Kent Ridge Common interviews Chee Soon Juan

Kent Ridge Common

Kent Ridge Common conducted an online interview with Dr Chee Soon Juan.
The SDP secretary-general talked about everything from political reform to being an activist. We reproduce the interview here.

Foreword: Dr Chee Soon Juan (CSJ) obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Georgia and is a neuropsychologist by training. He joined the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 1992, and subsequently became its secretary-general. He was formerly an Honorary Research Associate at the Monash Asia Institute (1997) and University of Chicago (2001), and was a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (2004). He received the Defender of Democracy Award (2003) given by the Parliamentarians for Global Action. He is the the Chairman of the Alliance for Reform & Democracy in Asia (ARDA).

KRC: What measures would the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) propose that would help Singapore tide through the current recession?

CSJ: During the Budget 2009 debate we proposed the following which, by the way, was echoed by some PAP MPs: Suspend the GST for at least two years. This will help especially the poor and lower-income groups, not to mention businesses that need customers and patrons to survive.

Reduce ERP rates as well as bus and MRT fares. Such a step would help to keep expenses down for the average individual and motorist.

Introduce an unemployment entitlement programme. It will ensure that retrenched workers receive temporary relief from a sudden loss of income.

Give out spending vouchers. Again this will assist the lower-income households in their daily struggle. The measure will keep the economy alive.

These proposals are explained in greater depth in Budget spending not transparent, SDP proposes alternative 5-point plan.

KRC: Which current economic policy is in most urgent need for reform? And what are the proposed reforms?

CSJ: In the immediate term it is crucial that we stop the mindless and indiscriminate influx of foreign workers. The foreigners are being exploited for their cheap labour to artificially suppress wages of Singaporeans. The foreign talent policy needs an overhaul: Only foreigners with the requisite skills unavailable from the local population should be allowed to join the Singaporean workforce.

Apart from economic consequences, the mass of foreigners forced upon the locals and competing with them for survival will have grave social repercussions which we have yet to examine. Is this an accident waiting to happen?

In the longer term, we must wean the economy off our dependence on MNCs. We have become addicted to foreign direct investments so much so that we have not allowed home-grown enterprises to flourish. Coupled with GLCs, our domestic private sector and SMEs are squeezed out of the corporate scene. During a major economic crisis like the present one, we find our economy much harder hit than anyone else.

In addition, the crush of MNCs and GLCs ensure a dearth of Singaporean entrepreneurs. Apart from economic consequences, the lack of the entrepreneurial spirit has a spill over effect into the social and political circles, making our society distinctly lackadaisical.

Without the verve and dynamism, the quality of life here suffers. This is why Singaporeans continue to be one of the most stressed and unhappiest people in the region and our youths constantly express a desire to leave the country.

KRC: Would the losses at Temasek Holdings and Singapore Government Investment Corporation (SGIC) lead to a decline in votes for the PAP? Why?

CSJ: We are not looking for just a decline of votes for the PAP. The opposition needs to make significant inroads into Parliament to effect policy change. This is only possible if the election system is fair and the media is free.

No matter how badly Temasek or the GIC performs, or for that matter how disastrous PAP policies are, as long as the Elections Department and the media operate at the behest of the ruling party, no one can change policy and the Government will not be held accountable.

At the moment, our political culture is one driven by fear and ignorance. Without addressing these twin scourges, the PAP will always be “victorious” at the polls. This is why the Singapore Democrats emphasize so much on reforming the political system.

KRC: You wrote a book “Dare to change” way back in 1994 with a set of recommended changes for Singapore’s future. How many of your recommendations have been considered currently or implemented already by the government and what are they?

CSJ: In the area of education, I wrote that the process of streaming our children at the primary school level was inane. This is because neural processes are still developing at such young ages and attempts to grade and categorise our students is woefully premature. While I’m glad the PAP has acknowledged the problem of streaming, the changes it has made to the education system in this area are cosmetic and do not address the real problem.

The Government is also belatedly beginning to see the problems I raised about our over-reliance on MNCs and GLCs, and the suppression of local SMEs. But there will not be any serious attempt to change the economic approach because to do so would entail a concomitant liberalisation of the political system, something that the PAP will not do voluntarily.

I had also written in Dare To Change that because of the stifling political climate Singaporeans were leaving the country in alarming numbers. Today, Mr Lee Kuan Yew admits that the brain drain is a serious problem.

The Government is now trying to encourage Singaporeans to be creative in the hope of fixing the creativity problem here. Apparently there is a course at NUS that teaches students how to think.

But Singaporeans know how to think. We are no different from our American or European or Japanese counterparts. What we need is political space to express those thoughts. This is the nub of the problem. As long as the PAP keeps its choke-hold on the people, this society will be soulless and the exodus will continue.

KRC: Do you think a typical heartlander will be able to grasp the idea of democracy and its benefits? Assume you come across a typical heartlander during your walkabout, how would you convince him into voting for democracy so to speak?

CSJ: The average Singaporean understood the meaning of freedom and democracy in the 1950s. That’s why they rose up against the British and kicked them out. They are now our parents and grandparents. If they could appreciate the importance of freedom of speech and assembly then, why can’t we especially when the population is now much better schooled?

The difference is that, unlike in the 1950s, the PAP Government has locked up the media and disallowed Singaporeans to think and express themselves. We interpret that as Singaporeans not understanding nor wanting democracy. If Singaporeans are really that uninterested in their rights, why is the Government nervously putting in place more laws that further ban people from gathering in public and speaking out?

How do I convince a voter into voting for democracy? I don’t. Democracy is something you practice and experience, not vote for. If you have to vote for democracy, chances are that you are doomed to labour under an autocratic state in the first place.

I have, however, tried to speak to voters about policies that are hurting them. The result is that I have been convicted of six charges of speaking in public and face another six more. This will never happen in a democracy. Without the ability to be able to freely communicate with the people, we cannot break the cycle of fear and ignorance that the PAP has so successfully instilled in society.

It is not that Singaporeans don’t understand democracy, it is that they are not allowed to practise it.

Dr. Chee on activism, and the NCMP system…

KRC: It is rare for politicians in Singapore to take on the role of an activist, and I think SDP is the only party whose members have such dual roles. How did you all manage to reconcile the role of an activist with that of a politician?

CSJ: In a democracy, the roles of a politician and an activist can be neatly separated and compartmentalised. This is because they have distinct roles to play: One makes laws by contesting for power while the other seeks to affect legislation on specific issues. Both need an open and democratic society to function effectively.

In a non-democratic state where opposition politicians and activists are deprived of their roles, doesn’t it make sense for both groups to come together to work for democracy first? Without democratic freedom there can be no oppositionist and civil society activist to speak of.

In our situation, it would be wonderful if democracy activists could come out to actively campaign for freedom and make all the necessary sacrifices. The SDP can then step in when the heavy lifting is done and just campaign to win power. We won’t have to go through all the difficulties and hardship of fighting the autocrats.

But this is not the reality. There are no democracy activists fighting for reform. Under the such circumstances the Singapore Democrats can do one of two things: Play it safe and let others do the dirty work, or roll up our sleeves and lead by example. We choose leadership.

Under undemocratic regimes, activists and opposition politicians often merge into the same role. Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Kim Dae Jung, and Xanana Gusmao were all activists fighting for democracy before they became heads of their governments when democracy was realised. Is Aung San Suu Kyi purely a politician? Even the Mahatma Gandhi straddled both camps. He was a member, a very influential member, of India’s Congress Party.

Of course, to lead also means to sacrifice. But we know that even as we pay the price now, Singapore and Singaporeans will reap the rewards in future.

KRC: Given the difficult circumstances that the opposition face at the polls (GRC system, high electoral deposits), do you see the civil societies as having a bigger role in bringing about changes to our political landscape? Why?

CSJ: Not only does civil society have a bigger role in changing the political system, without it change cannot come. Civil society, together with the political opposition, must mobilise the masses to compel the PAP relinquish its undemocratic hold on power.

This has been most clearly demonstrated in Malaysia where NGOs, including the law society, were at the forefront of speaking up against the ISA and other undemocratic practives of the ruling coalition. They then joined forces with opposition parties to put pressure on the government to make concessions on political freedoms.

KRC: What are the ramifications of the changes to the Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) and Non-constituency Member of Parliament (increase in number of seats) on the opposition’s chances for the next elections? Why?

CSJ: The PAP did not introduce the NMP and NCMP systems to democratise Singapore. It introduced the schemes to get voters to bypass the opposition. In the long run this will make it even harder for opposition parties to gain a foothold in the political system.

Singaporeans and the opposition must stop looking for the easy way out and hoping that the PAP will liberalise the system on its own accord. If pro-democracy forces don’t actively push for change and make the necessary sacrifices, democracy and a fair fight for power will always be a pipedream.

KRC: In your exchanges with Mr Lee Kuan Yew during the hearing of the defamation suit against SDP, you told Mr Lee: “We get to meet at last.” Have you ever considered contesting at Tanjong Pagar GRC which will pit you against Mr Lee when you were still a competing candidate? Why?

CSJ: In 1992, I contested in a GRC against then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. The question is not who we contest against. With an election system completely under the control of the ruling party, it is silly to think that we will make any meaningful headway.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself admitted without the GRC system. I would have been elected over PAP leaders like Mr Teo Chee Hean.

But I can’t contest in elections because Mr Lee and Mr Goh made me a bankrupt. They won’t allow me to speak during rallies. They won’t even allow me to get up on stage during election rallies. Does this sound like a confident and secure government?

Get the fundamentals of the political system right and the opposition is more than capable of challenging the PAP anytime, anywhere.

The Kent Ridge Common thanks Dr Chee for his participation in this interview. We wish him and the Singapore Democratic Party all the best in their future endeavours.

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