Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


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

Inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, last week saw hundreds of protests against corporate greed and economic inequality spring up around the world. In Singapore, similar action was organized in the financial district to highlight the widening economic gap in the country and to ‘engage the public in creating a new form of democracy.’ But it seems Singaporeans had other things on their mind, because nobody showed up in Raffles Place. Even the organizers didn’t identify themselves to the media, which went there to document the protest.

Is this a sign that Singapore’s ‘99 percent’ is satisfied with the economy? Did the protest fail because the obscene accumulation of wealth by a few corporations that provoked the Wall Street protest is a non-issue in prosperous Singapore?

The ‘Occupy Raffles Place’ flop shouldn’t allow us to forget that Singapore has by some measures the highest rate of inequality among developed nations. It was the first city in Asia to experience recession in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008, and while its economy has already rebounded, ordinary Singaporeans continue to suffer from stagnant wages, job losses and the rising cost of living. In fact, last May’s election results saw the ruling party suffer its worst-ever electoral setback.

So, if there are valid reasons to ‘occupy’ Singapore, and if the people are searching for alternatives, why did the protest fail? The threat issued by the police against the organizers of the ‘Occupy’ event could have discouraged any interested Singaporeans (and even foreigners) from joining the protest. Singapore might have the most open economy in the world, but it has restrictive laws that make it difficult for its citizens to organize and participate in political assemblies. (Of course, the nameless organizers should also be blamed for their poor planning and failure to offer creative methods of circumventing Singapore’s repressive laws).

Still, the organizers and believers in the ‘Occupy’ movement shouldn’t lose faith over the zero attendance in their initial attempt to introduce a more assertive form of political action in Singapore. They must appreciate the fact that they were able to rattle the Singapore government, especially the police, with a simple announcement posted on Facebook. Also, both local and foreign journalists were there to cover the protest, which highlights the newsworthiness of the action. Netizens were prepared to popularize the protest in cyberspace. If a non-event could generate such a surprising reaction from the government and the public, imagine the political impact of a well-attended ‘Occupy Singapore.’

The opposition and other dissident forces should seize the potential of the ‘Occupy’ idea and transform it into a reality.

Written for The Diplomat

Timor-Leste’s Tasi Mane Project

Part of Timor-Leste’s Strategic Development Plan is the building of three industrial clusters on the country’s southwest coast, which will be the backbone of its petroleum industry. But civil society groups have warned that the ambitious project will have little impact on the economy.

The Tasi Mane (Male Sea) Project will involve the development of an integrated petroleum infrastructure in the coastal zone from Suai to Beaço over the next two decades. The plan includes the construction of the Suai Supply Base cluster, the Betano Refinery and Petrochemical Industry cluster, and the Beaço LNG-Plant cluster.

Suai will become a centre for providing services, logistics, fabrications and human resources for the petroleum industry. The supply base will require the establishment of a sea port in Kamanasa, a housing complex, heavy metals workshop, shipbuilding and repair facilities and a rehabilitated Suai airport. In Betano, a refinery and petrochemical complex will rise in a new centre that will be known as Petroleum City. And finally, in Beaco, an LNG Plant complex will be constructed near the towns of Nova Beaco and Nova Viqueque. The existing airport at Viqueque will be upgraded into a regional airport.

Aside from addressing the long term domestic energy requirements of Timor-Leste, the Tasi Mane Project is expected to generate substantial revenues, jobs, and livelihood opportunities in the country’s southern corridor. The government is confident that it will boost the petroleum sector, which can be used to directly promote the industrialization of the economy.

Timor-Leste is dependent on its oil revenues, but economists have already advised it to diversify its economy by venturing into non-oil activities since its oil and gas reserves are estimated to reach its peak in 13 years. But La’o Hamutuk, a Timor-Leste-based NGO, believes that Tasi Mane reflects the continuing dependence of the country on the petroleum industry. In its critique of the government’s development strategy, the group noted that petroleum processing seems to be the only industrial development discussed in the paper. ‘What about agricultural processing, or light industry to replace imported products?’ the group asked.

The group also questioned the government allocation of over 30 million for the Tasi Mane project, which is more than twice the budget of the Agriculture Ministry. ‘We lamented the nearly exclusive focus on the petroleum industry and resulting in lost opportunities to explore other possibilities for economic development,’ the group said.

The project blueprint is also silent on the concrete and real impact of Tasi Mane on the local economy and the communities in the south coast. ‘Nothing is said about how many jobs these projects will provide for Timorese workers, how much land they will take from uses such as agriculture and fishing, how many people will have to be displaced, or how much revenue they will generate for the state,’ La’o Hamutuk added.

Parliament is being urged by the NGO not to grant the government a blank cheque for a project that’s lacking transparency and whose economic viability is in doubt.

Still, the Tasi Mane Project is the flagship programme of Timor-Leste’s development strategy, and it has much potential since it can harness the country’s petroleum resources for the long term benefit of the local population. It can redirect the oil revenues to spur industrialization and the diversification of the local economy. But the issues raised by La’o Hamutuk and other NGOs are also valid, and they require immediate government consideration and action. Timor-Leste’s leaders must clarify these issues by engaging and consulting with the people, especially the communities that will be affected or displaced by Tasi Mane.

Written for The Diplomat

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