Friday, April 29, 2016

Thais woke up to a scandal per day

When those in power view corruption as an expected perk


APRIL 28, 2016

The public learned a bit more about how the Thai system works, and it was not a pretty sight. The lesson from last week was arguably that anyone — literally anyone who can do it, does it. Not only does it but actually takes it as an expected perk.

The subtext: The man who blames the politicians for it also does it.

In Asia, govts struggle to deal with a worsening water crisis


APRIL 29, 2016

Asia’s water woes are worsening. Already the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, Asia now faces a severe drought that has parched a vast region extending from southern Vietnam to central India. This has exacerbated political tensions, because it has highlighted the impact of China’s dam-building policy on the environment and on water flows to the dozen countries located downstream.

[Don't know if the dam building is for hydro-electric power to reduce China's carbon emission from coal-fired power plants. If so, trying to save the earth, is killing the earth.]

Today’s drought in parts of South-east and South Asia is the worst in decades. Among the hardest hit areas are Vietnam’s Mekong Delta (a rice bowl of Asia) and central highlands; 27 of Thailand’s 76 provinces; parts of Cambodia; Myanmar’s largest cities, Yangon and Mandalay; and areas of India that are home to more than a quarter of the country’s massive population.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

A strangely mixed bag of possibilities

Meira Chand

Apr 23, 2016

Born of Indian-Swiss parents, the writer grew up in Britain, and married an Indian who had business in Japan. She settled in - where else but S'pore

In these modern migratory times, the concept of home has become negotiable. Home is where the heart is, they say. And identity? Well, identity has always been a strangely mixed bag of possibilities. For me, the whole business only gets evermore surprising. From the beginning, I was constructed not to belong, yet I have only just diagnosed my malaise, but this is what life is like. It takes the better part of it to sort out the simplest of things.

According to Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, if you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. Home, I have learnt, is not a place and belonging is a journey. And identity is what makes us feel connected to ourselves and to each other, to the earth and to the spirit. It would not surprise Lao Tzu to know I am quite breathless from the many changes of direction in my journey, and as far as knowing where I was heading, the red dot of Singapore, almost untraceable on a world map, never once entered my mind.

Monday, April 25, 2016

ERP 2.0: What it means to you

Christopher Tan
Senior Transport Correspondent

FEB 27, 2016

It paves the way for changes in road-use habits and tweaks in policies

As early as the 1960s, Singapore has recognised the need to regulate road usage. It introduced high vehicular taxes, which cars bore the brunt of (since, it was argued, cars made the most discretionary and non-commercial trips).

But it wasn't car ownership per se that caused congestion. It was usage. Hence, in 1975, the Government launched the Area Licensing Scheme, a paper-permit precursor to Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), which was implemented from 1998.

On Thursday, the Land Transport Authority announced it had awarded a contract to build a next-generation gantry-less ERP system. What will ERP 2.0 mean to road users, businesses and Singaporeans at large?

For starters, it is useful to recognise how different the new system is.

Five things to watch out for in Bukit Batok by-election

Chua Mui Hoong
Opinion Editor

APR 24, 2016

The constituency is as heartland as Singapore can get and it can be a bellwether of heartland sentiments

I will be watching the result of the Bukit Batok by-election with interest, and not just because I used to live in the town.

I lived in the Hong Kah North part of Bukit Batok HDB estate for a year, five years ago. I liked its verdant greenery, the pavements wide enough to cycle on, and the way the estate, sufficiently remote from town, seems to have developed its own network of amenities and shops.

Most of all, I recall the strong sense I had while there that life in the Bukit Batok heartland is a struggle. There were more lorries, taxis and delivery vans in the carpark than Japanese executive sedans, let alone European luxury cars.

A set of curtains I discarded to make way for made-to-measure ones were taken within hours when I left them in the void deck.

Bukit Batok town is as heartland as Singapore can get.

Voters in Bukit Batok single-member constituency, which is one chunk of the larger Bukit Batok HDB town, go to the polls on May 7. The ward has a population of 45,900 and 25,727 voters. Almost all live in public housing; only 4.2 per cent live in private housing. About 32 per cent live in one- to three-room HDB flats; 39.4 per cent in four-room flats and 24.4 per cent in five-room or executive flats.

Electric shock – Tesla cars in Hong Kong more polluting than petrol models, report claims

Investment research firm says the government is ‘harming rather than helping the environment’ by subsidising the ‘green’ vehicles
13 April, 2016

Ernest Kao

Electric vehicles in Hong Kong could be adding “20 per cent more” carbon to the atmosphere than regular petrol ones over the same distance after factoring in the city’s coal-dominated energy mix and battery manufacture, a new research report found.

Investment research firm Bernstein also claimed that by subsidising electric vehicle purchases, the government was effectively “harming rather than helping the environment” at the expense of the taxpayer.

The report discloses that the author maintains a “long position” in oil company BP, while electric vehicle supporters are quick to dismiss its claims.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Water security, energy use a difficult trade-off

Siau Ming En

April 23, 2016

SINGAPORE — While ramping up the nation’s water security by increasing its capacity to treat used water and seawater over the next few decades, the Republic could also expose itself to another form of vulnerability — an over-reliance on energy for water.

Within the next 14 years, the combined capacity from NEWater and desalinated water will be able to meet up to 80 per cent of the population’s water demands, up from the current 55 per cent. By 2060, these two sources of water can provide up to 85 per cent of the nation’s water needs. However, this will also mean Singapore is becoming increasingly reliant on energy consumption to meet its water security goals.

Speaking to TODAY, distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) Asit Biswas pointed out that while half of Singapore’s water supply is generated from its own sources — local catchments, NEWater and desalinated water — 100 per cent of the energy used to treat the water comes from outside.

“Singapore has no energy … As Singapore becomes more and more self-sufficient (in water), it is becoming, energy-wise, more and more not self-sufficient. More and more energy (has to be) input in order to sustain the water sector,” added the world-renowned water expert.

Friday, April 22, 2016

COE prices to be left to market forces, says LTA

As private-hire car firms lead bids, experts say no evidence that intervention is needed yet


APRIL 22, 2016

SINGAPORE — Amid concerns of aggressive bidding by private-hire car companies such as Uber and Grab for Certificates of Entitlement (COEs), the authorities are letting market forces determine the situation for now, while transport experts said that, so far, there is little evidence to suggest that intervention is needed in the COE market.

The growth of the private-hire car sector “will provide more point-to-point transport options for commuters”, noted the Land Transport Authority (LTA) in response to media queries, and added that this could then reduce the demand for private cars over time.

“The LTA does not target COE premiums, which should reflect market demand and supply. Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the auction continues to function in an orderly manner,” a spokesperson said.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Phthlates and fast food

[Another Food Scare!]

Fast-food eaters have more industrial chemicals in their bodies

April 13, 2016

NEW YORK — People who reported eating fast food in the last 24 hours had elevated levels of some industrial chemicals in their bodies, according to a new analysis of data from federal nutrition surveys.

The study is the first broad look at how fast food may expose the public to certain chemicals, called phthalates, that are used to make plastics more flexible and durable. The chemicals, which don’t occur in nature, are common in cosmetics, soap, food packaging, flooring, window blinds, and other consumer products. The Centers for Disease Control says “phthalate exposure is widespread in the US population”.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

More people lost jobs last year, with manufacturing and services hit hardest

April 20 2016

SINGAPORE - More people were laid off last year than the year before, a Manpower Ministry report on redundancy released on Wednesday (April 20) showed.

A total of 15,580 workers were laid off last year, 2,650 more than in 2014 and the fifth year in a row that redundancies rose. The overall unemployment rate, however, remained low at 1.9 per cent.

Layoffs rose in all broad sectors last year, in particular manufacturing. The fall in global oil prices and a slowdown in demand in the marine and construction sectors caused the industry to shed 5,210 workers, 1,240 more than in 2014.

Services were also hard hit with 8,510 jobs lost, 1,250 more than the year before.

Layoffs also edged up in construction for the third year in a row from 1,690 to 1,780, owing to a drop in construction demand from both the public and private sector.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Uber submits 800 COE bids, changes the game for cars

April 16 2016

Just over three years ago, the Transport Ministry removed taxis from the certificate of entitlement (COE) bidding process to take some heat off car bidders.

Now, three years after third-party taxi app provider Uber arrived, the heat is back on.

During last week's COE tender, Uber-owned Lion City Rental submitted more than 800 bids, which accounted for 11 per cent of the total bids made for car COEs.

According to market talk, Lion City is looking to put 1,800 new cars on the road in anticipation of growing demand.

Rival company Grab is also expected to do the same.

SDP’s Chee says he will push for retrenchment insurance if elected

Kenneth Cheng

April 17, 2016

SINGAPORE — Retrenchment insurance to help laid-off workers tide over periods of unemployment is a measure Dr Chee Soon Juan will push for in Parliament if he wins the Bukit Batok by-election, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief said on Sunday (April 17).

Citing retrenchment as the “number one concern” among the area’s residents, Dr Chee said that under the proposed scheme, retrenched workers would receive three-quarters of their last-drawn salary – capped at the prevailing median wage – for the first six months of unemployment.

Workers still unemployed after half a year would receive half of their last-drawn salary for the next six months. This would be further reduced to a quarter of their last-drawn wage if they are subsequently still out of a job.

This, he said, would provide temporary respite to workers, giving them “sanity” and allowing them to find jobs without panicking.

News Reaction: Mass Hysteria at Malaysian School (Pengkalan Chepa, Kelantan)

The News:

Since Monday (April 11, 2016), about 100 students and staff of the school, SMK Pengkalan Chepa 2, Kelantan, reported seeing apparitions described as black spectres, pontianak, and pochong. Officially, this was described as "mass hysteria". However, the school has enlisted the help of more than 8 ustaz (Islamic Scholars), bomoh (traditional Malay Shaman), and Islamic traditional experts to "help chase away the spirits".

On Wed (April 13) the school was closed to allow the ustaz and bomoh to perform prayers or rituals to cleanse the school of spirits.

On Sunday (April 17) the school was re-opened, though the media was not granted access. However, from outside the school gates, journalists reported hearing screams and shouts from within the schools. So the prayers and rituals did not seem to have worked.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A Singaporean's journey West, and back home

Charles Tan Meah Yang

April 15 2016

A sojourn through Europe, which is grappling with a migrant problem, led me to rethink my views on the role of government

As a Singaporean who has lived and worked in London for nearly 10 years now, making the decision to finally move back home was not an easy one. After all the deliberation, one thing was abundantly clear - Singapore is my home.

It is where friends, family and fond memories reside. It is where I come from, it is where I must return, and considering my age - 31 - it was better to do so sooner rather than later.

With my resignation tendered last month, my fiancee and I found ourselves with quite a bit of spare time on our hands, and thus we set out to travel around Europe for as much as our backpacks and budgets would allow before returning to Singapore for good.

Friends will remember me as a diehard free-market libertarian with a strong anti-government bent and a fondness for tau hway (soya bean curd) and bak chor mee (minced pork noodles).

The second trait hasn't changed; but the first has swung considerably. I now believe in the need for strong government oversight alongside a largely free-market framework.

Friday, April 15, 2016

WP declines invite to dialogue, will debate proposed changes in Parliament

By Laura Elizabeth Philomin -

April 15

SINGAPORE – The Workers’ Party (WP) has declined the Constitutional Commission’s invitation to speak at public hearings on the proposed changes to the Elected Presidency (EP), preferring instead to debate the matter when the Constitutional Amendment Bill is presented in Parliament.

The nine-member commission, which was formed to review and make recommendations on certain aspects of the EP, had invited 20 groups and individuals who had contributed written submissions to speak during the hearings, which will be held in April and May.

The WP first informed the commission of its decision last month in its cover letter for the party’s written submission, and repeated in a Facebook post yesterday that it “respectfully declined the invitation”.

“We intend to debate the matter fully when the Constitutional Amendment Bill is presented in Parliament ... The commission ... said it would consider our written submission nonetheless,” the party said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Is vegetable oil really good for you?

Cooking with vegetable oil to reduce saturated fats can lower cholesterol, but it may not help curb the risk of heart disease or add years to your life, U.S. researchers say.

13 Apr 2016

(Reuters Health) - Cooking with vegetable oil to reduce saturated fats can lower cholesterol, but it may not help curb the risk of heart disease or add years to your life, U.S. researchers say.

Plenty of previous research has linked polyunsaturated fat in vegetable oil, nuts and seeds with a lower risk of heart disease. Based on these studies, people have been routinely advised to replace animal fats like butter, cream and lard with plant-based oils made from corn, soybean, canola and olives.

But this has never been proven by gold-standard studies that randomly assigned people to specific diets to see how different foods and fats impacted health and longevity, said Dr. Christopher Ramsden, lead author of the current study.

French beggar gets a life after saving one

April 12, 2016

Michel Flamant (left) and Jerome (right) working in their bakery.

DOLE (France) — French baker Michel Flamant, who owes his life to the homeless man who begged for handouts outside his bakery, knows more than anyone that man does not live by bread alone.

To show his gratitude, Mr Flamant is selling the business in the eastern town of Dole to Mr Jerome Aucant for a symbolic one euro (S$1.53).

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Cholesterol-lowering supplements: Do they really help?

April 12 2016

Joyce Teo

These days, you can easily find a plethora of nutritional supplements on shop shelves aimed at promoting cardiovascular health.

You might be tempted to get one of these cholesterol-lowering supplements if you are worried about your cholesterol level.

Here's a look at three common ones:

Monday, April 11, 2016

Why is jury pay so low?

April 8, 2016

Dear Cecil:

I was impaneled as a juror in a civil case. For this privilege, I got paid a whopping $5 per day — which, if that wasn't insulting enough, is considered taxable income. OK, New Jersey is on the low end of juror pay. In Maryland, jurors get a whole $10.50 per day. Why is jury pay so low?

— David Weintraub

Cecil replies:

Heck, at least you showed up. One study found that 80 percent of prospective jurors in Dallas County, Texas, simply ignored their summons altogether. And who can blame them? I don’t know your specific economic situation, David, but I can think of a lot of people for whom jury duty’s not merely a petty hassle but an unaffordable luxury. I think there’s a clear case to be made that any jury system that requires folks to work for five bucks a day isn’t just annoying, it’s plainly undemocratic.

But let’s back up. Just how bad is this problem? Well, take federal jurors. In 1968, they could expect to haul in $20 a day, or $136 in 2016 dollars. The actual dollars we pay federal jurors in 2016, however? Only $40 a day, $50 if their term of service stretches past ten days — in other words, just short of the federal minimum wage for a day’s work. (Federal workers, we’ll note, have it good — they get paid their regular salary, in lieu of the usual compensation, to sit on a jury.)

Outside the federal system, things are pretty patchwork — some states set the rate, and if they don’t, the counties do. Nationwide, pay generally doesn’t exceed $50 per day and, as your experience illustrates, is often much lower: as one observer crisply pointed out, “Some counties in South Carolina … pay jurors minimum wage for an eight-hour workday — as of 1938.” That amounts, by the by, to two bucks a day. In some states, rates improve the longer you sit on the jury: Pennsylvania, for instance, pays $9 for each of the first three days and $25 daily thereafter. You might get lucky and receive compensation for travel, but on the other hand you might have to pay for parking: I give you Mobile, Alabama, where jurors hearing cases at the county courthouse take home a whopping $10 per diem, plus five cents a mile driven there and back, less the $2 (the special jurors’ rate!) they’re pretty much forced to put down to leave their car in the parking lot. (OK, Alabama employers are required to pay full-time workers for the days they serve on juries, but that’s little help to those Alabamans who lack the security of a full-time job.) And of course there are more invisible costs too, like child care (Colorado and Minnesota do make some provisions for this), canceled vacation plans, etc.

As I suggested up top, the implications of this pay regime are pretty brutal. Let’s say a person who makes minimum wage (in one of the 40 or so states without laws like Alabama’s) is forced to skip work at her full-time job to serve ten days on a jury, for which she might take home, say, $100 — we’re looking at a financial disaster. That’s why most states allow for hardship exceptions, if potential jurors can prove their service would be an undue burden. In one sense the exception seems merciful. Viewed another way, though, it’s downright unconstitutional: someone’s getting excluded from meaningful participation in the American democratic system simply because she can’t afford it — which may well, according to a 2015 article in the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Another paper, from the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems in 2012, argues that because most states link voter registration with jury service, jury duty basically constitutes a poll tax: it’s effectively a fee for casting a ballot. Citizens know they’ll be put on a jury list if they register to vote; some know they can’t afford to miss work to sit on a jury; therefore they don’t register, and subsequently can’t vote. The paper estimates that up to 7 percent of American citizens are thus disenfranchised, and proposes official sources other than voter rolls — tax or DMV records, for instance — from which potential jurors’ names could be culled.

[This is the reason I "clipped" this article. Jury Duty can be used to disenfranchise the poor. ]

Of course, that wouldn’t address the problem that juror pay is too low to begin with, or explain the root cause. I don’t think the reason for this execrable set of affairs is particularly mysterious. You might as well ask: Why are the country’s highways and bridges falling apart? What’s the reason for rising maternal mortality rates, or growing hunger and homelessness in major cities? What you’re seeing is the result of austerity and misplaced political priorities. In Minnesota, juror pay has actually been cut twice since 2003 due to tight state finances; last year the governor proposed an increase, but his plan didn’t make it into the final budget approved by the legislature. Thus did the state’s pay rate for jurors remain at a paltry $10 a day. But hey, it’s a crumbling empire, man. What did you expect?

— Cecil Adams

Why ST did not publish Dr Lee Wei Ling's column

Ivan Fernandez

Associate Editor

Apr 9, 2016

The editor who worked on Dr Lee Wei Ling's columns responds to her Facebook post alleging censorship of her articles

Several issues of serious journalistic concern arose from recent allegations by Dr Lee Wei Ling, a former columnist of The Sunday Times, after she blogged about events last month to commemorate the death of her father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

In a Facebook post on April 1, Dr Lee wrote: "i will no longer write for SPH as the editors there do not allow me freedom of speech. in fact, that was the reason why i posted the article on LKY would not want to be hero-worshipped."

I had been editing Dr Lee's columns since last November. So it pained me when she also alleged that those who edited her columns had been "commanded to edit certain issues out, and they are to (sic) timid to disobey, and too embarrassed by their timidness to tell me the truth".

In another posting, Dr Lee alleged that her article, which had earlier been sent to me for publication in The Sunday Times, was rejected because I had deemed certain parts as "irrelevant", while she thought them crucial.

I need to set the record straight on this. I did not say they were "irrelevant", although I did have serious concerns about her latest draft, which I shall come to shortly.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Jean Marshall: At home in Singapore

10 April 2016

Jean Mary Gray came to Singapore in 1953 to take up a post with the Red Cross, and went on to become a medical social worker. She became Mrs David Marshall in 1961, when she married the man who was Singapore's first chief minister. Sixty-three years later, Singapore remains her home.

In 1953, bound for Malaya, 27-year-old Jean Mary Gray boarded a plane to Singapore from Heathrow Airport, England. Her father used to say: "If you want to see the world and can't afford to, get a job and see it at someone else's expense."

Jean had got a one-year job as a British Red Cross field officer in rural Malaya.

On April 13, Jean turns 90. She lives in central Singapore in a comfortable apartment that she and her husband David Saul Marshall bought in 1993.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Ambassador Bilahari successfully trolls high-ranking Europe reps in S’pore


May 14, 2015

Martino Tan

Bilahari 1 Europe 0

We now know that the European Ambassadors in Singapore still read The Straits Times.

Not one, but two European ambassadors in Singapore were not too pleased with an excerpt of a speech by Ambassador-at-Large and public intellectual Bilahari Kausikan that was republished in The Straits Times on May 4.

Bilahari argued for a practical not ideological approach to human rights.
This was what Bilahari said to the French in his speech:
– France has “hobbled itself by its own absolutist belief systems”. It “was unable to admit that some values cannot be simultaneously realised and therefore need at least some degree of restraint to be enjoyed at all”.

– France paid dearly for persisting in the delusion that all of its citizens shared the same belief in the universality and pre-eminence of certain rights or values.

And this was what Bilahari told the Europeans:
– Europe is tying itself into knots by clinging to systems of values; systems based on an extreme ideological conception of the universality of rights taken to ridiculous lengths. These thinking are out of sync with societies evolving under demographic or other pressures.

– The result? The revival of fascism or extreme right-wing political movements.

– Unfortunately, European elites are not prepared to confront a redefinition of the conception of Europe and what it means to be European.

Ouch. And ouch.

European Union Ambassador to Singapore Dr Michael Pulch and French Ambassador to Singapore Benjamin Dubertret decided to publish a forum letter to rebut our diplomat who just dished out some undiplomatic hard truths.

Below is the joint reply published on May 9:

ST Forum Letter 2 (Bilahari)
Source: The Straits Times

A summary of what they said:

– They argued that Bilahari was disingenuous to lump the mode of thought by the Charlie Hebdo tragedy murderers and victims together by saying that the extremists are misguided.

– They added that France has constraints in place against the abuse of freedom of speech since 1881.

– They also said that the EU does not make use of its position as the world’s largest donor of development aid, presumably to pursue their thoughts regarding the freedom of speech.

And here is Bilahari having the last word three days later on May 12:

ST Forum Letter 1 (Bilahari)
Source: The Straits Times
– He pointed out that there is a stark inconsistency that the French state throws its weight against the discrimination of Jews but not Islam in the name of freedom of speech.

– He also highlighted that the letter by the ambassadors did not address his point that Europe has taken freedom of speech to ridiculous extremes.

– He concluded that this extreme ideology of freedom of speech needs to be exposed. Because Amos Yee.

[The speech that triggered it.]
A practical not ideological approach to human rights
MAY 4, 2015

Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan advocates a practical approach to human rights in his speech at a seminar on Thursday on "Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in Asean", organised by the Jakarta-based Human Rights Resource Centre.

HUMAN rights are undoubtedly a very important subject. But if we are to do justice to their importance, we must take a practical and not an ideological approach. And the first premise of a practical approach must be to admit that not all rights are compatible or capable of simultaneous realisation. There is not one Good but many goods and not all goods are compatible.

A corollary to this is to dismiss from our minds the myth that all rights are really universal. This should not be understood as dismissing the importance of human rights or as an excuse for suppressing them, but as a simple description of reality. The fact is all rights evolve according to specific circumstances and within the context of particular cultures, beliefs, values and changing historical contexts. How we understand rights today is not the same as we understood them 100 or 50 or even, say, just five or 10 years ago.

The idea that human rights have an autonomous reality or are somehow "natural rights" is, as Jeremy Bentham said, "rhetorical nonsense - nonsense upon stilts". It is a civilising myth we choose to believe in so that we may at least occasionally live in a civilised manner. But we should not forget that beliefs are not stable; they change and they do not change in a teleological manner towards a single preordained destination.

Of course, all cultures and societies hold some values in common. But this is generally at such a high level of generality as to be practically meaningless as a guide to how specific societies or political systems actually organise themselves or even as a guide to how they ought to organise themselves. Most rights, despite a superficial consensus, are in fact essentially contested concepts, both within societies and between different countries and societies. And it is to my mind pointless to console someone deprived of the basic necessities of life that his or her civil liberties are protected. It is at best naive if not downright cynical.

An ideological approach to the universality of rights not only leads to a meaningless formalism, but it degrades the very values that are held to be universal. But this is too often the approach in the international human rights discourse. Anyone who has served at the United Nations would have at some point encountered the less-than-edifying spectacle of Western, usually European, diplomats threatening the withdrawal of aid from the less developed countries if they did not support some human rights resolution or other. Curiously, these Western diplomats seem to see nothing hypocritical or even merely contradictory in their behaviour.

When the Charlie Hebdo tragedy occurred, I was struck by the similarity between the mode of thought of the murderers and their victims. Both held some belief so absolutely that they thought it justified anything.

The fact that the terrorists had a completely mistaken interpretation of Islam is beside the point. The point is that they believed in it; believed in it as fervently as the cartoonists believed in their right to freedom of expression. Both were equally wrong. I am not arguing that there is a moral equivalency between the terrorists and the cartoonists; clearly there is none. Nothing justifies murder. But is it right to constantly lampoon a religion? I do not often agree with Dr Mohamad Mahathir, but he got it absolutely right when he said killing is wrong and so is insulting someone else's religion.

Circumstances do matter and again the Charlie Hebdo tragedy is an apt case in point for the specific theme of this seminar: how the state can successfully balance the conflicting interests of different belief systems in society. This is not, I think, in principle very complicated if we do not lose sight of the general points with which I began.

Of course, implementation is everything. The conception of rights that is predominant in the West is one in which rights are held by the individual against an overly powerful state. But the essential problem in much of the rest of the world, and in my view certainly in South-east Asia as regards freedom of belief, arises when the state is too weak to hold the balance between competing belief systems or too timid to be willing to resist political pressures to privilege one belief system over another. This does not, of course, mean South-east Asian or other non-Western states cannot be as oppressive as any other state.

But it is a matter of what is regarded as the most urgent priority and that again will vary according to specific circumstances. You cannot - or at least only very rarely can - do everything simultaneously, particularly when the state is weak. Perfection is not to be found this side of heaven and to pursue perfection on earth usually results only in achieving very little all round.

The French state is certainly not weak. But it hobbled itself by its own absolutist belief systems and was unable to see beyond its own nose and admit that some values cannot be simultaneously realised and therefore need at least some degree of restraint to be enjoyed at all. France paid dearly for persisting in the delusion that all of its citizens shared the same belief in the universality and pre-eminence of certain rights or values. And so the French state failed in the most fundamental duty of any state: to adjudicate between different conceptions of the good.

In fact, all of Europe is tying itself into knots by clinging to systems of values; systems based on an extreme ideological conception of the universality of rights taken to ridiculous lengths - a reductio ad absurdum of values - and which moreover are out of sync with societies that are evolving under demographic or other pressures in entirely different directions. The result, among other consequences, is the revival of fascism or at least extreme right-wing political movements. Is it an accident that anti- Semitism is on the rise in France and some other parts of Europe? I don't think so.

I do not think Europe can easily get out of this conundrum of its own making because that would require a redefinition of what European elites have decided it means to be European. They are not prepared to confront this, particularly at a time when the conception of Europe as Europe - as distinct from France or Germany or any other individual country - has been shaken and its place in the international order is in question.

I wish Europe well. But I even more fervently wish that Southeast Asia in general, and Singapore in particular, does not fall into the same trap. Here at least we can learn from Europe's mistakes if we maintain the self-confidence to pursue our own course and ignore advice that may be well-meaning but is too often utterly inappropriate.

Tax and the single man (The $80,000 tax relief cap)

Ignatius Low
Deputy Editor

April 3 2016

The latest Budget Statement goes back to the principle of tax equity

I have covered almost every Budget Statement by the Finance Minister for the past 16 years. So you would think that by now, nothing would really excite me when the annual exercise rolls around.

Sometimes the economy is in trouble and needs rescuing with schemes and incentives. Then, once in a while, there is a new man in charge, duly photographed leaving for Parliament House with a briefcase of a new style and colour.

So it was this year, with Mr Heng Swee Keat taking the helm as Singapore's new Finance Minister. And as the speech started, it became clear that it was going to be a cautious Budget.

This was the first year of the new term of government, so Mr Heng had to watch the expenditure and avoid going into deficit. The economy is slowing but is not in dire straits yet. So either way, there was no need to bring out the big guns in terms of financial help.

Somewhere at the end of his speech, however, the soft-spoken new Finance Minister suddenly made me sit up.

No need for unemployment benefits in Singapore: Lim Swee Say

Responding to questions by Members of Parliament, the Manpower Minister explains why it is not appropriate for the Republic to put in place unemployment benefits or redundancy insurance for those who are retrenched.
By Linette Lim
08 Apr 2016

SINGAPORE: Low unemployment rates and a widespread practice of companies in the Republic paying retrenchment benefits are reasons why it is not appropriate for the country to put in place unemployment benefits or redundancy insurance, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say in Parliament on Friday (Apr 8).

[That's right. With Low Unemployment rates, there is no need for unemployment benefits such as Unemployment Insurance, for example. Just like Fire Insurance. Is your home currently on fire? No? Then you don't need Fire Insurance! ]

Friday, April 8, 2016

Mosquito v mosquito in fight against Zika virus

Nina Fedoroff and John Block

April 8 2016

Genetically modified mosquitoes are in the news for good reason: They may be our best hope for controlling the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a preliminary finding of no significant environmental impact and is seeking public comment on a plan to test them in a field trial in the Florida Keys.

So you might think this will resolve the Zika crisis, which has caught the world's attention because of an unexpected spike in microcephaly in babies born to women infected during pregnancy and in the incidence of the paralytic Guillain-Barre syndrome in Zika-infected adults.

You would be wrong. People are apprehensive about the release of these mosquitoes simply because they are genetically modified.

And the company that produces them must traverse a time-consuming federal regulatory process before they can be released in the United States.

This is unfortunate, because biological insect control can eradicate pests over large areas. This is what these genetically modified mosquitoes are intended to do to Zika-carrying mosquitoes.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Young Saudis See Cushy Jobs Vanish Along With Nation’s Oil Wealth

New York Times


FEB. 16, 2016

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — In pressed white robes and clutching crisp résumés, young Saudi men packed a massive hall at a university in the capital city this month to wait in long lines to pitch themselves to employers.

It was one of three job fairs in Riyadh in two weeks, and the high attendance was fueled in part by fear among the younger generation of what a future of cheap oil will mean in a country where oil is everything.

For decades, the royal family has used the kingdom’s immense oil wealth to lavish benefits on its people, including free education and medical care, generous energy subsidies and well-paid (and often undemanding) government jobs. No one paid taxes, and if political rights were not part of the equation, that was fine with most people.

[Note: the last line "No one paid taxes and... political rights were not part of the equation..." means there was no taxation, and no representation. Saudi Arabia is a monarchy and there are no elections. Just like Brunei. What do I mean by "Taxation" and "Representation"? The US War of Indepenence against the British, was a war to reject "taxation without representation". The British wanted to impose taxes on the Colonies of the New World (eventually the US), but these colonists in the New World would have no MPs in the British Parliament to represent their interests. Thus, they would be taxed, but they would have not representation in the government. In Saudi Arabia, there is no taxation, AND no representation. So all good, right? So far so good. Thus the line, "that was fine with most people".]

But the drop in oil prices to below $30 a barrel from more than $100 a barrel in June 2014 means that the old math no longer works. Low oil prices have knocked a chunk out of the government budget and now pose a threat to the unwritten social contract that has long underpinned life in the kingdom, the Arab world’s largest economy and a key American ally.

Saudis Moving to Reduce Dependence on Oil Money



APRIL 1, 2016

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — A top Saudi prince has announced new elements of a plan to reduce the kingdom’s heavy dependence on oil, amid a drop in world prices that has sent shock waves through the Saudi economy.

The plans include publicly selling shares of the state oil giant, Saudi Aramco, and routing much of its worth into a public investment fund, said the prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in an interview with Bloomberg published Friday.

The fund could become the world’s largest, he said, with more than $2 trillion in assets.

“Undoubtedly, it will be the largest fund on earth,” said Prince Mohammed, who is second in line to the Saudi throne and has emerged as the country’s most powerful and dynamic official. “This will happen as soon as Aramco goes public.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

At Bukit Panjang, hawkers find a new lease of life

Hawkers at the new Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre say they find it easier to run their businesses with the flexibility given to them to run their operations. 
By Kenneth Lim 

01 Apr 2016

SINGAPORE: After three months of frying kway teow at the new Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, hawker Tan Key Hua decided to buy another stove. However, it is not just because he is selling twice as many plates as before.

"I can cook on one and use the other to teach others my recipes and methods,” Mr Tan said in Mandarin. “I'm already about 66. I hope some young people can get to know me and my business. My stall is named Father and Son because I want to impart my craft and my food to the next generation."

[Good idea. Too bad no one's taking you up on it. Even the official hawker master training programme is only half filled. And this was in 2014. It is probably dead or nearly dead by now.]

Friday, April 1, 2016

IPS-Nathan Lecture Bilahari Kausikan 2016 Lectures 1 to 3

IPS YouTube channel provides videos of the lectures, which have been embedded here for ease of reference.

Bilahari Kausikan is the IPS-Nathan Fellow for 2016 and will give a series of 5 lectures. Here are the first 3.

The excerpt of the 3rd lecture is here (link).

The videos below are accompanied by a summary/write-up by the ST.]

Pavlovian conditioning and 'correct thinking' on the South China Sea

Bilahari Kausikan

April 1 2016

This is an excerpt of a speech by veteran diplomat Bilahari Kausikan organised by the Institute of Policy Studies on Wednesday. This is his third lecture in the IPS-Nathan Lecture series. In the lecture, he examines the impact of US-China competition on Asean. In the extract below, he gives his reading of what has spurred China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea in recent years.

[There are no transcripts or excerpts of the first and second lecture. There are ST reports, which will follow.]

On a global scale, China is not a clearly revisionist power. But Beijing wants to reclaim something of its historical centrality in East Asia. The United States has emphasised that it intends to remain an East Asian power.

The strategic challenge for China is therefore how to shift the US from the very centre of the East Asian strategic equation and occupy that space, but without provoking responses from the US and Japan that could jeopardise Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. For the US the strategic challenge is how to accommodate China, while reassuring friends and allies that it intends to hold its position without stumbling into conflict.

US environmental groups sue to overturn approval of Singapore-created GMO salmon approval

31 Mar 2016

CHICAGO (REUTERS) - US health regulators are facing a lawsuit from a coalition of environmental organisations seeking to overturn the government's landmark approval of a type of genetically engineered salmon to be farmed for human consumption.

The Centre for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, Friends of the Earth and other groups allege in the lawsuit, filed on Wednesday (March 30), that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failed to consider all of the environmental risks of the fish, made by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies.

Government officials also cleared the product without having the proper authority to regulate genetically engineered animals produced for food, according to the complaint.

The FDA approved the salmon in November after a 20-year review in the first such approval for an animal whose DNA has been scientifically modified. An agency policy analyst said at the time that officials had wanted "to get everything right" and offer many opportunities for public comment because the approval was the first of its kind.