Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Bites of Asia

In the second of a two-part series, Straits Times foreign correspondents recommend street food in Kuala Lumpur, Taipei and Jakarta

By Teo Cheng Wee Regional Correspondent

Kuala Lumpur

Malaysians love their street food.

It is so much a part of life here that the Tourism Ministry includes street food in its publicity campaigns and runs an annual street food festival.

Chief among its targets would be Singaporeans hankering for a taste of yesteryear, hunting down dishes that are no longer available back home, or at least not prepared with the oomph they once had.

Indeed, street food is a lot more common in Malaysia than Singapore, where vendors have all but moved into hawker centres or food courts.

Malaysian hawkers are also gradually migrating to more comfortable shop lots - and occasionally food courts - but thankfully, this usually does not affect the standard of food.

The good news for visitors is that some of Kuala Lumpur's top street food hawkers are located near the centre of town, where they will likely be staying.


Where: Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman, Kampung Baru (next to Kelab Sultan Sulaiman). Fifteen minutes' walk from Kampung Baru LRT station

Open: 6pm to 5am daily

Info: Call +60-12-3361-200

If nasi lemak is the quintessential Malay dish, then the right place to look will be the Malay heartland of Kampung Baru. And CT Garden, which has been around for more than 30 years, is one of the area's most famous stalls.
It packs its fragrant coconut rice in small packets, along with a quarter hard-boiled egg and sambal ikan bilis (above). It goes for only RM0.80 (S$0.32), but the portions are small and typically, you would take at least two to three packets.

The stars here, however, are the tasty side dishes. The sambal tempe is a must-try. It has the right mix of spicy and sweet - and manages to remain crispy, not soggy. The tender beef rendang is another favourite.

Two packets of rice with about three side dishes will cost you about RM8 to RM10. Pay at the counter before you tuck into your food.


Where: 33 Jalan Dewan Sultan Sulaiman 1, off Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman. Ten minutes' walk from Medan Tuanku monorail station

Open: 7.30am to 6pm daily

Info: Call +60-3-2697-0998

The success of Super Kitchen's chilli pan mee appears deceptively simple.

Start with a bowl of freshly rolled handmade pan mee. Add some minced pork, a poached egg, ikan bilis and fried shallots. Top it off with a spoonful of chilli flakes. Serve and get lots of customers.

Yet this simple dish is the reason a few hundred people stream into this eatery every day to savour the delectable mix (the egg should be broken and all the ingredients tossed in the bowl before you start eating).

Owner Albert Khoo, who has been running the shop with the help of his brothers for a decade, attributes the popularity to his meticulously prepared ingredients. The chilli flakes alone take about half a day to prepare. The stall also eschews preservatives and uses only minimal amounts of MSG.

Each bowl of noodles costs RM6. For a fuller meal, top it off with dumpling soup (RM5) and homemade barley (RM2).

Be prepared to wait for a seat during lunchtime, especially on weekdays.


Where: Open-air carpark at the junction of Jalan Imbi and Jalan Gading, next to the Honda showroom. Twenty minutes' walk from Imbi monorail station

Open: 6 to 10pm, closed on Tuesdays

The Lee brothers have been selling Hakka yong tau foo from a pushcart here for more than 25 years, since the duo were in their teens.

They still make their items daily, briskly stuffing their fish paste - which is prepared at home in the morning - into chillies, brinjals and tofu before frying or braising them.

The crowds swell around the stall the moment it opens in the evening, piling the food on their plates. The bestseller is the deep-fried wonton. It is not uncommon to see customers order dozens of them for takeaway. All items at the stall cost RM1 each.

Those who miss patronising the pushcart food stalls of yesteryear Singapore will also enjoy the selection of hawkers selling char kway teow, chicken wings and satay at this open-air location, which functions as a carpark by day.


Where: 7A, Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. Ten minutes' walk from Pasar Seni LRT station

Open: 10.30am to 8.30pm, closed on Wednesdays

Info: Call +60-3-2072-5020

Come early for lunch at this hole-in-the-wall eatery near Chinatown or be prepared to stand around for a seat at one of its seven small tables.

What everyone is patiently waiting for at Shin Kee is a taste of the dry beef noodles, which is renowned as one of the best in Kuala Lumpur. Each bowl of noodles is topped with a generous helping of melt-in- your-mouth minced beef, made from a secret recipe.

The accompanying bowl of flavourful soup comes with beef slices, meatballs, tripe and brisket - or you can customise it according to what you want. The springy meatballs and tender briskets are especially worth trying, and go well with the chilli sauce.

A small bowl costs RM7, while a large one costs RM9.


Where: 16 Jalan Kemuja, Bangsar Utama. Five minutes’ walk from Bangsar LRT station

Open: 10.30am to 10.30pm daily

Info: Call +60-3-2202-3456

Fierce Curry House almost deserves a recommendation just for its name. And yes, its food really is fierce. Although it has been open for only about a year, it has already gained a reputation for its delicious briyani and banana leaf rice.

The eatery sells 14 types of briyani, but the favourite here is the mutton briyani, which is cooked according to an old family recipe. Each pot of briyani (picture) – which works out to a generous portion for one person – is individually sealed with a pastry crust and steamed. The result is a fragrant mix of fluffy, flavourful rice and juicy pieces of tender mutton.


By Lee Seok Hwai Taiwan Correspondent

When in Taipei, unleash your inner glutton. The city simply sizzles with food - 24 major night markets sell everything from shaved mango ice to oyster omelette, not counting the many more smaller food streets that dot its landscape.

Foreigners have taken to local delicacies such as stinky tofu and pig's blood cake without much problem, thanks to relatively good hygiene. Many hawkers use disposable utensils and paper bowls or plates, even for piping hot food, which may not sit well with those who are environmentally- or health- conscious. You might want to bring your own reusable chopsticks and drink soup like the locals do - straight from the bowl.

Real street food lovers may also wish to avoid markets such as Shih Lin, which are overhyped yet perennially overcrowded.


Where: 115 Jingmei Street, Wenshan District. Ten minutes' walk from Jingmei MRT station

Open: 5pm to midnight, closed on Mondays

Oyster mee sua, oily rice and steamed pig intestines are as Taiwanese as it gets. That this shop, which specialises in these dishes, has survived for decades in a location neither touristy nor bustling testifies to the strength of its recipe.

And the quantity: For just NT$40 (S$1.70), you get a bowl of oyster mee sua in which no fewer than 30 small oysters are swimming.

Indeed there are more oysters than mee sua. To make all that cholesterol easier to stomach, the stall provides a free flow of a very potent chilli padi sauce, a garlic sauce and vinegar. The oily rice and intestines are highly touted too, but one single bowl of oyster mee sua was enough to bust my cholesterol quota for a month.


Where: Stall No. 91, Ningxia Night Market, No. 34 Ningxia Road. Ten minutes’ walk from Shuanglian MRT station Open: 5pm until late. No fixed rest day

Info: Call +886-092-0091-595

Visitors to Ningxia Night Market will have no problem spotting this stall, which always has a relentless queue – no mean feat considering it is located in one of the best food streets in Taipei.

Top quality yam from Dajia township in Kaohsiung County is chopped, steamed and mashed in a process that takes some six hours before being fashioned into ping pong-sized balls at the stall and deep-fried on the spot.

Hot from the oil, the balls are crispy, chewy and fragrant with just the right tinge of sweetness. They also come in a savoury version which combines the yam with half an egg yolk plus pork floss.


Where: 249 Raohe Street, Songshan District. Tail-end of Raohe Night Market, close to Ciyou Temple

Open: 3.30pm until midnight daily

Info: Call +886-095-8126-223

Juicy chopped pork marinated with pepper is stuffed into pockets of flour, stuck onto the walls of deep bottomed pots heated to 300 deg C and toasted for 20 minutes. What you get is a “pepper biscuit”, crispy on the outside even as the meaty content stays moist, so juicy that gravy flows out as you bite into the pastry.

As a bonus, the biscuit, which costs NT$45, stays toasty up to an hour after leaving the oven. Rain or shine, the stall opens daily in the afternoon, and likewise, the queue builds up regardless, so be prepared to wait a bit.


Where: No. 3, Lane 57, Tonghua Street (Behind Tonghua Night Market)

Open: 6.30pm to 1.30am. No fixed rest day, but never on weekends

Info: Call +886-091-8281-251 or +886-095-3234-682

Din Tai Fung becomes passe once you try Zheng Hao’s soup dumplings, or xiao long bao (NT$70 for eight). The dumpling skin is hand-rolled on the spot, stuffed with pork and steamed for five minutes.

Sounds generic, but the product is far from being run of the mill. Wrapped in the paper-thin dumpling skin is an entire mouthful of savoury soup and tender meat that will please even the most demanding xiao long bao connoisseur.

The stall is a nine-year-old offshoot of the original shop in Yilan county, where business is so good that customers take queue numbers. Here in Taipei, despite its near invisible location in a quiet lane, the stall draws a steady stream of customers who come just for their fix of its xiao long bao.


Where: Behind Shui Yuan market, along the lane which bisects Section 3 of Tingzhou Road. Three minutes’ walk from Gongguan MRT station

Open: 6.30 or 7pm until about 10pm, closed on Wednesdays

Info: Call +886-091-7943-277

Freshly deboned chicken legs are marinated for a day, coated with fine bread crumbs, then deep-fried to a golden brown.

The result is a crispy yet juicy feast of poultry that is less oily than one might expect. To top it off, each portion comes with a generous helping of salad with your choice of Thai dressing (NT$80 for the set of chicken and salad) or mayonnaise (NT$70).

Eat-in customers, who sit on stools at a makeshift dining area beside the stall, can get another serving of the salad for free.


By Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, Indonesia Correspondent

Jakarta has a wide range of delicious street food that caters to different tastes. Many Indonesians have migrated to Jakarta from across the world's largest archipelago and brought their cuisine with them. This makes the capital a haven for street food lovers. Street food carts are spread throughout the city and are easy to find near office buildings and schools.


Where: A 300m stretch (behind Sari Pan Pacific Hotel) of Jalan Agus Salim in Central Jakarta

Open: About 8pm until pre-dawn hours, daily

This is one of more than a dozen Sate Madura stalls that line the Sabang stretch late at night, and is said to be the best one there. It is located outside the only police post in the area. Sate, or satay, is marinated chicken or lamb meat skewers grilled over charcoal. While Indonesia has many sate variants, Madura - an island off East Java - is especially popular for its distinct sweet peanut sauce recipe.

At Pondok Sate Pak Heri, a banana leaf plate with 10 sticks of Sate Madura with rice and a pickle side dish will set you back about 15,000 rupiah (S$1.90).


Where: Jalan Tebet Barat Dalam, South Jakarta (located just outside Radja Ketjil Peranakan restaurant)

Open: 6am to about 9am or when the chicken porridge sells out, daily

A bowl of bubur ayam or chicken porridge is a top breakfast pick among Jakartans. Street carts peddling it are a common sight outside office buildings and shopping malls, as well as in residential areas in the capital. They usually close around 10am.

The one on Jalan Tebet Barat Dalam, which crosses a very densely populated Tebet residential area in South Jakarta, is considered one of the best in town. It started out as one street cart but has now expanded to occupy two carts that sit side by side.

Indonesia has several variants of porridge. The one here is the Cirebon version, with chicken pieces, thin sliced celery, fried scallion, fried soybean, emping (melinjo crackers) and a thin curry sauce. It costs 7,000 rupiah a bowl. An optional side dish of fried chicken intestine or chicken heart satay is 1,000 rupiah each.


Where: Jalan Pecenongan, North Jakarta (near Alila Hotel)

Open: 7pm till dawn daily

This martabak stall on a raised shoulder in Jalan Pecenongan sells a unique cashew nut martabak, which is a sweet version of martabak. The cashew nuts are crushed and sprinkled onto the layered pancake.

One cashew nut martabak can feed four to five people and costs 60,000 rupiah. Add cheese for an extra 20,000 rupiah.

The stall also sells a salty martabak, which is the Indonesian version of roti prata - with additional fillings of cooked ground beef, duck egg, shallots, celery leaves and curry powder. A cucumber and carrot pickle side dish usually accompanies a salty martabak. The salty martabak costs 35,000 rupiah.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Size does matter, but being small has its advantages too

Oct 24, 2012

By Elgin Toh

THE single undiplomatic moment during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to New Zealand and Australia earlier this month was also the one that exposed Singapore's vulnerability as a small state in the international arena.

At an official lunch in Mr Lee's honour in Canberra, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott took turns making backhanded comments about former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his controversial warning in 1980 to Australia to reform or become the "poor white trash of Asia".

Some of the remarks, furthermore, were made not off-the-cuff but as part of prepared texts, and they took up large sections of the speeches. It was an awkward experience for the Singapore delegation, to say the least.

Of course, one might argue that the older Mr Lee's choice of words could hardly have been described as diplomatic in the first place. Also, one expert's analysis of the incident is that the two Australian leaders had brought up the past not to register any direct unhappiness with Singapore, but to score political points over each other, as each attempted to demonstrate his or her own party's historical accomplishments.

Nevertheless, to allow such inelegant bickering at an official bilateral event seemed unusually discourteous and petty.

The take-home point for Singapore may be that size does matter.

Would a United States president, for instance, have been made to sit through an uncomfortable public debate by his Australian hosts about a comment made 32 years ago by his predecessor?

But as much as Singapore's tininess in the larger scheme of things showed up as a distinct disadvantage during the visit, there were numerous other elements from the visit that optimists here can take comfort in.

Yes, there is a case to be made that being small presents its own set of advantages.

First, agreements made with smaller nations reap fewer benefits but also incur less costs; therefore, they tend to be seen as non-threatening, as low-hanging fruit to be picked more quickly.

It is not a coincidence that the first two free trade agreements (FTAs) that Australia signed were with New Zealand - its closest neighbour - and Singapore, both relatively petite nations.

It is also not a coincidence that Singapore and New Zealand have gone on to sign FTAs with many more countries than Australia has. Some of these are with major economies, with whom Australia is still locked in negotiations, such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.

The paradox for a large nation is that an FTA with it involves higher stakes and hence, stirs up stronger opposition from domestic lobbies in other countries.

Second, the Westphalian system - the modern international arrangement of nation-states - is designed so that modest-sized states are on paper legally equal to large ones. That often means a few small and nimble nations which manoeuvre themselves into a grouping of some kind - a common tactic they adopt - can quickly gain disproportionate legitimacy.

One example of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was mentioned repeatedly during the New Zealand leg of PM Lee's visit. The high-quality trade community was founded by Singapore and New Zealand, along with Brunei and Chile. Even though the four combined barely exceed Australia in size, they were accorded the status of a "community", which made it easier for them to later persuade larger nations - including the US and Australia - to sign on to an agenda that they had laid down.

Finally, a counter-intuitive but well-documented point: Small nations tend to be more knowledgeable about the intricate workings of international institutions and the complex webs formed by nations, for no other reason than that these matter more to them.

Professor Michael Corgan of Boston University wrote of this phenomenon in a 2008 article, citing the example of Denmark emerging "victorious" from negotiations with Britain, Germany and Norway - all nations with larger armed forces - over one reorganisation in 1993 of Nato's security command in the Baltics, thanks to its better understanding of Nato's staff culture. "What has given small states their occasional successes against the agendas of larger states is... better knowledge of the issues than larger powers, and an exquisite sense of when to act," he wrote.

A sign of the insularity in a larger nation like Australia was on display the day after the Canberra visit by PM Lee. Unlike their Singapore counterparts, Australian newspapers were preoccupied with domestic bickering - over the government's defence of a disgraced former House speaker and historical statements made by Mr Abbott that may have been offensive towards women - and all but ignored the visit, with just one captioned picture to be found in one national newspaper.

Admittedly, this could have as much to do with newspaper culture. But it stands to reason that the political elite would be responding to the same set of forces when deciding how to apportion their attention.

The historian Thucydides, a hard-power realist if there ever was one, once wrote that in international affairs, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". This may be true when a fight breaks out, but in an era of peace, smaller nations can rely on factors other than size and might to gain an edge.

And so, while Singapore may not have seen the last of indignities like the one suffered in Canberra, it should strive to do what it can in diplomacy, as small nations always have, and find its own rightful place in the world.


Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The fatal flaw in living wills

Oct 18, 2012

By Andy Ho, Senior writer

ANYONE aged 21 or over and sound of mind may make, free of charge, an Advance Medical Directive (AMD) instructing doctors not to use "extraordinary life-sustaining treatment in the event of his suffering from a terminal illness". This is what the AMD Act, enforced from 1997, stipulates.

It was recently disclosed that about 15,000 people had signed up for the AMD by last year. An AMD kicks in only when the terminally ill patient can no longer communicate, at which point the attending doctor is to search the AMD register to see if he has one signed. To ask a still-lucid patient if he has one signed is criminalised by law.

You may revoke your AMD at any time and five people did so in 2010, for example. But while all AMDs are registered, revocations need not be. The AMD can be revoked by signing a prescribed form, but also "orally or in any other way in which the patient can communicate". So attending doctors can't be sure that a signed AMD has not been revoked. Therefore, legal experts say, doctors may not rely upon an AMD since no one can be certain it has not been revoked.

This legal no-man's land cries out to be cleared, some lawyers say, but it may be a good thing because it affords space and time to re-examine the moral grounds for AMDs, in case they are flawed.

An AMD is the pre-commitment to control future events by choosing in the present to reduce one's options in responding to various situations later.

The paradigmatic pre-commitment case is Ulysses in The Odyssey, who has himself securely bound to the ship's mast before sailing past the Sirens. He pre-orders his men, whose ears are pre-plugged, to refuse his deranged orders to sail nearer when drawn by the Sirens' singing. If the ship is not to be dashed on the rocks, they are to do what he has commanded while competent because those orders reflect his authentic preferences.

Likewise, pre-commitment by AMD looks attractive if you worry about having a dignified and merciful death in an era of costly high-tech medicine. It quickly became the focus of the "death with dignity" movement in the 1990s and was quickly taken on board by clinicians and legislators.

It also seems consistent with the rights to autonomy, bodily integrity and privacy. These rights afford all persons, competent or not, the choice of accepting or rejecting life-sustaining therapies. Above all, it is the person's autonomy, including autonomy over future treatment, that is stressed.

New York University legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin argued in Life's Dominion (1993), a work foundational to this argument, that the good life includes "experiential" and "critical" pursuits. The former, say, fine wine and exquisite music, makes one feel good. The latter, like difficult work and intellectual endeavours, makes for a meaningful life.

Professor Dworkin felt that what an AMD really expresses is the latter, the moral worth of which trumps that of the former. That is, an AMD expresses your autonomy by taking care of your "critical interests" should you become terminally ill and incompetent. It ensures that your final days will be guided by those "critical interests" that have shaped your life all along.

But is feeding the senses really of lesser moral worth than feeding the mind? They are arguably equally worthwhile, or equally worthless if, in the final analysis, all is vanity anyway.

Moreover, why should my prior self when I signed my AMD trump my future self when I am on life support?
As a wag put it, the competent self signs a decree that says of the incompetent self "Off with her head", and the physician is the executioner, wearing the AMD over his head as a hood.

Does my earlier self trump my later self just because it was prior in time? Why is my earlier self the true self and my later self not, whose best interests can be deduced by my closest ones when I am no longer competent?

Even if we are not a succession of different selves but really the same self over time, there is no reason why the future me cannot also have a say in what the present me does. Since I know I may regret in the future what I am doing today - pre-committing to my own death sentence - why should I sign an AMD today?

Fans argue that we frequently deny ourselves a slew of future choices by the commitments we make in the present. When I decided to get married, I cut off all future choices of female consorts the single man has. When my wife and I decided to have children, we cut off things we could have had like a bigger house or fancier car.

Only by making such commitments can we pursue what matters to our lives. I got married despite knowing that divorces were getting more commonplace, so the regret that a hypothetical divorce would entail in my future did not thereby prevent me from getting married.

It is expressing my autonomy in making important choices and commitments that shape my life.

It is also expressing that autonomy when I revise my life plans. Now my children have finished college, I have more degrees of freedom to do what I wish, say, change careers, with no more tuition bills looming ahead.

But notice that this is all about commitments whereas pre-commitments thwart myself from autonomously re-appraising, in the future, my past commitments to see if they need to be changed. If it is indeed my autonomy that justifies my making such commitments, then pre-commitments, by precluding commitments that I could make in the future, actually functions against my autonomy.

My life plans change in part because my preferences change over time, but we do a poor job of predicting how ours will change, especially in contexts we have never experienced. Empirical research suggests that people cannot tell how they will respond to a future health-care problem until they actually live it.

Many patients' preferences change during hospitalisation - and again a few months afterwards. A 2002 New England Journal of Medicine study concluded that "there is little evidence that patients can anticipate their choices under future circumstances in which death is imminent".

Thus, AMDs are based on a flawed model of patient autonomy. And the stress on this flawed instrument has detracted from the traditional approach that, if or when we became incompetent, we accepted our vulnerabilities and that it was at such a point that close kin would step in as our surrogate decision-makers.
And given the context of a terminal illness, we would have developed a trusting relationship with the attending physician. We trusted our kin to know our values and preferences, so together with that attending physician, they would ascertain we got useful treatments while also shielding us from the affronts of excessive medical intervention.

It is time we got back to this approach where dignified care was a family decision, not a predetermined individualistic one.

[I think it is idealistic at best. The point of the AMD and not its flaw is that in an emotional situation, family will make decision in THEIR best (emotional) interest. They will want their fathers and mothers to hang on, just for another day, another week, to see their first grandchild, to see the new grandchild, to see their grandchild graduate, to see him get married. There is always another milestone in life, another family event, another thing to experience.

When making a decision for a loved one, we tend to err on caution. We tend to try to maximise options for our loved ones. That is why parents drive their children to excel in school because good grades offer more options, and low grades, low qualification limit options.

Similarly, being alive keeps options open. Pulling the plug close options for our loved ones.


Moreover, a decision to pull the plug on a parent could possibly be seen as being unfilial. Not trying everything, not impoverishing the family in order to extend the life of a parent for even one minute, would be seen as unfilial.

A loved one near death is an emotional situation. Not everyone can make the decision with equanimity. Even professionals may not. In this article, doctors chose to extend life for a patient though in the same situation, most would not want life extended for themselves.

Doctors know about futile care and can do more to help people to die with dignity. AMD is not the whole solution, but it helps.

If the point of Dr Ho's article is to argue that AMD is NOT for everyone, then he is on firm ground. If he is attempting to argue that the AMD is flawed for EVERYONE, then that is a sweeping statement that is almost certainly wrong. 

Dr Ho's solution is to "trust" our kin, trust our family members would make the right decision for us. But the burden we put on our family to terminate our lives is a heavy one. And the psychic shadow it casts can be long.

An AMD can relieve the family of that burden. It is also an expression of a person's view and value of life, and the person's expression of the value of their family that they do not wish to burden them with a terrible, difficult decision.]

Isles dispute rooted in US policy

Oct 23, 2012

By Ching Cheong Senior writer

THE Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute between China and Japan is rooted in the ambiguous US policy on the isles, formulated in the 1970s, as declassified American documents show.

Indeed, this ambiguity, of maintaining US neutrality on sovereignty yet giving Japan administrative power over the islands, backed by a mutual defence treaty, has emboldened Tokyo to take possession of, or "nationalise", the islands, last month.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku issue first cropped up in 1970 when the United States bundled the islands with the Ryukyu archipelago, which was to be returned to Japan under the Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

On Sept 16, 1970, the Republic of China (ROC) - whose Kuomintang government had moved to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to the communists and was recognised by the US until 1979 - issued a four-page aide memoire through its ambassador to the US Chow Shu-kai, objecting to Japanese sovereignty over these islands.

According to declassified US official documents Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), Volume XVII, China, 1969-1972, Document 113, Chow at a meeting with then US President Richard Nixon emphasised that the final disposition of the Senkakus should be kept open.

He emphasised that the US move to bundle them with the Ryukyus "has had violent repercussions" and that "this will get a movement of overseas Chinese". After he left, Nixon remarked that "Chow was correct on the need to consider the political views of overseas Chinese".

On March 15, 1971, the ROC embassy sent a note to the US State Department stressing that the islands belonged to China and should not be returned to Japan.

Following this, National Security Council staff member John Holdridge sent a Memorandum to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, proposing an ambiguous policy that remains to this day.

According to FRUS Document 115, Holdridge said: "State's position is that in occupying the Ryukyus and the Senkakus in 1945, and in proposing to return them to Japan in 1972, the US passes no judgment as to conflicting claims over any portion of them, which should be settled directly by the parties concerned."

The document added that Kissinger's handwritten comment in the margin read: "But that is nonsense since it gives islands to Japan. How can we get a more neutral position?" Clearly, at the initial stage, the US saw the inherent inconsistency of the policy.

And it did not go unchallenged. In June 1971, president Nixon's Assistant for International Economic Affairs Peter Peterson sent a note to Nixon outlining dissent by David Kennedy, the envoy responsible for negotiation with Japan on textile issues.

According to FRUS document 133, Kennedy argued: "This (the Senkakus) is a major issue in Taiwan with both domestic and international implications. If the US were to maintain administrative control, it would give the GRC (Government of the Republic of China) a tremendous public boost since they have expressed themselves so forcefully on the issues."

What is more important is his view against a policy of appeasement towards Japan: "In addition, such an act would... provide a very badly needed shock effect on the Japanese. It would indicate that US acquiescence in all matters requested by the Japanese could no longer be taken for granted."

Admitting that such a suggestion would raise opposition at home, Kennedy continued to defend his view: "We accepted stewardship of these Islands after World War II. Neither historically nor geographically are they a part of the Ryukyus Chain containing Okinawa...

"Since possession of the Islands is still in dispute, there is every reason for the US to maintain administrative control until ... the dispute is settled...

"By no means am I suggesting that we hand the islands over to Taiwan. Rather, I am strongly recommending the wisdom of preserving the status quo rather than allowing Japan to assume administrative control."

According to FRUS Document 134, Peterson replied to Kennedy on June 8, 1971, saying: "After lengthy discussion, the President's decision on the Islands is that the deal has gone too far and too many commitments made to back off now."

The same document quoted Kissinger as explaining the US decision thus: "The principle that we are applying is that we receive the islands from Japan for administration and are returning them to Japan without prejudice to the rights - no position between the two governments on it."

Document 134 also recorded what followed: "On June 7 Kennedy told (ROC Vice-Premier) Chiang Ching-Kuo of the decision on the Senkaku Islands. Chiang asked that the US Government categorically state at the time of the signing of the Okinawa reversion agreement that the final status of the islands had not been determined and should be settled by all parties involved."

The US agreed to issue a statement by the State Department on June 17 saying that "a return of 'administrative rights' to Japan of the Senkaku Islands can in no way prejudice the underlying claims of the Republic of China".

At the same time, it "strongly urged" Japan to discuss the issue with Taiwan "prior to signature of Okinawa Agreement on June 17". However, on July 12, vice-premier Chiang complained to the US that "the Japanese so far have refused to talk in any meaningful way on the subject".

Thus, the US in fact was practising a policy of appeasement towards Japan that ambassador Kennedy strongly advised against.

The US should take note of the fact that, in its entire history, Japan is the only Asian country that had declared war on it and brought war to US soil.

Condoning Japanese acquisition of the disputed islands would in the long run backfire on the US, in much the same way it did in 1931, when Japan took possession of China's Manchuria. After the incident, US secretary of state Henry Stimson said the US should give Japan a chance to control the situation without facing external threat or public criticism.

The West's acquiescence over Japan's move at the time led to Tokyo's expansion of war from North-east Asia to the Pacific.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Whose job is it to provide happiness?

Oct 21, 2012

Singaporeans, having been dependent on Govt for so long, expect the state to solve problems

By Zuraidah Ibrahim Deputy Editor

Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

This was one of the questions posed in a survey that Britain conducted recently to gauge citizens' well-being. It found that owning a home and having a job tended to make people more satisfied with life. More controversially, being married was found to make Britons happier.

The results of the survey were not particularly earth-shaking, and critics panned it as a "statement of the bleeding obvious", among other things. British Prime Minister David Cameron defended it, claiming that it was not some woolly walk into people's psychological states but a useful tool that could inform policymaking.

Like Britain, several other governments are trying to come up with more holistic measures of progress. Bhutan has famously adopted Gross National Happiness as a guiding principle for its government.

The idea has reached Singapore, too. Many are sceptical of the single-minded pursuit of economic growth measured by gross domestic product, questioning who exactly benefits and at what cost. So it was perhaps a sign of the times when, in the first "Our Singapore Conversation" exercise last weekend, the subject of happiness bubbled to the surface.

When asked to imagine Singapore headlines they would like to see in 10 years' time, two groups of participants came up with "No. 1 in happiness". A third group's dream headline was that Singapore's score in a "global fulfilment" index would surpass 80 per cent.

It was charmingly Singaporean, of course, to think in terms of numerical scores and rankings even when striving for something as intangible as happiness, a notion that sages and saints have spent lifetimes to dissect and divine. And perhaps that sums up the existential angst associated with being Singaporean.

We've been cultivated to want to keep running to get ahead - or even just to stay on the same spot - and it is hard to escape from this condition. Psychologists might say we are caught in the "hedonic treadmill". Google this term and you may recognise yourself in the definition. The theory goes that the more you have, the greater your expectations grow, such that there is no permanent gain in your happiness.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has noted this phenomenon of ever-rising expectations, citing how Singaporeans rushed for the latest iPhones and how many feel "they must have the latest and bestest".

Although this treadmill tendency is supposedly global, one suspects it might be more acute in Singapore. Perhaps there are cultural reasons. Some of us still believe that modesty demands that we downplay our achievements: We claim that our lives are only "so-so", and even if our children are fine, we are reluctant to say it out loud, lest the gods get jealous or we tempt fate to teach us humility. In the process, maybe some of us believe our own fiction that we have little to be happy about and a lot to be angsty about.

But it is surely also because of the national narrative that we have lived with for decades - that Singapore has no room for complacency. In the brutal global competition, we risk losing our lunch if we rest on our laurels, we have been told repeatedly.

This condition of vulnerability has been cited as a key justification for dominant government. But now one wonders if Singaporeans' dependence on the state to solve problems is backfiring. Perhaps one reason people find it hard to be happy is that they lack a sense of control in their lives. No matter how hard they try, they believe that their well-being is ultimately at the mercy of various government policies.

One approach to the problem is for the Government to retreat and open up space for the private sector and civil society to solve problems. After all, as Singaporeans' needs become more diverse, it is getting harder for the Government to be all things to all men, women and children. And many observers inside and outside the country have long been critical of Singapore's nanny state approach to governance.

Such paternalism has been blamed for the lack of entrepreneurship, creativity and citizen initiative, among other things. So could Singapore become more like other countries, where there is less reliance on government?

A less interventionist government may work in theory, but there is the problem of what economists call path dependence. With Singapore having gone so far down the road of big government, it is extremely difficult to cross over to a different path.

Politically, as well, it is hard to see how the Government can suddenly tell people that they should depend less on the state. Its legitimacy has been based on delivering what people need by the bucket-load, rather than just doing the minimum well.

It is not surprising that Singaporeans who are at their wits' ends trying to secure their well-being in tough times feel that the responsibility must lie with their elected representatives to create the conditions for a better life. They would reject claims that the problem is just a matter of rising expectations for the latest gadgets and other luxuries.

They would say that many of the current obstacles to well-being are not about mere perception but in fact objective realities that result from ineffective government policies. These range from housing prices straying out of reach, to anxiety about the cost of health care.

It is inevitable that Singapore develops more holistic measures of progress. Economic growth was once the figure that the nation was obsessed with. It is still crucial, but it is clear by now that even a high and rising per capita income is not giving Singaporeans the sense of well-being they crave. Adjustments will have to be made to the country's understanding of what it means to lead a fulfilled life.

Introducing new measures of well-being may be fraught with difficulty but it may be worth doing, if only to make us remember the real goals of growth.

What is harder to settle, though, is the question of where responsibility should lie for achieving each of these targets - with the state or with households. That may end up as the most contentious and divisive issue in Our Singapore Conversation.

Eat off the streets

Eat off the streets


Oct 21, 2012

The experience of eating outdoors in Bangkok comes complete with eye-watering whiffs of pungent spices, the sizzle of food on hot griddles and the heat of leaping flames. -- ST PHOTOS: LIM SIN THAI, NIRMAL GHOSH

By Nirmal Ghosh Thailand Correspondent

Pungent blasts of red chilli, waves of redolent spices, hot griddles, the hiss of gas and the sizzle of hot oil, huge vats and woks and leaping flames are all part of the crowded, noisy Bangkok sidewalk experience.

Most of the city's population eat outdoors, where you can get a good meal for 30 baht (S$1.20) - and a positively excellent meal for around 60 baht. This makes Bangkok one of the cheapest big cities in the world to eat out in, if one sticks to the street. And the flavours are the envy of many a five-star chef.

Thai food may have been refined in the royal court, but it is alive in the streets. Food stalls normally start with simple trolleys with a built-in stove and storage area. Once established, food stalls expand. The sidewalk fills up with light foldable tables and chairs.

Thais are fussy about hygiene, which makes street food fairly safe; raw food is normally protected at least by a glass pane. But check the surroundings before eating; avoid the place if there are open drains or gutters around, for example, or if the dishes are being washed in a tub of dirty water by the roadside.


Where: Petchaburi Road, at the Prathunam intersection opposite the new Novotel hotel

Open: 24 hours daily

Tel: +66-08-1666-4906

The only dish this 15-year-old stall serves is khao man gai, a variant of Hainanese chicken rice; the rice is cooked in a lighter chicken broth and shaved ginger and green chillies give the light body a sharp edge. A standard plate is a light lunch or dinner for 30 baht. Another 10 baht will give you some extra slices of chicken. Owner Chaveewan Jirachaithorn smiles modestly when asked how many dishes are served every day and says: "I can't say."

But as I sit speaking with her, every three to four minutes, she receives payment from a customer - and it is not even peak lunch hour. As the saying goes, if there are lots of locals in a food place, you know it is a good one.


Where: A short walk from Sam Yan MRT (underground station); walk from the MRT past Chamchuri Square building and then turn right. If you get lost, ask in the area - everyone knows the stall

Open: 5 to 9am and 3.30 to 9pm

Tel: +66-02-216-4809, +66-08-5846-1110

This stall has been in business for more than 60 years and serves about 1,000 bowls daily of jok, or soupy rice porridge with a generous helping of pork morsels at 35 baht without an egg, and 40 baht with an egg. Extra pork can be had for 45 baht to 50 baht. The porridge is given a kick with shaved ginger and a sprinkle of coriander. Add red chilli flakes and a lashing of soy sauce and the character of the dish is developed. The pork morsels are especially succulent.

It is not surprising that Jok Sam Yan is a byword for porridge. Asked what makes it so special, owner Arun Jongatimart only says with a laugh: "We are the best. But I'm not sure exactly why."


Where: A short walk from Victory Monument Skytrain station, take the rightmost walkway and the first flight of stairs down to find it right there on the corner

Open: 24 hours daily

A bowl of kuay jap, a peppery soup full of kuay teow noodles and bits of pork offal, liver and blood tofu, will cost you 30 baht. This place has been operating since 1967. "They know me in Japan, in America," one of the family informed me proudly.

Victory Monument is a major intersection and is always busy, ensuring a steady stream of customers. A cauldron of soup is constantly on the boil at the small stall. No wonder the fast food giants - companies such KFC and McDonald's - face stiff competition in Thailand.


Where: On Rama IV road at Klong Toey, about 200m from Klong Toey MRT station and opposite the Klong Toey Metropolitan Electricity Authority

Open: 11am to 10pm (Mondays to Fridays) and 2 to 10pm (Saturdays and Sundays). Closed on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month

Tel: +66-08-1917-6871, +66-02-225-0301

This stall has been in business 20 years, serving up to 150 dishes of pad thai - arguably Thailand's national dish - on an average day. Pad thai is a mix of rice noodles, banana flower, garlic, ground peanuts, tiny dried shrimps, shallots, sugar, tamarind paste, ground chillies, a slice of lime and chives - but there are dozens of different ways to cook it and balance the different flavours.

Mae Am owner Nang Kaewpikoon uses a special ingredient more than others do - tamarind sauce, which gives the dish a pinkish hue and a tart edge. She also puts in a couple of large pieces of squid. A nice supplement is a delicious dessert, bua loy, made of an egg dropped into boiling coconut milk, shavings of white coconut and little sweetened balls of flour. A dish of pad thai will set you back 30 baht to 50 baht, and a bua loy with an egg will cost you 25 baht. Without an egg, you get it for a mere 20 baht.


Where: Soi Rang Nam, off Phaya Thai road about 250m from Victory Monument and opposite the offices of King Power and the Pullman Hotel

Open: 11am to 10pm on a typical day, but operating hours are flexible

Tel: +66-02-246-4579

This place (rod ded means "tasty") cooks up traditional dishes from the north-eastern region known as Isan. There is less sugar in Isan food, though there can be a lot in som tam. Som tam is essentially a raw papaya salad with tiny dried shrimps and peanuts.

At Isan Rodded (pronounced rod dead), a dish of half a roasted chicken, a som tam, a sticky rice with fiery dark red jim jaew sauce and a bottle of water, all good for two, will set you back 150 baht. The place has been in operation for 30 years and is always packed.

Hong Kong

By li xueying hong kong correspondent

Dai pai dongs are emblematic of traditional Hong Kong street food. They have been around since the 1940s, when the government began giving out licences to families of injured or deceased civil servants so they could hawk food on the streets. But from the 1950s, concerns over hygiene and traffic congestion meant that such licences were no longer issued.

Today, there are just 20-something dai pai dongs left, mainly in Central and Sham Shui Po, while the rest have been hustled into indoor food centres.

Meanwhile, street food has evolved to include food sold at kiosks at the front of shops, as well as open-air eateries selling humble - but oftentime sublime - fare, all around the city.

In Hong Kong, they are not just delicious carbs. For the locals, street food fills tummies on the cheap at the end of the month when wallets are running low on cash. And in a city of notoriously high rents, they are a relatively easy stepping stone for intrepid entrepreneurs.


Where: Hang Hau Chuen, ground floor, off Chap Fuk Road. Take the MTR to Hang Hau. Walk for about 15 minutes, or take a cab

Open: 6pm to 2am daily

Tel: +85-2-2719-6862

Topless old men, smoking in the open air as they inhale dark ale. Construction workers with leathered skin, chilling after a hard day of labour. Dating couples. Families. Celebrities. They all flock to this former village on eastern Kowloon for a rustic meal of the rib-sticking variety.

The chicken, cooked Sichuan style, is plump and succulent, the burn of the peppercorns subtle. Then there is a mixed dish of intestines, sausages and tofu, braised in a Teochew-style soy sauce. The omelette with white bait is decent.

But the best is the gu lok yok. Each piece the size of a lime, with a barely there batter doused in a tart sauce, the sweet-and-sour pork is a winner.

So too the price, weighing in at HK$280 (S$44) for the four dishes.


Where: There are two outlets - 80 Fuk Wing Street and 48 Kweilin Street. For both, get off the MTR at Sham Shui Po. Exit D2 and walk for five minutes.

Open: Noon to 1am daily

Sham Shui Po is Hong Kong's poorest district, but it is one of the richest in its street food offerings.

Among them, Lau Sum Kee is one fine specimen, with noodles made the traditional way by kneading the dough with a bamboo pole.

It harks back to the 1940s, when owner Lau Fat Cheong's grandfather sold wonton noodles on the streets of Guangdong, before moving to Hong Kong where he and his descendants continued the craft - first in a noodle cart, then a dai pai dong, and now, two tiny eateries.

Try the dry noodles sprinkled with shrimp roe (above). They are firm, with some bite, while the wontons and shui jiao are fresh.

And at HK$30 a serving, they are one of the cheapest in town, given the lower rents here. When done with that, explore the neighbourhood for traditional desserts - either toufu fa or ma lai gou.


Where: Next to 5 Shepherd Street, Tai Hang. Take the MTR to Tin Hau, get out at Exit A, and walk about eight minutes.

Open: 7.30am to 4.30pm, closed on Tuesdays

Tel: +85-2-2577-3117

Do not get off the MTR train at the perennially overcrowded Causeway Bay. Instead, ride it to the next stop, Tin Hau, so named for its temple to worship Mazhu, Goddess of the Sea.

After paying your respects there, walk over to the Bing Kee Tea Stall (below), where you can have pork chop noodles (you have a choice between instant noodles and bee hoon) for HK$22 and milk tea for HK$13. Alternatively, order the sliced pork sandwich, where the meat nestles nicely amid dollops of margarine.

Mr Fung Yiu Tong, 60, one of the lo bans (bosses) today, declines to say what goes into the marinade - except the obvious ingredients, pepper and soy sauce.

Whatever it is, the sauce - and the cheap rent of HK$30,000 a year - has fed three generations of the family, starting from his mother and extending to his nephews learning to take over the business.


Where: 76A Shau Kei Wan Main Street East. Get off the MTR at Shau Kei Wan; it is right by Exit A.

Open: Noon to 10.30pm daily

Tel: +85-2-6986-8600

Eggs, milk, flour, sugar, fat – one of the most heavenly combinations ever, especially when they are puffed up and baked into  multiple tiny balls of air, so that you get maximum crisp fragrance with minimum dough.

Mr Michael Chan, 43, has perfected the art. It began in a prosaic manner - the former IT executive was retrenched three years ago when his job moved north to the mainland, and he was shopping for a low-cost business to enter.

An egg puff kiosk, he reckoned, would work. Ingredients are cheap, and he could rent a tiny shopfront space for a few thousand Hong Kong dollars a month.

Using recipes from the Internet, he started making egg puffs at home, eating up to 10 a day. After two months, he opened shop, and today, sells up to 300 egg puffs, costing HK$12 each. The waffles, stuffed with condensed milk, sugar and peanut butter, are good too.

As you nibble on your egg puff, explore the area, a lower-middle-income residential area near the Shek-O beach.

It houses a number of solid eateries including Lui Chai Kee which makes its own siew mai out of fresh fish every day, and On Lee,  recommended by the Michelin guide for its fishball noodles  - and patronised by the city’s chief executives past and present, Mr Donald Tsang and Mr Leung Chun Ying.


Where: Shop A, 1 Anton Street, Wan Chai

Open: 7am to 7pm, closed on Sundays

Tel: +85-2-2529-6313

Synonymous with cheap Hong Kong street food, cart noodles (che zai meen) are also colourfully known as rubbish noodles (la zhar meen) - for good reason. Odds and ends, such as pig intestines, pig skin, beef balls, fried gluten and squid, are thrown into a mix of noodles and robust, spicy soup.

One of the best-known purveyors of this blue-collar staple, Cart Noodle’s Family brings quality and passion to an otherwise humble dish. Its squid and pig skin are legendary; the intestines carefully washed.

There are no chairs in this hole-in-the-wall eatery. You stand and slurp the noodles from a steaming bowl alongside plumbers and tycoons. Avoid lunch time. Prices below HK$40 attract foodies like flies to top-class rubbish.

How not to choose a president

Oct 20, 2012

By gary gutting

AS THE United States election campaign moves into its last weeks, I am reading ancient Greek literature and history with my class of first-year Notre Dame students. This reading has led me to question the way Americans evaluate their candidates. The Greeks see clearly things Americans do not.

They see, for example, that failure does not prove incompetence. Consider Oedipus. As classical scholars like Bernard Knox have noted, he is the model of the Athenian statesman described in Pericles' famous Funeral Oration. Nonetheless, Oedipus comes to a horrific end, blind and exiled. Why? Not because he is incompetent. He is remarkably smart, persistent and courageous. But he is a victim of fate.

For the tragedians, fate is tied to the gods, either their implacable will (Aeschylus in Agamemnon) or their knowledge of what must happen (Sophocles in Oedipus The King). The historians - Thucydides and, especially, Herodotus - are more inclined to speak of luck or chance. We are also more comfortable with luck than with fate, but too seldom invoke either to explain why things go wrong for politicians.

In particular, we often forget that what happens may have nothing to do with a leader's decisions. In the present election, much may be made, for example, of the November employment numbers.

A sharp rise in unemployment may well defeat President Barack Obama and a sharp decrease may carry him to victory. In fact, those numbers will warrant no conclusion about Mr Obama's handling of our economic problems. Employment figures fluctuate from month to month and no single report is a good indicator of the state of the economy.

Even the famous broader measure, "Are we better off than we were four years ago?", ignores the multitude of extrinsic factors that determine the economic cycle. As we gradually come out of the recession, the odds are that whoever wins this election will, at the end of his term, claim credit for a significantly improved economy.

We also tend to forget that even the best-considered and most well-executed decisions may fail for reasons beyond a leader's control. The Seal unit raid that killed Osama bin Laden may well be credited to Mr Obama's good judgment and careful planning. But this judgment and planning could just as well have led to failure.

Conversely, former president Jimmy Carter's failed hostage rescue could, with better luck, have been a success. He might then have gone on to win the 1980 election and, with an economic recovery at the end of his second term, now be judged a successful president (while Mr Ronald Reagan would be just another also-ran whose brief adulation we would file under "What were they thinking?").

The Greeks were also more comfortable than we are with the personal weaknesses of their leaders. In Homer, for example, Achilles rages and pouts, Hector runs away from battle - none of which affects their status as heroes. But, particularly in the last days of our presidential campaigns, any evidence of weakness can count decisively against a candidate.

So, for example, the two great "issues" during the last few weeks have been Mr Mitt Romney's remarks about "the 47 per cent" and Mr Obama's performance in the first debate. But neither event tells us anything significant about the qualifications of either man to be president.

Unless you already think Mr Romney's policies unfairly favour the rich, his embarrassing remarks will tell you only that he, like any other candidate, does not always make his points in the most politic way. Unless you already think Mr Obama is a weak leader, his alleged lapses in debate tell you only that, like any other candidate, he can have a bad night.

Given the immense amount of public exposure these two men have had, it is absurd to focus on isolated incidents to form an overall judgment of their character or ability.

Our skewed focus is largely because of a faulty analogy between politics and competitive sports. A player gets credit for a win even if his opponent was clearly superior and lost only from terrible luck. The outcomes of games sometimes do depend on one or two crucial lapses. In a society that regards training in sports as training for life, it is easy to start thinking of any competitive situation as a sporting event. Hiring an employee, choosing a spouse and electing a president all readily seem to fall under the sports model.

The sports analogy has especially undermined the current presidential debates. The second debate, in particular, gave Mr Obama and Mr Romney an opportunity to answer thoughtful, well-focused questions from ordinary citizens. But they mostly ignored the opportunity in favour of scoring points by putting one another down. Why do we think excelling in this sort of verbal roughhouse is a qualification for the presidency?

There is, in fact, a decisive difference between sports and politics. The rules of a game have no function except to determine a winner. As far as the rules go, it does not matter what the winner does after the game.

But the "rules" for real-life choices need to be good guides to what the winner will do after the choice is made. In an election, we need reasons for thinking that the winner will go on to be a good president. There is no reason to think that someone who has been successful just out of luck will continue to be successful; and there is every reason to think that anyone is likely to act wrongly sometimes in future.

That is why it is a mistake to identify competence with success or to see occasional lapses as disqualifying.
Looking for decisive lapses in the last few weeks makes elections entertaining and gives disengaged or lazy voters an easy way to make up their minds. But it has nothing to do with making an intelligent decision about who should be president.

The deeper mistake, however, is to believe that the competence and character of the candidates should ordinarily be major issues in a presidential election. Disqualifying incompetence and character defects are, under our present system, unlikely.

Anyone who has been able to win a national party's nomination is likely to have a reasonable level of competence for governing (or, at least, an ability to choose and listen to advisers who have such competence). And the degree of scrutiny candidates undergo would have likely exposed any serious character flaws. At any rate, if you think either Mr Romney or Mr Obama is simply unqualified, your evidence should have been apparent from their overall records well before the last few weeks of this campaign.

How, then, should we choose our president? Typically, I propose, by voting for the party rather than the person. All we can reasonably expect is that the country will probably move in the ideological direction of the winning candidate's party. This is especially true now, when even the President is so dependent on the political and financial support of the party's base.

Many voters, of course, have a fixed party allegiance. Others will judge that at least for the next four years we should tilt in a particular partisan direction. In any case, since there is no good way to predict who will turn out to be the "better man", that is mostly a matter of luck, the thing to do is vote for the party you think should be in power for the next four years.


The writer is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and an editor of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. He is the author of, most recently, Thinking The Impossible: French Philosophy Since 1960, and writes regularly for The Stone, a New York Times website which features the writing of contemporary philosophers on various issues.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Oct 20, 2012

3 missed chances
By phua mei pin

COME the end of this month, public consultation on the population draws to a close. Civil servants then start to draft a White Paper due by January to propose a sustainable population strategy for the country.

Eight months after the Government launched a review of its population goals and policies, what has been achieved?

This is what the numbers look like:

Some 2,000 pieces of direct feedback to the Government, which also contacted more than 1,200 individuals.

Four official papers, four sets of recommendations from the non-government sector, about 15 closed-door focus group discussions, three public dialogues and one dedicated website.

And three missed opportunities, based on what this journalist heard and saw.

The first of these involved local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which let slip a chance to tell Singaporeans how they are hurting from foreign worker curbs.

At one forum last month, Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (Asme) representative Chew Lee Ching was the only one out of 15 speakers to touch on the matter.

"Our members are suffering a lot because of the labour shortage. They are thinking of relocating or closing down altogether," she said.

Her comment drew no response from the other 100 participants, who wanted to talk instead about how to encourage Singaporeans to start families.

Unlistened to, she later slipped out of the forum before it ended.

Forum organisers are reportedly frustrated that SMEs poured out their manpower woes to policymakers but chose not to speak up for themselves at public forums.

At the last and largest forum held last week, there were 220 participants. The only one who spoke on behalf of SMEs was Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean.

He cited an Asme survey which found that close to a third of SMEs are thinking of leaving Singapore. However, as happened with Ms Chew, the broader audience did not engage on this point.

The matter of foreign labour is no longer just an issue for negotiation between businesses and the Government alone. It involves issues of competition, integration and quality of life that directly impact the wider public.

The business community could have and should have reminded the public of the Singaporean jobs on the line should firms go bust because of manpower shortfalls.

SMEs could have launched a charm offensive to demonstrate how the good outweighs the bad for now. They could have bargained for the time to shift from foreign worker reliance to higher productivity.

Until businesses join in the discussion, their pressures will remain an abstract concern for which Singaporeans at large see no reason to make any compromises.

A second lost opportunity concerned economic growth.

A central question of the population debate has been Singapore's appropriate level of economic growth, and hence how much it needs to top up its workforce to support that growth.

The stance that Singapore can afford to slow down and cut labour force growth became a trendy one to adopt at public forums, with several people supporting that view at each session. Not a single person argued for maximising growth.

Former chief statistician and one-time population planner Paul Cheung made no bones about his view that such thinking was "stupid" - the damage to the drivers of economic growth would be irreversible in a highly competitive world.

However, he spoke at a separate panel for experts and did so at the risk of public flaming. As the months passed, even this vocal advocate for economic growth conceded that population numbers and growth could no longer remain a purely economic discussion.

It had become politicised and the final numbers had to be a negotiated outcome between the public and the Government, he said.

It was left to the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) to put out a paper last month on the consequences of slow growth, namely, higher unemployment and fewer job opportunities.

At a forum the day after the paper's release, held specifically to discuss the economic aspects of the population debate, many participants did not appear to have absorbed the arguments from the MTI paper.

When asked if he had read the paper, one person said, laughing: "Is there really a need to?"

He meant that the forum organisers would surely summarise the paper for the participants.

But his comment also betrayed a lack of interest in tackling the economic dimension of the population debate. That forum was the occasion when many chose to swop ideas for raising birth rates instead.

The Government limited itself to outlining trade-offs and refrained from advocating growth. That left the strong growth argument without a champion, and made for a one-sided discussion.

It could well be that Singaporeans ultimately choose a more manageable pace of economic growth. But without a proper debate, when the costs of slow growth start to sink in, it will be harder to convince members of the public that they took this route with eyes wide open.

Finally, there was a chance in the population debate for new citizens and permanent residents to express their commitment to the country.

Officials who work with companies and community groups say some have made strides in integrating foreigners and locals. But of late, many pro-integration parties have become too browbeaten by anti-foreigner vitriol to share their examples.

Whether it is permanent residents who go for national service, or new Singaporeans who volunteer with charities here, their personal testimonies were desperately needed to remind Singaporeans that these newcomers can be a valuable part of society. That point has to come from new immigrants, not from the Government. Unfortunately, this has not happened.

The three opportunities are lost not only to those who failed to speak up - that is, businesses, growth supporters and new immigrants - but also those in the opposite camp.

On a small island, the fates of all parties are intricately tied up - the pressures of one group, set aside today, will very likely plague another group tomorrow.

If all parties do not have a thorough and open discussion of the trade-offs and alternatives of population policy choices now, it will be that much more difficult to make peace with the consequences when they do come later. It may seem then as if they come completely by surprise.

There is still a week to go before the close of consultation. Interested parties can visit the National Population and Talent Division website at to give their views.

But they need not feel limited to that, and should seize any public or private platform available, such as the Forum pages, to air their thoughts.

For those who have not spoken, you still have a chance to have your say in the population debate. For those who have not listened as much, take a moment to consider the other side.

Friday, October 12, 2012

From Istana to Canberra

Oct 11, 2012

The Australian newspaper's foreign editor Greg Sheridan interviewed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana last month, ahead of PM Lee's visit to Australia that began on Tuesday. Below is an excerpt from the article published in The Australian on Sept 29.

LEE Hsien Loong has a reputation something like that of his father, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew. It's a reputation for speaking his mind, sometimes bluntly.

Singapore's Prime Minister is 60 now, long out of his father's shadow. Like his father, though, he sometimes sounds like a lord mayor, when discussing Singapore's new casino, and at other times like a great strategic thinker, a South-east Asian Henry Kissinger.

It is part of Singapore's unique identity to have transformed a tiny island - 500 sq km - into the richest society in South-east Asia, with a per capita income above Australia's, while establishing a reputation for strategic sagacity pretty much unrivalled in the region. Big picture, small picture, macro or micro - PM Lee has a view, and a strategy, at all levels.

(He is in Australia for his second official visit as Prime Minister.) Australians will not be in any doubt about his views on any big issues. In a long interview in his Istana office in the heart of Singapore, Mr Lee gave the strongest endorsement the Gillard government has received from Asia for the policy of rotating 2,500 US Marines through Darwin each year.

"I think the Singapore-Australia relationship is very good," Mr Lee tells me. "We share very compatible strategic perspectives on the region and on America's role in the region."

US pivot

AND specifically on the Marines' presence in Darwin? "It's decided by America and Australia. We are happy that the Americans are present in the region."

But Mr Lee goes further, comparing Australia's policy with Singapore's: "For our part, we have facilitated the visits by American air force and navy units to Singapore. They don't have bases here but they visit frequently and there's a logistics support unit here for their navy ships. We will be helping to keep their ships supplied while they are operating in the region.

"We think it is good that the US presence remains in the region, including the security presence and the Seventh fleet. We are such a tiny area that there are a lot of constraints, but what we can do to help the American presence we will do."

Mr Lee is unambiguous in supporting President Barack Obama's "pivot" to Asia. The only qualification he enters is to observe that "there are some Americans who worked in the previous administration who say they never left".

But overall: "It's good the US administration is focusing on Asia because the US has many interests here, many friends and interests."

In the light of Mr Lee's forthright comments, it is difficult to see how the argument can be sustained that Canberra has hurt its standing in Asia by accepting the Marines.

But Mr Lee also has an excellent relationship with Beijing, of a type any Australian leader would envy.

US-China ties

HOW does he see the US-China relationship unfolding? Can the two giant powers maintain a cooperative relationship?

"I think it will always be a cooperative as well as a competitive relationship, there will be frictions as well as areas of convergence," Mr Lee says.

"I think the powers-that-be on both sides, Chinese leaders and the US administration, after they get elected, have shown they don't want to go on the route of confrontation, whatever might be said during presidential elections.

"But there are issues which are not easy to reconcile. There are political pressures on both sides that you cannot ignore," he says.

"The Chinese have issues and so definitely do the Americans, when it comes to the exchange rate or trade issues.

"There are problems. The biggest challenge is to rebalance strategically in a way that gives the Chinese more space without unsettling things and destabilising longstanding, gradually built-up relationships."

But Mr Lee is clear he is not talking about giving the Chinese, or anyone else, an exclusive zone.

He says: "I don't think it's a matter of ceding space to the Chinese in Asia. I mean, you're not talking about spheres of influence.

"The Americans have been present in the region since the war, since World War II. Other countries continue to welcome their presence.

"But the Chinese will have a bigger role trade-wise, economics-wise and in terms of influence with countries in the region. I think that's something countries welcome. At the same time they want the US to be part of the region. How do you achieve that? That's the challenge.

"I don't think the Americans have done anything against Chinese relations in the region. The Chinese have trade relations with so many of America's major partners. All the (US') major partners now have China as their major trading partner. Australia has China as its major trading partner. So too Korea. So too Japan.

"There is an issue in the South China Sea which is a security issue, and in the other islands which are disputed (between China and Japan), but other than that, the shift is not so much a military shift as a shift in terms of economic weight and political influence."

Maritime confrontations

IS HE worried about recent confrontations at sea between China and various South-east Asian nations in the South China Sea, and between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands?

"It's sharper, it's definitely sharper," Mr Lee says.

"First of all, everyone thinks there's hydrocarbon there, which is worth a lot, which previously was not so certain.

"Secondly, I think the nationalist pressures are there and no government can be seen to be weak. In Japan there's a contest between the Tokyo governor and the central government as to who can be more zealous in guarding the national interest."

Without being alarmist, Mr Lee is sombre about where this could all lead.

"You could have a mishap at sea and lives could be lost for no rhyme or reason, and the problem could escalate, which would be very bad for the whole region.

"We (Singapore) don't have any direct stake in this because we are not a claimant state, but we do have a stake in the stability and prosperity of the region.

"Asean has some role and Singapore has a role as a member of Asean. If something is happening on our doorstep, we cannot not be involved. We can counsel moderation and restraint and encourage the parties to work towards a code of conduct, which would not resolve the competing claims but at least allow us to manage them without coming to blows."

At its last ministerial meeting in Cambodia in July, Asean was unable to issue any joint statement, reportedly because Beijing had influenced the Cambodian government as host and chair to reject any reference to recent skirmishes at sea, which the Philippines and Vietnam wanted included.

Mr Lee, for whom Asean is central in foreign policy, is blunt in his assessment of this failure. "Yes, it was a setback," he says. "It was no good for us. It cast doubt on our effectiveness and our seriousness."

This was partly salvaged, he believes, by a compromise statement Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa negotiated a week later.

"But nevertheless the damage had been done," Mr Lee says.

"Partly because of a perception that there had been pressures brought to bear which led to intransigent positions being taken, and which led to the inability to agree (on) a consensus statement."

It would be wrong to second-guess Mr Lee, who chooses his words with great precision, but the reference to "pressures brought to bear" can only mean Chinese pressure.

Chinese nationalism

SO WHAT is Mr Lee's assessment of the dynamic force of rising Chinese nationalism?

"If you talk to the Chinese foreign policy establishment, especially the professionals in the Foreign Ministry, they will tell you they are under pressure from public opinion, and particularly from Internet opinion," Mr Lee says.

"And Chinese Internet opinion, like Internet opinion in most countries, is neither moderated nor pro-establishment.

"It's also partly the result of many years of - indoctrination is not quite the word - education, I suppose, of reminding the people of the Sino-Japanese War and all the indignities Chinese people suffered at the hands of the Japanese. In fact they just celebrated the anniversary of the Manchurian incident which led to the Japanese invasion of China.

"Every Chinese knows that date. So do I, so does every Singaporean who studied in Chinese schools in my generation.

"The other element is that the new generation of Chinese have grown up in a period of China's rapid emergence and growing self-confidence.

"They are the ones who are the most vocal in asserting their nationalist righteousness. That is something to be concerned about in the long term. Because the generation who lived through it don't want to go to war again. They know that this is not the 1930s, it's the 21st century and China is a nuclear power and Japan has a nuclear umbrella. The balance is shifting towards China, so why do you want to upset things and precipitate a confrontation?

"The younger generation have not seen the horrors of war, or the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, and they just see China getting bigger and stronger every day. They just say the time has come for us to take our rightful place. The Chinese government has to take that into account."

Meanwhile, Singapore lives with less apocalyptic realities.

At the worst point in the global financial crisis, in 2008, it recorded a year of negative growth of about 1 per cent. The following year, Mr Lee tells me, it rebounded with an astounding growth rate of 14.5 per cent.

"It was a rebound, it was not a trend," Mr Lee says.

He thinks Singapore this year will have 2 per cent or so growth. He sees Chinese growth slowing in part because of a lack of demand in Europe and the United States. But he gives the impression that if the global economy just sees a bit of slowing, that will not be too bad.

"Our worry beyond that is the transmission of shocks through financial institutions. European banks could be cutting back on lending because they've got more stringent capital requirements and they are big players in Asia, for trade financing and project financing.

"If something really goes wrong in Europe we don't quite know what the knock-on effects will be on the whole global system, on confidence, the financial system, or even the attitude towards globalisation and free trade."

I ask Mr Lee whether he thinks the Western world is suffering a crisis of entitlement spending.

His response is robust: "In America, entitlement spending is a big chunk of your budget. In Britain, it's half the budget. In Europe, it's not just entitlement spending but the whole idea of state welfare, which is entrenched and you cannot undo this. How do you cut back on spending when benefits, once given, cannot be taken back?

"The Germans have done a big restructuring over the last 20 years, but the French have not given up their attitude to entitlements, neither have fundamentally the Spanish or the Italians."

Sense of entitlement

IS THERE a lesson here for Singapore, now as affluent as any European nation?

"We have started with very minimal welfare and we've gone on the basis of growth and high employment and low unemployment. If you're out of a job you can find a new job. You will get help but the help is not something you're absolutely entitled to.

"We have to adjust that without going overboard and ending up where the Americans are or the Europeans are or where the New Zealanders were".

Or where Australia is, I ask.

"Even Labor governments have not quite reformed your labour laws," he says.

Singaporeans, more affluent than ever before, also, perhaps paradoxically, expect more from their Government, according to Mr Lee: "People are not so poor. They think their Government is not poor so they expect the Government to do more for them.

"They're not poor but they feel less well off relatively than others they can see in society. There is that relative sense that 'I should get my entitlement'."

Mr Lee is extremely appreciative of the training facilities that the Singapore Armed Forces get from Australia and he cites joint operations in Afghanistan, and against piracy in the Persian Gulf, as examples of the intimacy and trust between the two nations.

He would like to push the free trade agreement between the two nations a bit further, especially more deeply into air services, but acknowledges: "I think your airlines have other views on that."

But Singapore under Mr Lee is an intimate partner for Australia in South-east Asia. It's a partnership we should work hard to cultivate.


Other references:

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Manpower realities: Beyond the numbers

by Tan Chuan-Jin

Oct 01, 2012

The recently released data on our population statistics showed that our foreign workforce numbers continue to grow, and some Singaporeans have expressed concern. This is understandable.

On the other hand, companies also remain concerned that the Government is over tightening our foreign manpower policies. Earlier this month in Parliament, we discussed the Work Permit (WP) and S-Pass stock. I explained that while the rate of rejections had increased, foreign-labour numbers were actually still rising, albeit at a slower rate.

I said that it could be seen as a "happy problem" because businesses were doing well enough to demand for more labour, in spite of the tightening.

Two of our Nominated Members of Parliament, both of whom are businessmen, came to speak to me at tea break. Like most of the businessmen we have been speaking to, they were surprised that the stock of S Passes and WP was still increasing. Many of them have been appealing for more foreign workers and feel that we are unreasonably making it difficult for businesses, even though the macro numbers and trends show otherwise.

Our tightening has certainly had an impact and is being felt by companies, but businesses are still expanding or being set up. This demand for foreign manpower is very considerable and many businesses remain prepared to pay the higher costs involved.


Let us take a closer look at the present numbers, and see the trend over the last few years. Our WP stock (excluding foreign domestic workers) grew by 20,600 in the first half of this year. Much of the inflow in the past few months was due to foreign construction workers.

The Housing and Development Board, for example, will need about 30,000 construction workers to meet this year's building programme. The cumulative requirement of construction workers could rise to 50,000 within the next few years.

Our Employment Pass (EP) stock contracted marginally (-700), the first half-yearly reduction since 2009 when the recession hit us. I think our adjustments are beginning to be felt at the Professional-Managerial-Executive (PME) level. However, S Passes registered strong growth of 14,200 in the first half of this year. Because of the tightened EP requirements from January, it is likely that companies are using S Passes to bring in the more junior level PMEs. We are taking a close look at this group.

Overall, the growth in foreign manpower (excluding foreign domestic workers) in the first half of this year has slowed to 34,100, which is lower than that of 36,800 in the first half of last year. The slowdown in growth of foreign manpower in sectors other than construction is more obvious: 18,600 in the first half of this year - about 40 per cent lower than the 31,200 in the first half of last year.

We are on the right track in our efforts to reduce dependency on our foreign labour but this will take time.

How much time exactly will depend on many factors, particularly the extent of our tightening measures and how fast companies restructure and improve productivity. And as you can imagine, this will definitely not be overnight.


Singapore cannot grow our foreign workforce without limits, given our land, infrastructure and social constraints. But to shrink our foreign workforce altogether will also be quite dire as many of our companies may close, relocate and with that a sharp rise in retrenchments and possibly higher unemployment amongst Singaporeans.

We must therefore rein in the pace of foreign workforce growth, but at a pace that businesses can adjust.

Our productivity effort must continue aggressively. We have often said this, and for good measure. Our rate of job creation outstripped gross domestic product (GDP) growth in the last three quarters (from the fourth quarter of last year to the second quarter of this year), resulting in negative productivity growth over the same period. Without good consistent productivity growth, the competitiveness of our companies, and hence wages will be affected.

Productivity growth must be a key driver for sustainable wage growth. One reason for negative productivity is the availability of low-cost foreign labour - which would explain why the number of foreign workers continues to grow rapidly. Low labour costs make it less urgent for companies to invest in technology and innovation.

This is simply not sustainable. I know that we cannot mechanise everything; some jobs do require the human touch. But I am not aware of any country with high productivity levels which has easy access to low-cost labour.


Focusing on numbers tend to gloss over more fundamental concerns. What kind of society do we want? And what would be the look and feel of the economy be to support that? We all agree that there is more to life than GDP growth. It must be so.

However, there are still practical needs to meet. Let me share my top-line objectives and concerns. Firstly, we need to generate enough jobs for Singaporeans - not just the number of jobs, but also quality of jobs, in line with increasing education and expectations. So how do we keep Singapore dynamic enough that we offer a range of possibilities for our people?

Secondly, we need to generate sufficient income to fund the various Government expenditures for Singaporeans. We need to look at what levels of economic growth and what type of growth will help meet these objectives.

As our resident labour force is slowing, we will have to rely more on productivity growth (rather than labour force growth) to fund higher Government expenditures. What percentage of labour and productivity growth do we need to factor in? This underscores why productivity is so important. The higher our productivity, the greater space it affords us to depend less on additional labour inputs.

We are in the process of relooking the structure of our economy and the quality of growth. For example, manufacturing contributes more than 20 per cent of Singapore's GDP, and has led the economy out of recent downturns. It also provides good-skilled jobs for Singaporeans.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong rightly pointed out over the weekend, this is one sector where businesses can do more to beef up the industry, particularly on the productivity front. So for this sector and the economy as a whole, how can we generate sufficient good jobs to meet the job needs of locals, while keeping Singapore vibrant and avoiding excessive job creation which would have to be filled by foreigners, which in turn will add stresses to our infrastructure and social fabric? This is tricky because the economy is not simply shaped by dials which we can set.

On the Government's part, the National Productivity and Continuing Education Council has developed sector-specific productivity improvement strategies to help 16 priority sectors embark on productivity improvements and provide productivity-related schemes and funding. We have also just launched a new initiative to boost productivity: The Job Flexibility for Productivity (JFP) initiative for the hotel sector.

Local employees will get more opportunities to work across different functions, gain skills and enjoy higher wages. Foreign work-permit holders will be allowed to perform different job functions. Currently, they can only perform the specific job on their work-permit card. With the JFP, hotels can now do more with their current workforce, instead of having to hire additional foreign workers. The industry can then share the productivity gains with workers as well.

Such measures will be useful, but we cannot stop there. I think the balance of driving forces favours recalibration towards even more moderate foreign workforce inflow, to encourage companies to pursue higher productivity business models and processes and away from labour-intensive growth. We will monitor closely over the next few months and take further measures down the road, if needed.

LOOKING AFTER Singapore and Singaporeans

It is important to again emphasise that our priority is to look after the interests of Singaporeans and Singapore, not just for the present but on a sustained basis for our future.

Creating good job opportunities for Singaporeans does not come automatically because companies will come and go based on opportunities available globally. We need to arm local workers with the right skills so that they can enjoy inclusive growth in Singapore with rising real wages and a better quality of life.

At the same time, I am fully aware of the concerns of too large a foreign workforce. We will increase our infrastructural support to ease the congestion, even as we continue to find the right balance for the labour market. If needed, we will tighten foreign workforce controls further. Companies must do their part and transform.

Let us think hard and discuss this constructively with fellow Singaporeans, employers and workers alike - on how we can navigate this path where we can best provide for our people and society, while calibrating our foreign manpower framework in a complementary manner.

It is not just about numbers, it is about finding that delicate balance that will deliver sustainable wage growth for Singaporeans, growth prospects for businesses, and a societal composition that we can accept.

Tan Chuan-Jin is Singapore's Acting Minister for Manpower. This first appeared as a blog post at yesterday.