In a week when one country’s deeply flawed election process is attracting criticism from Washington, the appointment of another autocrat for Hong Kong has got barely a mention. When Xinhua murmurs approval at the ‘democratic process’, we should allow ourselves a little snigger and impolitely ignore them:
The nomination period of the Hong Kong Chief Executive Election ended Thursday afternoon, and Donald Tsang was the sole valid candidate in the Chief Executive (CE) election and has automatically become the Chief Executive designate of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).
Western governments have form in Asia: Diem, Suharto, Marcos. All thrived with backing from Washington and the West, cast aside when expended. This isn’t a rant about the past, though. And you can put a decent Realist case that getting along with little HK is non-optional, given that his much harder and meaner Big Brother is watching closely.
You can’t say the same about the next country down on the most important list of all, the Heritage Foundation’s monomaniacal Index of Economic Freedom: Singapore. HK and Singapore fill the first two places on the plutocrat’s hit parade. But it’s a grimmer tale for political and civil liberties. Freedom House, hardly a leftist hangout, rates Singapore substantially less free than Mali or Mongolia. Less free than Benin, Bolivia and Burkina Faso. Their 2003 country report, partly concerned with the conduct of the 2001 parliamentary elections, documented the serial use of civil defamation suits to silence opposition politicians, evidence of judicial bias, commonplace nepotism and widespread journalistic self-censorship (if you know what’s good for you…). Just prior to those elections the Home Affairs minister claimed that voting was a privilege, not a right. The report continued:
[Ruling-party PM] Goh responded [to electoral opposition] by warning that neighborhoods voting against the [ruling] PAP would be the lowest priority for upgrades of public housing estates, where some 85 percent of Singaporeans live…The government uses civil defamation laws, strict electoral rules, curbs on civil liberties, patronage, and its influence over SingaporeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s media to undermine the oppositionÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s prospects in elections…
The only place where Singaporeans can make public speeches without a license is SpeakersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ Corner, which is located in a downtown park. Speakers, however, must register with the police at least 30 days in advance, and their speeches are recorded by the government and kept for six years.
You would have thought the negotiation of a major trade deal with the US would have provided the ideal opportunity to advance the cause of freedom. Prime Minister Goh, having scraped home with 82 out of 84 seats in parliament, travelled to Washington for a handshake on the lawn. One for the scrap-book. He met Bush at least three times, in fact. They talked trade, talked Iraq, talked terrorism and North Korea. They talked SARS and biomedical research and tropical diseases. Bush’s verdict on the despot?
“The Prime Minister is a wise man. He understands Southeast Asia very well. And a lot of our discussion was about how we continue to foster our agenda which is one of peace and freedom, as well as prosperity through trade.”
The Free Trade Agreement entered into force on January 1st, 2004. Singapore is now a favoured partner of the US, effectively immune to the weighty political pressure that active US trade policy can bring. Not a word in any press release or press conference on the state of civil and political liberties in the tiny state. No mention either that Singapore is home to JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, Bank of America and 102 other foreign banks. The US State Department website notes:
Singapore has consistently supported a strong U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific region. In 1990, the United States and Singapore signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which allows United States access to Singapore facilities at Paya Lebar Airbase and the Sembawang wharves. Under the MOU, a U.S. Navy logistics unit was established in Singapore in 1992
Last month, a local Singaporean window-cleaner was hanged for possession of a kilo of cannabis. Political films are still illegal, and their screening subject to two-year prison terms. Civic rights have actually waned in the last decade.
Tony Blair will be in Singapore next month, though with a different agenda. Changi airport at the height of the chewing-gum crisis ten years ago was close enough for me Ã¢â‚¬â€ and things have actuallly got worse since. Until the cause of global freedom starts to mean more than the freedom to buy and sell, or the freedom to be bought and sold, none of us, not even liberal idealists like me, are going to believe.