Thursday, May 5, 2011

Change starts with something small: Vincent Wijeysingha (text and video)

Andrew Loh

It is 6.30pm on Wednesday. The downpour has subsided to a drizzle and the sky is clearing. Inside the stadium about 300 people sit in the stands while volunteers scurry to put the final touches before the evening’s event.

“You guys have done a great job,” I say to Jeffrey George, the Assistant Treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), as we walk towards the stage at the Woodlands Stadium for the night’s rally. The field is empty except for several policemen and reporters. Everyone else prefers to remain in the stands in case the skies should crack open again. “Don’t worry,” I said to Jeffrey. “The people will come even if it rains.” Jeffrey smiles, his mind preoccupied perhaps with logistical concerns of the event which will take place in a few minutes.

As Jeffrey leaves to attend to matters, I stand and lean against the barrier which segregates the audience from the stage. In that quiet instance, I felt like I was in one of those momentous occasions where time stands still while history checks in and leaves its indelible mark. The Singapore flag placed side by side with the SDP’s, the magnified faces of its 11 candidates on the backdrop of the stage, and the familiar faces of SDP members and volunteers such as Seelan Palay, Chee Siok Chin, Jaslyn Go and Bentley Tan busying themselves, tells me the SDP has indeed come a long way.

From being a party which many believed was on the verge of collapse from the assaults by leaders of the People’s Action Party (PAP) through crippling lawsuits and being demonized by the state-owned media, the SDP has risen from the ashes to become a formidable opponent to its nemesis.

Its slate of candidates in the elections is impressive indeed. Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan, James Gomez, Vincent Wijeysingha, John Tan and Michelle Lee who delivered an impressive speech at Clementi  several days with eloquence and intelligence.

Tonight, however, I made the trip to Woodlands to hear Vincent Wijeysingha once more. He leads the SDP team for the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency. The PAP team there which Vincent’s team is trying to unseat is led by Vivian Balakrishnan who heads the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS).

“My friends, this is a government that is falling down before our very eyes,” Vincent begins his speech, in crisp and clearly articulated words. The crowd, which by now has filled the stands and half the field, cheers. There was no need for Vincent to elaborate. His audience knows what he means.

“In 1954,” he continues, recalling Singapore’s earlier years, “a group of committed and dedicated men came together. They looked at injustices of British colonial rule and they were frustrated they were not able to improve the lives of their fellow men. They became our government.”

This government, which was wrought from the crucible of uncertain times, has stayed in power till this very day. And this government which has always valued the social contract between itself and the people knows that the bond is being strained and strained to its breaking point because of its policies in the last five years.


They have set themselves apart from us. Why? Because they know that the contract is no longer safe.

In these last 20 years, they have made it difficult for men and women like those in 1954 to become leaders. They started to silence us, the people. They took away our votes because they said we had to vote for groups. They said they would have to reconsider whether the one-man, one-vote system was good for Singapore. They put people in jail because they disagreed with them. And they tortured them.

They sent others into exile, and they bankrupted others and they tried to intimidate all of us. They frightened us. They made us believe that if you speak up about what you see around you, if you helped your fellow  citizens who were in trouble, like Teo Soh Lung did, you would end up like Teo Soh Lung – tortured in a prison. And why? Because there are only two ways to run a country:

-          By making yourself worthy of the people or

-          By making yourself too powerful to change

They chose the second in these last five years.

Today our country, one of the richest in the world, is a place where old people beg for food. Today our country is a place where our people no longer talk to their neighbours. Our country is a place where there are no more brave men, like the brave men of 1954. My friends, in these last few months, people have come up to us, to thank us for speaking up for them. To thank us for being brave.

And I have struggled to understand them because I am not brave. I am not doing anything extraordinary. I am only doing what every Singaporean has the right to do – to say to our leaders, with respect: “You have lost your way. You have forgotten the people. You have turned a deaf ear to our cries of frustration.”

Because deep in our hearts, rich or poor, we sense that we only live half a life. And looking into your eyes, into the frustration of the people, I now know why you think I am brave. Because the PAP has succeeded, or almost succeeded, in taking our humanity away from us. We are prepared to forget anything that makes us human, everything that gives us hope, everything that makes us happy, in return for just not being afraid.

And so when you thank me and my colleagues, what you are actually saying is, “Thank you for reminding me of what it means to be human. Thank you that I no longer feel frightened.

My friends, there are two ways to govern a nation. At one time, the PAP made our lives better – the first way. Today it has almost succeeded in making us silent, making us frightened – the second way. But the people of Singapore – you – you are waking up. We are remembering what it means to be human. What it means to live. And so we see in these last few months they have tried various tactics.

First, they offered us money. Then they tried to smear your candidates by saying we were not fit to be your representatives. Then they offered you upgrading. Then when you clearly said to them that what they were giving you were what you didn’t want, they went on tv and they cried. And yesterday they tried and portrayed themselves as ordinary, normal Singaporeans. And today, today the Prime Minister tells us he’s sorry.

My friends, what are they sorry for?

Are they sorry for putting 200 people in jail who didn’t commit a crime? Are they sorry for torturing them?

Are they sorry for bankrupting JB Jeyaretnam and humiliating President Ong Teng Cheong?

Are they sorry for losing hundreds of millions of our dollars?

Is Dr Balakrishnan sorry for squandering $200 million and then refusing to explain why?

Is Mr Teo Ho Pin sorry for losing $2 million of your conservancy charges?

Are they sorry for calling $600,000 salary “peanuts”?

Are they sorry because they have no idea how to deal with floods?

And are they sorry for insulting the native people of our land, our Malay brothers and sisters?

Are they sorry for packing our nation with 7,000 people in every square kilometer?

Are they sorry that old people cannot eat and families cannot go to the doctor?

And are they sorry that 70,000 children got to school without pocket money every day?

Or are they sorry that they have [reaped] millions of dollars every year in salaries?

They say that their salaries are pegged to the highest earners in the private sector.  But they forgot to remember that in the private sector, if a CEO doesn’t perform in three to five years, the shareholders get him out. The CEO doesn’t change the rules of the company so that they put you in jail if you try to get him out.

Today, we are not impressed by their apology. We are not impressed by their remorse.  It is contemptuous in the extreme. We want good government. A government that listens. A government that cares for us, the people.

Today, there is a groundswell of change. Slowly like an earthquake preparing to erupt, I can hear the hearts and minds of you, the people, waking up saying, “Enough is enough.”

My friends, change starts with something small. One idea, one event, one person. Change comes very slowly. But change comes. Change comes because we suddenly remember our common humanity. And we reclaim our outrage. And we say, “Enough.”

The PAP has tried to win this election by their usual methods. Smear campaign, smear, and throwing money at you. And in these last few days, they have tried tears and regret. But you will also see that they have been responding to the questions posed to them by the opposition parties. Even before you have put us in Parliament, we are already doing the job that an MP should be doing, which is to ask the difficult questions and not let them get away by saying it is none of our business why they have squandered our money.

Questions like why our young couples cannot afford a flat. Questions like why you are not doing anything about the rising prices that you have caused. Questions like why we should trust you when you insult us, and offend us, and tell us we need to be kicked in order to work faster, better and cheaper. Questions like why you are not listening to the people.

The opposition parties in these last few days have brought the PAP out from their shelter when they have hidden from you and we have made them face you, the people. And so, as Teo Soh Lung said yesterday in Bukit Panjang, the opposition is already in Parliament.

All you need to do is put your cross on Saturday.

We have seen money, tears and a cynical apology. We want none of that. We want our country back.

We want to travel the world and proudly say, “I am a Singaporean.”

And on Saturday, my friends, something magical will happen. You will go to a place and by the simple and non-violent act of putting a cross in pencil next to a name, you will decide who will govern our country for the next five years.  It is an act – we should remember – people died to secure for us. It is an act which makes us human. It is an act more important than anything you will do in the next five years because it will ensure a safe, secure, and prosperous home for you and your children. Cast your vote for your children. Do not find yourself in the position, another 25 years from now, when they will say to you: “Why did you not speak up for me?”

This is the responsibility you carry with you on Saturday. I ask you to carry it with care. And my message to you is the message I have said to you all the days of this campaign: Let us move confidently into the future, our children’s future, with no one left behind.

Vincent’s speech:

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