There I was, scrunched with the latecomer reporters, at the back of the PAP branch office in Clementi.
Up front, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam was introducing the party’s candidates for Jurong GRC for the coming General Election.
Reporters who turned up an hour early got to sit right in front – cross legged on the floor. The lucky ones got chairs. Then the photographers positioned themselves in lines. Behind them, several stood on chairs to get better angles.
And right behind the scrum – peering through the legs of those balancing themselves on chairs – were those of us who turned up later. Serves me right for not being kiasu.
I couldn’t see the candidates’ faces except on the camera screens of colleagues in front of me. I could hear, but had to strain to keep my attention from wondering.
One by one, each candidate spoke about their wish to build a more caring community in Jurong GRC.
To be sure, they sounded sincere.
Mr Tharman himself, although Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister with matters of state to occupy the buzzing brain underneath that gleaming bald pate, spoke passionately about the “Jurong way” – “our style in Jurong is to be on the ground all the time and to serve with our hearts. That’s our style.”
Helping people when no one is looking, away from the glares of the camera, day in, day out.
The incumbent candidates – Mr Tharman, Mr Desmond Lee and Mr Ang Wei Neng – highlighted some Jurong GRC initiatives: helping disadvantaged kids; giving second, third chances to ex-inmates; harnessing volunteers.
The two new candidates in the GRC – Madam Rahayu Mahzam and Dr Tan Wu Meng – were also introduced as candidates with a genuine heart for the people.
Indeed, Madam Rahayu, 35, has been a volunteer since she was 17. She has met many families in difficulty. She wants to work with disadvanted families and youth.
Dr Tan called himself “a doctor who has a heart to serve, who’s very concerned about helping make people’s lives better, who’s very concerned about looking after elderly residents”. He spoke about a Lions Befrienders seniors activity centre at Blk 420A in Clementi to befriend vulnerable elderly, a childcare centre nearby and a special needs early intervention centre elsewhere.
But listening to them, my mind started to drift at the litany of the social programmes in Jurong GRC.
I started wondering: Were they standing as Members of Parliament, or angling for posts as Chief Social Worker in Jurong GRC?
In Singapore, it seems MPs have to be all things to all men – and women, and children too.
We want MPs to run town councils. They have to be financially trained too, to get accounts right.
We want them to step in to sort out disputes, so they must be skilled mediators and negotiators.
We want them to listen to our problems, so they have to be counsellors. We want them to help the poor and needy and the elderly and link them up with available resources, so they have to be social workers.
We go to them to write letters of appeal to government agencies to waive fines or speed up/ review/ reverse a decision, so they are glorified scribes.
We want them to get government agencies to put a playground here, or a bus stop there, and take away a funeral parlour elsewhere, so they are political lobbyists.
But in fact, the core of an MPs’ role is as a legislator.
MPs make laws in Parliament that determine how a country is run. They decide on policies. They decide how much money to give to which ministry to get programmes done.
Your MP isn’t your social worker, although doing social work is a good way to win hearts and minds – and votes. These programmes also make a genuine, often lasting impact on people’s lives. They are wonderful.
But your MP should also be your representative in Parliament, championing issues you believe in.
And so, from the back, blocked from view, I asked a friendly photographer standing on a chair in front of me, to raise a hand to get Mr Tharman’s attention.
I just had to ask this question.
I asked each candidate to highlight one issue he or she would like to champion in Parliament. I added: “ And please don’t say ‘caring, inclusive society’, which is a catchall. Please try to be specific – one issue that might be close to Singaporeans’ hearts that you want to champion in Parliament.”
Mr Lee, who is Minister of State for National Development, highlighted housing for seniors and helping families live close together. He went on to speak with considerable conviction, if less than perfect syntax, about his wish to “build communities of stakeholders” such as those around Pulau Ubin and the green rail corridor: “Bringing in one cosy room, stakeholders from Green groups, heritage groups, academics, musicians, artists, cyclists, educators, social anthropologists, come in together and each and everyone of them, not just having a say, not just giving a view but also actively participating in the constructive dialogue and a process that results in actual things happening on the ground both immediate and long-term.”
Madam Rahaya wants to focus on issues to do with family. Dr Tan plans to focus on healthcare: to help residents have better access to healthcare nearer their homes, integrating hospital care with community care. Mr Ang will focus on education, reducing the emphasis on grades, and transport. In the last, he wants to focus on the “first and last mile connection. So whether it’s the cycling path, whether it is a walkway, covered walkway – making it easy for people to connect to the transport modes.”
Listening to the issues they want to champion gave me a glimpse into what matters to these candidates.
It also makes them more relatable. I found myself agreeing with Mr Lee (retaining Singapore’s green spaces is important) and Mr Ang: indeed, it is often the last mile connection that lets us down – if only there were a safe path to cycle to the MRT station so we don’t have to wait for the feeder bus.
In the next few weeks before the polls, every candidate aspiring to enter Parliament will stress his willingness to serve and maintain she has a heart for the people. In many cases, this will be true. But it is not enough.
Candidates must also articulate their positions on policies, and say what they wish to retain, adapt or see changed.
This is especially critical for those on the PAP slate expected to be parachuted into office-holder positions if elected, such as Ong Ye Kung, Chee Hong Tat and Ng Chee Meng, and perhaps one or two others.
Serious-minded Singaporeans will want to know their positions on issues that have been hotly debated publicly for the last few years.
This applies too to opposition candidates. Whether from the PAP or other party, candidates also shouldn’t hide behind party manifestos and slogans and give up the challenge of articulating what they themselves believe in or stand for. In fact, political parties too should be clearer about their stands on issues.
Voters want to know what their representatives in Parliament will fight for.
On immigration – do they support the move to tighten the tap on foreign workers or should it be loosened? On the economy – do they agree with those who say Singapore’s high-cost, high-wages growth model benefits the high-waged elite, but is a burden on the low-waged who struggle to have a dignified life in a high-cost living environment? Should SMRT, which is listed, be corporatised, and public transport become a public service provided by the state?
What do the future leaders of Singapore, whether from the PAP or the opposition, stand for?
Or are they all for the status quo? In which case, Singapore’s future is dim indeed.