Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

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@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father and architect of modern Singapore, resigned from the Cabinet a week after the ruling People’s Action Party suffered its worst performance in the polls since 1965. Lee was Prime Minister for 31 years from 1959 to 1990, and continued to lead Singapore as Senior Minister for 14 years and then as Minister Mentor since 2004.

But don’t expect him to retreat from public view since he still has a seat in parliament. He gave up his Cabinet rank, but not necessarily his power to dictate the governmental affairs of Singapore. How could his voice become irrelevant when his son is the prime minister? Remember also the threat he made in 1988 that he would rise from the grave if the next generation of leaders led Singapore in the wrong direction.

While Lee’s resignation won’t necessarily mean an actual diminution of his stature and role inside the PAP, it marks the first time in five decades that he has no official Cabinet position. Lee resigned despite the re-election of PAP because he was blamed by many for the reduced popularity of the ruling party. His strong leadership style may have worked before, but it’s now increasingly being rejected by younger voters and it seems he felt compelled to resign to reverse the declining reputation of the party he founded.

But, as expected, he didn’t step down without making some pointed statements about his enemies. He even chastised the young generation for failing to remember the humble beginnings of Singapore and its transformation into a prosperous global city under his leadership.

Nobody is questioning Lee’s economic stewardship. In fact, even his critics admit that it’s his greatest legacy. But Singapore’s young and educated citizens aren’t happy anymore with the built-in authoritarian features of the political system established by Mr Lee. They want a free press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly – in short they prefer a real and working democracy. Indeed, some of these democratic rights are absent or lacking in Mr Lee’s political philosophy.

That PAP was ready to sacrifice Lee could be an indication of its recognition of the growing discontent in Singapore, and the PAP might be preparing an overhaul of its image to restore public confidence. Maybe it realized that a different PAP has to emerge soon if it wants to maintain its political dominance. Unfortunately for Lee, he would have had to call the shots from behind the scenes.

But despite his reduced role in Singapore government, he’s still considered a legendary figure in modern Southeast Asia politics. Indeed, he is the last strongman standing among post-war leaders of democratic societies in the region, with his contemporaries either dead or retired. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was ousted in 1986, Suharto of Indonesia was forced to resign in 1998, while Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia retired in 2003. Lee, meanwhile, still holds a seat in parliament.

Lee may be 87 years old, but don’t count him out yet. The old man could still reinvent himself – especially if he thinks he will outlive everybody.

Written for The Diplomat

ASEAN Needs Timor-Leste

Should Timor-Leste be admitted as the eleventh member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)?

Member countries Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand, Cambodia, Philippines, and Burma have already expressed approval of Timor-Leste’s decade-long bid to join the regional grouping. Even Indonesia, which occupied the state for a quarter of a century, has agreed to support the membership request of its former colony.

But Singapore, one of the original members of ASEAN, opposes its entry, saying Timor-Leste is ‘not yet ready to absorb the many challenges and complexities of ASEAN membership.’ It’s a polite way of saying that it can’t join ASEAN yet because it’s a poor and fragile state that could affect the stability and security of the regional group.

Yet is this view accurate and fair? Timor-Leste President Jose Ramos-Horta thinks not, and has argued openly why his country is more than ready and deserving to join ASEAN.

He points, for example, to the UNDP Human Development Report 2011, which placed Timor-Leste in the medium human development category. In fact, it ranked higher than Cambodia, Laos and Burma in the overall measure of human development. Ramos-Horta added that his country has no foreign debt, and indeed has the highest surplus in the world, in percentage terms, of over 280 percent of GDP.

Ramos-Horta claimed too that unlike its neighbours in the region, Timor-Leste doesn’t have ethnic or religious conflicts, organized crime and armed insurgency. It also has a multi-party democracy, with nine parties in the national parliament in stark contrast with the situation in many ASEAN countries, where there’s no genuine opposition.

Ramos-Horta also cites the report of the London-based Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which rated Timor-Leste as the best performer in Asia in terms of accountability and transparency in the management of petroleum resources.

The Timor-Leste president admits that his country is poor, but he notes that it was still able to hand out cash support to victims of natural disasters in Indonesia, Burma, China, the Madeira Islands (Portugal), Haiti, Brazil and Australia that totalled close to $5 million over the past three years. (This fact may well have been raised by Ramos-Horta as reassurance that his country won’t be begging for aid from its neighbours if it becomes an ASEAN member).

Since gaining independence in 2002, Timor-Leste has made enormous progress, despite its non-inclusion in ASEAN.

Today, it wants to join ASEAN and asks for a five to 10-year transition period to catch up to more advanced ASEAN members. But if we are to believe the statements made by Ramos-Horta, it seems it’s the ASEAN countries that in many ways need to catch up with the human development performance of Timor-Leste.

In fact, maybe it would be wise for Timor-Leste to rethink its ASEAN application and ask itself if membership of the group would be really beneficial to its own long-term interests. Does it really want to join a group that is becoming increasingly irrelevant and ineffective in resolving the many disputes involving its members?

ASEAN should be the one aggressively pursuing membership and integration for Timor-Leste, because if the tiny state realizes it doesn’t need ASEAN to survive, it could always turn to its more powerful friends like China, New Zealand, and Australia.

Rejecting or further delaying the membership bid of Timor-Leste would be a dangerous mistake for ASEAN to make.

Written for The Diplomat

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