Dr Chee Soon Juan was invited to speak at a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents' Association. Below are excerpts of his speech.
Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen – and whoever else is listening in,
Let me start by reading to you a few quotes:
Mr Goh Chok Tong: "[Singaporeans] have rejected Western-style liberal democracy and freedoms."
Mr Teo Chee Hean: "A two-party system would put us on the dangerous road to contention when we should play as one team."
Mr George Yeo: Singapore cannot function "solely on the basis of one-man-one-vote democracy.”
Mr Lee Hsien Loong: Singapore "doesn't aspire to be a Western-style democracy.”
Lee [Kuan Yew], having failed to stop the foreign media from ‘meddling in Singapore’s domestic affairs,’ told me that instead of attempting to control editors and journalists, he would target the pockets of owners and publishers. ‘I will hit you where it hurts. Then we will see your commitment to a free press.’ Anyway, he enjoyed a confrontation with the media. ‘Don’t forget, I can hurt you more than you can hurt me.’ A bill was being prepared with the aim of giving the government powers to limit the sales of foreign publications in Singapore, thereby reducing their revenues from circulation and advertisements. That would bring direct and more effective pressure to bear on editors. Privately, I felt that foreign publications would hardly submit to such pressure, but I was wholly wrong and Lee was largely right.
I think you all get the picture. The PAP doesn’t want Western-style democracy.
So what does it want? Is there some other kind of democracy that the PAP system is based? The closest that I can think of is Asian-style democracy, which is akin to the Asian values debate. But the Asian values debate – that somehow Asians and our values are at odds with the principles of human rights and democracy – has been utterly debunked in the aftermath of 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Today Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines all practice a variation of the kind of democracy that the PAP so firmly rejects.
Mr Teo Chee Hean said it all: The PAP doesn’t want a two-party-system, in other words, a system where the PAP is challenged and where there is a fighting chance for alternative parties to become government.
These are not mere ministerial musings. They are backed up by the mother of all ministers, Mr Lee Kuan Yew: "But we haven't found it necessary yet [to change the one-man-one-vote system]. If it became necessary we should do it.”
When you consider that the PAP writes the law, bends it at will, applies it whenever it suits them and ignores it when it doesn’t, you’ll see what I mean.
In the 1997 elections, PAP ministers had illegally entered polling stations. When the opposition lodged complaints, the Attorney-General said that the ministers had not committed any offence because they were inside the polling stations and "not loitering outside them”. And yet when Internet activist Robert Ho called on Singaporeans to do what the Ministers did, the police arrested him saying that he was inciting public disorder.
Some of the ballot boxes in my MacPherson constituency were taken to another constituency for counting. The Government never explained why.
Also in the 1997 election, Tang Liang Hong was sued for making a police report about the PAP leaders. Lee Kuan Yew then released the contents of the report and sued Tang for defamation. Under the law, how could Tang have defamed the PAP leaders when he was not the one who publicized the contents of the police report.
Boundaries are redrawn and announced at the very last minute. In the 1997 elections the boundaries were announced one day before the elections was called.
Ballot papers are numbered. With the prime minister standing in front of you in the polling station and the Government saying that it would monitor closely which residents voted for whom, do you really expect the average voter to vote without fear? In 2001, Lee Kuan Yew threatened the voters in my constituency they would face "five years of misery” if they voted for me.
Outside of elections, Singaporeans are prohibited from gathering in public to engage in politics. The Constitution says that only five or more people gathered in public constitutes an illegal assembly. But, seemingly oblivious to this provision, the police dispersed the four protesters who stood outside the CPF Building in August this year calling for transparency and accountability. The four plus yours truly and another colleague of mine are now under investigation for the incident. This ban doesn’t apply to the PAP, however. In 1988, the Government orchestrated a demonstration against the US outside the US embassy where hundreds of NTUC members took part.
Then in 2000, the Government banned a marathon I tried to organize to commemorate the International Human Rights Day. But in 2005, it allowed some women PAP MPs to stage a walk-a-thon to commemorate International Women’s Day.
Consider also Martyn See’s case. The Films Act stipulates that Singaporeans cannot produce, distribute and exhibit films that have a "political end”. They deemed the documentary he made about me and another one about Mr J B Jeyaretnam done by three polytechnic staff as having "political ends” and banned them. But documentaries about the PAP and its leaders are all right. Who makes these decisions? The PAP, of course. I’m also now under investigation for "possession of a film without a valid certificate.”
With the media being in the hands of the government and with defamation lawsuits flying every which way, is it surprising that Singaporeans live in a climate of fear when it comes to politics? It is noteworthy, if unsurprising, that 93 percent of Singaporeans are afraid to speak up on policies they disagree with. If they dare not voice out against the PAP, do you think they dare vote for the opposition?
Let me re-cap on what I have shown you:
One, the PAP has made it clear that it will not allow a democratic system where another political party can challenge it for power, and that it is prepared to change the one-man-one-vote system to ensure this.
Two, it has demonstrated repeatedly that it will use the law to achieve its objective of not allowing the democratic system to develop. It does this by ensuring that laws prevent oppositional forces and civil society from organising themselves and the people.
Three, the opposition has through the years remained marginalized at the polls through the machinations of the PAP.
Taking all three observations into consideration, does it make sense for the opposition to continue to fight for elections and pretend that one day we will be able to win enough seats to form the government and then reform the system to make it democratic?
All we are doing by continuing to participate in the elections is to legitimise them and allow the PAP to claim the mandate that they don’t have.
So what should an opposition party like the Singapore Democratic Party do? Boycott the elections? No, boycotting the elections is not the answer. Not that boycotting is not a good strategy but it needs the cooperation of all the opposition parties and that’s not going to happen in the near future.
What the opposition needs to do is to work at winning back the fundamentals of democracy, that is, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and a free media.
Why do I focus on these? If you read history, no successful transition from a dictatorship to a democracy has taken place without these three freedoms. Whether it was South Africa, Poland, Taiwan, Philippines, South Korea or the United States, freedom and democracy has never been won without the people physically gathering together to speak and without the media publicising what they had to say.
We know what we have to do to overcome the lack of freedom of speech and assembly in Singapore. Defying the ban on protests and public gatherings is necessary. The question of freeing the media is, however, a little more complicated.
Efforts of pro-democracy forces to overcome dictatorships have rarely been successful without pressure from the international community. Even US President John Kennedy supported the Civil Rights Movement partly due to pressure, directly or otherwise, from the international community.
For others to know about what is happening in a country, reporting by the international media is essential. The Singapore Government knows this all too well which is why it has through the years punished the foreign print media for what it sees as "errant” reporting and commentary. The AWSJ, Newsweek, Time, Economist, IHT, FEER, Asiaweek, Bloomberg have all been prosecuted, sued for defamation and/or had their circulation curtailed.
In every instance, the publications capitulated, some with a protracted fight, others in swift surrender. Some even grovelled for forgiveness.
Having intimidated the foreign press, the Government turned its cross-hairs on the foreign broadcast media.
In 2001 George Yeo: ‘Just look at the way foreign channels have become part of the domestic politics in Malaysia and Indonesia. We should worry for ourselves.’
The rumbling was not lost on the stations. I subsequently learned from journalists who had previously worked for CNBC that, for a time, the station was clearly rattled by the threats and worried that the Singapore government would pull its broadcast license and send its investments down the pipe.
Little more was said about this matter until March 1, 2001, when I gave a second interview on CNN’s Q&A with Riz Khan. Nine days later, the government said that it would introduce an amendment to the Singapore Broadcasting Authority Act. The new law extends the same principles to foreign television channels which are re-broadcast in Singapore by Singapore Cable Vision. If you have seen the coverage of MediaCorp on the opposition, you will understand that "same principles” is code for absolutely no coverage on the opposition.
But these developments are not the most aggravating concerns because one expects the PAP, as with all dictatorships, to ensure that the world doesn’t get to learn of its ways. What rankles is that despite the PAP’s bullying, the foreign media continue to choose to base themselves in this country.
And because they are based here, they stay away from critical and hard-nosed reporting on Singapore. And if they do report, there is often heavy self-censorship.
The late Derek Davies of FEER wrote: ‘Coverage of Singapore affairs has been such as to keep Singapore’s feathers relatively unruffled.’
Political economist Dr Garry Rodan writes that ‘government strategies for constraining critical reporting have resulted in the widespread adoption of self-censorship within all forms of the international media.’
But perhaps the gravest indictment comes from Derek Davies:
"The trend towards less press freedom and more government restriction [in Thailand] is unmistakable. Thaksin Shinawatra's government has launched what many media members describe as a well-coordinated assault against their ability to freely gather and present the news…But if, as recent events suggest, Mr Thaksin's fawning references to the two neighbouring authoritarian regimes [Singapore and Malaysia] extends to his government's policy towards the press, then without a doubt the Thai media is in crisis and could be for some time to come.”
Of course, not all journalists stayed away from reporting on Singapore’s politics. The BBC had aired a 25-minute documentary on the Speakers’ Corner in Singapore with its presenter, John Simpson, gushing that ‘Singapore is leading, finding its way into the future when the rest of us are still sort of stumbling along.’ The story was, of course, prominently featured on the Prime News section in the Straits Times.
And to rub red-hot chilli padi to the injury, the Singapore Government uses the fact that these companies’ presence to show how open Singapore is. Lee Hsien Loong said last week in Pusan, South Korea: "We are completely open” and supported this claim by citing that organisations such as CNBC, Dow Jones, Bloomberg and Reuters have a presence here in Singapore.
Can there be greater indignity for news organisations to be, first, bullied into submission and then used by the bully to make itself look good?
The bigger worry is that what the PAP does in Singapore has been and will be picked up by other governments. For example, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and associates have started a campaign of suing newspapers. Shawn Crispin recently wrote in the Bangkok Post:
If Mr Thaksin succeeds, will other young democracies like Indonesia or the Philippines or South Korea perform a monkey-see, monkey-do act? Will we then see a roll back of the gains democracy has made through all these years of pain and sacrifice?
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not asking you to support the opposition in Singapore. I am acutely aware of the need for foreign news organizations to maintain a measure of neutrality. But this is exactly why I am so vexed. By self-censoring or completely staying away from reporting on Singapore’s politics, are you being neutral? My only hope is that you will do your work as you were trained to do – without fear or favour.
I know it is not good form to criticize one’s host. But I also know that I would not be respectful of you if I did not speak the truth, about what has been in my heart for the longest of time. I am confident that you did not invite me here today to make platitudinous drivel.
If my impudence can help bring about change for the common, democratic good, then I gladly ask for your understanding, if not forgiveness. I can only hope that at the end of the day you and I can say, without reservation, that we all kept faith with our respective vocations and, more importantly, with ourselves.
(25 Nov 2005)