by Joshua Chiang
There are two Chee Soon Juans.
The first is the law-breaking, minister-heckling, hunger-striking attention seeker who is more interested in promoting a ‘Western’ form of democracy ill-suited to our Asian society than in bread and butter issues. He is one of the two ‘duds’ the Minister Mentor mentioned as the sort of people he had prevented from entering parliament. (The other being J.B. Jeyaretnam.) This is the version which, if you believe Dr Chee, is the one that the mainstream media often portrays, and which the public buys.
“As a Singaporean, it is shameful of Dr Chee to actively call on other countries to interfere in Singapore's judicial process. This is another clear example of how low he will stoop to undermine Singapore,” a Straits Times reader was quoted as saying in 2005. She was referring to his call for the international community to put pressure on the government to change some of its ‘unjust laws’.
The second Chee Soon Juan is the steadfast champion of human rights, the bold visionary, misunderstood by the majority, but commanding unswerving loyalty and admiration from his party members.
“Democracy and human dignity are part of his DNA,” said Singapore Democractic Party (SDP) member Vincent Wijeysingha, who had known Dr Chee since 1991. “His commitment to these values is unwavering even in the way he conducts himself personally.”
For me, neither perception offer a satisfactory glimpse of who Chee Soon Juan is. In part due to the SDP’s extensive use of the internet as a communication tool, a growing number of people have direct access to Dr Chee’s views and writings, but many among them still find Dr Chee a hard pill to swallow.
“I have the utmost respect for him and his commitment but I don’t necessary agree with his methods,” said ‘Jimmy’, an avid reader of socio-political blogs. “He comes across as too abrasive and confrontational.”
Why then did Dr Chee choose a method of engaging politics than is often seen as unnecessary provocative? Might a more ‘moderate’ tone have worked better to get his message across? The label of ‘psychopath’ had been thrown at him before, but could there be a method to his ‘madness’?
An ice-cream parlor isn’t exactly what one would consider the right setting to be interviewing a politician, but this was exactly where I found myself on a rainy Thursday afternoon. Then again the casual atmosphere, and the fact that this is where Dr Chee Soon Juan often brings his children to (a photograph of Dr Chee and his family taken at the parlor is on one of the walls) might just help me better understand the person behind the persona.
And the ice-cream didn’t taste too bad either.
Recently you were sentenced to $20,000 fine or 20-weeks imprisonment in default for speaking in public without a permit. How’re you planning to go ahead?
Well, the timing is a little unfortunate in the sense that the matter is happening right before the elections. And the funny thing is all these took place at the end of 2005, early 2006. This whole thing just dragged on for five years since. It’s not like a complicated murder case. So I’m just a little put off. There’s a lot of election preparations going on, and now’s not exactly the time to be off duty.
Were you mentally prepared that this might happen?
You know the thing is I’ve been for years already asking them to consolidate all the cases, have a trial at one go so that I don’t have to keep… one after another make application after application for the judge to say, “Look, I’ll hear all together.” And then they didn’t want to, so they heard one case after another. And then when the appeal came and they lumped it all together, I said, “Why didn’t you do this three to four years ago?” So that’s’ one thing that I find very upsetting in that sense. So now that it’s coming, it’s something that I’ve anticipated.
But you’ve gone ahead with a campaign to raise money to pay the fines.
As I said, that’s the difficulty. The party knows that it’s going to be difficult for me to be away - I’ve to be around. But then on my side, I feel this because whatever you raise right now we want to use it for the elections as well instead of for this situation. But in any case, we will do what we can and the rest of it, we’ll see what comes of this.
Because of your bankruptcy, you’re not allowed to stand for elections right?
No, no. I’m not allowed.
But nonetheless if you can’t pay the fine and had to go to jail as a result, it would nonetheless affect the elections campaign.
A lot of preparational work could be affected by it. I’m concerned that the elections will be in March or it may be held probably anytime around these five months. It’s going to be very problematic.
So is this like the run up- the last legal hurdle you have to cross?
The fight is ongoing. I’ve always made it clear that change is not going to come - democratic change is not going to come just from taking part in elections. If you think that’s going to happen, you’re living a dream.
If you read history - political history – all transitions from an autocratic state to democratic ones did not take place through elections; elections had to come as a result of change, it’s not a means of change.
And so, looking at this situation, yes as we gear up for elections, we sharpen ourselves to make sure we get our messages across during our campaign machinery – everything is there. But always with the knowledge that at any time, any time the PAP wants to change the rules, you’re really at their mercy. And as I said before, let’s say even if we win a GRC and they change the rules of the game, next elections, they win back the GRC and then we’re back to square one. What is more fundamental is to make sure that civil society and anything that’s a critical mass continue to make sure that this freedom of assembly and speech which create that kind of mass whereby we’re able to pressurize the ruling party to play by the rules.
It’s been five years since the last general elections. Are there any improvements in the area of civil participation and political awareness that you see?
For one thing very clearly, you look at right now in terms of the number of people that have awakened and you know right now you may have a whole group, but before it starts with a group, it always starts with a few. And the few actually started getting involved because they saw what we were doing on the side at that time and they came aboard. And when they come abroad, other people to see what they’re doing and come aboard at the same time. Then you have as a result the relaxation of those rules at Speakers’ Corner– now that may not necessarily effect or make that crucial change. Don’t forget things like that, it takes time. You know it’s the cumulative steps that you build to. So you know Rome is not built in day. So let’s continue to strategize and see. Every time you make progress, consolidate the progress. Build on it. Work on your next step and continue on until we achieve our goals.
Did you think that the public image towards the SDP has changed in the past few years?
If you talk about online, maybe. But in general society, it’s still a long way to go. You know, given the fact that your traditional media is still very much in the hands of the PAP. And a lot of people are still afraid to come on the SDP website. I heard it many times when I go on house to house and they tell us. I don’t know why, or whether it is really true – that they can trace your IP address or whatever. But the fact is that they’re still very afraid. It will take time for us to get them to get on the website and overcome that fear. The elections would be a good platform where you may not be able to offset change on the political scenario, but the elections itself is a very good avenue also to educate the people as well.
You’re no stranger to the fact that people are criticizing you or SDP very harshly online. But when you go for your walkabouts, do you actually have this kind of reaction?
No. You know, people seem very cordial and I’m thinking, “Why is that?” No, a lot of times I think Singaporeans tend to - if it’s anonymous- they are just a little bit more chatty, more forthcoming with their views. They may whisper behind your back but they- I’ve never had anybody being openly hostile.
Well maybe not openly, but in private discussions with friends – at least those who do not follow local politics as closely - few have good things to say about you.
You live in a very enclosed society. By closed, I mean there is no- in particular the media – it’s very much in control. If you don’t read history, you’ll get very, very disappointed. As I said if we look through the years, there’re cases of people becoming stronger. You always have to start off people not knowing what you do. And people who advocate change are the ones who always get the ire of those who are afraid to change things - even if they see change is necessary, they will resist it until the very last moment. And they’ll always target people who advocate change.
So in that sense, I’m not surprised. All you just need to continue to do is to continue to explain to them. Be patient; just continue to explain to them. And I’m very confident. I’m very confident one day they will come to see what I’m trying to do and up until this point, I can tell you, they really don’t know what is it that we’re trying to do on the side. But that is not something that is something immutable. Sooner or later it’ll change.
Well okay, then there’s this segment of people who will agree in principle what the SDP stands for, but they will still not want the SDP to be in government. They believe that your proposed policies will lead us to disaster.
But then, why did they agree?
I think they agree that we need to have an open platform, the need to respect human rights and so on so forth, but at the same time it seems that SDP as the government is not something to look forward to.
That is also to be expected. Look, that’s not only the SDP. Anywhere when you go, last time when they- the DPP in Taiwan, they were fighting for the power; Kim Dae Jong (President of South Korea from 1998 to 2003) – the same accusations were hurled or libeled at them and they said, “Look there’s no way.” And it’s natural. What experience have you got? You know what I mean, to be in the government. You look at whoever is in the Kuomintang, you know these they have experience to run. You know it’s natural, it’s a natural phenomenon. In fact that was the same type of accusation that was hurled at Obama: He’s too inexperienced. Remember the whole ad about 3 a.m. call. Hillary Clinton was the experienced one. What about Obama? He’s this guy who has never held office- so you always have that kind of argument.
Well, moving on. In recent years, you have been seen to tone down on the civil disobedience aspect – is that deliberate or is that a natural progression?
No, I had that discussion, I can’t remember, last time with Martyn-
(Filmmaker and activist) Martyn See?
Martyn See. I think (the discussion took place) just after the last elections. I’m saying: “Look, there’s a time and place for everything.” Civil disobedience is not about- in fact I prefer to use the term ‘non-violent actions’ - it’s not just about going out and breaking the law. The whole strategy is to make sure you never lose control of your agenda; when you want to do what, you’ve got to be in control. There’s a place that you need to make sure you always- you don’t try to do this before and when the elections are coming.
But then right after an election (2006), what’re you going to do? Talk about the elections? You just had one right? So what are you going to do in between? You see, this is where because we are not in a democratic state right? You have to work towards a democratic state and all these incidents come to play of which non-violent action is a part. And if you have that, you make sure you strategize it. You know, get the activists up. Get them to understand the importance of human rights work. Right?
So you make sure at that time you train activists you know, do capacity building and everything that is needed. And then slowly when the elections come up, start making sure that you can get to position yourself whereby you can effect- make yourself effective for elections time. So it really is a very fluent situation right now whereby you’re always positioning yourself depending on the situation. But the end point of getting the goal is always there. It’s almost like a roller coaster you know. You want to get from here to there but it’s never one straight line; you go up and down, do a loop and that kind of thing. Whatever it takes to make sure that you’re always positioned yourself to capitalize on the situation.
Okay, I’m going to throw you a curve ball. Assuming that the Singapore Democratic Party becomes the government one day. Will you become our next Minister Mentor?
Yeah, that one is really a curve ball.
I think my first love is still in academia. I was trained in it. I enjoyed it, interacting with students, doing research and everything. And at some point, I’ll like to get back into academia again. And if at all possible if things will come to that stage where you know you won’t backslide already. I’ll like to get back.
Then what is the political end-goal? I mean would you even be interested in being a prime minister?
It’s very farfetched but at some point, you would like to be successful, succeed in what you’re doing. But that success can be measured or defined in many ways. One way of course is to get a political office. I cannot say that this is something I want to do. But it’s really a means to an end. By which time you can get in there to make sure that you then put in place checks to make sure that you never revert back to an autocratic state again, to make sure you know right now your electoral system, political, your freedoms and all, make sure that it’s written in the constitution; your judiciary – all these are firmly in place. That’s the end goal. If it takes for me to get into parliament so that we can achieve that goal, yes, then by all means.
In an interview with CNN Talk Asia host Lorainne Hahn in 2002, you said, “No matter how hard it gets, no matter how oppressive the government is, there is this spirituality about us that will not allow us to look the other way.” Now what exactly do you mean? I mean is there a spiritual root or foundation behind what you do?
Yes. It’s not something which I talk about a lot. I suppose the whole scene in which I view the work that we do stems a lot from my own Christian faith. And it’s the whole idea that I don’t think really it’s a case of the Left versus the Right. I think it’s more a matter of whenever you have a group of human beings, there will always be those who will seem to oppress the majority. And you look back from your ancient days, you always have people – the masses who are always disenfrachized.
And they always need a system whereby there can be at least semblance of equality. And you’re never going to achieve this perfect equilibrium, that’s the basic. But it leaves a system that allows us to approximate this equilibrium to build a democratic state. If you look at from the time we started until now, it occupies only a small portion of human civilization. So I think it’s something which continues to be an important battle to wage. And as I said, things will never be perfect but at least if all the settings of society are able to have that freedom to make sure they have a voice - mobility; social, political, economic mobility will always be there, and that will work to help us get closer to what we want, which I believe is what my Christian faith teaches us.
What you seem to being saying is that your work is neverending. And this is where I’m going to throw you another curve ball. The Minister Mentor once said that, “even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong (with Singapore), I will get up." This concern for Singapore, or an idea of what Singapore should be is what drives you both. Aren’t you both just different sides of the same coin?
Oh yeah, I see what you’re saying. No, I think for him at least, the way he’s portrayed himself to the public and what we the public can understand, is that he doesn’t seem to feel confident enough to say, “Look, I’ve put in place a system which can take care of itself; I can remove myself from that system and it will still go on.” He cannot do that. And look everybody – it’s not just me, I think people in the establishment as well – is saying that if LKY is not around, right, the things, the center cannot hold. And that’s the difference.
What we’re trying to achieve is that, you want to build up a system that will perpetuate itself because the institutions are in place, not individuals. Individuals will come and go but your institutions are in place already. This is what we’re talking about you know in democracy, whether is it the judiciary or whether is it the civil service or whether is it your government executives; civil society, that’s also an institution. The opposition, the political opposition, it’s also another institution. It’s all in place that you know, and then people can have a say in which direction that the country wants to proceed. But those institutions are in place that will protect that system.
Whereas if you look at what LKY is basically doing is he’s putting himself right smack in the middle of that wheel with all the spokes coming out. Correct? You remove that wheel, that spokes has nothing to anchor to you know. Everything starts coming apart, your wheel will go haywire. This is what I mean by when I say… you know you’re right in the sense that the price of democracy is perpetual vigilance. That vigilance is taken care of by an institution, not by individuals. Individuals are not going to last for long.
Okay, I’ve come across comments which say SDP Chee is a hindrance to the Singapore Democratic Party – what do you feel about something like that?
That’s an opinion that, that, that somebody has expressed. I suppose people always have their opinions you know, no one’s stopping them.
I think the context of the comments is in the light of the new people that the SDP has attracted. And they are contrasting the credibility of these new people with your track record as the confrontational maverick. And they are saying that so the image of SDP will be better if you weren’t in the picture.
Well I honestly feel that sometimes you talk to some of these people when they come on board of late and this is what I said during our rally, I said it wasn’t that they have been there for years already. They joined us in the last six months – at least a few of them, and some of them a little earlier too. If you ask them: What attracted them to SDP? We didn’t have anything to offer in terms of riches, we can’t even pay a salary. And we’ve got fines to pay. So the question is: Why did they come into SDP?
Those people who have come on board of late, they have been following; they get on the net, they read what we’re about, and based on that they want to be part of the party.
There’re these other comments as well: “We respect what Dr Chee does but he shouldn’t have badmouthed Singapore to the foreign press.”
Let’s be very clear about this – you’re never able going to effect any change if there was also not at the same time international pressure. Look at any country in recent history whether it’s Taiwan, whether it’s Korea, Indonesia, you look at Central Europe, before the party in South Africa, there was not only pressure from within, but also pressure from the international community. That is a given.
So when people ask you, “What do you want to do with Singapore?” and you tell them - I’m talking about let’s say for example the foreign press- are you going to lie and say everything is hunky-dory? Even Aung San Suu Kyi for example - we were there at the conference - she was telling us, “Use your liberty to help others.” Is Aung San Suu Kyi badmouthing her country to the others?
During Obama’s inauguration, you appealed to him on video to pay attention to the ‘human rights abuses of the Singapore Government”. That didn’t seem to go down well with some people.
You would expect them because at the same time you’ve also got to understand one thing – that you only come to that viewpoint if you equate the ruling party with the country, right? And if you do that, you’re never going to be able to say anything to others because if you criticize the ruling party, they want to equate themselves so that you’re actually criticizing the country. And that’s how autocrats always play the game.
Not all the remarks came from people who are pro-ruling party, some of them in fact came from people who disagree with the ruling party.
You think without the backup of the British (during the 1960s), the Lee Kuan Yew faction of PAP would have survived? Lim Chin Siong (co-founder of the PAP), it’s not an opinion, this is research that’s come out from all the classified papers already. LKY was working at that time with the British and the Internal Security Council to make sure that he (Lim Chin Siong) wasn’t gaining ascendancy. All we need to do is to say look, let us fight our battles. And that they were obviously trying to turn it around and say, “Oh you’re trying to get this wrong.” People don’t know that the PAP is the poster boy of a lot of all these multinationals as well as the Defense Department of the United States.
Well then people would say, if the PAP doesn’t do that, all the MNCs will leave. What can we survive on? We’re a small country with little resources and hostile enemies.
I’ve made it very clear - You want to welcome (MNCs) to build the economy of this place, but even the PAP MPs are asking: Have we become over-reliant on MNCs? There’s a balance to be struck. Right now all that we’re doing is our dependence on these multinationals to the point that we’ve crowded out our own entrepreneurial class. They’ve left the country and they find themselves nicely placed in other countries. And this is where I think a balance needs to be struck. You don’t want to shut out your economy and push them overseas but at the same time you want to make sure that the old Singaporeans are- are given this room to innovate, be able to compete and not just always to have to give way to voice of multinationals.
You mentioned that the traditional media had constructed a certain image of you to the general public. But can we say also that this image is also not wholly untrue? The words you used to describe the PAP is often quite harsh. Words like ‘autocratic’ and ‘dictatorial’ aren’t necessarily endearing terms.
I just don’t know how to go about saying things which are not. If it’s not, don’t say it. If it is, say it. Don’t shy away, don’t prettify it. And I keep telling people it really is not what the PAP does, it really is what it does to our minds.
We’ve been so handicapped as we don’t feel sometimes even seeing our ministers eye to eye and having a debate. You know, don’t be like that confrontational. You always got to see yourself as the lowest, know your position. This is what I’m saying: You’re already psychologically crippled in that sense. Then how do you ever stand up for your right? That’s not the same as saying you don’t respect them. You respect the office, yes. But these people, don’t forget they want to use to lord it over you. George Yeo said you know, you must know your position in society. That "没大没小" (Chinese for lack of respect for one’s superiors) is what my parents taught me. You are not my parents. You are a servant elected as a custodian of the public power. The minute they assume a position whereby hierarchally they're above you, they can do anything to mould society whereby they tell you: “Know your place, I am your lord. I can lord over you.” And this is where I think you start going down a certain slope.
We don’t want to be something that we’re not but at the same time you don’t want to let them get you into this position whereby you begin to think somehow you are subservient in your opinions.
Huh? Oh yeah.
I mean, has the relationship gotten better now or?
Well, again to me it’s never in anything but cordial for me on the side. Way back when we- I remember in 1996, even after… there were there was this rift, I still call them out. And at that time I remember we were organizing an official visit to Australia to meet the Australian parliament and so on, I called him up. I said, ‘Would you like to join us?” And he declined at that time.
Look my stand has been that if we are going to fight for democracy, it starts at home. We’ve got to practice it within the party. So I’ve never held it personally against Chiam. So in that sense I often tried to let it reflect my relationship with him so that even when we had get-togethers, I’ve always not had any personal old views. I’m not trying to make myself sound as though I’m a saint, no. But I- you know there is, I harbor no hard feelings. So that day (at the Face to Face forum) I was just finishing; I was walking past, he (Chiam) called me then you know I just sat down. Because he spoke softly, so I had to lean forward to hear and then when the moment I leaned forward you took a picture. And I cannot tell you guys what he told me.
Are Chee Soon Juan the writer and Chee Soon Juan the public figure two different persons?
Well a lot of times what I do in terms of my public activity is very much crafted and manipulated by the traditional press here. Broadcast as well. They would like to portray me in a certain manner. Not so favourably. And I you know when I actually try to read my books, my publications, you see there’s no difference because it’s not like I adopt different personas but it’s just that in terms of public portrayal, the media wants to portray me as what you’ve seen in the difference in the book. Frankly speaking, I don’t do anything that is inconsistent.
We’re going to talk about something more personal. Your children. Do they face problems with other classmates because of who their father is?
No. There’s one incident which I found very cute. One of their teacher said something, ‘Oh you know the opposition sometimes are trouble makers.’ And then he mentioned JB and I think the other person he mentioned was James Gomez, I don’t know why. My daughter came back and she told me about it. So things like this and yeah sometimes they get curious. When my eldest daughter was still quite young, when I first when to jail, she came up to me and she said, “Only bad people go to jail right?” And I was sitting there looking at her and you take time to explain to them because sometimes you got to go and break it up into simpler terms. And they did not understand it at that time yet but still as they grow up, they get into it, they do understand the concept of democracy, why is it important for us to fight for it.
One final question. Lee Kuan Yew once called you “a political juvenile and near-psychopath”, and shortly afterward, the Straits Times ran an article by Chua Lee Hoong which suggested that you are exhibiting anti-social personality disorder. Did that affect you in any way?
These are things that doesn’t faze me. You know, you can call me anything you want to call me. It’s not going to make a difference in how I’m going to proceed and you know achieve my goal. Let the people be the judge.