voice of reason
by Alison Nadel
SINGAPORE'S opposition leader, Chee Soon Juan has paid a heavy price for his career in politics.
Since joining the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 1992, he has lost his job, his house, his car and his savings. He has been called a cheat, a compulsive liar, and a traitor.
Were this not enough, January's general elections spelled further disaster: Dr Chee's SDP, until then Singapore's main opposition force, lost all of its seats.
Dr Chee believes his story says much about Singapore. He argues that his experiences shed light on the realities of Singapore's political system.
And that they contain lessons for Hong Kong, particularly as Singapore is frequently cited as a post-1997 role model for the territory.
During a visit to Hong Kong in February, Dr Chee warned of the dangers of adopting the Singaporean model of government and stressed the importance of preserving Hong Kong's existing political freedoms.
He also met with democratic politicians, trade unionists and human rights activists in the hope that they could learn from his difficulties.
The Singapore government's treatment of its political opposition has attracted international criticism.
Its tactics have been compared to attacking a mosquito with an atomic bomb.
Dr Chee chooses his words more carefully. A neuro-psychologist and university lecturer (until he was sacked), Dr Chee does not come across as a radical or even that much like a politician - he lacks the patter and seems too profoundly ethical.
He speaks neither with vehemence nor with anger, but instead with and air of despondency and exhaustion.
He points out that the opposition was not seeking to challenge the ruling Peoples's Action Party (PAP) 38-year reign.
The SDP won just three places at the previous elections in 1991 when opposition parties fielded candidates for less than half of the 83 parliamentary seats.
Dr Chee said the SDP simply wanted to provide an alternative voice in parliament. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said the PAP's overwhelming victory demonstrated his government's popularity to those who criticised its authoritarian style.
Voters had "rejected Western-style liberal democracy and freedom" and the concept of "putting individual rights over that of society", he said.
Analysts point to Singapore's booming economy and high living standards as further reasons for PAP support.
But Dr Chee claims Singapore's authoritarian style of government is not responsible for success in these areas.
"To have political openness and democracy does not mean you have to take a drop in GDP [gross domestic product] growth," says Dr Chee.
"Look at Hong Kong. It is testimony to the fact that an open society and freedom actually helps economic growth."
He and other opposition politicians argue that the PAP victory can be largely attributed to the fact that Singaporeans were told in no uncertain terms to vote for prosperity.
The government is now in the process of upgrading government-built and managed housing estates, where more than 80 per cent of Singaporeans own homes.
The PAP made it clear during campaigning that those precincts supporting their candidates would get the housing improvements, while Mr Goh suggested those who supported the opposition risked seeing their estates transformed into "slums".
The pro-government Straits Times newspaper summed up the choice: "What the people were left to contemplate was the impact which their votes would have on their everyday life - and that it would cost them if they were to vote for the opposition."
Dr Chee believes that voters in the January 2 poll were worried that by opposing the government they were risking more than the value of their property.
"In Hong Kong, people are much less dependent on the authorities," he explains.
"In Singapore, there are so may things that the government controls, not just the housing. Businesses need government-approved licences. The government has link to a vast range of companies, everything from shipping to child-care. Even the wealthy middle-class are looking over their shoulders. Unfounded or not, fear among the Singaporeans is very significant."
He describes a climate of fear: "The election ballot papers were serially numbered and some Singaporeans were absolutely terrified that their vote can be traced back to them. I don't believe the Government would do this. But the fear of it affects us in a major way. Right now everyone is so fearful."
Dr Chee warns that fear never makes a country strong. "I want my country strong so I try to put those feelings aside," he says.
"For me personally, the worst aspect is not knowing if I face financial ruin in the future or might make a mistake and end up in prison."
He is all to aware of the fate of Singapore's other leading opposition politicians.
Worker's Party candidate Tang Liang Hong is facing lawsuits filled by 11 different members of the PAP, including Mr Goh and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Tang is said to have defamed by saying they lied when calling him an anti-Christian Chinese chauvinist.
Worker's Party veteran J B Jeyaretnam faces eight defamation suits fled by the PAP.
He was disqualified from parliament for five years after being found guilty in 1986 of making a false declaration relating to party funds.
Dr Chee has not escaped legal action. A few months ago, he and three colleagues were fined S$51,000 (about HK$275,910) for presenting inaccurate healthcare data to a parliamentary committee.
And just before the poll, the party lost a S$120,000 defamation suit brought by its founder, Chiam See Tong.
Following dismissal from his university job five years ago - for "misusing" expenses - Dr Chee was sued for disputing accusations about him relating to the sacking.
He and his wife had to sell their house to meet the S$500,000 in costs and damages.
"I now have to be very careful with money and very, very careful what I say,: he says.
In fact, Dr Chee declines to comment on the Singapore government's recent spate of legal actions for fear of saying something that will get him sued.
He has managed to raise some money from the sale of his two books, Singapore My Home Too and Dare To Change.
Neither could be labelled incendiary: Dr Chee's political stance is not more extreme than to call for a fully democratic system, freedom of expression, and a climate that fosters independent thinking.
But even communicating his ideas through books has been a struggle. He had trouble securing a printer and found it almost impossible to get bookshops to sell his work.
Finally, Dr Chee took to the streets to sell them. "The sales went briskly but a lot of people were afraid to be seen buying copies," he says.
"Some people were worried they were being photographed." Dr Chee says it's hard for the Singapore Democratic Party to get its viewpoint across.
"I can't go the press," he explains. "I may have been on CNN or the BBC but the local television won't air my message. We tried selling videos but they were banned. We tried going on the Internet but were curtailed."
Dr Chee says the absence of genuine political debate in Singapore prompted his entry into politics and he stresses that the opposition has a vital role to play.
"You need an alternative voice to challenge Singaporeans to think for themselves," he says.
"To succeed in the 21st century, we can't afford just to rely on our cheap labour. We need to compete in terms in creativity and innovation. We need to encourage different ideas."
Despite myriad difficulties and setbacks, Dr Chee vows to continue to be Singapore's alternative voice.
"Financially, I have lost out," he says. "But I have gained 10 times over in terms of personal growth. I want to contribute to my home and have a say in its future."
Dr Chee's friends say he has a stubborn streak. He counters that it's more than simply being obstinate:
"You've got to be prepared to defend your beliefs." Asked what advice he had for Hong Kong on the issue of protecting its freedoms, he spoke without hesitation: "There are three things you must do. Fight, fight, fight."