Update : Chee Soon Juan and SDP leaders serve prison terms - 2 days after anniversary celebration
Five years ago in the police station, I was interrogated by the police over the making of my documentary Singapore Rebel. Photographs and minutes of the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) meetings and activities were produced in front me, and I was asked to identify faces in those snapshots. How did the photographs and minutes end up with the police? Did the police have moles planted in the opposition? Is Lee Kuan Yew an autocrat? You go figure. What was unmistakable to me at that time was that there was a concerted attempt by the Government and the police to create a spectre of criminalization around Dr Chee Soon Juan and anything/anybody that he engages. The agenda couldn't have been more plain : Isolate Chee, pick him off, and like Lee himself said many years ago as an opposition MP, the outcome would be that miraculously everything will be tranquil on the surface.
Last night, SDP held its 30th Anniversary bash at the Concorde Hotel. Amid the pomp and pageantry were about a hundred guests, including foreign diplomats, civil society activists and members of the opposition. Noticeably absent, and perhaps an indication that the Government's decade-and-a-half campaign to marginalize Chee is still holding sway, is the no show from the entire Workers' Party, including Low Thia Khiang and Sylvia Lim, and the founder of SDP himself, Chiam See Tong, now with the SPP. Strikingly, all three are currently the only opposition members of Singapore's Parliament. Surprisingly, joining the list of absentees was a new kid of the opposition block, Kenneth Jeyaretnam of the Reform Party. (read rejoinder from Jeyaretnam under comments)
But having witnessed the trajectory of Chee's political career - from the toil of libel suits, bankruptcy and relentless criticisms to the merrymaking last night - it was a kind of a miracle to behold. Not the tranquil kind that Lee alluded to, but of a coming around - For Chee, his party and the people who now saw no fear to be seen fraternizing with the Government's favourite whipping boy.
There is also a coming around of sorts with the authorities. Two years ago, Government censors showed up with the police to seize a dvd of a film premiere organized by the SDP. (see video here and here). Last night, videos of congratulatory messages were blasted without interruptions.
Then this morning, the most glaring coming around happened. The mainstream press, a longtime accessory of the Government's character assassination campaign against Chee and SDP, suddenly saw fit to publish a review of the anniversary dinner and an almost full page interview with Chee himself.
When did you last see a smiling Chee Soon Juan in the newspapers? And the group photo in the Sunday Times looks fit for a propaganda piece for the PAP, except that the uniforms are red, not white. What gave rise to the Sunday Times and Zaobao's sudden habit-breaking behavioural switch to feature Chee Soon Juan and SDP in their pages? And without the usual demonization too?
Perhaps there is a tacit recognition that a bankrupted Chee is already a spent force and thus not a political threat? Perhaps Lee Kuan Yew, after clashing with the Chee siblings in court, saw for himself horns didn't grow out of their skulls? Perhaps the political desks of ST and Zaobao needed to fill their quotas of articles per month?
Whatever the motivations are, one thing is certain - Chee Soon Juan and the Singapore Democratic Party are not the sort to crave for mainstream media coverage. Anybody who knows Chee can attest that there isn't one Singaporean who distrusts the MSM more. In recent years, the party has resigned itself to the use of the internet and street hawking of publications to engage the citizenry.
That the MSM has now come knocking on Chee's door, despite his open criticisms of them, is something of a revelation. More interesting to me, are how the dynamics in opposition politics have suddenly shifted. Now that the press has nudged SDP closer to the mainstream, will it then follow that the absentees of the night's function will be less afraid to associate themselves with Chee and SDP?
One of my principal aims when making Singapore Rebel was to inspire a rethink of perceptions, but now ironically, the mainstream press has done what I set out to do five years ago. Perhaps I need to look for another subject to break perceptions and taboos with..
Chee speaks up on Chiam
Dr Chee Soon Juan challenges Lee Kuan Yew to write off his debts