Chee Soon Juan: We do not have political rights

~ By Chee Soon Juan ~

I refer to the article published on your site, "Dr. Chee should be permitted to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum" by Ghui. I quote the following paragraphs:

Whether Dr. Chee’s views are right or wrong is not the point. The point is that he was willing to speak his mind when many people would not have. Perhaps he was needlessly antagonistic but again, that is a separate issue altogether.

Dr. Chee spoke out, was deemed defamatory and made bankrupt in the process. People have speculated that the defamation suits were but a means to discredit a dissenting force. But again, that is a topic for another day. Rightly or wrongly, Dr. Chee has inherited the mantle of “poster child for what not to do in politics” from JBJ and by so doing, is perceived as a martyr for freedom of speech, a subset of human rights.

These two paragraphs in Ghui's piece, 'Dr. Chee should be permitted to attend the Oslo Freedom Forum', reinforce a perception that needs to be addressed. The paragraph starts off with: “Whether Dr Chee's views are right or wrong is not the point.”

But it is. It is the point that we are not a democracy, it is the point that our rights have been taken away, and it is the point that many of our problems today stem from the fact that we do not have political rights and therefore cannot change policy and/or the ruling party.

Whether I am right or wrong is the point. If I am wrong then the PAP is right. On this point, Singaporeans must take sides. We must make up our minds about what we want: A free and democratic country with Singaporeans enjoying their rights in a multi-party system or continued one-party rule.

It is also important to note that these are not my views but the fundamental freedoms that are written into our country's constitution as well as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteed to all Singaporeans.

These freedoms are not academic concepts; they are the very tools that the people use to protect ourselves from government overreach and policies that work against our interest.

Without our human rights – which include our political rights and civil liberties – we cannot address the bread-and-butter issues that affect our everyday lives.

Let me cite a concrete example. More than ten years ago, my colleagues and I in the SDP saw the problem that was developing from the PAP's Foreign Talent policy. We had warned that the influx of foreign workers was suppressing wages and unfairly penalising Singaporeans in the job market.

To counter the PAP's policy, we put forward the Singaporeans First policy as well as introducing a minimum wage law. We even made these our campaign platform in the 2001 general elections.

But because we did not have the freedom of assembly, we could not communicate our policies and the reasons for them, to the people directly. And because we did not, and still don't, have freedom of the media (which is another political right) our warnings were effectively censored from public discussion and debate.

These restrictions on our democratic rights allowed the PAP to cast the SDP and our policies aside and, worse, to distract the attention of Singaporeans away from its immigration and wage policies. In the intervening decade the government flooded Singapore with foreign workers, giving rise to the socio-economic predicament with which we are saddled today.

The inescapable truth is that we can't have economic rights without human rights. It is a false choice that the PAP has forced upon us. Tragically, many Singaporeans fell for the ruse and sacrificed our political rights for economic gain, leading us to the present situation where we are both politically emasculated and economically in a precarious state.

Human rights are important in and of itself. It allows us to live in dignity, respect and compassion. But an equally important reason why we fight so hard for human rights in this country is this: To protect the economic well-being of Singaporeans. I repeat, human rights is not an airy-fairy concept reserved for the chattering class but a practical weapon that ordinary citizens like you and me use to protect ourselves against unjust policies.

Ghui also mentioned that the late J B Jeyaretnam and I were “needlessly antagonistic” and therefore became the “poster child for what not to do in politics.” Unfortunately, the reference point upon which such a subjective notion is assessed has very much been set by the PAP.

The idea that human rights cannot make us rich, that protests will cause pandemonium, that democracy is a Western concept unsuited to Asians is one that has been pounded into our consciousness by the PAP over the decades.

It is based on such a mind-set that the ruling party has portrayed Jeyaretnam and I as destructive and confrontational forces who must be stopped. This is contrasted with other types of opposition that are “moderate” and, therefore, more acceptable by the ruling party.

Singaporeans must see through the PAP's agenda because it knows that the most effective way to hold on to political power is to deny Singaporeans their democratic rights and the most effective way to deny the people their rights is to demonise those who advocate these rights.

Its punitive actions of defamation suits and criminal prosecutions against legitimate political speech and activities must be seen in this light. More importantly, it must not be used as a yardstick by which opposition leaders are judged on what is necessary and what is needless antagonism, and on what to do and what not to do in politics.

I hope that some of these notions about human rights and the kind of opposition we should have can be corrected. Nevertheless, I thank Ghui for an insightful article and TOC for publishing my response in full.