Lion City still in the dark age

June 1, 2005
Singapore Democrats

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Peter Kammerer
South China Morning Post
30 May 2005

Although Singapore has relaxed some tough regulations relating to tourism, one visitor’s experience points to the continuing political stranglehold

Singapore does not fool its critics. They know that much like the middle-aged woman who tries to hide her age with makeup, dyed hair and trendy clothes, all the recent talk of casinos and topless cabaret shows are only skin-deep.

Under the facade of being tourist-friendly, they lament, the island nation remains the same as it has always been – a virtual police state where the media is tightly controlled, political opposition is barely tolerated and free speech is allowed only with permission.

Frequent visitor Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan was well aware of that when he arrived at Changi International Airport on a Singapore Airlines flight from Bangkok on May 13. As a guest of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party invited to help teach members about political campaigning, he knew he had to tread carefully.

The American-born Southeast Asia representative of the non-government organisation Non-Violence International had made the same trip four months earlier. That had gone trouble-free and he was therefore expecting the usual efficient procedures at the airport before the subway ride into town.

This time, though, when he handed over his passport at the immigration counter, he was told to wait. A young immigration officer approached, took him to one side, and as if presenting a diploma, gave him a piece of paper headed, “Notice of refusal of entry”. Beneath the sentence, “This is to inform you that you are refused entry to Singapore”, were four check boxes and the fourth was ticked: “Being ineligible for the issue of a pass under current immigration rules”. His name, passport details and date of birth were typed on the form, indicating that this was no spur-of-the-moment decision.

Mr Moser-Puangsuwan had been to Singapore dozens of times since moving to Thailand 15 years ago and never received such a welcome. In his role as a peace activist, he had met government officials and been given courteous attention.

All thoughts that the government was trying to “lighten up” to make Singapore less sterile and more friendly to visitors dissipated. His response was a stunned, “What does this mean?”

The officer wordlessly indicated the form. That was no answer for the American. He understood he was ineligible for entry, but wanted to know why.

The officer could not answer and nervously called on the help of an older man, apparently his superior, who was sitting nearby. Mr Moser-Puangsuwan was led to an office and in answer to his query, was again told, “You are ineligible for issue of a pass under current immigration rules”.

Explaining that that was not, in his mind, a valid reason, he again asked why he was being denied entry and was given the same response. Time and again he asked for clarification, but the smiles and nods from the senior officer began to be replaced by agitation and anger with each identical reply.

Finally, two police officers were called and the activist was taken to a holding area packed with mostly young Asian men awaiting deportation. The policemen were also unable to answer his queries, instead indicating that it was an immigration matter.

Attempts to get friends outside the airport to find out what was going on were also fruitless. Eventually, he was led to the departure hall and, still clueless as to what he had done wrong, was put on the next flight to Bangkok.

Mr Moser-Puangsuwan has since been trying to get an official explanation from Singapore’s embassy in Bangkok. Comments from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in a report in Singapore’s Straits Times on May 16, identical to a statement issued to the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, has given the only indication so far.

The ministry’s communications director, Ong-Chew Peck Wan, said the activist had been indefinitely barred from entering the country for interfering in its domestic politics. Specifically, that was in January, when he had given a workshop to Singapore Democratic Party members at which he had promoted civil disobedience activities.

She said that the decision had been based on investigations following publication in March on the internet forum NewSintercom of an interview with Mr Moser-Puangsuwan.

“From what was disclosed at that interview and subsequent investigations, Yeshua was found to have conducted a political action workshop in Singapore in January 2005,” Ms Ong-Chew said. “This was aimed to teach Singaporeans how to wage a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience against the government so as to liberate and expand civil rights of Singaporean citizens who, he deludes himself to believe, are living under dire oppression and injustice.

“To mount such a campaign, he specifically recommended targeting youth and women as the primary groups to co-opt and mobilise against the government.”

The government’s contention that Singapore’s politics were reserved for Singaporeans was reiterated. “Foreigners, like Yeshua, with no stake in the future of Singapore, will not be allowed to interfere in Singapore’s domestic politics, much less to instigate, agitate and promote civil disobedience among targeted segments of society, against the laws of the country,” the spokeswoman said.

She maintained that those who did were not welcome in Singapore.

Mr Moser-Puangsuwan, 52, who is married to a Thai, was on Wednesday not satisfied by the comments.

“None of this gives a legal reason for my expulsion – it just states opinions on my activities,” he said.

Acknowledging participation in the private workshop in January, he denied that he had interfered in Singapore’s politics or broken any laws.

“A group in Singapore asked me, for educational purposes for their own activities, to do training for them in ways to run a strategic political campaign, which I agreed to,” he said. “Non-Violence International does not give them any direction in that campaign – we’re not involved in their internal deliberations and what they’re going to do. I wouldn’t say that we are involved in politics in Singapore.”

Nonetheless, the group was involved with a political party whose chairman, Chee Soon Juan, is one of Singapore’s most controversial figures. An outspoken critic of the political stranglehold of the ruling People’s Action Party – which holds 82 of the 84 seats in Parliament – he has landed in jail three times and had to pay heavy fines for breaking the rules it has imposed to maintain power.

Dr Chee also denied that any laws had been broken by his party or Mr Moser-Puangsuwan.

“It was perfectly legitimate and legal for us to have this workshop,” he said shortly after arriving in Bangkok for a conference on democracy. “There is no law saying that we cannot organise any kind of forum or workshop on non-violent action.”

Although Mr Moser-Puangsuwan claimed his January trip was the first time he had worked with a political group in Singapore, he admitted Non-Violence International’s campaigning on other issues might also sit uncomfortably with Singapore’s government. Of these, the most notable was the banning of anti-personnel landmines, of which the nation is one of only a handful of producers around the world.

Non-Violence International’s landmine reports, authored or co-written by Mr Moser-Puangsuwan, have led European nations which are signatories of the landmine ban treaty to withdraw investments from Singaporean companies involved in production of the weapons.

“It wouldn’t be a matter of disapproval by the Singapore government, but they may be upset,” he said.

His expulsion comes amid new efforts by Singapore’s government to project the island nation’s international image as a world-class city. That has involved the loosening of tough regulations on entertainment and a push for projects to attract more tourists and expatriate workers.

For observers, one of the most notable moves came last year, when a 12-year-old ban on chewing gum was partially lifted. The ban was held up by critics as proof of the government’s authoritarian grip on society.

Although the thwarting of a potential trade row with the US was behind the decision and only “therapeutic” gum is permitted, the implication was that Singapore was trying to cast aside its squeaky clean image.

Movies that would normally have been banned have since been shown in cinemas and increasingly more risque entertainment permitted. Last week, it was announced that Singapore would be the first city in Asia to host the Crazy Horse Paris cabaret, which features scantily-clad dancers.

But the biggest surprise came last month, when the government announced the end of a 40-year ban on casinos so that two gaming resorts could be built by 2009. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told parliament: “We cannot stand still – the whole region is on the move.”

While improving Singapore’s tourism figures was ostensibly behind the moves, veteran journalist and commentator Ravi Veloo also believed a stagnating population was causing the government to act.

“What they’re really worried about is demographics and enlarging the tax base,” he said during a business trip to Kuala Lumpur.

“The quickest way to do that is to import more foreign bodies in the name of foreign talent. The dilemma is how to have more people here, especially from abroad, without altering the political landscape which they’ve developed over the past 50 years and works very significantly to their favour.”

But Mr Veloo rejected suggestions that Singapore was a brighter, breezier place because of the push for change.

“These are just superficial flourishes of the brush, but the paint is still the same colour,” he said. “Singapore’s the only country in the world that has moved forward so impressively in terms of technology and the economy, but it is still so retarded politically.”