Too high a price?

Below is the print version of an interview the Australian Broadcasting Corporation did with Dr Chee Soon Juan during his visit to the United States for his Defender of Democracy award.]

The man credited with founding modern Singapore and creating one of the most economically successful states in Asia, Lee Kwan Yew, has just turned 80.

Many believe the elder statesman, who led Singapore’s People’s Action Party, forged his country’s modern identity.

But Lee Kuan Yew’s successes have come at too high a price, according to veteran opposition leader and Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party, Dr Chee Soon Juan.

He told Asia Pacific’s Anita Barraud that Lee Kuan Yew has left Singapore short on freedom, democracy and human rights.

CHEE: Singapore’s government wants the international community, the people who come to Singapore as tourists, to know, at least get this impression, that we’re a very open, progressive, modern society.

But when you look at the reality – when you go down to Speaker’s Corner, you need to give your name, go to a police station which is right next to it, give your name, tell them what you want to speak (about) and only then are you allowed to go to the little patch.

BARRAUD: And of course what you speak about is also very restricted.

CHEE: There’s just a facade to let the whole world think that Singapore is a very democratic society, whereas the opposite is true.

BARRAUD: You say change must come from the masses, that people must choose change, but many Singaporeans are said to be happy with the way things are. They’re wealthy, they’re successful and provided that they don’t do anything the government doesn’t like, they can basically do anything.

Given the success story that appears to be Singapore, how difficult is it for you to promote democracy and democratic reforms?

CHEE: Well, as difficult as in any other autocratic society around the world. The one thing that we’ve got to get rid of is this myth about Singaporeans are this rich, fat people who are averse to democracy. It’s clearly not the case.

You’ve got to understand in Singapore we still have the Internal Security Act in place, which allows the government to detain citizens arbitrarily and indefinitely. We have all these laws that are still in place for the government to prosecute us anytime.

Then you have the entire media that’s controlled by the government, every station, every radio, TV station, every newspaper in Singapore. How are you going to be able, after 30 or 40 years, to come to this conclusion that Singaporeans are not interested in democracy.

BARRAUD: You’ve spent time in and out of jail over the years. What were the conditions like?

CHEE: I spent five weeks in a completely bare cell together with two other inmates and was given just a straw mat to lie on the floor. I ate, slept and read beside a latrine and we were let out for just 45 minutes a day to the yard where we could, you know, take a shower and do a bit of exercise.

BARRAUD: And in fact you’ve turned your prison experiences into an opportunity to highlight the plight of many prison inmates.

CHEE: You know when I was there, it was very disturbing because many of the inmates, they were over-stayers. Illegal immigrants we call them, and if you’re caught, not only do you get a jail term but there’s mandatory caning in Singapore, where you’re given lashes of the rotan. You can hear them scream in pain whenever this is inflicted on them.

BARRAUD: One of your recent campaigns has been the head scarf issue. In the wake of September 11, the government decided for the sake of what they called social and racial cohesion, that Muslim girls shouldn’t wear head scarves. It became a very divisive issue didn’t it?

CHEE: Well, only to the extent that the government wanted to make it. You have the situation whereby schoolgirls – seven-year-old Muslim girls – their parents wanted them to don their head scarf at school. The Ministry of Education stepped in and said no, as long as you’re going to put on your head scarf we won’t allow you into the schools. Why? Because we want to build social cohesion in the schools.

But then guess what? You have these Sikh boys wearing their turbans to school. Christian children are allowed to wear their crucifixes or pendants signifying their religion to school. Why do you then step in just to prevent Muslim schoolgirls?

You already have a situation whereby after September 11, Muslims are being seen as being marginalised in society. That’s not the way to go about building this social cohesion by insisting that everybody has to look the same.

BARRAUD: You’ve been fined for your outspokeness, you’ve also been sacked and sent to court. You currently have two defamation cases. How do you cope? You’re really living on the edge aren’t you, every step you take is controversial. You have a young family. Do you sometimes think that it’s all too hard and there are too many sacrifices that you and your family have to make to continue this fight for democracy?

CHEE: You’ve got to. I guess when we didn’t have children it was easier to make decisions. Now, of course, with our two daughters we do need to take them into consideration in the things that I do.

But having said that I think it’s important also to bear in mind that you don’t make decisions based on what you lose and what you gain. It’s got to be a long-term goal and you’ve got to keep your mind focused on it.

You just accept the sacrifices you need to make and roll along with the punches rather than to try to sort it out in terms of the costs and benefits.

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