Dear members of the International Federation of Liberal Youth and my fellow Singaporean participants,
It is with much disappointment that I cannot be present physically at this important and exciting event. But I assure you that I am very much a participant in spirit. As you may be aware, I am presently in Washington DC doing a fellowship at the National Endowment of Democracy.
I would like to take this opportunity to welcome our friends from overseas to Singapore a country that many call the capital of cleanliness.
But unlike tourists, you have the opportunity to look under this spotless carpet of glitzy shopping centres and hotels and see that Singapore is also the capital of the death penalty. Per capita we execute more people than any other nation on earth.
Amnesty International has repeatedly questioned the justification of these executions (many, even the majority of those that are hanged, are small-time drug addicts). And yet there is hardly a whisper of a debate.
Like everything else in this country, the ruling Peoples Action Party (PAP) decides everything and brooks no dissent. In return for the obedience and loyalty, we are told that our lives would be well taken care of - so well in fact, that we should have been living like the Swiss by now.
The sad truth is that the PAP has failed to keep to its side of the bargain. Since the Asian financial crisis in 1997, Singapore has been through two painful recessions with workers being forced to stomach severe pay cuts. Even with the government announcing a return of jobs and better economic times, the level of wages continues to be depressed.
Through all this the rights of Singapore citizens remain imprisoned. We have elections that all but guarantee the PAP victory even before the first vote is cast, our mass media continues to serve at the governments pleasure, freedom of speech and assembly are but a dream, and opposition leaders, such as the indomitable J. B. Jeyaretnam whom you have in your midst this afternoon, are sued for defamation and subsequently made financial bankrupts.
There is hardly any way that citizens can organize themselves in a meaningful fashion to bring pressure to bear on the government to alter errant policies.
In the meantime, Singapore's political leaders continue to enjoy opulent lifestyles with million-dollar salaries that they pay themselves. Even a cabinet minister gets paid more than the president of the United States.
I hope that your presence in Singapore today will encourage Singaporeans to want to learn more about democracy and its practices and to see how we can make a greater effort to achieve openness, transparency and accountability in this country.
To my fellow Singaporeans, I share with you the anger and frustration of living in a one-party state. Having to wear this political straight-jacket for the last four decades has deprived us of the ability to make our society socially vibrant and intellectually robust. And it is this lack of dynamism and intellect that makes us entrepreneurially uncompetitive.
But we must not wallow in despair. Instead we must make even greater effort to fight for democracy for our country. There is much to share and learn from our friends from IFLRY. It is through such exchanges that we become more knowledgeable. And it is through knowledge that we are emboldened to make greater commitments to achieving democracy.
Democracy will not be handed to us on a silver platter. Even our European friends had to struggle mightily against fascism, Nazism and communism in the recent past to enjoy what they have today. Asians have also had to wage bitter struggles with dictators in the region. Many have succeeded while others remain in the clutches of despots.
For us in Singapore our battle continues and now is the time to shift the gear one notch up. If we are going to make a difference for democracy we need more minds and bodies. Our Singaporean speakers this afternoon, Charles Tan and Ernest Chee, have recently joined the growing number of democratic voices and I applaud their courage. Charles, if my memory serves me correctly, attended the International Youth Forum last July and has since become a steady champion of democracy and human rights in Singapore. Earnest, whom I have not had the pleasure of meeting, has, I understand, also taken the bold step of standing up for democracy.
It is my hope that this afternoon, more of you will follow the courageous examples of these two young Singaporeans and join the growing legion of servants of democracy in this country. Our cause of seeking justice is right and our fight for freedom is noble, and nothing the PAP says or does can take that away. We, and only we, can make that change for Singapore.
But even the strongest woman needs assistance. Those of you now living in free societies must lend a helping hand to those of us who don't. Aung San Suu Kyi who continues to stand up to the armed might of the dictator-generals in Burma appealed to her fellow democrats around the world: Please use your freedom to help us gain ours. I am confident that to this end IFLRY will be an ally true and steadfast.
We are most fortunate to have you here this afternoon for you almost could not make the visit because of the last-minute withdrawal of financial support from the Asia-Europe Foundation, an act that is most regrettable and most unbecoming. What is worse is the reason ASEF cited for its cancellation of the funding the participation of the Young Democrats in the seminar in Kuala Lumpur. Despite the setback and the financial costs, you committed yourselves to coming to Southeast Asia so that you can spread the good word of freedom and democracy. For this, we salute you.
We must not let these political shenanigans weaken our resolve to overcome the discrimination and bullying. We must not let organizations like the PAP or ASEF win because if they do, democracy in Singapore will never come to pass.
IFLRY now has first-hand experience of how arbitrary and authoritarian the PAP regime Singapore is. We hope that you will spread the word and help us overcome this problem here in Singapore. Let there be no doubt that we shall succeed and let us determine that we will never let authoritarian forces rob us of our minds and rob us of the very essence of our being.
It only leaves me to wish everyone present a successful conference and to wish our IFLRY friends a meaningful stay in Singapore.
Yours in solidarity,
Chee Soon Juan