Singapore: Democrats challenge one-party rule

SDP leader Chee Soon Juan said he was 'confident we will see the further rise of opposition voices and civil society in Singapor

Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), has been arrested and jailed several times for holding demonstrations and for making public speeches critical of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP) government.

In 1993, soon after entering politics, Chee was dismissed from his job as a university lecturer in psychology on trumped up charges of misappropriation of funds. He has been sued several times for defamation for comments he has made about PAP leaders. He was barred from standing in parliamentary elections or leaving the country because he was declared bankrupt in 2006 after failing to pay damages from a lawsuit owed to former Singaporean prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.

He has since paid the damages and his bankruptcy has been annulled, clearing the way for him to contest the 2016 general election.

This is what happens to people who challenge Singapore's one-party rule.

Green Left Weekly spoke to Chee in Sydney where he is on a one-month visiting fellowship with the Sydney Democracy Network at the University of Sydney.

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Singapore has remained totally dominated by the PAP for decades, even while across the border in Malaysia, there have been mass opposition protests since 2007 and the ruling coalition lost the popular vote in last year's general election. Why?

I think the dominance of the PAP is waning with the advent of the internet. In particular, social media has created new avenues for dissent.

Civil society activists are taking the lead in using this media to organise themselves and give voice to issues that otherwise would not have seen the light of day in a traditional media controlled by the state.

I am confident we will see the further rise of opposition voices and civil society in Singapore.

Are there any underlying economic reasons for the PAP's long domination of politics in Singapore?

Singapore has been the pin-up boy for the neoliberals in the West. It has been very easy to set up business in Singapore and businesses face very little pressure from trade unions over workers' rights and so on.

But as a result there has been growing income disparity because there has been no strong trade union movement or opposition. Workers have been exploited ― both foreign workers and Singaporean workers. There is still no minimum wage. There are still no retrenchment and unemployment benefits.

We have a society that runs on the exploitation of the working poor and this is unsustainable.

We've seen an international backlash against neoliberalism with Occupy Wall Street and other movements and we will see, as Thomas Piketty described in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the waning of the very exploitative forms of globalisation.

This will be manifested especially in countries like Singapore because we have been right on the extreme of globalisation and free-market capitalism.

How did the SDP respond to the protest by temporary migrant workers in Singapore in the so-called “Little India riot” in December last year?

Singapore's exploitation of foreign workers from neighbouring countries has always been a system of using the vulnerable.

These workers are in the lowest income groups who often don't even get paid for the work they do. They are exploited by their employers and the labour agents and this is used to maintain the exploitation of Singaporean workers. It's been a “win-win” situation for business.

The Little India riot was just a symptom of a bigger problem. We have been concerned about the exploitation of the foreign domestic servants ― the “Filipina maids” ― who don't even get a day off, let alone other protections.

We included this in our economic policy before it became fashionable. Of late this issue has gained more traction among civil society activists.

Does “race politics” operate in Singapore as it does across the border in Malaysia?

The entire movement towards democracy is a challenge to this kind of politics. But historically, the demographics of Singapore and Malaysia have a common base of people of Malay, Indian and Chinese backgrounds. The racial acrimony we see in Malaysia should be a warning to us. It does affect the thinking of Singaporeans.

The gains of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition front in last year's Malaysian elections has given Singaporeans a lot of hope.

The SDP, which once had three MPs, is now locked out of parliament. What's its plan?

After we lost our parliamentary representation in 1997, we hit a trough. We rebuilt the party with a blank slate. The government controlled the media and used it to isolate us by convincing many people to accept as truth what the PAP said of us.

But now with the internet, we have come back with a vengeance. We now are able to explain what we are about and what happened to us.