PN Balji: Tan Cheng Bock, the Pied Piper of GE2020

PN Balji: Tan Cheng Bock, the Pied Piper of GE2020

There are many ways to describe opposition politician Tan Cheng Bock.

Nearly man of the presidential election. Politician with principles. Ah Gong of Singapore politics.

But my preference is for this: Pied Piper of GE2020.

He attracts crowds wherever he goes with people jostling to see him, take selfies and just to wish him success. One such event turned out to be a shouting match between his supporters and those of the People's Action Party (PAP).

Some of his fans feel he could have been the President of Singapore if two of his three rivals had pulled out in the nail-biting election of 2011. The two performed so miserably that if their votes were included in Dr Tan's tally, he would have defeated former heavyweight Minister Tony Tan in the presidential election.

In the next presidential election in 2017, he was prevented from contesting because of a double lock — a financial requirement he didn't meet and a new minority race criterion that reserved the election for Malays.

Now, he is having another go. This time to enter Parliament in GE2020.

The genial politician electrified the race when he went into a deal with the PM's estranged brother, Lee Hsien Yang. Many hoped that Lee would run, but that did not happen, dampening the spirit of many of Dr Tan's people.

At 80, he looks fit and sprightly and looks like a man in a hurry. He knows that this might be his last political outing to get into Parliament after having spent 26 years as the ruling party's MP.

He was not your normal parliamentarian when he entered Parliament in 1980. He fought for what he felt was right. Once he spoke out against foreign talent (yes, it was called that then), getting Lee Kuan Yew into a tizzy.

Then he argued against a Goh Chok Tong plan to introduce a scheme to satisfy what Goh said was the public's desire for opposition representation in Parliament. A scheme to send Nominated MPs, who did not have to contest elections, into Parliament was introduced.


Goh and Dr Tan were tennis buddies but the MP spoke up spiritedly against the scheme, saying it was unfair to MPs who had to fight elections and take care of the needs of their constituents.

It was like a backdoor entry for such unelected parliamentarians, he argued.

Goh conceded a bit. A sunset clause was introduced to allow the scheme to lapse at the end of each Parliament's term and to be put to a vote during each new term.

Dr Tan was the brains behind two social policies — to provide free parking on Sundays and holidays for HDB residents and for Singaporeans to use their parents' CPF for tertiary education with the commitment that the borrowed money would be put back once they got jobs.

I chanced upon a short video doing its round on Facebook. It was of a young lady filming him in his house off Holland Road.

Dr Tan had converted his study into a studio to broadcast his speeches and statements to the public. And there were a number of string instruments hanging in one of the rooms. He played a short song on one. He took her to the garden and showed his plants, at one stage showing the hibiscus sprouting brightly in the sun.

Then he told her: "Can eat this flower, you know?"

Before the lady could reply, he bit into a hibiscus and swallowed a petal.


This man has no airs, no fear and doesn't get angry that fast. Except when he talks about things that are going wrong in his country.

In one interview, he was asked about ministerial salaries. He let fly by saying that money is not everything — compassion is. You could see how visibly angry he was when the subject turned to the huge salaries our ministers are paid.

And not to forget how he has taken to Instagram to communicate with the young. He types with one finger and uses slang terms popular with the young. They have given him a name: hypebeast.


Although he is treated like a folk hero wherever he goes, his last wish to get into Parliament is unlikely to be realised.

PAP moved the likeable Desmond Lee to supplement S Iswaran's team in West Coast GRC. Dislodging the ruling party in a GRC, especially in a time of the coronavirus pandemic, is going to be an uphill task.

If he had decided to contest a single seat, victory would be quite easy to be had.

But that is all water under the bridge now as the Pied Piper of GE2020 tries to hit the right notes.

PN Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who was formerly chief editor of Today and The New Paper. He is the author of the book Reluctant Editor and is currently a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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