Tuesday, 15 January 2008

OPQs 22 October 2007: Myanmar

22 October was the day I presented the petition to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, and when I delivered what I have described as "probably the speech of my career". But that day's sitting also witnessed an extended debate on Myanmar/Burma. (And before anyone queries why I use "Myanmar/Burma", I am quite agnostic on these two names -- those who argue that using Myanmar implicitly endorses the junta ought to ask themselves whether using Burma implicitly endorses British colonialism. But MM had, in his recent remarks on Suharto and Indonesia, referred to Burma, so I will use Burma here as well.)

The bloody events of September are now months old, and the temptation is great to move on. Indeed, the Burma issue seldom surfaces in the mass media, and even then it is relegated to the middle of the world affairs pages.

Well, I have filed a PQ for January's sitting asking for an update on what Singapore has done, whether as ASEAN Chair or otherwise, to encourage the Burmese junta to take meaningful steps towards genuine national reconciliation. Even as I hope that we have not lapsed back into business as usual, I must admit that I am not holding my breath.

On my first PQ, I continue to believe that Singapore can do more, even if it is outside the scope of ASEAN. Doing more may not be immediately effective. But we have always prided ourselves as punching above our weight and leading by example, and this is an instance where setting an example would lend great weight to attempts at moral suasion with the powers that actually can have an immediate effect.

On my second PQ, I think it would be interesting to hear what the Burmese workers would have to say. As the SMS put it, the police over-reacted. I admit that it is easy to second-guess with hindsight. But I cannot help but wonder about the kind of thinking that would believe a slogan on a T-shirt could cause trouble.



7. Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs (a) whether Singapore has supplied arms and weapons to Myanmar; (b) what is the total value of investments by Government-linked companies in Myanmar; (c) what is the total value of remittances from Myanmar into Singapore over the past 5 years; and (d) whether the Government intends to take any action, either by itself or as ASEAN Chair, in addition to making statements and writing letters to the junta.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr George Yong-Boon Yeo): [...] Mr Charles Chong, Mr Siew Kum Hong and Ms Irene Ng asked if we would consider putting more pressure on the Myanmar government, such as sanctions, or withdrawal of aid, or even a review of Myanmar's ASEAN membership. Indeed there have been strident calls to bring down the military regime. The key consideration here is to help the process of national reconciliation not make it more difficult. Some external pressure can be helpful. But, as Malaysia's Foreign Minister Syed Hamid said recently, talking about sanctions or expulsion now would make national reconciliation harder not easier to achieve. Aung San Suu Kyi herself acknowledges the need to involve the military. Without the military, Myanmar can dissolve into civil war. The country has many ethnic groups, a number of which are still armed and can easily restart rebellions in the border regions. The last thing we want is a Yugoslavia or an Iraqi situation at our doorstep. In this regard, ASEAN shares a common position with China and India. Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the third Secretary General of the UN U Thant, who's no apologist for the regime, has wisely cautioned that "We don't want Myanmar to be a parallel of Iraq, where we said it's good Saddam Hussein is no longer there, but then did not know how to handle the insurgency that went on after he was gone."

Our priority now must be to support the UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari in his mediation efforts. Acting on the authority of the UN Security Council, Mr Gambari plays a critical role as a catalyst. Somehow he has managed to earn the trust of both the military and Aung San Suu Kyi. The Myanmar authorities have made it clear they prefer to deal with him rather than with ASEAN. A year and a half ago, the Myanmar authorities rebuffed the Chairman of ASEAN at that time, Syed Hamid, but they have received Mr Gambari three times and allowed him on all three occasions to meet Aung San Suu Kyi. It is important that whatever actions we take strengthen his hand and not make his already complicated task more difficult. Different countries have different roles to play in accordance with their values and their geopolitical interests. The US and EU have stepped up sanctions and expressed strong views. China has quietly played a very helpful role in facilitating Mr Gambari's last visit to Myanmar. Although Japan has cut aid, it has taken a position closer to ASEAN.

I know a number of Members in this House would like ASEAN to cut off all links with Myanmar. But this would only give us short-term satisfaction. On our own, our economic influence is not significant. If we in ASEAN boycott Myanmar, we would lose our moral influence which is not insignificant. Such an approach would only worsen the long-term position for us. In any case, the preference of all the ASEAN countries is to continue engaging Myanmar and keeping it in the family. This is certainly Singapore's preference.

Ms Irene Ng, Mr Siew Kum Hong, and Ms Sylvia Lim have asked about Singapore's economic and military links with Myanmar. Singapore has limited economic links with Myanmar. Before the Asian financial crisis, we did encourage our businessmen to invest and to do more in Myanmar. At that time, there was hope that the Government was taking the Indonesian road from an authoritarian military government to constitutional democracy. But when Suharto fell in 1998, the Government in Yangon froze and the economy slid backwards. Generally speaking, our businessmen are not doing well in Myanmar and many regret having invested there. Singapore companies' cumulative total direct investments in Myanmar for the year ending 2005 was only S$742 million. MTI does not keep track of how much of this is by GLCs, because the Government is not involved in the individual investment decisions of GLCs.

Overall, our total trade with Myanmar last year was S$1 billion, which represents only 0.1% of Singapore's total trade. Myanmar ranked 50th among our trading partners. Therefore, our policy on Myanmar does not hinge on this. Instead, our actions are guided by what is best for the long-term interests of ASEAN.

As for remittances, MAS does not track the amount of money remitted into or out of Singapore by any country. For an international business and financial centre like Singapore, funds can be transferred for various purposes including payments for goods and services, trades on the stock exchange, even for school fees. But MAS operates a strict and rigorous regime against money laundering, like all other leading financial centres. Banks and financial institutions in Singapore are required to institute strict procedures, including the need to identify and know their customers, and monitor and report any suspicious transactions. Our rules are vigorously enforced. Should there be links with illicit activity, MAS will not hesitate to take necessary action.

If there are UN mandated sanctions against Myanmar, we will of course comply with them. Whatever policy we adopt must apply to all companies operating in Singapore, not just owned by Singaporeans.

Singapore has very few defence interactions with Myanmar. But we have to maintain links with the military because it is a key institution. These are largely limited to interactions at multilateral events such as ASEAN-related meetings, international defence exhibitions, and sports activities like the Army Half Marathon. As far as defence sales are concerned, it is established policy of the Government not to divulge details publicly. Myanmar is not subject to any UN arms embargo. If there is any UN sanction against Myanmar, Singapore will of course abide by it. Nevertheless, I can say that over the years defence sales to Myanmar have not been substantial, and have always been carefully limited to items that are not suitable for countering civilian unrest. There have not been any defence sales to Myanmar in recent years and, going forward, we will continue to behave in a responsible manner.


Mr Siew Kum Hong: Sir, I have two supplementary questions. First, President George Bush of the US has categorically stated that business as usual is unacceptable. Does the Minister agree and, if so, what is the Government doing that goes beyond "business as usual"? Has the Government considered measures, short of general sanctions, that target the Generals specifically? My second question is this. The Minister has stated that ASEAN's economic leverage over Myanmar is limited. But, as I understand it, Thailand and Singapore are the second and third largest investors in Myanmar. I would like to ask the Minister why he considers ASEAN's economic leverage to be limited.

Mr George Yong-Boon Yeo: Mr Speaker Sir, ASEAN's limited economic leverage is a matter of fact. Statistics bear out and for as long as China and India keep the back gate and the side gate open, there is very little which a trade embargo can do. It is a resource-rich country. It has got rice, it has got fish, it has got minerals aplenty, it's got oil and gas. And it is already a country predisposed towards isolationism and doesn't need very much encouragement in that direction. China supplies it consumer products. Can we take the Western position? The position of America and Europe. It sounds tempting and perhaps emotionally we feel justified to do so. But if we do so, and China and India maintain their present policies the result will be what I said earlier, Myanmar de facto no longer being a part of ASEAN and becoming a buffer state in between China and India, tempting both to interfere in its domestic politics. And one day, giving us more trouble because of this. So for these reasons, it would be better if we take our own position. The Chinese do not want to take an open position because they cling on to a principle of non-interference because they do not want other countries to interfere in their domestic affairs. Therefore they cannot be seen to be interfering in other people's domestic affairs and they will never want to say that they are. To a certain extent, we have to give them cover. If they do things because ASEAN wants them to do certain things, they can say that, no, we are not interfering because we are doing it at ASEAN's request. The Japanese have been an important aid giver to Myanmar. You know when the Japanese journalist was killed, I met Foreign Minister Koumura the day after. They were very affected. Later on when I saw the news reporting of the funeral, the Buddhist monks in Japan wept. Buddhist monks are not supposed to weep at funerals, but they felt it so strongly. I told Foreign Minister Koumura you cannot take the Western position, you have to do something because not doing anything would be wrong. So they've cut off some aid but they will keep closer to the ASEAN position. Each country must respond according to its own interests and its own value system. For their own domestic politics, the US and Europe have got to take the positions that they are taking. That's fine. We cannot take the US position. We cannot take the European position. Neither can we take the Chinese or Indian position. We take our own position and so long as we loosely coordinate, I think we can improve the chances of there being national conciliation. To be sure we are not optimistic. It is going to be difficult. It is going to be troubled, but what's the alternative? The alternative would be much worse. And we may yet to come to that, but for now this is our best bet. It is the only game in town for the time being and we have to go along with it.

(On-campus activities and removal of T-shirts from persons protesting against regime)

11. Ms Eunice Elizabeth Olsen asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs (a) whether the Ministry deployed its officers to film students organising on-campus activities highlighting the plight of the people in Myanmar; and (b) whether such activities constitute a security threat.

12. Mr Siew Kum Hong asked the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs whether the police had asked persons wearing T-shirts protesting against the Myanmar regime to take them off and, if so, what was the rationale for doing so.

The Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs (Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee) (for the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs): Mr Speaker, Sir, may I take Question Nos. 11 and 12 together, please.

Mr Speaker: Yes.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Sir, these incidents took place at a time when the Myanmese here were reacting to events back in Myanmar, where the situation was very tense. Emotions were running high amongst the Myanmese community living here at what they perceived as injustice being done to their countrymen back home. Indeed, at the time when these incidents occurred, the situation in Myanmar was deteriorating rapidly. Anticipating that this would further fuel the strong sentiments already gripping the emotions of Myanmese nationals here in Singapore, Police decided to take extra precautions to prevent any breaches of law and order.

It was in this context that Police received information that Myanmese nationals might assemble to stage a protest and deployed officers to patrol areas where Myanmese nationals normally congregated. This included the Peninsula Plaza where the incidents relating to the T-Shirts took place in the afternoon of 29th September along Coleman Street.

Sir, there were two instances when Police officers spotted persons wearing T-shirts with words relating to the Myanmar situation. One T-shirt had the message 'Stop the bloodshed in Myanmar' printed on the front and back. The other T-shirt had the words 'Help Burma' on the front and 'Help Myanmar' on the back. They wanted to find out more about the intentions of these persons, in particular, if they were members of an organised group which might cause trouble and create a public order situation. Hence, the Police requested that they proceed to a Police station to be interviewed. Police did not engage them in a prolonged interview on the spot as this might attract undue attention and precipitate an incident. Police also advised that they consider taking off their T-shirts, as police's assessment was that the messages on the T-shirts might stir strong emotions on the part of others who read it, thus leading to a public order situation.

I agree that the Police were perhaps being overly-cautious but let me give the assurance that the officers did not intend to embarrass or offend the persons wearing the T-shirts. Looking back, their actions were probably an over-reaction. But given the tense situation prevailing then, and the possibility of trouble-makers exploiting the situation at that particular location which is known as a congregating point for Myanmese, the police officers' assessment, at that time, that the T-shirt with its emotive words could lead to trouble can be understood and was not totally unjustified. This is because dynamics of group behaviour is often not entirely rational and can be stirred by emotive slogans and exploited by others for their own cause.

Sir, I take this opportunity to advise those who seek to express their sentiments on the Myanmar situation to do so in a lawful manner.

As for the incident referred to by Ms Olsen, that occurred at a vigil organised by students at the Singapore Management University (SMU) on 4th October this year in support of the plight of the people in Myanmar. As explained earlier, given the strong sentiments and the volatile Myanmese situation at the time, Police acted in good faith and assessed that it was necessary to monitor seemingly minor but related events to ensure that such activities did not escalate into public order situations. When the Police do this, its officers would typically be equipped with video cameras for the purpose of recording, primarily to aid investigations later should the situation degenerate and persons present commit offences.

Sir, here again let me give the assurance that such videotaping is not meant to intimidate persons attending the event, but rather to aid investigation should offences be committed. Indeed, these recordings will assist the Police if offences are committed to investigate and discern between those who violate the law and the rest who are innocent of any wrong-doing.

Mr Siew Kum Hong: Sir, I have three supplementary questions. I would like to ask the Senior Minister of State:

(1) How many persons were wearing the T-shirts in question?

(2) What was the power under which the police had exercised their right to ask the persons wearing the T-shirts to return to the police station for an interview?

(3) Has the police ever encountered a situation where the wearing of T-shirts as a form of protest had resulted in law-and-order issues and, if so, what sort of issues were they?

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Sir, let me take the third question first.

Sir, the context is important. Like I have explained, the situation was tense on that weekend. It was a Saturday, and the situation was boiling over in Myanmar and also in terms of the Myanmese community in Singapore. We knew that they were gathering at different points. Ordinarily, police would not ask people to take off their T-shirts. But in that context, in that situation, the police officers involved thought that was the right thing to do. But having said this, let me say that it was only this team of officers who did it. It was a judgment that they made. Like I have said, they probably over-reacted, because there were also other officers who met other Myanmese nationals who were wearing T-shirts who did not ask them to take off their T-shirts.

The other point is what powers they had to ask them to go back to the station. Well, that was a request. In fact, if the Myanmese nationals had said they did not want to go back, then the police would not have taken them back. But in the circumstances, because the police wanted to find out the intentions, if they had interviewed them on the spot, that may be worse because that may attract attention and cause emotions to run. They said, "Can you follow me back to the station?" One of them followed them back, and the other one went later on to the police station.

Ms Eunice Elizabeth Olsen (Nominated Member): Sir, I have two supplementary questions for the Senior Minister of State. I would like to ask whether it serves Singapore's interests as a nation to subject its youths and their spontaneous display of solidarity with their neighbours in Myanmar to such monitoring by the Ministry's officers and whether such actions by his Ministry send a detrimental signal to our youths and damage the values that we are trying to inculcate in our youths and impair their interests in the world, the region and the country.

Assoc. Prof. Ho Peng Kee: Sir, I think it is in order for Singaporeans to legitimate their concerns in legal ways, as many have done over that period. But, again, like I have said, the context is important, ie, what was prevailing in Singapore then. So police officers went to the spot, videotaped the event, and the reason I have explained why, ie, not to intimidate the students but should there be subsequent offences, then we can discern the wrongdoer from those who are not. Indeed, Sir, police forces all over the world now use videotapes. Some are static, some are mobile. In fact, in London, we hear of the Bobbies now having video-recorders on their helmets. So it is not something extraordinary. No ill intentions are meant. This is just to aid police in investigations and, basically, in fact, to help innocent parties. The basic message, therefore, is that if you are innocent and are not out to break the law, there should be no fear.

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