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Gerald Giam – taking politics beyond the Internet

Wong Chun Han / Andrew Loh

He had been contemplating taking his interest in politics beyond the Internet for a while.

One and a half years ago, after much thinking and discussion with his wife, he signed up as a member of The Workers’ Party (WP) and has been involved in the party’s activities, including its weekly door-to-door visits to homes in housing estates. And just this month, he was elected into the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC), one of four new faces doing so.

To observers of socio-political blogs and websites, Mr Gerald Giam, 33, is no stranger. Indeed, his original blog – Singapore Patriot – was one of the most recognised on the Internet. And he was seen as a sensible blogger with well-reasoned stands on issues. His blogsite has been renamed and can be found at http://geraldgiam.sg .

Mr Giam, a senior consultant with a global technology consulting firm, graduated from the University of Southern California with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. He has a 20-month old daughter and his wife is expecting their second child in August.

Mr Giam has written on Singapore society and politics since 2006. He recently penned his thoughts on these in a new book, “Singapore version2.0” (with a foreword by party chairman, Ms Sylvia Lim). And, as he tells The Online Citizen, he is open to running for political office to further his ideas.

In an exclusive interview with TOC, Mr Giam shares his thoughts and views on Singapore society, the Workers’ Party and its leadership, his personal journey in politics, the potential effect of new media in the next General Election, and his book.

The Workers’ Party characterises itself as a social democratic, left of centre political party. Would also you characterise your political beliefs as such?

I tend to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. So it’s hard to categorise me neatly into left, right or centre. I am committed to freedom and democracy, and I believe strongly in social justice. I also believe that morally upright leadership is critically important in order for our country to progress and prosper.

Related to the above, how homogenous are the political convictions held by WP members?

I think we all share a vision of a more caring, compassionate and democratic Singapore. However we have different views on various issues and we do voice out our views within the party. I see that as a good thing because we help to sharpen each others’ ideas.

Can you tell us a little about how Mr Low Thia Khiang or Ms Sylvia Lim manages the party in terms of style or philosophy?

They always encourage committed members to take on more responsibilities and leadership roles within the party. They are also very consultative in their approach. I remember within days of joining the party, I found myself sitting in the party headquarters with the party leaders and other ordinary members to discuss what issues the two members of Parliament were going to raise at the upcoming Parliamentary session.

Opposition parties here seem to have problems with leadership succession. How is the WP or Mr Low planning for this (keeping in mind that Mr Low has been in politics for more than 20 years and served as WP Secretary-General for about 10 years)?

The WP is not run by just one man or woman, but a team of leaders who leverage off each others’ strengths to chart the direction of the party. Mr Low has made a deliberate effort to ensure that the WP is not a “one man show”.

The party is fully committed to leadership renewal, as evidenced by the recent CEC elections, where four new Council members were elected by the cadres, two of whom had joined only within the last year-and-a-half (I am one of the two newbies).

You were elected to the WP Central Executive Committee (CEC) on Sunday (4 July). Could you explain the role of the CEC in the running of the party, and tell us why you decided to run for a position in it?

In the WP, the CEC sets the direction for the party. Decisions are made collectively, not just by one or two leaders.

I decided to stand for election because firstly, I was nominated by several of my fellow cadres, and secondly, I wanted to play a part in setting the direction for the party.

Members of the WP CEC have in the past been fielded as election candidates, including the three outgoing members. Do you have plans to contest the next General Election?

I will leave that to the party to decide.

You wrote that your interest in politics and current affairs was first piqued during your years of undergraduate study in the United States, when you were exposed to campus politics. What about your political beliefs – who or what has influenced you the most?

Just being in an environment where people around me believed that change is possible from the ground up made me think differently about politics. I also realised the impact politics had on the lives of ordinary people, and was determined to make a positive impact when I got back to Singapore.

You have a book – “Singapore version 2.0” – coming off the presses, and its blurb on your website describes it as “a comprehensive take on the important public issues of the day.” What are the issues you consider to be most important?

It’s already off the presses and is available on my website (http://geraldgiam.sg/book). I have compiled about 90 of my best articles written over the last four years in this 384-page book. It covers a range of issues including politics, democracy, the economy, education, healthcare, transport, housing, the media, values and race relations.

All of them are important issues that Singaporeans face. I have devoted more articles discussing Singapore’s political situation, economy and race relations, so you could say those are the issues I am more passionate about.

Could you provide a sampling of the proposals you offer in the book for approaching these issues?

In my first chapter on politics as well as in the last chapter about my political journey, I shared about why it is important to build up a capable alternative political party led by upright leaders. This is not just to “check” the ruling party or oppose for its own sake, but to grow to become a party that is ready to lead the Government if the voters choose us.

On the education front, I have proposed boosting access to higher education as a means of providing for better social mobility. As a regular commuter, I have suggested several ideas on how to improve the public transport system. I have also discussed how I hope Singapore would move more towards a “melting pot” model of race relations, whereby people see themselves as Singaporeans first rather than their individual races.

What sort of expertise or specialist knowledge did you draw upon in putting together the ideas featured in the book?

Most of my ideas in the book came from reading widely and talking to different people to understand issues from their perspective. My varied experiences, from being a university student in California, to my experience in the Singapore Civil Service and even my conversations with my wife, who grew up in a Teochew-speaking working class home, have shaped my thinking greatly. These are reflected in my writings.

Is this selection of issues based on your own personal judgement, or can we expect to see the WP putting effort into tackling these problems as well? What issues can we expect the WP to champion going into the next GE?

Most of the articles in the book were written before I joined the WP and definitely before I was elected to the CEC. They are entirely my personal perspectives on things. However, if I think certain issues are important to Singaporeans, I will of course persuade the party to place more emphasis on them.

In general, I think you can expect WP to continue to champion issues that affect ordinary Singaporeans, like the cost of living, job security and narrowing the income gap. It is important for political parties to focus on issues that bring tangible improvements to the lives of Singaporeans.

You have been blogging on local politics and current affairs for several years (since June 2006). How has this experience shaped your political and personal beliefs? Do you think it offers you any unique insight into issues, which other political figures may not have?

The past four years of political blogging have given me a lot of practice in thinking through issues carefully, putting my thoughts together in words, listening to different reactions to my ideas, and having my views corrected at times. I think this is an important part of a politician’s job – to be able to understand the issues and articulate the views of his constituents well.

As both a member of a political party and an active socio-political blogger, you have direct experience of both spheres. What is your take on the role of the new media in Singapore politics? How might it influence the next GE?

I think social media will have a big impact in the next GE. Only a small proportion of the population currently get their political news from the Internet. But come the GE, I think many more will be seeking alternative viewpoints on the Web. Many of those who read news on the Internet will forward it to their friends or talk to them about it.

This is why it is important for political parties to have an efficient way to push out their messages through the Internet. It is also important for sites like TOC to continue to build up their credibility so that you can be a trusted source of news and commentary come the elections.

How well do you think the various political parties (PAP and opposition alike) have embraced the new media as a medium of political engagement? How have the WP in particular tried to harness the potential of the Web?

Social media is just one component of the overall media strategy. It is important that what we as a party say on the Internet is consistent with our message in the mainstream media and on the ground.

As a newly appointed assistant webmaster in the party, I will make it one of my priorities to help the party better engage with citizens through the Internet. In fact the party already had some new Internet initiatives in the pipeline before I came on board. We will be rolling them out in due time. So keep an eye out for WP on the Net!

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“While everyone is prone to have pet peeves about Singapore, Gerald has set himself apart by writing regularly, backed up by references and figures, despite holding down a full-time job and being a family man as well. In his pieces, my sense is that he deliberately reminds himself to be constructive, suggesting some alternatives to approaching the issues.”

- Sylvia Lim, Chairman, Workers’ Party, in her Foreword to Singapore Version 2.0.

You can purchase a copy of the book here.

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