Democracy fails Singapore battler

  Age, Melbourne
November 10, 2001


CHEE Soon Juan is an improbable candidate for the role of Singapore's public enemy No.1 - a person whom no less an authority than Lee Kuan Yew has declared to be a liar, a fraud and a cheat. He is a gently spoken and thoughtful man who looks more like the university academic he once was than a lurking menace to his country's future.

"When they run my picture in the newspapers you expect to see horns growing out of my head," says the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. "I don't blame people for not voting for us. If I relied for my information on the newspapers here I wouldn't vote for me either."

When Dr Chee joined Singapore's beleaguered opposition a decade ago he was prepared for a fight, but not for the destruction of his career and reputation that soon followed. Now he faces the prospect of financial ruin - the latest in a long line of opposition figures threatened with bankruptcy by being sued for defamation by the power elite.

Last weekend Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party scored one of the most emphatic victories in its unbroken 42 years in power. Re-elected before the first ballot was cast - with 55 seats uncontested - the party captured 75 per cent of the vote in the rest to claim a total of 82 seats in the 84-member parliament and another five-year term.

The result - in the midst of the island state's worst economic downturn in 30 years and with mounting job losses - was a fresh humiliation for the disparate clutch of small parties that constitute what passes for an opposition in Singapore. Two opposition MPs who sat in the old parliament scraped back with reduced margins - narrowly denying Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong his ambition of a "clean sweep". In most countries, the inevitability of such a decisive election result would have afforded a degree of magnanimity towards the hapless adversary, if not a willingness to share at least a slice of spoils. Not in Singapore.

The government fought a campaign as tough and merciless as if the result hung on a knife edge. The snap election - not due until later next year - was called just days after the announcement of a A$12 billion economic stimulus package that included tax rebates, new infrastructure projects and cash hand-outs to citizens. The campaign was kept to the statutory minimum of nine days. The many Singaporeans who live in public housing estates were again warned that their flats would not be refurbished and their districts would be disconnected from the nanny state's drip if they voted the wrong way. Opposition candidates were given their usual short shrift in the government-owned and controlled media.

The electoral system remains heavily stacked in the government's favor. All but nine of the seats are grouped in multiple constituencies where the winner takes all and every candidate must post a $14,500 deposit that is forfeited if they garner less than 12.5 per cent of the vote. A redistribution of electoral boundaries announced a day before the election was called further strengthened the PAP's hand.

But it was an encounter before polling day that came to dominate the campaign, sealed the opposition's fate and demonstrated how thin-skinned democracy in Singapore is.

Chee Soon Juan was campaigning at a hawker food centre in the industrial suburb of Jurong when his SDP group stumbled into a PAP crowd led by Prime Minister Goh. Unable to "out shout" the others, Dr Chee trailed the PM yelling questions about a A$19 billion loan he claimed was secretly offered to Indonesia in the dying days of the Suharto regime. Mr Goh said nothing, but his answer came two days later - a writ for defamation. If suggestions of political impropriety in the heat of an election campaign are grounds for litigation in Singapore, they paled against the invective hurled back at Dr Chee.

Mr Lee denounced him as a "political gangster" and "a liar and a cheat" and challenged the opposition leader to counter sue. "A man who does not challenge that is admitting he's a liar and a cheat," he said. "We've got to expose him as a fraud, as a liar, as a cheat. Then he will find that he is useless to his external and foreign manipulators who are paying for all this."

And there was more. "He's completely slippery, tricky, a liar, a flawed character," Mr Lee told a PAP rally, before issuing a threat to voters who might be foolish enough to support Dr Chee. "If they vote for him, they'll have five years of misery because in five years we'll demolish him."

After several days of such headlines, even Mr Goh felt enough was enough. "I would suggest that all of us put the Dr Chee episode, at most to a small column on the inside page and come back to the main issues: jobs, jobs, jobs," he said, on the eve of the poll. The Straits Times dutifully complied.

Chee Soon Juan has already paid dearly for rocking the political boat in Singapore. Within months of joining the opposition in late 1992 he was sacked from his post at the National University of Singapore - where he taught psychology - on the pretext of misappropriating funds. The amount concerned, about A$250 spent on courier services, had been spent months earlier without question and with the authorisation of a senior colleague. Dr Chee has not worked since then. He is now a full-time volunteer for the SDP, supporting his young family on what he can earn from sales of his political books. He lives in a rented flat, doesn't own a car and can't afford a mobile phone.

"Basically I live from hand to mouth. Where will I find this money? Even if they just wanted $10,000 I couldn't pay it. Where do we go from here if every time you ask a question you risk getting sued?"

His attempt to defuse the situation by offering a published apology has failed. Now Mr Goh and Mr Lee say they intend to proceed with legal actions to remedy the patent damage to their reputations. The odds do not favor Dr Chee.

Mr Lee is regarded as the most successful defamation litigant in history. In nine actions since the 1970s he has been awarded damages of more than A$3 million by the courts, and hundreds of thousands more in out-of-court settlements.

Amnesty International has condemned the increasing use of Singapore's courts to crush political opposition. "The misuse of defamation suits by PAP leaders has contributed to a climate of self-censorship in Singapore and restricted the right of those Singaporeans with dissenting opinions to participate freely and fully in public life," Amnesty said.

In July veteran opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam was declared bankrupt, and thereby barred from politics and his legal profession, after failing to meet a deadline on repayments in a defamation action won by Mr Lee, Mr Goh and a clutch of other government leaders. It was the last in a series of actions the former Workers Party leader estimates have cost him more than A$2 million.

Despite the threat now hanging over his head, Chee Soon Juan remains determined to fight for a more open and democratic future in Singapore.