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SINGAPORE-BURMA: Expose on Alleged Drug Links Rattles City State

Kunda Dixit

SYDNEY, Nov 21 1996 (IPS) - An Australian TV expose alleging financial links between a Singaporean government firm and a branded Burmese drug lord has embarrassed the strict city state, and made a maverick opposition leader in Singapore the target of ire.

‘Singapore Sling’ was an investigative report aired last month on the ‘Dateline’ programme of the domestic Australian TV channel, SBS, and was retransmitted last week by Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on its Asian satellite feed.

The programme said that the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) had sizeable investments in the Myanmar Fund in which an accused Burmese heroin kingpin close to the military is also said to have a stake.

SBS quoted Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan as saying that he was alarmed by the links between Singapore and the Burmese military junta, which is known by the acronym SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council).

Chee said: “Why we engage with the SLORC when they are in some way or another connected with drug trafficking that’s going on in Burma. And when drug traffickers pass through, come through Singapore, when they are caught, we hang them. It’s a moral question that I think we have to ask ourselves.”

Singapore is well known for its strict laws against drug- trafficking: people caught with as little as 15 grammes of heroin or 500 grammes of cannabis face capital punishment if convicted. So far in 1996, 35 drug traffickers have been hanged and 280 have been executed in the past two decades.

In the introduction to ‘Singapore Sling’, Dateline reporter Mike Carey says: “This programme is not about illegality, more about hypocrisy.”

In Singapore, Chee’s remarks on the Dateline programme have landed him in even more hot water than he already was.

Chee is secretary general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the most outspoken critic of the People Action Party (PAP) which has governed Singapore nearly unopposed for the past three decades. The SDP holds three of the four opposition seats in Singapore’s 81-seat parliament.

He had stood against Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in elections in 1992, and since then the government has hounded Chee, sacking him from his lecturer job at the National University of Singapore and suing him for defamation and contempt of parliament to the point that he had to sell his house to pay legal fees.

Goh described Chee’s remarks on the Australian television programme as a sign of disloyalty and said the opposition leader had “failed to instinctively defend the country”. Chee has also been attacked by Singapore’s state-controlled media for sullying the country’s international image.

In ‘Singapore Sling’, Australian reporters spent a year tracing GIC investments in the Myanmar Fund: following the paper trail from Singapore to Rangoon to Hong Kong to the Irish Stock Exchange in Dublin and the tax-free haven on the Channel Island of Jersey.

Singapore’s economic miracle has given the tiny nation a massive foreign exchange reserve estimated at anywhere between 80 to 100 billion dollars, much of it from the country’s compulsory pension savings.

The GIC is entrusted with investing these funds, and a lot of it goes to countries in the region — Vietnam, China, Thailand and India. It was the core shareholder in the Myanmar Fund when it was set up in 1994 to generate funds for Burma’s tourism infrastructure.

After Britain, the former colonial power, Singapore is the biggest investor in Burma (also known as Myanmar). According to Burmese government estimates, by the end of May 1996, approved Singaporean investments totalled 606.38 million dollars.

Soon after the Australian programme was aired, the Singapore government confirmed the GIC held 21.5 per cent stake in shares in the Myanmar Fund worth 10 million dollars, though the shares had been transferred from GIC’s name to another Jersey-registered company.

The Myanmar Fund is incorporated in Jersey, listed in the Irish Stock Exchange and it has stakes in hotel chains in Burma in which prominent Burmese businessman, Lo Hsing Han also has interest.

Lo Hsing Han and his son, Stephen Law have been tracked by U.S. and other anti-drug trafficking squads. In 1993, the Office of the Narcotics Control Board in Thailand described Lo as being protected by SLORC strongman Gen Khin Nyunt in drug running operations at Tachilek on the Golden Triangle region of the Thai- Burma border.

Law has been denied a visa to enter the United States because of his alleged involvement in narco-trafficking. But he has travelled frequently to Singapore.

Dateline showed that GIC had invested money in a Fund in which the Lo family had interest. It also indicated that the Myanmar Fund had given Lo Hsing Han options to buy 10 per cent of shares in a hotel venture in Burma, and the Fund itself had an option to buy 25 per cent of shares in another Lo-owned company.

The Singaporean government said the GIC’s dealings had been bona fide commercial transactions and there was “nothing mysterious” about it.

Yet, Australian journalists involved in the investigative report are intrigued that just six weeks after being named the major shareholder in the Myanmar Fund, the GIC name and the Singapore government no longer have any official links with it.

In another development, the Singaporean representative in the investment committee of Myanmar Fund, Taw Cheng Kong was charged earlier this month with eight counts of bribery worth 1.7 million dollars to investment GIC funds into preferred companies.

In a letter to SBS, the Singapore government said Dateline’s “innuendos are preposterous”, adding: “It is absurd to suggest that the GIC would undermine our efforts to keep Singapore drug- free by knowingly supporting or condoning activities connected with the illicit drug trade.”

In Sydney, SBS said the Singapore government had failed to answer the question about the Myanmar Fund’s links with Lo Hsing Han.

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