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Dr Chee Soon Juan’s acceptance speech
Prize for Freedom 2011
Hon. Hans van Baalen,
President, Liberal International
Dr Rajiva Wijeysingha,
Chairman, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats
Mr Jufrie Mahmood,
Chairman, Singapore Democratic Party,
Distinguished guests, colleagues, dear friends,
I want to express my deep gratitude to the Liberal International for this award, which is a recognition of that most profound of human aspirations, that is, the desire to live in freedom and dignity. When one receives an award as prestigious as this, the natural feeling is one of celebration. But I must confess that the feeling I had when I learned of the award given to me was not one of joy but of humility.
Because when you think of the many luminaries that have received this prize in years past – people like Aung San Suu Kyi, Vaclav Havel and Helen Suzman all of whom struggled so valiantly and gave so greatly for freedom’s cause – one cannot but feel humbled.
Then there are the Chia Thye Pohs, Said Zaharis and Lim Hock Siews of this world who endured the long dark years of political imprisonment and emerged taller than ever. I am but a political dwarf standing on the shoulders of these giants. Their deeds and courage have inspired me and paved the way for many of us to continue this noble struggle for freedom in Singapore.
To them as well as to Vincent Cheng, Teo Soh Lung and others who were so unjustly detained and are now beginning to speak up; to Gandhi Ambalam, my sister Siok Chin, John Tan and others who faced repeated prosecution all because they stood up for their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and assembly; to all of them, I accept this award not for myself but on their behalf.
But for everyone of us whose name is mentioned there are many others who suffer quietly in the background but whose unwavering support has made the task much more bearable. I’d like to mention two of them tonight.
First I’d like to introduce to you my mother, Low Non Neo, whom I love dearly. Twenty years ago when I first told her the crazy idea that I was going to join the opposition, she like most Singaporean mothers went ballistic. But deep down she knew I was doing the right thing and since then she has stoically endured the pain and worried the worries that only mothers can, but she has always there with me and for me.
There is this other lady whom many of you know as my better half. When she said “I do” at the altar, I don’t think she knew quite what she was getting into, it was certainly much more than she had bargained for. And yet she has never complained, suffering with quiet resolve the years of difficulty that I’ve put her through. In fact Mei is the strong one in our family and without her support, I would not have been able to do the work that I do. I don’t want to say thank you to her because those are mere words that cannot express adequately how I feel. It would demean all that she has contributed to both our lives.
Copying the worst, rejecting the best
I want to spend the next few moments to address the challenges that confront our nation. For years, we have been deprived of an opposition and because of this we have had a government that has been left unchecked and whose policies have been left un-scrutinized.
As a result we have built – especially in recent years – an economy based on high finance. Beneath the facade, however, lies a society bankrupt in morality. Our government apes the worst that the West offers in terms of greed and exploitation but rejects the good that it espouses in the values of human rights and democracy.
Instead of engaging in productive activity, we learn to get rich by trading bits of paper that Wall Street issues. We engage in vice to raise our GDP and we change our banking laws that attract wealthy tax evaders and illicit funds.
If the 2008 financial meltdown in the US has taught us anything, it is that Wall Street bankers’ appetite for lucre is insatiable and that scruples count for nothing when it comes to generating profit. The toxic instruments conjured up by Lehman Brothers and the other banks are but a stark reminder of the greed that Western banks indulge in. The instability and chaos that they wreak in the global financial system, not to mention the utter misery they cause to the average citizen, is great.
Yet this system is what our government has copied – lock, stock and barrel – and Wall Street’s values are the ones we have chosen to adopt. Based on such a setup, we have styled ourselves as a financial centre.
Today we find such a system in danger of imploding as these banking institutions cannibalize the very economy upon which they are built so much so that they have stirred outrage across the world.
We have imitated the crass consumerism in the West, deriving pleasure in accumulating things – and not just things but expensive things. We are thrilled that Orchard Road is lined up with glitterrati like Prada, Gucci, and Versace; and we are one of the biggest consumers of the latest gadgets and gizmos that technology has to offer.
We pursue everything except that which makes life worthwhile.
The lust for things material have blinded us to values of human decency. We think nothing of allowing Robert Mugabe to come here on a shopping spree even as he maims and kills his own people to hold on to power. We don’t bat an eye when Burmese generals come here for rest and recreation even as their soldiers torture dissidents, exploit child labour and rape womenfolk.
As long as there is money to be made, nothing else quite matters, does it? We build gated-communities with security guards to keep out the have nots, condominium fortresses that promise ever greater exclusivity and opulence.
But outside these high walls, we see the number of poor growing in our midst. We see the lines for free meals lengthening at churches and temples. We see our elderly dragging their aching bodies to work so that they can earn a few dollars to feed themselves.
We become calloused and immune to all this. We shrug our shoulders and sigh a sigh of resignation. After a while it even ceases to bother us. We have lost the ability to feel outrage at life’s injustices.
Our workers hold down two, sometimes three, jobs just to earn enough to pay the bills. The younger ones are unable to find jobs that pay enough, their dreams of buying a flat and starting a family made exceedingly difficult to realise.
The inequality begins even before one enters the labour market. Our school system is designed such that the well-heeled get to send their children to elite schools located in the richer enclaves while the rest of the population have to contend with neighbourhood schools with inferior resources.
Social and economic inequality in Singapore is striking. In terms of wealth disparity among the more complex economies, ours is the most hideous.
Politics of moral engagement
Many years ago when the ministers upped their salaries, and believe me they were modest compared to today’s levels, we criticised the move. We accused them of engaging in politics of greed.
The PAP countered saying that we were engaging in the politics of envy. Why, they argued, were we unhappy that others were working hard and making more money? The same can be said of our criticisms of the super-rich in this country. Do they have a point? Are we not casting an envious eye on the wealthy even as we rail against their riches?
If all we offer is a call to the make the rich among us poorer and the poor among us richer so that all can consume even more greedily the earth’s limited resources, then we have not moved the moral needle. We are, in fact, merely engaging in the politics of envy.
This is why it is important to state clearly our case: We are not opposed to wealth but wealth inequality. We must demonstrate how the widening income gap harms the common good.
More than just indignation, we need to offer a platform of why we see egalitarianism as a moral and more effective way in which to organise economic society. To do that we need a national conversation on morality, we need to have a politics of moral engagement.
We see the inequity. We see the absence of justice. We see the misery caused by greed and domination. Now we must ensure that an alternative be heard and recognised, one that ultimately replaces the status quo.
That alternative is to ensure that even as we narrow wealth disparity, we create a community that is less polarised and more cohesive, one where shared public space between the haves and the have nots increases rather than decreases. When the wealthy and the needy live in two worlds it is hard, if not impossible, to create one society.
If the rich continue to buy car after car no matter how expensive COEs get while the MRT trains run over capacity, what incentive is there for the rich to want to take public transport?
If our missionary and government-aided schools continue to cater to children from affluent families and the neighbourhood schools are fed everyone else, how are children from different backgrounds going to mingle?
If our condominiums continue to retreat more and more into exclusive havens while HDB dwellers are crammed into smaller and smaller areas, how are the two communities going to co-exist?
Such polarisation brutalises society and erodes cohesiveness; it corrodes values that foster societal togetherness; it fuels resentment and, ultimately, instability.
Where are the leaders?
So the problem is clear: The socio-economic inequality that exists today cannot continue, not if we are to achieve a stable and progressive society.
The remedy is equally obvious and, I might add, compelling. The case for a more egalitarian system where the laws are not stacked in favour of the rich and where society is less economically polarised must be vigorously advocated.
The question is: Who is going to do it? Who among us is willing to come forward to lead the cause?
Sadly political leadership does not come naturally to Singaporeans. We have been ingrained with the notion that only the PAP has the smarts to lead this country.
My friends, politics is only as good as the people who practice it and justice is only as alive as the people who are willing to defend it.
Singapore will not change if those of us who wish to see democratic politics established in our country remain pusillanimous in mind and parsimonious in energy.
Let us not continue to allow fear to dominate us, to freeze us into inaction. Because fear destroys ideals, it blurs moral clarity.
In life we are confronted with choices. We can choose to live passionately and for what we believe in or we can continue on this path of timidity and fearful silence.
Of course, when we speak out without fearing those who rule over us, we are labeled as confrontational and, worse, destructive. And the powers-that-be do everything they can to marginalise us. We must recognise that this is another form of intimidation.
The danger is that if we fear such intimidation and retreat from political engagement in order to appear acceptable and “moderate”, then we will not have the courage to offer an alternative vision and, more important, work to achieve it.
Let us have the confidence to see that we have the ability to change the system, not yield to it; that we can win over public opinion, not pander to it. In other words let us be leaders, not just politicians.
For leaders point the way and persuade the people to come along. Politicians seek merely to win votes even if it means imitating those that hold power. We have enough politicians in Singapore, what we need now are leaders.
We can – and will – succeed but only if we stop spending our time doubting our own ability and losing our focus of doing the hard work of organising ourselves and planning our strategies.
The parents of change are persistence and perseverance. There is no short cut.
Are we rich?
Again, I want to thank the Liberal International for this award. But what I long for, more than anything else, is to win that ultimate prize of freedom for the people of Singapore.
The journey has been long, but along the way I have had the honour of working with some of the most patriotic Singaporeans on this island, and I have been enriched by the experience.
Years ago after picking up our kids from a friend’s birthday party and it was a nice big house, when we got home, my eldest turned to me and asked: “Papa, are we rich?”
It was one of those questions that was as simple and innocent as it was complicated.
It took me awhile as I searched for and answer and finally I said to her, “Yes, we are. Mum and I may not be able to send you to school in a big car, or we may not be able to live in a big house where you can have your own room, and we may not be able to take you on expensive holidays. But, yes, we are rich and you know why? Because we have you.”
I may be a bankrupt and I may not be able to afford many things in this world but when I am home with my loved ones, I feel like the richest man on earth.
And when I survey this room and look at all of you this evening, how can I not feel rich? If I had remained an academic at NUS, I would not have had the joy and privilege of knowing you. I may have lost the one thing that I loved which is doing research and teaching. But what I have lost, I have more than gained in my serving with you in this great cause of freedom. You have enriched me and touched me more than you know, and for that I thank you.
I feel a sense of kindred spirits with you because I know that we share the same ideals and we measure our success not by the type of car that we drive or the size of the house that we live in but by the number of minds that we unfetter, the number of young lives that we give hope to and the number of the poor whom we empower.
To accumulate this kind of wealth, the kind that matters most, let us continue on this journey together and press on with what we have started.
For that old grandmother in her 80s whose bent and gnarled figure struggles with the sun and the rain just to collect cardboard to sell so that she can feed herself, we press on.
For that bread-winner who cannot find a job that pays decent wages so that he can scrape together enough money to send his children to school, we press on.
For the child who wants to learn and excel but who is constantly told that she is not good enough because of the school that she goes to, we press on.
For those who seek a more equal and just society, we press on.
We press on because the fire of hope and justice still burns brightly in this the Singapore Democratic Party. The harder the oppression, the brighter that fire burns. And that fire can only be doused by the waters of freedom and democracy.
And so my friends let us continue to fight the fight that so many across the world have fought, so that we too may know the exhilaration that comes with freedom, the compassion that comes with justice and the wisdom that comes with an open and democratic society.
Thank you, God bless and good night.