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From 'psychopath' to rockstar: The rise of Chee Soon Juan

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten HanSingapore
From 'psychopath' to rockstar: The rise of Chee Soon Juan
Once demonised by the ruling party as “a political gangster, a liar and a cheat”, Chee Soon Juan – leader of the Singapore Democratic Party – receives a rockstar's welcome after 15 years of being barred from standing for elections.

The piece was first published, with small differences, on The Online Citizen as part of a series of election diaries.

He was once described as a “near psychopath”, but is now received at political rallies like a rockstar. The Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) rallies are drawing larger crowds; ever since his first rally speech in 15 years was shared on social media, people have been turning up just to hear Dr Chee Soon Juan speak.

It’s been a transformation to behold. The man who once shuttled in and out of prison (for charges such as speaking in public without a permit or denying the independence of the judicary), who was bankrupted (following costly defamation suits from members of the ruling People's Action Party) and totally written off as unelectable, is now the biggest draw at SDP rallies every night, and even at a lunchtime rally on Monday afternoon. His speeches have been described as rational, emotive and passionate. Coming back to the rally stage after 15 long years of being barred from three general elections, no one can say that he hasn’t shown grit and determination.

A Periscope video that I shot of Chee's first rally speech in 15 years.

“If I leave, there will be one less voice against the government,” he said at one rally. “If PAP wins, the people will lose. …I was born Singaporean. I was raised Singaporean. And I will die Singaporean.” 

People might not agree with everything he says, or even approve of all the SDP’s policies in their current form, but Chee has nevertheless made an impact on rallygoers and even beyond, as recordings of his speeches pass from one Facebook timeline to another. Twitter has reported that he was the second most mentioned politician in the first week of the election campaign, behind the incumbent Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Every night after the rally he autographs books and takes photos with admiring Singaporeans – volunteers of alternative news site The Online Citizen reported that it took him one-and-a-half hours on Monday night to complete his book-signing session.

His calm demeanour and impassioned speeches are also being compared favourably to the performance of his opponents, who have occasionally resorted to fear mongering and personal attacks.

Vivian Balakrishnan, the leading People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate for the four-member Holland-Bukit Timah team, claimed that the SDP’s policies would put Singapore on the “road to Greece” by increasing social spending without being up front about how the money would be raised. 

But at least that criticism was engaging in some way with policy, even if it involved grossly oversimplifying and misrepresenting the Greek crisis. Many of the other comments made by Balakrishnan and running mate Sim Ann simply veered into character assassination.

“The impression that this Dr Chee gives me is that they are very good at ‘chut pattern’ [putting up a show or pretence],” said Sim Ann in a Mandarin speech on Monday evening that was described as having “dripped sarcasm”. “I feel that in the whole of Singapore, if Dr Chee claims to be second-best in “chut pattern”, no one would dare claim to be number one.”

At the SDP’s lunchtime rally in UOB Plaza on Monday, Chee played to the demographic by focusing on the lack of accountability for poor investment choices made by Singapore’s sovereign wealth funds.

“The Government accuses us (SDP) of coming up with policies of tax and spend, but what they will do is take our reserves and make failed investments,” he said, pointing out large amounts that had been plowed into companies like the debt-ridden Olam International and Thai conglomerate Shin Corp, as well as banks like Citigroup, Merill Lynch and Barclays during the 2008 financial crisis.

Standing directly under towering bank building in the heart of Singapore’s financial centre, Chee called out wealth inequality and described the widening income gap as a problem that “harms the common good, erodes cohesiveness, and corrodes the values that fosters social cohesiveness".

“Priorities!” he declared, echoing his party’s message of adjusting state expenditure to focus more on social goods such as healthcare and education to cheers and applause from the crowd.

It is unclear how many of those who gathered in UOB Plaza on Monday afternoon were persuaded by the SDP’s arguments, or how many of them would actually be voting in areas contested by the party. While Chee expressed the belief that even the well-to-do in the Holland-Bukit Timah constituency – where he is contesting – care about redistributive policie and social justice, the fact remains that the SDP only polled 39.9 per cent in the last election, meaning that they now have to convince about 16,000 people to vote differently from before. It’s a daunting challenge with no guarantees.

But win or lose in Holland-Bukit Timah – or any of the other constituencies in which the SDP is contesting – one victory has already been won: after years of being slammed, criticised and demonised in public and the mainstream media, Chee has succeeded in rehabilitating his image, and cannot be described as an unelectable “psychopath” any more.

#singapore, #politics, #democracy, #elections, #social justice, #asia