by: Joshua Chiang/
There were two moments in my life when I was exceedingly self-conscious purchasing from bookstores.
The first was when I had to buy a copy of the Kama Sutra as a wedding gift.
The second was when I purchased a copy of Dr Chee Soon Juan’s Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom: A democratic blueprint for Singapore.
Like many people then, I didn’t think highly of Dr Chee. What I knew about him was from the local newspapers and television. I thought his constant focus on human rights issue grating to my ears. I remembered gloating over his loss at the 1997 elections chanting something akin to a Hokkien expletive that also rhymes with ‘good-bye’. Above-all, I felt he was self-serving and attention-seeking.
Well he got my attention.
When I saw the book sitting on a shelf in the bookstore some time in 2003, I knew I had to read it. But little did I know how much of an effort it would be to simply walk over to the counter and pay for the book.
See, I was afraid that people would mistake to be a fan of Dr Chee. Or worse. A supporter of the Singapore Democratic Party. Those losers who only got 20% of the votes at the 2001 elections!? Not me! So I tucked the book under my arm, making sure that the cover faces inside, and made my way to the cashier, all the while rehearsing what I would say if the cashier asked me why I wanted to buy the book.
It was for research purposes. You don’t actually believe I was enamoured with Chee Soon Juan do you? Heh heh…
Of course, with the clarity of hindsight now, I realized what I was fighting back then was internalized fear. The inner policeman shaming me for even having a passing interest in what Lee Kuan Yew would call a political dud.
When I express disdain, even disgust with the strong words that Dr Chee used to describe the PAP, little did I know it was because I was afraid to feel the same emotions. It was the inner policeman saying that politics should be about pragmatic bread and butter issues. Not ideals.
If I were to be truly objective, there are probably many other people who have done more to shape Singapore’s socio-political landscape during the 2000s then Dr Chee. Workers’ Party Secretary General Low Thia Kiang, for instance, has probably done more than any other opposition politician to show that opposition parties can become credible alternatives. Or veterans Chiam See Tong and Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam for persevering even as they age caught up with them. Or even Lee Kuan Yew, who by his mere persistence in staying on as the Senior Minister, and then the Minister Mentor just goes to show how much overdue change is needed to the system.
But I was asked to write a personal piece, not an op-ed. And for me, Dr Chee had more of an impact on shaking me out of my political apathy than any of the above-mentioned.
Correction: it wasn’t so much a shake as it was a slap across the face, a dousing of ice-cold water on the head, a kick in the groin.
I finished Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom in one sitting. And when I finally closed the book, I wished I had not read it. I had never been a big fan of the Establishment but I had never really stopped to ask why.
What I felt towards the Establishment wasn’t even the kind of resignation that goes like: “Ok so we don’t exactly have this thing called democracy but at least we have safe streets and roofs over our head.” I simply acted as if the system never existed. It was much less painful for example, to accept that the press model we have in Singapore is a socially responsible press (which was what we were told by our university lecturer) instead of a State-controlled one even if its by a few degrees of separation. Ignorance is bliss, so they say. Unfortunately curiosity had always been my curse. Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom was my red pill moment. (It wasn’t the only one of course, in the subsequent years I would pop more red pills – The Hatchet Man, Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man, Lee’s Law, A Nation Cheated, Once A Jolly Hangman, etc)
Your Future wasn’t exactly Das Kapital. There wasn’t anything written inside that was truly shocking. But when I finished the book, I felt something towards the Establishment which I hadn’t felt since I first learnt that I couldn’t keep my hair long because of the annual In-Camp Training. (I wanted to be Bono then, and Bono had long hair).
I felt anger. I felt robbed. I felt I had to share the book with someone else so that they would know as well – which I did. I never got the book the back. Perhaps the borrower feeling the same as I did, passed it on to someone else.
My anger wasn’t so much caused by what Dr Chee wrote about the Establishment. But because of the lengths it would go through to deny people like Dr Chee or JBJ the platform to reach out to as many people as possible with what they had to say.
I remembered thinking, “Why can’t we decide for ourselves whether what they said makes sense or not? Why do you have to keep telling us that they’re dangerous people not to be taken seriously?”
But for a few years after that, I continued to hold a negative opinion of Dr Chee. I accepted that what he wrote made sense, but I still found his methods of engaging the State too confrontational. I thought he was wasting his time with all those civil disobedience stunts. I found myself wishing that he would just stop with the publicity gimmicks and tell the people what he wrote in his book, without realizing of course, that he couldn’t even if he wanted to.
But as those acts of dissent continued, something changed in how I viewed them. I stopped thinking, “Why are you doing this again?” and instead began wondering – how can the State treat its own citizen the way it treated Dr Chee?
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw an online video of how Dr Chee and his sister Chee Siok Chin were followed by two men throughout his round-island walk to raise awareness of poverty and underpaid workers in Singapore. I actually found myself feeling indignant for Dr Chee when he was stopped from starting a march from Speakers’ Corner at Hong Lim Park by the police who formed a human barricade around him. I thought it was remarkably petty how the State wouldn’t even allow a private screening of One Nation Under Lee – which didn’t exactly say anything new that people didn’t already know to begin with.
At some point, it dawned on me that Dr Chee must be doing something right for the State to be doing something so wrong.
It dawned on me too the reason why I disliked him so intensely in the past. It went beyond the media-portrayal of Dr Chee as a raving sociopath. JBJ and Chiam See Tong weren’t exactly darlings of the Establishment but back then they were talked about in a less derisive tone than Dr Chee was often spoken of. I remembered attending a dialogue session for young adults hosted by a Minister where one of the participants – a teacher – gleefully recounted how even her students thought Dr Chee was a laughing stock.
Dr Chee wasn’t just content to speak up for the people. He was the guy who constantly and deliberately ran into the electrical fence to remind us we were prisoners. I resented him for it because I would rather pretend the fence was there to keep us safe. You know that M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village? It is far more comforting to know “Those We Don’t Speak Of” were real and not the village elders dressed up in rubber suits.
I began visiting the SDP website Singapore Democrat – and got my first taste of alternative news. For someone whom by then had grown tired of making excuses for the mainstream media – I worked in Mediacorp for two years, and some of my friends were, and still are working at Singapore Press Holdings – it was the breath of fresh air I had been waiting for.
Years later, I found myself sitting face to face with Dr Chee at an ice-cream parlor a stone’s throw away from the SDP office. I had taken on the role of Editor-in-Chief for The Online Citizen (a post which I held until April this year) and one of the first tasks in preparation for the General Elections was a series of interviews with the leaders of the opposition parties. Naturally, I made sure I get to conduct the interview with Dr Chee. Dr Chee had intrigued, baffled and frustrated me for a good part of the last decade. It was time I got to ask him the questions I’ve always wanted to ask. More importantly, I wanted to give a fair representation of the man whom the mainstream media had vilified throughout most of his political career. When I finally published the interview (you can read it here), I added what the mainstream media would probably never publish – a picture of a smiling Dr Chee.
It was my own gesture of thanks for the red pill he had given me way back in the 2003.
Happy National Day, Dr Chee.
This article is part of a series where contributors were asked for their personal take on who shaped the decades. Dr Chee Soon Juan is the man who shaped the 2000s, according to this writer.