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.

More balanced Mid-East coverage needed

This was a letter I sent to TODAY newspaper which was published on 20 July, together with the editor’s reply. The text in red was edited out by the paper.

Just to illustrate how appalling the civilian death toll is, since I submitted my letter on the night of 18 July, the number of Lebanese civilians who have been killed by Israeli bombs has increased from 200 to 327. 500,000 Lebanese have been displaced by the Israeli offensive.

The US, a country which preaches so much about human rights, is deliberately delaying sending Condi Rice to the region in order to give Israel more time to annihilate Hezbollah, along with a few hundred more civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has rightly said that the “perpetrators in the conflict could be held to account for war crimes”.

Death toll so far:
Lebanese civilians: 327
Palestinian militants and civilians: 96
Israeli soldiers: 12
Israeli civilians: 16


TODAY, 20 July 2006

Unbiased opinions: Looking at the Middle East from a neutral perspective

Letter from Gerald Giam

TODAY’s coverage of the ongoing Middle East conflict needs to be more balanced. Your choice of a former Israeli diplomat, Emanuel Shahaf, as your only regular commentator on Middle East issues may not be the most appropriate for Singapore’s context.

Although your writer does not push the Israeli position every time, his views still generally reflect the thinking of the Israeli government and provide insufficient coverage of the suffering of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians caught in the crossfire.

His commentaries on the latest hostilities appear to emphasise Syria’s and Iran’s complicity in backing the Hezbollah militants, while overlooking the fact that over 200 Lebanese citizens (mostly civilians) have been killed by Israeli air strikes since last Wednesday. I was particularly concerned when your writer’s commentary appeared on the front page of Weekend Today (“The road to war?”, July 15-16). Although I understand that it is TODAY’s editorial style to place commentaries on the cover page, your readers might mistake this to be an objective report rather than an opinion piece.

I am neither suggesting that you completely ignore the Israeli viewpoint, nor that you bring in a former Lebanese diplomat to present counter-arguments. However, you could consider featuring more opinion pieces from academics from local think tanks and universities who can provide a more neutral perspective.

Editor’s reply:

In deciding to tap on Mr Shahaf as a commentator on the Middle East, Today considered two important factors: One, his intimate and up-to-date knowledge of the area, given that he is based there; and two, that Mr Shahaf — despite the fact of his nationality — has striven to formulate and express his views with impartiality. This includes having been critical of Israel’s actions on several occasions.

In the interests of offering a diversity of views, Today has published commentaries and analyses on the Middle East written by other foreign and Singapore-based commentators, including John Gee, William Pfaff and Irfan Husain. The NewsComment today on page 2 is another case in point.

Israel’s disproportionate response to terrorist attacks

The recent attacks on Israel and the kidnappings of three Israeli soldiers by militants in Gaza and Lebanon have provoked a furious Israeli onslaught which has killed scores of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians.

In response to the attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah militants, Israel has re-occupied northern Gaza and embarked on a relentless bombing campaign in Lebanon. The air strikes against Lebanon have killed over 100 civilians and destroyed vital infrastructure like the international airport, roads, bridges and ports. Over in Gaza, Israel’s campaign to free its captured soldier has so far left 82 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead. (The Israeli solder died as a result of “friendly fire”.) According to Al-Jazeera news channel, Palestinian doctors have reported that some patients treated in a hospital in Gaza and bodies at the mortuary had unusual burns, prompting concerns that Israel has used chemical weapons.

The attacks by Israel, which has the most powerful military in the Middle East, amounts to a collective punishment of ordinary Palestinians and Lebanese, and their democratically-elected governments for the actions of militants whom neither have much influence over. Obviously, Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorism. However, surely the killing of almost 200 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians to free three captured soldiers cannot be considered to be simply self-defence.

All this while, the US has done little to restrain its ally Israel. President George Bush has instead blamed Syria and Iran for supporting Hezbollah, whose actions provoked Israel’s response. Since, by the US’ indirect admission, the Lebanese government is not primarily responsible for Hezbollah’s actions, why does the US appear to be turning a blind eye to Israel’s attacks on Lebanon? The US has even blocked a UN Security Council statement calling for a ceasefire between Israel and Hezbollah.

The actions of Israeli military and the indifference of the Americans will further increase Arab and Muslim anger against Israel and the West, and will add fuel to the fire of Islamic terrorists around the world. The US needs to reign in Israel immediately to prevent any more lives from being lost in this senseless conflict.

mr brown’s TODAY column suspended

mr brown announced on his website this morning that TODAY has suspended his column. He added that “it has been a trying few days for me, my family, my mum and my friends”.

This suspension followed a harsh rebuke that TODAY received from the press secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts on 3 July after the daily had published his piece of political humour satirising some government policies.

This is indeed a sad day for media freedom in Singapore. It is an act of self-censorship by TODAY. There was no need to completely suspend mr brown’s column. At most, TODAY could have avoided publishing political commentaries by mr brown that may offend the Government. By going all the way and suspending mr brown’s column (which more often than not contains benign non-political humour), TODAY has demonstrated its willingness to “go the extra mile” to second guess what they think the Government Ministers want to see.

In any case, this whole saga might backfire on the Government. It has made mr brown an even greater cult hero in Singapore. Within 3 hours of his announcement, his website received over 100 messages of support from Singaporeans who are no doubt overwhelmingly against the actions of TODAY and the Government.

Political humour should be seen in perspective

I am disappointed that the Press Secretary to the Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts sent such a strongly worded letter to TODAY (July 3) rebuking mr brown for his “diatribe” against some Government policies in his June 30 column, “S’poreans are fed up with progress”.

Among other things, mr brown was accused of having “poured sarcasm on many issues”, “blaming the Government for all that he is unhappy with” and making a calculated move “to encourage cynicism and despondency”. Most surprisingly, mr brown was accused of being a “partisan player in politics”.

When I read mr brown’s June 30 column, it never struck me that any of the above accusations applied to him. It is precisely because mr brown wrote the article in his trademark light-hearted fashion, that I am sure most Singaporeans (myself included) did not pay much attention to the substance of his arguments (if they can even be called arguments).

mr brown is a humourist, not a political activist (unless the ISD has discovered otherwise). Anyone who has been reading his columns and listening to his podcasts regularly would judge this to be so.

By coming down so hard on mr brown – and TODAY for publishing his article – the Government has provided more fodder for its critics who accuse it of being intolerant of those who stick their head out criticise its policies.

I am concerned that, after this admonition from the Government, TODAY will henceforth refuse to publish any of mr brown’s political commentaries. For the sake of the future of “multiple modes” of political engagement in Singapore, I hope that mr brown does not turn his political humour to silent mode.

The Role of CDCs

The role of Community Development Councils (CDCs) in Singapore has come under the spotlight recently, following Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s speech at the swearing in of the district mayors, where he said that “CDCs should not compete with grassroots organisations in organising constituency events”.

As a CDC volunteer for the past 5 years, I know this is not the first time this issue has been raised. Grassroots organisations (GROs) are understandably unhappy with their larger and richer cousins who have the resources and manpower to organise large scale community events, sometimes “outshining” the GROs in the process.

There have been calls from some quarters that CDCs should concentrate solely on providing social and employment assistance, and leave the “community bonding” job to GROs.

I disagree with this view for two main reasons.

Firstly, CDCs have proven very successful in engaging youths. Although GROs have their Youth Executive Committees, the general perception among youths is that GROs are run by people their parents age or older. However, many more youths are joining CDC youth committees and participating in events organised by these committees. If CDCs were to revert to only providing social and employment assistance, a successful avenue for engage our youths will be lost.

Secondly, CDCs provide a less political platform for civic-minded Singaporeans to participate in community compared to GROs. Despite the People’s Association’s recent assertion (Straits Times Forum, June 21) that grassroots leaders participate in political activities in their “personal capacity”, most Singaporeans know that many grassroots leaders have clear political leanings towards the PAP. Many grassroots leaders are PAP members who not only participate in election campaigning but also serve as election agents to PAP candidates. Of course, they are free to do so in their personal capacity, but in no other supposedly non-political organisation in Singapore does one find such a high concentration of PAP members and supporters. As a result, many politically-neutral but socially-conscious Singaporeans are unwilling to join GROs, because they do not wish to be seen to be so closely associated with the ruling party.

Having said that, there are several changes things that should be made to ensure that CDCs are more apolitical. Firstly, there needs to be more effort made to recruit CDC members from organisations other than GROs. Currently, many CDC members and councilors are also grassroots leaders. This is usually because many were invited to join the CDCs through networks established through their grassroots work. However, to avoid the misimpression that that all CDC volunteers are grassroots leaders, CDC committees should actively encourage other Singaporeans interested in community work to join the CDC committees. Singaporeans with a passion for community service can be found in abundance at voluntary welfare organisations, ethnic self-help groups, religious organisations and civil society organisations, to name a few.

At the political level, the Government should keep politics separate from CDCs. Currently, all CDC mayors and advisers are PAP MPs or members. The Opposition MPs in Potong Pasir and Hougang constituencies are excluded from the CDCs that their constituencies are part of (i.e., Southeast CDC and Northeast CDC respectively). Instead, the losing PAP candidates in those wards represent that ward at the CDC. This situation is untenable in the long-term because should future elections result in more wards being won by the Opposition, the sphere of influence of the CDCs will shrink, and the Opposition may start setting up their own CDCs to rival the current “PAP” CDCs.

The disbursement of social assistance should also be kept separate from partisan politics. I was disturbed to learn that during the 1997 election campaign, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that only the wards which voted for the PAP would get Edusave merit bursaries and scholarships, and their elderly parents would be taken care of by the CDCs. Many Singaporeans will perceive this tactic to be unethical as it involves our children and elderly parents. CDCs have a moral responsibility to disburse social assistance purely on a needs-basis rather than political leanings.

CDCs play an important role not only in providing social assistance, but also in strengthening community ties and involvement. However, it is important not to allow partisan politics get in the way of the good work that CDCs are doing.

NZ Herald commentary: Rebuke for Lee remote when economics rule

This was the New Zealand Herald commentary published just before PM Lee arrived for his official visit to New Zealand. His response is well covered in Singapore press (of course). Emphasis is mine. My comments are at the end of the article.

17 June 2006
New Zealand Herald
(c) 2006
The New Zealand Herald
Rebuke for Lee remote when economics rule
by Fran O’Sullivan
PRIME MINISTER Helen Clark is presented with a dilemma as she prepares to roll out the red carpet for visiting Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
If Clark is true to her principles she will castigate Lee “ever so gently” over the punitive measures his Government is taking to silence his political opponents. But if past practice is anything to go by, Clark will simply turn a blind eye and get on with the job of cementing stronger political and economic ties with the Asian city state.
This is not an easy balancing act, especially for a political leader like Clark who needs Lee’s support to further New Zealand’s ambitions within Asia.
There are big regional issues on the agenda. Singapore is considering a commitment to send its troops on a United Nations-mandated peacekeeping operation in East Timor. This would lessen the burden on Australia and New Zealand who in reality lack the capacity to be “peacekeepers of first and last resort” for the unstable mainly Pacific countries to our north. On this score, Clark does need to emphasise the necessity for a strong commitment from Singapore.
Singapore is still a prime defence partner for New Zealand and is increasingly important to our business sector as a springboard to Asia.
There is much to be admired about the way Singapore used state-controlled investment funds and infrastructure companies to build its economy. Lee Kuan Yew’s nanny state was determinedly capitalistic but under firm Government direction. Savings came first. A compulsory national savings scheme was introduced.
Unions were given monopolies to run supermarkets and taxi companies. Welfare came out of employers’ and workers’ pockets. Loss-making state-owned enterprises were shut.
National Finance spokesman John Key believes this country should study some aspects of the Singapore which appears to be in continuous improvement.
But nanny state has come at a price. Nearly two-thirds of productive activity is accounted for by businesses owned by the state or run through the public sector.
Temesek, the giant state holdings company run by Lee’s wife, Ho Ching, is synonymous with Singapore. But there is also Singapore Airlines, which was burned by its Air New Zealand shareholding; Singtel, run by Lee’s brother, Hsien Yang; Changi Airport; Singapore Press Holdings; and Raffles Corporation.
These and many more are owned by Temasek or the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). The state companies want to spread their wings further offshore, but the private sector complains they are too powerful.
The Government hasn’t said so directly, but the Lee is now basically being mirrored by Economic Development Minister Trevor Mallard, who wants to expand New Zealand’s state-owned enterprises into agents for economic transformation.
One reason for Singapore’s outstanding success story has been the practice of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP) to appoint leading businesspeople and former senior military to senior government roles. But the million-dollar-plus pay packets being dished out to these “public servants” has started a backlash.
When I was in Singapore a week ago it was obvious that a major gap had opened between rich and poor. Singapore has a high home-ownership level, much more so than in New Zealand, but high interest rates are biting.
Given Singapore’s astounding economic record of 7 per cent average growth for 30 years, isn’t it time the country developed a first-class human rights record to match?
Lee should be encouraged to applaud those of his citizens who insist on their full democratic rights, which is in line with the stance he began to stake out after first being appointed Prime Minister. Instead, opposition politician Chee Soon Juan is facing charges for speaking in public without getting a licence from the Government. But Chee wouldn’t have been given a permit even if he had applied.
Such action conflicts with the less restrictive environment the international community had expected once Lee the Younger took over the leadership reins from former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Lee had a singularly long apprenticeship as Goh’s deputy. When he finally got the big job, this highly intellectual politician said he would introduce greater personal freedoms for the 4.5 million inhabitants of the city state. He also promised to loosen nanny state economic strings and encourage well-ordered Singaporeans to come up with ideas to combat China’s commercial encroachment on its neighbours.
When Phil Goff was Foreign Minister it was his job to make New Zealand’s expectations on human rights abuses clear to visiting politicians. Goff’s style was to make his points behind closed doors. But right now the only New Zealand politicians pressing these buttons are United Leader Peter Dunne, who still takes a robust position on Taiwan’s political rights, and Green MP Keith Locke.
What is going on with Chee has not yet reached the heights of lunacy that former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed reached with the imprisonment of his reform-minded deputy. But there are uncomfortable parallels. [END]

My comments:

Of course, none of O’Sullivan’s criticisms are new revelations to Singaporeans. Most independently-minded Singaporeans widely acknowledge that democratisation in our country needs a lot more work. But we are certainly not a pariah state like Myanmar. Ours is a problem which we can, and should, take care of ourselves.

Although Dr Chee Soon Juan is not entirely wrong in pushing for reform in our political system, his methods leave much to be desired. The number one rule in starting major reforms in a country is to get the support of the masses. The second rule is don’t invoke their nationalistic feelings against yourself by appearing unpatriotic (in Chee’s case, by badmouthing Singapore to foreign human rights groups). Chee has broken both of these rules, which accounts in large part for his party’s poor showing at the recent polls.

The confrontational style of politics does not work in Singapore – not with a PAP Government that has done such a good job of bringing about and maintaining
economic development. By championing “non-violent civil disobedience”, he attempts to draw parallels between himself and civil rights legends like Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. Surely Chee is overestimating his own sense of importance. Gandhi fought the mighty British for the freedom of his nation; Mandela and King contended against a corrupt and racist system on behalf of an entire race of people. Chee’s struggle, however important, pales in comparison.

There are high hopes among Singaporeans for political reform to come about through the new Workers’ Party led by Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Kiang. Lim, in particular, now has a prominent platform to speak up through her Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP) post. Let’s hope she does not disappoint the many Singaporeans who are yearning for greater political freedom.