This article was first published in 'Hammer', issue: 1102
I received a message to meet Mr Low Thia Khiang after a weekly Hammer outreach in February 2011. I sensed that it was about the General Elections. I was right. Mr Low asked me to run as the Workers’ Party (WP) candidate in the new Single Member Constituency (SMC), Punggol East.
Questions raced through my mind. ‘Am I up to this responsibility?’ ‘Can I deliver?’ ‘Will I be a liability to the Party?’ ‘Will I be better off as background support, which is equally important?’
Everything happened rapidly after that. Bernard Chen was assigned to be my Election Agent. I was glad because as a first time candidate, it would definitely be an advantage to have someone I have known and worked with for years as my Election Agent.
Bernard and I started planning for house visits in Punggol East as soon as we got the electoral map from Elections Department. This was critical as it was the only opportunity I had to get to know the residents. With maybe only two months to complete 133 blocks of HDB flats, we were short of time. I wanted quality house visits but I knew that we might not be able to visit every household.
Bernard and I did house visits at least thrice a week with different volunteers each time to prevent volunteer fatigue. I was very fortunate to have a committed, disciplined and responsible group of volunteers who came from all walks of life. Some had signed up via the Workers’ Party website. Others came through personal contacts. Even my father and uncle were roped in. Not to forget Uncle Ee Ping, WP’s veteran, and the parents of some of our members. Having elderly people with us had certain advantages. I was very touched. The warm reception from residents was just as motivating and encouraging.
Nomination – Spirit of Blue Umbrellas
Then Parliament was dissolved and 27 April 2011 was announced as Nomination Day. The first thing I did was to apply for leave. Next I had to prepare for candidate introduction, my nomination speech and to get my Assentors and documents ready for Nomination Day.
We continued with house visits, more often and more quickly. Time management was essential. Whatever pockets of time I had, I wrote down notes for my speeches. I was among the first batch of candidates to be introduced by WP. An hour before meeting the reporters, I was still editing my introductory speech!
The night before 27th April was incredibly long. Bernard and I made phone calls to remind all Assentors and the volunteers who were picking them up to be on the time and to bring all the necessary documents.
Finally came the Day – our Assentors, Commissioner for Oaths, supporters and umbrellas for our supporters were ready! I remember telling our supporters, “We will be outnumbered by the whites but it is the spirit that counts!” With that, both the Punggol East SMC and East Coast GRC team were on our way to the Nomination centre.
Nomination was nerve wrecking. But we were the first to arrive which had a psychological advantage. The entire process took about 20-30 minutes to complete. I looked at my speech and I thought to myself, “Come on Lilian, you can do it!” As I walked out to face the crowd, I was heartened by the sight of the blue umbrellas. They looked magnificent in the sun! The responsive crowd under the hot scorching sun inspired me to deliver my speech.
Campaign – Strength to Journey on
The next 9 days of campaigning was a test of our mental and physical ability. A typical campaigning day included waking up at 6am, meeting with the volunteers at 7.30am before meeting working adults and residents on their way to work and market. Because I could not visit all the households, we decided to spend about 30 mins at each MRT/LRT station. We would start at Kangkar, move on to Bakau and finally, Rumbia. From Rumbia, we would proceed to the junction outside Rivervale Mall to continue our outreach.
On certain days, we would also go to the market and the shops. Our outreach was well planned and effective and many shop owners and residents soon recognised me. The fish stall owner even had my calling card pasted on the wall!
We also did house visits in the afternoon so as to not waste time. I would then make my way back in the late afternoon to prepare my rally speech for the night on which I was slated to speak. On the nights when I was not scheduled to speak, we conducted outreach in the evenings as well.
My maiden speech was on WP’s home-ground, Hougang SMC. I may be a Trainer but to speak before a 30, 000 strong crowd for the first time was definitely nerve wrecking. I can hardly remember what I spoke about but our campaign theme, ‘Vote Workers’ Party, Towards a First World Parliament’ rang out loud and clear throughout the night.
For the subsequent rallies, I gained confidence and was able to deliver speeches that were more engaging, at least according to the feedback from friends and supporters!
Despite the gruelling schedule, the stress of a 3-cornered fight and the constant fear of saying or doing something wrong, I never thought of giving up. The committed volunteers who walked the ground with me, the volunteers who hand-delivered my profile to each and every household, the numerous smses I received from my colleagues, the constant calls from my parents to ensure that I had taken my meals, my husband who gave me his full support, residents who left me encouraging messages and the trust of the WP leadership gave me the strength to journey on.
Polling Day and the Night of Blue Flags
Polling Day started with ensuring that our Polling Agents were in place at all the polling stations. I stayed at one polling station for a while to witness the polling.
I remember several encounters as I was walking out of the Polling Station. Residents came forward and shook my hands and told me that they had voted for me. I appreciated and acknowledged their gestures but we were not allowed to speak to voters at the polling stations. There were also residents who probably knew this and smiled at us instead.
The day continued with activities such as buying and delivering meals to our Polling Agents. Finally, voting closed at 8pm and the counting began.
I was struck by the thought that, all the months of walking and the 9 days of intensive campaigning would be reflected in one little result slip that night. For my colleagues contesting in East Coast, Nee Soon, Aljunied and Hougang, it was years of walking the ground.
The atmosphere was tense as I entered the counting hall. The respective counting agents were waiting for the ballot boxes from the polling stations to arrive. My counting agents assured me that they would watch out for every vote.
As the counting commenced, I made my way around the 5 counting tables, spending a good 7-10 minutes witnessing the sorting and counting for every table. I could see that for every 4 in 10 ballot paper, there was a cross for WP. I then went to the counting center for 'Punggol East' and 'Pasir Ris-Punggol'. As I was arriving, Mr Michael Palmer was about to leave. We wished each other luck and moved on.
I went through the same routine in the second counting center. About an hour into the counting, it seemed like 38-40% of the valid votes were for WP. We had hoped for the best but were also prepared for the worst. All of us prepared two speeches for Polling Day, a ‘winning’ and a ‘losing’ speech.
I then went to the Assembly Centre. My family was there. Before I could even say anything, my father came up to me and said, “Regardless of the result, you have done your best and we are very proud of you.” I was so moved by those words. Ever since I knew that I would be the candidate for Punggol East, I had spent almost all my time covering the ground. I didn't have much time with my family during that period.
WP members and volunteers were all there to support the candidates. I found a chair and sank into it. I looked at the volunteers and members around the assembly area. They looked exhausted but were in high anticipation.
Forty-five minutes later, Mr Low arrived and came to me. He asked, “How was Punggol East?” “I think I did ok, probably about 38-40%.” I replied. He nodded and gave me an encouraging pat on the back, before moving on to talk to the other candidates.
The official result for the Workers' Party in Punggol East was about 41%, better than I expected. My team and I had done our best given the amount of time we had. We have no regrets.
Cheers and shouts rang out when it was announced that we had won Hougang SMC. At about 2.30am, WP supporters, members and candidates turned the entire Hougang stadium into a jubilant sea of blue flags. WP had won in Aljunied! Cheers and tears filled the night. The tears that I had been holding back flowed freely. It was tears of joy, relief, and perhaps exhaustion too. The people have acknowledged our message and our years of efforts.
I hope that my experience as a candidate will propel me to greater things.