Saturday, March 31, 2012

Singapore 'now needs politicians': Chan Heng Chee

Mar 31, 2012

Technocrats have to become politicians to push good policies, says Chan Heng Chee

By Phua Mei Pin

Nearly 40 years ago, a young political science lecturer at the then University of Singapore wrote an essay saying Singapore had been depoliticised into 'an administrative state'.

Singapore, she said, had seen 'the steady and systematic depoliticisation of a politically active and aggressive citizenry'.

On Friday, the writer - Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee - said it was time for her seminal essay to be revised.

'If I were to write now, I would talk about the repoliticisation of Singapore,' she said.

Professor Chan had earlier also argued that a depoliticised administrative state did not need a demagogue or charismatic leader, but called for a 'systems man'.

Today, she said, Singapore has an abundance of such men. 'We need more than that. We need politicians. Technocrats are not enough. Technocrats have to become politicians.'

While the country needs good technocrats to plan and design policy, 'good policy is also an understanding of how it will be received on the ground', she said.

Prof Chan was speaking to The Straits Times as her alma mater's political science department celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Last night, she was honoured as a member of its first student intake in 1961, as well as one of the most illustrious alumni of the university, now called the National University of Singapore (NUS).

At the interview, she drew a contrast with the politics she observed in the US. While the US has avoided difficult issues, Prof Chan said Singapore's strength lay in its ability to make difficult decisions that are beneficial in the long run.

'But you have to understand how it goes down on the ground. But the ground should not expect only easy things to be done.'

For Prof Chan, the evidence of repoliticisation is obvious, as seen in the heightened activity on social media platforms and the number of contested constituencies in last year's general election.

It has also shown up in her work as ambassador, when she visits US campuses to speak to Singapore students on trends in Singapore politics. 'They seem to be quite informed. They're engaged, and they feel for Singapore. That's a very good sign.'

Speaking to students is not a novelty for the academic, who taught at the political science department for 20 years, heading it from 1985 to 1987, before going on to found and run the Institute of Policy Studies in 1988.

But where she used to send her students out to the ground to conduct their research, she now finds herself telling Singapore students overseas that they should return to Singapore.

But they would ask what the Government was doing to draw them home. She would tell them: 'In the end, it is your family. It is your wanting to be back in Singapore. It's in your heart.'

[I think this speaks to the failure of both the govt and the students. The govt for inculcating an "incentive-disincentive" approach to problem solving, and the students for allowing themselves to be conditioned to such a problem-solving approach.]

She added: 'If you decide not to stay in America, America will not miss you. If you don't come back to Singapore, we will miss you.'

Recalling that she did not even consider not returning to Singapore, Prof Chan said of her generation: 'We had a sense of mission.'

In 1965, within two weeks of arriving at Cornell University in the US, she shortened her six-year doctoral programme to a two-year master's programme, letting her return to Singapore sooner.

In 1989, she was appointed Singapore's permanent representative to the United Nations, then ambassador to the US in 1996, a post she still holds. She will join NUS' Board of Trustees next month.

But for all she gained from studying political science, one most-used skill as a diplomat was picked up when she wrote jingles for an advertising company in her pre-university days. It taught her the importance of projecting the image of Singapore.

If there is one skill set current political science students can do with, it is communication and people skills, she said. 'You have to engage people and you have to make yourself interesting. Otherwise, why would anyone want to engage with you?'

Friday, March 30, 2012

Academic freedom in New Haven and S'pore

Mar 30, 2012

By Simon Chesterman

ON APRIL 5, Yale faculty will vote on a resolution challenging the Yale-NUS College, the liberal arts programme that will admit its first students in August 2013.

The resolution reflects three distinct concerns about the joint venture. The first is an internal matter to Yale and relates to the decision not to seek a formal vote on Yale-NUS College before it was launched. The second is that Singapore's laws and politics are different from those of the United States and less protective of civil liberties. The third, but often conflated with the second, is uncertainty as to whether academic freedom is respected in Singapore.

Whether the resolution is passed or not, it raises important questions about the relationship between academic freedom and the wider legal and political climate. It also suggests the extent to which academic freedom is a misunderstood concept - even, it seems, by some academics.

What, then, does academic freedom mean?

Given the present context, it may be appropriate to cite the statement of the American Association of University Professors, most recently updated in 1990. This acknowledged that academic freedom entails certain rights - but it also comes with responsibilities and requires an understanding of context.

The rights generally associated with academic freedom are that teaching and research should be conducted without unreasonable interference or restriction by the law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.

The qualification 'unreasonable' is important as this is not an absolute right. Academic freedom does not entitle you to experiment on non-consenting human subjects. An academic who falsifies results should expect disciplinary action; one who does not show up for class should not expect to get a promotion or a pay raise.

But beyond such clear cases, professors should be free - and encouraged - to pursue the truth wherever it leads. There are many examples of what happens in the absence of such freedom. Think astronomy under the Catholic Church at the time of Galileo, or biology in the Soviet Union.

In 2007, I helped New York University (NYU) School of Law launch its Singapore Master of Laws programme, another international partnership with the National University of Singapore. Some NYU faculty had expressed the same concerns about academic freedom currently being debated by Yale professors.

Over the past five years, NYU faculty have experienced no problems in teaching just as they would in New York - including on subjects such as human rights and the death penalty.

NYU visitors currently teach alongside permanent faculty at NUS Law who also work on these and other potentially controversial topics, such as free speech and the Internal Security Act. Both sets of professors - and all their students - profit from the collegial environment that we have created.

The ability to research and teach in such an environment should, however, be distinguished from the ability to organise a protest march on the street or to attack the personal integrity of an individual policymaker or judge - although Singapore's laws on unlawful assembly and defamation are themselves the topic of on-going research.

Similarly, the remnants of the British colonial prohibitions on homosexual conduct, though no longer proactively enforced, concern many gay and straight Singaporeans - and are also properly the subject of lively debate within academia and elsewhere.

The responsibilities associated with academic freedom include recognising that it is a privilege justified by expertise, not a licence to exploit a soapbox. Professors, like everyone else, have opinions. But outside of one's field of research that opinion is no more - and no less - valuable than that of anyone else.

This in turn suggests the importance of context. There is no question that Singapore's political climate is different from New Haven's. At various points it has been implied that this might stifle debate on the Yale-NUS campus.

Such vague assertions are impossible to prove, but would also establish an impossible standard not of 'unreasonable interference' but 'potential influence'.

Taken seriously, one might equally argue that political correctness in the United States stifles debate on issues such as gender and race, and that conservative political forces limit teaching and research in areas from evolution to stem cells.

Having taught in various countries around the world, my own experience is that every university operates within a larger social context.

Indeed, probably the greatest threat to academic freedom experienced by NYU's Law School in recent years came not in Singapore but in France, where a professor was forced to defend himself against an accusation of criminal libel over a mildly critical book review. (He won.)

This is not to say that Singapore is perfect. Some academics choose not to focus their research on sensitive subjects. But many do. And in doing so, they help push at the limits of knowledge and cultivate among our students the curiosity and creativity that is essential in an information-based world.

Yale - which, for what it's worth, already has partnerships with China and Saudi Arabia - will make a significant contribution to the development of academia in Singapore through the new liberal arts college. Some might see this as an eminently appropriate role for a university named after a donor who earned his fortune as a governor of the East India Company.

But the Yale faculty who teach here will also learn from the students and colleagues with whom they interact, and from working in an environment that reflects the diversity of worldviews held by the people of our shrinking globe.

So is Singapore the same as New Haven? No. But then again, that's the whole point.

The writer is Dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. From 2006-2011, he was Global Professor and Director of the New York University School of Law Singapore Programme.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Events show power of individuals to make history

Mar 25, 2012

STOCKHOLM (AP) - In France a motorcycle gunman throws a presidential campaign into turmoil. In Afghanistan, one United States (US) soldier's slaughter of civilians shifts the narrative of the Afghan war more than any policy conceived by the Obama administration.

The past month exposes the limits of leaders who try to shape the world - and how unexpected actions by individuals can influence the course of history.

'The drama of a singular event can supersede years of policymaking,' says Mr Philip Seib, director of the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy.

And in the information age, there is more space for individuals who are not in positions of power to make a footprint in history, by design or by accident. Consider how the Arab awakening started: a Tunisian fruit seller's self-immolation following a public humiliation by police triggered protests that spread across the Arab World, fueled in part by social media.

And how many people knew of African warlord Joseph Kony before an online video about him went viral this month? Or Pastor Terry Jones of a tiny church in Florida, who stole the global spotlight in 2010 by threatening to burn Muslim holy books?

'If you talk about burning a Quran, and you have access to the Internet, all of a sudden you can inflate your importance in a way that would have been much harder in the age of broadcast and print media,' says Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, a former head of the National Intelligence Council.

The biggest of all such wildcard events, however, happened long before Facebook or YouTube.

Mr Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serb nationalist, was a nobody until June 28, 1914, when he shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, triggering the clash of alliances that became World War I.

Historians still argue over whether history would have been different had the archduke's car turned a different corner. Some say there's a tendency to exaggerate the importance of individuals. Who lit the match, the argument goes, may be less important than who placed the firewood.

The underlying pressures that can foment major changes in society are typically building up long before an unpredictable event provides the trigger, says Professor Michael Oppenheimer of New York University's Center for Global Affairs.

'It's a surprise because people haven't really been paying attention. Then suddenly a spark sets off these forces that have been gathering below the surface of reality, and there's a sea change,' he says.

Sometimes that sea change is catastrophic, like in World War I, and other times it spins the world in a more positive direction.

Ms Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama, and set in motion a chain of events that ended racial segregation in the American South.

Individuals who stood up to oppression have a special place in history: The unknown Chinese man who stood before a tank at Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Nobel Peace Prize winners like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar or Lech Walesa in Cold War-era Poland.

Mr Geir Lundestad, a Norwegian historian and the non-voting secretary of the peace prize committee, says that when individuals tap into 'deeper forces' in society they can have major impact on the world. Major changes are almost always driven by local events, he says, and people tend to 'overestimate' the ability of policymakers - especially in Washington - to chart the world's direction.

'There is an assumption, particularly in America but also other countries, that because the US is clearly the most powerful country in the world it can in a major way influence developments everywhere,' Mr Lundestad says.

No doubt, political leaders of major countries still play a huge role in world affairs; wars were started in Afghanistan and Iraq because of policy decisions in Washington, reacting to the terror attacks of 9/11. But the 19th century 'Great Man' theory, stipulating that history is written by kings and generals, no longer holds true in today's inter-connected world.

Since 9/11, the relationship between the West and the Muslim world has been fraught by wild cards that forced policymakers on both sides to react to random acts by individuals.

Before Muslim holy books were burned in a trash pit at a US base in Afghanistan this year, and before Pastor Jones threatened to light his own Quran bonfire, there was Europe's cartoon crisis.

Twelve Danish newspaper caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad went largely unnoticed for nearly half a year. Then in early 2006, after the drawings filtered to Muslim countries, Danish and other Western embassies and consulates were torched and scores of people were killed in riots from Libya to Indonesia.

Denmark - the country that gave the world fairy tales about mermaids and ugly ducklings - was thrust into the cross-hairs of Al-Qaeda. It took months of diplomacy to soothe the crisis, but Denmark's relations with the Muslim world have not fully recovered.

This month, Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales allegedly slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in a night-time shooting rampage outside Kandahar.

Military officials say he crept from his base to two villages, shooting his victims and setting some of them on fire. The killings sparked outrage in Afghanistan, and could ultimately do more to hasten the return of other US troops than any negotiation.

In France, the fallout of the attacks on French soldiers and a Jewish school by a suspected Islamist extremist is still unclear. But they have given an unexpected bounce to tough-talking President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been trailing badly in polls and widely expected to be heading into defeat.

A Norwegian's rampage last July, massacring 77 people - mostly teenagers - in the name of an anti-Muslim revolution, underscored that the threat of solo raids by individuals can come from any direction.

Many say Norway's response to that event deserves recognition.

Instead of a knee-jerk response - tightening laws or clamping down on civil liberties - Norwegian policymakers decided that the best way to defy individuals bent on changing society by deadly force is to change as little as possible.

Says Mr Lundestad of the peace prize panel: 'I do think there's something the world can learn.'


Bleeding won't cure Britain's debt malaise

Mar 23, 2012

New budget's focus on austerity steps can make a bad problem worse
By Andy Mukherjee

BRITAIN'S Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne appears to be a big fan of what Princeton University economist Paul Krugman likes to call the mediaeval practice of curing an illness by bleeding the patient - often to disastrous results.

The annual budget that Mr Osborne presented on Wednesday signalled the government's intention to carry forward - into its third year - a severe austerity programme that saw the public sector workforce in Britain shrink 7 per cent last year.

It is not that the 270,000 people the government fired last year got absorbed by a thriving private sector. Had that been the case, unemployment in Britain would not be at a 16-year high. Nor would the economy have contracted in the fourth quarter, stoking renewed concerns about another recession.

Even if a recession is avoided, the best possible outcome for the British economy this year will be a 'muddle through'. The government's growth target for the year is 0.8 per cent. The only strong pro-growth measure in Mr Osborne's budget was a reduction, from next month, in Britain's corporate tax rate to 24 per cent, from 26 per cent.

But the focus on austerity continues. Mr Osborne abolished some tax-free allowances for pensioners, a move that would rankle in an ageing society, especially as the top personal income tax rate of 50 per cent, applicable only to the wealthy, is being pared down by 5 percentage points.

Britain is sticking with austerity because the government sees it as key to 'the stability that the British economy needs and the low interest rates the British economy needs to allow the recovery to take hold', Mr Osborne said in a recent CNN interview.

That's just a wrong-headed argument.

There is no evidence to suggest that private creditors would have baulked at financing the British government's budget deficit in the absence of debilitating austerity.

British 10-year interest rates have declined to 2.4 per cent a year, from the 5.2 per cent level seen in June 2008. But that wasn't because of austerity. Interest rates in the United States, where the government continues to live well beyond its means, have also collapsed because of a 'safe haven' effect: a result of investors plonking their money into 'bonds of every advanced-country government that still has its own currency', as Professor Krugman puts it.

Consider the severity of the US debt challenge for a moment. Add up the existing US official debt and the present value of all future government expenditure. This liability exceeds the future value of all taxes the government is expected to collect in future by a staggering US$211 trillion (S$266 trillion), or 14 times US gross domestic product (GDP), according to Professor Richard Evans at Utah's Brigham Young University and his colleagues. Closing the gap will require all federal taxes to go up by a whopping 64 per cent. Even then, creditors' faith in the solvency of the US government is intact. Britain's challenge is not as severe.

To be sure, at about £1 trillion (S$2 trillion), or 63 per cent of GDP, Britain's public debt is not low. And this does not include the debt resulting from a takeover of Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group. Adding the bailout debt pushes debt-to-GDP all the way to 148 per cent, though that's a trifle misleading: RBS and Lloyds obligations will disappear from the government's books when they eventually cease to be state-owned.

Unlike countries in continental Europe, Britain has its own currency. And the Bank of England does not share the European Central Bank's squeamishness about printing money to buy government bonds. Rather than make matters worse by pursuing stinging austerity, the focus of the government should have been on putting growth on a surer footing.

Fiscal belt-tightening is also proving to be a big drag in southern Europe where high unemployment rates and complete absence of a growth impetus are making it almost impossible for governments to improve their tattered balance sheets. Spain is struggling to cut its deficit; Greece's debt-to-GDP ratio may not stabilise for years to come. As a whole, the austerity measures are not working.

Economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have put together a rich database on public debt. The database, which goes back to 1880, packs interesting historical evidence. In a recent study, the IMF researchers have discovered 11 episodes of meaningful reduction of public debt in the pre-World War I period. On average, a debt-to-GDP ratio of 89 per cent was successfully lowered to 62 per cent. Most of this improvement took place through fiscal austerity. Presumably this is the period to which Mr Osborne is looking for inspiration.

However, between 1945 and 1970, there were 17 episodes of even larger reduction in public debt, with average debt-to-GDP starting off at 92 per cent and sliding all the way to 33 per cent. In these post-World War II instances, economic growth played a large role. Indeed, in this period, growth contributed much more to helping lower public debt than conventional belt-tightening policies.

The IMF study does not say if growth or fiscal correction is a better solution to large government indebtedness, a problem that has once again assumed crisis proportions since the financial-sector debacle of 2008-09 forced Western governments to rescue their over-leveraged financial systems by assuming private debt on their own balance sheets.

A pragmatic approach for the British government would have been to commit to credible deficit-reduction strategies over the medium term, but it should have spared the economy pain in the short run.

Mr Osborne's budget shows that this simple lesson has not been learnt, and bleeding the patient is still the British government's preferred strategy for curing its debt malaise.

It may just prove to be a big mistake.

Singaporeans in danger of extinction?

Mar 25, 2012
By Jessica Cheam

Singaporeans are in danger of disappearing by 2100 if they continue not having enough babies.

Dr Hans Rosling made that prediction as he said Singapore has yet to feel the brunt of declining fertility and a rapidly ageing society.

If the babies do not come, this place will just fill up with old people, he said, tossing up the numbers that tell the story.

With a total fertility rate (TFR) - or births per woman - of 1.2 last year, Singapore has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

Latest United Nations data puts Singapore's five-year average TFR at 1.37 for 2010 to 2015, compared with 2.57 in Malaysia, and 2.06 in Indonesia. Even Japan has a higher rate of 1.42 and South Korea, 1.39.

What it means is that by 2030, Singapore will have as many people above 75 years of age as young people below 15, and an ever shrinking number of young people will have to look after a growing number of elderly folk.

That is when Singapore will really need immigrants, to fill up the gaps in the population and to keep the economy humming.

Dr Rosling, a sought-after international speaker and Swedish global health professor and public statistics advocate, was in Singapore earlier this month to give a talk.

He was not short of ideas to encourage Singapore women to have babies.

On a previous visit two years ago, he said gender equality was key to fixing the great baby shortage, couples deserved more than four months' paid maternity leave, and Singapore men had to get more involved in child-rearing.

Relying less on foreign maids would do wonders for getting husbands more involved in raising their families, he felt.

Adding to that list on his recent visit, he said the baby situation would improve if more was done to erase the stigma of divorce or being a single mother.

'Allow women to divorce, give them favourable conditions... and you will get more marriages and children,' he said, though he acknowledged that this might be controversial in a society with Asian values.

Recounting a recent conversation in Hong Kong with an unmarried, childless Asian woman in her 30s, he said: 'I asked her, do you not like children? She replied, 'Oh yes, I do. It's the idea of a husband that I don't like.''

As the laughter from his audience died down, Dr Rosling pointed out that Singapore is not the only country with a falling birth rate.

Across the globe, as countries mature, people are having fewer children. Many couples stop at two.

The result is that the number of children in the world has stopped growing.

'The world has hit 'peak child',' he said, noting that the number of children in the world has hit 1.9 billion today and will likely maintain or dip slightly below this level from now up to 2100.

'People think the global fertility rate is somewhere around 3.5 births per woman, but in reality, that number is 2.4 today.'

Dr Rosling also emphasised that - contrary to what some environmentalists say about population growth aggravating climate change - it is not a growing number of people that is the major concern.

Rather, growing resource constraints will come from the existing billions in developing countries rising to the wealth and consumption levels of the richest countries.

Arising from this is the threat of war as countries jostle for land and resources, and also increased poverty due to the rising prices of fuel, fertilisers and food.

He accused some environmentalists of pushing 'a toxic combination of arrogant and ignorant views of the world' by saying the world would cease functioning if Asia began using as much oil as Europe and the United States.

'Frankly, I can live without the polar bear,' he said. 'But I cannot bear the thought of one billion people dying from terrible famines and wars.'

He said the solution lay not in controlling population growth, but in changing the way people live.

The world has the ability to harness technology and produce more food with fewer resources to feed a growing population - but there must also be a change in lifestyles.

This includes getting people to eat less meat, consume fewer goods and buy products that have a minimal impact on the environment.

Clearly someone who loves children, Dr Rosling said: 'People use the term 'population explosion', which I find severely derogative - you are calling a loved child a bomb!'

Life is more meaningful with children, he added. People and governments must weigh the trade-offs when people choose to have fewer babies.

'What is it that makes a society choose a brand-new luxury car over one more child?' he asked.


Saturday, March 24, 2012

Obama Says 'If I Had a Son, He'd Look Like Trayvon' -

March 23, 2012
Obama Speaks Out on Trayvon Martin Killing

President Obama spoke in highly personal terms on Friday about how the shooting in Florida of a 17-year-old black youth named Trayvon Martin had affected him, saying that “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

The comments by Mr. Obama were his first on the explosive case in which a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, has claimed self-defense after shooting Mr. Martin several weeks ago. The case has generated outrage about the state’s so-called Stand Your Ground law.

Mr. Obama was asked about his feelings regarding the case during the announcement of his nominee for president of the World Bank in the Rose Garden on Friday morning.

The president often appears perturbed when he is asked off-topic questions at ceremonial events, but on Friday, he seemed eager to address the case, which has quickly developed into a cause célèbre around the country. He cautioned that his comments would be limited because the Justice Department was investigating. But he talked at length about his personal feelings about the case.

“I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this,” Mr. Obama said. “All of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen.”

The brief remarks were nonetheless a rare example of Mr. Obama speaking to the nation as an African-American parent and the father of two children.

“Obviously, this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” Mr. Obama said, his face grim. “When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”
President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday.Jonathan Ernst/ReutersPresident Obama spoke in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday.

The most powerful line came at the end of his brief remarks, as he said that his “main message” was directed at the parents of Mr. Martin, who have expressed their deep grief during interviews on television over the last several days.

“You know, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Mr. Obama said, pausing for a moment. “I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.”

Mr. Obama sidestepped some of the most sensitive and politically charged specifics about the case — whether Mr. Zimmerman should be arrested; whether the Stand Your Ground law goes too far in protecting people who shoot others; whether the police chief in Sanford, where the shooting took place, should be fired. (The chief, Bill Lee, stepped down temporarily on Thursday, saying he had become a distraction to the investigation.)

“I’m the head of the executive branch, and the attorney general reports to me,” Mr. Obama said. “So I’ve got to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.”

Thousands of supporters of Mr. Martin’s parents expressed their outrage about the killing at a rally in Florida on Thursday night, adding to the growing political dimensions of the case.
Trayvon Martin.Courtesy of Sybrina FultonTrayvon Martin.

The shooting took place Feb. 26, when Mr. Zimmerman, 28, pursued, confronted and fatally shot Mr. Martin, an unarmed high school student carrying only an iced tea and a bag of Skittles.

In a statement on Friday, Mitt Romney, the presumed front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, said: “What happened to Trayvon Martin is a tragedy. There needs to be a thorough investigation that reassures the public that justice is carried out with impartiality and integrity.”

Rick Santorum made some pointed comments about the killing while campaigning at a shooting range in West Monroe, La., before the Louisiana primary on Saturday.

“Well, stand your ground is not doing what this man did,” he said. “There’s a difference between stand your ground and doing what he did. It’s a horrible case. I mean it’s chilling to hear what happened, and of course the fact that law enforcement didn’t immediately go after and prosecute this case is another chilling example of horrible decisions made by people in this process.”

Newt Gingrich, campaigning Friday in Port Fourchon, La., said the district attorney had done “the right thing” in empaneling a grand jury. But, speaking of Mr. Zimmerman, he said it was “pretty clear that this is a guy who found a hobby that’s very dangerous.”

“Having some kind of neighborhood watch is reasonable, but you had somebody who was clearly overreaching,” Mr. Gingrich said. “As I understand Florida law, what he was doing had nothing to do with the law that people are talking about.”

A History of Caution on Race

The last time the president waded into a racially charged incident, it became a political problem for him.

Asked at a news conference about the arrest of a black Harvard professor in the summer of 2009, Mr. Obama offered his opinion, saying that the white officer from Cambridge, Mass., had acted “stupidly” and starting a weeklong controversy about what he said.

“I think it’s fair to say, No. 1, any of us would be pretty angry; No. 2, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, No. 3 , what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately,’’ Mr. Obama said at the time. “That’s just a fact.’’

Mr. Obama eventually invited the professor, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the police officer, James Crowley, to the White House to discuss the situation over some beers.

But despite that incident, the president has been careful not to wade into racial politics. As the nation’s first African-American president, he is sometimes criticized by black leaders who say he is not doing enough to deal with problems in that community.

Asked about the issue in a news conference in his first few months in office, Mr. Obama defended his approach as one that “will lift all boats” by working to “level the playing field and ensure bottom-up economic growth.”

“I’m confident that that will help the African-American community live out the American dream at the same time that it’s helping communities all across the country,” Mr. Obama said in April of 2009.

Richard A. Oppel contributed reporting from West Monroe, La., and Trip Gabriel from Port Fourchon, La.

[I think Obama is doing the right thing. He is POTUS, not President of African-Americans. He is a symbol that the members of that community has progressed, if not arrived. If he does help the African-American community, it should be in his personal capacity as far as possible. Which is difficult to do as POTUS.]

Friday, March 23, 2012

A city is like a bowl of yong tau foo

Mar 23, 2012

BRITON Elouisa Dalli is only 30 years old but, to date, she has lived in 15 cities, each for six months or more.

Ms Dalli, a former commodities reporter, now works for Swiss agricultural technology firm Syngenta Asia-Pacific as a media and community relations manager.

She is a born-and-bred Londoner. She arrived here a month ago, after 4 1/2 years in Zurich.

Singapore, which she finds comparable to Melbourne, attracts her with its 'clean and electric' vibe. It is also safe, has good health care, people who speak good English and 'a sense of its own capabilities'.

Best of all, she adds, is Singapore's open-door policy towards sojourners, enabling her to ease into sports, photography, cooking and yoga communities here.

She finds that a world away from posh Zurich, whose clockwork transport system is safe and stress-relieving, but whose people prefer the status quo and are less open to change and newcomers.

In all the 15 cities she has lived in, which include Abu Dhabi, Istanbul, Milan, Tokyo and Warsaw, her work required her to live as the locals did. She rented apartments in neighbourhoods where locals lived, and shopped where they shopped.

'Unless you're living exactly the same way as the locals, you cannot judge a city,' she says. That is why she was thrilled last weekend to find a Daiso store near her. She first discovered the thrift store when she lived in Tokyo.

Like many other foreigners, Ms Dalli is a fan of Singapore's excellent infrastructure, including its transport network.

Comparing the system here with that in her native city, she says: 'London has a good transportation network, but getting about is atrocious because it has so many disruptions. We'll take notice when it actually runs without a breakdown.

'In Singapore, you can be in Little India and in 10 minutes you're in Haji Lane and in another 10 minutes you're in Chinatown.'

Even more important than the hardware is the software, namely the attitudes of Singaporeans towards newcomers.

'What I like most about Singaporeans is that they don't remind me that I'm a foreigner,' Ms Dalli says.

'Elsewhere, people would ask me, 'How long are you here for?' and even say, 'You're coming here just for the good salary'. But in Singapore, it's 'How can I help you? What do you want to know?''

But if some harbour anti-foreigner sentiments, that is to be expected, says Ms Dalli's colleague Franziska Zimmermann, 37.

She is a Swiss-trained lawyer who is now Syngenta's regional head for public policy and partnerships.

'This anti-foreigner issue is in every city. It's a natural debate and the Swiss are questioning it too. But no one owes anyone else a living; you cannot say you are entitled to jobs in your country,' she says.

Ms Zimmermann has lived in five cities. She arrived here 18 months ago and now 'totally enjoys' Singapore street food and kopitiam coffee.

Ms Dalli is aware that Singaporeans worry about a growing divide between the cosmopolitan rich like her, and lower-income heartlanders. But Singapore strikes her as a society where opportunities remain open to all.

'Everyone in Singapore, regardless of his social background, has the same access to the MRT, education, safety and job opportunities.

'It's only if these opportunities are available only to the top in society that you have a true divide,' she says.

Architectural don Stephen Cairns agrees with Ms Dalli that a city's social fabric is what makes it appealing to global talent.

New Zealand-born Dr Cairns, 50, who currently coordinates 12 research projects on cities at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) University Town, says: 'I think of cities as yong tau foo. The best fishballs and crab sticks are in front of you but even these would not necessarily give you the best-tasting yong tau foo. It's the broth, or social make-up, of a city that counts.'

The chairman of the architecture and urbanism school at the University of Edinburgh has lived in 10 cities.

On secondment here since last year, he and his wife Jane, a geography don at the NUS, and their 10-year-old daughter love it here but took a while to adjust to the heat.

As befits an architecture don, Dr Cairns' suggestion for improving life here centres on how to better integrate its dwellings, shops and transport options.

'Orchard Road is one of the world's most amazing public thoroughfares but interaction with its malls and public footpaths is fragmented.

'In really good cities, you don't need signs telling you 'this way to the MRT or park'. You'd know instinctively where and how to move in and out of malls and stations along the way,' he says.

Ms Dalli and Ms Zimmermann think that Singapore's future attractiveness as a global city hinges on the opportunities available here, as compared with other cities climbing up the ranks.

'When you've got rising stars such as China's cities,' notes Ms Dalli, 'you cannot be complacent.

'At the moment, everybody wants to be in Singapore, but will that be so in future?'


Staying at the top in a global economy

Mar 23, 2012
Singapore recently emerged as Asia's most competitive city and the third-most competitive worldwide in a ranking of 120 cities. But for how long more can the city-state sustain its standing, even as it unfurls policies for its people that blunt its competitive edge, and with other young cities in the developing world snapping at its heels?
By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Correspondent & Phua Mei Pin, Senior Correspondent

THERE are two views on where Singapore is headed in global city rankings.

The first is that it is likely to slip, in the face of super-charged competition from emerging Asian cities.

The second is that it has a good chance to stay among the front runners, along with established players like New York and London.

One thing Singapore has going for it is that it never stands still, so observes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a visit here this week.

'Every time I visit it, it has new land, new buildings and new industries,' he says. Mr Bloomberg and his city officials are the winners of this year's Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.

The prize was announced just a week after the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released its ranking of 120 global cities, in which the Big Apple also emerged tops.

Singapore was not far behind, emerging third overall, just a spot behind London. Its final score was a mere 1.4 points behind New York's.

But going forward, two big questions hang over Singapore's prospects.

The first is whether its economic growth can keep pace with that of developing cities that are galloping along with growth rates in the double digits.

The second is whether it can improve its scores for the less tangible aspects of city living, which include cultural character and entrepreneurial verve.

The answers to those questions could influence the extent to which Singapore remains attractive to capital, business, talent and visitors - the prize catches that all cities worldwide are wooing.

The odds against Singapore

MR MANOJ Vohra, the EIU's director for Asia-Pacific, says Singapore's ranking might well have been lower if the survey had not been based on growth rates for 2010 - the year its economy grew by an astounding 15 per cent.

'Singapore got lucky with 15 per cent growth in 2010,' Mr Vohra says. 'If not for that, it would likely have dropped a couple of notches.'

The EIU's ranking is based on a Global City Competitiveness Index it developed. The index measures cities across eight distinct categories of competitiveness: economic strength, human capital, institutional effectiveness, financial maturity, global appeal, physical capital, social and cultural character, and environment and natural hazards.

The EIU, the business analysis offshoot of The Economist news magazine, gave the most weight to a city's gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

It accounts for 45 per cent of the score in the economic strength category, which in turn accounts for a third of the final score.

Mr Vohra believes 'the odds are against Singapore in the future'. The EIU's assessment is that developed cities like Singapore will enjoy modest growth yearly at best.

That is consistent with the Singapore Government's own forecast of GDP growth of 3 per cent to 5 per cent a year over the medium term.

Mr Sudhir Vadaketh, EIU's senior editor for Asia, notes that a 'middle tier' of mid-sized cities is emerging as a key driver of global growth.

The EIU survey found that the fastest overall growth came from cities with populations of two to five million. These include Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Bandung and Surabaya in Indonesia, Pune in India, Hanoi in Vietnam, and three second-tier cities in China, namely Dalian, Hangzhou and Qingdao.

The EIU forecasts that these mid-tier cities will grow at 8.7 per cent a year overall, from 2010 to 2016. Double-digit growth rates are likely in many Chinese cities during this period.

Of course, the EIU index, though more comprehensive than most, is but one of several indices that have been drawn up to measure cities.

Singapore's own Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) has its own index, for which Associate Professor Tan Khee Giap is the lead investigator.

The CLC's Global Liveable Cities Index uses five equally weighted measures: economic vibrancy and competitiveness; domestic security and stability; good governance and effective leadership; quality of life and diversity; and environmental friendliness and sustainability.

A more important difference is in approach. Prof Tan, an economist at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says his focus is not ranking per se but finding ways to help poorer performers improve.

As he puts it: 'Rankings are like beauty contests and I'm here to give the uglier contestants some make-up so they can improve enough to attract investors.'

Mr Khoo Teng Chye, the CLC's executive director, also stressed that while economic strength is important, what makes Singapore stand out is its 'balanced approach to development'.

'The physical environment (clean air, water, greenery) and quality of life (including quality of education, housing, transport, safety and security) play equally important roles in determining a city's competitiveness, and that has always been Singapore's comparative advantage,' Mr Khoo tells Insight via e-mail.

Beyond balanced development, Singapore has to grapple with how best to achieve balanced or inclusive growth. That is a huge challenge in a globalised world where a disproportionate share of the benefits of growth accrues to those who are skilled and rich, while wages of the low-skilled lag behind.

The stakes are far higher for a city like Singapore, which is also a country.

As Mr Vadaketh notes, many of the highest-ranking cities, including Hong Kong, London, New York and Singapore, have high levels of income inequality that could threaten social stability, and thus hurt different aspects of competitiveness.

'Singapore's situation is arguably more precarious because it is a city-state, and hence has no natural hinterland to which people can choose to move,' he says.

Singapore is now in the midst of limiting the inflow of foreign workers to its shores, a move aimed at alleviating pressures on its citizens but which could compromise its attractiveness in the eyes of some foreign investors and talent.

Dr Chua Hak Bin, director of global research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says these are trade-offs that need to be managed.

'Singapore has to balance the needs of those who can plug into a globalised world and those who can't. Those who can't, cannot go anywhere else because we have no hinterland, and yet they have to make a living,' he says.

It is Singapore's fate, as a small, resource-constrained city-state, to be always confronted with new challenges, be these economic, social or environmental, says Mr Khoo.

But he, for one, is confident that 'as long as we remain open to new ideas, to talent, to capital and continue to innovate our urban systems, we will be able to maintain our competitiveness and ranking' among cities.

Doing even better?

WITH emerging cities snapping at its heels, Singapore cannot afford to stand still.

In the EIU survey, Singapore did extremely well in six of the eight categories of competitiveness.

The six were economic strength, institutional effectiveness, financial maturity, global appeal, physical capital, and environment and natural hazards.

The two categories it fared least well in were human capital and social and cultural character.

In the human capital category, Singapore excelled when it came to the quality of its education and health-care systems, but fell flat on population growth and fostering an entrepreneurial and risk-taking mindset.

Overall, Singapore ranked No. 36 for human capital, behind even Chile's capital, Santiago.

The rub is, Singapore has been working on improving itself in these areas for years, with no solution in sight.

One worrying possibility is that Singapore has picked the low-hanging fruit in its push to be a leading global city.

If it wants to move further up the rankings, it needs to find new ways to tackle problems that it has so far found intractable.

With Singapore's total fertility rate now among the lowest in the world, the Government has population as a top item on its agenda this year.

The challenge is both to find ways to encourage its citizens to have more children, and to spur acceptance of significant inflows of new arrivals to top up the local population.

These are issues that the Government plans to deal with in its White Paper on a sustainable population strategy, which is likely to be debated in Parliament and could form the basis for legislation.

As for entrepreneurial verve, it is not yet part of the Singapore DNA but hopefully can be cultivated over time.

Professor Gerhard Schmitt is the director of the research laboratory at the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability.

He is a professor at ETH, a Swiss science and technology university with an outstanding research record.

When it launched a technopark 10 years ago to encourage risk-taking, its students were risk-averse and would launch only two to four spin-off businesses a year, Prof Schmitt recalls.

Now, they launch two to four such spin-offs a month.

'Singapore is wonderfully wired as well as wireless so it's in a good position to make such an impact,' he says.

The category that Singapore fared least well in was social and cultural character, in which it ranked 42nd.

The category encompasses a wide range of indicators, from freedom of expression, human rights and ethnic diversity to quality of restaurants and the presence of international book fairs. But the category counts for just 5 per cent of the final competitiveness score for cities, since the EIU itself acknowledges that these factors probably matter less to investors than business opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, Singapore's weak link is freedom of expression and human rights. Any improvement on this score is likely to be gradual as it concerns social and political norms which evolve over time.

Still, Mr Vadaketh points out that 'there are ancillary benefits to the economy of having more freedom of expression'.

'It could foster more entrepreneurship and a risk-taking mindset,' he says.

Looking ahead

SINGAPORE'S ambition is not just to remain a leading global city but to position itself as a thought leader in the field.

That is why it set up the Centre for Liveable Cities and launched the biennial World Cities Summit. The latter is a platform for debate and exchange of solutions on the challenges cities face.

Observing that today, many cities are grappling with a resource crunch that Singapore has had to tackle from Day 1 of its existence, Mr Khoo, the CLC chief, says: 'Singapore has developed a high-density and high-liveability model that is resource-efficient and supports sustained economic growth.'

Mayors of many cities are keen to learn from its experience, he adds.

Perhaps this push to be a hub for the best ideas and best practices in city leadership and management will be a factor in helping Singapore stay at the top of its game.

As for Mayor Bloomberg who led New York City to the No. 1 spot this year, he too gives his vote of confidence to Singapore.

'It's always had a desire to win, to change with the times, to be open,' he says.

As for competition from established players and emerging rivals, that is par for the course.

'Singapore will have to fight every single day with them and that's good,' says Mr Bloomberg.

'Competition is Singapore's ray of hope, which keeps it going.'

New York wins LKYWorld City Prize

Mar 22, 2012

In 10 years, officials lifted city from post-9/11 gloom and gave it new life
By Robin Chan

IN 10 YEARS, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team of city officials raised New York City from post-9/11 gloom to new life as a vibrant global city.

Their efforts have won them this year's Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, awarded by Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Centre for Liveable Cities.

In a lecture to mark the occasion, Mr Bloomberg recalled that on the day after the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001, the conventional wisdom was that no one would want to live in New York City, most businesses would want to move people out and that the city's economic future was not bright at all.

'In fact, the exact reverse has happened,' he told an audience of government and industry leaders yesterday at the Raffles Hotel.

'In the last 10 years, we have redone all the infrastructure downtown... We used this opportunity to dig up every street downtown... when companies did move, to convert the old office buildings into apartments.

'So today, downtown, double the number of people live in lower Manhattan than they did before 9/11. Today, you see baby carriages on the streets, at night and on weekends.'

The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize honours outstanding contributions to the creation of vibrant, liveable and sustainable urban communities. This is the second time it has been given out. In 2010, the prize went to the Spanish city of Bilbao.

This year, the New York team beat competition from 62 other cities after two rounds of reviews by 12 high-profile panel members. They included Temasek Holdings chairman S. Dhanabalan and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani.

The citation for Mr Bloomberg and New York City's Departments of Transportation, City Planning and Parks and Recreation, noted the remarkable transformation they led over 10 years.

Their achievements include the planting of more than half a million trees, the creation of 450km of bicycle lanes, the building of 283ha of parks and open spaces and a 35 per cent reduction in the crime rate.

Professor Mahbubani described New York, a city of 8.4 million people, as an 'inspiring story of rejuvenation' that came about through 'bold vision, strong leadership, sheer determination and excellent partnership between government and citizens'.

In his lecture, Mr Bloomberg highlighted three projects that showed how he and his team injected fresh zest into the city by reclaiming derelict infrastructure for new uses.

They redesigned roadways to reclaim space for pedestrians and cyclists. They built the Brooklyn Bridge Park at the site of six abandoned piers along the East River. They redeveloped the West Chelsea High Line - an abandoned, elevated railway line slated for demolition - into an aerial park that has attracted US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) of private investment into the city's former meat packing district.

In the process, they experimented with ideas, including one that Mr Bloomberg himself initially found 'crazy'. That idea came from the city's commissioner for transportation Janette Sadik-Khan. She wanted to close 10 blocks of Broadway, the major roadway through Times Square, to cars. The idea worked and has helped Times Square emerge as one of the world's top 10 retail locations.

Mr Bloomberg has also drafted a blueprint to take the city up to 2030, well beyond his own mayorship. It addresses challenges such as accommodating another one million residents and preparing for climate change.

In accepting the prize, Mr Bloomberg, 70, said Singapore and New York are alike in many ways.

'Both are crossroads of commerce and homes to many cultures. Both are energetic, restless and forward-looking, constantly in motion, and constantly rebuilding themselves,' he said.

He also praised the man for whom the prize is named.

'There are people in the world that you're going to look back and say they were those transformative people that really changed not just their country, but changed society, and Lee Kuan Yew is one of those,' he said.

Mr Bloomberg said he had dinner with Mr Lee three or four months ago in the home of former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

The billionaire businessman, who was first elected mayor in 2001, said he would not try for a fourth term.

'I'll never have another job in government that will... be anywhere near as exciting as the one I have,' he said, but added that '12 years is enough in government'.

Before being mayor, he worked in Salomon Brothers and then founded Bloomberg LP, now a global media company.

'I've looked forward to going in to work every single day, in every job I've ever had. I'll find something else to do,' he added.

Air pockets ahead for Changi

Mar 22, 2012
Airport's future rests on how well regulator and operator fly together

By Karamjit Kaur

CHANGI'S quest to stay at the top of the world airports league is about to hit some air pockets. And just as a smooth touchdown depends on a match of skill and chemistry between the pilot and the control tower, the key to Changi's continued success will be how well Singapore's aviation regulator and the airport operator fly together.

The challenge for Changi is how to keep up with the rise in passenger numbers and expectations.

Earlier this month, the Transport Ministry set up an 11-member working group helmed by Minister of State Josephine Teo to assess Changi's infrastructure and other requirements in the coming decades. Recommendations will be made within a year.

Plans have meanwhile been unveiled to close down the Budget Terminal in September to make way for a newer, bigger facility slated for opening by 2017.

Until then, life is going to get busier at Terminal 2, which will absorb the budget traveller traffic. The terminal which handled 13 million passengers last year will see the traffic swell overnight to about 18 million.

Still, that is not as bad as it might seem. T2 can take up to 23 million passengers a year. In 2007 - the year before T3 opened - it handled 21.5 million passengers.

What this episode does highlight, though, are concerns about Changi's long-term capacity - the focus of the Transport Ministry's working group.

The Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation (Capa), an industry think-tank, said recently that if Changi continues to grow its traffic by 8 per cent a year - the average since 2004 - the airport will hit full capacity by the time the new terminal opens.

Singapore needs not one but two new terminals by the end of this decade, Capa said, and a third runway as well, to cope with increasing flights.

The team planning Changi's future has a tough job, for two reasons.

One is the sheer logistics. The next phase of Changi's expansion will go beyond the current airport boundary. There is no space for another terminal on existing airport land.

The next big terminal is likely to be erected next to Runway 3, more familiar as the venue for the biennial Singapore Airshow.

If cleared for take-off, the project will be massive and costly. Not only is there a main road - Changi Coast Road - separating the area from existing airport land, Runway 3 is not connected to the other two runways.

Planners will have to find a way to move aircraft, travellers, bags and cargo between the two locations. This is a formidable, but essentially a design, challenge. Options include flyovers as well as underground links.

The second issue, which might call for even more heavy lifting by the Transport Ministry's panel, is how to reconcile the divergence in the interests of the two stakeholders - the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Changi Airport Group (CAG).

In 2009 when CAAS was split into two arms - one to regulate the industry and the other to run the airport - the rationale was to ensure Singapore remained a premier aviation hub.

As a corporate entity, the airport would be more independent and able to react nimbly to increasing competition, the Government said then.

But it would not be focused solely on the bottom line and the assurance to travellers was that the change would not affect the level of service they had come to associate with Changi.

Three years later, aviation insiders say the regulator and the operator do not always see eye to eye.

The ends remain the same - more airlines and flights, and happy travellers - but the means sometimes differ. And this is especially so when it comes to capacity issues.

For more than three decades, Changi's mantra - now that of the CAAS - has been to build ahead of capacity.

When T3 opened in 2008, some travellers described it as a 'ghost town' because it was so empty. Airport retailers were not happy either. Four years later, the terminal is utilising just 57 per cent of its annual passenger handling ability.

Overall, Changi's total traffic takes up 64 per cent of available capacity now.

Travellers don't like crowded terminals. They want room to move around and enough chairs to sit on while waiting for flights.

But even as it is important to please the customer, airport operators are also mindful of the need to ensure the efficient use of assets and resources so they can run viable - and more importantly, profitable - operations.

The question for Changi Airport Group then, is whether it is cost-effective to operate the airport at such low capacity levels, as is the present case, or whether it should pack more people into the terminals.

Other major airport hubs in Hong Kong, South Korea and London reportedly run at more than 80 per cent of total capacity, and are profitable.

The same goes for runways.

Even as calls are being made for Changi to operate a third runway - in line with the 'build ahead of capacity' mentality - an observer with CAG's hat on would point out that while Changi Airport handled 302,000 take-offs and landings last year, Heathrow, which also has two runways, did 476,197.

So instead of rushing to invest in a third runway, perhaps the focus could be on improving efficiency with the current two.

At the end of the day, even if there are some flight delays and terminals become more crowded, would it really hurt Changi's image that much?

The team planning Changi's future will have to tackle the differences between CAAS and CAG when deciding when to build the new terminal and who will pay for it and the related infrastructure works. All these issues will have to be considered carefully, with one eye on the need to ensure the airport's continued success and the other on Changi Airport Group's business interests.

Where the line is drawn will determine the Changi Airport that will greet travellers 10 to 15 years from now.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

White rice link seen with Type 2 diabetes, says study

Mar 16, 2012

PARIS (AFP) - Health researchers said on Thursday they had found a troubling link between higher consumption of rice and Type 2 diabetes, a disease that in some countries is becoming an epidemic.

Further work is need to probe the apparent association and diets that are notoriously high in sugar and fats should remain on the no-go list, they cautioned.

'What we've found is white rice is likely to increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, especially at high consumption levels such as in Asian populations,' Qi Sun of the Harvard School of Public Health told AFP.

'But at the same time people should pay close attention to the other things they eat.

'It's very important to address not just a single food but the whole pattern of consumption.' In the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Dr Sun's team said the link emerged from an analysis of four previously published studies, carried out in China, Japan, Australia and the United States.

These studies followed 350,000 people over a timescale from four to 22 years. More than 13,000 people developed Type 2 diabetes.

In the studies carried out in China and Japan, those who ate most rice were 55 per cent likelier to develop the disease than those who ate least. In the United States and Australia, where consumption of rice is far lower, the difference was 12 per cent.

Participants in the two Asian countries ate three or four servings of rice a day on average, compared to just one or two servings a week in the Western countries.

White rice is the dominant form of rice eaten in the world. Machines produce its polished look by hulling and milling, leaving a grain that is predominantly starch.

Brown rice, by contrast, has more fibre, magnesium and vitamins, and a lower 'glycaemic index,' a measurement of sugar content, than white rice.

Dr Sun said the study did have limitations, including full details about what the volunteers ate in addition to rice.

'I don't think I can put forward a 100-per cent confirmed case, given that this is a meta-analysis of four original studies,' he said.

'But I see a consistency across these studies, and there is biological plausibility that supports the association between white rice consumption and diabetes.' He added: 'More trial data are needed to corroborate or refute our observations.' Diabetes affects nearly 350 million adults worldwide, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Diet is only one factor in Type 2 diabetes, a complex disease that involves high levels of blood sugar that cannot be processed by the hormone insulin.

Obesity and lack of exercise are also cited as culprits.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Declining America is the worry, not its rising partner

Mar 19, 2012
Will the United States live in peace with a rising China? This was the topic of a Tembusu Forum chaired by Professor Tommy Koh on March 7, the 40th anniversary of Dr Henry Kissinger's groundbreaking visit to China. The following are edited versions of remarks from three speakers
By Terry Nardin

DISCUSSIONS about future United States-China relations focus on the economic and military power of a 'rising China'. But it takes two to make a relationship. So there is reason to give attention to China's partner, the US. What threats to peace does this partner pose, and how can it ensure a harmonious relationship with China?

The idea that the US might pose a threat to peace is not a novel idea. Fears of American hegemony, imperialism and intervention have arisen periodically for more than a century. It is barely a generation since the Soviet Union's collapse left the world thinking there was only one superpower.

In the past, fears of America were premised on the existence of overwhelming power. Today, those anxieties focus on American weakness.

In a recent New York Times column, Thomas Edsall asks whether technological progress and global competition will make an increasing proportion of Americans unemployable. He wonders whether inequality will continue to increase as wealth flows to the richest Americans while ordinary wages stagnate, and whether this means the political clout of the wealthy is rendering the electorate essentially powerless.

Equally concerning is evidence that America's social fabric is weakening. In large areas of the country, underemployment, debt, drug use, poor health and narrowing opportunities have undermined resilience and, worse, fuelled resentment. At one time limited to the urban poor, these pathologies now affect the heartland majority.

A hollowed-out middle class creates a nation that feels overtaken by events. Especially among those who have lost their former status, resentment can become the motor of hatred, xenophobia and authoritarianism. These poisonous elements have found their home in an increasingly unhinged and destructive Republican Party which, while serving the rich, exploits the anger of a vast ignorant and angry swathe of the country. The result is the manipulated 'idiocracy' on full display in the Republican presidential primary contest. According to a recent poll of people in Mississippi identified as likely to vote in the Republican primary, more than half say they believe that President Barack Obama is a Muslim; most of the rest are not sure.

Solutions are elusive because the US Constitution gives disproportionate influence to rural areas at the expense of cities, which have always been drivers of innovation. The split between red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) states is not the whole story. If you look at county-level data, the urban areas are blue and rural areas red. America's cities are little blue dots in a sea of red.

In an article published in The Straits Times recently, Clive Crook argues that too much time is spent worrying about potential rivals to American power. There is, he writes, 'a much bigger threat to American power: the increasingly abject failure of the country's own political class'. This failure includes endless political campaigns that preclude solving public problems, an inability to plan for the long term, a debased political debate, and a Democratic Party that should be thriving but labours under the disability of being led by a president many Americans view through the lens of racial and religious intolerance. 'China,' he concludes, 'is the least of this country's problems.'

There are situations in which the motives for war identified by Thomas Hobbes - scarcity, fear and vanity - can be triggered and a country becomes irrational and irresponsible. Mischief-makers, which in the US include right-wing funded hate radio, can stir up trouble. A divided political scene can generate extreme parties and leaders. It is easy to mobilise populations against scapegoats, including foreign 'enemies', when times are bad.

But even if America is in decline, this does not make war with China inevitable.

It is tempting to predict the future based on deterministic theories. But there is no science of historical change. The so-called power transition theory - that wars occur when one power overtakes another - does not leave room for intelligent choice either in planning for challenges or meeting them. Changes in relative power can be a source of trouble, as when a wife starts earning more than her husband or achieves a higher status position. Will there be war? Can hubby live in peace with a rising wife? A strong and generous husband will make a better job of it than a weak and resentful one. But the outcome is not foreordained.

History has no direction. The fate of nations is subject to contingency. And there is always scope for prudent leadership. At the moment, China and the US enjoy rational governments that are aware of irrational currents in their respective populations. Governing is always a matter of skilfully regulating powerful forces to ensure security, liberty and well-being and, especially, to minimise the perpetual risk of catastrophe.

But there is reason nevertheless to worry about the American half of the China- US partnership. For this reason, we should be paying more attention to how the US can prudently manage a power equation that has been shifting in China's favour.

The writer is head of the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Uganda screenings of Kony film halted after angry protests

Mar 15, 2012

KAMPALA (AFP) - An Ugandan youth group said on Thursday that it would stop screening a hugely popular Internet video calling for the arrest of rebel chief Joseph Kony after local people reacted furiously at its first showing.

A screening in the northern town of Lira, attended by many people mutilated by Kony's soldiers, was halted after some people started throwing stones, said Mr Victor Ochen, the director of African Youth Initiative Network.

His group had now dropped plans to show the film around the region.

'We wanted to make our people part of the debate,' said Mr Ochen.

'But in the end we had to stop it because people were having such a strong reaction to the film and were getting very angry,' he said.

The video, Kony 2012, by United States (US) advocacy group Invisible Children, has been viewed by tens of million people worldwide, mainly online, since it was released last week.

But when the group held a public screening on Tuesday in Lira, where few people had been able to watch the 30-minute film due to limited Internet access, it provoked an angry response.

'As soon as they saw the clip saying that people should make Kony famous, people got very upset and started to react,' said Mr Ochen.

Many of the thousands attending, who included some mutilated by the soldiers of Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), objected to what they saw as the film's insensitivity and its outdated view of northern Uganda, he added.

'People were asking why they were showing white children in America and not telling the truth about the situation of the local people in the area,' said Mr Ochen.

'We realised that the reaction would be the same wherever we went,' he added.

Kony's ruthless rebels were infamous for mutilating civilians and abducting children to use as soldiers and sex-slaves during their two-decade war in northern Uganda.

But they have been forced out of Uganda and since 2006 have been operating in neighbouring countries.

Kony, a semi-literate former altar boy, took charge in 1988 of a rebellion among northern Uganda's ethnic Acholi minority, to fight the Kampala government it wanted to replace by a regime based on the bible's Ten Commandments.

He is accused by the International Criminal Court of the rape, mutilation and murder of civilians as well as forcibly recruiting child soldiers.

Regional armies launched a hunt in 2008 to capture Kony after he repeatedly refused to sign a peace deal with Uganda. But he remains at large alongside a clutch of fighters.

[Hugely popular everywhere else except where it happened. Telling.]

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Quran-burning: America's blind spots

Mar 6, 2012
By Naomi Wolf

IN THE wake of the Quran- burning by troops at the United States' Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, protests continue to escalate, and the death toll mounts. In the process, three US blind spots have become obvious.

One is that of the US media, whose coverage simply underscores - and amplifies - the stunning cluelessness that triggered the protests in the first place. Professional journalists are obliged to answer five questions: Who, what, where, why and how. But, reading reports from the Associated Press, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others, I searched exhaustively before I could form any picture of what had actually been done to the Qurans in question. Not only did accounts conflict; none offered a clear notion of who had allegedly done what, let alone why or how.

Were Qurans burned, as one US report had it, under the oversight of US military officials? Or were they taken by soldiers for incineration, as another version maintained, as part of a haul of 'extremist literature' and prisoners' personal communications, with Afghan workers alerting others at the base to the nature of the material?

These murky accounts - with no clear subjects or actions (The New York Times, incredibly, managed not to describe the burning at all) - reflect what happens when major news outlets appear simply to take dictation from the Pentagon.

The second US blind spot is the politicisation of this terrible affront. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has called President Barack Obama's apology a 'surrender', while another Republican contender, Mr Rick Santorum, is offended that anyone is suggesting that the US should bear any 'blame'.

This absence of perspective reveals the cultural ignorance that has turned recent US foreign interventions into political catastrophes. I, too, come from an Abrahamic religion, Judaism, which shares strong roots with Islam. In both faiths, sacred texts are treated as if they are, in a sense, living beings. Jews, too, give them 'burials' when they are too old to use, and treat them ritualistically while they are 'alive', using silver pointers to avoid profaning them with human hands, dressing them in velvet jackets, and kissing them when they fall to the ground.

Burning a conquered people's sacred texts sends an unmistakable message: You can do anything to these people. As German poet Heinrich Heine put it, referring to the Spanish Inquisition's burning of the Quran, 'Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings'.

Jews understand that very well: from the Inquisition to Cossack massacres to Kristallnacht, the aggressors destroyed Torahs as a logical and well-understood precursor to destroying Jews.

The third blind spot is almost too painful to bear having to address - which, on a charitable interpretation, might explain why not one mainstream US media report has done so: the burnings were not carried out on some street in Kabul, but at Bagram. That is, Qurans were burned at a US facility that meets the dictionary definition of a concentration camp.

In 2009, Spiegel Online ran a portrait gallery about Bagram titled 'America's Torture Chamber'. In 'The Forgotten Guantanamo', it reported that 600 people were being held at Bagram without charge. All were termed 'unlawful enemy combatants', allowing the US to claim that they have no right to the protections of the Geneva Conventions. A military prosecutor said that, compared to Bagram, Guantanamo Bay was 'a nice hotel'.

Indeed, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, invariably described in the US as 'the self-proclaimed chief architect of 9/11', told the Red Cross that at Bagram he had been suspended by shackles and sexually assaulted: 'I was made to lie on the floor. A tube was inserted into my anus and water poured inside.' Another prisoner, Raymond Azar, testified that 10 FBI agents had abducted him, shown him photos of his family, and told him that if he didn't 'cooperate', he would never see them again.

The BBC collated testimony in 2010 from nine prisoners confirming that human-rights abuses continued at Bagram. The prisoners independently described 'a secret prison' inside the prison, called 'the black hole'. Prisoners were still being subjected at the time to freezing temperatures, sleep deprivation, and 'other abuses'. One testified that a US soldier had used a rifle to knock out a row of his teeth, and that he was forced to dance to music whenever he needed to use the bathroom.

Another investigation confirmed similar allegations in 2010, and last month the BBC reported that Bagram's prison population had reached 3,000, while an Afghan-led investigation found still more allegations of ongoing torture, including freezing temperatures and sexual humiliations.

Of course, since the US military can detain anyone in Afghanistan, and hold him or her without charge in these conditions forever, the entire country lives under the shadow of torture at Bagram. The Quran burnings are a potent symbol of that systemic threat.

So, while Mr Obama should continue to apologise for the Quran burnings, we must understand that Afghans' rage is a response to an even deeper, rawer wound. Mr Obama should also apologise for kidnapping Afghans; for holding them at Bagram without due process of law; for forcing them into cages, each reportedly holding up to 30 prisoners; for denying them Red Cross/Red Crescent visits; for illegally confiscating family letters; for torturing and sexually abusing them; and for casting a pall of fear over the country.

The Quran forbids that kind of injustice and cruelty. So does the Bible.

The writer is a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook For American Revolutionaries.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Social safety nets: Some ideas too costly?

Feb 17, 2012

The Government is promising to raise social spending in the coming and subsequent Budgets. Yet some policy options recommended by local academics remain firmly off the table. Insight takes a look at some of these alternative social policies - and why they might never come to pass.

By Janice Heng

AN AGEING population puts pressure on the health-care system. Economic restructuring sees workers left behind and bereft of jobs.

What is a government to do?

In the face of such trends, there are two ways the Government might respond, says Dr Gillian Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies.

One is by 'doing more of the same' and expanding current programmes.

The other: trying something new.

From monthly handouts for poor retirees to financial help for the unemployed, local academics have proposed ideas that challenge the policymaking status quo.

They might find a sympathetic ear among Singaporeans, who have shown that they 'have a deep social conscience', says Dr Koh.

More citizens now seem to care about issues of wealth distribution, social mobility, and social protection.

The Government, too, has put a greater emphasis on social spending.

From the National Day Rally speech to a Chinese New Year dinner with constituents, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has taken many an opportunity to stress the Government's commitment to improving social safety nets.

Yet it is likely that improvement will take certain tried-and-tested forms. Despite the ingenuity of academics, social policy in Singapore is unlikely to see a radical shift.

Self-reliance still key

FOR one thing, the Government continues to stress the importance of self-reliance.

Many alternative proposals seek to reduce this emphasis, by envisioning a greater role for Government or relying on collective social support.

Another worry, vividly illustrated by the Europe debt crisis, is that a bloated welfare system could become an unsustainable drain on public coffers.

In Europe, where welfare systems are entrenched and public spending makes up more than 40 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in many countries, this fear is understandable.

In contrast, Singapore's government spending has ranged from about 12 per cent to 15 per cent of GDP in recent years.

Even in the developed Asian countries such as South Korea and Japan, public spending is more than a fifth of GDP.

One might further argue that Singapore is in a position to design social welfare policies from scratch. With careful planning, it could avoid the excesses of other systems.

But to that, the cautious policymaker might reply: if you give Singaporeans an inch, they might take a mile.

The introduction of one handout could get Singaporeans asking for more. Under this assumption about citizen behaviour, one wrong move could see Singapore leap from its current frugality to European levels of spending.

There is also a simple argument against social policy innovations: they may not be what Singapore needs most.

For Dr Irene Ng, improving Singapore's social safety nets is not just about having more or different schemes.

What Singapore needs is 'a more integrated approach of help', says the assistant professor of social work at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

The recent move towards a 'whole of Government' approach to social safety nets is an important step, says Dr Ng.

'But besides talking at the macro-policy level, we need to think carefully at the programme level, from the individual family's perspective, how to make the integration of programmes work.'

For now, it is unlikely that social health insurance or unemployment savings will feature in Budgets to come.

The Government remains wedded to its cautious stance towards welfare.

But as Singapore's population ages, and as economic restructuring boosts the ranks of the unemployed, changing times could call for changing mindsets.

Helping the elderly and unemployed maintain their incomes requires a large fiscal commitment over a long period of time, says Visiting Professor M. Ramesh at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

But a cocktail of measures might well be needed if Singapore is to provide comprehensive social protection, he adds.

Says Prof Ramesh: 'All options - including social insurance, public assistance, and compulsory savings - should be carefully considered and assessed.

'Nothing should be ruled out prima facie.'

Sunday, March 4, 2012

High dividends not always a good thing

Mar 4, 2012

By Andy Mukherjee

Companies pay dividends for the same reason that peacocks unfurl their feathers: to get ahead in the mating game.

By handing out cash to investors at regular intervals, a company woos shareholders who may have reasons to be sceptical of its financial strength.

Like all serenades, paying out of dividends, too, has its special rules. First, a dividend should be an easy-to-remember, round number. Second, it should either rise or remain the same from year to year, but it must never be reduced. Investors dump shares of a company that cuts its dividends more quickly than they are attracted to a company that raises it.

If the chief executive officer (CEO) of a dividend-paying company ever had an honest chat with a shareholder, it might go something like this:

CEO: 'We're pleased to announce a 12-cent dividend for the full year.'

Shareholder: 'Last year, you paid 10 cents. You know what it tells me, right?'

CEO: 'Yeah, it tells you that I'm committing myself to paying you at least 12 cents next year, if not 14.'

Shareholder: 'And that means...'

CEO: 'No investing in fancy projects that could go wrong; no growing a beard, or wearing turtlenecks. I'm not here to change the world.'

Shareholder: 'Precisely. We want you to work on your golf handicap instead.'

Your eyebrows are rising in disbelief. Surely there is a more fundamental motive behind paying of dividends? There isn't. If anything, in jurisdictions where dividends are taxed but capital gains are not, there is even less of a reason for shareholders to want to receive them.

Yet, the cult of dividends exists. It has been spawned by the likes of Mr Warren Buffett and other value-investing followers of Mr Benjamin Graham because it gives them the certainty that their money is not at the disposal of a maverick.

Value investors do not like excitement. They like their companies to be like bonds with stable, predictable cash flows, a part of which is ritually distributed. Their dream chief executive is someone whose presence is irrelevant. It's in fact better if the CEO is largely absent. At least he will do no harm to the franchise, especially if the company has been successfully selling sugared soda water for 100 years or more.

Still don't believe me? Mr Gueorgui Kolev, a behavioural finance scholar, studied publicly available data on golf handicaps of CEOs in the United States. His research shows that golfing ability has no relationship with corporate performance, but it is linked to CEO pay.

'Golfers earn more than non-golfers and pay increases with golfing ability,' he writes. In other words, CEOs are paid to be out on the green - as long as they can show up once a quarter to announce a dividend.

Apple, the most valuable company on the planet, does not hand out one. That's fairly well known.

But few people remember that the maker of Macintosh computers actually did distribute regular payouts - four times a year - between 1987 and 1995. That was the period in which Apple was floundering. The board had fired Mr Steve Jobs, the founder of the company, in 1985; by the time Mr Jobs came back to run the company in 1997, it was already teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

In his second innings, Mr Jobs did many things. He launched the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad. But he did not reinstate the dividend. Did investors mind? People who bought Apple shares at the start of 1998 have earned 41 per cent a year annually since then. Show me a hedge fund that has done better.

With Mr Jobs dead, there is pressure on Mr Tim Cook, the new CEO, to unlock Apple's US$98 billion (S$123 billion) cash hoard and pay dividends. If Mr Cook caves in, he will basically be admitting that Apple is now old and boring and needs to show plumage to remain attractive to shareholders.

That's just what happened to Microsoft when it began paying dividends in 2003 - a year before rival Google's initial public offering (IPO). But to what end?

Between 1986 and 2002, Microsoft shares returned 39 per cent a year without paying out any cash to investors. Between 2003 and last month, share price appreciation gave Microsoft investors a paltry 2 per cent annually. Include the dividends that an investor took and ploughed right back into Microsoft shares, and the returns rise to a still sub-par 5 per cent a year.

Meanwhile, Google has yet to pay a cash dividend. It's trying to change the world, for instance by trying to pioneer driverless cars. Mr Buffett, who has professed his admiration for the company, does not own its shares.

When Asian companies pay too high a dividend, they are signalling their inability to participate in the economy of the world's fastest-growing region. Why do you want to own such companies?

In the final analysis, plumage is not a substitute for performance. Peahens may not know this (bird-brained as they are), but investors should.