Reflections on the morning after

9 05 2011

Many had thought, or at least hoped that Singapore’s General Elections held on the 7th of May 2011 would be a watershed for politics in Singapore. With the dust now settling after what must have been one of the most exciting campaigns for a long time, the scorecard of 81 to 6 does make it look as if nothing much has changed, with the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) holding an overwhelming majority, and the opposition left to contend with an ineffective representation in Parliament. We do have to look a little further than the headlines on the front page though, to realise that the elections is indeed a watershed for Singapore in many ways.

81-6 read the front page of the Straits Times on the morning after, but what should really have been on the front pages of the news was the erosion of support for the ruling party.

Besides the PAP which retained its hold on power, the other party that perhaps had a victory of sorts was the opposition Workers’ Party, adding five more seats from winning in a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) beyond the Single Member Constituency (SMC) that they previously held in Hougang. In that we also saw a big shift in the positions of the opposition parties, with the Workers’ Party (WP) increasing their share of the votes and giving a good a good account of themselves; while veteran politician Chiam See Tong’s decision in his twilight years to contest in a GRC and have his wife Lina stand in Potong Pasir, a seat he has held for some 27 years, saw him and his Singapore People’s Party (SPP) lose their previously held seat by the narrowest of margins. There is no doubt that all that is significant and does show that there is a huge shift in the political landscape, with the WP showing that it is a force in politics, and with the PAP losing a GRC the first time since their introduction in 1988, but also a senior member of the Cabinet, Foreign Minister George Yeo. The GRCs, which account for the majority of constituencies in Singapore’s electoral map, is a grouping of three or more constituencies in which its MPs are voted in as a group, the purpose of which is to ensure adequate representation of minorities with at least one member of the group being from an ethnic minority group. The system has been much criticised by opponents on the grounds that it serves as a huge barrier to what were previously fragmented opposition parties who had difficulty in putting together a large enough group of candidates to contest in the GRCs.

Despite strong support on the ground for Mr Chiam and his wife Lina Chiam, his gamble to stand in a GRC leaving Mrs Chiam to contest in Potong Pasir, saw the Chiam's long association with the ward end. Mrs Chiam lost by the thinnest of margins of less than 1% of the valid votes.

One of the important statistics related to the outcome of the elections would be the 6% fall in the ruling party’s share of votes to some 60.14%. The party had up until 1981, enjoyed 13 years of absolute control of Parliament, and had long had strong support from the population. Of late, voter disaffection and the increased awareness of a hitherto apathetic electorate, plus a desire to have greater representation for alternative views in Parliament has seen support eroded from over 75% of the popular vote at its highs to a historical low of close to 60% this election. While this and the huge majority it has in Parliament does indicate that there is still popular support for the party which has ruled Singapore since its independence, the fact that support is being eroded so much so that now 4 out of every 10 Singaporean voters have voted against the ruling party, signifies a worrying trend for the party.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam of the Workers

The lead up to the General Elections saw the largest crowds attending the Workers' Party's rallies. Despite the rain and the muddy conditions on the ground - the crowd that gathered on the penultimate day of campaigning at Ubi Avenue 2 resulted in traffic jams in the area.

This time around, the social media provided a powerful platform for an airing of the opinions of the disaffected, where previously there was none. It was in fact with the social media that the rules of engagement had changed. This was recognised by all parties as a means to reach out to a new generation of social media savvy voters, with a fifth of the electorate below the age of 30. Where in previous elections, the airing of opinions did not go beyond exchanges within one’s circles of friends and relatives, and perhaps on the backseat of a taxi, the social media was able to extend the reach much further to many who shared similar views. This in a sense provided a previously apathetic electorate with a platform for a political awakening and in a collective desire by like minded people to perhaps challenge the status quo. One factor that may have played a part in the small but noticeable swing of votes may have been the platform not being understood well enough by certain quarters of the ruling establishment.

A Worker's Party election campaign banner seen outside Parliament House on Election Day. Many Singaporeans want to see an wider representation in Parliament.

Whatever it was, the election was a watershed for me. I am one who believes that all voices should be heard and that the task of running the country I was born in shouldn’t be left to one group of people who belong to a single party, no matter how well qualified they may appear. I do not dispute that the ruling party which has ruled Singapore since independence has done an excellent job in transforming Singapore into an economic success that many at the point of independence would not have imagined, as well as in addressing the needs of a population that has steadily risen from some 1.9 million during independence to just over 5 million at the end of last year. I don’t think for a moment that I, or for that matter many other like minded voters who cast a vote for change, are being ungrateful, or have forgotten what the previously leadership has done as some would like to think. There is certainly no doubt in my mind that as of today, there is no party that is better positioned to manage a nation that has been so well managed. What I did was, to cast a vote for a future which will include a voice for what has long been a voiceless minority; for a system that has the capacity to address the genuine concerns of the many on the ground who have fallen by the wayside; and for some sensibility to return to the leadership of a country that has become so consumed by their success that they have forgotten what the party had stood for all those years back, It is only by having an alternative voice in Parliament that can engage the ruling party as equals, not just for now, but for time to come that this can ensure that this happens. I am proud to say that I am one of the four out of every ten that said yes to this, and while this on a National level hasn’t translated to more than a handful of alternative voices in our next Parliament, it has seen what I hope is a new dawn – a “shift” as Prime Minister Lee put it in politics that I hope will also transform those in the ruling party to recognise what the people of Singapore are asking for. The signs so far are positive and as PM Lee himself has indicated in his post victory speech: “We hear all your voices” and that it was a “time for healing and for acceptance of the people’s decision, not just for the PAP but for all Singaporeans”. I was there to celebrate the victory of the WP team of Aljunied, and when the official announcement was made that the WP had been successful in winning Aljunied GRC, I found a cause to celebrate, as I did with that by-election victory in Anson all those years back. It did take 30 years to arrive where we are, but with what is recognised as a new political climate in Singapore, what I hope comes out of this is the start of a shift towards a more open and inclusive political system, one that Singapore as a first world country should ultimately have.

Sunset on Election Day brought bright colours - perhaps signifying the optimisation many had for a mature democracy in Singapore.

A historical moment? The celebration at Hougang Stadium in the wee hours of 8 May:

A large crowd of Workers' Party faithful gathered at Hougang Stadium streaming in from as early as 5pm on Election Day in anticipation of the election results.

The crowd holding a poster of the WP candidates for Aljunied GRC.

Mr Yaw Shin Leong, WP's candidate for Hougang SMC who won with a margin of close to 30%, after his victory speech.

Lawyer Chen Show Mao - part of WP's team in Aljunied waving to the crowd.

A supporter trying to get a good view of the winning team's departure from Hougang Stadium - certainly not one who sat on the fence.

With 6 MPs now in Parliament, will the WP hammer away at the PAP's overwhelming majority in the future?


Blood and politics at the Cape of Stakes

28 05 2010

In writing a recent post relating to the news of the shift of the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station, as well as in my recent wanderings around the Tanjong Pagar area, I was reminded me of two events in which the Tanjong Pagar area came can be said to have come under attack. The first, is a fourteenth, or perhaps fifteenth century tale from the Malay Annals, the Sejarah Melayu, a myth which has more recently been retold to our children as the story of how Redhill (Bukit Merah) got its name. The tale was perhaps better known previously as Singapura Dilanggar Todak, which was popularised by the Malay movie of the same name, made during the heydays of Malay cinema in the early 1960s, which was filmed on location at a beautiful coastal village in the north that Singapore has forgotten, one that I have my own fond memories of, Kampung Tanjung Irau. An record of this is provided by Salizah Mahmud in her tribute to her kampung.

Tanjong Pagar or the 'Cape of Stakes" is where one of the busiest posts in the world, the Port of Singapore, developed from., and laid the foundation for the many financial institutions in nearby Shenton Way.

The other attack was one that we are sure did happen, although advocates of opposition representation within the political system, were pinching themselves in disbelieve at what they had then witnessed. It was also one that shook the ruling party, and which took them a while to come to terms with. It was an event that was significant for its impact on the political landscape in Singapore, loosening the tight grip that the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) had on Singapore’s Parliament. That was then 1981, when for some 15 years, the PAP had absolute control of Parliament, holding every seat. With the appointment of the late Mr. C. V. Devan Nair, the Member of Parliament (MP) for Anson (Anson Constituency had occupied the southern part of Tanjong Pagar), to the Presidency of the Republic of Singapore, a by-election was called, in which, much to the astonishment of the PAP whose campaign was led by Mr. Goh Chok Tong, the opposition candidate, the late Mr. Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam from the Workers’ Party (WP), overturned a huge majority in favour of that the PAP had garnered during the 1980 General Elections, to win with 51.9% of the votes. Mr. Jeyaretnam or Jeya as he was referred to, retained his seat in the next General Elections in 1984, before being disqualified as an MP, being jailed and fined for making a false declaration in accounts of the WP. What Jeya did though, was significant enough, and it removed the fear that many in Singapore who harboured disaffection with the political system, had for voting for the opposition. This led the way for other opposition candidates to fare better in the elections that followed, with some managing to increase opposition representation, albeit small, in Parliament, and the event can be said to be the catalyst for the more open style of government that we see today.

Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam at his moment of triumph in Anson in October1981.

Back to the myth of the Singapura Dilanggar Todak, the story is one that involves an attack on Singapore’s inhabitants by todak, which are described, in the recent interpretations of the tale, as swordfish, jumping out of the water. A barricade of men, placed by the ruler, Paduka Sri Maharaja, did little to stem the tide, and resulted only in further loss of lives. Desperate to save the local population, Paduka Sri Maharaja and his advisers took the advice of a young boy who suggested erecting a barricade of banana stems. When the swordfish did attack again, they were caught in the stems allowing the ruler’s men to kill the fish. Feeling threatened by the boys genius, the advisers persuaded the ruler to kill the boy, spilling his blood, as our modern interpretations of the tale would have it, on a hill which we now call Bukit Merah or Redhill.

The building blocks of the stakes of today, a skyscraper, being laid in Tanjong Pagar.

The name Tanjong Pagar, translated into the Cape of Stakes, is thought by some circles to have originated from this myth, the stockade of banana stems being the “stakes” in the name. Some would have it though that it was the kelongs in the area was known to have that gave Tanjong pagar its name, in reference to the fishing stakes of the kelongs, with Munshi Abdullah recording that the first kelong in Singapore was set up around the corner at Tanjong Malang (which I believe is the area where Mount Palmer is). Whatever it was, the name is quite appropriate. Tanjong Pagar is indeed a cape of stakes today … it is now dominated by the stakes of modern Singapore – the skyscrapers that we see in the area today.

Modern "stakes" now dominate the Tanjong Pagar area.