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Singapore rebel on trial for speeches

CHEE SOON JUAN, 36, used to be a successful neuro- psychologist with a good job at Singapore's prestigious National University. After deciding to run for parliament on an opposition party ticket he lost his job, then his house, and now lives from hand to mouth by publishing his writings.

He stands to loose his freedom. Yesterday, Dr Chee went on trial for breaching the Public Entertainment Act. In Singapore, where a leading dissident was placed under house arrest in a theme park, entertainment covers making public speeches without a permit.

Dr Chee did this twice, insisting Singapore's constitution guarantees free speech, making the law invalid.

The maximum penalty is a fine of pounds 1,800, but more importantly, from Dr Chee's point of view, the offence also carries a five-year ban on running for parliament. He says if he is found guilty he will go to jail rather than pay the fine.

The government accuses him of seeking political martyrdom and says Singaporeans enjoy free speech and can exercise it in parliament and in the local media.

However, Dr Chee says it is practically impossible for him to get his views aired in the state-dominated media. It is also very hard for opposition members to get elected to parliament. In the last election opposition candidates secured more than 40 per cent of the popular vote but only took three of the 83 seats.

Constituencies that have returned opposition candidates are subject to threats of withdrawal of public services and, as in the case of the constituency once represented by Dr Chee, they simply disappear under boundary changes.

Defending Dr Chee in court is the old opposition warhorse Joshua Jeyaretnam, who has far more experience than his client of facing the government's wrath. Mr Jeyaretnam says he is virtually penniless after having been repeatedly sued for libel by government leaders. Few dare seek his services as a lawyer, leaving him with a very thin practice.

Entering opposition politics is not to be taken lightly in Singapore. Dr Chee took the first steps by writing to the leading local paper about the problems of the education system; complaining it lacked flexibility and room for initiative.

Even this form of activity soon earned a reprimand from his boss. This brush with intolerance of opposition increased when he decided to stand for parliament. A dispute over misuse of university department funds involving pounds 70 led to his dismissal. When he tried to fight for his job he became involved in a libel suit and had to sell his house after losing the case.

Others who have taken a high-profile role in opposition politics have faced similar problems. Not surprisingly, they are thin on the ground.

In court yesterday the police who summoned Dr Chee for addressing a public meeting constituted a threat to national security. "It can happen at any time," said the officer.

Mr Jeyaretnam, who has also been portrayed as a security threat, replied: "In the same way that Martians could invade Singapore." The authorities are unlikely to have been amused.

As for Dr Chee, he faces another trial once this one finishes. However, his unusual public challenge to the government has sparked a public debate in the columns of local newspapers. The fact that the articles are being published suggests Dr Chee has already scored a minor victory.