COMMENT: I miss physical rallies, but we had our fair share of fun this GE2020

·8-min read
PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock greets a PAP member and residents during a party walkabout on Saturday (4 July). (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)
PSP chief Tan Cheng Bock greets a PAP member and residents during a party walkabout on Saturday (4 July). (PHOTO: Joseph Nair for Yahoo News Singapore)

by Sean Lim

My baptism of fire when it came to elections happened when I was 16. That year was the watershed election when the People’s Action Party (PAP) lost a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to the opposition Workers’ Party (WP).

What I remembered most from that 2011 election was attending a WP rally and being overwhelmed by the high octane crowd and speeches. It felt as if I was at a pop star’s concert, except that speakers belted out speeches instead of songs. The speeches were rousing too, especially when former WP chief Low Thia Khiang spoke in Teochew and gave memorable soundbites.

It was during this election that Low said his famous line: “A co-driver is there to slap the driver when he drives off course or when he falls asleep or drives dangerously.” He was referring to the WP themselves as the check and balance on the ruling PAP government.

The rally was the epitome of political theatre, with spectators cheering and chanting party slogans, making loud jeers and sarcastic quips whenever a WP politician mentions the ruling party. I see it as a once-every-five-years political festival for Singaporeans to let off steam. It was quite cathartic, actually. And I relished the lively and exciting atmosphere of an opposition party rally.

Before you call me out as an opposition supporter, I also attended a PAP rally that year. The turnout might have been smaller than WP’s, but it was still memorable for me as I saw then Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan shed tears. He was emotional after recalling how residents in Sembawang GRC had asked him about his health after the heart bypass he underwent the year before. And yes, I also took a picture with a drenched Chan Chun Sing, who was a PAP newbie then.

That is why when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, I prayed that it would blow over quickly just like SARS. Only then could we have a conventional election with the hustle and bustle of campaigning. Alas, it was not to be.

As such, I expected this election to be a boring and subdued affair, especially with restrictions on mass gatherings. That meant traditional rallies could no longer be held. Another dampener was when the Elections Department did not allow dialects to be used for the one-time-off constituency broadcasts. Somehow, dialects make speeches more spirited.

Now that campaigning is coming to a close, I have to say it was not as bad as I expected. I had my fair share of fun laughing at election memes circulating online and bloopers from politicians. Like, ahem, Reform Party’s Charles Yeo’s televised address and DPM Heng’s “East Coast Plan”. We laugh not out of malice, but more in recognition that politicians are also prone to gaffes like ordinary folk.

The author at a Workers' Party rally in Yishun Stadium during the GE 2011 hustings. (PHOTO: Sean Lim)
The author at a Workers' Party rally in Yishun Stadium during the GE 2011 hustings. (PHOTO: Sean Lim)

COVID election doesn’t mean no drama

Thanks to Phase 2 of safe reopening measures, I could meet up with friends over dinner (fewer than five) to gossip about politics, which was fulfilling because it is political discourse at a personal level.

They used to be less interested in politics because they had not reached the voting age of 21. Now with some skin in the game, they are understandably more absorbed with developments over the past few days. Some were overwhelmed by the countless e-rallies online and politicking by different parties. We sought each other’s views on issues and shared what we thought about the slate of candidates.

My friend and I thought this election would be boring because we did not expect any hot button issues to appear. We were reminded by news reports on how the PAP romped home to victory in GE2001 because of a “flight to safety” mentality from an impending financial crisis caused by the September 11 attacks in the United States.

At that election, the party received 75.3 per cent of the votes and won 82 of 84 seats in the House. We expected the overall mood this time to be “rallying behind the government” and “giving the PAP a strong mandate”. It seems like an easy battle for the PAP when GE2020 is made out to be a crisis election and political minuses are cast aside.

We were wrong. Even without traditional rallies to rah-rah the electorate, the hustings was not totally bland. It started in mid-June with the first salvo by PAP, who criticised WP chief Pritam Singh for supporting Singapore poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at, saying Alfian is not a “loving critic” of Singapore.

When the PAP’s slate of candidates were introduced, there were revelations of candidate Ivan Lim’s character and conduct online, eventually leading to his withdrawal from the election.

Things escalated quickly once campaigning officially commenced. There was a kerfuffle over Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Soon Juan’s claim of a 10 million population, which was debunked by the PAP as a falsehood. PAP ministers said Singaporeans do not need to vote for the opposition because the Constitution has guaranteed up to 12 Non-Constituency MPs with equal voting rights in Parliament, while opposition parties called that a political ploy.

The war of words continued with parties criticising the PAP government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, while the PAP said they had done a good job. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the opposition parties were “completely silent” on plans to tackle the crisis.

The issue which gained traction among young voters was the Raeesah Khan episode, during which a police report was lodged over social media posts made by the WP candidate for Sengkang GRC. Ms Khan had allegedly said that Singapore’s law enforcement authorities discriminated against citizens and rich Chinese, and white people were treated differently under the law.

It is even said that this election is a “po mata” (Hokkien for calling the police) election because:

  • A police report was also lodged against the whistleblower, for alleged harassment and posting comments on social media with a deliberate intent to wound religious or racial feelings.

  • Separately, another person reported DPM Heng to the police for his remarks on a non-Chinese prime minister. The Attorney-General’s Chambers said no offence was committed.

  • Editor of The Online Citizen Terry Xu lodged a police report against Polish national Michael Petraeus for trying to influence the election via his Critical Spectator page.

  • In light of the Raeesah Khan episode, a police report was lodged against social media influencer Xiaxue over an alleged racist tweet from 2010.

The author with Mr Chan Chun Sing, who was a new PAP candidate, at a rally at Woodlands Stadium during the GE 2011 hustings. (PHOTO: Sean Lim)
The author with Mr Chan Chun Sing, who was a new PAP candidate, at a rally at Woodlands Stadium during the GE 2011 hustings. (PHOTO: Sean Lim)

Attempts to recreate the election atmosphere

Some Singaporeans tried their best to recreate the political atmosphere at the coffee shops and hawker centres. The PAP and Progress Singapore Party (PSP) were having spontaneous cheering matches, with supporters from each side shouting “PAP” and “Tan Cheng Bock”, the latter referring to the PSP secretary-general.

Putting aside people flouting safe distancing measures while doing so and the Elections Department’s latest advisory to refrain from such shouting matches, the cheering and shouting, with hordes of people crowding around the candidates, are reminiscent of traditional rallies and walkabouts which I missed dearly.

I was fortunate enough to observe and experience a walkabout last Friday (3 July), when the PSP team visited ABC Brickworks Food Centre. The food centre is under Tanjong Pagar GRC, where the party is contesting against the incumbent PAP. It was a pleasant surprise because I had not intended to hunt for walkabouts. I was only there for lunch with a friend.

I decided to follow the entourage — which Dr Tan and Lee Hsien Yang were part of — as they walked through the food centre. I saw stall owners cheering them on and customers approaching those two celebrity figures for a selfie.

The whole atmosphere was made even more exciting when I could hear camera shutters from press photographers clicking furiously away. The highlight of that walkabout was when Lee stood in front of a chicken rice stall, which had photographs of the owner with Lee’s father, Lee Kuan Yew, and his older brother, Lee Hsien Loong. In millennial lingo, the picture was meme-worthy.

I will need to eat my words. The election is not underwhelming after all.

Overheard from a journalist: “The 38 Oxley Road saga has reached one full circle”. (PHOTO: Sean Lim)
Overheard from a journalist: “The 38 Oxley Road saga has reached one full circle”. (PHOTO: Sean Lim)

Sean Lim recently graduated with a political science degree from the National University of Singapore. The views expressed are his own.

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