Sunday, February 28, 2010

Quote of the week: Thaksin advises businessmen not to enter politics

"If you are a businessman, think hard if you are tempted to play politics."

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra speaking via video link after the country's highest courty seized $1.4bn of his assets, having ruled that he abused his power while in office.

While Thaksin blamed "mean politics" for the "discriminatory" ruling, it's worth pointing out that it was the self-same politics that allowed him to grow his fortune.

Although the much-feared violence has yet to break out, Thailand still remains as politically divided as ever.

In the words of Duncan McCargo, an expert on Thai affairs at the University of Leeds, what the country now needs badly is "a political compromise – a big dodgy deal, in short".

Friday, February 26, 2010

Is Aceh really a safe haven for Islamic terrorists?

Following the arrest of four members of an unnamed Islamic terroist group in Aceh earlier this week, Indonesia's English language press has been quick to suggest that the province, which has imposed shariah law, is something of a safe haven for militants.

An article in Thursday's Jakarta Globe quotes terrorism experts and police who argue that the strength of fundamentalist Islam in Aceh makes it an ideal staging post for wannabe terrorists.

But Aaron Connelly, an American researcher in Jakarta who I met the other day, casts doubt in an interesting blog post on the simplicity of this argument and suggests that there may be darker forces at work behind this week's arrests and the death of an innocent bystander in a cross-fire.

His post raises the wider question of how the adoption of shariah law in Aceh (after the peace talks that ended the long-running separatist conflict) has been reported in the Western media. The focus has been on emphasizing extremism in Aceh by pointing to some of the shocking judgements/rulings/behaviour by the religious police and courts.

But the question of how far there is public support in Aceh for these measures is much less frequently asked, although Aaron points to a piece by freelance journalist Peter Gelling that addresses this issue. If I get time, I'd like to go to Aceh later this year to find out more.

Disclosure: among other things, I'm currently working as an editor at the Jakarta Globe.




Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Singapore government dodges Malay education issue again

Contrary to popular perception, Singapore does actually have a working Parliament, in which ministers are occasionally asked questions, some of which are not plants or attempts to crawl up the arse of a minister.

In Parliament yesterday, one such incident occurred, when Zaqy Mohamed, vice-chairman of the ruling People's Action Party's youth wing and an ethnic Malay MP, asked the education minister what was being done about the persistent educational under-performance of Malay students compared to Singaporeans of other ethnic backgrounds.

The problem is a serious and persistent one. Figures from the Education Ministry show that while Singaporean exam results have increased across the board over the last decade, the stark disparities between the city-state's main three ethnic groups remain.

In 2008, just 59.3% of Malay students achieved 5 passes at O-level, the exams taken by 15 and 16-year-olds, compared to 86.2% of Chinese and 73% of Indians.

The disparity, which appears to be particularly sharp when it comes to Maths and Science, seems embedded from a young age. While 89.6% of Chinese and 72.9% of Indian kids taking the Primary School Leaving Examination achieved A*-C grades in Maths, only 56.3% of Malay kids managed the same feat.

The only area where Malay students seem to come out on top, according to the government figures, is in terms of mother-tongue ability. 98.6% of Malay students taking the PSLE achieve an A*-C in their mother-tongue exam compared to 98.4% of Chinese and 96.7% of Indians.

But despite the clear message of this data, the government, which tiptoes around racial issues because of fears of ethnic disharmony, does not appear willing to confront the problem.

In response to Zaqy's question, the education minister Ng Eng Hen said only that the performance by Malay students had been "stable" over the last decade, with some improvements in Malay and English.

While Zaqy wanted to know "what more can be done to help Malay students progress at the same rate, if not better, compared to their peers from the other race groups", Ng offered only vague platitudes, as he side-stepped the issue.

"Parents and families, of all races, can support students by ensuring that they attend school regularly, motivating them to work hard, and adopting good habits like reading widely," the minister said. "Community and self-help groups can also help families deal with problem issues related to finances, jobs and relationships, in order to create a more supportive home environment."

In other words: nothing to do with me, mate.

It's not surprising to see the government dodging this intractable and controversial issue again. The question is whether the PAP's seeming indifference is motivated more by its over-arching self-help philosophy or by the fact that a Chinese-dominated party in a Chinese-dominated nation is not too bothered by the underperformance of the Malay minority.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Singapore casino crimes may be a taste of things to come

As a regular contributor to Gambling Compliance, an industry publication, I closely followed Singapore's transition into a casino city.

One of the biggest concerns for Singapore's nascent casino regulators and police was how to ensure that the crime, both organized and low-level, that plagues Macau and other casino destinations in Asia was not replicated in the a city that prides itself on its safety and security.

So what to make of the news that Singapore arrested eight people and jailed one within the first four days of the opening of the first of Singapore's two casinos?

The crimes - theft of a mobile phone, identity fraud and attempts to avoid the S$100 ($71) daily entry fee for locals - were pretty minor and I suspect the authorities will not be too bothered about a few initial such offences.

But the police will be keen to ensure that such petty crime does not become endemic.

Nevertheless, the bigger concern is regarding organised crime: illegal moneylending, money laundering, side-betting and related issues including prostitution and violence.

These professional crooks are much more sophisticated and it will take some time before it becomes apparent whether the Singaporean authorities have managed to keep them away from its virgin casinos.

I'm hoping to visit the casinos in the next couple of months to get a better idea of how Singapore's latest gambling experiment is working out.

Back in the saddle

After a much-needed break in Bali, I'm now back in Jakarta and getting back to the blogging.

Feel free to post any comments or suggestions below, drop me an email at or contact me viaTwitter @benjaminbland.



Friday, February 12, 2010

Disgusted of Toa Payoh

"Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" is a spoof letter sign-off typically used to mock those pedantic, easily-offended members of the English middle class who are wont to write to missives of complaint to newspapers over the merest trifle.

But these much-derided scribes are nothing compared to Singapore's angry letter writers, who are emboldened by a sense of entitlement passed down to them by the nanny-state government.

While "disgusted of Tunbridge Wells" may, from time to time, take the edge off their perpetual sense of outrage by imbibing a few stiff drinks, Singapore's "disgusted of Toa Payoh" never lets up. And that's one of the reasons that I sorely miss opening up the Straits Times every morning to read the latest incredulous correspondence.

Thanks to the internet, though, I can still read gems such as this letter to the Straits Times forum from Lim Yong Soon, who may or may not live in Toa Payoh, a public housing estate in central Singapore that is popular with Chinese families. The correspondent is scandalised by the common local practice of reserving a table at a food court or hawker centre by putting down a packet of tissues:

I am shocked that some Singaporeans continue to regard their tissue paper packet as an endorsement of their public reservation of a table for lunch or dinner.

I had lunch recently at the Great World City foodcourt. I spotted an empty table while my friend went to order the food.

This was a table for four, and this young man in his mid or late 20s plonked down at the table and said it was his as he had a tissue paper packet there.

There was no tissue paper packet around, so he insinuated that I had removed it so I could occupy the table. He then called his friend and one minute later, she appeared and also plonked down at the table.

I would have gladly shared the table with them had they been polite and not accused me of removing their tissue paper.

I was shocked by such ugly behaviour.


Upon the fields of Bali

Posting may be light to non-existent over the next few days as I'm off on a short break to Bali, sans laptop.

Feel free to opine, rant or advertise your penis enlargement solution in the comments.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Indonesia facing emerging refugee crisis

There's an interesting in-depth report on Indonesia's emerging refugee crisis in today's edition of the Jakarta Globe (only a short version appears to be online).

The story, by Putri Prameshwari, reveals that the number of illegal immigrants seeking sanctuary in Indonesia surged last year to 2,504, up from 369 in the previous year. These official figures from the immigration department probably include only a fraction of the thousands of boat people and other refugees who arrive in Indonesia each year.

Most of the refugees come from Afghanistan, Burma, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka. As one of the region's few genuine democracies, and with vast, porous sea-borders, Indonesia is a relatively attractive destination. As a majority Muslim nation, it also has a particular pull for Muslim refugees.

Indonesia has in the past extended the hand of friendship to some of those fleeing conflicts and political repression. When a group of Burmese permanent residents were booted out of Singapore after protesting outside the Myanmar embassy during the Saffron uprising in 2007, Indonesia took some of them in rather than allow them to be deported to Burma, where they would have faced likely imprisonment.

But, according to officials who have spoken to the Globe, Indonesia, with its limited resources and plentiful social existing problems, is struggling to deal with the rising tide of refugees.

All of this begs the question of what responsibilities developing countries have to look after refugees.

Most Southeast Asian nations insist that they cannot afford to take in refugees - even wealthy Singapore. Only Cambodia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste have signed the UN's refugee conventions.

That's understandable. But, if large developing countries such as Indonesia want to have a greater say on the world stage, they will increasingly have to accept that if they want more global rights and a bigger voice, then they must take on more responsibilities.

Disclosure: I'm currently working as an editor at the Globe.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Quote of the week: Anwar Ibrahim sodomy trial

"Can I fuck you today?"

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's supposed "Mrs Robinson" moment, according to Saiful, the young former aide to Anwar who is now his chief accuser in a politically-charged sodomy trial that has gripped Malaysia.

It is upon the judges' interpretation of these words and other lurid details that Malaysia's political future depends. The trial, which is the second time that Anwar has been charged with having anal sex (a criminal offence in Malaysia), has been dubbed Sodomy II by Malaysia's dutiful state-owned press and Fitnah 2 - or "Defamation 2" - by Anwar's opposition allies.

The over-arching narrative of the coverage of the trial in the international media has been that these charges are either trumped up or politically-motivated or both.

Government politicians such as Khairy Jamaluddin, who heads the youth wing of the ruling UMNO party, have urged people not to pre-judge the outcome of the trial. But, given that the independence of the Malaysian police and judiciary was dismantled by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, it is hard to believe that Anwar's predicament is not driven by political imperatives.

Anwar insists that the charges are trumped up and that he is the victim of a political conspiracy by UMNO to destory Malaysia's resurgent opposition movement.



Friday, February 5, 2010

Who will rid me of this turbulent beast, asks SBY

Even the idle utterances of great men can carry considerable force, particularly among their closest confidants.

Hence, when, according to British folklore, Henry II wondered aloud "who will rid me of this turbulent priest?", four royal knights interpreted his comments as a subtle instruction to strike down Thomas Beckett and dutiful obliged their king.

840 years later and 7000 miles away, when Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, president of Indonesia, complained about a group of protesters who had brought a buffalo to a demonstration and suggested that the beast symbolised the president as being "big, stupid and lazy", SBY's advisers sprung into action.

On Wednesday, the police stopped a truck carrying the infamous beast - called "Si Lebay" - from coming into Jakarta. On Thursday, State Secretary Sudi Silalhi claimed there was an existing law preventing people from bringing animals to demonstrations and that they should refrain from doing so in future.

And then on Friday, the President's faithful spokesman, Julian Aldrin Pasha, called for a new law to ban the "humiliation" of "state symbols" (i.e. his boss).

Indonesia abolished the Suharto-era laws that made mocking the president a criminal offence in 2006.

That SBY apparently wants to bring them back is just the latest in a number of growing encroachments into free speech since he was re-elected with a large personal mandate in July. For a good review of the book and film bans and other restrictions, check out this piece in The Economist.

Is it just me, or does SBY need to grow a thicker skin?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Will world's greatest super-power finally stand up to little red dot?

Watch out Lee Kuan Yew, one of Barack Obama's soldiers of freedom is out to get you. After decades of silence on the ingrained human rights abuses and lack of genuine democracy in the Lion City, the nominee to be the next US ambassador to Singapore seems ready to shake things up.

During pre-appointment questioning by senator Jim Webb, the key advocate of rapprochement with Burma, David Adelman said that while he wanted to build on America's strong partnership with Singapore, he would push the government to open up and allow greater democratic freedom.

"Make no mistake, currently Singapore is not a multi-party democracy," he said, according to AFP.

"I intend, if confirmed, to use public diplomacy to work towards greater press freedoms, greater freedom of assembly and ultimately more political space for opposition parties in Singapore."

That's not the kind of sentiment the ruling People's Action Party wants to hear with an election due by early 2012.

Whether Adelman (if confirmed) will have the cojones to share these sentiments with Lee Kuan Yew or his son, the Prime Minister, when he gets to meet them is another issue altogether. Most members of the Singapore diplomatic community steer clear of such sensitive political issues for fear of jeopardising their countries' often-lucrative business interests in the city-state.

In the meantime, the PAP apparatchiks and their civil service allies will once again be preparing to deploy their stock line about "Western-style liberal democracy" not being appropriate for a society governed by "Asian values". I suspect they are even firing up their current attack dog of choice, law minister K. Shanmugam, as I write this.

The de-humanisation of domestic workers in Singapore

I've got nothing per se against people hiring willing foreign employees to work in their house on a full-time basis, cooking, cleaning and perhaps looking after the kids.

But, as Jolene Tan, a Singaporean writer at the f word, a feminist online magazine, argues, the manner in which many maids are treated in Singapore is often deliberately abusive and/or degrading with the intention of dehumanising the women who take on this job.

Maids are usually put up in tiny windowless cubby holes without fans or air-conditioning, forced to surrender their passport, given one day off a month (if they are lucky) and scolded over minor complaints (leaving a crease in a shirt, buying the wrong flavour of Ben and Jerry's ice cream for little Johnny, etc).

More importantly, despite the fact that she may often be the driving force behind the household and perhaps have a closer relationship with the children than the parents, the maid is not allowed to behave like a person.

As Jolene puts it:

One sought-after trait, which sadly cannot yet be reliably gauged by even the most competent businesses, is quiescence. The maid mustn’t get ideas above her station, like thinking she is entitled to one day off a month, or considering changing employer if her current post isn’t working out, or - worst of all - eating biscuits, thus forcing you to beat her. Savvy employers sometimes pick Indonesian workers because FDWs from the Philippines are reputed to be more knowledgeable and assertive about their rights, as well as being likely to speak English, the local lingua franca.

There is a strong sexual element here. Singapore, as Jolene mentions and writer Catherine Lim has argued, is a fiercely patriarchal society, headed by the patriarch-in-chief Lee Kuan Yew. Jolene continues:

I suspect that for many Singaporean women, abusiveness towards FDWs is also connected to fear and anxiety about our own place in society. Patriarchal attitudes simultaneously devaluing and gendering care work and domestic work are well-ensconced in Singapore, but the prevalence of foreign domestic workers staves off, to some degree, arguments about the role of Singaporean women in private and public spheres, by replacing the grossly undervalued labour Singaporean women would have been expected to do with grossly undervalued labour that foreign women are made to do. The hierarchy and unfairness remain in place; we’ve just changed the demographic on whom the worst burdens fall. Which is, of course, from a humanitarian perspective, little change at all.

Singapore is still governed by a colonial mentality and, like in every good colonial society, upstanding women are scandalised by the possibility (real or imagined) that dark-skinned domestics will seduce their men.

Thus maid agencies in Singapore ensure that their workers are de-sexualised, using the classic tool for the ritual humiliation of women: forced hair cutting. Maids are obliged to cut their hair short and wear boyish shorts and t-shirts to reduce the likelihood that they will tempt their male bosses into indiscretion.

To reiterate what I said at the start of this post, there's nothing wrong with people hiring maids or with women from poorer countries who are willing to do this sort of work. But it seems bizarre in the extreme that so many Singaporeans are happy to let someone who they distrust so much look after their kids and effectively run their household. It is a classic colonial paradox, where the imperial masters are totally reliant on the native population yet deeply suspicious of them, partly because they know how badly they are treated.

The only difference is that Singapore has had to import its colonial work gangs from the Philippines or Indonesia and, in the strikingly similar case of the construction industry, from Bangladesh and China.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Abandon all hope ye who watch football in Jakarta

According to Wikitravel, a reasonably reliable user-generated travel site, I was taking my life in my own hands.

"It is not advisable to watch any live football match in Jakarta," the website warns, "because the Jakmania, Persija Jakarta's ultras, often turn into rioters."

But buoyed by journalistic bravado, the knowledge that I had survived visits to equally scary places (Millwall, Grimsby, etc) and the sound advice of Jakarta Casual, one of the most knowledgeable voices on Indonesian football, I headed down to the Lebak Bulus stadium, wearing my brown trousers as an extra precaution.

Jakarta Casual informed me that while fans of the visiting team, Persijap, had had their coach stoned in Semarang on the way to Jakarta, the Persija fans would extend a somewhat warmer welcome.

And he was right. Before the game, die-hard fans from both clubs exchanged scarfs in a gesture of goodwill.

Contrary to warnings, I didn't see any violence at the game, though it's worth noting that Persija have no keen rivalry with Persijap. Just thousands of young Jakartans - the not so fearsome Jakmania - enjoying their day out.

While the quality of the football was pretty poor, the atmosphere was great. On the way to and from the stadium, fans crammed into and onto buses, minibuses and cars, beating drums, chanting and dancing on the vehicle roofs in precarious fashion.

Inside the stadium, where around 15,000 people were crammed into a 12,000 capacity venue (just one of many health and safety issues), the chanting continued in regimented fashion, with "conductors" climbing up the security fences (the kind that were banned in the UK after the Hillsborough disaster) and leading their fellow fans in song.

Suffice to say, no one paid too much attention to the game. The fireworks kicked off toward the end of the match and I'm not talking about on-the-pitch brawls. The Jakmania obviously had no other way to express their delight at their imminent 0-0 draw with Persijap than to set off rockets from the stand.

In a creaking, overcrowded stadium with no stewards to speak of and only a handful of disinterested police, it was not the sort of thing to fill you with much confidence. In the event of a fire breaking out, this would be stampede central.

Rather unhelpfully, the stadium was also located down a single access so getting in and out was a complete nightmare - little surprise in a city not exactly known for its intelligent urban planning.

After the game, as I waited for a taxi outside a nearby Carrefour supermarket, the Persija fans streamed past on the motorbikes, honking and shouting, much to the dismay of the middle-class Jakartans who were waiting for their drivers to pick them up.

It was all, however, in good humour. I'll have to return to watch a game against one of Persija's real rivals to see if that's still the case.