By Sharon Ng
The Reform Party (RP) last contested in the West Coast GRC and the Ang Mo Kio GRC in the General Elections in 2011. It managed to garner over 30 per cent of the votes in both GRCs, a decent showing for relative newcomers to politics.
Perhaps based on that performance and also to further ‘brand’ the Reform Party, its Secretary-General Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam put up the Reform Party’s candidature on Nomination Day on Jan 16 for this By-Election(BE) in Punggol East. Mr Jeyaretnam had then told reporters that the idea of not contesting just to avoid a multi-cornered fight was “ridiculous”. Later during campaign, he reaffirmed this by saying that opposition unity in Singapore is a far-fetched notion. However, he agreed that opposition parties should have “ solidarity against the factors that hamper the growth of alternative parties in Singapore.” It seems that the Reform Party has a more real take on the political unty here among political parties, not dissimilar to that of Workers’ party’s Mr Low Thia Kiang.
For the BE Mr Jeyaretnam’s campaign slogan of “No More Broken Promises” centred around PAP’s track record failing to satisfy the demands of Punggol East residents. Mr Jeyaretnam said that he dids not want to make grand promises only to break them. Instead he gave only three promises to Punggol East residentsthat upon being elected – he would move to Punggol East, be a full-time MP, and give at least 10 percent of his salary to the community.
One of these promises gives Mr Jeyaretnam the unique distinction of being the only candidate in this BE who is willing to give up part of his salary. The last person who made such an offer was Presidential Election candidate, Mr Tan Kin Lian, who offered to donate at least 50 per cent of his salary if elected.
Mr Jeyaretnam, a 53-year-old is a veteran, with over two decades of experience, in the financial industry.. Most recently, he was the manager of his own hedge fund. Although his ability to takeover and run a Town Council to serve the community remains to be seen, his ability to manage the cashflow, sinking funds and ensure good corporate governance can be seen to his strength.
A passionate and fiery character, Mr Jeyaretnam has big shoes to fill. As the son of famous opposition politician — Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, fondly referred to as JBJ – Mr Jeyaretnam seems determined to come out from his father’s shadows and at the same time also leverage on the goodwill that his father’s name still generates among the people.
In fact, during the door-to-door visits, Mr Jeyaretnam or his fellow party members would not hesitate to brand the RP as such, and often reminded residents about the legacy left behind by the man from Anson. Residents too often found this endearing and would talk with Mr Jeyaretnam, fondly reminiscing about JBJ. But that does not mean that residents also found it difficult to understand Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam’s message spoken with a British accent.
The campaign itself saw enthusiastic party members giving out RP flyers and pens to remind residents to vote for the ‘Sun”, RP’s symbol. Party supporters, painstakingly , explained the party logo and painted an imagery of sunny days and how the sun was above being affected by lightning ( a clear reference to the PAP’s logo) or can be hammered (referring to WP’s logo)! This tagline often brought smiles to the residents’ faces, but they remained somewhat distant when probed by the party members about how they would vote on Jan 26.
It has not been a smooth ride for Mr Jeyaretnam on this campaign trail. The first distraction was on Jan 18th when his family received threats via Facebook and Twitter. Mr Jeyaretnam then spent some time away from the campaign at the Sengkang Neighbourhood Police Centre to file a report and help police in the investigations. A man has now been arrested in this matter. The second distraction was when on Jan 21, when Mr Jeyaretanm said that he had fallen ill with flu – after a rally in the rain – and was unable to meet residents as he had wanted to.
Overall RP still new to the political scene is seen as a party that is warming up and fine-tuning its campaign machinery despite some s hiccups in administration and logistics .
The RP held its first rally in the rain on Jan 20 in front of a big banner that featured the picture of the late JBJ.Speaking to 300 people Mr Jeyaretnam advocated for a reduction of National Service to one year or less, calling it “slave labour” as National Service men were not being paid “properly”He also called for more actors to manage the public transport systems and offer more alternatives. As for the housing policy, he wanted to change HDB flats from a 99-year lease to a freehold property. He wanted to give citizens a stake in the GIC and Temasek Holdings by pegging the CPF returns to the performance of these funds, and called for the privatization of these entities so that their performance can be measured. Regarding the increasing costs of healthcare, he called for a merging of the Medisave, Medishield and Medifund, commonly known as the 3M framework, into one universal health insurance scheme.
Towards the end of the rally, he proclaimed, “And I remember who I am – the son of JBJ!” He urged the crowd to vote for real promises of a better future, instead of voting for who he is, or just to give him a chance, or simply out of sympathy. There was a buzz in the crowd, as they wondered why Mr Jeyaretnam talked about reasons behind why not to vote for him, and also the apparent contradiction between his declaration of his heritage as JBJ’s son and the plea to the crowd to vote for him, based only on merit of his candidature.
As of Jan 22, RP had visited fewer than s than half of the 127 blocks in the ward. Mr Jeyaretnam described the nine-day campaigning period as “inadequate”, and estimated that he would be able to cover between 25 and 50 per cent of the remaining blocks in the remaining time left before Cooling Off day on Jan 25th.
On Jan 24, RP held its second and last rally. Mr Jeyaretnam hit out against media reports describing RP as a “motley crew”. He said that despite the relative young age of the party and this being a snap election, his team had done relatively well. He emphasised that the for past four-and-a-half years, the RP had gone through two elections without scandals or disarrays, referring to the adultery allegations and disqualification from contesting Aljunied GRC due to an administrative error on Nomination Day in 2001.
New RP member Karen, 34, and NUS graduate touched on jobs and unemployment among young Singaporeans. She questioned why big local MNCs, for example SIA, choose to hire foreigners over locals. Vignes, a CEC member, next spoken about her low salary on the higher end of a thousand dollars as a childcare educator. The low salary, she argued, had caused the high turnover rates in the industry, despite the government giving incentives for training.
The RP rally then hit out hard at Workers’ Party track record. RP chairman, Andy Zhu, said that both PAP and WP are not doing a good job at Parliament. He said, “If you vote Kenneth Jeyaretnam into Parliament, he will slap the ‘driver’ and the ‘co-driver’”. He urged voters to “diversify their investment” and vote RP into Parliament so that RP can make WP and PAP work harder for the residents of Punggol East.
The emcee of the evening, Mohd Affendy also made pulled some punches at WP. He said, “The people in blue are becoming friends of the enemy (PAP) and as such, they are now our enemy!”. He asked, “What has a doctor (Dr Koh) got to do with economic problems? WP is sending a beautiful face (Lee Lilian) into Punggol. What do you want her to do? To teach salesmen in Parliament?”
Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam drew on his training as an economist and work experience in the financial industry to explain why he is the best candidate for Punggol East residents. He said that the WP can only ask some question in Parliament, while WP Chairman Sylvia Lim had said that WP will not rock the boat. Mr Jeyaretnam said that he will ask questions and provide answers to national issues and problems in Parliament. “I can outclass (DPM) Tharman in a debate any day, only by sending me into Parliament will we get proper answers”, he said.
He urged voters not to spoil their votes as it would mean spoiling their chances of democracy. He said that by voting for PAP, it would mean spoiling their chances of breaking free of the treadmill. If voters go for WP, it would mean spoiling chances of a brighter future. He expressed that voters should not vote tactically, because it would mean voting for a party that they do not believe in. He said, “Don’t worry about the statistics. Let me handle the numbers”.
In an emotional voice, Mr Jeyaretnam recalled how his father was forced into bankruptcy and he returned to Singapore to help fulfil his father’s dreams. “I am a riches-to-rags story,” he said. As he recounted the passion of the late Jeyaretnam in fighting for Singaporeans, he said, “You can knock me down, but I will get up again and put my feet firmly back on the path to democracy”.
For three of the residents interviewed, it was their first time attending an RP rally and had enjoyed themselves. One resident, Mr Leong, expressed that he would rather not rock the boat. He felt that the RP and SDA were spoilers to the elections to split the opposition vote. Another resident, Mr Er, said that there were generally no problems in the constituency. However, through this by-elections, Rivervale had entered the spotlight at the national level.
It remains to be seen if RP’s campaign strategy and groundwork is sufficient for the party to win a seat in Parliament, or at least, reclaim its election deposit. Whatever the outcome the By-Election campaign period had provided RP with the much needed exposure and publicity to the Singapore electorate, as the party gears up to contest in the next General Elections come 2016.