The politics of the possible

The politics of the possible
Kerala-born Samir Salim Neji, who comes from a land with hundreds of political parties and a vibrant civil society, hopes that by standing in the General Election, he will help to raise political consciousness in Singapore.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Kerala-born Samir Salim Neji, who is running as an independent candidate in Bukit Batok SMC, is recounting the abuse he has been getting online since he signed up for the polls last week.

"I have been called a s***skin snake," he says with more amusement than anger. "They say, 'You are an Indian, go to India.'"

"That's perfectly fine," says the 45-year-old managing director of a software firm, who became a Singapore citizen in 2004. "It's freedom of speech." He calls it people's "open thought process". "Please, speak up. I love it."

Mr Samir is probably swimming against the tide of public opinion in the small hilly constituency in western Singapore. He speaks earnestly about wanting to represent the interests of Singapore's new citizens - at a time when there is lingering resentment over foreign competition for jobs.

While the main opposition parties are campaigning to reduce the cost of living, he wants the Government to weigh people's "happiness" and stress levels whenever it considers a new policy.

Some quarters allege he is a People's Action Party plant out to split the opposition vote and upset what could have been a straight fight between PAP's Mr David Ong and Singapore Democratic Party's Mr Sadasivam Veriyah.

He shrugs it all off. "I'm just taking my baby steps," he says. "I have a point of view, which is a very strong point of view, which is to represent the 'first generation' Singaporeans in Parliament."

This General Election has set precedents on many fronts. It is the first time since 1965 that every seat in Parliament is being contested.

Opposition parties hammered out an often elusive deal to avoid three-cornered fights well before nominations began. Two tenured professors at government institutions - sociologist Daniel Goh and doctor Paul Tambyah - are contesting as members of different opposition parties.

And Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, forced to sit out two previous polls by his bankruptcy, is now back on the rally stage.

But the topline trends have also been complemented by the smaller-scale developments that altogether make for a more plural political landscape. The presence of new independents like Mr Samir and Ms Han Hui Hui in Radin Mas SMC is one.

Ms Han, 24, is better known as the organiser of the "Return Our CPF" protests at Hong Lim Park, one of which turned ugly after it clashed with a concurrent event at the same location.

The diminutive yet feisty blogger has made the mandatory retirement savings fund her main issue in this campaign, run by a group of volunteers who she says are mostly drawn from Radin Mas.

At her maiden rally at Delta Hockey Pitch, hundreds turned up. She is planning more, aided by the donations she is soliciting online by detailing every expenditure of her campaign, from $3,000 deposits for "rally's stage and sound system" right down to $5 sums for "transportation for walkabout".

Residents say she stands little chance against the financial and logistical muscle behind PAP's Mr Sam Tan and the Reform Party's Mr Kumar Appavoo. But her bravado is enough to sway Mr Lim Aik Hwa, 64, who says he will vote for her just so she can keep her $14,500 candidate's deposit. She stands to lose the sum if she wins less than 12.5 per cent of the votes cast. "It's hard to stand alone," he says.

She tells The Straits Times: "To me, the main concern is whether people get the message or not."

Some may dismiss the candidates' actions as foolhardy. But really, they say, they are merely conducting politics like how it has been done in many parts of the world.

Coming from a land with hundreds of political parties and a vibrant civil society, Mr Samir remembers finding the political consciousness among Singaporeans "very low" when he first arrived here in 1997.

"Singapore is probably one of the finest places to live," he says. But people were just focused on bread-and-butter issues. "There was no discussion on anything related to politics."

Strict laws had by then scrubbed out the possibility of strikes, marches and protests - the messier aspects of many democracies around the world.

The PAP-run Government, which saw the elections more as a conduit to usher in a steady stream of able technocrats, had also created group representation constituencies (GRCs) to ensure minority representation. Critics argued they ring-fenced single wards vulnerable to opposition victory. Those were the years that the opposition - in a bid to persuade the electorate to vote for them - engineered walkovers in enough seats to allow the PAP to return to power on Nomination Day. That was the case for three straight elections, from 1991 to 2001.

Fast-forward 14 years and some things have changed. The Workers' Party has breached the psychological barrier by winning a GRC. It is starting to resemble the PAP in candidate discipline, campaign efficiency and media management. On a smaller scale, new faces like Mr Samir and Ms Han - aided by social media and emboldened by her experiences at the Speakers' Corner - are trying to expand the concept of what politics can look like. They are creating their own language of what can be possible, instead of relying on hard calculations on what is probable.

"People ask me, 'Why do you stand for election?'" says Mr Samir. "My question is, why not?"

Singapore, at the age of 50, needs more politically attuned citizens if it wants to survive the next 50 years or beyond, he reasons.

"The political landscape in Singapore is changing," he says. "Maybe a decade down the line, I will be one of the guys who have initiated that."

This article was first published on September 7, 2015.
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