Sintercom Interview with Chee Soon Juan (1999)

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Dr Chee Soon Juan is a familiar figure in Singapore politics and Sintercom had done an interview with him in 1995. He has since published several more books and has been active in various international scenes. Our reader, Charles Tan, submitted this interview he did with Dr Chee to Chong Kee’s SInterCom website.

Tan: Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) published ‘The New Democrat’. Is it approved for circulation by Ministry of Information, Trade and Arts (MITA)?

CSJ: Yes.

Tan: As far as I know, MITA controls strictly on publications and regulates the contents of local publishers. What is its effects on the local publishing industry?

CSJ: It effectively stifles debate and public discussion on important issues and policies that affect the people. The controlled media hardly provides any intelligent analysis/alternative viewpoints on issues which would have received wide public attention and interest in mature democracies. For example, the pathetic coverage and discussion over the SilkAir crash, $10 billion pledge to the Suharto regime, the Suzhou Industrial Park debacle, the presidential (non) election, the flop of Micropolis, the Clob issue etc. have not been thoroughly debated in the public sphere. The local publishing industry is not and cannot raise the intellectual level of our society if it continues under such control. Ultimately, it is the citizens who are disadvantaged.

Tan: You met South Korean President, Kim Dae Jung when invited to The Forum of Democratic Leaders in The Asia Pacific. Tell us more about this trip, what you have learned and contributed?

CSJ: The FDL-AP was formed in 1994 by Kim Dae Jung, Corazon Aquino (former Philippine president), Oscar Arias Sanchez ( former Costa Rican president) to advocate freedom and democracy in the Asia-Pacific region. It is gaining a healthy momentum with more democratic leaders joining its ranks (Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and Indian opposition leader Sonia Gandhi were recently appointed co-presidents of the organisation together with Kim, Aquino and Arias Sanchez). Such news, however, seldom gets into Singapore’s newspapers and TV.

But let me assure you that there is much interest in the democratic movement all around Asia. Youth groups in various Asian countries are getting together to talk about democracy. There is a hearty exchange of views between them and their governments. The tension creates a verve and esprit that are essential nutrients for modern and progressive societies – something tragically lacking in our own. In fact, some of the organisers told me that they had Singaporeans attending their conferences but were too afraid to speak their minds “for fear of getting into trouble” with their government. This cannot be the kind of nation we aspire to be.

I will tell my fellow Singaporeans, like I’ve told many other young Asians that societies do not belong only to politicians in power. They do not always know best although they will never stop telling you that they do. Don’t give up your rights no matter how enticing the offer. For if you do, history has shown that the price is always too high to pay.

Tan: In Jan issue 2000 of The New Democrat, there is a table on the salaries of the ministers before. Are you referring to their salary before holding their current position? That is their previous jobs?

CSJ: There are 2 salaries columns. One is the estimated salaries the ministers made in their previous jobs (that is, before they became ministers) and the second one is the current estimated salaries as cabinet ministers.

Tan: How did you get the estimates and what do you have to say to the government claims that the high salaries are needed to prevent bribes and indicate the allowance they duly deserve? What should the pay structure be based on?

CSJ: How do you define “duly deserve.” I don’t think most Singaporeans begrudge ministers being paid and paid adequately. But how much is enough? A minister – not even the PM – earns four times the salary of President Bill Clinton, more than twice that of Prime Minister Obuchi, and seven times that of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Compared to the other heads of government, the Singapore Prime Minister is paid 56.2 times more than the average Singaporean worker. The next highest gap is in Germany where the Chancellor’s wages is only 8.4 times more than the average working German. Other countries compares are as follows: 8.2 in Japan, 6.2 in the U.S., 5.3 in France, 4.4 in the U.K. and 3.1 in Canada.

The salaries of politicians must be left to the discretion of Singaporeans. At the moment, the ministers salaries are automatically pegged to the average incomes of the top few professions for any one year. This means that it never has to be debated in Parliament.

Most importantly it sends the message that we need to pay huge salaries just to retain people’s service, commitment and loyalty. What is all this talk about passion and dedication to one’s country?

Mr Goh Chok Tong added: “If Singaporeans are just economic animals, materialistic with no sense of belonging, they will be like migratory birds, seeking their fortunes in other lands when the season changes.”

Mr Lee Hsien Loong even chided Singaporeans: “If everybody says, I am calculating the price of the house and the car and the opportunities in California, Vancouver or New York,’ there will be nobody left in Singapore.”

Do the ministers want Singaporeans to emulate them and insist that they get paid top dollar for everything and anything they do or should they be passionate about their country and not think how much they should be paid? You can’t have it both ways. All this talk by the Government about having passion, a sense of belonging and staying on in Singapore despite better opportunities elsewhere rings hypocritically empty when contrasted with its insistence that ministers be paid big bucks or they’ll go elsewhere. One is reminded of the maxim: do as I say, not as I do.

One more thing, this million-dollar salary of ministers flew so obscenely in the face of Singaporeans especially during the economic crisis when workers were told that they had to take a wage cut in their CPF. Many had to fork out more from their pockets or borrow to make good their HDB instalments while the ministers hardly felt the pain. This is a classic case of authoritarian governments, unchecked by the opposition, becoming increasingly out of touch with the realities that the ordinary folk have to face in their daily lives.

Tan: You said there are no independent trade unions in Singapore? How can we encourage workers to form them? Are there currently any regulations that makes setting up trade unions difficult?

CSJ: Like everything else in Singapore, a trade union needs to be registered. But even before workers can get together, they will be harassed and intimidated by the authorities. I speak from personal experience. When I registered the Open Singapore Centre at the Registry of Companies, which was supposed to take just two days, I was told by the officer that we had to wait for a few months because our application had to be sent to the ISD for screening. The officer only backed down and registered the organisation when I insisted that he put what he said in the form of an official letter from the Registry.

If Singaporean workers don’t stand up for themselves, then nobody can help them. If workers are interested, they can contact us.

Tan: How do you think the aged poor should be helped?

CSJ: In the first place we should stop the Government in creating more! By witholding their CPF through the Minimum Sum Scheme where the Government retains a minimum sum of $80,000 of one’s savings and disburses it in monthly instalments of a couple of hundreds of dollars, we are going to see an entire generation of retirees unable to financially fend for themselves. Just imagine, how is one going to survive on $200 a month in today’s Singapore? We are talking about life-savings and lives. We need a radical change of mind and heart in the Government. We cannot continue to see Singaporeans as “digits” as Mr Lee Kuan Yew described us to be, we cannot treat our society like Microsoft, to which a minister (I think it was Mr Wong Kan Seng) once abjectly compared, and we cannot continue to work Singaporeans harder and harder while suppressing wages. If working, able-bodied Singaporeans are thought of as digits, then what hope is there left for those who are no longer productive in Singapore Inc.? We are a nation, not a private limited. And as a nation, we should measure our greatness by the quality of care and compassion we show to our elderly and infirm, not just how high we can get our GDP.

So what is the Government’s answer to this problem of an ageing society? Change the one-man-one-vote system. There are already suggestions within the PAP to give elderly Singaporeans one vote while making the votes of younger Singaporeans count twice so that the older folks cannot make their voice effective enough to alter government policy. You might as well let the young have their one vote and don’t let the old vote because, essentially, that is what it is. (Would you buy two bananas for 50 cents, or one for 50 cents and get another one free?)

If we continue to treat our retired and elderly as inconvenient by-products, then we cannot even begin to properly address their concerns.

Let me also point out that the ageing population we have is wholly a creation of the PAP’s imprudent Stop-At-Two policy of the 1970s. Couples were told to have no more than two children and many were made to undergo sterilisation.

Tan: I always think that Singapore needs an alternative paper, reflecting the voices and concerns for its citizens instead of just being a government propaganda? How do you think we can set up one? Do you think a petition will do?

CSJ: Under the law, you need a license from the Government to set up a newspaper. Why do you think the PAP shut down independent newspapers, arrested journalists and editors who would not bow under government pressure, and amended the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act (NPPA) which, among other restrictions, stipulate that no one individual can hold more than 3 per cent of the shares in a newspaper company? The reality is that it is almost impossible to set up an independent newspaper without violating the NPPA and no petition will get the Government to change its authoritarian ways.

Tan: SDP is starting ‘Young Democrats’. Tell us more about it, its activities, aims, etc.

CSJ: The idea behind the Young Democrats is to give Singapore’s youth a means to participate in our country’s political process and to allow youth leadership to develop. For the SDP to plan everything so that youths just join us and follow directions would be to defeat the purpose of setting up the Young Democrats in the first place. We want democratic- minded Singaporean youths to come forward to exercise their initiative and decide the direction they want to take with the youth wing. They can use their creative energy to find ways of educating their counterparts in society of the importance of democratic values and principles such as networking with other youth movements in the region, participate international youth conferences, becoming active on the Internet, engaging with Young PAP in debates.

Tan: Internal Security Department strikes fear in people. Has the Department ever approached you? What are their methods of dealing with detainees?

CSJ: If your question is whether the ISD has ever tried to arrest me, the answer is no. I do, however, work under the assumption that everything I say and do is being monitored.

Am I perturbed? No.

You need only be afraid of the PAP if you are not sure in your own heart about your own convictions and actions. I have not the slightest doubt that what I am doing for my country is right. I’ve openly challenged the PAP’s authoritarian credentials and called for democratisation in Singapore. How does this threaten national security? You can only intimidate those who allow themselves to be initmidated. I’m not one of them.

How ISD detainees are treated have been documented in various reports published by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. I’ve documented some of these in my book To Be Free.

Space and time doesn’t permit me to describe it here. It is enough to say that it is absolutely shameful for a government to treat helpless citizens so despicably.

Having said that, the advent of the Internet and demise of communism has forced the government to think twice about using ISD without attracting intense objection from the international community.

Tan: You were told not to give a speech in public at Raffles Place MRT station but you went ahead with it. Can you tell us what happened later and what were the contents of your speech?

CSJ: Giving a public speech is a right guaranteed under the Singapore Constitution. A right is a right, not a privilege to be bestowed nor prize to be won. It is ours and no government can remove it except in times of emergency and war.

Nonetheless, the Government went ahead and charged me for speaking in public without a permit – a permit which it stated repeatedly that it will not give. I was convicted and fined. There are laws which are good for society; they must be obeyed. But there are also laws which are unjust and unconstitutional, kept in place to perpetuate the ruling elite’s power. Responsible and thinking citizens must oppose these. Albert Einstein said: “Every citizen should be equally responsible for defending the constitutional liberties of his country.” In good conscience I could not legitimise the law which denied me the right to free speech by paying the fine. I was imprisoned as a result.

I want to tell Singaporeans that it is not just my right that has been violated. The right of every Singaporean citizen to assemble peacefully has also been robbed. If we cannot get together to freely debate public policies, we will ultimately lose out.

Tan: How was the idea of ‘To Be Free’ conceived? Russell Heng of Australian University who reviewed this book said it is a ‘competent’ summary of regional human rights development.

CSJ: We are going through a time when many Asian countries are making a distinct shift towards democracy. Democratic leaders have always been at the forefront of this struggle. I have met some of them and learned of their fears, tears, broken bones, hopes, and dreams, in the course of their battles. Most of them eventually triumphed over autocrats and dictators. They never used guns or the secret police to achieve their purpose. Instead, it was their unbending belief in the truth – the truth that freedom and democracy is the way forward for their countries, for humanity – that sustained them through their quest. I wanted to bring this out in my book.

Tan: What are your experiences and obstacles (if any) in writing this book?

CSJ: I could not have written this book in Singapore for the lack of research facilities. I ended up getting an honorary fellowship from the Monash Asia Institute in Melbourne to work on it. But obstacles did not disappear after I finished writing the book. When I returned to Singapore, I found that none of the bookstores dared to sell it. When I sold them myself on the street, I was prosecuted for illegal hawking. This is the pitiable reality: Singapore claiming to be this cosmopolitan hub of almost everything where “every Singaporean counts”, but censoriously discounting people who disagree with it.

Tan: Can you provide a brief history of the political exiles/detainees in Singapore?

CSJ: About 150 people were arrested during Operation Cold Store in 1963. Many were former PAP members who had left the party and formed the Barisan Sosialis. Among them was the late Mr Lim Chin Siong, who was popular with Singaporeans then. He was imprisoned for several years and was later exiled to the U.K. He returned to Singapore and passed away in the mid-1990s. In 1966, Mr Chia Thye Poh, an opposition MP, was imprisoned for 23 years without given a trial. He was detained in Sentosa for another nine years. All this time he was accused of being a communist. No evidence was produced and Mr Chia steadfastly refused to kowtow.

There are many others who sacrificed their personal liberties for the sake of democracy for Singapore. I cannot recount them all in this limited space but I try to describe as much of the happenings as possible in To Be Free. I hope that Singaporeans, especially the young generation, will make an effort to acquaint themselves with this part of history and not just rely on the version from officialdom.

Tan: The government said opposition parties’ candidates lack quality and credibility. What do you have to say to that?

CSJ: Isn’t that what you would expect of ruling parties? The only problem is that in Singapore the media does not give the Opposition the right of reply whereas it slavishly reproduces all the attacks the PAP heaps on its opponents. The media refuses to publish alternative viewpoints voiced by the SDP.

For example in Dare To Change, we clearly laid out our vision for Singapore. Many of the points cited in there are now echoed by the PAP in its S21 plan. But the media refused to report and publish the points raised in the SDP’s manifesto.

Then there is the coverage of the elections. The biasness of the local media plummets to its ugliest depths during elections. Singaporeans who attend Opposition rallies and then read or watch reports of them on TV or the newspapers the following day can attest to the woeful journalism. We are constantly exposed to one TV station and press company where the people’s “minds are fed with a constant drone of sycophantic support for a particular orthodox political philosophy” (to quote the Senior Minister in his younger years).

After using all the means, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to say that the Opposition does not have quality and credibility? Francis Seow was the solicitor-general, Jeyaretnam was a former judge, Tang Liang Hong was a top corporate lawyer, Chia Thye Poh was a lecturer in mathematics, etc. They all became “not credible” and “not qualified” only after they joined the Opposition. Singaporeans should not be so naïve as to believe them.

Tan: Deputy Prime Minister said they are encouraging ‘feedback’ from the public to build S21. What do you think?

CSJ: Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning. Singapore is not MacDonald’s or C. K. Tang where suggestion boxes are put out to solicit feedback’ from customers. We are a nation, supposedly democratic where the government is elected by the people. In other words, the people give the government the power to act on their behalf for a limited term following which they must seek a fresh mandate. The citizens are in charge.

But can you see what is being done now? The rules are re-written. As long as the people accept the government as boss, it is willing to accept “feedback” from them. It keeps on changing the rules of the elections, ignoring public opinion, to ensure that it maintains its total grip on society.

Let us not fall into the trap of debating and discussing national issues along lines prescribed by the government. It is like someone telling us that we have to figure out whether the sky is green or red, and we spend the rest of our time and energy trying to figure it out. We can never become a mature, intelligent and responsible society in this way.

As citizens of the country, we do not give “feedback”. We have the right to tell the government what we want or don’t want as public policy. We have the right not to be intimidated or threatened.

Tan: It has been a few years since the persecution of Tang Liang Hong and Jeyaratnem. Do you have any comments to the saga?

CSJ: The Tang Liang Hong episode was just one in whole series of events in Singapore’s politics. Singapore had a great set of democratic and national leaders in Chia Thye Poh, Vincent Cheng, J. B. Jeyaretnam , the late Mr Lim Chin Siong, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Dr Poh Soo Kai, Francis Seow, Tan Wah Piow, Tang Liang Hong, Teo Soh Lung, just to name a few.

Under the authoritarian hand, many of them are either in exile or crushed into silence.

Tan: What do you think is the possibility of opposition parties collaborating?

CSJ: It is a great idea. In fact, we tried to set this in motion by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with another opposition party, the PKMS and invited others to join in. We will continue to work towards this goal of bringing opposition parties closer together.

Tan: What are the SDP future plans?

CSJ: The facile answer is to fight and win elections. The complication is that we first have to get our message across to the people. I’ll admit that the journey is one of a thousand miles. But didn’t Confucius say that it begins with a single step?

Tan: What are your personal plans such as writing a new book?

CSJ: I’m working on one.


Background information:

The SDP was formed in 1980. Its objects, as described in the party’s constitution, is (abridged version): One, to eliminate all forms of authoritarianism; Two, to build an economy where private enterprise is encouraged and government businesses are minimised; Three, to foster a dynamic society based on pluralism and diversity; and Four, to ensure an independent judiciary, respect the rights of the people, and guarantee a free-flow of information in society.

Dr Chee Soon Juan was a student at ACS, trained in neuropsychology in the U.S., a former lecturer at NUS and now Secretary-General of the SDP. He has written 4 books: Dare To Change: An Alternative Vision For Singapore; Singapore (1994), My Home Too (1995); To Be Free: Stories From Asia’s Struggle Against Oppression (1998) and Effective Parenting For The Asian Family (1994, co-authored with his wife, Dr Huang Chih-mei).

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