Democratically Speaking: Chee Soon Juan promotes nonviolent action in Singapore

Singapore, a densely-packed city-state of over five million, does not have a very vibrant political scene. The country has been governed by a single party for over five decades; the People’s Action Party (PAP) has been calling the shots even before independence was thrust upon us in 1965. The government has made its power felt in all aspects of life and politics: controlling the media, re-drawing the electoral boundaries, warning people against engaging in “partisan politics” that would polarize communities. For many years, Singaporeans viewed opposition politics — and politicians — with distrust, even fear.

It’s no picnic being in opposition politics in Singapore. Dr. Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), probably knows this better than most Singaporeans alive today.

In the 20 years that Chee has been in politics in Singapore, the former psychology professor has been sued, fined, arrested and imprisoned, for offenses that include participating in illegal assemblies and speaking in public without a permit. He was declared bankrupt in 2006 after being ordered to pay damages of S$200,000 (approx. US$160,443) to Lee Kuan Yew and S$300,000 to Goh Chok Tong, both former prime ministers, who had brought defamation suits against him. Since Chee was declared bankrupt, he is barred from standing for elections and not allowed to leave the country without approval from the Official Assignee. Chee was thus refused permission to leave the country in May to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum. Instead, he sent a pre-recorded speech.

There is no love lost between Chee and the former leaders of the ruling party. In an interview with Asiaweek, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said Chee:

has tremendous character flaws. And I think they will be exposed again to the public. You know, we look at the opposition from two angles. One is the ideas of the opposition member. The other is the character of the opposing party. If the ideas would not do great harm to Singapore, if they challenge ours, then there’s a place for the people who express them. But even though people may have fairly sound ideas, if their character is wrong — in particular, if their integrity is suspect, then we would try and annihilate that person.

In early August, Chee announced the launch of his latest book, Democratically Speaking, and that proceeds from the sales would go towards discharging himself from bankruptcy. Although he owes Lee and Goh a combined amount of S$500,000, he aims to raise about S$30,000 from book sales and hopes that the two will accept the amount as a sufficient settlement. The book was launched on August 5 to a packed room at the Substation, Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts center.

In Democratically Speaking, Chee asserts that Singapore’s financial strategy has been built on the same shaky practices and principles that got Wall Street into the trouble it is in today. He highlights the city-state’s reputation as a tax haven, generating wealth by attracting the rich with its low tax rates and secrecy provisions in the Banking Act. He questions the large amounts of money Singapore’s government-linked corporations – GIC and Temasek Holdings (TH) – have poured into UBS, Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Barclays, when there were signs that the banks were in trouble.

“Analysts estimated that losses incurred by the two wealth funds at about $100 billion (approx. USD 79.8 billion) – a conservative estimate to be sure,” he writes. “TH itself admitted to losing $58 billion (approx. USD 46.3 billion) just between March and November in 2008. The GIC is thought to have lost at least that much.”

But while Occupy Wall Street — and similar actions across the world — have brought people together to demand change, there has been very little of such action in Singapore. There is no credible Occupy Singapore movement, only a Facebook page which sprouted up in 2011 urging people to gather in Singapore’s Central Business District. However, the day saw Raffles Place occupied only by journalists (hoping something would happen) and random shoppers. As mentioned in a previous article, there has not been much of a protest culture in Singapore for quite some time.

It is precisely this fear of protesting or demonstrating peacefully for our rights that Chee hopes to dispel. Arguably Singapore’s most well-known political activist today, he has participated in (or organized) a number of peaceful assemblies over his 20-year political career, and has paid the price. He has been held up as an example for Singaporeans not to follow, but has refused to back down. Nonviolent action, he argues in his book, is not only useful, but necessary. Without exercising their civil and political rights, Singaporeans will be powerless to stop any mistakes the government may be making, like the complete lack of input by ordinary citizens on the decisions made to pour billions of dollars into large, troubled banks in 2008.

“The truth is that the government can be made to change its ways. Nonviolent action, if carried out in an astute and disciplined manner, works,” he writes. He then goes on to say, “If we don’t become the deliverers of change, then change will not come. This is because power never concedes without demand.”

Apart from the launch, Chee and fellow party members have visited Raffles Place — in the heart of Singapore’s financial district — twice to sell his book. On both occasions, they sold all of the books (30 – 40 copies) they had brought.

Democratically Speaking is Chee’s eighth book. The SDP reports that “sales have been brisk.” And for the first time, Popular and Times – both major local bookstores seen as being somewhat aligned to the establishment – have asked to stock Democratically Speaking on their shelves. It’s a small action in the grand scheme of things, yet it is significant. With last year’s election demonstrating that people no longer hesitate to publicly (and loudly) express their support for opposition parties, perhaps Singaporeans are now ready to give more credence to Chee’s methods and ideals. As Andrew Loh from publichouse.sg writes:

The young, more exposed to the world than perhaps the older generation, are more receptive to the ideas which the SDP is offering. Democracy, for example, is not anathema to them. Human Rights is not alien to the young, especially those who have studied abroad and have been exposed to these. Freedom of the media, freedom to express themselves, freedom to associate and assemble, these are ideas and rights which the younger set will increasingly demand from their own government here.

A letter from the Official Assignee on September 7 indicated that both Lee and Goh “have no objection” to his offer. Chee is now trying his best to raise the amount of money through book sales and donations from supporters. Even if he does get the chance to contest the general election in 2016, it will be an uphill battle for him to get elected. Despite a shift in mindsets amongst Singaporeans, many still buy the mainstream media’s label of Chee as a “loose cannon.” It is an image that serves as an obstacle not just to him, but his entire party. Although the SDP made significant improvements during the election in 2011, it had not been enough for the party to enter parliament.

Regardless of success at the polls, Chee has already made his mark on Singapore politics as the one activist politician who has consistently rejected the mainstream abhorrence of protests and demonstrations to advocate nonviolent action. Victories are small and slow in coming, but that’s no surprise. As Chee himself writes:

Unfortunately, the people who start the process of reform are seldom the ones who witness the change that ultimately comes about. These are the same people who are most often accused of banging their heads against the wall, of conducting quixotic acts that only end in pain and futility. And yet, without their initiative change would not have taken place.

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