08 June 2008

The Singapore Democratic Party: method or madness?

It's common to hear people say the SDP's tactics put them off. They are futile anyway; they can never win, for who will vote for them? But electoral victory is not what the SDP is about. Full essay.


yuen said...

a party that claims to fight for democracy should first run itself democratically as an organization; a party that criticizes the government need to suggest what it would do differently; a party that claims to care for the people's welfare should suggest measures that the government can implement to improve the people's lot; how often has SPD done this?

looking at the history of SDP from the downfall of Chiam to now, it has been a one man soap opera with Chee (now his sister as well) doing various petty things to force the government to punish him; what does Chee care for more: attention grabbing or real political changes? if SDP has shown nothing but decline since Chee took over, what confidence could he inspire in others to get on his side?

Anonymous said...

I think you have not mentioned that to many ordinary Singaporeans,, including myself , the biggest negative move that Chee made was by purging Chiam See Tong, whom all Singaporeans loved, out of the SDP.

I do feel that while he sees the foreign media as one alternative way of winning attention outside the mainstream pro-govt media in Singapore, he has inevitably portrays himself as a puppet; one that seems to easy to pander to western exotica about stern singapore rather than serving Singaporeans. In some respects, one sense that Chee is too keen to jump onto the bandwangon from tudung issues to something as distant as burma.

Nonetheless, unlike Ms Chua of the Straits Times, YB is right by giving Chee the credit of exposing the smiling mask of the PAP. However, i just wonder whether this strategy will last once the establishment chooses to ignore him as Ms Chua has very very discreetly suggested (in analogy to a certain Mr Harbans Singh)?


Goh Meng Seng said...

Dear Alex,

You have successfully presented the complexity of the ideological dilemma that existed within some of us who are working at the forefront of opposition politics.

It is indeed interesting to note that the tipping point of this tussle between SDP and the PAP power brokers has been breached at this very moment. It would be interesting to see how popular views start to tilt against the PAP due to all these cumulative effects . It would also be interesting to observe how PAP would react to this change of minds and hearts.

Goh Meng Seng

Aidil Omar said...

This is the piece of brilliant writing we have been waiting for. It pretty sums much everything that needed to be said about Dr. Chee and his political aspirations without appearing crass or apologetic. This is the right stuff which we will never see or able to read from the 154th newspapers.

Thank you so much for this.

Anonymous said...

George says:

Thanks for the long overdue article.

But I wonder if you are not casting pearls before swine.

Your articles precisely expressed my own take and sentiments on the Chees' battle plan.

He has my respect for doing a thankless task for the many unappreciative Singaporeans who have become like the horse, Boxer, in Animal Farm, who ended up as raw material for the glue factory.

Anonymous said...

If the Singapore Democratic Party is only represented by Dr Chee SJ, his sister and just a handful of supporters, I feel, it(SDP) is inconsequential to the People Action Party as well as to the political developments in Singapore.

Personally, I think many Singaporeans sympathize with their(SDP Members) sufferings. But there are also many instigators with little feelings for them, goading the SDP, just to enjoy the 'fight'.

SDP and its' chief Chee SJ have up to now, failed to garner sufficient supports for a strong base for a long term fight. Like many other politicians who have 'run' away to foreign lands and got forgotten by most locals, Chee SJ maybe forgotten once SDP is wound up.

Unless he continues to agitate and stir political/social isssues after his party is deregistered. And or liked Gopalan Nair, former WP Member, who participates in local politics despite having became foreign citizen and residing elsewhere, Chee SJ may just be history.

Be it 'method' or 'madness', so long as it serves its' intended purpose and results, all the actions(method/madness) will not be wasted. Otherwise, it would be just like a cloud that just floated by and gone.


Saint Splattergut said...

It doesn't matter if they are deregistered. They aren't fighting for ballots. I'm guessing they will probably continue their campaigns as an activist group. Dr. Chee is already bankrupt; this will surely be a fight to the end, no matter what that may mean.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

The issue relating to Chiam See Tong is not as simple as that, IMO. I can understand that Chiam is very well-liked, but if we apply objective measures in comparing Chee with Chiam, I'm not so sure that Chiam comes up as much better/more effective than Chee.

If we accuse the SDP of being a one-man-show party, then Chiam's SPP is no different. I have heard from internal sources of the old Singapore Democratic Alliance, of which the SPP was part, of the quite autocratic and stubborn ways of Chiam too. How true or exaggerated this is, I cannot know for sure, but consider this: can anyone name any other leader of the SPP? Why doesn't Chiam allow others to shine? Or, why does he not attract other equally bright and capable people to serve with him?

The other objective measure is this: what long-term goal did Chiam have? Or has? What long-term difference has he made after 25 years in Parliament?

So I would be careful not to mistake the gentlemanly demeanour of the man and his avuncular relationship with his constituents for political effectiveness.

Sometimes it takes a ruthless guy to make a difference. Especially when up against another ruthless guy by the name of Lee.

I take your point however, that usurping Chiam in the early 1990s to take control of the SDP was a strategic error, given the widespread affection that Chiam enjoyed.

Singaporeans seem to dislike tough politicians, perhaps because we've already had one too many, but so long as that one is around, without another tough one, we'll never dislodge him or his system. Isn't this simple truth obvious?

yuen said...

>If we accuse the SDP of being a one-man-show party, then Chiam's SPP is no different

I agree, but this is not the point; the point is SDP had a period of success, which it did not enjoy under Chee

after all, Chiam managed to survive despite the PAP efforts to unseat him, even sending in GCT hoping he would show some kind of magic touch; obviously, there are Chee sympathizers who would cite that as evidence that Chiam has "sold out" while Chee has "maintained the fighting spirit"

>what long-term goal did Chiam have? Or has? What long-term difference has he made after 25 years in Parliament?

the simple answer is "none", and he too fails the test of democratic leadership and alternative policy proposing; but if you apply Chee's logic, then Chiam "kept the fight going in Parliament", a more impressive (or should I say "less unimpressive") record than going into the street deliberately breaking petty restrictive laws

yuen said...

to add: about Chee's stated strategy to show up the government's harsh side - how valid is this? the fact he is able to carry out his antics, and nothing worse happens to him than a few days in jail (and bankrupcy, but he obviously is not starving), actually might give the opposite impression

suppose he was doing it in China or South Korea, I doubt he would have survived unscathed; just across the causeway, Anwar suffered a black eye after his arrest, and had to go to Germany for operation later

even in Taiwan, where the previous authoritarian regime lost control, and in Hongkong, where opposition movements are much stronger, people have sometimes expressed envy about Singapore "keeping opposition firmly in its place"

(I am sounding like a PAP supporter - but then, some people think Chee is a PAP spy, sent to destroy SDP and provide living proof that PAP tolerates opposition...)

Anonymous said...

Chiam is well liked? I can never forget he said, "IF THE PM SAID SO, IT MUST BE SO."

This sums up the man.

Yawning Bread Sampler said...

Yuen -

You're measuring "success" as purely electoral... winning seats in parliament, getting the voters to like you. But the very point I was making is that there are different measures of success.

Anonymous 9 June 11:43 -

I think Chiam was being ironic when he said that.

Anonymous said...

Alex's sidebar interested me. Judges being inclined to enforce immoral and unjust laws is one of the drawbacks of having a judicial system with no juries. Juries tend not to convict people of crimes that they think should not be crimes, even if the letter of the law says they should. In countries that have jury systems, this leads to unenforceable laws (known as "jury nullification") which prosecutors then never prosecute and legislators or popular ballot initiatives then stike. Lee Kwan Yew's comments that juries are too easily manipulated by lawyers may be true, but they are not easily manipulated by the government or its ministers.

yuen said...

>there are different measures of success.

sure, but it is also true that "alternative success" usually means "failure"

PAP, for example would probably say its failure to recapture Potong Pasir and Hougang is a kind of success in keeping the "right" kind of opposition in parliament

is SDP going to announce that its street antics are such a success that it is no longer interested in running for parliament?

I too would like to show sympathy for the underdog, but the street soap opera has gone on for too long, and it is time to find a new script

Anonymous said...

LKY and the PAP's arrogance will be their own undoing. If Chee SJ and the SDP did do some serious thinking about this, then I applaud their strategy if this is what it really is.

I wouldn't be too hopeful for change to come from within the PAP even after the old man dies. They are after all the "elites" and have no compelling reason to change other than to cement their own hold on power. It certainly won't be for the benefit of their fellow Singaporeans.

Anonymous said...

"a party that claims to fight for democracy should first run itself democratically as an organization; a party that criticizes the government need to suggest what it would do differently; a party that claims to care for the people's welfare should suggest measures that the government can implement to improve the people's lot; how often has SPD done this?"

this line of argument is favored by the incument. while on hand claiming that opposition has nothing to offer, on the other hand suppress the media from publishing or even to mentioned what the opposition has or had done.
Did you even bother to check it out, in this case, how SDP plan to do differently when they criticize the government? did you also check it out, in this case, what measures does the SDP has suggested for the people's welfare that the government can implement?

did you even bother to take a brief look at their manifesto before you think that they have nothing to offer?


A Kiss To Build A Dream On said...

For a three quarter tanked psychopath, Chee seems to have made some headway in showing up the illogical, cruel oppressive side of the PAP and in the process, antagonising and causing a certain amount of fear within the PAP. Not many madmen can have that claim to fame.

The PAP bigwigs have gone all out in getting their supporters to come out howitzers blazing to blow Chee up, writing regularly to the Press to deplore his actions. In turn, this is repeated and reinforced by the editors in full length op-ed pieces designed to echo and reinforce that Chee is a hazard to the well being of the State.

The curious questions to ponder are:-
Why so much concern over one wacko? What is the PAP so afraid of?

Sure as the compass points to the north, the measuring barometer of the pressure under which the PAP is undergoing is revealed whenever Chua Lee Hoong weighs in with her drivel. Worse, she gets down, wet and dirty, trying to play Freudian doctor in an obscene and disgusting manner. The last time this sorry excuse of a journalist indugled in such plain vulgarity, it was during the recent Mas Selamat fiasco. On that occasion, she did a perverse lapdog dance of words in Greek-English to absolve her master from all blame and reponsibility.

It does not take a fool to know that when Chua Lee Hoong goes into turbo-charged mode, it is a reliable indicator that the people in the seat of power are getting hot and bothered about something, more often nothing.

Joe90 said...

"Like military retreat, political retreat too is fraught with risks. The very fact that it is ordered is a major confession that the previous position has become untenable... Too many times in history, what is planned as an orderly retreat quickly becomes a rout. And a new political system is born." - YB

Your description of "political retreat" brings to mind the fate of the USSR. When after 70 years or so of suffering progressively deteriorating economic and social conditions brought on mainly by institutionalised corruption, financial incompetence and mismanagement and stubborn adherence to half-baked (to be polite) economic policies, many of these formerly communist countries realised that it was no longer tenable to maintain the system which they had become too accustomed to for so long, and so decided to commit an "orderly retreat" in the name of "reform" or what Gorbachev called "Glasnost." But in the end, even what was meant to be an orderly retreat spun totally out of the control of their instigators and inevitably imploded into the spectacular collapse of the entire Soviet Union, beginning in 1989.

So, perhaps, it is true that all human empires are finite and prone to fall. Thus, I suppose we can take some small comfort in the fact that the present government cannot last forever. But one wonders if we have to wait another thirty years or so for that to happen. And even then, what guarantee do we have that its "replacement" will be any better?

Anonymous said...


Your conversations with yuen in YB Sampler so typify a wider problem that oppositions parties have vis-a-vis the electorate.

Mollymeek in one of her posting The Iron Fist Behind Soft Authoritarianism, in my opinion, superbly identified the crux of the problem, when she posed this question:

What kind of "opposition" politicians do Singaporeans want? Many shun the politicians that rip apart the silky glove, but they also scorn at the politicians who shake hands with the iron fist.

Not to pick on Yuen, but using the logic of his analysis as an illustration, I find when having conversations with many of my associates that's the same kind of thought processes that seemed to flow in their minds.

For example, you see Yuen speak of SDP being, in essence, run by a one man show and at the same time praise another who is as equally, and in my opinion more of, a one-man show.

It seemed to be that Yuen's thought processes probably represents an electorate that is more concerned about "likeability", "immediate" or "tangible" measures of success. I suppose a kind of inability to tell a tree from a forest mindset.

Frankly, it is attitudes of the majority of the electorates, as I see it, that scares me more that what the opposition does or does not do.

As a support of SDP causes, my only concern is that the sacrifices that they have made are not fully appreciated or worst, for the fruits to appreciated at a time when it is too late to be effective --i.e. when the nation descend to the state not unlike Zimbabwe!

Tan Ah Kow

yuen said...

>did you even bother to take a brief look at their manifesto before you think that they have nothing to offer?

no, but since you are here, why dont you list a few items here? surely you want to make the effort to pass the message?

yuen said...

>For example, you see Yuen speak of SDP being, in essence, run by a one man show and at the same time praise another who is as equally, and in my opinion more of, a one-man show.

I see you (and YB) agree both SDP and SPP are one man shows; you could even say the same about PAP.

since so many SDP supporters have been drawn into this discussion, this is a good opportunity for them to tell us what the party has to offer besides the street theatre

Quitter-to-be said...

I am a post-65-er (to borrow a PAP coined term) who did not witness how opposition was decimated in the early years of the nation, and did not come to know of the dark side of PAP's early rise to power until the recent proliferation of information on the internet. Nevertheless, the PAP controlled government has occasionally shown its excessive power obsession in the way it wields all tools within its reach to entrench its hold on powers (e.g. exposing the confidential health records of the then President Nair when he started privately opposing LKY... as cited in Ontario Supreme Court, Chee's taxi-fare claim which rightfully is a matter within the organization).

IMHO, in recent years, SDP, other political and non-political activists (e.g. the gay movement) have increased the occurrence and profile of events that show the hypocrisy of PAP's democracy such that we can no longer look away and pretend the situation is NOT ridiculous. I do not want such a legally correct but ethically corrupt law-makers.

yuen implied "going into the street deliberately breaking petty restrictive laws" serves no purpose. I differ in opinion for such petty restrictive laws (e.g. the right to protest) have much bigger implications (e.g. respect for human rights, right to information, accountability of civil servants... even if they are the law-makers/enforcers).

IMHO, there were once good men in the PAP like the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong, but it is no longer true of any of the current PAP representatives who are gagged by the party whip and the high opportunity cost (million-dollar pay, anyone?). The gagging is very effective, so I doubt any from the current group stop their parliamentary wayang and fracture out to form a new group like in Malaysia's UMNO (note: in Malaysia there are well-established lobby groups not tied to the ruling party).

At best, I see that SDP's actions may make more of the electorate disgusted with PAP enough such that there will be a marginal increase in the number of opposition parliamentary seats. Due to the media depiction of "illegal" and "psycho" nature of SDP's actions however, they are unlikely to directly benefit from the changes. In addition, I doubt PAP will not re-write the electoral rules or use other legal means after the election to limit the impact (e.g. JBJ's legal case).

Even the "retreat" scenario is bleak. The younger generation of PAP elites (LHL generation onwards) who are lured into politics by the promise of a golden rice-bowl with minimal electoral challenge, can easily "quit overseas" with their wealth accumulated from their indecent pay. A particular power-hungry old man may be the lone "stayer", but he can easily co-opt a new generation of money-hungry pawns. Afterall, LKY has been reported to say that he would call in the military should there be a freak election result (rather than to respect the polls). He cites instability as the issue, but in reality, over the 40+ years of leadership, has he or PAP done anything to create a resilient system (e.g. independence of administration independence of judiciary) that will remain stable regardless of the reigning political party.

At the personal level, if one is globally mobile, why would one stick around to see through such pessimistic scenarios when one can forge a better life overseas in a real democracy with better political resilience? That's a question I ask of myself. I believe there are significantly many others asking the same question and voting with their feet too, going by the GCT and more recently LHL remarks about "quitters".

Robert L said...

Thank you for this brilliant article, YB. There is much to learn from it.

The rest of my post is concerning certain comments left by your visitors.

First, I'll dismiss a couple of points very quickly. Why should we listen to official media and form any conclusion over the supposed "antics" of Dr Chee or the Dr Chee-vs-Chiam saga? The media slant is guaranteed to be fake. Just look at events this week and see how they are manufacturing things to make Dr Chee look like a psychopath.

Yet again, why should we take sides between the two? Both Chiam and Dr Chee are highly respectable and doing very, very brave work on citizens' behalf. We have enough room in our hearts to embrace the both of them.

Now coming to the next point which is the real reason behind this post. This thing about "what ideas have Dr Chee/SDP contributed, yada, yada..." I'm thoroughly sick of seeing this, or many other such variants, all over the internet. It must be the brainchild of PAP strategists and subsequently parroted by bloggers who really should know better.

Come on, open up your brains. The PAP has at its services hundreds of thousands of civil servants, military groups, govt-linked companies, grassroot bodies -- all providing them with information, data, resources, ideas, classified intelligence and so on, for them to formulate their ideas and policies. Does any of these sources provide any support to Dr Chee or the opposition? Gee! don't all of them hinder or attack the opposition instead of providing help? So who can be dumb enough to parrot the line that the opposition should provide alternative policies?

Besides that, how much Billions and Billion $$$ are paid to those hundreds of thousands of people that the PAP has access to? Compare that with how much are paid to those who provide support to opposition? At least opposition MP is paid $12,000. How much does Dr Chee get paid? Zero?

Well, you're wrong even there. Dr Chee does not get paid zero. He gets paid NEGATIVE! Yes, through numerous lawsuits uniquely Singapore, Dr Chee is in negative salary for bringing out the questions we the citizens want to ask. So what kind of a fool would want to compare what alternative policies Dr Chee has given, compared with the PAP who draws ideas and resources from hundreds of people who are paid Billions and Billions $$$ of salary.

You see, I'm not speaking out in support of only Dr Chee. This heinous way of reasoning has been used by agents of PAP to attack all opposition members again and again. I feel it is high time that intelligent bloggers thoroughly expose this insidious lie wherever it crops up.

Let me summarise. PAP develops policies from the resources of hundreds of thousands of people who are paid Billions and Billions of salary. The opposition do not get any such support. Worse, the opposition gets hindered in all sorts of ways.

PAP ministers and MPs get $12,000 to millions$ of salary. The opposition gets none, zero. Worse, people like Dr Chee get all his money taken away - negative salary.

What kind of empty brain throws down a challenge to compare what alternative policies the opposition can offer?

yuen said...

>What kind of empty brain throws down a challenge to compare what alternative policies the opposition can offer?

my brain, empty or not, is not a PAP one, not even a Singaporean one; it is quite easy to find out by a simple google search

we all know the circumstance of SDP and Chee, but since they claim to have ideas about policies, let's hear them; and if SDP has actually decided its street antics are a great idea and it no longer cares about elections, let them announce that too; I am sure SDP believes in openness and transparency...

I always thought the government would be better off creating some official forum where opposition can have a voice, e.g., a senate elected by proportionate representation, where PAP can send 70% of members and opposition 30%; it reduces the need for street antics; if a party does not have any meaningful political agenda, such a forum would also expose this for everyone to see

Joe90 said...

Oops! My bad! In my earlier comment, I meant to say,"perestroika" (loosely translated as "restructuring"), instead of "Glasnost" which loosely translates as "openness". My apologies for the mix-up.

recruit ong said...

alamak yuen, even a recruit like me know enough of SDP's history to know it is Chiam's unreasonable demands (which the SDP CEC did not endorse) that engineered his own resignation from SDP.

SDP is in decline if you only look at the game as mapped out and dictated by the PAP. But then hor in this same game, are Chiam and the Workers Party "winning" or doing better than before? The answer is a big fat NO. And that is the point bread man is trying to say: that SDP's current method is one that is out of the box. And quite seriously hor this box is not hard to figure out so please try.

yuen said...

about Chiam's downfall: I only have information published in the press, that he recuited new SDP members who then outvoted him on the Executive Committee when he objected to Chee being employed by a town council managed by an SDP MP (I think Ling How Dong); he threatened to quit thinking he was indispensible, and was surprised others did not agree

Chiam and the WP both seem to think that, as long as they survive in Parliament, they are successfully "opposing" the PAP, and there is no need to achieve anything else, which is why some people admire SDP for trying harder using their street antics

to a great extent, the situation is the fault of the PAP - it puts obstacles against meanginful opposition activities, so that only meaningless activities remain

Anonymous said...

In your sidebar, you noted a comment made by an anonymous Singapore Judge capture by Gerald.

Assuming that the quote made by Gerald was indeed true or accurately reflect the comments made by the anonymous Judge it would seemed to suggest that Singaporean judges hands, in the case of defamation law, are tied presumably by statute and he/she has no room to manoeuvre.

Seemed strange. My understanding is that the laws of tort, and defamation in particular, in Singapore are largely made by judges rather than statutes. Or am I wrong?

Also much of the defamation case laws as I see it seemed to found on the basis of "false light", albeit somewhat differently interpreted in English legal system, rather than any egregious falsehood, so it would seemed in which case the Judge would have lots of scope for his/her own judgement. So why would it be a case of being tied by the law, so to speak?

I appreciate you are not legal expert in this field but I do hope that you will publish it in the sampler so that people who are in the know can respond and enlighten me.