Dr Chee Soon Juan recently returned from the U.S. after finishing a six-month fellowship at the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago. Dr Chee spent most of his time there doing research for his new book (which will be out shortly), and giving lectures and talks. He also travelled to different parts of the U.S. to meet with American leaders in the political, academic, and civil society communities.
Asked what his views are of American society, Dr Chee said, ‘I was struck by the level of energy there. The U.S. has always been a place where people, talent, and humanity in general are allowed the freedom to grow and because of this, the community flourishes.’
But isn’t there the ugly side of America too? ‘Sure there is,’ Dr Chee explained. ‘The difference is that because civil society is alive and vibrant, the community has the opportunity to respond to problems before they turn into national disasters.’
One particular incident that struck him during his travels there was a student protest at Harvard University. ‘While I was walking through the campus, I noticed that several hundred students had staged a protest by pitching tents in the middle of the university grounds. The interesting part was that they were not demanding lower fees for themselves, as one might expect, but better wages for the janitors and cafeteria workers working at the university. I heard that many of the students had sacrificed their classes to participate in the camp-in. I later learned that they university officials backed down and increased the wages of the employees.
‘Mind you, these are the future leaders and thinkers of the world. I heard one of the student leaders tell his fellow protestors: “If we don’t care for the people who work at this university, then we don’t deserve to graduate from this university.” Even at the higher levels of learning, there’s a deep sense of social obligation and caring.’
Needless to say, Dr Chee lamented, such actions would be prohibited at NUS. The PAP seeks to control everything in Singapore and in the process drains all life from society, he continued, which is unfortunately what is needed to propel Singapore into the future economically, socially, and politically.
‘It’s a terrible joke when the PAP says that it wants Singapore to be the Boston of the East but then regulates all energy out of Singaporeans. We could not be any further from the Boston model, which thrives on freedom and openness.’
He ended by saying that if Singapore wants to compete at the international level, then ‘we have to start opening up society and let the people take the lead. That process is called democracy.’