Singapore’s YouTubers Took on China Over Seized Armored Vehicles
Complicated political moves couldn’t stop the singing
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
It’s not every day an armored vehicle gets its own song — and for that song to become a national sensation.
But that’s what happened after the Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department seized nine Terrex armored vehicles belonging to the Singapore Army on Nov. 23, 2016. The eight-wheel, 25-ton armored personnel carriers sat in limbo for two months.
“Import, export and transshipment/transit of strategic commodities in breach of licensing requirement are criminal offenses punishable under the Hong Kong law, ” Hong Kong Commissioner of Customs and Excise Roy Tang stated at a press conference on Jan. 23, 2017. “The military vehicles and the associated equipment will be returned to Singapore through the carrier.”
The investigation could still lead to “criminal prosecution,” he added. But regular Singaporeans had already let their own feelings on the matter be known through a series videos on YouTube.
In short, they were pissed.
Had any other countries been involved, what happened in Hong Kong in November 2016 might not have amounted to much. The city’s customs department simply complained the commercial shipping carrier American President Lines lacked the necessary permits for transporting military hardware.
But the issue was anything but a bureaucratic screw-up.
The contingent of Terrex was on its way back to Singapore after participating in a military exercise with Taiwanese troops when the ship stopped at the Kwai Chung Container Terminal. The Chinese government sees Taiwan as a rogue province seeking independence.
“[China] is firmly opposed to any forms of official interaction between Taiwan and countries that have diplomatic relations with us, military exchanges and cooperation included,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said after the seizure. “We require the Singaporean government to stick to the One China principle.”
Singaporean Army Gen. Melvyn Ong insisted his country had transferred vehicles from exercises in Taiwan through Hong Kong since the 1990s without incident. On top of that, the private freighter had stopped earlier in its voyage in the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen without any trouble.
None of the Terrex had ammunition or sensitive equipment on board. Different versions of the vehicle do feature a combination of 7.62-millimeter machine gun and 40-millimter automatic grenade launcher, a .50 caliber machine gun or Spike anti-tank missiles.
Regardless, “they are protected by sovereign immunity, even though they were being shipped by commercial carriers,” Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen remarked earlier in January 2017. “This means that they are immune from any measures of constraint abroad.”
“They cannot legally be detained or confiscated by other countries,” he added. “Accordingly, we have requested the Hong Kong authorities to return our property immediately.”
Authorities in Hong Kong initially disagreed. “Investigations are ongoing and will require some time to be completed,” an official reply to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Yeung stated. In December 2016, customs officials moved the vehicles off the dock and into an indoor facility, implying the parties might not resolve situation quickly.
As the complicated political situation continued to play out, on the internet, regular Singaporeans made it clear they were not confused about what should happen next. On Jan. 10, 2017, Alvin Oon posted a cheesy karaoke-style video called “Give Me Back My Terrex Chia.”
The clip became a massive hit in the island nation, generating more than 400,000 views. On YouTube, Oon wails plaintively against the confiscation in Singlish — the English dialect unique to Singapore with words borrowed from Hokkien Chinese dialect, Malaysian and other languages. The Chia in the title means “car.”
A second YouTube hit by Lee Kin Mun, aka mr Brown, used the tune to the classic Chinese New Year song “Gong Xi, Gong Xi” to make a similar plea.
And, inevitably, there was a Terrex-themed version of the “Hitler speech” meme, remixing his rant in the movie Downfall with appropriate subtitles.
We don’t know how much of an impact — if any — these videos had on Hong Kong’s final decision to release the vehicles. We do know Singapore’s relationship with the government in Taipei rankles authorities in Beijing.
Singapore’s right-wing government, which combines what many would consider authoritarian tendencies with democratic elections, long had a close relationship with the Republic of China in Taiwan. In 1990, it became the last country in Asia to open diplomatic relations with the Communist government on the mainland.
Economic ties with China have expanded massively since then. Singapore itself is famous for being one of the “Asian Tiger” economies, with a per capita income slightly higher than that of the United States by the end of 2016.
But despite the rapprochement, the Singaporean Army didn’t halt military exchanges with Taiwanese forces. Since 1975, the two countries had conducted joint wargames in Taiwan, because Singapore lacked space for large maneuvers on its densely populated home island. Beijing has tried to entice Singapore into shifting to a closer training ground on Hainan Island.
Since 2015, China has also been cooperating with Thailand on construction of the Kra Canal. This development could possibly marginalize Singapore’s economy by allowing shipping to pass directly from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean without transiting through Singapore.
In theory, Singapore remains neutral in the multiple disputes regarding Beijing’s territorial claims over the South China Sea. However, Beijing is irritated by Singaporean rhetoric on the rule of law and the principal of freedom of navigation.
The Chinese also consider the stationing of U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes in Singapore as a sign it is firmly the U.S. camp. Many saw the seizure of the Terrex as a sign of displeasure from the world’s most populous country.
Tsai Ing-wen’s victory in Taiwan’s 2016 presidential election couldn’t have helped matters. Eight years earlier, incumbent Pres. Ma Ying-jeou called the Democratic Progressive Party politician an “independence fundamentalist.”
In December 2016, after his own election victory, then U.S. president-elect Donald Trump also called Tsai directly, breaking years of established protocol between Washington and Beijing. Chinese officials would have had clear reasons to make a larger political statement with the Terrex and to let the issue drag out.
However, one analysis argued the decision to impound the Terrex vehicles may have originated in Hong Kong. The seizure then forced Chinese officials to criticize the Taiwan-Singapore relationship it had long quietly ignored.
Singaporean diplomats insisted they would recover the Terrex — but wished to do so “quietly and out of the limelight” so as not to put relations with China in jeopardy, according to Hen, The decision to return the vehicles in the month of January — before the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, by which time all debts are settled in folklore — likely reflected both countries trying to put the differences behind them without losing face.
This would have been particularly important given the popular outrage on YouTube and elsewhere over Hong Kong’s actions. Whatever the reasons behind the incident, the spat did shine light on the web of conflicts and cooperation tying together nations on the South China Sea and on Singapore itself, a small country punching way above its weight in both economic and military power.
On Jan. 24, 2017, Singapore Foreign Ministry announced Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying’s had agreed to return the Terrex and other Singaporean military gear — a “positive outcome” to the dispute. Of course, the political jockeying hadn’t stopped the music.
So, while Singapore’s diplomats may prefer this softer approach, the country’s YouTubers — and by extension at least a portion of the country’s average citizens — have shown they will rush to at least sing fiercely in its defense.