LoyarBurokker and Malaysian election tourist Tricia finds herself in Singapore, ahead of their 16th general elections. She tells us why Singaporeans are saying the elections are different this time around.
Barely a few weeks since the Sarawak state elections at home, another potentially exciting elections beckoned my way. This political tourist found herself on a bus south-bound for Singapore, which will hold its 16th parliamentary general election on Saturday, 7 May 2011. With less than a week to go, the campaigns of all political parties are raring and in full force.
“This elections is different,” is what everyone I speak to has to say. For decades, Singapore has not seen the opposition parties getting themselves as well organised as this, where out of the 87 parliamentary seats, 82 will be contested by opposition candidates. (5 seats are held as a GRC or Group Representative Constituency by the incumbent Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in Tanjong Pagar, and the opposition knew better than to spend scarce resources when up against the Godfather.) 87 seats are crafted into 27 electoral divisions, with 12 Single Member Constituencies and 15 GRCs.
A combination of highly-qualified candidates (an array of fresh faces as new candidates have been unveiled) and well-oiled organisation has resulted in throngs of crowds at the rallies since nomination day four days ago.
The opposition party heavyweights up against the People’s Action Party (PAP) are the Workers’ Party (WP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), with other smaller parties such as the National Solidarity Party (NSP). I chatted with some Junior College and University students, ranging from the age of 17 to 23 and to my pleasant surprise, they say it is a “cool” thing to attend opposition party rallies, although some are still too young to vote. The culture of rally-hopping seems to have spread south, another Malaysian export in addition to our valuable talent.
Tonight I visited my first Singaporean party rally. Held in a Clementi field, in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC constituency, the SDP successfully drew in a crowd of 10,000 people or so. The energy was unmistakeable, emotions high, extremely responsive to the egging-ons of the speakers, shouts of “SDP! SDP!” and distinctive boos when Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s name was mentioned — a rather surprising cynicism of the PAP, which has had previously unwavering support especially amongst the middle to high-income earners of this locality.
Unfortunately I missed Michelle Lee, candidate for this constituency, but was extremely impressed by the lucidity, flow and intellectual argument behind economist Tan Jee Say and activist Vincent Wijeysingha. The latter seemed particularly loved by the crowd. The fourth candidate for this GRC is psychologist Ang Yong Guan.
A singular theme emerged from the speeches of various individuals on stage, and it is this. That despite the great economic advances of Singapore, the nation has lost its soul. It is the endless, unthinking, 14-hour-day slogging that drives the country to achieve spectacular heights. But, the SDP argues, this cycle is breeding ground for greed and the desperate need for material accumulation without (and this is crucial) the equivalent value of family time, social and community development. If, for example, the government crafted policies in the direction of building families’ quality of life with sufficient time and disposable income, there may not be the over-reliance on foreign labour as is currently the case, which has driven down wages.
It is the psychology of the nation’s well-being that is at stake, they reason. Shall the stomach be full, and the heart and mind left empty? Vincent very articulately stated, “Singaporeans know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” That the government has placed in the minds of its people to be calculative about everything; that one must vote carefully in order to secure development in one’s estate, and thus this is the poverty of society.
My own trajectory reads: The politics of fear, of insecurity, has driven Singaporeans to chase the wind — or, in chasing the apparent concrete wealth evident in those they see around them, it is the race itself they run after and not the utility from which the goal ought to have derived. They ought also to have brought up the education system, which has trained a highly intelligent but largely conformist electorate. This is speaking in general terms of course, but one cannot deny it is a system that rewards discipline and punishes “weakness” (defined in highly objective terms, in which category any counter-cultural value such as creativity also falls).
This particular constituency was well-educated enough to comprehend this line of thought. An economic “Regeneration Plan” was then discussed, authored by no less than a former Principal Private Secretary to Goh Chok Tong, Tan Jee Say, with detailed proposals on creating jobs and enterprise in a new Singapore. Again, the provision for services sector growth as opposed to manufacturing; the proposal to integrate existing HDB (Housing Development Board) flats with businesses in order to also integrate work and life in a central location with shorter travel time.
However, I must caution that the Malaysian reaction to this may be simply: “You see lah. They progress so much, so fast. Too high growth mah. Malaysia at least we rilek (relax).” No — this is precisely the lesson we must learn. In all our attempts at growing the economy, attracting investments and making quick wins via the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), we must not forget to cultivate those softer skills that the Singaporean opposition is now criticising they have left out. The arts, cultural, creative, services, historical aspects of life. Has the industrial age not already surpassed us that we still hanker after it so? We must not be quick to criticise that which we are in fact blindly leaping after.
And so, talking about a country with no soul. My mind made quick comparisons with election campaigns in Malaysia (of course), and what a world of difference! Everything was done in too orderly a fashion that I cringed. Much like the clinical, organised environment the world praises Singapore for, so was the political rally. Policemen lined the periphery of the field with orange torches to aid people across drains, all cars were parked in their designated lots, the rally ended promptly at 10pm (as listed on the Police Website), everyone returned home without as much as an extra post-rally squeak.
And the most telling of all, as if to add salt to the very injury exposed by the SDP politicians themselves, as the crowd trooped off home (walking on the pavement, mind you, and not a step out upon the soddy field), they passed by a large billboard that read “LAND FOR SALE”. Not a single person passed who did not open their eyes wide in wonder, and ask their companion about this. My error for being presumptuous, but I would not be too far from the truth in projecting their minds went directly to the potential profit one could gain from such a purchase. This confirmed everything the speakers had just touched on, that the Singaporean mind has been trained to place as priority material accumulation above any other value system.
If the turn-out tonight is anything to go by, I am quite sure the PAP is worried. Tomorrow I shall venture to a Workers’ Party rally, hopefully in a more heartland constituency to make comparisons between the two.
Tricia is former Research Officer to the Selangor Menteri Besar. She is a columnist at at the Penang Economic Monthly and Selangor Times. She will soon join the big bad private sector in a market research consultancy, but plans to balance it out by doing good with LoyarBurok.