by Deborah Choo
“There is not enough scrutiny at how the police exercise its power,” Chia Ti Lik tells me. We are seated in his office at Tanjong Pajar on a Friday afternoon, and the lawyer/politician is responding to my question on which are the most memorable cases he had handled in his eleven-and-a-half years in the legal profession.
He doesn’t quite answer the question, preferring instead to explain how his experiences as a lawyer solidified his desire to enter politics. For Ti Lik the continuous lack of change in the power structure within the country has led to the executive and the police “getting very comfortable with their jobs”:
“There is no impetus on the other branches of government to seriously cross-check on them,” he says. And correcting this “lopsided system” that weighs unfavorably against the accused is the main reason why he entered politics.
Ti Lik is no newcomer to the political scene. He had been at various times linked to the Workers’ Party (he was in the party’s Central Executive Committee for a year-and-a-half), the defunct advocacy group SG Human Rights (disbanded in 2008), and later the Singapore Democratic Party (he claimed he was never an official member).
Now at 37, he is the probably the youngest Secretary-General of a political party in Singapore, the Socialist Front, formed in September 2010.
Interestingly enough, the new party has taken on an old name. 'Socialist Front', translated into Malay is the Barisan Sosialis, the breakaway faction of the People's Action Party (PAP). The party was officially dissolved in 1988. According to Ti Lik, his party's name is a tribute to the members of the Barisan Sosialis who were detained during the enactment of Operation Coldstore in 1963.
But the connections with the PAP doesn't end there. Ti Lik used to be a member of the PAP.
When did you join the PAP?
I think it’s in 1999. That was when I first qualified as a lawyer, because prior to that I was more active with my Taekwondo training group in the Community Center. My brother was active in the YEC (Youth Executive Committee) so I got dragged into the YEC. The YEC had some links to the MP (Member of Parliament) so I ended up meeting some of the people who are helping the MP – who was Chng Hee Kok at that point of time.
How long were you with PAP?
I think I let my membership lapsed. I was only active maybe a year or a year-and-a-half. I was certainly already inactive by the time the year 2001 General Elections came because by then I had already formed my opinions that I was not going to add to their strength. ‘Add to their strength’ meaning I know the Opposition is very weak, and it’s like the problems in society as well as the nation, if you trace back properly and (if) you don’t find excuses for the PAP, actually the PAP is the cause. Even though I was a PAP member still, I was rooting for the Opposition to do well in 2001. They didn’t do well.
Right. You were just an ordinary member?
So after that when you left, it was after the GE that you joined SDP is it?
After the GE in 2001, I was convinced – utterly convinced – that this state of affairs cannot carry on. So what happened was that at that point of time, I wanted to do something but I was not gutsy enough. So I tried to get people to contest as independents in the coming General Elections. I spoke to quite a lot of people, friends included, and of course independents are often not taken seriously. Like what we wanted to do was have an impact – get a group of independents to contest a GRC.
To contest a GRC? That’s quite ambitious.
Yes, very ambitious, overly ambitious. A GRC that other people don’t want to go. But to do so, you have to make contact and they (the Opposition) have to trust you to reveal their plans to you so that you won’t end up with a three-corner fight.
So I already spoke to my group, I told them, "sooner or later we must make contact with the Opposition so that they know that we are serious fellas, they know who we are, they trust us enough to know that no one going here, so you all go here this round.” But each time when I came close to organizing a meeting, people (from my own side) backed out. I was so frustrated.
In the process I made contact with Steve Chia and Ken Sun (from National Solidarity Party); I made contact with Yaw Shin Leong from the Workers’ Party. Each time my guys backpeddled. I came to a conclusion that if my guys are not going to move, I’ve to lead by example. So what I did was I told them, “I’m not going to wait for you guys, if we’re going to carry on like that, nothing will be done.” So I arranged to meet Shin Leong, Sylvia (Lim) Dr Poh (Lee Guan) plus (Lee) Wai Ling. At the first meeting I told them I’ll join the Workers’ Party.
So when was it that you joined Workers’ Party?
I joined the Workers’ Party officially on the 27th April 2004.
Did you hold an important position with WP?
I moved up to the CEC, I was holding (the position of) Assistant Organizing Secretary and I took part in the elections – Team leader of East Coast. I was re-elected into the CEC after the elections, same position Assistant Organizing Secretary.
There were differences so I left the party in November 2006.
So where did you go after leaving WP?
After that I was actually trying to take a break for a while, and I was like just enjoying my time as a free man! (laughs) It was until the call of activism came. That was when I started getting a bit more involved with the non-partisan activists. You know SG Human Rights?
That was the time I got to know Rizal (activist Isrizal Mohamed Isa), M Ravi, Seelan (Palay), (Ng) Kai Xiong – I mean, a large number of them are aligned to the SDP (Singapore Democratic Party) now. During the ASEAN summit (in 2007) we did try to present a card to the ASEAN- I think we tried to present it to the secretary to pass it to Aung Sung Suu Kyi or something like that. Yeah that was one of the high points –we did a procession from Orchard MRT station to the place that they stopped us from going further at Shangri-La. ( Read about the protest here.)
The card didn’t get through right, did it?
I don’t know what happened to it. I won’t know what happened to it. (laughs) Yeah, it was all over in the news. I heard that it was on front page of some of the news in the region.
Those were the crazy things we did. But I was just tagging along although the photographs showed me to be the one at the front. Rizal, Seelan, Choon Hiong were the other three – they were very much more experienced in that sense and to tell the truth, my courage and resolve was actually borrowed from them.
What issues were you particularly concerned of that made you go into activism in the first place?
You cannot allow the PAP to be so strong, if not you have a lopsided situation in the political scene. So I tried to go to the independents – independents refused to move, right, so I joined the Opposition. In the Opposition, I saw the internal politics. I got out. And then there are a group of people who are not partisan-political but they want to do things. Fine, let’s put our eggs together, see what can be done – try to change the world some way or the other a bit you know. So that’s why I got into that.
And it turned out that the group of activists was leaning towards SDP, this was how I found out I also overlapped into SDP and got to know them a bit better. Officially I’m not a member and was never a member with SDP.
Never considered joining SDP?
Well, how do I put it? (long pause)
Did you meet Dr Chee?
Yes I did. A good working relationship is more important than membership – that was how I felt.
And then the next political party is actually your own party already right? That was in 2010.
Yes, 1st September 2010.
Why do you want to set up your own party?
Right, there’re a number of political parties in Singapore already but they all have their established practices and culture, and there’s also certain people who are entrenched in those parties. To a certain extent, I’ll call that “baggage” – resistance towards doing new things or same things in a different way. Right, so I decided against expending energy trying to change things from within. I decided to take my chances outside in a new setup.
How do you think your party differs from the rest?
Okay, first and foremost we took an ideological position, an ideological standpoint which I daresay the rest of the parties have not taken. This manner of adopting an ideological position is a bit more old style, old fashioned. And I think though it’s different and the rest of the parties are not doing it, it need not necessarily mean that it’s dropped. It may just mean that people need a little bit of time to get reacquainted and get used to it.
What exactly is this ideological standpoint that you mentioned?
We believe in socialism, left-leaning, and socialism basically is an economic and political model that has got certain attributes to it and that is actually state control of essential parts of the economy (means of production) such that the wealth can be distributed in a manner that is more towards the masses.
Are there any other differences that you feel sets your party aside?
First and foremost will be the name. We chose the name (‘Socialist Front’) because we wanted to be different. We thought in the past we had a lot of ‘fronts’ and because we ended up thinking that the ideological position is good because it’s more principled – the pragmatism where you have everything being reasoned out with selected facts and figures, comparisons with different countries in different aspects which the PAP loves to do which ends up with us getting the worst of attributes of all the different countries in policy.
We felt that in running a country, you can’t be like so piecemeal. You probably need to have an overall picture – how the country is supposed to be, and for there to be consistency in policy, I believe and then you know you have shortcomings, and then you accept the shortcomings and then you have strengths and you build on the strengths. So that is why we took the Socialist model.
Where are you guys contesting by the way?
We will be making announcements after the meeting is finalized.
When did you start thinking of setting up your own party? And how did you go about getting people?
It probably started in the beginning of 2010.
Oh that’s quite- okay that means you got the people quite fast.
Yeah quite fast but it was not easy because you strangely, sometimes people would help a party and then next level they’ll join the party, but to set up a party is actually unnerving for some people.
Yeah, because you’re starting from scratch.
From scratch and then some people would, just even lending name, they say okay I’ll fill in the form. You need ten founding members, but you have this situation where you’re in limbo but you can’t hit the ten. When we finally hit the ten, we decided to get eleven then we file. So we had eleven founding members. We didn’t want to have a situation where we file the application and then the next day someone says, "please take my name out".
I believe we’re the smallest party. It’s true we don’t have a full force so we have to bear in mind what we take on.
Do you feel that ever since you entered politics, especially the Opposition, you have lesser friends? Are there people who are unwilling to associate with you?
Win some, lose some.
But you never regretted your decision to enter politics until now?
On your blog, I read that you once said that “Fear is the last thing an opposition party should have. Fear is what paralyses a people when they face an arrogant and high-handed government.” What made you make this statement?
Well, my sense was that Workers’ Party then was not- was pulling its punches more than they should? I do have my fears. Even the process of entering the Opposition was, you take steps at a time.
But how did you overcome your fears?
Face it. The key was to acknowledge it, then face it. After facing it you’ll realize actually there’s nothing to fear about it, and you get immunized and you get emboldened. And of course to say the truth, everything that they (PAP) throw at us – each and everything they throw at us – only serves to embolden us further.
It’s a bit like training. Honestly the hurdles they – the PAP – place, the establishment places in front of us can only serve to make us stronger.
Do you feel you’ve changed ever since?
I’ve mellowed. (laughs) Bolder, but mellowed. Bolder because you’ve seen more stuff, faced more stuff, you’ve received more knocks. And more mellowed means you don’t get too excitable about different things now, it’s more of like, "okay if it looks good, let’s build on it." If it looks bad, you’re (still) not going to die from it. That’s the difference I guess.
Can you tell me what kind of person do you think you are?
I think I’m quite an open person. I tend to be more of a straight talker. I also tend to be a bit... I won’t take middle-ground positions; I will look at the problem and if I think that the problem is this, and the way to address the problem is this, I will take that step. I will not try to please people for the sake of pleasing them.
You also said on your blog that “A viable opposition party must dispel that fear and rise to the role it is supposed to take. You have to face the fear head on, look at it inside out – face the fear within you, come to terms with it and not be controlled by it.” What do you think your party is now doing to dispel the climate of fear?
I can’t say that we are doing a lot now to dispel the fear but I think our continued presence on the scene - participation as well as voicing the issues – would help in that direction, at least to show the people who know me that I’m doing this, I’m still alive, I’m still walking around so don’t have to worry so much.
For the coming elections, what kind of voters are you targeting? Are you targeting a specific age group? I would think the older generation tends to be more conservative compared to the young nowadays so is there a specific age group you will be targeting?
We just try to sell our ideas which may not be easily acceptable to the electorate at large and hopefully a majority within a certain place would buy into our idea and support us.
Are you able to share the proposals you’re coming up with?
We are a small party so we’re not in the position to influence policy in a proactive way. What we can do is basically criticize policies. To come up with policies there is a bit of a dilemma in it because you will never be in a position to implement them.
But basically more of, if you ask us, what we are trying to sell is ideology – how our country should be and that’s our map and our blueprint of what it should be in our view.
Do you have a clear vision of where your party is headed to? I don’t mean this election, but say ten years down the road.
I have, but I may not be at liberty to disclose it. We have an idea but I won’t say it’s fixed or carved in stone; it’s just at certain direction to take and we will adjust the plans accordingly and the path accordingly as we go along.
A lot of my friends are telling me, if you want the Opposition to be strong, they should unite together. Do you think there is a possibility?
Unity is very difficult because all of us have different characters, different egos, and different ways of doing things. A forced marriage can be worse than no marriage at all. You can have everything, everything courting but not fighting each other - that would be good enough. The problem is that there’re a number of multi-cornered fights that you’re looking at. It’s actually very disappointing.
Okay a lot of people on the ground are actually speculating that the PAP will still win but the margin would be very much lesser. It appears that many people are so fed up recently that they are willing to vote for any Opposition.
Fair enough. You ask me, I might be wrong. And I think I just tend to be prophetic on polling dayresults upcoming or just plainly wrong in the reading on the ground would be that I think it won’ttranslate into votes. I think this time round the ground, somehow or the other has not shifted. Ithink the Opposition will perform badly this round. My reading is that it won’t translate into areading better than 2006.
The Opposition has got so much bad press recently – bad news, in fighting. And we haven’t gottenour act together, we are looking at multi-cornered fights in some places. I think it’s bad, it’s verybad. And of course we will try to help the situation when you attend our press conference right after the meeting.
Have you ever thought of giving up and just leaving Singapore?
No, because if you leave it doesn’t solve the problem. The next place that you go to may not be perfect as well, and even then you have to start from scratch over there meaning you’ve to build a new life, build an attachment to the place. I rather try to change this place here because this is where my friends and family are. And also, I grew up here so somehow or the other familiarity in the environment around you.
You were married before right?
No new development in your personal life?
No new development, yeah. I would hope to have but I guess in the position that we are in, very few women would want us. (laughs)
Did they realize you are from the Opposition and then didn’t want to date you?
Okay to be fair, I think I’ve always been very upfront. So at the right moment I’ll just give them the details and I’ll frighten them a bit - acid test very early.
Were they afraid because you’re in the Opposition?
I guess two aspects – one aspect is because you’re in the Opposition, and time is taken in politics. Career has to take a slightly backseat, so is social life. Then you talk about the risks that come with being in the Opposition. Of course that may result in massive changes in your financial abilities and strengths when something happens. I guess those are factors which women generally look at in terms of security.
Were there any good stories as in because you’re in the Opposition so the ladies like you?There will definitely be good and bad right?
Yeah that’s true, that’s true. (laughs) I think to a certain extent, you do feel admiration from some of them because like wow, you dare to do the things you do, you know.
Yeah not a lot of people have the guts to do it.
Yeah but I know you dare to do the things you do, but I don’t think I want to- (laughs)
Okay, okay. So it’s admiration and it stops there.
It stops there, nothing beyond. So if you ask me, it’s a good thing also because I don’t like facades and I don’t like window dressing things. So if no one wants to be with me, accept it and just live accordingly.