by Khairulanwar Zaini/ photos by Jean Loo, Aaron Lim and Jing Quan
With their gunsights sharply trained on Aljunied, the Workers’ Party’s charm offensive has begun in earnest.
The party returned to Serangoon Stadium, the site of their memorable final electoral rally in 2006. That campaign concluded with a pledge recital led by party chairperson Sylvia Lim, but even that rhetorical flourish was insufficient to secure a victory then. In a candid post-election assessment, secretary-general Low Thia Khiang admitted that the party’s failure to court the minority vote – particularly the high concentration of Malay residents in the Eunos ward – was its Achilles heel. The party had to find the means to engage the Malay community, and do it fast. Last night, they may have just found the right man.
Faisal Abdul Manap (for Aljunied GRC) began his speech apologising for a sore throat (‘it’s okay, bang!’ an audience member reassured him.) But if that minor affliction was affecting him, it was not discernable. In the party’s only Malay speech for the night, Faisal burst forth with an oratorical ebullience that one would rather expect from a veteran religious speechmaker.
‘Assalamualaikum!’ he said, employing the usual Muslim greeting of peace. The predominantly Chinese audience enthusiastically tried to reply in kind. He grinned before quipping, ‘I’m so proud to have a lot of Muslims here!’
The 35-year old family counsellor addressed his prospective voters with a pantun: ‘Buah duku, buah laici/ lebih enak buah durian/ Mohd Faisal nama diberi/ rahmatan lil ‘alamin jadi prinsip kehidipuan!’ This lyrical introduction was greeted with applause from the audience – and it did not really matter if they did not understand. His sincerity transcended language: Faisal was calling for the blessing and mercy for all mankind. Criticising the ruling party for its ‘lack of human touch’, he reiterated this humanistic streak with his calls to develop ‘more family-oriented public policy’ and a ‘more humane and caring society’.
There is a sense that he was speaking to an invisible audience. Less a sale of the Workers’ Party than an offer of friendship and a request for trust, his candidate-centric stump speech that diverges from the party’s modus operandi clues us into an important set-piece encounter between him and the incumbent’s Zainul Abidin Rasheed. The hearts (and voting slips) of the Malay community are at stake. And the outcome of this duel will spell important ramifications for the party’s fortunes in their second Battle of Aljunied.
To complement Faisal’s tactical engagement, the party has embarked upon a strategy of concentrating their formidable firepower on George Yeo, the anchor minister in the PAP’s slate of candidates. Earlier in the day, the mainstream press had carried his criticisms of the party’s Aljunied wager. They have placed ‘a burden on Aljunied GRC … to look after the larger interest of the opposition’, alleged Yeo. He said that creating such an ‘emotional dilemma’ is very much ‘against the spirit of democracy’. And taking issue with the declaration that voters will serve as the party’s ‘secret weapon’, he further accused them of reducing the electorate into ‘instruments to be chosen or discarded’.
In his own gentle and reassuring manner, crowd favourite Chen Show Mao rubbished these claims of ‘a special burden’. Chen urged the Aljunied residents to go ahead and look after themselves and their interests. They would not need to sacrifice their interests for the cause of a larger opposition – because ‘you will be better off if you vote the Workers’ Party,’ promised Chen. For the ‘emotional dilemma’ that Yeo had alluded to, Chen’s advice was to ‘take heart, have courage, but most importantly, use your head before you vote.’
But party chiefs Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang were more severe with their rebukes. Later that night, Lim wryly noted that the ruling party was the one which had exploited the electorate for its own political purposes: ‘If the PAP respects the wishes of the voters, why does it keep redrawing boundaries based on election results?’ Pointing to the residents of Kaki Bukit, who had been displaced from Eunos to Marine Parade before being reshuffled into Aljunied, she asked, ‘Who is the one using voters as instruments to be chosen or discarded?’
These gerrymandering exercises make a mockery of Yeo’s claims. In his speech, Low claimed that the ruling party was using the group representative constituency system to arrest the vote swing against them. Speaking of his first electoral contest in Tiong Bahru GRC, he described how the opposition-leaning wards of Anson and Radin Mas were consolidated with an incumbent-friendly one to neuter any opposition advantage. He also criticised the PAP for deviating from the original three-member constituency structure of 1988 to the present four- to six-member ward. Low likened the GRC system to ‘a rubber band’: not only is its numbers malleable, it can also ‘stretch from Marine Parade to Hougang!’
‘There is nothing more against the spirit of democracy than the GRC!’ declared Low.
The fifth candidate in the party’s Aljunied slate, Pritam Singh, used his maiden rally speech to dispel concerns over the future of the foreign ministry should George Yeo be defeated. For him, the answer was simple: ‘another PAP MP will become the FM lor’. He assured the civil servants that the loss of one minister will not jeopardise the operations of the civil service: ‘nobody is indispensable, everyone can be replaced’. He drove home his point with an analogy from English soccer, drawing applause from the appreciative crowd: ‘If Wayne Rooney does not play for Manchester United, does Manchester United collapse?’
But the most spirited salvo came from Sylvia Lim. Assuaging fears that Yeo’s talents would be ‘lost’ if Aljunied were to change hands, Lim insisted that his future remains ‘bright’ even in defeat: the government could easily place him in one of the many government-linked corporations or appoint him as an ambassador-at-large.
Her wit firing on all cylinders, she said, ‘So don’t think of voting for Workers’ Party as voting against George Yeo. Think of it as helping him into early retirement.’
The night may have been dominated by the Aljunied slugfest, but the party maintained their calls for a First World Parliament. Demands for oversight and accountability frequently featured, as the candidates excoriated the ruling party for the failures and gaffes of the preceding five years. And did the rally congregation thrive on these sharp barbs.
The audience was regaled when Png Eng Huat (for East Coast GRC) pithily mused that ‘when Mas Selamat escaped, the minister also escaped’. And if the candidates are raising their act on the podium as the campaign marches on, the crowd is matching them measure for measure. On the first rally night, the candidates had implored voters to give the party a ‘driving license’ to be the co-driver of the Singapore ‘vehicle’. This was literally heeded by one party supporter – a mock driving license designed on a giant placard appeared in the crowd last night. The crowd is indeed faithful, but the battle has grown: the senior minister and minister mentor has weighed in on this particular contest. This solidarity can only help the party as the election campaign enters into its third day.
To view pictures from all the rallies on Friday night, click here.