Steve Chia: From Student Politics to Real Politics

Posted by Steve Chia under Public Forums on 1 October 1999

The last speaker for the day, Steve Chia, Member of NSP and an ex-NUSSU President.


Let me start by stating that I'm speaking on my personal basis, and my views are not representative of my Party. I'll be speaking and bringing up my personal experiences in this forum. I'll be touching on the issues involved in the "transition from Student to Real Politics."


Before I begin, let me give a brief background on myself. I started my interest in human affairs as a Student Councillor in Junior College. After Officer Cadet School, I was posted to a reserve unit as a Manpower Officer.

After my ROD, I moved on to NUS where I campaigned hard to win the seat of Welfare Secretary in Temasek Hostel, NUS. It was a keenly contested 3-corner fight and I won by a margin of 6 votes. Had I lost, I'll probably be spending most of my time between lectures and tutorial (just like some of you may have done.) However, fate had it that I won by 6 votes, and thus begins my journey into student politics.

In my 2nd year, I grew more ambitious and wanted to do bigger thing. Thus I got myself onto the Student Union and ran for the appointment of Hon Gen Secretary. Well, it is a big appointment with a big title and a big responsibility. In my 3rd and final year, I had wanted to retire from NUSSU and study hard for Honors. However, fate had it that nobody wanted to take on the NUSSU leadership, except for a rugby player from Law Faculty, who became my very good vice-President. He had no previous experiences in NUSSU nor in any committees and I felt obliged to take him on for the Presidency.

My reading of Psychology and Philosophy in NUS had both helped in my ability to understand, reason, response and to lead the diverse student populations and their leaders. It is also in this 3rd year (as President of the 15th NUSSU Council) that sharpened my keen interest in politics and challenged me to do more for society.

As some of you may well be aware, we initiated the NUS Students Fund; lobbied with Government Ministers like BG Lee, Mr Mah Bow Tan, Cdre Teo Chee Hean, Dr Richard Hu and the Prime Minister -- and argued with them about the benefits of the Students' Fund in the Istana and at other formal gatherings. We even took Mr Lew Syn Pau, Chairman of then Government GPC for Education, to task for his dismissive comments on our project in the newspaper.

As students, we are idealist, and dared to fight for our rights. We dared to speak up and challenge the Ministers on their thinking. We dare to argue with Professor Lim Pin and the student liaison office about the benefits of our various projects like sheltered walkway and better pricing for the canteen food. We proposed many changes to the administration, many of which were readily accepted but never materialized. (I guess the admin had learnt that the easy way out is to agree to look into these matters in their own sweet time, but not implementing it.) This is because there is no continuity in these Student Leadership and the turnover is speeded up by the constant EOGM.

The Challenge of Leadership

As you may be able to see from my background and involvement, there is some common characteristics that defines me. I like to be involved, and to take an active participation in my society. I like to take up the challenge of leadership, to be at the center of influence, to be able to speak up and represent my people and have our views expressed and implemented.

Of course all these positions and appointments comes with responsibility, power and prestige. The power and prestige factor is sometimes so strong that there are many leaders who got trapped in it, struggling hard to retain their positions and influences - even after they had outlived their contribution and relevance. You can clearly see this in Singapore and the region. There is too much at stake for them to give up this privilege position of power and influence.

I like to see justice and fairness in all matters of things. I have grown up to believe that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And I believe that there is a need for balance, a need for a system of checks and counter-checks. At the end of the day, we need to be accountable.

On a national level, I see that there is too much of the PAP in our lives. They were there in your kindergarten, in your constituency Residence Committee, in your neighborhood supermarket, in your daily newspaper, in all the GLCs and in your TV news. In short, they permeate all aspect of your lives and attempts in many way to control your life.

They tell you when you should be married; how many kids you should have; what flat types to live in; where you can and cannot smoke; how much you should pay to use the road; and when will your flat be upgraded. They decided that tuition fees are too low and should be constantly revised up. They felt that university students are a dangerous lot and so have the purse strings of the Union tied up. More importantly, they constantly warn that students should not be involved in politics.

There are many other examples. They just have to say their desires, and like it or not, you have to observe the rules and behave yourself. Otherwise, you'll be marginalized or punished where it hurts. In short, I believe that they have too much power; too much control; and too little accountably.

We are the masters of our country and the boss of our government. Yet our lives and livelihood are constantly being dictated by them. What fills our ears are fallacies, as exemplified by remarks such as "people have to be grateful to the PAP government," or "We owe the success of Singapore to the PAP etc." These utterances not only mirror arrogance on the part of the government, but also belittle the contributions of all Singaporean.

From Student Politics to Real Politics

After Graduation in 1994, the feeling of General Election is in the air. There seems to be a strong and growing movement in support for the Opposition. The Opposition had won 4 seats previously and looked set to winning a few more (it seemed.)

With my belief system in place, and over-confidence in my ability (after winning a few student elections), the timing seemed just right to step into real-world politics. I came into contact with NSP President Mr Tan. Being the last Nanyang Union President, we shared similar life path. We talked and discussed about our aims and vision for a more democratic Singapore.

The NSP looked like a revised Party, with a clear aim of building a multi-party parliamentary democracy. The members look young and committed enough to be prepared to last through several electoral fights. Thus at end 1994, I joined the NSP and rose to become her Assistant Secretary General. I then contested in this recent 1997 GE at Hong Kah GRC -- not so much to win, but to set the groundwork, gain experience and build a reputation for the future. In short, I need to start early and plan ahead.

Unlike student politics, real world politics require a party platform as a springboard towards achieving your objective. This is clearly demostrated in Choa Chu Kang constituency.

How you select which party to join is your business. However, you must decide if that party has a future? Is it balanced or controlled by some single man? Are its members objective and single-minded in their aim? Are they hard-working and willing to persevere with you towards the final objective? Are they all NATO or extremist? Are they willing to co-operate and work as a team? These are just some of the important questions that I have to answer when I decided to test out the NSP.

The Reality of Real Politics in Opposition Politics

Becoming a politician in itself is not easy. It becomes worse when you're at the wrong side of the fence.

You are constantly like David fighting Goliath. You do not have the resources that your opponent commands. You have to be very careful in your speech and action. You have to work triply hard and may not see results for a long time. You are not likely to be employed in a GLC, nor in any companies that look upon the goodwill of the government.

I had to leave my 1st job when my chairman knows that I'm running as a candidate for the NSP. He had to seek the approval of his business associate, who happened to be Ministers. Since then, I had decided to pursue a career in sales. I 'm now in the stockbroking industry. I don't need to worry about how my boss react to my political position.

The media is biased against you. During election, they put up all the negative narratives about you and your party. If you have a skeleton in your closet, you better jolly well clean it up now.

Your family and friends would be worried for you. They worry that you'll be arrested, or sued or that you are being followed. They worry that you will one day end up like some of the other prominent opposition members.

Their worries are not unfounded. However, it is up to you to be careful and tread your position with honor. Our 2 honourable opposition MP have been serving the country for a few terms and no harm has seemed to have befallen them. In fact, they had constantly received praise and respect from their worthy opponents.

It all depends on how you present yourself to the public. Are you honest? Do you have an alternative agenda? Are you independent of any corporation or foreign operatives? Are you above-board in your dealing? And are you out to build the country's institutional system or destroy it? You have to answer these questions truthfully and only then should you not be afraid.

In short, you have to ask yourself, "Why am I fighting against Goliath? Do I have noble intentions to bring about a greater objective? Or am I out to hurt, destroy or pursue my own selfish ambition."

The tasked ahead is not an easy one. If any of you here have the ambition, drive and are challenged to be an opposition politician, you should bear in mind these few questions: Am I ready - in terms of maturity, age, and resources? Do I have the support of my family, loved ones and friends? Do I have what it takes to be a politician, especially an opposition politician? What do I hope to achieve 10 to 20 years down the road? Am I prepared to give up my nights and weekends to walk the streets and HDB flats, talking and shaking hands with strangers and garnering their support? Finally, Am I a fighter? And will I persevere to my set destination?

I hope that I'm not frightening some of you off. I just hope to paint a more realistic picture of what is involved, and what does it takes to be in the opposition camp. You need commitment to run the race. And, when you win, your work will only have just begun. Your rewards will be the satisfaction of knowing that you have won the trust, support and respect of the electorates. You will be immediately recognized in your constituency. And you should get a decent allowance as an MP.

As much as I like to, I know that I'm not qualified to speak in terms of the rewards. If you are given the opportunity, you should ask Mr. Chiam See Tong or Mr. Low Thia Khiang of the materialistic and non-materialistic rewards that comes with it, or to ask others about the bitterness that failure bring.

But nonetheless, politics gives a very complete feeling for life. Life is short. You have to pursue what you want. Do not grow old and regret that you should have done this or that. If you feel challenged enough, or that you're upset about the current social, economic or political environment, then take up the courage and do something about it. Stand up and be counted. Be a part of change, and be heard. Only then can Singapore be a more conducive place and home.

Show some love,

Back to Previous Page