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The Big Read in short: PE 2023 through the eyes of campaign volunteers

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.

The Big Read in short: PE 2023 through the eyes of campaign volunteers
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Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we speak to four volunteers for different presidential hopefuls in the Sept 1 Presidential Election on their experiences. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.

  • In the weeks leading up to the 2023 Presidential Election, hundreds of Singaporeans worked tirelessly to help candidates rally for votes as volunteers
  • Four such volunteers tell TODAY why they decided to set aside time to help in the campaigns of Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Mr Tan Kin Lian and Mr George Goh, who did not qualify to run in the end
  • The volunteers speak of the sacrifices they made, such as suffering body aches from the hours giving out flyers and the challenges organising the logistics of the campaign
  • Their contributions are no small feat though, with one being part of the team that created President-elect Tharman's iconic pineapple logo
  • The volunteers add that they have also gained from the experience, such as picking up useful skills and learning the intricacies behind a candidate's presidential bid

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.

While the multiple cameras focused on Mr Tharman’s interactions with his supporters as he navigated the hawker centre, in the background was a man in a burgundy shirt with his arms wide open behind him.

Dr Luqman Akasyah, along with a few others, was tasked with protecting the President-elect from the overly excited crowd that were pushing to get a selfie or handshake.

But Dr Luqman is no bodyguard — the 36-year-old is a clean energy scientist and part of a volunteer team for Mr Tharman’s election campaign.

Behind the flyers, posters and social media posts of the presidential candidates vying for votes, hundreds of Singaporeans, like Dr Luqman, had sacrificed their time and energy in trying to get their respective presidential candidates elected.

Some had taken leave from work to join the nine-day Presidential Election campaign, while others had spent their precious free time hitting the streets to hand out campaign flyers to total strangers.

Having grown up in Taman Jurong — Mr Tharman had served as Member of Parliament for Jurong Group Representation Constituency for over 20 years — Dr Luqman saw volunteering in the campaign as his way of thanking the former Senior Minister.

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.


While some might attribute election results to a candidate's popularity, a well-oiled campaign needs to be supported by dedicated volunteers who can walk the ground, come up with ideas and help rally support the presidential hopeful. 

Regardless of their responsibilities, volunteers play a crucial role — be it through raising publicity by distributing flyers, or helping build their social media presence.

Dr Luqman and his wife Dr Rabia'tul A'dawiah, for one, were part of Mr Tharman’s inner circle of volunteers who came up with the idea of using the pineapple as his election logo.

This pineapple logo created “magic”, according to a strategic communications expert in a commentary for news site CNA. Throughout his campaign and during his celebration tour after being elected, Mr Tharman's supporters were seen carrying pineapples and taking sips of pineapple drinks.

As for Mr Ng Ah Soon, 54, senior technician, he was one of presidential candidate Tan Kin Lian's roughly 50 active volunteers who canvassed the island with flyers in hand.

“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.”


But volunteering is not a walk in the park. Beyond having to sacrifice time, volunteers also have to deal with challenges and navigate logistics as individuals without the backing of an organisation.

Mr Ng told TODAY that as he distributed flyers for Mr Tan, 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.”

As for 57-year-old Cheah Kok Keong, a grassroots leader, he faced a different challenge volunteering for Mr Tharman's campaign.

He had to volunteer do in his own capacity due to the strict rules of the People's Association (PA), a statutory board.

“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 so they could communicate with grassroots members who are also volunteering to help Mr Tharman.

They also could not wear any shirts with the PA or community centre's logos.

Mr Cheah's main role is to distribute flyers and coordinate logistics so supporters could cheer for Mr Tharman on Nomination Day at the Nomination Centre, which happens to be the PA Headquarters.

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.

However, these were challenges he and other volunteers overcame by creating separate WhatsApp chat groups to coordinate their volunteer efforts. They also found a gathering point for volunteers that was not near any centres managed by the PA.


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 cut and thrust of an election campaign.

While Mr Cheah and Dr Luqman's biggest reward for their efforts was Mr Tharman's landslide victory with a 70.4 per cent vote share, they also learnt more from the experience. This includes being able to learn and watch the inner workings of an election campaign, Dr Luqman told TODAY.

While Mr Goh Seng Ann's volunteer experience was cut short when businessman George Goh was not granted a certificate of eligibility by the Presidential Elections Committee, the 30-year-old said he was able to improve his social media skills. The two men are not related.

Working together with the 20-person team and helping with the social media content helped him to improve his skills, which will come in handy for his full-time job as a social media executive.

"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.”

Related topics

Presidential Election 2023 Tharman Shanmugaratnam Tan Kin Lian George Goh

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