A Veteran Singaporean Foe Challenges the PAP

On March 12, David Ong, a People’s Action Party MP resigned his seat in the Bukit Batok constituency of Singapore when the husband of his lover and campaign volunteer, Wendy Lim, lodged a complaint and the subsequent publicity drove him from both the office and the ruling PAP.

That has opened the door for a by-election that Chee Soon Juan, the secretary general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, hopes to win. He is challenging Murali Pillai, the candidate of the ruling PAP in a straight fight, the other small parties having opted to stay out of the race so as to not split the opposition vote. Attempts to reach Chee through his Singapore Democratic Party telephone and website went unanswered.

The election, scheduled for May 7 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, is interesting because it will provide an opportunity to see how the post-Lee Kuan Yew Singapore handles a longtime political enemy. In the old days, when Joshua B. Jeyaretnam, then the leader of the Workers’ Party, became the first opposition politician since independence to win a parliamentary seat, Lee abolished the district, splitting its constituencies among surrounding ones.

He later prosecuted Jeyaretnam unmercifully, bankrupting him, charging him with improprieties over the party’s books. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee, once threatened to turn constituencies into slums if they didn’t vote for the PAP. Opposition leaders’ homes and offices once were occasionally stormed by Inland Revenue officials who would cart away documents and articles to seek to make cases for tax evasion.

That seems to be no longer in the cards. When the Workers’ Party captured the Aljunied Group Representation Council and its traditional single-member district Hougang in 2011, Lee Hsien Loong even congratulated the winners although the government later attempted to put roadblocks n the way of the council’s operation. The event was described as a watershed moment in Singapore politics.

Chee Soon Juan could be a different case. He has arguably been the most maligned politician in the nation since 1992, when the then-neuropsychologist joined the Singapore Democratic Party to contest a 2013 local election only to have his position at the National University of Singapore terminated, allegedly for misappropriation of research funds. He later initiated a hunger strike, saying the charges were fabricated. Ultimately, Chee was named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International.

In 2007, he staged a court donnybrook with Lee Kuan Yew and his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong after being allowed to cross-examine the two during the penalty phase of a defamation case he and his sister, Chee Siok Sin, had lost for having libeled the two in a 2006 article. Ultimately, he and his sister were jailed for three days for having “scandalized the court” and “obstructed the administration of justice.”

Allowed to cross-examine the two, Chee called Kuan Yew a “pitiable figure” and Lee responded by calling Chee a “near psychopath.” The state prosecutor asked the judge to deliver a “substantial fine” to act as a deterrent for other “like-minded” individuals.

Chee was barred from standing in parliamentary elections from 2006 to 2012 after failing to pay damages in a lawsuit against Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. He announced in 2012 that he had raised the money to pay off the two and was allowed to stand in the 2015 general election, in which the PAP, after years of steadily falling voter approval, rebounded strongly, winning 83 of 89 seats, with the other six won by the Workers’ Party. Chee’s SDP was frozen out.

Chee’s chance of winning the Bukit Batok district are rated slim at best. The district is more working-class and presumably more loyal than the one he lost in 2015. One political scientist said Chee’s best chance to remain a viable figure in politics would be to pull 30 to 35 percent of the vote, which in most democracies would be losing in an almost-unprecedented landslide.

The government is swimming against lackluster economic figures, with officials forecasting the economy’s weakest growth since 2009. The mainstays of the economy have hit global headwinds, with the oil and gas sector facing big problems, Chinese demand for commodities struggling and the housing market lackluster. Manufacturing in 2016 is expected to contract by 2.7 percent, worse than a 1.2 percent contraction forecast previously by the government.

However, the PAP demonstrated that it could change its spots in the 2015 general election, winning 70 percent of the vote after gaining only 60 percent in 2011, which many attributed to the party’s arrogance. The party showed it could be responsive to public concerns over the rate of immigration, which had created transport and housing shortages and job competition in some sectors. It cut back sharply on numbers of new public residents and those on work permits and acknowledged the need for additional public welfare spending. The government has continued to demonstrate such responsiveness.

So Chee and his forces, aided by the other splinter opposition parties, face a formidable task. Chee and his SDP forces have energetically canvassed the district, visiting every housing estate at least once, and expecting to start a second round soon.

"Sometimes people come home late at night, we might just concentrate more on the weekends so chances of catching them are just a little bit more," he told the Straits Times. "So right now, it's just a matter of making our ground campaign strategy just a little bit more tailored, more specific."