Monday, September 24, 2012

Chee Soon Juan – The Man and his Beliefs

Published by The Online Citizen on September 24, 2012 (source)

By Kumaran Pillai & Leo Khaw
This is part 1 of a 4 part series -
Part I: Chee spoke about his brand of politics and why he chose a different strategy from the other opposition parties. Part In this part, we cover about his views on the judiciary.

Part 2: Chee’s views on the judiciary and his about his moral consciousness.
Part 3: Is democracy a western philosophy or a Universal Principle? Can it be applied to Asian countries? Is there any evidence of Asia having practiced democracy in its early civilizations?
Part 4: What is the meaning of being socially liberal? Where Chee and SDP stands in their economic philosophies
Part 1
The re-entry of Chee Soon Juan in local politics

Dr Chee Soon Juan
Dr Chee Soon Juan, the caricature of opposition politics in Singapore is seldom portrayed in a positive light. Yet, he never fails to have a sparkle in his conversation about what the future holds. I caught up with him to discuss about his plans, his future, a little bit about his past and particularly about his proposal get out of bankruptcy.
His political strategy of going for broke, quite literally, has brought him into financial straits. Some have questioned his wisdom of doing this, while others think that a more subdued approach like how some of the other leading opposition figures have done would have been better.
I have often wondered if he knew what he was signing up for when he decided to enter politics twenty years ago. Whether politics was on his radar screen, how he got interested in politics, his rise to fame or infamy as some would have it? He has certainly paid a big price, a political one at that, which he needs to overcome in the next few years to establish himself as a player.
Below is the first of a four part series. It is an eye opener if you’ve not known anything about this man. Read it, and find out for yourself if the media has done justice to him, his ideas and philosophy.
KP: You have been in politics for over twenty years and it has been a very rocky ride. They have called you names, bankrupted you and made life extremely difficult for you. Yet, you have persevered. What keeps you going all these years?
CSJ: The worst thing that can happen to any politician is to be ignored. If you’re ignored, it really means you are not doing your job right. In fact, they call you all these names because you are getting under their skin and they just don’t like it. Autocrats don’t know how to react to constructive criticism other than to call you names.
In an autocratic system they also control the mass media and they may succeed with the whole name-calling part and smearing you for the time being. But, you know, you’ve got to persevere.
If you understand autocratic systems, and have some understanding of history, you'll find that people have been worse off than what they have done to me. Some of these people have been imprisoned, maligned, tortured and in some cases even killed! The word then is perseverance. Change doesn’t come without persistence and perseverance. And if we forget that, we won’t achieve what we’ve set out to do.
So look, all these years, they may think that they have gotten the better of me, and they seem to be winning, but you know that freedom and justice finally comes through.
KP: Prior to entering politics, you were a lecturer. You owned a landed property, you were financially stable, and had a stable career. Then it started going downhill because of your involvement in politics and your political beliefs. Do you have any regrets?
CSJ: I’ve lost a lot, but I don’t see the losses in terms of finances. Sure, life has been hard but I never really regretted it.
I really enjoyed research work and I was getting publications into major journals. In fact, I had one of my papers published in the SMJ, Singapore Medical Journal. But, that’s another story. That’s one of my strengths and I really enjoyed it. So, to a certain extent, yes I do miss that!
But, when you compare it to what needs to be done — and you’re talking about an entire society — if there was no one speaking up, things can go very wrong very quickly. So, in that sense, no, I haven’t looked back and said that joining the SDP was something I shouldn’t have done.
There were difficult times, nonetheless, when I wished things were a little better. But, that’s when I tell myself that anything that’s worth doing, is never easy.
KP: What is your definition of success? Would you say that success is only limited to electoral success or do you have a broader definition of success?
CSJ: I have never seen getting into parliament as the endpoint that is not what I perceive as success. If we’ve not reformed the system, whereby there are proper checks and balances, where the media is not controlled where labour unions are free to form and organise, then, we haven’t achieved anything at all!
We have just seen autocrats being displaced by another bunch of autocrats and history is just repeating itself. So, for me at least, success means when we get into the position whereby the ruling party or the government is part of the story and not the story. When we have civil society representing the people or segments of the people and when we have a strong opposition, able and willing to take over the government… That is my definition of success.
KP: Compared to the other political parties, you have taken a different tack. Do you think being more compliant would have been more successful in terms of getting a seat in parliament?
CSJ: I cannot speak for them; I can only speak for myself. If you’re a keen observer, you should be able to compare and contrast. We are not going to get anywhere if all we do is to rely on elections to bring about democratic change.
In a democratic system, you have the media to report fairly on both sides. You look at what’s happening in the UK; you look at what’s happening in the US right now, both incumbent and the challenger get a lot of coverage in the main stream media. We hear about their views, on their policies, on their strategies and so on.
I’m talking about a fair media. That doesn’t exist here in Singapore. How do you begin to fight an election when half the people out there, in fact, the overwhelming majority out there, don’t know what’s going on?
I challenge you to go out and do a survey right now. Has anybody heard of my book ‘Democratically Speaking?’ The news has been going around on the internet but the newspapers are completely silent.
So how would people know? And if they don’t know, how do you expect them to go to the voting booth; and say ‘yes,’ I think this party makes more sense than that party’s policy, that this is what I subscribe to and I think it’s better for our society and country, and then vote accordingly.
In a democratic society, political parties can hold a public assembly so that we can go out and talk to the people. In Singapore, if we walk into a university, NUS for example, and ask students to organise an event so that we can talk to young voters, we’ll get stopped. That limits our ability to reach out. Honestly, how do we ask them to vote for us? So, election in, election out, the PAP "wins".
Now, when people don’t know what the issues are, about how PAP is intimidating us, about our lack of civil liberties, about our economic issues and problems, about our over-reliance on cheap foreign labour and GDP growth at all costs, then how do you expect them to make an informed choice when they vote?
That’s how PAP gets the mandate all the time. What I’m trying to say is: let us be smart about this. Where is the problem? The problem is that we don’t have our freedom and that includes a free media. We don’t have a free press that’s why the PAP gets a free ride into parliament all the time. No, they are not held accountable! Nothing is transparent here.
We have this big problem! If we have a problem, let's resolve it by getting to the root cause. Once all these things are taken care of, we don’t have to worry about elections. The candidate that makes the most sense, the candidate that can appeal to most, the best candidate gets elected into the government.
And on that score, I am absolutely confident that the kind of policies that we’ve been advocating, the people will understand it and when they know it, when they get to hear it, they'll support us.
We don’t have resort to jailing people, we don’t have to shut them up to win elections.

Chee spoke in a soft but firm voice. He spoke with conviction about his beliefs. He is there as a reminder of the artificial boundaries, or OB markers that have been setup by the PAP. They need to be challenged, he says, and overcome in order to reach a society that is free from the political, social and economic domination of a single party.
We went on to speak about a lot of other things, like the media, the judiciary and the economy, which will be covered in the other parts of this series.


Part 2
Chee’s Moral Compass  (source)

Not everyone gets to be called a psychopath, a dud and a political juvenile by Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Chee comes out tops in this category. It is not a very enviable position to be in, though. Yet, he is unbending in his approach. He thinks that Singapore has no Rule of Law and took on the Chief Justice, Attorney General and the Law Minister on that front. I need to highlight at this juncture that Singapore’s legal system is considered one of the finest in the world by some legal stalwarts. Yet, Chee has a completely different perspective of it.
Is he out to create trouble and put Singapore in a bad light or as Dr Cherian would have it, create stunts to get the attention of International Media? Or, is there a method to his madness? These are things that I never understood about him and perhaps never will. However, I make an attempt to rationalize his behaviour – I use Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development.
Chee would be at stage six of Kohlberg’s model, the highest of all stages – where moral reasoning is based upon universal ethical principles and abstract reasoning. At this stage, people follow these internalized principles of justice, even if they conflict with laws and rules.
According to Kohlberg, members of the judiciary would be at either stage four or five, where the focus is on maintaining law and order by following the rules, doing one’s duty and respecting authority. Therein lies the conflict, they are all at different levels of moral reasoning. There is plenty of literature out there for the avid reader about Kohlberg’s model. So, I’ll leave that narrative to an expert in that field.
In this instalment, I have asked Chee a series of questions to get a sense of direction of his moral compass. Why do it when you know you are going to get into trouble and down to specific cases where he thinks universal principles of justice are violated.
KP: In your book, you had an interesting narrative about Singapore’s claim that it practices the rule of law. I understand that you have written to Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Walter Woon and Minister Shanmugam. What were those letters about?
CSJ: They make statements during the opening of the legal year and on other occasions that Singapore practices the rule of law. They were actually referring to me and others who have taken part in some of these protests. They keep saying that we must abide by the rule of law. But then, how do you define the rule of law?
It is not just the government passing the law and then everybody abiding by it. If that’s the case, then Nazi Germany would have run the country based on the rule of law. Apartheid would still be in place. Segregation in the US would still be in place because all these societies were governed by laws. The question is, are these laws just? The point that we were trying to make is that if you pass a law that transgresses and contravenes the principles of democracy and human rights then it cannot be right. I made a point in the book that the rule of law is not defined in heaven and then just handed down to us from on high.
In 1949, a group of eminent legal scholars from around the world gathered in New Delhi and they distilled it down to two to three points, known as the Delhi Declaration. One that is relevant to this discussion is that the rule of law necessitates that the government, any government, acts within certain restrictions. This is where we are so lacking. This government basically does as it pleases. If there is no law, it will make one to ensure that dissent from the political opposition or from civil society or directly from the people are all crushed. This is not the rule of law. Therein my motivation to take on the head of the judiciary on this point. In my opinion, he is wrong in saying there is rule of law in Singapore.
KP: Who do you think should appoint the judicial officers?

CSJ: Take the best practises of other countries, as we keep saying we base our parliamentary system on the UK’s system. Everybody respects and reveres the independence of the judiciary in the UK. We had a Canadian QC who said that as a judge who steps down, he is barred from arguing before the Courts for about 2 years. He can continue to practise law in other offices but not before a judge. The Law Society, in other words their peers, has a big say in the appointment of judges. Compare this to Singapore, our Law Society cannot even speak up on legislation, let alone appointment of judges. There is a lot of disquiet about it in Singapore. It should be a more democratic process.
KP: You were a law enforcement officer and instead of enforcing the law, you have gone on to challenge it. How did this happen? When did you start realizing that you had to make a stand?
CSJ: In life, we’re always presented with a choice. Unless, we’re automatons, we will always weigh whether what we’re doing is right or wrong. We have that choice. When we say, ‘I’m only doing my job,’ then we’re opening ourselves up to injustice. That is how atrocities in the world happen. Do you still say, ‘it is only my job,’ when things are so wrong in this country and need to be fixed?
If they ask me to shoot this civilian, this woman, do I just go and shoot? Well, it’s my job isn’t it? There is right and wrong. We’ve got to weigh it out. We need to seek our consciences.
However, as an Assistant Superintendent of Police, I discharged my duties well. I enforced the law and I have arrested illegal immigrants and other criminals as well. But, that does not stop me from looking at the larger issues and huge problems within our system. So I gravitated towards the universal principles of justice.
KP: What do you think about illegal immigrants being caned in Singapore?
CSJ: Don’t agree with them being caned but that doesn’t mean that we should not arrest them. We need to double up the efforts to speak up against this inhumane treatment.
KP: Back in 2008, you held a protest in front of Parliament House after CASE organized one on the 15th of March 2008 to commemorate the World Consumer Rights Day. You were charged for illegal assembly and rioting, but they walked away. What was going on?
CSJ: CASE, the consumer rights association organised, a walkathon on March 15 to commemorate World Consumer Rights day. Teo Ho Pin and Yeo Guat Kwan, president and former president of CASE were there outside Parliament holding placards and SDP did the same thing. But we were told our assembly was illegal and theirs wasn’t.
So during the court trial, we asked some simple questions. Did CASE have a permit? If they had a permit, why was the SDP’s permit application turned down? And, if both our parties did not have permits, why was it that only SDP was prosecuted?
This goes against the Singapore Constitution, Article 12 says that under the law, you treat all citizens equally. And that was precisely the reason for this Article of Law, so that any government coming into power cannot do exactly what the PAP is doing right now. And that is why I come back to the question of the rule of law.
The rule of law says that governments must obey the law and our Constitution is the supreme law of the land – stated in Article 4 of the Constitution itself. So if the government in power can do such things, it is actually contravening the Constitution itself.
So don’t tell me about not being law abiding and not respecting the rule of law. These are safeguards put in place to prevent any government in power to prevent abuse, and yet it is being abused, blatantly.
Chee clearly points out the inequalities in our society. While the social inequalities are easy to point out and it is clearly visible to us, the social injustices are not seen and not visible to all in our society. Chee has run into those boundaries and found out the hard way about the invisible fences in our society – about the double standards. He says, “There can’t be economic rights without civil rights.”

Part 3
Is Democracy a western philosophy or a universal principle?  (source)
Is democracy a western philosophy or a basic human right? Can Singapore have its own version of democracy, one that has no underpinnings with the Westminster or the US system of governance? A quick check on our parliamentary website claims that we are modelled after the Westminster system. Yet, from time to time, Lee claims that a one party system will be best suited for Singapore. Lee has modelled PAP after Shell Corp, the Oil and Gas Corporation from the Netherlands. But, we are a country and not a corporation. Can such a corporatized system replace a full functioning democracy? I have heard PAP stalwarts claim that democracy is a western philosophy. Is there any truth to this?

Historical records show that Ancient Greece was the first civilization to have practised democracy. In 1215 AD, the emergence of Magna Carta was a milestone for democracy for Britain and Scotland. Democracy seems to have thrived in the west and is widely adopted as the universal principle for human rights. It is also noteworthy to mention that there are also anecdotal evidence of the practice of democracy in the ancient civilisations of India and China. Now, Asian countries, with the exception of North Korea, China and Myanmmar have adopted a form of democracy.

Singapore is a democracy in form but not substance. There is a distinct disconnect. We recite the pledge, and pledge to be democratic, but in essence we are far from it. We have “free and fair” elections, but not a free media and other apparatus of the state are said to be controlled by the government. If democracy was about the ‘rule of many,’ Singapore’s version of democracy is about the rule of “the elite.”
Let’s not forget that it was the democratic nationalistic slogan for self-determination and self-rule that propelled the PAP into power. Yet, after gaining a foothold, the PAP abandoned democratic systems for a more “efficient” authoritarian one. 
LK: You claim that democracy is a universal principle but it started in the west, in Greece in fact. Some say that Singapore has its own version of democracy. So what is the fuss that we don’t have democracy?
CSJ: Because that’s not how it started. Popularly, democracy was thought to have been started in Ancient Greece because the word itself is derived from Greek. But if we look at history, the Sumerians, one of the earliest civilisations, came together in groups and voted for what they wanted. And then it spread to Persia and then to India. Even when you look at ancient historical records of China, although the Emperor claims the mandate of heaven, if the people were dissatisfied, they could sound the drum or gong outside the palace to call for the Emperor’s attention. These are primitive forms of democracy but nonetheless hold the idea that people participate in their own governance.
This seed of what democracy is rooted very much in ancient cultures. Democracy did not start in the West but had its roots in Asia.
LK: Mahatir said in his book, ‘The Doctor in The House’ that it took westerners 1000 years to get democracy right. Young Asian countries such as Singapore are about 50 years into democracy. Yet, you expect the same standards. Why?
CSJ: That is a fallacy. The industrial revolution took hundreds of years to build up. For instance, Facebook took only about 3 years to hit success and Zuckerberg became a billionaire. If GE (General Electric) took decades to build up, does that mean that Zuckerberg must also take so long to achieve success? No.
Because technology has allowed information to be disseminated around the world so quickly, this has led to a quickening of political change and people now want a share in power and their own governance. In this day and age, information is at our fingertips, so everybody reads the same information and how does that make someone more enlightened than the next person?
LK: Lee says that a two party system will not work in Singapore. Why do we have elections every five years if he thinks that one party system works best for Singapore? Can’t we just cut to the chase and get on with our lives, focus on material progress and that kind of stuff?
CSJ: That remark says it all, doesn't it? It belies all the tears, all the apologies during the last elections. What about the comments about buying support and fixing the opposition? And there's Mr Lee Kuan Yew saying that the army would be called in in a "freak" election.
We have to keep on working to makes gains on the electoral front. At the same time, however, we must continue to push for the people's constitutional right to assemble peacefully. History shows repeatedly that genuine, long-lasting democratic reform cannot and does not come from elections alone and that without a broad coalition of civil society and opposition pushing for change, change will not come. An election in an undemocratic system legitimises the ruling party and its claims to have a mandate. Suharto did it in pre-reformasi Indonesia, Hosni Mubarak held regular elections in Egypt when he was in power, and so did Ferdinand Marcos – just to name a few examples.
But if the PAP is stuck in the mind-set of trying to control the mass media and changing election laws to its advantage – not to mention bringing in naturalised citizens to counter-balance those born and bred here – then it is dangerously underestimating the political mood of the people. When the situation turns bad, even it will not be able to control political developments. Sadly, that's the tragedy of autocratic governments: they are myopic and self-absorbed.
This is why Singaporeans cannot just focus on material progress. If anything we must push even harder to educate the people, civil society and opposition leaders must come together to strategize and plan the way forward. If we don't, we may not have anything material to make progress on.
LK: Can political competition create a level playing field, where an individual not from the ruling class have a say in the overall direction of this country? If yes, what do we need to do?
CSJ: If we – meaning everyone who wants to see political reform in Singapore: bloggers, activists, opposition politicians, professionals, ex-ISA detainees, etc. - demonstrate political will to level the playing field, then we will have a level playing field. But achieving change is not a spectator sport; it necessitates the people actively working for it.
The first step, which is always the hardest, is to acknowledge that without coming together in solidarity for change, there can be no change. If we are able to take this first step, we have the makings of an intelligent and peaceful movement that will ultimately bring about change.
Step two: acknowledge and confront our fears. Don't let it freeze us into inaction. You'll be surprised how quickly fear dissipates when we act against it. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Our biggest fight isn't against the PAP; it is against what the PAP has done to our minds.
Step three: organise a get-together to discuss strategy and next steps.


Part 4

Instead of an interview transcript, Part 4 turned out to be a critique of Dr Chee's views, and elicited the following rebuttal from Dr Chee.

by Dr Chee Soon Juan


In his analysis of my interview with The Online Citizen, Mr Leo Khaw attributes to me the view that the Western market is without any form of regulation. This misrepresents what I said.

A careful reading of the interview will show that I was referring to criminal activity and that players in the financial sector are not immune from this. An example is Bernie Madoff who ran a Ponzi scheme and cheated investors; ergo the need for regulation.
In my book Democratically Speaking, which Mr Khaw refers to, I traced the regulatory framework of the banking system in the US to the 1930s. Following the bank-run and financial panic that brought on the Great Depression, the Glass-Steagall Act, a law designed to separate funds of commercial banks from investment banks, was introduced.

This regulation remained in place until the 1999 when the US Congress repealed Glass-Steagall and allowed bankers a free hand in moving funds around. Unscrupulous bankers securitised dubious housing loans and sold them to unsuspecting investors, a scam which eventually ended in the collapse of the derivatives market and caused the financial mayhem in 2008.
I also talked about the enactment of the Dodd-Frank Act by Congress in 2010. The legislation attempts to put in controls over the operation of banks.
How Mr Khaw sees all this as me saying that the West is "without any form of regulation" is hard to understand.
The writer accuses me of saying that as far as our economic system is concerned, "we are just cloning the West". This is another misrepresentation of what I said and wrote.
A proper reading of the interview and my book will show that I am referring to the financial system in the West. Just as a credit and housing bubble was forming in the US due to the deregulation of the financial system, Mr Lee Hsien Loong also deregulated our banking system in 2003. The derivatives that were sold by American banks were also sold by Singaporean banks. They called it Abacus, we named them Pinnacle Notes and Minibonds. A toxic financial instrument by another name wreaks just as much havoc. We were ignorantly following what the American bankers did.
How, from this, does Mr Khaw come to the conclusion that "Chee’s portrayal of our economic system seems to pivot on the point that we are just cloning the West"? The financial sector is but just one part of an economy.
Mr Khaw also writes that I said that the Singapore market is not regulated. I make no such claim. In fact, I am on record over many years and in various publications pointing out that our over-regulated environment puts our business community in a commercial straitjacket, rendering Singapore unable to compete on ideas on the world stage.
Mr Khaw says that it is "silly" to give up our comparative advantage in the financial sector. Developing ourselves as a tax haven is not a comparative advantage. It is a predatory, extractive economic strategy that eventually hurts, rather than helps, the Singaporean people. I have described in detail how this happens in Democratically Speaking and will not repeat it here. Even as I write this piece, the PAP Government has had to sign agreements with its foreign counterparts to curtail our secrecy banking laws.
I fail to see how calling for our financial system to be reformed to prevent money-laundering and tax evasion/avoidance makes us "unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces of pure and unadulterated socialism." Even the IMF, no socialist enterprise, has pointed out the deleterious effects of tax havens.
The writer also points out that "Chee speaks about the dismantling of GLCs and also speaks gloriously about free enterprise economy. Yet, at times, he uses a leftist narrative about rich getting richer and poor getting poorer." On this, Mr Khaw is spot on. But then, he concludes: "Seriously, I can’t put my finger on the pulse on this one."
Let me explain: A free-market economy does not preclude state intervention to invest in the needy and support the infirm. Many countries in northern Europe have combined free-market elements with socialist principles to good effect, producing robust and sustainable economies. My colleagues and I in the SDP want to do away with a centrally-planned economy and allow an entrepreneurial class develop and flourish in Singapore. We also see the need to reduce the income disparity by introducing capital gains tax for the very rich and minimum wage for the very poor. It really is not that confusing.
What we envision for Singapore does not stem from political expedience, as Mr Khaw puts it. It is not motivated by an eye for an eye. It is an ideal born out of the virtues of diligence, justice and compassion, an ideal that even though we may never achieve, but one to which we must never fail to endeavour.

Buy a copy of Democratically Speaking or Donate to the Discharge CSJ Fund.
Chee Soon Juan thanks supporters for helping to raise $30,000 to pay off Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong to settle his bankruptcy case.


Fear of associating with the SDP? by Andrew Loh: here


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