Posts Tagged ‘SINGAPOREANS’

Only one Singaporean is fit to be president — So who decides in a democracy? — Or who cares if it is a democracy?

September 14, 2017

Or so the government concludes

IT IS very important, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, explained last year, that all Singaporeans feel they have a genuine chance of becoming president. To that end, his government tinkered with the eligibility criteria for candidates. Yet Singaporeans primed for a festival of inclusiveness at this year’s election must be confused. On September 11th a committee of senior officials declared that only one candidate was eligible to stand, and that the woman in question, Halimah Yacob, a former speaker of parliament, was thus deemed to have been elected unopposed. She will be sworn in on September 14th.

Singapore’s democracy can sometimes seem a little regimented: the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power since before independence in 1965. So when the government decided to amend the constitution in 1991 to allow direct elections for president, ostensibly to deepen popular engagement with politics, observers were suspicious—and rightly so. The criteria for eligibility were set so narrowly that only two of the subsequent five elections have involved more than one candidate. Even so, at the previous election, in 2011, the PAP’s preferred candidate came within a whisker of losing.

The government says this close shave had no influence on its decision to narrow the eligibility criteria yet more before this year’s election. The intention, Mr Lee explained, was to make sure that none of Singapore’s three main ethnic groups—Chinese, Malays and Indians—was excluded from the job for too long. In November the government duly changed the constitution to reserve presidential elections for members of a particular ethnic group if no one from that group has held the job for the previous five terms. On this basis, the presidential election this year was limited to Malays, who make up 13% of the population but have not held the office of president since 1970. Coincidentally, the new rules prevented the candidate who fell just 7,383 votes short last time, Tan Cheng Bock, from running again, as he is one of the 74% of Singaporeans who are Chinese (9% of the population is Indian).

Cynics point out that the government’s concern with diversity goes only so far. All holders of the much more powerful post of prime minister have been Chinese—two out of three of them from the Lee family. Singapore normally prides itself on being a meritocracy, in contrast to neighbouring Malaysia, where Malays and other indigenous groups are accorded special privileges. And while candidates for president this year had to be Malay, not just any Malay could apply. They also needed either to have served in an extremely senior government job or to have run a profitable company with S$500m ($371m) in shareholder equity. The figure used to be S$100m but a decision to raise the bar was announced last year. Undaunted, two other Malays beside Ms Halimah applied to run, but were judged not to have met the criteria.

Popular and competent, Ms Halimah seemed very likely to win even with some competition. Disqualifying her challengers robs her of the modicum of legitimacy the election could have given her. Voters excited to mark ballots for Singapore’s first female president are particularly disappointed. Then again, Singapore’s repeated tightening of the rules suggests a lack of faith that voters, given a wider choice, would make the right decision.

https://www.economist.com/news/asia/21728865-or-so-government-concludes-only-one-singaporean-fit-be-president

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Anger over UAE jailing of Singaporeans for ‘dressing feminine’ — sentenced to a year in jail

August 25, 2017

AFP

© AFP | The United Arab Emirates criminalises sodomy, as well as both pre-marital and extra-marital sex. Article 358 of the penal code also criminalises “indecent attire” as an act of public indecency.
SINGAPORE (AFP) – The family of a Singaporean man jailed with a transgender friend in the United Arab Emirates for dressing in a “feminine” way called Friday for their release, as activists raced to raise funds for legal fees.

Fashion photographer Muhammad Fadli bin Abdul Rahman and transgender friend, Noor Vitriya Kistina Ibrahim, were arrested at a shopping mall in Abu Dhabi and sentenced to a year in jail at the weekend, according to relatives.

Fadli’s brother Saiful told AFP from Singapore that the pair were detained by the tourism police for “looking feminine”.

Advocacy group Detained in Dubai said they were convicted of charges related to “inappropriate behaviour over their clothing”. The group confirmed both were sentenced to a year in jail.

Fadli, 26, told his family that he was wearing earrings and a tie at the time of his arrest, Saiful added.

“We want them released and back to Singapore as soon as possible,” he said, adding his brother was a “friendly, happy-go-lucky and jovial person.”

“We were informed that he was arrested for looking feminine, but looking feminine is very broad. It was emotional, my parents broke down when they heard the news,” he added.

Rights activists in Singapore launched an online crowd-funding campaign to raise Sg$25,000 ($18,366) for their legal and other fees and breached their target just after midday Friday, according to their Facebook page.

Noor is described by activists as a transgender person who has not yet undergone sex change surgery to become a woman.

Radha Stirling, head of London-based advocacy group Detained in Dubai and managing partner at the Stirling Haigh law firm, said Thursday her organisation will appeal the verdict and request the sentence be dropped to a fine and deportation.

The United Arab Emirates criminalises sodomy, as well as both pre-marital and extra-marital sex.

Article 358 of the penal code also criminalises “indecent attire” as an act of public indecency.

Asia security forum to push social media use to fight extremism

August 5, 2017

Reuters

AUGUST 5, 2017 / 1:24 AM

By Manuel Mogato

Image result for Armoured Personnel Carrier, Manila, philippines, August 2017, photos

A man use a mobile phone to take pictures of his friend beside an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) parked near the venue of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Pasay city, metro Manila, Philippines August 4, 2017. Reuters photo

MANILA (Reuters) – More than two dozen Asian countries will agree to utilize social media to counter the spread of violent extremism in the region, according to a draft statement being prepared ahead of a top security gathering on Monday.

Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and from 17 dialogue partner-countries are expected to create a regional mechanism to address the security threat.

“The ministers expressed strong condemnation of recent acts of terrorism in all its forms and manifestations,” said the draft chairman’s statement seen by Reuters, reflecting discussions expected at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Manila.

“They also took note of the need to make full and effective use of social media to counter the spread of terrorists’ narratives online.”

The ARF is expected to discuss creating a mechanism to boost efforts on Security of Information Communication Technology, which Japan, Malaysia and Singapore have volunteered to lead.

The Philippines, which is hosting the ASEAN meetings, is among those most affected. Authorities have said Islamic State’s radical ideology is taking a hold in the country’s south, with local groups using social media as a primary means of recruiting fighters, which include Indonesians, Singaporeans and Malaysians.

Image result for Armoured Personnel Carrier, Manila, philippines, August 2017, photos

Motorists drive past an Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) parked near the venue of the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting in Pasay city, metro Manila, Philippines August 4, 2017. Romeo Ranoco

Philippine troops have been battling Islamist militants who seized control of parts of the mainly Muslim Marawi City more than two months ago. Close to 700 people have died and more than 400,000 displaced in the intense fighting.

Philippine authorities believe the problem goes beyond Marawi and militants may be preparing to attack other cities.

ASEAN ministers were ready to act because they have seen how extremists exploited social media to promote their ideology, recruit and inspire attacks, a senior Philippines foreign ministry official familiar with the issue told Reuters.

No automatic alt text available.

“They spread violent videos on Twitter and Facebook and communicate through Telegram messaging apps,” he said, adding the ministers decided to counter the threat using those same platforms.

Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla, Philippine military spokesman, said many countries were making progress in that regard but “there is a need for ASEAN to do more.”

“We can do more beyond the traditional military cooperation,” he said, acknowledging support from Indonesia and Malaysia through information and intelligence exchanges and coordinated maritime border patrols.

“This is a very robust engagement that we wish to increase not only with Indonesia and Malaysia,” he said. “This challenge that we face in Marawi has its effects also in the whole region.”

Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty and Bill Tarrant

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© AFP/File | Telegram is a free Russian-designed messaging app that lets people exchange messages, photos and videos in groups of up to 5,000 people

Singaporeans among foreign fighters involved in ISIS-linked insurgency in southern Philippines’ Marawi — “Before, it was just a local terrorist group. But now, there is now an ideology.”

May 26, 2017

DAVAO CITY – Foreign Muslim militants, including some from Singapore, are involved in the days-long clashes in a key city in the southern Philippine island group of Mindanao, the military said on Friday (May 26).

“There are… Malaysians, Singaporeans… in the fight that has been ongoing in Marawi. We are continuously verifying that there have been a number of them who have been killed,” Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said at a news briefing here.

About a hundred militants seized large parts of Marawi, a mainly Muslim city of over 200,000, some 814km south of the capital Manila, on Tuesday (May 23), after security forces raided a suspected hideout of Isnilon Hapilon, named by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as its top man in South-east Asia.

 

An army brigade, backed by helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles, has been sent to dislodge them, but as of Friday morning, they remained holed up in parts of Marawi.

The crisis in Marawi forced President Rodrigo Duterte to place the whole of Mindanao under martial rule.

Asked at Friday’s briefing about the presence of foreign fighters in Marawi, Solicitor-General Jose Calida said: “Malaysians, Indonesians, from Singapore, and other foreign jihadists… And that’s bothersome.

“Before, it was just a local terrorist group. But now, there is now an ideology. They have subscribed to the ideology of ISIS.  They have pledged allegiance to the flag of ISIS. They want to create Mindanao as part of the caliphate.​

“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign terrorists who heeded the clarion call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines, if they find difficulty in going to Iraq or Syria,” added Mr Calida, as he explained why Mr Duterte had to declare martial law.

Brig-Gen Padilla reported that at least 31 militants have been killed in Marawi so far.  Twelve have been identified, and six of these were foreigners, he added.

He said, however, that the names of those killed had yet to be validated.

“This is for validation. I do know there are some Indonesians and Malaysians (among those killed). But specifically, for the others, we don’t know yet.  The information we have is initial.  We are still validating,” he said.

The only Singaporean known to have joined Islamic extremists in the Philippines was Abdullah Ali, alias Muawiyah, who was believed to have gone to Mindanao with Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli bin Hir.

Brig-Gen Padilla insisted that the siege in Marawi has been ISIS-inspired, but that the Islamic group is not orchestrating it, despite the presence of foreign fighters.

“The groups trying to ally with (ISIS) are feverishly trying to comply with requirements that have been set for them to be validly a part (of ISIS), which they have not been able to. This is the reason why many of these activities of violence, radicalism and extremism have been aimed precisely at that aspect,” he told reporters.

http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/singaporean-among-foreign-fighters-involved-in-isis-linked-insurgency-in-southern

Philippines says foreign fighters part of Islamic State ‘invasion’ — Amid simmering disbelief — “Beware of manufactured evidence.”

May 26, 2017

Reuters

Fri May 26, 2017 | 2:35am EDT

By Romeo Ranoco and Neil Jerome Morales | MARAWI CITY/DAVAO, PHILIPPINES

Indonesians and Malaysians were among foreign Jihadists battling the military after laying siege to a southern Philippine city, the government said on Friday, in a rare admission of what it said was an Islamic State “invasion”.

The army has deployed attack helicopters and special forces to drive rebels of the Islamic State-linked Maute group out of Marawi City and Malaysians and Indonesians and other foreigners were among six guerrillas killed on Thursday.

The announcement elevates the threat of what experts and the military say are moves by Islamic State to exploit the poverty and lawlessness of predominantly Muslim Mindanao island to establish a base for extremists from Southeast Asia and beyond.

“What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens,” Solicitor General Jose Calida told a news conference.

“It has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists, who heeded the call of the ISIS to go to the Philippines if they find difficulty in going to Iraq and Syria,” he said, using the acronym for Islamic State.

Image may contain: 3 people, outdoor

Government soldiers on military vehicles patrol after a continued assault on fighters from the Maute group who have taken over large parts of Marawi city, southern Philippines May 26, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

President Rodrigo Duterte has delivered on his threat to impose martial law on Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island, to stop the spread of radical Islam. He has been pleading with Mindanao governors and religious leaders to work with the government to keep extremists at bay.

Duterte recently warned that Islamic State fighters driven from Iraq and Syria would end up in the southern Philippines and his country was at risk of “contamination”.

The Maute, which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State, held its positions on bridges and buildings on Friday as ground troops launched early morning offensives to flush out the remaining gunmen after unrest that has killed 11 soldiers and 31 militants.

The White House on Thursday said it backed the Philippines in its fight against “cowardly terrorists”.

Few of Marawi’s 200,000 inhabitants remained after militants ran amok, seizing and torching schools, a college and a hospital. They freed more than 100 prisoners and took a priest and churchgoers hostage at the city’s cathedral.

‘NOT REAL MUSLIMS’

Convoys of vehicles packed with evacuees and protected by heavily armed soldiers streamed into nearby Iligan City. One Christian resident, Mark Angelou Siega, described how students fled amid fears rebels would take over their university campus.

“We were preparing for exams and we could hear the gunfire and bombs,” he told Reuters.

“We were so scared and so were our Muslim brothers and sisters. We were sure they would get to us.

“These terrorists are not real Muslims.”

Solicitor general Calida said the Maute group and Islamic State had a dream to create their own “ISIS province” in Mindanao and the government was not the only target of their aggression.

“People they consider as infidels, whether Christians or Muslims, are also targets,” he said. “What it worrisome is that the ISIS has radicalized a number of Filipino Muslim youth.”

Duterte has dealt with separatist unrest during his 22 years as mayor of Davao, Mindanao’s biggest city, but the rise of the Maute and signs that it has ties to another network, the Abu Sayyaf, present one of the biggest challenges of a presidency won on promises to restore law and order.

Philippine intelligence indicates the two groups from different parts of Mindanao are connected, through Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of a radical faction of Abu Sayyaf.

He was the target of Tuesday’s failed raid by troops on Maute hideout in Marawi and Calida said Islamic State had declared Hapilon its “emir” in the Philippines.

Abu Sayyaf is notorious for piracy and kidnappings and beheading captives, among them Westerners. Though less known, the Maute group has proven itself a fierce battlefield opponent for the military with its ability to sustain days of air and artillery bombardments and regroup after incurring heavy losses.

Duterte started warning of a spread of radicalism last year after a bombing in Davao City in September killed 14 people and wounded dozens. The Maute was also blamed for a failed bombing near the U.S. embassy in Manila in November.

(Additional reporting by Tom Allard in ILIGAN and Enrico dela Cruz in MANILA; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Former Philippine military and intel officers have told Peace and Freedom that it is unclear how many and how dedicated these foreign fighters may be, if any. They suspect some tricky work by the Duterte administration and believe that when more outside media arrives “a more clear light will be shed upon the truth.”

“Beware of manufactured evidence,” a retired Philippine general told us.

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Foreigners with Islamic State synpathies involved in deadly Philippine urban battle — “Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens.” — “Islamic State wanted an Islamic Province here”

May 26, 2017

MARAWI (PHILIPPINES) (AFP) – Foreigners are among Islamist gunmen battling security forces in a southern Philippine city, the government said Friday as the reported death toll from four days of clashes climbed to 46.

President Rodrigo Duterte imposed martial law across the southern region of Mindanao on Tuesday, hours after gunmen loyal to the Islamic State group rampaged through Marawi city in response to a raid on one of their safe houses.

“What is happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens. It has transmogrified into an invasion by foreign fighters,” Solicitor General Jose Calida, the government’s chief lawyer, told reporters in the southern city of Davao.

 Image may contain: 2 people, outdoor
Soldiers took positions while evading sniper fire as they tried to clear Marawi of militants on Thursday. Credit Jes Aznar, Getty Images

He said Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans and “other foreign jihadists” were fighting in Marawi, one of the biggest Muslim cities in the mainly Catholic Philippines with about 200,000 residents.

Philippine military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said six foreign fighters are believed to have been killed in the Marawi fighting, including Malaysians, Indonesians and another nationality which he did not specify.

Calida said these foreign fighters had heeded a “clarion call” of IS to travel to Mindanao to put up a “wilayat” or IS province, if they could not go to fight in Iraq or Syria.

Padilla said 11 soldiers, two policemen and 31 militants had been confirmed killed in the fighting, which has involved the military bombing buildings where the militants have been hiding.

Two civilians were also killed inside a hospital that the gunmen had occupied on Tuesday, and the military was investigating reports that nine people had been murdered at a checkpoint the militants had set up, authorities said.

The fighting erupted on Tuesday after security forces raided a house where they believed Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the infamous Abu Sayyaf kidnap-for-ransom gang and Philippine head of IS, was hiding.

The United States regards Hapilon as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists, offering a bounty of $5 million for his capture.

The raid went spectacularly wrong as dozens of gunmen emerged to repel the security forces, then went on a rampage across the city while flying black IS flags.

Authorities said ending the crisis was proving extremely hard because the militants were moving nimbly through homes, had planted bombs in the streets, and were holding hostages.

They said militants had also occupied higher ground in the city, enabling them to slow down or stop assaults from the security forces.

Related:

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Philippine refugees fleeing the fighting, May 24, 2017. Residents fleeing Marawi on Wednesday. Credit Ted Aljibe — Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Singapore: Man who exhorted Muslims to take up arms and wage militant jihad is arrested in Singapore

July 29, 2016

 

Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, 44, was arrested and detained in Singapore this month.PHOTO: FACEBOOK

SINGAPORE – A Singaporean who actively spread radical ideology online and helped radicalise at least two other citizens has been detained under the Internal Security Act.

Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, 44, had been living in Australia for 14 years, after leaving Singapore with his family shortly after run-ins with Muslim leaders and the authorities.

He was arrested and detained in Singapore this month (July) for terrorism-related activities, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) said in a statement on Friday (July 29).

Zulfikar made numerous Facebook posts that promoted and glorified terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its violent actions such as beheadings, “while exploiting religion to legitimise the terrorist activities of ISIS”, the ministry said.

“He has further exhorted Muslims to take up arms and wage militant jihad in places like the Middle East, Palestinian territories, Myanmar and the Philippines,” it added.

His postings contributed to the radicalisation of at least two other Singaporeans.

In addition, he planned to hold training programmes to persuade young Singaporeans to join his extremist agenda of replacing Singapore’s secular, democratic system with an Islamic state, by violence if necessary.

Zulfikar’s postings contributed to the radicalisation of at least two other Singaporeans.

MHA said Zulfikar had started becoming radicalised as early as 2001 after reading hardline material, supporting groups like Al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiah, and advocating for Muslims to take up arms in Afghanistan after the Sept 11, 2001, terror attacks on the United States.

Zulfikar came under the spotlight in 2002 for challenging mainstream Muslim leaders and agitating for primary schoolgirls to be allowed to wear the headscarf in schools here.

He resettled his family in Australia that year, and continued to pursue extremism by joining a hardline organisation called Hizbut Tahrir. He also established and maintained contact with radical preachers such as Musa Cerantonio in Australia and radical British cleric Anjem Choudary, said MHA.

Zulfikar also cultivated an Internet following by setting up an online group called Al-Makhazin in 2013. He used Facebook to create numerous Al-Makhazin platforms, such as Al-Makhazin Singapore, with the claimed purpose of countering Western media.

But the true intent of these pages was to agitate on Muslim issues in Singapore as a means to spread his radical ideology, and get his online followers to reject the secular democratic nation-state system and replace it with an Islamic caliphate governed by syariah law.

“Zulfikar has admitted that he had an ulterior motive for setting up a Facebook page called Al-Makhazin Singapore which he used as a platform to agitate on Muslim issues in Singapore and attack some Singaporean Muslims who did not share his views,” said MHA.

“His real agenda was in fact to provoke Muslims in Singapore into pushing for the replacement of the democratic system with an Islamic state in Singapore. He said that he hid his ulterior motive from the Singaporean ‘Al-Makhazin Singapore’ members.”

Zulfikar was issued with a detention order for a period of two years.

The two Singaporeans that he helped to radicalise are security guard Muhammad Shamin Mohamed Sidek, 29, who was detained last July, and businessman Mohamad Saiddhin Abdullah, 33, who was issued with a Restriction Order this month.

Saiddhin identified Zulfikar, whom he befriended online, as the person who had influenced him to support ISIS. He also reposted Zulfikar’s postings on ISIS and posted photos of himself in front of an ISIS flag as a show of solidarity with its militants in Syria and Iraq.

Those on restriction orders are not allowed to move house, change jobs or travel abroad without permission from the director of the Internal Security Department. They also cannot issue public statements or speak at public meetings without his approval.

“The Government takes a very serious view of efforts to undermine Singapore’s constitutional democracy, and will take firm and decisive action against any person who engages in such activities,” said MHA.

Two other Singaporeans have also been dealt with under the ISA, said the MHA.

Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid, 27, was detained in April for trying to join a terror group like ISIS to engage in armed violence in Syria. He was previously detained in 2010 after he became self-radicalised, and was placed under Restriction Order in 2012 after he made some progress in reintegrating into society. But he became attracted to radical online material again, said MHA.

Another, a 17-year-old male who recently graduated from a madrasah, was issued a Restriction Order – which limits his movement – this month after investigations showed he had become radicalised online from accessing pro-ISIS videos, websites and social media. MHA said the man, who was not named, became convinced that partaking in the violence in Syria was “justifiable jihad” and harboured the intention to fight alongside ISIS militants in Syria.

Two other radicalised Singaporeans have shown improvement.

Lawyer Abdul Basheer Abdul Kader, 37, who was arrested abroad in 2007 and detained again in 2012 as he tried to travel to Syria to fight, was released conditionally in February after authorities said he no longer posed a security threat that requires preventive detention. The Restriction Order placed on Rijal Yadri Jumari, 35, who was a member of terror group Jemaah Islamiah’s cell in Pakistan, was also allowed to lapse in March.

Singapore jails Filipino nurse for ‘seditious’ posts

September 21, 2015

AFP

Ed Mundsel Bello Ello at a court appearance in April. He was convicted of promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility. ST PHOTO/WONG KWAI CHOW

SINGAPORE — A Singapore court on Monday sentenced a Filipino nurse to four months in prison for posting inflammatory comments on Facebook against Singaporeans and lying to police investigators.

Ello Ed Mundsel Bello, 29, a former employee of government-run Tan Tock Seng Hospital, had posted comments on Facebook in January insulting Singaporeans and calling for the takeover of the city-state by his countrymen.

State Courts Judge Siva Shanmugam sentenced Bello to three months in jail for sedition in relation to his Facebook posts, and another month for lying to police who investigated him following complaints from the public.

Singapore, a densely populated immigrant nation which suffered racial riots in the 1960s, uses sedition laws to clamp down on locals and foreigners found to have incited ethnic tensions.

In a Facebook post on January 2, Bello wrote: “Singaporeans are loosers (sic) in their own country, we take their jobs, their future, their women and soon we will evict all SG loosers (sic)out of their own country hahaha.”

READ: Singapore hospital sacks Filipino nurse for ‘offensive’ online remarks

In a subsequent comment, Bello said “we will kick out all the Singaporeans and SG will be the new filipino state”.

After an outcry from Singaporeans, Bello took down his posts and claimed to police investigators that his account had been hacked by an unknown person. But he eventually admitted posting the comments.

Prosecutors said Bello’s misleading statements to the police aggravated his original offences and led to “unnecessary wastage” of investigative resources.

They had sought a sentence of five months in prison to “send a clear message to like-minded individuals that their behaviour will not be tolerated”.

Singaporeans who have written or published racist comments about other ethnic groups as well as foreigners have also been prosecuted.

The Filipino community in Singapore is estimated at more than 170,000.

About 40 percent of Singapore’s population of 5.5 million are foreigners. The wealthy city-state depends heavily on guest workers because of its low fertility rate.

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Filipino nurse charged with sedition in Singapore
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Tourists Planning Trips To Thailand Must Now Think About Bombings, Political Discord, Less Than Fully Reliable Government

August 22, 2015

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By Mark MacKinnon

The short walk from Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine to Wat Pathum Wanaram, a Buddhist temple 500 metres away, used to be a sweaty but serene one. In the cacophonous commercial heart of the Thai capital, the two religious sites were oases of the calm that many travellers sought.

But the calm has been shattered so often now that, when it returns, it feels illusory. Five years ago, it was Wat Pathum that was caught up in the violence, as the Thai army attacked a “Red Shirt” anti-government protest camp in the middle of the city. The fighting left 91 people dead.

On Monday, it was the Erawan Shrine that became famous for the wrong reason, when a backpack bomb exploded inside, killing 20 people and injuring more than 100 others. The shrine and its golden statue of the four-faced Hindu god Brahma had previously been seen as the city’s good-luck charm.

This Southeast Asian kingdom has billed itself for years as the “land of smiles,” and Thailand has done a surprising job of keeping up that facade even as a succession of military coups have been followed by deadly political protests. A string of smaller bomb blasts in the far south of the country over the past decade served as reminders that Malay Muslim separatists continued to resent their place inside Thailand.

Despite it all, the tourists kept coming. In fact, the number of foreign visitors to Thailand rose 20 per cent in 2011, the year after the shootout in and around Wat Pathum. Tourist numbers peaked at an all-time high of more than 26.5 million in 2013, before taking a slight dip last year when the military ousted an elected government headed by Yingluck Shinawatra. But visitor numbers were on the rise again in the first half of this year.

When the armoured personnel carriers rolled into Bangkok last May, it marked the country’s 12th coup d’état since 1932. A bigger crisis lies ahead whenever the ailing, 87-year-old King Bhumibol dies (there’s little popular love for Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, and anti-monarchy sentiment is rising). But Thailand has kept smiling for the foreigners, with all sides in the political dispute abiding by an unspoken agreement not to threaten the tourist sector, the country’s economic lifeblood. Luckily, the sandy beaches and cheap pad thai stuck in visitors’ minds longer than the news headlines.

Monday’s blast inside the Erawan Shrine blew a fresh hole in that image. Not only was it the deadliest single such attack the city has seen, it was the first to directly threaten the country’s tourism. The blast scattered body parts all over the Rajaprasong intersection, the very centre of Bangkok, and rattled the windows of a trio of five-star hotels.

Worst of all – from the tourism industry’s perspective – 12 of the dead were foreigners, including six from from China, the biggest source country for visitors landing in Thailand.

A day later, a second attack saw a small improvised explosive hurled from a bridge toward a pier on the Chao Phraya River, another tourist attraction. The explosive landed harmlessly in the water, but the attempt further shook a nervous country.

Part of Thailand’s charm has always been the swirling chaos, the sense that the rules travellers live by elsewhere are suspended here. But that lawlessness has also made the city a hub for smugglers and human traffickers. The likes of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are known to have used the city as a place to lie low and plan attacks.

None of this looks good on the ruling junta, which bills itself the National Council for Peace and Order. With both peace and order under threat, the junta resorted this week to Orwellian television and radio messages telling listeners over and over that “the situation is stable and has returned to normal” in a gentle female voice. The messages were repeated in Thai, English and Chinese.

But Thailand’s new normal is instability. The junta has so many enemies that it spent the week rolling out what seemed to be a fresh theory every day about who might be behind the attack.

Was it the Red Shirts, striking out at the junta hours after Ms. Yingluck had condemned a proposed new military-written constitution — which would create an army-dominated “crisis committee” with the power to overrule elected governments and call security forces into the streets – as undemocratic?

Was it the southern separatists, striking at Bangkok to raise their international profile? Was it an international network, taking advantage of the country’s light security and visitor-friendly visa policies to target foreigners? Cynics wondered whether a faction of the junta, anxious to prove the necessity of its crisis committee, might be involved.

Eventually, the investigation narrowed to focus on an unidentified young man who was captured on closed-circuit television leaving his backpack at the bomb site. But details remained scarce. “He didn’t do it alone, for sure,” national police chief Somyot Poompanmoung said of the backpack bomber, adding that the suspect might have been wearing a disguise. “It’s a network. I believe there are some Thais involved.”

Mr. Somyot suggested on Wednesday that the attack could have been carried out by Uighur separatists, a Muslim group straining against Chinese rule over the far west Xinjiang region of China. As Beijing has tightened the screws in Xinjiang, Uighurs have been blamed for a series of bloody attacks, both in Xinjiang and in larger Chinese cities.

Uighur groups could also be forgiven for harbouring a grudge against the Thai government, after the junta deported more than 100 Uighurs to China last month, ignoring concerns from human-rights groups that they were likely to be subjected to torture. But the Uighur theory – which was never supported by any publicly available evidence – was ruled out on Thursday by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the general who led last year’s military takeover.

Police were left making two seemingly contradictory statements about the investigation: The main suspect was a foreigner and part of a “network.” But in a television broadcast on Thursday that was likely meant to reassure, though it served mostly to confuse, junta spokesman Colonel Winthai Suvaree said the attack was “unlikely to be linked to international terrorism.”

A clearly frustrated Gen. Prayut was left suggesting that police investigators should spend more time watching the American crime drama Blue Bloods for “tips, ideas and insights for their case.” But Gen. Prayut, a known cinephile, also lamented that “our officers may not be as good as those in the series.”

Even the normally placid Thai media, which largely supported the return of military rule, has become openly anxious about the pace of the investigation. “Authorities must dig deeply and fast to discover who is behind the bomb blast,” read an editorial in the English-language Bangkok Post. “It is the bare necessity and the first step toward healing the deep wounds of Monday night.”

Any lingering suggestion that tourists might not be safe in Thailand could have massive implications for the economy, which had already been slowing. Rising tourism numbers had been buffering the country against declining exports; if the sector starts to contract significantly, the junta’s popularity could suffer with it.

And so, even as the bumbling manhunt continued, the generals decided to make sure the country returned as quickly as possible to looking like the Thailand that tourists expect. Local newspapers were full of reports about additional security at tourist sites, but there was little additional police or military presence visible in the city. The apparent calm delivered the same message as the junta’s broadcasts: There’s nothing to see here. The situation has returned to normal.

The Erawan Shrine itself reopened on Wednesday, less than 48 hours after the attack. Though still a crime scene, the divot in the ground caused by the explosive was filled with fresh concrete. Not all the scars could be covered so quickly: Some of the green tiles on the roof of the temple building remain damaged, and an advertisement for Alexander McQueen clothing on the side of an adjacent mall was missing an “M” and an “e,” torn off by the force of Monday’s blast.

One of Brahma’s four faces was missing part of its chin, but the statue nonetheless sparkled in the hot August sun. Tourists and mourners returned to lay flowers and handwritten condolences. Thai newspapers reported that only a handful of tourists had cancelled their plans.

The bombing remains unsolved and the suspects are still at large, but Thailand is putting its “land of smiles” mask back on. The question is whether it still fits.

Mark MacKinnon is The Globe and Mail’s senior international correspondent, based in London.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/thailands-slipping-smile-bangkok-bomb-blows-hole-in-countrys-image/article26049199/

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Leading Singaporeans criticise ‘harsh’ treatment of teenager Amos Yee over online comments

July 4, 2015

AFP

Prominent Singaporean intellectuals, artists and activists have criticised the government’s “harsh” treatment of a teenage boy behind online attacks on the late former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the former leader’s son, the 77 signatories said they were “aware of the negative aspects” of 16-year-old Amos Yee’s pronouncements in a YouTube video and on his blog.

“Nonetheless, we are troubled by the State’s harsh reactions to them, including the prosecution’s request for reformative training lasting at least 18 months,” said the letter, which was also sent to the attorney general, education and interior ministers.

Yee was convicted in May on two criminal charges: wounding religious feelings in an expletive-laden video comparing Lee Kuan Yew to Jesus, and circulating an obscene cartoon of the former prime minister, who died in March.

He is due to appear in court on Monday following two weeks at the Institute of Mental Health after a judge had ordered psychiatric tests before he was sentenced.

A psychiatrist previously said Yee might have autism, though he was declared mentally and physically fit for an 18-month stint in a reform centre.

Hong Kong students protest against the treatment of Singapore teen blogger Amos Yee outside the Singapore Consulate in Hong Kong last week. Photo: AP

The activists said sending Yee to the facility could deter young people in the city-state from expressing their views openly for fear of reprisals.

“We can make every claim to encourage independence of thought and creativity, but if our actions reveal an inability to tolerate non-conformists, young people will view our exhortations to speak up as mere platitudes,” they said.

Among the letter’s signatories were prominent Singaporean academic Cherian George, lawyer Peter Low, a former president of the Law Society of Singapore, as well as leading rights activists, academics, filmmakers and members of the arts community.

Yee’s case has gained international attention after critics of the long-ruling People’s Action Party, co-founded by Lee Kuan Yew, said he was a victim of censorship and excessive punishment.

But others attacked the boy for insulting both Christianity and the nation’s founding father, who was given a hero’s funeral on March 29.

International rights advocates including the United Nations Human Rights Office for Southeast Asia and the US-based Human Rights Watch have previously called on the government to dismiss the case and immediately release Yee.

On Friday, Amnesty International also called for his release, saying it considered the teenager “a prisoner of conscience, held solely for exercising his right to freedom of expression”.

The letter’s appearance, meanwhile, came a day after a Singaporean activist found guilty of defaming the current prime minister broke down under intense questioning in court, during the final day of hearings to determine the amount of damages to be awarded.

Prime Minister Lee sued Roy Ngerng in May 2014 over a blog post that accused the 63-year-old leader of misusing money from the state pension scheme, the Central Provident Fund (CPF).

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