Monday, June 30, 2014

Thousands wear white at church service to defend family values


SINGAPORE — Thousands of worshippers donned white yesterday to attend a Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) service at Suntec Singapore Convention and Exhibition Centre, during which the church’s senior pastor Lawrence Khong urged them to “preserve purity in the home”.

This came a day after the annual pro-lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Pink Dot event drew 26,000 people.

In the lead-up to Pink Dot, a chorus of voices had objected to the event, including a campaign by an Islamic religious teacher who urged Muslims to wear white on Saturday in protest against homosexuality and to defend traditional family values.

The Wear White campaign had drawn support from Mr Khong, who had said it was time for the church and like-minded groups such as Muslims to oppose Pink Dot.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Koh Teong Koo: The Rickshaw puller who saved Lee Kuan Yew

Jun 29, 2014

Happy 'reunion' as two grandsons of Koh Teong Koo meet former PM's brother

By Cassandra Chew

Trishaw rider Koh Teong Koo pedals steadily down Oxley Road, pulling up at No. 38, the home of Singapore's prime minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

A group of his friends trail in a car from a safe distance, expecting him to be turned away by the Gurkha guards at the gate. None of them believes his story that he regularly visits the home of Singapore's most powerful man.

Then, to everyone's surprise, the gates are opened and Mr Koh cycles right in.

Kishore Mahbubani: Is China Losing the Diplomatic Plot?

From an article written in 
JUL 27, 2012

SINGAPORE - In 2016, China's share of the global economy will be larger than America's in purchasing-price-parity terms. This is an earth-shaking development; in 1980, when the United States accounted for 25% of world output, China's share of the global economy was only 2.2%. And yet, after 30 years of geopolitical competence, the Chinese seem to be on the verge of losing it just when they need it most.

China's leaders would be naive and foolish to bank on their country's peaceful and quiet rise to global preeminence. At some point, America will awaken from its geopolitical slumber; there are already signs that it has opened one eye.

But China has begun to make serious mistakes. After Japan acceded to Chinese pressure and released a captured Chinese trawler in September 2010, China went overboard and demanded an apology from Japan, rattling the Japanese establishment.

The great backlash against globalisation


In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, policymakers’ success in preventing the Great Recession from turning into Great Depression II reined in demands for protectionist and inward-looking measures. However, the backlash against globalisation — and the freer movement of goods, services, capital, labour and the technology that came with it — has arrived.

This new nationalism takes different economic forms: Trade barriers, asset protection, reaction against foreign direct investment, policies favouring domestic workers and firms, anti-immigration measures, state capitalism and resource nationalism. In the political realm, populist, anti-globalisation, anti-immigration and, in some cases, outright racist and anti-Semitic parties are on the rise.

When death is part of life

Jun 22, 2014

Recent events have made me think about life and death, especially since I am a caregiver to my parents

By Tan Dawn Wei

The problem with being an atheist is you believe in only one life.

No going to heaven after you die; no rebirth conditioned by your karma; no transmigration of your soul.

Life and death, then, is viewed through very different lens.

It's like going on a holiday knowing you will never return to the same country again. There is that urgency to cramp in the sights, soak up all the adventures and maximise your limited time. Yet, because our lives run on for so much longer than a typical holiday, you forget to enjoy yourself on your journey. Instead, you cuss at the touts who fleeced you, you whine about losing your passport, and you blame your bad luck for getting caught in a typhoon.

Because you believe you have only one shot at life, death, too, takes on a sombre character. At the end of your tenure, all that's left of you is some white powdery substance sitting in an urn, covered in cobwebs residing in a columbarium which could in a few years make way for HDB flats.

That's why it's especially difficult to let go of someone close to you. There's no comfort in knowing that this person has "gone to a better place".

Added bloat after Najib’s Cabinet reshuffle



KUALA LUMPUR — Putrajaya’s decision to add ministers to its payroll when it had been expected to drop underperformers in yesterday’s (June 25) Cabinet reshuffle has political analysts disapproving over what it augurs about government reforms.

Given the languorous pace of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration in delivering on its promises of reforms, one political analyst pointed out that enlarging an already bloated Cabinet was the continuation of a “disappointing” trend.

“This is potentially the biggest Cabinet ever that Malaysia has seen,” Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) think tank observed.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Understanding meritocracy




In a recent Parliament session, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eugene Tan spoke extensively on the role of meritocracy in Singapore, reigniting a debate that has captured public interest in recent years. Long considered an integral part of the Republic’s success and development, meritocracy has increasingly come under fire, with many claiming it has instead created inequality and elitism.

But do critics of meritocracy even understand what it means? Given the importance of meritocracy as a governing principle of Singapore, it is surprising we have not given it detailed study, often expecting it to produce or offer results that lie apart from its value system.

Friday, June 27, 2014

If Finland is Europe’s best, we should all be worried



Either the World Economic Forum (WEF) is wrong or Europe is in deep trouble. The latest competitiveness rankings from the Swiss think-tank list Finland as the most competitive country in the European Union (EU).

At first, the country’s business leaders thought someone was pulling their leg. But the news was real. If Finland is the best the EU can offer, we should all be very concerned.

Feeding the world



The United Nations has said the world population is expected to increase to 9.2 billion by 2050 from 6.8 billion today. The UN further estimates that about 870 million people, the vast majority of whom live in developing countries, were chronically undernourished during the 2010 to 2012 period. Thus, a fundamental challenge is to not only eradicate hunger globally, but also ensure every person continues to have sufficient quantities of nutritious food.

The challenge is complicated by two issues. First, with the communication and information revolution, aspirations and expectations of people all over the world have steadily increased during the past three decades. The rich, the middle class and even the poor expect their future standards of living to be higher than today’s.

Second, by 2050, almost three billion more people will join the world’s middle class. This is commonly defined as someone who earns or spends between US$10 (S$12.50) and US$100 per day in the developing world. This means that by 2050, more than 43 per cent of the world’s population would be classified as middle class — the highest percentage of such people in human history. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has estimated that the global demand for meat, milk and eggs will increase by 60 per cent by 2050.

If the world cannot feed its population now, can it meet the food demands of another 2.4 billion people, with more rising to the middle class? At best, it can find 20 per cent more arable land that can be cultivated. Previous policies of increasing food production to meet rising demand will not work due to water and land constraints.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Study finds link between pesticides and autism

Jun 23, 2014

WASHINGTON (AFP) - A California study out on Monday found that pregnant women who lived near farms where pesticides are applied had a two-thirds higher risk of having children with autism.

The findings in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives examine the association between living near commercial pesticide applications and having offspring with autism, but do not show cause-and-effect.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that ranges in severity and has been on the rise in recent years. Health authorities say it now affects as many as one in 68 children in the United States.

The latest research was based on data about commercial pesticide applications in California, combined with residential addresses of about 1,000 participants in a study of families with an autistic child.

"We mapped where our study participants' lived during pregnancy and around the time of birth," said principal investigator Irva Hertz-Picciotto, vice-chairman of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

California law requires detailed records on what kinds of pesticides are applied, where and when and how much.

"What we saw were several classes of pesticides more commonly applied near residences of mothers whose children developed autism or had delayed cognitive or other skills." About one-third of study participants lived within 1.25km to 1.75km of a site where commercial pesticides were applied.

Researchers found risks of autism were highest when the chemicals were applied during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy.

The study authors said the developing foetal brain may be particularly vulnerable to pesticides.

"This study validates the results of earlier research that has reported associations between having a child with autism and prenatal exposure to agricultural chemicals in California," said lead study author Janie Shelton, a UC Davis graduate student.

"While we still must investigate whether certain sub-groups are more vulnerable to exposures to these compounds than others, the message is very clear: Women who are pregnant should take special care to avoid contact with agricultural chemicals whenever possible."

[I am interested in Autism and the possible cause of it, and so I have included this news report as part of the "research" or findings on autism and the cause of it.

However, the Straits Times report is atrociously incomplete and possibly alarmist.

The actual report is more nuanced. There is this paragraph:
Earlier this year, scientists examining more than two million births in Sweden reported that inherited genes make up about 50 percent of a child’s autism risk, while environmental factors make up the other half.
And this:
Earlier this year, researchers showed that people with a gene variant associated with autism and high exposure to air pollution had an increased risk of autism over people with the same gene variant but lower exposure to air pollution.
Which suggest that genetics also play a part.

Also the age of the father.

But if you need to do something, here's a finding that may help:
... one recent study suggests that taking folic acid during pregnancy may actually decrease chances for ASD. ]

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Why China does not want to be No 1 economy now



China is projected to be the world’s No 1 economy late this year, surpassing the United States. Yet, Beijing is fearful of this for three reasons.

The first fear is that of the inflation of Chinese power through the use of the gross domestic product index. It is not the first time the outside world is exaggerating China’s power using its GDP. In 2010, China’s GDP overtook Japan’s and it became the second-largest economy in the world just behind the US. This time, the World Bank’s figure will make China the world’s No 1 economy very soon.

However, Chinese leaders understand that, no matter how large the GDP or GDP in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms is, China’s 1.3 billion people, the largest denominator in the world, will dilute its real power.

For example, in 2012, China’s GDP per capita was No 91, the World Bank said, even behind that of Iraq, which was still suffering from the US war on terror. China’s GDP per capita in PPP has moved the nation up to No 89,but it is still behind the Dominican Republic.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Getting 50% profit when 7 in 10 customers don’t pay

June 21

When something seems too good to be true, it usually is. And management techniques, practices and strategies are no different.
 When you read a business book or attend a presentation on a particular management practice, it is a good habit to explicitly ask, “What might it not be good for?” When might it not work; what could be its drawbacks?

If the presenter’s answer is “there are none,” a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.
 Because that’s unfortunately not how life works, and that’s not how organisations work. It relates to what Michael Porter meant with being “stuck in the middle”: if you try to come up with a strategy that does everything for everyone, you will likely end up achieving nothing. If you focus your strategy on, for instance, achieving low costs, you will likely have to sacrifice delivering superior value on other dimensions, and vice versa.


Similarly, “doing well by doing good” - enhancing your firm’s financial performance by achieving superior corporate social responsibility - is often easier said than done. When confronted with an ethical decision -for instance, whether to dump toxic waste in a developing country, where it may not be illegal, when all your competitors do so as well - it sometimes costs you (a lot of) money to do the right thing.

Dozens of academic studies have tried to establish a positive link between corporate social performance and profitability, but for every study that finds a (modest) positive correlation, there is one that doesn’t.
 But it seems some organisations do pull it off.

Take the company Aravind Eye Care in India. It was founded in 1976 specifically to provide cataract eye surgery. They modelled their operations on McDonalds: high volume, highly efficient operations, based on division of labour and cost efficiency.

It is a very profitable operation; the company has a gross margin of 50 per cent. Yet the remarkable thing is that they treat 70 percent of their customers for free. The 30 per cent that do pay are relatively affluent people who can afford the operation, but who receive pretty much the same service. In fact, the company goes out of its way to actively recruit nonpaying customers. It goes to look for them systematically in the countryside and transports them to their clinics for free.

This, while the clinical quality of their service - the cataract operation - is second to none.

Similarly, other medical clinics are operating in India - for instance in heart surgery - that combine extremely efficient, low-cost operations, but at very high quality in terms of clinical outcome. To such an extent that various National Health Service hospitals in the United Kingdom are considering sending their patients to India; to save money, while providing them with superior quality treatment.


How can these organisations combine higher quality with lower costs? How can they combine doing well by doing good, and treat 70 per cent of patients for free at 50 per cent gross margins?

The trick is that their business models are built for the long-term.

Paradoxically, in the long-run, the lower costs enable them to provide better quality.

Ask yourself this: Could Aravind Eye Care make more money if it did not treat the 70 per cent nonpaying patients? Although it may seem that this would save them a lot of costs, in fact, the answer is very likely no.

Every organisation learns with experience. We call this effect “the learning curve.” With experience, firms increase the efficiency and quality of their production. These curves have been documented for airplanes, cars, bottles, pizzas and so on. And cataract eye surgery is no exception.
It is because these clinics treat such very large number of patients, the company runs down its learning curve very quickly, giving it a substantial competitive advantage.

Moreover, the vast number of patients enables it to divide labor to the extreme, creating specialist roles and highly-experienced people in all parts of the procedure. The 70 per cent nonpaying customers form the basis of this advantage. Consequently, the company would likely not be able to attract the 30 per cent paying customers without them.

It is often said that Aravind’s paying customers subsidise the 70 per cent that get the operation for free, yet, in many ways, it is the other way around: Treating the vast numbers of nonpaying patients enables the company to deliver the quality that attracts the ones that do pay.
What enables companies such as Aravind to combine all of these things?

Didn’t I say at the beginning of this piece that “when something seems too good to be true, it usually is?” and that “it is always a good habit to explicitly ask what might it not be good for?” Yes, but that is because there is a second question you should always ask, when considering a particular management technique, practice, or strategy,and that is: “What might its long-term effects be?”

What might seem a good idea in the short-run does not always work in the long term - and vice versa. Unfortunately, most companies make decisions based on their short-term consequences, because that is what they can see and measure.

If, like Aravind, you optimize your business model for the long haul, you might be able to deliver superior quality at lower costs. And even do some good for society in the process.

© 2014 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp


Prof Freek Vermeulen is an associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School. He is the author of the book “Business Exposed: The Naked Truth about What Really Goes on in the World of Business.”

Friday, June 20, 2014

Note of caution from friend of S'pore

Jun 20, 2014


FOR the past decade, he has been the voice for multinational companies (MNCs) in Singapore, their bridge to policymakers.

And, although Phillip Overmyer stepped down from his position as chief executive of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) two months ago, he is still ready to speak up for them.

In a broad-ranging interview with My Paper last month, Mr Overmyer acknowledged that many companies here continue to struggle with manpower.

Expressing his views in a personal capacity, he said he had some reservations about whether the Government's foreign-labour policies could affect the development of growth industries in Singapore.

Citing the example of the aerospace sector, he noted that, while there are many high-value jobs such as engineering and R&D in these companies, their operations can be sustained only with the support of a base of lower-level staff.

"Many operations, like test driving the engines, are done 24/7 and require skilled technicians, which may be hard to find among Singaporeans," Mr Overmyer said. Such jobs may also be labour-intensive and shunned by Singaporeans, he added.

In this respect, the Government could look at calibrating its policies to suit the varying needs of different industries, he said.

Singapore had targeted the right growth industries - such as pharmaceutical research and development, medical technology, wealth management and hospitality - he said.

"If you break out the history books, garments and toys were the two main products manufactured here in the 1960s," he said.

Its package of good governance, strong intellectual property laws and a base of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) was attractive to MNCs, even if the costs to run their businesses here may be higher.

"But Singapore's strong reputation as a choice investment destination cannot be taken for granted... the need to continue to grow is a must. Countries in the region have younger populations that are also hungry for success," he said.

In attracting the best talent from overseas, Mr Overmyer questioned if an upcoming national jobs bank for professionals may affect Singapore's competitiveness.

Firms now have to advertise job vacancies for two weeks, before they can apply to hire a foreigner.

Mr Overmyer said that individuals with the desired skill sets are highly mobile today, and are in high demand, usually having two to three job offers at the same time.

Having to wait for two weeks may run the danger that they would no longer be available.

"If we don't get the right people at the right time, we may miss many things," he said.

Moving ahead, the Government must also develop the capabilities of the SMEs.

These companies must "add value" to the MNCs' businesses through new products and technologies, rather than play a "passive role" in doing what MNCs contract them to do, he said.

Looking back at his SICC stint, Mr Overmyer said that, when he first took over the reins in 2003, the chamber was run in a largely "top-down" fashion.

He set about an organisational change in which staff would focus on different sectors and work more closely with companies on the ground, and put forth their own ideas.

This has helped the SICC become the "go-to" business association for MNCs today.

Now, he is ready to pack his bags and leave the first country outside the United States that he visited and worked in. Before he took up the SICC posting, he had spent some 12 years in Singapore working for telecommunications giant AT&T.

He hopes to return next year to celebrate Singapore's Jubilee. But, before that, there is a little granddaughter, not yet three, waiting for him in Texas.

"It's time to be a grandfather now," he said affectionately.

[A wide-ranging interview, but this article after one month is still sparse on details. Well, it is My Paper.]

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

East Asia's changing landscape

Jun 18, 2014

Beyond China's rise and America's decline, the East Asian region is being shaped by Japan's normalisation and the rise of Russia

By Zheng Yongnian For The Straits Times

THE geopolitical landscape in East Asia, including North-east and South-east Asia, is undergoing a radical change. This was reflected in the heated exchanges between China on the one hand, and the United States and Japan on the other, during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

The change has been attributed to one single factor, namely, the rise of China. But while it is true that China's assertive foreign policy is perceived to have increasingly threatened its East Asian neighbours, the story is not that simple. There are at least four major factors driving the geopolitical changes in East Asia.

Besides the rise of China, the others are the relative decline of the US, Japan's "normalisation", and Russia's return. These inter- related factors reinforce one another. The result is a transformation of East Asian geopolitics.

American decline

OF THE four factors, the most important is the decline of US power, which has been much faster than many expected. The US was strong in all aspects after World War II, but now it only remains strong in military force. Its economy has not improved much after the 2008 financial crisis. Its democracy and capitalist-driven system are also becoming less attractive, as can be seen from the growing chorus of criticisms on US political gridlock and debates on how unfettered capitalism leads to rising inequality. More importantly, there has been a decline in power and influence of its political leadership. There is certainly a perception that the US is more reluctant to be involved in overseas military campaigns. And in the long run, US military strength - the very area that the country still enjoys - will decline without the support of a robust economy.

There is an inherent contradiction in the decline of US power and its ever stronger desire to maintain hegemony in Asia. The US role as "world policeman" in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War can no longer be sustained. Today, it can only maintain the role of "world peacekeeper" by strengthening its alliances.

After the Cold War, the US continued to base its foreign policy on alliance politics, which align allies using a common third party enemy, imagined or real. The US missed the chance to come up with a better strategy of managing relations with countries like Russia and China.

This had several consequences. First, China has become the most convenient enemy for US allies. Even though the US and China have no direct geopolitical conflict, the American policy that can be summed up as the "enemy of my ally is my enemy" makes China the enemy of the US.

Second, the US is burdened by its alliances. To a great degree, it has been held hostage by its promise to defend its allies.

Third, the US has become prone to making empty promises. By this I mean it is talking much more than it can actually do. Undeniably, this affects Washington's credibility, which in turn accelerates the decline of the US.

Japan's 'normalisation'

UNDER the terms of the US-Japan alliance, Japan is not a full sovereign state in that it does not have autonomy over its own defence, but depends on the US. Japan's ultimate goal, however, is to become an independent, full sovereign state. In the process of achieving this, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his predecessor Yukio Hatoyama sought a more equal relationship with the US. But while Mr Hatoyama's East Asian Community approach aimed to reduce alliance on the US by building relations with China, Mr Abe's government has focused on building up Japan's own capabilities. Under Mr Abe, Japan is seeking to pursue its own geopolitical interests which in the long run are in conflict not only with those of China but also of the US.

Japan's ultimate goal is the "normalisation" of the state which almost certainly involves the revision of its pacifist Constitution to pave the way for the development of a full-fledged military. Once this goal is achieved, it will be extremely difficult to justify the presence of the US military on Japanese soil.

Russia's rise

ANOTHER factor driving geopolitical changes in East Asia is the rise of Russia.

Russia's geopolitical position declined after the collapse of the Soviet Union, particularly under president Boris Yeltsin. Now that Russia is growing stronger under President Vladimir Putin, it wants to regain its lost influence.

Recent developments in Ukraine hold great significance in this regard. The ineffective diplomacy and sanctions of the US and the European Union in response to Russia's annexation of Crimea has serious geopolitical implications for small countries. It is certainly a development small states in Asia cannot fail to note.

In pre-modern times, East Asia developed a sino-centric international order. This was best reflected in the tributary system, the traditional Chinese system for managing foreign relations, and the development of the Silk Road.

The former suggested the influx of foreigners to China, while the latter indicated the extent of China's international influence.

In modern times, this order was destroyed as China was repeatedly defeated by the Western powers, and its neighbour Japan. Being weak, China's geopolitical interests were carved up by the West, creating various historical problems which China continues to face to this day. But the geopolitical situation is changing as reforms in China have triggered the growth of its economy and led to a commensurate rise in military power. China is thus ready to claim back some of its lost influence. The interplay of these factors will dominate geopolitics in East Asia in the foreseeable future. All countries will have to adjust their foreign policies according to this changing environment.

The writer is director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

The unsustainability of organic farming

By Henry Miller and Richard Cornett

June 17, 4:03 AM

“Sustainable” has become one of the buzzwords of the 21st century. Increasing numbers of universities offer courses or even programmes in sustainability and many large companies boast substantial departments devoted to the subject. In April, many of the iconic multinational companies in the agriculture/food sector were represented at a three-day Sustainable Product Expo convened by Wal-Mart — the largest retailer in the United States — at its Arkansas headquarters.

But, as with many vague, feel-good concepts, sustainability contains more than a little sophistry. For example, sustainability in agriculture is often linked to organic farming, whose advocates tout it as a sustainable way to feed the planet’s rapidly expanding population.

But what does sustainable really mean and how does it relate to organic methods of food production?

Monday, June 16, 2014

MediShield Life: Don't let private insurers pick all the cherries

Jun 14, 2014

By Victor Lye For The Straits Times

SINGAPOREANS should welcome MediShield Life, the updated universal health insurance plan being designed. It improves on the current Central Provident Fund (CPF) MediShield scheme by providing lower out-of-pocket medical expenses due to reduced co-payment rates. There are also higher benefits, higher annual claim limits, and an unlimited lifetime limit. There is even an extension of cover from the current maximum 90 years of age to lifetime.

In addition, those who opted out previously or have been excluded due to pre-existing conditions will be included in MediShield Life.

'All lose, lose all' risk if political provocateurs win


12 June 2014

The People's Action Party (PAP) has made a sustained effort since the 2011 general election to engage with the ground, update its policies and increase its investments in social issues. It has also appointed new political leaders and publicly introduced potential election candidates.

Such moves are implicit signals of a "New PAP" - one that is concerned about social and not just economic issues, one unembarrassed to provide Singaporeans with social spending and one which wants not to be seen as elitist.

Yet, there is considerable cognitive dissonance between what the PAP views as the "New PAP" and the public perception of the same.

US and S'pore: Parallel paths on the road to independence

 JUN 13, 2014


DO YOU recognise this country? It had a long, tortuous path to independence and experienced tensions with the former colonial power (over when its military forces would leave the country and on what terms). There were also suspicions between erstwhile allies, as well as economic dislocations, market disruptions and the need to re-orient economic life. Social upheavals, including rioting and other forms of civil unrest, were common. The country needed to create a new defence posture (in a tough neighbourhood), establish a stable governing structure and develop a sense of nationhood. Meanwhile, it struggled to establish credibility in the international community and make commitments to protect and promote contracts and property rights.

Sounds familiar? If so, you know your American history. The above outline is a description of the United States in the 1780s. This was the period after the American Revolution but before the adoption of the Constitution. That it sounds so similar to the situation Singapore faced upon gaining its independence 49 years ago is worth pondering as the country prepares to celebrate half a century of independence.

Three do-not-miss Opinion pieces

Jun 15, 2014

I’m often amazed - and grateful - that busy people with real lives and expert knowledge take time to pen their thoughts on issues of the day and send them to The Straits Times. It’s my happy duty to read them and pick some for publication.

This week, three pieces from such contributors stood out for me.

The first is the best commentary I’ve read on health insurance in a long time - and I’ve read and written many.

Finance professional Victor Lye, who runs an insurance company, wrote on a potential structural flaw in MediShield Life.

The hidden costs of money

From: Aug 16, 2008 (dragged up from the archive)

By Peter Singer

WHEN people say that 'money is the root of all evil', they usually don't mean that money itself is the root of evil.

Like Saint Paul, from whom the quote comes, they have in mind the love of money. Could money itself, whether we are greedy for it or not, be a problem?

Karl Marx thought so. In The Economic And Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, a youthful work that remained unpublished and largely unknown until the mid-20th century, Marx described money as 'the universal agent of separation', because it transforms human characteristics into something else.

For example, a man may be ugly, Marx wrote, but if he has money, he can buy for himself 'the most beautiful of women'. Without money, presumably, the man would need some more positive human qualities. Money alienates us, Marx thought, from our true human nature and from our fellow human beings.

Marx's reputation sank once it became evident that he was wrong to predict that a workers' revolution would usher in a new era with a better life for everyone. So if we had only his word for the alienating effects of money, we might feel free to dismiss it as an element of a misguided ideology. But research by Ms Kathleen Vohs, Ms Nicole Mead and Ms Miranda Goode, reported in Science in 2006, suggests that on this point, at least, Marx was on to something.

In a series of experiments, Ms Vohs and her colleagues found ways to get people to think about money without explicitly telling them to do so. They gave some people tasks that involved unscrambling phrases about money. With others, they left piles of Monopoly money nearby. Another group saw a screensaver with various denominations of money. Other people, randomly selected, unscrambled phrases that were not about money, did not see Monopoly money and saw different screensavers. In each case, those who had been led to think about money - let's call them 'the money group' - behaved differently from those who had not.

When given a difficult task and told that help was available, people in the money group took longer to ask for help.

When asked for help, people in the money group spent less time helping.

When told to move their chair so that they could talk with someone else, people in the money group left a greater distance between chairs.

When asked to choose a leisure activity, people in the money group were more likely to choose an activity that could be enjoyed alone, rather than one that involved others.

Finally, when people in the money group were invited to donate some of the money they had been paid for participation in the experiment, they gave less than those who had not been induced to think about money.

Trivial reminders of money made a surprisingly large difference. For example, where the control group would offer to spend an average of 42 minutes helping someone with a task, those primed to think about money offered only 25 minutes. Similarly, when someone pretending to be another participant in the experiment asked for help, the money group spent only half as much time helping that person. When asked to make a donation from their earnings, the money group gave just a little over half as much as the control group.

Why does money makes us less willing to seek or give help, or even to sit close to others? Ms Vohs and her colleagues suggest that as societies began to use money, the necessity of relying on family and friends diminished, and people were able to become more self-sufficient. 'In this way,' they conclude, 'money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people's responses today.'

That's not much of an explanation of why being reminded of money should make so much difference to how we behave, given that we all use money everyday. There seems to be something going on here that we still don't fully understand.

I am not pleading for a return to the simpler days of barter or self-sufficiency. Money enables us to trade - and thus to benefit from each other's special skills and advantages. Without money, we would be immeasurably poorer, and not only in a financial sense.

But now that we are aware of the isolating power that even the thought of money can have, we can no longer think of money's role as being entirely neutral. If, for example, a local parents' organisation wants to build a children's playground, should it ask its members to do the work on a voluntary basis, or should it launch a fund-raising campaign so that an outside contractor can be employed?

Harvard economist Roland Fryer's proposal to pay poor students for doing well at school is another area where using money is open to question. If money were neutral, this would be just a question of whether the benefits of using money outweigh the financial costs. Often, they will - for example, if the parents lack the skills to build a good playground.

But it would be a mistake to assume that allowing money to dominate every sphere of life comes without other costs that are difficult to express in financial terms.

The writer is professor of bioethics at Princeton University.


[One of increasing consciousness that monetising or commercialising transactions are not "neutral" in effect. That people look at and understand commercial and social transactions on very different basis. This article would claim that it is not even the value one places on such transactions, but the mere fact that one even thinks about commercial value changes the transaction. Scary idea.]

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Good policies hampered by bad politics

Jun 15, 2014

A Member of Parliament said this recently in Parliament, urging fellow politicians to work together to build a positive political culture:

"Politicians must be aware of what political culture we are building through our style of political engagement as well as our actions.

“If you support a political party which believes in overthrowing the government by taking mass political action against the government regardless of the laws and proper channels to change things, you are building a culture of lawlessness.

“If you support a political party conducting its political engagement with a habit of playing racial politics and mud-slinging and launching personal attacks on its political opponents, you are building a thug political culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.

“While all politicians play a role in building a political culture through political engagement, the government is the dominant player of politics in Singapore, and plays a significant role.”

All of this forms a point of view that responsible party leaders – and voters – would likely agree with. It would surely form part of what the Government wants to see in “constructive politics”, which at its heart is about having a political system that will elect men and women of good character who can work together to come up with policies that are good for the people in the long term.

And yet, after that speech in Parliament, Workers’ Party (WP) leader Low Thia Khiang – yes, he made those comments – was drawn into a heated exchange with the Prime Minister on constructive politics.

Mr Low’s point was that a country’s political culture matters. And what shapes that culture? The conduct of politicians, and from his viewpoint, especially government leaders.

In addition to that onslaught above, Mr Low interspersed his speech with further volleys: “If the people continue to support a government party that uses high-handed tactics against its political opponents, we are endorsing a bullying political culture.

“If the people support a governing party that uses governmental resources, including civil servants, to serve its partisan goals, we are condoning the abuse of political power as an acceptable culture. If you support a political party with the habit of fixing its opponents, you are breeding a political culture of fear.

“Using differentiating measures in policies to punish people who voted for the opposition breeds a culture of divisive politics.

“It also used to be said that the political incumbent has no obligation to level the playing field, that might is right, and that the political incumbent has the right to use all legal means to remain in power because everyone will do it if they are the incumbent. This is building a self-serving political culture.”

The People’s Action Party (PAP) will surely dismiss all of this as typical opposition politicking that is all sound and fury, but there will be those who will view Mr Low’s comments – made during last month’s debate on the Presidential Address – as depicting the PAP style of politics.

And therein lies the cognitive dissonance in the whole debate on constructive politics.

The PAP tries to take the moral high ground in this debate, depicting the opposition, especially the WP, as one that flip-flops on policy positions, or is disingenuous in ignoring difficult policy trade-offs.
The opposition – and a good segment of voters, I would venture – looks at the PAP’s political tactics past and present, and wonders if those have any part to play in the constructive politics it is now calling for.

Those above the age of 30 will remember the votes-for-upgrading strategy which some see as examples of divisive, partisan politics, and the concerted attacks on opposition candidates’ character at elections as examples of bullying.

By using such tactics in past elections, the PAP risked failing to connect with a generation of voters. Many of those in their 30s and 40s today who might have become keen supporters of the Establishment status quo and a solid PAP-voting bloc may have instead become disenchanted by the political process as they came of age. They witnessed one too many one-sided political battles.

Memories of the PAP’s past tactics could be one factor continuing to fuel the rage that can be felt online against the Government today, when ironically it is trying so hard to win back support.

Pent-up anger when unleashed is hard to channel into logical debate.

In the same way that the PAP’s digs at the WP for its policy flip-flops strike home, the WP’s description of the prevailing political culture in Singapore draws blood.

Two weeks ago, I wrote in this space that the WP should “grow up” to develop its positions on policy, as this would help it mature as a party – which would be good for Singapore. After all, if the WP develops its policy-thinking capability, and blossoms into a credible alternative party, Singapore’s political future will be less worrisome.

Just as the WP seems flat-footed in policy proposals, so the PAP similarly seems clumsy in the art of politics. One commentator, consultant Devadas Krishnadas, summed it up pithily in a recent Facebook post, which The Straits Times ran an extract of: “While the Government emphasises policy thrusts, the public is focused on political trust.”

Just as the WP’s inability to engage seriously on policies keeps the opposition in its infancy, so too the PAP’s inability to engage seriously on political change hinders the country’s political maturation.
The Government has tried to set the agenda with its notion of “constructive politics”. Aside from its supporters, others want to hear more of that – from the Government.

Will the PAP in the next election still try its votes-for-upgrading strategy and continue its creative redrawing of electoral boundaries?

Should there be constitutional changes to the political system? Is the Nominated MP system still relevant in the face of rising contestation? Should the bar be set even higher for presidential candidates?

On an even more serious note, how prepared is Singapore for a change in government, whether by design or accident? What does the Constitution say about coalition governments?

Of course, the Government may choose to busy itself with policy changes. And there are issues aplenty, beyond those of housing, transport and health care that already seize the Government: Should the Government continue to be the arbiter of morals in the arts? Why should housing and social policies be privileged towards married couples? Is it time to rethink the media regulatory model?

But the question is whether good policies can make up for bad politics – or the absence of any meaningful discussion of it.

The Government can ignore the topic of political change and talk about constructive politics. But that would be like ignoring the elephant in the room – but everyone can still see, hear and smell the elephant.

The perils of please-all economics

Jun 14, 2014

By Andy Mukherjee

SINGAPORE is confronting the perils of please-all economics. Ageing citizens are pushing the Government for bigger nest eggs and more subsidised health care and housing. There is also popular resentment against letting more foreigners in, and not much appetite for increasing the 7 per cent consumption tax. Squaring this fiscal circle will be a long-term challenge.

Already, there's simmering anger in the city-state about overcrowded trains and costly public housing. About 2,000 people gathered recently to demand that the state-run retirement plan raise its 4 per cent annual interest rate.

People protested last year, too, when the Government unveiled a plan to boost the resident population by 30 per cent to 6.9 million by 2030, with immigration compensating for a drooping birth rate.

[And this is evidence that the Govt had not communicated their White Paper correctly. Or that even journalists/columnists are just taking things at face value. A proper reading of the White Paper is not the the Govt PLANS to increase the population to 6.9m, but that the govt is planning for the day when the population hits 6.9m; that the trend is that eventually, there will be 6.9m people in Singapore because that is what the natural pull of vacancies will lead to.

No difference, you say?

Planning for the possibility of 6.9m people means ensuring that there is enough housing for 6.9m people, that there is sufficient transport infrastructure to support 6.9m people, and that there is adequate health and human services to meet the needs for 6.9m people.

And you might say, if the Govt did not plan for this, how is it that they are now able to prevent it? They are implementing policies that would slow if not reduce inflows of foreigners.

Yes, the govt can do that. By erecting artificial barriers or putting policies in place to prevent inflows of foreigners, and taking steps to reduce the need for foreign workers. BUT this means postponing some projects (e.g. some govt development projects), imposing stricter quotas and caps on foreigners, and tightening approvals for Foreign workers. 

This has led to some difficulties for businesses in SG. 

It has stifled some development, but SC have said that this is what they wanted.]

The multifaceted discontent puts Singapore's fiscally conservative Government in a quandary.

Expanding the economy - and the tax base - with less foreign labour will mean improving the productivity of the local workforce. That's a long shot.

Another way to pay for everything people want is to tax companies more heavily. But Singapore's business costs are already quite high. A third strategy could be for the city-state to try to earn more on its substantial sovereign wealth by buying riskier assets. That could backfire, leaving less money for welfare.

Alternatively, the Government could skimp on investing. The outlay on the city's development budget in the most recent five- year period has jumped by a third.

Slowing the pace might be a mistake, however. Pricey real estate would swoon if Singapore loses its urban buzz and stops attracting investors and tourists. That will make Singapore's property- loving citizens less wealthy and more miserable. The trade-offs are difficult. But Singapore has some advantages.

Rival Hong Kong is facing an existential threat as China tightens its grip on the former British colony and boosts alternatives like Shanghai. By contrast, Singapore offers investors proximity to India and Indonesia, neither of which will boast a global city soon.

For all the grumbling, the majority of Singaporeans are too pragmatic to opt for unbridled welfarism at the next elections, which will take place by 2016.

Still, please-all economics is scratching at the door. If it finds a way in, prosperity could be in jeopardy.

Andy Mukherjee is a columnist with Reuters BreakingViews.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Big Idea No. 5: Speak the National Language

Jun 14, 2014

For Singaporeans, being able to speak Bahasa Melayu could have many benefits

By Kishore Mahbubani, For The Straits Times

Regular readers will know that I am identifying some Big Ideas to guide Singapore's development as a nation in this series of commentaries. The big question that this column will try to answer is: Why should Singaporeans speak their National Language, Bahasa Melayu?

Please notice I did not say "study" the National Language. Nor did I say "read" or "write" the National Language. I only said "speak" because we should set a very low bar and get most Singaporeans connected with their National Language.

Another point is worth emphasizing at the outset. I am not suggesting a major national campaign to achieve this. Nor should there be a government-led initiative to teach it in the schools as an additional subject. Instead, it should be a completely spontaneous bottom-up movement as individual Singaporeans decide by themselves and say "I am Singaporean and I should speak some words of my country's National Language". Ideally, some bright enterprising Singaporean souls should set up a fun blog similar to that of the Californian entrepreneur Salman Khan, who set up the famous Khan Academy website for his nephews and nieces. His website has been praised by Bill Gates.

Let me suggest five reasons, in ascending order of importance, explaining why Singaporeans should learn to speak Bahasa Melayu.

Being a normal country

FIRST, Singaporeans should speak their National Language because it is the "normal" thing to do. In most countries, most populations speak their National Language. This is how normal countries behave. Singapore is an abnormal country in that most Singaporeans (with the exception of being able to sing their National Anthem in Bahasa Melayu) do not speak their National Language.

I don't know whether there is any data available on what percentage of Singaporeans speak some Bahasa Melayu. Anecdotally, I know that my generation speaks it mostly because Bazaar Malay was the lingua franca when I was a young boy living in Geylang and Katong in the 1950s.

Today's young Singaporeans, however, seem to have little contact with Bahasa Melayu and therefore treat it, for all practical purposes, as a foreign language, even though it is their National Language. Our diplomats in Jakarta are sometimes embarrassed when visiting young civil servants from Singapore do not know simple words like ayam (chicken) or nasi (rice).

Second, Singaporeans will be able to sing their National Anthem with greater feeling and passion if they know a few words of Bahasa Melayu. As a result, they will not be singing their National Anthem in a "foreign" language but in a language with which they have some familiarity. Clearly, the emotional bond to the National Anthem will be much stronger if we understand the words clearly and not have to read an English translation to know their meaning.

To drive this point home, let me make an embarrassing personal confession. Until I began writing this column, I did not know exactly what some of the words of our National Anthem meant.

This is surprising since I grew up speaking a fair bit of Bahasa Melayu during my childhood. Also, when I was posted to Malaysia as the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Singapore High Commission from 1976 to 1979, I passed the standard one and standard two Malay examinations. If despite this, I could not understand all the words of our National Anthem, I am confident that I do not belong to a minority.

One particular word in the National Anthem always troubled me: berseru! I knew what the sentence Marilah kita bersatu meant in the National Anthem but I was always puzzled what the line Semua kita berseru. In preparation for this article I learnt that berseru means "proclaim". I never came across this word either in my childhood or in my studies in Kuala Lumpur. I would be curious to learn how many Singaporeans know the meaning of berseru.

Economic reasons

THE third reason for learning Bahasa Melayu is a pragmatic one. As our three neighbours, Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia and Indonesia, grow and prosper there will be business opportunities. According to the National Intelligence Council's 2012 Global Trends Report, by 2030 Indonesia may become the seventh-largest economy in the world, overtaking Britain and Germany. It will also rank fourth in consumption power, after India, China and the US.

Hence, it will provide many more business opportunities for young Singaporeans. Its markets will be strong as it will have a favourable age structure (70 per cent of its by-then 289-million strong population would be between 15 and 69 years of age, and 14 per cent between 15 and 24). It will also have a consumer class of 135 million (up from 45 million today), and a rapid urbanisation rate (71 per cent of the population living in cities and producing 86 per cent of GDP).

Also, more and more Singaporeans will be able to afford to purchase small second homes in Malaysia and Indonesia. As Mr Ho Kwon Ping, executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, said recently, there is a growing pool of investors from the middle class "that can decide to get a second home on a whim". If we are going to spend any amount of time there, it would pay to know a few words. It will also be easier to drive in Malaysia with some knowledge of Bahasa Melayu.

Political reasons

THE fourth reason for studying Bahasa Melayu is a geopolitical one. Most small nations survive over the longer term by developing a sensitive geopolitical understanding of the neighbourhood. Singapore is truly blessed to have had several brilliant foreign ministers who have formulated sound long-term strategies to develop good long-term relationships with our neighbours. All this has been based on a careful combination of deterrence and diplomacy. Today, despite the inevitable ups and downs between neighbouring countries, our relations with our neighbours have never been better.

But Singaporeans cannot assume that the country will always will always have brilliant foreign ministers. After spending 33 years in the Singapore Foreign Service, I know that many countries have not had brilliant foreign ministers or brilliant foreign ministries. As such, we should develop a "societal" ability to understand our neighbouring societies and interact better with them. A Singaporean population that speaks some Bahasa Melayu could achieve this.

Let me add an important cultural point here. Since we are destined to live in South-east Asia for the next thousand years, we will understand the "soul" of South-east Asia better if we speak some Bahasa Melayu. Many of the cultural roots of South-east Asia come from the period when the Hindu kingdoms dominated the region.

A friend of mine, Dr Farish Noor, who teaches at Nanyang Technological University, rightly put it that the cosmopolitan roots of Bahasa lie in its origin - that is, Sanskrit which connects South and South-east Asia. He gives his students this example: Mahasiswa-mahasiswi berbicara sama pendita di asrama (translation: The students were speaking with their teacher on campus). The entire sentence is in Bahasa, but every word is Sanskrit in origin.

National unity

THE fifth and final and perhaps the most important reason for speaking Bahasa Melayu is that a common understanding of our National Language will be one more invisible thread that will make our nation a more cohesive one.

I have suggested in my previous columns that Singapore has been reasonably successful as a society in meeting its material challenges. However, the country has been less than successful in meeting non-material challenges. This is especially so when it comes to creating a stronger sense of nationhood that binds together the diverse ethnic communities of into a strong Singaporean Nation.

Indeed, this will be one of the biggest challenges over the next 50 years. If we can get more Singaporeans to speak just a little bit of Bahasa Melayu and in turn help to reinforce the sense of common identity among diverse groups of Singaporeans, isn't this a small price to pay to get a strong sense of nationhood?

I want to conclude this column by printing the words of our National Anthem. Each Singaporean should read the words of the National Anthem carefully and ask himself or herself a simple question: Do I understand every word of my National Anthem? If not, why not?

Majulah Singapura
Mari kita rakyat Singapura
sama-sama menuju bahagia;
Cita-cita kita yang mulia,
berjaya Singapura.

Marilah kita bersatu
dengan semangat yang baru;
Semua kita berseru,

Majulah Singapura,
Majulah Singapura!

Marilah kita bersatu
dengan semangat yang baru;
Semua kita berseru,

Majulah Singapura,
Majulah Singapura!

The writer is dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He was named among the top 50 world thinkers this year by Prospect magazine, a British publication.

[Not one of the more incisive or inspiring ideas that resonates with a irrepressible truth. Seems more... "chauvinistic". Like a Sinophile promoting Chinese culture. "Chauvinistic" is not the right word. "Emotional"? Not quite either. "Historical"? "Ethno-Linguistic"? Now I'm just making up words.

One of the weaker Big Ideas. ]

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Let HDB landlords enjoy their rent

Jun 12, 2014

By Janice Heng

WHEN the owner of a Housing Board flat moves to private property, should he be allowed to keep - and profit off - his old flat? This question resurfaced in both the print and online Straits Times Forum pages last month, just as the Government was starting a series of conversations to gather Singaporeans' views on housing issues.

Some felt it was unfair to let well-off property owners use a public flat to get even richer.

This objection goes as far back as 1993, when letters to Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao decried how private property owners were "profiteering" by renting out their HDB flats - a practice which was illegal then.

The debate gained new life in 2010 when policy changes created an apparent "double standard": HDB flat owners could keep their flat if they went private, but private property owners must sell their home to get an HDB flat.

A new cold war?

JUN 11, 2014


THE annual Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore at the end of May saw sharp exchanges pitting delegates from the United States and Japan against those from China over the rival claims of Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Vietnamese, Philippine and American participants also criticised China's extensive claims in the South China Sea.

Meanwhile, European representatives clashed with Russian delegates on the impact of Russia's annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for breakaway groups in eastern Ukraine.

The mood was confrontational, especially in smaller informal discussions. The atmosphere reminded me of debates on regional and global issues in the early 1980s, when I served as a Singapore diplomat at the United Nations. The rhetoric was that of the Cold War and raised the question whether the world was headed for a new cold war, or even the outbreak of hostilities.

Twizys and turns in bid to get this ride on our roads

Jun 11, 2014


THE Renault Twizy, an electric quadricycle that has been cruising along on European roads, is likely to hit a roadblock here.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) has reportedly assessed that the battery-powered vehicle "is not fit for public roads".

According to an online report published on Monday by motoring news magazine CarBuyer, "LTA has not informed Renault dealer Wearnes Automotive that the vehicle does not meet local (standards), but the conclusions already seem certain".

In response to My Paper, LTA said yesterday that it received an application last month "from Renault Singapore to type-approve the Twizy as a motorcycle for use on our roads".

Equipped with four wheels and weighing just 474kg, the eco-friendly vehicle can seat two passengers - one behind the other - and is about the size of a large motorcycle.

Under the Road Traffic Act, a motorcycle has fewer than four wheels and an unladen weight of not more than 400kg.

Hence, the Twizy cannot be classified as a motorcycle.

"As our initial evaluation shows that the vehicle does not fall within the classification for motorcycles, we have asked for more information from Renault Singapore before we can confirm if the Twizy can be approved for use as a vehicle on our roads," an LTA spokesman said.

If it were to be categorised as a small car, it would cost almost $100,000 - far more than the $25,000 it would cost if categorised as a motorcycle.

The certificate of entitlement (COE) premium for small cars - up to 1,600cc and 130bhp - is now $63,190, while that for motorcycles stands at $4,089.

When My Paper contacted Wearnes Automotive yesterday, a spokesman said: "We have not received an official response and we are still reviewing with LTA. Nothing has been confirmed."

The Twizy can be found on the roads of many European nations, including Britain, France and Italy. Over 11,000 units have been sold worldwide so far.

[Renault is trying to register this as a motorcycle. BUT it is about half the size of a car or twice the width of a motorcycle. 

First problem: where to park? And how to charge? It would have to take up a car's parking space. 

OK, say LTA got drunk and approve the application to treat this as a motorcycle. 

Guess what will happen?

Motorcycle COE will go up. 

Currently Motorcycle COE are less than $5000. Because a basic motorcycle costs about $5k (without COE). Or easily below $10k. 

This Renault will cost $20k. It will attract car buyers who can't afford cars or COE for cars. The COE for cars is over $60k. If car buyers see this as a cheap alternative to cars, motorcycle COE will be bid up by these Renault buyers. The car market/demand will spill over to the motorcycles, COE for motorcycles will rise, and the only motorcycles you will see in SG in 10 years time will be Malaysian-reg'd bikes. 

Ok. Ok. Dun exaggerate. the only cheap bikes you will see are MY-reg'd. SG-reg'd bikes will be these Renaults, and big expensive premium bikes - BMW, Harley, who can afford the high COE ($10k? $20k?)

And the low income bike riders/owners will be priced out.

One reviewer (at least) was not impressed by the Twizy.]

Politicising healthcare leads us down a slippery slope



Much anxiety over the topic of health stems from us grappling with the unknown. On a personal level, we do not know if, when or how we will get sick. Families are unsure of who will need support and who will take on the role of caregiver. As a society, we do not know what will happen in the next five to 10 years in terms of disease, new treatments and costs.

Given the uncertainties, it is only right and proper that we seek out the facts, ensure the fundamental sustainability of our healthcare system and take a far-sighted, clear-headed approach.

As a starting point, one of the questions to ask is: Does Singapore have a good healthcare system? A good public healthcare service should be accessible, affordable, safe, comprehensive, provide high-quality care that is cost-effective and invest significantly in disease-prevention strategies.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Singapore islands you may not have heard of

Jun 11, 2014

A scenic view of Pulau Hantu, located to the south of Singapore. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

By Cheow Sue Ann And Fabian Koh

Did you know that Singapore was actually made up of more than 70 islands? A new exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore will be the first to tell the tales of the isles of long-ago. We check out some of lesser-known islands:

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

CPF just one part of retirement financing



Much has been written on the Central Provident Fund (CPF). With rising costs of living, Singaporeans need reassurance that retirement security is not a pipe dream.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced that the Government will study how to improve the CPF LIFE annuity scheme’s payouts to keep pace with inflation. This is welcome, given Singaporeans’ greater life expectancy, particularly among women. It is especially important for lower-income workers, for whom the CPF may be their only retirement fund. Similarly welcome are the committed support measures for MediShield Life that seek to keep healthcare insurance affordable for Singaporeans, and the Pioneer Generation Package, which provides financial support for our pioneer generation for life.

More fundamentally, how do we help Singaporeans maintain a healthy balance in their CPF for retirement? A simple answer is to raise incomes, especially for the lower-skilled and lower-income workers. This can be done by expanding the use of CPF monies for education purposes to upgrade workers’ skills and improve their employability.

With rise of nationalism, prejudice goes global


2 June 2014

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, blood-and-soil nationalism is resurgent. Vladimir Putin has rediscovered the joys of Orthodox Christianity and Russian expansionism. Investing in a “China Dream,” Xi Jinping plans to project Chinese power far beyond the mainland. He must contend with the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, who has vowed that the 21st century will be India’s, and Shinzo Abe, who wants to relax Japan’s commitments to pacifism.

Warning of the dangers posed by these “four horsemen,” the Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens wonders if they have read “the bloodied pages of European history.” But war between pushy nation-states is not nearly as likely as the quick empowerment of bigoted individuals and movements in those countries; and this alarming phenomenon is hardly confined to the East.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A China power play in choppy waters

Jun 09, 2014

An unpredictable US response to Beijing's new-found assertiveness could help calm tensions in the South China Sea.

By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

A PASSING phase or a dangerous and permanent strategic challenge to Asian stability for years to come? That, in a nutshell, is the debate about China's current behaviour in the South China Sea, which appears almost deliberately designed to provoke most of the region's nations.

But even if no categorical answer can be provided to this question, it is clear that China has crossed a fundamental psychological barrier.

Beijing is no longer engaged in just a reactive or theoretical assertion of its rights to territories and waters; China now sets the strategic agenda with pre-emptive actions which create irreversible facts on the ground.

And China will continue doing so unless the United States and its allies - both in Asia and elsewhere - respond in a more coherent manner.

When the then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was privately told in 2010 by senior Chinese officials that they considered Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea as China's "core interest", she instantly understood the huge significance of these words; that's why, notwithstanding China's fury, Washington promptly leaked details of the episode to the media, in the hope that this would either force Beijing to clarify its demands, or shut up.

A Chinese Monroe Doctrine?

JUN 5, 2014

Jaswant Singh

NEW DELHI – Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s upcoming visit to India will include his first meetings with India’s new government, including Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and, more important, Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But the trip is about more than getting acquainted. The leaders of both countries will be taking one another’s measure, and their conclusions will determine how the relationship between the world’s two most populous countries evolves.

In some ways, the bilateral relationship is already moving in a positive direction, especially on the economic front. But, as trade imbalances favoring China become apparent, India is growing increasingly frustrated. Wang, an establishment figure well versed in Indian affairs, will make every effort to downplay these imbalances and promote deeper ties.

A far more formidable challenge will be resolving the dispute over the countries’ Himalayan frontier – the world’s longest unsettled land border. Indeed, “special representatives” from the two countries have already met 17 times to settle the issue, but have made precious little progress, not least because of Chinese concerns about the restive border provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang.

As if the conflict were not already complicated enough, China has adopted an increasingly assertive stance in the area, including several incursions into disputed territory.
For example, last year, Chinese troops established a temporary camp in Ladakh’s Depsang valley, leading to a high-stakes standoff with India. As long as the “line of actual control” remains undefined, tensions will continue to escalate – raising serious risks for both countries.

Another major point of contention is China’s reflexive support for Pakistan’s efforts to destabilize Ladakh and Kashmir, buttressed by deepening military cooperation. This aspect of China’s foreign policy is puzzling, not only because it undermines relations with India, but also in view of Chinese fears of Islamist radicalism among the Xinjiang’s Uighurs.

All of this highlights a fundamental flaw in China’s external strategy: its efforts to use its increasingly powerful military to intimidate its neighbors come at the expense of its own long-term security. Indeed, instead of trying to build a mutually beneficial relationship with its largest neighbor, China has sought to encircle India by asserting military control of surrounding territories. This so-called “string of pearls” strategy directly threatens India’s national-security interests, rendering the type of robust bilateral relationship that would benefit both countries next to impossible.

Of course, China claims that its intentions toward India are peaceful. For example, it contends that its efforts to establish bases in the Indian Ocean and bolster its blue-water navy are aimed at safeguarding the Malacca Straits, a maritime trade route that is perceived as a choke point for the Chinese economy.

But actions speak louder than words – and the message that China’s behavior is sending is far from peaceful. Indeed, Chinese leaders seem to be taking advantage of the opening provided by an overstretched United States to assert control over a broad expanse of Asia’s oceans.

To this end, China has created a vast Air Defense Identification Zone covering most of the East China Sea – including territories claimed and controlled by Japan and South Korea – where it has also declared disputed territories to be part of its own exclusive economic zone. These unilateral moves resemble the announcement by the United States in 1823 of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine, which, among other things, placed Latin America within a strictly US sphere of influence.

At the just-concluded Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called China’s actions “destabilizing.” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe echoed this sentiment, declaring that Japan will play a larger role in safeguarding regional security, including by providing patrol ships, training, and military surveillance equipment to countries engaged in territorial disputes with China.

The response from China was immediate and unambiguous. Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, blasted Hagel and Abe for “corroborating and colluding…to provoke and challenge China.”

While Modi has not yet commented on the security challenge that China’s actions are creating, he will have to do so soon. In fact, Chinese President Xi Jinping practically insisted that India join the discussion when, in a speech in Shanghai last month, he said that “India, the world’s largest weapons-systems importer, must take very serious note” of mounting regional tensions.

But Modi will need to offer more than words to meet India’s national security interests. Because India has just endured a decade of neglect by the previous Congress government, the new administration will have to act quickly and decisively to safeguard the country’s national-security. This imperative is made all the more urgent by China’s decision to expand its defense budget by more than 12%, to $132 billion, in the next fiscal year, as well as its recently concluded 30-year energy deal with Russia, which has strategic implications for India.

Wang’s visit thus is coming at a time of fundamental redefinition of Sino-Indian relations. Given that continued friction is inevitable, even if no conflict occurs, the challenge is to find a way to engage in creative and competitive cooperation that bolsters both countries’ efforts to eradicate poverty and promote economic development.

Xi has said that, “We need to innovate in our security concepts, establish a new regional security-cooperation architecture, and jointly build a shared, win-win road for Asian security.” But China’s actions suggest that its leaders view Chinese hegemony as the only viable security structure for the region.

Subordination to China is certainly not Modi’s goal. The question is whether he can work with China and other Asian actors to design an alternative framework for regional peace.

Jaswant Singh was the first person to have served as India’s finance minister (1996, 2002-2004), foreign minister (1998-2004), and defense minister (2000-2001). While in office, he launched the first free-trade agreement (with Sri Lanka) in South Asia’s history, initiated India’s most daring diplomatic opening to Pakistan, revitalized relations with the US, and reoriented the Indian military, abandoning its Soviet-inspired doctrines and weaponry for close ties with the West.

CPF is not cheap money - Can't Please all Fund members

Jun 08, 2014

Not everyone's needs can be met, but there is shared interest in improving the scheme

By Lydia Lim, Political Editor

The Central Provident Fund (CPF) has been a part of Singapore's history for so long - since 1955 - it may be near impossible for many people to imagine life without it.

But what if there were no national compulsory savings scheme in place, and Singaporeans were free to do what they wished with the money they earned?

How much would people choose to spend, and how much would they force themselves to save?

While doing research for this article, I was astonished to read about the lengths poor people in the developing world go to to stash away funds for a rainy day.

In West Africa, for example, the poor pay a "susu collector" interest of 40 per cent a year to look after their deposits. In the slums of India, a deposit collector can earn interest of 30 per cent a year.

These are findings from a book entitled Portfolios Of The Poor, based on the experiences of 250 families living on less than US$2 (S$2.50) a day in South Africa, India and Bangladesh.

Its authors found that poor families use unorthodox financial instruments to create a more stable life than their erratic incomes would otherwise allow.

As it turns out, banks and national savings plans are among the privileges enjoyed only by those who live in developed countries. And as consumers of these financial services, it is natural that Singaporeans want, where possible, low fees and high returns.

Service providers, on their part, have to decide what they can realistically offer, to remain viable.

Going by recent events, it seems that some CPF members would not choose to put their money with the CPF Board if the scheme were voluntary.

These are the CPF members who chafe at rules requiring them to keep a Minimum Sum in their CPF accounts for their retirement needs, and who resent a recent hike in that sum and the raising of the age at which they can start drawing down from it.

They have unleashed a torrent of complaints online and to their Members of Parliament about CPF shifting the goal posts, and some of them showed up for yesterday's "Return Our CPF" protest at Hong Lim Park.

It is unclear what share of CPF members share their sentiments.

But there are also many CPF members who have not joined the chorus of condemnation.

And while it would not be wise to assume silence signals all-round satisfaction, there are anecdotal accounts of CPF members who want just the opposite of what the "Return Our CPF" crowd are after.

If these members could, they would put even more of their hard-earned money into the CPF, because it yields higher risk-free returns than equivalent products on the market.

CPF savings in the Ordinary Account earn interest of 2.5 per cent a year.

By comparison, local banks are now paying interest rates that are well below 1 per cent for short- term deposits.

CPF savings in the Special and Medisave accounts enjoy higher returns of 4 per cent a year.

[If you have not hit the limit in your SA, transferring funds from your OA to your SA is one easy, risk-free way to increase your returns (from 2.5% to 4%) on your funds. The downside of course is that you cannot access those (originally OA) funds for housing. So this is not something you should do if you haven't bought your home. An unexpected advantage is that the 4% will grow above the minimum sum, and it would grow faster with the boost from your OA. That means you hit your minimum sum faster, and you generate more savings above the minimum sum which will accrue to you at 55. ]

Since 2007, the CPF Board has also paid an additional 1 per cent interest on the first $60,000 of a member's combined balances, with up to $20,000 from the Ordinary Account.

As I see it, the unhappiness over CPF as it is currently structured has two different sources.

The first is tied to CPF members having no say in how much of their income goes into the compulsory savings scheme, what they can use the funds for and how much they can withdraw when they stop work - either when they lose their jobs or when they retire.

This lack of choice frustrates many. Last week, Ms Tin Pei Ling, an MP for Marine Parade GRC, asked that CPF members be given more flexibility to withdraw their funds should they find themselves in dire straits due to joblessness, for instance.

The second concerns the rate of return.

While the Government has been at pains to point out that the interest rates on CPF savings are better than what similar financial products in the market offer, others - such as Nominated MP Tan Su Shan, a senior bank executive - have observed that CPF returns have not kept pace with inflation in recent years.

Ms Tan suggested having regular savings plans that are tied to bonds or fixed-income unit trusts that pay regular dividends to ensure that inflation does not erode the value of CPF savings that are not invested.

[Please find one that the CPF members can invest in that pays BETTER than 4%, and carries NO risk. There are none.]

The Government can try to fix each of these problems in turn.

Indeed, it has indicated that it is moving to make sure the payouts from the CPF Life annuity scheme are indexed to inflation. It has also said it would look at how the returns on CPF savings can be improved.

As for greater flexibility on withdrawals, my colleague Toh Yong Chuan suggested recently raising the amount that CPF members can withdraw at age 55, whether or not they meet the Minimum Sum. It now stands at $5,000 and has not been adjusted for at least a decade, he pointed out.

What the Government cannot fix through policy is suspicions and conspiracy theories that allege it is changing the rules on the CPF Minimum Sum and withdrawal age because it relies on CPF monies as a cheap source of funds to either enrich itself or to cover up losses by its sovereign wealth fund GIC and investment company Temasek Holdings.

It has sought to counter these allegations by releasing information to explain what happens to CPF monies, as the Ministry of Finance did last month in its reply to questions from The Straits Times.

The ministry said no CPF monies go towards government borrowing as that is prohibited by law; that Temasek does not manage any CPF monies and that there is no link between CPF interest rates and the returns earned by GIC, as the CPF monies are invested entirely in risk-free assets, namely, Special Singapore Government Securities.

Back in 2007, when the Government's announcement of new rates of return for CPF savings drew many questions and comments, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam - then Second Finance Minister - tackled this issue head-on.

He said in an interview with this newspaper that the charge of the Government using CPF as a cheap source of funds was "wrong and plainly misleading".

"The Government doesn't need to borrow from the CPF. If we needed to borrow, we can borrow from the market at lower rates than from the CPF. Every finance professional knows that.

"If we had issued one-year treasury bills, the rate we would have paid over the last 10 years would have been 1.7 per cent on average.

"If we wanted to borrow through longer-term bonds, we could issue 10-year bonds and pay the market rate, without the plus one percentage point. So if the Government needed to borrow money, it can do so at lower cost.

"CPF money is actually expensive money for the Government, not cheap money," he added.

It is a pity that such allegations continue to fly about for they cast government and people as enemies when they are not.

As a national, compulsory savings scheme, the CPF cannot be tailored to fit the needs of each and every one of its members. Therefore, individual members are bound to have issues with how the scheme is run.

Ultimately, though, both the Government and the people have a shared interest in getting the CPF to work better, rather than tearing it down.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Towards a 'problem-solving democracy'

Jun 03, 2014

By Lawrence Wong For The Straits Times

THE issue of "constructive politics" was the focus of the debate on the President's Address in Parliament last week, and rightly so. Politics is not just about campaigns, elections and votes.

As President Tony Tan Keng Yam said, politics is fundamentally about enabling us to move ahead as one united people and improve the lives of all citizens.

How can Singapore keep its politics constructive? Some people have suggested we should simply follow the way of mature First World democracies.

This is not a new idea. Indeed, after the Cold War ended, several predicted a new era of global convergence: In the battle of ideas and political systems, they thought that Western liberal democracy had triumphed, and history had come to an end.

But Western liberal democracy has not turned out to be a magic formula for success.

In many countries, it has failed to deliver stable, legitimate and effective government. Even voters in the West are losing faith in their democratic systems.

I received a visitor recently who used to serve in the United States administration. Ten years ago, he would not have hesitated to preach the virtues of Western liberal democracy.

But with the ongoing gridlock and policy paralysis in Washington, he has become more circumspect. He acknowledged that the American system was far from perfect, and that political reform was necessary.

He is not the only one. Two editors of The Economist magazine recently wrote a book calling not just for political reform, but a fundamental "Fourth Revolution" in Western democracies.

They note that "in America (today), the federal government has less support than George III did at the time of the American Revolution". As they put it, "interest groups have proved remarkably successful at hijacking government" and "the practice of democracy in the West is diverging ever more from the ideal… with the… general public increasingly disgruntled".

In short, dysfunctional government has become a major problem in many mature democracies.

Politics is increasingly acrimonious, divisive and polarised. Young people have grown disillusioned and disengaged from public life. In America and many European countries, voter turnouts have been falling and surveys show declining trust in governments.

None of this should come as a surprise. There is a long tradition of concern over the limitations of liberal democracy as a system of government.

Public choice theorists like the late James M. Buchanan, a 1986 Nobel laureate, worried that democratic politicians would pander to their electorate, spend more than they collect in taxes, and run up unfunded obligations and debt - a worry that has been proven prescient.

I highlight the problems of mature democracies not to run down their systems, or to suggest that we have the answers. We don't. We, too, have to discover a workable way forward.

Political systems in all countries have to evolve and adapt to the changing, globalised environment. As new generations come of age, better connected with one another and more exposed to the world, they will have different life experiences, aspirations and expectations.

Political leaders must respond to this new situation, and political systems must evolve to remain effective.

Every country will have to change in its own way, and strike its own balance between individual rights and the common good.

Singapore is a city-state with a very young history and an ethnically diverse society.

So we must evolve our own system of democracy to suit our needs and our conditions. Unthinkingly importing institutions from other countries can do more harm than good.

One of our founding fathers, the late Mr S. Rajaratnam, was a fervent democrat.

He set out the goal of building a "democratic society based on justice and equality", which we recite in the Pledge.

But Mr Rajaratnam was also realistic about what democracy could or could not deliver for Singapore.

Forty years ago, he had anticipated that Western norms of liberal democracy, like a confrontational opposition and adversarial politics, would not bring about effective long-term governance.

So he called for a different kind of democracy for Singapore - one which involved citizenship participation at all levels, to "get people away from adversarial democracy" and to "solve practical problems in a practical way".

Mr Rajaratnam's vision was for Singapore to be a "democracy of deeds, and not words". It is a high goal worth striving for, which gets to the heart of what makes for a healthy democracy - an active citizenry, engaged in the community, working together for the public good.

This is why we must continue to encourage all Singaporeans, and our youths in particular, to get involved in causes and projects that help build a better society. For while the Government can and will do more, it is ultimately the spirit of our people that will shape our nation's future.

Singaporeans already undertake many ground-up initiatives and community projects. These form an important part of constructive politics.

It is because we believe in that collective "democracy of deeds" of active citizens that we launched "Our Singapore Conversation".

[Unintended irony? Sarcasm? To say that we practice a "Democracy of deeds not words" by having "Our Singapore Conversation". Isn't a conversation about... words?]

Through the OSC, 46,000 people shared their views on issues that mattered to them and their future.

They helped to shape the new strategic directions of this Government. Importantly, the conversations are continuing in various policy domains, like the MediShield Life review, and the National Masterplan for Ageing.

There has also been positive response to new platforms for contribution like the Youth Corps and the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) Volunteer Corps.

And many Singaporeans have come up with ideas and projects of their own to commemorate our 50th anniversary of independence next year.

It's easy to be cynical and brush aside such participation as "talk-shops" or "going through the motions". Such cynicism will lead to apathy and reluctance to get involved. It is a corrosive attitude which has no place in our public life.

On the contrary, these acts of participation and involvement from ordinary Singaporeans should give us hope, and inspire us all to do better and do more. They show that Singaporeans care deeply about one another and about our nation.

They show that we are truly making progress towards becoming a problem-solving democracy, a democracy of deeds.

That ultimately is what "constructive politics" means.

The writer is the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Communications and Information.

[In the US, democracy is practised at various stages in life. They practice running for class president, and student leaders, etc. in every stage of life there is some election for small things, and then bigger things. Then in life they can stand for City Council, and Mayor, and even Sheriff. That's how they "teach" democracy in the US.

In Singapore there are also opportunities, but fewer. Residents' committee, Management Committee, and Neighbourhood committees tend to be very "closed" events. Not because the people involved are actively excluding others, but simply because nobody has time to be involved. Or want to be involved. 

And then when something goes wrong, they will complain to a greater authority.

46,000 people shared in OSC? that's what? Less than 1.4% of Citizens. I think PRs were included so it's about 1.2% of SC & PRs. 

Oh well, it is better than 0% and it gave people a grander "Meet the People" session. Except this was "Meet the Minister"?

"Participation and Involvement" is not simply have a conversation or getting them to volunteer in the SAF. 

If you want them to understand the complexity of government, they need to have a taste of government. 

And no, we don't have to let them take over parliament. They can start small. 

Open up or set up elections in RCs, MCs, NCs, etc Make a rule about fresh blood. Set term limits for office holders, make recruitment a vital part of renewal. Give people a taste of "local govt", so that they realise that democracy is about compromises, and consensus building, and give-and-take, and about building community. 

That would be true participatory democracy.]