Photo blog

Recently created an online buzznet account where I can post my photos from Singapore.



Singapore Comes 147th out of 167

There is nothing unique about Singapore and the so called necessary curtailment of freedom of speech, (out of bounds markers). It is part of a trend in the region. When you see the list in full and look at Singapore’s bed-fellows you may get a sense of becoming infested with fleas.

Singapore, however, is the only economically developed nation at the bottom end of the scale. But in Singapore the counter argument will be that Singapore is unique because of its diverse ethnic and religious mix and so social unrest must not be allowed to occurr as it would undermine the economic success. But haven’t the other countries in South East Asia been undermining press freedom? Why hasn’t it led to economic success for the others? To simpistically link the denial of press freedom as a primary cause of economic success, and maintenance of it, is a myth.

Secondly, to announce that Singapore’s ethnic diversity is unique is the argument of someone who has never managed to get beyond J.B., Sentosa, Bintan or Batam.

Third Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index

East Asia and Middle East have worst press freedom records

Reporters Without Borders announces its third annual worldwide index of press freedom. Such freedom is threatened most in East Asia (with North Korea at the bottom of the entire list at 167th place, followed by Burma 165th, China 162nd, Vietnam 161st and Laos 153rd) and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia 159th, Iran 158th, Syria 155th, Iraq 148th).

In these countries, an independent media either does not exist or journalists are persecuted and censored on a daily basis. Freedom of information and the safety of journalists are not guaranteed there. Continuing war has made Iraq the most deadly place on earth for journalists in recent years, with 44 killed there since fighting began in March last year.

But there are plenty of other black spots around the world for press freedom. Cuba (in 166th place) is second only to China as the biggest prison for journalists, with 26 in jail (China has 27). Since spring last year, these 26 independent journalists have languished in prison after being given sentences of between 14 and 27 years.

No privately-owned media exist in Turkmenistan (164th) and Eritrea (163rd), whose people can only read, see or listen to government-controlled media dominated by official propaganda.

The greatest press freedom is found in northern Europe (Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, the Netherlands and Norway), which is a haven of peace for journalists. Of the top 20 countries, only three (New Zealand 9th, Trinidad and Tobago 11th and Canada 18th) are outside Europe.

Other small and often impoverished democracies appear high on the list, such as El Salvador (28th) and Costa Rica (35th) in Central America, along with Cape Verde (38th) and Namibia (42nd) in Africa and Timor-Leste (57th) in Asia.

Reporters Without Borders compiled the index by asking its partner organisations (14 freedom of expression organisations in five continents), its 130 correspondents around the world, as well as journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer 52 questions to indicate the state of press freedom in 167 countries (others were not included for lack of information).

142 Uzbekistan 52,13

143 Bahrein 52,50

144 Belarus 54,10

145 Djibouti 55,00

146 Bhutan 55,83

147 Singapore 57,00

148 Iraq 58,50

149 Côte d’Ivoire 60,38

150 Pakistan 61,75

151 Bangladesh 62,50

152 Tunisia 62,67

153 Laos 64,33

154 Libya 65,00

155 Syria 67,50

– Zimbabwe 67,50

157 Maldives 69,17

158 Iran 78,30

159 Saudi Arabia 79,17

160 Nepal 84,00

161 Vietnam 86,88

162 China 92,33

163 Eritrea 93,25

164 Turkmenistan 99,83

165 Burma 103,63

166 Cuba 106,83

167 North Korea 107,50

Singaporean Resistance Literature: Themes and Writers

(Singapore Studies)

Given the political climate of control and the social ethos of money-making as the most respectable profession, one will be hard-pressed to find a literary tradition, mush less a resistance literary tradition. There are, however, a handful of writers in Singapore – Haresh Sharma, Alfian Sa’at and Kuo Pao Kun – whose works do not just reflect on the social and political realities but also the people who are marginalised by the Singapore success paradigm.

Tuesday, 19 October 2004

by Wong Souk Yee

Haresh Sharma has written over 30 full-length and short plays, many of which deal with the pressures of growing up, school, working life, getting married, being trapped, being pushed to the edge of society. Lanterns Never Go Out shows a competitive education hothouse that drives both parents and children to the edge of neurosis, taking away the important role of play from their childhood. Still Building uses the motif of buildings to represent the paradox of progress and entrapment. In Off Centre Sharma writes about the people who are of little consequence to the fast and savvy Singaporean society – the VITBs (Vocational Industrial Training Board), the “N” levels (students in secondary schools who are streamed into a non-academic course of study), the hawkers and mainly, the mentally ill.

Alfian Sa’at’s poems and short stories evoke a disturbing sense of social injustice, and I would consider many of his works to be pissed-off or protest poetry. In a country that criminalises the homosexual act, Sa’at writes about the moral and emotional dilemmas of same-sex relationships, casual gay sex in public places and police raids of gay hangouts. The arrogance of the ethnic-Chinese-dominated PAP, specifically Lee Kuan Yew, towards their Malay neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, and their insensitivity and outright insult of their own ethnic-Malay citizens are also a frequent theme in Sa’at’s work. Most importantly, in his poem “Mr. Chia Sits in His Dark Cell” Sa’at protests against the political oppression in the island state. The eponym, Chia Thye Poh, was an opposition parliamentarian at the time of his arrest and was detained without trial under the Internal Security Act for 32 years. Chia and the destruction of political opponents by the ruling juggernauts is a rarefied theme in the literary scene in Singapore.

From the 24 plays Kuo Pao Kun has written in his lifetime, I have chosen Mama Looking for Her Cat (1988) for an extended discussion in this essay. This play, like many of his other works, has become a classic in the Singapore literary consciousness. Most of all, the text exhibits characteristics that run counter to the discourse of nationalism and thus lend itself to a theorisation of Singaporean resistance literature.

Resistance to the nationalist discourse can be seen in the play through the characters’ refusal to be incorporated into the language discourse which, this essay argues, discriminates against the ethnic minorities and older Chinese who speak only Chinese dialects. In the play, Mama would only speak Hokkien even though it is a dying language soon to be eliminated by English and Mandarin. Despite being marginalised by her linguistic “impotence”, Mama resists being absorbed by the language discourse by asserting her cultural difference/otherness through the speaking of only Hokkien.

The government’s policies on multiracialism and bilingualism, a cornerstone of nation building, is based on the concept of the inviolable traditions and identity of the origin of each race. One of the effects of these official policies is the reduction of the cultures and identities available to Singaporeans to three politically constructed groups of Chinese, Malays and Indians. That is, our culture and identity are defined by our race and if we are lazy and stupid, it is because of our race and our racial culture. Kuo Pao Kun stands this logic on its head with the breakthrough in communication between Mama and the Indian man in the play, each understanding the other better than their own children, who chase away their cats, can understand them. Instead of being constrained by their “essentialist” ethnic difference, the two have been liberated by and share a range of human culture, such as loving cats, friendship and of growing old. They share the predicament of having their cats chased out by their children, a metaphor for the chasm between age and youth, cemented by official language policies. Their commiseration and solidarity with each other challenges the notion that culture and identity are defined solely by race and language.

The form of resistance I have identified in Mama Looking for Her Cat is not any radical call to action for an alternative society nor is the writer part of a national movement to change the existing hegemonic order in Singapore. Because of the social and political conditions, there is not yet a national movement in Singapore that challenges the power structures of domination. What I hope to have shown is that literature offers activists and detractors of government policy an effective form of cultural work in which critical or resistance narratives can be constructed. Further, as part of the wider discursive field, literature is a means for readers to interrogate and resist government discourse through a practice of critical reading.

Although both writers and readers/audiences do not form a united counter-force to bring about any fundamental reform, they are nevertheless able to destabilise what Gramsci calls the “common sense” mentality in society and transform power relations within the existing order. In this quieter but arguably more thoughtful manner, resistance literature does complement the more vocal but fledgling reform groups in Singapore, such as the opposition political parties and a handful of non-government organisations, to contribute to social change.

Singapore, a ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’ ?

Asia News, Singapore: The American science fiction writer, Mr William Gibson once described Singapore as ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’.

Recent developments underscore the point.

Last week a 24-year-old Australian man of Vietnamese origin lost an appeal to escape the gallows, rights group Amnesty International challenged the city-state to disclose its execution rate, and the high court will soon decide whether to hang 3 people caught in a high-society drug ring in Singapore.

“The government is really not softening up when it comes to drug crimes or on executions,” said Mr Chua Beng Huat, a sociology professor at National University of Singapore who has written several books on Singapore’s politics.

Though Singapore is loosening social controls -easing censorship rules, allowing greater freedom of speech and championing a more open society – it is maintaining a hard line on crime and executions.

Amnesty, which seeks a worldwide ban on state executions, says Singapore’s death row is shrouded in secrecy. In the country itself, there is little public debate about the issue and even less information on how the process is carried out.

In the pre-dawn hours of any Friday, someone could be on their way to the gallows at Changi prison. No one knows for sure.

Amnesty says about 400 people have been hanged in Singapore since 1991, most for drug trafficking. This adds up to possibly the highest execution rate in the world relative to the island’s 4.2 million population.

Singapore wants to shatter the secretive image of its death row and insists there is nothing to hide.

It released a barrage of data in February to counter an Amnesty report, denying most of those hanged were foreigners from poorer countries and backing this up with data showing 64 per cent of those executed from 1993 to 2003 were Singaporeans.

“The Singapore government has in place a tough but transparent law and order system for the safety and security of its citizens, residents and those who visit,” Mr Freddy Hong, a home affairs spokeswoman, told Reuters.

Information on executions is not regularly published, and even Singapore’s former premier, Mr Goh Chok Tong said he did not know how many people were hung when queried in a BBC interview in September last year, putting the figure for that year at 70-80.

His office later said the actual number at the time was 10.

“We have actually stopped debating this particular policy. The pressure for more disclosure comes from international organisations. The local community is quite neutral on this issue,” said Mr Ho Khai Leong, a professor at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Singapore, ruled by the People’s Action Party for four decades, is often described as having a theme-park feel because of its tidy streets, orderly living and low crime rates.

It has had capital punishment for murder since its days as a British colony.

Those found guilty of kidnapping, treason and certain firearm offences may also face the gallows, although rights activists say 70 per cent of hangings are for drug offences.

Amnesty data shows that from 1994 to 1999, an average of 13.6 executions were carried out per million people, three times higher than the next country on the list, Saudi Arabia.

A day after Amnesty challenged Singapore last Tuesday to disclose the total number of executions this year, the government divulged for the first time that 6 people had been hanged from January to September and 19 for the whole of 2003.

Requests by Reuters for these statistics had been turned down before Amnesty’s statement.

“This is a step forward, but the government should disclose a lot more than the bare number of executions,” Amnesty’s UK-based south-east Asian researcher, Mr Tim Parritt told Reuters.

From 1991-2003, an average of 32 people were hanged a year, according to a combination of Amnesty and government data. Last year’s 19 executions would be the lowest in 6 years.

“We call for a full breakdown – year by year – to illuminate to what extent the death penalty may be falling disproportionately on more vulnerable sections of society – whether by reason of the nationality, educational or professional background, socio-economic status etc,” Mr Parritt added.

The public generally supports Singapore’s tough laws – including the death penalty, bans on pornography and curbs on political dissent – as part of a social contract that in return has delivered years of economic prosperity.

The death penalty as society’s loss

The following editorial is from SMH.

October 25, 2004

The death penalty arouses the rawest human emotion. It has been out of favour with Australian governments – but not all politicians and certainly not all Australians – since Ronald Ryan was hanged at Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison 37 years ago, but remains a penalty of choice in many countries.

It is a punishment advocated largely in terms of black and white, good versus evil, an eye for an eye, deterrence over compassion. This is despite the highly questionable deterrence value of capital punishment and despite its zero capacity for undoing errors of judgement against individuals convicted of heinous crimes they did not commit. In these latter cases, execution is not just a sin against innocent individuals but a crime against society itself. More broadly, capital punishment is a victory of pessimism over optimism where the most dogmatic form of retribution sweeps away all consideration of reformation, where an individual life is so disposable that society might rightly ponder its own worth.



The issue is back on the Australian agenda not because of any immediate prospect of capital punishment’s reinstatement here but because one of our own – Nguyen Tuong Van, a 24-year-old salesman from Melbourne – is left with one slim hope of avoiding execution in Singapore, where he was arrested two years ago on heroin smuggling charges. Nguyen, who came to Australia as a refugee, was in transit at Singapore’s Changi Airport, en route from Indochina to Australia. He allegedly told authorities he was carrying 396.2 grams of heroin on instruction from a Sydney-based crime syndicate to repay the legal debt of his twin brother, who had been arrested in Australia on drug and affray charges. This explanation is presumably what Australia’s High Commissioner to Singapore, Gary Quinlan, refers to as the “very specific compassionate and humanitarian circumstances” that will form the basis of an appeal for clemency to Singapore’s President, S.R. Nathan, now Nguyen has lost his last court opportunity to have the conviction and death penalty overturned.

The chances of clemency are remote, indeed. Amnesty International thinks the Singapore Government has hanged about 400 people since 1991, mostly for drug trafficking. Clemency has been granted on just six occasions. Singapore has always insisted it would not yield to imposition of what it regards as soft Western standards.

Australia has a sound relationship with Singapore and the Australian Government prudently has adopted a softly, softly approach in the Nguyen matter for fear that stridency will only stiffen Singaporean resolve. The issue is not whether Nguyen should be punished for his crime but whether the punishment is proportionate to his wrongdoing.

Leo Tolstoy, who saw much horror in his life, never overcame the emotional pain of witnessing a French execution by guillotine. He recalled, “There is no reasoning will, but a paroxysm of human passion.” The execution, he said, was marked by “coolness to the point of refinement, homicide-with-comfort, nothing big”. And that’s the point. No society grows from its inhumanity; it just diminishes.

Amnesty, Australia ask Singapore

Agence France Presse

October 21, 2004


HUMAN rights group Amnesty International and the Australian government urged Singapore Thursday, Oct 21, to spare the life of an Australian man sentenced to hang for heroin trafficking.

Amnesty, a strong critic of the death penalty system in Singapore, urged the city state — said to have the world’s highest number of executions relative to its population — to grant clemency to Nguyen Tuong Van.

Singapore’s highest court on Wednesday rejected Nguyen’s appeal to set aside his conviction and sentence. Only a rare clemency from Singapore’s President Sellapan Ramanathan. Nathan could spare him from the gallows, the only form of execution here.

The 24-year-old ethnic Vietnamese from Melbourne will be the first Australian citizen to be executed in Singapore if he fails to get his sentence commuted to a prison term.

“Clearly Amnesty International is dismayed that the appeal has been turned down,” Tim Goodwin, spokesman for Amnesty International Australia, told AFP by telephone. “We are calling on the Singapore government to grant clemency.”

In Australia, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Thursday the government would appeal directly to Singapore’s president to spare Nguyen’s life.

Downer said while he accepted the court’s decision that Nguyen was guilty, Australia opposed capital punishment.

“It’s now just a question of the sentence, and we hope that, by appealing to the president of Singapore, that it will be possible to get clemency granted and, as a result, Mr Nguyen serve an appropriate custodial sentence in Singapore,” Downer said in a radio interview.

“We think that to execute him would be simply too severe,” Downer said.

Downer acknowledged that the request for presidential clemency was a long shot, as Singapore has granted only six appeals in the past 25 years.

“It is an outside chance … but we’ll just do what we can,” he said.

Amnesty in a report last January singled out Singapore for executing more people than any country per capita and renewed calls for it to abolish the death penalty.

It said more than 400 convicts, many of them foreign migrant workers, were executed in Singapore, which has just over four million people, from 1991 to October 2003.

Nguyen was arrested at Singapore’s Changi airport while in transit from Cambodia to Australia in December 2002 and convicted for smuggling almost 400 grams (14 ounces) of heroin.

Singapore made the death penalty mandatory for drug traffickers and murderers in 1975. Anyone caught with more than 15 grams of heroin in Singapore is assumed to be importing or trafficking the drug.

In its ruling Wednesday rejecting Nguyen’s appeal to set aside his conviction, Singapore’s Court of Appeal said the death penalty was constitutional and hanging did not amount to cruel and inhuman punishment.

“It was clear that he wanted to earn money by transporting drugs,” the ruling said. “He flew to Phnom Penh, where members of a drug syndicate provided him with the heroin for transportation via Singapore.”

The Case Against The Death Penalty

Copied below is an extract of a document located in full here.

Hugo Adam Bedau

o Capital punishment is cruel and unusual. It is a relic of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding, and other corporal punishments were commonplace. Like those other barbaric practices, executions have no place in a civilized society.

o Opposition to the death penalty does not arise from misplaced sympathy for convicted murderers. On the contrary, murder demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. For this very reason, murder is abhorrent, and any policy of state-authorized killings is immoral.

o Capital punishment denies due process of law. Its imposition is arbitrary and irrevocable. It forever deprives an individual of benefits of new evidence or new law that might warrant the reversal of a conviction or the setting aside of a death sentence.

o The death penalty violates the constitutional guarantee of the equal protection of the laws. It is applied randomly at best and discriminatorily at worst. It is imposed disproportionately upon those whose victims are white, on offenders who are people of color, and on those who are themselves poor and uneducated.

o The defects in death-penalty laws, conceded by the Supreme Court in the early 1970s, have not been appreciably altered by the shift from unfettered discretion to “guided discretion.” These changes in death sentencing have proved to be largely cosmetic. They merely mask the impermissible arbitrariness of a process that results in an execution.

o Executions give society the unmistakable message that human life no longer deserves respect when it is useful to take it and that homicide is legitimate when deemed justified by pragmatic concerns.

o Reliance on the death penalty obscures the true causes of crime and distracts attention from the social measures that effectively contribute to its control. Politicians who preach the desirability of executions as a weapon of crime control deceive the public and mask their own failure to support anti-crime measures that will really work.

o Capital punishment wastes resources. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and correctional personnel. It unduly burdens the system of criminal justice, and it is therefore counterproductive as an instrument for society’s control of violent crime. It epitomizes the tragic inefficacy and brutality of the resort to violence rather than reason for the solution ofdifficult social problems.

o A decent and humane society does not deliberately kill human beings. An execution is a dramatic, public spectacle of official, violent homicide that teaches the permissibility of killing people to solve social problems — the worst possible example to set for society. In this century, governments have too often attempted to justify their lethal fury by the benefits such killing would bring to the rest Or society. The bloodshed is real and deeply destructive of the common decency of the community; the benefits are illusory.

Two conclusions buttress our entire case: Capital punishment does not deter crime, and the death penalty is uncivilized in theory and unfair and inequitable in practice.