Monday, September 09, 2013

Chiam See Tong and 300 Spartans: Some thoughts about the Singapore General Election 2011

Any error found in this essay is unintended and not malicious. Sources have been gleaned from Wikipedia and personal notes.

Chiam See Tong and 300 Spartans: Some thoughts on the SG Election 2011

I wrote this about 2 years ago - I'm reposting it here again.

The Singapore 2011 General election brings into memory the Opposition's historic win back in 1991 when 4 Opposition MPs were elected to Parliament. Three of them were from the SDP which was led by Chiam See Tong which enabled CST to form a small working Parliamentary Opposition.

It was a big deal. Not since the Barisan Socialis days in the 1960s has the Opposition gained that many seats. It seemed to auger a new age for the Opposition Party.

Chiam had proposed a non-confrontational style to the Opposition movement. Unlike JB Jeyaretnam, he believed in a thoughtful considerate (gentlemanly) approach to taking on the Ruling Party. It made common sense, most Singaporeans acknowledged the good that the PAP had achieved - public housing/transportation, and social + economic stability. To aggressively hammer and criticize the government at every point and turn would reduce the effectiveness of the tiny minority voice of the Opposition. Eventually, Jeyaretnam paid the price and was ejected from Parliament.

Chiam on the other hand stayed the course and even won the respect of the Old Man himself who on occasion would seek his opinion on policy. LKY was assured that he would receive an independent rational response. PAP Ministers and MPs were bemused to see LKY summoning CST - only to receive the laconic response that he'll talk to the Founder of Modern Singapore after he got his coffee!!! Chiam's straight talk, coupled with his lack of fear, un-cowed nor overawed by the most august leader - gained CST a level of influence not realized by other Opposition voices or even some PAP MPs.

As it is, Chiam See Tong has lost his place in Parliament, neither was his wife able to retain the Potong Pasir seat. A lot of Singaporeans are upset but I don't see it as a zero-sum game, ie. "PAP won, Chiam See Tong/Lina/ Potong Pasir residents/democracy :) lose".

2480 years ago, when King Leonides and 300 Spartans (+Thespians allies  etc) dared to hold the Thermopylae pass against a million strong Persian Army - it wasn't to "win" per se - i.e., to defeat the entire Persian Army. The point was to hold off the enemy to buy time for the Greeks - Athenians, Spartans etc.. to mobilize and combine their military units. That Leonides' small band of troops could stave off an enemy army vastly stronger in numbers - for even a day, eventually three full days (before being overwhelmed), was a god-like miracle. The delay was a strategic disaster for the Persians, a shameful humiliation. It put an awful dread into the Persian heart for if a handful of Spartan soldiers could hold them off for 3 days what more the entire Greek Army?

Today Leonides' and his 300 Spartans are remembered not for being annihilated but for their bravery and for their honorable, incredible fight against overwhelmingly odds. That in itself was the ultimate victory, celebrated to this day, for which they have gained eternal fame and glory.

So what if "Aunty Lina" lost Potong Pasir? That a relatively unknown housewife (an "aunty") could audaciously fight a three time PAP contender- who was promising millions of dollars in incentives - and lose by a mere 114 votes (0.72%) - is victory enough. 

We also have to bear in mind the herculean fact that Chiam See Tong held the seat for 27 years against a supremely stronger opponent!!! Despite the PAP threats, cajoling, and recriminations, the people of Potong Pasir kept on voting for their "Mr Chiam". Who would have thought that Singaporeans who are said to be materialistic, self-centered etc.. would reject  the promises for HDB property up-grading, better amenities, and other public services?

Chiam even fought off Mah Bow Tan's electoral bid which perhaps caused the PAP not a small amount of consternation as they did not field another high flyer candidate in that seat ever again. 

When he as the head of the SDP won 3 seats in the 1991 GE. Chiam See Tong was riding high. For the first time since the 1960s, there could, be a working Parliamentary Opposition - 3 SDP, 1 WP. It all looked very promising.

Then came an Ephialtes moment, in 1993 Chiam faced a revolt against his own leadership in the SDP - apparently led by his own protégé - Chee Soon Juan. There was even a serious attempt to expel Chiam from the SDP which was confounded due to a legal technicality. If it had succeeded, he would have had to stand down from his seat in Potong Pasir. Since the next election was sometime away (1997) perhaps someone from the SDP hoped to take over Chiam's Parliamentary seat? A terrible thought indeed.

The SDP did indeed try and campaign in Potong Pasir in the subsequent election. This move not only split the Opposition vote but it confused many voters who assumed that Chiam See Tong and the SDP were one and the same. Chiam won anyway but by a small margin.

Its one thing to be thrown out of your seat by the PAP, its quite another to be thrown out by members of your own political party. Imagine the horror if the PAP expelled Lee Kuan Yew from the PAP (and Parliament) because of remarks he had made. !!! This bitter infighting certainly did not reflect well on the Opposition movement; its no wonder the PAP has dominated Singapore's political battleground for 50 years.

Eventually in the next election, Chiam had to join another party, the SPP, and fight the very party he founded (as well as the PAP). Amazingly, he still managed to win. Not many Singaporeans remember this or perhaps they do since the SDP has not won a single seat ever since that incident. 

In this General Election, its noteworthy to remember that Chiam in the Bishan GRC managed to score a decent innings against the PAP. A spectacular result considering the odds. Who would have thought that a 74 year old opposition politician stricken with stroke together with a couple of unknowns could achieve a 43% result against the PAP team led by a Deputy Prime Minister in the Heartland?

Its highly admirable that Chiam chose to step outside his comfort zone, despite his immense frailties, and take on this almost impossible challenge. Would you? A lesser man would have given up ages ago. But like King Leonidas, Chiam See Tong has remained steadfast despite the odds. 

The Ruling Party, like the Persian Military Behemoth, won in the end but certainly not convincingly. Like the 300 Spartans, the people of Potong Pasir defied the odds. For 27 years, the people of Potong Pasir made its point: "Don't tread on us." You can expect that the PAP will be making good on its promises on the upgrading. You can also expect Potong Pasir to be merged with another constituency before the next election. But if promises are reneged - Potong Pasir will be like a porcupine fish swallowed by the shark. 

As for the magnificent win by the Worker's Party in Aljuneid and the overall drop in the popular vote for the Ruling Party I'll talk about that some other time.

In the meanwhile, I'd like to end with a poem by Robert Graves - its a satirical poem awash in irony. Purporting to tell the Persian version of history, the parochial speaker casually and condescendingly dismisses the Greek victory (the earlier one at Marathon) to focus on the "bigger picture", avoiding any serious reflection on their defeat. I certainly hope the sentiments are not shared by the PAP... for Singapore's sake.

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer's expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece - they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together. -- Robert Graves

Bibliography, Notes, Sources

No comments: