Thursday, May 05, 2011

Why I'm volunteering with SDP.

I've realised, somewhat to my embarrassment, that I'm actually a bit of a political centrist when it comes to Singapore politics. I'm from a (very) upper middle-class background, and as such I really haven't suffered a lot directly from the PAP's policies. I also think the party's done a good job of guiding us through the economic crisis - we've barely suffered, compared to most developed nations, from Japan to the US to the EU member states.

I'm also occasionally wary of SDP policies and rhetoric - the party feeds off the growing resentment of foreign immigrants in Singapore, and I think that's dangerous. Immigration may be a bad idea, but it's important to guard against an irrational hatred of all people of one class or race. (And yes, the new PRC immigrants can be seen as a different race from Singaporean Chinese. Race is a fluid concept, and depends on customs and group affiliations as much as skin colour and language.) There's also a manic tone to their website articles that makes me uncomfortable.

Still, I knew in these elections I had to support the SDP. This is why I've been volunteering with them: selling papers at rallies and signing up as a polling and counting agent. Here's why I'm doing this:

1) SDP believes in human rights.

No other opposition party sticks up for human rights as much as SDP. Their leaders and members protest against the death penalty, against Singapore's economic ties with with the Myanmar military junta and the Internal Security Act.

This is of special interest to me, because I'm gay. The SDP was the first political party to formally call for the end of Section 377A, our male-male sodomy law, on the grounds that it's discriminatory, way back in 2006. Dr Chee Soon Juan's a committed Christian, but that doesn't interfere with his belief in basic human equality and decency.

All this isn't empty talk, either. The party puts its money where its mouth is. The candidates this year include the openly gay social worker Vincent Wijeysingha and the former political detainees Teo Soh Lung and James Gomez. (Gomez was detained briefly in 2006, following his campaign for the Workers' Party).

We don't just need opposition candidates to suggest new solutions; we need them to speak up in parliament as the moral conscience of the nation. SDP is one party that cares less about political expediency than if something's right or wrong.

2) SDP gets persecuted.

My sympathy tends to be with the underdogs. And because SDP speaks up, it tends to get hammered. Its members have been sued and detained by the government countless times for exercising their right to free speech.

This is how I got to know the central party members, actually. I turned up at court to support my artist friends who'd been charged with SDP members for illegal assembly, and for contempt of court - they'd worn kangaroo T-shirts to protest the "kangaroo courts" of Lee Kuan Yew's defamation lawsuits. I've seen Chee Soon Juan and Gandhi Ambalam forced to attend court in shackles, and I've seen public prosecutors stammering at how to twist evidence against the party, even when the defendants have demonstrated the flaws in these unjust laws that should disqualify the cases on technical grounds.

All this is in the past five years, mind you. Those of you older than me will remember the PAP's vendetta against Chee Soon Juan that reduced him to bankruptcy.

The persecution's still going on this election, in a muted form. I'll forgive Vivian Balakrishnan for exposing Wijeysingha as gay - yes, it's a personal matter, but any pretty much any politician with this information would have used it to his advantage. What I won't forgive is his linking the orientation to pedophilia and his invocation of a "gay agenda" - an insidious term that suggests that a gay politician must have a hidden agenda to overthrow moral order, rather than simply wanting to a chance to govern.

Then there's the whole New Paper story claiming that Dr Chee was starting a protest march in Sembawang. I know it's a tabloid paper, but that was seriously low.

3) The SDP came to me.

That's my last reason. I might've just been an enthusiastic guy cheering on speakers at party rallies, but then lo and behold: SDP actually decided to contest my constituency, Holland-Bukit Timah. Plus they brought in a star team: Vincent Wijey, Michelle Lee, Dr Ang Yong Guan and Tan Jee Say - all excellent speakers, and from very different backgrounds, which the PAP might call "strange bedfellows" but which I call inclusivity.

As one of the more upper-income GRCs, we've been long dismissed as a lost cause for opposition parties - rich folks must be too comfortable with the status quo, surely, to want some change. I'd despaired of ever being able to vote unless I got myself a full-time job and moved out of my parents' home.

But they came to us. And as a first-time voter, I'm really grateful for that.

I think a lot of us who've been deprived of voting feel the same way. We feel like the PAP's cheated us of the right to exercise our democratic rights. Now it's the first time we can actually exercise those voting muscles, and we're sure as hell going to flex them in the direction of freedom.

This is something we've got to thank all the opposition parties for, regardless of how much or how little we may respect their speakers. They've come up and made a lot of us feel like a genuine democracy for the first time in our lives.

Truth is, I'm not optimistic for our chances. After the disappointment of the 2006 elections, I feel like it'd take a miracle for the opposition to even claim a single GRC.

But SDP, WP, NSP and SDA have given us hope. And for that solace, I thank them, and pledge to get off my ass more to help them out.

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