Book: Let The People Have Him - Chiam See Tong: The Early Years

Hello and welcome back!

I borrowed this book about Chiam See Tong from the library, alongside Latte to Lathi and it was a GREAT read! I started it in the evening and was so entertained by it that I had to finish the book in one sitting. I was done with it at 1.30am.

I am not the most educated about the political scene in Singapore but it never hurts to start somewhere. I don't want to be so politically ignorant. 

There is always some tension and maybe even fear when politics are discussed in Singapore. I must say I was apprehensive about reading this book in public so I read it at home. ðŸ˜‚ Nevertheless it was a wonderful decision to read this book.

Chiam See Tong is a name you must have heard of in Singapore, even if you are not sure what he exactly he did.

He used to run for elections as an independent party before becoming the second opposition MP of Singapore with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), which is no mean feat. He then served Potong Pasir for 27 years. He has since retired from politics following a stroke. He was also ousted from his own party but I have not read up on this yet.

This book chronicles his life and how he came to be part of Singapore's political landscape.

CST studied in ACS and represented his school in many sporting events, winning many medals. Studies were not his forte. His life was also very different from the students in the nearby Chinese schools where protests on anti-colonial issues were staged. Some escalated into violent riots.

It was not until he studied Engineering in New Zealand that he got introduced to issues such as Marxism and various social and political matters. His new friends introduced him to Chinese language films, music and revolutionary ideas, a stark difference to the Western films Chiam was consuming in his teens. Chiam started to develop an interest in politics. He later became a teacher, then a lawyer, before his foray into politics in Singapore. 

Memorable Parts of the Book

Funny Campaign Tactics
Francis Tay, an activist with opposition parties and founding member of SDP, had great ideas for the opposition's campaigns.

"He was known for a popular ploy of his in tapping on reverse psychology, which he would use when trailing Jeyaretnam (first opposition MP of SG) on the Workers' Party's walkabouts. He would keep some distance behind Jeyaretnam and shout out to the people around him while pointing to Jeyaretnam: "Stupid man! Can be a judge but don't want! Join politics for what!" 

This caught the attention of bystanders who would otherwise not have given further thought to Jeyaretnam, It alerted them to the fact that he was a qualified professional - a magistrate and a district judge in  the late 1950s and 1960s."

I laughed out loud at this. Hilarious but probably effective!

Tay did the same for CST, except this time he would say something like "Stupid man! Can be rich lawyer but don't want."

During election periods, politicians can expect quite a lot of mud-slinging and even personal attacks on their character or actions. (Side note: This actually happens all year round in Taiwan)

It was an eye opener for me because I've only been able to vote once so far. The things respected statesmen can say... are rather horrifying. ðŸ˜‚ Innocent sounding comments can be taken out of context and twisted to frame someone in a negative light. Being a politician is not easy at all and definitely not for the fainthearted.

In this book you will read about how the opposition collaborated to increases their chances of winning. There are some things I never knew - such as SDP printing their own party newsletter called  the Demokrat. The Demokrat was a bilingual publication that cost 30 cents. Issues focused on topics like education, public housing policy, CPF etc and most importantly offered alternative analyses of thought apart from what was published in mainstream media. This was especially crucial since you could not discuss matters at depth in a short conversation during walkabouts, and also when mainstream media merged into one entity (SPH).

I would love to read these issues actually. I wonder if we can find these materials in the National Archive.

Choice of words
In the book, there are some curious choices of words used. For example, instead of the word 'stronghold', 'stranglehold' is used instead to help convey the idea of domination. ðŸ˜‚ It's not every day I see this written about the dominant party so I must say I chuckled to myself.


I also learnt more about how the NCMP (Non-constituency MP) scheme came about. In this scheme, three best performing losing opposition candidates would be entitled to sit and vote in the Parliament. This move mostly outraged the candidates and they stated that they would not accept the position if the situation arose. Some people called this new scheme the 'second class MPs'.

There are plenty more stories in the book, from how Chiam became a teacher, how he courted his wife Lina, and how he improved his campaigning methods each time. Of course, there are mentions of how he hangs out at the coffee shop to talk to members of the public, something that residents will speak of fondly. He also went on a road trip, driving from London to Singapore, with his wife in his iconic Beetle, which will later be part of his campaign efforts too. One of my favourites would be how supporters waited with bated breath and later celebrated Chiam's win in the GE 1984, with 60.28% against Mah Bow Tan for the Potong Pasir Constituency. An underdog victory and story is always heartening!

This was also very sweet to me:

"A few days before polling day, Chiam met an old man on his rounds. In Hokkien, he said, "You don't need to come here anymore, we already support you. You should go campaigning more at the ang mo chu (white people's houses)." 

I also laughed at this:

"Once when Ricky Toh went to see his MP of his own constituency (PAP), he felt like he was 'meeting God'. In an austere looking office, the MP was seated in front of the portraits of the president and the first lady, and the national flag flanked his grandiose table - the chasm that separated Ricky and him." 

On a more sombre note the ISA section of the book was very depressing. 

There's also a photo insert section in the middle of the book. It's funny when you discover that all these serious looking men in the government used to look so boyish and rakish in their younger days. 


Overall I think this book was a good introduction to CST. It is written by the assistant secretary-general of Chiam's SPP (his second party after SDP), so some bias is understandable. It also provides an alternative perspective to mainstream/textbook history. After all, as the saying goes, history is written by the victors. In this information age we should consider different sources and make our own judgements.

If you have the slightest interest in Singapore politics or history, do check out the book! The last political book I read was 'Hard Truths'. Would love to read more!

Happy Reading,