After 5 days of silence, state-linked media Straits Times finally reported on PM Lee’s controversial Facebook post causing unhappiness among our Asean neighbours Cambodia and Vietnam (‘PM Lee’s Facebook post on Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia draws ire‘, 7 Jun).
Last Friday (31 May) at the Shangri-la Summit, PM Lee publicly told the audience, “After the Cold War ended, the US became the sole superpower. Southeast Asia entered a new phase. The Indochinese wars finally ended, and the communist countries opened up.”
“Earlier, Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, thus posing a serious threat to its non-communist neighbours,” he added.
He later continued to make the insensitive remark online while sending condolences to Thailand on the death of former Thai PM General Prem Tinsulanonda. PM Lee wrote on his Facebook page, “Thailand was on the front line, facing Vietnamese forces across its borders with Cambodia. [Then] General Prem was resolute in not accepting this.”
And added, “This prevented the military invasion and regime change from being legitimized. It protected the security of other Southeast Asia(n) countries, and decisively shape(d) the course of the region.”
The use of the word invasion in PM Lee’s comments prompted Cambodian Defence Minister General Tea Banh to lash out against PM Lee upon his returning from the Summit on Monday (3 Jun). When Gen Bahn landed back at the Phnom Penh International airport, he told reporters that he has raised the issue with Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. “It is not true because he said Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia,” Gen Banh added. “We wish for him (PM Lee) to make corrections. It is not true.”
Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also joined in saying it “regretted” that Mr Lee’s remarks did not “objectively reflect the historical truth” and, as a result, caused “negative” impact on public opinions.
The ministry’s spokesman Le Thi Thu Hang said the ministry has discussed this issue with its Singapore counterpart. She added that the contributions and sacrifices of Vietnam in the joint efforts with the Cambodian people to end the Khmer Rouge genocide regime have been widely recognised.
ST tries to play down Cambodia’s and Vietnam’s anger for 5 days
For 5 days since the outburst of General Banh at Phnom Penh International airport, Straits Times remained quiet choosing not to report the matter. In Cambodia, their mainstream English paper Khmer Times was already condemning PM Lee. On social media, Singaporeans, Cambodians and Vietnamese were all talking about it.
Many felt that even if technically PM Lee may be correct to say that Vietnam did “invade” Cambodia, they questioned the need to bring up cold-war era matters publicly when Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam are now all friends with one another and are part of Asean. Many think PM Lee has been diplomatically insensitive to bring up the matter in public, especially in such a high level international conference like the Shangri-la Summit.
On PM Lee’s Facebook post, more than 20,000 comments appeared with the bulk, especially those from Vietnamese netizens, criticising PM Lee over his insensitive remarks. They saw the Vietnam-Cambodia issue as a war to get rid of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime responsible for killing 25% of Cambodian population.
With more voices talking about the matter online, Straits Times finally published an article reporting it today. However, it tried to play down the issue by publishing the article at the inside page A12 in the World section. Not only that, Strait Times chose to publish the article at the bottom of the page.
And to help build up a good image of PM Lee, Straits Times published a comment of a person by the name of Sophanna Nun, who praised PM Lee, “Thanks for telling the truth even if it hurts a lot of people. You are great leader.”
Singapore needs free press
Opposition member Lim Tean also noticed that Straits Times has tried to play down the event. Mr Lim commented on his Facebook page, “The article is totally biased because it does not capture the wide anger and unhappiness of Singaporeans who have expressed themselves fully on Social Media at the incompetence of Lee Hsien Loong in the International arena.”
“Many Singaporeans have investments in these 2 countries and are alarmed about the damage this row may cause to their businesses. Many Singaporeans were also amazed at the MSM’s total silence as the row may affect the safety of travel by Singaporeans to these 2 countries. Lee Hsien Loong has a penchant of upsetting Asian countries. In recent years, he has upset China and now Cambodia and Vietnam. Many Singaporeans wish that he would not open his mouth on the International stage,” he added.
He also opined that to be a truly world class city and an innovative and creative society, Singapore needs a free press.
“We cannot continue to have a controlled press which is there to protect the establishment and the government and be a megaphone for their propaganda. If we want accountability and transparency in government, a free press is vital,” he noted.
“We cannot allow the likes of SPH, which controls the State Media, to continue.”