Asian Correspondent » Clement Tan Asian Correspondent Wed, 20 May 2015 11:20:38 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Is ‘constructive’ anger towards the PAP possible? Fri, 04 Jun 2010 00:17:45 +0000 An anonymous comment raised two important issues, which I thought might be worth discussing here.

In the first instance, the person said that given the way the media is in Singapore, “if being anti-PAP (People’s Action Party) bring(s) about a critical appreciation of history, so be it.” I would like to say that being anti-PAP is merely the first step to developing a critical appreciation of a place like Singapore. And that’s important because reality is often more complex than clear cut anti-PAPisms.

This leads me to his/her second point, which questions why should being critical or praising the PAP be such a point of contention, or be a basis for the discussion about Singapore history. My short answer to that is this: because it affects our basis for political action, or just plainly, the way we live in Singapore.

Being anti PAP for the sake of it won’t elicit the appropriate kind of emotions that would sustain the basis for our actions, because anti-isms might over time lead to frustration and anger. Sure, “anger” isn’t an entirely “negative” emotion. Our indignance about a social issue, or the state of oppositional politics in Singapore, could push us to form an NGO attempting to advocate for the social issue or join a political party other than the PAP.

But when anger is not harnessed “properly” — and we keep bashing the PAP — it could lead to frustration and a sense of helplessness… and people could overtime decide that it’s better not to care because it’s futile and/or too much effort. Of course, I am fully aware what I am saying can be perceived solely as a “theoretical ideal” and all that… but I cannot imagine how one can lead an existence so full of unresolved angst towards the system.

Finally, the anonymous commentator is right: everybody HAS to make up their own mind about the PAP, but equally important for me, is how our reactions should be informed in that we should also see how our reactions compared with others. Our own reality is merely one of many in the Singapore collective: surely the views of others have to matter as much as ours. If we only insist on being anti-PAP, then how are we different from the very subject of our anti-isms?

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‘Critical’ Singapore histories not solely anti-PAP Mon, 31 May 2010 06:54:17 +0000 The issue Ben Bland takes up against Ong Weichong here, is an understandable one. Ben hasn’t responded in depth yet, but it is clear from this preliminary entry that he is disturbed by how Ong argued the lack of awareness of the country’s history is due to the general apathy among young people. Not so much what Ben had argued — that “Singapore’s historical narrative had for too long been dominated by the People’s Action Party and its chief figurehead Lee Kuan Yew because of direct and indirect control by the state over schools, universities and the mass media.”

Let me just say the obvious: the general apathy among young people is a product of the PAP’s direct and indirect controls –  so yes, Ben is right on this count. But for what it’s worth, I think Ben has not fully understood the substance of Ong’s response – Ong is “saying” much more in that commentary. If you read beyond the first few paragraphs, he rejects the absoluteness of Ben’s claim by pointing out how history has been used as a tool for nation building by other Western regimes – so the issue at hand is how any history is being used for nation building in an uncritical manner and not whether it is being used exclusively by the Singapore PAP government for nation building purposes.

Ong also seems to imply that national education in Singapore embraces critical historiography – something I am quite sceptical about because I think there’s always room for improvement in something like that in Singapore. I mean, look at how many young Singaporeans knew who Dr Goh Keng Swee or S. Rajaretnam were and the crucial roles they played in Singapore’s foundational days as an independent nation, before their deaths hit the local headlines. An important caveat though: I could be wrong here, so I would appreciate anybody in the know to challenge or back me up on this.

But it is fair to surmise the subtext to Ong’s commentary is his issue with how Ben seems to imply that ALL Singaporeans are incapable of critical history – consider how much Ong talks about the ready availability of alternate histories in his piece and how Singaporeans can choose to access them if they so wish.

Ben is not explicit on this, but the way I see it, it is not whether they are readily available, but whether the bulk of the Singaporean public have the critical capacity to process these alternatives. I have no doubt there is a sizeable group of Singaporeans who are able to do so – the Singapore government did invest a ton of money in our education after all – but the question for Singaporeans is what and how we choose to “react” to such critical knowledge.

Do we use it to empower us in our everyday political discourse? Or do we choose to work around what we know, to benefit our economic well-being? To be frank, both options are “smart” ones in that they are decisions based on such critical knowledge – among the college-educated people I know, at least. The flip side of not conducting our historical discourse in such a polemical fashion, as Ong said, is that people can hide behind the veneer of any “nuanced” approach.

But whether that in itself is “bad” or “good” is a judgement call, necessarily conditioned on the political traditions one is socialized in. Consider the number of people who are avowedly “political” in Singapore  – the probable result of Ben’s original, overarching point – and then consider how the language of politics in Singapore, as with most of the emergent economies in the world today, is an overtly economical one.

Ben talks about how “Singaporeans need to develop a better understanding of their own history not so much to ‘fully appreciate’ what the PAP has done for them but to understand the limitations of their rigid political system and how they can improve it”. But I think we could all start by appreciating the current material reality in Singapore. We – certainly I do – understand the merits of liberal democracy and all that, but to be fair, the issue is how do we work towards those goals from our current situation.

However Singaporeans choose to do that, I think all of us could all start by acknowledging that not everything “good” about Lee Kuan Yew is “uncritical” or “bad” – because a critical appreciation of Singapore’s history is really more than being anti-PAP. The tricky thing about being critical about Singapore’s history is establishing what praise for PAP is legitimate and what is not – which is problematic because in the absence of a public “instititional” ideological realm, everything becomes easily cast as being for or against the government because there are no markers of what’s left, right, libertarian or whatnot.

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Time to think before voting rationally? Tue, 01 Dec 2009 02:22:35 +0000 So the Singapore PAP government’s way of mitigating the influence of digital/new media on any upcoming elections in Singapore is to legislate a day of contemplation right before voting day itself. But the minimum period between Nomination Day and Polling Day will be extended from nine to 10 days to compensate for the extra “cooling off” day.

I find it somewhat ironic that PM Lee Hsien Loong chose to break this news halfway around the world, in Trinidad and Tobago – and here’s the kicker, right before he leaves for Cuba. Try imagining the American president announcing constitutional changes from anywhere outside America. I wonder: who is the one who needs that metaphorical and literal space here?

From The Straits Times (abbreviated version here, and extended version here):

“It is good to have 24 hours to calm down, think about it, and then tomorrow we vote,” said Lee.

But will this work as well in the era of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and other forms of online social media?

Lee acknowledged that there was a grey area with regard to the Internet, where private exchanges could quickly become public ones, and the policing of online violators could be tricky.

Nonetheless, he hoped the spirit and principle of the “cooling-off” period would be upheld by Internet users.

The websites of the political parties, however, will be bound by the new rules.

“I can’t control several million videos on YouTube. But your website, what you are putting out in your own name, I think that should end on the day before cooling-off day,” said Lee.

Apparently this legislation has been planned for years and brings us in line with countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Italy and Mexico – all of whom have some variation of this feature in their electoral systems, with anything from one to three days of campaign silence before the final vote.

Also, according to the same ST article, this decision comes in the light of another significant set of changes to the election rules Lee Junior proposed in May, when he announced in Parliament that Singapore’s political system would be amended to give non-People’s Action Party (PAP) members at least 18 seats, or nearly one-fifth, of the House.

This would involve changes regarding the Non-Constituency MP (Wiki backgrounder here) and Nominated MP schemes (Wiki backgrounder here), and more intriguingly, an apparent reduction in the size of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and an increase in the number of single-member wards. Refer to this Wikipedia page for some background on GRC’s – truly a uniquely Singaporean electoral innovation.

But what do all of these – electoral changes, sudden “expulsion” of a foreign freelance journalist who was relatively harmless – mean? Election season is probably coming really soon in Singapore again – by the end of the first quarter of 2010, anyone? – but whether every Singaporean gets to vote is another matter altogether.

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The Great Firewall of America Mon, 30 Nov 2009 05:28:44 +0000 It was a classic case of “I told you so” as China announced it was “following” the U.S. by pledging hard targets on carbon emissions, suddenly making the possibility of a deal at Copenhagen a little less remote. The Daily Beast’s Richard Wolffe promptly suggested that this was no mere coincidence, saying the obvious — that it was the result of behind-the-scenes diplomatic work…yada, yada, yada. Oh really?

But wait a minute. What about this New York Times editorial pronouncing Obama’s trip to Asia a failure not too long ago? And this was just the tip of the “Obama’s Asia trip is a failure” iceberg as a random Google search suggests. If Obama’s Asia jaunt not too long ago was an abject “failure” then why are the signs after the trip suggesting otherwise?

You see, the environmental deal is merely one of several evidence of mounting evidence of Obama’s apparent “failure” (as James Fallows aptly and sarcastically displayed here and here) coming a week after criticism of the American press coverage of Obama’s visit to Asia — led by Howard French (here and here in the Columbia Journalism Review) and James Fallows (with a massive seven-parter: here, here, here, here, here, here and here at his blog at — predictably gained little traction within the American press itself, except for maybe a dismissive tweet or two from a member of the DC press corp, Chuck Todd.

Both French and Fallows not only lived in and reported from China (and consequently became good friends) — French was Shanghai bureau chief for The New York Times for five years before becoming associate professor at Columbia last fall and Fallows spent three years in Shanghai and Beijing for The Atlantic — and my experience with both of them suggests that they are very culturally sensitive even as their reporting is hard hitting.

Both men’s arguments basically call out the uninformed framing of the reporting of Obama’s trip, consistent with a common critique of most foreign reporting as lacking in the form of inter-cultural understanding and and inter-subjective appreciation.

So while the dominant chatter has been about China’s information firewall and censorship, there seems to be double standards practised by the American press when its own Great Ideological Firewall is being critiqued. There’s a thin line between reporting from a jingoistic-American perspective and reporting for an American audience. That line has been breached over and over again, with China the latest breach.

For the uninitiated, here are some highlights from French’s initial volley:

“The unstated element for me in all of this coverage of Obama’s visit is a kind of hysterical insecurity in the American mind about the possibility — or reality, depending on how you look at it — of American decline. China being the most obvious and immediate symbol of American vulnerability and decline. You put these two things together, the hysterical insta-pundit on the one hand and the hysterical anxiety on the other hand, you end up with this kind of coverage that says essentially that Obama goes to China and doesn’t get instant, public, overt gratification on issues A through Zed and therefore it was a failed trip, or we’re losing ground to China or we have no more standing or we have no more clout or the Chinese moment is upon us — any number of variations on this decline-related theme.”

And a preliminary diagnosis of this “affliction”:

“Obama went into this trip saying beforehand that he planned to do things a bit differently, that he was going to try to establish some mutual confidence and trust with the Chinese and to work in the long range sense on achieving things on a variety of different issues. This was pretty much declared prior to the trip and made explicit and it’s consonant with a number of things that we know about Obama’s style in other areas. So then to see the trip having almost not even been completed and people becoming very excited that he ‘Didn’t say this’ or he ‘Didn’t do that,’ meaning that he didn’t say this or do that publicly, strikes me as being rather forgetful of the premise that the president himself had tried to establish for his approach in this aspect of his foreign policy.

“I find that the Washington reporters tend to be typically the most subject to this instant scorekeeping. This is part of the game of Washington reporting. They’re at the bleeding edge of this phenomenon that I think is distressing in terms of the approach of the press to serious questions. Everything is shot through this prism of short-term political calculation as opposed to thinking seriously about stuff. You can’t be an expert on every question, and so you’re part of the Washington press corps and if you’re really good and really diligent, you’re going to be expert maybe in a few things and one of those things might not be China.

“And now you’re in China on a three- or four-day trip and all of a sudden you’re having to weigh in on in important things and you don’t speak any Chinese and you don’t know any Chinese people and you’re in the security bubble of the president and you’re traveling from stop to stop on a stopwatch with the guy and being pumped all the time by the president’s aides—and this is true of all presidents—and subject to their spin and you’ve got these short deadlines and you’ve got to write these things. So they operate within those constraints. It’s a very difficult process, so I’m being critical of the press but I don’t see any obvious ways around that particular piece of things. “

And finally to the heart of things:

“I am known for having had a pretty consistent focus on human rights in my work as a journalist, so the comments that will follow should not in any way suggest that I believe in a de-emphasis in human rights with regard to China. In fact, if the Obama administration had asked my opinion prior to this trip, I would have said this is a very good time to be upfront about human rights and there are a number of issues that deserve a very straightforward approach.

But the problem with the way the press has covered this is there’s a kind of implicit premise in the complaint about the way that Obama avoided certain issues, human rights being one of them. So what are the big issues? Human rights—one of the big things he didn’t address in any vocal, public, in-your-face way—exchange rates, trade, Iran, those are the ones that come immediately to mind, I’m sure there are others. The implicit premise in the critical coverage that followed is misleading, I think. Maybe disingenuous is even a better word, because it seems to suggest that if Obama had pulled a Khrushchev and banged his shoe on the table on these issues and really jumped up and down and made a lot of noise, then this would have achieved a markedly different result for the better. I don’t think there’s any evidence of that. It may have made certain people in this society feel better about themselves, but if the goal is changing behaviors in China or obtaining political or diplomatic results with China, I think the evidence is the contrary. Where is it that we have had very vocal, remonstrative theatrics with China on thorny issues where China has laid down and simply done what we want to do simply because we’ve gotten loud about it? There are not a lot of examples you can point to.

And on why and how the American press hasn’t quite understood Chinese cultural ‘idiosyncracies':

“To the extent that the American media embarks on this trip with some version of this very familiar storyline — that Obama, this great celebrity, this great speaker, this media star, this grand personality, is going to stroll through China and win the day — to the extent that they bought into that storyline and expected it to function, at any meaningful levels shows an extraordinary misunderstanding of China. You can fault that storyline on many other levels, but it shows a total misunderstanding of China. The Chinese doesn’t want to be part of our storyline. Everything about China is set up so that Chinese people don’t have foreign heroes. They do not wish for their culture to adopt foreign idols and to be subjected to foreign narratives. It’s not simply a question of accepting foreign political ideas. It’s a question of building up a Chinese nation and a Chinese sense of identity and a Chinese sense of destiny and of strength and of cultural depth. So everything about that society is arranged deliberately, from education to propaganda to censorship to the workings of nationalism to policing a kind of membrane between China and the outside world.

“So here you have this American press that’s used to writing very superficially about Obama along these lines of, ‘So he’s going to give a great speech and we’re going to watch him convince a lot of people and that’s going to be great theater for us and we can score this on that basis.’ One of the questions even before he even got there was mania-mania, is there mania-mania. There’s no mania-mania in China! The Chinese authorities will not allow for that to happen. It doesn’t matter, whatever you think of Obama — how great he is, how poor he is — they simply will not allow for there to be an idol like that. The government, which sits above the media and supervises it, will not allow for a figure to emerge that way, will not allow a Chinese figure to emerge that way. So to think, ‘OK, here comes Obama and he’s going to really be allowed to have a presence in the Chinese media’—how do you become a celebrity that’s not through presence in the media, that’s going to begin to sway a lot of Chinese hearts and minds? Forget it. That’s totally naïve.”

Disclosure: I was once Howard French’s student at the Columbia Journalism School, and I worked with James Fallows in my time at The Atlantic.

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Ben, I know the problem. Tell me what we can do Thu, 26 Nov 2009 09:39:26 +0000 I am not sure whether I should inflame the situation by replying to Ben Bland’s response to my earlier post on his unfortunate “expulsion” from Singapore. I think at the end of it, one would realize we both probably agree more than we disagree. Fact: No amount of words from the Singapore government can make people think there’s press freedom in the Southeast Asian city-state as long they keep suing foreign publications such as the soon-to-be-closed Far Eastern Economic Review or maintain all those ownership laws relating to Singapore Press Holdings. 

First, for what it’s worth, let me just say that in this case, there is no difference between red tape and “repression” — in Singapore, one can argue that “repression” is so embedded in the subconscious that its “repressed’ logic is perpetuated in its various social agencies and structures. Red tape can therefore be seen as an expression of that “repression” on many levels.

My point of writing the initial piece was to express solidarity with Ben’s frustration, while at the same time, elucidating the probable mechanics behind, if you like, the “apparatus” of “repression.” It is therefore puzzling for me to read that he accuses me of equivocation when I clearly invoked my own frustration at the lack of an appreciation for a free press in Singapore and then proceed to speculate why this might be the case, even giving my troublesome sources the benefit of the doubt. 

My bigger point, which I was trying to make at the end, was whether all this chest thumping about the lack of a free press in Singapore is getting a little too bland…simply because this plays right into the Singapore government’s hands. We need a more sophisticated strategy of resisting such governmental pressures, and if a foreign correspondent such as Ben wasn’t able to do it, then maybe the various local websites could go beyond commentary and opinion and actually do some real reporting.

Also, when one decides to make a place such as Singapore as their base as a freelance reporter, surely one has to come with his/her eyes wide open and expect an “expulsion” of such nature to be an inevitable eventuality. My limited experience with foreign correspondence suggests as much. 

In the same vein, consider this: If somebody is repressed, would he or she even realize that in the first place unless he or she realizes it for him or herself? My various experimentation with the free press in Singapore suggests that the notion of a free press can be considered “foreign” because it has been so divorced from the local psyche since independence in 1965. Some of the enlightened ones among us appreciate the need for one, but even then, there is a huge difference between head knowledge and practical knowledge.

This is particularly complicated by Singapore leaders casting the “free press” as a Western construct in the last 20-30 years — which is ridiculous since if the free press is not endemic to Asian values and organically present in the 1960s and 1970s, why would there be a need for the local press to be emasculated then? The dialectics between political compliance, acceptance, dissent and acquiescence from that point in history becomes an integral dynamic to explore and understand.

Ben is right to say that he merely wanted to report and “not to tell Singaporeans how their press ownership structure should be reformed” — but that unfortunately comes messily enmeshed with the job of any self-respecting journalist in Singapore. I am sorry, Ben, for your nasty experience and I don’t hope it on any other journalist but excuse me for saying also, that I am sick of people saying that Singapore has no press freedom. It’s a fact of life…try telling me something I don’t know instead — like what you think can be done about it.

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On being Bland in the Lion City Wed, 25 Nov 2009 05:22:16 +0000 The case of Benjamin Bland, a fellow correspondent here at, might not be surprising to anybody familiar with the press situation in Singapore. But, without being seen to be defending The Establishment, I just want to say that his whole experience with Singapore’s Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) reeks more of bureaucratese than anything else.

Sure, his account illustrates the usual argument relating to the lack of press freedoms in Singapore, but I suspect it has got to do with the chronic “kiasi-ness” (literally means fear of death in Singapore colloquial-speak, can be used to refer to literal or metaphorical death) embedded in the hearts and minds of government bureaucrats. They are gate keepers, so when middle management bureaucrats don’t know quite how to handle something “new” or something that carries shades of grey, it’s better to err on the side of caution. Case in point from the Asia Sentinel article:

Over a cup of coffee at their office in a former colonial police station – possibly the world’s most stylish propaganda ministry – they probed me politely about my background and intentions in Singapore. They were friendly but seemed perplexed about the concept of freelance journalism, even though it forms the backbone of much foreign reporting these days.

If we have a problem with something that you’ve written, who can we speak to?

Obviously, I told them, you can talk to the editor of whichever publication has commissioned any particular story.

“But what if we just don’t like what you’re writing in general?”

The questions I italicized were the exact questions my sources threw back at me in the early days when I told them Campus Observer, the campus online paper I co-founded in 2006 at the National University of Singapore (NUS), is an independent news outfit… and that we were answerable to nobody, other than ourselves and our readers. It was interesting, just as it was frustrating, that people, from the students’ union to the various offices in NUS, seemed to think there had to be a “higher power” accountable for press “responsibility.”

True, we were new kids on the block then… and it is impossible to tell whether they were reacting so cautiously because we were new, or because the concept of an “independent press” was new to them, or whether they felt threatened by that whole “free press thing” which generally tends towards speaking truth to power. But I also learnt it’s also perhaps not fair to expect people in Singapore, socialized to be accustomed to a state-controlled press as necessary for “social stability” (whatever that means) to be able to see the benefits of a critical press – especially since Singaporeans tend to think of the chaos of the American press as the default model of the free press.

This is misguided especially when we are in a position to forge our own press culture – and I believe with the Internet, it has been growing. I don’t need to repeat Amartya Sen’s arguments refuting the whole thing about free press not being endemic to “Asian” culture. But the dangers of repressing press freedoms is far greater because the end products are probably going to be partisan yelling – not good for civil, social and political dialogue because people just want to speak and not listen to one another.

This can’t be good for Singaporeans and any nation-building project. Press culture takes time to cultivate. It might be good for the party if the PAP government continues to maintain its strict press controls, but it wouldn’t be good for the country. There is a reason why so many top journalists and media companies choose to base themselves or their regional headquarters in Bangkok or even KL, instead of Singapore. The few who set up base in Singapore are usually very “sensitive” when it comes to local news.

So where does it leave the rest of us who are free press junkies in Singapore? I honestly don’t know. I am not saying Ben Bland is wrong… neither am I disputing the fact that the press isn’t “free” in Singapore. It is important to call out the lack of a free press when such an incident happens, but I do wonder it is maybe more useful to stop harping on the lack of press freedoms and just get down to the grim and hard work of shoe leather reporting… to just tell the many yet-untold stories in a fair and balanced manner. And if a foreigner doesn’t get to do it, maybe the numerous local sites can start doing the kind of neighborhood beat reporting that characterize American local news outlets?

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Did Obama really over-bow? Tue, 17 Nov 2009 06:21:40 +0000 So the American conservative press reaction to Obama’s bow to the Japanese Emperor shouldn’t be surprising, coming after Obama’s other bowing “fiasco” with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia earlier this year. The “liberal” press hardly dabbled in the is it-isn’t it punditry game, instead carrying reports, like this, on what the conservative backlash is about. The White House understandably defended the President, saying it’s a sign of respect in the Japanese culture.

But I suspect this is more an unfortunate manifestation of what Martin Luthur King Jr. once famously said, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” Putting all the usual American machismo aside, ABC News Senior White House Correspondent Jake Tapper, who is travelling with the Obama contingent says as much. Also, as this LA Times report shows, conventional diplomatic greeting doesn’t usually involve such extreme measures.

It’s like me going to a Thai restaurant and thinking that using my limited Thai to say “thank you” is a sign of my cultural sophistication. Or a white American person going all “konichiwa” and “Asian” towards an Asian-looking person, despite the Asian-looking person saying she’s from Denver, Colorado. I certainly meant well, but I ended up embarrassing myself because the waitress, thinking I am fluent in the language, goes on to rattle in quick-fire Thai… of which I understood maybe 15 per cent and had to get her to repeat everything in English.

But while Obama mildly overdid the whole Japanese cultural thing, he showed, for once, signs that he didn’t know his audience when addressing a town hall full of Chinese youths in Shanghai. Read all about it here, here and maybe also on a mildly related point, here. But if you are lazy to click on those links, this is the gist of what James Fallows (one-time chief presidential speech writer in the Carter administration), said:

Listening to him, I am not 100% sure that Obama has spent a lot of time conversing with non-native speakers of English. There is a different way you learn to talk: not condescending or stripped down, but more direct and less allusive. (For example, you wouldn’t say “allusive.” And I wouldn’t say “swathed” in the paragraph above, to indicate questions that had a kind of protective wrapping to blunt their edge. I’d say something like, “The questions from the students were polite, but some had a slight edge.”) People without experience doing this either talk in needlessly complex ways or talk in an insultingly clumsy oogah-boogah style. Sometimes Obama sounded as if he knew this approach; sometimes, as if he thought he was talking to a domestic audience.

I would add that there were portions of his speech where I found myself bored stiff and wondered if he was lapsing into too much American political rhetoric. It might have been better if he spoke in language and analogies his Chinese, mainly Communist-League member youths, could appreciate – and in English at that.

I know President Obama meant well, wanting to show that he appreciated and respected other cultures. But I would just stick to Western greeting conventions if I were him. Respect can be shown in other more substantive ways, such as modifying his language in his town hall in Shanghai, for example. Yes, the conservative press makes a hell lot of noise, but every little thing ebbs at his political mileage. He needs to pick his battles a little more subtly.

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Taking Zouk’s Mambo Jambo out onto Singapore’s streets Sun, 15 Nov 2009 07:10:53 +0000 Can somebody tell me whether this Thriller tribute flash mob thing….


has anything to do with this massive flash mob thing at Raffles Place, the heart of Singapore’s financial district?


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Why Obama’s Asia oratorical flourish may not happen Sun, 15 Nov 2009 06:34:25 +0000 I distinctly remember being part of the audience that President George W. Bush addressed at the National University of Singapore when he visited in November 2006. Had his 30-minute speech been less insipid, I wouldn’t have thought the 3 hours spent waiting for him to appear, to be an utter waste of time. Of course, there was also the baggage of his war decisions that weighed heavily on me. It was difficult not to regard Bush Junior with disdain.

The contrast between that experience and watching Barack Obama’s first address to an audience in Asia is startling. I may not have been in that audience, but merely watching it online was rather startling for me. For one, I didn’t roll my eyes or sighed or shook my head as I did when Bush was speaking. It was the face of America that I am sure most of the world would rather prefer: a cerebral, more thoughtful and constructive approach to America’s foreign relations.

But amid the flurry of press analysis and opinion on Obama’s Tokyo address and what “it all means” for all angles, I would caution against reading too much out into it. His “Cairo” and “Berlin” oratorical moment in Asia, if there will ever be one, would probably come later in his trip — in China. Japan may just about be America’s oldest and staunchest ally in Asia so far, but as Obama had alluded to himself, China represents the future of America’s focus on the Asia-Pacific region. This just means Japan will have to share that status with China.

Alternatively, because you actually need an existing super enthusiastic audience for an actual “Cairo” or “Berlin” moment to occur in Beijing, that sweeping oratorical landmark many pundits are betting on…may never happen in Asia — mainly because China’s enthusiasm for Obama is less intense than Europe’s. Also consider how he would be in an almost-unequal position, especially since China is seen to be the reason why the economic recovery seems faster in Asia. Indeed, there are suggestions that Obama would spend his time in China reassuring China than pushing reforms. And there is this very public and very political mangling of comparative histories too.

Still, for somebody who is famed for his rhetorical ability, Obama’s speech in Japan has left some scratching their heads, when he spoke of “engaging the Trans-Pacific Partnership countries with the goal of shaping a regional agreement that will have broad-based membership and the high standards worthy of a 21st-century trade agreement.” From The New York Times:

That line left many trade envoys already in Singapore scratching their heads: did Mr. Obama mean that the United States would begin formal talks to join the regional trade pact, which presently includes Singapore, Brunei and New Zealand, and could later include Vietnam — an addition that could lead to more Congressional pressure at home?

Many regional officials have been waiting for the United States to join the initiative as a demonstration that Washington will play a more active role in the region. But the Obama administration has yet to establish a firm trade policy, as it is still reviewing its options.

White House officials were not much clearer on what Mr. Obama meant when they were pressed on this after the speech. Mr. Froman, the deputy national security adviser, said that what Mr. Obama meant was that he would engage with the initiative “to see if this is something that could prove to be an important platform going further.”

Who knows…Obama might just make that oratorical flourish in Beijing just to quell all these ambiguities. Meanwhile though, the first “development” coming out of Singapore is the confirmation of what everybody knew was inevitable: no deal at Copenhagen. Stay tuned for what comes out of meetings with the Russian president and the first meeting between an American president and all 10 leaders of ASEAN.

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Much ado about crammed living conditions Sun, 15 Nov 2009 05:11:47 +0000 Hong Kong topping the global GINI coefficient rankings in a recent United Nations Development Programme report had news agencies scrambling to illustrate the situation. CNN recently had a stark multimedia piece, about the crammed living conditions of the poor in Hong Kong, while The New York Times published a photo essay on its excellent visual journalism blog.

The New York Times piece, in particular, is less “judgmental” in tone…because the photographer was just interested in capturing a slice of life in crammed, urban Hong Kong for the poor. Adapting a technique that has been used by many, Michael Wolf shoots Hong Kongers in their most intimate environment — their homes.

But something he said struck me rather deeply, and here I quote:

“In the 1950s, waves of Chinese immigrants arrived in Hong Kong and settled in shanty towns. A fire in 1953 destroyed an entire squatter area known as Shek Kip Mei and the government quickly erected housing for the thousands of displaced victims. The Shek Kip Mei Estate was the first of its kind, and served as a model for Hong Kong’s public housing program. It was welcomed by elderly people trying to stretch their savings and by immigrants looking for a temporary place to land.

It needn’t be large to be comfortable. “The Hong Kong people, they’re not much on style,” Mr. Wolf said. “The main thing is that it works. So if you can open up a newspaper and put your bok choy vegetables on it and it keeps them from getting dirty, that’s fine. And then once you get over this feeling that it’s not a slum, it becomes a totally different viewing experience.”

Mr. Wolf finds the the most interesting way to display the photographs is in a 10-by-10-foot room.

“If you’re standing inside a room which is exactly the same size as the room you’re looking at, then you realize how small that space actually is,” he said. “And then you realize that people have been living there for 40 years. And then you realize that they are happy! That something like that can be, I think that’s the amazing thing. That people can be happy that they have 100 square feet to live in and nice neighbors. That’s basically all you need.”

These images remind me very starkly of another story of poor, Chinese people living in crammed quarters — except they’re immigrants on the other side of the world, in the heart of New York City…and it’s no more cages, but cubicles. That this was carried by an alternative weekly and remains an issue rarely examined by the likes of The New York Times is telling in itself. To think these crammed conditions were romanticized in my history textbooks as being part of the past. What does it say about “progress” and “economic development” that they still exist today?

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Of immigrants and a more equitable Singapore Sun, 15 Nov 2009 01:46:16 +0000 When I was an undergraduate student at the National University of Singapore, I never understood why there were so many students from China in our school who were basically studying in NUS on a full ride, using taxpayers’ money to fund their education…and at the end of it, all they had to do was just to work for three years at a Singapore-registered company. I don’t know what the figures for compliance are like, but I was told most work around that requirement.

Forgive me for being too simplistic in my perception here, and I’ve got nothing against a more liberal talent policy, but it made me wonder: Is Singapore so desperate for foreign talent that we are willing to set our bar so low for a free education? The joke back then, totally unverified I must add, was that we were so desperate, even for China’s third-tier talent after the first two-tiers have left for the U.S. and Europe.

I am under no illusion that we should expect immigrants to switch their allegiance and loyalty to Singapore after studying in that little red dot of ours, even if they have been brought over as thirteen-year-old’s (yes, the Singapore government has intricate schemes bringing China students into Singapore schools at various stages). You can’t buy these things, these things are cultivated organically. Besides, it is our expectation that they switch their loyalty overnight — and not theirs.

Yes, Singaporeans still have a lot of growing up to do politically and socially, but at the same time, it is also realistic to expect the Singapore PAP government to put their electorate first before all else. It doesn’t have to compromise our commitment to free trade and a liberal migration policy…all it means, is for us to have some sort of dignity without being too arrogant. This is particularly urgent, as this Economist article illustrates how our mind-boggling GINI coefficient, second only to Hong Kong in the world, is threatening fragile economic and social fabric. Read this for a further illustration.

Yes, the government has taken steps to combat this problem, but I am not sure what slowing down the intake of migrants and investing in a new National Integration Council would do to help mitigate the present situation. Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said as much when he told The Economist that it may take years before success with integration is apparent…which makes me wonder: why don’t the Singapore government use the money to invest in our young people instead? What are they doing in the interim?

Honestly, I am not sure whether this is anything beyond a public relations problem for the Singapore PAP government. To give the PAP the benefit of the doubt, I am not sure if they aren’t doing things differently because they don’t want to, as much as they simply do not know how and what that alternative looks like.

This is a policy paradigm that would value well-being, going beyond the GDP and good employment figures to make sure that greater equity — note, not the utopia of equality — exists in Singapore society (including and especially the ministers’ wages). Maybe considering introducing greater sophistication into our social security system, as Mukul G. Asher and Amarendu Nandy from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy have suggested

So the problem isn’t so much that we have so many foreign students being given free rides at our universities. It’s still a problem, but approaching it as a “problem” is a negative approach that deals with the phenonemon without resolving the conundrum. A “positive” problem-solving approach would be to consider ground realities and how it should matter in the overall picture. The greater problem is therefore, the government’s fundamental economic strategy for Singapore and how it contributes to increasing inequity in every aspects of Singapore society.

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CNN: The ‘new’ jihad code Tue, 10 Nov 2009 22:30:26 +0000 CNN reports the emergence of a new jihad code that threatens to challenge al-Qaeda. According to CNN, what makes this new manifesto interesting is that it reimagines jihad as something that is devoid of violence. It is intriguing that this new jihadi code is released by leaders of one of the world’s most effective jihadist organizations, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). That it is a collaboration between one of Gaddafi’s sons and a former LIFG commander Noman Benotman, still a wanted terrorist in many countries, makes it doubly interesting. Here’s how it all started:

When Saif al Islam al Gadhafi, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, decided he wanted to open a dialogue with the LIFG he needed to convince them he was genuine so he sought out a former LIFG commander Noman Benotman, who was living in London.

The younger Gadhafi convinced Benotman he would free LIFG members from jail if they renounced their long war with the regime. He promised Benotman immunity from prosecution and in January 2007 flew him back to Libya to meet with the LIFG leaders in the high-security Abu Salim jail.

Now, Benotman, who said he tried to dissuade al-Qaeda from conducting the 9-11 attacks, is issuing al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden an ultimatum and a challenge with this 417-page document. And I quote the CNN article:

The code’s most direct challenge to al-Qaeda is this: “Jihad has ethics and morals because it is for God. That means it is forbidden to kill women, children, elderly people, priests, messengers, traders and the like. Betrayal is prohibited and it is vital to keep promises and treat prisoners of war in a good way. Standing by those ethics is what distinguishes Muslims’ jihad from the wars of other nations.”

How will this be received, and how would other jihadist movements react to this challenge from within the jihadist ranks?

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ASEAN risks international irrelevance Tue, 10 Nov 2009 22:11:35 +0000 It is difficult to take ASEAN seriously most times – and for cynics, all the time. The much-anticipated inauguration of the Southeast Asian grouping’s human rights body finally happened last month, but activists were barred from the event and half of the representatives chosen for an ASEAN-civil society dialogue were not allowed to meet Southeast Asian leaders, while those who were allowed into the meeting were not permitted to speak. And then there’s Burma/Myanmar and the bickering between Thailand and Cambodia over Thaksin Shinawatra that is threatening to turn very ugly, adding to their long-running feud over Preah Vihear.

Juxtapose this against their fanfare and clamoring when it was first announced President Obama would be the first American president to meet with all 10 leaders of ASEAN member countries, including Burma/Myanmar, when he visits Singapore for the APEC Leaders Summit Yes, even though the White House says Burma/Myanmar won’t dictate its ties with ASEAN, it is difficult to envision any effective multilateral engagement between the U.S. and ASEAN if ASEAN can’t get its act together.

With so many other competing interests for the U.S. in East Asia, this could possibly be at the detriment of smaller nations in the ASEAN grouping if any multilateral engagement is futile and the Americans decide to revert to a bilateral strategy with countries they deem more important for various reasons, such as Indonesia and Myanmar. The Americans are eager to engage with the region because it recognizes increasing competition coming from South Korea, Japan and China in Southeast Asia. They see a vested interest in exerting their influence as ASEAN builds its organizational capacity, but for the regional grouping to be an effective proxy, it needs to accelerate its own maturity. American influence could possibly accelerate this process, but that’s being overly optimistic given the history of ASEAN.

On the eve of President Obama’s first venture into Asia he turns his attention to a vastly-changed landscape, but his packed itinerary suggests Southeast Asia could risk being sidelined. Indeed, he cut his time in Singapore by a day to accommodate a visit to South Korea and delayed his departure by a day to attend a memorial for Fort Hood victims on Tuesday. The U.S. main attention in East Asia is bound to be China and their foreign policy strategy, even of engaging Southeast Asia, could be seen as an extension of that focus.

Indeed, the highlight of his maiden swing through Asia is his time in China that would include stops in Shanghai and Beijing. He is expected to raise currency issues and growth imbalance when he meets Chinese officials , but not the prospect of a bilateral climate deal with the Chinese. For a regional grouping whose member nations are increasingly dependent on China economically, but still remain somewhat suspicious of the emergent giant, it is in ASEAN’s own interest to beef up its collective voice. It risks being sidelined in the global conversation otherwise.

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Misreporting the Fort Hood mass shootings Fri, 06 Nov 2009 17:05:19 +0000

The New York Times couldn’t confirm it, but reported a disparaging comment written by somebody of a similar name anyway. The Associated Press ran a full, related story — based on unconfirmed quotes — on the alleged Muslim perpetrator of Thursday’s unfortunate shooting incident at Fort Hood allegedly yelling “Allahu Akbar” as he fired on his unsuspecting victims. The Daily Beast decided to run this same tidbit as a lead on their landing page too. See this visual comparison between The Times and The Daily Beast.

How is this going to help the American public form a coherent picture of reality in their heads? How is this not going to further inflame American public sentiment towards Muslims? I am not saying we must conceal such elements in reporting a story, but being self-reflexive and according a person’s ethnicity and religious beliefs adequate context is also part of the reporting process. It’s about being fair and balanced, no?

And when news commentators — and it’s not just Fox News and “conservative” outlets this time — start asking why and then proceed to frame it as an “act of terror,” they ignore facts such as the man’s long record of service in the army before that and more importantly, how his state of mind could have been the result of stress caused by his impending field deployment.

One of the gravest first lessons I learnt at Columbia Journalism School is not to make an issue out of a person’s ethnicity more than it is necessary. Sure, it’s a call on news judgment. But when in doubt, I remembered my RW1 instructors tell me, don’t make it your lede and the main point of your story. If you decide to use it as a factor, use it further down in the story. Provide adequate context, but don’t distort reality was the message I learnt.

Just because the person at the center of the unfortunate Fort Hood shootings yesterday (Wednesday) was a devout Muslim does not automatically make his actions neccessarily a terrorist one. I am not defending Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s alleged position here, I am attacking the obsession that American media outlets have with equating any unfortunate acts committed by Muslims as “acts of terror”.

Sure, my teachers might have been Hispanic and African Americans and some might say, they are therefore more predisposed to recognizing such biases, but that argument is moot because everybody has their own set of biases. As a reporter, it’s about recognizing what they are and then deciding how much mitigating you need to do, to prevent them from distorting a story. Failure to do so would just reflect a reporter’s ignorance and lack of reporting nous, than the reality of the situation.

If anything, the way this story is covered is a reflection of the biases of the journalists and editors who are reporting the story. James Fallows wisely and almost prophetically laments how the American media would cover the latest shootings in America. To be sure, The Times did a reasonable job with fairness and balance, with stories like this, but there’s only one New York Times, and a gazillion other network television stations, for whom the issue of Hasan’s psychiatric condition would be lost in the myriad of conspiracy theories of how he was a homegrown terrorist and all those things that make the rest of the world and Americans who know better all roll their eyes and collectively sigh in resignation.

Because at the end of the day, nobody will ever know for sure why Hasan did what he did in that fit of madness, even if he does go on to say whatever he goes on to say to investigators and presumably, at the public trial — if he makes it alive. So while his Muslim faith might be a factor, it is not the only one. If you are looking for a reason why this madness occurred, why not see how this incident brings to fore the difficult position Muslims occupy in American society and how when that is further complicated by the stress and fear of impending military deployment to a war zone, fighting fellow Muslims. It would be then interesting to see how that would complicate Obama’s eventual Afghanistan decision if that eventually becomes the MAIN talking point.

Instead of that “more constructive” consequence though, I am pretty sure something of a vicious self-perpetuating cycle would result…which is just unfortunate, to say the least.

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The art of spinning an American political tale Thu, 05 Nov 2009 05:14:34 +0000 Just how many historical political shifts can there be… in a space of a year? On an annual basis in America apparently, where politics is covered in the media like sports. The political spin on Election Night Tuesday began as soon as the news broke of individual victories. Spin not just by the political parties, but also by the tons of pundits in the twittersphere, network television shows and various websites who argue incessantly about the meaning of these results. Pity World Series baseball was not on the same night, otherwise it would be interesting to see if Fox News could have still held on to their top-dog status.

The “big” news of Election Night 2009 was that the Republicans have retaken the governorships of the states of Virginia and New Jersey and how the Democrats punctured the Republicans feel-good bounce-back story with a surprising win in an obscure special election held in upstate New York, in the 23rd district (NY-23) – where the Republican party nominee pulled out and pledged her support for the Democrat candidate, Bill Owens, who eventually beat the Conservative Party and Sarah Palin-endorsed candidate, Doug Hoffman. And oh, who can forget Michael Bloomberg’s unexpected narrow victory for an unprecedented third term in the New York city mayoral race.

As the messianic hope and euphoria have ostensibly died a year since Obama’s historic election victory, most Americans seem split on President Obama. The Republican party is keen and was quick to say their two governor wins were the voters’ way of rejecting Obama’s leadership. But there are polls suggesting these governor races were settled on mainly local issues – President Obama has a 57% approval rating in New Jersey where Democrat incumbent Jon Corzine was ousted by his Republican challenger, Chris Christie, and 49% approval rating in Virginia, where Republican Bob McDonnell looked to have wrapped up the win over his Democrat rival, Creigh Deeds, even before Virginians went to the polls.

But whatever the spin on the results would be, it is telling that the youth vote that propelled Obama to victory last year, was sorely absent. And there’s a reason why history suggests off-year election are non-events and too soon to be seen as a verdict on a one-year-old presidency. The media is hard pressed to make the elections news worthy because well, they’ve got their bottom lines to meet. The real cracker would be the mid-term elections next year, where regular elections for Congress and Senate seats will be due. Team Obama has another year to sort his agenda out and to make sure a op-ed piece like this, as well-written as it might be, would not be the case come November 2010.

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On staying true to oneself Mon, 02 Nov 2009 22:52:38 +0000 Writing that stands the test of time are usually the ones that not only elucidate universal truths, but also celebrate the writer’s uncanny verve of foresight. Washington Monthly celebrates its 40th anniversary this month with a collection of their best writing in their latest print edition. I am still trawling through its glossy pages, but one story stood out for me: Philip Weiss’ 1986 profile of rising New York Times reporter superstar-turned-investment banker, Steven Rattner. It might as well have been a cautionary tale, a much-needed reminder not to lose myself and take the comparatively easier, more socially acceptable or more lucrative way out.

And here I quote:

“In any age, there are certain people who, because they are both very smart and unusually reactive to their society, help illuminate prevailing values through their actions. Rattner’s life seems emblematic of the spirit of the times. Rattner’s career path, impressive as it is, has a conformist quality that calls to mind the Woody Allen character Zelig, the “chameleon man” who always took on the coloration of those around him. When journalism defined the spirit and values of a generation, Rattner was a journalist. Now that investment banking defines those things, he is an investment banker. This chameleon quality makes Rattner an instructive case study of the process by which many of today’s best and brightest have lost interest in making a difference with their lives.”

Surely, the line between rigidly sticking to the letter of who we think we are and selling out is a very arbitrary and thin one – and under the prevailing economic situation right now, it might be more difficult than usual. But it would be useful for us to hold ourselves accountable and remind ourselves of what we stood for and would continue to stand for, in the things we pursue professionally.

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The self-defeating effects of fear and paranoia Sun, 01 Nov 2009 02:48:00 +0000 PAP’s approach towards Singapore is defined by paranoia, K. Shanmugan, Singapore’s law minister told a New York State Bar Association meeting in Singapore Wednesday. The week before, Lee Kuan Yew told Charlie Rose in New York that Americans have to understand how the current China leaders seem to be acting out of indignant fear — it’s time for them to start catching up with the West, on 500-odd years of development. But is Lee being too hopeful by saying the nature of US-China relations will change once the next generation of Chinese leaders, who speak English as their second language and therefore should understand the West better, take over?

Just look at the Singapore example. Almost 45 years after independence, its leaders still characterize it as being paranoid. Lee said Chinese leaders, who are barely 20 years into their own capitalist nation building project since it first started in the early 1990’s, think they have “500 years” to catch up on. Sure, this figure is entirely arbitrary and are meant to indicate a perception of how much they think they are “behind.” But, as a metaphorical indicator, Lee probably meant for it to give people a sense of what he perceives to be the dominant Chinese political culture. But the question is, would Singapore, PAP-led or otherwise, or a more confident China, ever emerge from the doldrums of paranoia, fear and regret?

Just like people are always just reacting when they are fearful, paranoid or regretful, the same could be said of governance. It could mean that the only “economic” method of salvaging a tanking economy would be to continuously cut labor costs. This means lower wages for an increasingly educated workforce, which also means dampening middle class aspirations while possibly widening the income gap. That those words come from Lee Swee Say, a highly-paid “minister without portfolio” and the chief of the National Trade Union Congress, the umbrella union in Singapore, does nothing to quell growing resentment on the ground.

But by “confident,” it does not mean a blind, emboldened approach towards governance that is devoid of ethics and does not conform to global norms. It would suggest that for example, in the event of a dittering United States on climate change, one would step forward and take the lead on organizing global emissions cut instead of waiting and hoping for something to work out that would suit its developmental interest. Environmentalism is perhaps the only moral claim that can counter that of capitalism.

The point here is that policy that only reacts would never reach the heights of a creative approach emanating from a government or a political culture that is confident of the abilities and worth of its own people. This is effectively the antithesis of fear, paranoia and regret, meaning that you would always be reacting to something else…and that you are perpetual follower. Sure, these are ideal types and any approach to governance would be a shrewd mix of both, but if Singapore truly wants the kind of creative and entrepreneurial spirit to take root organically and if China wants to lead the world and be respected on their terms, an honest appraisal and rethink should be on the cards.

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The dizzying lows of Singapore’s political spin Sat, 31 Oct 2009 05:44:26 +0000 I am very disturbed by what the Singapore Law Minister said to participants attending the New York State Bar Association International Section meeting in Singapore on Wednesday. At least with Lee Kuan Yew and members of the older guard, I knew what I could expect from them- whether or not I actually agree with them, is another issue. But with K. Shanmugan, part of the newer generation of Singaporean political leaders, I’m not even sure if he actually believes, connects and knows what he’s arguing for.

You can download the pdf transcript of Shanmugan’s responses to questions here, but please note that takes things off their free breaking-news site after a while. The Straits Times’ report on the event is here. But here are three quick points of my objections:

  1. His shocking invocation of how Singapore deviates from the democratic norm because it is a city, and not a country: Shanmugan tries to legitimize the Singapore political condition by drawing parallels with big-city politics in America. He quotes American libertarian (read: usually right-wing, conservative) economist, Bryan Caplan: “big city politics (in the US) is often about as lopsided as Singaporean politics…Democratic mayors have won without interruption since 1931 in Chicago and 1964 in San Francisco. While the Democrats have failed to monopolise the mayor’s office in New York City, they have near-PAP dominance of the New York City Council: Democrats hold 45 out of 48 occupied seats.”

    The question to ask next is “why is this so?” – instead Caplan glosses over this question and the empirical and historical differences between the different cities and cases, proceeding to conclude that if using the argument that Singapore politics is sub-national and since sub-national democratic policies are often one-sided, it would explain away the undemocratic substance of its politics. The logic here is as tautological as saying something like “rich people are rich because they have money.” Also, the problem is, whether Shanmugan likes it or not, Singapore is both a city and a sovereign state. If Caplan had done his homework a little more, he would realize that Lee Kuan Yew basically absolved Singapore of any local politics when he centralized governance after 1965. The politics of a country can be as multi-layered as the people or government determine to be the case, its physical size does not matter as much.

    I wasn’t able to find the full text of Caplan’s July 2009 paper that Shanmugan quotes extensively from, but I found this, this and this. I am going to try to contact Caplan since he is based at George Mason University, which is in the extended DC metropolitan area in northern Virginia. Watch this space.

  2. Shanmugan’s long-winded defense of the Singapore press (or the lack of one) is light weight as it makes him as guilty of the kind of conflations he accuses the West of making when it comes to calling Singapore “undemocratic.” Lee Kuan Yew and other ministers such as Lee Boon Yang, have in the past made no attempts to hide that the press is seen as an instrument of the state. The Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 states it rather plainly. And to think how Shanmugan could have avoided getting himself into an unnecessary hole if he had trusted a local Singaporean academic who has already systematically debunked the methodology of the RSF survey.
  3. The ahistoric nature of Shanmugan’s (and Caplan’s) arguments: Quoting somebody like Caplan, who based his writings on a few visits to Singapore and on what he perceives from his sanitized experience of Singapore, is akin to historical amnesia. A reading of Chua Beng Huat’s 1995 book, Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, would have situated everything into context. Although I highly doubt he would change his mind (given his intellectual lineage), it would be interesting to see if Caplan comes to the same conclusions after studying the historical evolution of the Singapore polity.

    To be fair, Shanmugan did situate his claims in history. But even if he wants to argue based on the PAP’s version of Singapore history, I think it is only fair, for such an intellectual and learned person, to acknowledge that history is always contested. That for Lee Kuan Yew and company to have ‘won’ in the past, there had to be losers whose stories have been lost from the mainstream but have seen a small revival in academic circles, such as this online journal, s/pores – whose newest edition is coincidentally, on this very topic.


Nothing really new I guess. But I am just concerned that as the Singapore political and historical rhetoric gets spun and respun by successive generations, Singapore’s collective sense of reality would dissipate and fragment if competing versions aren’t heard by the masses. Memories are what binds communities together and all histories are constructed… but if the basis for any construction is too contrived and are insufficiently organic or authentic, then people would be disconnected from it all. I mean, don’t you feel dizzy after being spun around all the time?

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Lee Kuan Yew on Singapore, Asia and America Thu, 29 Oct 2009 00:22:04 +0000 A professor at the National University of Singapore once told me that everybody, including Lee Kuan Yew’s enemies, will cry if and when he finally dies. “Whether you like it or not, he has been such an integral part of Singapore,” he said. “You will cry too, trust me.” Underpinning such an assumption is how Lee Kuan Yew has been such a force in Singapore, that his influence on our lives and emotions has been so carnal that it has reified into the subconscious of most Singaporeans.

Let me disclose up front that I have, at best, a grudging respect for the man’s single-mindedness in governing Singapore through the 1960s and beyond. But I wish his achievements came without the baggage of his methodical removal of his political opponents back in his day. I’d always believed that what a person says tells us a lot about him, as much it helps us understand the things he/she is talking about… and American journalist, Charlie Rose’s latest chat with Lee Kuan Yew here is a classic exemplification of that truism. Here’s my take on their conversation.

  1. On all things Singapore: You have really got to admire Rose’s interviewing technique. Whether it’s a rapport developed from having interviewed Lee twice before, or otherwise, it is wonderful to watch Rose press Lee when the elderly statesman tried to dodge Rose’s question about his authoritarian tendencies. The Online Citizen provides a nice transcript of that portion of the hour-long interview, which I reproduce here:

    CHARLIE ROSE: You’ve never had a moment where you thought Singapore was too authoritative did you? Not one moment?

    LEE KUAN YEW: My job was to get the place going and get everybody a decent life and a decent education. And we’re now the best educated people in the whole of east Asia. Our universities — we got three, four universities, fourth one coming up.

    CHARLIE ROSE: So the end justifies the means whatever it might be?

    LEE KUAN YEW: No. The ends were laudable. Everybody wants the same ends. Everybody wants good education and good health.

    CHARLIE ROSE: A good life and their children to do better than they did.

    LEE KUAN YEW: The means — I had the consent and support of the population. If they opposed me and they did not cooperate, it wouldn’t have worked.  

    CHARLIE ROSE: You were in control of everything.


    CHARLIE ROSE: Yes you were, you know that.


    Lee also talked about how America attracts the most adventurous and the most hardworking… which brought me back to his (almost annual) observation of the brain drain of those born and bred in Singapore to countries in the West when he expressed skepticism about China’s attempts to woo back its former citizens who’ve migrated to the West. Lee said that even if these people do return, their children, who might have been born and raised in America, would be unaccustomed to the lack of freedom in China and choose to return to America. This guy knows exactly why Singapore is bleeding so many of its young and brightest, but he’s not about to do anything about it other than his annual ritual of lamenting such a reality.

    Contrary to some online chatter about Lee’s “false humility,” his nervous laughter suggests otherwise. He is backpaddling fast and is probably trying to avoid losing his temper on air because unlike TV interviewers in Singapore, American journalists, certainly not experienced, no-nonsense hands such as Charlie Rose, do not buckle under pressure. They can stand their ground and still not lose their cool even under pressure from such a forceful character as Lee. But Rose’s artistry is evident in how he presses and then decides to let go because he knows he has forced Lee to react in a way that substantiates his point about his authoritarian past.

  2. On Singapore as an inspiration and model for China’s capitalist development: The Deng Xiaoping story was repeated here… of how he visited Singapore and then returned to China to tell people to replicate the Singapore model in China… and surpass the Little Red Dot in Southeast Asia. China being a gazillion times larger than Singapore, Deng’s 12 special economic zones were therefore an attempt to create multiplicities of Singapore in different urban areas in China. Today, Singapore’s universities continue to host a flood of middle management government officials from China in various public-policy related courses taught in both English and Mandarin.
  3. On US-China relations: I thought Lee really showed his real mettle when he started talking about US-China relations. Lee said China’s rise globally is inevitable, so it is in America’s interest to make China feel like an equal member of the global power elite when this reality eventually comes to pass. But Lee made it clear that while China is in ascendancy now, it isn’t quite “there” yet. But in the meantime, the current generation of Chinese leaders whose second language is mostly Russian, Lee said, had suffered a lot under Mao… so Americans have to understand their survival mentality and accommodate that, for now. At least until the next generation of Chinese leaders take over – who would be different because they would have been educated in America and Britain and have English as their second language. This, Lee said, would be the time when China finally matures on the world stage and lead to a transformation of US-China relations, possibly characterized by increased levels of mutual trust and a sense that both their futures depend on each other prospering. It is therefore not in China’s interest to go into war because that would set their progress back by 50 years, he said.

    Also, while it used to be very self-contained and didn’t need to care about the world, China will be forced learn that it has to be bothered about what goes on in the world as it trawls the world for resources to fuel its own development, probably referring to the current Chinese practice of resource diplomacy in Africa, Latin America, Russia and the Middle East. The Chinese will need to realize that membership of the global community comes with certain responsibilities and abiding with the rules of the game.

    More crucially, I thought Lee emphasized the importance of America (and I would say implicitly, the world) dealing with the current China reality and misreading the Chinese current “edginess”. Lee didn’t spell out the details, but it is not hard to see that he’s warning against letting the hawkish elements in the US foreign policy and defense machinery dominate the conversation about US-China relations. Unlike Russia, China doesn’t want to be an honorary member of the West. China’s determined to succeed on the world stage, Lee said, because it wants to make up for the “lost” 5000 years. What America has to help China understand, is the responsibilties that go with that, to convince the Chinese that hunger in Africa is also their problem, if they want to be a global player.

  4. On India and Japan: Lee thinks India will be a power too, but probably not on China’s scale. He also thinks Japan needs to overhaul its political and social system, to embrace immigrants a lot more – at least, for economic reasons.
  5. On the role and goals of America in Afghanistan: This was when I thought Lee was rather flaky. He started well enough when he said the US’ attempts at trying to build an Afghan state are a huge distraction, but he couldn’t substantiate it any further beyond pointing out that trying to impose stability in Afghanistan after the Americans only “won” there the last time with the help of the mujahideen, is being too ambitious. Lee said that he doesn’t think Afghanistan, stable or not, affects global polity too much. While I can see Lee’s logic in that it was incredible he was so blatant about it, especially since he went on to excuse himself by saying that he is unable to perceive things beyond what affect his self-interest. Here, I suspect Lee is not saying what he really thinks. Since it’s impossible that he doesn’t have a definitive view on this, my only guess is that he is reserving his opinion on this for the ears of Hillary Clinton and other senior Obama administration officials.
  6. On America’s global position in the 21st century: Lee sees America potentially as a benign stablizer of the world order in a multi-polar global polity, but he said this is conditional on America or any global leader to hold his ground in the Pacific because that’s where most of the growth would be happening in the 21st century. Two economic fundamentals are integral for that to happen: managing America’ fiscal deficit so that it wouldn’t adversely affect the value of the American dollar in the short run. What the world wants to see, according to Lee, is the political will to make it happen… the health reforms are an example of how American politicians, both Congress and the president, have seemingly lost their will to confront the American people with the truth. But at the same time, he said he has confidence that America will eventually do what is necessary. 

So what does this tell us about Lee Kuan Yew, at 86 years old?

For one, I am finally starting to appreciate why he is so highly regarded by Western leaders… and perhaps, also why the British favored his leadership over Lim Chin Siong’s back in the 1960s. His understanding of the mindset of China’s political leadership is thought provoking and perhaps the most insightful of everything he said. What I found a little awkward was how Rose framed his questions as if it was Lee (was it?) who decided that Singapore was going into stem cell research. Lee was long gone as Prime Minister when that decision was taken at the turn of the millennium. 

I think it’s safe to say that Lee is a hyper-realist politically, but while that might work with China, it doesn’t seem to quite offer anything fresh on Afghanistan. He did qualify that it does not mean he thinks the Middle East is not important, but this also shows either he’s not saying what he knows publicly or his lack of appreciation of emergent fundamentalisms, particularly religious ones, emerging as a reaction to and a rejection of the dominant position of the capitalist and democratic values espoused by the West. It’s not only in the Middle East that this is happening, but also in Africa and much of South America – Hugo Chavez anybody? 

His view on China also doesn’t consider the emerging social discontent on the ground. The change in a society’s cultural and social logic that perpetuates from the imposition of capitalism, is something Lee continues to not grasp very well. Lee did allude to how people are going to want to be heard as China grows and develops more, but his rosy picture of China’s inevitable growth and world superpowerdom seems to be based on a view of China that is divorced from the problematic Western inland. Tibet and Xinjiang, for example, were not talked about at all. All combined, his view that the Pacific will be the global economic engine of the 21st century therefore seems a little too Asia-centric.

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Mixed signals emerging on US Afghan strategy Wed, 28 Oct 2009 04:33:34 +0000 Forget Black October and how the eight Americans who died Tuesday brought October’s total to 53, making it the deadliest month for Americans in the eight-year war. The real bomb that emerged overnight in America is the revelation by The New York Times that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and a suspected player in the country’s booming illegal opium trade, is on the regular payroll of the Central Intelligence Agency for much of the last eight years. The news is likely to trigger more anxiety and give Obama’s opponents more political ammunition against his perceived “dittering” on the Afghan situation.


From The New York Times:

“The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr. Karzai raise significant questions about America’s war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House.

The ties to Mr. Karzai have created deep divisions within the Obama administration. The critics say the ties complicate America’s increasingly tense relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who has struggled to build sustained popularity among Afghans and has long been portrayed by the Taliban as an American puppet. The C.I.A.’s practices also suggest that the United States is not doing everything in its power to stamp out the lucrative Afghan drug trade, a major source of revenue for the Taliban.

More broadly, some American officials argue that the reliance on Ahmed Wali Karzai, the most powerful figure in a large area of southern Afghanistan where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, undermines the American push to develop an effective central government that can maintain law and order and eventually allow the United States to withdraw.”


While President Obama offered no clues to his decision on Afghanistan at an audience with military personnel earlier Tuesday, reports suggest that his advisers are focusing on a strategy for Afghanistan aimed at protecting about 10 top population centers, administration officials told The Times Tuesday. This approach would stop short of an all-out assault on the Taliban while still seeking to nurture long-term stability, which would constitute, theoretically at least, the “third way” that the President has been diligently seeking out. 

The strength of this report by The Times rests on the assertions of a few unnamed current and former CIA officials – and it has been predictably retorted by others, with the CIA denying to comment on such allegations. Although he said he cooperated with American civilian and military officials, Ahmed Karzai denies he engaged in the drug trade or receiving payments from the CIA. While military and senior Obama administration officials say that the evidence that suggests otherwise is largely circumstantial, their assessment also dovetails with that of senior officials in the Bush administration in its end days. 

This tricky situation is likely to upset American military personnel, even as they face the grim reality of seeing 53 of their colleagues die in combat in October so far – particularly if President Obama is going to adopt his advisors’ approach of protecting major urban centers. Officials told The Times Karzai’s involvement in the opium trade in Afghanistan, the largest in the world, destablizes the Afghan state. 

Complicating this whole situation is the news that the US military is to be allowed to pay Taliban fighters who renounce violence against the government in Kabul. BBC reports that such payments have apparently been widely used by US commanders in Iraq, but it is the first time the system is being formally adopted in Afghanistan. The move is included in a defence bill which President Obama is set to sign. The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Senator Carl Levin, said he envisages the money being used to pay former Taliban fighters to protect their communities, but it is uncertain how this would be enforced or whether its success in Iraq would translate into success in the Afghan context.

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Financial reform regains momentum in the US Tue, 27 Oct 2009 17:23:23 +0000 What a difference a year makes. The September 2008 Wall Street meltdown prompted calls for financial reforms to force financial institutions into more responsible behavior, i.e. lower risk investment strategies. The argument is that if BofA, AIG and gang all needed government funds to bail them out, then they would have to be accountable to the government since tax payers have become a de facto shareholder. Slightly more than a year later, political will on the part of Obama and Geithner remains, but the urgency surrounding financial reforms seem to have been somewhat lost.

Yet the regulatory steps America chooses to take have immense global implications. It could determine the shape of its economy and implicitly, the shape of any possible global financial regulatory framework. But even if these “too big to fail” financial institutions eventually return the money they took from the American government at the height of the crisis, the greater embedded question guiding any reform decision is whether these financial institutions have any wider social responsibility, given how the meltdown had such castastrophic effects on the rest of the economy…while the bulk of the financial industry has emerged relatively unscathed.

Following last week’s annoucement by the Obama administration that top executives at Citigroup, Bank of America and the other five institutions surviving at taxpayers’ expense would see their compensation packages halved this year and their cash salaries reduced by 90 percent, The New York Times reported a few days ago that Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, would announce measures that would make it easier for government to seize control of troubled financial insitututions that are currently considered “too big to fail.” If these are any indication of the direction Team Obama is headed, Kenneth Feinberg, Obama’s pay czar, suggests this is only the beginning, with the Comptroller of the Currency warning bankers to expect more changes coming their way.

Critics have panned such moves, saying such moves would only drive away talent. But in such a difficult economic situation where the overall unemployment situation remains bleak, it is difficult to imagine such counterargument would work. Still, breaking up these big banks might be more problematic, given it could mean reviving old laws that were abandoned as far back as the 1930s. It would be a game changer but the Obama administration would still have to fight the age-old American concerns about big government and “socialized” banking and finance.

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Grappling with the Obama reality Sat, 24 Oct 2009 02:46:15 +0000

For people like me – young, college-educated and politically independent “millennials” – Barack Obama was and stilll remains the college-professor-we-wished-became-president, who actually became president of the United States. His “Yes, We Can” campaign tagline and exhortation for young people to enter public service resonated strongly, but much to the surprise of those who know my politics I was rooting for Hilary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. It wasn’t so much a vote against Obama than a vote for Mrs Clinton. We all know who won.

Sure, there were concerns over baggage from her husband’s presidency, but she also had the experience and the verve to negotiate the murky waters of Congressional politics, an important aspect of legislative strategy. I thought Obama could have done with some more political experience as either Hillary’s Vice-President or Secretary of State, which would then prepare him for a run in 2016. After all, he’s much younger than Hillary. If there were anybody more equipped to clean up the mess created by a spoilt brat who didn’t know better and allowed two wily old foxes to hijack his presidency, it was perhaps a strong and smart motherly figure who would be able to stand up to the egos that dot politics. Simply put, America needed to be rehabilitated.

Those same friends thought I was cynical for thinking that, but politics is cynical. You have to fight cynical with cynicism and then somehow rise above that. Not many political progressives are capable of that because they usually get lynched by the GOP for their politics, which is easily cast as “limp” and “gutless” and therefore “bad for America” by their more hawkish opponents. Both Obama and Hillary want to rise above that, but I wasn’t sure if Obama had what it takes to move beyond cynical hell. I was enthralled by the idea of an Obama presidency, but I wasn’t too hot about the reality of it.

Almost a year after his historical electoral win last November, my concerns seem to be (sadly) validated. His tumbling approval ratings aside – he started way too popular and the only way was down after that – I’ve been quite stunned by how sharply Team Obama’s lack of political discipline and nous after the elections contrasted with their disciplined calibration of his election campaign. Nobody can reasonably expect Obama’s team to possess a Ted Kennedy-esque detailed understanding of Congressional politics because that took years of experience, but I wonder if the gridlock in almost every one of his major legislative initiatives could have been avoided with greater foresight.

One of Obama’s main gaffes came from his personal intervention in state politics, with mid-term elections coming up in 2010. Knowing that his mandate would be stymied if as historically expected, the President’s party loses ground, Obama has made his preferences known about controversies in Virginia, New York, Massachusetts and Colorado. But the way his preference that current New York Governor David Paterson not run for re-election was made public suggests there wasn’t a lot of thought put into such a strategy. If this was done more privately, President Obama might have had more success in persuading the unpopular incumbent not to run again.

The Congressional mess that is the healthcare reforms is legendary by now. To be fair, many of Obama’s presidential predecessors haven’t had any success with this so maybe it wasn’t that much of a surprise it was this difficult…but you can’t help but feel his special Congressional address came a little too late in the game. We probably won’t know until much farther into the future why Obama kept, almost foolishly, insisting on a bipartisan agreement when it might have been more prudent to focus on getting a consensus from his Democratic party, since they have a rare majority in both Houses. The White House’s recent take-down of Fox News Channel might be a sign that they are wising up to the polarized state of politics, both inside Washington and in the news media, but it’s a wait-and-see at this point.

The list goes on, but it is largely a list of issues that got overshadowed by the healthcare issue. Obama has just begun to switch his attention to his climate change agenda, with the meeting in Copenhagen less than 45 days away and the financial sector reforms, with the administration moving, a few days ago, to reclaim bonuses and cap executive pay in TARP-recipient companies. National Journal has a wonderful piece on whether Obama is “tough enough” (free access only for limited period) that outlines most of my concerns in much detail, so I won’t repeat them here. 

But I would expand a little more on foreign policy. Obama’s cerebral style works best with other countries who make it possible for such studied diplomatic engagement. His Nobel Peace Prize “win”, which stunned even the President himself, was a visceral example of the political catharsis in the developed world that came with his election win. But with nation-states that are not ostensibly democratic, his cerebral approach may not be the best way forward. For now though, his commitment to engagement with most countries around the world, most notably Iran, North Korea and Burma, are steps in the right direction. But it cannot go on indefinitely without any clearly stated goals.

His biggest foreign policy decision in this first time would probably be on Afghanistan. If Bush owned Iraq, Afghanistan is Obama’s “war of necessity” (free access only for limited period) – whether or not he acts on General McChrystal’s 40,000-troop increase request remains to be seen, but this could very well be a key determinant of his presidential legacy. There has been a lot of noise debate in the American media lately as Obama studies the situation, but he’s basically stuck between a rock and a hard place – so, as it has been argued elsewhere, even if Obama changes his mind, it is better to be inconsistent than wrong.

There are plenty of America nay-sayers warning about the decline of America, but I highly doubt it – if changes are effected. Although reforms to economic and financial fundamentals are required, people forget America is STILL the dominant economy in the world. The Wall Street meltdown last year points to the centrality of the U.S. economy to the world. China and the rest of Asia may be rebounding quicker than America and other countries in the Western hemisphere, but they don’t have America’s debt levels and many analysts are saying these quick rebounds are immediate effects of their immense government stimulus injections.

I hope for the love of God and whatever else, that Obama goes on to get Afghanistan and his other key decisions spot on. Because unlike professors in college who have tenure to fall back on, President Obama doesn’t quite have that luxury. Professors also. however. don’t get to create history, but presidents do- and if Obama succeeds in all the big things he’s trying to do, then maybe the reality of his presidency would probably match the idea of it.

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A methodological note on political and social commentary Thu, 22 Oct 2009 01:48:53 +0000 It is always difficult to present a critical perspective, particularly in an environment where there isn’t an “other” point of view in the ideological space. There are different problems with each empirical case. Take for example, Singapore, where the common refrain has been “if you’re not for the government, you’re against the government.” There’re a myriad of reasons why this has come to being and how this has reified to become part of the Singaporean collective consciousness, but this is not the point here.

The point here is that a critical perspective is not necessarily just an “anti” position. I will never, ever forget what eminent Singaporean sociologist, Chua Beng Huat (or Beng-Huat, Chua for the “Westerners” among us) said to us in an advanced undergraduate social theory class once: Many people in Singapore think that being anti-PAP is being critical, but being critical also requires you to have an appreciation of what makes Singapore tick the way it is. To be critical means you have to understand the logic that governs a place, whether or not you agree or like it or not. It would help you anticipate counter-arguments and make your argument a tighter one (Note: Prof Chua, if you’re reading this, I am open to any correction. It has been quite a while since that class).

Since I raised Singapore as an example, let’s push it farther along. It would be convenient and easy to say that Singapore is substantively undemocratic because one could say that its elections are not underpined by pre-election campaigning norms in other mature democracies and how the ruling party has changed electoral boundaries and rules to enhance its position. But while that structural analysis might be cogent and pertinent, one would also be ignoring the crucial reason why people are still giving them the legitimacy in the first place.

Some believe Singaporeans are not political, but more economic beings. So unless you understand why that has come to pass, any analysis or commentary on the Singapore political condition is necessarily incomplete. It’s the “appreciatory face” of social and political analysis that approaches a reality from a ground up, more constructive perspective that would make it more wholistic. This not just applies to Singapore, but for any comparative foreign policy analysis, or any other country. Doing anything otherwise would open the door for critics to pan your analysis, American-centric for the Americans, or too Sino-centric for the Chinese.

The nature of the internet medium makes this however, very difficult… with the demands of a quick turnover and the high volume of information associated with blogging. But it is useful to bear this principle in mind, especially when critiquing regimes or countries that are known to be very resistant to criticism or critical analysis of its policies. One cannot cover our bases perfectly, but one should cover as much as we possibly can.

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US hardball over Okinawa unnecessary Wed, 21 Oct 2009 20:39:49 +0000 To paraphrase a line from the season premiere of hit ABC series, Ugly Betty, last Friday night — Change last year, with Obama and all that, was so cool. Change, this year though, sucks big time.

This might have some resonance with the new Japanese DPJ government as they publicly clashed with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates as the latter visited Tokyo ahead of President Obama’s visit next month. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (log-in required for both articles) both carried stories detailing the spat surrounding the relocation of American military bases on Okinawa.

From The Washington Post:

“Playing hardball with its closest ally in Asia, the Obama administration warned Japan on Wednesday of serious consequences if it backs out of a commitment to allow the relocation of a U.S. airbase on Okinawa.

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that if Japan stops the base relocation, the United States would halt the withdrawal of 8,000 Marines from Okinawa and would not, as planned, return several parcels of land.

“Gates’s words, during a two-day visit here, were a blunt challenge to efforts by Japan’s month-old government to carve out a more “equal” relationship with Washington.”

This is perhaps the first signs of tensions emanating from a change in Japan’s foreign policy strategy, which a Foreign Policy magazine article has christened Japan’s “New Asianism” — a foreign policy approach that aims to present Japan not as a subservient American ally, but an equal in any bilateral relationship.

Although there’s a 2006 agreement between the U.S. and Japan to shift the U.S. Marine Corps Futenma Air Station to a less densely populated area, Secretary Gates and his colleagues in the Obama administration should respect the new Japanese government’s need to consolidate its political mandate domestically, given the historic nature of its election victory. This shouldn’t be framed as a test of new Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s leadership ability or a testament to America’s waning influence in the region.

Both Japan and the U.S. need each other for their own strategic goal of countering China’s influence and would be better served if Hatoyama is given time to sort out this Okinawa issue. After all, the main gist of the agreement was in line with an intended reduction of American troop numbers in Okinawa. There’s no need to play hardball with their Japanese counterparts on this matter. The Obama administration – given their numerous partisan Congressional battles – should understand the difficulties of keeping their own house in order.

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Bilateral agreements key to Copenhagen climate deal Tue, 20 Oct 2009 19:06:07 +0000 Tucked under the blaring headlines of Obama’s unexpected Nobel Peace Prize “win” on October 9 was news that the Bangkok round of climate talks have ended in failure. The bigger story then was how the world’s press was shut out of the Bangkok talks completely until the very end. At the end of those two weeks, the delegates had nothing to show for all the talk and started their finger pointing. China led the chorus of “developing” countries that “rich” countries are deliberately sabotaging the climate talks and even as the EU stands accused of being in cahoots with the U.S., they clashed with the Americans.

Since then, in a matter of about 10 days, India has changed its mind: from being possibly a bridge between contrasting camps to saying that they, along with seven of their South Asian counterparts, won’t sign anything that bind them legally to reduce their emissions. With so much jockeying going on and countries seemingly indecisive about their stance, is it any surprise that there’s probably not going to be any deal struck at Copenhagen? A much smaller, but “successful” meeting was held in London a few days ago, but really? Heck, it even makes what’s going on in America seem positive in comparison.

Now, at least, American companies don’t seem as averse towards any climate change legislation as before. The fallout from the spate of resignations from the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by key members, ostensibly in protest of its antipathy towards climate change legislation, suggests U.S. businesses may actually be thinking how to reorganize themselves to capitalize on any inevitable change that would emerge. Already, among energy firms alone, there is apparently plenty of disagreement between the oil and gas industries and this has resulted in renewed optimism that climate change legislation could eventually be passed, just not in time for Copenhagen in December.

Still, the Obama adminstration is sparing no effort, even embarking on bilateral talks with India and China at separate meetings next month. The meeting with China would take place in China, as President Obama make his maiden swing through Asia, that also includes stops in Japan and Singapore, for the APEC Summit, where he will become the first American president to meet ASEAN leaders. Copenhagen, along with financial reforms and national security-related issues, will top his agenda for the trip.

But the wider moot point is this: While critics may point to these “smaller” bilateral meetings for climate change as undermining the Copenhagen meeting, these could ironically strengthen and even bring about a surprising turnaround. It’s all boils down to an age-old conundrum: eliciting an agreement among so many people. Nobody ever comes to a big, formal meeting without having done the hard work of back breaking negotiations in smaller groups. It just makes more practical sense if people decide to talk to each other more on the sides and in more manageable group sizes. Expecting big breakthroughs at these big meetings without any prior ground work is just plain naive. If a repeat of Bali is to be avoided at Copenhagen, then the work should start now. It’s a lot of work, but there’s still time for it.

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