The Singapore Democratic Party’s rally on Friday evening was quite a spectacle, although the rally-goers were not as anxious to stake a claim on their spot as yesterday’s Workers’ Party rally.
Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the SDP, had earlier confirmed he will be speaking at the rally.
He wrote in his Facebook, “I’ve been waiting for tonight when I will finally get the chance to address my fellow Singaporeans again after 15 long years. I’ve been invited to speak all over the world but I would trade all those events for the opportunity to address my fellow citizens in a heartbeat.”
Would the other speakers be but a pre-show for Dr Chee?
Each speaker before Chee had a unique and absorbing take on the common theme of oppression and triumph. Through their personal voices, each speaker brought out his own distinctive style and version of that message.
SDP chairman Jeffrey George opened set the stage by reminding the crowd why they were there. He spoke of the dangers of opposition politics and how dissenters were quickly dispatched.
“Since 1963… the PAP entered parliament without mandate,” he said.
He continued, “For 52 years we tolerated the excesses of the PAP… Great people were sued, censured, charged for criminal offences.”
However, through his speech, the rally-goers could feel that they were not merely looking to the past at men such as JB Jeyaratnam, Francis Seow, and Chee Soon Juan, each person was made to feel that there were great themselves.
The very fact they stood in the field to listen to SDP was in a small part, their own rebellion against a great oppressive state machinery.
In a sense, this was the strategy of SDP. Audiences themselves were made to feel like they were subjugated. However, they themselves could be empowered as well. Nevertheless, empowerment is active – people had to work hard for it, and the ways they could do so was to vote for the SDP or contribute to their cause.
Dr Nasir Ismail spoke on Malay oppression. Dr Wong Souk Yee, in her meek but firm voice, dissected the role of a Member of Parliament which is “to make laws and to check on the governing party and ministries.” Mr Damanhuri continued his message on tudungs that would make Mdm Halimah blush (he called her beautiful because she wore a tudung.) Mr Bryan Lim built a strong case on the voices of the opposition supporters being left out of the Singapore narrative, while Dr Paul Tambyah dissected Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s “awkward questions” and returned a few.
While each speaker made strong points, the anticipation was building for Dr Chee. Hailed by the emcees as “probably the bravest man in Singapore”, Dr Chee’s confident strides onto the stage gave both a sense of awe and a comfort that he is back where he belongs.
It was clear the crowd felt that way as well. Immediately getting off the ground and squeezing towards the barricade, Dr Chee received the most rousing applause and cheers from an already engaged crowd. Flags waved frantically at Dr Chee while fans called out his name. The reporters from the media barricade immediately turned behind and hysterically took photos of this sight.
Dr Chee confidently delivered his spiel in Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Malay (which he called rojak), one sentence of Tamil, and English. You could tell Dr Chee spent hours crafting his message to precision. At various points, I found myself accidentally cheering despite being part of the media, making the others’ stares embarrassing.
His calibre as a politician and orator is undoubted. It was filled with quotable one-liners from “people ask me why I am a doctor but I join the opposition, I tell them that we only have one life to make a difference” to “if they (the PAP) cannot convince you, they will throw out a standard line – they will say Chee Soon Juan is untrustworthy, Chee Soon Juan is a liar, a gangster, a psychopath.”
He also chided young PAP ministers such as Lawrence Wong and Sim Ann from engaging in gutter politics and preached from the Bible from Mark 8:36 – “For what profit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his soul?”
But most importantly, he knew that a great speech not only uplift people’s spirits, it must also provide a vision for the future. It is worth quoting in full,
“Tell them you have heard a vision of a prosperous and productive Singapore. A Singapore that cares for our weak and our old. Tell them the SDP is more than a party, it is an idea, a way of life, a vision that will transform Singapore for the better. Above all, tell them that you found a party that will not lord over you, a party that truly cares.
“I have never lost faith in Singaporeans. And even in the bleakest of moments, I always believe that we will triumph. Why am I so confident? It’s because the human spirit can only be trampled but not crushed”
Ultimately, the SDP rally would have been one of the best if not for the mistake of putting Mr John Tan after Dr Chee. Mr Tan continued to engage the people through his discussion of the minimum wage; his explanation of what it is and what it means for the Singapore society was extremely important. However, it was unfair for Mr Tan as the crowd had already experienced what they came for.
From today’s rally, it was clear that SDP had much more to say, and could conduct good rallies that are both emotionally and intellectually engaging.
The problem for SDP now lies in translating the crowd’s enthusiasm into votes.
However, Singapore’s Westminster electoral system fundamentally lies in the election of local representatives into the national parliament. For instance, they will still find it difficult to win over the HDB estates in Holland-Bukit Timah. SDP needs to find a way to target the issues local voters have as well or we will find them casting a huge vision but not having the mandate from the voters to carry it out.