Capturing General Elections 2011

By Edwin Koo, a Singaporean son whose only gift to you are pictures that strive to tell the truth.

During the 9 days of General Elections hustings, I have been asked many times: “Who are you covering this for?” At first, I was at a loss for words. On paper, I am officially representing the International Herald Tribune (IHT). I have been asked by the nice folks from IHT to do a pre-election story on Tin Pei Ling in mid April. But that was the only General Elections assignment I had.

Hard truth #1: Singapore elections do not figure very much in the international news.
Hard truth #2: Singapore Elections is important to Singaporeans (not foreigners!) So, all the rallies and walkabouts I have covered after the Tin story were not assigned to me. In other words, no one actually pays me to do this.

So why do I do this? As I left the house yesterday for the final Workers’ Party (WP) rally, my mum asked me the same question. I told her, in little tongue-in-cheek manner: “So that your grandchildren and great grandchildren will know what happened today!”

The history that we record today is important for our children. The past that we define for them today, will define who they are in the future.

The government has always said that the new generation is “soft”. Why? Because we subscribe to a version of history that pats ourselves on the shoulders and say “we have made it”. We are told that we should be grateful to a few important people for getting us from a Third World fishing village to a First World cosmopolitan state. So much has been said about the leader(s), that the rest of our forefathers: the trishaw riders, the factory workers, the hawkers… basically the man-in-the-street, do not seem to matter anymore. Worst of all, the opposition politicians of the past seem to deserve the proverbial gallows of history and be condemned as negative elements upsetting our glorious past.

Such a record of history must stop. We cannot allow anyone to have a monopoly on truth. We cannot forget that Singapore was built on the sweat and toil of EVERY Singaporean son and daughter. Even Chee Soon Juan, whose past antics have cast much negativity on the opposition, deserves credit for showing the new opposition of today what NOT to do.

During the course of recording this election, I strived in vain for “balance” – a tall order that was laid upon me when someone commented: “Why do you only have pictures of opposition?” So I started taking pictures of ordinary people, pictures of men in white and pictures of everything that helps me, a Singaporean son, make sense of what was happening around me. At first, I thought I should stick to the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC), where I NOW live (although I never moved house). But as the elections unfolded, I realised that although the narrative had to be personal, I could not ignore the larger picture. I am, after all, a journalist by training.

Coming back to journalism, I felt a little hurt when a supporter made a snide remark about my colleagues and our craft. He said, quite audibly: “You see all these photographers, take so many pictures, but next day only use so few! All these are SPH people, only help the PAP!” I was within earshot and I wanted to rebutt. But I held my tongue, because there is grain of truth in it. I was from the national newspapers for 5 years. Apart from space constraints, the newspapers are indeed servants to two masters: the advertisers, and more importantly, the government (aka People’s Action Party). I have had my fair share of frustrations, having my best pictures canned or cropped beyond recognition.

Which is why I am glad we have social media today.

Because we have Facebook today, we can finally look at the uncensored truth. We can finally know how many people really attended the opposition rallies and what transpired during the rallies and walkabouts. We finally have unlimited space to play our pictures and no blind editors to tell us this picture is “not fit to print”. 

Yes, it does not pay me a single cent – covering the GE 2011 this way. But some things cannot be measured in dollars and cents. We need to understand this. The ruling party today wants us to believe that everything has a price tag – from becoming a minister, to building your family nest, to the efficiency of public transport. We cannot buy this ideology. I do not want my children to grow up in a country that measures them for everything they do. I do not want my children to have someone tell them: “You are less of a Singaporean, because you don’t pay enough income tax.” I do not want my children to grow up in an environment of fear, in which voting against the ruling party carries all kinds of phantom threats and repercussions.

No, enough is enough. Today, the history we write for our children will become their future. Do the right thing. Read up, debate with you friends, look at the truth.

Vote wisely.