by Khairulanwar Zaini, additional reporting by Deborah Choo/ photos by Han Thon
Swinging into the Bedok heartland with style, the Workers’ Party juggernaut continued its southward march into East Coast. On any ordinary day, the soccer players of Geylang United could be found plying their trade in Bedok Stadium, but last evening it played host to the party’s third electoral rally.
A heavy afternoon rain had left the grounds slightly damp, but the massive crowd did not allow itself to be dampened. As the minutes drew down to the start of the rally, the carnival of screeching whistles, hoisted banners, and fluttering party flags retained its exuberance. Ardent party enthusiasts duly provided pre-rally entertainment with the display of their home-made party paraphernalia, leading to much cheers and photographic frenzy.
The candidates only walked onto the stage at twenty past seven. It was slightly later than the previous day, but the crowd did not mind the longer wait. They had, after all, waited five years.
When the Workers’ Party last contested East Coast in 2006, it garnered 36.14% of the vote. Then-candidate Eric Tan knew that his party had lost the moment the ballot box was opened. He instinctively remarked that the Workers’ Party would return, much to the bemusement of a counting agent from the ruling party.
He declared to an appreciative crowd, ‘As promised, today, we are back!’ And so they were.
The party’s starkly populist war cry for the night resonated well with the audience, as the candidates took turns to chastise the incumbent for its failure to rein in the cost of living. Two of the candidates for East Coast, Fazli Talip and Glenda Han, both took the ruling party to task for the increasing cost of transport; the target of their ire transport minister Raymond Lim, whom the party is going head-to-head with in East Coast. Fare hikes have often been justified by the increase in energy costs, yet Lim had insisted that ‘public transport fare is not directly linked to oil prices’ when fuel dropped in price in 2008.
Glenda Han excoriated the minister for what she saw as obfuscation: ‘I know you are the transport minister in Singapore, but please, do not take us for a ride!’
The party also pooh-poohed the ruling party’s ‘grow and share package’. Somasundaram (Moulmein-Kallang) dismissed the benevolence of the government – the payout is insufficient to compensate the rising costs of living. Furthermore, he remarked, ‘They give you the fruit, but take back the fruit tree!’ To the delight of the crowd, he also cynically mused about how ‘the economy seem to do well in election years’.
And concerns over the cost of living often inevitably segue into resounding criticisms of ministerial salaries. It was no different, with Eric Tan and Sylvia Lim (Aljunied) partnering in a formidable tag team to denounce the lavish pay that incumbent ministers receive. Sylvia Lim decried the hypocrisy of the government asking Singaporeans to sacrifice during lean times, since the PAP ministers are not ‘keeping their own cost down’. She suggested instead that ministerial remuneration should be benchmarked against countries with similar demographics, such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, and New Zealand.
With a touch of irreverence, Tan regaled the crowd with his suggestion to hire former American president Bill Clinton and British prime minister Tony Blair: ‘at the salaries we pay them, we can get both of them for the price of one of our ministers! … [And] we [will] still have more change after paying them!’
Looming large over the course of the day was minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s salvo: Aljunied residents would come to rue their choice if they elected the Workers’ Party. But Eric Tan criticised these threats. ‘They threatened you and made you feel insecure. They said you will regret your decision if you vote Worker’s Party. So, it appears to me that this election has become a battle between PAP and the will of the people! But you know, Singapore is bigger than the PAP!” he declared.
And these threats are immaterial. As Tan reminded the audience, ‘Singaporeans have [already] been regretting the last five years!’
It was then left to fellow East Coast candidate Png Eng Huat to do the honours of upping the ante. Having rapidly established himself as another crowd favourite, Png issued an ‘important task’ for East Coast residents. The previous evening, he had instructed the residents to help foreign affairs minister George Yeo find another job. Last evening, the East Coast residents are to fulfil labour chief Lim Swee Say’s initial request for a retirement.
The rally was inevitably anchored in the party’s drive towards a First World Parliament. Gerald Giam (East Coast) outlined two potential post-election scenarios in his speech. The first has the ruling party securing yet again another dominant majority. Gerald Giam observed that such a result would ‘be a sad day for Singapore. Your voice will continue to be silenced.’ The second scenario entailed a more pluralistic parliament with ‘Workers’ Party MPs engaging in vigorous debate with the PAP in parliament over local and national issues’. The party will ‘get on the ground to listen to real stories by real people’, Giam promised.
However, the big task of defending the proposed First World Parliament against attacks by law minister Shanmugam was left to secretary-general Low Thia Kiang (Aljunied). Low alleged that the concept has been ‘distorted’: he had meant by a First World Parliament ‘voices heard’ and ‘rights protected’ by a ‘responsible opposition’. Turning to the vehicular analogy that has persisted, the ‘co-driver does not fight for the wheel’, he said. The co-driver was there to ‘support and advise the driver.’
Low finished the night admonishing the ruling party for its lack of fair play – bantering that ‘when they ask me to play soccer, they give me a goalpost smaller than the ball!’ This arose from criticisms that the opposition only appear every five years. But with gerrymandering, ‘how are we to appear in a previously non-existent ward?’ asked Low.
Speaking of the difficulties of extending its reach beyond Hougang, Low detailed how its ‘application to (neighbouring) Town Councils’ for venues to conduct forums and dialogues sessions are frequently rejected. He further criticised the role of the People’s Action Party Community Foundation and People’s Association in entrenching the presence of the ruling party in every constituency, while effectively eliminating the opposition from the grassroots.
According to Low, the PAPCF runs pre-school education (Low’s irresistible quip: ‘what they first learn is PAP!’) that receives benefits in the form of funding and cheap rental from the government. These pre-school centres are then sublet to the PAP as a party branch, thus placing the opposition at a disadvantage: the Workers’ Party does not have branches island-wide because it ‘cannot afford the rental’, said Low.
Similarly, the People’s Association – funded by the government and headed by the prime minister – keeps the opposition out of the grassroots. Low was vehemently critical of the manner the institutional structure of the PA has been manipulated by the PAP to ‘propel the party’s interests’. He called out the shameless irony of having the losing PAP candidate selected as Hougang’s grassroots advisor. The political mileage that such an appointment can give is clear. Low noted that the PAP ‘grassroots advisor’ was given the honour of announcing the lift upgrading programme for Hougang, despite having the costs being borne by the Workers’ Party-ran town council.
The candidates were strolling out to their vehicles at the end of the rally when the stadium started breaking into spontaneous chants and cheers. A crowd had however lined the barriers, in the hopes of getting a closer glimpse of the candidates that have commanded their rapt attention for the previous three hours. As he tried to enter his car, a couple of middle-aged Chinese men called out to Low, eager to shake his hands. He obliged, and ended up shaking a couple more outstretched hands.
The party knew that such popular reception is no indication of voting intentions. So it was with a slight weight of urgency that Sylvia Lim noted that some residents that she encountered has remained hesitant and sceptical of voting secrecy. For the second consecutive night, the party invested precious minutes to engage in voter education, assuring the electorate that their vote is indeed secret.
But some are not diffident with their love for the party. As the crowd streamed out of the stadium against an incipient drizzle, a car drove past with its front window wound down. The passenger was waving the Worker’s Party flag, chanting loudly ‘Workers’ Party! Workers’ Party!’ that reverberated in the cool night air.
To view more photos, click here.
To view photos of all the rallies on Saturday, 30 April, click here.