Dear Singapore, here are five things I never knew about you till GE2020

With the 2020 General Election passing with a resounding – if a little less resounding than in previous years – victory for the ruling People's Action Party, Singaporean student Ashley Tan reflects on what these polls have taught her about the city-state

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July 24, 2020
Dear Singapore, here are five things I never knew about you till GE2020
Voters line up to cast their ballots at a polling station in Singapore on 10 July. Photo: EPA/How Hwee Young

To my fellow Singaporeans: 

This election, we’ve frowned, laughed, we’ve cried … And I mean literally – tears began welling up in my parched eyes, kept peeled open as the night trudged on without the announcement of election results in sight. 

All in all, GE2020 has been wonderfully entertaining, to say the least. I’ve learned a great deal about the quirks of my country over the years, but here are five new things I uncovered about it during election season.

1. We ‘stan’ politicians who warm the cockles of our hearts

If there’s one way to win Singaporeans over, it’s through Korean hearts, padded CVs and a speech full of cockles (the scientific ventricle kind, not the kind we find in the famous Apollo Fresh Cockle Fried Kway Teow – which, by the way, is a must-try for anyone who’s in town).

This was best exemplified by Jamus Lim, Workers’ Party politician and the newly minted darling of Singaporean politics. 

Prior to Polling Day, Lim’s CV was downloaded and circulated by citizens via WhatsApp to their immediate circles. Names like ‘Raffles Institution’, ‘London School of Economics’ and ‘Harvard’ stamped on the first page of the document alone were arguably sufficient to garner votes and sway naysayers (sans the minor exposé by former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng, who pointed out that Lim received a Masters from Harvard Extension School, not Harvard College or GSAS).

But aside from his 11-page worth of credentials that could rival Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s titles of Head of Government, Talented Coder and Senior Wrangler at Cambridge University, this blue-eyed boy proved to be even more charming in person. 

As an educator myself, that warms the cockles of my heart

Jamus Lim

In the GE2020 debate, Lim held his ground against seasoned politicians including the People’s Action Party and Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, and Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party Dr Chee Soon Juan.

When Lim spoke about the topic of increasing equality between schools and improving Singapore’s education as a whole, he very expressively (and now famously) said that “as an educator myself, that warms the cockles of my heart”, as if using this phrase in a conversation were as natural as mee siam mai hum (mee siam without cockles).

Just look at him – how could anyone possibly resist that charm? (Source)

Yet some have taken exception to the fan culture that Lim has cultivated and warned against the celebritisation of politicians. In his defence, isn’t “personality politics” just a lofty concept thrown around by haughty armchair critics who’ve never spent a day of their lives revelling in the exciting, impassioned echochamber that is Twitter anyway?

Screenshot of Jamus ‘stans’ on Twitter (Source)

2. We’re so politically engaged, we’ve even added political preference to our dating checklist 

If anything, GE2020 has proven that Singaporeans aren’t the straight-laced, frigid folks that we’re often made out to be. From creating and signing petitions, to staying up until the wee hours to watch the official announcement of election results (despite knowing full well in our high-scoring PISA brains that sample counts are statistically reliable) we’ve shown a keen interest in our political scene. 

But while it’s one thing to resist the temptation of going to bed for the sake of getting first-hand information on election results, streamlining who we literally get into bed with based on political preferences is a whole other ball game.

On dating apps like Tinder, profile descriptions turned into politically charged dealbreakers during the election season. Instructions like “PAP supporters, swipe left” and “swipe right for Jamus” have taken over dating profiles. 

It’s not uncommon to hear Singaporeans cavilling at the dating scene and the seeming impossibility of finding a significant other. But now that political leanings have been added to an already long dating checklist comprising financial stability, reliability, attractiveness and intelligence (the one non-negotiable trait – how else can we strengthen the chances of our children securing Top in Cohort in their schools?), it wouldn’t be surprising if this new addition is the cause of our fertility rate falling below 1.14 in the coming years … 

3. We realised that our leaders are humans with full-fledged feelings too

This election has marked a handover of sorts, from the older generation of political leaders, to those who have been termed the “4G” leaders. Among others, both the venerated Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and somewhat less beloved Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan announced that they would be stepping down after 44 and 19 years in politics respectively.

Over the years, Minister Khaw has been the unfortunate endurer of wrath from Singaporeans who hold a notoriously low tolerance for train breakdowns and transport inefficiencies. This probably explains why it felt somewhat ironic, yet full circle, when his publicity team stationed him on a platform beside oncoming trains – the public transport equivalent of a military flypast? – as he valiantly tried to quell his tears while fielding questions from the media while announcing his decision to retire from politics. 

But this moment was also bittersweet, eliciting a flurry of comments from netizens displaying gratitude for the Minister’s hard work and endurance despite the backlash that he has faced. 

I guess Singaporean’s aren’t exempt from the universal case of not knowing what we have until it’s gone, either. 

4. We’ve found a new brand ambassador for our ‘age-well’ programmes

Speaking of a transition from one generation to the next, a bevy of commentaries have been made on the shift in generational voting patterns this election. 

Some have accused the ruling party of failing to capture younger voters and relying on the older generation, whose loyalty to the PAP runs deeper than Singaporeans’ steadfast respect for a lone tissue packet meant to reserve a table in a crowded hawker centre. Others have attributed the election result to the Workers’ Party’s appeal to the younger crowd, especially on post-material issues.

But let’s talk about the dark horse who’s become a uniting force for all Singaporeans: former-PAP-turned-opposition-party-leader Dr Tan Cheng Bock. The self-proclaimed “woke”, “hypebeast ah gong (grandfather)” is our country’s best example of senior citizens who have successfully managed to keep up with everything that is new and hip. 

Tan’s snappy Instagram captions and memorable zinger lines are so meme-able that he’s become a big hit with the young “in” crowd. But Tan hasn’t forgotten his roots either – he is still very much in touch with his generation, and was even caught on tape trying to explain to his friend, in the Teochew dialect, what “hypebeast” means. 

The self-proclaimed “hypebeast” has an impressive 76k following on Instagram (Source)

In short, Tan has been the fairy godfather that young and old folks alike have long been waiting for, a crucial bridge between two seemingly unbridgeable generations. In fact, perhaps it’s time for us to consider reaching out to him to ask if he would be willing to be a brand ambassador for the government’s Action Plan For Successful Ageing initiative. 

A pro-tip for our government agencies: For a quick response, your best bet would probably be to slide into Tan’s Insta DMs, though I’m sure he wouldn’t be opposed to snail mail either if you’re feeling a little bit more ‘retro’. Don’t forget that our ‘woke grandpa’ is a jack of all trades and a master of all-things social media.

5. We have a decent shot at democracy after all 

When it comes to foreign opinions, Singapore hasn’t been particularly known to hold a strong record when it comes to democracy. In fact, it’s common to see international reports touting our country as an “illiberal democracy” or even a “benevolent dictatorship”.

Needless to say, this tends to come as a disappointment, considering that we hold rankings in such high regard that even slipping to second place in the 2018 PISA tests warrants headlines in the local newspaper as if the apocalypse were on the horizon.  

But this election has indicated a shift in our political paradigm. It has seen the appointment of Workers’ Party leader Pritam Singh as the official Leader of the Opposition, a title which has never been formally accorded to any opposition leader before. It has also witnessed the burgeoning acceptance and welcoming of contestation by opposition parties that – in the words of PAP politician Tin Pei Ling – “will be good for our democracy”. The unfolding of camaraderie between leaders who have stressed the need to work across parties has also manifested itself in cross-party pictures such as this:

Warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it? (Source)

There might not be many countries in the world where a one-party rule and democracy coexist, but maybe Singapore has proven to be an exception after all. 

Overall, the lessons gleaned from GE2020 have taught me a great deal about the importance of old-school campaigning tools like perambulating vehicles despite campaign rallies going digital, why we need to strive for more women in parliament, as well as my shameful betrayal to the Gen Z community (it was with great sadness that I tapped out and left for bed, while my 50-year-old father held out and kept his eyes glued to the television).

Regardless, here’s looking forward to the next elections, when what I have to say might actually matter since I’ll be of age to vote. 

This piece of commentary-cum-satire was written by Ashley Tan, a Singaporean student currently pursuing an undergraduate dual degree between Columbia University in the US and the Paris Institute of Political Studies in France. In her spare time, she serves as a judge for The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition and mentors young writers for Write the World. 

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