18 Sep 06
A casual observer could be excused for thinking the huddle of silent police around a bespectacled man in a park was a piece of performance art in Singapore’s first-ever art biennale on the theme of “belief”.
For Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, the prolonged stand-off with police at the weekend over his right to protest, was indeed about belief. He wants Singaporeans to enjoy freedom of speech and assembly.
Chee, who wanted to raise international awareness of Singapore’s curbs on freedom of speech, was blocked by police at the weekend when he tried to lead a protest march to the convention centre where the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are holding their annual meetings.
The meetings, which Singapore hoped would allow it to showcase its financial industry and tourist attractions to the world, have already been marred by a row between the IMF-World Bank and Singapore over the city-state’s refusal to allow a number of civil rights activists into the country. Now Chee’s stand-off with the police is grabbing headlines worldwide.
“I’m not going to say that this is a definitive breakthrough but I believe that every time we do something there will be a cumulative effect and it will eventually bring us over the threshold,” Chee said on Sunday about his attempt to protest.
Chee, a 44-year-old neuropsychologist, is Singapore’s most outspoken opposition politician.
He believes that the only way to make a difference in the tightly controlled city-state is through civil disobedience.
Protests are rare in Singapore and public gatherings of more than four people require a police permit. Chee’s past attempts at speaking in public have led to a series of fines and jail terms. He is unable to stand for parliament because he has been declared a bankrupt after Singapore’s leaders sued him for defamation.
At the last election, in May, Chee’s party won 23 percent of the vote in the wards it contested but did not win any seats because of Singapore’s first-past-the-post electoral system.
“People are afraid of associating with our party because we are seen to be always getting into trouble,” said Chee, the father of three young children.
When Chee and a handful of supporters assembled on Saturday for their rally and march, police asked people in the crowd for their names and reasons for attending, and filmed those present.
Chee has had several run-ins with Singapore’s leaders. He was slapped with a defamation suit in 2001 for accusations against former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and was declared bankrupt as he was unable to pay damages of S$500,000.
Last week, Singapore’s High Court ruled that Chee and his sister had defamed Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in another case. No damages have been announced yet.
Chee has served three jail terms — a total of about two months — for speaking publicly without a permit. In March, Chee spent eight days in jail for questioning the independence of Singapore’s judicial system.
The U.S. State Department says the threat of libel has stifled political opinion in Singapore, but Singapore’s leaders say such actions are necessary to protect their reputations.
Lee Kuan Yew, whose People’s Action Party has ruled Singapore ever since independence in 1965, has described the country’s opposition politicians as “riff-raff” who aren’t fit to rule.