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A team of Young Democrats and activists from Singapore recently visited Sweden in a one-week exchange programme. The trip was organised by the Sweden-Singapore Initiative for Democracy (SSID). Ms Chee Siok Chin, Mr Michael Cheng, Mr Jonathan Siow, Mr Priveen Suraj, and Mr Charles Tan arrived in Stockholm on 17 August 2005 and were immediately involved in a series of meetings and discussions with the Swedish counterparts. Below is their report.
Stockholm is a beautiful city. The summer breeze added to the romance of the historical European city. Our first two days were hosted by the Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC). We were hurried to attend the Liberal Party Congress that was taking place in Gothenburg, another picturesque town that was four hours from Stockholm by train.
There we met with the International Affairs Committee of the Liberal Party, a group of 4 MPs. Chee Siok Chin and Michael Cheng gave a presentation on the situation in Singapore. The police harassment of Martyn See, the questionable break-up of the peaceful four-person protest, the Boon Suan Ban case among other cases become the focal point of the discussion. Our Swedish friends expressed their solidarity with pro-democracy forces in Singapore and their commitment to bring this to the attention of the Swedish government.
We were also invited to the Swedish Foreign Ministry where we met with Ms Eva Walder-Brundin, the former ambassador to Singapore. Again, we disabused the ministry officials of the political situation in Singapore.
We were subsequently hosted by the Social Democrats. The Olof Palme Centre, a democracy assistance foundation affiliated to the party, showed much concern over the repressive climate in Singapore’s politics.
But the highlight of our trip must be the summer school programme held by the Jarl Hjarlmarson Foundation to which we were invited. Michael had the honour of being one of the speakers. This was the 7th Summer School on The Principles for a Free Society. Those who attended were college students from countries like Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and of course Sweden. The participants were intrigued that the government in modern Singapore had such a stranglehold on its citizens. Side discussions continued after the presentation.
The summer school was held on the beautiful island of Musko, about 45 minutes from Stockholm by car. We found out that the island was a crucial military installation during the Cold War.
It had a nuclear-proof naval complex that consisted of seaports in the mountains for submarines and hunters/destroyers. During the Cold War, an underground tunnel was built to allow access to the mainland. It was via this tunnel that we got to the island.
We arrived at breakfast time to an amazingly beautiful 3-storied mansion that was built in the 17th century by a farmer for his wife. The Taj Mahal immediately sprang to mind but the Ludvigsberg Mansion is of course not as grand. What it did have, though, was a romantic, peaceful atmosphere that was accentuated by the lovely summer weather, and the slightly wild countryside in which it is located.
We met Dr Nigel Ashford, the Principal of the programme. We had just read his book Principles for a Free Society before coming to Sweden, and were honoured to meet the man himself.
Another pleasant surprise was meeting up with Mr Tobias Billstrom, a Swedish Member of Parliament and a good friend of the SDP. He was the other principal speaker besides Michael. We had met him some months ago at the nonviolence workshop organised by the SSID. Mr Billstrom’s presentation was Toleration – a Concept of Criticism while Michael gave his presentation on the political climate in Singapore. Dr Ashford also gave his presentation on human rights.
The format of the programme was extremely stimulating. Each presentation was followed by group discussions, which invariably got extremely animated and intense. To get to know as many people as possible, the Singaporean delegation had a chance to switch groups for each discussion.
We finished up the day’s academic programme a little after five o’clock in the afternoon. Thereafter, we joined some of the students who wanted to go down to the beach. We took two jeeps and arrived at the water.
It was freezing cold in the water but Jonathan and Charles gamely took a dip with some of the students. Michael assigned himself to camera duties. It was an awesome place to take photographs. The view was incredible. Nature was at its most serene exquisiteness.
Away from the classroom, we also got to know the students a bit better. We had engaging talks that ranged from how our own separate countries were like, to their favorite music and sports.
We returned to the mansion for a lovely dinner on the patio at the back. Unfortunately, it was spoiled by giant mosquitoes that, apparently, breed in masses on the island. It seems they only come out at night though. We retreated under the insistent attack of Nature’s not-so-nice inhabitants and carried on our buffet dinner in the dining room.
There was time to play a game of pool, and Michael had the honour of representing our beloved country in amateur pool against a friendly citizen of Russia called Andrey. Unfortunately, Singapore lost when Michael shot the black into the pocket. Ah well…
When the cab came to pick us up, there were lots of hugs and handshakes. We truly enjoyed our day and we’d like to think that they had a lot of fun with us as well. We promised to email each other, a promise we fully intend to fulfill.
Before we got into the cab, we made arrangements to meet up with them a few days later, when they were to spend the night in Stockholm, before everyone flew home to their respective countries.
That night, we met up again at Stampen, a jazz pub in Stockholm that has been around since 1968. It was a night of merriment that marked another highlight for us on this trip. But that’s a story for another time.
Chee Siok Chin