Tambyah: Civil disobedience an important part of SDP’s history

Paul Ananth Tambyah

Many of you would have read the Straits Times articles on the new SDP Central Executive Committee and our plans for the future. Earlier this month, Mr Elgin Toh interviewed me for the first article. He very graciously agreed to an email interview. Probably because of space constraints, he was limited in what he could put in his column. For the benefit of those who want to read more, this is the full interview.

(1) Regarding your election as Chairman

(a) Can you give us a bit more details on the election – Were you elected by members or cadre members? How many of these members were there at the election? Did anyone else stand for the post of Chairman? How long is your term as Chairman?

I was nominated by Dr Wong Souk Yee and Dr Chee Soon Juan, and was elected as Chairman unopposed by the cadre members of the party for a two-year term.

(b) When did you decide to stand as Chairman? Before the party conference or during? Why did you want to stand? Did you discuss it with anyone close to you before you went ahead – what did that person say? Did you discuss it with Dr Chee – what did he say?

Dr Wong Souk Yee and Dr Chee Soon Juan spoke with me a couple of months ago about the possibility of becoming SDP chair. They felt that I had the relevant experience and that I would be well accepted by the rank and file of the party. For me, this seemed like the natural progression of my involvement in politics. As I have mentioned many times before, I got involved with politics when I realised the limitations of providing feedback that was going to be routinely ignored. As someone working in our healthcare system with excellent doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, I was constantly frustrated at how the healthcare financing system was structured.  

As I said in my statement, I hoped that more academics and professionals will get more involved in civil society and politics. We already have A/Prof Janil Puthucheary, A/Prof Chia Shi Lu, A/Prof Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, and Asst Prof Intan Azura.  I thought it would be good to add some balance to the picture.  My family has been supportive and that is very important to me. So far, the feedback from colleagues, friends and peers has been overwhelmingly positive, including a former PAP senior leader! I have encouraged everyone who has congratulated me to get involved in their own way in making a better Singapore.

(c) Is it fair to say that the Chairman in the current SDP set-up is de facto number two to Sec-Gen? (I don’t need an on-the-record answer to this question. If I can get an off-the-record sense from you, I’m prepared to say, “The Straits Times understands that…”)

The SDP really is a democratic party and the office bearers are more or less equal when it comes to major decisions. That is what I heard from the “old-timers” and it has been my experience of the last few years.

(2) Regarding your plans

(a) What are one or two priorities you have as Chairman? What do you hope to achieve?

The priorities would obviously be preparing for the Marsiling-Yew Tee by-election if we win the case and the next general election. Specifically, they would including ramping up our home visits, reviewing and revising if necessary our various policy proposals (housing, healthcare, education, the economy etc), working with our training and education groups to train volunteers especially those involved in the communications team, ground operations and community service arms.

(3) Regarding the party’s future

(a) How will SDP fight the next general election? Were there any lessons that the party took from 2015 and from Bukit Batok that would inform the way you approach the next campaign?

My first electoral experience was very educational. I learned that we were competing not just against the PAP and its candidates but also the full force of the mainstream media and guerrilla websites which appeared and disappeared just in time for the elections (as described elegantly by Dr Carol Soon from IPS). We also had to contend with the state resources deployed by the ruling party. A story I have told illustrates this well. After the elections, a patient came up to me on his motorized wheelchair and congratulated me on a well-run campaign. I asked him who he had voted for and his daughter chipped in that “Grace Fu had provided the wheelchair for him”. When I pointed out that it was his own taxpayer dollars which paid for the wheelchair, he insisted that she had showed up at his flat with a large entourage bearing the prized wheelchair.

(b) There was a time when SDP was the most important opposition party in Singapore – after the 1991 GE. But by the late 1990s, the party went through a more difficult period, in terms of electoral success, and there were times when SDP wasn’t even the second most important opposition party. But I think it’s fair to say that the party has since climbed its way back up. The IPS surveys show that in 2015, it was the second most credible opposition party after WP. And since 2015, there have been questions about WP’s position – the party is now faced with lawsuits that throw its future under a cloud. In light of all the developments above, do you see SDP one day regaining its position as the most important opposition party in the future – perhaps even under your chairmanship? What does the party need to do to get there?

It is not relevant which opposition party is number 2 or number 3 in Singapore. All the current opposition parties are working for a more democratic Singapore. What is more important is that we continue to keep the PAP on their toes and demand more transparency and accountability from the government. This is particularly acute right now with the accusations of abuse of power raised against the Prime Minister by his siblings. There is also the poor management of our MRT together with the economic challenges facing our nation for which there seem to be few new ideas from the PAP.

(c) There are many things that have been said about the party’s past, but I want to just focus on one aspect – civil disobedience. The reason I am choosing civil disobedience is that there is relatively less fuzziness about it. SDP was at one time in its not-so-distant history prepared to break the law in order to advocate for change. There seem to be less of it today. My questions are:

(i) What is your own view on what SDP did in the past in connection to civil disobedience? Do you agree with it? Disagree with it?

I think that civil disobedience was a very important part of our past. Many people forget that in the pre-internet era, there was no way for anyone to be heard apart from the tightly controlled mainstream media. Thanks to civil disobedience efforts by the SDP, we now have Hong Lim Park where all manner of activists including former PAP MPs turned Presidential candidates can turn up (maybe not speak but at least turn up) to make a point independent of the mainstream media. Even Mr Lee Kuan Yew felt the need to be involved in the May 13, 1954 student protests as an act of civil disobedience. There is a time and a place for everything.

(ii) What is the party’s position today on civil disobedience? Has it abandoned the strategy for good?

Right now, there is no pressing need for civil disobedience activities as many of our posts go viral and reach a far wider audience than a single individual protest

(iii) If civil disobedience comes up again for discussion during the time you are Chairman, are you likely to oppose it?

SDP has always believed in our constitutional rights of freedom of speech. As I said in the first statement issued after I became chairman of the party, “Our constitution is the highest law of our land and it guarantees our citizens freedom of speech and assembly as long as it is peaceful and does not harm any individual or community. A country can only progress when its citizens are engaged in debating fully and actively participating in matters that affect the lives and well-being of our people.”

(4) Regarding your long-term future

(a) If party members one day want you to stand as Sec-Gen, are you prepared to contemplate it?

Ha, ha – that is very unlikely, Dr Chee has been doing a great job thus far. In GE 2015, Singaporeans finally had the chance to see for themselves who Dr Chee really is….A man of integrity, perseverance and character. As I mentioned in one of my speeches, I was amazed by the transformation in Raffles Place from people crossing the road to avoid him before the campaign to people lining up for hours to get him to sign his books at the rallies. The internet and the campaign finally allowed an unbiased look at Dr Chee. I am happy to be working with him.

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