So we get to vote

In an email to a friend from Hong Kong yesterday, I mentioned:
I'm also distracted [from my university essays] because in Singapore, the general elections are going on. Exciting times for us.
His response, brief as it was, brought me up short:
I wish I can elect our government head in Hong Kong ...
I don't know much about the Hong Kong political system and how it came to be what it is today (not fully representative democracy, is about as far as I understand). And yes, there are plenty of problems with representative democracy in any country, and to what extent one's vote "counts" for anything. In Singapore we can argue till the cows come home about whether voting against the People's Action Party will change anything, and we still won't know the answer till the next five years have passed (well, we won't know then either, but we'll have more to argue about).

But hey: we get to vote.

It does come down to that vote you cast, you know.

If you think, this is meaningless, I don't give a flying eff about who's in power for _____ reasons, and you cast your vote accordingly --- then that is the choice you've made at the balloting box.

If you think, this is meaningful for _____ reasons and you cast your vote based on some kind of concern founded on those reasons, then that is the choice you've made.

And all the votes --- those cast because they had to be, those cast because they wanted to be and could be* --- go into a big box (speaking metaphorically here). And depending on how the numbers tumble out --- by candidate, by constituency, by party -- they give us a certain type of Singapore citizenry and society.

Yesterday, my friend's email made me think: Oh thank goodness, I have a vote. Thank goodness some people decided to run as political candidates against the People's Action Party so that I can exercise my vote. Thank goodness what I can do and be as a person is not controlled by a state that has absolute, unchecked power over me for all the days of my life.

Of course casting one vote in one general election doesn't seem like much. If you wanted a more fully representative democracy, you could argue that we should vote for every "important" policy change, or vote for our political leaders every year instead of every (maximum of) five years. And those are points worth debating in public and with political leaders (whoever they turn out to be, after polling day on 7 May).

If you want a less representative democracy, well, you can take that up with political leaders too. (I'll fight you on that one, though.)

But hey, at least we get to vote.

* I feel for the residents of Tanjong Pagar GRC, the only one not being contested in the 2011 general election (though not for want of trying).



Okay, look:

It is very easy to make fun of people who don't speak or write English with 100 per cent accuracy (whatever the hell that is). So Tin Pei Ling, a brand-new candidate with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) for the upcoming Singapore general elections, gets flak for these words:
Impact of this has been reinforced several times by residents during block visits these few weeks.
Getting flak for this is fine if she were running in an election to be Supreme Copyeditor of Singapore, Number One English Teacher of Singapore, or Clearest Communicator in English in Singapore. God knows I would circle the sentence sternly with a red pen and make sarcastic annotations if, as a teacher or an editor, I came across it in my work.

But she's not. She's running for political office.

Lots of people speak imperfect English, in Singapore and beyond. If we're going to insist on all our political candidates speaking impeccable English, then let's start going after every single one of them: male, female, PAP, not-PAP.

If not, then leave language issues well the hell alone. Or if you're going to invoke them, at least admit your own class and cultural prejudices about why you think a person ought to write or speak English in a certain way. (Yes, Ng Tze Yong who writes that Workers Party candidate "even speaks like a Chinese foreign worker", I'm looking at you.)

* * *

On a related note, this morning I came across "Why Singaporeans are outraged by the idea of Tin Pei Ling in a GRC, but not MG Chan Chun Sing", in which Visakan Veerasamy recounts a conversation with a friend who said:
"I think that people are spending far too much time scrutinising Tin Pei Ling and not enough time on other candidates [...] Singaporeans should instead direct their attention to the candidates who are obviously being earmarked for big things in the future e.g. MG [Major-General] Chan Chun Sing,* BG [Brigadier-General] Tan Chuan Jin and the MAS [Monetary Authority of Singapore] head Heng Swee Keat."
Or as @illyrica tweeted succinctly last week:
Sexism-driven focus on Tin Pei Ling misses the point. Every single candidate should be standing in an SMC [single member constituency].
(For more on the "sexism-driven focus", see Jessica Cheam's "Fairer sex, fair game?" [via @illyrica].**)

To wit:
  • Some people are picking on Tin Pei Ling (or any other single candidate) and ignoring all other candidates. I think that is revealing of what their focus is, sexist or not.
  • Some people are arguing that Tin is unqualified to be a political candidate. To which I say, what do you mean by "qualified" and how do other candidates (PAP or not-PAP) measure up to those standards? Following Visakan's friend's point quoted above, are army officers, government scholars*** and senior civil servants any more "qualified"?
  • If people object to the fact that the group representation constituency (GRC) system allows brand-new political candidates to "ride into Parliament on the back" of existing parliamentarians (in the words of Visakan's friend), then the issue is not about Tin Pei Ling but the political infrastructure that has been set up by the ruling PAP government, and should be examined as such (see for instance "Papsicles 1" by Yawning Bread, in which he highlights two PAP parliamentarians who will be leaving politics "without ever having to face a contest at an election.").
To pursue Visakan's friend's point further, if Tin or any candidate becomes the lightning rod (no pun intended****) for supposedly anti-PAP criticism, it allows other candidates (PAP or not-PAP) who are not-Tin to slide by without comment or scrutiny. If Tin is singled out as a woman, it makes it easier for candidates who appear to lack "womanly qualities" to slide by (moreover, without a discussion of what "womanly qualities" are and whether they are "womanly" and/or a reason to dismiss a candidate).

Does any of this make for a healthier, more principled level of discussion about politics in Singapore?

* Full disclosure: Chuan Jin is my friend's brother and slated to run in my constituency, Marine Parade GRC. I believe the last time I saw him was close to 20 years ago at their home. I believe the only thing I've ever said to him was, "Hello."

** Full disclosure part 2: I taught Jessica when she was doing her 'A' Levels some years ago. We're still in touch, but I had nothing to do with the article she wrote.

*** I haven't had the time to examine this thoroughly, but my perception is that when a former recipient of a government scholarship is
still employed by the government, e.g. Chan Chun Sing and Tan Chuan Jin, the press refers to him/her as a "government scholar". If they are no longer working for the government, although they have fulfilled their scholarship obligations (as I have), they are referred to in the press as "former government scholars". I hope I'm mistaken --- am I?

**** The PAP logo includes a symbol of a lightning rod.




Through the slit

1. I'm exhausted from reading all day today and yesterday. Why did I decide to become a student again?

2. Oh, a master's degree, that's right. So I need to write all these essays in what remains of April and then write some more essays in May.

3. Do not say to me, "You're a writer, you can do it." I will allow that the written word does not typically strike fear or trepidation into my heart. But writing an academic essay for academic credit is an entirely different thing if one aims to articulate an original argument or idea. (And whether I'll be able to achieve that aim is another matter.)

4. How is it 12 April already?

5. Oh yah, I escaped to Lisbon for a few days. Because my brain desperately needed a break away from anything resembling "work".

6. I have heaps of photos from Lisbon, but no time or spare brain cells to finish sorting and labelling them in the Flickr album I started.

7. I registered to be an overseas voter in the upcoming Singapore general elections. Thank you, Dad, for reminding me to do that. Marine Parade GRC, I'm watching you.

8. I've been cooking and eating Asian food almost every day since I got back from Lisbon. I'm not sure what's gotten into me, but something in my body is saying rice now, now, NOW!

9. The first essay I have to write is going to be about Google Maps, critical cartography, and the intersection of text and image --- so if you have any anecdotes that you don't mind sharing about Google Maps (I collected two over dinner tonight), feel free to leave them in the comments. I won't quote you without your explicit permission.

10. All of you out there with shiny PhDs or who are working on PhDs, or who have children who are newborn/young/once young --- hats off to you because I don't know how anyone does any of this with only 24 hours in a day.

11. I need to sleep now.

12. For the record, it took about 25 minutes to write, edit, format and upload this post. Which is longer than most people think it takes to write, even something as all-over-the-place as this.

13. Goodnight.

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