Singapore dissident steals show from world financial summit

Roberto Coloma
Agence France Presse
20 Sep 06

A scruffy dissident with a sidekick named Gandhi is stealing the show from a global financial summit by waging a civil disobedience campaign from a sidewalk in Singapore.

Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), on Monday entered the third day of a standoff with policemen who refused to let him march to the venue of the IMF and World Bank meetings a few blocks away.

As a result, Chee hasn’t showered since Saturday but his story has made international headlines thanks to the large media contingent covering the biggest international conference ever hosted by Singapore.

“If they had just allowed me to do what we had a right to do in the first place, then it would not have come to this extent,” Chee told AFP as he chewed on a banana in a manicured park off Singapore’s banking district.

“This silly over-reaction, this clampdown, doesn’t serve anyone’s purpose,” he said as officers and plainclothesmen stood in a circle around him and three fellow activists at Speakers’ Corner, a government-designated free speech zone.

Any protest of more than four people without a police permit is deemed an illegal assembly in Singapore, a prosperous financial hub that maintains strict controls on freedom of expression and has been ruled by the same conservative party for almost half a century.

Chee, 44, is a US-educated neuro-psychologist who has served a total of nearly two months in prison for speaking in public without a permit.

He said his main objective in the current protest was to dramatize the “right to peaceful assembly” to Singaporeans who live “under so much fear.”

Singapore was proclaimed the most business-friendly economy in a recent global survey by the World Bank. But the same institution gave Singapore low marks for civil and political rights.

Chee, clad in a soiled T-shirt saying “Democracy Now” in front and “Freedom Now” in the back, was flanked by his sister Chee Siok Chin, a supporter who goes by the name Uncle Yap, and Gandhi Ambalam, who described himself as the party’s spokesman.

Police officers and journalists vastly outnumbered the foursome.

Meanwhile, hundreds of VIPs led by finance ministers, central bank governors and other dignitaries were meeting at a heavily-guarded convention center for the International Monetary Fund and World Bank conference.

Chee said he had abandoned plans to march to the meeting venue and will end his protest Tuesday after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses the gathering.

He expects the backlash to come after the foreign dignitaries leave Singapore.

Asked if he was going for broke by challenging the government at a sensitive time, he shrugged: “I am broke.”

In addition to a fresh police investigation for his current protest, Chee and his sister are awaiting a court ruling on the damages they must pay to prime minister Lee and his father, Singapore’s founding leader Lee Kuan Yew.

The Supreme Court last week ruled that the Chees were guilty of defaming the Lees in an article in the party newsletter.

Chee had already been declared bankrupt in February for failing to pay 500,000 Singapore dollars (313,000 dollars) in damages to the elder Lee and another former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, in a separate case.

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