Looking Backwards: Chiam See Tong’s legacy in the SDP (Part 1)

Try googling for Chiam See Tong in an SDP uniform. We assure you that you will never find it.

Faded like memories of Captain Planet on 4:3 televisions; records of certain parts of Singapore’s history are much less accessible on the internet. (Unlike the overload of listicals telling you “You are awesome if you still recognize this” ORLY).

Annabel Porter

If you recognize this, you are awesome.

Loke Hoe Yeong’s first book, Chiam See Tong: Let the People Have Him, is perhaps one of the most definitive versions of an opposition politician in Singapore that I have read. It ended with Chiam being sworn in at Parliament as an SDP member. For now, we’re stuck somewhere from now and second half of 2015 (we were told) for Loke’s follow-up.

In the meantime, we have to settle for three public recordings of what unfolded in the in-between years.

Here are excerpts from the case “Chiam See Tong v Singapore Democratic Party [1993]”. We never these would be that interesting:

Background of the Case

The plaintiff (Chiam See Tong) sued the defendant political party, which he was secretary-general of before he resigned, for wrongful expulsion and for consequential reliefs. On 17 May 1993, the plaintiff had attended a regular meeting of the party’s central executive committee (“CEC”) at which he sought to table a motion of censure against one of the members, but no one supported him. He took this as a vote of no confidence in him as the secretary-general and consequently resigned his secretary-generalship. Subsequently, the plaintiff ventilated his differences with his party to the press, and elaborated on the reasons for his resignation; his statements were quoted in the newspapers. At a CEC meeting, it was decided that the plaintiff should be disciplined and on 28 July 1993, the plaintiff received a letter from the CEC (“the notice”), requiring him to appear on 6 August before the CEC sitting as a disciplinary committee. The hearing was chaired by the chairman of the party. Incomplete notes of the proceedings were taken by various members of the CEC. The plaintiff raised a preliminary objection that the hearing should not proceed because some of its members were the very persons he had criticised. His objection was overruled. The chairman repeatedly told the plaintiff that he had to “explain” his remarks to the press. These remarks were itemised in the notice. During the hearing, different members took turns in random fashion to question, challenge and refute the plaintiff on the various remarks he made. At the end of the hearing, it was decided that the plaintiff should be expelled. The real grievance against the plaintiff appeared to be that he had been in breach of undertakings and party directives in making the remarks he had made to the press. On 25 August 1993, the plaintiff commenced this action and also obtained an interim injunction restraining the party from expelling or taking steps to expel him from the party.

Tl;dr: Chiam sued SDP for wrongful expulsion from the party.

chiam_quit (1)

Facts of the Case

On 18 June, the CEC issued a news release announcing the plaintiff’s resignation as the party’s secretary-general. The statement was an attempt at putting an agreeable and positive face to the underlying differences between the plaintiff and his by now estranged party colleagues. It spoke of the plaintiff in laudatory terms and recorded his contributions to the party and the cause of opposition politics in Singapore. It described the plaintiff’s departure as a “milestone” in the party’s political development. The plaintiff, however, thought that all this sounded more like a political obituary, and said so to reporters who had gathered outside his home on the evening the statement was released. Compared to what he was to say later, he was rather restrained in what he said on this occasion, but he said enough to indicate that he had not been able to see eye to eye with those now in control of the party. The Straits Times newspaper the next morning carried a report of the interview under the headline “Chiam quits as SDP’s sec-gen over ‘differences’.”

On 21 June, the remaining CEC members issued a circular to members of the party, saying that the plaintiff had been in disagreement with the rest of the CEC over a number of issues for some time. It referred to the meeting at which he resigned and also the unacceptable condition he had imposed for his return.

The plaintiff decided to take his differences with the party to the public. On 16 July, he was invited to give a talk to the Singapore Press Club on the future of the opposition in Singapore. In answer to questions following his talk, he elaborated on the reasons for his resignation. He said that some of the party leaders were not credible while others were motivated by self-interest. In particular, he commented on Mr Wong Hong Toy’s criminal record, and Dr Chee’s dismissal from the university because of his misuse of research funds. He also told the press that Mr Ling and Mr Cheo Chai Chen, who were the party’s Members of Parliament for Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central respectively, were running their respective town councils like their own “little kingdoms”. He said a good deal more, all critical of those now in control of the party. What he said all came out in the newspapers. There is no suggestion that he was misquoted by any of them.

On 26 July, a meeting of the CEC members took place. Eight members attended. It was decided to take disciplinary action against the plaintiff. A draft letter to the plaintiff had been prepared, and the participants at this meeting worked on it.

On 28 July, the plaintiff received a letter signed by Dr Chee for the CEC requiring him to appear on 6 August before the CEC sitting as a disciplinary committee. I had better set out the letter, long though it may be:

You are hereby informed that you are to attend on 6 August 1993, at 7.30pm, at the party headquarters (920-A Upper Thomson Road, S 2678), before the central executive committee sitting as a disciplinary committee to explain the following:

After hearing your explanation and all other evidence, the committee will decide on the course of action to take which may include a suspension, demotion, or expulsion. Should you fail to be present at the appointed date and time, the committee may proceed to deliberate the case in your absence.

Tl;dr Chiam resigned from his position as Sec-Gen of SDP. The CEC now wanted to expel him from SDP.

The record of proceedings

At the commencement of the hearing, the plaintiff requested that the proceedings be taped, giving the reason that he might wish to take the matter to court. Mr Ling, the chairman, refused his request. Mr Ling told me that the reason why he refused the request was that the constitution did not provide for it. He told me that he had never seen it done in other disciplinary proceedings (including two previous ones within the party) in which he had been involved. It did not occur to him to arrange for a verbatim record of the proceedings to be made. Instead, he appointed three CEC members, Ashleigh Seow, Chee Soon Juan and Jimmy Tan, to take notes of the proceedings. It was left very much to them how they would go about their task. In the result, Chee’s notes, when transcribed, consist of only one and a half pages, and Tan’s notes only three pages. Ashleigh Seow’s notes are more substantial, they consist of about 12 typewritten pages, but the utterances as recorded by him are rather cryptic, and the plaintiff also complains that some parts of the proceedings were not captured at all.

This is all a pity. As the proceedings were probably the most important disciplinary proceedings in the history of the party, and as the plaintiff had indicated that he required a full record for the purpose of legal proceedings, it is a matter of regret that the chairman should have turned down the request. These cryptic notes do not show the atmosphere in which the proceedings were carried on and much of the flavour of the proceedings is lost. There seems to have been an attempt to make it difficult for the plaintiff to seek a judicial review of the proceedings.

I must mention in this connection that after the hearing the plaintiff asked for the notes of the proceedings. He wrote for them on 14 August, but the defendants did not accede to his request. Ling told the court, implausibly, that he did not know why the defendants did not accede to the plaintiff’s request, and that he did not know whether the CEC discussed his request.

Efforts at reconciliation

However, the Committee was anxious to see if some way could be found of not having to carry out the decision. It was decided that a delegation of three (Seow, Jimmy Tan and Kwan Yue Keng) be sent to see the plaintiff. Later that morning, at about 11.00am, Seow and Tan met the plaintiff. I accept Seow’s evidence that the meeting was an exploratory one, but the idea of the plaintiff retracting his press remarks was mentioned as one possible way of reconciliation, although Seow was quite conscious that it would be difficult from the point of view of the plaintiff’s own credibility for him to contemplate doing so. The plaintiff, however, did afterwards ask that the CEC put in writing which remarks they would like him to retract. The CEC decided not to respond to this request, as they were afraid that the plaintiff might use their reply as evidence against them. There was evidently not much trust and confidence between the two sides.

The efforts at reconciliation thus failed. On 20 August the plaintiff was formally notified in writing of his expulsion from the party. The letter reads:

The central executive committee of the party after listening to you has unanimously decided that your explanation of your conduct is not acceptable. Accordingly, the Committee is of the opinion that it is in the interests of the party that you be expelled from the party forthwith. You may, if you wish, appeal to the ordinary party conference.

tl;dr SDP has always maintained that Chiam rejected their offer of reconciliation. This is a bit further from the truth than their reality of what happened.

The plaintiff’s complaints

The plaintiff’s complaints about the disciplinary proceedings are, firstly, that they did not comply with the rules of natural justice and, secondly, the CEC did not act in good faith in the best interest of the party but were actuated by indirect and improper motives unconnected with the plaintiff’s conduct or they acted maliciously in order to injure the plaintiff.

Shifts in defendants’ position

It is in fact not all that easy to understand exactly what is the defendants’ position in regard to the oath, the deed and the directive. In their pleadings, as I said, they appear to rely on plaintiff’s breaches of them as the foundation for the misconduct alleged against the plaintiff. However, in their counsel’s further written submissions made at my invitation after close of hearing, they say that the inquiry of 6 August was not conducted on the basis that the plaintiff was asked to explain why he broke his oath and the terms of the deed or the directive. They say that the defendants could have characterised the misconduct of the plaintiff in one of two ways:

(a)     The plaintiff made public statements which appeared to be derogatory of the party leadership and detrimental to the party’s interests.

(b)     The plaintiff broke his oath, breached the terms of the deed and went against the directive when he made such statements.

I must say that this is all rather baffling. I do not think that the letter of 28 July notifying the plaintiff of the disciplinary proceedings is capable of such sophisticated reading. Nor is this reading supported by the evidence of Mr Ling, who, as stated above, says that what the plaintiff was expected to do was to explain the meaning of what he said and why he said it. Nor is it borne out by what actually transpired at the hearing.

In the instant case, either on the case as pleaded or as elaborated by counsel’s submission, it is clear that the plaintiff was misled.

There is a world of difference between saying that the CEC did not accept the plaintiff’s explanations and saying that he breached the terms of his undertakings and party directives. The former could simply mean no more than that the CEC disagreed with the plaintiff’s views; the latter would conceivably be much clearer as a disciplinary offence.

It may be that the plea based on the oath, the deed and the directive is nothing but an afterthought, but I must resist speculating. The hard fact is, whatever the case was that the CEC wanted the plaintiff to answer, it was certainly not made clear in the notice to him or when he appeared at the inquiry.

Conclusion

In the result, I grant:

(a)     a declaration that the decision of the central executive committee of the Singapore Democratic Party purporting to expel the plaintiff from the Singapore Democratic Party is unlawful and invalid; and

(b)     an injunction restraining the Singapore Democratic Party, whether by themselves, their servants or agents, from expelling the plaintiff from the Singapore Democratic Party or taking any steps to do so.

The Way We See Things? 

If you managed to get to the end of the excerpts, you would probably come to the same conclusions as we did.

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