When I was asked to review “Teacher, Thinker, Rebel, Why – Portraits of Chee Soon Juan”, I was worried. I didn’t have much time to read it properly, so would I be able to do the book justice? With the political landscape in Singapore more highly charged than ever (given that this is SG50 year and that Mr Lee Kuan Yew passed away recently), I wanted Dr Chee to be given a fair chance by Singaporeans.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The book was easy to read and I finished it in three hours straight. It is an amalgamation of essays written by numerous notable Singaporeans who have had the opportunity to get to know Dr Chee personally either as a friend or a work partner or in both capacities.
Like most Singaporeans, I have heard of Dr Chee but I cannot profess to know in detail what he stands for. Before the proliferation of the Internet, everything I have heard of him was negative. He was a confrontational rabble-rouser. He was a gangster, an unruly man who didn’t respect authority. The list goes on.
My opinion of Dr Chee only began to change when I chanced upon an interview he gave on YouTube. He was not at all the deranged man the mainstream media painted him out to be. On the contrary, he was logical, calm and methodical. That was when I really began to understand how much of an impact public character assassination can have. Even though I knew that the mainstream media could be biased, I realised that I was still insidiously influenced.
Indeed, a number of writers in this collection of essays have echoed similar sentiments and were surprised that the real Dr Chee was actually a personable, intelligent and reasonable man of sound mind. There is no clearer example of the pitfalls of a lack of free press as this.
It was very refreshing to see Dr Chee, not just as a political adversary of the PAP but as a man – a man with a beautiful family, a man who inspires the loyalty of friends who have had the privilege to really get to know the person behind the rumours, a man with ideals, a man with feelings, a man of fortitude and above all, a man who loves and is in turn loved.
Although there was a fair bit of repetition in some of the essays, I did learn a few things about Dr Chee’s contributions to the political landscape of Singapore. Beyond the high profile defamation suits and arrests, he played an important role in the setting up of Speakers Corner, the only place in the whole of Singapore where people could protest without a permit.
This was thought provoking to me because it made me think about things from a different perspective. Before this, Dr Chee’s brushes with the law distracted me. In between his hunger strike and protests, he had genuine causes to highlight but somehow, these were obscured by the trouble he landed himself in.
I became confused and distracted without even realising that I was – I remembered only the skirmishes with the law and not why. For me personally, the best part of the book was an understanding of why.
The politics of distraction are so easy to incite and this is a timely reminder of how important an independent press really is. There are two sides to every story and people have the right to make an informed choice. The calculated destruction of Dr Chee’s public image was truly a travesty that I hope technology can help undo.
This book is no big exposé but it does provide much food for thought on what it takes to bring change to Singapore. Whether Singaporeans agree with Dr Chee or not is a separate issue from our right to hear what he has to say and his right to say it. What was troubling was a denial of both by what can only be construed as state-sanctioned gagging.
Many including myself have in the past dismissed Dr. Chee as needlessly confrontational. However, the chapter by Wong Souk Yee quoted American Frederick Douglass, a former slave who was accused of being a troublemaker for fighting against slavery:
“Those who profess to favour freedom, and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without ploughing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
The book is engaging and thought provoking. While no battle cry to GE2015, it is certainly relevant for our present climate. As we turn 50, we do truly need a freer press and we do truly need to ask more questions of the system that we have taken for granted. It is not wrong to question authority. It is not subversive to have a peaceful protest. It is worrying that I actually thought so.
It is scary that being an intelligent (I hope so anyway) well educated Singaporean, I still fell for the character assassination without further introspection. Perhaps, I was more brainwashed than I thought. Are you?
“Teacher, Thinker, Rebel, Why – Portraits of Chee Soon Juan” was officially launched today and is available for sale from the Singapore Democratic Party’s website.