Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Obama aces the politics of APEC as Singapore's political freedoms struggle to pass

I was at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference a couple weeks ago, mostly hanging out in the press room at the Suntec convention center watching on the TV the events going on a couple floors below me.

It was something of a historic conference with Barack Obama making an appearance, which was unfortunately truncated because of the shootings at Fort Hood. He ended up only being in town for less than 24 hours before he was whisked away to China.

While here in Singapore he was able to meet with leaders of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), including Burma, the first time a US president has done either of those things (a prez had never met with ASEAN, and not formally with a Burmese leader since LBJ in 1966).

APEC is not an incredibly interesting event and Obama's presence there was all about cultivating US "soft power". Here is a good description of what APEC is all about from the Economist's Democracy in America blog:

It's a big deal because, while what gets said at these Asian summits isn't usually important, who shows up is. It isn't a big deal because...well, just reverse that last sentence... But it is one of the premier Asian forums for showing up and being photographed standing next to each other while smiling, and one of the irritating things about East and Southeast Asia is that showing up and being photographed standing next to each other while smiling is extremely important. The Bush administration failed to send sufficiently high-ranking officials to Southeast Asia, and experts from the region said that contributed to declining American influence.

From Obama's standpoint, APEC was all well and good; photos were taken, hands were shaken. But the event also highlighted some of the more unseemly aspects of the host nation in terms of its political freedoms (officially, we're supposed to refer to "host economies", for PC's sake; I'm talking about Singapore here).

First, a well-known freelance journalist, Benjamin Bland, was denied accreditation to cover the conference and a renewal of his work visa was rejected, so he couldn't even be in the city while the conference was going on. No explanation was given for the rejection, and Bland said that if he had spoken out about it he would have been arrested. No wonder Reporters Without Borders ranks the country 133rd our of 175 on the world press freedom index (a ranking, by the way, that Singapore's Law Minister K Shanmugam calls "absurd and divorced from reality").

An unrelated, but significant, event also took place while Obama was in town. It was the launch of a book by Dr Lim Hock Siew, Singapore's second-longest-held political prisoner. I can't say I know a whole lot about this man or his politics, but I couldn't help but be captivated by what he had to say at the book launch (see below).

As a top figure in the opposition Socialist party (and a defector of the still-ruling People's Action Party), he was detained without trial for close to 20 years (released in 1982). Opposition voices are not exactly welcomed in Singaporean politics, and as Dr Lim's case shows, many opposition figures are forcefully silenced. I don't know if the book launch was meant to coincide with Obama's visit here, or if anyone expected Obama to even acknowledge the plight of Dr Lim. Under the circumstances, it would have been wildly inappropriate and counterproductive of Obama to do so. Nevertheless, Dr Lim seems to be quite an interesting figure in Singaporean politics, or maybe I'm just a sucker for the underdog:

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Overcoming the truthiness of Tim Donaghy and Game 6

One of the most painful memories of my life as a sports fan (one of my most bitter memories as a human) is the terrible conclusion of the Kings-Lakers playoff series of 2002. It will be a long, long time before a team I care about as much as the Kings even approaches the upper echelons. Those early-aught years were a special time in Sacramento sports history that I'm beginning to realize will probably never be recaptured. NBA talent is moving far away from Sactown, and its return is hardly guaranteed.

This all makes the revelations in disgraced former referee Tim Donaghy all the more painful. Of course we Kings fans accused the referees of engaging in some sort of conspiracy to allow the Lakers to win that series. But that's what any good sports fan would do -- blame the refs for his team's ineptitude.

Then the Donaghy thing happened and we learned that referees really can be corrupted. Donaghy came out swinging, insisting he was not the loan bad apple and that plenty of other dubious choices had been made by referees over the years. He promised a tell-all book and apparently wrote it. It remains unpublished after the NBA threatened to sue.

But excepts have recently emerged and they seem to back up everything Kings fans assumed way back then: Game 6 was fixed.

Now, considering the human tendency toward truthiness, one way to look at Donaghy's allegations is to say that his supposed "truth" jibes all too well with how we, as Kings fans, view the world: that there was a conspiracy against the Kings to boost TV ratings. I don't deny that I'm predisposed to believing anything that bolsters that notion, despite any evidence against it (there's not much, however). The truth is that Donaghy is not exactly a trustworthy character, and to use his claims as your supposed "proof" is not exactly firm ground to stand on.

Still, his claims sound all too plausible, but not in a "truther" sort of way, which represents cynicism to the point of implausibility. Basketball fixing is something that just seems too easy not to happen, it's just all very believable -- and the evidence was right there in front of us.

So yes, Donaghy is a schmuck. But that doesn't mean I still don't feel totally robbed and cheated by forces greater than myself because I didn't get what would have been one of the sweetest vicarious thrills of my life. And yes, the Kings shouldn't have missed all those free throws in Game 7, but that's beside the point (I do think they were the better team in that series, having proved it in Game 6).

In case you haven't seen it, here is what Donaghy has to say about what happened that fateful night in LA, care of Deadspin:

The 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings presents a stunning example of game and series manipulation at its ugliest. As the teams prepared for Game 6 at the Staples Center, Sacramento had a 3–2 lead in the series. The referees assigned to work Game 6 were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney, and Ted Bernhardt. As soon as the referees for the game were chosen, the rest of us knew immediately that there would be a Game 7. A prolonged series was good for the league, good for the networks, and good for the game. Oh, and one more thing: it was great for the big-market, star-studded Los Angeles Lakers.

In the pregame meeting prior to Game 6, the league office sent down word that certain calls — calls that would have benefitted the Lakers — were being missed by the referees. This was the type of not-so-subtle information that I and other referees were left to interpret. After receiving the dispatch, Bavetta openly talked about the fact that the league wanted a Game 7.

"If we give the benefit of the calls to the team that's down in the series, nobody's going to complain. The series will be even at three apiece, and then the better team can win Game 7," Bavetta stated.

As history shows, Sacramento lost Game 6 in a wild come-from-behind thriller that saw the Lakers repeatedly sent to the foul line by the referees. For other NBA referees watching the game on television, it was a shameful performance by Bavetta's crew, one of the most poorly officiated games of all time.