Chee Soon Juan Interview – The Man and his Beliefs – Part III

By Leo Khaw

This is part 3 of a 4 part series –

Part I:      Chee spoke about his brand of politics and why he chose a different strategy from the other opposition parties. Part In this part, we cover about his views on the judiciary.

   Part 2:     Chee’s views on the judiciary and his moral consciousness.

Part 3:     Is democracy a western philosophy or a Universal Principle? Can it be applied to Asian countries? Is there any evidence of Asia having practiced democracy in its early civilizations?

Part 4:     What is the meaning of being socially liberal? Where Chee and SDP stands in their economic philosophies

Is Democracy a western philosophy or a universal principle?

Is democracy a western philosophy or a basic human right? Can Singapore have its own version of democracy, one that has no underpinnings with the Westminster or the US system of governance? A quick check on our parliamentary website claims that we are modelled after the Westminster system.  Yet, from time to time, Lee claims that a one party system will be best suited for Singapore. Lee has modelled PAP after Shell Corp, the Oil and Gas Corporation from the Netherlands. But, we are a country and not a corporation. Can such a corporatized system replace a full functioning democracy? I have heard PAP stalwarts claim that democracy is a western philosophy. Is there any truth to this?

Historical records show that Ancient Greece was the first civilization to have practised democracy. In 1215 AD, the emergence of Magna Carta was a milestone for democracy for Britain and Scotland. Democracy seems to have thrived in the west and is widely adopted as the universal principle for human rights.  It is also noteworthy to mention that there are also anecdotal evidence of the practice of democracy in the ancient civilisations of India and China. Now, Asian countries, with the exception of North Korea, China and Myanmmar have adopted a form of democracy.

Singapore is a democracy in form but not substance. There is a distinct disconnect. We recite the pledge, and pledge to be democratic, but in essence we are far from it. We have “free and fair” elections, but not a free media and other apparatus of the state are said to be controlled by the government.  If democracy was about the ‘rule of many,’ Singapore’s version of democracy is about the rule of “the elite.”

Let’s not forget that it was the democratic nationalistic slogan for self-determination and self-rule that propelled the PAP into power. Yet, after gaining a foothold, the PAP abandoned democratic systems for a more “efficient” authoritarian one.  


LK:          You claim that democracy is a universal principle but it started in the west, in Greece in fact. Some say that Singapore has its own version of democracy. So what is the fuss that we don’t have democracy?

CSJ:        Because that’s not how it started. Popularly, democracy was thought to have been started in Ancient Greece because the word itself is derived from Greek. But if we look at history, the Sumerians, one of the earliest civilisations, came together in groups and voted for what they wanted. And then it spread to Persia and then to India. Even when you look at ancient historical records of China, although the Emperor claims the mandate of heaven, if the people were dissatisfied, they could sound the drum or gong outside the palace to call for the Emperor’s attention. These are primitive forms of democracy but nonetheless hold the idea that people participate in their own governance.

  This seed of what democracy is rooted very much in ancient cultures. Democracy did not  start in the West but had its roots in Asia.


LK:          Mahatir said in his book, ‘The Doctor in The House’ that it took westerners 1000 years to get democracy right. Young Asian countries such as Singapore are about 50 years into democracy. Yet, you expect the same standards. Why?

CSJ:        That is a fallacy. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years to build up. For instance, Facebook took only about 3 years to hit success and Zuckerberg became a billionaire. If GE (General Electric) took decades to build up, does that mean that Zuckerberg must also take so long to achieve success? No.

Because technology has allowed information to be disseminated around the world so quickly, this has led to a quickening of political change and people now want a share in power and their own governance. In this day and age, information is at our fingertips, so everybody reads the same information and how does that make someone more enlightened than the next person?


LK:          Lee says that a two party system will not work in Singapore. Why do we have elections every five years if he thinks that one party system works best for Singapore? Can’t we just cut to the chase and get on with our lives, focus on material progress and that kind of stuff?

CSJ:        That remark says it all, doesn't it? It belies all the tears, all the apologies during the last elections. What about the comments about buying support and fixing the opposition? And there's Mr Lee Kuan Yew saying that the army would be called in in a "freak" election.

We have to keep on working to makes gains on the electoral front. At the same time, however, we must continue to push for the people's constitutional right to assemble peacefully. History shows repeatedly that genuine, long-lasting democratic reform cannot and does not come from elections alone and that without a broad coalition of civil society and opposition pushing for change, change will not come. An election in an undemocratic system legitimises the ruling party and its claims to have a mandate. Suharto did it in pre-reformasi Indonesia, Hosni Mubarak held regular elections in Egypt when he was in power, and so did Ferdinand Marcos – just to name a few examples.

But if the PAP is stuck in the mind-set of trying to control the mass media and changing election laws to its advantage – not to mention bringing in naturalised citizens to counter-balance those born and bred here – then it is dangerously underestimating the political mood of the people. When the situation turns bad, even it will not be able to control political developments. Sadly, that's the tragedy of autocratic governments: they are myopic and self-absorbed. 

This is why Singaporeans cannot just focus on material progress. If anything we must push even harder to educate the people, civil society and opposition leaders must come together to strategize and plan the way forward. If we don't, we may not have anything material to make progress on.


LK:          Can political competition create a level playing field, where an individual not from the ruling class have a say in the overall direction of this country? If yes, what do we need to do?

CSJ:        If we – meaning everyone who wants to see political reform in Singapore: bloggers, activists, opposition politicians, professionals, ex-ISA detainees, etc. –  demonstrate political will to level the playing field, then we will have a level playing field. But achieving change is not a spectator sport; it necessitates the people actively working for it. 

The first step, which is always the hardest, is to acknowledge that without coming together in solidarity for change, there can be no change. If we are able to take this first step, we have the makings of an intelligent and peaceful movement that will ultimately bring about change.

Step two: acknowledge and confront our fears. Don't let it freeze us into inaction. You'll be surprised how quickly fear dissipates when we act against it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Our biggest fight isn't against the PAP; it is against what the PAP has done to our minds.

Step three: organise a get-together to discuss strategy and next steps.

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