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Dr Chee Soon Juan is the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and one of the most respected and feared opposition leaders in Singapore, so it was a little inexplicable when he decided to start up a restaurant, “Orange & Teal”. Singapore’s food & beverage industry is notoriously difficult and competitive, and on top of this, he started his venture in June 2021 in the middle of a pandemic! PJ Thum visited his restaurant to talk to him about why he started Orange & Teal, his experience in his first year, and what he hopes to achieve. They also talk about the future of Singapore, his vision for the SDP, and its changing perceptions and role in Singapore politics.

To learn more, please visit:

https://orangeandteal.sg/
https://www.facebook.com/orangeandtealsg/
https://www.instagram.com/orangeandtealsg/

Transcript

PJ Thum (00:00)
Hello and welcome to another episode of Political Agenda, brought to you by New Naratif. With me, your host, PJ Thum. I’m wearing a blue and white Batik shirt, sitting on a red chair in front of a big bookcase full of books. And today I have with me the Secretary-General of Singapore Democratic Party, and owner of Orange and Teal, Dr. Chee Soon Juan. But before we get to him, just a short note. This is brought to you by New Naratif, a movement for democracy in Southeast Asia. And if you’d like to support what we do, if you enjoy this podcast, please do become a member at newnaratif.com/join or or donate newnaritif.com/donate. Ok! So, Dr. Chee, welcome to Political Agenda.
 
Chee Soon Juan (00:40)
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
 
PJ Thum (00:42)
It’s fantastic to have you on. And let’s get straight into it. I mean, you are Dr. Chee Soon Juan, maybe the most feared opposition politician in Singapore, feared by the PAP, you’re legendary for how you’ve changed political discourse in Singapore. Right. And you are the longest running, I think, leader of an opposition party at this point in time, at least of a mainstream one. And so after all of that, and after the PAP worked so hard to keep you a Parliament, your big move was to… start a restaurant!? Why?
 
Chee Soon Juan (01:21)
I guess these two vocations may seem right now pretty disparate, divergent even. But I’ve always envisaged a place where people could Singaporeans could come together and build this space, this community whereby we can have intelligent dialogue, intense debates, and have this place where at the same time, we support the arts, the music community, have young writers coming in, our artists, and a place that we can really see culture, intelligence, everything take root. If you think about it, when you go back and you look at what’s happened in other countries, JK Rowlings, Gloria Steinem, George Bernard Shaw. Meaning when I hear Karl Marx developed their own thought, their own skills, many of them from cafes, restaurants, that kind of thing. And I just kind of thought, why not in Singapore? And so years ago, the SDP, Singapore Democratic Party actually had this idea of starting up a cafe to really do something like this because it was so lacking in Singapore. So through the years, rather than having to depend on groups of individuals, I thought, just get it started, let’s see where it goes.
 
PJ Thum (03:10)
All right. Okay. Well, I mean, the obvious question in Singapore is always one of cost and sustainability of a business. And for those of you who are listening, we’re actually in Orange & Teal, sitting in the corner next to the bookshelf. So after almost a year of operation, are you sustainable?
 
Chee Soon Juan (03:37)
Yeah, I’m glad to report that we’re still holding our end up in terms of just being financially viable. And as a business, you almost have to be able to stay afloat to be in the black, so to speak, before you can actually do anything else to date, we’ve been thankfully doing okay. And hopefully this will just give us that grounding, the foundation to do other things. And it just so happens that  COVID is just beginning to recede. Knock on wood, will continue to fade into the background and then we can then begin to do some of the activities that hitherto with unable to do because of the restrictions. So as I said, in any business, you just got to be viable in the first place before you can talk about anything else. Otherwise, if you’re going to bleed money, then it’s not going to work.
 
PJ Thum (04:38)
So you’re not bleeding money. You’re sustainable.
 
Chee Soon Juan (04:41)
Sustainable.
 
PJ Thum (04:44)
As one owner of small business to another, cash flow is always the biggest challenge. Are you generally cash flow positive?
 
Chee Soon Juan (04:53)
We are good to report that we are right now. And again, it’s just not sometimes your own prowess that also helps in terms of management and a bit of know how here. But in this cafe here, I just want to come back and thank all the supporters who have come by, not just political supporters. I think people who visit restaurants and cafes and thank them for their support. It’s just important because without them, nothing is going to work. Right.
 
PJ Thum (05:29)
And I remember early on your Instagram page you talked about staffing challenges, that some people were worried about working for you because of the political sensitivities. Staffing is always a challenge, especially for a small business. How is that going?
 
Chee Soon Juan (05:44)
And then when you add on this political angle to it and me being who I am, it has an added challenge, so to speak. But I guess how you present the situation and with time, I think the younger generation are beginning to feel that, hey, what’s wrong with straight up business? And of course, every business has its own goals, its own objectives, its own vision. And mine is just wanting to build a better Singapore at the same time providing good food, good company where people can come together. You add the two together. It’s the perfect way to handle this cafe, isn’t it? So I think Singapore is beginning to realise that. But of course, we do have the same set of problems where you’re talking about chasing the same pool of people willing to work long hours. And that is always in the background. Right.
 
PJ Thum (07:00)
But you’ve kind of overcome that now.
 
Chee Soon Juan (07:02)
You feel, no, I think that’s an ongoing challenge as we go in and try to recruit more people in. It’s always a competition then. But therein lies that you want to be able to inspire your own staffers, the people that come around to you. And it’s not a job that they go through daily grind. And at the end of the day, you just want to encourage them to have dreams of their own and be able to achieve those dreams. Because my own thinking is that the saddest thing about for human beings is having no hope and no goal and then just going through day to day activity, dragging yourself out of bed and not looking forward to what you want to do. So even in this line of F & B, I think there are things that we can continue to inspire and motivate staff to look to something more. So that’s where I hope to be able to bring in some value added, if you will.
 
PJ Thum (08:23)
Okay, can you be a bit more specific? Like do you actually encourage your staff to join this industry and go on and I don’t know, start their own cafes? When you talk about inspiring yourself, is it purely on the sense of, hey, we’re trying to do something different and create a special space, or actually, are you trying to create a pathway for some of your staff to go on and improve themselves and go on to better things?
 
Chee Soon Juan (08:49)
I think in all respects we want to be able to tell them, hey, look, even if they’re not going to be with you forever, right? You want to be able to encourage them to say, hey, look, let’s always not lose sight of the bigger things that we want to do. All we’re going to do is focus on the here and now, the dollars and cents, then I think you’re going to be in trouble after a little while. You lose that passion for whatever you want to do. And being in the culinary circles or financial world, if you don’t have that kind of passion in wanting to really Hone your skills and be really good at what you do and you’re going to lose sight and all you care about is, hey, how much money am I going to make them? Very soon everything becomes you lose focus on it.
 
PJ Thum (09:50)
Can I ask you, do you pay yourself a salary from this?
 
Chee Soon Juan (09:56)
In that sense, because this is family, you’re doing this, and whatever I get from this, that also income.
 
PJ Thum (10:06)
Yeah, of course. I mean, you’re doing the work, you deserve to get paid…
 
Chee Soon Juan (10:08)
So it’s just a matter of sometimes it’s how you account for your stuff. But as I said, as long as this business kept the flow, I get a bit of income to put food on the table for the family. I’m happy. Yeah, of course, to make sure that other than that, this continues to be a place where people can come together and hopefully in time to come find this place iconic in that sense that, hey, if you want a place that we can go in and even just have a nice meal, where we get together for friends that we haven’t seen for years, this is the place. And then at the same time in time to come to have activities here where then pick people and say, hey, we’re trying to do something here. And if you’re looking for something in terms of developing our art, our culture, intelligent conversation again, this is the place.
 
PJ Thum (11:07)
Okay, we’ll come back to that in a second. I’m just very curious about two more sort of logistical things. The first is your concept of this place. It feels very like a sort of European Bistro kind of idea. Is that what you set out to do? And you mentioned earlier people like George Bernard Shaw or even Karl Marx developing their ideas in a very cafe environment. So is that what you’re trying to inspire here?
 
Chee Soon Juan (11:32)
Well, you can have these conversations even in a kopitiam if you really wanted to, right? Yeah, but no, to answer your question, this whole thing, I always had the idea that, of course, you need to have your coffee, and along with that, you need to have your food in there, whether it’s your croissant or your sandwiches. But then after we got this place and the idea started developing and the name came around, the interior decor came about. One thing led to another. And before people came in and saying, this looks very European, but that was never really the intent from the outset. We just thought, as I said, ideas are piled on top of one another. Before, you know, if something came out, the only thing that I said was a must have was this bookshelf behind it, as well as a piano. And that was kind of the centerpiece for our home. And I just wanted to kind of bring it into the cafe. And we created over here. Everything else is just add on.
 
PJ Thum (12:51)
Okay. So it kind of evolved out of basically what you had. You saw what you had, and then the plan evolved based on what you have in front of you, and the space really helped dictate it. But then there’s also the decor, right? You’ve got these clocks, you’ve got these shelves with pictures and lampshades. So that came afterwards as well.
 
Chee Soon Juan (13:17)
Yeah, those were incidental that came later on. And they say, hey, what about this? And then my kids say, My daughter, she’s got an eye for this. Yeah. Doesn’t quite fit in. And then before you know it, things started taking shape, and we thought, hey, just go along with it.
 
PJ Thum (13:39)
Cool. Okay, so let’s come back to this whole environment you’re trying to build here. Now, you started in the middle of a pandemic, so obviously you weren’t able to hold a lot of these events that you wanted to. But also, if I remember correctly, you tried to hold an event, and then it was canceled at the last minute.
 
Chee Soon Juan (14:01)
It was this confusing period whereby things started to open up, and then events were allowed, but apparently only in certain places and by certain groups. And so I thought at that time, we wanted to have just a talk over here about something. Guess what, COVID, right? The difficulty of the pandemic. And so I wanted to have this talk in this cafe over here. But apparently that was not allowed under restrictions. And so I was informed by the authorities that was no go, so we had to cancel it right now. But with the restrictions loosening up, I think we will go back to it again and see if we can hold more such events.
 
PJ Thum (15:00)
Okay. So you haven’t been able to hold any events?
 
Chee Soon Juan (15:03)
No, I think up to them now. It’s been pretty limited in what we can and cannot do.
 
PJ Thum (15:10)
Okay. But talk to me a bit about what you’d like to do. What kind of events and how do you see this space evolving, especially in Singapore where there’s so little space right. Where we’ve had I mean, just a month or two ago, Connie Singham’s book launch was canceled, and that was the Arts House. And it wasn’t just anyone. It was Connie Singham who is one of the most important figures in women’s rights in Singapore. And somehow they canceled her book launch and she had to move it. It feels like there is less and less space for these sort of things. So having any space at this point in time would be fantastic. But what is your vision for the kind of events that you want to hold here and the things that you want to happen here?
 
Chee Soon Juan (16:03)
I guess this one big bugbear that I’ve had all this time, it’s just not in this cafe, but in Singapore as a whole, where events have just always been curtailed because especially if there’s a political bent to it, and I think we’re the poorer for it as a society because it’s holding us back as a society. And going forward, we’re really talking about challenging on a global stage, ideas, innovation, spontaneity, creativity. Right?
 
PJ Thum (16:40)
Yeah.
 
Chee Soon Juan (16:40)
And that is just so lacking in Singapore here I’ve envisaged for this place to have that kind of intellectual stimulation, but not just in terms of just the heart politics, but even cultural event, social events such as?
 
PJ Thum (17:07)
Such as what?
 
Chee Soon Juan (17:07)
What would you like? Ideally? Wouldn’t it be good if we kind of displaced for book readings and drama reading, those kinds of things where I could have musicians coming in, young kids, that music school just above here.
 
PJ Thum (17:25)
Okay.
 
Chee Soon Juan (17:26)
String quartets coming here, artists coming in, talking about their works, those kinds of things. And then also on the commercial side of things, wine appreciation day, how to make the perfect cup of coffee.
 
PJ Thum (17:42)
Okay.
 
Chee Soon Juan (17:43)
It’s just a whole nice mix of things here. I’m hoping at least this place will become to be known for these kinds of things. And that’s just a nice, good, eclectic mixture of activity. And then at the same time, not to shy away from things that I said are more political, which really is the lifeblood of society, isn’t it?
 
PJ Thum (18:12)
Yeah.
 
Chee Soon Juan (18:13)
And anything that we do, politics is involved. But in Singapore, we always try to separate the two and say one is we’re just always trying to at least just put behind the scenes and not seem not hurt, kind of thing and let the commercial side. But society doesn’t function that way. You try that, it becomes a very malformed society where everybody just thinks, hey, look, everything must be money making, right? And then political side of things or the more sensitive side of more social aspects of society, we shun them. And I don’t think that’s a healthy development. So as I said, going forward, I’m hoping to be able to bring these together and create a more normal space for us where we don’t always have to look over our shoulders and be fearful of authority, be respectful, yes, but not fearful of authority and be able to express our opinions, our minds, our views, without getting knocked all the time and be fearful of what’s going to come down the pipe.
 
PJ Thum (19:25)
Just the challenge of holding events here in a country where the government is extremely hostile to you and you personally. Right. And I might be one of the few people who know exactly how you feel. There’s a whole government coming after you specifically, and anything you want to do get shut down. And I tried to play by the rules. I tried to register a company of ACRA, and they dragged their feet for months and then put a press release calling me a traitor to the country. So even if you want to play by the rules here and do something in accordance with what’s been laid down and try and work within the restrictions, they don’t let you. Do you think that will happen to you? What if that happens to you, and have you, apart from your one event canceled, but have you had any other challenges to, say, permits or licensing? All these ways are ways that the government comes after you in Singapore? Have you had any of those challenges at this time?
 
Chee Soon Juan (20:33)
I think right now, the thing is, right now, sometimes you’ve got to be clear about what the rules are. Right. And I think even then at this stage, the government is also feeling its way, how much it should control, how much it should let go. Because if it does one thing too much, if it tries to legislate too much, then again, I think it’s fully aware. The PAP is fully aware that it presses too hard, then you’re going to have an electorate citizenry that’s going to be very jaded and have its life squeezed out of.
 
PJ Thum (21:24)
But that’s the thing, right? The very calibrated coercion, I think, was it Cherian  George came up. They don’t squeeze everyone. They squeeze you specifically.
 
Chee Soon Juan (21:35)
And they squeeze me.
 
PJ Thum (21:36)
And everyone else gets to say, oh, my God, that’s so bad. But thank God it’s not me. A lot of the rules are written and we see it more and more with POFMA and FICA and POHA. And the ability to target individuals is ever growing – “Discretion” as I said in my video. So the discretion in the rules enables them to say, oh, all these companies are okay, but this company is not. The company I tried to register is not okay. And they don’t need to even say why. They just say no. So the same thing can happen to you with literally must be dozens of different kinds of regulations and licensing. And are you worried at all about that?
 
Chee Soon Juan (22:23)
Concerned, yes. But you’ve also got to realise that sometimes you cannot let fear paralyse you. Right. And we are in this situation where sometimes we can just wallow in some pity and say, hey, you know, so unfortunate that the government is paying so much attention to us. But from my perspective, I think we’re a very fortunate one in that sense that we’ve been given this opportunity to shape society. And as the government is finding its way grappling with some of the new issues coming up, technology changing all the time, how it uses technology, how we use technology, civil society, the political opposition, all that is still very much in flux. And depending on how well we proceed, how we behave, how we act and react, all this helps shape our future where we’re headed for. But if we were to sit and say, hey, look, we’re just going to follow whoever’s in front of us, then we’re going to be very sorry for it because if everybody takes that role, then nobody wants to step out and be in front. So here we are in the situation whereby we can do one of two things.
 
Chee Soon Juan (23:45)
Just sit back, hang back, and let others take leave or tell ourselves that, hey, we are Singaporeans. We were born and bred in Singapore. We need us to shape our society. Because I honestly don’t believe it’s not that I don’t believe. I know that the leaders in the PAP also don’t know in that sense what’s going to happen in the future. And everybody is just making sure that we use what we’ve been in doubt with both intellectually in terms of what we’re able to see in the future and try to shape society and prepare ourselves. They don’t have the answers to everything. This is where we come in. Okay? But if we don’t willing to put ourselves on the front line, be able to take the questions that they ask, take the hits that they’re going to level us. And I don’t think we’re worthy of our own country. Let’s be hopeful, let’s be positive. As I said, let’s be respectful of authority, but let us not be fearful of them.
 
PJ Thum (25:00)
How do you do it, man? You’ve been at this since the ’90s and you’re still here and you’re still fighting. The government has been after me for what, five, six years now? And I’m exhausted. And I really confess I’ve had struggles with my mental health because of the sheer amount of shit thrown my way. But I look at you and you’re an inspiration because you have had it so much worse. And yet you’re still here fighting and coming up with new ideas and trying to do things in a different way. So how do you do it? What keeps you going?
 
Chee Soon Juan (25:37)
The one thing that you don’t do is try to hide or keep behind closed doors your own anxiety, the times where you actually are in a lot of anguish. And I think it’s not normal if somebody put in the situation and put on this kind of pressure does not begin to sometimes gnash our teeth and wail. But the important thing is to take the rest, however long you need to recover. And when you do, you play the long game. You must be able to tell yourself that, look, the changes never comes easy – anything that’s worthy of change never comes easy. It takes perseverance, takes patience, and it takes persistence. And if you’re able to delay that gratification, then I think as you’re going through the difficulties, trials, I think you’ll be able to handle it just a lot better. But always cast your vision. And even if you don’t achieve it in a lifetime, you would not have failed, because then others can stand on your shoulders as you stood on the shoulders of others that come before you. Right. And in that sense, continue to know that as you build up, there will come a time when our effort will be cumulative and then it will cross that threshold. And when we look back, we’ve done our part for society. We’ve done our part of history, and I think we should take a lot of gratification in them. Until then, don’t wallow in self pity. Continue to figure out creativity. We’re talking about creativity. That’s also political creativity. Right. There are many ways to skin a cat. And if you are getting from point A to point B, that’s more than just one way. And that’s a straight arrow pointing to your destination. If you cannot reach it, find different ways of getting to it. And you find that if you’re able to handle that, then you’ll be able to overcome a lot of difficulties along the way.
 
PJ Thum (27:55)
Okay, so connecting the dots then your theory of change, especially for Orange & Teal, is about creating a space to foster creativity, to foster thinking, to foster dialogue and discussion. So even if you are unable to achieve the promised land and your gratification has been delayed so long, you’ve run what, six, seven, eight elections now? But even if you never reach there, at least you have fostered a space where maybe someone coming after you will be able to because of the space you’ve created, able to create more obvious change or more discernible change, or even more change in Parliament or in society or in culture, because you’ve created this space.
 
Chee Soon Juan (28:52)
I guess the space – I don’t want to say that it’s instrumental, but at the same time, I cannot say that it’s incidental. It’s something which I just want to be able to create space where Singapore can come together. And if a cafe or eatery is a place to do it, then so be it. If not, then I’m happy to do it wherever people find it conducive. Speaker’s Corner is one of them and the SDP’s office is another. But I just thought that, hey, by the way, would it be nice if we could, even if we didn’t talk shop, politics. For me to be able to come together with some of the guests here and sit down a nice warm cup of coffee and talk about their family, talk about their loves and their life, talk about things that inspire them, that kind of thing. Why not along the way? Make this a place where people can come and be inspired, relax, have a warm, nice dish of whatever that we’re serving. Those are all things that come together. As I said, there isn’t just this one thing of wanting to achieve political ends.
 
PJ Thum (30:35)
If you will, and what’s the reception like. Have plenty of people come in and have you had those conversations?
 
Chee Soon Juan (30:41)
Yes, people say F & B hours are long, and I think that’s an understatement. But I must say that there have been just moments that I feel that just done the right thing. That’s because Singapore is coming here and I just had moments where I’ve been able to share with them and it’s been good. At the end of it, I’m just glad that I did it. Despite some of the challenges, long hours, difficulties, and so on and so forth, you weigh out the pros and cons. I’m so glad that I did this, and I don’t know the word is fun, but it’s been rather gratifying.
 
PJ Thum (31:32)
Oh, that’s awesome. I don’t think you can ask for anything more if you enjoy what you do.
 
Chee Soon Juan (31:36)
And that’s the message going on in everything that you do. You got to enjoy in anything, whether it’s your profession, whether it’s your hobby, family. There will be moments when tedium sets in. And while you don’t find it, you’re not deliriously happy every day. You must find that the quiet joy that comes with it. You must go on active. It’s not going to fall in that you must go on actively look for it. And I believe that you seek it hard enough, long enough, you find that sense of happiness, as I said, graphic sense of gratification satisfaction as you go along.
 
PJ Thum (32:30)
Maybe this question will be more cynical, but the opportunity for people to get to know the real you will also help you politically, because you are maybe the most vilified person by the PAP government and extremely unfairly so,  but there is this whole idea of you as wild, crazy, rebellious, whatever, throwing tables or chairs around, whatever, which is totally unconnected with reality. Do you think the opportunity to get to know you, to see you as a small business owner, that you see that you understand people’s struggles to make ends meet in Singapore, and keep a small business running. Do you think that will also help you at the next election? People look at Chee Soon Juan and go, you know, actually, that guy understands me. And I’ve met him, I went to his restaurant and he actually – nice guy, I’ll give him a chance.
 
Chee Soon Juan (33:27)
I didn’t get this cafe up specifically to achieve that end. But of course, if that something that allows people to come in and get to know me as a person, of course, then that added is icing on the cake. But it speaks to the issue of how powerful the media is. And this is where pre-social media era was. You were really at the mercy of the PSP because of the control of not just the print, but broadcast media as well. And you were just the caricature of what they wanted to portray of you. And they did. And they tested the fact that it was all so powerful that people just came away with this idea that was so far divorced from reality, from the truth, so much so that just come up to me in person and just see me smile and reach my hand out as a step up already. So that has helped in the sense that the people can just come around and I’ll just be who I am and they can see me for who I am and take away with them their own impression. Okay.
 
PJ Thum (34:51)
So if you don’t mind, we switch gears a bit and talk about the next election. How does the SDP see itself in the sort of changing landscape of Singapore politics when it feels like, especially right now, the Workers Party and PSP, by virtue of being Parliament, are sucking up all the oxygen, the little oxygen there is for opposition politics. And meanwhile, you see parties like Red Dot United being a lot more activist than having activists who take part in a lot of grassroots events.  It feels like SDP for so many years being the pacemaker forging new directions, leading the fight for progressive politics, human rights in Singapore, it’s getting left behind. We don’t hear much from you and now it feels like you’re running a business rather than fighting for human rights. That may or may not be fair, but this is the impression the SDP is sort of becoming middle aged, as aging with you…
 
Chee Soon Juan (35:58)
Getting mellow?
 
PJ Thum (35:59)
Yeah. Is that?
 
Chee Soon Juan (36:01)
No, I think far from it. Singapore’s politics political system is still very much in the formative years in terms of building up towards a democratic society. And in this situation when things are still so much in flux, I think things are very much very open in a sense of who becomes more the dominant player, dominant force. So I think even as far as the opposition is concerned, I think what’s the most important thing for the opposition right now is to be able to formulate a set of policies that then articulate our vision for Singapore, how we’re going to go ahead and how where we see Singapore 5, 10 years from now and be able to then offer it to the people. And then when elections come around, be able to then tell them to support us, get into Parliament so that we can realise this vision. As you can see, the SDP has been at the forefront of making sure that these policy ideas are firmly in place. And we’re not just saying it off the top of our heads and coming up with this one paragraph kind of sound bite, but we’ve actually developed policy papers, researched them, so much so that the PAP has more than once adopted some of these ideas, imitation, they say is the sincerest form of flattery, right? And this is where we take pride. But it’s not just this whole idea of just taking this sense of saying, hey, we said it first. No, it’s not then. But going forward, if we can begin to persuade the people saying the PAP are doing things after us, shouldn’t you want to get the real thing in place rather than have people coming up after you and just kind of following what you do? And this is where I think the strength of the SDP and I think that it’s time and place for everything because it’s during elections that people pay attention to. And in between elections, you’ve got to continue to be able to keep up that ground activity, the groundwork which we will continue to do. And then during coming close to elections. And by that, I mean we do it way in advance, way advance, about a year or something, even more where we launch our campaigns and we try to then get people to pay attention to what we’re saying, what we’re offering. And that’s where people begin to buy. Right. And I think we’ve managed to achieve this in the last elections with our vote percentage going up. And we’ve always come from a lower point because of what the PAP did to us before social media era, we’ve always been painted as the bad boys. But I think that the game is changing and people are beginning to see us for what really is. And I don’t think you don’t just get the snapshot, but really look at the trajectory that SDP is at. So you compare, say, ten years ago, even you see a very different perception that goes with half of us. And I think that will continue to do.
 
PJ Thum (40:05)
You actually commission studies about how voters see you?
 
Chee Soon Juan (40:07)
We haven’t got that.
 
PJ Thum (40:08)
Okay. Because that’s really expensive.
 
Chee Soon Juan (40:10)
Yeah, exactly. And a lot of times the real polls come during elections. And if you track back and look at how we perform through, as I said, in the last 10, 15 years, you’ll see that the SDP has been on the uptick. And I have every confidence that will continue to improve as we go forward. And as I said, we have a game plan. We’re just not sitting around treading water and we know what we’re doing, what we have to do in the upcoming years and months.
 
PJ Thum (40:43)
So the game plan is like more well researched and thought out policy positions. Is that right? Or is that…
 
Chee Soon Juan (40:51)
I don’t think it’s exclusively there. Okay. I think that how you bring those ideas and bring your message across to the people. That’s equally important.
 
PJ Thum (41:00)
Okay. And how do you plan to do that?
 
Chee Soon Juan (41:02)
Well, I guess right now, unless somebody, a bright spark at MediaCorp or the SPH comes to an epiphany and say, hey, we’ve got to change it, we’ve still got to rely on social media. And I think that slowly we can make headway as we have been all these years and beginning to reach out directly to the people and have them come to realise that, hey, there’s a substance to the SDP. It’s just not coming up with slogans all the time, but really hard policies, well grounded policies that I might repeat, PAP has adopted themselves.
 
PJ Thum (41:45)
It does feel like nobody reads policy papers. Everyone’s busy, right, even if they want to. And it feels like you’re being passed by because for better or worth, PSP and Workers Party have a platform in Parliament, so the mainstream media have to report on them and what they say. And they are there seen opposing, being the responsible opposition every month. And meanwhile, like the recent protests against the death penalty, you’ve got Red Dot United, one politician, non binary young politician looking like the future of Singapore, standing up and making a speech. Right. And where does the SDP fit in? You no longer – maybe you have, but I haven’t seen you – like being at the forefront of grassroots activism the way you were before, the way you were when you were younger. You were the young politician, right, the future, doing those protests. And for all your policy papers, you’re not in Parliament able to then coherently respond to the policy proposals and go actually and then break it down in technical detail the way the PSP or the Worker’s Party have been able to do. Especially, for example, I interviewed Mun Wai on this podcast and he was able to break down some of the budget and reserves issues with a high level of technical detail. And I know you guys can do that, but it feels like you’re being passed by at both ends of the political spectrum.
 
Chee Soon Juan (43:20)
Well, it seems that way. It may seem that way for a time, but let me assure you that having been in politics in the last 30 years or so, you will note that there’s a time in place for everything. There’s a time for us to just be a little bit more, I suppose, for want of a better word, more academic, more reflective in what we’re doing. And there’s a time where you come up front and just be a little bit more rhetorical just to be able to win votes. I feel that the marriage of the two is hugely important as far as my thinking is concerned and the thinking of my colleagues in the party and at the right time and right place. As I said, things will come up and we’re not too worried in terms of where things are at one particular time, but in terms of that build up and that it served as well through the years. As I said, again, you’ve got to look at the projection of where things are going rather just at any one time where things seem to be. So it may not seem as though we’re out in the limelight all the time at this stage, but as I said, we’ll do the right things at the right time and we’re confident that that will begin to materialise into electoral success. Votes…akan datang. Coming up.
 
PJ Thum (45:00)
Okay, so I guess last question quite a big one. We have just in the last week heard that who our next Prime Minister is expected to be. Lawrence Wong has been anointed the leader of the 4G, so we expect that he will be the Prime Minister. And you’ve been sued by all three prime ministers. Do you plan to be sued by four? (laughter) Okay, seriously though, what do you see… Question about the future of Singapore under the new generation. This is the first time you’ll be older than the Prime Minister. Right. You have been in politics longer than the Prime Minister. But what do you see as the future?
 
Chee Soon Juan (45:43)
I never thought of that that way. Right. But I’ve said it before that whoever takes over as Prime Minister would have to articulate a vision for Singapore in a change and changing world. I haven’t heard anything from so called the 4G leaders. All they’ve done was just to rely, sit on the laurels of their predecessors, articulate more of the same, thinking that if they continue to do what they’ve done in the past, that will bring future success to Singapore. It’s not going to happen that way. Unfortunately, we haven’t heard any of them say anything that’s remotely close to looking at where Singapore should be heading. And I think we’ve seen lost years. Hopefully that will not translate to lost decades of Singapore as we go forward. You look at the situation and compare say, just a simple, where South Korea is. Yeah, they were miles behind everybody when they were battling for democracy. And look at where they are now. Culturally, economically. Didn’t I hear that they surpassed in terms of the economic status right now, surpassed that of even Japan. I’m not sure about that.
 
PJ Thum (47:21)
Clearly in terms of at least cachet, KPop, Korean culture, Samsung. I think that they have created world leading world beaters in both industry and culture. So they have that for them.  Whereas we used to be a place where we had world leaders, world beaters in art and entertainment and business, and we don’t see that anymore. We’re not generating.
 
Chee Soon Juan (47:47)
And therein lies the danger for us going forward. Right. We keep thinking that, hey, just keep law and order above everything else. Make sure we stifle descent and in the process, stifle creativity, spontaneous spontaneity, and all the innovative thinking and thinking, we’re going to come out all right on the other side. I think that’s wishful thinking. And as society is, the global society goes forward, I think we’re going to run into a lot of problems, and then we find ourselves having to rely on foreigners. I don’t want and don’t mean to sound xenophobic.
 
PJ Thum (48:34)
Both of us are married to non Singaporeans.
 
Chee Soon Juan (48:37)
That’s exactly right. I’ve had people I’ve had foreigners coming and sitting on this chair. Foreign academics and telling us during this, COVID epidemic, scores of academicians non Singaporeans have left Singapore. Why? Because they feel that they cannot travel the region. And the one intention of coming to Singapore was to visit this region here. Here is where the problem is. A lot of foreigners coming to Singapore are not really bent on sinking the roots in here, whether it’s professionally or whether it’s in terms of, like they come here to spend a nice holiday for three, four, five years, and then they up and leave and go back to where they are. Where does that leave us? And in the meantime, our local bred talent finding themselves, hey, have we got a place here? And in the calculation, they say maybe the grass is greener on the other side and they leave and then this hollowing out. And then with this vicious cycle that we think that because Singaporeans are leaving, we haven’t got talent. We bring in more foreign talent and then it keeps going round and round that way. When do we stop? When does merry go round stop? And then we begin to say, look, we’ve got to have this system where we want our people to remain rooted in here. And one ingredient that you must have in our society is the freedom to be able to articulate our views, to be able to participate in political society, the public process and national affairs. The people, the talent, so to speak, will find an incentive to want to stay and continue to contribute to society. And this is where I think the crux is, that we’re at the fault right now.
 
PJ Thum (50:28)
It’s going to be more than that, right. So SDP is in favour of greater political openness and tolerance? I think that won’t surprise anyone. But what is the SDP’s policy with regards to the balance between welcoming foreign workers and nurturing Singaporean talent? What’s your policy or what’s the SDPs? How would SDP tackle this very complicated issue?
 
Chee Soon Juan (51:04)
Your local workforce must be the mainstay. They must be the spine, the backbone, right. Even the muscle of this place. And where we lack in terms of talent, fairness. When the foreign community then complements the local community here. I think at this time, even from the utterances of the PAP leaders, I think it’s the other way around. Our Prime Minister has even said that without foreigners – I’m paraphrasing here – our economy will pancake, we are not able to generate jobs for our locals here. How do we come to this? There’s this imbalance right now in terms of it’s skewed more towards foreign talent. And this is, I think where that worry comes in. I think that must be that balance in there and hence writing this whole policy and how we can incorporate and bring in foreign talent, and parts of which PAP has adopted right now with its with its Singaporean first policy.
 
PJ Thum (52:23)
It’s a more deep seated problem, right? The exact thing you’re mentioning, we need foreign funding, foreign investment to create jobs. The problem is this has been Singapore’s economic model since the colonial era and the PAP chose the short term path of continuing to make Singapore extremely welcome for foreign capital rather than building up local capital, a local capitalist class that could generate jobs. So right now, for the last time I looked, before the pandemic, half of our economy was generated, half of our GDP was generated by companies which are foreign owned, at least 51% foreign owned. And this is the quandary that the last time the PAP government tried to wean us of foreign funding, foreign investment, was the 80s and that led to a massive recession because foreign money just left because their profits collapsed. Right. As the PAP tried to create and build up an economy that was generative of ideas and less reliant on direct foreign investment, tried to move us up the value chain. And so we’re kind of trapped now, in that this transition which should have been made a while ago, can’t be made without a huge amount of pain. So if the PAP ever falls, and an opposition government comes in and decides to do this, they’re going to look at it and go, wait a moment, if I start doing this, I’m going to get voted out at the next election because there will be a lot of pain as we shift from reliance on foreign funding to building up a local capitalist class, which would take a generation. Right. So there are far deep seated problems here and I don’t know how we’re going to address this because if the PAP, they tried to do it, lost their nerve and then gave it up. And now we’re 30 years past the point where we could have done this.
 
Chee Soon Juan (54:31)
Sure. Right. I don’t think it was a case of losing its nerve. This is where I think the problem of central planning all through, not just years but decades have come back to bite us. In and of itself, attracting foreign capital, your multinationals and so on into Singapore was not a wrong decision. The problem was that they tried to stifle democracy at the same time. And this is where I’ve made it a point time and again that you cannot bifurcate the politics from the economics. Yes, the two sides of the same coin, they go hand in hand. That’s why we always talk about the political economy, right? One without the other. You’re just going to mess the whole thing up. And it’s showing right now all this, the malformed economic system that we have. And that’s just beginning to show when we begin to actually bring in foreign capital. And then you don’t let the people begin to generate its own engine of economic growth. So much so that when you try to engineer anyways, you mentioned this outflow of foreign investment, you’re left with a void, isn’t it? And this is where the problem lies. There was no development in tandem of the two. And the PAP just sat and got addicted to foreign capital and felt that it was very well and scanned both economically even until today. And then it started to muscle in the domestic sector through its massive and all subsidiaries and GLCs and so on and so forth. So much so that between MNCs and your GLCs, what have you got? This is entrepreneurial class. Almost nothing.
 
PJ Thum (56:29)
Yeah, we’re squeezed.
 
Chee Soon Juan (56:30)
And this is where I say going forward, we’re already in a mess. You wait for another ten to 20 years, and I can tell you that the pain is going to get deeper and deeper. And that is why I keep urging Singaporeans. You got to see the light and get in more position, not just for the sake of seeing more diversity and more colour, more fireworks in Parliament. That’s not what we’re out there. But if we’re talking about pragmatism, hard pragmatism of steering our economy, I say we better get going in terms of building our political system, because that inevitably will affect how we run our economy and hence the everyday living, day to day livelihoods of us in Singapore. That is going to be hugely, hugely important. And it must be the number one priority in Singaporean’s minds. Otherwise we’re just going to dig the hole deeper and deeper for us.
 
PJ Thum (57:36)
Well, on that note, I think we’re out of time. So thank you very much, Dr Chee, for coming on the podcast and hosting all of us here at your restaurant Orange & Teal.
 
Chee Soon Juan (57:46)
Good to have you guys here.
 
PJ Thum (57:48)
And do you know when your first event here will be?
 
Chee Soon Juan (57:51)
Well, we’ve got our – time flies whether you’re having fun or not – But we’re coming up to our anniversary and that’s in June, and we’re just having planning a big deal for this place and different events on weekends, as I said, different types of activities. And hopefully come June, we’ll be able to announce some of our first activities here.
 
PJ Thum (58:18)
Fantastic. Okay. Well, when you do, I’m sure if I’m around, I’ll attend. Very excited to see what you do with this space, and I hope you achieve everything that you want to achieve. I do think creating these spaces is really important. We don’t have enough of them. So I wish you all the best for this and for the next election.
 
Chee Soon Juan (58:37)
Thank you so much.
 
PJ Thum (58:39)
Okay. So thank you to Dr Chee for being on a podcast and thank you to you our listener, for tuning in. And as always, if you enjoyed this podcast, please do join New Naratif as a member and support our movement for democracy in Southeast Asia at newnaratif.com/join or donate at newnaratif.com/donate. So thank you and see you next time. Bye!
 

Thum Ping Tjin

Thum Ping Tjin (“PJ”) is Managing Director of New Naratif and a historian at the University of Oxford. A Rhodes Scholar, Commonwealth Scholar, Olympic athlete, and the only Singaporean to swim the English Channel, his work centres on Southeast Asian governance and politics. His most recent work is Living with Myths in Singapore (Ethos: 2017, co-edited with Loh Kah Seng and Jack Chia). Reach him at pingtjin.thum@newnaratif.com.

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