Friday, April 30, 2010

Shooting of teen: KL police chief lashes out

Apr 30, 2010

He hits back at critics of policemen who opened fire after car chase

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's police chief Musa Hassan has lashed out at those criticising the force over the death of a 14-year-old boy, saying he could call his men off the streets if that was what the people wanted.

'If you do not want the police to enforce the law, then say so,' he said.

'I can tell my men to not take any action, including to conduct inspections on vehicles or arrest Mat Rempit (motorcycle gangs) who ride without licence,' Tan Sri Musa told reporters after an official function.

[An incredibly childish respomse. I am amazed someone who has risen to the rank of Chief of Police has the instincts of a child, and responds with the instincts of a child.]

The Inspector-General of Police was responding to statements by various groups over the death of Aminulrasyid Amzah.

The teenager was killed about 100m from his home early on Monday after policemen opened fire on him in Shah Alam following a car chase.

Initial reports, quoting the police, said he had tried to ram his car into police officers, forcing them to fire several shots at its tyres.

One bullet hit Aminulrasyid in the back of his head.

He was driving without a driving licence.

Police reportedly found a parang in the car, a Proton Iswara that belonged to his sister.
There were also allegations that the teen was a member of a robbery gang.

But a friend who was with Aminulrasyid at the time and fled the scene on foot unhurt gave a different story.

He said they were returning from a restaurant when they overtook a police car, reported news website The Malaysian Insider, and the police gave chase and opened fire on the car.

As anger over the shooting incident mounted, the Home Ministry announced that it had set up a special panel to probe the death.

Police chief Musa said he did not want to speculate on exactly what had transpired during the incident.

'It happened at 2am and the vehicle was being driven suspiciously. My men won't know if the driver was an adult or not because it was dark.

'If you refuse to stop and try to drive your way through when an officer is trying to stop you, then that vehicle is considered a weapon because it poses a danger to the life of the enforcement officer,' Mr Musa said.

'Running away from the police creates suspicion and, as law enforcers, we must ascertain why this person is running away from us,' he said.

[By shooting at them? Mr Musa would have done better to acknowledge the loss of a young life, offer his condolences, promise a clean and thorough investigation into the shooting, and say that until the investigation is complete, he is unable to comment any further. Standard procedures.]

Four policemen who were involved in the shooting have been transferred to desk duty and the case has been classified as murder.

One policeman fired four shots, one of which killed the teenager.

Veteran opposition leader Lim Kit Siang said the men in blue needed to explain how Aminulrasyid was shot in the back of the head when he supposedly tried to reverse his car and ram the police.

'As Aminul was shot in the back of his head and killed, he could not have posed any clear or present danger to police personnel.

'Why did they fire - with some neighbours saying they heard not less than five shots?' he was quoted as saying in The Malaysian Insider website.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Foreign Ministry responds to UN expert's comments

Apr 29, 2010

Free expression must not be at expense of racial and religious harmony; only S'pore Govt can decide balance

'MR GITHU Muigai visited Singapore at the invitation of the Singapore Government. He had requested to come to Singapore to better understand our society, engage in dialogue, and identify best practices to be shared.

We told Mr Muigai that for Singapore, maintaining racial and religious harmony and treating minorities fairly is not just the morally correct thing to do. It is a political, economic and even foreign policy imperative for our continued survival and prosperity.

The principle of meritocracy is the basis of Singapore's success and will continue to serve as the core value of our society.

Mr Muigai told us that he now better appreciates the complexity of Singapore society and how we deal with racial issues.

He agreed with us that managing racial issues is a journey with no end and there will always be challenges. We told him that we will deal with them pragmatically as they arise; policies are continually reviewed and adjusted if changes are warranted.

The Singapore Government looks forward to reading Mr Muigai's final report. We have an open mind because the maintenance of racial harmony is of such vital importance to us that we are prepared to consider any practical suggestion that advances this goal and is workable in our unique circumstances.

We do not expect Mr Muigai to agree with all our approaches; nor do we agree with all that he had shared with us. Such differences of opinion are natural when dealing with a subject as complex as race.

We will respond fully as appropriate when we see his final report.

However, there are some comments in his press statement and from his press conference that require immediate clarification.


WE ARE surprised that Mr Muigai had so quickly concluded that in the field of education, 'special measures within clearly defined timelines' may be necessary to help address the historical inequalities faced by the Malay community.

As Mr Muigai himself has acknowledged, statistics show that 'great progress has been made in the last decades' in terms of the Malay community's performance in education and many other areas.

These statistics are publicly available.

The approach that Mr Muigai appears to be advocating - popularly known as 'affirmative action' - is one that has been tried by many countries without notable success. During our discussions with him, we found that Mr Muigai is well aware of failures of affirmative action and indeed shared with us an example of such a failure in another country.

During his meeting with Muis (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), Mr Muigai directly asked the president of Muis, Haji Mohd Alami Musa, whether he thought the Malay community wanted the Government to create special provisions to help the Malay community.

Haji Alami categorically told Mr Muigai that the Malays disapproved of any affirmative action policy because the Malay community had a deep sense of pride in its own ability to achieve steady progress under the national system of meritocracy.


IN THE course of his press conference this afternoon Mr Muigai referred to restrictions in our laws such as the Penal Code and the Sedition Act and expressed the opinion that they may not be as useful today as 45 years ago. He called for greater openness in the public discussion of sensitive issues.

Here we must emphatically disagree with Mr Muigai.

Race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore. This does not mean that they cannot be discussed, but a balance must always be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony.

This balance is only for the Singapore Government to determine because only the Singapore Government bears the responsibility should things go wrong.

The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle. We believe most Singaporeans agree with the Government's approach.


MR MUIGAI was of the opinion that there was a potential conflict between the role of the Chief Justice as head of an independent judiciary and as chairman of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR).

Mr Muigai has not fully understood the Constitutional role of the PCMR. As the Chief Justice (Chan Sek Keong) himself told Mr Muigai, if there was any conflict of interest in a case, the Chief Justice would recuse himself.

Our judiciary is well respected internationally and the PCMR has worked well to preserve racial harmony in Singapore.


MR MUIGAI has suggested that categorising individuals by ethnicity, for example on our National Registration Identity Cards and through our Group Representation Constituency system, may reinforce and perpetuate prejudices and negative stereotypes.

However, during our discussions Mr Muigai acknowledged that there was no single correct approach to this issue and that there were good reasons not to pretend that ethnic differences did not exist.


MR MUIGAI has also recommended that we accede to certain international human rights conventions.

We have told Mr Muigai that we are in the process of studying some of these conventions and do not rule out acceding to them.

But we do not value form for its own sake and will accede to these conventions if there is substantive value in doing so and we are prepared to implement all their provisions.

THERE are also factual errors in Mr Muigai's press release that need immediate correction.


MR MUIGAI had noted that 'the Government had until a decade ago supported free education programmes for Malay students'. This implies that the Government has reduced the amount of money devoted to Malay education. This is not true.

What has changed is that the money that used to be allocated to middle-class Malays who no longer need subsidies for education is now given to Mendaki for distribution to the most needy Malays. The total amount of money dedicated to Malay education has not changed.


MR MUIGAI claimed that non-Tamil-speaking Indian Muslims may find it difficult to identify with (community self-help groups) Mendaki or Sinda. This is not true and in fact they have been making full use of programmes in both community groups. No Indian Muslim in need of help is denied help.


MR MUIGAI claimed that Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools were established in order to nurture the best talents that will form the next generation of leaders in the various fields.

This is a misunderstanding of the role that SAP schools play in Singapore.

Then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his speech at the 300th anniversary of the birth of the Khalsa Sikh Vesakhi celebrations in 1999 had explained fully the role of SAP schools. The speech is still relevant and Mr Muigai was given a copy of the speech today.'

UN man highlights areas for review

Apr 29, 2010


THESE laws include the Sedition Act and the Penal Code, which prohibit the promotion of enmity between different groups on the grounds of race and religion.

Mr Githu Muigai is of the view that these laws were relevant 45 years ago, when Singapore faced racial tensions that spilled over into violence.

But he believes the situation is different today.

'It is absolutely necessary in a free society that restrictions on public debate or discourse and the protection of racial harmony are not implemented at the detriment of fundamental human rights, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly.'

He thinks it is time to 'review any legislative restrictions that may exist in the statute books in order to allow Singaporeans to share their views on matters of ethnicity, to identify potential issues of discomfort and above all, work together to find solutions'.


AMONG those he cited were the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs). Parties that contest GRCs must field at least one member from an ethnic minority.

He also cited identity cards here, which retain the 'race' category - although he noted that the authorities were more flexible to allow those of mixed origins to display several ethnic backgrounds.

But he said schemes like the GRC and having the race stated on identity cards 'may tend to reinforce and perpetuate ethnic categorisation'.

'This in turn may lead to certain prejudices and negative stereotypes against certain minority groups taking root. The benefits of a society which allows for more permeability between delimited ethnic categories and in which social interactions are not predetermined by ethnic identity cannot be overemphasised.'

He recommended, as a start, that the 'race' category be removed from identity cards.


THE 1989 Ethnic Integration Policy stipulated ethnic quotas in HDB estates in order to prevent the creation of ethnic enclaves.

While the rationale and objectives were laudable, he said, the feedback to him was that the implementation created problems: Ethnic minorities faced difficulty finding flats near their families, and it also made it harder for them to resell their flats.

He hoped the policy would be made more flexible and kept under constant review.

'There was very strong feeling that the tendency for communities to regroup within cleavages has not disappeared, and will not disappear in the foreseeable future,' he noted.

'However, I got the impression that the Government is open-minded about tweaking the system a bit in favour of families being not too far from each other, parents not being far from their children, and in allowing disposals that don't financially prejudice especially minority sellers.'


HE SAID the education system allowed all children to learn and play together. Schools also had successful programmes to foster mutual understanding and respect.

But Malay students were not moving in tandem with the rest of the student population, he felt. This was due to 'historical inequalities'.

He was also told that Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools - seen as top schools that nurture the next generation of leaders - favoured Chinese culture and language. It created the impression that there was a 'hierarchy of cultures'.

SAP schools were set up to strengthen the cultural roots of Singaporeans in an English-language environment, then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a 1999 speech. The Government would never let Chinese-educated Singaporeans monopolise top positions in society.

At his press conference, Mr Muigai recommended a state-supported 'stimulus package' for Malay education run within a specified timeline. But he agreed that ethnic quotas would not work in Singapore.

'Meritocracy has its merits. However, where there are acknowledged historical inequalities, as is the case with Malay students, this principle may serve to entrench them.'


IT WAS good that the Manpower Ministry and the Tripartite Alliance for Fair Employment educate employers about non-discrimination and resolve complaints through mediation.

Yet his attention was drawn to difficulties and negative stereotypes faced by Malays. He noted they were under-represented in senior positions in the military, the police and intelligence services and in the judiciary.

He called for a review of laws and regulations to ensure minority representation in all employment sectors, as well as legally binding provisions against discrimination in employment.


HE WAS aware that the recent wave of immigration caused some resentment among Singaporeans.

He called for a more open and transparent immigration policy to address this. There was a perception that migrants from certain countries were favoured.

More urgently, he asked the Government to look into the condition of the low-skilled migrant worker, on top of existing efforts to educate employers, conduct random checks and sanction employers who mistreat their workers.

On foreign domestic workers, he hoped the Government would include them under the Employment Act. He applauded the Manpower Ministry's move to draw up a standard contract for domestic workers, offering them more protection.

He also recommended a minimum wage for vulnerable migrant workers, such as domestic and construction workers.


SINGAPORE has not signed various UN covenants enshrining the principle of non-discrimination, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

He hoped Singapore would soon accede to these covenants. The Government informed him that the matter was under review, he said.

He also hoped that the Government would beef up the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, giving it enhanced powers to consider laws on its own initiative.


ETHNIC minorities should be able to see role models in newspapers and films that present positive images of themselves, he said.

The media should therefore not reinforce stereotypes about certain races, for example, by constantly depicting a Chinese doctor and a Malay nurse, or emphasising the ethnicity of criminals.

UN expert's comments draw swift Govt reply

Apr 29, 2010
By Rachel Lin

A UNITED Nations racism expert's call for policy fixes to allow for freer discussion of sensitive issues like race and to provide more extensive help for some in the Malay community drew a quick response from the Government yesterday.

Special Rapporteur Githu Muigai, speaking after an eight-day mission here, said Singapore had performed well in combating racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, but 'blind spots' remain that could undermine the preservation of racial harmony.

Broadly put, these involved policies and programmes such as the Group Representation Constituencies (GRCs), the 'race' category on identification documents and ethnic quotas in public housing which he said reinforced, not reduced, ethnic categorisation.

They also included the status of the Malay community here, in particular, what he saw as their relative under-performance in school and the lack of high-ranking Malay members of the army and judiciary.

Mr Muigai also felt that Singapore society was mature and the time was ripe for the review of laws which may constrain free public debate on sensitive issues, such as race and religion.

Saying that he found a 'very vibrant intellectual culture' here, he was of the view that restrictions such as those in the Penal Code and Sedition Act were not as useful today as they were 45 years ago when Singapore experienced violent racial tensions.

'I think I would even go further and say that I think they stand in the way of a more robust, more engaging debate that is necessary for Singapore or Singapore society to move forward,' he said at a press conference.

His statements prompted a response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) last night giving the Government's position on these and his other initial recommendations.

'We must emphatically disagree with Mr Muigai. Race, language and religion will always be sensitive issues in Singapore. This does not mean that they cannot be discussed, but a balance must always be struck between free expression and preservation of racial and religious harmony,' the ministry said.

'This balance is only for the Singapore Government to determine because only the Singapore Government bears the responsibility should things go wrong. The UN bears no such responsibility and we see no reason to take risks for the sake of an abstract principle. We believe most Singaporeans agree with the Government's approach.'

[It is idealistic to believe that robust and engaging discussion and debate will remain at the intellectual level for visceral issues such as race and religion. The experience is that all too often such debates become passionate, positions become polarised, and attitudes become entrenched and intransigent. In any case, what gains does one expect from robust and engaging discussions? On matters of race and religion, there are mutually exclusive positions that ultimately cannot be discussed away.]

It also took issue with his comments on the Malay community.

Mr Muigai called for a fresh approach for Malay students, who perform below the national average due to 'acknowledged historical inequalities'.

The present community-based programmes, although partly funded by the Government, were not enough, he said.

'We must do more than give money for remedial teaching, for after-school teaching, for coaching for exams. We need a stimulus package, specific for this, within a timeline... Put in the money, the resources, the teachers, the equipment and then say, 'This has seven years to work'.'

Mr Muigai explicitly rejected ethnic quotas as a solution for Malay students here, noting that representatives of the community whom he had met were staunchly opposed to quotas.

The MFA said Mr Muigai was aware of the pitfalls of affirmative action and was surprised at his call for special measures in the area of education.

It too noted that key Malay leaders he met while here also told him that the community was proud of its ability to succeed on its own steam.

At his press conference, Mr Muigai said that he had heard concerns that policies such as the GRC system entrenched, rather than diminished, the significance of ethnic identity.

This could result in certain prejudices and negative stereotypes against certain minority groups taking root.

'The benefits of a society which allows for more permeability between ethnic categories, and in which social interactions are not predetermined by ethnic identity, cannot be overemphasised,' he said.

In addition, ethnic quotas in public housing posed problems for minorities, who had trouble finding homes near their families and could only sell their flats to members of the same ethnic group.

He recommended that identification documents should not indicate an individual's ethnic group. Having met officials while here, he came away with the view that the Government would not seriously object to this.

Addressing these points, the MFA yesterday said that ethnic categorisation was a complex issue for which there was no one correct answer.

Mr Muigai had, in his discussions with government officials, agreed that there were good reasons not to dismiss the presence of ethnic differences, it noted.

Mr Muigai who was here at the invitation of the Government to study issues relating to racism, racial discrimination and xenophobia, met ministers, civil servants, MPs and members of the judiciary, as well as civil society representatives, academics, lawyers, students and other individuals.

He told reporters that he had come with 'an open mind' to engage in a constructive dialogue with the authorities and civil society and identify best practices that can be shared with the international community.

Speaking on his initial impressions, he noted Singapore's troubled legacy of racial violence and said that the peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic groups today was 'a remarkable achievement'.

The Government's fundamental commitment to tolerance and racial harmony has been demonstrated in many commendable policies, he added.

He noted that these provided a common space for people of different races to interact and learn from one another.

'I was deeply impressed by the work achieved and activities undertaken by, among other things, the National Integration Council, the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony, the People's Association, OnePeople, as well as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles,' he said.

He was pleased with the cooperation he received and the fruitful programme, and found that the Government was 'acutely aware of the threats posed by racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance'.

Still, he urged Singapore to sign the UN's many international covenants on human rights such as those to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination; on civil and political rights; and on the rights of migrant workers.

'I received assurances from the Government and was very pleased that this matter is under active review,' he said.

Last night, the MFA said that Singapore 'will accede to these conventions if there is substantive value in doing so and we are prepared to implement all their provisions'.

Yesterday, Mr Muigai also called for urgent action from the Government to protect transient workers, especially domestic workers.

'This is one area where the situation is quite dire,' he said, noting that domestic workers were not always given a day off or medical leave and were not allowed to marry Singapore men, and were automatically deported if found pregnant.

Mr Muigai, who has done similar studies in Germany and the United Arab Emirates, will present his full findings on Singapore to the UN Human Rights Council in June next year. It will be the first such report on Singapore.

The MFA said the Government looked forward to that report.

'We have an open mind because the maintenance of racial harmony is of such vital importance to us that we are prepared to consider any practical suggestion that advances this goal and is workable in our unique circumstances.'

[One may asks that if the SG Govt were not going to be receptive to criticisms, why bring in a UN special rapporteur to assess our performance and then reject everything he says. However, it is commendable that despite the peaceful racial relations here in Sg, the Govt had nonetheless sought an outside observer's views and assessment. This acknowledges that we may be blind to some problems and we should seek a second opinion.

That said, the swift govt reply may be a little reactive, rather than reflective. It would be good to go over the report, and consider the recommendations in a cold and dispassionate manner to see if there is something that we missed.]

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Election Rule Changes

Apr 27, 2010

PAP's 'woes' of its own making: Sylvia Lim
By Cai Haoxiang

IF THE ruling party now has a political problem it is trying to solve, it is of its own doing, argued Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) Sylvia Lim yesterday.

The Workers' Party (WP) chairman said the People's Action Party's (PAP) latest changes to the electoral landscape were made necessary by its own success in stamping out opposition representation in Parliament.

She spoke during the debate on a Constitution Amendment Bill that will entrench the Nominated MP system and raise the allowable number of NCMPs from six to nine. NCMPs are a ticket to Parliament for losing opposition candidates with the most votes.

Ms Lim said that while the changes cater to Singaporeans' desire for more opposition voices, they fail to tackle the 'root causes' of why there are few such voices to begin with. These, she argued, were the PAP's 'double whammy' of GRCs and gerrymandering.

GRCs, introduced in 1988, have grown in size over the years. The maximum number of MPs in each GRC has gone up from three in 1988, to four in 1991, to six in 1997. Meanwhile, the number of single-member wards has shrunk - from 42 in 1988, to 21 in 1991, to nine in 1997.

Said Ms Lim, sardonically: 'Such was the PAP's need to dominate. This tiny number of nine has been with us till today such that when the Prime Minister announced there's an increase of single-member wards from nine to 12, we hailed this as progress.'

She also referred to a speech by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in 2006 to show how the PAP itself admitted GRCs served party purposes. He had said GRCs helped recruit candidates for the PAP, as 'without some assurance of a good chance of winning at least their first election, many able and successful young Singaporeans may not risk their careers to join politics'.

Ms Lim also said gerrymandering, or the manipulation of constituency boundaries to gain an unfair advantage, had prevented opposition parties from gaining ground. 'Constituencies which showed strong opposition support are broken up or merged with others. Today, we no longer have Eunos GRC or Cheng San GRC,' she said, referring to the GRCs where the WP came close to wresting power from the PAP in the 1988, 1991 and 1997 polls.

Citing limitations on NCMPs' powers, she said only elected opposition members can provide a sustainable check on the ruling party, represent the people properly, and create a more robust political system.

She said: 'The root causes of our current problems are the abuse of the GRC system and gerrymandering. These have curtailed the expression of the people's desires at the elections and instead promoted the ruling party's own agenda.

'The PAP has created the problem which it is now trying to solve. But we should instead tackle the root causes for a more lasting and sustainable political future for Singapore.' She suggested that a system with all single seats would better reflect MPs' support from the people.

In response, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said that as the WP nearly won the Eunos and Cheng San GRC elections, the GRC system was not at fault. He said the PAP fields its best candidates at every election such that it has a clear mandate to lead. And regardless of how big a GRC is, if there is a groundswell of opinion against the PAP, people will vote against it.

If the opposition is unable to field good candidates, 'please do not use the excuses of GRC or boundary delineation to complain that they have no chance'.

Apr 27, 2010
Concerns over plan to increase opposition presence

IN A rare show of disagreement with new legislation tabled by the Government, several ruling party MPs yesterday took aim at constitutional changes that will increase the presence of opposition politicians in Parliament.

Five People's Action Party (PAP) MPs, during the debate over changes that will increase the minimum opposition presence from the current three to nine, raised concerns ranging from their lack of accountability to their effect on debate in the House.

Their bottom line? It is not the job of the ruling party to get opposition politicians into Parliament.

Mr Alvin Yeo (Hong Kah GRC) suggested that the aim of the changes to the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) scheme - to generate more robust debate in Parliament - may not be realised.

'The opposition regularly criticises PAP MPs for speaking with one voice...but have you ever heard (NCMP) Ms Sylvia Lim take a different position from that of (Hougang MP) Mr Low Thia Khiang?' he asked.

Ms Lim and Mr Low both belong to the Workers' Party.

Only the sound and fury of debate - and not its quality - will be raised, he suggested.

Mr Zaqy Mohamad (Hong Kah GRC) and Ms Irene Ng (Tampines GRC) fretted over the NCMPs' lack of constituents to be accountable to.

Nothing will hold back an unelected NCMP from making 'provocative comments and populist calls', said Ms Ng.

While it is easy to criticise the Government, 'an elected MP with constituents to answer to thinks differently...and has to stand by what he or she says and represents', said Mr Zaqy.

NCMPs do not have the full rights of an elected MP. They cannot vote on amendments to the Constitution, on a Supply Bill, and no-confidence motions against the Government.

But they can vote on changes to legislation and raise motions to introduce new legislation.

Still, some MPs argued that increasing the number of NCMPs would pervert the electoral principle of one man, one vote.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC) said voters had reasons not to elect the losing candidate: They do not want him or her to speak on their behalf.

He suggested a 'one man, two votes' system that would allow residents to also give their seal of approval to the NCMP.

Their first vote would decide the elected MP; the second would decide if the losing candidate deserved to be an NCMP.

He also said the 'best losers' from the ruling party should also be eligible as

NCMPs, thus making the scheme 'non-partisan'.

Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng, however, shot down the suggestions.

'For the ruling party, they already have the majority and I don't think we need more of them in this House,' he said.

He also defended the scheme's ability to bring about constructive debate in Parliament.

'I think it does give the opposition, whether as NCMP or elected MP, a chance to articulate what they stand for, what policies or programmes they have that can make a better life for Singaporeans.

'Otherwise we'll just be debating among ourselves, among PAP members. And we know the sentiment of Singaporeans...they want to see some real opposition MPs in Parliament.'

Ms Lim, the only NCMP in the current Parliament, opposed the changes. While she was in favour of seeing those voters who had cast a ballot for the opposition represented, she said the changes did not address other problems with the electoral system, such as gerrymandering by the ruling party.

Being an NCMP has 'frustrating' limitations, she said. She cannot get permission from the Aljunied Town Council to use public spaces in the constituency she was defeated in. Neither can she write on residents' behalf to government agencies; she can only help them draft letters.

In contrast, losing PAP MPs are appointed grassroots advisers, which gives them the status to liaise with governmental bodies.


Apr 27, 2010
No NCMP post for me: Low
But party will decide for its 'best losers' in next GE
By Rachel Chang

WORKERS' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang made it clear yesterday he would reject the offer of a Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) post should he fail to be re-elected at the next general election.

Pressed by Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng to state his and his party's position during a spirited exchange that closed a three-hour debate, the Hougang MP since 1991 declared: 'I can tell him categorically that I will not take up the NCMP if I am not elected at the next election.'

Whether other eligible WP candidates would accept the offer to enter Parliament as 'best losers' would be decided by the party after the next election, he added.

The exchange between Mr Wong and Mr Low took place as MPs debated changes to the Constitution, including a proposal to have up to nine NCMPs.

The scheme allows the best losing opposition candidates who win more than 15 per cent of the valid vote into Parliament.

Ms Sylvia Lim, the WP chairman and the only NCMP in Parliament, had earlier spoken against the scheme and its expansion. She said it was merely making the 'bad situation' of an undemocratic landscape better.

The proposal to increase the number of NCMPs was passed by the House yesterday, but the WP opposed the move because 'fundamentally we don't believe that this is the way the system should move forward', Ms Lim said.

She argued that increasing opposition numbers through the NCMP scheme did not address what she saw as the skewed nature of the electoral system.

This was manipulated by the system of Group Representation Constituencies as well as practices like gerrymandering by the ruling People's Action Party, she said.

Mr Wong, who rounded up the debate, countered her by asking that 'if the Workers' Party is so fundamentally against the NCMP scheme, would Ms Sylvia Lim now say that she will no longer come back to Parliament?'

Ms Lim rejected the argument.

The decision for her to take up the NCMP offer after the 2006 election was made because a sizeable number of voters in Aljunied GRC wanted to see her team elected, she argued.

The WP team she led secured 44 per cent of the valid vote there.

However, Mr Wong, who is Home Affairs Minister, pressed her and Mr Low to explain the contradiction between the party's opposition to the NCMP scheme and its willingness to take up a seat.

Mr Low said there was no contradiction in being opposed to the NCMP scheme on principle, and yet participating in it since that was the political reality here.

'It is the same as when we oppose the GRC system. But it doesn't mean that we don't field candidates in GRCs,' he said to a packed House of more than 70 MPs.

'By introducing the NCMP scheme, the PAP is trying to have its cake and eat it. You're telling Singaporeans look, let's vote for PAP as the Government and we (will) provide you (with) NCMPs. But that is not how a healthy political system should work.'

Mr Wong said the Government was actually trying to make the cake bigger and offering the opposition a slice of it.

But Mr Low said the size of the cake remained the same 'because the number of elected members remains the same'.

'What you are trying to do is probably add some (icing) but the WP does not look at icing,' he declared.

Mr Wong replied that he had put a simple question to the WP: whether it would take up NCMP seats if not enough opposition MPs were elected directly.

Mr Low reiterated the party would vote against the change. Pressed about taking up a seat, he said that as an individual, he would not do so.

'And of course if (my) party insists that I will have to take it up, I probably will have to resign. That's all.'

We're not Nobody's MPs, say Nominated MPs

Apr 27, 2010

By Rachel Lin

NOMINATED MPs: undemocratic, unaccountable and ultimately unwanted? Not according to the current bench of NMPs.

During yesterday's debate over an amendment which would entrench the NMP scheme in the Constitution, they rose to defend their role.

It was, in short, to provide alternative, non-partisan views on issues that may not occupy a central space in the political battlefield.

Elections are not fought, for example, over green issues, homosexual rights, sports and the arts, NMP Calvin Cheng said. However, they must be represented in Parliament, and NMPs can 'fill the void', he argued. NMPs both past and present - including Ms Joscelin Yeo and Mr Siew Kum Hong - brought this role to life, he said.

Ms Yeo is a former national swimmer; Mr Siew is a lawyer who, in 2007, helped activists submit a petition to Parliament to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which makes it illegal for men to have sex with other men.

Similarly, Mr Cheng added, since no one party represents purely workers' or business interests, it would be useful to have NMPs from chambers of commerce or the unions.

Their non-partisan nature also meant that NMPs should be appointed, not elected, he said.

Furthermore, NMPs' views are enhanced by their areas of expertise. Said NMP Paulin Straughan: 'When I look at a social issue, I am not constrained by partisan concerns. As a sociologist and an academic, I am informed by the research I do, including a thorough review of various perspectives, the data I have collected and the outcomes of the analysis.'

This raises the level of political discourse and brings diversity to the House, she said. NMPs may not belong to any political party, but that did not mean they did not have legitimate views.

The NMPs gave short shrift to the idea that they were an 'alternative opposition'. 'It has to be made very clear that NMPs are in Parliament to give alternative views, not opposing views,' Mr Cheng said.

Associate Professor Straughan put it more strongly: 'I find little merit in this allegation (that NMPs are needed as surrogate opposition), for it undermines the intellect of the electorate. Singaporeans will vote for the political party that best represents their interests and ideals.'

However, she felt that the NMP scheme marked a transitional phase in Singapore's political maturity: 'The day we move to a two-party system where opposing voices are more visible, we will not need NMPs or Non-Constituency MPs. But until we get there, the NMPs have a role to play.'

Still, the three NMPs who spoke - Mr Cheng, Professor Straughan and Ms Audrey Wong - were candid about their trials, including long hours spent poring over new legislation being tabled, especially as, unlike elected MPs, they have no research support.

They called for more transparency in the nomination process and a clearer definition of their roles. Without these, said Mr Cheng, 'not only will NMPs be 'Nobody's MPs', but worse, unwanted MPs: neither birds nor beasts, but bats, ostracised and ignored by all sides'.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Britain teaches India about curries

24 April 2010

KOLKATA, India - Britain exporting curry to India? The idea seems ludicrous but a group of chefs are in the subcontinent determined to teach locals about British versions of traditional Indian recipes.

Indian food has become a mainstay of the British diet, eaten in vast quantities across the country, but few people in the homeland of the curry have ever heard of the dishes that pass off for their national cuisine in Europe.

Chicken Tikka Masala, known for its spicy red yoghurt-based sauce and said to be the most popular dish in British restaurants, is unheard of in India where even the word "curry" is seen as a British invention.

Dishes with "gravy" are what Britons, or "Britishers" as they are still known in India, would recognise as a curry, though gravy for traditional English folk is something served with roast beef on a Sunday.

"The Taste of Britain's Curry Festival" has been running this week in Kolkata, eastern India, the first capital of the British empire on the subcontinent.

Advertised widely across the city, the idea is to introduce Indians to some of the dishes that have developed in Britain in the 300 years since the two countries have been linked by trade and colonial rule.

"The British Raj in the Indian subcontinent started from Kolkata and Britons had the first Indian curries in this historic city," festival director Syed Bilal Ahmed told AFP.

"Bringing back curry to its original place is like a homecoming."

The festival features 50 dishes by four Britain-based Indian and Bangladeshi master chefs.

Some of the recipes on display are British curry house staples, such as Balti, Jalfrezi and Tikka Masala.

"British curries are healthier as they have less spice, less oil and less sugar and salt," added Ahmed, who believes Britain no longer deserves its reputation for poor food.

The festival, which organisers plan to take to Bangladesh and Spain, ends on Sunday but its impact might be long-term in Kolkata, a bustling city famed for its passionate gastronome residents.

"We plan to continue some dishes of Britain curry even after the festival," said Utpal Mondal, executive chef of host hotel Hindustan International, where sales are up 18 per cent since the festival began.

Locals appeared to be enjoying the fare on offer.

"We came here to get the taste of Britain curry. It's delicious," said Sutapa Sanyal, an employee of a city-based firm who walked into the restaurant with her husband for the first time.

- AFP/ir

[So curry from India travels to Britain, and is transformed into new versions, and returns to India to show the Indians, what they have become, and if it might be of interest to the Indians.

Perhaps our roti prata could travel back to India and see if it holds its own.

And our Hainanese Chicken rice travel to Hainan and show them what it has become. :-)]

A no-brainer: Being fat is bad all round

Apr 24, 2010

By Olivia Judson

BEING fat is bad for your brain.

That, at least, is the gloomy conclusion of several recent studies. For example, one long-term study of more than 6,500 people in northern California has found that those who were fat around the middle at age 40 were more likely to succumb to dementia in their 70s. A long-term study in Sweden has found that, compared to thinner people, those who were overweight in their 40s experienced a more rapid, and more pronounced, decline in brain function over the next several decades.

Consistent with this, the brains of obese people often show signs of damage. One study of 60 healthy young adults (in their 20s and 30s) found that the fatter members of the group had significantly lower grey matter densities in several brain regions, including those involved in the perception of taste and the regulation of eating behaviour. A study of 114 middle-aged people (between 40 and 66 years old) has found that the obese tended to have smaller, more atrophied brains than thinner people; other studies have found similar results.

Brains usually atrophy with age, but being obese appears to accelerate the process. This is bad news: Pronounced brain atrophy is a feature of dementia.

Why fatness should affect the brain in this way is not clear, although a host of culprits have been suggested. A paper published earlier this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has identified a gene that seems to be involved. FTO, as the gene is known, appears to play a role in both body weight and brain function.

This gene comes in different versions: one version - let's call it 'troublesome' - appears to predispose people to obesity. Individuals with two copies of the troublesome version tend to be fatter than those with only one copy of it, who in turn tend to be fatter than those with two copies of the 'regular' version. Now, the troublesome form has been linked to atrophy in several regions of the brain, including the frontal lobes, though how and why it has this effect are still not known.

But genes are not the only guilty parties. Obesity exacerbates problems like sleep apnea, which can result in the brain being starved of oxygen; this can lead to brain damage. Obesity often goes along with high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, all of which are bad for the brain in their own right. Indeed, one study has shown that if, in middle age, you are obese and have high blood pressure, the two problems gang up on you, increasing the chances of your getting dementia in old age more than either one would do on its own.

Fat tissue itself may be a problem. Fat cells secrete hormones like leptin; leptin acts on the brain in a variety of ways, and is thought to play a role in the development of Alzheimer's. Obesity may thus disrupt the normal production of leptin, with dangerous results. Fat cells also secrete substances that cause inflammation; chronic inflammation of the brain, which is often found in the obese, impairs learning and memory and is also a feature of Alzheimer's.

Diet may play a role, too. Studies involving mice have shown that eating a very-high-fat diet increases brain inflammation and disrupts brain function. And the onset of brain decay may itself play a part. Since the regions of the brain most affected by obesity appear to be those involved in self-control and the regulation of appetite, erosion of these abilities may lead to greater obesity, which in turn may lead to more rapid brain erosion, in a downward spiral.

Whatever the causes, the implications are grave. In the United States today, around one-third of adults are obese. At the same time, dementia is already one of the most costly and devastating health problems of old age. The possibility that obesity today will lead to higher rates of dementia in the future is, therefore, deeply alarming.

The obvious question is: Can obesity-associated brain damage be reversed? No one knows the answer, but I am hopeful that it can. Those two old friends, a healthful diet and plenty of exercise, have repeatedly been shown to protect the brain. Foods like oily fishes and blueberries have been shown to stimulate the growth of new neurons, for example.

Moreover, one study found that dieting reversed some of the changes to brain structure found among the obese. Which suggests an interesting study. The most effective - and radical - treatment for obesity is bariatric surgery, whereby the stomach is made much smaller or bypassed altogether. Do people who have taken this option show a reversal, or at least a slowing, of brain atrophy?

But whether you are fat or thin, young or old, the best hope you have of guarding your brain is to eat well and exercise. Anyone seen my running shoes?


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Property: Do something drastic or do nothing?

Apr 20, 2010

There is no free market in housing; Govt must do something selectively
By Chua Mui Hoong

HOUSING markets everywhere are fraught with market failures and there is no housing market in the world devoid of government intervention.

I am stating the obvious, of course, but it bears repetition, especially in the light of the growing frenzy in the residential property market in Singapore. There are two schools of thought, diametrically opposed, on what should be done.

Would-be home buyers, especially first-timers, want the Government to 'Do Something Drastic' to control runaway prices. Depending on their aspirations, they want prices kept down for: new Housing Board (HDB) flats, resale HDB flats, executive condominiums or private condos.

The other camp wants the Government to 'Do Nothing' about rising property prices. This point of view was best articulated by developer Simon Cheong, who argued that private property served just 16.5 per cent of the population and should be left free of government intervention. In other words, the state should keep its hands off, and developers should be able to price condo units as high as the market can accept, never mind if the only ones who can afford the units are New York bankers or celebrities who want an apartment here so they have somewhere to sleep in between their board meetings or botox treatments.

Both points of view are disingenuous and limited. If the Government panders to either, you and I - the rest of Singaporeans who are neither first-time home-owners nor the super rich - will be worse off.

The majority would be better off if the Government judiciously steps in to 'Do Something Selectively' now and then to keep the market on a relatively even keel.

The Government has to consider the public interest in managing the property market. And so far, its handling has been a lot more right than wrong.

True, there is currently a mismatch between supply and demand, with queues for new HDB flats and at popular condo launches. This is likely to be a short-term glitch.

Critics also point to the last big property boom of 1996 before the Asian financial crisis hit, which was sparked in part by credit loosening for HDB resale flats, spurring a boom in demand for private property. Anti-speculation measures were slow in coming then. Since then, the Government has stated that it favours small incremental dampeners as the temperature rises, rather than wait for a blazing fire before trying to douse the flames.

But if you take a long view, a lot is going right in housing, thanks to the Government's refusal to treat housing as a free market. Anyway, Housing Economics 101 tells us the housing market is rife with market failures.

Housing is heterogeneous - units are diverse and can't be substituted. As a result, what constitutes an economically competitive price is often not transpa-rent, leading to information asymmetry.

The average unit takes about three years to build, so the time to market is long and the price is always prone to short-term swings while supply catches up with demand. So buying a housing unit is a lot more complex than buying, say, a cellphone.

Instead of pretending that the housing market is like any other market, the Government has explicitly turned housing into an object of social policy, making home ownership a national objective and tailoring policies accordingly.

A Housing Board flat is not just a home; it is an important component of the social safety net and an asset which can be monetised for retirement or in bad times. (Rent out a room for $500 a month, say.)

Pandering to those complaining of being priced out of the market, and 'Doing Something Drastic' to chill the housing market, will be a great disservice to existing home owners. Simple arithmetics tell us the issue of rising housing prices cannot be one that disgruntles the majority. The 30,000 young couples who set up home each year may be vexed, but the 900,000 who already own their homes are probably not.

On the other hand, 'Doing Nothing' is also not a good idea as it could lead to an asset bubble.

Every government in the world intervenes in the housing market for social objectives. In the United States, subsidised mortgages help low-income households own homes. Tax exemptions for imputed rent for owner-occupied homes and mortgage interest deduction make it attractive for people to buy their own homes, rather than rent.

An interesting paper by Ms Rebecca L.H. Chiu of the University of Hong Kong in 2008 looked at government intervention in housing in Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and China before and after the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

The paper found that every government intervened. Taiwan subsidised housing loans liberally. The South Korean state monopolised land supply, introduced price caps at different points of the cycle and used capital gains tax and property tax to dampen demand. Hong Kong slowed down land sales to mitigate supply. In contrast, the paper found Singapore's intervention in the years immediately after 1997 'mild'.

Singapore has got the big picture on housing right with its hybrid system, which combines socialist-style provision of mass housing with elements of free market competition and market-driven pricing in both the resale HDB market and the private property market.

The result is an underlay of housing security benefiting almost all households, with 90 per cent being able to afford to own homes. New HDB flat prices are not allowed to soar freely in tandem with a bullish market, but are priced with an eye on affordability and pegged to median income levels, ensuring the median income-earner can always afford a home.

Market forces are allowed some free play to allow home-owners to realise the value of their assets - but with the Government retaining a watchful eye in case of wide swings.

Instead of 'Doing Nothing' or 'Doing Something Drastic', the best policy in an overheating market is precisely what the Government is doing now: Stay cool, watch the market and be prepared to 'Do Something Judiciously'.

The debt death trap

It may be risky but Greece needs large official financial support from the EU if it is not to default

Updated 04:58 PM Apr 20, 2010

by Project Syndicate

The Greek financial saga is the tip of an iceberg of problems of public-debt sustainability for many advanced economies, and not only the so-called Piigs (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain).

Indeed, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) now estimates that public debt-to-GDP ratios in advanced economies will rise to an average of around 100 per cent of GDP. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has recently put out similar estimates.

Within the Piigs, the problems are not just excessive public deficits and debt ratios (in different degrees and measures in the five countries). They are also problems of external deficits, loss of competitiveness, and thus of anaemic growth.

These are economies that, even a decade ago, were losing market share to China and Asia, owing to their labour-intensive and low value-added exports.

After a decade that saw wages grow faster than productivity, unit labour costs (and the real exchange rate based on those costs) appreciated sharply.

The ensuing loss of competitiveness manifested itself in large and growing current-account deficits and slowing growth. The final nail in the coffin was the appreciation of the euro between 2002 and 2008.

So, even if Greece and other Piigs had the political resolve to reduce massively their large fiscal deficits - and that is a big if, given the political resistance to spending cuts and tax increases - fiscal contraction may, at least in the short run, make the current recession worse as higher taxes and lower spending reduce aggregate demand.

If GDP falls, achieving a certain deficit and debt target (as a share of GDP) becomes impossible. This, indeed, was the debt death trap that engulfed Argentina between 1998 and 2001.

Restoring sustained growth requires real currency depreciation. There are only three ways that this can occur.

One is deflation that reduces prices and wages by 20 to 30 per cent. But deflation is associated with persistent recession (see Argentina again), and no country's society and political system can accept years of recession and fiscal austerity to achieve real depreciation. Default and an exit from the euro would occur well before that.

The second path is to follow the German model of accelerating structural reforms and corporate restructuring to increase productivity growth while keeping wage growth moderate.

But it took a decade for Germany to reduce its unit labour costs that way; if Greece or Spain were to start today, the short run costs of resource reallocation would be large, while the benefits in terms of higher growth would take too many years to achieve.

Finally, the euro could fall sharply in value. But the main beneficiary would be Germany. And, in order for the euro to fall far enough, the risk of default in Greece would need to be so large, and the contagion to sovereign spreads of Piigs so severe that the widening of those spreads would cause a double-dip eurozone recession before currency depreciation could yield benefits.

Short of a miracle, Greece looks close to insolvency. At the onset of its crisis, Argentina's budget deficit, public debt and current-account deficit (as a share of GDP) were about 3 per cent, 50 per cent and 2 per cent, respectively.

Those ratios for Greece are far worse: 12.9 per cent, 120 per cent and 10 per cent. So it will take a Herculean effort, luck and support from the European Union and the IMF to reduce the probability of an eventual default and exit from the eurozone.

Greece is currently too interconnected to be allowed to collapse: Since it has about US$400 billion ($552 billion) of public debt - three-quarters of which is held abroad, mostly by European financial institutions - a disorderly default would lead to massive losses and risk a systemic crisis.

Moreover, the contagion to the sovereign spreads of the other Piigs would be massive, tipping over several of these economies.

So, despite revulsion on the part of Germany and the European Central Bank at the idea of a "bailout", Greece needs large official financial support this year at rates that are not unsustainable to prevent its current illiquidity from devolving immediately into insolvency.

But official support will only kick the can down the road until next year.

The magic trifecta of sustainable debt and deficit ratios, a real depreciation and restoration of growth looks unlikely to be achievable even with official financial support.

All successful rescues of countries in financial distress - Mexico, Korea, Thailand, Brazil, Turkey - require two conditions: The country's credible willingness to impose the fiscal austerity and structural reforms needed to restore sustainability and growth; and massive amounts of front-loaded official support to avoid a self-fulfilling rollover crisis of maturing public and/or private short-term debts.

Reform without money on the table does not work, as nervous and trigger-happy investors would rather pull their money out if the country lacks the foreign-currency reserves needed to prevent the equivalent of a bank run on its short-term liabilities.

So, after a totally flawed plan that would have given money to Greece too late - only when the country risked a refinancing crisis - and at market rates that would make its debt unsustainable, the EU regained its senses and designed a new scheme that is closer to typical IMF conditionality: Tranched support with some early front-loaded support and a semi-concessional interest rate.

Only time will tell if this plan will work: That is, whether Greece will turn out to be illiquid but solvent, conditional on credible fiscal austerity and structural reforms and with the help of large amounts of financial support.

But, as with Argentina, Russia and Ecuador, Greece may also be insolvent if adjustment fails to restore debt sustainability and growth.

For now, the official community has decided to stick with Plan A. If that fails, Plan B is default to reduce unsustainable debts and a Greek exit from the eurozone to allow depreciation and restoration of competitiveness and growth.


Nouriel Roubini is Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University.

This commentary is exclusive to Today in Singapore.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

'Stupidity of US congressmen keeps me awake'

It's time for the US to develop a more nuanced approach towards Asia

05:55 AM Apr 20, 2010

by William Pesek

Kishore Mahbubani is an unabashed Asia bull.

The title of the former Singaporean diplomat's 2008 book says it all: The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East. The dynamism of China, India and Indonesia shows why it's happening. West, look out!

If things seem too good to be true, they often are. When I asked what could muck things up in Asia, Mr Mahbubani's response wasn't what I expected.

"What keeps me awake is the stupidity of US congressmen," Mr Mahbubani, 61, told me in Tokyo last week. "They're so amazingly ignorant about the rest of the world and they continue to believe that the US is so powerful that all they need to do is stand up at the podium and shout and everyone's going to listen to them."

We are gravitating toward a multi-polar world economy faster than many in Washington realise. Just the risk that the United States and China will be at each other's throats is enough to tarnish any bullish take on Asia's future.


The focus is often on how China acts. It also must be on how the US, a nation used to having its way in global circles, responds to changing dynamics. From afar, it feels as if Capitol Hill's views toward Asia are evolving glacially.

US President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao are making nice these days, and that's great.

Mr Obama's economic team delayed labelling China a currency manipulator; China has returned the favour by attending a nuclear-security meeting in Washington.

Markets reacted positively to the sudden show of affection after months of tension involving Google, climate change, US arms sales to Taiwan and the Dalai Lama. The coming congressional elections in November will shine a spotlight on China.

The argument that China's undervalued currency is stealing US jobs will be made early, often and loudly. China, in turn, is skilled at using US policies to influence nationalistic sentiments at home.


China should let its currency appreciate, though elected officials in the US may overplay their hand to the detriment of stability in markets. Slapping duties on imports would hurt the US economy as much as China's, and it would unnerve investors.

The yuan is really a proxy. It is the most powerful focal point for those fretting about China's rise. Some academics refer to it as the financial equivalent of the Berlin Wall.

That's a bit much. China isn't the Soviet Union, and it doesn't aspire to rule Asia.

If there is a Chinese Iron Curtain, it's a competing development model. For many, China's centrally-planned approach may have more appeal than anything-goes US capitalism.

Asia's Wall Street envy faded with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. In Japan, there is considerable relief that regulators didn't allow the kind of leveraging that tanked US investment banks.

In China, many see the events of Sept 11, 2001 - when terrorists attacked the US - and Sept 15, 2008 - when Lehman died - as perfect bookends of a period that ended the US's stranglehold over markets.


Is the US ready to find the shoe on the other foot - seeking views rather than voicing them? As foreign companies and investors look to scoop up distressed US assets, it's unclear how Washington will react. Perhaps not well.

The same goes for the US dollar's status as a reserve currency. Many in Asia can't see the dollar being the centre of the financial universe a decade from now. Many Americans, meanwhile, can't fathom one without the dollar as a lynchpin.

We're seeing a bit more realpolitik on the part of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Mr Geithner put off an April 15 deadline to admonish China for its currency stance, paving the way for US trade retaliation. Mr Bernanke has been making a strong economic case for a change in China's policies.


This more nuanced approach will pay bigger dividends. Every time a US congressman throws a punch China's way, he or she validates the view of many Chinese that America wants to contain China's rise.

Anyone on Capitol Hill who believes containing Asia's ascent is possible hasn't been there recently. Continued growth is inevitable as large pools of still-untapped Asian workers become better educated and wealthier.

Congress "has got to learn to make tactical and strategic adjustments to a new world order in the same way that other nations have to make", said Mr Mahbubani.

Asia needs to be sensitive to US priorities, too. Partnerships are a two-way street. It's about engagement and negotiation at a time when no global challenge of the future can be tackled without Asia's help.

The US has long been used to speaking softly and carrying a big stick in Asia. It's time for a new strategy.

The writer is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Mahathir queries $33m spent on Obama meeting

Apr 17, 2010

KUALA LUMPUR: Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad yesterday asked why the Malaysian government needed to spend US$24 million (S$33 million) to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Najib Razak and United States President Barack Obama.

Tun Dr Mahathir also said it was incorrect to say this big sum was needed to repair damaged Malaysia-US ties caused by him, a news website quoted him as saying.

'Meeting is good, but to say this money is spent because of what happened in the past, I don't think is good,' Dr Mahathir told reporters after an official function.

Cabinet minister Nazri Aziz had told Parliament recently that the Najib administration paid Apco Worldwide, a Washington-based public relations company, US$24 million for its services.

The issue became a political hot potato after the opposition alleged that Apco had strong Israeli links and was paid to arrange a meeting with Mr Obama, among its other services.

Datuk Seri Nazri, the Minister in Charge of Parliamentary Issues, had said the big payment was necessary to 'repair' Malaysia-US ties strained during the 22-year tenure of Dr Mahathir.

'I don't care,' Dr Mahathir was quoted as saying by The Malaysian Insider website, when asked to comment on Mr Nazri's charge.

'Whether the ties are good or bad, the fact is the US has not done anything that would show it was offended by us,' he added. He cited the absence of official US complaints lodged with his administration.

He said investments from American companies had continued to flow into Malaysia during his tenure as premier to 2003.

Dr Mahathir said the Najib administration had the authority to do as it sees fit with federal funds.

'If I were in power, I have my own way of doing things,' he said.


[Yes, if Dr M were still in power, he would do things his way. And so it continues. The lack of transparency during his reign continues to date. It is not surprising.]

Time for opposition to mend fences

Apr 17, 2010

Rather than engaging in spats, opposition should work to win over voters
By Kor Kian Beng

AT A time when they should be focusing on fighting the coming general election, some opposition parties have chosen instead to air old dirty linen and engage in infighting.

A 17-year-old feud between Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong and his former protege Chee Soon Juan, and a one-year-old spat between Reform Party secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam and former chairman Ng Teck Siong have been playing out in the open for all to see.

Add to these the split within the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS) - which has already resulted in a string of court cases - and one wonders what is ailing the opposition.

True, the Workers' Party and the National Solidarity Party are not mired in conflict. But with other key parties and leaders engaged in public wars of words, it is no wonder some voters are thinking of the opposition as fragmented and divided.

Few would argue with the notion that an opposition is needed to provide checks and balances against the People's Action Party (PAP) government, or to act as a spur.

Singapore needs an opposition capable of fielding candidates for Parliament possessed of not only the necessary credentials, but also the maturity to know how to work with others towards a common goal, and when to let bygones be bygones.

Yet this was not what was indicated when the Chiam versus Chee saga resurfaced last month following Dr Chee's interview with Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao. It sparked a rebuttal from Mr Chiam's wife and an exchange of letters between her and Dr Chee in the press.

The row centred on Dr Chee's role in Mr Chiam's dismissal as secretary-general of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in 1993 and his eventual exit from the party in 1996. Dr Chee said that he did not drive Mr Chiam out; that he had in fact tried to persuade Mr Chiam to stay on.

Mrs Lina Chiam insisted that Dr Chee was indeed key in ousting Mr Chiam. She said that despite the central executive committee's initial attempts to make Mr Chiam stay, it held a disciplinary hearing in August 1993 where it decided to expel the opposition veteran. Mr Chiam later joined the Singapore People's Party and then became the chair of the Singapore Democratic Alliance.

Mrs Chiam, who said she was speaking with Mr Chiam's approval, also noted that Dr Chee had written to the Speaker of Parliament to tell him of the expulsion, and asked for the necessary action to be taken.

As for the Reform Party spat, this was triggered by an interview given by its secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam to the Today newspaper last week.

In that interview, he claimed that the party had been 'drifting' and 'rudderless' for a number of months before he became its secretary-general. The insult prompted its former chairman, Mr Ng Teck Siong, to take to the Speakers' Corner to give his side of the story.

Mr Ng, a close ally of Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam's for many years and who co-founded the Reform Party with the latter in 2008, also rubbished Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam's claim that his father wanted one of his two sons (the other is Senior Counsel Philip Jeyaretnam) in politics.

The mainstream media has been accused of playing up any form of infighting within opposition ranks. But the media is hard-pressed not to report statements made by key opposition leaders about one another. Silence would be construed negatively. If leading members of the ruling party had a public spat, the media would report on it for sure.

Every important organisation - and certainly a political one - will have its share of infighting and leadership tussles. But those which want to be elected representatives must demonstrate decorum in how they conduct their private spats.

The spats also show that these opposition parties are unable to impose party discipline on members and confine disagreements to closed doors. In fact, in some cases, it is the leaders themselves who are at odds.

It is also a sad indictment of the state of the opposition that the quarrels appear to be over differences in personality, not differences in policy.

The fallout from the recent squabbles could be far-reaching, if they are not resolved decisively ahead of the next election.

First, an opposition in disarray would not be able to showcase its candidates to good advantage. Whatever gains the opposition scored recently with the induction of better-educated candidates into its ranks would simply be wasted.

Second, unless the parties can resolve their differences and cooperate, there is a risk of more three-cornered fights emerging to split the opposition vote.

Third, infighting saps energy and resources better put to winning votes.

With a general election expected soon but not immediately, the opposition leaders have some time to mend fences and work together. This will not be easy, given the differences in personalities and the long history of some of the disagreements. But if they want to make any headway with voters, they must work hard to find common ground.

The coming polls represent an opportunity for the opposition to present itself to voters as a credible force. It has managed to attract the better-educated to be potential candidates. The increase in single-seat wards gives some opposition members a better chance of wresting a few single seats from the PAP. Changes in election rules make it easier for opposition candidates to enter Parliament as Non-Constituency MPs.

Voters would be disappointed if opposition leaders cannot set aside their differences to unite and take advantage of the opportunities opening up in the electoral landscape.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

H1N1 - The Pandemic that wasn't; flawed response.

Apr 13, 2010
The pandemic that wasn't
By Henry I. Miller

LAST June, the World Health Organisation (WHO), responding to an outbreak of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, boosted the pandemic alert to the highest level, Phase 6, meaning that a pandemic was under way - the first time in 41 years that the organisation had taken that declared step.

But the outbreak appears to have ended less like the rogue wild boar that WHO bureaucrats predicted and more like a roasted pork tenderloin with apples and sage.

In fact, the WHO repeatedly violated Sherlock Holmes' warning: 'It is a capital mistake to theorise before you have all the evidence.' And the pandemic alert was doubly strange, given that ordinary seasonal flu sweeps the world annually, is invariably far more lethal than the currently circulating low-virulent H1N1, and certainly meets the WHO's definition of a pandemic: infections over a wide geographical area and affecting a large proportion of the population.

Ironically, the appearance of the H1N1 flu during the past nine months might be thought of as a net public-health benefit, because it appears to have suppressed, or at least supplanted, the far more virulent and lethal seasonal flu strains.

During the second week of January, for instance, 3.7 per cent of Americans tested positive for the seasonal flu, compared with 11.5 per cent during the same week last year. The official death toll worldwide from H1N1 is 17,700, while seasonal flu kills hundreds of thousands.

Most flu and public-health experts consider the WHO to have been overly alarmist. The decision in April last year to raise the pandemic flu threat to the penultimate level, Phase 5 ('Pandemic Imminent'), had already raced far ahead of the accumulated data, so the Phase 6 declaration in June revealed the organisation's paradigm to be fundamentally flawed. A warning system based solely on how widely a virus has spread, but does not consider the nature and severity of the illness it causes, would classify as 'pandemics' not only seasonal flu, but also the frequent but largely inconsequential outbreaks of virus-caused colds and gastroenteritis, for example. (The WHO has never explained why these obvious examples do not meet its criteria.)

False alarms make the 'pandemic under way' designation almost meaningless and diminish its usefulness. And that, in turn, has important consequences. As professor of surgery Jack Fisher at the University of California, San Diego's School of Medicine, observed: 'Keep crying 'wolf', and WHO can expect lower than customary compliance with flu vaccine advisories next fall.' Worse, imagine what would happen when we encounter a genuinely dangerous new pathogen, such as a strain of H5N1 avian flu (which in its current form has a mortality rate more than 100 times higher than H1N1) that is easily transmissible between humans.

The WHO's false alarms also have had more immediate negative effects. According to Mr Matthew Hingerty, managing director of Australia's Tourism Export Council, the country lost thousands of tourists because of the WHO's pandemic declaration. The Egyptian public-health authorities overreacted and ordered the slaughter of all pigs in the country. In addition to the direct economic losses, because the pigs were no longer available to consume much of the garbage produced in Cairo, the numbers of rodents rose to fearsome levels.

The publicity and resulting panic surrounding the WHO's announcement of Phase 5 and 6 alerts - especially in the absence (until December) of widely available vaccine - also brought out fraudsters peddling all sorts of ineffective and possibly dangerous protective gear and nostrums: gloves, masks, dietary supplements, shampoo, a nasal sanitiser and a spray that supposedly coats the hands with a layer of anti-microbial 'ionic silver'.

For all these reasons, the declaration of a pandemic must not be a prediction but rather a kind of real-time snapshot.

The WHO's performance has been widely criticised. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, for example, said on Jan 12 that it plans to debate 'false pandemics, a threat to health' later this month. And yet WHO officials continue to defend their actions.

In a Jan 14 conference call with reporters, Dr Keiji Fukuda, the special adviser to the WHO's director-general for pandemic flu, argued that the organisation did not overplay the dangers but 'prepared for the worst and hoped for the best'.

The WHO's dubious decisions demonstrate that its officials are either too rigid or incompetent (or both) to make necessary adjustments to the pandemic warning system - which is what we have come to expect from an organisation that is scientifically challenged, self-important and unaccountable. It may be able to perform and report worldwide surveillance - that is, count numbers of cases and fatalities - but its policy role should be drastically reduced.

The writer - a physician, molecular biologist and former flu researcher - is a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He was a United States government official from 1977 to 1994.


Apr 13, 2010
WHO admits to flawed response to H1N1
UN agency concedes there were shortcomings in its handling of flu pandemic

GENEVA: The World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday conceded shortcomings in its handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic, including a failure to communicate uncertainties about the new virus as it swept around the globe.

Dr Keiji Fukuda, the WHO's top influenza expert, said the United Nations agency's six-phase system for declaring a pandemic had sown confusion about the flu bug, which was ultimately not as deadly as the widely feared avian influenza.

'The reality is there is a huge amount of uncertainty (in a pandemic). I think we did not convey the uncertainty. That was interpreted by many as a non-transparent process,' Dr Fukuda said.

He was addressing a three-day meeting of 29 external flu experts called to review the WHO's handling of the H1N1 flu pandemic, amid accusations it was overblown and may have been tainted by commercial interests.

WHO Director-General director-general Margaret Chan said the review should be 'independent, credible and transparent'.

'We want to know what worked well. We want to know what went wrong and, ideally, why. We want to know what can be done better and, ideally, how,' Dr Chan told the session.

The novel virus was first discovered in Mexico in April last year and spread swiftly around the world. Two months later, the WHO declared the first influenza pandemic in more than 40 years.

But the H1N1 virus has turned out to be less lethal than feared. About 17,700 people in more than 200 countries are known to have died from it, including more than 20 in Singapore. By comparison, between 250,000 and 500,000 are killed by seasonal flu each year, the WHO said.

Several governments have sought to cancel orders of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of special vaccines.

European parliamentarians conducting their own probe have criticised the transparency of decision-making, especially the potential influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

The separate but highly lethal H5N1 bird flu virus - which has killed 60 per cent of those infected since 2003 - 'injected a high level of fear about the next pandemic', Dr Fukuda said.

The response to swine flu has been dogged by doubts since the early stages.

By the WHO's annual assembly in May last year, several health ministers publicly urged Dr Chan not to rush into declaring a pandemic, highlighting relatively mild symptoms and public doubts.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gene linked to schizophrenia

Apr 13, 2010

MONTREAL - PEOPLE with a specific mutated gene may be prone to schizophrenia, according to a Canadian study published on Monday in a US scientific journal.

The study led by University of Montreal researchers found new mutations in the so-called 'SHANK3 gene' in schizophrenic patients.

'That these new mutations occur in schizophrenia is rather unexpected and may explain why the identification of the genes linked to this disease has been so difficult,' senior author Guy Rouleau said in a statement. 'Our findings show that a significant number of schizophrenia cases are the result of new genetic mutations in the SHANK3 gene,' he said in the study published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that affects about one per cent of people worldwide. It is most commonly manifested as auditory hallucinations, paranoid or bizarre delusions, or disorganised speech and thinking. It often leads to significant social or occupational dysfunction.

SHANK3 proteins are involved in maintaining the physical structure of nerve cells, and mutations in the gene result in specific abnormalities in cell shapes. These deformations have been observed in schizophrenia patients.

Lead study author Julie Gauthier said the SHANK3 gene had 'previously been linked to autism,' which suggests 'a molecular genetic link between these two neurodevelopmental disorders.' It also means that SHANK3 'may have a role in other brain disorders,' she said. -- AFP

iPad name's taken in Brazil

[The "ipad" in Brazil refers to a semi-automated external defribillator. Currently, Apple's iPad does not have an app that functions as a external defribillator. Apple is attempting to register the "iPad" name with the Brazilian authorities through their representative, IP Application Development (or IPAD). ]

Apr 13, 2010

SAO PAULO - FOR most of the world, the iPad is seen as a spiffy new tablet computer worthy of fawning adoration, but in Brazil the device is capable of jolting hearts - literally.

To Apple's chagrin, the name 'iPad' is already registered in Brazil to denote a South Korean-made defibrillator used in hospitals.

The Brazilian company that sells the heart-starting iPads, Transform Tecnologia de Ponta, based in Sao Paulo, told AFP on Monday that it has been selling the units for more than two years and registered the name with Brazil's National Industrial Property Institute (INPI) in 2009. 'No one has been in contact with us about the iPad name,' the company's sales chief, Alathea Silva, said.

She said a Brazilian law firm was working to protect brand names sold by her firm, but added that the iPad issue would probably be handled by the Korean company which makes the defibrillator, CU Medical Systems Inc.

The website of CU Medical Systems shows the Ipad, calling it a 'semi-automated external defibrillator' that gives voice prompts to users. That cardiac-corrective function is apparently beyond the capabilities of Apple's iPad, despite Apple CEO Steve Jobs calling his device a 'truly magical' product.

A Brazilian newspaper, Folha de Sao Paulo, said Apple was trying to register the iPad name for itself with Brazil's INPI through a representative company calling itself IP Application Development. That front company has lodged a request to have the name transferred from the Brazilian company by a deadline of the end of May. If the bid fails, the newspaper said Apple would likely have to buy the iPad name. -- AFP

'Small fry' remark sparks uproar

Apr 13, 2010

Non-Muslim religious leaders irked by DPM Muhyiddin's comment

HULU SELANGOR: A remark by Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin that a planned inter-faith panel consisted of only 'small fry' and was legally toothless has upset non-Muslim religious leaders.

'They are just small fry, (with) a small role played within the Prime Minister's Department,' he was quoted as saying.

The Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism has said it will boycott the Cabinet-endorsed committee if Tan Sri Muhyiddin does not clarify his remark.

The comment, reported by local news portals, appeared to be an attempt to allay the concerns expressed by right-wing Malay groups, such as Perkasa, that the move to set up the panel would affect the position of Islam as the country's official religion.

The Cabinet agreed recently to form an inter-faith panel to resolve disputes over religious issues following a spate of vandalism attacks against places of worship throughout the country earlier this year.

The panel, headed by former Kota Baru MP Ilani Isahak, included representatives from the Islamic Development Department, Institute of Islamic Understanding and the consultative council.

Speaking to reporters after attending an Education Ministry event, Mr Muhyiddin, who is also the Education Minister, said: 'It (the inter-faith panel) is just an avenue to allow space for better understanding between religions in this country.'

He also shot down allegations by Malay rights group Perkasa that the establishment of the panel was a 'subliminal attempt' by 'certain quarters' to place Islam on the same footing as other religions. He said the body was not a commission and it had no powers to influence policies, reported Malaysiakini news portal.

Reacting to Mr Muhyiddin's remarks, the consultative council's president, the Reverend Thomas Philips, said its members would not attend the panel's meeting scheduled for today if there was no explanation for the 'offensive' remark.

'We need clarification. We want clarification before the meeting before we proceed. So until there is a clarification, then there will be no meeting. We feel that if we are 'small fry' or have no influence, then there is no point to the committee,' he was quoted as saying by the Malaysian Insider news website yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Perak Fatwa Committee, led by influential state mufti Harussani Zakaria, also announced its objection to the panel, saying other religions could not be placed on equal footing with Islam, the Malaysian Insider reported.

The idea for an inter-faith panel was first mooted in the early 1980s but was abandoned following objections from Muslim groups such as the Islamic Development Department, better known by its Malay acronym Jakim.

Perkasa has demanded that the government place the new panel under the national Islamic Affairs Department, saying it should come under the guidance of the Islamic Affairs Minister, Datuk Jamil Khir Baharom, and not Tan Sri Koh Tsu Koon, who is currently a Minister in the Prime Minister's Department.

[My first thought was this was ill-advised (if at all advised) comment by a top politician, but the problem is more deeply rooted. M'sia is becoming a de facto islamic state even if officially it is a secular state. As long as UMNO plays the religion card, or pins their political success on religion, issues and attitudes like these will persist and undermine M'sia's progress. The country cannot progress as One Malaysia when it is One plus some small frys.]

Tweak fundamentals of housing policy

Apr 12, 2010

Govt should fine-tune its message encouraging home ownership
By Sue-Ann Chia

PRIME Minister Lee Hsien Loong's recent remarks about the emergence of fake online campaigns to pressure the Government were intriguing.

Referring to recent e-mail messages calling on the Government to cool the property market, failing which the writers threatened to withdraw support from the ruling party, he described the phenomenon as 'astroturfing'.

The term, derived from a brand of fake grass, comes from the United States where it refers to a fake grassroots movement which manufactures support or opposition to certain policies or issues.

Why fake? Because a number of the purported e-mail writers were found to be non-existent. The conclusion is that one, or at most a handful of people, could be behind the deluge of e-mail messages sent.

Mr Lee's comments have led some to wonder if the Government is concluding that, because some writers are fake, the concern on the ground over property prices is likewise not as strong as made out to be in the e-mail messages.

I hope not. Whether the e-mail messages were sent by real or fake people, there is real unhappiness on the ground over soaring housing prices. That unhappiness should not be discounted.

To be sure, there is no hard data on exactly how many people are unhappy. Some may argue that those who are unhappy are but a small group, only very vocal.

Anecdotally, a number of those who are angry are young, upwardly-mobile professionals earning incomes in the mid-levels. They desire strongly to buy a dream home - but find their dream fading as prices have escalated in recent months.

Middle-class families who have been saving up to upgrade to a bigger home in a better location could be experiencing similar unhappiness, as higher property prices force them to rethink the move.

Add the recent surge in the number of foreigners in Singapore, and the result is even greater resentment as foreigners are blamed for driving up demand and prices.

What exactly is the root cause of the unhappiness? Is it affordability of housing, unrealistic expectations, or a growing disenchantment as the Singapore Dream slips away?

Many Singaporeans have latched on to the first reason, blaming the Government for letting home prices become too high.

The Government, on its part, has countered by arguing that complainants are being unrealistic.

It points out that it has taken steps to cool the property market, such as by curbing the deferred payment scheme for private property and increasing the minimum occupation period for HDB flats.

It has also explained repeatedly that most flats are not priced beyond reach, and that those who want one should be able to get a flat if they are less fastidious about location.

National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan, in a recent interview with The Straits Times, cited people's unrealistic expectations as a cause of the angst.

People want a nice flat, in a nice location, with a nice view and at a nice price, but that is just not possible, he said.

Making a case that affordability is not an issue, he also gave statistics to show that the prices of resale flats have not outpaced household incomes in the 10 years from 1999 to last year.

Are Singaporeans convinced? It remains to be seen.

Reform Party member Hazel Poa, a former government scholarship holder, has an interesting blog post in which she points out that such statistics may not show the full picture. Change the base year, and the results could be different. Using 2000, 2001 or 2006 as alternative base years, she calculated that resale flat prices have grown faster than household incomes.

If her calculations are correct, some policy recalibration is required to ensure that housing does not become a bigger financial burden on Singaporeans, as that will lead to Singaporeans having insufficient funds for their retirement.

But coming back to Mr Mah's point about unrealistic expectations: The question is why this is so.

Has the Government oversold its housing policy? For decades now, it has encouraged citizens to own their homes, believing this gives them a stake in the country and increases their sense of belonging. The result is that owning a home is what almost every Singaporean now aspires to. Some have even come to expect it as an entitlement.

Meeting this aspiration was perhaps easier in the past than it is now. People had fewer wants; many were happy to move from kampungs or cramped quarters to new flats. However small and in whatever location, a home with a flush toilet was sufficient to make many happy.

Today, however, we have a new generation of Singaporeans who want more, due to growing affluence and a mentality that they should be able to buy the home they want as long as they get good jobs and work hard.

They want a flat that is big enough, in a location close to town, next to an MRT station, near good schools, and at a price that suits them. Are they unrealistic? Perhaps.

But rather than just putting the blame on home buyers, it could be time for the Government to relook a number of the political messages it has been sending to citizens over the years. To manage their expectations better, some fundamentals need to be relooked.

First, the promise of home ownership. This should now come with caveats. A home for everyone - but not exactly at the place and price that you want.

Second, home ownership should not be pushed as the goal to aim for from the start. There is the option of renting first, if funds are tight.

Third, should home ownership continue to be touted as an asset enhancement tool? Such a message may be at odds with the commitment to provide affordable public housing. The Government will be hard put to ensure prices that are comfortably affordable, if prices are pegged to a property market that is constantly rising while incomes do not rise as fast in tandem.

These are complex questions, but the Government should put serious effort into finding good, sustainable answers.

People's expectations can have very real impact on the ground, regardless of whether that ground is paved with real grass or astroturf.

[It is understandable that if you keep harping on how well you have done in providing the citizens with housing, the citizens will take up the issue with you when they are unable to get affordable housing. That said, the problem may be one of timing. At this point, there is a boom in the market. If you want in on it, you will have to pay a premium. Well, booms and busts cycle about. If you can wait, prices will ease. If you can't, it's going to cost you.]

Sunday, April 11, 2010

US not plugged into cellphone revolution

Apr 11, 2010

By Anand Giridharadas

What if, globally speaking, the iPad is not the next big thing? What if the next big thing is small, cheap and not American?

Americans went gaga the previous weekend with the iPad's release. But even as hundreds of thousands in the US unwrap their iPads, another future entirely may be unfolding elsewhere on the cellphone.

Forgotten in the American tumult is a global flowering of innovation in the simple cellphone. From Brazil to India to South Korea and even Afghanistan, people are seeking work via text message, borrowing and lending money and receiving salaries on cellphones, and employing their phones variously as torches, televisions and radios.

And many do all this for peanuts.

In India, Reliance Communications sells handsets for less than US$25 (S$35), with one-cent-a-minute phone calls across India and one-cent text messages and no monthly charge - while earning fat profits. Compare that with iPad buyers in the US, who pay US$499 for the basic version, who might also have a US$1,000-plus computer and a US$100-plus smartphone, and who could pay US$100 or more each month to connect these many devices to the ether.

Not for the first time, the United States and much of the world are moving in different ways. American innovators, building for an ever-expanding bandwidth network, are heading towards fancier, costlier, more network-hungry and status-giving devices; meanwhile, their counterparts in developing nations are innovating to find ever more uses for cheap, basic cellphones.

The US does not share the romance of the phone that prevails elsewhere - even in wealthy Europe. Since returning last year from India, I have been struck by how often calls drop here and surprised that text-messaging, so vital to Indians, has yet to entrench itself in the US, where so much messaging travels on the Internet.

A recent report by the World Economic Forum and Insead, the French business school, concluded that the US ranks below 71 other nations in its level of cellphone penetration, even though it leads in other areas of connectivity. Some Americans are not connected at all.

But millions of others are beyond the phone, so to speak: They own one, they use it but they own other devices, too, and the phone is not the be-all and end-all.

But from Kenya to Colombia to South Africa, cellphones are becoming the truly universal technology. These countries are the kind of places that have built cellphone towers precisely to leapfrog past the expense of building wired networks that have linked Americans for a century.

The number of mobile subscriptions in the world is expected to pass five billion this year, according to the International

Telecommunication Union, a trade group. That would mean more human beings today have access to a cellphone than the United Nations says have access to a clean toilet.

Because it reaches so many people, because it is always with you, because it is cheap and shareable and easily repaired, the cellphone has opened a new frontier in global innovation.

Two organisations - Babajob, in Bangalore and India, and Souktel, in the Palestinian territories in Israel - offer job-hunting services via text message. Souktel allows users without Internet access or fancy phones to register by sending a series of text messages with information about themselves. A user who texts in 'match me' will receive a listing of suitable jobs, including phone numbers to dial.

In Africa, the cellphone is giving birth to a new paradigm in money. Plastic cards have become the reigning instruments of payment in the West but projects like PesaPal and M-Pesa in Kenya are working to make the cellphone the hub of personal finance. M-Pesa lets you convert cash into cellphone money at your local grocer and this money can instantly be wired to anyone with a phone.

These efforts arise from a shortage of bank accounts in Africa. But they create the possibility of peer-to-peer finance in the developing world that could be useful even in wealthy countries - for example, allowing small businesses in rural areas to collect money without credit-card systems.

The cellphone has also moved to the centre of community life in many places. In Africa, urban churches record sermons with cellphones, then transmit them to villages to be replayed. In Iran and Moldova, those organising popular uprisings against authoritarian governments turned to the cellphone. In India, the cellphone is now used to allow citizen election monitoring and to equip voters, via text message, with information on candidates' incomes and criminal backgrounds.

Recognising the role of cellphones in developing nations, the White House made a point last year of releasing President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world, in Cairo, in 13 languages via text message. It has made no similarly publicised gesture in the US, even though not everyone has Internet access. (The administration proposes to remedy that by widening broadband access.)

All of which suggests the presence of an innovation gap between the world's richest societies and the poorest - not in device design so much as in usage. And there is a question about whether the US, which gained so much from the Internet revolution, would similarly profit from the entry of billions more people from the developing world into a massive worldwide middle class - consumers now but not yet rich, with a simple cellphone and a less-is-more sensibility.

Certainly, innovative new devices may find important roles in the US - for example, as platforms for distributing news and books and entertainment, which have struggled to adapt to the digital age. That alone could make their invention revolutionary.

But is desire replacing need as the mother of American invention? Will domestic demand for even sleeker, faster, fancier devices over the long run make it harder for Americans to innovate for the vast, less opulent world outside, still dominated by frugal wants? Perhaps.

British entrepreneur Ken Banks, who works in Africa and developed FrontlineSMS, a text-messaging service for aid groups, put it this way: 'There's often a tendency in the West to approach things the wrong way round, so we end up with solutions looking for a problem, or we build things just because we can.'

Well, yes. Then again, the cellphone itself began that way. A quarter-century ago, when Michael Douglas famously carried one in Wall Street, it was an exorbitant gadget for high rollers.

Now it's more common than a toilet.

International Herald Tribune