'It was a constant battle'

Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the People's Action Party general elections mass rally at Cantonment Road.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

With the General Election expected next month, FOO JIE YING (fjieying@sph.com.sg) speaks to two retired politicians to get a flavour of Singapore's first post-independence GE in 1968.

He once had to run away from dogs that were set on him while making house visits at Jalan Kayu.

The dogs' owners were Barisan Sosialis supporters, said former Member of Parliament Hwang Soo Jin, 79, with a laugh.

"That's what it was like in those days," he told The New Paper.

Now a non-executive director at Singapore Reinsurance, Mr Hwang was fielded as a People's Action Party (PAP) candidate in Jalan Kayu in the 1968 General Election - Singapore's first after achieving independence.

Even though the Barisan Sosialis boycotted the election, its presence was quite strong in areas like Jurong, where former PAP MP Ho Kah Leong was fielded.

Now an artist, the former teacher and politician represented the same area from 1966 to 1997.


Dr Ho, 77, said: "Back then, the Barisan was quite strong in my area. We had to be prepared to encounter them at any one time."

Mr Hwang, who represented Jalan Kayu from 1968 to 1984, added: "It's a constant battle of hearts and minds of people."

Campaigning in those days was tough, with houses scattered everywhere in a village, he said.

"Then, we were given one whole month to campaign prior to elections. My God, that was really taxing!

"I was still working. I would go in at about 8am. After 1pm, I would drive all the way from town to Jalan Kayu, (and) start going around from 2pm to 2.30pm, accompanied by village elders.

"That walkabout finished (at) about 5pm to 6pm. I lost 15 pounds (6.8kg) in a month."

But there was no other option, said Mr Hwang. He could not afford to be a full-time MP, like what some of the current MPs are doing.

Mr Hwang, who spent most of his term as managing director at United Overseas Insurance, added that their monthly allowance back then was $500.

"Even stationery, in those days, I had to pay out of my own pocket. Occasionally, I got to take my branch people out for food and I had to pay out of my own pocket unless the party is rich.

"Mine was a kampung branch. If anything, we owed some people money," he said.

With technology less advanced back in the 1960s, much of the campaigning material involved hands-on preparation, said Dr Ho.

The former Jurong MP said: "Even our pictures then were hand-painted. We would sit down and get artists, some of whom were volunteers, to paint us."

Pamphlets were kept simple and done by stencilling, said Mr Hwang.

With 90 per cent of Jalan Kayu made up of mostly lowly educated farmers, face-to-face conversations were still the preferred mode of interaction, he added.

For the same reason, he did not hold a single rally in his four terms as an MP.

"I was told it's not meaningful because only a small number of people would turn up," he recalled.

"I remember I attended a rally in Bukit Timah and only half a dozen chaps turned up. In the kampung, they were not interested."

The rallies that were held were usually for the business community, with the major ones taking place in front of Fullerton Square.

"In those days, the stage was just a few planks of wood, with some benches and a loudspeaker. It's quite simple.

"The politicians would speak in different dialects - Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew. You see less of that nowadays."

Agreeing, Dr Ho said: "Compared to now, of course the stage for rallies back then looked very primitive."

Also, the concerns people had then were simpler: housing, jobs and decent transport system, he pointed out.

Mr Hwang said: "The perspective was quite different.

"In the earlier days, it's more a life-and-death issue. If you could satisfy them with basic needs, they were quite happy and grateful.

"Today, you have air-conditioned buses and MRT trains, and expensive cars but still people are not so happy. An MRT train interval of three minutes is not good enough."


With the advent of the Internet, both former politicians agreed that the political game today has changed by leaps and bounds, but has not necessarily become any easier.

"It's easier because we don't have to hand-paint the posters and caricatures but to use technology to print," said Dr Ho.

"But, with the Internet, you have to counter those untruths that spread quickly online."

Mr Hwang said politicians today probably have less privacy.

"Your movements are being watched, it's like living in a goldfish tank," he added. "I remember a candidate and how her handbag became a controversial issue."

But one fundamental thing remains: election and campaigning are just one aspect of the contest.

Both former MPs said what is most important is to constantly walk the ground and listen to people.

Mr Hwang said: "A responsible political party doesn't just go to an election and hope to get in the Government.

"During your tenure, you are there all the time trying to prove to people that you're worthy of their support. Whatever you say at the rally, you have to be able to back up with your achievements during your tenure.

"You have to be able to keep to your promises."


This article was first published on Aug 15, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.