The World Today for August 15, 2023

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Squeaky No More

SINGAPORE

There’s a tacit agreement between Singapore’s rulers and the population: We the People will settle for less freedom in exchange for safety and prosperity, all overseen by a squeaky-clean government with unquestionable moral rectitude.

That pact means that Singaporeans can be fined up to $1,000, jailed or even caned for chewing gum (illegal), spitting on sidewalks or failing to flush a toilet. That also means, according to analysts, that democracy is all but a sham – the authoritarian ruling party has been in power since 1959, six years before the independence of the city-state – and the son of the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, has run the country since 2004.

In Singapore, often called “the Fine City,” press freedoms are low, monitoring is high and political dissent is vigorously squashed, often through the courts.

Still, the country has virtually no unemployment or poverty, with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Streets are pristine, crime is very low, and the city-state tops the charts for its low corruption rates because its public officials are the highest paid in the world. All of this has propelled it to become Asia’s leading financial hub, noted Fortune.

This pact has worked for much of Singapore’s independent existence. Now, by all accounts, it is unraveling because of the most serious crisis in the country’s history due to a series of political scandals undermining the government’s reputation for probity, NBC News said.

“It’s a perfect storm for the (People’s Action Party) PAP,” Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University, told the Wall Street Journal. “The party is facing its severest political crisis – one where the public trust and confidence is at real risk of eroding.”

That unraveling started earlier this summer when Singapore’s anticorruption agency arrested the transport minister S. Iswaran and hotelier and billionaire Ong Beng Seng in the country’s most high-profile graft investigation in nearly four decades – and the only one in that period involving a public official.

That was followed by another scandal involving an extramarital affair between two PAP lawmakers – one was the speaker of parliament. Both resigned after ignoring warnings by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to break it off.

Meanwhile, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) announced it had cleared two cabinet members – home and law minister K. Shanmugam and the foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, of misconduct regarding their rentals of government-owned colonial bungalows that Shanmugam oversees. A review by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean also exonerated them.

The public outcry against the housing scandal was swift and unusual in the country. That’s because “finding affordable housing is a big worry for cramped Singaporeans…Shanmugam has a house and grounds the size of a shopping mall,” wrote the Economist.

The government’s response has also been problematic, the magazine added, violating the credo of the country and its leaders: “Ownself check ownself.” That’s because the public understands that the CPIB can’t be independent when it is appointed by, and reports to, the prime minister. The review by Teo, a friend and colleague of the home and law minister, also lacked credibility.

The government, however, believes and is sticking to its mantra that it is living up to its part of the deal by addressing these issues promptly.

“High standards of propriety and personal conduct, together with staying clean and incorrupt, are the fundamental reasons Singaporeans trust and respect the PAP, and give us their mandate to form the government,” said the prime minister in July. “No system can be completely infallible, sometimes things go wrong, you have to find out and you have to put it right.”

But the public is angry, expressing fury over the scandals and the government’s response online in spite of crackdowns on criticism. This, Time noted, shows that the PAP hasn’t really learned how to be responsive even though, unlike most autocrats, it cares about public opinion,

Still, Singapore is about to elect its next ceremonial head of state this fall. If the PAP’s candidate, former senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, loses, that might send a message to Singapore’s tone-deaf rulers that they can understand.

THE WORLD, BRIEFLY

Upping the Ante

NIGER

Niger’s coup leaders will prosecute ousted President Mohamed Bazoum on charges of “high treason,” the latest defiance by the junta amid international pressure and threats of regional military intervention following last month’s coup, the Guardian reported.

On Monday, military officials said they have gathered evidence against Bazoum, accusing him of exchanging messages with West African leaders and “their international mentors” to undermine Niger’s security.

The announcement added that Bazoum’s “foreign accomplices” had made false allegations and attempted to derail a peaceful solution to the crisis in order to justify a military intervention. It did not specify who the leaders were or the date of the trial.

Bazoum could face the death penalty if found guilty.

Bazoum, Niger’s democratically elected president, was removed from power by his presidential guard in a July 26 coup. He was then placed under house arrest along with his wife and son.

People close to the president and members of his ruling party have claimed that the junta has been holding Bazoum and his family in inhumane conditions, including cutting off electricity and water.

Monday’s announcement came hours after regional religious mediators met with junta leader Gen. Abdourahamane Tchiani, who indicated his regime was open to a diplomatic resolution to the crisis that followed the coup.

The military leaders are facing regional and international pressure to quickly restore civilian rule: Following the coup, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) set a seven-day deadline to return Bazoum to power and threatened to use military action if the junta didn’t comply.

However, this deadline passed without any action from either side. ECOWAS recently ordered a standby military force for potential intervention.

Meanwhile, the African Union’s peace and security council is convening to discuss the Niger crisis and might overrule intervention decisions if continental peace and security are at risk. Mali and Burkina Faso, for example, have said any intervention in Niger was tantamount to a declaration of war against them.

The Spoiler

ARGENTINA

Libertarian candidate Javier Milei won Argentina’s primary election Sunday, in a surprise victory that suggests a shift toward the right ahead of the country’s upcoming presidential election, the Financial Times reported.

The former TV personality and one-term congressman secured more than 30 percent of the vote, 10 percent more than predicted.

That result also puts his Freedom Advances party ahead of the conservative force, Together for Change, with 28.3 percent, and the ruling populist coalition, Union for the Homeland, whose candidate is centrist Economy Minister Sergio Massa, which earned 27.2 percent.

Incumbent President Alberto Fernández, and his deputy, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, are not participating in the elections.

Analysts said Milei’s victory highlights the deep-seated frustration many Argentines feel regarding the inability of previous administrations to establish lasting economic stability.

Milei has gained national attention for his proposals, which include advocating for stringent austerity measures and the adoption of the US dollar as Argentina’s official currency.

Argentina is grappling with a range of economic challenges, including hyperinflation and dwindling foreign exchange reserves, while around 40 percent of the country lives in poverty.

While his primary success might not translate to victory in the October general elections, his emergence as a frontrunner has shaken up the race and could derail the race for Together for Change candidate Patricia Bullrich.

Both Milei and Bullrich appeal to the right-leaning segment of the electorate, potentially dividing their voter base and benefiting Massa.

Swift Decisions

INDONESIA

The Miss Universe Organization cut ties with its Indonesian partner and canceled this year’s Malaysia pageant after contestants accused local organizers of sexual harassment, Sky News reported.

Last week, six women alleged that Indonesian organizers forced them to strip naked and undergo intimate “body checks” – supposedly for scars or cellulite – in a room with about two dozen people present, including men.

Indonesian police said they have launched an investigation into the matter.

Indonesia is a socially conservative country and has the world’s largest Muslim population.

Meanwhile, the accusations prompted the international pageant to terminate its contract with the PT Capella Swastika Karya company, which took over the license for Miss Universe Indonesia in March.

MUO said the Indonesian franchise “has not lived up to our brand standards and ethics.” It added that it is reviewing its policies to prevent such occurrences from happening in the future.

Capella’s founder, Poppy Capella, denied any involvement in the incident and said she does not condone any form of sexual harassment, Reuters wrote.

The incident marks the latest scandal to hit the long-running global competition, which critics have described as sexist and demeaning to women.

MUO’s prompt response to the allegations reflects its leadership change when Thai media tycoon and transgender rights advocate Anne Jakkaphong took control in 2022, said Reuters.

Jakkaphong had pledged a transformative “new era” for the competition, emphasizing its female leadership and dedication to empowering women globally through feminism.

DISCOVERIES

Extravagant Afterlife

It’s common for ancient royalty to employ bombastic funerary practices: Some were buried with golden treasures, while others were laid to rest in mausoleums filled with thousands of terracotta statues – and alleged booby traps.

Now, Chinese archaeologists have discovered the first complete skeleton of a giant panda in an ancient emperor’s tomb, a find that adds new insights into the ancient society’s lavish burial rituals more than 2,000 years ago, the Washington Post reported.

In the case of this Han dynasty emperor, researchers discovered more than 380 rectangular earth pits with animal skeletons in them, including the panda bear.

Located in the northern Shaanxi province, the tomb belonged to Emperor Wen, who ruled from 180 to 157 BCE.

The team wrote in their study that the pits contained the remains of many mammals, but also reptiles and birds. They added that the variety of wildlife sacrificed was seen as a status symbol for the Han rulers, which also included exotic animals and rare birds.

“The animal sacrifice pits that we excavated this time could be a replica of the royal gardens and farms in the western Han dynasty,” according to the authors.

The archaeological team noted that pandas likely had a wider distribution in the past, as the warmer climate of that time would have enabled bamboo – their staple food – to thrive in forests located to the north of the animals’ present natural habitats.

The Han dynasty’s economy experienced growth and a population boom under Emperor Wen, who was known for his relative frugality compared to his predecessors.

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