To all political pundits, I’m offering you a brief inside peek of what it takes to be in an alternative political party.
Before you misread this as a sore loser article trying to gain sympathy, I just want to say, you won’t know it until you’re in it six feet deep. Neither are these views unique to alternative parties, only that 50 years of managing the political landscape has given the People’s Action Party the competitive edge, so the field is tilted to their advantage with more logistic, administrative and human resources.
Conflating the personal and the party
To start off, no one in your old circle of friends really support your participation in “opposition” politics unless they themselves are core opposition supporters. You don’t get many people offering to volunteer because they are either ‘neutral’ to politics or busy with their own lives. You’re likely to be avoided or cold shouldered by people you know. Most question your character, your personality and your motivations. Even though some may have sincere intentions, these are few and far between. People begin to watch you like a hawk, waiting to spring on you in case you slip.
Being a member in an alternative party requires discipline, endurance and conviction. People are constantly evaluating you, both inside and outside the party. There are endless debates within the party, and ideas are not readily accepted if anyone has the slightest doubt. Since we are volunteers, emotions are raw and convictions are often questioned. Knowing how to trust a person to do the right job requires trial and error. But due to various constraints, you often can’t find the right person and end up doing the work yourself. You learn to validate people only after each task is complete.
Moles and personal agendas are common in any political party. Sometimes promises are made and broken without clear explanations. You just need to read between the lines. There are people who genuinely want to do good, but a few others harbour vague intentions. These intentions do not surface till the eleventh hour and they will usually surprise you. You become highly observant of people.
Time and timing are always crucial in a party, especially near the elections. You need to keep tab of the media and hot button issues that affect the party and the country. And you need to be constantly on your feet to respond in a concise and diplomatic manner, lest anyone misinterprets what is said or written. Since flaming political parties appears to be a national past time for certain pundits, you need to be mindful yet stoic when you receive and respond to criticism.
When engaging with the public, you need to do it right for every individual. While most may be warm when approached, you need to study their body language. You can’t be intrusive or distant, overly passionate or mildly disinterested. You have to be engaging only when they are open to you. You don’t want to overwhelm or under-inspire another person because, despite the brief encounter, their experience with you may determine their vote.
The mainstream media often do not pick up our press release or news unless they are ‘newsworthy’ by their own definition. So our website and social media channels become the trusted mode of public outreach. If you think that social media has a large audience across broad demographics, you are wrong. If you assume that Facebook ‘likes’ equate to supporters, you are wrong too. If you believe that positive comments translate to tacit agreement, this can’t be any further from the truth. Online commentators are just venting and complaining. Most just want to be heard, and some want to be heard again and again. I finally understood that social media is used as a platform not to educate, but to titillate. It appeals to the fast moving mind, but not to the slow moving heart.
Preparing for battle
The selection of a candidate and constituency is not a walk in the park. Aside from the negotiations with other opposition parties, we have to evaluate the broad demographics of the electorate. If the candidates are standing in a GRC, we need to compare their age, gender, race and complementary strengths. We also need to decide if the PAP candidates are more competitive than us. All these, with the view that we have only nine days of campaigning ahead of us.
With limited funds, candidates need to raise their own money. Sometimes, the candidate can barely cough up the S$14,500 election deposit. If a candidate does not achieve the minimum 12.5 per cent vote share, he/she not only forfeits the deposit, but is unlikely to stand a chance at the next election. So it is with much anxiety and trepidation that the party puts forward its slate of candidates.
Fighting the system
These issues concerning the party, candidates and public engagements are small compared to the state of play outside in the political arena. Rules and regulations governing what a political party cannot do surpass what it can do.
Funding sources are narrow and prescriptive. No donations from foreign sources with ‘political links’ are allowed. Anonymous donations are limited to a maximum amount of S$5,000 in total per reporting year. Fear of being identified as a donor keeps wealthier Singaporeans at bay. Potentially generous donors often give false hopes, because they want to know who the candidates will be prior to donating. This presents a damn-if-you-do, damn-if-you-don’t dilemma. So with limited access to large funding sources, alternative parties need to sell souvenirs and memorabilia to raise funds, and only during rallies.
Videos produced by the party face restrictions by the Media Development Authority, limited to non-partisan or unbiased films that are unlikely to affect voting in any election or elicit calls for national referendum. Broadcasts concerning the party’s or candidate’s declaration of policies or ideology for the purpose of election are allowed, but they cannot be accompanied by “animated or dramatic elements”.
All things considered, a political party can only document events, seminars or interviews without any animation or dramatisation that showcase unscripted or “reality” based events, persons or situations. The terms are intentionally so broad and vague that we are unable to understand what MDA’s Film Act actually means.
The fact that the official media limits the publication and portrayal of political parties is widely known. But what is not so common knowledge is how they do so. Take, for instance, my experience with a local broadcaster to get our party’s script cleared for TV during this general election. As the person who submitted the script, I was required to stay behind for six hours until I received clearance from their legal department. On that occasion, their representative highlighted four short sentences in our script that contained a few “potentially defamatory” names and words. I sought clarification for why these words were defamatory, but the representative merely said they do not want to be liable for the statements made by the party and wanted us to relook the content.
To us, none of these four factual sentences contained any malice or misrepresentation. Besides, they were written for political broadcasts, so why are their lawyers so nervous? Don’t they have a disclaimer that political viewpoints represent only those of the party and not of the broadcaster? They did not allow me to speak to their lawyers. Running late for a rally that evening, I finally had to leave without getting the script cleared. That script was eventually approved with amendments next morning for TV broadcast after we assured that it had been published, without any revisions, by one mainstream newspaper. Was the broadcaster practising self-censorship in an attempt to limit what the party can say?
Landslide vs an uphill task
So, to the pundits and voters that flame political parties and candidates and pick on little mistakes and gaffes, please don’t miss the woods for the trees. Despite the limits exerted on alternative parties, we are deadly serious in the contest for mindshare. In the next five years, alternative parties will have a lot at stake.
Assisting a political party has been a valuable experience despite the reality check. It may appear to some that this has been, yet again, a thankless job after GE2015. Even some Singaporeans are beginning to question the purpose of having alternative parties at all if Singaporeans are so fearful of regime change. We won’t know if our hard work will ever translate to victory with all the odds stacked against us in the future. But if it does, a thankless job becomes hugely satisfying.
To attain that victory, perhaps there is a need to consolidate. Whether alternative parties will unite under one party to challenge the incumbent remains questionable and controversial, and the process would surely be filled with pain for the people and parties involved. But this might be a reality we have to eventually face before GE2020.
Nevertheless, now is not the time for strategic decisions. Rather, it is time for introspection, by both the political parties and voters, to think about the democracy we currently have and the one we want to create.
The author is a member of an alternative political party, but the views expressed here are his personal observations based on his experiences gained on the ground during the general election.