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.