The law threatens human rights: AHRC interviews Chee

When Dr. Chee Soon Juan visited Hong Kong earlier this year, he gave an interview to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) which was conducted by Mr Bruce Van Voorhis. Below are excerpts of the interview.

AHRC: In most countries, one normally thinks that the law exists to protect a persons rights, but it appears to an outsider that in Singapore the law is used to curtail peoples rights, to curtail dissent and to ensure that the ruling Peoples Action Party, or PAP, remains in power. Could you please comment on these observations, especially based on your own experiences?

CHEE: Not only are there laws that exist, the government is actively putting in place legislation that will further decimate the democratic movement. Ill give you a couple of examples. When the Singapore Democratic Party produced a video explaining our party platform in very simple terms and telling people about the need for more openness, democracy and respect for human rights, there was no law in place; but once we produced the video, the government banned it and enacted the Political Video Act. They said that henceforth youre not allowed to produce or distribute videos that are political in nature. In another case, the Open Singapore Centre wrote to the government saying we are interested in openness, transparency and accountability so, if you are interested in seeing something like this take root and be promoted and advocated in Singapore, then fund us. They said no. We then approached funders from overseas because there was no law against that. Since then, they have come up with another law that says that henceforth there will be no more funding from overseas. They will also enact other similar laws, they will amend the Constitution, they will amend legislation to continue to make it even more difficult for democracy to progress.

AHRC: Were there other tactics that the government tried, using their power as the incumbent government, to ensure their re-election in past elections?

CHEE: In the 1997 general elections, the government actually announced that those constituencies that voted for the opposition would not have their government-owned housing refurbished or upgraded. It went to the extent that they were going to monitor how the blocks voted, their level of support. This resulted in the PAP not only getting elected, but it allowed them to see where their support was not as strong. These housing blocks then would not get priority for being upgraded. That was in 1997. When they saw that this tactic actually scared Singaporeans and that Singaporeans started to vote for them, they were emboldened to the extent that, in the last elections in November, the government said they would give Singaporeans shares that they could convert into money, and they allowed people to make the conversion on the eve of polling day.

AHRC: Please give us a brief outline of your political history in Singapore? Did you start the party that you belong to?

CHEE: I joined the Singapore Democratic Party in 1992. The party was established in 1980. So by the time I joined, it was still relatively new. Shortly after I joined the party, the National University of Singapore where I was teaching psychology sacked me because of my involvement with the opposition. The allegation was that I had not used my research funds properly. When I disputed their charges, they sued me for defamation, and I ended up having to pay about US$300,000 in costs and damages. In addition, there is an injunction on me against making these same allegations again. This has been difficult for me, but its not something that I didnt expect. It has made the fight that much more difficult though.

AHRC: It appears again to an outsider that the PAP and its political leaders are paranoid, that they fear losing control of the government. If this assessment is true, why do you feel that the PAP and its leaders are so politically insecure?

CHEE: That is the nature of authoritarians. They feel that they not only have to control society but they have to get into every nook and cranny of your mind to be able to control your behaviour and mode of thought. They will do anything to make sure that opposing views do not get a foothold in society.

AHRC: Do they feel they lack legitimacy and thats why they clamp down?

CHEE: The more authoritarian you are, the more of a guilty conscience you have. You tend to jump at everything, even if its innocuous. They are not displaying confidence. Otherwise, they wouldnt go to the extent of amending the Constitution repeatedly, changing the election rules just to ensure that they get the sort of result they want in Parliament. Every measure that they take to stifle the oppositions growth and every law that they enact to hinder civil societys development I take as hopeful signs, ironically, that they are running scared.

AHRC: Ive read that Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew is an adherent of Confucianism, which I understand holds that as long as the political ruler meets the socio-economic needs of the people they have the Mandate of Heaven to rule. Do you think that these beliefs guide the actions of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP, that he and the party believe that they have the Mandate of Heaven to rule Singapore as long as they keep the city-state prosperous?

CHEE: I think he has adulterated and bastardised Confucian teachings. He selects things that he wants to see and then explains that this is Confucianism without taking into consideration that Confucianism also advocates that people have the right to remove the mandate and to air their grievances. I think its a very selective and self-serving argument, and its been debunked.

AHRC: Do you think he really believes in Confucianism, or is it a political strategy to justify his rule? Until recently, Singapores economy has been growing for several decades, and the city is prosperous. Do you think he believes he has done a good job and that people should be happy to have him as a ruler?

CHEE: My suspicion is that he is too smart to believe in any one particular ideology. Anything that serves his purpose of maintaining his grip hell use.

AHRC: Do the people of Singapore also share Lees Confucian outlook?

CHEE: After 30 or 40 years of just listening to one radio and TV station and reading one viewpoint from the government-controlled newspapers, it is difficult. You have to have been in Singapore and have gone through this whole experience to understand how difficult it is for people to think otherwise. A lot of people know something is amiss, but what is the other side of the story? How do you begin to even question and find the right answers? If its not Confucianism, then what is it? The answers are certainly not coming from the daily read in the media. The exhortations are to continue to work harder and harder, and it doesnt afford you any time to really begin to think about these issues. Where are we going? What is the government saying? Are we on the right track? These questions are not getting into the psyche of Singaporeans.

AHRC: Turning now to your new book, Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom: A Democratic Blueprint for Singapore, you state that, without democracy, stability is just an illusion. How is this true for Singapore?

CHEE: One very good case is what is happening with the Malay community and the headscarf issue. No one knew this was a problem until these four parents decided to continue sending their children to school. This opened up a whole new can of worms in the sense that, when you dont have open debate, when issues are not open for discussion and everything continues to be oppressed and debate continues to be defined by the government, then how do you begin to gauge the kind of sentiment the population is experiencing at the time. If the absence of dissent and unrest are a sign of stability, then Id say that North Korea is one of the worlds most stable societies. You also had that situation in Indonesia during Suhartos days, or years, of seeming stability. However, when you dont have a system that affords society a peaceful transition of power, ultimately, when the economy unravels, society will split at the seams. Political, social and economic strife does not come from dissent and debate; it comes from consent and conformity.

AHRC: What do you think is needed to break the stranglehold that the PAP has on political power in Singapore? Who are the potential political actors and forces in society that could bring about change?

CHEE: Singapore, being in the situation that it is, being small and having to plug itself into the world I think the international community can play a tremendous role. Of course, change will have to come from within, but the activists that are doing what they are doing in Singapore right now need to know that they are not alone, that there are people in the world that actually are concerned about the situation in Singapore, that their views matter. Its important that the international community speaks up and puts pressure on the Singapore government and lets them know that, even if we were to be absolutely pragmatic and hard-nosed about it, openness, transparency, accountability, a.k.a. democracy, makes good economic sense. If you look at what happened to Asia, and Indonesia in particular, during the Asian economic crisis, we should be learning a lesson from it.