Singapore’s Chee Vows To Step Up Civil Disobedience

September 20, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Stephen Wright
Dow Jones Newswires
20 Sep 06

An outspoken critic of Singapore’s ruling party ended a free-speech protest Tuesday after spending three nights encircled by police on a city sidewalk with a vow to escalate his campaign of civil disobedience.

“It has made us stronger, it has made us more determined. We will come out stronger,” Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan told Dow Jones Newswires as police video cameras filmed the interview.

With hundreds of international media in town for World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings, this rare act of public dissent has generated negative overseas press coverage of Singapore. The city-state had aimed to showcase itself as a prosperous, modern and more open society.

It came on top of authorities backing down from a threat to bar some foreign activists from entering the country. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz called Singapore’s government “authoritarian” and said the ban had damaged the city-state’s reputation.

“The world will now know the extent of repression in Singapore,” Chee told a 50-plus crowd of mostly media.

His request to read a statement outside the Parliament was denied by police, forcing the bespectacled former neuropsychology lecturer to hold an impromptu press conference above the din of midday traffic at a busy city intersection.

The protest has been a “complete and utter disaster for the government’s reputation across the world” and will have “repercussions” for Lee Hsien Loong’s prime ministership, Chee said.

The end of the protest was timed to coincide with Prime Minister Lee’s speech to the IMF and World Bank meetings.

Lee didn’t mention the protest, which was reported widely overseas but has rated only a brief mention in Singapore’s pro-government media.

Lee’s spokesman wasn’t immediately available to comment.

The 72-hour standoff began Saturday when a wall of uniformed and plainclothes police prevented Chee from leading a small group of activists on a march from Hong Lim Park to Parliament and then to the convention center where the IMF and World Bank meetings are being held.

Police refused to let Chee and his sister Chee Siok Chin leave the sidewalk unless they agreed not to resume their march – an illegal assembly in Singapore where protests of five or more people require a permit.

On Monday, the pair were permitted to walk separately to Raffles Place in the central business district where they distributed pamphlets promoting free speech, the Associated Press reported.

Authorities continually filmed the protest with several video cameras and police have said they will investigate the “incident.”

Chee said he and the six other activists who tried to march to parliament are “prepared for the consequences” once the thousands attending the meetings of the two Washington-based groups leave this week.

He promised an “escalation of our campaign” with more acts of civil disobedience and programs to train activists in the theory and practice of non-violent protest.

While many Singaporeans have been oblivious to the protest, a few have been drawn to the sidewalk of Hong Lim Park, the site of Speakers Corner, an area where Singaporeans can make public speeches provided they get a permit from the on-site police station.

“I believe in freedom of speech. I want freedom in my country,” said Sydney, a 38 year old Singaporean who declined to give his full name.

“The other countries in the region have far more rights to expression,” he said.

“In Singapore you can say something, but you risk being sued or end up in jail.”

But Irene Lim, an administration worker in her late fifties, dismissed the protest as a publicity stunt.

“They just want to get the attention of the foreign press,” she said.

“The younger people might feel some slight restriction but you can say anything in Singapore.”

Chee latest brush with the law comes after he was bankrupted in February and barred from standing in elections for failing to pay former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong some S$500,000 in libel damages for comments he made during the 2001 election campaign.

In March he was jailed for eight days for questioning the independence of Singapore’s judiciary.

Earlier this month a court found Chee and his sister guilty of defaming modern Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew and his son Lee Hsien Loong in articles in the SDP’s newspaper. Damages have yet to be decided.

Other opposition politicians have also being sued by People’s Action Party leaders, who say legal action is necessary to protect their reputations.