Sunday, 25 November 2012

Chee: Opposition parties should cooperate more

Personality issues should not get in the way, he says
By Andrea Ong, The Straits Times, 24 Nov 2012

SINGAPORE Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan yesterday called on opposition parties to cooperate more, saying they have much in common and should not let personality differences get in the way.

"We're going to work towards us cooperating more. What's the end result, what's the level of cooperation, I couldn't tell you right now," he said. "But I honestly believe that if we put in effort towards that end, I think we can get somewhere."

The opposition veteran was speaking on the day his bankruptcy was due to be annulled, leaving him free to stand in elections again. He was declared a bankrupt in 2006 after he failed to pay $500,000 in damages to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for defaming them during the 2001 General Election.

In July this year, he offered to pay $30,000 to settle the case. After ESM Goh and Mr Lee accepted, he raised the amount from public donations and the sale of his book Democratically Speaking.

Yesterday, Dr Chee dismissed talk that the move was a People's Action Party bid to split the opposition vote at the next polls, saying such talk was the result of "an overactive imagination".

Rather, the electorate's changed mood meant there would have been a backlash if ESM Goh and Mr Lee had not accepted his offer, he added.

Dr Chee said he always maintained that even if the opposition did not "amalgamate as one single political entity", parties should at least have a platform to work together. "If the differences are fundamental and real, I think the electorate will say: Look, that's okay. But if you're talking more personality differences, I don't think Singaporeans will tolerate that very much," he said.

That is why opposition parties should sit down and "sort out... what are the differences, what are the commonalities". Asked which party would be the most natural partner for the SDP, he said "none of the parties is that far away".

Dr Chee also said that in the next general election, due by 2016, the SDP plans to return to all the constituencies it contested last year: Holland- Bukit Timah GRC, Sembawang GRC, Bukit Panjang and Yuhua. It also has on its radar Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC and Tanjong Pagar GRC.

The SDP will come up with alternative policy papers too. Since last year's general election, it has released papers on ministerial pay, health care and housing, and will issue a paper on population and immigration next year.

The party has also experienced a surge in membership, with many young professionals coming on board, said Dr Chee. The average age of the party has dropped from over 50 to the late 30s, he added.

Political observers have noted that the SDP appears to have revamped its image by shifting its emphasis from civil disobedience and championing human rights to delving into meaty policy issues.

Asked if the party has become more mainstream, Dr Chee said it was a perception caused by how the media had depicted the SDP in the past.

The party has "always been talking about policy issues" and has raised topics like income inequality, the foreigner influx and minimum wage for many years. The advent of social media and the Internet has made it easier for Singaporeans to get a better idea of what the party stands for, he added.

But Dr Chee acknowledged that strategies change with the political conditions. In the past, Singapore lacked a free speech venue. The SDP's actions contributed to the creation of Speakers' Corner, he said.

Now, civil society has blossomed and is able to continue that line of campaign and speak up on issues like the mandatory death penalty, he added.

The SDP still believes strongly in "fundamental questions" like the freedom of speech, assembly and association, said Dr Chee. "It's not so much that the focus is different right now. It's more an expansion of what we've been doing all along."

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