Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Joint exercise by Malaysia, S'pore navies

Feb 23, 2010

THE navies of Singapore and Malaysia have begun an 11-day joint exercise to be held in the Changi Naval Base and the Malacca Strait.

Codenamed Malapura, the exercise is the 20th in a series and hosted by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) this year.

It started yesterday and will end on March 4. The exercise involves six warships from RSN and the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN), three from each side. The fleet includes patrol vessels, frigates and missile corvettes.

[The submarine portion of the exercise has been cancelled as the Malaysian sub is now incapable of diving. :-) ]

The naval drill will be officially launched by RMN Fleet Commander, Vice-Admiral Ahmad Kamarulzaman Ahmad Badaruddin, and his Singaporean counterpart Rear-Admiral Joseph Leong at Changi Naval Base today.

Singapore's Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said both navies interact regularly in multilateral activities like the Five Power Defence Arrangements and have also been working closely to tighten maritime security through the Malacca Strait Patrols.

Mindef added in a statement that such interactions 'strengthen mutual understanding and professional ties among the personnel of both navies'.

[Singapore Navy Personnel were warned not to snicker at the Malaysians and to avoid mentioning submarines or diving. Nevertheless, MINDEF spokesperson played down the incident where the crew of a Singapore ship placed had Subway sandwiches delivered to the their Malaysian counterpart.]

:-)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Culture: Marching to our own drumbeat

Feb 14, 2010

It will take time but Singaporeans have the ability to forge an identity unique to us
By Lee Wei Ling

I circulated the draft of my article Handling The Influence Of The West, which was published in The Straits Times last Wednesday, to some friends for comments. One friend directed me to a Lianhe Zaobao Sunday article written by senior executive editor Lee Huay Leng, Why I Miss Beijing And London.

I was amused by the article. While I was struggling with my cultural identity, Ms Lee was bemoaning Singapore's cultural poverty, evidently overwhelmed by the cultural 'depth' of London and Beijing.

We are obviously on different wavelengths. I am 55, a balanced bilingual - Chinese-educated in terms of culture and English-educated in terms of my professional training. I have travelled extensively, and never felt a sense of cultural inferiority anywhere, including Britain and China, whose leaders and intellectuals I have met.

I am puzzled why an educated Singaporean woman should prefer Beijing and London to Singapore. Would she still prefer living in Beijing if she had to work there as a journalist earning PRC wages? To work for Zaobao in Beijing, as Ms Lee has, and be paid Singaporean wages, is not a true test, as she can then enjoy a standard of living much higher than that of her Chinese counterparts.

The foreign countries I know best are Canada and the United States, since I did my postgraduate training in these places. With some exceptions, their newspapers are parochial. The Straits Times is better than most American papers in terms of its sheer coverage.

The same is true of China, as a few nurses from China who are now Singapore citizens have told me. Our Chinese newspapers, they said, are comparable to those in China and their reports are more credible, which explains why Zaobao Online is read widely in China.

As for books and magazines, again Singapore is not inferior to China. Indeed, the nurses told me they can read Taiwanese publications here that are unavailable in China.

In the past decade, the Singapore Government has devoted more resources to the arts. But the fact is the majority of Singaporeans do not consider the arts to be their top priority. What bothers Ms Lee does not bother them much.

We are a pragmatic people. Most Singaporeans would place more emphasis on a good job, a comfortable home, good-quality health care and education, and a clean and safe environment. These are also the considerations that attract immigrants from China, India and other parts of Asia to Singapore.

When it comes to 'elite culture', I agree that cultural standards in Beijing and London are superior to Singapore's. But how can it be otherwise? These two countries have larger populations and richer histories than we do. Singapore is a young immigrant society.

In 1965, we had only two million people, mostly the descendants of illiterate peasants from China and labourers from India and the Indonesian archipelago. How many artistically talented people can we nurture in less than 50 years of independence?

As a multi-racial society, we never spoke or wrote in one common language. Even now, many Singaporeans write in one language but speak in two. In Britain and China, they have worked on only one language over hundreds and thousands of years, respectively.

China has had dynasties that lasted centuries, during which it became the most prosperous, productive and refined society in the world. Britain is less ancient, but over 200 years it conquered a large empire. That huge economic base provided it with considerable resources. Its elite enjoyed security and comfort and could devote themselves to the arts.

Singapore struggled to make a living from the 1960s until the early 1990s, when we became more secure and had sufficient resources to devote to the arts. We now have museums and art galleries as well as Western and Chinese orchestras, among other things. Even so, our social infrastructure is still not equal to that of the principal cities of China or Britain. It took many thousands of years in China and hundreds in Britain to develop the cultural resources they now possess.

Still, despite all those resources, it is American culture that is dominant worldwide today, including in China and Britain - a dominance that is likely to continue for a few decades. It is mostly popular American culture that is so influential, but do Americans feel culturally inferior to the Chinese and British for that reason - because they, like us, are a young people?

I was in Delhi last December. I saw scrawny, dirty children perform acrobatics in the narrow space between the cars at red lights, then gesture with their hands to indicate they were hungry.

Originally from Rajasthan, they belong to a caste that once travelled from village to village depicting in dances stories from the Indian epics the Mahabharat and the Ramayana. Now, as a result of television, they are jobless. So they have migrated to Delhi to work in construction and beg for food at traffic junctions.

Indians today prefer Bollywood to ancient, sacred dances. Does that make India less cultured? Can we not consider Bollywood India's new culture, just as rock 'n' roll and soap operas constitute America's new culture?

Ms Lee concluded her essay thus: 'Being able to go online wirelessly, and being able to watch cable television - these have nothing to do with our level of thinking. The strength of this island-state lies in its ability to connect to the world and circumvent its own weaknesses. This in fact deepened my sense of loneliness at the thought of going home (from Beijing).'

I cannot understand her logic. In Singapore, she can access culture from the entire world, including Beijing and London. Why claim a 'sense of loneliness' on coming home?

I have travelled often. Each time the plane lands at Changi airport, no matter what a wonderful time I have had overseas, I eagerly look forward to returning home.

More important than whether Beijing or London has a superior culture to ours is what keeps us rooted to Singapore. For me, home is where my emotional bonds are, where my close friends and nuclear family live. I choose Singapore as home, though there are many issues which I feel the Government has handled less than wisely. I am less enamoured of other societies, whether or not my ancestors came from them, because Singapore is the country to which I owe my loyalty.

I am confident that if we continue to thrive, we will eventually develop a uniquely Singaporean culture. That that culture will not have 5,000 years of history behind it is irrelevant. We must dare to go our own way, different from those set by our colonial master or our ancestral lands.


[A rebuttal of this article:
http://heresthenews.blogspot.com/2010/02/form-is-not-enough-city-needs-depth.html

I also feel that in the balance of things, Singapore has the best possible combination of factors to be the best place for me to live. There are places with better scenery, beautiful forests, snowy winters and colourful spring and autumn. But in terms of a place that works, Singapore is it.

That said, there is truth to the point that "Singapore has no depth". But this is not something new. LKY said the same when he explained Singapore's vulnerability. If any city in the US or China fails, there are many other cities, the residents of the failed city can run to. Singapore has no margin for such errors. We stand or fall simply on this one island city state.

I have never understood the pride one feels in Chinese history and cultural depth. I'm ethnically Chinese, but Chinese history and culture was not my doing. My understanding of either or lack of, will neither promote nor detract from it. If I created a painting, I could be proud of it, but if my mother created a painting before I was born (or even after but I had nothing to do with it) should I be proud of it? What does it mean to be proud of one's ancestors? LWL is probably proud of her father, but what does that mean? A parent's pride for their child is understandable. But a child's pride in the achievement of the parents is less explainable.

It's vicarious and self-serving at best. It is the same "pride" for one's football club's achievement, or the spectator or fans "pride" for a sports star's achievement, or one's perceive right to boast or brag about such achievements as if it were one's own.

I am "proud" of my father's achievement, means that understanding him, his talents, his disadvantages, his challenges, and his choices, his achievement was a conscious and deliberate effort that won him respect, rewards, and social standing, and as his son, I enjoyed those material rewards as a result of his achievements, and basked in his reflected glory as a result of his enhanced social standing. And if I choose to, I can take him as my role model for similar endeavours.

To be "proud" of one's parents or ancestors is simply to admire their strengths and respect their achievements, but I have no "bragging rights" for their achievements. That's borrowed glory at best.

What we can be proud of is what we do with our situation here today. And whether we come from a civilisation with 4000 years of history, or 2000 or 200, is irrelevant. A Chinese Singaporean is not better than a Malay Singaporean, or an Indian Singaporean simply because of Chinese history and civilisation. One may argue about the values transmitted by one's culture, but values can just as easily be transmitted without culture or ethnic membership. Washington - Apple Tree - "Cannot tell a lie" is a parable that transcends culture. Raised Catholic, my values are as much a result of my religion as it is my "culture".

Similarly, the Singapore culture and identity will emerge from our shared knowledge, shared history and shared experience. But it will take time for those shared experiences to distill and become clear.]


Socialist Singapore

Feb 19, 2010
Still dreaming of a socialist Singapore
From student activist and PAP campaigner to Barisan Sosialis leader and second longest-held political detainee, Dr Lim Hock Siew's story mirrors Singapore's tumultuous history. Now 79, he bares his thoughts and feelings about his political past.
By Cai Haoxiang


IT IS a sweltering day as you walk by the row of repainted shophouses along Balestier Road.

As you push open the glass doors and duck inside for a welcome draught of air-conditioning, you meet a group of elderly patients waiting expectantly to see their family doctor.

The name on the door plate of his office may not ring a bell for the young but to older Singaporeans, it jumps right out of Singapore's turbulent political history: Dr Lim Hock Siew.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mix rental and sold flats in same block

Feb 16, 2010

It may be worth trying, to help reduce stigma and bridge differences
By Tan Hui Yee, Correspondent

TAMPINES and Pasir Ris residents are fretting about new rental flats in their neighbourhood - and the whole affair has a sense of deja vu about it.

Two years ago, private residents in Serangoon Gardens threw a fit when they got wind of plans to locate a foreign worker dormitory there. Now, these HDB home owners are upset about new rental blocks they fear will block their breeze and devalue their homes.

It's hard not to see the parallels. In the Serangoon Gardens' case, the bogeyman was the drunken foreign worker cum molester. In Tampines, it's the drug addict with three hungry children in tow.

One resident summed his fears thus: 'Smokers and drinkers may gather at the void deck. Many families here have young children and teenagers. We don't want them led astray.'

Living next to poor people, they reckon, will put them constantly on their guard in their comfortable neighbourhood.

One could be forgiven for thinking that rental HDB flats are full of layabouts, criminals and drunkards. The truth is many are elderly folk living on public assistance, as well as families with valid but low-income employment. And some are young couples trying to save up to buy a modest home of their own.

All tenant households earn not more than $1,500 a month. The HDB says it spread rental blocks across the island 'to achieve a balanced social mix'. In other words, it tries to integrate rental flat residents with the rest of the home-owning population, so that the underclass don't form enclaves.

There is good reason for that. Studies, such as those done by Northwestern University professor James Rosenbaum of low-income black families relocated from inner city homes in Chicago to predominantly middle-class suburbs, have found that such moves benefit the poor.

His team found that the Gautreaux Housing Relocation Project, which began in 1976, resulted in such movers being more likely to be employed. Mothers who were reluctant to get a job before because they needed to keep an eye on their kids became more open to seeking jobs when their living environment was safer. Their children were also more likely to go on to university and find full-time jobs at higher wages than those who remained in the inner city.

In Singapore, rental flat residents who live among communities of home owners stand to gain from a more balanced living environment. This is not to say that all families who live in flats they own are better off or better adjusted. Rather, living together with families across a wide spectrum of income groups will prevent both sides from acquiring a distorted sense of reality.

This point is particularly relevant to middle-income heartlanders who worry their children will grow up too coddled to understand the real world. Here's the thing: Poverty need not be something abstract, learnt from textbooks or school excursions, if children can get some sense of what it's like to be poor from the kids they interact with in the neighbourhood playground.

They will learn not to despise or fear the poor. They will learn, hopefully, to approach them with modesty and compassion, because they understand that hardship can strike anyone at any point in their lives.

The fortunate thing about this whole affair is that the Government looks unlikely to budge from building the rental blocks. The downturn has swelled the ranks of applicants and prompted the HDB to increase its stock of rental flats by 17 per cent to 50,000 in 2012. That said, one wonders what concessions might be made, such as the separate road entrances in the Serangoon Gardens' case.

It is no secret that public housing in Singapore functions also as a sophisticated form of social engineering. Housing policies help integrate the races, bond families across generations, and encourage marriage to boot.

As society changes, and new forms of social divides appear, the authorities will constantly tweak the formula further to see how they can bridge the social divisions. For instance, last month Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew spoke about having separate ethnic quotas for permanent residents to prevent them from forming enclaves.

The current quotas limit the proportions of Chinese, Malay, Indians and other minority races in each block and precinct. But these quotas do not affect new immigrants, who have been buying up resale flats near one another. Hence the current review of the ethnic integration policy.

Could rental flats become the next area for social experiments? After all, HDB already has a policy of mixing different flat types in each block to encourage interactions across different income groups.

In a launch early this month, a batch of 750 upcoming flats called Punggol Crest comprised two-room, three-room and four-room units, while another 784 units called Treegrove@Woodlands offered studio apartments for the elderly together with three- and four-roomers.

Given the high number of flats being launched these days, wouldn't it make sense for the HDB to build new rental flats within the same block as sold flats?

The average heartlander who may baulk at living next to a rental block is likely to be less resistant to the idea of living with one or two families on subsidised rental just down his corridor.

In fact, he might not be able to tell that they are subsidised tenants, and might interact with them without any preconceived notions.

Done sensibly, this merging of rental and sold flats can blur boundaries, reduce stigma and bridge differences.

Given Singapore's rising income gap, such a policy could prove to be as socially beneficial as the ethnic integration policy.

tanhy@sph.com.sg

Monday, February 15, 2010

NBA faces $565m loss

Feb 14, 2010

DALLAS - NBA commissioner David Stern said on Saturday the league is projecting losses of some US$400 million (S$565 million) this season, and has lost hundreds of millions in each year of the current labour contract.

Stern said the NBA has shown the players' association those numbers in hopes of demonstrating why the league wants 'significant changes' in the next deal. The current collective bargaining agreement expires in July 2011, and this weekend's All-Star festivities come amid rumblings that players and management are far apart on the issues and labor unrest or even a work stoppage could be in the league's future.

The league's first proposal for a deal to replace the one that expires next year was thrown out on Friday after what Billy Hunter, director of the players' union, called a 'contentious' 90-minute meeting. Hunter said the proposal called for harsh changes that would affect every NBA player.

Stern, in his annual All-Star press conference, said such changes may seem harsh, but the league believes significant action is necessary.

'The right adjectives were thrown around, and our proposal appropriately denounced. Our response is, 'You can denounce it, tear it up, you can burn it, you can jump up and down on it, as long as you understand that it reflects the financial realities of where we are,"' Stern said. 'And if you would like to have your own proposal, as long as it comes back and deals with our financial realities, that's OK with us. That's fine with us. In fact, that's what we would like to do.'

Hunter said on Friday that the union wanted to preserve the NBA brand, but wants an equitable agreement. 'I think that everybody has a different sense of things and nobody wants to see this thing that David Stern has worked and built, the NBA, the successful entity that it is, the brand, we're not out to damage it or destroy it,' Hunter said. 'So we're going to make every effort to get an agreement done, we just want an agreement that's a lot more equitable and one that doesn't have a structure that's oppressive.' -- AFP

[Professional basketball players are well paid. "Oppressed"? I find that hard to believe.]


Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Greek tragedy of continental dimensions

Feb 13, 2010

If the Greek crisis is not quickly resolved, fate of euro may be in doubt
By Jonathan Eyal, Straits Times Europe Bureau

WHEN leaders of the European Union planned their first summit of this year, they had every reason to feel optimistic. After all, their continent had just selected a new president and foreign minister, major steps towards restoring Europe's glory on the world stage.

But, instead of celebrating, the politicians who attended the European summit on Thursday spent most of their time in feverish attempts to prevent Greece from going bankrupt, for that country cannot repay its debts.

At first sight, this is a storm in a teacup. The Greek economy accounts for barely 2 per cent of the EU's total wealth. Europe has plenty of cash to bail it out. So the pledge from EU leaders on Thursday to take 'determined and coordinated action' should be the end of the story.

Only it isn't. For the Greek crisis is merely a first glimpse of a much bigger problem with Europe's political arrangements. And if it is not quickly resolved, the very existence of the euro, the continent's single currency, may be in doubt.

The invention of the euro was initially hailed as a huge achievement. At the stroke of midnight on Jan 1, 2002, more than a dozen European national currencies - some centuries-old - disappeared. The euro instantly became the world's second-largest reserve currency; other trading blocks in Asia or Latin America watched with envy as the 'old continent' gained a youthful vitality.

Yet few bothered to notice that the euro remained a curious beast. Historically, currency unions take place when a group of nations merge into one; political mergers come before monetary ones. In Europe, however, the process was reversed: a new currency was introduced, but national governments continued to tax, spend and borrow as they wished.

In theory, there are many safeguards to impose discipline. EU countries which adopt the euro must keep their debts low, and spend only as much as they earn. And they cannot borrow from the EU if they get into trouble.

But practice was quite different. Greece, which never met the conditions for euro membership, was allowed in, despite the fact that everyone knew that the country falsified its statistics. And nobody paid much attention to what happened thereafter.

Once safely inside the euro zone, the Greeks could borrow much more cheaply, and they did: Greece owes about €300 billion (S$579 billion). Debt servicing is now costing the country a whopping 12 per cent of gross domestic product, and the country has to raise another €53 billion in the next few months. To all intents and purposes, the Greeks are bankrupt.

Nor is Greece unique. Portugal, Ireland and Spain have equally huge debts, and may be facing a similar fate. International investors have dubbed these unfortunate four as the PIGS group, hardly a flattering nickname.

Having spent months trying to ignore facts, European leaders now accept that the question is no longer just Greece, but the prevention of their currency's meltdown. Nevertheless, pride and politics - like a bad spoof of a Jane Austen novel - continue to determine European priorities. The best institution to bail out Greece is actually the International Monetary Fund (IMF): It has the credits and the expertise to impose the painful reforms which the Greeks have to swallow.

Yet just about the only thing on which the Europeans currently agree is that the IMF should be kept at arm's length: Letting that institution save Greece is regarded as a humiliation, an admission that Europe cannot put its house in order.

The other option is for individual European governments to lend Greece the money it needs. Yet the only country that can do this is Germany. And the Germans wonder why they should bail out their irresponsible cousins. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel memorably put it: 'My people won't understand why their money should be spent to save Greek banks.'

For the moment, European leaders continue to believe that expressing solidarity with Greece is sufficient. 'The Germans wanted only a political statement, which they consider enough to calm financial markets,' a senior European official explained at the end of Thursday's EU summit.

But international investors are no longer prepared to lend to the 'PIGS' on the basis of just political reassurances. The bet is that, as early as Monday, Germany would have to stump up the cash to save Greece. The crisis of confidence in the euro can no longer be tolerated.

However, the implications of the Greek affair extend much wider. Throughout the world, governments are running up huge debts. The near-bankruptcy of one European country will remind everyone that governments can and do go bankrupt. And this will push up the borrowing costs for many nations.

The measures required to reduce debt could plunge Europe into a renewed recession. Already, unemployment in countries in the euro zone stands at about 10 per cent, and in Spain, Europe's fourth largest economy, it is almost 20 per cent. And a European recession will lower consumer demand in what remains China's biggest export market.

More importantly, the Greek episode serves as a warning of an immutable law of economics: that a currency union without a political union is doomed to stagger from one crisis to another. Since a tighter political union is not on the cards, financial speculators are likely to be given plenty of opportunities to bet against the euro in years to come.

Does Europe understand the gravity of its predicament? Not a bit of it.

Earlier this week, Mr Jose Manuel Barroso, the boss of the EU Commission, the continent's executive body, called on Europeans to embrace a 'new wave of optimism'. But while making this public appeal, Mr Barroso also kept checking the messages arriving on his mobile phone.

Just in case there was bad news from Greece.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

--------

Feb 14, 2010
Wall St seeks cues on Greek crisis

New York - US stocks could struggle to make headway this week if a meeting of European finance ministers fails to reassure markets that they can contain Greece's debt problems.

Greece's financing problems have focused investors' attention on the growing mountain of public debt as cash-strapped governments around the world spend their way out of recession. The fear is Greece's problems could spread, hurting financial markets.

Finance ministers from the euro zone will meet tomorrow, when US markets are closed for the Presidents' Day holiday, followed by finance ministers from the rest of the European Union on Tuesday.

'What the market wants to hear is that there is a viable remedy,' said Mr Quincy Krosby, market strategist with Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.

'The market will be anticipating how other problems will be handled. Can the solution be applied to the problems that may crop up in Spain, Portugal, Italy (and Ireland) because traders believe the aftershocks are not over.'

European government sources have been sending mixed signals to markets, suggesting a lack of consensus about how to prevent Greece's debt problems from ballooning.

While international headlines continue to grab investors' attention, the plight of the United States economy has taken a back seat. That may change during the week with a government report on housing starts as well as the latest industrial output figures on Wednesday.

Last week, the Dow Jones industrial average and the S&P 500 rose 0.9 per cent, while Nasdaq added 2 per cent. Still, the broad-based S&P 500 is now down 6.5 per cent since hitting a 15-month closing high on Jan 19.

Reuters, AP

Friday, February 12, 2010

Form is not enough, a city needs depth

Feb 11, 2010

By Lee Huay Leng

I WAS invited by the West China Metropolis Daily to a media forum in Chengdu. I listened to media experts from Sichuan and senior management from metropolitan newspapers from all over China talk about their experiences and views.

When I left, it was not just their thoughts on the future of China's metro newspapers that I took with me. On the plane, carrying a few current affairs magazines that I had bought at the news-stand, I thought of the exchanges I had had, and felt invigorated and fulfilled. Then, as my thoughts turned to my journey home, I realised that beneath this feeling of invigoration and fulfilment lay a sense of loneliness. This is the feeling I get every time I leave Beijing for home: I am filled yet empty at the same time.

Never mind the inadequacy of China's infrastructure, its polluted air, the congested city traffic, and the shock of seeing well-dressed young Chinese spit on the ground.

China is not my country, and therefore my expectations of it are not the same as my expectations of Singapore. However, I am not someone who defines her existence with reference only to material things.

China's media is indeed controlled. But because of its strong and deep culture, as well as its huge pool of active intelligentsia, the moment there is a let-up in the controls, I can see how, despite the restrictions, the Chinese are taking to thinking and creating and forging their character in a difficult environment.

Theirs is a one-party state. But to be fair, nowadays one can find all types of books, newspapers and magazines on the news-stands, and a wide variety of theatre productions. Even cafes, teahouses and restaurants offer a diversity of tastes and flavours.

What is more, all this is not detached from the lives of the ordinary people. As we go to the market, take the trains or buses or simply walk along the road, the sights and sounds that all of us take in are the same.

I think very often of London too, although I stayed there for less than a year. I remember a snowy day in April. The cars along the road were covered with a blanket of melting grey snow. It was not at all snowy white.

I was not in good health during my stay in London and got to know the public health system quite well as a result. I was supposed to have one last physiotherapy session before leaving London, but right up to the last moment I could not get an appointment. The administrative staff I came across, whether at the university or the bank, were friendly but, I must say, inefficient.

I would walk out of the subway at night and pass staggering Londoners in a state of drunken stupor. But this did not prevent me from taking a liking to browsing through the newspapers and magazines in London's convenience stores. One could pick up anything one liked, whether it be The Sun, The Guardian with its interesting content and attractive layout, the Times Literary Supplement or The Economist.

The seats in the subway always felt like there was a thick layer of dust on them. Yet it was common to see passengers reading in their seats.

London's swanky fashion stores had their own way of displaying fashion; London's popular culture had its own history and depth. And of course, there was the BBC, a broadcaster that did not assume its audience was daft.

The cities that I miss are not perfect; indeed, they display no sign of intending to seek perfection. Behind their vibrancy and wealth is the depth of their cultures. Depth is something accumulated, not drawn up in a plan. In their formative years, did their governments outline any vision?

What was planned, I suppose, was their infrastructure, including transport systems. And they do have robust economic and financial activities.

Sometimes, Chang'an of the Tang dynasty - a city where talents congregated - comes to mind. I remember what my teacher taught me about the Tang dynasty at the zenith of its power. Looking back in history, Chang'an was already a full-fledged cosmopolitan city. But how did it get there in the first place? Let's suppose the government at that time did provide strong planning and drove the development. But still, how did it drive the most important element of a cosmopolitan city - the vibrancy of the people?

The island-state of Singapore has always been fixated on making itself a global city and a Renaissance city. I have in fact always held high hopes with regard to these propositions.

But in the past, reports of this kind always gave one the feeling that Singapore is playing the role of a cultural intermediary, with its willingness to build pretty showcases to display the products of others, and its supposition that culture is an embellishment of economic success. Thus, the country directed its efforts into building theatres, refurbishing old buildings, promoting branding and advertising itself in tourist pamphlets.

Although more recent reports on this front are still framed by culture as a constituent part of economic strategy, at least the reports no longer dwell on how many percentage points creative industries can contribute to economic growth. Rather, they focus on creating a 'soft' environment to vitalise the economy.

It is essentially still an economic strategy that is put forth, with planners employing the set mode of thinking prevalent in this country. It is still about setting measurable indicators and meeting numerical targets - for example, getting a certain number of world-class institutions into Singapore.

But there is no escaping the question of atmosphere, which is something that cannot be seen. It is true that low taxes and comfortable surroundings can attract foreign investment and talent. However, to persuade those who want to go abroad to stay in Singapore to pursue their studies, not only must there be academic freedom, there should also be freedom of thought and expression, as well as respect for knowledge and culture. There are ways to make talent stay, and it is not just about letting them think that it is easy to leave.

In the last 20 years, the cultural environment in this country has indeed changed. Many of Singapore's detractors in the Western media have come to praise it for the excitement that can now be found here.

It is true that we are consciously making an effort to change and this is something that should be affirmed - for example, having an arts school in the heart of the city was something I could never have imagined possible when I was a student. But after the euphoria, the country still has to continue with its soul-searching.

Besides form, is the country also sufficiently seeking depth? Are the officials who drive and implement cultural policies, including those who actually execute them, open-minded enough? Do they have adequate professional knowledge and are they steeped in culture?

In measuring their performance, do we bid them look at figures, the level of activities and the technical skills, or do we allow them to look at the arts scene as a whole, consider the big picture and take a long-term view? How the officials see things will determine how the arts sector gets its funding, how it will follow the lead of the authorities and how it will work with them.

During my flight home, I flipped through the pages of the magazines I had bought and looked at the notes I had made in Chengdu. The mass media industry really is the most direct and fastest way to get a sense of the level of thinking in a society.

Being able to go online wirelessly, and being able to watch cable television - these have nothing to do with our level of thinking. The strength of this island- state lies in its ability to employ new technology to connect to the world and circumvent its own weaknesses. This in fact deepened my sense of loneliness at the thought of going home.

The writer is Lianhe Zaobao's Senior Executive Editor. This article first appeared in Zaobao Sunday on Feb 7.

[I can't say as I fully understand what he is going on about. Perhaps I have no depth. But he says it with honesty and conviction so I'll try to understand it. Perhaps he means the cities he misses has a certain gravitas or age, or even identity. Perhaps what he (or she? I cannot be sure) means is that Singapore lacks historic sense. But even LKY agrees that Singapore has not arrived. We are a nation in transition. We may have the trappings of of a civilisation, but we do not have a vibrant, robust, and deep-rooted culture. But perhaps instead of moaning what we do not have, we should consider what we do have and what we can do with the opportunity to be at the birth of a city. Did the early inhabitants of a fledgling London know what their city will become? Did the early city planners planned for the future or just the immediate needs of the citizens? Did they make mistakes?]

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Eccentric but effective Steve Jobs pitches iPad to NYT execs

4 Feb 2010

By Prince McLean

Apple booked a quiet dinner reception for fifty executives at the New York Times, but the VIP guest ended up being Steve Jobs.

The gathering, as reported by New York magazine, was booked at Pranna, a cellar basement restaurant featuring a southeast Asian menu. The restaurant wasn't tipped off that Jobs himself would be in attendance.

The Apple executive reportedly arrived wearing a “a very funny hat — a big top hat kind of thing,” and ordered penne pasta with a mango lassi to drink, sending the staff scrambling to accommodate his unusual request. Jobs sat at the head of the table of Times executives as he demonstrated the iPad's functionality to executives in an "intimate, family-style gathering."

While newspaper executives are reportedly wary of entering into an exclusive deal that they fear might install Apple as the content broker of print media in the same model as iTunes' music and video businesses, they're also facing tough times monetizing their content as the Internet eats away at their display ad model.

After decades of selling their own ad space in print, they're now facing the problem of trying to make money on the web, where Google dominates ad sales and advertising space is effectively in infinite supply, and therefore worth very little. Jobs is pitching iTunes' paid downloads model to print and broadcast media companies with the iPad, an idea they like but also fear, apparently much more so than the alternative of Google's virtual monopoly on online ads.

Jobs faced similar fears in hammering out deals with music and movie executives, which balked at the company's plans to sell their content without ads at relatively low prices to an audience millions of iTunes users.

Music labels' own digital plans all failed until they teamed up with Apple in the new iTunes Store. Immediately after the company saved their future however, they began complaining about the control Apple exercised over prices and marketing, demanding that users buy songs only in albums and lobbying for "variable pricing" that would give the label suits the power to charge more for new acts and threaten their own talent with cheap pricing that would devalue their work if they didn't play the labels' game.

Movie studios similarly dragged their heels in joining the iTunes Store, with early adopters limiting the number of movies they made available and worrying about the prospect of digital downloads and then rentals hurting their lucrative DVD sales. Jobs used his influence at Disney to help pave the way for broader adoption of iTunes by other studios, but it still took years to win the movie executives over.

In print media, Jobs is now working to convince publishers to embrace digital distribution, particularly for the new larger format iPad, although Jobs also reportedly said "he likes to hold the Sunday edition in his hands."

Jobs has also brokered deals with booksellers and continues to talk with print and broadcast publishers about getting their content in iTunes and customized for use with the iPad. Clayton Morris of Fox News just tweeted today that Jobs had made an appearance at his company: "It's not everyday you walk into work and see Steve Jobs standing there."

[The print media particularly newspapers and magazines are wondering if their days are numbered and fighting for survival. So far all the business models with the new media has not worked to their advantage. So along comes Apple, the iPad, and Steve Jobs with a proposal. It will take some convincing.

The problem is convincing people to subscribe to news. That requires a mindset change. ]

Friday, February 5, 2010

Safer to bank on boring

Feb 2, 2010
By Paul Krugman

Above all, Canada's experience seems to support those who say that the way to keep banking safe is to keep it boring - that is, to limit the extent to which banks can take on risk.

IN TIMES of crisis, good news is no news. Iceland's meltdown made headlines; the remarkable stability of Canada's banks, not so much.

Yet as the world's attention shifts from financial rescue to financial reform, the quiet success stories deserve at least as much attention as the spectacular failures. We need to learn from countries that evidently did it right. And leading that list is the United States' neighbour to the north. Right now, Canada is a very important role model.

Yes, I know, Canada is supposed to be dull. The New Republic famously pronounced 'Worthwhile Canadian Initiative' (from a New York Times op-ed column in the 1980s), the world's most boring headline. But I have always considered Canada fascinating, precisely because it is similar to the US in many but not all ways. The point is that when Canadian and US experience diverges, it is a very good bet that policy differences, rather than differences in culture or economic structure, are responsible for that divergence.

And anyway, when it comes to banking, boring is good.

First, some background. Over the past decade, the US and Canada faced the same global environment. Both were confronted with the same flood of cheap goods and cheap money from Asia. Economists in both countries cheerfully declared that the era of severe recessions was over.

But when things fell apart, the consequences were very different. In the US, mortgage defaults soared, some major financial institutions collapsed, and others survived only thanks to huge government bailouts. In Canada, none of that happened. What did the Canadians do differently?

It was not interest rate policy. Many commentators have blamed the Federal Reserve for the financial crisis, claiming that the Fed created a disastrous bubble by keeping interest rates too low for too long. But Canadian interest rates have tracked US rates quite closely, so it seems that low rates are not enough, by themselves, to produce a financial crisis.

Canada's experience also seems to refute the view, forcefully pushed by Mr Paul Volcker, the formidable former Fed chairman, that the roots of the US crisis lay in the scale and scope of its financial institutions - in the existence of banks that were 'too big to fail'. For in Canada essentially all the banks are too big to fail: just five banking groups dominate the financial scene.

On the other hand, Canada's experience does seem to support the views of people like Ms Elizabeth Warren, the head of the Congressional panel overseeing the bank bailout, who places much of the blame for the crisis on failure to protect consumers from deceptive lending. Canada has an independent Financial Consumer Agency, and it has sharply restricted sub-prime-type lending.

Above all, Canada's experience seems to support those who say that the way to keep banking safe is to keep it boring - that is, to limit the extent to which banks can take on risk. The US used to have a boring banking system, but Reagan-era deregulation made things dangerously interesting. Canada, by contrast, has maintained a happy tedium.

More specifically, Canada has been much stricter about limiting banks' leverage, the extent to which they can rely on borrowed funds. It has also limited the process of securitisation, in which banks package and resell claims on their loans outstanding - a process that was supposed to help banks reduce their risk by spreading it, but has turned out in practice to be a way for banks to make ever-bigger wagers with other people's money.

There is no question that in recent years these restrictions meant fewer opportunities for bankers to come up with clever ideas than would have been available if Canada had emulated America's deregulatory zeal. But that, as it turns out, was all to the good.

So what are the chances that the US will learn from Canada's success?

Actually, the financial reform Bill that the House of Representatives passed in December last year would significantly Canadianise the US system. It would create an independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency, it would establish limits on leverage, and it would limit securitisation by requiring that lenders hold on to some of their loans.

But prospects for a comparable Bill getting the 60 votes now needed to push anything through the Senate are doubtful. Republicans are clearly dead set against any significant financial reform - not a single Republican voted for the House Bill - and some Democrats are ambivalent, too.

So there is a good chance that Washington will do nothing, or nothing much, to prevent future banking crises. But it will not be because the US does not know what to do: It has a clear example of how to keep banking safe sitting right next door.

NEW YORK TIMES

Light moments in dialogue with MM Lee

Jan 28, 2010
Light moments at the dialogue

THERE were several light-hearted moments during the dialogue yesterday. Here are two:

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew: 'I was on an SIA flight coming home and the air hostess who was serving me, I saw she had a wedding ring, so I said, 'Any children?' She said, 'Not yet.' I said, 'What are you waiting for?' She said, 'For my flat.' So I said, 'Have you got one?' She said, 'Yes, I've got one at Pinnacle@Duxton, on the 48th floor. And I got it on the first booking.' (That's) when the price was lowest. So I said, 'Well, remember that when voting comes.' '

Professor Tommy Koh: 'I'd like to ask you to now help us think forward. You've always thought ahead of the wave, you've always raised the bar for us as a nation. We've done very well in the last 50 years. Now, as you look forward, do you have any new ambitions for us in HDB, in public housing, in making Singapore one of the world's greenest, most sustainable, most liveable cities?'

MM Lee: 'No, I think my job was to hand over to a group of people who can do the job better than me now. I mean, I am not 35 years old.'

Prof Koh: 'We are all afraid that you still think like you're 35.' (audience roars with laughter).

When natural disasters are only human

Feb 4, 2010
When natural disasters are only human
By Andy Ho, Senior Writer

AMONG the most embarrassing reports from Haiti are those about its elite. The Jan 12 quake which destroyed much of Port-au-Prince spared its wealthy eastern suburb of Petionville. The mansions there were simply better constructed than most other buildings in the capital.

For Petionville residents - mostly fair-skinned descendants of the French colonialists who controlled the slave plantation economy until independence in 1804 - the genteel life continues. Meanwhile, the black denizens of the shanties in downtown Port-au-Prince who survived the temblor are still on the streets. Relief aid isn't arriving fast enough and most of it will go to Petionville residents, in any case, 'through their government connections, trading companies and interconnected family businesses', as The Washington Post noted.

This unequal distribution of the consequences of the quake is quite typical of natural disasters. In ancient times, a disaster - from dis + astro or 'bad star' - was believed to involve the baleful forces of nature striking humans. But though natural hazards may be unavoidable, they become tragedies only when human decisions result in the most vulnerable bearing most of the suffering.

There are various economic and political factors which cause the consequences of natural disasters to be unequally distributed. But only limited progress has been made in analysing them, which could be one task for the multi-disciplinary Institute of Catastrophe Risk Management that Nanyang Technological University launched last month.

In the 1970s and 1980s, disaster studies focused on how human extractive activities like logging led to deforestation, the silting of rivers and so on. In the 1990s, experts recognised how the consequences of such tragedies were non-randomly distributed by race and income.

In the last decade, their causes were also recognised to be non-random too. Thus, almost all toxic emissions in the United States and Japan come from 5 per cent of their economic activity, almost all located in the poorest communities. Who makes these location decisions? The rich and powerful, of course.

Because natural disasters are assumed to impact just those who happen to be caught in their paths, researchers neglected to look for the social, economic or political factors influencing their impact on people. Instead, their focus has largely been on emergency preparedness, disaster recovery and the like.

The places that are historically prone to quakes or hurricanes are already very well known. Thus when people build in such locations, they do so hoping not to be struck in the near future. Or perhaps they believe they will survive the disaster should it occur.

It was Yale sociologist Charles Perrow who introduced the notion of 'normal accidents'. That is, given the extent to which we depend today on complex systems - power generation, for example, or sewage disposal - multiple catastrophes just waiting to occur are actually built into the fabric of our lives.

Professor Perrow further argues in The Next Catastrophe that instead of assuming a natural disaster is naturally a tragedy, we should look for human causes that turn it into one at any particular location.

On Aug 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept down on New Orleans, breaking the levees on the Mississippi river. Some 1,300 people perished in the floods that destroyed 69,000 houses and racked up US$100 billion (S$140 billion) in losses.

In 1965 and 1969, respectively, hurricanes Betsy and Camille took the same path as Katrina did but caused much less damage. Betsy saw a quarter of the city flooded but only 76 people perished. Stronger levees were then built - but Katrina flooded 80 per cent of New Orleans.

While Katrina stories usually focus on the broken levees, the fact of the matter is Louisiana had more public funding for levee construction than any other state in the five years before Katrina occurred. What mattered more was the building of a 122km long, ramrod straight, deepwater canal that directly connected the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico to the freshwater of the Mississippi River.

Completed in 1968, it allowed sea water to penetrate very far inland. The salinity killed plants in the wetlands around the river that had long buffered New Orleans from storm surges. Between 1965 and 2005, one million out of four million acres of wetlands were lost thus. Sans wetlands to sponge up hurricane storm surges, the straight canal provided an unobstructed path for and amplified the Katrina flood waters. The levees broke and the rest is history.

Researchers have established that the authorities knew before building the canal that it could destroy the wetlands and raise the risk of hurricane flooding. But it was built, nevertheless, to transform river town New Orleans into a seaport. Over the decades, however, the crooked Mississippi river still carried 250 times more freight than the straight canal. The latter was prone to silting and was re-dredged frequently, which obstructed traffic.

The background to Katrina shows how it was human actions that turned a natural hazard into a tragedy. Prof Perrow argues that spreading out populations now concentrated in hazardous regions will reduce the risks in case of another Katrina.

But the poor have few relocation options. Those trapped in New Orleans as the flood waters rose were mainly poor blacks with no transportation out.

Because Katrina led to significant silting, big vessels can no longer use the canal. By July last year, a rock barrier had been constructed to plug the canal, which will be closed. But should another hurricane make landfall before the wetlands are restored, which could take decades, the poor will bear its brunt - again.

andyho@sph.com.sg

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Bangkok sinking
February 04, 2010
Nirmal Ghosh hears experts warn that the city is unprepared for climate change.

IN BANGKOK
 
GOVERNMENT policies and regulations in Thailand still "do not take climate change into consideration at all" despite the clear risk to Bangkok, according to Dr Anond Snidvongs, one of the country's foremost experts on climate change modeling.
 
Most designs and plans for infrastructure and buildings, remain based on the premise that "everything is constant" he said at a panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) last Monday. 
 
Dr Anond, director of SEA START — a research unit dedicated to predicting the impact of climate change in south east Asia — pleaded for an open and wide debate and exchange of ideas on how to secure Bangkok against the imminent risks posed by the combined forces of sea level rise, land subsidence and extreme storms.
 
With him on the panel was Prof Cor Dijkgraaf, an expert in urban planning currently based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands — a country below sea level that survives only because of its extensive system of dikes.
 
Prof Dijkgraaf drew some interesting comparisons between the Netherlands and Bangkok. And he had some interesting old pictures as well — of parts of old Bangkok under water decades ago before the city’s drainage system was upgraded.
 
If Bangkok wanted to prevent similar scenes in the future, "you have to start thinking of this now," he said.
 
"You can do all the research, make all the calculations, but if there's no political will you can't get it done. You have to ask if you can afford not to take measures to avoid the cost of doing nothing in the coming years," said Prof Dijkgraaf.
 
Much of Bangkok is at sea level or about 1 metre above it, and the land is steadily subsiding in nearby coastal zones, and in parts of the city itself. At the same time the level of the sea is rising. In a worst case scenario within the next 40 years, vital installations and tens of thousands of homes and offices and factories will face major floods.
 
While listening to Dr Anond I recalled the fund-raising dinner for prachatai.com which I had attended in December 2009, where Governor of Bangkok MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra had spoken about the challenges of the future.
 
I went back to the recording and sure enough he had mentioned climate change and the threat to Bangkok.
 
"For Thailand the most worrying problem a the moment is rising sea level which will definitely accelerate the rate of coastal erosion," he said.
 
MR Sukhumbhand said Thailand has lost 113,000 rai (around 45,000 acres) of coastal land over the last 30 years. In the province of Samut Prakarn alone, a few miles south of Bangkok, land loss had been to the tune of 10,000 rai (around 4,000 acres).
 
I remembered travelling in a boat in the area with Dr Anond in 2007, purring along through water several metres deep where a road had once been, complete with the telephone poles sticking up out of the waves.


The waters of the Gulf of Thailand lapping at the telephone poles of Bang Khun Tien, which were on dry land only 20 years ago. This low-lying region is fighting a losing battle against the rising sea level, clearly seen in this photo taken in 2007.
PHOTO: Nirmal Ghosh

Disturbingly, MR Sukhumbhand continued to say: "By 2050... large parts of Bangkok will be under water. We need a combination of short term and longer term measures (for drainage and coastal defence), which of course require massive investment — which we have not even begun to do."
 
At the FCCT, Dr Anond made another interesting observation — that the rate of subsidence of part of the coast, both on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman sea, had increased after the December 2004 earthquake that had created the devastating Asian tsunami.
 
Up to 1.16 million buildings in Bangkok — 900,000 of them residential — were at risk from the worst case scenario of a coincidence of land subsidence, sea level rise and a storm surge, he said — and "ongoing efforts are not enough" to cope.
 
Proposed measures to deal with it include a large storage dam, a barrage across the mouth of the Chao Phraya river, storm surge barriers across the upper Gulf of Thailand, and diversion channels.
 
"Even in the scientific community we don't believe we have sufficient certainty to advise on what to do and what not to do," he acknowledged.
 
"But people in Bangkok need to start thinking of the future."

Monday, February 1, 2010

The US two-party democracy model

Never heard that before
Feb 01, 2010
by THOMAS L FRIEDMAN THE NEW YORK TIMES

AS A political barometer, the Davos World Economic Forum usually offers up some revealing indicators of the global mood, and this year is no exception. I heard of a phrase being bandied about here by non-Americans - about the United States - that I can honestly say I've never heard before: "political instability".

That phrase is normally reserved for countries like Russia or Iran or Honduras. But now, an American businessman here remarked to me: "People ask me about 'political instability' in the US. We've become unpredictable to the world."

People at international conferences love to complain about America. But in the past, it was always done knowing that America was this global bedrock that could always be counted upon to lead. This time it is different.

This year, Asians and Europeans, in particular, pull you aside and ask you some version of: "Tell me, what's going on in your country?"

We're making people nervous.

You can understand why foreigners are uneasy. They look at America and see a President elected by a solid majority and controlling both the House and the Senate. Yet, a year later, he can't win passage of his top legislative priority: Health care.

"Our two-party political system is broken just when everything needs major repair, not minor repair," said Mr K R Sridhar, founder of a fuel cell company. "I am talking about health care, infrastructure, education, energy. We are the ones who need a Marshall Plan now."

Indeed, speaking of phrases I've never heard here before, another goes like this: "Is the 'Beijing Consensus' replacing the 'Washington Consensus?'"

"Washington Consensus" is a term coined after the Cold War for the free-market, pro-trade and globalisation policies promoted by America.

As Ms Katrin Bennhold reported in The International Herald Tribune this week, developing countries everywhere are looking "for a recipe for faster growth and greater stability than that offered by the now tattered 'Washington Consensus'. And as they do, "there is growing talk about a 'Beijing Consensus'".

The Beijing Consensus, says Ms Bennhold, is a "Confucian-Communist-Capitalist" hybrid under the umbrella of a one-party state, with a lot of government guidance, strictly controlled capital markets and an authoritarian decision-making process that is capable of making tough choices and long-term investments, without having to heed daily public polls.

Personally, I wouldn't give up on the Washington Consensus so fast. The reason it is ailing is not because of its principles. It is failing more because of, well, Washington.

It was hard to read President Barack Obama's State of the Union address and not feel torn between his vision for the coming years and the awareness that the forces of inertia and special interests blocking him - not to mention the whole Republican Party - make the chances of his implementing that vision highly unlikely. That is the definition of "stuck". And right now we are stuck.

The sad and frustrating thing is, we are so close to being unstuck. If there were just six or eight Republican senators ready to meet Mr Obama somewhere in the middle on deficit reduction, energy, health care and banking reform, I believe that the President would indeed meet them in that middle ground to forge not just incremental compromises, but substantial ones on these key issues.

It is a shame because here we are as a country scrounging around for a few billion more dollars of stimulus, when the biggest stimulus of all is hiding in plain sight. And that is ending our political paralysis and the pall of uncertainty it is casting over everything from the cost of my health care to the way our biggest banks can do business.

If the two parties could get together and remove the growing sense that our country is politically paralysed, you would not need another dime of stimulus money. Investment and lending would take off on their own.

If, however, the two parties continue with their duel-to-the-death paralysis, no amount of stimulus will give us the sustained growth and employment we need.

[Perhaps Friedman is right and it is just the fault of Washington, but then again, perhaps it is precisely a two-party system that tends to engender polarity and partisanship. And that it would take remarkable statesmanship and a commitment to a higher purpose for a leader to "reach across the aisle" and build bridges instead of burning them. It may well be that Obama is not a product of such a system, but an exception to the rule. ]