By Timothy Lai
Election rallies are intricate productions requiring wit and precision to execute. There must be intense anticipation before the speakers step into the spotlight, their stories must be compelling and consistent, the audience must empathize with the speakers, and the build-up must come to a satisfying end while leaving the audience hungry for more. By all counts, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) rally last night was a masterpiece.
Initially though, rally-goers arrived in a trickle. They were not as anxious to stake out their spots compared to those who had attended the Workers’ Party rally on Wednesday. The SDP rally started fifteen minutes late. Everyone knew that the star of the night, SDP Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan, was not going to appear so early on in the rally.
It was to be Dr Chee’s first speech on the rally stage since he was declared bankrupt, which prevented him from standing for election in 2006 and 2011. He had earlier confirmed that he would be speaking at the rally, writing on his Facebook page, “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.”
Whether you or not you agree with his political views, Dr Chee’s absence had deprived the Singapore political scene of a great orator. But would his comeback overshadow the rest of his party at the rally?
As it turned out, the speakers who took to the stage before Chee all had a unique and absorbing take on the subjects of oppression and triumph.
SDP chairman Jeffrey George opened the rally by reminding the crowd why they were there. He spoke of the dangers of opposition politics and how dissenters were quickly dispatched.
He said: “Since 1963… the PAP entered parliament without mandate,” adding, “for 52 years we tolerated (the) excesses of the PAP… Great people were sued, censured, charged for criminal offences.”
Rally-goers felt that they were not merely looking to the past at great men, such as JB Jeyaratnam, Francis Seow, and Chee Soon Juan, but that they were, themselves, great. The fact that they were there, standing and listening to the SDP was in, a small way, their rebellion against the oppressive state machinery.
Perhaps, this was the SDP’s strategy. Audience members were made to realise that they had been subjugated, but they could, however, be empowered as well if they work hard for it. And the one of the ways they could do so was to vote for the SDP or contribute to the party’s cause.
SDP’s Dr Nasir Ismail next spoke about Malay oppression while Dr Wong Souk Yee, in a meek but firm voice, noted that the role of a Member of Parliament is “to make laws and to check on the governing party and ministries.” Damanhuri Abas delivered a message on tudungs that would make Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob blush – he called her beautiful because she wore a tudung. Bryan Lim spoke about the voices of opposition supporters being excluded from the Singapore narrative, and Dr Paul Tambyah dissected People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Dr Vivian Balakrishnan’s “awkward questions” and offered a few of his own.
While each speaker made strong points, the audience was impatient for Dr Chee’s appearance. Hailed by the emcees as “probably the bravest man in Singapore”, his confident strides on to the stage signalled that he was back where he belonged.
It was clear the crowd felt the same. Dr Chee received rousing applause and cheers from an already engaged crowd as he squeezed his way towards the stage. Flags waved frantically while supporters called out his name. The reporters at the media barricade turned and frenziedly photographed the scene.
Dr Chee confidently delivered his speech in a rojak of Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Malay, one sentence of Tamil, and English. You could tell he had spent hours crafting his message. Despite attending the rally as a supposedly-objective reporter, I found myself cheering at various points during his speech, drawing stares from the other members of the media.
Dr Chee’s calibre as a politician and orator is undeniable. His speech was packed with quotable quotes, such as “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” and “If they (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 for engaging in gutter politics, quoting from the Bible, Mark 8:36: “For what profit a man to gain the whole world yet lose his soul?”
Most importantly, he knew that a great speech has to not only lift people’s spirits, it must also provide a vision for the future. It is worth quoting Dr Chee 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”
SDP member John Tan spoke after Dr Chee. Although Tan continued to engage the people with an extremely important discussion of what the minimum wage is and what it means to the Singapore society, the crowd had already experienced what it came for.
The challenge for SDP now is to translate the crowd’s enthusiasm into votes. A quick survey of the audience by Bryan Lim revealed that audience hailed from all over Singapore. It was a sign of the party’s broad support base that many people were willing to travel to Choa Chu Kang Stadium for its rally.
The SDP will still find it difficult to win over the HDB estates in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, and will have to find a way to target the issues local voters are concerned about. Otherwise, they will simply have cast a huge vision but not have the mandate from voters to carry it out.
SDP’s next rally is at 7pm today (4 Sep) in Bukit Panjang at the field in front of Block 136 Petir Rd.
*Check out https://storify.com/timothylaiwg/singapore-democratic-party-rally-3rd-sept-2015 for Timothy’s live tweet of SDP’s rally