Oppositionist Chee tests limits
Inter Press Service Jan 26, 1999
HE IS no famous political dissident, but Chee Soon Juan has been something of a thorn in the Singapore government's side lately.
On Feb 1, Chee, secretary general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), will go on trial on two charges of violating the island's Public Entertainment Act, which requires police permits for political gatherings.
He will be tried for speaking at a public place without a license last month. Chee had defied police warnings and made public addresses at Raffles Place on Dec. 29 and Jan. 5, protesting the lack of freedom of speech in Singapore.
On Jan 21, he was barred by the police and authorities at his former university, the National University of Singapore, from addressing students. The former lecturer told foreign reporters the government was turning the National University into "the national kindergarten of Singapore."
By going ahead with public speeches, Chee is testing the limits of the laws on freedom of speech in a city state that keeps a tight watch over political dissent.
His campaign has elicited reactions ranging from "support to curiosity, and from indifference to disgust", as a report in the Straits Times newspaper said earlier this month.
Some groups say it is time for Singapore to loosen up on political controls, but others look askance at Chee's protests launched when the country is going through hard economic times.
If he continues his campaign calling for freer speech, Chee could face arrest under the Internal Security Act -- which like the Malaysian version is a legacy of British colonial rule and allows for detention without a trial.
Other dissidents before him have found themselves locked up for decades campaigning for similar freedoms. But Chee says "Confucius said the farthest journey of a thousand miles requires the first step and I'm just going to take that first step."
He argued that he was not violating any law because the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech.
Chee, a neuropsychologist by training, is not a stranger to the perils of opposition politics in Singapore.
In 1992, three months after he joined the SDP, he was forced out of his university teaching position and faced charges of defamation when he attempted to dispute his dismissal. He was forced to sell his home to pay legal costs.
The legal action now he faces from the police could result in his disqualification from running for parliament. "That system if I want to be a part of must be one that is just: must be one that is based on democracy with freedoms of speech, assembly and association guaranteed. I want to work towards that," he said.
"But before that can take place, it's going to be difficult for us to talk about elections. If I'm disbarred from elections, it goes to show how the system is manipulated," he said.
For the government, however, Chee broke the law and must be brought before the courts.
"He has defied the law and he has spoken in public without a Public Entertainment licence which is required under the law," Professor Ho Peng Kee, the home affairs and law minister, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
"The opposition would have to make its own mark in Singapore. The government is out there to help the opposition grow. But the point is Singaporeans don't want an opposition," he told the ABC.
Chee thinks otherwise: "For a long time this government has got away with the whole facade that this is a modern, sophisticated, progressive society. In fact it is a very repressive society with government controls in almost every aspect of our lives."
Writing in the Straits Times, journalist Cherian George and Zulfilki Baharudin, a nominated member of parliament, said that while Chee's track record is not the best, this does not make his points invalid. [Click here to read the ST article.]
"Whether the existing laws on speech and assembly are appropriate today, our own view is that the restrictions are too sweeping, and should be relaxed", they wrote.
Besides, they said: "Singapore society has developed by leaps and bounds since the (old) laws were written. Singaporeans are better educated than before, and have more to lose through anti-social behavior."
George and Baharudin were writing on behalf of Roundtable, a group for "policy discussion and civic education" that is barred from organizing fully public forums.
The government has long been uncomfortable with open challenges to it, which observers trace to Singapore's brand of paternalistic politics.
To questions about the lack of a vibrant opposition in Singapore, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has been quoted as saying the government tries to get as many people from "the middle ground" which would mean the marginalisation of the opposition.
People like Chia Thye Poh, who took on the system dominated by strongman Lee Kuan Yew 32 years ago, are well aware of the little room there is for open dissent.
Chia was elected in 1966 as a candidate on the Socialist Front ticket. Accusing Lee's People's Action Party (PAP) of harassing its leaders, the Socialist Front staged a boycott of Parliament. Soon after that, Chia was arrested and detained under the ISA.
In 1989, he was released onto Sentosa, now an island resort just south of Singapore, and kept in a small house. In 1991 he was allowed to be reunited with his family and today he remains banned from issuing any public statement. He cannot be a member of any organization, not even a chess club.
The government says freedoms do exist but add there are rules to prevent people taking liberties. "Speak to more Singaporeans. It is not true to say that there is no real freedom of speech in this country," Ho told the ABC.
Lawyer Joshua Jeyaratnam, however, disagrees. An unpaid legal bill after being found guilty of defaming Goh could force him into bankruptcy and out of parliament.
"What is forgotten or perhaps what is not known is that this state or island or city is a city of fear. You may not see it when you walk along the streets, but people live in fear. They live in fear of what the government may do if they should so much as step out of line," he said.
Published Jan 26, 1999