Pandas can be dangerous if provoked

It’s interesting that the behaviour of pandas quite accurately mimics their country of origin. China is ostensibly opposed to colonialism and interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, but hypersensitive and emotional when provoked.

China’s proposed loan of two pandas to Singapore has turned out to be quite a diplomatic coup for them — and probably a commercial coup for the Singapore Zoo. It has made it to the headlines in local media, invited a letter to the press from a Singaporean gushing over the communist state’s gesture, and one local was quoted in the papers as saying that her “liking for China definitely went up a few notches”.

While I agree that this was a nice gesture by the Chinese government and speaks well of the state of bilateral ties, it would also be prudent not to get completely bowled over by this.

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Singapore’s national interests vis-a-vis China

Our national interest is to see a growing and prosperous China that is at peace with its neighbours and the rest of Asia. But China may not be the benevolent power that it has been claiming to be for the past 10 years.

As expected, Lee Kuan Yew’s recent speech to the US-ASEAN Business Council, where he encouraged the US to engage more with Asia to counter China’s growing might, evoked fierce criticisms by netizens in China of not just the Minister Mentor, but of Singapore as well.

Some belittled our geographical size, while others said that MM Lee had treated the Chinese as outsiders although they had treated Singaporeans as “among their own”.

I previously wrote about MM Lee’s speech and supported his views. Those less in tune with Singapore’s foreign policy may have been under the misimpression that Singapore welcomes China taking the lead in Asia, politically and economically. We don’t.

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Balancing an emerging dragon

I think Lee Kuan Yew’s speech to the US-ASEAN Business Council in Washington on October 27th is an important read for any Singaporean who is going to live to see the next 30 to 40 years in this country.

He was basically appealing to American leaders to get more involved in East Asia than they have been in the recent past. He warned them against ignoring this region, because doing so would risk allowing China to replace them as the pre-eminent power in the region.

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PM Lee meets with Malaysian opposition leader

The Straits Times reported that PM Lee yesterday met with Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng at the Istana for an official call. Mr Lim is also the Secretary-General of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a major component party of the Malaysian opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat, which is led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Mr Lim is the son of DAP veteran leader Lim Kit Siang. He has had an illustrious and colourful career as an opposition activist and politician. In October 1987, he was detained in ‘Operation Lalang’ under the Internal Security Act (ISA), and released after 18 months. He was arrested again by Malaysian police in 1994, following his criticism of the government’s handling of allegations of statutory rape of one of his constituents. He was convicted for causing ‘disaffection with the administration of justice in Malaysia’. After a series of appeals, Mr Lim was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. In May 2004, Mr Lim was elected as Secretary-General of DAP, and after the March 2008 elections in Malaysia where he won a landslide victory in his constituency, he became Penang’s Chief Minister, or Menteri Besar.

I’m glad to see that the Prime Minister is according the necessary respect — as he should — to the Malaysian opposition. While meetings with opposition leaders of other countries are not unusual for Singapore leaders, opposition leaders of close neighbours generally usually receive a less publicised welcome.

The publicity of this meeting could be a reflection of the political realities in Malaysia. One, the Singapore government realises that it needs to start building a relationship with the Malaysian opposition, as it may one day become the Government. Two, they are not so afraid of offending a much weakened Malaysian ruling party by meeting the latter’s political rivals.

Govt wiretapping opposition? MHA must respond to State Dept

I glanced through the US Department of State’s annual human rights report on Singapore. It contains little that I don’t already know. Much of it was a cut-and-paste from last year’s report.

Yet there were a few interesting tidbits that I noticed.

In June a visiting foreign citizen, Gopalan Nair, was arrested for comments he made in his blog about the High Court judge presiding in the hearing to assess damages in the Chee defamation case. He was charged with insulting a public servant, which carried a maximum fine of S$5,000 ($3,759) or one year in prison.

Gopalan Nair is a US citizen, albeit a former Singaporean. I found it interesting that the US State Dept (i.e., its foreign ministry), which is supposed to defend the interests of its citizens abroad, chose to avoid stating that Nair was a US citizen. I can think of two possible reasons. One, most Americans won’t even suspect or care that he is a US citizen; and two, they probably don’t want to cause an uproar back home over him, and jeopardize bilateral relations. Although that latter statement is probably me getting too big headed. Why would a hyperpower like the US care about offending Singapore in this respect?

The Films Act bans political advertising using films or videos as well as films directed towards any political purpose. The act does not apply to any film sponsored by the government, and the act allows the MICA minister to exempt any film from the act.

Another interesting omission was that they failed to mention anything about the AIMS committee, the government’s response to their report and the proposed “liberalisations” of the Internet and the Films Act. Either they thought that these were too insignificant to be worthy of mention, or it happened too late to make it to press time. I know that the US embassy here has taken some interest in these developments, so I’m surprised they didn’t report about it. Or maybe it’s because technically, the Films Act has yet to be amended — I believe it is still pending its second reading in Parliament.

The report also did not mention about the spike in incidences of cheating of foreign workers from Bangladesh, China and elsewhere. This must come as a huge relief to MOM, whose officers had probably already prepared a rebuttal and cleared it with their Minister for release.

The belief that the government might directly or indirectly harm the employment prospects of opposition supporters inhibited opposition political activity; however, there were no confirmed cases of such retaliation.

I’m glad to hear there were no confirmed cases — in 2008. I hope that continues on for 2009 and beyond, especially during an election year. In my opinion, this is the single biggest reason why the opposition continues to face such difficulties in recruiting more capable Singaporeans into their ranks.

Yet,

Law enforcement agencies, including the Internal Security Department and the Corrupt Practices Investigation Board, have extensive networks for gathering information and conducting surveillance and highly sophisticated capabilities to monitor telephone and other private conversations. No court warrants are required for such operations. It was believed that the authorities routinely monitored telephone conversations and the use of the Internet. It was widely believed that the authorities routinely conducted surveillance of some opposition politicians and other government critics.

I wonder who these opposition politicians they are monitoring are? “Politicians” could mean elected MPs, or simply opposition party members. I consider it a gross invasion of privacy if they are wiretapping the telephone conversations and emails of law-abiding opposition members. It will be even more appalling and unacceptable if they are monitoring elected opposition MPs. That would be a huge misuse of government and taxpayer resources for political ends.

Imagine if Internal Security Department (ISD) officers — who are civil servants — are monitoring opposition party conversations and emails, and are reporting all their election strategies to the Prime Minister! I sure hope this is not happening, because I think the ISD and the PAP will lose every remaining shred of credibility if they do revolting things like that. If they don’t, then the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) should come out and strongly rebut this accusation by the US and state clearly that nothing of this sort happens in Singapore.

I have written separately to MHA to highlight this to them and request for their action.

Obama’s engagement with Indonesia will reap great dividends

The administration of President Barack Obama demonstrated a stroke of genius when they chose Indonesia as one of their key pillars in their strategy of “smart power”.

Indonesia was only the second country, after Japan, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited since taking up office as her nation’s top diplomat. She told reporters in Jakarta that “building a comprehensive partnership with Indonesia is a critical step on behalf of the United States’ commitment to smart power”.

Her visit paves the way for President Obama’s expected state visit to Indonesia either before or after the APEC conference in Singapore later this year. In Indonesia, he is likely to deliver his much anticipated landmark speech addressing US-Muslim relations.

I must admit that when I first heard that Mr Obama was to deliver such a speech on the US’ relations with the Muslim world, I assumed that it would be in Cairo (Egypt) or Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). Egypt has long been one of the most influential Arab countries, and is the largest in terms of population. It is also the recipient of more US aid – including military aid – than any country in the world, save Israel. Saudi Arabia, with its oil wealth and being home to Mecca, stands out as one of the most obvious countries to engage Muslims from.

Yet, the Obama administration appears to have chosen Indonesia. On further analysis, Indonesia could turn out to be an ideal choice.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim majority country by far. It is the fourth most populous nation, after China, India and the US. When people think of the “Muslim world”, many immediately conjure up images of bearded Arabs in turbans and long flowing robes. But the reality is that most of the Muslim world resides outside of the Middle East, in places like Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and North Africa.

Indonesia is also the world’s third largest democracy. By engaging Indonesia, the US is not-so-subtly giving notice to autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that the US is not turning a blind eye to their dictatorial ways for the sake of pragmatic expedience. This gels in well with Mr Obama’s repeated campaign promises to wean America off its addiction to oil which makes it beholden to their “enemies”.

Indonesia is not only aligned with the US’ renewed focus on Asia, but also lies in the heart of a dynamic region that the Bush administration sorely neglected – Southeast Asia. It doesn’t hurt that Mr Obama spent five of his formative years living and schooling in Indonesia, making him a ready celebrity in the vast country.

So by engaging Indonesia, the US is killing multiple birds with one stone.

But how does this affect Singapore? By engaging Indonesia, the US shifts the sights of the world on Southeast Asia and the ASEAN countries, which includes Singapore.

One area of engagement with Indonesia will surely be improved military-to-military relations. Indonesia is Singapore’s largest neighbour and a potential military threat, particularly if their armed forces are not sufficiently professionalized and under the full control of a democratically-elected civilian government. With improved military relations, the US will be able to influence the development of the TNI (the Indonesian army) and possibly base more of its forces in the region. This will be a much needed force for stability in the region, possibly averting a disastrous situation like in 1999 when the TNI went on a rampage in East Timor after the latter voted to separate from Indonesia.

Greater US engagement will bring with it greater economic opportunities for Indonesia and the region. The economic development of Indonesia is in Singapore’s best interests, since a thriving Indonesia will provide a nearby market for Singapore’s exports, and help us diversify from our dependence on the US and Europe to sell our goods and services to.

Obviously it is still early days into the new US administration. Whether he makes good on his promise to build a bridge to the Muslim world remains yet to be seen. It is also unclear whether the focus on the non-Arab Islamic world will win over the Muslim ground, which still looks with much reverence to the Arab world as the heart of the Muslim ummah. Nevertheless, I am optimistic after seeing these first steps, and I look forward eagerly to President Obama’s visit to the region in November.