Why I lost in Bukit Gombak

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The Straits Times
Published on Mar 19, 2011
Why I lost in Bukit Gombak

By Rachel Chang
IF THE 1991 elections had happened during a severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, everything
would have been different, says Dr Seet Ai Mee.
Instead of being associated with a hand-washing incident which hounded her for three years of her
political career, and contributed to her electoral loss to Singapore Democratic Party chief Ling How
Doong in 1991, she would have been celebrated for the act.
'The Minister who knows how to wash her hands!' she quips, imagining what the headlines could have
But the feisty 68-year-old's rueful take on that controversy does not mask her irritation with a version -
an untrue one, she says - that has become synonymous with her name.
In the 1988 elections, Dr Seet washed her hands during a visit to a wet market in Bukit Gombak.
Launching an attack, her opponent Mr Ling and his supporters said that she had done so after shaking
hands with fishmongers, a vivid image which dovetailed with their characterisation of her as elitist and
out-of-touch with the Chinese-speaking grassroots.
Stil , she won that contest, if only by a margin of 7 percentage points. Three years later, as the 1991
pol s loomed, the tale surfaced again, and this time she lost.
The irony, she tel s Insight during an interview at HCA Hospice Care, where she is president, is that it
was her own party leader, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who resurrected it in 1991 and
propel ed it into the national headlines.
At a ral y in Bukit Gombak just two days before voters went to the pol s, Mr Goh said that Dr Seet had a
habit of washing her hands frequently, as she was a pharmacist, and that he had told her to stop as
she was now a politician.
'After shaking hands with a fishmonger, she washed her hands. But she has not done this since,' he
He also characterised her as a 'Margaret Thatcher' type, referring to the former British prime minister
who many felt tended to 'lecture' a little too much.
In the aftermath of the electoral defeat, one of Dr Seet's activists wrote to The Straits Times to clarify
that she had seen Dr Seet wash her hands, but it was only after meeting pork sel ers. She did not want
to be disrespectful to any Muslims she might meet later, the writer explained.
Dr Seet herself did not clarify the issue until close to 20 years later, in 2009, when she was interviewed
by Petir, the party's magazine.
Recal ing the incident now, she says her supporters walked away from the ral y at which Mr Goh had
brought up the incident 'very upset'.
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'They knew I was going to lose. I don't know why he did that. He kicked an own goal,' she says.
While Dr Seet was not the only PAP candidate to lose - three other seats were lost, in the party's worst
showing in recent history - she was the most prominent, being acting minister for community
development at the time.
She says her loss stemmed from a myriad of issues such as national unhappiness over the rising cost of
living. Bukit Gombak itself had seen three bus routes taken away while fares were increased.
In hindsight, she believes that she was the wrong candidate for the ward, which is made up largely of
blue-col ar Mandarin- and dialect-speaking folk. She does not speak Mandarin; her second language is
'The man fielded after me was the right man,' she says, referring to veteran backbencher Ang Mong
Seng, who wrested the seat from Mr Ling in 1997 with 65 per cent of the vote. He is Chinese-educated
and speaks fluent dialect.
But given that Mr Ling had also played on gender prejudice during their contests, would a female Ang
Mong Seng have held the ward?
Her verdict: 'Better than me!'
'I don't know why he did that. He kicked an own goal.'
Dr Seet Ai Mee, on then prime minister Goh Chok Tong's rehashing of the hand-washing incident
before the 1991 election

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