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Old 15-07-2018, 03:09 PM   #1
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Default Lorkon - On The Record

Policies, politics and paranoia: Singapore Democratic Party chairman Paul Tambyah goes On the Record
By Bharati Jagdish
15 Jul 2018 06:30AM (Updated: 15 Jul 2018 10:26AM) Share this content

SINGAPORE: Paul Tambyah exudes a good-natured amiability befitting any good doctor and teacher.

But the Professor of Medicine at the National University of Singapore and Senior Consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases at National University Hospital dutifully reminds me that he is here in a completely different capacity.

“I have to get the disclaimer out of the way. Everything I say here is my personal opinion and has nothing to do with the university or hospital,” he says with a smile.

For good measure, I ascertain that his “personal opinion” encompasses his opinions as Chairman of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), a post he was*elected*to in September last year.

“Of course,” he says with a grin.

At first glance, one may not detect the impassioned politician and activist that Dr Tambyah embodies. This facet of his personality emerges gradually as*we talk about the state of Singapore’s politics, democracy and various policies.

But through it all, while critical of the PAP Government, Dr Tambyah maintains his affable demeanour and gives credit where credit is due. *

For instance, while he feels that MediShield Life is inadequate in terms of making healthcare affordable to the masses, he acknowledges that it is “a huge advance in that it took in people with pre-existing conditions”.

Before we discuss his political career though, he tells me what attracted him to medicine. It was the “combined influences” of his parents. His father was a doctor and his mother, Leaena Tambyah, is a well-known advocate who was partly responsible for starting Singapore’s first school for students with multiple disabilities.

To listen to the full interview click*here.


In a way, it was his profession as an infectious diseases specialist that led to his activism and later, his political awakening.

“Worldwide, one of the most common infectious diseases is HIV, the virus which causes AIDS. It’s a disease which is associated with a lot of stigma and discrimination.”

He became involved in an advocacy group,*Action for AIDS Singapore.

“They are activists who take steps to reduce stigma and discrimination. I saw that people in Singapore can make a difference if they feel strongly about something and if they can gather the evidence and the data, eventually the Government will change.”

His involvement in civil society intensified and later he became one of the founding members of human rights advocacy group*MARUAH.

“But one of the things I realised is that there are limits to what civil society can do. Civil society can give feedback but ultimately, all the levers are still with the Government. If you really want to effect change, in fact, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said that you have to join a political party.”

Dr Tambyah doesn’t entirely agree with this argument even though he has accepted “that’s the way it is in Singapore”.

He compares civil society here to that in other developed countries where activists play*a more significant role.

“There are fewer restrictions on civil society and civil society actually is encouraged. They often get grants from the government for various projects. There is a give-and-take with the government.

“You win some, you lose some, but you are treated with mutual respect and I think that is perhaps slightly lacking in civil society today in its interactions with the Government.”

He describes progress as being “three steps forward, two steps back”.

For example, MARUAH was gazetted as a political association and that, according to him,*“severely limited” their ability to work with other civil societies or organisations outside of Singapore. They were also not allowed to accept foreign funding.

“MARUAH was set up for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) human rights mechanism. But if they wanted to hold an event and invite human rights activists from the Philippines, they’d have to apply for permits. These are just barriers which make it difficult to move forward towards an ASEAN human rights mechanism.”

He also points to more*restrictions*on Hong Lim Park’s Speakers’ Corner in terms of “having to check IDs, to make sure we don’t have foreigners attending events”.

I ask him if he can see it from the authorities’ standpoint that there is a case for putting in place measures to guard against foreign interference.

“Definitely. You don’t want foreign interference and I think the worst*thing is covert foreign funding. But when you are talking about something like ASEAN where there is, by its very nature, a collaborative effort amongst countries, I think that there has to be a place for transparent, well-documented foreign funding, if necessary, on a case-by-case basis and I think the blanket ban forces people to jump through hoops.”


Dr Tambyah started getting involved in SDP activities in 2010. While he spoke at SDP rallies during the 2011 General Election (GE), his first GE as a political candidate was in 2015. He was part of the SDP team contesting*Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency (GRC).*One of the main areas in which he wanted to effect change was healthcare financing.

“I was looking for a party with a very clear-cut ideology and the SDP is very much left-of-centre. It was in line with my own personal views on basic human rights, like housing, healthcare and basic education.”

I ask why he didn’t consider the Workers’ Party (WP), which had a presence in Parliament then.

“The WP haven’t published the same number of policy papers. I’m pretty sure they share very much the same views as we do on many of these issues but the SDP seemed to be willing to go out there and be heard.”

He admits his friends and family were worried that joining an opposition party would put his career in jeopardy.

“Lots of well-meaning people said to me, “Oh, you have to be careful”.

He recalls how after he gave a speech at an SDP rally in 2011, he went to Mount Elizabeth Hospital to visit a friend and people asked him if he was there to buy a clinic.

“They thought my days in the university were numbered and I think that when I got my promotion in 2013 to full professor with tenure, everybody was pretty shocked.”

He says while he, too, was worried initially, he “was tremendously reassured by the senior leadership of the university”.

“I think there are elements within the university who strongly feel that there is a need to speak up about issues which are important, as long as you do it in a responsible and rational way.

“The university has changed; I think it’s a lot more open but also social media has come into play. And you’ve seen what happened with Cherian George when he was denied tenure (at Nanyang Technological University, NTU). He had a voice and he was able to talk about it and I don’t think that NTU came out very well from that whole incident.”

But I wonder if he would have gone ahead and joined an opposition party if it meant losing his job.

“First of all, I don’t think that anyone should lose their jobs or have their careers put in jeopardy for speaking up or championing an alternative narrative in a democratic society. At this stage in my career, I am fortunate to have options that many Singaporeans may not have. I am now an internationally well-known academic clinician who could possibly work in private medical healthcare in Singapore or in academic medicine overseas. But to reiterate, speaking up should be considered natural for citizens of a democracy, and not an act of bravery.”


While his own experience has been positive, he says it is still very hard for the SDP to attract candidates because of fears that involvement in an opposition party would jeopardise their livelihoods.*

“We’ve had individuals within the SDP who are very talented, very capable. There’s actually an individual who was very active in the SDP and she said that she was told by people in her organisation that they are grassroots leaders and they don’t think it’s appropriate for her to be involved in an opposition party.

“I said, 'That’s ridiculous. You should complain.'*But she said that they are the senior management so who can she complain to? You will get good people who have courage of their convictions but it is very hard to move people from the centre because they are just too afraid for their bread-and-butter.”

When I put it to him that this is possibly a function of self-inflicted fear, rather than people reacting to Government directives to discourage involvement in opposition politics, he agrees, but points out that “self-censorship is so much more effective than actual censorship”.

“Even though the Government doesn’t sack people because they are involved in opposition politics, there’s often that perception about that.”

He illustrates the power of perception with another example.

“You don’t have to lock people up. All you have to do is make them think that you are going to lock them up or think of somebody who was locked up 10 years ago or 15 years ago and when they censor themselves, it’s much more effective.”

Considering that he agrees this could be partly a manifestation of self-censorship rather than the ruling party issuing directives to organisations to discriminate against opposition party members, I ask him whether he thinks there’s anything the PAP can really do about it.

“The PAP Government is amongst the best in the world at running campaigns. All they need to do is run a campaign to*say, join the opposition and your career in the civil service will take off. I mean that’s an extreme example but they could say, the civil service is independent. We’ve got people from the Workers' Party. We’ve got people from the SDP. Feel free to speak up. Singapore is a diverse place which encourages views from all ends of the political spectrum.

“We could have little mascots*and we could have bumper stickers and posters on buses and it’ll be tremendously effective.”

For a moment, I think he’s being facetious, but when he raises the suggestion again later in the interview, it dawns on me that he is serious.*

He*does feel*certain actions by the authorities continue to fuel a climate of self-censorship. He cites as an example, the 2017 arrest of activist and artist Seelan Palay*for presenting a performance art piece in tribute to political detainee Chia Thye Poh*outside Parliament House.*
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