Why I paid good money to help keep my political rival out of jail.
I recently found the following article on the popular alternative political website The Temasek Review. Written by blogger Gen Ji, it deals with Dr Chee’s conviction.
“….. the deafening silence from the other local opposition parties with regards to the verdict. Unlike the chorus of condemnation and messages of solidarity that one might expect to find in other countries, the lack of response from the other local opposition parties is a testament to how poisonous the relations are between the opposition parties in Singapore. So far, only Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the youngest son of the illustrious and noted democracy advocate J.B Jeyaretnam (who was himself extremely close to the SDP Secretary-General) and current leader of the Reform Party has spoken out against the ruling and pledged funds to keep him out.” *
On January 31st, I had written a post on my personal Facebook page entitled, “Here’s why I’ll be contributing to Soon Juan’s fund!” **. I had expected that this would act as a catalyst for other Opposition leaders to follow suit but I was wrong. Unlike the blogger quoted above, I see no evidence that the silence is a testament to how poisonous the relations are between the opposition parties. However, the failure to respond clearly opens the opposition up to criticisms of poisonous behaviour and is damaging to all of us in many ways.
The motives for the deafening silence are a matter for speculation but we cannot rule out the fear factor. There is of course an ever present, substantiated fear that by showing unity and commenting on the sentence we will be accused of questioning the integrity of our judiciary or even of scandalising them. Alan Shadrake’s recent conviction is a perfect example of why you wouldn’t want to do that.
Action for defamation is also a very powerful whip for authoritarian governments to crack. It is a line drawn in sand on the beach. With each tide it becomes harder to see where that line is drawn but it is there and we prefer not to move rather than to risk unwittingly crossing it. The penalties are too severe.
My own father was very familiar with those penalties. He lost his profession, his place in parliament and was subsequently bankrupted, despite a Privy Council ruling reversing the judgement. After his death and at his funeral thousands of people expressed their regret and feelings of guilt at not standing up for him when he was alive. We seem to have learnt nothing from our history.
Even the so called free and independent press of advanced democratic nations succumbs to this fear of defamation suit and self censors rather than run foul. The governments of Sovereign Nations are usually swift to act when restrictions are placed on the free flow of their goods across borders, contrary to the rights enshrined by the WTO. Restriction on the free sale of newspapers and their advertising is a basic restriction on trade yet the media corporations receive no support from the trade delegations in their respective governments. Is it any wonder then, that we find it so hard to combat the restrictions?
One reason Parties may be silent is the hope that if they shut their eyes and hide under the bed covers, the bogey man may pass them by. This is a foolish hope. One thing we know from history is that when you sit silently by whilst the authorities take your neighbour away, they will come for you next. Each time there will be less resistance, fewer voices to speak out.
It matters not a jot whether you support the SDP, (Dr Chee’s Party) or whether you like or dislike him personally or indeed whether like me you are a fiercely competitive political rival. What matters is that we have free and fair elections here in Singapore and to do that we need to uphold the principles of Voltaire often paraphrased as “I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” ~
We must continue to demand those basic freedoms of expression guaranteed in nearly every other advanced Nation in the world. Absolute, unchallenged authority leads to a government of ‘yes men’, flabby thinking and decisions hurried through parliament without proper debate. And without freedom of expression we are prevented from putting up an effective challenge to those ‘yes men’.
So if the rest of the world is silent, if the foreign Press self censors, if our own Press is State controlled, who will speak for us? We must speak for ourselves. We cannot rely on International NGO’s. Our only defence is openness and strength in numbers. We must show that the will for democracy comes from within. If the other Secretary Generals and Party Leaders were to join together and donate to the fund thereby keeping Dr Chee out of jail, we would send a very clear message indeed. I also call on my colleagues to come together and to pen and send out a joint statement. Before it is too late! This is a golden opportunity for all The Opposition parties to demonstrate unity of purpose whilst maintaining our individual ideologies and present a real challenge to the behemoth that is the PAP.