Monday, June 28, 2010

The grim reality of judicial corporal punishment

In my last blog post, I argued that Oliver Fricker, who broke into a depot and spray painted a train in Singapore, can hardly be surprised that he faces three strokes of the cane.

However, I also voiced my strongly-held opinion that corporal punishment is barbaric and should be outlawed.

The decision to cane a Western white-collar worker like Fricker has already sparked considerable debate both within Singapore and in the wider world (as I've said before, few pay any attention when Singaporeans and other Asians are caned on a regular basis).

I'd urge the less squeamish among you, particularly those who support corporal punishment, to watch this video of a judicial caning in Malaysia.

The gruesome caning itself is perhaps less harrowing than the clinical precision with which the punishment is meted out.

Hat-tip to The Online Citizen for the video link.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Singapore to cane Swiss man after train graffiti incident

I wrote previously how Singapore was facing another Michael Fay moment over the case of Oliver Fricker, a Swiss national charged with vandalism and trespass after breaking into a depot and spray-painting a train.

Today Fricker pleaded guilty in a Singapore court and he has been sentenced to five months in jail and three strokes of the cane. Despite a number of not-too-dissimilar recent cases where errant Western expats were treated leniently by the courts, Fricker has not been spared the rod.

The powers that be in Singapore clearly believe it's better to send a message that such vandalism will not be tolerated than to pander to Western public and political opinion. Like many people, I believe the use of corporal punishment is barbaric and unjustifiable. Its continued use puts Singapore firmly in the camp of repressive states such as Burma, China, Iran and Malaysia.

However, it's hard to have much sympathy for Fricker's predicament, which is entirely of his own making. Anyone living in Singapore should be well aware of the hard line taken over transgressions such as this and the sort of punishments that the state normally metes out.

And while Fricker's case has attracted substantial coverage in the Western media, scores of Singaporeans and other Asians are caned in the city-state every year with few eyebrows raised except by human rights organisations such as Amnesty.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

More illegal sand exports to Singapore uncovered

Singapore needs vast amounts of sand for its many land reclamation and construction projects and its eagerness to buy up sand from its neighbours has long been a source of friction.

Amid environmental concerns about the effects of sand dredging carried out on Singapore's behalf, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam have all placed full bans or partial restrictions on the export of sand (see my story in The Economist).

Last month an NGO called Global Witness published an investigation that revealed how river sand was still being exported to Singapore from Cambodia in defiance of a Cambodian government ban.

Now The Star, a government-owned Malaysian newspaper, has revealed that sand is also being exported illegally from southern Malaysia across the straits to Singapore and sold on to Singapore's Housing Development Board.

Campaigners such as Global Witness argue that Singapore's appetite for sand and its willingness to turn a blind eye to the way it is procured is causing serious environmental damage and undermining the fight against corruption in sand-exporting countries such as Cambodia and Malaysia.

In response to the Global Witness report, Singapore's Ministry of National Development claimed that it was "not true" that the "Singapore government seeks to import sand without due regard to the laws or environmental impact" in source countries such as Malaysia.

But the government, which likes to promote its credentials as an innovator in the field of sustainable development, noted that "the policing and enforcement of sand extraction licences is ultimately the responsibility of the source country".

It appears as if the Singapore government is (pardon the pun) burying its head in the sand, hiding behind the fact that the export and import of sand is done on a commercial basis and that it is the responsibility of the vendors and the exporting nation to ensure that everything is above board.

The Malaysian and Cambodian governments ought to be doing more to rein in the corrupt officials who are allowing the illegal sand exports to continue on such a grand scale.

But, if Singapore wants to be taken seriously as a responsible regional partner and environmental innovator, it must also step up to the plate.

The government may save money in the short term by buying in cheap, questionably acquired sand but it will have to pay the price in the longer term of supporting environmental degradation and corruption in neighbouring countries.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The slowly shifting tectonic plates of Vietnamese politics

Ernie Bower from the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. has written an insightful analysis of the hidden nature of political change in Vietnam, ahead of the Communist Party's all-important National Congress early next year.

He explains that while there are rarely any overt signs of political change taking place in Hanoi, the real moves tend to happen slowly and behind closed doors.

He concludes:

The quiet in Vietnam belies a proactive subterranean political agenda. The good news is that Vietnam’s leaders are likely to move the country in directions that will enhance its standing and growth, strengthen ASEAN, and open the door for closer ties with the United States and other international partners.

His argument seems to be supported by recent developments. Vietnam's National Assembly, whose delegates are almost all members of the Communist Party, has long been a supine body that appeared to do little-more than rubber stamp government policy.

But in recent years, the delegates have slowly grown bolder and the volume of debate has increased. On the weekend, the National Assembly further enhanced its increasing importance as a political institution, voting down a major government proposal for the first time.

The proposal in question was a controversial $56bn plan to build a 1,600km high-speed rail link between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, which critics argue would be costly and ineffective.

It would be going too far to conclude that the National Assembly's rejection of the proposal is a manifestation that some deeper democratisation process is underway in this one-party state.

But it is a sign that even when politics seems stale on the surface in Vietnam, the tectonic plates of change are often still moving underneath.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Paying for a piss: The true face of capitalist decadence

Like other football fans, I'm eagerly awaiting tonight's fascinating World Cup encounter between Brazil and North Korea, whose coach Kim Jung-hoon has vowed to "embarrass the Brazilian team".

This World Cup is one of the very rare occasions on which the world's media are able to peer into the black box that is North Korea. There have been some good pieces on the North Korean team and its Japan-born star striker Jong Tae-se, including this one in the LA Times and this one in The Guardian.

Both reports mention Jong's bemusement at the naivety of his team-mates, who are cut off from the rest of the world like most North Koreans. They refer to an incident recounted on Jong's blog, when the North Korean team was recently traveling from Switzerland to Austria and stopped for a toilet break.

His team-mates rushed out of the public conveniences upon discovering that they had to pay to use the facilities.

"Then they turned to me and said, 'This is truly what capitalist society is like.'"



Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mahathir: Politicians who sue critics are cowards

Octogenarian former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has hit out at politicians who sue their critics, after he was urged to take legal action against Barry Wain, the author of a critical new book about his long-running premiership.

On his blog, Che Det, Mahathir says that politicians must accept criticism from all quarters as it comes with the territory.

I am leery of politicians who sue their critics. I suspect that what they want is to make the issue sub-judice so as to prevent the critics from attacking them on the issue. This is a cowardly move and in fact proves that the criticisms are fully justified.

A  politician who is convinced of his own integrity and innocence should be able to fend off the attacks by proving that they have no basis in fact. It is up to the people, after hearing both sides to decide on the matter. Shutting the mouth of the critics by abusing the authority of the court of law is no better than Governments which censor or shut down papers which are critical of them.

I share his view that politicians who readily turn to their libel lawyers are often more concerned with preventing genuine criticism than stopping the publication of any supposedly defamatory material.

However, the lady doth protest too much, methinks. During the 22 years when he retained a tight grip on power, Mahathir was hardly a friend of press freedom, outlawing various publications and ensuring that the mainstream media was effectively controlled by the state.

Still, I wonder what Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew, a rival octogenarian political warhorse with a penchant for libel actions, would make of Mahathir's belated conversion to free speech.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Singapore faces new Michael Fay moment

Just over 16 years ago, American teenager Michael Fay was caned four times at Queenstown Remand Prison in Singapore after pleading guilty to vandalism.

The case thrust the tighly-controlled city-state into the international limelight (see Asiaweek story from 1994) but despite (or because of) pleas for clemency from U.S. President Bill Clinton and many other quarters, the government was unwilling to make any exceptions to its draconian justice system.

Now Oliver Fricker, a 32-year-old Swiss software consultant, may force Singapore to relive the Michael Fay debate after being charged with trespass and vandalism for allegedly spray-painting a train alongside a British accomplice who has fled the city-state.

Fricker has been released on bail and will next appear in court on June 21. If convicted, he faces a fine of up to S$2,000 ($1,424), up to three years in jail and three to eight strokes of the cane.

The case, which was the first time a Singapore train has ever suffered a graffiti attack according to the Straits Times, has attracted significant international press attention, particularly in Switzerland and Britain. It has also been big news in Singapore, where the state-controlled media has reported it as a major security lapse.

Fricker's trial will no doubt be closely watched, with particular focus on whether or not the judge opts to have the defendant caned if he is found guilty.

Stern Singapore has come a long way since 1994 and, although it still scraps with foreign journalists and human rights experts, it prefers to promote a softer global image these days as an open, creative business and leisure hub.

If Fricker is found guilty and caned, it would undo a lot of the careful international public relations work carried out by the People's Action Party-led regime, placing Singapore visibly in the ranks of oddball states. Swiss embassy official Peter Zimmerli said his government would not interfere in the case but noted that "certain punishments such as corporal punishment are foreign to Swiss legal conception".

Errant Singaporeans and Asian migrant workers regularly face corporal and capital punishment but the sad reality is that these cases attract little or no attention in the wider world.

A decision to spare Fricker the rod (if found guilty) would provoke the ire of many Singaporeans who already feel that Western expats get an easy ride when they commit such misdemeanours.

There has been significant disquiet on Singaporean blogs and message boards over recent cases in which Western expats (both Brits) escaped prison in Singapore for (variously) drunkenly stealing a truck and driving it down Orchard Road and stealing thousands of dollars from someone else's bank account.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A tale of two city-states

Last week, I walked past a branch of DBS, Singapore's biggest bank, and was shocked to see a noisy protest taking place.

Ten pension-age men and women had erected a series of banners outside the main entrance and one banged a gong, while the others chanted slogans in Chinese.

What's going on here, I wondered. Even one-man protests are illegal in Singapore unless they are held at the heavily-monitored and controlled Speakers' Corner.

Then I remembered that I was in Hong Kong, land of the relatively free (depending on who you ask). The DBS protestors were demonstrating against the alleged mis-sale of mini-bonds, debt-linked financial products that were sold by banks such as DBS as safe, long-term investments but which were rendered worthless by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

I saw a number of similar protests outside other banks in Hong Kong. But, as far as I am aware, Hong Kong has not yet been brought to its knees by these bands of silver-haired gong-bangers and megaphone wielders, despite the grave threat to public security and societal harmony that they apparently pose.

Funny that.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The censorship of history in Singapore: a response

My blog post about Singapore's National Library Board preventing a former political detainee from speaking at a history seminar prompted a heated debate in the comments and a response from fellow Asian Correspondent blogger Clement Tan, with whom I have locked horns in the past.

I'd like to respond to a few of their points in light of the carefully worded statement released by the NLB, which has been published in full on Ravi Philemon's blog.

The NLB's communications director Amy Gay says that the inclusion of ex-detainee Vincent Cheng in the line-up of speakers for the National University of Singapore History Society seminar "was not consistent with the direction of the initial proposed line-up, of academics".

The NLB, she says, had originally agreed to host the seminar, entitled "Singapore's History: Who Writes the Script?", because it was in line with the organisation's focus on exploring "the role of key movers in Singapore's growth from a fishing village into a modern nation".

Although her language is oblique, she seems to be saying that it is ok for certain Singaporean academics to talk about alternative histories but not former political detainees.

The clear implication is that Singapore's national library reserves the right to vet speakers at any events held there according to how closely they stick to the official historical narrative.

This is not so much the nation-building role outlined for the city-state's educational institutions by the Peoples Action Party-led government but a partisan, political party-building one.

The naysayers, like commenter Autolycus, attempt to dismiss my claim that academic freedom is regularly threatened in Singapore by pointing out that some critical books about Singapore are on sale in the city-state's bookshops.

But one act of academic censorship (and there have been many similar incidents over the last decade) has a much more damaging impact on the quality (and quantity) of public discourse than allowing one particular critical book to be sold.

The regular, overt attempts to restrict public debate in Singapore have a chilling effect, with academics, journalists, social activists and ordinary citizens fearful of the consequences of openly debating political issues even loosely related to the legitimacy and/or performance of the PAP-led government.

The NLB's actions send a signal to students, academics and others interested in history that certain subjects ought to remain off limits. Unfortunately there is no clear signal about where exactly these red lines (or "out-of-bounds markers", as they are often dubbed in Singapore) are drawn so ambitious Singaporean academics (or those who want to ensure that they can get a job) invariably give even vaguely sensitive issues a wide berth.

As for Clement Tan, he says that I seem to "to imply that ALL Singaporeans are incapable of critical history". I did nothing of the sort.

The problem is not with Singaporeans' mental capacity (which I don't doubt) but with the state-run institutions that have persistently made it clear that debates about history are to be restricted in order to leave the "nation-building" official narrative intact.

I totally agree with Clement that taking a critical approach to Singaporean history does not have to mean being critical of the PAP - it goes without saying that the PAP and Lee Kuan Yew have accomplished a great deal.

But the fact is that, for whatever reasons, the PAP government and its civil servants fear a genuine, open debate about Singapore's history.

At the same time, they are well aware that using soft repression to ensure a climate of self-censorship is much more effective and less likely to attract attention and adverse publicity than banning books.