Kumaran Pillai: Tan Cheng Bock fielded me in Kebun Baru SMC to show S'poreans are race-blind

Journalist, businessman, politician.

Sulaiman Daud | July 07, 2020, 04:15 PM

Given the peculiarities of the GRC scheme in Singapore, one might think that Kumaran Pillai of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) would have been fielded together with a team, as a minority representative.

Instead, he is standing in the SMC of Kebun Baru in a one-on-one contest with Henry Kwek of the People's Action Party (PAP). When I asked him why, Kumaran seemed amused.

"I asked Doc the same question", he said. "Doc, everybody thought I'm going to a GRC. Why (an) SMC?"

"Singaporeans don't vote based on race"

But Tan Cheng Bock had a reason.

"He chose Kebun Baru and he turned and looked me in the eye and said 'you can do this.' He said that one, he wants to put an Indian in an SMC to show that Singaporeans are colour-blind. Singaporeans don't vote based on race.

And if I'm going to win it, I'm sending a statement that the whole argument that an Indian cannot be a Prime Minister is flawed. And for that reason, I respect Dr Tan Cheng Bock in having made a very brave and audacious decision to field me in Kebun Baru."

Besides, the PSP has had no difficulty in fielding candidates from minority groups in GRCs, including neighbouring Nee Soon GRC, where they have fielded four minority candidates.

For online news readers, Kumaran might not be an unfamiliar name. He is perhaps best known for being the chief editor of The Online Citizen (TOC) before leaving to set up The Independent Singapore (TISG).

As a journalist, he did investigative pieces on stories such as the SMRT bus drivers' strike in 2012. Today, he is the CEO of Apple Seed, a venture accelerator managing multiple companies.

But if Kumaran does win, it will be another feather in the cap of someone who only joined PSP earlier in 2020.

A talk with Tan convinced him

The culmination of a journey that begun in September 2019, occurred when Kumaran met with Tan to discuss "systemic issues" in the country.

At this point, politics was not yet on his mind. He was meeting Tan while wearing his reporter's hat, after the latter had officially launched the PSP.

But they got to talking, and Tan said something that left quite an impact on him:

"Doc told me that commenting and writing about it was not enough. What the country really needs is to break the two-thirds or the supermajority the PAP has. It kind of convinced me that I needed to do my bit, I need to step up to serve the people."

After Kumaran said that his wife had reservations about him entering politics, Tan got his wife Cecilia to talk to her. Kumaran doesn't know what they discussed, but he says "she's very committed now", and is fully behind him.

A scribe

Kumaran attended a retreat hosted by the PSP, and stepped down from his position at TISG by the end of February 2020.

This was an end to a chapter that involved some rather famous names in the Singapore political and online writing landscape.

After Kumaran left TOC, he met veteran newspaper editor PN Balji, and talked about setting up an alternative media outlet.

Kumaran had another meeting with Leon Perera, former Workers' Party (WP) Non-Constituency MP and current candidate for the WP team in Aljunied GRC.

Perera just asked one question, "Is Balji in?" Assured that he was, they set up TISG together.

Kumaran describes Perera as a "pillar" of TISG, and said that in the early days, he was "very supportive" and was involved in both editorial and business matters.

But given his past links to both TOC and TISG, isn't there a chance that he would receive favourable coverage from both entities?

In response, Kumaran said he felt mainstream media has been "very fair" to him, and he said he had a "broader appeal" to all journalists because of the way he treats them.

"When I speak to journalists, I don't treat them like my enemy, or look at them suspiciously. Because I'm open and I treat them fairly, they also treat me very fairly. So in that sense, generally, the media has been very kind."

Kumaran said he felt that journalists would treat him equally, whether or not he has links to them.

Joining the PSP

But journalism is in his past. Politics dominates the present, and perhaps the future to come as well.

"Nothing that I've done in the past has prepared me for this strenuous journey ahead," he said. He referred to a "robust" selection process conducted by the PSP for selecting candidates.

Tan looms large in the conversation. What is the former PAP man like behind the scenes, now that he is leading his own party?

Kumaran describes him as someone who is a fair leader and able to resolve conflicts. "There's something about him", said Kumaran. "The word that my party peers use is that he's very sincere. I think I can learn a lot from him," he added, answering the question of why he chose to join the PSP over the other parties.

The battle for Kebun Baru

Kumaran has been walking the ground in his appointed area of battle. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which had supposedly been eyeing Kebun Baru, decided not to stand after all. This meant that both Kumaran and Kwek would avoid a three-cornered fight.

Kumaran himself was not privy to the negotiations with the DPP, and said that Leong Mun Wai, PSP's Assistant Secretary-General, was heading discussions with other political parties. But Kumaran welcomed the move by the DPP.

Kwek is seeking a second term, having become an MP in 2015, when Kebun Baru was part of Nee Soon GRC. But Kumaran has quickly become acquainted to the area.

"Mayflower Market has got a lot of things to offer. I find that people from even Jurong actually drive down to Mayflower to have a meal", he shared.

He has also visited some of the shops, talked to residents, and found that people are "incredibly friendly, jovial, open-minded". Even if they don't communicate with him in English, they use sign language to show that he's welcome to the community.

Kumaran names other notable places of interest, like the Western food stall at the Block 181 coffee shop, or the St. Thomas Orthodox Syrian Cathedral, and called the area a "picturesque landscape".

And what of Kwek? Kumaran acknowledges that Kwek has been walking the ground too, meeting people and handing out oranges, but he said that there are still "outstanding issues" in the estate that have previously been brought to his attention.

Kumaran said that his background as a journalist would be useful in investigating problems, finding things out and getting to the bottom of things, as well as communicating the problems on the ground to the various agencies, and working with them to solve those problems.

"I'll be their voice in Parliament, I'll give them more than oranges", he said.

Top image from PSP and Kumaran Pillai's Facebook page.