Life after the Lees? Singapore prepares for the future

Finance minister becomes likely successor to Lee Hsien Loong as city-state positions for more challenging future.

Published by Al Jazeera English, Nov. 30, 2018

By Tom Benner

Singapore – Lee Kuan Yew, known as the founding father of Singapore, oversaw its growth from a small country with no natural resources to a thriving metropolis – in a style almost invariably described as authoritarian.

Lee dominated public life on the Southeast Asian island from 1959, when the former British colony won self-governance, to well beyond his retirement as prime minister in 1990, serving in advisory ministerial roles for more than a decade.

His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, the third and current prime minister since 2004 (his predecessor Goh Chok Tong was seen by some as merely a seat warmer) has led the country through less combative, more prosperous times.

Approaching 67, he wants to step down by the time he turns 70.

The founding family appears to be at the end of its run, with no younger Lees apparently willing to continue the family’s political tradition. In a country accustomed to stability and predictability, the dawn of a post-Lee era has fuelled uncertainty. Continue reading …

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Singapore’s bid for UNESCO hawker food listing eats at neighbours

As regional rivals and food critics scoff, city-state is petitioning for UNESCO recognition of its street-fare culture.

Published by Al Jazeera English, Nov. 5, 2018

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By Tom Benner

Singapore’s street foods are largely the same as those found in neighbouring Malaysia – both share a long history under British rule and briefly merged until Singapore’s expulsion in August 1965 – and in Indonesia.

An apt example is a popular dish called rojak, a traditional fruit and vegetable salad dish that means “mixture” or “eclectic mix” in the Malay language.

Even Singapore’s national dish, Hainanese chicken rice, was brought by immigrants from the Hainan province in southern China.

Yet Singapore is making a bid for a unique distinction among Asian street food traditions. As its neighbours and food critics scoff, the city-state is preparing a petition for UNESCO recognition of its hawker culture, and a listing on the UN body’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Continue reading …

Singaporean artist jailed after peaceful protest

Human rights groups denounce two-week sentence as an affront to free speech and call for Seelan Palay’s release.

Published by Al Jazeera English, Oct. 12, 2018

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By Tom Benner

Singapore – A 34-year-old performance artist is serving a two-week jail sentence for what he and his supporters consider a peaceful one-man protest.

Human rights groups and arts supporters are calling for the release of Seelan Palay, who was sentenced under Singapore’s tough public order law. Defenders see the law as a necessary deterrent to public disorder in the strict city-state.

Palay was sentenced by a Singapore court on October 3 following a performance titled “32 Years: The Interrogation of A Mirror,” commemorating Singapore’s longest held political prisoner, Chia Thye Poh, who spent 32 years in detention until his release in 1998.

A district court ruled Palay staged a demonstration without a permit in violation of the Public Order Act, designed to protect national security. Continue reading …

The Trump-Kim Summit in Singapore

Stories by Tom Benner for Al Jazeera English

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Trump and Kim sign agreement after historic summit 

Short on detail, the landmark statement includes a commitment by Kim to ‘work towards complete denuclearisation’. (June 12, 2018)

Trump and Kim meet after months of threats and insults

US president and North Korean leader hold face-to-face talks in an unprecedented summit in Singapore. (June 12, 2018)

Trump-Kim meeting: More theatrics than substance?

Both the US and North Korea have real incentives to negotiate, but optics could be the priority at the Singapore summit. (June 11, 2018)

Strict and orderly Singapore prepares for Trump-Kim summit chaos

City state known for its strict civil laws prepares for huge influx of journalists and diplomats. (June 10, 2018)

Meet the young Singaporeans building bridges with North Koreans

A Singaporean non-profit wants to foster closer ties between North Koreans and the outside world. (June 9, 2018)

Defence officials debate N Korea’s commitment as summit looms

The planned June 12 Trump-Kim summit took centre stage at the Asian security conference in Singapore.

Published by Al Jazeera English, June 3, 2018

By Tom Benner

Singapore – Defence officials from countries around the world are worrying aloud that the June 12 US-North Korea summit may repeat failed efforts at denuclearising the Korean Peninsula.

Prospects for the historic meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong-un took centre stage at a weekend Asian security conference attended by defence chiefs from over 40 countries, with sentiments ranging from guarded optimism to downright scepticism.

Song Young-moo, South Korea’s defence minister, called the Trump-Kim summit, to be held in politically neutral Singapore, a “precious opportunity” for a new era of peace and economic prosperity in Northeast Asia. Continue reading …

N3 Magazine, the 2018 magazine for the Asian American Journalists Association’s annual Asia conference

I served as Editor-in-Chief for the 2018 issue of N3 Magazine, the official magazine for the New. Now. Next Media Conference hosted by the Asian American Journalists Association, held in Hong Kong from May 25-27. This year’s conference theme was #RethinkingNews #Asia.

Journalism basics in the digital era. Millennials and the next generation of journalists — and readers. The urgent need for investigative journalism in an era of government lies. The challenge to journalists posed by hate speech. The promise of data journalism. The possibilities of blockchain and new business models.

These and many more articles are here.

N3 2017 C1-Cover 180511

Eating around the Indian subcontinent — in Singapore

By Tom Benner
Mainichi Weekly, 5 December 2017

The following is a longer version of a column I did for Mainichi Weekly on Singapore’s Little India. For this piece I interviewed Chef Devagi Sanmugam, the Spice Queen of Singapore, and I am greatly indebted to her for allowing me to access her vast store of knowledge as well as the food recommendations for specific restaurants and favorite dishes that she shares below.

DSC_0066 Chef Devagi Sanmugam, the Spice Queen of Singapore

You can eat your way through the whole Indian subcontinent — just by walking around one neighborhood in Singapore.

Singapore’s Little India is many different things to many people.

It is a shopping paradise, for everything from hard to find Indian spices to colorful flower garlands, beautiful sarees and men’s shirts, colourful bangles, even henna designs.

It is a gathering place for South Asians living in Singapore — including the foreign workers from all over the region who spend their one day a week off (Sundays) by meeting and socializing in Little India.

It is a cultural center, where you can see performances, learn about Indian culture, or just walk about taking in the sounds of the of the latest Bollywood songs or classical Indian music.

And it is a food paradise, with restaurants that specialize in the various regions found in and around the Indian subcontinent.

As a resident of Singapore, I quickly learned that restaurants in Little India differ vastly, depending on regional cuisines. You don’t go out for Indian food — you go out for different kinds of regional foods from around the Indian subcontinent. I started out knowing little, other than to equate South Indian cuisine with spicy with lots of rice-based dishes, and North Indian not so spicy with lots of wheat based breads.

So I turned for expert opinion to Chef Devagi Sanmugam http://spice-queen.com , the award-winning author of 22 cookbooks, to teach me some of the differences. Chef Devagi — called the Spice Queen of Singapore — has family roots going back to Tamil Nadu, on the southeast coast of Indian Peninsula, and she is a self-taught cook.
Continue reading