The turn-out for the launch of his 8th and latest book, Democratically Speaking, was a full-house affair. The queue for his autograph too was apparently just as enthusiastic. Dr Chee intends to use the proceeds from the book to pay off the damages owed to Mr Lee and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He has written to them to make the offer but have yet to hear from the two parties.
Dr Chee would be encouraged that the book is attracting brisk sales, and even major bookstores – once unwilling to stock his book – are now doing so.
On Friday, 17 August 2012, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) – of which Dr Chee is secretary general – posted on its Facebook page that Dr Chee would be at Raffles Place at lunch time to promote his book. It was an opportunity for me to see for myself what reception the ordinary man-on-the-street (literally) would give Dr Chee and his book.
It had been raining before the scheduled time, and the rain had subsided into a drizzle by 1pm. In the first half hour or so, all Dr Chee and fellow SDP members – Dr Vincent Wijeysingha and Ms Chee Siok Chin, who were there to lend their support to Dr Chee – received were curious stares. One lady approached me and asked, “Who is he?” as she pointed to Dr Chee. “He’s the secretary general of an opposition party in Singapore,” I replied. She smiled – and then promptly walked away.
Her reaction is, of course, not unusual, given how many Singaporeans still are rather disinterested in politics, despite what transpired at last year’s general elections.
Slowly, however, one by one the passersby stopped to wish Dr Chee and his colleagues well, with quite a few buying copies of the book, and of course asking Dr Chee to autograph them, which he obliged happily.
By the end of the 2 hours which the SDP team was there, all the books which they brought had been sold out.
While the quantity is perhaps nothing to shout about, the fact that they were sold out is quite unusual, at least from what I have observed in the past, and not just with Dr Chee. The late JB Jeyaretnam, for example, used to promote his books at such places too, but few would even approach him, let alone purchase his books. Besides, word from the bookstores is that Democratically Speaking is selling quite well too.
Times have changed, hopefully.
But more than book sales, Dr Chee’s (and the SDP’s) message of democracy, an idea which the party has always championed, is getting through, especially to the younger, Internet-savvy crowd. Some of the SDP’s videos on Youtube, for example, have garnered substantial number of views into the tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands. You can also witness this in the new faces turning up at SDP's events in recent times.
But what is this message that the younger Singaporeans are increasingly attracted to?
This perhaps is also the question the ruling party (and other opposition parties) are pondering. I would say it is the message of a different vision for Singapore – one which, some would say (and not incorrectly), Singapore desperately needs. Whether one agrees with the SDP and its policies or not, it remains that it is the only opposition party with an alternative vision which is starkly different to that of the ruling party.
And Singaporeans want to know what the alternatives are. This desire is driven by the failures of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in several areas. The young, more exposed to the world than perhaps the older generation, are more receptive to the ideas which the SDP is offering. Democracy, for example, is not anathema to them. Human Rights is not alien to the young, especially those who have studied abroad and have been exposed to these. Freedom of the media, freedom to express themselves, freedom to associate and assemble, these are ideas and rights which the younger set will increasingly demand from their own government here.
Democracy, rights and freedom form the bedrock of beliefs and philosophy of Dr Chee and the SDP.
It is also these same ideas which the ruling party has decimated on the altar of economic growth.
So, why does Dr Chee (and his ideas) still matter? The reason is simple: ultimately, economic growth and democracy are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the two are different sides of the same coin. Our freedom to express ourselves, the institution and then the defence of our rights, and the freedom to associate and assemble, go to the very heart of how our economy is run – being able to hold our government accountable to economic policies, so that they do not erode our rights (as recent years have shown are increasingly being eroded) as citizens and workers, and to be able to do these by associating and grouping ourselves freely for these causes.
These remain true wherever one lives, and whatever the economic system is.
In brief, it simply means power must rests with the people – a belief which Mr Jeyaretnam had always held to as well. And in Singapore, it is still a long way before we restore this power to the people.
And this is why Dr Chee matters. Whether he eventually becomes prime minister, or even a Member of Parliament, is besides the point. What matters is that he has a different message from the stale and uninspiring ones coming out from the ruling party, which seems to only want to make tweaks to its current thinking, and others like the Workers’ Party whose “First World Parliament” ambitions are vague at best and resemble those of the PAP, at worst. Few are clear on or able to say what the WP actually stands for.
Will Singaporeans at large embrace Dr Chee and his ideas wholeheartedly? That is left to be seen, of course. But there is no doubt that if the ruling party fails to accept the ideas of democracy, freedom and rights, it will increasingly find itself out of favour, particularly with the younger generation – democratically speaking.
And in a climate of uncertainty, and the Government being perceived as incapable of taking Singapore in a new direction, Dr Chee’s message will become increasingly accepted. And this, perhaps, is not necessarily a bad thing.
He is certainly far from being "kaput."
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