One author’s quest to document the Opposition’s past
Updated: Mar 26
By Daryl Choo
Author Loke Hoe Yeong (left) speaking with veteran opposition politician Chiam See Tong. PHOTO COURTESY OF LOKE HOE YEONG
Younger people might not know that a sitting prime minister in Singapore once quit Parliament to stand in a by-election. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong did so in 1992, to allow then-Workers’ Party (WP) chief J B Jeyaretnam to contest. The late Mr Jeyaretnam had complained that the 1991 snap election was called to keep him out of the fray; he was at that time not qualified to stand for election.
But the WP didn’t fight the People’s Action Party (PAP) team in Marine Parade GRC in the end. One of its candidates didn’t arrive in time to file his nomination papers. This paved the way for university lecturer Chee Soon Juan to make his electoral debut on behalf of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).
Newspapers ran stories of the no-show on their front pages. Mr Jeyaratnam told reporters he was “disappointed” at not being able to contest.
The truth, according to the WP’s latecomer, one John Gan, was that this was just a charade. The WP thought it couldn’t beat the Prime Minister, especially since the SDP would also be in the contest to split the opposition vote. Reneging on the party’s earlier commitment to contest would embarrass Mr Jeyaretnam, so Mr Gan chose instead to be the sacrificial lamb.
That was what Mr Gan himself told Mr Loke Hoe Yeong, a London-based researcher and consultant on politics and international affairs, who wrote The First Wave: JBJ, Chiam & The Opposition in Singapore. The book, published last year, examines the role played by the Opposition between 1984 and 2011. About 1,000 copies have been sold, Mr Loke said.
“Very little is known about how the Opposition works,” said the 35-year-old former assistant secretary-general of the Singapore People’s Party (SPP) in a phone interview. “That was really my motivation for doing these books, which is really a labour of love.”
Not many books have been written about post-Independence elected members of the Opposition. That’s mainly because there haven't been many in the first place — after 55 years of independence, only 12 opposition members have been voted into Parliament.
The book now joins this small collection that includes a 2003 book Lee’s Law: How Singapore Crushes Dissent, written by US-based writer Chris Lydgate and serves as Mr Jeyaretnam’s biography. Another is Let The People Have Him written earlier by Mr Loke in 2014.
While Mr Loke’s first book documents the personal life of Mr Chiam right up till his Potong Pasir win in the 1984 general election, his second deals largely with the strife within the SDP beginning from 1993 that led to a splinter group forming the SPP the following year.
Piecing together the events leading up to the split took Mr Loke most of the five years spent researching, interviewing and writing the book. He interviewed party members from both camps, including Mr Chiam’s wife Lina, Dr Chee and other central executive committee (CEC) members.
“In a way, it can be seen as a political thriller,” Mr Loke said. “I think people want to know what really happened in this episode, and why the Opposition in Singapore always seem to have this eternal problem of infighting.”
It began with Dr Chee going on a hunger strike to protest his dismissal from the National University of Singapore and ended in its founder Mr Chiam resigning from the party. There were contentious private meetings, internal hearings and even a court case between Mr Chiam and key members of the party.
What had seemed a promising start at building opposition strength by the SDP, which added two more members to Parliament in 1991, petered out in the 90s. The party lost the 1992 Marine Parade by-election and by 1993, it was going to pieces — publicly.
Mr Loke said he referred to the 1,000 pages of court documents that stemmed from the dispute to help him in his retelling of the saga. “There’s a period of time I literally ate and slept with the court documents,” he said.
Nobody has challenged him on the book’s depiction of the events, he said, adding: “I have not heard anyone so far tell me that I’ve gotten something wrong, or that I was biased.”
According to Mr Loke, in 1993, Mr Chiam was aggrieved that Dr Chee did not reveal to him the full facts surrounding his dismissal from NUS when he mounted a defence for the psychology lecturer in Parliament, only to be shown up by the PAP.
Humiliated, he took his grievances to the next CEC meeting and called for a motion to censure Dr Chee for his “childish” hunger strike that brought the party into disrepute. Not one of the CEC members, surprised by the sudden reversal of stance, voted in support of the motion.
Mr Chiam interpreted that as, essentially, a vote of no confidence in himself as the secretary-general. He resigned from the party the next day.
Mr Loke’s analysis: The split, he said, stemmed from a series of misunderstandings.
From his interviews with Dr Chee and the CEC members, it became clear to him that Mr Chiam had not communicated his grievances about having been shown up in Parliament. One CEC member, Mr Kwan Yue Keng, found out the full extent of Mr Chiam’s complaint only when Mr Loke revealed it to him in an interview in 2016.
“They were never really talking together to straighten out those issues,” Mr Loke said. “It was only after I started interviewing them and connecting the dots that the picture was put together.”
If they had talked, the party might have voted to censure Dr Chee for his hunger strike, and Mr Chiam might not have resigned.
And who knows what the SDP might have turned out to be.
Mr Loke began work on his first book Let the People Have Him (a phrase from Mrs Chiam) not long after the 2011 General Election. He did not know the Chiams and was introduced to them by a friend. He had just completed his Masters in political science and was working at the European Union Centre, a think tank that was at the National University of Singapore.
At that time, Mrs Chiam was a non-constituency MP. She stood in Potong Pasir on the Singapore People’s Party ticket while her husband shifted to Bishan-Toa Payoh to head up a five-man team. Both failed but Mrs Chiam did well enough to earn the NCMP slot.
Mr Loke said Mr Chiam came up to him one day and asked: “Hoe Yeong, I really need your help. Could you please help Mrs Chiam write her speeches?”
That was his initiation into politics. He became a member of the SPP in 2012, and after two years, was elected the party’s assistant secretary-general. He left the party before the 2015 General Election.
All he would say was that there were new members who had joined “and I thought I had done my part to help Mrs Chiam through this period she was in Parliament’’.
Online, some commentators, noting Mr Loke’s past political affiliation, have described Let the People Have Him as a fawning account of Mr Chiam’s life before Parliament.
“It’s understandable,” said Mr Loke. “It’s a human interest story. The purpose of that book was to examine what drove this man to join opposition politics in Singapore at a time when it was potentially scary.”
The second book was a more critical examination of the PAP and the Opposition. Mr Loke likened his work to ethnography, where researchers spend time immersed within a community to better observe and understand their views, while at the same time being conscious about how their own perspectives could colour their work.
“If I had not been so deeply involved in politics, I wouldn’t have understood how it all works,” he said. He added that it helped him secure interviews with other opposition members who were afraid to speak up.
Asked if he had any intention of returning to politics, he said: “I’m a writer, first and foremost… There’s a need to tell the Singapore story — the other story not previously told — and let Singaporeans make up their own mind on things. I think that’s what’s really needed now.”
POLITICS COMES IN ‘WAVES’
The main argument put forth in The First Wave is that politics in Singapore comes in predictable cycles, unlike the drastic changes to the balance of power between the competing political parties in other countries.
That’s because the PAP has always been in power, and the strength of the Opposition — based on its self-proclaimed role of providing checks and balances — is heavily dependent on the popularity of the PAP’s policies at the time.
Mr Loke described in his book how the 1981 Anson by-election win by WP’s Mr Jeyaretnam marked the first time the PAP had lost a poll since Independence and ushered the first wave of opposition members into Parliament.
When Mr Chiam won in 1984, Mr Jeyaretnam ceased being the sole dissenter in a PAP-dominated Parliament. Mr Jeyaretnam and Mr Chiam would frequently voice support for each other in debates. And for the first time in more than a decade, the Opposition could introduce and second motions and amendments in the House.
It was a time of rambunctious debates, unparliamentary language and challenges to the Opposition that were very real. One famous example detailed in Mr Loke’s book:
When Mr Chiam in 1985 alleged the Housing Development Board was profiteering off public housing, then-Minister for National Development Teh Cheang Wan offered him a plot of land in Yishun to build four blocks of flats, free of charge. Mr Chiam’s party would be able to keep the sale profits, if he could make any.
“This is the most gigantic offer in the history of Singapore,” Chiam replied. “And even a very experienced developer, when given this kind of an offer, cannot on the spot say yes or no.” But MPs were calling out to Chiam to give a quick answer: “Yes or no!” Others broke out into laughter.
“Either he is a liar or a sham!” Augustine Tan cried, whom Chiam then derided for lack of parliamentary decorum.
“What stood out to me was how there were very robust debates even within the PAP,” Mr Loke said, referring to speeches by PAP old guards Mr Toh Chin Chye and Mr Jek Yeun Thong. “The debates within the PAP were even more robust than between the Opposition and the PAP.”
Mr Loke said he could get the sense of how Parliament was like through watching videos of the exchanges in the House. These sessions were televised for the first time in 1985, but was a short-lived experiment despite being a hit on prime-time television when it debuted.
The early successes of the WP and the SDP ended soon after the internal split, with the SDP wiped out of Parliament by 1997 (Mr Chiam continued on as MP with the SPP until 2011). The second cohort of the Opposition — led by former WP chief Low Thia Khiang who was elected in 1991 — spent the next decade working its way back into victory, marking what could be the beginnings of the second wave.
Some time would need to pass before Mr Low and his team’s recent victories can be defined as a second wave that could “ebb and flow like the first,” Mr Loke wrote in the prologue of his book, noting that Mr Low’s leadership of the WP was independent of the in-roads paved by Mr Jeyaretnam and Mr Chiam.
There was talk of a new normal in Singapore politics after the watershed election in 2011 when the Opposition won 40 per cent of the popular vote. But this was quelled when the election in 2015 brought the needle down to 30 per cent.
Does Mr Loke think the Opposition has passed its peak for the current wave?
He would only say that the Opposition’s “chips seem to be a bit down” and that the next election due by April 2021 will be a measure of how the public is accepting of the new crop of 4G PAP leaders.
“If news of opposition quarrels and infightings persists, as I understand they are in some quarters, then I think they are only doing themselves and Singaporeans a disservice.”