Temasek Review (TR): Dr Chee, thank you for agreeing to this interview. First off, how prepared is the Singapore Democratic Party, going into this elections?
Chee Soon Juan (CSJ): We've been preparing in earnest since 2009 when we started visiting the Bukit Panjang SMC and engaging the PAP MP Dr Teo Ho Pin on the Sheng Siong issue. We have also been working the ground in the Bishan-Toa Payoh and Holland-Bukit Timah GRCs.
We conducted Exercise Lightning Block in September last year which was a dry-run to test and identify weaknesses in our operations. We conducted two pre-election rallies to raise funds and to get our equipment and logistics up to speed. We've held on-going public-speaking refreshers for our candidates and other speakers.
We've taken our policy fight to the PAP with the publication of our economic manifesto It's About You and our Shadow Budget 2011.
Our video production has been going on non-stop and we are about to launch a revamped website designed specially for this elections. The list goes on. A check of our website will attest to the amount of work that we have been putting in.
We feel good about where we are at this stage of the game. But as much as we have done, there is still plenty left to do. We cannot relax in the final stretch. On the contrary, we need to pick up speed, and for this we need the help of all Singaporeans in our campaign effort.
TR: How different is the SDP of today from its earlier days, where it was often portrayed as a rebellious opposition party by the Singaporean (Main Stream Media) characterised by its relentless lawsuits, activism towards social issues and slanted media portrayal?
CSJ: In terms of our philosophy and our goals, nothing has changed. We still believe in bringing about a more egalitarian Republic; social and economic justice remains our prime concern. And we have said all along that without the basic freedoms of speech and assembly, meaningful elections will elude us. This still holds true.
The only thing that has changed is our ability to put our message across and to explain to Singaporeans why we do what we are doing, that there is method to our seeming madness. In this regard, the Internet has been a valuable tool. Many have visited our website and seen for themselves who we really are and, in the course of it, disabused themselves of the notion that we are no good for Singapore.
Now what they see is a competent party with constructive ideas. Unfortunately, if you just read the newspapers or watched the television, you wouldn't know this because little of the SDP is mentioned. But things are beginning to change, slowly perhaps but assuredly.
TR: Judging from your exponential growth in membership and the online media support that your party seems to have garnered these past few years, many have commented that the SDP has emerged as a mature and responsible party. Do you think that the Singaporean electorate has begun to truly understand the manifesto of the party or do you think that this growth and support is due to the unprecedented flow of information and alternative media that is available in the recent years?
CSJ: Both. As I said, with the rapid development of the new media - especially since the 2006 GE - it has been harder for the PAP to monopolise information flow in Singapore. As a result Singaporeans, at least those on the net, have been able to follow what we are saying and doing.
And because they have been able to read for themselves and watch our videos uncensored and unfiltered, they realise they have been fooled and misled all this time. They realise that when the SDP confronts the PAP it is with reasoned argument, not aggression. They see a party that not only talks but acts. They see a party willing to take a principled stand based on what is right, not just on what is popular.
As a result, more and more people have come forward to join us.
TR: What do you think of the electoral boundary changes, and has your party been affected in its SMC and GRC electioneering campaigns in any way as a result from the recent changes?
CSJ: Have you seen circuses where they put a tutu on a bear and make it dance? No one is fooled that behind the costume, it is still a bear and not a ballerina. Whichever way they cut and dice the constituencies, the electoral system is still rotten to the core.
Singaporeans must realise that without reform to our political system, and this includes freeing up the media, setting up an independent elections commission and reclaiming our rights to freedom of speech and assembly, the PAP will always win elections designed to ensure its victory.
We must continue to fight on every front. We must seize every opportunity to advance the cause and to awaken Singaporeans to the need for reform.
Like in warfare we must fight in the air, on the ground, and from the sea. When elections are called we must be at the polls. In between elections, we must advocate freedom and encourage the growth of civil society. When we see injustice, we must challenge it in the courts. We must fight online and on the ground. (To this end, I must commend TR for giving voice to a people long silenced by the autocrats in this country.)
Never mind if we don't succeed at first. We must press on. Change never comes without perseverance and persistence. For each time we try and don't succeed, we don't go back to level zero. We progress a little bit more. It is through the building of one step upon another that we finally cross the threshold and achieve what we set out to do.
TR: Many Singaporeans have expressed support for the SDP's counter policies that have been proposed. The most notable is your party's Shadow Budget, the counter proposal to the Budget 2011 that was released recently. In your view, is this a sign of change in the political landscape characterized by the apathy that once engulfed the vast majority of the electorate, and are Singaporeans now more interested to see which is the party proposing better policy and are willing to throw their support and weight behind those parties?
CSJ: Yes, in the past the politics has been conducted at a very primitive level, no thanks to Mr Lee Kuan Yew who even today cannot stop talking about crushing and demolishing his opponents.
We've tried to raise the level of the political discourse. We do this by writing and publishing alternative ideas. I tried to do this in 1994 when I wrote Dare to Change: An Alternative Vision for Singapore. Since then things have developed within the party and I'm glad to say that it's become very much a part of our culture today to constantly challenge ourselves to come up with better ideas and programmes for Singapore.
The latest effort was our Shadow Budget which has received much support from the public. Much of the credit must go to Dr Vincent Wijeysingha and his team, many of whom were Young Democrats. The amount of time and energy that went into this publication was very considerable.
We want to debate the issues and explore ideas, not call our opponents names. Ad hominem attacks by Mr Lee have no place in today's politics. His bully tactics are a relic and younger Singaporeans are losing their fear. Let us graduate onto the next and more sophisticated phase of politics.
TR: Should the SDP win in any of its contested constituencies, what will be the first course of action that your party will take?
CSJ: We will be announcing an initiative called The SDP Promise very soon. This is a written pledge which our candidates will make to the voters in the constituencies that we are contesting in.
I donâ€™t want to preempt the team. All I can say at this stage is that it will contain specific actions the candidates will undertake both at the national as well as constituency levels if they are elected.
TR: Even in the opposition party and alternative media circles, the issue of NCMPs is still a hotly debated one. What is your take on the NCMP offering by the incumbent and would the SDP consider taking up an NCMP seat should it be made available?
CSJ: We will cross the bridge when we come to it. Right now, we want to stay focused on our campaign. One of our goals is to run the best election campaign Singapore has ever seen, one that is worthy of the people's support.
TR: In concluding this interview, we would like to thank you for your open and candid answers. We will also leave you this chance to say a few choice words to your supporters and Singaporeans at large.
CSJ: Either we live and dare mightily, or we cower in fear and without spirit. We have but one life to live. Let us not be remarked by history that we were a generation who remained on our knees even as our overlords stripped us of our freedom and dignity.
Let us stand up to those who would oppress us. Let us look them in the eye and tell them that they will demean us no more. Let us speak up for the poor and the broken. Let us live free and dignified lives again. Let us dare mightily, and in so doing, know what it truly means to be called Singaporean.
To this cause, I pledge my all. To my fellow citizens, I ask you to join me.
(10 March 2011)