When silence is not golden: Reflections on two Singaporean prize winners

November 15, 2011
Singapore Democrats

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Vincent Wijeysingha

Abraham Lincoln, the United States’ 16th President, entered history as the man who freed the slaves brought to North America to work the plantations of that nation.

Inexplicably, therefore, when the Ford’s Theater Society decided to select an Asian to receive the Lincoln Medal, and coming hot on the heels of last year’s recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it chose a man who has presided over the detention without trial (and torture) of almost 200 of his political opponents and the dismantling of civil society norms, not to mention the tampering of democratic features of his state to all but guarantee continued electoral success of his party.

All while paying himself among the largest political salaries ever heard of in modern times, while the people have experienced the largest income disparity in the developed world.

The announcement by the Executive Committee of the Board Trustees was answered by widespread incredulity in Singapore. It was not made clear exactly how Mr Lee Kuan Yew who, across 50 years, threatened his opponents with knuckledusters, hatchets and, of course, defamation suits was found to be a worthy laureate of the Lincoln Medal.

And so Singaporeans were left to figure out for themselves exactly how Mr Lee exemplifies the “lasting legacy” of Honest Abe, beloved by every stripe of American this last century and a half.

But history has a way of being ironic without meaning too. Remember that other old reprobate, Dr Henry Kissinger, whose decisions in Cambodia achieved the massacre of up to 40,000 innocent people? Dr Kissinger, an old friend and admirer or Mr Lee’s, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

An award no one was allowed to ignore

While the Lincoln Medal is a rather more modest achievement, the hypocrisy inherent in awarding it to the man who probably least deserves it, would have attracted at least some critical media comment.

Not Singapore. In Singapore the media are, regrettably, blind to irony. Or perhaps blindness only arises when the subject is Mr Lee Kuan Yew whose award local newspapers did not allow us to ignore. Reported after report insisted that we know of Mr Lee’s prize.

But the blindness goes in the opposite direction when the subject is Dr Chee Soon Juan. The Liberal International (LI), a global grouping of more than one hundred organisations, came to Singapore two weeks ago to present its Prize for Freedom to Dr Chee.

Customarily, the Prize is presented at one of the annual events of the group. But since the Singapore Government has barred Dr Chee from leaving the country, LI President and Member of the European Parliament Mr Hans van Baalena journeyed here with a delegation of ten international leaders, to make the award presentation to Dr Chee at a gala dinner attended by many Singaporean civil society leaders.

“He is truly a son of Singapore,” said one guest. Renowned socio-political blogger Mr Alex Au added, “I am very proud for Singapore that Dr Chee has gained the recognition of Liberal international.”

The Prize for Freedom counts among its laureates such luminaries as Aung San Suu Kyi; former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, South African human rights champion Helen Suzman, Czech and Slovak President Vaclev Havel, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogota, former and late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, and the late President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines.

Dr Chee joins that list so much more convincingly than the latest Lincoln Medal laureate.

…and the other no one was allowed to know

But in how many media reports did Singaporeans read of Dr Chee’s award? A grand total of zero. No editor in the entire SPH stable arrived at the view that the first Singaporean to win this prestigious international award, joining a pantheon of awardees which also include British Parliamentarian, Lord Avebury, merited a report.

The implication is clear: no situation which brings repute to the Singapore Democrats and accolade to its leader should be allowed to tamper with the PAP-propagated perspective that the SDP is intent upon the destruction of our nation and its leader a dangerous psychopath.

But travel the world and the situation is quite different. I recently returned from a regional conference in Bali. A friend of mine also came home after speaking at a separate conference.

He, like me, learned that, abroad, the name Chee Soon Juan has become synonymous with a principled struggle for justice and a great love for his homeland – a view that the PAP is utterly fearful of allowing to germinate in Singapore.

At his second inaugural speech, Lincoln said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds…” Good words to commend to our country’s future.


Dr Vincent Wijeysingha

is Treasurer of the SDP 
and Head of the party’s Communications Unit.
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Read also:
Complete news blackout on Chee’s LI award