Saturday, November 27, 2010

Moving on

Apologies for the lack of posting. This blog has been through its fair share of changes over the last few years, starting out as part of The Daily Telegraph before going independent and then joining Asian Correspondent.

But, after more than a year on the Asian Correspondent platform, we've agreed to go our separate ways.

I'd like to thank all my regular readers and commenters and would urge you to bookmark my new/old blog web address, which will be

As ever, I can be reached at or @benjaminbland on Twitter.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Taxi boy and the taxi girls

It's been a while since I penned my last Taxi Tale, a regular blog series dedicated to the insightful anecdotes, witty repartee and occasional pearls of wisdom that emerge from my regular conversations with taxi drivers around the region. So here's a new one:

Once every month, a Hanoi taxi driver goes to pick up one of his best clients - a South Korean businessman in his mid-20s. Without fail, this young man needs to travel every four weeks to Do Son, a far-from-swanky beach resort east of Hanoi. It may only be 130km from the Vietnamese capital but because of the poor condition of the roads and the deteriorating traffic, a round trip can take as long as eight hours.

For the young Korean, these time-consuming, regular journeys are essential to his ongoing success in Vietnam. But he is not traveling to meet government officials or business contacts. He is not interested in the sea, the sand or even the Do Son casino (open only to foreigners like all Vietnam's growing number of casinos).

He goes to Do Son to sleep with Vietnamese prostitutes and to alleviate the boredom and alienation of expatriation. While few businessmen would travel quite so far to satisfy their carnal desires, across Asia, prostitution continues to oil the wheels of commerce. And commerce continues to oil the wheels of prostitution.

The taxi driver, who only earns $500 a month with which to support a wife and two young children, is happy with the regular custom. Like many men in Vietnam, he has no moral qualms about what his client gets up to.

"Men need to eat, drink and fuck," he told me.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time for an Aung San Suu Kyi reality check

When U2 releases a statement sharing Bono and The Edge's views on Southeast Asian politics, you know it's time to take a major reality check.

The coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi's release thus far has been breathless - not surprising given how long she has been detained and how much of an icon she has become within her country and globally.

But the emotional outpourings from international journalists, campaigners and worthy pop stars alike seem to be having just the effect that Burma's ruling generals presumably wanted - distracting attention from their sham elections.

It's far too early to know how much real freedom the generals will give Suu Kyi, what she will try to do and what impact this will have on Burma. Even genuine Burma experts seem at a loss to explain the junta's real game at the moment - see the 13, yes that's 13, theories on why they decided to hold elections, penned by academic Andrew Selth at the Lowy Interpreter.

As Nicholas Farrelly at the excellent New Mandala blog puts it: "...many difficult questions remain unanswered and nobody pretends that the future will be easy, or that Burma’s generals don’t have their next moves in mind."

In the meantime, you could do worse than read this sobering piece in The Sunday Telegraph by Justin Wintle, a critical but fair biographer of Suu Kyi. Extract:

Looking back, and comparing what has happened in Burma with what has happened among such other Southeast Asian states as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and even Vietnam since World War Two, it is difficult not to behold an extreme political polarisation between Burma's military and the more liberal elements of its population, in which any bridges between the two sides have long been swept away.

And if the army is principally responsible for the stasis that has ensued, it is arguable that Aung San Suu Kyi's principled commitment to full democracy, and her unwillingness, or inability, to make meaningful compromises, have been a significant contributor.

As for Miss Suu Kyi herself, it is tempting to think she has resigned herself to martyrdom of one sort or another, as the only means left to leave her mark.

Her critics say she is too pure, and that her actual grasp of politics is slender. They also say she made a fundamental error in the mid- 1990s, when she was at liberty, by not bringing on a younger leadership generation within her party, preferring instead to depend upon an elderly coterie made up of such democratic stalwarts as one time defence minister U Tin Oo and the journalist Win Tin, both now in their eighties.

Yet if martyrdom is her chosen path, Aung San Suu Kyi's instincts may not be so awry.

Above all she has furnished the Burmese people with a heroic model quite different from that dreary line of past warrior kings so beloved of Than Shwe and his cronies. And for that she will be remembered, inside and outside Burma for generations to come.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Vietnam: The face of modern Communism

The right to denounce thy neighbour, comrade, colleague or family member is one of the fundamental building blocks of any self-respecting, self-criticising Communist state.

The Vietnamese government  is making some small steps to revamp the legal and political framework in line with the rapid economic changes that have been taking place over the last 20 years.

As part of that process, deputies to Vietnam's National Assembly are currently debating an upgrade to the legislation to ensure that Vietnam has a denunciation law for the 21st Century.

On Thursday, deputies debated the need to find a balance between protecting denouncers from revenge while ensuring that the denounced cannot be unfairly maligned, according to a report in the Vietnam News, the main government mouthpiece.

Deputy Hong Anh voiced the need for a specific framework to protect denouncers so that they will not be deterred by the risk of revenge.

Anh's point was echoed by other deputies, who complained about general regulations in the law regarding this issue, and required elaboration by authorities at various levels on protections for denouncers.

Deputies also mentioned the law also needs to protect the denounced in terms of employment, dignity, and political and economic benefits.

"The law should ensure restoration of honour, rights and benefits of the denounced in case the allegations cannot be proven," said deputy Nguyen Thi Hoa.

It looks like a valiant effort to combine the principle of denunciation with the norms of human rights and employment law. The National Assembly also discussed the need to clarify the denunciation rights of overseas Vietnamese, in light of the fact that expatriates living in Vietnam already have the right to denounce.

Not a right that I'd expect many expats to make use of, however annoyed they may get at being overcharged 2,000 Vietnam dong for a can of Coke.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Singapore’s confused stance on media freedom

Singapore’s government likes to be number one. If you want proof, look through any speech by a government minister. They will invariably reel off a list of examples of the city-state coming top of some global ranking or other on the ease of doing business or quality of life.

Hence the frustration on the part of K Shanmugam, the newly promoted home affairs minister, at the censorious city-state’s lowly ranking in the press freedom rankings produced by Reporters without Borders and others.

In a speech in New York on Thursday, which the website described as the “government's most detailed and robust defence in years of its position on the role of the press”, he bemoaned the fact that media freedom organisations rank Singapore below Colombia, Guinea, Haiti, Kenya and Pakistan.

In Guinea, democracy activists have recently been gunned down and female opposition campaigners raped, so how can Singapore rank below Guinea, he ponders incredulously.

Shanmugam appears not to understand that press freedom indices rank press freedom, not military repression.

More broadly, it seems that he cannot make up his mind whether he wants to defend Singapore’s very restrictive media environment – using the old Asian values argument favoured by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – or promote Singapore’s ambitions to be a global media hub.

At one stage, he starts bragging about the Singapore government’s impeccable record of winning libel actions against the world’s leading news organisations:

I suspect that our rankings are at least partly due to the fact that we take an uncompromising attitude we take [sic] on libel – and the fact that we have taken on the almost every major newspaper company. Such audacity that tiny Singapore has.

Then he turns course, insisting that “we don’t shut out the world”:

We have more than 5,500 foreign newspapers and publications in circulation in Singapore. There are close to 100 TV channels carried on our cable networks. Nearly 200 correspondents from 72 foreign media organisations are based in Singapore.

Similarly, he says that the media in Singapore should be politically neutral and “should report fully and fairly what goes on… can probe, ask inconvenient questions, and expose wrong-doing.”

But he attacks the so-called western concept of the media as a fourth estate, holding the government to account. News organisations are fallible, unaccountable and open to influence from their owners and commercial partners, he says.

He’s right about that, of course. But when he poses the following question – “Do parts of the media act as campaign arms of politicians, peddle half-truths and present very biased perspectives?” – this concern surely applies more to Singapore’s homogeneous government-controlled press then to plural Western media environments.

Perhaps the greatest irony of his speech is that many of his criticisms of the Western liberal approach to the media are drawn from commentaries in the self-same leading newspapers that he is so proud of Singapore having sued.

It all goes to show that those who fear criticism the most also crave recognition.

Vietnam's diplomatic height requirement applies to men too

After I blogged last month about the 160cm minimum height requirement for women to join Vietnam's diplomatic service, one reader asked whether there was also a limit for men.

Further discussions with some of Vietnam's finest young foreign service officials, who have done a sterling job organising the recent Asean summits in Hanoi, reveals that there is a height requirement for men too, of 165cm.

One female official told me that the height requirement for women has increased from 157cm when she took her foreign service exams nine years ago, a sign of the increasing wealth and improving standards of nutrition in Vietnam.

But, she added, there is some flexibility with regards to these height requirements. After candidates are measured and their heights announced, they have a chance to argue their case if they fall short.

"It's a good test of your negotiating skills," she said. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Maturing Vietnam-US relations

When Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, chided Vietnam over its recent human rights record during a joint press conference in Hanoi on Saturday with Pham Gia Khiem, Vietnam's Foreign Minister, he grimaced for a brief moment before relaxing and offering the following response:

In my talk with Madame Secretary, we agreed that in human rights, we have a lot of differences between the US and Vietnam and I told Madame Secretary that we should continue carrying out a dialogue to resolve our differences.

While cynics might say that he is effectively sticking two fingers up at his American counterpart, the mellow tone of his reply is significant. In the past, the Vietnamese government has reacted angrily to criticism from the US and others over human rights, insisting that they have no right to interfere in its internal affairs.

Ever since relations between the former warring parties were normalised 15 years ago, Vietnam has been aware of the economic importance of developing its trade relations with the US. Over the last couple of years, there has also been an increasing realisation in both countries of the need to strengthen their political and strategic ties, in order to better balance the growing regional power of China.

It can't have been easy for Khiem to stand up, in front of the Vietnamese and international press and TV cameras, and let Clinton's comments wash over him but it was a sign of the maturity of the relationship between the two countries.

The US thinks that arresting bloggers and limiting academic and press freedom will damage Vietnam's growth prospects. The Vietnamese government disagrees. But both sides can accept the difference of opinion and move on to more fruitful area of co-operation, at least for now.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Beware of Burmese bearing gifts

This morning, I was skulking around the depths of Hanoi's National Convention Centre, which is hosting the Asean and East Asian Summits, when I saw an intriguing sight.

A very well presented woman in a traditional Burmese longyi, was trying to gain access to the office of the United Nations delegation, with a large package.

The woman, escorted by a rather less well presented male Burmese diplomat, had a present for Ban Ki Moon, it transpired.

She told me it was a "painting made out of precious stones".

Unfortunately, the UN had already left the building.

Presuming the painting is eventually passed on to Mr Ban, I wonder what he will do with it, given that Burma's gem trade is reliant on forced labour, child labour and land confiscation, according to NGOs such as Human Rights Watch.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

US academic in Singapore casts doubt on Yale tie-up

Over the last year, I've hosted a reasonably robust debate on this blog about academic freedom in Singapore. This has generated some very interesting feedback from readers and others.

An anonymous reader, who says they are an American academic in Singapore, has posted an insightful and balanced comment on the prospects for Yale's proposed tie-up with the National University of Singapore. I have no way of knowing if they are who they say they are but they seem to know what they are talking about.

I will leave you to decide. Here's the comment in full:

I am an American academic who has lived and taught in Singapore for well over a decade, in both local universities and in an American college program here that went under about 10 years back. The latter experience left those of us faculty members who taught in the program and had to be let go severely demoralized. I have serious doubts about the Yale initiative in Singapore for four reasons:

1. An intellectual/psychic time sink: I agree with James Scott that over time, it's likely that the Yale constituency will have to make more and more compromises in order to carry on here. As the situation intensifies, you can bet that at least 50% of the staff/students will spend at least 50% of their time focused on the negativities of this situation, and it will only get worse. The "Yale in NUS" prospect is a potential waste of both faculty and student resources that could better be put towards other kinds of cross-cultural and experiential learning. And if/when Yale pulls out, it will be a very depressing, frustrating experience for all concerned.

2. An inherently status-limiting pursuit for people who are invested in achieving higher and higher status: both the faculty and students involved in the Yale initiative will no doubt have ambitious plans for achieving all that is embodied in the Yale name. They will find out that in Singapore, the humanities and social sciences simply cannot achieve the kind of social recognition and financial reward associated with the science and business spheres. This may be happening everywhere, but it’s particularly acute in Singapore.

3. An uncongenial environment for the personal downtime and reflection that go along with a liberal arts education: try to find somewhere peaceful and quiet to ruminate on the big questions in life in Singapore, away from campus. Good luck. Over the decade-and-a-half that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the opportunities to go for long, thoughtful walks diminish as space becomes increasingly chopped up and commercialized, and it’s even hard to find a relatively quiet place just to read or discuss off-campus where you don’t have to pay through the nose. These days I think I'm living in a glitzy-glam corporate park, alternating with feeling like a lab rat in a social engineering experiment (well, Singapore has always had that lab-rat feeling, I must admit).

4. An unnecessary reduplication of effort: NUS is already doing as good of a job as Yale probably ever could in the social sciences and humanities sphere for this particular setting, and the other major universities here have much to offer as well. Singapore students can go out, and non-Singaporean students can come in. Really, Yale, what’s the point?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Will Alan Shadrake verdict affect Yale's plan to set up a college in Singapore?

Singaporean prosecutors on Wednesday wrapped up their case against Alan Shadrake, the 75-year-old British writer charged with contempt of court after publishing a book critical of the use of the death penalty in the city-state.

Judge Quentin Loh is expected to issue his verdict next week and, if found guilty, Shadrake could be facing a jail sentence as well as a fine.

The case has been followed closely by the small community of civil society activists in Singapore, as evidenced by the extensive reports on The Online Citizen, a popular citizen journalism website.

But international eyes are also on Singapore.

Yale University is in the final stages of discussions with the National University of Singapore to set up a "liberal arts college" in a state not exactly famed for its promotion of academic freedom.

A number of Yale academics have kicked up a stink about the deal, which they fear will boost the university's coffers at the expense of its reputation for independent academic inquiry.

In a prospectus designed to reassure weary dons, Yale's president and provost say they were "greatly concerned" by the arrest of Shadrake.

"This gave us reason to inquire even more deeply to understand how free faculty and students would be to express themselves in scholarly publications, in the classroom and on campus," they wrote.

Presumably, they will be eager to see what transpires next week before concluding their talks.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Facebook fights back against Vietnam block

Facebook is battling back against the Vietnamese government's block on the social networking website by looking to recruit a Policy and Growth Manager for Vietnam who will "lead the company’s interactions with policymakers and will be responsible for ensuring the site’s accessibility".

The successful candidate, who will be based in Hanoi, "will be able to communicate effectively in both English and Vietnamese and have experience in government relations work and navigating government agencies along with an extensive network of contacts in the government and the technology space."

One of their key responsibilities will be to "monitor legislation and regulatory matters in states affecting Facebook and advise company with respect to policy challenges."

Although the Vietnamese Facebook block is relatively easy for those with a little nous to circumvent, here's the full text of the job ad on the Facebook website for those who can't access it:

Manager, Policy and Growth – Contract (Vietnam)
Facebook is seeking a Policy & Growth Manager for Vietnam, who is passionate about Facebook and has a background in technology or social media, business strategy and legislative and regulatory matters. The ideal candidate will be able to communicate effectively in both English and Vietnamese and have experience in government relations work and navigating government agencies along with an extensive network of contacts in the government and the technology space. The candidate should have experience in developing a growth strategy that involves creating coalitions and communicating with policymakers across the government. The position will require someone to be entrepreneurial in nature, resourceful, flexible and bring an intensity of focus to the project. The Growth Managers at Facebook and will lead the company’s interactions with policymakers and will be responsible for ensuring the site’s accessibility as well as driving user acquisition programs, identifying growth opportunities that help with the distribution of the Facebook brand online and offline and adding value to the Facebook user experience. The position will be based in Hanoi but some travel around Vietnam will be required as needed. This is a 12 months based contract position.

• Lead outreach to data protection authorities, other regulators and policy makers
• Monitor legislation and regulatory matters in states affecting Facebook and advise company with respect to policy challenges
• Represent Facebook in meetings with the national government and elected officials
• Explore, identify and evaluate strategic growth opportunities
• Influence and improve the Facebook experience of users in Vietnam by identifying product / market fit gaps
• Provide market insights – identify and monitor strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relevant for Facebook’s adoption in Vietnam
• Be an advocate for developers and users in Vietnam

• Fluent in English and Vietnamese
• Interest in emerging technologies and public policy issues
• Superb written and oral communications skills
• Strategic thinker and planner
• Performance driven
• Self motivated , entrepreneurial in nature and comfortable in ambiguous situations
• Proven track record with high standards of professionalism Exceptional interpersonal skills and ability to develop strong working relationships inside and outside Facebook
• Creative, resourceful, detail-oriented, and highly organized
• Ability to meet multiple objectives in an entrepreneurial environment with little supervision
• Extensive experience dealing with policymakers and industry groups
• Prior experience working in a high-growth or startup technology company preferred

Warning: You must be over 160cm to enter this diplomatic service

In many diplomatic services around the world, women meet a glass ceiling as they climb the departmental ladder. In Vietnam, it's more like a glass ruler.

Two very able female graduates of Vietnam's  Diplomatic Academy told me they were unable to join the foreign ministry because they were under the 160cm minimum height requirement.

Vietnam's diplomacy has certainly risen in stature over the last year, with the government deftly using its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to force the South China Sea disputes onto the international agenda.

But, I'm not convinced that the best way to ensure that Vietnam continues to grow on the world stage is to exclude women under 160cm, who make up no small proportion of the population.

Given that Vietnam always provides a cohort of smiling, ao dai-clad dolly birds to impress foreign officials at international events, why is the ministry so concerned about the height of its female diplomats?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

US defence secretary Robert Gates gets a military welcome in Hanoi

While traveling around Hanoi with US defence secretary Robert Gates' entourage on Monday, I took the following video of the Vietnamese army welcoming him to a meeting at the Ministry of National Defence with his Vietnamese counterpart, General Phung Quang Thanh.

It was quite something to see Vietnamese soldiers playing the Star-Spangled Banner and to watch Gates inspecting the honour guard escorted by a goose-stepping officer.  

Gates was in town for the a big meeting of Asia Pacific defence ministers.



Sunday, October 10, 2010

A low key protest by banned group in Hanoi

UPDATE - Monday 08:00 - Viet Tan says that the Australian Vietnamese woman mentioned below, who seemed to be leading the protest, was arrested on Sunday evening. I have no independent confirmation of this. There is now a DPA story on the arrest.

Yesterday, I observed a protest in Hanoi by the banned Viet Tan group - or Vietnam Reform Party - which was low key in terms of the number of participants and the immediate police response.

A handful of overseas Vietnamese Viet Tan members gave out t-shirts and caps in a central Hanoi park, while calling on the government to stand up to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. (See reports by DPA, the German press agency, and AP)

There were several dozen local onlookers but it was unclear who were supporters of Viet Tan and who were simply bemused Hanoians - it's not everyday that you see political protests in a country where little dissent is tolerated. For obvious reasons, Hong Vu, the Australian Vietnamese who seemed to be doing most of the talking, was reluctant to say how many local supporters were present.

The Vietnamese government calls the US-based group a terrorist organisation, although Viet Tan insists it only believes in promoting peaceful change.

Although the surrounding area was amply supplied with police - the protest took place just behind one of the main stages were Hanoi's millennial celebrations have been taking place - there was no immediate reaction.

Once the blue t-shirt-clad Viet Tan members had headed off in a hurry and the small crowd has dispersed, a policeman did come around looking to confiscate some of the t-shirts they had given out.

Apparently, a similar unauthorised Viet Tan event earlier this year, when overseas Vietnamese gave out t-shirts and caps to an obliging Vietnamese public (if only because they like free gear rather than because they share the political messages), was also met with a relatively hands-off response.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The universality of terrible customer service

I have been scouting around Hanoi for my first smartphone and have been very disappointed with the level of customer service.

Given that most of these phones sell for more than the average monthly wage, it ought to take some pretty good sales advice to convince people to part with their hard-earned cash.

But not a bit of it. Having visited about 15 mobile phone shops, not one assistant could explain the pros and cons of different makes/models.

A Vietnamese friend, who was helping me to translate (my Vietnamese is still more, erm, conversational than technical), noted that these shops were effectively pushing eager customers away.

Just as my frustration began to boil over - and I started wondering if the ineffectual customer service was linked to the fact that Vietnam has yet to really open its retail sector up to foreign competition despite its World Trade Organization obligations - I realised that the Vietnamese mobile phone shopping experience was not particularly exceptional.

You get the same muppets working in these shops everywhere.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Asian casinos: What's in a name?

Across Asia, from Japan to Vietnam via Taiwan and Singapore, governments are experimenting with the legalisation of casinos in order to tap into the massive pent-up demand for gambling in the region.

But with many of Asia's governments professing some form of socially conservative credentials, the legalisation and promotion of casino gambling is, to put it mildly, a thorny issue.

Hence, in Singapore, those huge complexes that you see in Marina Bay and on Sentosa island, and which are generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, are not casinos but, to use the official terminology, "integrated resorts".

Likewise I learn courtesy of a job advertisement in the Viet Nam News that the massive Ho Tram strip development on the southern coast, which is backed by MGM Grand, will not include regular casinos but merely "a prized entertainment and amusement area reserved for foreigners".

A free casino licence in the Asian nation of your choice is on offer to the reader who can come up with the best new euphemism.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Government takes on Facebook in Vietnam

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story today about the Vietnamese government's attempt to launch a sanitised alternative to Facebook, which has been blocked on and off here since the end of last year.

The site, called, failed to capture the imagination of Vietnam's tech-savvy youth with initial articles about Ho Chi Minh and other revolutionary leaders and is now being spiced up. The WSJ reports:

The team has added online English tests and several state-approved videogames, including a a violent multiplayer contest featuring a band of militants bent on stopping the spread of global capitalism. The stream of news on the home page recently included an item on local beauty queens, news of a South Carolina fisherman who caught a fish that had human-like teeth, and word that British intelligence services once experimented with semen as an invisible ink.

Mr. Hop, the information minister, predicted will sign up more than 40 million people— about half the country's 85 million people—by 2015.

But the apetite for Facebook and other uncensored global social networking sites seems unlikely to fade quickly, particularly given the ease with which the Vietnamese restrictions can be circumvented.

As Global Post puts it in an article on the ineffectiveness of Vietnam's Facebook block: "Vietnam’s answer to China’s Great Firewall is more of a smoldering bamboo fence — an inconvenience more than an outright prohibition." (For the record, Facebook is currently accesbile in my hotel room.)

At first sight, it appears hard to understand why the government would waste its time with such lacklustre censorship. Part of the problem is that the Vietnamese media police do not have the same resources or know-how as China's army of technologically-advanced censors.

I suspect that the government is also aware that it cannot completely control access to the internet without damaging prospects for economic growth.

The Facebook block will not stop even the mildly determined. But it sends out a clear message that the government is watching what you do online and that using state-sanctioned social media is a safer path to tread.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading Yale professor opposes Singapore tie-up

Having written extensively about the limits on academic freedom in Singapore, I was rather surprised to see that Yale was in talks with the National University of Singapore about setting up a "liberal arts college" in the restrictive city state. Especially as the UK's Warwick University abandoned an earlier proposal to set up a university in Singapore because of concerns about freedom of speech.

It seems I was not the only one. James C. Scott, one of the leading Southeast Asia-focused academics of the modern era and a professor of political science at Yale, has spoken out against the proposal, according to a story for the Yale Daily News. The college newspaper reported him as saying:

"There’s unlikely to be a cataclysmic moment in which Yale would have to decide instantly whether to leave or stay. It’s more like to be a very gradual diminution of freedom of maneuver in which there’s not obviously some decisive threshold.”

Scott, the story reports, says Yale would be better off setting up a campus in Malaysia, the Philippines or Thailand, which also fall far short of democratic ideals but allow significantly more criticism of the establishment than Singapore.

In his most famous work, Scott argued that popular uprisings in Southeast Asia were driven by "The Moral Economy of the Peasant" - that poor farmers believed they had a right to basic subsistence and would rebel if it was denied them.

Will the Singapore government's particular view of a moral economy, that education (among other things) should be subservient to the politico-economic goals of the ruling caste, drive an uprising among Yale professors?


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Vietnam contradictions #1

Like any complex subject, Vietnam is perhaps best understood not by attempting gross generalisations but by trying to come to terms with the inherent contradictions.

During my time in Vietnam, I intend to document the many contradictions that surface in the hope of shedding some light on this remarkable, if often confusing, country.

I start with two stories published today in the Dan Tri online newspaper.

One, headlined "Hoan Kiem’s magnificent light show ready to go" sings the praises of the truly spectacular, high voltage light show that is being rehearsed ahead of the celebration of the 1,000-year anniversary of the founding of Hanoi, early next month.

The second, headlined "Vietnam’s power troubles far from over", warns that the country will continue to be hit with chronic power shortages in the coming years.

Hat-tip to Our Man in Hanoi, who I met in person last week, having followed his blog for some time.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Asean fears US support over maritime dispute may alienate China

Southeast Asian governments are concerned that the increasingly vocal US comments about the South China Sea disputes could alienate China.

While Western politicians usually like their foreign policy statements bold and clear, the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) prefer the softly-softly approach.

An initial draft of the statement to be issued at the end of Friday's US-Asean summit, prepared by the Philippines, opposed the "use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the South China Sea," according to an AP report.

But, according to the Bangkok Post, Asean leaders pushed the US to remove any direct reference to the South China Sea for fear of angering China.

Kasit Piromya, Thailand's foreign minister, told the paper:

"We have discussed the South China Sea issue at the Asean Regional Forum to which all the claimant states are members. It might be inappropriate if Asean and the US discuss this issue without China being present. We don't want to be seen as trying to gang up with the US against China."

And Asean appeared to have won this particular diplomatic debate, with the final joint statement not mentioning the South China Sea, saying only:

"We reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international maritime law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes."

However, the White House's official "read-out" of President Barack Obama's meeting with the Asean leaders makes an overt mention of the South China Sea:

"The President and the leaders also agreed on the importance of peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation, regional stability, and respect for international law, including in the South China Sea."

Sometimes, you have to wonder why diplomats bother with such circumlocutions.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hanoi bound

After a longer-than-expected sojourn in London, I'm finally returning to Southeast Asia later this week.

Following Singapore and Jakarta, my new - and hopefully more permanent base - will be in Hanoi, as the Vietnam correspondent for the Financial Times

Having first worked in Vietnam back in 2001, it's a long-awaited return to a country of which I grew very fond.

It has been fascinating to observe (from afar) the speed with which Vietnam has been changing as a result of the country's cautious yet sustained moves toward a market economy.

I now have a great opportunity to get a much closer look.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of the scale of the transformation could do worse than check out this video of Hanoi in 1989, replete with trams and bicycles and almost totally devoid of motorbikes and cars, let alone the Bentleys and Ferraris that can be seen on the capital's streets today.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vietnam hopes closer US ties won't harm China relations

Vietnam's steadily improving relationship with the US provoked the ire of China over the summer after US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told a regional security forum in Hanoi that the peaceful resolution of disputes over hotly-contested islands in the South China Sea was in America's national interest.

Barack Obama will re-iterate this view at a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday, according to an AP report, reassuring Vietnam and the other ASEAN countries that claim some of the Spratly and Paracel islands that the US will not abandon them to China's whim.

Where old rivalries run deep, it often appears that diplomacy is a zero sum game, with Vietnam's growing military and diplomatic cooperation with the US seemingly bound to damage relations with China.

But Vietnam's foreign minister, who I interviewed for the Financial Times recently, believes Vietnam can move closer to both China and the US without alienating either side.

"To enhance relations with the US does not mean we want to be against China," Pham Gia Khiem, who is also a deputy prime minister, told me. "Vietnam has enjoyed good military co-operation with many countries, including China, the Southeast Asian nations and the US. The goal of our military cooperation is to keep and enhance peace and stability."

He welcomed Hilary Clinton's recent comments on the South China Sea dispute but insisted that Vietnam did not want to bring in America as a bulwark against Chinese might.

"We don’t want to engage any country to be against a third country – that’s not our policy."

But he did accept that Vietnam, which has been trying to extend military cooperation with China as well as the US and other Southeast Asian nations, needed to work hard to erode mutual suspicion.

"In relations between Vietnam and other countries, the building of confidence is the most important thing. Confidence building helps avoid scepticism. Vietnam and China want to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership and the foundation is confidence building as it is a good way to reduce doubt."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Singapore government starts to rein in casinos

As I've written before, the Singapore government was placing a big double bet when it decided to legalise casino gambling: that the two casinos would turn a handsome profit and that their success would not bring with it social problems such as crime and addiction.

There's no doubting that the first part of that wager has paid off, with record numbers of tourists coming to the island nation and Singapore's gaming revenue forecast to surpass that of Las Vegas by the end of next year.

While the economic benefits appear clear cut, the social impact is less positive. Since the Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands casinos opened earlier this year, the police have arrested dozens of people for trying to cheat at the gaming tables and the courts have handed down swift and stiff sentences to try to deter future casino criminality.

The government has been more worried by the large number of gambling-crazy Singaporeans who have flocked to the baccarat tables and slot machines. Last week, the Casino Regulatory Authority told the casino operators to stop providing shuttle bus services to Singapore's heartland government housing estates.

This week Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister for community development, youth and sports, wrapped the casino operators on the knuckles. He reminded the operators that the government's aim was " to prevent the casinos from targeting the locals as their principal market".

In an effort to deter them from patronising the casinos, the government has imposed a levy of S$100 per day or $2,000 a year on Singaporeans and permanent residents. But Balakrishnan revealed in Parliament that there have still been more than one million visits by local residents in the few months since the casinos opened - that is more than one visit for every three residents of gambling age (over 21).

The government's plan to use the casinos to bring in big spending foreigners while sparing its citizens the negative consequences of mass market casino gambling will be very hard to pull off.

Singaporean Satirist Mr Brown suggests that the government wants to "have a casino that is there but not really there, existing in some Twilight Zone only foreigners can enter. Enjoy the money it will bring, but not the vices and social problems."

As he notes, having your cake and eating it is never easy.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lee Kuan Yew gets all reflective in New York Times interview

This week's Saturday profile in the New York Times is a surprisingly reflective interview with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister.

The 86-year-old political gunslinger has shown few signs of mellowing with age, most recently advising Singaporeans to work until they drop dead or risk ruining the island nation's economic prospects.

But, in an interview with a newspaper that his lawyers felt compelled to sue again back in March (a fact not mentioned in the piece), he talks rather movingly about his struggle to face the uncomfortable reality of ageing, his wife's illness and his own mortality:

“I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality,” said Mr. Lee, whose “Singapore model” of economic growth and tight social control made him one of the most influential political figures of Asia. “And I mean generally, every year, when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”

In a long, unusually reflective interview last week, he talked about the aches and pains of age and the solace of meditation, about his struggle to build a thriving nation on this resource-poor island, and his concern that the next generation might take his achievements for granted and let them slip away.

He was dressed informally in a windbreaker and running shoes in his big, bright office, still sharp of mind but visibly older and a little stooped, no longer in day-to-day control but, for as long as he lives, the dominant figure of the nation he created.

But in these final years, he said, his life has been darkened by the illness of his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes.

“I try to busy myself,” he said, “but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.” Agnostic and pragmatic in his approach to life, he spoke with something like envy of people who find strength and solace in religion. “How do I comfort myself?” he asked. “Well, I say, ‘Life is just like that.’"

Although he has never seemed fond of apologies, he talks with a hint of regret about the darker days of Singaporean politics, when he locked up a number of political opponents for years without trial:

I’m not saying that everything I did was right but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.

But Lee is not yet ready to go gentle into that good night. The interview concludes with him citing a Chinese proverb: Do not judge a man until his coffin is closed.

Close the coffin, then decide. Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me.  

Thursday, September 2, 2010

BBC denies bowing to political pressure over dropped Malaysia interview

Earlier this week, I wrote about the BBC's decision to pull a planned Hardtalk interview with Raja Petra Kamarudin, a controversial Malaysian blogger, because of legal advice.

The decision has been heavily criticised on independent Malaysian blogs and news websites with many accusing the British state broadcaster of caving in to pressure from the Malaysian government.

But the BBC has insisted in a statement that "the suggestion that the item was dropped due to political pressure is untrue." Peter Connors, a press officer for BBC News, told me that the BBC had not been contacted by lawyers or other advisers acting for the Malaysian prime minister or government.

This is the full statement:

The BBC researches many different stories, it is the normal process of news and current affairs throughout the media that not all make it to air for a variety of editorial reasons.

In this case, it became clear in our research that any comprehensive interview with former Malaysia Today Editor Raja Petra Kamarudin would prominently feature issues that are currently the subject of a current court case in Malaysia, which raise issues of defamation.

The suggestion that the item was dropped due to political pressure is untrue. All BBC programmes adhere to the same strict editorial guidelines which ensure complete editorial independence and impartiality.

I suspect that the BBC was most concerned about RPK's persistent claims that Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and members of his family were somehow implicated in the murder of a Mongolian translator and/or an attempt to cover up key details relating to the case - claims that the PM has vociferously denied.

The BBC is keen to play down the affair as nothing out of the ordinary but its decision to drop the interview does appear lily-livered.

From past experience, my hypothesis is that the editorial decision-making process came down to a trade off between time/money/hassle, on the one hand, and news-worthiness, on the other.

While the BBC might risk the ire of (and tempt possible legal action from) the leaders of countries such as Iran, Zimbabwe or Myanmar, I imagine that Malaysia is simply not a big enough global news story to warrrant such risks - especially when the Hardtalk producers have a long list of shows to research and record.

The end result is a victory for the Malaysian government, and its well-remunerated international PR advisers APCO Worldwide, who will be pleased that one of their most vocal and well-connected opponents has been denied 30 minutes of airtime on a leading global TV programme.

Malaysia's opposition activists, meanwhile, are understandly miffed about this missed opportunity.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

BBC pulls interview with Malaysian blogger on legal grounds

The BBC's Hardtalk programme has dropped a planned interview with Raja Petra Kamarudin, a leading Malaysian blogger who fled to the UK, following advice from the broadcaster's lawyers.

RPK, who I interviewed for The Guardian earlier this month, revealed on his blog on Sunday that the BBC had decided to pull the interview, which was due to take place on Wednesday.

I just got off the phone to Bridget Osborne, a Hardtalk producer, who confirmed that the RPK interview had been dropped following legal advice.

"He has made all sorts of allegtaions that we have no way of confirming or denying independently," she said, so the programme's lawyers advised them not to go ahead.

Hardtalk, which describes itself as BBC News' "hard-hitting flagship news programme", has previously interviewed many dictators, dissidents and crackpots who have made countless wild allegations.

But the producer refused to comment any further on why RPK had been dropped when so many other controversial interviews had gone ahead.

It is strange that the BBC appears to have wimped out of interviewing one of Malaysia's leading dissidents. As RPK says, "it is a rare occasion that they have had to drop a program".

But, in defence of the producers, I know from my own experience as a journalist that in-house media lawyers often have a very low risk threshold.

Friday, August 27, 2010

If the whole world was designed like Singapore... could fit the global population into an area the size of Texas.

That's the concept behind the government's 1,000 Singapores pavilion at the international architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The government believes that it can comfortably fit 6.5 million people into Singapore's 710 sq km (although the current population is around 5 million and I'm not sure the citizenry necessarily share the goverment's desire for another 1.5 million residents).

The projected population of Singapore is roughly 1/1000th of the world population so, using the Singapore city planning model, you could fit the whole world's population into an area of 710,000 sq km  - roughly the size of Texas, a fifth the size of India and a tenth the size of China.

While the idea of rolling out identikit Singapores around the world may fill some with dread, I always found Singapore to be a very nice place to live in terms of urban planning. Only a third of the total land area is built up and, despite the prevalence of slightly dreary high-rise government housing, there are many pleasant open spaces where you can escape.

But while Singapore can offer many positive lessons for urban planners, particularly in fast-growing and seemingly sprawl-addicted Asia, the Lion City's model is not quite as compact and sustainable as it first appears.

Singapore's land area has grown by 22% since the 1960s because of large scale land reclamation projects that have relied on the at times environmentally, socially and politically questionable import of sand from around Southeast Asia. Likewise, the construction industry has depended on cheap sand and cheap workers brought in from all around the region.

John Donne wrote: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent."

Surely the same is true for, erm, islands.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

You say tomato, I say incitement to violence

The implementation of laws against incitement to violence or hatred is always problematic as they are very much open to interpretation.

Abdul Malik Mohammed Ghazali, a 27-year-old Singaporean, was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly inciting violence after criticising a minister in a comment left on a Facebook page.

Adding to the barrage of criticism on a page called "I hate the Youth Olympic Games organising committee", Abdul Malik attacked Vivian Balakrishnan, the sports minister, for his handling of the event:

"THIS IS THE TIME FOR US TO BURN VIVIEN [sic] Balakrishnan AND THE PAP!!!!!!" he wrote, referring to the ruling People's Action Party. "RALLY TOGETHER AND VOTE THEM OUT!!!" 

[Comment taken from a screen grab published by The Online Citizen, a Singaporean citizen journalism website.]

Abdul Malik has insisted that the use of the word "burn" was metaphorical although he hasn't yet been able to convince Singapore's police of his argument.

The opposition Singapore Democratic Party contrasts his comments with those of one Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister and current minister mentor:

"Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one," Lee once said. "You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac."

As far as I know, Lee has never been arrested by the Singapore police on suspicion of incitement to violence.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Trouble down on the (Singapore) farm

Ivy Singh-Lim is one of the few real characters in the rather staid public life of Singapore. An outspoken former head of Singapore's netball association, she has spearheaded attempts to revitalise Singapore's farming hinterland (yes it does have one) in the north of the densely-populated island nation.

I wrote about her mission and her rather unflattering views of the Singapore government in a big feature I did for the Far Eastern Economic Review before it closed down last year (available here).

Unlike some of the other independent voices in the politically repressed city-state, Singh-Lim is plugged in to the establishment. Her husband is a former head of NTUC Fairprice, a leading supermarket chain run by the government "trade union", and she has some influential friends within the ruling regime.

But her drive to turn her farm, Bollywood Veggies, into an "agro-tourism" destination seems to have ruffled some feathers. Her business is currently being prosecuted for allegedly flouting building regulations. Her defence counsel has claimed that she is the target of a malicious prosecution by the Building and Construction Authority.

Ivy is not the sort to back away from a fight so it will be interesting to see how this one turns out. In a recent posting on her website, she says:

Dear Valued Customers,

Some of you may be concerned about the recent TODAY article stating that the gentle-warrior farmer has been "hauled to court" because Bollywood Veggies did not comply with building inspections mandated by the BCA. I was not hauled to court but rather asked politely to appear.

The newspaper reporter did not ask for our side of the story so it was not mentioned that we had already complied with the inspections last year. Please be assured that our farm and bistro are safe to visit. However, if you are worried, please bring along a crash helmet or call us to provide you with an organic "coconut husk" crash helmet.

Mrs. Ivy Singh-Lim
Gentle-warrior Farmer

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quote of the week: James C. Scott on the successful pre-modern state

A monopolistic protection racket that keeps the peace and fosters production and trade while extracting no more rents than the traffic will bear.

Leading Southeast Asia-focused political scientist James C. Scott on the essence of the successful pre-modern state, quoted from his insightful new book The Art of Not Being Governed.

To my mind, his definition also stands true for most modern (or should that be post-modern) states. The book, which I expect will become a new classic of Southeast Asian historiography, seeks to challenge the received wisdom about hill peoples and their relationship with the state.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An insider's view of academic censorship in Singapore

In recent years, I've had many discussions with Singapore-based academics, both locals and foreigners, on the pervasive climate of self-censorship that surrounds those who would conduct research focused on the city-state.

However, with the vast majority of them employed by the state, very few are willing to speak out publicly for fear of jeopardising their positions.

So I'm grateful to Mark R. Frost, co-author of the fascinating new book Singapore: A Biography (reviewed by me here), for the comments he has left on this blog as part of an ongoing exchange between us.

Mark, who is now assistant professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, talks candidly about the censorship, both self-imposed and external, that guided his research and writing. I have published his latest comment below, while our full exchange is here.

Dear Ben,

To answer your first question, yes. But I am not sure I was fully conscious of it until I left Singapore and became reacquainted with what it's like to write in a freer context again. During my 6 years in the city, I definitely became ever more acutely aware of "political sensitivities". Thus, there were comments that came up in interviews with some of Singapore's former political detainees (interviews which are cited in the book) that were not included because they would have possibly resulted in libel actions. There were other things, such as the deviousness of LKY's political negotiations with the British in the late 50s and early 60s, which we could have gone into further (the details have been published) rather than just pointing to them in the footnotes. Was this the result of a subconscious self-censorship or a desire to move the story on? I'm still thinking about that one. But I do recall that, as a foreign academic working at the National Univ. of Singapore, you inevitably became careful about what sort of public criticism you directed at your paymasters. No doubt, this carefulness ultimately seeps into you (though I think good work can be done in Singapore, nevertheless, and many people in academia there continue to do it).

The decision to halt Singapore: a Biography in 1965, and in that sense narrow the narrative, was a very conscious one. I am still not comfortable tackling Singapore's political history after 1965, given the current political constraints in the Republic, and the official control of the archive. I have told publishers who have enquired about us extending the story or writing a sequel that this would involve a narrative far more critical of the ruling party. Repressive political measures that might have garnered a degree of popular support in the turbulent early-60s became, I believe, for many Singaporeans, less justifiable and more reprehensible in the 70s and 80s (culminating with the disgust that many people felt over the treatment of Catholic agitators involved in the so-called "Marxist conspiracy" of 1987).

As for the rise of the PAP, my personal view is that in the late 1950s the PAP was the only viable alternative to colonial rule, once Marshall had bailed - that is, in terms of getting Singapore out of its postwar social and economic predicament. As much as my heart is with the idealists who founded the Barisan, I'm not sure they would have achieved the same practical results as the PAP did in its first 5 years, had they got into power. There were already rifts in the Barisan prior to Operation Cold Store in 1963, and the more one looks into the party at this time, the more chaotic it appears. (Undoubtedly, this chaos was also a result of the pressures exerted upon it by the PAP.)

However, when the Barisan was systematically destroyed, hopeless though its leaders might have proved as technocrats, Singapore turned a corner. From 1963, economic success and political stability were won at the expense of freedom of expression and 'responsible dissent', generating a conformity, an intellectual sterility and a deep loss of historical identity that I hope the Epilogue to the book conveys. That's basically my take on the rise of the PAP. The party became something very different from 1963.

Another long email, sorry. But to answer your other question: the book was peer reviewed by three reviewers. Two were contacted by the co=publisher HKUP, and one by the National Museum of Singapore. The Museum, quite resonably, asked a prominent academic based in Singapore to review the book and indicate any parts that might raise political difficulties. He found none (a scholar with less integrity might have demanded changes, a ministry official would certainly have). In that sense the book was vetted.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The story of the 18-year-old Jakarta suicide bomber

For TV coverage of Southeast Asia, Al Jazeera English cannot really be beaten. This film by Singaporean producers Lynn Lee and James Leong tells the story of Dani Dwi Permana, an 18-year-old Indonesian who walked into the lobby of the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta last July and blew himself up, killing five others and wounding many.

The film follows Dani's brother Jaka Karyana as he tries to find out how and why his quiet, unassuming brother transformed into a murderous terrorist. It includes harrowing footage of the bomber's last moments as he is guided to his target via a video call with his terrorist mentor, who keeps shouting "Allahu Akbar" to reassure his young protege as he approaches his grisly end.  


Monday, August 16, 2010

Jacques Rogge brings Olympic spirit to Singapore

The Youth Olympic Games, held for the first time this year, is a longstanding pet project of Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who has spoken of his joy at watching his "baby being born".

And it is heartening to see that Rogge has ensured that the full Olympic spirit has been brought to Singapore, where the games are currently being held.

I'm not talking about international solidarity, amateur dedication or the principles of sportsmanship. No, I'm referring to the Olympic spirit of marketing fascism.

A letter sent to some Singaporean parents asking for permission for their children to "volunteer" as spectators has been published on a number of online forums and blogs.

The letter instructs parents to give their children money as refreshments will not be provided. However, they are kindly informed that "your son/ward is allowed to bring a water bottle provided the water bottle does not have either the "Nike" or "Adidas" logos".

Singaporean blogger Mr Brown remarks:

Since when did school children forced to be spectators at a sporting event have to adhere to branding guidelines? I understand if the athletes are covered by sponsor restrictions but SPECTATORS too? Next you'll be telling parents that the kids can only wear certain brands of UNDERWEAR to spectate YOG events too.

It's worth pointing out that the Singapore organising committee has insisted that no children have been harmed in the making of these Youth Olympic Games and that all the youthful spectators are there of their own accord. According to AP, Ng Ser Miang, chairman of the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organizing Committee and IOC Vice President, said:

There will be stories flying around. But just look at the faces of the children that are there, the sparkle in their eyes and the smile on their faces. Those are not things you can force. I don't think anyone will be forced to come to watch the torch relay or the Games. So I don't think there is any coercion.

Since I published yesterday's blog post, it's been drawn to my attention that there is an "I hate the Youth Olympic Games" Facebook group, with nearly 2,000 members.

The organisers of the group attack the more than trebling of the initial Games budget and contrast it with the relatively paltry amount spent by the government on welfare for the needy.

But, for what it's worth, membership of that group of online dissidents is dwarfed by the 58,000 people who are "fans" of the official Games Facebook group.

I'm sure that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is a fan of the games but that didn't stop him apparently nodding off during the "dazzling" opening ceremony.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Singapore gets all Stalinist over Youth Olympics

Unlike many Singaporean bloggers and online commenters, I don't have any major objections to Singapore's decision to host the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, which begun this weekend.

Many have complained about the financial impact of holding the games, with the budget trebling from the original forecast to $290m, but such spiralling costs are par for the course when it comes to holding major sporting events.

Others have pointed out, correctly, that the games have failed to attract much international press attention.

But $290m is a relatively small amount of money for the government to commit and, while the Games were never going to generate much coverage outside the city-state, they will undoubtedly help promote Singapore as a major international tourism and events centre among the nearly 5,000 athletes, officials and assorted hangers-on who have come from all over the world.

What I do, however, find funny is the heavy-handed attempt by the Singapore establishment to make the kids Olympics sound like the greatest show on earth.

Singapore has clearly taken a leaf out of China's book but the key difference was that many Beijingers were genuinely proud to be hosting the 2008 Olympics. Most Singaporeans would probably be more excited by a discount computer fair at the Expo centre or a cut in the price of a plate of bee hoon then by the fact they're hosting the Youth Olympics.

But you wouldn't know that from reading the government-controlled Straits Times newspaper, which is hardly an independent voice at the best of times but has now gone into full Pravda mode.

Despite minimal evidence of interest among Singaporeans, the paper has been pumping out story after story about the games over the last few weeks and has now gone into overdrive.

Today's paper carries well over 10 stories about the "dazzling" opening ceremony, which was apparently witnessed by "millions of viewers" worldwide.

"All over the island last night, Singaporeans wanted to witness this landmark moment, whether it was at home, at a mall or at the fringe of the show venue," the paper crowed.

Reading activist Alex Au's blog, which carries a picture of a deserted concert arena, you get a slightly different impression.

With a nod to the likes of North Korea, the Singaporean authorities have also worked hard to ensure they have gangs of obedient, flag-waving young "patriots" to deploy to stadia and other Olympic events as and when necessary.

According to one blogger, secondary school students were forced by their teachers to cheer the Youth Olympics flame as it made its way around the island nation.

In education-focused Singapore, games organisers faced the challenge of roping in volunteers during the exam season, when every available public space, including Changi Airport, is usually full of stressed school kids buried in their books.

But the 7,000 children taking part in the opening ceremony were given special treatment, bussed to practice sessions and then back to school and even being "allowed" to stay overnight at school.

Underlying all this is a key contradiction at the heart of the post-independence Singapore regime, which says it wants to build a nation of patriotic, productive and creative people while also wanting to ensure it retains a large army of hard-working, pliant drones who won't challenge its position.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rwanda: the Singapore of Africa?

This week I have been reading a lot about a small country in a turbulent region where authoritarian one-party rule, in the guise of democracy, has soothed ethnic tensions and brought stability and rapid economic development.

This has been achieved under the watchful eye of a ruthless, maverick leader who tolerates little criticism, using draconian laws to silence dissenting journalists and opposition activists

With the help of tight control over the electoral process, the ruling party is assured overwhelming majorities at every election. It is so confident of its position that it can even afford to lend a helping hand to some of the less threatening opposition parties, in order to promote the appearance of a multitude of political voices.

Western nations, led by the US and Britain, have "mollycoddled" this leader, according to the Financial Times, encouraging the notion that the country's stability rests on him.

"They have relied on his good will to get the timing right, in the hope that political space will gradually open," the FT says. "It should come as no surprise that the reverse is taking place."

According to The Economist, the success of authoritarian rule in this country raises a number of wider questions: "So where should the balance between development and freedom lie? Can democracy be shoved aside in the battle against poverty? And what should outsiders do to tilt the balance back?"

The Economist's conclusion is that those in the West who praise the leader of this country for his achievements in development "must also loudly lambast him for his loathsome and needless tendency to intolerance".

The country in question is, of course, Rwanda, not Singapore. And the leader is Paul Kagame, not Lee Kuan Yew.

The seemingly uncanny similarity between the situations in the two countries is partly the result of Kagame's efforts to learn from Singapore.

Kagame made his first official visit to Singapore in 2008, when he gave a lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, telling the audience:

"In the case of Rwanda, we look at countries like Singapore as inspirational development models due to the rapid pace at which you successfully transformed your country."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Interviewing fugitive Malaysian blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin

I met Raja Petra Kamarudin, one of Malaysia's best known bloggers, at a recent press conference in London, after spotting his trademark beret in the crowd. I subsequently interviewed him for a piece that's been published in The Guardian today.

RPK, as he's usually known, fled Malaysia after hearing that he was about to be detained without trial for a third time under the Internal Security Act, which was bequeathed by the British colonial regime.

But the same colonial legacy that threatened his freedom also proved to be his salvation. As he was born in the UK before Malaysia obtained independence, he has right of abode here.

Many senior members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation have called on RPK to come back to Malaysia and clear his name if he really believes he is innocent of the sedition and criminal defamation charges that have been levelled against him.

But, RPK says, he is less concerned about those charges than the fact that the government seems determined to detain him without trial again - the home ministry is still trying to overturn RPK's successful appeal against his ISA detention in 2008.

In any case, he says that it is for the prosecution to prove his guilt, not for him to prove his innocence.

"If the Malaysian government wants to prove my guilt, they will have to apply to extradite me and for them to be able to, they will have to satisfy a British court that I am guilty. Does the Malaysian government have the guts to try to convince a British court that I'm guilty? Because the standards set by a British court are very different."

Now that his Malaysian passport has expired. RPK is effectively stuck in the UK. Although he is free to remain in the UK, he has no official travel document so cannot leave the country.

But the chirpy trouble-maker doesn't seem too perturbed, saying he may even opt to stay in the UK if the charges against him are dropped by a future Malaysian government.

In the globalised era, distance is no bar to speaking truth to power and RPK has continued to be a thorn in the side of the Malaysian establishment from his Manchester base.

The success of his Malaysia Today website, which he says gets up to 1m hits a day, is partly due to his high-level contacts within the establishment. RPK told me that he's twice been visited in the UK by a senior UMNO figure "of ministerial level".

Like all high-profile bloggers, he's also extremely prolific and spends "10-14 hours a day, seven days a week" working on his website, assisted by a team of Malaysian volunteers spread around the world.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Postmodern capitalism and the embarrassment of riches

The dozens of American billionaires who this week pledged to give half of their fortunes to charity should surely be applauded for their generosity.

The world's sick, poor and needy stand to benefit to the tune of up to $150bn over the coming years as a result of the initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.  

But there is something paradoxical about men (for it is mostly men) who spend most of their lives ruthlessly building business empires, without fear or favour, only to then give half of their gains away.

While philanthropy is nothing new, the world has never before seen wealth creation and dispersal on a such a massive global scale.

It's a phenomenon that Slavoj Zizek, the entertainingly rabid marxist philosopher, has dubbed "postmodern capitalism".

If they truly wanted to help save the world, you might ask, why didn't these compasionate capitalists pay their employees and suppliers more and ensure that their companies helped nurture communities and the environment, rather than damaging them?

Because, they might respond, if we hadn't kept a tight ship, we never would have been able to create jobs, generate tax receipts and accumulate the billions that we are now so keen to give away.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Anwar Ibrahim's US allies hit out at sodomy trial

Malaysia's charming opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently on trial for sodomy for the second time, regularly travels overseas and has made some very influential friends over the years.

In a joint editorial in today's Wall Street Journal, former US vice president Al Gore and former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz insist that the sodomy charges against Anwar are "trumped up" and call on the US government to pressure the Malaysian authorities to end the trial.

Like the charges 10 years earlier, the timing of these new charges carries the strong odor of political manipulation. And, if anything, the case against Mr. Anwar this time is even less credible and the violations of due process are even more egregious.

While Anwar Ibrahim is on trial before the state, the state is on trial before its people and the world. If he were to be convicted, the whole of Malaysia's political life and its standing in the world would be damaged. And for what gain?

It is not surprising that either of these men is speaking out in defence of Anwar. Both Gore and Wolfowitz have supported Anwar for years, with Gore famously causing a stink at an APEC meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 when he publicly backed the Reformasi movement that Anwar was leading against then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. (Wolfowitz penned this Time magazine portrait of Anwar last year).

But the fact that these two American politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum have spoken out as one in such a high profile forum is likely to raise the profile of the Anwar case in the US and raise the political temperature in Malaysia.

Malaysian blogs and online news sites have taken the story up very swiftly indeed. It will be interesting to see if prime minister Najib Razak, who has been carefully cultivating his international image with the help of PR firm APCO Worldwide, feels the need to respond.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Spit and punish on the streets of London

It may be strictly-controlled Singapore that is best known for criminalising misdemeanours such as spitting, but once laid-back London is not too far behind, it seems.

Out and about in Wembley, in the north-west London borough of Brent, earlier today, I noticed a number of posters imploring residents not to spit paan, a spiced tobacco leaf mixture popular with the area's many South Asian inhabitants.

"Spitting tobacco paan on Brent's pavements is unhygienic and anti-social," the poster warned. "You could be fined £80".

Just up the road, at Sudbury Town tube station, the message became rather sterner.

Would-be spitters were told in another poster that "CCTV images of offenders may be used to report incidents to the British Transport Police".

And, if the CCTV doesn't get you, the DNA database will:

"Samples of saliva may also be passed onto the Police for DNA identification should the problem persist."

I share Brent Council's abhorrence at the practice of spitting paan, or anything else for that matter.

But shouldn't the police be deploying its extensive CCTV network and much-criticised DNA database to fight security threats more pressing than misplaced saliva?

Friday, July 30, 2010

British author refuses to apologise for Singapore death penalty book

Alan Shadrake, whose trial on contempt of court charges in Singapore began today, has rejected an offer from the attorney general's chambers to issue an "unreserved apology".

After the trial was adjourned for several weeks to allow him and his lawyer M Ravi time to prepare their case, he vowed that he would not back down.

"I would never apologize and I would never say sorry," Shadrake told reporters, according to AP. "I didn't do this to grovel to them like Singaporeans mostly have to do to lead a normal life."

The attorney general's chambers alleges that various statements in Shadrake's book, Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, "impugn the impartiality, integrity and independence of the Singapore Judiciary".

At the start of today's hearing, senior counsel David Chong from the attorney general's chambers warned journalists that they too would be liable to contempt of court proceedings if they reproduced the paragraphs from the book that are at the centre of the case.

So the debate about this case, and the wider issue of the death penalty in Singapore, will doubtless be severly restricted in Singapore and foreign journalists based in the city-state will be writing their pieces with extra caution.

I'm currently reading the book for a review I'm writing for Asia Sentinel so will make my thoughts known in due course.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Elderly Lee Kuan Yew offers to take pay cut

I was rather surprised to read today in the government-controlled Straits Times that Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father and rather well remunerated "minister mentor", is offering to take a pay cut.

Singaporean officials are among the best-paid in the world thanks to Lee's long-term policy of paying "private sector" wages to bring the best people into government and ensure that they are not tempted into corruption.

The 86-year-old Lee has suggested that to improve Singapore's sagging productivity, there should be no retirement age and workers should carry on going as long as they are healthy.

But, as they age, workers will become less efficient so they must be paid less as a result.

I think we have to develop that approach to life: You've reached the maximum you can do at your age in that position, you move sideways and you take less pay and you move gradually to less and less pay because you are moving slower and slower, especially if you are doing physical work.

Given Lee's admission that he is "still functioning, if not at the rate at which I was functioning, say, 20 years ago ... I have aches and pains, but nothing terminal and I can keep going," it seems as if he's offering to take a pay cut.

But blog Temasek Review is not won over by his call for thrift:

While Lee asked Singapore workers to accept a pay cut when they grow old, he has blatantly refused to practice what he preaches himself.

Lee costs Singaporeans some S$3 million dollars a year, or more than five times the annual salary of U.S. President Barack Obama and that is not including his lifelong pension which amounts to two-thirds of monthly salary.