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The Big Read: Win or lose, campaign volunteers for PE 2023 find it worth the sweat and tears

SINGAPORE — Loud cheers rang through Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre as hundreds of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s supporters tried to get a glimpse of Singapore’s newly elected President on the night of Sept 1.

As the dust settled on Singapore’s first Presidential Election in 12 years, four volunteers shared with TODAY their experiences in helping the presidential hopefuls in their campaigns.

Two had helped Mr Tharman, while one volunteered for former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian. The fourth helped businessman George Goh, whose campaign was cut short after he was found to be ineligible to run for president.

When TODAY reached out to some of the volunteers for Mr Ng Kok Song, the other candidate in the three-cornered Presidential Election, they declined to speak. His media team told TODAY that Mr Ng, 75, who received 15.72 per cent of the votes, had made his final remarks after the sample count was released on Sept 1.

The volunteers interviewed had all stepped forward for various reasons, from hoping to bring change for Singapore to giving back for the help they once received.

Even as they provided the candidates with the manpower and resources during the hustings, these volunteers also said that they gained from helping out — such as improving their professional skills or getting front-row seats to the inner workings of an election campaign.

THE BODYGUARD WHO HELD A PINEAPPLE

It was a discussion on an election logo for Mr Tharman’s campaign.

About 20 volunteers sat in a meeting room, pondering deeply as the list of rejected icons grew.

The symbols provided by the Elections Department (ELD) did not appeal to them, and suggestions of using an orchid, bird and spectacles were quickly rejected. Rules around the icon also meant they could not use Mr Tharman’s silhouette.

“Mr T actually suggested three eggs in a nest — representing the things that the President protects — but it was shot down after someone said ‘you should not put all your eggs in one basket’,” recalled Dr Luqman, using the nickname volunteers had for Mr Tharman, 66.

“He defended his logo quite adamantly but soon gave away and suggested using a fruit… My wife suggested a pineapple and the whole room quickly agreed.”

Someone said ong lai, which is Hokkien for pineapple, also means “good luck and is a symbol of warmth and welcoming”, Dr Luqman added.

Tilting the pineapple logo so it looks like a tick, Dr Luqman said the volunteers put in much effort and time into every single detail of Mr Tharman’s campaign.

The humble fruit has since gained iconic status, with businesses offering pineapple-related cakes, drinks and other products. Some supporters were also spotted holding pineapples during Mr Tharman’s celebratory tour after he won the elections.

Apart from helping to create the foundations of the campaign, Dr Luqman was also part of a team of about 15 youth volunteers. 

Their duties included checking out the ground sentiments of youths regarding the issues they face. The findings would then be summed up and reported to Mr Tharman.

The team would take turns in hourly shifts to trawl through social media content and comments and sum up the sentiments of the posts in an excel sheet. Occasionally, they would reply to social media comments to address questions that netizens had about Mr Tharman.

“We ran a very clean campaign. We don’t run any smear campaigns. Say if someone asked ‘What has Mr Tharman done in his years as minister’, we would reply with some of the changes he has made,” Dr Luqman said.

He and the youth team also attended dialogue sessions and followed Mr Tharman on his walkabouts during the campaign to learn about the issues that Singaporeans were concerned about and the ground sentiments towards the candidates they supported.

When asked about how he became a part of Mr Tharman’s core team of volunteers, Dr Luqman told TODAY that it was through a text message on July 10 from Ms Jane Yumiko Ittogi, Mr Tharman’s wife.

Dr Luqman and his wife got to know Ms Ittogi through their volunteer work at GreenSG COLLAB, a sustainability initiative that Ms Ittogi runs. 

“Mrs Tharman had texted me at around 10.30am, asking whether my wife and I would be interested in helping out Mr Tharman. I jumped at the opportunity — that same day, I was at a meeting to plan for Mr Tharman’s campaign.”

It was a no-brainer for Dr Luqman as a long-time resident of Taman Jurong. He told TODAY that Mr Tharman had watched him grow up and had at one point offered to write a recommendation letter for him to pursue a Masters degree in public policy, which he declined as he was “young and naive”. 

“Mr and Mrs T are genuine people. On one hand, you have this man who was a minister and busy with public policy, but on the other hand, was personally helping me and gave me career advice on a personal basis,” said Dr Luqman.

“I thought if he could do this for me despite his busy schedule, why couldn’t I volunteer to help him too?”

As this was his first time as a volunteer for an election of any kind, Dr Luqman said the experience taught him much about people and how they think collectively.

“It also gave me some insights into the logistics for campaigns… and how to run an election campaign.”

Despite having to sacrifice any free time he had for the campaign, it was all worth it when Mr Tharman scored an impressive victory with  70.4 per cent of vote share. 

The President-elect also held an appreciation dinner for his campaign volunteers after his celebration tour on Sept 2, where he mentioned Dr Luqman and his wife and thanked them for volunteering.

When asked whether he would volunteer for another election again, Dr Luqman said he might if it was for the “right candidate”.

A ‘VETERAN’ OF 2 ELECTION CAMPAIGNS

As a volunteer for Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s presidential bid in 2011, Mr Cheah Kok Keong recalled the media swarming and pushing him to take pictures of the former candidate. But 12 years later, volunteering in 2023 for Mr Tharman was much different.

For one, the now 57-year-old played a smaller role in the campaign by helping to distribute flyers and coordinate logistics so that supporters could cheer for Mr Tharman on Nomination Day at the People’s Association (PA) Headquarters.

How he got to be a volunteer for both campaigns was also very different.

Mr Cheah had never interacted with Dr Tan prior to 2011. But the then-presidential candidate’s messages for Singapore resonated with him. So for the first time, Mr Cheah decided to join the hustings and offered his services.

“I believed he would make a good President. So, when he had a call for volunteers, I applied and soon found myself in the inner circle,” said Mr Cheah, who is a senior manager at the National University of Singapore.

On the other hand, Mr Cheah volunteered for Mr Tharman through his campaign manager whom he was acquainted with.

As a grassroots leader himself, Mr Cheah had several interactions with the President-elect prior to becoming a volunteer for Mr Tharman’s campaign.

“Mr Tharman is someone who cares about the small details,” he said, adding that Mr Tharman’s years as an MP had left a strong impression on him and hence motivated him to step up.

While he may be a grassroots leader, Mr Cheah said he and other grassroots members had to volunteer in their own individual capacity.

“The PA is very strict. We cannot use their facilities, or be involved in any election (activities) under their capacity,” he emphasised.

Due to the strict rules, Mr Cheah could not leverage any of the PA’s resources, including the official PA WhatsApp chatgroup to communicate with each other. They also could not wear any shirts with the PA or community centre’s logos.

Planning the meeting points for volunteers was also difficult as they were not allowed to use any locations managed by the PA — such as community centres and residents’ committee locations. “The logistics really were quite difficult,” he added.

To overcome these challenges, Mr Cheah and the other volunteers had a separate Whatsapp group chat to communicate, and also had to search for a gathering point that volunteers could easily find that was not near any centres managed by the PA.

When Dr Tan Cheng Bock announced that he was endorsing rival candidate Mr Tan Kin Lian in this election, Mr Cheah said he was not conflicted but felt “very upset”, like some other former volunteers.

“I was right there (in the front row) watching the election unfold in 2011 and many had said then that Tan Kin Lian had stolen the votes from Dr Tan,” he recalled.

Describing the endorsement of Mr Tan by Dr Tan as a “weird situation”, Mr Cheah said it did not waver his support for Mr Tharman. Rather, he led the cheers of “Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore)” and “Ong Lai (Pineapple)” when news broke that Mr Tharman was leading the sample count votes by a large margin on election night.

Despite acting as a polling agent earlier in the morning, he joined about 40 volunteers of Mr Tharman at a coffee shop in Taman Jurong to watch the election results.

“When the sample count came out… it’s like during the general election in Hougang. Everyone there was looking for that excitement to cheer on Mr Tharman,” he recalled.

Mr Cheah was referring to a coffee shop in Hougang, where supporters of the opposition Workers’ Party are known to gather and watch the election results.

For Mr Cheah, Mr Tharman’s victory and the strong camaraderie that he has built with his fellow volunteers, who bonded over their goal to get Mr Tharman elected, are memories that would last a lifetime.

MEETING UNFRIENDLY PEOPLE, GETTING RUDE REMARKS

His odd working hours in a hotel did not stop 54-year-old senior technician Ng Ah Soon from fanning across Singapore to distribute flyers on Mr Tan Kin Lian’s behalf.

His legs sometimes ached as he spent hours on his feet trying to persuade Singaporeans to vote for Mr Tan, 75. But for Mr Ng, it was a worthy personal sacrifice.

“Mr Tan is someone who has said that he would bring change to Singapore for the current and future generations, such as (on the issue of) the rising cost of living,” he told TODAY in Mandarin.

“I volunteered hoping that Singapore would have change.”

With two other friends, Mr Ng drove around Yishun, Tiong Bahru and East Coast distributing flyers bearing Mr Tan’s face and his tagline “bring back trust, give us hope” during the last three days of the campaign.

Mr Tan told TODAY that he had about 50 active volunteers involved in his walkabouts, social media posts, translating speeches and other activities throughout the campaign. About 300 acted as polling and counting agents for him on election day.

Mr Ng decided to volunteer after hearing the news that Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a man he looked up to, had endorsed Mr Tan. In those three days, Mr Ng did all he could to give out the flyers to Singaporeans.

Mr Ng said it was not an easy task, as many people responded coldly to him.

“Some would just ignore you. Other times, they would be very rude and condescending by saying things like not to waste your time,” he recalled.

“At times, people would scold us and straight out say they would rather support another candidate.”

Such moments hurt, he said. If someone had approached him with another candidate’s flyer, Mr Ng said he would have just wished them the best, rather than react negatively.

“But what can I do? If they aren’t willing, I just move on to the next person.”

Mr Ng admitted to being unsure — but still hopeful — that Mr Tan would win the Presidential Election. On election night, he and some other supporters were at Mr Tan’s house to watch the results.

While Mr Tan lost, coming in third with 13.88 per cent of the votes, he made it a point to thank his supporters and volunteers for their hard work present in his home that night.

“His wife and daughter also said some really nice words and thanked us,” Mr Ng said.

Adding that everyone at Mr Tan’s home felt disheartened after hearing the sample count results, Mr Ng said he and some other volunteers left before the official results were announced because they felt that Mr Tan might want to be alone with his family.

Although his volunteering experience ended on a disappointing note, Mr Ng said it was a unique one, and he had built a strong bond with many other volunteers.

LESSONS FROM A ‘ONCE IN A LIFETIME’ EXPERIENCE

Volunteering for presidential hopeful George Goh was like an extension of 30-year-old Goh Seng Ann’s full-time job as a social media executive. The two men are not related.

“A mutual friend asked if I wanted to help out, having seen the social media work I’ve done in the past and said I can learn something from this experience,” said Mr Goh Seng Ann.

As someone who is apolitical, he said he was hesitant at first. But after being convinced that Mr George Goh was not affiliated to any political party, he agreed to volunteer.

“It’s once in a lifetime, right? How often do we have presidential elections?”

As part of the media team — comprising about 20 people —  Mr Goh Seng Ann’s duties included helping to take pictures, and film videos for the older Mr Goh’s social media accounts.

Joining the team of youths in April, he would spend about three days a week working on content and brainstorming ideas for their next post.

Although Mr Goh Seng Ann and his team faced some challenges in working with a 63-year-old to create content for social media platforms dominantly used by youths, he said it was not that difficult.

“Unlike someone like Mr Tharman who has been in the public service for over 20 years and is comfortable in front of cameras, Uncle George is not as used to the cameras,” he said, using the volunteers’ nickname for the businessman.

However, as they coached him about talking points and tips on being in front of the camera, the presidential hopeful eventually warmed up.

“We watched him become more of a Gen-Z than us,” joked Mr Goh Seng Ann.

Referring to a selfie trend using an iPhone’s back-facing camera setting, he said: “He’s better than some of the team in taking ‘0.5 selfies’ now.

“Because he’s very friendly and engages us in conversation, we actually also get ideas from him and find out things about him that we use to feature for his social media content.”

This included filming videos in different Chinese dialects, which Mr Goh Seng Ann admitted that the younger volunteers had never thought about exploring.

The nickname “Uncle George” came about as the businessman liked to give his volunteers advice, and their conversations were often filled with laughter. “It’s just like talking to an uncle,” said Mr Goh Seng Ann.

As the team bonded with the presidential hopeful and each other, all the volunteers on the team had applied for leave from their day jobs so they could follow him on the campaign trail.

But all their plans came to a crashing halt when news broke on Aug 18 that Mr George Goh had not been granted a certificate of eligibility by the Presidential Elections Committee, cutting short his presidential dreams.

“We had been planning to attend an event that morning, and everything was as per normal when we suddenly heard the news,” recalled Mr Goh Seng Ann.

“As we went over to Uncle George’s home to get ready for our last event, it was like a funeral. We were all upset.”

Despite that, Mr Goh Seng Ann said that he had learnt a lot from the experience. For one, working together with the team and helping with the social media content helped him to improve his skills, which will come in handy for his career. 

“As a team of youths with a common goal, we would bounce ideas off each other, and share tips on the work we were doing,” he said of the learning points from the experience.

But beyond work-related skills, Mr Goh Seng Ann also gained a newfound appreciation for the President role.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what the President’s role was (before volunteering). I thought it was just appearing at NDP (National Day Parade) and giving out awards,” he said.

“But I had to learn in-depth about the role of the President (so that) we don’t post the wrong information on Uncle George’s social media accounts… If it wasn’t for this experience, maybe I wouldn’t have put as much thought as I did into who I voted for President.”

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