I recently showed two strangers a copy of GE11: We Were There, a magazine of photo essays about Singapore’s recent General Election. None of them had seen this publication before, but as they flipped through it, one of them stopped at this very photograph and said, “I remember seeing that.”
This image of Workers’ Party candidate Chen Show Mao bowing while clutching on to his identity card and passport was taken by photojournalist Edwin Koo on the last day of the election rallies. According those who attended the rally at Serangoon Stadium, Chen had held up his IC and passport while declaring to the crowd that although he had been overseas for so long, he never forgot he was a Singaporean. Before he ended his speech, Chen then bowed to the crowd, a gesture that would have resonated with the thousands gathered that night.
Just two days before Chen’s bow, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had also offered a humbling note to voters when he apologised at his People’s Action Party (PAP) rally for the mistakes his government had made in the last five years. This move, mid-way through the campaign, was seen by many political observers as PAP’s charm offensive to placate a frustrated electorate, many whom felt the party had forgotten that it was elected to serve the people. Fresh with memories of that apology, the crowd would have loved the bow that Chen made, affirming their belief that it was them, the people, who should be kowtowed to.
As someone commented on this photograph that was posted on Facebook: “The humility in this picture strikes me. A Harvard, Oxford, Stanford graduate, and corporate hotshot, bowing deeply to the common people.”
While the bow was seen by thousands at the rally, Koo’s photo has made the moment iconic by letting so many more see it. The very next day after the rally, Koo put it up on his Facebook as part of his series Notes from a Singapore Son, and it went viral on social media. Koo has also since said that Facebook helped many more see his photos as compared to if they were published on the front page of The Straits Times where he once worked.
Disseminating his photograph via the internet also made it iconic because it was part of the first election that Singaporeans participated actively online. As he wrote in a Facebook note accompanying this photo album:
“Because we have Facebook today, we can finally look at the uncensored truth. We can finally know how many people really attended the opposition rallies, and what transpired during the rallies and walkabouts. We finally have unlimited space to play our pictures, and no blind editors to tell us this picture is “not fit to print”.”
And as it turns out, the photograph has even made its way offline. Koo is exhibiting it together with others from his series Notes from a Singapore Son at the School of Photography (SOP) until 30th July. Do check it out, and you can even get hold of this iconic moment as a poster or a limited print too.