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The Big Read in short: Examining Mr Chiam See Tong’s legacy

Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at veteran Opposition figure Chiam See Tong’s impact and contributions over an eventful political career that spanned more than four decades. This is a shortened version of the full feature

Mr Chiam See Tong and his wife Mrs Lina Chiam at the launch of the Chiam See Tong Sports Fund in 2017.

Mr Chiam See Tong and his wife Mrs Lina Chiam at the launch of the Chiam See Tong Sports Fund in 2017.

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Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at veteran Opposition figure Chiam See Tong’s impact and contributions over an eventful political career that spanned more than four decades. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.

SINGAPORE — One of Singapore’s longest-serving Opposition politicians, Mr Chiam See Tong, retired from politics earlier this month after he stepped down from his post as secretary-general of the Singapore People’s Party.

Mr Chiam, who was a Member of Parliament for Potong Pasir from 1984 to 2011, leaves behind an indelible mark in parliamentary records, as well as in the stories of residents and people who had worked closely with the “lion of Potong Pasir”, as he was known.

Mr Chiam was widely regarded as the man who helped define the credible, nation-building role of the Opposition, following the Republic’s turbulent political history in the ‘60s.

His four-decades-long journey in politics is perhaps encapsulated in a story that he would often tell others, including in Parliament in 2009, of a tree that he tried to grow in front of his party office in Potong Pasir in the ‘80s.

Mr Chiam wanted to plant the tree in the constituency instead of at home. Despite being denied permission by the authorities, he planted the tree anyway — only to have it uprooted by an unknown person who left it in front of the office. Undeterred, Mr Chiam simply replanted it at the same spot without kicking up a fuss. In the end, the tree did not survive as someone threw bleach on it, Mr Chiam said in Parliament.

Incidents like this typify his doggedness: He would not be cowed despite being outnumbered and outgunned, and would respond in his own quiet but principled way, according to political watchers, past colleagues and long-time Potong Pasir residents interviewed by TODAY.

HOW CHIAM’S POLITICAL JOURNEY STARTED

Mr Chiam was an unknown figure when he first entered politics in 1976. A former Cedar Girls’ Secondary School teacher and later a lawyer with his own law firm, Mr Chiam did not have a smooth ride before he won the Potong Pasir seat in 1984:

  • He started out as an independent candidate, before setting up the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 1980.

  • He failed thrice in his attempts to win a parliamentary seat in 1976 in Cairnhill, in the 1979 by-election for Potong Pasir and the 1980 General Election (GE) for the same seat.  He campaigned against notable PAP candidates, such as Mr Lim Kim San, Mr Howe Yoon Chong and Mr Mah Bow Tan.

IMPACT IN PARLIAMENT

It was in Parliament that Mr Chiam would establish his foothold as a credible and honest MP who could hold his own against the PAP, political analysts said. 

He would regularly provide an opposing view on a wide-range of topics brought up in Parliament. Nevertheless, he had a few pet topics: Forming an economic union with Malaysia, education issues, problem gambling, as well as political topics such as the Group Representation Constituency system, the elected presidency and the Non-Constituency MP scheme.

Unlike the fiery rhetoric of then-Workers’ Party chief J B Jeyaretnam, who attempted to counter the PAP at every instance and was a thorn in the latter’s side, Mr Chiam was more soft-spoken and a less charismatic parliamentarian, said the analysts.

Right after their respective 1984 electoral victories, Mr Jeyaretnam said he hoped to be more assertive and aggressive. Mr Chiam, on the other hand, said: “Wherever possible, we will cooperate with the PAP and find solutions to problems… I want to help PAP in its responsibility of nation-building.”

A “one-man policy team” and lacking the research capabilities that the PAP had, Mr Chiam’s speeches were often not noteworthy and were prone to contain comical errors or logical flaws – something which the PAP MPs often picked up on.

Yet, he spoke up and questioned policies and statements when it mattered, the analysts said. Mr Chiam also publicly took fellow Opposition politicians to task when he felt they were out of line — much to the consternation of some members of the Opposition.

Singapore Management University political analyst Eugene Tan noted that the late Mr Lee had once said that Mr Chiam was the sort of MP that would be a credit to the ruling party if he were a PAP MP. “That was the measure of the respect Mr Chiam commanded politically, never mind that he fumbled and blundered,” Assoc Prof Tan said.

Over the decades, Mr Chiam cemented his reputation as an Opposition MP who is credible and loyal to Singapore.

Former party colleague Desmond Lim Bak Chuan, who leads the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), said this legacy is especially visible today among the various Opposition parties. Mr Lim was once seen as Mr Chiam’s right-hand man but fell out of favour.

Analysts highlighted a few memorable incidents during Mr Chiam’s time in Parliament

  • In 1992, when PAP MP Choo Wee Khiang gave a speech in which he said he drove to Little India one evening to find it “pitch dark, not because there was no light, but because there were too many Indians around”. Mr Chiam was the only MP who stood up and objected to  Mr Choo’s remarks, said political analyst Derek da Cunha.

  • Mr Chiam was an advocate of a “loyal opposition”. When the Republic received a barrage of criticism from the Philippines over the execution of a Filipino domestic worker for murder in 1995, he spoke up for Singapore in a much lauded speech, stating that he “would not allow the foreign press to use the Opposition as a club to hit at our Government”.

ACHIEVEMENTS AS DE FACTO OPPOSITION LEADER

Mr Chiam was credited with being the architect of the “by-election effect” strategy, which he carried out to great effect during the 1991 General Election, which saw the SDP capturing three seats and the WP winning one — the best showing by the Opposition for two decades, before the 2011 GE. This was the biggest gain for the Opposition before the 2011 GE, which made him the unofficial leader of the Opposition in Parliament.

The strategy meant having to coordinate all Opposition parties to contest in fewer than half of the seats available, ensuring that the PAP would be guaranteed walkovers in the majority of the constituencies. Mr Chiam predicted that voters would then freely vote for the Opposition without having a “freak election” where the PAP no longer forms the Government.

Dr da Cunha said: “Even though it is said that the idea for the by-election effect strategy originated with someone else, only Mr Chiam, then the only fully elected Opposition MP, had the moral authority and gravitas to convince the leaders in the other alternative parties to contest less than half the seats in 1991. It was no mean feat.”

However, Mr Chiam’s short-lived stint as the de facto Opposition leader was marred by internal party conflicts:

In 1993, a conflict between Mr Chiam and other SDP leaders, including his then-protege Dr Chee Soon Juan, resulted in the expulsion of Mr Chiam from the party which he founded. Under Singapore’s electoral rules, MPs have to give up their seat if they are no longer a member of the party that they had contested under.

A court later reversed the expulsion, which allowed Mr Chiam to retain his Potong Pasir seat in the 8th Parliament until the 1997 GE. After his term ended, Mr Chiam joined the SPP in 1996, which was founded by an SDP faction of pro-Chiam supporters. Later, SPP became a founding member of the SDA coalition of Opposition parties in 2001.

But the SDA and SPP, too, suffered from a protracted fracture amid politicking among its the coalition’s component parties. The SPP left the alliance in 2011.

The split also saw Mr Lim leaving the SPP to head SDA. He was once seen as Mr Chiam’s right-hand man but fell out of favour.

He told TODAY it was a terrible feeling to be on Mr Chiam's bad side but he said Mr Chiam does not bear any personal grudges towards people. "He is like a father figure to us all. We all see ourselves as students from the ‘Chiam See Tong school of politics’," he added.

Assoc Prof Tan said Mr Chiam was unable to recruit and mentor aspiring politicians who could have helped him and his party be even bigger players in Singapore's political landscape. “He could be criticised for not being entrepreneurial politically and for not being ambitious,” Assoc Prof Tan added.

CHIAM’S PERMANENT MARK ON POTONG PASIR

Looking back at his colourful political career, some observers said Mr Chiam’s greatest asset was his strong ties with, and great affection for, his constituents.

Stories abound of how Mr Chiam would often use his own money to help residents in need, for example.

In Parliament, he would speak out against the idea of an MP playing the role of a town councillor, arguing that municipal management should not be politicised. He once tried to hold a democratic vote for town councillors to serve in the Potong Pasir Town Council, much like the British system of local governance, but failed as there were too few candidates.

Despite his views on MPs acting as estate managers, it was the strong political and social compact that Mr Chiam had forged with his Potong Pasir constituents that led them to continue to stick with him for 27 years after his 1984 win — even though this would mean that the Opposition ward would not get all the bells and whistles afforded to a PAP one, residents past and present told TODAY.

PAP tried all ways and means to win back Potong Pasir voters, including trotting out the PAP heavyweights at rallies and using multi-million dollar upgrading projects as carrots.

But Potong Pasir voters were unswayed in every election that Mr Chiam contested in since 1984.

During the 2011 GE, Mr Chiam moved out of his Potong Pasir stronghold to contest in the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency, where he eventually lost.

In Potong Pasir, PAP’s Mr Sitoh Yih Pin defeated Mr Chiam’s wife, Lina, who was the candidate put up by SPP.

Under the PAP, Potong Pasir has changed quite a bit, with several new developments being built. Nevertheless, vestiges of Mr Chiam’s influence linger on in the estate.

In 2017, when Mr Sitoh upgraded the park in front of Blocks 136 and 140 — known for their iconic sloping roofs — he gave “strict instructions to preserve (Mr Chiam’s) plaque and his two lions at the entrance”, he had told The Straits Times.

Mr Sukhvir Singh, 48, who has lived in the town for 28 years, remarked that till today, taxi drivers would start talking about Mr Chiam when they found out that Potong Pasir was the destination.

Said the bank analyst: “It felt special being a resident of Potong Pasir back then to know that this was a different kind of town. He may no longer be our MP, but he will always be a part of Potong Pasir.”

Related topics

Chiam See Tong Singapore People's Party Politics

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