Singapore Knocked As A “Police State.” In This Era It’s A Virtue

A city of 5.5 million at night. Safe. Prosperous. Beautiful. If that’s the current definition of a police state, I’ll take it. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SINGAPORE — Michael Fay was a 19-year-old American student in May 1994 when Singapore authorities delivered four strikes to his bare bottom with a rattan cane. Arrested nearly a year before for stealing road signs and vandalizing vehicles, Fay’s caning prompted an international debate about the fairness of Singapore’s justice system and an outcry about its “police state” tactics.

I knew two facts about Singapore before I arrived here. First was the debate about Michael Fay and Singapore’s strict rules of personal behavior and its global knock as a “police state.” Second is that Singapore has one of the world’s best freshwater supply systems, based on recycling, rainwater collection, and desalination.

Those two elements of life here are tied together by the island nation’s insistence on achieving order, providing a secure way of life, and demanding that residents play their part. In return government here has delivered a magnificent city, full of architectural gems, rising from a garden of flowers, shrubs and trees, remarkably safe, packed with public transit, and where the water is plentiful and clean. If this is the contemporary version of a “police state” America and much of the rest of the world should take notice.

City in a garden. Singapore’s clean, orderly streets. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

How Singapore achieved its prominence as one of the world’s greenest, cleanest, safest, and most prosperous cities is a story of consistently able leadership, clear goals, and cultural persistence.

The city was occupied by the Japanese during World War Two, a period of extreme violence and hardship, especially for Singapore’s Chinese residents. When the Japanese occupation ended the island endured various long sieges of violence and joblessness as a Malaysian state. In 1965, following wicked disagreements with Malaysia, Singapore became an independent nation that could finally focus on a national plan. The city’s development strategy, like almost every other nation’s, was designed to employ its people, end poverty, and improve the quality of life. Singapore just did it better and stuck to its goals.

The $5.5 billion (USD) Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino, opened in 2010 and is one of the city’s premier entertainment destinations. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Water security was one feature of the plan. Environmental sustainability was another. A good portion of the island is protected forest that safeguards surface water reservoirs. High-tech manufacturing, excellent transit, housing, and education are priorities. Singapore’s streets are shaded in a beautiful urban forest. From a troubled backwater at the tip of the Malay peninsula, Singapore has become a jewel of Asia, not much talked about in the West, but highly regarded from Seoul to Tokyo to Sydney. Continue reading “Singapore Knocked As A “Police State.” In This Era It’s A Virtue”

Malaysia. Where’s Malaysia?

A mammoth figure guards the entrance to one of the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo/Keith Schneider

KUALA LUMPUR — I had no idea what to expect from Malaysia when I accepted an assignment from Mongabay to report on the consequences of a prodigious wave of infrastructure development that is remaking this country’s economy and geography. What I’ve found is a nation contending, like so many others, with political disruption, but fully competent to develop the new muscles and bones to support the contemporary needs of this century.

People here are suspicious of their leaders. But the questions about corruption and competence of Malaysia’s political leadership are infinitely easier to answer than those being asked in the United States about America’s ruling class. The notion that the U.S. is exceptional isn’t a ruse. It’s just changed radically in the last several decades. We’re such a rich nation. But we don’t deploy our wealth to enhance civic well-being. The U.S. is exceptional now for the miserable way our political system has crumbled, our public schools and infrastructure have deteriorated, our sense of confidence and purpose have weakened.

The American century likely ended on 9/11. The Asian century began soon after. It’s more than apparent in Malaysia.

For a journalist who’s spent a decade reporting on ecological and economic transformation around the world, I have one overriding observation about Malaysia. Malaysia is different than China, India, Mongolia, the Philippines and several more countries that are determined to achieve western-level measures of growth. Malaysia did not wreck its land, water, air, and marine environments getting there.

A rendering of the 70-acre Exchange development, with its 106-story centerpiece, which is under construction in Kuala Lumpur. The development is meant to be the country’s new finance center. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Clean rivers still flow here. Half of the country’s tropical forest cover is intact and will remain so under commitments Malaysian leaders made in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Near shore marine environments have not been ruined by mining disasters, as they were in the Phillippines, or soiled in tides of fetid urban wastewater, as they have been in India and China.
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From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.

The mosque dominates central Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

KUANTAN, Malaysia — Has there ever been a more disturbing time to be an American? Not in my life. And most certainly not in the 10 years that I’ve reported from outside the United States.

On the way by train and auto from Penang on the west coast to this industrial city on Malaysia’s east coast, I had a number of conversations with Malaysians about conditions in the U.S. Malay people are a guarded lot. Polite. Friendly. Helpful. But not open and inviting like people in the West can often be.

Let me tell you. Donald Trump is as much a focus of interest in this peninsula nation as he is in much of America. The view here is a mix of bafflement, scorn, and pity. Sam Heung, a gold jewelry merchant from Penang who engaged me in a long conversation about American politics described how “Donald Trump is turning the United States into a laughing stock.”

A university student I met by the name of Dinesh remarked at how spiteful and small-minded American democracy has become. “How did so many Americans choose this man?” he asked. “He makes no sense.”

On the day we spent touring Penang, our driver expressed concern. “Your country seems like it is in trouble,” he said.

China’s influence in Penang, a west coast island, is strong, as it is in all of Malaysia. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A teacher from Penang, her name is Eeli, who earned a doctorate from Cambridge University and thought she’d apply for a post doctoral position in the United States, told me she’s thinking differently now. “I’m afraid,” she said, explaining that her black hijab, which covered her head and framed her round face, made her a target. “I have a friend who had a bad experience in New York,” said Eeli. “She was attacked because she stood out.”

That Malaysians pay close attention to events in Washington and the United States is no surprise. This small country of 32 million residents, set at the very end of the Southeast Asia peninsula, and a neighbor to Singapore and Indonesia, has episodically fallen under the influence of the world’s bigger and richer countries. Continue reading “From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.”

Listen to Our Kids’ Call to Disarm America

Perhaps 800,000 people gathered in Washington to rally support for Parkland, Florida students organizing to end gun violence in the United States. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Republican right is unnerved in the days following Saturday’s March For Our Lives in Washington and hundreds of other cities across America and the world. Stricken with grief and stirred by the passions of love cut short by bullets, the students from Parkland, Florida stood up, stepped forward, and found a mass movement to end gun violence waiting for them.

Hundreds of thousands of people were on Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday, perhaps 800,000 by some measures. They came from all over the country to hear words of grief, statements of resolve, and pleas for change from middle school and high school students, who also came from all over the country.

The alchemy of potent words, visible strength, and palpable emotion forced Fox News and its conspiratorial cousins in right wing media to lose their rhetorical footing. The students, they asserted, were tools of liberal media and Democratic leadership perpetuating the left’s campaign to unseat President Trump. Their reporting was so ridiculous that Breitbart News accused David Hogg, one of the Parkland students and movement leaders, of displaying a “Nazi salute” when he raised his fist at the rally.

What nonsense. It’s precisely because young people are independent and authentic that their call to disarm the country has gained such credibility.

It’s also because their capacity to articulate the issues is so keen. “Politicians, either represent the people or get out,” demanded one student, speaking before the largest crowd he’ll ever face again. “The people demand a law for universal background checks. The people demand to end the sale of high-capacity magazines. The people demand an end to this gun violence. Stand with us or beware. The vote is coming.”

Students from Baltimore have a message. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Their signs, displayed in a bright garden of irony and anger and cleverness, also made the point: “Mental illness is global. Mass shootings are American,” said one. “Kids safety is more important than your hobby,” said another. Continue reading “Listen to Our Kids’ Call to Disarm America”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Tough Second Act

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses reporters in Salt Lake City, February 2018 (Keith Schneider photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — January was supposed to be a great month for Interior Secretary Ryan Keith Zinke, the tall, cowboy-fit, decorated SEAL warrior dispatched by the White House to battle the “elites” and elevate resource development to the primary goal of the world’s largest conservation agency.

Guided by his personal hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “conservation means development as much as it does protection,” Zinke opened the year with the most ambitious federal plan ever to explore for oil and gas off nearly every mile of U.S. coastline. Ten months in the making, the drilling scheme was the latest of the administration’s coordinated steps to sweep away decades of environmental impediments and unleash the fossil energy reserves stored beneath much of the 1.7 billion acres of ocean bottom and at least half of the 500 million acres of surface land overseen by the 168-year-old department.

The bid to decorate America’s coast with drilling rigs was bigger than even the ocean leasing program proposed in 1982 by James Watt, the last Interior secretary to try as hard as Zinke to swing the department’s mission from conservation to extraction. “We’re embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America,” Zinke declared. “We are going to become the strongest energy superpower.”

But five days later, like the unpredictable president he serves, Zinke disrupted the show. During a trip to meet with Rick Scott, the Florida Republican governor and likely Senate candidate, Zinke announced he was excusing the offshore waters of the Sunshine State from participation. The drilling waiver, which shocked his own staff, ignited an impassioned political backlash led by Republican coastal state governors, Congress members, and state lawmakers. It also put the entire plan in grave legal peril because at the very least the federal Administrative Procedure Act requires a substantive and rational basis for making new policy.

The public dismay grew more intense two weeks later when a senior Interior executive rebuked his boss and told a Congressional committee that Zinke’s waiver had no authority. Florida, he said, was still in the offshore drilling plan. As the month ended, Zinke appeared on CNN to counter his aide and explain that the exemption stood because, in Florida, “the coastal currents are different.”

It is not clear why Zinke apparently set out on his own to alter the Trump administration’s marquee energy development plan. Heather Swift, Zinke’s spokesperson, declined repeated requests to interview the secretary or members of his senior staff. “The secretary is unavailable,” she said during Zinke’s appearance at a hunter and sportsmen expo in Salt Lake City.

Ryan Zinke’s effort to expand oil and gas leasing in the West’s public lands is not attracting much interest across most of the domain. (Keith Schneider photo)

Whatever the cause, Zinke’s change of heart about Florida raised eyebrows across official Washington. “It was different, to be sure,” said Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson.
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