Thursday, September 30, 2010

Leading Yale professor opposes Singapore tie-up

Having written extensively about the limits on academic freedom in Singapore, I was rather surprised to see that Yale was in talks with the National University of Singapore about setting up a "liberal arts college" in the restrictive city state. Especially as the UK's Warwick University abandoned an earlier proposal to set up a university in Singapore because of concerns about freedom of speech.

It seems I was not the only one. James C. Scott, one of the leading Southeast Asia-focused academics of the modern era and a professor of political science at Yale, has spoken out against the proposal, according to a story for the Yale Daily News. The college newspaper reported him as saying:

"There’s unlikely to be a cataclysmic moment in which Yale would have to decide instantly whether to leave or stay. It’s more like to be a very gradual diminution of freedom of maneuver in which there’s not obviously some decisive threshold.”

Scott, the story reports, says Yale would be better off setting up a campus in Malaysia, the Philippines or Thailand, which also fall far short of democratic ideals but allow significantly more criticism of the establishment than Singapore.

In his most famous work, Scott argued that popular uprisings in Southeast Asia were driven by "The Moral Economy of the Peasant" - that poor farmers believed they had a right to basic subsistence and would rebel if it was denied them.

Will the Singapore government's particular view of a moral economy, that education (among other things) should be subservient to the politico-economic goals of the ruling caste, drive an uprising among Yale professors?


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Vietnam contradictions #1

Like any complex subject, Vietnam is perhaps best understood not by attempting gross generalisations but by trying to come to terms with the inherent contradictions.

During my time in Vietnam, I intend to document the many contradictions that surface in the hope of shedding some light on this remarkable, if often confusing, country.

I start with two stories published today in the Dan Tri online newspaper.

One, headlined "Hoan Kiem’s magnificent light show ready to go" sings the praises of the truly spectacular, high voltage light show that is being rehearsed ahead of the celebration of the 1,000-year anniversary of the founding of Hanoi, early next month.

The second, headlined "Vietnam’s power troubles far from over", warns that the country will continue to be hit with chronic power shortages in the coming years.

Hat-tip to Our Man in Hanoi, who I met in person last week, having followed his blog for some time.


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Asean fears US support over maritime dispute may alienate China

Southeast Asian governments are concerned that the increasingly vocal US comments about the South China Sea disputes could alienate China.

While Western politicians usually like their foreign policy statements bold and clear, the member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) prefer the softly-softly approach.

An initial draft of the statement to be issued at the end of Friday's US-Asean summit, prepared by the Philippines, opposed the "use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the South China Sea," according to an AP report.

But, according to the Bangkok Post, Asean leaders pushed the US to remove any direct reference to the South China Sea for fear of angering China.

Kasit Piromya, Thailand's foreign minister, told the paper:

"We have discussed the South China Sea issue at the Asean Regional Forum to which all the claimant states are members. It might be inappropriate if Asean and the US discuss this issue without China being present. We don't want to be seen as trying to gang up with the US against China."

And Asean appeared to have won this particular diplomatic debate, with the final joint statement not mentioning the South China Sea, saying only:

"We reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability, maritime security, unimpeded commerce, and freedom of navigation, in accordance with relevant universally agreed principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other international maritime law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes."

However, the White House's official "read-out" of President Barack Obama's meeting with the Asean leaders makes an overt mention of the South China Sea:

"The President and the leaders also agreed on the importance of peaceful resolution of disputes, freedom of navigation, regional stability, and respect for international law, including in the South China Sea."

Sometimes, you have to wonder why diplomats bother with such circumlocutions.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hanoi bound

After a longer-than-expected sojourn in London, I'm finally returning to Southeast Asia later this week.

Following Singapore and Jakarta, my new - and hopefully more permanent base - will be in Hanoi, as the Vietnam correspondent for the Financial Times

Having first worked in Vietnam back in 2001, it's a long-awaited return to a country of which I grew very fond.

It has been fascinating to observe (from afar) the speed with which Vietnam has been changing as a result of the country's cautious yet sustained moves toward a market economy.

I now have a great opportunity to get a much closer look.

Anyone who wants to get a sense of the scale of the transformation could do worse than check out this video of Hanoi in 1989, replete with trams and bicycles and almost totally devoid of motorbikes and cars, let alone the Bentleys and Ferraris that can be seen on the capital's streets today.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Vietnam hopes closer US ties won't harm China relations

Vietnam's steadily improving relationship with the US provoked the ire of China over the summer after US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told a regional security forum in Hanoi that the peaceful resolution of disputes over hotly-contested islands in the South China Sea was in America's national interest.

Barack Obama will re-iterate this view at a meeting with leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday, according to an AP report, reassuring Vietnam and the other ASEAN countries that claim some of the Spratly and Paracel islands that the US will not abandon them to China's whim.

Where old rivalries run deep, it often appears that diplomacy is a zero sum game, with Vietnam's growing military and diplomatic cooperation with the US seemingly bound to damage relations with China.

But Vietnam's foreign minister, who I interviewed for the Financial Times recently, believes Vietnam can move closer to both China and the US without alienating either side.

"To enhance relations with the US does not mean we want to be against China," Pham Gia Khiem, who is also a deputy prime minister, told me. "Vietnam has enjoyed good military co-operation with many countries, including China, the Southeast Asian nations and the US. The goal of our military cooperation is to keep and enhance peace and stability."

He welcomed Hilary Clinton's recent comments on the South China Sea dispute but insisted that Vietnam did not want to bring in America as a bulwark against Chinese might.

"We don’t want to engage any country to be against a third country – that’s not our policy."

But he did accept that Vietnam, which has been trying to extend military cooperation with China as well as the US and other Southeast Asian nations, needed to work hard to erode mutual suspicion.

"In relations between Vietnam and other countries, the building of confidence is the most important thing. Confidence building helps avoid scepticism. Vietnam and China want to develop a comprehensive strategic partnership and the foundation is confidence building as it is a good way to reduce doubt."

Friday, September 17, 2010

Singapore government starts to rein in casinos

As I've written before, the Singapore government was placing a big double bet when it decided to legalise casino gambling: that the two casinos would turn a handsome profit and that their success would not bring with it social problems such as crime and addiction.

There's no doubting that the first part of that wager has paid off, with record numbers of tourists coming to the island nation and Singapore's gaming revenue forecast to surpass that of Las Vegas by the end of next year.

While the economic benefits appear clear cut, the social impact is less positive. Since the Resorts World Sentosa and Marina Bay Sands casinos opened earlier this year, the police have arrested dozens of people for trying to cheat at the gaming tables and the courts have handed down swift and stiff sentences to try to deter future casino criminality.

The government has been more worried by the large number of gambling-crazy Singaporeans who have flocked to the baccarat tables and slot machines. Last week, the Casino Regulatory Authority told the casino operators to stop providing shuttle bus services to Singapore's heartland government housing estates.

This week Vivian Balakrishnan, the minister for community development, youth and sports, wrapped the casino operators on the knuckles. He reminded the operators that the government's aim was " to prevent the casinos from targeting the locals as their principal market".

In an effort to deter them from patronising the casinos, the government has imposed a levy of S$100 per day or $2,000 a year on Singaporeans and permanent residents. But Balakrishnan revealed in Parliament that there have still been more than one million visits by local residents in the few months since the casinos opened - that is more than one visit for every three residents of gambling age (over 21).

The government's plan to use the casinos to bring in big spending foreigners while sparing its citizens the negative consequences of mass market casino gambling will be very hard to pull off.

Singaporean Satirist Mr Brown suggests that the government wants to "have a casino that is there but not really there, existing in some Twilight Zone only foreigners can enter. Enjoy the money it will bring, but not the vices and social problems."

As he notes, having your cake and eating it is never easy.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Lee Kuan Yew gets all reflective in New York Times interview

This week's Saturday profile in the New York Times is a surprisingly reflective interview with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister.

The 86-year-old political gunslinger has shown few signs of mellowing with age, most recently advising Singaporeans to work until they drop dead or risk ruining the island nation's economic prospects.

But, in an interview with a newspaper that his lawyers felt compelled to sue again back in March (a fact not mentioned in the piece), he talks rather movingly about his struggle to face the uncomfortable reality of ageing, his wife's illness and his own mortality:

“I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality,” said Mr. Lee, whose “Singapore model” of economic growth and tight social control made him one of the most influential political figures of Asia. “And I mean generally, every year, when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”

In a long, unusually reflective interview last week, he talked about the aches and pains of age and the solace of meditation, about his struggle to build a thriving nation on this resource-poor island, and his concern that the next generation might take his achievements for granted and let them slip away.

He was dressed informally in a windbreaker and running shoes in his big, bright office, still sharp of mind but visibly older and a little stooped, no longer in day-to-day control but, for as long as he lives, the dominant figure of the nation he created.

But in these final years, he said, his life has been darkened by the illness of his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes.

“I try to busy myself,” he said, “but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.” Agnostic and pragmatic in his approach to life, he spoke with something like envy of people who find strength and solace in religion. “How do I comfort myself?” he asked. “Well, I say, ‘Life is just like that.’"

Although he has never seemed fond of apologies, he talks with a hint of regret about the darker days of Singaporean politics, when he locked up a number of political opponents for years without trial:

I’m not saying that everything I did was right but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.

But Lee is not yet ready to go gentle into that good night. The interview concludes with him citing a Chinese proverb: Do not judge a man until his coffin is closed.

Close the coffin, then decide. Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me.  

Thursday, September 2, 2010

BBC denies bowing to political pressure over dropped Malaysia interview

Earlier this week, I wrote about the BBC's decision to pull a planned Hardtalk interview with Raja Petra Kamarudin, a controversial Malaysian blogger, because of legal advice.

The decision has been heavily criticised on independent Malaysian blogs and news websites with many accusing the British state broadcaster of caving in to pressure from the Malaysian government.

But the BBC has insisted in a statement that "the suggestion that the item was dropped due to political pressure is untrue." Peter Connors, a press officer for BBC News, told me that the BBC had not been contacted by lawyers or other advisers acting for the Malaysian prime minister or government.

This is the full statement:

The BBC researches many different stories, it is the normal process of news and current affairs throughout the media that not all make it to air for a variety of editorial reasons.

In this case, it became clear in our research that any comprehensive interview with former Malaysia Today Editor Raja Petra Kamarudin would prominently feature issues that are currently the subject of a current court case in Malaysia, which raise issues of defamation.

The suggestion that the item was dropped due to political pressure is untrue. All BBC programmes adhere to the same strict editorial guidelines which ensure complete editorial independence and impartiality.

I suspect that the BBC was most concerned about RPK's persistent claims that Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak and members of his family were somehow implicated in the murder of a Mongolian translator and/or an attempt to cover up key details relating to the case - claims that the PM has vociferously denied.

The BBC is keen to play down the affair as nothing out of the ordinary but its decision to drop the interview does appear lily-livered.

From past experience, my hypothesis is that the editorial decision-making process came down to a trade off between time/money/hassle, on the one hand, and news-worthiness, on the other.

While the BBC might risk the ire of (and tempt possible legal action from) the leaders of countries such as Iran, Zimbabwe or Myanmar, I imagine that Malaysia is simply not a big enough global news story to warrrant such risks - especially when the Hardtalk producers have a long list of shows to research and record.

The end result is a victory for the Malaysian government, and its well-remunerated international PR advisers APCO Worldwide, who will be pleased that one of their most vocal and well-connected opponents has been denied 30 minutes of airtime on a leading global TV programme.

Malaysia's opposition activists, meanwhile, are understandly miffed about this missed opportunity.