Civil disobedience not needed now, says new SDP chairman

The new chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has told The Straits Times that there is "no pressing need for civil disobedience activities" nowadays.

Professor Paul Tambyah's comments are the clearest indication yet that SDP has moved away from its past practice of breaking the law in the course of protesting against policies - such as by holding rallies without a permit.

Such activities are less relevant in the Internet age, "as many of our online posts go viral and reach a far wider audience than a single, individual protester", he said, in his first interview as SDP chairman.

The party will focus instead on home visits and policy proposals.

SDP is currently reviewing its policy papers on housing, healthcare, education and the economy. It is also busy training its volunteers in areas like communications and community service, he said.

His two priorities as chairman are: preparing for the Marsiling-Yew Tee by-election - if one is held - and the next general election.

SDP has applied for a court ruling on whether a by-election in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC is needed. The four-member GRC is one MP short after then Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob resigned to run for president last month.

The Government has said there is no requirement for a by-election.

Prof Tambyah, 52, a professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore, entered politics in 2015 and ran as an SDP candidate in the general election. He was in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC team that got 33.4 per cent of the votes, against the People's Action Party's 66.6 per cent.

He said his maiden outing was "very educational", noting how the PAP had more resources, making it an uphill battle for the opposition.

He said one of his patients told him he voted for the PAP because his motorised wheelchair was given to him by his MP.

He defended the SDP's record of civil disobedience - for which secretary-general Chee Soon Juan was convicted at least five times from 1998 to 2008. Calling it "a very important part of our past", he said in the pre-Internet era, it was hard to be heard via the mainstream media.

Prof Tambyah was elected chairman unopposed last month at SDP's biennial conference. Dr Chee and former chairman Wong Souk Yee approached him a month before and asked him to consider the post. "They felt I had the relevant experience and would be well accepted by the party's rank and file. For me, this seemed like the natural progression of my involvement in politics."

Would he run for the top post of secretary-general one day?

Prof Tambyah said: "That is very unlikely. Dr Chee has been doing a great job thus far."

He noted the change in the public's view of Dr Chee. Many people shunned him in the past, but in the 2015 polls, they stood in long lines for his autograph. "The Internet and the campaign finally allowed an unbiased look at Dr Chee. I am happy to be working with him."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Civil disobedience not needed now, says new SDP chairman'. Print Edition | Subscribe