October 25, 2002

Letter to the editor: Singapore's internal affairs

To the Editor:

On college campuses everywhere, a cottage industry exists around the championing of causes big and small, current and obscure. Normally, apathy guides me blissfully past the protesters. Today, however, was different. I read in the Maroon that a loose coalition of student groups, including Amnesty International, South Asia Watch, Samahan, and Students for Peaceful Justice, intends to protest the jailing of Dr. Chee Soon Juan by the Singapore government. Dr. Chee is a Singaporean academic who turned to politics a decade ago, and has been engaged since then in a campaign to test the limits of democratic liberties in Singapore. In his altercations with the government he has contested at least two elections, lost both of them, and has been fined or jailed at various points for, as he would put it, insisting upon his democratic rights.

Dr. Chee came to the University of Chicago on a fellowship last year and returned to Singapore this year, where he promptly managed to run afoul of the government again.

Now, I am Singaporean, and Dr. Chee's jailing is certainly a matter that I was aware of some time ago. What surprises me, however, is that anyone other than Singaporeans should consider it a matter requiring significant comment. I certainly do not see why this matter is any of the business of this particular collection of student groups, none of which have any significant Singaporean involvement. Nor do I understand why Cristina Moon, a non-Singaporean human rights activist, should consider it a personal enough matter to lead a crusade.

It has been noted that Dr. Chee was a fellow of this University, and thus, some tenuous duty of care has been established to justify intervention by members of the University community. That may be so, but it should be noted that many Singaporeans are students at the University. We comprise some 0.5% of the total college student body and nearly 20% of the international undergraduate student population. Some consideration should be taken of the fact that this protest does not appear to be led or sanctioned by any significant Singaporean involvement.

It would appear, therefore, that we Singaporeans are about to be the beneficiaries of a campaign designed to save us—or more accurately, Dr. Chee—from our own government. How nice. Well, there are some reasons why Singaporeans might not be too vocal on this issue. For one thing, many have a very different view of the role of government and the exercise of democratic liberties than those of Americans. For another, although Dr. Chee does have some support in Singapore, it can hardly be called popular or even significant.

To me, the most compelling reason to refrain from vocalizing the issue is simply that this is not an affair which concerns the University of Chicago in particular, and Americans or other members of the international community in general. As such, while we Singaporeans may discuss the issue privately, we may not wish to engage a foreign public audience in debate on what is essentially an internal political affair.

That last part is, in fact, the real point of the issue. Singapore is a sovereign state ultimately answerable to no one except its people. I would be the last to deny that we Singaporeans often do grapple with government policies that could probably be improved, but these are our problems, and their resolution must ultimately depend on our own deliberations.

In fact, my greatest concern is that our well-meaning protesters will publish egregious misrepresentations of my country without a word of refutation. I do not like seeing people who may have never visited my country and know nothing of it claiming to represent me or my countrymen. I find even more troubling the fact that any such publications are likely to be irresponsibly partisan and may perhaps even denigrate my country's image in the eyes of the University of Chicago community.

It will be left to the educated observer to decide on the strength of Dr. Chee's case. To some observers, Dr. Chee is a bastion of democratic values and a lonely champion standing up to an oppressive regime. To others, however, Dr. Chee occupies a political position much like Ross Perot's in the United States: eccentric, unreliable, and politically insignificant.

International observers, on the whole, only see the first side of Dr. Chee's image. On the other hand, Singaporeans, just as unfortunately, tend only to see the latter half. In any case, it would be wise for anyone intending intervention to first conduct some basic research on Dr. Chee, his standing with ordinary Singaporeans, and his altercations with the government.

As an international student, I initially held many naive opinions about life and politics in the United States before I came here. After two years, my only conclusion is that I still have much to learn. Perhaps I am just a slow learner, but I do not think that any of the protesters, however well intentioned, really know enough about the matter to be able to speak with any authority on the subject.

As a final note, great powers such as the United States may, of course, routinely meddle in the sovereign affairs of other states. Occasionally these interventions are actually beneficial. However, I believe that the various student groups of the University of Chicago hardly possess great power status, and so, I politely invite them to reach for goals more within their grasp, like the resolution of the Middle East question, ending Christian-Muslim religious misunderstanding, or maybe even the removal of Taco Bell from the food court.

Don't try to save us from ourselves; maybe you can save us from bad food.

Walter Theseira