Come November, the Chiam See Tong-founded Singapore People’s Party (SPP) will be without Chiam as their leader.
While there was no explicit announcement, it has been hinted that Chiam would be stepping down as the party’s secretary-general at the age of 84. There is no clear heir apparent. Steve Chia, the ex-National Solidarity Party leader, and Jose Raymond, the ex-civil servant, are front runners. But none command the kind of respect and influence like Chiam.
It’s easy to understand why. Chiam remains the longest-serving opposition MP in a single member constituency. He was first elected as Potong Pasir MP in 1984 where he stayed till 2011 when he left to lead a team to contest in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and lost.
In an era where there was no Internet, no social media and no messaging chat groups, and when mainstream media was seen as government-controlled, Chiam campaigned by driving his Volkswagen beetle around with an attached loud hailer, sharing his political ideals at rallies, distributing pamphlets, flyers, conducting house visits etc to win the hearts of the Potong Pasir constituents.
Chiam’s parliamentarian style has often been contrasted with that of Low Thia Khiang’s. While Low appears to be more combative, Chiam was less animated but no less passionate when debating on national issues such as CPF, cost of HDB flats, building more community libraries and education schemes.
Despite sometimes viewed as not eloquent (even though he is a lawyer), Chiam actually sued PAP leaders way back in 1981 and “won”. Well, if getting an apology from a PAP leader can be considered a victory that is. According to an ST report, Chiam had sued then Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan for remarks related to his professional capacity and competence made at an election rally. Dhanabalan publicly apologised and settled the matter out of court.
But more notably, Chiam was the mastermind behind the “by-election strategy”, where opposition parties would challenge less than half the seats and allow PAP to return to power on Nomination Day. This resonated with most Singaporeans who prefer to have a PAP-government but want more opposition members in the parliament. The strategy worked. In the 1991 GE, we had an unprecedented FOUR opposition MPs elected, with three from SDP. As the leader of SDP, Chiam became the de facto opposition leader in parliament.
However, Chiam’s political astuteness did not have the same effect when it comes to his party management. He had a fallout with SDP, the party he founded; the Singapore Democratic Alliance that he formed is inconsequential in Singapore politics now; while his SPP struggles to find its identity.
Even so, LKY had high praise for Chiam. In 1996, LKY said, “I hope he wins the next election. I think he has done on the whole good for the House. I was wrong when I thought he was not going to do much good, but in his somewhat honest, bumbling way, he has been a voice of sanity.”
Chiam may not have succeeded in grooming successors but his political achievement far eclipsed most opposition politicians. Given the political limitations that he faced during his time, being elected as an MP for 27 years straight is a truly remarkable and inspiring feat and the envy of many opposition politicians today.