This writer understands that WP had an overwhelming number of people who had wanted to contribute their effort to the Hougang by-election. And some of them were at Ground Zero – the Hougang coffeeshop at block 322 - on results night on Saturday.
As one by one the WP volunteers started to assemble at the coffeeshop, there was an air of quiet confidence among them. This group of silent soldiers are not known to exhibit extravagant expressions, perhaps taking their cue from the party leadership. But the camaraderie between them was evident, brothers- and sisters-in-arms joined together in a common cause. And that cause is the defence of its fortress from the intrusion of the men in white.
Soon patrons started to gather at 322. Chatter turned naturally to the by-election. There were mixed signals being given about the expected results – first, that the contest was perched on a knife edge and that it was 50-50 between the two sides. Later, word got around that WP’s victory would be more firm, at more than 60 per cent. As it turned out, this latter prediction proved prescient. WP did indeed snatch victory from the PAP with a 62.09 per cent vote count for its candidate, 50-year old Png Eng Huat.
Euphoria erupted within and without the coffeeshop, where some 1,000 people had gathered, when the news was confirmed by Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee. Spontaneous expression of joy and elation took over and deafening shouts and screams of “Workers’ Party! Workers’ Party!” rang out everywhere.
In a corner just outside the coffeeshop, WP volunteers – attired in the party’s trademark blue tees - looked on with pride, knowing that they too had contributed to this momentous event.
“It’s a vindication of the higher moral politics that the WP has adopted,” said Shaun Lee, a long-time WP member and volunteer. “I feel this is the right direction for Singapore.” The very much talked about “Hougang spirit” too is very much alive, he says. “We hope that we will be able, with the support from the people, to propagate the values, the spirit, that is Hougang, to the rest of Singapore,” he adds. The victory in Hougang is also a “vindication of the party’s stance on accountability and transparency.” But the night for him means more than just a victory of votes. It is about what he feels, as a citizen of this country, contributing to the establishment of something more important – democracy. And perhaps it is this which leads him to say, “In addition to [this victory], I feel proud to be a Singaporean.”
Ben Fong, a Hougang resident who is also a WP member and volunteer sees the victory as a continuation of the party’s legacy. “Our Hougang spirit goes out not just to people in Hougang, but to all Singaporeans.” The last general election and this by-election is a period of transformation for WP, he says, and he is confident of the WP’s chances at the next general election which is due by 2016. As for the slightly more than 2 per cent drop in WP votes for Hougang, Ben says, “Over the next four years, we will try our best to win over the PAP voters.” In the meantime, when asked what this victory means to him and Hougang voters, he says emphatically, “Hougang is not for sale!” He believes that the Hougang spirit will be kept alive for a while yet.
Mr Tan, a volunteer, and an astute political observer in this writer’s opinion, is also happy about the victory. “I think it is a good result, better than I expected. Despite the troubles that the Workers’ Party went through, we managed to stabilise our position.”
What does he think the win in Hougang mean for Mr Low as the leader of the WP, given that it is believed that Mr Low’s reputation has contributed a big part to the results? “There are a lot of people who vote based on the [party’s brand name],” Mr Tan says. Mr Low, therefore, has the credit of building that brand name, along with the party leadership.
What about the municipal carrots which were dangled by the PAP to Hougang voters? “This area and Aljunied have seen how the Workers’ Party have proven themselves, and their track record.” He therefore hopes that more Singaporeans elsewhere will give WP a chance in future elections to prove the party’s capabilities to them as well.
And in line with the attitude which WP volunteers are known for, Mr Tan is modest about his contribution to this by-election campaign. “I am glad that whatever little effort that I had put in has borne fruit.” He hopes that with continued support, Singapore would one day see the emergence of a two-party political system, which is in keeping with the party’s wider goal of instituting a First World Parliament, a goal expressed in its election manifesto last year.
There does not seem to be any disconnect between the party leadership and the volunteers on the ground, contrary to what some analysts have conjectured – that there is disunity in the WP. Mr Low himself rubbished such speculations at the press conference. In fact, the generals are very much in touch with the troops, but more importantly, the belief the rank and file have in the leadership and its strategy of gaining more grounds from the PAP are quite in tune indeed.
That the WP volunteers’ views are rather well articulated and parallel that of the leadership speaks to the aligning of a common vision between the top and the bottom, as it were. And with belief in the vision, the volunteers brave the sun and the rain, digging in in the trenches, working through the night even, after the glamour has been dusted off, to keep the machinery going each day of the campaign.
Their opponents' tactics and the accusations hurled at Png and the WP itself leave the volunteers dumbfounded.
The “baseless attacks, distractions, character assassination, and real threats of using government resources as carrots and sticks to coerce voters” which Mr Low spoke of at the WP press conference after the results were made known; the Yaw Shin Leong saga; the Poh Lee Guan fiasco [which Poh is entirely responsible for]; and the “character assassination” attempts by DPM Teo Chee Hean on Png Eng Huat, have all not made any significant dent to the WP’s brand name.
When DPM Teo threw what might be called a “Molotov cocktail” at Png, questioning his honesty and integrity, the WP instead stood firm, closed ranks and literally took the fight to the streets and to each and every flat in Hougang in the 48 hours before Polling Day.
Mr Yee disclosed, on his Facebook page, how the volunteers, along with Png and all 7 MPs and NCMPs “fanned out to cover all flats in the final 48 hours of campaigning to counter the unjustified allegations.”
The message: WP does not take things lying down, and they are willing to go the distance to right a wrong. However, its methods may not be what the PAP expects – such as suing the perceived assailant in the courts. It instead goes to the people to be judged, as it did in 2006, in 2011 and now in 2012. As Mr Yee said with regards to Hougang, it is the people “who are the source of [the WP’s] strength”. It is the people who will pronounce judgement and vindication, or condemnation.
At 322, as the party’s press conference was broadcast on television, and the coffeeshop crowd continued to celebrate the victory, WP volunteers stood quietly at their corner.
A middle-aged lady walks up to one of the volunteers and says in Chinese:
“Seeing you all gives me hope for Singapore.”
That perhaps is what Mr Yee was talking about – the people, ultimately, is what drives the party. And the party in turn is driven by its leaders who are supported by the faceless and silent volunteers, the foot soldiers who dedicate themselves to the cause, fighting alongside the generals, never taking anything for granted, or be cowed into taking anything lying down.
Here are some pictures of the volunteers at work.
Pictures by Lawrence Chong.
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