Friday, September 29, 2006

What Singaporeans Miss

Thailand's coup leaders struggle for acceptance abroad

The Associated Press


Published: September 27, 2006

BANGKOK, Thailand Thailand's military rulers are struggling to convince the international community that staging a coup was the only way to maintain democracy here. But it's been a tough sell.

Troops and tanks rolled through Bangkok's streets just over a week ago and deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had overwhelmingly won the past three elections. The United States and other governments quickly condemned the coup as a setback to democracy.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stepped up initial criticism, telling the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that Thailand needs "to get a civilian government and they need to get to elections and get back on a democratic path very, very quickly."

Criticism like that has made the military rulers increasingly defensive. They say foreign governments have failed to consider the complexity of the situation in Thailand, where democracy and democratic institutions took a severe beating under Thaksin.

"We are disappointed with their reaction," said Maj. Gen. Thaweep Netniyom, a spokesman for the coup leaders. "But we also understand their reaction. These are countries that have a very fixed definition of democracy."

Thailand has been widely considered a beacon of democracy in Southeast Asia, where neighbors include military-ruled Myanmar, Communist-led Vietnam and Laos, and Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has been assailed for ignoring human rights and free speech, and for jailing critics.

But democracy in Thailand, with its history of military coups, has always been fragile.

Thaksin, a charismatic tycoon-turned-politician, was loved by the rural poor for introducing a universal health care plan and a raft of populist policies. But he was also accused of widespread corruption, human rights abuses, stifling the media and a long list of undemocratic offenses. Massive protests earlier this year demanding his resignation had failed, but were scheduled to resume.

After the military seized power on Sept. 19, coup leaders said they intervened because military intelligence showed the likelihood of imminent and violent clashes between Thaksin's supporters and opponents.

In the capital, Bangkok, the coup makers were celebrated as liberators. Thais showered the tanks with flowers and donated food to troops. Polls have shown that over 75 percent of the country's people supported the coup — partly because their revered king endorsed it.

But Western nations' criticism has caught the coup engineers off guard, and they've been struggling with public relations abroad. "For outsiders, a coup is a coup. There is no necessary coup. There is no good coup," said former Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. "The challenge is to explain to critics and doubters out there: Look, there was no democracy left under Thaksin."

"The fact that they (the coup leaders) are trying to reach out shows that they are concerned about Time magazine and The Economist and international headlines," Surin said, referring to the latest overseas editions of both magazines, which put the coup on their covers with images of soldiers and tanks.

To Thailand — whose economy is driven by tourism, foreign investment and exports — the world's opinion matters.

Coup leaders have held several daily news conferences and offered special English-language briefings for foreign media in Bangkok.

They have sought to ease foreign investors' minds by pledging a commitment to a free-market economy, to maintaining the previous administration's economic and social policies and to continuing megaprojects like expanding Bangkok's subway system.

They have reached out to the diplomatic community, inviting diplomats twice over the past week for debriefings with question-answer sessions.

Diplomats have been urged to send their governments the message that "the military takeover will not be forever, just a very short time — and power will be returned back to the people as soon as possible," said Thaweep, the military spokesman.

At the United Nations, Thailand's ambassador reassured the international community that her country was quickly returning to normal. "We will ensure a swift return to democracy with a definite timeline," Laxanachantorn Laohaphan told the General Assembly Wednesday.

When army commander Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin seized power he vowed to install a temporary civilian regime within two weeks, or by Oct. 4. He has since pledged repeatedly to stick to his self-imposed deadline.

But the longer it takes, the more frustrated the international community will become, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
"There is a broad effort to try to restore international credibility. But the longer they wait, the more problematic it will become," said Thitinan. "They need to hand over power to a competent civilian government. That would solve their problem."

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Singapore Dreaming

American Response to Thai Coup

U.S. responding to coup, suspends some aid to Thailand

The Associated Press
Published: September 28, 2006

WASHINGTON The United States suspended $24 million (€18.8 million) in military assistance to Thailand on Thursday, invoking laws that bar certain aid programs to governments that have taken power by force.

Affected by the suspension is a $16.3 million (€12.8 million) program to train and equip Thai forces for counterterrorism operations, $4.1 million (€3.2 million) for financing of commercial military sales to Thailand and $3.29 million (€2.6 million) for training and equipping Thai military personnel for multinational peacekeeping operations.

Also suspended was $130,000 (€102,000) for military training unrelated to peacekeeping operations. U.S. assistance for health programs will continue, including funds to help prevent the spread of AIDS and to prepare for a possible bird flu outbreak.

The announcement of the aid suspension by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack came nine days after the Thai military ousted elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup.

Officials were unable to provide a figure for the total U.S. assistance effort to Thailand, including military, economic and humanitarian aid.

The United States criticized the coup from the outset, calling it "a step backward for democracy." It also has said that the one-year time frame set by coup leaders for holding elections is too long.

Some U.S. military assistance will continue because it is not sent directly to the Thai government or because it serves a U.S. national interest. One such program is designed to combat development of weapons of mass destruction.

Thailand is a long-standing defense treaty ally of the United States.

Congress has approved over the years a number of amendments that forbid certain assistance programs to governments that have subverted democratic processes. The measures are designed to encourage only legal transfers of power.

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Hmm, I wonder what is the American Congress' stand on elections in Singapore. And their stand on MM Lee's recent comments that if ever the opposition of today come into power, and squandered the wealth of the nation, he would get the local military to take over the Government and throw out the opposition.

Edit: Kelvin, thanks for writing in. Context notwithstanding - as in all things viewed under the legal system we so love in Singapore it is the intent which is applicable.

Further Edit: Kelvin, I stand corrected yet again on my understanding of MM Lee's 'military coup' portion of his speech and have added to the para in red. My misunderstanding and mistake on that part. I still choose to retain the entire para which queries how the American Congress would react since they are now reacting to the Thai coup whom the locals claim are peaceful but in some relation to claims of corruption by the Thaksin regime. i.e. I believe the Americans would still call for a re-instatement of the government and democratic practices (therefore no coup) even if a coup were ostensibly to oust an incompetent government of the day. Thanks for your comments again.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Thank My Lucky Stars or Not?

The NUS department of Political Science would do well to pay attention to the international spats created by MM Lee. It is highly instructive in how not to conduct diplomacy. Any student at GWU would tell you that as well, much less other schools which conduct courses on diplomacy.

But let's go back a little in time. Was it not just a few months ago, prior to Singapore's General Election where PM Lee basically told the Australians how to run their country?

So they say in statistics, once is an occurence, two can be a coincidence, three is typically a trend.

Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia makes three.

So why thank my lucky stars? December 1999 I applied for a position with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, went for three rounds of interviews and was, fortunately today, rejected. I would not have the face or the know how to placate our neighbours who are far larger then us. I do not even know if placating them would be the right thing to do since such irresponsible words are uttered with nary a thought on the political fallout. And I certainly do not want to do an Adlai Stevenson or be done into an Adlai Stevenson situation wherein an internationally respected and upright diplomat is called upon to essentialy lie for his country due to the lack of information provided. Nor do I wish this on any of our many fine and distinguished diplomats of today. But, good luck to all of you!

And hey, is not Minister George Yeo, our Foreign Affairs Minister the right person to address these issues since these are international relations issues? And Second Minister Raymond Lim? So why the silence? Autarky? Or as the locals prefer .... bo chi?

Are these really the men to lead Singapore into the future where our economy is growing ever more closely tied to the international and regional economies? And wither those who support these men?

Has common sense and simple manners gone out the window with each successive electoral victory, never mind how it was achieved, scored? Can we then blame our fellow citizens for the boorish behaviour so often lamented about in the offline and online forums?

To top it off, the silence on the status of OUR national investments in Thailand is curious.

Makes me wonder if I should really thank my lucky stars or not.

While the MSM (mainstream media) is going on and on about how much fun our neighbours are having discussing remarks made by our elder statesman I have not seen any real debate or discussion in the same media on how we Singaporeans feel.

Is there something being hidden? Some other bad news which has been conveniently tucked away into an obscure column in an obscure page while the headlines rage on? What of our money in Shin Corp? What of the economy and what is happening here and now? The untimely demise of some other mega company which Temasek bought into? Mind you these are questions, not aspersions.

For the sheer hell of it I went to apply for a taxi driver's vocational licence today. If and when I do pass I hope to someday drive a taxi to understand what is really going on in the taxi industry.

There were some 50 people who were to be 'interviewed.' I asked around and found out that that is the average daily number who are slated for interviews. Every working day 50 Singaporeans are applying to be taxi drivers. Lost job? Cannot be re-employed? Employment of last resort?

Compare this to headline news barely a month ago where the papers were screaming about unprecendented low unemployment rates? About how employers were upbeat and planning to employ more and more? More Singaporeans or more foreigners is my first question here.

If one bothers to scan through all Saturday recruit sections for a year or so one may realize that many Governmental and quasi-governmental bodies are constantly looking out for the same positions. I wonder why? To make the job market look good? Turnover too high because working conditions are ridiculous (8am to 11pm at some former stat boards where I have friends who are bonded? family time?) or because Singaporeans are too spoiled?

I don't have the real answer. It could be a mix of factors. All of the above and more. But it remains that what I see today at the Singapore Taxi Academy is telling to me in more ways then one.

Every working day 50 Singaporeans apply to be taxi drivers. 200 working days a year works out to 10,000 Singaporeans a year applying to be taxi drivers. Probably a piddling percentage are folk like me today. Is the local economy really ok? Is Singapore really ok?

Edit: Kelvin, thanks for writing in. Even if I discount 50% of the taxi applicants as repeat applicants we still get 5,000 Singaporeans a year applying to be taxi drivers. Still a large number by any measure going forward into the future. No other industry, including today's civil service has that many job openings in a year every year.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Thailand's Coup, Singaporean's Money

Your Excellency
Ambassador Thanchitt
Royal Thai Embassy

Your letter to the public in Singapore is re-assuring of continual growth of Thailand as a nation. It is, however, unfortunate that you were required, in your diplomatic capacity, to pen such a letter to be published in Singapore which does not truly respect the tenets of democracy and human rights as enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.

If democracy is a model to go by in the world for a more stable future then Singapore has to play catch up. While your military forces have taken things into their own hands in an apparent attempt to stop what appears to be high level corruption and restore democracy in place of money politics, Singapore's military has been called upon to quash any opposition that may come into power through legal means at the ballot box.

It brings to mind the recent investments made by Singapore's Temasek Holdings, done with executive powers without consultation to the public, and whither the status of this investment since it apparently involves Singaporean taxpayer money. On behalf of many Singaporeans, I ask that The Royal Kingdom of Thailand's honourable judiciary bear this in mind when deliberating on the legality of the said investments. We have no true democratic rights in Singapore and hence no true control over the expenditure of state funds.

The internal political and ideological differences practiced and allowed for by the citizenry in our countries are stark. Your belief in the rule of law as a tenet of democracy is admirable. I hope Thailand's interim and new Government will not adopt a model of Legalism similar to Singapore's wherein there are no rights but only privileges for the citizens.

Thailand has my best wishes for a speedy recovery from an excellent coup which should be a model of reform for many Asian countries.

Chok Dee.

Perry Tong

The Straits Times

Sep 28, 2006 Thailand remains fully committed to democracy

FOLLOWING the recent political developments in Thailand, I must update your readers on the current situation as they deserve accurate information on what is going on before they decide what to believe.

While the military intervention on September 19 may be perceived as a setback for democracy in Thailand, early indicators seem to suggest that Thailand needed to take this step to propel our democracy forward. Indications are that public support for the intervention has been overwhelming. According to the polls on September 20 by a respectable local independent polling agency, Suan Dusit Rajabhat University, 84 per cent of 2,019 people who took part in the survey support the political change.

Another 75 per cent also believe that it will improve our political situation. Besides, Thailand has remained calm and peaceful throughout. Our capital, Bangkok remains as safe as ever.
Such public support should not, however, be interpreted in any way that our people has turned against democracy. The reality is quite the opposite. The Council for Democratic Reform (CDR) has clearly stated that it would return power to the Thai people at the earliest opportunity.

Concrete actions with participation from various sectors of our society are being taken to accelerate the democratic reform process that could not take place properly under the previous caretaker government. The CDR has firmly stated that it would do its best to ensure the ongoing process of drafting a provisional constitution is completed by next week.

A national legislative assembly will then be formed, which will in turn task a constitution drafting body to elaborate on a new constitution. Also, the head of the CDR has firmly and openly stated that he will, within two weeks, transfer all of the Council's administrative powers to a respectable civilian Prime Minister, who will at once form a government to run the country. This government, along with the Thai people, will have oversight over the drafting of our new constitution.

We expect that free and fair elections based on the new constitution will be held within a year, if not sooner. The Election Commission, which was appointed by the former Senate, has already made concrete preparations. What we ask from all good friends of Thailand is your understanding. Despite the recent intervention, our friends will see that respect for human rights and the rule of law, together with the profound belief in the principles of democracy, remain very close to our hearts.

We remain firmly adhered to the UN Charter and obligations under international treaties and agreements, on the basis of the equality of states. No one should doubt that Thailand would resolutely pursue the path of democratic reform to achieve sustainable progress and stability for its people.

Chalermpol Thanchitt
Royal Thai Embassy

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Response to Medical Student in Oz

Hi JC,

thanks for writing in. Please find my responses below:

Those are some interesting insights to the Singaporean healthcare model.I'm a Singaporean studying medicine in Melbourne, Aus. I would like to point out that Singapore has relatively good healthcare compared to the rest of the Asian region and our prices are DEFINITELY affordable (be it pri. healthcare or that of a higher tier).

Affordability is subjective. Without intention of prejudice or malice but you appear to be speaking from a relatively well off point of view given your current ability to engage in medical studies abroad.

In Melbourne, the cost of an ambulance trip to hospital could be as high as AUD1k?

This is not surprising, if you have followed an earlier post on privatizing healthcare costs and healthcare insurance this could well be the case in some future version of Singapore's medical healthcare system.

The idea of a welfare state, ie. taxes going back to the 'needy people' could backfire in Singapore - look at Australia. Their taxes are exhorbitant thus price of living is improportional to the std of living (comparing to SG).

Hmm, I do not believe I have promoted the idea of a welfare state. As it stands in Singapore we are virtually a welfare state in the sense that roughly 50% of the population are supporting the other 50% when you take into account that nearly 40% of our population are hired by the civil service or its affliates then add in the self-employed like taxi drivers who are restricted in income to the local market.

Besides, with the introduction of GST, ERP, COE one should be constantly careful of claiming a 'low tax rate regime' in Singapore. Afterall, where does Temasek get its money to buyout USD $2 billion of Thailand's former Prime Minister's company in a private transaction that may have violated Thai monetary law?

But on the other hand, our standard of living may not be comparable to a high tax regime. This again is subjective.

Why would we want this? Singaporeans, especially in my medical school, are stereotypical hard workers and that should be the name we strive to uphold. Work hard and earn proportionally - a meritocracy. Is there a place for the mediocre attitude in singapore? not for long, i'd say.

My apologies if I offend you with this statement: Not everyone is born equal, some may not even have the chance to work hard the same way you do simply because of chance. I used to hold down 2 jobs bartending before I left for my degree in the US. Sometime in the early 90s I was taking home nearly $4k a month in return for working from 9am to 3am daily. My inability to focus on studies at a younger age was an initial setback in my life. My family's financial condition then did not permit me the luxury of even thinking about further education past secondary school.

There should never be a place anywhere for mediocrity. Chance, or some would say, by the grace of God, plays a large part. Perhaps we can afford to be more charitable to those who do not have the means and wherewithal to engage in conversations like this? Afterall, the universal adoption of the bell curve, particularly when it comes to things like IQ distribution, shows that in any given population set there will be those who are brighter and those who may need more help.

That being said, today I fear more mediocrity in thought then at work/study in Singapore. We should be a nation of critical thinkers if we are to proceed successfully into the 22nd century.

65% of Singaporean healthcare is privatised (pretty high) and that would increase the healthcare cost. The only thing the govt can do is to 1. increase the bond of med students that they subsidize, 2. make it more attractive to work in the govt sector.

It is arguable that 'privatized' healthcare in Singapore is dominantly shared by a very few selected shareholders. I do not know of any individual who has a share in SGH so wither the privatisation and its argument that profits need to be generated to sustain shareholder interest in light of capital accumulation tendencies?

As it stands, PSC and other scholarship granting bodies are dramatically cutting back on the numbers of scholarships given out. Due in no small part to scholarship predecessors who have decided to break bond in one form or another. Your recommendations above, in both points essentially go back to the moral equivalent of a welfare state with a slightly different model of tax distribution.

1. Increasing the bond of medical students. Assuming medical students are willing to be bonded for a longer period implies two things. First that a student of medicine will be willing to forego, for 'x' years, a chance at higher learning and therefore specialisation with an opportunity to make mega bucks - private moral contribution for zero future return.

2. Increase the pay/perks pacakage for those who serve in the public sector. By definition the public sector runs on public funds. To increase the pay/perks package implies an increase in either the cost to the patients who happen to utilise the service OR an increase in general taxes to maintain healthcare costs. Which then is a fairer model?

Also, the supply/demand of specialists in singapore is a consideration. With the highly limited places given to medical graduates to specialize, pri healthcare costs peanuts and secondary healthcare costs a bomb.

My first question is then why are there so limited places given to specialisation? If we as a society truly believe in free market capitalism then this practice of limiting places essentially places an externality, in the form of a 'monopoly,' on the healthcare market model. On the other hand, if I were in your shoes and wanted to become a specialists, I would fight against the creation of a large pool of specialists as that would lower my returns on investment vis a vis my studies and aim in life. So the question that has to be begged would be: Are medical specialists specializing for the sake of money / fame or knowledge in light of the Hippocratic Oath?

As Singapore progresses and Singaporeans become more aware of better medical treatments secondary healthcare will play a larger and larger role in the burgeoning of healthcare costs in Singapore. Very soon the model will be imbalanced by a requirement for the expensive secondary healtcare cost that you cite earlier. When this imbalance occurs is when money needs to be found, one way or another, to keep the system going. The other alternative is that the rich will remain 'well' and the poor are allowed to die. Which brings us back a full circle on state welfarism when it comes to medical healthcare costs.

Recent incidents in the last fews years, as reported in the local papers, show that there is no guarantee of a long life even if you keep fit. Young, very fit, males and females are dropping dead around us. Some in school while playing basketball, some in NS just after finishing a 5km run, some while doing taichi. I do not think these unfortunate souls were mediocre in any way related to their own health. It is the luck of the draw when Fate decides it is your time. As a medical student you should be aware of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome). Even expert medical science is unable to appropriate a more scientific and accurate term for SIDS hence demonstrating the capriciousness of human life.

I personally feel that having a health insurance scheme using govt funds deals injustice to taxpayers. Be it the darwinism in me, or the fact that I detest dole thiefs, I support the pay-for-your-health idea in SG; opposing the medical ethics pillar of 'access and distributive justice'

Singaporeans are, by and large, brought up with enough principles to detest dole theft. Myself included. But given the arguments raised above it is inevitable that if healthcare costs are to be more effectively managed it should be state run (the idea here is not on taxpayer's funds primarily but more a focus on 'non-profit') to enable mass participation.

An example: (Touch wood) If anyone had a family member who was terminally ill but refused to give up on life, and there is no public healthcare insurance, the financial impact will ultimately by born by that entire family (assuming that family is close knit and will help each other out). This is as you suggest no?

This draining of funds in a family structure means that others will have less of that fund to spend on other things. For instance, an overseas education for a bright deserving member of that family. (Given that scholarships are now on the wane.)

So that bright young thing is condemned to mediocrity through no fault of his/hers? Yes, one may argue that that is not a fine example of mediocrity but it will surely be the way society will judge an individual. At least our society will.

I do not profess to have all the answers to many questions in life that bank on morality. I do know that morality is a creature that changes with the times. I also do know that certain moral practices are prevalent at this point in time in our general society and they are taken as norms to which we should all aspire.

At the end of the day as an aspiring politician the most vexing question for me in terms of equitability is of this nature: should 1 be saved at the expense of 50? 100? 200? 1000? or conversely should 1000 be saved at the expense of 1?

Should despots be removed at any costs so that the people can be free? Do people even know what it is to be free or be able to appreciate it? Or are we Singaporeans, as an NTU student I took on a diving trip recently so aptly described as : A dog which growls and moans because it sits on its tail, causing it pain, but apparently insufficient pain to justify a movement to a position of more comfort.

I wish you the best in your endeavours in Australia. And I hope you will come back to Singapore, one way or another, to contribute to society with the skills that you have gained.

Thank you for taking an interest in my blog and thank you for your contribution.