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Reclaiming our political space

“I may want to be involved politically this time,” Gilbert Goh, a friend of mine, told me recently. It is an increasingly prevalent sentiment. And although I am not sure exactly what would motivate an individual to throw his lot in and jump into the cauldron of opposition politics in Singapore (or whatever passes off for politics here) there is no doubt that there is an underlying sense of disenchantment with the ruling regime among a growing segment of the populace.

To be sure, I agree with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew when he said some years ago, when he handed the baton over to the new generation of leaders, that the new leaders will face more acute challenges than Singapore did in its earlier days. Starting from a lower base, Singapore’s progress was fast-paced and Singapore quickly became one of the Asian Tigers, surpassing all expectations in what was termed its “economic miracle.”

But times have changed and the new challenges are, indeed, tougher to meet.

And one of these is the underlying unhappiness among Singaporeans about the lack of identity (or privileges) of being a citizen. The government has, of late, recognized this and has announced changes in policies which are geared towards “differentiating” between Singaporeans and foreigners, and between citizens and Permanent Residents. Undoubtedly, this has much to do with the potential political costs to the ruling People’s Action Party if Singaporeans continue to feel disenchanted, ahead of the forthcoming general elections.

While the government may now be trying to assuage such concerns, some younger Singaporeans have had enough, it would seem, and are stepping up and putting their money where their mouths are – throwing their lot in with opposition political parties.

Singaporeans such as Gilbert.

“I want to walk the talk instead of hiding behind the internet grumbling,” he says. He gives several reasons why he is ready to try and do something for Singapore. One of these is the influence he’s had in living in Australia for a while, having seen how freedom of speech and democracy is important to a country. But a reason closer to his heart is the “many emails from people who are replaced by foreigners [in employment] and their pitiful state,” he says. Gilbert runs trasitioning.org, a support site for the unemployed, and was himself unemployed for a time. He is also a writer and released the book, “How to survive unemployment”, in 2009.  Gilbert has not decided which party, if any, he would subscribe to.

Gerald Giam, 33 and a blogger, joined the Workers’ Party more than a year ago. “I wasn’t always an opposition supporter,” he says on his blog. After graduating from the University of Southern California in the United States, he “made a drastic career switch” from his first job as an IT consultant to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in 2005.

“Ironically, it was during my time in the civil service that my eyes were opened to the reality that Singapore needs a stronger opposition in order to ensure better governance for our future generations.” He believes that even while the PAP remains in power, there is a useful role for the opposition to play. “The opposition can use its platform in Parliament to apply pressure on the government to change policies which are not serving Singaporeans well,” Gerald explains. “As much as the PAP wants to portray itself as impervious to public pressure, the reality is that when they know that there is a real threat to their support at the next elections, they will have to bow to public pressure built up by the opposition.”

Gerald is not the only one from the establishment to have stepped into the opposition fray in recent times.

Tony Tan, 39, of the Reform Party (RP) used to be in the Administrative Service (AS) and has an impressive resume. A recipient of the SAF Merit Scholarship, he earned a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours from the University of Cambridge. He also earned a MBA and Biomedical degrees from the University of Leicester and Central Queensland University respectively. He left SAF to found an educational provider, achieving success that earned him the Spirit of Enterprise award.

“We may need people from all strata of the society to be represented in Parliament,” he says in a previous interview with TOC. “If the issues for ordinary Singaporeans are not given priority and accorded attention in Parliament, then we need to send in ordinary Singaporeans into Parliament to bring those issues across to the government.”

His wife, Hazel Poa, who also used to work in the AS, has joined her husband in becoming a member of the RP. “The power situation between the ruling party and the voters is a balancing act,” she explains. “If a ruling party secures an overwhelming majority, the balance of power tilts towards the ruling party. If the ruling party has only a slight majority in Parliament, and there is a viable opposition sitting in the wings, then the voters become more powerful.”

Despite being the youngest party on the block, the RP already has a youth wing. Reaffirming the wisdom of their party elders, Justin Ong and Nicole Seah called for greater empowerment of the electorate. Justin, the president of the Young Reformers, explains that “we need to encourage participation in the public life for youths to feel a greater ownership towards the political processes of the country.”

Nicole, 24, agrees but says “[there] are still are a lot of youths out there who do not care about politics.”  She explains, however, that this is not because they do not care about their country. “Rather, it is the unfortunate consequence of a nanny state. We’ve been raised in a way that a lot of us do not think about having a strong stake in policies that concern our lives, because there is someone out there who insists that a certain way of life is best for us.”

Koh Choong Yong, 37, currently serving his first term as president of the Workers’ Party’s Youth Wing, hopes “to show Singapore youths that politics is not something that is confined to older people, and youngsters can and should be part of this process, whether inside or outside a political party.”

Koh’s fellow WP member and secretary of its Youth Wing, Bernard Chen, 24, believes in putting “power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few.”

“Describing himself as a non-violent reformer to the weaknesses of the capitalistic, paternal and materialistic society, he seeks to achieve a just, compassionate, righteous, fair Singapore society via the parliamentary process.” Bernard is the brain behind the youth wing's series of forums called "Youthquake", which “seeks to be an effective and open platform for youths to present their ideas and to educate and empower young Singaporeans to bring about positive social change," the youth wing says on its website.

Jarrod Luo, [picture right] 26, Honorary Secretary of the Young Democrats, the youth wing of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), feels the so-called apathy among youths has been “artificially engineered” by the government. “Fortunately, youths have access to New Media today, so they are [at the] very least aware of the current situation on political and socio-economic issues in Singapore,” he says.

The entry of these younger Singaporeans into the local political scene may raise expectations of a renaissance for youth participation in politics, but only time will tell.

The Workers’ Party’s “Suicide Squad” generated much excitement in the previous election, when it managed to secure a respectable 33.9% of the votes against Lee Hsien Loong's PAP team in Ang Mo Kio GRC. However, much of its momentum has dissipated, with most  members of the team having retreated from the political forefront.

In 2004, when Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister, he promised more political space for Singaporeans. Yet, this is still a pipe dream six years on. In fact, it could be argued that political space has dwindled instead of having expanded. But placing the blame on the PAP’s hegemony is too convenient an excuse, since this situation has been aggravated by the reluctance of Singaporeans, particularly the younger ones, to reclaim their voices and leave their mark on the political space.

In standing up in party politics, these new opposition  politicians have made a statement against the culture of fear and apathy that has plagued our society. Perhaps what these young and young-at-heart people in oppositional politics are trying to do is to re-assert the idea of being Singaporean – and in the process reclaim some of the political space that has been lost.

In a country where oppositional politics is shunned like the plague, the participation of these new opposition members can only be good for the nation in the long run.

Andrew Loh