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.

Continue reading “Singapore’s national interests vis-a-vis China”

Protestors storm ASEAN Summit hotel

Red shirted protestors loyal to deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra stormed the hotel where ASEAN leaders, including PM Lee, FM George Yeo and Trade Minister Lim Hng Kiang, were holding the annual ASEAN summit, prompting the Summit to be postponed indefinitely. The Thai government has declared a state of emergency.

View BBC clip

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.

Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis

PARLIAMENT on Friday [6 Feb] debated the budgets of three ministries – Foreign Affairs, National Development, and Information, Communications and the Arts.

Ministry of National Development

Mr Low Thia Khiang (WP-Hougang) queried the Minister for National Development about the recent demolition of flats on Hougang Avenue 7. He lamented that the demolition took place just seven years after Hougang Town Council used its own funds to upgrade the lifts in those flats. (Hougang, being an opposition ward, is at end of the queue for the Lift Upgrading Programme [LUP]. The LUP expenses for PAP wards are typically borne by HDB with small co-payments by the local town council and residents.)

Mr Low remarked that much of the money was wasted because of the early demolition. He said that in future, HDB should inform the Town Council earlier of its redevelopment plans, lest such waste took place again.

In her initial response, Senior Minister of State (National Development) Grace Fu, skimmed over the issue. Mr Low later pressed Ms Fu for an answer, adding that HDB ought to reimburse Hougang Town Council for the money that went to waste.

Ms Fu reiterated the Government’s earlier commitment to complete the LUP by 2014. Given the time needed to complete the works, HDB would have to make their selections and announcements of contractors by 2011.

Regarding the flat demolitions, the Senior Minister of State explained that HDB regularly reviews its land use, and that her Ministry “can’t tell seven years in advance” of redevelopment plans – “not even seven months”.Mr Masagos Zulkifli (PAP-Tampines) and Mdm Ho Geok Choo (PAP-West Coast) asked the Minister about the shortage of subsidised HDB rental flats for needy residents.

Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan revealed that there were currently 4,550 applicants in the queue for subsidised rental flats. He said that “two-thirds of them have reasons not to be in the queue”. He cited examples of retirees who had no income but significant savings from the sale of their flats, yet qualified for rental flats. His ministry’s solution to this housing crunch would be to further tighten the eligibility criteria for rental flats.

Mdm Cynthia Phua (PAP-Aljunied) expressed dismay at this proposal, emphasising that in times of economic downturn, the Government “should have more love” instead of tightening the rental housing criteria for old folks. Mr Mah responded, saying that the purchase of a $90,000 two-room flat is “easily affordable” to someone earning $1,200. Continue reading “Parliament debates HDB rental flats, upgrading, e-engagement and Gaza crisis”

Perspectives on the situation in Gaza

Israeli blogger and former army reserve “AronT”, who blogs at Aron’s Israeli Peace Weblog, claimed that Israelis have long been indoctrinated by three political/military laws which dictate their dealings with Palestinians.

The first is one is: If force doesn’t work, apply more force.

The second law that most Israelis blindly accept is that “in a tough neighborhood, you have to be the toughest, whatever the cost.” This is used to justify any “disproportionate response” to Palestinian attacks.

Finally Aron’s third Israeli political law is: Arab leaders are intractable terrorists out to destroy Israel so there is no one on the other side to talk to.

Aron’s full explanation of his three laws is at this blogpost.

Looking at the situation in Gaza right now, it is hard not to be convinced that these three laws are at play.

Current situation

Let’s have a quick situation report at the time of writing:

Following the end of an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire between Palestinian faction Hamas and Israel in December, Hamas resumed short range rocket attacks on Israeli towns bordering Gaza. This prompted Israel to launch its most blistering and sustained attack on Gaza since the 1967 Six Day War. As it stands now, there are about 470 Palestinians killed and over 2,000 injured. The UN says that about a quarter of the dead Palestinians are civilians. Four Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) has just launched a ground offensive into Gaza, with infantry, artillery, engineering and intelligence forces now inside the territory.

On the diplomatic front, the United Nations Security Council has failed to agree on a statement condemning the Israeli attacks, because the US has blocked it, claiming it is unbalanced. The US, Israel’s staunchest ally, is the lone major power in the world overtly supporting Israeli attacks, saying that Israel has a right to defend itself, and that a one-way cease fire that leads to rocket attacks from Hamas is not acceptable.

Meanwhile, the President of the UN General Assembly, who represents all 192 member nations, has called Israeli actions a “monstrosity”.

Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called the Israeli ground operations “an extremely disturbing development” and said “it can only exacerbate the already grave humanitarian situation”.

Reactions from some Singaporeans

While Singaporeans have understandably not taken to the streets to protest, unlike in other major cities like Sydney, New York and Jakarta, I asked two Singaporeans for their views on the current situation. (Note: These are their personal opinions. I make no claims that they are representative of all Singaporeans.)

On whether Israel’s current response is appropriate, lecturer Dr Syed Alwi questioned whether this attack by Israel is aimed at defending itself or for Israeli public consumption prior to elections.

NUS law student Cynthia Tang had this view:

The ferocity of Israel’s response to Hamas in the Gaza Strip must be understood within the conundrum of Israeli domestic politics. Israel’s general elections will be held on 10 February, where the prospect of a return to power of hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party is not low. Hence, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (from the more moderate Kadima Party who had advocated land for peace) feels the pressure to harden his position on Hamas. There was initially a wave of Israeli sentiments towards land for peace (when Ariel Sharon was prime minister and first pushed for it), however the tide on the ground has changed since Olmert took over and failed to deliver the security benefits which would presumably materialise under the land concession and his government’s weak response in the second Lebanon war (in 2006), where the overwhelming deterrence once enjoyed by the almost invincible Israeli military was severely dented.

Israel‘s response has worsened the situation in Gaza as, in addition to the attacks, they have, more damagingly, locked down the Gaza crossings which have completely crippled the Palestinian economy. Such actions only serve to back Hamas and the Palestinian people into a corner, and make an agreement for a ceasefire difficult.

US support for Israel

On the one-sided US support for Israel, Ms Tang was of the view that “US has to support Israel due to its domestic politics. Outside of the Jewish lobby in Washington, the general public opinion in the USA is still very much for Israel.”

She quoted an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, which stated that “widespread gentile (i.e., non-Jewish) support for Israel is one of the most potent political forces in the U.S foreign policy”. She opined that incoming President Barack Obama will be no exception.

Dr Alwi felt that the US’ response has added to its credibility problem in the Muslim world.

I am personally disappointed at Mr Obama’s silence on this matter. He has stated that he does not want to undermine the outgoing administration’s position. However, I believe it is a cop-out to avoid confronting a political hot potato. I’m sure he knows what is right, but is afraid to say it for fear of losing political capital with conservatives and the Jewish lobby.

In fact, I agree with some analysts that Israel has decided to seize the chance to attack Hamas now before January 20, when Mr Obama — who is much more fair minded on the Israeli-Palestinian issue — takes over as President.

Negotiating with Hamas?

Israel has categorically stated that it will not sit at the negotiating table with Hamas, which it brands a terrorist organisation.

Dr Alwi pointed out:

The problem with the word “terrorist”, is that one man’s terrorism is another man’s freedom-fighter. But I do agree that Hamas used to target civilians and this works against her image. Yes, I think Israel has to sit at the negotiating table because just about every other Arab Muslim group has had “terror” in its repertoire. If you do not deal with Hamas then who are you going to deal with? Once again is this because of altruistic moral reasons or is this refusal to deal with Hamas just for the consumption of the Israeli conservative lobby?

Hamas is a poor Muslim response to an organised militant Israel. You are not dealing with sophisticated ideas here. Its a raw response that plays on the Arab Muslim aspirations. Part demagoguery and part Rambo — but mostly poverty! These are people who feed on a sense of hopelessness, American double standards and Islamic rhetoric. I do not like Hamas, but then, the rest are no better.

Ms Tang added:

I have no doubt that Hamas is a terrorist organisation today. At present, the organisation routinely and systematically perpetrates acts of terror against Israel and had vowed itself against the very existence of Israel. However, that does not mean that there is no room for Hamas to gain legitimacy down the road as a political entity.

When Fatah was first founded and led by Yasser Arafat and other members of the Palestinian Diaspora in the 1960s and 1970s, it was one of the chief terrorist groups conducting terrorist attacks against Israel and also provided training to other Islamic militant groups. However, it gained legitimacy in 1993 when the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) renounced terrorism and signed an agreement of mutual recognition with Israel. This is not to say the Fatah re-entered into the mainstream out of the goodness of their heart, but because all political entities are pragmatic and will do the necessary to stay in power. In this case, Fatah did so to become the de facto government in the Palestinian Territories. If Fatah, the original armed nationalist group, could gain legitimacy and re-enter into the mainstream along the way, who is to say that Hamas can’t or will not? Hence, are they a terrorist group now? Yes. But it is an unknown if they will continue to be a terrorist group indefinitely. The key question is how do we incentivise Hamas to see it in their interest to enter into the mainstream, quite akin to Gaddafi’s Libya.

I agree that eventually Israel will need to negotiate with Hamas if it is to find a political solution, as distasteful as it might seem to them. The reality is that Hamas won the popular vote of the Palestinians (partly due to a fatal miscalculation by the US and Fatah).

And not just the PLO, but other political movements which started out with violence took the peaceful, responsible path after coming to power. South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) is another example (although the violence committed by the ANC pales in comparison with that committed by the PLO and Hamas).

It should be pointed out that Hamas, along with all other Arab countries, actually supported the Arab Peace Initiative proposed in 2002 by Saudi Arabia. The Arab Peace Initiative among other things, considers the Arab-Israeli conflict ended and establishes normal relations with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from all the Arab territories occupied since June 1967.

This is not to defend Hamas, which has, like the IDF, committed dastardly deeds against civilians. But one thing is for sure: Continued eye-for-an-eye violence is not going to bring peace — at least not in this conflict.

Thailand’s protesters is subverting democracy

The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the group leading the anti-government (or rather, anti-Thaksin) protests in Thailand, is probably Southeast Asia’s biggest misnomer. Instead of promoting democracy, as their name suggests, they are subverting the democratic institutions in Thailand.

After more than 6 months of continuous street protest, the situation has taken a sharp turn for the worse, with PAD members and supporters storming and occupying not just the prime minister’s office, but both airports in Bangkok, crippling the country’s vital tourism industry.

Despite their claim to democracy, I see nothing democratic about the PAD. Not only did they support the military coup, which in itself is the worst possible subversion of democracy, but they openly advocated reducing the number of elected members of parliament and replacing them with appointed representatives from the among the country’s elite.

According to Wikipedia, the PAD consists of middle and upper-class Bangkokians and Southerners, supported by the conservative elite and factions of the Thai Army, some members of the opposition Democrat Party, and leaders of state-enterprise labour unions. Its founder, Sondhi Limthongkul, is a super rich media mogul.

I have always wondered who is financing those thousands of protesters. Don’t they have jobs of their own? Obviously not. My only conclusion is that they are being paid by the rich elite PAD leaders and backers to wreck this chaos on their own country — all to achieve the PAD leaders’ self-serving ends.

I don’t claim to be an expert in Thai politics, and I am also aware of some of former PM Thaksin’s shortcomings. I also support peaceful democratic expression, but these last 6 months of street protests and violence have proven that the PAD is out of touch with the needs of ordinary Thais, and have dumped their consciences for selfish gain.

Obama’s foreign policy proposals

I support Barack Obama but not simply because it’s the “in” thing. As a non-American whose country is greatly affected by US foreign policy, my main reason for rooting for him is because I believe he presents much better foreign policy proposals than John McCain. I particularly like his focus on diplomacy first. This is not going soft on America’s enemies. This is fighting smart. Extending America’s “soft power” would do much more to overcome terrorists and other enemies of the US than military power ever could.

The Obama campaign has done a good compilation of all his speeches where he outlined his foreign policy visions. Take a look.


Three major US newspapers endorse Obama

It’s an interesting feature in US politics. As polling day approaches, newspapers will publish an editorial endorsing one of the candidates.

CNN reported that the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune have endorsed Barack Obama as their choice for President of the United States.

Here are snippets of what they had to say about the rationale behind their choice.

Washington Post:

…it is without ambivalence that we endorse Sen. Barack Obama for president.

The choice is made easy in part by Mr. McCain’s disappointing campaign, above all his irresponsible selection of a running mate who is not ready to be president.

Mr. Obama’s temperament is unlike anything we’ve seen on the national stage in many years. He is deliberate but not indecisive; eloquent but a master of substance and detail; preternaturally confident but eager to hear opposing points of view. He has inspired millions of voters of diverse ages and races, no small thing in our often divided and cynical country. We think he is the right man for a perilous moment.

Los Angeles Times:

We need a leader who demonstrates thoughtful calm and grace under pressure, one not prone to volatile gesture or capricious pronouncement. We need a leader well-grounded in the intellectual and legal foundations of American freedom. Yet we ask that the same person also possess the spark and passion to inspire the best within us: creativity, generosity and a fierce defense of justice and liberty.

Indeed, the presidential campaign has rendered McCain nearly unrecognizable. His selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was, as a short-term political tactic, brilliant. It was also irresponsible, as Palin is the most unqualified vice presidential nominee of a major party in living memory. The decision calls into question just what kind of thinking — if that’s the appropriate word — would drive the White House in a McCain presidency. Fortunately, the public has shown more discernment, and the early enthusiasm for Palin has given way to national ridicule of her candidacy and McCain’s judgment.

Obama’s selection also was telling. He might have scored a steeper bump in the polls by making a more dramatic choice than the capable and experienced Joe Biden. But for all the excitement of his own candidacy, Obama has offered more competence than drama.

We may marvel that Obama’s critics called him an elitist, as if an Ivy League education were a source of embarrassment, and belittled his eloquence, as if a gift with words were suddenly a defect. In fact, Obama is educated and eloquent, sober and exciting, steady and mature. He represents the nation as it is, and as it aspires to be.

Chicago Tribune:

On Dec. 6, 2006, this page encouraged Obama to join the presidential campaign. We wrote that he would celebrate our common values instead of exaggerate our differences. We said he would raise the tone of the campaign. We said his intellectual depth would sharpen the policy debate. In the ensuing 22 months he has done just that.

This endorsement makes some history for the Chicago Tribune. This is the first time the newspaper has endorsed the Democratic Party’s nominee for president.

McCain failed in his most important executive decision. Give him credit for choosing a female running mate–but he passed up any number of supremely qualified Republican women who could have served. Having called Obama not ready to lead, McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. His campaign has tried to stage-manage Palin’s exposure to the public. But it’s clear she is not prepared to step in at a moment’s notice and serve as president. McCain put his campaign before his country.

Obama chose a more experienced and more thoughtful running mate–he put governing before politicking. Sen. Joe Biden doesn’t bring many votes to Obama, but he would help him from day one to lead the country.

We do, though, think Obama would govern as much more of a pragmatic centrist than many people expect.

He has the intelligence to understand the grave economic and national security risks that face us, to listen to good advice and make careful decisions.

It may have seemed audacious for Obama to start his campaign in Springfield, invoking Lincoln. We think, given the opportunity to hold this nation’s most powerful office, he will prove it wasn’t so audacious after all. We are proud to add Barack Obama’s name to Lincoln’s in the list of people the Tribune has endorsed for president of the United States.

What I wanted to ask the Australian PM

I took an afternoon off from work to attend the 29th Singapore Lecture at the Ritz-Carlton, during which Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister delivered a keynote address.

I had a few questions to ask him, but unfortunately despite being one of the first to stand up in front of the mike, DPM Jayakumar, the lecture’s chairman, overlooked me.

Anyway some friends whom I bumped into there wanted to know what I was going to ask. So here goes…

My question relates to your proposed Asia Pacific Community, which would include ASEAN, East Asia, India, Australia and the US. I think this is an important idea for people in our region to discuss. But as you know, good ideas don’t always get off the ground.

Your idea has received a rather frosty reaction from ASEAN. How do you plan to push through your idea while allaying the fears that this is an Australian-led initiative that might end up sidelining ASEAN?

If the APC were to be centered around ASEAN, just like the East Asia Summit is now, would you support it as strongly as you do now?

What has the reaction to your idea been like in Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi and Washington?

If anyone has an insider’s answer to my questions, do let me know!

A lesson in diplomacy

A year ago, a furious military government in Thailand cancelled all bilateral exchanges with Singapore because Deputy Prime Minister S. Jayakumar met up with his old friend Thaksin Shinawatra when the latter was on a “private” visit to Singapore. Fast forward a year, and now newly elected Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who is on an official visit to Singapore, has immediately restored the Thailand-Singapore Civil Service Exchange Programme (CSEP) and the Singapore-Thailand Enhanced Economic Relationship (Steer) meeting.

Samak, who touted himself as Thaksin’s proxy, was recently elected by the people of Thailand, giving the generals who led the coup overthrowing Thaksin a big slap in the face.

Imagine for a moment, if Singapore had decided a year ago that since the generals were in charge, let’s not do anything that might offend them. Would Samak now be as friendly to Singapore as he now is? Cordial, yes. But friendly? Probably not.

Whether Jayakumar’s meeting with Thaksin was a calculated move is anyone’s guess. But knowing how our Foreign Ministry works, it probably was.

It is an important lesson in diplomacy that we should never write off anyone, because one day they may return to power and they won’t forget.

While Singapore may have played its cards right when it comes to Thailand, I fear it may not be the case for other countries.

With Myanmar, Singapore gave up the chance to take a more principled stand against the junta there while we held the ASEAN chair last year. Instead, we pushed this responsibility to UN Special Advisor Ibrahim Gambari. If Aung San Suu Kyi and/or her National League for Democracy were to ever come to power in our lifetime, would we regret not lending more support to their cause?

MM Lee Kuan Yew has not hidden his support for US Presidential hopeful John McCain over Barack Obama, on the basis that Obama lacks foreign policy experience. Going by opinion polls, it is likely that Obama will not only win the Democratic primary, but the November polls as well. Hopefully the President of the world’s only superpower will not be too small-minded.

On Taiwan, the Singapore Government and mouthpiece media keep rubbishing the aspirations of the majority of Taiwanese people to become a normal country free from Chinese threats. Is this how we bite the hand that has fed us with some of the best military training areas all these years?

Of course we all know that politics is unpredictable. Rather than bet on who will be the next leader of a country, it would be much better for Singapore to take a principled and balanced stand in dealing with such leaders, because one day, history, the people and future leaders of that country will judge us for what we stood for in the past.