Dr.Chee Soon Juan's game plan

Posted by under Opinions on 10 June 2008

He has been jailed six times and hauled to court for defaming Singapore's top political leadership. And most recently, he publicly grilled two of Singapore's most powerful men - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew - in a high-profile defamation case.

A BACKYARD brawler, a doting father, a complex character. From the wild to the mild, Opposition politician Chee Soon Juan draws adjectives that make one wonder: What makes the man? What are his motivations? What is his game plan?

Put those questions in the context of a society that shies away from a public fight, even more a political fight, and Chee's personality, actions and intentions become even more intriguing.

From his much-talked-about entry into politics in 1992, when he was introduced as Mr Chiam See Tong¡¯s prized prodigy for the Opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) to his latest imprisonment earlier this week, his has been a story of defiance. Make that defiance with a capital letter D.

Dare-devil defiance, some would say. Like going on a 10-day hunger strike with the help of glucose in his middle-class double-storey terrace house in Pemimpin Place about one year after he joined Mr Chiam and after he was sacked as a neuropsychology lecturer at the National University of Singapore. The university had found him guilty of misusing research funds.

Call it the touch of the unusual in Singapore politics. He has been jailed six times, hauled to court for defaming Singapore's top political leadership and has even taken his civil disobedience campaign to an American university - where the then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was to receive an honorary degree - by attending a forum organised by those who had opposed the award.

And most recently, he publicly grilled two of Singapore's most powerful men - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew - in a high-profile defamation case. The lawyer for the Lees described the defendants' actions and statements in court as political theatre.

But what is it that drives this 46-year-old former Anglo Chinese School student with a doctorate from the University of Georgia to engage in a form of noisy political brinkmanship with civil-disobedience style resistance as the centrepiece of that struggle?

The answer to that is no "easy task" even for a psychologist because Chee is such a "complex character", said veteran PAP Member of Parliament Mr Charles Chong.

But Mr Chong noted that Minister Mentor Lee and Opposition leader Chiam, who now heads the Singapore People's Party (SPP), had offered similar views on Chee.

It is uncommon for Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Chiam to be in complete agreement on a single issue. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, on expert opinion, had mentioned in court that Chee displays psychotic characteristics. Mr Chiam appears convinced that Chee is a megalomaniac, said Mr Chong.

Mr Chiam declined to comment for this report. The two had a falling out after Mr Chiam could not secure the backing of SDP members to discipline Chee for his hunger strike.

Later, at a Singapore Press Club event, Mr Chiam criticised other SDP leaders whom he said were "driven by self-interest" and announced that he was leaving the party.

The party took Mr Chiam to task for his remarks and the SDP's disciplinary committee decided to expel him from the SDP.

Mr Chiam then left the party he founded in May 1993 to form the SPP a year later.

PAP's Chong told Weekend Xtra that he is personally saddened to see Chee walk towards self-destruction through his "strange actions"

"I always have some degree of sympathy for those who are abnormal or appear to be challenged in some way or another" he added.

But film-maker Martyn See, a friend of Chee's who visits him occasionally, finds the politician to be like any Singaporean as well as a devoted family man. The two became friends after Mr See interviewed Chee in 2002 for his film, The Singapore Rebel.

He recalled one of his earliest encounters with Chee: "When I first went to his place, it was after his work, his routine is to sit with his kids and read stories (to them) from children's books."

With so much at stake "a young family and the chance of chasing the Singapore Dream" what prompted Chee to choose a path less travelled in Singapore?

According to political observer, Mr Sinapan Samydorai, Chee believes he is "setting the stage for the future".

"He imagines that one day he will be able to lead a political struggle through this way and get some space in Parliament," said Mr Sinapan, president of Think Centre, a political non-governmental organisation.

While there may come a time when Singaporeans may not be averse to Chee's in-your-face type of politics, many know that, for now, his brand of politics "does not have a chance"' Mr Sinapan added.

It is this kind of politics that makes him unacceptable to some Singaporeans, especially a young woman who holds a high-paying job in the communications industry.

She said: "I am tired of Chee. He is a backstreet brawler ... I doubt he is serious about being the Opposition. If he is, Chee will fight a good fight, one with a proper plan, integrity and dignity."

Given that he knows that the odds are stacked against him, does Chee - whom Mr Lee Kuan Yew had described as a "political juvenile" during the court hearing last month - have a game plan?

Yes, according to those Weekend Xtra spoke to.

Most agreed that gaining public attention is one of Chee's main aims.

"As a politician or activist, you need to get attention," said Mr See.

Dr Terence Chong, from the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, believes Chee's strategy is "to work outside the electoral process and the established political system".

"This means engaging in civil disobedience and public spectacles to draw attention to perceived social and political injustices in society," Dr Chong said.

"This mix of civil disobedience and courting of the media is common in liberal democracies."

But since the Singapore establishment does not believe in the form of liberal democracy that is practised in the West, how much can Chee achieve with his strategy?

Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong, referring to Chee's confrontational path of civil disobedience, said: "I am not convinced that this approach will be effective in bringing about change. The fact that his actions do not appear to have gained much popular support would support that conclusion."

Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University said that Chee's approach is destructive. If he wants to be seen as an Opposition politician, he has to show that he can be a positive agent for change, not just take potshots as and when the occasion arises, added Assoc Prof Tan.

If Chee decides to continue with his strategy, is there a possibility that the Government may one day just decide to ignore the man, his actions and remarks?

Any change in the Government¡¯s response to Chee's political strategy "would really change the game for the Chees", said Dr Gillian Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies.

However, Mr Siew does not see any change in the Government's current approach happening soon, unless there is a change in the PAP's top leadership.

"On defamation specifically, the current PAP leadership - at the very top - is committed to its long-stated view that a lawsuit is the appropriate response to statements seen to be false and defamatory," Mr Siew said.

For PAP's Mr Chong, if the experience of another Opposition politician is anything to go by, "there may still be hope for Chee".

Back in 1988, when he was contesting as a first-time PAP candidate against the late Mr Harbans Singh of the Opposition United People¡¯s Front, Mr Chong said he found the statements made by the Opposition candidate to be so outrageous and incredible that he actually wondered whether Mr Singh was "planted by the PAP to make the Opposition look ridiculous".

Older Singaporeans will remember Mr Singh, a teacher-turned-lawyer, as the Opposition politician who could be counted on to offer them a good laugh during election rallies with his amusing and entertaining speeches.

After being reassured that Mr Singh was not a "plant", Mr Chong later learnt that the veteran politician had been slapped with a defamation suit during the earlier part of his career when he was "still taken seriously".

But Mr Singh stopped getting sued when his statements became more incredible and less credible, Mr Chong added.

"Like Mr Singh, there may come a time when Chee can say anything, no matter how outrageous or slanderous and no one will bother to sue him," Mr Chong added.

Lawsuits aside, the Government and the PAP may decide, one day, to adopt a totally different approach towards Chee even as he continues to act like a persecuted political martyr.

Mr Peter H L Lim, former editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings, said: "There are many creative thinkers around, so we may see a new form of counter-strategy one day."

Sources and Relevant Links:

TODAY What is Chee Soon Juan's game plan? 7 June 2008

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