Post-GE 2011, and the fire within

Howard Lee

On the morning of cooling-off day, I was moved by what I read on the front page of Today.

The page was split in half – the perfect picture of balance. On one side, the image of Low Thia Kiang, the other of George Yeo. The commentaries ran down the centre.

But what struck me was not the attempt to balance the reporting. Aside, I have to say I saw a lot more balanced reporting this general election, even if it is restricted to page allocation only. Some credit goes to traditional media, but form does not always equate intent.

What moved me was (and always will be) the content. Just reading this front page, I felt a certain connection with the people in Aljunied GRC, not least because I used to stay there. It felt as if the entire weight of the nation was resting on their shoulders, as if they held the key to the nation’s democracy.

At the height of campaigning, the coverage on the general election drew exhaustively on emotions. You may say there is no smoke without fire, and it was true that the candidates have appealed to both the minds and hearts of voters, but they would not have reached in if voters did not open their hearts to begin with.

While some would have us believe that we have been unduly pressured by the rhetoric of the parties, the real pressure was from within. I believe that no small number of voters would have felt the power in their hands, and the decision weighs heavy.

The same sentiment must have been felt outside of Aljunied. I was waiting outside Deyi Secondary School counting station where about a hundred voters have rallied, mostly to support the Singapore People’s Party and its leader Chiam See Tong. Some were also rooting for the Reform Party team in Ang Mo Kio, but they were all there for the opposition cause.

They were strangers, but they bantered easily, sharing updates on iPads, and trading jokes. Two drivers turned up their car radios, and all clustered around, groaning and cheering when the results we announced, even as they continued to wait patiently for the candidates. They were bonded by a common vision, a shared purpose. They came from the next block, Hougang, and even Punggol. That night, this huddling was their community, and it radiated out to the people in Potong Pasir, Ang Mo Kio, Bishan, Toa Payoh, and yes, even Aljunied.

When the results for Bishan-Toa Payoh were announced, the collective angst cracked the night quiet. A number of them broke down in tears. And it was not just the seasoned supporters, but those in their early twenties, who wept openly for Chiam, the legend of Potong Pasir. They have invested a lot of heart into their votes, with the faint hope that their votes would not be in vain. They believed, and committed more than just a cross on a piece of paper.

But it is not just voters who have put their hearts into this general election. On this campaign trail, I have seen Kenneth Jeyaretnam overwhelmed by the vote of allegiance to his late father. I have seen Wilfred Leung tell Chiam that 43% was an excellent margin, in a bid to cheer up the old warrior. I have seen Benjamin Pwee support Chiam as he moved around, as one would an elderly parent. I have seen Alex Tan shake hands with every supporter he could reach outside Deyi, a warmth that transcends his political inexperience. I have seen a certain humanity behind the candidates, that I would seldom give them credit for in the battle of words.

On this campaign trail, I have seen faith, courage, loyalty, trust – the very best of the qualities of humanity. I have also seen desperation, fear, fatigue – what reminds us constantly of our humanity.

Some would have us believe that this general election is watershed by virtue of the number of seats contested, or by the number of seats won or lost, or by the winning margins, or by the quality of opposition candidates, or by party renewals, or by the role that new media plays. Perhaps.

But I say the watershed is about the water shed from our eyes. As a nation, we have awakened, and for this general election more than any, we realised that not only do we feel as an electorate, but also that we can do something about it, beyond just casting our vote. The more involved we are, the more of our selves we invest, and the greater the loss. We have felt the fire within, and we have been burnt by it with every seat lost.

But even as we heal and reconcile, as Lee Hsien Loong has encouraged us to do, we need to keep that little bit of passion inside us, like the Olympic flame that burns forever. We need to let that fire continue burning, infuse into civil society, and let ourselves grow politically.

The polls might have closed, but our journey to freedom has only just begun for each of us. Let your vote extend into your everyday life. Fight for the causes you believe in to benefit the lives and rights of others. Volunteer. Continue defending, not your party of choice, but the people whom the party has promised to defend.

And come next general election, we will be ready to go at it again, no longer as mere voters who depend on the guidance and plans of political parties, but equal stakeholders and action agents for the future of our nation.

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