SANTHA must have performed her pooja early this morning, not at home, but at the temple. That’s what she told me she was going to do when I ran into her at Toh Yi Drive yesterday, along the pathway of Block 1, at the top of the handicap ramp the PAP had built, one of the many recent community improvement initiatives spearheaded by Ms. Sim Ann, Member of Parliament for the Holland-Bukit Timah constituency.
It wasn’t our usual chit chat, the “How’s it going?” and “Yes, let’s stay fit and stay young” chatter. No, she didn’t tell me she was going to have leftover mutton curry. Neither did I share with her my vague dinner plans: maybe stir-fry roasted bell peppers with chicken, maybe pumpkin soup, or maybe just can the cooking plans and sup at Pin Wei instead, the Chinese kitchen a mere 60 steps away.
We broke into the topic of the season, the topic shrouded by an unhealthy, over-100 PSI haze, the topic that’s roused many into fits of fervor and rage, what Straits Times Senior Correspondent John Lui had portrayed so well in his Sept. 7 reflection, Passion and Pain in the Opposition Crowd.
“I really don’t know what some people are thinking,” Santha said, her brow furrowed so fretfully that her bright red bindhi seemed to have heaved with her frown, its color totally incongruent with her mood. “I must go to the temple first thing tomorrow morning and offer a prayer.”
She tried to read my eyes for my allegiance, my leanings, but all I offered was this: “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.” And as I urged her to perform her early pooja the morning after, both of us bidding goodbye with a sigh of “Vote wisely!” I set off on my way home, walking down the stretch of Toh Yi flats along Jalan Jurong Kechil, then past the Bukit Timah Community Club before arriving home at Toh Tuck Road.
The walk home was crowded with the mental noise of heckling and hustling, the sips and snatches of soundbites, the endless beeps on social media, and the endless clicks on video clips. But most of all, there were the faces—faces that melded one with the other, some pleasant enough, forgettable enough, others sneaky and sneering, fading away into the plastered, practiced faces of dolts and morons, spewing forth foully-pronounced words and shaky, wobbly arguments, even a homemade Hokkien ask-the-heavens ditty, before I finally saw the faces of those select few—the star speakers, the ones who spoke, really spoke to the heart.
Then the mind goes into a stupid spin, a noisy, dizzying spiral—blaming, admonishing, wishing.
I like three of the candidates, but I really don’t care for the fourth. Why did they have to stick him there? And to lead the team at that! And to think he’s a near namesake! Not one person I’ve spoken to in the neighborhood has a good word for him.
“Arrogant,” they say. And that’s an adjective you’d find in this morning’s piece, Looking For Answers In This Election, by Editor-At-Large, Han Fook Kwang—not about the man per se, but the ruling party in general: “The People’s Action Party (PAP)? It is arrogant, out of touch with ordinary people, and does not believe an opposition is necessary for Singapore’s continued success.”
You see my quandary? I could bake an orange butter cake for three of my Like candidates, and not share it with Mister Arrogant, but I can’t bake my vote.
And then, I wake up on Day 7 of the hustings and see a message from C.F., my long-ago classmate, my good friend. It sits there snugly in my “Yoga Babes” WhatsApp group, announcing: “This message is for Viv. Watch Chee Soon Juan speech on utube. He is a very calm man and a very logical man now. One of the best speeches this GE.”
And so I did, I did watch Dr. Chee, giving him an hour of my time—no, more, because the entire morning just slipped away, gone forever. I hadn’t planned to give him my time of day, but I did. I heard his Ben and Jerry’s and Haagen Dazs story (or is it a spiel?). Heck, I even listened to his Hokkien speech the night before, and was moved by the way he spoke of the hapless, elderly karang guni lady, the old rag-and-bone woman who carted a whole stack of cardboards, so tall he couldn’t see her from the other side of her rickety, hand-pushed cart.
“Wa kua buay lo!” he cried, all agitated and indignant. “I couldn’t swallow it!” Not many of us would either, Dr. Chee.
No matter. I moved with the rise and fall of his cadence, his strategic silences, his arguments, all delivered as ideals rather than mere ideas. And I was moved.
“But no, you can’t vote for him, Viv!” those dearest and closest to me protested. “He’s sleazy, he’s got a shady past, and Chiam See Tong calls him a ‘megalomaniac’! And how could he speak ill of our country to the Western media?”
Doesn’t help that all this noise has to come on the day after Sim Ann goes choo-chooing on the stump with a farcical performance of this one alien-sounding line: What was that again? Chut pattern? Now, that’s a new word to add to my sparse Singlish slang vocabulary: chut from my father tongue, Hokkien, means “come out” and “pattern” is a veiled term for antics or chicanery. In other words, to practice deceit.
Why, oh, why did she have to say that, do that, and worse, grin through it? And all for what? To bash Dr. Chee, to tar his name. No, I tell myself, that’s just wrong, plain wrong. Tell me you’re good, don’t tell me he’s bad. Tell me why I should be a Coke girl, not why I shouldn’t be a Pepsi chick. Besides, that performance is just so out of character, her warm, earnest, smiling self.
But I fail to see through all this: Viv, dear Viv, that’s politics, it is politics.
You mix high rhetoric with some balanced, even-keeled talk, a voice of reason, courage and integrity, forcible language and that most over-used word passion; then you toss in some character assassination, some mud-slinging, and some savvy gerrymandering—yet another new word:
gerrymander (v) [ with obj. ] (often as noun gerrymandering)
to manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.
The noise gets so intense by now and another image creeps into my mind: that pair of green wedges strewn carelessly outside my home along Toh Tuck Road, just under a tree not far from the Bukit Timah Postal Office. Some woman must have clipped it while walking down the road weeks ago, so that the heel had completely snapped away from the upper. Poor lady, but terrible too, for she had simply chucked them there, and trod on home for a more serviceable pair of shoes. Bad citizen, you say? But there’s that other question: Why is it still there? And not just for days, but weeks now. Where’s our street cleaner? Did he not see it? Then I feel bad. Couldn’t I just pick them up, and toss them out, and play the good citizen? I didn’t and I haven’t.
And so, last night, just two hours into cooling-off day, I visit that numbing, comfortable space, scroll down the pages, click on this and that, and decide I’d wrap the night up with a video: it’s Mr. Tharman speaking, his voice cool, calm, clear. You get the tax picture he’s painting. It calms the nerves. I turn in and sleep soundly.
This morning, I woke up thinking about Santha. I didn’t run into her on my way to breakfast or back home. She must still be worried, and I wanted to tell her again: “I know exactly what you mean.”