Singapore Democrats, 3 April 2008

National University of Singapore (NUS) The Ridge magazine, a student union journal, has declined to publish an interview one of its writers did with Dr Chee Soon Juan.

Mr Kelvin Lim, a student reporter for The Ridge, wrote to Dr Chee in January this year for an interview for the magazine when the Singapore Democrats held its public forum on election reform.

We reproduce the unpublished interview below:

The Ridge: Are you satisfied with the turnout of the forum?

Dr Chee: Yes, I am. But organising a forum is the easiest thing to do in this process because it’s not the number who turn up at a forum that is going to reform our election system. It’s really those who dedicate themselves to the work in the months and years ahead that are ultimately going to mean whether we have free and fair elections or whether we continue to live in a one-party state.

The Ridge: Do you think this forum has achieved the original intention of “kick-start a national effort to address and rectify an election system”?

Dr Chee: Whether the reform effort is ultimately successful or not depends on whether Singaporeans are willing to come forward and serve the cause. My role is to persuade and encourage Singaporeans, especially youths such as yourselves, to take up the challenge and push for change. The fastest way for anything to fail is for people to wait for other people to do the work.

We need leaders ā€“ real leaders, not those who call on others to make all the sacrifices and then demand that they be paid millions in salaries. We need Singaporeans who not only have the vision and foresight, but also those who have the guts to come out and fight for what they believe in.

For every 100 historians, researchers, analysts, and commentators, there is one activist out there with sweat on his brow, pushing the boundaries and working for change. It would be nice if the numbers were reversed.

The Ridge: What are the immediate future plans after this forum?

Dr Chee: We have called for a meeting where we will make plans to form a committee, identify the tasks ahead, and assign work. If you or anyone of your readers are interested, please contact us at speakup@yoursdp.org. Remember, it’s our future and our nation that we are talking about. If we Singaporeans don’t care, no one else will.

The Ridge: By and large, the Singapore Democratic Party has not been very popular among Singaporeans. Being at the forefront of this movement, would you view this as an impediment?

Dr Chee: I remember talking with Kim Dae-jung in the 1990s when he had still not yet become the president of South Korea. Kim was imprisoned for six years for his role in fighting for democracy in Korea and had survived a couple of assassination attempts. He had lost several elections and at one point was very unpopular among his fellow citizens, especially those from other provinces. This was because the military government relentlessly painted him as one who was soft on the communists in North Korea. You needed a strong military government, albeit a dictatorial one, to stand up to the communist North, the generals said. A democracy would weaken South Korea and invite the North to invade. Kim said that it hurt him deeply when his fellow citizens criticized him but he believed in what he was doing and would not stop working for a democratic South Korea. He persevered and won his people over.

Similarly, democracy activists in Taiwan were unpopular during the martial law years. In Indonesia the opposition could muster no more than a quarter of the votes during the Suharto years. Yet when democratic change came, when free and fair elections were held, the tables turned.

When there is not a free media and when we don’t have a free and fair election system, let us not just do what is popular. Instead, let us have the honesty and courage to do what is right. Popularity in an undemocratic system is like the wicked queen and her mirror on the wall. It is based on deception and vanity. This is what the situation with the PAP is. The opposition must not fall into the same trap. In truth it is not the lack of popularity that is an impediment to the reform of elections in Singapore, rather the craving of it.

The Ridge: In the face of an apparent polarization of political views among opposition parties, do you think it is possible for reconciliation or compromise to a common ground?

Dr Chee: If you are referring to ideology or platform, it is perfectly all right for political parties, even those in the opposition camp, to differ. Problems of society (and their solutions) are too complex for things to be neatly compartmentalized into just two views: government or opposition.

But if you are talking about democratic change and reform of an unfair and unfree elections system, I don’t understand why opposition parties cannot band together. Look at PAS and the DAP in Malaysia. They have very disparate ideologies and appeal to very different segments of the electorate. And yet when it came to the recent protest for free and fair elections, they were arm-in-arm.

It is to this end that the SDP will continue to reason with and persuade all opposition parties to see that in this one issue of electoral reform, we need to put aside our own interests and work together for the good of Singaporeans. Pride and prejudice will destroy not just our parties, but also Singapore.

The Ridge: In your speech, you suggested raising awareness among university students, NGOs, academics as one of the concrete action towards election reform. However, would ordinary Singaporeans such as heart-landers be engaged in this process?

Dr Chee: Yes. How? Through university students, NGOs and academics. As I mentioned, Singaporeans need to stop waiting for others to make the change. The SDP can’t do it alone. The committee that is going to be formed can’t do it alone. What we need to do, and will do, is to get more Singaporeans to actively participate in the process. The operative word here is “actively.”

If the people we meet say “Yes, I know its important that we reform our election system” and yet choose to do nothing while waiting for the next person to do the work, then we will be talking about change for a very long time. We need to reach out to the heartlanders, there is no doubt about that. But when I say “we” I don’t just mean the SDP. Get on board and let’s get busy.

The Ridge: An incessant preoccupation with the financial pursuits has left most Singaporeans politically disengaged. How would you seek to convince the politically apathetic to be more interested or involved?

Dr Chee: By reaching out to those who are not. Change always comes from the minority ā€“ the thinking and engaged minority. It always has and always will. When we show leadership and courage, others will follow. I remember what Shih Ming-teh, a Taiwanese dissident jailed for 25 years who is now an influential political figure in Taiwan, once said:

“In every era, there are always those who will struggle for freedom. These people play a difficult role, their paths are paved with pain and loneliness. These freedom fighters plod along a narrow path. But in the end, those who follow will widen the path into a broad avenue.”

Don’t worry about the politically apathetic. Don’t look at them and say if they’re not interested, why should I do anything. Instead, take that first step even when others are either too afraid or seemingly apathetic. It’s called leadership. You’ll be surprised how many minds you will change from your act of courage and leadership.

The Ridge: Finally, as a parting note, what do have to say to NUS students?

Dr Chee: My colleagues and I will be coming down to your campus as well as the campuses of the other universities. I hope to be able to talk to you about the reform effort and discuss with you about setting up a student campaign for electoral reform. Better yet, it would be good if one of your unions or clubs could organise a forum for us to discuss this. In the meantime, visit our website www.yoursdp.org to keep abreast of political matters in Singapore.