Singapore opposition leader is freed after a month in jail

November 9, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan walked out of prison after serving one month in jail for holding an illegal rally, and promptly vowed to continue pushing for the right to free speech.

Chee, secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), hugged his daughter, who slipped a garland of white and purple orchids around his neck moments after he emerged from the Queenstown Remand Prison on Saturday.

“My belief and my faith in this struggle has been strengthened in these past few weeks,” a visibly-thinner Chee told reporters.

“You got to let them (authorities) know that you’re willing to pay the price and bear whatever it takes to win freedom for your own country.”

On October 9, Chee and a party colleague Gandhi Ambalam were fined for trying to hold a rally outside the Istana presidential complex on May 1. Both chose to go to jail.

Gandhi’s family, concerned for his health, later paid the fine to free him.

Singapore, an ethnically-diverse island-republic rocked by racial riots in the 1960s, has imposed strict laws against public gatherings, speeches and other political activities in a bid to preserve national harmony.

But Chee said the right to free speech is fundamental.

While people can gripe about high prices and other complaints, “ultimately it boils down to the fact that if you haven’t got the right to freedom of speech, everything else doesn’t count.

“You cannot organise the people, you cannot bring pressure to bear on the government and the government does what it likes,” he said.

He admitted the fight for greater political space in the strict city-state would take years but said: “I’m in for the long haul, however long it takes.”

“I think these few weeks have done a lot of good in the sense that it allowed me time to read and reflect on what I’ve been trying to do and what I’ve done,” said Chee, who lost in his bid for parliament in last year’s elections.

“It has strengthened my resolve, given me a deeper insight and stronger resolve to want to see democracy come to Singapore.”

Chee has paid a series of fines and was jailed twice in the past in his fight against the ruling People’s Action Party, which has dominated Singapore politics since independence in 1965.

In August, he was ordered by the High Court to pay damages to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for defamation, but has said he will appeal the decision.