I was surprised to read critical comments in one facebook that the opposition has not been seen in his constituency since the last general election in 2011. The commentator ended that for this reason, he will not vote for the opposition.
I had thought that this criticism is no longer sustainable today since there are facebooks, blogs and twitters. Let me, as a past opposition candidate and a voter who elected J B Jeyaretnam into parliament in 1981 explain to these voters why it is not necessary to see an opposition candidate at the door before you vote him into parliament.
It is very tough to be an opposition party in Singapore especially when it does not have a seat in parliament. We all know that the mainstream media shuts out all news of their activities and only their mistakes are highlighted on front pages. The television and the radio do not give them airtime during elections unless they field sufficient candidates for the election. Even when time is allotted, they speak for a very short time as compared to the ruling party which hogs the airwaves and screen at every election.
Before 1981, I was aware that J B Jeyaretnam had unsuccessfully stood for election on several times. I do not remember him visiting my parents’ flat where I resided. When it came to the general elections, the criticism that he was never seen in Anson was widespread. But I and the majority of residents in Anson ignored this criticism when we voted for him in the by election in 1981. He received 52% of the votes.
I remember this incident at the lift lobby on polling day. I was with my mother, having voted earlier, when we met our neighbour. I asked casually what she thought would be the outcome. She said “I think there is a chance this time!” I was pleasantly surprised because Jeyaretnam had been unsuccessful in so many past general elections. Anyway, I thought nothing of it but waited for the result that night.
My entire family was glued to the television that night. When the result was announced, loud cheers and claps rose from all the blocks in Bukit Merah! The cars hooted. There was so much excitement and noise in the air. Imagine, one opposition after 15 years of silence in the house of parliament!
I think the first thing Jeyaretnam did was to rent an office space in the void deck of one of the blocks. With the setting up of the office, there was no reason for the residents of Anson to complain that he was invisible and not available to attend to their needs. I remember that I dropped into his office one evening to be acquainted with my new MP.
It is true that an un-elected opposition candidate, before the arrival of social media, is invisible to voters. But how can we expect otherwise? He has no office in the constituency. The neighbouring community centre is not accessible to him. He cannot rent a hall or room to meet the residents.
I recall visiting the Anson community centre for the purpose of writing an article for the Workers’ Party organ. A modern Peranakan-styled building, it had many rooms and a large hall. I looked at the occupancy chart and realised that all those air-conditioned rooms were mainly unused for a large part of the week.
Yet when Jeyaretnam asked for permission to conduct tuition classes in those empty rooms, his request was denied.
Jeyaretnam was hampered in all his activities. But he was loved by the residents of Anson. When he organised the lantern festival, children and parents turned up for the walk.
Jeyaretnam wanted to improve the lives of the residents in Anson. I remember he asked me to research into how he could set up a child care centre. I did but in the end, had to recommend that it was not feasible. The plan was shelved because it needed too much money.
What was most exciting for me when Jeyaretnam was elected, was seeing him on television. The PAP thought he would be drowned in a house of 74 PAP MPs. But he was a lion in the house. Parliament became alive with his presence. It was so different from the 1970s. As a young adult then, I had occasionally dropped into parliament to see what was going on. It was then a one party house and I was certainly not impressed when I saw ministers and MPs sleeping in the air-conditioned house, some even had their legs on the backs of those cushy seats.
It is very tough to be in the opposition in Singapore. Everything is stacked against them, especially when you don’t have a single seat in parliament.
After losing Yuhua in 2011, I visited the market place, coffee shops and some needy families there. I helped looked into some of their problems. I toyed with the idea of setting up a social network there. During the 9 days of campaigning in Yuhua, I had a rough idea of what can be done to improve the lives of residents there. But at the end, I gave up because the obstacles and expenses were just too much. And the question that looms large was, what if I don’t get elected in the next general election? How was I going to carry on such activities without an income and an office?
I am disappointed to read ugly comments on facebooks about the poor quality of opposition candidates and their leaders. Let me say something about what it takes to stand up for election as an opposition candidate.
Firstly, it takes a lot of guts. When I stood for election in 2011, I was fearful of being sued for defamation and charged for frivolous offences. I was afraid of being bankrupted as had happened to Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee Soon Juan.
Secondly, it takes a lot of hard work and energy, even though the campaigning period is only 9 days. Walking up and down blocks of flats, visiting MRT stations and bus terminals is not easy. Critics accuse candidates of doing this leg work only during the 9 days. But really, even if you walked the blocks long before the election, the gerrymandering team may just decide to wash out all your hard work by changing the boundaries. This has happened to constituencies of both the WP and the SDP. So the question that such critics must ask themselves is whether they themselves will have the time and energy to walk the blocks without the certainty that the residents they visited will be the ones who can vote for them.
I would add that it is different for the incumbent PAP MPs. They have teams of grassroot volunteers running up and down blocks, ascertaining which resident will open the door and have a conversation with the MP for a photography session. The visit is targeted and the MP turns up at selected units only. He does not walk up and down blocks like the opposition candidates do. I am told that the MP waits in the comfort of his huge limousine and is escorted to the unit who welcomes him. The camera crew will be there to photograph the event. This is not the case with the opposition candidate who walks incognito! If he has the chance to speak with a resident, he is happy to do so. Otherwise, he slips brochures and pamphlets under the doors and leaves quietly.
Thirdly, the cost involve in standing for election is high The election deposit itself is about $14,500. This of course is not an issue for PAP candidates. But for the opposition, it is a real issue. And if a candidate fails to garner 12% of the votes, he loses this deposit.
Election campaigns involve the printing of publicity materials within a very short time, banners, posters and building stage for rallies, arranging good sound system and lighting etc. All these cost a huge amount of money. It is estimated that it costs approximately $30,000 to support just one candidate for the election. Again, this sum is small for the PAP but it is huge for the opposition.
Finally, speaking to a large crowd at an election rally is not a small feat. Not everyone is an orator like Minister Tharman and Dr Chee. Preparing a speech every day in addition to walking the blocks is not easy.
Having said all these, I hope voters will appreciate the brave opposition candidates and thank them and their parties for giving us the opportunity to vote. If we do not give them a chance to serve us in parliament, most of them will remain invisible. The only difference today is that you can visit their blogs and facebooks. Ask them questions and engage them. But don’t demand that they knock on your door. It is not fair.