Bankrupt during the Singapore Great Sale

Ati Nurbaiti
The Jakarta Post
31 Jul 07

Some Singaporeans are not normal. Maybe, an Indonesian might say, they are tired of shopping.

Instead of following the norms, they tweak and push the envelope, getting arrested, tried and fined. Perhaps even jailed several times for things that one would expect to be jailed for in Singapore, such as speaking in public without a police permit.

The worst comes after their release from behind bars. A life of being ignored, it seems, and imagine being bankrupt amid all those malls, especially during the annual Great Sale.

But maybe when you’re politically active in a rigorous nation like Singapore, every sign, even red ones, turn to big green rays of hope.

As long as the ruling People’s Action Party “keeps stomachs full and minds empty in this day and age,” says Chee Soon Juan, “that will work to my advantage, it will only make me more resolute.”

This is the secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), who cannot even run for elections having been declared bankrupt, being both unable and unwilling to pay for a number of lawsuits against him mounting to thousands of dollars.

The father of four cuts an unremarkable figure. Just a regular young dad at work at his PC, with toys strewn on the floor, an infant asleep on the couch, his wife scurrying here and there – “Sorry, we’ve got to pick up the other kid!”

But early in the conversation with the recipient of the 2003 Defender of Democracy Award given by parliamentarians for Global Action, the quiet face turns eager, and one wonders, isn’t he too subversive for Singapore? No wonder he gets caught.

For he touches on the “deceiving” impressions visitors get of his nation, and what he describes as increasing dissatisfaction with those in power.

An alternative to today’s Singapore, he explains, would be “a real market system” where people could really bargain, including workers in regard to their wages. This would require an “overhaul”, he adds.

However, he says, his fellow countrymen and women are “afraid” to speak up – except anonymously on the Internet.

“When you liberalize politically you get people wiling to take risks.”

That way, he thinks, Singapore would see many more innovators among its people, and more small and medium scale companies driving the economy.

How could he be talking so casually right here in his office in strict Singapore?

“No worries,” says his sister. “We work in the open.” Chee Siok Chin is an executive in the SDP, herself facing a lawsuit and a bankruptcy threat.

Like other dissidents in the city-state, they are not going underground, trying to campaign for support, falling flat in the last elections, gaining no seats in parliament.

Opposition parties “aren’t playing on a level playing field,” empathizers say. They’re “pathetic,” critics say, failing to prove they’re worthy of votes.

One young citizen says SDP fails to display credibility, flaunting “gimmicks” instead that don’t suit the average Singaporean – such as involving foreign parties in voicing their protests. In contrast, the opposition Labor Party has won respect, as proven by its tight competition with the PAP in some of the city-state’s election areas.

It’s an obvious loss to small opposition parties when they can’t field their leaders. But Soon Juan says he’s just thankful he can still speak up and express his views.

His work as a writer helps feed the family; when the book is published, mostly by himself, he will turn to his other job as a hawker, following in the footsteps of elder dissident JP Jeyaretnam, albeit unintentionally.

“You have to stand for about an hour, and people will buy your books,” Soon Juan says with an air of experience.

Like in his earlier books, his latest Power of Courage, virtually a handbook on non-violence for fellow citizens, draws on studies on the behavior of individuals, societies and “the nature of power”. In his books he discusses daily experiences such as high living costs and mortgages.

The graduate of neuropsychology from the University of Georgia, the United States, urges fellow citizens to “unlearn” their sense of helplessness. He writes, “like an animal stimulated and adjusting to punishing responses, helplessness can be unlearned.”

Before entering politics, he said, “I was just a regular good boy.”

When he did, “my parents went ballistic.”

It wasn’t studying in the U.S. that changed him, he said. But by and by, “my conscience got the better of me.”

So what got to him and eventually pushed him into politics?

He recalls it was something founding father Lee Kuan Yew said.

“Higher educated women were allowed to have more than two children, while he said those with less education were not.”

Many had criticized the current Mentor Minister for “sounding like a Nazi”, he said.

So instead of “getting angry all the time” he finally decided to take action. Now he’s in a small group of “Singapore rebels”, like the title of a newly banned film, along with other politicians and artists.

One of them drops by, enthusiastically sharing the top story of the day, briefly recorded on his gadget. Though few may have cared, May 25 was historic: Jeyaretnam, a former leading opposition figure, had applied for permission for his new political party, having paid up all his dues in a defamation suit against former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.

That seems proof enough as to how well the system works. But Siok Chin says Jeyaretnam’s action will send a message to the young, that if an 82-year-old man can bounce back from virtual non-existence, then of course the young can do so too.

But there will be some questions as to why he should have pay all that money, she says.

Jeyaretnam apparently made the choice as a citizen to keep working within the system, bearing the consequences and coming back again. It took at least a decade – too long to make anyone notice, let alone raise interest in his aim to contest the next polls in four years.

“Aaah the old man, he’s harmless, it’s in his blood to make another political party,” a former journalist here said.

What’s the point of fighting the system? Singapore is a world hub from where scores of multinational firms operate, along with a number of international non governmental organizations.

But one can always rant on the Internet anonymously.

However, blogger “Uncle Yap” (Yap Keng Ho) will have none of it. Also with the SDP, he says, “I want virtual reality to meet real reality.” He’s campaigning for bloggers to come out, like himself, and show themselves.

Show themselves? In Singapore? These are really just a few mad hatters congregating on the upper floor of a small office here.

Bloggers have not escaped lawsuits for defamation, for which everybody knows the dreaded penalty: Bankruptcy, oblivion.

Yet in the SDP office, conviction is in the air, though to an outsider they’re only hanging on wishful thinking regarding mounting disillusion with the party of the founding fathers.

For how many respond to their reminders – that the founding fathers themselves fiercely fought for their right of speech and assembly to challenge and finally bring down the British rulers?

Chee Soon Juan shakes his head in disagreement to one view based on Indonesia’s experience: that in a considerably established country you’d have to have the economy go horribly wrong before being able to win over supporters and finally get rid of the old regime. Shouting students alone doesn’t do the job and even that is not in Singapore’s visible future.
The facilities and freedom to shop and to consume and the space to pursue careers that lift one up the social ladder largely holds back any will to go against the rulers. That at least helped to keep Soeharto’s regime in power for decades, the “very stable” government that Singapore officials like to wistfully recall.

It’s past dusk. Dr Chee, his family and friends dash down the narrow stairs with a parting yell – “Come join us for dinner!”

Downtown, the Great Sale beckons

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