US-China competition to loom over key defence gathering

Beijing dispatches top military brass to Singapore to deliver ‘highly anticipated’ speech at annual Shangri-La Dialogue.

Published by Al Jazeera English, May 31, 2019.

By Tom Benner

Singapore – Growing competition and ratcheting hostilities between the United States and China promise to dominate a key Asian security summit this weekend, with Beijing sending a high-ranking general for the first time in almost a decade to meet defence counterparts from countries across Asia and around the world.

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe is expected to hold talks with acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on the sidelines the Shangri-La Dialogue, while both are separately scheduled to deliver major addresses to the three-day meeting.

Launched in 2002 and held each year at Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel, the summit is Asia’s largest annual defence and security gathering. It seeks to promote bilateral dialogue among sometimes hostile adversaries, and is traditionally attended by delegates from Asia Pacific nations as well as the US and other countries.

Wei will lead the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegation, a break from the past when lower level Chinese military officials routinely attended the summit, organised by the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank. Continue reading …

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Singapore passes new law to police fake news despite concerns

Critics say approved measures grant government sweeping powers and threaten free speech.

Published by Al Jazeera English, May 9, 2019.

by Tom Benner

Singapore – After an intense debate, Singapore’s parliament has passed a sweeping “anti-fake news” bill despite concerns raised by journalists, academics and global technology companies over free speech and abuse of power.

Legislators in the island-nation on Wednesday voted to grant government ministers broad powers such as the ability to demand corrections, order the removal of content, or block websites deemed to be propagating falsehoods contrary to the public interest. Penalties for not complying with orders include steep fines and jail time.

Critics say the legislation grants arbitrary powers to government officials to determine what is deemed as fact, arguing that the private sector should be the final arbiter of what constitutes false and irresponsible statements. They say the answer lies in fact-checking websites, vigilance by tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter and increased media literacy to help news consumers better distinguish between the plausible and the improbable. Continue reading …

Hosting a Trump-Kim summit: The Singapore experience

Singapore case offers key lessons for Hanoi in dealing with security issues, diplomatic protocol and huge media influx.

Published by Al Jazeera English, Feb. 21, 2019

By Tom Benner

Singapore – At first it was on, then off, and then on again – in the end, Singapore had just two weeks to get everything ready for the much-anticipated, first encounter between a sitting US president and North Korean leader.

That such a strategically complex and delicate event came off as seemingly flawless – despite the short lead – offers lessons to Vietnam’s Hanoi, the site of the second summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un on February 27-28.

“Vietnam has a slightly easier job in that the US and North Korean governments have a template of sorts, a playbook, from the Singapore summit last June,” Eugene Tan, associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University, told Al Jazeera.

“Singapore certainly has been consulted by Vietnam, and Singapore will provide as much input as requested. It’s more about ironing the kinks from the first summit and should be easier the second time around.” Continue reading …

Pirate or hero? Raffles bicentennial fuels Singapore debate

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Stamford Raffles landed 200 years ago. But not all welcome government plans to mark the start of colonial rule.

Published by Al Jazeera English, Jan. 28, 2019

By Tom Benner

Singapore – A pristine white statue of a man in Western clothes, arms folded with the air of a conquering hero, stands on the banks of the Singapore River at the site where he is believed to have landed exactly 200 years ago on Monday.

The statue is of Sir Stamford Raffles, who cut a slippery deal with the locals in what was then known as “Singapura” to claim the island as a port for Britain’s East India Company.

Beneath it, a plaque pays tribute to his “genius and perception” and the way in which he “changed the destiny of Singapore from an obscure fishing village to a great seaport and modern metropolis”.

These days, the statue is popular with shutterbugs, but not everyone looks with pride on the memory of the white settler who brought the forces of imperial domination to an island that would soon be called by its Anglicised name, Singapore. Continue reading …

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 …

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 …