Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Substation Gallery
25 - 30 October 2006
Review by Ng Yi-Sheng
(article first appeared in the Substation Magazine in 2006, original photographs at Jeff Chouw's site.)

It's Hari Raya Aidilfitri, 2006. I'm part of a small crowd gathered inside the Substation Gallery. We're waiting for the guest-of-honour for Jeff Chouw's photographic exhibition 6ixth, which chronicled Chiam See Tong's 2006 battle to win his sixth consecutive seat in parliament.

The MP of Potong Pasir himself is due to arrive at 3pm. In the meantime, we circle the gallery space itself. Chouw has followed Mr Chiam through the period of his campaign, and displayed a chronological documentation of the fight in a counter-clockwise line around the room.

Like me, most of the audience is in their 20's and 30's, a generation given our first opportunity to vote during the recent General Elections, empowered by our use of the Internet as a political tool to disseminate information on the opposition that the print media had seen unfit to publish. We have witnessed the power of a single photograph of the crowds at a Workers' Party rally on, and expect to be inspired again by an array of new images, celebrating the leader of the Singapore Democratic Alliance, another long-standing rebel against overwhelming PAP majority rule of Singapore.

In his photos, however, Chouw reveals something quite different. Chiam is indeed the focus of many of the pictures, but never appeared as the archetypal hero, glowing, numinous, canonised by the adoring lens of the camera. Instead, with stark clarity, the camera underscores the man's greying hair, his smile-lines, his tiredness. Introduced amidst the sombre grey of his campaign centre, a makeshift cubicle of stainless steel against void deck walls, Chiam comes across as quiet, solitary, reflective; nothing like the idol politician that we'd have him be.

Plunged into parades, citizens clamouring about him, Chiam is the still figure in a storm, raising a mug good-naturedly with kopitiam patrons, listening intently to a resident's effusive greetings, but never striking a pose, never smiling directly for the camera's benefit. With his fly-on-the-wall style of photography, Chouw is able to capture the fragile humanity of the man, sweating, fatigued by the routine of the electoral exercise as any of us might be when plunged into such a game of demagoguery and character assassination.

Chiam is consistently upstaged by his supporters - leaning out of HDB windows, banging pots and pans to greet his passage, yelling out of loudspeakers, filling the grassy squares of rallies, engineering their own slogans in bursts of creativity - one woman holds a placard reading "Chiam See Tong, bu dao weng", comparing the man to a traditional doll that always uprights itself, no matter how hard it is knocked down. They, rather than their leader, are the vessels of life, overflowing with the excitement of the campaign.

It's curious to note that at the same time as 6ixth occupies the gallery, the belief-themed Singapore Biennale is displaying works by local-born artists Donna Ong, Ho Tzu Nyen, Brian Gothong Tan, Jason Wee and Erika Tan, all expressing profound disbelief in aspects of the government's management of its citizens. It is instead Jeff Chouw who ironically is able to portray a section of Singapore that was enthralled by the positive power of belief - unwavering devotion to an embattled politician, pitting him as an alternative to a hegemonic leadership system.

Of course, Chouw is able to thumb his nose a little at the establishment in a few photographs - one of them caught a moment when a constable, policing the rally, has his cap drawn over his eyes, appearing both absurdly cartoon-like and faceless. In another picture, Chouw wanders from the SDA rally to a PAP rally, where the annoyed, humourless people waving him away contrast sharply with the exuberant SDA throngs of the neighboring pictures.

But Chouw offers no titles, no dates, no clues as to at what point Chiam's victory was declared - only a scene of decampment after the rally, as the stainless steel cubicle goes down. There's a sense of anticlimax at the end of the circuit, as we return to the door of the gallery. We're driven to return to the other photographs, reluctant to have our memories of the election end on such an unfulfilling note.

Forty-five minutes late, Chiam See Tong finally arrives to our reception, apologetic, having driven his car all around the Substation in fruitless search for a parking space. He says a few uneasy words, clearly unused to honouring arts events, and unveils a picture on the far end of the wall. The photograph shows a child with a sign reading, "I'd vote SDA if I was older."

It's at this point that I realise the significance of the title of 6ixth. Yes, a sixth consecutive win is a triumph, but it's only a return to the status quo. The MP seat been a dead end for Chiam's political career - in a PAP-dominated government, he's unable to rise any higher in parliament, to effect more than nominal change. He's become largely tolerated as a harmless presence by the ruling party, which nonetheless strives harder every five years to eradicate him from his turf.

He's been fighting this fight since 1984, and he's 71 years old this year. When that child turns 21, will the SDA still have a candidate in Potong Pasir?

In the photographic series and in person, Mr Chiam does not come across as exhausted. But he moves slowly, carefully, like the old man he has become. He has a limited time ahead of him for his work, but he continues earnestly, holding his seat, staying there so that people may have a figure to believe in.

Before I leave the gallery, I look again at the publicity poster, derived from one of the portraits of Chiam See Tong, on his cellphone at night, on a void deck bench, organising for the campaign. He is full-bodied but distanced from the camera, and his face and body are turned away. Sitting there alone, he could be any one of us.

1 comment:

Readymade said...

You've excellent timing :) Jeff's posted the photos from 6ixth online on his site, and Tan Pin Pin just linked to them:

Jeff's site: