Lee Hsien Loong should apologise to Aung San Suu Kyi

The last few months have seen some rather rapid changes in Burmese politics. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, thousands of members and supporters of the National League for Democracy (NLD) released from prison, by-elections called for 48 seats and Aung San Suu Kyi herself allowed to contest — polling day is 1 April 2012.

If things carry on like that, it is entirely likely that the NLD, or a successor grouping, will be part of the government in the foreseeable future. When that happens, I hope they punish Singapore, or at least the Singapore government and its cronies.

Nobody really knows what is happening in the higher reaches of the Burmese government, still as opaque today as it was during military rule. Why have they taken the turn? Why are they opening up as fast as they seem to be? In the absence of a fuller understanding of their calculations, most people are reserving their bets. Things could well change abruptly tomorrow. Of course, we hope that they don’t. I hope that they continue to take this road till Burma is a full democracy.

What I can glimpse from various reports, particularly the online newspaper The Irrawaddy, no friend of the government, is that post-cyclone Nargis (2008) there was a realisation that Burma needed to reconnect with the world in order to rebuild and catch up development-wise, though exactly how the decision was made and how much resistance it faced internally is unclear. Sanctions imposed by America and Europe were surely a serious obstacle to progress, and it would have dawned on the generals then in charge, if not then-top boss Than Shwe himself,  that some accommodation with their internal critics led by Aung San Suu Kyi would be essential to break out of their isolation.

Singapore and Asean have long pooh-poohed economic sanctions. We believed in engagement, our government said. Frankly, I’ve always held the view that these were quisling words. We wanted to profit from the wealth corruptly amassed by the generals and their cronies, we hoped to get uncontested entry into Burmese investment opportunities (only to discover there were none), and our government was held back by its own record of detention without trial and other anti-democratic actions from criticising the junta.

And if in historical hindsight we see that indeed the economic sanctions from the West made a huge difference, it would be the second great achievement for this non-violent approach. Twenty years ago, South Africa made peace with its own citizens, dismantling apartheid after suffering a decade of sanctions.

“Engagement” Singapore-style has nothing to show for it, by comparison.

* * * * *

In the name of engagement, we have committed human rights abuses against patriotic Burmese. I wrote 22 August 2008 on the old Yawning Bread site an article, titled Singapore shows Burmese dissidents the door:

Six Burmese have been thrown out of Singapore in the last month or so when their residency passes were denied renewals. While the immigration office has not provided any explanation for any of these cases — and the silence itself can be read as sinister -– “they had some commonalities”, said Myo Myint Maung at a press conference on 22 August.

All six have had their personal particulars recorded by the police at one or more events organised by the expatriate Burmese community since last September, and each of them have, at least once, been summoned to Tanglin Police Station for investigation.

The Burmese in Singapore have organised “more than dozen” events in the last few months, from the march along Orchard and Tanglin Roads during the Asean summit held in Singapore last November, to petition signing against the sham referendum, to prayer vigils for those slain in the streets of Rangoon, said Myo. All have been peaceful, but they have also been a reflection of the deep anger felt by Burmese over the vileness of the military regime.

One of the six persons our government threw out had in fact been bonded to work for Singapore-registered companies for 3 years, a condition of a tuition grant given by the Ministry of Education. Maung Soe Thiha had been looking forward to start work when he graduated from the National University of Singapore this year.

His student pass expiring upon graduation, he applied for a Long Term Social Visit Pass, to look for a job. This should be routine, and “normally, people on Long term Social Visit Passes can stay for 6 months or more to seek employment,” said Myo. But in Soe Thiha’s case, the government rejected his application altogether, giving no reason for its decision.

Simultaneous with these events, the young man’s job search had just about found success. Hai Yong Engineering was prepared to give him his first job and the company promptly filed an electronic application for an Employment Pass for him. Without any visa at all, however, Soe Thiha had to leave Singapore. Hai Yong’s application for an Employment Pass for him is still in limbo three weeks later.

He is now languishing in Cambodia living on his savings.

Another equally ridiculous case is that of Hlaing Moe. He had been working as a Technical Supervisor with Sankyu (Singapore) Pte Ltd since July 2006 on an S Pass, which is the residency document for skilled foreigners. He applied for a renewal of his S Pass in July this year (his company was willing to continue employing him) but this application was also rejected without any explanation.

He therefore could only continue staying for a short while more under a Social Visit Pass (i.e. a tourist pass).

Hlaing Moe was also a part-time student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, studying for a Diploma in Technology (Mechanical) with exams on 14 – 24 August 2008. He appealed for an extension of his Social Visit Pass to enable him to complete his exams, but this appeal was rejected, also without any reason.

He is now languishing in Malaysia.

How is it that fellow-Asean members Cambodia and Malaysia can provide safe harbour to these men when Singapore cannot? Does “engagement” mean we help the generals in Burma hound their dissidents for them?

And these were not the only two. Ho Choon Hiong made a film about one guy who was working in Singapore (for Sembawang Engineering, if I recall correctly) but was denied renewal of his employment permit and eventually he had to flee to Jakarta. I can’t recall the name of the film or find a trailer for it. However, Ho made a few other short videos of Burmese expatriates in Singapore, including this one:

It shows the crowd outside the Burmese Embassy in Singapore, demanding to exercise their right to vote No against the constitution drafted by the military junta.

How many of these persons were subsequently deported by Singapore, at great cost to their employment and livelihood?

* * * * *

I warned several times in the past that our government was extremely short-sighted. Not that it was a surprise for me; I’ve also said on other occasions that this government had absolutely no vision for Singapore generally, and it goes without saying that when one has no vision at all, it’s rather hard to be far-sighted. I warned that military rule in Burma was unsustainable, that eventually it will collapse and a new democratic order take its place with the NLD likely to be at the centre of a new government. This process now seems to be underway, though fortunately it is less of a chaotic collapse, more of a (inexplicably brisk) peaceful transition.

Singapore risks having to pay for our government’s sins when the NLD gained power, I had said.

It’s time to demonstrate some remorse. In fairness to the brave men and women whom we have unjustly penalised, we should offer reparations to them individually. Every one whose student pass, long-term social visit pass or work pass we have terminated prematurely for political reasons should be compensated in cash. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should go before Aung San Suu Kyi, bow abjectly and offer his contrite apologies for the way he has treated her supporters and other Burmese patriots, and accept whatever punishment the new Burmese government metes out.

37 Responses to “Lee Hsien Loong should apologise to Aung San Suu Kyi”

  1. 1 twasher 29 February 2012 at 00:17

    While I also disapprove of the government’s actions with respect to Burma, I’m not so sure that what they did will prove to be costly. They may have calculated that even if a democratic government takes over Burma, it would reason as follows: the costs of giving Singapore the cold shoulder will be so high that it would be better to forgive and forget. Having little knowledge about the predilections of Burmese democrats on this front, I have no idea if this would be true, but it seems plausible that this was a consideration in Singapore’s foreign policy.

  2. 2 Sgcynic 29 February 2012 at 00:31

    Goh Chok Tong should also offer his apology to Aung San Suu Kyi for calling her “part of the problem” that Myanmar faces. Now it seems Goh and Lee may become the problem between Burma and Singapore. It is only adhering to their creed of pragmatism that they offer their “goodwill”.

  3. 3 Anonymous 29 February 2012 at 01:12

    I read somewhere that some PAP MPs and ex ministers have business links with the junta. Can someone point it out? Is it Yeo Chow Tong, Goh Chok Tong or George Yeo? And is it weapons related, drug related or precious stones?

  4. 4 Outsider 29 February 2012 at 09:40

    “Lee Hsien Loong should go before Aung San Suu Kyi, bow abjectly and offer his contrite apologies for the way he has treated her supporters and other Burmese patriots, and accept whatever punishment the new Burmese government metes out.”

    Fat hope! He don’t even say sorry to his own people (except when he need to buy votes).

  5. 5 Poker Player 29 February 2012 at 10:03

    Re-title – call it “J’accuse”. The crime is greater.

  6. 6 Alan Wong 29 February 2012 at 10:19

    What would people think if that is exactly done ? As is the usual practice for many cunning politicians, saying sorry at the most appropriate right moment must be one of the cheapest tricks that will just do the job.

    As one may see it, saying sorry is meaningless if one’s subsequent actions doesn’t reflect that sincerity at all. And it will only make more people into believing that the apologies are merely opportunistic.

    That probably may explain why some people prefer to stand corrected rather than saying sorry, not even over their dead body.

  7. 7 jentrifiedcitizen 29 February 2012 at 10:32

    Your articlesare very enlightening. Didn’t know about this until I read this. you are a brave soul Alex and I applaud your guts to say what your strongly believe in. We need people like you and we fully support you for speaking the truth.

  8. 8 JayF 29 February 2012 at 10:46

    The problem with the gist of this articles lies in the assumption that the NLD, if they take power, will have a full reign to run the country and will have the needed clout to take to task the military.

    Two factors render that scenario highly improbable.

    1) The army is the most well connected and well financed group in the country. They are a minority, but they are a well armed, well financed one with the ability to overthrow any possible NLD government that actually tries to make a serious attempt to remove them from the scene completely. The threat of EU and US sanctions will pale in comparison to the possibility of jail and losing all they’ve built up.

    The idea of the NLD “punishing” any government that had dealings with the junta is frankly, a liberal’s wet dream. A new regime would want stability with their neighbours, particularly rich ones with a long history of investment and involvement in the country. Singapore fits that bill. Hostility towards Singapore will also mean that two other major powers, Indian and China, who have also been very close to the Junta will be worried that the NLD might be threatening their interests there in favour of the Americans and the EU. Hopefully, a new NLD government will realise how much it’d hurt themselves on the foreign diplomacy front. Upsetting your richer, more developed neighbours is never good diplomacy.

    2) The armed insurgencies across vast swathes of Myanmmar that are not ethnic Burmese majority like the Shan Free State and the Karen. Aung San Suu Kyi has vast influence over the Burmese population. On the other armed ethnic minorities in the many border regions though, not so much. Recent troubles in the Chinese border with the Shan Free State army got the Chinese really upset when the refugees started flowing and the gems stopped due to escalated fighting. The NLD leader made an attempt to get the Shan to talk to the army.

    The Shan ignored her and continued shooting at Burmese soldiers. Unless She’s ready to allow independence for the many ethnic minorities who loathe Burmese rule, she’s going to have to leave the military and their interests mostly untouched.

    Granting independence to the Shan et al will open another can of worms. Mainly, it will cause her immediate neighbours to turn hostile, since they’re battling their own separatist insurgencies and such a move will inflame them. Not to mention one of the few things the military is doing that is truly popular among the Burmese populace is their putting down of the insurgencies. They’re not too keen on suddenly being surrounded by new independent hostile nations.

  9. 9 Andy W 29 February 2012 at 10:56

    Shouldn’t it be the foreign Minister who should apologise instead?

  10. 10 Robox 29 February 2012 at 12:49

    Aiyoh, Alex ah. The only time I have known Lee Hsien Loong to issue any apology was when it was prudent to do so as a political ploy: to stem votes moving away from his party at GE 2011.

    Wouldn’t any apology he might issue for any more of his missteps, at this time and with the same mindset prevailing, contain the same ingredient of political strategy over the people’s welfare?

  11. 11 yuen 29 February 2012 at 13:15

    who exactly are “burmese patriots”? when the generals decided to release Ms Aung San Suu Kyi from detention, they also cancelled a major PRC project, because they grew wary of over-reliance on China and wanted to try a western tilt; dont they also deserve praise, for standing up to regional hegemony? maybe they are more patriotic than Ms Aung San, who lived in England for many years and had a English husband?

  12. 12 David Lim 29 February 2012 at 14:11

    “constructive engagement” has been an abject failure and just used as a band aid when there are no more politically acceptable ideas to move ahead – with respect to the Burmese issue. My main truck is that in my line of work in people transformation, we believe that to keep doing the same thing (which doesnt work) over and over again is tantamount to insanity.

  13. 13 anonymous 29 February 2012 at 14:14

    i have no doubt our so called PM Lee will be able to do so ( apologise to Ms Suu Kyi )….afterall he did apologise during the last election and to his credit, fooled many voters in AMK and others around the island.

    in this sense, (edited out by Yawning Bread because it’s against editorial policy to call people names) can be deemed as having the ability to rehearse another apology if he is made desperate enough,,,,,and even rehearse shedding some “crocodile tears” from his so called mentor.

    but i have this hunch Ms Suu Kyi and her supporters are alot more streetsmart….LOL

  14. 14 Ziggy 29 February 2012 at 15:22

    “I have visited (Burma) and I know that there is only one instrument of government, and that is the army…If I were Aung San Suu Kyi, I think I’d rather be behind a fence and be a symbol than after two or three years, be found impotent.”

    – SM Lee Kuan Yew, Reuters, Jun 6, 1996, which sparked a flurry of protests from Burmese students.

    Lee Hsien Loong should bring daddy along when offering his apologies.

  15. 15 Daft Singaporean 29 February 2012 at 16:52

    I sincerely hope that the new Burmese government melts out some punishment but I do think that the new government will want do what’s best for the people. This would mean establishing a good relationship with Singapore, whereby the people of Burma would have much to gain.
    Even if they don’t extend a welcoming hand, we have a proud history on backtracking or should I say re-thinking out policies and allegiance. I must say, we have the Grand Mentor Master in making use of people. From the Japanese, Communism, British, Malaysians, Fellow party members everyone has been used and abused.
    Just look at our attitude towards China, from the days when any publication from China was banned, to the dismantling of a University we now have a nothing but China policy, from Mandarin, Scholarships to building of townships. Basically the Mentor Master is going out of his way to kiss and promote Chinese ass. His way is the gospel to be followed by his party members.
    Soon we will see our leaders talking greatly about Ms Suu Kyi, her determination and courage, the strength of the Burmese people and before long the Master’s son will be going out his way to kiss and promote Burmese ass, just like father did.

    • 16 Any 1 March 2012 at 07:16

      And may I add, change the rules when it fits his purpose. And Alex, you said the military rule in Burma is unsustainable, what about our situation?

  16. 17 George 29 February 2012 at 17:19


    When pigs can fly.

  17. 18 Mike 29 February 2012 at 17:23

    U idiot. R u a Sporean or Burmese parasite in
    Do u know exactly wat those 6 idiots hv done

    • 19 Poker Player 29 February 2012 at 22:04

      The exact same thing they could have done in many other countries without being deported. Some even give asylum.

  18. 20 Chow 29 February 2012 at 19:05

    Like twasher, I will not hold my breath much as I wish Singapore had taken a harder stand against the regime. I think that the government has probably figured out that if and when the NLD forms the government, they will find that the well-being of their citizens come first, even if it means sleeping with the enemy. In international politics, there are no friends nor enemies, only opportunities.

  19. 21 yawningbread 29 February 2012 at 20:06

    I find it interesting that many comments here take the view that since Singapore is a rich place, Burma, even when democratic, cannot do without us, so they will not compel us to apologize. It wasn’t an angle I cared about, as you can see from the article. I am saying we should express our contrition, and offer compensation to those whom we have deported, not because Burma can force us to do so, but because it is the right thing to do.

    Is doing the right thing so far, far away from our minds that it never occurs to us at all?

    • 22 Gazebo 29 February 2012 at 20:38

      well said YB. but its no surprise. after all, the electorate can even tolerate having a law that promotes the detention of anyone without trial, consistently supporting it election after election. seriously, who cares about doing what is right in Singapore?

    • 23 Anonymous 29 February 2012 at 20:53

      No choice. Singaporeans are trained to be pragmatic by the government. Self interest comes first before morals. That’s why we have casinos, brothels etc. Monetary gains more important. We have levies, ERPs and COEs instead of setting quotas. It is all about milking more money from the system.

      • 24 Poker Player 1 March 2012 at 10:56

        Even pragmatism we are pathetically lousy at.

        Hongkong buyers of toxic investment products from DBS got a far better deal than Singaporean ones. And DBS is supposed to be **our**bank**.

        You are too charitable in your characterization of Singaporeans. Instead of “pragmatic”, try “venal patsies” (this combination is possible only in Singaporeans).

    • 25 Anon 1 March 2012 at 14:42

      It is often said that this government tends more to doing things right than doing the right thing. I guess there are enough examples out there not to need to mention anything specific.

    • 26 J. 3 March 2012 at 01:48

      I think you made the point clearly why the govt did what they did with regard to the six chaps but perhaps failed to Realise it. As one reader pointed out, diplomacy is about expanding and protecting Singapores interest. I doubt one would want to hurt ties with the Myanmar govt by having the six vent their felt injustices publicly in sg. And rest assured it would have. One can only be pragmatic.

  20. 27 jackky 29 February 2012 at 23:17

    International politics is the art of getting the
    best for one’s country through diplomacy.
    Cynically, this means cooperating with whoever
    is in power. Dealing with the opposition or the
    repressed is not going to get you the business
    you need. This wont be diplomacy. This is
    subterfuge. Is Singapore robust enough to
    conduct subterfuge against any neighbour?
    Expedience, man, expedience

  21. 28 Rabbit 1 March 2012 at 01:50

    A guy who value money more than human beings and has to calculate whether there is investment returns for everything he did; certainly do not deserve my respect.

    He will not subscribe to human rights for sure, and is already provened for being petty in local politics by hating people who go against his wish and his party. He rather is a recipient of apology than to give them when the fault was his. His overly bloated glory and cocky behavior have been successfully nurtured and pampered by our main stream media for many years that our children thought Singapore is a monarchy.

    Probably, he viewed Aung San Suu Kyi in the same negative light as PAP opponents and their supporters, such that there is no added value for him to bend with army of mercenaries under his beck and call. HIs salaries is the world best any politician can dream of. Thus he will bend only when things turned around and caught him by surprise like the last watershed election. Yes, he is afraid of the mass but if you are lesser individual, you will get his lawyer letter and face music in courts with his very sharp hatchet unless you are someone with wealth and status, prompted our systems to tweak and suddenly became so forgiving (like not impounding your passport for causing blooshed), and so who knows, one might even get the orchid named after him too– like the junta.

    Nevertheless, he will not apologies with bloated ego if his opponent eventually became successful. The most is to get his press secretary to pick an appropriate “congratulation” template to show he is neutral in other people politics.

    It is not easy to live in cowardice and as a bully, what better “name” can we use to describe such 2-in-1 character? If he delays Hougang by-election to “punish” his dissenter, than he just proved the above argument is right about him.

  22. 29 jc 1 March 2012 at 01:52

    Hur??? There are brothels everywhere. I don’t see your logic re morals. I think Singaporeans need to stop thinking they are the most important and influential group of people in ASEAN. The truth is very faraway from that.

    • 30 Poker Player 1 March 2012 at 11:02

      “There are brothels everywhere. I don’t see your logic re morals.”

      If no minors or human trafficking is involved, your sentence is a non-sequitur. Your point is made with our laws regarding maids though.

  23. 31 Daft Singaporean 1 March 2012 at 11:46

    Yes, Alex, I am aware that for most Singaporeans, me included, have come to a stage where pragmatism rules, rather than doing what’s right. To me personally I try to do what’s right and not whether is practice or beneficial, this includes exercising my right to vote, right of individuals and freedom of speech.

    Looking at the By-Election issue, the whole island knows what the morally & ethically right thing to do is and yet our PM argues on pragmatic grounds and defends his action using the constitution. What I am trying to say is that I do not expect our PM to do the right thing (according to you and me) when Burma is concerned, we never did.

  24. 32 TCL 1 March 2012 at 21:17

    What the Burmese junta is trying to do is to become a “democracy” like Singapore. There are many way to control a people apart from using guns. The junta is very impressed by what our Lee family has done.

  25. 33 Fumoj Fun 1 March 2012 at 22:53

    The moves by the junta appears superficial and may been introduced, for the sanctions to be lifted. Total press freedom is still lacking.

    • 34 Fumoj Fun 1 March 2012 at 23:02

      Oops, hits the button by mistakes!

      It is doubtful Aung San Suu Kyi would be allowed to hold much power in the new government. But the PAP owes her more than an apology for siding with the scum that profited from the suffering of common peoples in Burma.

  26. 35 Mourinho 4 March 2012 at 11:28

    The government may had too much vested interests during the junta’s time to desire a change in status quo. And since when has Singapore ever offered asylum? They’d rather give asylum seekers some food and send them packing to die.

  27. 36 Han 18 June 2012 at 23:18

    Interesting! Many of us do not hear any news (about democracy movement in Burma or Myanmar) from the current gov…. When the lady enters into Europe, a professor from NUS expresses that the answer is in Asia… How terrible? If he is honest, he should express it in last decade…

  28. 37 Anonymous 21 June 2012 at 00:08

    oh yes, and you guys conveniently forget that ASSK is also a politician herself!

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