Chee Soon Juan
Chee Soon Juan
|2nd Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party|
|Assumed office |
17 May 1993
|Preceded by||Chiam See Tong|
Chee Soon Juan
20 July 1962
|Political party||Singapore Democratic Party (1992–present)|
|Relatives||Chee Siok Chin (sister)|
|Education||BSc (psychology), |
|Alma mater||Mansfield University|
University of Georgia
|Chee Soon Juan|
Chee Soon Juan (born 20 July 1962) is a Singaporean opposition politician who has been secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) since May 1993.
Chee started out as a lecturer at the National University of Singapore (NUS) before entering politics in 1992 after Chiam See Tong recruited him to join the SDP. He succeeded Chiam as the party's secretary-general after Chiam, whom Chee and the rest of the party's leadership have had a number of disagreements, left the SDP. The party had three Members of Parliament (MPs) at the time Chee took over as secretary-general, but lost all its seats at the 1997 general election and has not had any elected members since then.
A decisive figure in Singaporean politics, Chee was arrested and jailed several times for his unconventional political activities, mainly for making unauthorised public speeches as well as staging demonstrations without a police permit. He was also found guilty of defamation on multiple occasions for comments he has made about members of the country's governing People's Action Party (PAP). He was previously barred from standing in parliamentary elections because he was declared bankrupt in 2006, after failing to pay damages from a lawsuit owed to two former prime ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.
On 24 September 2012, Chee announced that he had raised the reduced sum of $30,000 which was accepted by Lee and Goh to annul his bankruptcy, which enabled him to contest in subsequent elections in 2015 and most recently in 2020. However, he has been considered to be a perennial candidate, and has never won an election ever since he first contested in 1992.
Chee had his early education at Anglo-Chinese School and National Junior College in Singapore. In 1983, he began studies at Mansfield University, graduating with a bachelor of science degree, majoring in psychology. After earning a PhD from the University of Georgia in 1990, he returned to Singapore to take up a teaching position in the Department of Psychology at the National University of Singapore.
First foray into politics
In 1992, Chee was recruited to join the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) by the party's founder and secretary-general, Chiam See Tong. Chiam had become the party's first Member of Parliament (MP) in 1984 when he was elected to represent the constituency of Potong Pasir. At the 1991 general election, Chiam was joined in Parliament by two other SDP MPs: Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen representing Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central respectively.
Chee was first introduced to the public as a member of the SDP's team to stand in a by-election in the Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency in 1992. His candidacy attracted considerable public interest as it was the first time that an academic from a state-run university had stood against the governing People's Action Party in an election. However, the SDP team was unsuccessful in the election, with the PAP winning 72.94% of the votes, the SDP 24.50%, and other smaller parties 2.56%.
Shortly after the Marine Parade by-election, Chee became the SDP's assistant secretary-general.
Dismissal from NUS
In 1993, a few months after Chee joined the SDP, he was dismissed from NUS by the Head of the Psychology Department, S. Vasoo, who was also a PAP MP at the time, for allegedly using research funds to send his wife's doctoral thesis to the United States and making false transport claims. Chee denied that he had misused university funds and claimed that he was the victim of a political vendetta. He staged a five-day hunger strike to protest his sacking.
Rise to leadership of the SDP
Although Chiam initially backed Chee, he became critical of Chee's hunger strike and his public comments condemning the PAP for his dismissal from NUS. Chiam wanted to censure Chee for his comments, but the party's Central Executive Committee (CEC) backed Chee. Chiam then resigned as secretary-general of the party. Chee, as the assistant secretary-general, then became the party's acting secretary-general and was subsequently elected as secretary-general in 1993.
After Chiam publicly criticised the CEC, they attempted to expel him from the party—an act which would have forced him to vacate his seat in Parliament—but Chiam won a court case to prevent them from doing so on procedural grounds. Chiam remained an SDP member and MP until shortly before the 1997 general election, when he left to join the Singapore People's Party, a party founded in 1994 by ex-SDP members who supported him.
After taking over as the SDP's secretary-general, Chee began regularly travelling abroad and to talk about his views on how "democracy is limited" in Singapore to the foreign media, especially in the Western countries. He also published his second political book, Dare to Change: An Alternative Vision for Singapore. In 1994, in response to criticisms of the book made by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Chee wrote a letter to The Straits Times. The PAP's Second Organising Secretary, Matthias Yao, then wrote to the newspaper to reply to Chee's comments. This led to a two-month-long exchange of letters between Chee and Yao in the newspaper that ended with Chee issuing a challenge to Yao to stand against him in a single member constituency at the next general election. At Yao's request, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong agreed to separate Yao's MacPherson ward from the rest of Marine Parade GRC at the next general election so that he could take up Chee's challenge. Chee lost the election, ganering only 34.86% of the vote to Yao's 65.14%.
1997 general election
The SDP's first general election under Chee's leadership in 1997 proved to be a major setback for the party as they failed to win any seats in Parliament. Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen were defeated in their bids to be re-elected as MPs, while Chee lost the high-profile contest in MacPherson to Matthias Yao by 6,713 (34.86%) votes to 12,546 (65.14%). Meanwhile, Chiam See Tong was re-elected as the MP for Potong Pasir, representing his new party.
2001 general election
At the 2001 general election, Chee stood as one of the SDP's candidates in the Jurong Group Representation Constituency. The SDP's team lost to the PAP team, winning only 20.25% of the votes while the PAP won 79.75%. The SDP's candidates were also unsuccessful in all the other constituencies in which they stood.
During the run-up to the election, Chee attracted attention in the media when he encountered Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong while campaigning at a hawker centre. He used a megaphone to ask the Prime Minister, "Where is the $18 billion that you have lent to (Indonesian President) Suharto?" The PAP took Chee to task for this, claiming that any accusation that Parliament had been misled about an alleged loan to Suharto was untrue, and demanding that he either apologise or face a defamation lawsuit. Although Chee apologised a day later, he subsequently retracted his apology.
Legal charges in 2002
On 15 February 2002, Chee made a public speech concerning the ban of Muslim headscarfs in schools at the Speakers' Corner. For this, he was fined $3,000 because even though he was registered to speak at the Speakers' Corner, he did not have an additional police permit required for almost all public events, including concerts and political rallies.
On 1 May 2002, Chee staged a rally in front of The Istana, the official residence and office of the President of Singapore, even though his application to the police for a licence to hold the assembly had been denied. Chee was later charged for trespassing and for attempting to hold a rally without a police permit, for which he was sentenced to five weeks in jail.
2002–2012, defamation suit and bankruptcy
After the 2001 general election, Chee was sued for defamation by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew for remarks he had made during the campaign about an alleged loan to Indonesian President Suharto. Chee lost the lawsuits and was ordered to pay damages of $300,000 to Goh and $200,000 to Lee.
On 10 February 2006, Chee was declared bankrupt by the High Court after failing to pay the damages owed to Goh and Lee.
As an undischarged bankrupt, Chee became ineligible to stand in general elections and was required to seek a court-appointed Official Assignee's permission before making any trips abroad.
On 24 February 2006, Chan Sek Keong, the Attorney-General, filed contempt of court charges against Chee for refusing to answer the court's questions and scandalising the Singapore judiciary during the bankruptcy petition hearing on 10 February 2006. As a result, Chee was sentenced to one day in jail and a fine of $6,000, but he failed to pay the fine and was thus jailed for an additional seven days.  He was released on 24 March 2006.
In April 2006, Chee was stopped at Changi Airport as he was preparing to board a flight to Istanbul because, as an undischarged bankrupt, he could not leave Singapore without his court-appointed Official Assignee's approval, which he had not obtained.
Chee was unable to stand in the 2006 general election. In view of that, the SDP entered candidates in some constituencies but none were elected.
On 20 June 2006, Chee was charged in court for eight counts of speaking in public without a licence between 13 November 2005 and 22 April 2006 in violation of the Public Entertainments and Meeting Act. Two other SDP members were also charged.
On 22 August 2006, Chee announced that he was planning to hold protests in Singapore during 61st Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank in September 2006 (as part of Singapore 2006) to protest against the rising income gap and raise awareness of the hardships of working-class people in Singapore. His application for a police permit for the protest was rejected on 30 August 2006. Even without a permit, Chee still used the SDP website to continue urging people to participate in the protest.
On 9 September 2006, Chee was distributing leaflets for an upcoming "Empower Singaporeans Rally and March" when he was stopped by the police. The police warned the public that anyone participating in Chee's planned rally and march would be committing an offence under the Public Order Act.
On 13 September 2006, Chee invited both World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz and IMF managing director Rodrigo Rato to his planned rally. At a press conference the next day, Chee announced that his application to be a civil society representative to Singapore 2006 as a representative of the Open Singapore Centre was rejected by the IMF and World Bank. An application by his sister, Chee Siok Chin, to represent the "Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia" was approved by the IMF and World Bank but was rejected by the Singapore government. On 15 September 2006, Chee released a podcast that warned Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that the Singapore 2006 event was a "public relations disaster" for Singapore.
On 16 September 2006, Chee started off the "Empower Singaporeans Rally and March" at 11am at the Speakers' Corner in Hong Lim Park, but was stopped by the police who formed a human barricade around him. He then announced that there would be a rally the following day in front of Parliament House but the police refused to let him leave the park until he called off the protest, so he remained in the park with his supporters.
On 17 September 2006, Chee announced his plan to continue his protest by remaining in Hong Lim Park until the start of the IMF and World Bank meetings, which were two days away. The following day, after hours of negotiations with police, Chee went to Raffles City to hand out pamphlets to the public and then returned to the park. He stopped the protest at noon on 19 September and proclaimed that the protest had achieved its purpose. He further announced that the 72-hour protest was just a start, and that over the next few months he intended to recruit and train more activists for a campaign to bring pressure on the Singapore government to reform.
Despite a rule in Singapore that bans podcasting during elections, Chee released a political podcast on 23 April 2006. However, on the order of the Elections Department, it was taken down by 25 April 2006. Another defamation lawsuit was brought against Chee following an article published in the SDP's party newspaper, The New Democrat, which questioned the role of the Singapore government in the 2005 National Kidney Foundation scandal. Chee was ordered to pay damages to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew as a result of this.
Chee was fined $5,000. On 23 November 2006, he was jailed for five weeks for failing to pay the fine. Two other SDP members, Gandhi Ambalam and Yap Keng Ho, were also imprisoned.
While in prison in November 2006, Chee reportedly became ill, leading to speculation from the SDP that he had been poisoned. A statement released by the SDP noted that Chee was feeling nauseous and dizzy, and was unable to sleep. Four days later, the Ministry for Home Affairs (MHA) asserted that Chee was treated the "same as other prisoners", and that the SDP's claims were "baseless, malicious and seek to undermine the reputation of the Singapore Prison Service". On 3 December 2006, after the doctor at the Queenstown Remand Prison had found traces of blood in Chee's urine, he was admitted under guard to Changi General Hospital. On 10 December, about a dozen of Chee's supporters, including members of his family, held a protest march starting at the Speakers' Corner and ending at Queenstown Remand Prison, where Chee was incarcerated. Several foreign non-government organisations released statements expressing concerns about Chee's health and treatment in prison.
Chee was released on 16 December 2006, two weeks short of his full sentence as a result of good behaviour in jail. Two days later, he published a statement on what happened during his stint in prison. He claimed that his food tray was marked, and that the light in his cell had remained on during the night, causing sleep deprivation. Two days later, the MHA replied to this, claiming "Chee's insinuations about being the victim of a food conspiracy are ridiculous and a product of his own mischief...", and that "Chee's purported 'ailment' in prison served only to provide an expedient story for his associates and foreign supporters to faithfully distort and exploit for political mileage". Chee immediately released another statement rebutting this, claiming "the MHA's statement is riddled with inconsistencies, contradictions and outright lies".
On 8 January 2007, a hearing began for charges that Chee had attempted to leave the country without a permit despite being a bankrupt.
On 15 March 2008, the SDP decided to stage the "Tak Boleh Tahan" (Malay for "can't take it anymore") protests. On 15 March 2008, Chee and 17 others were arrested at a demonstration held outside Parliament House and later charged with unlawful assembly. The trial began on 23 October 2008.
2011 general election
At the 2011 general election, Chee led the SDP into the contest. Although he was barred from standing due to his undischarged bankruptcy, he assembled a team of individuals to stand as candidates. The party had envisioned its best team to stand in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. Its candidates included Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan, Vincent Wijeysingha and Michelle Lee Juen. The team lost, attaining 39.92% of the vote.
On 24 September 2012, Chee announced that he has raised the $30,000 from the sale of his latest book, Democratically Speaking, and will be making payment to the Official Assignee in the course of that week.
2015 general election
On 23 November 2012, Chee was formally cleared of bankruptcy upon being issued a Certificate of Annulment by the Official Assignee. This allowed him to travel freely outside of Singapore, as well as stand in future General Elections.
Chee contested as a candidate of Singapore Democratic Party along with Prof Paul Tambyah, Sidek Mallek and Chong Wai Fung for the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC for the 2015 general elections. He began his campaign by raising the issue of the high cost of living in Singapore, stressing that there was a need for Singaporeans to have an alternative voice in Parliament. In subsequent election rallies, Chee unveiled the SDP's proposals, which included the raising of personal income taxes on the top 1% of taxpayers to the year-2000 level, the introduction of a minimum wage, as well as the creation of a national healthcare plan to be funded by cutting the defence budget by 40%. In response, the People's Action Party (PAP) team described the proposals as "unrealistic", saying that the SDP's policies involved "tax-and-spend" programmes that would set Singapore "on the road to (debt-stricken) Greece". Chee responded by saying the PAP had previously criticised the SDP's ideas, only to adopt them later. According to Chee, the SDP had in the past proposed pooling individual healthcare risks, an idea that has been adopted by the Government, through the implementation of the MediShield Life universal healthcare insurance scheme, as well as the Government's Fair Consideration Framework, which he stated was an adoption of the SDP's proposal that employers must try hiring Singaporeans first before considering foreigners.
At a PAP rally on 7 September 2015, Vivian Balakrishnan also called to attention Chee's role in ousting Chiam See Tong as secretary-general of SDP in 1993, saying that the PAP "did not have a tradition of "backstabbing" its mentors". In response, Chee, as well as the SDP's Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC candidate Bryan Lim, provided an account of the incidents that led to Chiam's resignation on the party's website, saying that Chiam resigned on his own accord. Lina Chiam, Chiam's wife and the chairperson of Singapore People's Party (SPP), confirmed that the two sides had held "friendly talk" on the issue. At the same PAP rally, Sim Ann accused Chee of being adept at "chut pattern", a Singlish phrase meaning being full of antics. Chee responded the following day at a SDP rally by stating that he would not respond to personal attacks and would stay focused on policy issues during the election season, saying, "If you attack, you attack the policy, not the person... In football terms, you play the ball, not the man." Chee also addressed the different target population figures cited by government officials in the past, including the much debated 6.9 million figure in the Population White Paper, asking if the PAP would consider the SDP's proposal to base the optimal population on the happiness of residents, and a point system when bringing in foreigners for skilled jobs.
At a rally at UOB Plaza, Chee spoke about income inequality and said that the SDP was "not against wealth, but wealth inequality as the widening income gap harms the common good, erodes cohesiveness and corrodes the values that fosters social cohesiveness." Chee also called for checks on the Government and raised what he described as "failed or questionable decisions" by sovereign wealth fund GIC and investment company Temasek Holdings, implying that the money would have been better used on healthcare as "our hospitals face repeated shortage of beds and have to put patients along hospital corridors and makeshift tents." Chee also explained his decision to stand in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, which includes wealthy private housing estates, saying that "the wealthy segment of our society cares - and cares deeply - about what is happening around them. I believe that compassion is innate in all of us."
Local media reported the popularity Chee had garnered during the election, stating that Chee's "more moderate image" and "articulate speeches proved to be a big draw," adding that "If the buzz on social media and the queues of people that have formed after the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) rallies to have their books signed are any indication, there is considerable interest in SDP chief Chee Soon Juan this General Election." Observers attributed Chee's improved public image to a greater level of transparency and accessibility to information than in the past, as a result of technology like social media.
Despite expectations of a close result, Chee was unsuccessful with his team winning 33.38% of the votes, losing to the incumbent PAP team. Despite his participation, the SDP fared worse in the Holland-Bukit Timah Group Representation Constituency (GRC) than in the 2011 election. Chee described the result in as "hugely disappointing", but also noted the swing against the Opposition in every other constituency. Chee also raised the possibility of his party "working closer together" with the Workers' Party at the next general election.
2016 Bukit Batok by-election
Chee contested in the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election. He garnered 38.8% of the total votes cast, bringing a swing of –11.78% to the votes favouring the PAP's hold in the Bukit Batok constituency as compared to the 2015 general elections result.
2020 general election
Chee contested in the 2020 general elections at the same Bukit Batok ward. He managed to garner 45.2% of the total votes cast, his best electoral result, bringing a swing of –6.4% to the votes against the PAP as compared to the 2016 Bukit Batok by-election results.
Chee's party has been granted observer status to Liberal International, a world federation of liberal political parties. "SDP has signed an agreement with the Commonwealth countries, where Singapore is a party, to include respect for fundamental human rights and civil liberties," said Chee, who had also hired Amsterdam & Peroff to take up his case against the government, whose members have filed lawsuits against news publications that have run Chee's critical comments.
Chee has since served as a research fellow at the Monash Asia Institute (1997), the University of Chicago (2001), the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Program at the National Endowment for Democracy (2004), and as a visiting fellow at the University of Sydney (2014).
- Hellman/Hammett Writers Grant (2003), Human Rights Watch
- Defender of Democracy (2003), Parliamentarians for Global Action
- Prize for Freedom 2011 (2011), Liberal International
Chee is married to Huang Chih-mei (黄智美), a psychologist from Taiwan who emigrated to Singapore. The couple have three children, Chee An Lyn, Chee E Lyn and Chee Shaw Hur. They live in a three-room public housing apartment in the town of Toa Payoh. Chee's younger sister, Chee Siok Chin, is also a member of the Singapore Democratic Party.
Chee’s mother died in the morning on 21 August 2020.
In 2004, Martyn See directed a documentary on Chee called Singapore Rebel. It was supposed to be screened at the Singapore International Film Festival, but was withdrawn from the festival and later banned by the Singapore government because of its political content. Singapore's Films Act forbids the production and distribution of "party political" films, which are defined as films "made by any person and directed towards any political ends in Singapore". This ban was temporary however, and was ultimately lifted on 11 September 2009.
Chee has written the following books:
- Dare to Change: An Alternative Vision for Singapore (Singapore Democratic Party: 1994) Out of Print
- Effective Parenting for the Asian Family – With Huang Chih Mei (Heinemann Asia: 1994) Out of Print
- Singapore, My Home Too (1995) Out of Print
- To Be Free: Stories from Asia's Struggle Against Oppression (Monash Asia Institute: 1998) Out of Print
- Your Future, My Faith, Our Freedom: A Democratic Blueprint for Singapore (Singapore Open Centre: 2001) Out of Print
- The Power of Courage: Effecting Political Change in Singapore Through Nonviolence (2005)
- A Nation Cheated (2008)
- Democratically Speaking (2012)
- Never on Bended Knees (2019)
- Teacher, Thinker, Rebel, Why? Portraits of Chee Soon Juan (2015) (written by various authors)
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