Hougang first captured my imagination in 1991 when it unexpectedly rejected the incumbent MP, Tang Guan Seng and voted in Low Thia Khiang. I was watching the results on television and had not anticipated anything to come out of the Hougang contest as there were other more publicised fights. I was then fresh out of university and beginning my long journey of political awakening.
Hougang returned Low Thia Khiang as MP again in 1997 and 2001, despite the now infamous strategy of linking votes to PAP with estate upgrading. The upgrading carrot grew bigger in 2006. Even as a politically neutral Singaporean then, I could not stand such unfair behaviour and wrote a critical piece to The Straits Times Forum. I was relieved when both Hougang and Potong Pasir rejected the upgrading carrot. I detest unfair fights.
Such bravery was abstract to me then, as I did not live in either constituencies. I cheered them from a distance. I shared emotional links with these two constituencies, pride that there were defiant groups that dared stand up to the mighty ruling party and pride that Singapore had people-centred opposition MPs that held the hearts of the residents despite intense and unfair competition. It was hard then to feel as Hougangers do, because I did not live there nor participated in the hustlings.
Going through GE2011 as a newcomer, I was caught up with my own campaign in Joo Chiat SMC. It wasn’t until By-Election 2012 that I felt the Hougang spirit strongly. The crowd were fantastic at the rallies, vociferously cheering us in our speeches as they did in GE2011. The people were very friendly during our house visits. However, it was the heavy downpour during the rally night of 22 May that made me realised the sterner stuff they were made of. Those who had no umbrella stayed on, even the old and the frail would not move. People were sharing umbrellas, plastic sheets, newpapers and cardboards with one another, even with strangers to use these to shield off the relentless rain.
The celebrations in Hougang were spontaneous when the result was announced at around 10:30 pm. Hundreds or even a thousand had gathered around each of the popular coffeeshops in Hougang. The people celebrated the announcement as if we had just won the World Cup.
The Thank You parade was yet a different and immersive experience. We started off in the cluster of flats around block 701. A good crowd had already gathered and chatted with us before we set off. At each block, people would come out to the windows and corridors and waved to us. Some waved blue flags, blue umbrellas, inflatable hammers and even real hammers. Some shouted “Workers’ Party” or “Huat ah!” from the windows. A primary 5 boy from Punggol Primary who had earlier had his photo taken with each of the MP / NCMPs followed our pick-up to all the different blocks to cheer us at every turn. He must have trailed us for at least 30 minutes.
At every traffic junction, there were loud horning, waving from wound down car windows and the occasional cheer. At one traffic junction, a man pulled beside us and chatted with Low Thia Khiang like old friends. A possession of cars sometimes followed us, happily honking away.
The mourners at a wake along Avenue 7 were amazing. They heard us from afar, rushed out and started cheering for us. As our pick-up drove past, one came forward and shook hands with us. I could not imagine that even in their mourning, they would pause to cheer for us.
At several clusters, people had heard we were coming and had gathered. The first major crowd was at Block 309/310 where several hundred people came forward, shook hands, cheered and several asked for autographs on umbrellas and flags.
The most unforgetable moment was along Avenue 5, outside block 322. A crowd of several hundreds, maybe a thousand had gathered, waiting patiently for us. As we approached, they poured onto the road, oblivious of traffic around them. We stopped and celebrated with them. The people were so reluctant to leave. Volunteers had to steer them out of the traffic’s harm while we inched our way out of the area.
We continued through to every turn and corner in Hougang SMC, into dead end lanes and tiny carparks, and into every public and private housing area. At every turn, residents would come out to greet us. Low Thia Khiang would occasionally call out a resident by name. By 3:30 pm, we were done for the day.
The Thank You parade left me with lasting memories. The type of warm and spontaneous support was simply unimaginable. The cheering, clapping, singing and even dancing came from their hearts. The parade completed my journey through Hougang. What started for me in 1991 as a distant spectator of the fight for democracy has now become a part of me. I had experienced first hand their long and determined fight to keep alight the fragile flame for a fairer democracy despite huge disadvantages stacked against them. I am now an active participant in this fight. It’s a surreal feeling as I stood on the pick-up, soaking in what this long journey since 1991 had meant for me.
After the WP victory, The Straits Times commented, “Hougang speaks, but for itself”. Does Hougang speak only for itself? In 1991, perhaps so, then along with 3 other constituencies. The crowd at the rally did not come from just Hougang. It could not be. The crowd on the last rally night would have equalled the total number of voters in Hougang. No, they came from afar to cheer Hougang voters on.
Hougang perhaps spoke ahead of its time. It was so in 1991. Then, it spoke to me to plant the seed of political awakening in me. Its flame eventually spread to Aljunied GRC in 2011. In 2011, I witnessed an outpouring of support for the opposition that I could not have imagined in 1991. From the man in the streets, to vocal voices in the cyberworld, to professionals, businessmen and even civil servants, the fear factor and political apathy appear to have been broken. Perhaps in 2012, Hougang is again speaking, ahead of its time for all Singapore. It is perhaps speaking ahead of its time for a more inclusive political landscape and a more inclusive society. Thank you, Hougang.