Seet Ai Mee throws light on hand-washing controversy raised ahead of 1991 election
EIGHTEEN years later, former acting minister Seet Ai Mee said she was wronged in reports of a prior hand-washing incident that many said contributed to her 1991 electoral defeat.
She said in the latest issue of Petir, the People's Action Party (PAP) news magazine, that she had washed her hands after shaking the hands of pork sellers in a market, not a fishmonger.
'I washed my hands...simply because I thought that if I shake the hand of another person later who may be Muslim, it would be a religious offence,' said Dr Seet, now aged 66, who is president of HCA Hospice Care.
However, she was not asked to clarify the matter then.
'Did the press ask me why I washed my hands? No. Did the then Prime Minister ask me? No. Had both asked for an explanation, I would've told them. I didn't know about the issue until the PM spoke about it at the General Election rally,' she said in an interview to mark the 20th anniversary of the PAP Women's Wing, which she co-founded.
Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was then the Prime Minister. When contacted yesterday, he declined to comment.
Mr Goh had said at a rally on Aug 29, 1991, ahead of Polling Day on Aug 31, that she was a strong woman of good character.
But he acknowledged that Dr Seet, a pharmacist, had a habit of washing her hands often. That. he added, could be a liability as a politician.
Days after the election, a volunteer on her campaign team, wrote to The Straits Times Forum page, saying the fishmonger story was an old tale from the previous 1988 General Election. It resurfaced in the last two days of the 1991 campaign, wrote Ms Tan Bee Bee.
'I was there at the time and saw what happened. The fishmonger had rinsed his hand in a water container in front of him
'He grinned, embarrassed, and said his hand was wet. Dr Seet smiled, told him not to worry and immediately gave him a firm handshake.'
Later, 'after we met a butcher, she showed me an oily hand and mentioned that she needed to wash it in case she met a Muslim, as she could not in all conscience offer her hand when it was covered with pork grease,' Ms Tan wrote.
Dr Seet was elected as MP in 1988, one of four women MPs then. The others were Dr Aline Wong, Dr Dixie Tan and Mrs Yu-Foo Yee Shoon, who is now Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports.
Dr Seet went on to become the first woman acting minister, holding the community development portfolio, before her defeat by then Singapore Democratic Party chairman Ling How Doong. She lost her Bukit Gombak seat by 654 votes or by 1.4 per cent.
She told Petir her defeat was not because of the one washing-of-hands incident.
There were many issues the voters then were sore about, she added, citing rising prices and the cancellations of bus routes.
She also said that had the hand-washing issue been clarified, 'we could've explained and defused the incident'.
'The opposite happened instead and I became political fodder.'
However, looking back, Dr Seet said 'what has happened, happened. One moves on. Life goes on before, during and after politics'.
I am thoroughly surprised that the Straits Times,a bastion of investigative journalism and renowned objectivity, didn't verify the comment by the then Prime Minister or give the accused person the right of reply. It's one of the rare times this paper has slipped up.
Secondly, just as Dr. Seet still remembers an incident from 18 years ago, so do many readers and the electorate. Is she so naive as to think that an entire constituency voted against her because of THAT ONE INCIDENT? What does she take them for? From memory the letter to the Straits Times merely said that she washed her hands because the content on her hand was not halal. I don't recall such detail at the time, it's a shame the ST hasn't reprinted that letter from their archives.
She could have taken the opportunity to clear the air when the PAP Women's Wing celebrated their first decade. Why wait 'til the second decade?
Thirdly, why didn't Dr. Seet rebut the comment publicly in any election rally or to the press. Do you need to wait for people to come to you? Even the Minister Mentor has said the duty of a leader is to lead. She should have taken the lead on the matter.
Fourthly, SM Goh a few years ago - I think in a ST writeup about his first decade as PM, was reported to have said he apologised to Dr. Seet for the comment and felt responsible for her loss. She could have come forward then to clear the air. He invited her to make a return to politics, it was reported, so why didn't she have the courage of her convictions to return?
Fifthly, other people in power have their quirks - MM is a firm believer in non-smoker's rights and has always insisted that no one smokes in his direct presence. The late Mr. Fong Sip Chee was allergic to the paper contents of garlands which caused an itchiness so he always took garlands off after they were put on him. These people were re-elected year in year out. So why would the average person in the heartlands have a problem with a woman washing her hands?
Sixthly, if I recall, another reason she lost was that the opposition candidate - I think it was Ling How Doong - constantly brought up the high hospital charges at the time - which were revised after the election. This was a bread and butter issue as well - not one of fish.
I also recall that the talk on the ground was that Dr. Seet had personality issues. She dressed very elegantly (in itself not to be held against her) and was seen as snooty. Did she have problems trying to relate to her constituents and did they feel comfortable throughout the years she was in power during her meet the people sessions for example? Had she lost her common touch? There was a joke making the rounds after her loss. Apparently she wanted everyone to call her "Ai Mee" after her loss. Why? Because she had lost her "seet". :-)
Posted by: janganbedeh at Thu Aug 13 10:59:13 SGT 2009