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  • ARTICLE | Talking a bird down from a tree: a conversation with Chee Soon Juan

ARTICLE | Talking a bird down from a tree: a conversation with Chee Soon Juan

Singapore is facing political uncertainty with the dominating figure of Lee Kuan Yew in hospital on life support and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, undergoing surgery for cancer last week. Their People’s Action Party (PAP) has ruled the island state since 1959, but had its worst result ever in the 2011 elections. Chee Soon Juan has emerged as a key figure in the fight for change and John Keane interviews the opposition leader about his political convictions and hopes for a democratic Singapore.

The interview is part of the forthcoming Democracy Futures project, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


John Keane: Dr Chee Soon Juan, you find yourself in the thick of Singapore politics, but it wasn’t always so. What made you a political animal?

Chee Soon Juan: It happened in the most unexpected way. When I was in my early 20s, the government introduced what they called the “Graduate Mother’s Scheme”. It specified that “intelligent” women with university degrees could have as many children as they wished. Women lacking a university degree would be penalised if they had more than two children. I found the policy most repulsive. Even though at the time I had no tertiary education, it stirred something inside me. But then I left as a student for the United States, where I spent the better part of the 1980s. When I came back, things hadn’t really changed. There was still a one-party state that specialised in social engineering. So instead of just complaining about our situation and developing ulcers, I decided I wanted to do something. I became political.

JK: Indignation is often the catalyst of political involvement, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the feeling that politics is a vocation. Has it become your calling?

CSJ: I don’t know if it’s my calling, but after realising that the policies of this government weren’t good for the country, I became persuaded that I’d done the right thing by entering politics. As soon as I did, the government began targeting me. The more they pursued me, the more resolute I became. Their heavy-handed tactics galvanised rather than weakened me. I was not prepared to turn tail and run.

JK: Your political commitments brought you suffering, including time in prison, yet you’ve shown great determination. What’s the basis of your inner resilience?

CSJ: I take heart from the truism that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Each time the government came for me I felt ever more determined. I grew convinced I was doing the right thing. I’ve also had the very good fortune of having my family behind me. My wife has been very supportive. She has given me strength. Without her, it would have been tremendously difficult to go on.

JK: Are you in politics because of your children?

CSJ: My political involvement started well before I had children but, when I did, I realised how children make you look ahead towards the future they are going to inherit. I know how clichéd it is when people say we should think of our children and our children’s children. But it’s true, especially in a non-democratic state. At some point, future generations will look back and ask: what did you do when you had the chance to make changes, and why didn’t you? I’ve become very conscious of this point, and am trying to show my children, too, that things worth doing are never easy. Perseverance counts. Running away is no solution.

JK: Do you think a sense of spirituality is an ingredient of political stamina?

CSJ: I think it is. The first time I went to jail I was put in solitary, behind a big metal door, watched through a slit by guards I couldn’t see. The solitude grated on my mind. Access to books was a constant battle. In prison, they became my best friends, but the authorities limited me to three, including my Bible. They forced me to register them and put a time limit on their use. Every time they took my books away, I suffered withdrawal. I learnt I had to lean on more than myself. I was forced to dig deep, in search of hope. I found myself needing to think there was a higher being who would take me through this difficult moment. As a Christian, I had faith that if I did the right thing, and persevered, things would turn out right. It helped.

JK: Faith in things unseen is often linked to courage. How important is courage in politics?

CSJ: Prison was a tough test of my capacity for courage. We all have different degrees of what psychologists call basal arousal, but in my own case solitary confinement was especially difficult because it challenged my strong need for communication with other people. Fear made me hesitate to do certain things. It froze me into inaction – and made me deeply aware that I had to act, in spite of my fear. I’d say there are times when we need our heads to overrule our hearts. We must do the analysis: calculate there’s something worth doing because it is right. At those moments, we have to out-vote our emotions. We must tell ourselves that we must “just go for it”. In that way, we grow stronger.

JK: Churchill famously said that “politicians shouldn’t be sofas”, by which he meant they need to stand up for their own principles and visions, and not be pushed around, or simply sat upon and shaped by others. How important are principles in political life?

CSJ: Principles are vital in politics. When I first challenged the government over its strict political controls and the lack of fundamental freedoms in Singapore, it wasn’t a popular issue. People in Singapore had been so conditioned into thinking that political freedom would bring chaos, frighten investors and cause economic ruin.

JK: You were an isolated dissident?

Chee Soon Juan

Singaporeans are increasingly questioning whether prosperity can justify authoritarian government. EPA/How Hwee Young

CSJ: Yes, and it was most disconcerting. People called me a political exhibitionist and even some of my liberal-minded friends questioned my actions. It was again one of those moments in politics when you must do the calculations about doing the right thing. Everybody wants to be popular among their peers. We feel the need to be talked about with respect. But there are times when we have to think ahead and to tell ourselves that doing the right thing will be judged kindly by history. At that moment, as Churchill said, you have to transcend the instinct for popularity and instead work for the longer term.

JK: You’ve spoken of our desire for popularity, to communicate with others and to be liked by them. How does this work in electoral politics? In media-saturated settings, aren’t politicians in the business of public self-projection? Isn’t politics nowadays a form of dramatic performance?

CSJ: When entering politics, there’s a strong temptation to set aside politics and instead become an actor. I’m uncomfortable with the trend simply because if substance is lacking – if you really don’t know what you want to say or where the rest of society should be heading – then politics becomes empty. It’s reduced to reading and performing a script before an audience. Self-belief and being true to your self are sacrificed. When that happens, politicians get a bad name. People see through it. They can tell whether or not politicians are authentic. I try not to appear that way. I’ve been accused of being too academic, but it doesn’t bother me. What’s important is for politicians to have substance.

JK: But surely there are situations where Chee Soon Juan plays Chee Soon Juan? Substance never comes in “pure” form. Doesn’t it always involve a performance: communicating something with others in particular situations using a defined style?

CSJ: Yes, politics is the art of communicating with others, not by means of decimals and bullet points but by talking to people in such a way that they want to listen. I’m still in the process of learning how to do it. It’s been said politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. We must find a right balance. For me, politics involves finding a way of speaking to people about substance. Otherwise, politicians come across sounding vacuous.

JK: Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks of the importance in politics of “persuasive power”, the ability of public representatives to put people at ease by convincing them in word and deed they’re trustworthy and decent. How important for you is this capacity of putting people at ease?

CSJ: If you have to strive consciously to put people at ease then you’re automatically in trouble. Politicians need a measure of authenticity. Good leadership means being genuine with others and being true to oneself. In order for others to want to follow, or even to listen to the things they say, genuine leaders must be able to demonstrate that they’re not in it for themselves. Otherwise, people lose trust. On top of that, good leaders must be dedicated, committed to leading by example, rather than expecting people to do things they would not do themselves. True leaders must really care about what they’re doing, for the sake of the wider political community. People see through fakes.

JK: But isn’t going into politics synonymous with media slander and misrepresentation? The government of Singapore dishes out its fair share in your direction. It claims you spread “falsehoods” and peddle “libel”. They say you’re both deeply “dishonourable” and a “political failure” now posing as “the Aung San Suu Kyi of Singapore politics”.

CSJ: If I was given a dollar for every time someone told me that I am not the monster government media makes me out to be then I’d be as rich as the millionaire ministers of the Singapore government. I may not be an angel, but I’m not the devil the government has painted me to be. Just by talking to me, people realise how much they’ve been misled.

Chee Soon Juan

Chee Soon Juan, speaking recently in Sydney, argues that courage, decency and truth telling are the basis of authentic political leadership. Giovanni Navarria, Author provided

JK: Doesn’t your commitment to authenticity, decency and honesty put you at odds with a basic maxim of Western politics that every politician has to sell snake oil? Is it really possible to be in politics without perfecting the art of persuading others of something in which you don’t believe, or have reservations about?

CSJ: Citizens can be won over for a time using snake oil, but present moments pass quickly. Then what? My struggle has been more long-term: even when misunderstood, I have wanted people to say, at some point in the future, “Yes, what he said was right, it’s true.” Consciously telling yourself to resist the political temptation to sell snake oil is an investment for the future.

JK: Many citizens today say politicians are chronic liars. In a roundabout way, they accept Machiavelli’s maxim that lying is unavoidable in politics. You value living truth, but do you think there are moments when truth is a political hindrance?

CSJ: The ongoing issue in politics is how economical one wants to be with the truth. It’s complex. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to deal with his less progressive opponents. To hold the Union together, he initially chose not to abolish slavery. Every politician has to deal with this dilemma of sometimes having to choose between lesser evils. Unfortunately, when making their choice, many politicians succumb to the temptation to peddle lies. This gives politics a bad name, despite the fact that there are plenty of politicians who try their very best to advance the interests of whole communities in circumstances that are not to their advantage. I’m hopeful more decent people will come forward into politics, which is only ever as good as the good people it attracts.

JK: In a one-party system where official lying is chronic, isn’t it much easier, paradoxically, to live in the truth when in opposition?

Chee Soon Juan

Singaporeans are becoming less willing to accept government decisions without protest. EPA/Stephen Morrison

CSJ: It’s always easier to fight for principles than to live by them. Living up to principles you believe to be true is equally challenging. There’s no simple formula for how to do it, and very few people manage it. People like Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King all had their flaws. There were times when they deviated from their own principles. But they were deeply conscious of the need always to come back to basics. They tried hard to harmonise what they were saying in public with the way they lived their lives. Character is vital: doing the right thing when people aren’t looking, when the cameras aren’t clicking, is very important. You don’t always succeed. But you remain conscious of the need to aspire to living the truth.

JK: A famous Scottish politician (Jimmy Maxton) once said that politics is a bloody circus and if you’re in it you better learn to ride two bloody horses at once. You stand for sincerity, authenticity, decency and honesty. But politics is also about knives and conniving, combining the rough with the smooth, isn’t it?

CSJ: People say politics is about finding friends and dealing with enemies. I may live to regret saying this, but we have people in our Singapore Democratic Party who remain genuine. Perhaps it’s because there’s nothing – money, power – to be gained by joining the party. I’m aware things will change if and when we grow bigger, but we’ll deal with the issue when it arises. In the meantime, our aim within the party is to build up positive political capital, among people who are persuaded that they’re doing the right thing. Although such capital isn’t a resource that comes from hard political power, I do think it minimises political back-stabbing and conniving, hopefully in order to get us through to government.

JK: But governing brings its own burdens, such as the need for public disinformation, doesn’t it?

CSJ: I would relish the challenge to prove otherwise! Governments don’t need to tell lies to their electorates. They need instead to carry people with them, by being honest with them. Many politicians underestimate people’s ability to understand this difference. That’s why they get into such trouble, especially when they grow prepared to say and do anything, just to stay in office. Hackneyed though it may sound, honesty, the political ability to couch things frankly, is still the best policy.

JK: This is an old Greek democratic idea: candid speech is a powerful weapon against devious opponents.

CSJ: In politics, you have to know yourself as well. The moment you let someone else sow the seeds of doubt within you, undermine your confidence and affect what you do, you are in trouble. Loss of confidence is your Achilles heel. When my kids were quite young, I was asked by an interviewer whether I worried about what they would in future think about all the nasty names the government hurled at me. My answer was that they would measure their father against what he said, and what he stood for and what he did, and then make up their own minds. I expect others to do that of me. And I try to apply the same rule to myself. I know who I am, and because I know who I am, I will carry on doing what I’m doing, and then let people around me and history be my judge.

JK: But how do you deal with naysayers and plotters and opponents with knives? Most people would say being true to your sense of self isn’t enough.

CSJ: There are some people you can’t convince. If you speak ill of the Singapore government and its leaders, for instance, they may consider it defamatory. They take you to court and sue you for every last penny you have. They call you everything under the sun. Confronted by such opponents, I try not to be distracted by the animosity. For instance, I’ve written open letters and in court told Lee Kuan Yew that I harbour no hatred or ill will towards him. As he fights his inner demons and strives to prove his own legacy, I continue to wish him the best. He has to live his own life and face the verdict of history, as we all do. Confronted by political opponents, it’s also important to continue down our own paths. Resilience is a powerful virtue. So is talking and persuasion, which can be much more powerful than knives. I strongly prefer conversation and debate. My training in neuropsychology comes in handy. It taught me that there are always more questions than there are answers. In politics, especially in autocratic politics, it is the other way around. So I strive to infuse questioning into our politics. However heated things become, it’s important to make sure all sides are heard, and to let the chips fall where they may. If your enemies see the truth, then that’s a good outcome, even when they’re not in agreement.

Singaporeans have begun to contemplate life after Lee Kuan Yew who, at 91, is gravely ill in hospital. EPA/Stephen Morrison

Singaporeans have begun to contemplate life after Lee Kuan Yew who, at 91, is gravely ill in hospital. EPA/Stephen Morrison

JK: What would you say is the worst thing about being in politics?

CSJ: Fund-raising. I accept it’s something that must be done for the sake of running campaigns, but it’s not always pleasant.

JK: Others would say the worst thing about a political career is physical exhaustion, or the loss of privacy.

CSJ: I’ve still got petrol in my tank. When it comes to privacy, politicians reveal much more than they should. I don’t use Facebook for things I want to keep personal. I work on the assumption that I’m being watched by the secret police in Singapore, but I have nothing to hide from the public.

JK: Edmund Burke once said that in politics flattery is a curse because it corrupts both the giver and the receiver. What about toadies in politics? You must have had your fair share?

CSJ: I’ve attended political conferences where delegates went around using the sweetest of words, as if they thought they could talk a bird down from a tree. They approached complete strangers, put their arms around them and treated them as though they were long-lost friends. The Americans call this behaviour “schmoozing”. I instinctively recoil from it. It’s the height of fakery. It’s not the way to win friends. I just don’t like it one bit.

JK: How do you deal with the political cynics you encounter?

CSJ: I can live with cynics. Having been through the mill, I find it personally rewarding when people come around, even though at first they were utterly cynical. I came into opposition politics in Singapore not only to change votes, but also to change minds. Cynicism is to be expected in politics, but it can and must be dealt with by maintaining a measure of composure, through equanimity and the hope that the cynics will drop their cynicism.

JK: It has often been said that all political careers end in failure. Do you think yours will?

CSJ: There’s a good chance that in my case there won’t even be the success that comes before failure! In politics, things go wrong. How difficult situations are handled determines success or failure. Not knowing when to leave office and its complement, blindly clinging on to power beyond its expiry date, are key reasons why political careers fail.

JK: Does the temptation of clinging to a political role apply to you? Are you worried that politics is going to your head?

CSJ: I’m certainly conscious that power is often intoxicating and that people unwisely cling to it. I also know that political power and all its trappings can be lost in seconds. I try to do what I believe to be right, but for the moment I haven’t any power, if by that is meant having an office, hiring and firing people, having a guaranteed budget and spending large sums of money.

JK: In Singapore and well beyond Southeast Asia, money has become a basic ingredient of politics. Do you think on balance it’s having poisonous effects?

CSJ: Big money and buying off politicians by big moneyed interests are terrible scourges on politics in mature democracies. I may be wrong, but support can be won regardless of campaign ads oiled by big money. As I’ve said, fund-raising is important, but it’s not automatically persuasive. In Singapore, where the government filters and controls all media, politics is also being challenged through the internet, where Facebook and YouTube and other social media are providing avenues for running a campaign and reaching out to Singaporean citizens without spending an arm and a leg to beat our government opponents, who have unlimited resources at their disposal.

JK: You now find yourself at the beginning of a long campaign by your party to win its first-ever parliamentary seats in the next general election, which is due by January 2017. The outcome is uncertain. Do you think about the powerful role played by surprise in politics?

CSJ: In politics, you have to be a bit philosophical. You take the bitter with the sweet. You roll with the punches. When events work in your favour, you capitalise on them. When things go wrong, you try your level best to turn them into an opportunity. You mustn’t try to contrive and control everything. Good things always come mixed with bad things, so what’s needed is a strategy for dealing with each. Here’s the rule: don’t grow too elated when things turn out well, but don’t become despondent when things go badly.

JK: It’s been said that giving up prematurely is a key cause of failure in politics, and that when everything seems hopeless hoping against hope sometimes work wonders. How important is hope for you?

CSJ: Right now, the Singapore opposition has virtually no alternative but to look to the future and to believe that things will turn out better. The government is as wilful and intransigent as ever, despite the fact that without democracy we are just going to go nowhere. I’m excited by the prospect of leading the SDP into the next elections, excited about the opportunity of presenting our alternative vision to the people of Singapore and excited that we have the opportunity of taking Singapore in a different direction, towards a dynamic, more equal and compassionate democracy. The hope that democracy will come to Singapore looms large in our calculations. So does the conviction that hope must be backed by sweat, and by deeds. At the end of the day, I have not a shred of doubt who will emerge victorious in the struggle for democratic reform in Singapore. I say this because the human spirit can only be suppressed, never crushed.

Article originally published on 25 February 2015, 11.06am AEDT on The Conversation


Image: Wikimedia Commons/Dexterleezh, CC BY-SA

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