Not too long ago, I stood among the crowds in Hong Lim Park during the water price hike protests, in the hope that I could hear the same misgivings I had about the price hikes.
What I heard was a wide range of quality of speakers, ranging from blah! to articulate, boring to passionate. I did however get a general feeling that anti-government/ anti-establishment folks seemed to think it was ok to conflate all and sundry issues together and always draw the same conclusion – it is the PAP’s fault, and so you need to vote them out. Maybe that’s what draws the crowds down to Hong Lim.
The power of the people’s vote
During the protest, one speaker, Jufri Mahmood, veered so far off from the water prices discussion, and took the chance on stage to call on Singaporeans to use the coming Presidential Elections as a referendum against the PAP. In effect, he called on people to spoil their votes should there be no independent candidates running against the supposed PAP’s choice candidate. Strong words, Mr Jufri.
One could argue that spoiling votes is a voter’s way of making a statement, however, the question is, even if used as a last resort – to spoil your vote or to refuse to turn up at the polling station, are we, as a people collectively saying “We give up. Let’s forget about the democratic process”? Pause. Really, let’s pause for a while.
People ASSUME that the right to the ballot box is a given. By treating the right to vote lightly, it is almost akin to being disrespectful of those who fought for it to happen.
The right to vote did not come to be on the British’s own accord.
In a recollection piece in the Straits Times, four weeks of negotiations in London, and a lot of conviction by David Marshall (who resigned as Chief Minister after failed talks), Lim Yew Hock, Lee Kuan Yew and their peers.
Rewind even further. When the Japanese came in 1942, the British surrendered and saved themselves first, leaving the people to their own devices, to suffer through the Japanese Occupation period. Singapore was in shambles when they Japanese finally left, but it opened the people’s eyes to a harsh reality, that no one should rule us but ourselves.
“My colleagues and I are of that generation of young men who went through the Second World War and the Japanese Occupation and emerged determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick us around.” – Lee Kuan Yew, Battle for Merger, 1961.
Step-by-step to the ballot box:
1942 to 1945 – Japanese Occupation. The atrocities suffered by the people during the Japanese Occupation, coupled with memories of how the colonial masters had abandoned Singapore to save themselves ended the myth of dissolved the myth of British invincibility and superiority.
1948 – The British were back. Singapore became a Crown Colony of the British Empire, administered separately from Malaya. This was the first time the people got to vote, although limited and they were only allowed to vote for “British subjects”, a prelude to decolonisation. Voting was however not a totally new concept as clans and clubs at the social/community level have been holding voting and elections for a long time.
1955 – The Rendel Constitution of April 1955 came into force, paving the way to self-governance. This was also the year of one the most exciting times in our short history, with the 1955 Legislative Assembly general election seeing David Marshall’s Labour Front 10 out of 7 seats contested. Marshall was appointed Singapore’s first Chief Minister.
1957 – After four weeks of talks in London, Lim Yew Hock’s delegation successfully negotiated for Singapore’s self-governance.
1959 – Singapore saw had our political election for the first time, and saw the PAP sweeping the majority of the seats in the new Legislative Assembly.
1962 – Referendum on merger with Malaysia. Singaporeans went to the polls on the referendum and majority voted for merger.
1965 – Separation from Malaysia eventually happened, and Singapore became a nation on its own.
Post WWII, even as the colonial masters attempted to give a semblance of rights to the locals to vote in their own leaders, the idea of universal suffrage was flawed in the very definition of “British subjects”. Those who were not born in Singapore yet lived here all their lives found it difficult to obtain citizenship as “British subjects” and therefore had no voting rights.
Political activists in Singapore at that time had a vision of a Singapore ruled by Singaporeans, free from colonial rule, but the road to independence, and the road to universal suffrage was fraught with much difficulties.
David Marshall, voted in as the first Chief Minister of Singapore resigned in 1956 after failed talks with the British for Singapore to obtain complete self-rule. His tenure was peppered with attempts from the communists to create unrest in Singapore, from the Hock Lee Bus Riots to the Chinese Middle Schools Riot, giving the British much reason to want to continue to hold on to their powers here.
Marshall’s successor, Lim Yew Hock took a tough stance on the communists and eventually successfully negotiated for full self-governance, thus paving the way for Singapore’s eventual independence.
Singaporeans could finally cast their votes in 1959. One can only imagine the emotions of finally being free from colonial rule, finally no longer second class citizens in a place you called home.
Reaping the rewards of the leaders in the 1950s
Our right to the ballot box today, one so easily taken for granted, was a right ferociously fought for by those who dared to dream at a time when many by default subscribed to colonial superiority as a way of life.
Today, whether it is the General Elections or the Presidential Elections, speaking lightly of our power at the ballot boxes does make one wonder if we are desecrating the hard work of those who paved the way to the ballot boxes for us.
Even as the final list of candidates for the Presidential Elections are not yet firmed up for now, naysayers will say that this election is objectionable, even flawed.
I do not disagree. However, who can name a system where things are perfect?
At least here, we can be sure no one will switch off the lights when the votes are being counted.
So come September, will I vote? For sure I will, because otherwise, I will have squandered the hard work of our leaders who battled so hard for me to earn that white slip of paper.