Sunday, November 30, 2014

Tales of a taxi 'Uncle'

Nov 30, 2014

Special report: in their shoes

From the surly to the genial, it is passengers who make or break your day. But the pressure sure piles up

By Toh Yong Chuan Manpower Correspondent

On my fourth day as a taxi driver, I drove for six hours at night with just one five-minute toilet break.

It was past midnight when I headed home and absent-mindedly got into the wrong lane at the junction of Bishan Road and Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1. The traffic lights turned green and I took off, almost hitting another taxi.

When I got home, my wife greeted me with a hug and said: "You have the taxi driver smell."

"It is the smell of hard work," I said. It was the odour of being cooped up for hours in stale air. I didn't mention my near accident.

I have always been fascinated by cabbies. As a manpower reporter, I have interviewed numerous drivers, yet there remained so much I did not know about them. Topmost on my mind as I embarked on a two-week stint as a cabby were these questions: How hard is it to be a cabby? And how much can a cabby earn?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Education in the second machine age

Nov 28, 2014

By Dalia Marin

ARTIFICIAL intelligence, once confined to the realm of science fiction, is changing our lives.

Cars are driving themselves. Drones are being programmed to deliver packages. Computers are learning to diagnose diseases.

In a recent book, economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe these recent advances as examples of the beginning of what they call "the second machine age".

The very name - the first machine age was the Industrial Revolution - suggests an epochal shift. And, indeed, if the predictions are to be believed, these technological advances could have profound implications for the way we live.

One common forecast is that as ever-more-advanced robots substitute workers, the cost of labour will become less important, and manufacturing will move back to rich countries. Another is that increasingly intelligent machines will reduce the demand for advanced skills, and the economic advantage of having these skills will decline as a result.

Friday, November 28, 2014

China's bid for Internet influence

Nov 28, 2014

The country known for its great firewall champions respect for each country's sovereign control of online space.

By Rachel Chang, In Beijing

THE irony was lost on no one.

China's inaugural World Internet Conference (WIC) last week in Zhejiang province had, as its slogan, "an inter-connected world shared and governed by all".

This, from a country whose landmark cyberspace achievement has been to construct the world's most elaborate and formidable firewall to block its citizens from the world.

Worse, a joint declaration, drawn up by organisers to mark the end of the two-day conference - attended by industry players from over a hundred countries - was dropped after overseas attendees revolted.

Slipped under hotel room doors at 11pm at the end of the second day, the document prominently mentioned mutual respect for each country's sovereign control and regulation of the Internet - a controversial Chinese doctrine that many see as a fig leaf for repression and censorship.

Revisions would need to be submitted by early next morning, attendees were told. Needless to say, few were willing to be bulldozed into signing the document overnight.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Singapore ranked world's No. 2 for health-care outcomes: EIU

Nov 27, 2014


SINGAPORE - Singapore has been ranked No. 2 in the world for health-care outcomes, according to a report by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The Republic followed closely after Japan. South Korea was placed third.

Stop Trying to Save the World (or How to Pave the Road to Hell with Good Intentions)

Big ideas are destroying international development

By Michael Hobbes

It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.

PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.

The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.

By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair. The Guardian said the pumps were “reliant on child labour.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

China surges ahead while India and Pakistan bicker


NEW DELHI — For a senior Afghan diplomat sitting in India’s capital, it is easy to explain how a region with a quarter of the world’s people can account for only 5 per cent of global trade.

“India and Pakistan need to overcome their problems,” Mr M Ashraf Haidari, deputy chief of mission at Afghanistan’s embassy in New Delhi, said in an interview ahead of this week’s meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC.

“Summits happen, leaders come, there’s all this consensus and declarations announced. But unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in reality.”

As leaders of eight SAARC countries meet in Nepal this week for the first time since 2011, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has more reasons than ever to turn the bloc into a regional force to counter China’s growing influence in South Asia. Doing so will require him to overcome differences with Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif.

So far, things are not looking good. Mr Modi’s government scrapped talks with Pakistan in August, which was followed by the worst border fighting between the countries in a decade. At the same time, China has promised SAARC nations part of a US$40 billion (S$52 billion) Silk Road fund to finance infrastructure investments.

“SAARC won’t be able to counter China’s influence,” said Dr Nishan de Mel, executive director and head of research at Colombo-based Verite Research, a policy research group.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tussle over falling oil prices

Nov 10, 2014


Lower oil prices are reshaping the energy market, as Middle East countries try to fend off competition from US shale gas.

By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent, In London

SOONER rather than later, what went down must come up. That's at least the hope of the world's oil exporters, who are getting desperate as their products are now fetching the lowest prices in years.

Oil prices are famous for their unpredictable fluctuations and their sensitivity to political crises so, no doubt, the prediction will be proven right.

Still, the current sharp drop in energy prices is more than just a matter of market flutters. It is an indication of a bigger shift in the balance of power between producers and consumers, and the changing financial importance of different continental markets. This is no ordinary energy price war of the kind witnessed in the past, but a broader tussle which will result in more profound strategic realignments.

Right now, the world is awash with oil, and markets have responded in the only logical way, by marking the price of this crucial commodity down, from a peak of US$115 (S$148) per barrel in June to little more than US$80 today. The reasons for this price decline - the steepest in a decade - are obvious: better-than-expected production in war-torn Libya and Iraq, Iran's return to the oil export markets, and a global economic slowdown.

How Dubai caused the Arab awakening

Thomas Friedman

November 21, 2014

Ever since the Arab awakening in late 2010, America has lurched from one policy response to another. We tried decapitation without invasion in Libya; it failed. We tried abdication in Syria; it failed. We tried democratisation in Egypt, endorsing the election of the Muslim Brotherhood; it failed. We tried invasion, occupation, abdication and, now, reintervention in Iraq and, although the jury is still out, only a fool would be optimistic.

Maybe, the beginning of wisdom is admitting that we do not know what we are doing out here and, more importantly, that we do not have the will to invest in overwhelming force for the time it would take to reshape any of these places — and, even if we did, it is not clear that it would work.

So if the Middle East is a region we can neither fix nor ignore, what is left? I’m for “containment” and “amplification”. How so? Where there is disorder — Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya — collaborate with regional forces to contain it, which is basically what we are doing today. I just hope we do not get in more deeply.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Where Is the Inequality Problem?

MAY 8, 2014 35

Kenneth Rogoff

CAMBRIDGE – Reading Thomas Piketty’s influential new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, one might conclude that the world has not been this unequal since the days of robber barons and kings. That is odd, because one might conclude from reading another excellent new book, Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape (which I recently reviewed), that the world is more equal than ever.

Which view is right? The answer depends on whether one looks only at countries individually or at the world as a whole.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Japan’s warning to the world



NOVEMBER 19, 2014

Japan’s renewed descent into recession — its sixth in the past two decades — comes with an urgent if obvious warning to the United States, Europe and the rest of the developed world: Don’t let this happen to you. Japan’s famously stagnant economy may not be all that unique.

True, Japan’s predicament is exceptionally difficult. Extraordinary central-bank stimulus has helped boost markets, but has not been enough to prevent the economy from shrinking for two consecutive quarters. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can and should postpone a planned sales-tax increase, but there is only so much that fiscal policy can do in a country with a giant government-debt burden.

Banking culture breeds dishonesty, scientific study finds


NOV 20, 2014 3:37 AM  240 63 0 0

LONDON (REUTERS) - A banking culture that implicitly puts financial gain above all else fuels greed and dishonesty and makes bankers more likely to cheat, according to the findings of a scientific study.

Researchers in Switzerland studied bank workers and other professionals in experiments in which they won more money if they cheated, and found that bankers were more dishonest when they were made particularly aware of their professional role.

When bank employees were primed to think less about their profession and more about normal life, however, they were less inclined to dishonesty.

As old buildings age, re-think rules on en bloc sales

Current rules hold back the redevelopment of ageing buildings. Should they be changed?

NOV 18, 2014


BUILT in the 1960s, Cairnhill Mansions is one of several properties in the Orchard Road area that has seen better days. Age and rising maintenance costs are taking their toll on the apartment block: a resident was recently trapped in the lift for four hours due to a malfunctioning lift motor.

Many of the development's 61 owners are keen to sell their units and move on. They would prefer to do so in a collective sale, where the whole building and the land it sits on are bought by a single buyer for more than the sum of the individual units.

But going en bloc has proven difficult for such old properties.

Last month, Cairnhill Mansions started its fourth collective sale bid, after earlier attempts in 2005, 2007 and 2011 fell through.

In August, another ageing building, the 44-year-old Tanglin Shopping Centre, failed in its second try to go en bloc.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hong Kong's 'second handover'

A China watcher offers a reading of what lies ahead for the Fragrant Harbour.

NOV 17, 2014


THE visiting senator, an influential member of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, leant forward, looked the veteran intelligence officer in the eye and asked: "So, Tom, how is this protracted Occupy protest movement going to end?" Back came the answer in a heartbeat: "Badly for Hong Kong, I am afraid! Not so for Beijing."

"Pray explain," said the senator as he loosened his tie in the stuffy, windowless conference room inside the US consulate in Hong Kong, which is known to all staff there as The Vault because of its high-tech defences against all known forms of electronic eavesdropping. He was en route to Beijing for a conference and had asked for the briefing.

Tom paused for a full minute, as if to collect his thoughts, before he began: "Whether force will be used to clear the streets is no longer the key issue, though obviously, if a lot of blood is shed, then the situation will become even more dire. What really matters is that Pandora's box has been forced open.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Gluten-free diets: Separating wheat from the chaff

Nov 16, 2014

By Andy Ho Senior Writer

The Economist magazine recently highlighted how market demand for gluten-free food is growing so fast it is outstripping vegetarian fare. Gluten-free products are projected to be a US$15 billion (S$19.5 billion) sector by 2016, which would make it 50 per cent larger than it was last year. In Singapore, grocers in upmarket malls and expensive sandwich shops are already touting gluten-free menus.

The Latin word for "glue", gluten is the protein that makes dough elastic and enables it to rise. It is found in wheat, barley and rye, so food made from them has gluten, including bread, cakes, breakfast cereals, pasta, beer, some sauces and ready-to-eat meals.

Gluten is the culprit in coeliac disease, a rare but serious condition in which the immune system wrongly identifies it as a threat, and attacks it. If food with gluten is being digested in the small intestines, this attack damages the gut's inner lining, rendering it unable to absorb nutrients.

So coeliacs must keep a gluten- free diet for life. Their diagnosis can be made with certainty as there are biomarkers for it.

But the present gluten-free fad involves non-coeliacs who claim that gluten causes in them the same symptoms that coeliacs have.

The case for more taxis

Nov 04, 2014

By Ng Yew-kwang And Yi Xin For The Straits Times

THE Land Transport Authority (LTA) recently announced it would lower the annual vehicle growth rate from the current 0.5 per cent to 0.25 per cent from February next year to January 2018.

That affects the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) quota for car ownership.

The reason given? "With 12 per cent of Singapore's total land area already taken up by roads, there is limited scope for any further expansion of the road network," LTA said.

Singapore's success in maintaining a largely low-congestion and efficient transport system is commendable.

And since car ownership and usage imposes costs on non-users - pollution, congestion, noise, to name a few - controls are justified.

On the road to watershed hustings

NOV 12, 2014


WITH just 23 months left in the 12th Parliament's five-year term, the next polls, which will have to be held latest by Jan 9, 2017, promise to be the watershed general election.

It will almost certainly be a straight fight between the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and the Workers' Party (WP), providing some indication of whether Singapore is evolving from a one-party dominant to a two-party political system.

When too many elections can spoil a democracy

Nov 09, 2014

Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

This week, the United States mid-term elections dominated the headlines.

I was struck by the diversity in views of those who speculated on what a Republican-controlled Congress would look like.

Our resident world affairs commentator Jonathan Eyal who operates from London, was of the view that the White House and Congress will continue to be at loggerheads over foreign policy. On US President Barack Obama, he said: “Mr Obama himself has shown only contempt for Congress’ role in foreign and security policy matters. When he did not want to launch air strikes against Syria last year, he pretended that congressional approval was required for any action, but then did nothing to get it. Yet when the President decided this year to launch a far more extensive air campaign in Syria and Iraq, he argued that he possessed all the powers to do so without consulting Congress.”

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Great Internet Political Challenge


NOVEMBER 14, 2014

Flip through any newspaper and go from the foreign news to the business pages and what you will see is the “other” great geopolitical struggle in the world today. It is not the traditional one between nation states on land. It is the struggle between “makers” and “breakers” on the Internet.

This is a great time to be a maker, an innovator, a starter-upper. Thanks to the Internet, you can raise capital, sell goods or services, and discover collaborators and customers globally more easily than ever.

This is a great time to make things. But it is also a great time to break things, thanks to the Internet. If you want to break something or someone, or break into somewhere that is encrypted and collaborate with other bad guys, you can recruit and operate today with less money, greater ease and greater reach than ever before.

This is a great time to be a breaker. That is why the balance of power between makers and breakers will shape our world every bit as much as the one between America, Russia and China.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Forget containment - it's all about duality and balance

Containment or confrontation does not make sense in US-China ties. Instead, duality is the order of the day. Countries in the region want to have China as a trade partner and the US as a security partner. Meanwhile, the US wants to strengthen trade ties and China wants to enhance political security ties in the region.

NOV 12, 2014


RECENTLY, I had the opportunity to listen to Dr Henry Kissinger speak in New York on the theme of his latest book World Order.

It is remarkable that at the age of 91, Dr Kissinger published his 14th major work.

Dr Kissinger sees the established Westphalian order - where the nation state is the basic unit of Old World Order politics - being challenged today.

Countries had accepted it, but did not internalise it. Europe invented the concept, but has since moved beyond sovereignty of states to a transnational European sovereignty.

It no longer invests power in state institutions to fulfil the balance of power concept which they invented, such as building up its military forces.

The United States never accepted the balance of power or non-interference in the domestic affairs of other states. The US believes unreservedly in American exceptionalism and its foreign policy is inspired by the commitment to promote democracy in every country in the world.

Ironically, post-colonial Asia embraced the Westphalian concept of state sovereignty and non-interference wholeheartedly. But these days, countries in the region are hesitantly bending the principles on a need-to-do basis.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Can China survive the 'new normal'?

Nov 05, 2014

By Kor Kian Beng China Bureau Chief In Beijing

CHINA has a new catchphrase - "new normal" - that its officials and state media often use now to stress that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chief Xi Jinping's signature policies are here to stay.

The "new normal" China, according to Mr Xi, abstains from taking broad stimulus measures despite slowing growth. It also deepens the rule of law to bolster the fight against graft and excesses.

While this is slated to bring about more balanced economic growth and a cleaner bureaucracy, there are potential risks if the "new normal" is not managed well.

But first, evidence of the "new normal" propaganda campaign. It was Mr Xi who first used the phrase in May this year as he called for adjustment to a "new normal" in China's economic development, by which he meant a slower, more sustainable pace of growth.

Just last month, officials of the Development Research Centre - a think-tank linked to the State Council - used the phrase at different events. In August, the People's Daily, the CCP's mouthpiece, ran three front-page commentaries over consecutive days, highlighting the merits of a slower but more sustainable economic growth model.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Aljunied town council’s ‘persistent poor performance’ of ‘grave public concern’: MND

4 Nov 2014

SINGAPORE:  The Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council’s (AHPETC) “persistent poor performance” in service and conservancy charges arrears management, and corporate governance is of “grave public concern”, the Ministry of National Development (MND) said.

In its Town Council Management Report released on Tuesday (Nov 4), the MND said that most town councils performed well last year, although some “could do better” in the areas of estate maintenance, service and conservancy charge arrears management and corporate governance.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Flavour of Hawkers

Two articles on what makes for good hawker food.

Many (foreign) cooks add flavour to the broth

Nov 02, 2014

Singapore's hawker food is an evolving taste sensation

By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

The other day, I bought three bakchang from a coffeeshop in Toa Payoh, from a woman who spoke with a mainland Chinese accent.

When I steamed the dumplings at home at tea time, they tasted weird. The glutinous rice was fine. There was the requisite salted egg and minced pork and chestnut.

But the mix of spices used to flavour the ingredients was strange. It tasted at once too sweet and too savoury. It was just wrong.

Fishball Story’s Douglas Ng reveals what it takes to keep a stall running


NOVEMBER 4, 2014

SINGAPORE — We sometimes take our hawker food for granted and kick up a fuss when prices go up — even if it is by a few cents. Here, Douglas Ng, who was previously co-owner and chef of a cafe but decided to set up his own fishball noodles stall, Fishball Story, shares the struggles of being a new hawker on the scene and why one should pay S$3.50 for a bowl of traditional fishball noodles.

When I started Fishball Story in Golden Mile Hawker Centre (505 Beach Road, #01-85) in April, I priced a bowl of noodles at S$3. I was working very hard, there was a crowd, but I wasn’t making money. I went to do all my sums and realised I was only breaking even. It was impossible to sustain the business and my motivations for being a hawker.

'Healthy' microbes not always good

Nov 03, 2014


IN THE late 17th century, Dutch naturalist Anton van Leeuwenhoek looked at his own dental plaque through a microscope and saw a world of tiny cells. He could not have predicted that a few centuries later, the trillions of microbes that share our lives - collectively known as the microbiome - would rank among the hottest areas of biology.

These microscopic partners help us by digesting our food, training our immune systems and crowding out other harmful microbes that could cause disease. In return, everything - from the food we eat to the medicine we take - can shape our microbial communities, with important implications for our health. Studies have found that changes in our microbiome accompany medical problems from obesity to diabetes and colon cancer.

As these correlations have unfurled, so has the hope that we might fix these ailments by shunting our bugs towards healthier states. The gigantic probiotics industry certainly wants you to think that, although there is little evidence that swallowing a few billion yogurt-borne bacteria has more than a small impact on the trillions in our guts.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Hong Kong's Occupy Generation

NOV 3, 2014


THE dramatic opening of the Occupy Central movement five weeks ago, complete with liberal use of batons, pepper spray and tear gas by the police against unarmed students, triggered a surge of support for the young pro-democracy protesters. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of demonstrators still occupy several of the city's main traffic arteries, camping out in neat lines of colourful tents.

That police brutality unexpectedly heralded the amazing rise of a new socio-political force. Already dubbed the Occupy Central Generation, its members, drawn from the cohorts born during and since the 1980s, are mostly students and young workers, many of them professionals. While also dedicated to democracy and deeply wary of Beijing, they are more localist and have less affinity for the cultural identity of mainland Chinese than their elders, including the original proponents of Occupy Central and stalwarts among Hong Kong's Pan Democrats, as the pro-democracy camp is known here.