Sunday, January 31, 2010

Quote of the week

"The automation process has changed the rules of the game and politicians who fear they can no longer manipulate poll results are more tempted to eliminate one another."

Benito Lim, a political scientist at Ateneo de Manila University, on why the addition of a more trustworthy, electronic voting system may lead to more political violence in this year's polls.


Friday, January 29, 2010

Bomb detection on a wing and a prayer

Even though the UK has banned the export of the ADE-651 bomb-detection device and arrested the director of the company selling it after a BBC inquiry found that it was about as useful as a diving rod, Iraqi officials are insisting that they still work.

At the same time, Thai officials are insisting that an equally questionable bomb-detection product, the GT200, is still a useful tool in the struggle against insurgents in southern Thailand.

This apparent state of denial is not surprising in as much as officials in both countries allegedly fell for the charms of snake-oil salesmen. Not only are they keen to wipe the egg off their face but they are also eager to waft away the whiff of corruption - a number of commentators have been quick to claim that the purchase of these devices may be more related to kickbacks than their efficacy.

But it's not just in these countries that the bomb detection process seems based more on faith than on good sense.

In Jakarta, every office-block, hotel and mall worth its salt is surrounded by a cordon of security guards and barriers. But these measures are more Maginot Line than ring of steel.

At one entrance to Plaza Semanggi, a popular mall in Southern Jakarta, security guards vigorously search every bag for bombs and weapons. But if you go through another door 20 metres further down, they don't even pull over those with large backpacks.

During the day at my apartment block,  the security regime is kind of rigorous. Before any car can pass through the barrier, one guard looks in the boot with a handheld bomb-detector while another half-heartedly examines the underside of the vehicle with a mirror on a rod. Watching them in action, I'm not sure that they know what they are looking for let alone what what they would do if they ever found it.

That's during the day. At night, they don't bother with any of these checks, waving every car through. I'm no counter-terrorim expert but I think I can spot the hole in that system.

The lockdowns are pretty solid at a few key locations, such as the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels, which were attacked by suicide bombers in July - a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

However, I find it hard to believe that the security measures in place in the rest of Jakarta are truly designed to stop terrorists or even to scare them off.

It's just a way of trying to reassure people and create a bit of employment.




Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Singapore stirred by Romanian diplomat hit-and-run case

When foreign embassy officials break the law in their host country, diplomatic immunity ensures that they hardly ever face charges for their crimes. This protection is an essential one for the conduct of diplomacy.

But it invariably irks the local population, especially if the crime in question is particularly egregious.

So it is little wonder that many Singaporeans are angry that the police allowed Silviu Ionescu, the Romanian charge d'affaires, to leave Singapore after a fatal hit-and-run incident involving his official car.

Ionescu claimed that his car had been stolen when the incident took place, at 3.10am on December 15.

However the Singapore police have concluded that he was in fact behind the wheel when his Audi A6 hit two men who were crossing the road, one of whom later died of his injuries. Rather than stop to help, Singapore prosecutors allege that Ionescu then sped off, hitting another man, before reporting his car stolen 30 minutes later.

Three days after the incident, Ionescu left Singapore, claiming that he was seeking medical treatment abroad. Some Singaporeans are unhappy with the police and foreign ministry for failing to stop him leaving. But, diplomatic conventions mean there was little they could do without the express permission of the Romanian government.

Most Singaporeans understand the concept of diplomatic immunity but the Ionescu case has tapped into a deeper bed of resentment about the way justice is meted out in Singapore.

There is a widespread perception that the authorities are soft on well-off Western expats who break the law while cracking the whip when it comes to your average Singaporean.

As I've mentioned before, there are few countries in the world where the scales of justice are not, for one reason or another, loaded in favour of the rich.

But in Singapore, there is a feeling that the government panders to Western expats in particular (even when they're not that wealthy) because of some sort of inferiority complex.

Singaporeans are routinely jailed for petty thefts or camping without a permit. Meanwhile, the likes of Alexander Montefiore, a 28-year-old British stockbroker who admitted to two counts of stealing S$2,000 and forging an employment letter, escape with just a fine.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

My brush with Indonesia's football hooligans

One evening last year, I was waiting at the station in Solo, central Java, for a train back to Yogyakarta. Although the train was over an hour late, my natural irascibility was tempered by the beauty of the setting sun casting a red hue over the silhouette of a smouldering volcano in the distance.

As I sat on the platform admiring the view, the tranquility was broken by a deep murmuring noise some way off. At first I thought it could be the sound of some ageing locomotive struggling up the tracks.

But, as the noise got louder, it became clear that it was some form of chanting. I wondered if this was a special prayer train. But, as it came into full view, I discovered that it was nothing of the sort.

Hundreds of people were crammed into the train, sitting on the roof and hanging out of the windows. They were not reciting benedictions but football chants. For these, I was informed by another passenger, were the much-feared Bonek - short for bondo nekat, Javanese for "reckless mob" - the hardcore fans of Persebaya, the Surabaya football team.

As the train passed through the station at an alarmingly slow rate, I was reminded of why British police decided to ban "football special" trains. The Bonek banged out a beat on the walls of the train while shouting something that could be loosely translated as "fuck you Solo". The people around me looked just a bit concerned but luckily no stones were thrown at the platform.

That fate was reserved for the oncoming train to Yogyakarta which, by the time it pulled into the station, had had many of its windows smashed in.

I recount this tale because the Bonek are in hot water again after another similar incident at the weekend, also at Solo station. This time, the citizens of Solo (who are known for their fiery disposition) fought back, pummeling the train with rocks on its return to Surabaya after an away game at Bandung.

The Jakarta Casual blogger, who is by far and away the best source of information and insight on Southeast Asian football, reckons that the Jakarta English-language press is blowing the latest violence out of all proportion.

He seems to think there is a class issue here: "At work today the great and the good of middle class society gnarled their teeth and puffed their chests out with self righteous indignation at these Dickensian scamps having the temerity to crawl out from under their stones and blight their precious consciousness for a few hours."

While there is clearly a large class/wealth divide in Indonesia, I'm not sure he's right about this one. By trying to defend poor football fans, he seems to be condemning them. Does he really believe that the only release that Indonesia's downtrodden can obtain is by going on the rampage before and after football matches?

Nevertheless, I'm still keen to check out a local match and see how the Indonesian Super League compares to Singapore's S-League and Vietnam's V-League. If I've managed to survive trips to Grimsby and Bournemouth, I'm sure I'll be OK.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Indonesia still struggling to confront history

There's an interesting Banyan column in this week's edition of The Economist (to which I contribute) about the recent banning of a number of books and a DVD by the Indonesian government.

The Economist argues that the decision to ban the works - which mostly deal with the dark events during and after Suharto's rise to power - stems less from a desire for censorship in general than from a distinct lack of willingness to face up to history.

One of the major stumbling blocks, according to The Economist, is the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and leftists as Suharto consolidated his power in 1965-66.

Most of the books in question are histories; guidebooks to parts of that foreign country which the government still wants to keep out of bounds. One tackles the mysterious atrocities that still haunt Indonesia: the massacre of hundreds of thousands of alleged communists and others as Suharto consolidated his power in 1965-66. Few horrors have been so unexamined. In Cambodia a flawed judicial process is at last asking questions about the Khmer Rouge terror from 1975-78. Even in China the show-trial of the Gang of Four served to hold a few responsible for the crimes of the many in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). But in the villages of Java and Bali people still live side-by-side with their parents’ murderers or their families. And the torrent of bloodshed in which they were bereaved has never been officially acknowledged, let alone subjected to a truth-and-reconciliation commission.

Part of the reason that Indonesia is yet to confront the murky realities of this period is because many members of today's political establishment - including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono - were part of the Suharto regime.

But, as Cambridge historian Rachel Leow (who I met on a recent trip to my alma mater) mentions on her blog, this paranoia about recent history is common to many regimes in Southeast Asia.

On a basic level, this can be explained by the fact that the majority of governments in the region practice or have until recently practiced some form of authoritarian control.

But, more importantly, most of the ruling politicians and parties in Southeast Asia claim political legitimacy on historical grounds, often because of direct links to the anti-colonial movement.

So history is less an academic pursuit than a potential political battleground, which governments with authoritarian instincts want to control.

Incidentally, for those interested in the 1965-1966 political massacres in Indonesia, there is a great collection of essays on the subject in the latest edition of Inside Indonesia, an Australian online magazine.




The real cost of the civil society crackdown in Vietnam

The conviction and sentencing of four democracy activists in Vietnam last week attracted some attention from the Western media as well as condemnations from the US Embassy and the British Foreign Office.

Most reports, probably correctly, place the trial in the context of a wider crackdown on free speech that has seemingly gathered pace over the last year, ahead of the Communist Party congress in 2011.

While the jailing of men like Le Cong Dinh, a prominent human rights lawyer, tends to attract publicity, it is important to point out that people like him are true outliers in Vietnam.

Most Vietnamese have probably never heard of him and the influence of men like Dinh and other democracy activists is probably limited to a few hundred other marginalised campaigners.

Given that the Vietnamese government has never shown any hesitation in rounding up vocal democracy campaigners, the jailing of Dinh is not a surprising development.

What is more worrying for Vietnam's development is the wider crackdown of the last year or two on free speech in a more mainstream context and on Vietnam's emerging civil society. To cite a few examples:

  • The editors of two newspapers that were known for probing corruption cases - Thanh Nhien and Tuoi Tre - were sacked and several reporters jailed after they exposed a particularly embarrassing graft case.

  • A new regulation was introduced preventing bloggers from writing about "political" issues.

  • A number of bloggers were arrested and detained, although not charged, for publishing anti-Chinese comments on the internet and expressing concerns about a large bauxite mining project in the Central Highlands.

  • Vietnam's only independent think tank - the Institute of Development Studies - closed down after the government issued a directive that would have curtailed its ability to research.

  • Facebook has been regularly blocked over the last few months, seemingly amid government fears that young Vietnamese were using the website to discuss socio-political issues and form interest groups.

It is widespread restrictions such as these on mainstream Vietnamese, rather than the jailing of a few outspoken dissidents, that could threaten Vietnam's (up to now) very successful transition from a poverty-stricken nation with a backward, state-controlled economy to a thriving middle-income country.

Over the last few years, Vietnam had made some very positive if humble steps in terms of increasing transparency and fighting corruption. The ongoing crackdown appears to show that the more conservative elements within the Communist Party feel threatened by some of these developments and want to roll back this progress.

However, without promoting a stronger civil society and more openness, it will be harder for Vietnam to maintain its impressive record of economic growth.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Participatory politics thriving in Indonesia

In Indonesia, as elsewhere, politicians are often accused of failing to listen to the people. That is not a charge that can be leveled against Endang Rahayu Sedyaningsih, Indonesia's recently-appointed Health Minister.

While audience participation is normally reserved for pantomimes or bad comedy acts, Endang managed to successfully integrate it into a press conference last week.

Addressing Jakarta's cohort of foreign correspondents and assorted hangers-on on Friday, Endang began by outlining her five key priorities for her department in the year ahead:

She had no trouble recalling the first four - responsive, inclusive, effective and clean - but was completely stumped when it came the all-important final priority.

Turning to her gaggle of advisers, she asked them in Indonesian if they knew. But her hapless bag-carriers were equally clueless.

As the pause in proceedings mutated into a slightly uncomfortable silence, Endang tried to salvage the situation with a smooth one-liner.

"How could I forget?," she said in English as she looked at her assistants. "You cannot forget because you are my staff."

Thankfully, a member of Jakarta's diplomatic community who was obviously better briefed than the Health Minister finally stepped in to save the day. "The last priority is pro-poor," she said, to mirth all round.

It's not like an Indonesian politician to forget the poor, of course.

In fairness to the minister, her distinct lack of fluency appeared to be more related to English language difficulties rather than anything else.

Toward the end of her hour-long Q&A session, which had, of course, started an hour late, Endang made one particularly incisive point about the challenge of providing even the most minimal level of healthcare for a population of 240 million spread over 6,000 inhabited islands.

It is often said that politics is the art of the possible. But, in Indonesia, politics is more usually the art of the impossible.

"Everything is very bad in Indonesia," Endang said, when asked how feasible her healthcare goals were. "If you think how realistic something is, nothing will be done."

P.S. If you want a more serious take on what Endang had to say, check out my news story in the British Medical Journal.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bloggers strike a blow for investigative journalism in Singapore

The government and the government-linked mainstream media in Singapore promote a false dichotomy between "trouble-making, "Western-style investigative journalism" and "positive nation-building journalism".

This is utter nonsense on many levels and it would take far too long to expose all the hypocrisies inherent in this concept.

But I do want to pay tribute to The Online Citizen, one of Singapore's most popular citizen journalism websites, for demonstrating both the importance of investigative journalism and its positive benefits for society.

For Singapore's population of overwhelmingly craven local and foreign journalists, investigative journalism is a no-go area. But, with few resources and no professional journalists, TOC has slowly moved from being a comment blog to an outlet for increasingly more ambitious (at least in Singaporean terms) reporting.

Last week, TOC published a story on the plight of homeless Singaporeans camping out in Sembawang Park, on the northern coast of the island state. It was well known among a number of social workers that there were Singaporeans living under canvas on a semi-permanent basis (I mentioned the issue in a story about loan sharks I wrote for Asia Sentinel in August).

But TOC went down to Sembawang and told the story of these people, whose predicament gives the lie to the government's (at best ) arrogant and (at worst) dishonest insistence that there are no homeless in Singapore.

Although these people had been camping at Sembawang and other parks for months and had been seeking help from various agencies, the government had done nothing. That was until TOC covered the story, after which the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan, apparently visited the campsite, on Thursday.

While you may have presumed that he was on a fact-finding mission to find out how the government could help these poor people, events seem to suggest otherwise. On Saturday night, at 10.30pm, officials from his ministry, the parks authority and 10 police officers raided the campsite and forced some of the campers to leave.

TOC kept with the story, revealing that the government had tried to have some of the families put under something approaching house-arrest, in a half-way house for former drug abusers, and had issued others with court summonses for over-staying their permits at the park.

Now TOC tells us, all the families will be offered proper accommodation and the park campsite has been closed "for maintenance".

While the government may find it inconvenient in a possible election year for pesky citizen journalists to reveal the real nature of poverty and the limits of social welfare in Singapore, how can you argue that TOC's unpaid reporters have not provided a valuable service to their nation?

One of the societal benfits of citizen journalists is that they are more likely to follow a story through from beginning to end rather than abandon it after the first big exclusive. If TOC hadn't followed up on its first story, the campers would probably have been forced out by the police, arrested or made to move elsewhere and the matter would have dropped off the public radar.

Kudos to TOC, whose website has incidentally been plagued by hackers over the last few weeks, hence the lack of links in this blog post.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Singapore sees (some) sense over loan shark problem

Despite having floated the idea of making it a criminal offence to borrow from a loan shark, the Singapore government has finally seen sense and accepted that such a move would drive the problem deeper underground.

Although Singapore trumpets its low-crime status, the city-state has been plagued by a surge in loan shark-related violence and harassment since the credit crisis made it even harder for people to get access to finance.

On Tuesday, the government finally unveiled the details of its long-awaited Moneylenders (Amendment) Bill, which is designed to crack down hard on loan shark syndicates. The new law will toughen the penalties for those carrying out loan sharking as well as creating new offences for those who assist the gangs and bringing in measures designed to target the gang leaders by freezing their assets.

These supply-side measures are all well and good but the government still doesn't appear to understand that it is demand that is driving the loan sharks.

When I went out into the heartlands of Singapore last year to investigate the problem, I spoke to a number of social workers who assist those who cannot repay loan shark debts. Their key message was two-fold:

1. Many loan sharks are not violent thugs so much as ordinary businessmen whose trade happens to be illegal.

2. Although some loan shark debtors are gambling addicts who are deliberately targeted by unscrupulous Ah Longs - as they are known - most borrowers are willing participants, whether they need the money for necessities such as food/rent/mortgage payments or for a new business venture.

In others words, there is a genuine demand among Singapore's less well-off citizens for access to small amounts of credit that is not currently being filled by banks or other bona fide lenders.

But, in an eight-page speech delivered to Parliament on Tuesday, Ho Peng Kee, senior minister of state for law and home affairs, dedicated just two paragraphs to the question of demand

While Ho said the government empathised "with those who face an unplanned, temporary and short-term financial squeeze," he stressed that the government was not going to do anything to help them, other than telling them not to borrow from Ah Longs.

"I urge people with a genuine financial need not to be tempted to take what they perceive as the easy way out by borrowing from loan sharks. Instead, they should tap other channels – community-based ones, commercially-driven ones as well as grassroots-related ones - for help. Family members, relatives and friends can also lend a helping hand to help these unfortunate ones tide over their temporary financial squeeze."

In other words: on yer bike.

There was an interesting piece in last week's Time magazine about how Grameen Bank, the Bangladeshi microfinance pioneer, was looking to expand in America.

Hard-up Singaporeans could also do with a bit of microfinance it seems. It might even help to promote entrepreneurship at a time when productivity has been falling in Singapore.

When I was in Bangladesh last year, I met a number of people working in microfinance who told me that the industry had reached saturation point - that there was too much cash floating around and not enough decent people to lend it to.

Maybe they should look to Singapore, so long as the government, which has shown a reluctance to open up the domestic banking sector to foreign companies, lets them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Indonesian clerics ban women from hair-styling, but don't throw out your straighteners yet

In their latest fatwa, a group of Indonesia's fun-loving Muslim clerics have outlawed pre-wedding photos and banned women from straightening their hair or using motorbike taxis.

At a meeting in East Java, 250 clerics agreed that it should be forbidden for women to change their hairstyle lest they attract members of the opposite sex, according to the Jakarta Post.

Rather strangely, the clerics also moved to bar women from working as motorbike taxi - or "ojek" - drivers. "Women are not allowed to become ojek drivers because it would be hard for them to avoid sinful acts and matters that could lead to slander," said preacher Tohari Muslim.

I've yet to see a female ojek driver but presumably the clerics are scandalised by the mere thought of it. For good measure, they've also banned women from using ojeks.

"It is also haram for women to take ojek because her skin could brush against that of the opposite sex, she could expose her aurat, or be in close proximity to male ojek drivers in deserted places," explained Muhammad Nabiel Haroen , the clerics' spokesman.

The interesting thing is that, unlike in Malaysia where the government has been pandering to the more extreme clerics in an attempt to shore up its Malay/Muslim support base, such rulings have no legal significance in 86 percent of Muslim but secular Indonesia (except in Aceh, which has adopted Shariah).

As the cleric's spokesman admits: "The edict is binding for all Muslims in Indonesia, but it's up to individuals to abide by it because Indonesia is not an Islamic state."

Contrast that attitude with the Malaysian government's decision to ban non-Muslims from using the word Allah to describe god.


Friday, January 15, 2010

The uneven nature of Singapore's justice system

With 21-year-old Malaysian drug mule Yong Vui Kong likely to face the gallows in Singapore this year (pending a final appeal) for importing 42 grams of heroin I was bemused to read about the following case in the Straits Times:

Madhuri Jaya Chandra Reddy, a 21-year-old Indian national, has been found guilty of strangling a prostitute who was seven months pregnant and stuffing her body beneath the bed of a hotel room in Geylang, Singapore's red light district, before bringing another prostitute back to the room and having sex with her on the same bed.

While murder, like drug trafficking, carries the mandatory death penalty, Reddy received the relatively lenient sentence of 17 years in jail and 12 strokes of the cane.

The reason: prosecutors accepted his guilty plea of "culpable homicide" (similar to manslaughter) rather than push for a murder charge that would have sent Reddy to the gallows if he was found guilty.

Reddy claimed in court that the woman had tried to attack him by approaching him with a clenched fist following a dispute about whether he had to pay for another round of sex, according to Channel News Asia.

Without out having sat in on the proceedings it is impossible to judge whether this was the case. What is clear is that the Singaporean prosecutors and judge showed Reddy a certain level of leniency by not pursuing a murder charge and by not giving him the maximum life sentence applicable for those found guilty of culpable homicide.

My point is not to cast doubt on the outcome of Reddy's trial but to demonstrate the extreme disparity between how the justice system has treated Reddy, who killed a pregnant woman in a heinous fashion, and Yong, who smuggled a small amount of drugs into Singapore.

Although Yong's appeal is likely to fail, there is still time for Singaporeans to put pressure on their government to show a naive, low-level drug mule the leniency that has been accorded to a callous killer.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More woes for Singapore sovereign wealth funds

A monkey throwing darts at the share pages of the Financial Times could have made bucket loads of cash over the last year. But Singapore's super-smart sovereign wealth funds, which lost billions of dollars by investing in Western banks at the height of the bubble, seem to be having renewed difficulties even while every other Joe is lining their pockets.

The estimated $675 million that the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) appears to have lost on a bad property investment in New York is arguably the least of Singapore's overseas investment problems.

Any investor can make a bad individual call and you have to take the rough with the smooth.

What's more worrying is the emerging governance crisis at Malaysia's Alliance Bank, in which Temasek is a key shareholder, having bought a 29 percent stake in 2005 and parachuted in a new chief executive and several directors. (For those of you who don't know, Temasek is an "Asia investment house headquartered in Singapore" - a Singapore government euphemism for a sovereign wealth fund.)

The exact details of the problems at Alliance Bank remain unclear but the company has confirmed that it is conducting an internal investigation into a corporate governance related issue.

Chief executive Bridget Lai, who was headhunted by Temasek from her previous job Standard Chartered, is currently on leave (and will be for another two weeks) while this investigation is carried out. Chief operating officer Shim Kon Tek is also on leave.

But Lai remains chief executive and stated earlier this month that rumours that she had resigned were "wholly untrue" and "highly defamatory".

An analyst who attended an investor briefing by the company on Friday hinted that the investigation "was purely a disciplinary one related to branch refurbishment contracts whereby due procedures were not followed in relation to filing of paperwork and checks over external renovators’ qualifications," according to a Malaysian press report.

While the details are sketchy, companies do not normally send their chief executive and number two on leave pending an internal investigation for no reason. Unsurprisingly given the lack of information, investment banks have rushed to downgrade their recommendations on Alliance.

Temasek, like other sovereign wealth funds, is under more pressure than ordinary fund managers to uphold high standards of corporate governance. Yet something seems to have gone wrong on Temasek's watch at Alliance.

And make no mistake. Although Temasek only owns 29 percent of the shares, it is a key driver behind Alliance. Not only is the CEO a Temasek appointee but four of the nine other board members are current or former Temasek employees.

Singaporean government officials love to lecture their Malaysian counterparts on issues of transparency and governance. On this occasion, it appears the Singaporeans will have little to brag about.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Asian Development Bank just whistling in the wind

The Asian Development Bank, the large multi-lateral development lender that never gets coverage in the press, has today unveiled new provisions to protect whisteblowers who come forward in the fight against corruption, which is endemic in many of the countries where the ADB operates.

But I doubt such provisions will make any difference.

The construction industries in countries like Indonesia and Vietnam operate solely through kickbacks and bribes.

If the ADB wants to lend money to fund infrastructure projects in these places, it cannot avoid getting its hands dirty at some stage. So, like all multinational organisations operating in corrupt countries, the ADB makes sure that it is separated from the inevitable backhanders and dodgy deals by a couple of degrees - what the CIA calls "plausible deniability".

So the ADB and the governments it works with subcontract out large projects like dam or power station construction to international consultancies (what they call "involving the private sector") who then bring in local consultants (what they call "knowledge transfer"), who bring in their own sub-consultants to hand out the brown envelopes and hire in the hookers (what they call "leveraging on local expertise").

I don't particularly blame the ADB as I know from people working in the construction and development sectors in Southeast Asia that you cannot change such an ingrained system overnight.

The problem is that the ADB gets such little press coverage that most people don't have a clue about the extent of the problem.

Worrying times for human rights in Southeast Asia

Most nations in Southeast Asia (Myanmar excluded) have made slow but steady progress on human rights issues over the last five years. However, there are worrying signs across the region that the repression of political, religious and other individual freedoms is returning with renewed vigour, as this round-up by the Jakarta Post points out.

The dark history of extra-judicial killings and disappearances of political or human rights activists seems so distant in democratic Indonesia, a decade after the collapse of Soeharto’s authoritarianism.

That, however, is no sign that human rights is no longer an issue in this country of 230 million people.

Only recently, a mob attacked a church that was still under construction in Bekasi, West Java, adding to the long list of cases of religious violence in the world’s largest Muslim country, which includes the banning of Ahmadiyah and the imprisonment of many whose faith has been deemed heretical and blasphemous by religious authorities.

While the mystery surrounding the 2004 killing of Munir Said Thalib has not been resolved, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono riled rights activists last week by appointing Lt. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin as deputy defense minister, a move critics said highlighted Indonesia’s persistent culture of impunity.

The general is alleged to have been involved in a series of human rights abuses during the political turmoil in 1998. “The President’s step could tarnish Indonesia’s good reputation concerning human rights,” said Commission of Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) coordinator Usman Hamid.

And the situation is no less disheartening in other ASEAN countries.

Myanmar has not yet released opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from her house detention, and has barred her from participating in the 2010 elections under a new election law, defying calls from leaders around the world to free the country’s democracy icon.

The encouraging signs of the junta opening up to the outside world have not yet resulted in the release of hundreds of jailed political activists there either.

In the Philippines, civilians including journalists were brutally killed in an apparently election-linked massacre in November last year, an atrocity which prompted global condemnation and that was recorded in history as one of the darkest days for journalists.

In Malaysia and Vietnam, political freedom is not yet a reality, even in the blogosphere where anonymity usually provides greater freedom to digital gadflies. Vietnam has recently launched a crackdown on bloggers who are critical of Communist Party policies, sending them to jail for breaching the security law.

According to the Associated Press, the bloggers were arrested because they spoke against the government’s policies toward China.

The supremacy of Islam as the state’s religion in Malaysia has also raised concerns of diminishing religious freedom in the country. The latest example was the government’s insistence on banning a Catholic publication from using the word “Allah” for God, which it said was exclusive to Islam.

Five churches were attacked last week in relation to the “Allah” row after the Malaysian government appealed a high court decision that overturned the ban.

Rights activists have also criticized ASEAN’s handling of sepa-ratist movements in restive regions such as in the southern parts of the Philippines and Thailand, and the eastern part of Indonesia, which often deliberately ignore any human rights approaches to reconciliation.

Thailand last month reprehensibly deported thousands of the Hmong refugees back to Laos, prompting condemnation from the international community who feared the Laos’ ethnic minority who backed the US during the Vietnam War may face more persecution. Myanmar also committed heinous crimes against Muslim Rohingyas.

As if domestic rights issues were not that overwhelming, Southeast Asian countries have now become a transit point for migrants fleeing war-torn and poverty-stricken homelands — another issue that also needs to be addressed with regard to human rights norms

To that list you can add Singapore, where the government has begun a subtle crackdown ahead of the general election expected in the next year. The government has brought in a "cooling off period" designed to give the the ruling People's Action Party an extra advantage, has recently jailed opposition politician Chee Siok Chin for handing out leaflets and is increasing its harassment of foreign journalists. I was the first to be forced out but I hear that others are now experiencing difficulties.

In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen is showing a renewed desire to crush his opponents.

So, in theory, there should be a lot for the new ASEAN Inter-Governmental Commission for Human Rights to discuss at the moment.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Singapore hack attacks reveal growing importance of citizen journalism sites

The Online Citizen, one of Singapore's leading citizen journalism websites, is currently out of action because of a "denial of service" attack. I'm no tech expert but I'm led to believe that this means that a hacker (or group of hackers) bombard a website with so many requests for information that it crashes.

This is the first recent such attach on The Online Citizen but another alternative news website in Singapore, the Temasek Review, has come under such attack on several occasions in the last few months.

What is going on here? The unwashed pyjama-clad conspiracy brigade like to believe that Singapore's much-feared but rarely seen Internal Security Department is behind these moves to disrupt Singapore's nascent independent news providers.

Given the many more discrete tools at their disposal, I find it extremely doubtful that the government would use such a blunt method.

If they really wanted to disrupt the citizen journalism scene, I expect they would require all "political" news websites to register and put up a "security bond" of several thousand dollars or bring a libel/contempt of court case against one of the websites to send waves of fear coursing through the still-cautious Singaporean blogosphere.

More likely is that some pesky delinquent - and there is no shortage of tech savvy, disaffected youths in Singapore - has decided it would be fun to take down a few prominent websites.

And that, in many respects, is a compliment to the growing power of sites like The Online Citizen and Temasek Review. Comment trolls (who spout abuse or proffer porn links in the comments section) and web hackers are the online equivalents of the green-ink brigade, the scathing if often less than coherent correspondents who pass their days by writing into newspapers and TV news stations to complain of perceived inaccuracies and bias while usually serving up a healthy dose of invective and abuse.

If they (whoever they may be) are bothering to try and take you down, then you must be doing something right, so keep up the good work.


Who are the Singaporean refugees?

In a recent story for Asia Sentinel, a sister publication of Asian Correspondent, I revealed that a small but determined bunch of Singaporeans have been seeking asylum in western nations over the last few years.

Despite its obvious curbs on key political freedoms, Singapore is far, far from being considered a pariah nation by the West, so I was surprised to discover that quite a few Singaporeans have been accepted as refugees in Canada and the US.

Twelve of the 29 Singaporeans who applied for refugee status in Canada between 2005 and 2009 were granted asylum. Another 26 were granted asylum in the US.

Canada and the US, like other Western nations, set the bar pretty high for those seeking asylum so I wonder what prompted them to accept these recent refugees from Singapore.

So far, I've been unable to track down any of the successful refugees but, if you are in this position or you know of someone who is, please drop me a line at

I will treat any information you wish to share in confidence.


Friday, January 8, 2010

The best pitch invasion ever?

I normally view football fans who invade the pitch with utter contempt, particularly in England, where encroachment onto the field is a criminal offence and such acts tend to land the host club in hot water with the Football Association and the police.

But I have to hand it to 25-year-old Hendri Mulyadi, who stormed onto the pitch in the dying minutes of Indonesia's 2-1 defeat to Oman on Wednesday, picked up the ball and went on a searing run down the left wing before cutting onto his right foot inside the box and, unfortunately, shooting straight at the Oman goalkeeper. And all that in 30-degree heat and cloying humidity.

It was a performance that put the Indonesian national team, which has failed to qualify for the Asian Cup for the first time since 1992, to shame. None of the Oman defenders even got close to Hendri as he weaved his way toward goal.

In the end, he was only stopped by an Indonesia policeman who used the sort of neck-high tackle that's not even allowed in rugby.

As I mentioned above, pitch invaders are normally viewed with scorn in England. But Hendri, who says he was motivated by frustration at Indonesia's poor recent performances, has been hailed on websites and in the Indonesian press as symbol of the growing dissatisfaction with the national team and the football authorities.

In an editorial headlined "Hendri, the 12th player', the Jakarta Post even calls for more fans to follow his lead and show their frustration:

"As the 12th player, the public plays an important role in a soccer match. Their cheers and boos show which side they root for. Until the PSSI does something to lift Indonesia’s performance at the international stage, let’s hope there are more Hendris who can vent our frustrations over our soccer team."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Straight-up Singaporeans not ready for viral marketing

It was exactly the sort of low-cost "viral marketing" stunt beloved of big companies sick of spending millions on mass market advertising campaigns for little obvious return.

SingPost, the Singapore postal service provider, brought in A Group of People, a so-called "guerrilla marketing" agency, to daub "graffiti" on several post boxes around the city-state over the new year period.

Unfortunately for SingPost, it appears that straight-up Singaporeans are not yet ready for such publicity stunts.

The graffiti artist was spotted in the act by a number of Singaporeans who were so horrified that they recorded the unspeakable act and uploaded videos to YouTube. Some even called the Police.

Even though SingPost had apparently informed the Police in advance of its intentions - a wise move in a police state - the boys in blue were none too pleased when people started ringing them up to complain about these "acts of vandalism"

"The whole episode had caused unnecessary public alarm and wasted valuable resources," said a police spokesman, according to the Straits Times.

Presumably after a few friendly words from the Police, the SingPost chief executive Wilson Tan yesterday apologised "for any inconvenience caused to all parties".

All in all, not exactly the best advert for Singapore's creative pull as a "Media Hub".





Indonesia's central bank turns financial crisis on its head

Economists don't usually agree about much but the vast majority seem to have concurred that the near-collapse of the global financial system was caused by banks lending out too much easy money without having the necessary capital to back it up.

So since governments in Europe and the US stepped in to bail out the ailing banks, regulators have begun trying to ensure that the minimum capital requirements for banks are increased.

A sensible solution, you might think, but how to stimulate the corporate lending that's vital to economic recovery while requiring banks to sequester more cash?

Fearful that banks are hoarding cash rather than lending to needy businesses, Indonesia's central bank, Bank Indonesia, has come up with a novel solution:

Allow those banks that lend more to reduce the amount of regulatory capital they are required to put on deposit with the central bank. In other words, penalise those banks that have the most solid foundations and encourage banks to splash the cash with little regard to how much real money they actually have in their vaults.

Bank Indonesia has yet to release the full details of this new policy but it seems counter-intuitive at best and, in a country where memories of the devastating bank collapses of the 1997-1998 crisis are still reasonably fresh, completely barmy at worst.

Still, you have to admire BI's chutzpah in trying to drive economic recovery by encouraging reckless lending.


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Google solves mystery of little brown turds

I was disturbed, extremely disturbed. Moving to a new country can be a disorienting process at the best of times.

It is made no easier when you wake up each morning to find a smattering of small brown turds littered across the white floor tiles.

As I removed the mysterious defecatory material every day, I was tortured by the knowledge that I would have to face the same unpleasant task in 24 hours time.

What worried me more was the vexed question of which heinous creature was using my apartment as a public toilet.

Living on the 23rd floor of a reasonably modern Jakarta apartment block, I presumed that I would be spared the harassment of mice or rats.

And, in any case, the said turds looked too small to have been produced by a rodent.

I had seen a few geckos skulking around the flat at night but, despite many previous encounters with these inoffensive reptiles, had never knowingly come into contact with their shit.

In the pre-internet era, if I’d wanted to find out the identity of my tormentor, I would probably have had to bag up the beast’s stool and send a sample to the Natural History Museum in London for analysis.

Thanks to Google, I merely typed the words “gecko” and “shit” into my web browser and, eureka, I had found my culprit.

During my feculent journey of discovery, I also discovered that gecko’s get rid of their urine in solid form, little white spots attached to their little brown turds. Apparently it’s the reptilian equivalent of passing a kidney stone every time you piss – sounds painful.

Fascinating as all this information is, it doesn’t really help me solve my main dilemma.

I could try to get rid of the geckos with bug spray but they perform a useful role by eating mosquitoes and other pesky insects. And with the seasonal dengue fever peak coming up next month in Jakarta, having a few allies in the fight against the mozzies can’t be a bad thing.

Now to find a gecko poop-a-scoop on eBay....

Monday, January 4, 2010

Return to the Lion City

Just over six weeks after I was forced to stop working in Singapore, I returned to the Lion City for the first time last week, on a brief break from Jakarta.

Despite some uncertainty over whether or not I would be welcomed back into the Merlion's warm embrace, my re-entry into Singapore passed without incident. The immigration officer at Changi airport gave me a few dodgy looks but stamped me in, meaning, hopefully, that I am not on any blacklist.

Although I have been accused by some people of being hostile toward Singapore and therefore getting my comeuppance when I was denied a work visa, I actually grew very fond of the city-state during my year-long stay.

After the chaos of Jakarta, it was nice to be in a city with proper infrastructure and greenery. Despite the lack of respect for certain key human rights, it is impossible to deny that the Singapore government has done a great job of developing the island and its economy.

When it comes to appreciations of development in Singapore, the key dividing line opens up over whether authoritarian government was/is necessary for growth or whether such repression in fact hindered/hinders it.

It is not an easy question to answer.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The pants bomber backlash and the difference between secrets and mysteries

The political fallout from the failed Christmas Day plane bombing continues to spread as yet more evidence emerges that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was “known to security services” in the US, UK and Nigeria long before his decision to stuff his underpants with explosives and board a flight to Detroit.

The latest revelation, courtesy of the UK’s Sunday Times, is that the 23-year-old Nigerian had “multiple communications” with Islamic extremists while studying for an engineering degree at University College London three years ago.

Taken alongside the facts that Abdulmutallab was on a US terrorist database (the ridiculously named Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment), his father had warned the CIA about his son’s behaviour and that US intelligence knew of a Yemen-based plot for a Nigerian to blow up a plane, it looks as if the failure to stop the attack was an almighty cock-up.

So it is little wonder that Barack Obama and the US security services have come under fire.

Such backlashes are common are after any “surprise” attack, whether it’s 9/11 or Pearl Harbour.

Although Pearl Harbour, 9/11 and the pants bomber all appeared to catch the security establishment off guard at the time, later investigations have revealed in all three cases that there were actually some warning signs.

However, that does not mean that we should necessarily conclude that all three incidents were “intelligence failures”.

As Christopher Andrew, the doyen of intelligence history taught me when I was a student, to make a fair assessment of when such failures occur, you have to understand the difference between secrets and mysteries.

Secrets are facts that, while extremely difficult to uncover, can potentially be revealed by good intelligence work. For example, the fact that the Russians were moving nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962 or the fact that Islamist extremists were taking flying lessons before 9/11 without much interest in learning how to take-off or land.

Mysteries, on other hand, are things like individual intentions, which are impossible to discover. So while the US was able to use reconnaissance and human intelligence to confirm that the Russians were placing missiles in Cuba (a secret), they were never able to determine whether or not Krushchev planned to launch a pre-emptive strike against America (a mystery).

By applying this formula to the Abdulmutallab case, it helps to develop a more nuanced understanding of whether there was an intelligence failure or not.

The security services in the US and the UK had uncovered the “secrets” that Abdulmutallab was linked to Islamic extremists, had expressed extreme views himself and that there were plans for a Nigerian based in Yemen to launch an attack on a plane.

Now that we know Abdulmutallab’s intentions, it looks as if the security services were remiss in not tying these threads together. But, we must remember that before Abdulmutallab tried to set off his bomb, his intention to do so would have remained a “mystery”.

While Abdulmutallab’s father apparently warned the CIA about his son’s extremist views, that is very different from warning them that his son was involved in a plot to blow up a plane using explosives secreted in his underpants.

If you broaden this argument out, you start to see just how daunting a task the security services face in combating Islamic terrorism. While good intelligence work can help security services to uncover extremists and those linked to known plotters, it is almost impossible to find out the specific intentions of these individuals, particularly given the increasingly dis-intermediated nature of Al Qaeda-style terrorism.

The Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment database alone has more than 550,000 names on it. How can even the best security services see inside the heads of half a million people, especially with limited resources?

None of which is to say that the fact that Abdulmutallab was not picked up before his attempted attack was not necessarily an intelligence failure.

Just that we need to have a better understanding of the immense challenge facing the security services before snapping to retrospective judgements about whether they screwed up or not.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Reporting on the Great Leader is a dangerous business

In Singapore, as in any authoritarian state, the task of reporting the utterances of the Great Leader is a perilous one for any journalist.

You need only look at the case of Val Chua, a former reporter at Singapore freesheet Today, to understand how risky it can be.

Chua innocently reported some negative comments made by Lee Kuan Yew about the NHS when his wife had a stroke in London in 2003. The comments sparked a minor political row between Singapore and the UK and Today and Chua were ultimately made to carry the can (thankfully for Chua, she seems to have bounced back in her new career in PR and she now heads up the communications team at the Marina Bay Sands casino).

It is, therefore, no surprise that when presented with the bountiful journalistic gifts contained in the transcript of Lee’s interview with National Geographic, Channel News Asia, which is 100 percent owned by Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek, decided to play it safe.

CNA’s news story, headlined “Social cohesion key to keeping Singapore going: MM Lee”, makes no mention of Lee’s comments about lazy animal-like Singaporeans needing to feel “the spurs in their hide”. (hat-tip to Temasek Review)

While CNA has predictably opted to censor its story, more amusingly, it has also decided to censor Lee Kuan Yew.

Even though the government has released a perfectly-decent transcript of the interview, CNA chose to make its own version, that has been subtly edited.

What they’ve left in is almost as revealing as what they’ve left out.

Lee’s crypto-racist paranoia about Malays/Muslims is obviously considered fit for public consumption as are his comments about the quality of porn on the internet.

But CNA appears to have cut the section where Lee reveals that he won’t go to hawker centres any more for fear that ordinary Singaporeans might dare to shake his mighty hand.

I thought this was one of the more revealing comments in the whole interview as it not only shows his disdain for his own people but casts doubt on his appetite to “fight” for his parliamentary seat at the next election.

For deprived CNA readers, here are the comments in full:

"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."

Like all the state-owned media outlets in Singapore, Channel News Asia is routinely asked by government officials to alter/remove stories that are deemed “inaccurate” so it is no wonder that its oft-harangued hacks are trying to stay ahead of the game.

In many ways, they have acted with extreme courage by daring to edit Lee Kuan Yew’s comments. Not many people would risk his wrath by deigning to tell him what he should or shouldn’t say.