Sunday, July 31, 2011

The new normal in politics

Jul 30, 2011

Twenty-two Members of Parliament retired from politics at this year's general election. They reflect on the new political reality and the challenges ahead for the ruling party and Singapore.

By Andrea Ong

THE new normal in politics arrived sooner than some in the ruling party had expected.

It did so for newly retired Member of Parliament (MP) Ahmad Magad.

He tells Insight that he had expected the first Group Representation Constituency (GRC) to fall to the opposition at the next general election (GE), not this year's.

With the loss of Aljunied GRC at the May 7 polls, the People's Action Party (PAP) now has to contend with 'a significant opposition party in Parliament', Mr Lim Boon Heng said last week.

The former Cabinet minister and PAP chairman was speaking on behalf of the 22 PAP MPs who retired at these polls, during a dinner held in their honour.

He said: 'Politics has changed. We have now entered a new phase, and (are) entering a new norm.'

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Let's be clear, the Republicans are to blame

Jul 30, 2011
By Paul Krugman

THE facts of the crisis over the debt ceiling aren't complicated. Republicans have, in effect, taken America hostage, threatening to undermine the economy and disrupt the essential business of government unless they get policy concessions they would never have been able to enact through legislation. And Democrats - who would have been justified in rejecting this extortion altogether - have, in fact, gone a long way towards meeting those Republican demands.

As I said, it's not complicated. Yet many people in the news media apparently can't bring themselves to acknowledge this simple reality. News reports portray the parties as equally intransigent; pundits fantasise about some kind of 'centrist' uprising, as if the problem were too much partisanship on both sides.

Some of us have long complained about the cult of 'balance', the insistence on portraying both parties as equally wrong and equally at fault on any issue, never mind the facts. I joked long ago that if one party declared that the earth was flat, the headlines would read 'Views differ on shape of planet'.

But would that cult still rule in a situation as stark as the one we now face, in which one party is clearly engaged in blackmail and the other is dickering over the size of the ransom? The answer, it turns out, is yes. And this is no laughing matter: The cult of balance has played an important role in bringing us to the edge of disaster. For when reporting on political disputes always implies that both sides are to blame, there is no penalty for extremism. Voters won't punish you for outrageous behaviour if all they ever hear is that both sides are at fault.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. As you may know, President Barack Obama initially tried to strike a 'Grand Bargain' with Republicans over taxes and spending. To do so, he not only chose not to make an issue of GOP extortion, but also offered extraordinary concessions on Democratic priorities: an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility, sharp spending cuts and only small revenue increases. As The Times' Nate Silver pointed out, Mr Obama effectively staked out a position that was not only far to the right of the average voter's preferences, but it was if anything a bit to the right of the average Republican voter's preferences.

But Republicans rejected the deal. So what was the headline on an Associated Press analysis of that breakdown in negotiations? 'Obama, Republicans trapped by inflexible rhetoric.' A Democratic president who bends over backwards to accommodate the other side - or, if you prefer, who leans so far to the right that he's in danger of falling over - is treated as being just the same as his utterly intransigent opponents. Balance! Which brings me to those 'centrist' fantasies.

Many pundits view taking a position in the middle of the political spectrum as a virtue in itself. I don't. Wisdom doesn't necessarily reside in the middle of the road, and I want leaders who do the right thing, not the centrist thing.

But for those who insist that the centre is always the place to be, I have an important piece of information: We already have a centrist president. Indeed, Mr Bruce Bartlett, who served as a policy analyst in the Reagan administration, argues that President Obama is, in practice, a moderate conservative.

Mr Bartlett has a point. The President, as we've seen, was willing, even eager, to strike a budget deal that strongly favoured conservative priorities. His health reform was very similar to the reform Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney installed in Massachusetts. Romneycare, in turn, closely followed the outlines of a plan originally proposed by the right-wing Heritage Foundation. And returning tax rates on high-income Americans to their level during the Roaring Nineties is hardly a socialist proposal.

True, Republicans insist that Mr Obama is a leftist seeking a government takeover of the economy, but they would, wouldn't they? The facts, should anyone choose to report them, say otherwise.

So what's with the buzz about a centrist uprising? As I see it, it's coming from people who recognise the dysfunctional nature of modern American politics, but refuse, for whatever reason, to acknowledge the one-sided role of Republican extremists in making our system dysfunctional. And it's not hard to guess at their motivation. After all, pointing out the obvious truth gets you labelled as a shrill partisan, not just from the right, but from the ranks of self-proclaimed centrists.

But making nebulous calls for centrism, like writing news reports that always place equal blame on both parties, is a big cop-out - a cop-out that only encourages more bad behaviour. The problem with American politics right now is Republican extremism, and if you're not willing to say that, you're helping make that problem worse.

The writer, a Nobel prize winner in economics, is professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University.


Democrat threats of default much exaggerated

Jul 30, 2011
U.S debt crisis
By Caroline Baum

I'M SITTING at my computer, watching the national debt clock tick relentlessly higher, as if to challenge me to make mental computations. How long does it take the United States to accumulate an additional US$1,000 (S$1,210) in debt? Answer: Faster than my eyes can move from the screen to the second hand of my watch. At that pace, how long would it take to add US$1 billion? US$1 trillion? Too many zeroes for my brain.

This is just a distraction - for me and for Washington politicians. We're both trying to avoid getting down to work.

For Washington's part, the short-term focus on raising the US$14.3 trillion debt limit by the Treasury's Aug 2 deadline has become a diversion from the nation's long-term fiscal problems. The federal government has to rein in the growth of its debt so that it becomes manageable in relation to the size of the economy.

You wouldn't know it from listening to the lecturer-in-chief on Monday night. In his address to the nation, President Barack Obama resorted to many of his favourite divide-and-conquer techniques, more suited to warfare than politics, in an attempt to demonstrate he is rising above the fray.

He blamed Mr George W. Bush, this time for squandering the budget surplus the former president inherited. He played the class warfare card, setting up a choice between corporate jet owners and senior citizens, between hedge fund managers and their secretaries. He compared himself to Ronald Reagan, a comparison that challenges even the wildest imagination. And he scared the public and investors with the threat of default, even as he insisted on a debt-limit extension through the 2012 election to spare the economy further damage.

All this while invoking the spirit of compromise and the need to 'come together as one nation'. Mr Obama's Washington-knows-best attitude was on display on Monday night when he said most Americans outside of Washington had probably never heard the term 'debt ceiling' before.

The only way Americans could possibly be unfamiliar with the term is if they had tuned out the President for the last few weeks. The President and his Treasury Secretary, Mr Tim Geithner, have taken every opportunity to fan the default flames, even though such an outcome is highly unlikely.

Default is defined as the failure to make timely payment of principal and interest. Standard and Poor's (S&P) uses that definition, specifically as it pertains to market debt, when it issues its sovereign debt ratings.

The Treasury is not going to default next month, or in subsequent months for that matter. An estimated US$172.4 billion of tax revenue next month is more than enough to cover the US$29 billion of August interest payments. For fiscal 2011, which ends on Sept 30, the Treasury is expected to take in revenue of US$2.2 trillion, while only US$214 billion is needed to service the debt.

And even if it lacks the authority for new borrowing, the Treasury can continue to roll over existing debt.

Instead of dangling the default threat every chance they get, Mr Obama and Mr Geithner should be telling the world that the US has every intention, and the resources, to meet its debt obligations. They should shout it from the rooftops, put a banner on the Treasury Direct website, and use the Sunday talk shows to reassure investors, not frighten them.

The administration's stated desire to remove the uncertainty hanging over the economy flies in the face of their sabre- rattling. Why, one might even conclude that they are - perish the thought - playing politics with the debt ceiling! (Oh, wait, it's the Republicans who are doing that.)

Until this week, financial markets were taking Washington's fiscal follies in stride. Surely these folks won't prevent the government from making good on the spending decisions of prior Congresses.

In the past two days, the discount rate on Treasury bills maturing on Aug 4 has gone from 0.05 per cent to 0.15 per cent. This week's five- and seven-year note auctions met with tepid demand. The price of a one-year credit default swap on the US, a derivative contract that offers default protection, rose to a record 80 basis points from 46 basis points last week.

Just because the US isn't going to default doesn't mean it can pay all its obligations, including social security and veterans' benefits, payments to defence contractors and money distributed to the states. The federal government borrows about 40 cents of every dollar it spends, so it would have to prioritise its payments if Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling by next week.

A failure to pay its bills may be cruel and unusual punishment for seniors who rely on their monthly cheques; it may hurt an already weak economy; it may cause chaos and disruptions in financial markets; and it may leave a scar on a great nation. But it does not qualify as a default.

That said, an increase in the debt ceiling is no guarantee the US will retain its AAA rating. When S&P put the US' top rating on CreditWatch on July 14, indicating a 50 per cent chance of a downgrade in the next 90 days, it made clear that its decision would be contingent on both a debt-limit increase and a 'credible solution to the rising US government debt burden'.

One way or another, Congress will raise the debt ceiling by Aug 2. I wish I had the same confidence watching the Washington play-by-play that S&P's second criterion will be satisfied.

The writer, a Bloomberg View columnist, has been writing on the economy and bond market since 1987.


[An alternative view. I don't know how correct she is, but say she is and technically she is correct, but realistically, and perhaps perceptually, she is wrong. In any case, it would seem that the treasury ran out of new borrowings earlier in the year and prioritising payments is what the US Treasury has been doing.]

Thursday, July 28, 2011

'Why my father hated India'

Jul 27, 2011

Son of an assassinated Punjab governor on Pakistan's unhealthy obsession with India
By Aatish Taseer

TEN days before he was assassinated in January, my father, Salman Taseer, sent out a tweet about an Indian rocket that had come down over the Bay of Bengal: 'Why does India make fools of themselves messing in space technology? Stick 2 bollywood my advice.'

My father was the governor of Punjab, Pakistan's largest province, and his tweet, with its taunt at India's misfortune, would have delighted his many thousands of followers.

It fed straight into Pakistan's unhealthy obsession with India, the country from which it was carved in 1947.

Though my father's attitude went down well in Pakistan, it had caused considerable tension between us. I am half-Indian, raised in Delhi by my Indian mother: India is a country that I consider my own. When my father was killed by one of his own bodyguards for defending a Christian woman accused of blasphemy, we had not spoken for three years.

To understand the Pakistani obsession with India, to get a sense of its special edge - its hysteria - it is necessary to understand the rejection of India, its culture and past, that lies at the heart of the idea of Pakistan.

This is not merely an academic question. Pakistan's animus towards India is the cause of both its unwillingness to fight Islamic extremism and its active complicity in undermining the aims of its ostensible ally, the United States.

The idea of Pakistan was first seriously formulated by neither a cleric nor a politician but by a poet. In 1930, Muhammad Iqbal, addressing the All-India Muslim League, made the case for a state in which India's Muslims would realise their 'political and ethical essence'.

Though he was always vague about what the new state would be, he was quite clear about what it would not be: the old pluralistic society of India, with its composite culture.

Iqbal's vision took concrete shape in August 1947.

Despite the partition of British India, it had seemed at first that there would be no transfer of populations. But violence erupted, and it quickly became clear that in the new homeland for India's Muslims, there would be no place for its non-Muslim communities.

Pakistan and India came into being at the cost of a million lives and the largest migration in history.

This shared experience of carnage and loss is the foundation of the modern relationship between the two countries. In human terms, it meant that each of my parents, my father in Pakistan and my mother in India, grew up around symmetrically violent stories of uprooting and homelessness.

But in Pakistan, the partition had another, deeper meaning. It raised big questions, in cultural and civilisational terms, about what its separation from India would mean.

In the absence of a true national identity, Pakistan defined itself by its opposition to India. It turned its back on all that had been common between Muslims and non-Muslims in the era before partition.

Everything came under suspicion, from dress to customs to festivals, marriage rituals and literature. The new country set itself the task of erasing its association with the subcontinent, an association that many came to view as a contamination.

Had this assertion of national identity meant the casting out of something alien or foreign in favour of an organic or home-grown identity, it might have had an empowering effect. What made it self-wounding, even nihilistic, was that Pakistan, by asserting a new Arabised Islamic identity, rejected its own local and regional culture. In trying to turn its back on its shared past with India, Pakistan turned its back on itself.

But there was one problem: India was just across the border, and it was still its composite, pluralistic self, a place where nearly as many Muslims lived as in Pakistan. It was a daily reminder of the past that Pakistan had tried to erase.

Pakistan's existential confusion made itself apparent in the political turmoil of the decades after partition. The state failed to perform a single legal transfer of power; coups were commonplace.

And yet, in 1980, my father would still have felt that the partition had not been a mistake, for one critical reason: India, for all its democracy and pluralism, was an economic disaster.

Pakistan had better roads, better cars; Pakistani businesses were thriving; its citizens could take foreign currency abroad. Compared with starving, socialist India, they were on much surer ground. So what if India had democracy? It had brought nothing but drought and famine.

But in the early 1990s, a reversal began to occur in the fortunes of the two countries.

The advantage that Pakistan had seemed to enjoy in the years after independence evaporated, as it became clear that the quest to rid itself of its Indian identity had come at a price: The emergence of a new and dangerous brand of Islam.

As India rose, thanks to economic liberalisation, Pakistan withered. The country that had begun as a poet's utopia was reduced to ruin and insolvency.

The primary agent of this decline has been the Pakistani army. The beneficiary of vast amounts of American assistance and money - US$11 billion (S$13.3 billion) since Sept 11 - the military has diverted a significant amount of these resources to arming itself against India.

In Afghanistan, it has sought neither security nor stability but rather a backyard, which - once the Americans leave - might provide Pakistan with 'strategic depth' against India.

To realise these objectives, the Pakistani army has led the US in a dance, in which it had to be seen to be fighting the war on terror, but never so much as to actually win it, for its extension meant the continuing flow of American money.

All this time the army kept alive a double game, in which some terror was fought and some - such as Lashkar-e- Taiba's 2008 attack on Mumbai - actively supported.

The army's duplicity was exposed decisively this May, with the killing of Osama bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad.

It was only the last and most incriminating charge against an institution whose activities over the years have included the creation of the Taleban, the financing of international terrorism and the running of a lucrative trade in nuclear secrets.

This army, whose might has always been justified by the imaginary threat from India, has been more harmful to Pakistan than to anybody else.

It has consumed annually a quarter of the country's wealth, undermined one civilian government after another and enriched itself through a range of economic interests, from bakeries and shopping malls to huge property holdings.

The reversal in the fortunes of the two countries - India's sudden prosperity and cultural power, seen next to the calamity of Iqbal's unrealised utopia - is what explains the bitterness of my father's tweet just days before he died.

It captures the rage of being forced to reject a culture of which you feel effortlessly a part - a culture which Pakistanis, via Bollywood, experience daily in their homes.

This rage is what makes it impossible to reduce Pakistan's obsession with India to matters of security or a land dispute in Kashmir. It can heal only when the wounds of 1947 are healed.

And it should provoke no triumphalism in India, for behind the bluster and the bravado, there is arid pain and sadness.

The writer is the author of Noon and Stranger To History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Norway mass shootings

Jul 24, 2011
85 die in Norway mass shootings

Killing spree at teen camp, termed nation's worst crime since WWII, follows Oslo bomb blast

Oslo - A Norwegian, dressed as a police officer, gunned down at least 85 people at an island retreat as teenagers at a lakeside summer camp fled screaming in panic as he sprayed them with bullets.

It followed an explosion in nearby Oslo that killed seven that police say was set off by the same suspect, named as 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik.

The mass shootings were among the worst in history and formed the deadliest day of terror in Western Europe since the 2004 Madrid train bombings killed 191.

Witnesses said the gunman moved across the small, wooded island of Utoeya in a lake north-west of Oslo last Friday, firing at young people who scattered in panic or tried to swim to safety.

Police detained the tall, blond suspect and charged him with the killing spree and the bombing of government buildings in Oslo.

Said Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, capturing the shock this normally quiet nation of 4.8 million is experiencing: 'A paradise island has been transformed into a hell.'

Deputy Police Chief Roger Andresen would not speculate on the motives behind what is believed to be the deadliest attack by a lone gunman anywhere in modern times.

'He describes himself as a Christian, leaning towards right-wing Christianity, on his Facebook page,' he said.

The suspect has admitted the shootings, police said.

Initial speculation after the Oslo blast had focused on Islamist militant groups, but it appears that only Breivik - and perhaps unidentified associates - was involved.

Police also found undetonated explosives on the island.

Home-grown right-wing militancy has generated occasional attacks elsewhere, notably in the United States, where Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people with a truck bomb at a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

Mr Andresen, the deputy police chief, said the casualty toll could still rise.

'In Oslo, with the explosion and the impact it had, we are not yet sure if that number is final,' he said.

Teenagers at the lakeside camp fled screaming in panic, many leaping into the water to save themselves, when the assailant began spraying them with gunfire, witnesses said.

'I saw people being shot... I saw him once, just 20m, 30m away from me. I thought 'I'm terrified for my life', I thought of all the people I love,' said survivor Jorgen Benone.

'I saw some boats but I wasn't sure if I could trust them. I didn't know who I could trust any more.'

Many sought shelter in buildings as shots echoed across the island that was hosting the annual camp of the youth wing of the Labour Party, the dominant force in Norwegian politics since World War II. Others fled into the woods or tried to swim to safety.

Prime Minister Stoltenberg said he knew many of the victims personally.

'What happened at Utoeya is a national tragedy,' he said. 'Not since World War II has our country seen a greater crime.'

Norwegian media said suspect Breivik had set up a Twitter account a few days ago and posted a single message last Sunday saying: 'One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.'

The Norwegian daily Verdens Gang quoted a friend of his as saying he became a right-wing extremist in his late 20s.

Security is not usually tight in Oslo, as the country is unused to such violence and better known for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize and mediating in conflicts, including in the Middle East and Sri Lanka.


[No. Beliefs not anchored in reality are dangerous. Whether the beliefs are loosely rooted in Christianity or Islam.]

Friday, July 22, 2011

Don't politicise role of President

Jul 21, 2011


SHOULD Singapore's Elected President (EP) have the power to express his views freely on a broad range of issues, from immigration policies to income inequality? Should he have 'soft powers' that go beyond the powers spelled out clearly in the Constitution?

In a recent article 'Soft powers of a president' in this paper, Mr Ho Kwon Ping argues that the answer in both instances is yes. He makes a reasoned case but there are issues with the arguments he raised.

His argument for the EP having broader 'soft powers' beyond those set out in the Constitution is as follows: The EP is elected. Therefore he has legitimacy. Legitimacy should empower him to weigh in on political issues of the day.

WHO plan to classify TCM is worrying

Jul 21, 2011

By Andy Ho

THE medical fraternity has maintained a deafening silence over news of the commercial use of leeches for blood letting.

Perhaps it is politically incorrect to criticise any traditional therapy, now that it may have the imprimatur of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

From last year, the WHO has been putting together an International Classification of Traditional Medicine (ICTM) in an attempt to standardise, basically, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) terminology.

Slated for completion in 2014, this project came on the heels of its own publication in 2007 of the WHO International Standard Terminologies on Traditional Medicine in the Western Pacific Region.

What is worrying is the agency's plan to incorporate the ICTM into the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which scientists use to study medical therapies.

The WHO argues that a dearth of standardised data causes TCM to fall on 'the dark side of health care'. By harmonising data-gathering, the ICTM will bring TCM 'into the light of science', it hopes.

But can it? Note that the efficacy of TCM therapies is not pursued in the ICTM. The project solely involves the science of classifying diseases, or nosology.

Unfortunately, TCM's pre-scientific nosology is incommensurable with science. Consider three examples in the 2007 work. Diagnosis 3.1.140 is 'running piglet', characterised by 'a feeling of masses of gas ascending within the abdomen'. Diagnosis 2.10.30 is 'syndrome of liver fire blazing the ear' with 'painful distension in the ear... dizziness, bitter taste... reddened face... irascibility, reddened tongue with yellow coating'. And diagnosis 2.9.28 is 'wind-cold fettering the lung' due to 'attack of wind-cold, which impairs normal flow of lung qi'.

This way of classifying diseases is not based on any verifiable bases in physiology and biochemistry. Instead, it resorts to ideas of association, usually based on symptoms or assumed underlying causes.

Undeniably, most cultures in times past have done so. Up to the 18th century, Western cultures classified people according to their complexion, which was thought to reflect one's mix of 'humours'. People were choleric (if predominantly influenced by yellow bile), melancholic (by black bile), phlegmatic (by phlegm), or sanguine (by blood).

So diseases were understood according to this humoral theory. Thus, 'melancholia' or sadness was supposedly caused by an 'excess of black bile', an imaginary humour said to be secreted by the spleen.

But since science is truth and not a Western construct per se, pre-science Western nosology demonstrated the same lack of logic as TCM still does. Today, however, all diagnostic labels in 'Western' or science-based medicine refer to discrete diseases arising from a specific causative agent or causal mechanism.

Not so in TCM. Instead, as the 2007 WHO book admits: 'The philosophical background of this suite of standard (TCM) terminology is Taoism.' And this is how Taoist ideas work out in Neijing Suwen, the Chinese medical classic: TCM's organising idea has the human body working through zang-fu organs.

But these are less anatomical entities and more functional concepts. The zang organs (heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney) are solid and 'yin', or feminine.

The fu organs (small intestine, large intestine, gall bladder, urinary bladder, stomach and sanjiao) are hollow and 'yang', or masculine. (Sanjiao are the trunk's lower, middle and upper cavities.)

Each zang has a specific fu counterpart and each zang-fu pair is assigned to one of the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water). The TCM diagnostician must attend to all these parameters.

Moreover, the zang-fu pairs are connected to 12 standard channels for qi, or the life force, to flow around. When the flow is good and the zang-fu pairs - thus yin and yang - are in equipoise, one is healthy. In the opposite case, one falls ill. Rechannelling qi to the 'correct' zang-fu pairs using, say, acupuncture or herbs should restore health.

Note zang-fu are not primarily anatomical entities. They refer more to bodily functions as conceived metaphysically in Taoist thought. If you find this hard to wrap your head around, that is the point.

TCM's central organising concept is incomprehensible apart from metaphysics. But bodily functions conceived metaphysically cannot be mapped onto physical bodily processes that are now understood at the molecular level in science.

A metaphysical category, zang-fu, which is TCM's centrepiece, cannot be verified or disproved experimentally. Proponents say comparing Chinese and 'Western' medicine is like comparing apples and oranges, so science is not applicable to TCM.

Yet, as the 2007 WHO work asserts, 'both... aim at maintaining health and treating diseases, so there must be some overlap between the two systems'. In fact, TCM claims to be a parallel system for understanding and treating disease. If so, it either maps onto reality or not.

The periodic table is a taxonomy of all the elements (based on their number of protons). If you threw into it some alchemistry concepts, the table would no longer mirror reality. Such a bicultural table can make no sense of, say, radioactivity.

Likewise, a nosology not based on bioscientific facts cannot reflect the reality of bodily disease processes. Thus, assigning ICD codes to TCM categories serves only to legitimise an erroneous nosology.

Doctors should lead in rejecting the WHO's politically correct salad bowl of science and pre-science categories.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Making Singapore more liveable

Jul 21, 2011


BRANDING maven Tyler Brule was very surprised to learn from some Singaporeans here last Wednesday that they didn't think the Republic should be anywhere near the world's Top25 most liveable cities today.

Mr Brule (say Broo-lay), 43, recalls them saying so because they were peeved about the extensive roadworks, overcrowded public areas and the general rise in prices that come with globalisation.

That was their talking point because his four-year-old current affairs and lifestyle magazine, Monocle, has just ranked Singapore as the world's 15th most liveable city, its highest score since the magazine's inception. Singapore was No. 18 in 2009 before dipping to No. 21 last year. Helsinki, Zurich and Copenhagen are Monocle's 2011 top three picks for liveability.

Singapore as clean a society as you can find anywhere, says Murdoch

by Teo Xuanwei
Jul 21, 2011

SINGAPORE - The attack on Mr Rupert Murdoch might have dominated newspaper headlines yesterday but it was the media mogul's unexpected mention of Singapore as an example of an "open and clear society" which has sparked off a belated buzz online and in the international media.

During the hearing on the phone hacking scandal that has shuttered the News of the World, Mr Murdoch was asked by British Member of Parliament Damian Collins where the limits of legitimate investigative journalism lie.
The 80-year-old's answer thrust the Republic into the spotlight - which included reports in The New York Times and on CNBC - on a scandal unfolding halfway around the globe: "When The Daily Telegraph bought a series of stolen documents of all the expenses of MPs, it caused a huge outcry, one which I feel has not been properly addressed.

"I think there is an answer to it, and we ought to look at them as open and clear as a society in the world, which is Singapore - where every minister gets at least a million dollars a year and the Prime Minister a lot more and there is no temptation and it is as clean a society as you find anywhere."
Mr Murdoch's response was a dig at a scandal in the United Kingdom last year where several MPs were found to have inflated their expenses.
On social networking websites such as Twitter and on online forums yesterday, there was a flurry of comments from netizens, with many expressing reservations about Mr Murdoch's remarks.

The issue of ministerial salaries has been a political hot potato here for many years, including during the General Election in May. A committee appointed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is now in the process of reviewing pay for political appointees and for the President.

Mr Murdoch's comments elicited varied responses among observers and politicians here.

Choa Chu Kang Group Representation Constituency MP Zaqy Mohamad said: "It's good that we are recognised for our transparency with regard to remuneration for ministers."

Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang told Today that his party takes note of "both positive and negative comments about Singapore" by foreigners.

Singapore-based political science don Bridget Welsh said: "My sense is that Mr Murdoch was engaged in a defence and (was) using every example he could find."

[Murdoch provides only half of the answer to SG corruption-free society. High salaries does not remove temptation, merely reduces it. The other half of the answer is a culture of non-corruption.

What is sad I think is taht LKY unblinkered and unadorned perspective of human nature is being replaced by idealism and fantasy. While the rest of the world is starting to realise that you get what you pay for, over here we are trying to get "cheap and good".

The reality elsewhere is that good doesn't come cheap and cheap is seldom good.

And here is a response.]

Singaporeans, not Murdoch, the best judge of our system

Letter from Lai Yew Chan

I refer to the article "Singapore as clean a society as you can find anywhere, says Murdoch" (July 21).

Before we make a meal of Rupert Murdoch's comment about our ministerial pay, we ought to ask ourselves some questions.

How much weight should we give to such a comment by someone who is not an authority on public policy and who is embroiled in a corporate scandal that is related to the lack of good governance?

[I think the point is that "journalists" as defined by his corporation has exploited corruption, and corruption is a result of unrealistic, idealistic, political games that results in unreasonably low salaries that are politically palatable and accepted by the politically gullible - i.e. the voters - who think that they are getting value for money, not realising that there are hidden costs in corruption and the integrity of the system. 

But if Murdock is not an authority on public policy, how less qualified are most Singaporeans who are not the chairman of a world-spanning media empire, or even the director of a small business?

Simply by virtue of being Singaporeans?]

Are there other countries that pay similar top dollar to their political leaders and are similarly ranked well in the transparency index? If there are none, should our lone example be held as a model for others to emulate?

Are there other countries that pay their political leaders well, but not on a scale as high as ours, and yet score similarly well in the transparency index?

Should we pay a premium just to make political leaders less corruptible? Is there a better alternative?

From time to time, there will be another country trying to replicate our success story, the latest being Panama (The Economist, July 16). In the final analysis, it is not Singapore but the country in question that is in the best position to know how much of, if at all, our model is relevant.

By the same token, Singaporeans themselves, not some overseas media figure, should decide whether the present ministerial pay scale will continue to work for us.

[By what reasoning or qualification or experience are most Singaporeans qualified to make that judgement? ]

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Averting a looming water crisis

Jul 20, 2011
It's time we redefine how we think of water, value it and use it

By Alex Prud'homme

FLOODS, tornadoes and other extreme weather have left a trail of destruction during the first half of this year. But this could be just the start to a remarkable year of bad weather.

Next up: drought. In the southern United States, 14 states are baking in blast-furnace conditions. Arizona, for example, is battling the largest wildfire in its history.

Climatologists call drought a 'creeping disaster' because its effects are not felt at once. Others compare drought to a python, which slowly and inexorably squeezes its prey to death. Climatologists disagree about what caused this remarkable dry-out. But there is little disagreement about the severity of the drought - or its long-term implications.

When I asked Professor Richard Seager, who analysed historical records and climate model projections for the south-west for the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, if a perpetual drought was possible in that region, he replied: 'You can't really call it a drought because that implies a temporary change. The models show a progressive aridification. You don't say, 'The Sahara is in drought.' It's a desert. If the models are right, then the south-west will face a permanent drying out.'

Growing population has increased the burden on our water supply. There are more people on earth than ever, and in many places we are using water at unsustainable rates. Some of the world's biggest cities - Melbourne, Barcelona and Mexico City - have already suffered drought emergencies. Further drying could lead to new kinds of disasters.

Consider Perth, in Australia: Its population has surpassed 1.7 million while precipitation has decreased. City planners worry that unless drastic action is taken, it could become the world's first 'ghost city' - a modern metropolis abandoned for lack of water. Similar fates may await America's booming desert cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix or Los Angeles.

Our traditional response to desiccation has been to build hydro-infrastructure - dams, pipelines, aqueducts and levees. Many advocate building even bigger dams and ambitious plumbing projects, including one that calls for 'flipping the Mississippi', a scheme to capture Mississippi floodwaters and pipe them to the parched west.

But it is now widely believed that large water diversion projects are expensive, inefficient and environmentally destructive. The holy grail of water managers is to find a drought-proof water source.

Weather modification, or cloud seeding, is a particularly appealing ideal. When American chemists discovered that dry ice dropped into clouds produced snow, and that clouds seeded with silver iodide produced rain, they rhapsodised about ending drought. Under perfect conditions, weather modification can increase precipitation by 10 per cent to 15 per cent. China claims it produced 36 billion tonnes of rain a year between 1999 and 2006.

But critics question weather modification and its efficacy. The bottom line: Though evidence suggests it works to a limited extent, it is unlikely to produce a major supply of water soon.

For centuries, the ocean has been seen as a more promising water source. In 1961, then President John F. Kennedy said that 'if we could ever competitively, at a cheap rate, get fresh water from saltwater', it would 'dwarf any other scientific accomplishments'. By 2008, more than 13,000 desalination plants around the world produced billions of litres of water a day. But desalination, which is costly and environmentally controversial, has been slow to catch on in the US.

Recycled sewage offers an interesting, if aesthetically questionable, drinking source. (Supporters call it 'showers to flowers' while detractors condemn 'toilet to tap' schemes.) Plans for sewage recycling, which involves extracting and purifying the water, are slowly gaining acceptance. Windhoek, Namibia - one of the driest places on earth - relies solely on treated wastewater for its drinking supply. But the 'yuck factor' has led to a sharp debate about its merits.

Meanwhile, global demand for water is expected to increase by two-thirds by 2025, and the United Nations fears a 'looming water crisis'. To forestall a drought emergency, we must redefine how we think of water, value it and use it.

Singapore provides a noteworthy model: No country uses water more sparingly. In the 1950s, it faced water rationing, but it began to build a world-class water system in the 1960s. Now, 40 per cent of its water comes from Malaysia, while a remarkable 25 per cent to 30 per cent is provided by desalination and the recycling of wastewater. The rest is drawn from sources that include large-scale rainwater collection. Demand is curbed by high water taxes and efficient technologies, and Singaporeans are constantly exhorted to conserve every drop.

Most importantly, the nation's water is managed by a sophisticated, well-financed, politically autonomous water authority. As a result, Singapore's per capita water use fell to 154 litres a day this year, from 165 litres in 2003.

America is a much larger and more complex nation. But Singapore's example suggests we could do a far better job of educating our citizens about conservation.

We could take other basic steps: install smart meters to find out how much water we use, identify leaks (which drain off more than 4.5 trillion litres a year), use tiered water pricing to encourage efficiency, and promote rainwater harvesting and wastewater recycling on a large scale. And like Singapore, we could streamline our byzantine water governance system and create a new federal water office - a water czar or an inter-agency national water board - to manage the nation's supply in a holistic way.

There is no question that this will be an expensive, politically cumbersome effort. But as reports from New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida make plain, business as usual is not a real option. The python of drought is already wrapped tightly around us, and in weeks - and years - to come it will squeeze us dangerously dry.

The writer is the author of The Ripple Effect: The Fate Of Fresh Water In The 21st Century.

Is the bar set too low in playgrounds?

Jul 20, 2011
Experts say a child who takes risk in play is more likely to overcome fear

NEW YORK: When see-saws, tall slides and other perils were disappearing from New York's playgrounds, Mr Henry Stern drew a line in the sandbox.

As the city's parks commissioner in the 1990s, he issued an edict concerning the 3m-high jungle gym near his childhood home in northern Manhattan.

'I grew up on the monkey bars in Fort Tryon Park, and I never forgot how good it felt to get to the top of them,' Mr Stern said. '... as long as I was parks commissioner, those monkey bars were going to stay.'

His philosophy seemed reactionary at the time, but today it is shared by some researchers who question the value of 'safety-first' playgrounds.

But even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries - and the evidence for that is debatable - critics say these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.

'Children need to encounter risks and overcome fears in the playground,' said Dr Ellen Sandseter, a psychology professor at Queen Maud University in Norway.

'I think monkey bars and tall slides are great. As playgrounds become more and more boring, these are some of the few features that still can give children thrilling experiences with heights and high speed.'

After observing children in playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common of these is climbing heights.

'Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,' she said.

'Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point the first time. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.'

Of course, at times, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, physically or emotionally.

While some psychologists - and many parents - worry that a child who suffers a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies show the opposite: A child who is hurt in a fall before the age of nine is less likely, as a teenager, to fear heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers in the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, say Dr Sandseter and her fellow psychologist Leif Kennair of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

'Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioural therapy for anxiety,' they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this 'anti-phobic effect' helps explain the evolution of children's fondness for thrill-seeking.

While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive - why would natural selection favour children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? - the dangers seem to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.

'Paradoxically,' they write, 'we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.'

Tall jungle gyms and slides are gone from most playgrounds in the US because of parental concerns, federal guidelines, new safety standards set by manufacturers and - the most frequently cited factor - fear of lawsuits.

New York City officials removed see-saws, merry-go-rounds and the ropes that young Tarzans used to swing from one platform to another. Letting children swing on tyres became taboo because of fears that the heavy swings could bang into a child.

New features were introduced - such as shorter equipment and rubber flooring, wood chips or other materials designed for softer landings - and these have prevented some injuries.

Mr Adrian Benepe, New York City's current parks commissioner, said: 'What happens in America is defined by tort lawyers, and unfortunately that limits some of the adventure playgrounds.'

But while he misses the Tarzan ropes, he is glad that the litigation rate has declined. 'I think safety surfaces are a godsend,' he said. 'I suspect that parents who have to deal with concussions and broken arms wouldn't agree that playgrounds have become too safe.'

Dr David Ball, a risk management professor at Middlesex University in Londo, said: 'There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds.'

The risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces for playgrounds in Britain and Australia, he said.

The ultra-safe enclosed platforms of the 1980s and 1990s may have been an overreaction, Mr Benepe said, but lately there have been more creative alternatives.

'The good news is that manufacturers have brought out new versions of the old toys... Because of height limitations, no one's building the old monkey bars any more, but kids can go up smaller climbing walls and rope nets and artificial rocks.'

In Singapore, the Housing Board introduced playgrounds with standard-play equipment to meet international safety standards from 1993, and rubber floors replaced sandpits from the late 1990s.

'Town councils indicated they generally preferred rubber flooring as it is impact- absorbing and provides better protection from falls, and also more versatile,' an HDB spokesman told The Straits Times. She added that safety was the HDB's top priority.


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Consider the economic reality of transport here

Jul 19, 2011

Current public transport model has produced undesirable outcomes

By Gerald Giam

MINISTER for Transport Lui Tuck Yew recently criticised the Workers' Party's proposal of a non-profit National Transport Corporation to replace the current two publicly listed transport companies.

Mr Lui claimed that the proposal had 'serious downsides, chief among which commuters and taxpayers (yes, even those who don't take public transport) are likely to end up paying more, and possibly, for a poorer level of service over time'.

He added that 'it is the profit incentive of commercial enterprises that spurs efficiency and productivity improvements'.

These are simplistic arguments that fail to take account of the economic realities of the public transport industry here.

First, taxpayers who do not take public transport already contribute to the provision of public transport in the form of taxes that pay for the construction of roads, the development of rail lines and the purchase of the first set of trains on every new MRT line.

Second, public transport is an industry rife with market failures. The current regime, with SMRT Corporation (SMRT) and SBS Transit (SBST) each providing both rail and bus services, provides just an illusion of competition.

The reality is that SMRT or SBST have clearly delineated areas of responsibility with no route overlaps. This makes each of them a de facto monopoly provider in their own particular areas.

[Consider what you are implying. Are we to believe that having duplicated routes would be a good thing? The competition of a duopoly in this case is not to have two service providers overlap, but that there are two service providers. The implicit competition is that fares and service standards have to be comparable. So if one can provide a peak hour frequency of a bus every 5 minutes, the other service provider does not have the luxury of claiming that such a performance standard is unachievable. It is not that the argument is simplistic. It is that your understanding of competition is basic. The rest of the argument then fails.]

Commuters do not have the freedom to switch between providers, nor do we see operators fighting to attract and retain customers like airlines do with promotions, discounts and loyalty programmes.

Their monopoly status is also reflected in the consistently high returns these companies earn. Freed from the discipline of genuine market competition, they have few incentives to raise service standards and keep prices low.

To say that shareholder discipline will create such incentives is naive at best, and wrong at worst. Shareholders seek higher profits, not better or more affordable services. The Government must examine whether a public utility should be owned and operated by what are effectively private monopolists earning monopoly rents.

Mr Lui says the current regulatory regime is a 'robust' one that does not allow the operators to benefit at the expense of commuters. This is a remarkable assertion, considering the profits of the public transport operators - $215.4 million last year alone. The fines imposed on them for not meeting service standards pale in comparison to these profits.

SMRT and SBST have consistently enjoyed high returns on equity (ROE) of above 15 per cent. For SMRT, it has been above 20 per cent in most years. By contrast, the median ROE for a Singapore listed company is about 9.5 per cent.

A company that provides a public good should not earn excessively high returns, as these would invariably come at the expense of service quality. Overcrowded trains and buses show how companies without genuine competition can raise shareholder returns at the expense of the commuting public.

Mr Lui mentions the 'serious' downsides of a nationalised public transport system. But he ignores workable examples - even locally, where the Government subsidises public services or even provides services directly to the public.

Schools, for example, are mostly government-run. Public hospitals and clinics are significantly subsidised. Even public housing is subsidised by public money.

Yet when it comes to public transport - an essential service for the majority of Singaporeans - the Government advocates its provision by listed companies, whose first priorities are to their shareholders.

The Workers' Party has, since 2006, called for the MRT and buses servicing major trunk routes to be brought under a National Transport Corporation (NTC), which will oversee and provide universal transport services.

NTC should aim to provide safe, affordable, accessible, efficient and reliable universal public transportation services, on the basis of cost and depreciation recovery. As a not-for-profit corporation owned by the Government, it will serve the needs of the public and not that of shareholders.

This proposal recognises that public transport in Singapore is an inherent monopoly and a public good. A well-managed NTC can provide superior outcomes compared to the present profit-oriented monopolies. We would expect no less from an NTC, in terms of efficiency and cost-effectiveness, as we would from any other statutory board managed by the Government.

To achieve these outcomes, the Government should set stringent key performance indicators (KPIs) for an NTC. These include:

  • Affordability of fares
  • Containment of costs
  • On-time bus and train performance
  • Satisfactory customer ratings (through independent surveys)
  • High percentage of public transport ridership
  • Productivity improvements and innovation.

The bonuses and pay increases of NTC executives should be pegged to the achievement of such KPIs. This will be a more effective way of ensuring service standards than the present regulatory regime, where the fines imposed for failure are a pittance compared to the profits.

The current model for the provision of public transport has produced many undesirable outcomes, as evidenced by the 'crush loads' experienced by commuters every day and the public outcry each time fares are increased.

It would do Singaporeans no good if the Government sticks dogmatically to its philosophy of the virtues of privatisation and the profit motive, without considering the true economic reality of the public transport industry in Singapore.

The writer is a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament and chair of the Workers' Party's media team.

Monday, July 18, 2011

$878 for a house ...from the maker of the world's cheapest car

Jul 18, 2011

NEW DELHI: The Indian company that launched the world's cheapest car has unveiled its latest product for the fast-growing country: A flat-pack house that costs about US$720 (S$878) and can be built in a week.

The Tata group, maker of the US$2,500 Nano car, said that the 215 sq ft home comes from a pre-fabricated kit that includes doors, windows and a roof.

[215 sq ft and takes a week to build? shouldn't a flat packed Ikea home take no more than a day to erect? this is smaller than a 3-rm flat and about half the size of a mickey mouse apartment. I'm guess it has no toilet facilities within. That's sold separately.

But what do youi expect for a $878 house? That's cheaper than a topline iPad. This is myPad.]

'We have already prepared two, three different designs based on discussions with users and are gathering more feedback,' Mr Sumitesh Das, the head of the project at Tata, told reporters in Hyderabad.

'Hopefully, in the next six to eight months, we should be able to roll it out in the market nationally.'

The basic model of a so-called Nano house will cost US$720, and will use coconut fibre or jute for wall cladding and interiors. It can last for 20 years.

The house, which is being tested in the state of West Bengal, will also be available in a larger 322 sq ft version, and with additional features such as a solar panel for the roof and a verandah.

[A verandah? Now you can have a barbeque! :-)]

Tata hopes to sell the house to private buyers who have a plot of land available, and also to state governments planning mass residential schemes for India's millions of destitute and homeless.

Mr Das said Tata was using advice from panchayats, or village councils, to fine-tune the design.

The Nano car drew worldwide attention when it was launched in 2009, but sales figures have not met expectations due to production delays and safety issues.


China Food Security Strategy and its Impact on the World

July 14, 2011

The Bacon Uprising: How China's Top-Secret Strategic Pork Reserve Is Burning Down The Amazon

1. The Strategic Pork Reserve

Since Deng Xiaoping, China’s leaders have been obsessed with “food security” the same way America’s are haunted by not having enough oil. And as Chinese diets become more meat centric, fears of the dangers in the fluctuation of pork prices led China to establish a top-secret “strategic pork reserve [1]” in 2007, the only one of its kind. But maintaining all those pigs has led to a massive dependence on corn and soybean imports for animal feed, which in turn is leading China’s agribusinesses to fan out abroad in a quest to control the means of production. China's attempts to control the means of production in other countries just rising out of developing world is causing tension with its natural allies, and could be just the first step in an ever-escalating series of resource-based conflicts.

In 2006, a fatal outbreak of PRRS (aka porcine blue-ear disease) devastated China’s swineherds, killing millions of pigs. The losses comprised just a tiniest fraction of its total herd of 660 million--more than the next 43 largest producers combined--but even the slight shortfall led to soaring pork prices [2] a year later. Hence, the pork reserve, which would allow Beijing to move quickly to keep its citizens in ribs should there be another interruption in production.

China’s strategic pork reserve is the direct consequence of an emerging, meat-eating middle class and a government determined to feed them. As the sociologist Mindi Schneider points out [3], Deng’s economic reforms in the late 1970s privileged industrial farms over small plots to guarantee a steady supply of cheap pork. As a result, the average citizen’s meat consumption has quadrupled since 1980, while pork consumption has doubled in the last two decades. And China’s meat packers are just getting started--only 22% of China’s pork production takes place in industrial feedlots, compared to 97% of America’s. In the future, it will always be the Year of the Pig.

2. Soybeans: They’re Not Just For Tofu Anymore

Until a few years ago, however, the pork on ice was American--60 million pounds purchased from Smithfield Foods. Vowing porcine independence for its meat-eating middle class, in 2009 China began massively scaling up its own pork production, which required turning to other countries for the farmland necessary to feed the pigs.

Once the Politburo decided to feed China with pork, the question then became: What would China’s pigs eat? One answer is corn. Last week, China purchased 540,000 metric tons of U.S. corn for delivery after August, according to the USDA, more than agency’s forecast for the entire year. About 70% of that order is bound for making feedstock, mostly for pork, which last year required 74.5 million tons of corn--up 20% from 2009, according to China’s Agriculture Ministry.

But China’s corn imports--1.5 million tons last year--pale in comparison to its reliance on foreign soybeans. China imported more than 50 million tons of soybeans in 2010, mostly from the U.S. and Brazil, accounting for more than half of the global soy market. They also comprised almost three-quarters of China’s soy consumption, according to Schneider, and were used exclusively for animal feedstock and cooking oil. The USDA expects China’s soybean imports to rise more than 50% by 2020. It hasn’t helped that China actually lost 20 million acres of farmland between 1997 and 2009 due to natural disasters and rapid urbanization. Rather than guaranteeing its food security, China’s hunger for pork has made it utterly dependent on farmers in the Midwest and Minas Gerais instead.

The Politburo’s solution was to command state-owned enterprises to “go out” and buy or lease farmland by the millions of acres. Last fall, Heilongjiang Beidahuang Nongken Group--China's largest state-run agricultural conglomerate--agreed to develop [4] almost 500,000 acres of farmland in Argentina, followed by another 200,000 hectares this year. A month later, Chongqing Grains’ announced a $2.5 billion deal to produce soybeans in Brazil.

While much has been written about China’s lopsided deals in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America is a more likely candidate to become the world’s next bread basket. Last fall’s controversial “land grab” report by the World Bank noted that, since 1990, Latin American soybean yields grew at twice the speed of America’s. “Brazil’s soybean technology is world class,” says Robert L. Thompson, a professor at the University of Illinois who is a former director of agricultural and rural development at the World Bank. “Soybeans came in as a new crop with no traditions and state of the art technology,” including soil remediation techniques capable of converting dry savannah to arable farmland.

“While China is limited to 140 million hectares of agricultural cultivation, Brazil is using 80 million hectares now, has another 200 million hectares of pasture for cattle, and can insert another 140 million hectares into production without encroaching on ecologically protected areas,” argues Charles Tang, president of the Brazil-China Chamber of Commerce. His last point is a matter of some contention. While Brazil was able to quadruple its soybean production between 1995 and 2009, it came at the cost of nearly half of the Cerrado, destroying 1 million square kilometers of the richest savannah in the world.

For that reason, among others, Brazilian officials have begun to balk at China’s overtures. Last summer, Brazil’s attorney general reinterpreted a law already on the books making it harder for foreigners to acquire land. “Nothing is preventing investment from happening, but it will be regulated,” he promised The New York Times [5]. This has China’s advocates crying foul.

4. Another BRIC in the Wall

Brazil has good reason to be nervous about its burgeoning trade relationship with its fellow BRICs. Nearly all of its exports to China are raw materials--including soybeans, which are crushed on arrival--while nearly all of its imports are cheap manufactured goods, which are crushing its industrial sector. Brazil may be booming, but so is household debt, leading to debates [6] over whether a credit crisis looms. (The resource booms-and-busts of its neighbors Argentina in the 1940s and Uruguay in the 1950s aren’t very reassuring, either).

China’s policies aren’t the problem, retorts Tang; Brazil’s sky-high interest rates and taxes are. But Brazil’s uneasiness and China’s voraciousness raises questions about the future of the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China and, as of last year, South Africa) as a political and economic block. On the one hand, the five nations have already held three summits [7] under the BRICs banner, but on the other they spent much of the last meeting in April lobbying China to buy less commodities and more manufactured goods. It’s a bad sign when you suspect your ally of trying to bankrupt you.

“When the G20 was created, that almost guaranteed the BRICs were going to form some kind of cohesive unit,” says Ian Bremmer [8], president of Eurasia Group and author of The End of the Free Market. [9] "Where they may have lots of things they disagree about — soybeans is one of thousand — they all agree they don’t want the developed countries to command this stuff.”

While Bremmer predicts the BRICs will unite to defend their mutual interests in tactical matters, he also believes “food and water are going to be the new oil. Resource nationalism, export controls, price controls and all of that is going to create greater inefficiencies in production,” perversely spurring the desire to control the means of production. It all seems to be a high price to pay for moo shu pork for all.

Jul 18, 2011

Seeds of insecurity in China's food security strategy

By Michael Richardson

CHINA appears to have reached a watershed in its food security strategy, which has long set a target of 95 per cent self-sufficiency in four key grains - rice, wheat, corn and soya beans.

If recent trends continue, the world's most populous nation and second-largest economy will become a leading importer of staple foods for its 1.3 billion citizens, as it has in industrial raw materials and energy, including oil and more recently natural gas and coal.

In a tight market, this will push prices higher in Asia and elsewhere, as China - the biggest producer of rice and wheat, and the second biggest grower of corn after the United States - becomes more dependent on imports to meet rising domestic demand.

Last year, China imported some 95 million tonnes of these grains, about 17 per cent of domestic production. The bulk of imports were soya beans from North and South America, mainly to feed pigs, cows and other livestock as increasingly affluent Chinese consume ever more protein-rich meat, milk and dairy products.

This year, China has added to its feedstock demand. Imports of corn are projected to reach record levels.

Traders say that China has bought 3.7 million tonnes of corn from the US so far this year, with sales for the year likely to reach five million tonnes. Such a volume would dwarf China's corn imports of 1.6 million tonnes last year and mark the second consecutive year it has been a net corn importer, after 15 years of net exports.

China's growing reliance on major agricultural exporters such as the US, Brazil and Argentina has important strategic implications. In the case of the US, it is likely to add a stabilising factor in relations, just as US reliance on Chinese purchases of Treasury bonds and other US dollar assets has enabled Americans to keep buying Chinese goods and kept US inflation low, thus strengthening Sino-US interdependence.

In the case of Brazil and Argentina, China is rapidly becoming a top resource development investor, committing US$15.6 billion (S$19 billion) to both countries in the year to the end of May, nearly three times more than the previous year's figures. This includes major capital spending by Chinese companies to lease and develop farms to grow wheat, corn, soya beans, fruit, vegetables and wine grapes for export to China.

China has done phenomenally well in maintaining a high level of self-sufficiency in food grains in recent years. It has 21 per cent of the global population, but only 8.5 per cent of the world's arable land and 6.5 per cent of water reserves.

China's grain production quadrupled from 1950 to 2010, helped by development of high-yielding crop strains and extensive use of irrigation and tube wells. Last year's harvest was the largest ever.

This impressive expansion provided a basis for economic reforms that lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and kept retail food prices at affordable levels, legitimising Chinese Communist Party rule.

Today, this food security strategy is under intense strain as China tries to maintain as much self-reliance in grains as possible, while increasing imports to check food price inflation and ensure adequate supplies.

Much of the grain imported last year was not for immediate consumption, but for storage in case of crises. Chinese officials say that the national grain reserve amounts to 40 per cent of annual consumption.

The minimum average raw grain requirement per individual in China is about 400kg. Supplies at this level are considered sufficient not only to meet basic subsistence needs, but also to allow significant amounts of grain to be allocated to animal feed and processing purposes.

Economics professor Robert Ash, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has calculated that taking population growth into account, China will need to produce at least 580 million tonnes of grain by 2020, up from 546 million tonnes last year, to maintain the policy of 95 per cent self-sufficiency.

While this seems an achievable target in the light of previous Chinese success in grain output, serious resource and environmental challenges make China's food security prospects difficult to predict.

They include continuing loss of some of the best farmland to the spread of cities and factories, extensive land degradation, and serious water shortages, including in the northern plains where much of China's wheat and cotton are grown.

China is so big that if some unforeseen contingency forces it to import grain on a large scale when global supplies are tight, the consequences for other importers could be very uncomfortable indeed.

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

The Forgotten Liberalism Within Islam

Today, in most minds, the words "liberalism" and "Islam" can come together only to form an oxymoron. However, this was not the case a century ago. The Islamic world was still much less open and democratic then the West, but most intellectuals and statesmen of that world were self-declared liberals.

One of the vanguards of this forgotten trend was an intellectual group in the late Ottoman Empire -- which then covered almost the whole Muslim Middle East -- called Young Ottomans. (Not to be confused with the later Young Turks, who were more secular and nationalist.) The Young Ottomans were both pious Muslims and committed liberals, who believed that the only cure to Muslim societies was to import the liberal democracy of the West and re-articulate it in Islamic terms.

The most prominent Young Ottoman was Namık Kemal, who saw liberty as the secret of the West's ascendance, but also believed that Islam had the same ideal in its core. "Being created free by Allah, man is naturally obliged to benefit from this divine gift," he wrote in his journal Hürriyet ("Freedom") in 1868. "[Thus] state authority should be realized in the way which will least limit the freedom of the individual."

Thanks to such idealistic calls, and also the pragmatic need to keep the multi-religious empire intact, the Ottoman State, the very seat of the Muslim Caliphate, realized very important reforms in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The powers of the sultan were limited by law, while citizen's rights were guaranteed. Non-Muslim peoples of the empire, who used to be "protected" but unequal according to classical Islamic law, gained the status of equal citizenship. The Ottomans accepted a liberal constitution in 1876, and then elected a parliament, which welcomed many Greek, Armenian or Jewish deputies, along with Turkish, Arab or Albanian ones.

In the same era, the Arab intelligentsia was also living what Arab historian Albert Hourani called "the liberal age." One of the prominent reformists, the Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh, who traveled in Europe, famously said that in Paris he saw "Islam without Muslims," and on his return to Egypt he saw "Muslims without Islam." He felt, in other words, that all the good things Muslim societies should have were in the West but not in Islamdom. He and his followers were only proud that Islam did not share Europe's virulent anti-Semitism, which then was rampant in countries such as France.

Most of these late 19th or early 20th century Muslim liberals -- who are commonly known as "Islamic modernists" -- looked back at the formative centuries of Islam, and discovered some liberal themes buried under the weight of stagnant traditions. First of all, they found tolerant references in the Quran -- verses declaring, "there is no compulsion in religion." Besides, they noticed that some of the troubling hadiths (sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad) might not be authentic, and could be representing only the misogyny and the bigotry of some medieval men. They, therefore, wanted to re-read the Quran in the light of the modern age.

Quite notably, this was the dominant intellectual trend in the Muslim world a century ago. Yet, again quite notably, it failed. Instead, the authoritarian ideology called "Islamism" gradually dominated the scene, to establish reactionary political parties, tyrannical regimes and even some terrorist offshoots.

But why? Why Islamic modernism failed and gave floor to radical Islamism?

My short answer to that big question, which I explore more deeply in my book, is the change in political context: At the end of the first quarter of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire fell, giving rise to more than a dozen nation-states, almost all of which were colonized by European powers. Colonization inevitably led to anti-colonization, and replaced liberalism with a reactionary collectivism. The question, "How can we be like the West?" got replaced by "How can we resist the West?"

For worse, the post-colonial regimes in most Muslim nations turned out to be secular dictatorships, which oppressed the Islamic pious, only to push them further toward Islamism. In Iran, for example, the "modernist" Reza Shah, banned the veiling all women, ordered his police to patrol the streets to tear the chadors off, and executed the ayatollahs who protested his measures. As a response, the first modern Islamist terrorist movement, the Fadayan-e Islam (Devotees of Islam), was born, and it began assassinating the Shah's men. Secular violence had created its Islamic mirror image.

Unfortunately, these two extremes -- secular authoritarianism versus Islamic authoritarianism -- created a vicious cycle in the modern Middle East, whose latest byproducts even hit the West.

Fortunately, though, we might be at the dawn of a new era, in which the vicious cycle can be broken. The Arab Spring, at least in Tunis and Egypt, offers an important ground, whereas my country, Turkey of the new century, which defeated its own secular authoritarianism without falling prey to Islamic authoritarianism, offers an important example. If we are lucky, more democracies can soon emerge in the Middle East, and Islamic liberalism, which is actually not that much of an oxymoron, can be reborn.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Govt should review subsidy for implants

Jul 16, 2011

50% subsidy for lenses, stents and replacement joints may be too low
By Salma Khalik

PATIENTS in C-class wards in public sector hospitals, the most subsidised of wards, generally get about 80 per cent of their bills paid by the Government - except when it comes to implants.

The subsidy for any implant at a public hospital is 50 per cent of the cost of the implant. This subsidy is capped at $1,000, regardless of the subsidised patient's ward class.

Until April this year, the subsidy was still 50 per cent, but the cap was even lower, at only $500 for all subsidised patients.

The rest has to come from the patient's insurance, Medisave account, or his own pocket.

In announcing the higher cap, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said 90 per cent of implants cost less than $2,000, which means only 10 per cent of subsidised patients will need to pay more than 50 per cent of the cost of their implants.

The raised cap is expected to cost the ministry $3 million more annually. The total amount in implant subsidies the Government hands out yearly is not available.

The move to increase the subsidies on implants, which can range from lenses following cataract surgery to stents to keep blocked arteries open, is commendable.

But is it enough?

Two questions come immediately to mind.

The first: What about the 10 per cent of subsidised patients for whom the cap means they have to pay more than 50 per cent of their implant's cost?

The second, and perhaps more important, question is: Why is the subsidy for implants capped at 50 per cent?

Poor patients in C-class wards get 80 per cent of their hospital bills subsidised by the Government. If they opt for B2 class, 65 per cent of their bills will be picked up.

This is obviously not the case when it comes to paying for the implants they need, which makes one wonder about the rationale for the lower subsidy.

In a reply to this query, the ministry said that government subsidies are formulated based on several factors, such as 'the cost of care, patient needs and long-term sustainability'.

Said the spokesman: 'By and large, an 80 per cent subsidy applies across the various services and treatment received by inpatients in Class C. However, a different subsidy framework applies for implants, similar to certain other items such as drugs.'

The ministry added that patients in need can turn to Medifund, the health safety net for the very poor.

But that doesn't explain why implant subsidies are pegged at no more than 50 per cent - unless the worry is the long-term sustainability in giving out such subsidies.

But one can argue that implants such as stents to prevent heart attacks can be as crucial as chemotherapy for cancer patients.

As the population ages, more implants will be used. Some, like heart stents, will save lives, while others, like knee replacements or eye lenses, will improve a person's quality of life.

These are all basic medical needs, which should enjoy the maximum 80 per cent subsidy for C class and 65 per cent for B2 class.

It would be a pity if older people suffer from pain and are unable to enjoy a better quality of life in their twilight years simply because of the cost of such implants.

While there are no figures on the number of implants used by patients here, a check indicates that tens of thousands of such operations are performed annually.

Four of the more common implants used, said MOH, are lenses following cataract operations, artificial knees, stents to hold arteries open, and parts for hip surgery following a fracture.

A check with the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), which replaced 1,500 knees last year, showed that the implants cost between $2,500 and $3,500.

This means that a C-class patient would still have to pay from $1,500 to $2,500 for the implant. That is no small sum.

Those who are insured can rely on insurance to take care of the bill. But not all C-class patients are insured. In 2009, one in three elderly subsidised patients warded in public hospitals did not have any insurance coverage.

Furthermore, those needing such implants tend to be older, and MediShield currently stops coverage once the insured person turns 85.

Nationally, more than 2,000 knee replacements are done per year.

SGH surgeons also did 150 hip replacements, with the cost of the implants needed ranging from $3,000 to $6,000. Regardless of their ward class category, subsidised patients would have to fork out between $2,000 and $5,000 for them.

The 550 SGH patients who had hip fractures paid less for their implants, with costs ranging from $3,500 to $4,500. But again, subsidised patients needed to fork out from $2,500 to $3,500 for their implants.

In all cases, the higher government subsidy of $1,000 didn't cover half the cost of the hip implant.

These are three of the four most commonly used implants. The most common are lenses following cataract operations - with about 25,000 such operations a year.

If the 80 per cent subsidy for C-class patients applied to implants, such patients would need to pay a maximum of only $1,200 for a $6,000 hip replacement - a far cry from $5,000, which could easily deplete their Medisave accounts.

In 2009, the average Medisave balance of members aged above 65 was $9,369, said the MOH spokesman.

She added that 'this is enough to pay for six Class C hospitalisations and five Class B2 hospitalisations'.

But not if the patient has to pay $5,000 for the implant, plus 20 per cent of the cost of surgery and hospital stay, under the 80 per cent subsidy on hospital bills he enjoys.

One hopes that in his review of the health-care system, new Health Minister Gan Kim Yong will look into the subsidy of implants, as this will have a big impact on the lives of Singapore's rapidly ageing population.

China Aircraft Carrier Dreams

Jul 16, 2011
special report

Iron fists on the high seas

China's stature as a maritime power will get a major boost when its first aircraft carrier undertakes its sea trials soon. Straits Times correspondent Jonathan Eyal tells why these vessels pack a punch

THE giant, grey-painted ship docked right behind an Ikea superstore in the north-western Chinese seaport of Dalian has no official name or designation. But it has already attracted the attention of countless spy satellites. For it is China's worst-kept military secret: the country's first aircraft carrier.

And when it finally sets sail on its first operational mission - which could happen within weeks, says a China Daily report on Tuesday - it will serve as a vivid reminder of China's great power status.

Chinese officials have sought to play down its importance. 'It is a symbol of deterrence,' says retired general Xu Guangyu. 'It says: don't mess with me, don't think you can bully me.'

But the aircraft carrier does much more than that, for it gives China the ability to project its power far away from its shores. And, over time, this is guaranteed to transform Asia's strategic map.

China's quest for an aircraft carrier goes back half a century. The issue was first debated in 1958, when Mao Zedong tabled a plan for what he called the 'railways on the high seas'. Characteristically, Mao's dream was gigantic: it envisaged the construction of fleets of merchant ships, escorted by 'proletarian' aircraft carriers.

Nothing came of this idea, but scaled-down programmes to construct an aircraft carrier were subsequently raised in Beijing. At one point during the late 1970s, party boss Hua Guofeng made a decision to purchase a 'light' vessel of this type, but this also petered out.

Daunted by costs

THE reasons for the hesitation were, invariably, costs, bureaucratic infighting and broader policy considerations. When Mao dreamt of aircraft carriers, an average Soviet-built battleship would have devoured a quarter of the Chinese navy's then-procurement budget.

Furthermore, the Chinese navy lacked the political influence enjoyed by the ground or air forces to lobby for bigger funding.

And, as Deng Xiaoping became China's paramount leader, the main priority was domestic development; aircraft carriers were dismissed as platforms which would raise global concerns about Chinese intentions, for little practical benefits.

But the Chinese navy ultimately got help from an unexpected quarter: none other than the United States. When Taiwan's then-President Lee Teng-hui held the island's first open elections in 1996, China thought it could influence the ballot's outcome by holding missile-firing tests in waters adjacent to Taiwan. The strategy backfired spectacularly. The US responded by scrambling two of its aircraft carriers - one from the Middle East and another from the Pacific - to patrol the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese could do little more than watch the ships with deep frustration, and back down.

At the time, then US President Bill Clinton was hailed for this masterful use of sea power. Yet, with the benefit of hindsight, the 1996 Taiwan episode can be seen a classic example of a strategic victory with unintended consequences. For the humiliation which China experienced persuaded its leaders that aircraft carriers were a unique political asset, a huge iron fist which is both easily deployable and flexible - precisely what Chinese naval commanders have argued for decades. In effect, Mr Clinton made the case for China's aircraft carrier.

What followed was a saga worthy of the best spy novel. Seemingly out of the blue, a group of Chinese investors offered US$20 million to buy the Varyag, a disused Soviet-era aircraft carrier with no engines, which lay rusting in a Ukraine port. The investors, who by sheer chance just happened to include some retired Chinese military officers, claimed they wanted to use it as a floating casino in Macau, despite warnings from the territory's then- colonial masters that no such casino would be allowed, and that Macau's port was not deep enough to accommodate the beast. Strapped for cash and eager to rid itself of a problem, Ukraine accepted the offer in 1998.

But Turkey, whose consent was required for the ship to pass through the Dardanelles Strait, refused to cooperate. So the Varyag spent 18 months being towed aimlessly around the Black Sea, before the Turks were persuaded to let it through, in return for Chinese economic favours.

Egypt, which owns the Suez Canal, proved harder to please: It banned the Varyag. As a result, it had to sail all the way through the Mediterranean and around Africa, an odyssey during which it once caught fire and was twice almost broken up in storms.

Needless to say, it never moored anywhere near Macau. It was taken straight to Dalian and was swiftly painted a dull grey, not the colour usually favoured by casinos.

Western intelligence services knew all along what was happening, and official Chinese protestations - made as late as 2007 - that Beijing had 'no intention' of acquiring an aircraft carrier, were never taken seriously. Besides, even before the Varyag arrived at its new home port, Chinese sailors were already observed exercising on dummy replicas of the ship, while naval variants of Chinese aircraft were developed.

The acquisition of the Varyag is largely unimportant; it merely saved the Chinese some time and money, for the real essence of an aircraft carrier is to be found in the ship's propulsion, electronics and the jets deployed on its decks, rather than the hull itself. On all these counts, Chinese technology remains far behind that of the US.

Still, this is just the beginning of a bigger programme which, according to US assessments, may cost China about US$20 billion (S$24.4 billion) over the next four years. This will entail the development of many additional escort ships, as well aircraft and electronic warfare equipment. In effect, the launch of the first aircraft carrier is just a statement of intent.

The Chinese move comes at a time when the usefulness of carriers is increasingly questioned in the West. In a seminal article published last month in the authoritative journal of the US Naval Institute, two American experts jokingly dismissed their country's plans to build huge carriers as '$UPERfluous', arguing that they are too expensive and vulnerable to be effective. 'In past gun and aircraft eras, there was a linear relationship between size and reach. Now, in the missile era, a small combatant can reach as far as a large one,' the authors concluded.

Support for their position is provided by China itself, which is known to be developing a missile designed to hit aircraft carriers. Admiral Robert Willard, the US Pacific commander, recently admitted that China's new weapon, dubbed the DF-21D, may have reached 'initial operational capability'.

Hitting aircraft carriers at long distances is very difficult. Although the ships are big, they may be too small to be detected by satellites. While they may move slowly, their speed is still sufficient to prevent accurate missile targeting. Furthermore, incoming warheads can be intercepted and destroyed and, even if some hit, this may not be enough to sink a carrier.

Still, while an aircraft carrier may be tricky to detect, its massive electromagnetic footprint could be tracked by space-borne sensors. China's over-the- horizon radars could also help in this respect. Homing devices attached to missiles may improve their accuracy, and the possibility of firing many missiles simultaneously could overwhelm a carrier's defences. The question of whether China has perfected these capabilities will preoccupy the US intelligence community for years to come.

Either way, one conclusion seems obvious: China's entry into the aircraft carrier age will usher in a new naval arms race. The US is unlikely to abandon its programme, domestic critics notwithstanding. Some other Asian countries will beef up their own navies. And there will be keen interest in anti-carrier weapons.

Former commander of the Chinese navy Liu Huaqing, who spent all his professional life arguing in favour of aircraft carriers, never lived to see his dream come true: He died earlier this year. It is now up to his successors to carry on the programme, in the hope of achieving what no other nation accomplished in a century: to prevail against the US in what is guaranteed to be a furious technological competition.

Symbol of the dragon's might
First aircraft carrier takes Beijing closer to its goal of becoming regional naval power
By Nilanjana Sengupta

THE unveiling of China's first aircraft carrier - which will reportedly be called the Shi Lang - is symbolic of Beijing's ambitions to become Asia's pre-eminent naval power, analysts say.

The ship - a refurbished former Soviet vessel - is not expected to have any immediate impact on the South China Sea dispute and on Sino-US relations, given its limited operational capacity, they add.

But 'it is a portent of China's plans for regional, and eventually global, power projection', says Mr Michael Richardson, a maritime security specialist and a visiting senior research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas).

Analysts say reaction from countries in South-east Asia, which has seen tensions rise recently over territorial claims in the South China Sea, has been fairly muted, probably because regional militaries are aware of the carrier's limited operational abilities.

It is 'based on old technology, it is not fully networked with other PLAN (People's Liberation Army Navy) surface and sub-surface vessels, and the Chinese fighter pilots have yet to master take-off and landings from a vessel at sea', Dr Ian Storey, an expert on South-east Asian security issues and a fellow at the Iseas, told The Straits Times.

'It will be used by the Chinese Navy as a training platform. Aircraft carriers are among the most complex pieces of military hardware in existence, and it will take time for the Chinese to become proficient in carrier operations.'

It is unlikely, therefore, that the carrier will play a major operational role in the South China Sea, he said.

The United States will also not see it as posing a credible threat to its supremacy in Asian waters, although the US Navy will monitor developments, the experts add.

But China's first aircraft carrier has symbolic significance for other regional players, including Taiwan and South- east Asian states locked in dispute with China over the Spratly and Paracel islands.

Tensions have gone up in recent weeks, with Vietnam and the Philippines accusing China of increasingly aggressive action in the waters around the Spratly islands.

The carrier 'is a signal to rival claimants of the South China Sea islands that Beijing is serious about upholding its sovereignty claims in the disputed waters', said Mr Richardson.

Professor Koichi Sato of J.F. Oberlin University in Tokyo noted that Admiral Liu Huaqing, one of the first to propose a Chinese aircraft carrier, had stressed the necessity of aircraft carriers to defend PLA warships against air raids in the event of a naval battle for the liberation of Taiwan. Some other PLA officer also stressed the importance of aircraft carriers to 'retake' the islands of the East China Sea and South China Sea which were 'illegally deprived by the foreign countries', he added.

Prof Sato also pointed to the significance of the name that some say will be given to the ship: Shi Lang was the name of a 17th century Qing Dynasty admiral who retook Taiwan from the kingdom of Tungning ruled by the Zheng family. It may point to the PLA's ambitions for its aircraft carriers regarding modern- day Taiwan, the Spratly Islands, and the Senkaku Islands, he said.

China is planning to follow up the flattop with a series of all-new aircraft carriers that it is building in its own shipyards.

If these new carriers are brought into service over the next decade or two and operated effectively, it would tilt the balance of power in the disputed waters more decisively in China's favour and perhaps tempt it to use military muscle to enforce its claims, unless regional states show greater cohesion and receive support from the US, Japan, South Korea, India and Australia, Mr Richardson said.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine last month, Mr James Holmes of the US Naval War College said: 'Some Chinese-claimed islets in the Spratlys and Paracels are too small to fortify; carrier groups would provide a forward, mobile airfield from which to defend the islands, the adjacent waters, and the rich natural resources thought to lie in the seabed beneath.'

With additional reporting by Tokyo Correspondent Kwan Weng Kin

Why carriers rule the waves
AIRCRAFT carriers are considered the jewels in the crown of any navy, partly because of their size and cost, but also because of their ability to project power.

The idea of using a ship's deck to launch objects into the air is not new. A British vessel catapulted propaganda leaflets into France as early as 1806, and an Austrian ship attempted - with comic results - to bombard enemies with balloons in 1849.

So, when aviation was invented, it was inevitable that ships would be adapted to carry planes. The first efforts by the United States navy in the early 20th century were not very successful, but the advent of seaplanes - aircraft which could take off and land on water - changed the equation.

During World War I, both Britain and France possessed primitive aircraft carriers; these were often converted commercial vessels with floats, which allowed seaplanes to be lowered into the water before they took off.

Interestingly, however, the first successful attack from an aircraft carrier was executed by Japan in September 1914, when seaplanes launched from the carrier Wakamiya bombed Chinese territory. So, although the aircraft carrier is a Western invention, it claimed its first victims in Asia; British carriers did not go into action until December 1914.

Disarmament treaties after the end of World War I limited the development of heavy ships. Yet, by 1918, Britain acquired the first carrier with a completely flat deck, the HMS Argus; the US and Japan followed suit, with the Americans pioneering techniques for the launch and landing of aircraft on ships.

But the aircraft carrier truly came into its own during World War II when, again, it was Japan which proved its awesome capabilities: Six of its 10 aircraft carriers struck Pearl Harbour, crippling the US Pacific fleet in one day. Ironically, the Japanese failed to destroy America's carriers, and these proved crucial in clinching the subsequent US sea supremacy.

The vessels have always been hugely expensive to build: One US 'super carrier' of the Gerald Ford class, scheduled to enter service in 2015, is estimated to cost US$23 billion (S$28 billion), including research and development.

And they are equally expensive to operate. Because their size and slow movement make them vulnerable to enemy attack, aircraft carriers require a protective escort of other ships and submarines, usually referred to as a 'battle group'. They also need specially adapted aircraft.

And no nation wishing to have a truly global reach can do with just one vessel: at a minimum, two are required in order to ensure round-the-clock availability. That is why, at any given point over the last century, only a handful of nations has ever possessed aircraft carriers. China has been the only country with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council never to enjoy such a capability.

The appeal of these huge beasts to those who can afford them remains undeniable. For, apart from long-range missiles, there is no other military platform which can deliver a quick strike at a long distance, and in a sustained manner.

Strategic planners love them, because aircraft carriers can be moved around at short notice, and therefore do not require prior guessing as to who the enemy may be. They also dispense with the need to establish ground bases in other countries: The latest generation of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers can operate over a long period of time, with relatively few supply or maintenance problems.

And, since they can carry jets, helicopters and troops, aircraft carriers are suited for every mission, from major strikes to small humanitarian missions, or the occasional commando raid. The US elite forces that killed Osama bin Laden returned to the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier; it was from its deck that the body of the Al-Qaeda leader was consigned to the sea.

The advent of ground-based missiles specifically designed to hit aircraft carriers has prompted some military analysts to claim that the golden age of these platforms is now drawing to an end.

Clearly, China does not share this view.

Neither does Britain, which pioneered the weapon: It recently decided to sacrifice many existing ships in order to spare the cash for two new aircraft carriers. And Japan is also operating the platforms, although, at least for the moment, it still portrays them as just helicopter carriers.