It concerns me very much that the news story by the Online Citizen Why SDA team missed deadline may give a poor impression of opposition parties in general. It would be grievously unfair.
I too was an assentor, but for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and my experience with them could not be more different from what happened with the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) team at Tanjong Pagar group representation constituency described in the above-linked article. Hence, I am going to relate below, in diary form, my experience, which I believe is a lot more typical of the long-standing opposition parties like the SDP, the Workers’ Party and the National Solidarity Party (NSP).
I would hate it if Singaporeans came to believe the shambles at Tanjong Pagar represented the organisational quality of the rest.
Going by The Online Citizen’s story of the Ng Teck Siong team’s abortive attempt to lodge their candidacy for the 5-man Tanjong Pagar group representation constituency, one gathers that among the many weaknesses were these:
1. It was not really backed by any party, but more a solo effort by Ng Teck Siong, erstwhile chair of Reform Party, then chair of Socialist Front, and after the Socialist Front decided it would sit out this election, crossed over to the SDA barely days before Nomination Day. He cobbled together a team with Nazem Suki, who had appeared on Channel NewsAsia’s Talking Point a month back representing the SDA, and three other persons whose names do not ring any bell with me.
2. Up to the 11th hour, the team didn’t have the funds to put down an election deposit and had to make an appeal over the internet for loans.
3. Up to the start of the nomination time window, the team did not have, or did not know whether it had the necessary proposer, seconder and six assentors, all of whom have to be resident in the constituency. Again an internet appeal was sent out only a day before.
4. Because it didn’t have names ready, the forms were not prepared in advance.
5. Ng Teck Siong himself arrived about half an hour late and there was some difficulty connecting up with volunteer assentors whom he had not met with before.
6. Forms had to be filled and they had to be endorsed by a notary public.
7. Ten minutes of precious time was wasted because Ng stopped to talk to the media.
Eventually, by the time the forms reached the election officers’ table, it was 35 seconds past the closing of the nomination time window.
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Now, let me tell you how my side went.
First, let me say this: I am not a member of the Singapore Democratic Party. My position is that whichever reputable opposition party comes to contest my ward, I will volunteer to be an assentor; I aim to promote democracy and to give fellow citizens in my constituency a chance to vote. This time, it so happens that the SDP is standing in my area and that is how I became an assentor for them.
Nomination Day minus 13: I dropped by at SDP’s office during one of their Open House evenings, and there they took down my identity card number, my address and a contact phone number in their list of available assentors
ND minus 7 (the day the writ of election was issued): Someone from the SDP called and identified himself as the coordinator of assentors, asking me to reconfirm that I would be available. I said Yes.
ND minus 4: The same coordinator called again and asked if I had family members or friends in Yuhua, my ward. They needed 2 – 3 more assentors just in case. The rules say that for a single-member constituency, a candidate needs at least four assentors, but experienced parties always ensure they have six or seven, in case anyone drops out at the last minute. I told him that unfortunately I had no family. After I put down the phone, I thought of a friend who lived nearby.
I then called this friend (let’s call him Arthur) I’ve known for ten years and who lived in the block opposite. He readily agreed, in fact he sounded excited. I passed his name and number to the SDP coordinator.
ND minus 3: I found a friend of a friend who also lived in my area, and called him. He too readily agreed (my friend had told me he probably would because he’s not very PAP-friendly) but fifteen minutes later, there was another call in which he changed his mind. Apparently, his wife was not comfortable with the idea. By that time, it seemed that SDP had found enough assentors (including spares) and there was no need to worry.
ND minus 2: The coordinator’s assistant — wow, now he has an assistant too — called to advise that somebody could come to Yuhua tonight, going to each assentor’s door to let us sign the necessary forms. I said I’d only be home at 10 p.m., and so the time was fixed accordingly.
That evening indeed, another assistant came by in a taxi with a form to sign. All the necessary details had been typed into the form beforehand back at the office. I could see on the form the entire list of assentors complete with their ID numbers, and the candidate clearly had a comfortable number of them. After I signed the form, the assistant’s assistant went to the next assentor’s home and so on through the night.
ND minus 1: The coordinator texted and emailed me to advise when and where to meet. Although the nomination centre would only open at 11 a.m., we were all asked to meet at 9 a.m. They needed to be sure well in advance that everybody was present. He also asked me if I needed transport in which case he would send a car over. I said no need. The designated location was an obscure coffeeshop deep among residential blocks. I wondered about that.
Nomination Day 9 a.m: About twelve to fifteen people gathered at the coffeeshop. Candidate Teo Soh Lung and the leading organisers were already there. Arthur arrived soon after I did.
Why this coffeeshop? I asked, and was told that this obscure location was deliberately chosen so that the media would not find us. They had obviously done their reconnaissance beforehand.
A whole new set of forms was produced. Candidate Teo explained why we had to sign them all over again. “The old forms you signed the other night gave my occupation as ‘lawyer’, but on further thought, I decided that a more accurate description would be ‘retired lawyer’ since I no longer have a practising certificate,” she said. “I don’t want to make an amendment on the old forms just in case the PAP objects to it; safer to reprint new forms and sign all over again.”
We all did. She even had a Commissioner of Oaths sitting (and sweating) with us through the two hours at the coffeeshop just in case there were any last minute changes and he was needed to endorse them. There weren’t any.
Nomination Day 10 a.m: A phone call came. It was party leader Chee Soon Juan saying he was on his way and requesting we not move out of the coffeeshop till he arrived.
Nomination Day 10:30 a.m: Chee Soon Juan arrived and thanked everyone for their support and assistance. A thoughtful gesture.
Nomination Day 10:45 a.m: The group started walking to the nomination centre about 5 to 7 minutes’ away.
Nomination Day 10:55 a.m: We arrived at the nomination centre. Although Teo had never stood for election before, she (and the group) was guided by someone called Lawrence who appeared extremely experienced and familiar with the process. He made sure she walked in pole position for the cameras, but not stopping for any interviews. Upstairs, he guided everybody where to sit and what to expect. He even pointed out the different exit doors and explained which door would lead where. Most importantly, we were not to bungle our way through one particular door which would lead onto the balcony where speeches were made (and on which cameras were constantly trained); we’d look like fools if stepped out there unwittingly.
As soon as the nomination time window opened, the papers were submitted without a hitch. It was quite anti-climatic.
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In a recent talk he gave, political researcher Derek da Cunha stressed the critical importance of party organisation and logistics. Having plenty of volunteers was a huge advantage.
I hope my inside story gives you a glimpse of what is required and the immense difference between well-oiled and experienced parties like the SDP, the Workers’ Party and perhaps the NSP on the one hand, and last-minute bean sprouts on the other. The latter make the news because disasters are more newsworthy than smooth, silent successes. But in the case of successes, lack of reporting tends to invisibilise the careful planning and hard work behind a political campaign.
Once again I will say, even though my readers may be sick of hearing it from me: Not all opposition parties are the same.