Are we supposed to feel all patriotic and outraged that China seized nine of our armoured troop carriers?
I don’t know anyone who feels that way. I think many in my circle are taking a ringside view with no particular investment in either side’s fight. They may not be typical, but then, the government’s Reach website, which invites comment and discussion on various topics, has only four comments on this matter after five days. None of the comments displayed strong feelings.
In most countries, the defence minister would have bowed his head in disgrace and resigned for losing military equipment through carelessness. But not here.
In case any reader is unfamiliar with the background, here are the brief facts: The nine Terrex vehicles had been used for military training in Taiwan and were being shipped back to Singapore on board a commercial cargo ship. The ship docked at Hong Kong on or around 24 November 2016 and the authorities there demanded that the vehicles be offloaded. They have been held by the customs authorities ever since. It is illegal to transship or transit such items through the territory without a licence; obviously no paperwork had been done.
It didn’t take me more than a few seconds to locate the territory’s law on this. Hong Kong’s webpage titled “Controls on Strategic Goods” is not difficult to understand. It says:
As stipulated in the Import and Export Ordinance, Chapter 60, Laws of Hong Kong, a licence issued by the Director-General of Trade and Industry is required for the import / export / re-export / transshipment of every shipment of strategic commodities.
Sensitive strategic commodities such as nuclear-related articles and munitions specified in Schedule 2 to the Import and Export (Strategic Commodities) Regulations are also subject to licensing control when transiting through HKSAR.
The webpage provides helpful links to Schedules 1 and 2 which clearly spell out that munitions come within the ambit of the law. Armoured vehicles are specifically listed under ML6, subsection 1(b).
In Parliament on 9 January 2017, the same defence minister got all self-righteous saying that holding these nine vehicles would be a violation of international law. He claimed “sovereign rights” over the military vehicles, and that since they belong to the Singapore government, they “are therefore immune from any measures of constraint.”
I cannot believe this to be correct. Because if it is, and country A chooses to send munitions through country B to support its attack on country C, are we to believe that country B has no right to stop and apply “measures of constraint” over such cargo?
Of course, no one should be fooled: there are deeper motives behind this action by the government of China which, doubtless, has the final say over when, if ever, the vehicles are to be released. Nor should anyone imagine that squeaking about international law and sovereign rights will cut any ice. China is doing this simply because it can. And because it wants to intimidate someone through that show of force.
I’m certainly not the first one to have noticed the sweet irony.
For five decades, the Singapore government has behaved like a bully over domestic critics. It has relied on its overbearing power to ride roughshod over laws and human rights (“international law” and “sovereign rights” anyone?). Here in Singapore, arrested persons have no right to immediate assistance by a lawyer. Detention without trial is totally OK. Freedom of speech and of association have been severely curtailed — no independent trade unions, remember? Under pressure from the government, our state institutions have played along. The meaning of defamation has been stretched and penalties inflated beyond reason. Intimidation has been the name of the game all these years.
Now, even our principle of equality is so compromised, it is entirely legal and constitutional to criminalise all gay men. We can reserve parliamentary seats and even the office of President to people of one race.
The Singapore government did all this because it could. Well, now China’s giving it a taste of its own medicine. As several have pointed out on social media: Karma’s a bitch.
As sure as the sun rises in the East, our government will repeat that small, vulnerable countries like Singapore must help uphold international law. Without it, we will be at the mercy of big bad powers. Considering that they have been desecrating the law domestically all these years, please spare me these homilies.
Of course I know that the Chinese government is no saint either. On many measures, its human rights record is even worse than the Singapore government’s. But while it is a big bully, it is one in a different neighbourhood. The Singapore government is the bully in my local neighbourhood, and therein lies the difference. Seeing a distant bully get its comeuppance does not give as much satisfaction as seeing your local bully get it. Let me say it, in case anyone thinks this is an unspeakable thought: I hope the Chinese continue to hold the Terrexes and let our ministers twist slowly and painfully in the wind for years to come.