Polling day reflections

Singaporeans casting their votes on 7 May 2011. (Reuters)
Singaporeans casting their votes on 7 May 2011. (Reuters)


I have never seen the likes of it -- people actually caring enough about Singapore politics to talk about it non-stop. I swear if I took a cab today, the driver might just go, "Ok, sir, do you mind if I just take you to your destination and not talk about politics during your ride?"

Before I cast my vote on Saturday, there were people who hitherto had never bothered with politics and couldn't distinguish the electoral process from a block of flats. But Nomination Day and hustings week appeared to change all that. Acquaintances and friends I met during the fortnight would ask if I was voting, and say things like "I hope you do the right thing", before following up with what has been the de facto rallying cry: "Vote bravely!"

There were also Polling Day Parties complete with home-made Polling Day Cake (yummy but with some bits having a hint of sour grape). The only people who skipped the party were the television channels, who bore the wrath of people who tuned in only to discover that Twitter and Facebook updates were a whole lot more current and exciting. A new media sensation was even born in the hours leading to the final outcome.

A nation took to their national duty with gusto -- myself included, as I drove my mother-in-law to the polling centre near our residence. We lined up outside the community centre, in the heat of the afternoon sun, where it suddenly struck me that this was the first all-Singaporean queue I've been in for as long as I can remember.

What "double-confirmed" it for me was this conversation I overheard:

Father: "How come they can drive inside and we cannot?"

Son: "Dad, they have an elderly family member who needs a wheelchair".

Father: "What? I also can say I need a wheelchair what!"

I was nervous when I marked my ballot paper, and thrilled when I completed the simplest thing I've done with pen and paper and put my vote into the ballot box, thankful that I didn't also drop my IC and money into it (seriously, what would happen then? And has it happened before?)

Then I spared a thought for the thousands living in Tanjong Pagar who didn't get a chance to exercise their democratic right even though they came agonisingly close to doing so, only to be thwarted by late paperwork.

Some of my family members live in Tanjong Pagar. Geographically speaking, they live in that part of Tanjong Pagar that is more accurately known as "Far Far North Upper Tanjong Pagar In The Middle Of The Island So That "Tanjong" Doesn't Really Mean "Headland/Cape" As It Normally Does in Malay", but I guess signboards would be a bitch to erect if they tried to be accurate.

Actually, I was kinda relieved that we didn't have to bring my father to the polling station. He doesn't fare that well out of the house, and the thought of wheeling him and queueing (although we could've parked in the polling centre) up was not very appealing.

My father may have had Parkinson's for longer than we know. There are hidden symptoms, and when he first suffered from tremors, my family wasn't that in-the-know about Parkinson's apart from what we had read about Michael J. Fox and Muhammad Ali.

Slowly and surely, the disease has taken hold over the last six years, and he's become practically immobile, save for his painfully slow efforts at feeding himself. He still insists on using chopsticks to eat peanuts (those they serve as appetizers at Chinese restaurants) even though the ratio of eaten to dropped is about 1:10.

There's also his voice, which, because of his decreasing ability to control his larynx, has been reduced to a shaky whisper. Only my siblings and I seem to know what he's saying. Or maybe we've figured out more or less what he intends to say.

I spoke to my father several weeks before Polling Day, and I said that I thought Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was probably going to stand for elections again, and that I thought the right thing for him to do was to retire as an MP and cabinet minister, since his role was more that of a "forecaster" and an ambassador-at-large. I mean, our best international negotiator, Professor Tommy Koh, isn't a minister or even an MP, right?

Pa snorted at my remark. Or at least, I thought he snorted. It's also hard to tell with some Parkinson's sufferers because their breathing can be so audible as the air passes over the muscles in the windpipe that they can't control well enough, even with medication. So he could have been snorting, chuckling, coughing at my remark, I can't say for sure, because he's lost control of many of his facial muscles as well.

Then he said, "He wants to be in Cabinet until he dies, so he can have a State funeral".

Or maybe he said, "If he wants remain in Cabinet, that's his funeral".

Or maybe just, "Can you please get my Parkinson's tablets for me, they're in the medicine cabinet".

I continued rambling about the elections as I sorted through my father's mail, while he tried to tell me the story of his encounter with Lee Kuan Yew for the hundredth time -- something about him being a clerk at a bus company in the 1950s, and how a young Harry Lee stormed into his office, introduced himself as the lawyer representing the unions, and how the bus company boss had said to my father, "Junior Mr Lee, please assist Senior Mr Lee with the books".

Then as he wheezed and snorted along, possibly ruminating on the conversation of the day, I found a credit card statement of his, showing a zero balance. So I said, "Pa, I'm gonna cancel this credit card account, ok? No point keeping it. We pay for all your things anyway, what for pay annual fee for nothing?"

My father mustered all the strength he could to control his head, his mouth, his voice, and he rebuked me for suggesting that. His wavering voice said, "Don't cancel. That one is the first credit card I ever had, you know?"

I calmed him down by saying we'd keep it. $40 or so a year in card fees isn't too much to keep something for old times' sake anyway. This seemed to cheer him up as he attempted to speak some more. He said something to the effect of not wanting to vote anyway because even putting a mark in a box on a piece of paper isn't that easy for someone with Parkinson's.

Benjamin "Mr Miyagi" Lee writes across all media except where it can be construed as graffiti. More of him on Twitter @miyagi and http://miyagi.sg