Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Rainbow at the End of GE

Political participation is a term used to describe different ways an individual attempts to engage and influence his or her leaders. Elections are often seen as the essence of democracy and voting a key element of citizen participation. The General Elections (GE) is a time when political participation gets amplified.

Prior to Nomination Day, the Elections Department (ELD) received 220 applications for the Political Donation Certificate. This time, the applicants included a group of five people, who called themselves “concerned citizens”, who were prepared to contest as independent candidates. One of them, Ms Fatimah Akhtar, 46, said of their gesture: "We are sending out a message to all political parties that whatever it is, you should be sending candidates who are qualified and capable. Some of the candidates fielded inspired me to run, because with their background, my potted plant can be an MP." [1]

During this campaign period, a viral YouTube video titled “Why Vote For Desmond Lim?: SDA Punggol East By-Elections Online Rally”, made by a user called "MADE IN SINGAPORE", deliberately subtitled the video in a way to make fun of the election candidate Desmond Lim’s English pronunciations. Although the video was from an old campaign, this video was circulated and picked up mostly negative comments on his ability to be a politician. [2]

Both these cases suggest that some members of the public feel strongly that only the 'qualified and capable' have a right to speak and be heard in parliament. Something seems wrong that a human can be reduced to being as good as a ‘potted plant’.

Like the other opposition parties, the Manifesto of Desmond Lim’s the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) also covers key issues like The Population White Paper, Central Provident Fund (CPF) & Retirement, the Costs of housing & healthcare, and more. The SDA has also raised some brilliant initiatives, like priority for jobs at its town council, a “befriender programme” as a form of outreach for residents to look out for one another and regular town hall meetings. [3]

However, the YouTube video distracted the public from the real message that SDA wants to convey in this GE. It seems that only those with high academic qualifications, a distinguished job, and can speak well are suitable to represent for the people in parliament. This may come across as elections humour but it also shows that part of the electorate is maintaining People’s Action Party (PAP)’s status quo for parliament participation where only the 'qualified and capable' are allowed to have a voice in parliament. With this framework, it would be more challenging for the ‘common Singaporean’ to be an MP and that limits the spectrum of political participation available to the ‘common Singaporean’.

Kevryn Lim from the National Solidarity Party (NSP) wants to be elected as she wants to represent single-parents in Singapore because she is one herself. [4] In the rally speech at Macpherson on the 7th September 2015, she, Lim Tean and Cheo Chai Chen from NSP, all raised the issues faced by single-parent families. They argued that single-parent families should receive the same benefits as other families. Currently, single-parent families are not allowed to buy Built-To-Order (BTO) flats and not entitled to full maternity leave and baby bonus. Lim said, “I understand what they are going through. Let's fight for equal rights, let's not leave anybody behind.”

Lim’s entry as an election candidate has not been smooth. Some members of the public questioned NSP’s decision to field her as a candidate because her previous job as a part-time model. They are concerned that fielding her as a candidate will ruin the opposition’s reputation. [5]

However, it is important to point out that NSP’s support and Lim’s personal voice as a single mother have done more for single-parent families during this GE than the PAP has done over their 50 years in government. From this, one can see how cumbersome and slow the machinery of change is with the PAP.

The elections is only one way of political participation. It might seem like an effective strategy to be heard but the larger issue here is if our society has space for diversity in our political participation. I need to point out that this space is not limited to space in parliament but the space of the everyday. There are people whose voices have been ‘excluded’ from political participation in parliament and the everyday.

These three incidents of the ‘potted plants’, Desmond Lim’s video and Kevryn Lim’s participation in the GE show that some members of the public, knowingly or unknowingly, continue to silence the ‘excluded’. This is the real political struggle: The struggle of the 'excluded' to speak for themselves, and to get their voices legitimised and heard. We need to think of how we can re-configure not only our parliament but even more importantly, our everyday.

Tharman Shanmugaratnam used the metaphor of the rainbow that appeared after the heavy rain on the day of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral. He said, “That rainbow is all of us who are here today. All of us are Singaporeans - we are rainbow. Different races, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, pioneers, young children, we are all the rainbow.” [6]

It is said that this particular rainbow did not appear on that day but diversity does exist in Singapore. [7]

Just as a rainbow is also a sign of hope, elections offer hope and present an opportunity for a better future. As polling day approaches, I ask myself, “What kind of rainbow do I want to see at the end of this GE?”

The rainbow I want to see is greater political participation that reflects the diversity of Singapore. This can be achieved in our everyday when we create and maintain an inclusive space for everyone to speak and be heard. In parliament, political participation can also be furthered with more political parties representing the diversity in Singapore. Only then, will there be real change and a better future for everyone.

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