Chiam See Tong 'changed the face of the opposition' in Singapore: analyst

Nicholas Yong
·Assistant News Editor
SPP leader Chiam See Tong (right) shakes hands with supporters after an election rally in Singapore on 2 May, 2011. (Reuters file photo)
SPP leader Chiam See Tong (right) shakes hands with supporters after an election rally in Singapore on 2 May, 2011. (Reuters file photo)

SINGAPORE — Veteran opposition politician Chiam See Tong will go down in history for changing the face of the opposition in Singapore, says London-based political analyst and author Loke Hoe Yeong.

Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore over the phone from London, Loke was discussing his recently launched book “The First Wave: JBJ, Chiam And The Opposition In Singapore”.

It tells the story of Singapore’s political opposition from 1981-2011, starting from a period when the Workers’ Party’s Joshua Benjamin Jeyaratnam (JBJ) and later Chiam were the only elected opposition Members of Parliament (MP).

“The opposition used to be undesirable and unelectable, and Chiam has made it more acceptable to Singaporeans. He really revamped the whole opposition’s image and brought in credible candidates,” says Loke.

“His contribution surpasses JBJ’s, in terms of changing the opposition’s image.”

Last week, Chiam announced that he would be stepping down as secretary-general of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) after 25 years. The party will be electing a new leadership team at its biennial conference on 16 October.

Chiam, the founder and former secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), is the Republic’s longest ever serving opposition MP, having held office in Potong Pasir from 1984 to 2011. In 1991, the SDP made history when it won three single-ward seats in Parliament.

In 2011, Chiam led a team that contested Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, but failed to win the constituency. In recent years, the 84-year-old has been in poor health.

Loke, a former SPP member, is also the author of Chiam’s biography “Let The People Have Him: Chiam See Tong, The Early Years”, which covers his early life until his election to Parliament in 1984. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize in the non-fiction category.

While the latest book was initially meant to be the second volume of Chiam’s memoirs, Loke said that his research led him to realise that the opposition figure’s story included key events such as his acrimonious split from the SDP. The narrative therefore needed to be intertwined with the stories of other characters and personalities, like JBJ and SDP’s current chief Chee Soon Juan.

“It needed to be more objective, and a biography is not a suitable platform,” he said.

Authoritarian tendencies?

PHOTO: Epigram Books
PHOTO: Epigram Books

Ironically, while Chiam has openly professed his love of democracy, his detractors have accused him of running the SDP like a dictatorship. Loke, who examines this at length in “The First Wave”, noted that the likes of JBJ and the People’s Action Party (PAP) have also been accused of being authoritarian.

“We should not be woolly-eyed, because to build democracy, you also need very strong parties. Discipline and structure are needed, and that’s not always going to be popular with everyone. This is in order to make in-roads into parliament,” he said.

“The party is there to advance its views and manifesto for the country. They are not social clubs, so you need a fighting force.”

Alluding to the “very messy Brexit debate” in Britain, the analyst added, “Even in the home of democracy, where the Brexit debate is so chaotic, you need the structure to advance what you believe in as a party.”

The coming election

With the recent formation of the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee, the country is poised for its next general election, which must be held by 15 April 2021.

As many as 10 opposition parties may contest the election, including the new kid on the block: the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) led by former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock.

Loke reckons that its success will depend on two factors. “What sets apart this party is that it’s led by a so-called renegade PAP member, the first time this has happened in Singapore’s history,” noted Loke, who alluded to the popular notion that the PAP has “the lion’s share” of talent in the Republic.

The second factor, added Loke, is the Lee family feud. “That could be a double-edged sword. Will Lee Hsien Yang actually join the PSP and contest against the party of his father?”

And what of the opposition alliance, a concept often bandied about in the past and also referenced in “The First Wave”, which is apparently being negotiated by Tan and several parties?

Loke said, “Any opposition alliance can only be workable and meaningful if it involves the parties in parliament….if not, it’s pretty much an alliance of losers.

“I can only imagine that it would not work if it does not involve the Workers’ Party.”

The First Wave: JBJ, Chiam & The Opposition In Singapore is available in major bookstores

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