The naming of an orchid for Burmese Prime Minister Thein Sein (left, with George Yeo) sparked widespread revulsion and disgust in the online community; a sentiment that is also shared by this author.
The antipathy towards the unholy alliance between the Singapore government and the Burmese junta is motivated by the latter’s abysmal track record in governance - the countless flagrant abuses of power and inept leadership are legendary - and rightly so, it would seem inconceivable that our leaders should accommodate such personalities culpable of the murder of their own citizens.
However, a deeper look into the issue will force many to confront the very practical realities of politics and economics: the government’s motivation to engage with the Burmese has very little to do with altruism, but more of the economic advantages that can be procured. Burma is a potential source of lucrative economic profit for any investing nation, particularly when most other foreign investors shy away from it.
The economic opportunity
And therein lies the opportunity for Singapore - and this parleying to the Burmese junta is nothing new, but an attempt to play catchup with Thailand and regional giants India and China, nations which have entered into close economic partnerships with Burma, and are clearly reaping the benefits of being the leading investors in a resource-rich nation that is shunned by others.
Nevertheless, it may seem downright atrocious that our pursuit of economic growth is at the expense of the innocent citizens of Burma. Given the bloody crackdowns in the dying days of the Saffron Revolution and wilful deprivation imposed on the Burmese population, it is legitimate to argue that doing business with the junta is a tacit acceptance of its ruthless and bloody policies, and that we are somehow culpable for prolonging the suffering of ordinary Burmese people.
And this primacy that our government has accorded to economics and material wealth, overriding considerations of human rights and a sense of common decency, has earned the contempt of many an idealist, this author among them. The bilateral trade is indeed lucrative, estimated to amount to US$1.58 billion, of which US$795 million was from our exports in the 2008 fiscal year. A trivial amount in terms of the total trade - but the lingering question remains: are we able to sustain our economy while declining trade money from despotic regimes - which not only includes Burma, but China?
The morality of economics
It will be ideal for us to be able to say unequivocally and resolutely that there are more important and vital interests to uphold beyond the currency of economic progress. Such idealism will come at a price: we can choose to sever ties with the junta until they have sufficiently reformed themselves in a manner acceptable to our notions of decency, but at the price of losing our first-mover advantage into Burma.
It is not easy to “disentangle economics from politics”, as Milton Friedman discovered, and we are faced with a similar quandary. It is easy to vilify Burma, the persona non grata of this globalized world, given that almost every nation reserves a vituperative contempt for its leaders. But if Singapore were truly to walk that moral high ground, are we prepared to adhere rigidly to that principle? Do we then turn askance and refuse to transact financially with any regime that blatantly disregards human rights?
Take China, for example. Singapore cannot ignore China - no single nation can, not even the hegemonic United States. China’s human rights record continues to be appalling, however. The litany of abuses ranges from its obdurate refusal to ruminate, much less apologize, for the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, the ceaseless subjugation of Tibet, the arrest and removal of critics and its onerous censorship policies.
And if we pursue that moral principle of human rights over economics vis-à-vis Burma, are we able to do likewise with China? The loss of Chinese economic trade would have severe ramifications on the Singapore economy. China has survived and escaped the denigration that plagues Burma because of its actual and potential economic clout. But are we to remain principled, and risk losing the trade of a Communist regime that has trampled unapologetically upon human rights?
Standing for moral principles – how far?
We aspire to certain ideals - but we have to be tempered by the realities of the ground. We castigate the naming of the orchid, but it is nothing more than diplomatic protocol, a sop to every foreign dignitary that visits Singapore for the first time – and a nod to our vibrant orchid hybrid industry. Tasteless as it seems to induct Thein Sein into the time-honoured tradition that includes luminaries such as Nelson Mandela, the naming of an orchid is nothing more than a symbolic gesture of welcome for a foreign dignitary. To deprive Thein Sein of this gesture, and risk alienating a valuable economic ally, is easy to advocate, but the repercussions will be costly to bear. And if we walk the moral high ground in this instance, do we then deprive the flower-naming ceremony for the next visiting Chinese head of state or Arab emir?
We may wish for a more principled government, imbued with aspirations of human rights, but if we sever or limit economic ties with every nation that has a dismal or doubtful human rights record, Singapore will find itself failing to stand for itself. The realities of our city-state are daunting: we are vulnerable to extraneous economic conditions, our very nature of a city-state makes no model, except the current export-oriented one, viable. Singapore is not lavished with the natural resources or population size that will allow us the prerogative of self-sufficiency - our only hope and opportunity for sustained survival is to be accommodating of every nation willing to trade, notwithstanding the moral scruples involved. Our nation could not afford to alienate any nation on the basis of human rights: if that were so, we will lose a swathe of our trading partners - China and the Middle Eastern states, for one.
Idealistic citizens, pragmatic government
The engagement with Burma, and the outrage it has triggered, is symptomatic of the asymmetry between what citizens hope for, and what the nation could realistically deliver. That’s the government’s job: to temper populist expectations and undertake hard decisions that may be morally repugnant, but provide benefits for their citizens. Despicable, compromised, ugly, reprehensible as it may seem, pragmatism has to trump principles in governing a city-state like Singapore.
It is not that Singapore has not exerted effort in getting the Burmese junta to mend its ways. When it hosted the ASEAN summit in November 2007, Singapore proposed that the UN Special Envoy to Myanmar Ibrahim Gambari brief the member-states on Burma just a few weeks after the brutal crackdowns of the Saffron Revolution; the proposal, though shot down by Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, showed a willingness to engage in the Burmese question and a nuanced diplomatic policy of amiably prodding Burma into the right direction without provoking severe antagonism.
ASEAN: That glimmer of reprieve
Indeed ASEAN affords a forum for Singapore and other ASEAN members to influence Burma for the better. The ASEAN Human Rights Commission, an agency introduced by the ASEAN Charter, also provides an opportunity for Singapore to push forth a pro-democracy agenda in Burma without stepping on too many toes. Despite the formidable challenges that will encumber the human rights body, given that no country in ASEAN is a paragon of virtue in terms of democratic sensibility and integrity, the Commission may still shake off its paper tiger tag, particularly if it is endowed with an effective enforcement mechanism.
Many activists hope that a proactive human rights agency could spell the expulsion of Burma from ASEAN. However, a Burma excluded from ASEAN would mean even less influence for the latter over the former – losing leverage when there is already little around. The economic benefits that ASEAN and Singapore currently enjoy from Burma can easily be diverted to neighbouring India and China, both countries having shown no signs of having qualms about continued engagement with Burma. The sobering truth is that Burma, if it ever does so, will have to be brought into the folds of democracy through engagement with Singapore and the other member-states of ASEAN.
Idealism mugged by reality
While our commitment in Burma may not pan out as our leaders may hope, there is little to criticize them in trying to secure our economic interests, even with suspect and dubious regimes such as Burma. Foreign relations, and economic trade, are complicated enough. They have to transcend merely having a resolute stance on human rights, as idealistic and romantic these may be for activists everywhere. That is the true tragedy in the entire affair: of being Singapore and being vulnerable to the pressures of economy and trade that ideals and principles that we should stand for have to be forsaken.