Australian consumers and politicians called for boycotts of companies including Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Singtel Optus Ltd. to protest Singapore's decision to hang convicted Australian drug smuggler Nguyen Tuoang Van next week.
``I want our government to yell more loudly and make it very clear to Singapore that this will have consequences in our relationship and our dealings with them,'' said Democrats Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, who urged investors to shun a planned A$1.6 billion ($1.2 billion) initial public offering of Australian assets this month by Singapore Power Ltd.
The public outcry may derail an improvement in relations between the two countries, which signed a free-trade accord in 2003 that helped expand bilateral trade to more than A$15 billion a year. Government-controlled Singapore Airlines is lobbying for permission to fly lucrative Australia-U.S. routes, while customers could desert Optus, which contributes two-thirds of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd.'s sales.
``This is a very dramatic turnaround as the relationship with Singapore, especially since the advent of the free trade agreement, has been on a high,'' said Garry Rodan, director of the Asia Research Centre at Murdoch University in Western Australia. ``For the last three decades I can't think of an incident that has whipped up such public concern.''
Nguyen, 25, was caught at Singapore's Changi airport in 2002 with 396 grams (14 ounces) of heroin. He claims he was carrying the drug to Australia for a Sydney syndicate to help his brother Khoa, a former heroin addict, pay A$30,000 in debts. Nguyen was sentenced to death and will be hanged on Dec. 2.
His fate has dominated Australian newspapers and talkback radio. ``Stop this injustice. Let him live,'' said the front-page of the Sydney Morning Herald on Nov. 19.
``Nguyen was a fool. And he's a serious criminal. But he should not be executed,'' Sydney's top-selling Daily Telegraph said in an editorial yesterday.
Prime Minister John Howard, opposition leader Kim Beazley, Governor-General Michael Jeffery, the British Queen's representative in Australia, and Pope Benedict XVI have asked the Singapore government to spare Nguyen's life. Thousands have signed petitions calling on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to grant clemency for Nguyen, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Howard, who met Lee at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum leaders' meeting in Busan, South Korea last week, dismissed calls for boycotts and economic sanctions as counterproductive.
``It's a desperately sad case, and we remain very regretful that the execution is going to go ahead,'' he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio on Nov. 21. ``But it's not going to contaminate our relationship with Singapore.''
In a Nov. 2 letter to Australia's Foreign Minister Alexander Downer explaining the decision not to grant clemency, Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo said his government has ``a responsibility to prevent Singapore from becoming a conduit for the trafficking of illicit drugs in the region.''
Nguyen's 396 grams of pure heroin was enough to supply more than 26,000 doses to drug addicts, Yeo said.
Some newspaper readers are calling for customers to switch from Optus, the Australian unit of Singapore Telecommunications Ltd., Singapore's biggest telephone operator.
``If just a half million current Optus subscribers immediately transferred their business to an Australian telco, a resounding message would reverberate in Singapore government circles,'' reader Geoff Temple-Smith wrote to the Australian newspaper this week.
``Australians are free to make their own purchasing decisions, as are Optus' own customers,'' said a spokesperson for the unit. ``As a company, we have no comment on the issue.''
Another target is government-controlled Singapore Airlines, the world's second-largest airline by market value.
``A simple form of protest is for Australians not to fly on Singapore Airlines,'' said a letter from Donal O'Sullivan, published in the Australian.
The carrier has tried to distance itself from the case. ``We hope our customers in Australia will understand this matter isn't connected, in any way, with Singapore Airlines, and that they will make their choice on commercial grounds,'' the company said in an e-mailed statement.
Government legislator Bruce Baird said Singapore's decision to proceed with the hanging should be taken into account when assessing whether to give Singapore Airlines permission to fly between Australia and the U.S.
``I'm not saying it's a bargaining chip, but the execution is one of the things that should be considered as we look at the proposal,'' Baird told ABC radio yesterday.
Nguyen is the latest high-profile case of a young Australian facing drug-related charges in Asia.
Model Michelle Leslie, 24, returned to Sydney this week after a Bali court sentenced her to three months in jail for ecstasy possession. Schapelle Corby, 28, is serving 15 years in prison for smuggling 4.1 kilograms (9 pounds) of marijuana into Bali. Nine other Australians are awaiting trial in Bali on heroin trafficking charges that carry the death penalty.
In Vietnam, two Australians have been sentenced to be executed for heroin trafficking, said Tim Goodwin, coordinator of Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Anti-Death Penalty Network.
Singapore, which has mandatory death penalties for murder and drug trafficking, has executed more than 420 people since 1991, Goodwin said. The nation has granted clemency only six times, and ``never as late as this in the process,'' he said. ``It's an extremely grave situation.''
Australia's Foreign Minister Downer discouraged hopes he could save Nguyen's life by taking the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, a court whose jurisdiction Singapore doesn't recognize.
``It seems to us there's nothing much more we can do,'' Downer told ABC television on Nov. 23.
The gathering tide of public protest may overwhelm government attempts to avert an economic backlash against Singapore. ``Public opinion has had a strength to it I don't think the Prime Minister anticipated,'' Murdoch University's Rodan said.
25 Nov 2005
Nov. 25 (Bloomberg) --