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Speaking out in Singapore

Newsweek International. February 15, 1999.

        "The government is terrified of losing control, especially with a younger         generation pushing for more openness." - Chee Soon Juan.

Chee Soon Juan, 36, is secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party and a leader of the city-state's tiny opposition movement. A psychologist trained in America at the University of Georgia, Chee lost his teaching job at Singapore's National University in 1992 shortly after he became involved in opposition politics. He was accused by his department head of using university funds to mail an academic paper to the United States. After Chee alleged his dismissal was politically motivated, his boss won a defamation suit for $235,000.

Singapore is known for its rapid development and tight control over political and ultural activities; police can detain people indefinitely without charge, and opposition leaders have lost numerous libel suits filed by members of the long- ruling People's Action Party.

In December, hoping to prompt a public debate, Chee ignored a requirement under Singapore's Public Entertainments Act to get a speaking permit and made a political speech on a street corner in the business district. Last week, Chee went to prison for seven days rather than pay the $827 fine; he argues that the law requiring permits is unconstitutional because it contravenes his right to free speech. Chee will face charges this week for a similar offense.

He spoke with Newsweek's Dorinda Elliott a few days before being sentenced on Feb 2. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK (ELLIOTT): Why are you testing the government like this?

CHEE: I've been trying to find ways to campaign more effectively and get my message out to the people, but we've been meeting obstacles. Selling print newspapers you need a permit, so news vendors won't sell our party newspaper. The government has passed a law banning political videos. We can't put political information or biographies on our own Web site. Bookstores are too afraid to sell my book.

NEWSWEEK: What is your message?

CHEE: I see a need for the opposition to move to greater openness and democracy in this country. Somebody's got to do it. I cast my lot with the opposition, and I had no illusions that it would be smooth sailing.

NEWSWEEK: Are you concerned about the government's right to detain people without charge?

CHEE: I've repeatedly talked about this issue. The government should be held accountable. The government is terrified of losing control, especially with a younger generation pushing for more openness and more participation in the political process.

NEWSWEEK: It doesn't really look that way. There's lots of talk of openness in Singapore these days.

CHEE: The level of fear in this society is incredible. You walk down Orchard Road and you won't see it. It's all beautiful shopping malls. But try talking to Singaporeans. The university won't let me talk to the students. The students tell me, "We've been told not to talk to you." Even in Australia, Singaporean students are afraid. The government tells them not to organize political activities. If they continue, they will get blacklisted. Why does our government need to resort to such tactics? People are so terrified. They're afraid of losing their licenses or their jobs.

NEWSWEEK: Is it hard to run an opposition in such an environment?

CHEE: Looking for candidates is so difficult. One wife came to me crying, saying that if her husband runs for election, she will jump out the window. On the surface, the government says this is a democracy, and that it is an information hub. But underneath you find a rotten core of the entire system, which is run on fear.

NEWSWEEK: Can Singapore keep up in the Information Age?

CHEE: I don't see how we will be able to compete with the industrialised world. Ideas, innovation, creativity; these are exactly the things we need. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong tells people to be spontaneous. But he doesn't have the political will to rethink the way we are running the whole system.

NEWSWEEK: What's the downside? Singapore so far is doing relatively well economically.

CHEE: Because of all this political control, young people and professionals are leaving Singapore. They don't feel an intellectual or emotional bond to this country. It's just a place to make money.

NEWSWEEK: Why won't the government relax its controls?

CHEE: The government keeps trying to defend the propaganda that democracy will lead to economic decline. If that's the case, then why is Taiwan doing so well? And what about Australia?

NEWSWEEK: The government is talking about the need to open up and foster creativity, too.

CHEE: I don't see the political will to open up our society. The standard of journalism we have [here] is terrible. [Pro-government forces] control the media. It's impossible to have my views reflected in the press.

NEWSWEEK: What does the younger generation want?

CHEE: The younger generation is looking for more political space. For a long time, the government legitimised its authoritarian controls with continued growth. But sustainable economic development won't continue without our opening up as a society. A lot of people are wondering what will happen when [Senior Minister] Lee Kuan Yew passes on. When Singaporeans begin to have a free flow of information, they will want the government to be more transparent and accountable. There will be political change.

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