Tell me another: alternative facts about the return of Singapore’s military vehicles

Yonden Lhatoo can’t help feeling that Hong Kong came out looking the worst at the end of the row over the seizure of Singapore’s military vehicles in transit

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 July, 2017, 8:55pm

I felt like I had stepped into the twilight zone this week when Hong Kong’s customs chief categorically denied that Beijing had any hand in the seizure of the Singaporean military’s precious armoured vehicles.

The nine Terrex troop carriers were impounded in transit two months ago at a container terminal – as they were being shipped back to Singapore following a joint military exercise in Taiwan.

Hong Kong to return seized armoured vehicles to Singapore

This sort of exchange between the city state and the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province has been going on for decades, uninterrupted. Frowned upon, but tolerated. So it was only natural for everyone to assume that there was a point Beijing wanted to make through the sudden precision bombing of this route by Hong Kong customs.

Watch: Events leading up to the seizure of Singaporean troop carriers

The underlying message in Beijing’s reaction to Tuesday’s announcement that Hong Kong would send the vehicles back to Singapore was as obvious as Chinese government-speak can get – that the issue of Taiwan was the core interest of China and no nation should have any official ties with the island.

But here in Hong Kong, we had to watch a bit of a Mickey Mouse show, as Commissioner of Customs and Excise Roy Tang Yun-kwong explained that the whole brouhaha was exclusively to do with a suspected breach of local import, export and transshipment law – which is fine in itself – and Beijing had no input whatsoever – which is a bit of a hard sell.

Hong Kong denies Beijing role in seizure of Singaporean troop carriers

When asked if his department had to report to Beijing on the progress and decisions made during the entire two-month investigation, Tang replied: “No, we are a Hong Kong law enforcement agency. The authority of the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department is based on Hong Kong law. No other institutions have been involved.”

Brother, tell me another. I’m not really blaming Tang; after four years as director of broadcasting, which meant he was editor-in-chief of government station RTHK, he should know a thing or two about handling information. He obviously has to follow the official narrative, but making it sound like Beijing was not even consulted throughout is a bit of a stretch.

At the end of the day, China is Hong Kong’s sovereign, with the absolute authority to step in on national issues. And the seizure of the armoured vehicles, even if it was – cough – strictly a customs initiative with no other considerations, could still warrant the central government’s, shall we say, guidance, because there was a confrontation with another nation after all. And we are talking about military weapons, not moon cakes. What was wrong with taking such a stand right from the start? Other governments do it all the time. They also use “no comment” a lot.

Hong Kong seizure of armoured vehicles has taught us a lesson, Singapore’s defence chief says

Even Singapore, which has steadfastly maintained that the vehicles are its sovereign property and it’s illegal to detain them, made it sound like it was only about the Lion City and Hong Kong in expressing happiness over their impending return.

Did Hong Kong really have to come across as the dancer with two left feet to a global audience?

I guess pretences matter when it comes to maintaining the peace on an international level and it’s to everyone’s benefit that all three parties figured an amicable way out; but, at the end of this trilateral tango, did Hong Kong really have to come across as the dancer with two left feet to a global audience?

These are strange times we live in, where the truth is regularly sacrificed on the altar of the New World Order being shoved down our throats.

Thanks to US President Donald Trump’s spin doctors, we now know that there are facts and there are alternative facts.

But this is still Hong Kong. Alternative reality or twilight zone, let’s not lose our credibility as China’s most credible city.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post