Sunday, 8 May 2011

Of Chiam See Tong, Singapore’s general elections and ‘new’ and future Singaporeans

Stock traders say numbers never lie. A stock trade is either profitable or not. Dollars and cents define the outcome. Similarly, during an election a candidate either wins or loses. There is no grey area. Votes numerically define the result.
Yet, human affairs cannot be weighed as exactly as numbers suggest. Often the greatest of human successes appear in the guise of a defeat. So it was with Mr. Chiam See Tong's election bid in the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC).
This post is neither about Singapore's opposition nor about Singapore's political system. It is about a remarkable man: a man who fought like a tiger with the tenderness of a kitten.
Mr. Chiam See Tong has battled against the odds his entire political career. He won the Potong Pasir constituency on his third attempt in Singapore's 1984 general elections.
Winning any seats against Singapore's People's Action Party (PAP), with its efficient grassroots machinery coupled with the benefits of incumbency, is no mean feat. One can only imagine the type of pressures brought to bear upon him and Potong Pasir's voters to switch loyalties in successive general elections.
Neither carrot nor stick worked to bring Potong Pasir back to the PAP. Potong Pasir voters even disregarded a PAP election promise of SGD 80 million for 'upgrading' during the 2006 elections. For 27 years, Mr. Chiam See Tong successfully fought off all PAP challenges to dethrone him from Potong Pasir. Until he stood down in 2011, he was returned as the ward's MP at every general election.
Courage and persistence have their own rewards. Surely, Mr. Chiam See Tong has rightful claims to much recompense in both these categories.
The story does not end here. In 2011, Mr. Chiam See Tong stepped out of his 'comfort zone' of Potong Pasir to take the fight directly to the ruling party's Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Mr. Wong Kan Seng, in the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.
The PAP has not faced a contest for the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in the last three elections, i.e. 1997, 2001 or 2006. The GRC was a 'walkover' for the PAP. On May 7, Mr. Chiam See Tong's team obtained 43 percent of the constituency's vote, a success by any measure.  
I have never been a constituent of Mr. Chiam See Tong in Potong Pasir. I do not know him or his family. I do not need to in order to write these words. To survive and succeed for an unbroken 27 years as an opposition MP in Singapore's political environment is testament enough for me.
Singapore's next generation will find few better role models than Mr. Chiam See Tong. He embodies many of the reasons Singapore was able to transform itself from Third World to First World in one generation: hard work, determination, courage bordering on audacity, empathy with fellow Singaporeans but most of all a fanatical desire to improve his community. 
Mr. Chiam See Tong, I have never felt more 'Singaporean' than at that precise moment inside Beatty Secondary School when I marked an 'X' next to your name on my ballot. (This is only my third general election as a Singaporean.) Thank you for allowing me the privilege to believe that I too played a small part in your success.


  1. The newly installed power of the PAP - the increasing mass of new citizen voters has shown its force...sad, sad for singapore. Koh Suanie

  2. Hi,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and taking the time to post a comment.

    It is presumed wisdom that new citizens will vote for the PAP. However, one should be careful about making such assumptions without empirical evidence.

    Additionally, I am not certain that the vote of new citizens is concentrated sufficiently in any one specific constituency to swing results for or against the PAP. At best, new citizens will be a marginal vote in most constituencies. Other than Joo Jiat or Potong Pasir, PAP victory margins were too large to be affected by the number of 'new' voters.

    Best regards,