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!