Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, has written a rebuttal letter to the New York Times in response to Kirsten Han’s article in the paper a month earlier.
Ms Han’s piece was titled “What Trump is learning from S’pore – and vice versa“.
In that piece, she drew parallels between what Donald Trump is trying to do in the states, and what Singapore is doing here, and how both come from an authoritarian viewpoint in dealing with things, such as “deliberate online falsehoods” and the death penalty.
Whether you agree with Ms Han or not, you should read her article first before you draw your conclusions.
In his rebuttal, ambassador Ashok – unsurprisingly – regurgitated the template response which government ministers or spokespeople are wont to do, namely: Singapore has ranked highly in certain areas, and there is freedom to express oneself here.
Similarly, you should read Mr Ashok’s letter in full before you come to any conclusion. To do so, click here.
Interestingly, Mr Ashok’s letter was titled, “A false portrait of Singapore”.
To be sure, Mr Ashok did not use any of those words or phrase in his letter. So one can only conclude that it was the editor of the Times that ascribed that title to his letter.
But Mr Ashok’s letter, however, did make the same point, even if he didn’t use those exact same words, for he concluded his letter with this line: “I cannot recognise the country Ms Han describes.”
He was, of course, referring to Singapore.
So, obvious question: what exactly did Ms Han describe that Mr Ashok “cannot recognise”?
Here, let’s break down her article to its smaller paragraphs, and fact-check if what Ms Han said are true. In this way, we can – perhaps – then ascertain why Mr Ashok “cannot recognise” the Singapore described by Ms Han.
Let’s begin with the first paragraph.
Ms Han writes:
“Days before winning the election in 2016, Donald Trump stood on a stage and directed an accusation at a tiny country halfway across the world: Singapore, he said, was stealing American jobs.”
This is true, as these news report show:
Ms Han continues, paragraph 2:
“Singapore is now on the tip of Mr. Trump’s tongue again — but this time, he’s expressing admiration for its death penalty for drug trafficking. He has reportedly invited government representatives to brief the White House on their approach to drug trafficking, including their use of capital punishment. Mr. Trump seems to believe he can learn a thing or two from Singapore.”
Ms Han continues:
“This is convenient for the Singapore government, which has been usingthe global opioid crisis as an argument for the retention of capital punishment.”
“While the American media reported Mr. Trump’s praise for Singapore’s “zero tolerance” stance, the country hanged a 39-year-old Ghanaian named Billy Agbozo on March 9….”
“…… and a 56-year-old Singaporean, Hishamrudin bin Mohd, on March 16.”
“These are the first two executions of 2018, as far as we know; information about imminent executions is not made available, and the prison service announces the number of hangings only in its annual report.”
Yup. No statistic except in the SPS’ annual report, like this one last year:
“But the borrowing of ideas hasn’t been a one-way street: the government here has taken a page out of Mr. Trump’s book. The new Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is holding public hearings to explore measures for tackling “fake news.” The committee is meant to examine a range of options, but there are strong hints that new restrictions on the media are on the way, not least because the law minister, who is also a member of the committee, has already said that legislation is a “no-brainer.””
Yup. Before the Select Committee was even appointed, we were already told there will be new legislations to comabt fake news.
“Mr. Trump constantly proclaims that his “America First” policy will prevent the United States from being taken for a ride by other countries, while Singapore denounces foreign interference in its domestic politics. “
“Both governments claim they’re solving urgent problems: to get the opioid crisis in the United States under control, to pre-empt disinformation campaigns that might threaten Singapore’s stability. But neither proposed solution is likely to solve the problem, and might even make things worse.”
“For instance, Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, Singapore’s ambassador to the United States, declared in a letter to the editor published in The Washington Post this month that Singapore had halved the number of drug abusers arrested between the 1990s and 2016 — a state of affairs supposedly brought about by the country’s willingness to impose death sentences.”
“Yet the government’s own data shows that the number of drug abusers in Singapore increased from 2003 to 2017.
“Singapore already has laws that include the criminalizing of the transmission of messages known to be false, speech with the tendency to “promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population,” even the uttering of words with the “deliberate intention of wounding” religious or racial feelings, on top of other regulations that give the government control over the mainstream media and the power to take down content.”
Refer to the Singapore Statutes for the various laws and their provisions.
“The government hasn’t been afraid of using these powers, either: Web publishers have been jailed for sedition and their websites ordered to be shut down….”
“One teenage blogger, Amos Yee, was granted asylum in the United States after an American immigration panel found that his two prosecutions for wounding religious feelings in Singapore amounted to political persecution.”
“As I write this, an activist is facing a charge of vandalism (among others) simply for pasting two sheets of paper on a subway car during a silent protest.”
“Apart from vague reassurances, there is no guarantee that any new law will not be used to restrict speech and clamp down on civil society.”
“Both Mr. Trump and the Singapore government have little time for human rights, civil liberties or even openness and accountability when there’s something they want to achieve.”
So, to summarise: I wonder why the ambassador “cannot recognise” the Singapore described by Ms Han. The events she mentioned in her article are easily available online, in news reports both here and abroad, and are free.
Of course, whether such incidents are widespread is another debate, but Ms Han’s point – if I were to hazard a guess – is that Singapore has been clamping down on free speech, through the introduction of new legislations and the amendments to others.
In my opinion, there has been a hardening of position against free speech in Singapore.
To dismiss this reality is to feign ignorance, given the plainness of it.
While I do support the government’s position that “deliberate online falsehoods” is something we should be concerned about, I too am not so sure that we need new legislations (as I said in my submission to the Select Committee), even if I accept that new technological innovations do pose some new problems vis a vis fake news.
But to dismiss what Ms Han has laid out, which is backed by facts, is not productive.
Anyway, I hope this little article will help the ambassador “recognise” the Singapore from the perspective of Ms Han.
It is not that hard to see from this side, you know.