Chiam See Tong



Chiam See Tong (b. 12 March 1935, Singapore–)1 is a veteran figure in Singapore’s political landscape. He is one of Singapore’s longest standing and most iconic opposition figures, serving as a member of parliament (MP) for the Potong Pasir constituency from 1984 to 2011.2 With his belief in the need for opposition politics to check the possible abuse of power in a one-party system, he founded the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 1980.3 He resigned from the SDP in 1996 after party in-fighting, and joined the Singapore People’s Party (SPP), founded by a moderate faction of the SDP in 1994. He later founded the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), serving as the party’s first chairman.4

Early life and career
After completing his GCE “A” Levels at Anglo-Chinese School in 1955 and graduating with a Bachelor of Science from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand in 1961, Chiam became a teacher at the age of 27. He taught at Mahmud Secondary School in Raub, Pahang, Malaysia from 1962 to 1963, and at Cedar Girls’ Secondary School, Singapore from 1964 to 1972.5 During this time, he studied at the Teachers’ Training College and attained his Certificate in Education in 1967.6


Chiam later decided to make a career switch from teaching to law. Between 1972 and 1974, he studied at Inner Temple in London, U.K., where he became a Barrister-at-Law. Back in Singapore, he worked at Philip Wong & Co (Advocates & Solicitors) from 1974 to 1976, before setting up his own private practice, Chiam & Co, in 1976.7 He closed his law firm in 2002 to become a full-time MP.8

Ideology and thought
Chiam has said many times that he does not believe in opposing for opposition’s sake, or opposing to topple the dominant People’s Action Party (PAP).9 Rather, he believes political opposition exists in order for a true democracy to flourish, since an effective opposition can act as a check on a one-party system.10 Accordingly, he adopts a non-adversarial, non-destructive style of politics and has consistently advocated a responsible and credible opposition.11


Another of Chiam’s political tenets is the solidarity of the opposition, as manifested in some of his actions.12 For example, in the 1981 Anson by-election, he withdrew the SDP candidate to support the Workers’ Party candidate, J. B. Jeyaretnam, who later won.13 Chiam’s founding of the SDA in 2001, to bring four opposition parties together under one banner, also demonstrates his belief in the need for a united and common platform for the political opposition in Singapore.14

Political career
Chiam’s first foray into politics was in 1976 at the age of 41. He ran, and lost, as an independent candidate for Cairnhill, but garnered a considerable 31.8 percent of the votes. He ran again as an independent candidate in 1979, in the Potong Pasir by-election, where he gained 33.15 percent of the votes.15 The SDP was founded on 6 August 1980, predicated on the safeguarding of parliamentary democracy. In the 1980 general election (GE), Chiam contested in Potong Pasir under the SDP banner and lost, but managed to garner 41 percent of the votes.16


In 1981, an unprecedented libel suit took place, in which Chiam became the only opposition member ever to receive a public apology and out-of-court damages from a PAP leader. He had sued then foreign minister S. Dhanabalan for undermining his professional ability and competence at an election rally. Defence minister Howe Yoon Chong, Chiam’s opponent in Potong Pasir, also made amends for having made similar remarks.17

Chiam saw his first political victory in 1984. With 60.3 percent of the votes, he won the Potong Pasir seat in parliament.18 His party as a whole also did well, gaining 45.2 percent of the votes in its contested wards – this was not just the highest number among the opposition parties, but also a huge increase from the 30.1 percent it had achieved in the previous election.19 Chiam’s victory in Potong Pasir was replicated in the 1988 election, where he got 63.1 percent of the votes and was the only opposition candidate to win that year. The SDP saw resounding success in the next GE, held in 1991, taking a total of three seats in parliament, including Chiam’s win in Potong Pasir.20

Chiam found himself at the centre of intra-party strife in the mid-1990s.21 Party in-fighting led to Chiam’s resignation as Secretary General in 1993, and subsequently his resignation from the party in 1996.22 He joined the SPP, a party formed in 1994 by a breakaway moderate faction of the SDP, contesting and winning Potong Pasir again in 1997.23 In 2001, the SPP entered into a coalition with four other opposition parties to form the SDA, with Chiam as its chairman.24 Chiam contested as an SDA candidate in that year’s election and took home his fifth consecutive win in the Potong Pasir constituency.25 The 2006 GE saw him win in Potong Pasir yet again, gaining 55.8 percent of the votes.26

On 6 February 2008, Chiam suffered a mild stroke. However, this did not deter him from serving his ward or continuing his political career.27 Just two weeks after the stroke, he resumed his weekly meet-the-people sessions.28 He even voiced his intention of running for a group representation constituency (GRC) next.29 Recognising that the next GE would be his last, he planned what The Straits Times called his “last big gamble”, announcing in 2010 that he would contest the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, leaving Potong Pasir to his wife, Lina Chiam.30 In 2011, Chiam ran for election in the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC as part of the SPP, having taken the party out of the SDA after party in-fighting in 2010 and 2011, but lost to the PAP’s team of candidates.31 In 2015, Chiam did not contest in GE and stood down for the first time in four decades.32

Chiam has been described by political commentators as possessing a gentlemanly, “nice guy” image, and an “unassuming, congenial nature”, atypical for a politician. Criticised for his oratorical ability, Chiam himself has admitted to not being an eloquent speaker.33

Family
Chiam is married to Lina Loh Woon See.34 Loh is known to be Chiam’s closest political confidante and right-hand woman.35 They have a daughter, Camilla.36



Author

Sara Siew



References
1. Loke, H. Y. (2014). Let the people have him: Chiam See Tong: The early years. Singapore: Epigram books, p. 11. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 LOK); Parliament of Singapore. (2007). Curriculum vitae of Chiam See Tong. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Internet Archive website: https://web.archive.org/web/20100306185823/http://www.parliament.gov.sg/AboutUs/Org-MP-CV-ChiamSeeTong.htm
2. Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 72–73. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC); GE: Opposition parties reflect on post-election results. (2011, May 8). Channel News Asia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg; A familiar face returns to Potong Pasir. (2014, December 15). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. 174. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS); Mauzy, D. K., & Milne, R. S. (2002). Singapore politics under the People’s Action Party. London; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, p. 148. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 MAU)
4. Chiam See Tong quits SDP to join Singapore People’s Party. (1996, December 18). The Business Times, p. 2; Chiang, Y. P. (1994, November 29). Singapore People’s Party unveiled as a moderate version of SDP. The Straits Times, p. 19; Green light for new coalition. (2001, June 29). Today, p. 2; One word, different perceptions. (2001, July 23). Today, p. 4; Yap, J. (1994, July 6). Breakaway SDP group registering new party. The Straits Times, p. 3; Ahmad Osman. (2001, July 21). Chiam. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 36–37. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC)
5. Loke, H. Y. (2014). Let the people have him: Chiam See Tong: The early years. Singapore: Epigram books, pp. 31, 41, 43–44, 48. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 LOK); Parliament of Singapore. (2007). Curriculum vitae of Chiam See Tong. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Internet Archive website: https://web.archive.org/web/20100306185823/http://www.parliament.gov.sg/AboutUs/Org-MP-CV-ChiamSeeTong.htm; Corfield, J., & Corfield, R. (2006). Encyclopedia of Singapore. Singapore, Talisman Pub., p. 40. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS])
6. Parliament of Singapore. (2007). Curriculum vitae of Chiam See Tong. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Internet Archive website: https://web.archive.org/web/20100306185823/http://www.parliament.gov.sg/AboutUs/Org-MP-CV-ChiamSeeTong.htm
7. Loke, H. Y. (2014). Let the people have him: Chiam See Tong: The early years. Singapore: Epigram books, pp. 59–60, 73. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 LOK); Parliament of Singapore. (2007). Curriculum vitae of Chiam See Tong. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Internet Archive website: https://web.archive.org/web/20100306185823/http://www.parliament.gov.sg/AboutUs/Org-MP-CV-ChiamSeeTong.htm
8. Dogged fighter with no successor. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75; Loh, C. K. (2006, April 21). Should MPs give up their day jobs? Today, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Parliament of Singapore. (2007). Curriculum vitae of Chiam See Tong. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Internet Archive website: https://web.archive.org/web/20100306185823/http://www.parliament.gov.sg/AboutUs/Org-MP-CV-ChiamSeeTong.htm
9. Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 168–169. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS); Singh, B. (1992). Whither PAP’s dominance? An analysis of Singapore’s 1991 general elections. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Publications, p. 43. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 BIL)
10. Dogged fighter with no successor. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75; Tan, S. (1990, December 9). Opposition’s role is not to sneer and smear. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. 168. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS)
11. Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 58, 77. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC); Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 171–172. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS)
12. Dogged fighter with no successor. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75; Chiam wants opposition parties to discuss solidarity. (1986, August 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. 172. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS); Tiga akan cuba rebut Anson. (1981, October 22). Berita Harian, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Dogged fighter with no successor. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75; Ahmad Osman. (2001, July 21). Chiam. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 73. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC); Elections Department Singapore. (2015). 1976 parliamentary election results. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Elections Department website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_parliamentary1976.html; Elections Department Singapore. (2016, July 22). 1979 parliamentary by-election result. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Elections Department website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_by1979.html
16. Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 73. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC); Elections Department Singapore. (2015, July 22). 1980 parliamentary election results. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Elections Department website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_parliamentary1980.html; Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 166–167, 174. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS); Mauzy, D. K., & Milne, R. S. (2002). Singapore politics under the People’s Action Party. London; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, p. 148. (Call no.: RSING 320.95957 MAU)
17. Dogged fighter with no successor. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75; Dhana apologises to SDP’s Chiam. (1981, February 28). The Straits Times, p. 11; Election remarks: Chiam accepts Howe’s apology. (1981, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 73, 75. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC); Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 140–141. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS); We’ll be constructive in Parliament – Chiam. (1984, December 24). The Straits Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. 175. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS)
20. Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 75. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC); Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 147, 179. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS); Elections Department Singapore. (2015, July 22). 1988 parliamentary election results. Retrieved 2016, November 15 from Elections Department website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_parliamentary1988.html
21. Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, pp. 188–191. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS)
22. Chiam See Tong quits SDP to join Singapore People’s Party. (1996, December 18). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 36–37, 77. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC)
23. Chiang, Y. P. (1994, November 29). Singapore People’s Party unveiled as a moderate version of SDP. The Straits Times, p. 19; Yap, J. (1994, July 6). Breakaway SDP group registering new party. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, p. 130. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC)
24. Green light for new coalition. (2001, June 29). Today, p. 2; One word, different perceptions. (2001, July 23). Today, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Nail-biting finish for Chiam in Potong Pasir. (2001, November 4). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Peh, S. H., & Rajan, T. (2006, May 7). Chiam chalks up sweet victory in Potong Pasir. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Dogged fighter with no successor. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75; Nur Dianah Suhaimi. (2009, February 8). Recovering from stroke but Chiam is sharp and lucid. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Dogged fighter with no successor. (2008, June 14). The Straits Times, p. 75; Kor, K. B. (2008, April 27). State of Chiam’s health not a worry for many. The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Nur Dianah Suhaimi. (2009, February 8). Recovering from stroke but Chiam is sharp and lucid. The Straits Times, p. 7; Opposition parties start getting ready to do battle. (2009, March 14). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Au Yong, J., & Chong, Z. L. (2010, August 5). Chiam’s wife to contest Potong Pasir. The Straits Times, p. 3; Li, X-Y., et al. (2009, March 14). Opposition plans battle formation. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Cheow, X. Y. (2011, March 3). Chiam pulls party out of alliance. Today, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; GE: Opposition parties reflect on post-election results. (2011, May 8). Channel News Asia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg; Au Yong, J., et als. (2010, August 13). Hello, Chiam... goodbye walkover? The Straits Times, p. 26; Kor, K. B. (2011, March 2). SDA relieves Chiam of chairman duties. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Koh, V. (2015, August 31). Chiam See Tong not contesting in coming GE. Today. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
33. Da Cunha, D. (1997). The price of victory: The 1997 Singapore general election and beyond. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 72–73, 75–76. (Call no.: RSING 324.95957 DAC); Hussin Mutalib. (2004). Parties and politics: A study of opposition parties and the PAP in Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Academic, p. 183. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 HUS)
34. Nur Dianah Suhaimi. (2009, February 8). Recovering from stroke but Chiam is sharp and lucid. The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Nur Dianah Suhaimi. (2010, January 2). She may run for MP of Potong Pasir. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Loke, H. Y. (2014). Let the people have him: Chiam See Tong: The early years. Singapore: Epigram books, p. 73. (Call no.: RSING 324.2092 LOK)



The information in this article is valid as at 2009 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

Subject
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership
Chiam, See Tong, 1935-
Politicians--Singapore--Biography
Politicians
Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders