Every morning, Chee Soon Juan drives his three children to school in his 19-year-old maroon Nissan, the exact model of which he has trouble recalling.
He tells Yahoo! Singapore he still has a car now because it has long been paid for, along with his three-room flat located in one of the oldest estates of Singapore.
There, the secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) spends his mornings at an old desktop computer in the family's shared study, responding to emails, and writing articles, commentaries or books.
Apart from running the SDP, writing, selling and carting his books to bookstores and searching for the occasional foreign university research fellowship, Chee doesn't draw a salary from anywhere.
"I've long left my profession, which is in psychology," said the former National University of Singapore lecturer, who was dismissed and sued in 1993 by then-department head S Vasoo. His loss of the suit later compelled him and his wife to sell and move out of their Jalan Pemimpin house and into his current home.
Asked how he could devote himself purely to politics even with three young mouths to feed, Chee responded, "It's really difficult to commit to both (teaching psychology and politics)... either you get in the whole haul or not at all."
Chee was declared bankrupt in February 2006, after losing two defamation lawsuits to former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and being slapped with a hefty $500,000 bill in damages. Because of this, he is unable to stand for elections or travel out of the country without written permission from his official assignee.
More surprising, however, is the fact that despite his circumstances, his wife of 20 years, Huang Chih Mei, doesn't work either. She told Yahoo! Singapore she experienced drawing a full-time salary for a grand total of a week in her life thus far, at a marketing research company.
"After a few days, I felt I didn't like it... It didn't just involve research and data harvesting, but also meeting clients, presentations, socialising," she explained, sharing that even the nature of the research work she did was more commercially-driven than academic, which is what she preferred. After witnessing her successful boss emerge from a messy divorce, the PhD holder became convinced she didn't want that kind of life.
Perhaps, notes Huang, the fact that both her and Chee's relatives are essentially self-sufficient is one that brings relief to them both.
"They (her relatives) don't depend on me, so we have the kind of freedom... we just take care of ourselves," she says, explaining that her parents back in Taiwan are settling down to their retirement with the proceeds of real estate investments her father made in the past, for instance.
Living the simple life
At one corner and along part of the walls in Dr Chee Soon Juan's house is a floor to ceiling bookcase filled with volumes and photographs of different members of the family. (Yahoo! photo/Jeanette Tan)
Because neither Chee nor his wife work, the family lives a life that is, well, just about as simple as it can get for that of a beleaguered opposition party politician.
The children — 13-year-old An Lyn, nine-year-old E Lyn and seven-year-old Shaw Hur — are discouraged from playing video or computer games. So instead they make frequent trips to the library, taking out up to six books each time. None of them have smart phones either, says Chee, who himself brandishes a third-generation Nokia — one of those that have coloured screens but lack wireless or GPRS signal receptors.
"As much as possible I want them to get out, see stuff, watch things, listen and talk to people instead of it being just you and that console or that phone," he added. "If you have the time to pick up a phone and fiddle with it, you also have the time to pick up a book and read it."
An Lyn and E Lyn (behind) Chee play a duet on the piano. They and their younger brother Shaw Hur have been playing the piano since age 5. (Yahoo! photo/Jeanette Tan)
The Chee children all play the piano as well, having started from between the ages of five and six, spending an hour each practicing in the evenings on a black vertical piano, crammed into the small bedroom that squeezes two double beds together so all five of the Chees can sleep side by side.
After the children return from school in the afternoon, it's straight to the party offices at Jalan Gelenggang, near the Sembawang Hills estate, where Chee meets members of the SDP cadre to discuss the issues of the day. As that goes underway, An Lyn, E Lyn and Shaw Hur sit in their designated "corner" of two tables in the office and do their homework.
Asked if they pick up on what elapses during those meetings, nine-year-old E Lyn says, "I'm not so interested in what he talks about, but sometimes I'm in the room and he talks about something, and I can hear him so sometimes I know what he's about to do."
When asked what her father does, she says, "I know he's a psychologist. But I don't really know what a psychologist is."
Her older sister An Lyn is more politically-savvy than most 13-year-olds, however. She is not only interested in what her father does with the SDP, with Chee professing his oldest daughter to be "an expert" on the concept of democracy, but also says she plans to get involved in politics when she is older.
"I probably would want to do it (politics) next time, before I find a job," she shares. "I don't think many people get to do this, actually!"
For better or for worse?
Dr Chee Soon Juan, his wife Huang Chih Mei and their children An Lyn (behind), E Lyn (beside Dr Chee) and Shaw Hur (far right). (Yahoo! photo/Jeanette Tan)
If one were to think of opposition politicians in Singapore who have had it hard, Chee's name would most likely be the first to come to mind.
Having been jailed more than 10 times ("I've lost count," he says) in the past decade, one might wonder how the rest of his family has handled it.
Instead of being bitter, Huang says she has always been content playing the supporting role in Chee's life.
"I feel that if it's our role to play in life — like you play the lead, I play the supporting (role) — then I will do my part well, and I will try to do my best," she shared.
As their children were very young during the times Chee was jailed, the impact on them was muted.
When asked what it was like and how she felt when her father was jailed, An Lyn mainly said, "I guess I missed him a bit… I can't really remember!"
But Chee acknowledges his activism has played a part in shaping the family's lifestyle.
"For better or worse, but I tend to be biased, and think it's for the better. You make do with what you have — adverse conditions can also be used to teach, so in that sense I don't look back and say whether it's good or bad, but what you make of it. That's the important thing," he said.
"Materially, this is a small place," he said, gesturing around his simply-decorated flat. "I don't have this huge backyard (the kids) can romp around in, (or do) the things that richer families do, but still, you find your own life's pleasures that, in various ways, don't have to take a lot of finances to find that kind of reward or happiness."
Chee is also upfront with his children about why they have to live under certain constraints.
Every time the Chee children leave with Huang for a trip to Taiwan to visit Huang's parents, Chee usually has to explain to them why he is unable to join them.
"I'll tell them I'm bankrupt because I was sued, in very simple terms, and they come around and understand. They know and accept it," he says. "I don't hide it from them, it's not like it's a shameful thing. It's how you deal with it. They understand."
Despite what he has been through, Chee said it was every single experience that has made him the person he is.
"Some (decisions) turn out to be the worst ones ever in life, (and) you look back and say, why did I do it in a certain way, but if you didn't do it, you wouldn't learn from it.
"So in a sense you don't look back and regret because you'll find they were very valuable teaching moments, if you will… This is who you are… and if you do learn from it, you become that much better for it," he said.
(27 Feb 2012)