May 18, 2011

Chiam See Tong's Legendary Makeshift Cubicle at the Void Deck

As a minority in the nation celebrated the euphoria of opposition victory in Aljunied and Hougang, a pall of gloom descended on the SPP supporters in Potong Pasir. Their ex-MP has lost his gamble: by moving out of his fort to contest in a GRC, he and his team failed to secure Bishan-Toa Payoh and his wife failed to retain Potong Pasir. As I woke up late on the morning of May 8, having followed the election results into the wee hours of the morning, I knew Chiam See Tong's legacy in Potong Pasir would soon disappear. The seeds of destruction were sown by the MP-elect even before polling day.

This post is not about opposition warrior Chiam - the longest-serving opposition MP - but his legacy. What of it?

Over the years I have heard of opposition MPs having to conduct their MPS (meet-the-people session) at the void deck, not by choice but by decree; in other words, forced. PAP MPs, on the other hand, have access to grassroot and PCF (PAP Community Foundation) facilities. Needless to say, those have air-conditioned rooms. "When they ask me to play a game of soccer, they use a goalpost smaller than the ball," quipped Low Thia Khiang on the unequal political playing field.

"Sometimes, some foreign reporters who come to Singapore to interview me, and they wonder, why we conduct Meet-the-People’s sessions at the void deck. So much for a first world nation." - Low Thia Khiang

Curious where my PAP MP Zainal Bin Sapari holds his MPS every week, I checked the website of my GRC for the address. Truly, the address - incidentally at the void deck of a HDB block - belongs to PCF! This revelation was no nasty surprise but left me a little perturbed: why are opposition MPs treated in this manner?

MP for Marine Parade GRC Tin Pei Ling conducting her first MPS in an air-conditioned office. It was reported in the news she worked till 1am! How will Chiam's office compare with hers?

So on Sunday, I packed my camera bag and left for Potong Pasir, to capture one of Chiam See Tong's most endearing legacy in the estate - the makeshift cubicle for his MPS at the void deck. It is makeshift as there is no permanent structure. Here is something tangible and highly symbolic; to remind us of the sacrifice by opposition parliamentarians, and also the extent of the power of the ruling party to make the "goalpost smaller than the ball". I sensed that with the PAP's narrow victory, the good old days of Potong Pasir would not last. There was this fear that the cubicle and other tangible legacies of Chiam would be blotted out from the memory of Potong Pasir.

Website of Potong Pasir Town Council before the PAP takeover. View it before it is too late.

Potong Pasir is more accessible now with the opening of the north-east and circle lines. I changed lines at Paya Lebar and Serangoon; before long I was at Potong Pasir Station, a quiet station on a Sunday afternoon. Outside the exit, I was reminded of the election the day before, by the two election posters on the lamp-post. They were close, just like the poll results. The incumbent poster on top, its candidate Loh Woon Lee (Lina Chiam) lost her seat, unseated by the "auntie-killer" Sitoh Yih Pin below. It was said PAP picked Sitoh to contest Potong Pasir due to his "auntie-killer" image. Three elections later, his good image and hard work paid off.

Potong Pasir Station with her proud MP. If the MP was a pushover, the station could very well be named Sennett Station.

The station is quiet as it serves a small estate with no shopping mall, a most unlikely destination for non-residents. The station reminds us of another legacy of Chiam: the MP for Potong Pasir fought to have it opened on schedule and to have the name remained as Potong Pasir. Read this from Wikipedia:

The intended name for the station was actually Sennett .... It seemed that the route planners did not want the station to sound synonymous with the estate. It was also rumoured to continue staying closed, together with Woodleigh when the North East line opened in 2003 .... the station eventually opened, and the station was renamed Potong Pasir, partly due to complaints from Chiam and residents. It was also claimed "the name made more sense".

Potong Pasir Station and its environs.

Potong Pasir is a small estate after all. I crossed Potong Pasir Ave 1, cut through a few blocks and in no time I was at Blk 108, where Chiam See Tong held his weekly MPS. The block is located at the edge of the estate. A ditch and fence separates the estate from Woodleigh Park road that leads to Woodleigh Waterworks and beyond the road lies Woodleigh, also in Potong Pasir SMC. I do not know why the fence was enacted (see the street view), as if to demarcate Potong Pasir estate. What do you think?

Blk 108 Potong Pasir
Blk 108 at the edge of the estate, where Chiam See Tong held his weekly MPS.

The blocks are old but not terribly dirty. My travelling companion told me at Hougang, the blocks are also old but dirtier than at Potong Pasir. She must have meant the area around Lorong Ah Soo and Hougang Ave 1 where she visited a friend recently. I had originally wanted her to assess the cleanliness of the two opposition-held wards and was somewhat disappointed hearing her assessment. Later I checked the electoral boundary map and felt a little vindicated - the area actually belongs to Aljunied GRC, a PAP ward in the last elections.

Blk 108 is a nondescript housing block with no PCF or RC office at the void deck. Like every block, there is that chinese chess table meant for relaxation except nowadays I seldom see people playing chess, instead the table is sometimes used for illegal gathering and smooching. As a non-resident, I found the design of the block unique. Viewed from the top (see my street map above), the shape is like an inverted "L" and jagged on the longer side. I'm more used to the uniform rectangular block that one can see from one end of the void deck to the other so Blk 108 was a bit disorientating.

No Parking of Motor Vehicles at the Void Deck
The round chess table at the void deck of Blk 108 Potong Pasir.

Where did Chiam conduct his MPS? If this was the place, I expected to find his makeshift cubicle here but I could not. The void deck has many chairs permanently setup which was a bit unusual to me the non-resident. There was also this wooden bench by the Potong Pasir Town Council for "study use only" in front of the chairs. The area looked to me as the most likely place for a consultation with Chiam during MPS, if we use the analogy of patients waiting in line to see the doctor.

Chairs for Queuing
At Blk 108 Potong Pasir. Why are there so many chairs at the void deck?

I was wrong of course and since I never felt I was right, I left Blk 108 a little disappointed. I sms-ed Andrew Him from One North Explorers if he knew about the location of that makeshift cubicle. Andrew is a shutterbug who loves urban exploration and since he was going down to Potong Pasir that day, he would double-confirm the location for me. Chiam's cubicle an urban legend perhaps?

And he saw it! The cubicle was still there but dismantled into the individual metal partitions, he told me. I lamented on my inability to see it, surely it was a case of "missing the tree for the forest"? The seats, the wooden bench, the chess table, the jagged design but not the cubicle. I must have been blind. Back home, I checked my photos taken at the void deck hoping to find clues and finally I found it, in the background of one of my photos .... the metal partitions!

Metal Cubicle in the Background
Luckily I happened to take this shot from the back of the rows of seats. In the distance, the metal partitions chained to a pillar.

Photo by Straits Times showing the makeshift cubicle in action. A world apart from the air-conditioned offices used by the PAP MPs.


peter said...

I did learn one thing about life and culture in Singapore though. i.e. there is such a thing called "haves" and "have nots". No I dont refer to some economic jargon.

It is when you are labelled an "Opposition" you are considered a pyariah. You are seen as anti-Singapore in all respect. The boss makes life difficult for you. Fate seems to have dealt one a cruel blow as you are castigated and opportunities are closed.

As they say, "When life is tough it moulds character" such as resilence and creativity. Among the tough guys, comes someone who possess leadership to lead the flock.

Looking into the future, I should be worried about what is going to happen next but I am convinced that Singapore is better off with tough guys than "softies" as leaders. It is so pathetic to discover in this GE, the number of times politicians resort to saying "sorry".

peter said...

apologies should have been pariah and not pyariah. Time to change the keyboard or change my fingers?

Icemoon said...

Dont need to change anything, we know what you are saying.

It takes a lot of courage to say sorry and even more courage to change deeply entrenched thinking. I hope our politicians can see beyond the Hard Truths.

Andrew said...

Glad i am of help to your search. :)

Icemoon said...

Bro Andrew .. you have been a great help, always. :)