Book Review: Democratically Speaking, by Chee Soon Juan

* Featured on TRS, SG Daily.

When I was growing up in Singapore, I remember coming across a couple of Straits Times articles which pretty much branded Dr. Chee Soon Juan as a troublemaker.

It was only after my mid-twenties that I first surfed into the SDP website, of which Dr. Chee is the Secretary General of.

The first thing I noticed on the website were the three words under the political party’s header:


These are very strong words, which I — in all my youthful naivety — used to take for granted that these were values a political party in any region would automatically aspire to uphold.

I ended up ordering a copy of Democratically Speaking (published in 2012) to gain a better idea of Dr. Chee’s thoughts on democracy and the opportunity Singaporeans have to “defend [their] political rights” before it’s too late.

This is a current screenshot of the purchase page on the SDP website:


It was evident from the contents page alone that Chee Soon Juan had presented the book’s contents in an organised, compelling manner.

The contents are divided into the following sections:

Part I: The political economy (on “wealth disparity” and “holding [the powers that be] accountable”)

Part II: In the opposition (Dr. Chee’s views on taking non-violent action, and effective opposition)

Part III: The rule of law (a comprehensive section on Dr. Chee’s courtroom experiences with confronting LKY, and how citizens are not treated equally under the law in Singapore)

Part IV: Democratically Speaking (a collection of Dr. Chee’s letters, articles, and interviews over the past two decades which are all focused on the democratisation of Singapore)

The chapter on “taking non-violent action” was particularly illuminating, as it presents several points as to the necessity of civic engagement and dissent.

Dr. Chee makes it very clear that “dissent” does not mean violent or reckless actions for the purpose of bringing about positive change. After all, the word “dissent” can be defined as expressing or having opinions at variance with those officially held.

On why dissent matters, Dr. Chee writes:

“Public demonstrations empower the people. . .In truth, it is the empowerment of the people that the PAP fears. The ruling clique knows that its illegal hold on power is possible only because it keeps the people isolated from one another.”

Dr. Chee also explains why democracy in Singapore exists “in theory,” and why simply “electing more opposition MPs in the next General Election until the PAP is displaced as government” is not going to work. With the ruling party retaining all the power and having the ability to “change the rules ever so easily,” any gains any opposition parties make in Singapore can be wiped out if and whenever the rules are changed.

Dr. Chee stresses the point about opposition unity, and how pushing for political rights and civil liberties should be a common platform for all opposition parties. After all, the opposition landscape cannot be its most effective if the various opposition groups are more interested in criticising or lauding each other, than working together for the common goal of advancing human rights and the cause for a genuine democracy.

The foundation of a democratic system grants citizens the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly — things which make it more difficult for the “autocratic-minded” (i.e. people who take no account of other people’s wishes or opinions) to retain absolute power in politics.

Dr. Chee explains that civil disobedience is not just “about breaking laws and challenging the authorities on a whim and fancy…[and] not about unruliness and anarchy.” The aim is to achieve change through organised, peaceful means, so as to prevent a chaotic and violent outcome.

He acknowledges that advocating and working for change in an “intimidated society” is not as comfortable as being on “the side of power.” But that “those whose conscience and awareness do not allow them to remain idle. . .have the obligation to speak up.”

Perhaps this line from Democratically Speaking says it best:

“If it was good and right for Singaporeans to use non-violent action against the British [in the pre-independence days of Singapore], why is it bad and wrong for us to use it against the much more authoritarian PAP now?”

What I liked the most about Democratically Speaking is that it wasn’t a book based on theories alone. Dr. Chee and the SDP have not been idly sitting around talking about change and not doing anything about it — you can view their Facebook page and website to see their current efforts. As a youth in Singapore, not once did I see the work or campaigns by the opposition parties mentioned or portrayed in a positive manner in the mainstream SPH-dominated media, which is why I did not (and still don’t) treat The Straits Times as a reliable source when it comes to local politics.

There is a long, long history of the sacrifices opposition members in Singapore have had to make. Ordinary people may wonder and question why any sane individual would seek to bother to make life so difficult for themselves, to go through all the trouble for positive change.

The reason is because civil liberties (i.e. individual rights protected by law from unjust governmental or other interference) are worth defending.

What are civil liberties? According to

“Civil liberties are basic rights and freedoms granted to citizens of a country through national common or statute law. They include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of religious worship. Such rights and freedoms form the basis of a democratic society and are often denied to those living in a dictatorship.”

As CSJ wrote on Page 278 of his book, what keeps him going is “the desire to leave a better society for [his children and the next generation] of Singaporeans, [who will] grow up to understand that life is not just about making money and seeing how much power we can grab for themselves.” That, he concludes, is only when we will see a better Singapore emerge.

Readers and members of the public can decide for themselves whether Dr. Chee is a raving lunatic, misguided idealist, or a capable leader who is indeed Competent, Constructive, and Compassionate.

Here are some additional links:

1) Competent, Constructive, Compassionate – 2013 Year in Review (a timeline of SDP’s activities in 2013)

2) CSJ: A New Vision for Singapore (Wall Street Journal)

3) CSJ’s speech at the International Bar Association’s Rule of Law Symposium (Tokyo)

4) SDP’s publications on bringing about positive change in the education system, national healthcare, public housing, etc. (PDFs available for download)

5) “Something happened between 2005 and 2010, a mini-explosion occurred in the SDP in terms of our membership and, together with it, our capability.” (speech by CSJ during SDP’s 30th Anniversary Dinner held in 2010)

And since there are indications that PM Lee Hsien Loong will call for elections in 2015, here is a statement you may want to check out that the SDP recently posted.


SDP to launch GE2015 campaign

There are indications that PM Lee Hsien Loong will call for elections in 2015. It is not early at all for the SDP to step up our campaign and prepare ourselves for the much anticipated contest.

We are officially holding our GE2015 Campaign Kick-Off on 10 January 2015, Saturday at 2 pm at the Holiday Inn Atrium, Outram Road.

We are now at the stage where we need to effectively communicate our policies and what we want to do for the country to our voters. To do this we need much help from you, our friends and supporters.

Please make a note of the date of the launch and be part of what promises to be a groundbreaking and historic elections.

Pic and Text from Facebook; SDP.

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I would like to end this blog post with the following disclaimer, which is a paragraph I’ve borrowed from a fellow blogger who also reviewed Democratically Speaking:

“No, I’m neither a SDP member (or any political party) nor do I get a commission in recommending this book. . .It is through alternative media and literature that we get to know the truths that powerful elites do not want us to know. It’s time to get our heads out of the sand. We are not ostriches!”