Wednesday, August 31, 2011

SISV calls for cash-over-valuation data to be scrapped

Aug 31, 2011
 
By Jessica Cheam

The industry body representing Singapore's property valuers has called for the removal of all official data on cash premiums paid for Housing and Development Board (HDB) resale flats, also known as COV or cash-over-valuation.

The Singapore Institute of Surveyors and Valuers (SISV) said in a statement on Wednesday that it supported National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan's decision to cease the release of COV data, urging home buyers to 'use market valuations as the basis for making home buying decisions'.

COV is the amount a buyer pays over and above the valuation of an HDB resale flat.

The HDB, in its latest official quarterly statistics in July, had ceased issuing data on overall COV paid for HDB resale flats.

Mr Khaw later told reporters that the figures could be misleading, so he took a 'middle way' in issuing median COV data by HDB towns and flat types, but with no overall figures.

SISV president of valuation and general practice Dr Lim Lan Yuan said that when the government first published such COV data in 2007, its purpose was to reassure buyers that the high COVs reported in the media were not the norm.

But today, 'such figures are being used by the seller as a basis for asking cash amount(s)' as a right in any resale transaction, he noted.

He added that professional valuers would have already taken the market conditions into consideration when determining the value of a flat, therefore, COV should not be included as part of the price of a home.

[This is a correct move. COV figures will only create expectations which may simply be unrealistic. COV itself probably cannot be scrapped but there is no reason to report and perpetuate it.]

Freedom of speech under siege in West

Jun 24, 2011
 
By Robert Skidelsky

RECENTLY, at a literary festival in Britain, I found myself on a panel discussing free speech. For liberals, free speech is a key index of freedom. Democracies stand for free speech; dictatorships suppress it.

When we in the West look outward, this remains our view. We condemn governments that silence, imprison and even kill writers and journalists.

Reporters Sans Frontieres keeps a list: 24 journalists have been killed, and 148 imprisoned, just this year. Part of the promise we see in the 'Arab Spring' is the liberation of the media from the dictator's grasp.

Yet freedom of speech in the West is under strain. Traditionally, British law imposed two main limitations on the 'right to free speech'. The first prohibited the use of words or expressions likely to disrupt public order; the second was the law against libel. There are good grounds for both - to preserve the peace, and to protect individuals' reputations from lies. Most free societies accept such limits as reasonable.

But the law has recently become more restrictive. 'Incitement to religious and racial hatred' and 'incitement to hatred on the basis of sexual orientation' are now illegal in most European countries, independent of any threat to public order. The law has shifted from proscribing language likely to cause violence to prohibiting language intended to give offence.

A blatant example of this is the law against Holocaust denial. To deny or minimise the Holocaust is a crime in 15 European countries and Israel. It may be argued that the Holocaust was a crime so uniquely abhorrent as to qualify as a special case. But special cases have a habit of multiplying.

France has made it illegal to deny any 'internationally recognised crimes against humanity'. Whereas in Muslim countries it is illegal to call the Armenian massacres of 1915-1917 'genocide', in some Western countries it is illegal to say that they were not. Some East European countries specifically prohibit the denial of communist 'genocides'.

The censorship of memory, which we once fondly imagined to be the mark of dictatorship, is now a major growth industry in the 'free' West. Indeed, official censorship is only the tip of an iceberg of cultural censorship. A public person must be on constant guard against causing offence, whether intentionally or not.

[Hence our instinctive response of absurdity to politically correctness.]

Breaking the cultural code damages a person's reputation, and perhaps one's career. Britain's Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke recently had to apologise for saying that some rapes were less serious than others, implying the need for legal discrimination. The parade of gaffes and subsequent grovelling apologies has become a regular feature of public life.

In his classic essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill defended free speech on the grounds that free inquiry was necessary to advance knowledge. Restrictions on certain areas of historical inquiry are based on the opposite premise: The truth is known, and it is impious to question it. This is absurd; every historian knows that there is no such thing as final historical truth.

It is not the task of history to defend public order or morals, but to establish what happened. Legally protected history ensures that historians will play safe. To be sure, living by Mill's principle often requires protecting the rights of unsavoury characters. Mr David Irving writes mendacious history, but his prosecution and imprisonment in Austria for 'Holocaust denial' would have horrified Mill.

By contrast, the pressure for 'political correctness' rests on the argument that the truth is unknowable. Statements about the human condition are essentially matters of opinion. Because a statement of opinion by some individuals is almost certain to offend others, and since such statements make no contribution to the discovery of truth, their degree of offensiveness becomes the sole criterion for judging their admissibility. Hence the taboo on certain words, phrases and arguments that imply that certain individuals, groups or practices are superior or inferior, normal or abnormal; hence the search for ever more neutral ways to label social phenomena, thereby draining language of its vigour and interest.

A classic example is the way that 'family' has replaced 'marriage' in public discourse, with the implication that all 'lifestyles' are equally valuable, despite the fact that most people persist in wanting to get married. It has become taboo to describe homosexuality as a 'perversion', though this was precisely the word used in the 1960s by the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who was praising homosexuality as an expression of dissent). In today's atmosphere of what Marcuse would call 'repressive tolerance', such language would be considered 'stigmatising'.

The sociological imperative behind the spread of 'political correctness' is the fact that we no longer live in patriarchal, hierarchical, mono-cultural societies, which exhibit general, if unreflective, agreement on basic values. The pathetic efforts to inculcate a common sense of 'Britishness' or 'Dutchness' in multicultural societies, however well-intentioned, attest to the breakdown of a common identity.

Public language has thus become the common currency of cultural exchange, and everyone is on notice to mind one's manners. The result is a multiplication of weasel words that chill political and moral debate, and that create a widening gap between public language and what many ordinary people think.

The defence of free speech is made no easier by the abuses of the popular press. We need free media to expose abuses of power. But investigative journalism becomes discredited when it is suborned to 'expose' the private lives of the famous when no issue of public interest is involved. Entertaining gossip has mutated into an assault on privacy, with newspapers claiming that any attempt to keep them out of people's bedrooms is an assault on free speech.

You know that a doctrine is in trouble when not even those claiming to defend it understand what it means. By that standard, the classic doctrine of free speech is in crisis. We had better sort it out quickly - legally, morally and culturally - if we are to retain a proper sense of what it means to live in a free society.

The writer is a member of the British House of Lords and professor emeritus of political economy at Warwick University.

Success not fully within one's control

Aug 30, 2011

Writer Malcolm Gladwell, whose explanations of complex ideas have made him a best-selling author, corrects the myth that talent defines success in his third book, Outliers.

By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer

WHEN Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell recently spoke to a roomful of Wall Street hedge fund managers, each of whom earned US$50 million (S$60.4 million) a year, he decided to mess with their minds.

Mr Gladwell, who turns 48 on Saturday, was then researching just how much money was enough for these financiers and their families to feel fulfilled. He recalls: 'I didn't know what the right figure was for 'enough' but I told them I did, and said they should be happy with US$75,000 a month.

'Now, each of these guys makes US$75,000 in the time he takes to walk from the water cooler to his office. So imagine their faces when I told them US$75,000 was enough.'

He then muses: 'When people get too well-heeled, they lose the capacity for certain action on certain ideas to stay ahead.'

This bachelor is one of three sons of a British mathematics professor and a Jamaican psychotherapist. He grew up in Canada, where he got his degree in history at the University of Toronto. He went on to write for, among others, The Washington Post before joining The New Yorker magazine in 1996. He has since written four international bestsellers, including The Tipping Point (2000), Blink (2005) and Outliers (2008), which have sold millions of copies in 25 languages. Time, Newsweek and Foreign Policy magazines have hailed him as one of this century's most influential global thinkers. But his many critics have said he writes books for people who hardly read.

He was in town last week to deliver the Singapore Institute of Management's 30th annual management lecture and so, last Thursday, he told me that he is now writing a book on the nature of power. He also mused about why he has as many detractors as fans:

What do you make of the runaway success of your books?


Well, I'm mostly surprised. When you write a book, you imagine that it will just be read by your mother. And 99 per cent of books sell only a small amount, so I assumed I'd be part of that group. Also, very few successful books are succeeded by equally successful books.

Your many critics take issue with your way to success, chiefly by extrapolating from select studies, without systematic analyses. What say you?

I'm always struck by how rarely those who accuse me of being unsystematic provide the evidence of my lack of being systematic. So, in accusing me of being anecdotal, they are themselves anecdotal.

Second, even if that criticism were true, I'm not sure how it would distinguish me from anyone else; what I do is what those who make arguments do at every level... You can't make a coherent argument or tell a story by including absolutely every piece of evidence, can you? And so what is unseen whenever I write a book is the amount of time I spend sorting out vast amounts of evidence and choosing what I think is most compelling. In my office, you will see that for each chapter in each of my books is a huge filing cabinet full of studies that I have digested and talked to people and made my decisions... I'm writing books that are meant to have wide public appeal, so my research necessarily stays below the surface.

What's the price you've had to pay for success?

I don't know that I've had to pay any price at all! I'd have to be terribly churlish and self-involved if I were to say that I'd be better off if my books hadn't been successful.

But haven't you had to forgo something to write your wide-ranging books?

I'd flip your question around and say that were I forced to write about the same things over and over again, then I would be making a sacrifice because I would be giving up on opportunities to explore new worlds; I would be imprisoned by one subject.

It'd be like saying that I could never leave New York City again and all I could do was walk down the same streets day after day. I'd then be paying a terrible price. So I don't find writing books difficult - on the contrary, it's liberating.

So liberating that it's light reading, at best?

I will say one thing: I go broad but not deep, and I don't mean that as a form of self-criticism. I hope my books introduce people to subjects which they can then go and examine in greater detail. I open the door for them. That means I have to be careful because I'm constantly diving into areas where I'm not an expert. That does require that I make sure I talk to the right people and don't put my foot into my mouth - occasionally, I do, which is fine. To the extent that there is a price for my success, it is that risk.

How do you lessen the risk of putting your foot in your mouth?

That risk was a lot greater earlier in my career because I'm now no longer searching ceaselessly for new doors to open... My writing career has been serendipitous.

So how then have you been so effective?

You just have to be flexible and keep your ego in check and if something doesn't work, you've to be willing to stop and start over; you're almost always better off reacting than you are attempting to chart a clearly defined course.

Speaking about reacting, how can you stay optimistic after being picked on by the police constantly after you started sporting an afro?

Most of the casual sort of discrimination I encounter is nowhere near the true level of sustained discrimination and prejudice that exists everywhere. So when I say I wrote my second book, Blink, based on my experiences with racial profiling, I wouldn't describe those experiences as paralytic or devastating because it was nothing like real racism. So I was able to have a wry, as opposed to an angry, interpretation of it. But the appropriate response to real racism is anger. So there's a very serious side to Blink, the book that I feel is most often misunderstood.

Why so?

Because there's supposed to be an impassioned, angry undercurrent to it. It begins by celebrating our snap judgments because I thought that was the only way to get people's attention. But having hooked them, I tried to convince them that unless they managed their instincts appropriately, they'd be incredibly dangerous... Sometimes, I see people misinterpreting Blink and wonder if I wrote it as skilfully as I ought to have.

Speaking of skills, in Outliers, why did you strike a hopeful note for all by saying that if the average person honed a skill for 10,000 hours, he'd likely taste success?

I'd quibble with the description of Outliers as a hopeful book. It's deeply realistic and corrects the myth that individuals are wholly in control of their own destiny and that the talent you're born with is definitive of your success.

Isn't that the American dream?

Yeah. And what Outliers says is that, actually, success is a big, messy combination of all kinds of things, some of which are within your control and some of which are not... You're simply supposed to come out of Outliers with a more thoughtful appreciation of success; it's not supposed to be either inspirational or depressing, but it is supposed to complicate our understanding of what makes people successful.

So how would you account for your own success?

I don't know; maybe I'm just lucky... Those who do original research are very brilliant people who necessarily write for a small, expert audience, and there's a very important role for people like me to play, which is to take what they do and put it such that many others share their brilliance.

suk@sph.com.sg

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Where voting gaps were wider

Aug 29, 2011

Narrow victory margin, but voting patterns in different areas show more marked support for one candidate or the other
 
By Zakir Hussain

THE final tally in the presidential election gave Dr Tony Tan a narrow victory over Dr Tan Cheng Bock, but their support across the island was spread more unevenly. Different areas showed a marked preference for one candidate or the other.

Although his winning margin was just 0.34 percentage point, the gap in favour of Dr Tony Tan was much larger in many areas.

But Dr Tan Cheng Bock also had a clear lead in other parts whose votes were tallied earlier in the night, giving supporters hope that he was heading for a stunning victory.

The Elections Department did not release the breakdown of votes by electoral divisions, but unofficial indications of how the candidates fared - obtained from various sources - showed a significant disparity in voting patterns.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who was MP for Ayer Rajah for 26 years and still runs a clinic in Jurong West, won handsomely in large parts of the west like Ayer Rajah, Jurong and Choa Chu Kang, as well as the north-eastern new towns like Punggol and Sengkang.

[During the GE, it was clear that the western constituencies had a higher percentage of support for the PAP.]

Dr Tony Tan, who was MP for Sembawang for 27 years, won consistently in areas in the north, centre and east like Sembawang, Nee Soon and East Coast.

In many of these areas, the front runner was often a clear 3 to 6 percentage points ahead of the second-placed candidate, according to campaign sources.

Sources on both sides pin the geographic disparity down to the fact that both Dr Tans have established reputations for being good, long-serving MPs who had an ear to the ground. They also have loyal grassroots workers there. Their strong performance at these so-called local levels should affirm once again the importance of local politics and engagement.

There may also be demographic reasons for the differences across the island.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock led the count in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC's Punggol and Sengkang estates, and in parts of Hougang new town and Hougang single-member constituency (SMC).

Punggol and Sengkang have a disproportionate number of younger residents, many of whom have young children, and this demographic appears to be more likely to support him and his campaign platform.

He also appeared to have favourable support from traditional Workers' Party (WP) supporters in the party's Hougang stronghold, where WP candidate Yaw Shin Leong got 64.8 per cent of the vote in the May General Election.

In Aljunied GRC, which the WP won with 54.7 per cent of the vote in May, both Dr Tans obtained around 30 per cent of valid votes - a share similar to that obtained by Mr Tan Jee Say there.

As for Dr Tony Tan, he pulled ahead in older estates like Bedok and Pasir Ris that have traditionally been supportive of the People's Action Party (PAP).

His lead was however even greater in areas like East Coast GRC's Siglap ward and Joo Chiat SMC, where 85 per cent and 99 per cent of voters respectively live in private housing. He pulled in some 39 per cent of the vote in Siglap and 41 per cent in Joo Chiat, some 4 and 7 percentage points ahead of Dr Tan Cheng Bock respectively.

[Note that in the GE, these eastern constituencies were less supportive of the PAP. So if in the GE, the PAP were stronger in the West and in this PE TCB was the winner in the West, it would seem that TCB is more PAP than TT. And if TT is winning in the east where PAP is weaker, it would imply that he is less PAP.]

Dr Tony Tan's strong background in finance and economics and the uncertain global economic climate are likely to have drawn the more upper-middle-class residents to back him given his appeal as a steady and stable hand, activists said.

While this pool may have been more inclined to root for the opposition at a general election, they clearly had different benchmarks for the presidency.

By comparison, Mr Tan Jee Say drew some 20 per cent of the vote here.

Dr Tony Tan also led by several percentage points in many landed housing areas such as Tanglin in Tanjong Pagar GRC.

But a couple of percentage points in a smaller area, projected on a nationwide canvas, can be almost negligible.

It so happened that the votes separating Dr Tony Tan from Dr Tan Cheng Bock at many counting centres were in the double- or triple-digits, one way or the other.

They also matched Mr Tan Kin Lian's consistently low votes, which earned him the tag 'Mr 100Plus' after he received a paltry 100-plus votes at several counting centres - and 103,931 nationwide. These votes might have gone to either of the three other candidates, narrowing or widening the 7,269 gap depending on how they went.

But as Dr Tan Cheng Bock mused about the vote margin on his campaign bus early yesterday morning: It is fewer than the number of voters in the smallest SMC. But it made all the difference in deciding who got the keys to the Istana.

zakirh@sph.com.sg

The Elected Presidency in a new normal

The office must evolve - the challenge is how to
by Eugene K B Tan

Aug 30, 2011

It was a pulsating finish to Singapore's fourth Presidential Election. A mere 7,269 votes separated Dr Tony Tan from Dr Tan Cheng Bock. The hustings, which fired up the hearts and minds of Singaporeans, portend what future PEs could be like. What can we make of the results?

The influence of the May General Election should not be over-exaggerated. To be sure, there is residual unhappiness after the so-called "watershed election". My sense, however, is that the majority of Singaporeans distinguished between the parliamentary and presidential polls.

What the GE demonstrated, reinforced in Saturday's poll, is that the voter is keen for more political competition and diversity. But as the PE results illustrate, the average voter is not going to throw caution to the wind and cast a ballot for a candidate just because he comes with an opposition accent. The People's Action Party branding still carries cachet. Voters can discern form from substance.

International media reports have characterised the outcome as a sign of "many still upset with long-ruling PAP". This reading is premised on viewing the polls in partisan terms, with Dr Tony Tan flying the PAP/Establishment banner, and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian collectively the non-PAP/non-Establishment flags. According to this view, the score was PAP - 35 per cent; non-PAP - 65 per cent.

That is probably reading the results simplistically. Many Singaporeans did not see the contest in purely partisan terms. They carefully scrutinised candidates' track records, their campaign promises, and how they would work with the PAP Government.

WHAT DIVIDED THE VOTERS

In a crowded race with three serious contenders, it should not be surprising that the votes were split. The results, if anything, confirm that the political landscape is more diverse, more competitive. The Singapore electorate is maturing and is more than capable of making up its own mind. The endorsements by the trade unions, business groups and others seem to have had limited effect.

Both Dr Tans, as former PAP stalwarts, can be regarded as the Establishment camp. They also espoused a moderate reading of the roles, functions and powers of the Elected President.

Combined, they polled 70 per cent of the popular vote. To these voters, the past PAP affiliation was not a deterrent - there was confidence they would exercise the executive custodial powers independently.

The support for both men also indicates Singaporeans value stability, in the sense of an Elected President being able to work with the elected Government. It suggests that many may be uncomfortable with the office being an alternative power centre.

Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian, seen as the non-Establishment camp, together garnered 30 per cent of the ballots. Their support base is primarily the staunch Opposition voters, who prefer a President not so closely aligned with the ruling party. All in all, the election appears to indicate the PAP enjoys a loyal support base of about 35-45 per cent of the electorate (safely assuming the bulk of Dr Tony Tan's supporters are Establishment loyalists) and the Opposition a 30-35-per-cent loyal following.

A significant 25-35 per cent form the middle ground, often described as the swing voters. How is one to understand Dr Tan Cheng Bock's strong cross-camp appeal? His ability to reach out to both pro-Establishment voters and those less so, is a political craft honed through his many years as a popular grassroots MP. His commitment to unify people was a strong and persuasive selling point; his common touch, his signature ability to engage Singaporeans from all walks of life, was vital in bringing those of different political persuasions together.

AN 'ACTIVIST' PRESIDENT

All said, the winner's razor-thin victory margin points to the need for the Elected Presidency to evolve in tandem with Singaporeans' expectations of the roles and functions of the office. Amid the new normal of more competitive political landscape, much will also be expected of the President-elect's promise of seeking to heal the country's political, economic and social divisions.

Where the late President Ong Teng Cheong had sought to demonstrate purposefully the role of the EP within our parliamentary system, Dr Tony Tan's presidency is likely to be characterised by the imperative for a People's President to unify Singaporeans of whatever political inclinations. I believe he is conscious of the need for him - more than for any of his predecessors - to not only work with the Government but also with all political parties and civil society.

In this regard, he will have to be play a more "activist" role. I am reasonably confident that Dr Tony Tan will attempt to build bridges with the various groups, but he cannot get the different camps to work together if they are not prepared to do so in the first place. Before the non-PAP will work with him, he will have to establish to them his credentials as being non-partisan and independent. But with sincerity, impartiality and determination, there is no reason why bridge-building cannot take place.

The need to evolve the office of the President in a manner that is in sync with Singaporeans' expectations has to be on the "to-do" list of both the incoming President and the Government. They will have to manage the competing, and perhaps even conflicting, visions of the Presidency - the process of electing a head of state as well as the latter's roles and function.

Dr Tony Tan will have to throw light on what he does in his custodial roles, notwithstanding the confidentiality of those actions. Removing the myths and misperceptions is essential to the standing and legitimacy of the EP.

There is also a growing expectation that the presidency should be a watchdog that can both bark and bite. The sense is that the current reactive powers of the EP results in a watchdog that can only bark, and in limited circumstances, and that this is not good enough. In short, there is the imperative to manage voters' expectations and keep faith with the Constitutional parameters.

Can we expect dialogues and discussion - behind closed doors for a start - on how to maintain the relevance and legitimacy of the office?

To ignore the current ground sentiments and concerns may result in the PE in 2017 becoming a proxy political contest in which the raison d'etre of the EP will be challenged, and the office's authority and legitimacy suffering as a result. That would be a pity, since the Elected Presidency can enhance our system of governance.


Eugene K B Tan is assistant professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law

Not GE, but result shows political divide

Aug 29, 2011
commentary

Voters back moderates, yet 65 per cent spurn PAP's implicit choice
 
By Chua Mui Hoong

THE biggest effect of Presidential Election 2011 may be on General Election 2016, not just on the institution of the elected president.

Although the concerns of the electorate in a presidential election are different from those in a general election, PE 2011 does paint a broad picture of people's political inclinations for different types of candidates.

And the picture it paints is not pretty for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP). If GE2011 unveiled the new mood of the Singapore electorate, PE2011 confirmed it was no mere flash in the pan, and that the so-called new normal is here upon us.

What do the results tell us?

First, they speak volumes about voters' preference for the kind of presidency they want. Before the Aug 27 polls, the president's role was hotly debated by candidates, and in the mainstream and online media. In the end, Singapore voters gave 70 per cent of their vote to the two candidates who had no problems with the limited custodial role of the presidency, rejecting the other two candidates who had promised a more active presidency.

Second, the result speaks once more of the stability of the Singapore electorate, putting paid to fears of a freak election result, which is when protest votes against the PAP result in a less than ideal candidate being voted in.

The two candidates who made spending promises did not gain traction with voters. Mr Tan Kin Lian promised to work for higher allowances for full-time national servicemen and to press for an allowance for the elderly. Mr Tan Jee Say promised to press for any spending on reserves to go to things like schools and hospitals. He did not dwell on the matter for his presidential campaign, but many voters would remember him as the opposition candidate in the May General Election who considered his $60 billion economic regeneration plan 'small change'.

There was always an irony in a candidate, who wants to become Chief Protector of Past Reserves, making it a campaign promise to draw from the national purse he is meant to protect from profligacy. Voters obviously did not buy into those promises, giving Mr Tan Jee Say 25 per cent and Mr Tan Kin Lian just 4.9 per cent of the 2.1 million votes respectively.

In the end, the race was won by Dr Tony Tan with 35.19 per cent, a mere 7,269 or 0.34 per cent more than Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who got 34.85 per cent.

Despite talk of voters feeling sour with the PAP, a remarkable 70 per cent plumped for the two candidates with the strongest PAP links, who were PAP MPs for 27 and 26 years respectively.

This is higher than the 60.1 per cent who supported the PAP in GE2011. This shows that the anti-PAP voters are not reflexively anti-PAP. Voters look at the candidates. Dr Tan Cheng Bock said he had always put nation above party and promised to work with different political parties as part of his 'unifying Singapore' campaign promise. These resonated with many, both PAP and opposition.

This election result shows the Singapore voting core as being eminently stable and sensible. It puts paid to two myths often advanced by democracy sceptics in Singapore: the myth of the self-interested voter swayed by spending promises; and the myth of the irresponsible voter prepared to risk the nation's stability with an emotional protest vote.

When it came to the crunch, faced with a slate of four credible candidates, Singapore voters were neither self-interested nor irresponsible.

The third, and to me most significant, outcome lies in the fact that 65 per cent no longer automatically accepts the PAP's preferred choice for president.

Although PAP leaders were careful not to be too effusive in their comments, it was clear to voters just who the Government thought would be the best choice. Dr Tony Tan also received endorsements from unions and business groups. Still, two-thirds of voters chose someone else. This does not undermine Dr Tony Tan's mandate to be president. He intends to work hard to be every Singaporean's president, not just those who chose him. This is correct.

But politically, the result shows a fragmented society. Singapore is not yet divided along deep-seated ideological lines akin to those in America, where Republicans and Democrats are in gridlock. In Singapore, there is still a broad political consensus among the majority. But there is increasing fragmentation.

[Media sensationalisation. A fragmented society is so much more interesting to report. The speculation, the intrigue, the divided loyalties, the betrayal, the emotional upheaval. Yes. If it is all true.

If Tony Tan was not a candidate, Tan Cheng Bock would have been the default PAP candidate. Everyone who voted TT would have voted TCB. If TCB was not a candidate, many of his votes would have gone to TT. Many would also have gone to Tan Jee Say and maybe Tan Kin Lian even. Assuming TCB votes are evenly divided among the 3, TT would have gotten 46% and still won. But a more likely outcome would have been over 50% for TT, about 10% for TKL, and 40% for TJS. Maybe.More likely TJS and TKL will only pick up 5% each from TCB supporters. and TT would be 60% in the majority.]


In the past, the political consensus was centred on the PAP, with the PAP defining what is good for Singapore and voters buying into its vision. That PAP centre no longer holds. This was seen in past general elections and most notably in May in Aljunied GRC, when PAP leaders' attempts to sway voters there backfired.

Indeed, it can be argued that the PAP and what it stands for has become a key axis of fragmentation in Singapore politics, with voters defining themselves on the basis of whether they support or do not support the PAP (and its candidates by proxy).

In the last election, 55 per cent - five in nine voters - spurned a high-flying PAP team for the opposition in Aljunied GRC. That was widely seen as a watershed result; but it showed the mood in only one constituency.

This presidential election was on a national scale. And fully two in three spurned a high-flying PAP-approved candidate for rivals with less impressive financial experience.

[Right. That S. R. Nathan was a financial genius and a wizard. How the hell did they managed to foist him on us for the last 12 years.]

However you parse it, the sobering reality is that two-thirds of voters did not support the PAP's implicit choice of national leader.

What does PE2011 portend for the next election? To be sure, the contest for a custodial president is different from that for the government of the day. Voters on Saturday made their choice for president in full assurance that the PAP held 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament. But to the extent that a national election reflects the will of the people, this much can be said of the result: The voting core respects candidates for national office who are politically moderate - thus 70 per cent voted for the two Dr Tans; and two-thirds are no longer prepared to accept the PAP's choice as a fait accompli.

[Bull crap! It has always been so. The first Presidential election 18 years ago had a virtual unknown take 41% to Ong Teng Cheong's 59%. And he didn't even bother to campaign. Voters for TCB of course wants him to be president, but they are not overly upset that it is TT. Most are glad it is is not the other two. So 70% of Singaporeans are happy with a conservative choice. Maybe not PAP's first choice, but certainly not antagonistic to PAP. Certainly if PAP could not have TT, TCB would have been the next best thing, and they would not have been overly upset if TCB had won. Maybe he was not the first choice, but he's not unreasonable.

So in a way the voters were saying, I know you want TT, but I think you can work with TCB, and we think we believe him more.]

The first should be consoling to all right-minded citizens. The second should give the PAP pause for thought and serve as motivation - if any more were needed after May 7 - for serious reform.

But five years is a very long time.

Meanwhile, the hope is that the losing candidates continue to stay engaged politically and find ways to harness the considerable energies of their supporters to positive ends. And that Singaporeans - regardless of their vote this election - do the sensible, mature thing and accord to the new president Tony Tan the respect the office deserves.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

Monday, August 29, 2011

Are Aircraft Carriers Slowly Becoming Obsolete?

David Axe
June 22, 2011 

For seven decades, they’ve been the ultimate symbol of American power. When conflicts break out across the globe, U.S. Navy aircraft carriers — fast, mobile and each packing more firepower than most countries’ entire air force — have been the first responders, more often than not. “When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it’s no accident the first question that comes to everyone’s lips is: where is the nearest carrier?” Bill Clinton famously said.



But today’s 1,000-foot-long, nuclear-powered supercarriers and their air wings are expensive, costing up to $15 billion just to build. Plus, the latest anti-ship missiles could render them vulnerable to attack. It’s for those reasons that one influential Navy officer is proposing the Pentagon rethink its approach to building and deploying carriers.

Instead of today’s small number of gigantic carriers, the Navy of the future should operate a larger number of smaller flattops, Capt. Jerry Hendrix asserts in the pages of Proceedings magazine. “Moving away from highly expensive and vulnerable supercarriers toward smaller, light carriers would bring the additional benefit of increasing our nation’s engagement potential.”

It would also spread out U.S. naval air power instead of concentrating it in just a few places, where it can be more easily knocked out.

Hendrix’s controversial argument is the subject of my first piece for AOL’s new military website.

To be clear: no one, including Hendrix, is claiming big carriers will become totally obsolete overnight. Besides the U.S., Britain, India and especially China are all building brand-new large carriers, though none quite as big as America’s 11 Nimitz- and Enterprise-class ships, each displacing around 100,000 tons. Hendrix insists the Navy keep some of its nuclear supercarriers as a “heavy surge force” capable of steaming into action during a major crisis.

Outgoing secretary of defense Robert Gates echoed that sentiment in a speech last year.

But for routine patrols, the Navy should have a larger number of smaller flattops. Hendrix doesn’t propose a specific number, but he does point out that three, 40,000-ton light carriers could be had for the price of one supercarrier.

A light carrier is viable because of a shift in the way air power is used. During the Cold War, the Navy’s focus was generating at many fighter sorties as possible within the first few days of a full-scale conflict. After all, big shooting wars weren’t expected to last very long. Supercarriers are optimized for that kind of “big and fast” fighting.

Today, conflicts tend to be drawn-out, low-intensity affairs requiring fewer but longer sorties by sea-launched planes. Carriers don’t need to embark as many fighters, or launch them as often. That’s why a smaller carrier is possible, according to Hendrix.

He believes the future light carrier is already taking shape at a shipyard in Mississippi, though the Navy doesn’t call the vessel that. America, the first of a new class of amphibious assault ships, “has the potential to be a new generation of light aircraft carrier,” Hendrix writes.

America, slated to enter service  is designed to carry more than a thousand Marines into battle, shuttling them ashore with V-22 tiltrotors. Like previous assault ships, America can carry Harrier jump jets (pictured) and, eventually, the Marines’ vertical-landing F-35B Joint Strike Fighter. The difference is how many fighters America can carry: up to 30, compared to the four or five Harriers routinely embarked on today’s assault ships and around 50 F/A-18 Hornet fighters on each supercarrier.

Unlike many observers, Hendrix has high hopes for the late, over-budget F-35 — particularly the B model, which has been the most troubled of the three variants. “I’m concerned about the cost overruns on JSF, but I see that this [plane] could be very important in the future,” Hendrix tells Danger Room.

Armed, carrier-launched drones could complement the F-35B, Hendrix adds. The Northrop Grumman X-47B, the world’s first’s carrier-capable combat Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, flew for the first time in February. The Navy wants a follow-on killer drone to start populating carrier decks before 2018.

Small flattops carrying drones and stealthy jump jets would help “adapt the fleet away from its current course to a new design for a new era,” Hendrix writes. But he admits his proposal faces stiff opposition from the Navy’s entrenched supercarrier boosters. “A lot of people don’t like the America,” he tells Danger Room.

Even Gates was forced to backtrack after his speech last year criticizing the Navy’s over-reliance on huge flattops. “I am not going to cut a carrier. Okay?” Gates said. “But people ought to start thinking about how they are going to use carriers in a time when you have highly accurate cruise and ballistic missiles that can take out a carrier.”

To Hendrix, that means having more carriers. And that means they need to be smaller.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What the voters were saying

Aug 28, 2011
 
presidential election

New normal after the General Election reflected in presidential polls
 
By Zakir Hussain

Rounded off, the final vote tally on the first count was a photo-finish of 35-35-25-5, with Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock both so close to each other at the finishing line that a recount ensued.

Mr Tan Jee Say scored a creditable 25 per cent of valid votes while Mr Tan Kin Lian trailed far behind with just under 5 per cent.

The presidential election was not meant to be General Election, Round Two, but voting behaviour can be hard to change in four short months.

And voters appear to have made their choices for who should be Singapore's seventh president along party lines, more or less.

But what is more telling is the divide within the pool of traditional People's Action Party (PAP) supporters, which forced such a tight result between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock even though the former deputy prime minister was the Government's preferred candidate.

Even if the party never explicitly endorsed Dr Tony Tan, it was abundantly clear that the party leadership preferred him.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong felt he was eminently qualified for the job, and that he would be a unifying figure.

Many party activists and grassroots leaders also cast their lot with him, volunteering to help him campaign even as some of their fellow party members stumped for Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a veteran former PAP backbencher.

Dr Tony Tan was also endorsed by a large swathe of unions and establishment groups, from chambers of commerce to community groups - a feat that eluded other contenders.

In conventional terms, many in the establishment regarded him as more qualified for the role: He had helmed five ministries and served as deputy prime minister in some 27 years in politics.

A 'new normal'?

Alas, Dr Tony Tan had himself described Singapore politics post-General Election as having entered a 'new normal'.

One wonders whether Dr Tan had himself expected the race to be this close, given his remarks when he declared his intention to run in June.

He said then: 'I am not running because I am convinced I will win, but because I know in the present circumstances, it is my responsibility to step forward and to try.'

As it turns out, the results of the presidential election confirm what the General Election showed about how the electorate has changed in the way it supports non-government candidates.

That Dr Tony Tan won just a sliver above 35 per cent of valid votes shows how this 'new normal' is shaping up.

Assuming that most voters stayed more or less with their preferences for either the opposition or the PAP, Dr Tony Tan's votes would no doubt have been drawn largely from a section of the 60.1 per cent of the electorate overall who backed the PAP on May 7.

But he scooped up barely 60 per cent of the vote from this pool, in spite of the many expressions of support and suitability from all corners.

Some have described the choice between Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bock as a choice between the PAP 'elite' and the PAP 'grassroots'. This is too simplistic a depiction, given the support Dr Tony Tan has garnered among many on the ground.

A more plausible explanation would be that the PAP ground is deeply split. On the one hand are party loyalists who went for Dr Tony Tan.

On the other are those who favour a more 'neutral' candidate who would not obstruct the Government, but whom they feel may be independent enough to speak up when needed - and they saw these qualities in Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

It is a trend the PAP will need to ponder over, as it shows that when they have a choice, the PAP base wants someone different from who its leadership might prefer: Forty per cent of its supporters went for Dr Tan Cheng Bock.

On the plus side for Dr Tan Cheng Bock, it would appear that he has also drawn support across partisan lines, with some 25 per cent of opposition voters backing him, even if some of them wanted a candidate with the best chance of beating Dr Tony Tan.

View from the street

Street polls conducted by this newspaper across the island over three days last week appear to back the way the vote was split.

Dr Tan Cheng Bock was seen as a more 'neutral' candidate than Dr Tony Tan among the 964 voters polled.

Some 76 per cent of them felt the PAP Government supported Dr Tony Tan alone, and as a result, close to 40 per cent of this group were less inclined to vote for him.

Older voters and those in the heartland tended to favour Dr Tony Tan, while younger ones backed Dr Tan Cheng Bock - especially younger professionals and those in the Central Business District.

The proportion of those in this latter constituency - who do not have that bond of undergoing the early years of independence with the PAP - is set to expand in the coming years.

View from the opposition

At the same time, more than half of those who voted for the opposition in May appear to have thrown their support behind Mr Tan Jee Say.

In some parts of the country, he came a close second to Dr Tony Tan.

But the former Singapore Democratic Party candidate at the General Election could not muster enough support, as several opposition backers remain wary of his hardcore stand and adversarial tone.

Still, 25 per cent is a sizeable figure - given that in the 2001 General Election, a slightly lower proportion of the population voted against the PAP. This rose to 33 per cent in 2006 and almost 40 per cent in May.

Had former NTUC Income chief executive Tan Kin Lian not been in the picture, it is likely his supporters might have stumped for Dr Tan Cheng Bock as a compromise candidate.

In the end, the results show that the desire for an opposition is here to stay. It is not confined just to Parliament, but extends to the presidency as well.

Close to two-thirds of the electorate did not vote for Singapore's next president. Dr Tan Cheng Bock may have campaigned on the need to 'heal the nation' after a polarising General Election. But that task has now fallen on Dr Tony Tan's in-tray.

zakirh@sph.com.sg

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Is "assortative mating" to blame for the rise of autism?

Could places like Silicon Valley be breeding a whole generation of kids with autism or Asperger's syndrome?

August 22, 2011

There's no shortage of theories about what causes infants to develop autism: At various points, researchers have blamed medication, the age of the child's parents, pesticide exposure, and the now-debunked vaccine link. Another theory, known as "assortative mating," proposes that parents who share certain tendencies — an expertise in math and science, for example — may produce children with a higher risk of developing autism. Here, a concise guide:

What does this theory propose?
According to the leading proponent of assortative mating, Simon Baron-Cohen, director of Cambridge University's Autism Research Center (and cousin to the comedian Sasha Baron-Cohen), autism tends to run in families. While that’s not news — it's been estimated that a family with one autistic child has a 1 in 20 risk of having a second autistic child — Baron-Cohen has expanded upon that theory to posit entire communities of people with some tendency toward autism or Asperger’s syndrome, a related disorder.

What kinds of communities?
Places that attract people with a "common cognitive profile" that includes autism or Asperger’s. Take Silicon Valley, for instance. It's populated with lots of men — and an increasing number of women — who are drawn to science and technology, but are deficient in areas like empathy and relating to others. When these people start raising families, Baron-Cohen argues, it's more likely that their kids will develop the same tendencies to even more pronounced degrees.

Is there evidence for this theory?
Not much. Most of what supports the theory of assortative mating is just anecdotal hearsay, and "Baron-Cohen is the first to caution that his results are preliminary," says Meredith Melnick in TIME. There is, however, one study that found kids living in Eindhoven — the Dutch Silicon Valley — were two to four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than kids in similar but less tech-centric areas. More research is needed before any definite conclusions can be drawn.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Of animals, rights and moral agency

Aug 18, 2011
 
By Andy Ho

SOME 25 dolphins are now being trained overseas to provide visitors with an interactive experience at Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

But animal rights group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) is urging RWS to release the dolphins back into the wild. Its campaign garnered about 13,800 signatures. Another 800,000 have been gathered by two foreign groups.

Basically, Acres argues that dolphins need to roam freely. Freer dolphins are presumably happier and happiness being the highest good is surely unassailable as an axiom of truth. Or so the theory goes.

But would freer animals be happier?

To say dolphins need to roam free is to accord them the human right to liberty, one inextricably linked to the security of person. Indeed, activists like to assert that animals are persons, not property: RWS should not be owning dolphins. To own, confine and use animals as property is institutionalised slavery.

Some would argue that animals are persons simply because they are sentient beings, with sensory responses and the ability to feel pain. Animals feel pain, but it is arguable whether they suffer. Pain is physical; suffering is mental anguish.

Undeniably, animals do suffer physical pain. Dr Peter Singer argues in Animal Liberation (1990) that language is 'necessary for abstract thought but states like pain are more primitive'. If infants suffer pain, so too can animals. The argument then goes that it is wrong to hurt or destroy something that feels pain.

But it is hard to see how enclosing the RWS dolphins in a pen and training them under the eyes of a team led by five vets would inflict pain or destroy them, if they are handled so they suffer no physical pain or bodily discomfort.

Even humans have no ironclad protection from pain wilfully inflicted. Just take Osama bin Laden, assassinated presumably to prevent more loss of lives he might have ordered.

However unpalatable activists may find it to be, animals are often sacrificed to meet human ends. The entire livestock and meat industry is premised on that, as is the practice of testing drugs on animals. Moral theorists argue that using animals in the laboratories is morally acceptable because the practice eventually leads to cures for or prevention of deadly illnesses in millions of human beings.

Perhaps animals feel not only physical pain but also emotions. Indeed, The Animal Ethics Reader (2006) urges people to use 'ordinary empathic experiences' to address questions about animal welfare. But when we describe animal lives using human language, we project anthropomorphically onto animals.

In Swann's Way (1922), French essayist Marcel Proust surmised that it is only in the literary imagination that one can enter another human being's mind and life. We can do that accurately because we know what it is to be human.

But we do not know what it is to be an animal and should not rely too much on such imaginative leaps to make moral arguments.

Another favoured argument is that sheer morality requires that animals be accorded rights of liberty and security. In other words, being kind to life, of whatever species, is the right thing to do.

This is all very well. But taken to its logical end, it suggests that animals - who have rights to liberty and security - must perforce respect those rights in their kind. This is clearly nonsense since animals have no moral agency.

Nature raw in tooth and nail is predatory, vicious and deadly. Animals do not respect rights because, lacking moral agency, they do not know how to do so. Thus they cannot be held accountable for their actions. If so, animals are amoral but this also means it cannot be sheer morality which requires that animals have rights.

If predators were moral agents, they would be held morally responsible for doing lunch. Absurd as this sounds, some people in mediaeval Europe - and even up to the 18th century - did project upon animals the very human notion of crime.

They then prosecuted and punished, even publicly executed, such 'criminals'. In The Criminal Prosecution And Capital Punishment Of Animals (1906), Edward Evans describes a 14th-century case in which an 'infanticidal sow was executed in the old Norman city of Falaise'.

Such a non sequitur arises only because of the failure to recognise that humans are accorded rights in exchange for responsibilities because people are moral agents who can be held responsible for their actions.

It is this failure that led British indie star Morrissey to rant on stage recently about how Anders Behring Breivik's massacre of 69 people on the Norwegian island of Utoeya was 'nothing compared to what happens in McDonald's and Kentucky Fried S*** every day'.

It also led to People v Garcia (2006), in which a New York trial court convicted a person of cruelty for killing a goldfish.

Animals are not moral agents that can take on responsibilities. So, they cannot be ascribed rights. They are not persons.

But we are not free to abuse animals thereby. This fact, however, is derived from the fact that we are moral agents, for whom human morality dictates that we be humane towards animals.

andyho@sph.com.sg

Rail disaster a mirror of Chinese flaws

Aug 18, 2011
 
By Ching Cheong

LAST week, the Chinese authorities suspended all new railway construction projects. Although it has been nearly a month since the high-speed rail collision in China, the repercussions will reverberate for some time to come. Investigations are ongoing to find out its causes.

The rail disaster may have resulted from technical flaws, but it also highlights some basic flaws in China's socialist system. Three points come to mind:
  •     Its software capability lags far behind that of its hardware.
  •     The Great Leap Forward mode of development guarantees disastrous results.
  •     Corruption is the root cause of most of the country's problems.
After more than 30 years of dizzying development, the Chinese still do not possess the software needed to match or keep pace with high-tech hardware. Think grandiose hotels with smelly toilets.

According to Caixin magazine, the July23 rail disaster near the city of Wenzhou could have been prevented if all three key lines of defence had not failed all at once.

The first line of defence was the signalling system, which became faulty after lightning struck. The control centre - the second line of defence - instructed the first train to slow down but somehow not the second, which was hurtling forward at about 250kmh.

When it was less than 25km away from the first - 25km being the minimum safety distance - its automatic train protection (ATP) system failed to do its job of halting the train to avert a collision.

Caixin concluded that a combination of human and technical errors resulted in the crash which killed 40 people and injured dozens more.

A deeper explanation for this hardware-software divide can be found in a particular trait of the Chinese people.

Intellectual and educator Hu Shi wrote about this trait in a satirical essay, in which he lamented that the Chinese people do not aspire to excellence because they are happy with mediocrity. Their motto: All is fine as long as things are chabuduo (more or less the same).

In the satire, aptly named The Chronicle Of Mr Cha Buduo, the easy-going title character went through life without fussing about details or results. After his death, the people held him up as a model of morality and virtue and many sought to be like him.

'This is the reason China is quickly being transformed into a country that the rest of the world will soon call 'the nation of lazybones',' concluded the essay, which was written nearly 90 years ago.

This chabuduo mentality could explain the gap between hardware and software.

China's high-speed rail best exemplifies the Great Leap Forward, or very rapid, mode of development.

Since 2003, the country has built 8,358km of high-speed rail tracks, with another 17,000km under construction.

In 2008, officials proudly announced that China took six years to accomplish what developed countries needed 30 years to do. They boasted that a high-speed rail driver could be trained in 10 days compared with at least three months in Germany.

The Hangzhou-Wenzhou line, on which the deadly crash occurred, was meant to be operational only by next year, but the date was brought forward to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) this year.

Some say safety and technical standards may have been compromised as a result. This is plausible, especially with the ATP system, a Chinese technological innovation which railway officials had insisted would prevent any collision.

Yet after the disaster, Beijing University of Communication Professor Wang Mengsu, a senior adviser to the Railways Ministry, admitted to Caixin Net that the ATP system was not yet fully operational.

Two days later on July 26, he told Xinmin Zhoukan that the ATP system remained a theoretical possibility and the train driver was the key figure in handling an emergency and averting a crash.

Clearly, the need to best developed nations in terms of construction speed and rail technology led Chinese officials to overlook safety at the people's expense.

So why does China, which paid dearly for Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward experiment, still adhere to this development model? There are two possible explanations: nationalism and socialism.

To most Chinese, Mao's call in 1958 to 'surpass the British and catch up with the United States' remains a strong rallying point for a nation which had been subjugated by Western powers for more than a century.

To the ruling CCP, the great leap in high-speed rail development proved the strength of socialism - and by the same token, its own legitimacy - in being able to devote the entire nation's efforts to one single cause and succeed.

Finally, corruption pervades many levels of Chinese society and government.

Even before the July 23 mishap, at least one rail engineer went on record to say he would never take the high-speed rail because corruption had made the whole network unsafe.

The arrests of former railways minister Liu Zhijun and deputy chief engineer Zhang Shuguang have also lent credence to such fears. Liu and Zhang were once called the Father and the No. 1 Engineer of China's high-speed rail respectively. Liu is said to have pocketed 2.5 per cent of every transacted deal while Zhang allegedly has millions stashed away in the US, where his family lives.

In its Aug 3 editorial, the official Huanqiu Shibao mockingly referred to China's rail sector as a museum of all the problems in the country. In the same way, the July 23 crash mirrored the problems inherent in the Chinese socialist system.

chingcheong@gmail.com

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tall tales swirling around UFOs

Aug 13, 2011
DAEDALUS
By Andy Ho

AN OBVIOUSLY determined UFO acolyte of a reader asked if The Straits Times were too 'chicken' to touch the issue. For true believers, 'UFO' is no longer 'unidentified flying object' but simply alien spacecraft. There were YouTube videos of UFOs sighted in and near Singapore, he claimed. More importantly, declassified UFO reports were released by Western governments recently, he said.

Well, discussing flying saucers does tend to make one look a tad flaky. In March this year, Her Majesty's government released a tranche of UFO files which revealed how dismayed it was in 1977 when Sir Eric Gairy called on the United Nations to investigate UFOs.

Britain managed to get the then Prime Minister of Grenada to withdraw his proposal. But he next asked the UN to designate 1978 'Year of the UFO'. Fortunately for all concerned about the UN's image, a coup saw Sir Eric go in 1979.

That year, the British Parliament had its one and only UFO debate. The just released files picture officials struggling to nail down a stand which was eventually this: 'There is nothing to convince Her Majesty's government that there has ever been a single visit by an alien spacecraft.'

In April this year, however, a Cold War-era document appeared on a free online archive of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), called The Vault. Written in 1950 by FBI agent Guy Hottel and directed to the legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, it related how 'flying saucers had been recovered in New Mexico (which were) circular in shape with raised centres, approximately 50 feet (15m) in diameter'.

It added: 'Each one was occupied by three bodies of human shape but only three feet tall, dressed in metallic cloth of a very fine texture'.

The document is real but the details hearsay. Investigators have traced the origins of this story to a lecture given at the University of Denver two weeks before the document was written.

The speaker was a scammer who tried to convince investors he had secret alien technology to locate oil. That story was then passed on, with Mr Hottel's informant being eight times removed from the lecture. Genuine document, false details.

In 1969, along with 10 other people, Mr Jimmy Carter reported sighting a UFO as 'big as the moon'. It changed colours, moved back and forth, and flew away.

During his 1976 run for the White House, Mr Carter promised a policy of openness on UFOs, if elected. Once in office, however, he declined disclosure, citing 'defence implications'. What Mr Carter saw is now officially said to have been Venus.

Then there is former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who has been claiming for years that the US authorities have had contact with alien intelligences or extraterrestrials (ETs).

Besides his Apollo glory days, Dr Mitchell earned his doctorate in astronautics and aeronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), no less.

But he also grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, allegedly the site of an UFO crash in 1947, that was reported on the front page of The New York Times.

The authorities later said it was a crashed weather balloon (now known to have been carrying a gadget to spy on Soviet nuclear tests).

However, fans believe that Roswell was the beginning of a massive UFO cover-up. Because he is a local boy, Dr Mitchell says, old-timers have entrusted him with eyewitness accounts. Again, no physical evidence, just second-hand stories.

But even astronauts and presidents are subject to the same optical illusions and cognitive biases like the rest of us. We are all suggestible and our memories also pliable. And then there are hoaxes.

In practice, natural phenomena do not explain satisfactorily every UFO sighting, so some unexplained reports do remain. But there has been no objectively verifiable evidence for ET visitation.

A UFO wreckage or pieces of one fabricated from ET alloys, or recovered bodies of aliens would be great.

Conversely, there are good reasons why ET visitation is not happening. Basically, if an alien civilisation existed on a planet circling just one of the 300,000 billion billion stars, it would be located so far away that the energy requirements to get here would be impractical.

Suppose ETs lived just 10 light years away. If they could fly at 90 per cent of the speed of light, they should get here in 11 years. Experts figure that to fly a spacecraft four times as big as the whole space shuttle system, say, would require the energy output of about 4.5 million of the largest hydrogen bombs. Just stopping the vehicle would require just as much energy. And then there is the trip home. That comes up to 14 million big ones.

If ETs could afford to take 200 years to get here instead, they could fly at just 10 per cent light-speed. But this would still require 17,000 hydrogen bombs one way. Now imagine if ETs actually lived much farther than 10 light years away. In a purely physical cosmos, the fundamental laws of physics make it simply impractical and implausible for ETs to visit us.

Only in a metaphysical universe might these considerations be moot. If ETs existed in dimensions alongside with but not identical to our physical cosmos, then the energy requirements to get here might not have to obey the laws of physics.

There might be laws of metaphysics they have to obey. But contemplating what the laws that metaphysical UFOs might have to obey would still be flaky.

andyho@sph.com.sg

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

It's the politics, stupid!

Aug 17, 2011

By Nayan Chanda

SOMETHING funny happened on the road to the market crash of Aug 8. As the markets opened for trading, investors rushed into the burning building they were supposed to flee.

Only three days earlier, rating agency Standard & Poor's (S&P) had spooked the market by downgrading the debt of the United States a notch from its long-held AAA rating. In a normal situation, you would expect punters to flee from the downgraded instruments to ones rated as more secure. Instead, the opposite happened. Investors dumped their equities and rushed into US Treasuries in droves - the very instrument whose downgrading had sparked the market rout. As a result, interest rates on Treasuries dropped to their lowest point since January 2009.

In this paradox lies the clue to the global crisis now. It is not so much the fundamentals of the US economy that have unnerved the market but rather deep scepticism of the politicians in charge.

Washington remains the safest port in a storm even though policy gridlock threatens a double-dip recession. The euro zone, the world's other go-to market, might have offered an alternative in earlier times. But today, the fundamental weakness of the euro and the continent's political division and fiscal ineptness have made it ground zero of the crisis.

Belated intervention by the European Central Bank (ECB) to shore up Italian and Spanish debt has only underscored the existential crisis of the euro. The piecemeal Band-Aid solutions offered by the European Union (EU) for its debt crisis, which has been building up for almost two years, have already exposed the basic flaw of the euro zone arrangement. Namely, poorer members have a credit card with the high borrowing ceiling of richer members.

Now that the results of the borrowing binge are hitting home, leaders fearful of their domestic constituencies are unable to take robust and decisive action. The strongest member, Germany, needs to pump in vast amounts of cash to save Italy and Spain - and eventually the euro - but that might be political suicide in the run-up to elections. The scene is dismal all around, with scandal-tainted politicians lacking the courage and authority to take tough measures to assure the market.

As if the woeful absence of political courage and cohesion is not enough to discourage investors, the EU's bureaucrats must surely win the gold medal for fecklessness. After congratulating themselves on agreeing to a bailout package for Greece on July 21, they left the small matter of formalisation until September, presumably when officials would return from the beach.

Rising yields of Italian bonds (the country is the world's third-largest debtor) went unnoticed until panic set in among investors fearing Italy's inability to service its debts. A sharp letter from European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso raising the alarm finally brought officials back from their vacations and the ECB back to the task of salvaging Italian and Spanish bonds. Unsurprisingly, none of these belated actions has calmed investors' nerves.

Across the Atlantic, the US Congress too had taken off for its summer recess after weeks of hand-to-hand combat over the debt-ceiling debate. When the S&P downgrade was announced, Republican and Democrat leaders interrupted their vacations to go on television to blame one another for this blow to US prestige. Through their petty bickering, these officials fulfilled one of the justifications that S&P had offered for its downgrade.

The agency did not believe the Republicans - hell-bent on resisting tax increases for the rich - and Democrats, determined to protect social benefits and health care for the poor and the elderly, were capable of reaching a compromise that would pave the way to trim the large and growing debt. S&P knows that, compared with other developed countries, the US is still on much safer territory. The debt/gross domestic product ratio is projected to reach 85 per cent in a decade, and as the issuer of the reserve currency of choice, it has greater means of avoiding a default than any other country.

While the coming pain will be long and acute, the US, with its deep capital markets, entrepreneurial spirit, innovativeness and high productivity, retains the ability to ride out the current crisis.

'Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing,' Winston Churchill once said, 'after they have exhausted all other possibilities!' Unfortunately, the markets do not wait around for the dawn of political reality.

The writer is director of publications at the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation.

Why the president is not a super-MP

Aug 17, 2011
 
Commentary
Differences among candidates on role will lead to divisive campaign
 
By Chua Mui Hoong

THE four presidential hopefuls faced off in an extended debate for the first time yesterday in The Straits Times newsroom. If the two-hour roundtable discussion was anything to go by, the campaign for the presidency might polarise the electorate.

The tone of the debate was civil, but the substance of what they said was contentious. Some disagreed with the Government on several issues, such as pegging political salaries to the private sector and the death penalty. They disagreed with one another - for example, on managing reserves. The word 'disagree' in various permutations emerged from their lips 17 times.

Most fundamental of all, they saw the role of the presidency differently. Dr Tony Tan, a former deputy prime minister, and Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a doctor and former People's Action Party MP, agreed with the Government's position that the president's role was circumscribed. He had veto powers in five specific areas: spending of past reserves; key public sector appointments; detentions without trial in internal security cases; corruption investigations; and restraining orders to maintain religious harmony.

Mr Tan Kin Lian, a former chief executive of insurance cooperative NTUC Income, saw himself as the voice of the people, saying Parliament did not sufficiently represent Singaporeans enough.

Mr Tan Jee Say, a former civil servant-turned fund manager who contested on the Singapore Democratic Party ticket in the May General Election (GE), repeated his charge that the Government had lost its moral direction and offered himself as a moral compass. Asked by moderator Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang about the significance of the presidential election, he said it was 'particularly significant because of the peculiar outcome of the GE'.

Mr Tan Jee Say added: 'We have 40 per cent of the people not voting for the Government but they got only 7 per cent of the seats. So it highlights the foresight of the creators of this elected (presidency) that we really need a check because the checks and balances... are not adequately reflected in Parliament.'

Both Mr Tan Kin Lian and Mr Tan Jee Say argued that the president had the right to speak on issues of public interest to the public. Mr Tan Jee Say rebutted the position of Law Minister K. Shanmugam that the president has to act on the advice of the Cabinet on all matters other than the five areas specified by the Constitution, saying: 'The Law Minister is not the ultimate interpreter of the Constitution. The Law Minister is an interested party.'

When candidates cannot agree on the role of the institution they are contesting for, the nature of the presidency itself becomes an issue in the election.

It becomes easy for candidates to promise voters the kind of president they want - activist; outspoken; even free- spending. Some candidates may deliberately raise expectations about what the president can do, and hide under the axiom: 'Let Singaporeans decide.'

This would be a fundamental error of fact and a gravely irresponsible act of politics. It is a matter of fact that voters choose the president. It is also a matter of fact, not opinion, that the role of the president is determined by the Constitution, not voters for the presidency.

If a candidate for the office is unhappy with its current circumscribed role, he should contest in the General Election to enter Parliament so he can change the Constitution to widen the president's powers, and then enter the contest for a presidency with enlarged powers.

The elected president as envisioned in Singapore is not a pau-kar-liau (catch-all) president who can take unto himself any power he sees fit. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated yesterday, he works with the Government, and acts on the advice of the Government, except in the specific areas where he has custodial duties.

He is not meant to be some super-MP who can do a better job than all 87 MPs combined. His role is clearly spelt out in the Constitution. The presidency is not a blank canvas onto which candidates or voters can project their fantasies.

All four candidates are intelligent men with good track records. They have managed large organisations with millions of dollars at stake. It is hard to fathom how any of them can fail to understand such a basic fact of Singapore's political democracy as to confuse the role of a parliamentarian with that of a president.

Or perhaps some choose to take a convenient interpretation, and want to shape the institution along pathways they personally would like to see, never mind what the Constitution says. There is a harsh word for people who want to shape the world according to their world view, regardless of what the law, good sense or convention requires: despot.

Or maybe a candidate understands the role of the presidency well enough, but has made a calculated guess that promising to play a bigger role will win him just enough support to give him the edge. In a four-man race, it is possible only a few thousand votes may suffice to carry a candidate into the Istana. There is also a word for people who make all kinds of promises and play to people's emotions to get political support: demagogue.

I am sure none of the candidates wants to come across that way.

The General Election was a watershed national event, the repercussions of which will be felt for years to come. It was polarising and feelings are still sore.

It would be so easy to play up those rifts. Let's hope none of the candidates will do that.

muihoong@sph.com.sg

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Firms slam new moves to restrict foreign talent

Aug 16, 2011
 
By Aaron Low & Melissa Tan

BUSINESSMAN Yong Choon has branded new moves to tighten eligibility criteria of foreign professionals as 'terrible for business'.

Mr Yong, who chairs electronics manufacturing firm Eubiq and Nutek, which has a few hundred staff on its payroll, said the Government's decision to make an employment pass (EP) harder to get will rattle the corporate sector.

'For businesses there's fear, worry and general inconvenience,' Mr Yong told The Straits Times yesterday.

Some bosses echoed Mr Yong's feelings yesterday, saying the latest round of tightening will likely increase costs and stifle business activity.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday that the salary and education criteria for EPs for foreign professionals will be raised again, clearly a move to help boost employment prospects among white-collar Singaporeans.

EP rules were amended just last month. Then, monthly salary levels were raised for three types of EP: Q1, P2 and P1. The new levels are $2,800 for Q1, up from $2,500; $4,000 for P2, up from $3,500, and $8,000 for P1, up from $7,000.

Details of the latest round of measures to raise both the salary and educational criteria are expected to be released by the Ministry of Manpower soon.

Mr Allan Lim, chief executive of Alpha Biofuels, said foreign workers help lower business costs.

'I think you have to take a calibrated approach,' said Mr Lim, who has two foreigners on the S-Pass, of his dozen or so staff.

'There will always be pockets of work Singaporeans may not want to do, and overpaying a Singaporean to do that work would be inefficient.'

Mr Gan Chin Yean, managing director of precision engineering firm Interplex Singapore, said that if his firm cannot get the talent it needs for its business, it will simply move the work to Malaysia.

'We usually take engineers at a lower level, who are maybe on S-Pass, and train them up, as we need people with specific skills,' he said.

He added that once he trains these engineers, they are paid more and may become EP holders, so if the criteria are tightened, he may end up losing these skilled workers.

Mr Ian Lee, human resource manager of a local IT firm, said raising the salary criteria may mean having to pay Singaporeans more and add to wage costs.

'If I have to pay more to foreigners to keep up with the salary requirements of their pass, the locals may also ask for more, which just adds to costs,' he said.

Mr David Leong, managing director of regional human resource firm People Worldwide Consulting, said he worries that continuing to raise the EP bar could mean Singapore will lose out in the race for foreign talent.

He noted that it is increasingly difficult to attract foreign talent from places like China and India as working conditions and salaries there are improving.

'China's economy is evolving and many workers there want a piece of the fast-growing economy back home,' he said.

'Singapore may end up jammed with a policy mechanism that makes it hard for firms to attract the workers they urgently need.'

[In a sense this is a preview of what would happen with a minimum wage programme for low income. As costs goes up, businesses will close or move out. And those that have jobs will lose them.]

No hard sell by PM, but no soft-pedalling either

Aug 15, 2011

Balance struck between inspiring S'poreans and warning of dark clouds
 
By Chua Mui Hoong

THIS year's National Day Rally speech suffered from the middle-child syndrome.

Sandwiched between an epochal general election in May and a presidential election this month that promises to be ground-breaking, it suffered from, well, a deficit of attention.

Much political chatter in the last month has focused on the contest for the presidency. In addition, the news headlines have been dominated by events beyond Singapore: a nail-biting fiscal crisis in the United States; debt crises in Europe; and shocking riots in London. The outlook is cloudy globally, with fears of a financial crisis turning into a recession.

Raw feelings linger from the polarising May 7 elections, especially among those angry with the People's Action Party (PAP) Government for ignoring their unhappiness over the too-rapid influx of foreigners.

So it was never going to be easy for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to deliver the traditional National Day Rally speech this year. He had to grab attention, address policy shortfalls, soothe Singaporeans while satisfying investors, and explain the big picture while being sympathetic to the concerns of the man on the street.

After the dramatic apology he made in the heat of the election campaign for mistakes his government had made, what else could he say, really, about the past five years - a period when many Singaporeans wondered why they did not feel part of the Singapore success story, as PM Lee acknowledged last night - that would be really meaningful?

The honest answer was: Not much. Words can only go so far. But actions speak volumes.

PM Lee was thus wise to focus much of his speeches - first in Malay, then Mandarin and a 90-minute speech in English - on remedial actions taken by the Government.

On the health-care front, more subsidies will be given for medication for the elderly, low-income and those with chronic illnesses, as well as for cancer. There will be more places for the elderly sick in nursing homes and special needs children in schools.

In housing, the income ceiling to qualify for public housing will go up. More university places will be created, and all the extra places will go to Singaporeans. The criteria for foreigners coming to Singapore to work will be tightened.

The policy tweaks Mr Lee announced are substantive, not cosmetic. They are impressively speedy responses to ground unhappiness, coming just three months after the elections. Those who grumbled 'sorry not enough' in May must at least give credit to the Government for adjusting its policies as it has.

Investors and Singaporeans who worried about the Government becoming too populist would also be reassured by PM Lee's words that the strategic directions of Singapore's key policies would remain, even as specific policies are adjusted in response to changing circumstances.

So, for example, the open-door policy will remain, but the criteria for entry and the numbers admitted can be refined. More Singaporeans will get subsidies in housing and health care, but within fiscal limits.

PM Lee did well, given the difficult circumstances surrounding the Rally speech. He reached out to critics, welcoming their views and urging them to work with the Government to make Singapore better. He made a special effort to engage the young, saluting their spirit and describing them as the hope for Singapore's future. He also ended on a rousing note, urging Singaporeans to work together to keep Singapore exceptional.

One issue notable by its absence was the coming presidential election. So far, the Government has by and large remained reticent about the contest. In the past, the Government had explicitly endorsed a candidate, who then went on to assume office. In the new normal of Singapore politics, the Government knows when to hold its counsel.

I found the tone of the Rally speech at times too conciliatory, but a younger colleague thought it condescending. It would probably be fair to say that PM Lee tried to strike a balance between being firm and being empathetic; between inspiring Singaporeans and warning them of dark clouds looming.

I was struck by how much he talked about domestic political issues, and how little about the external economic environment. That might well accurately mirror Singaporeans' concerns.

Still, I would have liked to hear more about how the Government is girding Singapore for the future. For example, some of those multimedia videos could have been used to drive home to Singaporeans just how stormy the future might be, with Europe and America both in debt crises, and with every risk of the financial crisis precipitating a global recession. Even as Mr Lee was delivering his speech, the BBC was beaming images of mounted police entering fiery London streets to tackle rioters. Video clips of Singapore-made Transformer Bumblebee may bring smiles and light up the faces of students in the audience, but a dose of reality might also have been in order.

The first prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, would have spoken harsh home truths in such times, like a stern patriarch. The second prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, would have warned of dark times in his folksy, slightly nagging manner, the way a concerned aunt might talk to a beloved but clueless nephew.

This Prime Minister speaks like a friend. He tells his buddy what he is doing to fix their joint problems. He is encouraging and positive. And then he slips in some bits about the uncertainties ahead and how others are watching how they behave, and reminding his friend that they are in it together.

The risk, of course, is that the friend hears only all the good things and does not pay enough heed to what could go wrong. The other risk is that the buddy forgets what has been done in the past to get them to where they are today.

There was plain speaking last night, but ever-so-gently couched. There was no hard sell, but also no soft-pedalling. PAP ministers are clearly responding to the new mood of the electorate. PM Lee's Rally speech marks a start.


Euro heroes and zeroes

Aug 15, 2011
 
Ann Williams looks at how the US and notable European players are faring in the turmoil

THE UNITED STATES

Gross domestic product (GDP): US$14.66 trillion (S$17.77 trillion) as at end-2010

Public debt: US$14.6 trillion as at Aug 14

Debt as percentage of GDP: 99.6 per cent

Economic growth: Estimated 1.3 per cent in second quarter (Q2) of this year

Unemployment: 9.1 per cent as at last month

Fall in stock market since Aug 1: 7.2 per cent

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS:

    Two weeks ago, the US public debt surpassed its GDP for the first time since World War II.

    Democrats and Republicans locked horns over raising the debt ceiling - the statutory limit of US government indebtedness. The measure was passed on Aug 2, narrowly averting a debt default.

    As a result of the fracas, rating agency Standard & Poor's lowered the country's AAA rating to AA+ for the first time in history.

KEY ISSUES AHEAD:

    With unemployment still high and business and consumer confidence dropping, the risk that the economy will slide into another recession has grown.

    The US government may need to launch a third round of monetary easing - 'printing money' to buy US Treasuries and boost the economy. But this risks an ever-weaker US dollar and high inflation.

    Meanwhile, political gridlock in Congress and the Senate threatens to slow down required policy action from the Obama administration.

FRANCE

GDP: US$2.58 trillion as at end-2010

Public debt: US$4.7 trillion as at this month

Debt as percentage of GDP: 182 per cent

Economic growth: Zero per cent in Q2 this year

Unemployment: 9.2 per cent as at this month

Fall in stock market since Aug 1: 12.5 per cent

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS:

    Shares of French banks, which are heavily exposed to Greek and other euro zone government debt, plunged last Wednesday on rumours over their health, with Societe Generale the worst hit.

    Investors were further spooked by rumours that France would be next to lose its top-notch credit rating following the US downgrade.

    French President Nicolas Sarkozy cut short his vacation and gave his ministers one week to come up with new measures to cut the country's crippling debt burden. The government also imposed a 15-day ban on short-selling and opened an investigation into the market turbulence.

    To cap a tumultuous week, figures out on Friday showed that the French economy - Europe's second-largest - ground to a halt in the second quarter as it grapples with the growing costs of managing Europe's debt crisis.

KEY ISSUES AHEAD:

    All eyes are now on a meeting tomorrow between Mr Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the two leaders try to avert a banking and sovereign-debt crisis that threatens to spiral out of control.

    But there are big doubts that Dr Merkel will announce her backing for additional crisis-fighting measures, given domestic opposition.

GERMANY

GDP: US$3.32 trillion as at end-2010

Public debt: US$2.72 trillion as at end-2010

Debt as percentage of GDP: 80 per cent

Economic growth: Estimated 0.3 per cent in Q2 this year

Unemployment: 7 per cent as at last month

Fall in stock market since Aug 1: 16.2 per cent

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS:

    Even Germany, a model of fiscal prudence, has seen its public debt rise sharply.

    German coalition lawmakers last week rejected a further expansion of the €440 billion (S$760 billion) rescue fund or the creation of euro bonds that would effectively make individual governments' debts a common burden.

KEY ISSUES AHEAD:

    As Europe's largest economy, Germany is already bearing much of the euro zone's bailout burden. Now the question is how much more it is willing to take on.

    Its economy is also showing signs of slowing, and Dr Merkel is facing a backlash from critics in her own political coalition who are calling for her to put the brakes on further bailouts.

ITALY

GDP: US$2.06 trillion as at end-2010

Public debt: US$2.7 trillion as at end-April

Debt as percentage of GDP: 120 per cent

Economic growth: 0.3 per cent in Q2 this year

Unemployment: 8 per cent as at this month

Fall in stock market since Aug 1: 13.8 per cent

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS:

    European shares plunged last week on fears that Italy, which has one of the largest public debts in the world, could become the next victim in the spreading euro zone debt crisis due to its poor economic growth and domestic political tensions. Its economy is more than twice the size of the combined economies of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, so its economic problems alone could jeopardize the euro zone's survival.

    The European Central Bank (ECB) was forced to step into the market and buy Italian and Spanish bonds after their interest rates soared to 14-year highs.

    Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced a painful mix of tax increases and spending cuts on Friday to meet ECB demands for action.

KEY ISSUES AHEAD:

    Mr Berlusconi's already shaky political future is on the line after rebellion broke out in his ranks over the tough new package of spending cuts and tax rises.

    Market panic has eased for now with ECB intervention, but last week's wild swings on the stock market underline the persistent fear among investors.

SPAIN

GDP: US$1.41 trillion as at end-2010

Public debt: US$2.17 trillion as at this month

Debt as percentage of GDP: 154 per cent

Economic growth: 0.2 per cent in Q2 this year

Unemployment: 20.9 per cent as at last month

Fall in stock market since Aug 1: 10.2 per cent

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS:

    Like Italy, Spain became the focal point of market panic last week on fears that it would also need bailing out. Unemployment has stayed above a whopping 20 per cent since last year and the government is struggling, amid suffocating austerity, to find the growth it needs to service a huge public debt.

    On Aug 12, the European Commission ruled that Spain could temporarily close its labour market to Romanian immigrants - the first time barriers to free movement of workers have been reimposed within the European Union. At 800,000, Romanians are Spain's largest foreign group.

KEY ISSUES AHEAD:

    Unfortunately for Spain, Romanians already in the country can continue to claim the same unemployment benefits as other EU citizens.

    The debt market turmoil - with borrowing costs soaring - risks choking off the country's weak economic recovery, which slowed in the second quarter.

GREECE

GDP: US$305.42 billion as at end-2010

Public debt: US$498.6 billion as at April

Debt as percentage of GDP: 160 per cent

Economic growth: -0.8 per cent in Q2 this year

Unemployment: 16.6 per cent as at May

Fall in stock market since Aug 1: 17.7 per cent

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS:

    Talks with the country's creditors on a bond swap plan have stumbled. The plan was part of a second, €109 billion bailout package for Greece to cover its financing needs for the next several years.

    Citing poor private-sector participation, officials revealed last week that a plan to swap Greek government debt maturing by 2020 into new, longer-dated securities might be extended to include bonds falling due in 2022 or even 2024.

    Fresh data last week also showed a sharp increase in the country's budget deficit as revenue collections continued to lag, and that the economy shrank again in the second quarter. Greece remains in a third year of recession as austerity measures promised in exchange for two international bailout packages begin to bite.

KEY ISSUES AHEAD:

    Any extension of the bond swap plan means Greece's bondholders - mainly European banks and insurers - will incur even deeper losses. Their shares have already been hammered by their exposure to Greek debt following an agreed bailout package last month.The tough talks also show the difficulties faced by the euro zone in getting the private sector to significantly contribute to any debt easing.

UNITED KINGDOM

GDP: US$2.25 trillion as at end-2010

Public debt: US$2.25 trillion as at Aug 3

Debt as percentage of GDP: 100.3 per cent

Economic growth: 0.2 per cent in Q2 this year

Unemployment: 7.7 per cent as at last month

Fall in stock market since Aug 1: 8.5 per cent

MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS:

    Four days of riots in Britain, which began on Aug 6, have cost businesses and insurers hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost to Britain's reputation - and its lucrative tourist trade in the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games - may be incalculable.

    Last Wednesday, the Bank of England again cut its forecast for economic growth this year, to 1.4 per cent from 1.8 per cent, due to serious threats from the euro zone's debt crisis.

KEY ISSUES AHEAD:

    Will Britain have to cough up more? As a non-euro zone country, it has no involvement or exposure to the region's bailout fund, but it contributes to funds offered by the International Monetary Fund.

    There is some concern that the riots in Britain could dissuade its government from moving forward with planned austerity measures.

ann@sph.com.sg