The view from inside a sea of blue

First day of hustings, first day of rallies. The Worker’s Party (WP) opted to have their first rally at their traditional stronghold of Hougang, and boy did the supporters turn out in droves.

This is my experience looking in that crowd of blue.

7:15 p.m: I’m late. Should have left the office earlier. Nevertheless, I think I have time to go back and drop my laptop – I don’t want to be lugging a 2kg chunk of metal around for 3 hours. It’s going to be a long night.

7:30 p.m: I’m crossing the road to the site and reflect that I am so lucky to stay near the rally site. It’s only a 5-minute walk from my HDB flat in Hougang Central.

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Usually, this field is empty, with a few youngsters gathering on weekends for a bit of football or cricket, but today, it’s the site for the first Workers’ Party (WP) rally of the 2015 elections.

7:35 p.m: Walking up the stairs from the Hougang bus interchange, I hear loud cheers and shouts. A ridiculous crowd beckons.

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And this is what it looked like from above:

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This is, after all, the legendary WP rally, where the sheer mass of humanity defies all logic.

This is not a rock concert, I remind myself, but a WP rally, and I’m here for work, not to enjoy.

7:40 p.m: I reach the outer sections of the crowd just in time to hear the closing words of Koh Choong Yong, the Sengkang West candidate.

I cannot hear a single thing. I realise that either he is speaking way too softly, or I need to somehow ‘excuse’ myself a lot nearer the stage. Which I do, awkwardly sifting through gaps of people. Fortunately, I don’t meet any stiff resistance.

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7:45 p.m: The next speaker will be new face Dennis Tan, who will be contesting newly-created Fengshan Single Member Constituency (SMC). I haven’t heard of him before, so I am curious as to what he has to say. Fortunately, he speaks much louder than the previous speaker, so that’s a good start.

He claims that there must be a better contest of ideas. Referring to the government-citizen relationship, he says this cannot be a parent-children relationship.

You are the shareholders of this country – you tell the government what to do, not the other way around.

A strongly-worded statement indeed.

7:50 p.m: Next is Daniel Goh, Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore.

He reminds us all of his first political speech in the 2013 Punggol East by-election and reiterates what he said back then:

The one thing that stands between us and empowering our future is fear. Do not be kia see, kia su and kia gui (afraid of losing, dying, and ghosts).

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I think he spoke well, but the speech lacked a bit of punch. It was very professorly, as you’d expect.

8:00 p.m: The next speaker is Yee Jenn Jong, who will be leading a team into Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

Yee speaks, as I expected, of his disappointment at Joo Chiat being written off by a ‘small committee’. He sounds positively melancholic and almost emotional, like someone who has just lost something very special and sentimental to him.

I can actually feel his voice shaking as he says, “Four and a half years later, Joo Chiat is no more.”

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He rounds off his speech on a higher note — by introducing his relatively young team one by one to the audience.

This is a team that is part of the renewal story of the Workers’ Party – a team that is not afraid to take on the PAP in what they consider one of their strongest wards – because we want to give you a credible alternative.

His ‘Marine Blue’ team take the stage and share a few waves to the audience.

8:15 p.m: Gerald Giam is up next.

He warns that “if you give the People’s Action Party (PAP) an overwhelming vote, they will take it that you strongly support their policies on healthcare, manpower, and immigration!”

A chorus of boos echo.

He talks about the introduction of a national minimum wage — which would apply across the country and not just to certain industries.

This, he says, is to reduce poverty in our country. It is unreasonable to expect households to live on less than $1,000 a month.

He gives another reason — to encourage more people to re-enter the workforce — doing so would improve growth and reduce dependence on foreign workers.

8:30 p.m: The incumbent candidates are starting to appear.

First up is Muhammed Faisal from Aljunied GRC — “Aljunied GRC residents, kee chiu!” he shouts.

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He speaks mainly of his political journey and how he came to be a WP supporter and later candidate.

I hadn’t heard him speak before, but he impressed by mixing some Chinese and Hokkien into his speech which drew many laughs from the mostly-Chinese crowd.

8:40 p.m: Next is Lee Li Lian, incumbent MP for Punggol East SMC. She reminded us that this was her third election in four years.

She will speak for caregivers and Singaporeans with foreign spouses.

Empathy comes across as a recurring theme in her speech. She speaks of empathising with those who have fallen through the cracks.

Do you want more leaders who will empathise with you and will speak up for you when things are not going right? If yes, then vote for the Workers Party and empower your future.

The response to her speech is particularly raucous. She seems one of the more popular WP MPs.

“I love you!” a WP supporter shouts out of the blue. “Already married already lah”, comes the reply from near me.

8:50 p.m: Pritam Singh is next. He was my favourite speaker from the 2011 elections and I remember his energetic speech about a party that treated Hougang and Potong Pasir voters as second-class citizens, denying them upgrading for their flats.

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He says it is worthwhile repeating a fact that the PAP doesn’t say very often — all town councils run deficits if not for Ministry of National Development (MND) grants. He reminds us that if AHPETC had received the grants that the government OWES IT (emphasis his), they would be in a surplus.

He likens the entire AIM saga to a simple metaphor — first, Singaporeans pay for a computer system and when the PAP loses, they take out the computer system. Then when the next party comes in, they will have to go out and purchase another system, thus charging the residents twice.

“Mr Goh Chok Tong *boos* has even said *boos* that the PAP are their own check *even more boos*. Is this the kind of future we want for Singapore? Own self check own self? *Most boos*

He rounds off by speaking of a political system which can “skew politics in any party’s favour due to the supermajority of the PAP. We need to CUT IT DOWN!”

There are cheers all round.

I felt that Pritam was the best speaker in the WP back in 2011, and I still think he is right up there with Low and Sylvia Lim.

9:00 p.m: Chen Show Mao speaks next in Mandarin. He has a smooth Taiwanese accent, and has his own slow and unhurried way of speaking, kind of like Moses Lim telling us a long story from the southern province of China.

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It’s all a bit anticlimatic after Pritam’s rousing speech. He speaks in both Mandarin and English about his hope for all of us to all feel empowered to move away from a monolithic Singapore towards a better future. The crowd does get a bit restless near the end. “Hurry up lah, almost 10pm liao!”, I hear.

9:15 p.m: Png Eng Huat, incumbent MP for Hougang SMC, is next. He speaks in Hokkien.

I only catch bits and pieces, but I know he’s raising the issue of CPF and trying to bring across the point that the government is taking our money — “jiak lui”.

His speech is very well received by the earnest crowd, who gobble up every word.

Thankfully, he then talks in English, so I don’t have to look high and low for a translation of his Hokkien speech.

He says that the PAP continues to intimidate anyone who dares to defy them. There is a very long explanation of the finances of AHPETC and says that the WP has never set up a $2 privately owned company to do business with town councils.

He also explains that AHPETC shares many lapses with many other ministries and government boards but has to deal with very different treatment.

“I guess fixing the opposition is more important than fixing the MRT”, he says, to laughter.

9:30 p.m: Next is WP head honcho Low Thia Khiang himself.

The crowd immediately goes wild. There is confetti released (yes, really) near the back. He announces he’s going to speak in Teochew – the crowd goes wild again.

He is clearly immensely popular with the Teochew-speaking crowd.

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OMG. His entire 15 minute speech is in Teochew, of which I don’t understand a single word.

The speech seems to be funny, given how all the uncles around me are laughing every 10 seconds. I feel like the guy at the comedy club who either has to laugh along with the crowd or stay awkwardly silent because he’s the only one who doesn’t get the joke.

I twiddle my thumbs awkwardly, hoping that he gives a similar speech in Mandarin or English, but he doesn’t. I hope I get to hear from him at one of the other WP rallies.

(Ed: we cover one of his more powerful quotes in 16 Quotes From The First Day Of Rallies)

9:45 p.m: Last to speak is WP chairman Sylvia Lim. She’s going to take the AHPETC issue head-on.

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First, she refutes the claim that AHPETC awarded contracts to its friends.

She claims that the council called open tenders twice, receiving no responses, and did not reserve contracts for friends. The former managing agent appointed by the PAP also terminated its contract under the WP. The accounting software was also later withdrawn by AIM, forcing the WP to source for a new software from scratch.

I think that she has solid answers to all the claims that have been thrown at it by the PAP and various government boards like the MND.

From the cheers, it’s clear that the crowd appreciates her tackling of the issue — but to be fair, with this crowd, she could be dancing to the disco music of the Bee Gees and the crowd would still cheer her.

She concludes by reiterating the Workers’ Party slogan for the 2015 elections — “Empower Your Future!”

10:00 p.m: That’s that. They thank us all for coming. The next rally is announced to be at Boon Keng tomorrow, and people begin dispersing.

I take the short walk back to my flat, which will take me past Hougang MRT station.

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10:05 p.m: What I see astounds me.

The MRT station has gone completely mad. There’s a huge crowd forming at the entrance chanting ‘Workers’ Party!’, and I reflect that this is probably the only MRT station in Singapore where you will hear party chants on this scale.

Every morning and every evening, I pass through here, but today is something special.

Although the crowd is immense, it’s orderly, and there’s no pushing or shoving as people proceed down the stairs. The escalators have even been switched off, for fear that accidents may occur. I notice several police marshals standing by, but they’re not needed.

10:10 p.m: I’m home. My back is aching from standing for so long. As I eagerly pour myself a cup of water, my mother complains to me that she spent half an hour driving around looking for a parking lot in our own car park. ‘All come for rallies ah?’
Final Thoughts: They say Singaporeans are politically apathetic, but I certainly didn’t see any of that here today.
The legendary WP crowds are back, and if this rally is anything to go by, it seems like all the bombardment over the AHPETC saga hasn’t had much effect, at least on the Aljunied and Hougang residents. Yes, this year, you can stream the rally from the comfort of your bedroom, but take my word for it — actually being there in the rally crowd is a completely different experience altogether.

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