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Face to Face: 3 beers and a little big idea

by Andrew Loh

photos by Terry Xu and Joshua Chiang

It was 20 November and I hadn’t seen Lynn for a while and thought I’d asked her out for drinks. Just to catch up. She’d just returned from a trip overseas the day before. Lynn is one of my closest friends.

And so we – Joshua and I – met with her at a restaurant in Joo Chiat one evening. As usual, it was just chit chat about life in general. Soon the topic of TOC (The Online Citizen) came up. The year’s almost out and the General Election is the talk of the town. We wondered what we could do to end the year, as far as TOC was concerned.

Several ideas were thrown up over a few glasses of beer. One of these suggestions was a year-end review forum. Yea, we could do that, I’d thought, but could we do something different this year instead? We’d jointly-organized a review last year with Yi Jian’s group called Talk Politics. It was a resounding success as members of the public packed the venue at the Post Museum in December.

“Why not get all the politicians in one room to answer questions from the public?” Lynn suggested. I thought that was a splendid idea, given that many issues this year are matters of concern for Singaporeans. And if the politicians were asking for our votes, we should query them on their positions on these issues so that we could better decide if we would give our precious votes to them.

“Lets do it without speeches,” I suggested. “Just questions and answers right from the start.” Lynn nodded.

So, it was decided. It would be a forum unlike any other. It would be the political event of the year. Joshua suggested we call it “Face To Face”. Excellent. We all agreed.

The main thing to do would be to get the parties to agree to attend such a forum – and to hopefully provide senior party members as representatives to speak on the parties’ behalf. We decided the best persons to do this would be the secretary-generals of the parties.

This task of inviting the sec-gens was assigned to me.

Two days later, I sent out invitations – crafted by Joshua - to all the major political parties, and kept our fingers crossed.

Back came the replies, rather promptly indeed, which surprised me.

The sec-gen of the National Solidarity Party, Mr Goh Meng Seng, was the first to give his assent. Then, Dr Chee Soon Juan from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), followed by the Reform Party’s Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Mr Chia Ti Lik of the new Socialist Front and Mr Low Thia Khiang who said that Mr Gerald Giam would be representing the Workers’ Party.

Mr Chiam replied a few days later and gave his assent as well. We waited for Mr Lee Hsien Loong, the sec-gen of the People’s Action Party (PAP), to reply. It never came.

The next thing we needed to do was to find a venue for the event. We’d originally decided Post Museum would be the venue but realized that, with all the major opposition parties participating in the forum, that venue would be too small. We needed one which could at least sit 150 or 200 people.

Sinema Old School at Mount Sophia seemed a better choice.

After we put out the announcement on our website and Facebook, however, the response clearly indicated to us that our estimation was off the mark. There would be more than 200 people who’d want to attend the forum.

And so, we scurried around for a bigger auditorium.

It was only days to the forum on 16 December and we were cutting it pretty close to the bone.

It was good fortune that Quality Hotel at Balestier Road was available on 16 December. I went down to take a look to make sure. Perfect. Its Grand Ballroom could sit 330 people, the manager told me.

The word was then put out to TOC team members and friends to volunteer for the event. In total, the team comprised almost 20 people – reporters, videographers, photographers, logistics, and helping out in administrative duties.

They are:

  • Joshua Chiang
  • Choo Zheng Xi
  • Lynn Lee
  • Kirsten Han
  • Lee Song Kwang
  • Han Thon
  • Stephanie Chok
  • Ravi Philemon
  • Jann Goh
  • Chetan Rogbeer
  • Khairulanwar Zaini
  • Rachel Chung
  • Selene Cheng
  • Sha Najak
  • Kim Lian Rolles
  • Vicki Yang
  • Jeremy Philemon
  • Jewel Philemon
  • JJ
  • Wallace Woon
  • Tiong Jin
  • Damien Chng
  • Bimal Thapa

Having had no experience whatsoever in organizing an event of this magnitude, sleepless nights soon followed. Questions of what were needed and what could go wrong occupied my mind. I must’ve run through the different scenarios more than a few times in my head those few days.

There were times when I would ask myself, “What have we gotten ourselves into? Can we pull this off? What if something went wrong? Will there be altercations? What do we do for security? Do we have enough money for this?”

Questions, doubts and uncertainty had to be put aside. The public had already registered, the politicians have agreed to participate and the venue was booked.

There was no turning back.

What came about through a casual meet-up between three friends had now become a potential national news story.

At about 4pm on 16 December, the day of the forum, our team was at the Grand Ballroom, putting the final touches for the event which would start at 7pm.

The forum itself went rather well, I thought. We had some hiccups but they were minor ones.

It was inspiring to see the six panelists in the same room, on the same stage.

In particular, I was proud and happy to see Gerald (Giam) among the panelists. Gerald is one of the co-founder of TOC and one of the humblest and smartest person I know. When he was with TOC, I would consult him for advice on things which I could not figure out and he would always provide a rational, intelligent viewpoint to the matter.

Gerald is someone I would vote for in a heartbeat, and not just because he is a good friend of mine.

I spent most of the time that evening outside the room however – attending to late-comers, unregistered people who asked to be let in, trying to resolve the air-conditioner situation (thanks to Jarrod Luo for his sms from inside the room informing me the room was rather warm), and generally being too tired for too much politics that night.

After the forum, a bunch of us of the TOC team went out for a late supper.

As I looked around the table, I am reminded that I should be grateful for these folks – who gave of themselves so selflessly, pitching in and holding the fort on 16 December.

To all of you in the team, my sincere and heartfelt thanks.

I will surely miss working with all of you.

And Lynn and Joshua, I’m gonna have another drink with you before I fly off.

But maybe we should not be drinking beer.