Idol results: What happened to communalism?

The Singapore Idol results, whereby an ethnic Malay won the contest for the second season running, may be an indication that the attitudes of young Singaporeans are not as parochial as feared. What is even more surprising is that this result is not unique to Singapore, as some neighbouring countries have also shown similar trends.

In multiracial Singapore, communalism is often identified as the main fault line in society. Communalism is the official rationale for Singapore’s unique electoral concept of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC), whereby at least one member of the electoral team for a GRC must be from a minority race. This is supposedly to ensure a sufficient representation of minorities in Parliament, as it was assumed that in a first past the post electoral system, the Chinese candidate will always beat the minority candidate.

In the Singapore Idol Finals Show last weekend, Hady Mirza beat Jonathan Leong, garnering over 70 per cent of the 1 million votes cast through SMS and phone. If the PAP’s election win of 66.6 per cent in May was considered a “strong mandate”, then Hady should be proud of himself for having secured an even more overwhelming mandate from Singaporeans! This marked the second time in as many contests that a Malay contestant won the Singapore Idol crown in Chinese majority Singapore.

Hady’s win could be seen as more significant than the 2004 season result, because the two finalists were much more evenly matched this year. Back in 2004, winner Taufik Batisah clearly put up a superior all-round performance compared to second-placed Sylvester Sim. In addition, it was widely agreed that this year’s runner up, Jonathan, with his pop star looks and nice-guy persona, had an advantage over Hady in a competition where appearance and charisma often count for as much as singing ability. However, most objective viewers would agree that in terms of versatility and vocal range, Hady had the edge over Jonathan. Hence, the best man won again this year.

Some disappointed Jonathan fans may have speculated that Hady won because his Malay fans pooled their money together and voted multiple times for him. While I have no doubt that some of his fans did just that, I don’t think their numbers can account for the staggering 700,000 votes Hady received.

Let’s look at the statistics. Singapore has 4.2 million people. According to the Department of Statistics, there are 484,600 Malays in Singapore. Of these, just 111,200 are in the 15 to 29 year age group. People outside this age group are unlikely to have voted, even if they watched the programme and had an opinion on who should win.

There is another way of estimating the number of Malay voters: The 1 million total votes represented 24 per cent of the total population of Singapore. Going by this proportion, the Malays, who make up 11.5 per cent of Singapore’s population, would have contributed just 115,000 votes, which is quite similar to the 111,200 in the 15 to 29 year age group, plus a few pakciks and makciks (older Malays) who also threw in their support for Hady.

Going by either of the above two methods (which I would readily admit are totally unscientific), each likely Malay voter would have had to vote at least 6 times to reach the magic 700,000 figure. In fact, even if every Malay Singaporean voted just once, they would have not have garnered enough votes to give Hady the simple majority. Contrast this with the 529,000 Chinese 15 to 29 years old who alone could have easily handed Jonathan the win if they wanted to.

Singapore Idol and General Elections

There have been parallels drawn between Idol voting and the voting during General Elections (GEs). One might argue that they are too different to compare, not only because of the multiple votes allowed for Idol, but also because GEs are when people engage in the “serious business” of choosing their national leaders, while Idol is purely entertainment.

However, I feel that the Idol vote is similar to a GE in several respects. Firstly, although people are supposed to vote based on the ability of the contestant or candidate, most end up voting with their emotions. They are more likely to choose someone whom they “like” rather than the contestant with the best voice or the candidate with the best ideas.

Secondly, in Western countries where voting is not compulsory, only about 40 per cent of the electorate bothers to cast their votes at national elections. The figure is much lower for local or state elections. Since Singaporeans are not any more politically inclined than their Western counterparts (some would say much less so), we could estimate that more up to half of Singapore’s voters vote in the GE based on what their more knowledgeable family members or friends advise them. This is akin to Idol, whereby some people vote multiple times for their favourite singer.

Idol results in the region

Is this display of meritocracy unique to Singapore? A check on the Idol results from two neighbouring Malay-majority countries reveals an interesting phenomenon. In Malaysian Idol, the winners were an Indian, Jaclyn Victor, and a Chinese, Daniel Lee Chee Hun, in 2004 and 2005 respectively. Daniel also won by an overwhelming majority – 1.2 million of the 1.68 million votes. Second placed Norhanita Hamzah received just 500,000 votes.

Over in Indonesia, the 2004 winner was Joy Destiny Tobing, a Batak. Bataks are predominantly Christians and make up just 6 million of the 220 million Indonesian population. The ethnic group in Indonesia that wields most of the political power are the Javanese. Even the 2004 runner-up was a Chinese, Delon Thamrin. In the latest season 2 in 2005, the winner was Michael Mohede, who is obviously not Javanese either.


The results of the Idol shows in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia indicate that young people, unlike probably their parents and grandparents, are more likely to look beyond race and ethnicity, and judge persons based on their “content” rather than their “colour”. The fact that these young people will be our future leaders bodes well for our countries. In view of this, it might soon be appropriate the Singapore Government to review our GRC system as those old assumptions about Singaporeans’ communal attitudes may no longer apply as much to the next generation.

Thaksin’s overthrow a loss for the poor and for democracy

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s overthrow last week by his army chief, while cautiously welcomed by many in the capital Bangkok, is a big loss for the rural poor and democracy in Thailand, and has exposed yet again the age-old problem of the voices of the poor being silenced by society’s elite.

Thaksin drew most of his political support from the rural areas in the north and north-east of Thailand, whose residents make up the majority of the country’s 65 million people. This was mainly due to his pro-poor policies which, going by figures from the World Bank, saw the number of Thais living in poverty almost halved from 13 million in 2000 before Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party took power, to 7.08 million in 2004. The agricultural incomes in the poorest sections of the country rose 40 per cent during that period.

According to Giles Ungpakorn, a political science lecturer at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in an interview with Inter Press Service, there is “no comparison on pro-poor policies between the TRT and the parties in government before 2001”. Ungpakorn pointed out that the opposition Democrat Party had been in government many times before but “their policies lacked sympathy for the poor”.

Rather than outright vote-buying to win elections, as many of his opponents charged, Thaksin’s policies to help the poor were often in response to feedback from the ground. The TRT had sent consultants to the countryside to find out what the people needed and tailored their policies to deliver on the needs of the poor.

Among these pro-poor policies were a low-cost universal healthcare scheme which enabled poor Thais to receive treatment for any ailment by paying 30 baht (S$1.25) per hospital visit; a S$31,000 per village micro-loan fund; forgiveness of land debts for 3 years; and the “one-village-one product” (OTOP) programme, whereby the government helped cottage industries with research and development and marketing of products. More than just a monetary handout, OTOP has helped incomes to be spread to many people in the villages and “has given people producing handicrafts a feel they can be part of the global economy”, according to the chairman of Chiang Mai’s OTOP association.

In return, Thaksin was given overwhelming support from the rural poor during elections. During the 2005 polls, the TRT was re-elected with nearly 70 per cent of the votes, which translated into an absolute majority of 377 seats out of 500 — a first in Thai history. Thaksin also became the first Thai prime minister to complete a term in office without being toppled.

Sadly, this democratic mandate was not enough to satisfy the urban elites in Bangkok. Throughout 2006, tens of thousands of people in Bangkok rallied on the streets chanting, “Thaksin aok bai (Thaksin get out)”. This led to Thaksin calling snap elections in April 2006 to renew his mandate. The opposition parties, aware that they could not win without the rural vote, boycotted the polls, stripping the elections of their legitimacy. The TRT won again with 57 per cent of the vote, although the result was later nullified.

Although Thaksin did have his shortcomings, most notably his brash and arrogant “CEO-style leadership” and his poor handling of the insurgency in the southern Muslim-majority provinces, it is regrettable that his opponents used undemocratic means like street protests and finally a military coup to unseat him.

With the country now under martial law, the rural poor have even fewer outlets to voice their disappointment that their “champion” has been felled. In order to consolidate its grip on the country, the military has shut down over 300 community radio stations in 17 northern provinces and 50 stations in the north-eastern province of Roi Et, the poorest region in Thailand. Radio call-in talkshows have also been banned nationwide.

Thaksin is possibly gone for good this time. The poor will have to wait and see whether the military junta and future governments will be on their side the same way Thaksin was. Judging from recent history, this outcome is unlikely. Once again, the poor have had the short straw drawn for them.

Hard-line stance against civil society voices does Singapore no good

The IMF/World Bank Annual Meetings ("S2006" in local lingo) were supposed to be Singapore’s opportunity to showcase its progressiveness and efficiency to the financial leaders of the world. Unfortunately the current dispute over the participation of accredited civil society organisations (CSOs) threatens to diminish much of the hard work that the government and people of Singapore have put in to make this mega event a success.

The problems first surfaced when the police announced on 28 July that all outdoor protests would be banned and that registered CSOs will be designated just a small area in the Suntec Convention Centre atrium to make their voices heard — sans loudhailers. This was a huge slap in the face for CSOs who are used to large scale street marches complete with large banners, microphones and, sometimes, burning effigies.

World Bank officials registered their dissatisfaction with this decision, claiming that they were only recently informed about it and were not properly consulted beforehand.

Then came the bombshell: The police revealed that 28 activists, many of whom were accredited by the World Bank to attend the meetings, would be denied entry. (This number mysteriously decreased to 27 in later news reports.) The authorities had probably done background checks on these activists and assessed that they were likely to attempt to lead their organisations in street protest while in Singapore.

The World Bank and IMF have been feeling the heat from CSOs, many of whom have accused the institutions of deliberately choosing Singapore as a venue because they knew protesters would not have the opportunity to demonstrate against what they believe are injustices against people in developing countries. The Inter Press News Agency, which is closely aligned with several CSOs, published an article on 31 July titled "World Bank Finds Refuge in Nanny State". On 12 September, a leading anti-globalisation group, Jubilee South, alleged that Singapore police had visited Batam’s local police and "asked them not to allow" the International People’s Forum, an anti-IMF gathering, to be held there. After initial announcements by the Batam police that the gathering would be banned, the police there finally relented and the meeting was finally cleared to take place.

Responding to the pressure from CSOs, World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz, and his managing director have both publicly accused the Singapore government of breaching the Memorandum of Understanding signed three years ago where it was agreed that all accredited CSO representatives would be allowed to attend the meetings. Even the European Union (EU) has weighed in the issue. The Finnish EU Presidency issued a statement urging the Government to "reconsider its decision" to impose the entry ban and that "open and constructive dialogue between civil society and the World Bank institutions is very important for the development of World Bank policies". The EU emphasised that the activists had been accredited by the World Bank and should have the right to participate.

The police cited security concerns, specifically the threat of terrorism against the delegates, as their reason for banning outdoor protests and blacklisting these individuals, whom they labelled as "troublemakers". The World Bank has pointed out that there was "insufficient clarity" and a lack of a "coherent explanation" by the Singapore authorities regarding these concerns. This is unsurprising, since nobody, I suspect, actually believes that these 27 activists are going to commit acts of terror against the S2006 delegates.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong revealed the political considerations behind the protest ban when he recently told Bloomberg TV that "we have very strict rules for our own locals, and we can’t have two standards because otherwise, we’ll be in deep political trouble with our own citizens". However, judging from the massive influx of foreign talent into Singapore, it’s hard to believe that the Government is overly concerned about Singaporeans’ unhappiness over favourable treatment of foreigners. The "political trouble" SM Goh referred to was probably the paranoia within government circles that if foreign activists were allowed to protest at S2006, it would open up a can of worms — with a precedent already set, local opposition figures and activists would then demand equal rights to mount outdoor protest in the future and the Government would then have its hands full trying to "fix" them.

Singapore Democratic Party Secretary-General Chee Soon Juan had earlier this week written a letter to Paul Wolfowitz alleging that "the ‘security’ reasons given for the ban are but a smokescreen". He has decided to take this opportunity to lead a protest march today in defiance of the ban and repeated warnings from the police that "anyone participating in it would be committing and offence". Dr Chee’s intent is clear: He wants to police to arrest him in full view of the 23,000 delegates to make himself look like a "martyr" and in the process embarrass the Government. This is one wish that the police will surely grant to Dr Chee, regardless of what the S2006 delegates think. The result, unfortunately, will be further damage to Singapore’s already poor reputation for lack of free speech. (The World Bank’s recently released "Governance Indicators" have scored Singapore in the 90s out of a scale of 100 for all indicators except "voices and accountability", which Singapore scored a pitiful 33.)

All these happenings are unfortunate given the $100 million and thousands of man-hours that the government has poured into organising S2006, including the expensive "Four Million Smiles" campaign and the over-the-top "flowers on Orchard Road" to impress the delegates. It is therefore a small consolation that the Government has backed down slightly by deciding to grant twenty-two of the 27 activists entry. This announcement came on the eve of the day in which most of the bigwigs, including Britain’s finance minister and likely future prime minister Gordon Brown, are arriving in town. But the damage had already been done. 164 CSOs had already announced a boycott of all S2006 events and the international wires and press, including the respectable Financial Times, has had their field day mocking Singapore’s draconian measures. Bad PR like this only denigrates Singapore’s otherwise stellar reputation overseas for good governance.

I hope that the Government would realise that its hard-line stance against legitimate civil society voices does no good for Singapore’s international reputation, nor does allowing those voices to be heard compromise our internal security.

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Israel’s unprepared reservists: could the same thing happen to Singapore?

I contributed an article to SingaporeAngle last Thursday. Further comments on this topic are most welcome.


The Israeli Defense Force (IDF)’s fearsome reputation in the Middle East suffered an embarrassing blow after its failed attempt to clear out terrorist strongholds in southern Lebanon and secure the release of its two soldiers captured by Hezbollah militants on July 12. On the Palestinian front, the fate of the captured IDF corporal still remains unknown, and in recent days there have been reports that Israel was making preparations to swap between 800 and 1,400 Palestinian prisoners for that one soldier.

Analysts have attributed Israel’s recent military shortcomings to a number of factors, including political leaders with little military experience, indecisive military commanders, an over-reliance on air power, and poor intelligence. However, probably the most shocking revelation for many observers around the world was the lack of preparedness of the IDF to fight the war, particularly among its reservists who form the backbone of the military.

Israel had recalled thousands of reservists to fight in its month-long war in Lebanon. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in August that many reservist units had complained of a lack of supplies and combat equipment. Some troops returning from Lebanon even had to pass their weapons to soldiers heading for the frontlines. Insufficient training was also cited as a problem. Many reservist units had to undergo last minute refresher courses just before being sent into battle.

Perhaps the most significant factor could have been sociological. There has been a significant shift in the demographics of the Israeli population in the last few decades. Many young Israelis now work in professional jobs in the service and technology industries, and are likely to be more comfortable sitting in front of a computer than engaging in fire fights with trained guerrillas. In its past wars, the Israel could count on its tough, strapping kibbutzim (collective farmers) to fight fiercely on the frontlines. However, kibbutzim now represent less than two per cent of the population.

Despite the two Palestinian Intifadas over the last 20 years, Israel has enjoyed a relatively secure position since the 1973 Yom Kippur war. This is in large part due to a significant increase in American protection and support. The US has provided far more economic and military assistance to Israel than any other state in the world — to the tune of US$140 billion since 1976. These factors may have lulled the new generation of Israelis into a sense of complacency that their parents and grandparents could ill afford.

Singapore’s situation

Given the similarity between Singapore’s and Israel’s conscript army and geo-strategic constraints, Israel’s military lapses may unveil some useful lessons for our defence policymakers and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) commanders to consider.

Singapore’s population has undergone a similar sea of change in demographics in the last 30 years. Like Israel, most young people who form the Third Generation (3G) SAF lead much more sedentary lives than their parents did. Many reservists (“Operationally Ready NSmen” in SAF’s terminology) lament about their struggles to pass their annual Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT). More significantly, an entire generation of Singaporeans has grown up not having experienced any national strife or threat of invasion. It is therefore not easy for them to appreciate the significance of training for an unlikely war. For many, National Service (NS) is just a phase in life to get over and done with. There is usually little ideological motivation for 3G NSmen to train for war, compared to their predecessors in the 1960s and 70s who witnessed our painful expulsion from Malaysia, the Indonesian Confrontation and the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore.

Singapore has the most technologically-advanced and arguably the most powerful military in Southeast Asia. The SAF’s top units never fail to impress foreign military generals during bilateral exercises. However, we hear very little, if at all, about the fighting prowess of our reservist units. If Singapore were to be attacked, would our people be able to rely on these 300,000 or so reservists to defend them?

In recent years, lots of resources have been poured into recognising reservists’ contributions to “Total Defence”, including larger Progress Packages, NS tax relief, SAFRA recreational facilities and even a new golf course. While most reservists probably appreciate these measures, no amount of “welfare” will address the more critical need for a mindset change among many of our citizen-soldiers. There is a common joke that many reservists go into “excused (from) thinking” mode the moment they don their camouflage uniforms. Perhaps this is due to the rigid military culture that they are not used to at their workplaces in the corporate world.

The SAF needs to find more engaging and innovative ways to explain to all reservists — from officers down to enlisted men ­— the geo-strategic realities that compel us to maintain a strong defence capability. Reservists (and for that matter, all soldiers) should be given more in-depth briefings on our vulnerabilities as a little red dot in a potentially hostile region. These insights should go beyond the typical National Education lessons taught to secondary school students. Soldiers should be given more privileged information and analyses regarding the latest threats facing Singapore, of course without compromising state secrets. By doing so, the SAF will help our soldiers to better appreciate how they contribute individually to national defence.


Although the threat of war in our region remains low for the foreseeable future, Singapore must not wait for the real battle to come before discovering the gaps in our military’s operational readiness. Imbuing in our soldiers the psychological resilience and motivation to defend our nation will be key in order to prepare them for the worse case scenario where they will be called on to fulfil their pledge to “protect the honour and independence of our country with our lives”.


Technorati: Singapore, military, SAF, defence policy, Israel, reservists

Singing the same tune

PM Lee said in his National Day Rally message that “you don’t want everybody to be singing the same note but at least…it should be, we’re each saying different things but it blends together”.

So how did our 140th ranked press respond? By singing the praises of almost every point that PM Lee made in his speech, with hardly any of the critical analyses that they probably last used in their journalism classes in university. (Dr Huang Shoou Chyuan has written a more comprehensive commentary on the post-rally media-blitz.) I recall watching a Channel 8 or Channel U programme where this spunky, young female presenter was animatedly describing PM Lee’s speech as if our football team just won the World Cup!

Non-constituency MP Sylvia Lim pointed out in a recent speech that the more independent new media (i.e., the Internet) will “serve as a pressure point for the mainstream media to be more balanced to remain credible”. I hope she is proven right.

Our government claims its very tight media controls are necessary because we are a little red dot and cannot afford to have our media challenging our “national interests” (as defined by the Government) as this will throw our ship off course. We cannot, it continues on, become like the Philippines, Thailand and Taiwan where quan2 ming2 luan4 jiang3 (all the people talk rubbish). Of course it’s convenient to cite hyperbolic examples to make Singaporeans think there are no benefits in having a politically independent press. Why not cite the examples of the much more responsible, free press in the US, the UK or even India?

Even in Israel, a small state surrounded by neighbours would like nothing more than to wipe it off the map, the press is much more independent and is not afraid to criticize public policy failures. For example, recently Haaretz, a leading Israeli daily, published a commentary stating that “(PM) Olmert must go” because he messed up his Lebanon adventure and wore down Israel’s deterrent power. Can you imagine TODAY publishing something like that? Their editors will probably get more than just a “robust response” from the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information.

In response to Singaporeans’ pleas for a freer media, the Government has liberalised our film, video and TV classifications, permitted and promoted a topless cabaret show, and most recently, lowered the age restriction for attending that show. These are the kind of censorship restrictions that most Singaporeans want to keep. Yet the Government relaxes them, I suspect, as a symbolic gesture to Singaporeans that they are loosening up, when they really aren’t, politically.

Our media doesn’t have to go the way of Taiwan or Philippines. All Singaporeans are asking for is for the Government to free up our media a little, to make it more in line with the rest of the developed world. Is that too much to ask for?

Technorati: Singapore, media, National Day Rally, censorship

Let’s welcome foreign talent, but…

Political commentator Seah Chiang Nee rightly pointed out that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech last night was “preparing Singaporeans for a larger influx of foreign talent”.

On the whole, I feel that the Government’s immigration policies welcoming foreign talent are important for Singapore to stay competitive. PM Lee has taken a progressive step by encouraging all Singaporeans to accept these immigrants with open arms and recognise them for their contributions to our economy and our society.

However it is critically important that the Government manages the delicate immigration issue well to avoid the troubles that have befallen many other developed countries which have thrown open their floodgates to immigration. We have seen in the past year the troubles in France when many youths from its North African immigrant community went on an arson rampage in Paris, and the racial riots in Sydney between Lebanese and white Australian youths. More seriously, we have witnessed how the British government’s hands-off approach to multiculturalism and alienation of immigrants has resulted in some British-born sons of Pakistani immigrants plotting appalling acts of terror against their own countrymen.

The root causes of these instances of racial unrest and terrorism boil down to a lack of effort to properly integrate these immigrant communities and racism against them by the majority white population.

The Singapore Government’s top priority should therefore be to ensure that new Singaporeans and permanent residents are properly integrated into Singapore society. Immigrants bring in the languages, cultures, religions, ways of thinking and social behaviours of their countries of origin. Singaporeans should welcome this diversity. However immigrants must understand – and I believe the vast majority of them do – that for the most part, they are expected to adapt to the Singapore culture, and not the other way around.

Unfortunately, this has not always been the case in other countries. I spent 5 years studying and working in California, which home to more immigrants than anywhere else in the world. In Los Angeles, immigrants often live in separate enclaves. For example, the Latinos live in East LA, the Chinese in Chinatown, Alhambra, Monterey Park or San Marino, the Koreans in Koreatown, etc. Within these communities, it is not unusual to find not a word of English being spoken. I remember making a shopping trip down to Monterey Park one day with my white American friend, who, on realising that she was the only non-Asian in the whole area, remarked that she didn’t feel like she was in America anymore. Can you imagine how a Malay or Indian Singaporean would feel if he or she walked into a shopping area and realised that everyone there was PRC Chinese and all the shopkeepers couldn’t speak English? At least in Chinatown, older Chinese-Singaporean shopkeepers are still able to communicate in bazaar Malay.

Having a common language is the most important factor in ensuring that new immigrants are properly integrated. In Singapore, our common language is English. All immigrants should be able to meet a decent level of proficiency in English. The ability to speak Chinese alone is not enough, even though three-quarters of our population are Chinese. Citizenship education, which should cover the history of Singapore and the importance of maintaining racial harmony, is critical if immigrants are to understand what it means to be a Singaporean. This citizenship education should not only be required of those who apply for citizenship, but also for the many more who apply for permanent residence (PR).

In addition, since the Government’s stated rationale for its liberal immigration policy is to attract foreign talent to settle in Singapore and contribute to our economy, this policy should also be race-blind. Many Singaporeans suspect that the influx of Chinese nationals in recent years is somehow to make up for the very low fertility rate of Chinese-Singaporeans (currently 1.08 children per woman) and to maintain our current racial balance. As PM Lee has pointed out, PRC Chinese are not the same as Chinese-Singaporeans. They should therefore be accorded no more advantages than prospective immigrants from India, the Philippines or Myanmar.

The best way to ensure an objective, race-blind and transparent immigration policy is to adopt a points system. In Australia, people who wish to apply for PR have to accumulate the required number of points to satisfy immigration requirements under the Skilled Immigration Points Calculator. Among these requirements are age, English proficiency, skills, work experience and occupation. Singapore’s immigration requirements, while generally believed to focus on these same requirements, are much more opaque. The Singapore immigration authorities do not divulge their reasons for any rejections of PR applications, presumably to save themselves the need to explain any “politically-incorrect” reasons for rejection. This needs to change if we want to market ourselves to the world as a country that is race-blind and founded on meritocracy.

Singapore was built up on the strength of its immigrants. A liberal immigration policy could benefit Singapore, not just economically, but socially as well, as it adds to our diversity and our strength as a global city. It will expand native-born Singaporeans’ horizons and imbue in them a global mindset which will give them a distinct advantage when they venture abroad for business. However, the floodgates should not be opened too wide to allow any Tang, Teck or Ali to enter Singapore. New PRs and Singaporeans should also be actively integrated into Singapore society and must never be allowed to develop racial enclaves to the exclusion of native-born Singaporeans.

Technorati: Singapore, foreign talent, National Day Rally, immigration, multiculturalism

Reviewing the Films Act

Filmmaker Martyn See got his National Day “present” two days early when he was let off with a “stern warning…in lieu of prosecution” for violating the Films Act in a documentary he made about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan.

Although the film was rather critical of the government, it appeared to be mainly aimed at giving a more “human” face to Dr Chee. It was a stretch to judge it as a “party political film” as it was a far cry from the mud-slinging political advertisements seen on television during election campaigns in “First World democracies”.

This “stern warning” (which coincidentally was similar to what Workers’ Party candidate James Gomez received for “threatening” an Elections Department officer) had been long expected after what Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew told Time magazine in December 2005 in response to a question about this case. In that interview, MM Lee had said, “Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change.”

Soon after that, the Government said the law would be reviewed “at an appropriate time”. Although the Films Act definitely needs to be reviewed, it is quite obvious that the issue of a review would not have even been broached if not for MM Lee’s Time remarks.

In light recent this issue and the recent media crackdown on mr brown, I hope that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will address the issue of media freedom (or lack thereof) in his upcoming National Day Rally, but without repeating the tired old government platitudes that the tight restrictions on the media are needed to maintain racial harmony and that the press should not see itself as the Fourth Estate because it is un-elected.

Feedback on ST article on mr brown issue

I sent some feedback to the Straits Times on their 22 July Insight article on the mr brown issue. My feedback was published today under “Your Insights” (page S11), and has been reproduced below. Your comments on my views are welcome. (By the way, the idea of policymakers blogging is not so out of the question as some might think. Even the Indonesian Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono has his own blog.)

“Political blogosphere suffers from a misconception that it is filled with only emotive, anti-government rantings. However, as more writers, academics, subject experts and maybe even policymakers take to using blogs expound on their views, the Internet will increasingly start being seen as a serious platform for alternative views which are ‘objective, accurate and responsible’.

I’m glad the Government has so far refrained from subjecting the Internet to the same controls as mainstream media. However, it would be regrettable if the Government one day realises that the influence of blogs and decides to start trying to tighten its grip on them.”

GERALD GIAM in an e-mail

Technorati: , ,

Are we moving towards a “Destructive Engagement” of Myanmar?

(I am taking a break from commenting on Middle East issues to focus on something closer to home. But I have not forgotten about the tragic war in Lebanon, and hope to return to this topic when I feel I can value add with further thoughts.)

ASEAN governments had long hoped that by hiding behind their euphemism called “constructive engagement” of the Myanmar generals, the US and EU would go easy on Myanmar and ASEAN, and business could carry on as usual. However, this has proven not to be the case, and it has forced ASEAN to re-evaluate its approach towards Myanmar.

Myanmar’s lack of democratic progress and continued detention of over 1,100 political prisoners, including democratically-elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has made it a thorn in the flesh for ASEAN. The grouping’s relations with important trading partners, the EU and the US, have been hampered by Myanmar’s membership in ASEAN. Inter-regional meetings with the EU have been downgraded in representation, and US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice skipped last year’s ASEAN Regional Forum, ostensibly because of Myanmar’s presence.

This has led to ASEAN asserting itself much more on Myanmar, despite its longstanding principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of its members. Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said June that “no country can claim that gross human rights violations are its own internal affair”. The ASEAN Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC), of which Singapore is represented by our very able MP (Pasir Ris-Punggol) Charles Chong, has been issuing louder calls for ASEAN to take a tougher stance on Myanmar. Myanmar’s decision to give up its chairmanship of ASEAN last year was in no small part due to pressure from fellow ASEAN members.

Last week, current ASEAN chairman Malaysia issued an unusually scathing rebuke of Myanmar’s military regime in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece written by Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar just days before the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Kuala Lumpur. A few days later, ASEAN, which usually does not make strong public statements on Myanmar, also issued an unprecedented call for “tangible progress” towards “democracy in the near future”.

Does all this mean that ASEAN is moving away from its policy of “constructive engagement” of the reclusive regime? It depends how one looks at it.

Myanmar is important to ASEAN unity, particularly as the grouping is making significant strides towards regional economic integration. Booting Myanmar out of ASEAN is probably out of the question, as it is almost impossible to do so within the current ASEAN framework. Furthermore, it would be an admission that ASEAN was wrong to admit Myanmar in the first place. If Myanmar were to withdraw from ASEAN, it might give both ASEAN and the Myanmar generals some breathing space, but it will not benefit the cause for democratisation there, nor will it help the thousands of political prisoners and oppressed ethnic minorities in the country. Their cause would just be forgotten.

Although the Myanmar generals would surely have taken note of the more hard-line sentiment of ASEAN leaders, the key to political change in Myanmar lies not with ASEAN, the West or even the people of Myanmar. We will see no tangible progress in Myanmar until India and China apply political and economic pressure on it. However, this is highly unlikely given Myanmar’s geo-strategic importance to both powers, especially vis-à-vis each other. Myanmar knows its position is secure as long as it continues to play its two powerful neighbours off each other.

Once again, we see how human decency takes a back seat to strategic considerations of major powers.

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Neutrality does not mean not criticising when criticism is due

Mr Ang Tok Woon, in his reaction to my 20 July letter to TODAY, said that my letter showed my “less-than-neutral stand on the Middle East crisis”.

He went on to say that the “Israeli voice is rarely heard in (the) world”. I wonder if he is aware of the strength and influence of the Jewish lobby in America and Europe and their influence on the mainstream media and global politics. He just needs to google “Jewish lobby” and to understand.

I am neutral on issues regarding the Middle East crisis in general. However, being neutral does not mean refraining from criticising one party or another when criticism is due. I support Israel’s right to self-defence. As a Singaporean, I believe small states have the right to use the necessary force to defend their sovereignty and their citizens from external aggression. I have great admiration for what the people of Israel have achieved against incredible odds, and am grateful for their assistance in helping Singapore build up our armed forces in our early years of independence.

However, what the State of Israel is doing now is definitely not just self-defence. It is overwhelming aggression against its smaller and much weaker neighbours, Lebanon and Palestine. The picture on the front page of TODAY of two Lebanese children with shrapnel wounds from an Israeli missile strike tells a poignant story of the depth of injustice in this current situation.