Archive for ‘April, 2011’

A door cracks open in the Little Red Dot.

datePosted on 21:51, April 27th, 2011 by Pablo

Authors Preface: Now that my departure from Singapore is imminent I no longer have to fear retribution for commenting about local politics. I was warned when I arrived in SG that foreigners commenting about SG political issues was verboten and liable to risk summary deportation or defamation charges. I do not think that what follows is defamatory in any way shape or form, and constitutes just the first in what will be a series of reflections about Singapore after having spent 3.5 years immersed in its politics and culture.

On May 7 2011, 2.5 million Singaporeans (out of a total population of 5 million) go to the polls in order to elect the next government. As a one party-dominant authoritarian state, the outcome is already assured–the People’s Action Party that has held power since 1959 will win the majority of parliamentary seats (Singapore is formally a unicameral parliamentary system). By gerrymandering electoral districts (which has led to uncontested walkover rates of 50 percent) and placing limits on opposition party rights to public expression and assembly outside of the two week campaign season (to include prohibitions on holding rallies and distributing flyers, posters or pamphlets, which has resulted in numerous defamation suits against and arrests of opposition figures over the years–the last in 2010 for a violation of the “no public assembly of more than 5 people without a Police permit” law), the PAP might match the 66 percent of the vote garnered in 2006 (a drop from the 73 percent received in 2001).  It will retain its majority hold of the (recently expanded) 87-member parliament. But there is political change blowing in the hot and humid Singaporean breeze, which is as much the result of generational and social change as it is of opposition renewal and PAP sclerosis. Although it will retain power this time, none of the trends auger well for the PAP.

Taking 25 years as the generational baseline, Singapore is in its third generation since gaining political autonomy from the Malay Federation in 1959 (independence came with its expulsion from the Federation in 1965). Led by 87-year old Lee Kuan Yew, the first generation of PAP leaders ruled with tight control until 1990, in an era when Singapore’s image as an austere and puritanical authoritarian state was forged. The second generation of hand-picked successors, who began the slow process of political and social liberalization and orchestrated the emergence of the country as a major transportation, logistics and financial hub, is singing its political swan song today. This year’s election marks the transition to the third generation of political leadership and not all has gone as planned for the PAP.

Voting is mandatory in Singapore. Yet spoiled ballots and non-voters amounted to nearly 10 percent of the 2006 electorate. In other words, the signs of discontent were already present five years ago. This year there has been a resurgence of political opposition led by the Workers Party, the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party. In marked contrast to previous elections, 82 of the 87 parliamentary seats will be contested. Among the ranks of the opposition are defectors from the PAP, former government-sponsored overseas scholars (who usually pay their scholarship debt by returning to assume bureaucratic positions and joining the PAP), former Internal Security Act detainees (the ISA allows for the indefinite detention of suspects without charge and some of the current opposition candidates have spent periods in confinement as a result of it) as well as political exiles.

Most of the new candidates are in their mid 20s to mid 40s, thereby representing a coming of age for their generation of free thinkers. In response, the PAP has trotted out the usual ensemble of former bureaucrats and politicized retired military officers, interspersed with a handful of younger neophytes (including one whose qualifications for office apparently are that she is the wife of the Prime Minister’s executive assistant and has a penchant for shopping–the latter being Singapore’s national pastime). What is most revealing is that the PAP is no longer able to hide its internal divisions, with leading officials, Ministers and even the Minister Mentor (how’s that for a title?) Lee Kuan Yew himself openly disagreeing about issues of politics, policy and social construction. Perhaps sensing a shift in the public mood, some PAP candidates have withdrawn from the election (“retirement” being the most common reason). All of this underscores something that the Minister Mentor said last year: that the PAP must rejuvenate or stagnate, and that democracy would only come when the PAP proved incapable of responding to public expectations as a result of its stagnation.

The trouble for the PAP is that the elections have come too quickly for a major re-generation of its cadres, which in a talent-thin environment such as Singapore (owing to its population size, as anyone who looks beyond the front benches of the New Zealand parliament will understand), means that the moment of political reckoning has come much sooner than the 25 years Lee Kuan Yew envisioned.

Even worse for the PAP, although the government controls all of the mainstream media in Singapore, including the Straits Times and the telecommunications giant MediaCorp, it has been unable to staunch the flow of internet criticism of its personnel and policies, or the grassroots mobilization of support for the opposition. Much concern has been voiced about increasing inefficiencies in public services, the high cost of living, the loss of white collar jobs to foreigners, and the government’s astronomical pay scales (the Prime Minister–Lee Kuan Yew’s son–is paid S$4.5 million per/year, senior ministers make S$3 million and parliamentary backbenchers start at S$150,000. In fact according to the Economist, Singapore has the second highest ratio of political leader’s pay to the country’s GDP per person, with the average salary of US$2,183,516). There is irony in the latter because it is a world first: Singapore has the most expensive government that money can buy, in a society that is image-obsessed but in which income inequality is more third world than first world.

In the face of what looks to be the possibility of losing previously safe seats amid an unprecedented wave of electoral contestation, the PAP has resorted to fear-mongering, focusing on the tired old canards of economic insecurity, Malay sedition, jihadist terrorism, unskilled foreign workers from the sub-continent and mainland China bringing crime and stealing local jobs, and gay rights (homosexuality is illegal in Singapore but as part of the social liberalization process enforcement of sodomy laws has been weak and episodic over the last decade. This has been a major concern of social conservatives, including the very large number of ethnic Chinese Christians found on the island who are a core PAP constituency). PAP officials talk darkly about “hidden agendas” and wonder why the opposition would seek “to take control of the government” (apparently ignorant of the fact that political parties are formed precisely to contest for power in order to gain decision-making authority and influence policy). Yet the more it raises the specter of Singapore returning to its polyglot swampland brothel and opium den past, the more the PAP is ridiculed for being out of touch with the wants and needs of contemporary Singaporeans.

This means that this election and its aftermath will constitute a critical juncture in Singaporean history. It will set the stage for the next critical juncture, which will be the occasion and aftermath of Lee Kuan Yew’s death.

The notion of critical juncture is important and needs explaining. Using economics-derived path dependency analysis (in which human behavior is “locked in” by past institutional practice the more that practice is routinised over time), critical junctures are historical moments when decisive choices are made within given institutional parameters that set the future course of events (the most common used analogies are the “fork in the road” and “tree branch” motifs).  Because of its internal divisions, Lee Kuan Yew’s death will be the moment when the knives come out within the PAP, with moderate reformists and liberalizers pitted against hard-line status quo defenders in what could wind up as a splitting of the party. Since the hard-line elements constitute the bulk of the deadwood and sclerotic elements within the PAP, it is quite possible, given the outcome of this election, that reformists will gain control of the party and move to accommodate moderate opposition views in a grand coalition strategy designed to help preserve their hold on power after 2016.

But that is precisely why this election constitutes a pre-conditioning critical juncture that will set the stage for the next one. Processes of authoritarian regime liberalization tend to be “two-steps forward, one step backwards” affairs. The regime opens a little, the opposition pushes further than what is acceptable to the regime, and the regime pushes back. Confronted with a rising tide of opposition success and grassroots mobilizations against one-party rule that cannot be contained with selective application of the ISA and the usual use of defamation and non-assembly laws, the PAP regime will therefore be forced to opt for one of two paths: repress or reform. Its previous preferred strategy of cooptation will no longer work.

This is important to consider because the reformists constitute a minority of the current PAP leadership. The PAP status quo–many of who have held their sinecures for more than a decade–control the levers of government and retain the loyalty of the armed forces (which have internal security and regime protection as well as external defense roles). Thus, even if there are internal tensions within the armed forces between “professional” and “political” officers (the former focused on the technical merits of soldiering and the latter concerned with career advancement via political linkages), and its leadership sclerosis is profound, the PAP can, if it wants to, halt the process of social and political opening any time it wishes. Because it still has a reservoir of support in the so-called (ethnic Chinese) “heartland,” the regime can push back without incurring major backlash.

This is not to say that there will not be any. Singaporeans are largely a passive and conformist society, so a move to repress or politically back-peddle will not be met with mass demonstrations akin to those of the Middle East today or Latin America in the past.  But even if they acquiesce to the retrogression, the third generation of Singaporean voters will not consent to a return to the days of arrests for jaywalking, fines for chewing gum and imprisonment or bankruptcy for reasonable (unarmed) dissent. Instead, they will engage in passive resistance and low-level protests with increased grassroots mobilization over the internet, including social media and other hard-to-filter communications vehicles. Since Singapore is an extremely “wired” society that depends on its telecommunications capabilities for much of its daily business, Chinese-style censorship will be very hard to maintain even though the government controls the telecommunications duopoly through which all internet access is filtered (I will not digress into the reaction of foreign actors to any such retrogression but suffice it to say that it will not be entirely supportive).

All of this means that the PAP is staring at the beginning of the end in this election. The opposition has organized, mobilized and taken advantage of the limited political space afforded to it by the manipulated electoral system. The PAP has reacted slowly and awkwardly to the opposition’s energetic display. It therefore sits on the horns of a dilemma: accept that power sharing is inevitable over the short term and rotation in government office is quite possible within a few years (or at least much sooner than expected), or use its election victory to reassert its political supremacy, by force if necessary, over pretenders to its throne. That will influence the context in which the power struggles following Lee Kuan Yew’s death will occur, which in turn will determine whether or not the slow process of authoritarian liberalization will continue or be halted. At that point the moment of truth will have arrived for a country struggling with its identity as a modern bridge between East and West.

>> A different version of the essay appears as this month’s “A Word from Afar” column at Scoop.

Tactical Utu in a Strategic Quagmire.

datePosted on 16:31, April 22nd, 2011 by Pablo

News that the NZSAS conducted a raid against those responsible for the death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell last August should come as no surprise. Although Wayne Mapp once again dissembled in public about the purpose of the raid, which resulted in the deaths of nine Taliban and reportedly eight civilians due to stray fire from close air support (not the NZSAS), the point of the exercise was threefold: to exact utu on those who killed a NZ soldier; to provide a deterrent for other such directed attacks against NZDF personnel in Bamiyan province; and to send the message to the Taliban in neighbouring Baghlan province (from where the attack on Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol was organised and carried out) that Bamiyan is off-limits. The raid was personal: it let NZ troops in theater as well as adversaries know that the NZDF takes very seriously fatal attacks on its personnel, and will respond accordingly (that is, symmetrically if not overwhelmingly).

This is, quite frankly, an axiom of combat that serves good tactical purpose. After all, the Taliban are a fighting and revenge-minded culture, so failure to reply in kind and in timely fashion to the IED  and small arms fire ambush of Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol would have been perceived as a sign of weakness and invited more and larger attacks. However, the question remains as to whether the SAS utu raid serves the larger strategic interests of the ISAF coalition of which the NZDF contribution is part. The answer, unfortunately, is in the negative.

I shall leave aside the fact that John Key said in 2009  that the NZSAS was deployed in a “training and mentoring” role for the Afghan Army counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) based in Kabul,  and that it would not be engaged in combat operations. I shall also leave aside the fact that Mr. Key has continued to say that the SAS would not lead any raids but instead, as part of its mentoring role, “accompany” Afghan troops into battle when needed. Yet the raid against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was led by the SAS in concert with US troops and air cover, with only a supporting role delegated to Afghan Army units.

Perhaps the fiction of the NZSAS non-combat role is needed for domestic political cover, although it seems to me that Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp are either deluded or have contempt for the public’s understanding of what the SAS does for a living. But the real issue is whether employing the SAS outside of its publicly acknowledged remit serves the strategic objectives of the ISAF coalition. There again, the answer is less comforting than the tactical success of the utu raid.

The fact that in the aftermath of Lt. O’Donnell’s death and the utu raid the NZDF has deployed a half dozen Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Bamiyan as reinforcements for the Humvees and armoured Hiluxes that the NZDF use when on patrol suggests that the raid did not necessarily improve the security of those patrols. That in turn means that the strategic situation, at least as it mircrocosmically plays out in Bamiyan, has not improved as a result. Moreover, because the LAVs are up-armoured (i.e. reinforced) and wheeled, they cannot be used on the narrow goat tracks and other pathways crisscrossing the mountains of northeast Bamiyan where Lt. O’Donnell was killed (along the border with Baghlan), so they are designed for use in flatter districts closer to the PRT headquarters. This means that after eight years of doing reconstruction work in Bamiyan, the security situation has gotten worse not better, and that is not entirely due to Taliban cross-border raids emanating from Baghlan.

In sum, the SAS search-and-destroy mission against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was an efficient, calculated and deliberate act of utu that serves as a morale-booster for NZDF troops on the ground as well as those who in the future will deploy to hostile theaters. It gives the tactical enemy some food for thought and a measure of pause before it commits resources to attacks on the NZDF. But it does not, and cannot improve the strategic balance between the Taliban and ISAF. That is only important because in a conflict between irregulars fighting on home soil against a modern conventional military coalition, a military stalemate favours the irregulars.  If the military stalemate continues without political resolution, then the odds increase that the irregulars will prevail. Tactical success in a strategic quagmire, in other words, means little in terms of the long-term picture. Since ISAF is committed to withdrawing the bulk of its troops by 2014, all the Taliban have to do to ensure their long-term goals is harass ISAF forces as they prepare to depart while cementing the Taliban position as alternative sovereigns-in-waiting.  

All of which means that, utu reprisals notwithstanding, there is a distinct possibility of more NZDF casualties so long at the strategic balance in Afghanistan remains deadlocked or favourable to the Taliban.

Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp would do well to ponder this fact, and to be more honest in their public pronouncements about the SAS mission.

Pagani and polls

datePosted on 21:47, April 19th, 2011 by Lew

I’ve been very busy, and had no time to thrash over John Pagani’s rather remarkable outbursts in defence of his tenure as the Labour party’s chief strategist, which ended a few weeks ago. Lots of commentary, but the best is by Danyl once, and again; Scott, and Eddie. Read the comments too.

I’ll not go into great detail, except to reiterate that the problem with Labour’s narrative — which John was presumably involved in constructing — has been that it lacks cohesion and a distinct, authentic character of its own. The song of the Labour party has failed to ring out these past two and a half years, it turns out, because John Pagani has been counselling his choir to mumble along to the prevailing tune, on the assumption that that’s the song the electorate wants to hear.

But how would he know? When Scott Yorke suggested that dismissing Danyl and Eddie as ‘trolls’ was an attempt to silence his critics rather than engage with the substance of their critique, Pagani tweeted “If only I could silence them.” That, right there in less than half a tweet, is in my view the root cause of the Labour party’s malaise. The predominant attack narrative which saw Clark Labour ejected from office in 2008 was ‘out of touch’, and I wrote in September 2009 that the way forward was for the party to start listening to the electorate again. John disagrees. I’ll let his record, currently illustrated by the 3 News Reid poll which puts Labour on 27.1% of the party vote, with 78% of the electorate believing the party cannot win the forthcoming election, speak for itself.*

John appears not to believe that a successful political movement needs to lead public opinion, rather than simply following it, and needs to be willing to alienate some people to that end. But most crucially it must listen to them. This was exactly the course of action advocated by Labour insider Jordan Carter back in January 2010:

Our task this year, to be blunt, is to listen to what people have been saying, and to go beyond listening, and into reflecting back the things we are hearing and seeing what people think. Instead of listening and saying “that’s nice”, we have to say, “we’ve heard you and this is what we think.”

Jordan was recently named on the Labour list at #40, which on current polling is sadly outside the running for a seat. But the party could do a very great deal worse than Jordan as a strategist; though who would want that job right now I can’t quite imagine.

Someone else who has been making sense on this topic is Matthew Hooton, who endorsed Eddie’s take in comments on The Standard post linked above. There’s a discussion about opinion polling in the comments to that thread as well, in which ak raises the fact that widespread reporting of poll results can influence turnout and voter choices. People like to back a winner, the reasoning goes.

Well, yes — but a couple of things: first, the ‘poll effect’ favours leaders, not one side in particular. The left has benefited from this in the past, it’s a bit churlish to complain about it now. Secondly, regarding the argument that landline-only polls favour conservative parties. There’s a good point here. Yesterday in the NatRad politics slot Hooton was pooh-poohing the landline bias, arguing various sorts of anecdata to say he didn’t think it made a difference. I’m aware of no rigorous research on this topic in NZ, and since (I believe) all the major polls are landline-only, it’s largely moot (polls are mostly useful as sources of continuous, compatible data — a known set of methodological distortions — and screwing with polling methodology breaks that). But Pew Research did study this in the US context late last year, and found a 6-point bias in favour of the Republican party in landline-only polls, compared to those which included cellphones. So it rather seems to me that the onus is on those who reckon there’s no bias to explain why and how the NZ context differs from the US context. I’m sure it could be done, but it’d take a good deal more than Matthew Hooton’s anecdotal waffling about how if pollsters want to reach him, they’ll have to call him on his cellphone.

L

* There’s every likelihood this is a rogue; but let’s not pretend that the trend is much more rosy.

Ending my academic career.

datePosted on 22:20, April 15th, 2011 by Pablo

This is a personal note. I have finished classes at the National University of Singapore, ending my visiting professorship at that institution. Although I have some marking to do before I wind things up at NUS, it looks to be the last time that I will grace a classroom. Rather than with a bang, I am going out quietly (although not quite whimpering). The moment is bittersweet.

Some detractors and malicious rumor-mongers notwithstanding, I have generally had very good evaluations by students in the four countries in which I have taught. I have also enjoyed having the library access and other support that goes with university employment, which has allowed me to research and write on over a dozen issues and countries spanning the fields of comparative and international politics. The output has been good–3 books, over 50 scholarly articles, chapters, reviews and monographs, more than 120 opinion and editorial essays and a a swag of nice fellowships, including Fulbright, Heinz, Tinker and Kellogg research fellowships as well as an Asia-Pacific Rim University fellowship the year before Auckland dispensed with me. All in all it was a decent ride (to say nothing of comparable with what passes for the best of contemporary NZ political scientists) and I still have research and writing projects to complete that will keep me busy after my return to NZ in June.

What I am less thrilled about is having to leave academia in the first place, which is a result of my contratemps with Auckland University. That resulted in my de facto blacklisting in NZ academia and a besmirching of my reputation abroad.  I have applied for over 30 academic positions, including twice at Otago and three times at Victoria, without even making it past the first round in spite of being amply qualified for all of the listings (some at universities of less repute when compared to the ones I have taught at and with academic staff with far less credentials than mine (NUS is placed 30 places above Auckland in international rankings). The fact that I was eventually vindicated in my employment dispute, and found to be correct in my assessment that the student excuse that led to my unjustified dismissal at the hands of the current Auckland University management turned out to be, as I suspected, a ruse rather than a verifiable fact, matters little now. My name has been sullied to the point that I am no longer employable in my chosen and long-held (25 years) career. I often wonder if I have a case for defamation given that I was called a racist and a few other choice epithets in the aftermath of the email exchange that led to my dismissal (those accusations still circulate on the internet and were mentioned by NUS officials when they initially cancelled my visiting professorship, only to relent when I won the ERA case). What I cannot undo is my (admittedly rude) email, the reaction of NZ university managers when they see my name, or the internet-generated taint associated with it.

Some readers may see my revisiting of this theme as whinging, and it is, a bit. But my reflection is also about comparative loss and gains: I have been ejected from academia while the duplicitous student and university managers were rewarded for their unethical behavior. People like Tony Veitch and Paul Henry (to say nothing of a bunch of email abusers) do worse things and keep their careers. That sucks, for me in particular but also as a general principle.

I am fortunate to have a partner who has secured an academic position in NZ so that we can return, and that I have enough political risk consulting experience to start a dedicated consultancy along those lines, the first such in NZ, as an alternative. But I remain wistful about the classroom door closing. The class was, for me, a moment in which I could reveal another persona, one far more extroverted than my usual self, in order to communicate the language, concepts and importance of politics to undergrad and grad students. It was a wonderful moment when I got out of my skin and put the full emotive weight into my feelings about politics. It was a moment when I relived what I did in past lives and what I hoped for the future. It was, in sum, a moment that I could not capture, nor would I expect would be accepted, outside the classroom. Taken together over the course of more than two decades, those are moments that I relish and which I will miss, and which I believe I should have been allowed to enjoy for years to come.

As for students, I can only say that the top ten percent of undergrads in any country that I have taught are world class, the bottom ten percent should not be at university, and the rest divide out according to how hard they work. NZ students were, I hate to say it, particularly lazy and prone to lame excuses about their failure to meet obligations and fulfill assignments, something that foreign exchange students picked up on and elaborated–a syndrome that eventually did me in.

For the record, I should note that the NZ student excuses–95 percent of which were offered the day before, the day of, or after the assignment was due, with no proof of any work done on the assignment (which I made a point of requesting to see if progress towards completion had been made)–were culturally and nationality-driven: Pakeha and white exchange students offered computer and relationship failures as the reason for the failure to complete on time; Pacific Islanders, Asian and Middle Easterners offered family tragedies as the excuse (as a comparative cultural aside, the main excuse of NUS students is food poisoning, given the Singaporean national penchant for eating at unhygenic outdoors food hawker stalls. The trouble is that 10 percent of the student population comes down with food poisoning on the same week at the end of the semester, and they all did eat not in the same place. That is statistically improbable, especially when repeated year after year like the NZ excuses).

In 99 percent of the cases the student offered no proof of the excuse, and as it turns out, because of the volume of students with excuses given towards the end of the semester, the university health centre at Auckland does not bother asking for them for proof of bereavement or physical or emotional distress before issuing medical and mental health certificates. University Health just accepts the student’s word as to the ailment, in concert with the amount of extension requests increasing 100-fold during the last week of classes or exam week. In other words, ask for a medical or mental health certificate for an extension early in the semester, one might be asked for proof. Ask for a mental health or medical certificate at the end of the semester when the rush of extension requests is on, then no proof is required. There is a claim of right in this process, and it is perverse.

Phrased politely,  the extension-issuance system at Auckland U. is being gamed, and the university managers actively connive in the play because the point of the university is to keep fees-paying “consumers” happy regardless of academic merit (As things turned out, no mental health certificate was ever presented by the student involved in my case).

This may be an uncomfortable fact for people to deal with, but it gives an idea of the pressures lecturers (and university health professionals) are faced with when it comes to marking in a “bums in seats,” profit-before-quality educational atmosphere. As for the serious students–they always alerted me as soon as possible to a family or personal problem, showed me the work they had begun on the assignment, and inevitably were granted an extension that was fair to them as well as the rest of the class. 

Whatever the case, the vast majority of students, be it in the US, NZ, Singapore or Chile (where I taught briefly as a visitor), were responsive to what I had to say and what I was trying to convey. Which is why I am left with this: if any of the 5000+ students I have taught has left my classes informed about something that they did not know before they entered the class, then I did my job. If they went on to inform their lives with some of that knowledge, that is icing on the cake.

I suspect I have left some icing on the cake.

Spying on Mosques.

datePosted on 18:36, April 11th, 2011 by Pablo

Over the weekend the SST published a story about a NZ-born wanna-be jihadi turned NZSIS informant. I have some knowledge of the larger story behind the SST piece, with combines elements of the fantastic with the plausible. One of the plausible allegations is that the NZSIS and NZ Police spy on mosques. We should not be surprised.

Even before 9-11 it is quite possible that the NZSIS and/or GCSB were involved in monitoring suspected Islamic radicals with NZ connections. Several al-Qaeda operatives have been reported to have visited NZ (allegedly using business visas) and others–such as the Yemeni flat mate of one of the 9-11 hijackers–have allegedly entered using student visas. 

After 9-11 and the Madrid and London bombings, a full court press was employed by Western intelligence agencies and their allies to ferret out home grown jihadis and Islamicist sympathisers. This broad sweep approach led to a number of excesses with regard to the detention of innocents and others deemed guilty by association, of which the Zaoui case is just one local instance. The focus on jihadism also gave agencies like the NZSIS a new lease on life after the post-Cold War doldrums, something that provided it with an incentive to increase its intelligence flows to larger liasion partners such as the US, Australia and the UK.  That includes reporting on the  movements of suspected jihadists and sympathisers at home.

Regardless of the realities of the jihadist threat scenario in Aotearoa (which by all accounts is negligible), both the NZ government and its security apparatus had –and have– a vested interest in keeping that focus alive, as it is a guarantee for better funding for intelligence agencies, increased legal authority covering intelligence-gathering operations, and close working relationships with larger allied intelligence patrons. Counter-terrorism, in other words, is a gravy train for the intelligence and security community.

Not all of the focus on potential Islamicists in NZ is illusory. One of the Urewera 18 is a well-known pro-Palestinian activist who has spoken of his interest in fighting the occupiers in Gaza. He associates with others connected to groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine who openly express (at least within their own circles), support for the jihadist cause and other forms of anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist armed resistance. There are a number of Somalian refugees who have been suspected of harboring jihadist sympathies and the resident Muslim community, at around 35,000 strong, is believed to contain more than a handful of people with extremist views. Afghans, Algerians, Iraqis and Iranians have all come under scrutiny by local law enforcement. None of this means that any of the above-mentioned are intent or capable of committing terrorist acts on NZ soil or abroad. What I am simply saying is that it is an open secret that they are being watched. 

More broadly, the Muslim community has internal political divisions that have resulted in charges and counter-charges of radicalism, reports to the police and even the deporation of at least one “radical” cleric. These machinations provide fertile ground for intelligence operators.

This is the backdrop to NZSIS and Police mosque-spying. It is well known that these agencies use paid and unpaid informants as well as undercover agents to monitor domestic groups of other dissident persuasions such as environmentalists and anti-free trade campaigners. It should therefore be no surprise that they would want to do the same in the Muslim community, and that they would focus on major community meeting places in order to do so.

The only real obstacle to such espionage is the lack of “passable” Muslims within the NZ intelligence community (which is not as white as many may think–it has plenty of Pacific Island and Asian officers). Thus it is quite plausible that the NZSIS and Police would seek to recruit from within the local Muslim community, exploiting personal grievances, political rivalries, financial difficulties and general disaffection as a means of gaining leverage on or winning the trust of potential informants.

The pity, of course, is that an entire community is being placed under surveillance because of the perceived “threat” that emanates from within it. No such monitoring appears to have been done to detect IRA sympathisers amid the local Catholic community or in synagogues to detect Israeli agents (at least two of which are now known to have been recently operating in NZ). It is the misfortune of the NZ Islamic community to be caught up in a larger game in which they are mere pawns.

At the end of the day the mosque-spying program is not surprising, nor should it be. It is just a manifestation of what intelligence agencies do, and to be frank, most non-Muslim Kiwis would probably expect that the NZSIS and Police keep tabs on suspected domestic Islamicists. What is surprising is the ineptitude of the whistle-blower’s NZSIS handlers, who rather than provide him with a secure income and better cover dropped him like a bad habit once his services were deemed to expendable. At a minimum they could have exchanged a monetary pay out for a non disclosure agreement. But they did not, leaving an aggrieved former informant on the streets with no restriction on what he can say. Unless he is a complete fantasist that the NZSIS and Police had no relationship with beyond an initial set of assessment contacts (at which point he was deemed to be unreliable), the handling of this informant has been slipshod.

That, in the spy trade, is a an own-goal of epic proportions because, unless his story is complete fiction, the informant has knowledge of sources, methods and operational focus–all of which could well be on its way to being made public in the near future.

The options for the NZIS are to ignore the informant’s claims and hope that he shuts up and goes away, to attempt to denigrate him as a story-teller (to include using third parties for said purposes), to intimidate him, even if via the Police or private agencies (which appears to have already occurred since he claims that Police have raided his home after he went public and that a detective has informed him that his SST revelations could result in charges), and as a last resort, silence him with extreme prejudice. Since the latter is a Mossad rather than NZSIS forte, it will be interesting how the rest of this story plays out because at least some of the informant’s claims have been corroborated.

One thing is certain: the mosque spy campaign and domestic anti-jihadist project have taken a blow and it will now be much harder for local intelligence agencies to obtain information on any real Islamicist threats that may exist on local shores. Because even if this individual is a liar, that does not mean that there are not others working as informants along the lines he has outlined, who will therefore be the subject of much closer scrutiny by their co-religionists as a result of this story.

Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys Go Troppo.

datePosted on 15:35, April 10th, 2011 by Pablo

Who would have thunk it? The country vilified by US neo-imperialists as cowardly appeasers of dictatorship a few years ago has now morphed into an avid neo-imperialist of it own. France is currently engaged in three low intensity conflicts, in Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and Libya, and has taken a leading role in two of them (Ivory Coast and Libya). All three military interventions are wars of choice rather than necessity (since no core French strategic interest is at stake) authorised by UN Security Council Resolutions that were championed by France as a UNSC permanent member (people may not know it but the resolution to enforce a “no fly” zone in Libya was sponsored by France, the UK and Lebanon. The US merely voted in favour. Although it is obvious that diplomatic machinations were/are at play, the very fact that the US is willing to take a back seat on the issue–as it did with the Ivory Coast resolution–perhaps indicates that it has rediscovered the art of diplomatic nuance after years almost a decade of Fox-news style bully approaches to international politics).

More interestingly, although domestic support for French involvement in Afghanistan is low (the French have lost 40 troops in that mission), popular approval of the Ivory Coast and Libyan interventions is high. Only minority Left and Islamic groups have spoken out against them; all others have essentially agreed to the use of force.

It is worth pondering why this is. Most analysts claim that the French military adventures were ordered by President Nicolas Sarkozy as a way of of bolstering his sagging electoral support in the build up to the April 2012 national elections (a fact confirmed not only by Sarkozy’s popularity rating of below 30 percent but also by the resounding defeat suffered by his UMP party in nation-wide local elections held last month–a defeat that saw the UMP not only lose to the Socialists but also to the far-right National Front). Thus his war-mongering is seen as a way of shoring up conservative-nationalist support in the face of the National Front challenge, something also seen in the anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant tone of his proposed amendments to internal security and civil rights legislation.

What is also interesting is the French public attitude, which appears to celebrate the resurgence of French militarism. Perhaps it s due to a sense of re-claimed national glory. Perhaps it is due to a sense of reaffirming France’s pride of place within the European community (where it has been eclipsed by Germany once again) or even vis a vis the US. Perhaps it speaks to a sense of French manifest destiny, now re-written. But contrary to many other countries that have sizable anti-war movements protesting their government’s involvement in foreign military adventures, in France there is little enthusiasm for protest of this sort. The majority of the French, it seems, are happy to support neo-imperialism. Either that, or they may have spent too much time in the sun.

It is further of note that France’s bellicosity has not met with the wave of international condemnation that often greets US militarism. This could be due to the fact France’s armed interventions have the UN “seal of approval,”  are justified on humanitarian grounds and/or tend to occur in former colonies or where it has had a historical presence. Perhaps it is due to the relatively small scale and scope of their operations. Perhaps it is due to more international tolerance for French military adventurism than for US armed interventions. Whatever the reason, it appears that at home and abroad the French turn to foreign military adventurism has more support than is the case for other large powers.

In France, this speaks to the idiosyncracies of local political culture. In the international arena it may reflect a common belief that some nation other than the US needs to assume a global constabulary role, even if as a deputy sheriff. Whatever the reason, it looks like the French are cheese eating surrender monkeys no more. Oh, to be a fly on Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s wall!

NZPA no more

datePosted on 22:04, April 6th, 2011 by Lew

Fairfax has killed the New Zealand Press Association, after more than 130 years of service providing straightforward, unsensational, generally independent bread-and-butter journalism to news outlets around the country. I’ve no heart to give a lecture on the importance of the role the agency played or the circumstances of its demise, so just read Karl du Fresne’s excellent backgrounder to this move, written last year. If you want an approximation of my views on the matter, reread some of my recent commentary on the NZ media — particularly the bits where I argue for competition through diversity — and then imagine a future without anyone to do the ‘heavy lifting’ of day-to-day news reporting, as Patrick Gower put it earlier today.

But I want to say a few things about the future. The fact is that something like the NZPA — some primary source for raw news — is needed. Press releases will continue to fulfil the role that they always have, and one immediate consequence of the end of NZPA is that journalists will now have to comprehend, research and rewrite PRs themselves or — depressingly — just publish them more or less verbatim. Either way, that means a decline in news quality and more churnalism.

So the media execs behind this decision who, in Danyl’s perceptive words, “probably don’t realise quite what they’ve destroyed” know this to an extent — they know at least that the stories have to come from somewhere. I assume that they are aiming to leverage the endless horizon of social media, which has the considerable advantage of being free. Twitter, I fear, will be the major replacement for NZPA in the immediate New Zealand context. Journalists already do this to an extent — probably a greater extent than they should. While social media is important, and its role in news production is a live topic worthy of considerable discussion, it’s not any sort of substitute for a rigorous newsmaking system.

For another thing, Fairfax is an Australian company. As well as owning a large chunk of the New Zealand newspaper market (and enthusiastically presenting syndicated Australian content in its titles here), it is almost-half owner of the Australian Associated Press, a newswire service whose core business is rather like that of the NZPA (though AAP has in recent years expanded its role). If the gap in the New Zealand media market is sufficient that remaining independent content-provision agencies — such as Scoop and BusinessDesk — are unable to comprehensively fill it, it seems likely that AAP will do so. Given the pressure already exerted by overseas — and particularly Australian — newsmaking imperatives on our media ecology in New Zealand, I can’t see AAP’s potential involvement as anything but deleterious.

L

Disclosure: I work for Media Monitors, which competes with AAP in the Australian market (though not in the provision of wire content). The views expressed here are very emphatically my own.

Another locked closet.

datePosted on 00:19, April 6th, 2011 by Pablo

The old saying that the two things one does not want to see being made are sausage and legislation comes to mind given that the Security Intelligence Amendment Bill public submission hearings commence this week (the first reading on the Bill was held in December, during the usual Xmas lull in which serious media scrutiny of pretty much anything unrelated to the season is negligible). Labour and the Greens wanted the submission hearings to be held in public, but the government has knocked that back and declared that they will be held in “private” ( that is, in secret). Although submitters can disseminate their submissions as they see fit, the content of the meetings, including questions by committee members and submitters, are subject to non-disclosure provisos. 

Regardless of the  subject of the hearings, which has to do with specifying the scope of SIS authority and the warrant process involved in conducting surveillance of new electronic technologies such as mobile phones, GPS systems and other gadgets, the failure to hold public hearings is yet another sign of the ingrained authoritarianism of the political elite and its disdain, if not contempt, for the pubic at large. For example, one of the reasons for the surveillance upgrade, according to the government, is the security concerns surrounding the Rugby World Cup. To use that as a rationale beggers belief and just shows the disconnect between the thinking public and what National believes the public will swallow (the reasons why the RWC is not going to be a terrorist target are many but suffice it to say that NZ security agencies have a vested bureaucratic interest in hyping the threat. And should they come, RWC threats will be of a local dissident-protest rather than terrorist in nature, and will not require anything beyond what is already in place in terms of warrants for electronic eavesdropping).

Labour’s call for public hearings is pretty rich given that during its term in office it never held a single one when it came to SIS matters. The Greens, as always when it comes to such things, stand on principle. What is interesting is that the Maori Party and ACT, which have members on the Intelligence and Security oversight committee that will chair the hearings, have sided with National on the issue of transparency–that is, they have opted for the closet rather than the open door when it comes to airing contending views on juxtaposed issues of national security and civil rights. What this says about the Maori Party and ACT leadership, given the targeting of the former’s members by the SIS and the supposed championing by the latter of civil rights, individual freedoms and governmental accountability, I am not not in a position to say. But what I can say is this: the move to hold the SIS Amendment Bill public submission hearings in private is designed to cover the fact that the oversight committee is going to disregard submissions against the granting of expanded surveillance powers to the SIS and will rubber-stamp the legislative changes in any event. There will be no incisive or critical questions offered by committee members with regard to how the electronic spying will be carried out, under what circumstances, for what purposes and with whom it will be shared. 

Instead, there will be a collective nod and wave by the majority of the committee behind closed doors, and the SIS Amendment Bill will pass. What is being protected is not state secrets, not confidential material, or anything remotely connected to national security. The reason the hearings will be held behind closed doors is to conceal the lackey lock-step into which the committee will fall. It is about saving coalition face in an election year rather than addressing the serious concerns of intelligence service power-expansion. That shallow political PR calculation is the sole reason why these hearings will be held in secret.

So much for informed public consent and parliamentary accountability when it comes to security and intelligence in this small democracy.