The speakers – eight in all – were well-known personalities. The top of the list was Mr Tan Kin Lian, ex-Chief Executive Officer of NTUC Income and a candidate for the upcoming presidential election, which is to take place before the end of August. The other speakers included candidates from the recent General Election: Ms Jeanette Chong Aruldoss, who spoke passionately about the number of abortions in Singapore (some 12,000 per year) and how some of the women who aborted their pregnancies did so because of financial and economic reasons (read her speech here); Mr Tony Tan (not the Tony Tan from the PAP who is standing for the presidential elections but the one from the National Solidarity Party); and Mr Alex Tan who stood against the Prime Minister’s team in Ang Mo Kio GRC.
Present at the event were also Ms Nicole Seah, Mr Tan Jee Say andMr Jarrod Luo, all candidates in the May elections too.
The topics raised ranged from public housing to employment discrimination and the number of foreign workers in Singapore. Mr Tan Kin Lian also spoke at length about his bid for the presidency. He decided to throw his hat in the ring after Mr Tan Cheng Bock had announced his candidacy and collected the application forms. Mr Tan said he felt that there should be a contest this time round since the last two presidential elections were walkover affairs for the incumbent, President Nathan.
More people joined the crowd as the afternoon wore on and there were quite a few younger people as well, which was good to see. While the issues raised are not new ones, it is important that they are highlighted again with an event like this. In fact, this is the second in a series which Mr Gilbert Goh, the man behind the organisation of the event, has planned. He intends to hold at least three more such events.
While each speaker evidently spoke with passion, it was Gilbert’s speech which touched me most. He did not delve too much into the issue of unemployment, really. That had already been raised by the other speakers. Instead, Gilbert spoke – without any prepared text – about his personal experience and the difficulties he faced in running transitioning.org, a society he had set up with some friends during the financial crisis of 2008 when many Singaporeans were retrenched and became unemployed. His society provides counseling and help to these people.
Gilbert revealed that last year the society received a letter from the Ministry of Home Affairs about the society’s activities. The ministry said transitioning.org was behaving like a union. It is illegal to run a unregistered union in Singapore. Following the MHA’s letter and its warning to the society, the entire committee of transitioning.org stepped down and resigned – leaving Gilbert as the lone one in it now.
Gilbert told the crowd that he has also heard from sources that he is seen by the government as someone who is “polarising” Singapore society. But he is adamant that he is not and he promised that he will carry on with what he is doing – raising awareness and the problems faced by those who have difficulties seeking employment, for various reasons.
“I am starting a civic movement here today,” he told the crowd. “I believe in the power of one.” He asked those present if they will stand with him and support his future events. The crowd cheered and clapped.
It is not easy to do what Gilbert is doing. I know because I have done – or tried to do – something similar. It is a lonely path. One of the things one must accept – and I think Gilbert knows this more than anyone – is that standing up for the needy and disenfranchised is a tough job, if you’re not part of the establishment.
You have to be prepared that, when it comes down to it, you will be standing alone.
Many in the past have experienced this. And unfortunately, as Gilbert’s experience shows, not much has changed.
But I am hopeful that times have changed and that the recent elections result will empower more people to stand up for what they believe. This is especially so when we – each of us – know, see and experience the faulty policies implemented by the government.
If you do not stand up for yourself, no one will.
Indeed, it is not someone else’s job to stand up for you.
“I am starting a civic movement.”
The manner in which Gilbert said that touched me deeply today. It reminded me of passion and courage – both of which I had not seen for a long while. To stand alone – and remain standing – even when others desert you. That is the difference between ordinary and extraordinary.
And to my mind, Gilbert is an extraordinary person.
A week ago, I had a four hour lunch with Gilbert. He revealed to me – and I beg Gilbert’s forgiveness for saying this – that he had only S$50 in his pocket. “But I carry on,” he said to me. “Have faith and God will take care of it,” he said, or words to that effect.
Today, as he ended his speech, the crowd gave him generous applause with many going up to shake his hand, and thank him for what he is doing.
Yet, I know how Gilbert feels. After the crowd has gone, you are on your own again. You continue to struggle, to adhere to the principles and beliefs you hold dear. And to the work you have set out for yourself – to speak up for those who cannot.
Gilbert rekindled the fire in me. He re-inspired me today.
And so after the event, I offered to help organise his next event. “That would be good,” he said to me. “It is so tiring to do this,” he confided as we walked to have our dinner. “It takes days to put this thing together.” I know what Gilbert means. I have organised such events in the last four years too. And it takes a lot of effort.
I hope you will join us when the next event at Speakers’ Corner takes place. Better still, come be a speaker. “I want ordinary Singaporeans to speak up for themselves,” Gilbert tells me as we enter the hawker centre at People’s Park.
That, at the end of the day, is what Gilbert is trying to do. To tell each and every Singaporean that he or she has the right to speak up.
And that there is no need to be afraid to do so.
See you at Speakers’ Corner in August.
Don’t let Gilbert stand alone.
Some pictures of Saturday’s event here.