[an error occurred while processing this directive]He certainly gave it his best shot this time around. Last Friday, the final day of campaigning, Chee was practically sprinting through a shopping and dining area in his constituency, handing out pamphlets and grabbing handshakes from bemused residents, many of whom barely had time to register his face and blurted message, "Vote for us tomorrow, please," before he moved on. In the city-state, where the opposition has to contend with a monolithically progovernment media, this kind of flesh pressing is especially critical. But there was also something more, something almost frantic about the way Chee hurried though the hawker stalls and hardware shops, never looking back.
Chee had much more on his mind than just winning or losing a seat in Parliament. He had already had to apologize three times in public for remarks he made about Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He had agreed to pay as yet unspecified damages. Given the large awards handed out by the courts in similar cases over the past two decades that had driven other opposition leaders into bankruptcy, Chee had good reason to be apprehensive. He had been at the receiving end of defamation suits himself. The 39-year-old neuropsychologist lost his teaching job at the National University of Singapore in 1993 after joining the opposition; he was sued in relation to comments he made thereafter, and had to pay $300,000. He has also been to jail twice over his refusal to pay fines for speaking in public without a permit.
"They just want to kill you off," Chee said grimly, sitting still for the moment as a car carried him from his whirlwind campaigning back to the headquarters of his Singapore Democratic Party, three small rooms up a narrow staircase in the Little India district. He started to say more, then checked himself. "You never know what is going to be defamatory and what's not. I'm interested in talking about the issues, not personal attacks. But they have no qualms calling me names."
During the campaign Lee described Chee as a cheat, liar and fraud backed by "foreign manipulators." But it was Chee who was threatened with a lawsuit, after he alleged on Oct. 28 that Goh and Lee had secretly lent $10.6 billion to former Indonesian President Suharto. That charge implied that the Prime Minister and Senior Minister were "dishonest and unfit for office," lawyers representing Goh and Lee said, according to local newspapers. Chee backed down almost immediately and issued two statements of apology, which were deemed "insincere" and "half-hearted" by senior ruling party officials. A third apology read out at a campaign rally was called "political" and "totally inadequate" by Goh.
Over the years, government leaders have repeatedly said they have to defend their reputations in order to administer effectively. "I think there are clear rules of engagement for elections here," says Irene Ng, a former journalist who made her political debut as a ruling People's Action Party (PAP) candidate last week. "You should know not to defame anyone, that goes for PAP candidates too, so there's no need to fear being sued if you don't defame anyone."(A senior PAP politician at the Ministry of Information declined to comment for this article.)
While opposition politicians have a rough ride, says Gillian Koh of the government-aligned Institute for Policy Studies, the PAP wins votes in large part because, at least until recently, it has given Singaporeans what they want: booming economic growth, which has resulted in a share of the popular vote consistently above 60%. "Defamation is a huge sledgehammer, but the PAP is also basically a grassroots party that works very hard at listening and selling their message on the ground," Koh says.
For Chee, the end of the campaign brings only more uncertainty: How much will the Prime Minister's lawyers ask him to pay in damages? Chee says he will keep fighting, no matter how high the cost. He cites the veteran opposition leader Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam as his in-spiration. But to most observers, the 76-year-old Jeyaretnam is more like a cautionary tale: he was declared bankrupt and removed from Parliament ear-lier this year, after failing to pay his defamation bills.