Think Centre continues its "Ordinary People, Special Singaporeans" series with the only female Opposition candidate in GE 2001 - Chee Siok Chin.
After 12 years in the teaching service, the 35-year old former Senior Education Officer quit at the height of her career in 1999. She is now a general manager at a privately-run Family Service Centre but continues to espouse strong convictions on Singapore's "elitist education system". She has a Bachelor of Arts in Education Studies and is an avid sportswoman in her free time. Ms Chee is single and a founding member of the Women Democrats, the newly-formed women's wing of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP).
Think Centre [TC]: It has been 10 years (the last was SDP's Toh Kim Kiat vs PAP's Yu-Foo Yee Shoon in Yuhua in 1991) since any female candidate was fielded in the Opposition camp. What made you decide to enter politics and stand as an opposition candidate?
Chee Siok Chin [CSC]: To me, politics is about serving the country. I view politics as service to the people and working for the people. When you enter politics, you are actually working to serve the people's needs, to take care of people's interests and to protect people's rights. It is not so much about ruling the people or governing the country. Our government has not done enough to look after the people. "To rule" represents a negative connotation of politics. Instead, the language of politics should be "to serve". As to why I decided to stand as an opposition candidate, I attribute it to standing up and fight for what I believe in - truth, justice, transparency, freedom and democracy. I strongly believe in these values and will continue to stand by them.
[TC]: Why did you choose to stand under the banner of the SDP? Was the fact that your brother (Dr Chee Soon Juan) who happened to be its Secretary-general a big factor in your choice of a political party to join?
[CSC]: I had my political awakening as early as the time when I was still in the teaching service. Back then, I was so perplexed by the rigidity and other weaknesses of the education system. Even my ex-colleagues thought the same way as I did and all of us felt that teachers and principals were merely doing things to please the Ministry (of Education). But having a politician as a sibling did helped somewhat with my interest and passage into politics.
I would be lying if I said my brother's influence was negligible in my decision to join politics. He has been a catalyst towards my entry into opposition politics and his sharing of experiences in politics helped to heighten my political consciousness. As to why I chose SDP, I must say it was the obvious choice because it was the party that I was most familiar with. It was also the only party which I understood the most and I was very clear with what ideals it stood for. Like what I told the media, I stand for myself and not for my brother in SDP.
[TC]: In your election rally speeches and media comments, you championed mostly on education issues. What were the exact misgivings you had about the education system and how convinced were you by the PAP candidates' answers to questions you raised?
[CSC]: I'm disillusioned with the education system. Having spent 12 years in it, I tell you that there is something very wrong about our system that treats students and teachers as mere digits in a production line. Who benefits from such a guilty mode of production? Only the administrators and policy planners. Principals have been stripped of their privy and say in shaping the schools' teaching curricular; class sizes continue to remain large; the streaming exercises gets more intensive; cases of young children seeking psychiatric help are rising; suicide rates of students are increasing. Yet the Minister (of Education) rebuts such factual trends with unconvincing arguments, like relatively small class sizes in Gifted Education Programme as non-elitist!
Please tell the Ministry to look upon students, their families, their teachers as humans and not treat them as digits in a production line. Look, our students face tremendous workloads, their families face unnecessary pressure while teachers are extremely overworked. Why? All because of an unfeeling education system. To change that, I say let's revamp the curriculum to one where children learn through self-discovery and fun. One where teachers are facilitators in supporting the learning process. One where class sizes are more manageable. One where there is a more humane education system.
[TC]: There was much hype and publicity on PAP's fielding of single women in the 2001 General Elections (GE). What are your assessments of these single women as PAP candidates then and what do you expect of them as MPs now?
[CSC]: First, I must say that I do not know much about these single women MPs. So it'll not be fair for me to comment or to assess them. But I do see any women candidates or MPs as representing interests of not only women, but of a broader constituency. Like in my case, I chose education issues as my platform because it was an area which I know best. The gender issue should not be the main concern of women MPs because they have been elected to raise their constituents' issues. They are not there to fight women issues alone. Ultimately, MPs must work for the people and not work solely for the party. They must be open to alternative views and perspectives. Most importantly, they must be there to take care of the people who elected them.
[TC]: You were part of the SDP team led by Dr Chee to contest Jurong GRC. Many Singaporeans are still sore over that shouting incident that earned Dr Chee a bad name and a defamation suit. At that point in time, how did you feel about your brother's tirades at the Prime Minister and why didn't you stop him from doing it?
[CSC]: Well to be very honest, I don't see anything wrong about the whole incident. We did not mean to be insulting and offending towards the PM. I definitely don't see what we did as aggression and disrespectful towards him. But the way the media played on this incident and made us look so. We decided to go forward and ask the PM because he was the only person there and then who could answer what happened to the S$17 billion. We didn't think any of the PAP candidates in the Jurong team had the answers, so my brother went after the PM for answers. His intentions were good but he got waved away and ignored. Therefore, on what grounds should I stop my brother from he did there and then?
[TC]: With the high profile court cases involving Dr Chee opening soon, how has it affected the morale and members within the party? Do you think SDP has been weakened somewhat by the latest developments to Dr Chee's case?
[CSC]: No, our morale has not been affected by the court cases at all. SDP members have been very supportive of Dr Chee despite his legal suits and the sense of togetherness within the party has grown stronger. Internally, we are hopeful of finding a best approach to handling the expected backlash from the suits. Whether the party will be weakened externally will determine very much on how the local media plays up the court proceedings. The type of media reports put across to the people is important and that will shape public opinion towards SDP and our perceived strength or weakness. But I don't see SDP as weakened whatever the outcome of the court cases.
[TC]: During the GE, you were adamant on saying much to the media. But post-GE, you still insisted on not giving them any exclusive interviews. And in one of your SDP press release (16 Nov 2001), you had alluded to the unfair reporting and bias of the local media. Why are you saying so?
[CSC]: You are right that I am not giving any one-on-one interviews to any media. Therefore you are very lucky that I'm giving Think Centre this exclusive, because I see you as fair and independent unlike the media. From the start, I have been polite and cordial to them. I gave honest answers and sincere comments to questions that they asked, but how did they report? With ill-represented and negative views! What were said by the Opposition were either misrepresented and not given due media reporting. So much so that I have stopped reading the local papers since I don't know when.
I recall one Straits Times report during the GE where I was portrayed as media-shy to the extent of needing a "chaperone" and alleged to be "running straight to the big brother's side" when cornered by the media. The truth is that I repeatedly refused to name the schools that I taught in when pressured by them to reveal more about my past. The simple reason being I respected the privacy of my ex-colleagues and didn't want them to be harassed by the media for comments. But the media chose not to get the message and instead made all of us Opposition candidates look bad. Which is why I put in my press release that it is "important for the local media to do some soul searching".
[TC]: Now that the dust has finally settled on GE 2001, what are your reflections and lessons learnt after going through this baptism of fire as a first-time candidate?
[CSC]: As you can see, the Opposition garnered over 30% of the votes in 1997 but could only get over 20% this time round. Many people have offered their diagnosis of the results and the Opposition got the usual brickbats for doing so poorly. My view is that as long as the Government does not open up with more transparency and accountability to the people, as long as the Government keeps its stranglehold on the media and the election system, the people will never be given the chance to vote in a true democracy.
There is a blatant need to increase the political awareness of the people. You have got to sit up, open your eyes to look at the things around you, open up your ears to listen to both sides of the story. Ask yourselves: is it fair to you? Is this so-called democratic system impartial and are you getting equal treatment with others? You don't need a genius to see that Singapore elections are unfair and the playing level never level.
[TC]: What are your future plans in the SDP? What role will you be playing and will you be prepared to stand again in the next GE?
[CSC]: Well, my role in the party has always been one of a behind-the-scenes. I don't believe that being high-profile and upfront in the party ranks underline anything about my commitment and belief in SDP. I don't foresee myself stepping into the CEC (Central Executive Committee - the top decision-makers in the party) and it doesn't matter whether I'm in it. I will be around for SDP as its member and give support or help out in whatever way I can to boost the party's cause. But my immediate concern is to build up the party and consolidate its strengths.
In the space of 2 years, SDP has developed a youth wing successfully and we are now forming a women's wing already. So SDP definitely has a bright future in the years to come. As to whether I will stand again in the next GE, it's really hard for me to tell. I don't know what will happen in the next 5 years and I cannot say for sure that I will be preparing to contest again. I can only tell you that I'll definitely be around in SDP.
[TC]: What are your views on cooperation and joint efforts between political parties and civil society groups like Think Centre? Is there a place for civil society in the realm of politics?
[CSC]: Of course, I see room for cooperation between parties and civil society. So long as there are similar views and like-minded objectives, both should co-exist and work together. Just look at SDP and Think Centre. We have close synergy with each other and we have kept this relationship going. We may be working in different ways, on different platforms. But we do share same objectives or work towards same ends - that is to build a democracy where there is freedom, justice and transparency.
To answer your second part, let me ask why are you in the realm of politics? You see, all of us are in politics are hoping to effect changes towards a better society to live in. At the end of the day, we must be true to our conscience. We must be brave to stand up for what we believe in, for what is true and speak up for it. Never, never let materialism blind your conscience or dampen your aspirations. Everyone of us here has a stake in this country. It doesn't matter if you are in the Opposition or in a group like Think Centre. What counts is that we are all Singaporeans, right?