The Old Left hits the ground for the general election
“Hello! 有人在家吗？我们是新加坡民主党，请你们投我们一票！” (“Hello, is anyone home? We’re from the Singapore Democratic Party, please vote for us!”)
I followed the two grey-haired men from door to door on Wednesday evening as they greeted residents with a smile and handed over party collaterals for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). There were four flats on each floor in that 25-storey block in Ghim Moh, part of the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency, and the two volunteers were methodically covering each home from the 25th floor down to the 11th (another volunteer was doing the rest).
One volunteer, who only wanted to be known as Uncle Woo, turned away from a locked door and went back to the first flat we’d approached. “Hello, we are from the SDP!”
“Uncle Woo, you’ve already done that one!”
“Is it? Aiyah, so old, I forgot already!” The two chuckled as they got back into the lift.
Election campaigning is a tough gig. It requires determination, resilience, and endless amounts of bonhomie to get strangers to like and connect with you. It also requires physical endurance, walking from block to block, knocking on every door. It’s no joke for Uncle Woo and his fellow volunteer Tay Lee: they’re 76 and 74 years old respectively.
Both men identify as members of Singapore’s Old Left, from the 1950s and 1960s when leftist activists and students fought against colonialism and demanded political rights and reform. The May 13 movement by the Chinese middle school students was a pivotal moment in Singapore’s history, a period of political dissent and civil disobedience.
The Labour Front government under Chief Minister Lim Yew Hock tried to curb their activities, and from 1956 to 1959 detained the hugely popular anti-colonialist leader Lim Chin Siong – along with other prominent members of the movement – on grounds that have now been shown to be baseless and politically motivated.
The People’s Action Party (PAP) won the 1959 Legislative Assembly elections after Lee promised, among other things, to work for the release of those detained by the previous government. Lee had co-founded the anti-colonialist, socialist party with Lim Chin Siong.
“Lee Kuan Yew came into politics with us,” said Tay. “He lacked the support, so he needed the students to get into power.”
The leftist movement was once again curbed in 1963 when over a hundred unionists, students, politicians and activists were detained without trial by Lee’s government in a sweep known as Operation Coldstore. Lim Chin Siong was once again detained, and only released in 1969. He never returned to politics.
“They arrested the leaders of groups and unions,” Tay recalled. “For those of us who weren’t in higher positions, the civil servants lost their jobs and the students were expelled. It was difficult for us.”
Operation Coldstore marked the death knell for the leftist movement in Singapore, and left Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP dominant in the political scene. Over time, the Old Left has faded into obscurity, erased from history textbooks as successive generations of Singaporeans were taught that protests, strikes and political activism were simply not “the Singapore way”. The PAP continues to be the ruling party in Singapore up till today.
Tay only got involved in politics once again in the 2006 general election, and had volunteered for the Workers’ Party (WP) in the 2011 election. “We had to come back,” he said of the Old Left. “We had to help the opposition parties. People go through the opposition to get their voices heard.”
“Life is hard for young Singaporeans now,” said Woo. “There is no real direction for them to go, because the cost of living is so high and they are under so much pressure. So we end up bringing in foreigners even as our own people leave and become foreigners in other countries!”
He sighed and shook his head. “We see that Singapore’s future is dark, so we hope there can be change. Without freedom in Singapore, we will have no creativity.”
Some of their comrades are volunteering with the WP in this election, but Tay and Woo chose to come volunteer with the SDP. “All opposition parties need support, no matter which district they’re in,” Tay said.
“We need different voices in Parliament!” Woo chipped in. “But you need people who will dare to speak up. Dr Chee Soon Juan [Secretary-General of the SDP] will speak up, he’s got the guts!”
Once these old-school activists get started, they make sure they do things properly. Whenever they found residents not home – and there were many – they meticulously rolled up one copy of the flyer and one copy of the party newsletter and slotted it between the grilles of the gate. When they ran out of newsletters, they refused to continue, preferring to return another day to make sure that every household would have a full set of party information.
“We need to make sure they have information about the candidates, so they know who to vote!” Tay insisted.
For members of the Old Left like Tay and Woo, volunteering during the general election is a way to continue the struggles of their youth for a better Singapore. They’re now giving up their evenings for SDP walkabouts. There were more of them on Tuesday – about 15, with a combined lived experience of at least 800 years – but numbers have dwindled as leg cramps and physical exhaustion got the better of these seniors. I ask Tay and Woo how long they expect to keep up with this activity.
“Let’s see how long our legs hold up!” was the reply.