Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why buy Playboy if you can look at porn on the internet... and other Lee Kuan Yew gems

No, these are not my sentiments. This is the latest pearl of wisdom to emerge from Lee Kuan Yew's controversial interview with National Geographic.

To quote Singapore's founding father and current Minister Mentor in full:

"Why do you want buy Playboy now if you can go into the internet? You get more than what you get in Playboy, that's that," Lee refuses to say whether or not he has ever partaken of the joys of such computer-based stimulation.

These comments didn't end up in the Nat Geo story, so how do we know that Lee said this? Thanks to the assiduous efforts of the Singapore government's media handlers of course.

Like all good PR professionals, Madam Yeong Yoon Ying, press secretary to Lee Kuan Yew, records all his interviews in case disputes with journalists arise at a later date.

Rather helpfully, the Singapore government has just released a full transcript of Lee's interview with National Geographic journalist Mark Jacobson.

Lee's comments about lazy Singaporeans deserving to lose out to hard-working immigrants seem to have caused the most fuss in the Singaporean blogosphere thus far.

But there are some other real gems in the transcript.

For example, we discover that Lee is still troubled by lingering paranoia about a Malay/Muslim "fifth column" in Singapore.

After insisting that Singapore is still a "society in transition" rather than a nation, Lee says:

"We make them say the national pledge and sing the national anthem but suppose we have a famine, will your Malay neighbour give you the last few grains of rice or will she share it with her family or fellow Muslim or vice versa?"

Although Jacobson doesn't ask the question, the interview also raises tantalising questions about whether the elder Lee, now 85, still has the desire to stand for election in the polls that are likley to take place in the next year.

When asked what his favourite hawker stall is, Lee says: "I can’t go anymore because so many people want to shake my hands and I become a distraction, I can’t really get down to my food. I tend to go to restaurants when I go out and I try restaurants with a quiet corner where I can sneak in and sneak out with my friends and not have a crowd wanting to shake hands with me."

If Lee doesn't want to be shaking hands with his fans, will he really want to be out campaigning, even for just the nine-day period that the government restricts electioneering to?

I'd urge anyone interested in Singapore to read the interview transcript in full, if you can bear to put up with Jacobson's fawning manner.

Every interviewer has to butter up their subject a bit but Jacobson, who may not have realised the government were planning to release the transcript, takes journalistic brown-nosing to new levels.

In his opening gambit, Jacobson explains that he's interviewed many American Presidents since he was born in 1948 but that "they come and go".

But, our fearless correspondent tells Lee, "I’ve never interviewed anybody who has stayed the length that you have. It’s like interviewing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rolled up into one, so it’s kind of nice."

We're clearly not talking Woodward and Bernstein here.

It makes sense to try to make your interviewee feel at ease but Jacobson doesn't ask Lee a single tough question. Contrast his interview with the brilliant battle between Lee and recently-deceased columnist William Safire, who called Lee a "dictator" to his face.

Monday, December 28, 2009

In Indonesia, prison resembles life: you get what you pay for

There's a great interview with an inmate at Jakarta's Cipinang jail in today's Jakarta Globe, which reveals the inner workings of the predictably corrupt prison system.

Rich inmates pay the guards for good-quality food, TVs, air-conditioning and, of course, access to prostitutes.

But even the guys at the bottom of the pile have to pay for their meagre rations and even their cells. The subject of the story, a hapless drug dealer named 'Bambang', paid 2 million Rupiah ($212) for his two-man cell in Block B. It doesn't come close to the creature comforts of the Block A cells but it's a damn sight better than sharing a hovel with 20 other inmates in Block C.

Even the Block C inmates have to pay for their own incarceration though and if they can't afford it, they're forced to borrow from a loan shark.

In jail, as in life in Indonesia, there is nothing that does not have its price. If you want to get out of jail, don't bother farting around with a lawyer, just pay a broker to get you out. Bambang says he can get out for just 5 or 6 million Rupiah.

Now that's what I call a monetocracy.


Sunday, December 27, 2009

National Geographic interviews a dinosaur

The interview with Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew in the January edition of National Geographic is a pretty soft piece of journalism that takes a few perfunctory swipes at the Lee Kuan Yew/Singapore Story while buying into its key myths in a rather unquestioning fashion.

For example, the author of the piece, Mark Jacobson, states that few living leaders have "dominated their homeland's national narrative the way Lee Kuan Yew has". That's true but partly down to the fact that LKY and his supporters have controlled the historical narrative in Singapore using the education system and restrictions on free speech, in much the same way as Suharto did in Indonesia (more of which in an upcoming post).

Jacobson does talk about repression in Singapore but doesn't really seem to understand how it has been used to subvert the historical record.

Given that the author seems totally enamoured by his encounter with the great leader, it is perhaps unsurprising that he has not opted for a deeper examination. Cloyingly, Jacobson describes LKY as looking "like a flint-eyed Asian Clint Eastwood circa Gran Torino", while suggesting that telling a Singaporean you're off to interview LKY is like informing "a resident of the Emerald City that you're late for an appointment with the Wizard of Oz". Time to reach for the sick bag.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview is LKY's restatement of his Social Darwinistic views.

"I have always thought that humanity was animal-like," he says. "The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I'm not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined."

Warm words to inspire a nation, don't you think?

Later, he bemoans the lazy Singaporeans who complain that the influx of cheap foreign labour is driving down wages. If Singaporeans are falling behind, he explains, it is because "the spurs are not stuck into the hide".

There are not many countries in the world where people would persistently vote into power a leader who thinks they are all worthless ants but then there are not many governments that manage to combine relatively soft repression with impressive economic growth.

The following short film by Singaporean director Martyn See is a revealing portrayal of some of the ants responsible for the "Lee Kuan Yew miracle". These layabouts clearly need LKY to give them a kick up the arse. Singapore's censors have deemed that this is hardcore stuff, only for those over 16, as it contains depictions of poverty and destitution in Singapore, some of which may be real:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Damn these parasites

No, I'm not referring to hedge fund managers, lawyers or the insidious case-brokers who undermine the Indonesian justice system. I'm talking about, erm, parasites, of the variety that infest Jakarta's fetid water supply.

They are possibly the only social leveller in a city where fancy skyscrapers nestle in among decrepit slums and families live in underpasses while luxury SUVs clog the road above them.

However fortunate you are, the water will still get you, as I have just found out to my intense abdominal discomfort.

That's the long way of saying apologies for the lack of posting in the last few days but I've been down with a nasty stomach bug.

Happy drinking - due to my medication, I won't be.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Why John Kampfner is the perfect straw man for Singapore

Some people might have been surprised to discover that British journalist John Kampfner, who has authored a book that takes aim at Singapore’s model of economic prosperity without political freedom, was recently allowed to enter Singapore, let alone to give a seminar at the venerable Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

After all, Singapore has a clear history of quashing dissenting voices one way or another.

So why did Singapore embrace Kampfner, who laments in Freedom for Sale that the insidious Singapore model has also taken hold in China and Russia and, to a lesser extent, in the Western world?

It is evident that the academics at the Lee Kuan Yew School were slightly nervous about his presence because their preview of his seminar makes no mention of the fact that the Singapore experience provides the nub of his book (classic self-censorship).

Yet, in reality, critics like Kampfner fit perfectly into the government’s “managed dissent” strategy for two key reasons.

Firstly, Kampfner’s largely theoretical argument about the Singapore model is very unthreatening to the government. The People’s Action Party is less concerned about writers who criticise it in general theoretical terms than it is about activists who try to mobilise the public or journalists who threaten to uncover embarrassing or uncomfortable stories about the city-state.

Secondly, Kampfner is the ideal straw man for the government to attack, giving them yet another opportunity to trot out their tired arguments about how “Western liberal democracy” is not appropriate for Singaporeans who hold “Asian values” such as collective well-being and social harmony (i.e. the government telling everyone what to do) dearer than individual liberties such as free speech.

Hence, Kampfner’s visit prompted a 1700-word feature in the state-backed Straits Times, which was in essence an extended essay on the overwhelming success of the Singapore model. In addition, the Straits Times published several letters attempting to knock down Kampfner’s arguments, including a right-to-reply from a senior civil servant who insisted that “there can be, and there is, vigorous debate on public policies” in Singapore (yeah, right).

A blog that Kampfner wrote for The Guardian on the same subject last year also elicited a right-to-reply from Singapore’s fastidious high commissioner in London as well as a story in the ever-faithful Straits Times headlined “Singapore ticks off British writer”.

If they had done their homework better, the academics at the Lee Kuan Yew School would have realised that they had nothing to worry about. As far as the government is concerned, it seems that Kampfner is welcome any time.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Freelance journalists in the front line

The inexorable rise of the internet over the last decade has had two main consequences for the coverage of foreign news.

Firstly, the internet has undermined many mainstream media organisations' print advertising-focused business models, a structural change that has been compounded by the cyclical economic difficulties of the last two years. Overseas news bureaux at newspapers, news wires and broadcasters have born the brunt of the inevitable cuts that have ensued, with organisations shedding staffers and becoming more reliant on freelance correspondents.

Secondly, the internet has made it much, much easier for independent journalists to report from the far-flung and sometimes risky places where news organisation have shed staff correspondents.

These developments have been positive in that they allow enterprising, well-connected freelancers to fill roles that were once held by staffers who were parachuted in, often with little advance knowledge of the places they were being sent to.

However, as I found out when I was forced out of Singapore, freelance journalists operating in unstable media environments face many more difficulties than staffers when things go wrong.

Had I been on the staff of a major news organisation, the Singapore government would have inevitably been more reluctant to deny me a work visa. If the government still chose the same path, a major media organisation would then have appealed on my behalf and, if necessary, flown me out and into another job.

But, as I explained in a recent interview with, a website for British journalists, when I told the editors that I worked for what was happening to me, their attitude was "that's terrible but don't expect me to help you out".

The perils of freelance journalism are not so great in Singapore, which, after all, does not beat up or jail reporters. But, in more precarious hotspots around the world (Somalia, Burma, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan etc), intrepid freelance journalists are risking much more.

The problem is particularly acute for local freelancers working for international organisations, who are putting themselves on the line but can't leave when the shit hits the fan in the same way that most foreign correspondents can.

It is no surprise therefore to read in a recent report from the Committee to Protect Journalists that the number of freelance reporters in prison around the world has doubled over the last three years.

There are currently more than 60 freelancers behind bars, making up nearly 45% of the total number of journalists jailed worldwide.

As Joel Simon, the CPJ's executive director puts it: "The days when journalists went off on dangerous assignments knowing they had the full institutional weight of their media organizations behind them are receding into history."

"Today, journalists on the front lines are increasingly working independently. The rise of online journalism has opened the door to a new generation of reporters, but it also means they are vulnerable.”

The rise of a website such as Asian Correspondent is a case in point. Clearly AC is helping to fill some of the holes in news coverage left by the mainstream media in Asia. But if any of my fellow AC writers in the Philippines, China or Thailand come a cropper, there is little chance of AC coming to their rescue.

That is not a criticism of AC but just an acknowledgement of the way in which the game is changing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Will Singapore dare to deny its people their opium?

Although religion was once, in the words of Karl Marx, "the opium of the people", it has been displaced in most developed nations by football.

That's particularly true in Singapore, where thousands of people gather in coffee shops every weekend to watch live coverage of the English Premier League and other top European leagues.

If they weren't glued to the screen, these people would probably be stealing, raping or even, god forbid, talking about politics or social issues.

That's why, in a likely election year, it seems dangerous indeed for Singapore not to offer the World Cup matches on any of its free-to-air or pay-TV channels, as is currently the case. More than 200 nations have already secured TV deals with FIFA, leaving Singaporeans among a tiny minority of excluded global football fans.

Having effectively shafted customers by bidding-up the cost of showing Premier League matches, Singapore's two government-controlled pay-TV providers - StarHub and SingTel - decided to put in a joint bid to show the World Cup games. But their offer was rejected by FIFA.

Meanwhile, Mediacorp, the free-to-air broadcaster wholly owned by Singapore's sovereign wealth fund Temasek, has inidcated that it is unlikely to stump up the necessary cash to buy the World Cup rights.

Given that the government has a considerable sway over all three companies (Temasek owns 100% of Mediacorp, 57% of StarHub and 54% of SingTel) , I find it hard to believe that Singapore's rulers will dare to face an electorate deprived of the right to watch the World Cup

The only explanation I can think of for this bizarre situation is that it must be the government's latest cunning ploy to ensure that its majority is not eroded further in the next election.

If the World Cup is not available in the Lion City, tens of thousands of people will be forced to flee over the causeway to Malaysia to obtain their football fix. That would give the ruling People's Action Party the perfect opportunity to hold a snap election in the knowledge that the already-weak opposition will be deprived of all those potential voters who are also football fans


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Can it ever be right to bully a 10-year-old boy?

If the boy in question is a statue of Barack Obama in a central Jakarta park, then the answer seems to be yes.

A Facebook group campaigning for the removal of the recently-erected statue has already attracted more than 10,000 members.

When the statue's backers hatched their plan to build a statue of the one-time Jakarta resident to inspire Indonesian children to push on to better things, I doubt they could have foreseen such a backlash. The opponents believe it's wrong to have a statue of an American in a Jakarta public park - especially as there are so many local heroes who could have been commemorated there.

It's a sign of how politicised Indonesian society has become. No act here is without its political symbolism. That makes Indonesia a pretty turbulent place but it also means that people care about politics and that's vital for any society that wants to develop.

I'm heading down to the park tomorrow to do a story on the backlash so if you want to suggest any questions that I should ask local residents, feel free to post in the comments or drop me an email.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Indonesia's Balibo ban backfires

I was aware that there was a new Australian film called Balibo about the five journalists who were killed in highly-suspicious circumstances when Indonesia invaded Timor-Leste in 1975. But I didn't watch it until I heard that Indonesia's censors had banned it.

That piqued my interest and, sure enough, when I happened to be passing through the Ambassador Mall, which is a notorious centre for the pirate DVD trade in Jakarta, over the weekend I picked up a copy of Balibo.

It seems I was not the only one, according to this story in the Jakarta Globe (where I'm editing at the moment). The story claims that pirate copies of Balibo are flying off the shelves as a direct result of the ban.

It was a decent film, if nothing special, and a good introduction to the Balibo story for those unfamiliar with it. The problem the Indonesian authorities have with it is that it suggests that the five journalists, who were reporting on the border between Indonesia and Timor-Leste, were executed by the Indonesian forces so that they could not reveal the illegal manner of the invasion. The Indonesian army has always maintained that the reporters died in a crossfire.

In the film, the actor playing Greg Shackleton, one of the five reporters killed at Balibo, recreates his last-ever piece-to-camera. The original is a fine if haunting piece of journalism and I'd urge you to watch it. Shackleton was killed shortly after recording this:

One question that the film raises but never really answers is why it takes the death of five Western reporters for the world to care about what happened in Timor-Leste, where the Indonesian invasion led to the deaths of as many as 200,000 people. I'll have to leave my own answer for another day.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Singapore has the BBC singing like a canary

If you are not convinced of the extent to which the Singapore government has managed to cow the international media, then check out this piece on Singapore for the BBC's usually-excellent From Our Own Correspondent.

In the story, the BBC's intrepid reporter goes to a bird market in Singapore and talks to an old man about his bird and how his wife would rather he got rid of the creature. And, erm, that's it. Seriously.

Unless I'm missing something, this isn't some clever allegory about the battle for individual liberty in Singapore or some absurdist satire of authoritarian government. It's just a description of a journalist going to a bird market and talking to one person.

There's no politics, no societal implications, no controversy. In short, there's no story - it's pure fluff and, in my opinion, an utter waste of UK taxpayer-funded airwaves and server space.

If the BBC's Beijing, Bangkok or Dubai correspondent offered a similar story, I suspect they'd be told to where to get off.

There are so many interesting and quirky but serious stories in Singapore that the BBC could cover. Why go with this?

Looking back through the BBC's archive of Singapore stories, it seems there's little appetite at the organisation - which has a large commercial HQ in Singapore as well as its Asian business bureau - to cover more controversial stories out of the Lion City. I wonder why.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Indonesian hospital drops law suit against mother who criticised doctors in emails

In a victory for people power - and common sense - an Indonesian hospital has dropped its defamation case against Prita Mulyasari, a mother who criticised the hospital and its doctors in emails to friends.

The hospital had already been awarded Rp 204 million ($21,624) in civil damages in yet another case that showed the extremely unbalanced nature of Indonesia's justice system, which tends to favour the rich as well as anyone else willing to stump up the necessary cash.

The hospital's victory against Prita sparked a popular outcry across Indonesia and campaigners quickly raised the amount of money needed to pay off the damages on Prita's behalf.

Now that the hospital has dropped its case, there will be no damages to pay but the saga is not over yet. Prita still faces criminal charges over the self-same emails.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Outlook for Yong Vui Kong still bleak despite rare reprieve

Although Singapore's High Court granted condemned Malaysian drug mule Yong Vui Kong a rare second stay of execution on Tuesday, the probability that he will be spared the gallows is still extremely slim.

The court ruled that Yong had the right to a full appeal after he withdrew his first appeal without understanding the implications of what he was doing.

Yong's legal representative M. Ravi, one of Singapore's only human rights lawyers, said that he had been under the misapprehension that he would have to lie in court if he was to have any hope of winning an appeal. Having become a devout Buddhist since being sentenced to death for trafficking heroin last November, Yong therefore decided to withdraw his initial appeal rather than lie in court.

The Singapore Anti Death Penalty Campaign said it was "heartened" by the decision, which it found "very encouraging". The campaigners have indeed done sterling work in bringing attention to Yong's case and, perhaps more importantly, in helping raise the money to cover legal fees and the expenses of Yong's family, who have come to Singapore from Malaysia.

But, as the campaigners admitted in a statement, "Yong's life still hangs in the balance". While it is commendable that the high court wants to give Yong a proper appeal, given that Yong has admitted his guilt, it is extremely unlikely that the judges will make an exception to the law, which prescribes mandatory execution for drug trafficking.

It will be little consolation to Yong or his family but the anti death penalty campaign in Singapore gains more support because of the attention that cases like his attract - even Singapore's craven state media have begun to cover his case.

It is often argued that Singaporeans are not interested in politics and/or fearful of taking part in any kind of activism.

The growing - if still very modest - support for the anti death penalty movement is an encouraging sign of the resilience of civil society in Singapore.

But, let's not kid ourselves here. Only around 80 people turned up to a meeting in October to promote the international day against the death penalty, even if that was many more than organisers had expected. And less than 1,000 Singaporeans were willing to sign the petition to the President to grant Yong clemency.

If Singaporeans want to change their society, they will ultimately have to become more vocal and face down the risks (real or imagined) that that may entail.



Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Singapore counting cost of a Hub too far

Trade hub, travel hub, pharmaceuticals hub, even a media hub. You name it and Singapore has pumped a load of money in, offered some juicy incentives to big-ticket foreign investors and delivered on its grand plans in a flash.

But the S$1.9bn (US$1.4bn) Sports Hub, which was meant to replace the ageing National Stadium at Kallang, appears to have been a hub too far.

In a rare blow to Singapore's regional and international prestige, the city-state's sporting authorities have confirmed that they will not be able to host the 2013 Southeast Asian Games because of repeated delays to the Sports Hub project.

The new sports facility, which will incorporate a 55,000-seater stadium with retractable roof, is being built through a public-private partnership with French conglomerate Bouygues and was originally scheduled to be completed by 2010.

The project came a cropper because of funding difficulties brought about by the credit crunch. I'm a bit surprised that the government didn't step in to bail out the project. Presumably they preferred reputational damage to opening the purse strings.

Greece managed to pull off the Olympics, albeit in the nick of time. India looks like it will be able to hold the Commonwealth Games next year with some assistance. And even Laos managed to sort out its facilities in time for this year's SEA games thanks to some help from China and Vietnam.

So what's going on Singapore? When the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam are volunteering to take your place, you know you've got problems.

Incidentally, I like the way the Straits Times has spun this. The SEA Games Federation, reporter Leonard Lim tells us, has "endorsed" Singapore's "proposal" to give up hosting the games. That's like your boss endorsing your proposal to be late for work because you overslept.

Monday, December 7, 2009

From troubled teenager to death row: the story of Yong Vui Kong

Film-makers Lynn Lee and James Leong have released a short video interview with the brother of Yong Vui Kong, the 21-year-old Malaysian drug mule set to hang in Singapore within weeks. It's well worth watching.

I saw Yong's brother speak about his predicament at an anti-death penalty forum in Singapore in October. Because of Singapore's tight restrictions on foreigners speaking in public, he had to stand in the middle of the room rather than at the front as he appealed to those present to help convince the President to show his wayward brother leniency.

Human rights campaigners in Singapore are calling on the government to give Yong an almost unprecendented last-minute repreive. It is highly unlikely that the govrernment will be swayed by such pleas. Yong's final appeal will be heard tomorrow morning.

A write-up of the event held at Singapore's Speakers' Corner yesterday to express concern about Yong's case is online here.

Rachel Zeng, one of the event's organisers, says that Yong has still not told his mother that he is on death row. Yong's brother told her:

"Vui Kong made my mother promise that she will forget him because he had committed such a serious crime and will be sent away. He told her that she won’t be able to see him again."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

How dare rich Vietnamese drive Maseratis or Rolls-Royces. Let them ride bicycles

When I returned to Hanoi for the first time in six years back in March, I was extremely surprised to see a red Ferrari cruising around Hoan Kiem lake, the evocative pool of water at the heart of the Vietnamese capital.

But, after overcoming my initial shock, I came to the opinion that such conspicuous consumption was a sign of just how rapidly (if unevenly) Vietnam's economy had been developing.

Matt Steinglass, Hanoi correspondent for German press agency DPA, appears to have taken a rather more sneery view of the growing numbers of wealthy Vietnamese who are opting to purchase a Rolls-Royce or Maserati. He wrote on his blog:

Vietnam is entering that period of its economic development, passed through by most countries on their way to industrialized wealth, in which it destroys everything that used to be valuable about its built environment, makes every possible stupid mistake in failing to adapt its landscape to the coming threat of wealth and modernity despite abundant warning from neighboring countries that have gotten there first, and generally attempts to make itself look like a fat, ignorant, corrupt executive’s conception of Orange County, CA.

In underdeveloped countries, especially a Communist one like Vietnam, the distastefulness of this phenomenon is exacerbated because, lacking any longstanding indigenous wealthy class, the newly fantastically rich take to the phenomenon of wealth as if they had just invented it.

The idea that there might be anything crass or displeasing about gross displays of conspicuous luxury in a country where per capita GDP remains just over $1000 does not seem to enter people’s heads.

Such "gross displays of conspicuous luxury" may offend Steinglass' expat sensibilities but none of the Vietnamese friends I spoke to, most of whom can barely afford a motorbike, were particularly disturbed.

Some joked about how the Communist party probably picked up the tab for the cars in one way or another, while most agreed that such public displays of extreme wealth would drive people to work harder, earn more money and achieve more in life.

Do the people in the photo accompanying this story, courtesy of Flickr user fletchy182, look put out by the sight of a Ferrari in Hanoi or just intrigued?  

While I agree that many top-end cars look utterly ridiculous, that's just as true whether they're being driven around Mayfair by a Russian oligarch or through Hanoi's Old Quarter by a Vietnamese entrepreneur.

Steinglass is right to raise concerns about traffic management in Hanoi - with car ownership growing rapidly, there is a real risk that one of Asia's most pleasant cities will end up as just another jam-ridden, pollution choked-den of iniquity a la Jakarta or Manila.

But that, surely, is an issue for the local government, not for those individuals wealthy enough to buy cars.

There are, quite possibly, questions to ask about how the super-rich in Vietnam have generated their wealth. For most, there is a high probability that their ascent up the greasy pole was boosted by some form of cronyism or corruption.

But, the provenance of their wealth notwithstanding, why shouldn't rich Vietnamese buy fancy cars?

Would Steinglass prefer it if they traveled around on bicycles or cyclos instead of Ferraris so that the traditional, colonial charms of Hanoi could be preserved for the enjoyment of well-off Westerners?

Why Singapore hides the human face of the death penalty

The Singapore government does not want you to know that Yong Vui Kong, a 21-year-old Malaysian, may have seen his mother for the last time.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that in what may have been their final meeting, Yong knelt down and bowed to his mother three times through the glass pane that separated them on death row at Changi prison.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that Yong, who has become a devout Buddhist since being convicted of trafficking 47g of heroin into Singapore last year, has offered to donate his organs following his execution, which will be carried out in the next few weeks unless the courts perform an unprecedented about-turn.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that Yong came from a broken home, was a troubled teenager at the time of his arrest and had no previous convictions.

The Singapore government does not want you to know that the death penalty has a human face.

Singapore, like Malaysia, enforces mandatory death sentences for those convicted of drug trafficking. In the Lion City, that means anyone found trafficking more than 15g of heroin, 30g of cocaine or 500g of cannabis will be executed regardless of any doubts about the provenance of the drugs or mitigating circumstances.

The inflexible nature of the law means that no individual has to take personal responsibility for the application of this most draconian and irreversible of punishments. The judges (Singapore’s courts do not have juries) cannot take mitigating circumstances into account and are therefore spared the moral conundrum that such a decision ought to bring.

The Singapore government occasionally speaks out in defence of the death penalty, insisting that it is necessary to keep crime down and claiming that capital punishment has overwhelming public support.

But, paradoxically, the government is afraid to open the issue up to debate, trotting out its hackneyed argument about how controversial subjects such as the death penalty, religion or race relations should not be discussed in public for fear of fanning the flames of social tension.

Other than a five-year-old press release, issued to rebut a critical report by Amnesty International, the government refuses to publish statistics about its use of the death penalty. Even anti-death penalty campaigners in Singapore have no idea how many executions there are each year.

The state-controlled mainstream media rarely report on controversial capital punishment cases, other than to provide cursory summaries of court proceedings, as in Yong’s case. It’s a classic example of the self-censorship that pervades Singapore media, which I have written on recently.

In the words of Remy Choo, editor of alternative news site The Online Citizen, the mainstream media’s “see-no-evil attitude to glaring defects in our criminal justice system crosses the negligent into the realm of the unconscionable”.

Yong has received a rare stay of execution because of legal technicalities connected to his right to appeal. His final plea will be held in Singapore’s Court of Appeal on Tuesday at 10am.

Only a handful of last-minute reprieves have ever been handed down to those on death row. Barring such an unprecedented move, Yong will be hung at dawn on a Friday sometime in the next few weeks.

A gathering is being held at Singapore's Speakers’ Corner on Sunday at 4pm as a show of compassion for Yong. For more details, click here.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The power of moaning on Twitter

While stuck in a lengthy security check queue at Heathrow Airport on Thursday morning, I idly posted a Twitter update moaning about my predicament.

Within a few minutes the customer service team at Heathrow Airport replied via Twitter:

"Morning @benjaminbland Let us know which terminal you're in and we'll get in touch with our team there. Hope you're on the move again soon."

Unfortunately, I didn't see Heathrow's reply until much later so wasn't able to test out whether this was just PR or whether they actually would have sent more staff down to the security area if I had told them where I was stuck (I suspect the former).

Nevertheless, it made me feel appreciated as a customer (a rare feeling in the glorified shopping centre that is Heathrow) and served as a timely reminder about the very public nature of social media sites like Twitter.

This afternoon, I arrived at Jakarta airport, where - I suspect - posting a Twitter update complaining about the length of the interminable queues at the visa-on-arrival and immigration counters would have made no difference whatsoever.

If, on the other hand, you were to retain the services of one of the friendly and well-connected fixers that hang around the arrivals building, there's the very real chance that you would be whisked through as if you were Ban Ki-moon...or so I'm led to believe.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Why people need to speak out about censorship in Singapore

I'm glad that Clement Tan and I seem to be approaching some sort of concord on the vexed question of press freedom in Singapore.

As he now seems to accept, red tape is clearly part of the apparatus of repression in Singapore rather than just an incidental annoyance. For example, see this account by Alex Au, a respected Singapore blogger and social activist, of the ridiculous hurdles he had to jump over just to screen a couple of films about Burma.

Clement still believes it's misguided to continue "harping on" about the lack of press freedom in Singapore but, as fellow Asian Correspondent scribe Jeremy Sear notes in the comments, there's no reason why reporting on general news stories and writing about censorship should be mutually exclusive.

Clement may be sick of people talking about press restrictions in Singapore but many people in the outside world are completely unaware of the darker sides of the Singapore story. With the government constantly pushing out so much positive propaganda - not least the absurd claim by the law minister that Singapore embraces press criticism -  it behoves journalists such as myself to expose this hypocrisy.

He says that it plays into the government's hands to speak out. But surely what really plays into the government's hands is not speaking out, allowing the misperception that Singapore is a liberal and free society to persist.

Clement also suggests that I should have come to Singapore with my eyes "wide open" and that I should have expected my expulsion to be "an inevitable eventuality". As a long-time student of Southeast Asian history, I was well aware of the soft authoritarianism practised in the Lion City.

But Singapore has not forced out a resident foreign correspondent in recent years (the last example I can find being John Berthelsen, then of the Asian Wall Street Journal, in 1988) and I genuinely felt that I had done nothing that would lead to me being kicked out of the city-state.

Ultimately, I share Clement's view that Singapore's handful of independent websites and blogs should strive to go beyond commentary and investigate the real stories that most representatives of the mainstream media (both local and foreign) are not willing to cover.

Sites like The Online Citizen have already started to fill the gap, covering issues such as poverty in Singapore and the abuse of foreign workers. But, without the manpower and resources of mainstream publications, it is very difficult for citizen journalists to produce hard-hitting and thorough journalism.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The difference between red tape and repression

Fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Clement Tan has taken this account of my forced exit from Singapore to task, suggesting that I was a victim of over-cautious bureaucrats rather than government repression.

Suffice to say that his blog deserves a good fisking.

The case of Benjamin Bland, a fellow correspondent here at, might not be surprising to anybody familiar with the press situation in Singapore. But, without being seen to be defending The Establishment, I just want to say that his whole experience with Singapore's Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) reeks more of bureaucratese than anything else.

Sure, his account illustrates the usual argument relating to the lack of press freedoms in Singapore, but I suspect it has got to do with the chronic "kiasi-ness" (literally means fear of death in Singapore colloquial-speak, can be used to refer to literal or metaphorical death) embedded in the hearts and minds of government bureaucrats. They are gate keepers, so when middle management bureaucrats don't know quite how to handle something "new" or something that carries shades of grey, it's better to err on the side of caution.

I don't disagree that Singaporean civil servants are often fearful of making the wrong decision in the eyes of their political masters. But, ultimately, they are paid to carry out the will of those political masters. If the officials at the Ministry of Information or Ministry of Manpower feel that it is risky to renew the visa of a resident foreign correspondent then they are reflecting the view of a government that is paranoid about independent journalism.

Clement also overlooks the fact that the Ministry of Information supported my first visa application in 2008. Surely, then, the easy decision would be to renew the visa (as is standard practice) rather than to reject it and risk some unpleasant blowback.

In addition, I should note that I was not just dealing with low-level bureaucrats. I made representations about my case reasonably high up the civil service food chain but to no avail.

Case in point from the Asia Sentinel article:

Over a cup of coffee at their office in a former colonial police station - possibly the world's most stylish propaganda ministry - they probed me politely about my background and intentions in Singapore. They were friendly but seemed perplexed about the concept of freelance journalism, even though it forms the backbone of much foreign reporting these days.

"If we have a problem with something that you've written, who can we speak to?"

Obviously, I told them, you can talk to the editor of whichever publication has commissioned any particular story.

"But what if we just don't like what you're writing in general?"

The questions I italicized were the exact questions my sources threw back at me in the early days when I told them Campus Observer, the campus online paper I co-founded in 2006 at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is an independent news outfit... and that we were answerable to nobody, other than ourselves and our readers. It was interesting, just as it was frustrating, that people, from the students' union to the various offices in NUS, seemed to think there had to be a "higher power" accountable for press "responsibility."

True, we were new kids on the block then... and it is impossible to tell whether they were reacting so cautiously because we were new, or because the concept of an "independent press" was new to them, or whether they felt threatened by that whole "free press thing" which generally tends towards speaking truth to power. But I also learnt it's also perhaps not fair to expect people in Singapore, socialized to be accustomed to a state-controlled press as necessary for "social stability" (whatever that means) to be able to see the benefits of a critical press - especially since Singaporeans tend to think of the chaos of the American press as the default model of the free press.

Clement, you appear to be equivocating here. Do you believe that a state-controlled press is necessary for social stability in Singapore or not? In any case, all I sought to do in Singapore was go about the business of reporting, not to tell Singaporeans how their press ownership structure should be reformed.

This is misguided especially when we are in a position to forge our own press culture - and I believe with the Internet, it has been growing. I don't need to repeat Amartya Sen's arguments refuting the whole thing about free press not being endemic to "Asian" culture. But the dangers of repressing press freedoms is far greater because the end products are probably going to be partisan yelling - not good for civil, social and political dialogue because people just want to speak and not listen to one another.

This can't be good for Singaporeans and any nation-building project. Press culture takes time to cultivate. It might be good for the party if the PAP government continues to maintain its strict press controls, but it wouldn't be good for the country. There is a reason why so many top journalists and media companies choose to base themselves or their regional headquarters in Bangkok or even KL, instead of Singapore. The few who set up base in Singapore are usually very "sensitive" when it comes to local news.

Do you think this self-censorship by the foreign media in Singapore is a good thing? Doesn't it help create a misleading impression of Singapore in the outside world? Wouldn't it be better if readers were aware of the climate of self-censorship in which the stories they read about Singapore are produced?

So where does it leave the rest of us who are free press junkies in Singapore? I honestly don't know. I am not saying Ben Bland is wrong... neither am I disputing the fact that the press isn't "free" in Singapore. It is important to call out the lack of a free press when such an incident happens, but I do wonder it is maybe more useful to stop harping on the lack of press freedoms and just get down to the grim and hard work of shoe leather reporting... to just tell the many yet-untold stories in a fair and balanced manner. And if a foreigner doesn't get to do it, maybe the numerous local sites can start doing the kind of neighborhood beat reporting that characterize American local news outlets?

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with my work but for the last year, pretty much all I did was "get down to the grim and hard work of shoe leather reporting", whether it was looking into the resurgence of farming in Singapore or investigating the causes behind the rise in loan shark violence.

It was precisely this kind of important yet straight-forward reporting that seems to have irked the Singapore government. Rather than "harping" on about press freedom, as you put it, I would much prefer to be back in Singapore reporting on other stories. Unfortunately, I have been prevented from doing so by the government.

Having been forced out, I feel it is important that people know how the Singapore government really treats journalists. Especially given the law minister's recent insistence that Singapore does not proscribe press criticism and that the city-state's low rankings in press freedom indices are "quite absurd and divorced from reality".

If you look at all the journalists - both Singaporeans and foreigners - who have been at the sharp end of some form of government reprisal, most were merely reporting rather than criticising.

By kicking these reporters out of Singapore or forcing them out of their jobs because of its intense paranoia about the press, it is therefore the government that makes media freedom an issue, not the journalists.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Back in the saddle

After a one month break from blogging, brought to you courtesy of the Singapore government, I'm getting back into the saddle.

Having worked as a freelance journalist in Singapore for the last year, I was forced to leave last week after the government refused to renew my work visa without warning or explanation.

I can only conclude that the government had a problem with something I wrote. I'd love to know what it was but all my attempts to elicit this information, through official and unofficial channels, have failed thus far.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a press freedom campaign group, has condemned the refusal to renew my visa, saying that it "again shows the Singapore government's intolerance of independent and critical reporting". As CPJ points out, I am merely "the latest on a long list of foreign journalists who have been targeted by the government for their news coverage".

Not forgetting, of course, the many Singaporean journalists who have been forced out of their jobs or sidelined after crossing the government's deliberately unclear line of acceptability.

I'm currently back in my home town, London, enjoying the reassuringly miserable weather for a couple of weeks before returning to Southeast Asia. I will be setting up in another Southeast Asian city from where I will carry on reporting, writing and blogging as before.

The only difference, I suspect, is that I will be much freer to write about Singapore without fear of direct reprisals from the government.

If you're reading this, you'll have noticed that I've signed up to be part of the new Asian Correspondent blog and news site, which I wrote about previously. Let me know if you have questions or problems with the site, either through the comments, via email ( or via twitter (@benjaminbland).

Pic courtesy of Flickr user nlann.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Enforced hibernation

Posting will be light to non-existent for the next few weeks as I've just found out that the Singapore government has refused to renew my work visa.

The Ministry of Manpower has refused to give me any reason for this decision.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information has rejected my application to cover the upcoming APEC summit for The Daily Telegraph, the UK's best-selling serious daily newspaper. They have also given me no explanation.

Having been in Singapore for a year, I now need to leave the city-state within a month and am reassessing my options with urgency. I plan to continue working in Southeast Asia.

Any offers of employment or freelance journalistic safe haven as well as messages of support or general abuse can be sent to me at

I'd like to thank all my readers and assure you that I will be back blogging with a vengeance once my involuntary departure is complete.

I'll also have more to say on my predicament at a later date.

At least I've now got some time to re-read the novels of Franz Kafka and George Orwell.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Singapore maintains secrecy over death penalty stats

At a recent forum organised by opponents of the death penalty in Singapore, a number of activists, including human rights lawyer M. Ravi, suggested that the government was perhaps becoming more open to providing information on how many people it hangs and for what crimes.

I've been researching a story on capital punishment in Singapore and after hearing their comments, I decided to try my luck with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and asked for stats on the number of executions in the last five years.

But the press officer refused to provide this information, pointing me instead to a five-year old press release on the Ministry's website.

"The information on the MHA website is what is available for your reporting," I was told.

The information provided in the January 2004 press release was issued as a rebuttal to a Amnesty International report on the "hidden tool of executions" in Singapore.

The government accused Amnesty of "grave errors of facts and misrepresentations, which seriously calls into question the credibility of its Report".

But if the government is not willing to release this information in the first place, then how are people supposed to research the issue in a credible and accurate manner?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user limeydog.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Singapore's hidden heartland - full version now available on WSJ website

The full version of my piece on Singapore's little-known farming heartlands, which was published in October's Far Eastern Economic Review, is now available for free on the Wall Street Journal website here.

Below is the intro:
The car weaves along the winding country lane, cutting a narrow path through the lush tropical vegetation. As well as the occasional dog ambling sleepily down the roadside, we pass farm after farm producing everything from vegetables to goat's milk and even crocodiles. We reach the summit of a short incline from where the gently-undulating landscape stretches out in front of us, punctuated only by farm buildings and electricity pylons.

Briefly, it's almost possible to imagine that I'm in one of Asia's expansive agricultural heartlands such as Malaysia's Cameron Highlands or Vietnam's Mekong Delta. But the frequent road signs warning people away from state land and urging trespassers not to enter "protected areas" at risk of being shot give the plot away.

Welcome to Singapore's last remaining slice of rural life: the Kranji countryside. The Southeast Asian city-state may be better known for its banks, shopping malls and sprawling public housing estates but here, in the northwestern corner of the island, Singapore's hardy farmers struggle on, producing 18,000 tons of vegetables, 47 million chickens, millions of eggs and 5,000 tons of fish each year.

"There's no PAP up here -- we're not prim and proper," quips Ivy Singh-Lim, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), as she pokes fun at Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, which has maintained a tight and, critics say, stifling grip on power since Britain granted self-rule in 1959.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quote of the week

"If you want to do journalism, don’t do it in Singapore."

The sage advice of a Singaporean journalism professor (yes they do exist) to Lin Junjie, an eager student hack at Nanyang Technological University.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Asian citizen journalism website set to launch

A new pan-Asian citizen journalism website that claims to have found a sustainable web publishing model is launching on Monday.

Asian Correspondent has managed to attract some of the region’s top online scribes thanks to its rare pledge to pay “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”.

(Those signed up include blogger-turned-MP Jeff Ooi and former editor Ahirudin Attan (aka Rocky’s Bru) from Malaysia, Danny Arao and Tonyo Cruz from the Philippines and Atanu Dey and Sriram Vadlamani from India.)

The new site, which is going live on Monday and will launch officially in November, will combine content from 50 socio-political and lifestyle bloggers across Asia with syndicated news and pictures and Associated Press, the American newswire.

I was initially rather skeptical when I found out that the Asian Correspondent was founded by an Australian business-to-business media executive based in Bristol, in the west of England.

But when I spoke to 35-year-old James Craven, who was formerly chief executive of a business publisher called GDS International, it was clear that he had the determination and business nous to give it a good go.

“The challenge is to monetise content online,” he said. “Rupert Murdoch thinks you can sell it and Arianna Huffington thinks she can rely on the charity of the blogosphere but I don’t think either approach will work.”

“I’ve got a unique business model in the blogosphere – paying all our writers a monthly fee based on the quality of their content, its appropriateness to the site and the number of followers they have.”

At present, even Asia’s most successful bloggers can only earn peanuts from placing Google adverts on their sites – an approach that Craven described as “highway robbery”.

“There’s a huge disparity between the traffic a blogger can generate and their ability to monetise that traffic,” he explained. “In the business-to-business publishing world, 30,000-40,000 readers is a strong audience. But in the fragmented world of blogging, single authors are receiving 40,000-50,000 viewers a month and are only getting $100-$200 a month.”

While he accepted that blogging for Asian Correspondent will still be just a “part-time income”, he said that his bloggers can expect to earn between $2,500 and $10,000 a year, which is 5-15 times what Google is paying them.

But how will Craven make any money?

It’s simple, he claimed. He’ll bypass Google and sell online advertising space to companies and media agencies himself.

Other pan-Asian news websites such as Asia Sentinel (which I contribute to) and Asia Times Online, which have tried to replace the gap left by the closure of print publications such as the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek, have struggled more with the commercial than the journalistic side of the business.

So perhaps this is where Craven’s business background will come in useful. He said that he has signed up “an experienced sales team” based in the New York office of Hybrid News, his UK registered company.

“Our audience will be defined by the content we run,” he added. “We’re targeting a demographic of hard-working Asian people looking for progressive viewpoints from this progressive newspaper.”

He is hoping to break even by the middle of next year but was well aware that targets don’t mean much in a start-up business.

Craven has put in £250,000 of his own to cash and has some funding in place from HSBC. His operation seems pretty professional – he has recruited 12 full-time staff and is relying on a team of almost 60 freelance writers, programmers and web developers.

With most traditional newspaper business models failing dismally, a number of people have suggested setting up a professional news website where the content is produced by low-budget bloggers and citizen journalists rather than expensive journalists.

Asian Correspondent seems to be the first such initiative in Asia. As with any new publication – particularly a new online publication – it will be very difficult to attract decent first-time advertisers without offering them massive discounts.

But I wish Craven and his team all the best. It’s only by trying out new approaches such as this that a solution to the seemingly inexorable demise of proper reporting in Asia and elsewhere will be found.

P.S. For anyone who's read this far, an 'alpha' version of the site is currently visible here. For the view of a Thai blogger who turned down Craven's advances, see here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Singapore's sand shortage: the hourglass effect

My piece from this week's edition of The Economist:

Seven maids with seven mops might fail, but Singapore gets close

“LOOKING for sea-sand for reclamation project in Singapore. Prompt reply is greatly appreciated.” Many such pleas can be found on, a popular Chinese trading-website. Malaysia banned sand exports as long ago as 1997. Indonesia followed suit in 2007 on environmental and, some say, political grounds. Ever since, it has become harder for Singapore to secure supplies for its booming construction industry and sea-fill plans.

The ban by Indonesia, its biggest supplier, led to a surge in the price of sand, used in both concrete and land-reclamation. The government averted a short-term crisis by releasing sand from its stockpile and helping contractors find new sources. However, Indonesia’s embargo, followed swiftly by a Chinese ban on sales of sand to Taiwan, set in train a domino effect.

Environmentalists argue that large-scale sand-dredging can deplete fish stocks and cause erosion, risking landslides and flooding. So Singaporean contractors turned to Cambodia, where prices are low and environmental standards almost non-existent. But this May Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, outlawed exports of sand. Again, environmental pressures were cited, but there may also have been a political motive.

After the Cambodian ban Vietnam’s sand exports surged, achieving volumes seven times as big as last year, with Singapore the main customer. Then last month Vietnam’s construction ministry called for a temporary halt to the trade, to assess its impact on the environment and the local building industry. NGOs in Thailand and Bangladesh have also pressed their governments to reject recent requests to allow sales of sand to Singapore.
Sand prices, which peaked at over S$60 ($43) a tonne in 2007, have fallen during the slowdown. Simon Lee, of the Singapore Contractors’ Association, believes a new regulation requiring sand importers to have alternative back-up supplies will help insulate his members from further turbulence.

A spokesman for Singapore’s national-development ministry adds that construction companies have been importing sand from “various” regional countries and claims that “recent restrictions on sand exports have not affected the supply of construction sand to Singapore.”

But global demand for dwindling supplies of sand and other materials is mounting. Critics say that Singapore needs to shift faster from building cheap but resource-intensive concrete structures towards more expensive construction techniques that use, say, more steel and glass.

Relying as it does on low-wage, low-skilled migrant workers from South Asia, Singapore’s construction industry is not yet ready for such a high-tech transformation.

And in the short term there are still plenty of willing suppliers. Tim Sintop, an American whose trading company wants to export sand from Myanmar and has already secured several contracts in Singapore, is upbeat: “The more bans there are elsewhere, the better for us.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Time for Anwar Ibrahim to become a benevolent dictator?

Raja Petra Kamarudin, the outspoken Malaysian blogger and fugitive, argues in his latest blog posting from wherever in the world he's hiding that Malaysia's disparate opposition coalition needs to develop some discipline if it is to have any hope of winning power.

Since last year's surprise election result, when the ruling Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds majority, the Pakatan Rakyat grouping - composed of a Chinese pro-democracy party, an Islamic party and a multi-racial party led by former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim - has spent as much time fighting internal battles as it has taking on the government.

RPK thinks Anwar needs to firm up the loose coalition into an official party and stamp some authority on the party members if it is to beat Prime Minister Najib Razak - noted for his authoritarian streak - at its own game.
I always said there are times when we need a dictator to lead us. But then, what kind of dictator are we talking about? There are malevolent dictators and there are benevolent dictators. Malevolent is bad. Benevolent is good. So, while dictators are normally seen in a negative light, we can’t just discount all dictators as bad. We have good dictators and we have bad dictators.

I would take a benevolent dictator any time over someone who stands by and does nothing. More damage and injustice is done when someone takes no action. When there is racism and racial skirmishes resulting in the deaths of many innocent women and children, doing nothing is worse than clamping down with a heavy hand.
He concludes:
Yes, it is time Pakatan Rakyat not only registers as a legal entity but also crack the whip. We need discipline in the opposition. Sit down and agree on the policies. Bang tables if need be. But once a consensus has been reached and the three opposition parties have agreed on an unanimous decision, let no party leader try to torpedo all this by going off tangent. Rule ruthlessly, with a dictator’s hand, but a benevolent dictator at that.
Interesting view. The major problem is that any attempt to instill conformity on a rather uncomfortable rainbow coalition composed of Islamists, liberal democracy activists and assorted anti-government types may lead to the break-up of said grouping.

That, I presume, is what has prevented Anwar from cracking the whip thus far.

Anwar's critics would say, of course, that his dictatorial instincts are not buried too deep beneath the surface so shouldn't be that difficult to recover.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user KamalSell.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quote of the week

Welcome to a new regular Friday feature, designed to showcase some of Asia's more pithy, controversial or just downright bizarre orators (from politicians to hawkers)...while also giving me the time to do some proper work before the weekend.

"All things being equal we have always put the PAP wards first."

Mah Bow Tan, Singapore's minister of national development, restating the ruling People's Action Party's long-held policy of bypassing opposition-run constituencies when it comes to much-needed lift upgrading programmes on the city-state's older housing estates.

This week, the PAP finally announced that the government would release the funds to upgrade lifts in Hougang and Potong Pasir, the only constituencies in Singapore that returned opposition MPs in the last election.

For a view on the problems with this policy, see this piece by charity worker Ravi Philemon at The Online Citizen.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thanks ADB but it will take more than $2.8m to solve Asia's worsening transport crisis

Ambling through the narrow streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter a few weeks ago, I pondered how pleasant it was that Vietnam's capital was yet to be afflicted by the kind of traffic gridlock that blights most other developing Asian cities (take your pick from Bangkok, Dhaka, KL, Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai) .

But, reading a story in the Viet Nam News about the resilience of the latest car sales figures, I wondered what would happen if just 5 out of 100 motorbike users upgrade to a car in the next few years - with hardly any proper on or off-street parking and no major bypasses, traffic flow in Hanoi would be paralysed.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has just released a new report, which argues that "rapid urbanization and an unprecedented increase in private motorized transport, with some cities in the region experiencing a doubling of their fleets every two to three years, is creating an urban crisis".

The ADB is encouraging Asian governments to take the sort of approach used in Singapore, Hong Kong or Seoul, fostering "access" rather than just "mobility" by making it more expensive for people to own private vehicles and easier and more efficient for them to use public transport.

The ADB's lofty aim is to "develop energy-efficient, clean, and inclusive urban transport systems that ensure accessibility for all".

That's great rhetoric. But how much money is the caring, sharing ADB willing to put behind this ambitious new strategy?

A measly $2.8m.

Yes, that's not a typo, that's $2.8m. Better get ready for more traffic jams, then.

Pic of Dhaka jam courtesy of Flickr user joiseyshowaa.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

All hail the Myanmar development miracle

Although it is the poorest country in Southeast Asia and is often described as one of the most miserable places on earth, Myanmar appears to have made good progress in improving the quality of life for its people, according to the latest UN Human Development Report.

An analysis of the UN stats by The Economist (disclosure: I sometimes contribute to it) shows that the quality of life in Myanmar (measured in terms of health, education and wealth) has improved at a faster rate since 1990 than in other nations such as Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil, Russia and South Africa.

Myanmar also fares better than you might expect in the UN's overall league table of human development, coming in at 138, ahead of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya and Ghana (download PDF of full report here).

It is often said by Burma watchers that, unlike almost any other government in the world, the junta have zero interest in improving the quality of life of their own people (see this editorial, for example, by Alison Vicary and Sean Turnell on why the West should retain sanctions).

So what's going on then? Is the UN data merely a statistical outlier?

Firstly, Myanmar has advanced from a pretty low base in 1990 so the improvement needs to be put in that context. Also, there may be question marks over the reliability of the Myanmar data.

Regardless, it's an interesting anomaly. Anyone care to proffer any alternative theories?

Hat-tip to New Mandala for the sanctions piece. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tianyake.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bipolar Singapore Beauty Trips on 'Singlish' Slip

My latest piece for Asia Sentinel, on the implications of the Ris Low saga, has just been posted online:

When 19-year-old student Ris Low stepped forward to receive the Miss Singapore World crown in the Island ballroom of the Shangri-la Hotel back in July, she was blissfully unaware that it would turn out to be a garland of thorns.

Having made it through the rigors of the evening-wear round, the nervous tension of the bikini parade and the feared Q&A with the judges, Low's biggest ordeal was yet to come.

In strait-laced, technocratic Singapore, beauty pageants rarely make the headlines but Low came to public attention after a video interview in which she demonstrated her beauty rather than her brains started circulating on the internet.

Low's great hope – "to show the world that beauty has its own purpose and that not all beautiful people are bimbotic" – was thus sadly undermined from the start.

Once the sacrificial celebrity lamb had been exposed, it wasn't long before the online hordes were dragging her off to the slaughter. Bloggers and internet forum denizens pilloried Low for her strong Singaporean accent, her use of Singlish diction and her strange preference for long pauses before answering basic questions.

In a country where the government has long championed the use of proper English and criticized the creole spoken by the vast majority of the people, surely such a woman was the wrong choice to represent Singapore at the Miss World pageant in South Africa, they said.

Would Low's selection as Singapore's belle not send out the wrong message to the youth of Singapore about the importance of good English and cast doubt upon the quality of the city-state's highly-regarded education system?

Always happy to cover a story that endorses a key government policy, it wasn't too long before Singapore's state-owned media cottoned on and the Ris Low saga became a truly national issue, condemning stories about the dangers of another housing bubble and the latest losses at sovereign wealth fund GIC to the limbo of the middle pages.

Unfortunately for Low, in August, the government's Good English Movement had decided to focus its energies this year on improving the grammar and pronunciation of Singapore's youth, and so she was easily cast in the role of the linguistic anti-hero.

Although she had been exposed to the invective of the anonymous online commentariat and the quasi-professorial disdain of the government-backed press, Low still had her crown, her ticket to South Africa and some remaining semblance of dignity.

But, with Singapore's newspapers unwilling or unable to dig up any dirt on the powerful (government politicians, the dominant state-owned enterprises and establishment entertainers), they tend to send their muck-rakers after the meek and hapless. Low was now firmly in their sights.

As well their vital statistics, when submitting their entry forms, the Miss Singapore World contestants had been asked to declare any criminal convictions. Low had made no such declaration.

However, My Paper, one of Singapore's shallow but nasty tabloids, soon revealed that Low had been sentenced to two years' probation in May for credit card fraud after going on an S$8,000 lingerie, jewelry and fine dining spending spree with cards taken from patients at a clinic where she worked.

If bad diction and youth-speak had been a concern, then the revelation of the credit card fraud sealed the beauty queen's fate. Unlike with many other controversial socio-political issues, for once no government minister proffered the verdict of the all-knowing state.

But Lee Bee Wah, an MP from the ruling People's Action Party, did speak out, noting that credit card theft was a "very serious offence" and highlighting the importance of "honesty and integrity".

With her back against the wall, Low made a final and desperate plea for forgiveness, insisting in an interview that her crime had been committed in a "moment of folly" and that she had been suffering from bi-polar disorder.

Alas, the gushing last-stand was to no avail and the organizers of the pageant showed Low the level of clemency practiced by Singapore's government in capital punishment cases: none.

Dethroned but defiant, Low says she will be back to fight another round and has already embroiled herself in an unseemly spat with runner-up Claire Lee, who could yet replace her on the stage in South Africa.

Having been briefly dragged up beyond the mediocrity of everyday existence by the fickle beast that is 21st Century fame, Low's future in the beauty pageant industry looks uncertain to say the least.

The government does run a Yellow Ribbon campaign that offers a second chance to those less serious ex-offenders who have not been led to the hangman's noose.

But, sadly for Low, Singapore does not currently have any equivalent of the Siberian prison service's "Miss Spring" contest when female convicts get to strut their stuff in the hope that a good showing can win them a reprieve.

Though her wounds were partly self-inflicted, Low's harsh treatment reveals the divide in Singapore between the foreign-educated, westernized elite and the vast majority of people who use Singlish - a mix of English, Malay and Chinese words and grammar - to communicate with each other on a daily basis.

The government has long insisted that a failure to jettison the local dialect in favor of standard English will jeopardize Singapore's position as a hub for multinational companies and retard the nation's economic development.

But, at a time when the nations of the Southeast Asian archipelago are fighting it out over ownership of their shared cultural heritage (Indonesia is claiming batik and the pendet dance, while Malaysia is claiming chili crab and laksa), perhaps Singapore should be staking more of a claim for its most eminent cultural contribution: Singlish, lah.