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Brad Bowyer Wants to Help. But Can an Ang Moh Politician Succeed in Singapore?

Brad Bowyer Wants to Help. But Can an Ang Moh Politician Succeed in Singapore?

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Images by author.

When I playfully suggest that Brad Bowyer meets me in a hawker centre for a casual photoshoot to mock the stale trope of politicians in hawker centres, he gamely suggests Adam Road Food Centre.

All things considered, Adam Road Food Centre is not your typical hawker centre. It’s situated along Dunearn Road—prime real estate for society’s upper echelons—and its partially open-air environment makes the spot less harsh and stuffy than ones situated in heartland wet markets.

On a Thursday at 9 AM, with only half its stalls open for business, it feels like I’m in one of those spot-the-difference puzzles, where everything feels perfectly normal save for one thing that’s out of place.

Adam Road Food Centre is a tad too clean and orderly for a hawker centre. In other words, it is the ideal uncanny backdrop for a politician’s next viral Facebook post about ‘walking the ground’ and ‘meeting residents’.

But Brad is no politician—at least not yet.

The 52-year-old, who grew up in a council flat in East London, only recently gained popularity online because of his speeches at Hong Lim Park this year. One was for the Abuse of Process Rally, and another was about accountability in Singapore.

In fact, my first exposure to Brad came through a video on The Online Citizen, where the new Singaporean spoke about his reasons for entering Singapore politics. Even though he was more eloquent than many in Parliament, I remained unimpressed by this random white man who I assumed just had a saviour complex.

I was also put off by the opposition politicians he seemed to court, from Chee Soon Juan to Lim Tean. Naturally, these photos seemed to attract hardcore opposition and PAP supporters, who were full of commendation and criticism respectively for his perspectives and presence in local politics.

So I reached out to this “ang moh sinkie politician”, a moniker given by a Hardware Zone thread that comes up on the first page of results when I google his name. And, truth be told, I half-expect to be met with the ang moh version of the “oppie” stereotype: a disgruntled, elderly ex-British citizen having second thoughts about becoming Singaporean.

Brad is not quite disgruntled, although he is critical.
After the ‘unexpected’ results of the 2011 General Elections, Brad joined the PAP to see if he could give back to his new country by being part of the ruling party. He knew former PAP MP, Michael Palmer, from his junior college days. Michael introduced him to Lui Tuck Yew, the former MP of his GRC.

Brad began his political journey as a regular volunteer at Meet-the-People Sessions (MPS), where he wrote letters about residents’ problems. MPS introduced him to some of the heartbreaking problems that needy Singaporeans face—education, immigration, legal issues—and the system’s rigid bureaucracy that renders them helpless. Even when MPs sign off on letters, the respective public agencies aren’t always able to help the residents.

“I’d say 80% of people have genuine grievances, which we can do something about. But we only help about 20% of the cases. It feels like we choose not to do anything about most problems because then you’re introducing uncertainty into a rigid system,” he says.

“In Singapore, few people take initiative because their entire career depends on saying ‘yes’ to the guy above them. There’s almost no humanity or flexibility.”

Throughout our conversations, I gather that Brad thinks our government’s rigidity is one of their greatest weaknesses. Even though ‘yes men’ still possess valuable skills, such as being detail-oriented, good at writing reports, and collecting facts and figures to make decisions, he doesn’t think scholars who “haven’t lived a life” outside their bubble should be the leaders making big decisions.

Brad posits that the government seems averse to adaptability because they fear change and a loss of control. For some reason, they’ve decided that “anyone who doesn’t follow their line is an enemy”, but this is Brad’s country now, and he wants to help.

He still hopes the government can change their mindset that all detractors are necessarily disloyal citizens. In fact, some might argue that criticising the government is part of loving your country.

“Every time something or someone doesn’t go [the government’s] way, they change the rules so that they stay inside their little island castle. I don’t believe they have a negative agenda; it’s just evolved that way because they’re so obsessed with stability, security, and continuity that they forget you need adaptability. Look at nature, the most successful communities are those who collaborate,” he explains.

Considering all the ideological ‘issues’ that PAP had, Brad still stayed on, until the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was established. He feels the TPP “sold out” Singapore to foreign corporations. As a new citizen who’d seen the everyday struggles of ordinary Singaporeans that were frequently disregarded, this was the final straw.

At MPS previously, his race wasn't a barrier to understanding residents' problems, even if they didn't speak English. Working with a translator, they opened up after seeing he genuinely cared.
Shortly after leaving PAP, Brad went on a few walkabouts with the National Solidarity Party (NSP), or, as he calls them now, the “Not Serious Party”. When Lim Tean, the former Secretary-General of the NSP left to start People’s Voice, Brad joined him.

Unfortunately, Brad’s new party aspirations were cut short. On 31 March, Brad detailed reasons why he left People’s Voice on his podcast, Brad’s Bitez. During the last five months in the party, he got frustrated at their lack of substantial planning, and found that he couldn’t advocate for a party that didn’t seem able to serve Singaporeans’ best interests.

“Singaporeans have been disappointed so many times. They want a serious alternative, not just rah-rah talk. People’s Voice constantly said they’d work on policy research later, but get the message out first. I’m a bit more old school; I told them they needed to back up what they were saying with data now. At least have some idea how they’re going to deliver,” he explains.

Ideally, all 89 MP seats should be contested individually, and not allow less deserving or less capable people to get elected on the GRC vote. But he has no plans to run as an independent candidate, as it only further divides an already scattered opposition. He is even “quite happy to never be a politician”, explaining that he simply saw “no choice” at this moment.

“I’m just doing this so my sons and his friends can grow up in a country where they can have a good future, but I’m quite happy to step aside. If we can find 89 true blue Singaporeans who can get off their arse and stand up, then they can do it, and I can help them,” he adds.

I don’t hide my scepticism: do you really have to be a politician to affect change in Singapore?

“If you have a responsive government who listens, you don’t. When I was with PAP, I participated in a national conversation. There was lots of good feedback, but I don’t know if any was listened to [to] affect policy. From my position, it felt like the government knew what the people wanted, yet crafted their message so people would do what they wanted instead,” he replies.

The famous nasi lemak stall at Adam Road Food Centre is one of Brad's favourites.
Because the GRC system will probably never be abolished as long as the PAP remains in power, Brad says the opposition should work together to get into Parliament. Specifically, they need to form an informal political coalition. Hypothetically speaking, even if they win 45 out of 89 MP seats, each opposition party would only have a few seats. The PAP would still have the ‘majority’ at 44.

But this solution, he believes, presents a real alternative choice for Singaporeans.

Without consolidating efforts, most ‘interested’ candidates have a tendency to work individually. They may help residents on the ground with municipal issues as much as possible, like cleanliness or covered walkways, but these efforts would likely be overwhelmed by the “negativities” of national policy. Their residents are still subject to deeper systemic issues that can only be affected through policy, such as high costs of living or elitism in education.

It’s obvious to me that Brad’s ‘dream’ of getting the opposition to band together won’t happen in his lifetime, for two basic reasons. First, not every opposition party attracts equally talented members who are big-hearted enough to serve tirelessly, and adept in thinking about big-picture policy and smaller-scale implementation. To ‘merge’ opposition parties would dilute each party’s distinct strengths, if any.

And that cannot happen because of the second reason: human nature—specifically, male nature. Opposition politics appears to be built on the indestructible yet fragile foundation of male ego. Every opposition party wants to lead the opposition charge, but almost none possess robust and feasible policy suggestions to back up their self-interested rhetoric.

I raise the latter point to his bemusement: “Some of it is ego, yes.”

Ironically, the infuriating reason he left the PAP is the same reason Singapore probably won’t benefit from a stronger opposition anytime soon: an unequivocal desire to uphold the status quo. It seems that no matter which direction our political leaders lean, they are merely on the different side of the same coin.

There is no greater similarity than being victims of the same education system.

Brad is joined with his wife, who is supportive of him taking time off work till the next elections to work on his political platform.
While Brad’s gripes about the PAP and opposition may be valid, there are more important matters to discuss: his concrete policy suggestions for the most critical issues he believes Singapore faces today.

To increase political awareness from a young age, he suggests introducing “civics type of subjects” from young, like how Japanese kids clean their classroom to learn about social responsibility. Additionally, religious studies could also be taught in mainstream schools, simply to help everyone be aware from a young age that we’re part of a community and we need to understand people.

As Brad reiterates, “Our civil service is highly established and functional. Police officers would still do their job, just as doctors, nurses, and even permanent secretaries would. The ship won’t sink if the current captain is not there.”

His suggestions don’t just address the issue that Singaporeans lack social and political awareness, but the language to express our perspectives. Our political discourse is permanently black and white; formulaic and uncreative. It’s also framed with glib rhetoric and hackneyed branding.

Anyone who has been paying attention over the last year should know by now that it doesn’t matter if our politicians are “relatable” in their private actions, if the public policies they propose or vote on don’t aim to improve the lives of Singaporeans.

And because we neither understand how our politics work nor have been taught the importance of caring enough to find out, we are happy to defer to figures of authority. We believe that if we don’t vote for the incumbent, society would collapse. This dystopian rhetoric reinforces and thrives in a culture of fear, and it’s ultimately unhelpful.

"Damn, I'm proud to be part of this," he says, in response to what he loves most about Singapore.
Second, Brad argues that the proposed anti-fake news bill would stunt our critical thinking. It’s more important to educate people to be discerning, and to learn how to make considerate decisions than to pass laws.

To do this, he proposes working with community centres or the People’s Association to hold media and community education programmes. These would equip people with the skills to discern the validity and accuracy of information sources, as well as to question their own biases.

“A fundamental part of media literacy is you don’t immediately take anyone’s point of view as the truth. Yes, some information presented may totally align with your personal agenda, but is it true? Sometimes your personal agenda is wrong. You have to be mature enough to accept that,” he says.

Proper media literacy also trains individual proactiveness, as developing a personal system to search for the truth requires one to engage in self-exploration and self-learning. With citizens who were trained in critical thinking, he believes the current government could have been prevented from “getting to this point”.

“If the government does its job right, then you would believe in them. You don’t disagree for the sake of it.”

All doubt that Brad's an idealist is removed after this statement: "I joined PAP in the first place because I wanted to see if I could change them from the inside."
Finally, we move on to the big picture. Brad states that globalism is failing—and Singapore is on the losing end because we’d “bet on the wrong horse”. Namely, we’d bet on the American Democratic Party’s ideologies, and placed our assets in “old companies and organisations, which are part of old systems that are not changing”.

Yet, in an ever-changing world, it’s even more crucial to adapt. Expecting to rule different countries, each with their own unique cultures and values, with an identical political ideology across the board doesn’t work anymore. To put it simply, one cannot develop partnerships with China, Finland, and India that are governed in the same way.

“How do we wanna make sure we don’t lose out when everything changes, and find partners who want to work with us? How do we make ourselves relevant for the new geopolitical and economic waters? We talk about innovation. We need to change ourselves into a true knowledge economy that supports entrepreneurship,” he explains.

Then, drawing upon an ocean metaphor again, he likens Singapore to a little boat drifting in the world’s ocean with the wrong captain steering it.

The key is to thrive in a ‘new’ world order, and to ensure that other countries continue to invest in our city. As it is, the most valuable assets we have are our people, but our system doesn’t develop us to be our most creative and nimblest, or to provide value that others seek.

Brad adds that it would be nice if Singapore could be an example to the rest of the world. We’re neither extremely “socialist” nor “capitalist”, which he says helps us strike a balance.

“We are small, yet we have the resources. We could build enough of a social safety net so that people are not focused on surviving and can focus on thriving. At the same time, we can maintain the drive for capitalism,” he says.

“You can’t guarantee it’s going to be perfect or work out, but it’s better than where we sit.”

On critical thinking, he says, "Sometimes you might wanna go for the other guy because he's not the current one. But the other guy might be worse. With my Facebook page, I’m trying to get people to think about it. If you don't have a plan, other people do. And it might not be the best plan for you,"
A few days ago, while scrolling through Brad’s Facebook page, I came across several Facebook commenters disparaging him for a lack of loyalty to one party. The way I see it, being willing to adapt one’s stance after knowing better, to learn from ‘mistakes’ and to rectify them, and to constantly look for better ground seem to be more important qualities in a political leader than blind loyalty.

There was also another commenter who chided Brad for being “too idealistic”. This commenter argued that his views take time, and we don’t have the luxury of time. In response, Brad gave the comment a “sad” reaction.

I might not agree with everything Brad has said, but well-placed idealism is necessary for effective governance, even though it might be at odds with our pragmatic policies. Major change doesn’t come about through moderate or incremental steps, especially if they’re only taken to placate the people into believing the government is listening.

Next week, Brad plans to start pushing out articles comprising research that women make better politicians on his Facebook page, in hopes that more women can come forward to serve our country as political leaders. In case this would appear to be mere identity politics, he will provide data to support his stance.

This momentarily gives me pause as we wrap our final conversation. Not because I too feel that women make better leaders in general (though I do believe that), but because I have heard a grand total of zero out of the 101 seats in Parliament raise the same point. A quick google search for “women make better politicians Singapore” brings up a patronising report from 2018 that having three female cabinet ministers is “a boost for diversity”.

It’s disheartening that it takes an ‘outsider’ to remind me about the first thing I’ve always thought our government direly needs to change, but I’m also encouraged to know that my dream of seeing greater female political leadership in my lifetime isn’t entirely far-fetched.

If I’m being honest, his simple passing remark unexpectedly renews my excitement about understanding complex policy, so I can critique it through more creative and accessible ways.

To answer the question in this story’s title, yes, an ang moh politician can succeed in Singapore—but only if we look beyond our traditional definition of political success. The man doesn’t need to be an MP, give his GRC clean streets, or donate free meals to the underprivileged, though all those help. We don’t even have to be on the same page.

But if just one person were inspired to question existing structures, think critically about how to create a more inclusive Singapore, then moved to actually do something after reading Brad’s views, he would have succeeded.

That has always been the point.

How can we make our political coverage more creative? Tell us at community@ricemedia.co or grace@ricemedia.co.

Author

Grace Yeoh Senior staff writer