sit back and watch the WP grow stronger, regardless whether it is at their expense or that of the ruling party. In fact, there was already one such attack just a few days ago in which a writer to the Straits Times forum tried to smear WP as a Chinese-only party. It is utterly deplorable that the Straits Times even allowed that letter to be published in spite of the fact that WP has won a Group Representative Constituency [GRC] when no party can even contest one without a minority candidate. That seditious piece and racial politics simply have no place in Singapore.

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