Mr Chiam See Tong has been called many things throughout his illustrious career as a Member of Parliament (MP): leader of the opposition, the father of Singapore democracy, and Singapore’s longest serving opposition MP. After serving in Potong Pasir SMC under various party flags for 27 years, the now 80-year-old left to contest Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC in 2011, but lost. Earlier this week, his wife Lina Chiam announced that he would not be contesting in this year’s elections due to his old age and health.
In the nascent political landscape of Singapore, Mr Chiam has been heralded as an underdog of sorts, having earned the ardent support of Singaporeans who consider him a credible alternative voice to the ruling party. But beyond his achievements in the political sphere, Mr Chiam’s personal life and conduct in the public eye is something many have found commendable. Here’re some lessons we can learn from the veteran politician.
1. You Don’t Have To Talk Trash About Your Competition To One-Up Them
The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, was considered by many to be Mr Chiam’s greatest rival in Parliament. The two made little secret of the fact that they often crossed words at Parliamentary sittings, though their relationship, according to the latter, remained a dignified one.
When Mr Lee passed away earlier this year, Mr Chiam said this to members of the media when he went to the Parliament House to pay his last respects:
“I think Singapore is very lucky to have Mr Lee as her first prime minister.”
(Source: The Straits Times)
It takes a person with a certain level of graciousness to remain cool and respectful when dealing with their biggest competition, and Mr Chiam only reinforced this when he said in an interview with TODAY: “The most important thing is that you have to respect an individual, whether he’s got six Cs or six As and whether he’s a brain surgeon or a dustman. I think we should give him the same respect. If you don’t give respect to your own citizens, I think you condemn them forever.”
2. You Can Overcome Many Hardships When You Have Family
Do a quick Google search, and you’ll notice that Mr Chiam and his wife are rarely seen without the company of each other. This is especially so in recent years, after Mr Chiam suffered two strokes.
But their support for one another has been apparent since Mr Chiam’s first ever election, when he ran — and lost — as an independent candidate.
These days, Mrs Chiam is often seen helping Mr Chiam out when he makes his rounds in the neighbourhood, and this intimate look into their life at home says it all.
3. If You Fail, Try, Try, And Try Again
Mr Chiam did not become MP the first time he ran in an election in 1976. Neither did he emerge triumphant in his second try (a by-election), or his third. He only won in the 1984 elections when he ran in Potong Pasir — a seat he would later hold till 2011.
It requires a tremendous amount of grit and resolve for one to bounce back after multiple failures, but over the years, Mr Chiam gradually increased his vote share to eventually defeat Mr Mah Bow Tan in the Potong Pasir ward in 1984. That’s true determination right there.
4. Fortune Favours The Brave; Stand Your Ground When Facing Tough Opponents
A real test of the support residents had for Mr Chiam came in the 2006 General Elections, when the People’s Action Party (PAP) offered an S$80 million upgrading package for the residents of Potong Pasir. They also brought in then-Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong to help with the campaigning.
Yet, Mr Chiam managed to hold his own and won in that year’s elections, albeit marginally with 55.82% of the votes. The David and Goliath story has since been repeated many times over, though Mr Chiam has been quick to downplay his role in the incident, saying in an interview that, “I am not actually a brave man, but I love Singapore and I love Singaporeans.”
5. Aim High, But Stay Grateful And Humble
After spending 27 years as MP for Potong Pasir, Mr Chiam decided to take on Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC with his team in 2011. This was despite him suffering two strokes in recent years.
Yet, he remained grateful to the residents he’d served for decades at Potong Pasir, telling his audience at one of his rallies in 2011 that, “You give me more applause than I deserve.” This video, in particular, is especially moving:
6. Mid-Career Switches Can Work Out Fine If You Have Heart
Mr Chiam has worn many hats over the course of his working life; he worked as a teacher and lawyer before becoming MP in 1984.
As anyone contemplating a career switch will tell you, taking the plunge comes with a ton of uncertainty, and to do that not once, but twice, could instill fear even amongst the best of us. Yet, this did not deter Mr Chiam, who worked tirelessly after being elected as MP to serve his residents — even the lack of a proper office did not stop him.
7. School Grades Are Not Everything If You Can Prove Your Mettle
During his early years as MP, Mr Chiam was snubbed by the ruling party for his O levels results — something not many will be able to take without returning a snub of their own. But that didn’t stop him from going on to become a teacher, lawyer and politician, or from proving himself with his later work.
In fact, the issue of elitism was something that Mr Chiam concerned himself with during his time in Parliament: he pushed for the abolishment of the Graduate Mothers Scheme — something which the Government did eventually do.