Nicole Seah makes political rally debut

Do I really need to explain who Nicole Seah is?

She’s the fresh-faced 24-year-old candidate for the National Solidarity Party (NSP) — one of five for Marine Parade group representation constituency — who was launched to fame through a video of her inaugural speech when she was first introduced by the party (with a follow-up interview). Coming across as everything Tin Pei Ling was not, Seah gained tens of thousands of “Likes” on her Facebook page within a couple of days. Tin is also contesting in Marine Parade, but under the banner of the People’s Action Party.

Seah, while youthful, came across in the video was someone who really cared about those left out by Singapore’s headlong pursuit of material growth, yet displayed a seriousness of purpose and self-awareness beyond her years.

The election season having kicked off with Nomination Day on 27 April 2011, the first rallies were scheduled for 28 April, with the NSP holding theirs at Geylang East, in Marine Parade GRC.

But first, a picture from earlier that afternoon, taken at the NSP’s headquarters, where banners were being prepared for the rally:

The rally site was a 500-metre walk from Aljunied metro station. Along the way, the party affixed posters onto several streetlamps. Here’s a guy taking a closer look:

By the time I arrived, the rally was in full swing. The set-up was in the usual style:

The crowd was quite respectable. I estimate it was 5,000 persons, perhaps more, spreading over an area about twice the span of this photograph.

(The black patches in the middle of the picture are the leaves of a tree, thus obscuring a part of the crowd nearest the stage.)

At the periphery of the site, the party set up tables to sell their newsletter:

Some could be seen reading the articles, especially when non-English speeches were being made:

A closer shot of a part of the crowd, of mixed ages and ethnicities:

The crowd waited patiently for Nicole Seah’s turn to speak, which wasn’t to be until 9:15 p.m. I don’t know about the others, but I was a little disappointed. She adopted what I call the “old warhorse” style of rally speechmaking, comprising a series of attacks on government policies, including the jibe that each time we go to work on the metro system, we find ourselves in a foreign country, followed by a few specific promises, e.g. that the NSP would lower the Goods and Services Tax from 7 to 5 percent.

At the end of it would be a recapitulation of vague generalisations, about being “your voice in parliament”.

It was as if her own personality was zippered up, so she could perform as old warhorses are expected to. The personable, slightly self-questioning style which people found so enticing on video was erased by the demands of the script.

All in all, it served only to remind me how old-fashioned our political rallies are. The stage set-up is unchanged from 50 years back, the hectoring, lecturing speech-style remains as before. Speaker after speaker does it the same way, making the same accusations of the ruling party and the government, the only relief from boredom being the occasional witty turn of phrase (usually in Chinese dialect).

Nevertheless, people thought she was worth coming to see. Throughout her time at the microphone, numerous cellphones were held up making a video record of what I thought was a forgettable speech.

When she was done, the crowd cheered (but not all that enthusiastically),

. . .  and then about a quarter started to leave. There were still 30 minutes of speeches left, by party leaders who surely must have intended to bring the rally to a rousing conclusion, but evidently a good number of the spectators were here only to see the week’s sensation in the flesh.

21 Responses to “Nicole Seah makes political rally debut”


  1. 1 Stand up Singapore 29 April 2011 at 07:40

    Alex,

    If everything is unchanged from 50 years ago, you didn’t say what today’s rallies are supposed to be like?

    I watched youtube, and she was quite funny and punchy. Which S’porean would dare ask: PM, who’s paying your salary? Rallies are not meant to be prescriptive but folksy and stir emotions. She certainly did better than Chen Show Mao who looked and sounded ill-prepared. Nice attempt at some pasar Melayu but no home runs. It is exasperating to watch the opposition sometimes but I’m sure it is early days yet.

    Vote For Singapore

  2. 2 2nd time voter 29 April 2011 at 08:00

    It’s the same format for most rallies – while listening to the WP rally i was aching to hear more of their analysis of what can be improved and how. But mostly accusative and like you say, jibes. I think the oppo should understand that they could be already talking to converts, who’d appreciate being engaged more intellectually.

  3. 3 yuenchungkwong 29 April 2011 at 08:27

    Sad day when political reporters become celebrity paparazzi

  4. 4 Poker Player 29 April 2011 at 09:41

    “Coming across as everything Tin Pei Ling was not, Seah gained tens of thousands of “Likes” on her Facebook page within a couple of days. Tin is also contesting in Marine Parade, but under the banner of the People’s Action Party.”

    The PAP is a victim of its own success. Its new candidates get far more from it than they can ever hope to give.

    The PAP attracts the sort of people looking for a free ride.

    As for the opposition … well, it’s the complete opposite.

  5. 5 ThePasserby 29 April 2011 at 10:21

    I think it’s due to the nature of public-speaking in a crowd like this, which is not very conducive to a question-and-answer type of interaction with the crowd, but rather, requires mostly a one-way flow of ideas from the speaker while the crowd participates by signaling assent or dissent through cheers or jeers.

    You can’t conduct an intellectual discourse in a social context like this. I believe rallies have the best effect when the speaker connects with the audience on an emotional level rather than at the intellectual level, hence the “warhorse” type speeches.

    I wasn’t there, but viewed her speech only through videos posted online, so I can’t judge how electrifying her speech, based on the crowd’s response, was. But I think she will only improve through time. Maybe she’ll learn to loosen up a little and be comfortable enough with the crowd to joke a little.

    There was a speaker who seemed to connect pretty well with the crowd through his anecdotal accounts in Cantonese. Pretty jovial in his colloquial speech.

  6. 6 Chaikin 29 April 2011 at 10:31

    If the same guy is running for re-election after 50 years, make the same threats ad nauseum, then there is nothing wrong with these rallies. I was at the Workers Party rally, and I felt very Singaporean,akin to watching Malaysia Cup matches of years gone by. Everyone on the train etc were brothers and sisters for a common cause.

    Nicole’s speech is not THAT wonderful, I admit but remember, this was made to uncles and aunties who have zero exposure to the internet unlike you amd I. More of the same, please!

  7. 7 Stephan Xue 29 April 2011 at 12:24

    Rallies are not for intellectual discourse, the Internet is. If any of you have done speeches, you will know that you need to connect with your audience, in this case, not just uncles and aunties but people of all races, cultures and walks of life. I thought she did well. I agree that the setup is old fashioned though. Can’t we have large projector screens, more speakers and even a short Q&A. I also wonder can private parties invite certain speakers to talk…..eg condominium councils, universities, professional associations, etc, during this time. This will speed up the dissemination process and allow more direct interaction with the candidates

  8. 8 Romanis 29 April 2011 at 14:17

    I am very curious about this article which mirrors much what I read in the local papers. Covering some parts of opposition activities, some positives here and there, but always with a negative assessment at the end.
    Furthermore, I am puzzled as to why you call the MRT the metro? Singaporeans very rarely calls the MRT anything other than what it is, the MRT. Metro is something what a foreigner would say. So are you one?

    Finally to your description of her speech and others being something similar to a damp squid. On the contrary, I thing it’s important that she and others uses catchy phrases to make a point. I think some candidates start talking too much especially with facts and figures, which after some time loses it’s general message. People attending such rallies are far more likely to remember a catchy phrase or a short message rather than a full speech on data. It’s that 1 or 2 things that remains in a voters mind.
    Take US elections for example, people remembered Reagan’s comeback at Carter – There you go again and phrases like are you better off than 4 years ago? Rather than everything else. Or Lloyd Bentsen’s put down of Dan Quayle.

    It’s not that voters are not sophisticated enough to hear and understand a detailed speech on the issues, but there’s a time and place for everything.
    Furthermore if you accuse the opposition of repeating the same tired old accusations, then what do you say of the same tired old rubbish of freak results, voting correctly by not electing untested people, fears of economic malaise that perpetuate each and every PAP rally?
    1 of an opposition’s key roles is to highlight the mistakes the ruling party does to the detriment of the people. The fact that the ruling party does not change its’ policies and continues to force the people to bear the burden of ‘flawed policy’ and does not listen to the grievances of the people, what do you expect an opposition party to say? Oh we raised the issue in the last 2 or 3 elections, so no need to mention again, because the Govt didn’t bother or care?

    • 9 yawningbread 29 April 2011 at 16:57

      You wrote: “Covering some parts of opposition activities, some positives here and there, but always with a negative assessment at the end.”

      Always?

      “why you call the MRT the metro?”

      Because editorial policy here is I should use standard international English as far as possible. Very few understand “MRT” outside of Singapore. You will also notice I avoid Singlish and local colloquialisms. Another example: You might also have noticed I do not use the term “handphone” which is how Singaporeans refer to what the rest of the world calls a cellphone or mobile phone.

      Re rally speeches, see my reply to T at 16:52h

      • 10 Romanis 29 April 2011 at 17:45

        Just to clarify, ‘always’ in that context refers not your previous articles, instead it refers to the local media, who almost always end articles about the opposition (or at least in some part of it) with some negative element.

        Since you clarified about the metro and cell phone references, perhaps I was being too hasty, judgmental, suspicious or negative (could be 1 , a combination, or all of these traits) in alluding to your citizenship status. So I take that back.

        But for the rest of my response, I felt it reflected my perception of the slant your article was taking. If it gives an inference that I consider you being pro-PAP or something akin to it, that wasn’t my intention (I am aware of your regular blogging on election issues).

        So let us agree to disagree on this issue, which after all is what mature debates are about, the right to speak/write forthrightly about matters and respecting them.

  9. 11 T 29 April 2011 at 14:54

    “It was as if her own personality was zippered up, so she could perform as old warhorses are expected to. The personable, slightly self-questioning style which people found so enticing on video was erased by the demands of the script.”

    Alex brought up a key quality that has not been given much direct focus: that of being self-questioning. To be more specific, self-questioning would entail a serious reflection of reality while recognizing and accounting for one’s bias.

    And in the context of political campaigning, it may prove critical.

    In this instance although the “old warhorse” strategy lends itself well to the nature of political rallies of being direct and simple, it may alienate some swing voters who are not particularly favoring any political party.

    I feel that even in political speeches, there can be room for self-questioning without sounding contradictory and aimless. One could recognize what the PAP has accomplished and also seek to empathize with the dilemmas that many (swing) voters have in forgoing “government benefits” and feeling fearful of “state retribution” for voting against it while remaining sure-footed in advocating a better vision.

    Taking the middle ground between pro-PAP and anti-PAP should not have to sound impossible in politics. If it does, then political discourse can easily slide into “a recapitulation of vague (and polarizing) generalisations” that will not do justice to many national policies and anxieties that are multi-faceted and which do not lend themselves easily to the categories of “good” and “bad”.

    Alex has produced at least one article that points out the complexity of societal issues.

    https://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/gay-couples-mess-up-tidy-little-beliefs/

    On another note, I feel that Ms Seah is more “questioning rather than self-questioning”. In one of her first interviews, Ms Seah questions how an old lady will continue to survive without (her) assistance and feels that the main problem is one of national policy. But she does not ask further into what challenges the government may face in distributing aid and how much of the old lady’s plight might be due to societal stigmatization and/or neglect (along with associated suggestions for improvement)

    This is not to say that Ms Seah is entirely not self-critical. Judgement cannot be meted out, based on her words in one interview. Moreover, she acknowledged that the community service she has done does not qualify as “grassroots work”, a term that could have been favorable for her candidacy. But there is a rightful concern in this article that Ms Seah might be following the (anti-govt) script a little too much when a “fresh perspective” was one of her original attractions. (Or might her age have influenced some in gauging her [novel] contribution to local politics?)

    Overall, it is Ms Seah’s political rally debut and she cannot be blamed for taking the “safer approach”. It is not easy speaking to thousands of people that one is meeting for the first time and she should be credited for her courage.

    However, her speech might offer a glimpse into the nature of her idealism (i.e. seeking radical change vs incremental changes in whatever sphere of public governance/consultation) and how much “dissent”/alternative styles can be accommodated within non-PAP parties (NSP in this case) in a spirit of inclusiveness.

    Or expressed in another way, how much of oneself can one (retain and) stay true to and yet also improve upon while being in a particular political party?

    • 12 yawningbread 29 April 2011 at 16:52

      You wrote: “In this instance although the “old warhorse” strategy lends itself well to the nature of political rallies of being direct and simple, it may alienate some swing voters who are not particularly favoring any political party.”

      This is exactly what worries me. The election is won or lost, not by whipping up one’s core voters but by winning over swing voters. In a system without compulsory voting, keeping up the enthusiasm of core voters is important, because if they don’t go and vote, you suffer the loss. In Singapore, with compulsory voting, this is less an issue. Even more then, the messaging must be tailored to swing voters.

      • 13 Eudaemon 30 April 2011 at 19:19

        I too sensed this was the point of your concern after reading the ending of your article. As I agree that the messaging needs to be customized to swing voters.

        I then asked myself, how would I have prepared for a rally speech with this objective in mind? I know the target audience and profile. What would be my strategy to most effectively engage them and influence their mindset and behaviors through my short 15-min speech? Talk about factual things they can relate to easily, rather than make a logical argument. Appeal to their emotions, talk about things close to their heart which affect them, such as bread and butter issues. Focus on a few key messages/points which are easy for the audience to remember and take away.

        So yes, personally I would have adopted the “old warhorse” approach and delivery as well. Would this risk alienating some swing voters? Yes definitely. Call this approach rabble-rousing, less intellectual or inelegant, but it does seem to give the most leverage given the audience profile and objective. Those who crave more personality or intellectual discourse would also likely take the initiative to access other information sources anyway. My own analysis is probably simplistic though, but I do feel that Nicole did a commendable job for her first rally speech and at least it was not a total disaster in engaging or influencing swing voters.

      • 14 T 1 May 2011 at 00:57

        [Out of Total Defence]

        “Social Defence is when you vote for the PAP and you are still my friend.”

        ~Paraphrased from SPP’s Benjamin Pwee, Potong Pasir Rally, 30th April 2011

        In this General Election, comments such as these are few compared to antagonistic reactions towards the PAP and its supporters. Both types of statements produce different feelings in me.

        One made me feel inspired and responsible as a voter to change the status quo.
        The other simply made me feel Singaporean again.

        And it is a key difference. Especially when one has friends and even family who are of a different political orientation from oneself.

        Perhaps from this, an alternative political approach can be considered and used. One of grace that takes its time, not to prick one’s conscience and reinforce one’s belief, but which makes peace with all that it touches for Singapore’s sake.

        In addition, a lot is known about the typical opposition voter when it comes to the factors for individual political orientation. But not as much is known about PAP supporters and the swing voters beyond stereotypes of affluent and/or apathetic citizens or older generations having gone through tumultuous times under MM Lee’s governance in the earlier years of Singapore’s independence. There are other (legitimate) reasons for voting for the PAP such as stability and security, both of which can cut across age, levels of affluence and yes, even levels of political awareness and maturity.

        It is easier to identify (and side) with the behaviour of a voter with similar political orientations as oneself than another who might hold completely different priorities and perspectives. Such a disparity should be an opportunity to earnestly learn from both voters, not to see one as being more valid than the other.

        And that could be the beginnings of a great political rally. One that spreads and plants its words deeply into voters of as many shades as possible.

        Even the PAP loyalist may not remain immune.

  10. 15 prettyplace 29 April 2011 at 15:44

    The stage has a code, they need to put it up within limits.
    I think they should improve on lightings, and I don’t think they can use visuals, like stats and pics on over head projectors.

    What I think Alex is trying to say is that, its the same everywhere, the same issues. But how can it be formatted well & articulated in a fine fashion to engage the crowd and build their emotions and comeback tommorow for more.

    Its hard, it need’s experience and I hope Nicole learns it fast within the next few days.
    Its hard to win GCT, but she will be remembered and expected the next election with some fine maturity.

  11. 16 Shengz 29 April 2011 at 15:54

    The crowd attending the rallies will inevitably consist of a spectrum of people with differing attitudes, understanding and receptivenss. You can never be everything to everyone. also remember that there will be some OB paramters playing the minds of the opposition speakers ‘no thanks’ to the old man who made political profit out of suing his opponents on what they say or don’t say…
    She is young and does not seem to have too much public speaking exposure and will need to learn to tune in to the crowd and be able to fine tune her style balancing all others factors.
    If the old war hore apporach can work – so be it.

  12. 17 Luke 29 April 2011 at 18:09

    In my opinion, candidates have another medium to communicate on an intellectual level in their appeal for voters’ support: youtube videos using a good script (on a focussed topic) with sound and convincing arguments to further their manifesto contents. I like the Malaysia Cup analogy made by Chaikin on one aspect of political rallies, which is to rouse the crowd on an emotional level, and one might say with blind loyalty to a shared cause and purpose, i.e. to win the contest. There is nothing witty or intellectual about chants of “Referee (PAP) Kayu”, but it worked in getting the whole stadium of 60,000 to chant in unison.

    Alex, I’m a first time commentor and I like your blog (found my way from Cherian George’s blog). My congratulations on an excellent blog.

  13. 18 Keith 30 April 2011 at 02:39

    When i saw her speech, the first thought that came into my mind was that is this the humble, sincere and passionate Nicole Seah?

    She seems to have a much bigger ego and a shade of arrogance in her now, as compared to past speeches.

    Her sincerity can make up for a lack of experince in speaking. It is also what draws people. It is a pity that she or the NSP is exchanging that for mindless PAP ‘bashing’. The focus on pressing issues is not there.

    It may not be the script. Even with the old war horse style, one can still convey different moods and feelings. It may be that overwhelming support has inflated her mind. I hope my perception is wrong.

    And it is not healthy for a new and young face to be the sole icon of a party.

  14. 19 D 1 May 2011 at 00:43

    I agree that Nicole’s speech or rather the opposition is very accusative (I would have been the same on that stage). Would things have been more different in other 1st world countries such as Australia, US or Europe?

    As per Keith’s observation of Nicole, if this is true (not up to me to judge) a couple of weeks of fanfare could shake one’s thinking down to the core, what would happen if the fanfare continued for decades? Would one still be able to stand on the same ground and think the same way when they first came up to represent the common good of the people?

    Take myself for example, I came from a poor family with 2 siblings and parents sharing a 1room flat. Over the course of my life, I accumulated some wealth. Strangely, there was a period of time that I began to look down on the poor, completely forgetting about my own humble beginning. Simply dismissing that they are just a bunch of lazy good for nothing that did not work hard enough and deserves to be in the current state of being.

    The journey that woke me up is during my 1st business trip to India. The helplessness in the eyes of the poor begging for money brought me back to my senses. The last straw that did it for me was a person (not sure dead or sleeping) lying on an unfinished bridge in the heat of noon. Would one choose to be in such a condition? What happened to land him/her in such a state of being? After the trip from India, it irks me every time when I see the old folks slogging at the hawker centers and food courts. Is there anything done to help them? Whilst I know for a fact that there is limited resources to go around and we will not be able to help everyone, there is simply no mention of any LONG TERM plans from anyone to help the less fortunate. It seems that the poor and less fortunate is always viewed as dirty laundry and should not be brought out in public.

    It is always about the upgrading, MRT station coming to my town. I believe that opposition given the same budget would propose the same things or even guarantee it to be done within 3 months.

  15. 20 apen 4 May 2011 at 11:07

    SM Goh says majority not a concerned with ministerial pay. He is not reading it right. PAP should go to a referendum on this issue to get it right.

  16. 21 anagent 6 May 2011 at 05:31

    Well, going by her last speech at NSP’s closing rally last night, I think she has improved a lot and has allowed her real self out.


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