Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"Increasingly, people around the world are beginning to laugh at Singapore"

Downsides devalue Singapore Inc

Michael Backman
May 31, 2006
The Age

KIASU is the term Singaporeans use to describe the unpleasant side of their culture. Acting in a kiasu manner means being greedy, unwilling to share and insensitive to others. Many Singaporeans feel this is a good description of the Government and its approach to power. The winner-take-all attitude is out of step with other nations.

No one can deny that Singapore is an easy place (although not necessarily a good place) to do business, compared with its neighbours.

Singapore scores highly on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index: it is ranked No. 5 of 158 countries. The Global Competitiveness Report ranks Singapore No. 6 of 117 economies.

The Government likes to broadcast these figures. But it doesn't broadcast that it executes more people per head a year than almost anywhere else. Reporters Without Borders has Singapore No. 140 of 167 countries for media freedom.

It is as if Singapore is more a ruthless corporation than a country with a civil society, its people more employees than citizens, and its broadsheet, the Straits Times, more like a staff bulletin than a newspaper. As a Singaporean diplomat once told me, "We don't have journalists in Singapore; only propagandists."

Increasingly, people around the world are beginning to laugh at Singapore; they laugh at its Government's petty and self-serving restrictions on what people can and cannot do. But in Singapore, many people are unaware of this because the government-controlled media feed them a diet of only good news stories.

Race relations are often used as an excuse for restrictions. But Singapore has one of the most homogeneous race profiles in the world: 77 per cent are Chinese, the rest comprise Malays and Indians. Singapore does not have the racial complexities of many countries.

The Maria Hertogh case is cited as an example of how Singapore is on the edge racially, and used to justify various restrictions. Rioting erupted among Malays after a court allowed a Dutch girl who was raised as a Muslim to be returned to her Catholic parents. This was 56 years ago.

No viable opposition has been allowed to form, and without robust national debate Singaporeans are becoming politically de-skilled. Accordingly, the Government comprises plenty of ministers but few politicians, and there is little elegance to their art. They know only how to clobber: too often alternative viewpoints are responded to with public humiliation, threats, defamation writs and detention. Business should consider these aspects and not just competitiveness when assessing Singapore as a place for investment.

The Singapore Government hates people like me commenting on what it regards as its internal affairs. It hates it because foreigners cannot be controlled. But that does not stop the Singapore Government from intruding in the internal affairs of other countries.

Eddie Teo, Singapore's new high commissioner to Australia, has written letters to The Age critical of my recent columns. This is the first time Mr Teo has lived outside Singapore in 35 years and no doubt he finds a free media refreshing.

In one letter, Mr Teo claimed Singapore's defamation laws follow the English model. He is wrong. The British government does not sue opposition politicians so they are bankrupted and cannot run for parliament. If the British are to be blamed for Singapore's laws, then they can be blamed for Singapore's economic success. It was they who established Singapore as a free-trade port, which has made Singapore rich.

He says Singapore has a good legal system. That is true, but only compared with Indonesia, the Philippines, China and Thailand. Laws that have not had the benefit of open public debate and passage through a robust parliament are not really laws but decrees.

Rule of law becomes rule by law and many things are possible. Execution without a jury trial is one; torture is another.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC, writing last month for the Open Democracy Foundation, describes how torture was used in Singapore in the 1980s. A group of young lawyers, Catholic aid workers and women playwrights were rounded up by Singapore's Internal Security Department and detained without trial because they were suspects in an alleged Marxist conspiracy. They were not terrorists, they were political activists. The worst they seemed to have done was distribute Marxist literature.

They were deprived of sleep, doused with cold water and blasted with refrigerated air. The torture was not physical and left little evidence, which was its point. Instead, it was psychological and left what Robertson terms the Singapore scar. The minister then responsible for the ISD was Lee Hsien Loong. He is now Singapore's Prime Minister.

And who headed the ISD and Defence Ministry's Security and Intelligence Division for much of the 1980s? Eddie Teo, Singapore's high commissioner to Australia, the man who now enjoys our media freedoms, but who has spent much of his career denying Singaporeans similar freedoms. Some might regard that as kiasu.

michaelbackman@yahoo.com

Monday, May 29, 2006

Amnesty International's "Irrepressible" Campaign

In 1961, Amnesty International was launched with an article in the British newspaper The Observer. 45 years later, The Observer has again come together with Amnesty International to launch the Irrepressible Campaign. Please explore the campaign website and spread the word. And don't forget to Sign the Pledge on Internet Freedom while you're there.

Amnesty to target net repression from BBC News May 28 '06

Internet users are being urged to stand up for online freedoms by backing a new campaign launched by human rights group Amnesty International.

Amnesty is celebrating 45 years of activism by highlighting governments using the net to suppress dissent.

The campaign will highlight abuses of rights the net is used for, and push for the release of those jailed for speaking out online.

It will also name hi-tech firms aiding governments that limit online protests.

Pledge bank

Called Irrepressible.info, the campaign will revolve around a website with the same name. While the human rights group has run separate campaigns about web repression and the jailing of net dissidents before now, Irrepressible.info will bring them all together.

It aims to throw light on the many different ways that the freedom to use the net is limited by governments.

For instance, said a spokesman for Amnesty, around the globe net cafes are being closed down, home PCs are being confiscated, chat in discussion forums is being watched and blogs are being censored or removed.

"The internet has become a new frontier in the struggle for human rights," said Kate Allen, UK director of Amnesty International.

"Its potential to empower and educate, to allow people to share and mobilise opinion has led to government crackdowns."

Ms Allen added that there were growing numbers of cases in which those who have turned to the net to discuss change or protest about government policies have been jailed for what they said.

For instance, she said, Chinese journalist Shi Tao is serving a 10-year jail sentence for sending an e-mail overseas which detailed the restrictions the Chinese government wanted to impose on papers writing about the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Hi-tech firm Yahoo helped identify the journalist via his e-mail account. Amnesty is calling for the jailed journalist to be released immediately.

However Mary Osako, a spokeswoman for Yahoo, said the case was "distressing" to the firm.

"We condemn punishment of any activity internationally recognised as free expression, whether that punishment takes place in China or anywhere else in the world," she said.

She added the company had received "a valid and legal demand" for information and responded to it as required by the law.

She went on: "The choice in China or other countries is not whether to comply with law enforcement demands for information. Rather, the choice is whether or not to remain in a country.

"We balance the requirement to comply with laws that are not necessarily consistent with our own values against our strong belief that active involvement in China contributes to the continued modernization of the country - as well as a benefit to Chinese citizens - through the advancement of communications, commerce and access to information."

Profit and principles

The Amnesty campaign will seek to get net users to sign a pledge that opposes repressive use of the net. The pledges will be collated and presented to a meeting of the UN's Internet Governance Forum that is due to meet in Athens in November 2006.

Amnesty wants to get people using an icon in e-mail signatures or on websites that contains text from censored sites.

The group also wants to run an e-mail campaign to target companies to stop putting "profit before principles" and respect human rights everywhere they operate.

Reports will be prepared on those countries that place restrictions on what can be said online or use it to keep an eye on those expressing discontent.

"Irrepressible.info will harness the power of the internet and of individuals to oppose repression and stand up for free speech," said Ms Allen.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Another My Lai in Haditha?

There have been many comparisons made between the war in Iraq and the Vietnam War. The debate will go on for years to come.

One of the most infamous incidents during the Vietnam War was the 1968 massacre at My Lai, in which, a group of U.S. soldiers killed Vietnamese civilians. Now, in 2006, the Pentagon will be releasing a report soon on a massacre in Haditha, Iraq in Nov'05 by a group of U.S. Marines. TIME magazine first reported it in Mar'06.

What caught my attention, apart from the massacre itself, is the BBC news report which says "Moves are being made to prepare the public, perhaps for something shocking, says a BBC correspondent in Washington". (I have provided a link to that report by clicking on the words "releasing a report")

We'll have to wait and see what the report says but already its difficult not to compare the two incidents.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Neil Young's Living With War

I didn't realise the whole album was put online for everybody to listen to. Click on the picture to go to the website and listen to the album.


The Lady's Detention Extended

News has broke that Aung San Suu Kyi will not be released. Its a blow to everybody who was expecting news of her release today. Me included.

On a related note, I ask, does the PAP government have any moral authority to ask Myanmar (Burma) to release Aung San Suu Kyi, and bring democracy to Myanmar (Burma), when the PAP itself persecutes opposition party members and others the PAP see as a threat to their unchecked power? If your answer is Yes, you must be Alice in Wonderland or The One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Read TIME Asia's report in Jan'06 Going Nowhere.

Burma locks door on Suu Kyi's hopes of freedom By Jan McGirk in Bangkok Published in Independent 27 May 2006

Hopes that Burma's icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, would emerge from detention have been quashed.

Burmese army officers were seen entering the compound of the opposition leader late yesterday, and a source close to the regime said her house arrest in Rangoon, due to expire today, would be extended. But there was no official confirmation, nor any indication of how much longer she would be detained.

A group of people gathered near the home of Ms Suu Kyi, a Nobel peace laureate, last night, hoping to celebrate her freedom. Sources said more than two dozen people kept a vigil just beyond the razor wire cordon around Ms Suu Kyi's residence. One Rangoon expatriate said "expectations were running high" that the ruling military dictatorship would not renew her house arrest order.

Ms Suu Kyi, the daughter of the Burmese independence hero, General Aung San, has been locked up for 10 of the past 17 years. Leaders from the National League for Democracy (NLD) - Ms Suu Kyi's political party - mingled with students, rights activists and diplomats from China and America. Many had hoped to be in place after midnight to welcome the 60-year-old dissident back to the world beyond her garden gate.

According to The Irrawaddy, a Burmese exile magazine published in Chiang Mai, Thailand, plainclothes police circulated among the crowd, and unconfirmed reports said riot police were on call to beef up security.

Hopes for the release of Ms Suu Kyi and more than 1,100 other political prisoners were rekindled a week ago when Ibrahim Gambari, a top UN envoy, was allowed to meet Burma's most prominent prisoner of conscience for 45 minutes in Rangoon. The following day, Mr Gambari conferred with the junta's supremo, General Than Shwe, in the new Burmese capital near Pyinmana.

In Bangkok yesterday the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, urged General Shwe to "do the right thing". "I take this opportunity to appeal to General Than Shwe and the government to release her," he said. "For the democratic process and the reconciliation process to be truly successful, it has to be inclusive and she has a role to play."

The NLD won a landslide victory in elections held 16 years ago, but was prevented from taking control. Last year, Ms Suu Kyi's party boycotted a constitutional convention that would have legitimised military rule. Under the junta's guidelines, fresh elections would be postponed for four or five years.

Ms Suu Kyi has been detained "for her own protection" since May 2003, when a mob attacked her convoy on the way to a rally in central Burma. The junta characterised this as an assassination attempt, but a International Red Cross report concluded that government-hired thugs had instigated the violence.

Under pressure, many members resigned from the NLD this year after ministers linked it to terrorism, although no evidence was cited. There were rumours that the junta would outlaw the party altogether.

Burma's police chief said freeing Ms Suu Kyi would not present security problems because support for her was waning. "I think there will not be rallies or riots if Suu Kyi is released," said Police Major-General Khin Yi on Tuesday. "Our police force can handle everything."

Economic sanctions imposed after Ms Suu Kyi's arrest in 2003 have had little effect, partly because China, India, Thailand and other countries persist in business as usual with the military regime. Russia and China have questioned whether Burma's intransigence is a threat to international peace and security.

Analysts suggested that these trading partners have nudged the generals into making a gesture that they are serious about political reform.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Control freak-mode

On May 5, the last day of campaigning for the recent general election, the PAP's Lee Boon Yang, Minister for Information, Communications & the Arts, was reported to have said "The impact of the Internet at this General Election is likely to be looked at by the relevant ministry after the polls" and "this is to assess the scale at which the new media, like blogs and podcasts, were used to influence views and shape opinions".

On May 23, at a forum organised by National University of Singapore Society (NUSS), Denise Phua, a new PAP MP, was quoted as saying "I know that something has gone wrong when more than 85 per cent (of the traffic) writes negatively about the PAP.." and "This is something that the PAP would do well to take into account ... and to manage this channel of communication".

What are we to make of these statements by the ruling Peoples Action Party (PAP)?

The PAP have always been control freaks. And that's to put it mildly.

In a recent case study by OpenNet Initiative, the report states "Singapore has erected barriers to creating Internet content that augment its regulations for content itself".

I won't be surprised if more legislation, restrictions, rules & regulations are put in place. Possibly current ones strengthened. After all, pushing them through parliament will not be a problem, as it has been for decades, since the PAP dominates parliament.

What in god's name is a blog???

I wrote this post originally on Nov 9, 2006.

I'm not an expert on blogging but one thing bloggers must not forget is the fact that there are alot of people out there who don't know what a blog is all about. Especially those who don't go onto the Internet often. And even if they do, do so for specific reasons. I still get people asking me "What's a blog???" or "What's it all about???", etc, etc.

It doesn't surprise me though that people ask me these questions 'cos in many countries the mainstream media, or MSM, remains their main source of news & information. But blogs play an important role in countries such as Singapore where the local media is heavily controlled & influenced by the ruling party. So I thought it'll be good for those readers who visit a blog for the first time to at least have some basic knowledge about blogs.

Blogs mean different things to different people. I was looking for a kind of springboard to a better understanding of blogs. Here's Blogging Basics from Technorati. ;-)