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Dr Chee Soon Juan was invited to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum held in Norway. As he was not allowed to travel out of Singapore, he had to give his speech via this video presented at the forum on 8 May 2012.
Text of Chee Soon Juan’s speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum
8 May 2012
If I showed you a picture of this man, you would instantly know who he is. But what if I showed you this picture, do you know who this man is? I’m sure you’re are having a hard time identifying him.
Hi, it’s a pleasure being able to talk with you at this extraordinary forum even though I cannot be there in person.
It’s less than a perfect way to introduce myself, but it’ll have to do for now. You see, I was sued for defamation by two former prime ministers as well as the current one.
The courts have ordered me to pay them a total of more than one million dollars in damages. Because I am unable to come up with the money, I was declared a bankrupt in 2006.
As a bankrupt, I am barred from standing for elections as well as traveling out of my country, Singapore. Hence, my being unable to join you in person.
Not only have I been sued, I have also been arrested and imprisoned on numerous occasions for taking part in peaceful protests, speaking in public without a permit, distributing flyers critical of the government, for trying to attend conferences such as this, and for contempt of Singapore’s courts.
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not complaining. I didn’t do this to tell you how difficult things are. It’s not about me. It’s about justice and equality and human dignity. It’s about giving voice to the voiceless and empowering my fellow citizens. It’s about freedom and democracy.
But when you speak truth to power, you must expect autocrats to do everything they can to silence you. And when they do, you must speak even louder.
But why speak up when Singaporeans are rich and everyone is contented, you ask. Indeed, Forbes magazine ranks Singapore as the third richest country in the world.
Per capita, we have the most number of millionaires globally. The rulers of the Singapore have transformed this country into a gleaming financial metropolis.
That’s only the headlines. The paragraphs in the story tell a very different tale. Workers – and not just workers, elderly workers – are paid as little as $4,800 a year in a city that the Economist Intelligence Unit rates as 42 percent more expensive that New York City.
These elderly folks often take on back-breaking jobs, picking up scraps to sell just so that they can feed themselves. There is no minimum wage and there are no independent trade unions. These people are left at the mercy of their employers.
And while the rich continue to rake in the big bucks, the lower-income earners saw their incomes shrink in the last decade or so.
The number of homeless families continue to rise, and the lines for free meals provided by temples and charities continue to lengthen.
All this in a country whose cabinet ministers are the highest paid in the world. Last year the prime minister’s salary was six times more than that of US president Barack Obama.
Are you surprised then that among the rich economies of the world, Singapore has the biggest income gap? The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality for Singapore is 47.3, comparable to Ecuador, Nepal, and Rwanda.
Because of the socio-political situation, Singaporeans are emigrating to other countries in numbers that have alarmed the country’s rulers. Every year, about 1,000 people seeking permanent residence elsewhere – that’s a huge number for a population of only 3 million. 37 percent of younger Singaporeans say they feel no loyalty to their country.
Life in Singapore is so stressful and expensive that many young couples put off marriage and having children. With only 1.2 births per person, Singapore is the least fertile country in the world.
These two factors, high emigration and low birthrate, have caused our population to shrink to dangerously low levels. What does the Government do? It brings in nearly two million foreigners into the country so that nearly 40 percent of the people on this tiny island today are not Singapore citizens.
The shock of such massive and sudden influx of people have rendered the infrastructure unable to cope with daily living.
For example the train system is under so much strain that it breaks down on a regular basis. This is a typical scene where passengers are left stranded at a train station after a system breakdown.
But foreigners are also vulnerable when they come to Singapore because they are exploited for their cheap labour. Many labourers and menial workers from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, India, Burma and so on come to Singapore and find themselves cheated and abused. Many work in conditions that are simply intolerable.
But despite all this Singapore has gotten fabulously rich. How is that possible? This is because we have turned our country into a tax haven attracting funds from the rich all over the world, much of which are illicit and laundered in Singapore.
The Financial Secrecy Index is a survey of places that have set up laws to provide legal and financial secrecy that facilitate illicit financial flows. Out of 73 countries surveyed, Singapore ranks the sixth most secretive jurisdiction.
The danger in all this is that autocratic regimes in Russia, China, and Burma are looking at Singapore as a model.
I have often said that politics and economics cannot be separated, they are two sides of the same coin. When rulers monopolise political power, they also get to choose who gets paid millions and who gets nothing.
You know that gentleman whose picture I showed you at the beginning of my talk? His name is Chia Thye Poh. Like Nelson Mandela he was jailed for decades. There are differences, of course.
Mandela was tried in court, however egregious the process was, and he was sentenced and jailed for 27 years. Chia Thye Poh, on the other hand, was never accused of a crime much less given a trial. He was simply detained for 32 years because Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister, ordered it.
Mandela belonged to the ANC, an organisation that was banned in South Africa at that time. Chia was an elected member of parliament.
Mandela has since been released and became the president of his country. Chia continues to live in silence and warned not to take part in Singapore’s politics.
How, you may ask, did the Singapore government get away with such outrageous abuse of the law? That’s the beauty of dictatorship in democratic clothing, where in the guise of capitalism and by pay only lip-service to the ‘rule of law’, one can do almost anything to perpetuate one’s rule.
The world must not be deceived anymore.
More importantly, the Singaporean people are beginning to awaken and realise that the continuation of a one-party rule that we have had in the last half-a-century is going to be fatal for our country. They know that we need openness and accountability, we need democracy.
For democracy is not a Western concept or an Asian concept. It is a human concept. Oppression anywhere in the world is just that – oppression. But it cannot last because it is fighting something just as universal but only much more powerful. It is called the human spirit.