The Workers’ Party has unveiled grassroots organiser, political activist and recent Oxford graduate Bernard Chen as a candidate for the Sep 11 general elections in Singapore. In an interview conducted by Bryan Kwa in early July 2014, Bernard said he did not harbour intentions in being a Member of Parliament but that politics should be about selfless service and that the Singapore narrative should include the peoples’ history.
This interview is republished with permission and edited to reflect accuracy in dates. The original interview can be viewed here.
Bernard Chen is a walking contradiction in terms. He has spent close to a decade as a political activist and speaks like a wise statesman even though he is still in his twenties. Moreover, he has just graduated from the University of Oxford despite failing his GCE ‘A’ levels.
Bernard, who is 29 this year, enrolled in Temasek Polytechnic after his National Service in 2006 for his “last ticket to university”. In 2013, he graduated with honours from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor of Arts in History. He then went on to pursue a Masters’ degree in Global and Imperial History at the University of Oxford on a Tan Ean Kiam postgraduate scholarship in the humanities.
On Grassroots Politics
He joined The Workers’ Party (WP) when he was 21, as he believed that political competition is needed in Singapore and “it’s the most credible and responsible opposition party around”.
“I wasn’t pissed off with something that compelled me to join the WP. And I don’t think we should wait for the chance for it, for the moment that you get disappointed with the government.”
He feels that a culture of service “should permeate throughout society” so that Singapore will be “robust, dynamic and sustainable”.
Bernard wishes to see the zeitgeist of the first generation of Singapore leaders — that is the willingness to sacrifice personal time and serve just for the sake of service — in today’s generation. He feels that there is a need to “cultivate” such a “mindset”.
“Where is the public-spiritedness? Where is the ability to see things above and beyond themselves?” he asks.
Bernard has been a legislative assistant since May 2010. It is a part-time job and he is paid a monthly stipend. His main focus is on the Meet-the-People sessions where he helps the Member of Parliament (MP) draft letters based on the constituents’ complaints.
“It’s very down-to-earth, very ground work. You just have to be there, speak to people, and understand what their needs are,” he says.
He started as the legislative assistant to Low Thia Khiang, who was the MP for Hougang and subsequently for Aljunied GRC. Since February 2012, he is the legislative assistant to the MP for Aljunied GRC, Muhamad Faisal.
Bernard harbours no aspirations to be a minister or MP. Instead, he hopes that his story of a 21-year-old with “no job security, no educational security, no achievements to date” devoting his time to politics can inspire others to come forward to serve, and that “anybody can do it”.
“You don’t have to wait until you are 50, you are super established, and you have a lot of money,” he says.
He hopes that his “little act of service… can inspire more intelligent young Singaporeans to come forward” to be “politically-involved, whether it is WP or PAP”. PAP refers to the People’s Action Party, which is the ruling party of the day.
Moreover, he wants Singaporeans to see that politics can be “responsible, constructive and beneficial”. He contends that politics needs not be adversarial and confrontational.
Bernard thinks Singapore has the potential to have a “number one” political system, one where “national interest is above partisan interest”. He acknowledges that some see this as empty rhetoric but he thinks that Singapore “can actually” make this a reality.
“We can. But it is difficult. It is challenging because the ball is not only in the court of the political parties, it is also in the court of the electorate,” he opines.
“Singapore has always prided itself on our airport, shipyards, efficiency, of our standing in the corruption index or what forms of education index. Why can’t our politics be a shining example to the rest of the world?”
On Singapore Narrative
Given his academic training as a historian, Bernard thinks the Singapore narrative is “quite problematic”. He cites the title of former prime minster Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir “My Singapore Story” as an example of a “problematic” phrasing of the narrative.
“It serves a very political purpose to once and for all put the nail into the coffin saying that this is the narrative that we want to have,” he suggests. While he does not think it is wrong, he “thinks it is not fair, from the view of a historian”.
“This is what people usually call the elite discourse. So people who wins power, gets it. So just as someone below should not totally dismiss the Singapore narrative, people on top should also not dismiss subaltern history or peoples’ history of Singapore.” Subaltern history refers to history told by people outside the hegemonic class. (See Singapore Memory Project below)
“The study of history is never meant to be politicised. It’s meant to be enlightening, to bring light to grey areas, to bring light to areas that are totally dark. That’s history’s contribution. If I can shine a light into a corner, it may not be complete, but someone after me will shine another light to bring out the issue. That’s my contribution. My contribution is to shine the light, his contribution is to shine the light from a different perspective.”
He posits historians should not “make moral value judgments” but “see where it’s lacking and try to fill it”. He points out that we lack a “comprehensive history of the PAP from a non-Lee Kuan Yew perspective”.
This is significant. Tham Yuen-C writes in a commentary published in The Straits Times on February 16, 2014 that “a new narrative… forged together by the masses… reminds us that Singapore got to where it is today through the efforts of an entire generation”.
Bernard continues, “Have we actually asked about the grassroots worker standing beside LKY when he first won Singapore from the government of the British? No. Is it valuable? Yes. What was he thinking? Where does he come from? What is the occupational make up of LKY’s first group of volunteers? It tells a lot about the kind of Singapore we have and how far we have come.”
Fortunately, a step in this direction has been taken. During the National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the contributions by Lee Kuan Yew’s former driver Rahmat Yusak, who drove the former prime minster around the island in the 1960s to rally support for the battle against the communist.
His Singapore Dream
For Bernard, an ideal Singaporean society is “one that Singaporeans are able to see things above and beyond themselves. A society that is fair and just”.
“One that a person like me who is born into a working class family, whose father has a secondary three education, whose mother has a secondary four education, has never achieved anything much in life, can still ensure that their children can have a brighter future than they do.”
At the heart of all his grassroots and political work is his wish to leave a stronger Singapore that is better than the one he inherited.
“I inherited a good Singapore and it is a privilege to give back to what this country has given me. So for those who have been given much, I think much should be given back to the country by them,” he says.
Singapore Memory Project
The Singapore Memory Project (SMP) is a nationwide movement, created with the objective of documenting and collecting noteworthy memories associated with Singapore. Established in August 2011, the objective of the project is to gather five million personal memories and a significant amount of published materials on Singapore by 2015.
One recent campaign by the SMP, titled A Tribute To Our Pioneer Generation, ran from February to June. It focused on preserving stories of the Pioneer Generation, where thoughts and reflections of nation builders such as hawkers, teachers and builders are collected and showcased to the public – thereby ensuring that the people’s history is included in the Singapore narrative.
Featured photo: Courtesy of Bernard Chen for Bryan Kwa
In-line photo: The Workers’ Party
Disclaimer: This article is not affiliated with any political party. It is just an objective account of what Mr Chen said to Bryan Kwa.