Sunday, December 14, 2008

Letter from Singapore

A new Reuters analysis article has just looked at an emerging Asian dirty-money pariah, which we blogged recently following a series of three hard-hitting articles by a Singaporean opposition party. The new Reuters article starts like this.

"As pressure mounts on Switzerland's flagship bank UBS and the country's secrecy code comes under fire from the United States and Germany, Singapore's star as a haven for the super-rich is rising fast."

It highlights the problems of trying to crack down on crime and cross-border corruption as centres "compete" against each other to attract dirty money.

We now have a different angle, a wonderful email to TJN from a Singaporean citizen, taking a more personal perspective on the growing problem (we publish it with their permission). It refers to the three fascinating articles by opposition leader Chee Son-Juan (which we highlighted in our recent blog.) Here is a the main part of the e-mail:

LETTER FROM SINGAPORE

"It's really interesting that you brought this notion of dirty money in Singapore up, particularly with the casinos going up. Much has been made of the casinos and the prospect of a wealth influx and massive job creation, but this idea of a casino as a lure for the super-rich adds a whole new dimension to it. I'm reading the article and writing my thoughts on this as I go, so this might be atrociously long, and I apologise for it in advance. Let me also just clarify that these are my instinctive thoughts on the matter, based on impressions that I have gleaned from living in Singapore for 18 years. Which may mean that they may be inaccurate - I do not claim to be able to portray the entirety of Singapore, just the aspect of Singapore as seen through my eyes.

I don't think people in Singapore think of Singapore as a tax haven, at least not the layman. In my case I never even considered Singapore as a tax haven until I started researching into this matter last year for a course I was taking. John Christensen might remember speaking on a panel when a Singaporean student stood up to question the presence of Singapore on a list of the biggest tax havens - I feel his attitude is emblematic of the knowledge deficit that Singaporeans are in. We have economic growth, stability (both economically and politically - leaving aside the intricacies of Singaporean politics for another time), and this is enough to keep us happy to keep our eyes on the ground. It's a tricky thing, this rather intertwined social contract that I feel many non-Singaporeans might have trouble understanding why we put up with it. As long as our iron rice bowls (a phrase meaning a constant income) don't get threatened, we're willing to let the government do whatever they want. Just like Jersey and many other countries, really. But there's never been a culture of questioning the government - we take paternalism all the way in Singapore.

Then again you have the opposition in Singapore, including Chee Soon Juan. A note about Chee - he has been a very prominent opposition figure in Singaporean politics, and as such his relationship with the Peoples' Action Party (the incumbent ruling party in Singapore) is tumultuous at best. At the very least, his character has been assassinated by the government so many times that it is a veritable zombie, surviving by will alone. I've been brought up to believe that he is a troublemaker for the sake of being a trouble maker, and that he and his sister (who stands alongside him as yet another opposition member of the Singapore Democrats) just stir up trouble to be noticed. I cannot say for sure - I never followed it closely enough (at that point I preferred sticking my head in the sand) to adequately form an opinion, but I must say that their political and social ostracization is not entirely the fault of the government. Part of it is their intractability, refusal to speak to the press (which they say is merely a government mouthpiece, and this is true, to an extent. More on this later), and I get the sense that he has been both an opposition member and a figurehead for so long that he is in a sense clinging to an ideal, be it an idealised version of himself or the notion that he embodies one of the few bastions of a kind of check against the government. But for someone so disempowered and disarmed by the incumbent government, the reactions by the Singaporean government can sometimes seem somewhat extreme, almost knee-jerk fearful. And this in a sense tells you a lot about Singapore and its government.

In any case, being labelled "opposition" can sometimes mean "enemy of the state." The cynic in me would strike out the word "sometimes." Either way, having this label tends to mean that what you say and what you write can often be discounted. I refer you to one of the great Singaporean opposition leaders named J. B. Jeyaretnam, a very interesting fellow, often labelled as a subversive (and in Singapore, that is enough to ruin you). Before he died, he was often seen hawking his memoirs near one of a few train stations in Singapore. Naturally, they did not sell very often since subversive words (and their authors) may well be toxic to one's own reputation. So it is not hard to imagine that the Singaporean government may well label this entire piece (the articles TJN blogged) as "yet another publicity stunt," despite the many solid arguments and (probably because of) uncomfortable questions that this piece raises.

I am trying to consider how much of a ripple this article would cause in mainstream Singapore. While there are outraged comments under the article, it is a very self-selecting group of Singaporeans who actively seek out sites like the Singapore Democrat, and they are naturally inclined to agree with anti-government articles. Most Singaporeans are unlikely to see this sort of government criticism, as the main media is more or less state controlled.

This was particularly evident a couple of years ago, during the 2006 election. It was an interesting stint, as that was the time when the PAP faced the largest opposition turnout in history. An example of the sort of censure that the ST has - the opposition held rallies, which are normally not covered in the mainstream media. This is not new - opposition parties normally do not get the same media coverage as the PAP does, and if they do, it's normally negative. But what made this interesting was that at least 5,000 or more people turned up to listen to the opposition. Comparatively, meet-and-greets with the incumbent PAP members tend to be very, very scripted. And this frighteningly large turnout was not covered by the press until 3 day later, when it had made the rounds on the Internet via email, was effectively an open secret, and the ST could not not report on it without looking like a fool. I'll send you the e-mail - it is an interesting read (TJN: it seems to have been posted on the internet - here - scroll down to see the size of the opposition crowd, which is remarkable for such a small country.)

Although there usually is no need for the government to deal with the media - they do a good job of self-censorship. A lot of the reporters I've talked to are surprisingly anti-establishment. Their only problem is that they can't print just anything they please, else someone will call someone, who will call someone else, who will call someone else, who will call the editor, who will call the journalist into the office for a Talk. And with the government willing to sue various publications for slander (think the WSJ - click here), the media's pretty much useless in terms of a fourth estate. So there's not really a lot of room for dissent - it's a game of Whack-A-Mole. You know that if you stand out, you will get whacked. Or at the very least Taken Note Of.

Which is why the Internet tends to be the place for lots of venting. But the people who bother to go to political sites and air their view are usually not your average man on the street. So while there is anger, it's the same anger that there has always been. Some scandal will blow up, people will be Angry, there will be Talk of Change, and then things will simmer down. Maybe one day it will finally boil over - the acerbic pointing out of the flaws in the PAP's facade (interestingly enough their uniforms are pure white shirts and trousers, with a black belt) is more and more frequent these days, and the youth of Singapore tend to be polarised into apathy or furious change (more apathy, I'm afraid). The winds of change are blowing, but I suspect they won't be strong enough to make the incumbent government seasick until the casinos are up and running, and money is flowing in, what with the financial crisis and Singapore's famed reticence.

On another interesting note, an inordinate amount of Singaporean students tend to take their bachelors in Finance and Business, or some equivalent, as it is commonly viewed as the moneymaking business, apart from being a doctor or a lawyer. And what with one thing and another, most Singaporean undergrads have no clue as to what they are really interested in, or just want to make money, and so they just so happen to fall into the finance business. With this sort of apathy towards anything but themselves, their interest in making money, Singapore's "bubble" of banking practices (I somehow doubt that the secretive world of Singaporean banking shares best practices on transparency and accountability with other countries, unless it is in making more money), and an extant culture of "don't ask, don't tell, but you really should know the OB (out of bound) lines -- i.e. what is permissable in this country and culture, and what is not"-- is it all that surprising that a culture that permits tax havens has arisen? Admittedly I cannot really back this up, but it is a curious thought."

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