Thailand's Singapore Problem

After ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a coup, the military-appointed leaders here have tried in vain to explain "Thai-style democracy" to the world.

In the past week, it has gotten a bit more difficult as the country has used censorship and bluster to bite back at Singapore for allowing Thaksin into the city state for meetings with officials while he also gave a round of high-profile interviews to foreign journalists while in town.

"When the military intervened in the supposedly democratic governance of our country on September 19 many foreign observers were puzzled by the Thai people's reaction," new Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told the APEC Summit in Hanoi last November. "Tanks were festooned with flowers, family snapshots taken with tough-looking, but smiling, soldiers."

The coup, he declared, was simply "a uniquely Thai response to the need for urgent political reform" and his government was off to a "running start" in making that happen.

On the face of it, most countries seemed to buy that. Certainly China wasn't going to put up a fuss. Americans and Europeans condemned the coup, but they weren't about to cut off bilateral relations. Although most countries in the 10-nation Asean grouping that had enjoyed good business dealings with both Thaksin and his family's Shin Corp were surprised but they stayed relatively silent. Malaysia, which often sparred with Thaksin's government, quietly welcomed the move, while Burma's junta prepared for a rougher relationship with the former army chief Surayud at the helm.

And then there's Singapore. The city-state, as one of Thaksin's key business partners over the years, has played a prominent role in the Thai political chaos.

Last January, Singapore-government-run Temasek Holdings' purchase of telecommunications firm Shin Corp from Thaksin's family in a largely tax-free sale, unleashed political mayhem. The deal epitomized everything Bangkok's elites hated about Thaksin, who often appeared to be transforming Thailand into a branch of the family business, and the ensuing protests led him to call an early election in February.

At one point, this anger towards Thaksin boiled over into anti-Singaporean rhetoric. Some groups protested in front of the Singapore Embassy, and others called for a boycott of Singaporean products. But it went nowhere. At the end of the day, the public wasn't terribly interested in dragging Singapore into what was essentially a Thai fight.

Even so, in the days following the coup, Singapore again rankled the Thai elite when Lee Hsien Loong, the city-state's leader, called the coup "a setback for Thailand." Certainly Bangkok wasn't going to take lessons on democracy from the leader of an oppressive one-party country.

The strife only worsened last week when Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister S Jayakumar told the Asean Summit in the Philippines, that Southeast Asian nations should reject military coups in a proposed regional charter. Unconstitutional political changes would be forbidden "because we see that as an important principle," the minister said.

Although most Thais probably would've agreed with that statement prior to September 19, they saw it as a slap in the face, particularly since S Jayakumar scheduled a meeting with Thaksin himself just a few days after making those comments. The nail in the coffin was a series of interviews Thaksin gave to foreign media outlets while in Singapore criticizing the new government's performance, including its recent market-jolting capital controls and restrictions on foreign investment. The Thai coup leaders reacted by bullying the local cable operator into blocking the interview on CNN and restricting access to news websites.

The next day, Thailand called in Singapore's ambassador for an "explanation." Thai officials didn't like what they heard, so they canceled a visit by Singapore's foreign minister scheduled for later this month and halted a civil servant exchange program. Permission for Singapore to use Thailand as a base for military training exercises was also under review, although Surayud told reporters Thursday that his government planned no further diplomatic action.

Singapore insists that it played by the rules. Its embassy informed Thai authorities about Thaksin's planned meetings, and received no objections.

"The Thai Government did not notify us that Dr Thaksin has been charged for any offence," the Singapore foreign ministry said in a statement. "There is also no restriction on where he can travel to.… There is no reason for Singapore to turn Dr Thaksin away. Prior to Singapore, Dr Thaksin had also visited several other countries without any protest by the Thai Government."

All this sounds fair enough, but Singapore is essentially playing dumb. After all, this is one of the most media sensitive places on earth. Less than 10 days after the Thai coup, it banned the Far Eastern Economic Review, a Dow Jones publication, because it didn't comply with new rules put in place after the magazine printed an interview with an opposition leader. It beggars belief to think Singapore wouldn't grasp the political ramifications of playing host to Thaksin while he criticized the military leaders in interviews with CNN and the Wall Street Journal, another Dow Jones title.

But although Thailand's military government would love to direct some public angst at Singapore—and a few small protest groups have already prepared placards—the problems it currently has with the island state stem from Thailand's own identity crisis.

While Thaksin ruled the country, his critics routinely pounced on him for trying to turn Thailand into another Singapore. This essentially meant one-party rule, a cowed, obedient media and an ardently capitalist economy.

Temasek's acquisition of Shin only bolstered the fears that the very essence of Thailand was at stake. The local press focused on the "morality" of the deal. Thaksin appeared greedy for managing to avoid a tax bill on the sale, and his arrogance when he called critics "jealous" only reinforced the perception that the billionaire did not possess the right virtuous attributes to lead Thailand.

This backlash culminated in the September 19 coup. Democracy advocates cheered the forced removal of the unethical Thaksin. Even the new military appointed leaders convinced themselves that the yellow flowers hoisted on the tanks made them the saviors of democracy.

Foreigners just couldn't understand: The coup would mean a freer media, louder opposition, economic justice and the establishment of the rule of law. This all appeared counter-intuitive.

Surayud's eloquent speech to foreign correspondents in November was particularly instructive in this regard. "For the last five years the Thai people suffered from an increasingly deformed media environment," he said. "Broadcast media were muzzled; news coverage was state-directed. I believe that is called propaganda…. Report positively and you will be rewarded, report negatively and suffer the consequences. The victim, of course, was the truth, and the people's right to know."

To demonstrate their new way of thinking, the generals wouldn't arrest Thaksin outright. They would set up a body to investigate his crimes, and then bring him to court if they found anything. And what can Thaksin do during this time? Well, he could come back whenever the situation "returns to normal," the government said.

Unfortunately for the idealist soldiers and their supporters, something happened on the way to perfect democracy. Although the government has made a point to push Thailand away from the Singaporean economic model by focusing on restricting foreign investment and capital flow, it has at least temporarily begun embracing the city-state's autocratic rule and press restrictions. At the moment, Thais are getting a dose of Singaporean-like repression by trying to rein in offending news reports.

Moreover, the junta's efforts to demonize Thaksin haven't gone smoothly. Temasek's Shin deal turned out to have been structured just like thousands of other deals here. Critics have again started to hail Thaksin's economic management as policymakers fumble with capital controls and changes to foreign business laws. And the graft busters have failed to bring charges against Thaksin, whom the coup-makers had claimed was so corrupt that his government needed to be toppled.

The ambiguous way in which the generals treated Thaksin after the coup and the failure to scrounge up any charges on him in the proceeding four months led to the diplomatic spat with Singapore. If the junta knew what to do with Thaksin, then the rest of the world would know how to treat him as well.

What makes the dispute with Singapore so awkward for the coup apologists who saw Thaksin as a threat to democracy is that the generals are acting more like the loathed Singaporeans than he ever did. Under Surayud's leadership, opposition voices have been quashed in the name of national unity, and the broadcast media is more "muzzled" and "state-directed" than it was under Thaksin.

In the end, the Thai-Singaporean squabble will likely fade away as they tend to do in a region where collective gains often outweigh nationalist struggles. Bangkok and Phnom Penh, for instance, have already improved ties after Khmers torched the Thai embassy and Thai-owned businesses in January 2003 because they viewed Thais as greedy, arrogant and culturally insensitive.

"Singapore is one of our best friends and allies in Asean, even better than Malaysia and Burma," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. "Yes it's a drastic gesture to cancel the foreign minister's visit, but the lasting impact will likely be quite minimal. It may in fact unintentionally end up hurting Thailand, as we all know how inefficient our bureaucracy is."

Although Thailand's generals are more defensive and introspective these days, some in Bangkok still hold out hope that democracy here will eventually allow space for vibrant dissent and media freedom, assuming the military cedes control later this year. But other say that if one day a political system emerges in Thailand that is not manipulated by Bangkok's elites, royalists or generals, it will hardly be thanks to flower-covered tanks and smiling soldiers.