Singapore’s Freedom Fighter

May 17, 2004
Singapore Democrats

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6 May 2004
The New York Sun
Ellen Bork

Singapore’s prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, is visiting Washington this week as part of an overseas farewell tour. This summer, he is expected to step aside in favor of the son of Singapore’s dictator, Lee Kuan Yew. Mr. Goh signed a free-trade agreement with America and met with President Bush.

There is another, less famous Singaporean in town as well. Chee Soon Juan has somewhat different views than Mr. Goh, seeing as he’s the standard-bearer for the Singapore Democratic Party. But Mr. Chee’s views are more compatible with Washington’s than Mr. Goh’s.

Opposition? Isn’t Singapore a clean, efficient business hub whose predominantly Chinese culture means people don’t care about democracy and are quite happy as a result? Didn’t we learn that from Lee Kuan Yew, the great champion of “Asian values” himself?

Mr. Chee, a 41-year-old neuropsychologist who lost his state university job for running against a government party candidate in a 1992 election, finds such misconceptions about Singapore disturbing. It is not only, he says, that Americans should remember that the place they come to do business is the place where he raises his children. He also rejects the growing use of Singapore as a model for political development around the world.

“Recently, I came across a column on Al Jazeera’s Web site,” says Mr. Chee. “A columnist was asked whether democracy is universal – and he said no,” citing approvingly Singapore’s virtual one-party system and imminent dynastic succession. This says Mr. Chee is “Asian values” dressed up as “Middle Eastern values.”

Anyway, Singapore is not the transparent, well-governed city-state of popular imagination, according to Mr. Chee. “My argument has always been that there are these huge problems in Singapore,” as a result of the government’s stranglehold on politics, denial of free speech, persecution by libel suits, and lack of transparency. Unfortunately, says Mr. Chee, Singapore’s problems receive little scrutiny. “Unlike Hong Kong and Thailand where the press is free to criticize its own system and the international community gets to read it, in Singapore not only are the civil society and media oppressed, but the foreign media is also very nervous when it comes to reporting on Singapore.”

With reason. News organizations, including the International Herald Tribune and Bloomberg, have paid large fines to settle defamation suits after they printed stories about Senior Minister Lee’s son, the one who is going to be prime minister, and more recently, a daughter-in-law’s selection to run a government investment firm.

Singapore’s leaders do not take well to having their decisions examined. Mr. Chee himself has been sued for defamation by Messrs. Goh and Lee for questioning Singapore’s pledge of a $10 billion loan to the Suharto dictatorship. When Mr. Chee goes back to Singapore, after a few months as fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, he faces a court judgment ordering him to pay an estimated $500,000 in damages and court costs to the plaintiffs. As a bankrupt, Mr. Chee would be ineligible to run for office. In 1993, Mr. Chee paid $300,000 to faculty members who sued him for defamation after he disputed his university sacking. He has twice gone to jail for refusing to pay fines for public speaking.

Elsewhere, the isolation of leaders and their families from inspection has had devastating consequences. Take Indonesia, says Mr. Chee. “For years,” under the Suharto dictatorship, “the World Bank and IMF really didn’t appreciate what was going on beneath the surface of the Suharto regime. When the crisis came, the damage to the economy and to the impoverished was enormous.”

Even Singapore’s vaunted cooperation in the war against terrorism has another unappreciated aspect. Singapore’s economic and educational policies, says Mr. Chee, have a negative impact on the Muslim Malay minority, which constitutes roughly 14% of the population. “Because they continue to be in a position where they cannot get ahead, they are always left behind. They get marginalized, and become fodder for terrorist networks.”

Nor should Washington console itself that Singapore’s internal security services can handle the problem. “With a hop, skip, and jump they can go to Indonesia, or Malaysia.” Mr. Chee has an answer: a democratic system that “brings Islamic groups into the mainstream, gives them a say. This is what the U.S. is trying to do in the Middle East.”

It is hard to imagine that President Bush heard anything more in line with American policy and interests from Mr. Goh.