Silenced Minority - The Book
ARE WE THERE YET?
By Mindy Tan
2015 is a year of milestones for Singapore.
Some say we were orphaned with Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. His death in March unearthed deep sentiments from Singapore’s early year struggles, many of whom in this generation still remember. As we inched towards our 50th National Day celebrations in a generously funded year-long SG50 campaign, watching the man’s coffin move pass the city hall in torrential rain was just too much to bear. The tears flowed freely in an outpouring of collective grief that surprised even ourselves. And for the 1.5 million Singaporeans who together tolerated scorching heat and long hours of queueing to pay their final respects, those feelings of gratitude, unity and pride for our nation on this occasion of grief.. those feelings came easily. The loss of our founding father, whose vision and no-nonsense leadership propelled the country towards the first-world, would mark perhaps, one of the most important events in Singapore’s history.
Only 5 months later, our collective sadness would be thrust into euphoria, as the city’s skies exploded with fireworks and jaw-dropping aerial stunts, the pomp and pageantry of our military lined the streets. Weekend after weekend, the city came abuzz with festivities. The government handed its civil servants fat cash bonuses, announced a well-rounded SG50 seniors package for those above 60, providing travel, dining, wellness and leisure discounts we call ‘carrots’ in this country, pointing to the tremendous progress Singapore has achieved. In a global climate where people were struggling with a migrant crisis, berserk weather, wars and the effects of terrorism, we were a lucky lot.
A call for a snap elections was announced shortly after and a year ahead of its time, resulting in a 69.9% landslide victory for the PAP. Some say the LKY dividend contributed to PAP’s best win ever, a stunning mandate considering that the ruling party had performed its worst in the previous 2011 elections. Other critics cite the people’s pragmatism for the need of a proven government in a uncertain global economy, and attributed the win to an affirmation of the PAP’s good work and softening of leadership tone during its last tenure.
Given that neatly organised small groups of supporters who attended PAP rallies were only a fraction of thousands who turned up at opposition rallies, the huge margin of PAP’s 69.9% victory left many stunned.
Singaporeans want opposition voices in parliament to keep PAP policies in check. (Opposition leader Low Thia Kiang said he needed 20 candidates voted into Parliament in order to be substantiative). Yet, Singaporeans fear the PAP would lose power.
To add to those fears, GE2015 is the first time in electoral history all seats are being contested. The line-up of new opposition candidates, however politically inexperienced, were highly qualified individuals who have stepped forward to serve, increasing the trepidation that a PAP overthrow was close to becoming a reality.
A vote now became more than a choice of personal preferences, it was a mixed bag of predictions who other voters would choose.
It is an exciting climate of change brewing in a new Singapore, a country now ready to embrace her next 50 years. Whether or not Lee’s death impacted decision-making, there is no doubt Singaporeans have been set free from an unspoken authoritarian loyalty to the PAP, for which to many, is synonymous to the man Lee Kuan Yew.
The election in a loosely-gutted emboldened social media saw opinions freely expressed and anti-LKY sentiments over the leader’s dogmatic dominance over its political opponents were slowly beginning to surface.
In a city where rate of population increment changes even faster than its rate of building renewals, Singapore will never be the same.
For posterity’s sake, we document GE2015.
In a Singapore known to outsiders for its glittery Marina Bay Sands skyline, reality is within the thick of HDB neighborhoods.
Tens of thousands have showed up of their own accord, night after night during the election campaign to listen, to participate, to show their support for a better Singapore, some hanging their weariness, worthy spirits and hopes on their faces. In our time-tied and sleep-deprived nation, we cannot discount the crowd’s efforts.
Even if they represent only a minority, even if in a few hours they will go home, leaving this unusual sight to be repeated again only 5 years later, we cannot ignore them. With their presence, they have asked to be heard.
Who are these people? Why do they come forward or willingly open their doors for politicians to enter?
Some believe in democracy and are beginning exploring for themselves what Singapore politics is all about. Some have fallen within the gaps of society’s progress and seek representation. They are all Singaporeans, born and breed. They are Singaporeans who make an honest living and strive for a better life just as our forefathers did, and they call this city home.
And as local photographers who understand the nuances on the ground, making record is our responsibility.
As story-tellers, we were cautious not to pick camps, but it was impossible to stay neutral. The camera itself forces us to keep within a frame and inevitably, a decision on what we photograph and how we photograph had to be made. Where we point our lenses objectifies our opinions as much as the content we choose to show.
The PAP has resources from the mainstream media to the civil service to disseminate its message. The opposition in contrast pales in its ability to broadcast its perspectives. This swayed our focus to the opposition who had far less resources and are the perennial underdogs. After all, only the brave would stand with the opposition, to be willingly scrutinized by the public and have their words minced and actions dissected every step of the way.
Through walking the grounds with the candidates, we saw first-hand how a segment of society no longer enjoy the fruits of 50 years of nationhood. We heard examples of how Singaporeans have struggled to keep up.
Most people don’t often interact with a different strata of society and do not see how the rest are progressing. It is also easy to lose track of those among us if we ourselves are having a good time. There is a saying ‘Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” This is not a story about CPF returns, housing costs, public transport owes or population explosion. This is about Singaporeans.
Being a voter and a documentary photographer also presented an interesting dichotomy, often a conflicting one. It made us question if the candidates with alternative plans could really turn things around. In this web of complex economics, how can we become a more inclusive society?
Perhaps these photographs call out for a society our heart seeks - a kind of world more equal than divided, where wealth disparities are smaller, where progress means no one gets left behind, and all of us can move up together as one nation.
It is now the future who will be the best judge of today’s events. Whether we fly, fail or stumble along, it is our hope these photographs, presented in print, will bear witness to this moment in Singapore’s history.