Singapore’s top dissident keeps talking

Muhammad Cohen
Asia Times Online

Chee Soon Juan just won’t shut up. The Singapore establishment’s most frequently harassed dissident has been fired, jailed, sued, beaten mercilessly – in elections – barred from traveling, and, he claims, drugged. But Chee still keeps making noise as leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).

Most famously, during the 2001 election campaign Chee chased then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong with a megaphone to ask, “Where is our money?” Chee alleged that Singapore had lent S$17 billion (US$12.1 billion) to Indonesia’s deposed president Suharto. The charges led Goh and his predecessor, Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, to file defamation suits against Chee.

Judges ruled against Chee, ordering him to pay Goh S$300,000 and Lee S$200,000. Chee couldn’t come up with the money and was declared an undischarged bankrupt in 2006. That status bars him from seeking political office and traveling overseas without the express permission of the government.

Malaysian filmmaker Martyn See turned the story of Chee, the 2001 election and the defamation case against him into a documentary, Singapore Rebel. The film was scheduled for screening at the 2005 Singapore International Film Festival, but See withdrew the film after authorities warned him that he could face a S$100,000 fine or two years in jail if it was shown.

Author of a half-dozen books, Chee has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since he ran against Goh in his home constituency in 1993, losing with 24.5% of the vote to 72% for Goh. After that campaign, Chee was dismissed from his job at National University of Singapore as a lecturer in neuropsychology – Chee earned his PhD at the University of Georgia in the United States in 1980 – on charges he embezzled S$226 in connection with his wife’s dissertation.

Charging a conspiracy against him by the ruling People’s Action Party, Chee went on a hunger strike over his dismissal. The ensuing months turned opposition politics on its head. SDP founder Chiam See Tong first supported Chee, then turned against him and criticized him publicly in a speech at the Singapore Press Club. Chiam then left the party, forming a new opposition group, the Singapore People’s Party. Chee, who had been the SDP’s assistant secretary general, succeeded Chiam as secretary general.

In three elections with Chee leading the SDP, the party has never won a seat. In fact, its vote has fallen in each poll, from 12% with three seats under Chiam in 1991, to 4% and no seats in 2006. Yet Chee remains a prime target of the Singapore authorities.

Since 1999, he’s been fined and/or jailed on several occasions for speaking in public without a permit. During a 2006 stay in jail, Chee became ill, leading to claims he’d been poisoned. He was also named in a new defamation suit brought by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father and now Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew over alleged government complicity in the 2006 National Kidney Foundation’s alleged misuse of contributions.

One reason that Chee still rankles the establishment is that he commands respect from pro-democracy groups overseas. I spoke with Chee a day after the government denied him permission to accept an invitation to a meeting of the Community of Democracies, an organization co-founded by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Interview highlights follow:

Asia Times Online: What about Singapore’s economy?

Chee Soon Juan: SDP favors a basic economic infrastructure – work diligently and creatively to produce goods and services that people want to buy. We want an economy based on diligence and innovation … We are pushing headlong into a consumerist society, pushing wealth to the exclusion of everything else. It’s a lopsided kind of development. In Singapore, almost everything we have is not developed by locals. There’s no local know-how.

ATol: On the nanny state, Singapore’s government and its future.

CSJ: They know they cannot hold back activities people want to engage in. They’ll do anything to have the look and feel of a progressive state. The one thing they won’t allow is political freedom … Right now everything is stable, as long as Lee Kuan Yew is alive. When he passes, will the system hold? It’s based on individuals, not institutions.

ATol: On Singapore’s casinos, also known as integrated resorts (IRs).

CSJ: We’re attracting the hyper-rich. Meanwhile, income disparity in Singapore continues to grow. Looking at the recent global economic upheaval, I worry that’s not sustainable … The jobs are not coming to Singaporeans, mainly to foreign workers. The amount they are paid – Singaporeans cannot compete with that. The economic aspects of the integrated resorts are not a problem-solver.

We’re not arguing against the fact that it boosts tourism. That’s where we get into the social aspects, high-end prostitution and with it come other vices. I don’t think Singaporeans say we are different and don’t engage in these sorts of things, we are different. Why create a situation where your own country’s people can’t participate. Foreigners get in free [to casinos], Singaporeans have to pay. They’re feeling discriminated against in their own country.

Casinos are not just a night out of fun. Singapore is already a money laundering hub. There is a price to pay for all this. I’m not sure it’s going to be all that stable. When things go wobbly, what do we fall back on?