The press does it again

The TODAY newspaper, one of the few local newspapers who even bothered to show up to cover the International Youth Conference for Democracy that was held recently, ran a report that gave prominence to the remarks of one of the participants who was critical of Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Ms Lee Ching Wern, the reporter for TODAY, dedicated much of her story to Ms Chua Ruo Meis comments which included a remark about Dr Chees questioning of the Singapore government about the Indonesian loan during the 2001 elections: Dr Chee, after what you did in the last elections, I was not impressed. You did not get your facts right. The US$10 billion was a loan to Indonesia and not a gift. If there is nothing to fight for in Singapore, you cannot accuse young Singaporeans of being apathetic.

Did this comment take up much of the conference proceedings? Were there similar criticisms from other participants? Or were comments overwhelmingly supportive of the SDP and critical of the PAP? If they were, why was Ms Lee Ching Werns report so skewed? Did she misrepresent what had taken place during conference?

In order to answer these questions – we had had recorded the entire conference – we provide below the gist of all the comments made by other participants during the course of the day so that readers can judge for themselves.

Comments from members of the audience:

Lawyer and former opposition candidate Mr Maurice Neo observed: I am surprised and concerned that in this region, there is nothing said about parliaments being an elitist club, a refuge for the bourgeois. This issue has been addressed in India but not here.

Following Ms Chua Ruon Meis intervention, a young lawyer counter her: I am a lawyer and lawyers defend rights of the people. Yet my fellow lawyer friends discouraged me from attending this forum, citing that the ISD would be following me and that they might start to avoid me if I attended this forum.

Mr Ling How Doong then followed up: I think it is very unbecoming of the young lady to launch a personal attack on Dr Chee. The case have not been settled in the court of law, so it is improper for her to cast her own judgment of the case.

Another member of the audience then stood up to give a stinging rebuke of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, which we will not reproduce here for legal reasons.

A junior college student lamented about the state of the local media and that given the fact that the present conference was the first of its kind in Singapore, the publicity given by the press was shocking. He asked Dr Chee how young people could contribute to widen the publicity in future events.

Dr Tan Chong Kee of The Necessary Stage then got up to ask, following the presentation of Hong Kong Legislative Council member Andrew Cheng, how the Hong Kong people could gather in such numbers to stage a peaceful demonstration to make their anger and dissatisfaction heard, as opposed to Singaporeans just grumbling in coffeeshops.

Another commentator remarked: In Singapore, we have the ISD. Twice it was used to suppress the opposition when they tried to stage public protests. Once in 1963 and another time in 1986.

Another jumped in: I am happy to attend this gathering of considerably more than 5 people. Human rights are inalienable and democracy is a process that protects human rights. Open discussion amongst student groups is less tolerated here than elsewhere in the world.

Here in Singapore, although the government is fully elected, everyone knows that this is not a democracy, yet another participant chimed in. But Singapore has been a trading partner of Europe and US for years. It is not true that we do not talk of democracy here. You can go to the US Embassy and still be locked up or made bankrupt. The only other option is to migrate which, which is what we are doing, at 3% a year.

A young man offered: Singaporeans are generally not concerned about democracy. All they want is a good education, good career, good health care, good car, good house and good lover.

During the session on Asian values, an elderly participant gave us this insight: European and Asian values are different altogether. Here we depend on ourselves for survival. The biggest person we distrust is ourselves. If we can control ourselves, then can we practice democracy. What is right for ourselves maybe wrong for others. If we can accept that, then we can have democracy.

First, can we afford democracy? a junior college student asked. Singapore has a GDP per capita income of US$20,000. Yes, I think we can afford democracy. I think democracy is universal and is not necessarily exempt from Asian values. To arbitrarily imprison a political opponent is wrong across the globe.

He observed: There is no such thing as a soft dictatorship. I see nothing soft about Marco’s dictatorial regime, I see nothing soft about Suharto’s dictatorial regime, I see nothing soft about SPDC [Burma’s State Peace and Development Council], I see nothing soft about Lee Kuan Yew.

A Swedish delegate joined in the Asian values debate: There is nothing Asian about Asian values. We have the same values at home and we call them Family values.

On the point that Singaporeans are more interested in bread-and-butter issues rather than ideals such as democracy, a participant had this to say: Yes, you cannot eat democracy. You cannot take an abstract concept and assimilate it in our bodies. But in this age of globalisation, the cutting edge of any modern economy is creative thinking and independent thought processes. Even the PAP recognises that. But you cannot have creative thinking and independent thought processes by having a bunch of scholars in select committees conducting feasibility studies. Democracy is the most fertile ground for creative thinking and independent thought processes. True, you cannot eat democracy but democracy is going to feed you.

Another comment addressed Mr Tong Kim Chuans (Parti Gerakan, Malaysia) presentation: [Mr Tong] suggested that the opposition here should work with the ruling regime to get around suppression. This cannot work in Singapore because we have a partisan press and media controlled by the government. On another note the participant added that he was saddened to see young Swedish politicians speaking so eloquently while young Singaporeans were not free to do the same.

Towards the end of the days events, someone stood up and encouraged opposition parties to share their resources: I would like to see opposition parties organise more workshops and seminars. I would also like the people to petition for independent political newspapers so we can hear alternative voices.

Pathetic reporting

There were at least fifteen comments that were supportive of the democracy and critical of the PAPs repressive habits. Fifteen to one yet Ms Lee Ching Wern of TODAY chose to give prominence to that one comment. We append Ms Lees report so that readers can judge for themselves (see below). This is not journalism, it is pathetic.

Then there is the broadcast media. There was complete and utter silence.

The overwhelming majority of Singaporeans would have read the goings-on of the conference through the eyes and ears of Ms Lee. The Straits Times’ Ahmad Osman didn’t even show up until just a few minutes before the conference ended. With such reporting, can anything the Singapore Democrats do ever be right in the minds of Singaporeans?

Teenagers show Dr Chee their mettle at SDP forum on democracy
Lee Ching Wern

DOMESTIC politics bores them. They live comfortable lives, avoiding disruptive risks. They can’t see beyond their examination grades.

All these easy stereotypes about Singapore’s younger generation appeared to be thrown out of the window when some 30 teenagers turned up to listen to opposition voices at the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) International Youth Conference for Democracy over the weekend.

Many lugged backpacks and files. Some were as young as 14. And most were driven not by a particular political leaning but by a curiosity about politics and a belief in democracy.

And very soon, it became clear that Singapore’s next generation could well be more politically aware than previously thought and it will also speak its mind.

“After what you did at the last elections, I’m not very impressed,” a 17-year-old junior college student bluntly told SDP’s Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan.

She had taken the mike to remark on Dr Chee’s comment during the last elections that Singapore had allegedly loaned Indonesia $17 billion a statement that embroiled him in a defamation suit.

Oblivious to the high-powered foreign delegates and the obvious annoyance of the SDP cadres, Miss Chua Ruo Mei continued: “I thought politicians would at least be level-headed enough to find out their facts clearly enough before saying something in public.

“As young people, we are willing to take risks but only for causes we think are worthy. But there are no viable alternatives. So, I don’t think opposition groups in Singapore can accuse young Singaporeans of being apathetic.”

This touched a raw nerve.

SDP chairman Ling How Doong stood up and said: “I think it’s very unbecoming of the young lady to launch a personal attack on Dr Chee. Firstly, the matter has not been settled yet and is in court ”

Then he added: “I suspect the speaker is living a very comfortable life. Those who speak up for their rights are those who have experienced hardship I hope her fortune will continue.”

Ms Chua was neither fazed nor intimidated. And she had laid bare her credentials earlier, when she announced: “I’m an advocate of freedom of speech, and I’m not pro-Government. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”

Dr Chee later tried to smooth the situation by telling Ms Chua: “I thank you for your criticism and I do not for one minute take offence at your comment.

“Much as I disagree with you, I will fight for your rights to say what you think. The problem with the PAP is that when they disagree with me, they don’t give me the right to respond.”

Delegates were shown tapes of Dr Chee being led away by the police after his attempt to speak at the Istana on May Day last year.

The teenagers watched in fascination, but not all of them were convinced.

“They accuse the PAP of propaganda. But, to me, this is propaganda too,” said National University of Singapore student Raj Thomas.

Still, they appreciated the chance to listen to alternative viewpoints.
After all, they had found out about the conference on their own initiative, mostly from the Internet.

“There are very few chances for us to hear different viewpoints about democracy in Singapore,” said Haresh Paramesvaran, 15, who said such issues are not discussed much in school. “It’s been a very worthwhile experience for me to see what the foreigners and opposition had to say.”

The foreign speakers, consisting of politicians and activists from over 10 countries, largely stuck to talking about their own countries.

One offshoot was the creation of a Sweden-Singapore Initiative for Democracy, in which the SDP will join hands with three Swedish political parties and focus on issues like human rights and the electoral system in Singapore. The Swedish parties helped sponsor the weekend conference too.

One common question that intrigued the youngsters was why the PAP Government known for its strong stand against external interference in Singapore’s domestic politics allowed this conference to be held in the first place.

Dr Chee’s take: The Government would have looked “undemocratic” if it had not allowed the conference to go ahead.

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