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Protesters expressing their displeasure about CPF

Response to Chee Soon Juan on the recent HLP fracas

By Jeremy Chen

I am a SDP party member who cannot help but disagree with Chee Soon Juan's position that we should just forgive Roy Ngerng, Han Hui Hui and co's bad behaviour because "freedom" means having the "freedom to make mistakes".

The gist of what he said is that we should let things be, "criticize if we must" and excuse the mistakes. Extremely low weight was placed on responsibility. Holding people responsible for their actions is a must, not something to be done "if we must".

I joined the SDP on the basis of line party members (i.e.: non-appointment holders who'd get no personal political mileage out of their work) walking the talk on rights advocacy and being sure to take responsibility for their actions (without the element of responsibility, civil disobedience is just lawlessness). As such, I believe that responsibility is central to the ideals of the party, and I don't think it's right to sacrifice it to support irresponsible behaviour on the part of "an enemy of our political foe".

To decide whether any behavior is something that might be lightly excused, we need to think of the nature of the behaviour. But note, first, that decent behaviour is something we expect even of children. Children might be excused if they behave disruptively (within limits). Certainly, more leeway might be given to children, but it's hard to justifiably excuse adults for deliberate bad behaviour.

As a point of comparison, Ho Ching is frequently attacked on the Internet (Tony Tan too) for large investment losses made on Singapore's reserves and lacklustre investment performance vis a vis index benchmarks. Are we going to excuse Ho Ching all the investment losses and the poor relative investment returns because she has no financial markets background (that we know of)? There being no reason to think she did not deliberately lose money or act irresponsibly, there seems to be an even stronger case to excuse Ho Ching for large investment losses and overall poor performance than Roy Ngerng and Co for lack of decency.

But RN and HHH have apologized, have they not? Unfortunately, we all know that talk can be very cheap. It's a well known and rather sad fact. Indeed, all the statements of "just apologize and survive to fight another day" is a reflection of how cheap talk is. One can say sorry, but actions are a better measurements of the character of a person.

Indeed, shortly after Ngerng, in his defamation case, (i) apologized to the PM, (ii) acknowledged defamation, and (iii) undertook not to repeat the defamation, he then (a) posted articles with similar content, (b) obscured the fact that videos he agreed to take down where still accessible (in particular, available to anyone in the world with the link), and (c) wrote e-mails to a recipient list that including many journalists and activists informing them of where they could get access to the aforementioned content. This is a simple illustration that talk can be very cheap. (Furthermore, with some individuals, there is an argument that their undertakings should be secured.) It is my personal view that RN, HHH and Co were only willing to apologize in response to public outrage so as to salvage political capital. There is no evidence whatsoever of contrition.

Some say lower standards apply because RN and HHH are "activists", not "politicians". Whether RN and HHH are politicians or not, that is not really relevant. But on a similarly irrelevant count, we should not be naïve about classifying people as politicians or activists. Look at the kind of things Ngerng says. Evaluate the language. Does he sound more politician or activist? How does he seem to be positioning himself? Be honest with yourself. Also, are activists excused from standards of decent behaviour? Bad behaviour by activists tars the causes they advocate. I do not think activists who value their causes would be willing to compromise on standards of decent behaviour.

We tend to be willing to be a little dishonest with ourselves when it comes to the wrongdoings of friends or "enemies of our enemies". We are more willing to forgive our noisy kid on the MRT while we complain bitterly about the noisy kids of other people. As human beings, that is an inescapable part of our nature that just is there. We just have to be aware of it and try to exert some control over it, or our nature will control us.

Some argue that PAP MPs who "unthinkingly piled on" should be criticized. They have a point, but it is not relevant to the misbehaviour of Ngerng and Co. The "wrongs" of the PAP MPs does not mitigate the behaviour of Ngerng and HHH.

As mentioned at the start, holding people responsible for their actions is a must, not something to be done "if we must". We should be more honest and apply standards fairly. Double standards are the root of cronyism and corruption. If the SDP is led down this path, maybe a SDP government would not be such a good idea after all. The SDP stands for ensuring the rights of Singaporeans, thus giving them a real say in government, that in turn enabling Singaporeans to promote the broad-based well-being of Singaporeans now and into the future. Underlying these goals has been a commitment to responsibility that is tightly linked to the focus on rights. By giving excuses for "friends", Chee Soon Juan erodes the moral position of the party. To me, this is a huge failure in leadership.

(Note: My position on these and related matters are not unknown to Chee Soon Juan and many others active in the SDP. This is not a "sudden strike" by a double-headed serpent. I would have been content to not speak out if he had not put forth that irresponsible position. Chee Soon Juan holds the Secretary General position in the SDP and what he says will likely be taken to be "the position of the SDP and its members". In writing this, I am trying to state that the SDP is a party of responsibility and that position Chee Soon Juan has taken is against party values. Winning "support" is meaningless if we do so by throwing out our values. I do not want the SDP to become tarred by association with egoistic demagogues who are quick to declare "historic moments" but who add nothing to the national conversation. I also see it as crucial that a certain group that Chee Soon Juan thinks as part of the party base does not become all of it.)

This article was first published on Jeremy Chen's Facebook page. See also the original statement by Dr Chee Soon Juan on the SDP website. TOC has received permission from both Dr Chee and Mr Chen to republish these.