Monday, July 28, 2008

The Audacity of Change: Thoughts on Reclaiming Hougang (oops...the Singapore Dream)

The title of this entry is clumsy play on Barack Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream”.

A wave of new found optimism is gathering strength in the United States as Barack Obama’s campaign steamrolls along. Emblematic of this movement are energized youths, engaged and interested in reclaiming a piece of the American dream - not their forefather’s dream, but rather a dream of their own.

With a faltering domestic economy, a political system governed by big business and special interest groups, and a draining foreign policy driven by a military culture, it would be by no stretch of the imagination to say that Americans have been frustrated and cynical of the status quo. Yes, they want change.

What strikes me as particularly interesting in this political movement is that there is an ongoing sideline struggle between what essentially are two factions in the ‘change camp’.

The frequent contentious public statements and retractions on Obama by cantankerous characters such as Obama’s spiritual mentor Rev. Wright, and more recently by civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, represent a section of African-Americans voters who hanker for Obama to openly embrace his black heritage and not try to be something for everybody. In fact, critics doubt the eloquent statesman can win over the African-American community as successfully as he has done with the white community.

On the other side of the ‘change camp’ are the new guard of civil activists who buy into Obama’s post-racial ethos that transcends race and class differences.

These frictions between the old and new guards of the black civil rights movement got me thinking about the political scene here in Singapore. And with our nation’s 43rd birthday approaching in a matter of days, what better time to reflect on where we are as a nation and where we want to be.

A few days back, an old guard of the ruling party used a National Day event as a pretext to deliver a clear message that the fight for opposition-held wards was not over and that members of the grassroots should act as opposition for the opposition. In reaction, Choo Zheng Xi, editor-in-chief of The Online Citizen, astutely highlighted in a recent article that “Singapore is larger than the People’s Action Party (PAP) and its supporters”.

Surviving old guards of the PAP struggle with the baggage of early nation building and a siege mentality that was necessary at the time. They also struggle with the inevitable prospect of handing over custodial responsibilities to a new generation of leaders ‘polluted’ with liberal ideas from the west.

We see this struggle of ideals in opposition parties as well. Take for example the mini exodus from the Workers’ Party after the 2006 general elections. Young members seeking, more aggressive approaches to oppositional politics, grew disillusioned with the WP’s ‘safe’ politics.

I would like to think that until we find leaders, PAP or otherwise, that are ready to rise above partisan lines and embrace post-political politics, we will not see a sweeping movement for change in Singapore any time soon. When the right leader emerges, the ground will be ready to reclaim their Singapore Dream.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Maximum Security Nation: Overeaction is Complacency's Ugly Cousin

I had previously written on the responsibilities of government’s and security agencies’ responsibility in maintaining a balance between being protective and intrusive. In lieu of Mas Selamat’s escape from the Whitley Road Detention Centre, I had argued that perhaps the personnel, those whom were empowered with custodial responsibilities, were found lacking on the latter front. I had also posited that a deeply-rooted culture of disempowerment and compartmental thinking has crippled to an extent the effectiveness of line-staff in dealing with contingencies effectively.

More recently, two men on robbery with hurt charges attempted an unsuccessful but audacious flight from custody whilst in remand at a lock-up in the Subordinate Court. Comparisons to the great “toilet break” by Mas Selamat are too tempting to resist but I shall nonetheless try. I would however like to remark on the reaction by authorities.

As the two assailants were brought back to answer to additional charges of assault and escape from legal custody, they were flanked by a proportionately excessive number (10) of policemen. In addition, police said that immediately after the incident, several measures were taken to enhance the security at the Subordinate Courts’ lock-ups (no details).

As a concerned citizen, I expect and even demand that adequate measures are taken to ensure our safety, be it from hardline terrorists all the way down to petty crime felons. However, I hope the need to appease such concerns in a perceptible manner are not clouding the responses of the authorities.

I do not wish to see the day when, out of fear of embarrassment from another potential flight from custody, all persons held under police remand are treated like inmates at a maximum security facility. The World Consumer Rights’ Day protesters would surely agree. The temptation is however there, as understandably the Government is jittery over public perception following the immensely damaging and embarrassing incident of Mas Selamat’s escape.

Security and law enforcement personnel serve two primary purposes; prevention and reaction. No government or agency in the world can lay claim to being able to prevent acts of terrorism, crime, corruption, and so on, 100 percent of the time. Mistakes can happen and often do. The litmus test of governmental and societal resilience is in the response, the reaction. Over-reaction sometimes can be more damaging than doing nothing at all.

Monday, April 21, 2008

COI Report: A Litany of Blunders, A Culture in Need of Change

The ISD has over the years accumulated a reputation for no-nonsense conduct with regards to ensuring the security and sovereignty of Singapore. In our imaginations, their work is steeped with intrigue, skullduggery and secrecy. As such, the ISD unavoidably becomes associated with conspiracy theories ranging from privacy infringements to political manipulations.

Regardless of the outlook one may hold, we have to remember that ultimately, the ISD is a government agency; one that is in need of a culture change.

Reading through the litany of blunders presented by Minister Wong this afternoon, I was hit in the proverbial nose above all by the strong scent of bureaucracy. Two case facts will ellaborate on this.

One, the toilet used by detainees during family visitation had an un-grilled window; a flaw that was blamed on a miscommunication with contractors. The remedy prescribed by the centre's superintendent - to saw off the handle of the window instead of erecting grilles - was indeed a bad judgment call. While miscommunications and bad decision making are part and parcel of human existence, it is far more disturbing that no one (I am assuming) had the courage to speak up and warn the superintendent that it was simply a bad idea.

And two, a sense that something was amiss (Mas Selamat taking too long in the cubicle) was only followed up upon after that peice of information had travelled through four individuals (two gurkha guards, a female junior officer and an assistant case officer). Surely a knock on the cubicle door by the guard standing directly behind it would have sufficed.

In my view, these security control lapses were the result of basic inaction brought about by disempowerment and crippling job scope compartmentalization. Factors I am sure you would agree are synonymous with civil service culture.

We encounter similar situations in mundane everyday dealings with Government bodies. Approval is needed by one department before another can give the green light. Status of applications cannot be checked as assigned officers are on vacation leave. Actions can not be taken without supervisor approval. Everything is strictly by the book and when the book is not available, the world stops rotating.

Was the escape the result of a confluence of personal errors in judgments and infrastructural inadequacies? The simple answer is yes, but life is never simple. A perfect storm of errors may have culminated in Mas Selamat's escape, but the clouds of bureaucracy continue to overcast our skies.

Disciplinary actions on individuals held accountable for these lapses are an expected byproduct. However, there are limits and Minister Wong should be mindful not to merely treat symptoms and not the disease. A willingness to sack people when things go wrong is in itself a culture that will breed further self-preservatory behaviour; popular euphemisms that come to mind are "better cover backside" and "just do your job".

The litany of blunders are laid bare for all to see. While many quiet successes of ISD, past and future, will likely go unnoticed, in the cynical world we inhabit, failures are more readily remembered.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Fitna: A Neocon Dutchman's Self-Indulgence

These days, it seems any amount of verbal putrescence can be passed off as individual expression. The recent distasteful production "Fitna" by Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders is an excellent case in point.While the right to freedom of speech, as a concept, is easily digestible to all, people oftentimes forget that it is not an absolute right. The right to speak freely without censorship naturally comes with caveats; most relevant here would be restrictions on speech or expressions that are tantamount to hate speech which is defamatory or causes incitement to violence.

“You may hold whatever private opinions you like but you do not enjoy an absolute right to express them in public.”

Syed Shahabuddin, Muslim scholar and former opposition MP in India’s Parliament,
in defence of the censoring of Salmon Rashdie’s Satanic Verses

The Self-Indulgent Dutchman

The intended reading of “Fitna” the movie, as it was framed to achieve, would be that Islam and Terrorism are inextricably intertwined as such that you cant have one without the other. While one would find it hard to argue against the fact that much of what we term as acts of terrorism these days are inspired by a political ideology that has been ‘legitimized’ by Islam, it would be very easy to find fault with Wilders’ ideas and intentions.

I found a video of an Interview conducted with Wilders by Fox News Network (not surprising considering the networks political inclinations to the right). In it, Wilders proclaims that cultures are not equal and that “our culture [European? Dutch?] is far better than the retarded Islamic culture”. Furthermore, although Wilders does not believe that a ‘moderate’ Islam exists, he strangely invites Muslims to assimilate into Dutch society by first renouncing the “intolerant and fascist parts of the Koran….. and take Dutch values as their values”. His olive branch offering is in essence poison oak laced with Islamaphobia, making his stance at best contradictory and at worst ‘fascist’ (to borrow a phrase he often uses to describe Islam).


‘Fascism’ simply put is an authoritarian political ideology, movement, or regime that considers the individual subordinate to the interests of the state, party or society as a whole. In his relentless denunciation and vilification of Islam, Wilders displays symptoms of extreme Christian right-wing nationalism. This is interesting when you consider that a complementary element of fascism, most evident in Nazi fascism, would be ‘extreme nationalism’.

While researching further into the term "Islamic Fascism", I found an interesting article (The Big Lie About 'Islamic Fascism') that referenced a modern definition of fascism from former Columbia University Professor Robert Paxton’s 2004 book, The Anatomy of Fascism.

Paxton defined fascism’s essence as, inter alia, “right of the chosen people to dominate others without legal or moral restraint and a fear of foreign contamination". He further added that:

[…] The Muslim World is replete with brutal dictatorships, feudal monarchies, and corrupt military-run states, but none of these regimes, however deplorable, fits the standard definition of fascism. Most, in fact, are America’s allies.

[…] The real modern fascists are not in the Muslim World, but Washington. The neocons screaming fascist the loudest, are the true fascists themselves.

These descriptions speak volumes don't you think?

Final Thoughts

Dissenters, nonconformists, artists, racists, bigots, proselytizers, politicians, bloggers … etc… all find common sanctuary under the aegis of a perceived universal right to freedom of speech and expression. It is in fact guaranteed under International Law (Universal Declaration of Human Rights) as a human right.

Proponents of this right however, often ignore the next article in the Law which recognizes that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This demonstrates an Orwellian paradox where all rights to expression are equal, but some rights are more equal than others; while Islam, and its 1.5 billion devotees, are often found grasping the short end of this stick.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Committee of Inquiry: Institutional Deficiencies vs Personal Liability


It has now been four days since Minister Wong announced the setting up of a three-member Committee of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the escape of Mas Selamat from the Whitley Road Detention Centre. Bloggers, such as Mr Brown, Mr Wang, Mr Giam and Mr Sai Kor, have weighed in on the composition of the committee and provided diverging but equally reasonable assessments. Perhaps the reason for these mixed feelings regarding the appropriateness of the committee selection is a lack of clarity over the mission and powers entrusted to it.

In the 2nd March ST report, Minister Wong affirmed that the mission of the probe was to prepare “an objective, balanced and comprehensive report on what took place and what we must do. He further added that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was separately conducting an “internal inquiry to determine if there is any criminal wrongdoings”.

Without further elaboration, these two statements collectively seem to imply that the COI’s objective is limited to an assessment of the adequateness of operating procedures and physical security (institutional deficiencies), while the CID’s role is to charge, or absolve, individuals directly involved at the detention centre of negligence or criminal abetment (personal liability) – these, and my following arguments, are of course assumptions based on limited information.

What Took Place?

The investigation into “what took place” would thus imply that the COI has been empowered to take testimony of involved personnel and stakeholders, in order to establish if all current standard operating procedures were adhered to (e.g. handling of detainee transfers from cell to visitation areas, placement of sentries when detainees are outside their cells…etc.). Assuming that everything is deemed aboveboard, the line of questioning would then shift to determining how the detainee managed to elude emplaced security personnel, controls and barriers.

What We Must Do?

That is where the “what we must do” aspect comes in. The COI would be expected to furbish a list of improvements to current procedures and security structures to ensure such a security lapse (procedural or structural) cannot be repeated. Therefore I seriously doubt that they will be allowed to name names and assign blame. That aspect, together with the corresponding punitive actions, will likely be handled internally and quietly; assuming of course that there was no criminal wrongdoing. As such, I anticipate that the COI report and its findings will be highly general in nature and would not satisfy those that clamor for blood.

Does the Selection Make Sense?

If the primary role of the COI is limited to unearthing institutional deficiencies, then the appointments make sense on paper as all three have complimentary experiences in the administration of justice (former Supreme Court judge), enforcement (former Commissioner of Police) and policy (seasoned civil servant). All three are however to varying capacities still involved in public service; a presidential advisor, diplomatic ambassador and current MHA deputy Secretary. But to be fair, they were not packaged as an ‘independent’ commission of inquiry in the first place.

Conflict of Interest?

Nonetheless, if institutional knowledge is valued by the authorities over absolute agent autonomy, can we still realistically expect an ‘independent’ investigation?

Perhaps such a seemingly paradoxical premise is plausible. Take for example the internal affairs division in the U.S. Although they come under the Police department, they are tasked to investigate breaches of professional conduct by officers in the force. However, that falls into the realm of personal liability and not institutional deficiencies. Because of this, I share Mr Wang’s discomfort over the appointment of Dr Choong as such deficiencies may have indirectly resulted from poor planning and resource allocation by the upper echelons of the MHA (her current colleagues and bosses?). As such, Dr Choong may operate ‘independently’ (as her day-to-day job probably has more to do with keeping security threats out rather than in) but can she operate ‘objectively’?

Alas, as the days count down to the release of the report, the debate over who should or should not be included becomes more and more academic; leaving us with the resulting report as the only marker of how “objective, balanced and comprehensive” the COI was. Perhaps only then, the independence (or lack thereof) of the investigation will be perceptible to all.

Update: Taken from the Today paper 6 March

"..... The Minister has also established a Committee of Inquiry under the Prisons Act, to discover specifically how the escape occurred and to recommend appropriate actions to prevent such an incident from occurring again...

.... However, the complete facts and circumstances addressing fully the question of how Mas Selamat escaped is now the subject of a criminal investigation and more so, an inquiry by a Committee of Inquiry. We should await their findings.""


Some sections found in the Prisons Act (chapter 247 of the Singapore Constitution)

Committee of inquiry

8. (1) Where it is expedient that the Minister, or such other person as the Minister may appoint to exercise the powers conferred upon the Minister by this Part, should be informed on any matter connected with the discipline, administration or functions of any prison or affecting any prisoner, the Minister or the person appointed by the Minister may convene a committee of inquiry.

Admissibility of evidence

15. No statement made in the course of any inquiry and no report of a committee of inquiry shall be admissible as evidence in any proceedings other than proceedings, whether criminal or disciplinary, for an offence of giving or fabricating false evidence under any written law.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

JI Detainee Escapes: State Not Intrusive Enough?

The headline read “JI detainee Mas Selamat Kastari escapes from Singapore detention centre” and my jaw dropped to the floor.

When I wrote about the recent arrests of 2 individuals for habouring plans to conduct acts of terrorism, I discussed the difference between being protective and intrusive. The argument was of course that the Singapore government had to adopt a stance dictated by the ideals of the former. Unfortunately, given the shocking circumstances which has resulted in a massive manhunt for a dangerous former terror cell leader, I wonder if our protectors are doing a decent enough job of being intrusive.

Surely every intrusive means of surveillance and monitoring should have been dedicated to keeping real threats to society safely behind lock and key. I am sure no civil libertarian could argue against that.

Minister Wong sure has some explaining to do. First of which is how a limping middle-aged man could escape from an ISD run facility?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Politics is a Funny Thing

Myanmar and Pakistan not too long ago seemed to be diverging on two separate paths; the former towards democracy and the latter further into autocracy.

The indicators were there. There were subtle signs that the Myanmese Junta was softening its stance with Aung’s NLD. And with intensified international and regional pressure, one was hopeful that incremental change was on the cards.

On the flip side, the demise of the charismatic Benazir Bhutto, and security concerns thereafter, threatened to cripple the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and delay parliamentary elections indefinitely; ending hope of an end to military rule in Pakistan.

But a day, not to mention a few weeks, is a long time in politics. The Myanmar junta has since engaged in undemocratic constitutional reforms and has barred Aung from participating in future elections as she was formerly married to a foreigner.

Pakistani opposition parties (Pakistan Muslim League-N party and the PPP) have stormed to victory in their general election and are now contemplating the formation of a coalition government.

Politics is a funny and unpredictable thing.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Singapore: the protective or intrusive state?

I can only shake my head with bewilderment as I read of yet more Singaporeans being detained for harbouring plans to conduct acts of terrorism in the name of Islam. Although the Islamic world has indeed a great deal to be aggrieved for, all forms of violence (whether emanating from coalition forces, insurgent groups or self-styled mujahedin), is as far as I’m concerned, unconscionable.

That aside, I shall spare everyone (or those one of two readers of my blog) of that oh-so-tedious homily about how Islam is a religion of peace and that these misguided youths were sold an adulterated doctrine of radical Islam. That treatise has been dutifully delivered by MUIS representatives and other Government officials over the last few days.

For posterity sake, I would like to add some food for thought regarding Singapore’s approach (or direction) to counter terrorism in this new environment of heightened surveillance and paranoia. When it comes to matters such as terrorism, the Government will readily choose to err on the side of caution and squash early signs of radicalism before they materialize. But there is a fine balance to be struck between being protective and intrusive.

While the maintenance of public safety and confidence is a key consideration, the Muslim community will likely once again fall under the suspicious eye of the public. How else do you expect an uncle sitting at the coffeeshop to react to this latest news that more Malay Muslim youths sought to wage armed jihad. Extrapolate this fear and you have a citizenry (Muslim or otherwise) starting to feel squeamish under the panoptical eye of the state.

That’s when confidence is lost. Not confidence in the ability of the state to act timely, but confidence in the state to act fair handedly. Will my off-colour remark made to a friend on MSN be intercepted and misread as early signs of radicalization? Will my trips ‘overseas’ be viewed as suspicious travel with intent to wage in jihad? Will my stout religiosity be dubbed a threat?

This brings me back to my point about the difference between being protective and intrusive. Such a distinction is only appreciable by the every day man, through the perceived ethical handling of intelligence and transparency in public communications. As the veracity of the intelligence gathered on these 3 individuals cannot possibly be verified by common folk like you and I, it really boils down to trust.

Trust that the intelligence was gathered and processed without prejudice or malice. This can be achieved by more transparent sharing of case findings in order for us to be convinced that the authorities indeed had the justification to act. This would strip away the shroud of secrecy surrounding such arrests under the infamous ISA, and limit avenues for conspiracy theory formation.

Granted, I see that the authorities at least had the common sense not to detain someone merely for being a recipient of some radical ideas. We as flawed humans inevitably at points in our unfortunate existence, habour ideas that if uttered out loud could be read as radical. While this Taufik fella dodged the proverbial bullet, the other two, Zamri and Maksham really have nothing to complain about; the evidence is plain to see. But alas, my judgments are only based on the evidences shared by the authorities.

Furthermore, the announcement of 6 detainees being rehabilitated and released (timed to perfection I might add), at the very least, puts me at ease that people like Zamri and Maksham are not going to be left there to rot away their youth. Pessimists will call it propagandist rhetoric, optimists will call it public accountability.

Not being a fan of Bushism, I shall avoid using that peculiar phrase “war on terror”. Rather, in this age of pervasive surveillance brought about by the realities of 9-11, some sacrifice of privacy is acceptable and arguably necessary. But it will only remain so if our basic liberties are not flippantly encroached upon in the name of national security. Its good that the Government appears to be more open about ISA cases, but like most of what they do, more would be better.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Shared Legacy: Suharto and Lee

As rightfully observed by The Observer, the ailing former Indonesian President Suharto was a dictator. Under his reign, he oversaw communist mass-killings, suppressed secessionist attempts, outlawed civil activism and was unapologetic about it all. Why? Well first and foremost, such moves were dubbed necessary for economic development. Well, the Asian financial crisis came along and hit Indonesia very hard. Bailouts from international monetary were suspectedly mismanaged or even embezzled. Losing the veneer of economic progress and stability, another ‘unchallenged’ reelection of Suharto broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Recently, MM Lee has once again spoken of his friendship with the former Indonesian ruler. He however chooses to remember the man for the good he has done rather then the ‘missteps’ or ‘hard decisions’ made during trying times.

Lee owed much of Singapore’s and ASEAN’s stability to his similarly strong-armed counterpart. His feelings of gratitude are therefore understandable, and not surprising. This is because they in fact share more than common histories; they also share a common legacy.

Hence I couldn’t help but wonder whether Lee’s most recent character defensive of Suharto is actually a personal confession of his own.

“Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favours to his family and his friends…But there was real growth and real progress. I think the people of Indonesia are lucky.” MM Lee on Suharto

With his own mortality firmly in the foreground, is this statement a veiled self-reflection on his own tenor? Or am I over-reading it?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Contrasting Tactics of Resistance: our own Aung San Suu Kyis and Bhuttos?

If a top-ten list of 2007 buzz-phrases were to be compiled, somewhere between “rising costs” and “enbloc fever” you would find “military junta” and “pro-democracy movements”. Thus, with our vocabulary extended and our eyes fixated on developments over the past year, this article explores the two most prominent and captivating pro-democracy movements of 2007; through the eyes of their disparate principle drivers.

This cursory exploration of contrasting styles of resistance, unveils some unexpected parallels with the current state of oppositional politics in Singapore. Leaving us to wonder: do we have our own Aungs and Bhuttos?

Daughters of Destiny

Pro-democracy campaigner and Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, carries the hopes of Myanmese people squarely on her narrow shoulders. The petite framed leader of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is hardly a symbol of fire-brand resistance and opposition. The daughter of assassinated de facto Prime Minister General Aung San (1947) came to prominence following the quelled nationwide democracy uprising. After spending 28 years outside of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Rangoon in 1988 to care for her ailing mother. Embroiled in a midst of a popular uprising, and inspired by non-violent campaigns of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi organized rallies and traveled around the country, calling for peaceful democratic reforms and free elections.

In the 1990 snap general election held after the institution of marital law in 1989, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD clinched 82% of the popular vote despite the detention of herself and party members; a result we all know was not recognized by the ruling regime. Since then, arbitrary imprisonment and forced house arrests has shrouded her unfulfilled tenure as chosen leader.

Standing on the opposite end of the same boat is Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto. The twice elected Pakistani prime minister has enjoyed her own tumultuous time in the political sphere. Following the dismissal and execution of her prime minister father in 1979, Bhutto intensified her vocal denunciations of the military regime and landed herself in solitary confinement after months of being in and out of house arrest for organizing political rallies against coup leader General Zia. Returning from exile in Britain in 1986, Bhutto organized mass protests and civil disobedience campaigns to call for elections and became the first women Prime Minister in Pakistan (1988). She was subsequently dismissed under charges of incompetence and corruption (1990) and was deported to the city of Karachi in 1992 before returning to office in 1993. In 1996, she was dismissed for the second time under similar charges; charges to this day she professes were politically motivated.

A Tale of Two Regimes

As highlighted above, two of the world’s most recognized female politicians share uncannily similar histories and present realities. Recent triggers of their prominent return to the fore of domestic and international politics seemed timed like a Hollywood movie. And every good movie needs a villain!

In an attempt to cool mounting International pressure for their handling of peaceful marches by protesting monks in September, Myanmar’s Junta caved and allowed a visit by UN special envoy Ibrahim Gambari to observe the situation and to meet Ms. Suu Kyi. Similar olive branches were subsequently offered in the form of meeting between Aung and three of her party members which was mediated by an appointed military liaison officer.

Approximately 3000 kilometers away, another military regime is coming under intensified domestic pressure for the firing of the nation’s top judge, the arrests of thousands of opposition politicians and lawyers, and wavering promises over election dates. President Musharraf was thus cornered into brokering a powersharing deal with Bhutto and granted her amnesty for her corruption charges; paving the way for her triumphant return.

Heroines on Different Paths

While the restoration of democracy runs in the veins of the two, it is interesting to note how each displays contrasting styles of engagement with their respective foes.

Bhutto had little intention of making a quiet return to Pakistani politics. When asked to delay her return to Karachi after being granted corruption amnesty by President Musharraf, a defiant Bhutto waved off warnings of assassination attempts by Islamic militants on her person and went ahead with her plans; to explosive effect. True to form, and perhaps seizing upon growing frustrations on the ground, Bhutto announced her decision to end powersharing talks and organized a rally against the imposed emergency rule (an attempt ostensibly by Musharaf to rein in on Islamic Extremists). After being released from house arrest (a knee-jerk reaction to prevent the rally) Bhutto announces her rejection of the caretaker government, renewed her call for Musharraf’s resignation as Army Chief, and threatened to boycott the polls.

Unlike the confrontational stance adopted by Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi had recently announced that she was willing to co-operate with the government to work towards national reconciliation. While still holding out for national healing (a first step being the release of political prisoners), Aung stressed the need for constructive and time-bound dialogue.

How the rest of their stories will play out is anyone’s guess and many plot twists remain. For Aung, dialogue can only be constructive granted both parties are genuine and come to the table as equals.

For Bhutto, she should beware the bite of a cornered dog as men in power guard that power jealously. Further, tyrannical and uncooperative regimes can only be overthrown by sustained and escalating popular uprisings; a throw back to the French Revolution when we are left to ask how much blood is enough. As often the case, only time will tell.

Do We Have Our Own Aungs and Bhuttos?

There are many similarities between Pakistan, Myanmar and Singapore. Some are more superficial while others more telling. All three for instance are former British colonies and have had turbulent roads to independence. And to varying degrees, all three have:

  • ruling regimes criticized for being undemocratic and autocratic
  • judiciaries that are not independent of executive powers
  • constrained civil societies
  • intolerant environment for opposition parties
  • state controlled/regulated media

With this in mind, my mind drifted to our own oppositional counterpoints in Singapore. Allow your imagination to stretch for a moment and perhaps you will see what I saw: similarities between the engagement strategies of Aung San Suu Kyi and the Workers’ Party (WP), and vice versa for Benazir Bhutto and the Singapore Democrats Party (SDP).

Much like the stance adopted by Aung San Suu Kyi, the present configuration of the WP prefers a less confrontational approach to oppositional politics. Party Secretary-General Low Thia Kiang spelled that out clearly by declaring that the opposition should be a watchdog rather than a “mad dog” opposing for opposition sake. To this, critics would throw the dreaded "PAP co-option" at them - selling out their values to gain political mileage by feeding off the scraps left on the table. Proponents on the other hand would hail their ability to slowly chip away at the defenses of the ruling party through policy debate and mild-mannered criticisms.

On the other end of the same boat, the SDP led by Chee Soon Juan prefers an approach underscored by active and persistent civil disobedience. Recent confrontations with police officers at high profile events and the deliberate flouting of public assembly and speaking laws naturally come to mind. Supporters and detractors are aplenty when it comes to "Chee tactics". Patriot or traitor? Hero or villain? Skilled strategist or raving mad man?

Do we have our very own Aung and Bhutto? I sure think so (metaphorically of course). Which tactic of resistance is your cup or tea ... or coffee?