“Chee has gotten under Lee’s skin”

The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World
Author: Larry Diamond
Publisher: Times Books
464 pp
Publication No. 080507869X

In his new book, The Spirit of Democracy, Professor Larry Diamond surveys the world wide effort to promote democracy. A senior fellow at Stanford University, Professor Diamond is a reknowned observer of global democracy as well as the co-editor of the Journal of Democracy.

He was an advisor to US President George W Bush in Iraq which led him to author an earlier book Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq.

He was in Singapore last year to deliver a lecture at the Institute of Policy Studies and and he met Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew during his visit.

He presented this book to Ms Chee Siok Chin when the two met in Kyiv, Ukraine last week at the World Democracy Movement Assembly.

The Spirit of Democracy devotes one chapter to Asia in which Dr Diamond talks at length about Singapore. Below is an excerpt from Chapter 10: The Asian Exception?

Three outspoken opposition politicians, J. B. Jeyaretnam, Tang Liang Hong, and Chee Soon Juan, have been sued into bankruptcy by PAP elites who claimed defamation for criticisms of Singapore’s government and of them personally. Bankrupt individuals are not allowed to sit in parliament; this force Jeyaretnam to surrender his seat and Chee to relinquish future runs for office.

They can also be barred from traveling internationally, as Chee was in 2006 when he tried to attend the World Movement for Democracy conference in Istanbul, Turkey.

Tang felt compelled to go into exile after the 1997 elections, when he faced numerous defamation suits from PAP ministers and MPs after he called them liars for labeling him as dangerous, anti-Christian, and a Chinese chauvinist.

Yet Chee – a neuropsychologist whose career was ended in his early thirties when the regime engineered his dismissal from National Singapore University – continues undaunted.

With each arrest for speaking in public without a permit or handing out a party newspaper, he serves longer sentences, in worse conditions, following judicial proceedings that are (as he describes them) ever more peremptory and biased.

“I am already bankrupt,” he told me in a bare walk-up apartment that serves as his party headquarters. “I don’t know how they can make me more bankrupt. Every time they move against me, it makes me more determined.”

Like few other critics, Chee has gotten under Lee’s skin. An astute observer of Singapore explained that Chee “is the type of person they would have recruited. He is articulate and focuses on issues they are vulnerable on, like income disparities.”

In addition, Chee directly challenges the government’s prize image of honesty and openness, urging Singaporeans to protest the Orwellian limits on public assembly and speech.

For Lee Kuan Yew, who won massive defamation suits against both Chee and Jeyaretnam, this is too much. “He is an opportunist. He is mad,” the minister mentor told me in 2006. “If he is mad,” I asked, “why bother with him?” Because, Lee said, “this is not the kind of opposition we want to encourage.”

But it became clear during our conversation that there was something more at issue – the way Chee repeatedly attacked the regime’s ethics on managing public funds. Chee had compared the regime to the National Kidney Foundation, a charity that got embroiled in a 2005 scandal for its lack of transparency and misuse of donated funds.

Mentioning the allegations, Lee said, with visible agitation, “He is a liar…We guard our reputation as incorruptible people jealously. What is wrong with that?” Lee fondly recalled the days, after the PAP defeated the Right and the Communists in the mid-1960s, when “we got an opposition that behaved.”

He continued, “You behave like a first-world opposition and we will treat you like that. You try to destroy the system, and we will respond in kind.”


Prof Larry Diamond’s lecture at Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies:
The Whole World Can Become Democratic, Even Singapore! (12 Sept 2006)

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