Stepping forward – Part 1

In an exclusive interview with The Online Citizen, four former Reform Party members – along with Ms Nor Lella Mardillahspeak about the reasons they joined the National Solidarity Party, their interest in politics, and the issues which should concern Singaporeans as the country prepares itself for the General Election.

Andrew Loh /

It has been quite a rollercoaster ride for some of the National Solidarity Party’s (NSP) new candidates for the General Election (GE), expected to be called in a matter of weeks.

Mr Tony Tan, Ms Hazel Poa, Mr Jeisilan Sivalingam and Ms Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss, together with five others, resigned en masse from the three-year old Reform Party in February this year. For a while, their political future seemed uncertain. In the weeks following the resignations, the group held talks with other opposition political parties, ostensibly about joining them.

Most notably, Mr Tan and Ms Poa met with veteran politician and Member of Parliament, Mr Chiam See Tong, in February/March. Mr Chiam is the secretary general of the Singapore People’s Party. The group also held talks with the NSP in the same period.

Eventually, however, the four of the nine RP breakaway faction decided to sign-up with the NSP and were promptly introduced on 11 March as the party’s candidates for the upcoming GE.

One of the reasons why they chose the NSP is because of the ‘complementary’ abilities which they are able to provide to the party, the group tells The Online Citizen (TOC).  An example is Mr Tan’s and Ms Poa’s experience in and exposure to public service. Mr Tan was formerly with the Singapore Armed Forces, and Ms Poa with the Administrative Service. The experience and the organizational abilities of the NSP’s veterans, together with the new members’ exposure in public service, would be mutually beneficial to the party especially in a General Election, the group says.

“This election very important for us,” Mr Tan explains. He feels that the experience will cement the bonding among the old and new party members.

Mr Tan, Ms Poa, Mr Jeisilan and Ms Nor Lella were introduced at the media conference in March as the NSP’s candidates for Moulmein-Kallang GRC. However, the party is still in discussion with the Workers’ Party which is also interested in contesting the constituency.

Ms Chong, meanwhile, has set her sights on Mountbatten SMC, where she grew up in, and has begun her outreach activities there.

So, what is it that makes seemingly ordinary folks like them interested in politics, and opposition politics at that?

Mr Jeisilan says he was “disillusioned” with the way things were and the direction that the country was heading. It came to a point where he said he had to get involved. He joined the Reform Party and became its Organising Secretary.

“The primary purpose was to stand [for elections],” he says. As a teenager he would attend events and rallies where the late Mr JB Jeyaretnam would speak at. These inspired him. “I saw the passion and conviction he had in fighting for ordinary Singaporeans,” Mr Jeisilan explains. “That had an effect on me.”

Mr Jeyaretnam founded the Reform Party in 2008.

For lawyer Ms Chong, it was her personal experience which spurred her to dip her feet in politics. When her block was designated for the en bloc programme, she realized that she could do little when the majority of those in her block of flats consented to the programme. She could not fathom how a law could allow one’s home to be involuntarily sold.

“I began to read the parliamentary debates,” Ms Chong says, “to see how that law was promulgated.” While the debate was “lively”, she says, in the end the PAP Government, because of its overwhelmingly majority in the House, passed the law.

“I do not understand how we can have any parliamentary debates over new laws if 82 out of 84 parliamentarians are from one party,” she says. Ms Chong also observed that her own children were becoming disaffected and were lacking a sense of belonging to the country. “That really woke me up,” she says, “that I may lose my children. I [would] be as good as childless because my children would be wanting to go overseas.”

It has since been a journey of several years for her to find out why young Singaporeans such as her children do not feel any affinity to Singapore. Her decision to enter the political arena is, among others, to help facilitate a two-party system in Singapore and to foster a more engaged citizenry.

When Lee Hsien Loong took office as Prime Minister in 2004, Mr Tan believed that PM Lee would take the country “to the next level”. However, soon after, Mr Tan began to realize that things were not quite right. The Government’s decision to peg civil servants’ salaries to the private sector and bonuses to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was a turning point for Mr Tan.

“I personally had a lot of concerns about this,” he says. As someone who had started and managed businesses of his own, he could not imagine that there was only one Key Performance Indicator (KPI) – the GDP – as the determinant in paying such high salaries and bonuses to ministers. “If your system is one that is opaque, and [you] only say trust us, we know what is best for you…  I am very uncomfortable with that,” Mr Tan explains.

“I first started having misgivings about the PAP Government when they linked HDB upgrading to party politics,” says Ms Poa. “To me that was the first overt sign that party interest supercedes citizens’ interest.” She became more concerned when other policies were implemented, such as high ministerial salaries and the decision to allow casinos in Singapore. The Government was also not listening to public sentiment, says Ms Poa.

“PAP has been in power for so long, successful for so long they have enormous faith in some of their longstanding positions,” Ms Poa says.  “It has come to a point where it’s difficult for any person to change them. I don’t believe the change can come from inside.”

Change can only come from politicians, she feels.  “For civil service, it is very difficult to change anything because they are there to execute [policies].”

Ms Poa says that while there are certain people within the PAP who may be trying to change things from within the party, she does not see them succeeding either. “I feel that external pressure is necessary,” she explains.

For Ms Nor Lella, it was her experience in community, charity and counseling work which made her realize that the system was not helping those at the bottom level of society and those who have fallen through the cracks.

“The things I have witnessed with my own eyes, my ground work with Red Staff Community. . it’s very sad,” she says.  Eventually, through a friend she got in touch with Mr Goh Meng Seng, the Secretary General of the NSP.

“He asked me what I wanted to do in my life,” Ms Nor Lella says, “and I said well, if I could change something for these people, that’s what I want to do. He asked me to consider NSP as my next platform. I didn’t say no.”

Their individual decisions to step into politics had not been easy, the group says. There were “a lot of push and pull over a duration of a few years”, Mr Tan explains. “For many of us, mother of four, father of two, I must say that all of us make a lot of sacrifices. Time we want to spend with our kids, time to grow our business, gazing at the beach, which is something I miss.”

They are also aware of the state of the opposition in Singapore.

“We know the state of opposition vis-à-vis PAP,” Mr Tan says.  “Like machinery versus spears.” But he is not discouraged. In particular, he hopes to get younger Singaporeans to be interested. “This is my message to young people: in 10-15 years this country will be yours, not ours. So what is in it for you? They should know that if they are not happy with the policies, they must speak out.”

In Part 2 of this article, the group speaks about the issues which they feel are important, especially in the General Election.


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