(2 Aug 2008)
Getting to know three of our city's most famous "eccentrics."
What if you don’t buy into the Singapore Dream? You know that dream of a model citizen with a perfect life—a good junior college, the local university degree, a "proper” job with a "good” company, or at least something in the civil service; the three-point-something kids; a "hot” condo, etc. What if you refuse to be corralled into the same way of thinking; giving the middle finger to all these to take the path less trodden? For starters, you’ll probably get labeled (not very flatteringly one hastens to add) by a media that’s told to toe the "party” line. What makes for quirky, weird, rabble-rouser and odd here is probably normal elsewhere. We take on three well-known personalities, cast them under a different light and find out if there’s anything "unusual” about them.
Doctored Image: Dr Chee Soon Juan
He’s been called a liar, a psychopath and everything in between. But honestly, how much do we know of the real Dr. Chee Soon Juan? As leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), the image of the 46-year-old neuropsychologist has suffered no end at the hands of a one-eyed media. In fact, the father of three has been caricatured to such an extent that as we walked up to his office in a terraced shop house off Upper Thomson Road, we thought we’d be in for some ride with a (hitherto portrayed) dour, schizoid personality—one who’d be easily prone to ranting against the establishment and the ruling party.
But what you see (on TV, in the political pages of the national press) is certainly not what you’ll get with Dr. Chee, who in our hour-long interview came across as erudite, urbane, articulate, smart, focused,eloquent and yes, very normal—debunking his media-projected persona as a stone-cold megalomaniac."Would anyone like a drink?” he asks with all the grace of an exemplary host before sitting down to speak with us. As a youth without prior political leanings, Dr. Chee first became politicized in the late 1970s when the graduate mother’s scheme (where women who held degrees were encouraged to bear more children, whereas lower educated ones were told to stop at two) was first introduced.
"I became very concerned that such a distasteful policy was being openly encouraged, but I soon left to study in the US (in the early 1980s) and I thought this ‘way of thinking’ would soon pass,” he says. "But there was no discernable change (in policies and attitudes) when I returned, and I soon joined the opposition.
"My main aim then was (and still is) to fight unjust laws in the country and be an advocate for free speech. It is unconstitutional to be denied the opportunity to speak in public.”
Dr. Chee continues to fight charges of speaking in public without a permit, an offence that has already seen him incarcerated on several occasions (he’s been in the slammer a total of seven times), as well as an earlier incident in 1993 which which saw Dr. Chee getting sacked from the National University of Singapore, where he was lecturing, for allegedly misappropriating funds—consequences which probably solidified his rebellious persona even more.
"The media were a lot more balanced when I first entered politics in the early 1990s; they were reasonably fair in their reporting of what I had to say,” Dr Chee says. "But now, well, now they’ve gone too far; not only have they become way too personal in their attacks, they consistently misrepresent what I stand for.
"Which is that I’m out to do Singapore in; that I do not have the country’s best interest at heart. That is the biggest myth that’s constantly being perpetuated about me. Period. When all I stand for is for a more open, tolerant society; to respect one another’s differences and to move (the country) with the times.”
In addition, he has also been lampooned as an eccentric oddball. He laments, "Such is the nature of the beast. All these caustic attacks don’t even bother me anymore; you just have to steel yourself and roll with the punches.
"You know, it’s very easy to do the ‘accepted’ and popular things, but for real change to come about, one has to take a firm stand on one’s beliefs and see it all the way through.
"I can take heart that more are coming forward to speak up and speak out, but I stress that we advocate change in a non-violent way—with a capital ‘N’.”
When asked whether he had any regrets he says, "Definitely not. This is the life I have chosen for myself and I actually spend many a fruitful day writing books and papers, selling our party newsletter on the street and engaging with all sorts of people via the SDP portal (www.yoursdp.org).”
One doesn’t have to agree or disagree with his politics to come away with the conclusion that he certainly isn’t the firebrand that the media has regularly made him out to be. The impression we left with was that of an articulate, caring family man who dotes on his three well-adjusted young children, and one who has made untold sacrifices in the line of his work.
The SDP chief hopes to return to his beloved world of academia one day, but not before the "job is done,” he says.