GE 2015: On The Scene

Passion and pain in the opposition crowd

Spectators at the National Solidarity Party rally in Tampines last Saturday. The writer met various folks there, from rally-hoppers to dyed-in-the-wool opposition supporters.
Spectators at the National Solidarity Party rally in Tampines last Saturday. The writer met various folks there, from rally-hoppers to dyed-in-the-wool opposition supporters.PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) rally for Yuhua SMC electoral division at Jurong East Stadium in Jurong East Street 31.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) rally for Yuhua SMC electoral division at Jurong East Stadium in Jurong East Street 31. PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

SINGAPORE - Over a couple of general elections, I've found that these are the people you will meet at opposition rallies: Folks who show up because they consider showing up a political act, like cocking a snook at the ruling party; the tourists who rally-hop to see which way the wind is blowing in that zone; angry people who refuse to talk to me; angry people who talk to me and work themselves into a rage-induced trance (If you have ever met one of those taxi drivers, you will know what I mean).

Last Saturday (Sept 5) night, in a field in Tampines where the National Solidarity Party (NSP) held a rally, I think I met members from every one of these groups.

Retired property agent John Wong, 59, is a dyed-in-the-wool opposition man. It is said that PAP supporters support the PAP for various reasons, while opposition supporters support the opposition for one reason: Because they are not the PAP. Mr Wong is that guy.

He has no particular allegiance to the NSP. He will back anyone who backs him. He does not care about candidate qualifications. "Give me the worst opposition candidate or a PAP candidate and I will still vote for the opposition," he says, his finger jabbing the air .

His grievances are the classic quartet of population size, foreign talent, housing prices, CPF. People around him stop and listen as he lists everything wrong with Singapore. "6.9 million? Siao ah! Train break down and break down already," says Mr Wong, who is married, with no children. He likes to use scary apocalyptic terms - a big PAP win will drown Singapore under a wave of foreigners, the GST will skyrocket, and so on.

He talks about human poop left near his void deck ("Must be from a foreigner lah," suggests an onlooker) and how his town council's political stripe has little to do with the ability to de-poop an area.

After 30 minutes of heated commentary, he tells me he's going to Punggol East SMC to attend the Workers' Party rally. "I'm going to gauge the size, the atmosphere. From there you can see," he says. He has a gift, he says, a kind of vote divining.

The tipsters do not view Tampines GRC as a hot seat. Mr Wong glances at the crowd and estimates it to be 5,000. It looks more like 2,000 to me. But we share the same verdict. This is not a strong showing, he notes reluctantly. He is upbeat about a couple of other areas, though, and dashes off to find their rallies.

Hanging back on the fringes is Mr Morgan James, 50. The distributor of health supplements is self-employed, single and Singaporean. He lives nearby and dropped in to have a listen.

He smiles when the issue of foreign talent is brought up. He used to work in restaurants. The food and beverage industry employs a large number of foreigners, both as wait staff and as managers.

"The people who took the most sick leave were Singaporeans," he says. That kind of entitled behaviour irked him a lot.

That, and the desire to be in control of his own time, is why he quit the industry.

He remembers a time when he was almost mugged in Jakarta. A group of men walked up to him on the street within sight of his hotel, demanding his wallet. He ran for his life. The experience, and how casually Singaporeans are able to walk out on the streets day and night, are crucial to Mr James' politics. The classic quartet of gripes that trouble people like Mr Wong is not.

But Mr James was the last neutral person I met that evening.

A tudung-wearing woman, an administrative assistant who wants to be known as Ms Nisa K., 53, wants a better deal for her children and thinks the opposition will deliver it.

So does a 50-year-old sales director for an IT firm, who gives his name as Danny L. ("You won't report me to the police, right?" he says, repeating a joke about the media that I heard about three times that night. It never gets old. Actually, it does.)

"Singapore is run like a corporation. It's all about the bottom line," says Danny, his wife and national-serviceman son beside him nodding. Thinking in purely business terms, nothing improves performance more than competition, he says. Hence, opposition.

I imagine he would be the PAP's nightmare: A white-collar manager who ignores past performance and focuses only on future rewards. No loyalty, no sentimental attachments, just dividends for him and his family in the next quarter.

I am not sure what to feel about this. As political analysts are fond of saying, it just creates opposition parties that are clones of the most successful party - the Coca Cola v Pepsi problem.

Are you willing to give up something in exchange for a government that favours caring over competitiveness, I ask Danny. Yes, he says, if he has to pay more in taxes for social services, and accept less growth for a higher quality of life, he will do so with pleasure.

And there's the rub. When it comes to working out the trade-offs - competitive v caring; low taxes v more services and so on - we might all start disagreeing all over again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline 'OnTheScene Passion and pain in the opposition crowd'. Print Edition | Subscribe