Is Chee Soon Juan a changed man?

Apr 30, 2016 06.26PM |

by Bertha Henson

ON WEDNESDAY, right after the nomination of candidates for the Bukit Batok by-election ended, I bumped into Dr Chee Soon Juan. By coincidence, we were heading to the same coffee shop, and I waited for him to catch up with me and my colleague at a traffic junction. Our encounter was all very amicable. I reminded him that I covered him in his virgin foray into politics, during the 1992 Marine Parade Group Representation Constituency (GRC) by-election. More than two decades have passed, and we have both grown much older. “You make me sound ancient!’’ he said. Well, if he’s ancient, so am I.

He’s thinner now. His face is gaunt. But he is definitely a mellower person compared to the firebrand of the past. He doesn’t talk about civil disobedience anymore as a method of protest. In fact, it is all about serving the people of Bukit Batok. Is this an act? Is he hiding his indignation, his anger and his frustrations about the G, the laws, the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) dominance of Parliament behind an electable facade of bonhomie?

Seriously, I can’t tell.

I have followed his actions and antics over the two decades, going to his house when he was having a hunger strike and hunting him down for comments when he had a bad break-up with his erstwhile mentor Chiam See Tong. I have seen him squirm over what he described as a “typo’’ in a hearing on healthcare costs and pitied him when his then boss, MP S Vasoo, told Parliament about his exaggerated taxi fare claims when he was working in the university. He came across as a trickster with a glib tongue.

While he never made it into Parliament, he still made news by breaking the law on assemblies, showing contempt for judges, and preferring jail over fines. Never mind that he had been disqualified as an election candidate, he carried on as a politician, even engaging with foreigners to give his version of what is wrong with Singapore politics. His tactics were viewed as un-Singaporean and even anti-Singapore.

Then there were his infamous shouts to then Prime Minister (PM) Goh Chok Tong about money being lent to Indonesia and which seemed to have been “lost’’.

When he kept repeating his question to the PAP on what had happened to the $24 million set aside for upgrading in Bukit Batok, I couldn’t help hearing echoes of his words to Mr Goh in 2001: “Where is our money?’’ He was sued for that, by the way, and became a bankrupt.

In the last general election when his party vied with the PAP for Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, I thought the PAP let his past go quite easily. Beyond a “chut pattern’’ speech by PAP’s Ms Sim Ann and PM Lee Hsien Loong’s reference to how “character’’ remains the same at an afternoon rally, his chequered  past was left very much alone. But it seems not so this time.

So the PM has weighed in on the by-election, describing Dr Chee as a “hypocrite’’. I hear echoes of his late father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who had described the politician as a “a political gangster, a liar and a cheat”.

I think to myself, some things never change.

Never mind that.

The intriguing question though is: Has Dr Chee changed?

PM Lee noted an interview Dr Chee gave to the Chinese language afternoon daily, Lianhe Wanbao, in which he said he had no regrets about his past and had never deviated from his principles. Said PM Lee: “So when I read the Wanbao interview with Dr Chee two days ago, I was saddened but not surprised.

“He says he is not sorry for anything he did; he’s proud of his record, he’s proud of his crazy history, and yet when he comes today he presents himself as a changed man. And he says last night at the rally, even good people make mistakes, you must give them a second chance. But before you can turn around and make good, you must first recognise that something has gone wrong, and that you have to put it right. Which in this case, if there’s nothing (that) has gone wrong, there’s nothing to put right – then how can we have change?’’

There’s plenty of ambiguity here on both the part of Dr Chee and PM Lee. What exactly is Dr Chee proud of and what should he be sorry for?

His past run-ins with the law? He’s paid for them, even if he might not be sorry. His rude manners? He is much nicer now. Consorting with foreigners? We don’t hear much of that these days. Threatening to protest openly? He did so in the past, but all he’s done so far recently is complete a 140km trek across the island in November last year to raise funds and awareness for his party. In all, he’s paid for his antics by spending a decade in the political wilderness and has so far kept his nose clean.

So, I am not sure what PM Lee is looking for. A confession?

PM Lee said he would be worried if voters elect a person “who is able to just gloss over bad things which have been done, and which he has not come to terms with or acknowledged, and he’s now presenting himself as a new man – reinvented – and yet, unchanged, and unregretful and unrepentant’’.

“If you are a changed person, well then there must be a basis on which you say: ‘What I did previously, I regret, I’m sorry, I now resolve to go in a different direction, I resolve to be a different sort of leader.'”

I’m inclined to think that this was just an attempt to remind people that this man has a past that bears looking into. It is correct that a voter should know as much about a candidate before casting the vote. That applies to PAP candidates too. No one, for example, could have predicted that former MP David Ong would be having a dalliance with a supporter.

Actually, this is the part that gets to the PM and which led him to describe Dr Chee as hypocritical. It was about how SDP speakers levelled into Mr Ong before Dr Chee took the stage.

Said PM Lee: “You get your guys to say all the bad things, you come along and you look magisterial, and benign and say, no you must not hit somebody, having called all your lieutenants to hit him as hard as they can. But unfortunately, it’s in character.’’

I listened to the rally again to see exactly what the speakers said about the unfortunate Mr Ong. There were jibes and one-liners about him. Like being caught “with his pants down’’, by Mr Damanhuri Abas. And the former SDP Bukit Batok candidate Sadasivam Veriyah, talked about how Mr Ong had vanished after six months. Frankly, I thought they were quite mild.

But I do take PM Lee’s point that Dr Chee should have kept his speakers in line if he was going to take the moral high ground and not refer to the, ahem, affair. Hypocrisy? Or oversight?

Perhaps, the PAP should also refrain from knocking Dr Chee’s unemployed status. Full-time politicians, even if unelected, are not unknown elsewhere. And some people who hold down respectable jobs might be great at managing a town council, but not suitable for political office and relating to people.

Now, I am wondering if the whole upgrading fracas has been put behind for the next stage of the elections: character assassination. Oops! I mean assessment.


Featured Image by Najeer Yusof.

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