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Tuesday May 2, 2006

Taking on the mighty PAP


A section of the 10,000 crowd which attended a Workers Party rally in Singapore on Sunday. It was held at opposition politician Low Thia Kiang’s Hougang ward. It was the biggest election rally that locals had seen in decades. Hundreds of people also jammed onto staircases of nearby apartments to hear the speeches of party leaders. — STARpic by KENNETH WONG
SINGAPORE’S leading opposition politician Low Thia Kiang has the sort of face that rarely betrays any emotion.  

But he must have felt wildly elated on Sunday night as he sat on stage before the biggest election rally that locals had seen in decades.  

The Workers Party rally was held in the open field in Low’s Hougang ward, one of only two constituencies held by the opposition in Singapore’s 84-seat Parliament. 

After days of rain, it was a beautiful night for an open-air rally. 

The crowd swelled to some 10,000 even though the sound system was terrible, the field a bit mushy and the stage, from a distance, looked like a bright but tiny spaceship. 

It was the sort of crowd that PAS in Malaysia used to command during its heydays in the 1990s.  

“Even Andy Lau (one Hong Kong’s four heavenly kings of pop) cannot get this sort of crowd,” said a press photographer as he battled his way through the mass of bodies.  

IN FULL SUPPORT: Workers Party supporters carrying placards at a rally held in the open field in Hougang on Sunday.
Singaporeans go to the polls on May 6 as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong seeks a clear mandate for his leadership.  

Call it the infamous Singaporean kiasu-ness or whatever, but the PAP, despite its dominance, is trying to wrest back the two opposition seats – Hougang held by Low and Potong Pasir which is held by likeable lawyer Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Alliance. 

Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong, now Senior Minister, is in charge of the takeover bid.  

Goh had initially been rather confident of regaining the two seats but after four days of campaigning and the gigantic Hougang rally, it is quite clear that the PAP has a fighting chance only in Potong Pasir. 

Low who took over the Worker’s Party leadership from the embattled J.B. Jeyaratnam in 2001 is admired because he is seen as fearless. 

CROWD PULLER: Low gesturing while giving his speech on Sunday. Some 10,000 people attended the rally.
The opposition parties, especially the Workers Party, have put up the most impressive challenge in years against the PAP, denying the ruling party its usual nomination day victory. 

There are no spoilers or loony candidates among them this time and even Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has somewhat grudgingly conceded that some of them are “fairly presentable.”  

But crowd size does not necessarily translate into votes. 

Many people are simply curious because the opposition does not get the sort of media space that the ruling party does. 

The opposition is unlikely to make much headway in terms of seats although they hope to improve on the 35% share of the popular vote they won in 2001.  

Singaporeans lament the lack of an opposition to the mighty PAP but few are willing to take the risk of living in an opposition constituency and being squeezed of amenities that are available in PAP-controlled areas.  

Election rallies in Singapore are also quite different from what Malaysians are used to. The rallies begin at 7pm and wrap up promptly at 10pm, the time when most Malaysian ceramah are just starting to warm up.  

Supporters like to garland the “star speakers” with orchids – the national bloom – and speakers go through the evening with their heads half-buried under numerous garlands, without removing them even while making their speeches.  

Most speakers, from the greenhorns to seasoned Cabinet ministers, rely on written speeches and often come on stage clutching sheets of paper and notebooks.  

Even Workers Party chairman Sylvia Lim, a sultry-looking 40-year-old with a rather mellifluous voice, spoke entirely from her notes after a casual start of, “Hi, everybody!”  

And there are no silly jokes and few entertaining anecdotes. 

The speeches are all pretty serious affairs, loaded with heavy issues – spiralling costs of health care, upgrading of HDP flats, jobs creation, staying competitive, India rising, China taking away our lunch.  

Some of the more natural speakers have been Senior Minister Goh and the Prime Minister himself.  

At one rally, Lee said he had learnt sign language from his Foreign Minister George Yeo, then he held up his right hand in a three finger gesture – thumb, index and pinkie standing up ala Randy, the judge of American Idol.  

He told the applauding crowd: “It means we love you!” 

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