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?