GE2015: On the campaign trail with Singapore People's Party's Lina Chiam

SPP candidate Lina Chiam (second from left) meeting patrons and residents at a coffeeshop in Potong Pasir on Sept 7, 2015.
SPP candidate Lina Chiam (second from left) meeting patrons and residents at a coffeeshop in Potong Pasir on Sept 7, 2015. ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

As campaigning for the Sept 11 polls comes to a close, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them.

SINGAPORE - She may not want to call it her last hurrah, but there is real sense of finality in the way Singapore People's Party (SPP) chairman Lina Chiam talks about the Sept 11 polls.

She uses the term "last chance" when speaking about why she is returning to Potong Pasir again and talks about how she and her husband, veteran opposition leader Chiam See Tong, can be satisfied with the effort they have put in for the constituency.

"I've done all I can. If I'm not elected, I'm satisfied. If it happens like that, the most important thing is that, Mr and Mrs Chiam believe that a good name is more precious than silver and gold," she said.

Mr Chiam had been MP for Potong Pasir for 27 years before the 2011 polls, when he left to helm a team in the adjoining Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. He then chose Mrs Chiam to try carry the mantle in his stronghold.

Both he and Mrs Chiam lost, with Potong Pasir ending up as the tightest race in the election. But the razor-thin 114-vote margin in Potong Pasir was enough to get Mrs Chiam into Parliament as a Non-Constituency MP.

Despite a shaky start - Mrs Chiam's uncertain performances while speaking in public used to come in for ridicule - she believes the past four years have steeled her for the contest this time around.

Indeed, the 66-year-old has clearly grown into her skin as a politician in the past four years. On walkabouts, she now often walks ahead of her team, knocking on doors and introducing herself instead of letting a volunteer break the ice.

She is also now more comfortable engaging in a little banter with residents, whether it is complimenting a man for his "dandy" hat in a coffeeshop or politely ending a conversation with a supportive but intoxicated man.

Some of the improvement is simply down to practice, she says, and some is because she took in the criticism and tried to improve herself.

"I knew that the feedback was not good at all, I knew it already. And I can feel it myself. I don't have a lot of confidence in a debate, and I know it," she says.

Mrs Chiam went as far as to get a degree in communications to help her perform better in Parliament.

In 2012, at age 63, she started spending all her Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays studying part-time for a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and Media Management from the University of South Australia.

Prior to that, her only other professional qualification is a nursing certificate from the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital in London.

"I want to improve myself and learn the nitty gritty of how to write, how to structure proper sentences in English. It helped a lot. And I also thought media management is very suitable for being a Member of Parliament."

Perhaps because of the effort she put into trying to be a better parliamentarian, she and Mr Chiam did not have to think twice about whether she should stand again this election.

"He wants it very badly for me," she said. "He feels that I'm competent: He's seen my speeches in Parliament and he feels that I know the people here."

Mrs Chiam rejects the idea that her political brand is still too heavily reliant on her famous husband - who received a rousing applause when he spoke at the SPP rally on Friday night - even if she often introduces herself as Mr Chiam's wife.

They have an only child, Camilla, 39, who works as head of communications at a property development company.

"I respect my husband. He was MP for 27 years, so I have to somehow or other mention his name, but having said that I am my own person," she says.

"We are like two-in-one, we understand each other. We always plan our strategies together, even when he won the six elections."

She says though she stayed largely behind the scenes while he was MP, she was active and often went out to meet people and gave him feedback from residents. And she said he has not tried to interfere with her NCMP work.

She adds: "And being a woman, I think I have a different style. Women can be more 'kaypoh' and we pay a lot of attention to detail."

And now that she is in charge of the day-to-day running of the SPP, she also says she is taking a different approach to how the party conducts its business.

In a departure from previous outings, various SPP candidates are running almost independently and releasing their own manifestos for their battlegrounds.

On her own chances against PAP's Sitoh Yih Pin in Potong Pasir, she appears cautiously optimistic, hopeful that younger voters might shift in her favour.

"When I lost, a lot of young people came to me and said wait for me Mrs Chiam, I'm only 18, in four years I can vote. Whether they still vote for me or not, we'll have to see."

No matter how the party does at the polls, she recognises there are some difficult questions about the party's future.


At the moment, there is no clear successor. Mrs Chiam stresses she is thinking about renewal but isn't going to name successors just yet.

"I'm still looking, searching and testing people. I won't anoint a successor and then their head is all swollen up," she said, likely a reference to the string of successors her husband chose that eventually ended up falling out with him.

They included Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, whose falling out with Mr Chiam ended in the latter leaving the party he founded; and Singapore Democratic Alliance chief Desmond Lim. That tiff ended with the SPP being yanked out of the opposition alliance.

Though neither she nor Mr Chiam want to talk about retirement now, she says: "Wait till after the election, when the results have come out. When everything is settled, I may be able to give you the answer."