Sunday, December 13, 2009

Keeping opposition flames burning for 25 years

Dec 12, 2009

Today, Mr Chiam See Tong marks his 25th year as Potong Pasir MP. No more jokes swirl about his name, which in Hokkien sounds like 'hanging on temporarily'. From a lone campaigner in his Volkswagen Beetle to Singapore's longest-serving opposition politician, he has demonstrated his staying power and commitment to public service. But at 74, is he a spent force? Will he be able to make his last hurrah? Insight takes a look at his chequered political career.

By Sue-Ann Chia & Kor Kian Beng

AS SHE waited for her husband to finish his Meet-the-People session, Mrs Lina Chiam sat on a stone bench, flipping through old photographs.

They had yellowed with age, but time did not dim her memories as she recalled her cherished moments.

Most of the faces were not familiar, except for the bespectacled man with an earnest smile who has stood the test of time as Singapore's longest-serving opposition MP.

The focus was on Mr Chiam See Tong, decked with garlands on the campaign trail, or standing at the back of a lorry with a loudhailer in hand during his victory parade.

There were also pictures after the hustings, showing him attending a wedding of a Potong Pasir resident, meeting reporters at a coffee shop, and having drinks with supporters.

The photographs date back to 1984, the year he won his first election in Potong Pasir. Since then, he has proven his staying power, retaining the seat in the five polls that followed.

Tonight, some of these shots selected by his wife will be screened at a dinner to celebrate Mr Chiam's 25th year as MP for Potong Pasir.

It is a silver jubilee that testifies to his tremendous contribution to Singapore's democratic system, say political observers.

'Mr Chiam's rightful place in Singapore's political history lies in his unbending belief that there should be a constitutional role for the opposition and that he had kept this idealism and hope alive,' says Dr Ho Khai Leong from Nanyang Technological University.

But the avuncular politician, known as Ah Chiam or Uncle Chiam, is not ready to call it quits.

His hair has whitened, his gait is more stooped after he suffered a stroke last year, but nothing seems to stop the 74-year-old opposition warhorse from charging on.

He has already thrown his hat into the next electoral ring, signalling his intention to contest a group representation constituency (GRC) for the first time - a move viewed as his last hurrah.

But is the veteran MP, who was at one point the unofficial opposition leader in Parliament, still a formidable force to be reckoned with?

Political contest

MR CHIAM contested his first general election (GE) as a lone crusader with the sole mission of breaking the People's Action Party's one-party rule.

Taking on PAP stalwart Lim Kim San in the minister's Cairnhill turf, the teacher-turned-lawyer declared: 'We can uphold democracy only if there are at least two parties - one in power and the other, an opposition who will serve as a check against the excesses and improper use of powers by the ruling party.'

He did not win. But neither did people forget the independent candidate who campaigned with his maroon Volkswagen Beetle and his political mantra - both of which he still holds on to today.

Encouraged by public support, the Anglo-Chinese School alumnus and former school swimmer took another dive into politics, in the 1979 by-election, and again in the 1980 GE as a candidate of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) which he had founded a few months earlier.

Both times, he faced PAP heavyweight Howe Yoon Chong in Potong Pasir, and lost. But with each round, his score improved.

Victory came in Round 4 when he defeated PAP rookie Mah Bow Tan, who is now the National Development Minister, in the 1984 polls.

He won with a comfortable 60.3 per cent share of the votes in Potong Pasir, reflecting a surge of support some believe could be due to remarks made by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Lee had contrasted Mr Mah's and Mr Chiam's O-level results, insinuating that the latter was not as smart as his PAP opponent - a comment that could have driven more people to root for the underdog.

Since then, the political tide has continued to flow in Mr Chiam's favour in the five elections that followed, peaking in 1991 when his vote share hit almost 70 per cent.

Yet, for all his efforts, some believe he could have achieved more.

'Mr Chiam has been very dogged in his determination to present an opposition voice in Parliament and to optimise the use of his resources on the ground in serving people in Potong Pasir,' notes Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow with the Institute of Policy Studies.

'He would have a richer legacy if he had achieved as much in building up a strong political party and one around a positive and clear set of ideals people can identify with... This would be critical for him to secure a larger footprint in the political scene than the one he has today.'

The good guy

MR CHIAM would probably concede that he is not ambitious, as evident in his remarks over the years.

In an interview after the 1991 polls, at the height of his political career, he said almost apologetically: 'You see, I have really no great ambitions of my own. I'm being caught in a tide which I cannot stop. It's just pushing me on.'

In another interview, in 2004, when asked about his achievements in 20 years as an MP, he replied: 'To keep the idea and presence of the opposition in the minds of Singaporeans is already a big success in Singapore's context.

'I've no grandeur dreams...trying to be the ruler.'

He declined to be interviewed for this feature, but his humility is clear.

For the modest man who dared to challenge the PAP and win, his virtue of service before self has endeared him to voters who value his dedication to the care of his constituency. Most continue to support him and the larger opposition cause he represents, spurning the PAP's overtures such as estate upgrading.

Engineer Robyn Yeo, 33, who has lived in Potong Pasir since 1984, recounts how seriously Mr Chiam took his work. He had called the Town Council to complain about cleaners who refused to remove big-item rubbish. Later that night, Mr Chiam called and spoke to his mother.

'My mother told Mr Chiam that she was very surprised that he bothered to call us. Mr Chiam then told her, 'You're my resident. I have to understand your concerns',' he says. 'That phone call still lingers in my mind and reaffirms my support for Mr Chiam.'

Praise also came from the PAP camp.

In an earlier interview, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, his fiercest PAP rival who shaved Mr Chiam's win to 52.4 per cent in the 2001 election, related an exchange he had with the MP.

At last year's National Day Rally, he chatted briefly with Mr Chiam who was still recovering from his stroke.

'I told him to look after himself and get well soon,' said Mr Sitoh, who stood against Mr Chiam in the last two polls.

'He said, 'Don't worry, when I get well, I will come and beat you again'.'

Recalling the friendly repartee, he added: 'I must say, Chiam's a good guy.'

The man and his critics

DESPITE his winning ways, Mr Chiam is not without his detractors.

Even criticisms come from within his own Singapore People's Party (SPP), which he joined after leaving SDP.

'His work has been satisfactory,' says SPP chairman Sin Kek Tong, who has had public spats with Mr Chiam over his leadership style. Both maintain cordial ties.

'The outstanding part is that he has been able to gain support from residents over the years. But he didn't do it alone. Without the help of the party and supporters, it is questionable whether he would have been able to pull it off.'

Others point to Mr Chiam's patchy parliamentary performance, his inability to grow the opposition ranks in Parliament, and his lack of a political successor.

The first can be blamed on his childhood. The other two, on his political experiences that caused him to be once bitten, twice shy.

In an interview with Asiaweek magazine in 1986, Mr Chiam confessed that nobody squabbled within his family, which he believes explains his lack of oratorical skills during parliamentary debates.

'I was taught to behave well and not to quarrel with people,' said the politician who avoids the adversarial approach of opposing for the sake of opposing.

Despite his shortcomings, he has made inroads over the years as a long-time champion of compulsory education.

He has also had his moments in Parliament - his objection to a PAP MP's racist comment that Serangoon Road was 'pitch dark', and he has debated many national policies, from the cost of public housing to building more community libraries.

A robust session in which Mr Chiam pressed for more transparency in property perks enjoyed by politicians led then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew to remark in 1996:

'I hope he wins the next election. I think he has done on the whole good for the House. I was wrong when I thought he was not going to do much good, but in his somewhat honest, bumbling way, he has been a voice of sanity.'

While he is not an eloquent speaker, observers say he is a skilled strategist who has been able to adapt nimbly to the PAP-dominant political system.

He is credited as the architect of the by-election strategy - that is, contesting fewer than half the seats and returning the PAP to power on Nomination Day so that people would be more inclined to vote for the opposition. It was first used to great effect in the 1991 GE.

It resulted in four opposition candidates - including Mr Chiam - getting into Parliament. Two others were from the SDP, while the fourth was the Workers' Party's Low Thia Khiang.

With three prized seats, the SDP was hailed as the most promising opposition party and Mr Chiam became the unofficial leader of the opposition.

Yet, for all his political wisdom, he failed to stop the seeds of discord from growing within the SDP. The split culminated in a fight over a hunger strike by Mr Chiam's protege, Dr Chee Soon Juan, in 1993. Dr Chee was protesting against his dismissal from the National University of Singapore as a neuropsychology lecturer for misusing research funds.

Mr Chiam lost in the ensuing battle and eventually resigned from his party post in 1993. A year and a half later, Dr Chee became the party boss.

Political observers say that experience could have discouraged Mr Chiam from grooming other aspiring politicians who might have made his party a bigger player on the political scene.

'There is no clear heir-apparent to Mr Chiam at the moment. He may well have been stung by his own experience in SDP when he lost control of the party to Dr Chee,' notes Mr Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University (SMU).

But could it be water under the bridge now, as Dr Chee is attending the celebration tonight as a guest?

Congratulating Mr Chiam, the SDP's secretary-general says: 'It is a significant milestone in the history of opposition politics in Singapore. We wish Mr Chiam all the very best and may he continue to hold this office for many more years.'

The future of the opposition

IT IS a wish that Mr Chiam intends to fulfil, to keep the opposition flame burning bright.

He is reported to be seeking an alliance with the Reform Party, headed by Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, to form a credible team to take on a GRC.

His push for such a tie-up could spring from his desire for opposition unity. He was instrumental in forming the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), an umbrella group for three opposition parties.

Law lecturer Eugene Tan says: 'The SDA has been important in helping to avoid three-cornered fights and to demonstrate that a united front against the PAP is strategically useful for the opposition. It's a pooling of resources, especially candidates, and that helps give the impression of some degree of cohesiveness within the opposition ranks.'

Confirming talk of a possible tie-up, Mr Jeyaretnam says: 'The Reform Party got a lot of feedback from people about what they thought of Mr Chiam before entering into discussions with him about a potential alliance...we found that people had good things to say about him.

'I would hope that he continues to provide inspiration to the next generation of opposition politicians.'

Why is Mr Chiam contemplating the audacious idea of leading a GRC team as his last hurrah in the next polls? To observers, it is all about breaking a 'political-psychological barrier' as the PAP has won every contested GRC since the scheme started in 1988.

As SMU's Eugene Tan notes: 'It may well serve his intent to leave a lasting legacy politically and to rally people to step forward and join the opposition parties.'

But not all think it is a good idea, as his age and health could work against him on the arduous campaign trail.

And what about his diehard loyal constituents? Would they not feel abandoned? As Potong Pasir resident Mohd Fahmi Ahmad Abu Bakar, 30, an assistant administrative officer, says: 'Residents would want him to end on a high by staying in Potong Pasir.'

Whichever direction he takes, Mr Chiam wants to show that he is not a spent force and that he is still the man to watch in opposition politics.

Chiam's career over the years

# 1964 to 1972: Taught at Cedar Girls' Secondary School.

# 1974: Obtained law degree from London's Inner Temple. Returned to Singapore to work as a lawyer at Philip Wong & Co before setting up his own law firm, Chiam & Company, in 1976.

# 1976: Contested as an independent candidate at Cairnhill in the general election against Mr Lim Kim San from the People's Action Party. Mr Lim was then Communications and National Development Minister. Mr Chiam lost with 31.8 per cent of the votes.

# 1979: Contested Potong Pasir for the first time in a by-election as an independent against the PAP's Mr Howe Yoon Chong, then Defence Minister. Lost with 33.2 per cent of the votes.

# 1980: Set up the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and contested Potong Pasir against Mr Howe again. Lost with 41 per cent of the votes.

# 1981: Became the only opposition member ever to clinch a settlement for libel from a PAP leader. Mr Chiam sued then Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan for remarks related to his professional capacity and competence made at an election rally. Mr Dhanabalan publicly apologised and settled the matter out of court. Mr Howe also apologised and compensated him for making similar remarks.

# 1984: Elected Potong Pasir MP after defeating the PAP's Mr Mah Bow Tan with 60.3 per cent of the votes.

# 1988: Retained Potong Pasir with 63.1 per cent of the votes against the PAP's Mr Kenneth Chen.

# 1991: Retained Potong Pasir with 69.6 per cent of the votes against the PAP's Mr Andy Gan. Declared the unofficial leader of the opposition after SDP also won two other wards in Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central.

# 1993: Resigned as SDP secretary-general over differences with the party's central executive committee (CEC). His protege, Dr Chee Soon Juan, took over as acting head. Expelled from the party by its CEC, Mr Chiam took the CEC to court, which ruled that the sacking was illegal, and he was reinstated as a cadre member.

# 1996: Joined the Singapore People's Party (SPP), which was set up in 1994 by a breakaway faction of the SDP.

# 1997: Retained Potong Pasir with 55.2 per cent of the votes against Mr Gan.

# 2001: Set up the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), as an alliance of opposition parties to pool resources and contest elections as a united front. It comprised the SPP, Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS), Singapore Justice Party and National Solidarity Party which left the grouping in 2007. Retained Potong Pasir with 52.4 per cent of the votes against the PAP's Mr Sitoh Yih Pin.

Mr Chiam meeting then Prime Minister Goh on a walkabout in Potong Pasir in the 2001 election.

# 2002: Retired from law practice to become full-time MP.

# 2006: Retained Potong Pasir with 55.8 per cent of the votes against Mr Sitoh.

# Early 2008: Suffered a mild stroke.

# December 2008: Signalled his intention to contest a group representative constituency at the next election due by February 2012.

Who's eyeing what? The buzz continues

NEWS of a proposed change to the electoral campaign process has revived speculation of a looming general election.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broached the idea of a one-day 'cooling-off' period - right before Polling Day - for voters to think over their voting decisions.

Amid the buzz over an election which is due by early 2012, Insight finds out who's eyeing what.

For now, the spotlight is on the next move of opposition veteran Chiam See Tong: Will he stay put in the Potong Pasir single-member constituency (SMC) or will he leave to contest a group representation constituency (GRC)?

If Mr Chiam vacates the ward, who will he appoint as his successor: his wife, daughter or a member of his Singapore People's Party (SPP)? Since late last year, Mr Chiam, 74, has expressed his desire to lead a GRC team at the next polls.

His likely choice is believed to be Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC because of its proximity to Potong Pasir. In a sign of his intent, Mr Chiam went on a walkabout at the Bishan MRT station in September.

Mr Desmond Lim Bak Chuan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) chaired by Mr Chiam, says it is targeting Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC too.

Mr Lim, who led the SDA team in the GRC at the 2006 polls, says someone from the same team is being prepared for the possibility of contesting a new SMC carved out of the six-man GRC.

This was in the light of a package of political changes to the Nominated MP, Non-Constituency MP and GRC schemes announced by Mr Lee in May this year.

The changes will result in fewer six-member GRCs by the next election. There will also be at least 12 SMCs, up from the current nine.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC is also eyed by the Workers' Party (WP), which is led by Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang.

The WP has also been spotted in Bukit Panjang, Bukit Timah and Yishun, and is said to be targeting new areas such as Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

During an interview with The Straits Times in March, Mr Low said the party is looking at previous constituencies that it contested in the 2006 polls.

Aljunied GRC is likely to remain the top 'hot spot' for the party. It sent an 'A' team led by chairman Sylvia Lim to take on the People's Action Party team led by Foreign Minister George Yeo. The WP secured 44 per cent of votes there.

As for the National Solidarity Party (NSP), its president Sebastian Teo says it is eyeing three GRCs - Jurong, Jalan Besar and Tampines - and three single-seat wards in Yio Chu Kang, Nee Soon Central and MacPherson.

He says the party started working the ground in MacPherson in March this year and has already covered 60 blocks so far.

Why MacPherson? It is because of its proximity to Jalan Besar GRC, which the NSP contested at the last two polls, says Mr Teo. The NSP's vote share rose from 25.5 per cent at the 2001 elections to 30.7 per cent at the 2006 polls.

Reform Party (RP) chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam tells Insight his party is 'seriously considering' the two single-seat wards of Chua Chu Kang and Joo Chiat, and also two GRCs in Hong Kah and Tampines.

The NSP, which was in the SDA until it left in 2007, had contested the Chua Chu Kang ward and Tampines GRC, while Joo Chiat was the battleground for the WP's Dr Tan Bin Seng.

Would the RP's plans lead to possible three-cornered fights in these wards?

Mr Jeyaretnam, who took over as RP leader this year, says he will talk to all opposition parties to avoid such a fight.

But he also calls on the Government to release the Electoral Boundaries Report 'now or at the very least, more than six months before the next election'.

As for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), there are indications it could be eyeing Bukit Panjang SMC again, which it contested in 2006.

SDP, which has been selling its newsletters in the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, launched a petition campaign in October opposing the proposed sale of a wet market in Fajar Road to the Sheng Siong supermarket chain.


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