By Andrew Loh
For the longest time, associating oneself with an opposition party in Singapore would instantaneously throw up that dreaded feeling – fear. Let alone stepping up and joining and being a member of one. It was the result of years – decades – of fear-mongering by the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), led for some 30 years by strongman, Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee’s “hatchet” politics, no doubt, contributed a large part to this aversion towards all things opposition. But times have changed somewhat – and Lee himself is no longer worshipped by the masses, especially the younger set, as the demi-god which some still make him out to be.
His tactics of jailing his political opponents, suing them to bankruptcy, and – with the help of the media which he held a firm hand on – he decimated any remnants of dignity and integrity any of his opponents had in the eyes of the public. All these created a lasting climate of fear – even today.
But slowly, things are changing.
Events in the past 2 years, in particular, show that Singaporeans are no longer as fearful of associating themselves with the opposition as before. Two of these episodes involved the man whom Lee had once declared to be “kaput” (“finished”) in politics – Dr Chee Soon Juan, who was assailed (some say assaulted) with defamation suits, jail time, and virtually torn to shreds by the state-controlled mainstream media.
The first episode indicating that things are changing happened in February of 2011. Dr Chee, faced with a 20-week jail term if he could not pay a fine of S$20,000 after being convicted “on four counts of speaking in public without a permit”, went public to seek help. The SDP launched an online fundraising campaign to raise the amount.
The party urged Singaporeans to contribute to the fund “to keep Dr Chee out of prison so that he is available to lead the SDP during the upcoming GE.” The General Election, as it turned out, was called barely 3 months later.
“This is a historical development in that it is the first time that Singaporeans have rallied together to show such encouraging support for an opposition cause,” the party said in a statement after the target sum was reached.
In September 2012, Dr Chee made an offer to Lee and former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, of S$30,000 to settle an outstanding debt of S$500,000 which was the result of a defamation suit brought by the two PAP men against him. The reason, Chee says, is to be discharged from bankruptcy so that he can lead the SDP, as a candidate, in the next general elections, due by 2016.
Surprisingly, the two accepted Chee’s offer.
Chee, who had recently launched his book, Democratically Speaking, then went on a book-selling endeavour around the town areas to raise the money on 11 September. On 24 September, the SDP announced on its website: “Not only has the target been reached but it was achieved in record time – 10 days!”
“The outcome signals the intense desire of Singaporeans wanting to see the democratic movement in Singapore accelerate and they want to help clear Dr Chee’s bankruptcy,” the SDP said.
“I want to thank everyone who chipped in,” Chee said in his thank you note. “It was a stunning success and it was the effort of the people who showed that they wanted to write the story of Singapore’s Democracy.”
On 27 September, Chee – accompanied by party members and supporters – went to the Insolvency and Public Trustees’ Office (IPTO) to remit the $30,000 to settle his case with Lee and Goh.
“What seemed impossible is now reality,” Chee said after handing over the sum to the Official Assignee.
The success in raising a total of S$50,000 by the SDP is particularly instructive for observers of the political scene in Singapore. It is also worth noting that the first episode occurred before the general election of May 2011, which many described as a turning point for Singapore politics. Perhaps the change actually took place much earlier, within the hearts and minds of Singaporeans.
Perhaps too Lee and Goh realised that the tide has turned and that to reject Chee’s offer would do the PAP more damage than good. Better to be seen to be magnanimous than to be seen to be vindictive and unforgiving.
The politics of Singapore, as many Singaporeans have been calling for, must be gentlemanly.
Whatever the reasons the two PAP men may have had for accepting the offer, what is more important is the change in Singaporeans’ attitude towards the SDP and Dr Chee in particular. Certainly, the party still has some ways to go to reach out to the masses to have wide-spread support, especially with the mainstream media still stubbornly shunning reporting on SDP’s activities. But for a party which had been the target of much of the PAP’s (unbridled) wrath, the support it is seeing is momentous. Such support is not only in monetary terms but also in other ways as well. For example, the party also, for the first time, managed to gather a group of 8 practising doctors to devise an alternative National Healthcare Plan. And in recent times, its public events – such as the forum on Malay issues several weeks ago – saw standing-room only turn-outs.
Associating with the much-maligned party is no longer anathema, it would seem.
Indeed, the party is on the cusp of a new beginning, emerging, as it were, from the crucible of fire which few other parties have gone through. How it will move forward remains to be seen, of course. But one thing is for sure, contrary to what some might think, the SDP is not a spent force. Instead, it is – strangely enough – a breath of fresh air in an arena dominated by the unchanging PAP and the moderate Workers’ Party.
Singaporeans want to be a part of the decision-making process of their country. This much is clear. And if one thinks the idea of democracy resides only within the hearts and minds of the young, Chee’s recent encounter with an elderly lady at Raffles Place, where he was selling his book to raise the S$30,000, tells a different story.
“She came up to me and gave me S$5,” Chee said. “I could tell that she was a cleaning lady because of the outfit that she was wearing. She told me that she couldn’t afford the book but just wanted to help me discharge my bankruptcy. I told her that I couldn’t accept the gift as it was a lot of money for her. It was probably her three meals for the day. She turned to me and told me in Hokkien (a local dialect): ‘I too have a share in our country. You cannot deny me my share. I want to see you succeed. I want to see democracy in our country.'”
Perhaps Chee said it best himself when addressing some people’s perception that he had “learnt his lesson” and that he has “changed”:
“No, I haven’t changed. What has changed is your perception of me.”
In December, Chee will have spent 20 years in politics in Singapore.