the scales of justice

I haven’t written much about Singapore. As I approach my last few months here, I’m starting to ask myself why.

Perhaps it’s because I live here — sometimes it’s easier to observe things when you are a complete outsider. That doesn’t seem satisfactory though. I’m a curious and inquisitive person by nature, wherever I am. I remember as a kid one Christmas, while all my sisters were getting toys and clothes, my uncle bought me a really fat, hardcover, Costco-esque book called “The Big Book of Tell Me Why” — he said maybe it would be better to consult the book, then to ask so many questions to the adults.

So, as much as I try to gloss it over, the reason I don’t write about Singapore is pretty clear. While I know the risks are actually quite minimal, I just don’t want to deal with the hassle of people here finding out that I’m writing about Singapore politics. Reading that last sentence again, I realize it sounds absurd, but that’s how this little island really operates. People self-censor to make their lives easier.

But why? What are the risks involved? There’s of course livelihood issues. Employers tend to not be so happy about their employees being outspoken on political issues. They subtly nudge their employees to focus on art and culture and economics so as not to risk their company’s reputations.

But there is also a judicial question. This country is famous for its efficient and fair court system, which is a big reason why so many businesses feel comfortable setting up shop on the island. They know that they will get a fair shake if something goes wrong.

But since the Far Eastern Economic Review was kicked out in 2006, and subsequently sued for defamation (here’s a nice summary and introduction to the issues by Columbia’s journalism school), there have been questions about how the judiciary in Singapore operates. It’s important to read the essay that created the stir (PDF), as well as some of the explanations for the suit (scroll down to the question about FEER near the end).

And now, with the defamation suit against Chee Soo Juan in full swing, those questions are coming back. The International Bar Association listed their concerns (PDF) about, among other things, defamation suits and their use in Singapore’s courts.  Here’s the Straits Times take, a view from Australia, a Wall Street Journal opinion, and a piece from The Economist. You can also get lost in the black hole of Singapore Rebel’s court transcripts for first-hand information, editorialized introductions to each blog entry aside.

What does this have to do with my hesitation to blog about Singapore? Well, nothing. And everything. When everyone around you self-censors — they whisper certain names, cut lines out of scripts, report heavily on certain speeches but not others — it’s hard not to think that they have real reasons for doing so. Not many people want to bring trouble on themselves for voicing an opinion, or even just reporting on others’ opinions. And after a while, even if I don’t know what can get me into trouble and what cannot, I just make a habit of not publishing certain things.

I don’t think this entry is objectionable — I have not taken a position on these issues and all of ten people read my blog. But I will reread it three times before I hit the publish button anyway.

ways to cross a border

These are kids in Myanmar, also known as Burma. They live in a town called Tachilek, on the border of Thailand. I met them in a mosque — a very small mosque on a sidestreet in the town. There is a lot of dispute about the position and treatment of Muslims in Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country. I was happy to meet these boys — the one in the middle was particularly funny, meditating like a Buddhist monk but holding a slingshot in his hand. I don’t think they get many visitors.

meditation

I had planned to visit Yangon (Rangoon) with my friend Anil Kalhan in the second weekend of May, which was incidentally the weekend of the country’s constitutional referendum. Not surprisingly (though, I have to say, I was still a bit surprised) the Myanmar Embassy in Singapore closed its visa section for a few days about a month before our weekend sojourn. And then for the week after that. And the next week too, which was when Cyclone Nargis hit. When we finally got to the visa counter (on now my fourth visit to the embassy) we were told that a visa could not be ready until Monday, the Monday that we were supposed to return to Singapore.

So, our Yangon trip didn’t work out. Not to be deterred, we decided to take the back door to Burma. We went to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. We wandered around the city and met some people there who told us a lot about what was happening across the border in Burma. Then we went by bus to Mae Sai, the border town on the Thai side and our gateway to a country neither of us had ever seen but were very curious about.

Crossing the border by foot was a strange experience. It should have been a bigger deal than it was. You cross through Thai security, walk on a short bridge over the Sai River, are greeted by a large photo of junta leader Than Shwe, pay 500 baht (we tried to pay US$10, but they didn’t like that our bills had doggy ears), and voila! Myanmar. (Myanmar without our passports, that is. They hold on to them until you return.)

Tachilek and Mae Sai sit inside the Golden Triangle, the area where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. It’s a place notorious for opium production, hilltribes and the spread of HIV. Not too pretty. But it’s also a place glossed over for tourists — these “dangerous” places have capitalized on their reputations in many ways. So too has Tachilek. The three-wheel taxi drivers have a little route they all follow, showing half-day tourists from Thailand Shan temples, Chinese-style temples and the beauty of the valley where Tachilek rests. Indeed, it is a beautiful country, but one that is conspicuously void of newspapers. Many buildings have satellite dishes, but the televisions we saw were tuned to WWF wrestling from across the border. One week after Cycle Nargis hit, our guide still thought only a few thousand had been killed.

So we wandered around, seeing all the things that all the curious onlookers see and trying to ask questions in between, It is certainly a strange place and one where you don’t speak too loudly, or walk past a polling booth twice, or take photos of referendum posters out in the open. Our guide made that abundantly clear to us. He also made it clear that people in Tachilek didn’t feel that their vote in the referendum was secret — so many voted “yes” to satisfy local leaders. So I took what photos I could — I’m afraid I couldn’t properly capture Tachilek, though.

it’s not about Tibet

I frequently read Tim Johnson’s blog on China — he’s the Beijing bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers and often has really interesting things to say and good selections of links.

The blog has, of late, become quite embroiled in the Olympics Torch Relay, e.g. the global referendum on China and Tibet. It’s easy to get pretty caught up reading the comments, which are sometimes thoughtful, sometimes angry, and sometimes factually incorrect. Johnson wrote a post over the weekend about the flame’s journey through Nagano, Seoul, and last week’s stop in Canberra. He says he was “haunted” by a passage from a story in an Australian daily about a Chinese nationalist protester who used his child to spark anger in a pro-Tibet protester. I was haunted for another reason. Here’s the lead:

HERE comes the ugly face of China. He
can’t be any more than 21-years-old. His eyes are full of hate, his jaw
clenched so tight his cheeks seem ready to snap. His brain already has.


Later in the article, the author, Garry Linnell says, “But the fierce display of nationalistic pride by a pro-Chinese crowd of up to 10,000 caught everyone by surprise.” Nationalism certainly brings out China’s ugly face, but it also appears to be bringing out the ugly faces of many others. This story — I am still not sure if it ran as news or opinion, but I am hoping for the latter — was headlined, “Chinese overrun our capital.” I could parse this phrase to explain why its very inflammatory and tells you a lot about the state of racial politics in Canberra, but I’m hoping I don’t have to.

sweet revenge

kabuki

This weekend I got my first full-length taste of kabuki and, boy, was it delicious.

This form of Japanese theater is fantastic and fascinating to watch — for its dramatic acting, stylized makeup and simple, effectual music — but it’s even better when you have some sense of what people are saying. Lucky for me, the Cathay Cineplex in Singapore was hosting the Cinema-Kabuki Festival. The beauty of theater at the movies is that I could see subtitled, film versions of two plays.

One was the beautiful Kyokanoko Musume Ninin Dodoji. The other was the brilliantly funny Noda Version Togitatsu no Utare.

One of the best ways to learn about a genre is to see a parody of a genre. Togitatsu was so well done that, even through translations of puns, I laughed to the point of tears several times. Like Om Shanti Om is to Bollywood, Togitatsu is a really interesting introduction to kabuki. It’s an ode to an art form that artfully pokes fun at itself. With modern dance moves. Think West Side Story. If you get a chance to see this production, don’t miss it.

the games

I’ve been thinking about the Olympics torch relay. It seems to be rousing deep emotions — perhaps some kind of opportunism, or maybe pent up frustrations. But one thing’s clear: Even before the Olympic Games begin, there are some serious political games going on here. Just look at the torch’s run through India and Pakistan (not to mention the way each country’s national press covered it).

My roommate, who is from Japan, told me a about a Japanese website that chronicles the extreme sport of Olympic torch relay races. (Japan will run the torch in Nagano “inside a security cordon of Japanese riot police.”) Then I found this little wiki. I don’t know who is running the page, but I hope it stays updated and gets more details going.

Update: I am told that the Japanese version of Uncyclopedia is much more comprehensive, and I’m guess by the images, much funnier.

merhaba

It’s been one long month — it’s great traveling and I love to see new things. But it nice to take stock.

I spent an excellent two weeks in Turkey in March. Istanbul is a fantastic city — I particularly like Turkish tea, backgammon and grilled cheese. And fresh tomatoes. It’s a vibrant place with so many surprising paradoxes (see this and this). I also recommend sleeping in caves. There’s something about it — maybe the minerals in the air or the way it gets very dark — that gives you a really deep sleep. Turkey also offers some really amazing, really ancient things.

I got my first taste of Hong Kong, as well, and let me tell you, it was delicious. (Don’t go overboard on the street food, by the way. I learned that the hard way.)

Here’s a new friend I made in Cappadocia.

Cappadocia boy

this is what they think

Traveling around Southeast Asia is a joy. The variety of the people, the familiar things that are somehow different, the mixes of cultures — it really makes every turn a surprise. It’s fun also to tell people that I live in Singapore. I can relate to Singapore this way: it’s kind of the odd little sister with her head in the clouds. Her older siblings kind of laugh at her, but (I’m sure) envy her a bit too.

That said, my friend picked up a magazine in the Philippines and found this little set of advertisements.

absolut-singapore.jpg

food and floods

koch-jakarta.jpgA quick post — the story that came from my December trip to Jakarta with friend/colleague/photojournalist Jacqueline Koch was published a few weeks ago in the Singapore-based magazine Asian Geographic. I was pretty happy to see it actually run because, as a UCLA professor explained to me once, no seems to care much about floods in Asia anymore. The teaser on the magazine’s website is here.

<<UPDATE>> Here’s a link to a PDF of the article:Jakarta.pdf

fruit drinksBack in the U.S., the Princeton in Asia fellowship that got me out here to Southeast Asia in the first place has published an Asian food guide to New York that’s getting some nice reviews. I think they published one of my photos and perhaps a blurb basically drooling over the wonderful food I’ve had in Jakarta. You can buy a copy and tell me about it (I haven’t seen one yet!) from the PiA website.

sad posters in Kuala Lumpur

In yesterday’s general election, the ruling coalition party in Malaysia lost control of Kuala Lumpur. And Penang. And Selangor, Kedah and Perak.

kl-newspapers.jpgAnd I know it’s big news because I couldn’t find an English-language paper anywhere in Chinatown — all of the newstands were sold out. And last night, as election results began coming through at about 1 a.m., opposition and alternative media websites were near impossible to load. The main page of Malaysiakini and Jeff Ooi’s (now MP Jeff OOi of Penang) Screenshots blog were completely stalled, and Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s Malaysia Today was very slow. I found my hotel’s last remaining copies of today’s paper in the business center.

The Barisan Nasional has made its worst showing since Malaysia’s independence in 1957. Including Kelantan, which has been lead by the Islamic Party of Malaysia since the 90s, five states and one capital city are out of ruling coalition hands. This is the first time since 1969 that the coalition has not held a two-thirds majority in parliament. With only a simple majority, the party will no longer have as easy a time changing the constitution.

But why change now? Different media are giving a lot of reasons — the Asia Times ran a good pre-election article summarizing some of the major issues; long-time government leader Dr. Mahathir, according to Malaysiakini, can think of at least one reason for the turnaround.

There’s something thicker in the air though — the Malaysian Indian Congress, which is under the umbrella of Barisan Nasional, lost many seats in Parliament and state assemblies. It’s president, S. Samy Vellu (on his birthday), and major leaders were all dethroned. Meanwhile, a protest leader from the Hindu Rights Action Force who is currently detained under the Internal Security Act won a state assembly seat in Selangor.

Kuala Lumpur is still aflood with Barisan Nasional posters and flags and fliers —  I wonder how the city will (or won’t) change as the fliers come down and new leadership comes to town.