June 28, 2017

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by Hasan Jafri

CHINA’S reported snub of Singapore by not inviting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting in Beijing last week is being blown out of proportion. Keyboard warriors have rung alarm bells that relations have hit rock-bottom; politicians and analysts have advocated a shift in Singapore’s position to mend fences.

Are bilateral relations strained? Yes, they have been for more than a year now. Are they broken and heading over a cliff, as some claim? Absolutely not. Neither Beijing and clearly not Singapore wants an escalation. There is no war of words at the leadership level, no withdrawal or downgrading of diplomatic ties, no international campaign to discredit Singapore, no economic sanctions or barriers and the People’s Liberation Army is not coming anywhere near Singapore. Differences between two friends manifest occasionally – and sometimes irritatingly.

So, chill.

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Beijing knows Singapore can be prickly and it also knows that the cost of escalation could be high. Why? Because there is interdependence. China is Singapore’s third biggest trading partner and a source of many jobs here at home. China is an emerging power, one with which Singapore has cultivated a deep, multifaceted relationship.

Will Singapore miss out on BRI because of a little friction? Reports playing up PM Lee’s absence from the meeting overshadowed the presence of a delegation from Singapore in attendance, led by National Development Minister and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong. That can hardly forbear the exclusion of Singapore from the BRI, but does point to some friction between the nations. Cooperation, officially, is still strong.

Take a few examples, beyond the BRI. For China, Singapore is a key offshore RMB trading and clearing centre which China needs because Tokyo, the other major hub, can’t be tasked with its long-term strategic objective of turning the RMB into a global reserve currency. Two, China is a recipient of more than a $100 billion in foreign investment from Singapore. Singapore has benefited but so has China, gaining expertise, global connectivity and intellectual property, some of which it can now export to developing countries under the BRI.

This flow of financial resources, expertise and know-how is not disrupted. In fact, former DPM Wong Kan Seng – whom the Chinese respect – was at the World Cities Summit Mayor’s Forum in Suzhou. While Singapore may not be seen as an active participant in the BRI or court China for investments, it is deeply involved in upgrading China’s western region, which is critical for the BRI to succeed.

To be sure, the relationship is strained, primarily around the issues of relations with Taiwan and the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Singapore has taken a strong position on the SCS issue as a non-claimant state but one that has a strong political interest in maintaining Asean unity when it is under strain and to protect its economic interest to ensure sea lanes remain unhindered.

That position is for protecting Singapore’s interests, not one at the behest of the US, as some have argued.

If Singapore had bent to the US over the years, there would be a permanent military base in Changi and there would be a treaty-level relationship like the US has with Japan, Australia or New Zealand. If Singapore didn’t sell out to the US, why should we sell out to the Chinese? It’s strategic balance – tough to execute but necessary because the cost of “alignment” for Singapore is too high a price to pay.

It is different scenario for others. Some of our neighbours court China because they need the investments and the deeper political ties as they also do not have the deep international economic, political and military ties that Singapore has. They have their own interests, different from Singapore’s. In fact, if Singapore were to bend, some in the same countries would conveniently sneer: See, Chinese Singapore sold itself to the motherland. Singapore is not dependent on China and can afford to take an independent line, articulating and advocating its own interests – sometimes forcefully.

So why all this fuss? It is to influence public opinion, a drip-drip-drip strategy to force Singapore to bend. Highlight that PM Lee was not invited but ignore that he was in China only last September at the invitation of the Chinese for the G20 annual meeting. Highlight the Taiwan issue but ignore that the Chinese and the Taiwanese met face-to-face – in Singapore.

There are times when states disagree – and this is one of those moments. But this is not a disaster. If anything, this is a time to continue engaging even more frequently from a position of strength.

Hasan Jafri is a regional political risk analyst.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT DIDN’T escape notice that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t at the biggest diplomatic event held in China over the weekend. The guest list was filled with luminaries including his counterparts in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There were in all 29 heads of state or government. Singapore was represented instead by Minister Lawrence Wong.

Asked why the PM Lee wasn’t there, he said that the invitation was decided by the Chinese.

So on Sunday, PM Lee was giving out flowers to his Ang Mo Kio constituents on the occasion of Mother’s Day, rather than hobnobbing with other leaders over what seemed to be the most ambitious economic project in recent time.

His absence in Beijing is intriguing and only serves to raise questions about whether Singapore and China had papered over their differences since the seizure of Singapore Armed Forces vehicles by Hong Kong authorities in November last year. Or are the Chinese still pissed off at Singapore’s lack of empathy over its position on the South China Sea?

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You wonder if the invitation was extended to a Deputy Prime Minister or a senior co-ordinating minister like Mr Khaw Boon Wan. After all, Mr Wong, in charge of national development, told the media himself that Singapore didn’t have any infrastructure projects under the One Belt, One Road initiative. In fact, he spoke more about “brokering’’ opportunities for Singapore banking and city planners.

Even as it seemed that the PM had been snubbed by the Chinese, we’re told that a Chinese delegation is in Singapore to discuss leadership development. The Singapore side was led by Mr Teo Chee Hean, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service. The Chinese were headed by Mr Zhao Leji, Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member and Central Committee Organisation Department Minister.

Is this a meeting of political equals? Or should we be glad that a Chinese delegation has deigned to visit Singapore even as China chose not to invite its PM over for its biggest shindig? And we’ve been asserting that Singapore is its “all-weather friend’’ – who also wants to be a friend to all. In other words, we don’t want to take sides. The question then is the definition of an “all-weather friend’’.

All this illustrates the rather prickly situation of the little red dot. Obviously, the Chinese want Singapore firmly in its camp, and might even be wondering why a Chinese majority country isn’t behaving like Muslim-dominated Malaysia and Indonesia or a Catholic country like the Philippines.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung tried to explain this in TODAY : “In Singapore, we have a majority Chinese population. But other than the Chinese traditional culture, what is very deeply rooted in Singapore is a collective awareness that there is also the tradition and wisdom of the Malay and Indian cultures. We are small, and we are open. We have been very much affected by Western cultures, but basically, we are still an Oriental* society.” Presumably he means Oriental as Asian opposed to Occidental or Western, rather than the perception that Oriental means Chinese.

To business people here, the chief concern is probably whether the political atmosphere would affect the economic environment and their chance of exploiting the massive One Belt, One Road project.

It doesn’t help to read about the deals inked by Asean counterparts with China, even though most of them are for infrastructural projects which aren’t relevant to Singapore.

Is the initiative a boon or a bane for Singapore?

There is the question of whether the plans for rail links cutting through Europe, Asia and Africa would affect Singapore’s premier port status. Maybe not, as the One Belt initiative includes a maritime route which cuts through Singapore and it’s still cheaper to go by sea.

Then again, there is the other question of whether ships will skip Singapore since the Chinese are helping different countries build their ports and industrial parks along the route. “With the Belt and Road (initiative), new infrastructure will be built all around us… Trade routes will be adjusted as these new roads and ports get built and developed,” noted Mr Wong.

That’s why Singapore is going full-speed to expand its port and airport facilities to gear up for the competition, he said.

The competition looks daunting. We’ll need to make and save money, if we don’t want to ask for Chinese money. And even if we do, there will be an insistence that significant projects must remain in Singapore hands rather than those of foreign (Chinese) companies.

It’s interesting that after Chinese leader Mr Zhao met PM Lee at the Istana, a statement was released which affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship’’ between the two countries. (Of course, nothing was said about the snub)

The statement also harked back to the old days: “The two leaders noted that bilateral relations dated back to 1976, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited China, and 1978, when then-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. Mr Lee and Mr Deng provided a strong foundation for the friendship and cooperation that the two countries now enjoy.’’

That was a long, long time ago. Circumstances are different now and China is a mighty power with the ability to project its military and economic might. Singapore is its biggest investor and it is Singapore’s biggest trading partner. How do we proceed from here and on what basis so as to secure our own independence and prosperity? Despite exhortations about strong ties, everything still looks pretty murky.

*According to the Mandarin speech delivered by Mr Ong, the appropriate word is Asian.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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IF RUNNING a country is like building a house of cards, then perhaps there is one card that is more crucial than the others: Religion.

Few other forces have the kind of power religion does – that can either uplift the masses or stir hate. In dealing with this, governments tend to take a tough stance. We saw this play out in Singapore, when an Imam was fined $4,000 and repatriated for making offensive remarks about Christians and Jews.

Many of the world’s biggest countries try to keep religion in check through warnings and restrictions, according to a report released by the Pew Research Centre on Apr 13. But where there is fear, others see opportunity – some politicians are using religion as their trump card in the road to power.

And the past month has brought us no shortage of instances where the ‘R’ word changed the way politicians govern and people vote.

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1. Jakarta, Indonesia: In Anies vs. Ahok, hardliners triumph

Newly-elected Jakarta governor Anies Baswedan addresses worshippers at a mosque. Image from Mr Anies Baswedan’s Facebook page.

In a tight race for the governor of Jakarta, the once-popular incumbent Mr Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or ‘Ahok’, lost his seat to contender Mr Anies Baswedan. Being a Christian politician in a Muslim-majority country had already put Mr Basuki in a precarious position – receiving constant fire from hardliners against his leadership.

And the hate campaign eventually tipped his tightrope over, when Mr Basuki found himself before a judge, accused of blaspheming Islam. The damage was too great, and the votes swung in favour of Mr Anies, a moderate Muslim who has met with hardline Islamists.

The election has been widely regarded as a litmus test for pluralism in Indonesia, which till recently, has been regarded a role model for religious tolerance. But a growing conservative movement in the establishment may upset this.

According to the Setara Institute, which monitors civil freedoms in the country, acts of religious intolerance rose by nearly 15 per cent from 2015 to 2016. Over half of the cases implicated government and military officials.

 

2. Paris, France: Once taboo, religion is now a talking point

French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen. Image by Flickr user Global Panorama. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The French have had a grand tradition of keeping religion strictly personal, and well away from the political arena. But in this year’s presidential election, there are new kids on the block – and new rules to play by.

Far right candidate Marine Le Pen has brought religion to the front and center of the debate stage, with her extreme views against Islam, Judaism and other minority religions. Ms Le Pen has compared Muslim prayers to the Nazi invasion, while her aides are accused of Holocaust denial.

Meanwhile, main contender Emmanuel Macron has issued a rallying cry for secularism – except that his voice is barely as loud as the rhetoric of Ms Le Pen. With the ongoing refugee crisis and spate of terrorist attacks across Europe, far-right views on religion are more popular than ever.

Whether France will face the same outcome as Jakarta remains to be seen.

 

3. Moscow, Russia: Ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Constitutional Court of Russia. Image by Савин А. С. from Wikimedia Commons.

“The supreme court’s ruling to shut down the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia is a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia,” said Ms Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Religious freedom in Russia is questionable and with the ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses (April 20), hopes of religious freedom in Russia continue to fall short. Claiming more than 170,000 adherents in Russia, the Jehovah’s Witnesses is a restorationist Christian denomination with beliefs distinct from mainstream Christianity, including a denial of the Holy Trinity.

Russia’s supreme court has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses from operating in the country, accepting a request from the justice ministry that the religious organization be considered an extremist group. The court ordered the closure of the group’s Russian headquarters and its 395 local chapters, as well as the seizure of its property.

Days after the imposition of the ban, Russia was labelled a “country of particular concern” by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). It is the first time that Russia has been designated among the highest tier of violators of religious freedom. It joins 15 other countries, including Iran, Syria, Nigeria, Burma and China.

 

4. Beijing, China: Warning against “foreign infiltration” through religion

Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image by Flickr user Michel Temer. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Communist party members must adhere to Marxist principles and remain “staunchly atheist”, President Xi Jinping insisted on Apr 24. It appears that China is clamping down on religious freedom in the country. To justify the clampdown, Mr Xi emphasised that China must be on guard against foreign infiltration through religion and stop “extremists” spreading their ideology.

The ruling Communist Party says it protects freedom of religion, but it keeps a tight rein on religious activities and allows only officially recognized religious institutions to operate. The Chinese government is increasingly concerned about the perceived growing influence by Islamists in the Xinjiang region. Officials there have tightened enforcement of regulations banning overt signs of religious observance, like veils or beards. Separately, some Chinese Christians say that authorities are limiting their activities and taking down crosses on churches in coastal Zhejiang province.

China has historically followed ancient religions like Buddhism and Taoism for about 2,000 years, according to China’s State Council. But the country’s belief systems have become increasingly diverse. According to a map published by Reuters in 2015, based on information from Professor Fanggang Yang, the director of the Center on Religion and Chinese Society at Purdue University, China’s monotheistic religions, including Islam and Christianity, are beginning to occupy a significant proportion of the country.

Breakdown of Religion in China. Image by Reuters.

 

5. Ankara, Turkey: Religion propels Erdogan to victory

A 2016 pro-Erdogan rally in Istanbul, Turkey. Image by Flickr user Mike Norton. CC BY 2.0.

On Apr 17, a slim majority of Turks granted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan broad powers, including the autonomy to choose the majority of senior judges and absolute discretion in dismissing Parliament. The role of the Prime Minister will also be removed.

And for many Turks who voted in favour of the president, religion was a key factor. Since the end of World War I, Turkey has been a constitutionally secular state, meaning that even though 99 per cent of residents are Muslim, there is no official state religion. However, this has left some rural voters disillusioned, especially by rules that forbade women working in the civil service and military from wearing headscarves.

President Erdogan, the political protege of a former Islamist politician, lifted the headscarf restrictions, and has since taken the country in a different direction. Last year, the country’s Religious Affairs Directorate declared that it would be “illicit” for Muslims to celebrate the Western new year. Rules on alcohol consumption have also been tightened, a move that would have been unthinkable up till recently.

With the result, President Erdogan may remain in power till 2029.

 

Featured image by Flickr user Ben McLeod. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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by The Middle Ground

FAKE news doesn’t just spread misinformation and hate – it costs companies money too.

It is predicted that out of $80 billion of digital ad spending in 2017, over $16 billion will be eaten up by problematic content – the placing of advertisements next to unsavoury material, for instance, could hurt instead of help a company’s brand image.

A recent Times of London investigation revealed that YouTube channels promoting hate speech were earning tens of thousands of dollars thanks to ads placed by Google. Volkswagen ads, for instance, were shown on the channel of Wagdi Ghoneim – an extremist who has been banned from entering Britain for promoting terrorism.

As hundreds of companies in the UK pull their ads from Google, the company has been forced to announce new measures that will allow advertisers to avoid displaying their messages next to hate speech and fake news.

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Google’s move demonstrates that ad networks (and tech companies which profit off ads) can no longer be cavalier about where they place clients’ messages, or about the kind of content they allow on their networks. After criticism that it was not doing enough to prevent the spread of fake news, Facebook rolled out a fact-checking alert four days ago (Mar 22), notifying readers if the facts of an article are disputed by reputable sources.

Back home, fake news is causing consternation among local policy-makers and politicians. During the Committee of Supply debates on March 6, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Communications and Information, noted that there is a need to “harmonise legislature for the technological and online space”. He emphasised the G’s position that when online content is “directly targeting Singaporeans”, there is a need to ensure that it is “in line with our community values, including the need to uphold racial and religious harmony”.

Amendments to both the Film and Broadcasting Acts are due to be announced soon. Dr Yaacob indicated that more will be revealed, after consultation with the business community and the public.

This is a whole-of-government concern: In response to the Court of Appeal’s ruling against the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) in which Mindef was found to not qualify as a “person” under Section 15 of the Protection Online Harassment Act, the Ministry of Law issued a statement condemning the “scourge of false information.”

“Everyone, including the Government, should be entitled to point out falsehoods which are published and have the true facts brought to public attention,” said a MinLaw spokesman. “The Government needs to take steps to protect the public and Singapore’s institutions from the very real dangers posed by the spread of false information.”

In light of the controversy surrounding the spread of fake news, we take a closer look at what countries and tech companies are doing in response to this phenomenon.

 

1. Berlin, Germany – Facebook to potentially face “fake news fines” of up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million)

Image from Wikipedia Commons

Mr Heiko Maas, the German justice minister, has proposed new regulations to crack down on social media companies like Facebook and Twitter for publishing fake news. Social media companies may be fined up to €50 million (SG$75.5 million) if they fail to remove flagged posts.

Social media companies will have to delete offending material within one week. This doesn’t just include fake news, but also illegal content such as hate speech or racist language. Companies will also have to run 24-hour helplines for concerned users.

The proposals are more extensive than previous suggestions to impose €500,000 (SG$755,000) fines on the companies. This is part of a Bill that will be put to the German Parliament in an effort to combat malicious activity and disinformation campaigns online.

The German federal elections are due to be held in September this year. The proposed Bill aims to address fears that online hoaxes could influence the election outcome in favour of populist right-wing parties like the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

 

2. Beijing, China – The “Great Firewall” blocks out non-mainstream news; fake or otherwise

Image from Flickr

In November last year, Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-affiliated tabloid The Global Times weighed in on the fake news debate, saying that the controversy only strengthened the Chinese government’s case for controlling the internet.

In an editorial titled “Western Media’s Crusade Against Facebook”, the Global Times asked pointedly: “So long as the mainstream media is free and open, online rumours would do no harm in the big picture – isn’t that the consistent argument from the West?” It argued that, in trying to curb rumours and fake news, the West was being hypocritical in its push for free speech.

The CCP has long used the “Great Firewall” to limit Chinese citizens’ access to information. Social media sites Facebook and Twitter are blocked in the country, and Google withdrew its services in 2010, protesting the Chinese government’s onerous regulatory demands.

Fake news, however, is not the only thing that is censored. Politically-sensitive content, like references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, is also blocked. Many have criticised the CCP for its authoritarian habits, including artist and civil activist Ai Wei Wei, who has condemned the government for using “brute power to control information”

 

3. Brussels, Belgium – EU has 11-person task force to combat Russian disinformation

Image from Wikipedia Commons

In light of on-going political developments in the European Union (EU) – the French, German and Dutch elections, it is unsurprising that EU leaders are taking action to combat the rise of fake news and anti-EU propaganda aiming to stir up anti-establishment sentiments.

To this end, the EU has a task-force that tackles the problem of fake news in Europe – the East Stratcom. East Stratcom, an 11- person team consisting of diplomats, bureaucrats and former journalists, serves as Europe’s front line against fake news. It was created by EU to combat “Russia’s ongoing disinformation campaigns”. In the 16 months since its inception, it has discredited 2,500 stories (many with links to Russia). But it’s facing an uphill task given the volume of fake news.

Apart from the team in Brussels, similar groups to tackle fake news were formed in countries such as Finland and the Czech Republic. Countries are also enhancing online security to address potential hacking attacks and European media outlets are improving fact-checking mechanisms to prevent false reporting.

On top of taking action, EU and its members are also pressurising social media companies such as Facebook to take a stronger position against fake news or face action from Brussels as a consequence.

 

4. California, United States – Facebook partners with fact-checkers to tag “disputed” articles

Image from Flickr

In response to allegations that the phenomenon of Facebook becoming a platform where ‘fake news’ proliferate is in its business interest, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, asserted that Facebook is also a victim of ‘fake news’ but it is extremely difficult for the site to clamp down on ‘fake news’ as “it’s not always clear what is fake and what isn’t”.

Still, Facebook has taken action to combat ‘fake news’ by rolling out its third-party fact-checking tool which informs users of “disputed content”. The site is partnering with five independent fact-checkers: ABC News, Associated Press, FactCheck.org, Politifact and Snopes.

When a story published is proven to be false, users attempting to share the disputed story will see a red alert stating that the article has been disputed by the relevant independent fact-checkers. Users who clicked on that warning will be greeted with more information about the disputed content.

Even when users choose to ignore the warning and publish the story, there will be another pop-up reiterating that the accuracy of the story has been disputed. When the user clicks “Post anyway”, other users who view the shared story on their timelines will be able to see that the story has been disputed.

On top of independent fact-checkers, the site will pass a story to third parties to fact-check if sufficient numbers of users report a story as fake.

However, the new tool was only made available to a limited number of users. This is unsurprising as Facebook is known to test pilot features on a small group of users before applying them across the entire site.

 

5. California, United States – Google deploys “anti-fake news army”

Image from Pixabay

Google is employing a team of 10,000 content-monitor contractors to examine “fake news” articles, in the hopes of restricting the spread of questionable content.

The Google contractors are not new hires – they are known as quality raters, and have long been assessing search results for accuracy. However, Google is now asking them to qualitatively examine search requests and to rate the results that follow. Content that is “offensive-upsetting”, as Google terms it, will be highlighted. It also aims to identify information that is “demonstrably inaccurate”.

“Offensive-upsetting” content includes material that “promotes hate or violence against a group of people based on criteria including (but not limited to) race or ethnicity, nationality or citizenship.” This may include racial slurs, child abuse, and instructional information on terrorist attacks.

Such content will not be directly removed, or changed. But it will be used to improve underlying search algorithms, so future searches will be more accurate and factual.

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Featured image Earth by Flickr user Kevin GillCC BY-SA 2.0

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by Bertha Henson

WHEN you think about the SAF Terrex issue, what comes to mind? Perhaps, these points:

a. China must be really angry with Singapore to instruct Hong Kong to seize the vehicles. In other words, nobody believes that this is a Hong Kong administrative measure, no matter how the politicians spin it.

b. China doesn’t like Singapore training in Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province, but then again, we’ve been doing so since 1974… So what gives?

c. China bullies or bribes whatever countries it can and we happened to be on the bullying end.

A fourth point that has been ignored but should be part of the discussion is this: The annual Singapore- China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) meeting did not take place last year. Why?

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This council meeting, which started in 2003 and usually takes place in October, is co-chaired by Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli and Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean. It’s a pity that the question of why it didn’t happen wasn’t asked in Parliament when the SAF Terrex issue came up. Has it been cancelled or postponed and was the decision made pre- or post-Terrex?

A commentator said that cancellation of the meeting was the “biggest indication of Singapore-China relations falling to freezing point”. Mr William Zheng Wei, a Chinese national who became a Singaporean in 2003, posted a column on his WeChat account, which was translated into English and published in The Straits Times (ST) on Saturday. He used to be the editor of the online edition of Singaporean Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao and then chief editor of scmp.com and scmpchinese.com, the online editions of the Hong Kong daily South China Morning Post.

He said: “By holding the armoured vehicles as a trump card, China chose to postpone the JCBC meeting and thereby not give Singapore a chance to raise the issue face to face, knowing full well Singapore would try to do so.”

Mr Zheng didn’t pussyfoot around whether China is responsible for the seizure. He said China was “smart” to have vehicles seized in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

It’s playing weiqi or the Chinese chess game of Go, employing strategies that are indirect rather than confrontational to achieve an objective. 

Thus, the issue of the seizure is between the Hong Kong authorities and Singapore, with China hovering in the background like a shadow.

Singapore seems content to keep it that way. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong didn’t raise the matter with anyone in Beijing; he wrote to Hong Kong chief executive C Y Leung. In fact, Singapore has actually gone a notch up – or down. The problem should be sorted out between the shipper, APL, and Hong Kong customs. As far as Singapore was concerned, the nine vehicles are Singapore sovereign property and should be returned “immediately”.

“Immediately” is a demand that is usually accompanied by “or else”, but not in this case. That would be too confrontational. In any case, what leverage does Singapore have over Hong Kong or big brother China? To take a softer stance, however, would mean open season for any pirate (sovereign or otherwise) to seize Singapore’s property while it’s en route to some place. How do you tell someone to return your property when you’ve allowed someone else to keep the booty in the past?

 

A strategic game

Mr Zheng said that the Chinese move to make it Hong Kong’s problem means the seizure can be strung out using the excuse of delayed paperwork. It also means there is no reason for China and Singapore to “talk” about the issue since it isn’t really a “bilateral” one. Singapore and China can remain cordial and civil, giving both sides “room to manoeuvre without losing face”.

Is this happening?

Definitely, since Hong Kong hasn’t even said anything about why the vehicles were seized in the first place. Singapore officials have been running back and forth to discuss the status of the vehicles – and with nothing to show.

No dialogue has been opened between the two countries either.

It’s likely that a lot of back channels are being used among the triangle of Singapore, Hong Kong and China officials to get to the nub of the matter. And it’s not likely we’ll know what’s happening behind closed doors. Plus, the code word is “don’t speculate” – lest it jeopardise whatever is happening or not happening out of the public eye.

So let’s refrain from speculating and ask some questions instead. Does China want something from us in return for the Terrexes? (Read: blackmail). Maybe a more accommodating position on the South China Sea which China insists is its property even though an international tribunal say no? Or is this about Singapore’s relations with Taiwan?

 

Who rather than what

After all, when Singapore established diplomatic ties with China in 1990, Chinese Premier Li Peng had said Beijing would not be “too disturbed” by its continued use of military training facilities in Taiwan. “We sympathise with Singapore’s position and understand its need to build a strong defence force. On this matter, suitable arrangements will be made,” he said.

On this point, Mr Zheng offered a fresh perspective. It has to do with who is in charge of Taiwan.

He noted that the military co-operation between Singapore and Taiwan dated from the Kuomintang days.

“In China’s eyes, Singapore’s partnership with KMT was, of course, not so much of a problem, because KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have a consensus on ‘one China, two interpretations’.”

Mr Zheng noted that the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited Taiwan regularly without protest from China for 20 years from 1973. But between 1995 and 2000, Mr Lee stopped the regular visits, and after 2000, he never visited Taiwan again.

The year 2000 was when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party led by Mr Chen Shui-Bian dislodged the KMT from power. The KMT, however, bounced back in 2008 under the leadership of Mr Ma Ying-jeou. Under Mr Ma’s presidency which lasted till May last year, “cross-strait ties were peaceful and stable, the possibility of war was extremely low, hence Singapore-Taiwan military exchanges were not a big issue,” said Mr Zheng. He might have added that Singapore even hosted a historic meeting between Mr Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November 2015, the first meeting of leaders in 66 years.

Now, however, Taiwan has gone back to DPP rule under Ms Tsai Ing-wen, who rather infamously created waves when US President-elect Donald Trump took a congratulatory phone call from her.

Mr Zheng offered this advice: That Singapore distinguishes between the pro-independence and pro-unification camps in Taiwan.

He doesn’t say how. But it’s a neat idea, as it involves only re-calibrating Singapore’s relationship with Taiwan to demonstrate its commitment to the One China principle. It’s neat because it doesn’t involve Singapore compromising its position on other issues that have to do with China, such as over the South China Sea, and having to follow China’s lead all the time.

Then again, how do you do this?

And if done, will we get our Terrexes back?

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Uplifting news?

IF YOU’RE living in a Housing Development Board (HDB) block, go take a look at whether your lift is a Sigma lift. The company has been banned from future lift projects because its lifts, including those in new estates, have been breaking down too often. There are some 3,500 Sigma-installed lifts out of the 24,000 HDB lifts here. According to The Straits Times (ST) which broke the news, half the major reported cases of lift incidents in 2015 and last year involved Sigma as manufacturer or maintenance contractor.

Last year, a Sigma lift in Petir Road shot up and down between floors, injuring a 59-year-old resident. Sigma is a subsidiary of Otis Elevator Company, an American company which also makes lifts for HDB under its own brand. Nothing’s been said about Otis lifts. Presumably, the parent company has higher standards.

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Ban lifted

You can bet that fresh food, especially fish, is going up in price even as you read this, given that Chinese New Year is around the corner. Chinese silver pomfret sold for $45 per kg last week at the wet market at 4A Eunos Crescent, reported Lianhe Wanbao. Last month, it cost more than $30 per kg and could go up to between $60 and $80 per kg in the next two weeks, the newspaper said.

Now take into account the ban on fish sales from 12 fish farms in the wake of an oil spill that occurred off Pasir Gudang Port in Johor on Jan 3. Less supply, heightened demand equals to even higher price. The good news is that two fish farms have had their suspensions lifted after they cleaned up the oil spill. Prices will still be high… but maybe not that high?

 

Lifting Trump’s veil?

US-President elect Donald Trump’s nominees have been surprising people who thought they would turn out to be belligerent as their boss. But the men who are now going through a Senate grilling for top positions in the State and Defence departments, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency seem to be breaking ranks with Mr Trump with their own views on Russia, wall-building and water-boarding, which Mr Trump wants resurrected. So while Mr Trump can carry on tweeting whatever he likes, his Cabinet doesn’t seem so half-cocked and scary. Is this a Trump “good cop, bad cop” strategy?

Chinese media, however, are unhappy with Mr Rex Tillerson, who was nominated for Secretary of State which would make him the country’s chief diplomat. They are up in arms over his comments that China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea can be compared to Russia’s invasion of Crimea. Said Global Times: “Unless Washington plans to wage a large-scale war in the South China Sea, any other approaches to prevent China access to the islands will be foolish. Tillerson had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories.”

 

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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Morning Call, 0830, clock

CHINA has released a white paper on “China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation”, which says that “small-and medium-sized countries need not and should not take sides among big countries”, and that “major countries should… reject the Cold War mentality”.

The white paper highlights China’s intention to “reshape” the security power balance in the region. It extends overtures of cooperative peace, and a mutually beneficial ecosystem with China as a major player, but also lays down China’s firm position and conditions for such a future.

“Rules of individual countries should not automatically become ‘international rules’ still less should individual countries be allowed to violate the lawful rights and interests of others under the pretext of ‘rule of law’.”

Beijing said it may also “make necessary responses to provocative actions which infringe on China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights” in the South China Sea.

It’s hard not to read that white paper in the context of the Terrex incident, though. While peace is good, it’s also good not to have double standards.

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Meanwhile, China’s Liaoning aircraft carrier and several other warships entered waters covered by Taiwan’s air defence zone yesterday morning (Jan 11). Taiwan scrambled F-16s in response and Taiwanese were told not to be alarmed, but the act is most certainly calculated to be provocative.

At about the same time, Taiwanese ally USA said farewell to an era as President Obama delivered his final speech as President in his hometown of Chicago. He warned about internal divisions and inequality, and urged Americans to take ownership of democracy and keep fighting for it.

And fighting is what his successor Donald Trump is doing against unverified allegations that Russia has dirt on him that could compromise his presidency. What is even more unusual is that it was American intelligence services that made the unverified allegations, which were then published without verification by news outlet Buzzfeed. Both Mr Trump and the Kremlin have slammed the news as “fake”.

Locally, the papers are all a-bluster about the latest O Level results. The 2016 batch had the highest proportion of students with five O Level passes, 84.3 per cent, which beat the record of 83.8 per cent set just the year before.

MOE’s description of the record was that the results “are comparable to that of 2015”.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Ryan Ong

COMMUNISTS espousing free trade is about as likely as Lawrence Khong leading a gay pride parade, but that’s precisely what we’ve seen this year. But were we shocked? Not at all – after Brexit and the Trump election, we have officially run out of shock capacity.

If a chimpanzee assaulted Parliament and declared itself high king in sign language, we’d just sigh and ask if it’s revising the CPF draw down date. So we can be forgiven for overlooking what amounts to be a seismic shift, in which China and America are switching places.

by Glenn Ong

THE unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) belonging to the US Navy, which was seized by China last Thursday (Dec 15) was returned today (Dec 20). The return took place at midday in the South China Sea, according to the Chinese Defence Ministry.

For more on the South China Sea dispute, click here.

The unarmed UUV was seized just as it was completing a collection of “military oceanographic data such as salinity, water temperature, and sound speed,” according to a US government press release. Such data is useful for tracking submarines.

“China steals United States Navy research drone…”

– US president-elect Donald Trump on Twitter, Dec 17.

The data collection (and seizure) took place around 90km (50 nautical miles) off the Philippines’ Subic Bay. Both Democrats and Republicans have denounced China’s actions as a “brazen violation of international law” and an act of “provocation”.

While it is tempting to dismiss China as unreasonable and arrogant, its fears are not completely unfounded. Professor Zhang Baohui, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said in response to CNN that US activities in the South China Sea have likely increased China’s sense of vulnerability, especially for its small fleet of strategic nuclear submarines in those waters.

“First I want to say we strongly dislike the term ‘steal’ as it’s entirely inaccurate…”

– Hua Chunying, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Dec 19.

China, which is a continental rather than maritime power, is not surrounded by a vast ocean that allows its submarines to go undetected – an attribute that the US and Russia possess and benefit from, Prof Zhang added.

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The East China Sea. Image a screenshot from Google Maps.

With the threat of American monitoring activities in the South China Sea amplified by the danger of Japanese surveillance in the East China Sea up north, Prof Zhang said: “It is my reading that China thought the US was using the drone to track down one of its submarines and they felt that [they] had to act.”

Yet, while US president-elect Donald Trump was right to denounce the seizure in particular as “unprecedented”, this is not the first time both countries have locked horns at sea in the early stages of a new presidency.

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Presidency of George W. Bush (2001) 

On Mar 24, 2001, just three months after George W. Bush took office, a Chinese frigate stopped just 100m away from an unarmed US survey ship, switched on its gun control radar and forced the American vessel to retreat. The American ship was conducting data collection in the Yellow Sea, which lies north of the East China Sea.

Then, a week later on Apr 1, a mid-air collision took place between an American spy plane and an intercepting Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island, resulting in the death of Chinese pilot Wang Wei. China then detained the US spy plane and its 24-member crew for 11 days in a political standoff that only ended when Washington apologised for Wang’s death.

 

Presidency of Barack Obama (2009)

Bush’s successor was to encounter similar challenges less than three months after his inauguration. On Mar 9, 2009, the US accused China of harassing US surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea “while it was conducting routine operations in international waters”.

Five Chinese vessels allegedly “shadowed and aggressively manoeuvred in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable”. Two of the ships came within 15m of the American vessel, with Chinese crew members reportedly waving Chinese flags and ordering the Impeccable to leave.

When the US ship tried to leave the area, two Chinese ships moved “directly ahead of USNS Impeccable, forcing Impeccable to conduct an emergency ‘all stop’ in order to avoid collision”, according to the US Department of Defense.

While some observers suggest that the recent drone seizure is a direct and immediate response to Trump’s questioning of the “One China” policy, this pattern of behaviour appears to reflect a continuity in the perceived threat that the US and its allies pose to China.

Other experts also suggest that such behaviour is a tactic employed by China to gauge the diplomatic posture of a new or incoming administration.

 

Featured image 150416-N-ZZ786-112 by Flickr user Naval Surface Warriors(CC BY-SA 2.0)

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by Joshua Ip

Twenty years after humiliation
A nationalist strongman shouts defiance,
And vows to marshal his resurgent nation
Westwards past a crumbling alliance.

A waning oceanic superpower
Believing itself safe across the seas
Wants to be great again, decides the hour
Has come to turn inwards, withdraw, appease.

A league of nations formed to end all war
Instead becomes the system that effects it
By gathering to veto and ignore
The stormclouds. One by one the nations brexit.

A tribe of people from the Middle East
Wander through Europe. Men perpetuate
Stereotypes that spread and do not cease.
Easy to rail against, easy to hate.

“Countries aren’t what they used to be.
These immigrants! Now, wasn’t it much better
When the neighbors were as fair as we?
Our heritage requires a defender.”

A rising Asian nation eyes the treasure
All around it: living space, resources;
Preaches co-prosperity, and as the
World goes mad elsewhere, builds up its forces.

Local strongmen chafe at the restraints
Imposed on them by neo-imperialists.
The economic system’s skewed with taint.
The winners win. The losers seethe and hiss.

All diplomats uphold this orthodoxy:
Conflict should be nicely outsourced rather
Than directly waged; thus war by proxy.
Of course, one thing does not lead to another.

Everybody learned thinks a war
Lasts just a week. Is localised. Not here.
We’ve seen the horrors of world war before.
It’ll never come to pass. That much is clear.

But all the wheels are turning and in motion
And most of us are merely passengers.
Will someone strike the flint of charged emotions
And shoot an archduke or ambassador?

 

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Featured image by Sean Chong.

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