Mothership Q&A: A glimpse of Chiam See Tong biographer Loke Hoe Yeong
"Every Singaporean should read Let The People Have Him because there are 20 books on Mr Lee Kuan Yew but only one book on Mr Chiam."
That was how long Loke Hoe Yeong, an associate fellow at the European Union Centre, took to research, interview and write Let The People Have Him, the biography of veteran opposition MP Chiam See Tong.
Loke, 29, who is also the assistant secretary-general of Chiam’s Singapore People’s Party, said in an earlier interview that he believed “Chiam reinvented opposition politics in Singapore” and added that the policy manifesto of Barisan Sosialis and the JB Jeyaretnam-led Workers’ Party were a little outdated and unrealistic.
Chiam was Singapore’s longest-serving opposition MP, having represented Potong Pasir in Parliament from 1984 to 2011.
Now imagine Chiam’s eventful time as an MP over the 27 years.
After JB Jeyaretnam’s removal from parliament due to criminal charges, Chiam was the lone elected opposition voice in parliament until WP chief Low Thia Khiang was elected as an MP in 1991. Between 1997 and 2011, Low and Chiam were the only two elected MP in parliament.
Mothership.sg speaks to Loke to find how why he wrote Chiam’s biography, his impressions of Chiam during his interviews, why he chose SPP over WP and why every Singaporean should read the book.
1. You mentioned in the Straits Times that the book involved three years of research, interviews and writing. As a researcher with a postgraduate degree, do you think it is tougher writing this book or pursuing a PhD?
There are challenges in each medium. For academic writings, it is not uncommon for only 5-10 people to read you, for the sole purpose of critiquing you in their next journal article! For this book, the interest and readership would definitely be wider. So I had to think how I would address some points – how do I balance the personal aspects of Mr Chiam’s life with that of his political contributions? Would the book sound too pro-opposition (or not “opposition” enough)?
One thing’s the same in both genres. I have to make sure I have gotten my facts absolutely right. I would not be forgiven for it.
2. The first volume Let The People Have Him covered Chiam’s earlier years until his election as an MP. What will the second volume feature?
Volume 2 picks up from where Volume 1 leaves off – that’s the point he won Potong Pasir and entered Parliament. So I would be examining his role in shaping Singapore politics and national policies. More political intrigue, deeper analysis, nonetheless as readable as Volume 1.
Volume 1 is very much a human story. What made this man do something brave as to join opposition politics in the 1970s? What inspired him to do so? The publisher and I agreed that Volume 1 worked very well as a self-contained book.
3. What motivated you to write the book? Public interest?
It was right after GE2011, and my interest was piqued in all things political about Singapore. I realised there wasn’t a biography on Chiam See Tong, or indeed any opposition politician from post-independence Singapore (there are biographies on the pre-independence figures of David Marshall, Lim Chin Siong). So I thought I would try to write that missing biography.
4. Share with us a little known trait/ habit of Chiam.
This is not exactly a trait or habit – did you know Mr Chiam is related to Lee Kuan Yew?
Ok, before the conspiracy theories flood in, let me clear the air. Apparently the relationship is a distant one – Mr Chiam’s mother had a sister who married the brother of Lee Kuan Yew’s wife (is that too confusing?). Anyway I checked with many sources – Mr Chiam and Mr Lee never ever met in the flesh, until Parliament was sworn in after the 1984 general election. Mr Chiam went up to the prime minister to congratulate him, and Mr Lee was briefly thrown off by the surprise, gentlemanly gesture.
Maybe that’s how he found out about Mr Chiam’s O-level results…
5. Where did you conduct the interviews with Chiam that lasted several hours and what was the most memorable moment or revelation?
In his home; at a chalet during a retreat; over tea.
There was once I interviewed him at the coffee house at Hotel Royal Newton (where Mr Chiam rented conference rooms as his campaign HQ for the 1984 general election, and where his own wedding banquet was held in the 1970s). As he was talking about his life, we discovered that seated next to us was a group of old girls from Cedar Girls’ School having a class reunion, some of whom were taught by him in the 1960s. They were so excited to bump into him. I decided to reschedule the interview so that they could catch up!
6. You wrote briefly above the love story between Chiam and his wife Lina. It will be their 40th wedding anniversary next year. How can young couples learn from the enduring relationship between Chiam and his wife?
Be careful whom you date might one day might end up in opposition politics. Ok I’m kidding. Theirs is a good ol’ school romance, with a lot of grit and endurance woven in. Given the up and downs one has to face in politics, you would also need a good deal of humour, and a keen sense of adventure, and they have plenty of that together.
Did you know Mr Chiam drove her all the way home from London to Singapore (yes, drive on land) and married her?
7. MPs Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang are known as the symbols of opposition politics in the 1990s. Why did you choose to support Chiam’s Singapore People’s Party instead of Low’s more established Workers’ Party?
I have good friends in the Workers’ Party. They know that I also support them in what they do in service to the people of Singapore. I have friends in PAP circles too, though perhaps we might not agree on everything!
8. You are among the four new faces in SPP’s new central executive committee (CEC). As one of the youngest members, do you experience any challenges in pursuing changes to the party?
The only thing that is constant is change. But what may be more important in this day and age is to stay true to one’s political values – safeguarding parliamentary democracy; service before self, for the nation, for the people; compassion for those falling between the cracks – as what I believe Mr Chiam and the SPP stand for.
9. Describe your book in a 140 character tweet.
“First biography of post-indep opposition politician. Read all about it! #Chiam #notbannedyet”
I’m sure mothership.sg comes up with better tweets than that…
10. Every Singaporean should read Let The People Have Him because…
… there are 20 books on Mr Lee Kuan Yew but only one book on Mr Chiam. This is it. Available at all good bookstores.
Mothership.sg is giving away two copies of Let The People Have Him, autographed by Hoe Yeong. Share with us your favourite portion of the interview in the comment box below. We will select the two best comments and notify the winners in the comments box.
“Let The People Have Him – Chiam See Tong: The Early Years” is available for purchase online at Epigram Books.
Top photo provided by Loke Hoe Yeong.