Sunday, May 31, 2009

Why we covered Aware saga the way we did

May 30, 2009

ST's editor answers critics of this newspaper's reporting of events
By Han Fook Kwang

I HAD been reluctant to write this piece defending The Straits Times' coverage of the Aware saga. Some of my colleagues had wanted the paper to put out its side of the story in the face of criticisms over how we covered the saga. But I wasn't keen to make the paper the focus of this long-running debate, for I've always felt that newspapers shouldn't be active players in the stories they cover. Our job is to report accurately and fairly what is happening and to make sense of it for our readers so they can draw their own conclusions. However, critics have assailed us over these very issues, and I have little choice now but to set out the facts concerning our coverage after two MPs spoke about it in Parliament this week.

On Tuesday, Nominated Member of Parliament Thio Li-ann said that reporting on the saga had been biased and lacked a diversity of views. She did not name The Straits Times but everyone listening to her would have concluded that she was referring to this newspaper.

Were we biased and one-sided in our coverage? This is best answered by detailing how we covered the story.

Many have forgotten how this story began. Aware held its annual general meeting (AGM) on March28, and for almost three weeks few knew that the group's leadership had changed in a dramatic fashion that day. The old guard team who were tossed out did not announce it. The new president, Mrs Claire Nazar, and her team were silent. It was only on April6 that The Straits Times was tipped off that something unusual had happened at Aware and we began work on the story. Our first report did not appear until April10, because for most of that week we had tried hard to confirm with both sides - the old guard and the new - what had happened.

Founder members and old guard leaders of Aware spoke to us. They confirmed that the election had taken place legitimately and according to Aware rules, which allowed brand new members to seek leadership positions right away. They were distraught, not at seeing their preferred list of candidates lose the election, but at the manner in which the new team moved in. Their account was that the majority of the 102 people who attended the AGM comprised new members who had joined in recent months. Most were unknown, and most stayed silent during the AGM. When it was clear that the new members were contesting executive council positions with the intention of taking over the organisation, older members tried to ask them who they were but received few clear answers.

We were faced with a curious situation. Here was a new team of women who had contested and taken over Aware. Yet, three weeks after they had taken charge of this well-known group, they remained unwilling to explain who they were, why they had acted and what they intended to do with Aware. These are basic questions that any group which takes over a society, grassroots organisation, union, clan or country club should expect to be asked if it pulls off as successful a leadership grab as this appeared to be.

In the days before our first report appeared, our reporters tried hard to reach members of the new leadership. We were willing to report whatever they had to say, but our reporters were stonewalled by everyone they reached. Ms Jenica Chua confirmed she was in the committee but refused to speak. Repeated calls to Ms Josie Lau and Ms Lois Ng were not successful. Ms Lau's husband, Dr Alan Chin, had joined Aware as an affiliate member and had been present at the AGM, but he too would not speak to our reporter. Even the new president, Mrs Nazar, refused to say anything until the day she confirmed that she had resigned after just 11 days at the helm.

More than once, those approached in the new team asked for a set of questions to be sent to them in writing by e-mail. Our reporters obliged, only to receive no answers by e-mail and no face-to-face interview either.

After Ms Lau was appointed president, The Straits Times continued to hope that Aware's new leadership would see fit to open up about themselves and their plans. Attempts to reach individual exco members failed as everyone insisted that only the president was authorised to speak to the media. Yet Ms Lau did not make herself available either, despite numerous attempts to reach her by telephone, e-mail and text message. Instead, she chose to make her first public statements on a television current affairs programme. The Straits Times reported what she said there.

Those who accuse us of being one-sided in our reporting in the first two weeks after the story broke are right in a way. But it was not because we deliberately sought to shut out the views of the new group while providing the old guard space in this newspaper. The new leadership was often absent in our pages because they chose to remain silent, for reasons best known to themselves.

It was not until April23 - almost a month after the Aware AGM - that Ms Lau and some members of her team finally decided to open up at a press conference. The Straits Times sent a team of reporters and covered it comprehensively with reports on Page1 as well as in the inside pages.

Some have criticised our extensive coverage of this story and wondered why our reporting was so 'breathless'. There are many reasons. As this story played out, we witnessed some highly unusual twists. Aside from the leadership change, Aware's new president resigned within a fortnight. Her replacement, Ms Lau, was criticised publicly by her employer, DBS Bank, for taking office. The Straits Times was prepared to give the new team as much space as we had given the old group, and more if necessary, to answer all those questions which had been on everyone's mind: Who were they, why did they take over Aware in the manner they did, and what did they hope to achieve?

It was only at that April23 press conference that senior lawyer Thio Su Mien revealed herself as the mentor of the women who had taken over Aware, and made several comments explaining why she felt Aware needed fixing. We reported that press conference extensively, and followed up by running extracts of what Dr Thio and others said, as well as their answers to additional questions our journalists put to them. We had maintained throughout that The Straits Times was prepared to run what the new leadership said, and we did so, in the interests of providing balance in our coverage so readers could better judge the merits of the arguments.

Our readers are not always aware of the work journalists do behind the scenes to try to present reports that are factual and objective, or the lengths to which we go to persuade those who are unwilling to speak to engage with the media and open up. It was certainly not for lack of trying on our part that the views of the new team led by Ms Lau and her supporters did not appear more often in our pages, especially in the early stages.

Mr Sin Boon Ann, in his speech in Parliament on Wednesday, accused the press of 'framing this episode as one that carries a religious undertone' and, in the process, polarising Singapore society. We should again let the facts speak for themselves. From the outset, we wanted to find out more about the new group, but because they were not willing to speak, we had to do our own research. Our checks showed one common link initially: several members of the new group had written letters to the press expressing concern about the perils of promoting a homosexual lifestyle in Singapore. We subsequently also found out that several of them belonged to the same Anglican Church of Our Saviour. We reported these factually.

Were we wrong to have highlighted those links? The April23 press conference confirmed what The Straits Times had reported. Dr Thio, who also attends the same church, revealed that she began monitoring Aware's affairs about a year ago because she was disturbed by what she saw as signs that it was promoting lesbianism and homosexuality. She then began urging women she knew - including many in her church circle - to challenge what she perceived to be Aware's attempts to redefine marriage and families.

What of the 'religious undertones' which Mr Sin accused the press of promoting in its coverage? This is totally mistaken, and akin to shooting the messenger. In fact, the strongest expressions of concern over this were not made by the press, but by various other parties.

As Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng observed in an interview with this paper: 'The Government was worried about the disquieting public perception that a group of conservative Christians, all attending the same church, which held strong views on homosexuality had moved in and taken over Aware because they disapproved of what Aware had been doing. This caused many qualms among non-Christians, and also among Christians who believed that this was an unwise move in a multiracial, multi-religious society. It was much more dangerous because now, religion was also getting involved, and it was no longer just the issue of homosexuality.'

No higher authority in the Christian community than Anglican Archbishop John Chew of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) issued a clear statement that the NCCS did not condone any church getting involved in the Aware dispute. Leaders of other religious faiths also put out statements to reinforce NCCS' message.

Why did so many feel it necessary to speak out on the danger of mixing religion with politics in the Aware saga? It wasn't the press which gave them the idea.

Was it because of what Senior Pastor Derek Hong of the Church of Our Saviour was reported to have said from the pulpit, urging his flock to support the then new exco in Aware? He had said:

'It's not a crusade against the people but there's a line that God has drawn for us, and we don't want our nation crossing that line.' We leave it to readers to decide.

Far from The Straits Times raking the ground with an anti-religious agenda, we provided the available facts surrounding the makeup of the new group for readers to draw their own conclusions. Subsequent events showed that we were not barking up the wrong tree.

Mr Sin wondered if 'the press would have been so quick on the take if it were women from another faith who took up the cause instead'.

He ought to know better than to use the religion card in this fashion. If Mr Sin is accusing The Straits Times of being in favour of some religions against others - a very serious accusation against a newspaper with 1.4million readers of every religious shade - he should substantiate his complaint.

I hope the facts I have set out above will help readers understand better our coverage of the Aware saga. Were we right in every aspect of our coverage? Of course not. Journalists are human, we make mistakes and we have our blind spots. Our record is that we are upfront about our errors and apologise for them promptly. Our internal processes, which involve several layers of editing and gate-keeping, ensure that individual reporters do not push their own agendas. We have also carried out our own internal review of our coverage and have found that we could have done better in several respects. For example, we should have pressed the old guard more on Aware's school sexuality programme and the appropriateness of some of its content.

But I stand by the professionalism of our reporters. The personal attacks against the integrity of our journalists sadden me because they show the vindictiveness of our critics and the length to which they are prepared to go to attack our professionalism. In fact, there appears to be an organised campaign to discredit the media, with mass e-mail being sent, including to Reach, the government feedback portal.

The Straits Times has no hidden agenda to push this line or that, or to favour one group against another. On this story, as with others, we were driven by our desire to provide as much information to our readers as possible, in as timely a manner. That remains our primary objective.

[Personally, I'm sick of the AWARE saga. It was supposed to have been game over, but still the Christians continue to snipe, and cheer their victory when MOE suspended AWARE's CSE.

What is scarier is that the militant Christians continue to march. Or maybe it is just a few vocal ones. The leaders of the various churches will need to provide clear leadership... and perhaps reign in the loose canons (typo deliberate!).]

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A more balanced system - tweaking Singapore's politics

May 27, 2009

THE upcoming changes to the political system and electoral rules will result in a more balanced system and bring diverse views in Parliament to better reflect the aspirations of Singaporeans, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday.

The changes are not to entrench one party, nor to deliberately result in weakened governments, said Mr Lee in Parliament during the debate on President SR Nathan's address last week.

'They update our political system so that it reflects better the aspirations of Singaporeans,' said Mr Lee. 'They provide adequate voice for diverse views in Parliament, including non-partisan views and views of those who have voted for the opposition.'

The changes will lead to non-People's Action Party members taking up at least 18 seats in Parliament, or roughly one-fifth of the House. The Constitution will be amended to allow for up to nine 9 Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs), who are opposition candidates who lose but are nevertheless given seats in Parliament.

At the same time, the Parliamentary Elections Act will be amended to increase the stipulated minimum number of opposition MPs, including NCMPs, to nine. The current minimum is three.

This means there will be a guaranteed nine MPs from opposition parties in Parliament, whether or not they win an election. These nine opposition MPs will join nine Nominated MPs - unelected representatives of sectors such as business and the creative industries - to bring about more diverse views in Parliament, the PM said.

The NMP scheme, started in 1990, will now be made a permanent feature of the system. One new sector - the people sector - will be invited to nominate candidates for the scheme.

Another change will see on average smaller Group Representation Constituencies, which can be as big as six members. At the same time, the number of single-member constituencies will be increased from nine to at least 12.

Mr Lee said the changes will ensure that the government which is elected has a clear mandate to govern in the interests of Singapore, "so our political system will continue to serve Singapore well, now and into the future.'

PM Lee made it clear that he is making the changes now at mid-term not because he is about to call elections but 'so that we can discuss and settle this in a calm atmosphere, and make the changes in ample time before the next elections.'

'These changes are not just for the 2011 GE, but also for the long term strength and stability of our system,' PM Lee stressed.

But he underscored the point that whatever political system that is in place will only work well if the electorate votes wisely, "in the full knowledge that if they vote for frivolous or fickle reasons it will mean a setback" to Singapore and its future.

'Otherwise we will not have honest leaders to run the system and govern the country,' he said. 'So voters have to see the parties and candidates for who they are, what they can do and make a decision in line with their true interest.

'If the PAP is serving them well, then they should vote for the PAP. If the PAP is letting them down, then they should vote against it. That way we make sure we always have the best team to serve Singapore well.'

[The fact the these changes are being proposed now, means opposition parties can prepare and plan their strategies. However the fact that the electoral boundaries, GRCs & SMCs are not, means that the opposition is still disadvantaged.

Nevertheless the proposals are all good for the opposition. Not their best hopes (abolish the GRC) but better (smaller GRCs) than the current (5 & 6 member GRCs), and better (12 SMCs instead of just 9).

I can imagine the the opposition may push for smaller GRCs (2 or 3-member), but the counter argument would be that they now have 3 more SMCs.

The PAP is very astute and know that the GRC system is disaffecting a lot of Singaporeans. But at the same time it is how they are able to bring new MPs and potential ministers into the system. These changes are significant enough to show singaporeans that the PAP is willing to loosen their grip and give the opposition a chance. The young electorate wants this and may feel that this is significant enough, or they may feel it is not enough. The PAP is betting that more of them thinks it's enough and will see the coming elections as fairer to the opposition.

The PAP knows that if they continue to hold on tightly to their power by seemingly unfair means, they will alienate and lose the electorate. Certainly, they feel that with 18 non-PAP MPs there will be a better debates, better ideas. Certainly, I tend to find the NMPs making better arguments than the opposition most of the time. The NMP system is a good one and should be continued. ]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

No 'bright line' between religion and politics - response to Thio Li-Ann

May 27, 2009

This is an edited excerpt from a speech by NMP Thio Li-ann in Parliament yesterday during the debate on the President's Address.


IN A recent interview, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng reiterated that religion and politics must not be mixed. This is sound, though there are difficulties of definition as no bright line demarcates 'religion' from 'politics'. We need to understand what 'secularism' entails in Singapore for more specific guidance.

[Comment: What is scary is that Thio can see "no bright line" demarcating religion from politics. Does Parliament make reference to religious dogmas and values in its deliberation? Do heads of faiths sit in on cabinet meetings? Or less facetiously, ask anyone to define religion and politics and ask if the line between the two is blurred and lacking in definition? Does she even think before she spews such stupidity?]

A state's attitude towards religion turns upon its model of constitutional secularism. 'Secularism' is a protean, chameleon-like term: what it means depends on the context and who is using it; it can be a virtue or a vice. It is timely to eschew glibness and examine the Singapore model of secularism with precision.

There are in fact many secularisms or degrees of secularity. This complex term needs to be unpacked.

Historically, 'secularism' originates from the Latin 'saeculum', meaning 'temporal', worldly affairs, rather than 'spiritual', other-worldly matters. The word 'secular' is an emblem of intense historical conflict.

Today, in some circles, 'secularism' connotes systematic hostility towards religion, as a synonym for a politicised form of ideological atheism whose creed is that humanity is destined to wholly shed religious conviction. The atheistic word was made flesh in the atheistic state produced by the Russian Revolution of 1917, devoted to Marx's assumption that religion stupefies the masses and must be eradicated to bring forth the new Communist Man.

[From the start she confuses secularism with atheism, simply because she has strong views about atheism, but has no understanding of secularism. Marx was antitheistic. Not sure if anyone ever called him secular. For a primer in secularism read this article by Kishore Mahbubani, a far greater intellect than Thio or her FM mother will ever be.

Thio should also give example of systemic hostility towards religion by secularists in Singapore - if they are systematic, this should be easy. On the other hand, I just read in the New Paper about Church members hanging around outside a school in Pasir Ris and aggressively trying to convert students. The systematic aggressive proselytisation of the Christians (let's get specific here because I do not see aggressive proselytisation by Muslims, Buddhists, Taoist, or Catholics. Only Christians, and not all Christians I may add. I don't believe I've ever been accosted by a Lutheran. But I don't keep track) is more prevalent. Where secularists or rather atheists do respond to religion with hostility is when religion or religious doctrine is thrust unwanted in their face.]

The principle of secularity dates back to the Roman Empire. It derived from the teaching of Jesus to 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's'. This principle of limited government opposed state absolutism in suggesting Caesar did not wield absolute authority: While a citizen was to obey civil authority, he was to enjoy freedom from state interference in matters pertaining to the worship of God. Religious liberty thus limits state power. America first experimented constitutionally with dividing sacred from secular authority, rejecting the European conflation of civil and religious power.

["Render unto Caesar.." indeed. The simple understanding of this is that state and religion should be separate. The pro-religion interpretation that Thio uses here is that religious liberty limits state power. What rubbish! What part of "Render unto caesar..." translates to "Religion trumps State"? And if so, why can't we interprete it to mean that State's authority trumps Religious prescription? After all Jesus said "Render to Caesar" first, before he mentioned God. Surely if God/religion trumps state, he should have said something like "Render unto God what belongs to God and if there is anything left, you can hand over to Caesar if he asks for it nicely."

Or better yet, "Render unto God what belongs to God and... oh wait, He made everything so everything belongs to him. Caesar gets nothing."

But no. He said, "render unto caesar...". And he said it very equitably (as translated), which implies that he did not intend to put one over the other. And even tho as the Son of God, he would know that God made all things and so all things belong to God, he still recognises that there are secular laws and that while we are in the secular world we submit ourselves to secular law. Thio's interpretation is therefore incredibly biased and serves her own agenda to say the least and speaks to her prejudices.

Next she'll be asking us to abolish abortion.]

Senior Minister of State Zainul Abidin Rasheed described Singapore secularism as 'secularism with a soul'. This deft juxtaposing of the material and the metaphysical speaks to the cooperative relation between state and religion.

The Constitution does not forbid the state to lend financial or other support to a religion; thus we have the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore as a statutory government body serving the Muslim community.

[Oh yes. Need to assure the public that you are not just presenting the Christian perspective. But is that a sly dig at MUIS? Which is the only statutory body for any religion.]

In 1989, Foreign Minister George Yeo observed the Government was 'secular but it is certainly not atheistic'. This evinces a rejection of a thick, atheistic version of secularism.

[No. George Yeo makes a distinction between secularism and atheism. If he meant to say we reject atheistic secularism (if there is even such an animal), he would have said so. It is clear that Thio does not even have a fundamental understanding of secularism as defined or operationalised in Singapore. The govt has always said that religious values will shape and guide your values, but in public policy and public space you need to translate those values into secular arguments and rational logic, not use faith-based dogma and doctrine as a replacement for reason and rationality. To confuse secularism and atheism shows a poor understanding of these two terms. One can be religious and apply secular arguments or processes. But one cannot be religious and be atheist at the same time.]

Secular humanism, which posits a morality independent of God, is a comprehensive anti-theistic world view. Some courts recognise it as a religion. It dogmatically asserts the absence of God, without any empirical evidence. We know from elementary logic that it is impossible to prove a universal negative. Whether God exists or not cannot be proved or disproved by evidence or logic.

[Straw man red herring. We are not promoting secular humanism and it is irrelevant in the Singapore context. Nor are we as a society concerned with proving or disproving the existence of God. Secularism is not about that. And yes, it is impossible to prove a universal negative. That means God's non-existence cannot be proven. But if God exists, there should be some way to prove it. Since it is impossible to disprove God's existence, then the burden of proof falls upon the faithful.]

It takes faith to believe or not to believe in God or gods. A lot of faith is needed to believe there is no divine. As Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol wrote: 'It is the atheist's opium to regard that unsubstantiated faith as established fact.' Thick secularism is thus an anti-religion religion.

[No it is not. Continued confusion between secularism and atheism. Oh but bravo for quoting a non-Christian to leaven your argument. How inclusive!]

Secular democracies should be neutral not only between traditional religions but also regarding modern religions with atheistic foundations.

[There is no "modern religion with atheistic foundations". This is the imaginary creation of Thio and confused christians. Atheists are not the opposite of theists. Religion is organised. Atheists aren't... except when you push them too far. Then they organise for self-defence. Religion is a religion. Not believing is a not a religion. It is the inflexible mind of a theist that would need to pigeonhole atheist in the same mould as a theist and atheism with the same structures as religion.]

What is the situation in Singapore? DPM Wong emphasised the secular nature of the political arena and how keeping 'religion' and 'politics' separate was a key rule of political engagement.

What this means specifically is that laws and policies derive their legitimacy not from divine sanction but from a democratically elected government. Law generally applies to and equally protects all citizens, regardless of race, religion or social status. Clearly, the Singapore model of secularism is anti-theocratic in that religious tenets and secular law are separated, not conflated.

While anti-theocratic, the Singapore secularism is not anti-religious. This is a vital distinction.

["Anti-theocratic"? No. What you are comparing is a Theocracy vs a Democracy. Please figure these two concepts out for yourself. Wong Kan Seng is not so stupid as to attempt to explain that Singapore is not a theocracy. The secular nature of politics in multi-religious Singapore means that while anyone can have views and positions based on their religious beliefs and the teachings of their religion, it is insufficient to proffer religious dogma, doctrine or values as the sole justification (or in fact as the basis of any justification) for a political decision. Against homosexuality? Don't say the bible says so. Explain in biological, sociological, economical terms why it should not be accepted.

For now the govt has accepted prima facie a sociological argument - that conservative Singapore society would not accept homosexuality. However, when it comes to hard science, the govt is not going to entertain religious views. So creationism will have no space on the science curriculum. Nor will Singapore cripple our own bioscience R&D by prohibiting stemcell research. If Singapore ever tries to restrict abortion, it may be an attempt to reverse our TFR, not out of a religion-driven need to respect unborn life.]

DPM Wong welcomed the public service of individuals inspired by their religious convictions; they also 'set' society's 'moral tone'. He affirmed that religious individuals had the same right as other citizens to 'express their views on issues in the public space' guided by their beliefs.

Religion is thus separated from politics, but, religion is not separated from public life and culture. Everyone has values, whether shaped by religious or secular ideologies; all may participate in public discourse to forge an ethical social consensus. While religion is personal, it is not exclusively private and has a social dimension which is not to be trivialised.

[This whole speech/essay is a strawman exercise of putting up false constructs to knock them down. In the first place Thio conflates atheism with secularism. Second, she imbues atheism with the same set of structure as theism. Third she proclaims atheism as an "anti-religion religion" (a false construct). And fourth, she assumes that atheism is homogeneously one cosmology of thought, just as she blithely imbues religion with a singularity that ignores fatal and fundamental differences.]

Thus, Singapore secularism is 'agnostic' and 'thin'. The Government does not favour or disfavour any particular religion. We practise 'accommodative secularism' described by the Court of Appeal as removing restrictions to one's choice of religious belief. Religious values do have a role in public debate.

Agnostic secularism of this sort is a virtue; it is a 'framework' which facilitates the peaceful co-existence of religions.

Conversely, militant secularism is an illiberal and undemocratic vice in seeking to gag religious views in the public square and so to privilege its atheistic values, as in communist states.

[Please give example of militant secularism in Singapore. Define "militant". But good tactic to tar it with communism.]

Secular fundamentalists are oppressive where they seek to mute religiously informed convictions in public debate, by demonising a view as religious.

[Another false construct! Secular fundamentalist! Come on! Bring on the Secular Terrorist!]

Militant exclusionist secularism is thus a recipe for social disharmony; it feeds the 'culture wars' in the US and provokes those it seeks to exclude. It will not promote unity in diversity.

[What is more likely to sow disharmony? A secular approach, or a religious approach in a multi-religious society. What is the common ground? If religion is the common ground, why are there so many religions. Why is it even in the same religion we can have sectarian divisions like the sunnis, the shias, the wahibs, the anglicans, the lutherans, the baptists, the presbytarians, the methodists and so on?

Unity in diversity? What about unity within the same religion?

The so-called culture wars began when the Christian Right started their undeclared war on the more progressive Christians.]

When it comes to moral disagreements and public policy, the press is powerfully positioned to promote informed debate. However the press may, by biased and selective reporting, misrepresent, distort or obscure an issue. We need to broaden our understanding of responsible journalism in Singapore, which rejects the extremes of an adversarial American watchdog and a Pravda-like lapdog, or running dog.

The feedback I received from friends and strangers on the reporting of the Aware controversy was that much of the reporting, particularly in one paper, was biased. It largely lacked a diversity of views in singing the same chorus that religious groups should not get involved in secular organisations. Some spoke of their new lists of 'fair' and 'unfair' journalists.

[By that token, Wong Kan Seng is also unfair because he also agreed that religious groups should not get involved in secular organisation. Sometimes when everyone seems to be out to get you, you may simply be paranoid. Sometimes, they really don't like you. And sometimes, it may be because you did something wrong.]

Responsible journalism should extend to covering a diversity of views, not a journalist's preferred view. It should include the accurate representation of differing viewpoints, and not paint the fringe as mainstream or the pathological as normal. Readers may then see all sides of an issue and decide what is true.

[In part it is a problem of Josie & the pussycats own making. By keeping silent, by not commenting, by being isolated, by being secretive, they created their own hell. And while a lot of the reports were not flattering, ST did try to present the other side, with even an interview with Josie. (addendum: ST Editor subsequently explained that it was in fact a problem of the secretive new ex-co's making.)]

This is important given the near monopolistic position of Singapore broadsheets. A lawyer recently returned from London wrote to me expressing horror in finding local papers apparently had nothing better to report than the AWARE saga, as opposed to the more interesting British papers which offered a lot more variety.

This made me somewhat nostalgic for my student days in Cambridge, where I could, with chocolate croissant and Nescafe coffee in hand, survey a range of perspectives from The Times, Guardian, Independent or Telegraph.

[Yeah. You should go back there.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

BPA, Chemical Used To Make Plastics, Found To Leach From Polycarbonate Drinking Bottles Into Humans

ScienceDaily (May 22, 2009) — A new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) researchers found that participants who drank for a week from polycarbonate bottles -- the popular, hard-plastic drinking bottles and baby bottles -- showed a two-thirds increase in their urine of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA). Exposure to BPA, used in the manufacture of polycarbonate and other plastics, has been shown to interfere with reproductive development in animals and has been linked with cardiovascular disease and diabetes in humans.

The study is the first to show that drinking from polycarbonate bottles increased the level of urinary BPA, and thus suggests that drinking containers made with BPA release the chemical into the liquid that people drink in sufficient amounts to increase the level of BPA excreted in human urine.

In addition to polycarbonate bottles, which are refillable and a popular container among students, campers and others and are also used as baby bottles, BPA is also found in dentistry composites and sealants and in the lining of aluminum food and beverage cans. (In bottles, polycarbonate can be identified by the recycling number 7.) Numerous studies have shown that it acts as an endocrine-disruptor in animals, including early onset of sexual maturation, altered development and tissue organization of the mammary gland and decreased sperm production in offspring. It may be most harmful in the stages of early development.

[comment: All those girls with early sexual maturation may be "victims" of this!]

"We found that drinking cold liquids from polycarbonate bottles for just one week increased urinary BPA levels by more than two-thirds. If you heat those bottles, as is the case with baby bottles, we would expect the levels to be considerably higher. This would be of concern since infants may be particularly susceptible to BPA's endocrine-disrupting potential," said Karin B. Michels, associate professor of epidemiology at HSPH and Harvard Medical School and senior author of the study.

The researchers, led by first author Jenny Carwile, a doctoral student in the department of epidemiology at HSPH, and Michels, recruited Harvard College students for the study in April 2008. The 77 participants began the study with a seven-day "washout" phase in which they drank all cold beverages from stainless steel bottles in order to minimize BPA exposure. Participants provided urine samples during the washout period. They were then given two polycarbonate bottles and asked to drink all cold beverages from the bottles during the next week; urine samples were also provided during that time.

The results showed that the participants' urinary BPA concentrations increased 69% after drinking from the polycarbonate bottles. (The study authors noted that BPA concentrations in the college population were similar to those reported for the U.S. general population.) Previous studies had found that BPA could leach from polycarbonate bottles into their contents; this study is the first to show a corresponding increase in urinary BPA concentrations in humans.

One of the study's strengths, the authors note, is that the students drank from the bottles in a normal use setting. Additionally, the students did not wash their bottles in dishwashers nor put hot liquids in them; heating has been shown to increase the leaching of BPA from polycarbonate, so BPA levels might have been higher had students drunk hot liquids from the bottles.

Canada banned the use of BPA in polycarbonate baby bottles in 2008 and some polycarbonate bottle manufacturers have voluntarily eliminated BPA from their products. With increasing evidence of the potential harmful effects of BPA in humans, the authors believe further research is needed on the effect of BPA on infants and on reproductive disorders and on breast cancer in adults.

"This study is coming at an important time because many states are deciding whether to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups. While previous studies have demonstrated that BPA is linked to adverse health effects, this study fills in a missing piece of the puzzle—whether or not polycarbonate plastic bottles are an important contributor to the amount of BPA in the body," said Carwile.

The study was supported by the Harvard University Center for the Environment and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Biological Analysis Core, Department of Environmental Health, HSPH. Carwile was also supported by the Training Program in Environmental Epidemiology.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Learn to live with diversity

May 23, 2009

A sense of common good should prevail, whatever our differences

By Lydia Lim

ENTREPRENEUR and innovation guru Guy Kawasaki once criticised Singapore as an one-opinion town.

His precise words were: Israel has five million people, six million entrepreneurs, and fifteen million opinions. Singapore has five million people, six entrepreneurs, and one opinion.

That was a deft use of hyperbole on his part, for Singapore surely has more than six entrepreneurs. And if there was any doubt that Singaporeans have more than one point of view, the recent disagreements over matters related to the leadership tussle at women's group Aware provided ample evidence.

Mr Kawasaki's comment is premised on the belief that more diversity is better than less. He links diversity to innovation - and hence, to progress, at least in the realm of technology.

Does that apply in the social sphere as well? Is more diversity necessarily better than less?

I suspect some may be tempted to answer in the negative. After all, our society seemed so much calmer in the old days, when people shied away from openly discussing sensitive issues such as race, religion and homosexuality, not to mention fighting publicly over them.

But that does not strike me as the right question. Diversity is a part of our social reality now. A buffet of contrasting and competing beliefs and interests is energetically displayed online and offline, in religious and secular circles, at Speakers' Corner and in Parliament. Unless Singaporeans were to suddenly experience a mass conversion to a single creed, diversity is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

So it is pointless to hanker nostalgically after the calm past - which was mythical in any event. The 1950s and 1960s were hardly calm. And if there was an appearance of a calm consensus on many issues in the 1970s and 1980s, perhaps that was because people were less willing then to say what they thought.

A better question is, given such diversity, how can we best move forward as a society?

We might look to the United States for some lessons on what not to do. There, the battle between liberals and conservatives over social values has degenerated into a so-called 'culture war'.

War is a distinctly uncivil act for civil society to be engaged in. As a sphere independent of both the state and the market, civil society is where individuals can gather in groups to further their interests and advance their vision of a good society.

In heterogeneous societies like the US and Singapore, it should come as no surprise that people have different opinions on such matters. That difference will inevitably lead to disagreement and debate.

But for debate to turn into a war is dangerous. Wars require perceiving opponents as 'enemies' to be destroyed. Combatants would justify deeds in wartime that they would not in peace time.

It is against this backdrop that US President Barack Obama this week appealed to Americans on both sides of the abortion debate to keep 'open hearts' and 'open minds', and to stop 'reducing those with differing views to caricature'.

He delivered this appeal after the University of Notre Dame's invitation to him to speak at its commencement ceremony sparked off protests among some Roman Catholics, who felt a Catholic university should not be honouring thus a President who supported abortion rights.

Sadly, we saw signs of a nascent culture war here during the recent Aware saga, when death threats were issued and false allegations were hurled.

To put the brakes on this trend, passionate advocates on both sides have to make a conscious effort to stop caricaturing each other as ignorant fools, religious bigots or depraved liberals.

They have to learn to view each other not as enemies but as fellow citizens, so that they can approach each other with open minds and hearts.

The default assumption must surely be that as fellow Singaporeans, and fellow activists in civil society, all seek the good of the nation they belong to, although each may have a different view of how best to achieve that end.

The challenge is for all citizens to look beyond their self interest, their particular goal on any single issue, so as to work together for a greater, common interest.

That, in essence, was what President S R Nathan was reminding us of when he stressed the importance of social cohesion in his address on Monday, opening a new session of the 11th Parliament.

The Aware episode, he said, highlighted the need for all groups to practise tolerance, restraint and mutual respect, so as to live peacefully in a multiracial, multi-religious society.

With that one statement, the President set out what are in our common interests when we engage on contentious issues: tolerance, restraint and mutual respect.

Unlike other countries, Singapore has not thrown the concept of common good out of the window. We have not lost our faith in our ability to achieve together that which would be impossible to bring about on our own.

It is a strength that we still believe in certain shared values that we all hold in common. We should not allow our public sphere to disintegrate into an arena purely of competing rights and interests, no matter how exciting that may make our politics.

That sense of common good, which the United States is now trying to recover, should be built not on ideology but on 'something more innately human: faith', wrote Michael Tomasky, editor-at-large of American Prospect magazine.

He did not mean religious faith but faith in the possibility of 'a civic sphere in which engagement and deliberation lead to good and rational outcomes; and faith that citizens might once again reciprocally recognise...that they will gain from these outcomes'.

Those of us who have that faith have a duty to champion it and pass it on.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The virtues of secularism

May 20, 2009

By Kishore Mahbubani

ONE of the best decisions I made in my life was to study philosophy at the then University of Singapore. Though I had to repeat a year in order to switch courses, it turned out to be a hugely beneficial decision because it armed me with one of the most powerful weapons developed by mankind: logic.

I discovered the power of logic when I served at the United Nations. Logic travels well across cultures and languages. A logical argument in one culture is equally logical in another culture, just as mathematical truths are equally valid in all cultures.

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Cuba supported it; Singapore opposed it. Hence, we had fierce arguments with Cuba in numerous multilateral fora. In the end, what helped us was a simple rule of logic: All specific propositions can be universalised. Hence, if you argue a specific case, you have to accept the universal rule that goes with it.

(Interestingly, the principle of universalisability of moral statements was propagated by British philosopher R.M. Hare in his book, The Language Of Morals. Most of this book was written on toilet paper while Hare was imprisoned by the Japanese in Changi Prison during World War II. Singapore, one might say, has a proprietary interest in the principle of universality.)

I put across this simple logical argument to the Cubans: You argue that it is legitimate for the Soviet Union to invade Afghanistan. The universal consequence of this argument is that it is legitimate for major powers to invade small states. If you accept this universal rule, it means that it will also be legitimate for the United States to invade Cuba.

The Cubans were mad as hell when we made this argument because they could not argue against the logic. Even the Iranians - who were as anti-American as the Cubans - told us that we were logically correct.

The same power of logic can be applied to all other disputes. For example, some members of the Anglican Church of Our Saviour have argued that it is legitimate for their members to take over the secular organisation, Aware, because Aware was supporting activities they considered to be against their religious principles. Their pastor Derek Hong was quoted saying: 'It's not a crusade against the people but there's a line that God has drawn for us, and we don't want our nation crossing that line.' He later expressed his regret for saying this.

The universal application of this argument is that it is legitimate for religious organisations to take over secular organisations if these secular organisations violate their religious principles. Let us now try a logical extension of this argument by imagining the following scenario.

Imagine that there is a religious organisation in Singapore which believes that it is immoral for teenage girls to be forced to expose their arms, legs and faces when they go to school. They say: 'There's a line that God has drawn for us, and we don't want our nation crossing that line.' Hence, since the teachers of Singapore are enforcing the rule, this religious organisation marshals its members, takes over the Singapore Teachers' Union and uses it to advocate the argument that female teenagers should be 'free' to choose whatever dress they want to wear to school. They argue that it is wrong to impose the corrupt Western school uniforms on young women of their religion.

Please note that the above is not a hypothetical example. This argument over school uniforms has been played out in France. Should we allow this to happen in Singapore too?

The people who led the takeover of Aware did not realise that they were pushing a rule that could undermine the delicate social and political fabric of Singapore. There is one simple political reality that many Singaporeans have not fully absorbed. It is not normal for multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious societies to live in relative harmony. Indeed, virtually all the multi-ethnic former British colonies have failed to preserve ethnic harmony after gaining independence. Look at the cases of Guyana, Cyprus, Sri Lanka and Fiji.

Singapore is the exception to the rule. What principles explain its success? One key principle has been the principle of secularism. There is a place for religion in society and there is a place for politics in society. Both should stay in their respective spheres. Many societies have come to grief because religion has been used as a force in politics. And Singapore will definitely come to grief if religion enters the political sphere here. As Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng put it emphatically last week: 'Keeping religion and politics separate is a key rule of political engagement.'

This is why we should be aware (pardon the pun) that the Aware saga is not just about one organisation; it is also about the larger principles that allow Singapore to survive and not fall into the same fate as other failed multi-ethnic communities.

One reason why Singapore has done well so far is that we had exceptionally wise founding fathers. One of them was the late S. Rajaratnam. He was a fierce defender of secularism. Shortly after independence in 1965, he drafted the National Pledge, which speaks of Singaporeans as 'one united people, regardless of race, language or religion'.

One simple solution for Singapore's long-term survival is to create a firewall - a thoroughly impregnable firewall - between the religious space and the secular space in Singapore society. However, when I proposed this simple solution in the draft version of this article to my friends, I received a blizzard of comments stressing that it would be very difficult, in practical terms, to create such a firewall. I agree. It will be very difficult. But if we fail to build and maintain such a firewall, dealing with the consequences of allowing religion to enter the secular space here will be more difficult.

In some areas of life, there are no easy solutions. There may only be solutions that require vision, courage and wisdom to implement. Hence, we should not underestimate the challenges of preserving secularism in Singapore.

The writer is the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

Quote: On fighting corruption in China

'Fighting corruption here is like handing out speeding citations at a Formula One race: all one has to do is look around,' said Beijing-based analyst Russell Leigh Moses, adding that graft is a useful means to attack opponents within the Chinese Communist Party.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Man with the $15m view

May 14, 2009

Spice Group chief to invest $100m in entertainment and real estate in S'pore

By Joyce Teo

INDIAN billionaire Bhupendra Kumar Modi moved into his $15.46 million penthouse at Marina Bay on Wednesday and immediately set about unpacking some ambitious plans for his new home country.

The founder and chairman of conglomerate Spice Group - it has interests in telecommunications, technology, financial services and entertainment - has set up two funds worth more than $100 million to invest here.

The tycoon also wants to open a 24/7 'Hollywood meets Bollywood' entertainment centre at one of two floating crystal pavilions coming up at the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort.

Speaking to The Straits Times at his 63rd storey apartment at The Sail @ Marina Bay, Dr Modi said he plans to spend 'tens of millions' on the project and is in talks with Sands to either buy or lease a pavilion.

'We are getting designers from Hollywood and from Bollywood to design it,' he said, adding that the IR could use his design or do its own. But the idea is to entice Hollywood and Bollywood stars to entertain crowds here on a regular basis.

Dr Modi, 60, also owns a film production company and wants to attract directors. Indian star Anil Kapoor has been lined up to act in a movie to be shot here. The businessman, who relocated the global headquarters of Mumbai-based Spice Corp to Singapore last year, said he is here to stay.

Dr Modi said that his two new funds involve nuts and bolts investment strategy and their share of risk-taking. One fund is a special-situation real estate vehicle. This will target half-completed projects here or projects that are delayed due to a lack of funds.

'The world is going through a special need people to take special risks,' he said. 'We are looking for 25 per cent returns...high risks, high returns. We are not looking for immediate returns. We are willing to wait two, three years.'

His team is assessing about 20 possible projects. Dr Modi said they are keen on joint ventures, and Marina Bay Sands is certainly on his radar screen. He also said he is discussing a deal to buy a residential building in the eastern part of Singapore. The other fund will focus on investment in entertainment.

'Singapore is very much the right place for me,' said Dr Modi. It is cosmopolitan, secular, very secure, has a growing population, well-connected.'

Tall people earn more

May 17, 2009

MELBOURNE - TALL people earn higher wages than their vertically-challenged counterparts while being obese does not mean a slimmed-down pay packet, according to a new study in Australia.

The researchers found a strong link between wages and height, particularly for men, with each additional 10cm of height adding three percent to hourly wages.

The 'height premium' was two per cent per 10cm for women, researchers from the University of Sydney and Canberra's Australian National University (ANU) found.

They calculated that every 5cm above the average height of 178cm boosted a male's wages by the equivalent of an extra year's experience in the labour force.

'This result holds constant across a number of other factors that also affect wages, such as age, race, family background, experience and education,' said ANU professor Andrew Leigh.

The researchers, who examined health and income data from almost 20,000 Australians, also found that being overweight did not mean a lighter pay packet - in contrast to previous studies.

'We were surprised to find that there seemed to be no wage penalty to being overweight or obese in the Australian labour market,' Prof Leigh said.

'This is in contrast with previous studies that used older data from the United States and Germany and found that people with higher (body mass index) earned lower wages.'

He said one explanation may be that because fat Australians were now in the majority, they did not face discrimination in the workplace. -- AFP

[If this extends across race and gender, it would explain why women earn less, why shorter races may be "discriminated", and why women in high heels may be paid more. :-)]

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Kyoto Treaty and other facts about Climate Change

From a commencement speech by Keith O. Rattie, 2 April 2009.

This is not a news article from Straits Times, but it is informative and asks serious questions. Of course the fact that the speaker is the CEO of a natural gas provider should colour our view of what he's saying (he concluded that govt should not intervene and let natural gas replace oil). But the science should be easily verified - the measures to reduce CO2 emissions, water vapour's role in global warming, and the limitations of "alternative" energy sources.


My perspective on global warming changed when I began to understand the limitations of the computer models that scientists have built to predict future warming. If the only variable driving the earth‟s climate were manmade CO2 then there'd be no debate – global average temperatures would increase by a harmless one degree over the next 100 years. But the earth‟s climate is what engineers call a “non-linear, dynamic system”. The models have dozens of inputs. Many are little more than the opinion of the scientist – in some cases, just a guess. The sun, for example, is by far the biggest driver of the earth‟s climate. But the intensity of solar radiation from the sun varies over time in ways that can't be accurately modeled.

Another example, water vapor is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. [The media now calls CO2 a “pollutant”. If CO2 is a “pollutant” then water vapor is also a “pollutant” – that‟s absurd, but I digress]. Some scientists believe clouds amplify human CO2 forcing, others believe precipitation acts as the earth‟s thermostat. But scientists do not agree on how to model clouds, precipitation, and evaporation, thus there's no consensus on this fundamental issue.

The long term goal with cap and trade is "80 by 50" – an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Let‟s do the easy math on what "80 by 50‟ means to you, using Utah as an example. Utah‟s carbon footprint today is about 66 MM tons of CO2 per year. Utah‟s population today is 2.6 MM. An 80% reduction in Utah‟s carbon footprint by 2050 implies a reduction from 66 MM tons today to about 13 MM tons per year by 2050. But Utah's population is growing at over 2% per year, so by 2050 there will be about 6 MM people living in this state. 13 MM tons divided by 6 MM people = 2.2 tons per person per year. Under "80 by 50‟ by the time you folks reach my age you'll have to live your lives with an annual carbon allowance of no more than 2.2 tons of CO2 per year.

Question: when was the last time Utah‟s carbon footprint was as low as 2.2 tons per person per year? Answer: probably not since Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley (1847).

In short, ‘80 by 50’ means that by the time you folks reach my age, you won’t be allowed to use anything made with – or made possible by – fossil fuels.

The hallmark of this dilemma is our inability to reconcile our prosperity and our way of life with our environmental ideals. We like our cars. We like our freedom to “move about the country” – drive to work, fly to conferences, visit distant friends and family. We aspire to own the biggest house we can afford. We like to keep our homes and offices warm in the winter, cool in the summer. We like devices that use electricity – computers, flat screen TVs, cell phones, the Internet, and many other conveniences of modern life that come with a power cord. We like food that‟s low cost, high quality, and free of bugs – which means farmers must use fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels. We like things made of plastic and clothes made with synthetic fibers – and all of these things depend on abundant, affordable, growing supplies of energy.

And guess what? We share this planet with 6.2 billion other people who all want the same things.

But while our way of life depends on ever-increasing amounts of energy, we‟re downright schizophrenic when it comes to the things that energy companies must do to deliver the energy that makes modern life possible.

We want energy security – we don't like being dependent on foreign oil. But we also don't like drilling in the U.S. Millions of acres of prospective onshore public lands here in the Rockies plus the entire east and west coast of the U.S. are off-limits to drilling for a variety of reasons. We hate paying $2 per gallon for gasoline – but not as much as we hate the refineries that turn unusable crude oil into gasoline. We haven't allowed anyone to build a new refinery in the U.S. in over 30 years. We expect the lights to come on when we flip the switch, but we don't like coal, the source of 40% of our electricity – it's dirty and mining scars the earth. We also don't like nuclear power, the source of nearly 20% of our electricity – it's clean, France likes it, but we're afraid of it. Hydropower is clean and renewable. But it too has been blacklisted – dams hurt fish.

We don't want pollution of any kind, in any amount, but we also don't want to be asked: “how much are we willing to pay for environmental perfection?” When it comes to global warming, Time magazine tells us to “be worried, be very worried” – and we say we are – but we don't act that way.

Now, I was told back in the 1970s what you're being told today: that wind and solar power are "alternatives‟ to fossil fuels. A more honest description would be "supplements‟. Taken together, wind and solar power today account for just one-sixth of 1% of America‟s annual energy usage. Let me repeat that statistic – one-sixth of 1%.

Over the past 30 years our government has pumped roughly $20 billion in subsidies into wind and solar power, and all we‟ve got to show for it is this!

The problems with wind and solar power become apparent when you look at their footprint. To generate electricity comparable to a 1,000 MW gas-fired power plant you‟d have to build a wind farm with at least 500 very tall windmills occupying more than 30,000 acres of land. Then there‟s solar power. I‟m holding a Denver Post article that tells the story of an 8.2 MW solar-power plant built on 82 acres in Colorado. The Post proudly hails it “America's most productive utility-scale solar electricity plant”. But when you account for the fact that the sun doesn't always shine, you'd need over 250 of these plants, on over 20,000 acres to replace just one 1,000 MW gas-fired power plant that can be built on less than 40 acres.

Our energy choices are ruthlessly ruled, not by political judgments, but by the immutable laws of thermodynamics. In engineer-speak, turning diffused sources of energy such as photons in sunlight or the kinetic energy in wind requires massive investment to concentrate that energy into a form that‟s usable on any meaningful scale.

To be clear, we need all the wind and solar power the markets can deliver at prices we can afford. But please, let‟s get real – wind and solar are not “alternatives” to fossil fuels.

Let‟s do the math to explain why Kyoto would have failed in the U.S.. Americans were responsible for about 5 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions in 1990. By 2005 that amount had risen to over 5.8 billion tons. If the U.S. Senate had ratified the Kyoto treaty back in the 1990s America would‟ve promised to cut manmade CO2 emissions in this country to 7% below that 1990 level – to about 4.6 billion tons, a 1.2 billion ton per year cut by 2012.

What would it take to cut U.S. CO2 emissions by 1.2 billion tons per year by 2012? A lot more sacrifice than riding a Schwinn to work or school, or changing light bulbs.

We could‟ve banned gasoline. In 2005 gasoline use in America caused about 1.1B tons of CO2. That would almost get us there. Or, we could shut down over half of the coal-fired power plants in this country. Coal plants generated about 2 B tons of CO2 in 2005. Of course, before we did that we‟d have to get over 60 million Americans and a bunch of American businesses to volunteer to go without electricity.

This simple math is not friendly to those who demand that government mandate sharp cuts in manmade CO2 emissions – now.

Even if America does cut CO2 emissions, those same computer models that predict man-made warming over the next century also predict that Kyoto-type CO2 cuts would have no discernible impact on global temperatures for decades, if ever. We‟ve been told that Kyoto was “just a first step.” Your generation may want to ask: “what's the second step?”

You've no doubt heard the argument that even if global warming turns out not to be as bad as some are saying, we should still cut CO2 emissions – as an insurance policy – the so-called precautionary principle. While appealing in its simplicity, there are three major problems with the precautionary principle.

First, none of us live our lives according to the precautionary principle. Let me give you an example. Around the world about 1.2 million people die each year in car accidents – about 3,200 deaths a day. At that pace, 120 million people will die this century in a car wreck somewhere in the world. We could save 120 million lives by imposing a 5 MPH speed limit worldwide. Show of hands: how many would be willing to live with a 5 MPH speed limit to save 120 million lives? Most of us won‟t – we accept trade-offs. We implicitly do a cost-benefit analysis and conclude that we‟re not going to do without our cars, even if doing so would save 120 million lives.

Second, the media dwells on the potential harm from global warming, but ignores the fact that the costs borne to address it will also do harm. We have a finite amount of wealth in the world. We have a long list of problems – hunger, poverty, malaria, nuclear proliferation, HIV, just to name a few. Your generation should ask: how can we do the most good with our limited wealth? The opportunity cost of diverting a large part of current wealth to solve a potential problem 50-100 years from now means we do “less good” dealing with our current problems.

Third, economists will tell you that the consequence of a tax on energy will be slower economic growth. Slower growth, compounded over decades, means that we leave future generations with less wealth to deal with the consequences of global warming, whatever they may be.

In truth, humans are remarkably adaptive. If arctic ice melts and causes the sea level to rise, a wealthier world will adapt over time by moving away from the beach or building retaining walls to protect beachfront property. Fine, you say. But how do we save the polar bear? I'd first point out that polar bears have survived sometimes dramatic climate changes over thousands of years, most recently the so called “medieval warm period” (1000-1300 A.D.) in which large parts of the arctic glaciers disappeared and Greenland was truly “green”. Contrary to that heart-wrenching image on the cover of Time of an apparently doomed polar bear floating on a chunk of ice, polar bears can swim for miles. In addition, more polar bears die each year from gunshot wounds than from drowning. So instead of rationing carbon energy, maybe the first thing we should do to protect polar bears is to stop shooting them!

Friday, May 15, 2009

'Drones are the future'

May 15, 2009

WASHINGTON - UNMANNED aircraft likely represent the future for US military aviation with next generation bombers and fighter planes operating without pilots onboard, the top US military officer said on Thursday.

'We're at a real time of transition here in terms of the future of aviation, and the whole issue of what's going to be manned and what's going to be unmanned,' Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Senate hearing.

'I think we're at the beginning of this change,' Adm Mullen said when asked about plans for developing a new bomber aircraft. The use of drones has dramatically expanded just in the past few years, he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the same hearing that military planners needed to answer the question whether a new bomber would have a pilot in the cockpit or operate as unmanned aircraft.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mullen said that Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter now being built could be the last manned fighter jet before robotic planes take over that role.

'I mean, there are those that see JSF as the last manned fighter,' Mullen said of the F-35. 'I'm one that's inclined to believe that.' The US military and intelligence agencies now use thousands of drones, ranging from small 1m long aircraft that can be thrown into the air by hand to the larger Global Hawk with a wingspan of 35m, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Although Mr Gates has pushed for cuts in expensive weapons systems - including plans for expanding the fleet of F-22 fighter jets - his proposed budget for fiscal 2010 calls for increasing funding for unmanned drones, including Predators and the newer Reapers.

'This is one of the significant growth areas in the budget,' Mr Gates said.

The defence secretary's budget calls for spending two billion on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, with much of the money going to drones.

'We will ramp to build 48 Reapers a year during this budget,' Mr Gates said. 'We are really placing a major bet in this area.' -- AFP

Singapore's most severe slump? Doesn't feel like it

May 15, 2009

Govt actions, previous growth keep recession effects at bay - for now

By Fiona Chan

GOING by the numbers alone, there is no denying that Singapore is in the midst of what is by far the most severe recession in its history.

Exports collapsed in the first three months of the year by almost 30 per cent, dragging down first-quarter growth by a record -20 per cent over the previous quarter. The Government has been forced to downgrade its full-year growth forecast to -6 per cent to -9 per cent, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast -10 per cent, making Singapore the worst performing country in Asia this year.

But there is another set of facts that presents quite a different picture. These facts may be less scientific, but they are nevertheless real.

Sales of new private homes in Singapore have jumped back to near pre-crisis levels, and there is evidence that property prices are stabilising and even inching up. Car sales dipped for a while, but then found a firmer footing. Crowds have been turning up in record numbers at travel and computer fairs.

Retail sales did drop by 15 per cent in January, but this was still better than the 20 per cent plunge during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis. Most restaurants in town remain packed at weekends, while the lines at nightclubs such as Butter Factory and Zouk still stretch round the block.

This disconnect - between what the statistics indicate is a gut-wrenching recession and the actual less-than-disastrous state of the real economy - has got economists debating the true impact of this 'worst-ever' recession.

Yes, some businesses have been driven to closure, thousands of people have lost their jobs and almost everyone is feeling some pain. But there is a clear 'disjuncture' between 'what are truly horrible numbers' for economic growth, exports and industrial production, and the impact this is having on 'ordinary folk as they go about their ordinary lives', Mr Manu Bhaskaran of the Centennial Group observed at an IMF event last week.

So why is the picture on the ground so different from that painted by the statistics? Economists have proffered a number of reasons.

One is that Singapore is entering this unprecedented recession from an equally unprecedented position of strength. 'A lot of Singapore's resilience is due to the seven 'fat' years we had from 2001 to 2007, where economic growth averaged 5.5 per cent a year, even with the Sars period in 2003,' said OCBC economist Selena Ling.

In particular, the past two years saw supercharged growth, boosting Singapore workers' average monthly earnings by 5.8 per cent a year. This explains why 'apart from the relatively small proportion of unemployed, the rest of the Singapore population is still in a position to shop, dine out and bargain hunt for assets'.

During the 1997-1998 crisis, the GDP per capita was $35,115. By last year, it had jumped to $53,192. In 2006 and 2007, Singapore was among the countries with the fastest growing number of millionaires.

Companies also raked in record takings, building a large buffer of savings that muted the blows of the financial crisis, said Citi economist Kit Wei Zheng.

All this means fewer than expected people and firms are going broke. Bankruptcy levels last year were half those in 2003 and 2004, while the number of companies liquidated last year was a third of that in 1999, according to Ms Ling.

Then there is the buffer that foreign workers and expatriates provide. Their number, by some estimates, has risen by 70 per cent since 2000. Jobs held by foreigners have been cut first in this recession in favour of saving Singaporean ones, especially because programmes such as the Jobs Credit Scheme protect only local workers

Time magazine, which featured Singapore's surprising resilience in an article on April 28, also gave credit to the Government's social safety net.

Part of the answer also lies in the 'dualist' nature of Singapore's economy, said Mr Bhaskaran. He estimates that half the economy is foreign in terms of ownership and employment, including manufacturing and finance - the hardest-hit sectors in this recession.

Foreign companies have suffered losses. But while there has been some spillover to local industries, this has been more contained, Mr Bhaskaran said.

Economic resilience aside, the dismal statistics themselves could have been exaggerated. Companies pre-emptively slashed production to preserve their balance sheets and conserve cash. This implied a vanishing of demand that did not quite materialise.

In all, there are 'certainly more shock absorbers' now compared with the 'shock amplifiers' in the last recession, when companies' balance sheets were weaker and policy regimes were more 'inflexible', Mr Bhaskaran said.

Whatever is the explanation, markets might do well not to overreact to the apparent contradiction between statistics and experience. Already, talk of 'green shoots' has boosted sentiment so much that Citi's Mr Kit upgraded his growth forecast for Singapore this week. If it is true that the recovery is on the way, Singapore's worst-ever recession could turn out to be among its most painless.

But there is another, more worrying possibility: That the real economy could be just lagging behind the numbers, said CIMB-GK's Song Seng Wun.

'Green shoots' may be emerging statistically, but the pain implied by the earlier figures may not have fully hit yet, thanks in part to the Government's cushions. If external demand fails to pick up, for instance, further agony could be around the corner as the job market traditionally lags the economic numbers by a few quarters.

In other words, it may not feel like -10 per cent now, but it will soon.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I think, therefore I do [PRAGMATISM]

May 14, 2009

By Kenneth Paul Tan

PRAGMATISM is celebrated today as a virtue. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to focus on achieving results and to compare options using cost-benefit analysis is valued over inflexible obedience to dogma.

In public administration, pragmatism is opposed to the worst forms of bureaucracy. In politics, closed-mindedness, extremism and fundamentalism are mitigated by various moderate 'third way' approaches that deconstruct competing ideologies like liberalism, capitalism and socialism in order to combine eclectically their best aspects, leaving behind the unhelpful, irrelevant and harmful.

In Singapore, pragmatism is held up as a pillar of governance, one reason for the nation's widely acknowledged economic success. The right thing to do in order to achieve continuous economic growth will depend on context, of course. For instance, when the Government needed to strengthen its moral authority, it refused to allow casinos to operate here. But when it became clear that a flagging tourism sector needed a boost, the Government abandoned this position and allowed not one but two casinos.

The pragmatist seizes opportunities and manoeuvres nimbly around threats, so focused on finding technical solutions for achieving the overriding goals that these goals can sometimes disappear beyond the horizon of critical consciousness. Pragmatism can thus degenerate easily into an expedient and uncritical focus on technical mastery directed solely towards the achievement of a limited set of human aspirations, shielded from philosophical reflection, moral reasoning and critique. Ironically, uncritical pragmatism can become dogmatic.

The focus on 'how to' without thinking about 'why' encourages an 'anything goes' attitude that disregards the larger implications of one's choices and actions. That humanity has been so successful at developing the technical means of mastering and controlling nature is testament to its remarkable creativity. Yet this narrow focus on technical mastery has endangered the very habitat that humanity needs to survive. It is the same drive for technical domination, fuelled by indiscriminate profit-making, that has enabled people to control other people in a deeply inequitable global market. Today, we have some agreement on the dangers of this logic as the world embraces the now-fashionable language of sustainability and contemplates the serious economic crisis that it finds itself in. But is this too little, too late?

To prevent pragmatism from degenerating into yet another dogma, we need to ensure that pragmatic decision-making does not occur in an intellectual void. Pragmatists must be informed by a rationality that can expand beyond the narrowly technical and into the moral-political and the aesthetic. This will require a critical understanding of the significant ideas and values that have shaped the world. Universities will have an important role to play in this regard.

But universities too are vulnerable today to the very same reductive pressures against which they must protect culture and knowledge. Can universities exceed the limited and limiting expectation that they must, first and foremost, serve the purpose of economic growth? Furthermore, it is not easy for a neo-liberal university to maintain genuine autonomy in a world where universities must compete fiercely in a global market for talent and resources.

In this context, success can easily degenerate into an uncritically pragmatic question of technique, with universities devoting their resources to mastering the techniques for scoring top marks in international ranking exercises. Thankfully, many universities have been able to play the game without losing sight altogether of their larger and nobler educational purpose. But there is tension and the balance universities strike may not always favour their nobler aspirations.

Traditionally, universities have been perceived as spaces that provide a temporary life of contemplation in preparation for the 'real' life of action in the world: The use of the word 'commencement' to describe graduation ceremonies reflects some of this thinking.

But thinking and doing should not be artificially separated thus and associated with student life and work life, respectively, with the former subordinated to the latter. The university experience should not be reduced to a stage in life that one has to put up with in order to obtain the right qualifications to get ahead in 'real' life. Universities must graduate people who are more than excellent technical problem-solvers. Doers must also be thinkers; and for higher education to be able to facilitate this, its thinkers should also be doers.

What we need is an educational approach that opposes uncritical pragmatism. Whatever the discipline or subject, curriculum and pedagogy can be designed to build not only technical competency, but also the capacity for philosophically informed critical thinking, a vital skill for leadership in the public, private and people sectors.

Pragmatism can serve us well in a diverse, multicultural and globalised world. But pragmatism can easily degenerate into an unthinking mindset, more dogmatic than any ideology it pretends to distance itself from. Uncritical pragmatism engenders the doer who will not think beyond the narrowly technical; who is incapable of moral reasoning, critical thinking, creativity and imagination; the doer who despises such things as naive, time-wasting or troublesome.

The doer-who-will-not-think engenders in turn, and imprisons in a stereotypical ivory tower, its opposite - the thinker-who-will-not-do. Universities must - now more than ever - break down these barriers between thinking and doing.

The writer is associate professor and Assistant Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS. The above is an excerpt of the NUS Outstanding Educator Award public lecture that he delivered on April 28.

[This is new, and yet not new. In one of my more philosophical classes, the question of science and knowledge and the explanation of the world about us, it was pointed out that the "Science" is about How to do, not What to do, or Why do. The older world and older "wisdom" was about explaining the world in terms of meaning. Why was the world created. How should one act towards another. Pragmatism at its most basic is still an "-ism" which means that there are some fundamental unquestionable doctrine or dogma.

It may be that we can never eradicate all "-isms", but perhaps we will have the wisdom to know when to leave one "-ism" and take another one.]

Single mums not 'leeches'

May 14, 2009

WASHINGTON - MOST US single mothers work, live in the suburbs and are white, according to a report released on Wednesday, shattering the stereotype of single mothers as inner city-dwelling leeches who have babies to claim state benefits.

Beginning in the 1960s, US single mothers were depicted as largely black, urban women who had babies to get government handouts, said the report by the Eleanor Foundation, a group that helps working women to achieve and hold onto economic independence.

Past governments in the United States have tried to dissuade single motherhood by radically cutting 'already very limited social supports' that were available to women, the report, which was compiled by Malcolm Bush of the University of Chicago and Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project, said.

But the caricature of the single mother is false, and US government policies toward single mothers have not only failed to decrease the number of households led by women only, but left many women in the United States and the children they are raising in great difficulty.

Large numbers of single mothers don't earn enough to provide the basic essentials of life, the report said. 'The financial stress these mothers face is demonstrated by the percent of their income they spend on housing costs. In 2007, 85 per cent of them spent 30 per cent or more of their income on housing costs, a condition that the US Department of Housing classifies as 'housing burdened',' the report said.

More than half paid 50 per cent or more of their income to put a roof over their and their children's heads, making them 'housing distressed' under the Department of Housing's criteria. And yet, homes built in new communities are constructed for a happily married couple with two incomes - even though around 40 per cent of US kids are born out of wedlock and more than two in five marriages end in divorce.

'A basic principle of housing and urban planning should be to provide accommodation for the kinds of families we actually have,' the report said.

Under President Barack Obama, who, the report points out, was raised by a single, working mother, and a progressive legislature, the United States should bring its policies towards single mothers into line with other Western democracies.

Women should be provided with benefits such as longer paid maternity leave, quality preschool amd health care for all, and accessible education and training opportunities to improve their lot, or the cycle of single mothers struggling in the face of extreme difficulty will continue, the report says.

'If Americans understood that single mothers are working very hard in this country with less help than they would receive in virtually all other advanced societies in the world, and that the future of our society depends on the success of their children, we might be able move toward much less punitive and more productive policies to help get them onto pathways to economic and career success,' the report said. -- AFP

[So are Singaporean's Housing distressed? Or Housing Burdened?  Should housing policy be to build houses for the families we actually have, or for families we think we should have? Or pretend we have?]

Marriage or bust

May 14, 2009

It is not quite a push-up bra, more a push for marriage. Triumph International Japan has launched a 'Husband-hunting Bra' to support women while they look for a partner. It has a countdown clock, showing the marriage deadline set by the wearer, that will stop and play a wedding song when an engagement ring is inserted between the cups.

Enabling the disabled is a moral duty

May 14, 2009

By Andy Ho

ALL MRT stations now have at least one barrier-free access route. Over half of SMRT's fleet of 66 trains are wheelchair-friendly. And SBS Transit has 22 wheelchair-accessible buses.

While all this does constitute progress, the problem for the disabled is that stretch of journey to and from a train or bus. There are still streets without kerb cuts, pavements that are too steep, corridors that are too narrow, entrances or even bus stops without ramps, open drains and so on. However, the Government is spending $60 million to make all roads, walkways, taxi stands, bus stops and access routes to MRT stations barrier-free by next year.

These issues and others were discussed at the International Conference for Accessible Tourism 2009 organised here by the Disabled People's Association recently. One main idea was that making facilities more accessible to the disabled (and elderly) can help boost tourism. Whether compelling as a business argument or not, we as a society should not have to stoop to such an instrumental rationale to justify a fight against what is discrimination based on disabilities.

If there are only stairs to the workplace or sports facility, say, the wheelchair-bound have no independent access to these places. If there are only printed words without Braille, the blind are hampered. The disabled suffer impairments largely because of environments created without their needs in mind. Disability is not merely a physical problem lodged within the individual; it is also primarily a problem that arises from the built environment. Yet this is not how we usually think about the disabled. Instead, we think about them as innately saddled with biological deficits, so what they need is just medical or surgical treatment, including physiotherapy. And some public aid, perhaps.

But framing the issue in this manner construes the disadvantages which the disabled suffer as naturally, not socially, caused. If disability is a biological flaw, any request to modify the environment is seen as a demand for 'special rights'. Any remedy we choose to 'offer' we see as something charitable that comes from the goodness of our kind hearts.

Moreover, the media tends to portray the disabled as either feckless cripples or intrepid overcomers. Such unrealistic representations cause the able-bodied to stereotype the disabled in negative ways. Unsurprisingly, a study presented at the recent conference reported that people here are generally reluctant to aid the disabled when they need help to get around.

We tend to locate the 'problem' in the disabled individual whom we see as having a personal biological shortcoming. So we try to 'fix' him instead of fixing society to adapt to his abilities.

However, if we re-think their impairments as not so much a lack of ability but something normally found within the whole gamut of human abilities, then we may begin to see that the problem resides chiefly in how our environment is built with no or little regard for the disabled.

Because we build the environment for the average (able-bodied) person, we in effect build barriers for those unlike that average. Conversely, if the built environment were adapted for the whole range of human abilities, the disabled would suffer virtually no functional limitations.

Perhaps we should re-imagine disability as a problem located in the intersection of the individual and his environment. This might help us begin to see disabilities as being less biological and more social in nature.

Disability rights activists have suggested that once we grasp how the built environment unfairly privileges the able-bodied while disadvantaging the disabled, it can be argued that we are morally obliged to remedy the environment as a matter of civil rights, not special privileges.

The Building and Construction Authority has had a masterplan for a disabled- friendlier built environment since 1990, when it introduced the Code of Barrier- Free Accessibility in Buildings. It believes we can get there by retrofitting buildings built before 1990. Perhaps. At any rate, this recession may be a good time to increase public spending on such work while also improving post-1990 and newer structures as well.

Yet there has not been sufficient urgency on the matter because we as a society don't quite see disability rights as civil rights. What we need is a law requiring all public and private institutions to modify their physical structures as well as their policies and practices to provide a suitable environment for the disabled. Only a Singaporeans With Disabilities Act can afford the disabled equal opportunity and equal protection.

Some may lament this 'rights' talk. Without it, however, our society has continued to regard the disabled mainly as incapacitated individuals who need our charity. 'Rights' talk may compel society to reexamine the policies and processes that hamper the disabled daily.

The law can change mental structures, not just physical barriers. A law that construes disability rights as civil rights would give all citizens a duty to understand the disabled better. Over time, this might well lead to a more capacious notion of equality and perhaps to a more gracious society as well.

[Interesting new perspective.]

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

'Time to open up'

May 13, 2009

Investors say their interests are at risk when key stakes are force-sold
By Yang Huiwen
INDUSTRY players are fighting calls by investors to force chief executives and controlling shareholders to be more transparent about the shares they have pledged.

Investors say their interests are at risk because they are not told when a chief executive pledges his company holdings for a personal loan.

They find out only when the shares are sold to meet margin calls - a step that often leads to uncertainty surrounding the company's business.

But some corporate leaders claim that more regulation by the Singapore Exchange will stifle the market and discourage companies from listing here.

They also point out that pledging shares as collateral for loans is a common practice and forcing more disclosure would be an invasion of privacy. The issue flared up in recent months after the major shareholders of Beauty China and Sino-Environment pledged their entire stakes in the firms to get personal loans.

When the founders were unable to pay up, the banks force-sold their shares, which led to these founders losing control of their companies and sparking a crisis at both firms.

Last year, the botched takeover of Jade Technologies by Dr Anthony Soh was scuppered by a forced sale of his pledged shares.

The way these private deals can contribute to major disruptions at the company level has sparked calls for reform. It is common practice for banks to make loans to companies on condition that the key people running the company remain in control.

Mr Robson Lee, partner at Shook Lin & Bok LLP, said the rules on disclosure of share trades of directors or substantial shareholders should include substantial share pledging and mortgaging of shares.

He said that when a CEO or controlling shareholder pledges his shares, there is a risk that there could be a change of control at the company.

Daydreamers faster at...

May 12, 2009

VANCOUVER (Canada) - CONTRARY to common opinion, daydreaming is not slacking off because when the brain wanders it is working even harder to solve problems, new research has shown.

Scientists scanned the brains of people lying inside magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, as they alternately pushed buttons or rested.

The scans showed that the 'default network' deep inside a human brain becomes more active during daydreaming.

But in a surprise finding the scans also revealed intense activity in the executive network, the outlying region of the brain associated with complex problem-solving, neuroscientist Kalina Christoff told AFP.

'People assume that when the mind wanders away it just gets turned off - but we show the opposite, that when it wanders, it turns on,' said Dr Christoff, co-author of the study, and head of a neuroscience laboratory at the University of British Columbia in Western Canada.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest daydreaming might be a better way to solve problems than intense focusing.

'People who let themselves daydream might not think in the same focused way as when performing a goal-oriented task, but they bring in more mental and brain resources,' said Dr Christoff.

She argued that now people might change their attitudes towards daydreamers.

'Within ourselves, we have absorbed that attitude that mind wandering is a bad thing. We're harsh on ourselves, if we catch ourselves mind wandering,' she said.

'A more playful attitude might allow you to call in more resources.' People typically spend one-third of their waking time daydreaming. 'It's a big part of our lives, but it's been largely ignored by science,' Dr Christoff said.

The study is the first to use MRIs to study brain activity during 'spontaneous thoughts and subjective experiences,' said Dr Christoff.

'Until now the only way was to use self-reports that were not always reliable.' -- AFP

Sunday, May 10, 2009

We should remain very, very afraid

May 9, 2009

By Paul Krugman

HOORAY! The banking crisis is over! Let's party! Okay, maybe not.

In the end, the actual release of the much-hyped bank stress tests on Thursday came as an anti-climax. Everyone knew more or less what the results would say: Some big players need to raise more capital, but overall, the kids, I mean the banks, are all right. Even before the results were announced, Mr Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, had told us they would be 'reassuring'.

But whether you actually should feel reassured depends on who you are: a banker, or someone trying to make a living in another profession.

I won't weigh in on the debate over the quality of the stress tests themselves, except to repeat what many observers have noted: The regulators didn't have the resources to make a really careful assessment of the banks' assets, and in any case, they allowed the banks to bargain over what the results would say. A rigorous audit it wasn't.

But focusing on the process can distract from the larger picture. What we're really seeing here is a decision on the part of President Barack Obama and his officials to muddle through the financial crisis, hoping that the banks can earn their way back to health.

It's a strategy that might work. After all, right now the banks are lending at high interest rates, while paying virtually no interest on their (government-insured) deposits. Given enough time, the banks could be flush again.

But it's important to see the strategy for what it is and to understand the risks.

Remember, it was the markets, not the government, that in effect declared the banks undercapitalised. And while market indicators of distrust in banks - such as the interest rates on bank bonds and the prices of bank credit-default swaps - have fallen somewhat in recent weeks, they're still at levels that would have been considered inconceivable before the crisis.

As a result, the odds are that the financial system won't function normally until the crucial players get much stronger financially than they are now. Yet the Obama administration has decided not to do anything dramatic to recapitalise the banks.

Can the economy recover even with weak banks? Maybe. Banks won't be expanding credit any time soon, but government-backed lenders have stepped in to fill the gap. The Federal Reserve has expanded its credit by US$1.2 trillion (S$1.8 trillion) over the past year; Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have become the principal sources of mortgage finance. So maybe we can let the economy fix the banks instead of the other way around.

But there are many things that could go wrong.

It's not at all clear that credit from the Fed, Fannie and Freddie can fully substitute for a healthy banking system. If it can't, the muddle-through strategy will turn out to be a recipe for a prolonged, Japanese-style era of high unemployment and weak growth.

Actually, a multi-year period of economic weakness looks likely in any case. The economy may no longer be plunging, but it's very hard to see where a real recovery will come from. And if the economy does stay depressed for a long time, banks will be in much bigger trouble than the stress tests - which looked only two years ahead - are able to capture.

Finally, given the possibility of bigger losses in the future, the government's evident unwillingness either to own banks or let them fail creates a heads-they-win- tails-we-lose situation. If all goes well, the bankers will win big. If the current strategy fails, taxpayers will be forced to pay for another bailout.

But what worries me most about the way policy is going isn't any of these things. It's my sense that the prospects for fundamental financial reform are fading.

Does anyone remember the case of Mr H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent New York lawyer whom The Times has described as a 'Wall Street eminence grise'? He briefly made the news in March when he reportedly withdrew his name after being considered a top pick for the post of deputy Treasury secretary.

Well, earlier this week, Mr Cohen told an audience that the future of Wall Street won't be very different from its recent past, declaring: 'I am far from convinced there was something inherently wrong with the system.' Hey, that little thing about causing the worst global slump since the Great Depression? Never mind.

Those are frightening words. They suggest that while the Federal Reserve and the Obama administration continue to insist that they're committed to tighter financial regulation and greater oversight, Wall Street insiders are taking the mildness of bank policy so far as a sign that they'll soon be able to go back to playing the same games as before.

So, as I said, while bankers may find the results of the stress tests 'reassuring', the rest of us should be very, very afraid.