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Singapore and Hong Kong: Fighting the same battle against sneaky encroachment of freedom

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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Two well-known local commentators have been having a field day throwing grenades at Hong Kong protestors. I wish they had kept the grenades for real villains. In the eyes of Leslie Fong and Bilahari Kausikan writing in the South China Morning Post, these Hong Kongers were just reckless and asking for trouble. Were the protestors as suicidal and as “moronic” as retired diplomat Bilahari put it? Or was he simply doing his job on behalf of the Singapore establishment trying to dissuade young kwai kwai Singaporeans from being, in any way, inspired by the spiritedness of rebellious Hong Kong youths?

In his SCMP Harsh Truths article, Bilahari at first tried hard to be more circumspect. He said he sympathised with Hong Kongers, understood where they were coming from as they were worried about their freedom and rights and so on. Then he literally let go in his Facebook post, describing their protests as “almost the acme of stupidity (I say ‘almost’ only because these morons keep surpassing my expectations)”. And for good measure, he hurled this piece of sarcasm at Hong Kong youths: Better for them to agitate for better housing.

Bilahari obviously learnt this particular bit about the calming effects of property ownership from his godfather Lee Kuan Yew. The late Prime Minister once made this observation: Lee said that one day on the ground trying to check out an ongoing riot, he noticed somewhere in, I believe, Jalan Besar, a man frantically and protectively pushing his Vespa scooter into his double-storey shophouse away from the rioters. Lo and behold, Lee declared that he experienced a Eureka moment. He said he realised there and then that giving someone ownership of important things like housing and a means of transport was the way towards a more stable society. Fast forward to 2019: Bilahari thinks Hong Kongers would be better off directing their energy at forcing the Kong Kong government to give them their better housing.

Leslie Fong, former editor of The Straits Times, wrote a more focused and objective opinion piece. He did lament about witnessing a city ripping itself apart through calculated and cynical agitation and wished Hong Kongers would read the extradition bill more closely. He recommended and I have read a speech on the bill delivered by one Grenville Cross at the University of Hong Kong in June 2019. Cross, who was Director of Public Prosecutions in Hong Kong from 1997 to 2009, offered two main points in defence of the bill. First, countries which uphold the rule of law should not become a haven for fugitives attempting to evade prosecution elsewhere. Hong Kong risked becoming such a pariah among societies. Second, the fear of some Hong Kongers of being extradited to the mainland to be tried by a system which may not give them a fair trial may not be justified. Cross said this was part of an outdated perception of the Chinese judiciary system which has improved a lot. Those facing trial today should be able to get a fair hearing.

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Ultimately, the Hong Kong Chief Executive will “decide if the circumstances of the case require the requesting party to provide extra guarantees. If these are refused, the case will end there”. The CE cannot be pressured by mainland authorities because Hong Kong courts will decide “if an order of committal should be made”. The suspect’s surrender cannot be ordered by the mainland.

Maybe so. But the extradition bill may not be the real issue. As 2047 approaches on the horizon, more and more Hong Kongers are realising uncomfortably that the way of life they are used to is coming to an end. Even before that, Beijing is starting to encroach on the 50-year freedom supposed to be guaranteed under the handover treaty signed by Britain and Beijing in 1997. The protests may be the second, bigger, round of shots which will continue to be fired – after the Umbrella Movement of 2014 – to remind Beijing not to take Hong Kongers for granted.

I happen to think Hong Kong is indispensable to China and the Chinese diaspora around the world, in San Francisco, New York, Vancouver, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia. Many overseas Chinese came from coastal China and Hong Kong was a major exit point. To transform a vibrant people so talented and distinctive into an adjunct to a colourless Han conformity would be a disgrace and disaster. Ditto Taiwan. May the island never lose its identity.

Therefore, I was very glad that a survey by Blackbox Research showed that more than three-quarters of 1,000 Singaporeans said they supported the Hong Kong protests. Eugene Tan, a political observer and law professor from the Singapore Management University, said:“The empathy that Singaporeans have for Hong Kong protesters stems primarily from the conviction, passion and sense of purpose that Hongkongers have shown, especially the younger generation.”

He added: “The Hong Kong protests, before the violent storming of the Legislative Council building, will certainly be a reference point for Singaporeans if they are in a similar situation. It is about fighting on bravely even in the face of futility.”

Passion, bravery, sense of purpose. I say this for the third time: Hats off to Hong Kongers. At the height of the Cold War, US President John Kennedy said this when he was visiting West Berlin in 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner” (“I am a Berliner”). I too am a Hong Konger in spirit.

Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.

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