by Christalle Tay
SINGAPORE – There will be a lunchtime rally by the People’s Action Party (PAP) on Monday (6 July) at noon.
But instead of its usual spot in the CBD area, where rallies in previous elections drew scores of white-collar workers out on lunch breaks, it will be streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.
Lunchtime rallies have historically been fiery affairs. Started in 1959 when the PAP decided to contest all parliamentary seats, they have been in every election except in 2001, when they ceased out of concern about terrorist attacks after 9/11.
It was at a lunchtime rally that the late Lee Kuan Yew delivered one of his most iconic speeches in 1980, detailing what happened behind closed doors in the dispute between Singapore Airlines (SIA) and the pilot union (SIAPA).
Three pilots and a flight engineer had refused to work beyond the minimum hours stipulated in their contracts and were summoned to his office, where he gave them an ultimatum: Work, or the airline would be grounded.
“Let there be no mistake about this. Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him, or give it up,” said Lee. “This is not a game of cards. This is your life and mine. I spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I am in charge, no one is going to knock it down.”
Here are some memorable lunchtime rallies from the last two decades:
2006: The Gomez albatross and the opposition
A Workers’ Party (WP) candidate for Aljunied GRC that year, Dr James Gomez had wrongly accused the Election Department (ELD) of losing his minority candidate application form, a prerequisite to run in the election. It was later revealed that he had misplaced it in his briefcase, for which he apologised and explained he was “distracted”.
The mistake, however, drew him flak from ruling party big wigs, including Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong at his lunchtime rally on 3 May 2006.
“I know there's feedback that this is overkill, this is typical PAP, we hit too hard, sledgehammer,” he said. “But it was not an honest administrative mistake. Gomez was dishonest. He planned this dastardly trick to discredit the Elections Department and the Government, and that's why we can't just move on.”
PM Lee added that WP chief Low Thia Khiang should take a stand on the matter, or risk the party being dragged down by the “Gomez albatross”, what he called Dr Gomez.
To persuade the “young intelligentsia” who believed more opposition in the Parliament would encourage the PAP to do a better job, PM Lee claimed it would be a distraction.
“So their job is to make life miserable for me so that I screw up and they can come in and sit where I am here and take charge.”
“In fact, as one Taiwanese economist says, too much political competition is affecting Taiwan's normal functioning. So big decisions cannot be made, wrong decisions are taken. Even a couple of pandas given by the Chinese - cannot agree where to put the pandas.”
WP chair Sylvia Lim, who was named in his speech, said later that it was worrying if the PM was unable to concentrate on leading the country simply because more opposition MPs were elected.
Singapore Democratic Alliance candidate Steve Chia said it was an excuse. “They (PAP) just want an easy time in Parliament," he said.
2011: When PM Lee said “I’m sorry”
Attendees at the PAP’s first lunchtime rally in 2011 got to hear the PM apologise — twice. It was one of the PAP’s toughest elections, with the electorate disgruntled over higher housing prices and congestion in public transport, among others.
"These are real problems, we will tackle them. But I hope you will understand when these problems vex you or disturb you or upset your lives, please bear with us, we are trying our best on your behalf.”
He continued, "And if we didn't quite get it right, I'm sorry. But we will try better the next time."
Later he repeated: "We're sorry we didn't get it exactly right, but I hope you will understand and bear with us because we are trying our best to fix the problems.".
The PM also acknowledged the government’s mistakes, citing the escape of terrorist Mas Selamat and the Orchard Road floods. No government is perfect, he said, but the government “has been right more often than wrong.”
"Good as we are, we and the PAP in particular, must never become self-satisfied". Wearing white, he said, referring to the PAP’s de facto uniform, does not give you an "automatic right to become the government".
But the showcase of humility was still not enough to save the PAP’s majority vote from dipping to its lowest, at 60 per cent. Or the first GRC — Aljunied — from falling into the opposition’s hands.
2011: Apology not accepted
SDP candidates did not buy into the PM’s apology, and they expressed this in a lunchtime rally the very next day. Dr Gomez, this time running under the SDP banner, called it an electoral tactic to win over voters.
“They have no confidence, they are using the last salvo of apologies and sympathy appeal. Lee Hsien Loong, our candidate in Ang Mo Kio GRC, you have reduced our election to sympathy gathering,” he said. “Remember, we are fighting the election on policy alternatives, not apologies and tears.”
Dr Gomez took aim at PM Lee, “You do not have the standing of a prime minister going into an electoral battle.”
Fellow candidate Ang Yong Guan also addressed the PM’s apology, saying, "As a professional, you make a mistake, you pay for it! Even if you do not get paid for the job, you cannot say, 'sorry, I will do better next time, let's forget about it' and the famous 'let's move on!'"
2015: The one where the prodigal son returns
SDP chief Chee Soon Juan returned to the political arena in 2015, after being barred from the last two elections because he had been declared a bankrupt. On 7 September, the party held the first lunchtime rally of the election season.
“The PAP keeps suing the opposition. Taking them to court and suing us for defamation,” said Dr Chee, who was sued by the late Lee and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. His bankruptcy had been over lawsuit damages he owed them. “Why? Because they say we have damaged its reputation.”
He continued, “I say, reputation is temporary, character is permanent.”
The PM hit back in a lunchtime rally of his own the next day: "I agree. I think Dr Chee has every reason to know that character is permanent (and) doesn't change."
Though Dr Chee’s appearance was much anticipated, the rest of SDP’s rally remained colourful. Khung Wai Yeen, the candidate for Bukit Panjang SMC, said the PAP had baited the people with various plans, such as Jalan Besar GRC's facilities improvement master plan.
“Let us move past the dangling of carrots. I hope that the PAP, as the big brother, can level up up its game to have a constructive conversation rather than having to campaign again and again with carrots. My friends, are we rabbits?”
It was not the only animal analogy. Bryan Lim, who was contesting in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, drew a comparison between Dr Chee and a tiger:
“Do you want Dr Chee’s efforts for the past 15 years to go down the drain? Shall we grant the prime minister’s wish and send the tiger to parliament? Let’s give the man a tiger!”
Dr Chee’s teammate for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, Dr Paul Tambyah, also had a memorable remark. He commended Tharman Shanmugaratnam, then-Deputy Prime Minister, for not engaging in gutter politics.
“Many of us in the alternative parties hope that one day DPM Tharman will have a falling out with the Prime Minister, and will come out to lead a grand coalition of opposition parties – Pakatan Rakyat Singapura!”
It was a reference to Malaysia’s opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat.
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