Tribute to Dr Lee Siew Choh 1917-2002

  Dr Lee Siew Choh, 84, retired from politics in 1991 after dedicating 32 years of his life to it. He died at home last Thursday, July 18
  By Francis T. Seow
Former Solicitor General of Singapore,
and 1988 Workers' Party Eunos GRC team

July 23, 2002

I FIRST met Dr Lee Siew Choh in June 1959 shortly after the leftwing People's Action Party (PAP) was returned to triumphant power. A medical practitioner, articulate in English and Chinese, he was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs when lesser-endowed colleagues were given higher office in the new government. Even so, together with a motley group of his parliamentary colleagues -- who were considered, we were told, as at the edge of the PAP pale -- he was on an orientation visit to government departments. We were warned before the visit not to show or leave any files, papers documents lying around, equivocate if necessary any sensitive questions and generally to disclaim knowledge of delicate issues, if asked. He was, alas, no political ogre, as we had been led to believe. I was then in the Attorney General's Chambers.

Thus, the virus of obscurantism was introduced early on into the civil service. It has since steadily mutated into various hardy strains manifesting itself in a lack of transparency in governmental actions, the difficulty in accessing, and the denial of even routine information that in other jurisdictions is given as a matter of course to any inquirer upon payment of the requisite fees.

Dr Lee's political credo did not differ much from the PAP, notwithstanding the relentless attempts made to colour it reddish pink. His seminal break with the PAP was thus not so much over ideology as over the style of governance, exacerbated by a keen clash of personalities.

On the vexed issue of merger with Malaya, the Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, the Malayan prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and Dr Lee Siew Choh had different agendas for or against it. In the end, Dr Lee's opposition to their version and vision of Malaysia was vindicated when Singapore was shortly thereafter expelled from the Federation of Malaysia - and reverted to the status quo.

Dr Lee, however, conceded it was an error of monumental proportions when his Barisan Sosialis Members of Parliament abandoned parliament for the constituency of the streets and boycotted the ensuing general election thus virtually handing parliament over on a plate as it were to their arch political foe Lee Kuan Yew and his party. He explained the drastic action was taken because Lee had deliberately not convened parliament for more than a year to deny them a platform, and they mistakenly saw no further useful purpose in remaining in parliament. But it was fear of their populism and oratorical skills that had driven Lee's inaction. Even so, it was a mortal error from which the party never recovered. The PAP government under Lee had out-maneuvered them.

Our paths crossed again some years later when I decided to enter into elective politics as a Workers' Party candidate in the 1988 General Elections. It was a most agreeable encounter. The Barisan Sosialis - a pale shadow of its former self -- had by then joined with the Workers' Party. We formed a WP Group Representation Constituency (GRC) team to contest the Eunos GRC at which we came to within a whisker of victory. In this connexion, I am pleased to record that notwithstanding the Workers' Party official attitude, he agreed with me that we should accept the NCMP status, if it was offered to us. A painful lesson in rejecting a parliamentary platform had been well learnt. The rest is history. I was pleased when he did return even as a NCMP to parliament - his natural niche.

I came to appreciate the man and the politician, his intelligence, his straightforwardness, his sense of principles, laced with his proverbial wry sense of humour, and a readiness to acknowledge mistakes. He was not politically devious nor one to betray friends and colleagues. Political Schadenfreude (pleasure in others' misfortunes) was alien to his nature. In short, he gave politics and politicians a good name

The full story of independent Singapore has yet to be written, and when it finally is, history will record that in the Singapore and Malaysia political firmament, he was no shooting star.