Will Dr Chee's charm offensive pay off?

At a rally last Saturday, Dr Chee Soon Juan said the People's Action Party is "not all bad".

"Some of the MPs genuinely work and care for the people. But by the same token, neither is the opposition the useless, destructive force that the PAP paints us out to be," he said.

Are we seeing a softer, gentler Dr Chee who is now more willing to compromise, rather than the firebrand who used to get in the faces of his antagonists in the PAP as well as his own people?

Consider his public falling-out with then Singapore Democratic Party leader Chiam See Tong, which eventually ended with Mr Chiam leaving the party in 1996.

Or his hunger strike in 1993 to protest against his dismissal from the National University of Singapore, where he was a lecturer, for misusing research funds.

In the 2001 elections, he lost much support after he was shown on television using a megaphone and shouting at then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

"Mr Goh! Mr Goh! Come here, Mr Goh! I want to talk with you, come here! Where is our money, Mr Goh? You can run but you cannot hide."

Dr Chee had alleged that Mr Goh had lent $17 billion to the late Indonesian President Suharto.

He was subsequently sued by Mr Goh and then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in two separate cases of defamation. During the defamation trial, Mr Lee described Dr Chee as "a liar, a cheat and all together an unscrupulous man".

In the subsequent years, he was kept out of the political stage, having been made a bankrupt for failing to pay $500,000 in damages in the two cases.

Dr Chee, now 53, is back on the rally stage.

In this General Election, he has been greeted with loud cheers by the crowds at his party's rallies. He has also been given a fair bit of space on sociopolitical websites and netizens seem to react well to his speeches.

Twitter statistics show that Dr Chee is the second most mentioned politician in the first week of the hustings, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

He was in third place on Nomination Day.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan said: "He certainly comes across as someone who has become successfully rehabilitated politically.

"He is very good at public speaking. He is certainly able to connect with the audience. That's something which is working for him, teaming up with candidates like Dr Paul Tambyah is a good political decision."

Dr Tambyah, who is running as part of Dr Chee's SDP team in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, is a noted medical doctor and university professor.

"He's trying to mimic the doyens of the opposition like Low Thia Khiang and Chiam See Tong, coming across as someone who's not going to rock the boat," added Prof Tan.

Political observer Mano Sabnani likened Dr Chee to a rising football star who broke the rules and was given the red card, and is now back in the game.

"He was hot-blooded. You can see it as a case of a guy in his younger days wanting to make a point but got into trouble," he said.

But how has this makeover come about?

Political watchers point out that Dr Chee had allowed access into his home and his family through a mini documentary, and people have seen how they live in a three-room flat.


In his rallies, Dr Chee also talks of living like other people in Singapore, penny-pinching in different corners.

At a rally near Commonwealth MRT station last night, he gave yet another insight into his family's private lives when he mentioned a pink teddy bear that late politician J. B. Jeyaretnam had bought for his daughter.

His daughter, Dr Chee said, called the bear "J. B. Bear" as she did not know how to pronounce Mr Jeyaretnam's name.

Dr Chee has also signalled that he has spent the last 15 years carefully thinking through alternative policies and has consistently cited numbers and research.

The rebranding is crucial, said Iseas-Yusof Ishak's Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, as Dr Chee has realised that the SDP has a "tarnished image with historical baggage".

But those familiar with the confrontational Dr Chee may find it hard to grasp the stark contrast between the old and new Dr Chee.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser said: "I believe he knows that his previous approach was not well received."

Prof Eugene Tan was more sceptical, questioning Dr Chee's "make­over".

"In terms of form, I think the makeover is there. But I wonder whether in substance, whether the charm offensives that he has embarked upon over the last few years, are part of a larger political strategy to gain greater political profile now that he's free to contest in the General Election," he said.

He noted that the SDP chief also seems to crave attention of the foreign media rather than local media, despite being a Singaporean politician focussing on domestic issues.

As for Dr Chee's softer image, including bringing his family into the fray, Prof Eugene Tan said: "He's probably the only politician who quite unabashedly brought in his family. I attribute it to his image makeover, portraying himself as a family man. I don't doubt all this.

"But given that politicians in Singapore don't bring in their families and he consciously brings his in, he's been carefully cultivating the martyr image.

"He obviously knows that this election is important for him and his party. Because of the rise of the Workers' Party, the concern that he and his party may become irrelevant is very real."

Dr Chee on...

Opposition as a check on government

Dr Chee: The People's Action Party (PAP) is "doing as it pleases", said the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief at yesterday's rally at UOB Plaza, citing what he described as failed or questionable decisions by sovereign wealth fund GIC and investment company Temasek Holdings.

Examples included investments of about $4 billion each by Temasek in debt-ridden commodities trader Olam International last year and with other investors for Thai telecoms conglomerate Shin Corp in 2006.

"This Government accuses us (SDP) of coming up with policies of tax-and-spend, but what they will do is take our reserves, go out and make all these failed investments and then tell us they're going to increase healthcare spending by $4 billion in five years."

PAP says: Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said the PAP Government was its own check.

"For many years, the PAP was the only party in Parliament. Has the PAP gone corrupt in those years?" he said.

Instead of checks and balances on the Government, there will be a gridlock and paralysis, said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.

Cost of living

Dr Chee: In his first rally speech at Choa Chu Kang Stadium last week, Dr Chee talked about how Singaporeans are stressed by the high cost of living.

Citing the Economist Intelligence Unit, he noted how Singapore had jumped from being the 97th most expensive city in the world in 2001 to being the most expensive in the past two years. The influx of cheap foreign labour, where workers "can take the kind of salary that you cannot survive on" had also led to wages being suppressed.

This double whammy was born out of PAP policies, he said: "The PAP will tell you this is because of world trends, nothing they can do about it. This is patently untrue. Our financial and economic stress is a direct result of PAP policies."

Accusing PAP ministers and Government who were "out of touch with reality", Dr Chee talked about how he wanted to buy a box of Haagen-Dazs or Ben & Jerry's ice cream for his kids but instead bought Wall's ice cream after looking at the supermarket prices.

PAP says: Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Sunday that incomes of middle- and lower-income households in Singapore have risen much faster than cost of living since the global financial crisis, unlike in many other countries.

The median household income in Singapore has grown 18 per cent over the last five years after adjusting for inflation and the cost of living, he said.

Returning CPF

In his second rally speech at Bukit Panjang last week, he pointed to how the withdrawal age had gone from 55 to 62.

"There is no guarantee" he said, that this will not be raised further, citing it as an instance where the opposition was needed to check the PAP.

PAP says: Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Dr Vivian Balakrishan said Singaporeans will live longer and need a pension. The best way is to have a lump sum of $160,000 which will pay out $1,200 a month for life.

-Koh Hui Theng and Ronald Loh

This article was first published on September 10, 2015.
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