The fear factor, Singapore style

I never realised how much fear there is out there amongst Singaporeans until I experienced the General Elections first-hand.

Since I was first captured by the media in early April in the walkabouts in Nee Soon and Joo Chiat with the WP, many friends have called, SMSed or emailed me to congratulate me on my courage. After presenting my background to residents in my walkabouts as a former teaching staff at NUS and now an entrepreneur whose businesses sell mostly to government schools, some would inevitably remark “Why are you doing this? Aren’t you afraid?” or “You are so brave.”

I do not feel courageous at all. In fact, I went through and experienced many of the fear factors that are now played out in the political hustling. I have been writing to the forum pages of newspapers for a long time, but views of active citizens are treated as just feedback. They do not generally get one into any trouble so I was unafraid. In fact, despite writing mostly on alternative views, I still got invited to sit on government committees and on school advisory boards.

To run as an opposition candidate is a different game altogether. I had thought about it for a long time but had not dared to do so, nor even dared to volunteer for the activities of any political parties, namely because nearly all my businesses come from the government and I was uncertain what would happen to the businesses if I did. I sold and exited my main business a few years ago and could consider going into opposition more seriously, but the thought was rather scary. So I delayed my decision.

With GE2011 looming, I thought about it seriously again and drafted an email to Mr Low Thia Kiang and Ms Sylvia Lim.  I looked and re-looked at it, saved it as draft and re-looked again many times before I had the courage to press the SEND button. People often ask if I was invited to join the WP. No, I initiated the move, as did many of my fellow candidates. I think this is better. There’s more sincerity in coming forth than waiting for an invitation to come to you.

After sending the email, it took some days before there was a response as it coincided with a busy time for the party’s leadership. It was an anxious wait because I did not know what I had gotten myself into. But the meetings I had with various WP leaders and Mr Low left me assured that I am dealing with very logical people and more importantly, with people with a passion for something I also believe in, that Singapore should have credible alternative voices rather than rely forever on a near monopolistic rule by one party.

I didn’t expect what was to come next. My wife has so far been very supportive of all the things I have done; when I switched from academic career to a statutory board and then to a SME. We gave up our jobs to start a dotcom in 1999 when our son was just a few months old and we have two other young daughters. She is a risk-taker just like me. I thought she would readily accept my political aspiration. I was dead wrong.

I have never seen my wife protest so vigorously over any decision I had made in our 18 years of marriage. She was so emotional at one stage that it created a scene at a coffeeshop we were eating at. Her fear of what will happen to me, our family and our fledging new businesses is so great that it shocked me.  I promised her I would give up my political ambition. Hence, I know what my fellow candidate Watson Chong felt when he shared about his family objections.

Then I took a gamble. I suggested she might want to tell her mother about my political ambition. I knew my mother-in-law was a die-hard fan of MM Lee Kuan Yew and had said she will always support PAP as long as MM Lee is still around. It’s a desperate bet on the sensibility of my mother-in-law as I had no more cards to play. I knew I could not convince my wife on my own. Surprisingly, she advised my wife that if it’s my ambition, she should try to support it.

Today, my wife is won over and actively campaigning for me while helping to run our businesses in my absence. I am truly appreciative of her.

I have friends and relatives who initially agreed to be my assenters but backed out after others have warned them about being too closely associated with an opposition candidate. Various fear reasons were given, including one with a parent on pension who feared the pension would be affected if my friend supported me. Another man I met during walkabouts turned out to be my classmate’s father. I gave my name card and suggested my classmate email me as we had lost contact for a long time. The father replied that his son works for the government, so better not. Really, if the ruling party is to pursue everyone sympathetic of the opposition or people linked to those sympathetic, half of Singapore will be under investigation. That will take a very large special investigation force to do that!

As I did the walkabouts, I came across residents who still had the false belief that their votes may not be secret. Some older folks I met had even greater apprehensions. They had seen people they knew of imprisoned or removed from their jobs during the turbulent years of the 1960s. A man in his late 80s told me he was removed from his teaching job for several months for being anti-merger with Malaysia until a PAP friend helped reinstate him in his job.

The ruling party has been playing up the fear factor in other areas too. They suggested that there could be a freak result and Singapore would be left with a bad government. They warned us that there’s no margin for error and we should not experiment with the opposition. They portrayed that only the ruling party is capable of making decisions. A man living in a HDB flat about to be upgraded told me he feared losing the upgrade. The GRCs that are under the most threat of losing in GE2011 get promised big upgrading carrots. What a sad loss of dignity if we allow our own monies to be used to threaten us.

These fears that currently still exist 46 years after independence are such sad legacies of our economic progress. Yes, we may now have first world infrastructure but why are ordinary people living in such fear? Is it not your democratic right to choose who you wish to vote for and if you choose to be actively support a legitimate political cause? I hope my children will never have to live with such fears. Let the competition be about what platform a party can offer and what the candidate(s) can offer. But never let yourself be intimidated by what is rightfully yours. Live your life with dignity!


32 comments on “The fear factor, Singapore style

  1. Indeed this fear factor is very prevailing. Your wife’s initial reaction is very normal. In my home, though my parents are very unhappy, they always warn me to be careful of what I talk, for fear of getting into trouble. For you to get over the fear is also a great struggle. This is a sad fact of life. Can only pray conscience will prevail and people can act accordingly to what they think. I hope you will be strong, keep the faith.

  2. Unfortunately, we all know that a lot of people think and behave like how you described. But isn’t it really sad? A voter should gives PAP his or her vote because he genuinely believes in the party not out of fear. If we are motivated by fear of PAP and what it may do to ourselves, how can we proud of our country and our fellow Singaporeans anymore? What does it say about ourselves and our own dignity? By continuing to perpetuate such fear or allow such fear to be perpetuated, what does it say about the dignity and integrity of the PAP and the PAP members?

    For this election, I have set out to tell people what I think whenever an opportunity presents itself. The more people hear, the more their wrong assumptions are challenged. If everyone around you is talking about his disagreement with government policies and how it is important to have a strong voice in Parliament to right the wrong and provide check and balance, sooner or later, nobody will blink at such talk and start to assume that they are only right and honourable. We have to stop the hush hush culture and take back ownership of our country’s political developments. I want to be proud of my country and everything in it, including the political culture.

    • Well said. I wish there are more voters like you Dennis. I have no problems losing if I know voters reject me and the platform I stand for, but I will be disappointed if I lose because of fear.

  3. Problem is we keep hearing lots of complaints over the years, but when you looked back at the election results, people seem to be talking in one way and acting in another way! Sometimes, when you hear people complaining, sometimes you just wonder where they really stand. Which is for the reason, I avoid talking too much politics when out of home.

  4. Hi,

    I am in your ward. I found your blog when I google-d your name to find out who my WP candidate would be since I’d already known that my vote would be going to the WP no matter what. Having read your blog, I am happy that you are contesting in Joo Chiat.

    You have my vote on 7th May, and I hope many more.


  5. Hi Jenn Jong,

    Saw you and a lady(must be your wife) canvassing at upper east coast road a few nights ago. It touched me as it was quite late at night and just two of you walking table to table in the coffee shop, talking to people about The Workers’ Party and the election. I am sure your convictions and hardwork have touched lots of people in Joo Chiat. Even you do not win this time, keep doing it and I am sure you will succeed in the end. By the way, I am a resident in Joo Chiat SMC and I am voting you!

    Best Regards
    Eng Hock

    • Yes, the lovely lady is my wife. We were on our evening walk to our favourite coffeeshop on East Coast Road and might as well do some canvassing in the meanwhile. Campaign time is short. We maximize it. Every meal time at Joo Chiat coffeeshops is opportunity.

      Thanks for your support!

  6. you are absolutely right. Imagine the opposition wins half the seats. I wonder how the PAP will say they only upgrade those flats that supported PAP. Imagine ludicrously no doubt, but say if the East are in Opposition hands and the West in PAP. What a sight if you drive through from one part to another. So vote in such a way that your fear overcomes. Those who lives in the light has no fear!

    • Dear JJ and fellow Joo Chiaters
      It is so nice to read the last few messages from all of you. We have to keep the faith and believe. We have to keep up the talk. Otherwise change may never come. There is too much apathy in our country and this is letting us down. PAP is stuffing things down our throat and we are not doing enough about it.

      Comparing this election with the last, I sense that people are so much more open about their political views and their abhorrence of broken promises and poor policies of the PAP. Of course I hope that this election will not be like what Eng Hou has described about past elections. I like what Jay has said. I for one have fleeting thoughts of exactly the same vision. But we must continue to believe and to dream or it may never happen.

      The best news today is Andrew Kuan’s very gracious withdrawal and as a fellow Joo Chiat resident to another, I thank him for the withdrawal and I am sure many Joo Chiat residents will remember Andrew for his gracious act.

      JJ, best wishes to you on Nomination Day and all the best in the run up. I look forward to the hustings and hope to experience something even better and bigger than the WP Serangoon stadium rally 2006.

  7. Better not to have a 3-corner fight, or else I will be suspicious if he is ‘an agent’ planted in by the ruling party

  8. I have been living at Joo Chiat and voting past elections under Joo Chiat electoral division. I am shocked to find I cannot vote for you because I am transferred to vote in Marine Parade GRC even though I am still living in the same house.

  9. Hi Jenn Jong, I came across your blog via Worker’s Party website. This article about the ‘climate of fear’ is excellent! May I know if I can share it on FB? And how do I do it (can’t find a link)? I’m sure my friends will benefit greatly from reading your post!

  10. I voted the last 2 GEs in Joo Chiat, as my parents live in Siglap. This time, I’ve been relegated to Marine Parade even though I live only 2 lanes away from Joo Chiat Place, which I guess is the boundary of JC. I am disappointed I won’t have the WP choice this time, though heartened that I can again exercise my right as a voter.

    As a 32 year old post 65-er, I grew up with parents who espouse precisely the fear you described. I’ve lost count the number of times I had to “educate” people (who are younger than myself) who believe that their v0te isn’t secret. The Fear Culture will not change for a while, as history has left an indelible mark on the populace, only a minority has the courage and critical sense to look for evidence rather than believe in ghosts. Our schools are responsible for the lack of committment to civics education and critical thinking – why else would people equate “PAP” with “Government” when the executive, judiciary and civil service are separate organs and there is no way government will grind to a halt even if the PAP do not form the House majority?

    That said, I have confidence the young, under-30 voters will swing towards the opposition this time, being more savvy, critical and informed. My bet is it won’t trigger any “freak result”, but the PAPies will win by an even smaller margin this time. Even with defeat for the Opp, it would be a national referendum on people’s support and 50+ % of the national vote will be a global embarrassment even if they sweep all 87 seats in the worst scenario. My hope is that no matter the outcome, that you and your colleagues will continue to go at it next GE and the next! People are already impressed (i know I am) and more and more will realise that they can vote with their conscience without fear of reprisal. It will just take some more time.

    • Yeah, too much gerrymandering. No good reason why historical Joo Chiat should be in Marine Parade and Opera Estate which has always been in Chai Chee / Siglap has to be in Joo Chiat. It’s quite far away from Joo Chiat. Never mind, I thank PAP because Opera Estate is where I spent 28 years of my life in.

      With PAP’s machinery, freak results not possible this round. In fact, may be freak result that no opposition get in because both Mr Low and Mr Chiam are out of their comfort zone. Do voters want no opposition in Singapore? Beware of this other freak result!

  11. I do agree that opposition is much stronger this year! Even the vision and policies presented by opposition parties make much more sense than the previous times. Keep going. The foundations of Singapore doesn’t lie in any single political party. The spirit of Singapore is written clearly in our anthem and pledge. To achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation. All the best for 7th May!

  12. Good post addressing the fear for most people. If the objective of the opposition is to create alternative voices rather than rely forever on a near monopolistic rule by one party, already create that much fear, then how about the fear for an opposition to take over the current government as the ruling party ? Guess there will much more fear for those which is so comfortable with the currently running system. What are the hiccups in our daily life if there is a change of ruling party ?

    Guess my fear is the disruption which come into people daily life if there is a change in the ruling party. Ms Sylvia Lim had mentioned that her party was not ready to do so, and I am afraid this might caused some discomfort for voters who are sittng on the fence

    • Realistically, PAP will not lose power on polling day. They are very strong in a number of contests. This freak result thing is something they play up everytime there’s contest for more than 50% of the seats. There may be some strong contest in some areas, but if you start to examine each constituency, you can safely say PAP will still form the government.

      I always believe that people are more resilient than we think. When there’s a challenge, there will be people who will rise up to the occasion. It is just that we are too comfortable sitting where we are we prefer not to rock the boat. So even if the impossible freak result do happen, Singapore will rise up to the challenge.

  13. The fear factor is caused by years & years of continuous social engineering which cause us to stop thinking for ourselves, stop questioning if the current party mandate and policy directions is truly beneficial to Sporeans, and stop reflecting on whether we progress as a nation beyond GDP figures. As a Sporean living overseas, it is liberating to know when I give up the tangibles that once made me fearful, it is possible to live a life without estate upgrading, without someone else deciding for me how I should use 36% of my income. I wish that Sporeans can step out of their fears and have faith that Singapore is not going to crumble because of greater democracy and political freedom. We need to become proactive in Singapore’s development instead of nodding our heads all the time so just that we can have more beautiful lift lobbies. Good luck in your endeavours, Majulah Singapore.

    • Hmm.. if you are referring to the hawker centre then it is in old Joo Chiat which now comes under Marine Parade GRC. After the gerrymandering, there’s no hawker centre or market within current Joo Chiat.

      • If this goes on, the Hawker Centre may one day become part of West Coast GRC!

        Our political system is not that developed to the extent we can put a stop to this. Did you know in the US state of California, the people put a stop to this by way of putting forward an initiative and gerrymandering is now illegal in California with the right to set boundaries vested on an independent commission.

        Our political system to me is a sort of broken where you have all these nonsensical GRCs wherein they shoo-in their favorite ones hopefully without a fight. I think it is only by capturing a few big GRCs to make them think this trick is no longer working that this can be put to a stop!

        This election is a sort of watershed election to me. For the 1st time, we see 2 senior opposition leaders going out of their comfort zones to make a breakthrough. They are sending out a hidden message – asking people to decide whether they are willing to have a real 2nd or 3rd voice in the parliament even if this needs to sacrifice a few ministers! If they fail, either the opposition will get so demoralized that they get into hibernation or a new group of probably more radical ones will take over the opposition. Whatever the outcome, things are definitely going to be very different for the political scene.

    • Hawker centers are the saving grace in face of rising cost of living! I can’t believe that their places will be gone too?

      • The boundaries defined by the new Joo Chiat SMC has not had a hawker centre in it for a long time but there are still good eateries especially around the Jln Tua Kong / Siglap Centre and Martia road areas, though not all are at hawker centre’s price now. The last remaining market / hawker centre under these boundaries was Siglap Market, demolished eons ago (probably 20 years already) to make way for Siglap Centre. As for me, I go to Marine Parade or Bedok markets to eat.

  14. Indeed I agree with Sherman that it is the people who makes the place a great difference. It is those very old hawkers and those long staying residents that give a place its unique atmosphere. In the drive for the so-called modernization or development, sometimes I just wonder if we are forgoing too much of the fond old memories. No longer that people feel the sense of closeness or belonging to a place. Just look at how China Town was been forcefully “destroyed” in the name of modernization. All we seem to care is to destroy and build or to treat your house like a commodity to be bought and sold a few times. We need to restore some kind of balance. Maybe I’m getting old to have such kind of thinking?!

  15. Mr Yee,

    I agree with you that physical improvements should be driven by what the electorate wants and that can be worked out when you take office. What a voter should be looking out for at this stage is the heart of the candidate.

    Unfortunately I won’t be casting my vote this year as I will be overseas. After reading your blog, I will seriously consider cutting short my trip to support you. 🙂 God bless!

  16. As I have not met both candidates in my ward (both did not come to where I live – only sent leaflets), I googled to check up both men’s credentials and what they said (if they did) about serving people of JC.

    There is not much about CC except that he was comfortable in a GRC. He comes across as a reluntant candidate, doesn’t seem enthusiasitc.

    JJ seems to me, a more “closer to the ground” person. However, I do not sense any plans or ideas that appeal to me.

    Serving the community is a noble but thankless job and it takes time (perhaps years. not days or weeks) to appreciate what the residents are in need of.

    I feel disappointed.

  17. I’m a neutral party here, no relationship to JJ. Compared JJ to CC, most or all parts of JJ’s life have been in Joo Chiat area, he lives there, he studies around there, he grows up at the place, he sets up family at the place. I’m sure he will be able to better understand the needs of Joo Chiat residents. If he is elected, Joo Chiat residents will have the benefit of an MP living with them in the same area which means he will be very accessible. They can pop in any time to meet him besides the weekly meet the people’s session.

    All the big plans need support of people and money to come true. Consider JJ’s current situation, he will be setting up everyone for a big disappointment if he promises too much during election campaigning and later have problems in delivering them. A more practical way will be if he is elected, he holds some kind of regular brainstorming sessions with his constituents to come up with a feasible/realistic plan that match most of the residents’ needs/expectations.

    At this juncture, I prefer to give him the benefit of doubt.

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