Tuesday, August 31, 2010

BBC pulls interview with Malaysian blogger on legal grounds

The BBC's Hardtalk programme has dropped a planned interview with Raja Petra Kamarudin, a leading Malaysian blogger who fled to the UK, following advice from the broadcaster's lawyers.

RPK, who I interviewed for The Guardian earlier this month, revealed on his blog on Sunday that the BBC had decided to pull the interview, which was due to take place on Wednesday.

I just got off the phone to Bridget Osborne, a Hardtalk producer, who confirmed that the RPK interview had been dropped following legal advice.

"He has made all sorts of allegtaions that we have no way of confirming or denying independently," she said, so the programme's lawyers advised them not to go ahead.

Hardtalk, which describes itself as BBC News' "hard-hitting flagship news programme", has previously interviewed many dictators, dissidents and crackpots who have made countless wild allegations.

But the producer refused to comment any further on why RPK had been dropped when so many other controversial interviews had gone ahead.

It is strange that the BBC appears to have wimped out of interviewing one of Malaysia's leading dissidents. As RPK says, "it is a rare occasion that they have had to drop a program".

But, in defence of the producers, I know from my own experience as a journalist that in-house media lawyers often have a very low risk threshold.

Friday, August 27, 2010

If the whole world was designed like Singapore...

...you could fit the global population into an area the size of Texas.

That's the concept behind the government's 1,000 Singapores pavilion at the international architecture exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The government believes that it can comfortably fit 6.5 million people into Singapore's 710 sq km (although the current population is around 5 million and I'm not sure the citizenry necessarily share the goverment's desire for another 1.5 million residents).

The projected population of Singapore is roughly 1/1000th of the world population so, using the Singapore city planning model, you could fit the whole world's population into an area of 710,000 sq km  - roughly the size of Texas, a fifth the size of India and a tenth the size of China.

While the idea of rolling out identikit Singapores around the world may fill some with dread, I always found Singapore to be a very nice place to live in terms of urban planning. Only a third of the total land area is built up and, despite the prevalence of slightly dreary high-rise government housing, there are many pleasant open spaces where you can escape.

But while Singapore can offer many positive lessons for urban planners, particularly in fast-growing and seemingly sprawl-addicted Asia, the Lion City's model is not quite as compact and sustainable as it first appears.

Singapore's land area has grown by 22% since the 1960s because of large scale land reclamation projects that have relied on the at times environmentally, socially and politically questionable import of sand from around Southeast Asia. Likewise, the construction industry has depended on cheap sand and cheap workers brought in from all around the region.

John Donne wrote: "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent."

Surely the same is true for, erm, islands.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

You say tomato, I say incitement to violence

The implementation of laws against incitement to violence or hatred is always problematic as they are very much open to interpretation.

Abdul Malik Mohammed Ghazali, a 27-year-old Singaporean, was arrested on Tuesday for allegedly inciting violence after criticising a minister in a comment left on a Facebook page.

Adding to the barrage of criticism on a page called "I hate the Youth Olympic Games organising committee", Abdul Malik attacked Vivian Balakrishnan, the sports minister, for his handling of the event:

"THIS IS THE TIME FOR US TO BURN VIVIEN [sic] Balakrishnan AND THE PAP!!!!!!" he wrote, referring to the ruling People's Action Party. "RALLY TOGETHER AND VOTE THEM OUT!!!" 

[Comment taken from a screen grab published by The Online Citizen, a Singaporean citizen journalism website.]

Abdul Malik has insisted that the use of the word "burn" was metaphorical although he hasn't yet been able to convince Singapore's police of his argument.

The opposition Singapore Democratic Party contrasts his comments with those of one Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister and current minister mentor:

"Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one," Lee once said. "You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac."

As far as I know, Lee has never been arrested by the Singapore police on suspicion of incitement to violence.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Trouble down on the (Singapore) farm

Ivy Singh-Lim is one of the few real characters in the rather staid public life of Singapore. An outspoken former head of Singapore's netball association, she has spearheaded attempts to revitalise Singapore's farming hinterland (yes it does have one) in the north of the densely-populated island nation.

I wrote about her mission and her rather unflattering views of the Singapore government in a big feature I did for the Far Eastern Economic Review before it closed down last year (available here).

Unlike some of the other independent voices in the politically repressed city-state, Singh-Lim is plugged in to the establishment. Her husband is a former head of NTUC Fairprice, a leading supermarket chain run by the government "trade union", and she has some influential friends within the ruling regime.

But her drive to turn her farm, Bollywood Veggies, into an "agro-tourism" destination seems to have ruffled some feathers. Her business is currently being prosecuted for allegedly flouting building regulations. Her defence counsel has claimed that she is the target of a malicious prosecution by the Building and Construction Authority.

Ivy is not the sort to back away from a fight so it will be interesting to see how this one turns out. In a recent posting on her website, she says:

Dear Valued Customers,

Some of you may be concerned about the recent TODAY article stating that the gentle-warrior farmer has been "hauled to court" because Bollywood Veggies did not comply with building inspections mandated by the BCA. I was not hauled to court but rather asked politely to appear.

The newspaper reporter did not ask for our side of the story so it was not mentioned that we had already complied with the inspections last year. Please be assured that our farm and bistro are safe to visit. However, if you are worried, please bring along a crash helmet or call us to provide you with an organic "coconut husk" crash helmet.

Mrs. Ivy Singh-Lim
Gentle-warrior Farmer

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quote of the week: James C. Scott on the successful pre-modern state

A monopolistic protection racket that keeps the peace and fosters production and trade while extracting no more rents than the traffic will bear.

Leading Southeast Asia-focused political scientist James C. Scott on the essence of the successful pre-modern state, quoted from his insightful new book The Art of Not Being Governed.

To my mind, his definition also stands true for most modern (or should that be post-modern) states. The book, which I expect will become a new classic of Southeast Asian historiography, seeks to challenge the received wisdom about hill peoples and their relationship with the state.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

An insider's view of academic censorship in Singapore

In recent years, I've had many discussions with Singapore-based academics, both locals and foreigners, on the pervasive climate of self-censorship that surrounds those who would conduct research focused on the city-state.

However, with the vast majority of them employed by the state, very few are willing to speak out publicly for fear of jeopardising their positions.

So I'm grateful to Mark R. Frost, co-author of the fascinating new book Singapore: A Biography (reviewed by me here), for the comments he has left on this blog as part of an ongoing exchange between us.

Mark, who is now assistant professor of history at the University of Hong Kong, talks candidly about the censorship, both self-imposed and external, that guided his research and writing. I have published his latest comment below, while our full exchange is here.

Dear Ben,

To answer your first question, yes. But I am not sure I was fully conscious of it until I left Singapore and became reacquainted with what it's like to write in a freer context again. During my 6 years in the city, I definitely became ever more acutely aware of "political sensitivities". Thus, there were comments that came up in interviews with some of Singapore's former political detainees (interviews which are cited in the book) that were not included because they would have possibly resulted in libel actions. There were other things, such as the deviousness of LKY's political negotiations with the British in the late 50s and early 60s, which we could have gone into further (the details have been published) rather than just pointing to them in the footnotes. Was this the result of a subconscious self-censorship or a desire to move the story on? I'm still thinking about that one. But I do recall that, as a foreign academic working at the National Univ. of Singapore, you inevitably became careful about what sort of public criticism you directed at your paymasters. No doubt, this carefulness ultimately seeps into you (though I think good work can be done in Singapore, nevertheless, and many people in academia there continue to do it).

The decision to halt Singapore: a Biography in 1965, and in that sense narrow the narrative, was a very conscious one. I am still not comfortable tackling Singapore's political history after 1965, given the current political constraints in the Republic, and the official control of the archive. I have told publishers who have enquired about us extending the story or writing a sequel that this would involve a narrative far more critical of the ruling party. Repressive political measures that might have garnered a degree of popular support in the turbulent early-60s became, I believe, for many Singaporeans, less justifiable and more reprehensible in the 70s and 80s (culminating with the disgust that many people felt over the treatment of Catholic agitators involved in the so-called "Marxist conspiracy" of 1987).

As for the rise of the PAP, my personal view is that in the late 1950s the PAP was the only viable alternative to colonial rule, once Marshall had bailed - that is, in terms of getting Singapore out of its postwar social and economic predicament. As much as my heart is with the idealists who founded the Barisan, I'm not sure they would have achieved the same practical results as the PAP did in its first 5 years, had they got into power. There were already rifts in the Barisan prior to Operation Cold Store in 1963, and the more one looks into the party at this time, the more chaotic it appears. (Undoubtedly, this chaos was also a result of the pressures exerted upon it by the PAP.)

However, when the Barisan was systematically destroyed, hopeless though its leaders might have proved as technocrats, Singapore turned a corner. From 1963, economic success and political stability were won at the expense of freedom of expression and 'responsible dissent', generating a conformity, an intellectual sterility and a deep loss of historical identity that I hope the Epilogue to the book conveys. That's basically my take on the rise of the PAP. The party became something very different from 1963.

Another long email, sorry. But to answer your other question: the book was peer reviewed by three reviewers. Two were contacted by the co=publisher HKUP, and one by the National Museum of Singapore. The Museum, quite resonably, asked a prominent academic based in Singapore to review the book and indicate any parts that might raise political difficulties. He found none (a scholar with less integrity might have demanded changes, a ministry official would certainly have). In that sense the book was vetted.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The story of the 18-year-old Jakarta suicide bomber

For TV coverage of Southeast Asia, Al Jazeera English cannot really be beaten. This film by Singaporean producers Lynn Lee and James Leong tells the story of Dani Dwi Permana, an 18-year-old Indonesian who walked into the lobby of the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta last July and blew himself up, killing five others and wounding many.

The film follows Dani's brother Jaka Karyana as he tries to find out how and why his quiet, unassuming brother transformed into a murderous terrorist. It includes harrowing footage of the bomber's last moments as he is guided to his target via a video call with his terrorist mentor, who keeps shouting "Allahu Akbar" to reassure his young protege as he approaches his grisly end.  


Monday, August 16, 2010

Jacques Rogge brings Olympic spirit to Singapore

The Youth Olympic Games, held for the first time this year, is a longstanding pet project of Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, who has spoken of his joy at watching his "baby being born".

And it is heartening to see that Rogge has ensured that the full Olympic spirit has been brought to Singapore, where the games are currently being held.

I'm not talking about international solidarity, amateur dedication or the principles of sportsmanship. No, I'm referring to the Olympic spirit of marketing fascism.

A letter sent to some Singaporean parents asking for permission for their children to "volunteer" as spectators has been published on a number of online forums and blogs.

The letter instructs parents to give their children money as refreshments will not be provided. However, they are kindly informed that "your son/ward is allowed to bring a water bottle provided the water bottle does not have either the "Nike" or "Adidas" logos".

Singaporean blogger Mr Brown remarks:

Since when did school children forced to be spectators at a sporting event have to adhere to branding guidelines? I understand if the athletes are covered by sponsor restrictions but SPECTATORS too? Next you'll be telling parents that the kids can only wear certain brands of UNDERWEAR to spectate YOG events too.

It's worth pointing out that the Singapore organising committee has insisted that no children have been harmed in the making of these Youth Olympic Games and that all the youthful spectators are there of their own accord. According to AP, Ng Ser Miang, chairman of the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organizing Committee and IOC Vice President, said:

There will be stories flying around. But just look at the faces of the children that are there, the sparkle in their eyes and the smile on their faces. Those are not things you can force. I don't think anyone will be forced to come to watch the torch relay or the Games. So I don't think there is any coercion.

Since I published yesterday's blog post, it's been drawn to my attention that there is an "I hate the Youth Olympic Games" Facebook group, with nearly 2,000 members.

The organisers of the group attack the more than trebling of the initial Games budget and contrast it with the relatively paltry amount spent by the government on welfare for the needy.

But, for what it's worth, membership of that group of online dissidents is dwarfed by the 58,000 people who are "fans" of the official Games Facebook group.

I'm sure that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is a fan of the games but that didn't stop him apparently nodding off during the "dazzling" opening ceremony.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Singapore gets all Stalinist over Youth Olympics

Unlike many Singaporean bloggers and online commenters, I don't have any major objections to Singapore's decision to host the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, which begun this weekend.

Many have complained about the financial impact of holding the games, with the budget trebling from the original forecast to $290m, but such spiralling costs are par for the course when it comes to holding major sporting events.

Others have pointed out, correctly, that the games have failed to attract much international press attention.

But $290m is a relatively small amount of money for the government to commit and, while the Games were never going to generate much coverage outside the city-state, they will undoubtedly help promote Singapore as a major international tourism and events centre among the nearly 5,000 athletes, officials and assorted hangers-on who have come from all over the world.

What I do, however, find funny is the heavy-handed attempt by the Singapore establishment to make the kids Olympics sound like the greatest show on earth.

Singapore has clearly taken a leaf out of China's book but the key difference was that many Beijingers were genuinely proud to be hosting the 2008 Olympics. Most Singaporeans would probably be more excited by a discount computer fair at the Expo centre or a cut in the price of a plate of bee hoon then by the fact they're hosting the Youth Olympics.

But you wouldn't know that from reading the government-controlled Straits Times newspaper, which is hardly an independent voice at the best of times but has now gone into full Pravda mode.

Despite minimal evidence of interest among Singaporeans, the paper has been pumping out story after story about the games over the last few weeks and has now gone into overdrive.

Today's paper carries well over 10 stories about the "dazzling" opening ceremony, which was apparently witnessed by "millions of viewers" worldwide.

"All over the island last night, Singaporeans wanted to witness this landmark moment, whether it was at home, at a mall or at the fringe of the show venue," the paper crowed.

Reading activist Alex Au's blog, which carries a picture of a deserted concert arena, you get a slightly different impression.

With a nod to the likes of North Korea, the Singaporean authorities have also worked hard to ensure they have gangs of obedient, flag-waving young "patriots" to deploy to stadia and other Olympic events as and when necessary.

According to one blogger, secondary school students were forced by their teachers to cheer the Youth Olympics flame as it made its way around the island nation.

In education-focused Singapore, games organisers faced the challenge of roping in volunteers during the exam season, when every available public space, including Changi Airport, is usually full of stressed school kids buried in their books.

But the 7,000 children taking part in the opening ceremony were given special treatment, bussed to practice sessions and then back to school and even being "allowed" to stay overnight at school.

Underlying all this is a key contradiction at the heart of the post-independence Singapore regime, which says it wants to build a nation of patriotic, productive and creative people while also wanting to ensure it retains a large army of hard-working, pliant drones who won't challenge its position.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rwanda: the Singapore of Africa?

This week I have been reading a lot about a small country in a turbulent region where authoritarian one-party rule, in the guise of democracy, has soothed ethnic tensions and brought stability and rapid economic development.

This has been achieved under the watchful eye of a ruthless, maverick leader who tolerates little criticism, using draconian laws to silence dissenting journalists and opposition activists

With the help of tight control over the electoral process, the ruling party is assured overwhelming majorities at every election. It is so confident of its position that it can even afford to lend a helping hand to some of the less threatening opposition parties, in order to promote the appearance of a multitude of political voices.

Western nations, led by the US and Britain, have "mollycoddled" this leader, according to the Financial Times, encouraging the notion that the country's stability rests on him.

"They have relied on his good will to get the timing right, in the hope that political space will gradually open," the FT says. "It should come as no surprise that the reverse is taking place."

According to The Economist, the success of authoritarian rule in this country raises a number of wider questions: "So where should the balance between development and freedom lie? Can democracy be shoved aside in the battle against poverty? And what should outsiders do to tilt the balance back?"

The Economist's conclusion is that those in the West who praise the leader of this country for his achievements in development "must also loudly lambast him for his loathsome and needless tendency to intolerance".

The country in question is, of course, Rwanda, not Singapore. And the leader is Paul Kagame, not Lee Kuan Yew.

The seemingly uncanny similarity between the situations in the two countries is partly the result of Kagame's efforts to learn from Singapore.

Kagame made his first official visit to Singapore in 2008, when he gave a lecture at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, telling the audience:

"In the case of Rwanda, we look at countries like Singapore as inspirational development models due to the rapid pace at which you successfully transformed your country."

Monday, August 9, 2010

Interviewing fugitive Malaysian blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin

I met Raja Petra Kamarudin, one of Malaysia's best known bloggers, at a recent press conference in London, after spotting his trademark beret in the crowd. I subsequently interviewed him for a piece that's been published in The Guardian today.

RPK, as he's usually known, fled Malaysia after hearing that he was about to be detained without trial for a third time under the Internal Security Act, which was bequeathed by the British colonial regime.

But the same colonial legacy that threatened his freedom also proved to be his salvation. As he was born in the UK before Malaysia obtained independence, he has right of abode here.

Many senior members of the ruling United Malays National Organisation have called on RPK to come back to Malaysia and clear his name if he really believes he is innocent of the sedition and criminal defamation charges that have been levelled against him.

But, RPK says, he is less concerned about those charges than the fact that the government seems determined to detain him without trial again - the home ministry is still trying to overturn RPK's successful appeal against his ISA detention in 2008.

In any case, he says that it is for the prosecution to prove his guilt, not for him to prove his innocence.

"If the Malaysian government wants to prove my guilt, they will have to apply to extradite me and for them to be able to, they will have to satisfy a British court that I am guilty. Does the Malaysian government have the guts to try to convince a British court that I'm guilty? Because the standards set by a British court are very different."

Now that his Malaysian passport has expired. RPK is effectively stuck in the UK. Although he is free to remain in the UK, he has no official travel document so cannot leave the country.

But the chirpy trouble-maker doesn't seem too perturbed, saying he may even opt to stay in the UK if the charges against him are dropped by a future Malaysian government.

In the globalised era, distance is no bar to speaking truth to power and RPK has continued to be a thorn in the side of the Malaysian establishment from his Manchester base.

The success of his Malaysia Today website, which he says gets up to 1m hits a day, is partly due to his high-level contacts within the establishment. RPK told me that he's twice been visited in the UK by a senior UMNO figure "of ministerial level".

Like all high-profile bloggers, he's also extremely prolific and spends "10-14 hours a day, seven days a week" working on his website, assisted by a team of Malaysian volunteers spread around the world.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Postmodern capitalism and the embarrassment of riches

The dozens of American billionaires who this week pledged to give half of their fortunes to charity should surely be applauded for their generosity.

The world's sick, poor and needy stand to benefit to the tune of up to $150bn over the coming years as a result of the initiative led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.  

But there is something paradoxical about men (for it is mostly men) who spend most of their lives ruthlessly building business empires, without fear or favour, only to then give half of their gains away.

While philanthropy is nothing new, the world has never before seen wealth creation and dispersal on a such a massive global scale.

It's a phenomenon that Slavoj Zizek, the entertainingly rabid marxist philosopher, has dubbed "postmodern capitalism".

If they truly wanted to help save the world, you might ask, why didn't these compasionate capitalists pay their employees and suppliers more and ensure that their companies helped nurture communities and the environment, rather than damaging them?

Because, they might respond, if we hadn't kept a tight ship, we never would have been able to create jobs, generate tax receipts and accumulate the billions that we are now so keen to give away.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Anwar Ibrahim's US allies hit out at sodomy trial

Malaysia's charming opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently on trial for sodomy for the second time, regularly travels overseas and has made some very influential friends over the years.

In a joint editorial in today's Wall Street Journal, former US vice president Al Gore and former deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz insist that the sodomy charges against Anwar are "trumped up" and call on the US government to pressure the Malaysian authorities to end the trial.

Like the charges 10 years earlier, the timing of these new charges carries the strong odor of political manipulation. And, if anything, the case against Mr. Anwar this time is even less credible and the violations of due process are even more egregious.

While Anwar Ibrahim is on trial before the state, the state is on trial before its people and the world. If he were to be convicted, the whole of Malaysia's political life and its standing in the world would be damaged. And for what gain?

It is not surprising that either of these men is speaking out in defence of Anwar. Both Gore and Wolfowitz have supported Anwar for years, with Gore famously causing a stink at an APEC meeting in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 when he publicly backed the Reformasi movement that Anwar was leading against then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. (Wolfowitz penned this Time magazine portrait of Anwar last year).

But the fact that these two American politicians from opposite ends of the political spectrum have spoken out as one in such a high profile forum is likely to raise the profile of the Anwar case in the US and raise the political temperature in Malaysia.

Malaysian blogs and online news sites have taken the story up very swiftly indeed. It will be interesting to see if prime minister Najib Razak, who has been carefully cultivating his international image with the help of PR firm APCO Worldwide, feels the need to respond.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Spit and punish on the streets of London

It may be strictly-controlled Singapore that is best known for criminalising misdemeanours such as spitting, but once laid-back London is not too far behind, it seems.

Out and about in Wembley, in the north-west London borough of Brent, earlier today, I noticed a number of posters imploring residents not to spit paan, a spiced tobacco leaf mixture popular with the area's many South Asian inhabitants.

"Spitting tobacco paan on Brent's pavements is unhygienic and anti-social," the poster warned. "You could be fined £80".

Just up the road, at Sudbury Town tube station, the message became rather sterner.

Would-be spitters were told in another poster that "CCTV images of offenders may be used to report incidents to the British Transport Police".

And, if the CCTV doesn't get you, the DNA database will:

"Samples of saliva may also be passed onto the Police for DNA identification should the problem persist."

I share Brent Council's abhorrence at the practice of spitting paan, or anything else for that matter.

But shouldn't the police be deploying its extensive CCTV network and much-criticised DNA database to fight security threats more pressing than misplaced saliva?