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Dr. Chee Soon Juan is the current Secretary General with the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). This interview was done in 1995.
STC: There was an incident in the newsgroup soc.culture.singapore in early August where a poster had his Internet account cancelled by his civil service employer for criticizing the high prices of HDB flats. He said that it was caused indirectly by you refering to his postings in one of your speeches. Do you know anything about this?
CSJ: Someone did tell me this vaguely, but I had already mentioned this issue in my book (Dare to Change) which came out last year and that was a subject we brought up in the 1992 election.
STC: Did you make any speeches recently about this, making references to postings in the Internet?
CSJ: I did bring it up again when I talked about practices such as land acquisition, foreign workers’ levy, HDB car park charges and so on, but I did not make any references to Internet posting.
STC: What made you decide to go into opposition politics?
CSJ: The desire for some form of check and balance in parliarment and to provide alternatives in policy choices.
STC: How do you make a living now?
CSJ: I have my own practice in child neuropsychology and the book has given me some income.
STC: How many copies of “Dare to Change” have you sold?
CSJ: So far about 7,000 copies.
STC: Have you decided which ward to contest in the coming election?
CSJ: I have already started doing weekly walk abouts in MacPherson.
STC: How would you rate your chances there?
CSJ: I don’t like to talk about chances. A lot of it is hard work, depending on how well you can convince the residents, short of any statistical data, we really can’t tell. So now, it is really us going down there and doing our work instead of speculating what our chances are.
STC: How would you define the role of the opposition, how would you characterize the political landscape?
CSJ: Given the present situation, I think it is very important for the opposition not only to play the role of check and balance to the government, but also to function as a source of information. This is because the government is saying now that if you want to make a political comment, you must join a political party.
This rules out direct involvement of a lot of NGOs and special interest groups. So the only thing you can do now is to educate the public and that is where you can begin to form the rudiments of a civil society. The press and academic here are not going to play that role of being the information provider. So I think the opposition has to provide Singaporeans with as much information as possible so that they can make an informed choice where they go to the ballot.
STC: Where do you get your information from?
CSJ: Books pulished in Universities all over the world, for example in Australia which has done some research on Singapore. We have access to these information and we present them to Singaporeans. We find these books in book shops or we get the information when we meet up with these academics.
STC: So a lot of these information you speak of will be second hand.
CSJ: Well, opposition here do not have direct access to the information from the Ministries. Instead of just saying that information is not forth coming, we should try to find things out.
STC: But we have oppostion MPs, surely they can ask for information in parliarment.
CSJ: Yes, they can, but I am refering to things like trends, and the ability to alert Singaporeans to the pitfalls of certain policies. For example, the stop at two policy in the 70s. The government did not take into consideration the rate of industrialization. In agrarian societies children are assets but in a city states like Singapore this is not so. So the retarded population growth now adds to our problem. This is why we need a forward looking opposition.
STC: So you are saying that the demographic change in Singapore was due largely to PAP policy instead of factors such as industrialization, the education of women and the raising of living standards?
CSJ: That is the case but it was aggravated by the government policy.
STC: For the benefit of those who have not read “Dare to Change” could you outline some important policy alternatives?
CSJ: The theme that runs through the book is authoritarianism and how that is going to work against Singapore’s continued progress. What happened in the past 30 years tells us nothing about how authoritarianism is going to affect us in the next 30 years.
What I tried to do is to analyse how authoritarianism is going to hamper the growth of Singapore’s education, economy, press and the society.
For example education: I analysed how streaming at early age and rote learning will lead to problems later on. The Ministry of Education has since picked it up and recently announced a switch from rote learning to emphasizing learning skills, creativity, analytical and critical thinking. Another example is the economy: as we move into the ’super league of nations’, we have to rethink how we are going to compete. We will have to compete on ideas, creativity and vision, but authoritarianism stifles creativity and discourages entrepreneur spirit.
STC: Your critique of authoritarianism does not seem to square with say former Soviet Union, which was one of the most scientifically and technologically advanced nation on Earth.
CSJ: It is difficult to seperate a country’s eonomic and political system and we should talk about the former Soviet Union’s political economy as a whole. They can get the economy going to a certain extent but ultimately it must come to an end because the political system cannot catch up with the economy. They could not sustain the race and disintegrated.
STC: Your involvement in the Flor Contemplacion, Safire and William College incidents has come under quite severe criticism, namely that it is inappropriate and unpatriotic. What are your comments?
CSJ: Why would it be unpatriotic for us to question the comments of some of our government agenents, since what they say and do affects the lives of all Singaporeans.
In the Flor Contemplacion case, I’ve said over and over again, and I’m not sure why it is not getting through, that we have never questioned the judiciary or the handling of the case. The only comment we made was that the situation was aggrevated by the government making some unnecessary and insensitive remarks about another country. We are a small country, let us interact with our neighbours in a more humble manner. We took into our consideration the well being of Singaporeans, if you think about it, that is more patriotic than unpatriotic.
For too long, the PAP has been dominant in Singapore and I think there is a deliberate attemp to blur the line between party and state. The danger comes when Singaporeans want to criticize government policy and that is interpreted as criticizing Singapore which is construed as being unpatriotic.
STC: What government remarks were you referring to?
CSJ: These were in our press statements, but to give an example, the remarks about the Mexican Peso crisis and what the Mexican would give to have a tenth of what we have. I know what he is trying to say and that is fine, but whenever we compare ourselve to other countries like this, the other party hears this and it adds up, and I don’t think the other governments appreciate it.
As far as Safire is concerned, we never said we agreed with anything he said and we did not say anything when the thing first came out. The only time we said we didn’t want this to go on is when the Prime Minister offered to fly Safire and Crane to Singapore. We said that these Americans don’t represent Singaporeans, they don’t know the situation in Singapore. Why should we spend money inviting them over to say things that are tangential to what the SDP has been advocating? We said, don’t worry about the Americans, we are not interested in what they have to say, instead we want the government to debate the opposition about issues that concerns Singaporeans, issues such as HDB prices, transportation, GST. What would Safire and Crane know about these problems? So we are saying, debate the opposition, this thing about Safire is really just a red herring.
STC: The main reason why people feel your comments were inappropriate is because they came at a time when foreigners were attacking our PM and the way Singaporeans organizes our society and politics. It is felt that Singaporeans should first rebutt these attackes and then settle our differences among ourselves. Instead, you used these foreigners attacks as an opportunity to get sound bites in the press. However legitimate your comments might be, they do smack of opportunism.
CSJ: When William Safire first came up with his comments, there was no reaction from us. It was only when the government wanted to invite them over that we said there was no need for that. If we had wanted to be opportunistic, we would have commented from the word go and stoke the fire. As for waiting for the foreigners’ attack to die down first before raising our differences, we have been trying to do engage the government in a policy debate for quite a few years before these attacks began but the government has time and again refused to do so.
STC: There are opposition MPs in parliarment, why can’t they engage the government there?
CSJ: Singaporeans do not get to see what goes on in parliarment first hand but only through what is reported through TV and papers which can come out very different. What we are calling for is a live broadcast without editing so that people can see what is going on.
There is also this question of how representative parliarment is. PAP has 95% of seat in parliarment and an issue like minister’s pay come up, every PAP MP voted for the bill. If this bill were presented to Singaporeans, how would they vote? Would we see a 95% support for it as well?
Parliarment is only one of the places in which issues can be debated. I have tried writing to the press and asked them to debate the issues but they only wanted to indulge in name calling sessions, that brings the level of political debate to a really low level.
STC: Who among the PAP politicians do you most respect?
CSJ: I don’t know a lot of them. On a personal basis I respect all of them. I think they have the courage to stand up for what they believe in and I respect them for that. I only ask them to respect their opponent and not to attack opposition politicians on a personal basis.
STC: How about among the opposition politicians? Who do you most respect?
CSJ: The opposition is a collective effort. People have seen the need and then the courage to speak up against PAP and their policies are people who I think worthy of compliments. For example, Chia Thye Poh, he stuck through his principle and belief and for that he has paid dearly with his personal freedom. I think this is very admirable. But as I said, opposition politician collectively as a whole has certainly earned my respect, that is why I have chose to throw my lot in with them.
STC: As a observer of Singapore sociey, how would you characterize it and how would you like to change it?
CSJ: I think we have come a long way and the people has a lot of credits for building Singapore up to what it is today. What I would like to see is a little more openness where we are more able to accept different view points, and able to create a society where pluralism and diversity of views is tolerated or even encouraged. As we move into the 21st century where we have to compete with other developed nations, it is very important that we become more mature and able to tolerate dissenting view points. I very much like to see Singapore develop in that direction.