Sunday, October 31, 2010

Tea Party

Oct 30, 2010
2010 mid-term elections

It's Tea Party time

Tea Party activism is helping to reshape the US political landscape and influencing the national political discourse ahead of next Tuesday's legislative elections

By Tracy Quek

DELAWARE: At 57, Mrs Jill Bianchi is a latecomer to political activism. But the bank administrative assistant has spent the past 18 months making up for lost time.

She has made five trips from Delaware to the United States capital to join protests against runaway federal government spending in the form of bank bailouts, the economic stimulus package and health-care reform.

She has attended workshops on organising grassroots support, learnt to use social networking tools to recruit new members as well as beefed up her knowledge of the US legislative process.

Mrs Bianchi is a proud member of the conservative Tea Party movement - an independent grassroots network of activists motivated by their staunch belief in fiscal responsibility, and bound by a common distrust of government, economic anxiety and patriotism.

The earliest Tea Party groups held their first demonstrations in February last year, following the passage of the economic stimulus Bill. Today, the movement is dominating the national political discourse and reshaping the country's political landscape.

Dozens of Tea Party-backed political candidates have performed better than expected in mid-term election primaries over the past year. Some are now neck and neck with prominent lawmakers in opinion polls ahead of next Tuesday's legislative elections.

A year ago, few would have predicted a movement made up mostly of political novices like Mrs Bianchi could have shaken up the status quo as much as it has.

The Tea Party movement has proven to be a formidable force within the Republican Party. It has reinvigorated conservative voters, positioning the party to win back majority control of the House of Representatives, and perhaps the Senate, from the Democrats.

Along the way, the movement has forced mainstream Republicans to shift their political positions more to the right.

But the question has always been whether the Tea Party is simply a vocal minority, or whether it wields true influence over the wider, politically diverse electorate. The outcome of next Tuesday's elections will provide the first important measure of the extent of its appeal.

'Much will depend on how Tea Party candidates perform, especially in key Senate races in Alaska, Colorado, Kentucky and Nevada,' said Mr William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The 'big story of the evening', he told an online forum, will be if Tea Party firebrand Sharron Angle beats Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a top Democrat and one of the most powerful politicians in Washington, for Nevada's Senate seat.

If Tea Party candidates can attract enough independent and even Democratic voters to win, there is a good chance the movement will have a longer shelf life than other populist uprisings in the past, say experts.

It could hold more sway over the Republican Party, turn up the heat on the Democrats, and possibly up-end President Barack Obama's legislative agenda. The movement could also potentially play a key role in influencing the crop of candidates running for the 2012 presidential elections.

But ironically, the Tea Party's biggest challenge could be its own success.

The movement has no official, coherent platform on which to govern or make policy, just an array of positions based on a desire for less intrusive government. But broad principles will not suffice when the time comes to debate legislation and create jobs.

Then, there is also the uneasy kinship between the Tea Party movement and Republican Party. Tea Partiers say they do not have a centralised leadership and are not affiliated to any political party. But members tend to be Republicans and conservatives whose fiscal and social views are on the far right of the political spectrum.

In the campaign's final days, it appears that Republican leaders who worried from the outset about Tea Party candidates causing more harm than good have reason to fret. Tea Party candidates in close races in Kentucky, Alaska and Delaware have stumbled in recent days and could cost the Republican Party Senate seats it otherwise might have won.

Even if successful, the arrival in Congress of a crop of Tea Party newcomers resistant to the authority of established political parties could complicate things for top Republicans who have begun drawing up an agenda for next year.

The list includes a push for more than US$100 billion (S$130 billion) in spending cuts, tax reductions, and plans to undo key parts of President Barack Obama's health-care and financial regulation laws.

The extreme ideology and inflexible approach of Tea Party candidates - some want to abolish the Federal Reserve, the Internal Revenue Service and other government agencies - may prove incompatible with legislative practicalities.

Experts are predicting legislative gridlock. Tea Partiers say they welcome it.

'Gridlock will force these guys at the top to slow down and stop the spending,' said Mr Jeff Tucek, 54, a retired automotive industry executive based in Illinois.

Even if lawmakers overcome all the speed bumps, there is still the spectre of infighting among the loose coalition of hundreds of local Tea Party groups.

Interviews with Tea Party activists in Delaware, Illinois and California reveal tension between ideological purity and electoral success.

Chicago Tea Party coordinator Steve Stevlic reckons he would rather not vote than support a 'Rino' (Republican in Name Only) this election: 'I'd rather have a true conservative minority than have a Rino majority in Congress.'

Retiree Scot Douglas in California disagrees. He is backing the state's Republican candidates for governor and the Senate, even though he feels former CEOs Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are not true-blue conservatives.

'Just as in life, you've got to make the best with what you have because the alternative is worse,' the 61-year-old told The Straits Times.

How these divergent views will affect the dynamics of the movement in future is open to question at the moment.

But activists agree on one thing - from Nov 2, they will be watching all the candidates they helped send to Congress.

'They're under probation. If they don't vote on legislation the way we want or (the way they) promised to, they'll suffer a bad fate in the next elections,' said Mr Stevlic.

But for now, the movement emerges a winner, said Professor Julian Zelizer, a history and politics expert at Princeton University. 'The movement has energised the Republican Party in a way that seemed impossible just a few years ago.'

Indeed, in the sprint to Nov 2, Tea Party activists in states facing close contests are fired-up and hungry for victory.

Mrs Bianchi said: 'We were asleep before and we let people in Washington run our country into a bad state. But we're wide awake now.'

Why settle for competence, asks Tharman

Oct 28, 2010

Singaporeans should strive for excellence or they risk losing out to other countries

By Leow Si Wan

MOST Singaporeans are satisfied with being competent at what they do, with few actually striving to be exceptional. This, said Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, is a challenge the country will need to overcome.

He was speaking to student leaders from Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) at a breakfast meeting where they had a chance to talk to 10 chief executive officers of companies here. The CEOs included Far East Organization's Philip Ng, StarHub's Tan Tong Hai and UPP Holdings' Koh Kim Huat.

Addressing an audience including entrepreneurs, 80 students and staff at the Orchard Hotel, the minister said: 'We are always in danger in Singapore of mistaking excellence for competence.

'Most people in Singapore are happy to be competent, above average rather than exceptional.'

He said there are 'not that many people in Singapore who really want to be extremely good at what they are doing', and added that this sort of attitude may result in Singaporeans losing out to those who survive in countries plagued by problems such as poverty and corruption.

The minister called on his audience to push for excellence in their chosen area and said: 'We shouldn't be afraid of being different and wanting to make a difference.'

The CEOs and students had differing opinions as to whether the current generation of Singaporeans have what it takes to follow their dreams and put their all into achieving success.

Secondary 4 student Toh Zheng Xiang said the grade-based nature of the education system deterred students from seeking perfection.

The 16-year-old said: 'In order to get an A1 grade, for example, you only need to get 75 per cent of the full marks. This encourages students to just use this mark as a target and strive for just 75 per cent when they can go all out and do even better.'

One of the CEOs, Mr Kenny Yap of ornamental fish supplier Qian Hu Corporation, agreed with the minister, saying young Singaporeans were too sheltered. He said: 'Lives are getting more comfortable so students may not realise it is not just about competing with Singaporeans but with people in the region.

'Being an entrepreneur is about choice. Not everyone can be one. What's most important is to acquire analytical skills and the spirit of acquiring what they want.'

HCI alumnus David Sin, who manages a finance firm, said the minister was 'spot-on' about the younger generation being more complacent.

He felt it was important to be pro-active and provide students with an environment that encourages them to take 'calculated risks'.

Other industry leaders such as Microsoft's Ms Jessica Tan, however, do not see Singaporean youth as lacking in drive.

She said: 'I see that many students now are extremely talented, and have a lot of potential.

'What must be changed is the environment - we must be encouraged to accept differences.'

The breakfast meeting was part of HCI's Entrepreneurial Leadership programme, which seeks to groom students to be the top entrepreneurs of the future.

It took the HCI team about eight months to arrange for all the CEOs to get together, said one of the teachers involved, Mr Tan Chin Guan, 30. CEOs were seated at different tables with students, who got the opportunity to ask them questions.

Many students asked about the qualities that made them succeed, the setbacks they have faced and how they have overcome those obstacles.

Seah Ying Cong, 17, said: 'I got the experience of having breakfast with Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

'By chatting with him, I have learnt more about how Singaporeans are too contented and how we must try to change our mindsets.'

[I think if the youth are deliberately choosing breadth of experience over depth, to have a broader experience of life, better quality of life, who are we to discourage them?]

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A disempowered generation?

Oct 30, 2010
sm goh@ntu forum

By Rachel Lin

IN THE midst of all the talk about creativity and vibrancy and buzz, his question came like a cry in the wilderness.

Final-year aerospace engineering student Lim Zi Rui, 23, stood up during the Nanyang Technological University Ministerial Forum last night and asked: Did Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong know many young people no longer felt a sense of ownership in Singapore?

His question was one of several posed during the dialogue with Mr Goh, which ranged far and wide over ageing issues, art, even student accommodation.

'When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,' Mr Lim said. 'But that was about five, 10 years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don't know what I'm defending any more.'

He said he was reflecting a sentiment held by many of his men in the SAF, who had to compete with foreigners for jobs. 'I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth... We don't really feel comfortable in our country any more.'

Mr Goh's reply was one of deep concern. 'This is one early sign of danger... If this is happening, it is very serious.'

He asked Mr Lim why he felt disconnected.

Mr Lim assured SM Goh that he was still keen to fight for Singapore: 'I'm still serving as an officer and I definitely would love to defend Singapore.'

[I would hate to have to defend Singapore. It would mean that someone is attacking Singapore. I will defend Singapore. But it would be out of a sense of duty and necessity. But I'd rather have peace. But I get what Lim is saying, but his choice of words were not quite right and that may say something about him.]

However, he compared his attitude to that of the foreign friends he had. 'I tell them, this is my country. I can't just leave here whenever I want to. You can come and play and work here, but I have to stay here.'

[But I want to stay here. I'm not here because I don't have a choice. I don't have plans to leave, and am not intending to make plans to leave.]

SM Goh responded with a defence of the Government's open-door policy. 'You want to have a home. Who's going to build your HDB flat?'

'My brother got engaged, but lost his engagement because he could not afford an HDB flat,' Mr Lim countered.

[I'm sure the situation is not that simple. If it is, are they marrying for a flat or because they want to make a future together? For richer or poorer, or just richer?]

'Without foreign workers in Singapore, would your hall of residence be built?' SM Goh asked. 'If we totally reject foreigners, we're going to shrink in size... I don't think Singaporeans want that. What they want is to moderate the inflow of foreigners.'

He also said Singapore had to find ways to integrate foreigners. 'There are many of them who would like to be Singaporeans, and those of them who can be integrated, make them Singaporeans, make them part of us, make them help to defend the country,' he said.

Mr Lim said that his concerns were somewhat different. 'My question was, how are we going to help the younger generation feel a sense of belonging to Singapore? I don't think it's about integrating foreigners.'

'This is your country,' SM Goh replied. 'What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?'

'For my part, don't worry about me,' Mr Lim said. 'I will definitely do something, if I can, for Singapore. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.'

["I have a friend who has this problem..." is usually a projection of one's own issues. Most of us are too self-concerned to go around solving other people's problems. People who do that are called social workers. But I accept that there are people who feel disenfranchised. But those who feel disenfranchised are not the low wage workers who may be competing with the foreigner who is willing to take his job for less pay. It is the better educated middle class who can leave for greener pastures. Perhaps the low wage workers feel just as disenfranchised, but they have no option. So they have nowhere to go, and so they stay. They belong, but they have no choice.

The globally mobile professionals are the ones who are feeling disconnected. They have a greater affinity for the liberal values and cultures of global cities like London, New York, etc. And so they feel like they have more in common with these cities than with Singapore. ]

'If that is prevalent among young people over here, we've got a real problem,' SM Goh said. 'If the majority feel they don't belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I doing here? Why should I be working for people who don't feel they belong over here?'

[Perhaps SM Goh is trying to toss the question back at him, but this is probably not the way to do it. He's going to get ripped in cyberspace.]

Thursday, October 28, 2010

SGX-ASX tie-up should concern 'pampered' HK

Oct 28, 2010

Below is an edited excerpt of an editorial that appeared in Hong Kong's Ming Pao Daily News on Tuesday.

EVEN if the Singapore Exchange (SGX) succeeds in acquiring its Australian counterpart ASX, its total size would still be nowhere compared to the Hong Kong stock exchange's. Hong Kong is reaping all the benefits of the gradual internationalisation of the yuan, and in this area Singapore is unable to compete with the territory.

Singapore has many inherent disadvantages in the financial sector, but its spirit of fighting for survival against all difficulties is worthy of our respect.

Compared to Singapore, Hong Kong enjoys advantages in many areas, but it continues to indulge in pleasure and lacks a sense of crisis. Its mindset of waiting for the central government in Beijing is a cause for worry.

Hong Kong managed to hitch a ride on China's rapid growth. With many mainland enterprises moving towards listing, Hong Kong benefited.

The Chinese government has directly ordered mainland firms to be listed in Hong Kong. Foreign firms that have operations in China or are planning to expand their business there have also come to Hong Kong to be listed.

These are two huge business opportunities that Singapore is unable to enjoy. Several years ago, Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said he was envious of Hong Kong's geographical position.

But a commentary in the Wall Street Journal noted that although Singapore does not have the advantage that Hong Kong has, if the SGX-ASX merger is successful, it will give the Republic a new attractiveness.

In the past two months, the average total daily trading volume of the SGX and ASX combined was around US$6.7 billion (S$8.7 billion), quite close to Hong Kong's US$9.49 billion.

Major investors prefer higher mobility, and so do companies seeking to raise capital. Analysts say that although the SGX-ASX joint exchange may not be able to attract firms like the Agricultural Bank of China, it may be able to attract companies like AIA.

Besides, once the two exchanges are merged, their trading hours will reach a total of 10 hours, as Sydney will start at 7am local time, while Singapore will end at 5pm. Analysts say this is very attractive compared to the Hong Kong exchange which operates for only four hours daily.

In addition, although the trading systems of both SGX and the Hong Kong exchange will be upgraded next year, SGX's new system will allow it to handle transactions at a speed 100 times faster than its Hong Kong counterpart. In the financial world, time is money.

Constantly squeezed by Hong Kong, Singapore has to think of ways to break out or resign itself to extinction. Besides acquiring ASX, SGX has also embarked on several other moves, including signing a deal with Nasdaq and arranging for companies to be listed on both exchanges.

Although the results of the hard work that Singapore is putting in may be nowhere compared to what Hong Kong will gain after it becomes the offshore centre for the yuan, Singapore will never sit by and do nothing and allow itself to become extinct.

Its hard work in innovation and opening up new opportunities has left a deep impression. The SGX-ASX joint exchange will become the 'super alliance' of the South Pacific. What sort of threat it will pose to the Hong Kong exchange will depend on whether Hong Kong chooses to continue living a pampered lifestyle.

In Hong Kong, shares make up the bulk of the financial market, and the volumes of bonds and foreign exchange traded are less than those in Singapore. Yet plans by the Hong Kong exchange to synchronise its hours with its mainland counterparts and cut short its current two-hour lunch break faces strong opposition from traders.

By contrast, SGX has proposed no rest period during the daytime and cancelling the lunch hour altogether. Compared to Singapore, Hong Kong traders are really like pampered children who do not know the difficulty of sowing and reaping.

When we praise Singapore for its spirit, we do not mean to boost the morale of others and dampen our own. If Hong Kong was rich enough, it would not have to struggle hard to earn a living. But can it remain safe by always depending on the central government?

The fight between Hong Kong and Singapore in the financial world has only just begun. We have witnessed Singapore's strategic mindset. We have also seen how Hong Kong is still waiting for help from Beijing - how it has been waiting for the central government's announcement to turn Hong Kong into an offshore centre for the yuan.

We are making no predictions as to who will triumph in the end. But in this Tale of Two Cities, we should reflect and wake up in time.

Translated by Terence Tan.

Why Singapore courtesy trumps Indonesia's 'santun'

by Mario Rustan THE JAKARTA POST

Todayonline 05:55 AM Oct 28, 2010

Some years ago, an old British headmaster, frustrated at the behaviour of local students, said to me that "Indonesian does not have a word for 'courtesy'."

I would translate courtesy as "santun", a borrowed Javanese word implying its culture's most admirable behaviour - speaking and acting politely. Courtesy, however, covers other aspects not covered by the concept of "santun" - respect and consideration.

Indonesians love to think of themselves as a nation of polite and friendly people. We have helpful people who offer service with a smile. We speak politely and address all strangers as "sir", "madam", and "big brother/sister". Schoolchildren are told that tourists love Indonesia because of its friendliness and politeness.

Early this month, I travelled to Singapore, an unsmiling nation. Singaporeans grunt, yell and speak fast in incomprehensible English.

If you look Chinese (as yours truly does), the shop attendant might address you in Chinese and would become unhappy when you didn't understand or try to reply in English.

And yet, Singapore is a global hub for international conferences, a favourite destination for holidaymakers from around the world - including Indonesia - and a financial powerhouse. So why does grunt triumph over smile?

I experienced culture shock when asking my hotel's information desk and then a convenience store clerk where the nearest MRT station was. If you don't know and you ask, they treat you like a fool (if the former) or imply that you are wasting their time (if the latter).

Later in the day, the Singaporean treatment was particularly hard for some of my acquaintances from Java. Someone was yelled at when asking, "What's this?" when ordering food.

The waitress grabbed our empty plates as we were speaking. When we were still figuring out how the MRT tickets worked, impatient people behind us began practically pushing us over.

Singaporeans are intense people. They live hard, work hard, party hard. Poor people - like us Indonesians - have time to greet each other, give directions to strangers, take our time to enjoy one another's company.

Or do we? When I was walking to the check-in desk at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, I noticed that they had employed several "customer service" staff.

The first one who greeted me asked me about my flight. After he answered a question I had put to him about my gate number, he asked where I lived and what my job was. Finally he asked me to come closer to him, while his female partner laughed behind his back.

There were dozens of other uniformed officers who spent the hour crowding a closed check-in desk, chatting and laughing out loud.

I had lunch in a cafe, where after taking my order, the waiters stood near the tables and exchanged raunchy jokes and rude banter, enough to make several potential customers leave.

It has become a familiar scene in several shops - waiters and clerks making rude jokes in audible voices in front of customers.


A few months ago, a writer in this newspaper compared the treatment she received in Soekarno-Hatta and Changi airports in reference to requesting a wheelchair.

The Singapore staff bluntly snapped at her. The Jakarta staff declined her request with a smile, a half-bow and an excuse.

In the next few days, I learned the game and learned to compete with Singaporeans. Eye contact can get you what you want, or psyche out your competitor to give away his hand.

Fast feet and hands can give you an edge in getting empty tables or seats. But the best part of playing in Singapore is you can play fairly, at least compared to in Indonesia. You may jostle, but everyone queues.

People and things arrive on time, and when somebody has to give you a negative reply, they don't give a lame excuse. They just say "no" and that is the end of the discussion.

A Singaporean who wanted to meet me informed me well in advance. We made sure that we knew when and where we were supposed to meet, and when she knew she was going to arrive late, she notified me - a rarity in Indonesia.

In terms of politeness, Singaporeans need to improve. In terms of consideration for other people, they have plenty to learn. But in terms of respecting others, they do.

Perhaps for most people, the waiter did not respect the patron by taking away the empty plates early. But what is important is that they had delivered the correct food in a timely manner.

Lately I've become frustrated by upstart restaurants in Bandung that take forever to deliver my order and that have waiters who idle away their time and do not follow up on my complaints appropriately - and never say sorry.


Singaporeans are practical people and love to point out that they are stressed out by their high-speed lives. But take another look, and you might see that the suffocating slow life of Jakarta is worse.

Worse, while in Singapore you can be assured that things work, it's a different story here. I tried to make some Singaporeans smile using practical, friendly and quick introductions, and it worked. On the other hand, it's harder to make strangers in Jakarta smile, because many are concerned about their personal security.

A humorist in Jakarta wrote in his blog that he was worried about the new service policy applied by a popular restaurant chain.

The waiters, he said, greeted customers enthusiastically, made comments about them, praised their choices, and then asked if they were comfortable enough. And then in the middle of dining, the waiters would come and ask the customer if they liked the food. And so on.

The problem was the words that they used were unnatural, their enthusiasm and smiles forced, and like my experience at the Jakarta airport, they didn't respect their customers' personal space.

Along with other requests, such as for them to have more babies, the Singaporean Government wants its people to be more courteous. After all, they are too tired, burned out and too stressed to be able to smile, to make small talk with strangers and to be more expressive.

But since they respect each other's space, they act responsibly on the streets and they don't make poor excuses; in terms of courtesy, they are superior to Indonesians.

The writer is a graduate of La Trobe University, Australia. He is currently writing a novel on city life. This column first appeared in The Jakarta Post.

[This article is meant to tell Indonesians they need to improve. So I would take his praise of Singaporeans with a pinch of salt. And I don't think those are examples of courtesy. Just efficiency. And to some extent, courtesy has some inefficiency. And good service sometimes means adopting a culture that is foreign or unnatural. But once the spirit is inculcated, it will express itself more naturally.]

Monday, October 25, 2010

Singapore Economic Policy Forum

Oct 25, 2010
Pragmatism, eclecticism are S'pore's two 'isms'

These are excerpts of a speech by Permanent Secretary (Trade and Industry) Ravi Menon at the Singapore Economic Policy Forum last Friday.

ECONOMIC policy is at an inflexion point. The financial crisis of 2008 to 2009 has altered the way we perceive the free market. The idea that competitive markets are sufficient to ensure efficient outcomes and stable economies is under heavy intellectual fire. Barry Eichengreen says the crisis has 'cast into doubt much of what we thought we knew about economics'. Paul Krugman says that much of the past 30 years of macroeconomics was 'spectacularly useless at best, and positively harmful at worst'.
But rumours of the demise of market-based economics are premature.
The balance between markets and government is the central issue in policy debates over economic development.
The crisis has revealed significant imperfections in market mechanisms: information asymmetry, moral hazard, systemic risks, and behavioural or non-rational motivators of choice. It has also revealed the inherent limitations of government: In a globalised and complex economy, governments have fewer levers to pull, and these levers are less potent than before. Neither market fundamentalism nor central planning has worked.
As we look for a new paradigm, each country will have to find its own balance between markets and government.
The two 'isms' that perhaps best describe Singapore's approach are: pragmatism - an emphasis on what works in practice rather than abstract theory; and eclecticism - a willingness to adapt to the local context best practices from around the world.
Singapore's approach can be summed up as: Governments need markets and markets need government.
First, governments need markets. That the market plays a central role in Singapore is well-known. According to the World Bank, Singapore is the easiest place in the world to do business. According to the Heritage Foundation, Singapore is the freest economy in the world, after Hong Kong. There are virtually no import tariffs, no export subsidies, no exchange restrictions, no price ceilings, no minimum wage, no rent control. Income tax rates are among the lowest in the world, and government expenditure as a percentage of GDP well below most countries.
Equally, if not more importantly, government policies have been strongly guided by the application of market principles. Be it in industrial policy, medical insurance, congestion pricing, social security, regulation of utilities, or allocation of land, Singapore has assiduously applied market mechanisms and price signals. 'Getting the economics right' has been a hallmark of governance.
Second, markets need governments. Economic development does not occur naturally. It needs pre-conditions, and if these do not exist, government needs to create them. Markets function best under some exacting conditions - rule of law, perfect information, absence of coordination failures, and no monopoly power.
But the irony is that governments sometimes have to be in markets to en-able these conditions.
This is where free marketers are disenchanted with Singapore - the Government has never hesitated from guiding the development process or intervening in markets where it believes such intervention will lead to superior outcomes.
The objective of government intervention in Singapore is neither to suppress nor to supplant markets, but to support and sustain them. Government intervention has sought to harness the power of the market to manage and grow the economy.
Reasonable people have argued - and quite rightly so - that not all of the Singapore Government's interventions have worked. But that is a reason to scale back, modify or even withdraw the intervention, not to reject the role of government altogether.
Adapting from a framework first proposed by Dani Rodrik to describe the role of institutions, let me illustrate how government in Singapore has intervened to try to make markets work better, in four key respects.
First, the Government has sought to enable markets. This includes ensuring rule of law, property rights and public infrastructure - functions that most governments perform. But in Singapore, enabling markets has also included industrial policy and capability development, subjects of continuing controversy in policy circles around the world.
Second, the Government has sought to regulate markets. This includes supervision of the financial sector, competition regulation, and taxation of negative externalities. A key feature of Singapore's approach has been the shift towards lighter regulation accompanied by risk-based supervision.
Third, the Government has sought to stabilise markets. This is the bread-and-butter of macroeconomic management. Singapore's basic approach in monetary and fiscal policy is not far from global practices.
But its efforts to address asset price inflation and credit crises are interesting examples of targeted interventions that harness market forces.
Fourth, the Government has sought to legitimise markets. Globalisation, free trade, and open markets lead to significant dislocations. Some of the sharpest debates over the role of governments centre on this: To what extent should governments facilitate adjustments, redistribute incomes or provide social safety nets, so as to maintain public support for market-oriented policies? Singapore has sought to find its own middle ground on this complex challenge.

Industrial policy: Guts to let losers go

SINGAPORE'S industrial policy makes a good case for how judicious government intervention has enabled the market to spur structural transformation and growth.

It is not simply a case of 'picking winners'. Rather, the Government has focused on addressing market failures that stand in the way of cluster development.

One common market imperfection is coordination failure. The demand for a particular activity often depends on whether other complementary activities are already in place. This requires some form of central coordination. For example, hotels will be built next to a beautiful beach resort only if there is an airport and roads to bring tourists to the resort.

The growth of Singapore's chemicals cluster illustrates this well. Singapore had managed, in the 1960s and 1970s, to grow a viable petroleum refining industry despite having no oil and gas of its own.

The next step was to move up the value chain to petrochemicals. The 1980s saw a global boom in petrochemicals and an unprecedented wave of investments into Asia. But competition from low-cost locations was keen. To overcome Singapore's cost disadvantage and grow a viable chemicals cluster, it was necessary to move 'downstream' to the production of higher value-added speciality chemicals. But such an integrated development would require much land - which Singapore was obviously short of.

The Economic Development Board, or EDB, hatched an innovative plan to reclaim and amalgamate seven islands in the south-western part of Singapore, where the existing oil refineries were located. The Jurong Town Corporation, or JTC, led the Government effort to create an integrated 'chemicals island' - Jurong Island.

In the years that followed, company after company came to Jurong Island: a 'who's who' of the global chemical industry - Chevron, Sumitomo, Mitsui, Exxon, Shell and others. When Jurong Island officially opened in October 2000, petrochemical-related companies had invested more than $20 billion on the island.

The key to Jurong Island's success was not infrastructure per se, but government-enabled industry integration. Companies came together in one location, supported by common pipeline corridors and a fully integrated logistics hub. They could buy and sell their products and services from one another 'across the fence'. Horizontal linkages allowed different plants to outsource and share common services such as warehousing and waste treatment.

Another source of market failure that Singapore's industrial policy has sought to address is information and learning spillovers.

Firms under-invest in economic activities where the private returns to these investments are lower than their social benefits. The Government provided firms the incentive to invest in higher value-added activities while building the capabilities of the workforce to undertake these activities. Take for example the growth of the electronics cluster - the linchpin of Singapore's industrialisation. The engineering and technical capabilities associated with the electronics industry are highly transferable.

Singapore's electronics industry began in the 1960s with the packaging of semiconductors. The Government awarded pioneer status tax incentives to multinational semiconductor companies, like General Electric and Texas Instruments, to set up assembly plants in Singapore.
If the story had ended there, Singapore's industrial policy would have been quite unremarkable. In the 1970s, Singapore started to lose competitiveness in labour-intensive activities like semiconductor assembly. The Government allowed them to be phased out. Then Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee, the architect of Singapore's economy who shaped Singapore's approach of combining markets and Government, took a cold, rational approach. He famously characterised semiconductor assembly operations as employing workers who were 'less skilled than barbers'. Dr Goh told EDB that he would no longer approve pioneer status tax incentives for semiconductor assembly operations. Singapore was forced to move up the technology ladder.

At this time, Seagate was looking for a low-cost location in Asia to manufacture hard disk drives. EDB collected quotations from small and medium-sized enterprises based in Singapore to convince Seagate that Singapore could provide the necessary components at a lower cost. Thus began disk-drive manufacturing in Singapore, which soon became the world's largest producer of Winchester hard disk drives.

The same thing happened in the 1980s and 1990s. As the hard disk drive industry came under competitive pressure, the Government started to create the market conditions to woo computer manufacturers. Singapore also went into hard disk media and wafer fabrication of microchips.
The capabilities built up in electronics have positioned Singapore well for the industrial clusters of tomorrow, such as clean technology and medical devices.

Besides a focus on overcoming market failures, a distinguishing feature of Singapore's industrial policy is its strict adherence to market principles. The Government has never subsidised the running costs of firms. There are no protective barriers. There are no bailouts. The market, not Government, decides whether a company is viable. Many firms have gone under; many others have relocated from Singapore to more cost-competitive locations. As Professor Ricardo Hausmann puts it: 'What distinguishes a good industrial policy is not the ability to pick winners, but the guts to let losers go.' Dr Goh would have agreed heartily.

Social safety nets: The right balance

IT IS sometimes said that Western economies adopted the welfare state to save capitalism from itself. There is some truth to this. But this model is now under pressure from rising expectations and ageing populations.

Globalisation has added a new twist to this challenge. Free trade and open markets are being blamed for widening income inequality and median wage stagnation. Hence, the rise in protectionism and xenophobia in many parts of the world.

Singapore has always subscribed to the principle of social inclusion. But the experience of other countries has given Singapore much reason to be cautious in the design of its social safety nets. The growth of the welfare state has been associated with an eroding work ethic, a deteriorating fiscal position, and a growing entitlement mentality.

Self-reliance is the basis for a healthy work ethic; it drives private initiative and enterprise. How does Singapore foster social inclusion while safeguarding the culture of self-reliance?
First, it provides massive subsidies for education. It is well known that education promotes social mobility. But in many parts of the world, this has not been the case because there are wide differences in educational opportunities that depend on socio-economic status.

Singapore has invested heavily in ensuring a high quality of education across the spectrum and made it highly affordable for all income groups. This is perhaps why the premium in test scores that Singapore students enjoy over students from other countries is widest for those in the bottom half of the education system.

This is not to suggest that starting positions do not matter in Singapore. They do. But they matter less because of the levelling effect of education.

Second, the Government has intervened substantially in making home ownership affordable for the vast majority of the population. Low-income families get a grant to purchase public housing flats, which are subsidised to begin with and come with a subsidised loan. Housing is an appreciating asset that promotes social mobility, financial security and a sense of pride and belonging.

Third, the Government provides a wage supplement to low-income workers. Faced with growing income inequality, Singapore has adopted a 'workfare' model instead of a 'welfare' model. Under a traditional welfare approach, the state insures citizens against a wide range of risks, especially unemployment and illness. But under a workfare approach, benefits are targeted at low-wage workers. Tying government transfers to work avoids the moral hazard problems associated with unconditional transfers to the poor. Workfare redistributes incomes, while preserving the work ethic and promoting self-reliance. It covers nearly 20 per cent of the workforce, providing wage supplements of up to 20 per cent of the incomes of low-wage, older workers.

But no government intervention is without distortion. It has been argued that Singapore's social safety net system is perhaps too heavily biased towards housing and that this comes at the expense of cash savings for retirement. Workfare payments may have contributed to reduced productivity by retaining in the workforce more lower-skilled workers than might have been the case.

There has also been criticism that Singapore's social safety nets are not sufficient - especially for the disabled, the aged destitute, the unemployable. We must continually seek incentive-compatible solutions to these problems, bearing in mind the risk of unintended consequences.
The crisis has shaken our confidence in both markets and governments. Both markets and governments have been found wanting. What we need is not more of one and less of the other. We need both to be more effective and to work in closer collaboration, so public interest and private initiative are better aligned. As economist Amartya Sen puts it: 'The invisible hand of the market has often relied on the visible hand of government.'

Singapore's experience is that market principles are necessary to help government work better, and good government is necessary to help markets work better. This is not to suggest that Singapore has got the balance right. Far from it. Singapore is still an experiment, a work-in-progress. If anything, the key take-away from the Singapore story is to keep an open mind, measure outcomes, continually review policies and learn from mistakes. Prag-matism and experimentation must become the watchwords in public policy.

The choice is not between big government and small government. It is about creating effective government. What matters is what governments do, not how big they are. The size of governments may well have to shrink - the revenue base in most countries will be capped by competition and demographics. But the responsibilities of government may well have to expand - to enable, regulate, stabilise and legitimise markets so they can work better. Getting the balance right between markets and government will be key to improving the standard of living and welfare of our fellow citizens.

Biodiversity and cities

Oct 25, 2010

This is an edited excerpt of a speech by Professor Tommy Koh at The Third Linnaeus Lecture in Nagoya, Japan, on Friday. The lecture series is named after Swedish father of modern taxonomy, Carl Linnaeus.

INSTEAD of viewing cities as the enemies of biodiversity, let us change the paradigm and focus on how cities can contribute positively to conserve biodiversity. Cities - such as Nagoya in Japan, Curitiba in Brazil, Montreal in Canada, Bonn in Germany, and Stockholm in Sweden, and Singapore - are part of the movement.

The Singapore story is important to the world because it shows that a city need not be an enemy of nature and biodiversity. On the contrary, it demonstrates three propositions:
  • that achieving economic prosperity need not be at the expense of care for the environment;

  • that a small, densely populated city can still be clean, green and nature-loving; and

  • that a city can play a positive role in the conservation of biodiversity and in our campaign to reduce the loss of biodiversity.
Singapore is a very small island, with a total area of 710 sq km. It is smaller than the city of Tokyo. Our population has exceeded five million, making us one of the most densely populated cities in the world. It was a British colony from 1819 until 1963, when it became a state within the Federation of Malaysia. It became an independent state in 1965.

From 1819 until the 1970s, the imperative was to clear the original forest cover, mangrove forests and to level the hills, for development. As a result, Singapore has lost more than 95 per cent of its original forest cover, about 50 per cent of its animal species and 25 per cent of its vascular plants. Yet, when we look at a Google Earth satellite photograph of Singapore, we see that half the island is green. Forests cover 9.2 per cent and dense vegetation covers 14 per cent of Singapore.

How did Singapore, which is so densely populated, become so clean, green and nature-loving?
I think the secret is that we have one of the world's first green political leaders, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee insisted that Singapore would accept no investment proposal if it did not have the support of the anti-pollution unit. The unit was located in the Prime Minister's Office and was empowered to overrule the economic agencies. Mr Lee believed that nature has economic value and that our clean and green environment would give us a comparative advantage in attracting foreign investment to Singapore. His successors have taken the vision to another level.

Singapore is fortunate to be located within the world's richest biodiversity region. Although we have lost a significant percentage of our biodiversity, what remains is not insignificant. We have more than 2,900 species of plants, 360 species of birds, 270 species of butterflies, 120 species of reptiles, 75 species of mammals, 25 species of amphibians, 200 species of hard corals, covering 55 genera and 111 species of reef fish belonging to 30 families. One of our four nature reserves - the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, only 163ha in size - is home to more species of trees than the whole of North America.

Let me now share with you a few of the best practices which Singapore has undertaken to protect and enhance our biodiversity. First, the government's lead agency on biodiversity, the National Parks Board (NParks) has been proactive in leading the way. Last year, it launched the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan. Apart from championing a wide range of conservation projects, the plan also aims to give voice to biodiversity issues in policy and decision-making. NParks also has an admirable attitude of seeking to work closely with the civil society, the corporate sector, students and volunteers.

Second, I must praise the contributions of our universities, research institutions and scientists. At the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research, at the National University of Singapore, visitors can learn about the region's plants and animals, through an extremely comprehensive collection of preserved specimens. It is also training the next generation of the region's scientists. They are also planning to build a new museum of natural history which will showcase the natural heritage of South-east Asia.

Individual scientists have been extremely active in their research, teaching and publications, on Singapore's biodiversity. Next year, the National University of Singapore will launch a new multi-disciplinary bachelor's degree in environmental studies.

Third, we have an active and responsible civil society. The Nature Society (Singapore), for example, is a blue-chip NGO. Its members conduct guided nature walks, bird and butterfly watching, talks as well as undertake conservation projects and surveys. Working closely with the Singapore Environment Council, the Nature Society (Singapore) works with schools and community organisations to promote the appreciation of nature and biodiversity.

Fourth, one of Singapore's best practices is our ability to bring government, academia, civil society and the corporate sector to work together. The business community in Singapore is increasingly supportive of the environment and biodiversity. In one project, the Nature Society (Singapore), NParks and the private sector decided to do something which has never been done in the world.

Singapore's main shopping street, Orchard Road, is like the Champs-Elysees in Paris. In a 4km stretch linking the Singapore Botanic Gardens, on one end, and Fort Canning, on the other, we have trees and shrubs planted by volunteers along Orchard Road which are either host plants for butterflies or plants which provide them with nectar. When the plants mature and the butterflies arrive, the shoppers and pedestrians along Orchard Road will have the unique experience of being accompanied by butterflies.

Prof Koh is Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large and patron of the Nature Society (Singapore).

S'pore shows world how to move people

Oct 25, 2010

From Dublin to Rio, clients are tapping local expertise in transport

By Goh Chin Lian

TRAIN and bus commuters in Dublin who use integrated transit cards next year and future metro passengers in Rio de Janeiro will have something in common.

The know-how behind their transport systems tracks back here - from the ticketing software for the Irish contactless card to the passenger-information displays on the Brazilian trains.

Singapore's expertise is also what officials in China's Tianjin relied on in their World Bank-funded study of improvements to its public transport system.

In the past decade, several companies that have built up experience developing public transport infrastructure here have, with the support of IE Singapore, hawked their expertise overseas - and clients from China to the Middle East are biting.

The companies' success reflects what is valued about Singapore-style systems - not just the technology, but also the integration of different systems that view transport planning in totality, transport engineers told The Straits Times.

Examples include Singapore Technologies (ST) Electronics, CPG Consultants which was born out of corporatising the Public Works Department in 1999, and MSI Global, the external arm of the Land Transport Authority (LTA).

The contracts they clinch are no small potatoes: For example, a dozen of ST Electronics' rail, road traffic and taxi projects in the past four years have exceeded $270 million in total value.
MSI, which started out as a $2 shell company in 1995, is today a $22 million firm with a mostly foreign client list.

The Dublin Rail Procurement Agency is one of its clients, to which it delivered software enabling commuters to use one card for trains, buses, coaches and trams. MSI pipped its Hong Kong, Korean and American rivals to the contract, said MSI business unit head Silvester Prakasam.

Reasons include Singapore's success with contactless cards usable not only on trains and buses, but also in shops. Knowing how to achieve this kind of integration, which Dublin valued, came from the way MSI's parent, the LTA, worked with other government agencies here.

Similarly, CPG's clients from Fiji, Brazil and China also recognise its holistic transport planning skills.

For the project in Tianjin, completed last year, CPG roped in veteran consultants Joseph Yee and Gopinath Menon. Their work on Singapore's land transport system, spanning more than 30 years, has taken them from planning to developing congestion-pricing measures like the Area Licensing Scheme and its successor, Electronic Road Pricing (ERP).

The study they did for Tianjin examined issues such as the city's masterplan, road-building programme, bus-priority lanes and plans for a city-rail system.

But transport engineers here say they are careful not to insist the Singapore way is the best way. Often, they have to adapt their expertise to local conditions and hire local consultants to get access to the right people and cut through red tape.

Mr Yee noted that, unlike in Singapore, other countries have more than one level of government; competing jurisdictions can create roadblocks to a project.

Political will is also not a given abroad. In Singapore, 'we dare to do what's unpopular when we know the long-term benefits for the country', he said.

Getting a grip on the local situation in a third world country is thus crucial, said Associate Professor Menon.

ST Electronics president Lee Fook Sun cited one such experience in Guangzhou in 2005. A single contactless card system looked like the neatest solution for the city, but the company had to accommodate its client's wish for a system that also accepted tokens. This was because its commuters included people from other provinces who were passing through and would not pay for a stored-value card.

ST Electronics has since sunk roots in foreign soil. It hired 150 research engineers in Shenzhen and transferred technology and production to a Shanghai subsidiary, where costs are lower than here.

This subsidiary has even come full circle: It has worked with trainmakers from China to clinch deals elsewhere - including here for the Downtown Line trains.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Sun Yat Sen, a S'pore icon? Hardly

by Eugene K B Tan

Today Online 05:55 AM Oct 22, 2010

Earlier this month, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall was closed for redevelopment work. It is scheduled to be reopened on Oct 8 next year to commemorate the Chinese Revolution's centenary. One objective of the redevelopment work, according to the National Heritage Board, is to "showcase the modernisation of the Singaporean Chinese community as inspired by the spirit and values of the 1911 Chinese Revolution".

An old villa off Balestier Road, the Hall occupies an unusual place in Singapore's historiography. Between 1900 and 1911, Dr Sun Yat Sen - revered as the "founder of modern China" and "father of the nation" in China and Taiwan, respectively - used it as his temporary headquarters in South-east Asia for his revolutionary cause. He also stayed there when he visited Singapore.

Prior to 1994, Singapore had refused to gazette the villa as a national monument. It was regarded as having nothing to do with independent Singapore. In November 2001, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then the Senior Minister, opened the Hall in conjunction with Dr Sun's birthday and the 90th anniversary of the Chinese revolution.

Since then, Dr Sun and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 have apparently been incorporated into Singapore's independence story. Singapore's nationalism is now identified as drawing inspiration from the 1911 revolution.

In this narrative, the ethnic Chinese then living in Singapore are portrayed as having shaped and contributed to the nationalism of the diasporic Chinese, as well as Singapore's. In his 1912 inauguration as the provisional President of the Republic of China, Dr Sun described the overseas Chinese as the "Mother of the Revolution" and paid tribute to their contributions in the overthrow of the monarchy in China.

In 2000, then-Minister for Trade and Industry George Yeo noted: "The 1911 revolution contributed to Singapore's anti-colonial movement and, later, independence ... the Chinese nationalism awakened by Dr Sun provided a lot of energy for Singapore's nationalism. The Hall is a testament to the historical contributions our forefathers made to that important revolution, not only with money but also with their blood and their lives."

In 2001, Mr Yeo said: "Singaporeans played a significant role in the Chinese Revolution of 1911, which was not only a political revolution but also a cultural revolution which changed the way Chinese all over the world saw themselves."


While this revised historiography does not exclude the contributions of non-Chinese to Singapore's nationalism and independence, the claim to lineage to Chinese nationalism is nonetheless a quantum leap whose resonance is uncertain and which is likely to be contested.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Chinese sojourners here did not think of themselves as "Singaporeans"; the Singapore nation-state was also non-existent.

Couching the origins of Singapore's nationalism as part of a longer and revolutionary movement, in terms of time, ideas and race, is problematic.

The elevation of Dr Sun and his ideas stands in contrast to the case of two prominent World War II figures who physically fought for Singapore against aggressors, and who would, therefore, arguably have more direct relevance to Singapore nationalism than Dr Sun's inchoate diasporic nationalism.

Major-General Lim Bo Seng and Lieutenant Adnan Saidi, two local courageous fighters during the Japanese Occupation, are not recognised as national heroes, although they are remembered as military heroes. According to former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, they were "defending Singapore for the British, not independent Singapore".

Yet compared to Dr Sun, the pair figure more vividly in the popular memory. For instance, Lt Adnan's role, and that of the Malay Regiment, is memorialised at the Reflections at Bukit Chandu, a World War II interpretative centre managed by the National Archives of Singapore.
By contrast, one would be hard-pressed to find recognition for Dr Sun's supposed legacy to Singapore nationalism within the Chinese-Singaporean community - much less among non-Chinese Singaporeans.

The modern nation-state, as scholar Benedict Anderson suggests, tends to project its history back to a geographic and cultural entity with a long past. This desire for lineage with Chinese revolutionary nationalism reflects Singapore's restless search for a national past that is inspiring, given that independence was thrust upon us.

Singapore's independence received, and continues to have, broad-based multi-racial support. Thus, to segment the origins of this collective memory and to elevate the role of Dr Sun and the Chinese Revolution is arguably an "invented tradition".

Our national discourse needs to be more multi-racial and cross-cutting in its appeal and resonance. A sojourning fundraiser in Singapore, Dr Sun appealed to the diasporic - not Singaporean - identity of the Chinese then living here. Are we unwittingly overemphasising the role of the ethnic Chinese in Singapore's path to nationhood?

The writer is assistant professor of law at the School of Law, Singapore Management University.

[Mr Tan is right to question the role and relevance of Dr Sun Yat Sun in Singapore's history. Dr Sun may have stopped over here to raise funds, and plan his moves, but these moves had nothing to do with Singapore as a state, an ideal, or as a people or nation. His focus was (rightly) the establishment of the Chinese Nation. To retroactively give him a role in Singapore's history is plain wrong.

Oct 25, 2010
Conference to mark Sun Yat Sen centenary

Other events lined up for year 2011 highlight his ties with Singapore

By Leong Weng Kam, Senior Writer

THE centenary of the 1911 Chinese Revolution may be a year away, but academics and the Chinese community here are coming together to mark the event with an international conference starting today.

The conference is one of a series of activities lined up this year and next year to mark the revolution and the role played by Dr Sun Yat Sen in ending 267 years of Qing dynasty rule in China.

The conference, in English and Chinese, will see leading local and overseas experts present 30 papers on Dr Sun and the revolution.

Titled 'Sun Yat Sen, Nanyang and the 1911 Chinese Revolution', it is organised by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), the Chinese Heritage Centre (CHC) and the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall.

The papers, many focusing on the impact the revolution had on South-east Asian countries, will be discussed during the two-day conference.

Professor Wang Gungwu, chairman of Iseas' Board of Trustees, will also deliver a keynote address to 200 participants.

CHC director and the event's co-organiser Leo Suryadinata said the conference's proceedings will be published as a book later.

'We are planning to hold another conference on the same subject when we launch the book, probably in October next year,' said Professor Suryadinata who is presenting a paper in Chinese on the revolution and its influence on the Chinese and nationalism in Indonesia.

Academics here and Chinese community leaders have been looking forward to the Chinese revolution's centenary celebrations since Foreign Minister George Yeo noted its importance and its links to Singapore about a decade ago.

In remarks in 2000, a year before the opening of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall in Balestier, the then-trade and industry minister had said:

'Singapore played a much bigger role in the 1911 Chinese Revolution than either Hong Kong or Taiwan. The sad thing is, not many Singaporeans know about it.'

Between 1900 and 1911, Dr Sun made a total of eight visits to Singapore, each time staying in the Balestier villa - which is now the memorial hall - to drum up support for his revolution here and in neighbouring countries.

He also made the villa his revolutionary headquarters for three years between 1907 and 1910.
The villa, now owned by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI), was redeveloped and opened as a museum in 2001 to showcase Dr Sun's activities in South-east Asia.

But the memorial hall, now under the management of the National Heritage Board, was closed a fortnight ago for a year-long major make-over.

Part of the upgrading will be the creation of a 0.46ha park next to the hall. It will be called the Zhongshan Park, after Dr Sun's name in hanyu pinyin.

The park will be built and managed by Hiap Hoe Properties, which is developing an office block and a hotel nearby.

Both the revamped memorial hall and the park will be opened on Oct 8 next year, in time for the 1911 Chinese Revolution's 100th anniversary celebrations here, said SCCCI external relations committee chairman Wan Shung Ming.

'We hope that when they are ready, the new hall, which will show even stronger links between the revolution and Singapore, and the park will be of interest to the young,' added Mr Wan, who is also a memorial hall board member.

As part of the centenary celebrations next October, the SCCCI will also host the World Chinese Entrepreneurs Conference here and publish a 100-page supplement jointly with the Lianhe Zaobao newspaper to commemorate the 1911 Revolution and the entrepreneurs conference.

Ground Zero and the leap of illogic

Oct 22, 2010

By Timothy Garton Ash

LAST Friday, in New York, I discovered a strip club near the site of the planned Islamic centre, described by its opponents as 'the mosque at Ground Zero'. As pole dancers gyrated with all the sizzling eroticism of a weary Walmart checkout assistant at the end of a long shift, I asked the burly front-of-house man - Scott, from Brooklyn - whether they had faced any protests about this profanation of hallowed ground. Had any Fox News commentators, for example, been beating an angry path to their door? Well, he replied, one or two passers-by had raised objections since the controversy erupted about the Islamic centre. 'People are entitled to their opinions,' said Scott, but the New York Dolls Gentlemen's Club had been here for 30 years and the folk working in it had to make a living.

Now a strip club at the memorial site of the worst terrorist atrocity on American soil would truly be a profanation. Though obviously not comparable to a strip club, planting a large new mosque directly on that site would nonetheless show an acute lack of sensitivity. Nine years on, the place where the twin towers stood is still a building site, but in a nearby exhibition you can see the plans for a commemorative ensemble of pools, trees and a museum, as well as a soaring new 'freedom tower'. As at the horror sites of Auschwitz, Katyn, Hiroshima or Ypres, so in the footprint of the World Trade Center, historical tact and commemorative mission should override all other considerations.

But here's the point: the strip club in Murray Street is not 'at Ground Zero' any more than the site of the planned Islamic centre, a former Burlington coat factory in Park Place, is 'at Ground Zero'. They are, respectively, three and two blocks away. Neither would be visible from the World Trade Center memorial site, which may in some important if secular sense be considered 'hallowed ground'.

In New York, two blocks is a country mile. By the time you get to Park Place, there is no doubt that you are already somewhere else, amid the city's habitual hugger-mugger craziness, with the Amish Market on the corner selling Amish BBQ chicken, Amish fettucine and Amish sushi - all of them as authentically Amish as I am Chinese.

Then the critics of the proposed centre in Park Place - sorry, 'Ground Zero Mega Mosque' - go on about dubious sources of funding and suspect statements by its principal protagonist, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. And so, they say, it should be built farther away.

The leap of illogic is as big as any leap of faith. Were the centre to have terrorist sources of finance, or radical, bloodthirsty Islamist leadership, it should be stopped anyway, whether it is two blocks away from Ground Zero or 200.

In the event, these claims, too, turn out to be twisted, or absurdly thin. Anti-Islam blogger Pamela Geller, for example, has a characteristic rant on her website, arguing that Imam Rauf was associated with a Malaysian peace group which funded the Gaza aid flotilla. Her headline: 'Ground Zero Imam Rauf's 'Charity' Funded Genocide Mission'.

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart did a fine riff on this kind of guilt by association, pointing out that the second-largest shareholder in Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox News, is Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who is associated with the Carlyle Group, which has done business with the bin Laden family, 'one of whose sons - obviously I'm not going to say which one - may be anti-American'.

In a clumsy, provocative comment during a television discussion soon after the Sept 11 attacks, Imam Rauf said that US policies had been 'an accessory to the crime that happened' and that Osama bin Laden was 'made in the USA'. That was wrong, and offensive. But it has to be put against the rest of his words and deeds, which have been devoted to promoting a gentle Sufi version of Islam compatible with a free society.

I'm not a huge fan of his kind of inter-faith waffle, but if the Muslim world were comprised entirely of Raufs, we would not have the problems we face today - and there would have been no Sept 11 attacks. That is why the State Department has been funding him to travel round the Middle East explaining American Islam.

There is, therefore, no reasonable objection to this Islamic centre, with its stated mission to promote peace, love, inter-faith dialogue and swimming, being built in Park Place. Yet in the run-up to the US mid-term elections on Nov 2, senior politicians, pundits and even supposed opponents of religious discrimination are either condemning it or ducking out with weasel words.

Mr Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, denounced the scheme, saying 'Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington'. Fox News star Bill O'Reilly says it should not be built because 'Muslims killed us on 9/11'. Former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin famously tweeted 'Peaceful Muslims, please refudiate (sic)'. Facing a tough re-election race, even Senator Harry Reid, the Democrat majority leader in the Senate, distanced himself from President Barack Obama's cautious endorsement of Muslims' constitutional right to build the centre.

Most grotesquely, Mr Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League insists it should be moved. Talking of the relatives of Sept 11 victims who oppose it (though some other relatives support it), Mr Foxman says 'their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorise as irrational or bigoted'. An organisation established to combat bigotry thus comes out in defence of... bigotry. And the upshot of all this is that in a Pew poll this August, 51 per cent of Americans asked said they opposed the building of the centre near the World Trade Center site.

There is now no good way forward. If it goes ahead, it will be a constant bone of contention. If it is moved, more Muslims will believe radical Islamists when they say 'You see, we told you so: America is Islamophobic'.

Either way, America is doing something extremely stupid. As if it did not have enough problems of its own, it is conspiring to give itself a problem which, up to now, it has not had - or at least, has had much less than most European countries.

Yes, there have been a few home-grown American jihadists, but there is a lot of evidence that American Muslims are generally better integrated, and more supportive of the state in which they live, than most of their European counterparts. There are several reasons for this, but one of the biggest is the First Amendment tradition of free speech and freedom of religion which is now at issue in those blocks just up the road from, but not at, Ground Zero.

That great tradition - which Scott, the doorman at 'New York Dolls', seems to have understood better than Mr Foxman, Mr Gingrich or Mr Reid - says: This is America, where Geller can rant, strippers can grind, Christians, Jews and Muslims can pray - and Stewart can make fun of them all. This is America, where no one has the right not to be offended.

For God's sake, America, don't catch the European disease.

The writer is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

When leaders should say 'sorry'

Oct 21, 2010

A heartfelt, well-timed apology goes a long way towards healing rifts

By Chua Mui Hoong

A SERIES of heartfelt apologies last week has gone some way towards mending the hurts that emerged after a mistake by coach and team manager Ang Peng Siong disqualified Singapore's swimming team at the recent Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Mr Ang had cut it fine in Delhi's traffic and turned up too late to register the 4x200m freestyle relay team for the final. He apologised to the team and their parents immediately after the incident.

Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) president Jeffrey Leow, however, later described the mistake as 'trivial', saying the team was not expected to win a medal anyway.

This remark provoked much unhappiness. The SSA sought a meeting with Mr Ang, the swimmers and their parents. At the end of it, SSA issued a formal apology.

Mr Leow himself said: 'I regret that my poor choice of words... has caused offence and compounded our mistake. I am truly sorry.' Mr Ang also apologised again for his mistake.
One father said 'the sincere apologies from them are heartening to hear'. One swimmer said the mistake was hard to accept, 'but people make mistakes'.

It appears that the string of 'sorrys' has removed the sting from the incident, although the affair is by no means over as the SSA is investigating the incident so as to learn from the fiasco.
In public life, a well-meant, well-timed 'sorry' goes a long way towards healing rifts and helping people move on.

When something goes wrong, the worst possible response from leaders is to justify themselves or explain away the problem. Witness the beh song (Hokkien for disgruntled) feeling at Mr Leow's initial comments.

In Singapore, there is a perception that not many public leaders will apologise readily when things go wrong. 'Sorry', some say, seems to be the hardest word for People's Action Party (PAP) ministers to say.

Netizens in Singapore, especially, had this impression in the wake of floods that damaged property and inconvenienced many recently. The absence of an apology, even for a natural disaster that could not have been avoided, was interpreted as a sign of the Government's inability to climb down from its 'government-knows-best' attitude. Worse, it was interpreted as a sign of the Government not being accountable to the public.

In fact, a look back shows that PAP ministers do say 'sorry'.

Known for his candour, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has apologised for remarks he made on immigration in Australia (1988), the crime situation in Johor (1997), and the Chinese in Malaysia (2006).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong too has had occasion to apologise, to Singaporeans. He apologised for using the phrase 'no-brainer' to a teacher, for Singaporeans, unfamiliar with the American term meaning 'it's obvious', thought he was calling her names. In 2006, he apologised for saying 'fix' the opposition.

A more recent example from the PAP ranks is Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan, who faced flak over hiccups in the organisation of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

He apologised last month when certificates of appreciation were sent out to volunteers with the wrong signatures. In Parliament, quizzed on the YOG busting its budget, he admitted the ministry got the initial estimates wrong.

He accepted ministerial responsibility for the mistakes made by those he had oversight over and apologised for them. I, for one, thought the better of him for stepping up simply and plainly. Words alone are not enough, of course, but acknowledging mistakes (by the individual or institution) is an important first step in change.

When is an apology called for? A 2006 article by Harvard University leadership professor Barbara Kellerman parses the art of the apology. In When Should A Leader Apologise, she writes that a public apology can be considered if it serves one of these purposes: individual, institutional, intergroup, or moral.

The apologies of Singaporean leaders served these purposes. As leaders of government, they understood that the mistakes could embarrass the institution, and that an apology would limit the damage. MM Lee's apologies to foreign countries also served an intergroup purpose: soothing hurt feelings in the offended country, mending bilateral relations and safeguarding Singapore's larger national interest.

Psychologists Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas say in The Five Languages Of Apology that an apology should admit a mistake (take responsibility), express regret, make amends (restitution), promise change (repentance) and request forgiveness.

The most crucial part of an apology is admitting wrongdoing. But the leader is not always the best person to do that, if he was not personally at fault, argues Prof Kellerman. For example, it makes no sense for a government leader to apologise for a natural disaster or acts of God - for example, floods. An apology may be called for if the response to the disaster was poor, exacerbating injury or death, but that is another matter.

Instead, a leader should apologise if there is a critical issue at stake, and if he or she is the only person who can set it right. When DBS Bank's ATM and banking services broke down for seven hours in July, DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta thought the scale of the disruption warranted a personal response. He took personal and institutional responsibility for the mistake, and promised change. Three months later, the incident is hardly talked about.

As Prof Kellerman wrote, apologies serve a larger social purpose. 'When leaders apologise publicly, whether to or on behalf of their followers, they are engaging in... a 'secular rite of expiation' which cannot be understood merely in terms of expediency. The attempt to come clean is more than an explanation and more than an admission: It is an exchange in which leaders and their listeners engage in order to move on. It is in turn this transition, from the past to the future, that enables the course correction that mistakes and wrongdoing require.'

'Rite of expiation'. There is a Hokkien way of saying the same thing. A 'sorry' helps remove that beh song feeling, allowing the aggrieved to say: 'Swarh la!' - forget it, let's move on.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Obama just has to wait out the tide

Oct 20, 2010

By Gwynne Dyer

ABOUT eight months ago I was visiting an old friend in San Francisco, and for reasons I couldn't then explain I found myself betting him and his son US$100 (S$130) each that the Democrats would lose their majority in both Houses of Congress in the US mid-term elections this November. It seemed like easy money to them then - surely the Democrats wouldn't lose the Senate - but I think they are going to owe me US$200.

Much is being made of this in the media at the moment: how disappointed President Barack Obama's former supporters are, how angry and mobilised the Republican 'base' is, how extremely hostile to him the new Republican-controlled House and Senate will be. How can he be so calm about this? Why doesn't he get out there and fight?

Well, he has made a few fairly fiery speeches recently, but basically he knows speeches won't do much good. His supporters are disappointed because it has been a long, grim recession, and for most Americans it is still not over. Mr Obama couldn't get another economic stimulus Bill through Congress at this point even if he thought it was a good idea, so he can't hurry the recovery up.

Some of the people who voted Democratic in 2008 are also very cross because Mr Obama has not brought American troops home from Afghanistan as fast as they hoped, or hasn't got any legislation about climate change through Congress, but he can't deliver on those things this year either. All he actually has at his disposal is words, and they won't be enough to re-motivate disillusioned Democrats.

The Democrats lack all conviction, while the Republican base is filled with passionate intensity. Mr Obama's approval rating of 44 per cent is not especially low for a US president two years into his first term - Mr Ronald Reagan and Mr Bill Clinton were considerably lower at this point in their presidencies - but most of his supporters won't bother to vote in this election, while almost all of his enemies will.

If Americans really believe that their country has been hijacked by a Muslim Communist who was born in Kenya - or a cannibal troll who was born in Mordor, or whatever - then they will certainly get out and vote. If all of the retired white people vote, and only the usual mid-term proportion of all the other demographics does, then the Democrats will lose both Houses of Congress. So why isn't Mr Obama more worried about it?

He will certainly regret that so many long-serving Democratic senators and congressmen are going to lose their seats this autumn. But it really does not much matter to him who controls Congress for the next two years. He can't hope to get any more legislation even through the current Congress since the Democrats lost their 'super-majority' of 60 seats in the Senate last January, so what's the difference?

Nor does Mr Obama actually have to get more legislation through Congress right now. It would be nice to have a tough climate change Bill, no doubt, but from a political point of view there is no new law that he simply must pass before he faces re-election himself in 2012. Indeed, he stands a very good chance of winning a second term in 2012, in large part because of what is going to happen this November.

Getting majorities in both Houses of Congress will leave the Republicans nowhere to hide on the critical issue of cutting the huge federal deficit. They have already said that they will not raise taxes - even for those earning more than US$250,000 a year - and they have pledged not to cut defence spending. So what's left? The only other big-ticket items in the budget are entitlements: health care and pensions.

The US has not yet gone through the painful debate about how to tame the deficit that has already happened in most European countries, but it will have to do so soon. That poses a particular problem for Republicans, because if they will not raise taxes on the rich or cut defence spending, then they have to support brutal cuts in health care and pensions or lose all credibility as deficit-cutters.

But cutting entitlements would alienate the Republicans' very own most important demographic: older white people. They will not risk that. By contrast, the Democrats would not be alienating their own base if they cut defence spending and raise taxes on the rich, so they can be coherent and consistent on the topic. A Republican-controlled Congress may well come to be seen as an obstacle to fiscal responsibility even by many Republicans.

Make the further, quite reasonable assumptions that the United States economy will be growing strongly again by 2012, and that US troops will be gone from Iraq and on their way out of Afghanistan, and you have a credible scenario in which the Democrats win back both Houses of Congress as well as re-elect Mr Obama.

Meanwhile, President Obama can veto any Republican attempt to repeal the legislation he has already got through Congress, and he will retain a free hand in foreign affairs. He could even try to get new legislation on immigration through Congress: it wouldn't pass, but he could thereby lock up the Latino vote.

No wonder he looks calm.

The writer is a London-based independent journalist.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On universal jurisdiction

[When I read Mr Eyal's opinion piece I was thinking that it was a good editorial on the silliness of over-extended human rights group. Then 2 responses.]

Oct 19, 2010

Universal justice must start from a written code of rights

MR JONATHAN Eyal's commentary ('The absurdity of universal jurisdiction'; Oct 8) calls the notion 'a form of selective morality, promoted by self-appointed busybodies'. In reply, Ms Rejini Raman ('Universal jurisdiction: Why it's relevant'; last Thursday) contended that these rights are so fundamental, their violations ought to be prosecuted anywhere.

Behind the principle of universal jurisdiction is the idea of a universal standard of morality. One view - the natural law theory - states that laws are derived from higher principles, such as God. By contrast, moral realism argues that moral standards exist independently of religious beliefs. While both these views support the notion of a universal moral standard, a third, moral relativism, would not.

Moral relativism holds that a society's morals are derived from its own culture, which accounts for the different moral standards we find today.

Universal jurisdiction in this context would not be acceptable as it would involve prosecutors imposing their moral standards on others.

Notwithstanding these different schools of thought, universal jurisdiction can be acceptable everywhere only if there are written universal laws and a body with the power to apply them.
Furthermore, such laws should apply only in countries that choose to uphold them.

Examples of such universal laws include the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), which in turn enables the International Criminal Court to prosecute crimes.

[The UDHR is not a law. It's just a declaration of ideals. You can't prosecute anyone based on that. If you can, then someone could charge the Malaysian government for infringe of freedom of thought and religion. The Declaration provides for freedom to change one's religion. M'sia does not allow muslims to convert.]

Universal jurisdiction in this context would apply to those countries that ratified the UDHR, and exclude those that did not. That would perhaps be the best way to address the different views regarding moral standards.

Sarah Liyana Yazid (Miss)

[This letter is just Sarah's way of propounding her understanding of moral relativism. It provides an incorrect example of "international law" and proposes an irrelevant and impractical solution to a problem she doesn't quite understand.]

Oct 14, 2010

Why it's relevant

MR JONATHAN Eyal thinks that universal jurisdiction is a flimsy excuse for 'self-appointed busybodies' to embarrass governments ('The absurdity of universal jurisdiction'; last Friday).
They do this, he argues, by filing frivolous lawsuits against heads of state and top government officials, accusing them of human rights abuses.

[Actually, the embarassment is to the host government, not the "criminal" heads of state/government. The embarassment then makes the legal process an absurdity.]

He prefers such matters to be dealt with by the International Criminal Court or special tribunals set up for war crimes.

Universal jurisdiction is a principle which stems from the belief that some crimes are heinous enough to be prosecuted anywhere regardless of where the crimes were committed.

These crimes include genocide, torture and enforced disappearances. Supporters of universal jurisdiction say the doctrine was at an embryonic stage during the Nuremberg Trials of 1945 to 1949, but has developed into what it is today to allow national courts to prosecute certain crimes no matter where they were committed, dispensing with a need for a special tribunal such as the one in Nuremberg.

Human rights activists are aware that corrupt governments are propped up by private investment.

[Corrupt governments are propped up by many things, usually the exploited natural resources of their country. Private investments are drawn to such resources, and are forced to deal with corrupt governments in order to access the scarce resources. Some of the worst places in the world are cursed by rare and valuable natural resources like gold, diamonds, and oil.]

It is also true that regimes in some developing countries regularly commit atrocious crimes against their own citizens to quell dissent.

Yet, to prize economic relationships at the cost of basic human rights, such as the right to life or the right to live free from torture, is unconscionable.

[That is a misreading of Eyal's opinion. Eyal's point is that such stunts do nothing to resolve issues, save lives, prevent torture, or achieve anything other than to embarrass legitimate governments trying to engage delinquent governments or heads of state. There are good reasons to extend diplomatic immunity to Heads of state/government. Undermining such principles serves only to erect barriers and defences, driving the offender into isolation and distrust. Such "prosecutions" are ill-advised and past attempts have shown them to be without basis in law.]

It is this unease which drives human- rights activists. While governments and private entities scurry to secure deals and boost economic growth, there should be some voices to caution against ignoring fundamental human rights.

Staying quiet so as not to upset a potential business partner is not an option.

[Raising an ineffectual legal gambit with embarrassing consequences, and zero effect is an option?]

Business activity is important. We need it to create jobs, sustain livelihoods and drive growth. But to forget human rights in order to secure lucrative contracts would be a grave mistake. Universal jurisdiction serves as a caution to heads of state and government officials that they do not rule with impunity.

Universal jurisdiction, far from being an embarrassing principle, is vital and necessary today.

[And what has universal jurisdiction achieved beyond the initial success against WWII war criminals? The logistical and administrative problems of universal jurisdiction are many. Who are the witnesses, how will the accused defend himself, what are the ramifications of a head of state being charged convicted and sentenced by a foreign court? Which is why the various courts and countries which used to subscribe to the ideal of universal jurisdiction are rolling back their support of this principle.

Eyal is not quite right. Those who pursue such legal avenues are not necessarily busy bodies. They may well be empowered victims seeking justice. But they are misinformed and misguided idealists to think that this legal myth can secure them justice.]

Rejini Raman (Ms)

Oct 8, 2010
The absurdity of universal jurisdiction
It allows rights activists in Europe to make a travesty of international law

By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

INDONESIAN President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's decision to postpone a scheduled visit to the Netherlands earlier this week because of a criminal charge against him in a Dutch court has taken legal experts by surprise.

For it was always clear that, as head of state, the Indonesian President enjoys absolute immunity. A Dutch judge confirmed this on Wednesday, by throwing out the case against Dr Yudhoyono.

Still, the episode was a reminder of the political difficulties and diplomatic embarrassment some Western governments face due to the spread of a fairly new legal concept: 'universal jurisdiction'.
The doctrine of universal jurisdiction claims that certain crimes can be prosecuted in any country regardless of where the crimes were committed or the alleged criminal's nationality. This doctrine clearly strains established norms. But, as some lawyers and human rights groups claim, people accused of genocide, mass murder or torture should never escape justice.

Advocates of the doctrine point to a 1960 case where Israeli secret agents kidnapped Adolph Eichmann, one of the architects of the Holocaust. Eichmann, then a resident of Argentina, was instrumental in the murder of millions of Jews, none of whom were Israeli citizens if only because Israel did not exist during World War II. Nevertheless, an Israeli court found him guilty of genocide, and he was executed. That, supporters of universal jurisdiction claim, is their model.
Belgium was one of the first nations to grant its courts universal jurisdiction over war crimes, back in 1993. But instead of justice, judicial chaos was Belgium's sole reward.

Hundreds of complaints poured in. Former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was sued for his alleged role in the massacre of Palestinians. In turn, Israelis sued then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Meanwhile, various Iraqis took former US president George H. W. Bush to court for bombing Baghdad; soon enough, seemingly every former or serving world leader was facing a lawsuit in Belgium.

In Spain, local judge Baltasar Garzon decided to prosecute some ex-Latin American officials, while his other colleagues launched a criminal case against former Chinese president Jiang Zemin.

It was Mr Garzon who unleashed one of the most celebrated cases, by demanding the arrest of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet, when he happened to visit Britain in 1998.
The British authorities had no choice but to act on the arrest warrant. General Pinochet was ultimately released, but not before a serious legal precedent was established.

British courts ruled that Gen Pinochet's diplomatic passport gave him no immunity, because he was not on government business. The implication of this ruling was grave: the only way a former international leader could be guaranteed immunity against arrest was to refrain from travelling to Europe altogether.

The absurdity of the situation forced European governments to act. Belgium put an end to its legal circus by repealing its legislation. And Spain, which did the same, also publicly rebuked its own wayward investigative magistrates.

Still, intrepid human rights activists found ways around these restrictions.

Last December, lawyers in London used a loophole in British law which allows individuals to start private prosecutions in order to obtain an arrest warrant against Mrs Tzipi Livni, the leader of the Israeli opposition. The warrant was cancelled only when Mrs Livni failed to travel to London.

Meanwhile, Moluccan independence activists have filed at least seven different lawsuits against top Indonesian officials before the Dutch courts.

Britain plans to insert a clause which will require the Attorney-General to agree to any private prosecution. And Dutch courts are taking a stricter line against frivolous lawsuits.

Nevertheless, the damage done by such episodes remains considerable. By insisting on universal jurisdiction, human rights activists often bring all international law into disrepute, precisely the opposite to their professed intention. And, by launching criminal cases, they hinder normal diplomatic activity, thereby making the handling of international conflicts more difficult.

There are many bodies - such as the International Criminal Court, or the special tribunals for Rwanda - set up to try alleged war criminals. Today's version of universal jurisdiction claims to be a progressive legal concept, but is in fact just a form of selective morality, promoted by self-appointed busybodies.

So, although President Yudhoyono may have over-reacted by cancelling his visit, he did Europe a favour by reminding governments of the long-term damage from such legal excesses.