How will you vote?

Singapore's 12th general election since Independence is on Sept 11. For me, at least, this year's vote has extra significance

I joined The Straits Times in May 1985 and the upcoming Sept 11 polls will be the seventh general election I would have covered.

It's been said that journalism gives one a ringside seat of history. As far as Singapore politics is concerned, that is true, especially when a general election comes around.

The two weeks of campaigning are intense and we experience first-hand events that make headlines and history.

In my 30 years on the job, I've seen politicians come and go. Some leave the political stage with relief, others grudgingly.

I've watched earnest, fresh-faced MPs move on to become stern-faced ministers and, at each election, I've seen a stream of opposition politicians emerge to contest the polls.

The first time I met Workers' Party secretary-general Low Thia Khiang was, I remember, around 1989. I had gone to interview then WP leader J. B. Jeyaretnam at the latter's law office and Mr Low was there.


He was the party's organising secretary and part of the team that had contested Tiong Bahru GRC at the 1988 polls. They won 42.2 per cent of the vote and he was said to be up-and-coming.

He was a watchful presence in Mr Jeyaretnam's office, neither friendly nor unfriendly.

They were an odd couple - a lawyer in his 60s who spoke English with a thick British accent, and a Nanyang University-educated teacher-turned-businessman in his early 30s who was more comfortable in Mandarin.

Mr Low moved from Tiong Bahru to Hougang, which he won in the 1991 election and held thereafter . In 2011, he stood in neighbouring Aljunied GRC, which happens to be the constituency I live in.

His team beat the incumbent People's Action Party team that included two ministers.

I covered the Singapore Democratic Party when it was still under Mr Chiam See Tong.

I remember the SDP's heyday in the early 1990s when it was Singapore's main opposition party.

After the 1991 GE, it had three MPs in Parliament - Mr Chiam, Mr Ling How Doong and Mr Cheo Chai Chen. But things soon unravelled, with Mr Chiam leaving the party and Mr Ling losing his seat at the next poll.

I was there when Mr Chiam's protege, Dr Chee Soon Juan, announced one evening in 1993 that he was going on a hunger strike to protest against his dismissal from the National University of Singapore.

A bed was moved to the centre of the living room of his Upper Thomson house for him to do so.

I was in Parliament that day in 1995 when the SDP's Mr Ling made history for the wrong reasons - in a fit of anger, he told Mr Chiam during a sitting: "Don't talk c***." He later apologised to the House.

I remember how expectations were high for the National Solidarity Party when it was formed in 1987. The founders were middle-class businessmen and women. But the party has yet to win a seat.

I remember Singaporeans First secretary-general Tan Jee Say as a civil servant. He was principal private secretary to Mr Goh Chok Tong when the latter was Deputy Prime Minister.

The People's Action Party's candidates have been no less interesting to cover, and Dr Seet Ai Mee stood out for me.

At the 1988 elections, I went on the campaign trail with the biochemist. She was a bundle of nervous energy, whistling as she literally skipped up and down flights of stairs in Bukit Gombak.

She beat the SDP's Mr Ling and became Singapore's first female Cabinet minister. But just three years later, she lost to Mr Ling in the 1991 GE.

This was in part attributed to talk that resurfaced about a handwashing incident during the earlier 1988 hustings. She had been seen washing her hands after greeting stallholders at a wet market - not the most vote-winning thing to do.

In 2009, 18 years later, she explained that she had washed after shaking hands with pork sellers in case she would later shake the hands of Muslims.

There's a sense of deja vu each time a GE comes around.

For instance, there will most certainly be the sideshow of quirky independent candidates who emerge only during election time.

You can also bet on something unexpected and shocking to happen.

On Nomination Day in 2001, the WP was disqualified from contesting Aljunied GRC in the north-east because its papers were incomplete.

In 2006, campaigning was overshadowed by the James Gomez incident. The WP candidate - also in Aljunied GRC - accused the Elections Department of losing an application form when he had in fact placed it in his briefcase.

Over the next week, the PAP's big guns trained their attacks not just on him but also the WP leaders, raising issues such as accountability and integrity. Many felt their response was excessive.

The WP didn't win Aljunied GRC that year - but it did at the next GE.

The north-east has always been a hot electoral battleground.

In the 1988 polls, the oratory of WP candidates Francis Seow and Lee Siew Choh drew huge crowds to Eunos GRC.

Eunos GRC was later disbanded and parts absorbed into Aljunied GRC.

As a resident of this area, the elections have been a time of soul-searching. Much seems to rest on our shoulders. Who should I vote for and why?

Everyone has his reasons for his vote; my own have changed over time.

At one stage in my life, I placed great store on house visits. If my MP had never visited me in all the years he was serving my area, I deducted many points from his record.

At another GE, I wanted my vote to be for the greater national good, never mind who was in the team I was voting for.

Now that I'm in my 50s and looking at recent events around the world, my priorities have begun to shift again.

There are two outcomes I hope for in GE2015.

One is to have a government that will ensure Singapore continues to be successful and safe.

After five decades of living in a country which has known nothing but growth, I would hate to live out my old age in a Singapore whose economy is languishing, where the Singdollar can't get you far and where I have to fear that the value of my savings will erode. (Think Greece, think Malaysia.)

I want a government that is open, honest and clever with the country's money and, importantly, leaders I can trust.

I also want a government that can keep me safe in a world of increasing terrorist threats.

Two, I want a Parliament that has strong checks and balances.

I want there to be MPs who can make sure that whoever is in power does not become complacent, arrogant and take Singaporeans for granted - and who, in turn, do not themselves also become arrogant.

I want leaders who aren't wrapped up in groupthink. I want parliamentarians who dare question the party line when needed.

Can my one vote give me everything I want?

On Sept 11, I - like you - will go to the polls. I hope I make a choice I won't regret.

•Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'How will you vote?'. Print Edition | Subscribe