This is a speech I delivered at the Post-General Election Dialogue organised by the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) on 26 May 2011. Other panelists where Ho Soak Harn, Benjamin Pwee, Nicole Seah, Harminder Pal Singh, Vincent Wijeysingha and Alex Yam. We were all asked to speak in our personal capacity.
Mr Johnny Tan, President of NUSS, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
Good evening. I am grateful to NUSS for giving me this opportunity to address you this evening.
I have been asked to share my personal thoughts on the recent General Election, as well as my philosophies and motivations driving me to be involved in politics.
There is no doubt in my mind, that GE 2011 was a watershed election.
This GE saw an unprecedented 82 out of 87 seats contested. For the first time, the Workers’ Party broke through the GRC barrier by winning in Aljunied GRC.
The PAP’s popular vote plunged to its lowest in history since Independence, and more than 822,000 Singaporeans voted for the opposition. To put things in perspective, if you walk out on the street, an average of 4 out of every 10 Singaporeans you see voted for the opposition.
We’ve already seen some of the immediate effects from this election result.
The PAP has made sweeping changes immediately after the election in its attempt to address voters’ dissatisfaction with the Party. Several unpopular ministers are no longer in the Cabinet. Ministers’ salaries are being reviewed. Housing policies are being relooked to make flats more affordable for the sandwiched class.
This goes to show one thing: The PAP responds best to poor election results.
I am happy, not just because the Workers’ Party gained 6 seats, but more importantly because I think Singaporeans have emerged as the real winners in this GE.
Why I entered politics
I firmly believe that in a democratic society, citizens have the power to change the way their country is governed through the political process.
I didn’t enter politics because I hate the PAP, or because I enjoy criticising government policies. I have neither the energy nor the interest to engage in constant negative politicking.
I joined the Workers’ Party because I believe there is an urgent need to build up a capable and responsible alternative to the PAP. I’m glad that in the last GE, Singaporeans responded in large numbers to our election call to work towards a First World Parliament.
I contested in this GE in East Coast GRC as part of a 5-person team from the Workers’ Party.
Our team’s preparations for the election started more than 2 years before Polling Day. We conducted extensive house visits and other outreaches to residents. Because of our early start, we were able to visit almost all the 40,000-plus HDB flats and landed properties in East Coast GRC before Nomination Day.
The sense we got from residents, especially as the election drew closer, was that many were looking for change.
I was particularly gratified by the response of many residents who stepped forward as volunteers for our team. Some really gave their all to help us. When the contractor in charge of putting up our election posters was too slow, they jumped in to help us to hang up our posters and banners, even late into the night.
We had an NUS undergraduate who insisted on accompanying us on our walkabouts during the campaign, even though he was having exams that week. This is a note that he wrote to me, which I’m sharing with his permission:
“Dear Gerald…I’m still in the midst of my exams, but I’m laying aside my studies to help out in this GE because all the A’s or First Class Honours will amount to nothing if we lose Singapore. I’m only a 22 year-old…undergraduate and I can’t do much. But I can volunteer. I’m helping out as a polling and counting agent. I can use social media to influence my network. I can help out during the walkabouts…I’ve been praying and fasting for all of you since Monday.”
These are just some of the many heroes of this election. In case you’re wondering how my young friend did in his exams, I understand from him that he expects to do quite well this semester!
The way forward
With the excitement of the elections behind us, it is time to get down to the work ahead of us for the next 5 years.
There will be a total of 9 opposition MPs and NCMPs in Parliament, 8 of whom will be from the Workers’ Party. This is unprecedented in Singapore’s recent history. It is a vast improvement from the 3 opposition MPs in the last two Parliaments.
And yet, we are still a long way from having a truly First World Parliament, where an alternative party forms an effective check on the power of the ruling party. With just 6 elected opposition MPs, Government Bills and Constitutional amendments will still get passed unhindered. We don’t even have the numbers to form a Shadow Cabinet.
However, what we can do with more MPs is to be a louder voice for the concerns of Singaporeans. We’re not there as just 8 individuals, but as a team that will be able to scrutinise the Government in a more concerted and coordinated fashion, and where possible, come up with alternative solutions.
I believe a new chapter of politics in Singapore is being written. We’re seeing the first glimpses of the First World Parliament that we were hoping for. This was the first election in a long time where a lawsuit, or threat of one, did not factor in at all.
On Nomination Day, when we met Mr Lim Swee Say and his team at Bedok View Secondary School, we shook hands and agreed to have a clean fight. He even proceeded to declare that during his nomination speech. I believe we did have a clean fight in East Coast, with no smear campaigns or personal attacks. This bodes well for the future.
I also had some good conversations with many PAP MPs and younger ministers after the Cabinet swearing in ceremony at the Istana last Saturday. I sensed that many of them accept that our increased presence in Parliament would improve the quality of debates and sharpen the front bench, forcing them to think through their policies more carefully instead of bulldozing them through.
There was a tacit acknowledgement that we are all here to work for the good of Singaporeans. This is in contrast to the traditional PAP mindset that the opposition are just a bunch of troublemakers out to cause disunity in our country.
I foresee that the 12th Parliament will be characterised by more sharp debates about how we can make life better for Singaporeans, rather than tit-for-tat criticisms. This requires all the parties to develop a healthy respect for each other, and be willing to listen to and consider each other’s proposals, instead of dismissing them outright just because they do not originate from their own party.
This is the type of enlightened politics that we should all aspire towards.
The PAP says it wants to transform itself. I welcome this. If they carry though with their promise, I believe it will be good for Singapore. I expect that the political space will also open up and more capable and sincere Singaporeans will be willing to step forward to serve in politics.
By the next GE, the PAP can expect to compete with talented candidates from the Workers’ Party and other parties to win the hearts and minds of a more mature, demanding and sophisticated electorate.
We can’t do all this on our own. We need the help of all Singaporeans who care about our country. If you want to help us bring about change for the better, do consider volunteering with the Workers’ Party or joining us as members.
Thank you very much.