Human Rights in Singapore

Posted by Dr Chee Soon Juan under Public Forums on 10 March 2000

Speech made by Dr Chee Soon Juan, Secretary-General of Singapore Democratic Party.

I'll come straight to the point. Let us not fool ourselves with all this talk about a human rights commission in Singapore. It's not going to happen and I'll tell you why. The reason is simple: We are not willing to work and sacrifice for it. If you think that a forum such as this is going to start a process that is going to culminate in an exalted authority where all the rights of Singaporeans will forever more be respected by the PAP, think again.

This is not the first human rights forum held in Singapore and I have this unwanted feeling that it will not be the last. Dr Poh Soo Kai, a medical practitioner and member of the now-defunct Barisan Sosialis, was detained under the ISA during Operation Cold Store in 1963. He was unconditionally freed in 1972 when the ISD failed to force a confession out from him that he was somehow linked with the communist. Upon his release, Dr Poh started a civil rights organisation to campaign against the ISA. He was re-arrested in 1976.

Almost a quarter of a century later, we're still talking about human rights. I have attended numerous forums, talks and debates on human rights in Singapore. But as I've said repeatedly at these talks, and have been proven right each time, after all is said and done, more will be said than done.

So rather than debate about the importance of human rights again, I've decided to move on to the next level and identify the key areas that need to be addressed if we want to make some headway in advancing civil and political rights for our people.

The Internal Security Act

First, abolish the ISA. The PAP maintains that the ISD is needed for national security purposes. Pardon my French but this is bovine scatology. It has been, and is still being, used as a terror tool to ensure PAP dominance. If you have any doubts, just listen to what the ISD said to Francis Seow when he was detained:

"So you think you can take on and bully the second-generation leaders? Well, our job is to make sure that you do not succeed. We are here to neutralize. You know, to neutralize you! For your information, Lee Kuan Yew is running for another term. And you will be locked up here for at least two years, if not more. So, where will you be? You can give up all your ideas of going into politics." (To Catch A Tartar, Seow, 1994, p. 128)

Spoken like a true thug. Prisoners complained that they were subjected to ad nauseam recordings of how good the PAP was. This is a description of how some of them were treated:

Prisoners had their jaws broken and teeth knocked out during the torture sessions. Their hearing was often damaged as a result of blows to the ears. Their genitalia would often be attacked as well. The more sadistic officers would hook up the detainees to electrodes and pass electrical currents through their bodies. They poured urine on the prisoners' heads and dragged them straight to their cells without a chance to wash away the stench. Prisoners had filthy rags jammed into their mouths and red ants liberally sprinkled on their mattresses. Often they were interrogated naked, and made to walk to and from their cells without a stitch of clothing on them. Wong Kui Inn, a detainee herself, was brought in to watch as the interrogators bashed her husband until they broke his jaw. Later he tried committing suicide by banging his head against the wall. (To Be Free, Chee, 1998, p. 269)

Lives were broken, families were torn apart with children never getting to see their fathers, not to mention the countless minds and bones that were dislocated. What kind of a government would subject its citizens to such cruelty? What kind of a people would accept such kind of injustice meted out to its fellow citizens?

Today, we still have detainees under the ISA. We are told that they are being held for espionage. But I have information that they have been involved in some kind of a drug operation whilst in prison. If that's the case, why have they not been charged according to the law? Who are these people? what are their identities? How have they been treated under detention? How long more are they going to be incarcerated?

Constitutional freedoms

Some of you might say that these notions about justice and human rights are well and good, but in Singapore, pragmatism rules.

Which brings me to my next point, and that is, our rights and freedoms as guaranteed in the constitution: the rights to free speech, association and assembly. Freedom of speech includes a free and independent press. By being denied of our political rights, our economic rights have also been taken away.

This is how. At present, we have this monumental joke of a mass media in Singapore. It wasn't always this way, however. In the 1970s, there was some lively newspapers such as the Nanyang Siang Pau, Eastern Sun, and Singapore Herald which from time to time challenged the wisdom of PAP policies and provided Singaporeans with alternative, intelligent viewpoints. One by one, they were killed off until today, the all-conquering Singapore Press Holdings commands the publication of all newspapers. Why is it not surprising that the Chairman of the SPH is Mr Lim Kim San, a former minister and its president, Mr Tjong Yik Min, a former director of the ISD?

I don't even want to talk about the Television Corporation of Singapore - its beyond hopeless as far as intelligent and objective reporting is concerned.

When the media is controlled, information cannot flow freely. When information is hoarded and manipulated by the authorities, you, the people, are ultimately the ones to lose out.

Think back about 15 to 20 years ago when we had the Stop-At-Two policy. The PAP told Singaporeans then that it was vital that we had small families and limit ourselves to two children per family. The mass media came out with the same chorus. Few questioned the consequences of such a drastic policy even when people were forced to undergo sterilisation.

Then someone realised the problems that such a policy wrought and the PAP quickly reversed direction and now urges everyone to produce more. The moral failure of such a policy notwithstanding, the problems that we now face with the labour shortage (and all its attendant problems) all stem from this ill-conceived policy.

Now Singaporeans are made to pay for the PAP's mistake again. To cover up for the negative growth-rate, the PAP is plunging into this foreign-talent policy. Again, little information about the negative aspects of such a policy is forthcoming from the mass media. Again, there is little national debate on this issue which affects the lives of all Singaporeans. What is this policy doing to the wage structure here? What is happening to the unemployed and underemployed Singaporeans? How will this policy affect income disparity?

Furthermore, with an ageing population, the paying out of CPF becomes a serious problem. The Government is now retaining the people's savings through the Minimum Sum Scheme ostensibly because the people will squander away their money if this was not done. The problem is that it is the Government that has lost billions of dollars of our savings through failed investments in Suzhou, Indonesia, Vietnam, Burma, and Thailand. And yet, no one knows how these transactions are carried out and what they are used for. As Mukul Asher, an NUS don and specialist in the CPF scheme, noted: "There is, however, no transparency or public accountability concerning where these [CPF] funds are invested. These funds are, however, believed to be wholly invested abroad. No information has been provided on the performance of these investments." Again, no information from the mass media.

Also have you ever wondered why your HDB flats are so expensive? For the younger generation, an average four-room flat costs about $200,000. (The PAP has not been able to justify its pricing of the flats.) Two-thirds of Singaporeans earn $1,500 or less per month. With a CPF rate of 30%, the contribution is about $6,000 a year. How long will he take to pay the flat? You do the math.

When we cannot get together to talk about such issues, when we cannot organise ourselves because under the Public Entertainment Licensing Act we need a permit, then how do we communicate with the masses, to educate them, encourage them, and lead them.

I read in the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report that some mainland Chinese students in Singapore recently staged a demonstration in front of an embassy. The police were present but took no action. It is amazing how citizens from another country, in this case a communist one, have more rights in Singapore than Singaporeans have in their own, supposedly democratic, country.

Free and fair elections

When the people have no right to free speech and a free press, how are elections going to be free and fair? With the blatant gerry-mandering, the ever-expanding GRCs, and the use of the upgrading of housing estates to threaten voters, elections are anything but. Now the PAP is contemplating tinkering with the one-man-one-vote system to ensure not only that it stays in power, but to keep its overwhelming numbers in Parliament.

One of the most fundamental of rights of citizens in a democracy is the right to a secret vote fairly cast in a system that is free from government intimidation and manipulation. Singaporeans are deprived even of this.


I'm way beyond arguing and debating whether human rights is needed in Singapore and whether civil society is of any importance for our future. It is time for us to act on our beliefs instead of just thinking and talking about them.

If we want a human rights commission in Singapore, the first thing that we must do is to confront our fear, and for any politically conscious Singaporean, the greatest nightmare is the ISD. The best way to get rid of your fear is to confront it. If you look around you, you will be able to see some of the ISD officers in this hall tonight. To you, the officers, I have no doubt that you will be reporting every word I say to your political masters. Well tell them this: They should know, especially the younger generation of PAP leaders, that when democracy finally comes to this country, there will be a full accounting of the Government's actions. Note South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines and, of course, General Pinochet.

Don't be afraid, my fellow Singaporeans, have courage. Fear can paralyse you. The blacks in America used to say, "If you sit at the back of the bus for too long, you begin to believe that you belong there." Well, we don't belong "there". We belong right up in the front seat with the Government as the co-driver.

I had said at the outset that a human rights commission will not happen in Singapore. Prove me wrong, my fellow Singaporeans. I stand here before you ready to be counted. Join me, join Samydorai, join James Gomez in our effort to establish human rights for our people. I call on all opposition parties to come together on this because the issue is bigger than all our differences and personalities.

Stand up for your fellow countrymen, stand up for your children. Most of all stand up for yourselves, your own dignity and your own self-worth. Let us not be remarked by history as the generation which languished in timidity who knew neither the courage nor the noble devotion to speak up against what is unjust and what is wrong. Instead, let us pledge ourselves to a cause worthy of ourselves, worthy of humanity.

When my colleagues and I are out in the sun and rain, day after day selling our party newspaper and trying to encourage the people to listen, I always tell them to wear their conviction with esteem, and to wear it proudly on their sleeves because their is no greater honour than to speak up for the truth. In the final analysis, in all that I do, I am guided by one abiding principle: To God and to thine ownself be true.

May it guide you too.

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