Home big read The Big Read: Win or lose, campaign volunteers for PE 2023 find it worth the sweat and tears

The Big Read: Win or lose, campaign volunteers for PE 2023 find it worth the sweat and tears

The Big Read: Win or lose, campaign volunteers for PE 2023 find it worth the sweat and tears
In the weeks leading up to the 2023 Presidential Election, hundreds of Singaporeans worked tirelessly to help candidates rally for votes as volunteersFour 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 endThe 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 campaignTheir contributions are no small feat though, with one being part of the team that created President-elect Tharman’s iconic pineapple logoThe 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

By Loraine Lee Published September 8, 2023 Updated September 9, 2023 Bookmark Bookmark Share WhatsApp Telegram Facebook Twitter Email LinkedIn

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.

Dr Luqman and his wife Dr Rabia’tul A’dawiah were part of Mr Tharman’s inner circle of volunteers who came up with the idea of using the pineapple as his election logo, which created “magic”, according to a strategic communications expert in a commentary for news site CNA.

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.

When asked about how he became a part of Mr Tharman’s core team of volunteers, Dr Luqman told TODAY that it was through a text message on July 10 from Ms Jane Yumiko Ittogi, Mr Tharman’s wife.

Dr Luqman and his wife got to know Ms Ittogi through their volunteer work at GreenSG COLLAB, a sustainability initiative that Ms Ittogi runs. 

“Mrs Tharman had texted me at around 10.30am, asking whether my wife and I would be interested in helping out Mr Tharman. I jumped at the opportunity — that same day, I was at a meeting to plan for Mr Tharman’s campaign.”

It was a no-brainer for Dr Luqman as a long-time resident of Taman Jurong. He told TODAY that Mr Tharman had watched him grow up and had at one point offered to write a recommendation letter for him to pursue a Masters degree in public policy, which he declined as he was “young and naive”. 

“Mr and Mrs T are genuine people. On one hand, you have this man who was a minister and busy with public policy, but on the other hand, was personally helping me and gave me career advice on a personal basis,” said Dr Luqman.

“I thought if he could do this for me despite his busy schedule, why couldn’t I volunteer to help him too?”

As this was his first time as a volunteer for an election of any kind, Dr Luqman said the experience taught him much about people and how they think collectively.

“It also gave me some insights into the logistics for campaigns… and how to run an election campaign.”

Despite having to sacrifice any free time he had for the campaign, it was all worth it when Mr Tharman scored an impressive victory with  70.4 per cent of vote share. 

The President-elect also held an appreciation dinner for his campaign volunteers after his celebration tour on Sept 2, where he mentioned Dr Luqman and his wife and thanked them for volunteering.

When asked whether he would volunteer for another election again, Dr Luqman said he might if it was for the “right candidate”.


As a volunteer for Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s presidential bid in 2011, Mr Cheah Kok Keong recalled the media swarming and pushing him to take pictures of the former candidate. But 12 years later, volunteering in 2023 for Mr Tharman was much different.

For one, the now 57-year-old played a smaller role in the campaign by helping to distribute flyers and coordinate logistics so that supporters could cheer for Mr Tharman on Nomination Day at the People’s Association (PA) Headquarters.

How he got to be a volunteer for both campaigns was also very different.

Mr Cheah had never interacted with Dr Tan prior to 2011. But the then-presidential candidate’s messages for Singapore resonated with him. So for the first time, Mr Cheah decided to join the hustings and offered his services.

“I believed he would make a good President. So, when he had a call for volunteers, I applied and soon found myself in the inner circle,” said Mr Cheah, who is a senior manager at the National University of Singapore.

On the other hand, Mr Cheah volunteered for Mr Tharman through his campaign manager whom he was acquainted with.

As a grassroots leader himself, Mr Cheah had several interactions with the President-elect prior to becoming a volunteer for Mr Tharman’s campaign.

“Mr Tharman is someone who cares about the small details,” he said, adding that Mr Tharman’s years as an MP had left a strong impression on him and hence motivated him to step up.

While he may be a grassroots leader, Mr Cheah said he and other grassroots members had to volunteer in their own individual capacity.

“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 to communicate with each other. They also could not wear any shirts with the PA or community centre’s logos.

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.

To overcome these challenges, Mr Cheah and the other volunteers had a separate Whatsapp group chat to communicate, and also had to search for a gathering point that volunteers could easily find that was not near any centres managed by the PA.

When Dr Tan Cheng Bock announced that he was endorsing rival candidate Mr Tan Kin Lian in this election, Mr Cheah said he was not conflicted but felt “very upset”, like some other former volunteers.

“I was right there (in the front row) watching the election unfold in 2011 and many had said then that Tan Kin Lian had stolen the votes from Dr Tan,” he recalled.

Describing the endorsement of Mr Tan by Dr Tan as a “weird situation”, Mr Cheah said it did not waver his support for Mr Tharman. Rather, he led the cheers of “Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore)” and “Ong Lai (Pineapple)” when news broke that Mr Tharman was leading the sample count votes by a large margin on election night.

Despite acting as a polling agent earlier in the morning, he joined about 40 volunteers of Mr Tharman at a coffee shop in Taman Jurong to watch the election results.

“When the sample count came out… it’s like during the general election in Hougang. Everyone there was looking for that excitement to cheer on Mr Tharman,” he recalled.

Mr Cheah was referring to a coffee shop in Hougang, where supporters of the opposition Workers’ Party are known to gather and watch the election results.

For Mr Cheah, Mr Tharman’s victory and the strong camaraderie that he has built with his fellow volunteers, who bonded over their goal to get Mr Tharman elected, are memories that would last a lifetime.


His odd working hours in a hotel did not stop 54-year-old senior technician Ng Ah Soon from fanning across Singapore to distribute flyers on Mr Tan Kin Lian’s behalf.

His legs sometimes ached as he spent hours on his feet trying to persuade Singaporeans to vote for Mr Tan, 75. But for Mr Ng, it was a worthy personal sacrifice.

“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.”

With two other friends, Mr Ng drove around Yishun, Tiong Bahru and East Coast distributing flyers bearing Mr Tan’s face and his tagline “bring back trust, give us hope” during the last three days of the campaign.

Mr Tan told TODAY that he had about 50 active volunteers involved in his walkabouts, social media posts, translating speeches and other activities throughout the campaign. About 300 acted as polling and counting agents for him on election day.

Mr Ng decided to volunteer after hearing the news that Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a man he looked up to, had endorsed Mr Tan. In those three days, Mr Ng did all he could to give out the flyers to Singaporeans.

Mr Ng said it was not an easy task, as 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.”