Benjamin Cheah and Chong Woon Hien/
Photos by Han Thon and Sebestian Song
Outside the ballroom, conversations grew shorter, quieter. Heads faced the driveway, hands and fingers poised over cameras and touchscreens, eyes scanning for a red Volkswagon Beetle. For the man who, in his words, ‘changed the face of opposition politics in Singapore’.
On 18 June 2011, The Online Citizen (TOC) organized a dinner at Hotel Re! to honour Mr Chiam See Tong. Mr Chiam, Secretary-General of the SPP, is the longest-serving opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) in Singapore. Between 1984 to 2011, Mr Chiam served as the MP for Potong Pasir.
In the 2011 General Elections, Mr Chiam led a team to contest Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representative Constituency. He lost, breaking a six-election winning streak. But for supporters like Charles Lim an artist, it was his ‘biggest victory ever’; for they believe it encouraged people to learn more about Potong Pasir and about democracy.
The Chiams’ Volkswagon appeared from the night, sliding into the parking lot. Photographers raced into position, snapping photos. Ravi Philemon, interim Chief Editor of The Online Citizen, met Mr Chiam, shaking his hand and leading him to the ballroom.
The doors swung open, and it was the heady days of pre-election rallies all over again. The crowd, 250 strong, broke into cheers and standing ovations. The Chiams wove their way around the tables, shaking hands and speaking to members of the crowd, their words almost drowned out by background applause and chants of ‘Potong Pasir!’ and ‘Chiam See Tong!’.
When the Chiams settled down, TOC’s Siew Kum Hong gave a short speech thanking former Chief Editor of TOC, Andrew Loh for conceptualising this event; and by praising Mr Chiam’s contributions. Calling Mr Chiam ‘an inspiration’ for what he has done ‘as a politician and a person’, Mr Siew gave a brief account of Mr Chiam’s political career, adding that his ‘fortitude, perseverance and courage inspires us all’.
Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a former MP from the People’s Action Party and Presidential hopeful, said Mr Chiam ‘brought changes to Parliament’ and ‘opened the debate at policy level’. Mr Tan Kin Lian, former head of NTUC Income and another Presidential aspirant, called Mr Chiam a ‘beacon of democracy’.
Other guests included NMP Viswa Sadasivan, former NMP and President of human rights organisation Braema Mathi, former AWARE President Dana Lam, human rights lawyer Mr M Ravi, ex-political detainee Mr Tan Tee Seng; and Singapore Democratic Party members Ms Teo Soh Lung, Mr Tan Jee Say, and Dr Ang Yong Guan.
After a buffet dinner, SPP member Mr Benjamin Pwee gave a speech. Declaring that there are no politically apathetic Singaporeans today, he recounted his political history, tracing his transition from a ‘typical politically apathetic Singaporean’ to his involvement in the last elections. About how five weeks before the election, Mr Wilfred Leung, Mr Pwee’s friend and SPP member, arranged for Mr Pwee to have lunch with the Chiams.
Mr Pwee was impressed by Mr Chiam, by the ‘fire in (his) eyes’, his ‘determination to stand for the people without a voice’, and reassurances that it was safe to be an opposition politician. Mr Pwee joined the SPP soon after. Mr Pwee said, that to him Mr Chiam was not a public figure, but the man who taught him the principles and ideals behind running for politics.
Mr Pwee’s speech was followed by an auction. Artist Charles Lim had specially created a limited series of ten paintings of Mr Chiam and his more memorable quotes. Of these, four were put up for auction. The auctioneers were TOC’s very own Joshua Chiang and Gangasudhan. The auction raised over $10,000 for the benefit of Singapore People’s Party. One of the person who made the winning bid for one of the paintings was Mr Harpreet Singh Nehal, SC, a senior lawyer.
After the auction, Mrs Lina Chiam took the stage to chants of ‘Potong Pasir!’ and ‘Lina Chiam!’. She stood in Potong Pasir during the 2011 General Elections, and lost to Mr Sitoh Yipin. She now serves as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament. Mrs Chiam spoke about her life and political activities.
Mrs Chiam recounted how she wanted to be a housewife, but how all that changed when in 1976 Mr Chiam decided to stand as an independent candidate against then-Minister for Communications and National Development Mr Lim Kim San – and how he told her after he had paid the election deposit. Thus began the Chiams’ political career, with Mr Chiam working as a lawyer and winning the people’s support, and Mrs Chiam looking after their daughter and helping Mr Chiam in his duties and law firm.
Mrs Chiam reminisced how the Straits Times made fun of Mr Chiam, people closing doors in Chiam’s face, and the poor standing of the opposition. Mr Chiam lost that election in Cairnhill. He lost the 1979 by-election in Potong Pasir, and again in the 1980 general election. But in 1984, Mr Chiam won the Potong Pasir seat.
Mrs Chiam spoke about her experiences as the wife of an opposition politician, notably attending parliamentary conferences only to be shunned by the wives of People’s Action Party MPs, addressing residents’ concerns, loss of privacy, unfair reporting by the media, and sitting on the Town Council.
Viewing politics as ‘a calling’ and life a series of successes and failures, Mrs Chiam said people should ‘believe in something that has yet to exist’, and ‘not succumb to fear’.
A brief slideshow followed Mrs Chiam’s speech which highlighted the high points of Mr Chiam’s political career. It was the prelude for the night’s main event: Mr Chiam’s speech.
Slowly, surely, Mr Chiam mounted the stage to cheers and applause. When he spoke, the crowd went silent.
Mr Chiam spoke of changing times and politics. ‘A simple person like me can stand in the elections and get re-elected,’ he said. He went on to urge others to join politics. Seeing so many people joining the opposition, including ‘top civil servants’, he said that it was a ‘good sign’ of things to come. He added that he would not be surprised if a coalition government were elected by the next election.
However, ‘good men must come forward still’. Saying that ‘Singapore can survive without the PAP’, he outlined two broad steps to form the next government: first form a coalition government, and then gain experience and show that the opposition is capable of taking over the government. Now that he is out of office, Mr Chiam said that he would ‘keep buggering on’.
As a token of appreciation, TOC presented Mr Chiam a miniature replica of his Volkswagon Beetle, complete with reproduced licence plate. Mr Chiam once called his Volkswagon Beetle his lucky car, as he won six elections while driving it.
The hotel management chipped in, too, presenting the Chiams two bottles of champagne.
The dinner concluded with mass photo-taking sessions. The original plan called for the Chiams to remain seated on stage. The Chiams, however, decided to go table-to-table instead. After the last photo, the Chiams stayed behind, with Mr Chiam signing autograph after autograph. The crowd filed out of the ballroom, but the Chiams stayed, signing away.
At the close of the night, after the last signature, after the last guest had left, the Chiams departed as quietly as they came.