Thursday, September 29, 2011

Lifesavers for the Third World

Sep 29, 2011

Yesterday, The Straits Times reported on a cheaper alternative in Thailand to the cervical smear test being used. Today, we take a look at other innovations on offer to poorer countries as they battle to improve health conditions.

Liquid Lens

A cheap lens made of liquid has helped tens of thousands of adults in the developing world to gain clearer vision.

Dr Joshua Silver, an atomic physicist from Oxford University, designed a 'liquid lens' consisting of a fluid-filled packet made of two flexible transparent membranes. By draining the liquid, the user can adjust the focus of the lens.

Working with a British government grant, he developed the liquid lens into a practical pair of adjustable eyeglasses, complete with dials on the arms that allow the focus to be changed. Today, more than 30,000 pairs are in use by adults worldwide.


About 1.5 million children die of diarrhoea each year because they do not have access to clean drinking water.

A Swiss company called Vestergaard came up with a cheap and simple water purifier system called LifeStraw, which has been used in Myanmar, Mozambique and Haiti.

It allows about 1,000 litres of dirty water to be filtered, which is enough to keep a person hydrated for a year.

A family-sized version of LifeStraw has also been developed and nearly a million such purifiers were donated to Kenya this year.

Sari-cloth water filter

Poverty-stricken villagers in rural Bangladesh have found that the secret to disease-free water lies in a humble, everyday garment: the sari.

Rural women often pour sweetened drinks through a piece of sari cloth to get rid of leaves and insects. But this method is useless against filtering disease-causing micro-organisms.

Researchers then found that simply cleaning and folding the sari twice helps to strain out most of the microscopic plankton in water.

Over an 18-month period, they found that the rate of cholera was reduced by about half in the 27 villages that adopted this method.

PeePoo bag

It may look like an ordinary plastic bag but the PeePoo bag is, in fact, a single-use biodegradable toilet for the developing world.

After it is used, the bag is knotted and then buried or sold back to the manufacturer. The bag is lined with urea crystals, which help transform the waste into fertiliser.

The United Nations estimates that 40 per cent of the world's population does not have access to a toilet, leading to contaminated water and diseases such as diarrhoea.

Currently, about 6,000 PeePoo bags are produced every day and distributed in slums in Nairobi, Kenya.

Mosquito-killing toxic nectar

Scientists have developed the equivalent of a honey trap for mosquitoes - an irresistible nectar that attracts the insects, then poisons them.

A team from Hebrew University in Jerusalem concocted an array of nectar poisons known as Attractive Toxic Sugar Baits that are easy to make, environmentally friendly and inexpensive. Tests in Israel and West Africa showed that the baits wiped out the mosquito population by 90 per cent. Even better, they nearly eliminated older female mosquitoes, which are the most dangerous because only the females bite humans.


Many women in poor countries give birth at home or in small clinics which are ill-equipped to deal with emergencies such as haemorrhaging which can cause death.

LifeWrap, a segmented wetsuit which fastens around the legs and torso with Velcro, could change all that. The skin-tight suit squeezes oxygenated blood back to the heart, lungs and brain of the haemorrhaging mother.

Early trials in Egypt showed it could reduce childbirth deaths by over 50 per cent. But at US$259 (S$330) a suit, it is not yet cheap enough to become widespread in remote villages.

Vitamin sprinkles for babies

Babies cannot swallow vitamin pills, but in the developing world, many of them desperately need the nutritional boost these tablets can provide.

So, Dr Stanley Zlotkin, a physician in Toronto, came up with Sprinkles - vitamins for infants in a flavourless powdered form that can be added to any cooked food.

For a couple of dollars a year, the powders can prevent disorders caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Last year, about 350,000 people received micronutrient packets, such as Sprinkles, according to the World Food Programme.

Postage stamp-size diagnostic test

A cheap diagnostic test, conducted on paper the size of a postage stamp, could be used to screen liver damage sufferers in developing countries.

Dr George Whitesides, of Diagnostics For All, designed paper treated with dried proteins and chemically triggered dyes to change colour if an unwell person's blood is dotted on to it. The test takes 15 minutes and can be read by an untrained eye.

Although it has not been widely implemented in developing countries yet, its developers say it proved more than 90 per cent accurate on blood samples previously screened by the laboratory of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Study: Power without status can lead to to rudeness, even abuse

Sept 25 2011

Los Angeles (CNN) -- A new study by three universities shows that people holding positions of power with low status tend to demean others, one of the authors said.

The research sheds light on why clerks can seem rude or even why the Abu Ghraib guards humiliated and tortured their prisoners, the researcher said.

In an article to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers studied the relationship between the status and the power of a job, said Nathanael Fast, assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business.

The study, "The Destructive Nature of Power without Status," determined that the combination of some authority and little perceived status can be toxic.

"We found that people who had high power and high status, they were pretty cool," Fast told CNN. "But it was people who had power and lacked status who used their power to require other persons to engage in demeaning behavior."

In a field of study where psychologists and business schools are now jointly looking at how power shapes business relationships, the study's authors examined the notions of how low status is "threatening and aversive" and how power "frees people to act on their internal states and feelings," the researchers say.

"The world was shocked when pictures circulated in 2004 showing low-ranking U.S. soldiers physically and sexually abusing prisoners from the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq," the study says. "One could point to these examples as support for the popular idea that 'power corrupts.'

"However, we believe there is more to the story. Although it is true that the prison guards had power, it is equally true that their roles provided little to no respect and admiration in the eyes of others. They had power but they lacked status. We posit that understanding the combinations of these two variables — power and status — produces key insights into the causes of destructive and demeaning behavior," the study says.

The researchers held experiments with students who were randomly assigned a high-status "idea producer" role or low-status "worker" role.

The students were asked to select from a list of 10 activities for the others to perform. Five of the most demeaning commands were: Say "I'm filthy" five times, say "I am not worthy" five times, bark like a dog three times, state three negative personal traits and count backward from 500 in increments of seven.

The least five demeaning activities were: Write a short essay on your experiences today, say a funny joke, clap hands 50 times, do five pushups, and jump up and down 10 times on one leg, the study said.

The research found that "individuals in high-power/low-status roles chose more demeaning activities for their partners (e.g., bark like a dog, say "I am filthy") than did those in any other combination of power and status roles."

"Our findings indicate that the experience of having power without status, whether as a member of the military or a college student participating in an experiment, may be a catalyst for producing demeaning behaviors that can destroy relationships and impede goodwill," the study said.

Remedies to such situations include upper management telling persons in high-power/low-status posts "how important these roles are, so that they have status," Fast said.

The promise of bonuses or promotions could also help, Fast said.

But not all people in such posts are so disagreeable, he added.

"There are a lot of people in these roles who treat others well, and that's probably a function of personality," Fast added. "I don't want everyone in these roles to say, 'Wait a minute, I don't act that way.' There are other moderators like personality and culture."

The study was also conducted by Nir Halevy, acting assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Adam Galinsky, professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

"It's important to study power and status because hierarchy is everywhere. You can't get away from it," Fast said. "Whether you're with family and friends, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or working in a big organization, there's always a hierarchy."

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mapping out rival claims to the South China Sea

Sep 13, 2011
By Tommy Koh

DURING the past two years, tension has been rising in the South China Sea. As a result of a deadline set by a United Nations body for coastal states to submit their claims to extended continental shelves, there was a flurry of claims and counter-claims in 2009, including a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam and a response by China.

There have also been several incidents at sea, between China and Vietnam, over fisheries; and between China, on the one hand, and the Philippines and Vietnam, on the other, over collection of seismic data and exploration for hydrocarbons by oil companies.

At the Asean Regional Forum, held in Hanoi in July last year, there was a sharp exchange of words between the foreign ministers of China and the United States.

Much has been written about the South China Sea, but the salient questions of law and fact involved remain unclear. I will attempt to answer 10 of the most frequently asked questions.

    Question 1: What and where is the South China Sea?

The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea, bounded by China in the north, the Philippines in the east, Vietnam in the west, East Malaysia and Brunei in the south-east, and Indonesia and West Malaysia in the south-west.

This body of water is about 3.5 million sq km. It forms part of the Pacific Ocean, one of the global commons.

    Question 2: What is the significance of the South China Sea?

First, it is the highway for trade, shipping and telecommunications. Eighty per cent of world trade is seaborne. One-third of world trade and half of the world's traffic in oil and gas pass through the South China Sea. Freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is, therefore, of critical importance to China, Japan, South Korea, Asean and other trading nations and maritime powers.

Second, it is rich in fish and other living resources. Fish is a principal source of protein and fishing is a source of employment for millions of Asians who live in coastal communities.

Third, it is presumed that there are significant deposits of oil and gas in the continental shelves underneath the South China Sea.

    Question 3: Is there a law governing the South China Sea?

It is governed by international law, particularly the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which was adopted in 1982 and came into force in 1994. China, Japan, South Korea and all the 10 Asean countries are parties to this convention and thus bound by its provisions.

    Question 4: Which are the claimant countries and what have they claimed?

Two groups of geographic features located in the South China Sea are subject to competing claims of sovereignty, namely the Paracel Islands, located in the northern part of the South China Sea, and the Spratly Islands, located in the central part of the South China Sea. In particular, the sovereignty dispute over the Spratly Islands is a continual source of conflict and tension in the region.

China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are the claimant states. Taiwan is also a claimant but not recognised by the international community as a sovereign and independent state. It is, therefore, not a party to the UN Convention.

Brunei reportedly claims part of the area of waters in the Spratly Islands adjacent to it, including two maritime features, namely Louisa Bank and Rifleman Bank, as part of its continental shelf.

The Philippines reportedly claims 53 of the maritime features in the Spratly Islands which it calls the Kalayaan Island Group as well as Scarborough Shoal.

Malaysia reportedly claims sovereignty over 11 maritime features in the Spratly Islands.

Vietnam claims sovereignty over all the maritime features in the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.

China claims sovereignty over all the maritime features in the South China Sea.

Taiwan's claims are identical to those of China. Taiwan is, however, in physical possession of the largest maritime feature in the South China Sea, namely Itu Aba or Taiping.

    Question 5: Are the claims consistent with Unclos?

The convention does not contain any new law on how to determine a state's claim to sovereignty over territory. The question has to be determined by customary international law.

Disputes over sovereignty can be resolved by negotiation, conciliation, arbitration or adjudication. It is, thus, not possible for one to say whether the sovereignty claims by the five claimant states are valid or not. They have not been tested in a court of law or arbitral tribunal.

The Chinese claim is not clear. The ambiguity is caused by a map which was attached to a Chinese official note to the UN on the outer limits of its continental shelf under Unclos in May 2009. The map contains nine dashed lines forming a U, enclosing most of the waters of the South China Sea. The map was first published in 1947 by the Republic of China under the Kuomintang, prior to the founding of the People's Republic of China.

What is not clear is whether China is claiming sovereignty over the maritime features enclosed by the lines or to both the features and the waters so enclosed. If the former, this is consistent with the convention. However, if the latter, then China's assertion of rights, based upon history, to the waters, is not consistent with the convention. The convention does not recognise such rights.

When China acceded to the convention, it agreed to be bound by the new legal order set out in the convention. Under the law of treaties, when a state becomes a party to a treaty, it is under a legal obligation to bring its laws and conduct into conformity with the treaty.

    Question 6: What maritime zones are the features entitled to?

There is considerable confusion about the answer to this question. First, there is no authoritative study of the different maritime features which make up the Spratly Islands group. Such a study should classify them into: islands, rocks, low-tide elevations and artificial islands.

Second, under the convention, artificial islands are not entitled to any maritime zones except for a 500m safety zone. A low-tide elevation is not entitled to any maritime zone but can be used as a base point in measuring the territorial sea. A low-tide elevation is submerged at high tide.

A rock is entitled to a 12-nautical mile (22km) territorial sea. An island is entitled to a territorial sea, a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone and a continental shelf.

Under Article 121 of the convention, the difference between a rock and an island is that an island is capable of sustaining human habitation or economic life.

Third, the policies and pronouncements of the claimant states show little regard for the law and are self-serving. To put it crudely, they seem to be saying that 'my rock is an island and your island is only a rock'. In its submission to the UN in 2009, Indonesia contends that all the features in the South China Sea are rocks and not islands.

    Question 7: What is Asean's position on the South China Sea?

Asean, as a group, does not support or oppose the claims of the four Asean claimant states. The group has also not taken a position on the merits of the disputes between China and Asean claimant states. Therefore, any perception that the claims of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are backed by Asean is incorrect.

Asean is, however, a stakeholder in the South China Sea. First, it wishes to maintain peace in the region. Second, it wishes to promote good relations between China and Asean. Third, it is committed to the peaceful settlement of disputes. Fourth, it wishes to ensure that all interested parties act strictly in accordance with international law, especially Unclos.

In 2002, when tensions were high, Asean drafted a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC was signed by Asean and China. In July this year, the Asean Regional Forum adopted a set of implementing guidelines. Both the DOC and the guidelines are non-binding.

Although they are not unimportant, the fact is that some claimant states have violated both the letter and spirit of the DOC by acting unilaterally to expand and fortify the features they occupy.

Asean and China should work together to formulate and adopt a binding code of conduct as their next goal.

    Question 8: What is the US position on the South China Sea?

The US is not a claimant state or a littoral state. It is, however, a stakeholder. Why? First, the US is a major trading nation and maritime power. It has a legitimate interest in ensuring that the freedom of navigation and other lawful uses of the sea are respected by the claimant states and littoral states.

Second, the US has an interest in ensuring that the claimant states act strictly in accordance with international law, including the Unclos, of which it is, unfortunately, not a state party.

Third, while the US has not endorsed the claims of the Philippines and Vietnam, it is concerned that the disputes should be resolved peacefully, without resort to force.

Fourth, the US is concerned about the Chinese map and would oppose any attempt by China to assert rights to the waters enclosed by the nine dashed lines.

Fifth, the US has a treaty alliance with the Philippines but it has been ambiguous over whether and under what conditions that alliance might apply to an armed conflict in the South China Sea involving the Philippines and another claimant.

    Question 9: What could China and the Asean claimant states do to bring about an amicable settlement to their disputes?

They have two fundamental choices. The first option is to try to resolve their sovereignty disputes through negotiations, both bilaterally and multilaterally.

However, if the negotiations prove to be fruitless, the parties should consider whether to resort to other modalities of dispute settlement, such as conciliation, arbitration and adjudication.

However, sovereignty disputes cannot be referred to any form of third-party dispute settlement without the consent of the parties.

Also, China has exercised its right, under Article 298, to opt out of compulsory binding dispute settlement, for disputes concerning its maritime boundary delimitation. So, a claimant state, such as the Philippines, cannot refer maritime boundary delimitation disputes with China to arbitration under Annex VII of Unclos or adjudication before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

However, the Philippines could, for example, frame the issue as one relating to other Unclos provisions, such as its rights to explore and exploit the natural resources in its exclusive economic zone or whether certain disputed features are rocks or islands.

The second choice is for the parties to put aside their sovereignty disputes and to apply the concept of joint development to the disputed areas. Joint development has worked in other cases, for example, between Malaysia and Thailand (1979-1990), between Malaysia and Vietnam (1992) and between Australia and Timor Leste (2002).

However, we face a major obstacle. The concept of joint development must be applied in the context of a disputed area. But, until China is prepared to clarify its claims, we will not be able to determine what are the disputed areas.

    Question 10: What is Singapore's position?

Singapore is not a claimant state. It does not support the position of any of the claimant states. On the merits of the various claims, Singapore is neutral.

Singapore is, however, not neutral on the need by all the claimant states to strictly adhere to international law, in general, and Unclos, in particular. Singapore is also insistent that the disputes must be resolved peacefully. Any threat or use of force would be unacceptable. Singapore shares Asean's aspiration to maintain peace in the region and to promote good relations between Asean and China.

Pending the resolution of the dispute, Singapore supports the effort by Asean and China to implement the DOC that would serve as a guide for the behaviour of the claimant states in order to avoid confrontation and reduce tensions.

As a neutral party, trusted by all the claimants, Singapore seeks to play a helpful role, especially through the National University of Singapore Centre for International Law, to bring the parties together, elucidate the issues, research the facts and the law, and help the parties to find ways to achieve an amicable settlement to their disputes.

The writer is chairman of the Centre for International Law at the National University of Singapore. He was president of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea which produced the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

Review Brief is an occasional series featuring an authoritative guide on an emerging issue.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sept 11: Not quite a hinge in history

Sep 11, 2011

Despite having the world on its side, the US wasted the chance to transform the world
By Janadas Devan

The United States has fought numerous wars over the past 100 years, including two world wars. But it has been attacked only twice on its own soil in that period: Once, on Dec 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed the US Pacific fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor; and next, on Sept 11, 2001, when Islamicist terrorists wielding box-cutters flew passenger planes into buildings in New York and Washington.

The US army had more horses than it had tanks on the eve of Pearl Harbor. No sooner after the event, the country re-armed massively; shipped supplies and armaments to its allies; and prosecuted a war on two widely-separated fronts - one in Europe, against Nazi Germany, and the other in Asia-Pacific, against Imperial Japan.

It remains to this day the only power in history to have prosecuted a truly global war. Britain, the former Soviet Union, Germany, Italy and Japan fought in World War II. The US fought a world war.

Within three-and-a-half years of Pearl Harbor, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan had surrendered and US forces had occupied both countries. Saved from the devastation that had visited other countries during the war, the US economy surged ahead in the post-war years.

Abroad, the US dollar became the lynchpin of the global financial system; the US military the anchor of the Western alliance; and US diplomacy the skilful tool of a Pax Americana. The alphabet soup of global agencies - from the IMF to the UN, from Nato to the World Bank - all came into existence during this period of extraordinary American leadership.

At home, the Truman administration built on Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programmes, creating a vast middle class. The US government invested heavily in education, especially with the GI Bill, which funded the college or vocational education of demobbed soldiers, and provided loans to them to buy homes and start businesses.

Neither of the major parties, the Democratic nor the Republican, was sharply ideological then. As a result, the succeeding Eisenhower administration, though Republican, adopted pragmatic policies similar to the Democratic Roosevelt-Truman administrations. One of the largest infrastructure projects in US history - the building of the inter-state highways traversing the continent - was undertaken during the Eisenhower years.

As a result of this pragmatism - the efflorescence of the can-do American spirit across both the private and public sectors - the US became a colossus abroad within 10 years of Pearl Harbor, its economy the most vibrant in the world, and its people the most prosperous. The 1950s were a golden era in American history.

It is 10 years since Sept 11 today. The so-called 'war on terror' has already lasted almost thrice as long as America's involvement in World War II. What has it got to show for all the blood and treasure it has spilled over the last decade?

Al-Qaeda has been defeated but it has not been destroyed. The US did humanity a great service by bearing the brunt of the 'war on terror', but few feel grateful to it as a result. It did pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to prosecute the war against terror in the 2000s - but ended up with precious few friends and plenty more foes despite its pains.

The chief reason for this was the Iraq war - a war the Bush administration insisted on fighting without the authorisation of the United Nations and without the help of most of its chief allies.

'We are all New Yorkers,' the French newspaper Le Monde proclaimed in the immediate aftermath of Sept 11. That warm feeling disappeared within a year as Washington rushed pell mell into Saddam Hussein's Iraq, on the grounds that it possessed weapons of mass destruction. US forces didn't discover so much as a vial of enriched uranium there.

The US was an empire and ought to behave as one, the more unrestrained of the neo-conservatives proclaimed. The tragedy of Sept 11 became the occasion for neo-con hubris with alarming ease. Americans were full of passionate intensity after Pearl Harbor too, but their leaders then didn't proclaim themselves rulers of the world before a single battle was won.

The neo-cons displayed a similar hubris on the home front. The US economy, built on principles they assumed were eternally valid, was self-correcting and could be left on auto-pilot. Ideology, not pragmatism, became the common coin of politics in Washington, as the country sank into a morass of internecine ideological warfare that still rages.

Raise income taxes to pay for the war? No need. Americans can have both guns and butter. Raise petrol taxes and wean Americans from their dependence on oil from the Middle East? No need. Nothing should interfere with America's love affair with the internal combustion engine. The relentless rise of the national debt must be halted and Americans must save more? No need. Americans can hit the shopping malls, as then President George W. Bush urged them to do after Sept 11, and the Chinese and the Japanese will pick up the tab.

American soldiers - mostly the sons and daughters of poorer families - went to war. The American people went shopping. And the rest of the world was told to take a hike.

After Pearl Harbor, even as hundreds of thousands of young men were conscripted and shipped off to distant shores, the home front was organised for war. People planted vegetables and fruits in their backyards to augment the food supply - 'victory gardens' they were called. People lined up to buy war bonds, urged on by movie stars and politicians - 'Buy a Share of Victory' was the slogan. People accepted there had to be blood, toil, tears and sweat - on the war front as well as on the home front.

American soldiers - including all four sons of president Roosevelt - went to war. The American people - including 'Rosie the Riveter' - went to work to support the boys. And the rest of the world was told they belonged to the United Nations, allied with the US in a common effort to defeat fascism.

A moment comes but rarely in history when the entire world is united by a single emotion. Such was the moment 10 years ago today, as people watched the twin towers of New York collapse in Himalayas of dust. Washington might have used that moment to forge a new global order.

Instead, it squandered it. The Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, announced it wasn't ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on Global Warming, and dissed the International Criminal Court. On one issue after another, the US went its own way, with little regard for global opinion.

An avenging superpower is a frightening enough sight; an avenging superpower that insists on its own rules seemed even more unnerving. By the time the US was ready to engage as an equal but preponderant power in the councils of the world, beginning with the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009, it was too late.

This is why Sept 11 may live in our memories but perhaps not in history. Pearl Harbor was one of those hinges in history beyond which stood a transformed world. By comparison, Sept 11, ghastly though it was, just happened.

[Basically, the same thing that Thomas Friedman and probably many thinkers also said. George W. Bush is probably  one of the dumbest president ever. He was called to history, and he turned up in bible study.]

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Governing in the new normal

Sep 9, 2011
By Donald Low

THE two elections of 2011 herald a significant shift in the political values, attitudes and aspirations of Singaporeans. While the People's Action Party (PAP) and its preferred candidate for the presidency were returned to power, it would be a mistake for the PAP Government to assume that with the elections over, it can return to the business of governance along the technocratic lines it is used to.

The Singapore polity has changed profoundly, perhaps irrevocably. President Tony Tan hinted at this when he said at the start of his election campaign that politics in Singapore has entered a 'new normal'. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong too recognised that politics in Singapore has changed when he warned of the dangers of polarisation and populism. He also highlighted an important, but often forgotten, truth: to get our policies right, we must first get the politics right.

For more than 40 years, the PAP Government 'got politics right' by containing and minimising it. Apart from parliamentary elections, the PAP drove out many forms of democratic politics from public life. It saw governance as a rational pursuit that should be only minimally subject to political contest. Governance, government leaders believed, should be undertaken by an enlightened elite insulated from the political pressures which they believed would lead to extremism, demagoguery and populism.

Politics in Singapore allowed a system of technocratic governance dominated by elites. To the extent that there was politics, it was kept within the Establishment, a state of affairs described by Professor Chan Heng Chee in the 1970s as the 'politics of an administrative state'. For their part, citizens mostly accepted this state of affairs, trading away some of the liberties found in democratic societies for a government that delivered the goods.

In the aftermath of the 2011 elections, the Government can no longer take this for granted. Competitive politics has returned to Singapore; the Government can expect a political landscape that is far more contested and vexed. Can good governance be sustained in the new normal? How should the system of technocratic governance adapt?

My contention is that good governance is possible in the new normal, but it requires the Government to accommodate, and adapt to, the new socio-political and economic realities of Singapore. In particular, I believe the Singapore Government needs to rethink its current model of governance in at least three ways.

First, the state needs to broaden its basis of legitimacy. For more than 40 years, the PAP regime secured broad-based support on the basis of superior performance. This is now changing. Increasingly, Singaporeans care also about the fairness of our political system and about having checks and balances on government. Trust in government can no longer be assumed. Instead, it has to be earned through transparent and fair processes.

One reason the Workers' Party did well in the 2011 General Election was that its calls for a first-world Parliament that can provide a check on the Government struck a chord with the electorate. The response of many Singaporeans to the spat between the Workers' Party and the People's Association over the use of community spaces, and the subsequent debate over who should be appointed as advisers to grassroots organisations, are also indicative of the newfound appetite for fairness.

How should the Government respond?

It could start by reforming the parts of the political system that are clearly unfair in the minds of Singaporeans. The constant redrawing of electoral boundaries (some justified) and the expansion of the GRCs over the years (until the recent election) conferred significant advantages to the incumbent. These changes tilted the playing field and caused voters to give opposition candidates a handicap - an unhealthy state of affairs that stunts the development of a mature, fair-minded electorate.

Another area of political reform is to depoliticise the grassroots organisations. The grassroots organisations which were created to foster social cohesion have now become a source of political division instead. Whether intended or not, the grassroots organisations are now perceived as partisan. That they are disconnected from opposition MPs is not only unfair, but also divisive.

Second, the Government needs to rethink the narratives and practices of elite governance. The review of ministerial salaries is important in this regard but not sufficient. Singapore's elite has become more diverse, and less cohesive ideologically and politically. The repeated emphasis on how vulnerable Singapore is, how this justifies our system of governance, and how important it is for the country to be governed by a carefully selected elite, even if true, alienates many educated Singaporeans.

The Government has to move away from the model of elite governance to one of collective governance built on a distributed network of people who can contribute to public life. It means tapping the collective wisdom of citizens, and harnessing the tools of social innovation and co-creation. Not only is such a system of governance more inclusive, it is also likely to be more resilient. Some parts of the Government, such as the Ministry of National Development in relation to ideas to turn the old KTM land into a 'green corridor', have taken tentative steps in this direction. Hopefully, this approach will extend meaningfully to other contested policy issues.

To hasten this process, the Government should liberalise its quite restrictive policies on data sharing. For Singaporeans to be involved in the 'trade-offs and dilemmas of governance', they must first be aware of what those trade-offs are. An open and inclusive democratic polity needs a more transparent information environment than the current one.

Finally, Singapore needs a new social compact. The current social compact was appropriate for an era characterised by youthful demographics, rising incomes across-the-board, and the need to achieve exceptional rates of GDP growth.

In such a context, policies that emphasised individual responsibility, high national savings, relatively weak social safety nets, and public housing as the de facto instrument of redistribution were successful in ensuring growth with equity. This created a relatively benign political environment which gave Government the room to pursue long-term, growth-oriented policies with minimal political constraints.

This context is now changing. Our population is ageing, social mobility is slowing, economic growth is more erratic, and the fruits of growth are distributed far more unevenly than before. These forces are largely external, but they make it much harder for Singapore to achieve the equitable growth that it achieved before the start of the 2000s. In response, Government and citizens must find a social compact that achieves a better balance between growth and equity, between market forces and an activist and redistributive government, and between individual responsibility and social insurance.

There is no necessary reason why politics in Singapore should become polarised or populist. Neither should we conclude that the only way to ensure good governance is to deny Singaporeans their newfound political energies, in the vain hope that politics can return to the old normal.

The forces revealed by the elections of 2011 make it incumbent on the PAP Government to pursue bold policy and political reforms. These reforms, founded on the virtues of fairness, inclusion and resilience will not only make us a more 'normal' democracy, but will also help sustain good governance in the new normal.

The writer, a former Administrative Service officer, is vice-president of the Economics Society of Singapore.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

End of US hegemony, rise of developing Asia

Sep 7, 2011


Past decade's vital developments took place not on the battlefield, but in the financial system, with China's rise

By Lionel Barber

ON THE morning of Sept 11, 2001, America's prospects appeared as bright as the clear blue sky over Lower Manhattan. The price of Brent crude oil was US$28 a barrel, the Federal government was running a budget surplus, the United States economy was turning (albeit imperceptibly) after the crash. The most powerful nation on earth was at peace.

Ten years on, the oil price hovers around US$115 a barrel, the US is projected to run a budget deficit of US$1.58 trillion (S$1.9 trillion) for this year, the largest in its history; the economy remains deeply troubled after the financial crash of 2008; and America's military and intelligence services remain at war, battling insurgency and radical Islamic terrorism, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Niger and Yemen.

Admiral Mike Mullen, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described the national debt as the greatest threat to US national security. Standard & Poor's recent downgrade of America's credit rating appears to confirm the superpower's steady slippage. And while there is no linear narrative from the September 2001 attacks to America's present economic plight, the inflation-adjusted cost of the ensuing 'global war on terror' at more than US$2 trillion amounts to twice the cost of the Vietnam war.

Then President George W. Bush's response to the assault on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon was to launch two wars of choice against Afghanistan and Iraq, a pugnacious unilateralism at the expense of alliances and international law, and a near evangelical promotion of liberal democracy in the Middle East. His administration's hard-edged policies fractured alliances in Europe and triggered a sharp fall in America's standing abroad.

On the positive side of the ledger, America has so far escaped another terrorist attack on its own soil. Others have not been so fortunate. The bombings in Bali (2002), Madrid (2004) and London (2005) did not match the scale of Sept 11, but they claimed several hundred victims. Al-Qaeda is down but not entirely out. Dozens of computer disks recovered from Osama bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, suggest the Al-Qaeda leader, killed in May during a daring raid by US Navy Seals, was planning another spectacular outrage, perhaps to coincide with the Sept 11 anniversary this weekend.

Moreover, this year's Arab awakening has dispelled the notion that the Middle East - with the exception of Israel - is congenitally incapable of embracing democracy. One by one, the region's autocrats, from Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, have been toppled by protesters demanding dignity, freedom and jobs. True, the fall of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was precipitated by armed rebellions assisted by Nato warplanes, while President Bashar al-Assad of Syria may be the next leader to feel the hot breath of the Arab street.

The question is whether the much-maligned Mr Bush was correct in arguing that the autocratic status quo in the Middle East created an incubator for radical Islamic terrorism and consequently, a clear and present danger to the US. If the answer is 'yes', then his administration's failings were due less to a flawed diagnosis and more to a matter of execution.

A second related question is whether the administration's military response to Sept 11 amounted to a costly and disproportionate diversion of attention and resources at a time when the world was being reshaped by the rise of powerful new actors, notably China?

In the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers, a geopolitical re-alignment comparable to those of 1815, 1945 or 1989 appeared to take shape. The US mustered a coalition against terrorism that included rivals such as Russia and China, as well as one-time pariahs such as Cuba, Iran and Sudan.

The military response was equally effective. Having identified the perpetrators, the US staged a brilliant improvised campaign to topple the Taleban in Afghanistan. US special forces combined with warlords and overwhelming air power to break the Kabul regime within weeks. Although the leaders, notably Mullah Omar and his proxy Osama, slipped away, the Al-Qaeda network was relentlessly targeted and disrupted.

Within a year, the US had lost the moral high ground. Mr Bush's error was to make clear that regime change in Iraq was only one step for dealing with what he described as an 'axis of evil' including Iran, North Korea and potentially other adversaries suspected of harbouring or sponsoring terrorists. Overnight, the US was cast as a rogue nation.

Concerns rose with the publication of a revised national security doctrine in 2002, which ditched Cold War concepts of containment and deterrence. In their place came a 'forward-leaning' strategy of pre-emptive military action, regime change and a new kind of warfare that justified torture and denied the rights of the Geneva Convention to suspected terrorists.

Thus, the Iraq war was fought without the support of traditional allies such as Canada, France and Germany; without the backing of the United Nations Security Council; and without conclusive evidence that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction posing an immediate threat to the US. As for allies, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair provided loyal political cover, though then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared witheringly that British forces were redundant in military terms.

Nato, having for the first time invoked Article 5 to commit all members to collective defence, was similarly sidelined. Washington's motto was 'the mission determines the coalition'. But selective alliances work both ways. By the end of the decade, European allies were using caveats to opt out of military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Hence, former US defence secretary Robert Gates' warning this year that Nato was fast becoming irrelevant.

Europe, too, emerged much diminished - and not just during the Libyan conflict where Germany opted out and Britain and France ran short of munitions within weeks. At the beginning of the new century, flush with the success of launching a new monetary union, Europe's leaders agreed on plans to make the European Union the most competitive economic zone in the world. In retrospect, the much-vaunted Lisbon agenda marked the summit of ambitions coinciding with the bursting of the bubble.

Ten years on, the original design of European monetary union has shown itself to be fundamentally flawed. The enforcement mechanisms for budgetary discipline were ignored by big and smaller members alike, including Germany; peripheral economies in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, which soared on the back of low interest rates, have been exposed as uncompetitive. Contagion in the bond markets now threatens to spread to Italy, a 'core' euro zone member.

By Mr Bush's second term, abrasive rhetoric gave way to a more tempered approach. As an occupation force in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US became sucked into the nation-building that Mr Rumsfeld had long derided. In a similar confusion, President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron declared either one or both of these missions to be militarily vital, and then acted as if they were discretionary by setting a (political) timetable for withdrawal.

The accountants will tot up the collective bill for the Afghan and Iraq ventures at close to US$2 trillion in inflation-adjusted terms, but Mr Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank and a former deputy US secretary of state, argues that a country as rich as the US can well afford the cost. In 1948, he says, the average gross national product per head in the US was one-quarter of where it stands today. Yet Americans readily supported then President Harry Truman's doctrine to prop up democracies in Europe and counter communism around the world to the tune of billions of dollars.

Whether the seeds of democratic transformation will take root in Iraq is more debatable. The much-vaunted US military 'surge' rescued the country from chaos and possible break-up, but relations between Iraq's ethnic groups - Kurds, Sunnis and the majority Shi'ites - remain precarious. Arguably, the toppling of Saddam has allowed Iran to become the dominant regional power, exerting influence through the Shi'ite government in Baghdad. Meanwhile, Teheran's nuclear ambitions remain unchecked.

Nor did 9/11 boost efforts to tackle the other serious and unresolved threat to regional stability: the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Both Mr Bush and Mr Obama have failed to break the deadlock over the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank, and the status of Jerusalem. Successive Israeli prime ministers from Ariel Sharon to Benjamin Netanyahu have turned the war on terror to their own advantage, arguing that concessions jeopardise Israel's security and entities such as Hamas - which easily won elections in Gaza in 2005 - are terrorists masquerading as legitimate representatives of the Palestinians.

Despite the focus on fighting terrorism, the US was still alert to broader geopolitical trends. The most important breakthrough took place between the US and India with the signing in 2008 of the '123' deal on civil nuclear cooperation. The new strategic partnership between Washington and New Delhi not only offers a counterweight to the rise of China, but also to nuclear-armed Pakistan, America's long-time but increasingly unmanageable ally in South Asia.

By contrast, Sino-US relations amount to not much more than an uneasy accommodation. Beijing sees Washington (at best) as 'neither friend nor enemy', while the US has belatedly woken up to China's challenge to its dominance in the Pacific. Beijing has grudgingly applied pressure to its brooding nuclear neighbour in North Korea, but nationalist fervour means the leadership remains neuralgic over Taiwan and acutely sensitive to territorial disputes with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

In the final resort, the most significant geopolitical development of the past 10 years took place not on the battlefield but in the financial system. The global banking crisis stemmed from flawed regulation and perverse incentives for banks to sell mortgages to poor Americans with no ability to repay, as well as gigantic leverage in the financial system. These distortions were created, in part, by global imbalances driven by Americans living on cheap credit and Chinese exporters and savers contributing to a vast current account surplus.

Until the Great Crash of 2008, this financial merry-go-round spun regardless. Thanks to cheap labour costs, China exported deflation to the rest of the world. China financed the US current account deficit by recycling its own surplus into US Treasury bonds. Now, three years into the financial crisis, the world economy has been turned upside down. The US is diminished, Europe sidelined, and Asia, for now, in the ascendant.

Consider the broader historical trend. Developing Asia's share of the global economy in purchasing power parity terms has risen steadily from 8 per cent in 1980 to 24 per cent last year. Taken as a whole, Asian stock markets now account for 31 per cent of global market capitalisation, ahead of Europe at 25 per cent and within a whisker of the US at 32 per cent. Last year, China overtook Germany to become the world's largest exporter. Chinese banks now rank among the biggest in the world by market capitalisation.

Import numbers are equally revealing: The developing world is becoming a driver of the global economy. From the consumption of cement to eggs, China leads the world; it has also just overtaken the US to become the world's largest market for cars.

China's voracious appetite for commodities is creating new trade routes, especially with emerging powerhouses such as Brazil. Last year, China surpassed the US as Brazil's biggest trading partner. Latin America, a region once best known for instability, has emerged through the crisis virtually unscathed. Poverty is falling, the middle classes are expanding and asset markets are bubbling.

Dr Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush's national security adviser and secretary of state, once described multi-polarity as a theory of rivalry, a necessary evil. In economic terms, multi-polarity spells a new order in which interdependence is the norm and the US, while still overwhelmingly powerful, no longer occupies the role of hegemon.

As for the legacy of 9/11, Mr Gerard Lyons, chief economist of Standard Chartered Bank, says the three most important words in the past decade were not 'war on terror' but 'made in China'. On present trends, he adds, the three most important words of this decade will be 'owned by China'.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Let electoral college choose the president

Sep 3, 2011

The Presidential Election

The Aug 27 Presidential election was the most keenly contested ever with four candidates; and won narrowly with 35.2 per cent by Dr Tony Tan, who was sworn in on Thursday. We present here views on the election, including a call to do away with direct voting of a president in the first place.

By Ho Kwon Ping & Janadas Devan

THE means employed should be commensurate with the ends desired. If the end is an apolitical presidency, then the means Singapore employs in choosing the president must themselves be apolitical.

This year's presidential election was anything but that. Instead, it was a divisive and highly politicised affair. Two words describe its outcome: confused and unfortunate.

Confused because the victor, though accepted by the majority of Singaporeans as eminently qualified to hold the office, emerged from the election with no clear mandate. His presidency began amid suggestions that if one or the other of the two worst losers - Mr Tan Jee Say or Mr Tan Kin Lian - had not contested, Singapore would on Thursday have probably inaugurated President Tan Cheng Bock, not President Tony Tan.

Confused also because at least a quarter of the voters saw the presidential election as a re-run of the past general election. They voted for a former opposition candidate, Mr Tan Jee Say, who felt that the president need not be 'restricted' by the Constitution, and should act as a 'check and balance' on the Government and Parliament.

Confused too because a sizeable number voted for anybody but Dr Tony Tan because they were frustrated with the first-past-the-post system, which saw opposition parties receive 40 per cent of the votes in the last general election but less than 7 per cent of the parliamentary seats. They saw the presidential election as an opportunity to correct an anomaly in the general election.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Vigorous Virtues

September 1, 2011
The New York Times


There’s a specter haunting American politics: national decline. Is America on the way down, and, if so, what can be done about it?

The Republicans, and Rick Perry in particular, have a reasonably strong story to tell about decline. America became great, they explain, because its citizens possessed certain vigorous virtues: self-reliance, personal responsibility, industriousness and a passion for freedom.

But, over the years, government has grown and undermined these virtues. Wall Street financiers no longer have to behave prudently because they know government will bail them out. Middle-class families no longer have to practice thrift because they know they can use government to force future generations to pay for their retirements. Dads no longer have to marry the women they impregnate because government will step in and provide support.

Moreover, a growing government sucked resources away from the most productive parts of the economy — innovators, entrepreneurs and workers — and redirected it to the most politically connected parts. The byzantine tax code and regulatory state has clogged the arteries of American dynamism.

The current task, therefore, is, as Rick Perry says, to make the government “inconsequential” in people’s lives — to pare back the state to revive personal responsibility and private initiative.

There’s much truth to this narrative. Stable societies are breeding grounds for interest groups. Over time, these interest groups use government to establish sinecures for themselves, which gradually strangle the economy they are built on — like parasitic vines around a tree.

Yet as great as the need is to streamline, reform and prune the state, that will not be enough to restore America’s vigorous virtues. This is where current Republican orthodoxy is necessary but insufficient. There are certain tasks ahead that cannot be addressed simply by getting government out of the way.

In the first place, there is the need to rebuild America’s human capital. The United States became the wealthiest nation on earth primarily because Americans were the best educated.

That advantage has entirely eroded over the past 30 years. It will take an active government to reverse this stagnation — from prenatal and early childhood education straight up through adult technical training and investments in scientific and other research. If government is “inconsequential” in this sphere, then continued American decline is inevitable.

Then there are the long-term structural problems plaguing the economy. There’s strong evidence to suggest that the rate of technological innovation has been slowing down. In addition, America is producing fewer business start-ups. Job creation was dismal even in the seven years before the recession, when taxes were low and Republicans ran the regulatory agencies. As economist Michael Spence has argued, nearly all of the job growth over the past 20 years has been in sectors where American workers don’t have to compete with workers overseas.

Meanwhile, middle-class wages have been stagnant for a generation. Inequality is rising, and society is stratifying. Americans are less likely to move in search of opportunity. Social mobility has been flat for decades, and American social mobility is no better than European social mobility.

Some of these problems are exacerbated by government regulations and could be eased if government pulled back. But most of them have nothing to do with government and are related to globalization, an aging society, cultural trends and the nature of technological change.

Republicans have done almost nothing to grapple with and address these deeper structural problems. Tackling them means shifting America’s economic model — tilting the playing field away from consumption toward production; away from entitlement spending and more toward investment in infrastructure, skills and technology; mitigating those forces that concentrate wealth and nurturing instead a broad-based opportunity society.

These shifts cannot be done by government alone, but they can’t be done without leadership from government. Just as the Washington and Lincoln administrations actively nurtured an industrial economy, so some future American administration will have to nurture a globalized producer society. Just as F.D.R. created a welfare model for the 20th century, some future administration will have to actively champion a sustainable welfare model for this one.

Finally, there is the problem of the social fabric. Segmented societies do not thrive, nor do ones, like ours, with diminishing social trust. Nanny-state government may have helped undermine personal responsibility and the social fabric, but that doesn’t mean the older habits and arrangements will magically regrow simply by reducing government’s role. For example, there has been a tragic rise in single parenthood, across all ethnic groups, but family structures won’t spontaneously regenerate without some serious activism, from both religious and community groups and government agencies.

In short, the current Republican policy of negativism — cut, cut cut — is not enough. To restore the vigorous virtues, the nanny state will have to be cut back, but the instigator state will have to be built up. That’s the only way to ward off national decline.