Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Singapore in Thailand – enemy or victim?

Singapore and Thailand have enjoyed close ties for many years. Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui and Chang Mai are popular vacation destinations for many Singaporeans. In the 2004-2006 period, Singapore was Thailand’s third largest foreign investor (and the biggest amongst ASEAN countries). Government-to-government ties were excellent – Singapore NSmen train in Kanchanaburi, and Singapore and Thai civil servants had an exchange programme.

Thai-Singapore ties first began to sour in March 2006 after it was reported that Singapore’s Temasek Holdings had bought a large share of Shin Corp which was owned by then-PM Thaksin’s family. Some politicians (predominantly from the anti-Thaksin camp) and media complained that Thaksin was selling away a strategic asset. The September 2006 military coup which displaced Thaksin put in place a military government which – while not necessarily predisposed against Singapore, since they had welcomed Singapore’s soldiers for many years – realized that, politically, they would have to keep Singapore at arms length.

So when Thaksin visited Singapore in January 2007 and met with DPM Jayakumar (who was apparently an old friend), the Thai junta went ballistic. Aside from canceling the bilateral civil service exchange programme and rescinding an invitation to Singapore’s foreign minister, the Thai government (notably coup leader Gen Sonthi) has more recently issued statements that Singapore was eavesdropping on calls between Thai military leaders made through the AIS network (which is owned by Shin Corp). Singapore and Shin Corp officials have both denied this.

Beneath the bluster, I have tried to analyze why some Thais are angry with Singapore. So far, I have come up with:
  1. Temasek should not have purchased Shin Corp shares. It should have realized that the sale of such an asset to foreign owners would be cause for instability in Thailand.
  2. Singapore is out to spy on Thailand, and had bought into Shin Corp for this reason.
  3. Singapore showed no respect for Thailand by allowing Thaksin to visit, meet with DPM Jayakumar, and give interviews to CNN.

On 1, I agree. I think we can assume that the shares are worth less today than what was paid for them. Thaksin’s political troubles, the military coup, actions against AIS by the Thai government and their recent economic faux pas etc are all reasons why Temasek should not have purchased Shin Corp shares. Someone in Temasek had probably underestimated the political reaction and felt it was worth the risk. It was a bad investment, period.

I can understand claims that Singapore is out to spy on Thailand; after all, all countries are interested in acquisitions by other military services. But to suggest that Singapore has bought Shin Corp in order to listen to Thai military secrets is ludicrous. I can almost hear the conversation between the Singapore military chief and the PM*.

“Sir, we can get access to Thai military secrets if we buy over Shin Corp.”

“That’s a great idea. How much would it cost?”

“Just US$1.88 billion, sir. I guess we’ll just have to hold off buying our aircraft carrier until next year.”

* Pls note that this is absolutely a figment of my imagination. My SingTel shares do not give me access to these conversations.

Reason 3: Thaksin, as an enemy of the Thai state (or of the Thai junta at least), should also be persona non grata in Thailand’s friends, and some Thai media pundits have alleged that Singapore showed no respect for Thailand by allowing Thaksin to meet DPM Jayakumar and also give interviews to CNN.

However, Thaksin, who has not been charged for any crime, has the same rights as any other Thai national visiting Singapore. He can meet who he wants and go where he wants. These pundits, often the same who harp on Singapore’s lack of press (and other) freedoms, must at least be consistent. Maybe DPM Jayakumar should not have agreed to meet Thaksin. Would you meet an old friend who lost his job (and probably has a lot of colouful tales to share), or yield to the prevailing sentiment in Thailand. That was for him to decide.

It is obvious that the Thai junta is using Singapore as a convenient distraction to avert the attention of the Thai people from the very real economic and security challenges they face. Thaksin’s visit to Singapore came shortly after economic policy announcements had stirred up insecurities amongst foreign investors, and the New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok. While Temasek only has itself to blame for making a bad investment in Shin Corp, the current rift in bilateral ties is clearly a result of the Thai junta’s domestic agenda.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Terrorism in 2006

2006 has turned out to be a pretty eventful year for terrorism. While Indonesia took a well-deserved respite since the killing of Azahari, the rest of the world (and its terrorists) has gone on with their business of bombing anything and anyone it doesn’t like.

The religion of peace has been a keen compiler of the 2006 statistics on terror. According to them, in 2006, there were 2,281 terror attacks all over the world and if one excludes Afghanistan and Iraq, the number is almost halved to 1,102 attacks. If we suspend our disbelief and skepticism on how the numbers were compiled for one moment, 2006 actually saw a 5-fold decrease on global attacks from 2005. The latter, according to the US State Department, saw 11,111 attacks.

Again according to the US State Department, if we subtract the 2005 number of non-fatal attacks, the number would be about 5,500. This still augurs well for the 2006 statistic, but sadly, doesn’t translate as automatic progress for the world nor the men and women involved in fighting terrorism. Why? Because despite the 5-fold drop in attacks in 2006, 15,235 people died compared with 14,600 in 2005. A lot less attacks, but still more deaths.

In February 2006, terrorists unsuccessfully attacked the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia. And the oil industry in the Muiddle Eats gained worldwide attention as a target of attack by Islamist terrorist. Though Iraqi oil pipelines had been attacked as early as 2004, and though oil companies and staff members had been the victim of earlier terrorist attacks, the Abqaiq attack was indicative of a bold attempt to attack a major centre of the global oil industry. A successful attack would have had profound economic and symbolic impact on the world. Some say that they have heeded Osama bin Ladin’s call to bleed them (the West) till bankruptcy. Yet Osama had earlier cautioned against the targeting of oil, believing that the resource would bring much benefit to the Muslim ummah. It seems he has changed his mind and in December 2004, called on aspiring terrorists to “stop the greatest theft in history” and to focus their attacks on oil productions in Iraq and the Gulf region.

Public transport in 2006 also took continued beating as terrorists sought “maximum kill” on human lives. The Mumbai train bombings in July 2006 which killed 180 people was followed by another train bombing in West Bengal in November 2006. Some attacks in 2006 were foiled and publicly announced. Their targets were varied but all were planned with a vision comparable to September 11. For example, the UK airline plot uncovered in August 2006 envisioned exploding 10 airplanes in mid-air. The Manhattan/NY subway plot envisaged blowing up subway trains while traveling under the Hudson River in the hopes that the explosions below would cause the river to flow into the tunnels and unleash an flood in Lower Manhattan and Wall Street. In Southeast Asia, Azahari’s compatriot Noordin Mohd Top had planned to attack a power plant in Indonesia. But that was in late-2005 and the plan was foiled not by the authorities, but apparently due to a lack of resources.

Away from the high-profile nature of these foiled and successful attacks, innocent people, soldiers and militants continue their mutual destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each soldier that the “Baghdad sniper” kills will contribute in local legend to as the Iraqis (the terrorists at least) hastily construct their own Vassilli Zaitsev.

Against the publicity of ‘home-grown’ terrorism, terrorist manuals circulating on the internet and fragile race and religious relations in most of the world, the latest announcement by US President George Bush to beef up troop strength in Iraq must have caught some by surprise; especially the outline of his faith in the willingness of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to shoulder responsibility (and success) for the Iraqi 2007 plan. It certainly did with most Democrats and they will be trying their hardest to block funding in Congress. Pelosi has already made it very clear that Bush’s Iraq war account will face very harsh scrutiny in Congress.

Well, I believe that Bush is doing the right thing since to pull out from Iraq in 2007 would be both irresponsible (for the mess at least) and politically premature. Looking at the way terrorism has turned out in 2006, there doesn’t seem to be compelling reasons that US presence in Iraq is the major contributor of global terrorism. Aspiring terrorists will go anywhere to chalk up experience (remember Ambon? And the fears of south Thailand?) While terrorists cite US/Iraq as their reason for attacks, they also cite other reasons, some of which are tied to the domestic policies of their own governments. Afterall Ayman Zawahiri was an Egyptian and had started out in the Egytian Islamic Jihad fighting against the Egyptian government (no doubt against its pro-Western foreign policies and corruption scandals of Anwar Sadat, who in turn, had earlier fought against British colonial rule and was duly imprisoned).

But that’s another story. I hope that Bush’s 2007 Iraq plan will in some way trickle down into positive awareness that after one takes away the guns, the bullets, the turbans, the uniforms and the manuals, you still have to talk to one another. All this in 2006.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blogs 2006 - Citizen Journalism or Dystopia

Blogosphere in 2006 – One man’s brave new world of citizen journalism is another’s dystopia?

Congratulations! ‘You’ have been picked by Time magazine as its Person of the Year. ‘You’, the “digital native” (as coined by Marc Prensky), have made Internet an integral part of life.

Indeed, one can’t live without the marvels of new media. The disruption to communications (as a result of the Taiwan earthquake) at the end of December 2006 was a timely reminder on the extent of reliance on the Internet that I have grown to be.

I enjoy my online shopping, gaming, and of course, YouTube. (Remember Funtwo, the Korean guitarist and Hong Kong’s Bus Uncle, and many other characters made famous / notorious by YouTube.)

And I love the blogosphere as an avenue to share my thoughts on issues, trivial or otherwise.

There are already millions of bloggers on the Internet, and the number is fast rising. Apparently, Technorati keeps track of at least 50 million blogs worldwide. and one more blog is born every half a second.

Is the burgeoning number of blogs a positive sign of citizen journalism?

Undoubtedly, there are a lot of frivolous chatter, half-truths and misinformation in the Internet and we bloggers have been criticised for making a magnum opus out of our mundane life events.

A study by Pew Internet & American Life Project released in July 2006 found that 37% of American bloggers (that’s about 12 million of them) only writes about life experiences. Only 11% cites politics and government as a primary topic. In Singapore, a survey of international bloggers by Singapore Internet Research Centre (SIRC) at Nanyang Technological University in 2004 found that 73% of blogs are online diaries or personal journals.

Yet, there are some shining examples of citizen journalism that have embraced the importance of ordinary citizens taking part in the news-gathering and reporting process.

In the US, Gawker Stalker collects sightings of celebrities around Manhattan reported via email and instant messages by its readers. OhMyNews in South Korea has performed commendably, combining both professional and amateur reporting. China’s is popular with those working in media.

In Singapore, the General Election (GE) in May 2006 was the first since blogs exploded on to the scene. During the nine-day election campaign, blog articles reportedly averaged over 190. Although a post-GE survey done by the Institute of Police Studies (IPS) in Singapore found that only 33% of the electorate cited the alternative Internet media as important in shaping their decision, the indications are clear that the Internet discourse will grow more powerful politically in time to come.
(Singapore Patriot’s thoughtful review of the significant events in ‘The Politics of Singapore’s New Media in 2006’ is a recommended read. See also Clarissa’s ‘GE 2006 & The Internet’.)

But as blogosphere flourishes, there are also signs that it faces challenging times ahead.

Some government authorities have expressed their alarm at the potential of blogosphere to shape opinions and have attempted to challenge the sanctity of free expression on the Internet.

China is a case in point. While the country jumps on the Internet bandwagon (China has reportedly over 17.5 million bloggers and is the world’s second-largest Internet user population after the US), its government appears to be trying to tame Internet activities almost at its onset. In 2000, Beijing introduced State Council Order No 292, barring nine types of content from websites, online bulletin boards and chat-rooms that might “harm state interests” and “disturb social order”. In February 2006, Google, Yahoo and other prominent Internet companies were accused of alleged complicity in human-rights abused by the Chinese government. More recently, Beijing announced in October 2006 its intention to make registration of bloggers’ real names mandatory.

In India, Internet regulators reportedly blocked several websites in July 2006 following the Mumbai train bombings and heavily restricted the flow of online information. The Department of Telecommunications was reported to have ordered Internet Service Providers to close more than 15 sites (mistakenly or otherwise) that purportedly published hate speech against Muslims, Hindus and the caste system in India.

In Malaysia, a recent Microsoft MSN survey found that only 3% of respondents were involved in citizen journalism but this small group is highly visible because it dares to discuss sensitive issues avoided by mainstream media. This trend has forced the Information Ministry to issue warnings on crackdowns on divisive sites (reportedly two cases in the past three years) and to consider compulsory registration.

In Singapore, there are evidently regulations governing Internet activities. I understand that any website/blog that promotes or discusses domestic politics must be registered with the Media Development Authority; and any discussion that might subvert racial-religious harmony crosses the OB markers.

However, the approach of late in Singapore has somewhat been one of constructive engagement.

In his National Day Rally speech in August 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underscored his government’s commitment to adopt a ‘lighter touch approach’ and to ride the digital wave to get its message across.

Foreign Minister George Yeo began blogging on his encounters, both overseas and in Singapore. (Catch his interview with Channel News Asia blogtvsg on his thoughts about blogging.) And a group of new People’s Action Party Members of Parliament (MPs), born after Singapore’s independence, came up with their P65 blog to share their personal side.

Clearly, the way forward for governments around the world in response to the digital age has to be one of engagement than heavy-handed control – and the Singapore government appears to be getting it right. The best one to deal with half-truths and distortions in the Internet is to counter them with truths and facts rather than blacking them out.

As the populace becomes more informed and technology-savvy, the new media is a growing sphere and an important avenue to reach out to the people.

The future augurs well for blogosphere in 2007, I’m sure…