The ISD, Dr Chee, and Gandhi Ambalam walk into a restaurant

The ISD, Dr Chee, and Gandhi Ambalam walk into a restaurant

Below is a humorous anecdote of how Dr Chee first met the late Gandhi Ambalam, SDP’s former chair and long-time member, who recently passed away.

Dr Chee first shared this story at Mr Gandhi’s funeral at Mandai Crematorium, and it was subsequently published at We reproduce it full here with permission.

I received a call one evening and the guy on the line said that he had some friends who wanted to meet me and see how they could help the SDP. The year was 1994.

We decided to meet at a hotel cafe. When I arrived, this friend introduced me to a lanky and striking looking gentleman with a moustache to match.

“Hi, I’m Gandhi,” he said as we reached out to shake hands. After a brief round of salutations, we settled down to our table.

As it was rather late, the restaurant had closed off a section. We asked for a table in the far corner of the closed area, explaining that we had some confidential business to talk about. The staff was kind enough to oblige.

As we sat down, a youngish-looking couple sat at the table close to us. It struck us as rather odd as the section was closed and the couple could have dined anywhere else in the open section but uncannily chose a table in close proximity to us.

Our suspicions were confirmed when the man clumsily set his briefcase on the table where we could see an aperture on the top of the bag pointing in our direction. The lady inexpertly also placed her handbag on the table opened, probably, I thought, with a recording device in it.

The few of us exchanged knowing glances and smirks as we sipped on our beverages. We waited till their orders arrived before executing our planned exit strategy. We abruptly stood up and left the place.

Startled, our “close” friend and his lady partner – scrambling to gather their belongings and contending with the morsels of food in their mouths while trying to look nonchalant all at the same time – appeared to be trying to alert their colleagues of the changed circumstances. Successful with our getaway, we ended up at a kopitiam and after a good chuckle over the incident, chatted the evening away.

That was my introduction to Mr Gandhi Ambalam. We met a few more times over several months before he finally gathered enough courage to join the SDP. Many Singaporeans, after that amusing, yet unsettling, incident would have said “thanks, but no thanks” and walked away.

But not Gandhi. He had made up his mind to throw his hat into the ring and never looked back. He was a pillar of strength and determination in pushing the party’s agenda, unstintingly speaking up for the little guy.

As a former journalist and having witnessed local politics up close through the years, he was acutely aware of the autocracy that had gripped the country.

Gandhi was steadfast in his fight for the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder, arm-in-arm with us.

It was why he was a natural fit to help lead the party. He was elected Chairman in 2007, a post he held till 2011 when he retired.

Back in the 1990s, the SDP did not have an office. We held our meetings at someone’s office, members’ homes, void-decks and even at coffee-shops. Then Gandhi offered part of his office at Balestier Road for a token rent.

We printed and sold our party newspaper The New Democrat every single day, lunch and dinner time to buy some equipment for our operations. Gandhi was always there. Every, single day, lunch and dinner time.

Even during our struggle to liberalise Hong Lim Park – gatherings like what we witness today were not allowed at Speakers’ Corner when it was first established – Gandhi never wavered in his commitment.

He looked the system in the eye – unbowed – and told our rulers that our rights as Singaporeans may not be taken away. For that, he was willing to go to jail. And go to jail he did.

I remember asking him to reconsider his decision knowing that he had hypertension and heart problems. But he was adamant. “I’ll walk the whole way with you,” he told me as we sat on the floor in the dank cell. He was always there, rock solid.

Nowadays, when we see heroes they’re always wear masks and donning capes. They possess superhuman strength and have up-sized muscles.

My hero didn’t wear a cape or a mask. Instead, he wears glasses and the only thing muscular about him is his moustache. His strength didn’t come from a spider or from another planet; it came from within – his indomitable spirit.

And the villain that he fought was far more frightening than the most hideous monster the creators at Marvel can confect. Its name is fear.

Gandhi struggled with his. It took him years but he emerged victorious. His fears never went away but he managed to overcome them. He didn’t let his fear stop him from serving justice, serving democracy and serving his country. His is a lesson for all of us, a lesson of courage overcoming fear, of standing up for justice in whatever form and wherever it may exist.

And so as we bid you farewell, my friend, I know that you will live on in our hearts. I know that I speak for all of us in the Singapore Democratic Party, a party which you loved when you were alive, when I say we honour your memory as we soldier on in our quest for freedom in this country.

Life is but a brief moment in time. Ultimately, it is not the number of years that we live but what we do in those years that truly matter. We cannot re-write what history has already composed but we surely can contribute to the script that will tell the story of our future. You have written your chapter which will be left indelible in our minds and for future generations to remember.

As our tears fall and our hearts ache at the loss of a husband, father, grandfather, and a dear friend, let us also feel that spark of light and lightness in our hearts when we think of what Gandhi has left with us.

I last saw Gandhi a few weeks ago at his grand-daughter’s wedding. He had come back from India where he lives with his beloved daughter Rages. He looked frail and his voice was shaky, having just had a seizure weeks before. As we shook hands again, tears rolled down his cheeks and he struggled to speak. Then, as if remembering something, he stiffened up and that unmistakable spirit emerged. He said: “I told you I’ll walk the whole way with you.”

Yes, you have my friend, yes you have. And we are all the better for it because you did. You leave us having earned the love and respect of those whose lives you’ve touched. None more so than mine.

Until we meet again, rest well.

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