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James Gomez on political future: “I don’t back down in a fight”

By Deborah Choo

TOC recently caught up with local civil society activist and perennial politician Dr James Gomez, a perennial force in Singaporean politics for over a decade. In this exclusive interview, Dr Gomez gives TOC readers a sneak peek into what kind of political party he sees himself fitting into, what he sees as the key issues of the upcoming elections, and his new role as Executive Director of Singaporeans for Democracy.

Dr Gomez ran with the Worker’s Party “A team” in Aljunied GRC at the 2006 General Elections and is now Deputy Associate Dean (International) and Head of Public Relations at Monash University’s School of Humanities, Communications and Social Science.

How did you get first get involved in politics? Was your family politically inclined (e.g. dinner-table conversations about politics), did you get inspired by an issue or person when at university that brought you to politics?

I have been asked this questions several times and it always take me my National University days in the late 1980s. One incident comes to mind and this was during the Tiannamen Square student massacre. Several others and I, this was the days before the internet, organized a petition signing on campus and tried to get other students involved. However, I was surprised how frightened some students were to sign the petition. Instead they disapproved of us organisng the petition. I knew then something was wrong in Singapore if the attempt to speak up against an injustice was frowned upon. Yet at the same time there was fair support from others about our petition. So I decided then, I will henceforth start speaking up on issues that matter to Singaporeans. And support for that has grown very well over the years.

Why the opposition? Did you ever consider joining the PAP to “change things from the inside?”

I am interested in regime change not “change things from the inside” as I believe there is something fundamentally wrong with the PAP style of governance and that it is increasingly not suitable for modern day Singapore. So when I decided to get serious about politics I began using two platforms – civil society and opposition party. In the changing world of the political party as an institution and the movement of people from civil society to politics we need to think outside the box to be effective in politics. I find the mixed civil society-political party approach as being more potent in effecting regime change. Over the last ten years this has been my strategy for political engagement.

Tell us about Singaporeans for Democracy. Why did you start it and where do you envision it going?

Singaporeans for Democracy under local laws is a political association and prevented only from standing for elections as an organisation. It is essentially a collection of individuals who bring to the SFD platform their own networks and resources. Recently we submitted a report to the UN Special Rapporter on Racism, tomorrow we are organizing a public consultation on electoral reforms after which we will submit a report to the UN Universal Periodic Review process. We have human rights film festival planned for November and a public workshop possibly sometime in December.

What are your plans for the next elections? Are you contemplating another run?

I am currently not a member of any political party. But I have been asked by opposition party friends, civil society members, personal acquaintances and family as well as members of the public to seriously consider participating in the next elections. Their opinions are something I am taking seriously

If yes, tell us more about your plans. Which party are you partial to and why?

At this stage, all I am thinking about is where best I can add value. I can bring existing networks and human resources etc wherever I go. I am straight shooter and I don’t back down in a fight. So I want to be in the company of people who have the same temperament and solidarity. I have my personal collection of issues which I plan to weave into an electoral campaign these include (not exhaustive):

a.       Less foreign workers, a more transparent immigration policy.

b.      Reduce the cost of living

c.       Reduce ministers salaries

d.      Promote diversity, legislate against discrimination

e.       Establish an independent election commission of Singapore

f.       Abolish the Internal Security Act

g.      Abolish the death penalty

What do you think the key issue in this upcoming elections will be and why?

It will be the foreign worker issue. PAP has overcrowded Singapore with too many cheap foreign workers, bursting our local infrastructure, depressing wages and making Singaporeans feel foreign in their own country and also creating hardships for foreign workers. Whatever policy reversals the PAP announces and no matter what spin the mainstream media puts on it, essentially it is all too little too late. To ensure the foreign worker issue does not get worse the PAP needs to be held accountable and kept in check by defeating it at the next elections.

Another indirect issue going into the next elections will be the credibility of the local mainstream media. I am expecting the local media to get a further beating at the next elections. Already the circulation of many of the print media is down and when the internet shows up the biasness of the local media in the next elections local media credibility will go down further and drive more people to the internet and way from the PAP.

There is a school of thought that believes the Singaporean electorate is inherently pragmatic, conservative, and cautious. Do you think that’s true, and if so, how will you try to overcome that?

This true to some extent but where we need to pay our attention to as Singapore heads towards its 11th general elections is the younger voters and voters who are consuming their political information via the internet. Because the mainstream media is held in discredit for its local political news and because total internet users has increased to 3,370,000 with a penetration of 72.4% and is pushing more people to get their political information online. So I will encourage those interested in regime change to put some amount of attention to reaching out to Singaporeans via new media.

Do you think the importance of retail politics (hand shaking and baby kissing) has diminished with the increasing influence of new media?

Yes because politics is more visual. It is about imagery, choreography, short videos and sound bites. Quite a lot of it is also moving towards mobile hand held devices and this is something to lookout for in Singapore in the next general elections as current 3G Mobile subscription is at 2,927,700 and climbing. Meanwhile the traditional methods are still used but they play a smaller role. With so many foreigners in Singapore, traditional methods such as door to door visits and flyer distribution are not labour and cost effective. In Singapore, the new media is becoming the popular choice as it is less labour and cost intensive.

Tell us more about your family, there hasn’t been a lot of press on them. Are they supportive of your political aspirations?

My father, Thomas Vincent Gomez, who founded the Singapore Manual and Mercantile Worker`s Union was in the news quite a bit in the late 50s and bit later in early 60s with court cases associated with it. But he has since passed on. My mother, who is in her 70s, cuts clippings from the press whenever I have been in the news. She was keeping busy in the last elections but news about me has been a bit thin in the recent years. Who knows she might get busy soon. But since most of my news has shifted to the internet, I am thinking of buying her a hard disk to save stuff there instead 🙂

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Details of the Singaporeans for Democracy event can be found here