Tan Cheng Bock: A vision of Singapore’s future or past?

(Note: I researched and wrote this piece in mid 2019. It was originally published on New Naratif. Am republishing here for those who might have missed it. I have made edit notes on a couple of things that are out of date.)

The entry of Tan Cheng Bock and his newly registered Progress Singapore Party into the political fray has stirred up excitement. But is Tan, a former PAP backbencher, offering a vision of Singapore’s future, or a return to its past?

The winds that usher in Singapore’s election season are, in many ways, familiar to illiberal democracies everywhere. Flags and faces popping up; government handouts; public largesse on incumbent brand-building, camouflaged as patriotic projects; the instilling of fear through new demons within and old ones abroad; and the obsequious submission of media outfits that have grown dependent on juicy government contracts.

One might spot some uniquely Singaporean bellwethers. Administrative Service Officers going for tea, their thinly-veiled political ambitions part of the great fiction of civil service independence; top army brass removing their berets to fulfill their lifelong dream of battle for the ballot box; and former government scholars and former foreign service officers and former this-and-that who have gone to the opposition dark side, to be feted like sadhus by that irascible, undying segment of “ungrateful” Singaporeans who are just out for a fight. (“What don’t you get? Have you not been to Jewel?”)

Pragmatic Singaporeans are not given to extremities, yet on those very winds one can sniff paranoia and quixotism, wafting in from either end of the political spectrum. The fear that the People’s Action Party (PAP), democratic Asia’s longest-ruling party, might lose a general election can cause acolytes to embrace the most hackneyed conspiracy theories about Singapore’s apparent apocalypse. 

Meanwhile, the hope that the PAP might somehow split to bolster an insipid opposition will cause palpitations among a certain starry-eyed set. They thrive on moments like the one in 2015, when Paul Tambyah of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) publicly propositioned the PAP’s Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Singapore’s relatively liberal and immensely popular senior minister.

This year, their wish has come true. Well, sort of. For the first time in over 30 years, one of the PAP’s own has broken off to form a new party. But septuagenarian Tan Cheng Bock and his new Progress Singapore Party (PSP) represent not so much the hallowed split as a splinter. And with his trademark accusation that the PAP is no longer what it once was, it remains unclear: is Tan offering a vision of Singapore’s future or a return to its past?

A vocal backbencher

More affordable housing. Better geriatric care for an ageing population. Greater support for working mothers. Energy conservation through more fuel-efficient vehicles. Privacy and personal data protection. More intense media competition and a more participatory democracy. And the need to guard against intellectual snobbery

These are some of the issues Tan has spoken about, from the time he first entered parliament in 1980. Singapore then had been enjoying searing, uninterrupted economic growth of 8.5% per annum, its first post-independence recession still five years away. Yet soon the murmurings of discontent about the Darwinian meritocracy the PAP was building, with its strict academic sorting and preferences for graduate mothers, would grow louder. 

”The most frequently whispered comment is that the PAP no longer cares for the common man as many Singaporeans perceived the numerous policies as elitist,” Tan admonished his own party in 1985.

Tan quickly garnered a reputation as the people’s voice, the backbench gadfly never afraid to speak truth to power. So much so that fellow PAP politicians suggested in 1992 that Tan might be mistaken for the “leader of the opposition”. So much so that Tan was willing to test the patience even of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and the “greatest leader” Tan has ever known, over the issue of foreign talent—Tan felt the PAP was not sufficiently prioritising the interests of Singaporeans. 

A challenge too far for Lee, this led to a seven-year chill in their relationship, which ended in 2006 when Tan’s rendition of My Way, reworded for the Singapore MP, brought a smile to Lee’s face.

The doctor in Ama Keng

Tan’s empathy for ordinary Singaporeans was forged in the far west of Singapore. While many of his medical peers chose more lucrative paths, Tan opened a clinic in 1971 in Ama Keng, a farming community of attap huts and zinc roofs near the Kangkar River that leads to the Johor Straits.

The area’s fortunes had been on a long decline since the end of the rubber boom in the 1930s, and the flurry of vegetable and chicken farms that remained were slowly being edged out by the Singapore Armed Forces. (Tengah Air Base and Sungei Gedong Camp would become its two lynchpins there.)

Tan was a godsend for villagers who hitherto had to travel some 28km for medical care. In the process he was exposed to a bucolic Singapore that sounds fantastical today: he treated injuries caused by crocodiles, snakes, monkeys, bees, and parang slashes. Ama Keng temple devotees would run across hot coals, in a Thaipusam-like ritual, and then just keep running across the road to Tan’s clinic where he would treat their burns, like the standby doctor at a rave.

Tan would accept payment and gifts in the form of chickens, eggs, durians, once even a whole pig, which he promptly roasted. He set drips in patient’s homes, delivered babies by kerosene-lamp light, and once had an entire village, so the story goes, turn out to haul his car out of a drain after an accident.

All that is partly why Tan inspires fervent devotion among the least fortunate segments of society. In 2012 a centenarian who had known him from Ama Keng was still seeing him for care—along with three subsequent generations of her family. (That year Tan finally closed his “Ama Keng Clinic”, which had kept its name through several relocations around Singapore.)

Yet Tan is no bleeding-heart ascetic. He is as comfortable hobnobbing with the powerful and wealthy, whether through golf or his passion for koi. Like any savvy politician, he also knows when to blow his own trumpet. Consider how he entered an ongoing dispute in 2011 over vehicle entry fees between Sentosa Development Corporation and his fellow Sentosa Cove property owners. (Tan’s primary home is in the Holland Village area, a less opulent, though still wealthy, neighbourhood.)

Tan introduced himself over email as “…the former Member of Parliament for Ayer Rajah. I had the distinction of winning the highest no. of votes in my last General Election in 2001 capturing 88% of the total votes.” Indeed, it was the PAP’s highest winning margin in 31 years, far more than even Tharman has ever achieved with his Group Representation Constituency (GRC) team. 

Born in 1940, the third of eight children, Tan is a palimpsest of our country’s evolution, a living embodiment of “Third World to First”, “swamp to skyscrapers”, “fishing village to Jho Low’s playground”, or whatever inane time-travelling heuristic we employ to cope with Singapore’s contradictions. 

He is one of the few politicians around who has lived under British and Japanese rule. Tan was 25 years old when Lee Kuan Yew shed tears on Singapore’s separation from Malaysia; 47 when he supported Lee in his arrest and detention without trial of “Marxist conspirators” (Tan now believes the accused were innocent); and 61 when a young erudite by the name of Tharman first entered Parliament.

Tan’s experience, his comfort in bouncing between Singaporeans of all creeds and colours, and his boldness in the 1980s–90s to go against his party and identify problems that would eventually come to haunt Singapore, together put him in an especially unique position.

It is one with exceedingly high expectations. As Singaporeans from all walks of life project their own Messianic hopes onto Tan, he will inevitably disappoint some.

The Progress Singapore Party

On 26 July 2019 a mix of journalists—from the international wire agency Reuters to local start-up RICE Media—attended a press conference for PSP’s official launch. Tan batted away all questions on policy and electoral tactics. We realised that the event’s singular purpose was to provide philosophical and electoral justification for Tan’s (latest) political reincarnation. 

Having left Parliament in 2006, Tan narrowly lost the presidential election to the PAP’s  preferred candidate in 2011. (Singapore’s directly-elected presidency is a largely ceremonial role with limited though important powers, such as safeguarding the country’s reserves. Tan ran promising to offer greater checks on his former party.) 

In 2017 he could not even contest the presidency, for the PAP government had controversially amended the Constitution to limit that year’s election to Malays, with the primary purpose, many Singaporeans believe, of blocking Tan, by then the party’s bête noire.

His re-emergence this year in electoral politics has his critics lambasting his supposed opportunism, while his supporters are cheering his whack-a-mole endurance that the PAP is having trouble containing. Among other things, Tan is trying to cultivate successors, partly to dampen the importance of his personal brand to the party, and negotiate with Singapore’s other opposition parties so they can form a more cohesive, effective front against the PAP.

Tan’s message to voters is that today’s PAP has overseen “an erosion of transparency, independence and accountability”. As evidence, he points to several incidents, including the amending of the Constitution for the 2017 reserved presidency, the use of Parliament to settle a family dispute (over Lee Kuan Yew’s Oxley Road house) that many Singaporeans believe should have been left to the courts, and the lack of transparency with certain important appointments, such as that of Ho Ching, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, as CEO of Temasek, one of Singapore’s two sovereign wealth funds.

While many share these critiques, for Tan to suggest that Lee Kuan Yew’s administration was somehow more accountable, independent, and transparent than his son’s is a bit rich. Their methods of authoritarian governance are similar. If anything, the Singapore government today is far less draconian than it was 30 years ago, the forces of globalisation and technological change prompting liberalisation under the younger Lee.

Among other contradictions, Tan supported the introduction of the GRC system in 1988, a constitutional change that sacrificed meritocracy and democratic rights at the altar of racial representation—precisely what he now objects to with the reserved presidency.

Tan’s other argument should resonate more broadly with Singaporeans. While Lee Kuan Yew’s administration worked “for the many”, he says, today’s PAP works “for the few”. Indeed, there appears to be less and less alignment between the interests of the (fractured) Lee family, the party, and the electorate. All three of Tan’s above critiques indicate this, but surely the most galling is the sidelining of Tharman for the party leadership (and thus likely prime ministership). 

If the PAP had chosen Tharman, its current top electoral performer who elicits broad, cross-party adoration, it would have pulled the rug from under the opposition. A long period of dominance would beckon. That the PAP failed to execute this obvious electoral gambit suggests that narrow interests are being prioritised over the party’s.

One theory is that a number of political scions, including the sons of Lee Hsien Loong and senior minister Teo Chee Hean, are being groomed to join Desmond Lee, a current minister of state and son of former minister Lee Yock Suan, to form a generation of princelings that might wield undue influence within the party. 

If Tan can sharpen this line of attack, he might attract more of the PAP’s increasingly disillusioned supporters. The splinter could grow to resemble a split.

Fret not, we will discuss policy at the official party launch, the PSP told us irritable journalists at the press conference. 

Eight days later, we again gathered at the Swissôtel Merchant Court. Curious lunch-goers watched the blizzard of red-and-white clothing and other swag swarming around the ballroom. Live Instagram feeds flashed across screens while the announcer appeared to be wetting himself as he kept screaming “Facebook Live!”. Old aunties and uncles shuffled around grumpily, casting scornful eyes at choped (reserved) seats. It was not too long ago that Singaporeans might have cloaked their faces when confronted by cameras at an opposition event; here a line quickly formed at a photo booth offering snaps by the PSP logo. Akin to just another national celebration, it represented the ongoing normalisation of opposition politics in Singapore. 

Yet journalists were again disappointed. PSP’s idea of a policy discussion amounted to a wish list: call for accountability and the independence of key institutions; require transparency; reduce income inequality; ensure retirement adequacy; lower cost of living; educate our people for the future economy; make public housing affordable. 

Tan is reticent, an insider told me, because he is wary of being out-foxed by the PAP, as he was with the reserved presidency. No discussion of electoral teams and strategies (understandable) and no granular discussion of policies (less so). The PSP will only “show the cake”, he says, not its ingredients.

(In keeping with this guardedness, after three months of blowing hot-and-cold, Tan’s team told me in mid-August that he does not want to be interviewed for this piece—not even by email.)

In any case, given the PAP’s overwhelming dominance (over 70% of the vote and over 90% of seats in Parliament), an opposition party’s “policy platform” is somewhat of a red herring; it’s less about proposing something actionable than signalling policy literacy, so that, if elected, it can be an effective check on the PAP. Tan says the goal is to deny the PAP its two-thirds majority in Parliament, which would prevent it from unilaterally changing Singapore’s Constitution, as it has done willy-nilly over 50 times since it was first elected in 1959.

The PSP’s candidates seem ready. Michelle Lee Juen, the 41-year-old former SDP candidate and arguably the most impressive speaker, handled a question on the uproar that had followed the use of brownface in a nationwide advertising campaign with aplomb and empathy—in stark contrast to the PAP’s gruff response. [Edit note: months later Lee Juen left the party to join Red Dot United.]

Tan showed moderation in addressing one of the thorniest issues globally: immigration. Singapore’s total population has doubled over the past three decades to just under six million today. Native-born citizens are now well in the minority. The PSP has taken aim firstly at middle-class Singapore’s primary bugbear, the huge recent influx of Indian professionals. (Some Indians today joke that Singapore is “India’s cleanest city”.)

Notwithstanding this group’s undoubted contributions to Singapore’s development and diversity, critics say it has upset Singapore’s social compact in three ways. First, through its perceived cliquishness, which has led to ethnic enclaves, notably along Singapore’s East Coast. Second, through the notion that it has undercut wages across a broad swathe of service jobs, from finance to IT. Third, the suspicion that many Indians are using Singapore simply as a stepping stone to other desired destinations, particularly the US.

The PAP has never been transparent about the relative benefits of the India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement signed in 2005, says Tan. “How many local jobs have gone to Indian professionals and how many Singaporeans have gone to India? We need accountability.”

Those who seek to calibrate immigration can easily be painted into a xenophobic corner. But if any politician in Singapore can navigate the tricky terrain between Indian Singaporeans and new arrivals from India, as well as local and foreign interests in a global city, it might be Tan. A devoted multiculturalist fluent in English, Malay and Hokkien, he counts two Indians, a classmate and a teacher, as his earliest inspirations.

But what about progressive causes?

By contrast, Tan is unlikely to push certain progressive causes such as LGBT rights. In what has come to be regarded as a horror show by the irrepressibly “woke” students there, in 2018 Tan spoke at Yale-NUS and appeared somewhat out of touch with youth concerns, including employment and the freedom to love. Homosexuals are acceptable, he said, but he didn’t want their “lifestyle” to be “imposed on [him]”.

On women’s rights Tan sounds at best tone deaf and at worst horribly antiquated. In 2012 he was one of two winners of the Association of Women for Action and Research’s Alamak! Award—a prize for “the most sexist behaviour” that year—for slipping, into an otherwise optimistic paean about women breaking glass ceilings, this bit of advice: “The political arena is a difficult area for women in Singapore because the commitment is really very heavy. So you’ve got to get the permission of your husband.” 

Comments like these, against the backdrop of another assertion—“I didn’t change, the PAP changed”—give one reason to doubt whether he can be an effective leader in an increasingly diverse society, one grappling with a multitude of cultural influences. “It’s high time you did change,” could be the retort. Maybe that beaming smile and avuncular disposition are no longer enough.

Nevertheless, Tan’s central, unchanging exhortation that Singapore needs to build a more compassionate, inclusive society will appeal to those seeking more justice and equality in society. 

Tan compared the Singaporeans who have had to sell their homes to afford medical care with the “scholars, generals and intellectuals” whom citizens have trusted “to do the right thing”. At several points many people in the ballroom, including Tan, choked up. Handkerchiefs were pulled out, tissues passed around.

Even as Tan seemed to magically touch his audience’s hearts the way few politicians can, their tears may have reflected a realisation—that after they leave the warm fuzziness of PSP’s pop-up cocoon, they will re-enter the Singapore the PAP has built. One, many believe, where individual responsibility means “take care of myself”. Where exams, money and status are the main measures of success. Where the natural aristocrats are insulated in freehold properties and their pick of sinecures while the masses deal with 99-year leases on their public housing flats and relentless reskilling. And where amicable discourse is drowned out by vicious public put-downs, the assassination of character prized more than the tolerance of dissenting views.

Soon Singapore’s election winds will have passed. The scholars, generals and intellectuals will be back in charge. It is what most Singaporeans seem to want. Even if Tan joins them in Parliament, as many expect, he may discover that championing underdogs through the opposition is as forlorn as prodding from the PAP back benches.

Perhaps then he will want something more.

Additional research by Fred Voon.

Top image: from New Naratif piece, by woonhian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


As we now know, Tan never did join them in parliament. But he has influenced its composition. At the 2020 general election his West Coast GRC team garnered 48.3% of the vote against a PAP team featuring two ministers, one parachuted in at the eleventh hour to head off the Tan threat. As some of the “best losers”, the party was offered two non-constitutency member of parliament (NCMP) seats, which were taken up by his GRC teammates Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai.

I know many Singaporeans, including me, wish Tan had taken one of the seats. But before the election he had already said that he wouldn’t. The hypebeast only wanted in as a winner.

Fine, I respect that.

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More photos of Ama Keng (click to enlarge)

Oh, how I love these shots of old Singapore. All photos taken from “Searching for the Remnants of Ama Keng”, a 2013 piece in Remember Singapore. The two photos in the middle of the piece are from TCB’s “Hanging up my stethoscope” Facebook post.

4 thoughts on “Tan Cheng Bock: A vision of Singapore’s future or past?

  1. I had to look up the meanings of far too many words in this article. Not as easy to read as many of your other good articles.

    I am a fan though. Keep up the great work.

  2. come on lah sudhir, you’re no ascetic yourself. you and that new naratif lot all come from family of means. to the average Singaporean pleb this is a power struggle between different groups of elites. you’re in the group who’s upset that given their family’s social status and upbringing they’re not at the front row.

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