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Hang democracy, let's trade
Singaporeans don't like to be reminded they do business with Burmese narco-traffickers, and admit they don't mind punishing the innocent to preserve law and order. Eric Ellis reports.

Singapore might seem to struggle with the concepts of democracy, human rights and clemency. But one word it knows very well is "hub".

It comes up virtually every day – in advertising, on state television and in the state-controlled press where Singapore's leadership exhorts its compliant populace to be a "world renaissance city" and a "hub" for all manner of undertakings. For instance, it lays claim to being South-East Asia's aviation hub, its banking hub, its (improbable) media hub, an education hub, a shipping hub, a construction hub, an oil-services hub, even a hub for "hand-knotted Central Asian carpets", as the quasi-official but geographically muddled Business Times recently proclaimed. But as Australians have come to learn, one area where Singapore deserves international honours is as the world's ­hanging hub, as convicted Australian drug courier Nguyen Tuong Van and his ­grieving Melbourne family will probably discover this Friday morning when Singapore likely snuffs out his 25-year life at the end of a hangman's noose.

Until last weekend, the plan had been that at dawn on December 2, Singapore's 72-year-old executioner Darshan Singh would tighten the noose around Nguyen's neck and tell the young man, as he has done a reported 800-odd times before, that he is bound for "a better place than this". But Singh told Reuters on Sunday that his long-term role as the nation's executioner had been terminated and that a replacement was expected to conduct the hanging of the Melbourne man.

The looming execution has sparked yet another debate over Singapore's capital-punishment program, leading the country's critics to wonder whether Singapore could also become "a better place than this". The underbelly of this city-state has been exposed by the Nguyen matter and Singapore's tight leadership coterie – so used to control – is powerless to do much about it, burdened by a confluence of negative events.

It's been a bad few months for Singapore's image abroad. One of Britain's leading universities, Warwick, decided it would not set up a campus in Singapore, because the government could not guarantee academic freedom. Human rights lawyer M. Ravi says that a Canadian court is debating a precedent that could disallow evidence heard in Singapore's legal system from being considered in Canada's jurisdiction. And the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Singapore 140 of 167 on its press freedom index, worse than Indonesia (102) and rival Hong Kong (39); better than China (159) and North Korea (last).

Singapore's selling of itself to Australians as the "Most Surprising Tropical Island on Earth" now seems to be haunting it. Far from a nice place to shop away the average 2½-day stopover between Europe and Australia, Australians have been surprised to know that Singapore interests own more of Australia than they had realised – Optus, REX Airlines, Australand and its enormous property bank, the Victorian power utility Ausnet – as well as about $40bn more, most of it ultimately controlled by the Singapore government.

If Australians thought much of Singapore at all, it was probably of a cheap camera store on Orchard Road. They now know what Singaporeans have long endured; that in becoming one of the world's richest people, Singaporeans don't enjoy democracy – at least not one Australians would recognise. Their long-ruling government has brutalised any meaningful opposition nearly out of existence, they may be spied on and they get their sanitised news from one of the world's least free media. Harsh law and order in Singapore is not just about chewing gum.

Many Singaporeans regard it as an unofficial social contract with the government: give us wealth and we won't complain. ­Foreign investors have tended to lavish praise on it; Singapore Inc promises cheap, skilled labour, efficient communications and political stability. The Singapore government is the first to admit their country is illiberal. Indeed, it's one of the reasons why clean, green, efficient Singapore is a rich and ­successful place.

Singaporeans have also been exposed as helping prop up the brutal military junta in Burma, regarded officially by the United States and the European Union as one of the world's nastiest narco-states. John Howard and Alexander Downer officially claim ignorance about Singapore's close official links to Burma, where the heroin Nguyen strapped to his body was likely sourced. But to find out, all they need to do is head down ­Canberra's Kings Avenue to the Office of National ­Assessments, Australia's elite intelligence-gathering agency that falls under the wing of the Prime Minister's Department, where one of the world's leading experts on the matter toils away keeping Australians safe from terrorists.

A former diplomat to Burma and academic, Andrew Selth is a senior ONA analyst. He insists he wasn't hired for his expertise on Burma and, after 18 months at ONA, is at pains to separate his current work from his earlier output on Burma, written when he was an academic. But as a regional specialist who knows his work remarks: "Well, he's not at ONA to open the batting for the Prime Minister's XI."

In 1998, in the authoritative London-based military journal Jane's Intelligence Review under the pseudonym William Ashton, Selth wrote "notorious [Burmese drug] traffickers like Lo Hsing-han are thought to control a number of companies in Singapore that are investing heavily in Burma." (Lo's son Steven is married to a Singaporean and is banned from travelling to the US.)

"Singapore cares little about human rights, in particular the plight of the ethnic and religious minorities in Burma, which occasionally troubles Muslim states like Indonesia and Malaysia," says Ashton/Selth's Jane's piece, entitled "Burma receives advances from its silent suitors in Singapore".

"Having developed one of the region's most advanced armed forces and defence industrial support bases, Singapore is in a good position to offer Burma a number of inducements which other ASEAN countries would find hard to match."

Ashton/Selth also describes how, in September 1988, two months after the US State Department says Burma's junta killed more than 1000 students during a popular rebellion, "the first country to come to the regime's rescue was in fact Singapore".

He writes: "In October 1988, hundreds of boxes marked ‘Allied Ordnance, Singapore' were unloaded from two vessels of Burma's Five Star Shipping Line in Rangoon's port. These shipments reportedly included mortars, ammunition and raw materials for Burma's arms factories. The consignment also contained 84mm rockets for the Burmese army's Carl Gustaf recoil-less guns, which were made by Chartered Industries of Singapore under licence from Förenade Fabriksverken in Sweden. The shipment thus violated an agreement under which the original export licence had been ­negotiated, requiring that any re-exports only be made with the permission of the Swedish government. No such clearance was granted. In August 1989, Singapore was again accused of providing arms to the [Burmese junta] when weapons and ammunition originating in Belgium and Israel were trans-shipped to Burma, apparently with the assistance of SKS Marketing, a newly formed Singapore-based joint venture with the Burmese military regime."

Chartered Industries and Allied Ordnance are part of Singapore Technologies, a defence contractor controlled by the Singapore government's Temasek ­Holdings. Temasek's chief executive is Madame Ho Ching, wife of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of modern Singapore's revered founder Lee Kuan Yew and the man Howard has met to plead, unsuccessfully, for Nguyen's life. Described as "sharp and incisive", Madame Ho joined Singapore Technologies in 1987, two years after she married Lee, and rose to be its chief executive before joining Temasek directly in 2002. The Bulletin tracked down a company called SKS Marketing to a Christian bookshop in central Singapore, the SKS standing for "Serving the King's Servant". An SKS employee confirmed the company also had business activities in Burma, adding it was involved in transport and logistics in Rangoon.

Professor Desmond Ball, of the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, estimates that about 50% of Burma's foreign exchange is "drug money", much of it likely laundered through Singapore. Robert Gelbard, the former US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said in 1997 that half of Singapore's investment in Burma "have been tied to the family of narco-trafficker Lo Hsing Han".

Ball says the Australian government will "do nothing politically" to harm its "very tight" relationship with Singapore. Bigger issues, he says, are more important than Nguyen Tuong Van, notably an interest in Indonesia and an even tighter embrace of Washington. Burma, Ball says, is one of those uncomfortable matters that it's pragmatic to keep at bay, an arrangement which suits Rangoon's generals, too. "The bigger strategic interest is more important," he says.

Australia and Singapore keep a close eye – and listen in – on mutual neighbour ­Indonesia for much the same reasons. Both are anxious to cultivate ties in the ever-changing and often volatile Jakarta, Singapore more so given that it is rich, small and mostly Chinese, compared with sprawling mostly Islamic and poor Indonesia, the proverbial elephant in the South-East Asian ballroom. Ball says Australia closed its monitoring operation in Singapore in the 1970s but, when Suharto was toppled in 1998, re-established Indonesia-listening links with Singapore's intelligence. In recent years, Ball says, Australia has tended to officially ignore "accidental" flyovers of Australian military installations by Singapore air force planes during training in Australia. Likewise, says Murdoch University's Singapore specialist Garry Rodan, the monitoring by Singapore informers of Singaporean students in Australia – highlighted most glaringly in 1999 when two Singaporean students were arrested in a "random" test as they arrived in Singapore three weeks after smoking marijuana at a party in Perth. Under Singapore law, it is illegal for a Singaporean to take drugs overseas, not only in Singapore.

The sparse coverage of the Nguyen matter in Singapore's state-sanitised media bubble contrasts with the media event he has become in Australia. But last Friday, the Straits Times' senior columnist Andy Ho wrote a full-page essay explaining the government's hardline stance on drugs, Nguyen and the death penalty. The piece, which made no mention of Burma, said "if, in the event of effective crime prevention, a few innocent people are punished or a few guilty ones are over-punished, that would be a price worth paying".

The Bulletin asked Ho why his article did not address Singapore's links with Burma, and if his article was entirely his work. Ho, who boasts an MBA from Yale University and a PhD from MIT, emailed back: "Where's the beef ... show me your evidence. Do you know someone at The Bulletin with my training or credentials to be able to go over my stuff intelligently? I doubt it." The Straits Times has reported the Burma connection indirectly, by publishing articles critical of Chee Soon Juan, a local opposition figure who has been discredited by the government before.

Like the Nguyen matter, the Singapore-Burma relationship is pregnant with contradictions and, many say, hypocrisy. Commercially pragmatic Singapore, Asia's business hub, doesn't see it that way. As Singapore Inc's reputation was being besieged around the world over the Nguyen backlash, Singapore's High Commissioner to Australia Joseph Koh claimed that after investigations, Singapore found such reports of intimate Singapore-Burma connections "baseless".

This didn't discourage a former Singapore trade commissioner to Burma and now a Singapore government lecturer at Singapore's Temasek University's Business School from writing a jarringly frank guide for ­Singaporeans doing business there.

In Myanmar on My Mind, published in 2001 by Times Publishing, Matthew Sim offers sage advice in an often-bizarre read, made all the more so given Singapore's famous self-publicised intolerance of corruption and lawbreakers. (The book carries a CV of Australian-­educated Sim, describing a career as a senior officer at the Singapore government's Trade ­Development Board, tasked with ­promoting Singapore Inc abroad.)

Sim writes that Singapore-Burma business links are "very good". He says that Singaporeans "know the Myanmar [Burma] market well" and that "many successful Myanmar businessmen have opened shell companies" in Singapore "with little or no staff, [and these companies are] used to keep funds overseas". Sim says the companies are used to keep business deals outside the control of Burma's central bank, enabling Singaporeans and others to transact with Burma in Singapore.

Sim's book was described by one local reviewer as a "critical step in this knowledge-based economy". If nothing else, Sim's guide opens a window into Singapore's pragmatic corporate practices in Burma.

Singapore has strict laws on corruption, and rates highly on measures like watchdog Transparency International's corruption monitor. It pays its government officials handsomely to ensure they are not tempted. But Sim has a message for those battling Burma's notorious official corruption – go with it. "A little money goes a long way in greasing the wheels of productivity," he writes.

Under the chapter heading "Committing Manslaughter When Driving", Sim describes the choices an international businessman has if he has accidentally killed a Burmese pedestrian. "Firstly, the international businessman could give the family of the deceased some money as compensation and dissuade them from pressing charges. Secondly, he could pay a Myanmar citizen to take the blame by declaring that he was the driver in the fatal accident.

"An international businessman should not make the mistake of trying to argue his case in a court of law when it comes to a fatal accident, even if he is in the right.

"He highly probable [sic] that he will spend time in jail regretting it. It is a sad and hard world. The facts of life can be ugly."

Nguyen Tuong Van and his grieving family would doubtless agree.

  • Nguyen Tuong Van Case Page & Petition

  • Singapore delays verdict on Nguyen's hug
    The mother of condemned drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van is preparing to bid farewell to her son, still not knowing if she will be able to hug him one last time before his execution.

    Kim Nguyen and her other son Khoa will pay their final visit to Nguyen on Thursday before the 25-year-old Melbourne man's scheduled hanging at dawn on Friday in Singapore's Changi Prison.

    But despite high-level appeals by the Australian government, Singapore has still not announced whether it will allow a contact visit, enabling Kim Nguyen to touch her son for the last time.

    Lawyer Lex Lasry, QC, who visited a "composed and resolute" Nguyen on Wednesday, said refusing a final hug would be inhumane.

    "There's just no basis on which that family shouldn't be consoled at least with some level of physical contact with their brother and son," he said.

    Melbourne woman Kelly Ng, in Singapore to say goodbye to her close friend, said a final embrace would mean everything to Kim Nguyen.

    "I think that really, really breaks her heart because showing your affection physically speaks volumes and I'm sure that if she had a choice of either speaking to her son for hours or just being able to hold him just once, I think she'd choose the latter," she told ABC radio.

    Visits by family and friends have been conducted through a pane of perspex, with prison rules forbidding touching.

    It is understood any decision to allow a contact visit will be made at senior government level, with a statement expected at the last moment, some time on Thursday.

    Meanwhile Nguyen's biggest concern was for his mother, who is suffering physically as well as emotionally, Ng said.

    "In a physical sense she's lost a lot of weight and her hair's becoming quite white, and that's only been a change within a week," she said.

    "I've also noticed she's become a lot more accepting to the situation that we are in at the moment."

    Nguyen, sentenced to death for trying to smuggle nearly 400 grams of heroin through Singapore to Australia, remained composed and even cheerful as his death approached, said visitors.

    "I just had an hour and 20 minutes with him: (it was) enjoyable, optimistic, at times humorous," said Lasry.

    "He wants to die a good death; he believes that he's lived a good life in the last couple of years and he has dealt with what he's facing."

    Two Melbourne filmmakers shooting a documentary about Nguyen met him for the first time, with one, Kim Beamish, remarking later:"He's fantastic. His eyes are clear. His face is clear."

    Ng and Bronwyn Lew, who both visited Nguyen again, said their friend was in "very high spirits", smiling and laughing.

    But Ng added: "He really cannot see why there's so much fuss over him. I think that's why he's such a special person."

    While hopes for a reprieve for Nguyen have all but disappeared, Australian Greens Senator Kerry Nettle sought support for moves to extradite him to Australia.

    The NSW Council for Civil Liberties has written to the Australian Federal Police asking for Nguyen to be charged with conspiracy to import heroin, allowing the extradition process to begin and perhaps permitting a stay of execution.

    But Justice Minister Chris Ellison ruled out the option, saying Nguyen could not be prosecuted in Australia for the same crime he committed in Singapore.

    Singapore's prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, again dismissed calls to save Nguyen from the gallows.

    Lee told French newspaper Le Figaro that the death penalty "is necessary and is part of the criminal justice system," rejecting claims that executing people for non-violent crimes is out of date and inhuman.

    In Australia, supporters were on Wednesday night praying and lighting candles for Nguyen.

    In Canberra, 3,000 candles of hope were to be lit near Old Parliament House in a vigil that Liberal MP Bruce Baird would show Nguyen's family "that the nation is with them in their darkest hour".

    In Sydney, a mass and prayer service at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral was to be followed by an overnight prayer vigil.

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