Monday, February 28, 2011

Shock as US city serves all teachers sack note

Feb 28, 2011

Planned budget-tightening moves in various states spark nationwide rallies

BOSTON: Plans to make deep cuts in state budgets saw rallies across the United States last Saturday and caused dismay in one state capital, where every teacher is to be given a termination notice.

In Providence, Rhode Island, there were no protests but widespread shock after the school board voted to send the notices to all of the city's 1,926 teachers.

Mayor Angel Taveras sought to calm the uproar by saying that an 'overwhelming majority' would not, in fact, lose their jobs, but would be rehired.

The city will have to close some of its 40 schools by September, he said, and only the teachers from the affected schools would lose their jobs.

Mr Taveras, a Democrat who took office last month, described the extraordinary step as a pre-emptive move to guarantee flexibility in addressing a budget deficit.

He said: 'Given that we don't know the schools yet that we're going to target, the most appropriate thing is to require notices to all the teachers.'

Teachers have accused Mr Taveras of trying to bypass seniority rules by sending termination notices instead of layoff warnings. With the warnings, teachers are usually asked back based on seniority.

Ms Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, described the school board's move as an unprecedented power play.

'What's going on here is some people have an idea about wanting to arbitrarily and capriciously choose who they want teaching in schools next year,' she said.

The Providence school system is facing a US$40 million (S$51.3 million) deficit in its US$315 million budget, but the mayor said the situation was not as dire as in Detroit, which plans to close up to 70 of its 140 school buildings and put as many as 60 students in each classroom.

Meanwhile, rallies across the US supported civil service employees in Wisconsin, who are protesting against Republican-backed legislation aimed at weakening unions.

Union supporters turned out from New York to Washington state in a show of solidarity, while in Wisconsin's capital, Madison, the protest entered its 12th straight day with the largest crowd yet: more than 70,000 people.

Republican Governor Scott Walker has introduced a Bill that involves stripping almost all public workers - from librarians to snow plough drivers - of their right to collectively bargain on benefits and work conditions. He has said the Bill would help close a projected US$3.6 billion deficit in the 2011-2013 budget.

Actor Bradley Whitford, star of TV series The West Wing and the movie Billy Madison, told his hometown crowd: 'This governor has to understand Wisconsin is a stubborn constituency. We fish through ice!'

Pilot Jeff Skiles, the first officer on the US Airways flight that landed successfully in New York's Hudson River in January 2009, told the protesters that 'justice and righteousness will always win out'.

Several thousand people also rallied in Columbus, Ohio, where lawmakers are considering a similar Bill.


[It is sad that the US has come to this.]

Mideast unrest is a change the world should believe in, scholar says


Middle East scholar Prof. Fouad Ajami says current furor in the Arab world catalyzed not by a fruit vendor in Tunisia but by the execution of Saddam Hussein.

By Natasha Mozgovaya

The conventional wisdom has it that the wave of revolutions shaking up the Middle East these days began with Tunisian produce-seller Mohamed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in reaction to a humiliating slap by a policewoman. Prof. Fouad Ajami, a renowned scholar of the Middle East, commentator and writer who had close ties to the Bush administration, thinks the sign of what was to come actually appeared several years earlier, with the arrest of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"There was a very distinct moment," says Ajami. "Yes, Saddam was flushed out of his spider hole. There was something very significant - they saw him come, hands up, without firing a shot. So they learned about the falseness and the false bravado of these dictators they revered and whose names they chanted. They saw him surrender in a very humiliating way. People who loved Saddam, people who hated Saddam, took notice of what happened."

Unlike many other conservative commentators, Ajami, who in his day aroused sharp controversy because of his staunch support for the war in Iraq, has reservations about giving all the credit to the Bush doctrine. "It wasn't American tanks" that brought about this moment, he observes. "It was a homegrown enterprise. It was Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans conquering their fear - people went out and conquered fear and did something amazing."

Why didn't it happen before?

Ajami: "You know I have a feeling that if you and I sat down and looked at every revolution, the Chinese, the Bolshevik, etc., we could always say, and we would be absolutely right: Look at this pile, all the ingredients of revolution are there - hunger, tyranny, corruption, corrupt wives, corrupt greedy sons, etc. - and nothing happens. And then someone throws a match into this pile, and the world erupts. It really is a mystery. There's a mystery in all revolutions. After these Arab revolutions of 2011, I just pulled a whole bunch of books off the shelves and began looking at the Bolshevik revolution, the French revolution and other revolutions, and the question that you so rightly posed could be asked of any and each revolution: Why did it erupt on a certain day when all the ingredients were there and nothing happened? 'Who would have thunk it,' as they say in Texas? Who would have thought that a vegetable seller in a forlorn Tunisian village would get slapped in the face by a headstrong policewoman and that all hell would break loose in the Arab world?

"Suddenly the Egyptians had this remarkable gift given to them. They felt challenged by Tunisia, they felt that the Tunisians had stolen a march on them, as you say. And there you go - you have this revolution. A friend of mine, an Egyptian I love dearly, described to me his excitement on the phone. He said, 'On Friday January 28, a very big day in the Egyptian revolution, I went to the mosque, I prayed, I then went across the street to have some coffee and then go home, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, I see tens of thousands of people, an endless stream of humanity making its way to Tahrir, and I never expected to see this happen in my country.'"

This spontaneity, says Ajami, "is the nature of revolution. They happen suddenly and their speed is astonishing."

Until now, the scholar admits, he didn't have a good sense about where things were heading in the Arab world. "I had written some books and always had this kind of pessimism about Arab politics - and always had this feeling that there are terrible rulers and worse oppositions. But this revolution of 2011 has given me hope that something different is being born. Observing the upheaval in Tunisia and Egypt and the general trends in the region - you just have a hope that a new politics is rearing its head.

"In this revolution I sense that people my age, who were born and raised in post-World War II years, the baby boomers - we are done, we are finished, there is nothing left, we've given what we could and we've failed at things that we failed at, but there is something about these young people that seems more true to me, more optimistic, less ideological.

"We haven't seen it fully, but I'm optimistic about Egypt. They have in their DNA this kind of democratic politics, they remember that there was once democratic politics, a progressive social agenda, that Egypt was once a decent country. I understand that crowds are dangerous and crowds can turn, but there is something about these crowds that didn't chant about America, didn't chant 'death to the Jewish state.' There is promise in this moment of Arab politics. It's not a sure thing, history never gives us this kind of confidence, and revolutions get betrayed, revolutions get hijacked, revolutions go astray, wrong men come to power. All these outcomes are very possible, but there is something in this moment that bodes well for Arabs.

"These young people - I cannot fear them. I have a granddaughter who is 4 years old, and I see a girl a bit older than her with an Egyptian flag, and I see people bringing their kids to Tahrir Square to show them the new liberty. I can't tell them: 'Sorry, boys, I don't believe in you.' I can't do this, because it's a betrayal of history. I believe in these people and I will speak for them, until shown something else. History is open, and I can't say the region will always be stuck with these pathologies."

But we're talking about the same generation that was proclaimed the lost one - frustrated young people who are having a hard time finding jobs and making their voices heard in oppressive regimes.

"Not everyone is Mohamed Atta," responds Ajami, referring to the young Egyptian who was one of the September 11 hijackers. "I don't think that I want to hold Atta as a rebuke to those young people, and what they are showing us - that they are willing to stay peaceful in revolution. And I can't tell them, 'Look, you are all pathological Mohamed Attas.' It's just completely cruel. Because people come because of the love of their country and because they've defeated the fear of death squads. I won't break faith with these people until I see something that calls for breaking faith with them. Before that, I won't condemn them. I saw Libyan people conquering fear with all they know about the cruelty of the monster Muammar Gadhafi and telling us they wish to be free of his tyranny. I don't think it's much of a choice. When you see history, and you see it to be noble, you have to respond. You can't hold previous afflictions and maladies against them. So my conscience is clear on this one - this is a good revolution."

No good autocrats

For several years, the West flirted with Gadhafi after he gave up his nuclear program and agreed to pay compensation to the families of the Lockerbie bombing victims. Ajami, though, never had any illusions about him.

"I think he's a killer, hyena and part fox," he says. "I never believed anything he said. I've written a book that basically chronicled his murder of Imam Mussa Sadr [a Lebanese Shi'ite leader who mysteriously disappeared along with his retinue on a visit to Libya in 1978 at Gadhafi's invitation].

"There are no good autocrats," he adds, and that applies to King Abdullah of Jordan as well. "I don't believe in King Abdullah. Governments don't mean a lot in Jordan, the palace decides everything. Besides, he did something that to me is very problematic - he promised his father on his deathbed that his half-brother Hamza would be his crown prince, and then he decided at the drop of a hat to make his own son his inheritor. It seems wrong to me, it's a break of faith. Anyway, King Abdullah has his own problems at home. He is not going to be overthrown, but he has to draw a decent social contract with his country. He needs to spend less time in Davos and with the Clinton's initiative and more with the tribes of Jordan. He, too, needs to change his ways. If he won't, he'll end up exactly where the others ended. He has a possibility of being reformed. He is not Bashar Assad. He is no killer. But nevertheless, he is not a democrat either. He's a kind of mild autocrat. I want to see him come to terms with the realities of Jordan."
We've been told by analysts many times that the only organized opposition in the Arab world is Islamists. We've seen pretty different crowds in Tahrir Square and solidarity among protesters of different Arab countries. Is it some reincarnation of Pan-Arabism, Facebook age?

"In my opinion, pan-Arabism is dead. It's finished. Pan-Arabism of my generation, of Gamal Abdel Nasser, that argued that borders don't exist, is finished completely. There are young people that can get on Facebook, Twitter - they do have these means of communication, but they are Tunisians, Egyptians, they don't insist on this immortal Arab nation. They do not say the borders are false. They don't hold pan-Arab solutions, they hold national solutions. They know the specificity of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen. So this old Arab nationalism is dead and can never be revived. The young are done with it. They are concerned about tyrannies, about the theft, the plundering, the personal fortunes amassed by the Gadhafis, the house of Mubarak, the house of Assad. These rulers stole the public treasures and became wealthy beyond any comprehension.

"You have 360 million Arabs ruled by a handful of autocrats, mostly old, but some young, as in Jordan, Syria and Morocco. And eight of the Arab states practice torture on a regular basis. We know there are political prisons for the dissidents. We know there is massive economic failure, that the Arab world did not have economic growth since the '80s, that tens of millions of Arabs live below the poverty line.

"The young Arabs see the facts of their life, and many are eager to flee the Arab world, to London or Berlin or Oslo, and many of them leave. But this is their world and they have to make a stand in Cairo and Rabat and Tunis. They have to try to build a better public order for themselves. The pathologies of the Arab world are so deep, and these young people came to understand these pathologies.

"Lately I've been receiving a lot of letters by email from young Arabs trying to make sense of what is happening around them, and I was struck by their patriotism, love of home, Egypt, Tunisia, Gulf countries. They wish to reclaim their countries for themselves, from the dictators and their wives and their children. There was a kind of celebratory mood, and as a historian I know these things sometimes evaporate, but something has convinced me this is a very special moment in the lives of Arabs."

How does Israel fit into this new reality?

"I think Israel should not be afraid of Arab democracy. I've been very friendly to Israel and [to] the prospects of reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world, so take this as advice from a friend. I can remind you of what Natan Sharansky pointed out when he said that democrats who hate you are less dangerous than dictators who love you. There is a certain level of security that comes from autocracies, and Israel is not alone in this. The United States went to many lands and preferred dealing with autocrats because there is stability there. But the bargain with an autocrat is never a good bargain.

"Israel had made peace with pharaohs, but the peace between Israel and the Arab people has not yet come. And I understand that it's harder and more risky, but I still think that the peace of democracies makes more sense. There is something we now fully understand: Dictators that made peace with Israel and an accommodation with the U.S. - they always played from the bottom of the deck and always resorted to anti-Americanism, anti-modernism and anti-Semitism. I call that the 'holy trinity.' Therefore, Israel shouldn't be afraid of the coming of democracy in the Arab world. I've thought about it, it wasn't always the position I held, I understand the stability of dictatorships, but in the long run, if you want a long-lasting peace, you have to be willing to bet on this democratic experiment."

Peace will endure

Ajami says that if he "were in Israel's shoes," he would also have accepted peace offers from Egypt's Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein.

"The journalists, the physicians, the associations, the intellectuals were against the peace," he notes. "It was an orphan peace. Nobody wanted to be its father. But I think the next stage should be a deeper peace. It should really meet the requirement of Sharansky for a democratic peace."

Asked whether peace between Israel and other countries in the Arab world can be achieved without an agreement with the Palestinians, Ajami replies: "In the case of Egypt and Jordan, they did strike peace on their own. It can happen, but the Arab states in the near future will make the argument that they'll wait until the peace with the Palestinians."

The Egyptians, Ajami is convinced, will maintain the peace agreement. "Not because they love Israel, but because they know the history of what happened in the Arab-Israeli wars of the past. I think the military will keep this peace. It was Sadat who made the peace and Mubarak kept it. The military is going to be very important in Egypt, come what may. People ask, what are the possible futures for Egypt - is it a democracy, is it a theocracy, is it a military dictatorship? And the answer is: all these things and none of the above. There will be elements of religion in politics, there will be strong elements of democracy, and a strong guardian role for the army. I think Egypt has shown the world something good about its civility. I can discern the trends in Egypt's history and I am optimistic now."

He hesitates to predict the effect of the revolutions on the Palestinians. "I don't know what moves them and how they relate to this Arab revolution. I know that Palestinians sympathized with Saddam Hussein. So when the new Iraq was being built, with which I fully and wholeheartedly sympathize, I felt somewhat puzzled and disappointed that they had cast their fate with Saddam and preferred Saddam to what the new Iraq would present to them. So I have stayed away from any commentary on them."

In recent weeks, including this past one, Ajami was invited with other Middle East experts for discussion sessions at the White House.

"I'm not a natural for this White House," he admits. "I've written for two years now against President Barack Obama, ever since he was a candidate. I respect the alternation of power. I had access to the Bush White House, to President Bush directly, to Vice President Cheney, I knew and respected Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, I was a friend of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, I knew [National Security Adviser Stephen] Hadley and Secretary Rice. I shared their politics and so their doors were open to me. So I'm not exactly a favorite of this White House, but I was pleased that they invited me. I didn't really contribute much, and we were bound by a confidentiality that I respected.

"My general view of it is now President Obama has a chance with Libya. If I was a policy advocate in a more direct way, I would call on President Obama to declare that the Ghadafi regime is hereby illegitimate and fallen. We consider any regime that uses helicopter gunships and mass terror and mercenaries against its own people, we consider it an illegitimate regime and we will no longer traffic with it. Now people will say, what will you get for this? And I would say a lot. If indeed the president of the United States were to declare Ghadafi's goons illegitimate, there are many, many people sitting on the fence in Libya who would take heart from this.

"Senator [John] Kerry, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said something very compelling. He said that we should put the commanders in Libya on notice, that we know who they are, that we are going to follow what they are doing, and come the fall of the regime, we will hold them responsible for war crimes. This would make a tremendous difference.

"I don't agree that there's nothing in the middle between either sending the Marines or wringing our hands. We're not going to send the Marines, that's not going to happen, but wringing our hands is morally and strategically problematic. If it takes declaring the Ghadafi regime illegitimate, an outlaw regime, if we say this unequivocally, not through the secretary of state, not through Vice President Biden, but through Barack Obama himself, standing up in broad daylight saying, 'Look, we've seen all we need to see from this regime, we don't think Muammar Gadhafi is redeemable, and we call upon the Libyan people to hold these criminals accountable' - this would make a tremendous amount of difference."

Why US clings to the right to bear arms

Feb 27, 2011

Powerful gun lobbies and a belief that it is a Constitutional right bar debate on issue
By Lee Wei Ling

The recent shooting spree in Tucson, Arizona, where Jared Lee Loughner killed six people and wounded 14 others, was merely one of many such incidents in the United States where innocent people are injured or killed for no other reason than that guns are freely available to all and sundry. Loughner is alleged to have targeted Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived the shooting.

The Loughner case is similar to that of Seung-Hui Choo, who in 2007 shot and killed 32 people at Virginia Tech. Both assailants had shown signs of being unbalanced for at least 18 months before they carried out their massacres. After the event, many wondered why these psychologically disturbed and dangerous people were not treated earlier.

Congresswoman Giffords herself is pro-gun and owns a gun. It is difficult to say whether any American politician genuinely believes that the Second Amendment of the US Constitution - which states: 'A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed' - remains relevant in today's America or that it gives any Tom, Dick or Harry (as opposed to a 'well regulated militia') the right to bear arms.

But such is the power of the gun lobby, American politicians will hesitate to say gun-ownership should be prohibited, as it is in almost every other civilised country. Even Senator John Kerry, a Democrat who supports gun control laws, had to appear in public wearing hunting gear and carrying a rifle during the 2004 presidential race, to show voters he wasn't opposed to guns per se. As the executive vice-president and chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association (NRA), Mr Wayne LaPierre, put it two years ago, the guys with the guns make the rules.

I lived in the US for three years and in Canada for a year for my post-graduate training. My fear of being mugged, robbed or killed was much higher in the US than in Canada. I am more vigilant when I hike in the US than when I do so in Canada. Gun violence in the US is the worst among developed countries.

Coming from Singapore, where there are strict laws against the illegal ownership of guns and any person who uses or attempts to use guns can face the death penalty, I have always been puzzled how a country like the US could have such a strong aversion to controlling firearms.

One Time magazine columnist explains it thus: 'Like them or not, guns are as American as covered wagons and the infield-fly rule. The revolutionaries and pioneers who forged the nation and peopled its wilderness really did cling to their guns as tenaciously as they clung to their religion.'

It appears that individual liberty has higher priority in the US than the safety of the community. So the American media scoff at our rules against chewing gum, and consider our death penalty for drug dealers cruel. I have no doubt the NRA would consider our gun laws as an infringement of individual liberty too, although the US media as a whole has not condemned our anti-gun laws.

(Not sure that they do. They reference their 2nd amendment to legitimise their right to bear arms. That we do not have such a provision in our constitution renders it moot. The right to bear arms being specified in the 2nd amendment makes it part of their individual right, but it is unique, and the US and NRA probably sees it as unique to their society.)

Yet when one talks to ordinary American citizens, many would prefer Singapore's anti-gun laws and even our anti-drug laws. I wonder how it is possible that at each election, at all levels, from city councils to the presidency, the winners are overwhelmingly pro-gun.

There are two possible explanations. First, voting is not compulsory in the US. As a result, even at the presidential election level, only about 60 per cent of the electorate exercises its right to vote. It is probable that those who feel more strongly about certain issues are more likely to vote. So the pro-gun as well as pro-life groups (who oppose abortion rights) are more likely to vote than the more passive anti-gun and pro-choice groups (who support abortion rights).

(It has been commented that the contradiction of being pro-gun (and thus presumably willing to take a life) and pro-life (being unwilling to take even life at the foetal stage) does not seem incongruent to the right. Of course, being anti-gun and pro-choice might also be incongruent. The natural partnership should be pro-gun and pro-choice.)

Second, there are powerful lobby groups in the US. Why lobby groups are considered legal in America puzzles me. In Singapore, what some of these lobby groups do - for example, contribute to the campaign funds of politicians they are lobbying - would be considered corruption. And, of course, the NRA is one of the most powerful and richest lobby groups in the US.

(Yes. I agree that lobby groups are a corrupting influence and unless it is removed from democratic process, it will undermine the democratic process as it is already doing in the US.]

It should be obvious to any rational person that the Second Amendment, which the NRA relies upon, is inapplicable in today's world. But the NRA quotes it as some would quote scripture. In fact, many Americans regard their Constitution as scripture. Once scripture is cited, rational debate seems to end.

[This seems to be a recent phenomena. Instead of WWJD, they are asking, what would the framers of the constitution want, or what did they mean. Or What would Reagan do. It is sad and frightening that the Right is co-opting the founders and Reagan, put the words of the right into these long-dead people to justify what they are unable to justify with reason and rationale.]

'Live free or die' is the motto of the state of New Hampshire, where I used to hike. There was something catchy about the words, so I once bought a T-shirt with the motto printed on it. But if one thought about it, it would be obvious that one can live totally free only by trampling on the rights of others. So every society requires its citizens to live within rules and regulations so the community as a whole can function.

This is so even in the 'Live free or die' state, New Hampshire. For instance, I like to drive fast - and a strict application of the motto should have allowed me to drive as fast as I liked. But there are laws against speeding, even in New Hampshire, and I can personally attest to the fact that people who speed are liable to be caught and fined.

If every individual in any society has total freedom, there will be anarchy and all members of that society would suffer. 'Live free or die' may be a catchy logo, but in reality, if there is total individual freedom, it would be more accurate to say: 'Live free and die'.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Opposition eyeing 13 out of 15 GRCs

Feb 26, 2011

IN 2006, the opposition left seven out of the 14 group representation constituencies (GRCs) uncontested.

At the coming polls, the parties have already made a claim on 13 of the 15 GRCs. Only two - Sembawang and Tanjong Pagar - could enjoy walkovers this time, as no one in the opposition ranks has shown interest in contesting them.

And in another sign of a heightened interest in the GRCs, at least two GRCs - four-member Moulmein-Kallang and five-member Bishan-Toa Payoh - are being eyed by more than one opposition party.

The fierce contest for GRCs is a key reason that intense horse-trading is taking place in the opposition camp, ahead of a meeting next week to decide which party gets to contest where, to avoid three-cornered fights.

Opposition leaders and political observers yesterday gave reasons to explain the greater interest in gunning for the GRCs, a scheme introduced at the 1988 polls to ensure better minority representation in Parliament.

One key factor is that there are simply more opposition parties now and also more people willing to step forward as opposition candidates, said Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim.

In 2006, the active parties were the WP, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and the Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA), a grouping headed by Potong Pasir MP Chiam See Tong.

Now, there are six active opposition parties, including two newcomers, the Socialist Front and the Reform Party. The latter is taking aim at two GRCs - Chua Chu Kang and West Coast.

Ms Lim said that even though the WP is opposed to the GRC system, which it deems to set unfair barriers, it will focus resources to strike at it.

'The only way to roll back the GRC system is for the PAP to start losing one,' she said. Also, winning a GRC will allow the opposition to have a sizeable number of elected MPs in quicker time, which will help achieve a strong system of checks and balances.

'This will help achieve a strong system of checks and balances against the PAP,' she said.

National Solidarity Party secretary-general Goh Meng Seng said the party is gunning for GRCs to strike a 'body blow' to the PAP. This is because a GRC victory could mean the ouster of a Cabinet minister as GRCs are usually helmed by the leaders.

Said Mr Goh: 'If the opposition wins a GRC, it would show that there is no safe fortress, even for ministers, and that accountability can be extracted from the ruling party.

'All other ministers would realise that they could actually lose in a GRC and would think harder about their ministries' policies.'

At the coming polls, the party is planning to go after ministers in up to three GRCs - Moulmein-Kallang, Jurong and Tampines. In 2006, the party contested the Jalan Besar and Tampines GRCs, under the SDA alliance, which it later left in 2007.

But a GRC win has so far eluded the opposition, as GRCs pose greater challenges than single-member constituencies, said some leaders. The closest that the opposition came to winning a GRC was in 1988 when the People's Action Party (PAP) won with just 50.9 per cent of the valid votes in the three-member Eunos GRC.

By 1991, the PAP had clawed back that share to 52.4 per cent under a four-member GRC there. Since then, the strongest opposition assaults, whether in Cheng San in 1997 or Aljunied in 2006 failed to garner similar margins. The PAP scored 54.8 per cent and 56.1 per cent of valid votes in Cheng San and Aljunied respectively.

Opposition figures noted that the greater number of seats needed and the minority-race requirement meant a tougher battle for them.

Political analyst Derek da Cunha, author of the book The Price Of Victory: The 1997 Singapore General Election And Beyond, said that in order to capture a GRC, opposition parties would need significant resources on par with those of the PAP. It would also need to field opposition candidates of a similar stature to potential office holders anchoring the PAP team, he added.

[The opposition need to have at least 3 "stars" in their lineup. Sylvia Lim may be an asset, but James Gomez? An opposition GRC team may have at best one lead who would be a vote puller, but the rest would be no-names, and liabilities. Opening up the number of SMC would further dilute the challenge the opposition can mount against PAP's GRC. Sylvia Lim has a better chance taking on an SMC, then leading a team of no-names in a GRC fight.]

If the opposition scored a GRC win, it would be a major psychological boost as 'the toppling of a Cabinet minister would give a clear indication that the PAP was vulnerable', he said.

But then, the very presence of the Cabinet ministers in GRCs has been the key obstacle, he said. 'That makes the hurdle extremely difficult for the opposition to surmount. The PAP is heavily entrenched in virtually all the constituencies.'


PM: Lower hurdle for opposition parties

Feb 26, 2011

Smaller GRCs and more single-seat wards offer more scope for contest
By Li Xueying & Elgin Toh

POLITICAL parties planning to contest the next election have to clear a lower hurdle than at previous polls, the Prime Minister declared yesterday in his first comments on the new electoral map.

He pointed to key changes in the way electoral boundaries are demarcated this time round, in line with guidelines he announced in Parliament in May 2009.

As a result, the average number of MPs per group representation constituency (GRC) has come down from 5.4 to five. The number of six-member GRCs has been whittled down from five to two, while that of single-member constituencies (SMCs) goes up from nine to 12.

'This should lower the hurdle for parties intending to contest the elections,' Mr Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday in comments to the media.

The boundary changes unveiled on Thursday also affect many incumbent MPs, he said. In other words, the changes hit People's Action Party MPs too.

The new boundaries leave the two opposition-held SMCs of Hougang and Potong Pasir intact, but sweeping changes have hit most of the other nine SMCs. Five have been absorbed into GRCs, while eight new ones have been created.

There are 15 GRCs in the new map, up from 14, with four-member GRCs making their first appearance since 2001.

Yesterday, meetings were called and phone calls made as politicians from both the ruling party and the opposition huddled to discuss the new boundaries and what they mean for their plans.

Over at Kolam Ayer, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister for Environment and Water Resources, convened a quick meeting with his branch activists last night. Kolam Ayer is part of Jalan Besar GRC, a large part of which will now be in the new Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

Meanwhile, leaders of opposition parties heated up phone lines as they negotiated anew who should contest where. For now, nothing is confirmed until they hold a pow-wow slated for early next week.

Mr Lui Tuck Yew, Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, noted the opposition's past protests about large GRCs standing in the way of them contesting - and winning.

'Now, with two four-MP GRCs, this takes away some of the excuses they have given over the years,' said Mr Lui, whose ward in the six-member Tanjong Pagar GRC has been drawn into the new four-member Moulmein-Kallang GRC.

However, opposition politicians and political observers are divided on the extent to which the changes truly lower the hurdle for opposition parties.

Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim concedes that, given her party's stand against the GRC system, 'any step that makes the GRCs smaller is a step in the right direction'.

WP treasurer Eric Tan agrees that 'smaller GRCs and SMCs are logistically easier to contest, especially if an opposition party is there for the first time'.

But he added: 'That said, the changes don't go far enough to restoring the level playing field. You can't first dilute people's rights, and then dilute them less - and call that a concession.'

Former Nominated MP Siew Kum Hong welcomes the increase in the number of SMCs, but said a more important factor in electoral politics is working the ground and developing relationships.

'Merging SMCs into GRCs and then creating new SMCs - these affect the way opposition politicians can work the ground, so I don't think the overall difficulty has been reduced by much,' he said.

Still, the electoral reforms reverse the trend towards ever-larger GRCs and fewer SMCs that began in 1988, the year GRCs were introduced.

The boundary changes are a 'carefully calibrated move to liberalise the electoral system, to promote more competition', said constitutional law lawyer Thio Li Ann.

The PAP strategy appears to be to 'open up the field, allow for more contests, but not to the point that it threatens the strong state', she added.

Mountbatten resident Loh Ming Hiang, 53, a hawker, is excited about the prospect of voting for the first time in 20 years. Mountbatten SMC has been carved out of Marine Parade GRC.

'Everyone has his own views and these views can be expressed only through the vote. I think the Government should allow for more single seats,' she said in Mandarin.

As for PM Lee, who is also the secretary-general of the ruling PAP, his assurance is that 'whichever way the boundaries are drawn, PAP MPs and candidates will do their best to serve the voters, and to win their support in the next election'.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Indonesia not yet a model for Egypt

Feb 25, 2011

By Jamie Morgan

ON THE day of Mr Hosni Mubarak's resignation as president of Egypt, I sat in a coffee shop in Indonesia with a friend who had helped to bring about a similar resignation of Indonesia's former strongman, Mr Suharto, just 12 years ago.

Today, Indonesia enjoys what many Western diplomats have praised as a thriving democracy. Yet my friend looked at me and said: 'Our biggest mistake was thinking all we needed was Suharto's resignation. We hope Egypt can strive for better.'

The feeling of simultaneous regret for his own country's situation and hope for that of countries protesting in the Arab world is not unique to my friend; it is one that has been echoed at food stalls, in universities and on social media outlets across Indonesia.

If senior US policy experts are touting Indonesia as one of the key models for emerging Muslim-majority democracies in Egypt and potentially elsewhere in the Arab world, why have so many Indonesians said that Egypt should learn from their country's failures rather than its supposed successes?

In the years following Mr Suharto's downfall, legalistic and institutional reforms were in many areas broad and thorough. But many Indonesians said those who praise the country's free elections and institutional reforms are missing the point.

The reforms that matter - those that would stem the pervasive corruption, improve social service delivery and stop violent mobs from being able to harm and kill minority groups at will - may have been enacted, but in many cases they have not been implemented. Essentially, Indonesians said they have not yet seen the fruits of democracy in their daily lives.

Without proper polling data it is difficult to determine how reflective these sentiments are of the Indonesian population as a whole. But the extent to which such sentiments have been expressed on social media outlets and in the three regions of the country where I have done fieldwork is striking. When compared with the praise that has been heaped on Indonesia by US foreign policy experts and senior officials, it is startling.

In fact, the contrast points to a much larger problem in the approach to democracy promotion among the most senior levels of US policymaking, particularly as it fits into diplomatic relations. By focusing too heavily on the procedural indicators of democracy to judge a country's democratic 'success', such as free and fair elections or legal reforms, policymakers as well as commentators risk missing many of the issues that contributed to civil unrest in Indonesia 12 years ago, and they are doing so across the Arab world today.

In fact, by heaping too much praise on governments that continue to fail in the basic fundamentals of liberal democracy and universal rights - such as minimising corruption or protecting minorities - the US government risks accelerating the frustration and disillusionment with democracy in these societies.

[There is nothing in the democratic process that directly addresses or reduces corruption. In fact, one might argue that the democratic process is easily corruptible, if not conducive to corruption. Vote buying, lobbying, special interest groups, media manipulation all can happen easily in a "democratic" society, especially one that espouses unlimited freedom without boundaries.]

Indeed, Dr Robin Bush, The Asia Foundation's country representative in Indonesia, has written on multiple occasions over the past two years about the threat that ongoing corruption and poor social service delivery present to the Indonesian democracy. She has noted the small but rising nostalgia in some communities for the stability of the Suharto era.

Indonesia was ranked 110th out of 178 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index last year. Thus, for Indonesians, hearing that their country is a beacon of democracy has seemed to create questions about the applicability of democracy more than anything else.

'This is it?' people wondered.

No one is saying that Indonesia is going to erupt into a wave of regime-change protests tomorrow, or that its citizens' problems are anywhere near those of protesters in many countries now. The fact that I am able to write this is a testament to that fact.

However, if US policymakers hope to promote governments that are truly going to address many of the frustrations creating instability in the Middle East and other parts of the world, it is important that they look soberly at the shortcomings, as well as successes, of countries like Indonesia.

[Perhpas instead of promoting democracy, they should be promoting clean and fair govt. But perhaps they do no have the moral authority to do so?]

Indonesia's fate is yet unwritten. To sell the country as a wholesale democratic success is to undersell democracy and the sentiments of many of its citizens.

After all, if there is anything that the beginning of the 21st century has shown the world, it is that neither the US government nor any other government can afford to ignore the voice of the individual.

The writer has been in Indonesia for the past year via a grant from the US-Indonesia Society, doing research on US engagement with Muslim communities in the country.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Budget food for thought in Malaysia

Feb 24, 2011

By Zhang Ming Guang

IN THIS year's Budget, which was announced last Friday, the Singapore Government is giving away generous subsidies and 'dividends' worth $6.6 billion, of which $3.2 billion will go into the 'Grow and Share' package. All adult Singaporeans will each receive between $100 and $900 in Growth Dividends.
The remaining $3.4 billion will be used for long-term social investments, such as forming a new Community Silver Trust to provide aid to the long-term care sector, promoting cultural activities and upgrading housing estates.
It is hard not to link the goodies given out by the Singapore Government to rumours that a general election is likely to be called in the second quarter of this year. But the Government is able to share its Budget surplus with Singaporeans because it has reaped the benefits of its bold economic transformation initiatives.
When Singapore experienced development bottlenecks and declining tourism in 2002, the Government began to think about transforming the economy and drew up new competitive strategies.
It formed the Economic Review Committee, which was headed by then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and comprised 20 members, seven of whom were ministers or ministers of state. It had seven sub-committees with between 200 and 300 experts from the Government, corporate world, private sector and academic circles studying the future economic direction of Singapore.
At the same time, the younger generation of Cabinet ministers formed the Remaking Singapore Committee to bring about economic transformation by reviewing Singapore's development strategies in the 21st century from the social, cultural and political aspects.
In August 2005, Mr Lee, by then Prime Minister, said in his National Day Rally speech that if Singapore failed to modify its economic model and carry out reform and innovation, it risked becoming a loser in the increasingly competitive global economy.
He cited this as the reason for the Government's decision to ignore public opinion and build two casinos in Singapore. The impact of the casinos, which started operations last year, was immediate.
In addition, Singapore won the rights to host the first Formula One Grand Prix night race in 2008. The opening of the casinos and the staging of the F1 races revived Singapore's tourism and debunked Hong Kong and Taiwanese tourism writers' negative stereotype of Singapore as a boring place.
Buoyed by the launch of the two casinos and positive economic sentiment, Singapore raked in $18.8 billion in tourism receipts last year, up nearly 50 per cent year-on-year. Visitor arrivals also soared and set records for 13 consecutive months. Full year visitor arrivals grew 20 per cent to 11.6 million.
The casinos also created about 35,000 jobs for Singapore. They have generated revenue of US$2.8 billion (S$3.6 billion) since their opening, contributing significantly to Singapore's robust growth of 14.5 per cent last year.
In the wake of increasing competition brought about by economic globalisation, the Singapore Government has maintained a cautious outlook.
By clarifying the direction of the country's economic transformation and goals, adopting strong policies and measures, and undertaking bold reforms and innovations, it achieved impressive results.
We on the other side of the Causeway envy Singaporeans for getting a share of the fruits of their country's economic transformation, but shouldn't we also ponder what path we should take?
After taking office, Prime Minister Najib Razak rolled out an economic transformation programme (ETP) to enable Malaysia to achieve high-income status and per capita income of US$15,000 by 2020.
Faced with resistance from conservatives within the ruling Umno, he does not have a free hand to do as he pleases. However, investor confidence in Malaysia's economy is reportedly growing, which shows that the ETP has produced some results.
But compared to Singapore, the pace of Malaysia's economic transformation is too slow. If we do not do our utmost to catch up, our fear of being overtaken by Singapore as the third-largest economy in South-east Asia will materialise very soon.
This article first appeared in Oriental Daily News, a Malaysian Chinese daily, on Monday.

The tsunami of Arab awakening

Feb 24, 2011

By Thomas L. Friedman
WHAT'S unfolding in the Arab world today is the mother of all wake-up calls. And what the voice on the other end of the line is telling us is clear as a bell.
'America, you have built your house at the foot of a volcano. That volcano is now spewing lava from different cracks and is rumbling like it's going to blow. Move your house!'
In this case, 'move your house' means 'end your addiction to oil'.
No one is rooting harder for the democracy movements in the Arab world to succeed than I am. But even if things go well, this will be a long and rocky road. The smart thing for the US to do right now is to impose a US$1-a-gallon (S$1.28 per 3.8 litres) petrol tax, to be phased in at 5 US cents a month beginning next year, with all the money going to pay down the deficit. Legislating a higher energy price today that takes effect in the future, notes the Princeton economist Alan Blinder, would trigger a shift in buying and investment well before the tax kicks in. With one little petrol tax, Americans can make themselves more economically and strategically secure, and free themselves to openly push for democratic values in the Middle East without worrying anymore that it will harm their oil interests. Yes, it will mean higher petrol prices, but prices are going up anyway, folks. Let's capture some of it for ourselves.
It is about time. For the past 50 years, America (and Europe and Asia) have treated the Middle East as if it were just a collection of big petrol stations: Saudi station, Iran station, Kuwait station, Bahrain station, Egypt station, Libya station, Iraq station, United Arab Emirates station, etc.
Our message to the region has been very consistent: 'Guys (it was only guys we spoke with), here's the deal. Keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don't bother the Israelis too much and, as far as we're concerned, you can do whatever you want out back. You can deprive your people of whatever civil rights you like. You can engage in however much corruption you like. You can preach whatever intolerance from your mosques that you like. You can print whatever conspiracy theories about us in your newspapers that you like. You can keep your women as illiterate as you like. You can create whatever vast welfare-state economies, without any innovative capacity, that you like. You can undereducate your youth as much as you like. Just keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don't hassle the Jews too much - and you can do whatever you want out back.'
It was that attitude that enabled the Arab world to be insulated from history for the past 50 years - to be ruled for decades by the same kings and dictators. Well, history is back. The combination of rising food prices, huge bulges of unemployed youth and social networks that are enabling those youths to organise against their leaders is breaking down all the barriers of fear that kept these kleptocracies in power.
But fasten your seat belts. This is not going to be a joyride because the lid is being blown off an entire region with frail institutions, scant civil society and virtually no democratic traditions or culture of innovation. The UN's Arab Human Development Report 2002 warned us about all of this, but the Arab League made sure the report was ignored in the Arab world and the West turned a blind eye. But that report - compiled by a group of Arab intellectuals led by Egyptian statistician Nader Fergany - was prophetic. It merits re-reading today to appreciate just how hard this democratic transition will be.
The report stated that the Arab world is suffering from three huge deficits: a deficit of education, a deficit of freedom and a deficit of women's empowerment. A summary of the report in Middle East Quarterly in the fall of 2002 detailed the key evidence: the gross domestic product of the entire Arab world combined was less than that of Spain. Per capita expenditure on education in Arab countries fell from 20 per cent of that in industrialised countries in 1980 to 10 per cent in the mid-1990s. In terms of the number of scientific papers per unit of population, the average output of the Arab world per million inhabitants was roughly 2 per cent of that of an industrialised country.
When the report was compiled, the Arab world translated about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece did. Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s in the rankings of Freedom House. At the dawn of the 21st century, the Arab world had more than 60 million illiterate adults, the majority of whom were women. Yemen could be the first country in the world to run out of water within 10 years.
This is the vaunted 'stability' all these dictators provided - the stability of societies frozen in time.
Seeing the democracy movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world succeed in modernising their countries would be hugely beneficial to them and to the world. We must do whatever we can to help. But no one should have any illusions about how difficult and convulsive the Arabs' return to history is going to be. Let's root for it, without being in the middle of it.

Complexity studies offer rich insights

Feb 23, 2011
By Su Guaning

HUMAN societies, especially cities, are enormously complex organisms. For illustration, consider a simple dynamic system comprising a retailer-wholesaler-manufacturer distribution chain - the 'Beer Game' devised at MIT's Sloan School of Management.

Picture a student in his dormitory, at 3am, staring at his computer in puzzlement. He is the 'Retailer', who usually sells four cases a week of a local brand 'Lover's Beer'. He has a stockpile of 12 cases in inventory, and routinely orders four cases a week from the wholesaler to replenish his stock.

During Week 2, his sales double to eight cases. He duly orders eight more cases to replenish his stock. But during Week 3, only four cases arrive - there is a four-week delivery delay - and he continues to sell eight cases. So he orders 12 more in anticipation of future demand.

By Week 5, his stock has run down to zero. By Week 9, there is a backlog of 11 cases, with no relief in sight as the delivery man fails to show up. He orders even more cases.

Meanwhile, across campus, there is another student, the 'Wholesaler'. He sees the demand from his retailers climb through the roof and yet the supply from the brewery fails to materialise. By Week 9, his backlog goes up to 43 cases.

A third student plays the role of the 'Brewery'. She sees an even bigger spike in demand as the orders pour in from the wholesalers. She ramps up production in a crash programme. Everyone is screaming: 'Give me more Lover's Beer!'

All of a sudden, from Week 14, the beer arrives like a flash flood. The same sales volume cannot keep up with the supply. Demand collapses, overwhelming not just our retailer and wholesaler but also our brewery. By Week 24, there is an excess of 500 cases of Lover's Beer.

What triggered this disaster? A simple demand spike due to a pop song featuring Lover's Beer!

While each player merely responds to his immediate surroundings, they collectively exhibit behaviour dictated by the structure of the system as a whole. The 'Beer Game' has been played many times by different people - including in Singapore - and the outcome is invariably determined not by the players but by the 'system dynamics'.

The property market here and the prices of certificates of entitlement (COEs) for cars also exhibit large gyrations due to inherent delays and human complexity. In the case of the property market, the process from the release of land to completion of a residential project can take years. Faced with temporary shortages, buyers panic and bid up prices. This results in boom and bust cycles. Delays and complex human behaviour can make any system prone to wild gyrations.

Whether it be Singapore or the Tianjin Eco-City, building sustainable cities requires careful system designs to moderate and prevent such wild swings. But while we can routinely design quantifiable systems such as aircraft, human beings are infinitely more complex. It is impossible to derive a detailed model of human society that would allow a government to determine the impact on citizens of every policy it adopts.

We saw this in the case of COEs. The theory is simple: control the number of new cars put on the road each month by a bidding system - and voila, traffic will flow more freely. Real life, however, is not as accommodating.

Even if we managed to control perfectly the number of cars on the road, traffic congestion depends on the decisions of hundreds of thousands of individual drivers: what route they decide to take; speed of travel; whether they slow down to look at a traffic accident; and so on. Add to these the factors that prevent us from controlling well the number of cars on the road and the problem really becomes intractable.

The insights that scientists have gained from studying complex systems in the aggregate may nevertheless be useful.

Analysing the operation of a car engine by going down to the single molecules of fuel and oxygen is practically impossible due to the large number of molecules and the unknown initial conditions. But the macro laws of physics governing compression, heat transfer, expansion and production of mechanical energy enable us to produce macroscopic models of performance to design workable engines. Can we do the same for sustainable cities?

The difficulty would lie in the absence of physical laws governing macroscopic human behaviour. Physicists have nevertheless tried to apply their insights to human societies with some success.

Dr Geoffrey West, a theoretical physicist who is a frequent visitor to NTU's Institute of Advanced Studies, is one example. He and his colleagues at the Sante Fe Institute have applied physics methodology to complex organisms ranging from rodents, elephants and blue whales to all sizes of cities. He has discovered amazing 'laws' governing cities. For example, when a city doubles in size, its economic output not just doubles but increases by a further 15 per cent.

This is one example of what is called 'complexity studies'. While not immediately useful for policy-making, it can provide useful insights. There is a unique collection of high-powered intellectuals at Santa Fe, including Nobel physics laureate Murray Gell-Mann, dealing with similar problems typically considered intractable.

The human condition is a fascinating source of inspiration for poets, artists and musicians. It is also a wonderfully complex, interwoven tapestry of patterns and even hidden codes. We should venture into complexity studies so as to contribute to the richness of human studies and possibly improve public policy.

The writer is president of Nanyang Technological University. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Feb 22, 2011

Learn from the past but do not reproach

By Cheong Suk-Wai
ONE day in 1976, Danish tourist Joergen Oerstroem Moeller approached a Singapore immigration officer to have his passport stamped. When the officer asked him, 'How long are you going to stay?' he replied, 'Three days.' 'Three days only?' said the officer. 'You should stay longer with us.'
Recalling that, Professor Moeller, 66, says: 'His kindness, and pride for his country made a lasting impression on me. I can still hear him saying it!'
The Dane came back in 1997 - and has lived here since, first as his country's envoy to Singapore and Brunei and, from 2005, as a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
His wife hails from Vietnam, which, among other things, means that they and their two children speak a total of nine languages, including Mandarin, Norwegian and Vietnamese.
Earlier this month, this prolific scholar launched his latest book, How Asia Can Shape The World: From The Era Of Plenty To The Era Of Scarcities. I sat down with him last week to learn more about his tome:
Why are you so keen on forecasting the future when that is speculative at best?
I became interested in forecasting in 1971, when I read the late management guru Peter Drucker's book, The Age Of Discontinuity. It rang a bell in my mind because already in 1971, you could see the world jumping from one stone to another; development was not continuous.
So where does one begin in forecasting the future?
If you look at the X-ray of the world today, the four largest economies are the United States, Europe, China and Japan. But what is going on in Asia is more fascinating than what is going on in the US. What's important is not to be misled by either the X-ray or the trend. Many today talk about the phenomenal growth of China and India, but the US, Europe and Japan still account for two-thirds of the global economy. So you will not have a global recovery unless these countries get going again.
What is most essential in all this is: Where do you see the new mindset? The mindset in the US, Europe and Japan is still driving in the same lane, but that in China, India and South-east Asia is changing. I don't know whether it's correct to say they welcome change, but they are ready to change.
So Asia's edge comes from adapting faster than others?
Yes. On top of that is its population mass of approximately four billion, which makes it more likely that new mindsets and developments will be born out of these four billion than from the fewer than one billion in Europe, Japan and the US. That's because Asia now has enough purchasing power so that its large population can control things. Thirty years ago, Asia also had the world's largest population but it was poor, so nothing happened.
But how influential would Asia's mindset be, given that it has bought into much of Western thought?
For the last 50 years, Asia has basically been catching up with the West and in that game, it has adopted a large part of Western values. But now, Asia has arrived at the point where it has to ask the pertinent question: 'Should we still adopt Western values or reinvent our own traditional values?' As I see it, Asia will reinvent its own values.
But aren't Asian values really universal values, perhaps just emphasised more by Asia than elsewhere?
In the Abrahamic religions, God gives nature to Man. So I can do with it what I want. God is not stopping me because He has said: 'Here is nature. Do what you want with it.' So during the Industrial Revolution, there was no foot on the brake in using resources. But in Asia's religions, Man has not the privilege of owning nature. God is found everywhere in nature, which means that there is an inhibition in exploiting nature because if you did so, you are offending God.
So now that the Western model does not deliver answers any more, Asia might fall back on its traditional values. And in traditional Asian philosophies, it is much more rule by Man in the sense that norms and values govern the relationship between individuals within particular communities and groups. A main point in my new book is that because the world is moving from individualism to groups, Asia has a better chance of (shaping) this change.
But how can individualism be dying in a me, me and me world?
First, because knowledge is the most important production factor today and knowledge can enhance productivity only if it is shared. And you can share only if you're convinced that the results of such sharing will be distributed in an equitable and acceptable way. To get to that, you need to operate on trust and you can do so only if you have shared common values - that is, if you're convinced that the other members in your group will behave in the same way as you do.
Second, we have moved into an era of scarcity and so there will be less to distribute all around. What this means is that we are moving from a distribution of benefits to burden-sharing which, again, emphasises the group because if you're asked to share the burden, you will say, 'Yes, provided that the other members of the group also do so.'
So in these two essential factors, the common denominator is trust and shared common values, which points to Asia.
But how can there be trust and shared values when there is no one Asia, but many Asias?
That's a very good question. But the main thing driving trust in Asia will be economic integration. We know from history that trade and investment also have repercussions on mindset and cultural patterns. You don't need to get to a uniform cultural pattern; you only need to get to a point where there is sufficient trust to cooperate.
And I think this will happen in Asia because compared to European powers which have fought with each other for centuries - and constantly - you have never had a great war between China and India. The lone threat to Asia is the water on the Tibetan plateau. If China starts to divert the rivers that flow through the region to it instead of allowing the rivers to flow into India, there will be trouble. Otherwise, China and Japan quarrelling about offshore islands is not vital.
Isn't it, though, with oil and national pride at stake?
The oil which could be there is, of course, important for their future. But if the oil goes to China, Japan will survive. If the oil goes to Japan, China will survive.
Speaking of survival, why does the West keep insisting that Asia must discipline itself as it grows when the West didn't?
We wouldn't be where we are today without the West and industrialisation, so I don't think it's very propitious to criticise the West. Of course the West has committed mistakes but it has also taken the world through 200 years of tumultuous progress. Now the time has come for some of the mistakes to be redressed but the time has not come to reproach the West.
Why not?
The mistakes committed by the West were honest ones in that the people who made them did so because they saw that, at that time, it was the right way to go. So learn from the past, but do not reproach. Turn around and look ahead.

Optimist mistaken for a pessimist

DEFT, definite and with a dry wit, retired Danish diplomat Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is certain that the future will benefit from Asia's values. Here he is on:
How the West and East look at resources
'When a Westerner wants something from a tree, he chops it down. When an Easterner wants something from a tree, he plucks what he needs and lets the tree continue growing.'
The argument that it is against the values of Asians to plunder nature
'The counter-argument to that is Asian mass consumption over the past 30 years. But my counter-argument to that counter-argument is that that is because Asians have adopted Western values.'
'There is only one way forward in today's world and that is to share influence and global responsibility and seek compromises. But what is China going to do about it?'
How the world's future might be a nightmare
'If, on the one hand, we see the US waning as a global power, but on the other hand, we see no global steering mechanism emerging from China.'
Why he is an optimist
'I subscribe to the view of historian Arnold Toynbee that civilisation is a response to challenge, by which he meant that when people run into difficulties, they are likely to find answers.'
Why people mistake him for a pessimist
'Because I focus on the things that need to be repaired and that, of course, gives others the picture of a man who constantly sees problems.'
'It has had consistently high economic growth and has been hit by a recession only a few times and (then only) because of global recessions.'

Hard Truths debunk misconceptions

Feb 22, 2011

By Tom Plate

MANY residents of this famous and successful city state doubt that the new book, Hard Truths, offers true full disclosure. The political system here is not open in the breezy (even sloppy) manner of a Western democracy, and so such wonder about this new runaway bestseller spotlighting the wide-ranging views of Singapore's founder Lee Kuan Yew is no surprise.

But is it warranted?

The soft truth is that I have been coming here on reporting trips virtually every year since 1996 and I can't answer their question, either. But what must be said about this extraordinarily skilled 458-page compendium of interviews and commentary about the venerable Singaporean legend LKY is that it gives the lie to the notion that this place is some sort of totalitarian society.

Call it a 'soft' authoritarian political system or even call it a Singapore Inc economic system, if you like. In fact, label it almost anything you want - but do not call it totalitarian.

No such totally closed society - the abject totality of the closure being the essence of the definition of the term - could have supported a culture that could have produced so broad and deep and in fact so free-wheeling a national self-examination.

The book's formal title is Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. It's based on a mountain of interviews with Minister Mentor Lee, conducted with almost Jesuitical thoroughness by a crack team of editors and reporters from The Straits Times. This is the island state's leading daily newspaper and (easily) one of Asia's most comprehensive and professional.

I have been scratching my head for days now trying to recall a comparable tome from America's political culture. I think there is none.

In this book, Mr Lee does his thing in his usual inimitable way - and this engaging and entertaining act is almost always worth the price of admission.

He tosses off deep political insights like a contemporary Asian sage and lobs out politically incorrect bombshells like an irreverent (but think very high-end) nightclub satirist. You laugh almost as much as you marvel over the guy's amazing brain. I always tell my university students that anyone interviewing Mr Lee who leaves with a flat story is a failed journalist who belongs in another business - like accounting.

But let's be honest: there is a stern and relentlessly old-fashioned side to Mr Lee, however widely admired among world leaders for the quality of his geopolitical analysis and of course for the astonishing achievements of his beloved Singapore (its most recent recorded growth rate hovers at 14 per cent).

The fact is he can be pretty starchy and unyielding, and so maybe the best chapter in this superb volume is Not Your Average Granddad. It was conducted and written by Ms Rachel Lin - at 25 years of age, the youngest of The Straits Times team of seven. May it be true of allegedly starchy Singapore that more like her roam the island with such a free spirit.

The brave and hip Ms Lin peppers the elder statesman with queries about homosexuality, love-at-first-sight, fave films, gothic rock bands and body tattoos. At times Mr Lee admits he has little idea what the young woman is talking about. Undeterred, she says at one point, almost instructionally: 'This may be a bit shocking but many young Singaporeans are specifically getting yakuza-inspired tattoos now...'

You can almost imagine seeing the Minister Mentor's jaw drop: for while he is in no way out of his depth with the Kissingers of the world, he is hilariously no match for this young un-fearing with-it journalist.

In fact, it will take absolutely nothing away from Mr Lee's many insightful contributions if we walk away from the book in admiration of the concise and highly informative commentary sections provided by The Straits Times' editors and reporters, sandwiched between the lengthy chapter conversations.

Many of them bring a level of self-examination and critical awareness about national progress and the political system that easily rivals the depth of the ongoing political self-examination in the United States. The journalists ask themselves whether the country's economic progress is sustainable and its present course correct. Their evaluation is as penetrating as it is subtle.

No closed society could yield such open-minded self-review. This is an astonishing book well worth reading beyond the narrow confines of Singapore, the tiny non-totalitarian city state. Anyone concerned about the quality of governance and the state of the world will learn from it.
The writer is a Los Angeles-based columnist.

Will Opposition's Sweet & Sour strategy still work?

Feb 19, 2011

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the use of the 'by-election strategy' in the 1991 polls, which saw the election of four opposition MPs. This opposition strategy ensures the PAP is returned to power on Nomination Day so that voters can elect more opposition candidates. Should it be revived? Insight examines the pros and cons

By Elgin Toh

AUG 21, 1991: It is Nomination Day and the clock is ticking.

Three hours before the nomination deadline for the general election (GE), three Workers' Party (WP) comrades are still locked in a heated argument.

At the Colombo Court law office of WP leader J. B. Jeyaretnam, Mr Maurice Neo and Mr Jufrie Mahmood take issue with his party strategy.

The duo are opposed to Mr Jeyaretnam's longstanding practice of fielding as many candidates as he can.

They argue that the 'by-election strategy', a new opposition game plan adopted by Mr Chiam See Tong of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), would work better.

Under this strategy, the opposition parties deliberately limit the number of candidates to fewer than half of all seats. This ensures that the People's Action Party (PAP) will be returned to power on Nomination Day, before the first vote is cast.

Thus voters who want both a PAP government and more opposing voices in Parliament can vote freely for the opposition - they can have their cake and eat it. It is also said to be an effective counter to the PAP's warnings, put out during the 1988 GE, that a 'freak' election result might inadvertently put the opposition in power.

In the heat of the moment, Mr Neo tears up the nomination papers of one Professor Zeng Guoyuan, who had the backing of Mr Jeyaretnam. 'He had a string of degrees leading up to a PhD from Sri Lanka, but he couldn't speak O-level English. No credibility whatsoever,' recalls Mr Neo, 20 years later, in an interview with Insight.

But Mr Jeyaretnam manages to rustle up another set of papers for Prof Zeng, an acupuncturist, to run in Bukit Timah. Prof Zeng would later lose in a landslide, receiving just 26 per cent of the votes to Dr Wang Kai Yuen's 73 per cent.

Mr Neo and Mr Jufrie filed papers as candidates for Eunos GRC, while Mr Jeyaretnam had to wait out a five-year ban from standing for elections, following a 1986 conviction for a false declaration and fraudulent transfer of party funds.

But elsewhere, the advocates of the by-election strategy had better luck.

Mr Chiam's SDP fielded just nine candidates, down from 18 in the 1988 GE, by persuading several prospective candidates to back down.

SDP veterans from 1988 who took a back seat in the name of the by-election strategy included Mr Ng Teck Siong, Mr George Sita, Mr Abdul Rasheed and Mr Mohd Shariff Yahya.

One SDP man, Mr Kwek Guan Kwee, insisted on running but was told that the party would not support his nomination. He stood as an independent.

On the WP side, Mr Neo says he talked at least three men out of standing: Mr Goh Teng Hoon, Mr Seow Khee Leng and Mr Lim Lye Soon.

But up until the eleventh hour, the fate of the by-election strategy hung in the balance. More nail-biting suspense was to come.

The proposer for independent candidate M. Ramakrishnan arrived 10 minutes late at the nomination centre for the Kreta Ayer ward. That proved vital because when the final tally was made, the opposition had contested 40 of the 81 seats - a whisker short of the half-way mark.

By a mixture of luck and design, the opposition had handed power to the PAP on Nomination Day for the first time since the 1968 GE, when a boycott by the Barisan Sosialis resulted in only seven seats being contested and the PAP taking all 58 seats.

Impact of the strategy

NO ANALYSIS of the 1991 election is complete without a discussion of the role of the by-election strategy in helping the opposition pull off what is still its best showing in post-1965 history.

Four seats were captured from the ruling party, whose leader, Mr Goh Chok Tong, was clearly reeling from the results of his first GE as prime minister.

At a 4am press conference the day after the results, he credited Mr Chiam for his use of the by-election strategy. Other PAP candidates who survived close fights - Mr Teo Chong Tee in Changi (who polled 53 per cent) and Mr Lim Boon Heng in Ulu Pandan (56 per cent) - also told reporters the strategy had worked.

The SDP won Potong Pasir, Nee Soon Central and Bukit Gombak. WP took Hougang. Mr Chiam, who romped home in Potong Pasir with 70 per cent of the votes, was declared leader of the opposition.

But PAP MPs were not the only ones to link the unprecedented outcome to the surprise strategy sprung by the opposition. Pundits were quick to pronounce it a 'crucial factor'.

Voters seemed to understand the strategy. When a Straits Times reporter visited Hougang after the election, at least four voters told her that the by-election strategy made residents feel safer voting in an opposition MP.

But 20 years on, the picture has blurred somewhat. The strategy said to have worked wonders appeared far less effective in the GEs of 1997 and 2001, both of which also saw fewer than half the seats in Parliament contested. The opposition kept only two of the four seats from 1991. The PAP's vote share rose from 61 per cent (1991) to 65 per cent (1997) to 75 per cent (2001).

Of course, whether the by-election strategy was being used consciously in 1997 and 2001 is debatable.

By 1997, a rift between Mr Chiam and an SDP central executive committee led by his protege, Dr Chee Soon Juan, resulted in the former being forced out of the SDP. The Singapore People's Party (SPP), which he joined as soon as Parliament dissolved in 1996, was too inconsequential - it ran for only three seats in 1997 - for him to credibly coordinate any opposition-wide strategy.

So the man seen as the key architect of the strategy in 1991 was in no position to promote it again in 1997.

After 1997's poor opposition showing, Mr Chiam's faith in the strategy waned. In the run-up to the 2001 GE, he said the strategy had become 'stale' and that the opposition needed something new.

But when the PAP was returned to power on Nomination Day again that year, Mr Chiam appeared to flip-flop when he suggested to reporters that the by-election strategy was in effect: 'We will tell the people of Singapore that they are free to vote for the rest of the opposition candidates. There is no fear of toppling the Government because the Government has already been formed.'

In 1991, PAP leaders criticised the opposition for 'making a virtue out of a necessity' in trumpeting the by-election strategy, arguing it did not, in fact, have enough candidates. Ironically, the evidence suggests this was not the case in 1991 - since many willing candidates refrained from standing that year - but prophetically spot-on in 1997 and 2001.

WP secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, in an e-mail interview with Insight, admits as much.

'I do not think the opposition, or at least the WP, was employing this strategy in the 1997 and 2001 GEs,' he said. 'The fact was that the opposition as a whole was unable or too weak to field enough candidates to contest during those GEs.'

Speaking to Insight, Dr Chee from the SDP agreed with this assessment, noting the difficulty in uniting the opposition behind the strategy: 'So you could really say onlyafter Nomination Day whether you were going to have the by-election effect.'

Was it a decisive factor?

INDEED, the failure of the opposition to replicate the success of 1991 has cast doubt on whether the by-election strategy was a major factor in that election.

Revisionist interpretations are now coming from scholars and opposition politicians, who say a feeling of alienation in the Chinese community and the leadership transition within the PAP were among a host of factors behind the vote swing.

Says Reform Party secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam, whose father J. B. Jeyaretnam never supported the strategy: 'There is no counterfactual. We will never know what would have happened if the strategy had not been used in 1991.'

Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan goes so far as to say that the use of the strategy may have been 'purely incidental' to the success.

'There was a sense that the PAP was vulnerable. The seven-year period from 1984 to 1991 saw massive constitutional engineering. Group representation constituencies, nominated MPs, non-constituency MPs and the elected presidency were all invented then. Yet the PAP's vote share declined in three consecutive GEs. Voters may have been reacting to what they saw as unfair tactics to keep the ruling party in power.'

Agreeing, National Solidarity Party (NSP) secretary-general Goh Meng Seng adds: 'The new leadership under PM Goh lacked political capital and a strong track record, which led to a slip in confidence among the electorate.'

Mr Low, who was first elected Hougang MP in 1991, points to a slew of local factors, such as the lack of incense burners in Nee Soon Central, and national ones, such as rising costs, that worked against the ruling party: 'I am unable to assess how much of the 1991 GE was attributable to the by-election strategy.'

But there are others who hold that the strategy had indeed been decisive.

Among them is Mr Neo, the man who conceived the strategy as early as 1988, before Mr Chiam adopted and implemented it in 1991: 'It contributed to a large extent. The PAP's arguments were not skewed towards it. They couldn't say: Can you name your Finance Minister? We stated at the outset that we were not ready for government. We wanted only to be the opposition. And for the first time in over two decades, the opposition could set the election agenda.'

Adds Dr Derek da Cunha, author of The Price Of Victory: The 1997 General Election And Beyond: 'Just before Nomination Day, the ground was sweet for the PAP. But on Nomination Day itself, when the election became a by-election, the ground became somewhat like Chinese cuisine - sweet and sour.'

To the likes of Mr Neo and Dr da Cunha, the strategy faltered after 1991 for a number of reasons.

Expanding GRCs swallowed up single wards where the opposition came close to winning in 1991, such as Bukit Batok, Nee Soon South and Braddell Heights. The poor performances by opposition MPs Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen during their term did nothing to convince the electorate that the opposition could be trusted with more responsibilities.

But most importantly, it was the 'local election strategy' that the PAP first used in 1997 that proved the most effective antidote to the by-election effect. The PAP's threat that opposition wards would lose benefits such as Housing Board upgrading meant that voting against the ruling party once again involved real dangers. Indeed, PAP leaders freely admitted that this was a direct response to the by-election strategy - Mr Goh during a PAP conference in 1996 and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in the second volume of his memoirs, From Third World To First.

The opposition finally abandoned the strategy in the 2006 GE, contesting in 47 out of 84 seats that year.

Should it be revived?

But if the Housing Board upgrading carrot was indeed what delivered the proverbial knockout punch to the by-election strategy, might the coming GE, then, be an opportune time to bring it back? After all, most estates eligible for various upgrading projects have been offered upgrading - including those in opposition-held Hougang and Potong Pasir. The Lift Upgrading Programme, for instance, will be completed by 2014. So, by then, even the most opposition-leaning precincts will be offered lifts on every floor. As analyst Kevin Tan puts it, 'you cannot offer more and more of the same'.

At least one opposition leader, SPP chairman Sin Kek Tong, believes the strategy should be revived - if all parties can agree to it.

His proposal is for the opposition to field a 'dream team' of 12 candidates in just the 12 single wards. 'There would be a strong by-election effect, and we would also be sending a message that we are boycotting the unfair GRC system,' he says.

For this to work, the fragmented opposition camp has to come together to decide on the strongest 12. Mr Sin has drawn up his own 'dream team': Mr Chiam See Tong, Mr Low Thia Khiang, Ms Sylvia Lim, Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Mr Steve Chia, Mr Goh Meng Seng, Mr Chia Ti Lik, Mr Sebastian Teo, Mr Yip Yew Weng, Mr Jufrie Mahmood, Dr Tan Bin Seng, and Reform Party new face Mr Tony Tan. Sharing this view is Mr Neo, who has since left politics: 'It is needed until there is a critical mass of opposition MPs with a party ready to govern.'

However, most opposition leaders and analysts say it would probably be counterproductive to go back to the two-decade-old strategy.

Says Dr Tan: 'It would be a retrograde step because you obviously do not believe that you have a party with a doctrine or manifesto that appeals to the wide public. And also, at the last GE, a group of newbies that went to Ang Mo Kio GRC, which the PM called the suicide squad, took over 30 per cent from him. So the opposition ought to be thinking: Why limit yourself?'

Another argument, put forth by Mr Eugene Tan, is that contesting more seats would lock down the PAP top guns and dilute PAP branch resources.

'So people like PM and SM Goh cannot act as roving cheerleaders. In the past, they had been effective in drumming up support for the relatively weaker or new PAP candidates.'

The NSP's Mr Goh believes the by-election strategy hurts both the opposition cause and the nation in the long run. Denying Singaporeans the chance to vote will cause them, over time, to lose their sense of national identity. At the same time, parties are forgoing the opportunity to make Singaporeans more politically aware through the voting experience.

There is also the question of party renewal, he says.

'Young opposition members receive their baptism of fire when they stand as candidates. The by-election strategy prevents them from running because you have to limit candidates. So there is discontinued leadership.'

From the way the coming GE is shaping up, however, this discussion may be entirely academic, as the opposition appears to have no intention of reusing the strategy. Dr da Cunha estimates, based on his conversations with opposition leaders, that 80 per cent of the seats will be contested this time.

New rules increasing the number of non-constituency MPs will, if anything, encourage more opposition candidates to come forward and try their luck in more constituencies. Mr Goh reckons this effect may even spawn the dreaded three-cornered fights.

If so, the by-election strategy looks set to die a natural death. Some may argue that it has fulfilled its historical purpose, and that it is time for the opposition to model itself after the oppositions in more mature democracies: by seeking to offer an alternative government.

No, it wasn't Chiam's idea

By Elgin Toh

WHO was the brain behind the by-election strategy in the 1991 polls which saw four opposition candidates being elected into Parliament?

Mr Chiam See Tong, the then leader of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) who led the election campaign, has often been assumed to be the mastermind. But was he?

During court hearings in 1993 over the legality of his expulsion from the party he led, Mr Chiam claimed credit for the strategy, but his erstwhile comrade, SDP chairman Ling How Doong, replied that it was actually Mr Jufrie Mahmood who came up with the idea.

Speaking to Insight, Mr Jufrie, who was on the SDP central executive committee (CEC) in 1991, makes it clear that the strategy actually originated from another opposition politician, Mr Maurice Neo.

Just before the 1991 General Election (GE), Mr Jufrie and Mr Neo had crossed over to the Workers' Party (WP) so they could contest Eunos GRC with WP veterans Lee Siew Choh and Wee Han Kim.

As Mr Jufrie recalls, Mr Neo had coined the term and outlined the strategy in an editorial in a November 1988 issue of the SDP magazine Demokrat, several months after the 1988 GE.

Having bought the idea, Mr Jufrie then raised it at a pre-election SDP meeting in 1991, where it was accepted as the official SDP strategy.

Mr Chiam later became the public face of the by-election strategy, often articulating it at press conferences where he introduced SDP candidates. As a result, he was seen as the strategy's architect.

Insight tracked down the Demokrat editorial. In it, Mr Neo lamented that the opposition would have performed better in the 1988 polls if it had contested fewer seats and called for the 'by-election effect' to be used in the next GE.

Mr Jufrie's version is corroborated by both Mr Neo and another SDP CEC member from 1991, Mr Kwan Yue Keng.

Says Mr Kwan: 'It certainly wasn't Mr Chiam's idea. I remember very clearly being present at the pre-election meeting when Jufrie brought it up. Later, he told me that Maurice had written about it first.'

Mr Neo, 61, a writer who has since left opposition politics, says the idea occurred to him during debates with WP leader J.B. Jeyaretnam in the late 1980s. He disagreed with Mr Jeyaretnam's policy of fielding as many candidates as possible, even less credible ones, just to make up the numbers.

'I told him not to flood the market with candidates. I envisioned instead a strategy of gradualism - we would field only quality candidates.

'Step by step, we would prove to voters our technocratic abilities, and slowly convince them to vote more of us in. But in the meantime, we challenge fewer than half the seats, so voters have peace of mind when they give us their votes.'

Mr Neo would affectionately refer to his strategy as 'BEE', or the By-Election Effect. In a book he later wrote on his political experiences, Ruthless Honesty For A Change, he named the chapter on the strategy after a famous quote from boxer Muhammad Ali: 'Float like a butterfly, Sting like a BEE.'

When contacted by Insight, Mr Chiam declined to comment.

Hard questions - Journalists reflect

Feb 20, 2011

Hard questions, harder answers, hardest truths
The truth is hard to hear, but that's what Singapore needs, says MM Lee

By Asad Latif

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy to Singapore is Singapore. But what, precisely, is this legacy, and how durable is it?

In a new book, he declares that 'Singapore is an 80-storey building on marshy land'. 'We've learnt how to put in stakes and floats so we can go up for another 20, maybe over a hundred storeys,' he says. 'Provided that you understand and ensure that the foundation is strong.' He gives such a building at least a hundred years' lease of life.

The metaphor of Singapore as a 100-storey building that can last another 100 years is compelling. It embodies the vision of Singapore's chief icon, who, at the age of 87, knows the importance of good stakes and floats on land that will remain marshy.

The first volume of his memoirs, The Singapore Story, described the marshy and malarial Singapore that had produced him and his generation of political fighters. The second volume, From Third World To First, described the Singapore that he and his colleagues had transformed beyond expectation. However, though the malaria went away, the marshy land stayed.

Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going envisages a 100-storey Singapore that can endure on the strength of its fundamentals. Chiefly, these fundamentals are the presence of a talented leadership with a 'high sense of reality and imagination' and the ability to get things done; the continued existence of a multiracial meritocracy unburdened by welfare dependency; and the symbiosis of a strong economy and a strong defence.

The new book could well have been the third volume of Mr Lee's memoirs. But it is not. That is because he does not write the story himself but is interrogated by seven Straits Times journalists in an adversarial style reputed to be forbidden in Singapore journalism.

Remaining unexiled from Eden, the journalists - led by Straits Times editor Han Fook Kwang - have produced an argumentatively classy book that questions Mr Lee on how fundamental his fundamentals are.

Unapologetically, he reiterates his belief in the timelessness of those fundamentals. Interestingly, however, he prefaces his replies by taking himself out of his legacy. He contemplates with equanimity the fact that mortality awaits him as an individual. Indeed, mortality stalks the People's Action Party (PAP) Government as well, he insists. His tone is elegiac: 'No system lasts forever, that's for sure.'

In that spirit, he will not mind if an able opposition takes power, so long as it adheres to his fundamentals - in which case it will prove him right. But even that success will not matter to him because, at this stage in his life, he has outgrown the need to prove himself right.

What absorbs Mr Lee is not government but governance - or that real but intangible quality of leadership that nurtures the flowering of social relations within the boundaries of a nation in a world of finite resources and infinite wickedness. To pretend that the world is otherwise is to indulge in a self-deceptive romanticism. Small states, certainly, will not survive self-deception for long.

Good left-liberals, however, may be aghast at the starkness of Mr Lee's world view. He, having been a socialist, was one of them too in his early political years, till he was mugged by reality. Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia - because he refused to buckle under and soften his insistence on a multiracial meritocracy - set the stage for a wider and longer regional encounter.

In this encounter, Singapore will survive only so long as it is economically successful in being different from others, Mr Lee explains. But Singapore will remain suspect precisely because it is different. Singapore's difference makes it vulnerable, which in turn makes a strong defence self-explanatory.

Mr Lee illustrates his point by alluding to Singapore being seen as an interloper in its immediate neighbourhood. Indeed so. The very demography of Chinese-majority Singapore - the only such entity outside China - determines regional perceptions of it. Combine racial perception with the religious resurgence in South-east Asia, which has developed a cutting militant edge, and Singapore's predicament is clear.

This is a pity. Singapore treats both China and the West with an unsentimental realism. The pity is that, in spite of this, Singapore is seen as a Chinese state secured by the West. It will be seen this way no matter what it does or does not do - unless it ceases to exist, or mutates into a regional satellite, or a new type of post-racial polity emerges in the neighbourhood.

The first two are not real options, and the third is a distant possibility. Hence, the key to preserving Singapore's sovereignty lies in it possessing a strong deterrent ability, coupled with security ties with the United States. What will also matter will be Singapore's success in negotiating its place between the rise of China, the countervailing rise of India, and their struggle for influence in South-east Asia.

Domestically, the opposition will vie with the PAP to position itself in the political economy of a new Singapore. This Singapore is marked by the presence of a large number of foreigners and, separately, by income disparities revealed by a high Gini coefficient score. Mr Lee justifies the foreign inflow unambiguously because of the economic need for immigrants, particularly since Singaporeans are not reproducing themselves sufficiently.

As for income disparities, Mr Lee is against curtailing growth even if people at the bottom become antigovernment. The PAP's strategy is to grow the economy so it has the resources to lift the poorest among us. In the long term, there is no substitute for education and improved productivity lifting all boats.

This book is credible because Mr Lee says exactly what he believes. He does not know how to vacillate. This is, of course, a virtue. However, even the virtue of consistency can lead to a kind of take-it-or- leave-it attitude. Singapore in his account can become a package that the reader has to accept or reject in its totality because every element of that package is tied to other elements inextricably. So overwhelming is Mr Lee's personality, I fear some among the young might feel there is little room to accept one part of the package - the need for honest leadership, for example - while being sceptical of another part, say, genetics as a basis for human differentiation.

In a way, Mr Lee has outgrown both the Government and the PAP. He has certainly outgrown being politically correct, if ever he was tempted to be politically correct. The only thing that Mr Lee has not outgrown is Singapore. In his obsessive care for the health of what will always remain an orphaned city state, Mr Lee has never grown old.

He is as unrepentantly young as the Singapore to which he gives another hundred years - if the fundamentals remain in place. He is open to all answers to the question, 'Whither Singapore?' so long as they do not lead to the answer, 'Wither Singapore'.

The writer, a former Straits Times editorial writer, is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of Lim Kim San: A Builder Of Singapore.

Rare peek into intra-Cabinet politics

By Elgin Toh

A fuller picture of Singapore's political history is emerging, thanks to revelations made by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in a new book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.

Disagreements within the Cabinet and reasons for certain ministers being dropped, resigning or threatening to resign - subjects like these, Mr Lee discussed with surprising frankness.

What they offer readers is a rare peek into an area usually shrouded in secrecy: intra-Cabinet politics.

For instance, when three ministers - Dr Tony Tan, Mr S. Dhanabalan and Dr Yeo Ning Hong - left the Cabinet between 1991 and 1994, shortly after Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as prime minister, Singaporeans were told only that they had asked to return to the private sector.

Dr Yeo, who had held the defence portfolio, told this newspaper in December 1993, before he left, that his departure was a vote of confidence in Mr Goh and his team of third-generation ministers and their ability to deliver. When asked by the reporter about rumours of personality clashes, he dismissed them as 'foolish talk'.

It turns out that the three ministers, including Dr Yeo, had resigned in quick succession because they 'didn't take to (Mr Goh's) style', according to Mr Lee.

Another nugget in the book: Mr Lee said Dr Toh Chin Chye was given less important portfolios, then eased out of Cabinet, because some of his colleagues had lost confidence in him after he 'panicked and called a curfew straightaway' during a 1964 riot, while Mr Lee was out of the country. In particular, then Law Minister, the late Mr Eddie Barker, was reported by Mr Lee to have said: 'If he's in charge I'm leaving the Government.'

For Singaporeans normally starved of sensational political news, this is probably the closest they will get to reading about political intrigue. But satisfaction of curiosity aside, there are other reasons why these revelations are important.

First, we are assured that the People's Action Party (PAP) Cabinet functions more like a normal Westminster system than the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo. The prime minister is first among equals, and independent-minded ministers are not so beholden to him that they cannot voice dissent - or threaten to resign.

When power is diffused in the hands of several instead of being held by one, extreme modes of thinking tend to be tempered. This is especially important in the Singapore context, since there is a lack of a robust opposition here to perform the usual check-and-balance role.

Second, Singaporeans are reminded of the need to brace themselves for similar ruptures within the PAP, going forward.

Mr Lee himself said in the book that 'no system lasts forever' and that a break-up of the PAP leadership, 'either for reasons of principle or personality', could happen.

When it does, this young nation may, with little warning, find itself having to grapple with its first post-independence transfer of power.

Singaporeans owe it to themselves to prepare for the day when strong democratic institutions and a discerning, rational electorate are what they will have to rely upon for continued success.

No country for old men

By Rachel Lin

I began my brief stint as a cub reporter covering the death of an old man, one more illustrious than most: Dr Goh Keng Swee.

Now, I am ending my term with the life of another old man, again one of greater distinction than many: Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

It has been only a year, but I have come to one conclusion: That this is no country for old men.

It all came to a head one week, when I was sitting opposite a veteran journalist, a man of more than 60. I heard him speak about his experiences following Mr Lee around during his overseas visits, debating the national issues of the day.

'If he said to me, 'Look, I need you to do your part to sacrifice for the country', I would. That was his power,' the journalist said. His hand shook as he reached for the cup of tea in front of him. His heart, he said, was failing.

A few days later I was interviewing another man, 90 years old, an old friend of Mr Lee's. He was hard of hearing and walked with the aid of a walking frame: a tattered coat upon a stick, as Yeats put it.

But I could hear the richness in his voice as he talked about the Japanese Occupation, the British surrender, the sheer act of will that saw a colony propel to independence.

He recounted how he had been part of a group of students who had volunteered to tend to civilians injured by Japanese bombs. All of a sudden I could imagine him, a young man, picking his way through smoke and rubble, among the wounded and maimed. A dangerous job, but one undertaken willingly.

On a third occasion, I spoke to one of Mr Lee's Old Guard colleagues. Still spry despite being almost 90, he talked about how he had found himself in the firing line, branded a traitor to his race, challenged by the visceral communalist forces that split Malaysia and Singapore apart.

It was a gripping account of divided loyalties and rank treachery. Suddenly, this man was no longer tired. His voice rang out as he described those past times, moved by passionate memory.

'They said I was not a Muslim. Do you know what that means for a Malay like me, to be called not a Muslim?' he thundered, colour rising to his face.

All these men had stories to tell, I realised. But they will take their stories to the grave with them, because this is no country for old men - or old women too, for that matter.

We pay too little attention to their lives. We let them flicker out, one by one, with hardly a thought of what we lose when they are gone.

For all his achievements, for all his contributions to Singapore, I could not escape the feeling that something had been irretrievably lost when Dr Goh died.

The students who attended his state funeral barely knew who he was. The public had to be roused from its forgetfulness. We had been caught, as it were, in a fit of national absence of mind.

Dr Goh's life and work had hardly been touched on in school. It had hardly been mentioned until his passing. Even then, it occupied the public's consciousness all too briefly.

Because of that, a bit of our collective memory died along with him.

Is that, I thought, how this country treats its old men? Are all these life stories slowly disappearing, unnoticed by the lives around them?

It's not just a collection of gripping yarns that we lose. Instead, it's also the passing of an era, the slow erosion of the kinds of shared memory that make a nation: recollections of past struggle, a window into common history.

Do we know what Singapore's tumultuous childhood was like? Do we know what was at stake? Can we feel as Singaporeans felt then, when subject peoples caught hold of history and began to steer?

Can we, in short, reminisce our way to nationhood?

Mr Lee says we are not a nation. Perhaps that is true, if only because we have been unwilling - or unable - to do our own remembering.

Nations are made when a group of people feel that they have something in common. A vital part of this is an emotional link to a common past, and an emotional investment in a shared destiny.

But we no longer put human faces to past events. We stop short of giving our heritage an emotive force. We study dates and events, dull as dishwater, dry as dust, with no thought for the power of individual human lives, resurrected.

We let the march of time claim the last living representatives of our history. We close our books and forget.

This is no country for old men.

That's why, I think, Mr Lee is so keen to set out his ideas. It's not just a collection of 'truths' of varying hardness and validity. It's also an attempt to convey a historical reality that he felt and experienced intimately.

He is, I suspect, trying to make us remember as much as he is trying to make us 'wake up'. He is telling a story, his version of the story of how Singapore came to be, in the lived reality of it all.

But his should not be the last word. It is vital for those after him to rise above the risk of our collective amnesia, our neglect of the old men among us, to add their word to his.