by: Teo Soh Lung/
Chiam See Tong first stood as an independent candidate in Cairnhill in 1976. As a young voter then, I made my way to Cairnhill to listen to his speech. Standing with a loudhailer beside his Volkswagen, he addressed a small crowd around him. His election banner with the symbol of a horse was strung between two sturdy trees. While most candidates in that era used lorries to campaign, it was unique of Chiam to use his Volkswagen. His only helper was his wife, Lina.
At a time when no opposition party was able to break the decade long monopoly of the PAP and few professionals would risk their livelihood to enter opposition politics, Chiam’s participation in that election was truly admirable. Chiam did not win but he certainly stood out as a man of courage and determination.
In 1980, Chiam founded the Singapore Democratic Party and contested in the general election that year in Potong Pasir. He lost. In 1984 he contested in Potong Pasir again and won with 60.3 per cent of the votes against Mah Bow Tan who the PAP touted as the man with six As in his Senior Cambridge Examinations. J B Jeyaretnam retained his seat in Anson.
Television broadcast of parliamentary debates by 1984 was already the norm. (Direct television broadcast was introduced soon after the Anson by-election which was won by J B Jeyaretnam in 1981). I remember watching those debates with great interest. While debates were absolutely boring when there was no opposition in parliament, (MPs often slept in the comfort of the air-conditioned parliament), it was different when two opposition members appeared on the scene.
The intimidating style of prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew must have been quite terrifying. Chiam was soon thrust into the jaws of sharks when in 1986, Jeyaretnam was disqualified as a member of parliament leaving him the sole opposition member. He was up against 77 PAP members. He was also rendered quite ineffective since he could not raise any motion for discussion without a seconder.
Jeyaretnam’s eviction from parliament was to have serious consequences a few months later when in May 1987, 22 people including me, were arrested and imprisoned without trial in an alleged Marxist conspiracy. Several of us knew Jeyaretnam as we had helped his party just prior to the 1984 general election and later in the publication, The Hammer. Chiam on the other hand knew me as a fellow lawyer and I was just his acquaintance. He could not vouch for my character.
Whether it was an act of generosity or a miscalculated move, the PAP Whip, Wong Kan Seng offered to second Chiam’s motion calling for the immediate release of 15 of us who were still in detention. On 29 July 1987, Chiam moved the motion. It was seconded by PAP MP Chng Hee Kok who made it clear that he was supporting the motion not because he agreed with Chiam but because he felt the issue deserved a full debate. Chiam thus faced a houseful of hostile and jeering PAP members.
A barrage of vicious, unsubstantiated and unfounded allegations and accusations were made against us from no less than 18 PAP ministers and members. Several of them claimed to know us personally. They demanded that Chiam prove our innocence. It must have been totally frustrating and bewildering for Chiam that he who only knew me as a fellow member of the Bar, had to prove our innocence.
Dr Lau Teik Soon challenged Chiam to produce evidence to support his claim that we were not Marxist conspirators. Dr Aline Wong said we were not harmless intellectuals and accused us of “playing with fire”. Professor Jayakumar charged that we were not “idealists or harmless innocent young people”. Deputy Prime Minister Ong Teng Cheong claimed that it would be too late for the people of Singapore if no action was taken against us. Finally, First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong received applause from backbenchers when he concluded his speech, comparing our harmless appearance to the gentle, chubby, cherubic Ieng Sary, leader of Cambodia’s genocide. Chiam sparred their attacks like a good sportsman. He did his best.
The following year when eight of us (including me) were rearrested (the ninth, Tang Fong Har escaped arrest because she was on holiday abroad. She now lives as an exile.) after the issue of a joint statement denying the government’s relentless attacks against us, Goh Chok Tong promised a commission of inquiry to investigate our claims of ill treatment.
Chiam immediately called for our release before the inquiry. If the government had heeded Chiam’s call and an independent commission of inquiry appointed, the truth over the 1987 arrests may have emerged two decades ago. That promise was however never honoured by Goh.
Chiam’s contest in the recent general election shows his indomitable spirit and his love for Singaporeans. He showed Singaporeans that there was nothing to fear by entering opposition politics. He is still razor sharp in mind, witty and even entertaining despite the stroke he suffered. He has a store of jokes and never fail to entertain those around him when conversations slow down.
I met him again recently at a dinner held in his honour soon after the election. Cheerful and in great spirit, he is a courageous politician who held the opposition flag flying for nearly three decades despite all odds. I have only admiration for him, his stamina, courage, his humility and willingness to serve the people of Singapore.
Have you bought the tickets for “Thank you, Mr Chiam!” An appreciation dinner organised by TOC?
There will also be an auction at TOC’s appreciation dinner, of limited edition portraits of Mr Chiam See Tong.