(18 May 2002)
Hi, I'm Lorraine Hahn. This week's show features Chee Soon Juan, a controversial Singapore opposition activist. The conversation was recorded a little earlier this year and includes his personal views and criticisms of the Singapore political system. CNN has extended an open invitation to the Singapore Government to respond and the Singapore officials reserve the right to do so. Now, here's TalkAsia with Chee Soon Juan.
Hahn: Welcome to TalkAsia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. This week, a man with plenty of experience of looking on the bright side. Chee Soon Juan has had his bad days as an opposition figure in Singapore politics. He was censured by Parliament in 1995, in connection with a US conference he attended and he was fined US$35,000 in 1996 over comments he made in a debate on health care costs. Dr Chee went to prison on two separate occasions for making public speeches in Singapore without a permit. And right now he is defending himself against two defamation suits by none other than Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He's accused of misrepresenting the two leaders he made about Singaporean financial assistance to Indonesia in 1997. So nowadays, opinions of Chee Soon Juan fall into two broad categories: some view him as an underdog who is paying his dues to bring about necessary political reforms in Singapore. And some view him as little more than a troublemaker with a flair for self-promotion. Well, Dr Chee Soon Juan is sitting right next to me here and we're going to spend the next half-an-hour getting an idea of why he does what he does.
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Hahn: Dr Chee, thank you very much for coming to the studio, appreciate your time. We'll talk about the suits with you later on in the show, we do have half-an-hour with you. Let me backtrack and ask you, you are a trained neuropsychologist. What made you get into politics?
Chee: Well, it had been on my mind and my heart for a long time. It all started they had this repugnant Graduate Mothers' Scheme where they said Lee Kuan Yew said that women who had university degrees could have more children and women who weren't graduates if you had had more than two children you would be penalized.
Hahn: Are you still practicing neuropsychology?
Chee: I need referrals from neurologists, neurosurgeons and those are hard to come by given the climate of politics in Singapore.
Hahn: You must be blacklisted by a number of people and a number of organizations.
Chee: Yes, being in the opposition in Singapore and a dissident in Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore is not going to put you in very good light with some of the members of society.
Hahn: So how do you make a living?
Chee: I sell my book. I've written a couple of books and I get down to the streets, in front of shopping centers and I hawk them. And from the income that I get, I make ends meet.
Hahn: That's tough.
Chee: It is but that's the way the government has forced its political opponents to do. It's important to continue to show this government that we're not giving up, that we continue to push, to continue to fight for democracy in Singapore.
Hahn: The party that you represent, do they give you contributions of some sort to help you in your life?
Chee: No, I depend very much on the proceeds of the books that I sell.
Hahn: When you say that you hawk your books in Singapore that means you can't legitimately sell them in Singapore bookstores.
Chee: The bookstores whether its Borders or Times or MPH, they're just too afraid to sell the books.
Hahn: Coming back again to this point, you've been sacked, you've been sued, you've been sent to jail, you've lost your job, I mean what makes you go on everyday? A hope?
Chee: I think you've got to manufacture hope, you've got to tell yourself that change will come one day. When you look at history, there's this unrelenting march towards democracy and I believe firmly that change will come to Singapore. It's just a matter of when and how.
Hahn: Do you have a guru or somebody that you look up to that will guide you or has guided you in the past in terms of your beliefs at the moment?
Chee: I look at some of the dissidents who have gone through difficulty, trials and tribulations, whether its Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Shih MingTe in Taiwan or Aquino in the Philippines, I think they all have a very strong message for humanity. And that is, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how repressive the government is, there is this spirituality about us that will not allow us to look the other way when injustice occurs, to pretend that nothing is happening when the poor are being oppressed, that I think is what I look up to and hope to continue the fight.
Hahn: You say poor. Singaporeans, many of them, aren't really considered poor.
Chee: You'd be surprised to know that just in the last couple of weeks - would you believe it if I told you that two thousand families are so poor that they cannot even send their children to school? We've had many of these cases. It's just that in an authoritarian system where the media is not free to report on these things, a lot of matters go unreported and when the opposition or civil society isn't in a position, are hampered by the government to such an extent that we cannot take up some of these issues. If you look at Singapore the income disparity continues to widen. You keep talking about First World GDP per capita income, very little (sic) people know that workers are paid Third World wages. That's not acceptable.
Hahn: Its just seems from consensus and by what we read that most Singaporeans are pretty comfortable with the lifestyle that they have attained and the standard of living that they have.
Chee: It's going to be hard for us to come to an accurate assessment when you haven't got a means of when the elections are the way that they are in Singapore when everything is so completely controlled by the this government, its just not going to be possible to get an accurate picture of what's going on.
Hahn: Dr Chee, let me just toss you an email from Adelaide on Singapore. He or she would like to ask you what was it like to be behind bars?
Chee: It's the long hours that grates on your mind like sand on silk. I wouldn't want to go back there again, it's not something that you look forward to but if its something that needs to be done so that you can bring freedom to your country, that you can begin to engage the government on these political issues, then so be it.
Hahn: Dr Chee, we're going to take a short break. Stick around, TalkAsia will be right back.
Hahn: This is TalkAsia. We're talking with Chee Soon Juan. He's a controversial opposition figure in Singapore. Dr Chee you are presently, as I mentioned earlier, facing two defamation suits, one form Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the other from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Forgive for asking but do you really think you can win?
Chee: It's a question that would put me into a lot of trouble if I answered you honestly. I'd rather your viewers pay attention to this case and see for themselves when it comes up.
Hahn: Dr Chee, you've got yourself into trouble as well for speaking at the Speakers' Corner about religion when you shouldn't have. Just for the benefit of our viewers very briefly, where is Speakers' Corner, what is it and were you really doing that, speaking about religion when you shouldn't have?
Chee: It all started off when I gave these couple speeches in Singapore for which I was imprisoned for my efforts. Speakers' Corner came about because of that. And now, the government has decided to reserve this little park in the middle of the Central Business District and call it Speakers' Corner, modeled on the Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park in London but with the difference that if you want to go and speak, you have to, number one, register your name, two, you're not allowed to use any voice-enhancement instruments, microphones, bullhorns, what have you, and, three, you're not allowed to speak on religious topics. And so what happened I went down to the Speakers' Corner to talk about this issue of Malay schoolgirls being banned from school for wanting to wear their headscarves when in fact students of other religious faiths are already wearing-for example Sikh boys wearing turbans. It was a human rights issue. We were denying these girls of their right to an education. I had spoken on that and I had called for racial harmony, I called for tolerance, I called for the Chinese to speak up for Malays, and for the Malays to speak up for the Chinese. It's the only way we going to be able see genuine racial harmony and social cohesion.
Hahn: And this obviously is very important. At that time I understand - because we were in Singapore - is when Senior Minister Lee was very conscious of the fact that racial harmony after September 11.
Chee: That's the problem because the government continues to want to link terrorism to this headscarf issue when they shouldn't because they are completely separate issues. What's wrong with the parents of these schoolgirls wanting their children to put on these headscarves? The point I was trying to make is that as long as we going to put this issue in such a manner, we going to alienate the Malay community from the Chinese community when in fact we should be going the other way. So they accuse me of talking about religion. I challenge them, I say you've got my script, the text, it's under investigation. If you've got the evidence charge me. Otherwise issue an apology.
Hahn: This is definitely a controversial debate. You know I was recently in Singapore and I did speak with Senior Minister Lee. He told me a number of things. One of them in particular was, he really does ask for advice - apparently - from people who may disagree with him. So that might show that he is pretty open to suggestions and comments.
Chee: The last time I spoke on CNN there was another interview that he was on. He said, "Which law should I abolish?" I came on a subsequent program and said that we still have this problem of detention without trial. Why don't we abolish that? Nothing has happen yet. It's this façade of wanting to let the whole world know how the authoritarian regime is progressive and moving with the rest of the world when in fact it's still putting a lot of legislation to cripple the growth of democracy, the advancement of the opposition in Singapore. It's just a façade.
Hahn: I'm sure the officials are obviously going to denied that...
Chee: I'm sure. I'd be surprised if they didn't.
Hahn: and debate you on that, Dr Chee. In terms of the opposition party, do you think you have helped or hindered the party in its growth potential, growth prospects in Singapore?
Chee: I don't know. All I know is that we've got to address the issues when they come. And when issues come along I think we'd be derelict of our duty if we didn't speak up on them and provide alternatives - constructive alternatives. And we have. Some of these alternatives, the government has - on education for example - the government has adopted and blatantly not acknowledged the fact that the Singapore Democratic Party actually came up with these alternatives.
Hahn: Is there any cohesion between your party and other oppositon parties, do you guys work together?
Chee: We're certainly on good terms and we continue to focus on some the same issues. But of course we have to do what we believe is right and they'll have to take their own courses of actions.
Hahn: Dr Chee in one of the articles that I read, there was apparently a poll taken and it read that nine out of ten people did not respect what you were doing and they accused you of using attention-seeking tactics to garner support. Your reaction?
Chee: In a situation such as Singapore's where the media is so controlled, things that I say only gets reported when the government wants it to. For example, my speech on this issue on religious harmony at Speakers' Corner - complete black out. How are Singaporeans going to know what my arguments are and why I'm doing and what I'm doing? There's just no way to get independent information. It's sad when you look at the situation where public opinion can be so manipulated. It is dangerous, it is very dangerous.
Hahn: So you deny that you are a self-promoter?
Chee: I'm going to have to promote the issues that I think are important. If I wanted to promote myself, this will be a very silly way of doing it, getting sued and then going to prison. Some of these things you just don't do it for yourself. It's important to draw attention but to the right thing, to the issues rather than to yourself.
Hahn: Okay, Dr Chee. Another short break, we'll be right back with Singapore opposition figure Dr Chee.
Hahn: This is TalkAsia. We are in the final moments with my chat with Chee Soon Juan. He's been sued, imprisoned and fined in his years of involvement with opposition politics in Singapore. Dr Chee, this question of the week comes from Jeremy of Hong Kong. He asks, has your opinion of Hong Kong changed since 1997?
Chee: I've just heard from some of my democratic-minded friends here that they are worried about some of the developments here in Hong Kong and the recent elections of the chief executive isn't exactly what we would call democratic. And I think these are worries as a democrat pushing for democracy not only in Singapore but hoping to see more democratic space not only in Singapore but hoping to see more democratic space in Asia to be worried about, to be concerned about.
Hahn: Now, before Hong Kong was handed back, you warned that Hong Kong should not follow the Singapore governmental system.
Chee: Well, you look at the situation and just talking about the economy. Singapore has to go the other way, that is, to loosen up. We are going to have to compete in ideas, innovation and creativity and an authoritarian system is just not going to cut it. And if Hong Kong thinks that it is going to show progress by going the way of Singapore, then I say good luck.
Hahn: Dr Chee, you'd obviously garnered a lot of interest with your beliefs but how much support, grassroots support, do you think you have?
Chee: You know, a little while ago you mentioned about this survey of how most Singaporeans don't agree with what I do. My first question is where does this survey come from and who is conducting this survey? And it is this whole manipulation and control of this system that this government wants to put across, very stage-managed and getting people to think that, 'well, you know, it is the opposition, don't go there.' But in my own personal experience, I get a lot of people coming to us and talking to us and saying that we really need to see more openness in Singapore and more debate, political debate. And they are very concerned as far as their own well-being is concerned. We get a lot of support in that area. So I think the government is clearly worried, otherwise they won't be going to the extent that they are doing right now to stifle any kind of growth of the opposition.
Hahn: Do you think Singaporeans are scared to voice their opinions while in Singapore?
Chee: That's an understatement. That's an understatement. Let me give you, if you want a survey - 93 percent of Singaporeans have indicated that they are fearful, that they were afraid to speak up even if they didn't agree with government policy.
Hahn: Ok, we're going to ask you where that survey came from.
Chee: Well, none other that the Straits Times, well, I think it is the Straits Times, well, I think it is the Straits Times. I could be wrong but it was from one of the newspapers.
Hahn: Interesting, so they openly admitted that this was the case?
Chee: Oh yeah, go down to Singapore. Talk to people. They will talk to you about anything except politics. And that's not a healthy sign for a vibrant, dynamic society. And we keep talking about - Lee Kuan Yew talks about this 'buzz' that you have in Hong Kong and other places. The problem is that we have become a society that is too conforming and you need that kind of debate, a bit of dissent, before you can create that kind of dynamism.
Hahn: Hmm, some will disagree. How's your family taking to all of this?
Chee: I'm very fortunate in a sense that my wife is very supportive of what I do. I suppose sometimes you just got tell yourself that these are the things that you've got to continue with. And if things happen, you try and roll with the punches, take it as it comes.
Hahn: I understand she was pregnant with a child when you were in prison, is that correct?
Chee: Yes, and we're expecting a second baby and I hope this time I'll be around to see the birth.
Hahn: And so, obviously your wife supports you. What about your father, your mother, your brothers? I mean we are talking about whole family, not a nuclear family.
Chee: They are very concerned. They are very concerned, obviously, about what I'm doing. But at the same time I make it very clear that in life, we've got to weigh out what is right and wrong, and not what is convenient and not. And if it is something worth pursuing, it is worth paying the price for.
Hahn: How far are you willing to go for the so-called freedom?
Chee: I don't know. I don't know. But looking at what other dissidents and democratic fighters have gone through in other countries, I'm just only scratching the surface.
Hahn: Last quick question for you, Dr Chee, do you think you would stay in Singapore?
Chee: I have no plans to leave. I think right now what the government wants is to see me go and I'm not prepared for that. If I leave, they win. And if they win, the people lose. It's as simple as that.
Hahn: Dr Chee, thank you very much for your opinions. We appreciate your time coming into the studio.
Chee: Thank you very much.
Hahn: And that is the show this week. And as I mentioned at the start of the show, CNN has extended an open invitation to the Singapore government to respond to the program. And Singapore officials reserve the right to do so. Thank you for watching. We'll see you again next week.