Lonely S’pore campaign in US for greater freedom

1 July 2004

Jailed thrice at home for speaking in public without a licence, Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan pounces on any opportunity in the United States to criticise the human rights record and lack of western-style freedom in his highly-developed home country.

On a five-month fellowship stint with the US National Endowment for Democracy, a non-profit private group, Chee needled a red-faced Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on a local political issue at a public forum while the leader was on a visit to Washington last month.

Much to the embarrassment of the host, the Council on Foreign Relations, an irritated Goh flatly refused to answer Chee’s charge at the forum that his government was marginalizing minority Muslim Malays in Singapore.

At another public forum on the role of America in Asia, Chee asked Singapore’s ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh how the United States could help promote press freedom in Singapore.

Since he came to Washington in March, the 49-year-old Singapore Democratic Party chief walks the corridors of the US Congress pressing for democratic reforms in the tiny but wealthy Southeast Asian island nation, where the ruling People’s Action Party makes no bones about its conviction that full-blown western-style liberal democracy is not suited for Singaporeans.

Chee said he was fighting an uphill battle at home and abroad trying to convince people of the need for democratic reforms in the city state.

“I find it tremendously difficult to get Singapore on the radar screens of governments or NGOs because of some myths that had developed about Singapore to be regarded as a model of success by developing nations,” said the US-trained neuropsychologist.

“Hong Kong, China, the Middle East and Indonesia are all beginning to cite Singapore as some kind of a model but my message to them is: be careful,” he said at a public forum entitled “Singapore: Asia’s Standard-Bearer for Authoritarianism?” organized by the New American Foundation, which encourages research on various issues.

Chee cited a letter Goh wrote to him rejecting his request for government funds to run a centre promoting democracy.

Referring to a survey by Berlin-based financial watchdog Transparency International, Goh, according to Chee, said in the letter that Singapore was already widely recognised as an open society which practised transparency and democratic accountability.

“This is a myth,” Chee said, complaining that public money, including the state-run pension fund, was invested by the government with little transparency and “the use of the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy.”

Amnesty International says Singapore is believed to have carried out the highest number of executions per capita in the world since 1994.

Chee also questioned Goh’s assertion on democratic accountability in Singapore, saying the country arbitrarily arrested and threw people in jail indefinitely without trial under the draconian Internal Security Act.

“When you talk about democratic accountability, you must at least have freedom of speech. No protests, no public speeches are allowed without a permit,” he said.

Chee has been jailed three times briefly after he tested the government by speaking in public without applying for a permit.

He said in terms of media freedom, a 2000 survey by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders group showed Singapore 144th among a list of 166 countries, ranking even lower than Zimbabwe.

On the judiciary, he said the respected International Commission for Jurists had stated that the Singapore leadership had used defamation proceedings to silence opponents and seriously undermined the rule of law.

In 2002, Chee was found guilty of defaming Premier Goh and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew over questions he raised during the 2001 general elections concerning what he claimed was Singapore government’s 10-billion-dollar loan to Indonesia in 1997.

Goh and Lee said the loan was never disbursed and claimed damages, saying Chee’s allegations implied they were dishonest.

Chee could be disqualified from running in the next election in 2006 if he loses his appeal.

The High Court last year rejected his appeal for a court trial in the defamation case and he was ordered to pay unspecified damages.

Chee said the United States, a key ally of Singapore, should use its influence to prod the city state to be more open.

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