November 23, 2005

Singapore opposition leader preaches disobedience

By Geert De Clercq

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's most vocal opposition
politician believes that politics in the city-state will not be
reformed through elections but by civil disobedience against
what he calls "unjust laws."

Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore
Democratic Party (SDP), said he plans to use forthcoming
elections to talk about democratic reform and will continue to
promote civil liberties in the face of libel laws and limits on
political activities.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is widely expected to call a
general election at the end of this year or early in 2006.

"For us it is not a matter of getting into parliament.
Under the current system you will be used as window dressing to
show that Singapore is a democracy when in fact it is not,"
Chee, 43, told Reuters in an interview last week at the
dilapidated shophouse that serves as his party headquarters.

Singapore has been ruled since independence in 1965 by the
People's Action Party (PAP), whose economic policies have made
the city-state the second-wealthiest nation in Asia after Japan
in terms of income per capita.

Opposition parties complain the deck is stacked against

"In order to have free and fair elections we need to have
free speech and a free press," Chee said.

Singapore bars demonstrations or speeches without a permit
but allows unlicensed public talks if they are held indoors and
avoid "sensitive subjects" such as race or religion. Public
gatherings of more than four people require a police permit.

Comparing his struggle to Mahatma Gandhi's non-violent
fight against British colonizers and drawing parallels with the
American civil rights movement, Chee said he would continue to
defy curbs on public expression and free assembly.

"It is never enough to appeal to the good sense of the
government. Authoritarian governments never budge. It really
takes action on the part of the citizens," Chee said.

Chee's attempts at civil disobedience have landed him in
jail several times and in 2002 he was slapped with a S$3,000
fine for speaking in public without a permit. A fine of S$2,000
or more bars a person from standing in a general election for
five years.

The government has warned against acts of civil
disobedience that break the law.

Home affairs minister Wong Kan Seng said in a speech in
August that one's beliefs did not give a person the right to
break the law and it was up to an elected government to change
laws that were deemed out of date or oppressive.


Critics say Chee has failed to strike a chord with the
Singaporean public because of his adversarial style and because
he fights for abstract causes such as human rights rather than
the bread-and-butter issues Singaporeans care about.

Chee blames that on the government's success at wearing
potential opposition politicians down.

In 1993, months after Chee ran in a by-election for the
SDP, he was sacked from his job as a lecturer at the National
University of Singapore, which accused him of improperly using
S$226 (US$137) of his research grant to send his wife's
academic papers to a U.S. university.

When Chee said the evidence was fabricated, he was sued by
his former department head -- a PAP member of parliament -- and
ordered to pay $200,000 plus court costs.

This year he lost another libel case for comments made
during the 2001 poll and was ordered to pay about $300,000 in

Chee said he is set to be declared bankrupt as a result,
which could permanently block him from elections as the law
bars declared bankrupts from holding political office.

The U.S. State Department says the threat of libel has
stifled political opinion in Singapore. Singapore leaders say
such actions are necessary to protect their reputations.

Chee said the next poll is set to be another walkover as
the opposition will probably not be able to field enough

"Who in their right mind would jeopardize their career,
their future, their family, given what has happened to the
opposition before. We have been jailed, we have been sued, made
bankrupt, driven out of the country," said Chee, who lives with
his wife and three young children in a two-bedroom flat.

In the 2001 election all the opposition parties combined
fielded 29 candidates for 84 seats, a three-decade low.

The opposition had its best showing in 1991 when the SDP
won three seats out of 81 and the Workers Party one. But a
conflict between then SDP leader Chiam See Tong and Chee led
Chiam to form a new party. Chiam now has one of two opposition
seats, whereas the SDP has never made it back into parliament.