Sunday, May 15, 2011

Potong Pasir Voters

May 15, 2011
'Burden' of choice not a bad thing
Residents in Potong Pasir, a contested ward since 1972, are a politically savvy lot
By Tan Hui Yee

THE tanned man was dressed in a petrol pump attendant's uniform, and he was rushing to work.

Still, he pricked up his ears when I asked: 'What are the important issues for you in this General Election?'

Without hesitating, he replied in Mandarin: 'To elect people who can speak up for us. And not to have people who enter Parliament as a team and simply say 'yes' all the time.'

It has been two weeks since I met this 77-year-old man while polling 50 residents of Potong Pasir Single Member Constituency (SMC) ahead of the May 7 elections. Yet, I think frequently of him.

In many ways, he is not a typical Singaporean. He was not afraid to speak his mind to a journalist. And he had a ready opinion to a broad question, which displays considerable understanding of Singapore's political reality.

Yet, he is also a typical Potong Pasir resident, going by the interviews I conducted from door to door. Almost everyone I approached had strong opinions about politics, and they were quite willing to discuss them with me if they could spare the time.

It didn't matter if they were young or old, working class or middle class, or if they supported the opposition or the ruling People's Action Party.

In Potong Pasir, it seems, politics is not an abstract concept. It is embraced as part of everyday life, and shared as dinner-table conversation. It is something thought through deeply, and then expressed passionately.

When it came to deciding the May 7 polls, the Potong Pasir electorate was split right down the middle. The PAP's Sitoh Yih Pin managed to wrest control of the opposition ward with a tiny margin of 0.7 per cent of the votes.

Mr Sitoh's precarious toehold is a testament to residents' enduring loyalty to its long-time Member of Parliament Chiam See Tong, who left the Potong Pasir contest in the hands of his wife Lina this year.

This small, friendly, yet politically divided community keeps close tabs on national debates and is game any time for a chinwag about the issues of the day.

Fed up about the rising cost of living?

Retiree Lee Siew Yin, a Potong Pasir resident of 16 years who holds court in her void deck, will tell you it has nothing to do with the PAP.

'Food prices are rising across the world!' she cried, her voice booming across the stone table. 'How can the Government fully control that?'

Want a second opinion of Mrs Lina Chiam's lacklustre performance on a recent televised political debate?

Headhunter Vijay Noah, 40, will firmly explain that this is because she did not receive the media training that is provided to candidates of well-equipped parties like the PAP.

Relatively newer residents like Mr Richard John, 40, who lived in Toa Payoh and Bedok for years before moving to this 30-year-old Housing Board estate, marvel at the community spirit and political savvy of its people.

He said: 'People here are a bit more real; they are a bit more open to talk about politics. It's their identity.'

It's an identity that is far removed from the apathy that Singaporeans have come to be associated with. It begs the question: Just how did Potong Pasir residents acquire it?

History holds a few clues.

As far back as 1989, when Mr Chiam See Tong was interviewed about his plans for the ward, he had already made it clear he wanted to put residents in charge.

He said then: 'You must get the residents to feel that it is their town... you should allow them to run the show, not have the MP doing everything and (them) being just spectators.'

He envisioned an organic community that would collectively shape the town. This influence is most noticeable in the numerous gardens planted by residents on the public land around their flats.

Vision aside, a stronger reason for the political savvy of Potong Pasir residents is simply the fact that they had to choose their MP at every general election since 1972.

While many other wards had to settle for walkovers, Potong Pasir residents - along with those in Hougang SMC - had stood on the frontlines of the regular showdown between the PAP and the opposition.

Each time that happened, residents had to ask themselves the same hard questions that confronted many voters in the May 7 elections: Why do we need an opposition? What is national interest? Who will take better care of us?

Residents in Aljunied GRC had to make a tough choice this year, between a PAP team with three ministers and a potential office-holder and the Workers' Party's 'A' team.

But many forget that Potong Pasir residents have been through the drill, albeit on a smaller scale.

Back in 1984, they gave their vote to Mr Chiam over PAP's Mah Bow Tan, who was subsequently fielded by the ruling party in Tampines GRC and went on to helm various ministries, including National Development.

It has been a long journey for Potong Pasir residents.

Each time they faced the ballot box, they had to ask themselves: Is voting for the opposition worth it?

They had to confront the physical effect of their political choice every day, when the PAP government denied the ward any upgrading of its public housing blocks.

They also had to frequently re-examine their political assumptions, to see how they squared with reality.

It's not an easy affair.

PAP ministers George Yeo and Lim Hwee Hua, both part of the losing PAP team in Aljunied GRC this year, had expressed concern about the enormity of the 'national burden' and the 'emotional dilemma' Aljunied residents faced in having to choose between keeping a high-calibre PAP team and avoiding a possible PAP monopoly of Parliament.

But the existence of stark choices is not inherently negative.

In the case of Potong Pasir, it has created a community that thinks hard about its political fate and probes deep into the nuances of political rhetoric. It has spawned an environment where people dare to speak their mind rather than whisper in anonymity.

When people are faced with tough calls, they think harder about what they want. And the more they think, the better they get at articulating their needs.

Whether Singapore will thrive with a stronger opposition in Parliament is yet to be seen. But judging by what I have seen in Potong Pasir, the 'burden' of choice can only be a gift in the long run.

[Taking this article at face value, the residents of Potong Pasir seems more politically mature, or at least aware of political issues. While they may think long and hard about issues, it is debatable if there is depth to their thinking, and whether they apply the appropriate weight and relevance to the factors of each issues. Certainly, the petition to call for a by-election in Potong Pasir just because the losing margin is so thin is indicative of a lack of political maturity.

But the greater openness, willingness to discuss, having an opinion on most issues seems like good things to have.]

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