19 March 2006

Singapore, Thailand, Thaksin and the Lees

As this Reuters article shows, the situation seems to be getting worse and worse:
Thai protesters burn images of Singapore PM
Fri Mar 17, 2006 4:07 AM ET

By Pracha Hararaspitak

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Protesters burned posters of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong outside the city state's Bangkok embassy on Friday as a campaign to oust his Thai counterpart, Thaksin Shinawatra, took a nationalist twist.

Waving placards saying "Thailand Not for Sale, Get Out", several hundred protesters urged a boycott of all things Singaporean in answer to the takeover of telecoms giant Shin Corp by its state investment arm, Temasek, from Thaksin's family.

"If Singaporeans faced the same situation as we do now, we believe Singaporeans would also rise up to do what we are doing," said Somsak Kosaisuk, a key member of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which is trying to kick Thaksin from office.

They also torched models of Singapore Airlines planes, its "merlion" national mascot and pictures of Lee's wife, Ho Ching, the Temasek boss.

The political crisis has already caused the Thai stock market and baht to wobble and is now raising long-term economic concerns, with ratings agencies looking at growth forecasts and companies delaying public flotations or investment projects.

The anti-Singapore sentiment, which stems from outrage at Thaksin's family paying no tax in January's $1.9 billion Shin Corp deal, now appears to be hurting business.

According to Chainid Ngow-Sirimanee, head of builder Property Perfect PCL, Singapore firms have delayed decisions on potential Thai property investments worth $256 million.

DBS Group Holdings, which had been thought keen on raising its stake in Thailand's TMB Bank PCL, had yet to make up its mind on whether to go ahead, a spokesman said. Analysts attributed the delay to politics.
Initially, my sympathies were with Thaksin, who seemed to me to be in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" kind of situation. That is, if Thaksin had hung onto Shin Corp, his opponents would have attacked him for doing that; but if he had sold off Shin Corp (as he's now done), his opponents would also have attacked him just as much anyway.

But I've never really followed Thailand's politics and business matters with that much attention, and there are probably other relevant aspects that I'm not aware of. My view about Thaksin's current problem is probably not a particularly informed one.

On the Singapore end, and yes I'm aware that I'm speaking with the benefit of 6/6 hindsight, I suppose we should have handled things differently. The Singapore government's initial response had simply been to say that "Oh, it was a pure business deal - what Temasek does has nothing to do with me." That's pretty lame; I think it probably irritated a large number of Thai people.

Yes, we know that in terms of legal structure, Temasek is separate and distinct from the Singapore government. But we're not talking legal structure - we're talking practical reality here. We know who runs Temasek, and who runs the Singapore government, so how can you REALLY say that there's no connection?

"Honey, I can't sleep. Can we talk about
the Shin Corp deal now?"

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

at the moment of crisis, there is no connection. but when there is something good,ah..there is connection lah..that's the thing work: roti-pata

Anonymous said...

First was the provocation of the Chinese government by a little visit to Taiwan. Then in a bit to placate the Chinese, we made the Taiwanese compared us to a bogger. Than came the faux paus at Germany and the Australians with the whole Nguyen and Qantas deal. Now its the Thais. In no time at all, we will displace the Americans as the most "popular" nationality in the world. Kudos to our most brilliant foreign policy makers.

Anonymous said...

I have no informed view on the Shin Corp deal, so I shan't comment about it. Tho I don't know if what our country really warrants eternal damnation.

But to the anonymous commenter above:

Yeah let's suck up to bigger nations and change our laws to suit them.


Mugster

Mr Wang Says So said...

From the Singapore perspective, I don't see it as an issue of whether we really deserve damnation or not.

The more pressing issues are the real-life issues, like the Thai people turning hostile against Singapore, boycotting Singapore products, or boycotting services / products from the Shin Corp which Temasek wants to buy.

Anonymous said...

To Mugster,

Lets flip the middle finger to all the countries out there to show them what badasses we are. Last I heard Iran and North Korea are doing real well standing up to everyone.

Oikono said...

Just an opinion from the trenches:

This incident has been seized upon by the rest of the region as another sign of Singapore willing to compromise its morals in order to make money/ seize national assets. You may or may not agree with it but that's how the political elite in the region are seeing it.

As for Thaksin, he managed to unload Shin Corp tax-free by exploiting some legal loopholes. Perfectly legal definitely but hard to justify as a Prime Minister. Corruption is pretty rife in his administration too (although I don't really know how this stacks up against other administration). Auditor General Khunying (who incidentally was prevented from the post by a legal challenge from senate for half a year) also accused the current administration of being one thoroughly ridden with corruption

My personal reading of the current situation differs a little though. Most of Thaksin's detractors are from Thai academia and Bangkok. I am not too certain about his unpopularity outside of Thailand.

lin said...

If Thaksin loses his next election, there goes our money down the drain too..

Jiang Wei said...

True, if Thaksin is displaced, the easiest thing for his successor to do to mollify Thai public opinion and win political capital would be to void the Shin Corp acquisition, or worse still, re-nationalise all Shin Corp businesses.

amatu said...

In the past, singaporean tourists create bad name for singapore. Presently, the singapore govt is creating tainting the reputation.

Anonymous said...

For the incidents you mentioned... I don't see it as flipping anyone the middle finger, but rather doing things countries normally do.


Mugster

moomooman said...

Actually I agree with Wang. Either way Thaksin loses.

The crux of the problem is not about the sale being Tax-free. If paying up the tax voluntarily even if he is not required to, will help the situation, I'm sure he would.

It's about opposition party taking every opportunity to displace a leader by every mean. If they are strong enuff, then go thru the Snap Poll and let the people decide.

As it is, if I'm not wrong, the sale is dependent on Temasek getting enuff local partners thus it will not be 100% Singaporean own.

As of Singapore government getting a bad name for themselves, they only have themselves to blame. The PM runs the country and the biggest Singapore company is run by his wife. And his wife is buying up the whole world.

Tell me no one is better than Ho Ching to run Temasek, even if the recommendation comes not from PM but the previous Board Chairman?

Is Ho Ching so damn good that they think her appointment is more beneficial than the perception other countries have on Singapore?

Anonymous said...

Ho Ching was never a finance or management person. She was just an engineer at Mindef, but a protege (like many) of PY.
She was in the meeting room when an ST type company wanted to launch a new PC (to catch in on the craze after the IBM PC was launched), and the Mindef types were briefing the advertising company. The ad company accounts manager asked about the special features of their PC that will separate it from the crowd e.g. CPU, memory, storage, graphics etc. All silence from the client side (including HC). The ad guy was smart, and proposed a "lifestyle" approach for the full page $25,000++ ad in the Straits Times. What the reading public saw was a picture of a tiny PC on top of a Nelson's type Roman column. New PC from ST, but no details whatsoever.

Mr Wang Says So said...

Ahem.

Please be considerate hor, readers, don't make defamatory remarks on my blog about Very Important Persons and get Mr Wang in trouble.

Mr Wang's posts may often be critical, but Mr Wang always endeavours to stay in the scope of fair comment

(and you can read "fair comment" in both ways, (1) the ordinary, layman sense of the phrase, or (2) the legal sense of the phrase within the law of defamation).

The idea of Mr Wang's post is merely to point that it is not possible to say that what Temasek does has nothing to do with the Singapore government -

among other reasons for Mr Wang's view is the fact that the PM of the nation and the CEO of Temasek are husband and wife - the most intimate kind of relationship in human society.

Nothing in my post is meant to be a criticism of Ho Ching's capability or personal ability. For all you know, in time we may conclude that she manoeuvred with genius in this whole matter -

Thaksin may trimph; the outcry may die down; and Temasek may successfully make a very grand acquisition in Shin Corp.

schizophrenic said...

The problem is simply this: Lee Hsien Loong. He's a damned 'suay' fella, man. Ascended the throne for a period of no more than 1.5 years and have since created so much problems for the country.

PAP should consider selecting someone else to replace him. Otherwise, residents of AMK should do this country a favour and vote him out of parliament in this coming general election.

Anonymous said...

Mr Wang, no one needs to point out or criticize the "capabilities and accomplishments" of Ho ching.

Her less-than-glowing (juz my opinion of coz) track record says it all. Hahaha..

Anonymous said...

So long Temasek is 100% owned by Ministry of Finance Inc,any purchase of foreign assets by Temasek will always be perceived by the host country as linked to Singapore's national imperatives, with all the problematic issues that could engender. Recall Singtel's purchase of Optus and Temasek's purchase of PT Indosat. The denial of SIA to fly the transpacific route is also a manifestation. We delude ourselves if we think it could ever be a straight commercial deal. Perhaps Temasek should list on the SES, NYSE and LSE, broaden its shareholder base to include reputable institutions, with MOF Inc holding the golden share.

klimmer said...

One of the issues that get people up in arms is unfair competition. Think BBC in the US, Singtel and SIA in Australia, now Temasek in Thailand. Using public monies to buy into private enterprise is not healthy for the market. It is official and legal for Temasek to tap into the Singapore reserves for 'strategic' acquisitions. Shin corp's assets look pretty strategic to me.

Anonymous said...

About PM's visit to Taiwan - I accepted his explanation... that he was on the verge of becoming the PM, that that was the last chance he have to visit ROC before becoming the top man in the government (bigger provocation once he becomes PM).

Given the fact that he will soon be making the decisions regarding Sing-ROC relationship, and given our trade and military ties, I feel that he was not wrong in wanting to go down to have a feel of the ground.

As for the Nguyen issue, I felt that we were correct in hanging the guy. He was caught red-handed, he knew he was carrying drugs, he should face the full penalty of the law. Do we want to have a set of law for Singaporeans and another for foreigners?

For Thaksin's case, I feel that Thaksin probably felt wronged in the sense that the loopholes for taxation existed all along - he did not create the loophole.

And as a very rich person with access to very talented accountants he would be advised to utilise the loophole even as a private business man.

To be fair, as the leader of the country the expectations of moral standards should be higher... but I think its quite unfair to expect a person to lose a couple billions on a matter of principle when he did not even make a fraction of that from being the PM.

AC

klimmer said...

As I recall it, I understand LHL went to ROC with one of the ministers. What is he doing with a minister on a private trip to ROC? Either this is an official visit, or there's somehting about out PM that we dont know about.

As for the Ngyuen issue, from what I understand, he was not entering Singapore and never passed customs. Our laws only apply to traffickers entering Singapore. The customs officer hence may have bent the rules in this aspect. You might think its unimportant but I think it is an abuse of authority; they could have easily informed the OZ gvt and let them handle it if it was about justice.

As for Thaksin, if one is in a position of power and public trust, any financial transactions automatically comes under scrutiny. That's the price of power. Likewise, we do not expect our PM and his friends and family to receive discounts when they buy condominiums for investment purposes, just because they are influenctial people, do we?

Anonymous said...

Although the visit to ROC was publicized as private, the intention is clear - PM Lee was there to meet and hold dialogue with the ROC leadership.

My point earlier is that I accepted the PM's subsequent explanation - that as someone that is going to be making long-term decisions on Sing-ROC relations, he needed to go and actually get a feel of the ground instead on depending only upon the reports of others. Delaying such a visit will only worsen the situation, as he would be going as the PM of Singapore then.

As for the Nguyen's case, I felt that the decision was also affected by a few considerations. Firstly, precedence - if previous traffickers passing through transit met with Singaporean laws, then such must also apply to Nguyen too. If we allow Nguyen to be prosecuted under Australian laws, we must apply this standard to other traffickers too. Second, in terms of deterrence, the application of Singaporean's harsher laws demonstrates our zero tolerance to drug trafficking - even for passengers in transit. Lastly, the government's sentence was fully within our judicial and sovereign right. There were simply insufficient grounds to compromise our sovereignty. The threats and protests carried out by the Australians were by far more extreme and uncalled for - in fact, the more ridiculous the measures the Australians put forward, the more I feel the sentence was necessary and justified.

In Thaksin's case, the point I was trying to make is that there is a big difference between using political power to make a loophole to benefit from it; and exploiting an existing loophole while not flouting any law or regulation in place. In the former there is clearly a case of criminal offence, while the former is more of a moral than a legal issue.

Some expects their leaders to be saints (giving up billions for a matter of principle?) while others have more pragmatic expectations. But the point of a true democracy is that the people will play the final judge.

The opponents of Thaksin are the ones that breaks the basic principal of a democracy, for they felt they have the right to overthrow a democratically elected leader – simply because they cannot accept him.

The democratic mechanisms for changing the leadership is there, and Thaksin have obliged by calling a snap election. If the opposition cannot muster enough support to overthrow Thaksin, then they simply do not have the democratic right to demand that he step down.

AC

onekell said...

For a few years, I regarded Thailand as an example of a country whose people would vote for a politician even if he had obvious vested interests in the welfare of the country, so long as he promised to improve theirs. Not unlike another country we know.

I watched with dismay as Thaksin bullied his critics and his wealth grew. Although it might have come too late, I'm glad that the Thais are finally standing up to him.

Perhaps our leaders feel that economic power makes up for our less than imposing physical size and military strength, therefore we should buy up the world.

Perhaps if such assets are available for sale, they would better off in the hands of a nation like ours (imperfect as it may be) than an aggressive, militant one.

As a Singaporean, I watch our acquisitions with ambivalence.

ted said...

AC:

Exploiting legal loopholes as a moral issue? SO are you implictly saying our dear PAP leaders have a moral issue when they dominate the previous elections through random electoral boundary changes? Tsk tsk.

About the hanging case, justice can sometimes be tempered with mercy. serves SIA right for being denied the air route. I never got a cheaper flight buying from them anyway.

Anonymous said...

Like I mentioned earlier, rich people hire accountants mainly to find ways to pay as little tax as possible. Pretending things are not so does not change reality at all. Thaksin was doing what every corporation and rich men in the world do - to execute a transaction with minimum taxation while not breaking the law.

Our leaders dominate the political field through many means. To attribute their success to the gerrymandering of electoral boundaries alone is gross oversimplification. What about the GRC system? What about the application of defamation suits? What about linking votes to upgrading projects? What about linking MRT/LRT openings to votes? What about giving out Singapore shares etc in times before elections? What about the Political donations act?... the list goes on and on.

Is there a moral issue? To me, there is one, and a very big one at that. I wish I had the ability to vote in or out our leaders like the Thais have.

As for Nguyen's case, I believe there are insufficient grounds for clemency. Every drug trafficker has a sob story behind them, and I feel that Nguyen was sufficiently educated and rational to know the risks and the choices that he had.

If we were to pardon him then we must pardon all similar cases once the precedence is set. If we were to pardon him, then there will be the doubt and the suspicion that Singaporean law is susceptible to pressure and threats.

AC

Naphat said...

I'd have to disagree with Mr. Wang here on sympathizing with PM Thaksin. Like many of the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situations people face in real life, Thaksin's lack of a good way out now actually stems from issues that he let simmer unresolved from the no so distant past.

The Thai constitution bans the PM and cabinet members from holding stocks or partnerships in private businesses. When he assumed the premiership in 2000, he had the choice of severing all conflicts of interest by putting his Shin Corp stocks in a constitutionally-mandated blind trust. He chose instead to transfer his stocks to his then 22-year-old son and other relatives, then 5 years later to see the holdings triple in value and then cash out.

How he may or may not have used his influence to give Shin Corp preferential treatment when it comes to dealing with government agencies is a matter still debated. Critics have question the motives under which he "let government agencies under his control hand out investment privileges, revise concession contracts, and accelerate licenses and permissions for the benefit of his family companies."

ted said...

Well AC, I guess Vietnam's law and sovereign right desrves to be looked at with suspicion, they have earlier acceded to Australia's plea not to hang one of their citizen. Tsk tsk. Bad Vietnam, setting bad precedents.

What you feel is also only your opinion, does not hold more weight than those who feel that he should be given a lesser sentence.

pacific202 said...

onekell, i would also add that the people who are opposing thaksin and calling for his head are the middle-class, the intellectuals, the intelligentsia, the students, NGOs. This is heartening. These groups play a heavier part in any nation's progress. For them to come out and oppose Thaksin augurs well for Thailand's future.

There is no point having a majority mandate that comprises of clueless peasants only interested in handouts and short term gains but is otherwise apathetic and neither understand nor care about the bigger picture.

onekell said...

pacific202, good points well said. I look forward to the day that happens here - people voting not only for their short-term/personal interests.

amatu said...

Im just thinking...thailand economy is rising fast, singapore economy is not improving, what is the way to minimise the their growth? Hrmm....

Anonymous said...

Ted :

The point was not about needing a precedence for exceptions by other countries. The point was whether there were sufficient factors to make an exception in Nguyen's case.

As I argued earlier, there aren't enough factors. Others are welcome to support alternative arguments, though there won't be that much of a discussion if we just voice our views without any supporting arguments.

AC

Anonymous said...

Pacific202 :

I am astounded at the irony of your second paragraph when applied to Singapore's political landscape.

Nevertheless, in Thailand's case I felt that it is populist and simplistic to paint Thaksin as the evil dictator and his opponents as heroes of freedom.

Look at the track record of leaders and parties in Thailand. Look at the performance of the economy so far, and the improvement of the standard of living of the rural population which forms the majority in Thailand - have any other PM reduced poverty and increased GDP as much as Thaksin? Are the farmers really mindless in voting for the first effective leader in decades that actually improved both the economy and their living conditions?

Look at the accusations of selling national assets - when Norwegian firm Telenor acquired Total Access Communications, the country's second largest operator, there were hardly any outcry. Are Thaksin's critics truly fair and unbiased?

When Thaksin presided over the opening of a prominent temple, Sondhi and the media accused Thaksin of usurping the royal powers of the king. Even when the head of the national Buddhist council and the King himself overthrew the accusations, Sondhi and the media still carried on the media attack with the rallying cry of "we will fight for the king". Is the media just and unbiased?

The academia and intelligentsia that spout countless rhethorics - but what have they done to help the lot of the rural population? What right have they to peg their vote as smart, and the vote of the rural population as mindless?

The basic tenet of a democracy is the right of every citizen to vote for the leader of his or her choice. To suggest that the votes of the lower educated or the poor as foolish or mindless is arrogance and bigotry within itself.

AC

Oikono said...

One of the problem with the snap polls in April 2 is that it will be undoubtedly an unfair election slanted in Mr Thaksin's behavior. He called to snap poll because many of his dissatisfied party members cannot defect as the law requires people running for elections to have been with the same party for 90 days. Furthermore, his massive resources gives him a huge headstart over opponents who have yet to start fundraising due to the suprise timing of the polls

klimmer said...

AC,

Exactly so. Hence it was rather lame of the government to pretend that it was a personal visit, given that he was the Finance Minister and he was the next in line for the throne. Apparently, his reasoning did not please the Chinese government either; it was a diplomatic boo-boo.

As much as I agree that he should have a good grasp of the SIN-ROC relationship, I really question the risk of provoking the Chinese, in view of our business interests there. Surely there are alternatives to a ministerial visit.... it's all moot anyway.

I do not have in depth knowledge with regards to Singapore laws regarding drug trafficking, so I won't comment too much. I would however venture to say that I am unfomfortable when you said 'we were right in hanging the guy.' I think it is dangerous, when a society becomes is self righteous that it is unable to bear its own reflection in the mirror. It is orderly to have laws but perhaps too much faith in it is not so healthy.

Ditto for Thaksin.

I noticed your arguments are all based on laws. Ever stopped to question if they were 'correct'?

pacific202 said...

To Anon (March 21, 2006 1:02:41 PM)

The basic tenet of a democracy (in all its myriad forms) maybe 1 man 1 vote, but that ALONE does not make a democracy. When an incumbent administration is bent on tearing down the various independent democratic apparatus of checks & balances or rendering them partial & non-independent, then the 1 man 1 vote system only serves to consolidate the incumbent. This is what Thaksin has been doing since he became prime minister. (Sometimes i wonder did he copy the formula from somewhere close by?)

To claim that the 1 man 1 vote system is the SOLE measuring stick for a democracy is quite ignorant and naive.

Anonymous said...

Oikono:

I don't think the opposition boycotted the snap poll because it's hasty.

Most analyst agree that the opposition boycotted the snap poll because they are certain that Thaksin\TRT will win easily thanks to their strong support from the rural population.

AC

Anonymous said...

Klimmer:

I think it is very difficult to please China where Taiwan is concerned unless one is freezing/downgrading/cutting ties with the ROC.

PM Lee's explanation was covered in the 2004 national rally speech. In it, the part that caught my eye the most, was the part where PM Lee stated that he is neither interested nor in the position to play the role of a mediator between China and Taiwan.

That is a departure from the stance of the Elder Lee, and to me a most sensible departure. There is a recognition of the grave difficulties of the ties between the two, and the recognition of our own relative insignificance in comparison. I think that this sensibility will help chart the difficult waters of the cross straits relations.

As for the Nguyen case, I am aware that my stance comes across as callous and legalistic, but I think that in this discussion I am trying more to be frank than diplomatic. In areas of law and foreign relations one cannot be emotional, and every exception and precedence must come supported by exceptional circumstances - that is the point that I am placing my emphasis.

AC

Anonymous said...

Pacific202:

The basic tenet of a democracy is the right of every citizen to vote for the leader of his or her choice.

This is the fundamental principle, not the means of measurement. This is the basic goal and the rules and laws within a democractic system are aimed at upholding this goal.

Electoral fraud will break the legitimacy of the elections. Criminal intimidation, coercion, vote buying etc will all affect the legitimacy of the elections.

However, there is simply no prove of any of the above so far. Given that the opposition have access to the media, given that the courts have shown that they are not adverse to ruling against Thaksin, I feel that if Thaksin have cheated, it will be only a matter of time before he was exposed.

Just because the Thai farmers choose a leader that is not a staunch supporter of democratic ideals, does not make their choice, or the election an undemocratic one.

AC

Anonymous said...

Today, the King of Thailand has announced that unopposed constituencies are UNDEMOCRATIC.

This just makes me wonder if Singapore is so First World as some draconian, outlived and outdated despot has gratified himself with.

Singapore Imperialism said...

Thai people held a protest against Temasek and Singaporean dictators in San Francisco this past Saturday. See pictures at:

http://singaporeimperialism.blogspot.com/

Singaporeans and Thais must unite against the dictators!