The inside story of what happened between Chee Soon Juan & Chiam See Tong at the SDP

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | August 18, 2019, 09:53 AM

The First Wave, a new book published by Epigram, traces the story of the opposition in Singapore during its critical first 30 years in Parliament.

The book, which you can buy a copy of here, sheds light on key opposition parties and figures based on extensive interviews and archival material.

It is written by Loke Hoe Yeong, a former associate fellow at the National University of Singapore's European Union Centre.

We reproduce an excerpt from his book here:


There are a few individuals named in this extract of the book:

  • Wong Hong Toy, previously Chairman of the Workers 'Party (WP), joined SDP in 1991 with 15 other WP members. Subsequently, there was friction between Wong, who was then-vice-Chairman of the SDP, and Chiam.
  • Ling How Doong was SDP Chairman during the time that Chiam was sec-gen.
  • Ashleigh Seow is the son of Francis Seow, a political dissident who was detained under the Internal Security Act. Ashleigh was a CEC member.

On May 17, 1993, Chiam See Tong resigned as the secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party.

This was following the CEC's refusal to support Chiam's motion to censure Chee Soon Juan for going on a hunger strike.

In Chiam's resignation letter, he claimed that the whole CEC voting against his motion was essentially a "vote of no confidence" in him as the secretary-general.

The author interviewed Lina Chiam, Chiam See Tong and Chee Soon Juan to detail the events that occurred after Chiam's resignation. Party meeting minutes, letters and old news reports were also taken into consideration.

By Loke Hoe Yeong

Later in the evening of May 18, the CEC met again, though without Ling How Doong present.

Kwan’s delegation, which had visited Chiam at his home in the early hours of that morning, reported that they had been unable to convince Chiam to rescind his resignation as secretary-general.

The CEC unanimously resolved that they still had to ask Chiam See Tong to reconsider his decision.

Chee Soon Juan produced a letter addressed to Chiam signed by himself, on behalf of the CEC, urging him to withdraw his letter of resignation. This was to be delivered by hand by Ashleigh Seow, who was now the one given the task to approach Chiam to bring him back.

Chiam thought he could reassert his hold over the SDP

While Chiam’s resignation as secretary-general was seemingly made in the heat of the moment, he did come to realise that it could be his only way to reassert his hold over the SDP.

He regarded it as a way to “frighten” the CEC to fall into line as he knew that the SDP as a whole would be less credible without his presence to front the party, and that they would ultimately capitulate to his demands.

In rationalising this strategy of his, Chiam invoked what Lee Kuan Yew had done at a crucial party conference of the PAP back in August 1957, in the midst of Lee’s own tussle with his left-wing rivals in his party.

After some tough bargaining, Lee and his faction in the PAP gambled to let the left-wing faction take all the key offices of the party leadership, including Lee’s own position as secretary-general of the PAP. Members of the left-wing faction were nervous, and felt vulnerable.

After being in office for a mere 10 days, all the left-wingers on the new CEC of the PAP were detained by Special Branch, except for the new secretary-general, T. T. Rajah, who quickly resigned out of “fear and worry.”

Lee Kuan Yew then reassumed the post of secretary-general of the PAP, with his standing in the party further strengthened after this episode.

Chiam wanted "prime troublemaker" member removed from the CEC

Nevertheless, there was never any intention on the part of Chiam to tell the press about his resignation as the SDP’s secretary-general. He saw it as a party matter, to be resolved without external pressure or any public airing.

It emerged that one of Chiam’s conditions for him returning to the position of secretary-general was the removal from the CEC of Wong Hong Toy, whom Chiam pinpointed as being the prime troublemaker in the party.

This was a difficult condition for the CEC to accede to.

Things did not move very much in the ensuing weeks. Chiam still made no move towards withdrawing his letter of resignation.

Issuing Chiam an ultimatum — withdraw resignation by June 18 or have it take immediate effect

Thus at the next CEC meeting on June 14, it was decided after some discussion that the CEC could not wait any longer. They were frustrated, and the sentiment among them was that Chiam was playing games with them.

They found it increasingly impossible to move on with the party’s programme and plans while having to keep Chiam’s resignation as party leader a secret from the public.

An ultimatum was set — if Chiam did not withdraw his letter of resignation by Friday, June 18, at 4pm, his resignation would take immediate effect. As a concession, they would co-opt Chiam as an ordinary member of the CEC. Chee was tasked to convey this message to Chiam.

Chee went to Chiam’s law office the next day, June 15. He asked Chiam if he had changed his stance on his resignation as the secretary-general of the SDP.

As Chee was to report back to the CEC later at a meeting on June 21, Chiam had not.

Chiam and Chee had differing accounts on the same event

According to Chee, Chiam continued to insist on his condition that Wong Hong Toy be removed from the CEC before he would return to the SDP leadership. Chee asked if that was his last word, and Chiam confirmed it to be so.

This, however, was completely different from Chiam’s account of the meeting — Chiam said he had in fact handed Chee a deadline of June 30 to give him a reply from the SDP CEC as to whether this condition for returning as the secretary-general of the SDP could be met.

In an interview in 2016, Chee was unable to recall precisely the details of this June 15 meeting or whether there was any discussion with Chiam about the June 18 deadline for withdrawing his resignation.

What Chee chiefly remembers from this meeting was that Chiam detailed what he felt to be the workings of the power play within the SDP.

It was at this meeting that Chee began to realise the full extent of the bad blood that had built up between Chiam and the Ling How Doong-Wong Hong Toy clique over the past few years — incidents that had preceded Chee’s membership in the SDP.

Chee had only witnessed the heated arguments at CEC meetings between Chiam, Ling and the others, but had not fully appreciated the extent of the animosity between the two factions.

Did Chee tell Chiam about the June 18 ultimatum? And if he didn't, was it a deliberate omission?

Chiam, in his submissions of August 6 to the SDP disciplinary committee to which he was later summoned for a hearing, stated that it was precisely what had happened during this June 15 meeting with Chee that had caused Chiam to “stop believing” in Chee.

The implication here, it would seem, was that Chee deliberately omitted to convey the ultimatum and the deadline clearly for Chiam to withdraw his resignation before the SDP CEC would announce it to the press.

However, Chiam could not recall this June 15 meeting with Chee at all when asked about it in an interview in 2016.

So did Chee intentionally withhold information about the ultimatum and the deadline from Chiam?

To Chee, the CEC had already given Chiam ample opportunity and time to withdraw his resignation — a whole month.

Chee himself had urged Chiam verbally, as well as in a letter, to retract his resignation. As such, Chee’s assertion is that the details of the June 15 meeting with Chiam are not important.

Chee and the CEC were frustrated by Chiam’s intransigence on the conditions attached to the withdrawal of his resignation, and therefore concluded that that further delay would not change his mind.

This, however, contradicts Chee’s own testimony at the 1996 court hearing against the SDP, in which Chee said that as far as he could recall, he had informed Chiam about the June 18 deadline.

Perhaps there was no need to convey the June 18 deadline?

Upon meeting Chiam that day, Chee could have reasonably surmised that there was no possibility of Chiam compromising on his demand that Wong Hong Toy be removed from the CEC as a precondition for Chiam’s return to the CEC or to the position of secretary-general.

Given such clarity, there was no further need to convey the deadline of 4pm on June 18 for Chiam to withdraw his resignation.

As to Chiam’s account that he had given Chee his own deadline of June 30 to accept his conditions for his return as secretary-general of the SDP, there could have been a possibility that Chee had genuinely not registered it.

But we will never know what exactly transpired during that June 15 meeting between the two men, which no one else witnessed.

Chiam accused of offering Chee's wife a job in return for "crossing over to his side"

Up to this point, it seemed that the whole issue surrounding the June 15 meeting has been a misunderstanding.

However, the documents that were released in the course of the lawsuit later between Chiam and the CEC of the SDP, in which more details of the meeting between Chiam and Chee were revealed, suggest that the meeting had not actually been just about conveying a deadline or an ultimatum.

In the charge sheet sent to Chiam later, in advance of the disciplinary hearing for August 6, Chee, on behalf of the CEC, accused Chiam of bargaining for Chee to “cross over to his side,” in return for offering Chee’s wife, Chih Mei, a job at the Potong Pasir town council.

It was implied that this had taken place at the June 15 meeting between the two men — the last such meeting they ever had. This would then hint that the June 15 meeting was in fact the final drawing of battle lines in the SDP as to whose side Chee was on during the spat within the SDP.

At least, that was how the rest of the CEC saw it.

Chiam asserted he made no such bargain

But Chiam clarified, in a submission to the SDP disciplinary committee later on August 6, that he had made no such bargain with Chee at that June 15 meeting. He simply asked Chee whose side he was on.

Chiam also clarified that he did not offer Chih Mei a job at Potong Pasir town council (PPTC) as part of a deal:

"I did not “bargain” with Dr Chee to cross over to my side. That is again an untruth. I asked Dr Chee and also Tan Peng Kuan whose side were they on. I thought Dr Chee was fishing [for] a job for his wife at PPTC. He told me that she had worked at two positions in NUS — one to assist a research worker or lecturer and the other as a tutor. The former job was not renewed as the research worker finished his assignment and that latter was not renewed. He said probably due to his involvement (or suspected involvement) in politics. Then I told him that if she wants to work, she may be able to fit in at PPTC. I certainly did not go out of my way to 'offer' her a job at PPTC."

When asked in an interview in 2016, Chee said he did not remember clearly the discussion with Chiam about Chih Mei “crossing over” to Potong Pasir town council.

Different accounts on Registrar of Newspapers/Registrar of Societies

In his August 6 submission to the SDP CEC, Chiam said that Chee failed to accurately report to the CEC what he had told Chee on June 15 about a separate matter that was also raised — a matter that could possibly have compounded Chee’s confusion about Chiam’s final position on his resignation.

The government printing permit for The Demokrat was expiring, and Chiam would be forced to report to the Registrar of Newspapers that he was no longer secretary-general if the CEC did not give its reply to Chiam’s condition for returning as the secretary-general of the SDP.

This was because the personal details of all CEC members and their positions held in the CEC were required for a licence for a political party’s newsletter.

Chiam then gave Chee until June 30 to give him a reply from the CEC on this.

But Chee, “either negligently or otherwise”, told the CEC that Chiam would be reporting to the Registrar of Societies — the body that registers societies and political parties in Singapore, rather than the Registrar of Newspapers — that Chiam had resigned as secretary-general, which Chiam denied saying.

Chiam substantiated his account by saying that the printing permit certificate was hung on the wall of his office and that he had pointed to it when speaking to Chee.

Therefore, it could not have been the Registrar of Societies that he was referring to.

Also, the forms for the renewal of the printing permit had incidentally arrived in his office by mail that day, and he gave them to Chee, who “absent-mindedly” left them in Chiam’s office.

Chiam accused Chee of "usurping" his post as secretary-general

Nevertheless, Chiam has maintained there was never any correspondence, official or otherwise, from the SDP CEC about the ultimatum and deadline of 4pm on June 18 for him to withdraw his resignation as secretary-general.

And if that ultimatum was ever properly decided on at an SDP CEC meeting, Chiam said he was never made aware of it.

While all of these might appear to be minutiae, they are at the heart of Chiam’s claims that Chee “could not be trusted” and had usurped his position as secretary-general of the SDP.

On July 2, in a statement to the media, Chiam accused Chee Soon Juan of usurping his post of secretary-general in the party for the first time.

He challenged Chee to resign if he had not really sought out the position of secretary-general, criticising Chee for “hopping onto a power vehicle, a ready-made party” that Chiam had founded 13 years ago.

“I cannot resign,” Chee responded, citing the provisions of the SDP constitution. “My post is an acting position. I did not go out of my way to seek it. Now that the responsibility has been placed on me, I can’t just discard it.”

In an interview with Hussin Mutalib some years after the incident, Chiam said,

“I thought when things [cooled down], and when they can see the light, I [could probably] come back. But I did not realise they took the opportunity to oust me. So, in a way, I can say, I have been misjudging people. I am not afraid to say this. I did not really foresee the reaction of the group, which probably involved Wong Hong Toy.”

Top photo composite image, via National Archives Singapore