What can be said of a man who has been in parliament for 27 years? Even more so, when this man was, for a period of time, a single different voice amidst a sea of white. A man who has endured verbal abuse from his peers and physical pain from a body unable to keep up with a determined spirit. A man who epitomizes determination and strong will.
Chiam See Tong may very well be 76 years old, but this veteran politician has much to teach the younger generation.
He started out his political career climbing a steep slope to fight against the ruling party. His many electoral battles took place in a dark, turbulent time in Singapore’s history where fear was rife and the opposition was weakened.
Even his educational qualifications paled in comparison to candidates from the People’s Action Party (PAP). He was on the losing end; yet he was undeterred. He was the underdog; but yet he prevailed.
To ignore the story of the longest serving opposition Member of Parliament would be certain loss. Not only to Singapore’s history but to the Singaporean individual as well. His is a story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds through sheer determination.
See the man not for his shortcomings, but for the 27 years of important lessons.
Doing One's Duty Even If it Means Doing it Alone
In 1987, Operation Spectrum saw a total of 22 people being detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). In that year, with J.B. Jeyaratnam not being present in parliament, the sole opposition MP Chiam, still found the courage to stand up for the detainees.
“In the whole of Singapore, 2.6 million people, who will speak up for these 15? Somebody has to do the job. It is a necessary job.”
still inspires today.
Chiam had the guts to bite the bullet and defend the detainees against no less than 17 PAP Members of Parliament who denounced the release of the detainees and dismissed Chiam's arguments as invalid. He had nothing to gain from this battle, it was purely a strong sense of duty as a voice in parliament to use that very voice to fight for what he and many other Singaporeans believed in.
Whether it was Mas Selamat, Ministerial pay or HDB upgrading in Potong Pasir, Chiam had always addressed these issues with a sense of justice and conviction. He asked the difficult questions and did not fail Singaporeans by being the voice of the opposition, striving to keep the ruling party accountable for its actions or its failure to act. He was not there for political mileage; he was there to perform the duty that few were willing to do.
A Willingness To Move Out Of A Comfort Zone
In 2006, then Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew challenged opposition stalwarts Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang to contest in a GRC. Five years later would see both of them doing just that. Low Thia Khiang was successful in Aljunied, while Chiam See Tong lost by a slender 7 per cent.
Chiam health was failing, but his determination was not. He gathered together strong, well-qualified candidates and challenged Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng in Bishan-Toa Payoh. And all this from a man still suffering the aftermath of a stroke. Such boldness shows a man not afraid to change the game, to fight the good fight after 27 long years.
Compassion And Dedication
Take a closer look into Potong Pasir, which Chiam once described as the “heart of opposition in Singapore”. Chiam's dedication and compassion to the community are what cemented his place as a voice for that constituency.
Famous are the pictures of a small makeshift cubicle under a void deck. Despite being denied an office befitting his position, Chiam carried on to use what little resources were available to him to make sure the people were able to communicate their needs, hopes and fears to him.
Chiam's message is simple but honest. He has done his service to the nation in spite of all that has stood against him. He has carried the burden when few were willing. Chiam may belong to an older generation and the man may pass from the pages of Singapore's history. But let us, the younger generation take to heart his deeds, and more importantly remember his lessons.
“I am not actually a brave man. But I love Singapore and I love Singaporean”. Chiam See Tong
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.