Monday, December 24, 2012

Gun Control: Illustrating the policy paralysis of the US govt.

Dec 24, 2012

Guns and poses: A barrel of deceptions

By gail collins

WELL, the Mayans were sort of right.

The world didn't implode when their calendar stopped on Dec 21. But the National Rifle Association (NRA) did call for putting guns in every American school in a press conference that had a sort of civilisation-hits-a- dead-end feel to it.

And we learnt that negotiations on averting a major economic crisis in the US had come to a screeching halt because House Speaker John Boehner lost the support of the far-right contingent of his already-pretty-damned- conservative caucus. We have seen the future, and everything involves negotiating with loony people.

Mr Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA, has major sway in Congress when it comes to gun issues. So his press conference, in which he read a rambling, unyielding statement in a quavering voice, while refusing to take any questions, could not have inspired confidence that the national trauma over the shooting at a Connecticut elementary school was going to be resolved anytime soon.

Mr LaPierre immediately identified the problem that led to a young man mowing down children with a semi-automatic rifle: gun-free school zones. ("They tell every insane killer in America that schools are the safest place to inflict maximum mayhem.") Then he demanded a police officer in every American school. Or maybe a scheme to recruit armed volunteers.

At around the same time he was speaking last Friday, a gunman in Pennsylvania killed three people after shooting up a rural church. We will await the next grand plan for arming ministers.

The idea that having lots of guns around is the best protection against gun violence is a fairy tale the NRA tells itself when it goes to sleep at night. But an armed security officer at Columbine High School was no help. History also shows that armed civilians tend to freeze up during mass shootings - for good reason, since usually the only way a crazed gunman gets stopped is when he runs out of ammunition. So what remains is an excellent argument for banning weapons that spray lots of bullets.

However unhinged Mr LaPierre might have seemed to the casual observer, he sent a clear message to members of Congress who fear the wrath of the NRA: No compromise on banning assault weapons or any gun control issue. That made it hard to imagine any reform getting past the great, gaping maw that is the House of Representatives.

The magic of the House Republican majority was on show when the Tea Party forces blocked Mr Boehner's plan to continue the Bush tax cuts for incomes under US$1 million (S$1.2 million) a year. This was around the time the Speaker recited the prayer, much beloved by 12-step programmes, about seeking the serenity to accept things you cannot change.

Mr Boehner's Bill was mainly a political ploy, so in a way, its defeat was meaningless. Except that it would be comforting not to believe that one of the critical players in Washington was always at the mercy of the loopy-extremist wing in his caucus.

Like Kansas congressman Tim Huelskamp who, last Friday, represented the House resistance forces on MSNBC's Morning Joe, in an appearance with great Mayan overtones. First, he gradually acknowledged he was never going to vote for anything that raised taxes on anybody, even if it was understood by the entire world to be a negotiating tactic to win massive spending cuts and avert massive tax increases on 99.8 per cent of the population.

Then the discussion turned to the Connecticut shooting, and Mr Huelskamp quickly announced that the US did not have a gun problem. "It's a people problem. It's a culture problem," he insisted. Anyone who disagreed - like President Barack Obama - was, he said, using a tragedy "to push a political agenda".

In conclusion, the congressman announced that he had an 11-year-old son, "and I have a choice whether he's allowed to play those video games. What I would suggest to mums and dads across this country is look at what your children are doing... And I'm not saying to pass a single law about that, because I think that would be politicising the issue". Which we really hate. Politicising.

There are so many ways we'd rather be celebrating the holidays. We would like to be gathering around the tree with loved ones, discussing current events in the form of that story about the theft of six million pounds of syrup from the strategic maple syrup reserve in Quebec.

But we are where we are. Mr Obama bid a Merry Christmas to the nation after announcing that he would try to re-avert the feared "fiscal cliff" with a Bill that resolves virtually nothing but avoiding tax rises for the middle class. "At the very least, let's agree right now on what we already agree on," he said. This is what currently passes for a wildly optimistic statement.

Meanwhile, a congressman from Wisconsin, angry about the failure to pass a farm Bill, warned that the nation was about to fall over "the Dairy Cliff". At least there's still eggnog. God bless us every one.


ST Editorial:
Finding courage to act on guns

MOST of the civilised world would be amazed at the parsing of the gun debate in the United States, so soon after the Connecticut school massacre had pricked the nation's collective conscience. Surely, revulsion over the killing of children in their classrooms would instigate resolute action to curb easy access to firearms, even though past mass shootings barely affected gun ownership. Moreover, tighter controls, over which President Barack Obama should push harder, could reduce crimes other than murder in which firearms are often used as an aid, like robbery, rape and grievous assault.

But far from fostering a moral distaste for guns, Americans are rushing to stock them in the event of selective proscription by Congress. How the gun lobby has tried to turn the agenda around, after an initial burst of citizen and political activism for controls, shows it knows the American people will concede that the issue is more complex than it seems. Take away half the guns in private hands, pro-gun people are suggesting, and see if the rate of violent crime will fall proportionately.

The dreadful thing is that they may have a point. Disturbed people primed to go on a shooting spree will obtain what weapons they need. One statistic has it that murder by firearms in America is 20 times worse than in 22 other rich countries with a comparable crime variety. Ready availability, surely, is implicated. But the US rate for murder by means other than guns is also higher, by seven times. The case against guns is then less than clear-cut, although anti-gun advocates will counter that this is semantic relativism. It well may be. But psychologists and criminologists advise that consideration of laws on gun ownership cannot be detached from the issue of violence depicted in films and video games that desensitises people to violence. Young people interface with peers via a computer more than face to face. How this might affect the psyche over the long term is still being studied, but ill effects are feared. There is a case for personality maladjustments to be considered too in analysing American gun culture.

Rather than let the debate get tied up in knots, good sense should prevail. After Connecticut, the Norway mass murder of teenagers and periodic knife attacks on schoolchildren in China, it is amoral to let policy paralysis set in. The issue the US faces is one of political choice. Gun lovers led by the National Rifle Association have sway over federal elective choices in many rural states. America is poised on a pre- and post-Connecticut divide. Public opinion abhors the permissiveness, but it is up to elected leaders to rein it in by changing laws in the public interest.

[Gun Control in the US is highly politicised issue. However, the majority of US citizens are in favour of some form of gun control regulations, because very simply, it is the obvious thing to do. BUT, the very powerful gun lobby, fronted by the National Rifle Association (NRA), has blocked the will of the people.

Similarly, the looming "fiscal cliff" is an issue that the US govt needs to urgently address, but the issue has been politicised. Most US citizens are in favour of raising taxes on the very very rich (top 1% or 2%), but the Republicans are blocking the will of the people.

There's democracy for you.

Democracy is about expressing the will of the people. The other part of democracy is accepting the will of the people. Except in the US, where no one has to accept anything he doesn't agree with.]

Friday, December 21, 2012

Commentary: The case for Gun Control after NewTown/Sandy Hook

21 Dec 2012

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook/Newtown shooting where 20 children were shot, some several times, the US is looking at the issue of gun control again.

And again, the gun-right advocates are fighting public opinion and common sense and rallying around the 2nd Amendment. Their argument is that more guns is the answer. That if the teachers were also armed, the killer would have been stopped earlier. That the principal tried to stop the killer even though the principal was unarmed. What if she were?

The fact is that in a gun-fire scenario, it takes skill to make a proper and safe tactical assessment of the situation to decide what is the proper action. Case in point is the action of Joe Zamudio in the Tucson, Arizona shooting where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

That's what happens when you run with a firearm to a scene of bloody havoc. In the chaos and pressure of the moment, you can shoot the wrong person. Or, by drawing your weapon, you can become the wrong person—a hero mistaken for a second gunman by another would-be hero with a gun. Bang, you're dead. Or worse, bang bang bang bang bang: a firefight among several armed, confused, and innocent people in a crowd. It happens even among trained soldiers. Among civilians, the risk is that much greater.

More guns? Not the answer.

Transforming an island from nothing

Dec 21, 2012

How did Singapore build a "paradise" island from "nothing"? The key is good public administration based on a realistic understanding of human nature
By wen quan

SINGAPORE'S success is nothing short of a miracle.

From a small country with no hinterland or huge domestic market, no natural resources, and not even a natural freshwater river, it managed to enter the ranks of the world's developed countries after more than 40 years of hard work.

People of different races, religions, languages, cultures and lifestyles co-exist in harmony and progress in today's Singapore.

Even though an illegal strike by China bus drivers took place recently, the tripartite partnership of Government, employers and workers is a consultative and cooperative relationship which shares the fruits and challenges of development.

Singapore today is politically stable and peaceful. It is also dynamic, vibrant and prosperous. While other places in the world are facing debt and fiscal crises, corruption, racial hatred, terrorist attacks and extremism, this small island-state would seem to be a paradise.

How did Singapore create "something" out of "nothing" and develop into what it is today? What is the recipe for its success?

Understanding human nature

MANY people feel that the key reason is Singapore's public policies and management. But which public policy is the most important? Which policy is fundamental to the country's success?

I feel that the main reason for Singapore's successful implementation of its public policy and administration is that its leaders and government have a comprehensive, deep and objective understanding of human nature.

The policies and laws they formulate take into consideration basic features of human behaviour so that as far as possible, they prevent public policies from bowing to the weaker side of human nature, while at the same time fulfilling and reacting to its reasonable needs and desires.

For example, there is almost no free public service in Singapore, whether it is going to school, seeing a doctor or even applying for an identity card (IC). Singaporeans call it co-payment. The Government feels that services will be abused if they are free.

While many developing countries are implementing, or hoping to implement, totally free education, few people believe that in Singapore, a developed country where the gross domestic product per capita is more than US$50,000 (S$61,000), its citizens still have to pay school fees (albeit at low rates).

Fees differ for services. For example, a person who loses his IC has to pay $100 for the first replacement and wait for one month. For second or subsequent losses, the fee is $300 and the waiting period is three months.

Such policies reflect an understanding of human behaviour. Singapore's leaders understand the human tendency to seek gains and avoid risk or trouble. They put to full use this aversion to risk or inconvenience in their formulation of policies.

For example, many people call Singapore a "fine city" in jest, as "fine" can mean both "good" and "fine" (as in a financial penalty).

For example, you can be fined for eating on public transport, smoking in public places and littering on the streets. Such fines use the attitude of "risk aversion" to regulate people's behaviour.

One example in this area is the fact that Singapore still retains two very traditional punishments - caning and hanging. According to those who have experienced caning for crimes committed, the pain is beyond words, and they say they do not want to go through such pain again.

Singapore's Government and policymakers understand that it is insufficient for policies to have a deterrent value only. People also desire justice and fairness. For example, no one is above the law when it comes to law enforcement. People who break the law will be punished severely regardless of who they are.

A classic instance was in early October when an official from the National Trades Union Congress posted derogatory remarks about Malays on her Facebook page. Within hours, she was fired by her employer and the outcome was made public.

In the interest of fairness, senior government officials receive high pay, but the Government does not give them any additional allowances, housing allocation or health-care benefits.

The poor have access to various assistance and support schemes, but access requires stringent checks and is limited to prevent abuses. These policies reflect fairness and justice.

Realistic view on gambling

SINGAPORE'S policy management also reflects the Government's ability to be objective and rational, and to act with courage when dealing with human nature.

In the past, Singapore's leaders used to object to the setting up of casinos on the island, fearing they would lead to social and moral problems.

But they realised later that they should regulate gambling instead of banning it altogether. Granting casino licences on a limited scale allows not only a closer regulation of the industry, but also the education and monitoring of gambling addicts, and helps prevent the emergence of illegal casinos and related organised crime.

In any case, many countries have eased restrictions on the gaming industry, so some gamblers have the option of going to other countries to gamble.

The Singapore Government decided to open two integrated resorts (IRs) after thorough debate, and allowed these two IRs to each set aside a small area for a casino. The two casinos have brought huge economic benefits to Singapore, and allowed the Government to streamline and mobilise efforts to tackle gambling addiction.

Strict penalties are in place to deal with those who flout the rules, and the Government is in the process of formulating even tougher regulations.

The traditional moral view is that gambling is not good. But given human nature and the fondness for taking risks and trying to make a fast buck, the simple act of slapping an "illegal" label on gambling may not be the most effective way to solve the problem.

The best way is to allow such actions to be regulated by law and reduce its negative social influence as far as possible, helping the public to boycott certain forms of gambling and curbing their urge to gamble, while involving society in regulation and education efforts.

Singapore can do this as it has a comprehensive and objective understanding of the human tendency to take risks.

High pay for public officials

STRONG determination and political will is necessary to maintain such a stand and allow the spirit to permeate public policies. Not every government can do it.

Take, for example, the high pay for senior officials in Singapore. It must have been a very difficult decision to implement the system because many people will think that those in public service, especially the senior officials, should embrace the public interest and not pursue private gain.

Giving high pay to government officials gives people the impression that a job in the public service is a way to get rich.

But public service is also a type of service and the people involved are normal people like us with families, relatives and friends. They face livelihood issues, pay for their children's education, and buy their own houses and cars. In other words, they have economic needs too.

So when people engaged in other services feel justified in getting their pay, especially in senior management, then it would be unfair if government officials do not receive salaries commensurate with their responsibilities.

This may then result in officials' rent-seeking behaviour as seen in many countries, or their using various allowances and benefits to boost their pay. Talented people may also shun politics for the business sector.

In the general election held in Singapore last year, some voters grumbled that ministerial pay in Singapore was too high.

After the election, the Government made a decision to lower salaries while generally maintaining the high pay structure. Such decisions need courage.

This realistic understanding of human nature, which permeates Singapore's public policies, is the essence of its management and the definition of its success.

It comes from the Singapore Government's acknowledgement that its people are its most valuable resource. With such understanding and respect, Singapore ensures that everyone in the nation maximises his potential and does his best in whatever he is doing.

This, in turn, transforms Singapore from a small island without any natural resources into a dazzling garden city.

The world should learn from Singapore its people-oriented spirit and imbue it in every public policy whenever possible.

The writer is assistant dean of the Nanyang Centre for Public Administration, Nanyang Technological University. He was formerly head of the International Exchange Centre of China Foreign Affairs University. This commentary appeared on Xinhuanet, a website of the Xinhua News Agency, on Dec 11.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Will new normal lead to different breed of leaders?

Nov 18, 2012
By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor

Here's a surprising outcome of the recent leadership elections in the two most powerful countries in the world: While the results were not unexpected, the expectations of what the two leaders can achieve could not be more different.

After one of the most hotly contested campaigns, the consensus among pundits to Mr Barack Obama's re-election as United States president is that it will be more of the same in Washington. With the United States Congress controlled by the opposition Republican Party, political gridlock, which prevailed over much of his first term, will continue.

This is all the more likely given the conventional wisdom that second-term presidents are usually lame ducks in the hard-to-fathom American system because they cannot seek re-election.

On the other side of the globe, in one of the most secretive selection processes but which produced a most predictable result, the view among China experts is that incoming leader Xi Jinping has the opportunity to make changes which will determine whether China continues its heady progress towards becoming a developed country.

It cannot be status quo for him because nothing stands still in China - not when 1.3 billion people are on a relentless move to transform their lives.

The word I heard most often at a recent CapitaLand forum was "reform". Reform the corruption-riven system, the accountability of officials, the disparity in development between the coastal cities and the rural countryside and the widening income gap, and Mr Xi's China will succeed in becoming the largest economy in the world by 2020, according to some estimates.

Fail, and the Chinese juggernaut could skid out of control, with serious consequences for its people and the rest of the world. Indeed, Mr Xi referred to these issues in his first speech broadcast live on television. "To forge iron, one must be strong," he said.

There are such high expectations of him, yet he was not chosen by the vagaries of the "one man, one vote" system.

So how was he chosen?

One view that has gained prominence in recent times is that the Chinese system is highly meritocratic, selecting the best man in a rigorous process that would have eliminated many others along the way.

Both The New York Times and the Financial Times - not the friendliest newspapers towards China - carried pieces last week arguing that it was probably the most meritocratic system in the world, and right for such a vast country.

Writing in the FT, Professor Daniel Bell of Tsinghua University and Mr Eric Lee, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist, said: "The advantages of Chinese-style meritocracy are clear. Cadres are put through a gruelling process of talent selection and only those with an excellent performance record make it to the highest level. Instead of wasting time and energy campaigning for votes, leaders can seek to improve their knowledge and performance.

"The Chinese regime has developed the right formula for choosing political rulers that is consistent with China's culture and history and suitable to modern circumstances. It should be improved on the basis of this formula, not Western-style democracy."

Professor Zhang Weiwei of Fudan University put it this way in the NYT: "Nothing can better illustrate this meritocratic governance than the line-up of the next generation of Chinese leaders... Virtually all the candidates have served at least twice as a party secretary of a Chinese province or at similar managerial positions. It takes extraordinary talent and skills to govern a typical Chinese province, which is on average the size of four to five European states."

Two very different systems to choose leaders in the two countries with the most influence on the rest of the world.

For us in Singapore, we can only hope that chosen leaders will rule wisely. And ponder - among the many issues facing the country - whether the system here for throwing up and selecting leaders is the right one, given our history and culture.

But what exactly is the Singapore system?

Going by how it has been practised over the last 40 years, it has also been described as meritocratic, developed and honed by the ruling People's Action Party in its quest to find the best possible candidates to fill the Cabinet.

They have mainly come from top performers in the public sector, with the occasional but rare private sector addition, in their 30s and 40s but with no prior political experience. Those who make it after a stint as junior ministers go on to helm their own ministries.

In the present line-up, Mr Chan Chun Sing, Mr Lawrence Wong and Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, all from the public sector, are on track along this time-tested route to the top. Education Minister Heng Swee Keat, slightly older, was the exception when he was appointed to head a ministry immediately after the election.

Almost similar to the Chinese system? The key difference is that they first have to be elected by the people.

In the years before the 2011 General Election, this was almost a formality. Yes, they needed to contest elections but under the Group Representation Constituency system, and facing weak opposition parties, they were shoo-ins.

Under those circumstances, the Singapore system was as close to the Chinese system in claiming its meritocratic credentials, though not as competitive or rigorous.

But we are now into a new normal, and if the last GE is anything to go by, those shoo-in days might well be over. Voters' desire for more opposition, and the ability of the more successful opposition parties to attract better-qualified candidates, will make it harder for scholar-type candidates with no political experience to succeed.

If indeed this turns out to be the case, will the PAP talent pipeline dry up, as fewer successful people want to come forward and risk a political future fraught with uncertainty at the first hurdle?

Critics of the present system will argue that this is a good thing because it will require a different breed of candidate, not averse to the rough and tumble of politics. And that the old method of parachuting in careerists with no political flair or experience is what is wrong with the PAP's way and explains last year's backlash from voters.

They will argue that the ruling party needs to fix the way it recruits candidates, and select those who do not only excel at policy work but also connect with the people and can succeed in getting elected.

Being electable might in future become more important. After all, the most competent candidate is of no use to the party if he or she cannot win an election.

So, will Singapore see a change in the way leaders are thrown up? If indeed a new breed of leaders emerges as a result, different from the scholar-types of the past, what changes will they bring to Singapore's governance?

This will be uncharted territory, with far-reaching consequences for the future of this place.

Competent, committed and connected leaders - in the US, China or Singapore - matter to the highest degree. Get the right people elected, and there is a higher chance the right policies will follow.

Leadership selection is a much more fundamental issue, one more critical to Singapore's future than the tweaking of public policies such as housing or transport.

I hope these questions are being asked at the highest level.

The real China model: Not quite meritocracy
by Mark Elliot

Nov 16, 2012

In the ongoing discussion of so-called Western and Chinese models of political development, a number of commentators have recently drawn attention to China's "meritocratic" practices as deeply rooted political traditions that remain an effective vehicle for any citizen to rise to the very top of the country's leadership structure.

With "princelings" - sons of China's revolutionary heroes - making up a big part of the Communist Party's new Standing Committee, the case for meritocracy in China's current political system is tough to make, but I will leave this question to students of modern Chinese politics.

As a historian, however, I cannot let pass unchallenged the characterisation of premodern Chinese political culture as "meritocratic."


Political scientist and best-selling author Zhang Weiwei suggested that "the Communist Party of China may arguably be one of the world's most meritocratic institutions" ("Meritocracy versus democracy," Nov 12).

Whether in essays by political observers or in remarks by Communist Party leaders, references to "meritocracy" like Mr Zhang's inevitably call upon associations with China's fabled examination system, broadly instituted in the 7th century A D and liquidated only many centuries later, in 1905.

The popular perception of the examinations (called keju in Chinese) maintains that they served as an objective tool whereby all aspirants to public office were measured according to their ability to prove mastery of a substantial canon of classical texts, wherein was believed to lie the knowledge essential to good government.

Since (almost) any male was eligible to take the exams, the idea was that they regularly elevated top talent from across the country into the elite, injecting new ideas and blood into the body politic and ensuring an avenue upward for clever, ambitious individuals.

In this view, to which proponents of the "China model" like Mr Zhang evidently subscribe, up until a little more than a century ago, a young man with no connections could dream of becoming a powerful (and wealthy) minister if he only studied hard enough.

It is an admirable ideal. But how meritocratic was the examination system in its actual practice?


Over the last 20 years, research has shown that the keju was far from the "ladder of success" it was long widely reputed to be.

We know that during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), for instance, merchants' sons were not allowed to take the examinations at all, and that in the Qing (1644-1911), as Mr Benjamin Elman, a scholar from Princeton University, has decisively shown, "the content of the civil service competition clearly excluded over 90 per cent of China's people from even the first step on the ladder to success."

In other words, to have any kind of reasonable shot at passing the exams, you needed to come from a family with an established tradition of classical literacy, meaning a family with money to buy books or close connections to another such family. Only 10 per cent of the population made that cut.

Furthermore, as a former student of mine, Mr Lawrence Zhang, persuasively argues in his dissertation, the number of Qing officials whose path to glory was facilitated by office purchase has been considerably underestimated. Not only did families from outside the "power elite" spend money to advance their sons in the competition, literati families themselves - long thought to have no need to sink to such tawdry schemes - used their money freely to game the system.

With the odds of making it all the way to the highest levels of the exams literally one in a million, who can blame them?

The fact is that a majority of elites in imperial China relied on means other than "merit" to succeed politically: They depended on family connections and material resources, much like political elites in Western societies.

Because so few people ever had any hope of passing the exams and yet so many still took part, the consensus today is that the main significance of the examination system was the reinforcement and reproduction of specific modes of elite discourse that served state needs on social, political and cultural levels.

Contrary to the claims of Mr Zhang and like-minded writers, it had little to do with scouring every village of the empire in the search for geniuses to recruit to court service.


That is not to say the system was totally ineffective. Then, as now, people of merit were indeed chosen for official service. It was just that most of them were not chosen in an especially meritocratic way, if by "meritocratic" we mean "judged superior according to an objective standard of ability" (like an examination of philosophical knowledge and literary skill).

Writers like Mr Zhang Weiwei may disagree with that understanding of meritocracy, since in Chinese they use the classical phrase xuanxian renneng, "selecting the wise and employing the capable" - hardly the same thing, I would suggest, since it says nothing about how selection happens.

It may well be that we are dealing with very different definitions of what constitutes "meritocracy" in the first place. Of course, among much of Chinese society before the 20th century the belief prevailed that "anyone could make it", and the state connived at this; but literary sources make it clear that only the naive clung to such a fantasy.

That present-day commentators still promote outmoded thinking regarding the imperial "meritocracy" demonstrates not only the long half-life of that ideology, but also the strong hold that the Chinese state continues to have over much of China's (and not only China's) intelligentsia.

That hold, rather than meritocracy, is a much better example of the way in which the effects of China's long history continue to be felt today.

Mark Elliott is a professor of Chinese and Inner Asian History at Harvard University.

See also: Westerners who laud a Chinese meritocracy continue to miss the point


Sunday, November 18, 2012

How to cool the HDB resale market

Nov 18, 2012

Require PRs who leave to sell their flats; make landlords pay levy and tax on rental income
By Chua Mui Hoong Opinion Editor

A property agent friend rang last week with two bits of news she wanted to discuss.

First, she said, the rental market is very weak. She had put up a Housing Board flat for rent and was shocked at how slow the response was. "Lots of foreigners are going home, they can't renew their passes," she explained.

The second issue: prices of HDB resale flats. She is worried for her sons, and whether they can afford their own home. "Crazy," she said, referring to reports of the Queenstown flat that sold for $1million and the executive condominium unit reportedly fetching $1.6million. "Will the Government let this continue?"

Each year, about 30,000 couples get hitched. Assuming those aged 26 to 30 are waiting to get married, that's five cohorts of 30,000 couples worried about whether they can afford a flat, or 150,000 couples.

Since each couple has four parents, that's 600,000 Singaporean parents fretting over runaway housing prices.

No wonder the subject spawns plenty of chatter online and in the mainstream media and in coffee shops.

The worry is that soaring HDB resale flat prices will feed into higher prices for new subsidised flats, and put HDB housing beyond the reach of the average worker.

Why resale flat prices soar appears puzzling at first glance.

Basic economics tells us prices turn on demand and supply.

First, consider the demand side. Why is there such strong demand for HDB flats in a country with 90 per cent home ownership?

The answer lies in three words: newlyweds, foreigners and churn.

The first are young couples forming new households.

The second are permanent residents (PRs) allowed to buy HDB flats, who make up 20 per cent of recent HDB resale flat transactions.

The third refers to folks who have sold their own homes (either HDB or private property) for whatever reason and need a new place.

You can curb demand to cool prices. In fact, the Government has done so, by building more build-to-order flats to cater to newlyweds and some of the churners; and by requiring those who own private property in Singapore or overseas to sell their other properties if they buy an HDB flat.

But I think more effort needs to go into the supply side of the equation.

To do this, we need to understand why the supply of resale flats is so limited.

The number of resale flats sold has fallen over the years: from 39,320 in FY2009, to 30,061 in FY2010 and 24,331 in FY2011. That's a fall of 38 per cent in three years.

At the same time, the number of flats put up for sub-letting has increased: from 27,256 to 36,440 to 41,162 over the same three-year period to FY2011. That's a rise of 51 per cent.

Clearly, more HDB flat-owners who don't need their flats to live in are finding it more worthwhile to rent them out than sell them.


In part it is due to new restrictions being imposed on the purchase of resale flats, dissuading existing flat-owners from selling, for fear they can't buy an HDB resale flat in future.

If you own both private property and an HDB resale flat for example, you're unlikely to sell the latter. If you did, you'd find that current rules prevent you from purchasing an HDB resale flat in future unless you're prepared to sell off your private property too.

But the real answer to why folks want to rent out, not sell, their resale flat, lies in one word: Yield.

With good rental, it becomes attractive to rent out your HDB flat for an income stream, rather than sell it now for instant capital gains.

Would you sell your four-room flat for $400,000 now? Or hold on to it, get $2,200 a month or $26,400 in annual rental income for 10 years, and then sell it in 2022, by which time you hope the price goes up to $600,000?

It's a no-brainer. A steady income stream today, with possible capital appreciation tomorrow, gives every reason for HDB flat-owners to hang on to their money-making machine.

What works for an individual HDB landlord, however, may not be ideal for society as a whole.

If fewer resale flats come onto the market, prices will remain inflated, and all the cooling measures on the demand side won't be effective.

This is why I think there must be measures to boost the supply of resale flats too.

You can't mandate or force HDB flat-owners to sell their flats. That would be politically untenable and goes against the free market here.

But you can create incentives and disincentives to change the equation for HDB landlords.

The basic philosophy is to persuade folks who don't need an HDB flat to live in, to sell it.

First, permanent residents who own HDB flats. I am not in favour of banning PRs from buying HDB resale flats. After all, they live and work in Singapore and need affordable housing too.

But they must live in the flats. This means requiring them to sell their HDB flat when they leave Singapore. HDB has also introduced rules to limit the number of years PRs can sub-let their flats.

Second, make sure the rental income of HDB flat landlords is declared and taxed. Those who rent out their flats now need to declare this to the HDB, including stating the amount of rental.

HDB and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore must work seamlessly to ensure taxes are paid. This will increase the tax liability of those who already earn good incomes. If they are in the top income bracket, every 20 cents of their rental dollar go back to the taxman.

Third, on top of the usual tax on income, impose a special levy on HDB rental income for those who also own private property. There are about 33,000 of them, or 4 per cent of the total HDB stock.

The levy can be justified as a redistribution measure. After all, this group doesn't need a home to live in and are wealthy enough to afford private housing. Meanwhile, their younger or less wealthy compatriots are being priced out of the basic housing market.

The free market allows landlords to collect rental. The state then steps in to impose a levy to alter the equation for the landlord, to persuade him to give up his title and sell the property.

A levy of, say, 50 per cent can tilt the balance towards selling rather than renting. High-income private property owners making money from their HDB flats will have to pay 20 cents per dollar in tax, and another 50 cents in levy. They get to keep only 30 cents per dollar of rent.

Some will consider it worthwhile to hold on to their HDB flats anyway, perhaps because they want to retire in one, or give it to their children. At the margin, however, there will be a number who figure it makes better financial sense to sell their HDB flats now while the market is robust.

If more units come onto the market, prices will certainly adjust.

More pertinently, it sends a clear signal to Singaporeans that while HDB flats can appreciate in value, they should not be traded like a high-yield investment asset. A high tax on rental yield will send such a message sharply.

Is this a drastic measure? Not by any means.

It will hit only those who own both HDB flats and private property. It's less intrusive than outright bans or tighter ownership restrictions.

It's certainly less drastic than the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) proposal to build a category of flats which can't be sold on the open market and can be priced lower. I applaud the SDP for its serious engagement on this issue and believe Singapore would be a richer society if opposition parties paid the same level of attention to policy proposals. But I belong to the category of those who don't think it's a good idea to deny lower-income households the opportunity to benefit from increases in value of their homes. There are other ways to help the bottom 40 per cent of households afford their own homes: build smaller flats, give more generous grants, offer interest-free loans.

In contrast, a levy on rental income from HDB flats is a fiscal measure that can be easily tweaked: If 50 per cent is not right, tweak it to 30, or 70. It hits the HDB landlord-investor right where it hurts most: his pocket. It can tilt the balance to make it less attractive for those who don't need a roof over their head to buy a resale flat.

Nor should there be concerns about a levy being passed on by landlords to tenants, inflating rental costs. As Singapore tightens the tap on foreign manpower, rental demand will soften in the years to come. It will become a tenants' market, and landlords won't be able to hold tenants to ransom.

[The problem in the resale market is that there is no cap on the COV. On the one hand, COV can be seen as an instrument for instant adjustment and response to the market to properly reflect the true costs and value of the property and the owner should have a right to this adjustment as the valuation may have lagged. However, how much lag or discrepancy can there be? Perhaps COV of up to 10% of the valuation of the flat can be allowed without any restrictions. However beyond 10%, every dollar of COV will be taxed as part of income of the seller.

And if the COV is higher than 20% of valuation, every dollar above 20% paid by the buyer must be matched with a dollar of tax to the govt to be paid by the buyer. i.e. 100% sales tax.

So if a flat is valued at $400,000, the seller may ask and receive up to $40,000 as COV tax free.

If the COV is $45,000, the seller will be taxed on the $5000 as income.

If the COV is $100,000, the first $40,000 will still be tax-free, but the seller will have to include $60,000 as part of his income to be taxed. The buyer in addition to the COV of $100,000 will also be required to pay the govt $20,000 for a total of $120,000, because $20k is above the 20%.

This effectively puts a loose "cap" of 20% of the valuation for COV, as beyond 20%, the buyer has to pay 100% tax.

Is this a possible solution or will it cause more problems?]

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why drug kingpins avoid S'pore

Nov 16, 2012

Parliament on Wednesday amended the Misuse of Drugs Act. Under the new law, the death penalty will no longer be mandatory for drug trafficking under two specific conditions: First, if the trafficker only played the role of courier and had not been involved in other drug-related activities, and second, if the trafficker cooperated in a substantive way. Below is an edited extract of Law Minister K. Shanmugam's speech, in which he addressed issues and concerns raised by several MPs and NMPs.

MY OWN view is the starting position has to be that the courts should have discretion.

How then should we approach the question of death penalty for serious drug offences? If we focus only on the trafficker and ask if mercy ought to be shown, the answer must be "yes". No one can disagree with that.

(But) the correct question has to look at the context and raise the following issues:

1) What is the nature of the drug menace, the nature of the beast that we're dealing with?

2) What are the risks we face as a country, as a society from this risk; how do we deal with these risks; what has to be our approach; what happens if we completely remove the mandatory death penalty and (leave it to) the discretion of the courts?

Are we prepared for the trade-offs and the risks? The answer depends on the level of risks and costs to society that you're prepared to accept. Let me take you through some data.

First, drug users globally have gone up from 180 million to 210 million in the last 10 years.

Second, every year between 100,000 and 263,000 people die due to drugs, with the mean age of their deaths at mid-30s.

We hardly ever hear tears shed in public for these 200,000 who die. But we shed a lot of tears for everyone on the death row. Compassion is important, but context is also important.

The fight worldwide against drugs is being lost. Drug syndicates are sophisticated MNCs, well-financed, international networks, very smart people at the helm, making huge profits and with good access to people who can act as couriers.

Singapore is a highly attractive destination, with people who can pay for drugs; it's a transport and tourism hub. Half a million people come here every day, or 182 million every year. It's logical for Singapore to become a drug hub or a major trans-shipment centre.

What is the impact of drugs in Singapore even with all of our tight laws? About two-thirds of local prisoners are drug addicts, drug offenders. Eighty per cent, eight out of every 10 prisoners, have drug antecedents - that is, they may be in for something else but they have drug antecedents.

Consider the impact on offenders, families, victims, society. And the youth abusers in Singapore show a worrying trend.

We take comprehensive measures against both supply and demand; and it involves education, early intervention for young abusers, strict border controls, tough enforcement, tough drug rehabilitation for first- and second-time abusers, long-term imprisonment after the third time, and of course the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act against syndicate members where witnesses fear to testify, and tough punishment, caning, imprisonment, mandatory death penalty.

The mandatory death penalty is not, cannot be the only solution. It has got to be part of a comprehensive framework to deal with the situation.

The consequence of our approach is that we are one of the few countries where the drug menace has been fought reasonably successfully, and I emphasise reasonably because this is not a fight you can say you've won. And you can easily lose it.

Drug kingpins avoid Singapore. There's no substantive production here. Couriers think twice before they try their luck. They try to keep below the threshold for capital punishment. We know this through intelligence.

Drug prices in Singapore - another market indicator - are comparatively high, purity levels comparatively low. Purity level is 4per cent, compared with Hong Kong's 57 per cent.

So when you debate the mandatory death penalty, look at it in this context: Why do drug kingpins avoid Singapore? Why is it difficult to get people to traffic drugs into Singapore?

Why is it traffickers often and deliberately keep below the limits for capital punishment? What will be the consequence of removing the mandatory death penalty?

Would there be more people willing to become couriers? And it's not difficult to get people in this region to become couriers: People who need money and drug abusers can be persuaded to become couriers. Not difficult.

Our stance on the death penalty is extremely well known: Traffickers face capital punishment. That sends a message and reduces the number of couriers.

You remove that fear, you remove that penalty, are we willing to take the risk of many more people becoming willing couriers?

In the context of drugs, the suggestion to give discretion to judges looks attractive. Of course, the approach is, maintain the death penalty for deterrence and allow for mercy in individual cases.

As I have said earlier, this is something that has concerned us deeply because, like the members, our preference would be to give more discretion to the courts, but we have looked at this carefully, discussed it with the agencies, the Attorney-General.

We discussed it with both Chief Justices Chan Sek Keong and Sundaresh Menon to see if it is possible to give more discretion. Their views were that if you want to give more discretion to the courts and if Parliament deems it necessary to make a drug offence punishable with the death penalty, it is preferable that the statutes set out as clearly as possible the circumstances under which the death penalty ought to be imposed.

And they have also said that while the courts will, of course, exercise any discretion in a principled and consistent manner, it is best that the legislature define in the clearest possible terms when the ultimate punishment is justified. So let us take it from there.

Think it through: How will we craft a legislative provision to give more discretion to the courts?

First, the quantum: 15g of diamorphine. Do we agree this is a serious threshold?

Once you agree on the threshold and if the elements of the offence are made out, then how would you have the court exercise discretion? On what basis?

Can we conceive of a discretionary sentencing approach that maintains the deterrent value of the death penalty across the whole spectrum of drug trafficking activities? With the best will in the world, I suggest it'll be difficult, if not impossible.

Consider age: Would you say youth? Young mothers? Impecuniosity? The trafficker was baited with love? Would you look at other family circumstances?

Set out the criteria and the drug lords will design the couriers in accordance with these criteria.

Trafficking is the crime. So while it is attractive in broad terms to talk about giving discretion, look at it in detail. How would it work? In murder, yes, you can look at it to see whether it's a crime of passion, you can look at the the individuals. How would you do it for drug trafficking in a way that does not affect the deterrent effect of the death penalty?

So be realistic and then post the question in realistic terms: Do you want de facto or at least substantial reduction in the deterrent value of the death penalty?

I'm not arguing that you cannot put that position forward, but at least then that will be a clearer, hard-headed approach, which analyses the real issue. Then, the question for members is: Is this a risk you're prepared to take in the context of the global and regional situation, and remove a key strategy in our fight against drugs?

And on couriers, there are many misconceptions. Let us be clear. They do this for money.

Let me now move onto cooperation, the question that has been raised by a number of members. On the first exception, that couriers who have substantively assisted the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) in disrupting drug trafficking activities could be spared capital punishment.

In looking at this, it seems to me that members may have asked themselves the question: "What can we do to help couriers avoid capital punishment?"

If that was the question, the solutions are very easy. The issue is not what can we do to help couriers avoid capital punishment. It is what can we do to enhance the effectiveness of the Act in a non-capricious and fair way, without affecting our underlying fight against drugs?

Discretionary sentencing for those who offer substantial assistance is the approach we have taken. For those who cannot offer substantive assistance, the position is as it is now.

Some members have asked: "Would it be better to say the courier has done his best, that he acted in good faith?"

The short answer is, it's not a realistic option because every courier, once primed, will seem to cooperate. We are dealing with an offence with a criminal organisation on the other side.

So if you say cooperate, your couriers will be primed with beautiful stories, mostly unverifiable, but on the face of it, they've cooperated. And the death penalty will then not be imposed, and you know what will happen to the deterrent value. Operational effectiveness will not be enhanced.

Will we be better off? We will be worse off.

As I started out, in these things, it's not as if there is one clear answer one way or the other. It is what we in this House consider to be important for our society and weighing the different approaches. But don't fool yourself that there are no trade-offs.

Mr Edwin Tong, Professor Eugene Tan, and Mr Desmond Lee said, are drug couriers in a position to provide substantive assistance? Fair point. Let me throw back the question. Assume the couriers are not able to help. What should be the penalty? That goes back to the fundamental question: Should there be the death penalty for couriers? That is the question you have to cross.

It is a difficult question but if you answer that and once you say yes to that, then you will see this change as making an exception to that position. Only those who qualify for the exception must be spared the death penalty.

On the second exception, on diminished responsibility, our view is that the law has been set out, genuine cases of mental disability are recognised, judgments have to be made, depending on the facts. And while genuine cases of mental disability would afford a defence, errors of judgment will not afford a defence. And the law is also capable of taking into account the progress of medical science in understanding mental conditions.

Let me conclude by making some broader points.

I have spoken several times about weighing the consequences in real terms before deciding what we do. Let's look at the situation of some real cases.

First, the case of Noinoi. In 2006, Mohd Ali Johari was charged for the murder of his two-year-old step-daughter, Noinoi. He admitted to slapping her, immersing her in water repeatedly. He was a father at 17, a marijuana smoker, cough syrup abuser, immature, deficient parent. He said he sometimes brought Noinoi home with him as he thought that she would help him avoid detection by CNB.

Look at "Nelly" and "Rose". Nelly (aged six) was placed under foster care after her mother, uncle and grandfather were arrested for drug consumption. She had been cared for by multiple caregivers and witnessed her mother taking drugs. Her sister, Rose, a newborn baby, was placed under foster care in 2010.

Look at "Ricky", nine years old, referred to MCYS in 2007 when his mother and stepfather were imprisoned for drug offences. Both had a long history of drug abuse. Father was also a drug abuser. Ricky was admitted to a children's home, where he was observed to have emotional issues and suicidal tendencies.

Last case I wanted to highlight. Girl, we call her "A", was arrested at the age of 16 for possession of meth. Drugs were given to her by her half-sister, now serving sentence for drug consumption, also by her mother's boyfriend.

Later, when her mother's boyfriend was incarcerated, she turned to her mother, who gave her heroin regularly. She has three half-brothers currently incarcerated for drug consumption. Five others arrested for consumption of drugs - friends of Girl A's mother - consumed drugs at her half-sister's residence. Total number of people involved in this group: 12.

We do need to show mercy and compassion to the traffickers but at the same time we also need to show mercy and compassion to the Noinois and the Roses and the Nellys and the Rickys of this world, and thousands of others like them. Young lives destroyed.

None of us really are there cheering for the death penalty or mandatory death penalty. It has to be a careful calibration of the risks that society faces and the punishments that can be imposed.

And if we go in any particular route, let's do it without hiding the truth from ourselves or by assuming that nothing else will change while we change certain penalties, except that if you change the penalties, there will be consequences.

Ask yourself whether we are prepared for the consequences, and if we honestly are prepared for the consequences, then we change.

I would suggest: Ask whether the changes we make, are they going to help the victims or are they going to hurt the victims? And firmness, clarity of purpose, and compassion to both the offenders as well as the victims.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

US election over... now comes the hard part

Nov 14, 2012
By Nayan Chanda For The Straits Times

A MEMORABLE moment of the long drawn-out United States presidential election campaign came in March when a Romney adviser explained how his candidate would switch gears once the primaries were over.

From the position of a severe conservative, he would become a moderate. "It is almost like an Etch A Sketch," he said, referring to a mechanical doodling toy. "You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again," he elucidated.

With the polling over, Etch A Sketch reveals itself as an apt metaphor for the entire election campaign. Issues such as outsourcing, abortion and petrol prices that long filled the debating stage can now be pushed to the background, revealing the more portentous issues that were inconvenient to raise earlier. The looming fiscal cliff faced by the government and the threat of global warming are two of such issues that the world waits to hear about from Washington.

Having shunned the divisive issue of global warming during the campaign, President Barack Obama raised it within hours of his victory. "We want our children to live in an America that isn't... threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet," he said.

While the campaign was on, with coal-mining constituencies in mind, Mr Mitt Romney loudly proclaimed his love for coal. Mr Obama timidly responded by affirming his support for clean coal. Even after the unprecedentedly large super storm Sandy that wrought disaster and interrupted the campaign, the candidates were mum.

But Sandy finally pushed even a mainstream publication such as Bloomberg Businessweek to drop its standard journalistic equivocation and run a cover proclaiming "It's Global Warming, Stupid".

Increasingly, many climate scientists are acknowledging the role of global warming in the frequency of mega disasters, even if these cannot be directly linked to climate change. Mr Obama's mention of the "destructive power of a warming planet" suggests that, shorn of the electoral constraints, he may be ready to call a spade a spade.

He has already taken some executive measures to curb emissions and promote cleaner energy. However, major steps to stem global warming and mitigate the anticipated ill-effects would require strong leadership and congressional legislation. It remains to be seen how much political capital Mr Obama is ready to spend to leave this legacy for "our children".

More urgent than leaving a legacy is to figure out what happens to the US economy and the world on Jan 1. During the election campaign, the question of how to avoid disastrous, across-the-board spending cuts and tax hikes that await on Dec 31 was avoided like the plague.

In the summer of last year, failing to reach an agreement on a solution, a bitterly divided Congress had kicked the can down to the post-election weeks. If, in the remaining six weeks, the Republicans and the Democrats cannot reach an agreement on how to bring down the mountain-high deficit, it would not only tip the US economy into recession but, as the International Monetary Fund warned, also have "large international spillovers".

The scrapping of tax cuts instituted by the Bush administration would raise revenue but hit the middle class hard.

Apart from the inability to compromise, the reason to put off the most vital decision for the country till the waning weeks of the year was perhaps the hope that the election would alter the power balance, making a deal possible.

But the election results offer a confusing message. The exit poll shows voters trust Mr Obama more than Mr Romney to protect the middle class, but believe the Republican candidate to be better equipped to manage the economy.

This dichotomy is reflected in the results. While Mr Obama won a decisive victory and the Democrats maintained their control of the Senate, the House of Representatives remains in the hands of the Republican Party.

Although chastened by the defeat of its presidential candidate and some radical Tea Party members, the Republican Party is not ready to compromise on its determination to prevent raising taxes on the rich. Buoyed by the Obama victory and poll results showing majority support for taxing the rich, the Democrats, for their part, are in no mood for compromise.

Had the election campaign not been an Etch A Sketch operation and allowed the candidates to openly debate the pros and cons of their positions to avoid a year-end disaster, America and the world would have been spared a cliffhanger.

The author is director of publications at the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation and editor of YaleGlobal Online.

Near-death experiences: A sign of life after death?

Nov 15, 2012
By Andy Ho Senior Writer

A NEW book, Proof Of Heaven (2012), made the cover of Newsweek recently.

The magazine's story, entitled Heaven Is Real, is all about a Harvard neurosurgeon who went to heaven while in a deep coma. Or so he says. One night in 2008, Dr Eben Alexander felt unwell, but by early morning he had become comatose. E. coli infection of the brain, a rarity in adults, had led the outside of his brain to be filled with pus. The brain shut down, whereupon the electroencephalogram (EEG) flatlined, showing no electrical activity.

After six days in a deep coma, even as his wife was discussing with doctors in the next room when to pull the plug, the brain-dead man suddenly woke up, tugged at the tubes and began talking. He related his experience of a "hyper-vivid and completely coherent odyssey" into another dimension while comatose, one with angels, music, beauty, love and flying on butterfly wings.

While a great yarn, it holds much in common with stories related by others who have had this "near-death experience" (NDE). In a 2001 Lancet study of 344 Dutch patients who were resuscitated after cardiac arrest, 18 per cent had had an NDE while clinically dead.

The NDE was first described by American psychiatrist Raymond Moody in Life After Life (1975). He noted 15 characteristic features such as euphoria, an out-of-body experience, going through a tunnel, rising into the heavens, encountering non-physical beings and departed loved ones, sensing a loving "Being of Light", a review of one's life and, finally, returning to the body.

In 2006, a University of Virginia (UVA) study noted that while NDE trippers were not particularly religious before the experience, it tended to cause a "spiritual transformation" so they became less afraid of death and convinced that love trumped material goods.

Critics insist that everything in the universe is grounded in material reality. So all mental processes can only come from chemical ones in the material brain. As there can be no consciousness without a functioning brain, there can't be life after death, they say.

When the heart stops, blood flow to and oxygen uptake by the brain drops to near zero within seconds, so higher brain functions stop. The EEG shows the brain's electrical activity slowing down within six to 10 seconds, then flat-lining within 10 to 20 seconds. Yet over 100 cases of NDEs occurring specifically during cardiac arrest when the EEG has flatlined have been reported in at least four published studies.

So how could a coherent, highly structured experience like this arise from a clinically dead brain?

Critics say, first, that the EEG is just picking up electrical activity in the outer part of the cerebral cortex (grey matter). So when it flatlines, the inner part of the brain could still be active.

However, the issue is not if there is activity at all but whether it is of the kind needed to produce these vivid trips. In particular, the hippocampus, the brain region which forms memories, is especially sensitive to oxygen deprivation, so there should be no memory of the NDE in the oxygen-starved brain. Thus, any putatively residual brain capacity undetected on EEG when the brain is oxygen-deprived doesn't suffice to explain the complex information processing that seems to be occurring within an NDE.

Secondly, critics say that NDEs don't actually occur while the brain is already shut down. Instead, they may be occurring just before it shuts down or just as it is coming out of a shutdown. However, most cardiac arrest patients, on recovering consciousness, are notably confused about or amnesic of the happenings just before and just after the arrest.

By contrast, NDEers commonly report having extra-clear minds during the trip, which are thus hyper-vivid. In a 2010 study, 75 per cent or more of NDEers described their minds during the trip as clearer, faster and more logical than usual. This suggests that complex cognition and memory formation occur during an NDE.

Finally, critics note that studies show sincere people who simply imagine a specific experience can form false memories. Indeed, Dr Moody's 15 features seem to recur in NDE accounts. His 1975 book, which sold 10 million copies, may well have subsequently coloured many an account/false memory.

But a 2006 study compared 24 NDE accounts collected before 1975 against 24 accounts collected after 1975. The latter were found to differ in only one of Moody's 15 features, reporting more often the tunnel phenomenon "which other research has suggested may not be integral to the experience". Thus NDEs may be more than false memories of or imaginative reconstructions by some people.

But why don't all clinically dead patients who are then successfully resuscitated report NDEs? A 2004 UVA study found that NDEers were more likely to have EEG features that resemble those found in epilepsy in the temporal lobes.

These are the parts of the brain at the temples which are active in religious experiences. Stimulating them experimentally can cause hallucinations, memory flashbacks and out-of-body sensations. Thus it may be that people with temporal lobes that function in a specific manner are more likely to have NDEs.

Bottom line: Do NDEs prove consciousness persists after death? Those who say "yes" think that the mind is more than just the brain, the twain being separable entities. Those who say "no" insist that the mind is just the brain. Yet both parties may be jumping the gun since how consciousness emerges from the physical brain - a conundrum that philosophers have dubbed "the hard problem" - is not known. If so, asking if consciousness can persist after death puts the cart before the horse. Whether heaven is real or not, the NDE isn't really proof either way.

Obama's nightmare

Nov 15, 2012

By thomas l. friedman

THE sex scandal engulfing two of America's top military and intelligence officers could not be coming at a worse time: The Middle East has never been more unstable and closer to multiple, interconnected explosions.

Virtually every American president since Dwight Eisenhower has had a Middle Eastern country that brought him grief. For Ike, it was Lebanon's civil war and Israel's Sinai invasion. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the 1967 Six-Day War. For Richard Nixon, it was the 1973 war. For Jimmy Carter, it was the Iranian Revolution. For Ronald Reagan, it was Lebanon. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq. For Bill Clinton, it was Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan. For George W. Bush, it was Iraq and Afghanistan. For Barack Obama's first term, it was Iran and Afghanistan, again.

And for Mr Obama's second term, I fear that it could be the full nightmare - all of them at once. The whole Middle East erupts in one giant sound and light show of civil wars, states collapsing and refugee dislocations, as the keystone of the entire region - Syria - gets pulled asunder and the disorder spills across the neighbourhood.

And you were worried about the "fiscal cliff".

Ever since the start of the Syrian uprising/civil war, I've cautioned that while Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Tunisia implode, Syria would explode if a political resolution was not found quickly. That is exactly what's happening.

The reason Syria explodes is because its borders are particularly artificial, and all its internal communities - Sunnis, Shi'ites, Alawites, Kurds, Druze and Christians - are linked to brethren in nearby countries and are trying to draw them in for help.

Also, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia is fighting a proxy war against Shi'ite-led Iran in Syria and in Bahrain, which is the base of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. Bahrain witnessed a host of bombings last week as its Sunni-led regime stripped 31 Bahraini Shi'ite political activists of their citizenship. Meanwhile, someone in Syria has decided to start lobbing mortars at Israel. And, on Tuesday night, violent anti-government protests broke out across Jordan over petrol price increases.

What to do? I continue to believe that the best way to understand the real options - and they are grim - is by studying Iraq, which, like Syria, is made up largely of Sunnis, Shi'ites, Christians and Kurds. Why didn't Iraq explode outward like Syria after Saddam Hussein was removed? The answer: America.

For better and for worse, the United States in Iraq performed the geopolitical equivalent of falling on a grenade - that we triggered ourselves. That is, we pulled the pin, we pulled out Saddam, we set off a huge explosion in the form of a Shi'ite-Sunni contest for power.

Thousands of Iraqis were killed along with more than 4,700 American troops, but the presence of those US troops in and along Iraq's borders prevented the violence from spreading. The US invasion both triggered the civil war in Iraq and contained it at the same time.

After that Sunni-Shi'ite civil war burned itself out, the US brokered a fragile, imperfect power- sharing deal between Iraqi Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds. Then the US got out. It is not at all clear that their deal will survive the departure.

Still, the lesson is that if you're trying to topple one of these iron- fisted, multi-sectarian regimes, it really helps to have an outside power that can contain the explosions and mediate a new order. There is too little trust in these societies for them to do it on their own. Syria's civil war, though, was triggered by predominantly Sunni rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite-Shi'ite regime.

There is no outside power willing to fall on the Syrian grenade and midwife a new order. So the fire rages uncontrolled; refugees are spilling out, and the Shi'ite- Sunni venom unleashed by the Syrian conflict is straining relations between these same communities in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait.

But Iraq teaches another lesson: Shi'ites and Sunnis are not fated to murder each other 24/7/365. Yes, their civil war dates to the 7th century. And, yes, when they started going after each other in Iraq, they did so with breathtaking chainsaw- nails-pounded-into-heads violence. There is nothing like a fight within the faith. Yet, once order was restored, Iraqi Shi'ites and Sunnis, many of whom have inter-married, were willing to work together and even run together in multi-sectarian parties in the 2009-2010 elections.

So the situation is not hopeless. I know American officials are tantalised by the idea of flipping Syria from the Iranian to the Western camp by toppling Mr Assad. That would make my day, too, but I'm sceptical it would end the conflict.

I fear that toppling Mr Assad, without a neutral third party inside Syria to referee a transition, could lead not only to permanent civil war in Syria but one that spreads around the region. It's a real long shot, but the US should keep trying to work with Russia - Syria's lawyer - to see if together a power-sharing deal can be brokered inside Syria, with a United Nations-led multinational force to oversee it.

Otherwise, this fire will rage on and spread, as the acid from the Shi'ite-Sunni conflict eats away at the bonds holding the Middle East together and standing between this region and chaos.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Jakarta's secular tussle with Islam

Nov 13, 2012
By John McBeth Senior Writer

DURING president Suharto's 32-year rule, Indonesians were constantly fed a seemingly indigestible diet of Pancasila, the five principles conceived during the struggle for independence which served as the philosophical bedrock of the future Indonesian state.

Foreign students, in particular, were taken aback at the way it occupied such a huge chunk of the curriculum at the country's command and staff college and other military institutions. Being able to "receive Pancasila in your heart", as the saying went, became something of a joke.

Not any more. In what may be a bid to win back social and political relevance, the mass Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama has called for the reconsolidation of Pancasila to halt Indonesia's troubling slide into religious intolerance.

Last July, former vice-president Try Sutrisno, his fellow generals ranging from Wismoyo Arismunandar to Wiranto, former Supreme Court chief justice Bagir Manan and other retired senior officials signed a declaration urging all elements of society to return to the ways of Pancasila.

And earlier this month, armed forces chief Admiral Agus Suhartono, his service chiefs and majors from the 1999 and 2000 military academy classes held a panel discussion on "The Regeneration of Pancasila and its Relevance to the Future of the Defence Force".

The renewed focus on Pancasila is also shared among educationalists, worried that the loosening of its tenets has emboldened hard-line Islamic groups to resort to extreme violence against minorities and even civil society itself.

The education ministry will reintroduce a basic Pancasila class that was struck from the curriculum five years ago.

Much of the current discourse about Pancasila means different things to different people. In many cases, it doesn't touch on Islamic radicalism at all, but on the simple imperative of maintaining national unity and related concerns over the impact of globalisation and inequalities.

The military's panel discussion, for example, dwelt almost solely on Pancasila's "victory" over communism in 1965-66, a reaction to recent efforts to re-examine the bloody purge which claimed at least 500,000 lives.

After all, the keynote speaker was army chief of staff General Pramono Wibowo, the son of Lieutenant-General Sarwo Wibowo, considered the architect of the Indonesian Communist Party's destruction.

Mr Juwono Sudarsono, a minister of both defence and education in post-Suharto administrations, says the rejection of Pancasila as New Order dogma is not the issue when Islamic radicals perceive it to be overly serving the interests of Christians and minority business professionals.

"If you want to instill tolerance in society, you have to be able to address it in socio-economic terms," he points out. "Pancasila is seen to be too secular and too tolerant of market capitalism. Social and economic marginalisation among Muslims has been much more pronounced in the last eight to 10 years, especially among middle-class and lower middle-class workers."

Analysts like the International Crisis Group's Sidney Jones are in two minds about how it can be applied in any meaningful sense. "Pancasila 'worked' during Suharto's rule, not because of the power of the idea but because of the coercive apparatus that went with it," she argues.

"When Pancasila comes up in the context of being an ideological basis to counter religious intolerance, then it will only succeed if there's a much more concerted effort to teach and promote pluralism, and define the first and second 'sila' as such."

Promulgated by founding president Sukarno, those sila, or principles, call for a belief in one God and a "just and civilised humanity". The three others prescribe an adherence to national unity, democracy by consensus and social justice.

But over the last decade, and particularly since the influential Indonesian Council of Ulemas fatwa against pluralism in 2005, the opposition from the conservative Muslim community seems to ensure that resurrecting Pancasila will have little impact.

For that reason alone, there has to be a willingness to use the authority of the state again to push back against the idea of Islam as the only truth. Not in a coercive manner as in the past, but resolutely all the same.

It won't be easy, given the disturbing level of intolerance that has taken root among even mainstream Muslims. Democracy has allowed for a full flowering of Muslim beliefs and the re-emergence of a hard-line minority campaigning for an Islamic state.

But few if any Islamic or political leaders will speak out against that, or are willing to question why institutions like Bank Indonesia and the Supreme Court have their own elegant government-funded mosques which inexorably link Islam and the state.

Similarly, where is Pancasila applicable when Shi'ite Muslims are forced to convert to mainstream Sunnism, and Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi insists that human rights conform to local values? And when President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appears before the United Nations to defend draconian blasphemy laws?

Obama's next task: Divide the Republicans

Nov 13, 2012
LAST week, the US equity markets gave their verdict on the country's election, ending the week more than 2 per cent down from the start. The market's pessimism was clear: The probability rose on Tuesday night that the United States will go over the fiscal cliff. To put it another way, President Barack Obama's re-election sharply reduced the Republican appetite to avert a fiscal crisis. Which seems about right.

There are occasions in a nation's politics when the overhang of decisions can no longer be contained. In the case of America's governability, this is the key equation: There is no path back to a half-decently functioning Washington that does not involve either a dramatic change of heart by the Republicans, or, less unlikely, a deepening split within it. Steep as they are, the stakes go far higher than the impending fiscal cliff.

Should the GOP remain united in opposition to Mr Obama (who has a broadly centrist approach to America's economic challenges), the US will become cripplingly ungovernable. Look at California over the past generation.

Alternatively, should the Republican Party lose its iron discipline, and no longer reflexively act as a blocking minority in the Senate and a blocking majority in the House, events could turn out much better.

The difference between gridlock and a restored climate of pragmatism is stark. Were the GOP to continue to block everything Mr Obama proposes, America's relative decline will accelerate. Conversely, if enough were regularly to dissent from their party's suicide pact, all sorts of possibilities would open up. Think of immigration reform, a cleansing of America's byzantine tax system, upgrading of US infrastructure, and even action on global warming.

There can be little doubt this is also Mr Obama's prognosis. There are two reasons why his only realistic chance of success is to aim for a GOP split.

The first is the reaction of most Republicans to last Tuesday's defeat - a prospect that few, including Mr Mitt Romney, had entertained. Many have observed that the Republican party is in denial. Republican strategists blame the loss on everything from media bias to superstorm Sandy.

But the quandary runs far deeper than denial. Among the conservative Tea Party groups, Tuesday's vote only confirmed that the US is heading rapidly in the wrong direction. In their account, Mr Obama's Democrats have bribed enough of the undeserving poor with taxpayers' money to fall into their camp. As it happens, most of them are non-white. Influential radio host Rush Limbaugh fretted last week that "we are outnumbered".

Quoting Corinthians on her Facebook page, Ms Sarah Palin crystallised the belief that the election was a call to arms, rather than a moment for reassessment.

"We are persecuted, but not forsaken, struck down, but not destroyed," the 2008 vice-presidential nominee wrote. This is the nativist wing of the Republican Party. Having fielded in Mr Romney yet another Rino (Republican in name only), the party was punished for straying from its principles.

It is a view shared by other powerful strains in the party, including the anti-tax powerhouse led by Mr Grover Norquist. Last Friday, he said that any Republicans thinking of wavering on their anti-tax pledge would "be punished even for impure thoughts".

He cited two of the four Republicans in the bipartisan Senate "Gang of Eight", who are up for re-election in 2012, as "eminently primary-able" - vulnerable to conservative challenges.

The second thing going for a Republican split is there are also many who grasp the gravity of their party's direction. Washington journalist Ronald Brownstein captures the GOP's demographic reality with his 80:40 rule.

If Democrats win 80 per cent of the non-white vote and 40 per cent of the white vote, they are undefeatable. That is roughly what happened.

At the Republican convention in August, a clock showed the national debt. It should have kept demographic time.

In Texas, the bastion of today's Republican Party, the majority of schoolchildren are Hispanics. Each election, more will reach voting age. Some Republicans understand the import of this, among them probably Mr John Boehner, the Speaker (and figures such as former Florida governor Jeb Bush).

Mr Obama's goal will be to make it easier for Mr Boehner to argue for pragmatism within his party. But the US will first have to go over the cliff.

Mr Boehner faces his own speakership election in January. He will not wish to jeopardise his grip by compromising on taxes before then. After the expiry of all the Bush tax cuts on Jan1, he will be better placed to persuade some Republicans to vote for what would be packaged as a tax cut for 98 per cent of Americans - leaving the cause of the rich to another day. Thus, the US probably will go over the cliff. Whether, or how quickly, it will yo-yo back is harder to forecast.

As a Roman once said, the victor is not victor if the vanquished do not agree. Last week's outcome left Washington's division of spoils unaltered - House Republicans were returned to the majority.

Through brinkmanship and seduction, Mr Obama must try to persuade enough Republicans to accept reality and then act on it.

Whatever does happen, the next few months will offer gripping theatre. By February or March, we will be far wiser on the future of US governability.


Can Singapore adjust to a low-growth paradigm?

Nov 13, 2012

There are signs policymakers are looking more at qualitative aspects of growth, but this has its risks


THE past 10 months has been a difficult period for the Singapore economy.

Growth has slowed to a crawl, and the economy is expected to grow by just 1.5 per cent to 2.5 per cent for the whole year.

Manufacturing has been badly hit by the global economic condition, and electronics is facing one of its worst barren spells, contracting for the 18th straight month in September.

Next year, the central bank has warned that Singapore could grow below potential - which is between 3 per cent and 5 per cent - given the lingering uncertainties.

But the gloomy outlook has not quite elicited a strong response from policymakers to tackle the downturn.

Instead, they seem to have adopted a sanguine attitude towards slowing growth, which has surprised economists, who had been expecting a stronger policy response from the Government.

Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin's comments last month seem to indicate that the Government's attitude towards growth has shifted.

Speaking to The Straits Times in an interview, Mr Tan said that growth is not about numbers, but a means to an end.

"At the end of it, it's (about) how does it add up, really, to the bread-and-butter issues of the individual concerned, how does it add up to the society," said Mr Tan. He suggested that to generate enough income for people here, Singapore needs "good quality 3 per cent growth".

In a speech to economists in June, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that growth is still crucial to improving Singaporeans' lives. Still, he did acknowledge that growth is not everything: "I agree fully that material goals are not everything in life.

"But we are not going for growth at all costs, nor have we done so. Growth is not an end in itself, but a means to improve our lives and achieve many of our goals."

Flash back to five years ago, when then Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew stressed the primacy of growth when he addressed hundreds of young people at the heart of Orchard Road.

Urging young people to seize the opportunities ahead of them, he said Singapore's progress was possible because of strong economic growth. "Once you have growth, all problems can be managed. When you have no growth and you have unemployment and no jobs, then all problems become intractable," he said.

Has growth really become less important? Has a paradigm shift towards growth taken place?

Accepting slow growth?

BANK of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin thinks so, and considers it worrying.

He worries that the push to restructure the economy has become the predominant overwhelming objective, while other issues, such as buffering the economy from a downturn, have become secondary.

For instance, while there is a need to tighten the foreign manpower influx to wean companies off cheap labour and raise productivity, he wonders if the costs of such a policy are being ignored.

He calculated that if the policies were relaxed, Singapore could have grown at 3 per cent, about twice the rate now.

The stricter foreign labour regime has led to the Government having to forgo $1.1 billion of potential tax revenue, and 35,800 jobs were forgone as a result of the stricter labour policy, estimated Dr Chua.

"I worry that the Government has gone ideological on this front. There are ways to grow in an inclusive manner, without having to enforce a slowdown in growth," he said.

For instance, extra taxes from better growth could have gone into strengthening the country's social safety net, such as Workfare, he added.

Other analysts also think there has been a subtle but discernible shift in how the Government views growth, and the importance it attaches to growth numbers.

Part of this can be traced back to the so-called "new normal" in politics, brought on in the aftermath of the last general election.

PM Lee had then pledged to make right some of the grievances people had against the Government.

Chief among them was the growing number of foreign workers, who were being blamed for overcrowding on transport systems and expensive housing.

Since then, government leaders have repeatedly said that there will be no U-turn on foreign worker policies, even though many companies are crying out for help.

Another reason for the willingness to accept lower rates of growth is the realisation that Singapore simply cannot grow at the pace it used to.

A rate of 1.5 per cent this year might seem abysmal compared with the 14.8 per cent pace Singapore grew at in 2010. But given that Singapore is in a mature phase of growth, 1.5 per cent is actually not terrible.

In comparison, a mature economy such as Sweden has been growing at an average of 2.5 per cent a year for the past five years. Denmark's growth rate was just 2 per cent between 1970 and 1990.

It it clear that there are certain limits to growth in Singapore, says United Overseas Bank economist Suan Teck Kin. Some of the limits can be overcome by innovative engineering and urban planning, but the marginal social cost of adding a million people to the population will be high.

Externally, competition in the region is getting intense, so effortless growth is no longer the norm, he said.

"Look at how Malaysia, Thailand are all looking at Singapore and wanting to do the same things Singapore has done, like (developing) an efficient public service and building high-end manufacturing sectors like in drugs," he added.

"So the drive to grow has always been there. It's just that there are limits to how fast you can grow."

Slow but more inclusive?

ANOTHER fact: Even though Sweden and Denmark have grown at "slow" rates, these two countries also consistently rank as some of the best places in the world to live in. Social tensions are low and societies in these Nordic states are a lot more equal than those in other developed economies. Quality of education is also high, while social welfare nets are strong.

As Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy associate professor Hui Weng Tat noted, it is not a bad thing, as there is more focus on the type of growth rather than how fast Singapore grows.

"Government policies, especially in the past decade, have been aimed at maximising growth without due regard to the opportunity costs of doing so," he said.

"High growth therefore became an end, instead of the means to an end, which should rightly be the welfare of citizens."

How will the slowing growth story pan out?

If economic restructuring works, and Singapore is able to eke out the productivity gains needed to push the economy up to the next level of development, the outlook is good.

Less reliance on foreign workers will mean a stronger imperative for companies to use technology, work processes and innovation to drive growth. In turn, this could boost wages at the bottom, as employers are forced to turn away from a cheap source of labour.

As Mr Suan noted: "Eventually these sources of cheap labour will run dry, as countries like Bangladesh and China will require manpower to develop their own countries."

Some of the lifting of wages at the bottom is already being done by unions and the Government working together to raise wages for the lowest paid. For instance, cleaners' wages are expected to rise 23 per cent to $1,000, after unions, the Government and cleaning companies proposed a new pay structure for cleaners last month.

This way, even though growth is slower, it can be more inclusive.

But at $1,000 a month, cleaners' wages are still way below the median income of $3,249.

But such an approach - paying attention to qualitative aspects of growth rather than pure quantitative factors - is not without its risks.

Managing a complex entity such as Singapore's open economy is a very delicate task. Tweak one policy too much, and the economy could tilt irreversibly towards one direction.

DBS economist Irvin Seah noted there could be a risk that Singapore's manufacturers and companies will become uncompetitive due to the high manpower costs.

"You could get a major hollowing out. Such firms leave and are unlikely to return," he said.

There will also be the attendant pains associated with restructuring, such as elevated inflation.

Already inflation is likely to stay high, at between 3.5 per cent and 4.5 per cent next year. This level represents twice the historical rate seen in the past 30 years, and could last for some years.

Adjusting to this new reality of low growth is not going to be easy.

As Mr K. Shanmugam, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, recently pointed out, low growth could potentially mean fewer opportunities for young people and reduced dynamism in the economy.

Will there be enough good jobs in an economy that has a reduced dynamism? What will slow growth do to the values of properties, which Singaporeans rely on as a source of retirement income?

These are huge challenges that will need to be tackled as Singapore manages its transition into slow-growth territory.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why a two-party system is boon or bane to undergrads

Nov 10, 2012

The National University of Singapore Students' Political Association recently conducted an online poll of about 400 undergraduates to gauge the views of young people on political parties and policies after last year's watershed general election. Goh Chin Lian speaks to six of the association's officers about the poll results.They are president Valerie Ng, 21, vice-presidents Ow Yau Loong, 23, and Eugene Lee, 22, and management committee members Yan Wentao, 23, Elizabeth Cutter, 20, and Dominique Wang, 21.

Nearly two-thirds of those polled said a two-party system could be a boon or a bane, depending on the parties' performance. What do you make of this result?

Yau Loong: With a two-party system, we might witness something like in the US where although Obama won, it divided the American population into the left and the right. Our country can't afford to have this division.

Dominique: I think a two-party system will hamper the functioning of the country. I support reform for the People's Action Party - more national conversation, more discussion, more voices - because that's conducive for a small society.

Elizabeth: A lot of Singaporeans don't feel that the parties are entrenched on an ideological basis. Most Singaporeans still prefer to look at the results, the pragmatics, the policies - which is why they chose "boon or bane", because they want to see the results first.

Valerie: Most of our friends don't want a two-party system, but they still want the opposition around to keep track of the PAP, like what they are doing now. They are questioning the Government, helping to be a voice for us for things that we want to check on, but could not speak up on.

(With the opposition) to keep the PAP in check, hopefully it will be more consultative and listen to us more.


Don't rock the boat

Elizabeth: You have a very entrenched ruling party. All that the undergrads have grown up with is this system. If they are happy with the way things are, they are not going to seek to change the status quo because it's treated them well. They are in university now, doing all right. It's the people who feel it's unfair who want to change the status quo.

Eugene: They said "boon or bane" because Singaporeans don't know how a two-party system will pan out in Singapore. We didn't force them to say "desirable" or "undesirable", but it also reflects a certain maturity that they know that a two-party system could work both ways - good or bad for Singapore.

[However a Two-Party system may be inevitable. In a sense, the PAP gained an incredible advantage in the 60s when the opposition abandoned the polls and de facto presented Singapore with a dominant party system. But a Two-party system seems inevitable. There is no way that the PAP will be able to please everybody on every issue. Help families and singles are upset. Help businesses and employees ask, "what about us?" Give minorities a boost and the majority may well grumble silently. ]