For a book which reads like a laundry list of political and economic problems in Singapore – “the use of the foreigners to compete with Singaporeans, the continued increase of living costs coupled with the downward spiral of wages, the expensive healthcare system in this country, [and] the withholding of our hard-earned CPF savings” – Chee Soon Juan’s “Democratically Speaking” unfortunately lacks focus, and is more a mishmash of letters, correspondences, speeches, and commentaries which he has published elsewhere, than a coherent book anchored by well-organised chapters and arguments. His metaphors and figure of speech are colourful, yet the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) tended to meander into personal expositions, with the inconsistent use of evidence and citations.
Which is a shame, because I thought two broad propositions advanced were reasonable: first, the need for broader discourse about how Singaporeans want to shape the country, noting in particular that the book was published before the Our Singapore Conversation endeavour was mooted; and second, questions about Singapore’s economic sustainability, and the socio-political costs of high finance. “Democratically Speaking” is divided into four parts – and notwithstanding the observation that Chee often conflates financial woes in the United States with those in Singapore – the first part focused on the characterisation of Singapore as a tax haven, the ramifications of inequality, and the problem of indebtedness. In the second part, he emphasised reform of the entire political system, challenging the “authoritarian credentials” of the ruling party and calling for democratisation in Singapore.
In this same part, perhaps the most powerful chapter was the one in which he chronologically and methodically addressed accusations – which has featured for the past two decades, and which again surfaced during the general elections last year – that he had usurped the position of former SDP Secretary-General Chiam See Tong.
An oft-cited lament of Chee and the SDP is the absence of policy proposals, though to his credit recommendations such as a retrenchment or unemployment benefits scheme, healthcare reform, and stemming the influx of foreign workers were mentioned in the book. What, however, was missing from the book was more substantive evaluations of these proposals, as well as the thought-processes which informed these recommendations. In the third and fourth parts, Chee alluded to his previous publications or documents on the SDP platform, yet these parts contain reproductions of content from elsewhere, many of which make similar points or even repeat one another. In this vein the book is a good reminder of the criticisms lobbed at the Singapore government, but does not go much further beyond that.