Chiam See Tong has given Potong Pasir a History, a Heritage and a Memory

By Liew Kai Khiun
A proud resident of Potong Pasir

Although I have spent most of the 38 years of my life around the area, I moved formally into the Potong Pasir Constituency eleven years ago, and have voted for Mr Chiam See Tong for the General Elections in 2001 and 2006.  Having watched his rallies on the same empty field near Potong Pasir MRT Station since a kid in the 1980s, to me,  Mr Chiam is very much part of my life as much as the Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.  Like a vulnerably flicking candle, Mr Chiam’s precarious political presence has been felt for much of my formative and adult years, seeing me through graduation, getting my first job, postgraduate studies, marriage and finally getting a public housing (HDB) apartment in Potong Pasir estate itself. During this time he and his constituents have faced the might of the People’s Action Party (PAP) machinery.  In front of national television, this meek looking lawyer has been ridiculed and humiliated by the sea of white shirts across him.  Perhaps the one image that I will always remember is the huge burst of mocking laughter from the PAP ministers and backbenchers at one of his speeches somewhere in the 1980s. This is the face of the blunt arrogance and disregard of the elitist PAP government. It is therefore not surprising to find a teenage daughter of one of their ex-MP, pouring scorn on the unemployed, telling them that  “life will kick you hard in the balls”, and “get out of my elite uncaring face.” I do not know why this MP was dropped and his daughter counseled when they are merely reflecting the privileged social positions that the system has been responsible in reinforcing.  Nonetheless, both  Mr Chiam and his voters have been kicked around for a very long time, but he, and they, have refused to leave every General Elections since 1984. Against the shrinking circle of over-ordained national leaders and parliamentarians of the PAP, to me at least Mr Chiam represents the under-ordained common man who feels his right to speak out as a human being even though he does not possess what is constituted as the right type socio-educational pedigree.

While I may have openly disagreed with Mr Chiam on  the issue of leadership and succession particularly with regards to his appointment of his wife, Mrs Lina Chiam to replace him when he leaves to fight for Toa-Payoh Bishan Group Representation Council,  I acknowledge his contributions and would also accept his decision.  When Mr Chiam made his “walk” to his Town Council office from the rally site on the night of 4May 2011, residents and supporters poured enthusiastically to the streets to accompany him in this short, but arduous journey from a man recovering from a stroke.  In a country where its citizens are often instructed, “incentivized”, herded and bused into participating in highly scripted and contrived state sponsored events, this spontaneity is exceptional and should be treasured. However much I respect the PAP candidate in the area, I am not confident that he would be willing and able to treasure such sentiments that Mr Chiam has fostered in his ward..

My MP for Potong Pasir has given my home a history, a heritage and a memory, one that the increasingly de-historicized and de-personalized  PAP do not seem to possess. People may think of our voting habits as an indication of the desire to keep the rustic nature of this endearing place; it is a charm created ironically by the systematic fossilization of the estate by the state. But in the country where the politics of the unchanged is desired by the ruling party, our vote for no-change can also be seen as probably keeping the hope for change for a more organically and genuinely democratic society in the future, however distant, however faint and however impossible it may seem now.

Every General Election raises and dashes the hopes for imagining a Singapore that follows the ideals laid out in the national pledge to build a democratic society based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.  I am afraid that the results would not be dissimilar this year, and that the end is near for Potong Pasir as an independent political constituency. It is highly possible for the candle to be extinguished ruthlessly in both Potong Pasir and Toa Payoh-Bishan GRC, and my walk on 4 May 2011 with Mr and Mrs Chiam may be the last.  I am almost certain that the PAP would be keen to erase any traces of his legacy in not just the estate, but also in the broader national consciousness with their  “upgrading” plans. Potong Pasir would suffer the fate of oblivion as it would probably join the once “infamous”  Anson held briefly by the late JB Jeyarathnam of the Workers’ Party, to be merged into another of these forgettable GRCs.

Whatever may be the outcome on 8 May 2011, to Mr and Mrs Chiam See Tong,  thank you very much for struggling against all odds for the past three decades. You have given an entire generation of ordinary people like me a sense of dignity and pride as residents of Potong Pasir, as Singaporeans, and as human beings in Singapore Inc.

Please help keep Potong Pasir’s History Alive!

36 Responses to “Chiam See Tong has given Potong Pasir a History, a Heritage and a Memory”

  1. 1 xtrocious 6 May 2011 at 11:08

    I think the writer hit the nail dead on its head…

    For all its “efficiency”, the ruling party’s machinery lacks heart and more importantly, soul…

    What makes us humans? Is it just our intelligence?

    I think it’s much more than that – it’s our soul…

  2. 2 Nicetalkbutwhat? 6 May 2011 at 11:26

    Mr Liew,

    You write very well.

    You need to understand that Mr Chiam without your support is nothing. This man is fighting for democracy most part of his life and now in his fragile body. Lina Chiam may not be eloquent, but she was the other fighter alongside her husband. I am sure he hds given thought on the choice of succession to come to a decision that Lina is the better choice since he could still influence PP using his living legacy.

    An absolute party for the last 50 years have resulted in extreme complacency, arrogance and self serving team of ungrateful individuals. We have largely been ignored with feedbacks, cries and unhappiness. We had even been called lesser immortals and daft citizens.

    You have a postgraduate qualification, we assume you are faring well in life equip with financials to make your family comfortable. Have you thought about other citizens in the community? Why did Nicole Seah has to cry? An 80 year old grandma asking MYCS to help to get another $80 for her granddaughter tuition triggered that internal emotion about poverty in Singapore. And the grandma was scorned and ridiculed for asking too much. This speaks about the uncaring government we had become.

    How about us already becoming second and third class in this country? How are your kids are going to compete with millions of cheap labour and FT? The answer to this complex intriguing equation is NOT your current comfort and ignoring the cries of ordinary and average citizens.

    For the last 5 years, life has become harder for many. Did you feel it? Are you in your slumberland and cushy job that you forget the sufferings our average community?

    If everyone is just for themselves, then there is no need for this country. And this could the reason why our statesman that this is not a country or a nation. If you are just thinking that after Mr Chiam is gone, you can get your upgrading by voting PAP, you can also degenerate into a selfish men and Singapore has plenty.

    You wrote nicely but your conclusion is for yourself and family. And this is what the government wants you to be. Welcome to the elite family where they will say, “Get out of my elite uncaring face!”

    • 3 nicebutwhat 9 May 2011 at 22:26

      Sorry Dr Liew.. misread your article… boiling fire when Mr Chiam lost and saw his dejected and forlorn face on TV.

      Dont understand why they would not give him this chance and instead chose a shortie who could catch MAt Selamat.

  3. 4 nklim188 6 May 2011 at 11:47

    Thank you for writing this very moving and poignant article.

  4. 5 peiying 6 May 2011 at 13:33

    Very touching. Breaks my heart to think about the type of fate Potong Pasir will go to after Chiam is gone.

  5. 6 Gideon 6 May 2011 at 14:23

    Hi Dr Liew I was formerly one of your students and I am heartened to see your article and read about your thoughts on the admirable Mr Chiam. I have similar sentiments, and tomorrow could usher in either a bright or bleak future for democracy in Singapore. Nevertheless, I will always remember Mr Chiam’s inspiring words – When there is life there is hope, and when there is hope there is change.

  6. 7 T 6 May 2011 at 14:27

    /// Nicetalkbutwhat? 6 May 2011 at 11:26


    You wrote nicely but your conclusion is for yourself and family. And this is what the government wants you to be. Welcome to the elite family where they will say, “Get out of my elite uncaring face!” ///

    I think you misread and misconstrued Mr/Ms? Liew. Read again.

  7. 9 Rabbit 6 May 2011 at 14:46

    I fully agree with the writer. Many babies, who were borned when Mr Chiam won his first election, have by now became an eligible voters in Potong Pasir. Mr Chiam no doubt has watched them grow and became the greater part of this family. A founding father of potong pasir is not a name too far fetched for him.

    For the first time in my entire life. I watched Mr Chiam rally and saw him personally at Bishan stadium yesterday night. 1/3 of the stadium was full and he does have his support base there. I was touched when Mr Chiam told his supporters that he wanted to bring Potong Pasir community spirit into Bishan GRC. In his entire 27 years with Potong Pasir residents, he & his team has the capability and knowledge to manage a town with love and passion which was witnessed by the writer.

    The writer should not doubt Mrs Chiam but should look at SPP team as a whole. Mrs Chiam is not the woman we saw in CNA political forum. She has shown her full energy at the rally. The team is growing slowly but surely better than in the past. From the rally, I was convinced they have good men and women who are not only experienced in running a town but a strong backstage volunteers making up of top civil servants and professionals ready to serve when called upon duty. This was not reported in the main stream media. Thus I am sure Chiam track record is provened by many people despite being mocked by PAP members in parliament for 27 years of his service. I love the fact SPP strongly promote prudence, practicality, accountability and transparency at both manucipal and national level. That is why potong pasir residents were able to have their lift upgraded for free unlike other PAP towns where money were poured into impractical physical attractions – such as building artifical crane along the sidewalk, huge massive granite pillar just to put a fanciful name for the town, building concrete play structure that nobody patronise…just to name a few wastful projects.

    What suprised me was when I saw a couple of grassroots people, who were avid volunteers during the PAP meet-the-people session in the past, presence at SPP rally yesterday. They bought the mini flag and waved frantically everytime a speaker was introduced on stage. Such a “phenomenon” speaks for itself why I believe Mr Chiam will continue to live in the heart of many Singaporeans. Preserving Potong Pasir SMC is to preserve Chiam’s legacy regardless of polling results. Like the write, I do not want Potong Pasir to become another GRC and dissappeared from the map of Singapore.

    • 10 Janet K 6 May 2011 at 16:32

      I was also at the Bishan rally. Mr. Chiam is certainly well loved and for most in the crowd, his record is enough. But the team didn’t offer fence sitters much to go on other than that they would “bring the spirit of Pontong Pasir to Bishan.”

      Granted they unveiled an impressive management council… but the substance of their platform mostly involved details of how they would micro-manage the painting of buildings and the choice of street lamps.

      Every third sentence was a reference to Potong Pasir. We were even given details of bus routes to tour of the town on cooling off day. It was surreal. And for someone who wanted them to be so much more, it was depressing.

      I was left with the impression that SPP means “Singaporeans from Potong Pasir.”

      • 11 Rojak 6 May 2011 at 17:32

        It is funny to see this tiny island so divided into “Singaporeans from Potong Pasir” and others. Not long ago, a Samantha from Holland Village wanted lesser mortals out of her uncaring elite face. Well done Singapore! We’re now an intellectually and morally bankrupt nation. If we think we’re better than that and can do better, then vote for change.

      • 12 J 7 May 2011 at 00:09

        I don’t see how the Samantha incident has got anything to do with what Janet K said, which I think is a perfectly valid opinion. Surely we want our MPs to do more in Parliament than speak about their plans for infrastructure maintenance??

      • 13 yawningbread 7 May 2011 at 00:15

        Actually, if you look at the record of some MPs, getting them to speak at all in parliament would be a great achievement.

  8. 14 Chanel 6 May 2011 at 16:06


    It is “get out of my elite UNCARING face”

  9. 16 Jennifer 6 May 2011 at 16:56

    I was in Malaysia for the last 2 weeks but watched many of the rally videos. I’m now convinced I was brainwashed by the mainstream media into thinking the likes of CST and CSJ were criminals who wanted to destroy the PAP and Singapore. My heart cried when I saw CST. He had a stroke and still persevered though he could have quit. Even when his claws are gone, the tiger still challenges every foe.

  10. 17 zugok 6 May 2011 at 17:09

    hey liew,

    nice one, dude! a city is nothing without its soul and for years, the PAP regime has systematically eradicated the traces of community, heritage and meaning that used to criss-cross our urban fabric. what we now have is a patchwork city of homogenized, ultra-modern precincts (some cleaner and better maintained than others, which is quite a story in itself) which are increasingly encroaching on the little and fast-vanishing pockets of a complex and multi-layered metropolitan narrative, deeply steeped in localized and oft-ignored strands of history and a quaint, almost carnivalesque charm. we have had constant development and urban renewal but at what cost? what has all this catastrophic process of thoughtless demolition, single-minded bulldozing and convenient forgetfulness done to our collective memories and our shared mental-maps of the once-familiar urban landscape? without proper public debate by an engaged populace aware of its rights and responsibilities, we have in many ways become soul-less automatons always acquiescing to our ordained political masters, eternally thankful for the urban ikebana they enjoy indulging in, forever grateful for the humiliating scraps that are flung our way. the urban malaise we glimpse is a window into the unsustainable cleavages within singaporean society. yet even in darkness there is light. CST merely showed us that this simplistic, head-on rush does not have to be the only way. if we are capable of hope and courage, tomorrow can and will be a better day. as long as we keep on walking, mindful of where we come from, always glancing over the shoulder to look out for the person next to you, we’ll be ok. at the end of the day, you can’t engineer a soul, because it needs to develop organically. CST made me tear because his frail yet steadfast figure also reminded me of my own amnesia, fear and cowardice all these years. it needn’t had to turn out that way but let’s just forget wasted years…because it doesn’t have to be, today and tomorrow, as well. CST’s humanity is a striking contrast to the rest of this semi-zombified city and the clueless, apathetic souls lining our streets. in his humble and congenial way, CST is a shining example of what it means to be truly human, warts and all, a very necessary reminder of the compassion and heart we’ve lost in our pursuit of illusory material gains. and what he ultimately demonstrates so vividly is simply that pride, backbone and self-respect just can’t be bought or bartered.

    meet up for kopi, teh or prata one of these days. 😉

  11. 18 Rabbit 6 May 2011 at 17:39

    @ Janet K

    No doubt SPP touched mostly on municipal issues of town management. They are just trying to rebutt PAP that Potong Pasir is not a slum and the residents can be assured in good hands if they compare PP with some of nearby PAP towns. I am glad they say things which they are confident in doing rather than making promises without much resources for the time being. This part will appeal to the older generations whereas the younger generations already know what national issues were about thru the internet. They also brought out larger issues how town council sinking funds should be managed with independent committee members and not like those in PAP town where the money were handled by the hands of the “unknown”. Ultimately, like I said earlier, SPP want to lead Singapore forward to make PAP accountable and transparent. When you have these two important elements tackled, all other national issues will slowly fall into place.

  12. 19 Derrick Goh 6 May 2011 at 17:48

    Losing Potong Pasir to the Praise And Push Party is not everything. Sitting and making the Push And Praise Potong Pasir MP (if he wins) sweat and match the standards of the Chiam See Tong and the people of Potong Pasir is everything. This is one way to keep the work of Chiam See Tong and his constituents ongoing all the time.

    Time to raise the benchmark for oven baked politicians. Enough of the genetically modified soya bean seed planting.

  13. 20 A1 6 May 2011 at 22:26

    A stupid Potong Pasir resident talking again! Excuse me, how has our estate benefitted from Mr Chiam. Lack of facilities, poor maintenance, lousy bus service and many more… All thanks to Mr Chiam and his Potong Pasir residents!

    • 21 CX 7 May 2011 at 10:06

      I’m a “stupid” Potong Pasir resident, and you should realise the only reason why we have lack of anything is because of PAP bullying. If the government aka the ruling party treated Potong Pasir residents fairly like other tax-paying, NS-serving Singaporeans, they might have won Potong Pasir a long time ago.

      Look who’s stupid now.

    • 22 xx 9 May 2011 at 17:01

      If you’re so unhappy living in Potong Pasir, you could’ve lived elsewhere. Why stay in a place where you think has “lack of facilities, poor maintenance, lousy bus service and many more” and complain?
      Seems like most of the residents are contented with what they have, except you?

    • 23 SS 10 May 2011 at 04:55

      Potong Pasir do have the funds to carry out those projects. It’s the permission to do so that is missing. Judging from your ignorant comment, you don’t seem to know anything about Mr Chiam and his team and what he has done for us. Poor maintenance ?! Get your facts right ! In fact open your eyes wide and look around you. Compare the number stray cats here and the cleanliness etc to our neighbouring estates.

      FYI many residents are happy living here.If you aren’t, you can jolly well move out of this place we proudly call home.

      It’s people like you that caused us to lose a great MP.

      • 24 random 11 May 2011 at 13:08

        well said. an unfortunate loss indeed..nw let’s see if e action party, can put things into action…nxt five years i hope PP be back to SPP..

    • 25 Boon Pin 10 May 2011 at 07:20

      Can a postgraduate be stupid? What is your highest qualification? What do you know about psychology to understand humans well enough? What do you know about motivational theories which explains why people are motivated despite lack of facilities, poor maintenance and all other tangible things you mentioned?

      Just because they do not prefer these does not make them stupid and you as wiser. So please show some respect and intelligence. If you want to criticize others, ensure that you will not be criticized back. Let me enlighten you with some knowledge. Maslow in his hierarchy of needs theory mentioned that we have 5 needs which we will be motivated if they are fulfilled. They are physiological, safety, social, self-esteem and self-actualisation. The first two are classified as lower needs while the other three are classified as higher needs. All those unhappiness you had are part of lower needs which can be settled with money but money cannot fulfill higher needs. The sense of a good community sharing a kampong life, a common goal (social needs), being cared for by Mr. Chaim (self-esteem) is not something a PAP area could give well. Just because you are not motivated by these does not mean those motivated by them are dumb.

      You could be criticised for being materialistic. People held on despite lacking of these for a noble cause of a more democratic Singapore. I being in Bedok am proud of such residents. While, you are a shame. If you are not happy with Potong Pasir, then move out. People have rights to stay in a place where they want it to be.

    • 26 07 10 May 2011 at 14:04

      Dear A1,

      Like what others have said, if you are so unhappy, you could easily have lived somewhere else. Residents here are evidently happy with what they have, your negativity is not needed here. You obviously do not have the Potong Pasir spirit in you. Perhaps calling the mover might be in the cards for you? It’d be a win-win situation.
      And besides, if you think about it, in whose hands are your finances being held in? Know your facts before you blatantly start firing away.
      Have you ever brought up your unhappiness with the Town Council?
      If the opposition has not been given a proper chance to lead, how would you know they would not be able to do a good if not better job than the PAP? Are the almost worthless “carrots” dangled by the PAP really that exchangeable for 27 hard years of service and respected leadership? I absolutely think not.
      I’d hate to think that our children might grow up with this certain mentality that it is okay for the rich and elite to spit in poor people’s faces.
      I can’t believe I have neighbours such as yourself.
      Now we know who was part of the 50.36% (before overseas voters).

      Sincerely yours,
      Resident of Potong Pasir under the age of 21.

      • 27 random 11 May 2011 at 13:23

        “I’d hate to think that our children might grow up with this certain mentality that it is okay for the rich and elite to spit in poor people’s faces.” I am heartened to see that ur young but still share such sentiments..that PAP has not indeed brainwashed everyone yet..

  14. 28 Annie 6 May 2011 at 22:57

    I really hope Mrs Chiam will win tomorrow.

  15. 29 Henry 7 May 2011 at 00:27

    I may not have stayed in potong pasir long enough to comment but I did witness mr chiam winning the ward in 1984 and 88 when I was schooling there then. Mr chiam may be soft spoken but he has a big heart. A real gentlemen! Btw, I am Proud to say, for the last 2 years , I am from potong pasir. I choose to live here where a real gentlemen grace the ground. I really hope it will Never be erase from the map in the next election and I certainly Do Not want to be part of any GRC. Mrs Chiam has been helping in potong pasir all these years so I am not worried at all. Just in event someone thinks she cannot do a better job just because she may not speak as well as some other candidates. Just my tots..

  16. 30 prettyplace 7 May 2011 at 02:53

    My heart will bleed for this nation,
    My mind will never be kindled ever,
    The pain will forever remain
    The sheer thought of our selfishness
    will forever make me weak and disrespond
    to pleas and sufferance.
    I will become cold.
    If this graceful and honourablly strong man does not get elected.

    Mr Chiam you must for the sake of Singapore.
    We will lose everything, if your presence is not felt in Parliament. Singapore will never ever roar again and it will make cry.

  17. 31 John 7 May 2011 at 09:55

    After watching Mr Chiam’s rally first time, It really touched me deeply on how he continues to fight for democracy in Singapore outside his homeground. I really feel sad for Mr Chiam who have a caring heart but trapped in a frail body.

    I really hope that his legacy will not be wiped out by the ruling party.

  18. 32 yuenchungkwong 7 May 2011 at 12:03

    this article sounds like a political obituary; he has a history alright, but what about the future?

    Chiam was no doubt sincere about wanting to fight for democracy; however, twice the organization he put together broke up; that is as much part of his record as his successes

    • 33 azureoct 10 May 2011 at 16:43

      Yes, Mr Chiam might have left the 2 parties which he either started or was part of. but do we know the full story behind the break-up? as far as some of us can tell, Mr Chiam is not the pushy nor confrontational (unless necessary, of course) type of person. Perhaps, he didn’t feel that there was any point in him remaining in a party where he didn’t agree with the direction of where its heading. And, if I’m not mistaken, Mr Chiam’s SPP only left SDA in Jan this year? Maybe he had someone in mind to succeed him and lead the party forward, but had to abandon the plan when SPP left SDA. If you ask me, I look at Mr Chiam and I look at the way Desmond Lim of SDA behaves, I think its probably more than justifiable that SPP decides to leave the SDA alliance.

      Right now, Mr Chiam have put together this new team and managed to get pretty good results (considering that this team was put together a month or so before GE) at Bishan-Toa Payoh so the future lies in them persevering and working the grounds in this constituency and continuing Mr Chiam’s legacy.

  19. 34 Anonymous 10 May 2011 at 01:27

    I was born when jbj won anson, still rem how they used to tour ard the estate when i was young. But ever since anson was “absorbed” into tanjong pagar, the town was just like any other pap constituencies, no soul, no heart. I hope potong pasir will not lose it’s 27 years of spirit under mr chiam. It is not easy to go against all odds over 2 decades! He deserves more respect from the ruling party – it is time ruling party reflect on their ethos – be a gentleman like mr chiam! Pls take care of your health mr chiam – I salute you, the ordinary Singaporean with an unordinary spirit!

  20. 35 ThePasserby 10 May 2011 at 15:50

    I think this win by Sitoh will polarise the residents of Potong Pasir, if it hasn’t already. The neighbourly atmosphere will be gone, replaced by residents who look askance at one another, suspecting one another of selling out and voting for PAP. In 5 years’ time, the Potong Pasir character will be dissolved. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so, unless Mr and Mrs Chiam devote the energy to pound the streets and keep up the spirit that made Potong Pasir so unique.

  21. 36 Ben 14 May 2011 at 14:39

    Regardless of your political affiliation, you have to look at a guy like Mr. Chiam and be inspired by his dedication and humility in public service. What an icon and true son of Singapore!

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