The first point I wish to make is this: The fact that we’re having this huge controversy is testimony to Chee Soon Juan, his leadership skills, and the hard work and dedication of the core group that stayed with him through the leanest years.
The party has grown. It has become a force in new media. Over the years more and more people have joined, some quite prominent. As discussed in part 1, the SDP’s sudden growth spurt seem to have “rattled” (to use SDP election candidate Vincent Wijeysingha’s word) Vivian Balakrishnan and his PAP team in Holland-Bukit Timah group representation constituency.
The SDP’s most recent coup was to bring in Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan, two men who have spent the greater part of their careers as part of the establishment. That they would consider and eventually decide to join the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) led by Chee should tell you that thinking people do not consider Chee and the SDP a bunch of lunatics, despite huge efforts by the government and the People’s Action Party (PAP) to cast them as such.
But it’s not because Chee or the party has changed. It’s the skewed public perception of the SDP that has been corrected through the use of the internet. As Chee said to the Straits Times,
Asked by reporters later about the party’s public image issues, Dr Chee said: ‘I think that is a perception. The media has gone out of its way to trash what I have said and who I am.
‘When (people) see something directly by looking at our website, they see something very different. And they think, oh, something has changed. But it hasn’t changed. It is the perception,’ he said. ‘So I am very glad that there is this new media tool where you can reach the public directly, and we are going to use it as we go on.’
— Straits Times, 23 April 2011, Has the SDP changed?
The same internet however, is the source of this controversy which the party now finds itself embroiled in. No doubt, it’s public because of Vivian Balakrishnan hissing away in the gutter, but as I said in part 1, lobbing questions back at him will not achieve much. There’s a tsunami of speculation out there in the digital ocean.
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Let me digress for a moment, however, to sketch two different perceptions of what has happened to the SDP, otherwise you will find it hard to make sense of the internet chatter. And for the purposes of this analysis, I need to outline three groups of SDP faces.
For many years, Chee Soon Juan, Chee Siok Chin, Gandhi Ambalan and John Tan were the leading faces of the party, often seen in street protests. I will call them the first group.
More recently, new faces emerged. Among them were those who’ve been with the party for quite a while, but haven’t become prominent until recently, e.g. Mohd Isa Abdul Aziz, Gerald Sng, Jaslyn Go and Jarrod Luo; plus Vincent Wijeysingha, James Gomez, Vincent Cheng and Teo Soh Lung, who joined over the last year or so. Let’s call them the second group.
The third group consists of the newest recruits, Tan Jee Say, Ang Yong Guan and Michelle Lee.
The first perception is of the SDP at last becoming “respectable”. When people talk of this, they tend to refer to the second and third group of new faces as the basis for their new opinion.
Why do they lump the second and third group together? Almost surely it’s because these members are not associated with SDP’s history of civil disobedience. Thus to these members of the public, “respectability” means complying with the law, no matter how unfair the law is. You’d be quite right to say that this perception is more a projection of the public’s internalised fear than any meaningful description of any and all the members of the party.
The second kind of perception is completely different. It sees a distinct separation between the first and second group on the one hand, and the third group by itself.
This perception is based on the track records. Those in the second group have a track record of standing up for human rights and the underdog. James Gomez founded Think Centre and Singaporeans for Democracy, Vincent Cheng and Teo Soh Lung were active in the 1980s fighting for workers’ rights (and got detained under the Internal Security Act on impossible-to-believe premises as a result), while Vincent Wijeysingha has long been a social worker working with the underprivileged. Jarrod Luo and Mohd Isa have been with the party for a long time through its darkest days.
The third group is starkly different. They have been part of the privileged establishment with no record of speaking up for human rights and social causes. To compound matters, their public profile seems to link very quickly with religion. And then, they joined the party only days ago (the whiff of opportunism).
Let me not mince words. I will not be doing the SDP any favours if I did not state clearly the public doubts they need to dispel: That the third group do not subscribe to the SDP’s credo of defending human rights including abolition of the death penalty, freedom of expression and gay equality. That both the SDP leadership and the third group are guilty of opportunism through this marriage of convenience, with the party leadership preparing to sell out its principles for a few extra votes.
The whole sorry business of Vivian’s innuendo over Vincent Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation has only added to the unease, when people see Wijeysingha not addressing the issue directly.
At this point, I need to say this: I still have no reason to believe, as internet chatter suggests, that Tan and Ang have views that run counter to the SDP’s core beliefs. Even if they’re Christian, I’d say So What? Chee Soon Juan himself, as far as I know, is a staunch Christian, and I’m sure it’s his faith that has given him strength through his most difficult times.
There is such a thing as a liberal Christian, and it may surprise Singaporeans that such a species is very common indeed in developed countries. There is also such a thing as a gay Christian, whose faith is no less real than a heterosexual Christian.
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Vivian Balakrishnan’s politicking may be contemptuous, but sometimes, questions once raised, for however ignoble the intent, cannot just be dismissed. They have to be dealt with. Coming clean is the best way. As every student of politics knows, it’s not the initial mistake or embarrassing detail, but the cover-up (or mere perception of cover-up) that brings the whole caboodle down.
Wijeysingha and the party need to speak about sexual orientation and why it should not be an issue in politics. Tan and Ang need to speak about their views with regard to the social and civil rights parts of the party’s agenda. It may be that an honest appraisal may be along the lines of “I’m not yet very comfortable with it” or “I’m new to this, I have never really given much thought to it before, but this is what I’ve signed on to, and my integrity demands that I live up to my word, and I will defend and advance the party’s mission with the fullest commitment.”
For a party that has long advocated that Singaporeans are ready to be a mature, democratic society, the SDP should not fear small-mindedness out there. I think the surest way to distinguish the party from the PAP is to be the exact opposite of Vivian Balakrishnan’s record. I think the party will be surprised how understanding people can be about sexuality, about life’s learning journeys and about the need to bridge differences. What people will not understand is how a party that has long argued for transparency and respect for people’s intellect, suddenly finds it so hard to live up to these noble ideals.