Where Art Thou Quiet Warrior
I didnt know much about him.
But in this election past, one man stood out for me.
It wasn’t only because he led his flock in victory – a victory that 20 years on we may look back and perhaps say that was the turning point that changed opposition politics in Singapore forever.
It wasn’t the fact that against all odds, he steered his party to retain their seats in the brave households of Aljunied and Hougang, a feat which so many people before him have worked so hard to win in hearts and minds.
But to win in a new little enclave called Sengkang, which the ruling party has just carved out for this election is, when we now have time to digest, nothing short of extraordinary.
The redrawing of boundaries to carve out Sengkang has backfired against the ruling party spectacularly.
Perhaps they have severely misread the aspirations and thought processes of the young voters in their fielding of three experienced political stalwarts to compete for Sengkang.
That, it would appear, was not enough.
The Workers Party fielded a young but passionate team brimming with ideas and appeal, and the end result is history.
The voting millennials
It was only a few days ago that my teenage and young adult kids were explaining to me over the dinner table what went on in their generation’s millennial muddled minds when it came to politics.
To be specific, they were explaining to me why the young people supported Tan Cheng Bock whom they have affectionately termed as HypeBeast Ah Gong .
The young people thought he was “woke“ because he attempted to use Instagram to reach out to them, and they thought it was cute that he was inapt but tried nevertheless.
And they have adopted him as their new hero.
That’s all it took? Wow – the millennials are really difficult to predict.
But it just shows you that if you don’t understand how to connect with the different groups and think your traditional methods will suffice and one size fits all, you will be in for a nasty shock.
Putting it another way – you have lost touch with the voting public, or at least a growing bloc of them.
But obviously the Workers Party understood a little of that. They bravely fielded a relatively young albeit inexperienced team.
Granted, it may be simply because they have put every heavyweight to protect Aljunied and Hougang.
But as I did a little research ex post facto, I realised that the WP Sengkang team was in fact comprised of young people with great talent, impressive capabilities and more importantly, an abundance of passion.
For the first time, I realised that the team was led by a very articulate and competent Ex magic circle law firm lawyer called Ru (sounds like a Star Wars hero), the immensely popular now blue eyed boy “Mr Cockles” Jamus Lim, young banker Louis Chua (who graduated from SMU with a summa cum laude (highest distinction) no less, and Raeesah Khan, who became an activist at the tender age of 17 and who champions marginalised women and the less fortunate of society.
Raeesah was mired in some controversy for making certain remarks that were deemed divisive with racist undertones, and police investigations are still ongoing. But to her credit and the guidance of her party, she has come out to apologise for her remarks which were likely inappropriate but probably came from the heart.
It appears that the voting public has forgiven her or at least, has deemed this episode not to have affected their willingness to throw their support behind the team.
It augers well not just for the win that resulted, but for the future of strong, responsible opposition in Singapore.
It shows that Pritam’s party has won the hearts and minds of credible passionate Singaporeans who want to stand up and be counted.
I don’t think this has happened overnight. But they have caught the curve.
And thy name is Sengkang.
Captured by passion, by humility, and by grace.
The words that I think Pritam epitomises.
Pritam the politician
The Workers Party
If I had to describe my impression of Pritam in a few words, it would be grit and grace.
I sense despite his gentle and humble demeanour, that there is a certain grit and fire in his belly.
He is no push over, and his words uttered are always precise, measured but purposeful.
The mark of a good leader.
Throughout history, we have heard of great leaders who are fiery, immensely charismatic, and they overwhelm you with their sheer brilliance and almost suffocating alpha personality.
But there is another type of leader.
And those who have a slight interest in psychology may opine that the most alluring type of leader is not the swashbuckling warrior type of Alpha, but the Beta Plus bordering on Alpha.
Cerebral with vision. Calm but with grit.
In this category lies some of the giants of the corporate world which some people think are the most effective leaders of their generation.
I don’t know for sure that Pritam falls squarely within this hallowed group, and I am prepared to stand ridiculed, but I would not be surprised that 20 years down the line, we discover that he is.
Calmness is a severely underrated quality.
I have always admired people who appear seemingly ordinary, but it is when they are caught in crisis mode that you see their true grit and fortitude.
You sense an oasis of calm envelope them (at least on the exterior) and they address the crisis serenely but forcefully and with controlled vigour.
And they almost always never play the blame game in that crisis mode, their only singular focus being to meet the crisis with steely fortitude, maturity and steadfast leadership.
My colleagues and I over the years have used this term on the greatest litigators in court as well as aspiring young newbies we have identified – calmness suggests a masterful control of emotions and couple that with enough grey matter, it produces greatness.
Every time I hear Pritam speaks, especially when he is challenged or under siege, calmness comes to mind.
This is the other great strength that produces great men.
And so little of this is given to brilliant minds.
Ego is usually a by product of an alpha and a brilliant mind. And I have come to terms over the years with the fact that quite often, ego comes with the territory.
But I accept it only on a graduated scale – the more cocky you are, the more brilliant you better be.
But when someone has immeasurable talent but shows great humility, it is like God had a really great day, and decided to bestow it on a deserving few.
I am impressed with the humility of Pritam. That I think is his ultimate superpower and I hope for the sake of the country, that this will never change.
I have read interviews Pritam gave that when asked questions about his role as leader of his party, he spends very little time expounding it, but quietly almost invariably mentions Low Thia Kiang. He either gives credit to Low Thia Kiang for anything good that has come into play, or will recount advice about what Low Thia Kiang has taught him.
Such decency and humility.
Don’t take my word for it, there are a few videos of the press interviewing Pritam floating around. When he addresses the press, look critically at how he treats the press with courtesy when he addresses them, and how he always studiously include his colleagues whom, it is obvious, he treats with respect.
When asked a series of questions, he always fields the difficult ones, and often passes on the questions to his colleagues when it was easy or laudatory or when the answer looks good for the person answering,
During one of the conversations with 4 other friends (ahem responsible or what ?) recently in the midst of elections, a friend told me “ did you know he is legally trained ?”
Oh, I didn’t know. So he is a fellow learned friend.
I curbed the urge to give a flippant and douche bag remark
“ like that win liao lor ……….”
My friend then went on to tell us nuggets of Mr P that was quite interesting and worth repeating so here goes.
10 things you’ve always wanted to know about Pritam but was too afraid to ask.
1. He’s married to the lovely Loveleen Kaur Wadia, a theatre practitioner, and the proud father of two girls aged 2 and 5.
2. Pritam’s academic qualifications are interesting to say the very least.
He came from a neighbourhood school and was reportedly an average student in early school.
But his story gives all of us parents a reason to hope and believe for our kids, even if they didn’t go to an exclusive school or showed little signs of academic proficiency early on in life.
For his was a tale of late blooming, sheer hard work and focus, and a determination to succeed.
Pritam secured a Singapore Armed Forces scholarship to do his university studies and graduated from the National University of Singapore in 2000 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history.
While in NUS, he won the Straits Steamship Prize as being the top undergraduate student in history and political science.
2. He was later awarded a Chevening Scholarship for post graduate studies at King’s college London where he completed a Masters of Arts degree in war studies in 2004.
The Chevening Scholarship is an international scholarship scheme which enables students with leadership qualities from over 160 countries and territories to undertake postgraduate study or courses in universities in the United Kingdom.
The selection criteria for Chevening Scholarship are aimed to identify “high-calibre graduates with the personal, intellectual and interpersonal qualities necessary for leadership”.
3. Pritam also earned a Diploma in Islamic Studies from the International Islamic University Malaysia in 2005.
4. To many, this would be enough. But not resting on his laurels, Pritam enrolled himself in the Singapore Management University for a law degree.
He joined the Worker’s Party in 2011 and that same year, he completed a juris doctor degree at the Singapore Management University and was also called to the bar.
5. In 2013, Pritam joined the Litigation and Dispute Resolution Practice at Donaldson & Burkinshaw, Singapore’s oldest law firm.
So he’s a learned friend at the Bar and in the Courtroom.
6. Pritam could have been inspired to pursue the law because of the role model set by his father Amarjit Singh.
Amarjit started life as an Army Officer for 17 years before obtaining his law degree while on sabbatical. He went on to an illustrious career in the law – practising in Palakhrishnan & Partners (one of the leading law firms in the 80s specialising in criminal law) for 5 years before joining the Legal Service in 1992.
Amarjit was a District Judge in the Subordinate courts and subsequently a Deputy Public Prosecutor and State Counsel. He retired from the Singapore Legal Service in 2012 as Deputy Senior State Counsel.
7. Consistent with his love for History and being a war buff and an authority on war studies, Pritam is a combat engineer and commissioned officer in the Singapore armed forces, and currently holds the rank of Major in reservist service.
8. He speaks some conversational mandarin and dialect, which endears him to his constituents and qualifies him to be an aunty killer.
Pritam has got game when he sings in Hokkien.
9. Pritam reaches out to his constituents in different ways. He runs with them in the Run to Bond community exercise program he started in his Eunos ward a few years ago.
On the other end of the spectrum, he can be seen tucking into local delights in the local coffeeshops in his wards.
10. In an amazing display of humility, gracious leadership and old school courtesy, Pritam took time to thank the supporters of the ruling party as fellow Singaporeans.
I do not know of any politician who has done that to date.
Tora Tora Tora
In a press conference post victory, Pritam cautions against celebrations and reminds everyone that they have a job at hand.
“Mr Singh said “the Workers’ Party will not be like the Japanese in World War II”.
He also cautioned against complacency. Citing the war movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, Mr Singh said Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto warned the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour may have awakened a sleeping giant that will hit back with greater resolve.
Noting that the People’s Action Party would try its best to take back the areas, he said: “I think we have to be very careful, we have to be very mindful of what we have and we have to work very, very hard.
“We’ve lived with the PAP all our lives and we know how powerful they are. So I think if we want to advance Singapore in a way where we can bring everybody together as a united people, it is in our interest to make sure the Workers’ Party serves Singapore well.”
His anecdote reminds me of the Latin phrase “momento mori” ie someday we all will die.
Memento Mori is believed to have originated from an ancient Roman tradition.
After a major military victory, the triumphant military generals were paraded through the streets to the roars of the masses. The ceremonial procession could span the course of a day with the military leader riding in a chariot drawn by four horses. There was not a more coveted honor. The general was idolized, viewed as divine by his troops and the public alike. But riding in the same chariot, standing just behind the worshipped general, was a slave. The slave’s sole responsibility for the entirety of the procession was to whisper in the general’s ear continuously, “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!”
“Look behind. Remember thou art mortal. Remember you must die!”
The slave served to remind the victor at the peak of glory, this god-like adoration would soon end, while the truth of his mortality remained.
It is a Stoic reminder to stay grounded and not be complacent for we are but mortal beings and, one day, we must die.
So when Pritam raises the same theme taking inspiration from the 1970s movie “Tora Tora Tora”, his likability quota went up a few notches for me.
In the dizzying heights of post election victory, that message was what he wanted to send, and remind himself of.
Stay grounded and do not be complacent. More is to come.
This reflects well on the integrity and caliber of Pritam the man and Pritam the leader, and augers well for the future of the opposition he leads.
What I will say to him
Perhaps one day we may meet.
And like the slave in the story of the victorious Roman general, there are five words that I will whisper to Pritam.
But only he will hear it.
I will shake his hand and utter those words.
If you can guess what those words are, let me know.
And if you get it right, I will either blog about you or cook for you.
But not both.