Chiam See Tong Beat Mah Bow Tan at ‘O’ Levels and Other Revelations

Former Opposition MP Chiam See Tong’s reputation over the years has been recast to one of an elder statesman, well-respected by the ruling party and the opposition alike.

One observed how Chiam is respectfully treated by the Prime Ministers this year.

Chiam is indeed a politician of his time. As founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew observed in his memoirs, 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”.

Now there is a book that will set his life on paper.

Let The People Have Him, a book by academic Loke Hoe Yeong that traces Chiam’s birth to his winning of the Potong Pasir seat in 1984, is a reminder that Chiam’s rise as a national opposition is no easy feat.

Below are ten revelations from Chiam’s biography that will interest every well-informed Singaporeans about 1970s/1980s politics.

1. Then PM Lee Kuan Yew compared the ‘O’ Level results of the two candidates for Potong Pasir – Mah Bow Tan and Chiam.

Lee said, “Mah Bow Tan, age 16, took his ‘O’ Levels – six distinctions, two credits.

Mr Chiam, age 18 – six credits, one pass.”

The residents of Potong Pasir chose Chiam. Chiam won 60.28% of the votes, compared to Mah’s 39.72% in the 1984 General Elections.

2. Staffers from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) apologised to Chiam for an error Mr Lee Kuan Yew made in a 1984 GE rally speech.

The PMO also conveyed an apology from Lee himself for the error. Chiam had gotten seven, not six credits in his ‘O’-Level results.

3. Chiam sued then Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan and Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong for defamation.

Then Workers’ Party Sec-Gen and MP JB Jeyaretnam represented Chiam in filing a writ in the High Court seeking damages for slander made in the election speeches by Dhanabalan and Howe.

Dhanabalan called Chiam “a two-bit lawyer orchestrating a three-piece band whose members only appear once every four or five years”.

Howe called Chiam “a twice unsuccessful lawyer” and “a lawyer who is not even very good at law”.

4. Both Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan and Defence Minister Howe Yoon Chong apologised to Chiam.

Howe: “I, Howe Yoong Chong, hereby unreservedly withdraw all imputations against the professional capacity and competence of Mr Chiam See Tong made by me on December 21 1980 and published in the issue of this newspaper on December 22 1980.” Business Times, 13 Feb, 1981.

Dhanabalan: “I acknowledge that there was no foundation for any of the imputations and I sincerely apologise to Mr Chiam for having made them”. Business Times, 28, 1981.

Chiam accepted the apologies and withdrew his lawsuits against them.

5. The origin of Chiam’s name.

The name See Tong roughly translates from Teochew Chinese as “timely” or “punctual”, given to him by his paternal grandfather.

6. You are never too old for public life.

In December 1976, Chiam entered politics at the age of 41.

7. The distant family relationship between Chiam and Lee Kuan Yew

Chiam has never met Lee in person until he was sworn into Parliament in 1985.

However, other members of Chiam’s extended family were on cordial terms with Lee’s extended family. This relationship stemmed from the marriage of Chiam’s maternal grandfather Lim Liang Quee’s daughter to a member of the Kwa family, from which Lee’s wife was.

8. Chiam thought of giving up politics.

After losing three elections, Chiam entertained the thought of giving up politics. His friends and relatives had been coaxing him that he would be able to live a contented life as a lawyer.

9. Chiam successfully sued the mainstream media for damages.

Chiam sued the now defunct Singapore Monitor for damages when it ran a headline on its frontpage: “Chiam See Tong charged with criminal trespass”.

10. When Chiam first met Lee.

Chiam (extending his hand): “Mr Prime Minister, may I congratulate the PAP on winning the elections”.

Lee (firm handshake): “See you in Parliament”.

“Let The People Have Him – Chiam See Tong: The Early Years” is available for purchase online at Epigram Books. Check out’ interview with author Loke Hoe Yeong tomorrow.


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