Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It’s my party and I’ll keep it dry if I want to …

"Dissent off the agenda in Singapore" in Singabloodypore...

16,000 delegates from 184 countries will converge on Singapore to attend the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings next month. Held outside Washington once every 3 years, the meetings are usually held against the background of noisy (sometimes violent) protests and street demonstrations.

Singapore authorities, however, have indicated that they would not brook such actions. In February, the Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng warned that public protest may attract severe punishment, including caning and imprisonment. In March, a group of civil society activists wrote to PM Lee Hsien Loong to ask the government to permit the "traditional" protests. (Apparently, they have yet to receive a reply). On the other hand, Peter Stephens of the World Bank (Singapore office?) has assured activists that it is working with the IMF and the Singapore government "to ensure that civil society voices are very much heard."

In July, the Straits Times reported that accredited activists would be permitted to express their views in a special area within the convention centre, and must abide by police regulations which include bans on wooden/metal poles to hold up placards.

Not much of a party there.

Have you ever thrown a party? The kind where people dance, drink alcohol, and sometimes mess up the bathroom? It can be argued that if you did not wish to have let people have drink and have fun, you have no business hosting a party in the first place.

I'm sure the Singapore government must have had *some* idea of what happens at IMF/WB meetings. Then why offer to host it? Against the glitz and glamour, publicity, tourism dollars, and golden opportunity to position Singapore as the premier MICE destination of Asia, the cost of security measures and rubbing some civil society groups (who already do not like them) is probably a very small price for the Singapore government to pay.

But the question is: does Singapore have any business throwing this IMF/WB party if it is going to insist on such stringent rules? Invite your friends and tell them to check in the beer at the door?

This is subjective, but it can also be said that it is the responsibility of the host to look after his guests' protection in addition to their palates. If someone in the party is getting rowdy, you need to calm him down and make sure he does not hurt anyone else (and your belongings!). If you *know* someone has a tendency to become rowdy, it is probably a better idea not to invite him in the first place.

In this context, perhaps, Singapore’s rules for the IMF/WB meetings make sense.

It should be noted that the IMF/WB organizers -- who must likewise also have been aware of Singapore authorities' tolerance for protests, demonstrations, strikes, and illegal (and other non-productive) gatherings, or lack thereof - had given their blessings. Perhaps they too harbor a secret desire to meet and for once not have beer bottles thrown at them?

LTTE Crises

For many and for some, the revival of the conflict in Sri Lanaka harks a sad but unsurprising moment for those familiar with ideas of how nation-states are formed. For others who have travelled to Sri Lanka, the names of towns like Trincomalee, Jaffna and Kilinochi must resonate somewhat all too familiar.

In the period after the 2002 Norweigian-brokered ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lanaka government and the LTTE rebels, I travelled to Sri Lanka. Motivated by stories of unspoilt beachs and Kandyan kings, and a school-boy curiosity in seeing the effects of a country plagued by civil war, the 'pearl of the Indian Ocean' was undeniably in gestation.

During a bus journey to the histroical town of Polonnarumwa, and in-between qeustions of whether I was was a journalist (apparently being one gets you everywhere), I was asked by a school teacher if there would be peace in Sri Lanka. He begged to differ with my answer and said with a smile, "Do you believe me, the LTTE are preparing for another war". One would have thought that the interim ceasefire in 2002 could have provided political space for Sri Lanka to negotiate the incommensurability of the Sinhalese and Tamil national projects. With the recent revival of Sri Lanka's war, I was sadly reminded of what the school teacher said. It seemed that the only space opened up was a military one to re-arm, re-supply, and re-consolidate.

One reason why the Sri Lankan conflict has dragged on for so long is that ethnic nationalism has become so embedded in the political thinking of the Sinhalese-majority and the Tamil-minority that their claims to statehood and nation-building cannot move beyond categories of ethnicity. To some extent, racialisation of politics in Sri Lanka was an inheritance of the governing institutions and mechanisms laid down by her British colonial masters since the mid-1700s. The British, and not the Dutch, were afterall the last arbitars of Sri Lanka's colonial heritage. In their efforts to devolve governance, the British were also mindful of the necessity to protect the interests of the minority Tamils for fear of violence in her colonies. India, at that time, was also undergoing her own transformation led by Ghandi. Many commentators have observed that, not surprisingly, these conditions further reinforced whatever perceived notions the Sinhalese had of the Tamils as the "favoured group of the colonial masters".

As a consequence, ethnicity became and has become the only framework in the process of Sri Lankan nation-building. And in this framework, all other factors crucial to nation-building had to fit in. One such factor is how nation-building processes demarcate boundaries within and between its people. How should the line be drawn for Tamils living in Sinhalese regions and vice versa? When the pieces don't fit, the nation-building process becomes increasingly convoluted for both the Sinhalese and the Tamil national projects. In Mar 2004, led by Colonel Karuna, commander of the LTTE's Eastern province, the LTTE factionalised in front of the world. Why? According to Colonel Karuna, the LTTE cadres living in the East had been neglected, and significantly, there were no LTTE cadres from the East who could count among the ranks of the main LTTE leadership. Colonel Karuna evidently believed that the main LTTE Tamil leadership was neglecting the LTTE Tamils in the East. How should the line be dranw for Tamils living in the East and Tamils living in the North? According to media reports in Jul 2006, Colonel Karuna has formed his own group called the "Tamil Freedom Panthers" and he is very much a part of the current conflict.

In her book "On Violence", political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1969) observed that power and violence were two qualitatively distinct entities. She pointed out that it was not violence, but power that formed the essence of governments. Violence can destroy the old power, she said, but it can never create the authority to legitimate the new. In a sense, the LTTE movement is not so much a violence to legitimate the new, as it is a violence to 'restore' Tamil rights and institutions, something not so new. The very same rights and institutions which were there from the time of the British, and also the very same rights and institutions which were contested and fought over with the Sinhalese since the time of the Indian epic the Ramayana, which tells the story of the conquest of Lanka in 3000BC by Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Let us hope that the Sri Lankan government's willingness to resume peace negotiations resume hold of the tiger's gaze.

Straits Times Interactive - Asia

Aug 14, 2006 Mon


COLOMBO - SRI Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula has been cut off from the rest of the island as hundreds of residents try to flee heavy fighting in the area, military officials have said.

A senior Tamil Tiger rebel official denied government claims that the rebels had offered to renew peace talks, saying negotiations were impossible amid increased military attacks and the most intense fighting in four years.

Fighting that started on Friday and continued over the weekend has cut off the main road connecting government-held regions of the peninsula with the mainland.

The Defence Ministry said 36 troops and 150 Tamil rebels have been killed in the fighting on the peninsula and near Jaffna city, which the rebels controlled as their capital from 1990 to 1995.

The main airfield of Palaly has also been shut down, with private airlines ordered to halt flights there after the area took several artillery hits on Friday.

'There is a daytime curfew in Jaffna in addition to the night curfew in the high-security zones,'' a military official said. 'But we have reports of civilians moving out of their homes and taking shelter in public buildings.''

The bulk of supplies and troops to Jaffna are sent by sea from the north-east port of Trincomalee, which also came under artillery attacks.

'The army pulled back from some of the defensive positions because of heavy artillery attacks,'' a military source said. 'Troops are now in the process of re-establishing the bunkers they lost on Friday.'

The pro-rebel website said the guerillas had breached military defences in the Muhamalai area at the southern entrance to the government-held area of Jaffna.

The Tigers said they launched the latest attacks in defence against a government military onslaught. The Defence Ministry, however, denied the charge and blamed the rebels for initiating the latest fighting.

The upsurge in violence came amid reports of an offer of talks by Tamil Tiger rebels. The government said it received a message from the Tigers through ceasefire monitors on Friday, hours before fighting erupted on the Jaffna peninsula.

But Seevarathnam Puleedevan, a senior rebel official has denied making any peace overtures. He demanded the government stop their military offensives to allow some 50,000 displaced people to return home before considering a return to peace talks.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Justice is Very Much Alive in Singapore – The Case of M. Ravi Versus Justice Woo

Not so much a ‘Hallelujah’ but a big ‘Huh?’ was my first reaction to Justice Woo Bih Li’s eyebrow-raising act of disqualifying himself from presiding over defamation suits against Opposition politicians, Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin, who are represented by counsel, M. Ravi.

This must be the first time that a judge in Singapore disqualified himself from a case, moreover one with such political undertones. (Refer to Vignes Mourthi case in 2003 for background to Ravi’s claims of bias). It is usually the case that the application for the judge to be disqualified is based on bias against the litigant, not the solicitor. Justice Woo’s move thus comes as a surprise.

Ravi’s allegation of perceived bias is, in my opinion, a mere sideshow to a more fundamental concern. What is underlying the legal case is a far more disconcerting question of whether the Singapore Judiciary is at all independent.

For sure, the Judiciary in Singapore is not without its critics.

Asia Forum for Human Rights and Democracy, for one, censures the “use of the Judiciary by the government to repeatedly constrict opposition politicians by imposing heavy fines and jail terms”. (See Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, “A Shadow on Singapore’s Judiciary: Use of Defamation and Contempt of Court on Government Critics”) Former Opposition politician, Francis Seow has also made condemning remarks about the ‘politics of judicial institutions’ in Singapore. (See article, “The Politics of Judicial Institutions in Singapore”) The US State Department had in Mar 2006 questioned the independence of the Judiciary in defamation cases targeting opposition leaders. In Jun 2006, the Singapore courts came under scrutiny in a case in Canada (EnerNorth Industries asked the Ontario Court of Appeal if legal decisions made in Singapore are fair and impartial enough to meet Canadian standards of justice; the appeals court reserved judgement after hearing the case.) In its Jul/Aug 2006 publication, FEER carried a write-up “Singapore’s Martyr, Chee Soon Juan”. FEER alleges that “Singaporean officials have a remarkable record of success in winning libel suits against their critics”. It questions, “How many other libel suits have Singapore’s great and good wrongly won, resulting in the cover-up of real misdeeds?”

Despite the criticisms, Singapore has, for long, pride itself on having an independent and impartial Judiciary. The Chief Justice and other judges of the High Court are appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. They are appointed for life and transcend the political fortunes of the government-of-the-day.

I do not doubt that justice is very much alive in Singapore. One recent case best exemplifies this – Opposition politician James Gomez was hauled up by the police after his election form fiasco in May 2006 and the buzz was that the ruling government would once again employ scare tactics against the Opposition and Gomez would be charged in court. This would have happened if the Judiciary was under the direct control of the executive.

However, as it turned out, Gomez was only rapped with a “stern warning” for using “threatening words” against a civil servant and allowed to return to work in Sweden. One may quibble over whether Gomez was liable of wrongdoing. But I am certain that the decision was the right one, in view of evidence in the case and taking into consideration mitigating factors. Justice is certainly not blind to anyone who is deemed to be an adversary of the incumbent government. As the declaration in the Magna Carta dictates, “to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice”.

My understanding is that the Judiciary is an important bulwark of democracy and bastion of civil liberties. It checks and balances other pillars of state power, namely executive and legislature (trias politica or separation of powers as coined by Montesquieu). But in order for the Judiciary to perform its role as the protector of the people against any abuse of state powers, judges must conduct themselves and be seen to conduct themselves to deserve the trust of the people.

The personal backgrounds, opinions and attitudes of judges will increasingly come under public scrutiny even as people’s understanding of the judges’ role does not correspondingly increase. All this makes it more likely for people to believe that judges are not as impartial as they are supposed to be, especially when it comes to decisions on controversial issues. One way to remove this misperception is for judges to explain their decisions.

Indeed, Justice Woo’s act in the interests of justice is, without doubt, laudable. He had come forth to explain his decision regarding Ravi’s claims of bias - he had performed the necessary to assure Ravi that he would not be biased against the lawyer but also accepted that the public’s perception had to be taken into consideration. Such transparency can only bolster the impartiality of the judicial system in Singapore.

At the end of the day, ‘justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done’.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Light at the End of the Tunnel

It looks at there will be some light at the end of the tunnel (or along in pathway in this instance) for Potong Pasir residents after all. MP Chiam See Tong is now trying to build a lighted covered walkway.

This comes after some weeks of darkness, and a few days during which the spotlight (metaphorically speaking) was put on Chiam and defeated PAP candidate Sitoh Yih Pin as to who would fix the lights which the latter had installed.

Sitoh had leased the land from LTA in early 2005 to set up the 8 solar-powered lights costing $20,000. Recently, six lights had been vandalized and the fixing them would cost about $5,000 according to Sitoh. Sitoh put the onus of providing amenities on the elected town council (headed by Chiam) while Chiam noted that the lights were Sitoh’s baby, and it was illegal for the town council to fix the lights as it (the leased land) was not under his control.

Now that elections are over, Potong Pasir residents no longer have $2 abalone porridge and extra meet-the-people (with a PAP representative no less!). However, they should be grateful to Sitoh – and not just for the abalone porridge consumed previously – for several months of free lighting, and more importantly, for keeping Chiam on his feet and paying attention to his constituents.

Sitoh never had any obligations to the people of Potong Pasir and has no obligation now. Call him a sore loser, but it was and continues to be Chiam’s job to ensure that Potong Pasir residents have the amenities they need. As the MP for over two decades, Chiam should be aware of his residents’ needs, and proactive in trying to meet them. He is now trying to build a covered walkway. Would this have happened if Sitoh had not put up the lights in this first place?

Conversely, it must be said that the same argument should also apply in the PAP wards. In this regard, I wonder if $2 abalone porridge will be on the menu for Aljunied’s residents soon.


Straits Times Interactive – Singapore

AUG 8, 2006 TUE

SOLUTION UNCOVERED?: The question of who should repair the damaged lights will become redundant if the town council gets approval to build a covered walkway, said Mr Chiam

THE saga of who is to repair some damaged solar lights along a pathway in Potong Pasir constituency took a new turn last night.

Its MP, Mr Chiam See Tong, is now seeking to build a covered walkway with lights for residents walking home from the Potong Pasir MRT station.

He told The Straits Times that he applied to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) last week for permission to build the linkway to connect the MRT station to the town centre in Potong Pasir Avenue 2.

This new development follows a dispute between Mr Chiam and the People's Action Party candidate, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, who lost the contest for the ward in the May General Election.

Earlier, before the election, Mr Sitoh had installed eight solar lights along a concrete pathway from the MRT station to Block 147, Potong Pasir Avenue 1. He had obtained the lease of the land from the SLA.

Six lights were vandalised. Mr Sitoh declined to repair them, saying the land's lease would run out on Oct 31. Mr Chiam, on the other hand, said it was illegal for his town council to use its funds for the repairs because the land in question was not under the council's jurisdiction.

He said in an e-mail last night: 'In the case of building a covered linkway, we shall have to apply for permission before we can...construct a facility. We are now applying to the SLA to do that.'

His town council will also apply to use its sinking funds to pay for the covered walkway, he said. Mr Chiam also rebutted a comment made over the weekend by Mr Lim Boon Heng, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. Mr Lim had said that as MP for Potong Pasir, Mr Chiam was responsible for repairing the lights.

Said Mr Chiam: 'Mr Lim Boon Heng should know that permission was granted to Mr Sitoh to build the solar lamps. Therefore, it is his duty to repair the lamps.'' He added the issue would become redundant if the town council was allowed to construct the covered walkway.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Israel-Lebanon Crisis – Is there justice in war?

'War is the continuation of policy by other means' – Carl von Clausewitz

What autrocity. That was the first thought that flashed through my mind as I read, with distress, news of an Israeli attack in the Lebanese village of Qana that killed over 50 people and more than half of them were children.

I was left thinking... What plausible reason can justify the shelling of residential buildings in Qana? Does not international law and conventions attempt to protect the innocent young lives that were cruelly cut short in the Qana attack?

For sure, war is a brutal enterprise that has remained central to human society, for all its humanity. Is war not a barbaric slaughter, an act of violence (to quote von Clausewitz) intended to compel the enemy to fulfill one’s will? Or can war be fair, sensible and rational? Is war just? Is Israel waging a just war?

‘Just war’ tradition has a long distinguished pedigree, including the likes of St. Augustine, Cicero, Hugo Grotius… (Refer to bbc’s discussion on the ethics of war) There are three key considerations in a ‘just war’: jus ad bellum – the justice of resorting to war in the first place; jus in bello – the justice of conduct within war; and jus post bellum – the justice of peace agreements and termination phase of war. (Refer to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

I do not doubt that the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah or by Palestinian militants is an act of aggression against the Israeli society. It necessitates an act of self defence. International law indeed guarantees the right of political sovereignty and territorial integrity. An aggression that violates this right permits a violent resistance from the Israeli forces.

The question, however, is whether Israel’s conduct is ‘right’ (‘just’) in the midst of battle when it has responded to the kidnappings with much ferocity. Clearly, what has become a point of contention are the attacks on civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, whether accidental or intended. The Beirut airport was closed by Israeli attacks, and similarly bridges, roads, power stations and ports are shut down under Israeli firepower. Some 400 people, including civilians, have been killed in Lebanon and the death toll is expected to rise.

What’s for sure, the easy criticism is to say what cannot rightly be done – i.e., direct attacks against civilian targets. However, it can be expected that the Israeli forces will over time exhaust the set of targets in Lebanon that are clearly linked to Hizbollah. This is especially so when Hizbollah elements hide amongst civilian populace in Lebanon. One fears that Israel may well fall prey to ‘agitprop’ methods employed by Hizbollah and overreact with excessive force. This may lead to the portrayal of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict as a “Zionist-crusader conspiracy” and fuel further escalation of the conflict, especially when each attack generates a collateral damage in civilian deaths.

Well, the challenge therefore is how then Israel can conduct its offensive against Hizbollah without further escalating the conflict. My take is that Israel may want to consider making the ‘prevention of war’ rather than ‘winning the war’ its defence doctrine. Surely, fire-power alone does not guarantee lasting peace in the long term. It is important to note that dislodging Hizbollah from its stronghold in southern Lebanon does not annihilate the threat of terrorism posed by Hizbollah (or other like-minded groups) to Israel and Israeli interests. Surely, there are other Hizbollah elements that will emerge elsewhere like a hydra-headed monster. Paul Rogers’ “Lebanon: the world’s choice” argues how the first two weeks of August will be decisive in determining whether Lebanon war escalates further or can be contained. A cease-fire is necessary and perhaps also the involvement of international peacekeepers. But the role of international community to affirm strongly the importance of peaceful solutions cannot be understated.