Chiam See Tong turns 83

Happy birthday, Lion of Potong Pasir.

By Belmont Lay | March 12, 2018

Chiam See Tong turned 83 on March 12, 2018.

The veteran politician was at the helm of Potong Pasir SMC for 27 years between 1984 and 2011, until he left to contest Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and lost.

Even though his record of being the longest-serving opposition Member of Parliament looks set to be overshadowed in 2018 by de facto opposition leader, Workers’ Party’s Low Thia Khiang (pictured above, on far left), Chiam has left an indelible mark on Singapore politics.

Won praise from ruling party

Former primer minister Lee Kuan Yew was known to have held Chiam in higher regard than other opposition politicians.

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”.

JB Jeyaretnam was re-elected in the 1984 general election to be the other opposition MP in parliament with Chiam, who was only serving his first term at the age of 50.

Opposition Member of Parliament (Potong Pasir ) Chiam See Tong (left) and Member of Parliament (Anson) J B Jeyaretnam (right) arriving for the opening of the sixth parliament on February 25, 1985. (Source: National Archives of Singapore)

Fourth time lucky

Throughout his life, Chiam has been many things to many people: First a teacher, then a lawyer at age 37, and eventually, an opposition politician who will be remembered for his contribution of staring down a preponderant ruling People’s Action Party, despite being constantly outnumbered in parliament.

In total, Chiam contested and lost in three elections — 1976, 1979 and 1980 — before he finally won Potong Pasir SMC in 1984, a constituency that will forever be intertwined with his legacy.

Natural-born competitor

His never-say-die spirit stemmed from somewhere deeper.

In his younger days, Chiam was a competitive swimmer at Anglo-Chinese School and excelled at the 200m freestyle event. His coach was Ang Peng Siong’s father.

And he was adventurous even by 21st century standards today.

As a newly-wed husband, he made his way back to Singapore with his wife — Lina Chiam — from London, by driving a Volkswagen Beetle over land, in the process, making their way across Europe, Afghanistan, and India.

This was back in the 1970s.

Set up sports foundation

Today, despite being out of politics and suffering a stroke in 2008, Chiam continues to contribute to Singapore society.

The Chiam See Tong Foundation was set up in 2017 to offer disadvantaged children from under-resourced families to participate in sports.

It is set to benefit at least 100 children in its first year.

This is not unusual, as Chiam spoke about the importance of sports very early on in his maiden speech in parliament in 1985, which he hoped would be part of Singapore culture one day.

Chiam’s legacy would be defined by his indefatigable spirit.

Top photo via National Archives of Singapore

About Belmont Lay

Belmont can pronounce "tchotchke".

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