Friday, April 30, 2010

British TV debates making waves in Southeast Asia

Although the United States has been holding Presidential TV debates for years, the stunning impact of the first-ever televised debates between Britain's three main political leaders has not gone unnoticed here in Southeast Asia. 

Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats, has long struggled to get its message out, with the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, dominating media coverage of politics. But the TV debates, in which Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg was given equal billing to Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, have unexpectedly propelled the Lib Dems ahead of Labour in the polls.

Some political observers in Singapore and Malaysia, where opposition parties find it nigh on impossible to get any fair coverage in the largely government-controlled media, have taken notice of the seemingly levelling effect of the UK TV debates.

In Singapore, a Facebook group has been set up calling for a live TV debate to be held during the next general election, due by early 2012. The founder of the group, which has attracted 837 members so far, says:

I am sure ALL of us will agree that if we had a live TV debate between party leaders in Singapore, it would allow the electorate to question party policies in a way never before seen in Singapore and thus help and improve the chances of an informed voting decision.

Let us push for this! Be patriotic, Get Involved in Politics!

The Temasek Review website also carries a commentary that suggests that Singaporeans want a televised debate. "The proposed TV debate would reach out to a far larger audience and put all the rhetoric of the campaign trail into sharp focus," says writer Lee Seck Kay. "What the parties stand for, their thoughts on the road ahead for Singapore, and their views on issues such as the cost of living, health-care costs, the ageing population and national assets would all provide the basis for the voters’ decision on Polling Day."

Meanwhile, Malaysian politician Khairy Jamaluddin, the head of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation and a relative voice of reason within the ruling party, urged readers of his Twitter feed to watch the first debate.

"Sad political junkies should watch the UK election debate on YouTube," he said. "90mins that may have broken the duopoly that is UK politics."

I asked Khairy if he thought Malaysia should also hold TV debates during the next general election, which some analysts believe could be as early as next year, and he seemed keen.

"I would support such a proposal," he told me, via Twitter.

Whether his boss, Prime Minister Najib Razak, and the senior UMNO warlords would back such a move is somewhat doubtful, given their general lack of enthusiasm for a free press.

And, in any case, Najib's likely opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, is facing questionable sodomy charges again and may well be behind bars by the time of the next election. That would make the logistics of a TV debate difficult to say the least.

As for Singapore, the government wants people to "cool off" politics rather then get enthused. It would be great to see Lee Kuan Yew go up against Chee Soon Juan, the oft-jailed leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, live on TV (they've already had an entertaining run-in in court). But the chance of it happening is a big fat zero.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

UN envoy's Singapore visit ends in row

I was somewhat surprised when I discovered earlier this month that the Singapore government had agreed to let the UN's racism envoy conduct a week-long fact-finding visit to the city-state.

The ultra-sensitive government usually refuses to engage with human rights organisations. But with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy having persuaded former UN secretary general Kofi Annan to take up a professorship in Singapore, perhaps the government felt under some pressure to appear more open to the UN.

In any case, Singapore actually has a decent record on fostering good race relations, particularly compared to neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia. So the government probably hoped that Githu Muigai, the UN's special rapporteur on racism, would come along and give them a pat on the back.

The government-owned TV station Channel News Asia certainly expected so, publishing a story on April 21, the day of Muigai's arrival in Singapore, headlined "UN Special Rapporteur to get better understanding of ethnic harmony". The cloying intro to the story read: "A United Nations representative is in Singapore to get a better understanding of how the various ethnic communities live together and the pillars of nation-building."

But, contrary to official Singaporean expectations, Muigai used his week in Singapore to do some proper research rather than mere glad-handing, meeting civil society acitivists as well as officials.

He concluded that while peaceful co-existence of the different ethnic groups in Singapore - Chinese, Malay and Indian - was a "remarkable achievement", there were a number of "blind spots" in the government's policies, which have "further marginalized certain ethnic groups". (His press statement is online here.)

Specifically he took the government to task for:

  • Limiting free speech when it comes to discussing racial issues

  • Perpetuating racial stereotypes through the excessive use of racial categorisation (e.g. on state ID cards)

  • Failing to do enough to address the persistent underperformance of Malay students at school

  • Failing to properly protect migrant workers' human rights and allowing a "dire" situation to develop

He warned: "This is a situation that must be acknowledged and acted upon in order to safeguard the stability, sustainability and prosperity of Singapore."

The government seemed rather taken aback by his forthright comments and the Foreign Ministry rushed out a statement rebutting Mugai's key points.

The ministry said it was "surprised" by Muigai's call for more to be done to help the Malay community given that affirmative action "has been tried by many countries without notable success".

It said it "emphatically" disagreed with Muigai's suggestion that restrictions on free speech be lifted. "This balance is only for the Singapore government to determine because only the Singapore government bears the responsibility should things go wrong," it said. "The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle."

The ministry also outlined a number of "factual errors in Mr Muigai's press release that need immediate correction."

All in all, it's the kind of public diplomatic spat that Singapore tries desperately to avoid. I suspect it will be a while before the next UN human rights fact-finding team is invited to town.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Singapore and the perils of political domination

How do you encourage more alternative voices in politically staid Singapore? If you were to ask one of Singapore's small band of civil society activists and opposition politicians, they would probably tell you the key was ending censorship of the media (direct and indirect), relaxing wide-ranging restrictions on political activity and making the city-state's electoral system more fair.

But the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), which seems to have accepted that some Singaporeans are becoming digruntled with its near-total domination of politics and public discourse, has another solution: more gerrymandering.

The government has proposed legislation to increase the minimum number of opposition voices in Singapore's parliament - where 82 of the 85 voting MPs are from the PAP - from three to nine.

If at least nine opposition MPs are not returned at the next election, due by early 2012, the government will make up the numbers by appointing some of the best-losing opposition candidates as "Non-Constituency MPs" (NCMPs).

But, as this Asia Sentinel analysis points out, these NCMPs have watered-down powers (they can't vote on constitutional matters, motions of no confidence or issues relating to public funds) and no physical constituency in which to build a public support base. 

The expanded NCMP system thus appears designed to undermine a legitimate political opposition while heading off calls for a broader public discourse.

The PAP has shown itself adept at using the tools of soft authoritarianism to dilute criticism and maintain its hegemonic position. The tinkering to the political system seems to have been stepped up ahead of the next election, suggesting that the PAP is concerned about its overwhelming support starting to ebb away.

Alongside the NCMP changes, the government has introduced a "cooling-off" day before the election that will further weaken the opposition (it doesn't apply to the state-controlled media) and brought in a new public order act that allows the police to disburse even one-man protests and activists handing out leaflets.

Although there are no opinion polls in Singapore, judging by the number of people who go to opposition meetings or read alternative websites, it does not appear that support for Singapore's small opposition parties has increased significantly over the last few years. And with compulsory voting, the PAP does not need to fear voter disengagement.

So it's hard to see what the PAP is afraid of. Except that the paradox of hegemonic rule is that it often breeds paranoia. Those who seek to rule by fear end up living in fear.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Singapore opposition politician sells flat to contest election

For a large variety of reasons, the small band of opposition politicians in Singapore face an uphill battle to win seats in Parliament.

So credit to Goh Meng Seng, the leader of the small National Solidarity Party, who is selling his apartment to raise funds for his election campaign.

As Goh puts it in a note to blogger and activist Tan Kin Lian: "freedom is not free".

"I think the most important thing is for people to realize that politics is about public service," he continues. "Not just opposition politics, but it is expected of the ruling party politicians as well. Public service may mean sacrifices on both financial as well as family time."

Goh suggests that this is an all-or-nothing election for him. If he fails to get elected, he will leave Singapore (see The Online Citizen for a further interview with Goh).

Singapore's next general election is due by early 2012 but some observers believe the government may go to the polls before then to capitalise on the strong economic recovery.

Politics is always an expensive business but, in Singapore, the risk of failure is particularly high.

The challenges faced by opposition politicians seeking elected office include: government control over the mainstream media, government control of the main grassroots organisation, compulsory voting in a climate of fear about the consequences of not backing the ruling party, the S$14,000 deposit, the risks of libel action for criticising the government in election material, etc.

There's also the small matter of the strong level of genuine support for the PAP, which makes it very difficult for opposition parties to generate any momentum.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

UN Singapore human rights visit: you read it here first

If you're a consumer of Singapore's government-linked media - the Straits Times or Channel News Asia - you will have read today that the UN's special rapporteur on racism will begin a one-week official visit this week.

Regular readers of this blog will have picked up this information just over two weeks ago.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

APCO Worldwide, Malaysia and the wages of spin

At a Jakarta Foreign Correspondents' Club briefing earlier today, John Arnold, the Indonesia head of spin merchants APCO Worldwide, asked Mari Elka Pangestu, Indonesia's trade minister, what the country could do to improve its poor international image.

The answer he presumably wanted to hear was that Indonesia would take on an international PR firm to dispel some of the damaging myths about the country and promote its attractions as a tourism and investment destination to the wider world.

Indonesia, which gets far fewer tourists than much smaller neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, could surely do with a good international branding campaign and tourism slogan (Malaysia: Truly Asia has certainly worked wonders).

But the government may balk at the likely cost of such assistance. After persistent questioning from Malaysia's opposition, the Malaysian government has finally revealed that it will pay APCO 76.8 million ringgit ($24 million) for one year of public relations consultancy - more than double what the government originally suggested it was paying.

That's a staggering amount for a developing country to pay for PR advice and it's no surprise that Malaysia's opposition parties are looking to make political capital out of the revelation.

Simon Cowell, who gets far more press attention globally than Malaysia, reportedly only pays £250,000 ($385,000) a year to retain the services of Max Clifford, one of Britain's leading PR advisers.

Seriously though, Malaysia does need to engage with the Western world if it is to restart its stuttering economy. And international PR/lobbying firms can help to open some doors and improve general perceptions.

But, having spent such a large chunk of state cash, the onus will now be on the Malaysian government to justify that it was money well spent.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Britain encourages Vietnamese lawmakers to engage online

While America has been warning the Vietnamese government that continuing human rights abuses may harm trade ties, British diplomats prefer a more subtle approach to democratisation.

The British embassy in Hanoi, led by blogging ambassador Mark Kent, has provided £30,000 of funding to launch a new website designed to allow Vietnamese constituents to quiz their deputies to the National Assembly.

The site is all in Vietnamese so it'll take me a dictionary and some time to work out whether the initiative is succeeding in promoting "engagement" between Communist party delegates and their people. Alternatively, I may just ask a Vietnamese friend to give me an opinion.

In the video below, Mark says the project is aimed at promoting "transparency and accountability" within the one-party Vietnamese system - a system, lest we forget, that has detained and/or jailed nearly 20 bloggers and journalists over the last year or so.

It's easy to scoff at this softly, softly approach. But it's evident that the Vietnamese government does not respond positively to threats or overt criticism of the recent US variety.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Singapore threatens retaliation over Romanian diplomat hit-and-run

Singapore has issued an arrest warrant for Silviu Ionescu, the former Romanian charge d'affaires, over a hit-and-run incident that left one man dead at the end of last year.

Ionescu, who has been suspended from his duties by the Romanian foreign ministry, fled Singapore after the incident and is now back in Romania, which does not have an extradition treaty with Singapore.

In a strongly-worded statement (at least in diplomatic terms), Singapore's foreign ministry said the Romanian government had "a clear moral obligation to do all it could to persuade Dr Ionescu to come back to Singapore to stand trial".

The Singapore foreign ministry has lodged a "strong protest" over comments made by Ionescu about the integrity of the Singapore legal system and said the Romanian government had a "strong obligation to ensure that Dr Ionescu refrained from making outrageous and inappropriate statements," which "damaged Romania's reputation".

The statement ends with a terse warning of "consequences for bilateral relations" if the Romanian government does not do its utmost to ensure that Ionescu faces justice.

MFA cautioned Ambassador Neagu that Romania should not underestimate the depth of feelings that had been aroused in Singapore over the case. Questions had been asked in Parliament. The Romanian Government must in its own interests ensure that justice was served and seen to be served. Otherwise, there would inevitably be consequences for bilateral relations.

Life before Lee: When Singapore had a history

The history of Singapore has not received the level of investigation and coverage that it surely deserves. Not least in Singapore, where a dry, semi-official historical narrative focused on Lee Kuan Yew and the ruling People's Action Party predominates.

But a new book published by the National Museum of Singapore - Singapore: A Biography by Mark Ravinder Frost & Yu-Mei Balasingamchow - seeks to change that, albeit in a subtle way. I've reviewed it for the latest edition of the Global Asia journal. Here's an extract:

Every authoritarian government worth its salt understands the importance of commanding the national historical narrative. It is a concept that was perhaps best encapsulated by George Orwell in his classic dystopian novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past.”

Countless one-party states and banana republics have banned books, banished professors and pumped propaganda into the education system. But few have managed so successfully to stamp their imprint on their nation’s history as Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, and his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Just as Lee dubbed his two-part memoirs The Singapore Story, so many Singaporeans perceive their own history to be little more than the Lee Kuan Yew story, with a bit of Sir Stamford Raffles thrown in for good measure.

The well-rehearsed official narrative tells of a Singapore that was little more than a sleepy fishing village until Raffles, a representative of the East India Company, arrived in 1819 and planted the British flag there. Raffles built Singapore into a successful trading outpost, but the vast majority of its people remained disenfranchised and mired in poverty until Lee took control amid the social and political turbulence that buffeted the city after the Second World War. Lee then dragged the people of Singapore, initially kicking and screaming, “from third world to first,” as he himself puts it in the sub-title of the second volume of his memoirs.

Given the government’s hegemonic control over the school curriculum, universities and the mass media — and its belief that these institutions must perform a “nation-building” function — this narrative has become deeply entrenched and gone largely unchallenged.

But a new book, Singapore: A Biography, makes a concerted if subtle attempt to wrest Singapore’s historical memory from Lee Kuan Yew’s unyielding grip. Turning the state-sanctioned timeline on its head, the authors begin their study of the island in the 14th century and draw it to a close in 1965, shortly after Lee’s accession to power. There are not many books about Singapore where the first mention of Lee comes on page 327.

The authors, Hong Kong-based academic Mark Ravinder Frost and Singaporean writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, delve into Singapore’s distant and little-known past in an attempt to challenge the orthodoxy that the Southeast Asian island was a stagnant backwater before it was pulled up by the PAP.

Self-consciously following in the footsteps of historian Simon Schama — who believes history should “bring a world to life, rather than entomb it in erudite discourse” — the authors draw vivid portraits of a Singapore shaped by pirates, prostitutes and prima donnas as well as the usual cast of colonial officials and Chinese businessmen.

Much history is invariably written by the victors, but Frost and Balasingamchow try to draw attention to the underdogs and their vital contribution to Singapore’s cultural, economic and political development: the Indian convict laborers who built some of the city’s better-known colonial edifices such as the former Government House (the present-day Istana or president’s residence) and St Andrew’s Cathedral, the opium-sustained Chinese coolies who kept Singapore’s people and goods moving and the Japanese prostitutes who serviced a population dominated by single men away from their families, whether they were colonial officials or rickshaw-pullers.

Continue reading at the Global Asia website.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

New light at the end of the Myanmar tunnel

It's occasionally entertaining (and equally depressing) to take a look at the New Light of Myanmar, the junta's official English-language newspaper.

You can enjoy the political slogans that are strategically positioned throughout the paper in pull-out boxes with titles like "People's Desire" and "Four Social Objectives".

These slogans urge the people to "oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views" and "crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy".

There are also instructive aphorisms like "anarchy begets anarchy, not democracy" and "riots beget riots, not democracy". And brilliant headlines such as "Make right decision: correctly choose people’s representatives with vision to shape nation’s better future".

It's so over the top that it almost seems like it must be a satire.

Then there are the news stories, the like of which are just not available anywhere else.

For example, yesterday's NLM broke the 'news' that staff from the British and US embassies in Yangon visited the headquarters of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, 31 times during March alone.

During these meetings, the embassy officials apparently presented members of the NLD central executive committee with "large and small envelopes".

The fact that the NLD "adheres to the instructions of the US and British embassies in Yangon" therefore draws "widespread criticism and watchful eyes from the public". Here's the full story:

US, British embassies frequent NLD 31 times in March

YANGON, 5 April-The National League for Democracy (NLD) stays in touch with and adheres to the instructions of the US and British embassies in Yangon, thereby drawing the widespread criticism and watchful eyes from the public.

It was reported that in March 2010, staff from the two embassies visited NLD on West Shwegondaing Road in Yangon for 31 times and that during the visits they held meetings with NLD CEC members, and presented the latter large and small envelopes.

The NLD, in case you are not aware, have decided to boycott the upcoming elections, which are likely to be anything but free and fair. And anyway, if the British embassy were channeling secret funds to anyone in Myanmar, it would more likely be the "reform-minded" NGOs close to the junta that some Western observers believe ought to be tapped up.

Meanwhile, via last Thursday's NLM, I also learnt that the junta has launched a new international satellite TV channel. Myanmar International TV is the "best way to see real Myanmar apart from first-hand visit", we are told. It will broadcast "all day round in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, India and Indochina".

Part of the reason the Ministry of Information is launching this channel is presumably because Voice of America and the BBC are "sowing hatred among the people", while Radio Free Asia and the Democratic Voice of Burma are "generating public outrage".

As the NLM reminds the people: "Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles."

The most recent NLM stories are posted here and the full PDF archives are online here thanks to Myanmar's permanent mission to the UN.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Singapore agrees to rare human rights visit

Although the Singapore government usually prevents human rights experts from conducting official trips to the city-state, it has agreed to a request from the UN special envoy on racism to visit Singapore later this month.

Githu Muigai, the UN's Special Rapporteur on racism, is scheduled to visit from April 21 to April 28, according to Anh Thu Duong, one of his assistants at the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

He will meet with "relevant government officials, as well as with civil society representatives" during his week-long trip before presenting the findings of his mission on April 28.

Muigai's mandate requires him to examine "incidents of contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, any form of discrimination against Blacks, Arabs and Muslims, xenophobia, negrophobia, anti-Semitism and related intolerance, as well as governmental measures to overcome them". UN Special Rapporteurs are independent experts that report to the UN Commission on Human Rights.

His assistant told me in an email that "Singapore had very few visits by Special Procedures mandate-holders (in fact, only one UN human rights expert visited Singapore). Therefore, we thought it'd be a good idea to get there."

The Singapore government routinely blocks visits from human rights experts and crosses swords with international rights campaigners, including UN representatives.

In 2007, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution criticised the Singapore government for hanging a Nigerian citizen who, he claimed, was denied the right to the presumption of innocence. The government hit back strongly.

While the Singapore government disregards international norms on issues like the use of the death penalty and media freedom, it actually has a comparatively good record on racism, which may explain the government's willingness to allow the UN visit.

The majority ethnic Chinese still dominate society and politics and there is strong evidence that the Malay community struggles to compete educationally and economically, but racial tensions and overt discrimination are much less apparent than in neighbouring Malaysia and Indonesia.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

New York Times editor says IHT should pull out of Singapore

It seems I'm not the only one who thinks that the International Herald Tribune's recent decision to cave in to the Singapore government again was rather lilly-livered.

Clark Hoyt, the readers' editor at the New York Times, which owns the IHT, has criticized the move in his regular column for the NYT. He does not pull his punches.

Some readers were astonished that a news organization with a long history of standing up for First Amendment values would appear to bow obsequiously to an authoritarian regime that makes no secret of its determination to cow critics, including Western news organizations, through aggressive libel actions.

He compares the decision faced by the IHT in Singapore, a key commercial market for the paper, to that faced by Google in China:

Google faced a similar painful dilemma in China. With potentially billions of dollars at risk, it stuck to its principles, and The Times applauded editorially. I think Google set an example for everyone who believes in the free flow of information.

Hoyt cites the late American columnist and sparring-partner of Lee Kuan Yew William Safire, who "told the American Journalism Review in 1995 that the world’s free press should unite and pull out of Singapore in the face of any new libel action."

"I think that is what should happen too, but it never has," Hoyt adds.

Hoyt also obtained a statement from the IHT explaining why it caved in. Make of it what you will:

Singapore is an important market for The International Herald Tribune. There are more than 12,000 I.H.T. readers who shouldn’t be deprived of the right to read the paper in print or online. In addition, getting kicked out of Singapore would also make it more difficult for others in the region to get the I.H.T. since we print in Singapore for distribution there and in the neighboring areas.

Hoyt's full column is online here. I presume it will not be published in the IHT.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Indonesia outpacing us on reform, says Malaysian govt

In recent years, the development trajectories of Indonesia and Malaysia (which share a similar culture and could, at one time, have possibly become one country) have seemingly reversed.

Until the last few years, Malaysia was known for its political and social stability and, as a result, attracted significant international investment. Indonesia, on the other hand, was seen to be something of a basket case, riven by simmering racial and social tensions and handicapped by unstable government and dodgy financial institutions.

But President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has helped to resolve Indonesia's most divisive internal conflicts, eased racial divisions and begun the process of much-needed reform, helping the economy to record solid growth during the global crisis.

In the meantime, Malaysia has slipped into political and racial turmoil and its economy has stagnated, with large outflows of foreign money, some of which has probably gone into Indonesia, seen increasingly as the one of the world's most attractive emerging markets.

Even the Malaysian government now seems to accept that it is falling behind its neighbour. In the 206-page full version of the New Economic Model, unveiled by PM Najib Razak on Tuesday, the Malaysian government concedes that Indonesia is moving ahead in efforts to combat corruption and cut red tape.

"Countries in the region are combating corruption more effectively while implementing comprehensive reforms to reduce the cost of doing business," the report says. "In this context, Indonesia will soon outpace us as their reform actions inject renewed vigour into their economy as evidenced by stronger growth rates."

A rare admission of weakness by the Malaysian establishment, which likes to think of itself as being far superior to its poorer Indonesian cousins.