K Shanmugam should refresh on Basic Law

K Shanmugam is one of Singapore’s most successful lawyers, enjoying a dual and very well paid role as law and foreign affairs minister, but yet appears unable to grasp the very real legal facts driving tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets of Hong Kong. Rather than painting a picture of “anti-China bias” in the “Western media”, he would do well to review the Basic Law of Hong Kong, which guarantees a democratic future for the Special Administrative Region and serves as the constitutional document for the former British territory. The people of Hong Kong have been promised democracy, but the Chinese Communist Party is denying them that right.

In Harmony with Beijing

K Shanmugam is a man well-known for choosing his words carefully. This time, carefully chosen or not, his words appear to be in perfect harmony with the line Beijing would like the world to believe on Hong Kong, democracy and Hong Kong’s Basic Law. The main point of contention is over claims that China is “denying democracy” to Hong Kong, a position which Shanmugam ascribes to the bogey man of “Western media” who he claims have displayed “lots of anti-China bias”. This is very disingenuous. In fact the Basic Law of Hong Kong describes very clearly that the people of Hong Kong are entitled to full universal suffrage in accordance with democratic principles. Furthermore, the Sino-British Declaration guarantees Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy on all matters except foreign and defence affairs – that means including autonomy on chosing their Chief Executive.

The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.

Article 45. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be directly under the authority of the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs which are the responsibilities of the Central People’s Government.

Section 3(2). Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong

Clearly Beijing is in breach on both points. The mechanism imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing is one where an undemocratic pro-Beijing committee will vet candidates for loyalty to Beijing before selecting a small number of those that pass to stand for election. A committee which only allows pro-Beijing candidates to stand is not “broadly representative” of Hong Kong. And a system where all candidates are screened for loyalty to Beijing is not “in accordance with democratic procedures”. Probably the best analogy for Singapore would be if candidates in the Presidential elections were vetted for loyalty to the PAP first – a system no one would see as democratic. So when people talk of China “denying democracy” in Hong Kong, they are right, and there is no “bias” from “Western media” or otherwise.

Furthermore, in imposing this undemocratic model of governance on Hong Kong, Beijing is also violating the Sino-British joint declaration. No one can see the promised “high degree of autonomy” on the question of local governance when the answer is being imposed by dictators two thousand miles away. And while Shanmugam may be right to say that what has been imposed on Hong Kong is more than they had under the British, this is either a smoke-screen, or a historical curiosity at best. The people of Hong Kong are angry because promises of future democracy have been broken by the Chinese government.

K Shanmugam as a member of the PAP would do well to understand what drives tens of thousands of citizens of an undemocratic nation out onto the streets in protest. And as Foreign Minister he would be well advised not to undermine Singapore’s standing in the world, not to mention in the minds of the residents of Hong Kong, by supporting the untenable position that Beijing is acting in accordance with Basic Law. Finally, as a lawyer, he should refresh on the meaning of Basic Law and the joint declaration and understand that Beijing is in breach of both. He must be smart enough to do so. The only question is why, in spite of that, he prefers to speak in harmony with Beijing.


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8 responses to “K Shanmugam should refresh on Basic Law

  1. wayfarer

    You might be interested in this article by Chris Patten on Hong Kong’s legal situation:

    “What China promised Hong Kong in Sino-British Joint Declaration”


  2. wayfarer

    This is not the first time K. Shanmugam has been disappointing in wording his statements.

    Last year, he praised Malaysia’s rigged general election as a “good win” for Najib (article here: http://bit.ly/Zr4ELe). He also repeated the Malaysian government’s claims that it reflected “confidence in (Najib’s) leadership” and that the results reflected “deep polarisation” among races – both of which are falsehoods.

    Some Malaysians were furious. There were not a few who interpreted his statements as an endorsement of corruption and dirty tactics.

    However, he was certainly right that Najib’s win was good for Singapore. I suppose to him that is what matters most.

    But I had expected a foreign minister of lawyer background to have worded his statements more carefully, sensitive to concerns regarding truth and integrity of the situation.That does not require pontificating on the ethical failures of others.

  3. wayfarer

    I agree with your position – that China should honour its word and treaty obligations to Hong Kong.

    I’m not sure if Hong Kong would ever persuade Beijing to do that. As long as that is the case, Hong Kong must state clearly that the promises encoded in the Basic Law have not been fulfilled. Don’t let the wool be pulled over people’s eyes.

    It’s been touted by some – like Shanmugam – that “Beijing’s proposal is “more than what Hong Kong ever had under the British” . Or that it’s better to be under China with a limited democracy, than be colonized by the British with no democracy. Such disingenuous claims are only made possible by logical fallacies.

    Democracy should be rightly viewed as a means to an end – it is the ends which matters (a point sometimes forgotten by pro-democracy advocates). Hong Kong under Britian was permitted a greater range of civil liberties – freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of belief and expression. All these might be encoded in law, but law can be re-interpreted or rewritten – and the fact is that these liberties have been significantly threatened under Beijing’s rule.

    In short, it is fallacious to assume that all dictatorships are alike. The British dictator might have been condescending, but his style was very different to that of Beijing. The British Empire was such a successful enterprise, in part due to the sensibility they exercised to native cultures and local demands (in many regions of the empire, but not all).

    Apart from civil liberties, Cantonese language and Cantonese culture are also under threat. Many Hong Kong schools have changed to using Mandarin as the medium of instruction. In Guangdong, most TV programs are no longer aired in Cantonese. Even before Beijing decreed this, the Cantonese dialect was already losing traction among the younger generations in Guangdong.

    Unlike British colonial rule, the Beijing government has a more extensive agenda when it comes to Hong Kong. A large part of it involves unifying the nation – that means conforming Hong Kong to China (language, culture, sub-ethnic demographics).

    Wouldn’t a more diverse China be more interesting and render national life more colourful? But such a China would also be more difficult to control.

    I think a SCMP.com comment summarized it aptly – “I think many Hong Kongers seem to forget is that today’s Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong, is not even the Hong Kongers’ Hong Kong.”

    • Really agree very strongly with what you have written here. Especially about civil liberties. Hong Kong has a lot of non-voting freedoms that mainland China does not, and these are under threat. Which is the reason hundreds of thousands took part in the civil voting exercise a few months ago, and why the head of HK law society was voted out recently. I touched on some of this at the end of my last post – “Can Singapore take the next step?”.

    • wayfarer

      Too bad for Hong Kongers – gone are the days when the British could enforce treaties on China with guns and warships!

  4. Alan

    Isn’t they way they pre-select the HK Chief Executive the same as how they select candidates for our President ?

    Obviously politicians in power are too cunning, aren’t they ?

  5. Pingback: K Shanmugam should refresh on Basic Law | SING ...

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