That makeshift cubicle at the void deck

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The following article was first published on 25 March 2011.


The makeshift cubicle that served as the office for Mr Chiam's Meet The People sessions for the past 27 years

Andrew Loh /

Seeing Mr Chiam See Tong up close is inspiring. Anyone who thinks that age or the two strokes he suffered in recent years have dented his spirit would be highly mistaken. The veteran opposition politician is as stout-hearted as he has always been.

As I waited for him to end his Meet-The-People session on Thursday at Block 108 in Potong Pasir, I was struck by the sight of what must now be legend – that singular table sited at a corner of the void deck, partitioned for privacy by aluminium panels into a makeshift cubicle.

That’s where Mr Chiam has conducted his MPS for 27 years.

The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) - that is, the Government - has refused to provide offices for opposition Members of Parliament (MP). PAP MPs conduct their MPS’s at the air-conditioned offices of its PAP Community Foundation (PCF) kindergartens premises. And since opposition parties do not have their own chain of kindergartens and their MPs are not of the PAP, the PAP would say it is thus not appropriate to have opposition MPs use the PCF spaces.

Mr Chiam’s void deck cubicle is truly a symbol of how utterly petty our politics is, as played out by the ruling PAP.

As a Singaporean, I am ashamed that we would treat an elected Member of Parliament this way.

But Mr Chiam is unfazed.

“If a person … really wants to be an MP,” Mr Chiam says, “he can work the ground and he can show himself to the people – that he is hardworking and he is for the people. I think he will get elected that way and show that he is a true representative of the people.”

And as such, Mr Chiam does not believe in the Non-constituency MP (NCMP) scheme. “I don’t believe in going into Parliament by the back door,” he says. “[The] NCMP is not really elected by the majority of Singaporeans. It is a token of the PAP.”

I was curious about what the veteran politician thought of the six new PAP candidates unveiled so far. “They look very impressive on paper,” Mr Chiam says. “They have to win the hearts and minds of the voters, isn’t it? And that is a difficult task because it takes time. You can’t [befriend]a person overnight.”

Turning to his health, I asked if he is able to withstand the rigour and stress of an election. “Well, you must remember I was a sportsman in my early days,” Mr Chiam says.  “I was a school swimmer. And when I say school swimmer, I mean school swimmer," he says with evident pride in his voice, "because I’m from ACS (Anglo-Chinese School).  It’s somebody to be a school swimmer in ACS. You must be strong and fit.”

Those who still doubt his physical ability should visit Bishan-Toa Payoh on Sunday where he will be conducting his walkabout, Mr Chiam says. “Then you see whether I am fit or not,” he added. He is expected to lead a team to contest the area in the elections in his bid to win a Group Representation Constituency (GRC) – something which no opposition party has achieved so far.

Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC is helmed by Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng. Mr Wong on Wednesday had questioned the opposition’s intention in wanting to win a GRC. He asked if this was to satisfy personal ambitions and questioned if the opposition winning a GRC has anything to do with benefiting Singaporeans.

“Is it about the interest and missions of political parties or an individual’s interest to create a legacy or to make history?” Mr Wong asked. Mr Wong also challenged the opposition to reveal their candidates early so voters can scrutinize them.

“Most of Singapore already know the candidates of the opposition,” Mr Chiam says. “Opposition like to talk a lot. They inadvertently reveal the names of their candidates. I think everybody knows who is standing at Bishan Toa Payoh. In fact I announced my candidacy about a year ago. How can you say that we did not reveal?”

Mr Wong seems to have alluded particularly to Mr Chiam when he asked if the opposition's reasons for wanting to win a GRC was so that its candidates could leave a legacy – a personal ego trip rather than out of consideration for the future of Singapore.

“We are not so small-minded,” Mr Chiam says. “Our purpose is mainly to expand the opposition. At the moment as you know opposition only has two MPs in Parliament. PAP has 82. If the opposition captures a GRC, that will be a big psychological blow to the PAP. It’s no longer an impregnable fortress.”

And Mr Chiam added: “Any step that the opposition does that dents the PAP is one step forward for the voters.”

Mr Chiam remains just as sharp as he ever was.

Perhaps Mr Wong should be more concerned about his own legacy. Besides going down in history as the minister who let a limping suspected terrorist escape – not once, but twice – Mr Wong has only won in one election, despite having contested six General Elections in total so far.

His first and only victory was at his very first election – in Kuo Chuan SMC in 1984. After the Government introduced the GRC system in 1988, Mr Wong has had five walkovers.

What a contrast to Mr Chiam’s six consecutive contests and victories!

History indeed will remember Mr Chiam as one who went about quietly in his work in serving the people, in spite of the odds and the mountains he has had to climb, put in his way by a ruling party which apparently holds an elected representative of the people in little regard – if he is not of their ilk.

Mr Chiam’s legacy is, really, that of humility and steely determination. He has contested in eight General Elections. Won six of them – and going on his ninth. As far as I know, no other MP in Singapore’s post-independence history has such a record of six consecutive outright wins.  Not even Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew (five).

So, Mr Chiam has nothing else to prove to anyone, least of all to Mr Wong.

He does not need to win a GRC, in my opinion, for his name to be remembered. Indeed, his 27 years of service is testament enough. Yet he continues to serve despite his physical condition.

But perhaps what is most inspiring to me is that Mr Chiam’s example shows that serving the people does not have to include multi-million dollar paychecks and posh or ostentatious surroundings.

All it takes, really, is a bit of heart.