Without a doubt, Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang have been the Opposition politicians who made the greatest inroads over the past three to four decades.
They held on to the unshakeable belief that their day would come if they remained undaunted and indomitable. And they never ever waded into controversial, muddy waters – not once did they indulge in histrionics, or melodramatic behaviour designed to attract attention.
Chiam and Low did not give the People’s Action Party an opening to fire a salvo and sow doubts in the minds of the electorate. They knew a gutter fight would not serve them or their cause well.
Without courting controversy, Chiam frustrated the PAP. He was called by then Foreign Minister S Dhanabalan “a two-bit lawyer orchestrating a three-piece band whose members only appear once every four or five years.” While then Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong branded Chiam “a twice unsuccessful lawyer” and “a lawyer who is not even very good at law.”
Chiam sued both men for slander. Dhanabalan and Howe made public apologies and Chiam withdrew his lawsuits.
To his profound credit, Chiam See Tong is the only opposition politician to this day who has been able to extract public apologies from PAP Ministers for the unprovoked attacks.
As Chiam would say many years later: “The most important thing is that you have to respect an individual, whether he’s got six Cs or six As and whether he’s a brain surgeon or a dustman.” (Lee Kuan Yew had compared Chiam’s GCE ‘O” level results unfavourably with that of Mah Bow Tan).
Chaim was at the helm of Potong Pasir constituency for 27 years, between 1984 and 2011, until he left to contest Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and lost.
Chiam’s record of being longest-serving Opposition Member of Parliament has been eclipsed by the Workers’ Party’s Low Thia Khiang, who has always been shrewd in picking battles to fight. With a string of four single constituency and two GRC wins under his belt, Low has had an eminent political career spanning three decades.
Low has said that the WP does not come up with wild policies and suggestions, and neither does it oppose all policies of the government.
Still, he has proven himself capable of going for the kill. In the 2011 general election, Low caught the PAP by surprise, fielding a dream team for Aljunied GRC – and triumphed against a PAP team led by George Yeo. This marked the first time in Singapore’s history than an Opposition party had won a GRC contest.
Low once commented: “I came to a conclusion. You can talk until the cows come home, debate until the cows come home in Parliament. The PAP will not change. It is the people, the electorate that have to show them, they have to change.”
Yes, we can echo that – the PAP will not change. But how to win the support of the electorate?
What Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang have shown is that there is no short cut – they did it the hard way, through perseverance and discipline, and somehow over time, people could tell they were sincere and trustworthy.
Whether we like it or not, the Singapore electorate tends to give the PAP the benefit of the doubt. They are only willing to stand by Opposition politicians who stick to their guns while steering clear of controversy and histrionics.