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.

Written for The Diplomat

Singapore received a stinging, albeit friendly criticism from Nobel Peace Laureate and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who reminded one of the world’s richest countries that there are greater goals to achieve in life than wealth.

Suu Kyi attended a leadership summit in Singapore where she discussed, among other things, the reforms her party is envisioning for Myanmar. But during the press forum Suu Kyi spoke her mind on Singapore’s impressive economic growth.

“One gets used to thinking of Singapore as a financial, a commercial city, where people are more intent on business and money than human relations,” said Suu Kyi in her opening remarks. “But I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised that there is a lot of human warmth going around this place.”

She was cautious in praising the efficiency of Singaporean institutions. For instance, she described Singapore’s education system as “workforce oriented.”

Suu Kyi added: “That made me think. What is work all about? What are human beings for? What are human lives about?”

She wanted Myanmar to “learn” from the Singapore model instead of “recreating” it. She said, “I want to learn a lot from the standards that Singapore has been able to achieve but I wonder whether we want something more for our country.”

Suu Kyi also urged Singapore to learn from the experience of Myanmar: “So I think perhaps Singapore could learn from us, a more relaxed way of life, perhaps warmer and closer relationships.”

Perhaps Suu Kyi has not yet forgotten that Singapore remained an active trading partner and friendly neighbor to Myanmar during the reign of the Junta. Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew even expressed more confidence in the Burmese Army as the only institution “keeping the country stable and preventing civil war.” He also doubted the ability of Suu Kyi “to govern if ever she came to power.”

Nevertheless, Suu Kyi’s remarks were welcomed by many Singaporeans. For writer Bertha Henson, it’s time for Singapore to do some “furious thinking and soul searching.”

She wrote: “Are we just a money-grubbing nation, efficiently churning out digits for the future workplace? Are we all about the Central Business District skyline? Is that really how other people see us? As calculative individuals who do not put much stock in human relationships?”

Blogger Xuyun reminded Singapore’s leaders to go beyond the GDP in measuring the quality of life: “Aung San Suu Kyi simply pricked the bubble of our materialistic minds, exposing our emptiness beyond that magnificent façade which we built our self-esteem on and from which defines our success. GDP) should not be pursued to the extent of reducing quality of life for the majority of the people in the process. And GDP alone does not define the spirit and the soul of a nation.”

Singapore is far ahead of Myanmar in almost every indicator of human and economic development, but Suu Kyi has a point when she pressed the Lion City to aim for a broader definition of progress and development.

Chin Peng: Hero or Criminal?

Written for The Diplomat

The death of Communist Malayan Party leader Chin Peng has revived the debate about his role in the modern history of Malaysia and Singapore.

Chin led the resistance against the Japanese occupation during the Second World War; and then subsequently, against the British colonial forces in the late 1940s and 1950s. As an independence fighter, he was often compared with Myanmar’s Aung San, Indonesia’s Sukarno and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.

But his campaign to establish a communist state, which led to many years of civil war, also made him unpopular. He was accused of waging a brutal guerrilla war that killed thousands. After the defeat of his forces, he moved and operated near the Thailand-Malaysian border. He lived in exile in Thailand even after a peace agreement was finalized with the Malaysian government in 1989.

Malaysian officials have rejected the request to bring home Chin’s ashes, claiming he was not a Malaysian citizen. Moreover, they are worried that a memorial could be erected by Chin’s followers.

“We know that if his body or ashes are brought back, there will be some who will deify him as a warrior-hero or make a monument to him. This will further break the hearts of our veterans and their families on top of the cruelty of Chin Peng and the communists,” said Malaysia’s Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad reiterated that Chin fought the British so that Malaysia can be converted into a satellite country of the Soviet Union. He added that the divisive leader didn’t want democracy for Malaysia.

Meanwhile, M Kulasegaran, a member of parliament from Ipoh Barat, suggested that Chin’s ashes should be returned home in recognition of his “valiant” struggle for independence and in deference to the terms of the peace accords which the government signed in 1989.

For opposition politician Tian Chua, Chin’s role in the region’s history should not be diminished. Tian said: “We have our evaluation of his role in the country even if we agree or disagree over his ideology. We must recognize that he was part of Malaysian history. He and his generation have shaped what we are today. And together with other leaders in Southeast Asia, they shaped the map of Southeast Asia.”

As expected, Malaysia didn’t send an official representative to Chin’s burial ceremony. But retired Thai generals and even a member of Thailand’s royal family managed to pay their last respects to the late communist leader.

Chin’s last letter to family and friends was read during his wake: “I wish to be remembered simply as a good man who could tell the world that he had dared to spend his entire life in pursuit of his own ideals to create a better world for his people. It is my conviction that the flames of social justice and humanity will never die.”

At the time of his death, Chin and his party no longer have any political influence in mainstream Malaysia. But perhaps his exhortation to the younger generation to continue the struggle for social justice is the threat that Malaysia’s ruling party wanted to suppress.

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