Cheo Chai Chen, 73, who just died, was part of a very promising phase of Opposition politics in Singapore’s history. As it turned out, he became just an unfortunate footnote cum missed opportunity.

If fate had been kinder, Singapore could have had a sizeable Opposition long before the Workers’ Party’s emergence in the post-Barisan Sosialis era. Anything could have happened.

The Singapore Democratic Party trio of Chiam See Tong (Potong Pasir), Ling How Doong (Bukit Gombak) and Cheo (Nee Soon Central) – joined by the WP’s Low Thia Khiang in Hougang – showed that Singaporeans were already keen in the 1990s to move away decisively, and not in any token manner, from the People’s Action Party’s dominance.

The announcement of the 1991 General Election results is still etched in the memory of many voters, including me. There was a feeling on the ground then that the PAP was too cocky and was taking voters for granted.

Issues such as the Central Provident Fund withdrawal amount and age and perceived arrogance of some PAP leaders or candidates made the ground very soft for the Opposition, which employed the by-election effect strategy to boost its chances.

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It was urging voters to treat the election as they would a by-election. Since the Opposition was not fielding enough candidates to form the next government, voters were told that it was safe to take chances and vote into Parliament as many Opposition candidates as possible. Especially since voters did not see the moderate Chiam as a trouble-maker out to disrupt anything.

I remember very clearly the sense of anticipation as Singaporeans awaited the announcement of the GE1991 results. Each time an Opposition win was called, the HDB blocks resounded with roars of approval.

Imagine how loud these roars were, coming from hundreds of thousands of residents in the HDB heartlands. And I could almost swear that even some policemen joined in the cheering.

That was the mood then. But the euphoria did not last too long. Elected or not, Opposition MPs faced the same obstacles as any Opposition candidates. They had to do their Meet-the-People sessions in void decks. Tough.

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Although I must say, an elected Opposition MP at that time commanded the same respect as any PAP one. I once attended the charity premiere of a film at Northpoint, where Cheo Chai Chen was the guest of honour. The host? EDB’s Philip Yeo.

But it became clear as the months and years went by that the redoubtable Chiam See Tong’s coat-tails were not long or strong enough to carry his fellow SDP MPs.

Whether or not it was because the two MPs did not work the ground well after their election or were ineffective in their MPS work or were seen as substandard Members of Parliament, they were not re-elected.

Then came the Chee Soon Juan SDP phase where Chiam was ousted and continued his political journey in Parliament as the Singapore People’s Party MP for Potong Pasir.

No SDP candidate has ever made it back to Parliament.

It was not until 2011 that the Opposition had a relatively substantial presence with the capture of Aljunied GRC.

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Many ifs.

If Cheo and Ling had done well or even decently and not squandered their seats, the foundation would have been laid for voters to give more Opposition MPs a chance, not just for one term but continuously.

Pritam Singh (Low before him) and company proved that. And can you see the WP Sengkang GRC team, elected in GE2020, suffering the same fate as Cheo and Ling? Unlikely.

And if the original SDP had not been disrupted in its development, it might have had a smoother runway than the post-Chiam version to take off in Parliament.

We never know.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company