Mr Goh should not mischaracterise what happened at Williams College

Singapore Democrats

ESM Goh Chok Tong has said that I had gone to Williams College where he was awarded an honorary degree in 1995 to “slam” Singapore. Allow me to set the record straight.

Williams College faculty members, headed by a Prof George Crane, had protested against the decision. New York Times columnist, William Safire (deceased), also criticised the College’s decision to award then-PM Goh the degree.

Events had led to my being invited to speak at Williams College. In my speech there, I spoke about Singapore’s progress and gave credit to the PAP for taking the nation thus far. Unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly, the state media censored much of what I said.

I started the speech saying: “There are many things that one can criticise Singapore for, but the one thing that no one can gainsay, not even Mr William Safire, is that Singapore has come a long way since independence.”

I went on to describe the government’s achievements from economic expansion to city planning to the people’s education levels and said: “The improvement of the standard of living has been very real and very tangible for most Singaporeans.”

I added: “You cannot deny the politicians who have governed the country all these years the credit for Singapore’s development.”

Then, I talked about our political economy and that in order for us to continue to progress, we must become an innovative society. For this to happen, our governance cannot remain autocratic. I also argued that we had to depend less on MNCs and GLCs and rely more on domestic, private entrepreneurs – a view which even PAP MPs nowadays echo.

I spoke up against Mr Safire’s scathing denunciation of PAP’s leaders: “If you believe everything that Mr William Safire said in his column a few months back, then you are mistaken.” I even pointed out how the PAP was not a dictatorial regime.

Singaporeans can read the entire speech here and judge for yourselves whether Mr Goh is right to characterise my presentation as slamming Singapore.

ESM Goh also accuses me of attending a by-invitation forum in Washington, DC in which he was a speaker “without an invitation”.

This is untrue. As I reported here in 2004, I was a Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, DC during that period. There was no list of invited guests for Mr Goh’s forum. The invitation was sent out on the Internet as is the case with all talks and seminars in Washington, DC. To attend, one just had to RSVP the email.

When I arrived at the event, I was ushered into the hall. If I was uninvited, why would the organisers usher me in?

Again as I cited in the above link, the state media misled the Singaporean public by reporting the matter in an inaccurate and biased manner. On this, I am reminded of what Malcolm X once said: “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Mr Goh can speak – or not speak – to whomever he wishes. That is his choice. But I ask that he not mischaracterise what happened at Williams College and Washington, DC to justify his actions.

But here’s what’s really important. Singaporeans must not to fall for the PAP’s rhetoric that when we criticise PAP policies and style of governance, we are criticising Singapore. The PAP is not Singapore, and Singapore is not PAP. One is a nation to which we pledge our allegiance, the other is a private organisation entrusted with temporary and limited powers which must be renewed with the consent of a majority of citizens at elections.

On a larger note, Mr Goh and his PAP colleagues should stop the politics of personal destruction. We may disagree on policies and how to take our country forward, and parties can go at each other with vehemence. But let us also not continue with the kind of gutter politics that has become the hallmark of the PAP.

In the past, Mr Goh has vowed to “try and annihilate” me. Mr Lee Kuan Yew said that Singapore does not want oppositionists like Mr J B Jeyaretnam and me, and that we must be destroyed. The younger ministers have picked up on this. Mr Chan Chun Sing labelled me a political failure and Ms Grace Fu snidely remarked that I have not held a full-time job, and Ms Sim Ann bizarrely said that I “chut pattern”.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once remarked: “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.”

Our country faces great challenges like no other time in its history. Let us focus on debating ideas and what’s good and bad for our future. The SDP has taken pains to develop our alternative policies for Singapore and we welcome scrutiny from our PAP opponents.

Likewise, we will be vocal in our criticism of the PAP’s policies especially its authoritarian style of governance. But let’s not be small-minded and indulge in the petty politics of character assassination and personal destruction.

The PAP and its leaders are no paragons of virtue, they are no angels and should stop trying to paint their opponents as devils. We are all flawed.

For me, I can only say that – despite all my transgressions, with all my weaknesses and in defiance of all my fears – I will continue to stand up for my fellow citizens.

The PAP’s tactic is obvious. If it sticks to attacking its opponents, then it distracts the people from the real issues and its policies which continue to do much damage to this country. Going down this road is a one-ticket ride to oblivion; it does not advance the country’s future one bit.

The people deserve better.

Chee Soon Juan