Choo Zheng Xi / Editor-in-Chief
“And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world - our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared”
So said Barack Obama, on the night of his hard-won 21-month journey for the Presidency of the United States. He wasn’t just speaking to the section of the electorate that had voted for him. He did not speak to America alone. He was speaking to the world: he was speaking to you and me.
I was watching the speech on CNN after an international law class with a Scottish friend and a Singaporean Chinese-Muslim friend. At this moment in Mr Obama’s speech, the three of us looked at one another in shock. He was speaking to us!
I’ve followed Mr Obama’s career since the 2004 Democratic Convention Speech that launched him to international prominence. I remember feeling a shiver of excitement watching him announce his presidential bid in Springfield Illinois in February 2007. I remember rushing to an internet café while on holiday in Calcutta in January to watch his Iowa Caucus victory speech.
Every speech I’ve watched Mr Obama make has left me feeling uplifted, inspired, strengthened. Every address he’s made has given me a sense of history forming, and the surreal feeling that I had a front-row Youtube ticket to seeing it all happen.
A Singaporean hangover from Obamamania
But where does that leave me, the Singaporean?
As the immediate euphoria of Mr Obama’s victory subsides, I can’t help but feel a hint of bitterness. When was the last time a public figure in Singapore communicated with me like that?
I wrack through my memory of speeches by local leaders, finding it a chore to remember anything they’ve said. Some do stand out, but those that do evoke anything but inspiration.
Minister of Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng’s “sorry speech” in Parliament made me angry. Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and Law Ho Peng Kee’s “no cycling for the WP speech” left me speechless at the audacity of illogical thought.
Minister Mentor’s speeches on eugenics, apart from echoing the basis of Nazi science, happen to be uttered by a man with First Class Honors from Cambridge who really should know better. His paranoid pronouncements on Western Conspiracies to ‘do us in’ leave me too bewildered to be angry.
Sadly, listening to most of our local leaders speak, I’m reminded of another famous American speech. It goes like this:
“You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terrorism.”
Hope on the horizon
But as I rummage through my mental picture book of memorable political snapshots, one stands out.
It’s a memory of a black man, this one much older than Mr Obama. Instead of a crowd of hundreds of thousands, he speaks to a young boy of 15 outside an old shopping mall in Singapore. Instead of a bestselling political autobiography, he is hawking an autographed copy of his Parliamentary speeches. Hundreds of others walk by, pretending not to notice him.
But the surge of pride I felt when I shook Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam’s hand outside Centrepoint eight years ago is similar to the pride I feel watching Barack Obama’s victory speech.
Mr Jeyaretnam’s political victory never came, but if we draw the right lessons from Barack Obama’s win, perhaps it won’t be too audacious to hope that the change he envisioned could one day be on the horizon.
But first, Singaporeans disappointed with our national leaders should take heed of Mr Obama's call to actively be a part crafting "change we can believe in".
While it is easy to be discouraged by men of smaller minds and pettier political stature, we can always draw inspiration from the immortal words of Mr Jeyaretnam: ‘The strength is in the ordinary people’.
The author has previously written a piece entitled “Have we lost our audacity to hope?”
Read also: Fear, apathy - and being interested by Andrew Loh:
"We need new heroes, basically – people who can inspire and re-awaken the lethargic spirits of our citizens. At least as far as political participation is concerned. Yet, sadly, such heroes are hard to find. The bureaucratic system begets bureaucrats and bureaucrats do not necessarily inspire. In fact, most times they do not. I would say that they “de-inspire” and “de-politicise”. This is not to say that bureaucrats are not important to have. Indeed, they are. Else, how would a country function? But bureaucrats are not necessarily leaders – political leaders. And that is what Singapore badly needs – political leaders who can articulate alternative visions, who will stand up and say, “There is another way for us to be and here it is!”. Leaders who have the charisma to draw others to support their visions and who can reach into the hearts of citizens."