(26 Nov 2012)
In an interview on the day he was due to be discharged from bankruptcy, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan spoke on a wide range of topics including his plans for the party, his thoughts on opposition unity and why he made an offer to settle his bankruptcy.
Here are some highlights:
I. On his plans to contest the next General Election
Q: Now that your bankruptcy has been annulled, what are your immediate priorities going forward?
Dr Chee: Well, there isn't a big shift in terms of my, the annulment of my bankruptcy. I will just continue to do what I've been doing. That is, really to build up the party in preparation for the next GE.
And by that, you know that we're working on some alternative policy papers. And that will continue for the foreseeable future in the coming months and years. And as a result, we've also seen more people coming on board and that really taps into the policymaking part, and then that brings in more people, that kind of thing.
And then, of course, the bread and butter of political parties, and that's going down on the ground making sure that (people) get to meet, see what we're up to. It's not a time when you start; it really is a progression and continuation of everything that we've been doing since the last GE.
So that will continue as I said and the annulment for bankruptcy, in the immediate future, it won't make a lot of difference. The difference, of course, will come in when I'm eligible for the next GE.
Q: Have you given any thought to where you will run, whether it will be a single seat or GRC?
Dr Chee: No, and it's only because right now things are so fluid in terms of the constituencies. And that's really the government's game, in the sense that they're going to keep us on tenterhooks and we'll never know which single seat then remains or which gets absorbed, and how then the GRCs are in fact redrawn. So, much as we'd like to be able to at least have a forecast, for us right now it really is impossible to do.
Q: Do you have a preference for any area, perhaps where people may know you best?
Dr Chee: Not exactly. Singapore is so homogenous; there are no regional rivalries in that sense, unlike, say, in Malaysia where there is a lot of rural and urban areas. So in that regard I still see things pretty much more our groundwork and that really is rather uniform throughout. So specific areas that we can see in terms of electoral support, no, we haven't really detected that kind of thing. Things seem pretty uniform right through.
Q: The party has been active on the ground, especially in areas like Tanjong Pagar.
Dr Chee: We have, that's because in the last GE nobody contested there. And we're looking to campaign in more areas because we do see our ranks growing as well. And I see the next elections, us campaigning and contesting more GRCs.
Q: But will you be going back to the areas the party contested previously?
Dr Chee: Yes, definitely. The ones that we contested in the last elections, we will continue, we have been continuing our campaign work there. And with the added constituency of Tanjong Pagar. But then as I said the boundaries change...so we do tend to just go on general vicinities rather than just hard demarcation of the constituencies.
Q: Will you be targeting more of the western part of Singapore?
Dr Chee: If we kept to the constituencies that we contested in the last elections, right now it looks as if we tend to be more focused on the central part of the island. But don't forget, last election also we've been working in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC. And it was only because Mr Chiam (See Tong) wanted to contest in that constituency and because it was adjoining Potong Pasir and they wanted to use that as a geographical strategy. We thought that was a valid point as well so we didn't contest it. But the next election, depending on what happens, we still hope to be able to get back in there as well. So that would then cover more of the central part of Spore.
And then Tanjong Pagar comes right at the south. We haven't discounted going further to the west as well.
II. On settling his bankruptcy
Q: On the point of your settlement, why did you make that offer to Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Kuan Yew? How did you arrive at the amount of $30,000?
Dr Chee: The amount that I offered was something that I calculated I could afford because I was going to come up with this book. And if you look at projected sales, after I lop off for printing cost and so on and so forth and my own income, that's all that I could afford. That's what I offered. So there wasn't any magic to that.
Q: The offer surprised some because you said in the past that you wouldn't pay.
Dr Chee: Look, to me it makes very little difference in terms of the work that I do. Even if I were bankrupt, I'll continue to do what I did, which is what I did in the last elections as well. I could not stand for elections but you make sure that you organise the party, get in the candidates and then present it to the electorate. So in that sense I think it was because Singapore has changed. And I thought since I was going to come up with this book, I also wanted to see if there was any change in attitude. They came back and they said they accepted it.
Q: Were you surprised that they accepted your offer?
Dr Chee: Well, if you think about it in terms of… the mood of the electorate, I think there would have been a backlash if they didn't want to accept. I thought perhaps the calculations were look, let's move on. I'm hoping that, at least, is something that is more substantive, that there is a genuine interest in wanting to move politics in Singapore forward rather than cling on to what's been the practice of old. So in that sense, I thought politically it makes sense for them to want to not continue. Otherwise, my own sense is the electorate would have turned very sour.
III. On opposition unity
Q: There's been a theory floated that your offer was accepted so that the opposition vote would be split in the next GE.
Dr Chee: I don't know where this theory came from. That to me is basically an overactive imagination. I've always maintained the fact that opposition needs to, even if we don't come together and amalgamate as one single political entity, we should at least have a platform whereby we have more in common than differences.
That said, the reality is that there are still differences. I don't see it as so much policy platform differences, more I think personality. But I don't see that as impossible to overcome. I still believe that where there's a will, there's a way. We're going to work towards us cooperating more. What's the end result, what's the level of cooperation, I couldn't tell you right now. But I honestly believe that if we put in effort towards that end I think we can get somewhere.
Before the last elections and then just recently as well, we've always tried to organise activities whereby we can start talking about how we can work together just that little bit more. Before the elections, we had behind-the-scenes private meetings, that kind of thing. We've also been getting together. You know, we're not going to be able to achieve it in a short span of time but it's something that needs to be worked on. But I'm hopeful that… we'll be able to make progress.
Q: Recently, the SDP tried to do a national conversation event with other opposition parties…
Dr Chee: Ya, they did respond but they declined the invitation. But, you know... (it) wasn't very surprising in the sense that we've had previously organised forums also. As I said, we'll continue to work at (it).
Q: How optimistic are you that the opposition can work together?
Dr Chee: My own sense is that as the electorate also begins to mature, I think they are going to get more and more impatient looking at what those differences are between opposition parties. If they begin to feel that look, these are more superficial than anything else, I think the opposition parties will hear of it.
And if they continue to just brush it aside, we'll also pay a price. There's a lesson there that we have to learn as well. If the differences are fundamental, they are real, I think the electorate will say, look, that's ok.
But if you're talking more personality differences, I don't think Singaporeans will tolerate that very much. In the hopes that before we get to a point where we find out the hard way, we should sit down and try to really sort out and look at what are the differences, what are the commonalities, let's weigh it up. If we cannot agree, then let's agree to disagree.
But if we can, and there's room for us to cooperate, I think wiser heads will prevail. I'm still confident about that.
Q: Do you think the differences now more personality-based than on, say, political philosophy?
Dr Chee: I'm not going to commit now and say these are personality. I think that there are differences, but those differences are not entirely on political philosophy. It's also by default that PAP has been so entrenched in one position, so it's just de facto you get these other positions that almost write themselves. In that sense, I believe there is a lot more in common.
Q: As far as SDP is concerned, which party feels closest to it politically?
Dr Chee: You know, I don't mean to cop out of this but I honestly feel that none of the parties are that far away, seriously. For example, take one issue of, say, housing. You cannot, if you're in opposition, it's hard for you to argue that, well, HDB flats are really affordable, right?
You can't make that argument. You then have differences in terms of approach, the finer points in those policy areas. But as I said in terms of the various parties, I don't think anybody is really that far away. So I think things are still very discussable, if I can use the word.
IV. On whether the party is ready to take over government
Q: Parties like the Workers' Party and the National Solidarity say that they are not yet ready to take over government. SDP seems to take a different approach...
Dr Chee: I think if I may try to just read into what they're trying to say, the thing is looking at the situation now, they're probably saying that if nothing changes, if everything stays the same, then things may not be any different from the last elections, right?
But the way that I see it, if you've looked at what's happened in the last elections and look at history, change never comes about in a linear progression. Nothing happens for a long time and everything stays flat.
One cataclysmic event comes, or a very significant event comes and changes - that change takes place very abruptly. I would not wager that that event will not happen between now and 2016. And when that happens, you will see, as I'm looking at it right now, there's a lot of discontentment, especially if you're talking about among the professional groups, people who analyse just a little more, think just a little bit more beyond the headlines, they're extremely unhappy with the direction of this country.
If they all decide to say, ok, fair enough, all right, we will put our money where our mouth is, we'll stand for the elections, you will see a distinct change. And then you're going to have to live up to the electorate already, isn't it? And by which time, we're not going to be sitting there and say, well, you know, we're still not ready.
It may be in the form of a coalition, I don't know.
Q: On the ability to attract talent, as it is today, does the party have everybody it needs to take over government?
Dr Chee: I think if you look at pre-2011 GE and right now, you know, I don't want to exaggerate but the difference is day and night. Whereas a lot of people would not touch us with a 10-foot pole before, they are coming round.
Q: Are you there yet?
Dr Chee: Oh no, certainly not. With the people still waiting in the wings that we have not talked to yet in terms of hard politics and will you stand for elections, that kind of thing. But I'm confident that as we go along you will get more of these professionals, candidate material, coming in bigger numbers. What the numbers are, I couldn't tell you right now. But I'm confident that it will be quantitatively, qualitatively, very significantly different from (the) election itself.
V. On whether the SDP has changed
Q: People see SDP as being much more mainstream than it was before. What is your take on this?
Dr Chee: This one has got to come courtesy of the press, the media. I think I've said this often before. I cannot see how qualitatively what I have been doing is different.
Now I'll give you a concrete example. As early as 1994, I published Dare To Change and at that time I very consciously subtitled the book An Alternative Vision For Singapore. And in there, I wrote extensively, put in a chapter in on the economy, distribution of wealth, issues which we continue to be talking about today.
If you look at it, healthcare was in there, housing was in there as well... Now the difference between then and now is that instead, you know, with the advent of social media and new media, it has allowed people to see that we talk a lot more about some of these, what you'd call the kitchen table issues, bread and butter situations, which we have never neglected before.
But because the press has never really come out and said: Look, this is what SDP (stands for). If you can recall 2001, we brought up these issues on immigration, on foreign talent. We campaigned on a Singaporeans first policy. We talked about minimum wage as well. That was never highlighted.
And so people get this impression, they think oh, SDP very, you know, rights-based kind of thing, very high-falutin kind of ideas, which is not true.
It was only after the coming of the Internet that people began to say, yeah, they do talk a lot about (bread and butter issues)... And so you find that then people think that we're actually a lot more mainstream.
But if you were me, you would be scratching your head and saying, what have I said and done differently then and now?
Q: In the past when the party makes the news, it tends to be because of an act of civil disobedience. But there appear sto be in the past few years nothing at all like that, there have been no more processions...
Dr Chee: But don't forget, when we had those activities, the media actively censored the news, right? ... So I wouldn't attribute that to, you know, people who are reading it and therefore they came to know of SDP's activities because you guys were not reporting on those anyway.
But having said that and you come to this point about, you know, we're not doing it right now, as I said, conditions change, you know, and therefore your strategy changes. Why do I say that?
You know, we think back, the end of 1999 or that particular year when I went to Raffles Place to give a talk over there. I was prosecuted but shortly thereafter, there were calls for us to have a free speech venue, if you recall.
And then there was this discussion, and people started to talk, and they said, why can't we have this free speech venue, right? ... And then they said, okay, well, let us have a Speakers' Corner. But when it first started, you couldn't do what you were doing there today - no musical instruments, no voice enhancement instruments, we couldn't even hold our hands up and chant slogans.
I remember doing an event there with JB (Jeyaretnam) and Think Centre at that time where we said: Abolish ISA, Abolish ISA [raises fist]. The organisers were called up (and were told) you cannot, no gesticulation, no chanting of slogans, that kind of thing.
Well, as far as we're concerned, that's a joke, isn't it? So we pressed on. We pressed on and then those few protests then came about. And it was only in, if I'm not mistaken, was it 2008 or was it 2007 that the Government announced that it was going to relax the rules, allowing protests and so on. That was when conditions changed.
And so we adapted our strategy. It was not a gift from the Government, mind you, it was a hard-won concession. But when things like that happen, then you begin to recalibrate, you begin to evaluate what you need to do. And then of course with that came civil society, some of these non-political party groups started forming and coming up. That coincided with the Internet mushrooming and so on. So, you know, you evaluate your position again and from then we thought, look, let's try to encourage civil society to take up this kind of role and then SDP can then focus very much on winning the battle in elections.
Q: So there was a qualitative strategy change...
Dr Chee: Yes, yes.
Q: That the SDP would not do as much civil disobedience?
Dr Chee: No. I really don't think it was more civil disobedience or not (as much) civil disobedience, I think that fundamental question of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, those remain the cornerstone of a democratic society. Without those freedoms, political parties will find it tremendously difficult to gain any traction with the electorate.
Q: So what is the change?
Dr Chee: So right now we have already begun to establish at least the very fundamentals of it and we want to encourage right now civil society to continue with that line, that whole campaign. And then what we want to do is then make sure that we focus on winning the elections.
One example that I can give you is the mandatory death penalty. You remember, a few years ago, we were at the forefront of making sure that the mandatory death penalty became more of an issue. Once, you know, I remember we conducted this forum and we had quite a good turnout, and then from there there were other people who really began to understand what was at stake in some of the issues at hand. And then they started organising their own activities.
We felt at that point perhaps they would be better placed to start actively organising in that area, so we took a step back and right now, I think we've got some of these activists that are very, very active in pushing that issue... And because those things change, you know, people then get more involved and we feel that okay, we can then move on to other things as well.
Q: But having built a base as far as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc is concerned, now you are looking more at building up on policy. That is a change of focus, is it not?
Dr Chee: But how do you then account for the fact that we've been talking about policy countless times as well? You follow what I'm saying?
Q: You did not have the health policy paper and housing policy paper in the past?
Dr Chee: That was because, again, we didn't have the necessary human resources to do it. But how did we get those human resources? It was because people saw us on the Net as well as what we've been doing all this time. So in that sense it wasn't so much that focus is different right now. It's more an expansion of what we've been doing all along.
I don't know if you see that difference because I'm finding a tremendous difficulty in trying to figure out for myself: Now what did I do that was qualitatively different?
Q: So it's not that you left this behind but you added on.
Dr Chee: Yes. and that addition came because more people are coming on board and that's why we find that, look, we've got the people that can help take up some of these tasks right now.
Q: Because when we look at your website today, housing and health feels more prominent than issues like death penalty and freedom of speech.
Dr Chee: Well, if you've got a product that's good, you of course put it up more prominently. But then it also still begs the question, how does it become more prominent? That's where people then talk about it. You just can put it out there, nobody pays any attention to it, it dies a very natural death, isn't it? But when people start talking about it, then it gains that prominence and how do people talk about it? Again the Internet. So, you know, it's very much driven by the sense that things are changing because people have access to what the SDP is saying.
Q: Do you feel that your success is mainly among PMETs?
Dr Chee: Oh no, no, I hope I haven't given you that impression because if we hadn't kept up with some of the more grassroots work, it would have been difficult also to grow. We are not going to have just the people sitting around and making policy and then you don't have the arms and legs of the party. That has continued to be very important. But the professionals coming in and helping us do the work and so on is just one part of everything that goes on.
VI. On a two-party democracy
Q: There is a sense from the past election that we are headed towards what will look more like a two-party democracy, more so than a multi-party one.
Dr Chee: Well, look, come on. Politics in Singapore is still so unsophisticated. Why? Media is not anywhere close to what it should be in a proper democratic society. How do you make that conclusion is, I don't think that's very realistic in trying to say whether this is going to be a multi-party or two-party systems.
Q: But what is your own view of where Singapore's politics is headed?
Dr Chee: Again, that's hard to say. In the sense that, you know, it could very well turn out to be a two-party system. Which party fills up the other, that party, or whether PAP will really just fall off - you know, become so far extreme and archaic in its policy that it could fall off the political radar also - we don't know.
But I'm just saying right now, nothing is inconceivable. And frankly speaking, I think in that sense, not just a multi-party but a mixed, proportional, first-past-the-post system a la the German and I think Korea adopted it... still makes for a lot more sense and a more responsive government than this traditional two-party system.
Q: So you prefer the multi-party system?
Dr Chee: I think it works better if you have proportional representation in as well... The Germans for example, when they go in and they vote, they don't just cast the vote for that particular candidate in that constituency. There's a second vote that they can cast - and that is for the party itself. So you know, a proportion of Parliament, the Bundestag, is actually reserved for the party list and then another portion for the candidate who gets first-past-the-post. That, I think, works a lot more efficiently and effectively.
VII. On the PAP since GE2011
Q: What do you think of the PAP since the election? Do you think they have changed?
Dr Chee: You couldn't hand-on-heart say that, substantively, they have changed. They may have just put in more effort if you will, to say, oh, you know, you have our ear, we would like to hear from you. The problem is, what they do with that after the feedback has been given to them is something else. If they really, really wanted to, and there was really a change of heart, as expressed by PM, then you would see them making more substantive changes in terms of the structure.
I mean, one good one would be national conversation. You pack your entire committee with, you know, it doesn't make sense, isn't it? And it's not that they don't know that we exist. We've been putting up policies... Look, talk with us, right? Engage us. If you don't agree with us, you know, let's have this honest debate. But again, this is more of the same that they've done before.
Q: If they invited you to a national conversation session, would you go?
Dr Chee: We have made it very clear that anytime they did something like this, we are there. The only thing is that they always do it in such a way that it's... You see, to me, they don't come across as sincere. It's always "Ok, we can't get out of this or we do it but let's see how we can tilt it in as much to our favour as we possibly can".
And I come back to this again. When you look at the UK election, the last one, they had Nick Clegg, they had Gordon Brown, they had David Cameron. Even though one of them was Prime Minister but you know, they had a good, genuine debate. And the people are the better for it. Same thing with the last election between Obama and Romney. All we're doing is looking for that.
And I'm just not persuaded that if they invite us, it will be under a lot of conditions and so on and so forth.