Note: Red Dot United is running against Tharman’s team in Jurong. Their squad consists of Ravi Philemon, Michelle Lee Juen, Alec Tok, Liyana Dhamirah, and Nicholas Tang.
The last time I saw him was slightly over a year ago at Wisma, when he had just come from work, dressed in the white shirt-sleeves of a cubicle serf. This morning, at Old Airport Road hawker centre, he is dressed in Red Dot United’s chosen attire: Dark blue polo-shirt, party badge, and brown chinos. He had used up a year’s worth of annual leave to run for election in Jurong. We used to play DOTA together, so I asked him:
a) What was Tharman’s MMR, and b) If I could tag along.
And that’s how I found myself in Geylang on a Saturday morning, waiting with Nick as he prepared to depart for his walkabout.
This is bullshit. The reality is: most people do not give a damn. The qualities required for a walkabout are—forgive me—not very different from that of a Prudential financial advisor: thick skin, boundless energy, and a willingness to take polite rejection in stride.
Following them, I am reminded of my previous job as a supermarket drinks promoter for Marigold Pte Ltd. Most people will give a non-committal nod of the head before returning to their breakfast or their screen. At the very best, they will give you a short smile; an abbreviation of a smile barely visible behind the mask.
One in five might ask you a follow-up question about your party. One in ten might give you a gesture or shout of support. Most of the time, they take your flyer and give a quick bob of the head before returning to their food; the flyers unread beside their chopsticks or drinks.
The wet market section proves even more challenging than the hawker crowd. With narrow walkways and social distancing, everyone—media, voters, candidates—cannot help bumping into each other. The shopkeepers are friendly. They smile as they stretch across to grab a flyer, but Saturday is still the busiest day and there are customers customers customers. The fishmonger fumbles one-handed to balance the flyer beside his kopi-can. One of the vegetable aunties, who stops his vegetable-packing to take our flyer and glances around, looking for a few space amongst the piles of kang kong.
Another uncle tells us that he will ‘vote opposition’ no matter what because what has the PAP ever done for him? After the candidates depart, he pulls me close to confide that he has been sleeping in this hawker centre for years. One finger pointed at the spot where he spends his nights.
The rationale for doing it is that RDU wants to be seen together as a team. It’s a trade-off between efficiency and visibility. 1 person per hawker centre might be faster, but it also attracts less attention, as opposed to moving through the crowds like a football squad, with matching attire and a media entourage in attendance.
There is some truth to this strategy. When it’s time to pose for a socially-distanced group photo, the candidates attract curious glances from passers-by. As the photographers started snapping pictures, residents whipped out their phones and followed suit.
However, it’s not without its downsides. Firstly, social-distancing means the group often moves at a glacial pace. It also results in a lot of redundancy. More than once, Nick offers a flyer to someone, who raises a polite hand in refusal because he’s already got one from Ravi or Michelle.
“We were here before you,” one of his volunteers says.
For the Chinese candidates, this presents something of a dilemma in class-profiling. Should you speak to them in Chinese or English? I ask Nick but he smiles sheepishly and says there’s no right answer, you just have to make an on-the-spot decision. From what I can tell, you just start in your preferred tongue, then switch over when they give you the—I can say this because limpeh not candidate—simi lan jiao blank stare of incomprehension.
In other words: “Good morning, we’re from Red Dot—我们是红点同心党，这里的反对党，请投我们一票.”
There is no script for the walkabout. Each candidate has their own way of greeting and accosting the residents. Ravi, Alec, and Michelle, the more experienced candidates, will confidently bellow their greetings into shops and across tables. Liyana and Nick, the first-time candidates, are a tad more cautious. They will approach until conversation distance before opening their electoral salvo.
However, regardless of the extroversion/garrulousness, there are a few commonalities:
- Elections are coming this Friday
- As a newer party, the candidates will often introduce themselves not as Red Dot United, but as “the opposition for this GRC” (这里的反对党）
- Emphasis is placed on the RDU’s symbol: The Compass. Often, Ravi and Alec will say “Our symbol is the compass, and we hope to point you in the right direction” or “我们是一个指南针”
2 hours into the walkabout, the political slogans start to wear on your nerves. The jargon, which I initially found quite amusing, turns into the Don Don Donki jingle: “We’re from Red Dot United”—“大选要来了”—“Please support us and give us your vote”—“请支持我们, 投我们一票 — good morning we’re from the Red Dot United”.
For the part-time volunteers, however, lunch time isn’t much of a break. Dexter, a volunteer who has been with Michelle since her SDP days, takes the chance to whip out his Macbook and edit the photos he shot in RAW. After Adobe Lightroom has given everyone the Sephora glow, the photos are passed on to the media team who manages Red Dot United’s social media accounts. There are a hundred-plus photos and some b-roll which can be used for videos and promotional material.
Dexter does this while eating his Tian Tian chicken rice and explaining his political views. It makes me a little worried that RICE is preventing the spoonfuls of rice from reaching his mouth.
At the next table, the candidates are talking shop and discussing tomorrow’s rally: who will host, who will speak first, who will anchor (take the final spot), and who will give the cues.
When we reach his house, we check the letter box. It contains a glossy PAP booklet printed in all 4 languages. We feel the paper stock between our fingers and speculate how much it costs to print and mail one to every home in Singapore.
After some procrastinating and banter, both of us feel guilty and return to work. I start on the bare bones of this article, whilst Nick opens a new Google Doc for tomorrow evening’s e-rally. However, the temptation to use me as a sounding board proves irresistible. He wonders if his pitch on recycling makes sense. He asks me if his speech is too ‘cheem’ or too wordy. Does repetition work for speeches, and how much repetition is too much?
I don’t really have an answer. I’ve never given a speech, much less an e-rally.
By dinner time, he fills up three-quarters of a page. I manage zero.
The team is split into 3 groups, each responsible for different levels. Ravi and Michelle take the top 4 floors, Nick and Ravi’s daughter—who speaks Malay—take the next four. Liyana and Alec are responsible for the lowest levels.
If you’re expecting MPs getting invited into people’s homes and kissing their babies and drinking ah ma’s homemade barley, I’m sorry to disappoint you once again. Since it’s Saturday, about a third of the residents are not even home. After 2 rings, 30 seconds of waiting and a tentative shout of “Hello is anyone home?” Nick folds a flyer in half and wedges it in the metal gate.
For those who are home, their response is not very different from the walkabout. Doors begin closing before we have the chance to turn our backs. Most people take a flyer, nod, smile, and disappear into their homes. There are, however, a few friendly residents who pause to make small talk and ask about the elections—when is it happening, what is RDU, and so on.
I also meet my first genuinely rude person of the day, a middle-aged Chinese lady who gives Ravi a sour look when she opens the door.
“Good evening ma’am, I am Ravi from Red Dot …”
Ma’am turns and shouts “Opposition!”, presumably answering a query of “Who is it?”
Before we have a chance to redeem ourselves, she gives us a curt “Not interested” and shuts the door in our face. I give Michelle a meaningful look but she shrugs her shoulders.
“Sometimes it’s like that,” she tells me, with a tight smile.
One resident—whom I shall call Jeremy—wants the government to do more to support SMEs. As an SME-owner, he is struggling to survive. Ravi, who is taking point on this discussion, assures him the RDU’s presence in parliament will force the government to wake up its idea.
Then Jeremy broaches the Tharman question. He likes Tharman and Tharman so strong, confirm win, so how?
This is obviously not the first time—or perhaps even the twentieth time—Ravi has faced the Tharman question and he deftly turns it on his head. Yes, we all agree that Tharman is good and competent and a saint to boot, but does he really represent this neighborhood? The real MP responsible for Bukit Batok East is Rahayu Mahzam. Will Tharman really be around? Wouldn’t he be too busy juggling his many many roles at the cabinet level?
“You vote for Tharman, but you get Rahayu,” he argues, while RDU will be present as a team to listen to all of your problems.
I turn around to go for a smoke and nearly step on a massive cockroach with its antenna twitching. Guess they weren’t joking about the pests after all.
Perhaps evening and zi char brings out the more amiable side of Singaporeans. Perhaps Bukit Batok East is a different country from Clementi. It would certainly explain why everyone seems a lot friendlier and easygoing as we make our rounds from hawker centre to mama shop to durian stall. One young dude engages Ravi in banter and pretends that he’s afraid of voting for the opposition in case the PAP tekan him.
Then, he pulls an about-face, grins broadly and laughs: “Aiya, they come after me, I also not scared. What do I have to lose?” He throws his arms out in a sort of come-at-me-bro gesture to the imaginary PAP.
Another pair of aunties engage Nick and Michelle in a serious conversation. They ask what RDU is for, and what they want to do. Nick explains they want Singaporeans to have an alternative voice in parliament and the aunties—to my surprise—nod in agreement. They tell us: “我们心里也是这样想. 每一个国家都要一些反对党。新加坡也需要反对党.” When we depart they promise to share the message and discuss it with their friends, who meet here for dinner every other day.
(Translation: “I feel so too in my heart. Every country needs an opposition party. Singapore also needs an opposition party.”)
A volunteer tells us that one of the salon owners is upset because the candidates had skipped her. Alec and Michelle jog back posthaste. As it turns out, the hairdressers had recognized Alec from a previous election under the SDP (2011, 2015), and wanted to chat again. They banter in Mandarin and she makes him promise to visit again.
At one coffee shop, the beer corner uncles clap and raise their fists as the party departs.
Outside the coffeeshop, a person giving out flyers asks for a selfie with Ravi and Michelle.
It’s an internet truism that Singaporean youth are more politically involved than the bo-chup aunties and uncles. If you walk the ground, however, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking the opposite is true. It’s the older generation who are willing to listen and offer words of support or encouragement. It’s the youth who wouldn’t give you the time of day.
The seniors will respectfully read your flyer, or offer a word of blessing/good luck. For the conspicuously young—those my own age—they wouldn’t even wait until you’re out of earshot before sniggering to each other.
Perhaps we need to re-evaluate the political common sense that determines news articles and election campaigns. Are youth candidates really more interested? Or is it just a small echo chamber of woke, very-involved kids who are providing most of the chatter?
This turns out to be a blessing in disguise because Abdillah, who previously ran on the SPP ticket in 2015, is very familiar with the electoral ‘back-end’ so to speak. When I joined them, he was waiting for his Thosai and chatting to another volunteer about RDU’s counting agent deficit.
Counting agents, contrary to popular belief, are not the people who count the votes. That’s the civil servants’ job.
Counting agents are party nominees who go and watch over our civil servants to make sure there’s no monkey business. When a contentious vote appears, eg. one with random markings in both boxes, or carved with indecipherable runes, or painted with the Mona Lisa, counting agents can argue their party’s case. They can void a PAP vote if, say, there is also an ‘X’ which touches the Opposition’s box, or turn a ‘spoiled vote’ into one of their own by pointing out where the line has touched the box. If the margin is less than 5%, they can also demand a recount.
It’s an important job because there are a huge number of ‘spoiled’ votes. They’ve seen ballots with ‘fuck u’ written in the PAP box. Ballots with crosses in both boxes. Ballots with the thinnest whisker of a pencil line brushing against the box. (Fun fact: Writing ‘Fuck U’ in the PAP box is a vote for the PAP.)
As such, every party needs counting agents and the opposition often lacks them. Nobody knows this better than Tan Cheng Bock, who did not have enough counting agents during the last presidential election, and famously—tragically—lost by approx. 8,000 votes. Once bitten, twice shy. Rumor is, he is recruiting and deploying a massive army of counting agents for GE2020 to avoid a repeat.
As for the RDU, it has 10 counting agents, or 15 short of the minimum. This explains why RDU volunteers have been—throughout the day—trying to jedi mind-trick me with statements: “Eh so are you the new counting agent?”
Abdillah or ‘Abz’ also tells me about other aspects of the electoral logistics which I find quite fascinating. Apparently, the pandemic has lowered the bar this time round by forcing everyone online. Candidates have to pay a $13,500 deposit to take part in the GE. Traditional rallies would usually cost another $20,000-$30,000 over the next few weeks. In addition to the flyers, posters, and other expenses, it adds up rather quickly. This year, without rallies, the cost has been sharply reduced.
Thanks to the absence of rallies, the schedule is also less hectic. Normally, candidates would start the day at an MRT station to catch the commuter crowd, before moving onto the hawker centres for their walkabouts because that’s the highest concentration of people. If there’s a rally, they would grab a quick bite after the 5-7 PM walkabout before taking the stage. If not, they would go door-to-door, which presents the greatest pain because it’s so goddamned inefficient compared to hawker centres.
If that’s the case, why not just skip the door-to-doors altogether, I ask. Why not just stick to public spaces?
“Cannot. If you don’t do it, people will ask: Why you never come to my home? It’s very different because you personally visit them in their home,” he replies.
This is also where political infrastructure—volunteers, grassroots leaders—really help. Instead of personally knocking on every door like we did earlier, the PAP can tap into its vast network of supporters to knock for them. Volunteers will ring the doorbell and if the residents are willing to talk, they will signal the MPs to come over for a chat and a photo-op. This way, a much larger area can be covered.
The PAP has, of course, the best political infrastructure in Singapore, followed by WP and SDP. Tan Cheng Bock’s party, though massive, cannot yet hold a candle to their deeper roots.
I decide it’s time I leave him to it and say, “Let’s call it a day.”
No doubt, the walkabouts might be a little more interesting if you’re trailing a ‘celebrity’ candidate like Pritam Singh or Heng Swee Keat, but I don’t think my account is very off the mark. Dr Tan Wu Meng, for example, was very much going through the same motions that morning at Clementi market without any great fanfare.
On my way home, I ran into a SDP candidate who was—like us—still making his pitch to a group of beer-corner uncles. The kopitiam had shuttered, but he was still there, sweating into his red polo tee.
I don’t have any real political insights. Nothing particularly exciting or memeable happened during my day. No East Coast Plans or PM Lee Hsien Yangs in the flesh. No serious conversation about economic policy. Just a lot of walking and talking and walking.
But that is, perhaps the true struggle of politics in Singapore. Everyone at Red Dot United—volunteers and candidates—has families to feed, businesses to run, and jobs to show up for. It helps if you’re self-employed, but there are only so many hours in the day.
Meanwhile, the sort of political infrastructure Abdillah was talking about requires immense resources and years to build up. The odds are stacked at every level from media coverage, volunteers, counting agents, cash and so on. The struggle, as they say, is real.