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Quest for Democracy

By the way, Borders book store in Singapore has refused to carry this
book.  Perhaps those who find such censorship offensive should make their
views known to Borders.


>From Far Eastern Economic Review
Issue 6th May 1999

Quest for Democracy
To Be Free by Chee Soon Juan. 
Monash Asia Institute, Australia. A$24.95.
By Alan Abrahams

This book vividly recounts the struggles of six prominent Asian
human-rights activists and their protracted efforts toward building
democratic societies in their own countries. 

It is not for light reading: Chee's book contains graphic descriptions
of violence against some of these activists, including the late
Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino of the Philippines, who challenged the
dictatorial regime of then President Ferdinand Marcos; Kim Dae Jung of
South Korea, who spent 50 years of his life opposing
military-dominated governments; veteran opposition politician Shih
Kuo-tsuei of Taiwan; Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League
for Democracy remains the focus of political opposition to the
military regime; Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, winner of
the 1995 Ramon Magsaysay Award; and Chia Thye Poh, who spent more than
22 years in a Singapore jail without being charged or tried.

Ironically, Chee, secretary-general of the opposition Singapore
Democratic Party, manages to make this an extremely readable, even
humorous, book. His dry, sardonic wit repeatedly breaks through an
otherwise sobering subject as he recounts several inherently
ridiculous situations, making laughter the only option. 

In one surreal episode, former Indonesian President Suharto writes a
letter to Pramoedya, explaining why he found it necessary to imprison
him "for a mistake in judgment." Pramoedya's rehearsed and censored
reply, after spending eight years in jail without trial, proclaims his
wonderment and honour at how the president could possibly be concerned
with the well-being of such a nobody. Chee doesn't say whether
Pramoedya himself penned the piece, but regardless, it is hilarious

and dripping with irony.

Chee himself is no spectator; as an opposition figure in Singapore, he
has had his run-ins with the authorities and has spent time in jail
for speaking in public without a permit. Even his attempts to promote
this book have been thwarted by the governing People's Action Party.
Still, Chee continues to deride Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for what
he sees as Lee's willingness to tell everyone else in Asia how they
should be running their affairs, and exploding with rage whenever the
criticism is directed against Singapore.

Chee adeptly uses the geographic and political spread of his subjects
to underscore how widespread, and commonly accepted, the concepts of
human rights and democracy are across such a diverse region. In doing
so he also deliberately debunks the notion of Asian values. By picking
examples from different parts of Asia, each with its own distinct
culture and history, Chee powerfully demonstrates the commonality of
human aspirations, and how they tend towards freedom, truth and
justice. A closely argued forward by Martin Lee, chairman of Hong
Kong's Democratic Party sets the theme.

Most of the book concentrates on providing background to the
respective human-rights stands of these six activists. Because these
descriptions are relatively brief, a historian might question the
author's thoroughness. But each of these six stories offers critical
insight into why the individuals did what they did, why the
authorities responded in the way they did, and the differences these
individuals made. For example, arguably, the extra-judicial killing of
Ninoy Aquino marked the beginning of the end of Philippine President
Ferdinand Marcos' political stranglehold.

To Be Free clearly demonstrates that the extraordinary sacrifices of
these activists have not been in vain. Kim Dae Jung is now president
of South Korea. Pramoedya is, perhaps, Indonesia's best known and most
respected author. Corazon Aquino took over her husband's mantle to
become president of the Philippines and Shih Kuo-tsuei is a
well-regarded Taiwanese opposition legislator. Aung San Suu Kyi keeps
the flame of democracy alive in Burma; and Chia, though exiled from
Singapore, serves as a role model to those who--like the author--seek
an alternative to Singapore's political uniformity.

There are, however, occasions when Chee could better clarify the
chronological sequence of events he relates. In the section on
Singapore, in which other prominent Singapore activists are also
featured, it is not always clear to whom he is referring. But these
are small criticisms.

Chee's message is that the future of human rights in Asia lies with
these bold men and women whom he has chosen as his subjects. Their
vastly different backgrounds and circumstances demonstrate the
universality of the views in which they so passionately believe.
Against them are the combined forces of repression, torture and death
used by governments to maintain their grip on power. 

On the surface it may appear to be a hopelessly uneven struggle. Yet
Chee plainly believes the tide of history lies with those who believe
in an open and free society. It is a book that is ultimately

optimistic. The courage shown by all six subjects was not, and is not,
in vain. In some cases they have made a difference; in other instances
that difference has yet to be made.

Alan Abrahams is chairman of the Hong Kong section of the human-rights
organization, Amnesty International.