Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Glenn Beck's Incendiary Angst Is Dangerously Close to Having a Body Count

The Huffington Post

July 27, 2010 09:23 AM

On his Monday radio show, Glenn Beck highlighted claims that before he started targeting a little-known, left-leaning organization called the Tides Foundation on his Fox News TV show, "nobody knew" what the non-profit was.

Indeed, for more than a year Beck has been portraying the progressive organization as a central player in a larger, nefarious cabal of Marxist/socialist/Nazi Obama-loving outlets determined to destroy democracy in America. Beck has routinely smeared the low-profile entity for being staffed by "thugs" and "bullies" and involved in "the nasty of the nastiest," like indoctrinating schoolchildren and creating a "mass organization to seize power."

As Media Matters reported, the conspiratorial host had mentioned (read: attacked) the little-known progressive organization nearly 30 times on his Fox program alone since it premiered in 2009, including several mentions in the last month. (Beck's the only TV talker who regularly references the foundation, according to our Nexis searches.)

So yes, Beck has done all he can to scare the hell out of people about the Tides Foundation and "turn the light of day" onto an organization that actually facilitates non-profit giving.

And guess what? Everybody in America would have found out about the Tides Foundation last week if Byron Williams had had his way. He's the right-wing, government-hating, gun-toting nut who strapped on his body armor, stocked a pickup truck with guns and ammo, and set off up the California coast to San Francisco in order to start killing employees at the previously obscure Tides Foundation in hopes of sparking a political revolution.

Thankfully, the planned domestic terrorist attack never came to pass because California Highway Patrol officers pulled Williams over for drunk driving on his way to his killing spree. Williams quickly opened fire, wounding two officers during a lengthy shootout. Luckily, Williams wasn't able to act out the ultimate goal of his dark anger -- fueled by the TV news he watched -- about how "Congress was railroading through all these left-wing agenda items," as his mother put it. Williams wasn't able to open fire inside the offices of the Tides Foundation, an organization "nobody knew" about until Glenn Beck started targeting it.

And thankfully, Williams wasn't able to take his place alongside a growing list of domestic, anti-government terrorists, such as the recent Pentagon shooter, the Holocaust Museum gunman, the kamikaze pilot who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, and the Pittsburgh cop-killer who set up an ambush because he was convinced Obama was going to take away his guns.

All the vigilante attacks appear to have been fueled by an almost pathological hatred for the U.S. government -- the same open hatred that right-wing bloggers, AM talk radio hosts, and Fox News' lineup of anti-government prophets have been frantically fueling for the last year, pushing doomsday warnings of America's democratic demise under President Obama.

And the sad truth is we're going to see more like Byron Williams. We're going to see more attempts at vigilante violence during the Age of Obama simply because the right-wing media, lead by Beck, continue to gleefully (albeit irresponsibly) stoke dangerous fires with the kind of relentlessly incendiary rhetoric that has no match in terms of modern day, mainstream use in American politics or media.

Just listen to Glenn Beck:

* Progressives "are sucking the blood out of the republic" and are "gonna start getting more and more violent."

* "To the day I die, I am going to be a progressive hunter."

* "[Y]ou will have to shoot me in the forehead before you take away my gun" and "before I acquiesce and be silent."

* "This game is for keeps"; "[Y]ou can shoot me in the head ... but there will be 10 others that line up."

* "There is a coup going on. There is a stealing of America"; "God help us in an emergency."'

And don't forget about the unhinged response when health care reform was passed in March: "Get down on your knees and pray. Pray. It's September 11th all over again, except that we didn't have the collapsing buildings." After financial reform passed last week, Beck told his audience, "Your republic is over."

Meanwhile, Andrew Breitbart's website recently tagged Obama as the "suicide-bomber-in-chief," while the conservative Washington Times just last week published an op-ed -- by a former congressman, no less -- asserting the president poses more of a threat to America than al Qaeda.

Note that the radical right's media rhetoric is no longer even political in a partisan sense. Instead, it's purely revolutionary. It isn't, "We think taxes should be lower" or "Obama should be more hawkish overseas." It's, "There's an insidious and deadly plot afoot by Democrats and progressives to strip Americans of their freedom and this country of its greatness." Obama is now the incarnation of evil (the Antichrist?), and his driving hatred for America, as well as for democracy, runs so deep that he ran for president in order to destroy the United States from inside the Oval Office.

Rush Limbaugh: "Our country is being overthrown from within."

And this summer, the latest toxic twist to that line of attack is that Obama is destroying America on purpose in order to exact revenge from white America for the historic sin of slavery. (Think: Black Manchurian Candidate.) The GOP Noise Machine is now mixing a vile cocktail by stirring revolutionary rhetoric with hateful race-baiting.

It's impossible to argue that today's avalanche of insurrectionist rhetoric doesn't have a real world effect. Or that those on the fringes don't find comfort in seeing and hearing their worst fears legitimized on AM radio and Fox News.

The consequences of the doomsday programming seem entirely predictable. As Jeffrey Jones, a professor of media and politics at Old Dominion University, recently explained to the New York Times in regard to Beck's rhetoric, "People hear their values are under attack and they get worried. It becomes an opportunity for them to stand up and do something."

Indeed, the relentless message that right-wing audiences hear is unequivocal and inescapable: Do something! Take action!

And last week, Byron Williams, likely inspired by Glenn Beck's Tides obsession, grabbed his guns and set out to do just that.

[Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech? Glenn Beck can just target unsuspecting people and organisation with his hate speech and drive the mentally unhinged to try to hurt or kill people and they are alright with it? Madness.]

China took S'pore's challenge 'too lightly'

Aug 31, 2010

By Lin Xinyi

CHINA underestimated the threat Singapore posed at the World Table Tennis Championships in Moscow last May.

The admission came from no less than the head of its table tennis association, Cai Zhenhua.
'I think there was an element of underestimation,' he told The Straits Times last week on the sidelines of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG), where he was China's chef de mission.

'But the loss might not be a bad result for future tournaments like the 2012 Olympics. It'll help to prevent the events of Moscow from happening again.'

The Singapore women's team led by Feng Tianwei stunned China 3-1 in the Russian capital - a result that denied the 17-time world champions a ninth consecutive title.

Cai, who planned to contain China's dominance after being elected as the Asian Table Tennis Union president last year because it was hurting the sport, admitted that he was still shocked by the result.

'I can't deny that it was a surprise,' said the former world champion. 'But Singapore did not become sudden champions either. Both teams have been at it the past few years.

'Even though China won 3-0 in the final of the Beijing Olympics, there were nervous moments.'
Despite drawing some flak from the Chinese media for helping to develop the sport globally - an aim that has been dubbed the 'wolf-rearing plan' - Cai said the Chinese Table Tennis Association will continue to promote the sport globally.

[Interesting that he considers the sport more important that national pride. Good for him!]

'Our aim is two-fold,' he said of the invitation for teams to train and compete in China. 'We want to popularise the sport so the whole world can enjoy it, and we hope to raise the standard so that the matches are more attractive.'

Having watched the YOG paddlers in action, Cai added that the new generation will provide China, who won the girls' singles gold and a mixed team bronze in the inaugural Games, with competition.

He singled out Japan as a team that have what it takes to be a world powerhouse. Japan's Koki Niwa, 15, was the star of the YOG table tennis competition - he was undefeated in the boys' singles and mixed-team events.

Cai also praised Singapore's Isabelle Li, the girls' singles silver medallist, although he cautioned that all youth paddlers are far from the finished product.

'Even if you're good at a young age, it doesn't mean you'll be successful at the senior level,' he said.

'The road ahead is still very long.'

Iraq: A US effort that was in vain?

Aug 31, 2010

By Jonathan Eyal


MISSION accomplished? As the last American combat troops left Iraq over the weekend, one departing soldier belonging to the 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team shouted to the assembled journalists: 'We won, we won, it's over! We brought democracy to Iraq.'

None of those present at the ceremony dared to contradict the soldier's claim. And for good reasons: after seven years of warfare in which almost 5,000 American soldiers and approximately 100,000 Iraqis perished, nobody wanted to admit that the entire effort was in vain.

But as officials in Washington know only too well, the United States has failed in most of its strategic objectives. The best that can be said about this sad episode is that the American military is not leaving with its tail between its legs, and that the war will not result in a new American isolationism. In short, Iraq is not a victory, but it is not Vietnam either.

For President Barack Obama and many of his associates, Iraq was always a 'dumb war', an eminently avoidable confrontation which happened only because the previous administration of Mr George W. Bush was trigger-happy and ill-informed.

Some of these charges are true. But history's final verdict is likely to be more nuanced.
Contrary to what critics of the war claim, the people who launched the invasion in March 2003 were not interested in gaining control over Iraq's huge oil reserves. Iraq oil wells remained out of action long after the fighting was over. And when a new US-backed Iraqi government finally awarded new oil exploration contracts to foreign companies, American corporations obtained no favours.

Nor is it true that the Bush administration deliberately lied about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the need for war. It is now largely forgotten, but, on the eve of battle, almost all governments accepted that Saddam Hussein had chemical and bacteriological weapons. The intelligence failure was, therefore, a global cock-up.

Finally, although we now know that the Iraq adventure aggravated the situation in the Middle East, few are prepared to consider the alternatives. For by the time the US went to war, the economic sanctions that kept Saddam in check were failing; there was an international clamour to lift them. Had that happened, a Saddam Hussein who successfully defied the US would have become a permanent menace to the entire Middle East.

So the option facing the US then was not a simple one between war and peace, but between one war and a series of smaller military confrontations over a longer period. It is not evident which option would have been the better one.

Paradoxically, the biggest charge against the US is that, once it decided to use force in order to protect its influence in the region, it refused to act as a true imperial power. The military operation itself was short, and brilliantly conducted. However, Washington failed to realise that once it conquered an entire country, it became responsible for everything - from the running of electricity or water, to the formation of a government.

Colonialism is not accomplished in half-measures; it is either done well, or better not undertaken at all.

But the US did worse: While refusing to act as a true colonial occupier, it also set itself impossible strategic objectives. The people who ordered the invasion genuinely believed that the removal of Saddam would unleash a democratic clamour throughout the Middle East. Instead, it produced a clutch of sectarian leaders, who exacerbated age-old enmities between the Shi'ites and the Sunnis.

[Tough love requires hard decisions.]

The US also believed that its action would awe the people of the Middle East. Nothing of the kind; the defiance from Iran and Syria only increased.

And far from combating terrorism, the Iraq war fuelled the largest increase in terrorist bloodshed and became the biggest recruiting agent for men of violence.

By every conceivable yardstick, therefore, the Iraq episode was a failure, and worse could be in the offing. Although the US will keep 50,000 troops inside Iraq, they will do nothing to prop up the country's government. The Kurds may carve up their separate state, leading to Iraq's disintegration. A functioning government is yet to be formed, five months after a general election. Iran is guaranteed to meddle in Iraq's internal affairs. And so may Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the private firms which are now contracted to take over from the US military are unlikely to perform miracles. After all, America already spent US$700 billion (S$950 billion) on Iraq's 'reconstruction', to little practical effect.

The only consolation is that although the Iraq war did not enhance America's reputation, it did not result in total humiliation either. The US military learnt from its mistakes: the 'surge' ordered in 2007 helped reduce levels of violence, allowing American generals an opportunity to withdraw in an orderly fashion, and at the time of their own choosing. More importantly, Iraq has not dented America's determination to remain a global superpower.

True, President Obama is striking a more conciliatory tone. But the country still accounts for no less than half of global military spending, and an astonishing two-thirds of all the world's new research on weapons development.

And it is not about to lose its appetite for foreign interventions. As troops withdraw from Iraq, the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan is increasing. The US military is also weighing its options in Yemen. And Washington is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability even if this means, eventually, the use of force.

The lessons of Iraq are enduring. The US is unlikely to consider the outright occupation of another state. Nor would any future American president be tempted by the idea that 'regime change' can be accomplished with just force. Nevertheless, the US will retain its mighty military machine, and the will to use it.

Some may find this a depressing prospect. Yet for many of the world's governments, the only worse alternative to a trigger-happy US is an isolationist America.

Far too many died in Iraq, for no purpose. Still, as US combat troops withdrew from the country over the weekend, some Iraqis turned out to wave them goodbye, with a tinge of regret.

People may criticise what the US does, yet few would disagree with the proposition that America remains the indispensable power.

Five myths about mosques in America

Aug 30, 2010

By Edward E. Curtis IV


New York Muslims leaving the Jamaica Muslim Centre after prayers on Friday in the Jamaica neighbourhood of Queens. Today there are more than 2,000 places of Muslim prayer, most of them mosques, in the United States. -- PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

IN ADDITION to spawning passionate debates in the public, the news media and the political class, the proposal to build a Muslim community centre near Ground Zero in New York City has revealed widespread misconceptions about the practice of Islam in the United States - and the role of mosques in particular.

Mosques are new to the US

MOSQUES have been in America since the colonial era. A mosque, or masjid, is literally any place where Muslims make salat, the prayer performed in the direction of Mecca; it needn't be a building.

One of the first mosques in North American history was on Kent Island, Maryland: Between 1731 and 1733, African-American Muslim slave and Islamic scholar Job Ben Solomon, a cattle driver, would regularly steal away to the woods there for his prayers - in spite of a white boy who threw dirt on him as he made his prostrations.

The Midwest was home to the greatest number of permanent US mosques in the first half of the 20th century. In 1921, Sunni, Shi'ite and Ahmadi Muslims in Detroit celebrated the opening of perhaps the first purpose-built mosque in the nation.

Funded by real estate developer Muhammad Karoub, it was just blocks away from Henry Ford's Highland Park automobile factory, which employed hundreds of Arab-American men.

Most Midwestern mosques blended into their surroundings. The temples or mosques of the Nation of Islam - an indigenous form of Islam led by Elijah Muhammad from 1934 to 1975 - were often converted storefronts and churches.

In total, mosques numbered perhaps slightly more than 100 nationwide in 1970. In the last three decades of the 20th century, however, more than one million new Muslim immigrants came to the US and, in tandem with their African-American co-religionists, opened hundreds more mosques.

Today there are more than 2,000 places of Muslim prayer, most of them mosques, in the US.

According to recent Pew and Gallup polls, about 40 per cent of Muslim Americans say they pray in a mosque at least once a week, nearly the same percentage of American Christians who attend church weekly. About a third of all US Muslims say they seldom or never go to mosques. And contrary to stereotypes of mosques as male-only spaces, Gallup finds that women are as likely as men to attend.

Mosques try to spread syariah

IN ISLAM, syariah ('the way' to God) theoretically governs every human act. But Muslims do not agree on what syariah says; there is no one syariah book of laws.

Most mosques in America do not teach Islamic law for a simple reason: It's too complicated for the average believer and even for some imams.

Islamic law includes not only the Quran and the Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) but also great bodies of arcane legal rulings and pedantic scholarly interpretations. If mosques forced Islamic law upon their congregants, most Muslims would probably leave - just as most Christians might walk out of the pews if preachers gave sermons exclusively on Saint Augustine, canon law and Greek grammar.

Instead, mosques study the Quran and the Sunna and how the principles and stories in those sacred texts apply to their everyday lives.

Worshippers are Middle Eastern

A 2009 GALLUP poll found that African-Americans accounted for 35 per cent of all Muslim Americans, making them the largest racial-ethnic group of Muslims in the nation. It is unclear whether Arab-Americans or South Asian Americans (mostly Pakistanis and Indians) are the second-largest.

Muslim Americans are also white, Hispanic, Sub-Saharan African, Iranian, European, Central Asian and more - representing the most racially diverse religious group in the US.

Mosques reflect this diversity. Though there are hundreds of ethnically and racially integrated mosques, most of these institutions, like many American places of worship, break down along racial and ethnic lines.

Arabs, for instance, are the dominant ethnic group in a modest number of mosques, particularly in states such as Michigan and New York. And according to a 2001 survey (the most recent national survey on mosques available) by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, they represented the plurality in only 15 per cent of US mosques.

Mosques are funded by unfriendly groups and governments

THERE certainly have been instances in which foreign funds, especially from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, have been used to build mosques in the US. The Saudi royal family, for example, reportedly gave US$8 million (S$10.8 million) for the building of the King Fahd Mosque, which was inaugurated in 1998 in Culver City, a Los Angeles suburb.

But the vast majority of mosques are supported by Muslim Americans themselves. Domestic funding reflects the desire of many US Muslims to be independent of overseas influences.

Long before Sept 11, 2001, in the midst of a growing clash of interests between some Muslim-majority nations and the US government - during the Persian Gulf War, for instance - Muslim American leaders decided that they must draw primarily from US sources of funding for their projects.

Mosques lead to home-grown terrorism

ON THE contrary, mosques have become typical American religious institutions.

In addition to worship services, most US mosques hold weekend classes for children, offer charity to the poor, provide counselling services and conduct interfaith programmes.

No doubt, some mosques have encouraged radical extremism. Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian sheik who inspired the World Trade Center's first attackers in 1993, operated out of the Al-Salam mosque in Jersey City, New Jersey.

But after the 2001 attacks, such radicalism was largely pushed out of mosques and onto the Internet, mainly because of a renewed commitment among mosque leaders to confront extremism.

There is a danger that as anti-Muslim prejudice increases in the US - as it has recently in reaction to the proposed community centre near Ground Zero - alienated young Muslims will turn away from the peaceful path advocated by their elders in America's mosques. So far, that has not happened on a large scale.

Through their mosques, US Muslims are embracing the community involvement that is a hallmark of the American experience. In this light, mosques should be welcomed as premier sites of American assimilation, not feared as incubators of terrorist indoctrination.

The writer is Millennium Chair of Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the author of Muslims In America: A Short History and the editor of the Encyclopedia Of Muslim-American History.

WASHINGTON POST

Monday, August 30, 2010

Singapore's shift from a 'poison shrimp' strategy

Aug 30, 2010

By Robert Karniol, Defence Writer

SINGAPORE'S defence spending last year continued to outpace that of its South-east Asian neighbours, according to a new study released by Australia's Defence Intelligence Organisation.

Defence Economic Trends In The Asia-Pacific 2009, which is based on open-source data, is the latest in a series produced annually by the Defence Intelligence Organisation. Although actual figures are generally provided, some information is presented in constant 2005 United States dollars in order to facilitate comparison.

Singapore's dominance is illustrated by a pie chart showing each country's portion of regional defence expenditure, with South-east Asia defined to include the 10 Asean member-states plus Timor Leste. Singapore accounted for 32 per cent of overall spending in the region last year, with second-place Thailand at 19 per cent.

Malaysia accounted for 17 per cent, Indonesia 13 per cent, Vietnam 11 per cent and the Philippines 5 per cent. The other four countries, with Myanmar excluded due to unreliable information, together made up the remaining 3 per cent.

Data covering a single year can distort the broader picture but Singapore's share has been consistent, with its tally at 32.1 per cent in 2004 and 31.5 per cent in 2000.

This reflects the country's policy of taking the longer view, aiming to keep defence expenditure fairly steady in order to avoid the pitfalls inherent in economic fluctuations. The result is shown in two sets of data presented in the report for last year, although more variation is apparent than public statements suggest.

Singapore's defence spending as a percentage of real gross domestic product (GDP) stood at 4.5 per cent last year, compared with 4.7 per cent in 2004 and 4.9 per cent in 2000. But the figure went as high as 5.4 per cent in 2001 and 2002, and as low as 4.1 per cent in 2007 and 2008 - a variation by nearly a quarter from the peak period to the valley.

Official defence expenditure was 26.2 per cent of nominal government spending last year, compared with 28.3 per cent in 2004 and 25.6 per cent in 2000. The 2000 figure was the decade's low point, and this rose by over a quarter to reach its high at 32.8 per cent in 2006.

In regional terms, Vietnam topped Singapore for much of the past decade in the proportion of GDP spent on defence. Hanoi stood at 7.9 per cent in 2001 but began to slip from 2007 to end the following year at 3.2 per cent and then 3 per cent last year.

Malaysia and Thailand were respectively at 2 per cent and 1.9 per cent last year, the former rather steady over the past decade and the latter showing a slight rise beginning in 2006. The Philippines is next at 0.8 per cent of GDP, down from 1.6 per cent 10 years ago, followed by Indonesia at a relatively stable but meagre 0.7 per cent.

The picture for defence spending as a proportion of nominal government expenditure is similar, with Vietnam initially topping Singapore at 32.6 per cent in 2001 and then sliding steadily to 9.7 per cent last year. The data for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is relatively flat while the Philippines dipped in 2002 and has since remained steady.

Thailand ended last year at 8.7 per cent, Malaysia at 6.4 per cent and Indonesia at 4.7 per cent for defence as a proportion of total government spending. Bangkok began the decade at the same level, then edged downward before climbing after 2006, when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's regime was overthrown. Kuala Lumpur slid from a high of 8.6 per cent in 2006, its subsequent drop by over two percentage points perhaps reflecting economic conditions. Jakarta follows much the same pattern, losing nearly two percentage points since its high of 6.6 per cent in 2005.

Singapore's approach to defence spending is unusual in the broader Asia-Pacific context too. Last year, it was ahead of Australia, China, India, Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan in military expenditure as a percentage of GDP. It topped France, Russia and Britain too, but was below the United States. Singapore also spent a higher proportion of its nominal government expenditure on defence than all the other countries listed.

All of which explains Singapore's shift from a 'poison shrimp' strategy - ensuring that any aggression against the country would prove costly - to a 'deter-and-defeat' posture.

rkarniol@sph.com.sg

[To the critics who asks why must Singapore spend so much on defence, the simple answer is that we have much more to lose.]

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Accusations fly fast and furious

Aug 28, 2010
MANILA HOSTAGE TRAGEDY

By John McBeth, Senior Writer

HONG KONG'S anger over Manila's handling of Monday's hostage crisis may be understandable, but it hardly justifies the call for the immediate return of all Hong Kong citizens and a formal warning against travel to the Philippines.

An incident such as this, involving a single individual, can happen anywhere - and often does, in the United States, Australia, even China. It is a far cry from the bombings and other attacks carried out by committed religious fanatics, which may well be repeated.

What seemed to anger Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang as much as anything was his failure to get Philippine President Benigno Aquino on the telephone until hours into the crisis.

The travel warning will almost certainly take its toll on the Philippines' already fragile tourism industry. Taken together with the killing of a South Korean several days earlier, the warning will create the impression that the country is going through another of its periodic waves of violence.

It does not help when news reports describe the Philippines as 'one of the most dangerous places for foreigners in Asia', as one did recently. How relative is that? In four years of travelling around the entire gun-happy country, I never had a problem.

As in many of these situations, outside perception is often far removed from reality. Take, for example, Thailand's frequent coups, with large parts of Bangkok remaining unaffected, or the riots that wracked an otherwise peaceful Seoul in the mid-1980s.

Even during the violent coup attempt of 1989, which left Manila's Makati business district in the hands of rebel Scout Rangers, it was still possible to get to the airport and travel around the rest of Manila without being in harm's way.

Anyone can get unlucky, anywhere. Sadly, in this case, a busload of tourists found themselves at the mercy of a disgruntled and suicidal police inspector, in a tragedy which left eight of them dead.

Armed with an M-16 assault rifle, the much-decorated Rolando Mendoza almost certainly chose the bus at random to press his demand to be re-instated after being fired for extortion and robbery. There is no question the Philippine National Police (PNP) mishandled a situation which, at the beginning at least, looked as if it could have had a happy ending. Mendoza even released nine of the 25 hostages in a show of goodwill.

The 120,000-strong PNP did not have its A-team on the scene. In fact, one of the many morbid jokes doing the rounds in the Philippine capital has it that the smartest police officer there was the hostage-taker himself.

While the PNP have US instructors to train Scout Ranger and Marine counterterrorism units, as well as Special Weapons and Tactics (Swat) teams, they are largely ineffective because individuals are routinely moved elsewhere to train others.

The government also lacks the resources and equipment to ensure ongoing training - a short-coming which also affects Indonesia's Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit, and which became an issue with the Indian police in the wake of the 2008 carnage in Mumbai.

Said Mr Scott Harrison, a retired senior US Central Intelligence Agency official who heads Pacific Strategies & Assessments, a regional security consultancy: 'The results are confusion and half-baked strategies and tactics when the unexpected happens, like the seizure of the bus.'

Added another security specialist: 'There are two issues endemic to the PNP - lack of resources and poor leadership. Time and again we have seen the poor leadership issue manifest itself during major security events.

'It is almost as if high-level senior management training abroad, including at the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, is more of a trophy exercise than the learning and application of the course content.'

One crucial problem in the latest drama was the way jurisdictional turf squabbling resulted in the suburban Luneta police, and not the National Capital Region headquarters, being in charge of crowd control.

As it was, the inept police tactics and the cultural proclivity to do nothing because of the fear of making a mistake were matched by an abject failure to rein in Manila's notoriously rabble-rousing media.

Mendoza, by most accounts, watched the coverage on the bus television set and knew every move the police made, effectively removing the element of surprise, often crucial in such stand-offs.

An even more tragic mistake was the decision to involve Mendoza's brother Gregorio, a traffic policeman, in the negotiations. When the brother became agitated and was hustled away, claiming he was under arrest, Mendoza appeared to lose control of himself.

Security analysts say that while the police showed courage in trying to board the bus, they lacked the sort of short-barrelled assault weapons needed to follow the attack through.

They then wasted too much time smashing the windows and the doors of the bus with sledge-hammers, when frame charges would have done the job much more effectively - if they had had them.

They also failed to seize several opportunities to disarm or shoot the gunman, who at one point was standing openly in the bus doorway talking to negotiators. All is fair when lives are at stake.

Above all, critics are asking why the easy decision to give in to Mendoza's narrow demands arrived at the end of the 10-hour drama. By then the shooting had started and it was already too late.

It is still unclear whether he executed the eight victims or they died in the police fusillade. One thing is certain: There will be endless finger-pointing by all sides in the days and weeks ahead.

thane.cawdor@gmail.com

[There are several issues here.

Media and press freedom. These freedoms are NOT absolute. The media has a duty to inform. It may have the option to sensationalise but that is not a right. And certainly it is not at the expense of safety, security, and operational priorities.

Police tactics and competence. Training, SOP, proper equipment. Essential emergency services need to be constantly trained, and effectively equipped and trained to use the equipment properly. This requires budget. The problem arises when the country is poor and budgets get cut and funding is sporadic at best. Training then becomes ad hoc, equipment are either not maintained or fall into disrepair, and elite squads lose their edge and their purpose.]

Soft armour that hardens upon impact

Aug 28, 2010

S'pore invention inspired by corn starch's 'shear thickening' property
By Lester Kok

SINGAPORE scientists have invented a 'smart' padding which hardens upon impact, but remains soft under normal conditions.

Being malleable, it can be adjusted to conform to many shapes, suitable for sports padding and bulletproof body armour.

Potential uses for this technology include protective gear and clothing for sports and military applications, an area that is estimated to grow to US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) by the year 2012.

Other important sectors such as automobile and health care can also benefit from this new technology, as there is a need for protection against impact.

The idea first came about from a corn starch experiment, which is normally used to demonstrate the versatility of materials to the public.

Corn starch, when mixed with water, is soft and malleable, but turns stiff upon hard impact - a property known as shear thickening.

Dr Davy Cheong, a senior research engineer with the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), said that during science outreach demonstrations to the public, many people asked him if corn starch could be used for bulletproof vests.

'So I actually put some corn starch into a latex glove and brought it around for discussion. But the real epiphany came when my team had a discussion and we discovered how we can utilise this to make a composite. From there, we improved its performance,' he said.

Dr Cheong said he and his partners, Mr Phyo Khant and Assistant Professor Vincent Tan from the National University of Singapore (NUS), spent two years on this project, eventually finding other materials to replace corn starch, which would sour over time. Also assisting them was NUS Department of Mechanical Engineering PhD candidate Shang Jia Shun.

A key difference between their patented material and other shear-thickening technologies is that it does not require external wrapping such as foam and can be used as a standalone.

In ballistic tests which applied the same impact as a large pistol bullet, the padding reduces blunt force up to 60 per cent better than bulletproof fabrics.

On top of being on a par in performance with the ceramic and steel plates normally used in bulletproof vests, it is only one-third the weight of a steel plate of the same size and can float on water.

When compared with conventional impact foam used in sports gear, the new padding does not crack under repeated impact and spreads out high impact more effectively.

Since the padding is still under development, there is no direct equivalent in the market for a cost comparison, but it is understood that the raw materials used to make the composite are relatively inexpensive.

The team uploaded videos showing tests on the new composite material at www.youtube.com/user/jabbaboy, and several parties from the United States and Canada have expressed interest in collaborations.

The videos show the team smashing a watermelon with a hammer, cushioning the blow with normal impact foam and with the new padding material.

One popular video clip shows a researcher wearing the pad on his forearm and hitting it with a hammer, a metal spike, and against iron surfaces.

At the end of the clip, he removes the pad and shows his arm, which bears no bruises despite all the abuse.

The videos were also used by the team for a presentation in the United States to demonstrate visually how the technology works.

'We are also trying to improve the current system so that, maybe in the future, we can have an entire 'super suit' made of the material that is flexible and yet takes bullet shots, without the need for Kevlar layers in front,' Dr Cheong said.

lesterk@sph.com.sg

[For civilian use, perhaps it can be used for bicycle and motor cycle helmets?]

A WEIRD way of thinking has prevailed worldwide

Aug 28, 2010

By Anand Giridharadas



IMAGINE a country whose inhabitants eat human flesh, wear only pink hats to sleep and banish children into the forest to raise themselves until adulthood.

Now imagine that this country dominates the study of psychology worldwide. Its universities have the best facilities, which draw the best scholars, who write the best papers. Their research subjects are the flesh-eating, pink-hat-wearing, forest-reared locals.

When these psychologists write about their own country, all is well. But things deteriorate when they generalise about human nature.

They view behaviours that are globally commonplace - say, vegetarianism - as deviant. Human nature, as they define it, reflects little of the actual diversity of humankind.

This scenario may sound preposterous. But if a provocative new study is to be believed, the world already lives in such a situation - except that it is American undergraduates, not flesh-eating forest dwellers, who monopolise our knowledge of human nature.

In the study, published last month in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan - all psychologists at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver - condemn their field's quest for human universals.

Psychologists claim to speak of human nature, the study argues, but they have mostly been telling us about a group of WEIRD outliers, as the study calls them - Westernised, Educated people from Industrialised, Rich Democracies.

According to the study, 68 per cent of research subjects in a sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals came from the United States, and 96 per cent from Western industrialised nations.

Of the American subjects, 67 per cent were undergraduates studying psychology - making a randomly selected American undergraduate 4,000 times more likely to be a subject than a random non-Westerner.

Western psychologists routinely generalise about 'human' traits from data on this slender sub-population, and psychologists elsewhere cite these papers as evidence.

In itself, such extrapolation is hardly fatal. Sigmund Freud built his account of human behaviour from his work on patients in Vienna and generalised for the world.

So many great analysts of human nature, from Aristotle to the Buddha, reached for transcendent human truths despite limited contact with the range of humanity.

The Canadian study's claim is not to invalidate all extrapolation so much as to suggest that American undergraduates may be especially unsuitable for it.

The study's method was to analyse a mountain of published, peer-reviewed psychology papers.

It found evidence both of a narrow research base and of the eccentricity of that base. Among the many peculiarities of the usual subjects who serve as 'universal man' are these, the study found:
  • American subjects disproportionately prize choice and individualism. In a survey of six Western societies, only Americans preferred a choice of 50 ice creams to 10.
  • Studies have found that Americans are all but alone in giving newborns their own room.
  • Americans are also peculiar in the so-called Ultimatum Game, in which a subject receives money and must make an offer to share it. The second subject can accept or reject the offer, but if it is rejected, neither subject gets paid.
Americans playing the game are fair in the extreme, making higher offers than most. But they are also outliers in another way.
  • In various places, including Russia and China, psychologists observe the rejection of excessive generosity - a demurring when offered too much. This behaviour is absent from American undergraduates.

The study's list goes on and on:

Westerners tend to define themselves by psychological traits, and non-Westerners by relationships.

In some languages, including English, directions are built around the self ('Take a right after the church'), while in other languages, they refer to immovable objects ('It is behind the church').

Americans are worse than many at overcoming common optical illusions about the length of lines. But they are better than East Asians at recalling an object when the background changes, perhaps because the latter focus on context.

The data on these differences is patchy, the study's authors acknowledge. Not enough work has been done on human variation.

The Canadian attempt was simply to synthesise the existing research and to establish with their synthesis that psychological sameness is an implausible assumption.

Some critics of the study have suggested that there are universals underlying surface differences, and that the WEIRD variables may not be the right ones.

But there has been little dispute about the premise that psychologists have extrapolated from an outlying few the ways of the global many.

It is an extrapolation with consequences. Democracy promoters tell us that all humans feel the same way about authority, despite evidence of diversity.

Economists say that all humans are self-interested rational actors, though many succumb to selfless and irrational pursuits.

Abstract rights are proclaimed for all humans, overlooking the fact that many prefer their ethics in more grounded, context-specific ways.

China, India and many other societies shy away from such universalising. Their thinkers avoid proclaiming that all humans do this or do that simply because the Chinese or the Indians do. If they began to do so, how might things change?

For now, those outside the West continue to feel a certain pressure from beyond to think in ways not their own.

The television sitcoms they watch, the books they read, the superheroes they grow up with, the PowerPoint presentations they give - these were often designed with someone else's psychology foremost in mind, in the hope that they fit universally.

One response to the WEIRD study, by the psychologist Professor Paul Rozin, is that extrapolating from Americans is acceptable because the world is Americanising.

'The US is in the vanguard of the global world,' he said, according to Science magazine, 'and may provide a glimpse into the future.'

But it is also possible that people around the world are not simply in the process of becoming like American undergraduates, and relying on WEIRD subjects can make others feel alienated, with their ways of thinking framed as deviant, not different.

Among the less-examined facets of globalisation is its psychic pressure: a force that makes people feel they are playing by others' rules, that makes their own home turf feel like an opponent's stadium.

In this WEIRD people's world, so many know only away games.

NEW YORK TIMES

Casinos wipe out a big chunk of club earnings

Aug 28, 2010

By Ng Kai Ling

JACKPOT machines, a long-time revenue-spinner for clubs in Singapore, are slowly falling silent as patrons who used to spend hours playing on the one-armed bandits migrate to the two casinos here.

Faced with takings that have fallen by as much as 50 per cent, the clubs are now anxiously looking at their bottom lines and new ways of raising revenue, including pulling some privileges from members.

About 100 outfits in Singapore - from exclusive ones like the Singapore Recreation Club (SRC) to heartland hangouts like S-League clubhouses - have permits to operate the so-called 'fruit machines'.

All of those which responded to queries about their takings said they have felt the impact of the casinos.

At the Seletar Country Club, for example, jackpot takings have fallen by between 25 and 30 per cent, said its general manager, Mr Wun Khai Ping.

Neighbourhood clubs visited by The Straits Times yesterday, such as Sengkang Punggol Football Club, said revenue has fallen by about 20 per cent.

Bigger establishments, such as the Singapore Island Country Club and Chinese Swimming Club, refused to say how much business has dropped since the casinos at the Resorts World Sentosa (RWS) and Marina Bay Sands (MBS) integrated resorts opened earlier this year.

The integrated resorts have been doing well, with RWS making $861 million in revenue in the second quarter and MBS booking pre-tax profits of US$94 million (S$128 million) in its first 65 days of operation.

If a recent letter from the SRC to its members is anything to go by, the drop in clubs' earnings could be startling.

In it, SRC president Dr Johnny Goh wrote: 'Despite having created a new revenue stream from the club's 26 guest rooms, we have seen a sizeable drop in takings from fruit machines. All clubs with fruit machines have seen their takings dip as much as 50 per cent.'

It is not just gaming revenues that have taken a hit. Food and beverage receipts are also down, as gamblers who used to spend all day in the clubhouses head for the bright lights of the casinos.

Industry analysts say the clubs are facing a serious plight as they are unable to compete with the casinos in terms of bigger payouts and variety of slot machines.

Said Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst Melvyn Boey: 'I expect the decline to continue. It may not drop by more than what they are seeing now, but it will never recover to pre-IR days.'

This could mean big trouble for places like the Gombak United Football Club (GFC) clubhouse, where 17 jackpot machines are its cash cows and make up 80 per cent of revenue.

It is now looking to add a karaoke room to draw the crowds.

At bigger clubs such as the SRC, the situation is not so dire, but clawing back some of what has been lost is still the order of the day.

The 127-year-old club, one of Singapore's oldest, is looking for ways to make up the shortfall.

From next month, it will withdraw the rebates that it has been giving members since 1992, raising monthly subscriptions as a result. A member of 15 years, for example, will have to pay $14 to $15 more.

In his letter to members, Dr Goh said the move is being taken 'in order to enable the club to operate on an even keel'.

At Seletar Country Club, Mr Wun said he is counting on other revenue streams like restaurants and bars, golfing fees and banquets to keep it in the black.

But fruit machines have not been removed from the revenue equation.

'We are looking at improving our product offering, but it involves a sizeable amount of money to update or buy new machines,' said Mr Wun.

He said that having newer machines with different modes of play might do the trick and lure some customers back.

At the clubs which The Straits Times visited yesterday, only a handful of patrons were working the machines. Employees said that in the past, there were many more players.

Still, clubs like GFC are optimistic that players will return once the sheen of the new casinos wears off.

'We hope our takings will recover,' said Ms Selva Balli, finance manager at GFC clubhouse. 'They can't be going to the casinos every day, right?'

Additional reporting by Alexandra Jen Wong

[If Casino goers decide to pay the $2000 annual pass, they can treat that as their membership to the Casinos instead of the club membership they have been paying. If gambling is their main activity, and sports facilities are just for show, then it means that gambling have been subsidising sports for the longest time even in clubs.

Clubs will have to review their business model. Unless the shine wears off from the casinos, the clubs will have to reinvent themselves in terms of their revenue streams. When jackpot machines make up 80% of their revenue, it is not a healthy business model.]

Friday, August 27, 2010

Man on rape trial wants lawyer

Aug 27, 2010

By Khushwant Singh

AFTER three days into trial, an odd-job worker accused of sexually abusing his daughter for more than 10 years told the High Court on Friday he wanted a lawyer because he was unable to conduct his own defence.

The man's father, a taxi driver, then came forward to say that the family would approach a law firm.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Leong Wing Tuck left it to the court to decide on an adjournment but pointed out that the trial was in an advanced stage, having heard testimony from the victim.
Justice Tay Yong Kwang adjourned the trial till Monday. The judge however reminded the man that the court had inquired repeatedly at the start of proceedings if he wanted legal representation.

The accused had said he could not afford to hire a lawyer and the Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme had rejected his application.

Insisting that he was able to act for himself, the trial proceeded on Monday. On Thursday, the man appeared to find it difficult to challenge the testimony of his daughter, who is now 17, and attending a private school.

He has two other children, who are both in primary school. His other daughter, 12, was to take the stand on Friday.

The man faces three charges of rape and one charge each of oral sex and molestation between 1999 and last year. It is believed he started when his eldest child was only six. If convicted of these offences, he could be jailed for life and caned.


Aug 27, 2010
Teen confronts rapist father

By Khushwant Singh

MID-WAY through her testimony, the prosecutor asked the 17-year-old rape victim to look into her father's eyes and repeat her allegations against him.

Sobbing, she did just that.

'Yes, he raped me,' she told the High Court of her 34-year-old father, an odd job worker accused of sexually abusing her for over 10 years.

She told the High Court she sacrificed her happiness as she was aware that telling anyone about the sexual abuse she suffered from her father would tear up the family.

Her only happy moments were when she and her younger siblings went out shopping with their parents. 'Only then could I feel the warmth of family life but once at home I would have second thoughts because of what was happening to me,' she said between sobs.

Earlier, the secondary school student told the court how the sexual abuse started in 1999 when she was only six years old. He made her perform oral sex on him.

A year later, he raped her twice in the living room of their rented flat. She had not even reached puberty then.

[Innocent until proven guilty, so I will not assume guilt. But if the man is indeed quilty of the crime, then it is unconscionable for him to pursue a trial and force his victim to testify in court. ]

Passenger attacks Muslim cabby in New York

Aug 27, 2010

NEW YORK: New Yorkers, including the city's mayor, and several national organisations in the United States strongly condemned the attack of a taxi driver believed to have been targeted because he is a Muslim.

The attacker has been identified as 21-year-old film student Michael Enright, who had recently trailed US Marines in Afghanistan for a documentary.

Enright, who was reportedly drunk at the time of the incident, has been arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder as a hate crime, first-degree assault as a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon.

Bangladeshi taxi driver Ahmed Sharif, 43, said in a phone interview that Enright seemed polite at first. He asked him questions about where he came from, if he was a Muslim and if he was fasting in observance of Ramadan.

Then, Mr Sharif said, Enright began making fun of the rituals. After a short while, Enright began cursing him and shouted 'This is the checkpoint' and 'I have to bring you down'. He also said he had to bring the King of Saudi Arabia to the checkpoint.

'He was talking like he was a soldier,' said Mr Sharif. Enright then pulled out a knife, reached through an opening in the divider and slashed the taxi driver's throat.

Mr Sharif said that when he turned, Enright stabbed him in his face, on his arm and on his thumbs before bolting out of the slowly moving cab.

Mr Sharif then found a police officer, who apprehended Enright. According to the taxi driver, the officer said Enright claimed Mr Sharif had tried to rob him.

Mr Sharif received more than two dozen stitches at Bellevue Hospital Centre. Enright was given a psychiatric evaluation there.

He was arraigned on Wednesday in Manhattan Criminal Court and was held without bail. If convicted of the first charge of attempted murder as a hate crime, he faces up to 25 years in prison.

The incident came amid a heated and persistent national debate over the proposed building of a Muslim community centre and mosque - to be called the Park51 Islamic Cultural Centre - two blocks north of Ground Zero, site of the Sept 11 terror attacks.

Upon learning of the attack on the cab driver, some groups called for political and religious leaders to quiet tensions.

The New York City Coalition to Stop Islamophobia denounced the attack as 'particularly disturbing in the context of the toxic atmosphere of Islamophobia produced by opponents of the Park51 community project'.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he had spoken to Mr Sharif and 'assured him that ethnic or religious bias has no place in our city'. The mayor said Mr Sharif had accepted an invitation to meet him at City Hall.

'This attack runs counter to everything that New Yorkers believe, no matter what God we may pray to,' said Mr Bloomberg.

Enright had been arrested last November on charges of criminal trespass and disorderly conduct. He is a volunteer with Intersections International, an initiative of the Collegiate Church of New York which promotes justice and faith across religions and cultures.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES

Singapore's path to success worth studying

Aug 27, 2010

By Lu Pin Qiang

I BELIEVE many people would agree if one said Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most successful politicians in recent times. I believe, too, that no one would object if one said his methods of governance were worth studying.

Speaking at a dinner held recently to mark the Republic's National Day, he said: 'If one day, our communities become divisive and hostile towards one another; if they are not united and the bonds of national cohesion are weakened, the country will go downhill.'

MM Lee attributed Singapore's 'improbable success' to four factors.

First, having leaders of integrity who have the trust of the people to build a strong foundation for nation-building.

Second, having a meritocracy, where people can attain their goals based on merit and not connections, nepotism or corruption, regardless of their backgrounds.

Third, having a level playing field for all, with nobody given special attention or discriminated against by national policies.

Fourth, using English, the most common language in the world, as the working language of Singapore. This has enabled the country to avoid marginalising minority races and to become the commercial, industrial, financial and communications hub it is today.

These remarks from MM Lee should absolutely be studied and reflected upon by all countries.
No doubt, the conditions in Malaysia are different from those in Singapore. But just think: Malaysia has plenty of natural resources and wide tracts of land, yet why is it no match for 'tiny' Singapore? Whether it is the economy, international fame or the credibility of its government, Malaysia is always far behind Singapore and trying to catch up.

How did it turn out this way? Singapore carried out nation-building. So did Malaysia. Singapore has joined the league of First World countries; Malaysia is still a Third World country. At bottom, there is only one answer to the question. That is, the two countries chose different paths right from the start.

The path Malaysia chose was not based on any of the aforementioned four factors which MM Lee cited for Singapore's success. Given the political scandals and corruption controversies that have occurred in Malaysia over the years, can the country really have an upright and trustworthy leadership?

Does it have meritocracy? Under the New Economic Policy (NEP), are Malaysians living in an environment where policies favour some and discriminate against others? Has Malaysia avoided marginalising minority races?

After we have answered the above questions, Malaysians should be able to reflect on why they are what they are today. Do Malaysians continue to pin their hopes on the NEP or the National Economic Model? Are they going to stick to the same path?

It is time to change course!

This commentary first appeared in the Sin Chew Jit Poh, a Malaysian newspaper, on Sunday

Staring defeat at the end of the barrel?

Aug 27, 2010
FOREIGN MATTERS

By William Choong

FEW gave Muhammad Ali a chance against George Foreman during the 'rumble in the jungle' World Heavyweight Championship Fight in October 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire. Ali had a slightly faster punch and was lighter on his feet, but Foreman was simply the strongest, hardest hitting boxer of his generation then.

In Round 2, it looked as if Ali was cowering at the ropes. Foreman rained blow after blow on him. Using the elastic ropes to absorb much of the force of Foreman's punches, Ali kept taunting his opponent, saying: 'George, you disappoint me.'

To spectators, it looked as if Ali would soon fall. But Foreman wore himself out. In Round 8, Ali knocked Foreman to the canvas.

Such David versus Goliath stories are the stuff of legend. As the Biblical proverb goes, the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Indeed, the history of warfare is replete with examples of the weak defeating the strong.

The French, for example, are well known for the number of defeats that they have suffered at the hands of smaller and less capable foes.

In Algeria's battle for independence in the 1950s, the French fought an insurgency with a 10:1 numerical superiority. It won the war in military terms, but lost it politically after France's brutal tactics led to a loss of support at home.

In 1954, the Viet Minh destroyed French forces at Dien Bien Phu. Only 3 per cent of French forces in Indochina were involved at Dien Bien Phu. But the psychological effect of the 1954 defeat was so huge, it ended French rule in North Vietnam.

The Americans experienced the same fate 14 years later during the Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese and the Vietcong surprised US and South Vietnamese troops, but were eventually trounced. Still, the offensive led to a loss of public support in the United States that eventually forced America's exit from Vietnam years later.

The list goes on. In 1989, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan after a decade fighting a rag-tag bunch of mujahideen fighters. In 2006, Israel's so-called effects-based operations against Hizbollah forces in southern Lebanon did not prevent the Israelis from suffering a staggering defeat.

These lessons of history apply to Nato's current campaign in Afghanistan. By camping in the inhospitable mountains, where Nato's advanced militaries find it difficult to operate, the Taleban - like the Vietcong and the mujahideen before them - are basically fighting the war on their own terms. And like the Vietcong, which secured a reliable line of supply from the Chinese, the Taleban are being supplied from havens in Pakistan, even reportedly Iran.

Most importantly, the Taleban are clearly emboldened by US President Barack Obama's promise that American forces will withdraw from Afghanistan starting in July next year. As General David Petraeus, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, said recently, Taleban leaders are simply telling their foot soldiers to stay low and wait for Nato troops to leave.

This is not to say that the war in Afghanistan is lost - at least not quite yet. According to Gen Petraeus, Nato forces have gained momentum in the southern provinces. Last year's change of strategy from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency is indeed turning the tide against the Taleban.

But the American experience in Vietnam casts a long shadow over Afghanistan. As early as 1965, then-US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara believed the war in Vietnam to be unwinnable. Two years later, he suggested adopting a 'flexible bargaining position while actively seeking a political settlement' with the North Vietnamese.

The fact that Gen Petraeus has now suggested some form of reconciliation with Taleban leaders who have 'blood on their hands' is telling. Essentially, a political settlement in Afghanistan would be what French insurgency expert Gerard Chaliand disparagingly calls a 'decent non-victory'.
In 1975, American colonel Harry Summers met a North Vietnamese colonel in Hanoi and bragged that the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had never defeated US forces in battle. The NVA colonel pondered for a moment, then said: 'That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.'

The same might be said of the situation in Afghanistan. If US forces could stay there beyond July next year, they could take the fight to the Taleban. But, as in Vietnam, this might be irrelevant.
Western armies like America's are adept at waging war, but not so great at strategy - or at using military means to achieve political ends. As Ali did, the Taleban militants, by hanging on - and more importantly, not losing - are sapping the will of Nato forces, and ultimately, draining the domestic support that undergirds the alliance's campaign in Afghanistan.

In a prescient paper written in 1969, then-US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger wrote of the Vietnam War: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion.

'In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerilla warfare: the guerilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.'

Sadly, the same could well apply to Afghanistan today.

williamc@sph.com.sg

[Lots of quotable quotes and soundbites here.

Perhaps in combating guerillas, foreign military advisers should focus on training the indigenous forces in counter-insurgency and leave it at that. Minimise foreign troops to key strategic points. The role of "foreign military advisers" would be to providea safe and stable platform for lawfully elected government leaders to win over their country.]

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Make CPF Life voluntary

Aug 25, 2010

Auto-inclusion works against encouraging personal responsibility

By Lydia Lim

SHOULD people be given a choice either to sign up or stay out of a national insurance scheme that has clear benefits for society at large?

That issue resurfaced last week when the Government amended the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Act to 'auto-include' more CPF members in the national longevity insurance scheme known as CPF Life.

An annuity scheme that is compulsory enjoys obvious benefits, in terms of financial viability and administrative conve-nience. But there is also a cost to curbing people's autonomy - and that has received scant attention.The only Member of Parliament to raise the issue during last week's debate in the House was Madam Halimah Yacob.

With auto-inclusion, any CPF member who turns 55 in 2013 or later, and has at least $40,000 in CPF balances, will be automatically included in CPF Life.

They will get a regular income from CPF Life from age 65, for as long as they live. It is a key plank in government efforts to boost Singaporeans' financial security in old age, as lifespans lengthen.

Last week's change basically affects those born in 1958 or later, who have less than $40,000 when they turn 55. This group would not be 'auto-included' at 55. But the change ropes them into CPF Life at age 65, if their CPF balances hit at least $60,000 by then.

While the move to protect as many retirees as possible 'is laudable', Madam Halimah said, it also leaves an impression that the Government is 'rather arbitrary' in its administration of CPF Life. 'While some members may welcome this move as they are now given a second chance, others may prefer to be given a choice instead of being compulsorily included when they thought that they were already excluded,' she said.

One who objects is part-time preschool teacher Nirmala Padnanabhan, 49. She has slightly over $40,000 in her CPF accounts but plans to whittle that down before she turns 55, by investing in shares or partially redeeming her outstanding home loan, so as to escape being auto-included in CPF Life.

'It's our hard-earned money. It's only fair that we are allowed to make our own decision instead of being auto-included,' she told The Straits Times.

Should CPF members like her be given a choice to opt out of CPF Life, if they so choose? What could happen if they were?

The Government's reluctance to allow opting-out may have been coloured by its past experience with MediShield, the national medical insurance scheme. MediShield was at one point at risk of not having enough funds as Singaporeans were allowed to opt out from the basic scheme offered by the Government and sign up with private insurers instead.

It was revamped in 2005 so that all Singaporeans are covered by the basic MediShield scheme. Those who want more coverage can then buy from private providers.

Like MediShield, CPF Life works on the basis of risk pooling. As an annuity or longevity insurance, it requires a population to pool their savings to create a fund that will be used to finance the old-age needs of those who live longer than the rest. If the pool is too small, the scheme will not be financially viable. So there is a cost to CPF Life if not enough people sign up or too many opt out.

But what of the cost to individuals when they are automatically included in the scheme, and given no choice on investing their hard-earned money?

The importance of personal freedom seems to be at the fore of the British government's decision last month to scrap its compulsory annuity scheme. It will do away with a requirement for retirees to use their pension assets to purchase annuities when they turn 75. New rules to be announced next April will give pensioners freedom to choose between taking their pension assets as a lump sum and as a stream of drawdown income.

Those who satisfy a minimum income requirement, yet to be set, will be able to draw down unlimited amounts from their pension pot. The reversal was welcomed by financial-sector experts and pensioners alike.

Among the reasons cited: Wealthy individuals will no longer have to buy annuities they do not need, and people who want to buy annuities can time their purchase to maximise the income they get.

The British reversal suggests a compulsory annuity scheme - in trying to be a one-size-fits-all solution - can actually create as many problems as it solves.

At a more fundamental level, I would argue that auto-inclusion cuts against what should be a key tenet of financial security - that of encouraging and enabling personal responsibility. Auto-inclusion implicitly conveys to CPF members that: 'You can't be trusted with your own money.' One fallout of such a message is that people live up to that expectation.


[One of the drivers of the CPF Life scheme is precisely that CPF payouts were almost immediately lost to scammers, timeshare marketeers, indulgent lifestyle, mistressess and foreign brides. So people have already proven that they are unable to handle their money. To raise this issue now is to forget the reason for working out this solution in the first place.]

Shouldn't we as a society strive for a better balance in policymaking, between a scheme's efficiency and viability and citizens' autonomy? After all, aren't policies made for people, not people for policies?

In recent decades, social scientists have come to better understand the value of autonomy. A person with autonomy acts with a full sense of volition and choice. A person who is controlled behaves with the experience of pressure and demand towards specific outcomes, from forces external to the self. Surveys in both developed and developing countries have found that people seek autonomy and that it improves their lives.

CPF Life is barely two years old and likely to be refined. It should move towards becoming voluntary, not compulsory.

A voluntary longevity scheme will of course need to go hand-in-hand with a massive campaign to educate the public on why it is in their interest to sign up. This will be a costly and difficult exercise.

But such a campaign offers opportunities to educate Singaporeans and spur them to think hard about retirement finances. These are vital steps on the road to personal responsibility in financial matters - which in the end is surely in the best interests of both state and citizens.

lydia@sph.com.sg

[Comment:
CPF Life was introduced because there were cases, many cases of CPF recipients blowing their life savings on the extravagant life they had always dreamed of, being swindled by unscrupulous marketeers promising fantasy lifestyles, gold-digging foreign brides promising sexual nirvana, and financial advisers promising illusory fortunes.

Of course, the many many cases may well be a small percentage of retirees.

Or not.

In any case the CPF Life is flexible. You can use your property as a pledge and reduced the amount of "investment" in CPF Life. Or you can even as the interviewee intends, "whittle down" your CPF to below the minimum for inclusion in CPF Life.

Why? In order to have control over one's investment decision over one's "hard-earned money".

Seriously? Less than $40k? Investment?

The very people trying to get out of CPF Life are precisely the people that needs CPF Life. With $40k, they are not likely to be able to tap into good investment opportunities. At retirement, they should be investing in safe, low-risk instruments, which are not likely to have a high returns. If they can get 2.5% returns, they would get $1000. If they can build this up over 10 years, they would have about $50k. Then when they start to draw down, that $50k could maybe last them 5 years. Eight if they are really frugal.

More financially stable retirees with savings other than their CPF are the ones that really do not need the CPF Life. BUT, the $40k would probably be small change to them. That is, they would have investments of hundreds of thousands, and the $40k can simply be considered part of a diversified portfolio and a "safe" investment.

Moving the scheme from compulsory to voluntary and taking the opportunity to educate the public about the desirability of the scheme is idealistic at best and self-defeating at worse. Voluntary human organ donation with public education went nowhere. Relaxing rules to allow CPF members to invest their savings resulted in losses more often than gains.

The track record for voluntary and autonomous choices have not been great in these respects.

To recap, the people who will most benefit from CPF Life will be those who have the barest minimum or just slightly more than the minimum sum. They really do not have a lot of options for alternative investments.

The richer CPF member really do not need CPF Life, but CPF Life needs them to balance up the pool. Excuse me if I do not feel that they are particularly disadvantaged.

Going the voluntary opt-in approach will be long, tedious, and result in the death of the scheme anyway. ]

Participation is great, but medals count too

Aug 24, 2010

The YOG is supposed to embrace sporting ideals, but kids are here to win

By Rohit Brijnath

ALMOST everyone enjoys medal tallies, almost everyone calculates them: the National Olympic Committees, newspapers, Wikipedia. Of course, like creative accounting, the figures don't always match.

It is not helped that with fine cunning, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - which does not release an official daily medal tally nor will it record a final medal tally from these Youth Olympic Games (YOG) - has paired nations in some sports as occurred in the first Olympics in 1896.

A Singaporean and Turk won bronze together in archery here, which is terrific for international understanding but plays hell with medal tables. Saying Singapore won .5 of a medal is bizarre.

Nevertheless, any public, which sees itself as a part of a larger team, is drawn to medal tallies: Where is my country? Look at the Chinese! There is an inclination to discover an identity within a table, and while a neat pride is taken from it, it can also release an offensive jingoism.

Still, nations can be clever at this. If you search Google, you can find Olympic medal tallies calculated per capita and according to gross domestic product (GDP), measured through cumulative medals and ranked by gold medals. No doubt somewhere there is a list according to national height. In a way, most everyone can become a winner.

The medal tally is intriguing for it is the collision of idealism and realism. Fact is, people count; point is, should it matter? Isn't the point to cheer all sporting excellence, or merely athletes wrapped in a particular uniform? But surely, sensible people are capable of both.

Comparison is fundamental to sport, even in junior disciplines where rankings exist. The focus at the YOG, said an IOC spokesman, is on achievement, not performance - read participation, not winning - but it is hard to evade measurement. A celebration of first place and last is beautiful, but from swimming (touch pads) to diving (subjective points), athletes are constantly being judged.

Competitiveness has been sharp here, tears have trickled, and while young athletes must be carefully nurtured we must be careful of pussyfooting around them. Clearly they come to win, against themselves, against one another.

Making it about individuals, not nations, is nice, but it is not as if national identity is irrelevant at these Games. We distinguish athletes not only by place but also residence. Flags rise at events, anthems play and we are keen to use the geography of home advantage.

Uniforms do not just identify athletes, they give them a sense of allegiance, like kids jousting to win a school championship. Even then, we liked to be part of a wider team, caught up in the thrill of comparison, trying to top different tables, so why not now?

If you open David Wallechinsky's The Complete Book Of The Olympics, the first pages list medal tables from 1896 - though teams first marched behind national flags in 1908. But this counting is unsurprising, for sport demands record. Figures in sport - goals, baskets, championships won - compel us and it is to them we return to constantly.

Medal tables, in a way, educate us, allow us to remember, are a way to check a nation's progress through time in the context of other countries. Top of the medal table anyway does not signify a great nation, it simply indicates its felicity in playing sport at a particular time.

But the idealist is not necessarily swayed by these arguments, especially on medal tables. He points first to the IOC charter which states, unequivocally, that 'the Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries'. Their philosophy embraces participation, a diverse human collection rather than a national head-butting, which is sound.

George Orwell, in his essay The Sporting Spirit, wrote that 'at the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare', but the Olympics, presumably, wants to discourage such metaphors. It speaks constantly of peace, an idyllic and not always persuasive notion, but it deserves points for striving in an essentially cynical sports universe.

The Olympics is right to be wary of nationalism for just hosting a Games can become an excuse for national preening. Berlin 1936, which was seen as a propaganda tool for Nazi Germany, lingers as a warning. The medal table, after all, is fun, it cannot become a proclamation of some sporting master race.

Medal tables, occasionally, have a tendency to spark excess, an intensity that undermines some of the purpose of sport. It is apparent in football, where topping a table provokes insane spending, leading clubs to bankruptcy.

The Olympics awards no 'best nation' prize, yet an obsession with medal tables led to this headline in Australia in May: 'Budget delivers in Olympic arms race'. Britain and France were spending and getting ahead, so evidently they had to. Taken further, nations tend to fund sports in which they win, focusing on elite athletes rather than the more embracing idea of mass participation.

Medal tables are also skewed towards affluent nations. Richer countries send more athletes to Games, all trained in more sophisticated conditions. In less advantaged nations, where hunger, not sport, is priority, science labs are to be found only in H.G. Wells fiction.

At Sydney 2000, an Eritrean official laughed when I asked about sports science, they were happy simply to compete as human beings. But perhaps this itself is a lesson for kids: that all starting blocks are not equal, that life and sport offer an uneven playing field. Perhaps the empty medal table is a young athlete's despair, yet also his powerful motivation.

It is a debate with no finish line. The IOC is being cautious for kids in sport is a delicate matter. They arrive for experience not for demoralisation, yet they also come as nations wanting to win. So the realist will still scan the medal table, the idealist will seek pure competition. In the paradoxical universe of sport, each brings his own value.

rohitb@sph.com.sg
[The irony is that scores- and rank-obsessed Singapore is trying to teach youth of the world not to be scores- or rank-obsessed. :-)]

Monday, August 23, 2010

When weakness is actually a strength

Aug 23, 2010
SOAPBOX

Learning to cope with a partner's disorder can enrich a relationship
By Corrie Tan

MY BOYFRIEND is more inattentive, impulsive and hyperactive than the run-of-the-mill partner.

Naysayers say these characteristics of his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) will spell the doom of our relationship. But I disagree, because I believe that the presence of a disorder in a person - be it mental or emotional - can actually be a boon.

I'm not going to lie - dating has not been easy. But after a year together, I've learnt to work in an extra 10 minutes before we leave the house because I know something will go missing - keys, phone, credit card, passport, his medication for ADHD - and while looking for it, he will end up doing something else and forget we are late.

He recently called me from Antigua, where he was attending a wedding, and said sheepishly: 'I seem to have lost my sunglasses. See, if you were here, that wouldn't have happened.'

But we have learnt how to manage our differences with patience and compromise: the stuff of strong relationships.

In fact, with more young people diagnosed with a whole spectrum of disorders, including ADHD, it is becoming more likely that we will engage in various ways with those who struggle with them.

Last month, The Straits Times reported that more than 3,000 patients between the ages of six and 19 are currently seeking help for mental disorders at the Institute of Mental Health's children's clinic.

ADHD was the most common condition among them, and studies show that 30 per cent to 50 per cent of those diagnosed with ADHD will likely continue to have symptoms in adulthood.

What will go out of fashion is writing them off with negative feedback such as 'you're irresponsible' or 'you're so lazy'. Or worse, accusing them of not trying. After all, they do try, and do learn coping mechanisms.

My partner makes to-do lists every day so he will not forget anything. When he takes on a long-term project, he needs to be reminded of details he might miss, because finishing a project can be the hardest part for someone with ADHD - like making a sprinter complete a marathon.

What matters most is our support for such people, and a shift in how we see the situation, for what might seem to be weakness at first can be a strength.

My partner, for instance, is spontaneous. When we go running, we have explored parts of Singapore that I never knew existed at all because he said: 'Let's go down this path instead.'

He also sees connections between seemingly disparate ideas, offering me an invaluable perspective. When I once complained of how stressed I was over all the things I 'had' to do, he replied: 'Instead of saying how many things you 'have' to do, how about replacing the word 'have' with 'get'? How many things do you get to do in a week?'

With the change of a single verb, every chore I had became a new possibility.

It's a single verb that, when applied with open minds and hearts, also has the power to change an entire society. We do not have to interact with those who have mental and emotional disorders - we get to. And that's the best part.

corriet@sph.com.sg

[I like this. A true example of a weakness being a strength.]

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I was in a 'controlled' plane crash

From iTODAY:

Paul Gilfeather principal correspondent | Aug 21, 2010 0:00

I am strapped tightly into my seat on board a C-2 Greyhound military plane preparing to land on the most sophisticated warship the world has ever known.

Landing on an aircraft carrier - in this case, the formidable USS George Washington (picture) - is the most difficult thing a Navy pilot will ever do.

This 60,000-tonne steel structure is powering through the South China Sea at around 40 mph and my plane is descending towards the flight deck at four times that speed.

My pilot only has around 150m to land - approximately the same length as the roof at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands.

This clearly isn't nearly long enough under normal circumstances.

In order to get us on to the tarmac safely, our pilot has to "snag" the plane's tailhook - a two-metre hook attached to the back of the aircraft - on to one of four arresting steel cables stretched across the deck of the carrier.

As we hit the flight deck, the pilot will push the engines to full power.

This might sound like aviation madness but if the tailhook doesn't catch any of the arresting cables then we have to be moving fast enough to take off again.

The pilot skilfully does his job, latching on to the third wire, and the aircraft - weighing about 1,800 kg and travelling at a remarkable 150mph - is brought to an abrupt halt in less than two seconds.

We hit the deck with a massive thud and then sit motionless.

I have just been involved in a highly-organised plane crash.

This is what I imagine it feels like to be in a real-life disaster and escape without a scratch.

Still slightly shaken from this once-in-a-lifetime experience, I emerge from the rear-loading door of the plane, wearing my self-inflating life jacked and a heavy-duty helmet called a Cranial, to protect my head and my hearing.

I am standing on the flight deck of the US Navy's fastest and most expensive ship - not to mention the most dangerous and nosiest working environment in the world.

The ship's commander, Rear-Admiral Dan Cloyd, shakes me by the hand enthusiastically and informs me that I am now an honorary "tailhooker" - the title bestowed on the lucky few allowed to take part in an arrested landing.

Despite being somewhere off the north-east Malaysian peninsula, I am now officially on American soil.

CITY ON THE SEA

The nuclear-powered USS George Washington is like a city on the sea with more than 5,000 Navy personnel on board.

Although there are just 100 pilots on board, there is a staff of around 2,000 in the air wing conducting and maintaining the jet, planes and choppers which are continually flying and landing on the flight deck.

There are another 3,000 people in the ship's company. They keep the carrier running smoothly doing jobs from washing dishes to handling weaponry to servicing the carrier's two nuclear reactors.

The flight deck is 305-m long and the ship 17 storeys high. Incredibly, the super carrier houses some 80 different aircraft, including fighter jets like F-18 Hornets, electronic warfare planes like the EA-6B Prowlers and Seahawk helicopters, which also carry torpedoes and missiles.

The ship itself cost a whopping US$5 billion ($6.6 billion) to build, while the fighter jets and weaponry on board total US$4 billion.

The ship has everything its residents need to survive, including a hospital with a full complement of surgeons, four dentists, post office, shops, gyms, canteens and kitchens, which serve up to 18,000 meals a day.

It's a super-slick operation, which Rear-Admiral Cloyd says has been honed to virtual perfection since work began on the first timber-built carriers at the beginning of the 20th century.

I am taken on to the flight deck and watch the carrier's aircraft take off and land at a rate of one every few minutes.

While there are aircraft constantly situated on the flight deck, many are transported in and out of the area by four elevators, each 4,000 square feet.

They are launched from the carrier by one of four steam-powered catapults which literally fire the jets and planes into the air.

Without the catapults, jets like the F-18 Hornet would need at least a couple of thousand feet to launch. The catapult means they can take off with just 100 metres of runway.

Rear-Admiral Cloyd, who joined the Navy 31 years ago, said: "We normally land an airplane every 60 seconds or so. We can compete with any international airport in the world as far as how fast we land aircraft despite the fact we are only about four-and-a-half acres in size."

He continued: "You hear people describe a flight deck in operation as a ballet. It's a lot of things moving simultaneously in many different directions under the guidance and direction of a number of different people , all of which are aligned very closely so it looks like it's happening magically.

"It's all being orchestrated by a whole bunch of very young men and women."

It's a truly impressive sight but I can't help but feel for the young men and women working on the flight deck.

WHY THEY ENLIST

The average age of the ship's staff is just 20 and for the flight deck - surely the nosiest and most treacherous working environment in the world - it is even younger.

Sailors can sign up for service at 17 and usually serve for between three and four years.

On the flight deck, it is so loud the sailors can barely hear each other talk and with some spending up to 14 hours in such surroundings, I can imagine it must get pretty depressing.

It is probably the equivalent of working down a coal mine in the 1800s.

But most of the carrier's young team is drawn from the poorest sections of American society.

The Navy is currently retaining sailors at record levels and the top brass freely admit the crisis facing the US economy is a huge factor.

It makes sense. Many of these young people must be desperate for work and I doubt many would actually choose to spend up to eight months at sea away from their families if they had other options.

Of course, some would and many will relish the opportunity to serve their country and take advantage of the wonderful training and travel opportunities Navy life offers.

Rear-Admiral Cloyd, a genuinely nice man who followed his father into the Navy's air wing, is quick to pay tribute to the men and women working underneath him.

"They are phenomenal people who make extraordinary sacrifices, along with their families, for very intangible reasons," he said.

"None of them are going to get rich and make their life savings in this particular profession. It's not because they enjoy spending months at sea away from home but they believe in what they do."

The ship is training and exercising virtually 24 hours a day so the work on board is tough.

The small concession for those working on the flight deck is that they are outdoors.

There are hundreds on the ship below deck and some go for weeks without even seeing daylight.

I am strapped into my plane for the return flight to Singapore and fired from one of the carrier's super-strength catapults.

It's a pretty violent experience and because I am facing backwards, and as we rise vertically, it feels as though I have been turned upside down.

I have been on aircraft carriers before but there is no doubt that the state-of-the-art USS George Washington is something really special.

It was an incredible experience but I can't help feeling for those young men and women I left behind.

Maybe I'm wrong, but for all the glamour which comes from the gleaming jets and preppy boy pilots, I felt there was a sadness about them.

Life on board an aircraft carrier is undeniably tough and exhausting, but I suppose it can also be exhilarating.

Good or bad, it's like no other place on earth and those who serve on super-carriers like the USS George Washington will eventually return home with a lifetime's worth of stories to tell.

Does Mother Nature vote?

Aug 21, 2010

Theory that democracies react better to natural disasters is flawed

By Jonathan Eyal

THE devastating floods swamping parts of Pakistan, killing 1,600 people and rendering another four million homeless, already rank as one of the worst natural disasters in modern history.

The vast destruction wrought by other recent natural calamities, in places as far flung as China and Haiti, has prompted some Western academics to advance a radical theory: that there is a direct link between the heavy loss of life in such disasters and a country's form of government. Mother Nature, it seems, is only one culprit in such tragedies.

In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, professors Alastair Smith and Alejandro Flores of New York University looked at the casualty rates in several apparently similar natural disasters worldwide.

The statistics highlighted are startling. The Haiti earthquake in January killed some 222,000 people, but the quake which hit Chile a month later took the lives of 500 even though it was about five times stronger than the Haitian quake.

The 1906 earthquake which flattened San Francisco left 3,000 Americans dead. But a similar quake in Mexico in 1985 - when rescue technology was much more advanced - killed 10 times more people. And whereas a 2001 earthquake in India killed some 20,000 people, a slightly smaller one in Pakistan in 2005 killed over 80,000.

What accounts for such disparities?

In their analysis, the academics examined factors such as different population densities, geographic features and wealth, and concluded that none of these was enough to provide a satisfactory explanation.

Mexico's wealth in 1985, for instance, was comparable to that of the United States in 1906. And Pakistan in 2005 was slightly wealthier - on a per capita basis - than India, but still suffered more deaths.

The real explanation, Prof Smith and Prof Flores claim, lies in the democratic character of governments. Chile, the US and India are democracies, unlike Haiti, Mexico and Pakistan. And democracies lose fewer people because while 'in a democracy leaders must maintain the confidence of large portions of the population' by 'protecting the people', in dictatorships, politicians unbeholden to their electorates 'have little motivation to spend resources to protect their citizens from Mother Nature'.

This seemingly neat theory is not as novel as it sounds. Dr Gregory Van der Vink, a Princeton University geosciences expert, warned three years ago that 'governments with low levels of accountability to their citizens may feel less pressure to maintain a high-level capacity for response to the humanitarian impact of natural disasters'. Prof Matthew Kahn of Stanford University has also made a similar point.

Nobody doubts that there is a link between the level of preparedness for natural disasters and the casualty rate. While some are killed in the first impact of an earthquake, for instance, many more die because they are not rescued promptly, or are felled by disease and hunger.

But the evidence is not so clear-cut for concluding that the democratic nature of a government is the chief reason why some countries do better in handling natural disasters than others.

Russia has a popularly elected government. But, two decades after the fall of authoritarian communism, it continues to botch the handling of natural disasters. Just look at the recent forest fires which have killed few, but continue to poison the lungs of millions almost a month after they started.

The Philippines under then President Corazon Aquino was also a democracy. Nevertheless, it experienced the worst peace-time maritime disaster of the 20th century - the sinking of the MV Dona Paz in 1987 with the loss of 1,700 people - as well as the Luzon earthquake of 1990, which left over 1,600 dead, and Typhoon Uring in 1991, in which 6,000 were killed. All these calamities were mishandled, with some people dying unnecessarily.

Tellingly, the American academics are keen to look at only one type of calamity: earthquakes, where the rigorous enforcement of construction standards and building zone arrangements clearly mitigates the loss of life. The fact that authoritarian governments seem to pay little attention to such measures while democracies such as Japan do is presented as proof of the theory that democracies are superior.

But what about other natural disasters, such as landslides or flooding, where the threat is geographically more widespread and unpredictable, and safety measures not so obvious?

Here, it is poverty - rather than the form of government - which makes the biggest difference. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that 65 per cent of deaths from natural disasters between 1985 and 1999 happened in nations where incomes were below US$760 (S$1,030) per capita. By focusing mainly on casualty rates in earthquakes, the US academics are engaging in a circular argument: They pick only the statistics which seem to prove their pre-ordained conclusions.

Nor is it evident that authoritarian governments are necessarily worse at handling natural emergencies. Almost by definition, such governments can marshal the necessary military resources to clear rubble and rescue survivors with little attention to legal niceties.

The disgraceful disputes between the local, state and federal authorities in the US in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 did not happen in China after the Sichuan earthquake of 2008.

And even governments which do not rely on popular will know that their legitimacy ultimately depends on the way they handle disasters. The hands-on, empathetic leadership shown by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during many of China's recent natural calamities is a case in point: 'Grandpa Wen' has done more for the stability of the Chinese government than all the official propaganda combined.

In short, it is not necessarily democracy as such, but good governance, low corruption levels and higher living standards which can reduce the number of casualties in natural disasters. However, that is probably far too complicated and mundane an argument for those who prefer neat theories.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com

[There is a better link between poverty and mortality in disasters than government types and mortality. With wealth, more disaster readiness is possible. While it is possible that democracies tend to be wealthier than say non-democracies, this is not an absolute. Certainly the vibrant democracy of the Philippines have not resulted in widespread wealth. Democracy proponents still seem to think that the democracy is an end in itself. The purpose of democracy is to pick the best possible government. But this objective have been undermined and democratic processes become the end in itself. Trying to selectively pick case studies that support the hypothesis is disingenuous and misleading.]