Nicole Seah: ‘I got countless rape and death threats’
9 June 2014
In Her World’s May issue opposition party member Nicole Seah spoke to writer Ankita Varma about her year of self-doubt, physical exhaustion and death threats.
“A friend once told me that your 20s are like walking in the wilderness. You have enough idealism for ambition but not enough experience to know right from wrong. That statement couldn’t be more true of the last four years of my life. My walk in the wilderness is more poignant only because, for years, everyone around me assumed I had my life all figured out.
Perhaps it’s because I got into politics at 24. You would assume I have stellar academic records and a successful career, right? In fact, I have none of these things. I was a mediocre B-average student throughout my school years. When I graduated from the National University of Singapore (NUS), I got a job at a public relations consultancy only after a six-month internship, during which I bought office supplies and made coffee runs.
Most surprisingly, I was apathetic about local politics until I enrolled at NUS. Politics wasn’t actively discussed in my household. I only knew that my parents had always supported the opposition. My mother had been against the government’s Graduate Mother Scheme in the 1980s, having raised three well-educated children despite being a non-graduate herself. (Editor’s note: This scheme provided financial benefits for mothers who were university graduates and school enrolment privileges for their children.)
The seeds of my political awakening were planted when I edited an independent online newspaper in NUS called The Campus Observer. I wrote about controversial topics like student complaints about private dormitory housing and the xenophobia foreign students faced. I was struck by how students remained apathetic to such issues and did not rally for change. It sparked a new consciousness in me. Shortly after graduating, I joined the Reform Party, where I stayed for two years before leaving to join the National Solidarity Party (NSP).
“You look like a mei-mei”
I worked largely behind the scenes at the NSP. Having studied communications at NUS, I advised the party on how to deal with the media. But when the party heads offered me the opportunity to run in the 2011 general elections, I gave it serious thought. My family was concerned about how it would impact my life and career. Still, I decided to go for it.
Somehow, the idea of campaigning in Marine Parade – a constituency that hadn’t been contested since 1992 – appealed to me. The nine days of campaigning were a firestorm. We didn’t have the time or resources to prep or train. The days before the election were a mad dash to raise money, print flyers and get campaign materials ready.
I was forced to go from a wallflower to addressing hundreds of thousands at political rallies. I remember rewriting the speech of my inaugural address over and over again, and practising to make sure it was clear and impactful. I felt intense pressure to keep my guard up. One slip could cost me my reputation or lead others to brush me off as naive and inexperienced. I didn’t want my youth to be thought of as a handicap.
But I was affected when people left nasty comments on my Facebook page attacking my age (“She looks like a mei-mei!”), appearance (“Her forehead looks like a horse’s!”) and intellect (“She’s probably a bimbo”). Having strangers bash you is something you never get used to. Friends and family encouraged me, but I became a harsher critic of myself in a bid to prove the naysayers wrong.
“I saw my future in five-year blocks”
2011 was a watershed year for Singapore politics. Many Gen-Yers were voting for the first time and there was a presidential election the same year. I was fired up to see people interested in politics. But I also knew how much more had to be done. Campaigning had exposed me to those who were falling through the cracks in society and this made me determined to run again for the 2016 elections.
Politics is all about staying relevant, so I jumped at every opportunity given to me post-election. I spoke at events, sat on panels, went on walkabouts and discussed policy at the grassroots level. I clocked 16-hour days on average. Days were spent at my advertising job. Evenings I filled with talks, forums or walkabouts. Afterwards, I’d head back to the office to finish up work.
By 2012, I was pulling all-nighters, sometimes working until 6am. I had a never-ending to-do list. Even cab rides were spent furiously thinking up talking points or planning speeches. If I had time for lunch, it would be a 10-minute affair at my desk.
Harder still was the emotional toll. I had relatively no policymaking experience and felt out of my depth. I remember being invited to a panel session where I spoke alongside another opposition party member, a minister and an academic – all much older than I was, and more experienced. I forced myself to appear confident, but I thought I sounded superficial compared to the other panelists. I felt like a fraud.
I was so bent on proving myself that I allowed no room for mistakes. I guilt-tripped myself into working all the time. More than anything, I felt so alone. I found out that people whom I had thought were friends were gossiping about me. I didn’t know who to talk to. It came to a point when I could only see my future in five-year blocks. My only thought was: Am I doing enough to stay relevant for the next election?
“I was stalked”
And then there were the death and rape threats. They started right after the elections – every Facebook post I made was followed by vicious emails, with comments ranging from the mean (“Were you drunk when you wrote that?! You’ve just lost my vote”) to the frightening (“Are you still alive?”).
Even my personal Twitter account wasn’t spared. I lost track of the number of threats I received daily. Netizens posted my office address and contact details, along with the time I usually got off work. I was paranoid when I left the office, knowing that someone could be watching me.
The worst incident was a call the office receptionist unknowingly put through to me. I picked it up and heard breathing followed by two minutes of maniacal laughter. I should’ve hung up but I was so shocked; my arms were covered in goosebumps.
Early last year, I began noticing that a piece of pink tinsel would be tied to my gate every day. I also received illegible notes, left at my door. When I left my house in the mornings, I would see a woman in her early 30s lurking around my estate, often staring at me from behind a pillar. But I couldn’t confront her without evidence. The “gifts” at my door continued for weeks until she finally wrote her name and address in one of her notes. I went straight to the police. I still periodically receive tinsel now, but much less frequently than before.
I didn’t share all this with my family as I didn’t want them to panic. I bottled it up and maintained a brave front. But soon, it would blow up.
“My body shut down”
The day I got my first anxiety attack started innocently enough. I was at work when my family SMS-ed to say my grandmother had been diagnosed with third stage stomach cancer. Something inside me snapped – my hands shook and I had trouble breathing. I got up to walk out for fresh air but ended up blacking out for a few minutes in the hallway. When I came to, I shrugged it off as a one-off thing.
A few weeks later, I contracted dengue. I spent nearly a month in and out of the hospital for IV drips and blood tests. Even after I recovered, I felt sickly and fatigued. After a month and a half of deteriorating health, I had to quit my job.
Two months later, in April last year, a friend introduced me to an entrepreneur who worked with technology companies in India. He offered me a position where I’d help acquire business for the company. I accepted his offer as it came at a time I was desperate for a clean slate.
But I would soon realise that the job wasn’t for me. There was a cultural mismatch with the way companies over there do business. My forward personality was not taken too well either, in fact male clients often ignored me when I was speaking. In September – four months into the job – I was asked to leave.
By this time, my health and emotions had taken a real beating. Friends and family began commenting worriedly about my appearance, which had been whittled to skin and bones. On Oct 1, a family friend checked me into a hospital, where I stayed for 18 days, cut off from the world. I turned off my phone. I spent my time sleeping and reading, and saw only close friends and family.
After I was discharged, I kept my phone off for three weeks and stayed off social media. I never sought professional help, relying on my family and friends for encouragement. Only their opinions mattered – everything else was just noise. Perhaps the meltdown was for the best – for the first time in two years, I was forced to take a break.
“Starting from ground zero”
I know now that much of the pressure that resulted in my breakdown was self-imposed. I didn’t let myself enjoy the opportunities I was given, choosing instead to doubt myself. The drive to prove myself was the most destructive. I’ve realised that the public scrutiny will never go away. After I shared my story on Facebook, a picture I uploaded of my then-partner sparked speculation that I was dating a married man.
Instead of supporting me through the ordeal, he left me to deal with the aftermath alone. Concerned about his reputation, he distanced himself from me. Though I would have struggled silently in the past, this time I refused. I ended the eight-month relationship, and I’m now single and happier than before.
The biggest lesson I’ve learnt from 2013 is to be kinder to myself. I spent two years telling myself I wasn’t good enough. Now, I know it’s okay to fail. You know what’s great about starting from ground zero? There’s nowhere to go but up. I’m excited about 2014, including my move to Thailand for my new job at an advertising agency.
Will I stand for election in 2016?
Your guess is as good as mine. I’ll still be very involved in the NSP during the elections and my goal will always be to serve Singapore – but whether I do that as a politician remains to be seen.”
#Sg #Singapore #GE2011 #NicoleSeah