Jailed Singaporean activist freed

By Tom Gaulkin

Singaporean activist Chee Soon Juan has been released from prison after serving a five week sentence for organizing a public rally without a required license.

Chee, a former fellow in the U of C’s Human Rights Program and leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, was jailed in October for violating a Singapore law that defines all public speech as a form of restricted entertainment.

The May Day workers’ rights demonstration that led to Chee’s arrest was the latest in a series of challenges Chee has made to the speech law since 1999. His release November 9 followed the third and longest sentence he has served for his activities.

In an e-mail received Thursday, Chee detailed conditions in prison and outlined his concerns about the justice system in Singapore. He described sharing a small bedless cell with two other inmates, and eating and sleeping beside a latrine, but Chee was less concerned about his own ordeal than the political climate surrounding it.

“Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining,” Chee said. “I accept willingly the punishment because in doing so, I want to demonstrate the nature of the ruling party in Singapore and seek to help it mend its undemocratic ways.”

Chee expressed hope that his efforts to raise awareness of the political situation in Singapore would be rewarded with increased attention outside Singapore.

“If my imprisonment can bring the international spotlight to bear on the economic, social, and political injustice that prevails in Singapore,” he said, “then every minute that I spent in jail was worth it.”

Chee spent the first six months of 2001 in the United States discussing Singapore’s political regime as a visiting activist fellow in the Human Rights Program. He was the second fellow brought to the U of C by the Scholars at Risk Network, a program hosted at the University that includes 20 other universities offering temporary refuge to academics who have been displaced or persecuted in their own communities.

Robert Quinn, director of the network, sees Chee’s imprisonment as a reminder that public spaces for the open exchange of differing ideas and opinions cannot be taken for granted.

“Dr. Chee’s arrest in Singapore for merely making a speech is an example of the extreme lengths to which authorities will go to shrink that space,” Quinn said. ” is a dire warning to those of us who care about freedoms of expression, opinion and thought that these freedoms must continually be defended.”

Quinn added that the difficulties Chee has faced are not unique, and supporters of free speech should recognize in his plight the broader problem of political repression worldwide.

“While we are delighted Dr. Chee is out of prison,” Quinn said, “our emotion is guarded by the knowledge that many other scholars remain behind bars and under threat.”

Despite his eagerness to enlarge the boundaries of discussion surrounding Singapore’s political situation, Chee was clear in the e-mail that activists should not depend on international support.

“Change must ultimately come from us Singaporeans,” Chee stressed. “And if we…attempt to restore justice and democracy to our country, our current sacrifices would be more than compensated by our future successes. For success will come; it is only a question of when and how.”