Yawning Bread. May 2006

On Hougang field




This is general election season in Singapore. As I write this, polling day is less than a week away, on 6 May 2006.

Earlier tonight, I hopped over to Hougang primarily to get a few photographs of an open-air rally by the opposition Workers' Party. I know I am not the best person to report on what is said at the rallies, because most speeches are made in Mandarin and Chinese dialects. My Mandarin is poor and as for dialects, null.

I'll leave it to others to report on the speeches in their blogs. That is to say, I went to Hougang without any intention of bringing back an essay. Yet, you are reading it. 

Something happened there. A picture. I picture that my mind and my eyes captured, but not my camera. In any case, it's a picture for words, not pixels.

I'll tell you about it later. Let me leave the best to last. 

I arrived at Hougang metro station around 21.00h. The rally, which must have begun soon after 19.00h, was in full swing. 

Emerging from Hougang station, I could hear the loudspeakers echoing from the tall residential blocks before I could even make out where exactly the rally was located. However, by watching the movement of people, I was soon able to make out the general direction. 

Following others, I went up a grassy knoll, and as I reached the top, I came hard against a wall of human backs. In front of them were more humans, phalanx after phalanx. I couldn't see more than 5 metres ahead. I had no idea how far I was from the stage, nor whether it was in front of me, to the right or to the left.

The echoes bouncing off the blocks of flats didn't provide me with a better fix. The stage and speakers could have been anywhere, and there was absolutely no way to squeeze any further ahead to find out.

Time for plan B. I looked for a tall block of flats nearby, moved sideways over to it and tried to take a lift up to one of the higher floors. No chance. There was a huge crowd in the lift lobby, all waiting for the lifts, with exactly the same idea. I took the stairs, walking up 13 floors.

This was what I saw:


In this general election, the Workers' Party is contesting 4 Single-member Constituencies (Hougang, JooChiat, Nee Soon Central and Nee Soon East), and 3 Group Representation Constituencies (Aljunied, Ang Mo Kio and East Coast).

This rally was held in the centre of Hougang town, which is surrounded by the larger Aljunied constituency.



And that's only the central part of the crowd. The swarm was wider than my widest lens.

* * * * *

When I arrived, the speaker -- no idea who -- was speaking in Mandarin. I didn't pay any attention; I was too busy going up the stairs together with a hundred others doing likewise.

After I had taken a few photos, I went down to the field again, not because I'd be able to see anything, but more for imbibing the mood of the crowd.

Soon after, Sylvia Lim, the Chairperson of the Workers Party, took the stage and spoke in English. For the next 10 minutes, she dealt with just one topic, hammering the point home. She spoke about rising healthcare costs, and how, instead of thinking of ways to help people, the government was thinking of ways to limit the use of subsidies. 

Even if you're prepared to put up with C class wards (the lowest of three categories of comfort), she said, you might not get C class. The government has already indicated that they would implement means-testing. Only the truly needy would get C class, she told the crowd.

Then she went on a bit about the various ways of means-testing, and how no way is truly fair, before coming back to the point that the People's Action Party (PAP) government really isn't in sync with the people's concerns.

She finished at 21.45h, and the last speaker for the evening was introduced. He was Low Thia Kiang, the incumbent MP for Hougang constituency.

This was the first time that I've heard him speak, and I must say I was impressed, even though he was speaking in Mandarin. While I didn't understand everything he said, I could sense his mastery of the language.

He spoke in a very calm way with clear enunciation and an excellent sense of timing for critical phrases. At certain points, he'd add an inflection to the voice, suggesting irony or dry humour. He knew how to use his baritone to great effect in his cadences.

He was mostly speaking about bread and butter issues, about the cost of living and the never-ending price increases for government-regulated services. But from these jumping-off points, he also spoke about opportunity for the economically worse-off, about hope and about the courage to use one's vote effectively.

As an example of his command of political oratory, towards the end of his 20-minute speech, he mentioned the size of the crowd before him. He said he was heartened by it; it proved to him that what he was talking about was real to the people here. 

He said the PAP dismissed the significance of the crowd size. The PAP, Low told the thousands before him, said the audience were mostly not from Hougang constituency, but had come from other parts of Singapore.

But Workers' Party candidates were standing in other constituencies too, he retorted. People would naturally want to hear what he and the other candidates had to say.

Furthermore, Low said, "the PAP claimed that the people come to the Workers' Party rallies just for the theatre."

"So, let me ask all of you: Are you here merely to watch a show?"
The crowd went, "No

And that was one more example of how he connected with the tens of thousands on the field; and they connected with him.

He made them feel slighted by the PAP, and in throwing the rhetorical question, moved the crowd to stand their ground. Pure political genius.

* * * * *

After the rally ended, most of the crowd dispersed quite quickly. However, about a thousand remained and began chanting "Workers' Party, Workers' Party," accompanied by whistles. The police quickly deployed themselves around the perimeter and things looked a little tense.

Soon, flags were waved as well (after this picture was taken) which the police decided to act against. They moved in to seize the taller flags, perhaps because the long flag poles might be used as weapons. But each time they seized a flag, they were booed and hissed, and things got a little hotter. 

Fortunately, sense prevailed and the police didn't do much more than that, and after 10 minutes, the hard-core supporters left as well.

* * * * *

When the chanting began, I decided to linger to see what might happen. But I was the minority. Most of the others, however, chose to start leaving. Each of the human backs that had formed the wall in front of me swivelled around to walk past me.

It was then that I saw the face of the man who had been in front of me for the last few minutes. Turning around to depart, he was just 50 cm from my eyes. For a brief moment, we were face to face -- he, a gaunt old man with sunken eyes, a grey crewcut and white stubble.

He had his gnarled hand up against the corner of his eyes, smoothening out the tears. Yes, he had been crying.

Perhaps he hadn't had an easy life. Perhaps he had been a hawker or a house-painter, informal jobs with nothing by way of a pension. In his old age, he might have a mountain of financial worries. Worse yet, life and society as he knew it in his younger days were disappearing. The dialects are gone from official speak, in their place, not Mandarin, but Angmoh (English). Medical and hospital costs are stratospheric compared to what he had known 3 decades ago. Even taking a bus downtown costs more than taking the taxi in days gone by.

Meanwhile the richer have gotten richer. And the government talks the incomprehensible language of foreign investment, foreign talent, GDP, globalisation, creativity and the arts. 

He would not have understood any of this, but he didn't mind that. What was important for him tonight, was that for once, a politician had articulated his sense of loss, his insecurity and his bewilderment at the galloping pace of change.

I don't know what the solutions are, he would have said. I don't understand half the stuff that ministers talk about anyway. But it doesn't matter. What matters is that tonight, I heard someone speak eloquently what I feel. And if he knows what I feel, then I can trust him to do something.

Of course, not everything can be fixed. I've lived long enough to know there will be no magic solutions. I'm not expecting any; just a little improvement is all I ask. Speak for me to the powers that be and give me hope. Do that, and I'll put my trust in you.

* * * * *

We don't understand politics until we understand that.

Yawning Bread 



Addendum - how many people?

I said in an earlier article that I'm no good at assessing crowd sizes, but now's the time to try a little harder to estimate the number of people in the above picture (which is less than the entire audience at the rally).

If you look at the top picture, you'll see that there were 15-16 people seated on the stage. This suggests that the stage was about 9 metres wide and 5 metres deep.

Now look at the bigger photo. Using the dimensions of the stage as the yardstick, and allowing for the fact that the bottom of the photo would be on a different scale from the back of the photo (due to perspective), I estimate that the area covered by the photo, excluding the road at the back, would be about 150m across and about 200m from bottom of picture to nearly the road.

That's 30,000 sq. metres. This being the thickest part of the crowd, the density was about 3 persons per sq. metre (they were standing shoulder to shoulder - see bottom picture). That means the total number of people encompassed by the bigger picture was about 90,000.

Add those outside the picture (less dense), and perhaps the total number of people at the rally was 100 - 120,000.