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.

Technorati: , , , ,

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.