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The true genius of Chiam See Tong

by: Dana Lam, Potong Pasir Voter/

Etched in my memory is an image of a lone and visibly worn Mr Chiam See Tong submitting to a yawn in a corner of a counting centre at the end of polling day under the headline, Loneliness in Defeat (ST 12 February 1979). The stillness in photographer Yow Yun Woh’s snapshot of the independent candidate for Potong Pasir in an unguarded moment in 1979 drives home for me the full fathom of Mr Chiam’s endeavour, and that of other individuals like him.

The inspiration to take on the ruling party’s well-entrenched monopoly of parliament, not to mention, the Singaporean imagination could not have been lightly made! The uneven terrain aside, Opposition candidates are wont to encounter the full ruling party artillery and Mr Chiam was taking it on alone.

Commitment, resilience and a thick hide are pre-requisites of Opposition politicians more so than ruling party members.

What drives the individuals? According to ruling party rhetoric: lunacy, idiocy, private ambition and agenda. Well, we know it’s often a fine line between lunacy and true genius.

Opposition candidates here know very well the taste, the smell, the feel and meaning of defeat, disappointment and sacrifice. They also know humiliation, injustice and fear. History is replete with examples. Some have suffered more gravely than others. Mr Chiam has had it lighter than some. Before he had his “O” level results broadcast in the national press, he was branded part of a merry band of “clowns, jesters, fools and crooks”, “nuts without bolts” and “a third rate lawyer”.

That slur on his professional competence during the rallies of December 1980 amounted to defamation. He is the first and only opposition candidate to date to have received public apologies from his PAP opponents and a $7,000 out of court settlement (Business Times, 13 February and 28 February 1981).

They say that history is written by victors. Mr Chiam’s success in 1984, his longevity in Parliament together with Mr Low Thia Kiang and most recently, Ms Sylvia Lim and Messrs Chen Show Mao, Faisal Abdul Manap, Pritam Singh and Yaw Shin Leong will remain symbolic of the ‘true genius’ in Singaporeans: The parts in us capable of individual reason, dignity, humanity and action in spite of ourselves.

The greater of Mr Chiam’s contribution and that of his colleagues in the opposition will continue to be in the inspiration they set in standing up and speaking out. However, knowledge and its power is cumulative and the history of our people must necessarily encompass all those who have risked and lost and paid the price for their conviction and endeavour to give us voice.

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