Rebuttal misses the mark

SCMP December 26 2005

Hong Kong does not have any progress on democracy, yet at least it still has a free and plural media. So we hope there is no truth in the rumour that the intelligent, independent Hong Kong Economic Journal might be bought by our favourite oligarchs - or by anyone more interested in ingratiating themselves with the political powers than in serving the readers' desire for knowledge and debate. We must be grateful for small mercies. At least the Li Ka-shing family controls very much less than the Lee Kuan Yew family in Singapore (the list is too long to fit here), or the Kim Il-sung family in North Korea.

It must be a hard life for a diplomat representing either of those regimes - though at least the Singaporeans are well paid for putting their names to nonsense. A few weeks back I wrote a column for this newspaper which attracted the usual "rebuttal" from a Singapore official. Unfortunately, the official author seemed not to have read the piece. He sent his complaint to the other English-language newspaper in town.

My last column drew attention, among other things, to Singapore's links to Myanmar's generals and drug lords. The "rebuttal" by Consul-General Toh Hock Ghim consisted of denying information that had appeared in 1988 in the Far Eastern Economic Review, and which I never quoted.

He also "rebutted" another claim to which I had made no reference - one by Singapore opposition activist Chee Soon Juan.

What I actually referred to was something that appeared a decade after the Review article - the work of well-known Australian academic Desmond Ball, of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University, on the issues of Myanmar's arms and drug-money links with Singapore. After looking at Mr Ball's work, Mr Toh might then turn to that of Andrew Selth.

He is a former diplomat who is now a senior official at Australia's Office of National Assessments, the nation's top intelligence-analysis body. In a previous capacity he was the author, under the pen name William Ashton, of an account of defence alliances and links that appeared in Jane's.

There is, in fact, quite a lot of literature on defence tie-ups. One Reuters article quotes Jane's about Chartered Industries - owned by the Singapore government - providing a small-arms factory to the regime in Yangon.

Mr Toh demands evidence of the "very serious allegation" of Singapore being used to launder illegal money.

He should ask the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Robert Gelbard, the former US assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, said in 1997 that much of Singapore's investment in Myanmar had been "tied to the family of [Myanmese] narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han".

Mr Lo's son, Steven Law, is banned from the United Staes, but is persona grata in Singapore, where his Asia World Group has many connections.

While many drug mules get strung up every year in Singapore, the masterminds carry on making their fortunes.

And why not? Even in bureaucrat-run Singapore, money still talks louder than proclaimed principles.

This column is dedicated to the memory of Devan Nair, president of Singapore 1981-1985, who died in exile in Canada on December 7




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