Deals with the devil

SCMP December 2005


Some contrasting shades of darkness and light have been apparent in Southeast Asia. Light from Malaysia and Thailand. Dark from Lee-family-run Singapore.

In Malaysia, a minister in the prime minister's department chastised Malaysian businessmen who have interests in Myanmar. They were, he said, 'doing business with the devil', and compared the regime to those of Hitler and Stalin. 'We cannot be thinking just about business when basic human rights are being abused every day,' he said.

His words coincided with Singapore's rejection of pleas not to hang a young Australian of Vietnamese descent, who was arrested while in transit through Singapore for trafficking heroin. The hanging helped maintain the city state's runaway global lead in the number of judicial killings per capita per year.

The juxtaposition was poignant. No country in the region is keener than Singapore to do business with Myanmar's generals and drug dealers.

Desmond Ball, a professor in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australian National University, has estimated that 50 per cent of Myanmar's foreign exchange comes from the drug business; more comes from illegal trading in gems and timber. A significant part of those hundreds of millions of dollars is laundered through Singapore and, to return the favour, the Myanmese invest heavily in Singapore. A senior US drug-enforcement official has noted that much of that investment was 'tied to the family of [Myanmese] narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han'.

The Singapore-Myanmar links to the arms trade and drugs are well known to Australia's Office of National Assessments, the country's intelligence and analysis agency. But Australia, like the United States, prefers to keep quiet about Singapore's heart of darkness because of its own strategic and commercial interests there.

Singapore has been an important supplier of arms to the generals. The principal company involved is Chartered Industries, the government-controlled defence contractor which is part of the Singapore Technologies group, and whose chief executive until 2002 was Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Ms Ho is now head of Temasek Holdings, which controls Chartered.

Of course, none of this sort of thing gets much attention in the local or foreign media. Indeed, the intolerance of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his family in Singapore contrasts with the wisdom of the King of Thailand. Last week the king publicly castigated Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra for his unwillingness to tolerate criticism. As a result, Mr Thaksin had to withdraw libel actions, modelled on Singapore's, aimed at silencing his media critics. The king said criticism was beneficial, and that even he should not be exempt from it.

Meanwhile, in Malaysia, ministers were making apologies and offering an independent inquiry into the apparent mistreatment of a Chinese woman while in police custody on suspicion of carrying drugs.

Whatever the facts, the issue has had a public airing and officials have indicated a willingness to be contrite. Contrast that with the state of rejection by Singapore of criticism from Human Rights Watch of the treatment of foreign maids.

Singapore may be modern and appear squeaky clean and ordered. But for many, it is a whitened granite sepulchre of state power wherein lie the remains of individual freedom. It preaches morality but is happy to live on immoral earnings.




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