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To build a home: from Hougang to Aljunied

by Khairulanwar Zaini/

Low introducing his candidate for Hougang SMC Yaw Shin Leong

 

Walk with me, walk it off, the excess fat of misery and fear. Too much to carry around the heart. Walk free. – Jeanette Winterson, Gut Symmetries

And the legendary rally crowds have returned.

Election rallies by the Workers’ Party have a special pride of place in local political lore: one of the iconic and defining photographs of the 2006 electoral campaign was the aerial view of the WP’s rally crowd in an Hougang field. And last night, five years on, they were back in Hougang. And bigger – so much bigger that it led the network reception for mobile lines to crash.

The crowd had started trickling into the field as early as six; a steady stream of ‘rally veterans’ came prepared with mini-deck chairs to reserve choice spots in front of the stage. The excitement was palpable. The electoral carnival is in town, and the people on the field were not going to shy away from the party. The congregation was ebullient – punctuating the night with timely chants of ‘Workers’ Party! Workers’ Party!’, the appropriate ‘No!’ (‘Have your life really improved since 2006? More income? More savings?’) and boisterous boos (the loudest of which was directed at the mention of national development minister Mah Bow Tan).

The interplay of passion, conviction, and rhetoric that goes on in election rallies qualifies it as live political theatre at its very best – and in their maiden election rally of 2011, the WP was not found lacking in the necessary showmanship.

Or perhaps, it is more accurate to talk of ‘show-mao’-ship. Chen Show Mao, having teased his way into public recognition and affection in the preceding weeks, took over the podium to rancorous applause hitherto reserved for party chiefs Low Thia Kiang and Sylvia Lim. And the party’s new hero did not disappoint: he had stage presence, he had eloquence, and he had the game to speak in five languages – Malay (arguably a fillip to securing the Malay vote – it is an open secret that the party’s 2006 failure in Aljunied can be partly attributed to the popularity of the PAP’s Malay candidate Zainul Abidin Rasheed, ), English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Hokkien.

‘Brothers and sisters, it’s good to be home’, announced the former Beijing-based lawyer. The crowd roared its approval.

***

But if there is one place that the Workers’ Party can call home, it is none other than Hougang. The constituency of 24,560 first elected the party’s secretary-general Low in 1991, and had kept faith in him for the past twenty years. Hougang returned Low to parliament with a comfortable 62% in 2006, and the constituency had grown to become almost synonymous with the party. But even good sons must leave home someday – and Low was leaving his stronghold to join the party’s GRC team in neighbouring Aljunied. He has bigger dreams to chase, and a bigger home to build.

Reading excerpts of an open letter that he had circulated to residents, Low reminded the captive audience that ‘there are times when all of us have to make tough decisions.’ And for him and the party, the time is indeed now, he said. But their chase for that ever-elusive GRC does not leave Hougang abandoned. The mantle of perpetuating the Hougang legacy has been tasked to the steady hands of Yaw Shin Leong, the party’s organising secretary. He has been closely involved with the party’s grassroots and has deputised for Low during Hougang’s weekly meet-the-people session in the latter’s absence. His first baptism of electoral fire was in 2006, against the Prime Minister in the latter’s Ang Mo Kio ward. Yaw’s team, dubbed the ‘suicide squad’, garnered a commendable 33.8% of the valid votes casted. And if the WP were to falter in its other contests, while Hougang proves yet steady, he could be the first new face of full-fledged parliamentary opposition since 1991.

Not surprisingly, Yaw began his speech for the night in Teochew. This is a tacit nod to the Hougang demographics – Low’s popularity in the constituency has a lot to do with his rapport with the Teochew base. With big shoes to fill, Yaw was keen to burnish his credentials as a true Teochew nang. His efforts did not go unnoticed. Later that night, Low, potentially the last parliamentary representative who can lay claim to the distinction of being a Nantah graduate, delivered a playful jibe at his successor’s tentative command of the dialect.

But the transfer of the Hougang seat testifies to the trust between the two men. Yaw was to defend the fort, as Low ventures forth to throw his weight behind the party’s campaign to capture Aljunied. Whatever the outcome, the contest will prove to be a critical turning point for the party.

***

Underlying this risky strategy is the party’s promise for a First World Parliament – or in Low’s words, a legislature with ‘a critical mass of opposition MPs with full voting rights’. Throughout the night, the candidates took turns to rebuke the non-constituency MP scheme – the nine seats allocated for the best-performing electoral losers. Over the last few weeks, stalwarts of the ruling party have engaged in hard-selling the scheme as the perfect panacea against the clamour for alternative views: please return our PAP candidates, because we can assure you the presence of opposition voices with these NCMPs. The NCMP office is however endowed with a circumscribed register of voting rights; they are not allowed to vote in supply and constitutional bills, as well as in motions of confidence. It is thus imperative for the voters to elect more full-fledged opposition MPs – otherwise, Low said, ‘the PAP will ignore you’.

Low also took Law Minister Shanmugam to task. Shanmugam, who is facing off a Workers’ Party challenge in Nee Soon, has said that the WP’s aspiration for a First-World Parliament showed that the party wanted to be a ‘co-driver’. Low chastised this ‘usual PAP tactic of threatening the people’. He reminded Shanmugam that the Workers’ Party has the best interests of Singapore at heart, because ‘we are all inside the same vehicle. If the vehicle has an accident, all of us will get injured and die.’ The co-driver is essential: ‘The co-driver is there to slap the driver when he drives off course or when he goes asleep’, said Low.

Over the night, the candidates criticised the PAP’s self-belief in its infallibility. Gerald Giam, a former bureaucrat in the foreign affairs ministry, asserted that the PAP has grown ‘complacent and arrogant’ – and it was time to say enough to their ‘arrogance, lack of accountability, and complacency.’ Low continued this line of attack: ‘the PAP has taken your support for granted’.

But Low later built upon his co-driver analogy, maintaining that ‘if the driver is friendly and drives responsibly, we just keep talking to him to keep him awake’. And here Low hints to the key behind attaining a First World Parliament: whether parliamentary diversity leads to consensual and constructive engagement depends not so much on the opposition, but on the ruling party. If the PAP can play fair and be responsible, then it would not find a plural parliament as a problem.

And playing fair seems to be hard for the ruling party. Sylvia Lim called on the PAP to ‘treat citizens fairly’ – invoking the contentious use of public funds to discriminate against non-PAP wards.  Hougang and Potong Pasir have often been overlooked for estate upgrading programmes as the ruling party prioritises its own constituencies. Considering that the residents of these two wards are required to pay the same amount of tax, Lim maintained that the ruling party’s policy was tantamount to using ‘Potong Pasir and Hougang [residents’] money to reward others.’ In a recent forum with university undergraduates, the Prime Minister had offered the residents of the two wards his solution for this quandary: vote the PAP.

But this is nothing short of ‘bullying’, thundered Lim.

***

The feisty jabs against the ruling party aside, the candidates reminded the crowd of the sobering truth of increasing hardships that confronts Singaporeans in their daily lives. Chen spoke of the ‘marginalized and underprivileged Singaporeans out there who need their voices to be heard in Parliament’. The clamour for more opposition MPs should not be construed as a luxury of progress, but a necessity of circumstances.

And living up to his heavyweight status, Chen was also responsible for the most memorable rallying call of the night: ‘Singapore, don’t be a cowardly lion!’ Recalling the classic tale of the Wizard of Oz, he implored Singaporeans to ‘bear in mind the lessons that Dorothy and her friends learned’:

“There’s a scarecrow, and he wanted a new brain. When we vote, we should use our heads. We should think about what is good for us, what is good for our children.

Second, there’s a Tin Woodsman who wanted a heart. So when you vote, also think about the Singaporeans who are worse off than you, having a harder time to make a good living in Singapore.

Third, there’s a cowardly lion who wanted some courage. So after you know what’s right to do, have the courage to do what’s right even if it means some changes from what you’re used to. Singapore, don’t be a cowardly lion!”

It is likely that he had been apprised by his party colleagues of the false hopes of 2006, where the sheer volume in rally attendance generated much excitement but translated into negligible gains in terms of parliamentary seats. But the redoubtable Chen and his party colleagues have the next eight days to convince the electorate to roar their loudest for the Workers’ Party on polling day. And for the next eight days, the rally crowds will walk with him, walking off the excess fat of misery and fear that has accumulated over the last five years. And perhaps, on 7th May, Singapore and the Workers’ Party can walk free into the promised First World Parliament.