The Online Citizen

Face To Face: An awkward family reunion

December 17
10:13 2010

by Khairulanwar Zaini

photos by Terry Xu

‘I agree with Dr Chee,’ said Chiam See Tong, gesturing to his former protégé who was two seats away to his right. It should have been the kind of sentiment that would sent the hearts of opposition sympathizers to rapture, but after fleeting but pregnant silent pause, Chiam continued: ‘The ISA must go.’

And then, the rousing applause came.

It was not really clear whether the applause was for Chiam’s denunciation of the Internal Security Act, or a belated one celebrating the verbal rapprochement that could perhaps mark the end of close to two decades’ worth of accusations, clarifications and counter-clarifications between the two men. It was that sort of night when an air of cautious expectation and anxious hope lingered within the room, with an audience rapt in attention, mulling over every particular word that will be further dissected and scrutinized together with their friends over a late-night supper.

So, it was that sort of night, when politics became personal and spoke with a human voice. So it did not really matter what the applause was directed to: it was enough just to feel the simultaneous explosion of energy from the audience. Because, in the word of one party chairman, the night was no less than ‘invigorating’.

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The night was the result of the prodigious effort of Andrew Loh, the co-founder and outgoing Chief Editor of TOC. Having conveyed his intention to leave, this was his last parting hurrah. Mustering the help of an impressive array of friends, volunteers, and contacts, this swansong had to be big: ‘The Political Event of the Year.’ And he would not be disappointed.

So, for three hours on a Thursday evening, a grand ballroom in a quiet hotel tucked away in Balestier Road played host to history. The audience itself boasted among its ranks personalities of repute, from ex-detainees Michael Fernandez and Teo Soh Lung, women activists Braema Mathi and Dana Lam to human rights lawyer M Ravi and academic Cherian George. It read almost like a list of who’s who for civil society, but their accumulated cachet could not take the gloss away from the panel of speakers: five party secretary-generals, and one whose political trajectory appears as promising as his performance was that night.

It was an assembly of outliers; all hoping to make a dent into parliament, and all but one having yet to succeed. The personalities and political parties on stage could weave their own story akin to an awkward reunion dinner of family members long wrought with tensions, tiffs and guilt by association.

Dr Chee Soon Juan represented the Singapore Democratic Party, the vehicle that had catapulted Chiam See Tong into parliament in 1984. After a bitter estrangement with Chee and the party leadership, Chiam departed for the Singapore People’s Party, which he leads to this day.

Chia Ti Lik and Goh Meng Seng were meanwhile former comrades-in-arms who both contested under the Workers’ Party banner during the 2006 hustings, but their political fortunes are now being placed in separate baskets with both leading their own respective parties. Goh heads the National Solidarity Party, while Chia is the anchor of the newly-fledged Socialist Front – which he reveals is an appellative ‘tribute’ to the defunct Barisan Sosialis and its members who had been detained without trial in the dark days of Operation Coldstore.

The Workers’ Party had nominated Gerald Giam, the only non-secretary general, as its representative (it was decided by the party’s executive committee by ‘consensus’, says Giam of this opportunity), and although he is a relative newcomer, his party is a heavyweight in the political scene. The Workers’ Party was the former home of the esteemed lion of the opposition, the late JB Jeyaretnam, the man responsible for first breaking through the PAP’s post-independence electoral hegemony. His son, Kenneth Jeyaretnam, is now the secretary-general of the Reform Party, which was created by his father after being discharged from bankruptcy.

It was a night of convergence, when the fortunes of political parties and leaders intersect and their historical baggage of affinity is disquietly foregrounded. But even the most awkward of family reunions have their own moments of redemption.

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The task facing Choo Zheng Xi was daunting. Not only did he have to moderate against an eager room of 350, but he had to provide fair airtime to each political representative.

‘At the end of this evening, I will be the most unpopular person in the room,’ he quipped as he opened the forum. He was firm, rebuking a man for speaking out of turn, reminding him that ‘There are 350 people here, waiting to ask a question.’ (A member of the audience then helpfully added for the benefit of the disrupter: ‘This forum is not about you.’)

But his methods worked. By the end of the night, the room heard the political parties explicate their views, and witnessed how they directed their fire against a shared adversary while seeking to distinguish themselves from one another. It was a hesitant ballet, trying to jostle for space to shine without stepping on too many toes.

The night began tentatively, with the panel speakers singing a unanimous chorus about lowering housing prices. This led to a concern from the floor that the proposal may be unduly punitive to present homeowners. Their rudimentary agreement gave way to distinct policy plans: the SF admitted that high property prices ‘may have to remain’, but proposed for a new category of lower-priced HDB flats with a flexible lease. Other than arguing for new flats to be sold at cost-price however, the NSP maintained that HDB apartments should be seen as a ‘home, not an investment.’ Against the rhetoric of asset ownership and appreciation, Goh intoned that ‘you do not use your home as an investment; you use property as your investment.’

‘So whether you win money or you lose money, it doesn’t matter,’ said Goh.

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Similarly in matters of conscription, provisional consensus evolved into nuanced prescriptions. Against the request of a youth to abolish national service, the parties affirmed the statist discourse of security and vulnerability that would have made the PAP blush.

Chiam compensated for his frail voice by allowing his conviction to lead the charge. ‘You must have protection for yourself. … So if you have got property, you have got riches, but you must guard them,’ he said. To drive home his point, he invoked Stalin of Soviet Russia: without Stalin’s prioritization of defence, Russia would have fallen under Hitler’s westward march.

Against the solid concurrence of Chia and Giam, the NSP and RP issued qualifications to their support of national service. Goh denounced the practice of wasting precious military manpower for the National Day Parades, and suggested decreasing the term of service to 1 or 1.5 years. Not to be outdone, Jeyaretnam revealed that his party was looking into lessening the NS term to one year, with a possibility of a further reduction.

(The RP secretary-general may have been too keen with his words, since his official party manifesto states that they were only seeking ‘a reduction in NS to 18 months initially with aim to reduce it to one year as soon as feasible.’)

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Even consensus over the abolishment of the ISA frayed over when alternative counter-terrorism measures were broached. When Jeyaretnam suggested the use of limited detention periods, Goh took up his proposal, only to extend it to a maximum period of one year for investigations to be properly conducted and charges filed.

Again, over the course of the night, the answers revealed minutiae of policy differences, but partisan pride was a petty game for a small turf. The bigger field and even larger prize was entry into Parliament.

The general palliative offered was simple: vote the opposition in. HDB prices too high? Vote the opposition in, and we will communicate your concerns for you. The government is detached from or ignoring ground sentiments? Vote the opposition in, and we will articulate your interests for you.

As Jeyaretnam warned, ‘Don’t … grumble until the day before polling day, then go into the booth, and vote for the incumbent, and then come out for the next four years.’

But to his credit, Giam astutely recognized that reaching out to the audience was unnecessary: the opposition sympathiser would constitute the average profile of the attendees. He called upon them instead to talk to family and friends, and to leverage upon the trust that these bonds engender.

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There is much beyond the conversations that we could marvel at, such as the tableside manners of this awkward family reunion. The unified show of force is necessary and prudential, not unlike those posed family photographs that intimate a sense of normalcy.

Perhaps Chiam was the most remarkable of all, the de facto patriarch. The parliamentary veteran of 26 years may appear frail, and his voice is languid and almost dangerously soporific, but that belies the crispness of his mind and his lexical prowess – he was a master at the sardonic brief and sharp, to the constant amusement of the audience.

‘He says a lot of things,’ he said dismissively of the Prime Minister, whose promise of an inclusive society has yet to materialize for one husband who has been struggling to find support for his schizophrenic wife.

Of the media, he said that ‘the press is an important institution in Singapore, but it has to serve its purpose, not its masters.’

Trailing not far behind in wit was Kenneth Jeyaretnam, whose other notable quip was about libel legislation: ‘In fact, it is probably true to say that the Reform Party wouldn’t exist today without Singapore’s defamation laws. … So we perhaps we should thank Singapore’s defamation laws and our government for the gift of the Reform Party.’ For a recent entrant in politics, Jeyaretnam was relatively at ease during the forum, mostly relaxed with an occasional smile on his face and resting backward against his chair. Occasionally placing one leg on his knee, he would however engage the audience when he speaks by leaning forward, and articulating his words in a slow and steady fashion.

In stark contrast, Chee Soon Juan tends to appear awkward in his seat, with either his fist placed on his cheeks or a sombre introspective expression, looking down deep in thought. Chee however springs to life when he addresses questions, his words articulate and well chosen, with the steely conviction that rings behind every enunciation. His ability to deftly negotiate questions (and he was the only panellist who did not have to write anything down on paper) is a salient reminder that Chee is a dark horse, having had almost two decades of political experience to smoothen his skills.

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A latecomer to the forum would be struck by the fact of an empty seat beside Gerald Giam. The eighth seat remained unoccupied for the entire session, waiting for the hefty weight of incumbency that would not grace it that night.

Zheng Xi called it the ‘elephant in the room’. But sometimes, progress can’t wait for the elephant. Sometimes, the nation can’t wait for the elephant.

So what sort of night was it? It was the sort of night when you realize, to borrow Chee’s rousing last words, ‘the country is worth fighting for.’

Watch slideshow below for photos of the event

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