Why Chiam See Tong’s 1984 Campaign Is Still Relevant Today

On December 22, 1984, 30 years ago, Chiam See Tong, a plucky 49 year old lawyer-turned-politician seized control of Potong Pasir for the first time, winning an astonishing 60.3% of the votes. He was to hold that seat for an unprecedented 27 years, a feat unmatched by any opposition politician in Singapore.

Let The People Have Him, a book by Loke Hoe Yeong, an associate fellow at the European Union Centre in Singapore, and the assistant secretary-general of the Singapore People’s Party, tells the story of Chiam’s riveting journey from a political nobody to his current status as an elder statesman, admired by both supporters and critics alike.

In the book, Loke describes how Chiam, under the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) banner, fought against the People’s Action Party (PAP)’s Mah Bow Tan. He described how even amid a climate of fear rampant in Singapore as a result of political dissidents being detained under the Internal Security Act, Chiam’s voice stood out for his courage in daring to speak against the PAP’s policies.

He campaigned on three issues that are still in contention today.

Raising the Central Provident Fund withdrawal age

The CPF was as hot a topic 30 years ago as it is now. During the 1984 campaign, Health Minister Howe Yoon Chong (also PAP’s Potong Pasir candidate) first recommended to raise the age at which Singaporeans could withdraw their CPF savings from 55 to 65, unleashing a torrent of feedback from angry Singaporeans who were already enraged at being denied access to their savings in the first place.

The British colonial authority introduced the mandatory CPF savings scheme in 1955 with the aim of taking care of their charges’ retirement, healthcare and housing needs.

Over the years, the Government has made many changes to the CPF, among them the introduction of the Minimum Sum in 1987 — Singaporeans and PRs must set aside $155,000 in their CPF by the age of 55 for subsistence during retirement.

In the book, Loke described how a bilingual SDP party newsletter characterised the CPF policy as the “PAP’s Frankenstein monster” that had grown out of control. Besides the high rate of CPF contribution, they questioned the reasons behind the recommendation to raise the withdrawal age from 55 to 65.

While today’s CPF withdrawal age remains at 55, calls to raise the withdrawal age have not ceased.

Experts floated the idea of raising it to counteract the effects of the ageing population, and the Prime Minister spoke out in favour of the suggestion earlier this year. This, coupled with the increase in minimum sum from $155,000 to $161,000 next July, looks set to further raise the ire of Singaporeans, many of whom are unable to raise the money in the first place.

A new CPF advisory panel to study possible changes will be key to solving this long-standing issue. The panel will decide how the minimum sum will be adjusted after 2015, whether members will be able to withdraw a lump sum upon hitting the age of 55, instead of the option to receive monthly payouts, and reveal how exactly the Government is going to provide flexibility for members who want more say in deciding what to do with their money.

The problem with Housing Development Board flat costs

Owning a HDB flat is generally seen as coming-of-age in Singapore. While that may not necessarily be a bad thing in other countries, in Singapore, that usually means you’re either 35, or you got “lucky” (read: got married.)

In Let the People Have Him, Loke described how public housing subsidies were a hot-button election issue for the SDP during the 1984 general elections. During Singapore’s rapid development in the 1970s and ‘80s, many Singaporeans made the move from kampong dweller to HDB owner, with many receiving little help from the authorities in the process.

Back then, the SDP claimed that HDB flats were not really being subsidized by the Government, and they went so far as to question if Singaporeans were over paying for their flats.

Loke said SDP’s line of argument was that HDB operated on a system of “loans” from Singaporeans’ retirement savings for public housing development purposes. Through these loans, the Government received an annual interest of 7.75%. However, Singaporeans were only given 6.5% in annual interest.

Hence, the SDP argued that instead of subsiding the cost of a HDB flat, the Government had, in fact, increased the cost of owning a flat by 20%.

Fast forward to today, where Singaporeans now face the consequences of a property bubble — the result of the Government’s commitment to “asset appreciation”, via market pricing and asset enhancement policies. Home owners who had bought their property when prices are low now face high property prices — giving them profits on paper, but in reality, little else, as the cost of upgrading or moving to another flat is equally as high.

On the other end of the spectrum, young Singaporeans who are newly married, about to tie the knot, or singles 35 years of age face long queues and high property prices, even with the Government’s recently-introduced cooling measures.

Housing has, and always will be, an issue close to the heart of Singaporeans. With property cooling measures set to continue into 2015, prices are set to continue their downward spiral, but don’t rejoice just yet: it takes a considerable amount of cash to own a HDB flat.

Education system remains elitist?

Meritocracy in Singapore has inevitably given birth to elitism.

Although the Government has realigned their thinking with policies such as “Every School A Good School”, there is a hefty challenge to change perceptions — deeply-rooted convictions that are so far entrenched in peoples’ minds because of policies introduced in the past.

In 1984, Chiam, under the SDP banner, took the Government to task for their introduction of the Graduate Mothers Scheme. The policy, which reeked of elitism and eugenics, provided graduate mothers and their children with education and housing priorities, tax rebates and other benefits. Ironically, it incurred the wrath of graduate mothers themselves, who took offense at the thought that the Government could “buy” their love in exchange for Singapore’s future.

In the book, Loke also described how former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had scoffed at Chiam for receiving less than Mah Bow Tan for his “O” Level results, seemingly alluding that Mah’s stellar results made him the better choice than Chiam to represent the people of Potong Pasir. This backfired on the PAP, as voters identified more with Chiam after Lee spoke about Chiam’s results.

Since then, the Government has strove to make itself, as well as the education system less elitist by scrapping the controversial Graduate Mothers Scheme and doing away with streaming, by replacing it with subject-based banding in 2008.

Let The People Have Him — Chiam See Tong: The Early Years is out in bookstores now.

Photos by Epigram Books & Mindy Tan with Chiam pictures courtesy of the Chiam Family

CONTEST: Popspoken is giving away three copies of the book Let The People Have Him, courtesy of publisher Epigram Books. Look out for our contest on Popspoken’s Facebook page, up soon.

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