Interview with Dr.Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP): Discusses about life after bankruptcy, what the SDP offers to the Singaporean voter, what Singaporeans really want and his plans for the 2016 general elections
Dr.Chee Soon Juan, the Secretary General of the SDP spoke his mind about his imminent ‘retirement’ from bankruptcy, future plans for Singapore, its challenges and what SDP can do for the average Singaporean. Democratically speaking he provided an overview of what issues were close to the hearts of Singaporeans and what they really want
1. Are u glad you are finally able to clear your bankruptcy and able to stand for elections? What are your thoughts?
It is not official yet. The official assignee will have their say on it and I think I still have to go to court to declare that I am not bankrupt and annul the bankruptcy. So far if they (Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Kuan Yew) do not go back on their word then it would be a matter of formality before the official assignee does his job. I understanding that it would take a several weeks for the annulment of my bankruptcy. (As of 23nd November 2012, Dr Chee Soon Juan will no longer be bankrupt according to the government’s Insolvency and Public Trustee's Office. He has also publicly announced that he will be standing for the 2016 coming general elections)
2. Did (Mr Goh Chok Tong and Mr Lee Kuan Yew) offer this reprieve?
No I offered to pay this sum in order to settle this case. Everything was done through the official assignee. If I am not mistaken I have read in the press, that their lawyer, Mr Davinder Singh has said that his clients have accepted this offer. Officially unless I get a final approval from the official assignee I am still a bankrupt and my travel outside of Singapore is rather restricted due to the bankruptcy.
3. Has the raising of $30,000 within 10 days a sign that Singaporeans do care and genuinely support the opposition?
This is unprecedented and this signals that change is not just in the mindset but in their attitude as well. People find that they have a part to play in Singapore. And that is very important. That is a precipitory kind of action that is very significant. The enthusiasm where this whole thing was done speaks volumes for Singaporeans. By default I can sense that a lot of information goes out by way of the Internet and the younger generation is savvier compared to the older generation to tap this new form of media. Everything was very much internet and social media driven. In that sense the younger generation has driven this whole thing. The speed at which the fund raising was done also proves this point. The same thing happened in 2010 where I had some outstanding fines to pay and a similar fund raising event was done and we were able to raise enough money to settle some of these outstanding fines.
4. I read about your writings on Myanmar and its challenges and opportunities. What is all that about?
Michael Sharnoff, the editor of Global Views invited me to write in his publication. It is more targeted to an international audience. It was a reflection on the developments in the region and how it affects a wider community. The reforms ongoing in Myanmar are very real and not superficial. There are some very serious changes ongoing in Myanmar that appears genuine.
5. How does that put pressure on the Singapore government?
Many years ago Lee Kuan Yew had said that they were trying to use the Asian region as a buffer against democratic encroachment and he always label defenders of democracy as Western. And during those days, countries like Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia were similarly philosophical in tune to Singapore. Now all these countries seem to be crumbling. Obviously that makes Singapore stick out like a sore thumb. They don’t want to be seen as bad guys. Singapore historically has been very close to Malaysia culturally and politically as well. For instance Malaysia and Singapore share similar characteristics like the Internal Security Act (ISA), the newspapers and the ban on public assembly. Slowly one by one of these hurdles have been removed by the Malaysian Prime Minister and we need to make it a point to do the same here in Singapore too. The pressure is on and at some time or other Singapore has to take a look at its own international image as well. Without any real change the people here in Singapore cannot grow politically and economically as well. We have to be dependent on the multinationals coming into Singapore. Singaporeans by and large have to work harder and harder and these economic policies in place are very extractive. When you do that how much can you keep squeezing off the people? Once people enjoy the freedom not just in the political realm but in the economic realm, people will become more spontaneous and creative and all this translates into economic know how. And now you have a small army of entrepreneurs as well. This means that society is changing.
6. Does this mean that the government would be losing control in the future?
I remember I attended a forum in 1993; I made this point that the two are linked. That if you stop political development you will also stop economic development. They go hand in hand. In the last 10 years especially you see that happening already. Our growth has been maxed out. How much more can you work? According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) Singaporeans work the longest hours compared to the other major economies in the world. And yet real wages continue to decline. How much more can you get people to work in order to raise GDP in the country? Change in our political system would be the catalyst for sustainable economic growth.
7. You mentioned that the SDP has seen younger professionals joining its ranks and has been trying to forge ahead with a clear picture of the future where you have helped to formulate alternative policies to rival the PAP as the ruling party. So what are your alternative policies you had in mind?
We have come up with a very comprehensive policy on health care system in Singapore after conducting a lot of research on the subject. The medical research was done by a group of medical professionals almost 10 medical doctors ranging from surgeons to GPs. They have studied the system and being front line staff, they have understood that there are people in Singapore that need medical attention but cannot get it because of their income level. We have come up with an entire mechanism to replace what we have right now. We are working on our final phase of the research. These are all done by serious healthcare professionals and at this point they do not want to be identified.
8. So what you are suggesting is an overhaul of the health care system?
Yes and we are not suggesting a few minor changes or tweaking the system a bit here or there. We are talking about replacing the entire Medisave scheme. What we have now is just a façade of passing the buck on back to Singaporeans. What we are suggesting is fundamentally that the government would increase its total portion of its health care expenditure from 30% to 70%. Only then can you overcome the difficulties faced by the lower income Singaporeans. What we have done in our research is focused more on the Scandinavian countries where they have the got the formula right in terms of the percentage of state spending and out of pocket spending. Some of these health care facilities in Singapore are very inadequate and we have looked into that as well.
9. What other areas are you looking at?
The second big area we have looked at is housing. Housing as you know has become expensive in Singapore and the danger is that we continue to go on this way. It isn’t sustainable and there would be a very harsh correction in store. We are talking about the bursting of the property bubble. And what happens after that? Like what happened in the US after the subprime mortgage loans. From the macro point of view, you have the inflated prices for HDB housing. That enables people to buy at the high rate being offered for the resale flats. Let us not compare to the private properties. And with the influx of foreigners and permanent residents, they are eligible to buy HDB property and because of that prices go up uncontrolled. For certain categories property prices shouldn’t be raised. We are going to be introducing a scheme, within the next few weeks where we will be suggesting measures to bring down prices and then to keep it there without triggering any kind of market collapse of property prices. You have to also realize that with falling prices it is going to affect the majority of home owners that have paid a very high price for their properties in the first place. There is a fear that if there is negative equity then everything else would come tumbling down. That is not the way to go as well. We need to build in these corrective measures over time and not immediately.
10. Then as you said earlier are the land prices artificially held up?
The government has continued all this time to build in the land prices. And frankly speaking as a government that has nationalized state land, there are no costs involved for the government but they keep talking about the costs involved or rather the opportunity costs involved not in terms of what the government has to pay out. For instance there are construction costs and material (mortar and cement) costs involved in building properties. However what the government factors in is the land costs which drive up prices. When the government does its upgrading projects Singaporeans have to pay for the upgrading through their CPF savings. That is going to cause problem to the younger baby boomer generation where they will be retiring in another 10 years. They will be affected by these upgrading processes as they would not be able to pay for them.
11. What other programs are on your agenda?
We are currently studying the population trends at the moment. Singapore is having one of the lowest birth rates in Asia. Currently it is as low as 7-8 births per female. On top of these low birth rates the government policies are driving people away. This is a very serious problem. Young people are not interested in staying on in Singapore. One of the reasons is that they feel so disengaged with society. They feel that they don’t belong here anymore. Nothing the government says or does really matters. But if you look at the other countries they seem to be drawing these Singaporeans. Like Australia and Canada and other international countries. Australia for instance has got a point system where they want the best Singaporeans. Similar to other countries where Singaporeans are leaving. Every year the number keeps going up.
12. How is the government addressing this brain drain?
The government’s solution seems to be saying to bring in foreigners which actually brings in resentment from Singaporeans. They are bringing in those with zero level skills. Frankly speaking you have prostitutes coming here to work in Singapore. They call them ‘talent’. I have spoken to Chinese nationals that were basking out there in Singapore and some even begging. The argument the government has is to increase your population rate and eventually increase your taxes. This is how this government tries to plaster Band-Aid over its cuts where the cuts are actually deep cuts. What the government is doing is a travesty. Many of the foreigners that claim to contribute to Singapore come here with a foreign passport and end up with a Singaporean passport. Many of them were however known to use the Singapore passport as a stepping ground for entry to first world countries. Why would they want to be in a stressed up place like Singapore? As a result many of them use Singapore as a stepping stone to emigrate to first world countries. Around 37% of young Singaporeans are saying they are no longer loyal to this country.
13. Are there signs that the Singapore government is losing its authoritarian outlook?
Absolutely not. It is currently trying to use the right word, right buzzword, trying to get them to communicate to the larger community using the facebook and other social media. It is trying to be more appealing. By presenting themselves to be more affable and approachable but they have actually not undergoing any real changes. End of the day nothing changes. But if you really want to see true changes then you would ask for true changes within the political system. Without such genuine changes to its politics and economics no one would believe them.
14. Would there be a major impact after the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew in the political scene in Singapore?
After the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew I am sure you will see some changes but the important thing is to what degree will there be changes to Singapore? I suspect that people might be a little nervous at the beginning but they will realize that the current government will take meaningful steps to retain power under its current leadership. They can say that the ruling party has a majority of seats in parliament and things are status quo. However let’s not talk about the number of seats in parliament but rather we have to talk about the fundamental designs of what constitutes a democratic system in Singapore.
15. Are you still the Chairman of the Asian Alliance for Reforms and Democracy? Are you still a member of the World Movement for Democracy, Sweden-Singapore Initiative for Democracy, Community of Democracies NGO Process, International Federation of Liberal Youth (IFLRY)?
As I have been unable to travel it has been very hard to carry out my duties. Also the workload in Singapore has been increasing and I find it difficult to work with these international agencies as I already have a full plate right now focusing on my current agenda.
16. I understand that an international human rights lawyer Robert Amsterdam represents you and was not allowed entry to Singapore. Why was this the case?
Robert was on route to Bangkok Thailand and decided to make a stopover in Singapore. He called me up and we arranged to meet. But he was stopped at immigration and not allowed entry into Singapore. The reason being he had formerly written a white paper on my situation and got quite a bit of interests from the international media. Based on that he was not allowed to visit Singapore. Singapore is very global in one sense but can still be very infantile in other respects. He is basically representing me but at an international level. But he is not allowed to practice law in Singapore or represent clients in Singapore as he needs to be recognized by the judiciary here to practice law in Singapore. He can be considered a Commonwealth lawyer but he still cannot practice in Singapore.
17. What about the NGOs – Singaporeans for Democracy and Gomez Center? Does that help you to get the democratic message across to Singaporeans?
Recently the NGO, Singaporeans for Democracy has been folded up. It is no longer under the organization of societies. There were simply too many restrictions. As far as I know, it’s no longer active. The Gomez center I am not sure about that. You need to ask James Gomez about it
18. What is your strategy your next elections? Would Games Gomez and Teo Soh Lung be fielded as SDP’s candidates in the coming elections?There was a swing of around 13.4% in favor of SDP as well? Do you think you will break new grounds?
Yes for sure, as they were fielded in our last elections and they would be fielded in the next elections. We want to make sure we put some of these policies in place. We don’t want to just go and shoot our mouths out and saying anything that is out of context. We need to put these ideas into place like our healthcare, housing, population study including education reform. We need to do all this next year and put the fundamentals in place before the run up to the next elections. We are confident that we would be getting more professionals to join our rank and file. Looking at what we have right now we have medical doctors, professionals, businessmen, IT entrepreneurs. We have also a few teachers involved. Ultimately we need to select the right candidates for the job. We don’t have the hard numbers of how people we are going to field. We may also work with the other opposition parties and see what they have to offer as well. One of the areas we are looking at are the existing constituencies that we stood at for elections in the last elections and also the Tanjong Pagar constituency if that is offered up. We would however not contest in seats that already have been won by the existing opposition parties.
19. Has there been a general consensus among the other opposition parties. Any crystal ball gazing or predictions for the future?
We have understood amongst the opposition members, we will have straight puts and prefer not to engage in two – corner fights. We iron out the differences and see who goes where. Making predictions is not always meaningful. The General election is still four years away. We need to put out the right candidates and work our ground and let the results speak out for itself. We certainly aspire to be an alternative government in the future and we are growing more and more confident. We have a good party agenda and have a good competent people coming on board and if you see some of the things that the PAP is doing does not inspire confidence among Singaporeans.
20. What are some of the mistakes of the ruling party? Can you name them?
If you compare candidate to candidate right now we certainly take backseat to none. And some of them (PAP) if you listen to what they are saying, their views and their thinking, it makes us wonder – What are they thinking? The internet has exposed their faults. For instance when Vivien Balakrishnan came up with the remark on the amount of money that was spent on the Youth Olympics Games and that he had underestimated the actual amount by almost three times. The revised budget was S$387 million. You can image the public sentiments were so badly handled that it was not difficult to see where they have gone wrong. And the public knows that as well. They blew the budget and had the gall to say that they would do it all over again instead of apologizing to the public. Let the public judge.
21. What do Singaporeans really want?
Life is not just dollars and cents. Let us face it. Singaporeans still want basic freedom. Human beings don’t just live for material riches. It is a sad situation we are in as we seem stuck at a very basic level and unable to develop and mature as a society. Singaporeans long for political freedom it’s very unsatisfying and the government does not allow true democracy into Singapore. All this shiny drama and tinsel about Singapore does not tell the real story about Singapore. Don’t be fooled by the façade.