Readers who have been following my blog over the years are probably expecting this. Once again, it’s time to look back on 2016 and wonder…
Beyond dispute, 2016 has been an eventful year and for some, an awful one with two poll-defying upsets – Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory. About a month before the US presidential elections, I attended a talk where the investment guru warned that markets will crash if Donald Trump won the elections. There are other gurus like Thom Hartmann who predicted similar disasters (due to rocketing oil prices, no less) for 2016. For those who are still in dreamland, oil prices are low and the Dow rallied to all time highs after Donald Trump’s victory. I hope not too many people in the audience let that investment guru manage their funds. And wouldn’t it be an insult if this book with such a glaring mistake on its cover still sells better than mine?
Hindsight is always 20/20 and back views are often misleading. Sensational predictions often go sensationally wrong. But for a freedom-loving country like the Philippines, it boggles the mind that President Rodrigo Duterte actually gained popularity by being completely upfront about killing suspected criminals without due process. He even admitted to pulling the trigger himself and that seemed to make him even more popular. Have Filipinos stopped believing in human rights? What about the innocent folks who were mistakenly killed? A negligible minority. Just too bad.
Meanwhile in Syria, a very unpopular but tenacious Bashar Assad received plenty of military help from his trigger-happy crony, Vladimir Putin. I noted a lot of cheers for Putin on Facebook. Finally, a “hero” who dared to take decisive action was getting his hands dirty (bloody). The result? Anti-Assad rebels (not necessarily IS) were bombed and thousands of innocent people were killed. Schools and hospitals were destroyed and a flood of refugees followed. People in the “free world” were cheering. That should teach IS a lesson; or so they thought. What about the innocent victims? Are they really a negligible minority? Just too bad?
Optimistic observers declared that IS has lost ground and would soon be decimated. Not long after that, IS attacked Brussels airport and the metro, killing more than 30 people. They attacked Nice on Bastille Day, killing 89 people. In Orlando, an IS-inspired gunman killed 49 people in a gay nightclub. IS terrorists also attacked Jakarta and just before Christmas on 19th December, they attacked a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56.
Does it look like IS has been taught a lesson by Russian bombs? What next? Drop even more Russian bombs in Syria? Maybe throw in a few Trump missiles for good measure? I see worrying trend in 2017. The Cao Cao mentality is back in fashion.
“I would rather kill 100 innocent people by mistake than to let one guilty one escape.”
All heard and observed, it ain’t gonna be a peaceful year in 2017. Some folks are worried that liberalism, human rights, our sense of righteousness and the rule of law are on the decline. How can that be in an age of universal connectivity and scrutiny? Well, there is actually plenty of evidence of that happening in 2016. Examples? Voters in Sarawak decided that the 1MDB scandal and various atrocious attempts at covering up weren’t an issue at all. They received their goodies, looked forward to more and happily gave the BN its two thirds majority.
In Thailand, another seemingly freedom-loving and democratic country in the region, the public was given a chance to reject military dictatorship by voting against the new constitution, drafted by the military government for the sole purpose of undermining the democratic process. Under the new constitution, the Senate would become a fully appointed chamber rather than a partially elected one during the 5 year “transitional period” stipulated in the charter. This was clearly seen as an effort by the National Council for Peace and Order (coup-installed government) to retain influence once it has left office, as it will have the right to appoint the 250 members. The Senate would also be granted veto power over the House of Representatives on amending the constitution, and a Prime Minister will be allowed to be appointed from outside either house. Democratically unpalatable as it sounds and with new laws curbing freedom of speech being announced to boot, 61% of Thai voters supported it.
Being an unconstitutional government, the US was obliged to cut military ties and some other relations with Thailand. So what did the generals do? US boycott doesn’t work anymore. The Thais engaged China which is so eager to pick up the slack. Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwan has expressed interest in starting hardware production facilities in China and Russia. There is a lesson to be learnt here. What do you do if you’re a rogue government? You look for other rogue governments to deal with. There are plenty of them around. Boycotts and UN rulings won’t work anymore. Another nail in the coffin for democracy and liberalism.
Let’s go back to the Philippines again. On the issue of territorial dispute on the South China Sea, the Permanent Court of Arbitration said that there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or resources. The tribunal in The Hague said that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. It also said that China had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands. As we all know and expected, China rejected the ruling and it didn’t matter that the ruling came from an arbitration tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which both China and the Philippines have signed.
One would expect the Philippines to celebrate their victory and complain to the UN that China had not complied with the ruling and demand for punitive measures. True to our law-abiding form, Singapore supported the Philippines and the ruling of the tribunal. But then, our government was about to suffer the same fate often suffered by the opposition – the illusion of popular support. You stand up for your friend against the bully, only to find your friend standing with the bully.
We see you. We hear you. Hey, what happened to our votes
Just as we were sticking our necks out to stand up for our ASEAN member, Duterte changed sides. The rogue president knew that if China refused to accept the tribunal’s ruling, it would be futile to seek further action from the UN. He decided to turn their tables on their old ally, the US and instead of fighting the bully, tried to reach a compromise with them by swearing at the US and swearing eternal brotherhood with China. So much for the rule of law. China trashed it. Duterte made a U-turn and Singapore became a sore thumb to Big Brother. Thousands of angry Chinese netizens took to social media to vilify PM Lee and Singapore for not standing with China on the South China Sea issue.
The dispute reached a zenith when Hongkong authorities impounded nine Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) last month. These vehicles were on their way back to Singapore after a military exercise in Taiwan. No formal reason was given for detaining the vehicles. I’ll come back to this topic in a moment.
Professor Tommy Koh presented an interesting explanation for this “misunderstanding” which failed to address the obvious.
Many friends in China mistakenly perceive Singapore as a Chinese nation, describing us as “kith and kin”. They feel that since Singaporeans are fellow Chinese, we should have a better understanding of China’s policies than the other Asean countries. They also expect Singapore to support China’s policies.
To me, being ethnically Chinese is only secondary to China’s expectations from Singapore. These expectations arose from the population policies and rewards doled out by the Singapore authorities in a seemingly desperate attempt to attract Chinese nationals to our shores. Families from China are given priority over other ethnic groups in acquiring citizenship. Is this not a declaration of “kith and kin” on our side? And as if this is not enough, Chinese students who can’t even pass English at PSLE level, let alone handle General Paper at A Level are offered scholarships in our tertiary institutions. Try doing this in the US or UK and you won’t even get past the gate. Our leaders try to assure us that this is to maintain standards in our institutes of higher learning. What standards?
Furthermore, many of these scholars abscond after graduating. There has been no spirited attempt to recover what is owed by these Chinese students, leading some of them to boast that they’ve managed to get a free lunch in Singapore. There is no misunderstanding here – just a gross miscalculation on our part.
On the issue of ASEAN solidarity, Prof Koh said that:
Any attempt to undermine Asean unity would be regarded by Singapore as a threat to its national interest. This point is not hypothetical but real. Singapore would like Asean to be united and to be able to speak with one voice on any important question, including the South China Sea.
Prof Koh should really listen to some of our news reports on conflicts between Vietnam and China on the South China Sea. Our official media, usually Channel News Asia, broadcast the China spokesman’s (or spokeswoman) speech for half a minute and devotes only a few seconds to quoting what the Vietnamese side had to say. No wonder a few of our factories in Vietnam got burned down in the ensuing riots. Whenever there was an argument between the mainland and Taiwan or Japan, our media would likewise devote 90-100% of airtime showing Beijing’s displeasure with little or no coverage of the Taiwanese or Japanese point of view. Even in the most recent US submarine drone incident, CNA broadcast every second of the spokeswoman’s derision with only a few seconds of what the US had to say. No wonder there is this “misunderstanding” from China that we are and should always be on their side.
Next, Prof Koh talked about balancing the powers:
As tensions have risen between China and the United States, it is increasingly difficult for a country like Singapore, which is on good terms with both, to stay neutral and not be forced to choose sides. Some of my friends in China are not happy with the warm relations which Singapore enjoys with Washington. They have mistakenly accused Singapore of being a US ally and of siding with the US against China.
The Global Times would have none of that. They gave a sharp reply:
Singapore was never a military ally of the US, but has given the green light to US military forces’ long-term presence at its Changi Naval Base as well as allowing US Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft to operate out of its airbases. This has turned Singapore into a platform for Washington to contain and deter Beijing. Singapore claimed it was not picking sides in the South China Sea disputes, but its remarks about the issue are far from neutral; instead, it has actually complicated and expanded the scale of the case.
It should be expected that a small country like Singapore has its own tactics of survival in games of major powers. The country, which used to know its boundaries, is losing its balance now. Its measures to contain China are becoming obvious. The military equipment seized by Hong Kong authorities this time further adds to the suspicion that Singapore might be working against the “one China” principle.
Indeed, from the type of fighter aircraft we own, the number of US military personnel we host to our very US-friendly naval bases, it is pretty obvious where our favouritism lies vis-a-vis military power. The Chinese are not stupid and if we have to come clean, we just need to come clean and not generate “misunderstandings”. The late Mr Lee Kwan Yew and the Chinese authorities had often spoken in the same voice that we must keep trade and politics separate. This is one of the wisest remarks I’ve heard from any leader. Have the Chinese forgotten what our former leaders agreed on? So how does our military strategies affect trade with China?
Prof Koh also mentioned about Singapore’s respect for international law.
Singapore supports the rule of law in the world. To small countries, international law is both a shield and a sword. We would like disputes between states to be settled in accordance with international law. In the case of the South China Sea, we would like all states to act in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Really? What about setting up shop in Myanmar in the name of “constructive engagement” when UN trade sanctions were ongoing? What about supporting a rogue government that had seized power from a democratically elected government? Is that respecting international law? Of course, I have no issue with disobeying the UN as trade with Myanmar benefits the impoverished country. If we had taken Aung San Suu Kyi’s advice and boycotted trade with Myanmar, she would have taken over a country in a much poorer state than it was. We are just keeping trade and politics separate. I see nothing wrong with that. However, I do have a problem with calling this the Asian Way and branding critics of the rogue government as being brainwashed by the West. Some people are just not honest about following international laws only when they suit them. Of course, there will be “misunderstandings”.
In short, I believe all these “misunderstandings” could have been avoided if we had shown some consistency in our neutrality (towards foreign scholars and immigrants) and our partiality (towards US military forces) all along.
As the US presidential elections approached, I heard with some amusement and annoyance, how our official media kept emphasising what a rare honour it was for PM Lee to be invited to the White House this way, how lavish the dinner was and how only the most respected foreign dignitaries were given such an honour.
“In the US, we call ourselves a melting pot of different races and religions and creeds. In Singapore, it is ‘rojak’ — different parts united in a harmonious whole. We’re bound by the belief that no matter who you are, if you work hard and play by the rules you will make it.”
Play by the rules? No way. Demagogue, racist and misogynist Donald Trump broke every rule in the book and won the presidential elections. In spite of what PM Lee said:
“Singapore’s own ties with the United States has remained steadfast through nine US Presidents — five Republican and four Democratic, and three Singapore Prime Ministers. We will maintain this bi-partisan links whichever party win the elections this November.”
It was clear to Trump whose side Singapore’s PM was on and who he was banking on to win. Well, Trump is known to reward his allies and punish his naysayers. It’s certain that we’ve bet on the wrong horse and this horse is not going to make things easy for Singapore.
Finally, China has promptly returned the US submarine drone they fished out of the South China Sea. Our Terrex, unfortunately, remain impounded. This reminds me of the numerous annoying Speak Mandarin ads that go back almost 20 years ago. There was one that went something like this:
“The folks at Guangzhou have signed the contract.”
“Because we speak their language.”
So this hypothetical local team had an advantage over their foreign competitors because they speak the Chinese language. I think this is an appropriate time to bring out yao mo gao chor ah? I was thinking, maybe we should let this hypothetical team go to Hongkong and talk the customs there into returning our Terrex. Maybe we could have gotten them back faster than the Americans got their sub back because we speak their language.
With China unhappy with us, Trump unhappy with us after our strong support for the Democrats and ASEAN is seeing us as a joke. Maybe the only thing we can do is to make sure Duterte is not angry with us.
Maybe he could guide us back on track with China, but China is unlikely to lose out in any dealing with the Philippines. I don’t know when they’ll start squeezing him, but if he wants to pretend to be kith or kin with China, the consequences may not be very pleasant. I say we tighten our belts to ride out these rough times, stop acting like we’re a mouthpiece for China and wait for the next big thing. Liberalism may put up a good fight yet. Duterte’s honeymoon will come to an end. We may have the last laugh yet.