Chiam See Tong celebrated his 81st birthday on Saturday, March 12, 2016.
His name See Tong roughly translates from Teochew Chinese as “timely” or “punctual” — a name which was given to him by his paternal grandfather.
However, for those who know dialect, his name sounds like “persevering with all his life”.
Which basically sounds about right.
Here are 15 things about Chiam, his legacy and how he came to be regarded as the Lion of Potong Pasir.
1. Chiam was a competitive swimmer.
Chiam is the second of three children of a successful businessman. He was a competitive swimmer at Anglo-Chinese School and excelled at the 200m freestyle event. He was also part of the ACS relay team of star swimmers.
2. Educated in New Zealand
Chiam enrolled in a science degree programme in New Zealand because his father made him do it. He was uninterested in science then.
When he returned from New Zealand, Chiam decided to become a teacher in Malaysia because he felt that there were not enough teachers there.
Later, he taught at Cedar Girls’ Secondary School in Singapore for nine years, where he was remembered as a patient teacher.
3. Chiam pursued law at age 37
In 1972, when he was 37, he decided to pursue a law degree in London. It was there that he met Lina Loh at a dance.
At 24, Lina was a trainee nurse at a London hospital. She was from Kuala Lumpur.
4. Chiam was a die-hard unromantic
Their first date was a visit to the graveyard of Karl Marx. Mrs Chiam remembered that he was unromantic and into politics. For their first Valentine’s, he bought her flowers only because the proceeds would go to charity.
They married in 1975 when he was 40 and she 26. He was called to the Singapore Bar that same year.
5. Chiam the politician
A year after they got married, Chiam entered politics. Mrs Chiam was supportive.
She was a familiar face during elections.
They have a daughter, Camilla, who is now 40.
5. The Chiams travelled from London to Singapore in his Volkswagen Beetle
When the Chiams left London, they drove overland from Europe to Singapore in his Volkswagen Beetle named Herbie. They drove through Europe, Afghanistan, India and Malaysia in the car. Herbie was a mascot during his campaigns, even until the 2011 election.
6. Chiam was a late bloomer in politics
In December 1976, Chiam entered politics at the age of 41. The teacher-turned-lawyer ran against then Minister for National Development and Communications Lim Kim San in Cairnhill ward.
Chiam lost but didn’t give up his fight to enter Parliament.
7. Chiam lost the first three electoral battles
In 1979, he contested in a by-election in Potong Pasir. It was the first time he ran in the constituency that would forever be linked with him. He lost to the PAP’s Howe Yoon Chong.
He lost to Howe again in the 1980 general election, but with a smaller margin.
8. Chiam thought of giving up politics.
After losing three elections, Chiam entertained the thought of giving up politics. His friends and relatives had been coaxing him that he would be able to live a contented life as a lawyer.
9. Chiam won Potong Pasir in 1984 — in his fourth electoral battle
Eight years after his first foray into electoral politics, Chiam won in Potong Pasir in 1984 under the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) flag. He had founded the SDP in 1980.
Chiam destroyed Mah Bow Tan hands down in the 1984 General Election.
The residents of Potong Pasir gave Chiam 60.28% of the votes, compared to Mah’s 39.72%.
J.B. Jeyaratnam beat PAP’s Ng Pock Too in Anson that same year.
Chiam was to become the MP for Potong Pasir for the next 27 years.
10. Staffers from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had to apologise to Chiam in 1984
In a 1984 General Election rally speech, Lee Kuan Yew said Chiam only attained six credits in his O-level results.
Truth was, Chiam had gotten seven.
The PMO had to convey an apology from Lee himself for the error.
11. Chiam sued then Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan and Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong for defamation.
In 1981, then Workers’ Party Sec-Gen and MP JB Jeyaretnam represented Chiam in filing a writ in the High Court seeking damages for slander made in the election speeches by Dhanabalan and Howe.
Dhanabalan called Chiam “a two-bit lawyer orchestrating a three-piece band whose members only appear once every four or five years”.
Howe called Chiam “a twice unsuccessful lawyer” and “a lawyer who is not even very good at law”.
Chiam became the only opposition member ever to receive a public apology and out-of-court damages from a PAP leader.
Then defence minister Howe Yoon Chong, Chiam’s opponent in Potong Pasir, had to make amends for having made similar remarks.
12. Both Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan and Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong took out apologies in the newspaper.
Howe: “I, Howe Yoong Chong, hereby unreservedly withdraw all imputations against the professional capacity and competence of Mr Chiam See Tong made by me on December 21 1980 and published in the issue of this newspaper on December 22 1980.” Business Times, 13 Feb, 1981.
Dhanabalan: “I acknowledge that there was no foundation for any of the imputations and I sincerely apologise to Mr Chiam for having made them”. Business Times, 28, 1981.
Chiam accepted the apologies and withdrew his lawsuits against them.
13. Chiam and Lee Kuan Yew are distantly related by marriage
Chiam had never met Lee in person until he was sworn into Parliament in 1985.
However, other members of Chiam’s extended family were on cordial terms with Lee’s extended family.
This relationship stemmed from the marriage of Chiam’s maternal grandfather Lim Liang Quee’s daughter to a member of the Kwa family, from which Lee’s wife was.
14. Lee Kuan Yew held Chiam in higher regard than other opposition politicians
When Chiam first met Lee, this was how it went:
Chiam (extending his hand): “Mr Prime Minister, may I congratulate the PAP on winning the elections”.
Lee (firm handshake): “See you in Parliament”.
In his memoirs, Lee observed that Chiam took the “shrewder line than Jeyaretnam, was more in tune with the sentiments of the population, that the PAP was doing a fair job, but could do better and should listen more to criticism”.
15. In 2008, Chiam suffered a mild stroke.
He went back to his Meet-the-People session two weeks later at the makeshift void deck cubicle.
Top photo via MICA