Posted by: Alvin | November 27, 2008

Paging Dr. Lakhbir Singh…

failedsouthasianSo a couple of stories came out yesterday and today, both more coverage on the ‘racism’ in Vancouver politics. Neither of the stories contacted me for interviews, and I can guess why: I don’t happen to share this single-minded conviction that the need for electoral reform is driven by an idea of racism against South Asian candidates. Maybe it’s because of the era I grew up and went to school in, but I don’t believe that anyone’s potential is limited by race – especially in this city. Maybe that’s a little naive, but I believe it to be true when speaking about my generation in this city. So when people like Lakhbir Singh come out swinging the bat of racism, I have to take some exception.

Now let me qualify everything I’m about to say with two things. One, I’m not saying that racism had nothing to do with how the vote totals broke down on November 15th. And two, this is the most I’ve commented on this subject since Charlie Smith wrote the first post-election article about it.

So let’s take a look at what was said in yesterday’s Courier article:

Headline: “Failed South Asian school board candidate cries racism”

Quotes:

“Singh says voters who were members of the NPA, the party with which he ran, must have ‘skipped over East Indian names and kept on going.'”

“If he had known he wouldn’t get their support, Singh says, he wouldn’t have spent $20,000 of his own money and two months of his life campaigning.”

“Singh…said the only answer is a ward system that would section Vancouver into voting districts so citizens could vote for candidates from their area, rather than a large number of contenders from across the city.”

And now the Straight article:

Headline: “Is Vancouver’s voting system racist?”

Quotes:

“…I spent nine years of my life in the Canadian navy risking my life for this country. And I feel like one of those black guys who came back from Vietnam and fought for their country, and then when they get home, they find out they’re still a nigger, despite what they’ve done.”

OK. Let’s slow down just a little bit. First of all, Lakhbir Singh didn’t lose because of his last name. He lost because he was a bad candidate for school board, because he was unknown in the city, and because he was on the wrong slate. Period. Did he possibly score even lower because his name was South Asian? Yes. Did it cost him the election? Not even close. And what, may I ask, did he spend $20,000 on? I campaigned the same amount of time as he did, and went to school at the same time. Is he saying that being on a slate and spending an epic amount of money should have guaranteed him a win? And because he lost it must be racism? Please!

But lest you think this is one sour-grapes candidate named Singh beating up on another, here are some things being said by those knowledgeable about the school board and its issues:

Michael Watkins, Douglas Elementary PAC: “Dr. Singh should have spoken at one of the many forums but instead either declined or was ordered not to participate. Seeing a candidate wander the halls while an *all* candidates forum is under way does nothing to further parents and school stakeholders understanding of a prospective candidate. Maybe Dr. Singh felt his election was a sure thing, just being on a party slate?”

Dawn Steele, Parent Activist/FSSS/SOS: “Dr Lakhbir Singh would have a more legitimate complaint if he’d actually done anything to give voters a reason to vote FOR him during the campaign, apart from securing an NPA nomination.”

At the all-candidate’s debate at Vancouver Technical, Dr. Singh showed up halfway through, sat in the audience, and then left without saying a word. If he thinks just by being on the NPA slate that NPA-leaning voters should vote for him, he needs to spend more time learning about politics. How can you get more absurd than suggesting people vote for you simply because you’re on the slate? And even if he thought that, shouldn’t he have then chosen a better slate?

The truth is that Dr. Singh would have never made it onto either COPE’s or Vision’s education slates because he has no knowledge of education issues in Vancouver. His one policy statement came when stating he would deal with racism and bullying at schools by “going down there with the police and the principal, and…handing out suspensions left, right, and centre until somebody gets the message.”

Now, while I say all this, I don’t mean it to be a personal attack on Dr. Singh. He is surely a good person, with good intentions to help in schools, and his service in the Navy must be celebrated. But at the end of the day, we as a community have to choose individuals that are best suited to represent the city. And leaping to a ward system simply because there have been charges of racism is not the way we ensure this happens.

Dr. Singh’s phrasing of why we need a ward system is counter-productive: “Citizens could vote for candidates from their area, rather than a large number of contenders from across the city.” This smacks of wards simply to cater to neighborhood ghettos. What happens to the Chinese person living in South Fraser who’s the best person for the job, but loses because they aren’t South Asian. Or the South Asian that’s the best person for her Dunbar neighbourhood, but loses because she’s not white? These are all real problems if the only reason we’re moving to wards is because there’s a notion of racism.

Let’s get two things clear then: first, we need a new electoral system for a number of reasons and instead of moving it along through the courts, we need to move forward as a community in order to make sure we get it right. And second, Dr. Singh lost because he wasn’t a good candidate, and not because he’s South Asian.

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