On the last day of 2018, Dr Tan Cheng Bock made a momentous announcement on his Facebook page. After 50 years as a practising doctor, he was hanging up his stethoscope for good.
“Practising medicine is one of my great joys in life,” he said, recounting the fond memories of his medical career, which started with him being the village doctor in Lim Chu Kang.
But Dr Tan’s retirement from practice was not the only noteworthy thing he announced that day.
“In these last few weeks, I have had the pleasure of meeting many of these old patients who came to wish me well,” the 78-year old former PAP Member of Parliament said. “They asked me what I plan to do, now that I have retired from medicine.
“I always say that medicine is my love, but politics is my calling.”
Less than a month later, Dr Tan revealed he has applied to register a new political party, “to be an added voice in Parliament.”
The news have laid to rest, at least partly, the speculations of what he would do next, after having been denied a second chance to contest in the last presidential election in 2017.
Dr Tan is arguably the most successful PAP backbencher electorally. He won 6 terms to be MP for Ayer Rajah SMC which he first contested in 1980. That election saw him garner a whopping 83.4% of the vote. In his last parliamentary election in 2001, he scored 88% of the vote. And as a presidential candidate in 2011, he came within a hair’s breath of winning that 4-way contest, losing by a mere 0.35% to Dr Tony Tan.
Dr Ta’s electoral record from 1980 to 2011 in all elections, whether parliamentary or presidential, is stellar. Except for 1988 (where he garnered 69.6% of the votes), he never received less than 70% vote share.
His indisputable wide popularity perhaps comes from Dr Tan’s deep conviction to place his country and countrymen before anything else.
It is a value, nation before self, which he has adhered to all his life, first as a village doctor to the poor and later as a people’s representative in Parliament.
This belief was evident in why he chose to open a clinic in a poor estate in Lim Chu Kang, in a location where the nearest hospital was 28km away, where townsfolk had to make use of wells and where roads would flood during downpours; and in his steadfast objections to certain things which the government had wanted to do.
“The country and the peoples’ welfare are my top priority,” Dr Tan said in December, with hints of his presidential election promise to be a unifying figure for Singaporeans.
This certitude in his beliefs was famously on display in 1989 when he spoke against the Nominated MP scheme which the government wanted to introduce. Dr Tan believed that MPs needed to be elected in order to have the moral authority to speak on the people’s behalf.
Several other PAP MPs were also against it, but they felt compelled by the Whip to vote in favour of the proposal.
“This is the constraint upon us, and I guess I will have to continue to live a schizophrenic political life – speaking against, yet voting for a Bill,” said then PAP MP Arthur Beng.
But Dr Tan did not let the Whip shake his belief and went against his party’s position.
He voted against the Bill.
“My own feeling on this fundamental democratic principle of having only elected Members of Parliament in this House is too strong to be compromised,” he told an attentive chamber.
Dr Tan was later warned by his party over it, but he stood his grounds, and in subsequent years (in 1997 and 2002) continued to vote against the scheme. (The Whip was lifted in these subsequent sessions, as promised by then PM Goh Chok Tong.)
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Dr Tan’s conviction in the welfare of his fellow Singaporeans was again in the spotlight 10 years later, in 1999, when he cautioned the government in using too strong rhetoric in promoting the idea of allowing more foreign talents into the country. This was at a time when Singapore (and Asia) was recovering from the fallout of the financial crisis in 1997 where many Singaporeans lost their jobs.
Dr Tan urged, instead, that the government should reassure Singaporeans that they came first. His well-meaning advice, however, drew swift rebuttals from then Trade and Industry minister, George Yeo, and also from the late Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew.
But Dr Tan stood his ground again, and shot back at his detractors.
“I was surprised that the Minister chose to misinterpret my call for the toning down of the foreign talent message, as a call against foreign talent,” he told the House. “I think this is not fair.”
“Did I ask that we should stop them from coming? No. Did I ask that we sack them and replace the vacancies with Singaporeans? No. All that I asked is for the Government to play down this message in this crisis. Is that wrong?
“Is it wrong, Sir, for me to ask that Singaporeans should take priority in the Government’s plans to tackle the economic crisis? Is it wrong?”
The issue of foreign labour would be a constant concern the next decade, particularly during the 2011 general election, where the PAP had its worst electoral results since Independence, and lost a GRC for the first time.
The PAP started to tone down its pro-immigration/foreign labour rhetoric after that election.
Dr Tan’s independence of mind was evident even after he left parliamentary politics in 2006.
In 2011, he voiced his concerns and disagreements over the naming of the 700-bed Jurong General Hospital after the late property tycoon, Ng Teng Fong, who had passed away a year earlier.
Mr Ng had donated a sum of $125 million to the building of the hospital, which cost a total of $1 billion.
Dr Tan was a board member of Jurong General Hospital.
“I think it is not very proper to name the whole hospital after him,” Dr Tan said. “I don’t want to send the wrong message to my grandchildren when they ask me: ‘Why is this hospital named after this particular person?’ How am I going to tell him? That because somebody signed a cheque and the whole name of the hospital is given to him.”
Dr Tan’s disagreement, however, did not change the board’s decision to go ahead with the naming of the hospital after Mr Ng. So he decided to leave the board.
“His whole life is centred on Singapore,” said his personal assistant, Alex Tan Tiong Hee. “He’s selfless, and always for the people, people first.”
Similar praises come also from former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who has known Dr Tan for decades, since their student days in Raffles Institution. The two were classmates.
“He cares for his constituents, and will go out of his way to help those who need help,” Mr Goh said in a constituency speech in 2005 in Ayer Rajah. “I was told that even at his clinic, he would frequently waive his medical consultation fees for patients who were genuinely poor and unable to pay. That is why he received such strong support in election after election.”
Dr Tan’s next phase of his political journey will take him into somewhat unchartered waters, waging battle from the other side against his former party and members.
But that should be no surprise, given Dr Tan’s conviction and record in speaking his mind when he feels it is necessary to do so.
Since leaving the PAP, he has been treated unceremoniously on several occasions, such as having an invitation to attend a Chinese New Year event at the Istana in 2014 rescinded by the People’s Association, and in 2017 being disqualified in standing in the presidential elections after the government suddenly introduced the controversial Reserved Election, a move which many saw as a deliberate attempt in amending the Constitution to prevent Dr Tan from becoming president and an effective check on the government.
When the proposal was first put before the House for debate, Dr Tan urged the public not to jump to conclusion, defending his former parliamentary colleagues.
“We should not jump to conclusion that the whole exercise was to prevent me from running,” he said in 2016.
“After all, the people in charge are men of virtue and integrity and would not resort to doing this.”
The Bill was passed in 2018, the Reserved Election was held, with PAP minister Halimah Yacob returned unopposed in the non-contest.
Dr Tan is not discouraged and now seeks to return to Parliament via a new political party.
While some may decry this (as indeed his longtime friend Mr Goh recently did), Dr Tan’s active participation in the nation’s affairs should be applauded, especially for an ageing society like Singapore.
If nothing else, Dr Tan’s lifelong involvement and dedication to his country and fellow Singaporeans shows that age is just a number, and we all can (and should) continue to be involved.
You could say Dr Tan is an old school politician, one who believes in rolling up his sleeves, getting his feet wet and hands dirty, leading from the front and not wavering from his convictions. A conviction leader, if you will.
And there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, some would say Singapore needs more such leaders, and presently lacks them.
And one thing is for sure: if or when Dr Tan gets back to Parliament, we can expect him to speak with even more conviction and authority bestowed upon him by the people of Singapore.
“A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” – Mahatma Gandhi.