Spore's People Party Is Recruiting
Chiam See how?
Filed under: Singapore Watch ver1.0 — Justina @ 3:08 am
The Clarence Chang Interview
There’s no successor in sight to take over from the opposition veteran, but the SDA chairman is calmly taking a wait-and-see attitude October 07, 2005
His name, Chiam See Tong, in Hokkien, literally means to ‘hang on, temporarily’.
It’s an old joke among his critics - something the old war horse has heard since first winning the Potong Pasir ward way back in 1984.
It’s an irony he relishes since he has enjoyed five back-to-back electoral victories in his beloved constituency, and is gunning for a sixth.
That’s Chiam See Tong.
‘I’ve given 41 years of my life to public service,’ the retired lawyer and now self-proclaimed ‘full-time MP’ told The New Paper at his town council office.
‘So my record speaks for itself. I’m not a fly-by-night politician.’
At 70, Mr Chiam, chairman of the four-party Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), is the country’s longest-serving opposition MP and the oldest backbencher in Parliament.
The obvious question then is one of succession: Without an obvious successor in sight, how long can Mr Temporary ‘hang on’?
‘For the opposition, it’s not easy to train or recruit a successor,’ Mr Chiam explained, hinting it’s not for lack of effort. This has been his lament for years.
The main reason: the political climate.
‘Up to today, I’ve never heard any minister say publicly - yes, there is a place for the opposition in Singapore… Privately, if you speak to younger people, they’re very pro-opposition. But to come out openly and stand on our side is another matter.’
Mr Chiam insists fear still exists - ‘not of being jailed, but fear of some economic disincentives’.
‘For example, if Ah Beng comes up to me and says ‘Mr Chiam, I believe in you, I believe in the opposition, I want to stand for election…’.’
He carries on with a laugh: ‘…I give him a form and he says okay. Then he must go home and talk to the wife, the parents, the brothers, the sisters. And probably one of them will say, ‘You can’t do that! Your brother is in a high post in the army or in the police or whatever’.
‘This is the reality of politics in Singapore.’
But whatever the obstacles, does he have a succession plan, we asked again.
After all, unlike the Singapore Democratic Party and the Workers’ Party, the SDA - which Mr Chiam formed just before the 2001 polls - doesn’t even have a youth wing.
NO FUTURE LEADER?
While the National Solidarity Party, which is part of the alliance, has Non-Constituency MP Steve Chia, 34, at its helm, Mr Chiam’s own Singapore People’s Party - with old faces like former election candidates Sin Kek Tong and Desmond Lim - still has no obvious future leader waiting in the wings.
Mr Chiam’s answer: Who says my time is running out?
‘The situation is (in a state of) flux. You cannot say that just because at present there’s no one in sight, there will be no successor.’
Referring to the next election, he added: ‘I’ll be standing again, and that’s another five years. Five years in Singapore politics is a long time.’
This is his message: Mark my words. When I eventually announce that I’m retiring from politics, that elusive somebody WILL be found.
‘You’ll see. I won’t say there’ll be a flood of people, but certainly, sufficient numbers will come in.’
His confident air of self-belief defies the naysayers who feel that his time is up - that after 21 years in Potong Pasir, with shrinking votes at each general election, the veteran but no-longer-as-energetic Mr Chiam is ripe for the picking.
And the man who hopes to do this is his much younger PAP opponent, accountant Sitoh Yih Pin, who’s only 42.
This is the same Mr Sitoh who, in his maiden campaign in 2001, fell short of toppling Mr Chiam by just 751 votes - the closest any PAP candidate has ever come to reclaiming the ward.
Mr Chiam’s cool and collected response: Write me off at your own peril.
If you don’t believe me, just come down to the ground and gauge the sentiments of Potong Pasir’s 15,954 voters directly.
‘Many people think if you want to be popular, you must get a high percentage of votes…
‘(But) the whole idea of elections is just to win. We don’t want to score 80 per cent, get A++ in your report card. There’s no necessity.’
However, few would deny that Mr Chiam is popular in his ward. For long-time residents, the sight of him smiling and waving from the driver’s seat of his trusty 33-year-old red Volkswagen Beetle has become as familiar as night and day. Residents may like and respect him, but will they keep voting for him?
Or will they think after 21 years, it’s time for a change? It’s not as if they don’t have an alternative.
As the area’s citizens’ consultative committee (CCC) adviser, Mr Sitoh is pulling out all the stops.
At last December’s PAP 50th anniversary rally at the Indoor Stadium, his supporters unveiled a giant banner with the words ‘Potong Pasir Wants PAP’.
And this year, differences between the two sides have continued - over issues like planting trees, reserving state land for CCC activities, throwing lavish grassroots dinners, and yes, putting up more banners.
Mr Chiam’s take: ‘When we make our complaints, all we want is fairness. That’s all.
‘I mean, if you walked around here during the National Day period, you might think Mr Sitoh is the MP here, not me!’
His opponent’s face, he griped, had been ‘plastered’ all along the major roads.
A vandal even defaced one of Mr Sitoh’s 2m-long banners with black paint.
‘I’ve got nothing to do with that,’ said the MP, raising his eyebrows. But, he added: ‘Somebody must be annoyed.’
You could say this 70-year-old, even with greyer hair, has lost none of his fighting spirit.
But can he win a record sixth term?
Can he keep up with his younger rivals in the hectic world of politics?
Can he finally find a successor?
The man himself would say: Yes, yes and yes.
‘Seventy is not old. Maybe when you come to 80, you’re considered old. But look at (Minister Mentor) Lee Kuan Yew. He never says he wants to retire.’
Clearly, Mr Hang On Temporarily wants to stay put.
ELECTION BATTLE PLANS
Mr Chiam said his party intends to round up other opposition parties and invoke the ‘by-election effect’ again.
This refers to the opposition strategy of contesting fewer than half the seats in Parliament, so the PAP would be returned to power even before the polling.
This way, the argument goes, voters in contested seats will be more willing to elect opposition candidates, without worrying about a change of government.
‘The trouble is, we usually don’t have enough time to promote or sell this idea to Singaporeans,’ Mr Chiam admitted.
The ultimate prize: to win a Group Representative Constituency (GRC), comprising up to six seats at one go, for the first time in the opposition’s history.
Mr Chiam, though, has vowed to stay put in his single seat of Potong Pasir - barring, of course, any electoral boundary changes.
While declining to reveal which other constituencies the SDA is eyeing, he did give a sneak peek at his party’s platform.
ALTERNATIVE ECONOMIC PLAN
He wants an economic union with Malaysia, involving a free flow of people and goods, what he calls ‘the answer to much of our economic problems’.
An issue that goes back to the 1980s. He knows his critics will accuse him of flogging a dead horse.
But he said two trips which he and party colleagues made across the Causeway in the past three years convinced him he may be right.
The second trip, made in April this year, was to specifically discuss such a union with former premier Mahathir Mohamad - who, according to Mr Chiam, said it was ‘feasible’.
Mr Chiam also spoke passionately about what are likely to be major election issues: the white elephants at Buangkok, integrated resorts, and the National Kidney Foundation saga. All of which the SDA is likely to capitalise on, in calling for ‘more opposition voices’ in Parliament.
On the two integrated resorts, he said: ‘Forty years of indoctrination that we should not have that kind of values, that kind of lifestyle.
‘Now they’re reversing it… It may bring some income into Singapore, but it’ll be painful income for us.’