Thursday, June 30, 2011


Jun 30, 2011

On an unbending course?
By Daljit Singh

CHINA'S recent actions in the South China Sea have been accompanied by an uncompromising diplomatic stand and harsh nationalistic rhetoric in the Communist Party-controlled Chinese press. In the 1990s, adverse regional reactions to its assertive behaviour had caused China to adopt a more conciliatory stance, without conceding anything on the fundamentals. But since 2008-2009, regional and international outcry had little or no effect on its conduct.

This week's pledge by Vietnamese Vice-Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son and China's State Councillor Dai Bingguo to resolve the disputes peacefully raises the possibility that the rhetoric might be toned down and some action taken to bring down tensions.

Interestingly, the pledge came at a time of discussions between senior United States and Chinese officials in Hawaii where the US side, arguing that it has 'a strong interest' in the maintenance of peace and stability in the area, called for a lowering of tensions.

While any lowering of tension would be most welcome, do not expect it to bring about a change to the Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Several analysts believe that the effects of the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 on the US economy, coupled with China's rapidly increasing military power, strengthened the view in Beijing that it can advance China's perceived interests more aggressively. If true, this is ominous and raises the question of what China will do when it becomes even more powerful economically and militarily.

It is important for Asean countries to be clear-sighted and bereft of wishful thinking. In the 1990s some thought that China's South China Sea claims were peripheral to its core security interests. Events since have proved otherwise.

Chinese officials' statements to American officials last year, and the Chinese Defence Minister's remarks at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, suggest that China views the South China Sea as touching on its core interests. This means the use of force, or threat of it, cannot be ruled out.

Proximity to an increasingly powerful China and the economic benefits of good relations can cloud the clarity of strategic thought in some Asean circles. So can the soothing effect of assurances about China's peaceful intentions even though actions on the ground (or on the water) often belie them.

Asean, and particularly its four claimant states, need to deal with the South China Sea challenge with unity, clarity of purpose, firmness and wisdom, and with the cooperation of other members of the international community that have a stake in preserving the high seas status of much of the South China Sea.

What is at stake? The observance of international law on which the security of states, in particular small states, depends; as well as the strategic stability and balance of power in the region.

It is worth recalling that China has resorted to force in the South China Sea in the past, when it perceived its opponents as weak and did not expect a strong response. In 1974 China grabbed the Vietnamese part of the Paracels just before Vietnamese reunification - at a time when the US had withdrawn from South Vietnam and the latter was preoccupied with defending itself from the North.

The 1988 clashes with Vietnam in the western Spratlys occurred when the Soviet Union under then leader Mikhail Gorbachev was mending ties with China and reducing commitments to Vietnam, while the US was still loath to deal with its former Vietnamese foe.

Likewise, broader geopolitical circumstances and the weakness of the Philippines could have had a bearing on the Mischief Reef incidents in 1994-1995.

Presently, China's actions are giving a boost to the US-Philippines alliance. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has assured Manila that the US would honour its security commitments, without going into specifics. The US-Philippines security treaty commits the US to defend the Philippines from external aggression, including any attack on Philippine 'public vessels' (naval or air) in the Pacific. China's conduct is also driving the US and Vietnam closer. Despite their military cooperation, the US and Vietnam are not military allies. The US navy may increase its presence in the South China Sea.

China today has stronger military muscle than in the 1980s and 1990s, but the US remains militarily stronger in the Western Pacific. Aggressive Chinese behaviour will further drive South-east Asian countries into the arms of Washington; worse, it could lead to a confrontation with the US which China wants to avoid. Though dangers of miscalculation cannot be entirely ruled out, China is more likely to wait for an opportune time if it sees the strategic situation moving in its favour - as the US heads into the unchartered territory of a possible public debt crisis some time this decade accompanied by significant defence retrenchments, even as China's own military power keeps growing.

Countries involved must press on with efforts to prevent conflict, and work towards a peaceful resolution through negotiations or international arbitration with the consent of all parties involved.

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Storm before uneasy calm?

By Mark Valencia

THE political water is getting hotter in the South China Sea. Although the disputes and types of incidents are not new, they are rapidly increasing in frequency and severity. Diplomatic vitriol - even sabre-rattling - is rampant. Does this verbal storm foretell a clash - or a calm, albeit an uneasy one?

The United States and China have had their own rather dangerous flare-ups in the South China Sea regarding what Washington believes is its right to freedom of navigation. Indeed, the EP-3, the Bowditch, and the Impeccable incidents have tested the nerves of commanders and defence leaders on both sides. Although the two continue to fundamentally and vehemently disagree regarding the principles involved they may have worked out a modus operandi. At least all has been relatively quiet on that front.

But now new brouhahas have erupted - between China and Vietnam - and more problematic for the US, between China and the Philippines. The US is an ally of the Philippines via the 1951 Manila Defence Treaty. Some Philippine leaders argue that the treaty obligates the US to come to its aid if its forces are attacked anywhere 'in the Pacific'. The US is maintaining a strategic ambiguity regarding what it may or may not do, but its actions, like the May Manila port visit of the US aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, speak volumes to analysts and the relevant militaries. Moreover, the US and the Philippines are engaging in pre-arranged maritime security exercises in the South China Sea.

China has disrupted ongoing exploration for petroleum by concessionaries of Vietnam and the Philippines in disputed waters - either by cutting seismometer cables or threatening the vessel and crew.

And in a twist, China is alleging that Vietnam and the Philippines are violating the agreed Asean-China Declaration on Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea and have 'invaded' Chinese territory and sea space. Incidents of intrusion into disputed waters on both sides are increasing in frequency and intensity and show every indication of escalating. Each party accuses the other of acting ever more assertively and violating the DOC's call for peace and stability.

The Western oil companies doing the exploration plan to continue and China has warned Vietnam in particular that it will 'take whatever measures are necessary' to protect its interests in the South China Sea. Its Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tanikai has now also urged the US to restrain such countries from provoking China lest Washington itself become embroiled in an unwanted conflict. Apparently in response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton restated the US position that the recent events were undermining stability and that Washington was opposed to any threat or use of force to advance territorial claims in the area.

It is no secret that the US and China are at strategic odds in the South China Sea. One is striving to maintain - and if necessary - demonstrate its dominance while the other is bent on expanding its might and reach. The recently released US National Military Strategy states: 'To safeguard US and partner nation interests, the US will be prepared to demonstrate the will and commit the resources needed to oppose any nation's actions that jeopardise access to and use of the global commons and cyberspace, or that threaten the security of our allies.'

This is clearly aimed at Beijing and its actions in the South China Sea. But if China perceives that it is being strategically constrained and contained, it will likely strive to 'break out' both politically and militarily. Indeed, in November last year China, in reference to the East China and Yellow seas, warned against 'any military acts in our exclusive economic zone without permission'.

So does this mean a clash is inevitable? Perhaps. But not now. Neither nation is physically or psychologically prepared for such an event. It would not be in the interest of economically focused China, the economically challenged and war-weary US, or the not-so-innocent bystanders in the impotent Asean. But the risk of miscalculation is high and the potential for escalation is significant.

This is why all hands are needed on the diplomatic deck to secure the loose cannons and, if necessary, impose an interim solution. Underscoring his concern, outgoing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates has warned that more clashes between the claimants are likely without a formal code of conduct. US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell sought to defuse tensions in talks with China in Hawaii last weekend.

Indeed, it is in the interest of all the players to lower the diplomatic temperature and to have a code of conduct in place that will ensure freedom and safety of navigation and minimise incidents and their chance of escalation. That is why this diplomatic furore may be the storm before an uneasy calm.

The writer is a senior research associate with the National Bureau of Asian Research, which is based in Seattle, America.

Versatile US warships for regional ballast
By Ian Storey

IN HIS speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue earlier this month, the United States' outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates revealed that in the coming years, the US Navy would deploy some of its newest and most versatile warships to Singapore.

The announcement was important for two reasons: first, it signals a significant strengthening of the US-Singapore defence relationship; and second, it will help fulfil Mr Gates' pledge that America is committed to maintaining a robust military presence in Asia aimed at underpinning regional stability.

The vessels to be deployed to Singapore are littoral combat ships, or LCS. The LCS is a new class of warships able to operate in very shallow waters close to shore, otherwise known as the littoral. The ships are designed to counter asymmetric threats such as coastal mines, quiet diesel-electric submarines, and pirates and terrorists using small boats.

The LCS is fast, highly manoeuvrable and stealthy. It can achieve a sprint speed of more than 40 knots and has a range of 5,630km. Equivalent in size to a small frigate, the ship can be operated by only 40 to 50 personnel. It carries two Seahawk helicopters and is capable of launching unmanned air, surface and underwater vehicles.

The most unique aspect of the LCS is its modular design, which allows the ship to be quickly reconfigured for specific missions. Exchangeable mission modules the size of a shipping container equip the LCS for mine countermeasures and anti- submarine and anti-surface warfare, but can also be utilised for other tasks including intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance, the insertion and recovery of special forces ashore, and humanitarian and disaster relief.

The US Navy operates only two LCS, designed and built by different suppliers. The USS Freedom, built by Lockheed Martin and commissioned in 2008, uses a conventional monohull design. The USS Independence, designed by General Dynamics and built by Austal USA, employs a futuristic trimaran or triple-hulled design. It entered service last year.

Despite massive cost overruns, the US Navy has plans to acquire 55 LCS at a cost of US$37.4 billion (S$46.4 billion). Last December, it awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin and Austal USA to build 10 ships each between this year and 2015. Several of these new ships will soon find themselves on the way to Singapore.

In the early 1990s, Singapore and the US developed close defence ties, and this relationship was deepened with the signing of a Strategic Framework Agreement in 2005. The two countries hold an annual strategic dialogue. Their armed forces conduct regular training exercises. Last year, the US Navy made 149 port calls at Singapore. The planned deployment of one or two LCS to the city-state will advance US-Singapore military relations. But what form will the deployment take?

There are three possible options.

In the first option, the LCS would remain homeported in the US, but during deployments to Asia it would use Singapore as a focal point to swop out modules and undergo light maintenance, perhaps staying for three to four weeks at Changi Naval Base.

The second option would be for one or two ships to be homeported in Singapore but with their crews remaining stationed in the US. Navy personnel would be flown out to Singapore for crew rotation or sea swops during mid-deployment. This is the model the US Navy uses in Bahrain, where four of its minesweepers are based.

The third option would see the warships homeported in Singapore, and their crews and families permanently stationed here. All maintenance and repair work would be undertaken in Singapore. This is similar to America's forward deployed naval presence at Yokosuka in Japan.

As Singapore and the US are not treaty allies, the second option would seem to be the most likely scenario.

How will the forward deployment of this new class of warship to Singapore contribute to regional security?

In response to Mr Gates' speech, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said the country was open to the proposal because America's military presence in Asia has been and would continue to be a 'critical force of stability and progress for this region'.

The vessels will help promote that stability by undertaking regular presence missions in South-east Asia, including in the contested waters of the South China Sea, and ensuring that the sea lanes that pass through the region remain open to maritime traffic on which the prosperity of the region depends.

The LCS will also be used to provide capacity-building support for regional navies through training and exercise programmes. The ships are also ideally suited to participate in relief operations in the aftermath of natural disasters, such as tsunamis and earthquakes.

At a time of mounting concern over the rapid modernisation of China's armed forces, rising tensions in the South China Sea, and doubts about the long-term durability of America's military presence in Asia due to daunting financial problems at home, the forward deployment of the LCS to Singapore should be welcomed.

The writer is a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The seven rules of fiscal policy

Jun 28, 2011
By Gerard Lyons

GREECE is insolvent. It could go bust at any time. To prevent this happening, it needs further financial assistance from the wealthier 'core' nations of the euro area. These core economies, such as Germany, are in good shape. The trouble is, in return for any further money to pay its debts, Greece will be forced to take tough measures to get its economy back into shape. But these measures spell recession.

Problems in Greece are focusing attention on the tensions in the euro area. But events in Greece also carry some significant lessons for countries across the globe - namely, the importance of sound, sensible fiscal policy - in good times as well as in bad.

There are some key issues - which I call 'the seven rules of fiscal policy' - which are vital. Across the emerging world these lessons need to be learnt now, in order to position economies for the future.

First and foremost, countries should run budget surpluses in good times - simple as that. This is when the economy is strong, companies are doing well and many people are in work. Tax revenues in this environment should be buoyant. Moreover, a government will be spending less on its social welfare system. The trouble is, when things are going well, governments do not always stick to this most basic of rules.

Countries more often try to change when things are going badly, and yet this is when their economies are least able to cope. The United States and Britain ran budget deficits - with annual government spending exceeding revenues - during the boom years. Greece, too, fell at this hurdle, unable to raise tax revenues from enough of its citizens.

Clearly, countries which run surpluses in good times are better able to respond to an economic downturn, financial crisis, or external shock by using fiscal policy.

The second rule is to use fiscal policy as a counter-cyclical tool
. If people and firms cut their spending, this threatens a downturn, or even recession. In this situation, governments can respond by boosting spending, or by cutting taxes. This has been used very effectively in the recent crisis.

The London Group of 20 (G-20) Summit of world leaders in 2009 was a great success. It ensured countries relaxed fiscal policy, thus preventing the global economic situation from becoming far worse and, in all probability, helping avoid a depression. But it is far better to do this from a position of strength - as China, for instance, did with its huge fiscal stimulus in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In contrast, while the US and Britain had much-needed fiscal boosts, they did so from a position of weakness, with budget deficits already running high.

The ability to use fiscal policy in a downturn can take the pressure off monetary policy to act as a policy shock absorber in a downturn. This would avoid concern - sometimes misplaced - about the unorthodox nature of monetary policy.

The third rule - applicable to many in the West today - is that when fiscal policy is tightened, there has to be a credible medium-term plan. This helps keep the financial markets on-side and borrowing costs down. A credible medium-term plan is one that makes sense in terms of the targets, and one which the markets expect to be adhered to. That, in turn, depends on how the economy will cope.

A pro-cyclical fiscal policy that tightens when an economy is already in recession, as, for example, in parts of peripheral Europe now, would not be considered credible. It might be seen as not sustain-able in either economic or political terms. Tightening fiscal policy when the private sector is weak and when there is no offsetting easing in monetary policy is pro-cyclical. It is akin to being in a hole and digging deeper.

This brings us to the fourth rule: which is that when fiscal policy is being tightened, monetary policy has to be accommodating. That is, interest rates have to be low. This is a key requirement. If monetary policy is tightened instead, then the economy will slip into, or stay in, recession.

The challenge for monetary policy becomes harder when there is a relative price shock in the form of higher commodity prices, as seen over the past year. It is important for central banks to resist the pressure to tighten, especially in an economy where wages are not rising. Hence, Europe's peripheral economies - such as Greece - where wages are falling but which are not in control of their own monetary policy, are squeezed. In contrast, the Bank of England can keep monetary policy accommodative. So, too, can the Federal Reserve, although in the US, policy has not yet been tightened.

These four rules make sense, regardless of the politics. The next few rules are also important but can sometimes offer flexibility in interpretation.

This is certainly the case with Rule Five: the speed and scale at which fiscal policy is tightened is a judgment call.

Ideally, in my opinion, it is best to wait until the private sector is strong enough before government spending is cut, or taxes are raised. In that situation, the private sector is better able to cope. However, it has to be recognised that when countries are in fiscal difficulty they do not always have this luxury. For instance, the periphery of Europe is forced to accept tough fiscal policies as a condition of receiving help from the centre. This is at a time when their economies are very weak.

Rule Six of fiscal policy is 'avoid a debt trap'. Changing slightly one word of a well-known song, 'It's a debt trap and you've been caught.'

To be caught in a debt trap, two things need to be in place. One is that debt is bigger than the size of the economy. So government debt has to be more than 100 per cent of GDP. The other is that the rate of interest on this debt needs to be higher than the rate of economic growth. This is akin to maxing out on one's credit card and then not being able to afford the monthly interest payment.

When a country is in this situation it has less flexibility on the timing, speed and scale of cutbacks. It also needs to look more closely at using monetary policy. The way out is stronger growth. However, depending on the numbers, running a primary surplus, after interest payments have been made, may help improve the fiscal numbers. A debt trap is bad news and spells economic pain.

A number of countries in the euro area are already in or are close to this debt trap. They need further help from the core, as history shows that monetary union of large sovereign nations cannot survive unless it becomes a political union. Or, as an interim step towards political union, a central treasury might work, but the principle is the same.

If countries are not in a debt trap, they may have some flexibility on the timing of cuts. The US, for instance, is not in this situation yet, despite market worries about its debt being downgraded. How-ever, its level of debt is rising, and is now at 89.4 per cent of GDP. Britain, meanwhile, is nowhere near this situation, with a lower level of debt, of 79 per cent of GDP and a long maturity, relative to other developed economies, in terms of its debt repayments. Thus, unlike Greece, which is insolvent, the US and Britain are not going to go bust.

Rule Seven is the importance of how governments close the gap. That is, where governments spend their money and, especially now, adjust the scale of spending - in other words, how and where taxes are raised. The preference for either should depend on an economy's situation and on where the problem is perceived to be.

For now, the sovereign crisis, linked to fiscal policies, is largely an advanced economy problem. The more a country runs a sound fiscal position in good times, the more it has the scope to respond with counter-cyclical measures in difficult times, and the more it takes the pressure off the need for unorthodox monetary policies, as used in the West in recent years. The effectiveness of fiscal policy is enhanced when it is coordinated with monetary policy. There are many lessons the advanced economies need to learn from this crisis.

It is important that Asia, Africa and the Middle East grasp the lessons from the problems currently facing the US and Europe. The time to get fiscal policy in shape is now - when economies are recovering - and not to leave it until things go wrong.

The writer is chief economist and group head of global research at Standard Chartered Bank.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Could Kiki be your kid?

The cautionary tale of a 13-year-old who became an online sensation and target

by David Brooks

Jun 28, 2011

In 1900, Theodore Dreiser wrote Sister Carrie, about a young woman who left the farm and got mauled by the crushing forces of industrial America: The loneliness of urban life, the squalid conditions of the factory, the easy allure of the theatre, the materialism of the new consumer culture.

If Dreiser were around today, he might write about Kiki Ostrenga. Kiki, who was the subject of a haunting profile by Ms Sabrina Rubin Erdely in the April issue of Rolling Stone, was a young teenager who got mauled by some of the worst forces of the information age.

Lonely at school, she took refuge by creating an online persona, Kiki Kannibal, posting photos of herself with various hairstyles and looks - goth one day; sexually charged, Lady Gaga-style temptress the next.

Though 13, Ostrenga was a phenomenally good shape-shifter. The photos often show her in her underwear or short skirts, with lurid make-up, edgy poses and pouty come-hither expressions. In them, you see the child's ability to mimic the looks and attitudes of what she admires - in this case the cult of high-fashion celebrity as glamorised in Vogue or Cosmopolitan, on E!, TMZ, Real World and a thousand other outlets.

In sports, speed and strength are king. In music, talent and application are king. But online, eyeballs and page-views are king. Achievement is redefined as the ability to attract attention. And, with today's technology, this sort of celebrity is not just a dream. Young people can create it for themselves.

Kiki must have sensed the tremendous erotic capital that a pretty, vulnerable, barely pubescent girl possesses on the Internet - even if she did not understand the consequences of her appeal. Sure enough, she became a MySpace sensation. Two million people are recorded to have logged on to her live stream video. Before long, there were 530 Facebook profiles from people claiming to be her (none of them were). She became an object of celebration, ridicule and hatred.

People talk about the online "community" but it is more accurate to see the response as a guerrilla war. Ostrenga made an aggressive bid for attention. Other people made a bid for attention by savaging her.

Most of the viciousness hurled her way cannot be quoted here but the article in Rolling Stone accurately described the mob-like behaviour: Death threats, savage sexual appraisals.

Ostrenga inspired a wave of ridicule and defence, which spilled over into real life, including a punch to the head at a concert and the word "slut" painted in giant letters across her garage.

She was contacted by an 18-year-old man named Danny Cespedes, who charmed Kiki and her parents. Unbeknownst to them, Danny had tried to seduce a string of young girls, some as young as 12. After her mother discovered that he had forced himself on Kiki one night, the Ostrengas pressed charges. As he was being arrested, he jumped off the second floor of a parking garage and ended up in a coma. He died two months later.

Next, she was victimised by the owner of a for-profit, teen-exploitation site called Stickydrama. The site's owner both organised mass hate sessions against Kiki and invited her to live with him and become one of the site's exhibitionist playthings.

Addicted to the attention and now running an online jewellery business, Kiki could not get offline, even while being painfully aware of the distinction between celebrity performance and the two-way loving relationships that she longed for. Her parents could not seem to take the reins, even after they saw her online presence was not just a way of being creative.

In the end, they had to move to escape the threats. They were bankrupted in the process. Kiki lost any semblance of a normal adolescence.

She is an extreme case of an enormous uncontrolled experiment that is playing out across the world. Young people's brains are developing while they are immersed in fast, multitasking technology. No one quite knows what effect this is having.

The culture of childhood is being compressed. Those things that young people once knew at 18, they now know at 10 or 12. No one quite knows the effect of that either.

Most important, some young people seem to be growing up without learning the distinction between respectability and attention. I doubt adults can really shelter young people from the things they will find online, but adults can provide the norms and values that will help them put that world in perspective, so it seems like trashy or amusing make-believe and not anything any decent person would want to be part of themselves.

Kiki's story is not only about what can happen online but what does not happen off of it.

Looking to live smaller, closer

by Esther Ng

Jun 28, 2011

Big, sprawling cities such as Tokyo and Mexico City will be a thing of the past, some experts said yesterday at the inaugural Urban Sustainability R&D Congress here.

Living smaller and closer are the keys to sustainability, they said, because shrinking the distance between people and their destinations would reduce energy use, carbon emission and waste.

But what population density before a city becomes unliveable? For instance, Singapore's density is now 95 people per hectare, while Hong Kong's is 400.

"It's possible to increase that density but that's a political question," said Curtin University of Technology's Professor of Sustainability Peter Newman.

"It boils down to whether people want that density to increase or not."

While higher population density is usually seen as a threat, he said this need not always be so: "Density enables us to multiply sustainability and take advantage of better waste management, better transport links and local services."

Santa Fe Institute's Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West added that spreading out a city makes its population more "car-attendant", while spending more than two hours commuting is "intolerable".

He referred to the "Marchetti Wall" - the growing realisation that people do not like to spend more than one hour each day travelling to work.

"That's why we're not going to see any more Tokyos or Mexico City," said Prof Newman.

While Singapore has made progress in urban sustainability, the experts felt that the Republic needs to think beyond its shores.

"The urban transformation, the policies are just so Singapore-centric - there ought to be five to 10 per cent value-added to it." said Prof West.

"Singapore needs to take a leadership in big thinking, in influencing business, in culture and science and with that, it can be a truly great city like Venice, London or New York."


[I don't understand his point about "Singapore-centric". Policies have to work in the socio-cultural environment. If the policies fit the society better, it works better. Why would want to "globalise" the policy? That is for other govts to look at our policies and tweak them to fit their specific socio-cultural environment and circumstance. It's not the job of our govt to solve their problem or to make our policies less customised in order to be more transferable to other societies. That's just lazy thinking on their part.]

Who pays for whom, in a greying world

With people living longer, Ted Fishman looks at hard questions for economies and Asian parent-child dynamics

Jun 27, 2011

by Paul Gilfeather

MY father-in-law fell ill recently and although not life-threatening, it led my wife and I to consider for the first time that one day, our families might have to take priority over our careers.

It is an issue hundreds of thousands of professionals the world over are being faced with. And it is just one of several problems tied to the bigger question of how society will cope with the world's rapidly ageing population.

The current global population of 6.7 billion is expected to hit 9.1 billion by 2050. By that time one billion people will be 65 of older and, for the first time, the number of people over 50 will be greater than those under 17.

Author and journalist Ted Fishman became so concerned by the question that he decided to write a book about it. The result is Shock of Gray, in which he explores what he calls the "most important issue facing the human race".

Mr Fishman is in town this week to deliver two lectures at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute. He spoke to me before setting off from his home in Chicago and I asked him about the potential fall-out from economic migration in reverse as people drop out of the job market to care for elderly relatives.

He said: "The huge unseen cost of this whole thing is when people step out of their high-value job, serving maybe hundreds of thousands of people every day, to serve just one person in your family for a lower wage. It puts you in a completely different economy. And if you multiply this by what would need to happen in a society that is ageing overall, you are literally removing a huge chunk of the work force."

He went on: "Human beings have lived for seven thousand generations. For all but six of those we have lived for the same amount of time, which was pretty short. So now for the very first time we are dealing with this huge expansion of human life. It is the very first minute of unprecedented change."

Mr Fishman points out that as humans we are "hardwired" not to tackle the question of how long we will live - which has resulted in a short supply of solutions.

"In the developed world we have added two-and-a-half years to the average longevity of a person every decade," he said. "People have just not planned for it because they live in the current snapshot, which is the age our parents have gotten to when in fact, we are reaching far beyond that.

"My grandfather died in 1980 but, based on the average, I have another 10 years on that. That is very hard to compute in the public spirit when you are considering your own lifespan."


In his book, Mr Fishman talks about Singapore's changes to the law made in 1999 which allow parents to sue their children for financial support. Here, we have one of the lowest fertility rates in the world - just 1.28 - and this, combined with population ageing and shrinking dependency ratios, have resulted in the problem being particularly pertinent.

"This issue puts a huge strain on families. In Asia you have this interesting split in the way economic power is controlled within families," he said.

"If you look at the leading-edge economies which had the big boost and expansion before the others, like Japan, the older generation has the economic keys to the family. They own the house, which is more than likely worth more than the lifetime earnings of the children. They have the great pension plans. And when you have a situation like that, when the older generations have the economic power, it changes the way their children act.

"Their children tend to postpone marriage, they tend to stay close to home and they tend to have fewer kids because they feel the need to stay close to their parents in order to have access to that economic store.

"But when you get to the more recent ascending economies, like China, the children have the power. So what happens is the children are the leading-edge urban migrants, they move on, they put their flag in the rising economy and they benefit from it.

"But what happens is, you have millions of core parents that they have been left behind. The children send money home for a while, then it stops. Then the parents are the ones who have to ingratiate themselves with their offspring. They work their way to the city, they offer themselves as unpaid child minders, they leave their friends and their social networks. They give up 10 years of their lives as care-givers in the hope that their adult children will eventually take care of them, but it does not always happen.

"If you look around the world in middle-income and above countries, the transfer of money from parents to children is far greater than the public transfer of funds from young workers to retirees in the public sector.

"So you have these two flows of money. One is the private flow that happens in families from older to younger, then you have the public flow that goes from younger to older which goes to pay for national health services or pensions. Overwhelmingly the money flow has favoured the private flow from older to younger but as people are adding 10 or 15 years to their lifetimes, they are going to be saving over their lives much differently.

"They may feel less generous to their children and then you have to start thinking: Does this change policy? It may have to result in some kind of official redistribution of income through public mechanisms to redress the balance.

"These are the kinds of questions that we have to face up to."

Shock of Gray is insightful and thought-provoking, throwing some much-need light on the question: How do we live longer?

Paul Gilfeather is the principal correspondent at Today.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Politics and Policy in Singapore post-May 7 elections

Jun 25, 2011

Getting all on board in steering S'pore

The Government has long prided itself in being swift and nimble in steering the Singapore boat forward. But now, citizens have made it clear they want to be consulted and heard. What happens when different groups grab at the oars?

By Li Xueying

IN FOUR weeks, there were 11.

Eleven blog entries - straight from the keyboard of the new National Development Minister, to Singaporeans anxious about housing matters.

The missives - chatty, informative, accessible - from Mr Khaw Boon Wan were remarkable, and not just for the style and speed with which he communicated with Singaporeans.

To many, they also showcased quick and flexible rethinking on certain housing policies - from how flats would be built 'ahead of order' to clear the demand backlog, to a review of the Housing Board's monthly income ceiling for buyers of new flats.

Friday, June 24, 2011


Jun 23, 2011

Tossed in a stormy sea of subterfuge

By Barry Wain

CHINESE action in the volatile South China Sea has escalated from assertiveness to aggression - and now subterfuge. Under the guise of an innocuous, long-arranged port call by a civilian ship, China has tried to score propaganda points and implicate Singapore in its extravagant claims.

The visit of the Haixun 31, which belongs to China's Maritime Safety Administration, was supposed to be part of existing technical exchanges on marine safety and environmental protection between the two countries.

Before docking in Singapore last Sunday after a 1,400 nautical mile (2,593km) voyage from China, however, the Haixun 31 sailed past the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, which are claimed, in part or their entirety, by China and one or more of five other countries. Controversially, official Chinese media representatives embedded on the ship reported that the trip was to reinforce China's sovereignty claims in the South China Sea and to keep watch on foreign oil rigs and ships 'in Chinese waters'.

The deviation from the agreed mission would have been regarded seriously anyway. But happening at the height of an outcry over the latest series of Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, it was nothing short of outrageous.

By the time the Haixun 31 arrived in Singapore, the international community had begun to wonder what was going on. The United States and France, as well as Vietnam and the Philippines, are known to have sought clarification from the Singaporeans, who were in turn surprised, embarrassed and annoyed by China's audacity.

The way they see it, Beijing exploited the visit to reinforce its claims in the aftermath of well-publicised incidents involving Vietnam and the Philippines. With Singapore not a claimant, but a vocal advocate of freedom of navigation like Beijing, the Chinese saw value in trying to associate closely with Singapore.

The ploy did not work. In fact, the Chinese ended up with egg on their face. In a lengthy statement that stopped short of censure, the Singapore Foreign Ministry nevertheless advised China bluntly to explain its expansive claims in the South China Sea and get on with the stalled process of negotiating a code of conduct with Asean.

China has come under increasing international criticism in recent months over what appears to be its willingness to use armed strength to pressure rival claimants in the South China Sea.

In early March, two Chinese patrol boats confronted a Philippine oil exploration vessel and ordered it to cease activities in an area Manila claims but which Beijing said was under Chinese jurisdiction. Last month, the Philippines discovered posts and a buoy thought to have been unloaded by Chinese vessels, indicating possible new construction plans.

In what were probably the most serious incidents, Chinese ships late last month and early this month cut the survey cables of one PetroVietnam vessel and attempted to do the same to another vessel inside Vietnam's 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone.

Independent analysts regard Beijing's actions as a breach of the 2002 Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in which they agreed to 'exercise self-restraint' and do nothing 'that would complicate or escalate disputes'.

Increasingly, criticism of China has centred on the ambiguity of its claims, which are marked as nine broken lines covering almost the entire South China Sea. It is this U-shaped line that the Singapore Government, along with many others, wants Beijing to clarify.

Maritime lawyers say the line is at odds with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). China loudly proclaims its adherence to freedom of navigation under Unclos but has not defined its claims under the UN convention.

Speaking at a conference last week, Singapore's former senior minister S. Jayakumar said China should clarify its 'puzzling and disturbing' nine-dotted lines map of the South China Sea. Professor Jayakumar said the map had no apparent basis under Unclos and could be interpreted as a claim to all maritime areas within the nine dotted lines.

The contentious South China Sea was the last thing on Singapore's mind when it accepted the Maritime Safety Administration's request for a port call, presented as a routine visit, in January. Captain Chen Ai-ping, the administration's executive director-general, confirmed the nature of the call when he visited Singapore last month.

But media statements sent from the Haixun 31 en route to Singapore put an entirely different spin on it. A reporter for China National Radio reported from the vessel as it set out from Guangdong province on June 15 that 'the purpose of the journey is to protect China's maritime rights and sovereignty'.

The next day, the People's Daily, mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, reinforced the message, saying the Haixun 31 had tasks 'besides the usual inspection on routine navigation routes'. They included checks on 'oil rigs, stationary ships' operations in construction and surveys, and foreign sailors who are sailing close to Chinese waters'. The report added: 'The vessel will also conduct checks on foreign ships navigating, anchored and operating in Chinese waters'.

That was read in Singapore as deception, and hope that symbolically and politically, the welcome of the ship in Singapore would amount to endorsement of Beijing's selective definition of Unclos.

According to one diplomatic observer in Singapore, the Maritime Safety Administration will find it hard to be invited to any regional ports, 'if it makes a habit of trying to play such silly tricks'.

The writer is writer-in-residence at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Jun 22, 2011

China 'can crush Viet naval fleets'
CCP newspaper warns Beijing will show no mercy in dispute over South China Sea claims

BEIJING: China yesterday used unusually harsh language in warning Vietnam to back off from its claims to territory in the South China Sea.

In an editorial, the Global Times - a newspaper published by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whose stories echo the government's official line - said: 'If Vietnam wishes to create a war in the South China Sea, China will resolutely keep them company.

'China has the absolute might to crush the naval fleets sent from Vietnam. China will show no mercy to its rival due to 'global impact' concerns.'

The paper's belligerent tone went as far as to suggest that China saw the risk of a conflict with the US over Vietnam as minimal, and warned: 'Even if some friction occurs, that is no reason for China to put up with Vietnam's unlimited vice in the South China Sea.'

The editorial coincided with the conclusion of a joint naval patrol by the Asian neighbours in the Gulf of Tonkin - the 11th since such exercises began in 2005.

It remains unclear whether the two- day patrol signalled any cooling of tempers, despite China and Vietnam remaining locked in a heated spat over disputed territory in the South China Sea, the Associated Press reported.

'Respecting the signed agreements is one of the factors that will promote the friendly and neighbourly relations between two countries and ensure sustainable stability and security at sea,' Colonel Nguyen Van Kiem, deputy chief of staff of Vietnam's navy and commander of its naval ships in the patrol, was quoted as saying by Vietnam's People's Army Newspaper.

The paper also said the country's ships would pay a port call in China before returning home.

Relations between the neighbours have plummeted in recent weeks as both sides continue to trade diplomatic punches over run-ins involving territory in the South China Sea claimed by both sides.

The Global Times editorial claims Vietnam has occupied 29 Chinese islands in the region and has been gaining the most benefits from undersea natural gas and oil exploitation.

China has been upset with Vietnam's welcoming of American involvement to help resolve disputes in the South China Sea that Beijing believes should be settled one-on-one.

The United States has said the South China Sea, home to key shipping lanes, is in its national interest, Associated Press reported.

Hundreds of Vietnamese protested on Sunday for the third straight week, yelling 'Down with China!' as they marched through the streets of the capital, Hanoi.

Many also carried signs demanding that China stop invading the Spratly and Paracel islands, which are claimed entirely or in part by Vietnam, China and several other countries. The islands are believed to be rich in resources.

Vietnam and China have a long history of scrapes over the high seas, typically resulting in tit-for-tat diplomatic rhetoric.

Jun 21, 2011

In China's interests to clarify South China Sea claims: MFA

Routine visit by Chinese vessel attracts 'unusual number of inquiries'

IT IS in China's own interests to be precise about its claims in the South China Sea, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said in a statement yesterday.

In doing so, routine port visits such as by the Haixun 31, one of China's biggest maritime surveillance vessels, would 'not arouse so much excitement', said the statement, issued in response to media queries about the ship's arrival in Singapore on Sunday.

'We have repeatedly said that we think it is in China's own interests to clarify its claims in the South China Sea with more precision as the current ambiguity as to their extent has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community,' the statement said.

The ministry added that a good start would be to conclude implementation guidelines for an existing agreement on how competing claimants to islands and reefs in the South China Sea ought to conduct themselves.

Retired senior minister S. Jayakumar made a similar suggestion last week about the agreement - signed between Asean members and China in 2002.

When the Haixun 31 docked here, Singapore's Maritime and Port Authority (MPA) said its visit was part of ongoing exchanges on technical cooperation on maritime safety and marine environment protection with its Chinese counterpart.

The vessel belongs to China's Maritime Safety Administration, a civilian maritime regulatory body.

But the ship's journey last week sparked concern in the region as Chinese media reports said it was monitoring shipping, carrying out surveys, inspecting oil wells and enforcing maritime security in the South China Sea.

The reports added that it would also inspect foreign vessels anchored or operating in waters claimed by China.

The MFA noted yesterday that there were 'an unusual number of inquiries about Haixun 31's visit to Singapore'.

'The MPA has made a statement on the purpose of this port call. It is obvious that what ought to have been a routine visit has occasioned a high level of attention because of recent incidents between China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines, in the South China Sea,' it added.

MFA said: 'Singapore is not a claimant state and takes no position on the merits or otherwise of the various claims in the South China Sea.

'But as a major trading nation, Singapore has a critical interest in anything affecting freedom of navigation in all international sea lanes, including those in the South China Sea.'

The ministry said recent incidents in the area heightened the international maritime community's concerns and raise serious questions in relation to the interpretation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - which covers such maritime issues as sovereignty and navigation rights.

'This is precisely why this port call in Singapore by the Haixun 31 has provoked such interest,' it said.

'After all, scores of vessels from many countries, including naval vessels, call at Singapore every day without arousing the slightest excitement.

'It is our hope that parties to the disputes in the South China Sea will act with restraint to create conditions conducive to the peaceful settlement of these disputes and the continuation of peace, stability and growth.'

The ministry noted that Asean recently made new proposals to China on the yet-to-be implemented 2002 agreement 'to resolve this impasse, and we hope that they will be received in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation in which they were offered so that the declaration can be implemented without any further delay'.

'Then perhaps a routine port call will not arouse so much excitement,' it said.

Latest comments (Or stupid Singaporeans speak on ST Online)

I think China has made its claims abundantly clear. It's our MFA that is clueless.

Whether other countries accept China's claims is a different matter. Why is MFA so kaypo?
Posted by: vajrapani at Tue Jun 21 10:34:07 SGT 2011

What else is there to be clear abt? Like coolbeagle said, China has made its interests and claims clear enough. It claims almost the whole of the South China Sea area. It's the overlaps of the claims by the claimants that are causing the dispute, not the ambiguity of China's claims. This MFA statement seems to be made out of insufficient research into the issue.
Posted by: RedneckLoo at Tue Jun 21 10:33:37 SGT 2011

I think PRC has made its interests in South China Sea clear enough via its claims on the Spratly Islands.
Posted by: coolbeagle at Tue Jun 21 10:23:07 SGT 2011

[The commentors are either Sinophiles, Chinese Chauvinists, or just downright stupid. I wonder if part of their "hands-off", "none of our business" attitude is out of some warped sense of affiliation to China (as oppose to Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam), some lingering cultural chauvinism, some anachronistic loyalty to the concept of "nan yang". Or they are just so poorly informed and too stupid to understand that a China that learns it can get its way by bullying is going to become a bigger bully in future. Or maybe they are also bullies on the internet.]

Jun 27, 2011
Watchful eyes as China flexes its maritime muscles

By Michael Richardson

AS CHINA prepares to start sea trials of its first aircraft carrier, possibly as early as this Friday to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party, foreign analysts will be watching to see how quickly the Chinese navy can bring its power-projection ship into service.

It may not be smooth sailing. The handful of countries with carriers have spent years learning how to operate them.

Moreover, China's refurbished Soviet-era vessel - the Varyag, bought from Ukraine in 1998 - comes with inherent design limitations, even though it has been modernised. Its ski-jump launch deck and lack of a catapult system limit the munitions load on the combat jets it will have on board. Their range will also be limited because the Varyag cannot launch refuelling tankers to extend the distance the jets can fly from the carrier. It also cannot carry fixed-wing, airborne early-warning planes. Instead it must use helicopters, a much less effective alternative.

The fighter bomber chosen for the carrier by the Chinese military is the J-15, which has an airframe closely resembling the Russian Sukhoi Su-33. Although known as the 'Flying Shark', the fleet on the carrier is 'no great leap forward', according to United States analysts Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson.

Writing last Thursday in the Tokyo-based online portal The Diplomat, they said that the imminent launch of the Varyag was 'nevertheless triggering concern in the region because it indicates rapid improvement in Chinese naval aviation, and suggests Chinese determination to extend its regional blue water presence'. They added that with advanced missiles, carrier-based J-15s could credibly threaten surface targets 500km away.

If the Varyag and later a class of all-new carriers being built in China are deployed in the South China Sea with surface warships and submarines as escorts, Beijing's ability to enforce its controversial claims to control over much of the maritime heart of South-east Asia will be greatly strengthened.

China is already the dominant naval power in the region, although it lags well behind the United States.

Yet the focus on China's impressive military modernisation may overshadow another significant trend that is increasing its powers in disputed waters of the South China Sea in the short term.

This is the rapid expansion of maritime law enforcement agencies and their integration as an arm of state policy under increasing control of the Chinese navy.

Earlier this month, Chinese media reported on plans for a major enlargement of the China Maritime Surveillance Force (CMSF), a paramilitary law enforcement agency that polices waters Beijing says are under its jurisdiction, even though they may be contested by Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as they are in the South China Sea.

The CMSF will get an extra 16 aircraft and 350 vessels by 2015, and boost its current 9,000 personnel, mainly former naval men, to 15,000 by 2020. The number of patrol vessels in the fleet will rise to 520 by 2020.

A majority of these ships are expected to be deployed in the South China Sea and off East China, where Japan and China have overlapping claims to islands, fisheries and seabed oil and gas reserves.

At present, the CMSF South Sea fleet, one of three under the State Oceanic Administration, has only 13 patrol vessels, two planes and one helicopter.

But other Chinese maritime law enforcement agencies also have fleets of ships to help enforce bans on fishing and oil and gas exploration in waters claimed by Beijing, which cover about 80 per cent of the South China Sea.

They include the Maritime Safety Administration of China. It recently sent its biggest and most modern ship to Singapore in a show of resolve to defend Chinese claims from challenges by South-east Asian countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Haixun 31 displaces 3,000 tonnes, has a helicopter launch pad and can stay at sea for 40 days without refuelling. It is a forerunner of the more capable surveillance vessels planned by China.

US and Asian officials say that another significant development is the Chinese navy's programme to organise a maritime militia drawn from fishing fleets.

Dr Erickson, a China specialist at the US Naval War College, said he has concluded that China 'does not want to start a war, but rather seeks to wield its growing military might to 'win without fighting' by deterring actions that it views as detrimental to its core national interests'.

In the past few years, Chinese fishing boats have joined patrol craft from the maritime law enforcement agencies in apparently coordinated operations to harass US surveillance ships and South-east Asian oil and gas survey vessels in the South China Sea.

Such tactics make it difficult to pin the blame on China's navy. But they are provocative and not conducive to maintaining peace in the region.

The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Redefining success, Singapore style

Jun 22, 2011
By K. Kesavapany

ONE of the messages that came clearly through at the last general election was that Singapore is successful enough to be able to redefine the nature of success.

Let me explain this apparent paradox.

It is a hallmark of People's Action Party rule that the Government delivers. An action-oriented government turned Singapore into a byword for success in an astonishing range of areas - from the economy to defence, from public housing to education and social harmony. It is on the basis of this success that Singapore's leaders have sought to build a future-oriented nation from among the descendants of immigrants who differ from one another in race and religion.

The Shenton skyline, the Changi naval base and the HDB heartland are just three examples of a successful Singapore. To ignore these and other examples is to be wilfully blind. The fact is that without Singapore as it stands today, there would be no success to redefine.

However, success comes at a cost, and the true measure of success is to recognise and rectify those costs so that the success is sustainable. The 2011 General Election has drawn attention to these costs: the high cost of living in general, and in particular, for first-time buyers of public housing; growing income disparities that, left unchecked, could create a new Third World within First World Singapore; and fears of large-scale immigration degrading the living environment and possibly diluting the nascent sense of national identity as well.

Also palpable in the lead-up to the elections was the sense of empathy that middle-class Singaporeans, including the young, felt towards their poorer (and often older) fellow citizens. This cross-generational altruism, this solidarity that cut across classes, bodes well for Singapore as globalisation heightens disparities within nations as much as among them. Globalisation builds economies; it does not create nations.

A key issue now, therefore, is how to redefine success in order to sustain Singapore as a nation.

In that context, it is worth recalling that in 1989, the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) published Management Of Success: The Moulding Of Modern Singapore, edited by Kernial Singh Sandhu and Paul Wheatley. It was soon regarded as a seminal volume because it explored the whole terrain of national life to show how far Singapore had come from its post-colonial origins as a poor and violent non-nation.

The keywords in the volume's title were 'management' and 'moulding' - words that focused on the agency of a radically interventionist state in transforming Singapore into a vibrant global city that would nevertheless be enough of a home for its citizens to want to defend it.

The world has changed since 1989. The implosion of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War and the spread of neo-liberalism as the default ideology of the economic elite of the new world order - all these events have reshaped both Singapore's external and internal environments.

Early last year, therefore, Iseas assessed the implications of those changes in a new volume, Management Of Success: Singapore Revisited. Edited by Terence Chong, a senior fellow at Iseas, the new volume brought together a group of prominent scholars and thinkers to review public policies that had taken shape since the early 1990s.

The volume analysed issues of leadership and policy, economic restructuring, societal transformation, foreign relations and national identity. It was clear from the volume that success would have to be redefined in the light of the generational and other changes that had taken place in the intervening two decades.

The general election has brought to the fore this fundamental questioning.

Going forward, it is essential to reiterate that Singapore's external circumstances, particularly those emanating from its immediate neighbourhood, will constrain policy choices. Without a strong economy and a strong defence, the Singapore success story will evaporate.

However, despite these external constraints, the political economy of Singapore will need to be restructured to answer the population's felt need to redefine success.

Policies relating to social equity will need to be reconfigured; this is urgent. It is possible to argue that the disquiet over high ministerial salaries was caused less by the salaries themselves - which are a small price to pay compared to Singapore's gross domestic product - and more by the difference between ministerial salaries and the median income of Singaporeans.

But no matter how far ministerial salaries are reduced, the key issue will remain equity in general and the interests of the poor, the sick and the elderly in particular. These interests will need to feature heavily in the new economic map that the general election has drawn.

Also, the political assertiveness of citizens will need to be recognised as an asset in the next phase of Singapore's development. Singaporeans have destroyed once and for all the myth that they are politically apathetic, that their compact with the state includes a hidden clause whereby they agree to trade political consciousness for creature comforts.

Instead, it is those comforts that are the basis on which they are making 'higher order' political demands. This is entirely natural. This is how mature economies become mature polities as well.

All in all, an exciting era has begun. A decade from now, the real success story of Singapore might well be defined by the extent to which it succeeds in redefining success.

The writer is director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's tertiary and research institutions.

Plumbing Singapore's water story

Jun 21, 2011
By Cheong Suk-Wai

ONE evening in Spain in 2006, global water experts Asit Biswas (AB) and Cecilia Tortajada (CT) sent a last-gasp e-mail message to Mr Khoo Teng Chye, chief executive of Singapore's national water authority PUB.

Professor Biswas, 71, and Dr Tortajada, 48, are husband and wife, and they were then preparing to contribute to the Human Development Report on the world's best water management systems, including those in Britain and the United States when, six weeks before their deadline, someone said they should study Singapore's water systems. So they shot off a note to Mr Khoo, even as a friend who used to work in Singapore warned them that it would take ages to get such data from the Government.

However, Prof Biswas recalls, 'Lo and behold, when we woke up the next morning, we received an e-mail from Mr Khoo saying, 'What do you need? Whatever you need is at your disposal.'' So the Biswases not only got to report Singapore as an epitome of water management, but are now also completing a book titled The Singapore Water Story, which they hope to launch here next year.

Working with PUB impressed them so, they nominated it for the Stockholm Water Prize in 2007, the Oscars for the industry, and PUB toasted its eventual win in Sweden with Newater, the reclaimed water produced by PUB.

Prof Biswas, himself a Stockholm Water Prize winner in 2006, is the founder-president of the Third World Centre for Water Management in Mexico, of which his Mexican wife is deputy president. Between them to date, they have advised more than 20 governments on national and international water policies and best practices, including recommending that the National University of Singapore (NUS) set up the Institute of Water Policy. They met when Prof Biswas was at the World Bank and advising the National Water Commission of Mexico, where Dr Tortajada worked.

Prof Biswas is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor at NUS' Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, while his wife is a visiting don at the same school. They sat down with me earlier this month to discuss the recent floods here.

What do you make of Singapore's flood woes?

AB: One of the facts of life anywhere in the world is that you cannot eliminate floods completely, technically or otherwise. You can only manage them, and control them - to a certain extent. I try to tell my students at Oxford University that no society has unlimited money to do so.

CT: But the Government's response to the floods here was fast, which you don't have in many other places. And it's good that the people of Singapore question the Government because then it improves. Many people in other cities say, 'We'll live with this', and as a result their governments tend not to bear responsibility. But again, you can have big barriers in Orchard Road, but if you have higher precipitation than that, there is nothing you can do because the infrastructure is designed to keep out a certain amount of water at a time.

Singapore's infrastructure has never been better and it's had monsoon rains forever, so why can't we better control floods?

AB: If you look at the way some of the shopping malls in Orchard Road are designed, any time the floodwaters go over street level, all the water can go only into the basements. That design is not the best. What you have to do is provide some sort of buffer or walls for malls so the water is kept on the street and does not flow down to mall basements. That will not need an enormous amount of money.

CT: What's happening now is that people are wealthier and their shops have more expensive goods. So their losses are higher, not because of unusual floods but because they have much more goods, which are much more expensive.

AB: And with urbanisation, everything is made of concrete so the floodwaters also have difficulty percolating. So these are some of the things which need to be explained to the people so they realise that there is nothing wrong with floods, but we have to be prepared to manage them.

Some have attributed Singapore's floods to the rapidly changing weather. Is the weather really changing like so?

AB: I cannot tell you with a straight face that the weather has changed. But as a scientist, I can confirm that the weather is changing slowly, although we have no evidence. The weather throughout history has always fluctuated.

What might be the possible factors for the current freak weather?

AB: Climate change has become a very popular topic. But it is such a complex topic, we really do not understand it fully. There are so many things going on at the same time that no scientist worth his salt would tell you, 'This is the reason the climate is changing.' And there is a minority of scientists who are still saying that there is no such thing as climate change. That is also a problem because science does not progress by consensus. The next Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is surely going to increase the range of the potential for climate change, because people are realising that if something happens, something else changes, and that affects something else and you don't know the final result.

Floods aside, what about Singapore helps it manage water well?

CT: Its efficiency. What the Government calls 'PPP', that is, the public sector, the private sector and the people, is something I like very much because normally, you have the public and private sectors and the people are always left aside, but not in Singapore. Also, nowhere else have we found such long-term planning.

Hasn't sheer survival instinct made Singapore so efficient?

CT: It is so. But at the same time, many cities globally have many constraints they don't plan for, or respond to.

Might it be because Singapore has more money to do so?

CT: No. Singapore at independence did not have money. That Singapore has money now is a result of long-term planning and hard work, not otherwise.

AB: Also, we had two interviews with Mr Lee Kuan Yew for our upcoming book. He's the only leader in the world who's been interested in water. And we asked him: What, initially, got him interested in water? He said two things: One was that when he was a young man during the Japanese Occupation, the British blew up the Causeway to stop the Japanese from coming to Singapore. And below the Causeway was the pipe that was bringing water in from Malaysia. So Singapore had only one week's supply of water left and that made him realise how dependent they were on water from outside.

The second thing he said was that after Singapore became an independent country in 1965, the British High Commissioner came to see him and told him that the Malaysian prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had told him that Singapore would have to do exactly what Malaysia wants, otherwise they would turn off the tap. So Mr Lee brought the best people in Singapore together and said, 'Tell me how much rain falls in Singapore, and how much of it we can collect.' And from then on, he had three to four people in his office all the time to decide whether some developments could go on or not, depending on the water used.

What exactly has Singapore done since that impresses you?

CT: Technology exists everywhere and very wealthy countries could have the same technology that Singapore uses. But they cannot come to the same solutions because, unlike Singapore, they have not sorted out their institutional, legal and corruption problems.

Still, why isn't a Singaporean running the Institute of Water Policy?

AB: You have extremely good technocrats in Singapore but I'm sorry to tell you that there are not very many policy experts. Policy looks at a longer-term vision and has a governance aspect, whereas planning and management look at details.

CT: I don't think that the water sector in Singapore is short on skills to develop policies; I think it has developed the policies and their implementation but it could gain much more with support and dialogue from the universities here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What is the future of the opposition?

Jun 18, 2011

The watershed general election is behind them, but Singapore's opposition parties have no plans to disappear. The six parties tell Insight their plans for leadership renewal and for moving ahead

MORE than any other election before, last month's general election will be remembered in years to come as the one that kick-started political renewal - and not just the PAP's.

Even before the events of May 7, when the Workers' Party (WP) won in Aljunied GRC, many opposition leaders - just like those in the People's Action Party (PAP) - had already spoken about the importance of recruitment and leadership renewal.

But how have opposition renewal plans been affected by a new political landscape? How do the many different parties intend to keep going and who will form the new core? Can Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Low Thia Khiang be replaced?

In the weeks since the watershed general election, opposition parties have announced plans on how they will move forward.

Some, like the Reform Party (RP) and the Singapore People's Party (SPP), issued detailed outlines on how they will remain active in the constituencies where they contested.

These include setting up branches, walking the ground and holding Meet- the-People sessions, even though they have not been elected.

These moves appear to be attempts to ensure that the accusation often levelled in the past, that opposition parties disappear between elections, no longer holds.

Assistant Professor Reuben Wong, a political science academic from the National University of Singapore, described the moves as an 'investment for 2016', when the next general election is due.

But political analyst Derek da Cunha notes that it is early days yet to say what will come out of the plans.

'Being active on the ground in between elections is easier said than done for parties that do not have a parliamentary presence,' he said.

And the initial enthusiasm of holding walkabouts and house visits could easily evaporate.

'Walking the ground takes a great deal of effort, is time-consuming and unglamorous,' he said, adding: 'Some parties may eventually do this very sporadically and be content instead with issuing regular press releases so as to show people that they are active.'

Only the Workers' Party (WP) emerged from the elections with any victories - in Aljunied GRC and Hougang. Taking the Non-Constituency MP

(NCMP) posts into account, it will account for eight of the nine opposition members in Parliament.

The other NCMP is the SPP's Lina Chiam, 62, who contested in Potong Pasir.

The four best-performing opposition parties at the May 7 elections - the WP, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), SPP and National Solidarity Party (NSP) - appear to have been relatively successful at attracting capable new people and each boasts its own 'star catches'.

Given the increased dominance of the WP, however, the question that arises is what future lies ahead for the other opposition parties. Small parties, such as the Singapore Justice Party, could fall away by the next general election.

Non-WP parties will need to adjust their positions, Prof Wong believes.

'The SDP, SPP and NSP need to better define what they stand for. The fundamental liberal values of the SDP might need to move closer to a centrist position to attract more broad-based support in the next general election,' he said.

'The SPP and NSP have broader- based platforms but need younger leaders for 2016 and beyond.'

One other option is for a consolidation among the non-WP parties as a way to challenge the WP's dominance.

But Dr da Cunha points out that while mergers are possible, it is also conceivable that more opposition parties could emerge ahead of the next polls.

'Do not underestimate the extent to which some individuals have an inflated sense of themselves. They just want to lead their own party and cannot see themselves working with or under anyone else,' he said.

Four under 40 in the next Parliament

Key leaders: Secretary-general Low Thia Khiang, 54, and chairman Sylvia Lim, 46

Potential leaders: Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong, 34; Aljunied GRC MPs Pritam Singh, 34; and Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, 35; and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, 34

FOR a sense of who might succeed secretary-general Low Thia Khiang and chairman Sylvia Lim as leaders of the strongest opposition group, look no further than the four young people aged below 40 who will represent the Workers' Party (WP) in the next Parliament.

They are Aljunied GRC MPs Pritam Singh and Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap; Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong and Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam.

WP chief Low has steered clear of singling out a potential successor, but has claimed that 'the future leadership is in place and in position to move the party forward'.

On June 7, the party co-opted Mr Singh, as well as Aljunied GRC MP Chen Show Mao and NCMP Yee Jenn Jong into the central executive council, and gave larger roles to some younger leaders.

Mr Faisal is now an organising secretary - one of two in the party - taking over from Mr Yaw.

Mr Yaw is the new treasurer, and is assisted by Mr Yee as the new deputy treasurer.

Mr Giam and Mr Singh are the head and deputy of a newly created media team, while Mr Chen is a council member.

Leadership renewal has been a key focus for Mr Low since he took over as WP secretary-general from the late J.B. Jeyaretnam in 2001.

The WP's push to attract younger members to grow the party and shed the image that some have of it being the 'Low and Sylvia' party has borne fruit.

One sign of how seriously it views renewal was its decision to decide by secret ballot who from among its five candidates for East Coast GRC should take up the NCMP seat offered.

Mr Eric Tan, the 55-year-old WP treasurer and leader of the East Coast GRC team, wanted the seat, but Mr Low preferred Mr Giam in the NCMP role.

Not only would it add to his training, Mr Giam has also been the public face of the WP at a number of public forums.

The vote eventually went to Mr Giam. Mr Tan, a former banker, quit the WP that same day.

Mr Low did not want to comment on Mr Tan's resignation, but insisted that 'the whole party knows that renewal is an ongoing process'.


Can the SPP survive Chiam?

Key leaders: Secretary-general Chiam See Tong, 76, chairman Sin Kek Tong, 65, and vice-chairman Lina Chiam, 62

Potential leaders: Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC candidates Benjamin Pwee, 43, and Jimmy Lee, 35

THE May 7 election was widely billed as the last hurrah for Singapore People's Party (SPP) iconic leader Chiam See Tong.

The 76-year-old former Potong Pasir MP lost his bid to capture Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, and his wife Lina failed to retain the single-seat ward he had represented since 1984.

But in the aftermath of the election, he made it clear that he will not fade away and he expects to play a role as long as he remains healthy. Still, few political observers expect him to continue to play a leading role in the run-up to the next election.

The SPP is contemplating life beyond Mr Chiam, but has to contend with the fact that the party is, by and large, less known to the public than its leader.

Since its establishment in 1994, leadership renewal has been virtually non-existent. It has had the same chairman and secretary-general since it was set up.

Had Mr Chiam called it a day at any point before this year's general election, the party could just as well have dissolved. But things appear to be changing for a number of reasons.

The first is that it will continue to have a presence in Parliament, where Mr Chiam served for 27 years.

Mrs Chiam, the best performing opposition candidate at the general election, will take up the Non-Constituency MP (NCMP) seat she was offered.

The second factor is the presence of younger, better-qualified members including former government scholarship holders Benjamin Pwee, 43, and Jimmy Lee, 35.

Ms Camilla Chiam, 35 - daughter of Mr and Mrs Chiam - has also joined the party as a volunteer.

Mr Pwee, a member of the SPP team which contested in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, has risen swiftly in the party.

On May 13, only days after the general election and just one month after he joined the SPP, he was co-opted into its central executive committee and appointed second assistant secretary-general.

He also has the task of spearheading its 'comeback GE2016 masterplan' and using the momentum the party had at the May 7 election to carry it through to the next polls.

The SPP is trying to secure commercial space to set up its party headquarters. This is likely to be in Sennett Estate, which lies in Potong Pasir.

It has been conducting Meet-the-People sessions at the void deck of Block 108 Potong Pasir Avenue 1, where Mr Chiam held his weekly sessions. They have also held at least one such session in Bishan.

Mr Pwee is behind the setting-up of a youth wing and a women's wing, and a move to register a $2 million charity linked to the party.

SPP chairman Sin Kek Tong, who plans to retire from the position before the year is out, said: 'I've known Benjamin Pwee only a short time, but so far so good.

'Of course, you really can't tell. But the way I see it, he and the people brought in by him will form the core of the party's leadership.

'They are very professional and I'm at ease that the party is in good hands.'

The party's long-term future, however, will depend on whether its new blood can stay the course the same way Mr Chiam did.


New members may force rethink

Key leaders: Secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, 48

Potential leaders: Civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha, 41; investment adviser Tan Jee Say, 57; psychiatrist Ang Yong Guan, 56; academic James Gomez, 46; private school teacher Michelle Lee, 35; and theatre director Alec Tok, 46

A LAST-MINUTE influx of high- profile candidates helped the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) clinch a much-improved showing at the last general election.

But while this new blood was a boon to the party, it forced the SDP to grapple with a new challenge: how to integrate new members who have a more moderate outlook with an old guard who, more often than not, wear the SDP's liberal heart on their sleeve.

Its more prominent new members include those who contested the general election such as investment adviser Tan Jee Say and civil society activist Vincent Wijeysingha.

They are among a group tipped to play a bigger role. The central executive committee (CEC) election is expected in August and there is talk that some older leaders may want to make way.

Said CEC member Jufrie Mahmood, 61: 'I'm prepared to step aside to play a supporting role and to let younger or newer people who are more academically qualified take over.'

Party leader Chee Soon Juan said in the past that the SDP does not believe in a hierarchical structure and that members with leadership qualities will rise naturally.

Dr Wijeysingha was closely involved in drawing up the SDP's socio-economic proposals and co- opted into the CEC earlier this year as assistant treasurer.

Mr Tan's thesis on transforming the Singapore economy attracted the attention of voters at the general election and helped pull financial professionals into the party.

Dr Chee has said that the party is assimilating new members and placing them in roles for the 2016 election campaign: 'We will work together as a coherent unit to bring about democratic change in Singapore.'

But its 'establishment' types and professionals present, outwardly at least, a new and moderate face of the party. It is unclear how well they will integrate with others - both old and new - who cherish the SDP's old ways.

Some in the new guard, such as Mr Tan, Dr Ang Yong Guan and Ms Michelle Lee, have openly rejected the use of civil disobedience as a political tool.

There were calls to drop this approach during a question-and-answer session with Dr Chee at the SDP's May 14 thank you dinner for members and volunteers.

That prompted new member and SDP Yuhua candidate Teo Soh Lung to write a post on Facebook defending the party's right to protest: 'It is time that we question why we cannot stand at street corners with placards telling our fellow citizens and our government why we are so unhappy. It is time we reflect on our past and examine ourselves before we tell Dr Chee and those brave men and women to change their ways.'

Given these divergent opinions, it remains to be seen whether the SDP will be able to overcome the possibility of ideological fissures within it.


Party at a crossroads

Key leaders: President Sebastian Teo, 63, and secretary-general Goh Meng Seng, 41

Potential leaders: Former government scholarship holders Hazel Poa and Tony Tan, both 41; lawyer Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss, 48; and advertising executive Nicole Seah, 24

THE National Solidarity Party (NSP) is at a crossroads now, after failing to win any seats at the recent polls despite fielding 24 candidates - the highest number among opposition parties.

National University of Singapore Assistant Professor Reuben Wong feels the NSP did well to attract new blood but will be more effective if younger leaders take over 'for 2016 and beyond'.

However, this may mean revamping the NSP's image as a 'Chinese male towkay' party. It also raises the question of who among existing leaders should make way.

Such questions could be addressed next weekend at an Ordinary Party Congress, when congress members - the NSP's cadre members - will elect new leaders and a central executive committee (CEC).

The congress has been brought forward from August, a sign that renewal is very much on the party's mind.

'The sooner the better,' said its secretary-general, Mr Goh Meng Seng. 'Speedy renewal will allow the new team to start work early for the next election.'

He had said previously he would take responsibility for the NSP's failure at the polls. It is up to the party to decide what future role he plays, he told Insight.

But he said he had met the two main goals he set himself when he took on the post: getting more people to join the party; and doing well in the election.

NSP has seen a 'substantial increase' in membership over the last two years, and people are still signing up, Mr Goh said. But he declined to say how many members the 24-year-old party has.

There has been talk that party stalwarts may step down, though the NSP has issued a directive forbidding members from speaking to the media on leadership issues.

But if Mr Sebastian Teo, its affable president, steps down, the party will lose a key unifying force. With no seats in Parliament, it faces challenges in getting exposure and recruiting members.

Mr Goh thinks it is likely the new CEC will focus on constituencies where the NSP did well, such as Marine Parade GRC and Tampines GRC.

The big question on many minds is whether the faction of English-speaking, highly qualified professionals who crossed over from the Reform Party earlier this year will form the new vanguard of the party.

Among them are candidates who emerged during the May 7 general election, such as 'scholar couple' Ms Hazel Poa and Mr Tony Tan, who contested in Chua Chu Kang GRC. Ms Poa seems the more likely of the two to take on a prominent role.

She hopes to organise seminars to discuss policies and get more young people involved, saying: 'I will put this on the table when the new CEC is formed.'

The NSP is also likely to bank on the popularity of Ms Nicole Seah, its youngest candidate, whose rise in popularity during the hustings took even party members by surprise. She won support for her eloquence and helped her team clinch 43.4 per cent of the vote in Marine Parade GRC against a People's Action Party team. Mr Goh has indicated that she may be given more responsibilities.

Mrs Jeannette Chong-Arul-doss, a lawyer and its candidate in Mountbatten, is also a contender for a leadership role. She said: 'I want to throw my weight behind the NSP and see it build on its success.'


An eye out for new blood from Day One

Key leader: Secretary-general Kenneth Jeyaretnam, 52, former hedge fund manager

Potential leaders: Andy Zhu, 29, real estate agent

It may be a newcomer to the opposition scene, but the Reform Party (RP) recognised the need for new blood from Day One.

Established in mid-2008, the party set up a youth wing when former hedge fund manager Kenneth Jeyaretnam - son of the party's late founder J.B. Jeyaretnam - took over in April 2009.

The party grew from 20 members to nearly 100 - until February this year, when it was hit by an exodus of more than 20 key members, who said they found it hard to work with Mr Jeyaretnam.

Many left to join the National Solidarity Party. Real estate agent Andy Zhu is now the party's chairman. At 29, he is the youngest person to hold this post in the opposition camp.

He is also the youngest in the central executive committee, which also features two potential leaders in organising secretary Osman Sulaiman, 36, and member Kumar Appavoo, 43.

The party also beefed up its youth wing with two co-heads: engineering undergraduate Lim Zi Rui, 24, and financial adviser Gerald Yong, 25. Ms Vigneswari

Ramachandran, 29, who is pursuing a pre-school education diploma, is the deputy head.

The party is holding its conference early next month, when it will pick its new leaders.


Focus on renewal, courting more parties

Key leader: Secretary-general Desmond Lim Bak Chuan, 43, engineer

Potential leader: Harminder Pal Singh, 39, motivational speaker

THE Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) is today a pale shadow of its former self.

Formed ahead of the 2001 General Election by four opposition parties, the group is now left with its two weaker component parties holding the fort.

The National Solidarity Party (NSP) pulled out in 2007, and the Singapore People?s Party (SPP) of SDA founding chairman Chiam See Tong did so in March this year over internal differences.

Now, secretary-general Desmond Lim says he plans to step down once a suitable successor is found, hopefully within a year, in the wake of his poor showing at the May 7 polls.

Mr Lim lost his election deposit after securing only 4.5 per cent of the valid votes in a three-way fight in the Punggol East single seat ward; while the SDA team in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC won 35.2 per cent of the votes.

In the coming months, however, he plans to renew the ranks of the Singapore Justice Party (SJP), which he leads, to give new SDA candidates bigger roles ahead of the next election.

Four of the six SDA team members who stood in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC are in their 30s: team leader Harminder Pal Singh, 39; health-care firm director Tony Tan Keng Hong, 34; marketing executive Mohammad Shafni Ahmad, 33; and senior analyst Jeffrey Lim, 35.

Renewal is also under way at the Singapore Malay National Organisation (PKMS).

Former secretary-general Nazem Suki resigned on the morning of Nomination Day to mount an aborted bid to contest Tanjong Pagar GRC. He did so without the party?s consent and was replaced in the post by assistant secretary-general Mohd Az-Zahari Ahmad Kamil.

Mr Lim said he hopes to bring more parties into the alliance. One likely ally is the Socialist Front, which was set up last year but chose to sit out the May 7 polls.



Soldier's leg 're-grown' with pig hormones

Jun 20, 2011

A US soldier who had most of his leg muscle blown off in Afghanistan has become the first to see it grow back in a pioneering experimental operation - being injected with a growth promoting substance extracted from pig bladders.

Marine Isaias Hernandez lost 70 per cent of his right thigh muscles when a mortar exploded as he tried to carry out repairs to a truck in Afghanistan.

With such severe muscle damage Mr Hernandez would ordinarily have had his leg amputated.

But a re-think in the way soldiers are treated led to the soldier being injected with a growth promoting substance extracted from pig bladders.

Since the experimental growth hormone was used, Mr Hernandez has regained most of the strength in his right thigh.

In preparation for the operation, he was made to build up the remaining 30 per cent of muscle left on the damaged thigh. Surgeons then sliced into the thigh, placing a thin slice of a substance called extracellular matrix, a part of animal tissue that usually provides structural support to the animal cells in addition to performing various other important functions. -- THE STAR/ANN

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Court's dilemma over tug-of-love twins

Jun 14, 2011

By K. C. Vijayan

THE case of the Singaporean mother arrested last week when she landed in the United States to seek access to her sons highlights the difficult issues in cross-border child custody battles.

It is likely to be the start of more such disputes in Singapore. This is because Singapore acceded to the Hague Convention just this March. This sets out rules on what countries should do to prevent child abduction in custody cases, and the need to ensure the prompt return of the children to their original dwelling in the country they were unlawfully taken from. More legal challenges can be expected to be filed in courts here by couples battling for custody over their children.

This particular incident provides a case study of how observing the letter of the law can be seen as contravening its spirit.

But to recap. The 45-year-old Singaporean woman had been embroiled with her former American husband over custody of her twin boys, now 11. The couple split in 2009 after about 10 years. The marriage was annulled as it emerged her divorce to her first husband had not been completed when she married the American.

Tests have also shown that the American is not the boys' biological father.

In 2009, while there were still unresolved access and custody issues before the US courts, the mother took the boys and left Los Angeles to return to Singapore. They remained here for about 18 months, enrolling in primary school and living a Singapore life.

As this is considered child abduction under US law, the former husband took out a court order to compel her to send the twins back to America pending the hearings. His lawyers sought to enforce the US court order here, and she appealed in the Singapore courts.

At a hearing in March, a district judge here ordered that the twins should return to the US, saying the courts would not endorse any move to be in contempt of a standing US court order.

This followed the Hague Convention's requirement of 'prompt return' of the children involved.

But as some analysts point out, the court must also be guided by the paramount issue of what is in the child's best interests. This is embodied in the Convention as well.

In this case, the twins had previously written to the Singapore authorities seeking help so they could remain in Singapore with their mother. But their testimonies were not heard in court.

Following the Singapore court decision, the twins were put on a plane and sent back to the US two weeks later.

The mother would have to return to the US to go through the court process to seek access and custody of her children. But as she had broken the law by taking them out of the country, she was considered a criminal and placed on the Interpol's global Red Notice wanted list, alongside drug traffickers, terrorists and murderers.

She decided to return to the US anyway to seek custody of her children. As expected, she was detained on landing. She is now in remand and will have to fight both her criminal and subsequent family court cases for access to her children.

While difficult, such tug-of love cases are not uncommon in divorces where the two parties involved live in different countries and both seek custody.

The court deciding such issues has to weigh many different considerations.

One is the principle of giving friendly recognition to the laws of other countries. This explains the district judge's statement that she would not endorse the mother's application not to return to the US hearings as that was in contempt of the US courts.

But a higher court judge opined that giving friendly recognition to the laws of another country could not outweigh the interests of the children. Justice Andrew Ang said this in a High Court hearing last month, when the woman decided to appeal against the district judge's decision.

The district judge was not wrong to have had regard to the fact that there was a US court order giving sole physical and legal custody to the father, said Justice Ang.

But the district judge 'should have also considered whether or not the children would be at grave risk of physical or psychological harm or would be placed in an intolerable situation if an order for their return was to be made'.

'In deciding whether or not to grant a summary order for the return of the children, the court must necessarily consider all the facts and circumstances of the case discoverable from affidavits or other evidence filed by the parents or other relevant parties.

'The children's objections may also be taken into account where they are regarded as having attained sufficient maturity,' he said.

Singapore Management University law don Chen Siyuan concurs that the child's welfare is paramount. Sometimes, a court's ruling may be viewed as unfair to one parent.

National University of Singapore law don and family law expert Debbie Ong points out that where the Hague Convention does not apply, a British court case ruled in 2005 that welfare of the particular child is the paramount consideration.

'So in this case, the court can disregard the foreign order, reopen the merits of the case at hand, and determine what is presently in the child's welfare. This may include calling for reports of experts assessing the child's well-being.'

She explained that under domestic law, the welfare of the particular child is paramount. But the Hague Convention also upholds another important principle - the welfare of all children.

'The convention aims to protect all children by discouraging child abduction with its prompt return directive.

'This directive is strongest in the first year of removal, and less strong if more than a year has passed since the wrongful removal. The convention allows exceptions to the prompt return directive - where the child is well settled or expresses opinion that she wishes to remain in the country, or where there is a grave risk that her return would expose the child to physical or psychological harm or otherwise place the child in an intolerable situation, the court can order children to stay and not be returned,' she added.

While prompt return is the main directive under the convention, it does not apply in this case as the children in question were removed before March 1 this year.

Highlighting the delicate balance to be struck, Associate Professor Ong said the court would have to balance all the interests involved, including upholding the convention's principle of prompt return. After all, the mother would have appreciated the convention's assistance to obtain the return of the children if the positions had been reversed.

She said: 'The convention can assist many like her who will not otherwise have resources to locate her children. In order for the convention to be effective and achieve its objectives, it must not too easily allow exceptions to prompt return principle, but exceptions are available in genuine cases.'

Family lawyer Rajan Chettiar said this is the first case he has come across where the competing interests of the law in sending the twins back and their own interests have been reported here.

'This is a very difficult case for the courts where it appears the best interests of the kids have taken a back seat. I expect to see more cases to emerge with the Hague Convention now applying here.'

Singapore judges in future cases will have this precedent to look at, where one district judge orders prompt return, and a higher court says judges must also consider if such a return order would put the children in an 'intolerable situation'.

The Hague Convention may require prompt return, but the convention exists in the first place to safeguard children in custody battles. Thus a prompt return order may follow the letter of the law, but is not always in keeping with its spirit of acting in the child's best interests. In such cases, exceptions may be necessary.

This is the paradox that courts of different jurisdictions have to reconcile based on peculiar circumstances of a particular case.