Saturday, November 27, 2010

Moving on

Apologies for the lack of posting. This blog has been through its fair share of changes over the last few years, starting out as part of The Daily Telegraph before going independent and then joining Asian Correspondent.

But, after more than a year on the Asian Correspondent platform, we've agreed to go our separate ways.

I'd like to thank all my regular readers and commenters and would urge you to bookmark my new/old blog web address, which will be

As ever, I can be reached at or @benjaminbland on Twitter.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Taxi boy and the taxi girls

It's been a while since I penned my last Taxi Tale, a regular blog series dedicated to the insightful anecdotes, witty repartee and occasional pearls of wisdom that emerge from my regular conversations with taxi drivers around the region. So here's a new one:

Once every month, a Hanoi taxi driver goes to pick up one of his best clients - a South Korean businessman in his mid-20s. Without fail, this young man needs to travel every four weeks to Do Son, a far-from-swanky beach resort east of Hanoi. It may only be 130km from the Vietnamese capital but because of the poor condition of the roads and the deteriorating traffic, a round trip can take as long as eight hours.

For the young Korean, these time-consuming, regular journeys are essential to his ongoing success in Vietnam. But he is not traveling to meet government officials or business contacts. He is not interested in the sea, the sand or even the Do Son casino (open only to foreigners like all Vietnam's growing number of casinos).

He goes to Do Son to sleep with Vietnamese prostitutes and to alleviate the boredom and alienation of expatriation. While few businessmen would travel quite so far to satisfy their carnal desires, across Asia, prostitution continues to oil the wheels of commerce. And commerce continues to oil the wheels of prostitution.

The taxi driver, who only earns $500 a month with which to support a wife and two young children, is happy with the regular custom. Like many men in Vietnam, he has no moral qualms about what his client gets up to.

"Men need to eat, drink and fuck," he told me.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time for an Aung San Suu Kyi reality check

When U2 releases a statement sharing Bono and The Edge's views on Southeast Asian politics, you know it's time to take a major reality check.

The coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi's release thus far has been breathless - not surprising given how long she has been detained and how much of an icon she has become within her country and globally.

But the emotional outpourings from international journalists, campaigners and worthy pop stars alike seem to be having just the effect that Burma's ruling generals presumably wanted - distracting attention from their sham elections.

It's far too early to know how much real freedom the generals will give Suu Kyi, what she will try to do and what impact this will have on Burma. Even genuine Burma experts seem at a loss to explain the junta's real game at the moment - see the 13, yes that's 13, theories on why they decided to hold elections, penned by academic Andrew Selth at the Lowy Interpreter.

As Nicholas Farrelly at the excellent New Mandala blog puts it: "...many difficult questions remain unanswered and nobody pretends that the future will be easy, or that Burma’s generals don’t have their next moves in mind."

In the meantime, you could do worse than read this sobering piece in The Sunday Telegraph by Justin Wintle, a critical but fair biographer of Suu Kyi. Extract:

Looking back, and comparing what has happened in Burma with what has happened among such other Southeast Asian states as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and even Vietnam since World War Two, it is difficult not to behold an extreme political polarisation between Burma's military and the more liberal elements of its population, in which any bridges between the two sides have long been swept away.

And if the army is principally responsible for the stasis that has ensued, it is arguable that Aung San Suu Kyi's principled commitment to full democracy, and her unwillingness, or inability, to make meaningful compromises, have been a significant contributor.

As for Miss Suu Kyi herself, it is tempting to think she has resigned herself to martyrdom of one sort or another, as the only means left to leave her mark.

Her critics say she is too pure, and that her actual grasp of politics is slender. They also say she made a fundamental error in the mid- 1990s, when she was at liberty, by not bringing on a younger leadership generation within her party, preferring instead to depend upon an elderly coterie made up of such democratic stalwarts as one time defence minister U Tin Oo and the journalist Win Tin, both now in their eighties.

Yet if martyrdom is her chosen path, Aung San Suu Kyi's instincts may not be so awry.

Above all she has furnished the Burmese people with a heroic model quite different from that dreary line of past warrior kings so beloved of Than Shwe and his cronies. And for that she will be remembered, inside and outside Burma for generations to come.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Vietnam: The face of modern Communism

The right to denounce thy neighbour, comrade, colleague or family member is one of the fundamental building blocks of any self-respecting, self-criticising Communist state.

The Vietnamese government  is making some small steps to revamp the legal and political framework in line with the rapid economic changes that have been taking place over the last 20 years.

As part of that process, deputies to Vietnam's National Assembly are currently debating an upgrade to the legislation to ensure that Vietnam has a denunciation law for the 21st Century.

On Thursday, deputies debated the need to find a balance between protecting denouncers from revenge while ensuring that the denounced cannot be unfairly maligned, according to a report in the Vietnam News, the main government mouthpiece.

Deputy Hong Anh voiced the need for a specific framework to protect denouncers so that they will not be deterred by the risk of revenge.

Anh's point was echoed by other deputies, who complained about general regulations in the law regarding this issue, and required elaboration by authorities at various levels on protections for denouncers.

Deputies also mentioned the law also needs to protect the denounced in terms of employment, dignity, and political and economic benefits.

"The law should ensure restoration of honour, rights and benefits of the denounced in case the allegations cannot be proven," said deputy Nguyen Thi Hoa.

It looks like a valiant effort to combine the principle of denunciation with the norms of human rights and employment law. The National Assembly also discussed the need to clarify the denunciation rights of overseas Vietnamese, in light of the fact that expatriates living in Vietnam already have the right to denounce.

Not a right that I'd expect many expats to make use of, however annoyed they may get at being overcharged 2,000 Vietnam dong for a can of Coke.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Singapore’s confused stance on media freedom

Singapore’s government likes to be number one. If you want proof, look through any speech by a government minister. They will invariably reel off a list of examples of the city-state coming top of some global ranking or other on the ease of doing business or quality of life.

Hence the frustration on the part of K Shanmugam, the newly promoted home affairs minister, at the censorious city-state’s lowly ranking in the press freedom rankings produced by Reporters without Borders and others.

In a speech in New York on Thursday, which the website described as the “government's most detailed and robust defence in years of its position on the role of the press”, he bemoaned the fact that media freedom organisations rank Singapore below Colombia, Guinea, Haiti, Kenya and Pakistan.

In Guinea, democracy activists have recently been gunned down and female opposition campaigners raped, so how can Singapore rank below Guinea, he ponders incredulously.

Shanmugam appears not to understand that press freedom indices rank press freedom, not military repression.

More broadly, it seems that he cannot make up his mind whether he wants to defend Singapore’s very restrictive media environment – using the old Asian values argument favoured by Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – or promote Singapore’s ambitions to be a global media hub.

At one stage, he starts bragging about the Singapore government’s impeccable record of winning libel actions against the world’s leading news organisations:

I suspect that our rankings are at least partly due to the fact that we take an uncompromising attitude we take [sic] on libel – and the fact that we have taken on the almost every major newspaper company. Such audacity that tiny Singapore has.

Then he turns course, insisting that “we don’t shut out the world”:

We have more than 5,500 foreign newspapers and publications in circulation in Singapore. There are close to 100 TV channels carried on our cable networks. Nearly 200 correspondents from 72 foreign media organisations are based in Singapore.

Similarly, he says that the media in Singapore should be politically neutral and “should report fully and fairly what goes on… can probe, ask inconvenient questions, and expose wrong-doing.”

But he attacks the so-called western concept of the media as a fourth estate, holding the government to account. News organisations are fallible, unaccountable and open to influence from their owners and commercial partners, he says.

He’s right about that, of course. But when he poses the following question – “Do parts of the media act as campaign arms of politicians, peddle half-truths and present very biased perspectives?” – this concern surely applies more to Singapore’s homogeneous government-controlled press then to plural Western media environments.

Perhaps the greatest irony of his speech is that many of his criticisms of the Western liberal approach to the media are drawn from commentaries in the self-same leading newspapers that he is so proud of Singapore having sued.

It all goes to show that those who fear criticism the most also crave recognition.

Vietnam's diplomatic height requirement applies to men too

After I blogged last month about the 160cm minimum height requirement for women to join Vietnam's diplomatic service, one reader asked whether there was also a limit for men.

Further discussions with some of Vietnam's finest young foreign service officials, who have done a sterling job organising the recent Asean summits in Hanoi, reveals that there is a height requirement for men too, of 165cm.

One female official told me that the height requirement for women has increased from 157cm when she took her foreign service exams nine years ago, a sign of the increasing wealth and improving standards of nutrition in Vietnam.

But, she added, there is some flexibility with regards to these height requirements. After candidates are measured and their heights announced, they have a chance to argue their case if they fall short.

"It's a good test of your negotiating skills," she said. 

Monday, November 1, 2010

Maturing Vietnam-US relations

When Hillary Clinton, US Secretary of State, chided Vietnam over its recent human rights record during a joint press conference in Hanoi on Saturday with Pham Gia Khiem, Vietnam's Foreign Minister, he grimaced for a brief moment before relaxing and offering the following response:

In my talk with Madame Secretary, we agreed that in human rights, we have a lot of differences between the US and Vietnam and I told Madame Secretary that we should continue carrying out a dialogue to resolve our differences.

While cynics might say that he is effectively sticking two fingers up at his American counterpart, the mellow tone of his reply is significant. In the past, the Vietnamese government has reacted angrily to criticism from the US and others over human rights, insisting that they have no right to interfere in its internal affairs.

Ever since relations between the former warring parties were normalised 15 years ago, Vietnam has been aware of the economic importance of developing its trade relations with the US. Over the last couple of years, there has also been an increasing realisation in both countries of the need to strengthen their political and strategic ties, in order to better balance the growing regional power of China.

It can't have been easy for Khiem to stand up, in front of the Vietnamese and international press and TV cameras, and let Clinton's comments wash over him but it was a sign of the maturity of the relationship between the two countries.

The US thinks that arresting bloggers and limiting academic and press freedom will damage Vietnam's growth prospects. The Vietnamese government disagrees. But both sides can accept the difference of opinion and move on to more fruitful area of co-operation, at least for now.