To Be Free (1998)

To Be Free: Stories from Asia’s Struggle against Oppression

Author: Chee Soon Juan

Publisher: Monash Asia Institute (Australia)


390 pp

ISBN: 0-7326-1173-3

Available from:
[email protected],
Select Books,
Kynokuniya Books,

Singapore opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, no stranger to persecution, compiles the stories and reminiscences of several prominent Asian individuals whose actions in the course of their struggle for freedom and democracy have resulted in their detention and maltreatment by their governments. Included are Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (Myanmar), Chia Thye Poh of Singapore, the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Shih Ming-Teh of Taiwan and the late Benigno Aquino Jr. of the Philippines. The final chapter includes provocative views on the nature of democratic change and civil disobedience, on official cruelty, intolerance and violence, on Asian and Western values and identity, and on the universality of human resistance to oppression.

To Be Free tells the stories of some of Asia’s most significant political activists and political prisoners in their fight for freedom. Each account explores the corruption of power and how governments can prey on their citizens.

These include Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, South Korea’s President Kim Dae Jung, the Philippines’ assassinated presidential aspirant Benigno Aquino, Indonesia’s internationally acclaimed author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Taiwan’s parliamentarian Shih Ming-teh and the ‘grandfather of Singapore’s dissidents’, Chia Thye Poh.

Dr Chee Soon Juan is Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party and has himself been the subject of a concerted attempt by the Singaporean government to silence him.

In writing this book, Chee Soon Juan extensively interviewed each of these leading figures. In the case of Benigno Aquino, Chee interviewed his widow, former Philippines president Corazon Aquino.

The stories of these activists recount their ordeals as victims of what is usually mindless oppression. Perhaps what comes through most clearly in Chee’s book is not that some Asian governments have a purpose to their oppressive, often cruel behaviour, but that they often engage in random acts of violence.

Review by the late Dr Gapal Balatham: (Asiaweek)

As a neuropsychologist at the National University of Singapore, he could have had a good career. But then Chee Soon Juan decided to stand for election against the People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1959. In the process, he lost his job. When he protested that his sacking was unjustified, he was sued for defamation. He lost the case, and paying the damages caused him to lose his house as well. Instead of whining, Chee chose to write a book – not about his troubles but about the loss and pain that other advocates of liberal democracy in Asia have endured.

To Be Free: Stories from Asia’s Struggle Against Oppression (Monash Asia Institute, Australia, 374 pages, A$24.95) focuses on six people. All suffered for their cause – whether long eriods of incarceration, torture, deprivation of the most basic amenities or, in one case, death. They are among the best-known activists and prisoners of conscience in the region: Shih Ming-teh, now a member of the Taiwan legislature; Myanmar’s heroine of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi; assassinated Philippine oppositionist Benigno Aquino; Indonesia’s grand old man of letters, Pramoedya Ananta Toer; South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and Chia Thye Poh, who was the longest-serving political prisoner in Singapore. Except for Kim, they were poorly rewarded for their efforts.

Chee conducted lengthy interviews with most of his subjects. (he spoke to Aquino’s widow, Corazon, for the slain politician’s story) and invests his narrative with considerable drama. In most cases this approach succeeds – it achieves a certain immediacy. The author does his material no service, however, when he slips occasionally into melodrama. His description of Shih’s arrest, which begins the chapter on the Taiwan activist, reads like a potboiler.

But the tales of the individuals are also indictments of political development in their countries. And the concluding chapter reminds us of Chee’s purpose in writing the book. He places his subjects’ struggles within the context of the debate over so-called Asian values. Until the regional crisis destroyed the myth, authoritarian rule was regularly justified as being a key component of the region’s growth miracle. Asians were more disposed to sacrifice their basic civil liberties, so autocrats said. Their concern was only with stability and rice-bowl issues.

Such arguments ignore the fact that qualities such as compassion, equality, truth and non-violence transcend cultures and boundaries. As Chee points out, it also fails to address a fundamental question: Development for whom? In Indonesia, it was clearly for the benefit of an elite gathered around former president Suharto. Open debate (which must include a free press), judicial independence and accountable government, Chee argues, are prerequisites for a civil society. Without them, abuses of power go unchecked, as do dubious business practices and policy choices.

To Be Free was not reviewed in Singapore and major book shops in the island republic have refused to carry it. When the writer tried to sell his book on the streets, he was promptly charged for hawking without a license. This book should not be suppressed, nor the struggle of its subjects forgotten. As Sandra Woodhull, an erstwhile fighter for the liberal cause, told me long ago: “A generation without a history are naked.” We must clothe our young, and one way of doing this is to make this book available to the high-school students of Asia.


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