On 22 April 2005, journalist Ching Cheong was detained by the Chinese authorities while he was visiting Guangzhou. Ching is a Hongkonger working for the Straits Times, being their Chief China Correspondent.
As I recall, he tends to write incisive analyses about Chinese and Taiwanese politics, and I sensed he carried with him a liberal point of view.
Although he was arrested in the third week of April, it wasn?t until the last week of May before the Straits Times revealed that one of their top writers had been detained, and then only because the foreign media had broken the story.
Ever since then however, there have been at least half a page, more often a full page, about Ching Cheong every day in the Straits Times. At first, the reports revolved around speculation that he was party to an attempt to publish a book containing the late Zhao Ziyang's views about post-Tiananmen China though the Chinese government from the beginning denied that this was the trigger issue. Instead, the government's spokesman indicated that Ching was detained for spying for a foreign agency.
In the 4 June 2005 edition of the Straits Times, it was reported that not only did the spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry repeat to journalists at a press briefing that, "Hong Kong resident Ching Cheong [had] been instructed and requested to engage in intelligence gathering activities in mainland China," the newspaper also noted at after a month's delay, the same explanation was finally pinned up on the Foreign Ministry's website.
At the same time, it was learnt that a sociologist, Lu Jianhua, was also detained in late April. Lu was apparently a well-connected researcher at the high-regarded Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Ching had known him. Perhaps they had shared information that the government didn't want discussed.
It is quite typical of the Chinese government to be completely opaque and Ching's case is no exception. In the absence of details, the Straits Times have been following up on other cases of detention by Beijing, protests by international human rights groups, a petition by Singapore journalists submitted to the Chinese Embassy here, and action (or lack of) by various governments. Besides the Chinese government, others that may have a stake are the Hong Kong government (because Ching is domiciled there), the British government (because he holds a British Overseas National Passport) and the Singapore government (Straits Times being his employer).
Of course the Straits Times has been ever so respectful, never saying anything that can be construed as campaigning for Ching's release, but the sum total of all that reporting has been to keep attention focussed on his case, implying an injustice or at least an unjustifiable opacity on the part of the government.
Well, the Straits Times' moral high ground would be a lot more credible if firstly, rather than react to foreign reports, they had reported his detention as soon as they had known about it -- and since Ching was their employee, they would have been among the first -- and secondly, they had done likewise with another story much closer to home.
On 16 May 2005, Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan was denied entry into Singapore by the Immigration authorities at Changi airport. He was coming to Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore Democratic Party to conduct a workshop on political methods. Moser-Puangsuwan, a US national, is the Southeast Asia coordinator for NonViolence International, a US-based NGO.
He had been here 4 months earlier for another workshop, and apparently this was what gave cause for the government's action.
As reported by the South China Morning Post, 30 May 2005, The [Home Affairs] ministry's communications director, Ong-Chew Peck Wan, said the activist had been indefinitely barred from entering the country for interfering in its domestic politics. Specifically, that was in January, when he had given a workshop to Singapore Democratic Party members at which he had promoted civil disobedience activities.
She said that the decision had been based on investigations following publication in March on the internet forum NewSintercom of an interview with Mr Moser-Puangsuwan.
"From what was disclosed at that interview and subsequent investigations, Yeshua was found to have conducted a political action workshop in Singapore in January 2005," Ms Ong-Chew said. "This was aimed to teach Singaporeans how to wage a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience against the government so as to liberate and expand civil rights of Singaporean citizens who, he deludes himself to believe, are living under dire oppression and injustice.
"To mount such a campaign, he specifically recommended targeting youth and women as the primary groups to co-opt and mobilise against the government."
The government's contention that Singapore's politics were reserved for Singaporeans was reiterated. "Foreigners, like Yeshua, with no stake in the future of Singapore, will not be allowed to interfere in Singapore's domestic politics, much less to instigate, agitate and promote civil disobedience among targeted segments of society, against the laws of the country," the spokeswoman said.
She maintained that those who did were not welcome in Singapore.
Some may say there is a huge difference between Ching's case and Moser-Puangsuwan's. Ching was detained and has been held virtually incommunicado. Moser-Puangsuwan was only deported from the airport soon after arrival.
There is something unbecoming of a government to launch a personal attack like this.
It's one thing to say that Moser-Puangsuwan's action breached our rules, it's another to deride him as deluded. This kind of character assassination has no place in a democratic system that the PAP claims we are.
In any case, doesn't the very act of deporting someone who advocates non-violent political participation vindicate anyone's belief that Singaporeans "are living under dire oppression and injustice"?
But first, we should remember that the Singapore government too, through our Internal Security Act, has the power to detain people without trial just like China. Opposition politician Chia Thye Poh was held for 32 years! See the article Without cover of the covenant
Secondly, both cases hinge on the way governments rely on vague and sweeping powers to deny their critics room for putting their views across. In the case of China, the question revolves around what constitutes state secrets, and thus, what constitutes spying. In the case of Singapore, the vagueness is supreme in the area of what constitutes politics, particularly 'out of bounds' subjects ('OB markers' in Singaporean usage).
China has a long history of harassing and detaining anyone who attempts to publicise a view contrary to the Party line. To bring to the attention of the public any information that is embarrassing to the government can easily be considered revealing state secrets since virtually everything is supposed to be a secret.
Singapore too has a long history of harassing and detaining anyone who attempts to publicise a view contrary to the Party line. Our specialty however is the defamation suit. Now add deportation to the list.
What about the claim that Moser-Puangsuwan was "interfering" in domestic politics? Well, it depends on whether one wishes to adopt an extremely narrow definition or a broader one. Both are valid, but to be credible, one has to be consistent.
Moser-Puangsuwan was not campaigning in the streets or to the general public; he was here to conduct a workshop for a political party to help them improve their skills.
In a way, this isn't a lot different from a speech therapist trying to help our ministers become better public speakers, or the make-up artist helping a PAP politician look good minutes before he goes on television, or for that matter, the producers of TV documentaries featuring our ministers. If these behind-the-scenes people aren't Singapore citizens, aren't they equally "interfering" in our domestic politics by helping one side look good or be more skilled at their communication?
It might be argued that the Singapore government has been consistent. Consistently heavy-handed. In April 2005, the government banned Amnesty International's Southeast Asia specialist, Timothy Parritt, from speaking at a forum on the death penalty, although he was allowed into the country to attend the event. The forum was organised by a number of activist groups.
But what this instance really suggests is that if you speak up against current policy, you're interfering, leaving you with the sneaky suspicion that if you praise current policy, you're not. As everyone knows, Singapore uses the death penalty, and now it is shown by this example of Timothy Parritt that to advocate the opposite is considered interference in our domestic politics. What if a foreigner came to speak in favour of the existing policy? Would that be interference too?
The apologists for the PAP would say, no, no, we'll be even-handed. No one can come and speak FOR the death penalty either.
It's hard to disprove that if no one tries to come to argue for the death penalty. In the modern world, it'll be hard to find anyone able to make a cogent case for the death penalty used as broadly as it is in Singapore and (guess what?) China -- the country with the most executions annually!
But an analogous situation will suggest that we shouldn't be too gullible.
Look at how many foreign speakers are invited by fundamentalist Christian groups to rail against homosexuality. Aren't they participating in a societal debate that eventually impacts upon our laws, policies and politics? Some of these hate-mongers have been reported to have "advised" the faithful to write to their Members of Parliament to demand tighter censorship and enforcement of laws against gays and lesbians. Why aren't any of them deported and declared persona non grata for interfering in our domestic politics, I ask.
So, where is that line between inviting foreigners to come and teach us a thing or two, and "interfering in domestic politics"? How consistently is policy applied? Hasn't our own government been arbitrary, opaque and self-serving?
None of these questions appear in the Straits Times, in fact, almost nothing about the Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan case except for a single report.
On the other hand, we get daily stories about Ching?s detention in China. Ching Cheong is not a Singapore citizen and the issue is China's political system, a foreign country's. Yet when it comes to a workshop organised by a Singapore political party, and a serious question of what constitutes domestic politics in Singapore, our own newspaper, the Straits Times, is practically mute.