Singapore colludes with Burmese drug trafficking

In late 2002, 22 year old Nguyen Tuong Van was caught in possession of 14 ounces of heroin at Singapore’s Changi airport. Three years later, in December 2005, he was hanged in Changi prison for his crime. The incident served as a reminder to the rest of the world of Singapore’s brutal approach to drug crime, and provoked widespread outrage in Tuong Van’s native Australia, where the Canberra government made repeated requests for clemency. They were not listened to and, in a letter to his Australian counterpart, Abdullah Tarmagi, Speaker of the Singapore Parliament, said: “We have an obligation to protect the lives of those who could be ruined by the drugs he was carrying”.

It is curious, then, that high ranking Singaporean officials do not seem to maintain the same hard-line attitude when dealing with their Burmese counterparts. Drug  trafficking constitutes a huge part of the Burmese economy and some of the biggest names in this industry are granted free access to and from Singapore. The lack of money-laundering legislation in Singapore also means that Burmese drug barons can horde their drug money in underground bank accounts. The Singaporean government turns its back and instead concentrates on incarcerating and executing those merely caught in possession of illegal substances. But what exactly is the nature and extent of the Burma-Singapore drug set-up?

In the early 1990s, Lo Hsing Han controlled one of the most heavily armed drug trafficking organizations in South East Asia. He was arrested and sentenced to death in 1973, but freed in 1980 under a general amnesty. In 1992 he established Asia World, a multimillion dollar conglomerate of which he is still the chair.  His son, Steven Law, is in charge of its ‘overseas’ branches, many of which have heavy financial ties to Singapore. Law’s wife, according to high ranking US government officials, operates an underground banking system, used frequently by Burmese drugs traffickers and Asia World employees wishing to establish funds in Singapore. The question of how a company run by a drug baron could progress from bean trading to $200m projects in such a short space of time apparently did not occur to the Singapore government, whose ventures with Asia World are numerous and varied. To take just one example, Kuok Singapore Ltd, a partner of Asia World’s, invested over $650 million in Burmese real estate in the late 1990s, making it the country’s largest investor in that respect.  In fact, over 20 Singaporean companies feature on Asia World’s books, collectively providing it with a stream of revenue that has enabled the company to build up a massive drug trafficking infrastructure. A deep-water port in Rangoon, a $33 million toll highway from Burma’s poppy-growing region straight to the China border, and a wharf with freight handling and a customs yard that can accommodate ships carrying up to 15,000 tons of cargo are just a few of the expensive projects that have been completed in recent years. One senior US government official said; “Singapore’s investments in Burma are opening doors for the drug traffickers, giving them access to banks and financial systems”. Singapore, a country that hanged about 420 people for drug crimes between 1991 and Tuong Van’s death in 2005, is providing the bulk of Asia World’s investment, enabling the company to maintain its massive presence on the international drug smuggling scene.

And that’s not all. The Burmese military retook power in September 1988 in Rangoon, and marked the occasion by massacring hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in the streets. Singapore responded by starting shipments of weapons to Burma just a month later, with the first load of ammunition and guns being delivered on October 6.

As in any state or country ruled by an unelected militia, education and intellectual inquisitiveness are not encouraged amongst its citizens. In 1996, following student protests, the Burmese government shut down all colleges and universities. Singapore not only failed to criticise the action, but rather seemed to reward it: just two months later, the Singapore ambassador handed a substantial cheque to Gen. Khin Nyunt, chairman of the government  Education Committee for the “Myanmar Education Development Fund”. At that same ceremony of the Singapore Association in Myanmar, Khin Myunt told his listeners that “uplifting the educational standard of our people is one of the social objectives of our government”. If the black irony of that remark was registered by the Singaporean officials present, it did not curb their desire to offer financial support to Khin Myunt.

Abdullah Tarmagi’s talk of a social “obligation” to prevent drugs ruining lives, supposedly strongly felt by the Singaporean government, should be starting to look somewhat disingenuous and hypocritical by now. Singapore remains the 3rd largest investor in Burma, helping to maintain its peerless presence on the international drug trafficking scene, and there are no indications that it intends to hold the Burmese government to account. It has recently named a hybrid orchid, the national flower of Singapore, after Burma’s Prime Minister Thein Sein.