Last week I attended the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) rally at the open field along Clementi Avenue 4. Took the whole family along, kids included. There was something of a carnival atmosphere, with stalls set up along the sides selling books written by party members, as well as party merchandise. The speeches were mostly engaging (there is a clear and undeniable difference in standards of speaking within the team, and the best speakers were the ones that went last. I think this happens at every rally). Details of the speeches can be found on many websites, including The Online Citizen, a site that is fast turning out to be one of the most respected sources for local political news. I was impressed with Alec Toc’s speech in Mandarin, which was powerfully phrased and effectively delivered. Michelle Lee presented explanations about economic policies in tweet-worthy bytes. Tan Jee Say was eloquent about his alternative economic plan. Vincent Wijeysingha delivered a beautifully worded speech about the need to rebuild community by looking beyond financial goals. I listened carefully to every single speech, and so did the rest of the crowd. There were some collective cheers and jeers at the appropriate trigger words, and a great deal of enthusiasm about the whole process.
Last night I was at the Workers’ Party rally at Serangoon stadium. The crowd was about about twice the size of the SDP one that I had seen the week before (I am basing this on the numbers announced at the end of each rally. I have no idea how to estimate crowd size), and delightfully distracting. A number of people had attached rows of party flags to fishing rods and were waving them around. Someone had a mock ballot box on a pole. Another held up a mock Kate Spade box (mean, I know. In fact when the name of the candidate associated with that item was brought up, a chant of ‘Kate Spade, Kate Spade’ went around). There was a mix of people from all walks of life, and you got the feeling that this crowd was as ‘heartland’ as they came.
Thank goodness the weather was good. They got us all to sit on the grass so that everyone could get an unobstructed view. It took some time to do this, because some didn’t want to sit down. But the power of the crowd prevailed. Every person who remained standing got pressured with roars of ‘SIT DOWN’ from the back till they finally gave in. One caucasian man stood for a while and got a special ‘Eh! Ang moh! Sit down!’ which led to a burst of laughter from around where I was. Some problems with the speakers (the audio equipment) created a few crowd-unity moments as well. In Hokkien, Mandarin and English, we yelled out that we couldn’t hear. I wanted so much to tweet as the rally was going on, but as more and more people streamed in, the network connection dropped.
As usual, the best speakers went last. Chen Show Mao, Low Thia Kiam, Pritam Singh and Sylvia Lim were outstanding in the authority and clarity which which they addressed their massive audience. No unkind digs. Just a systematic destroyal of all the arguments that had been brought up against their candidacy (I am being intentionally general here. As I said, details of the speeches can be found elsewhere). Among the issues raised were the danger of losing a minister if the WP won the Aljunied GRC (someone had a sign suggesting that the minister could run for President so we wouldn’t lose him altogether), the hot topic of ministers’ pay (the suggestion given was to benchmark it to the pay of ministers in other developed countries), and the apology delivered by the PM a couple of days ago (it took the pressure of a real fight at the General Elections to draw this apology out, was the observation, proving the need for a credible opposition voted into parliament).
I think my favourite moment of the rally came towards the end, when Pritam Singh led us in reciting the National Pledge. 30,000 people, at the tops of their voices, proclaiming their commitment to the building of a democratic society. What does that entail? We are not new to the concept of democracy, but we are new to how it works. Not everyone understands what it means to be a citizen in such a nation. It’s going to take some work fleshing out the details and trickling them down. A vibrant and fair General Election, with open competition and widespread participation, is certainly a start. But as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It all boils down to tomorrow, when we go to the polls.
I am no political analyst. I leave evaluations of the various party manifestos, the track record of the government and the ins and outs of the political process to the experts. But what I do know is that whatever the results, there is no going back. Just the fact that so many credible opposition candidates have stepped forward to contest – in the face of huge odds like ever-expanding GRCs and ever-changing electoral boundaries, a climate of self-censorship, a culture of mass political apathy and a lack of a free press – is a sign of progress. Do we have the courage to vote for them? Even if they do manage to get into parliament, will they be effective in using the mechanisms of the political system to represent their constituents? Will we have the energy to hold them accountable even as we protect our delicate nascent democracy?
I hate to end with a cliche, but I suppose only time will tell.