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In 1999 Dr Chee Soon Juan gave Singaporeans for Democracy (www.sfdonline.org) an interview on why he went ahead and spoke without a permit at Raffles Place thereby breaking the law. We reproduce below the interview which is still relevant in the context of what happened outside the Istana on Labour Day. Additional input given presently is in brackets.
SFD: Why did you speak in public without a police permit?
Dr Chee: There are a few aspects to this question. First, there is the issue of the Singapore Constitution that guarantees citizens to freedoms of speech, association and assembly. The Constitution is a collection of fundamental principles which sets the spirit upon which the country is to be governed, and that is the spirit of democracy.
Second, it is not true to say that I did not apply for a permit to speak publicly. The SDP and I believe other opposition parties as well, have repeatedly applied for permits to hold public conferences. These applications have either been refused or given only a few days before the event themselves making it impossible for us to book the venues (usually in hotels), arrange for speakers, send out invitations, and so on. If you have tried to organise conferences of such a nature, you will understand what I am talking about.
Finally, it is important to note that the authorities had no intention of giving me the permit to speak at Raffles Place as indicated by the Ministry of Home Affairs letter to the Straits Times (28 Jan 1999).
The issue has nothing to do with permits and licenses but everything to do with PAP’s control and prevention of other parties from reaching out effectively to the people of Singapore.
SFD: But doesn’t speaking in public without a permit constitute the breaking of the law?
Dr Chee: Yes, it does. But it is important to note that there are just laws put in place for the good of society, for example criminal laws and traffic laws, which everyone should obey. There are, however, also laws put in place by governments to buttress their own political power and to suppress freedoms of the citizens they govern. These laws are undemocratic and unjust. Clear examples are the laws that segregated the whites from the blacks in apartheid South Africa and the U.S. during the 1950s and 60s, laws that Britain passed during its colonisation of India, laws that prohibited anyone from speaking out during the communist years in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, laws that continue to imprison Chinese citizens when they try to form political parties in China, and so on.
Sometimes the only way to overcome such unjust laws is to challenge them directly. Throughout history, there have been many illustrious figures who have done this, notably the Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Andrei Sakharov, Martin Luther King Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, and Kim Dae Jung just to name a few.
Even then, I do not consider myself above the law, and if I have broken one, however unjust it may be, I will accept the consequences and pay the penalty.
SFD: But the Government insists on Singapore being a place of law and order.
Dr Chee: This is precisely what I would like to see in Singapore. The rule of law means that no one – not even the PAP – is above the law. Ironically, it is the PAP that repeatedly flouts the very laws it imposes on others. For example: While the Government pulls down and confiscates the SDP’s flags congratulating Singapore on National Day in SDP constituencies, it allows PAP flags to fly freely in other constituencies.
While permits are denied for opposition parties to hold public speeches, its members and supporters freely conduct public talks. In 1995, Ling How Doong, SDP MP for Bukit Gombak, was not allowed to give a speech during a National Day dinner in his own constituency. A few days later, Mr Lim Boon Heng of the PAP and another official of the Residents’ Committee came to the constituency and gave public talks. PAP MPs are meanwhile routinely give public addresses anytime they so choose.
In the 1997 general elections, opposition candidates without proper identification are prevented from entering polling centres during elections, whereas unauthorised PAP members freely walk in and out of these centres.
Political prisoners have been tortured and abused by Internal Security Department officers. These are criminal acts. To date, however, no commission of inquiry has been set up to investigate the matter and prosecute those responsible.
(The police furnished Messrs Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong a copy of the police report that Mr Tang Liang Hong had made against the PAP leaders in 1997. It is against regulations that police reports are given to persons who are subjects of a complaint. The action of the police allowed the PAP leaders to then sue Mr Tang in their personal capacities. This was not only against regulations but an abuse of power.)
These are just some examples of the ways PAP breaks laws for its own political ends. It is by no means an exhaustive list.
SFD: Isn’t there any other way the SDP can get its message across?
Dr Chee: Let us examine the various ways. We can, of course, publish our newsletter The New Democrat – which we have done before. We approached newspaper vendors to help us sell it. But these vendors repeatedly turned us down because they are afraid of losing their hawker’s license.
So we tried to produce a party video which was disallowed. A law was later passed banning the production of such political videos.
During the 1997 general elections, the SDP was told to remove information of our candidates on our internet websites.
Now when I try sell my book To Be Free in Singapore, major bookstores here are afraid to sell it. I have to sell it myself on the streets. But the Ministry of Environment then issues me a fine for selling them. Everywhere we turn, the PAP blocks us.
But all this misses the point. Why should the national newspapers and television be used to promote and propagate only the ruling parties views? For example, Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs is featured prominently and given daily Special Section coverage in the Straits Times when the newspaper would not even review my books.
SFD: But won’t public speeches lead to riots like we saw in the 1960’s?
Dr Chee: Why should they? The election rallies that we have been having for the past thirty to forty years have been very peaceful. I have shown that Singaporeans can assemble peacefully at Raffles Place for a lunch-time talk without any riots happening.
It is a poor excuse on the PAP’s part to prevent the SDP from holding peaceful public talks to reach out to the people. The propagation of this notion of public talks leading to riots is just a scare tactic that is completely outdated. Note that PAP members routinely hold public talks. Why doesn’t the same logic apply?
SFD: What do you think about other avenues of debate such as the local media?
Dr Chee: The local media is totally controlled by the ruling party. All of Singapore’s newspapers come under the control of the Singapore Press Holdings whose chairman is Mr Lim Kim San, a former cabinet minister, and the CEO is, I believe, a former director of the ISD.
The following is an example of how the newspapers keep the people ignorant of what’s going on around them: I was interviewed by CNBC in a program together with Mr George Yeo, Minister for Information and the Arts. The following day, the Straits Times reported only what George Yeo said and didn’t even mention that I was on the same program, let alone report what I had said.
Another example occurred when Dr S Vasoo wrote a letter to the Straits Times to criticise me. The letter was published twice and even read out during the news on TCS. But when I sent my reply, the Straits Times would not publish it unless I agreed to let them cut more than two-thirds of my letter.
The Straits Times repeatedly refuses to publish the SDP’s press releases and replies to its Forum page. The foreign media including CNN, BBC, ABC, CNBC, etc have all done interviews with me. But TCS will not even report what I said.
All this constitutes a serious breach of journalistic ethics and reflects the appalling state of news reporting in Singapore. Ironically, the PAP keeps telling everyone that Singapore is a communications hub and that Singapore wants to a knowledge-based economy. How can this be if there isn’t a free flow of information?
SFD: Why do you consider it so important to have a free flow of information?
Dr Chee: A society with a free flow of information, that is, where the media is free and independent ensures that the government remains transparent and accountable. Transparency and accountability, or the lack thereof, is what got Asia into this crisis. Singapore is no exception. If we as citizens of this country do not insist on a system and culture when transparency and accountability of the government is cherished, then we are treading on very dangerous ground.
SFD: But how will this affect Singaporeans? From all counts, they are more concerned about the loss of their jobs and the downturn of the economy, aren’t they?
Dr Chee: Yes they are and, it already has – affected Singaporeans, I mean. The Government has made some disastrous investments in the region through the Government Investment Corporation (GIC). The GIC was formed to invest our reserves made up mainly of our CPF funds and tax surpluses whose chairman is Lee Kuan Yew. The GIC does not report to parliament about its financial transactions. As a result no one knows the profits or losses incurred. Even Goh Chok Tong, head of government, is not on the board of directors of this secretive government body.
Is there anything else that the public doesn’t know? Our investments in the region (Burma, Vietnam, Malaysia, etc) have all incurred heavy losses but none of this is reported to the people.
When our CPF reserves become depleted, how are Singaporeans going to draw out their money when they retire? It is even more suspicious now that the Government has introduced the Minimum Sum Scheme where Singaporeans are now forced to keep up to $80,000 of their CPF funds with the Government even upon retirement.
Another way to retain your CPF money is to increase the prices of HDB flats. With the inflated prices of the HDB, everyone pays more than they should, and with almost everyone using their CPF to pay for their HDB flats, little or nothing is kept for retirement. Up till now, the Government has still not accounted for the exorbitant prices of flats.
High HDB prices have another untoward effect of asset inflation which has contributed significantly to the recession that the PAP keeps blaming on other countries in the region. And when the recession finally bites in, the PAP then cuts CPF contributions and makes it even harder for Singaporeans to make ends meet.
All these issues, and many, many more, should be debated. But because the media can choose what Singaporeans read and watch, the PAP can dictate what becomes an issue and what doesn’t. Can you now see how a non-transparent and unaccountable government has affected Singaporeans?
SFD: What do you expect Singaporeans to do?
Dr Chee: First, overcome the fear that the Government has over us. Insist on a system of a free and independent media to protect our own interests. Get together and discuss what I have said. Then as groups of responsible and concerned citizens, call on the PAP to stop the gerrymandering and manipulation of the electoral system, for example: the expansion of GRCs and threatening voters with upgrading, and insist on a genuinely free and fair elections.
It is not only our right, but also our duty to speak up. If we don’t, we have only ourselves to blame when things get worse. We only have to read history to know that we cannot continue this way.