Volte Face in Singapore Politics? Nay Nay
I have deliberately refrained from commenting on the death penalty for Nguyen until today. Holding out some misplaced hope that this entry will be unnecessary. But it’s a couple of hours before Nguyen hangs. And it is necessary now to speak. What I say will be brutally realistic. Mistakes were made. No blame is meant. This is an analysis on taking on the Singapore political legal system. And it all boils down to Face.
It was all about Face. Whatever fancy terms political scientists or politicians can coin, Game Theory, Great Man theories, brinksmanship politics, realism, post structuralism, Asian values, sovereignty, National Interest, international law etc, when we analyse this Nguyen affair, it was all about Face. No disrespect to Rodan, political activists, lawyers, journalists and the politicians both Singaporean and Aussie, who have all come out with the same tropes to appeal and defend their respective positions in this affair. It was all about Face. Face is not a topic covered in textbooks. Face underlies a lot of political decisions West or East. But it is perhaps only in the latter where Face is an art form. Coded by Confucius.
First, Nguyen has a pretty face. He is caught with heroin while in transit in Singapore. This happened a fairly long time ago. He goes through the entire legal process. This is the first mis-step for the Australian Government scrambling so desperately now. In Singapore law, the death penalty is mandatory for such a drug offence. The judge has no choice and sentences based on the mandatory requirement. Why is this a mis-step? If the Government of Australia had known and had acted during the pre-trial process, for it should have since death is mandatory, the Hope lies here. Political realism some will say, but Face underpins this necessity. To work behind the scenes as forcefully as it is doing now. Affect the process through quiet diplomacy. Give the Singapore Government Face, settle this behind the public eyes. Owe the Singapore Government a big favor for helping you out. Let the Singapore Government settle it for you. Give them Face. This was the best chance. The white elephant grassroots leader was not even charged, the young blogger was given a reprieve, a NS defaulting pianist is given a light sentence; instances where given leeway, the Courts can act generously. Were there negotiations behind? I do not know, but the point is this : at this pre-sentencing stage, it is so much easier to effect something; since every political scientist now has come up with the defining model of Singapore's "demo-cracy", it is deeply ironic that Aussie politicians do not know that to negotiate with such a "demo-cracy", you have to go behind, go behind the rhetorical program; not challenge the program head-on and publicly contradict the Sg Government's rhetorical program. Once the sentence was uttered. Public in a courtroom. The dice is thrown.
The second and most fatal mis-step occurs when the family of Nguyen decides to publicise this beyond the Aussie Government; further make it public, more public : challenge the Face of the Sg Government. To bring in popular pressure, to bring in the press, bring in the civil activists. This can work in a Grisham novel. This can work in a Western democracy. This can work in a society with a powerful CRM. In Singapore, the people advocating for Nguyen are seen as political enemies of the State. The Opposition. The civil society. To capitulate to these forces, will be an immense loss of Face to the Government. To capitulate to the foreign press is a similarly immense loss of Face. Loss of face = loss of political capital. This loss will be translated to a gain to the Opposition, to civil society activists, to the foreign press. Remember this is a regime in power for almost 50 years. And it is a regime steeped in a model of politics that blends the mercantilism/capitalism of Western economic idelologies with the control ideologies of Eastern feudal models. To expect it to lose Face willingly, when it knows it has done nothing wrong legally, in a public arena is impossible.
Loss of Face. When PM Lee apologised to PM Howard, it reflects how much currency the incumbent regime places on Face. The Sg Government recognized immediately that what had happened had constituted a loss of face first to the Sg politician as his system had made a huge mistake and further, it was an even bigger loss of face to the Australian PM. Hence, the apology issued quickly and with such contrition. The Sg Government immediately sees Face as the determining factor.
Loss of Face. When the hangman went public with his stories. It was another loss of Face to the Sg Government. When its own citizens can only know of the hangman through a foreign newspaper and not via its vaunted Straits Times. It was a huge loss of Face to the efficient and anonymous Sg politico-bureaucratic machinery. We are not supposed to know about these Agents of the State. These who do the dirty work. The life scientist, the economist yes. The hatchet men, the hangmen, a big emphatic No. Yes, it was a huge scoop for the Aussie press but it was a huge loss of Face to the Sg Government. Hence, the hangman is not hanging Nguyen. He is not sacked. But he will hang no more until his contract runs out. This way of handling the hangman’s fate similarly boils down to Face. To sack him outright means loss of Face to the Government, gain for the foreign press, gain for the hangman, seen as a victim of the State and hence, a hero. To freeze him out slowly is political grace while retaining Face.
In this entire Nguyen affair, there has been so much loss of Face already for the Singapore Government with regard the two incidents, will it want to lose more?
Sadly, the answer is No. Not only for drugs, but for Face too, Nguyen will hang.
I am Xenoboy. I am the Political Savant.
Quote of the Day,
“So the sum total is 80 beheaded, 69 of whom had their eyes put out and their fingers cut off, which comes to 114 florins and two cents. From this should be deducted: 10 florins, received from the citizens of Rothenburg; 2 florins received by Ludwig von Hutten; leaving: 102 florins. To this should be added 2 months' pay; for each month 8 florins = 16 florins, which makes: 118 florins and two cents” -- Receipt of Augustin, known as Awe, the Executioner of the rebel peasants of Frankenhausen