Transcript of Australian Broadcasting Commission Radio Programme: Indian Pacific. Broadcast on Saturday, April 12, 1997.
Hello and welcome to Indian Pacific. I'm Di Martin ....... today we look at the deep malaise affecting Singapore's political opposition with the meeting of three prominent pro-democracy advocates in Australia.
"A lot of my colleagues have left Singapore for one reason or another. Either they've been sued bankrupt or they're wanted by the Internal Security Department and because of that it's always the problem of trying to build up morale and spirit in the opposition camp."
"It must be a grind."
"It really is".
Host: That's Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (one of the country's main opposition groups) and we'll hear more from Dr Chee later in the programme.
While Singapore is perhaps best known for being one of South East Asia's economic tigers, the over-riding dominance of the People's Action Party is just as much a defining Singapore characteristic. The ruling PAP is accused of controlling the city-state media, of exerting undue influence over the judiciary and it won an incredible 81 of the 83 parliamentary seats at a general election earlier this year. A long-standing gerrymander has ensured that opposition parties have traditionally only held a handful of seats, But at the January polls, the opposition lost half their seats. Tang Liang Hong was one of the unsuccessful candidates but not before a slanging match erupted between him and the government during the campaign. The government may be famous for its attacks on opposition figures but Mr Tang's case is a particularly bitter one and in a bizarre twist has seen relations between Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia reach one of their lowest points. Cliare Arthurs has this report:
It started as a slanging match but the issue was the sensitive one of race and how that links to a person's educational and religious background. Mr Tang is Chinese-educated and speaks English and Malay, enabling him to appeal to voters across an ethnic spectrum. For this reason the PAP targetted him, using one of its favourite criticisms - 'Chinese chauvinist'. He responded by calling his detractors liars and was blitzed with defamation writs.
Mr Tang feared that as a result of the government's comments he was in personal danger from extremists and went to the police. The result, he said, ... more writs and he fled across the causeway to the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johore. In an affidavit in the defamation action, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew criticised that trip as foolhardy, given what he called the risk of being "shot, mugged, or carjacked in Johore" . Senior Malaysian officials reacted angrily and demanded an apology. In all, a serious rift between the two nations.
This week, Mr Tang was in Australia meeting with exiles and supporters including the former Singapore solicitor-general, Francis Seow now living in America, and Chee Soon Juan who heads the Singapore Democratic Party. I spoke with Mr Seow and with Mr Tang who outlined the legal campaign.
TANG: The PAP leaders were determined to stop me from getting into Parliament. And to do that they fabricated certain charges against me, accusing me being anti-Christian, anti-English-educated and from there they expanded into ...... since I'm anti-English-educated, I must be anti-Malay-educated; since I'm anti-Christianity, I must be anti-Islam because according to Lee Kuan Yew, Islam represents a deeper explosiveness in his words, and I deny all this because I have never said anything of that, I have never said any words to entitle them to charge me for that, therefore I call them lying and because of that they sue me. Several writs was based on my police report. Why I make a police report (is) because to me they have committed several crimes against me, against the state because they have been telling lies, spread the lies in a massive way; their false accusations would instigate religious groups of people against me, against other groups of people and to me this is very serious, and because of that I lodged a police report against these eleven PAP politican leaders, and I've been requesting the police again and again to investigate my report against them. But the police have so far done nothing about that because to me .. I'm questioning whether the police is really able to act independently of the executive. This is one of the fundamental issues which the Singaporean has to face now.
SEOW: Mr Tang's case I think underlines two things very ,very clearly. One, that the government could not possibly or rather the ministers of the government could not possibly have mounted this kind of legal campaign if they were not confident in the reliability of their judges. You see they're using legal means, the word "legal" in parentheses to harass this man, that's why I'm trying to underline the fact that the courts are now being used as instruments of repression.
For your information a High Court judge is paid close to $800,(000) nearly A$900,000 a year, plus other perks. The Chief Justice gets about A$1.3 million a year. Today, Parliament does not control the remuneration of judges. The remuneration of judges now lies in the hands of the Executive. It is up to the Minister of Finance to determine from time to time how much these judges should get. Now I'll be very frank with you - if I were the judge I would also give judgement against him. In any other civilised society, it would have been thrown out long before. He was accused of something which is not true, or at least that's what he says. He says, "Look you are saying something untrue about me, and therefore what you are saying are lies for which he is being sued. What does that tell us, that because Lee Kuan Yew says he is a chauvinist that therefore it must be so? Come on, where is the logic of it?
Look at this man, for every single appeal that he has to make, interlocutory or otherwise, he has to pay $5,000 for every appeal. There are 13 suits against him, he's appealing against all 13. He applied for all the 13 suits to be consolidated into one. Do you think he succeeded in that? No! The court wants to keep it 13 separate, so that means to say you pay $5,000 for every single one of those 13 appeals."
It's not just writs Mr Tang is defending. A legal move to freeze his assets called a Mareva injunction has also taken in his wife's property which he says has forced them to borrow money although he still can't pay his bills or the staff in his office. He says his wife has been followed and their phone tapped and he's facing a tax inquiry. The legal system he's accustomed to working within is working against him.
TANG: I applied to set aside this Mareva injunction and the appointment of a receiver and my application was heard very very much later. But when the plaintiff went to the court to apply for anything, they will get it instantly. Like I give you one very simple example: when they applied for the appointment of a receiver to take over my assets and my wife's assets, my wife was served with the documents on the 17th of February morning, and because there were 13 suits, the last set of documents was served on her 3.45 p.m. that day and she was required to appear before court 5 p.m. before Justice Lai Kew Chai. And she went to the court to inform the court that she could not find a lawyer to represent her and requested the court to adjourn the matter a short while to enable her to find a lawyer. You know what the judge said, 'Oh , She was explained the application'. The application runs pages, the orders, the detailed terms, it was quite a massive order against her. She was denied the right of legal representation and an order was made against her that evening. Right. Where is the law? Where is her right for legal representation?"
Interviewer: As a practising lawyer, Mr Tang, do you see this sort of behaviour in the courts repeated in the various cases throughout the system or is it only in political cases?
SEOW: I can answer that too because I myself was involved. The judges are very good when no politics, no undertones or overtones of politics are concerned, the Singapore courts are reliable.
Interviewer:Mr Tang, how are you fighting against these actions with your assets frozen?
TANG: I'm finding tremendous difficulty in doing that because notwithstanding the judges' promise and notwithstanding the promise by the plaintiff, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong's lawyers , promises over BBC that they would not stop me from using my funds to pay my legal fees .....
So do you have any...?
TANG: No I have difficulties because just a few days ago we went to the courts to ask for a direct receiver who had taken over our assets to release funds to meet my Queen's Counsel bills , and local counsel's bills acting for me and my wife, and they refused; they only allowed us the use of a small amount to pay for the deposit for appeal. At the same time when the plaintiff's tax bill , an amount of over $20,000, the judges ordered to pay without any hesitation at all.
Now all this of course, has not just been an impact on you, but of course on relations between Singapore and Malaysia because the affidavit that Lee Kuan Yew filed talked about you going to the state of Johore. Were you surprised that it escalated to this extent?
TANG: Yes, I'm a bit surprised because at the time when this was mentioned we thought that he had just made a statement, and we think that it was not justified, but I did not expect the relationship between the two countries has gone that extent, but you look at the past remarks by the Senior Minister and I won't be surprised because they have been not on only one occasion, so many occasions passing nasty remarks against Malaysia. As far as I'm concerned, no discipline as far as the Cabinet is concerned there was no assurance, no guarantee that he would not repeat that kind of remarks again. I think that it's better for him to step down.
And you have not been shot, mugged or car-jacked, have you, in the time that you went through Malaysia?
TANG: I don't see why I should have fear over my safety, while I have been there.
SEOW: Johore Bahru is a very peaceful place. Indeed if you compare Malaysia with Singapore, you'll find Singapore has far more crime than in Malaysia and that is notwithstanding our draconian laws, some of which provide for caning, flogging and hanging.
Interviewer:The issue for politicians like Seow and Tang is how long they can maintain their political activity in the face of concerted personal attacks. It's the same dilemma facing other pro-democracy politicians in the region. The question: what can be achieved within the country or without - for both political and personal survival?
TANG: Well, I will try to fight them as long as possible, and eventually ... I do not know how long I can last; I myself do not know, but all this while the people see very clearly that they are using the so-called "legal way" to eliminate the Opposition in the legal way through a law court.
Interviewer:Do you plan to go back to Singapore to appeal?
TANG: Up to this moment I have no intention to run away from Singapore, but definitely, I can anticipate that if I go back now, I have no doubt whatsoever that they are going to detain me like what they did to Mr Francis Seow. And if anybody tells me that I shall not be arrested upon my return, I say only idiots believe that kind of promises.
Interviewer: You say that you will go back: when will you go back? How will you go back?
TANG: "I will go back I will choose an opportune time to go back, but I think this time has not arrived yet. I need to continue to stay out of Singapore to gather information, to canvass world sympathy and at the same time to allow me to tell what actually happened in Singapore .So after I say all these things probably I have a better chance not be arrested.
Host: Tang Liang Hong and Francis Seow with Claire Arthurs.
You are listening to the Indian Pacific Programme on Radio National. I am Di Martin.
As you have just heard, Tang Liang Hong and Francis Seow have been meeting with a third Singapore pro-democracy advocate in Australia this week. That's Dr. Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Social Democratic Party. Dr Chee has been the focus of a government campaign in the past but his party is also beset by more everyday political strife. These internal divisions have split the SDP in two. The party suffered a devastating election result earlier this year, losing all three of its seats and while opposition parties have traditionally only been a rump in Parliament the ruling People's Action Party changed electoral laws just before this year's poll making it much more difficult for opposition forces. So what is the future of Singapore's opposition? Tang, Seow and Chee declined to detail the discussions for Indian Pacific, but before he met with his colleagues, Dr Chee agreed to discuss his own political future and the kinds of challenges facing opposition parties.
CHEE: Well for us in Singapore, in the Opposition in Singapore it's important for us of course to win seats, but it's also just as important for us to continue to fight for democracy and to be able to get to a stage where we can entrench the Opposition. It is a long term fight for us.
Interviewer: It must be greatly disappointing though for you personally to lose all three of those seats.
CHEE: Oh, very much, yes and it has hampered us a great deal in our work, in terms of organisation, in terms of having the resources to fall back on.
Interviewer: Well observers at the time said that it was not only a matter of electoral changes brought in by the ruling People's Action Party, or PAP, but it was also internal divisions. There was a split of course in the SDP. The SDP came out of that . I mean to what extend can the SDP, the Singapore Democratic Party survive as a separate political entity?
CHEE: Well the splitting up of the Opposition parties is not anything new in Singapore, and if you look at the result that came up from the recently concluded general election the split hadn't affected us that much, because the parties that were not affected by the split performed even more poorly than the SDP. And so you find a situation where, I think, for us it may have been a painful situation that we had to go through, because in the process I think we have had to find ourselves. And if you look at Opposition parties in Singapore there isn't really a platform. The political system in Singapore is still very immature in that aspect.
Interviewer: Would you agree with the People's Action Party that they have been wholly endorsed? - that they have been significantly endorsed by the people of Singapore and that is the way that the majority of Singaporeans want to vote?
CHEE: Well it's hard to come to that conclusion given the fact that there are no open channels of coming to a consensus, coming to a majority view . When the media is very much controlled, the people are very fearful and the fact that there is still the Internal Security Act which allows the government to detain people without trial, and the fact that our ballots are still numbered and people are afraid that their ballots can be traced ... So these are various factors that go into really determining, or at least influencing , greatly how Singaporeans vote. And because of that you are never going to get a really accurate assessment. I for one know very many Singaporeans who vote really out of fear more than anything else.
Interviewer: You said that you are in it for the long haul; the SDP is in it for the long haul. Are you?
CHEE: Yes, very much so I suppose despite all the setbacks and difficulties. I think it is important for us, for me in particular to be able to continue to speak up, to be able to get the message across to people that it is important for us to have , to entrench democratic traditions and procedures because that's going to become more and more important as Singapore progresses into the twenty first century.
Interviewer: Forgive me Dr. Chee but you're not sounding wildly enthusiastic at this point.
CHEE: I suppose that it's not something that's part of me, I don't want to get into the situation where this anti-rhetoric is coming out . I just feel very committed to this fight. And I just want to be able to make sense to people, to be logical about it. We are hampered, we have a lot of difficulties trying to organise ourselves; it's not easy. A lot of my colleagues , in the opposition, have left Singapore, for one reason or another. Either they have been sued bankrupt or they are wanted by the Internal Security Department and because of that it is always a problem of trying to build up morale and spirit in the opposition camp.
Interviewer: It must be a grind.
CHEE: It really is and then it's important for us to be able to keep our focus and discipline.
Interviewer: I'm also wondering how much of a necessity it is for you to stay with the SDP. Do you have career options outside the SDP considering you have run as an opposition candidate, and that to some extent puts you into the pariah category when you're looking at some aspects of Singapore society.
CHEE: Yes I suppose that as an opposition and in the position that I'm in Sinagporeans are very fearful and they don't really want to be associated with the Opposition just in case anything untoward might happen to them. And they are all just, rightly or wrongly, very fearful of being tarred with the brush where the Opposition politics is concerned and it has been tremendously difficult for my colleagues even if they get jobs. Even sometimes just to the extent of ... we've sold our houses to pay off defamation suits and just to rent houses from Singaporeans... they are afraid and it's very difficult to try to live in Singapore and at the same time to be the leader of an opposition party.
Interviewer: Can I look at your own personal experience in this. Well now, you were with a prominent Singapore university before you joined the SDP. Can you tell me about your job there?
CHEE: Yes, I was a lecturer at the National University of Singapore for a couple of years and I joined the SDP in 1992, the end of 1992. Three months later I was sacked from the university because I was accused of misusing my research fund.
CHEE: For sending my wife's doctoral dissertation to the US and I claimed that her research was very much in line with mine and I wanted to use the data for my own research. And I was sacked for using the funds to pay for the courier service. And that came after three months and after that I disputed the remarks made about my dismissal whereupon I was sued and ended up paying costs and damages of about more than S$400,000.
Interviewer: How many times have you been sued?
CHEE: I've been sued once - that case and later on fined when we made our representations in the Select Committee. We had presented statistics that we had made an error in but we were accused of deliberately falsifying data and therefore fined for, my colleagues and I, for a total of S$50, 000.
Interviewer: And that was late last year wasn't it?
CHEE: Yes, that's right. And it's made more difficult because of the fact that Singapore has, is an economically progressive city. And it just makes it that much more tempting and easier for us just to forget and to throw out all these ideals and then just go headlong into materialism which I see as very dangerous for the long-term stability of Singapore.
Host: Dr. Chee Soon Juan, Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party.
That's all for this week....