Friday April 14, 2006
Chee Soon Juan is Singapore's best-known dissident. In his decade-long struggle with the People's Action party (PAP), which has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1965, he has been jailed four times, fined, dismissed from his job as a university lecturer, sued by the country's "minister mentor" Lee Kuan Yew, bankrupted and barred from running in elections.
Mr Chee, leader of the tiny opposition Singapore Democratic party, says the spectacular economic progress for which Singapore is famous is no longer enough. He wants a more open, inclusive and democratic political system in the city state. He is backed by human rights groups.
Mr Chee was briefly jailed again last month for contempt of court after he accused the judiciary of pro-government bias. "This is only the beginning, we're going to carry on fighting," he vowed on his release. Standing outside the rusty barbed wire fences of Queenstown remand prison on a Friday morning with his wife and children at his side, he added: "We are going to do whatever we can to bring democracy to Singapore."
Veteran opposition leader JB Jeyaretnam, formerly of the Workers party, said reform was long overdue. "The whole system is a shambles. The government is a law unto itself in many cases ... From the beginning, parliament has been kept as a sort of rubber stamp for the PAP. I call this a castrated society."
But opposition parties, which hold two of parliament's 84 elected seats, face an all but impossible task in polls expected by the end of June. Government critics cite budget giveaways, cowed media, PAP threats to withhold state funding from opposition constituencies, mandatory voting, and what some Singaporeans call the "fear factor" as evidence that the system is stacked against them.
"People are frightened to get involved as candidates or even to help the opposition. There is a very real fear of what the PAP can do," Mr Jeyaretnam said. Repercussions ranged from dismissing people from their jobs to throwing them in jail. Like Mr Chee, he was bankrupted after defamation suits brought by the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew's son, among others.
Officials make no apology for Singapore's top-down way of doing things. Mr Chee and others were free to oppose policies provided they followed the rules, second solicitor-general Lee Seiu Kin said after the contempt hearing. "If he [Chee] deliberately and flagrantly breaks the law, whether by uttering extremely defamatory words or flouting the criminal law - or in this case, making grave accusations against not just a judge but the entire judiciary - then he must know the law must be enforced," he said.
All the same, Singapore's leaders acknowledge times are changing. Its "economic miracle" is under threat as competition mounts from larger neighbours, as well as the region's emerging superpowers. They admit if the PAP cannot guarantee sustained prosperity, pressure for political reform may increase.
As China's wealth and power grows, Singapore (whose 4.2 million people are 75% ethnic Chinese) is beginning to resemble a pilot for a far bigger project. Officials say the government is intent on opening up the political system. But, like China, they insist it must balance demands for greater freedom against the "existential" need to maintain security and economic growth. And Singapore was not going to have one-size-fits-all western values foisted upon it - whatever people like Mr Chee might say.
"I hope we are improving by our standards. Whether we are improving by your standards or American standards is a different question," said the foreign minister, George Yeo. "Our responsibility is to Singaporeans, and what we do here should meet their approval. There are no universal prescriptions."