Australia Network News
Singaporean democracy leader Chee Soon Juan says his nation needs greater democratic reform to retain the talent of its younger generations.
Speaking on Radio Australia’s Connect Asia, Dr Chee said he could not even attend a ceremony to accept the Liberal International Prize for Freedom, recently awarded to him, because of restrictions his government has placed on his travel.
“We continue to be a very autocratic system, society and there is very little information flow,” he said.
“Even as we speak, the media here has just been very reluctant to cover news about the Singapore Democratic Party or alternative ideas and the need for a more open system.”
Dr Chee said a recent study by the Singapore Polytechnic showed 37 per cent of young people had no loyalty to their country and more than 50 per cent would leave Singapore if they could.
“What kind of society are we building if we can not get our own citizens to want to stay put? And if the government is running things as well as it claims to be running it, then why are so many Singaporeans straining to leave?”
Dr Chee has been recognised by Liberal International for his work as the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democracy Party and as a campaigner for democratic rights in Singapore.
Past winners of the prize include Burma’s democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, former Czech Republic president Vaclav Havel and former Irish president Mary Robinson.
Asia Profile: Singapore democracy activist Chee Soon Juan
Veteran Singaporean activist and leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, Dr Chee Soon Juan has been awarded this year’s Liberal International Prize for Freedom.
Past recipients of the award include Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the former President of the Czech republic Vaclav Havel and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson.
The Liberal International cited Dr Chee’s tireless advocacy for democracy in Singapore, but due to travel restrictions, the one-time brain surgeon (editor’s note: Dr Chee was trained as a neuropsychologist and not a neurosurgeon) will NOT be able to go to London, to receive the award in person.
Read the transcript below or click here to listen to the of the interview.
Speaker: Dr Chee Soon Juan, political activist, academic and leader of the Singapore Democratic Party
CHEE:I’ve kind of been expecting this, it’s been going on for years already, and I’m referring to my travel restrictions, to my bankruptcy former lawsuit that two former prime ministers had taken out against me. I’ve been barred from travelling overseas, every time I apply for a permit to travel, it’s been rejected. So no, not in a way, if you think about what needs to be done in Singapore here, not just doing what’s necessary to continue to push for democracy in this country.
LAM: And Chee Soon Juan you of course head the Singapore Democratic Party, but you don’t have a seat in parliament. What do you do in Singapore these days to keep the cause going as it were?
CHEE: Well there’s much to be done. The situation that we’re in right now is that we continue to be a very autocratic system and society. And there is just very little information flow. Even as we speak the media here has just been very reluctant to cover news about the Singapore Democratic Party and our alternative ideas, and the need for a more open system if you will. And because of that, there’s just much to be done and we’re continuing to try to educate Singaporeans and we try to put up our ideas across, and our call for a more democratic and free society.
LAM: Is there a climate of fear still there in Singapore do you think? When you talk about the media not giving you much coverage. From all reports though and from what reporting that I’ve seen, the coverage seems to be fairly robust at the last elections, that both sides of politics, and indeed members of the Workers’ Party as well, that they had their fair say in media coverage. You don’t think that was the case?
CHEE: No, I mean there is still a big difference between not just the ruling party and the opposition, amongst the opposition as well there is a difference in coverage. And as far as the Singapore Democratic Party is concerned, the Prime Minister has come out openly and said different opposition parties will be treated differently, and I take that to include the coverage of the different opposition parties as well. As far as the SDP is concerned, we’ve always advocated that there needs to be democratic change, and if you’re talking about any other policy that we want to advocate and people want to be able to vote for, there needs to be a free flow of information. And there must be democratic change, and because of that I think the ruling party sees the threat in what we are advocating as far as its hold on power is concerned. So it has gone out of its way to ensure that we continue to be sidelined, marginalised as far as we is concerned.
LAM: And Dr Chee Soon Juan of course you’ve been quoted as well as saying that Singaporeans should be let back into the political process. As far as I can tell they were never out of the political process because they kept, they were given the free vote and they kept voting back the Peoples Action Party, the PAP?
CHEE: Well you’ve got to understand during the Suharto era, the Indonesians kept going back to the polls and strangely, they kept voting for Golkar in massive numbers, and you’ve got to be asking why? There is a difference between elections. I mean you still have elections go on in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The difference is whether the vote is free and fair, and in the Singapore context you have a system whereby people going to the polls as the media is concerned, the media’s controlled and the information flow isn’t there, and voters are basically not faced with a free and fair vote.
LAM: So are you talking more about the flow of information during the campaigning period?
CHEE: That has got a large role in terms of voting behaviour of Singaporeans. The other are just the policies that really hobble the opposition when it comes to organising an effective campaign. So these are things that all feed into a system whereby a system designed to ensure not just victory for the PAP, but an overwhelming mandate that they claim to get every election in and election out.
LAM: If the electoral playing field is so uneven in Singapore, why is there not a free and fair election movement, similar to that that’s happened and happening in Malaysia, the Bersih movement in Malaysia where tens of thousands of people took to the streets back in July demanding free and fair elections? Why are Singaporeans not taking to the streets? Maybe they’re happy with the current process?
CHEE: Well if they are so happy with the process then why is there this necessity for the government to enact or amend the Public Order Act to prohibit even one person, one person from conducting a protest on the streets? You have a myriad of laws in Singapore – we still have in existence the Internal Security Act where the government can detain citizens without trial indefinitely, and that there are these civil lawsuits that government officials, leaders take out against the opposition. All these conspire to instil a great amount of fear in the citizenry. And you have this entire mechanism whereby no one is allowed to conduct a peaceful assembly on the island. So it is just a very difficult process for people to come out and voice their discontent and their dissent against the government.
LAM: You’re listening to Connect Asia on Radio Australia and our guest this morning is Singaporean activist and leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, Dr Chee Soon Juan. And Dr Chee has been awarded this year’s Liberal International Prize for Freedom, he’s speaking to us from Singapore.
Chee Soon Juan after all that build-up from the May elections, only six opposition MPs managed to make it into the Singapore parliament. It might seems then that Singaporeans are not ready to move from the People’s Action Party, the PAP fold?
CHEE: Well again in order for us to come to an accurate assessment of the people’s sentiment, there must be an open process whereby people can come out and without fear be able to cast a vote for either the opposition or the ruling party or the incumbent. But that mechanism, that process doesn’t exist in Singapore, and as I’ve mentioned time and time again, the media plays a great role. I mean you’re talking about more than half a century of Singaporeans only listening to or watching one tv station and one radio station or one radio media organisation, and only exposed to a newspaper organisation that’s completely under the control of the government.
LAM: And yet Dr Chee, Sylvia Lim, the chair of the Singapore Workers’ Party and they have six seats I think in the parliament .. she spoke of the opposition being “insurance” should the PAP falter. I mean why not just claim and aim for the stars, even the opposition is talking in terms of taking a back seat and being “insurance” for the PAP?
CHEE: Well I cannot speak for any other party, what we have been saying, the Singapore Democratic Party has been saying, is that there are compelling and urgent alternatives that we must push for if Singapore is going to continue, in our stability and progress. And we are sitting on a political wheelchair where we incapacitate ourselves by continuing to think that we are unable and we don’t have the ability or the ideas to be able to takeover as government.
LAM: Do you think that might have something then to do with the results of a recent survey that found that something like 50 per cent of Singaporeans might leave if they could. Do you think there’s a growing sense of frustration there?
CHEE: Oh there is, especially amongst the young. We had more than 37 percent of younger Singaporeans indicate that they’ve absolutely no loyalty to this country. And as you said, you’re right, 50 per cent of young Singaporeans have indicated that given a chance they’d like to emigrate from Singapore. Now what kind of society are we building, if we cannot get our own citizens to want to stay put, and if the government is running this country as well as it claims to be running it, then why are so many Singaporeans straining to leave?
LAM: But do you think though that, I mean credit where credit is due, Singapore is a very vibrant society today, the people want for nothing. But do you think the younger generation of PAP leaders may be beginning to listen, and I’m talking about people after Lee Kuan Yew, people after Brigadier General Lee Hsien Loong?
CHEE: I mean if they are, they haven’t shown any signs of any willingness to enact those views and reform this system, because they’re continuing with the same old, same old situation that they had before. And I think that there’s too much group think within the party for anybody to be willing or be able to stick their heads out, and to be courageous enough to say, look there needs to be change, if we are going to proceed forward, we need to amend some of the ways that we run this country.
LAM: Well you mentioned the frustrated young people, the ones who are straining to leave. Do you think that that also is the same demographic that may hold out hope for Singapore, for Singapore to change?
CHEE: I think so, I mean they are looking for ways to join in the national conversation if you will. But unfortunately, the way that this autocratic system has been going, it doesn’t give them the opportunity to come out and voice those frustrations. And that is where the worry is, when you continue to suppress dissenting voices, unhappy voices, you’re going to have it come out in some other way that may not be as desirable as we would like to see in a democratic society.
LAM: Is the Singapore opposition, including the SDP, are you trying to engage the younger generation of the PAP leadership in dialogue?
CHEE: Well you have still within the PAP a very closed party whereby the top senior leaders are still very much in control of everything else that goes on within the party, and it’s very difficult to try to engage the younger members, the younger leaders within the party. So what we would like to do is continue to be able to reach out to them, but I don’t hold out very much hope in terms of them reciprocating.
LAM: And finally, Dr Chee Soon Juan, how long will it take do you think before Singapore has a genuine two or even three party democracy?
CHEE: Politics as you know is really unpredictable and things may move very slowly, obscenely slowly as we go along even. But things will continue to change and it’s going to be difficult to predict. But much also depends on what really the opposition are able to do, how effectively we communicate with the public, the alternatives that we come up with, the message that we present. And all this has got to do with how the system evolves as well, and this is where I think we want to at least be able to tell the leaders of the country that we need to evolve politically, rather than get into a situation where things have come to a head and it may get very unpleasant for the entire country and society.