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:

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