Friday, July 30, 2010

British author refuses to apologise for Singapore death penalty book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Elderly Lee Kuan Yew offers to take pay cut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Return to Vietnam

I first moved to Vietnam as a wide-eyed and highly putative English teacher, an 18-year-old on my first-ever trip to Asia.

Nine-and-a-half years later I'm returning to live in Hanoi once more, having been appointed Vietnam correspondent for the Financial Times.

It's a great opportunity to report on the change that rapid economic growth is bringing to this incredibly dynamic country and the many challenges that are arising as a result.

I've now left Jakarta and am back in my home town of London, waiting for the paperwork to be completed in Vietnam.

In the meantime, I'm reading as widely as possible about Vietnam and the region and trying to rekindle my Vietnamese language skills.

I will continue to blog for Asian Correspondent and look forward to helping drive the site on to bigger and better things.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

I won't back down from 'bullies', says British writer facing trial in Singapore

Alan Shadrake, who is facing trial in Singapore on contempt of court and defamation charges, has said he "will give as good as I get" in court because he doesn't "believe in backing down from bullies".

In his first interview since he was arrested last Sunday, he told British Weekly, a publication for British expats in California, that he would not be cowed by the aggressive response from the Singapore government to his new book on the death penalty in the strictly-controlled city-state.

"I’d write that book again," he said. "Although they are giving me a very gruelling time here – every day I am interrogated for eight to ten hours, often covering the same ground  -  I would write the book again in a heartbeat. I am not allowed to have an attorney to be present when I am questioned. But I’m not going to be cowed. I’m looking forward to my day in court."

Read the rest of the interview here. Hat-tip to Jacob George.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Alan Shadrake update

Inevitably, the initial international media buzz surrounding the arrest of British writer Alan Shadrake in Singapore has faded.

But for Shadrake, the saga continues. Although Shadrake was released on bail in the early hours of Tuesday morning, he has subsequently been summoned back to the police station several times for lengthy interrogation sessions, according to independent news site The Online Citizen.

The Online Citizen, which broke the story of Shadrake's arrest, also claims that police have seized a tape recording of Shadrake's book launch from a reporter for one of the city-state's government-controlled newspapers.

Erudite blogger Alex Au has seen a copy of the summons issued to Shadrake and reveals that so far all charges relate to contempt of court, rather than the criminal defamation allegations for which he was originally arrested.

As one of the commenters on Alex's blog points out, this may have worrying implications as the defence of justification (i.e. that what you wrote was true) is only available in defamation cases, not in contempt of court cases.

Elsewhere, I have written an analysis piece for Index on Censorship on the wider implications of Shadrake's arrest and James Gomez, a Singaporean academic and author of Self-Censorship: Singapore's Shame (good book, downloadable for free here), has done an interview on the case with Radio Australia.

British comedian Natalie Haynes has also penned her take on the case for Index on Censorship. She concludes:

You might be wondering who he defamed. The country’s most prolific hangman, perhaps? Or a judge? Or a policeman? Wrong every time, sunshine — he’s charged with defaming the country’s judicial system. How can it be possible to defame a system? Has he hurt the feelings of individual lawyers? All of them? And if so, couldn’t they bill someone for an extra hour, cackle softly, and grow the fuck up?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

British author's arrest in Singapore 'not linked' to death penalty debate

To the casual observer, it might have appeared that the arrest of British writer Alan Shadrake in Singapore was related to the fact that he has published a book that is highly critical of the Singapore government's use of the death penalty.

But, the Ministry of Home Affairs has thankfully made it clear in a statement that such a conclusion would be completely erroneous.

The ministry reassures us that Shadrake's "anti-death penalty views are not the issue in these investigations; it is his violation of the laws of Singapore which are".

Shadrake, like anyone else, is indeed free to express his views on this important issue:

The Singapore Government's position on the issue of capital punishment is not new. Those who disagree with our position have presented their arguments and as a matter of principle, we respect their right to hold such opposing views, as we hope they do ours.

The problem was not his views but his alleged criminality (although the Ministry appears to have forgotten to mention that his "offences" are still alleged at this stage - he has not even been charged yet):

Anyone, Singaporean or otherwise, who breaks the law regardless of the cause he touts, will be taken to task. Shadrake is no exception - he cannot expect to commit offences and then assume that he will be exempted from being held accountable under the law.

I'm glad that's all cleared up then.

The latest updates in the case are as follows: Shadrake was released in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Singapore time, after bail of S$10,000 was posted. His passport has been impounded and he cannot leave the country. A trial date has been set for July 30.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

British author arrested in Singapore over death penalty book

Alan Shadrake, a British investigative journalist who has just released a book about the death penalty in Singapore, was arrested at his hotel in the city-state this morning, according to government-owned Channel News Asia.

Shadrake, who last night attended a book launch for Once a Jolly Hangman: Singapore Justice in the Dock, is being investigated by the police for alleged criminal defamation following a complaint by the government's Media Development Authority, according to the CNA report.

He has also been served with a contempt of court order by the attorney-general, CNA says.

Shadrake came to prominence in Singapore in 2005 after revealing the identity of Singapore's hangman, Darshan Singh, shortly before he executed Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Van Tuong in a controversial case that caused friction between the Australian and Singaporean governments (PDF of Shadrake's front-page article in The Australian here).

His new book, which has been published by a Malaysian company, was withdrawn from the shelves of one of Singapore's biggest book shops last week after the retailer, Kinokuniya, was contacted by the Media Development Authority, which controls censorship in Singapore.

The book calls into question the way the government deploys the death penalty, suggesting that justice can be less than even in Singapore. The government has shown little tolerance in the past for those who cast doubt on the independence and fairness of the judiciary.

I've written previously about the government's reluctance to reveal information about the use of the death penalty in Singapore and the reasons why it takes this approach

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Does political censorship work in Singapore?

The above video of a speech by Lim Hock Siew, who was detained by the Singapore government without charge or trial for 19 years and 8 months, has been banned by Singapore's censors.

It is a criminal offence to possess or distribute the video in Singapore and anyone doing so could face two years in prison and a fine of up to S$10,000.

The prohibition of the video, which was prodcued by film-maker Martyn See, is merely the latest in a long list of acts of political repression by the government.

Both Martyn See and Siew Kum Hong, a lawyer and former nominated MP, have noted that the ban has generated extra publicity for the video and led to an increase in the number of people who have watched it online.

Although the film-maker has complied with the Singapore government's demand that the film be taken down from YouTube, it has now gone viral and is available on several other sites (such as the one above).

At first sight, then, it appears as if this latest act of political censorship is wholly counter-productive.

However, while each act of political suppression by the Singapore government seems mindless when viewed in isolation (from suing the International Herald Tribune to arresting activists for handing out leaflets), the medium-term effect of this constant, drip-drip of repression is to suggest that political activists are dangerous and to warn right-thinking Singaporeans against engaging in any independent political activities.

I would urge anyone interested in politics or human rights to watch the 79-year-old Lim speak about his Kakfa-esque detention.

He relates how, at one stage during his detention from 1963 to 1982, he was put before an advisory board of judges and presented with charge sheets that included a number of blank spaces.

He asked one of the three judges why some of the charges were blanked out and the judge told him that these were charges that were so sensitive they could be shown only to the advisory board and not to the detainee.

The government did not try to stop Lim making his speech, which he did openly at a book launch in Singapore last year, but feel that a straight-up recording of his comments is "against the public interest" because it  "gives a distorted and misleading portrayal of Dr Lim’s arrests and detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 1963".

Why not let the Singapore public decide?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Malaysia seeks clemency for drug mule facing gallows in Singapore

Malaysia's foreign minister will write to the Singapore government to seek clemency for Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian citizen who was given a mandatory death sentence after being caught while trafficking 47g of heroin into Singapore at the age of 18 in 2007.

"We sympathise with what had transpired and will do everything possible within our powers or diplomatic means to solve the problem," Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters.

The intervention in Yong's case, which I have been following since attending an anti-death penalty forum in Singapore last October, seems somewhat surprising (and rather hypocritical) given that Malaysia also employs the mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers.

The move follows pressure from Yong's Singaporean lawyer M Ravi, one of the very few human rights lawyers in the city-state, who has been working hard to try to save Yong's life.

Yong's supporters argue that he was a naive, troubled teenager who had fallen in with the wrong crowd at the time of his arrest and that he deserves a second chance given his lack of previous convictions and the relatively small amount of drugs he was found with.

Ravi also appealed on the grounds that the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking was unconstitutional but that appeal was rejected by Singapore's courts. He is now arguing that comments made by Singapore's law minister have prejudiced Yong's final clemency appeal to Singapore's President.

Singapore has only commuted death sentences in a handful of cases and it seems extremely unlikely that Yong will be spared. Pressure from the Malaysian government may make the Singaporean authorities even less likely to back down.

Whatever the outcome, the campaign to save Yong points to a possible strengthening of civil society in Singapore. Despite the best efforts of a government and a government-controlled media that are not keen to raise sensitive issues like the mandatory death penalty nor to encourage campaigns against government policy, Yong's supporters have succeeded in promoting their cause at home and abroad.

The upstanding Malaysian who's spied on 1,200 couples having sex

In many countries, a man who had spied on 1,200 couples having sex would be put behind bars and added to the sexual offenders register.

But in Malaysia, which upholds Shariah law for the majority Malay-Muslim population, he is lauded as an "anti-vice volunteer".

The above-mentioned Malaysian volunteer, interviewed in The Star newspaper, said he was giving up his role after six years because he "cannot take it any longer".

The work certainly sounds demanding. Firstly, the volunteers go to "hot spots" where couples often seek intimacy.

"We listen for sounds of heavy breathing and kissing," he tells the government-owned newspaper. “We then move in and aim our torchlights on the couples. In most cases, they are caught naked.”

Rather than arresting the forniactors straight away, the anti-vice squad prefers to observe the couple for a while, not for any untoward purpose but purely "to get evidence for prosecution purposes", according to the newspaper.

As with the head of the Shariah police in the strictly Islamic Indonesian province of Aceh, who was angered by women wearing tight trousers through which "you can see the shadow of the vagina", you have to wonder if these moral policemen take some perverse pleasure from what they do.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A genuine slice of Malaysia in the heart of Singapore

I enjoyed reading Neel Chowdhury's account of a journey to Malaysia from Singapore's Tanjong Pagar railway station, which is set to close later this year following the resolution of a long-running land dispute between the two neighbouring countries.

As he puts it in his Time magazine piece, "the frigid efficiencies of the city-state fell quickly away as I stepped under the 78-year-old station's Roman-style arches."

The station, which is owned by the Malaysian government, is like a little slice of Malaysia in the heart of Singapore, which goes some way to explaining why its continued existence proved to be such a thorny issue for both sides.

With no departures board, no air conditioning and filthy toilets that you have to pay to use, it is certainly not an efficient travel hub. And the train journeys through Singapore, over the causeway and into Malaysia, are painfully slow and often delayed or cancelled.

Yet the station is one of the most evocative places in often sterile Singapore. I'm a particular fan of the 24-hour food court, with its plastic tables and chairs that spill out onto the train platform, the cats (and rats) that scurry up and down the tracks and some of the best teh tarik and roti prata you're likely to find south of the Johor Straits.

Singapore and Malaysia have much to gain by making it easier for people to travel between the two countries and the eventual plan to connect the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru to Singapore's MRT network could prove transformative.

But, unlike Chowdhury, who seemed put out by the quirks of the Malaysian railway system, I will still mourn the loss of the Tanjong Pagar station and its almost inevitable replacement by some identikit skyscraper.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The trouble with Asia's mega cities

If, as the Banyan columnist argues in The Economist this week, "the world’s hopes of putting carbon emissions on a manageable path depend upon on how developing Asia urbanises in the coming decades", then I fear we may be in trouble.

In developing Asia, governments of both the democratic and non-democratic hue claim legitimacy  through the promise that they will deliver rapid economic development. It is, therefore, hard to envisage these governments reining in growth in order to ensure more sustainable development.

Banyan says that "urban living can be greener than other ways of life", with the economies of scale created by huge population clusters opening the theoretical door to reduced travel, less energy wastage and lower carbon emissions.

But, the reality in developing Asia is less rosy. As Banyan puts it:

Most poor people coming to the city aspire to higher standards of living and consumption. Ill-planned public transport reinforces car use. Most striking, putting up and using buildings accounts for a big part of developing Asia’s carbon emissions—perhaps 30% in the case of China, where nearly half the world’s new floor space is built each year. What’s more, the buildings do not age well. Many thrown up in the 1990s are already being pulled down and replaced.

When I was living in Jakarta, I saw first-hand the embodiment of the filthy, polluted, badly planned Asian mega city. My next destination, Hanoi, retains many of the charms that have all but vanished from other major cities in Asia. Yet it too is under growing pressure because of urbanisation and rapid development.

In terms of medium to long term sustainability, the picture is bleak. But millions of people have been brought out of poverty because of the opportunities afforded by Asia's mega cities.

So can it be right to argue from the comfort of a city that went through its growing pains a hundred years ago (London) that Asia's governments should put stricter controls on urban growth?