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An election, foreign influence and anti-death penalty graffiti

This week: Lee Hsien Loong issues the writ of election for the presidential race, UOB imposes restricts on Myanmar-related transactions, and the Singapore government gets upset at the Washington Post.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written something personal, outside of my work and activism. So it was a great pleasure—and also a relief!—to write this personal essay about how I fell into K-pop and Stray Kids as a way to cope with all the stressors in my life. It’s a piece about burn-out and trauma, but also about hobbies and joy.

🚨 Election klaxon 🚨

Here we go: Lee Hsien Loong has issued the writ of election, and Singaporeans will vote for the President of the Republic of Singapore on 1 September. That is, if more than one candidate qualifies. We’ll find out on 22 August, now designated Nomination Day.

Potential contenders: popular (former) PAP uncle Tharman Shanmugaratnam, self-made rich uncle George Goh, meditating uncle Ng Kok Song, making-second-attempt uncle Tan Kin Lian.

Zaobao (and the government) doth protest too much

The Washington Post recently published an investigation on China’s influence in Singapore, which, among other things, pointed to Lianhe Zaobao’s pro-China slant. The reporting was based on an analysis of over 700 Zaobao articles published in 2022 and early 2023. The WaPo is also not the first to point this out; among journalists, especially those who cover/have covered China, there has long been talk about how Zaobao skews towards Chinese state narratives. This newsletter also published a guest issue on Zaobao and China back in 2021.

Among the issues reported by WaPo was that Zaobao sometimes publishes op-eds by people it presents as academics or experts, without mentioning that they’re Chinese Communist Party officials (including officials whose roles involve propaganda):

Lianhe Zaobao was naturally unhappy with this coverage, and published a response (English translation below the Chinese statement) shortly after the WaPo story was published online (it appeared on the front page of the print edition later). “Amid the current international geopolitical situation, the idea that ‘if you are not with us, you are against us’ is spreading,” it wrote. “Now more than ever, Lianhe Zaobao believes that we should not be pressured by anyone into changing our editorial direction. We remain committed to staying objective; we will not be pressured by any party, and do not wish to be embroiled in China-US rivalry.”

The Singapore government also leapt to Zaobao’s defence, which is a totally (not) normal thing for a government to be doing for a publication that’s supposed to be independent and not state media. WaPo is wrong to say that Zaobao echoes Beijing propaganda, insists Lui Tuck Yew, Singapore ambassador to the US. Zaobao has balanced coverage and uniquely Singaporean viewpoints! Our media and society are unique! Okay, but that’s, like, your opinion, bro. What wasn’t included in Lui’s letter to the Washington Post was what, exactly, was wrong or inaccurate about the story.

The Singapore government says it takes foreign influence operations seriously, which is why they pushed through legislation like the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act. But when it’s pointed out that a Singaporean newspaper appears to be amplifying another country’s propaganda talking points, the reaction is to turn around and shoot the messenger.

What I want to know is this: does publishing opinion pieces by a CCP official in charge of online propaganda, without making it known to readers that the writer is a CCP official in charge of online propaganda, breach Part 2 of the Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (which covers “clandestine” foreign interference)?

Stop doing business with Myanmar

Nikkei Asia reported this week that United Overseas Bank (UOB) is cutting ties with counterparts in Myanmar. The bank is going to restrict payments to and from Myanmar accounts, except for transfers between accounts already held with the bank. From the report:

“UOB is known as the offshore bank of choice for Myanmar's generals, big corporations and wealthy individuals -- as well as many international organizations and foreign investors, particularly those who run Myanmar operations from Singapore. Some banking analysts see the clampdown, unprecedented for a Singaporean financial institution, as a response to U.S. pressure on Singapore to curb offshore banking and financial services for Myanmar's military regime. It also reflects the growing costs of doing business with the regime and concerns about reputational risks. The military seized power from a democratically elected government in February 2021 and continues to wage a brutal campaign against resistance forces.”

Anti-death penalty graffiti

Here’s a story that would be pretty minor in places that aren’t Singapore: graffiti was spray-painted on to the wall of an underground tunnel at the Buona Vista MRT station. In Singapore, it’s a serious offence under the Vandalism Act that could come with caning if the convicted offender is a man. What makes it even more notable is the actual message: “If 1 syringe = 1 death = 1 hanged man HOW MANY 4 U SG GOV?” 👀 👀 👀

Autographed pre-order copies of my book, The Singapore I Recognise: Essays on home, community and hope, have been fully redeemed from Ethos Books, although you might still be able to get one if you pre-order from partner bookshops. Here are the links:

- Ethos Books
- City Book Room
- Epigram Bookshop
- Grassroots Book Room
- Kinokuniya
- The Book Bar
- Wormhole

On my radar this week…

💣 The film Oppenheimer opened to lots of fanfare across the world recently. In New Mexico—where the first atomic bomb was detonated—the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium is still organising for justice and recognition. TBDC founder Tina Cordova tells Waging Nonviolence:

“In my family, I’m the fourth generation to have cancer. By the time I co-founded the TBDC, I had been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. The very questions I was asked were, “when were you exposed to radiation? Did you ever work with radioactive isotopes? Have you ever worked in a lab facility? Did you ever have a lot of X- rays? Did you work in an X-ray facility?” I said, “no, no, no.” But I was literally raised in a community 45 miles away, as the crow flies, from the Trinity site and was also downwind of the Nevada Test Site. Before that, for many, many years, I had seen people dying around me from the most obscure cancers. I had a first cousin, we were raised like brother and sister, and he had a brain tumor so rare, they told us there were probably only a handful of people in the world with that kind of cancer.”

My Skzoo plushies on duty last weekend distributing Milo—in honour of this newsletter's Milo Peng Funders!—to people who dropped by the One Book Bookshop pop-up.

Thank you for reading! As always, feel free to forward this weekly wrap to anyone you like, and spread the word about this newsletter!