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EHIND THE SCENES

Mounfbatten activists The General Election has changed the way the activists at the single-member constituency go about their work By Wong Sher Maine

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s recently as April this year, the activists of Mountbatten offered their services to simply contribute to the community, to help others. Then, politics did not really come into the picture for them. All that changed with the May 7 General Election, when the constituency went into the battle on its own, after 14 years in the protective embrace of a G R C . Worse, the last time it had even contested an election was even further back, in 1991. The branch's assistant secretary, Ms Sim Bee Hia, 45, summed up the new outlook: "You can no longer say, 'I'm a community leader; I don't want to be involved in politics; I don't take sides.' That doesn't work anymore. "There's now a greater sense of political awareness; that what we do is driven by our belief this is the right platform for us to serve the people," added the secretary-general of the Hokkien Huay Kuan, a clan association. She became an activist in 2004. It was a wake-up call too for veterans like M r Saram Jerome Joseph, a retired principal who has helped out in nine GEs in the area, starting with the one in 1976, when Mountbatten was part of the Katong constituency. "I was taken aback at the outcome," said the 76-year-old, who watched the live announcement of the results on TV, as he had been too tired to go to the Toa Payoh Stadium rallying point. "I thought we'd get 80 per cent of the vote," he said, basing it on the sincerity in residents' smiles during house-to-house visits and their warm reception. "When 20 PETIR S E P T / O C T 11

I saw that we'd only managed 58 per cent, it was a big surprise. The shock made this last election probably my most memorable." The constituency, which covers the Tanjong Rhu and Old Airport areas, and the H D B estates in Dakota and parts of Marine Parade, was a single ward from 1959 to 1991, before it became part of Marine Parade G R C . At its last experience in the fray, its then-MP, M r Eugene Yap, who was up

against independent candidate Yen Kim Khooi, scored 78 per cent. No energy to

chiong

M r Frederick H o , 40, the branch's secretary who is a deputy director at N T U C , said of this year's battle: "It was a very steep learning curve. "As we hadn't fought for 20 years, we didn't know what the voter sentiment was. It was like going to war without knowing where your support base is,"


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explained M r Ho, who became an activist in 1994. "Yes, we worked the ground, but while everyone might say hello and interact, how they vote at the ballot box is another thing." Branch treasurer Ang Bee Hock, an accountant, who was one of a handful of veterans around in 1991, noted: "We had also lost the energy to chiong (Hokkien for rushing forward)." To him, the election in 1991 was the most memorable in the seven he has ex-

perienced since he became an activist in 1986, as he had been the most involved in the planning and execution work. This year, many of the old hands who might have been familiar with the GE machinery were either retired or had passed away. "It's no longer the same cohesive group of people working together to fight an election," said the 55-year-old. "Yes, we work together for MPS and other events, but the bonding which takes place at MPS and at an election is very different." Social media, he added, was a new unknown in the equation. "Young people were easily influenced by what they saw on Facebook and didn't care whether it was true or not." The composition of the estate had also changed. While 90 per cent of the ward used to be three-and four-room H D B flats 20 years ago, there are now more five-room homes. About 50 per cent of the residents live in condominiums, many of which they were not allowed to enter to make their pitch, and private property. Said M r Ho: "It's challenging to gauge the level of support in private estates because even if we manage to interact with residents, we're not sure if they're owners or tenants." Mid-way during the nine-day campaign, the team realised, from feedback and press articles, that national issues like the cost of living mattered more than local ones. Ms Sim recalled a resident coming up to M r Lim Biow Chuan to tell him that while he was a good MP, the resident's vote would go to the opposition. "How do you fight a battle like that?" she asked.

Coupled with opposition sentiment in the nearby Aljunied G R C , it struck the team that it had a real battle on its hands. The group decided to change its strategy and focus on what M r Lim was doing on the ground to address those matters. O n the day Singaporeans voted, Mountbatten's results were the first announced. Said M r Ho: "We were quite relieved we'd won, but we also knew we had to look at how we can increase our vote share." Rethink, Refocus, Redefine

So, when 70 of the branch's activists and helpers got together for the first time after the G E , the meeting was charged. Top of the agenda: To take a hard look at why their M P and the years of work they had put in had been brushed aside. Political correctness was thrown out of the door. Frank views and hard criticism was the order of the evening. The purpose of every event the ward organises was examined. Ways to deal with ground issues, such as how to reduce residents' waiting time at meet-the-people sessions and for MPS letter writers to show more empathy, were discussed. Even how residents left an MPS came under scrutiny, said branch vice-chair Patrick Loh, a lecturer at SIM university. Plans were made to publish a newsletter and start a website specifically for people in the constituency. At the end of the three-hour meeting, called "Rethink, Refocus, Redefine", ideas on how the activists would continue their work had been hammered out. On the ground, four months after the PETIR SEPT/OCT 11

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election, life goes on for residents who stream in for MPS every Tuesday night at the PCF kindergarten above Old Airport Road's famous hawker centre. About three in 10 are private estate dwellers. They generally bring up disputes over property tax and with neighbours, deferring National Service for their children, and traffic disruptions caused by M R T construction work. H D B residents usually need help with paying their rent and other financial assistance. There are about a dozen rental H D B blocks in the constituency. The greater sense of political purpose now has translated into better service for residents. Said Ms Sim: "Knowing that the future of Singapore is at stake, I'd say this makes it more urgent for us to convince residents of our sincerity in wanting to serve them better." The sense of purposefulness has gone beyond the MPS. For instance, celebrating the Mooncake or Lantern Festivals is not done because it's an annual affair, it is now an opportunity to ensure their MP, whom the activists describe as a "ground man", gets to talk to his constituents. "We ask, what is the purpose of the event? It must be tweaked so he can talk to more residents and connect better with them. Everything must be looked at with fresh eyes," said Ms Sim. House-to-house visits cannot be a routine exchanging of pleasantries. If a resident raises a concern, the activists ensure he gets an answer. "We have to close the communication loop and not leave it hanging there," she added. Now, too, the veterans are working more closely with the branch's younger helpers, many of whom are in their early and mid-30s and new to the work. They played leading roles in the GE, taking charge of social media and mobilising manpower. Compared to the old hands, many more of them are professionals. Noted Dr Loh: "They are a lot more willing to stand up and make their opinions known if they don't agree with you." He added: "Hopefully, the next four to five years is enough time for them to 'graduate', understand their roles, the role of the Party and its philosophy. We can't teach an old dog new tricks, but we can bend the bamboo when it's young." • 22 PETIR

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Old hands Mr Saram Jerome Joseph, 76, father of two sons in their 30s In the late 1970s, he drafted a letter of appeal for his M a laysian wife to be given PR status, to then-MP Joe Conceicao. The M P was so impressed he asked Mr Joseph to join the team as a letter-writer. He did after his wife got her PR. "Someone tried to get me to learn to write on the computer, but I still write letters by hand," he said. A particularly fond memory was when the driver of a taxi he was sitting in turned around and thanked him for helping him to write his petition. "He didn't want to accept the taxi fare, but I insisted. He's making a living after all."

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Dr Patrick Loh, 60, father of a son, 23 The son of immigrants, a watchman and a washerwom-

an, counts getting an overseas training award from the PSA to study in Britain as a turning point in his life. He worked his way up to a PhD majoring in plant virology and tissue culture technology, and the boy who grew up in a one-room Redhill flat now stays in landed property. He joined the Party when he was

21, before he got the award. "I was grateful, for the opportunities I had been given to shine with some hard work," he said. "Activists like us do quiet work behind the scenes, but on the occasion when I meet with people like M r Goh Chok Tong, I feel satisfied that small fry like me can hold a conversation with someone of his stature." Mr Frederick Ho, 40 A newspaper headline, trumpeting a call from then-Prime Minister Goh for more student leaders to step forward, led him to his first meet-the-people session in 1994. At the time, he was a member of the National University of Singapore's Democratic Socialist Club. He has stayed on for nearly 20 years because he gets a buzz from helping out. "There's a family we've been helping for years, from getting them a rental flat in the area to providing financial assistance. We can see how their lives have slowly improved over time, and the hope is that the children will be able to take care of their parents when they grow up." He added: "We can do a lot for the residents, but if what we're doing is not meeting their needs, then it's no use. We need to hear from them more." H |

PETIR Sept/Oct 2011  

Mountbatten activists find new fervour