Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Good riddance to the Big Zero

Dec 30, 2009

By Paul Krugman

MAYBE we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The noughties? Whatever. (Yes, I know that strictly speaking the millennium didn't begin until 2001. Do we really care?)

But from an economic point of view, I'd suggest that we call the decade past the Big Zero. It was a decade in which nothing good happened, and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.

It was a decade with basically zero job creation. OK, the headline employment number for this month will be slightly higher than that for December 1999, but only slightly. And private-sector employment has actually declined - the first decade on record in which that happened.

It was a decade with zero economic gains for the typical family.

Actually, even at the height of the alleged 'Bush boom' in 2007, median household income adjusted for inflation was lower than it had been in 1999. And you know what happened next.

It was a decade of zero gains for homeowners, even if they bought early. Right now, housing prices, adjusted for inflation, are roughly back to where they were at the beginning of the decade.

And for those who bought in the decade's middle years - when all the serious people ridiculed warnings that housing prices made no sense, that we were in the middle of a gigantic bubble - well, I feel your pain. Almost a quarter of all mortgages in America, and 45 per cent of mortgages in Florida, are underwater, with owners owing more than their houses are worth.

Last and least for most Americans - but a big deal for retirement accounts, not to mention the talking heads on financial TV - it was a decade of zero gains for stocks, even without taking inflation into account. Remember the excitement when the Dow first topped 10,000, and best-selling books like 'Dow 36,000' predicted that the good times would just keep rolling? Well, that was back in 1999. Last week the market closed at 10,520.

So there was a whole lot of nothing going on in measures of economic progress or success. Funny how that happened.

For as the decade began, there was an overwhelming sense of economic triumphalism in America's business and political establishments, a belief that we - more than anyone else in the world - knew what we were doing.

Let me quote from a speech that Mr Lawrence Summers, then deputy Treasury secretary (and now the Obama administration's top economist), gave in 1999:

'If you ask why the American financial system succeeds,' he said, 'at least my reading of the history would be that there is no innovation more important than that of generally accepted accounting principles: it means that every investor gets to see information presented on a comparable basis; that there is discipline on company managements in the way they report and monitor their activities.' And he went on to declare that there is 'an ongoing process that really is what makes our capital market work and work as stably as it does'.

So here's what Mr Summers - and, to be fair, just about everyone in a policy-making position at the time - believed in 1999: America has honest corporate accounting; this lets investors make good decisions, and also forces management to behave responsibly; and the result is a stable, well-functioning financial system.

What percentage of all this turned out to be true? Zero.

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot.com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks' claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn't understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers' expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

Then there are the politicians. Even now, it's hard to get Democrats, President Barack Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we're in. And as for the Republicans: Now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is - tax cuts and deregulation.

So let's bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero - the decade in which we achieved nothing and learnt nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and Happy New Year.

NEW YORK TIMES

Wanted: More help on the ground for Malay pupils

Dec 30, 2009
THE ST INTERVIEW

Outgoing Mendaki CEO laments the attitude of parents who are reluctant to enrol their children in tuition schemes

By Zakir Hussain


FORTY years ago, six-year-old Zuraidah Abdullah came home from school with her mid-year exam result for mathematics inked in red in her report book: 20 marks out of 100.

Fortunately, her mother, who juggled various jobs to help top up her bus driver husband's income, knew where to get help even though she had not been to school.

She asked around for someone who could do maths, and found an older student in their Ulu Pandan kampung to help her daughter.

The young man instructed the young Zuraidah to buy a pack of peanuts and borrow a pack of playing cards.

Over several sessions, the Primary 1 pupil learnt how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and each time she answered a question right, she got a peanut.

The next semester, she aced her exam and scored 80 marks out of 100.

Fast forward 12 years, when Madam Zuraidah was an undergraduate at the then-Nanyang Technological Institute. Her mother roped her in to tutor young neighbours and relatives in their Clementi HDB estate.

She agreed, on one condition: they had to turn up for all her sessions. Like the young Zuraidah, they too managed to pass their maths exams.

She leaves Mendaki tomorrow after serving as chief executive officer for three years with the strong conviction that having more such help on the ground will lift Malay students' grades which have dipped, especially in mathematics.

The self-help group is working out how to encourage more people to come forward to help weaker students, on top of existing community schemes, she says.

Last week, an Education Ministry report on how different ethnic groups fared in national examinations showed that the proportion of Malay pupils who passed maths in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) dipped from 63.4 per cent in 1999 to 56.3 per cent last year. Nationally, passes average 83.1 per cent.

The downtrend was flagged earlier in the month by Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim.

Madam Zuraidah is under no illusion that doing well in maths takes hard work and practice. But it is also important for children to get a sound grounding in basic skills from an early age.

This, she explains, was why Mendaki introduced a programme called Tiga M in 2004 to give kindergarten-age children and their parents a head start in understanding maths concepts, like how her neighbour helped her with the cards.

But Madam Zuraidah says the effort will take time to yield results, as only 2,000 children have participated in the past five years. Community groups are working to enrol more families.

She outlines a host of other efforts being made by Mendaki and community groups to tackle stagnating maths grades. The majority of pupils who take part in these projects have seen their grades rise.

Since 2006, a one-day seminar has been held to motivate Primary 6 pupils and introduce them to exam strategies. Over 2,700 pupils took part this year and Mendaki plans to target 5,000 next year.

Maths workshops were held for Primary 5 students from 2007, and intensive PSLE maths sessions were started last year to help a select group of weak pupils.

This is where the usually calm CEO begins to lament the attitudes of some parents.

There are some 8,000 Malay pupils in an average Primary 1 cohort, she notes, but this year only about 400 enrolled in Mendaki's tuition scheme and another 300 attended classes where Mendaki paid part of the fees.

This low participation is barely enough to make an impact on the overall pass rate, she says with disappointment.

When Mendaki staff asked parents why they did not want to enrol their children, some said their children were busy on weekends. Others said they took pity on their children, who already had a tough time in school.

And when Mendaki invited 200 pupils who failed a pre-tuition test to join intensive maths classes for free, only 39 accepted. Out came excuses from those who turned down the offer: they felt sorry for their children, the children were tired.

'They have to prioritise,' Madam Zuraidah says with exasperation. 'They are depriving the child of opportunities!'

A similar sense of irritation was expressed by Dr Yaacob, who is also Mendaki's chairman, when he lamented the plight of dysfunctional families in the community earlier this month.

There are an estimated 7,500 dysfunctional families here with no skills and jobs. One parent is often absent too, and a disproportionately large number of these families are Malay.

Madam Zuraidah says her time at the helm of Mendaki has made her more convinced that the key strategy to help troubled families lies in making sure the children stay in school and enjoy learning.

'I thought I'd seen everything,' she says, referring to her 22 years with the police. 'But every time I go on the ground, I'm surprised,' she adds, referring to the occasional visits Mendaki staff and volunteers make to areas where many needy Malay-Muslim families live to make sure no one falls through the cracks.

She speaks of homes with huge television sets but the family is unable to hold down a job and the children skip school.

What gives her hope is that there are also homes where the living room is stripped of furniture but young children are doing their homework on the floor while their single parents are out at work.

She believes there is no quick fix for broken families, and persistence is key.

Madam Zuraidah reveals that when Mendaki and various community groups came up with a system to identify troubled families and provide them with comprehensive help two years ago, she thought the families could get back on their feet within three years.

After all, volunteer befrienders would visit them to offer support, and alert family service centres should issues arise.

But social workers told her the deep- seated nature of the problems facing such families meant it would take at least four to seven years before they could get back on their feet.

'I've come to realise that you cannot deal with one family the same way you deal with another,' she says.

Mendaki alone cannot do everything, she stresses. 'We must work with others, and we do better by working with others. This is where we leverage on national resources, work with other agencies to get families all the help they need.'

It will take time, she says. But what if the family refuses to be helped?

Then it is high time that others step in and intervene, she replies matter-of- factly.

She relates how a school principal rang her in desperation last year as she was at her wits' end over a student who failed to turn up for classes.

For a whole month, the boy's teacher had been going to his flat to accompany him to school. On the 31st day, he assumed the boy would know what to do. But he did not show up for class.

The teacher turned up at his door at 9.30am, and the boy's parents were watching TV with him. They told the teacher he did not want to go to school, and they could not do anything about it.

'The teacher was disappointed, the principal threw in the towel. I said: You have already done a lot, let us try to help the family,' recalls Madam Zuraidah.

She got two Mendaki officers to visit the boy's home right away. They gave the parents a shelling.

'The teacher was not Malay, but because we were a self-help group, our staff lectured the parents and told them off for not doing their duty.

'The parents were bo chap (Hokkien for couldn't care less),' she says.

Later the boy came up to the Mendaki staff and thanked them, saying he now realised his teacher just wanted him to succeed. The next day, he went to school.

That episode, Madam Zuraidah says, shows that if parents refuse to be helped, the community has a duty to reach out to the child and empower him or her.

'If I am the neighbour or the relative, I should be the one hectoring the parents. Can we have more of that kind of pressure or persuasion?' she asks.

She also feels that the community needs to provide mentors for such children 'because most of the time, the kids cannot rely on their parents'.

'They need a role model,' she says. She points to a five-year-old community programme, Youth-in-Action, in which volunteers organise activities for teenagers who are in danger of quitting school and mentor them to stay on and excel.

While many see them as youth at risk, Madam Zuraidah prefers to call them youth on the brink of success, a term some agencies in the United States adopt.

The term makes a world of difference to the confidence of youth, she says, as they feel they are part of the community and want to make a contribution.

Mendaki is training volunteers to help youths by nurturing their strengths.

It has also started an empowerment programme to build the confidence of secondary Normal stream students by getting them to interact and even shadow Malay-Muslim women professionals.

Citing the growing pool of young professionals in the community as a plus, Madam Zuraidah says Mendaki has invited some 80 of them from various fields to brainstorm ways to improve students' grades and tackle the problem of dysfunctional families.

The price of inaction could not seem less stark as the police officer in her takes over: 'If you don't help them, they get in trouble with the law down the road.'

zakirh@sph.com.sg

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dogs worse than SUVs?

Dec 21, 2009

PARIS - MAN'S best friend could be one of the environment's worst enemies, according to a new study which says the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle.

But the revelation in the book 'Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living' by New Zealanders Robert and Brenda Vale has angered pet owners who feel they are being singled out as troublemakers.

The Vales, specialists in sustainable living at Victoria University of Wellington, analysed popular brands of pet food and calculated that a medium-sized dog eats around 164 kilos of meat and 95 kilos of cereal a year.

Combine the land required to generate its food and a 'medium' sized dog has an annual footprint of 0.84 hectares - around twice the 0.41 hectares required by a 4x4 driving 10,000 kilometres a year, including energy to build the car.

To confirm the results, the New Scientist magazine asked John Barrett at the Stockholm Environment Institute in York, Britain, to calculate eco-pawprints based on his own data. The results were essentially the same. 'Owning a dog really is quite an extravagance, mainly because of the carbon footprint of meat,' he said.

Other animals aren't much better for the environment, the Vales say. Cats have an eco-footprint of about 0.15 hectares, slightly less than driving a Volkswagen Golf for a year, while two hamsters equates to a plasma television and even the humble goldfish burns energy equivalent to two mobile telephones. -- AFP

[Oh goody! The Environmentalist can fight with the Animal Lover.]

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A year of trials and triumphs

Dec 19, 2009
BATTLES OF 2009

If you imagine the Singapore scene as a boxing ring, what would you say were the biggest matches to enthrall, excite and exasperate Singaporeans this year? Today, we review 2009 - in five bouts. Enjoy.
By Nur Dianah Suhaimi

BOUT ONE

SINGAPORE VS RECESSION

NO DOUBT about it, this was the bout that hogged the headlines - Singapore pitted against Recession, the fearsome superheavyweight that threatened to deliver the sucker punch.

Even before the fight started, some pundits had predicted that this was a match that would floor Singapore. After all, the opponent was billed as the biggest recession to hit mankind since the Great Depression of 1929.

The first few blows seemed to bear out the prophecies of doom. Sour investments linked to Lehman Brothers, mass retrenchments, rising unemployment, falling gross domestic product - the unrelenting spate of bad news all pointed to a knockout punch.

How could a little red dot absorb the merciless pummelling? If an economic Goliath like the United States could be badly battered by widespread bankruptcy, terrible credit crunch and unimaginable joblessness, how could the economic Davids even hope to be spared?

Pushed into a corner, Singapore Government leaders had to stay nimble and alert while figuring out how to bob and weave and keep this monster recession at bay. In true Singapore tradition, its counter-punch came in a 'package'.

The Resilience Package came in two jabs. The first was the Jobs Credit scheme to help employers by subsidising the wages of local workers. The second, known as Spur, provided hefty subsidies for workers' skills upgrading.

It was a breathtaking but expensive strategy with a price tag of $20.5 billion.

For the first time ever, the Government had to seek permission to dip into the nation's sacred reserves, accumulated over several decades and never touched before.

The reserves' gatekeeper and keyholder, President SR Nathan, needed time to deliberate. The Government waited for 11 days. It was only at the 11th hour - just a day before the announcement of the Budget - that the President gave his nod.

As Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam later said in Parliament, getting the President's approval to dip into the reserves was a comprehensive process, not a 'wayang' ('show' in Malay).

If there were any critics of the Resilience Package, they were soon silenced when the Jobs Credit and Spur schemes worked their way through the system to keep retrenchment and jobless rates down.

Employers saw Jobs Credit as an essential lifeline when their finances floundered. Employees who became redundant were sent packing, not to their homes, but to training centres under the Spur scheme.

As a result, the spectre of recession faded as confidence replaced fear. Happily employed Singaporeans continued with their shopping binges at newly opened malls. Snaking queues formed outside luxury boutiques in town, and IT and travel fairs saw crowds like never before. New private properties were snapped up like hot cakes and housing prices went through the roof.

Of course, the lower-income segment of the population did bear the brunt of the hard times and its pain and anguish were reflected in the Meet-the-People sessions and growing demand for relief and handouts.

By the middle of the year, the number of retrenchments had dropped sharply and by the third quarter, the economy had started to bounce back.

The economy surged in double digits in the second and third quarters this year - by 22 per cent and 14.9 per cent quarter-on-quarter respectively. Total employment for the third quarter grew by 14,000, offsetting the combined losses of 13,900 in the first two quarters.

Economists are expecting more positive figures ahead and a cheerier 2010.

Verdict: The bout is still not over but Singapore has won the rounds so far.

BOUT TWO

AWARE - OLD GUARD VS NEW GUARD

A BARE-KNUCKLE match, with the gloves off, embroiling the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) seemed to materialise from out of nowhere.

After all, who would have expected a no-holds-barred leadership tussle in an advocacy group which championed women's rights and served battered and disadvantaged women?

When a group of new members came from out of the blue to seize power at the group's annual general meeting in March, the veterans had no idea what struck them.

First, their loyal supporters found themselves dismissed or sidelined by the new guard. Then, they found themselves locked out of the group's Dover Crescent headquarters because the locks had been changed.

But they recovered quickly to mobilise their forces and stage a counterattack. The battle moved to the media as the public reaction came fast and furious. Ordinary people usually indifferent to women's causes began to take sides.

There was a public backlash against the new leaders. Among other things, they received death threats in anonymous letters and suspicious powdery substances.

The match took a dramatic turn when 71-year-old senior lawyer and former law faculty dean Thio Su Mien burst into the ring, declaring herself the 'feminist mentor' of several women in the association's new leadership.

It soon became apparent that the new team of staunch Christians was strongly opposed to homosexuality, a topic covered by Aware's sexual education programme. The old guard was accused of having a 'gay agenda' while the new guard was derided as 'non-inclusive'.

In the end, it all came down to one final round: an extraordinary general meeting in which Aware members had to decide once and for all which group they wanted at the helm.

This round proved to be a barnburner, a close fight till the very end. Some 3,000 women - all but 300 of whom were new members - turned up that day to cast their votes.

Conviviality and tranquillity quickly gave way to frayed emotions once proceedings began. Angry women told one another off. Racial slurs, religious insults, screams and taunts all came pouring out.

Even the men were not spared. Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong was sternly ordered to sit in the men's corner.

As day turned into night, the votes were counted and, after seven long hours, the results were finally announced. The veterans had won by a 30 per cent margin.

Verdict: Both sides go the distance but the old guard wins by a knockout.

BOUT THREE

SINGAPOREANS VS IMMIGRANTS

IF YOU listen to the growing cacophony of complaints from Singaporeans this year, you would think they are spoiling for a fight, placing themselves in one corner and pushing the immigrants into the other.

They blame the newcomers for anything and everything - taking away jobs and places in schools and universities, jacking up prices of HDB resale flats, crowding MRT trains and hawker centres and littering the neighbourhood.

Concerned with the them-and-us attitude, the Government had to play the role of umpire cautioning Singaporeans to play fair and counselling immigrants to adapt to the rules.

Leaders had to explain repeatedly the imperative of ensuring a flow of immigrants to create more jobs for locals and sustain the country's economic growth. With birth rates at historic lows and a fast-ageing society, they stressed, immigrants were needed.

The latest population count shows 4.99 million people, of whom 3.2 million are Singapore citizens. Permanent residents number 533,000 while transients make up 1.25 million.

To bridge the divide, the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports this year came up with a slew of initiatives to help immigrants and citizens forge stronger bonds.

Cultural gatherings and social outings are organised to enhance interaction. New immigrants need to attend English courses and a special orientation programme to learn more about Singapore's history and heritage.

Verdict: It is time to blow the whistle, call off the match and hang up the gloves.

BOUT FOUR

SINGAPORE VS THE BUG

THIS was one match that Singapore was most prepared for. Way before The Bug started its attack, Singapore entered the ring complete with face masks, thermometers, hand sanitisers and, most importantly, a highly vigilant population.

After all, The Bug (also known by its scientific name 'Influenza A (H1N1) virus' or its unglamorous other name 'swine flu') has shown no mercy elsewhere.

From the pueblos of Mexico to the cities of South Korea, it had infected thousands of victims with a vengeance that sent shock waves throughout the world.

The Bug dealt Singapore its first strike in May when a 22-year-old undergraduate returned home from New York, unaware that she had been infected during her trip.

After that, the hits just kept coming, with one Singaporean after another contracting the dreaded virus.

Those who fell ill or came in contact with the infected were quickly quarantined. Yet panic struck when it was reported that some patients, not realising they were ill, had mingled with the crowds in public places.

A young man stricken by H1N1 had taken the MRT train to see his general practitioner while a similarly afflicted German researcher had allegedly gone shopping and attended a concert.

By then, hospitals, offices, schools and even nightspots were meticulously taking people's temperatures before allowing them entry. Those with the slightest signs of fever were turned away.

The first fatal blow came in July when a 49-year-old man, who was already suffering from various chronic ailments, died from a heart attack after being infected.

Several more H1N1 victims died in the following weeks but, like the first victim to die, most of them had underlying health problems.

By August, the worst appeared to be over. The Bug showed signs of slowing down. To keep it at bay, the Ministry of Health brought in one million doses of the H1N1 vaccine.

Verdict: Match is still in progress but Singapore is in the lead - on points.

BOUT FIVE

FIRST-TIME HOME BUYER VS RISING HDB FLAT PRICES

IT WAS a match that saw agitated First-Time Buyers facing off Rising HDB Prices and complaining of being hit below the belt.

They argued that the lack of new HDB flats had pushed up the prices of resale flats as well as newly built ones. Despite numerous tries, they claimed they could not get a home.

Knowing the Government's concern about the low birth rate, they said that they would have to postpone marriage or put off having children as they could not get a home.

To address the mounting complaints, the Government did its own investigations and discovered that some of these claims were not entirely truthful.

Apparently, some buyers had offered exaggerated accounts of their failed attempts to get a new flat, it said.

As National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan put it, it was 'not a matter of buyers getting a flat; it's a matter of them getting it and not selecting it, for one reason or another'.

These reasons included wanting to live only in 'established' estates, refusing flats on lower floors and avoiding flats with uninspiring views of the neighbourhood rubbish centre.

But the Government was not oblivious to their concerns. Turning on the supply tap, it launched thousands of new flats and reserved 95 per cent of them for the First-Time Home Buyers.

Despite these changes, HDB flat prices continued to climb relentlessly, refusing to ease even during the recession.

Last month, when economic recovery was still an uncertainty, a four-room Queenstown flat made the news when it was sold for a staggering $653,000.

Verdict: Match is still on but the First-Time Home Buyer is clearly on the ropes.

ndianah@sph.com.sg

Friday, December 18, 2009

From fashionable mum to 'feminist mentor'

Dec 18, 2009
BLASTS FROM THE PAST
By Cassandra Chew


Dr Thio is a top lawyer. In her early 30s (above, with her children Shen Yi and Li-ann), she was the law faculty dean. -- ST FILE PHOTO

MANY Singaporeans will remember her as the 'feminist mentor' behind a group of activists who captured Aware, the women's advocacy group, triggering one of the biggest controversies of the year.

If they delve into history, they will see a portrait of Dr Thio Su Mien, now 71, as a leading lawyer who had no qualms about speaking her mind.

THE PAST

Newspapers in the 1960s often reported her calls for government action on issues ranging from the rights of rejected work-permit applicants to the need for an ombudsman to investigate complaints against the Government.

The ace student at the then University of Singapore made the news when she became the first woman graduate here to become the vice-dean, and then dean, of its Faculty of Law in 1968.

At just 30 years of age, she was the youngest person to assume the post, and was held up as an exemplary young working mum who was fashionable to boot. She was also a committee member of the Singapore section of the International Commission of Jurists.

As dean, she challenged lawyers to pursue their education to raise standards in the profession.

But her stint was short as she left the university in 1971 to go into private practice. But she still kept her eagle eye on current affairs and national developments.

In 1977, she took issue with how the law appeared to lag behind policies by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), and offered the solution of a legal panel to advise MAS.

THE BLAST

Now a senior lawyer at her own TSMP Law Corporation, Dr Thio is a devout Christian.

It was her deep commitment to conservative Christian values that led her to take action when she disagreed very strongly with the goings-on at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

Dr Thio revealed later that she was disturbed by what she saw as signs that appeared to promote lesbianism and homosexuality. These included the choice of lesbian-themed movie Spider Lilies for the group's charity gala, and the use of 'neutral' words to describe homosexuality in its sex education course for teenagers.

She began urging women she knew to challenge Aware's attempts to redefine marriage and families. In response, a group of women joined the organisation and secured nine out of 12 leadership positions at Aware's annual general meeting in March. News of the takeover led to a public outcry.

In explaining her pivotal role in the takeover, Dr Thio described herself as a 'feminist mentor' to working women.

In the end, the new guard was ousted at an extraordinary general meeting held on May 2, and replaced by veterans.

Meanwhile, the Education Ministry looked into Dr Thio's criticisms of Aware's sex education programme and found that it was not up to par with the ministry's guidelines.

On May 6, it suspended all sexuality education programmes offered by external groups to schools.

[She obviously raised the ceiling for women, but is she a feminist? She is a role model for feminists perhaps, and she may be independent minded, and self-assured and confident, but not a feminist in the activist sense of the word. So hardly a mentor to feminist.]


Recalling S'pore's other birthday

Dec 18, 2009
BLASTS FROM THE PAST

PAP leaders at a victory celebration in City Hall after winning the 1959 elections. -- ST FILE PHOTO

TO MANY, Singapore's birth can be marked either in 1965 when it broke away from Malaysia to be an independent republic, or in 1819 when it was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles.

This year came a jolting reminder that there is one more year that also qualifies as a birth year: 1959.

Singapore was granted self-government by the British in that year, which meant that the island was being ruled by a fully elected government for the first time in its history.

As this year marked the 50th anniversary of self-rule, which coincided with 50 years of People's Action Party (PAP) rule, it was no surprise that it would be a recurring theme in major national events such as the May Day Rally and National Day Rally.

THE PAST

THE auspicious date that compelled all this interest and attention was June 3, 1959.

Just past midnight on that day, British Governor William Goode came on the radio to proclaim Singapore a self-governing state.

Mr Chor Yeok Eng, who was a PAP legislative assemblyman then, recalled staying up with his wife and three small children to listen to the message. Now 79, he told The Straits Times earlier this year that the day was important because it marked 'the first step of our journey towards independence'.

Later that evening, between 50,000 and 80,000 people gathered at the Padang for the celebrations.

Evoking the atmosphere, lawyer Tan Kok Kiong, 68, then a student, said: 'We were excited because we were going to rule our own country, and we could have our voice.'

The highlight of that rally, of course, was when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who led the PAP to victory in the 1959 elections, addressed the crowd and roared 'Merdeka', which means independence in Malay.

THE BLAST

AS WITH most anniversaries, the 50th year of self-government was commemorated with flashbacks into history.

The Straits Times produced a nine-page special feature on May 30 which, among others, retraced what happened in the 24 hours starting just after midnight on June 3.

Headlined 'Merdeka', it featured former PAP politicians as well as ordinary Singaporeans who were present at the Padang celebrations reminiscing about the momentous occasion.

In August, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted almost half an hour of his National Day Rally speech to a slideshow of images from Singapore's past.

But this look back also came with a look forward. The milestone was seen as an opportune time to get Singapore to take stock of where it had been and where it was going.

During his rally speech, PM Lee highlighted the remarkable change Singapore had gone through in the past 50 years, using it to underscore just how promising the future would be.

'As one united nation, we can continue to upgrade this city and make this place our home, our future and our Singapore,' he said.

It was a rare sight when several PAP legislative assemblymen elected in 1959 turned out for the launch of Men In White on Sept 8. They included Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Lee Khoon Choy, Mr Chan Chee Seng and Mr Chor Yeok Eng.

JEREMY AU YONG

Return of the left?

Dec 18, 2009
BLASTS FROM THE PAST

This is the year when history made news and a generation of young Singaporeans scratched their heads and asked Fong who? Poh who? Today, we take a look at what happened when the past revisits the present.
By Jeremy Au Yong

LOOKING at the faces and headlines that popped out of The Straits Times this year, the reader might be led to believe that Singapore was witnessing a resurgence of the left.

Indeed, leftists of all hues and shades from Singapore's past made a public appearance on Sept 8, reawakening the interest of older Singaporeans but leaving younger ones scratching their heads. Fong who? Hoe who? Low who?

Not since the Big Split of 1961 when a radical faction broke away to form Barisan Sosialis had there been such a gathering of former leftists and dissident PAP legislative assemblymen in Parliament.

The occasion on Sept 8 was a book launch officiated by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. The roll call included Mr Fong Swee Suan, Mr Lim Chin Joo, Madam Hoe Puay Choo, Mr Low Por Tuck, Mr Ong Chang Sam and Mr Dominic Puthucheary.

At another book launch two months later - on Nov 14 - former Barisan Sosialis leaders and Operation Cold Store detainees Dr Lim Hock Siew and Dr Poh Soo Kai made fiery speeches giving their side of the Singapore story in a packed auditorium.

Then no less than the former head of the Malayan Communist Party Chin Peng also re-emerged in the news with a poignant plea.

Here's a recap of what happened when the past jumped into the present.

THE PAST

THE last time the former leftists were making waves in the hurly-burly of politics, circumstances on the island were very different.

Back then, the future of Singapore hung in the balance. These men and women, in their own way, became famous or infamous - depending on your ideological point of view.

Take Mr Fong Swee Suan. He was one of the most prominent opposition activists and union militants regarded as the man who started the Hock Lee bus strike which quickly escalated into a riot in 1955.

He is also known as one of the founding members of the People's Action Party who became a political secretary in the first PAP government before he and his close ally Lim Chin Siong broke away to form the Barisan Sosialis.

Accused of being involved in communist activities, Mr Fong was arrested together with 100 others under Operation Cold Store in 1963.

The operation decimated the leftist movement and ended his political career.

Later he was exiled to Malaysia. The ban on him was lifted only in 1990. He returned to Singapore in 1998 and kept a low profile until September this year, when he resurfaced for that 'historic handshake' with his former adversary MM Lee.

Like Mr Fong, Dr Lim and Dr Poh were also detained under Operation Cold Store.

Both medical doctors first came into public attention because of their involvement in the then-University of Malaya Socialist Club.

In 1954, Dr Poh was among eight students charged with sedition by the British colonial government following the publication of the journal, Fajar, by the club.

An article in the journal had called Singapore a 'police state'.

MM Lee was then the club's legal adviser who assisted Queen's Counsel D.N. Pritt in getting the students acquitted.

Chin Peng's notoriety was of a different league. He led the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) guerillas in a brutal insurrection that began in 1948 and lasted into the 1980s.

He has been held responsible for the gruesome deaths of many innocent civilians and servicemen.

The communist insurgents finally laid down their arms in 1989 after signing a peace treaty with the Malaysian and Thai governments.

Chin Peng, in exile for more than 40 years, now lives in Thailand.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the treaty.

THE BLAST

NOW in their 70s and 80s, many former leftists have mellowed. Meet them in person and they appear no different from any other senior citizen.

All have long since left the political arena. For some, the time had come to let go of old grievances and grudges.

That seemed to be the case for the group who met MM Lee in Old Parliament House during the launch of Men In White, a Singapore Press Holdings book chronicling the history of the PAP.

Indeed, it was a familiar setting for some of them as they shook hands and posed for photographs with the man with whom they had crossed swords years ago in the august chamber. The picture of MM Lee and his former foes made the front page of Chinese and English newspapers the next day.

Speaking to The Straits Times after the reunion, Mr Fong, 78, came across as one keen to set aside the differences of the past.

Focusing on the significance of the handshake, he said: 'The main thing is the gesture, to show that we are all sincere about meeting each other again. I felt it was a very happy occasion.'

Closure would, however, be much more difficult for Dr Lim and Dr Poh, who were detained for 19 years and 17 years, respectively.

At the launch of the book titled The Fajar Generation, they spoke passionately about the importance of setting the record straight. Fajar was started in 1953 to raise political awareness among students of the university.

At the well-attended launch last month, Dr Lim made no bones about how aggrieved he was by his treatment by the PAP Government.

Referring to fellow activists who had since died, Dr Poh, 77, said in an interview: 'I owe a duty to all of them to describe the conditions, the struggle we had, the difficulties we had because we were all together in the struggle.'

But for Chin Peng, 85, his return to the spotlight had more to do with wanting to forget than to recall the past.

The Malaysian-born ex-communist chief had gone to court in a bid to get his ban from entering Malaysia lifted. He said he could not be at peace if he did not fulfil his filial duties and visit the graves of his elders. The court turned him down.

In his interview with The Straits Times in October, he laid down his case for returning to Malaysia and urged those who opposed his bid to let bygones be bygones.

'I think we should not pay too much attention to what happened in the past. We need to start to build a new relationship. People will say it is easier said than done. But if we dwell on the past there will be no end,' he said.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Educate students about politics, says Shanmugam

Dec 17, 2009
PAP must convince young voters about virtues of current system
By Zakir Hussain

FOR 50 years, the PAP has stayed in power because it has delivered progress to the people, its leaders often point out.

But Law Minister K. Shanmugam feels younger voters can erode its dominant position should the party fail to convince them that Singapore, more than most countries, needs a strong leadership and a political system that allows for effective and speedy decisions to be made.

He gave this warning to his party members in an editorial in the latest People's Action Party bi-monthly magazine, Petir.

Mr Shanmugam appears to have his eye on the clock when he issued his word of caution, saying no political party had stayed in power continuously for more than 70 years.

The way for the PAP to outlive this record, he feels, is to provide greater political education for Singaporeans, in particular, students.

However, he said: 'The education should not trumpet the virtues of any particular system.'

Instead, students should be taught, among other things, how political systems work in different cultures, the impact of geographical and social factors on societies and why city states rise and fall.

'This will make people look carefully at the liberal democratic model and help them decide which aspects best suit Singapore,' he said as he set out how the PAP can communicate better its message that Singapore needs good governance and that only the PAP can deliver it.

His concern comes at a time when a younger generation of better-educated voters feels the political process and system in a democratic state should be based on the Western model of liberal democracy.

Mr Shanmugam and government leaders reject the view, arguing that the best systems are those that fit the society they govern.

'Not every aspect can be transplanted in toto across cultures, without regard to different economic, social and geostrategic situations,' said the Law Minister.

It is a position he has argued vigorously in favour of in the past three months: first to a group of international lawyers meeting here in October, then the Harvard alumni in Singapore last week, and now, PAP members.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Second Home Affairs Minister, said the PAP's message had resonated with the older generation who experienced the turmoil of Singapore's early years.

'But the collective memory of this is not as strong among newer generations, whose viewpoints will increasingly influence the political process,' he added.

Younger Singaporeans may therefore believe that the Western model of liberal democracy can be adopted without trade-offs, he said.

'Singaporeans are entitled to decide whether they want the trade-offs.

'And if the majority chooses slower development and a lower quality of life, and is willing to accept more tensions within our society in return for changes in the political system, then so be it,' he said.

'But that choice must be an informed one,' he added.

[Comparative Politics: Contemporary & Historical lessons. What is politics? What is political science? How does politics relate to government. How does political systems select for the best government or representatives in govt? What are the underlying assumptions of each political system. Where are the weakpoints or fallacies of those assumptions?]


Monday, December 14, 2009

Malaysia an oil-cursed economy: Razaleigh

Dec 13, 2009

Kuala Lumpur - Petronas founder and veteran Umno leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah said yesterday that Malaysia had become an 'oil-cursed' economy because its political leaders had squandered oil revenues and shown no accountability.

The billions of dollars in wealth generated by national oil company Petroliam Nasional (Petronas) had 'became a fund for the whims and fancy of whoever ran the country, without any accountability', he said in a hard-hitting speech.

Tengku Razaleigh was the president of Petronas when it was set up in 1974 and later became Malaysia's finance minister. The prince from Kelantan is an Umno MP and has become a critical voice in the party. His speech was posted in full on the website of Malaysiakini online news.

Speaking at a youth meeting, he traced the formation of Petronas and what the funds generated from oil and gas deposits were intended for. He said: 'We saw our oil reserves as an unearned bounty that would provide the money for modernisation and technology. We saw our oil within a developmental perspective.

'Our struggle then was to make the leap from an economy based on commodities and low-cost assembly and manufacture to a more diverse economy based on high-income jobs.'

Although Malaysia's economy expanded fast, Tengku Razaleigh said, the oil wealth became 'a narcotic that provides economic quick fixes and hollow symbols such as the Petronas Towers'.

He added: 'Instead of being our ace up the sleeve, however, our oil wealth became in effect a swag of money used to fund the government's operational expenditure, to bail out failing companies, buy arms, build grandiose cities amidst cleared palm oil estates.

'Instead of helping eradicate poverty in the poorest states, our oil wealth came to be channelled into the overseas bank accounts of our political and politically linked class.'

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 Johor MP opposes cap on fuel sale
Plan to limit foreign vehicles to just 20 litres 'tough to implement'

Johor Baru - Senior Johor politician Shahrir Samad said he disagreed with a government plan to limit foreign-registered vehicles to buying 20 litres of fuel near border areas, as it would be tough to implement.

An easier way to prevent foreigners from enjoying Malaysia's fuel subsidy would be for the government to give annual fuel rebates to local vehicle owners, or to ask Malaysians to show their identity cards when buying fuel near the border, he said.

Datuk Shahrir, MP for Johor Baru and a former domestic trade minister, added that if the problem was caused by rampant fuel-buying and smuggling at the Thai-Malaysia border, the government should address this directly.

He was responding to the announcement by Domestic Trade, Cooperative and Consumerism Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob last Thursday that foreign-registered vehicles would soon be allowed to buy only 20 litres of fuel at stations within 50km of the Malaysian border.

The new ruling is aimed at preventing foreigners from benefiting from subsidised fuel and at curbing smuggling, especially at the Thai border.

The minister said the enforcement authorities at checkpoints would be directed to ensure that foreign vehicles left the country with no more than 20 litres of fuel in their tanks.

He said the new ruling would be implemented 'in the near future' but did not give a date.

Malaysia heavily subsidises petrol and diesel to keep pump prices about 30 sen (12 Singapore cents) below the market rate. It spent more than RM40 billion last year in fuel subsidies.

RON 95 petrol is priced at RM1.80 in Malaysia, RM4.01 in Thailand, RM4.31 in Singapore, Mr Ismail said. Malaysia also shares its border with Indonesia and Brunei on Borneo island.

Mr Shahrir said that giving an annual RM625 rebate for local vehicle owners would be an easier way to tackle the issue. It was done once, last year, when he was the domestic trade minister.

'If the problem is the smuggling of diesel in the north (at the Thai-Malaysia border), then we must come up with solutions to specifically address the problem,' he said.

He said it would be difficult for petrol stations at border areas to adhere to the ruling as most stations were self-service.

There are some 300 petrol stations within 50km of the Thai and Singapore borders with Malaysia.

'Who is going to monitor the sale of petrol to foreign-registered cars? What about Malaysians using Singapore-registered cars to travel between both countries?' he asked.

He said that having separate pumps for foreign cars was also not practical because of cost factors.

The Star/Asia News Network


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Putrajaya: Good move or a waste of money?

Dec 12, 2009
MALAYSIA

By Hazlin Hassan, Malaysia Correspondent

KUALA LUMPUR: By day, the administrative capital of Putrajaya is a place of majestic buildings bustling with thousands of civil servants and visitors.

But by night, the area is virtually a ghost town as nearly everything grinds to a halt.

'Putrajaya is often perceived as a boring spot - too far away and just an administrative city,' said marketing executive Puteri Yasrina Yusoff, who works for the city's only shopping mall, the Alamanda.

With that, she summed up one major problem faced by a city that critics condemn as a waste of money.

Putrajaya is the brainchild of former premier Mahathir Mohamad. In 1995, he decided to move the government ministries to what was then a palm oil plantation, so as to ease congestion in Kuala Lumpur.

Housing all the ministries in one area was also intended to improve communications. At the time, some were spread across different buildings in KL because of the rapid expansion of the civil service, which now employs around a million workers.

Located 25km south of KL, Putrajaya takes its name from Malaysia's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, and the word 'jaya', which means success in Malay.

The 5ha city boasts scenic lakes, ornate landscaping, pristine parks, well-planned office buildings and housing, its own hospital, a train station and plenty of space. There are no traffic jams, and civil servants living there can travel between their offices and homes within minutes.

Indeed, while critics say there is not much to do in Putrajaya and that it is too far from KL, many of its 60,000 residents love living in the self-contained city.

Ms Puteri Yasrina said the mall - which has two supermarkets, retail outlets, a cinema, a bowling alley and a karaoke centre - sees about 40,000 visitors a day.

Of course, residents have few other choices since Putrajaya has only a handful of small grocers and eateries. Ms Puteri Yasrina, however, noted that the city offers a water sports complex and a rock climbing facility as well.

Former resident Wan Esuriyanti Wan Ahmad, 37, who lived in government housing there for four years while working for former premier Abdullah Badawi, said she enjoyed the convenience.

'It took me less than five minutes to get to work. I could go home any time in case of emergencies,' she said. 'And I've never stayed in a city so clean.'

The recreational facilities are top-notch, she added. Her family regularly used the cycling and jogging tracks, as well as the public swimming pools.

However, detractors say building Putrajaya has cost too much. According to Tun Abdullah, as of last year, the price tag had swelled to about RM12 billion (S$4.9 billion).

The city's grandiose buildings are also expensive to keep picture perfect. Just maintaining the Prime Minister's official residence there cost RM158,051 a month, Mr Abdullah told Parliament last year, while his deputy's house required another RM94,166.

Meanwhile, the diplomatic community has resisted moving to the designated diplomatic enclave in Putrajaya.

'Most of our work is in KL,' said a diplomat who declined to be named. 'KL is also much more liveable in terms of amenities and entertainment.'

Ms Wan Esuriyanti pointed out another problem. She decided to move out of Putrajaya and buy a property in a nearby suburb because she wanted her children to grow up in a racially balanced neighbourhood.

'Putrajaya is almost 100 per cent Malay,' she said. 'I don't want my children to grow up not knowing about other races and cultures.'

hazlinh@sph.com.sg

Keeping opposition flames burning for 25 years

Dec 12, 2009

Today, Mr Chiam See Tong marks his 25th year as Potong Pasir MP. No more jokes swirl about his name, which in Hokkien sounds like 'hanging on temporarily'. From a lone campaigner in his Volkswagen Beetle to Singapore's longest-serving opposition politician, he has demonstrated his staying power and commitment to public service. But at 74, is he a spent force? Will he be able to make his last hurrah? Insight takes a look at his chequered political career.

By Sue-Ann Chia & Kor Kian Beng

AS SHE waited for her husband to finish his Meet-the-People session, Mrs Lina Chiam sat on a stone bench, flipping through old photographs.

They had yellowed with age, but time did not dim her memories as she recalled her cherished moments.

Most of the faces were not familiar, except for the bespectacled man with an earnest smile who has stood the test of time as Singapore's longest-serving opposition MP.

The focus was on Mr Chiam See Tong, decked with garlands on the campaign trail, or standing at the back of a lorry with a loudhailer in hand during his victory parade.

There were also pictures after the hustings, showing him attending a wedding of a Potong Pasir resident, meeting reporters at a coffee shop, and having drinks with supporters.

The photographs date back to 1984, the year he won his first election in Potong Pasir. Since then, he has proven his staying power, retaining the seat in the five polls that followed.

Tonight, some of these shots selected by his wife will be screened at a dinner to celebrate Mr Chiam's 25th year as MP for Potong Pasir.

It is a silver jubilee that testifies to his tremendous contribution to Singapore's democratic system, say political observers.

'Mr Chiam's rightful place in Singapore's political history lies in his unbending belief that there should be a constitutional role for the opposition and that he had kept this idealism and hope alive,' says Dr Ho Khai Leong from Nanyang Technological University.

But the avuncular politician, known as Ah Chiam or Uncle Chiam, is not ready to call it quits.

His hair has whitened, his gait is more stooped after he suffered a stroke last year, but nothing seems to stop the 74-year-old opposition warhorse from charging on.

He has already thrown his hat into the next electoral ring, signalling his intention to contest a group representation constituency (GRC) for the first time - a move viewed as his last hurrah.

But is the veteran MP, who was at one point the unofficial opposition leader in Parliament, still a formidable force to be reckoned with?

Political contest

MR CHIAM contested his first general election (GE) as a lone crusader with the sole mission of breaking the People's Action Party's one-party rule.

Taking on PAP stalwart Lim Kim San in the minister's Cairnhill turf, the teacher-turned-lawyer declared: 'We can uphold democracy only if there are at least two parties - one in power and the other, an opposition who will serve as a check against the excesses and improper use of powers by the ruling party.'

He did not win. But neither did people forget the independent candidate who campaigned with his maroon Volkswagen Beetle and his political mantra - both of which he still holds on to today.

Encouraged by public support, the Anglo-Chinese School alumnus and former school swimmer took another dive into politics, in the 1979 by-election, and again in the 1980 GE as a candidate of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) which he had founded a few months earlier.

Both times, he faced PAP heavyweight Howe Yoon Chong in Potong Pasir, and lost. But with each round, his score improved.

Victory came in Round 4 when he defeated PAP rookie Mah Bow Tan, who is now the National Development Minister, in the 1984 polls.

He won with a comfortable 60.3 per cent share of the votes in Potong Pasir, reflecting a surge of support some believe could be due to remarks made by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Lee had contrasted Mr Mah's and Mr Chiam's O-level results, insinuating that the latter was not as smart as his PAP opponent - a comment that could have driven more people to root for the underdog.

Since then, the political tide has continued to flow in Mr Chiam's favour in the five elections that followed, peaking in 1991 when his vote share hit almost 70 per cent.

Yet, for all his efforts, some believe he could have achieved more.

'Mr Chiam has been very dogged in his determination to present an opposition voice in Parliament and to optimise the use of his resources on the ground in serving people in Potong Pasir,' notes Dr Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow with the Institute of Policy Studies.

'He would have a richer legacy if he had achieved as much in building up a strong political party and one around a positive and clear set of ideals people can identify with... This would be critical for him to secure a larger footprint in the political scene than the one he has today.'

The good guy

MR CHIAM would probably concede that he is not ambitious, as evident in his remarks over the years.

In an interview after the 1991 polls, at the height of his political career, he said almost apologetically: 'You see, I have really no great ambitions of my own. I'm being caught in a tide which I cannot stop. It's just pushing me on.'

In another interview, in 2004, when asked about his achievements in 20 years as an MP, he replied: 'To keep the idea and presence of the opposition in the minds of Singaporeans is already a big success in Singapore's context.

'I've no grandeur dreams...trying to be the ruler.'

He declined to be interviewed for this feature, but his humility is clear.

For the modest man who dared to challenge the PAP and win, his virtue of service before self has endeared him to voters who value his dedication to the care of his constituency. Most continue to support him and the larger opposition cause he represents, spurning the PAP's overtures such as estate upgrading.

Engineer Robyn Yeo, 33, who has lived in Potong Pasir since 1984, recounts how seriously Mr Chiam took his work. He had called the Town Council to complain about cleaners who refused to remove big-item rubbish. Later that night, Mr Chiam called and spoke to his mother.

'My mother told Mr Chiam that she was very surprised that he bothered to call us. Mr Chiam then told her, 'You're my resident. I have to understand your concerns',' he says. 'That phone call still lingers in my mind and reaffirms my support for Mr Chiam.'

Praise also came from the PAP camp.

In an earlier interview, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, his fiercest PAP rival who shaved Mr Chiam's win to 52.4 per cent in the 2001 election, related an exchange he had with the MP.

At last year's National Day Rally, he chatted briefly with Mr Chiam who was still recovering from his stroke.

'I told him to look after himself and get well soon,' said Mr Sitoh, who stood against Mr Chiam in the last two polls.

'He said, 'Don't worry, when I get well, I will come and beat you again'.'

Recalling the friendly repartee, he added: 'I must say, Chiam's a good guy.'

The man and his critics

DESPITE his winning ways, Mr Chiam is not without his detractors.

Even criticisms come from within his own Singapore People's Party (SPP), which he joined after leaving SDP.

'His work has been satisfactory,' says SPP chairman Sin Kek Tong, who has had public spats with Mr Chiam over his leadership style. Both maintain cordial ties.

'The outstanding part is that he has been able to gain support from residents over the years. But he didn't do it alone. Without the help of the party and supporters, it is questionable whether he would have been able to pull it off.'

Others point to Mr Chiam's patchy parliamentary performance, his inability to grow the opposition ranks in Parliament, and his lack of a political successor.

The first can be blamed on his childhood. The other two, on his political experiences that caused him to be once bitten, twice shy.

In an interview with Asiaweek magazine in 1986, Mr Chiam confessed that nobody squabbled within his family, which he believes explains his lack of oratorical skills during parliamentary debates.

'I was taught to behave well and not to quarrel with people,' said the politician who avoids the adversarial approach of opposing for the sake of opposing.

Despite his shortcomings, he has made inroads over the years as a long-time champion of compulsory education.

He has also had his moments in Parliament - his objection to a PAP MP's racist comment that Serangoon Road was 'pitch dark', and he has debated many national policies, from the cost of public housing to building more community libraries.

A robust session in which Mr Chiam pressed for more transparency in property perks enjoyed by politicians led then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew to remark in 1996:

'I hope he wins the next election. I think he has done on the whole good for the House. I was wrong when I thought he was not going to do much good, but in his somewhat honest, bumbling way, he has been a voice of sanity.'

While he is not an eloquent speaker, observers say he is a skilled strategist who has been able to adapt nimbly to the PAP-dominant political system.

He is credited as the architect of the by-election strategy - that is, contesting fewer than half the seats and returning the PAP to power on Nomination Day so that people would be more inclined to vote for the opposition. It was first used to great effect in the 1991 GE.

It resulted in four opposition candidates - including Mr Chiam - getting into Parliament. Two others were from the SDP, while the fourth was the Workers' Party's Low Thia Khiang.

With three prized seats, the SDP was hailed as the most promising opposition party and Mr Chiam became the unofficial leader of the opposition.

Yet, for all his political wisdom, he failed to stop the seeds of discord from growing within the SDP. The split culminated in a fight over a hunger strike by Mr Chiam's protege, Dr Chee Soon Juan, in 1993. Dr Chee was protesting against his dismissal from the National University of Singapore as a neuropsychology lecturer for misusing research funds.

Mr Chiam lost in the ensuing battle and eventually resigned from his party post in 1993. A year and a half later, Dr Chee became the party boss.

Political observers say that experience could have discouraged Mr Chiam from grooming other aspiring politicians who might have made his party a bigger player on the political scene.

'There is no clear heir-apparent to Mr Chiam at the moment. He may well have been stung by his own experience in SDP when he lost control of the party to Dr Chee,' notes Mr Eugene Tan from the Singapore Management University (SMU).

But could it be water under the bridge now, as Dr Chee is attending the celebration tonight as a guest?

Congratulating Mr Chiam, the SDP's secretary-general says: 'It is a significant milestone in the history of opposition politics in Singapore. We wish Mr Chiam all the very best and may he continue to hold this office for many more years.'

The future of the opposition

IT IS a wish that Mr Chiam intends to fulfil, to keep the opposition flame burning bright.

He is reported to be seeking an alliance with the Reform Party, headed by Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, to form a credible team to take on a GRC.

His push for such a tie-up could spring from his desire for opposition unity. He was instrumental in forming the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), an umbrella group for three opposition parties.

Law lecturer Eugene Tan says: 'The SDA has been important in helping to avoid three-cornered fights and to demonstrate that a united front against the PAP is strategically useful for the opposition. It's a pooling of resources, especially candidates, and that helps give the impression of some degree of cohesiveness within the opposition ranks.'

Confirming talk of a possible tie-up, Mr Jeyaretnam says: 'The Reform Party got a lot of feedback from people about what they thought of Mr Chiam before entering into discussions with him about a potential alliance...we found that people had good things to say about him.

'I would hope that he continues to provide inspiration to the next generation of opposition politicians.'

Why is Mr Chiam contemplating the audacious idea of leading a GRC team as his last hurrah in the next polls? To observers, it is all about breaking a 'political-psychological barrier' as the PAP has won every contested GRC since the scheme started in 1988.

As SMU's Eugene Tan notes: 'It may well serve his intent to leave a lasting legacy politically and to rally people to step forward and join the opposition parties.'

But not all think it is a good idea, as his age and health could work against him on the arduous campaign trail.

And what about his diehard loyal constituents? Would they not feel abandoned? As Potong Pasir resident Mohd Fahmi Ahmad Abu Bakar, 30, an assistant administrative officer, says: 'Residents would want him to end on a high by staying in Potong Pasir.'

Whichever direction he takes, Mr Chiam wants to show that he is not a spent force and that he is still the man to watch in opposition politics.

sueann@sph.com.sg

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

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Chiam's career over the years

# 1964 to 1972: Taught at Cedar Girls' Secondary School.

# 1974: Obtained law degree from London's Inner Temple. Returned to Singapore to work as a lawyer at Philip Wong & Co before setting up his own law firm, Chiam & Company, in 1976.

# 1976: Contested as an independent candidate at Cairnhill in the general election against Mr Lim Kim San from the People's Action Party. Mr Lim was then Communications and National Development Minister. Mr Chiam lost with 31.8 per cent of the votes.

# 1979: Contested Potong Pasir for the first time in a by-election as an independent against the PAP's Mr Howe Yoon Chong, then Defence Minister. Lost with 33.2 per cent of the votes.

# 1980: Set up the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and contested Potong Pasir against Mr Howe again. Lost with 41 per cent of the votes.

# 1981: Became the only opposition member ever to clinch a settlement for libel from a PAP leader. Mr Chiam sued then Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan for remarks related to his professional capacity and competence made at an election rally. Mr Dhanabalan publicly apologised and settled the matter out of court. Mr Howe also apologised and compensated him for making similar remarks.

# 1984: Elected Potong Pasir MP after defeating the PAP's Mr Mah Bow Tan with 60.3 per cent of the votes.

# 1988: Retained Potong Pasir with 63.1 per cent of the votes against the PAP's Mr Kenneth Chen.

# 1991: Retained Potong Pasir with 69.6 per cent of the votes against the PAP's Mr Andy Gan. Declared the unofficial leader of the opposition after SDP also won two other wards in Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central.

# 1993: Resigned as SDP secretary-general over differences with the party's central executive committee (CEC). His protege, Dr Chee Soon Juan, took over as acting head. Expelled from the party by its CEC, Mr Chiam took the CEC to court, which ruled that the sacking was illegal, and he was reinstated as a cadre member.

# 1996: Joined the Singapore People's Party (SPP), which was set up in 1994 by a breakaway faction of the SDP.

# 1997: Retained Potong Pasir with 55.2 per cent of the votes against Mr Gan.

# 2001: Set up the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), as an alliance of opposition parties to pool resources and contest elections as a united front. It comprised the SPP, Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS), Singapore Justice Party and National Solidarity Party which left the grouping in 2007. Retained Potong Pasir with 52.4 per cent of the votes against the PAP's Mr Sitoh Yih Pin.

Mr Chiam meeting then Prime Minister Goh on a walkabout in Potong Pasir in the 2001 election.

# 2002: Retired from law practice to become full-time MP.

# 2006: Retained Potong Pasir with 55.8 per cent of the votes against Mr Sitoh.

# Early 2008: Suffered a mild stroke.

# December 2008: Signalled his intention to contest a group representative constituency at the next election due by February 2012.

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Who's eyeing what? The buzz continues

NEWS of a proposed change to the electoral campaign process has revived speculation of a looming general election.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broached the idea of a one-day 'cooling-off' period - right before Polling Day - for voters to think over their voting decisions.

Amid the buzz over an election which is due by early 2012, Insight finds out who's eyeing what.

For now, the spotlight is on the next move of opposition veteran Chiam See Tong: Will he stay put in the Potong Pasir single-member constituency (SMC) or will he leave to contest a group representation constituency (GRC)?

If Mr Chiam vacates the ward, who will he appoint as his successor: his wife, daughter or a member of his Singapore People's Party (SPP)? Since late last year, Mr Chiam, 74, has expressed his desire to lead a GRC team at the next polls.

His likely choice is believed to be Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC because of its proximity to Potong Pasir. In a sign of his intent, Mr Chiam went on a walkabout at the Bishan MRT station in September.

Mr Desmond Lim Bak Chuan, secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) chaired by Mr Chiam, says it is targeting Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC too.

Mr Lim, who led the SDA team in the GRC at the 2006 polls, says someone from the same team is being prepared for the possibility of contesting a new SMC carved out of the six-man GRC.

This was in the light of a package of political changes to the Nominated MP, Non-Constituency MP and GRC schemes announced by Mr Lee in May this year.

The changes will result in fewer six-member GRCs by the next election. There will also be at least 12 SMCs, up from the current nine.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC is also eyed by the Workers' Party (WP), which is led by Hougang MP Low Thia Khiang.

The WP has also been spotted in Bukit Panjang, Bukit Timah and Yishun, and is said to be targeting new areas such as Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC.

During an interview with The Straits Times in March, Mr Low said the party is looking at previous constituencies that it contested in the 2006 polls.

Aljunied GRC is likely to remain the top 'hot spot' for the party. It sent an 'A' team led by chairman Sylvia Lim to take on the People's Action Party team led by Foreign Minister George Yeo. The WP secured 44 per cent of votes there.

As for the National Solidarity Party (NSP), its president Sebastian Teo says it is eyeing three GRCs - Jurong, Jalan Besar and Tampines - and three single-seat wards in Yio Chu Kang, Nee Soon Central and MacPherson.

He says the party started working the ground in MacPherson in March this year and has already covered 60 blocks so far.

Why MacPherson? It is because of its proximity to Jalan Besar GRC, which the NSP contested at the last two polls, says Mr Teo. The NSP's vote share rose from 25.5 per cent at the 2001 elections to 30.7 per cent at the 2006 polls.

Reform Party (RP) chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam tells Insight his party is 'seriously considering' the two single-seat wards of Chua Chu Kang and Joo Chiat, and also two GRCs in Hong Kah and Tampines.

The NSP, which was in the SDA until it left in 2007, had contested the Chua Chu Kang ward and Tampines GRC, while Joo Chiat was the battleground for the WP's Dr Tan Bin Seng.

Would the RP's plans lead to possible three-cornered fights in these wards?

Mr Jeyaretnam, who took over as RP leader this year, says he will talk to all opposition parties to avoid such a fight.

But he also calls on the Government to release the Electoral Boundaries Report 'now or at the very least, more than six months before the next election'.

As for the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), there are indications it could be eyeing Bukit Panjang SMC again, which it contested in 2006.

SDP, which has been selling its newsletters in the Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, launched a petition campaign in October opposing the proposed sale of a wet market in Fajar Road to the Sheng Siong supermarket chain.

KOR KIAN BENG


Feudal society disguised as a democracy

Dec 12, 2009
POLITICS IN THE PHILIPPINES

By John McBeth, Senior Writer

IT WAS easy to feel her pain when academic Carolina Hernandez was asked to provide a snapshot of the current situation in her native Philippines during a recent Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific conference in Jakarta.

Chatham House rules preclude me from going into detail, but she talked for about 10 minutes about various issues before her voice trailed off in frustration and she ran out of meaningful things to say.

A week later came the massacre in the western Mindanao province of Maguindanao and yet another compelling reason why Ms Hernandez and many of her countrymen find it embarrassing to confront a foreign audience.

This was something that had hit me more than 20 years ago at the start of a four-year assignment in the Philippines, a country still in political turmoil then but revelling in its status as the birthplace of people's power.

Anxious to learn what made it tick, I crossed the country interviewing dozens of provincial power-holders - from Ilocus Norte in northern Luzon to the island of Sulu in the Muslim south.

It was a journey of discovery like no other I had undertaken in Asia. But at the end of it, I was left with one inescapable conclusion: People's power was a myth and nothing short of bloody revolution would change anything for the republic's 66 million people.

The Philippines may be classified as a democracy. But in reality it is a feudal society in which prominent families use violence, the threat of violence and generations of largesse to cement their hold on power.

It has taken 24 years, but even Filipinos now seem to realise that deposing president Ferdinand Marcos wasn't even half the battle won. If deposing the dictator was an example of genuine people's power, how come the people never benefited and the country still keeps spinning its dreary wheels?

With the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines belatedly getting off the fence then, the families who had supported Marcos simply switched horses and lined up behind Mrs Corazon Aquino, herself a member of a powerful family in central Luzon.

Of the post-Marcos presidents, only Mr Fidel Ramos, a retired general who was not a member of the political elite, offered any real hope of breaking the cycle of feudal rule. But the politicians played on public fears that Mr Ramos would turn into a new Marcos and refused to give him a second term.

Many of the larger-than-life provincial bosses I interviewed back then are dead now - a disturbing number of them falling to the bullets of assassins in the pay of other families anxious to take power for themselves.

Although he was not part of an established clan, the scariest of all the people I met was Ilocus Norte vice-governor Rolando Abadilla, Marcos' chief enforcer, who would die in a communist ambush in Quezon City in 1996.

In fact, the only surprising thing about the recent slaughter of 57 women, children and journalists in Maguindanao was the scale of the death toll: It was extraordinary even by Filipino standards.

The rest is simply a replay of what regularly goes on all over a country, during election time or not. There is no point in blaming the armed forces, as many Filipinos like to after a string of failed rebellions.

While there is probably reason to doubt their real motives, the coup-makers of the past two decades all espoused the same frustration as Ms Hernandez did over the future of their country.

As in Maguindanao, the problem lies with the dynastic families who control the congressional seats, the governorships and the mayoralties and ensure that nothing happens that affects their personal interests.

A member of one entrenched clan in the central Philippines told me he could work out, almost down to the street, who had voted for him. Under these circumstances, how can any election in the Philippines possibly change things for the better?

In Mindanao, warlordism presents a whole new dimension, particularly in the Muslim-run autonomous region (Armm) encompassing Maguindanao, Lanao del Sur, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

When Armm was established in August 1989, the government was forced to divide it into a multitude of districts to accommodate the commanders of the Moro National Liberation Front, which had fought a bloody insurrection in the early 1970s.

Complicated by the subsequent emergence of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the feudalistic culture that grew from that has led to an unending cycle of clan warfare in which revenge has become the major motivation.

I saw a glimpse of it during my visit to Sulu, where only weeks before the private armies of two rival political families had fought a prolonged battle with mortars and machine-guns in the heart of Jolo, the ramshackle provincial capital.

More than 20 people died in the fighting and as we stood surveying the 800m-wide swathe of destruction, the Marine brigade commander could only shake his head. 'We could do more,' he told me, 'but who is the enemy?'

Significantly, a battalion commander on Sulu then, Major Renato Miranda later went on to become Marine commandant - and the highest-ranking officer implicated in the abortive 2006 coup against President Gloria Arroyo's government.

And so it goes.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com

Friday, December 11, 2009

Freedom For Sale

Dec 11, 2009
Not for sale
In a world that's increasingly willing to trade individual freedoms for prosperity and security, British journalist John Kampfner is a lone warrior who refuses to buy into the 'pact' that has swept up emerging giants like China and Russia as well as Western democracies like Britain and the United States. Insight taps the views of the author, who was rebuked by the Singapore Government last year.
By Rachael Chang



Author and journalist John Kampfner stands by his belief that freedom should not be for sale. In his new book Freedom For Sale, which has been named book of the year by several publications, he argues that civil liberties are necessary for a healthy civil society and a robust body politic.

VETERAN British journalist John Kampfner incurred the ire of the Singapore Government last year when he propounded his thesis on the 'Singapore model' in a blog post for a leading English daily.

Last week, he held court here with a lively audience of mostly academics for about two hours as he expounded on his controversial ideas in a seminar at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Penning an entry for the Guardian's website titled The New Authoritarianism, the political writer had asked: Why are a growing number of people, well-travelled and well-educated, willing to hand over their freedoms in return for prosperity and security?

The model for such a 'pact', he argued, is Singapore. Whether intentional or not, it is being exported to the world, he said.

Nascent global powers like China and Russia have been learning to replicate the model, he wrote, proving that 'free markets do not require a free society in which to thrive'.

This is how he described the pact: Citizens do not agitate for public liberties like freedom of speech and a free press which are denied by the authorities. In return, the individual is allowed to create wealth and consume as conspicuously as he chooses.

Back came a salvo from the Singapore Government. 'Some in the West like John Kampfner feel a calling to go forth and convert the heathen to Western liberal democracy.

'But the true test is what works in the real world, with real societies,' charged Singapore's High Commissioner to Britain Michael Teo in a reply published on the Guardian's website two weeks later.

The exchange was reported in The Straits Times a day later under the headline 'S'pore ticks off British writer'.

A year on, Mr Kampfner's blog post has evolved into a 267-page book titled Freedom For Sale published by Simon & Schuster. It is available in local bookstores.

The first chapter is on Singapore and titled 'Comfortable Model'. The rest of the book elaborates on how the pact has been put in place in societies from India to Russia and even Britain, where Westminster-style democracy involving two opposing parties came about.

However, Mr Kampfner draws a clear distinction between these pacts and the totalitarian dictatorships in countries like Myanmar and North Korea. The fact that citizens have entered into these pacts voluntarily, with eyes wide open, is central to his thesis.

At the end of the Singapore chapter, Mr Kampfner reflects on the kerfuffle over his blog post and wonders if there would be reprisal: 'Would I be refused entry into the country - or perhaps locked up on my arrival?'

He was not. Last week, upon returning to launch his book at the seminar, he breezed through immigration at Changi Airport without a second look from the officer.

East v West

FREEDOM For Sale is Mr Kampfner's fourth book. His previous works include 2003's well-received Blair's Wars, which chronicled the five turbulent years of British foreign policy that spawned two wars under former prime minister Tony Blair.

A former foreign correspondent for Reuters and the BBC, Mr Kampfner was editor of the magazine New Statesman from 2005 to 2008.

Married to a BBC journalist, Mr Kampfner - who was born in Singapore - is now chief executive of the Index on Censorship, an organisation which champions free expression.

The reception by local academics at the recent seminar was one of interest mixed with intrigue. Questions touched on the impact of the global economic crisis and the rise of the Internet on the author's thesis.

Some people might arguably see it as the third act in a political play that has been unfolding since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and Soviet Communism soon after.

First came the triumphalists like American intellectual Francis Fukuyama, who declared in his famous or infamous essay, The End Of History, that the fall of communism won the argument for liberal democracy.

All the world would soon follow suit, give or take a few decades. Authoritarian capitalist countries like China and Singapore were merely in transition. Soon, they would evolve into liberal democracies as their citizens start to demand democracy to accompany burgeoning economic freedom.

Some Eastern European countries did embrace democracy. But the Fukuyama idea made no headway in fast-rising Asia, and thinkers in the East soon provided their own rebuttal.

This was the 'Asian values' argument popularised by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in the early 1990s.

Quite simply, the argument is that Asians prefer collective well-being over individualism, social harmony over dissent, and socio-economic progress over human rights.

The influential Clash Of Civilisations school of thought propagated by American political scientist Samuel Huntington entrenched these ideas in the public domain.

It argued that different civilisations - Western, Chinese, Islamic - have irreconcilable values and ideals. The future of the world would be one of civilisations coexisting uneasily.

As the century rounded the corner, major events reinforced the idea of a possible clash. The traumatic events of 9/11 cast a long shadow over foreign policy. It seemed that all-out conflict between diametrically opposed civilisations had begun.

Another source of tension was that authoritarian-capitalist countries like China were growing from strength to strength, becoming more confident in their mode of government instead of transitioning to liberal democracies.

With the economic crisis giving momentum to the Eastward swing of the pendulum of power, the East versus West argument is gaining new traction.

Lonely cry

WHAT makes Mr Kampfner's thesis notable is that it is about a new phenomenon that seems to be taking hold all over the world. In an interview with Insight after the seminar, he notes that 'although differently expressed, the pact is just as alive in my country, in Western European states, as it is in 'authoritarian-capitalist' states (like China and Singapore)'.

'This is not, 'Look at the East rising to challenge the West',' he points out.

As one Singaporean academic asked at the seminar, is illiberal democracy the more stable environment? And will liberal democracies eventually come to believe that the 'Singapore model' is the 'last model'?

Some of Mr Kampfner's harshest criticisms, in fact, are reserved for pacts in the United States and Britain, supposedly foundational Western democracies.

Not yet released in the US, his book has received favourable reviews in Britain. It has been named book of the year by two newspapers.

In both countries, a rising tide of illiberal policies put in place to combat terrorism has wrought societies where citizens wilfully turn a blind eye to the freedoms they have lost - or sold.

According to the journalist, Britain is becoming a surveillance state - thanks to millions of closed-circuit cameras and authoritarian policies like ID cards which hold 50 categories of personal information.

In the name of wealth creation, he charges, its leaders turned a blind eye to corruption within the borders, allowing London to become a money-laundering haven and playground for Russian oligarchs who have amassed billions through criminal means.

To a liberal democrat like Mr Kampfner, a lack of public freedom is not one of the characteristics of a new mode of government, but instead a sign of a government ill at ease.

Why, he asks, would greater dissent and democracy lead to instability in Singapore?

'The confidence of Singapore society is surely much stronger than it used to be,' he argues. So 'the need to impose constraints, for fear that a lack of constraints will lead to chaos, is a false fear'.

This control also leads to a 'weak, pliant and unchallenging' public realm, he points out, 'with people leading their lives almost exclusively in an atomised fashion, looking after themselves and their own'.

But fewer and fewer people seem to share his indignation, which is amply proved by the finding that pacts exist in all the countries he surveys.

It is a fact which clearly bewilders him. In the end, he struggles to answer his own question posed at the start: Why?

'So what does all this say about us, the people?' he asks towards the end of the book. 'One argument would be that perhaps people require less freedom than they would like to believe,' he writes.

But his liberal heart is not in this interpretation because, to satisfy his thesis, it must mean that the priorities of individuals have somehow fundamentally shifted.

Or perhaps liberty was not really the fundamental desire of individuals after all, at least not fundamental enough to not be bartered away.

Where once the right to free expression was elevated above all else, now modern dangers like the threat of terrorism and the spectre of poverty seem to have cast it into the shadows - rightfully so or not.

Mr Kampfner is adamant that these freedoms are necessary for a healthy civil society and a robust body politic.

But in demonstrating how millions of people seem content to go without these freedoms, his is ultimately a lonely cry, of a liberal watching a world grow unrecognisable.

He is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. Once the pact is in place, it is hard to shake loose.

What may undermine it, he says, would be the state not fulfilling its side of the bargain, that is, failing to deliver prosperity or security.

Then there may be democracy. But at what cost?

rchang@sph.com.sg

More S'pore farmed fish on menu

Dec 11, 2009
Republic's largest commercial fish farm a sign of things to come
By Victoria Vaughan

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan visiting Singapore's largest commercial fish farm, Barramundi Asia, off Pulau Semakau. To his right is the farm's managing director, Mr Joep Kleine Staarman, and to his left, Ms Tan Poh Hong, AVA's chief executive officer. -- ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM

SINGAPORE'S calm and sheltered waters may be a haven for fish farming ventures - which will become more important as oceans are depleted due to over-fishing.

A sign of the future can be found south of Pulau Semakau, where Singapore's largest commercial fish farm has started to supply its seabass to local restaurants and supermarkets.

From 'super fry' engineered by local marine scientists, Barramundi Asia began harvesting the fish from its 14 sea cages in October as they reached the desired weight of about 1kg each. It has harvested 80tonnes so far.

Barramundi Asia will generate 500tonnes of fish this year and has a target of 3,000tonnes a year by 2012, which would represent about 86per cent of Singapore's current local fish production and 3per cent of total fish consumption.

Managing director Joep Kleine Staarman said Singapore provides a safe harbour for fish farming as it is not prone to disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons. Fish farming is difficult as it is susceptible to disaster and disease.

His previous company, Marine Harvest, had to shut down its Australian farm in 2005 after it fell victim to a cyclone and high spring tides which allowed three-quarters of its stocks to escape.

He has high hopes for the new venture in Singapore. 'We hope to be the first large farming operation for tropical food fish in the world,' said Mr Staarman, a Dutchman who is a permanent resident.

'There exists large operations for salmon and tilapia fresh water fish, but not for tropical fish.'

The company was granted a licence by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) in May last year to farm fish in the designated waters off landfill site Pulau Semakau. It aims to set up a second fish farm in the area to produce another 3,000 tonnes by 2020, and to look at supplying other varieties such as red snapper.

Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan said the Government wants to increase local fish production from 4per cent to 15per cent of consumption - about 15,000 tonnes of fish - and will require another four or five farms the size of Barramundi Asia.

In a visit to the farm yesterday, he launched the AVA's Food Fund, set up to help diversify and increase Singapore's food sources via co-funding of projects.

Mr Eric Tan, 52, a partner in Barramundi Asia, said: 'We will look to apply to the Food Fund as quickly as we can for funding for technologies such as automated fish feeding.'

The company uses European and Japanese sea cage fish farming technology.

The 2ha fish farm uses steel cages measuring 15m by 15m, at a depth of about 10m, which are able to contain 30,000 fish each. It has a yield of 80per cent as some fish are lost to disease despite being vaccinated.

The $3million farm is still installing cages, and will eventually have 36.

The super seabass fry come from the AVA's Marine Aquaculture Centre. They are genetically selected seabass that grow 15per cent faster than average.

The lcm fry spend two months in the company's nursery on Pulau Semakau before being transferred to the sea cages.

Fed twice daily on imported dry pellets, the fish take 18 to 24 months to reach the desired weight. They are then harvested and sold to Jurong Fishery Port or to restaurants. It is also available at local supermarkets.

Sheng Siong began purchasing 300kg a week about two to three months ago.

'Sales have been brisk,' said a supermarket spokesman.

There are 106 licensed coastal floating netcage fish farms in Singapore's coastal waters. Last year, the marine aquaculture industry produced 3,235 tonnes of food fish at a value of $11.4million.

Grouper, seabass and snapper are produced, as well as crabs, shrimp and mussels.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Too big to leave alone

Dec 10, 2009
MEGA-BANKS
By Joseph E. Stiglitz

Banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist...allowing such banks to continue engaging in proprietary trading distorts financial markets. Why should they be allowed to gamble, with taxpayers underwriting their losses?

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A GLOBAL controversy is raging: What new regulations are required to restore confidence in the financial system and ensure that a new crisis does not erupt a few years down the line?

Mr Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, has called for restrictions on the kinds of activities which mega-banks can engage in. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown begs to differ: After all, the first British bank to fall - at a cost of some US$50 billion (S$70 billion) - was Northern Rock, which was engaged in the 'plain vanilla' business of mortgage lending.

The implication of Mr Brown's observation is that such restrictions will not ensure that there is not another crisis. But Mr King is right to demand that banks that are too big to fail be reined in.

In the United States, Britain and elsewhere, large banks have been responsible for the bulk of the cost to taxpayers. America has let 106 smaller banks go bankrupt this year alone. It's the mega-banks that present the mega-costs.

The crisis is a result of at least eight distinct but related failures:

# Too-big-to-fail banks have perverse incentives - if they gamble and win, they walk off with the proceeds; if they fail, taxpayers pick up the tab

# Financial institutions are too intertwined to fail; the part of AIG that cost America's taxpayers US$180 billion was relatively small

# Even if individual banks are small, if they engage in correlated behaviour - using the same models - their behaviour can fuel systemic risk

# Incentive structures within banks are designed to encourage short-sighted behaviour and excessive risk-taking

# In assessing their own risk, banks do not look at the externalities that they (or their failure) would impose on others, which is one reason we need regulation in the first place

# Banks have done a bad job in risk assessment - the models they were using were deeply flawed

# Investors, seemingly even less informed about the risk of excessive leverage than banks, put enormous pressure on banks to undertake excessive risk

# Regulators, who are supposed to understand all of this and prevent actions that spur systemic risk, failed. They, too, used flawed models and had flawed incentives; too many didn't understand the role of regulation, and too many became 'captured' by those they were supposed to be regulating.

If we could have more confidence in our regulators and supervisors, we might be more relaxed about all the other problems.

But regulators and supervisors are fallible, which is why we need to attack the problems from all sides.

There are, of course, costs to regulations but the costs of having an inadequate regulatory structure are enormous. We have not done nearly enough to prevent another crisis, and the benefits of strengthened regulation far outweigh any increased costs.

Mr King is right: Banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist. If they continue to exist, they must exist in what is sometimes called a 'utility' model, meaning that they are heavily regulated.

In particular, allowing such banks to continue engaging in proprietary trading distorts financial markets. Why should they be allowed to gamble, with taxpayers underwriting their losses? What are the 'synergies'? Can they possibly outweigh the costs?

Some large banks are now involved in a sufficiently large share of trading - either on their own account or on behalf of their customers - that they have, in effect, gained the same unfair advantage that any inside trader has.

This may generate higher profits for them, but at the expense of others. It is a skewed playing field - and one increasingly skewed against smaller players. Who wouldn't prefer a credit default swap underwritten by the American or British government? No wonder that too-big-to-fail institutions dominate this market.

The one thing nowadays that economists agree on is that incentives matter. Bank officers were rewarded for higher returns -whether they were a result of improved performance (doing better than the market) or just more risk-taking (higher leverage).

Either they were swindling shareholders and investors, or they didn't understand the nature of risk and reward. Possibly both are true.

Either way, it's discouraging.

Given the lack of understanding of risk by investors and deficiencies in corporate governance, bankers had an incentive not to design good incentive structures. It is vital to correct such flaws - at the level of the organisation and of the individual manager.

That means breaking up too-important-to-fail (or too-complex-to-fix) institutions. Where this is not possible, it means stringently restricting what they can do and imposing higher taxes and capital-adequacy requirements, thereby helping to level the playing field.

The devil, of course, is in the details - and big banks will do what they can to ensure that whatever changes are imposed, that they are sufficiently small so they will not outweigh the advantages gained from being underwritten by taxpayers.

Even if we fix bank incentive structures perfectly - which is not in the cards - the banks will still represent a big risk. The bigger the bank, and the more risk-taking in which big banks are allowed to engage, the greater the threat.

These are not matters of black and white: The more we limit the size, the more relaxed we can be about these and other details of regulation. That is why Mr King, Mr Paul Volcker, the United Nations Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, and a host of others are right about the need to curb the big banks. What is required is a multi-prong approach, including special taxes, increased capital requirements, tighter supervision, and limits on size and risk-taking activities.

Such an approach won't prevent another crisis but it would make one less likely - and less costly if it did occur.

The writer, a Nobel laureate in economics, is a professor at Columbia University.

PROJECT SYNDICATE