Comrade Chan Chee Seng, a founding member of our Party who secured us a pivotal motion of confidence after the 1961 Anson by-election, passed away Saturday evening (Dec 17).
He was 90 years old.
1961 was a difficult time for our Party. We lost Hong Lim ward that April; the direct fallout from a Party schism. Then we lost Anson in July to the Opposition.
And all this time, there remained communist sympathisers within the Party.
So, on July 20, 1961, Mr Lee Kuan Yew called for a House vote of confidence in the PAP Government in order to see exactly where Assembly members really stood.
“We were not sure how the voting would go,” wrote Mr Lee in The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. “Chan Chee Seng and I did a head count of and were certain only of 25 — one short of a majority.”
Comrade Chan was confident, though, that he could convince the hospital-bound Assemblywoman Sahorah binte Ahmat to vote for our Party.
And he succeeded. He brought Assemblywoman Sahorah by ambulance and stretcher to the Assembly House post-haste — just in time to cast her vote
This vote was a difference-making one. Our Party won the vote of confidence with exactly 26 people voting for it.
“Had we lost the vote, the government would have had to resign,” Mr Lee wrote further in his memoirs.
“Then either the pro-communists could form a government with more defections from the PAP or there would be general elections, which they believed they could win.”
But thanks to Comrade Chan’s efforts, the PAP didn’t lose this crucial vote during this uncertain time. The rest is well-established history
Calm and steadfast
And Comrade Chan’s reaction to the events of that day?
“To be honest, I did not feel thrilled at that moment. I was calm and just loyal to our Party,” he recounted in his 2021 biography A Veteran and Spectacular Politician — Singapore’s Mr. Chan Chee Seng, which is translated from Mandarin.
He did not, in fact, worry about the vote’s results at that point.
“I believe that it is the leader’s work to deal with the results,” he explained in his biography, although he admitted that if the PAP had lost the vote of confidence back in 1961, Singapore’s way of life and our economy would be very different today.
A self-made man
Indeed, Comrade Chan knew a thing or two about taking life in stride, and about hard economic times.
His father died in 1936, and the Chan family’s small rattan factory closed soon after. Comrade Chan dropped out of school in Secondary One; his mother had eight children in total and could not pay Comrade Chan’s school fees.
He worked hard, regardless.
While his peers were in school, Comrade Chan did odd jobs. He established a judo association and earned a black belt in his teens. During the war, he impressed his Japanese factory manager so much that he was allowed to attend night school at Catholic High.
And when the war ended, the manager even offered to give the young Singaporean teen bundles of goods as well as a truck when the war ended — enough to make him rich during the upcoming reconstruction.
Comrade Chan declined, heeding his mother’s words: “Do not touch, okay? It is from the enemy. You must not touch. Everything you cannot touch if it is not generated by your work.”
“Looking back at that today, Mother was correct absolutely,” Comrade Chan reminisced in his biography.
Lee Kuan Yew’s bodyguard and a Jalan Besar stalwart
Comrade Chan brought this same street-forged aptitude for incorruptibility, as well as his charisma, to our Party during its formation.
His political awakening was fuelled by Mr S Rajaratam’s visionary journalism and meeting a young Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Lee took notice of Comrade Chan as that bank clerk who would promptly and reliably put the finishing touches on all the checks and papers assigned to him.
In fact, Mr Lee trusted Comrade Chan enough to have him as driver-cum-bodyguard when travelling to Malaya for legal work, and encouraged him to run for City Council in 1957.
Comrade Chan handily won that seat, and Jalan Besar SMC voted him as their Legislative Assemblyman in 1959. From then on, he became an even more well-loved fixture around the neighbourhood for the next two decades — walking the ground to find jobs and help for people in need, and connecting with people from all corners of life.
He was also Party Whip from 1963 to 1968 and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Social Affairs (1972-1981) and Trade and Industry (1981-1982). And, befitting his easy charisma and judoka background, he was the Vice-President of the Singapore Olympic and Sports Council (1966-1970), Vice-President of its successor the Singapore National Olympic Council (1970-1986) and Chef-de-Mission to the SEA Games (1977).
Comrade Chan retired from politics in 1984. He set up the International School of Singapore (ISS) in 1981 and is survived by his wife, two daughters and three grandchildren.
Cover image credit: Alex Yam/Facebook, National Archives of Singapore