24 Nov 05
Singapore’s most vocal opposition politician believes that politics in the city-state will not be reformed through elections but by civil disobedience against what he calls “unjust laws.”
Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), said he plans to use forthcoming elections to talk about democratic reform and will continue to promote civil liberties in the face of libel laws and limits on political activities.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is widely expected to call a general election at the end of this year or early in 2006.
“For us it is not a matter of getting into parliament. Under the current system you will be used as window dressing to show that Singapore is a democracy when in fact it is not,” Chee, 43, told Reuters in an interview last week at the dilapidated shophouse that serves as his party headquarters.
Singapore has been ruled since independence in 1965 by the People’s Action Party (PAP), whose economic policies have made the city-state the second-wealthiest nation in Asia after Japan in terms of income per capita.
Opposition parties complain the deck is stacked against them.
“In order to have free and fair elections we need to have free speech and a free press,” Chee said.
Singapore bars demonstrations or speeches without a permit but allows unlicensed public talks if they are held indoors and avoid “sensitive subjects” such as race or religion. Public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit.
Comparing his struggle to Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent fight against British colonizers and drawing parallels with the American civil rights movement, Chee said he would continue to defy curbs on public expression and free assembly.
“It is never enough to appeal to the good sense of the government. Authoritarian governments never budge. It really takes action on the part of the citizens,” Chee said.
Chee’s attempts at civil disobedience have landed him in jail several times and in 2002 he was slapped with a S$3,000 fine for speaking in public without a permit. A fine of S$2,000 or more bars a person from standing in a general election for five years.
The government has warned against acts of civil disobedience that break the law.
Home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng said in a speech in August that one’s beliefs did not give a person the right to break the law and it was up to an elected government to change laws that were deemed out of date or oppressive.
Failing to strike a chord
Critics say Chee has failed to strike a chord with the Singaporean public because of his adversarial style and because he fights for abstract causes such as human rights rather than the bread-and-butter issues Singaporeans care about.
Chee blames that on the government’s success at wearing potential opposition politicians down.
In 1993, months after Chee ran in a by-election for the SDP, he was sacked from his job as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore, which accused him of improperly using S$226 (US$137) of his research grant to send his wife’s academic papers to a US university.
When Chee said the evidence was fabricated, he was sued by his former department head — a PAP member of parliament — and ordered to pay $200,000 plus court costs.
This year he lost another libel case for comments made during the 2001 poll and was ordered to pay about $300,000 in damages.
Chee said he is set to be declared bankrupt as a result, which could permanently block him from elections as the law bars declared bankrupts from holding political office.
The US State Department says the threat of libel has stifled political opinion in Singapore. Singapore leaders say such actions are necessary to protect their reputations.
Chee said the next poll is set to be another walkover as the opposition will probably not be able to field enough candidates.
“Who in their right mind would jeopardize their career, their future, their family, given what has happened to the opposition before. We have been jailed, we have been sued, made bankrupt, driven out of the country,” said Chee, who lives with his wife and three young children in a two-bedroom flat.
In the 2001 election all the opposition parties combined fielded 29 candidates for 84 seats, a three-decade low.
The opposition had its best showing in 1991 when the SDP won three seats out of 81 and the Workers Party one. But a conflict between then SDP leader Chiam See Tong and Chee led Chiam to form a new party. Chiam now has one of two opposition seats, whereas the SDP has never made it back into parliament.