Getting an education in politics

I find it a coincidence that the year I began school also marked the beginning of Mr Low Thia Khiang’s start as my Member of Parliament in Hougang.

I was just completing my first year in primary school, when Mr Low of The Workers’ Party defeated Mr Tang Guang Seng of the People’s Action Party to win the Hougang Ward in 1991.

The only thing I remembered then was heading to the Hougang Stadium across from my house with my parents to attend the rallies of both parties.

I was dwarfed amongst the throngs who had come to hear the candidates and we were entertained for hours as they made speeches and jibes at each other. That marked the beginning of my education in politics.

It seemed like harmless entertainment then. Only years later did I learn that it was not that funny after all, as many of the opposition candidates ended up facing lawsuits for libel because of the things they said during their rallies.

In December 1996, my mornings often began with noise from the megaphone of the candidates who had hired vans to literally drive their message home. Sounds of “Vote for Low Thia Khiang” and “Vote for Heng Chee How” confused a boy who would only be beginning secondary school in a few days time.

I remembered asking my parents and myself: Who were these people?

This time around when we headed to the Hougang Stadium to watch the rallies, everything made much more sense.

Aside from the fact that I was taller and could see more of the stage, I had also become a newspaper reader.

The drama that unfolded in the days up to Polling Day filled the newspapers as personalities like Mr Tang Liang Hong and Mr J B Jeyaretnam fuelled the most exciting campaigning I have ever seen till today.

The crowd and I lapped it up, as if it was the only time our inner most grouses about the state of affairs in Singapore was articulated by tthese daring men.

They showed me how the PAP was not always right in their decisions and there was a need for more active citizenry and some kind of opposition in Parliament to ensure things were in check.

Even though both of them got sued for libel, and have become shadows of their former selves, I am still grateful for that 1997 campaign that cemented the foundations of my education in politics.

Politics, I learnt, went beyond the upgrading of flats and handouts, but rather meant a greater discussion about the direction that Singapore should take and what policies it should take to get there.

For the next five years, like every teenager who needed something to stand out, I wore the badge of living in an opposition ward with pride (yes, Mr Low Thia Khiang won again!). I felt a need to defend this pride and it forced me to keep abreast of the latest in Singapore politics through the news.

More often than not, I was disappointed, as the media was more preoccupied with the ruling party and its policies than giving a voice to the opposition. But, with only two out of 83 seats in Parliament in 1997, it is no wonder they were crowded out.

I also got to watch the estates around me get upgraded while there was hardly any upgrading in Hougang. It was the price we had to pay for voting in the opposition, I was told.

Yet, it was not as if my estate was left to crumble. We might not have the frills, but my estate has always been clean and well maintained. What more could I ask from one man as compared to one party?

More important to me, was the fact that the opposition was in Parliament to ask the questions that would often elude other members who came from the same party.

Very often, the opposition brought about a diversity of views that questioned the implementation of possibily myopic policies.

The next general elections arrived in 2001. That was when I learnt about how institution and legislation could act as barriers to the opposition.

The re-drawing of electoral boundaries wiped out the ward across the road from my hosue — Cheng San Group Representation Constituency (GRC) — and it became part of Aljunied GRC. Cheng San GRC was where The Workers’ Party almost won in 1997.

Till today, it still amuses me how you can live in Hougang and not be part of the Hougang ward, but belong to the Aljunied ward instead.

It has been 15 years and I still live in Hougang, an opposition ward. This upcoming general elections mark the first time I will be able to cast a vote. I count myself lucky, because there are Singaporeans out there who have never got this chance.

Moreover, I have been educated in the sights, sounds and thoughts of what an election is about, something which has prevented me from becoming just another apathetic Singaporean.

The Nanyang Chronicle, 29th March 2006

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