21 Nov 2005

Hanging in the balance

Florence Chong
November 22, 2005

AUSTRALIA'S campaign to save convicted drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van from the hangman's noose has created an increasingly dangerous undercurrent in an otherwise stable bilateral relationship. Despite representation from the highest political levels in Australia, Singapore will almost certainly proceed with the hanging on December 2.

While Prime Minister John Howard is disappointed at Singapore's decision to hang Nguyen, he maintains it will not affect relations between Canberra and Singapore. "It's not going to contaminate our relationship with Singapore," Howard maintained on Sunday. Others are not so sure.

Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd says the Singapore Government led Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has treated Australia with contempt and predicts the bilateral relationship will be affected.

Some Singapore executives have expressed concern privately about possible trade sanctions. At least one senior Singapore executive has decided to postpone his trip to Australia until the Nguyen case cools.

"Everyone is getting emotional over this issue, but when it dies down, nothing would have changed because the relations between the two countries would remain as strong as ever," a Singapore source says.

Howard understands the groundswell of popular feeling in Australia about the mandatory death penalty soon to be carried out on a young first-time drug offender. "There is great feeling and great conviction in our country that, on this occasion, the death penalty should not be imposed," he says.

Every appeal for clemency by Canberra, ranging from Governor-General Michael Jeffery to a unanimous parliamentary resolution, has been studiously ignored by Singapore, much to the annoyance of Howard's cabinet.

Howard was also embarrassed and upset to learn in South Korea last week that Singapore had already notified the Nguyen family of the December 2 execution date when he was still making a personal appeal for clemency to Lee.

All that is left for Canberra to explore is a legal appeal through the UN's International Court of Justice, a slim prospect given that Singapore does not recognise the compulsory jurisdiction of the court.

If relations between the two countries are disrupted, both sides will suffer. Australia's ties with Singapore, which became an independent state in 1965, are deeper than with any other Asian country and extend into defence, trade, investment, education and tourism. Singapore's armed forces have a permanent training presence here and intelligence sharing has deepened since September11, 2001.

What's at stake is bilateral trade, which totalled more than $8 billion last year, and bilateral investment valued at more than $30billion. Singapore, a tiny city-state with just 4.2million people, is Australia's biggest trading partner in ASEAN. It is Australia's eighth largest trading partner. In 2003-04, Singapore imported more than $3 billion in Australian products. Singapore Airlines alone imports $1million worth of Australian produce a day or $365 million worth a year.

Australian businesspeople in Singapore say the local media has reported reactions in Australia to Nguyen's imminent execution fairly. But one of them is particularly concerned that the campaign could escalate into a boycott of Singapore investment. He recalls how the more sensitive relationship with Malaysia sank to a new low with the hanging of convicted Australian drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in 1986. "The problem Singapore faces is: it is being asked not just to make a concession to a friend but it is being asked to revise its government policy. The debate boils down to whether you agree or disagree with capital punishment," he says.

Singapore's overriding concern is becoming a transit point for drug trafficking. "I have heard it said before that transiting through Singapore provides a way to legitimise the journey," another business source says. "This case is extremely tragic. But for Singapore to reverse its decision is to change its policy on capital punishment."

A businessman who was in Singapore in 1994, when Washington exerted great pressure not to cane a US citizen found guilty of vandalising cars, says Singapore will not buckle. In 1994, Singapore provoked an outpouring of condemnation and criticism when it hanged a Filipina maid, Flor Contemplacion, for killing another Filipina. The Philippines made high-level representations to the Singapore government, but in vain. "One of the most regrettable things is the planned execution will encourage Australians to resort to the old negative stereotype impression of Singapore as an inflexible, stubborn state," says the businessman. "It is disturbing that this proposed execution will revive such accusations of the country."

According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Singapore's investment in Australia totalled $19.1 billion at the end of last year. Although Singapore's investment throughout the 1980s and '90s has been concentrated in real estate, it diversified in the past few years.

Singapore companies have invested in aviation, telecommunications, energy, information technology and hi-tech companies, with much of this investment made by state-owned companies and led by Temasek, which owns and control Singapore's direct investment locally and overseas.

Among Singapore's largest investors in Australia is Singapore Telecom (Singtel), which acquired Optus in 2001 for $14 billion. Singapore Power paid $5.1 billion for the assets of the US utility company TXU Corporation in Victoria and South Australia last year.

Singapore GIC paid $813 million for Mayne Group's 53 private hospitals and it owns a large portfolio of real estate in Australia, including the luxury Shangri-la Hotel in Sydney; it is also a part-owner of Sydney's trophy office building, Chifley Tower.

According to DFAT, the most notable investment in recent times is Qantas's joint venture project to establish Singapore-based budget airline Jetstar Asia, which began operating in December last year. Until now, any discord in the bilateral trade relationship between the two countries was over the issue of open skies. Singapore Airlines feels frustrated in its repeated attempts to get Canberra to lift restrictions preventing it from flying between Australia and the US.

Australian companies have a more comprehensive presence in Singapore than in any other country in the region. John Dick, president of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, says about 1200 Australian companies are registered in Singapore. They range from the big four banks to professional firms and small businesses offering lifestyle products and services. Dick says the University of NSW is planning to build a $150 million campus in Singapore.

A leading expert on Australia-Singapore relations says Singapore has become increasingly attractive to Australia as it strengthens its reputation in the arts and education, and by becoming an ideas hub in Southeast Asia.

Australia also chose to negotiate its first free trade agreement with Singapore, more than 20 years after it signed its Closer Economic Relations deal with New Zealand. Known as SAFTA, the agreement has further enhanced trade and investment links between the two countries. According to DFAT, in the 14 months since SAFTA was implemented, Austrade has assisted 546 Australian companies to win business in Singapore worth $458.6million in total export sales value. Of these, almost 250 were new exporters.

A senior government trade source in Canberra says: "When we look for markets for new Australian exporters, Singapore is the destination. We encourage Australian companies to start in Singapore because it is a transparent market, English is spoken and it is a wealthy market."

Dick, who is also the senior partner with leading Australia legal firm Freehills, agrees Singapore is a stepping stone for many Australian companies into other countries in the region. He points out the ANZ bank has a regional head office in Singapore that directs business expansion into other countries in the region. "Our relationship with Singapore has opened up tremendous opportunities for Australian companies to expand into the rest of the region," Dick says.

The Australian Chamber of Commerce in Singapore and its opposite number in Australia, the Australia Singapore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, are planning a joint trade mission to India. "We hope to be able to leverage off Singapore's relationship with Indian companies and to secure projects for our companies," Dick says.

Although trade and investment form the backbone of bilateral relations, strategically Singapore is also an important partner. It has long been one of Australia's strongest allies in the region, credited with helping to lobby for Australia's participation in the inaugural East Asia Summit to be held in Kuala Lumpur next month. "Certainly, Singapore helped to lobby and push for Australia to be a member of the East Asia Summit," says a well-placed Canberra source.

The source says Singapore is also close to Australia because "the truth is Singapore feels that it is on the outer edge of ASEAN. It is more developed and ambitious and has a predominantly Chinese population."

A long-term specialist on Australia-Asia relations says: "Australia's ties with Singapore are critical for its relationship in ASEAN. We have a strong and longstanding defence relationship, especially in the context of the Five-Power Defence Arrangement [Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand and Britain]."

Another source close to Singaporean political and business circles stresses: "Both sides are anxious not to contaminate relations. Singapore is Australia's strongest ally in the region and when there are bilateral tensions with Malaysia or Indonesia, Singapore provides a bridge." However, he adds that Singaporean investors would continue to be attracted to Australia for the same reasons that brought them here. "Australia offers a bigger economy, political stability and legal certainty. It is a window to the West. Those things will not change."

Florence Chong is The Australian's Asia business reporter.
Additional reporting: Patrick Walters.


Anonymous said...

Aussie should consider gunboat diplomacy in face of barbaric Singaporean government.

mister k said...

to be fair, if Singapore is accused of holding the Australian govt in contempt, wouldn't it be vice-versa as well?

both countries have put forth why Nguyen should or should not be hanged. if the relationship between these two countries are mature enough, how would the bilateral relationship be affected?

bear in mind that tourism and trade aside, there is a huge number of Singaporean studying in the Australian universities. these international students do generate a considerable amount of revenue.

would it then be appropriate to suggest that the Australian government hasn’t taught a thing or two to its people on trafficking since the two hangings in Malaysia in 1986?

Anonymous said...

mister k, you are right. Another Aussie drug trafficker was executed by M'sia in the 90s too. You can see capital punishment works for about 8-10 years and then the memory-fading Aussies lapse and another of their countrymen generates a huge national sob. (Pity, but the rest of Planet Earth doesn't notice nor care about the sobs.) Well, capital punishment's deterrent value is clearly there (it's merely a question of fading memory): make an example of these individuals, and for 8-10 years others are deterred before it's time for another reminder.

Anonymous said...

Bah. Notice the big-country mentality here? This charade has moved on from being a human rights issue to a show of Australians attempting to bully tiny Singapore. And autoplaying the videoclip? Pro-choice indeed.

Anonymous said...

"353 dead: this could be
our Watergate
By Tony Kevin
May 10 2002

Human tragedy is the stuff of news. A boat sinking and the death by drowning of 353 men, women and children is a big story in anybody's language. That this tragedy happened to a leaky, overloaded asylum-seeker boat on its way to Christmas Island on October 19 last year, at the height of Operation Relex, a major and forceful Australian military operation to detect and repel asylum-seeker boats, makes it an Australian story.

So it is particularly important for our self-respect as Australians that we try to understand how and why this tragedy happened.

But in fact, after the initial three-day sensational media coverage, the story quickly died. There was no investigative Australian journalism. Compare this to the exhaustive and sustained media coverage of, say, the Thredbo landslide disaster.

But on this story, our media unquestioningly swallowed the Federal Government's spin: that this was an Indonesian maritime disaster, in Indonesian territorial waters, and solely the result of a greedy people smuggler overloading his boat. The media bought the government's convenient line: that what happened to this boat had no connection at all with Operation Relex; that this maritime disaster was nothing to do with us.

The desired lesson having been spelt out - that the tragedy starkly illustrated the dangers of people smuggling - the Howard Government quickly "moved on". Asylum seekers, who had been very briefly acknowledged as victims and fellow human beings, went back to being dehumanised as faceless alien invaders."


This is why people aren't taking your little demonstration seriously. This is how Australia treats its refugees. And yet now it is berating Singapore for punishing one man who was "forced" (as you would have us believe) into smuggling deadly drugs.

You, McDermott, aren't so much interested in saving lives as you are in gathering online awards for playing up an issue. Something more sinister is at work here , when so many protest about the fate of one man who has committed a grave crime, vs the hundreds of innocent immigrants (who, ironically, Van's mother once was), who are suffering in oppressive detention camps in Australia, and who don't have crowds and blogs dedicated to them.

While the Singapore press has given ample coverage of the issue in the papers, you deny this, and have not posted any articles on the root causes of

1. The Australians' apparent penchant for smuggling drugs

2. The plight of innocent refugees in Australia.

No one likes a hypocrite.

Charles said...

I think it is indeed upsetting that 353 men, women and children are drowned while trying to get to Christmas Island but the let's stick to the point here ( and this article in particular).

I feel that there is a need to defend the owner of this blog as against the post made by the previous anonymous commentator.

In which case he or she did not notice, this blog was intended to discuss Singapore and South East Asian issues; not Australian issues.

I think it is one of the best political blogs to have appeared and which critically examines issues focusing on Singapore.

Back to the article, no one knows how the event will unfold - whether there will be boycotts or ill-feelings.

My guess is everything will return to normal after a period of time as past incidents have proven; such as the ongoing water dispute with Malaysia, our minister's comment on Taiwan, and Michael Fay's vandalism incident.

When differences among trading countries have a conflict on Human Rights issues (in this case, Nguyen), economic trade almost often is more important for the government and business community.

Renegade Eye said...

I found this blog surfing. It is well written and interesting.

In the US, you don't hear much about local issues in your country.

I'm against the death penalty unconditionally. Whatever became of what they call in pro wrestling, the "Singapore Cane"??


Aghast said...

I did not click on to the videoclip, but anon 1.07pm thanks for alerting me that it's merely a stunt.

Charles mentioned Michael Fay. Anyone noticed expats vandalising property in Singapore since that event of a decade ago? The 4 strokes of the rotan that marked Fay's buttocks underlines this point: people are welcome to visit Singapore, but you'd be well advised not to misbehave nor to disrespect the laws of this land. Otherwise, best to stay at home or go to those places which put up with your antics, all in the name of human rights and freedom of choice, no doubt.

Anonymous said...

Hope some of u took advantage of the volatility in a few Singapore stocks, like Singtel, with aussie interests. Talk of a boycott saw the stock trade yesterday on the Singapore Exchange in a far wider band than usual. I volume traded it and within a few hours squared off my position to rake in a profit in 5 figures. Thanks mate! :)

Anonymous said...

Charles: What a touching display of sympathy for 353 people. If all you can say is "Oh dear me, it's "Upsetting"", then what do you expect the average Singaporean to say to a man who smuggled drugs? I think it's upsetting too, but this tirade has bordered onto bullying, and no country even lobbied Australia into not ill-treating its refugees. I'd question the motive of anyone who makes a hoo-ha about Nguyen but doesn't give a damn about his fellow refugees who almost certainly will turn to crime as a means of surviving, given the discrimination in Australia.

This blog produces twisted views, and hardly provides intelligent analyses. It is for people who like to feel good about themselves, protesting and protesting against the death penalty,but not against the conditions that lead to this man to resort to trafficking.

Renegade: Micheal Fay did more than vandalise cars. He handpicked his victims. Cars of the most expensive make, not the cheaper ones. Yes, if you commit a crime in Singapore we'll cane you, but we won't say your country has weapons of mass destruction, nor will we start a war which contravenes UN conventions, and which kills many innocent women and children. We will not then lecture you on what human rights means.

Anonymous said...

Refer to the post We are the Media. Not a Singapore-related issue, but dear old steve has intelligently made it relevant to this site by saying:

"Gabe and his friend Pavle got stopped by the police in Amsterdam, Holland and promptly video-blogged the unpleasant experience of being illegally stopped and frisked. Looks like something that would happen in Singapore."

Anonymous said...

"......aren't so much interested in saving lives as you are in gathering online awards for playing up an issue."

To the owner of this blog, thank you very much for posting all this so that we get to know more about sg whereby we hardly get to see it over the news. It is a good blog. I appreciate it very much.

"....Looks like something that would happen in Singapore."

Why not, anything could happen anywhere, including sg.

matey said...

This is an excellent blog. I commend the owner and his team. They have the perfect right to run it in whatever way they deem fit, just as Singapore has the perfect right to administer its own very well-publicised laws within its own jurisdiction.

puck said...

This blog aggregates loads of useful information that we would otherwise probably not find. It carries an interesting counterpoint to the mainstream media. Whatever the issues about the death penalty are, why drag the editors of this blog into it?

soci said...

"Gabe and his friend Pavle got stopped by the police in Amsterdam, Holland and promptly video-blogged the unpleasant experience of being illegally stopped and frisked. Looks like something that would happen in Singapore." was posted originally on the pilot n' jo site. Note the rather LARGE " when I posted it here.