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.

Continue reading “Pandas can be dangerous if provoked”

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.

Continue reading “Balancing an emerging dragon”

China’s “Charter 08”

A few weeks ago, 303 prominent Chinese citizens put their signature to Charter 08 (零八宪章), which was a well-crafted statement of how they wished to see China develop into a free and democratic nation, which contributes to peace for humankind and progress toward human rights. Some of them are already paying the price for speaking out — several have been interrogated by the authorities and one remains under police custody.

Below is section II of the Charter, which spells out the fundamental principles that frame what they are asking for. The English translation by Perry Link follows it. The full Chinese version can be found here and the full English translation can be found here.

I salute these brave Chinese heroes. In fact, much of what they have written in their Charter is directly applicable to Singapore.









民主:最 基本的涵义是主权在民和民选政府。民主具有如下基本特点:(1)政权的合法性来自人民,政治权力来源于人民;(2)政治统治经过人民选择,(3)公民享有 真正的选举权,各级政府的主要政务官员必须通过定期的竞选产生。(4)尊重多数人的决定,同时保护少数人的基本人权。一句话,民主使政府成为”民有,民 治,民享”的现代公器。



Charter 08

II. Our Fundamental Principles

This is a historic moment for China, and our future hangs in the balance. In reviewing the political modernization process of the past hundred years or more, we reiterate and endorse basic universal values as follows:

Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.

Human rights.
Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.

Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person — regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief — are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.

Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.

Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Constitutional rule.
Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.


Olympic protests not an attempt to embarrass Chinese people

A PRC Chinese friend of mine recently asked me over dinner what I thought about the Tibet situation — the Tibet independence movement, Western protests, Chinese reaction, and so on.

He pointed out to me and our other Singaporean friends present how the Western press had been lying about the situation in Tibet. For example, German newspapers featured scenes of police suppressing protestors. But those policemen were revealed to be Nepalese police, not Chinese. (I presume websites like which point out these untruths have been circulating endlessly among Chinese both in China and overseas.)

I have noticed that Chinese nationals all seem to have a strikingly similar perspective on the issue: That Westerners are jealous of a rising China and are trying to prevent the 1.4 billion people of China from taking their rightful place in this world.

Perhaps this is because most of them get their news from Chinese government mouthpieces like Xinhua, or from friends who read Xinhua or

Knowing how sensitive this issue is with Chinese nationals, and not wanting to offend, I told him that I felt this whole situation was a misunderstanding between the Chinese and the West.

I told my friend that I feel that the majority of the Western “free Tibet” protesters are not out to embarrass the people of China or insult China (as in the country). Their protests are an attempt to embarrass the totalitarian Communist government of the People’s Republic of China, whom they believe need to open up and move towards a more representative government, rule of law and justice for all its people. Sure, there might be a few bigots among them, but we in China and Singapore do not realise that there are many European and American civil society activists who are genuinely seeking a more just world, even outside their own borders.

As for the misrepresentation of China in the Western press, I explained that in the West, unlike China and Singapore, there are no political controls on the press. Countries like Germany have countless newspapers which are all competing for readership.

One of the easiest (albeit least ethical) ways to increase readership is to sensationalise issues. Scenes of peaceful streets in Lhasa will not sell. So sometimes journalists in these papers will scrounge for random pictures to back their story of a harsh crackdown by the Chinese authorities. And since to many cloistered Westerners, all Asian people look the same, scenes of Kathmandu and Lhasa are indistinguishable.

However unethical (or ignorant) this might be, Chinese people should not see this as an attempt by Western governments to put down China. Since none of these papers take orders from their governments (unlike in China and Singapore), it is a mistake to attribute the newspapers’ stand on issues to that of their government.

I personally find this raucous Chinese nationalism very distasteful. The majority of Han Chinese have no idea what goes on in Tibet or Xinjiang. Whatever they hear from their national media is — like the Gold 90.5 FM advertisement — only the good stuff. How can they be in a position to judge that the Tibetan protesters (in Tibet) have no justification for wanting autonomy or independence?

I find it even more irritating when some chauvinist Chinese Singaporeans, who themselves have no link to China, automatically take sides with China without an understanding of the kind of government that rules that country. They too see the Chinese government through the lens of what our national media paints it to be.

I think it is important that all of us, whether Singaporean, Chinese or European, is that we all need to be more discerning when reading the news. Not everything the media churns out is the truth. Every story has two sides to it. We will do well to study both sides before forming our opinions.

Fortunately the Internet has opened up the media scene tremendously and enabled many of us to seek out these different perspectives easily with a click of a button. But how many of us make the effort to do this?


Do we really have to suck up to the Chinese like that?

This afternoon, I got a Channel NewsAsia SMS news alert that read:

PM Lee says outrage in China over anti-China protests, especially among Chinese youths, will have lifetime consequences beyong Beijing Olympics.

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief for a moment! Could it be that the Singapore Prime Minister actually criticized the Chinese for their anti-western vitriol that the world has become so accustomed to whenever nationalist sentiments are provoked? (PM Lee himself was a recipient of that Internet vitriol when he visited Taiwan in 2004 just weeks before becoming Prime Minister.)

When I visited the CNA website to read the whole report, I realised I was dead wrong. PM Lee actually said in a speech at the London School of Economics Asia Forum:

The outrage in China, especially among the young, can be read on the flooded Internet bulletin boards, all carrying virulent anti-foreign sentiments. Pity they are in unintelligible Chinese ideographs. Were they in the English language, young Americans and Europeans would realise that these displays of contempt for China and things Chinese will have consequences in their lifetime, well beyond the Olympic Games.

If I understand correctly, what PM Lee meant was:

Those stupid ang mohs should have never insulted the Chinese people by voicing support for Tibetan independence and protesting against the Olympics being held in Beijing. Look what has happened now: 1.3 billion Chinese people are outraged. You folks will live to regret it the rest of your life, because China is a future military and economic superpower which you cannot afford to offend.

PM Lee had also said:

No protesting group truly expects that their public display of anger and outrage at China’s treatment of Tibetans or ethnic Han dissidents will change China’s policy when it affects its core security concerns. They know no government can give ground on any core issue under such public duress, whatever the merits of the arguments.

You see, PM Lee is viewing the world from the worldview of this little oyster called Singapore. He seems to have forgotten that many autocratic governments, from the time of the French Revolution to the Philippines’ Marcos and Indonesia’s Suharto were toppled by “people power” movements.

Sure, governments in countries like China and Singapore are at no risk (now) of falling in that manner because they have got an iron grip of all the levers of power.

But to pronounce that the Chinese government will not be moved by these protests is equally wishful thinking, especially in the age of the Internet and free flow of information.
I’m sure the Tibetans are watching the protests around the world and gaining lots of inspiration from them.

These are erudite words of advice to the whole Western world, coming from a leader who has yet to address the problems in his own backyard, like an escaped terrorist and rocketing inflation.

In his effort to butter up the Communist Chinese, PM Lee has revealed how out of step he and his government are with regard to the growing tide of democratization and justice that is sweeping even our end of the world.


China must be held to account before Olympics

A 13-year old Sudanese child witnessed a rebel soldier being first shot in the arm,
then executed by gunshots to the groin. (Sudan Watch)

Film mogul Steven Spielberg made the most rattling move so far for the Communist Chinese government by pulling out as artistic advisor to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. His objection: Beijing’s complicity in the genocide going on in Darfur, Sudan. This was by no means an unexpected move. He had urged China as far back as April last year to do more to press for change in Darfur.

Spielberg’s announcement came on the same day that nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates — including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel and Jody Williams — sent a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao urging China to uphold Olympic ideals by pressing Sudan to stop atrocities in Darfur.

I fully support Spielberg’s move. The PRC government must be held to account for its human rights abuses not just within its borders, but outside as well. Darfur is just one in a long string of human rights abuses which date back to the founding of the Communist state.

In more than four years of conflict in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, 200,000 people have died and 2.5 million have been driven from their homes. Just last Friday, Sudan’s government attacked three towns in Darfur, forcing about 200,000 people from their homes and leading thousands to flee into neighboring eastern Chad.

Closer to home, we are all aware of the role that China has played in propping up the Myanmar generals who are responsible for killing thousands of their own people and dragging their country down into an economic abyss. Not to mention their jailing of responsible journalists like The Straits Times’ Ching Cheong over trumped up charges, and not even giving him the benefit of an open trial to present his case.

China is trying to use the Olympics to show their world that they have arrived, that they are a superpower to be reckoned with, when their dismal human rights record clearly suggests otherwise.

The world should seize this window of opportunity to highlight China’s contribution to the suffering in the world. I hope that in the coming months, international pressure will be be ramped up on Beijing to force them to relook at their policies. I have no doubt that Ching Cheong’s early release was in part due to the upcoming Olympics. Imagine what more can be achieved if more influential personalities like Steven Spielberg stand up and tell China’s leaders that enough is enough.


US ambassador says "US will fight" if China invades Taiwan

If the People’s Republic of China decides to take Taiwan by force, the US will fight on behalf of Taiwan against the Mainland, said a former US ambassador.

Chase Untermeyer, who just completed his tour as ambassador to Qatar and is on his way back to the US, made these personal comments on 28 Aug at a public lecture on “US policy in the Middle East” at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which was attended by about 80 government officials, foreign diplomats, academics and students.

The ambassador used the Cross Strait example to illustrate the importance the US government — in his opinion — places on the principles of democracy and freedom in making its foreign policy decisions. He pointed out that successive US administrations had made decisions to enter military conflicts not simply out of national interests or detailed calculations of the costs and benefits of entering the wars, but based on deep seated principles that are “as old as the US itself”.

Untermeyer cautioned that many countries would be mistaken if they think the US conducted its foreign affairs solely on hard-nosed pragmatism, like securing oil supplies. In the case of an invasion of Taiwan by China, Untermeyer believed that the US will fight China not because of treaty obligations or even out of national interest, but based on its principles to defend its democratic allies against aggression. (The US’ Taiwan Relations Act obliges the US to supply Taiwan with the military capability to defend itself.) Untermeyer assessed that even if a war with China is detrimental to US economic interests, the US will still aid Taiwan if the Chinese invasion goes against the will of the Taiwanese people.

Attempting to debunk the common perception that the US is interested in the Middle East only for its oil and enriching its own oil companies, Untermeyer argued that if that were so, the US would have never created the State of Israel, knowing the unpopularity of that move in a region dominated by Arab countries. The US depends on the Middle East for a quarter of its oil supplies. He said that the European Union is much more dependent on Arab oil and therefore sees the Middle East through the prism of energy security much more than the US does.

On the powerful Jewish lobby in the US influencing foreign policy in the Middle East, Untermeyer explained that Jews made up only five per cent of the US population, and that Jews alone would not be able to influence US policy that much. In fact, he said, the pro-Israel lobby in the US is powerful not just because of Jewish support, but because it fights for a “broadly popular cause” subscribed to by a wide spectrum of American citizens, including conservative Christians.

On Iraq, Untermeyer predicted a gradual reduction in troop numbers over the next year following a much anticipated report to Congress next month by the US ambassador to Iraq, but that it would not go “down to zero”.

Touching on Iran, he was convinced that Islamic republic is in the process of developing a nuclear bomb and the capability to deliver it on missiles. By removing Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, the US had unfortunately removed the a heavy counterweight to Iran, which is a far more threatening member of the “Axis of Evil” than Iraq was.

Untermeyer was sceptical that a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will resolve all the problems the US is having in the region, although he emphasised that the US should help “solve it for its own sake”. Cautioning that since any final settlement will involve large compromises by both sides (the Israelis and the Palestinians), he expected that right wing and jihadist groups would still seize upon any compromises that did not favour the Palestinian side to whip up sentiment against the US.

Voicing his personal disagreement with the policies of the current US administration, Untermeyer said that he did not “see anything wrong with dealing with Syria” rather than isolating them, which is the current Administration’s policy. He pointed out that isolation and sanctions have never been effective ways to change undemocratic regimes — Cuba being the most prominent example.

During the question and answer session, a student from China, referring to Untermeyer’s statement about defending Taiwan, pointed out that the island has been an integral part of China for far longer than the US has been nation. He asked Untermeyer what the US would do if one of its own states broke away. Untermeyer refused to be drawn into the Chinese student’s analogy, instead repeating that the US will fight based on its own principles of defending democracy, rather than historic precedent or economic interest.

An Indian student then queried how the US could spring to democratic Taiwan’s defence, yet cosy up with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew a democratically elected government. Untermeyer acknowledged that Pakistan presented a whole slew of policy difficulties for the US, but that the US saw Musharraf as “our man” for now in no small part because of the threat of Al Qaeda.

Untermeyer admitted that there were many examples of US actions that contradicted this assessment. However, he pointed out that even pragmatists like former secretary of state Henry Kissinger conceded that the principled, values-based approach to foreign policy will in the long run prevail over an approach based purely on hard nosed pragmatism and selfish national interests.


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