Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Weather, climate change and China's food security

Apr 30, 2014

The success or failure of China's efforts to ensure food security in the wake of the uncertainties presented by climate change could have ripple effects that go well beyond its own borders.
By John Wong, For The Straits Times

A REPORT issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on April 13 warned that the effects of climate change, such as global warming and rising sea levels, are real. They are posing serious threats to the world's ecosystems, water supply, food security and eventually global economic production and social systems. As IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri put it, "nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impact of climate change".

Many of the risks of global warming may be long term and gradual. The long-term impact of global warming on agriculture is supposed to include lower crop yields, a reduction of arable land and a rise in pests and disease. But the actual threat of global warming to agricultural production could be felt sooner through extreme and abnormal weather conditions, which have already occurred in greater frequency.

The world is experiencing more and more natural disasters, from floods and droughts to typhoons. Such natural disasters will inevitably threaten global food security.

Maritime disputes call for S-E Asia input

Apr 30, 2014

By John Lee, For The Straits Times

PRESIDENT Barack Obama's visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines is confirmation that America-led bilateral security relationships remain the backbone of peace and stability in the region. Even so, the greater military power and economic weight of countries such as Japan might tempt weaker South-east Asian capitals to stay on the sidelines when it comes to tensions in the East China Sea and adopt a less direct and confrontational approach to keeping Chinese behaviour in check in the South China Sea.

That would be a mistake. Essential to Beijing's "divide and rule" strategy is to convince states that its interests in the East China Sea are unrelated to those in the South China Sea, and vice versa. In reality, South-east Asian states should realise that as far as China is concerned, the latter's maritime claims are indivisible. Known for the creative multilateral diplomacy that only smaller states tend to pursue, it is time that key players within Asean push for a Code of Conduct that prohibits the use of force to settle territorial disputes to cover all maritime regions in the Asia-Pacific, not just the South China Sea.

Confronting China’s water insecurity


APRIL 30, 2014

Among the numerous challenges China faces in its quest to become a great power, the biggest, perhaps, is mounting water insecurity. China has 20 per cent of the world’s population but only 7 per cent of the world’s fresh water. To make matters worse, the country’s scarce water resources are unevenly distributed between the south and north of the country.

With rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, the demand for fresh water is increasing at a very fast rate. It is forecast that by 2030, China’s water demand will surpass 800 billion cubic metres. However, China’s supply is severely undermined by worsening water scarcity and pollution.

Obama reassures allies, but doubts over ‘pivot’ to Asia persist


APRIL 30, 2014

MANILA — From the elaborate details of a Japanese state visit to the more mundane question of how much face-time to give each of his Asian hosts, United States President Barack Obama’s aides spent months meticulously scripting his four-country tour of the region.

But, as the week-long trip wrapped up yesterday, it was clear that, while Mr Obama scored points with sceptical allies simply by showing up, not everything followed the White House plan.

Is Obama or Putin the bigger threat to world peace?



The Ukraine crisis has demonstrated that one person alone can endanger world peace. But that one person might not be Russian President Vladimir Putin who, in reality, only leads a large regional power that, owing to his authoritarian rule and muddled economics, is a long-term threat more to itself than to the world.

No, the lone actor most responsible for threatening world peace might unwittingly be United States President Barack Obama, with his scholarly inertia and apparent disregard for the fate of smaller, faraway countries.

Asean grapples with rise of China

Apr 25, 2014


American President Barack Obama's Asia trip will be closely watched by the region to offer insights on how the US will respond to a rising China. Three writers give their perspectives from South-east Asia, China and Japan.

By William Choong, For The Straits Times

AFTER their first meeting in Slovenia in 2001, then United States president George W. Bush said he had looked Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the eye and was "able to get a sense of his soul".

Fast-forward 13 years, and Mr Barack Obama has seen Mr Putin's soul - and much more. In the past weeks, military forces loyal to Russia have overtaken Crimea in southern Ukraine and sparked the biggest confrontation between Russia and the West since the cessation of the Cold War two decades ago.

Russia's actions in Crimea surprised the Americans and Europeans. For years, the Europeans thought a more democratic and free-market-oriented Russia would integrate into the global community and, as a result, develop a modern allergy to the use of force.

The events unfolding in Ukraine might be far removed from Asia, but their implications bear directly on Asia and Asean in particular, given that the latter is in the driver's seat in building a slew of institutions to foster regional order and manage China's emergence.

Like the European approach to Russia, South-east Asians believe China can be "socialised" into regional institutions such as the Asean Regional Forum and the Asean Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus). By weaving China into an interlocked web of shared norms, China can be convinced to preclude the use of force in its interactions with its smaller neighbours.

Like the Europeans on Russia, South-east Asians believe China would be unlikely to come to blows with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. After all, the two countries' economies are highly interdependent, and any conflict would entail dramatic losses in economic welfare and regional stability.

Like Russia, however, China has not and will not shy away from the use of force. It has been two years since Chinese paramilitary forces locked out the Philippines from the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

Last month, Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked two Philippine ships attempting to resupply marines on Second Thomas Shoal.

The number of incursions into the Senkakus - as the islands are known in Japan - by Chinese government ships has also gone up. Last week, China seized the Baosteel Emotion, a Japanese-owned cargo ship, in a dispute with China over pre-war debt.

All this begs the question: Given that China, like Russia, is building its "China dream" on a narrative of recovery from its much-vaunted "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western powers, what can Asean do in the face of further displays or use of force by China?

The answer: Not much really. Put simply, missives would do little in the face of missiles.

Granted, Asean can take comfort in America's "rebalance" to the Asia-Pacific. As the historical guarantor of Asian security and prosperity, Washington could be counted on to provide a backstop against Chinese assertiveness.

But as my colleague Christian Le Miere writes in Survival, the rebalance remains modest, given domestic financial pressures in the US and continuing commitments in the Middle East. More importantly, it is not a given that the US would act on its alliance commitments to the Philippines and Japan - two countries involved in territorial disputes with China.

This is not to say that Asean is ineffective. In recent years, the 10-member grouping has facilitated the integration of Myanmar back into Asean. It has succeeded in getting China, Russia and the US to join the East Asia Summit - the pre-eminent institution in the region.

The ADMM-Plus staged a four-day humanitarian assistance disaster relief and military medicine exercise in June last year. It was a historic exercise that involved 3,000 troops from countries such as the US, China, Japan, India and Vietnam.

But the challenge for Asean is to further such cooperation in the area of "hard" security issues such as territorial disputes.

Asean lacks cohesion on the issue of the South China Sea, which involves four Asean members - the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam - and China.

This was clear in July 2012, when Asean failed to issue a communique due to differences over the South China Sea. Currently, only the Philippines has taken its dispute with China to an arbitral tribunal formed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Other Asean states, such as Malaysia and Brunei, have taken a more low-key approach in their disputes with China. And the jury is still out as to whether Asean can finalise a Code of Conduct agreement with China on the South China Sea.

Asean could also do little if push came to shove in the Sino- Japanese dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The onus is on the US, and whether it would come to Japan's aid.

No wonder South-east Asian countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines have started to develop their anti-access area denial capabilities to better counter the growing dominance of the People's Liberation Army navy in the South China Sea.

Vietnam has ordered six Kilo-class submarines from Russia, while the Philippines has outlined plans to acquire new coastal cutters from the US Coast Guard, to be equipped with anti-ship missiles.

Therein lies the lesson from the Crimean episode: as in Europe, diplomacy, regional institutions and soft power are important in Asia. But when confronted with displays of hard power, the acquisition of hard power assets matters more.

In 1935, French foreign minister Pierre Laval suggested that the Soviet Union encourage Catholicism to propitiate the Pope. In reply, Josef Stalin said: "The Pope! How many divisions has he got?"

The Chinese approach to the use of force is similar. According to a Chinese slogan, guo jia zun yan shi da chu lai de (a country's sense of respect is derived from fighting). For many South-east Asian countries, this bears repeating.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Uphill task to get homes to cut waste

Apr 28, 2014

By Grace Chua

WHEN visitors come to Singapore, they always remark on how leafy and clean the island is. That is, until they find out how household recycling works - or doesn't.

While 61 per cent of all the rubbish chucked out last year was recycled, this was hardly the case for household waste streams such as plastic and food waste. Just 11 per cent of plastics and 13 per cent of food waste were recycled.

"Our overall recycling rate is around 60 per cent, but at the domestic (household) level, it is only around 20 per cent," said Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan in the Budget debate in February.

Parental involvement is overrated

Apr 28, 2014

By Keith Robinson And Angel L. Harris

MOST people, when asked whether parental involvement benefits children academically, would say, "of course it does". But evidence from our research suggests otherwise. In fact, most forms of parental involvement, such as observing a child's class, contacting a school about a child's behaviour, helping to decide a child's high school courses, or helping a child with homework do not improve student achievement. In some cases, they actually hinder it.

Over the past few years, we conducted an extensive study of whether the depth of parental engagement in children's academic lives improved their test scores and grades. We pursued this question because we noticed that while policymakers were convinced parental involvement positively affected children's schooling outcomes, academic studies were much more inconclusive.

We analysed longitudinal surveys of American families that spanned three decades (from the 1980s to the 2000s) and obtained demographic information on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status and the academic outcomes of children in elementary, middle and high school, as well as information about the level of parental engagement in 63 different forms.

What did we find? One group of parents, including blacks and Hispanics, as well as some Asians (like Cambodians, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders), appeared quite similar to a second group, made up of white parents and other Asians (like Chinese, South Koreans and Indians) in the frequency of their involvement.

A common reason given for why the children of the first group performed worse academically on average was that their parents did not value education to the same extent. But our research shows that these parents tried to help their children just as much as the parents in the second group.

Even the notion that kids do better in school when their parents are involved does not stack up. After comparing the average achievement of children whose parents regularly engage in each form of parental involvement with that of their counterparts whose parents do not, we found that most forms of parental involvement yielded no benefit to children's grades, regardless of racial or ethnic background or socioeconomic standing.

In fact, there were more instances in which children had higher levels of achievement when their parents were less involved than there were among those whose parents were more involved. Even more counterintuitively: When involvement does seem to matter, the consequences for children's achievement are more often negative than positive.

When involvement did benefit kids academically, it depended on which behaviour parents were engaging in, which academic outcome was examined, the grade level of the child, the racial and ethnic background of the family and its socioeconomic standing.

For example, regularly discussing school experiences with your child seems, to positively affect the reading and mathematics test scores of Hispanic children, to negatively affect test scores in reading for black children, and to negatively affect test scores in both reading and mathematics for white children (but only during elementary school).

Policymakers should not advocate a one-size-fits-all model of parental involvement.

What about when parents work directly with their children on learning activities at home?

Regardless of a family's social class, racial or ethnic background, or a child's grade level, consistent homework help almost never improved test scores or grades. Even more surprising to us was that when parents regularly helped with homework, kids usually performed worse.

Our findings also suggest that the idea that parental involvement will address one of the most salient and intractable issues in education, racial and ethnic achievement gaps is not supported by the evidence. As it turns out, the list of parental involvement that generally works is short: expecting your child to go to college, discussing activities children engage in at school and requesting a particular teacher for your child.

Do our findings suggest that parents are not important for children's academic success? Our answer is no. We believe that parents are critical for how well children perform in school, just not in the conventional ways that our society has been promoting. The essential ingredient is for parents to communicate the value of schooling, a message that parents should be sending early in their children's lives and that needs to be reinforced over time. But this message does not need to be communicated through conventional behaviour.

When the US government issues mandates on the implementation of programmes that increase parental involvement, schools often encourage parents to spend more time volunteering, to attend school events, to help their children with homework and so forth. There is a strong sentiment in this country that parents matter in every respect relating to their children's academic success, but we need to pay attention to what the evidence is telling us.

Future research should investigate how parental involvement can be made more effective, but until then, parents who have been less involved should not be stigmatised. What should parents do? They should set the stage and then leave it.


Dr Keith Robinson, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Austin, and Dr Angel L. Harris, a professor of sociology and African and African-American studies at Duke, are the authors of The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children's Education.

Insights from a rock-star economist



APRIL 28, 2014

Two weeks ago, I watched something peculiar unfold at a lecture theatre at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where United States economists met to ponder a 577-page tract on inequality and tax policy by Thomas Piketty, a professor of economics from Paris.

Instead of a meeting in sombre, academic isolation, the event was so popular tickets sold out — and the discussion had to be broadcast in a neighbouring auditorium.

The excitement did not stop there. In recent days, Prof Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has soared in rankings on bestseller lists and sparked endless debate. The White House and US Treasury have held talks with the Frenchman. Interest has been so high, New York magazine has called Prof Piketty a “rock-star economist”.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Are Singaporeans ideological prisoners?

[This is a repeat post. I had paired it with this post for comparison and contrast.]

May 11, 2013


Singapore needs to rid itself of the false assumptions that underpinned the Reagan-Thatcher revolution

By Kishore Mahbubani For The Straits Times

As Singapore undergoes its mighty metamorphosis and develops a new soul and character over this coming decade, one of the biggest challenges it will have to deal with is its position on the vexing and age-old question of "equality". And it would be absolutely foolish for us to believe we will arrive at a new consensus through purely internal discussions. Global trends will influence us too.

John Maynard Keynes was dead right when he said: "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." This is equally true of Singapore's policymakers. Hence our ideas on equality have also been affected by the conventional wisdom of the times.

Left of centre

WHEN Singapore became self- governing in 1959, the prevailing ideas of the British left influenced us. Both Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S. Rajaratnam had spent time in London and believed that all citizens should be given an "equal opportunity". Fortunately, to defeat the communists, the government demonstrated that it could be better at providing water pipes, health clinics, schools and public housing to improve the lives of the people at the very bottom. This deep and profound concern for the people at the very bottom reflected both an internal political imperative to "win the ground" as well as an external ideological consensus that the best societies were those that helped the poor.

In the 1960s, 1970s and, perhaps, the 1980s, Singapore was clearly left-of-centre.
Fortunately, we were moderately left-of- centre and we also believed that markets were the best agency for promoting economic growth. The role of the state was to moderate excessive capitalism and to distribute the effects of economic growth. Long before the word "inclusiveness" became fashionable, Singapore believed that all citizens should be treated equally.

The best symbolic demonstration of this ideological conviction was the decision to build HDB estates in the expensive Holland Village area. To understand how unique Singapore is, ask yourselves in which other city in the region do you find public housing in the most expensive good class bungalow area. And we even built an HDB estate on very expensive reclaimed land in Marine Parade. Our attitude then was that the poor should be given an equal opportunity to live on expensive real estate.

Reagan-Thatcher revolution 

THEN came the Reagan-Thatcher revolution of the 1980s. Even though that ideological revolution was sparked by the socialist excesses of the United Kingdom and Europe and the excessively high taxes in the United States, and even though Singapore did not have these socialist excesses, our minds were also influenced by this ideological revolution. Hence, our policies shifted towards right of centre. And we were not the only ones to be ideologically affected. Even the Chinese Communist Party government was affected by this global trend.

One of the most charming stories I have ever heard was told to me by Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, currently India's Deputy Chief Planner. In the early 1990s, a group of Chinese economists arrived in New Delhi and described the series of economic reforms that they planned to implement. When they finished, one Indian economist timidly asked: "But do you realise that if you implement these reforms, there will be rising inequality in Communist China?" The lead Chinese economist smiled broadly and replied: "We certainly hope so."

And why did this Chinese economist say this? He did so because the Reagan-Thatcher revolution had convinced economists all over the world that rising inequality would lift all boats. In short, when the rich got richer, the poor would get richer too. There can be absolutely no doubt that the bold economic reforms of then-Chinese premier Zhu Rongji and his team lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty in China. The same was equally true in India.

In its time, the Reagan-Thatcher revolution did a lot of good. Hence, it also permeated thinking in Singapore. We also believed that it was good for the rich to get richer. A symbolic demonstration of this new ideological conviction was the decision to allow a rich gated community to emerge in Sentosa. Since I know first-hand how much some of our founding fathers disapproved of the gated community in Makati, Metro Manila, it provided real proof that our convictions had changed. 

No trickle-down effect

WE NOW live in a time where it is becoming increasingly clear that the Reagan-Thatcher revolution has gone too far. Ironically, despite their different systems, both the US and China face strong challenges of rising inequality. The Gini coefficients in both countries have worsened from 0.43 in 1990 to 0.47 in 2010 in the United States, and from 0.35 to 0.47 over the same period in China.

At first sight, the problem may seem worse in the US, where the top 1 per cent have seen their incomes rise by 275 per cent over the past 30 years while the incomes of the bottom 20 per cent have grown by only 18 per cent in the same period.

Yet the big advantage that the US has is that most Americans believe that they can succeed and, equally importantly, many of the extremely rich in America are also extremely generous. As of now, 105 billionaires have signed the "giving pledge" in which they promise to give away more than half their wealth during their lifetime or after their death. I honestly don't know how many Singapore or Asian billionaires have signed such a pledge.

This global trend towards rising inequality has also swept Singapore. Our Gini coefficient has also risen from 0.43 to 0.46 from 1990 to 2010. This is perfectly normal. As the most open economy in the world, we are naturally affected by global trends. In the 1990s, we believed that all Singaporeans would benefit from rising inequality. In the 2010s, we know that this has not happened. Contrary to what the proponents of trickle-down economics suggested, growth in the last decade has made Singapore more unequal.

Hence, the time has come for all Singaporean policymakers to ask themselves a simple question: how many of the assumptions in our minds are still influenced by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution? And if we find some, how do we scrub them out?

The good news is that this process has begun. We should cheer Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's recent statement that the Cabinet is now left- of-centre. And we should cheer the Robin Hood Budget he presented this year. This is exactly where Singapore should be in this current phase of its metamorphosis.

[Google "Thomas Piketty" and "Capitalism in the 21st Century" and read the book for further arguments or ideas about systemic persistence of inequality.]

Skim-deep reading gives skin-deep grasp of world

Apr 27, 2014

By Denise Chong

It is hard not to constantly Ctrl F the world.

Even if we don't literally use this keyword-search function on the PC, some of us scan and skim, skip and zip through many online articles at the same time with our eyes flitting from one buzz word to another. I find myself increasingly doing the same wild twitchy-eyed thing with print material too - with the several books and magazines I am greedily reading all at once.

Cognitive neuroscientists view this sort of development with growing alarm, reported The Washington Post. They warn that humans seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep-reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

The worry is that we will start to lose the ability to do in-depth processing of more difficult material.

My worry is also that some of us do not give ourselves time for stories to percolate through our minds. I am worried that more of us will turn into narrow-minded, narrow-eyed Web surfers quick to overreact to whatever story we are skimming through.

Take the April Fool's joke played by NPR, a national syndicate associated with hundreds of public radio stations in the United States. It posted a story on its Facebook page with this provocative title, "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?"

If you clicked on it, you were sent to a page that said: "Congratulations, genuine readers, and happy April Fools' Day! We sometimes get the sense that some people are commenting on NPR stories that they haven't actually read. If you are reading this, please like this post and do not comment on it. Then let's see what people have to say about this 'story'..."

The post got scathing comments from people about how much they read and how bad the "story" was. But they obviously hadn't clicked on it to find out that there wasn't a story. For example, one comment was, "I read every day, and all my friends and family members do too. Are we not America? Or are you just weakly grasping for stories?"

You can bet that he got walloped by fellow commenters in on the joke.

It looks like the super-fast way of reading is only getting more intense. There are all sorts of speed-reading software such as the one created by Boston-based developer Spritz. It identifies the optimal recognition point (ORP) of each word and turns that letter red. It flashes one word at a time in a narrow, rectangular viewing pane with each word's ORP fixed at the same spot on the screen. In this way, your eyes don't move as you see the words. You can process information instantaneously rather than spend time decoding each word.

The available Spritz speeds go from 250 words per minute up to about 1,000 words per minute. So you can finish reading the epic War And Peace in under 10 hours. Soul-searching not necessarily included. Missing a number of the book's key plot points might be included.

My eyes are getting twitchy as I am terrified by the tome no matter what reading style is used.

Has sprint-reading flattened some of our minds into ones that are a mile wide and an inch deep? Minds that are conditioned to constantly itch for the next buzzy topic to get outraged over, something to make one thump the table self-righteously?

On the Internet, some zero in on what they perceive to be a provocative headline or excerpt and immediately go nuclear with whatever they want to explode about that day, never mind what the article is actually about.

You know how we have acquaintances who always hijack conversations and turn them into what only they want to talk about (their knowledge of everything, their own eternal awesomeness...). It's that x 1,000 + radioactive viciousness in the comments sections.

Some people don't even bother reading the post and dive straight into the comment threads with their shouty Caps Lock key and angry emoticons at the ready. The flaming mess is enough to make some media websites shut down their comments section.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Sun-Times and the other titles in the Sun-Times Media group temporarily ceased to run comments with their articles until they could develop a system to "foster a productive discussion rather than an embarrassing mishmash of fringe ranting and ill-informed, shrill bomb-throwing".

The magazine Popular Science got rid of comments on its website last September, saying that although they have many thought-provoking commenters, "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story, recent research suggests". The magazine said "commenters shape public opinion; public opinion shapes public policy; public policy shapes how and whether and what research gets funded - you start to see why we feel compelled to hit the 'Off' switch".

While I am not sure if hitting the Esc button on comments is the answer, it is a pity that the wealth of information on the Internet doesn't necessarily broaden our horizons. We respond to the embarrassment of riches by Ctrl F-ing it and some of us end up with an ever narrower world view if all we search for is something to validate our own beliefs.

Skim-deep reading gives us only a skin-deep understanding of our world.

Here's what I came to realise about not reaching deeply enough for something new as I once described how Twitter worked to someone. The person said: "Isn't Twitter boh liao ("nothing better to do" in Hokkien)?"

It is boh liao if we are the boh liao type.

It isn't boh liao if we are not the boh liao type.

Our social media news feed is only as interesting as the people and organisations we follow. Our minds are only as narrow as we squeeze them. My eyes are only as twitchy as I make them.

So I might hit Ctrl P and make a cup of tea when I find myself becoming googly-eyed at the forest of tabs sticking up on my browser. Print out one good essay with a different point of view.

Take the time to read just that story with a hot beverage.

And take back control of the Ctrl F.

Friday, April 25, 2014

China’s water is even worse than its air

APRIL 25 2014


In recent months, Chinese leaders have pledged drastic steps to clear their nation’s smog-choked air. The bigger question, though, may be how far they are willing to go to clean up its water.

Say one thing for the lung-burning pollution that regularly blankets Beijing and other cities: At least everyone can see the problem. In contrast, a recent benzene spill that poisoned the water supply of Lanzhou — a city of more than two million people — was terrifyingly odourless and colourless. If anything, polluted water poses a more insidious threat to Chinese people than dirty air does.

Seventy per cent of the groundwater in the heavily populated north China plain has become unfit for human touch, let alone drinking or irrigation. Because the area encompasses several of the country’s largest farming provinces, crops and livestock are exposed to dangerous contaminants as well. The nine in 10 Chinese who say they are highly concerned about the safety of their food and water have reason to be alarmed.

The authorities have shown they can restore blue skies, at least temporarily, as they did during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Cleaning up China’s water will be more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Industries that pollute water are not concentrated in a few places, as coal-fired power plants are, but spread out across thousands of localities. And dirty water is harder to assess than gritty air; discharges have to be measured near the source. In any case, industry accounts for only half of water pollution. The rest comes from millions of small farmers and livestock producers, whose fertilisers, pesticides and waste runoff leach undetected into the water table.


The sheer scale of the problem demands root-and-branch reforms — the kind that Chinese academics and activists have long promoted, but the government has been reluctant to make. A new environmental law, for instance, may include tougher penalties: Violators who ordinarily pay cheap fines and then continue to pollute would be subject to daily, unlimited penalties and possible criminal charges. However, this law is in its fourth draft and still undergoing revisions, and there is no guarantee the stronger penalties will survive to the final version.

Even if they do, they will be of little use unless China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) is given greater power. As things stand, so many agencies have a say in environmental oversight, it is almost impossible to take strong, swift action.

Groundwater monitoring alone is overseen by three different ministries, as China Water Risk, a non-profit watchdog based in Hong Kong, points out, and this makes enforcement slow and ineffective. Talk of merging ministries or responsibilities into the MEP has so far gone nowhere.

Another barrier to progress is that many officials remain uncomfortable enlisting ordinary citizens and environmental groups in the battle against pollution — something that, given how broad the problem is, could be critical to success.

The authorities have allowed local journalists and environmental activists to expose some polluters. However, they are wary of protests against specific factories, or even civil lawsuits. Last week, a court ruled that residents could not sue the city’s water supplier over the spill in Lanzhou.

Chinese Internet giant Alibaba Group Holding now offers US$10 (S$12.60) handheld kits that buyers can use to test their local water, then upload the data to a digital map. Such information could greatly aid the task of naming and shaming offenders — and it is precisely the sort of transparency the government needs to encourage, not restrict.

Chinese leaders understand the scope of the challenge, and they have said they will spend almost two trillion yuan (S$400 billion) to combat it. They have made local officials responsible for preserving the environment as well as promoting economic growth, which should encourage more determined enforcement efforts.

Officials have talked about introducing tiered pricing for water usage by industries, while raising discharge standards and fees. They are also encouraging the consolidation of small farms into bigger, more efficient plots that use less fertiliser.

However, China’s water problems are too big and too dangerous to leave any weapons lying on the table.

Northern China already confronts a drastic scarcity of water and pollution further reduces the supply.

Chinese leaders should worry less about what may happen if they unleash regulators and the public on polluters, and more about what will happen if they do not.



Tuesday, April 22, 2014

TRANSPORT: Source of most angst since last elections

Apr 19, 2014

FRUSTRATED with rising car prices, train delays and fare increases, Singaporeans have dubbed transport the Government's worst failure since the 2011 General Election.

The label was given by 45 per cent of 500 citizens polled in a Straits Times survey.

Around 28 per cent rate it as bad or very bad. Only a tad more - 31 per cent - say the system is good or very good.

They reserved most of their ire for the MRT, with over half of the regular train commuters saying services have declined since 2011. Only 21 per cent say services have improved.

For bus services, it is the reverse: Two in five regular commuters say services are better while 19 per cent say they have deteriorated.

The bus score could have got a boost from the Bus Service Enhancement Programme, which started in 2012. The $1.1 billion scheme will put about 550 state-funded buses on the road by the end of this year.

Commuters' growing happiness with buses and unhappiness with trains can also be seen in the Land Transport Authority's latest annual satisfaction survey.Conducted by UniSIM last year, its poll of 4,200 commuters shows the proportion satisfied with buses went up to 88.3 per cent, from 86.4 per cent in 2012.

On the other hand, the percentage satisfied with the MRT dropped from 92.1 to 88.9 per cent - its lowest since the first poll in 2006.

The overall satisfaction with the public transport system also slipped to 88.5 per cent, the lowest score since 2007.

Nursing student Neo Yiling, 26, who takes the bus and train daily, can relate to both survey findings. "The trains have become worse because of more frequent delays," she said, but she finds both trains and buses have become more crowded since 2011.

Ms Neo has been in situations where the train doors remain open at a station for more than 10 minutes.

Indeed, train delays and breakdowns was one of the top transport-related government failures cited by respondents.

They also slammed the high car and certificate of entitlement (COE) prices, and fare increases.

A separate section in the survey asked car owners what would coax them to leave their cars at home and take public transport.

Their replies indicate push factors, such as higher COE prices and higher car prices, will have a greater effect than pull factors like public transport becoming more convenient and having fewer glitches.


Show red card to soaring prices


APR 22, 2014

THERE is no running away from the fact that the rising cost of acquiring country broadcast rights to the football World Cup will never abate. Fifa, the regulator of the game, has the world in a stranglehold and it is not shy to demand ever larger fees from a captive clientele. Televised sport is big business, with rights holders to the Olympics, Masters golf, Formula 1 and tennis majors vying with football to charge as much as consumers can bear. The market is huge and growing - with nary a care for price-conscious consumers.

Monday, April 21, 2014

So, what is a Singaporean?

Jun 08, 2013


Whether Singapore's ethnic harmony is a natural or artificial development will determine the future of this accidental nation.

By Kishore Mahbubani For The Straits Times

LET me begin with a paradox. I know that I am a Singaporean. But I do not know what a Singaporean is.

The best way to explain this paradox is to compare Singapore with other nations.

There are three categories of nations with a clear sense of national identity. The first category is the old nation. Take France as an example. The French have zero doubts about their national identity. It is based on a common language, history, culture, relative ethnic homogeneity and deep attachment to key political concepts, like secularism. A Frenchman can recognise a fellow Frenchman in an instant. The bond is powerful and deep. This is equally true of other old nations, such as Japan and Korea, Russia and China, Spain and Sweden.

The second category is the new nation. The United States exemplifies this category best. It has no distinctive ethnic roots. It is an immigrant nation whose forefathers came from a variety of old nations. Yet somehow, within a generation (and often within less than a generation), their new citizens would lose their old national identities and be absorbed into the American melting pot.

Even though America declared its independence in 1776, it actually faced the danger of splitting into two nation states until the American Civil War of 1860-1865. Hence, the modern unified American nation is only about 150 years old.

Yet, there is absolutely no doubt that an American can recognise a fellow American when he walks the streets of Paris or Tokyo. When the fellow American opens his mouth, he knows that he is talking to a countryman.

A shared history, common historical myths, deep attachment to values like freedom and democracy are some of the elements that define the strong sense of American national identity.

It also helps to belong to the most successful nation in human history. A deep sense of national pride accompanies the sense of national identity.

Old cultures, new nations

THE third category is the mixed category where national identity is a mixture of new and old. India and Indonesia, Brazil and Nigeria exemplify this category. Both India and Indonesia have old cultures. But their sense of nationhood is relatively new. The boundaries that they have inherited are the accidental leftovers of European colonisation. For example, in the pre-colonial period, there were no nation states such as India and Pakistan or Indonesia and Malaysia. Their modern borders are a result of colonial divisions. Yet despite all this, both India and Indonesia have managed to develop strong and unique national identities.

Both Indians and Indonesians have no difficulty recruiting people to die for their countries. And they have done this despite the tremendous diversity of their societies. The story of Indian diversity is well known. In the case of Indonesia, it continues to be a source of daily discovery. The late Indonesian foreign minister Ali Alatas, a distinguished diplomat, told me how the Indonesian people were totally riveted by a series of TV programmes in the 1990s which showcased how children worked, studied and played all over the archipelago. Many Indonesians discovered this diversity for the first time.

Poor but happy community

SINGAPORE does not belong to any of these three categories. Virtually everyone knows that Singapore is an accidental nation. Yet few seem to be conscious of how difficult it is to create a sense of national identity out of an accidental nation.

Take my personal case as an example. Most children get their sense of national identity from their mother's milk. I did too.

As my mother had a close shave leaving Pakistan in 1947, she instilled a deep sense of Hindu nationalism in me. I learnt Hindi and Sindhi and read about Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

But it did not last. The realities of daily living in Singapore defined our identity.

Fortunately, I grew up in a relatively poor neighbourhood. Because we lived in one-bedroom houses - we actually lived in each other's houses and not only in our own. My mother discovered that she had left her Muslim neighbours in Pakistan to develop very deep and close friendships with our Malay Muslim neighbours on both sides of our house.

We lived together almost as one family. Just beyond them were two Chinese families. One was Peranakan and the other was Mandarin-speaking. Three doors away was a Eurasian family.

Hence, in the space of seven or eight houses, we could see almost the full spectrum of Singapore's ethnic composition living cheek by jowl with each other.

And we lived with deep ethnic harmony. At the height of the racial riots in 1964, even though one of my Malay neighbours returned home badly bruised and bloodied after being beaten by a Chinese mob, the ethnic harmony of our Onan Road community was never shaken. We saw ourselves as belonging to one community despite our ethnic and religious diversity.

Natural, artificial harmony?

SINGAPORE'S continued ethnic harmony, which has survived even bitter race riots, is clearly a key component of our sense of national identity. But one question remains unanswered: Is this ethnic harmony a result of natural evolution (as it was with our Onan Road community) or is it a result of harsh and unforgiving laws which allow no expression of ethnic prejudices? In short, is ethnic harmony in Singapore a natural or artificial development?

The answer to this question will determine Singapore's future. If it is a natural development, Singapore will remain a strong and resilient society that will overcome divisive challenges.

If it is an artificial development, we will remain in a state of continuous fragility. As Singapore continues its mighty metamorphosis, we have to hope and pray that our ethnic harmony is a result of natural development.

[A response.]

Sunday, April 20, 2014

More to Singapore Day than its million-dollar price tag

Apr 20, 2014

By Charissa Yong

In the spirit of full disclosure, I was one of the 12,000 people who went for Singapore Day in London in 2009.

Then a first-year undergraduate prone to chronic bouts of homesickness, I embarrassingly felt a little weepy at sight of the fake ERP gantry thoughtfully set up by some Overseas Singaporean Unit (OSU) person at the park's entrance.

The fake gantry was fairly corny but, as far as I was concerned, it felt about as evocative as the "Welcome Home" banners at Changi Airport's arrival halls.

I had a great time eating Hokkien mee, meeting friends and, yes, even queueing for the food (I think).

In short, Singapore Day was pretty great. But I also felt a little guilty about being so privileged - more so later when I learnt that the bash cost $6 million, at a time when Singapore was undergoing a recession.

Similar mixed sentiments surfaced online after Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in a written parliamentary answer on Monday that this year's edition - also in London - cost $4.4 million.

Critics questioned whether it was worth going through all the expense to throw a party for Singaporeans overseas.

Most criticism generally went along two lines: First, that it cost a lot of money.

Singapore Day, usually held once a year in a major city with a big concentration of overseas Singaporeans, has never been cheap. About $3 million was budgeted for the Melbourne edition (2008), $2 million for Shanghai (2011) and $4 million for New York (2012).

A large chunk of the bill is attributed to the higher cost of living in these cities - the carnival's physical set-up in London in 2009 already cost $3 million, for instance.

Obviously, this is a lot in absolute terms.

The bill for this year's Singapore Day is about a third of that of the 2012 National Day Parade - $17.2 million.

That nationwide bash was broadcast to the whole of Singapore and watched live by about 125,000 people. Put that way, the amount spent seems disproportionate to the people it reaches.

This ties into the second line of online criticism of Singapore Day, based on the perception that overseas Singaporeans are more well-off: These are not people who need a $4.4 million feel-good fest.

Some also said the money could be better spent on the poor.

But not spending the $4.4 million on Singapore Day is no guarantee that it would go towards social assistance programmes instead. The money was not necessarily taken away from being spent on the poor, either.

What this uneasy undercurrent of resentment obscures is the bigger question of the purpose of Singapore Day, which a few netizens did raise.

If it is simply a mega get-together which gives overseas Singaporeans a slice of home, as the OSU webpage says, then the tab may be a tad too much.

But if it is also a long-term investment that contributes to wooing overseas Singaporeans home, then that is easier to justify. The presence of Contact Singapore and different ministries' recruitment booths in the lead-up to Singapore Day and during the festivities hinted at this second, deeper purpose.

Singapore Day is something meant to benefit not only its attendees, but also Singapore at large.

Furthermore, there is more to Singapore Day than calculations can show, and it is unfair to write it off as a waste of money.

Many people I know who have been there talk about the event's positive vibes, as well as bring up quintessentially but affectionately Singaporean complaints about its long queues. The event also helps overseas Singaporeans bond with fellow countrymen and makes for a stronger diaspora.

It also has a valuable element of cross-cultural exchange. Attendees can take along their pre-registered non-Singaporean friends, which anecdotally demystifies Singapore or, at the very least, familiarises more people with it. This decreases the instances of Singapore being thought of as "somewhere in China".

Instead, it's "that country with a strangely inexhaustible supply of patriotic songs to which people can sing along".

Or the country in which queueing together is taboo because it lowers the chances of getting more types of food.

Or where picnic mats are small because they're for people's bags, not the people themselves.

With Singapore Day, Singapore becomes a warmly quirky country with its own set of contradictions like any other.

While weighing the event's worth, it's worthwhile to keep in mind the intangible value of reaching out to those overseas. In the end, whether Singapore Day gives bang for the buck is an argument that goes beyond dollars and cents.

This commentary was first published on

The 1965 MacDonald Bombing KRI Usman Harun followup: TNI chief apology and clarification

[The Flip.]

Indonesian Armed Forces chief expresses regret over naming of warship

By Sujadi Siswo
15 Apr 2014

JAKARTA: The Commander-in-Chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces has expressed regret over the naming of an Indonesian warship after two marines who carried out the bombing of MacDonald House in Singapore in 1965.

General Moeldoko told Channel NewsAsia that the Indonesian military had meant no ill will, and had not intended to stir up emotions in Singapore.

He said the episode has been a learning process, and he is confident that future ties between the two militaries would grow even stronger.

General Moeldoko said: "Once again I apologise. We have no ill intent whatsoever to stir emotions. Not at all. Second, relations between the two countries are on the mend. There have been communications among leaders. Singapore's Chief of Defence and I have spoken."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Rising inequality a blemish on Asia’s growth story


David Pilling

APRIL 15 2014

Deng Xiaoping said: “Let some people get rich first.” He was referring to China, but it turns out he could have been talking about Asia as a whole.

In the past two decades, rapid growth across much of Asia has widened the wealth gap. That has caused “a great convergence” with Latin America, said a development official. While inequality has narrowed in much of South and Central America, in Asia it has been going the other way, said Mr Vinod Thomas, Director-General of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Asian inequality as measured by the Gini index rose about 1 per cent each year throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Kishore's Big Ideas

 Apr 04, 2014

This year, our regular columnist Kishore Mahbubani has devoted his monthly columns in The Straits Times to new Big Ideas which will help Singapore succeed in the next 50 years.

His first Big Idea is for the country to have fewer cars. The second Big Idea is to make our public transportation No.1 in the world. Read The Straits Times this Saturday to find out his third Big Idea.

Professor Mahbubani, who heads the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, has been hailed by British current affairs magazine Prospect as one of this year’s top 50 world thinkers.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Healthy Path to Chinese Consumption Growth

MAR 31, 2014

Martin Feldman

CAMBRIDGE – China’s economic policymakers want to shift the country’s production away from exports and heavy industry, and to increase the share of consumption in GDP. A relatively simple institutional change to encourage health-care insurance could do much to promote the latter goal.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Settle maritime claims through jaw-jaw

Apr 10, 2014


THE Philippines' decision to contest China's vast claims over the South China Sea was advanced when it recently submitted a formal plea before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Itlos). A 4,000-page, 10-volume memorial contains Manila's arguments, evidence and maps to support its case against China's nine-dash line, which encloses 90 per cent of the South China Sea. Those expansive claims have put Beijing at loggerheads with Manila and others who are determined to defend what they too believe to be legitimately theirs.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Rise of an Insecure Giant

DEC 3, 2013

"...unwilling to accept American leadership in Asia... reluctant to assume a more prominent role..."


SEOUL – By the time China overtakes the United States as the world’s largest economy sometime in the next few years, it will have cemented its status as a major military power – one whose drive to assert itself strategically already is inspiring serious anxiety among its neighbors. But the truth is that China is a solitary, vulnerable rising power – one that faces potentially crippling domestic challenges.

China is currently encircled by US military installations and allies. While Asian countries are largely willing to maintain and even expand their economic ties with China, none (except North Korea, which depends on Chinese aid) is prepared to accept it as the region’s primary power. In fact, US allies like Indonesia and India have emerged as global players largely in response to China’s rise.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Food trends - Clear thinking on Organic and GMO

[Two Articles from Project Syndicate by Henry Miller on Organic Agriculture and GMO food. One is unsustainable (and actually bad for the environment), the other unsupported hysteria.]

Food vouchers traded at a discount

Apr 07, 2014


THIS must be the saddest trade in Singapore.

Needy residents, who are given vouchers to put food on the table, have been trading them at a discount for extra money in the pocket.

Some do it to clear debt, others to buy cigarettes and alcohol, and many are just desperate for cash.

Members of Parliament give out FairPrice vouchers during Meet-the-People sessions to enable needy residents to buy rice and noodles. Almost every MP that My Paper spoke to had heard of some form of abuse of this well-intentioned scheme.

"Residents sell $100 vouchers for $90," said Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Watch out for emerging faultlines

Apr 06, 2014

Race and class divides are already being tackled; ideological and regional rifts loom

By Sunday With Chua Mui Hoong Opinion Editor

How is Singapore divided? Let us count the ways.

First, there are the established faultlines of race, language and religion.

The existential facts of Singapore society have not changed for our diverse, multi-faith, multi-ethnic community. Most of us are immensely proud of our polyglot yet coherent national identity, but we recognise that differences in worldviews remain.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Rethinking what it means to be filial



In Asian culture, children are expected to welcome their ailing parents into their homes instead of placing them in residential facilities such as nursing homes.

That is being filial, but have we misunderstood filial piety? At the recent Economist Health Care In Asia 2014 conference, a speaker challenged the conventional wisdom, revealing results from a survey where seniors living with their children described their living situation as “no choice” and the children separately surveyed bemoaned their parent(s) living with them as “burdensome”.

Half tongue-in-cheek, he declared this a most unhappy situation, with the “parents unhappy, the children unhappy and both suffering shortened lifespans”.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Asymmetry of the Liberal/Conservative mindset

[An article illustrating the asymmetry of the US Democrat/Republican-Liberal/Conservative mindset. ]

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Green Energy Needs to be Cheaper

AUG. 25 2013

So let’s invest in R&D instead of subsidies.

By Bjørn Lomborg

According to International Energy Agency data, 13.12 percent of the world’s energy came from renewables in 1971, the first year that the IEA reported global statistics. In 2011, renewables’ share was lower, at 12.99 percent. Yet a new survey shows that Americans believe that the share of renewables in 2035 will be 30.2 percent. In reality, it will likely be 14.5 percent.

Earth Hour Is a Colossal Waste of Time—and Energy

Plus, it ignores how electricity has been a boon for humanity.

By Bjørn Lomborg

Mar 17, 2014

On the evening of March 23, 1.3 billion people will go without light at 8:30—and at 9:30, and at 10:30, and for the rest of the night—just like every other night of the year. With no access to electricity, darkness after sunset is a constant reality for these people.

At the same time, another 1 billion people will participate in “Earth Hour” by turning off their lights from 8:30-9:30.

The organizers say that they are providing a way to demonstrate one’s desire to “do something” about global warming. But the reality is that Earth Hour teaches all the wrong lessens, and it actually increases CO2 emissions. Its vain symbolism reveals exactly what is wrong with today’s feel-good environmentalism.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Democracies must deliver or decay

Apr 01, 2014

By Stein Ringen

BEHIND dysfunctional government, is democracy itself in decay? It took only 250 years for democracy to disintegrate in ancient Athens. A wholly new form of government was invented there in which the people ruled themselves. That Constitution proved marvellously effective. Athens grew in wealth and capacity, fought off the Persian challenge, established itself as the leading power in the known world and produced treasures of architecture, philosophy and art that bedazzle to this day. But when privilege, corruption and mismanagement took hold, the lights went out.

Row over warship's name: What went wrong?

Mar 29, 2014

One area of concern is that Jakarta's move caught S'pore by surprise

By Robin Chan Assistant Political Editor

THIS week an Indonesian presidential hopeful came to Singapore to pay respects publicly to the Singaporeans who died in the bombing at MacDonald House in 1968.

His gesture comes a week after two Indonesian marines posed as Osman Mohamed Ali and Harun Said - the two Indonesian marines responsible for the heinous act - at an international defence event in Jakarta, to make a mockery of the recent uproar over the naming of an Indonesian warship after them.

9 Striking Similarities Between the Housing Bubble and The Higher Education Bubble

Michael B. Fishbein

Mar 31, 2014

With the collapse of the housing bubble and corresponding financial crisis of 2008 occurring just six years ago as of this writing (2014), concerns over a bubble in higher education are beginning to emerge. It's amazing how many similarities there are between what happened in housing and what's happening in higher education. Considering the causes and outcomes of the housing bubble may help inform what might happen in higher education.

1. Same Players

The same "players" that were in the housing "game" are also in the higher education game: lenders, student loan borrowers, producers, and, perhaps the biggest, government.