A Wasted SDP Sec-Genship

Chee Soon Juan

Chee Soon Juan’s term as SDP Secretary-General (1993-present) has been wasted and unremarkable


So after 24 years with Chee Soon Juan at helm, the SDP CEC is not in the throes of choosing a new leader. But who becomes the next SDP Sec-Gen should not be as important as whether he (or she) has the gumption to lead the party in a new direction for the current that we’re on is taking us nowhere – and fast.

The winding up of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s Sec-Genship will, when it happens in a distant future, if everything goes according to how he has planned it, end in an unremarkable manner. This contrasts with the fanfare that greeted him in 1992 when he first joined SDP.


As a first academic from a state-run university to contest against the ruling party in an election, and therefore a member of what some described as an “exceptional and talented group”, much of the country held high hopes for this newly minted opposition leader.

But nearly two decades-and-a-half later, it’s hard to point to any achievement of import under Dr Chee’s leadership.

Rather, what has stood out are blights on the political landscape that will define his dispiriting legacy. Dr Chee’s tenure, dogged by debacle after outrageous debacle most of which were of his own contrivance, has been mired in controversy, rancour and distrust. Its end should come sooner.

The most significant scandal, by far, is when he ousted his own mentor, Mr Chiam See Tong, from the party that the latter founded, and took the reins for himself. Mr Chiam went so far as to declare that Dr Chee was a megalomaniac.

Writers of Korean soap drama would be accused of over-dramatisation if they had come up with such a script. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

So what was Dr Chee’s response to the allegations of being dishonourable and power hungry? He summoned all the courage of a rabbit by convening press conferences and interviews to spin more mistruths and half truths that have been since been disputed by Mr Chiam and his wife Lina, as well as other supporters of Chiam.

In the years earlier, the Sec-Gen bested himself in acts that would leave an appealing stain on his integrity. He misused research funds to his wife’s doctoral thesis to the United States and made false transport claims. Of course, he claimed that those were no true, and that he was the victim of a political vendetta. He kept up his antics by staging a five-day hunger strike to protest his sacking, albeit a “hunger strike’ that was supplied by glucose.

In the years after taking over the reins at SDP, he went around the world denouncing Singapore, when a good opposition must be honest and not dishonest. When a good opposition must be truthful and not be liars and cheats. And when above all, a good opposition must be good and patriotic Singaporeans, and must not go around the world denouncing our country.

It never rains, so the saying goes, but it pours. And pour it did in the following years after Dr Chee took over. The SDP’s first election under Chee’s leadership in 1997 was a major disaster as they failed to win any seats in Parliament, as opposed to the three seats won under Mr Chiam in 1992. And Chee himself lost the high-profile contest in MacPherson to Matthias Yao, after he had challenged the latter to a straight fight in a SMC.

Neither did Chee and his party make any headway in any of the elections thereafter, struggling to secure even 40% of the vote in contested wards, even in the Bukit Batok by-election which many pundits expected to be tight, let alone winning any elected seats, nor under the NCMP scheme.

Little wonder though, given Chee’s opportunist “wanderlust” when contesting in wards. The man has never contested in a single GRC or SMC twice, fluttering from one place to another like a butterfly. Never working the ground, always on the lookout for an easy deal.

Why, the man even had the cheek to propose that WP join forces with SDP for the Punggol-East By-Election, with the SDP candidate representing the opposition in Parliament and WP running the town council.

And under Chee’s tenure as Sec-Gen, SDP had a chairman who was arrested for drug-offences, and a youth member who was arrested under the ISA for being a terrorist sympathiser.


Of course, not all these foul-ups are Dr Chee’s fault but being the Sec-Gen, he chooses his personnel in the conduct of matters public and he has the final say in major decisions. He cannot hide away from responsibility when it doesn’t suits him. The buck, good and bad, stops with him.

Compared to his predecessor, Dr Chee’s term has been particularly rife with messes and muddles.

It is a wonder how he has managed to stand on in power, and not hand over the reins to more electable candidates like Dr Paul Tambyah. Even WP’s Mr Low Thia Khiang has indicated his resolve to make way for party renewal, even when he has a far better track record and shorter time spend as Sec-Gen to boot.

Given the juncture of our nation’s political development, we desperately need an opposition leader with the profundity and courage of a true statesman, one who will tear the political straightjacket that decades of mind-numbing, spiriting draining poor quality of opposition that has strapped on us. We must go bold, or else we will go bust.

As the leader of one of the most illustrious opposition parties in Singapore’s history, Dr Chee occupies a privileged perch to effect change – change that would have facilitated the development of a viable future for the opposition in this country. Change that would have afford him historic acclaim and pre-eminence. But, alas, change that he has rejected.

He could not see that circumstances, both within the country and around the world, have altered and altered radically and irrevocably. Carrying on his approach to politics and policies was to hope for the impossible and indulge in the unfeasible.

It has been a wasted Sec-Genship.

The system inexorably grinds on as it fails to churn out another leader as the next SDP Sec-Gen. A timorous society can only look on and hope that the new leader, chosen probably only many years later, won’t do what the old one did.

But fair warning: Holding your breath is hazardous to your health.

This article is contributed by A.L Wong

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