Saturday, August 29, 2009
By Lu Yuanbing
IT HAS been some time since I returned to China from Singapore where I had gone for studies. But I continue to cherish sweet memories of the island's clean and clear Singapore River.
Indeed, that river seems to have left an indelible mark in my mind, ever reminding me of the country's gentle people, its clean Government and the successes the Republic has achieved.
During my sojourn in Singapore, some of the stories that could be heard most often were about water.
Water can be formless yet it can also be powerful. Water droplets may well have no force but a torrent can wash away many things in its path. In fact, nothing can stop a rapidly shifting deluge. Likewise, Singapore's water story is a reflection of the character of its people.
Given its tiny land area, the importance of water to Singapore is very obvious. Its water supply comes from the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor under two water agreements signed before Independence. It has not been unknown for Malaysia to resort to using its water as a bargaining chip in cross-border talks with Singapore over a number of issues.
This vulnerability once posed a nasty headache for Singapore. Now, however, the Republic not only has a sufficient supply of water but it is even planning to turn this Garden City into a Water City.
This achievement is a tribute to the diligence and collective wisdom of its people. During the mid-1980s, the Government began regarding water as a strategic issue and thus gave it top priority. It spared no expenses in bringing in world-class talent to build new technologies that would make the desalination of sea water economically feasible.
Within a few years, the country had put in place an islandwide system of rainwater collection and Newater plants to recycle water. It has also succeeded in extracting fresh water from sea water. Thus, the country now produces 40 per cent of its own fresh water supply.
This means that, even as the world was grappling with water shortages, Singapore has succeeded in resolving its water problem by developing what is called membrane technology. This has turned it around from being a country held hostage by another over its water supply to one that the world now knows as a global water hub. Singapore now even provides water solutions centred on membrane technology to countries the world over. It has given birth to an industrial sector based on environmental technologies with clever branding and smart financing. When you think about it, this story is a veritable miracle. But then again, this island has wrought many a miracle in electronics, education and medicine.
Appropriately, the people of Singapore I came to know also have the gentleness of water. The Singapore River meanders its way through the city, carrying boats filled with tourists on a river cruise. Strolling along the banks of that river are Singaporeans as well as people from many countries and regions. While basking in the sunshine and relishing in its clear skies and fresh air, they also experience the harmony that thrives in this multicultural metropolis.
I came to the realisation that, in spite of their astounding achievements as well as the international exposure many Singaporeans have, its people are not at all arrogant. People of all races live in harmony.
There is peace and order in the city. The city exudes a certain calm and humility, even poise. A lot has to do with its Government that is as transparent as the Singapore River is clear. However, it was only after a visit to one of its museums showcasing local history that I came to know how, during British colonial rule, the river was utterly filthy and polluted.
Then dotted with boats where labourers toiled, the river emitted such a foul stench that people had to hold their noses from quite a distance away. After independence, the Government began to clean up the river assiduously.
Today, the river is clear and clean while the Government is just and transparent. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's former prime minister and currently its Minister Mentor, believes that the Republic's survival hinges on its political stability as well as incorruptible and efficient government officials.
To me, Singaporeans are fortunate. In 1996, MM Lee was accused of corruption. He had allegedly received discounts when purchasing property. MM Lee insisted that the Government investigate the matter and openly explained the facts in Parliament. It was established that the property developer had indeed given such discounts to all 'early bird' buyers. MM Lee once pronounced that the fact he was asked to explain his case in Parliament gave him hope for Singapore's future.
Granted there may still be some instances of corruption in Singapore today. However, guilty parties will certainly pay a hefty price for it. Though I have left Singapore for some time now, the imagery of its clean and clear river flowing quietly through this blessed city - and what that symbolises - remains vivid in my mind.
This is a translation of a column that first appeared in China's People's Daily on Monday.
[Yes, another glowing praise of Singapore from a foreigner. I can't help it. I like stories and impressions from outsiders - those that praise, as well as those that are constructively critical. For the constructively critical, the comments and criticisms should be based on actual experience rather than ideological armchair critique.]
TABLE TALK WITH SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGIST CLIVE KESSLER
By Cheong Suk-Wai
IN EARLY May 1969, Australian anthropologist Clive Kessler rode his motorcycle through Kelantan hamlets for 30km to the nearest telephone box. He then called his parents in Sydney and told them: 'You're going to hear about trouble in a few parts of Malaysia in the next few days, but not where I am.'
Sure enough, Malaysia's bloodiest civil strife erupted. Dr Kessler, who was then there to observe Islamist politics, had predicted it in an article he wrote to the press and in an interview he gave the Times of London in April 1969.
Now 67, the emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney has been a Malaysia watcher for more than 40 years and published prodigiously on it, including two books.
He had taught at the London School of Economics (LSE) and then Columbia University in New York city from the late 1960s till 1980. In that time, he worked closely with such lions in his field as LSE's Maurice Freedman and Raymond Firth as well as Princeton's Clifford Geertz.
He got in touch with me initially about my published review of his compatriot Anthony Milner's book, The Malays. In the review, I had wrongly attributed to Dr Kessler the view that if the Malay cannot make something of himself, he will try to bend others to his will. Dr Kessler was gracious about my unwitting error and we got to talking about Malaysia in Subang Jaya, Selangor, at the tail end of his two-month sojourn there recently.
You call yourself a cautious progressive. How far do you think Malaysia has come since 1969?
Malaysia has achieved a huge amount. That's undeniable. Yet, it could have done much more and much better. It's moved to a safe mediocrity.
How much are the 1969 race riots responsible for that?
I've never liked calling what happened in 1969 'race riots'. Of course there was inter-ethnic mayhem but it was a symptom of something larger - a regime crisis.
The problem was more than Malay poverty, disadvantage and resentment. It was the credibility of the political order that had produced, or failed to remedy, that sense of Malay marginalisation.
The New Economic Policy (NEP) was to remedy that, and had to be justified in terms of the 'special position' of the Malays. But with the return of electoral politics in 1970, powerful populist demands grew for the NEP's continuation, which was then used to justify the expansion of the notion of Malay rights and further entrenching of strong government.
Why are Malaysians marching in the streets these days?
They want a different kind of politics. They want to say this post-1969 political dispensation is exhausted, that it's being increasingly held together by intimidation and manipulation and even force, and that the Internal Security Act is central to that.
What's gone wrong, really?
The problem these days is that the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) and the whole state fashioned in its image can be seen as a glove made to fit one hand - Umno's - and not even its fingers work together. It lacks clear, convincing authority at the moment.
Why is that?
There is no simple answer. In many ways, the transformation of Malaysian and, in particular, Malay society, was the work of Umno itself. But it could not acknowledge and embrace the changes that it had itself unleashed with its policies. It was unable to loosen up its own political structures and approach.
What was so interesting and moving, yet also frightening, about March last year was the eruption of the various social changes unleashed by Umno for which the political system had itself become a strait-jacket. So these changes simply burst through and broke it.
How much needs to be fixed?
I am no prophet. I do not underestimate the difficulty and complexity of its problems. Its leaders are not delusional when they say things could go badly and if they do, society could turn upon itself.
At any time, Malaysia is subject to two inverse dynamics. First, continuing economic growth that is dependent on maintaining civil peace. Second, civil peace that is dependent on the continuation, or continued expectation of, uninterrupted economic development. If either cycle goes wrong, trouble is conceivable.
Malaysians are largely peace-loving, so how conceivable is that?
Malaysia's got the basis for progress and prosperity. But the basic problems of social cohesion, social and political accommodation and political trust, persist.
Why is that?
It goes back to the fundamental contradictions in Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad's Vision 2020, which was not an architect's blueprint from which to build but an amalgam of mutually incompatible elements.
It offered the image of an economically and technologically modern society, but failed to recognise that you cannot simply create a modern economy with modern technology and keep everything else pretty much unchanged.
So what has to change?
You need a modern pluralistic society of independent autonomous and active citizens - and a government that can accept rather than feel threatened by their vitality.
Why has Umno been slow to change?
It has wanted to keep the political world of deference, obedience, favour-seeking and gratitude.
Are you hopeful for Malaysia's future?
I'm not as hopeful as I used to be. Where I come from, it's pessimism and anxiety, not football and cricket, that are the national sports. Malaysia is now on a complicated course, and it is at a particularly bumpy stretch of the road.
Serious roadworks are needed along the way. I am not sure that the vehicle that the people are travelling in is well-maintained and still suitable to get them through all that they face.
Friday, August 28, 2009
At 8.22pm on Aug 9, Singaporeans here and abroad joined their hearts to make a commitment to the nation's aspirations. Fist over heart, they recited the country's pledge. It was a unique moment aimed at binding Singaporeans as 'one united people'. Like the pledge, the national anthem and flag are symbols of Singapore. How do they arouse in Singaporeans a love for this land we call home? Are there other Singapore icons that also touch our hearts? Insight finds out.
By Lynn Kan & Cai Haoxiang
IT'S about myth, metaphors and memories.
Historian Kwa Chong Guan, who recently co-authored a book on Singapore's history, says state symbols are of critical importance to a nation because they provide meaning and direction.
These symbols, he notes, embody signs that are 'pregnant with myth, metaphors and memories that have deep meaning for the citizens of the nation'.
He cites the lion as one such mythical symbol for Singapore. This symbolises Singapore as the Lion City, he notes, 'although we all know that there never were any lions in Singapore'. The British included the lion in the armorial bearings on shields because it stood for bravery.
Besides distinguishing Singapore from another country, symbols like the pledge, flag and anthem create a sense of belonging for the people.
At 8.22pm on Aug 9 this year, Singaporeans came together to pledge themselves as 'one united people'.
As Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reminded Singaporeans last week, the pledge came about in a period fraught with racial tension. The aspirations it contains envisage a time when racial tensions can be no more - when Singaporeans are united 'regardless of race, language or religion'.
From their school days, Singaporeans learn to recite the pledge in unison, right fist clenched over heart. They also sing the anthem, Majulah Singapura (Malay for Onward Singapore), as the red and white flag bearing the five stars and crescent moon is hoisted.
Mr Lawrence Anderson, a diplomat since 1988, identifies with these symbols because he grew up with them. He started Primary 1 in Anglo-Chinese School when Singapore gained its independence from Malaysia in 1965. He recalls scribbling the words of the pledge on a piece of paper to help him remember them.
'These symbols have been with me since the beginning. They bring memories of my friends and family, and of old Singapore. That's why they're meaningful,' he says. The 50-year-old is now director of the Foreign Ministry's Europe Directorate.
And it is not only those born and bred here who are moved by Singapore's national symbols.
For 40-year-old Perumal Moorthy, for example, the pledge resonates even though he did not grow up reciting it in school.
A naturalised citizen from India, Mr Moorthy likes how the pledge's message unites people, particularly newcomers, in Singaporean society.
'The pledge reminds us that we are living in a multiracial democracy. Every time you say 'regardless of race, language or religion', it reminds you that you are not alone,' he says.
Mr Kwa explains: Symbols foster a sense of belonging by connecting individual beliefs and experiences to something bigger than themselves.
Mr Moorthy came to Singapore from India in 1992 to pursue a graduate degree in engineering, and is today actively involved in grassroots work in his Bukit Panjang community.
He is an 'integration champion' - his task is to reach out to temporary workers and permanent residents (PRs), and invite them to community activities like Chinese New Year or Hari Raya dinners, briskwalking events and blood donation drives.
'PRs should not be isolated,' he says. 'Some people come here, they have no friends, they feel lonely, so you talk to them, help bring them closer to the community, make them feel at home.'
Stirring the spirit
NATIONAL symbols - whether visual like the flag, or in word and song like the pledge and anthem - stir up the patriotic spirit. In the movies, cavalry soldiers go into battle with national flag waving and bugles sounding the national anthem.
Jalan Besar MP Denise Phua, who also runs the Pathlight School for autistic children, says she feels 'proud and touched' every time she sings the national anthem.
'It reminds me of an underdog made good, of a small nation-state, unwanted and poor, which finally made it,' she says.
Sportsmen, such as national goalkeeper Lionel Lewis, also like the anthem for its uplifting tune and its message of striving onwards.
Whenever he sings the words 'semangat yang baru', or new spirit, he feels bound in spirit to the Singaporeans behind him and to his teammates.
'The national anthem really psyches me up. It motivates me because when I sing it, it reminds me that it's an honour to play for my country.
'When I sing the anthem, I feel closer to the team. It's like we're readying for battle, on the road to war. The whole country is behind you,' says the 26-year-old, who is a police staff sergeant when he is not playing football.
The anthem provides an auditory lift for many sports people, but it's the sight of the flying flag that is particularly poignant for 26-year-old national sailor Roy Tay.
At sailing competitions, the flag with the five stars and crescent moon is hoisted whenever he stands on the rostrum during the prize-giving ceremony.
The sight of the rising flag never fails to trigger a swell of tears in his eyes.
His experience at the 2006 Asian Games, when his team of five won the keelboat match-racing event, was the most memorable.
'When I heard the national anthem played and the flag going up, high above the rest, it really made me realise that Singapore beat the rest. Knowing that no other flag was above my country, I felt proud of Singapore,' he says.
Clearly, symbols are important at igniting patriotism - but there's no automatic ignition. The occasion matters too. National fervour is more easily stirred when Singaporeans are in their 'citizen mode', says Heritage Society president Kevin Tan.
'I identify with the pledge, anthem and flag when I'm a 'higher self', like when I'm a member of a community, rather than when I'm someone with a narrow parochial identity,' said Dr Tan, 48, whose non-profit, non-governmental society promotes Singapore's cultural history.
Ties that bind
HOWEVER, while national symbols aim to unite a nation, the reality is that once Singaporeans leave school, they don't have as many occasions to recite the pledge or sing the anthem. Most people encounter these symbols only once a year, during National Day celebrations. Because they don't feature constantly in the lives of ordinary Singaporeans, they aren't the things that bind Singaporeans to the land.
Rather, it's the tangible things that Singaporeans constantly interact with in their daily lives that are, for them, the real symbols of home.
For instance, Dr Tan feels that HDB flats are emblems for Singaporeans.
'It's the way most of us live. Look at it and you'll recognise it as home. It also symbolises multiracial living. HDB flats are something we have that is unique; not every society can boast of this.
'This is the real Singapore, not some fake manufactured touristic invention.'
He gives the example of the Merlion, created by Mr Fraser Brunner, a member of the Souvenir Committee and curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium, as a logo for Singapore's tourism board in 1964.
'The Merlion is a manufactured symbol. The tourists love it more than we do,' he says.
But perhaps there are icons for locals and icons for foreigners.
To foreigners, the Merlion is a symbol of Singapore.
'The Japanese love it so much that there's a Merlion-inspired statue in the Japanese city of Osaka. Every one of my Japanese friends who visit Singapore insists that I have to take them to see the Merlion,' says Dr Tan.
Mr Tay agrees that while tourists remember places like the shopping haven of Orchard Road or the skyline of the Central Business District, these aren't the places that immediately leap to his mind when he thinks of home.
'You get cities everywhere,' says the sailor who is based in Sydney and studies business administration at Macquarie University there. 'After a while, all cities look the same, full of high-rise buildings.'
But nowhere else can he find 24-hour coffee shops with 'old-style authentic food', or 'density and diversity of people', than in the hustle and bustle of the Singaporean heartland.
'Some Singaporeans may prefer Australia because it's more open, free and relaxed. They think Singapore's boring, but to each his own. I think the density of Singapore makes it special. You get family, friends and food so close by,' he says.
Home, for singer-songwriter Clement Chow, who is known for singing Count On Me Singapore, boils down to the things that are uniquely Singaporean.
He feels that one thing that makes him feel aglow with a feeling of home is the sound of Singlish.
'The Singlish accent is undeniably Singaporean. It's extremely recognisable. The moment I hear someone speaking Singlish, I know he's from Singapore. The way we speak makes me feel a sense of home,' says Mr Chow, 49.
Symbols change, but...
WITH the deluge of symbols vying to represent what Singapore is to Singaporeans and to foreigners, some may protest at the need for them.
'We have enough of symbols already. There's the culture, mannerisms, food - all these spell something uniquely Singaporean and provide a sense of home. We don't need to make more. It becomes more complicated,' says Mr Chow.
However, Mr Kwa the historian sees nothing wrong with the constant invention and re-invention of symbols for the city-state.
'New symbols are created to represent new memories of new challenges to Singapore.
'In defence, we used to to think of ourselves as a 'poison shrimp' but with our growing defence capabilities, we then changed and thought of ourselves as a porcupine. Today, we are moving to think of ourselves as a dolphin,' he says, referring to Singapore's defence outlook.
Over time, older symbols like the lion and tiger on the British colonial armorial bearings 'fade and are forgotten as what they represented become history'.
Whether invented like the Merlion, real like nasi lemak or necessary like the flag, Singaporeans like symbols because they stand for something that is home.
But symbols aside, there are clearly other things that make a place home, like a shared heritage and a feeling of belonging.
Says Dr Tan of the Heritage Society: 'Different things mean home for different people. But ultimately, home is about a familiarity that makes one comfortable, and about ownership of a slice of Singapore.'
[Every now and then we angst over our national identity, our cultural identity, and asks ourselves when does it mean to be Singaporean. Truly we are a nation in transition. The answer to the question, "what is Singaporeanness?" is answered with food, with our linguistic abberations (Singlish), our values ("kiasu"), our pragmatism, our home ("HBD"), our racial and religious mix, our efficient government and society, our security.
We continue to search.]
By Farish A. Noor
MALAYSIA has long tried to cultivate the image of being a moderate Muslim state that can serve as a model for others. Particularly in the wake of the attacks on the United States in September 2001, successive Malaysian prime ministers have worked hard to ensure that Malaysia would remain on the list of moderate Muslim states that could serve as the bridge between the Western and Muslim worlds.
Today, that image stands to take a significant pounding, thanks to a relatively isolated incident that has managed to grab headlines worldwide: A Malay-Muslim woman by the name of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno is set to be caned for the offence of drinking alcohol in public. Kartika's case has bedevilled lawmakers of Malaysia for the simple reason that nobody seems to know what to do about it.
Kartika was found guilty of drinking beer in the state of Pahang. The religious authorities in the state found her guilty of committing a syariah offence, and she was fined and sentenced to six strokes of the cane. Kartika herself pleaded guilty to the charges. But what baffles many observers is that the former model said she was prepared to be caned, and what is more, to be caned in public.
Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad has asked if Malaysia would celebrate its independence day (on Aug 31) with the caning of a Muslim woman. Prime Minister Najib Razak has himself asked Kartika to appeal against her sentence. Needless to say, the case has brought Malaysia to the world's attention for all the wrong reasons.
The problem that this case poses for Malaysia is complex. For a start, Kartika's case was handled by the Syariah Court of Pahang, raising the question of whether the federal government can intervene to save her.
Adding to the confusion is the problematic and complicated relationship between religion and politics in the country. The borderline between Islam and politics has grown increasingly blurred after three decades of state-driven Islamisation. The enfeebled ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is now trying its best to defend its own Islamic credentials in the face of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). At the same time, Umno would not like to gain the same reputation as the Taleban of Afghanistan.
PAS in turn is likewise split in its conscience, between moderates who wish to push the democratisation agenda and conservatives who want more Islamisation. Already in Selangor, where PAS came into power as part of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, moral policing has been introduced by the conservative PAS leader Hasan Ali, who has called for religious functionaries to arrest Muslims who go against Islamic law.
PAS conservatives may feel that their electoral gains have given them the green light to further Islamise the country. They have thus called for a ban on the sale of alcohol and music concerts. But in the wider context of international politics, Malaysia is looking more and more like a parochial state where books are banned and people are whipped for doing things that would be regarded as perfectly normal elsewhere.
Malaysia's conservative Islamists, their religious convictions notwithstanding, do not seem to understand why the international community is upset with the idea of a woman being caned for drinking a pint. Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria, for instance, has wondered why a fuss should be made over a woman receiving six lashes when, in his opinion, she should be receiving 80 lashes.
It is this sense of disconnect that adds a surreal air to the goings-on in Malaysia today. The Malaysian government is concerned that failure to enact Islamic law will compromise its standing in the eyes of conservative Muslims in the country. But to have Kartika caned would jeopardise the country's image internationally. Like it or not, Malaysia still depends on trade with the developed Western world, not Afghanistan.
This, then, is the dilemma that Malaysia faces at the moment, and there seems little consensus on how to proceed. Kartika's caning has been postponed for now. One thing, however, is certain: The costs of caning Kartika are simply too high. Should Malaysia cane her, it would have jumped one rung up the Islamisation ladder. After that, there may be no turning back.
The writer is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
WASHINGTON - RESEARCHERS searching for a cure for obesity said on Thursday they have developed a drug that not only makes mice lose weight, but reverses diabetes and lowers their cholesterol, too.
The drug, which they have dubbed fatostatin, stops the body from making fat, instead releasing the energy from food. They hope it may lead to a pill that would fight obesity, diabetes and cholesterol, all at once.
Writing in the journal Chemistry and Biology, Salih Wakil of Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, Motonari Uesugi of Kyoto University in Japan and colleagues said the drug interferes with a suite of genes turned on by overeating.
'Here, we are tackling the basics,' Dr Wakil said in a telephone interview. 'I think that is what excited us.' Scientists are painfully aware that drugs that can make mice thin do nothing of the sort in humans. A hormone called leptin can make rats and mice drop weight almost miraculously but does little or nothing for an obese person, for instance.
But Dr Wakil, whose team has patented the drug and is looking for a drug company to partner with, hopes this drug may be different. 'I am very, very optimistic,' he said.
Fatostatin is a small molecule, meaning it has the potential to be absorbed in pill form.
It works on so-called sterol regulatory element binding proteins or SREBPs, which are transcription factors that activate genes involved in making cholesterol and fatty acids.
'Fatostatin blocked increases in body weight, blood glucose, and hepatic (liver) fat accumulation in (genetically) obese mice, even under uncontrolled food intake,' the researchers wrote.
Genetic tests showed the drug affected 63 different genes.
After four weeks, mice injected with fatostatin weighed 12 per cent less and had 70 per cent lower blood sugar levels, the researchers wrote.
The drug also had effects on prostate cancer cells they said - something that may help explain links between prostate cancer and obesity. -- REUTERS
Thursday, August 27, 2009
By Tom Davenport
WE OFTEN talk about judgment with regard to individuals, but organisations and countries can have good and bad judgment as well. I was recently in Singapore. Every time I visit, it has struck me as a country with good judgment.
Singapore has just celebrated its 44th birthday as an independent country, and it deserves to congratulate itself (although it rarely engages in self-congratulation - another aspect of good judgment). In fact, I would argue that in many ways, Singapore is a great example for the United States. Why? Here are a few reasons:
# Singapore is a hardworking, disciplined country. It decides what it needs to do, and then does it. Every year for National Day, for example, the Government publishes a list of challenges it needs to overcome. This year's list included such bracing issues as: 'How to maintain high economic growth and improve living standards?' and 'How to stamp out new diseases and keep health-care costs down?' There is also the lighter but sociologically problematic challenge of 'How to get younger Singaporeans to marry and have children?' The list of challenges is enormously appealing in its clarity and directness.
# Singapore is obsessed with education - not just for children, but throughout life. Another of its declared challenges is: 'How to design job-training programmes and wage supplement schemes for low-income older workers?' The country regularly tops the ranks of educational achievement. While it was once justifiably criticised for emphasising rote learning, it has introduced programmes that encourage creativity.
# Singapore is a highly capitalist society, but its Government plays a strong guiding role. Some of the country's smartest citizens go into government. The Government creates industrial policy and actively facilitates growth and capability-building in certain areas. It did a masterful job emphasising information technology (IT) and building up that industry, and now it's actively pushing biotech and services.
For example, in services, the Government wanted to build on organisations with great service like Singapore Airlines and Raffles Hotel. So it encouraged the Singapore Management University to start an Institute for Service Excellence, and stimulated the development of a Customer Satisfaction Index of Singapore that would be applied to all service industries.
# Like the US, Singapore is a highly diverse society, with lots of citizens with Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arab backgrounds. Yet they all seem to get along pretty well, and the country's culture is greatly enriched by the diversity. Public housing is ethnically and religiously integrated. Other countries could probably use a version of Singapore's Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which prohibits religious rabble-rousing.
# Singapore invests heavily in infrastructure - housing, roads, IT, airport (only one, but Changi Airport is a very impressive facility). About 83 per cent of its citizens live in public housing, but the estates are clean and well-maintained. The country is rolling out a new high-bandwidth fibre-optic network. Buses and subways are clean and run on time.
# Singapore's economy is doing pretty well. It does anticipate a decline in gross domestic product of about 5 per cent this year, but there are signs of a strong recovery. Its stock market is booming. Its banks didn't go crazy with sub-prime lending or bizarre derivatives. One economist told me that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 was worse than the current recession for Singapore.
Okay, it's not a Utopian society. The Government is a bit authoritarian for my tastes, but not as much as it was in the days of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the country's first prime minister from 1959 to 1990. The prohibitions against spitting and selling chewing gum are a little much - though I really like the clean streets.
Yes, you may be caned if you misbehave, but that might be better than locking up the world's highest proportion of citizens in jails. I feel that Singapore destroyed much of its interesting architecture in the headlong rush to modernise. And it seems to me that too many of its citizens are obsessed with luxury brands and conspicuous consumption.
These are relatively minor concerns, however, compared to the country's strengths. And many of the seemingly autocratic regulations might be justified by the ethnic diversity and high population density of the country.
Singapore is tiny compared to the US - and most other countries, for that matter. But that doesn't mean it can't be a model. US President Barack Obama keeps saying that we need to buckle down and work hard to build an economy based on real production, not hollow financial chicanery. We need a little more social order, and a little less individualism. Singapore has already pulled off both objectives, and continues to provide a good example of good judgment for the US and the rest of the world.
The writer holds the President's Chair in Information Technology and Management at Babson College, where he also leads the Process Management and Working Knowledge Research Centres. Reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
MONTREAL - AFTER years spent hunting for the buried remains of prehistoric animals, a Canadian palaeontologist now plans to manipulate chicken embryos to show he can create a dinosaur.
Hans Larsson, the Canada Research Chair in Macro Evolution at Montreal's McGill University, said he aims to develop dinosaur traits that disappeared millions of years ago in birds.
Dr Larsson believes by flipping certain genetic levers during a chicken embryo's development, he can reproduce the dinosaur anatomy, he told AFP in an interview.
Though still in its infancy, the research could eventually lead to hatching live prehistoric animals, but Dr Larsson said there are no plans for that now, for ethical and practical reasons - a dinosaur hatchery is 'too large an enterprise.' 'It's a demonstration of evolution,' said Dr Larsson, who has studied bird evolution for the last 10 years.
'If I can demonstrate clearly that the potential for dinosaur anatomical development exists in birds, then it again proves that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs.' The research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Research Chairs program and National Geographic.
The idea for the project, Dr Larsson said, came about during discussions with renowned American palaeontologist Jack Horner, who served as technical advisor for the Jurassic Park films.
Dr Horner recently wrote a book entitled 'How to Build A Dinosaur', in which he refers to the embryo experiment as part of a quest to create a 'chickenosaurus.'
Dr Larsson's team has previously worked to uncover prehistoric animal remains, including eight unknown species of dinosaurs and five new types of crocodile in Niger. He also recently uncovered the remains of a new carnivorous dinosaur in Argentina. -- AFP
PAN AM BOMBING
A scapegoat and convenient untruth
By Gwynne Dyer
ABDEL Basset al-Megrahi was an intelligence agent. Since he worked for the Libyan government, he probably did some bad things. But he probably did not do the specific bad thing for which he was sentenced to 27 years in prison in Scotland.
He served only eight years. He was released on compassionate grounds last Thursday by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, and flew home to Libya. He is dying of cancer, but his release outraged the Americans whose relatives died aboard Pan Am Flight 103 in December 1988. They believe that Megrahi is a mass murderer who should die in jail - but that is not necessarily so.
There were also British victims of the attack, and almost none of their relatives think that Megrahi should have been in jail at all. As their spokesman Jim Swire put it: 'I don't believe for a moment that this man was involved (in the bombing).'
The prime suspect
BACK in 1988-89, Western intelligence services saw the bombing of Pan Am 103 as an act of revenge. The US warship Vincennes had shot down an Iranian Airbus five months before, killing all 290 passengers, and the Iranians were getting even. (The United States was then secretly backing Saddam Hussein's war against Iran, and the Vincennes, operating illegally in Iranian territorial waters, shot down the airliner thinking that it was an Iranian fighter.)
There was some evidence for this 'Iranian revenge' theory. In 1989, German police found the same kind of bomb that brought down Pan Am 103 in a house in Frankfurt used by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command. The PFLP-GC was based in Syria, and Syria and Iran were allies, so maybe...
BUT then in 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait. Washington needed Arab countries like Syria to join the war against Saddam so that the liberation of Kuwait looked like a truly international effort. Syria's price for sending troops was removal from America's most-wanted list. Suddenly Syria was no longer the prime suspect in the Pan Am case - and if Syria was out, so was Iran.
But more Americans died on Pan Am 103 than in any other terrorist attack before Sept 11. Somebody had to take the fall. Libya was the obvious candidate because it had supported various terrorist attacks in the past.
Soon new evidence began to appear. It pointed to Megrahi, who had been working as a security officer for Libyan Arab Airlines in Malta in 1988. A Maltese shopkeeper identified him as the man who bought children's clothing like that found in the suitcase that contained the bomb that brought down Pan Am 103.
It was pretty flimsy evidence, but Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was desperate to end the Western trade embargo against his country. He never admitted blame in the Pan Am affair, but he handed Megrahi and a colleague over for trial in a Western court.
The kangaroo court
MEGRAHI'S trial took place in 2001. His colleague was freed, but he was jailed for 27 years - in Scotland, because Pan Am 103 came down in Lockerbie. As time passed, however, the case began to unravel.
The Maltese shopkeeper who had identified Megrahi, Mr Tony Gauci, turned out to be living in Australia, supported by several million dollars that the Americans had paid him for his evidence.
The allegation that the timer for the bomb had been supplied to Libya by the Swiss manufacturer Mebo turned out to be false. The owner of Mebo, Mr Edwin Bollier, revealed that he had turned down an offer of US$4 million from the FBI in 1991 to testify that he had sold his MST-13 timers to Libya.
One of Mr Bollier's former employees, Mr Ulrich Lumpert, did testify at Megrahi's trial that MST-13 timers had been supplied to Libya - but in 2007, he admitted that he had lied at the trial.
And this year, it was revealed that Pan Am's baggage area at London's Heathrow airport was broken into 17 hours before Pan Am 103 took off on its last flight. (The police knew that 12 years ago, but kept it secret at Megrahi's trial.) The theory that the fatal bag was put on a feeder flight from Malta became even less likely.
All of which explains why the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission announced in 2007 that it would refer Megrahi's case to the Court of Criminal Appeal in Edinburgh because he 'may have suffered a miscarriage of justice'.
THE Review Commission's decision caused a crisis, because a new court hearing would reveal how shoddy the evidence at the first one was. Happily for London and Washington, Megrahi was now dying of cancer, so a deal was possible. He would give up his plea for a retrial, no dirty linen about the original trial would be aired in public, and he would be set free.
A miserable story, but hardly a unique one. A man who was probably innocent of the charges against him, a loyal servant of the Libyan state who was framed by the West and hung out to dry by his own government, has been sent home to die.
The writer is a London-based independent journalist.
Aug 26, 2009
Bomber fiasco puts Brown in a tight spot
British PM faces public's ire and an unhappy Obama administration
By Jonathan Eyal
LONDON: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is facing a growing public outcry over the circumstances which led to the early release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, the Libyan who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the destruction of a United States airliner which blew up over Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people.
London claims that the decision to release Megrahi only eight years into his sentence was taken by Scotland's semi-autonomous administration.
Yet everything points to a far murkier picture: the Megrahi affair is a classic British story of half-truths and speculations, mixed with sheer incompetence.
The Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill freed Megrahi because he has terminal cancer. Such 'compassionate' releases are not unique. But they are not automatic either; Scotland could have held the Libyan until his death.
That was precisely what the Americans 'going back literally over months' and 'at the highest levels' demanded, as Mr Philip Crowley, the US State Department spokesman, indignantly put it.
But, for reasons which remain mysterious, neither London nor Edinburgh - the seat of the Scottish government - heeded the appeals.
One possible explanation for this behaviour is that the Scots wanted to be rid of the prisoner because they doubted his guilt. However, this explanation does not bear scrutiny. Out of the 48 of Megrahi's appeal arguments, no less than 45 had already been dismissed; the criminal case against him was strong.
And London's commitment to keeping him behind bars had been in doubt for years. For, although officials fervently deny it, his release was undoubtedly connected to cloak-and-dagger arrangements reached years ago.
Earlier this decade, Britain's security services made a sensational discovery: Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was acquiring a nuclear bomb.
The British presented Mr Gaddafi with a straight choice: renounce nuclear aspirations in return for international respectability or risk total isolation. He chose to give up the bomb, and Britain's spies scored one of their biggest triumphs.
As part of the deal normalising relations, Libya admitted that it was behind the destruction of the US airliner, paid hefty compensation to the victims' families and handed over Megrahi for trial.
Whether there was a formal British promise to release Megrahi soon after his conviction is unknown. But what followed is beyond dispute.
London concluded a surprising deal with Libya, under which Libyan citizens in British jails could serve the remainder of their sentences at home. Many British MPs, as well as Edinburgh, demanded that Megrahi should be explicitly excluded from this pact. But London refused.
It seems clear that London saw this arrangement as a clever solution: the Libyans would have got their man back, but London could have plausibly claimed that Megrahi's jail sentence continued, albeit in another country.
And the reason for these legal contortions is equally obvious: Britain's attempt to share in Libya's huge natural gas reserves remained blocked as long as Megrahi was in jail.
The snag was that the carefully laid British plans to free Megrahi without appearing to be doing so collapsed once he was diagnosed as terminally ill, therefore qualifying for unconditional release.
It is now known that Mr MacAskill had asked the Foreign Office in London whether there were any legal impediments to Megrahi's release; he was told that there was none. Evidently, nothing should stand in the way of business.
Mr Brown also claimed that he did not discuss the issue with the Libyans. But it subsequently emerged that he did, and at some length, on the sidelines of the recent Group of Eight summit in Italy.
And, as the situation reached crisis point, incompetence replaced skulduggery. Britain's diplomats failed to appreciate the anger which their move created in the US, and scrambled to contain the damage only when it was too late.
Meanwhile, Mr Brown remained silent, ostensibly because the decision had nothing to do with him. But, amusingly, he did break his silence to congratulate the English cricket team on an important victory; cricket apparently deserves more attention than transatlantic relations.
To add to the surreal atmosphere, Mr Brown's office now claims that Megrahi's release has not 'given succour to terrorists'. Unsurprisingly, the US begs to differ: 'outrageous and disgusting' is the White House's verdict on the affair.
The US is unlikely to scale down its military cooperation with Britain; London's contributions to Afghanistan, Iran and other crises remain important.
But the Obama administration may well conclude that there is little point in paying too much attention to Mr Brown, who seems likely to be swept from power by the impending general election.
Either way, many observers in London consider this as one of the more disgraceful episodes in Britain's recent history. And the embarrassment will continue: Megrahi, now safely back home, is about to publish his 'memoirs'.
By Bruce Gale
ASIA'S economies may be about to lead the world out of recession, but not the South Pacific. Indeed, while the popular image of the South Pacific is of idyllic islands, the reality is very different.
A recent report submitted to the Australian Parliament concluded that Fiji's economy, the South Pacific's largest after New Zealand's, could contract by at least 5 per cent this year. And while Fiji's problems look particularly bad, they are really just an extreme example of the situation facing island nations across the region.
Most South Pacific nations are expected to register negative economic growth. Cash reserves, investment and trade are declining. The cost of imported goods is also rising as nations devalue their currencies in an attempt to stimulate exports.
The global economic slowdown is not the only reason for the gloom. The H1N1 influenza pandemic has taken its toll, and islanders report more frequent cyclones as well as rising waters - the result of global warming. Tonga's main island of Tongatapu, as well as Pukapuka in the Cook Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu are particularly at risk.
But not all of the South Pacific's woes can be blamed on external influences. Long before the global financial crisis, many South Pacific economies had already deteriorated to the point where they were heavily dependent on international aid and foreign remittances from an estimated 150,000 Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian people living in Australia.
The Pacific island countries receive the highest amount of foreign aid in the developing world per capita. But despite this, few have shown much progress.
Nor is the aid well coordinated. Speaking at a summit of the Pacific Islands Forum in Cairns earlier this month, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd lamented the 'spaghetti bowl' of aid programmes - the 'dozens of competing and occasionally conflicting development assistance programmes'.
According to Dr Mahendra Reddy of the Fiji Institute of Technology, many of those who have prospered in Pacific island countries have acquired their wealth through government monopolies. As a result, vested interests provide strong opposition to market-opening measures.
Meanwhile, the deadening effect of the Melanesian system of traditional chiefs discourages dissent. Fiji is run by a military dictatorship. In Tonga, reformers are trying to replace an authoritarian monarchical system with something that more closely resembles a democratic polity. In other countries, central governments struggle to maintain control. The Solomon Islands is just emerging from a long period of near anarchy.
Other nations launch seemingly pointless reforms. Samoa, for example, is in the midst of a national debate about a multimillion-dollar plan to switch to left-side driving on Sept 7. Tiny Tokelau, on the other hand, seems more focused on critical problems. Its 1,500 residents worry about replacing an ageing vessel that is their only link to the outside world via a 30-hour trip to Samoa.
The eyes of most outside the region are focused on Fiji, an ethnically fractured island state with a population of about 950,000. Fiji's gross domestic product (GDP) grew 0.2 per cent last year after contracting 6.6 per cent in 2007 due to the impact of a coup. Its main industries include tourism, sugar, fisheries and garment manufacturing.
In a report on Fiji to the Australian Parliament on Aug 11, Ms Renuka Mahadevan, a senior academic at the University of Queensland's School of Economics, painted a picture of inappropriate economic policies, political uncertainty and slow progress on economic reform.
According to Ms Mahadevan, a devaluation in April designed to stimulate the export sector did little to help. Worse, she said, this approach to solving the nation's economic problems shifted the focus away from the pressing need for domestic economic reform. Financing the government deficit is also likely to be a growing problem. The ratio of external debt to GDP is low (7 per cent), but political problems have caused Fiji's credit rating to decline significantly in recent years.
Fiji has been under military rule since the country's armed forces chief Frank Bainimarama seized power in a 2006 coup. Fiji's subsequent refusal to bow to international demands for elections has left the country isolated. Suva has already been suspended by the Pacific Islands Forum, a regional bloc of 16 nations. Major trade partners, including the European Union, Australia and New Zealand, have also imposed sanctions. The Commonwealth has threatened Suva with suspension.
Whatever else one may say about it, the South Pacific is hardly an idyllic paradise.
By Anthony Paul
AS A teenager in the Carteret Islands, a south-west Pacific atoll in the eastern Papua New Guinea (PNG) archipelago, Ms Ursula Rakova walked to her school and church along a road on Han Island, the centre of a thriving community that produced taro, the islanders' staple food.
These days, the taro plantations are gone, swamped by rising seas. The road, too, is underwater. 'Where we once walked,' she told The Straits Times, 'we now have to paddle a canoe.'
Tuvalu, a tiny south-west Pacific nation (population: 12,000) about 3,200km east of the Carterets, is often billed as the likely first community to be devoured by the surrounding ocean. Its situation is indeed dire: Seawater and the saltwater table threaten coconut and taro farming.
According to latest studies of the region's changing conditions, however, Tuvalu won't actually disappear for another 1,000 years, though it will become uninhabitable long before then.
Carteret islanders are already dealing with a watery apocalypse.
The islands form a horseshoe-shaped atoll (population: 3,300) with a total area of 0.6 sq km (the size of about 83 soccer fields) and a maximum height of 1.2m above sea level. Much of the land the community lives on is already awash. Islanders deal with a higher incidence of malaria as the atoll's volcanic foundations slowly collapse, and trees and taro, coconut and banana crops surrender to ever more violent storms.
When their plight began to become more desperate some 20 years ago, islanders built sea walls and planted mangroves to break the waves' advance. 'But recently,' says Ms Rakova, 'it has become evident that these measures aren't going to work in the long run.'
Over the past six months, about 800 islanders have either fled or are currently planning their families' escape to drier land at Tinputz, on Bougainville, PNG's largest nearby island. 'By 2015,' says Ms Rakova, 'we'll have to move the rest.'
The Carterets, populated about 200 years ago by settlers from Bougainville, have a largely matriarchal society: Women inherit much of the land. Ms Rakova, 43, a soft-spoken but clearly strong-willed graduate of PNG University in Port Moresby, heads Tulele Peisa, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) leading the evacuation. The NGO's name means 'riding the waves' in the local language.
Ms Rakova gave up her job with Oxfam three years ago to set up Tulele Peisa. 'Our whole culture is at stake,' she says. 'Our people, especially the older ones, don't want to move, but there is really no alternative.'
The islanders, she says, blame people in industrialised countries for what is happening. 'We don't fully understand the science,' she admits, 'but we're angry about reports that carbon dioxide emissions may be causing climate change.'
If the wider world is indeed causing problems for the Carterets, it won't be the first time. During the Pacific War (1941-45), fighting between Allied forces and the Japanese invaders caused much devastation. The islanders ruefully recall how the Carterets were once seven islands, but bombing obliterated one island, turning them into a six-island atoll. Some outside the islands are sceptical of this story, claiming that over the years, islanders have reduced their available land by using explosives to carve out new fishing areas.
Whatever the truth, latest scientific studies by institutes in Australia don't encourage islanders who may want to stay and continue fighting the ocean's surge.
Australia's National Tidal Centre's measurements show that western Pacific areas nearer the equator, like the Carterets, appear to be experiencing sea-level rises of about 5mm a year, compared with an average global rise of about 3mm.
Meantime, satellite altimeter readings, says the tidal centre, show evidence over the past decade of a kind of grand pan-Pacific 'slosh': Sea levels 'have risen in the south-west Pacific and fallen in the north-west Pacific since 1992'.
In a recent report, Oxfam warns that by 2050, 150 million people may be displaced globally because of climate change, half of them in the Asia-Pacific region.
'The potential for climate displacement is especially a concern for low-lying atoll nations in Polynesia and Micronesia,' the report says. 'With land areas just metres above sea level and narrow strips of land just 50m to 100m wide in some atolls, there is no retreat to higher ground from the ravages on the coast.'
Certainly, the Carterets' islanders are worried. Says Ms Rakova: 'The PNG government allocated 2 million kina (S$1.1 million) to pay for more land in Bougainville (for the resettlers), but we have not seen one cent of this so far.
'We're losing our ancestral home, our culture, our identity, our whole life. We hope the world is listening.
'Climate change is not just about statistics, not just about science. Climate change is about human rights and the vulnerability of all people on small Pacific islands.'
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
SINGAPORE EDUCATION: A BEACON OF LIGHT
By Kathryn Baron
WHAT are the ingredients of a successful school system? Getting the recipe right is important. In presenting his education agenda, United States President Barack Obama says: 'The future belongs to the nation that best educates its people.'
For now, educators suggest, that distinction lies half a world away from Washington - in Singapore.
On a hot, humid morning in this small island nation, US education official Mike Smith enters a crowded Grade Three (Primary Three) classroom. There's no air conditioner, just open windows and some fans. The entire class of 36 nine-year-olds stands and greets him politely.
Mr Smith is senior counsellor to the US Secretary of Education. The class is at East View Primary School in a low-income, densely populated neighbourhood of Singapore.
Mr Smith is struck by the number of students and tells Principal Veronica Tay: 'In the US, you would never see a class this large!' She assures him it's actually smaller than the typical class at the school.
Despite the number and the neighbourhood, East View is up for a national excellence award. Singapore itself is well-known for turning out students who outscore those in most other countries in international science and mathematics tests. That is what brought Mr Smith here - along with education officials from Australia, China, Hong Kong, Canada and Sweden. They all want to know one thing: What makes Singapore's education system work so well?
Make that two things: How does Singapore do it, and can we do it, too?
Singapore's Minister of Education Ng Eng Hen says: 'The nuts and bolts of a good educational system are really quite simple, and quite straightforward and some would say it's a 'no-brainer'.'
Dr Ng isn't being glib. He says even though everyone knows a good education system when they see one, jumping the hurdles to create it takes stamina and support. So he organised a first-ever International Education Roundtable to start talking strategy.
'When you're thinking of policies and directions for the ministries, sometimes we are greatly in need of sounding boards,' he explains. 'How do you do this right? Which is the direction you take? What resources are necessary?'
The education officials at the forum quickly found common ground in discussions about recruiting and keeping good teachers, improving leadership training for principals, and using technology creatively and effectively towards the goal of improving student achievement.
That's one area where Singapore shines. The visitors were especially awed by a nursing class at the Institute of Technical Education, where students practised on a computerised dummy that responded like a real person. Sweden's Education Minister said she'd like vocational schools in her country to include this technology.
Mr Smith was struck by Singapore's ability to keep reforms centred on the real goals of education.
'If you have serious, steady leadership, if you're focused on students' well-being, on students' achievement, and you pay real attention to that, you'll get a system that's continuously improving,' he noted. 'That's very important and just needs to happen more often in the US; we need to create those conditions under which it can happen.'
That said, he observed that reform is a lot simpler to enact in Singapore. One political party has ruled the island nation for half a century. On the one hand, that's led to strong central control; on the other, it has protected education policies from the volatility of government change.
Mr Dave Hancock, the education minister of Alberta, Canada, complained that in his country, politics, rather than political leadership, is a major impediment to thoughtful reform. 'We get elected to think big picture and long term, but our 'report cards' are often based on how many potholes are filled. That's the politics that we need to keep out of the system.'
Singapore is also a lot smaller than most countries. The entire population is 4.5 million. That's two million fewer than the number of public school students in the state of California alone.
The layers of education bureaucracy in the US are also oversized. Mr Smith says you can't just transfer reform from one country to another. 'If we borrow ideas from Singapore, we need to understand that we're borrowing them into a different system and a different way of doing business, so they may not be able to be picked up easily and moved.'
The American education official suggests it would be easy to dismiss Singapore because of its size, and the different political, economic and social structures.
Still, he says, there is a lesson for the US. Serious school reform has to be focused on what will improve student achievement and well-being. That's a goal that crosses all borders.
This article first appeared in Voice of America's website, voanews.com
WITH National Day 2009 recently behind us, I am engrossed with all the letters and thoughts on patriotism and generally how people are concerned with the make-up of Singapore. As my own day of reckoning comes closer, I feel I have more thoughts on these subjects than I even knew I had in my head.
On Friday, I will take the oath of citizenship and become more than I was on Aug 27: I will be a Singaporean. It is important to note that for an American, it is not as simple as joining a club or group or ticking a little square on an application. For Americans and most others who become Singapore citizens, we must renounce our previous citizenships before becoming Singaporeans. Most people who ask me why I am doing this are Singaporean, and I find this strange as I thought I would get more questioning from expatriates.
To become a Singaporean, you must really believe in this country and its people. You must be willing to give up your ties and allegiance you have harboured as long as you can remember. This is like changing your religion or any deep-rooted belief. You must dislodge that belief and replace it with your belief in Singapore. Fortunately, at least for me at this time, Singapore also believes in me. I can only shake my head when people complain about Singapore without offering alternatives or stating how this place or that place is better. I can only think the grass is always greener somewhere else, but you know you will still have to cut it every week.
Wherever you go, just make sure you have the opportunity to turn ideas into something positive, as you can here if you try. I know, at least for myself, that the good things far outweigh the negative, and yes, there are some negatives. But I choose to make this my home and contribute to its growth and I hope the negatives will become fewer. Free rides? They are on that green grass somewhere else.
[As usual this sort of letter attracted the usual bunch of no-lifes ragging on the writer, belittling his choice, his decision, questioning his intentions and in general reflecting their insecurities and incompetence, and general poor upbringing and manners, while competing with each other to see who can be more foul-mouthed in their attack on the writer.
To the writer, I agree. This is a good place to be. There may be greener grass elsewhere but each week you still have to cut it. If you don't there's probably a bull somewhere in the vicinity. So watch your step, and watch your back. And yes, I can imagine that changing citizenship is like changing religion. ]
Malaysia and Internet abuzz over hour-long meeting at PM's residence
By Leslie Lopez
KUALA LUMPUR: A secret meeting between Prime Minister Najib Razak and his political nemesis, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, is likely to send shock waves through Umno and the opposition alliance.
The meeting some time last month has put Datuk Seri Najib in an awkward spot, as he will be under pressure from his party to explain why its president bothered to meet the man Umno despises as a traitor to the politically dominant Malay community.
But analysts say that there is also a downside for Datuk Seri Anwar because it will raise questions among his political allies in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) coalition about his commitment to their opposition alliance.
'There are so many permutations to this meeting. But on paper, this meeting does benefit Anwar because there is recognition that he is the opposition leader and someone the government needs to deal with,' said a senior Umno leader, who asked not to be named.
The hush-hush meeting has attracted a lot of attention in Malaysia because, while Mr Najib is the current premier, PR has made it clear that it wants to take over the federal government by the next election and install Mr Anwar as PM.
Political sources from the Najib and Anwar camps have confirmed that the two politicians met at the prime minister's residence in the administrative capital of Putrajaya.
The sources remain vague about what transpired at the session, which lasted just over an hour. The meeting, they said, was initiated by Mr Najib.
Opposition MP Jeff Ooi 'tweeted' on online networking tool Twitter about the meeting, after reading a news report about it, wondering if the meeting was meant to 'foster BN-Opposition cooperation'.
If so, he said 'hawks within Umno didn't show it. Racism-stoking Umno mouthpieces didn't report it', though Mr Ooi did not rule out such an outcome to the pow-wow.
The Internet was abuzz over the meeting, with arguments over whether Mr Najib or Mr Anwar came out as the weaker-looking party by meeting his rival face to face.
Sources within the Najib camp said the meeting was simply to deliver a message that the government and opposition need to work together to deal with the economy. They said the incessant politicking that has dragged on since last year's general election has severely damaged Malaysia's image as a destination for foreign capital.
Mr Anwar is head of the three-party PR alliance and also the appointed Parliamentary Opposition Leader.
The sources close to the Premier said Mr Najib gave Mr Anwar the assurance that he would not discriminate against the four states currently controlled by the opposition.
Close aides to Mr Anwar generally agree with this account of the meeting, but they note that Mr Najib was reluctant to give assurances that he would accept a two-party system taking root.
Mr Anwar also sought a commitment that the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition would halt its campaign of destabilising opposition-led states.
He also sought assurances against a repeat of the political fiasco in Perak last March when the defection of three PR state representatives led to the downfall of the opposition alliance.
But Mr Najib was non-committal, one political aide close to Mr Anwar said.
The sources also said that both leaders touched on two other sensitive topics: Mr Najib's alleged links to a former Mongolian interpreter who was murdered, and the sodomy charges Mr Anwar is facing.
A senior politician close to the Premier said 'it would be understandable that these two issues would have been discussed'. But he declined to elaborate.
[On the face of it, this was a good initiative, but not taken far enough. For the PM and the leader of the opposition to agree that these are difficult times requiring unusual cooperation is a good thing. What they need to do next is to make a public announcement - that for the good of M'sia they would be setting aside the politics and working to bring M'sia out of the economic crisis.]
By Chua Hian Hou
A WRONGFUL website classification led to a Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel) advertisement appearing on a pornographic website last week.
This prompted a viewer, who called himself Disgusted, to post a screen capture of the advertisement for SingTel's inSing website on the Stomp (Straits Times Online Mobile Print) citizen journalism website.
Disgusted, who did not give his real name, slammed SingTel for what he called a "desperate publicity" act.
Following an investigation, SingTel said the ad appeared because a third-party online advertising company had 'wrongly classified the adult section of a website' as a site suitable for inSing advertisements.
The advertisements have since been removed and the third-party suspended from offering websites to SingTel for advertising, said a SingTel spokesman.
The spokesman added that SingTel's policy 'is to only run advertising on relevant, appropriate and family friendly websites.'
[So what was this person doing on an adult website?]
Saturday, August 22, 2009
He stumbled over the year of the American Independence - 1976 instead of 1776.
And he misquoted Martin Luther King Jr's speech as "We Dare to Dream" instead of "I have a Dream". "Dare to Dream" is the name of Khoo Swee Chiow's website and title of his inspirational talk. "Dare to Change" was Chee Soon Juan's manifesto and title of his book.
However as MM Lee spoke, he seem to get more comfortable, his voice got more momentum, and we got more used to his new tempo and cadence.
But it is very obvious that he has aged, and it was sad to see him in the winter of his years.
But still, he spoke with dignity, gravitas, and it was clear that he and his views were respected in the House.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
This is an edited transcript of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's rebuttal of NMP Viswa Sadasivan
SIR, I had not intended to intervene in any debate. I was doing physiotherapy just now and reading the newspapers and I thought I should bring the House back to earth.
Mr Rajaratnam had great virtues in the midst of despondency after a series of race riots when we were thrown out of Malaysia. Our Malays in Singapore were apprehensive that now that we (Chinese) were the majority, we (Chinese) would in turn treat them the way a Malay majority (in Malaysia) treated us. He drafted these words and rose above the present. He was a great idealist. His draft came to me; I trimmed out the unachievable, and the Pledge as it stands is his work after I've trimmed it. What is it? An ideology? No, it's an aspiration. Will we achieve it? I do not know. We'll have to keep on trying. Are we a nation? In transition.
Sir, reference was made to the Constitution. The Constitution of Singapore enjoins us to specially look after the position of the Malays and other minorities. Article 152 says: 'Minorities and Special Position of Malays. It shall be the responsibility of the Government constantly to care for the interests of the racial and religious minorities in Singapore. The Government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays who are the indigenous people of Singapore and, accordingly, it should be the responsibility of the Government to protect, safeguard, support, foster, promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.'
And on Muslim religion, Article 153: 'The Legislature shall by law make provision for regulating Muslim religious affairs and for constituting a council to advise the President in matters of the Muslim religion.'
Our Constitution states expressly that it is a duty of the Government not to treat everybody as equal. It's not reality, it's not practical, it will lead to grave and irreparable damage if we work on that principle.
So the Pledge was an aspiration. As Malays have progressed and more have joined the middle class with university degrees and professional qualifications, we have asked Mendaki to ask them to agree not to have their special rights of free education at university, but to take the fees they were entitled to and use the money to help more disadvantaged Malays.
So we're trying to reach a position where there is a level playing field for everybody but it's going to take decades, if not centuries, and we may never get there.
Now let me read the American Constitution. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, reads: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.' That's 1776.
The US Constitution passed a few years later says: 'We, the people of the United States' (this is the preamble) 'in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings and liberties to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States.'
Nowhere does it say that the blacks would be differently treated. But the blacks did not get the vote until many decades later. Racial segregation was not ended until the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s with Martin Luther King and his famous We Dare To Dream speech. Enormous riots took place and eventually, then President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. From 1776, it was more than 200 years before an exceptional half-black American became President.
My colleague (Nominated MP Viswa Sadasivan) says we are trying to put square pegs into round holes. Will we ever make the pegs the same? No. You suggest to the Malays that we abolish the (Article 152) provisions in the Constitution, you will have grave disquiet. We start on the basis that this is reality: We will not be able to get a Chinese minister or an Indian minister to persuade Malay parents to look after their daughters more carefully and not have teenage pregnancies which lead to failed marriages. Can a Chinese MP or an Indian MP do that? The Malays will say to him: 'You're interfering in my private life.' But we (the Government) have funded Mendaki and Muis (Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), and they have a committee to try and reduce the numbers of such delinquents.
The way that Singapore has made progress is by a realistic step-by-step approach. It may take us centuries before we get to a similar position as the Americans. They go to wars, the blacks and the whites together. In the World War I, the blacks did not carry arms, they carried the ammo, they were not given the honour to fight. In World War II, they went back, these ex-GIs - those who could make it to university were given the GI grants - they went back to their black ghettos and stayed there. Today there are still black ghettos.
These are the realities. The American Constitution does not say that you will treat blacks differently but our Constitution spells out the duty of the Government to treat Malays and other minorities with extra care.
So the basis on which the NMP has placed his argument is false and flawed. It's completely untrue, it's got no basis whatsoever. I thought to myself, perhaps I should bring this House back to earth and remind everybody what our starting point is. If we don't recognise where we started from, we will fail.
Nobody can speak with the knowledge that I have; I knew the circumstances in which the Pledge was made. I admire the sentiments of Mr Raja. In August 1965, my worry was, what would the Malays in Singapore do, now that they knew they were a minority? When I returned on Aug9, on the advice of our Special Branch, I did not go back to my house. I stayed at Sri Temasek (in the Istana), which was my official residence. I stayed there for one week, then I went to Changi Cottage and stayed there for two months to make sure that everything subsided.
These are realities. Today, 44 years later, we have a Malay community, I believe, at peace, convinced that we are not discriminating against them, convinced that we are including them in our society.
NMP Viswa used to work in Sinda. I'm told for 10 years. He will know Indians are not equal. Brahmins will not be in Sinda. It is the non-Brahmins who are in Sinda. So I think it is dangerous to allow such highfalutin ideas to go undemolished and mislead Singapore.
By William Choong
WALKING into this sprawling facility, one would think it was the stomping ground of Q, the character in James Bond movies who supplies the spy with high-tech thingamajigs.
The facility hosts a bank of computers perched on tables in addition to a mass of wires, junction boxes and plasma displays. One room, with its banks of computers and massive heads-up radar displays of the Singapore Strait, tests command and control configurations for the Maritime Security Task Force.
In another room, the computers are equipped with what PC gamers would re-cognise to be the military-grade version of first person shooter games such as Counterstrike. Many of the lessons gleaned from this room have already been incorporated into the Army's Advanced Combat Man System, essentially a battlefield computer for infantrymen.
The most engaging display is a humanoid robot. Nearly 2m tall, it can walk, turn, climb stairs and even drop a ball into one's hand. The Terminator wannabe is still a work-in-progress, but in the distant future, it could be deployed in risky combat missions.
The facility houses the Singapore Armed Forces' Centre for Military Experimentation (SCME), which tests new war-fighting concepts for the SAF. The
SCME, in turn, is part of the Future Systems Directorate, which is responsible for coming up with new fighting concepts and getting a good 'sense' of the future.
'The SCME is...a place to seek new ideas, test them and, if (they are) found useful, then bring the capability to the SAF,' says Brigadier-General Tan Yih San, the SAF's Future Systems Architect.
In some way, the SCME - which was formed in 2003 - mirrors the development of the Third-Generation (3G) SAF, which also came of age after years of rigorous testing and validation. The new-look SAF, in turn, borrowed heavily from the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that has entranced militaries around the world since the awesome display of American technological superiority during the the first Gulf War in 1991.
The RMA anthem was summed up nicely by Admiral William Owens, vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1994 to 1996. He contended that emerging technologies and 'information dominance' would eliminate the two immutables of war that Carl von Clausewitz specified: 'friction' (that is, Murphy's Law) and the 'fog of war' (the inability to get a total view of the battlefield). In short, Admiral Owens argued that getting a God's-eye view of the battlefield would enable American forces to 'win the war'.
The arguments of RMA optimists are compelling. But has RMA changed the nature of warfare or merely its face?
The debate revolves around two schools of thought. One believes that the outcome of any war, even a high-tech one, is driven by 'one great principle'. For Antoine Henri de Jomini, Napoleon's aide-de-camp, that 'great principle' involved throwing the mass of one's forces against the 'decisive point' of the enemy. RMA optimists are in essence modern-day Jominians, arguing that the nature of war has changed, with information dominance as the new 'one great principle'.
In the other camp, Clausewitz's disciples contend that the outcome of war is driven by no great principle, given the prevalence of fog and friction. While cognisant of the benefits of high technology, they argue that war remains an inherently human and fallible enterprise. Technology has not simplified warfare; it has only made it more complex.
Put simply, Clausewitzians would argue that RMA has changed only the face, while the Jominians would argue that it has changed the nature of war. Clausewitzians remain unconvinced of the benefits of RMA.
'As political entities, social networks, economic organisations and technological systems change, so too must the character of war. But the nature of war remains the same: a clash of wills that requires one side to cry uncle before the other side can raise its arms in a victory pose,' argues Dr Bernard Loo, a defence analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
As we mentioned in the first part of this series, high technology in warfare can be affected by tactical, operational and, most importantly, strategic factors.
At the tactical level, information systems dependent on networks are susceptible to the vulnerability of such systems. As US strategist Thomas Barnett argues, networks' fast data processing times can make commanders slaves to their computers, leading them to shoot first and ask questions later.
Furthermore, it should be noted that computer networks are never infallible. In 1960, an early-warning radar in the North American Aerospace Defence Command (Norad) headquarters warned of a massive Soviet ballistic missile strike on the United States. A glitch in the computer system had removed two zeros from the radar's ranging instruments, causing it to detect what it believed was a possible missile attack at 2,500 miles (4,023km). Incredibly, the radar had detected a reflection from the moon, located 250,000 miles away.
At the operational level, Clausewitzians would argue that war - even informationised war - is inevitably caught up in the realm of chance and friction. And even if informationised armies can lift the fog of war, near-perfect (or even perfect) information does not necessarily mean correct perception.
Scholars cite an important finding from the literature on surprise in war: Surprise is not due to the lack of information per se, but rather, the cognitive and organisational factors that cause true and accurate information to be mishandled. This problem will only be exacerbated when more powerful sensors collect more chaff as well as wheat.
Commanders can enjoy a God's-eye view of the battlefield. But as they are buffeted by the stress and fatigue of war, they may be predisposed to see in ambiguous data what they expect to see or want to see. Possessing a God's-eye view of the battlefield does not necessarily imply that one would have God-like wisdom.
Professor Stephen Biddle, an acknowledged critic of RMA, notes that during Operation Anaconda in 2002, American commanders looking at live video footage from reconnaissance drones thought they were seeing American soldiers on a mountain in Afghanistan. In reality, they were seeing Al-Qaeda fighters.
At the strategic level, RMA sceptics note the following: RMAs may help win battles; but even if they do, it does not follow that they will help win wars - that is, achieve political goals.
As Prof Colin Gray, an international relations scholar and Clausewitzian, argues, strategy entails the use or threat of force (the means) in order to achieve certain policy ends. Given that strategy is the 'bridge' between ends and means, the application of RMA in war needs to be translated into politically defined goals.
Many SAF officers interviewed for this series are aware of the arguments of RMA sceptics and are circumspect themselves about the putative benefits of RMA. They argue, however, that it is unfair for sceptics to use Clausewitzian arguments against RMA.
'RMA is about the means,' notes Rear-Admiral Joseph Leong, the SAF's Head of Joint Plans and Transformation. 'Clausewitz is talking about strategy - linking means to political ends. So he is absolutely right. But whether RMA works or does not work, it has nothing to do with whether it is inherently relevant or irrelevant. It is how you apply it,' he said.
He has a valid point. But even a competent application of RMA can sometimes result in huge losses.
In his 2002 work, Strategy for Chaos: RMAs And The Evidence of History, Prof Gray argues that even RMAs in Napoleonic France, Imperial Germany and the Soviet Union were defeated subsequently by 'political contexts of their own malign creation which they could not evade'. Napoleon's France, for example, was eventually defeated by countries like Great Britain and Prussia - which had learnt from the French RMA and adapted to it.
MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray - two former US military officers who have become scholars - argue that RMAs are useful only if they provide a 'clear strategic context' for victory - that is, if they can be used to compel an enemy to do one's will. A lack of such context led technologically superior US forces in Vietnam to flounder against a lesser foe.
Some scholars suggest there is a Newtonian action-and-reaction dynamic at work: Because war is a duel between two adaptable opponents, every successful technological innovation that gives a dominant military advantage to one party will occasion a countervailing response that shifts the advantage to the opponent.
Again, SAF officers acknowledge such arguments. But they point out that this means the SAF will have to continue evolving and learning from the strengths and weaknesses of Singapore's own RMA. A Revolution in Military Affairs, in other words, will have to be a permanent revolution in order to remain viable.
Moreover, they point out, the SAF does not confront the same threats the US does. And given the high literacy rate and technology savviness of National Service enlistees, new technologies can be absorbed quickly down the ranks.
Former chief armour officer Philip Lim points out that the 3G SAF is developing a new slew of capabilities to retain its edge in the region. At the same time, it has sought to guard against triggering a regional arms race.
What if potential enemies, in particularly those using asymmetrical tactics, adapt and work around successful RMAs? BG Lim's rejoinder: The SAF just has to develop more options to defeat potential foes even as they adapt.
If the SAF can strike at its enemies from the ground, they might erect a defensive barrier. But if the SAF can strike both from the ground and the air, they would have to erect multiple barriers, says BG Lim, who is now the Chief of Staff, General Staff (Army).
'If you are able to network multiple options together, you would make it more complicated for (the enemy) to come up with multi-defensive asymmetrical strategies. So we have (to have) more options as he develops more options,' he adds.
Adding perspective, BG Ng Chee Meng, formerly the SAF's Director of Joint Operations, says that while RMA ideas can be revolutionary, their successful implementation takes time.
'The word 'transformation' sounds quite nice, but I always believe that it's actually evolutionary transformation. I don't really think there's actually something called the RMA. In thinking maybe, but in implementation it's evolutionary,' says BG Ng, who is now the deputy chief of the Air Force.
In the long run, the major challenge for the 3G SAF is not the introduction of high technology per se. The major challenge is something decidedly more low-tech: changing the mindsets of soldiers. They need to adapt to new technologies and leverage them to the hilt, say senior officers.
A classic example involves railroads used for transporting the US space shuttle. The width of the railroad gauges was set at 4 feet and 8.5 inches simply because the railroads were designed by English expatriates who had based the width of the railroad on the width of the roads built by Romans. And the Romans, in turn, had built their roads to fit their chariots, which were made wide enough for the posteriors of two horses.
In other words, as one former SAF senior commander quips, a major design specification of the world's most advanced transportation system was 'decided over 2,000 years ago...by the width of a horse's ass'.
Says BG Lim: 'If you give a computer to a typist and do not change her mindset, she uses it as a typewriter. But if there's a change in mindset, the typist will change and evolve, moving the computer into word processing, into an office, and beyond office into a network. Even leaders need to change mindsets.'
The Revolution in Military Affairs must ultimately involve a Revolution in Military Mindsets.
This is the final instalment of the 3G SAF series.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Dear Straight Dope:
Is it illegal to answer my door naked? What about if people can see me from the street? Can I be naked in my front yard as long as I stay on my property?
SDSTAFF Gfactor replies:
It depends on the jurisdiction you live in, Chris, but very generally speaking, yes, yes, and no. Being on your property has little to do with it. The crime you're talking about is usually called indecent exposure and relies on the idea of public nudity – public in this sense meaning only that you expose yourself where others might see you. Folks have been charged with indecent exposure for exhibiting themselves to unwilling observers inside a private residence, or for being naked inside a house when they could be seen through a window.
At common law it wasn't even necessary that anyone actually see you, and some statutes are written that way too. For example, in State v. Martin (Iowa 1904) a man was indicted for indecent exposure for what was presumably an assignation with his girlfriend "on a public highway." The indictment charged that he had exposed himself in her presence (as so often happens during sex) but didn't claim that she saw him do so. The appeal was based on a challenge to the indictment, which gave his lawyers some leeway to speculate: "[T]he indictment does not charge that any one saw the indecent exhibition, or that it was made with the intent that any one should see it, or that the exposure was made under circumstances when it was possible that any one should see it, or that it was in public, or without the consent of the woman named. It is also said that the allegations may be literally true, and yet the appellant and the woman may have been miles apart, and may have been ignorant of one another's presence upon the public road; that defendant may have been entirely alone, or the alleged exhibition may have been in the darkness of night and without evil intent." That's what they all say, isn't it? The court didn't buy the argument. Instead it held that "the crime as defined by the statute does not require that the exposure shall be made in the actual sight of any person," and quoted a previous case where it had concluded that "if a case should be made by confession, corroborated by circumstances, a defendant might properly be convicted of this offense, although no person witnessed the indecent act."
So in some places you could be convicted for being naked where others might have seen you even if nobody did. Other states explicitly require witnesses, and some require the witnesses to be of the opposite sex.
Of course, plain old public nudity isn't illegal everywhere. Vermont has no state law against it, leaving it up to individual municipalities. And there are always unique statutory interpretations. For example, in Maine, the law prohibits exposure of genitalia. Men who appear in public naked are routinely convicted of indecent exposure, while women are often acquitted because their genitalia is not usually visible, even if they aren't wearing clothes. Another jurisdiction has held that the display of pubic hair doesn't violate its public nudity laws. Some states require that the exposure be with lewd intent; still others require that the exposure be "likely to cause affront or alarm." At the other extreme, some towns have simply passed ordinances that basically ban all public nudity. In some cases, mothers have been charged with public-nudity offenses for nursing their children in view of others, although most jurisdictions have adopted laws to exempt nursing from such charges.
An issue that wasn't present when more states recognized common-law offenses is whether one can be required to register as a sex offender following an indecent exposure conviction. According to a 2007 publication [pdf] by Human Rights Watch, "[a]t least 13 states require registration for public urination; of those, two limit registration to those who committed the act in view of a minor . . . . At least 32 states require registration for exposing genitals in public[.] Of those, seven states require the victim to be a minor."
Another recent issue involving public nudity or near nudity is the recent spate of laws dealing with sagging pants, as I mentioned in my staff report on weird laws. While many jurisdictions have attempted to curtail sagging pants with special ordinances, others have threatened to arrest those with sagging pants under existing indecent exposure laws, although not without drawing protest.