Chee Soon Juan spent much of Friday in court. Nothing unusual in that. An opposition leader in Singapore, Chee spends quite a few days in prison and, when he’s not in prison, quite a few more in court, as a defendant.
Singapore’s ruling party has been in charge for a half-century — since self-rule began in 1959 — and the opposition Singapore Democratic Party has never mustered more than three seats in Parliament.
This may be because everyone in Singapore is happy with life. It might also have something to do with the fact that few people would want to live the life of Chee Soon Juan, the SDP’s secretary general.
Chee returned to Singapore in 1990 after earning a PhD in neuropsychology at the University of Georgia. Two years later, he lost a bid for Parliament as a member of the SDP. No big deal, you might think, in a country that calls itself a democracy. But he was promptly fired from his university post, ostensibly for misappropriating postage stamps — and that was just the beginning.
A timeline assembled by Canadian lawyer Robert Amsterdam, who is assisting Chee, suffers from a certain monotony. An excerpt: “1999: Jailed for speaking in public without a permit. 1999: Jailed for speaking in public without a permit. 1999: Fined for selling books without a permit. 2002: Fined for speaking about the ban on Muslim girls’ wearing headscarves. 2002: Jailed for holding a May Day rally. 2006: Jailed for saying that the judiciary is not independent. 2006: Jailed for speaking in public without a permit. 2006: Jailed for attempting to leave Singapore without a permit. 2008: Jailed for saying that the judiciary is not independent.”
That is a partial list just of the criminal charges. Chee also has been sued for defamation, most recently this year by Singapore’s longtime leader — now “Minister Mentor” — Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The Lees objected to an article in the SDP newsletter comparing their government to a charity that had been enmeshed in scandal. A judge ordered Chee to pay them the equivalent of about $400,000.
Chee already had been bankrupted by earlier defamation suits. “I told them to put it on my tab,” he joked bleakly to me in a phone conversation Friday. But legal bankruptcy is no joke: It means he cannot run for political office nor leave the country without permission. He has asked for permission 20 times since 2006, he told me, and been turned down each time.
Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, Chan Heng Chee, told me that her leaders go to court when their reputation is unfairly sullied because maintaining the trust of the people is so important. Human Rights Watch says that Singapore is “using defamation laws to silence peaceful political speech,” which, according to the group’s deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson, “makes a mockery of Singapore’s claim to be a model democracy.” It also makes it difficult for Chee and his wife to feed their children, ages 9, 6 and 4.
Friday, Chee spent the day defending himself against the charge of “attempting to participate in a procession.” (Singaporean lawyers are not eager to take his case, he said.) It is one of about nine charges he faces, two relating to his failed effort to hold a protest when World Bank and International Monetary Fund officials were in town in 2006, others related to his efforts to speak out during a 2006 political campaign. Officials say that he has a conscientious-objector strategy of wanting to break laws; he says that, since his applications for permits are always denied, he has no choice if he wants to exercise his right, under Singapore’s constitution, to freedom of speech and assembly.
I asked why he persists, against such odds, and he spoke of the importance of democracy and human rights and openness in government. Then he turned the question around: Why, he asked, do the Lees persist?
“If the government here is doing so well, why is it so afraid to say, ‘We’ll just ask for a mandate from the people, and we’ll get it?’ ” Chee said. “Why go to such extent to stifle free opinion and dissent?”
Singapore is, by many standards, doing remarkably well. Economic output per person is more than $27,000, 31st in the world and way ahead of its neighbors, according to the Economist. In China’s elite Communist Party school, Singapore is cited as a model of how to maintain one-party rule while growing economically — and not having to keep too many people in jail.
Ambassador Chan says that her country must have a “tighter democracy” than America’s, because it is a small, multiethnic city-state in a challenging region — a rowboat next to America’s aircraft carrier.
“In an aircraft carrier, you can be playing soccer in one corner and have jets taking off in another, and the carrier remains stable,” she told me. “In a rowboat, it makes sense for everyone to row in the same direction.”
Amsterdam says that in his experience, which includes representing persecuted clients in Russia and elsewhere, governments do not go to great lengths to monopolize the media and control speech unless there is something they would rather their people not know. If he is right, Chee Soon Juan’s rap sheet would indicate there is much this government would rather not share with its public.