Chee Siok Chin: World’s democrats must pay attention to Singapore

Singapore Democrats

Ms Chee Siok Chin recently attended the 54th Congress of the Liberal International (LI) in Marrakech, Morocco. Below is her speech.

First of all, let me thank you for the opportunity to make this presentation. Singapore is often underrepresented in conferences that discuss political, civil rights and human rights or any issue along the vein of democracy.

In cases where government representatives are the speakers, Singapore is grossly misrepresented.

At the 6th International Conference of New and Restored Democracies which I attended last week in Qatar, I spoke to a few people about the repression in Singapore. I was met with surprise and sympathy. I am told that many, especially those outside Southeast Asia do not know the real situation in this tiny city-state.

Thus, I am grateful to be here to tell you how Singaporean democrats in the liberal network is helping to shed light on Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Up until several years ago, Singapore opposition politicians had little or no access to the regional and international community of liberals and democrats. Many believed the propaganda put out by the ruling party that foreigners should not interfere with local politics.

We found ourselves isolated and the only message that the world knew about Singapore was that we are an affluent society and a great economic success.

What most of the world didn’t and probably still doesn’t know is that Singapore is not a democracy. It is ruled by an 83-year-old autocrat whom Hong Kong’s Martin Lee described as “a dangerous leader in Asia” in his speech at the opening of this Congress.

Lee Kuan Yew, who is so determined to hang on to power has even created new roles for himself such as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor even though his son is now the prime minister.

The main reason the Singapore government has been able to get away with its persecution of democrats is because we did not have any regional and international allies until recently.

Kept away from the international focus, opposition politicians have been bankrupted, run out of the country and jailed. However, this does not mean that these malevolent tactics have abated. My party members and I are still being persecuted by the ruling party.

Two of my party members, and a party supporter are on trial for speaking without permit in a public place in the run-up to the elections that were held in May this year. Dr Chee Soon Juan, Mr. Gandhi Ambalam and Mr. Yap Keng Ho, whom some of our friends in CALD (Counacil of Asian Liberals and Democrats) know personally, will no doubt be found guilty. They will be ordered to pay a fine, but the three have courageously and defiantly decided that they will not pay the fine and instead will go to jail.

CALD had originally organized a team of MPs from Asia to come to court to observe this trial. However, this did not materialize. One of the reasons was that requests for meetings with officials and academics in Singapore were turned down. This is the typical response of a country under a dictatorship.

I would like to take this opportunity to urge our LI and CALD colleagues to put a team together to visit the three men when they are in jail. This act of solidarity will not only prove that democrats in Singapore are not standing alone anymore, but will also send a very clear message to the government of Singapore that its actions are not condoned by our friends in the international arena.

The Singapore government, despite its attempts to show that its tenacity to the world, is actually very sensitive to criticisms by the international community. For instance, in March this year, Dr Chee was sent to prison for eight days for contempt of court.

We believe that the light sentence was because there were observers present during the trial from the International Commission of Jurists, the American Embassy and the Canadian Embassy.

Another example of the Singapore government’s sensitivity to foreign bodies is the protest that seven of us had conducted during the WB-IMF meeting in Singapore in September this year.

We announced that we were going to conduct a protest march on 16 September. Under Singapore law a gathering of five or more people is considered illegal. We started from a little square called the Speakers’ Corner.

A crowd had built up and the police were already swarming the place when we arrived. As we proceeded to walk out arm-in-arm, the police formed human barricades to prevent us from marching.

We told them to either allow us to continue to march or to arrest us. They continued to prevent us from moving forward but yet refused to arrest us even though what we were doing was clearly illegal under Singapore’s oppressive law. What was supposed to have been an arrest led to a 73-hour stand-off with the police. We made the sidewalk of downtown Singapore our home for three days.

The only reason why they did not arrest us at that point was because of the international journalists who were there by the dozens. If they had arrested us on the spot, the despotic nature of the Singapore government would have been instantly exposed to the world.

Thus, in the glare of the international attention, the police were instructed not to lay their hands on us. We are however, expecting to be charged for this protest. We don’t know when, but we know it is a matter of time.

I am facing a bankruptcy charge by the state for refusing to pay costs to the courts for a constitutional matter which I had taken up. In August last year, myself and three other activists conducted a silent peaceful protest in downtown Singapore.

Again, under the constitution a gathering of five or more is illegal. Thus we kept the number of persons to four. Forty-five minutes into the protest, dozens of policemen and women in riot squad gear swooped down on us, threatening to arrest us if we did not disperse.

A few weeks later the protestors decided to seek guidance from the courts as to whether the police action of dispersing us was legal. After appearing before the judge twice, the case was dismissed and we were ordered to pay costs of about 12,000 Euros.

Because we felt that this was a matter of public interest, we did not see why we had to bear the cost. I am thus to appear before the judge this month and if I do not make a proposal to pay, the state will bankrupt me immediately.

This is on top of a defamation suit that Lee Kuan Yew and son had taken up against Dr. Chee, the SDP and I. The Lees sued the party and it executive members for allegedly defaming them in our party newspaper.

We were served the legal papers a few days before our election campaign. Due to family pressure and the stress of the campaign, all the members decided to apologize to the Lees and pay them an undisclosed amount in damages in order to avoid going to trial.

Dr Chee and I stood firm and refused to issue any apology and we were determined to face the Lees in court. However, ludicrous as it may sound, the trial did not take place as the courts found Dr Chee and myself guilty even without even hearing our defence. This is called a summary judgement.

The court will assess how much we have to pay the Lees. We are guessing about half a million Euros. Dr Chee is already a bankrupt and I will made one be soon. And yet, we will both be ordered to pay this exorbitant amount.

The attacks on activists and democrats in Singapore will continue as long as the government feels that we have no allies, no foreign networks and no support. Thus, it is all the more important now that I ask and urge you to please stand in unity with us and continue to lobby your foreign ministries, the Singapore embassy in your countries or through showing up in Singapore for a solidarity mission.

To that end, I would like to thank Lord Alderdice for his statement expressing his dismay at the Singapore government for its abuse of power against Dr Chee and our party colleagues.

I am also grateful to Graham Watson for tabling questions to the European Commissioner expressing concern about the legal action taken by the Singapore government against opposition leaders to jail or bankrupt them.

I also thank the International Network of Liberal Women for writing to the President of Singapore and Minister for Home Affairs early this year to question the oppressive actions taken by the Singapore government against Chee Soon Juan.

These statements go a long way in encouraging us in Singapore to persevere and never to give up on our fight to bring democracy and freedom to our country.

Thank you.