Dr Chee Soon Juan has quite a colourful history when it comes to Singapore politics. Holding rallies and hunger strikes, serving several jail terms, being declared bankrupt, being forced to leave his position as the head of Psychology in the National University of Singapore — through all of this, he’s been steadfast in two things: his love for his family and his determination to be a voice in Parliament.
The Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Secretary-General made a comeback in Singapore’s 2015 General Elections, and has since won the hearts of many Singaporeans. Despite not being elected into Parliament, his popularity has soared since his return to the campaigning stage, with two-hour long queues forming at his book-signings and people clamouring to shake his hand after rallies.
Here are 7 life lessons you can learn from Dr Chee Soon Juan.
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1. Public perception can be changed
CSJ has come a long way in terms of public perception. When he first began running for Parliament, he was often seen by the public as a megalomaniac, a “near-psychopath“, and a tyrant. He held hunger strikes and often spoke out against Singapore’s government in a brash and unfiltered way. A New Paper report from 7 December 2005 even reported a Singapore citizen describing CSJ as being anti-Singaporean, saying: “As a Singaporean, it is shameful of Dr Chee to actively call on other countries to interfere in Singapore’s judicial process. This is another clear example of how low he will stoop to undermine Singapore.”
However, public opinion of him seems to have taken a turn, especially with the 2015 General Elections. Despite having faced many jail terms and been bankrupted, he was met in this round of elections with an overwhelmingly positive response, with surprisingly large turnouts for his rallies. He was also labelled by the Mothership.sg as a “quotable quote machine“, as people began sharing the things he said at rallies and personal anecdotes that touched their hearts.
“If I leave, there will be one less voice against the government,” he said at one rally. “If PAP wins, the people will lose…I was born Singaporean. I was raised Singaporean. And I will die Singaporean.”
If you ever need proof that public perception can change drastically, CSJ is that proof.
2. There’s power in social media
A huge contributor to the change of this public perception is the power of social media. In a political landscape where the Internet is quickly becoming a great influencer, what people say about you on forums, Facebook, and Twitter are very important.
CSJ has recognised this, and is a very active social media user, often sharing pictures and videos of his rallies, and SDP videos and messages. He became the second most talked about politician on Twitter in the first week of campaigning, and the SDP’s rallies generated only 15% less conversation than the PAP’s.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia, CSJ said that he recognises that the way to get people’s attention is now very different.
“The only thing right now is that it’s election time. So people pay a lot more attention, and I’ve got access to the public right now in terms of rallies, and with live-streaming and so on and so forth,” he said. “Whereas before…that was not an election where you pitch to Singaporeans what you’ll be doing in Parliament.”
3. It pays to be a great orator
If you attended or watched an SDP rally, you were probably looking forward to listening to Dr Chee speak. And it’s no wonder. After the 15 years that he was barred from contesting, CSJ made full use of his comeback, speaking strongly and proudly. It was his words and his quotability that sent clips of his speeches circulating on the Internet like wildfire.
“Tell them you have heard a vision of a prosperous and productive Singapore. A Singapore that cares for our weak and our old. Tell them the SDP is more than a party, it is an idea, a way of life, a vision that will transform Singapore for the better. Above all, tell them that you found a party that will not lord over you, a party that truly cares.
I have never lost faith in Singaporeans. And even in the bleakest of moments, I always believe that we will triumph. Why am I so confident? It’s because the human spirit can only be trampled but not crushed.”
— Chee Soon Juan, 5 Sept 2015
And this photo, which was shared countless times online, was testament to the fact that Singaporeans really did listen to his speeches.
It never does to underestimate the power of a great speaker. Speeches — whether it’s to press, target audiences, or possible voters — will appeal strongly to emotions, leaving a lasting impression on voters’ (and buyers’) minds and possibly sway their choices.
4. Treat your opponents with dignity and respect
Despite being attacked by his competitors, Dr Chee choose not to retaliate likewise, and instead shared that he and his colleagues “will not engage in name calling”. He even urged others who were attacking his political opponents to stop doing so.
With social media as the political rhetoric guard dog, Dr Chee’s move proved to be useful as he avoided painting himself in a negative light. His choice to treat his opponents with dignity and respect, especially in public, showed him to be a man above petty name-calling and helped supporters focus on the things that he was really trying to say.
I’ve never gone out and said, ‘Let’s kill the PAP (People’s Action Party).’ I’ve never used the words ‘Down with the PAP’.”
— Dr Chee, September 7, 2015 to TODAY
So if you have a strong competitor that you’re up against, it never pays to slander them or call them names.
5. A simple life can be a happy one too
Dr Chee recently opened up about his personal life, first to Yahoo!, and then to independent filmmaker Bee Pin Tay. What both mediums shared was that despite being declared bankrupt in 2006 after failing to pay reparations of $30,000 to Singapore’s ex-PMs Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, he and his family managed to lead a simple but comfortable lifestyle in a three-room flat in one of the oldest estates in Singapore.
His children grew up without video or computer games, and were encouraged instead to borrow books from the library to entertain themselves. They also play the piano, which is squeezed into a bedroom, together with two double beds placed next to each other to allow all five Chees to sleep side by side.
“I know what it feels like to keep counting your dollars and trying to cut down on expenses. When you need to see a doctor or buy that extra packet of milk or choose a better quality cooking oil, you’re always checking your purse to see if you can afford it. I understand.
— Chee Soon Juan, 3 September 2015
But despite the penny-pinching, his family is as tight-knit and as close as ever. As Dr Chee’s wife and fellow doctorate-holder Dr Huang Chih Mei said in the documentary by Bee Pin Tay, “Before we had our children, I was talking to my mom on the phone. She suddenly asked: “Are you happy?” I thought for a while and replied, “There’s nothing for me to be unhappy about.”
A startup can be a costly thing, with debt plaguing you before you finally break even. So even if you’re living the simple life till then, know that even the thriftiest of lifestyles can be the happiest.
6. If you want something done right, do it yourself
Being a politician isn’t exactly easy, especially if you don’t have the support of many people. But despite being ridiculed and called names, Dr Chee still went to the ground and attempted to speak to people himself, selling his book on the streets whether rain or shine. He also organised rallies and personally took to the streets to hand out pamphlets.
Promoting your book on the streets may not sound very glamorous, but Dr Chee is a firm believer in working hard for what you believe in. It’s a great reminder that dreams and goals aren’t made by the timid, and if you really want something done, sometimes you have to do it yourself.
We don’t have information on Chee’s book sales, but they must be doing pretty well lately.
7. Never give up
Chee Soon Juan’s political journey began in 1992, and despite having won the favour of a few more Singaporeans this recent General Elections, he has yet to be elected into Parliament. He’s a man that knows setbacks, having gone through many jail terms, bankruptcy, and hours in the sun handing out pamphlets or selling books.
Still, it looks like he’s unlikely to give up any time soon, and we can probably look forward to seeing him in the next elections. And if he’s not giving up, what excuse do you have?
“I won’t deny that that’s been hugely disappointing…but we take it in our stride. The only thing we can continue to do is move forward.”
— Chee Soon Juan, 11 September 2015