The fall of Potong Pasir – a resident’s account


Emir Shafri

After hours on end at the edge of my seat, I received horrible word. Potong Pasir has fallen. Potong Pasir. The opposition stronghold Potong Pasir. My Potong Pasir.


A year ago, I moved to Potong Pasir, and fell in love with it. To me, it represented one of Singapore’s last bastions for democracy. It was the outlier: a town where people seemingly rejected material carrots, choosing instead not to compromise on their values.

It was, as the town motto reads, my kind of town.

I saw for myself how this quaint little town wasn’t the slum the state-controlled media made it out to be. Sure, it didn’t have all the bells and whistles. But it had decent amenities. More importantly, it had this energy, this je ne sais quoi about it. It kinda makes you wanna “high five” your neighbor and go “Yeah! Power to us!”

Those decent amenities I spoke of? That didn’t come easy for us. For over 27 years, our soft-spoken Che Guevara, The Honorable Chiam See Tong, fought against the PAP machinery. Every obstacle they threw, dear Chiam would pick himself up, and find his way around it. All for the residents of Potong Pasir.

Sheltered walkway across the open field to the MRT station? The PAP, through agencies such as the SLA (who seems to forget that they serve the citizenry, not the PAP), tried and failed to stop the man.

Delayed opening of MRT stations? Discontinued bus services? Both of course vital in connecting my neighbors and I to town. Again, Chiam lobbied to have them open and reinstated respectively.

And his Town Council went beyond that. They were truly servants of the people. When the circuit breaker of my house blew, Singapore Power/PUB told me that it’s after office hours, so tough luck. Electricians wanted to charge crazy ’emergency call’ charges. I tried my luck by calling the Town Council. They immediately sent someone within the hour (at 10pm) and identified the problem. He unfortunately didn’t have the replacement part, so he came back at 9am the next day (a weekend), with the part. He only charged me around 20 bucks or so for the circuit breaker component, and when I offered to give more, he declined, saying that “it is our (the TC’s) job to serve the people of Potong Pasir”.

Heck, whereas the PAP MPs get air-conditioned rooms to conduct their meet-the-people session, Chiam’s office was a pathetic servant-quarters-like void deck cubicle, without air-conditioning, or the convenience of a bathroom. More importantly, this cubicle, being in a void deck, had little privacy, which would cause residents to shy away from sharing their problems.

But despite every effort to disrespectfully prevent our duly-elected MP from serving us, Chiam persevered. Never once did he say “I had enough of this” and quit on us. Neither did he take the easy way out and attempt to jump over to the PAP. No, sir. Mr. Chiam was bent on serving the people who voted him, at all costs. Mr. Chiam was an honorable man.

In true David vs Goliath style, he battled the PAP’s blatant “punish opposition wards for voting ‘wrongly’ by delaying upgrades” policy. All for the people of Potong Pasir.

And like David, he (and we) won.

Chiam’s Well-Oiled Town Council

Despite every effort to discredit Chiam, he and his Town Councillors (his wife, Lina Chiam, amongst them), ran the Town Council like a well-oiled machine. In fact, it is one of the more efficient Town Councils in the entire country.

Residents here pay amongst the lowest conservancy charges in the entire Singapore. Despite that, the TC still manages to find a way to serve its people well.

Even when it comes to upgrading. With just S$2 million, the Town Council managed to upgrade 29 lifts. All without residents having to pay a single cent.

Through prudence and pragmatism, the TC hasn’t lost a single dollar on bad investments, unlike most of the other TCs in Singapore.

The PAP could definitely learn a thing or two from Chiam’s team. That is, if it, through the Evil Insurance Man, wasn’t busy stealing credit in the first place.

Evil Insurance Man for Potong Pasir MP

Pardon my rudeness, but Sitoh Yih Pin looks like an insurance agent that’s about to con you by selling you a policy you don’t need just to meet his quotas

Sitoh claims that he is a “true servant of Potong Pasir”. Sure.

Which explains why in the past elections, he’d come in wonderful goodies: solar lights, wheelchairs, free medical checkup, free financial advice, morning brisk walking sessions, concerts with B-grade mediacorp celebrities, as well as $1 abalone porridge and sharksfin soup.

Such a “true servant”. So true, that everytime he loses, he’d take back all his goodies (even when Chiam doesn’t prevent him from providing these services), claiming that he doesn’t want to be part of a 2-in-1 coffee mix solution with Chiam.

Dishonest, much?

And when bribery fails, what else could he do to help Potong Pasir fold into the PAP machinery? Why, undermine its duly-elected MP, of course.

Sitoh would be the one with banners at the CC, wishing you a Happy CNY. He’d be the one chairing said CC. He also recently sent out a letter to my address, informing me of a new round of Lift Upgrading at my block, even though the Lift Upgrading was lobbied for and funded by Chiam’s Town Council. He even has his own notice board at every block, next to the TC’s own.

(An aside: Do you think for a moment that the PAP would extend the same privilege to the opposition, in the name of fairness? Imagine seeing Nicole Seah chairing a CC in Marine Parade, or Vincent Wijeysingha on a large banner in Holland-Bukit Timah. I mean, after all,  we are “democratic society, based on justice and equality”. Right?)

Dirty tricks. But for 27 years, Potong Pasir was much smarter than that. For 27 years, Potong Pasir, with a cross on a piece of paper, sent a message to the PAP and its Evil Insurance Man: don’t insult our intelligence. We’re not that cheap. We’d take prudence, servant leadership and having our voices represented in Parliament any day over S$1 bowls of abalone porridge.

And when GE 2011 came, everyone, even the PAP thought, that Potong Pasir won’t fall for such tricks.

Boy, were we surprised.

The Fall of Potong Pasir

I stood glued to the small TV at the coffee shop downstairs. I was surrounded by strangers, but amongst family. The Potong Pasir family.

We sat through countless “Pursuant to section 49 subsection 7E paragraph “A” of the Parliamentary Elections Act'”, waiting anxiously for the results for Potong Pasir to be announced. We thought it would be announced first, since it was pretty clear (or so we thought) that Lina Chiam would win.

I mean, surely, despite all the dirty tricks, the gerrymandering, Potong Pasir would know better and vote for Lina Chiam, who has served alongside Mr. Chiam for all those 27 years. After all, she’s helped lead one of the most prudent Town Councils in all of Singapore. And (partly due to her nurse training) she has dutifully served the citizens of Potong Pasir. If anyone was a worthy successor to Mr. Chiam, Lina was.

Then, we heard rumblings – through SMS and social networks – that it’s extremely close, and a recount has been initiated.

(I eventually went up to await the results at my place.)

Then, it happened. First, there was silence. Then, from my flat, I could hear wailing and screaming from all around me. An agonizing groan. And an unmistakable “D’oh!” (with an accompanying facepalm, I’m sure).

By a small margin of 0.72%, Potong Pasir went to the PAP.

By a mere 114 votes (a total less than the number of spoit votes, 242), the 27-year opposition stronghold went to the Evil Insurance Man.

It was as if we simply forgot how hard Chiam See Tong and Lina Chiam fought, both at a Town Council level, and also, with Chiam See Tong, at a Parliamentary level, to have our voices heard.

It was as if, we decided dirty tricks, dubious intentions and one-dollar abalone porridge were more valuable than dedication, honesty and sacrifice.

It was as if, we decided to throw away all our values, our rebellious spirit, embodied in our kind of town, for mere carrots given by some guy that looks like an evil insurance agent.

After hours on end at the edge of my seat, I received horrible word. Potong Pasir has fallen. Potong Pasir. The opposition stronghold Potong Pasir. My Potong Pasir.


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