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“The people look to us for leadership. Let us provide it.” – Dr Chee Soon Juan

By Andrew Loh

This Sunday at the Allson Hotel at Victoria Street, members of The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) will head a public forum calling for election reform in Singapore.

The forum, titled “Reform of the Election System in Singapore”, is “to kick-start a national effort to address and rectify an election system that is politically moribund.” (SDP website)

Its website mentions several issues which the SDP is concerned with. These include “the lack of an independent election commission, the use of the GRC system, the sudden changes of rules and regulations, the numbering of the ballot slips, the impossibly short campaign period, the gerrymandering…”

What the SDP is doing is to provide an opportunity for all of us to come together. Who is going to kick-start the process? The people who come forward on Sunday and volunteer their time and expertise to work towards the change”, says SDP Secretary General, Dr Chee Soon Juan, in an email interview with theonlinecitizen (TOC).

Response from other opposition parties

The SDP had earlier sent out invitations to other opposition parties to participate in the forum. However, besides Mr JB Jeyaretnam of the soon-to-be-registered Reform Party, the other opposition parties have not responded to the invitation.

It is disappointing that the other parties have not responded to our invitation. It is not for me to speculate why they haven't”, says Dr Chee.

Describing the involvement of all the other parties as “vital to the reform process”, he added, “What is important is that we start the ball rolling and continue to persuade everyone to contribute to the effort…. The people look to us for leadership. Let us provide it.”

When asked if he has spoken to the opposition parties specifically about the issue of election reform, Dr Chee replied that “there is not an opposition member or leader whom I've spoken to that does not realize how stacked up the elections are against us.”

The SDP sec gen says the involvement of the heartlanders is also just as important. “Without their support how can the effort succeed? But before we can engage the people, the leaders must first get our act together. If we are able to do this, we can reach out to them and get them on board. But first things first, let's meet on Sunday and the rest will follow.”

Calling for change – and taking action

The Workers’ Party (WP) had called for election reforms in its 2006 election manifesto. Asked for his views about the suggestions contained in it, Dr Chee said, “I think they are excellent ideas and I commend the WP. They are similar to what the SDP and, I suspect other parties, have also proposed.”

However, making suggestions and pro-actively taking action to institute change are two different things, he says. “As long as we leave our views in the pages of our manifestos, nothing will change…. Our manifestos will then forever remain as beautifully written, but ultimately academic, pieces of literature prettifying the archives of the National Library.”

Calling for all opposition parties to “put our differences aside”, Dr Chee explained:

“The Malaysians and the Hong Kongers have demonstrated that political parties of different persuasions can band together to work for democratic change. Independent civil society organisations and bar associations have joined in the cause. Why not us?

Remember, the outcome will not just benefit the SDP but all opposition parties. Most of all it will benefit Singaporeans and this nation.”

Committee to spearhead reform effort

One of the first issues which the SDP says need to be changed is to “take the conduct of elections away from the Prime Minister's Office and to establish an independent elections commission.”

Declining to elaborate on further proposals for the time being, Dr Chee says he would like to leave the discussion of proposals to the forum proper with the participants and speakers on Sunday.

However, the SDP will suggest the formation of a committee to spearhead the reform effort.

“I cannot stress enough how important it is that this committee encompasses a broad spectrum of society including political parties, NGOs, academics, members of the legal fraternity, bloggers and private individuals. What should be the task of such a committee? We will leave it to be discussed at the forum itself.”

The SDP intends to continue to fight for election reform by being part of this bigger group. “We have every intention to continue calling for election reform. But more importantly we will also be part of a bigger group (if such a group is established) playing our role along with everyone else to bring about electoral reform.”

Change will come

“The reality is that the PAP, like all authoritarian regimes, respond only to power, not suggestions from the feedback unit”, says the SDP chief. Thus, the people have to “demand it”, “press for it” before the government responds.

“The biggest struggle is not against the PAP, it is against what the PAP has done to our minds. Once we break the mental shackles of fear and helplessness, half our battle is won”, he added.

“At the same time, however, let us not stand in awe and fear of the PAP's power. If we are willing to commit ourselves to tackling the problem, we will achieve our goals. So let us not talk about the problems anymore. Instead let's roll up our sleeves and get on with the work starting this Sunday.”

“It is not wishful thinking, nor is it braggadocio when I say this: Change will come.”

Reality – and hope

Urging Singaporeans of all persuasions to be involved in the effort, Dr Chee says however that he is aware that the task is enormous and “we are not going to resolve them by the next elections”.

“There is not just one problem about the election system but a myriad… What we must do is to start the process now because if we continue to procrastinate, we will never make our elections democratic.

The PAP is not going to agree to make the electoral process free and fair just because we ask for it. It will continue to scheme and machinate to ensure that it maintains its grip on power. I hope that Singaporeans see the enormity of our task.”

Without institutionalized reforms put in place, Dr Chee feels any elections will be futile undertakings by opposition parties.

So what if the SDP or WP or SDA wins a GRC? What's to prevent the PAP from revising the rules to grab it back? When that happens, ten years will have passed and nothing will have changed. How has that helped the hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Singaporeans labouring under unthinking PAP policies?”

He is, however, hopeful that Singaporeans will come together and demand the changes they wish to see, and that the effort will not be in vain.

“This is not an SDP issue. It cannot be. It is a matter that is bigger than any one party or personality. It concerns all of us as Singaporeans regardless of whether we are party members or civil society actors or as an individual. We must all pull together because we are all in this together. The synergy that we create by coming together will be a force to be reckoned with.”

The forum will be held this Sunday as follows:

Date: Sunday, Jan 20, 2008

Time: 2pm

Venue: Allson Hotel, Victoria Street

Admission: Free

Speakers:

1. J B Jeyaretnam, from the soon to be formed Reform Party
2. Jufrie Mahmoud, veteran oppositionist
3. Chia Ti Lik, member of SgHuman Rights
4. Tan Tarn How, researcher at the
Institute of Policy Studies and former Straits Times journalist
5. Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party

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Below is the transcript of the interview with Dr Chee:

TOC: What do you see as the one issue, as far as the elections in Singapore is concerned, which must be addressed before the next elections?

Dr Chee: There is not just one problem about the election system but a myriad and, let's face it, we are not going to resolve them by the next elections. What we must do is to start the process now because if we continue to procrastinate, we will never make our elections democratic. The PAP is not going to agree to make the electoral process free and fair just because we ask for it. It will continue to scheme and machinate to ensure that it maintains its grip on power. I hope that Singaporeans see the enormity of our task.

At the same time, however, let us not stand in awe and fear of the PAP's power. If we are willing to commit ourselves to tackling the problem, we will achieve our goals. So let us not talk about the problems anymore. Instead let's roll up our sleeves and get on with the work starting this Sunday.

One of the first things that we need to look at is to take the conduct of elections away from the Prime Minister's Office and to establish an independent elections commission. How are we going to do this? Come on Sunday and we'll develop a strategy.

TOC: "This forum hopes to kick-start a national effort to address and rectify an election system that is politically moribund." (SDP website ) How do you intend to go about kick-starting this "national effort"? Does the SDP see itself as the leading or driving force in this effort?

Dr Chee: This is not an SDP issue. It cannot be. It is a matter that is bigger than any one party or personality. It concerns all of us as Singaporeans regardless of whether we are party members or civil society actors or as an individual. We must all pull together because we are all in this together. The synergy that we create by coming together will be a force to be reckoned with.

What the SDP is doing is to provide an opportunity for all of us to come together. Who is going to kick-start the process? The people who come forward on Sunday and volunteer their time and expertise to work towards the change.

But first let us come to the table of hope and belief - the belief that we can change politics in Singapore if we are willing to work and make sacrifices for it.

TOC: What would you say or how would you explain to the average Singaporean why such reforms are necessary and important?

Dr Chee: We don't have to. The average Singaporean knows how unfair the elections are and they understand the need for reform. He knows that without a democratic election system, Singapore will remain a one-party state and the people will not have a say on issues like the ministers' salaries, price hikes, income disparity, etc.

What they need now is leadership - leadership to help empower them and to help organise them to effectively demand reform. When they see their fellow Singaporeans willing to stand up to the PAP, they will be emboldened. This is why the SDP is calling those of you who yearn for change to show up on Sunday at Allson's Hotel.

TOC: Do you think that any such effort will have to entail the participation of all political parties, especially the opposition parties? What has been the response from the other opposition parties to your invitation to participate in the public forum? Why do you think the response has been such?

Dr Chee: Without a doubt. The participation of all opposition parties is vital to the reform process. Unfortunately, of the political parties only Mr Jeyaretnam and his soon-to-be registered Reform Party has agreed to speak at the forum. It is disappointing that the other parties have not responded to our invitation. It is not for me to speculate why they haven't. What is important is that we start the ball rolling and continue to persuade everyone to contribute to the effort. Let us put our differences aside and come together for this common cause. The people look to us for leadership. Let us provide it.

The Malaysians and the Hong Kongers have demonstrated that political parties of different persuasions can band together to work for democratic change. Independent civil society organisations and bar associations have joined in the cause. Why not us?

Remember, the outcome will not just benefit the SDP but all opposition parties. Most of all it will benefit Singaporeans and this nation.

As a start, however, those who show up on Sunday will be the ones to help get the initiative off to a start. I am reminded of what Margaret Mead once said: "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." Let's not wait for the next guy to do what we all know to be our noble duty. Let me relate to you a little story:

There were four people who had a very important meeting to attend. The meeting would determine the fate of their careers. All four anxiously anticipated the meeting. When the day came, the four excitedly put on their smartest business attire and raced to the car that was going to take them to the meeting downtown. They all hopped into the car ready to proceed.

They then realised that no one was in the driver's seat. They turned and looked at each other, waiting for the other to drive. All four knew the route and were willing to act as navigators. But everyone was afraid that they might incur a traffic violation which would ruin their personal careers. Worse, the driver might get involved in an accident and end up having to pay for damages. And so they waited, no one wanting to assume the responsibility. Night came and all four were still in the car waiting and wishing that someone would drive. Finally they gave up, went home. No one attended the meeting.

TOC: Have you spoken to any of the other opposition parties' leaders about election reform? What are their views?

Dr Chee: There is not an opposition member or leader whom I've spoken to that does not realize how stacked up the elections are against us. If you've been through an election and experienced first-hand how the PAP dictates and manipulates the process, you cannot but come to one and only one conclusion.

TOC: In the SDP website, it is stated: "Reform of our election system is a matter that concerns not just political parties but also civil society, lawyers, academics, journalists, etc – in other words, all citizens of this country." What can these non-political groups, organizations or individuals do? Do you see their participation and involvement as vital to the success of the reform agenda?

Dr Chee: As I mentioned earlier, everyone's participation in the effort is crucial. There is no one segment of society that can afford to say, "I'm not interested in politics." Elections concern all of us, our future, and our children's future. As to what non-political party groups and individuals can do, we are limited only by our creativity on how we go about tackling the problem.

At the forum we would like to propose the formation of a committee to spearhead the reform effort. I cannot stress enough how important it is that this committee encompasses a broad spectrum of society including political parties, NGOs, academics, members of the legal fraternity, bloggers and private individuals. What should be the task of such a committee? We will leave it to be discussed at the forum itself.

TOC : Are there any plans for other activities or events, besides the public forum on Sunday, to further the effort?

Dr Chee: This forum is intended to be the beginning of a process that needs to develop in a logical and systematic manner into a fully-fledged campaign. The activities and events organised will, of course, be determined by the leaders of the reform effort.

TOC: Are you of the view that ordinary Singaporeans' involvement, particularly the heartlanders, is important as well? How do you hope to engage them in this?

Certainly. Without their support how can the effort succeed? But before we can engage the people, the leaders must first get our act together. If we are able to do this, we can reach out to them and get them on board. But first things first, let's meet on Sunday and the rest will follow.

TOC: What is your view on the Workers' Party election reform suggestions contained in its 2006 election manifesto?

Dr Chee: I think they are excellent ideas and I commend the WP. They are similar to what the SDP (http://www.singaporedemocrat.org/manifestopolitics.html) and, I suspect other parties, have also proposed. Back in 2000 Jeyaretnam and I, when we formed the Open Singapore Centre, published Elections in Singapore: Are the Free and Fair? in which we made similar proposals. I have also written about them in my books.

But let us be absolutely clear. Making suggestions for change is very different from taking pro-active and concrete measures to bring about change. As long as we leave our views in the pages of our manifestos, nothing will change.

The PAP will continue to amend the rules, introduce new ones, intimidate and bribe the voters so that the elections are never a genuine reflection of the people's voice. Our manifestos will then forever remain as beautifully written, but ultimately academic, pieces of literature prettifying the archives of the National Library.

TOC: Personally, you have been and are disallowed from contesting the elections in Singapore. Do you hope to contest again? Is winning parliamentary seats important to or is a priority for the SDP?

Dr Chee: My personal situation is not the issue. The issue is that our society desperately needs an electoral process that can change the very many problematic policies that beset us. Without free elections, these problems will be like infected sores that will eventually turn malignant, if they haven't already.

Naturally as a political party, winning elections are important to the SDP. We can best serve the people by changing the policies as parliamentarians. However, given the present situation, our first priority must be to fight for free and fair elections and to empower Singaporeans so that they can vote and speak up without fear. (We've explained this more clearly here http://www.singaporedemocrat.org/howwesucceed.html)

In this context, whether I or my colleagues (Siok Chin and Gandhi Ambalam are also barred) contest in elections in the future is secondary to the issue of political reform.

When that time comes, when the parties are truly free to campaign for votes and the people are not fearful to vote for whichever party they choose, I have every confidence that the Singapore Democrats, with our policies and the quality of our candidates will gain the support of our fellow Singaporeans.

Until then, it is superfluous to talk about seats in Parliament. So what if the SDP or WP or SDA wins a GRC? What's to prevent the PAP from revising the rules to grab it back? When that happens, ten years will have passed and nothing will have changed. How has that helped the hundreds of thousands of long-suffering Singaporeans labouring under unthinking PAP policies?

I read the story of the Three Little Pigs to my children and it never fails to strike me that, as simple as it is, the moral of the story is often forgotten by us adults. And what is this moral? Delayed gratification. Build your house on solid foundation. It may take a little longer but if we put in effort and make the sacrifices to lay a solid foundation, we will not be blown away when adversity visits. Let us get our foundation of elections in place before we start talking in earnest about winning seats.

TOC: What are your expectations about this – what, in your view, are the chances that the government will institute the reforms which the SDP is calling for?

Dr Chee: As I mentioned, no government will voluntarily institute changes to allow their power to be eroded. The people must demand it. We must press for it. The reality is that the PAP, like all authoritarian regimes, respond only to power, not suggestions from the feedback unit.

It is not wishful thinking, nor is it braggadocio when I say this: Change will come. The question is when and how. If we persist, if we have the courage and the fortitude, if we have our hearts in the right place, change is inevitable.

We must have hope. We must believe in ourselves that we can make the change. We must get rid of the mentality that we are powerless. I have said this before and I will say it again: The biggest struggle is not against the PAP, it is against what the PAP has done to our minds. Once we break the mental shackles of fear and helplessness, half our battle is won. Believe.

TOC: Is election reform going to be a regular feature in the SDP's agenda?

Dr Chee: We have every intention to continue calling for election reform. But more importantly we will also be part of a bigger group (if such a group is established) playing our role along with everyone else to bring about electoral reform.

TOC: Lastly, what specifically are the reforms which the SDP is calling for? And what are the counter-proposals or alternatives that the SDP would like to put forth?

Dr Chee: I would like to leave the discussion of proposals to the forum proper with the participants and speakers on Sunday. Let me, however, say this in closing: Failure comes not when we don't achieve our goals; it comes when we don't try. We must not fail.

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