A look at Tan Cheng Bock’s life in the service of the people of Singapore
Singapore—Physician. Member of Parliament. One-time presidential candidate. Opposition leader. What could be next in line for Dr Tan Cheng Bock, as he finds himself thrust into the limelight once again?
All eyes have been on Dr Tan since he announced his return to the political arena in January of this year. Even though he served as a Member of Parliament under the ruling party People’s Action Party (PAP) for over 25 years, he built a reputation for independence, for being someone who makes decisions based on his moral code rather than political affiliation.
With the next General Election expected to be announced before its April 2021 deadline, there has been renewed interest in Dr Tan, as well as his new party, Progress Singapore Party.
The Independent Singapore (TISG) takes a look at the life of Dr Tan, and his record in and out of government, in the service of the people of Singapore.
Dr Tan at the launch of the Progress Singapore Party on August 3.
A doctor at heart
Perhaps Dr Tan’s perspectives are most deeply shaped by having practiced medicine for 50 years. He started his professional life as a village doctor in Lim Chu Kang, and then opened up “Ama Keng Clinic ” in 1971 when he was only 31.
When Dr Tan announced his retirement from medicine last December, he wrote with fondness of his early days. He took care of more than people’s medical needs, being called upon to assist the villagers in other aspects as well. This, undoubtedly, prepared him for government service.
I opened my clinic “Ama Keng Clinic ” in 1971 in a village of attap and zinc roof houses. Its villagers grew vegetables in small plots and reared pigs in their backyards. Water came from wells and standpipes. Lighting was poor as most homes did not have electricity. Only a single main road was lit. But the villagers managed with kerosene lamps – and I once even delivered a baby in the dim kerosene lamplight.
The villagers were simple, honest people – many struggling to make ends meet. So I became more than a doctor, by helping them in family feuds, land disputes and writing letters to government departments. Those were such interesting times!”
Years in Parliament
From 1980 to 2006, Dr Tan served as a Member of Parliament (MP) under the PAP. He was elected to Parliament six times in a row, soundly besting every candidate who ran against him.
As an MP, he served on the committees for Education, National Development, the Environment, among others, and also served as an elected member of the highest ruling committee of his party, the PAP Central Executive Committee for nine years from 1987 to 1996.
Regarding serving under Singapore’s Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Dr Tan wrote in a moving tribute in 2015, after PM Lee’s death, that he had felt during his initial interview with him in 1980 that the late Prime Minister had not been impressed with “a village doctor with a rebellious streak.”
However, Dr Tan never forgot what PM Lee had told him then: “We are not looking for yes men.”
And although he writes that the relationship between them grew cold over the debate on the Foreign Talent policy, he had nothing but praises for Lee Kuan Yew.
“LKY embodied the virtues of integrity and incorruptibility, without which Singapore could never have succeeded…. Every political step taken by him, however difficult to understand then, he meant it for the good of Singapore…. will always remember him as the greatest person I have ever met and worked with. A true son of the soil, his love for Singapore was his drive.”
Always his own man
As an MP, Dr Tan fought for issues even when his party, and even his principal, stood against him. In 1988, deeming that education is a type of investment, he fought for the use of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) for tertiary education for students who could otherwise not afford it. And though Lee Kuan Yew was initially against it, measures to use the CPF for education were implemented later on.
Another notable achievement of Dr Tan was to push for free parking at HDB estates on Sundays and public holidays, as this would promote family bonding.
A man who has voted according to the dictates of his conscience, Dr Tan stood against PAP on the issue of Nominated Members of Parliament, believing that MPs need to be elected into office, and to be held accountable to those who voted for them.
He said at the recently held press conference for the PSP, “As an MP, I once voted against all of them when I needed to take a stand which was unpopular…In Parliament, I once voted against all of them, despite the party whip, on the issue of Nominated MPs.”
Dr Tan crossed swords with Lee Kuan Yew in 1999, when the country was still in recovery from the Asian financial crisis, he disagreed with the thrust to push for more foreign talent, arguing that the government should take care of the needs of Singaporeans first.
Neither Mr Lee, then Senior Minister, nor Minister of Trade and Industry George Yeo, were happy with Dr Tan’s stand, and spoke out publicly against it.
Aiming for the Presidency—twice
In 2011, after stepping down from Parliament, Dr Tan came within a hair’s breadth of the presidency, losing to former Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan by a minuscule 0.35% margin, or 7,269 votes. Dr Tan had gotten 737,128 of the votes, while the former DPM got 744,397 votes.
Dr Tan had called for a recount, and accepted the results when they were released.
In 2016, Dr Tan announced yet again that he would run for President in the elections the following year. However, the criteria for eligibility for the Presidency was changed late in 2016, wherein a “reserved election” exclusive to one specific race was adopted.
What’s next for Tan Cheng Bock?
Dr Tan, despite his two thwarted presidential bids in 2011 and 2017, has kept himself busy. Until 2018 he was still a practicing medical doctor and has done charity and even corporate work.
But it is as an opposition figure that he stands in the limelight again, and perhaps is even a figure that the fractured parts of the opposition in Singapore can rally around. One key figure who has allied himself with Dr Tan and PSP is no other than Lee Hsien Yang, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, and the brother of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. If the younger Mr Lee throws his hat into the ring of Singapore’s politics, this could well be a game-changer for the nation.
What’s next for Dr Tan, the Progress Singapore Party, and possibly the nation as a whole may well have its beginnings as the next few days and weeks unfold.
For 79-year-old Dr Tan, it seems that it’s never too late for new beginnings. -/TISG