Singapore’s insensitive miscalculation

Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Bangkok Post
18 Jan 07

The Singaporean government cannot feign ignorance and provide implicit recognition of Thaksin Shinawatra without serious consequences for bilateral relations between Thailand and the island state.

Singapore’s recent misstep in unwittingly allowing deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra to use the island republic as a staging ground for media interviews on CNN and in the Asian Wall Street Journal that chastised the performance of the caretaker government of General Surayud Chulanont indicates a mind-boggling miscalculation.

Having become entangled in Thailand’s political drama following the Shinawatra family’s scandalous sale of Shin Corp to Singapore’s government-linked Temasek Holdings early last year, Singapore’s elite should have stayed on the sidelines and waited out the resolution of Thailand’s deep-seated and ongoing confrontation and conflict.

But Singapore’s leaders did not, and have not. They keep shooting themselves in the foot. They never got Thailand right. In view of their latest diplomatic blunder, perhaps they never will.

That Singapore’s elite has persistently coddled Mr Thaksin prior to, and in the aftermath of, the military coup on Sept 19, 2006, is understandable.

Mr Thaksin’s ties with Singapore’s ruling Lee family run deep. The former premier was one of the first Lee Kuan Yew fellows back in 1994. The Singaporeans annually pick out up-and-coming young politicians from the region and treat them to red-carpet packages on the island in an effort to win over future regional leaders. In Mr Thaksin, the Singapore government picked a winner.

In addition, Mr Thaksin’s and the Lees’ common Hakka Chinese background further deepened their relationship. Like the Lees’ one-party dominance of Singapore’s democratic system, Mr Thaksin’s authoritarian, decisive leadership style, and virtual monopoly in Thai politics during his nearly six-year rule also helped to solidify ties.

It was thus somewhat unsurprising that when it bought Shin Corp and allowed Mr Thaksin to cash out for 73.3 billion baht, Temasek was headed by none other than Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Madam Ho Ching.

During Thailand’s prolonged political crisis and street protests against Mr Thaksin, the Singaporean government never flinched in the face of adverse Thai criticism of its role and connection to Temasek, as its embassy in Bangkok laid low in a vain attempt to ride out the storm.

Even after the Sept 19 coup, Prime Minister Lee stated unequivocally in an October speech to the Asian-European Editors Forum that the Thai putsch was a setback for the country’s democracy. PM Lee justified his view of Mr Thaksin’s electoral prowess, and completely missed the essence of the Thai crisis revolving around Mr Thaksin’s erosion of legitimacy due to a long trail of constitutional violations, corruption, and abuses of power.

Unlike Singapore, winning elections in Thailand without accountability and effective checks-and-balances provided by institutions mandated under the constitution and by individuals from the media and NGOs, is not sufficient to retain a democratic mandate.
Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew followed up on his son’s remark with the insistence that the Temasek-Shin Corp transaction was completely above board. Both father and son did what Mr Thaksin would have done by insisting on technical legality with a blind eye to legitimacy considerations and ethical and moral implications.

To be sure, the Thaksin visit would likely have transpired smoothly without the CNN and Asian Wall Street Journal interviews, despite Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar’s odd unofficial reception of someone who had no official status. Kishore Mahbubani, an erudite diplomat who now heads the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, consequently criticised Mr Thaksin for putting Singapore in a tight spot with his media comments. It was the first public rebuke of Mr Thaksin from a member of the Singapore elite.

The Surayud government’s measured response by withdrawing an invitation to Singapore’s foreign minister to speak at a bilateral civil service exchange programme, and its cancellation of an informal summit meeting between the two countries, are moves in the right direction.

With these concrete diplomatic signals, the Singaporean government can no longer feign ignorance and provide implicit recognition of Mr Thaksin without serious consequences for the bilateral relationship.

To be fair, the primary responsibility for this debacle lies with the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs and, ultimately, with the Council for National Security and the Surayud government.

With Thaksin loyalists still in command, the Foreign Ministry has dragged its feet throughout the post-coup period in going after Mr Thaksin’s passport status. Despite vocal calls from the anti-Thaksin coalition, the ministry took more than three months to revoke Mr Thaksin’s diplomatic privileges. Rumours and anecdotal evidence of Thai embassy resources being used to facilitate Mr Thaksin’s movements in London, China, Hong Kong, and Singapore have been rife.

Both the CNS and the Surayud government should clarify Mr Thaksin’s status once and for all. This would enable foreign governments around the world to treat Mr Thaksin properly. To its credit, the Chinese government walked a balanced line by letting Mr Thaksin stay in China for weeks but not giving him any high-level recognition.

However, other foreign governments should not have to make this calculation on their own. They have the right to know how they should receive Mr Thaksin. The onus is thus on the CNS and the Surayud government. Mr Thaksin’s murky status is yet another indication of the weak and indecisive post-coup management.

The writer is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

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