Thursday, March 30, 2017

The temptations facing a resilient China


MARCH 29, 2017

Another growth scare has come and gone for the Chinese economy. This, of course, is very much at odds with Western conventional wisdom, which has long expected a hard landing in China.

Once again, the Western perspective missed the Chinese context — a resilient system that places a high premium on stability.

Premier Li Keqiang said it all in his final comments at the recent China Development Forum. I have attended this gathering for 17 consecutive years and have learnt to read between the lines of premier-speak. Most of the time, senior Chinese leaders stay on message with rather boring statements about accomplishments, targets and reforms, toeing the official line of the annual “Work Report” on the economy that is delivered to the National People’s Congress two weeks earlier.

This year was different. Initially, Mr Li seemed subdued in his ponderous responses to questions from an audience of global luminaries that focused on weighty issues such as trade frictions, globalisation, digitisation and automation. But he came alive in his closing remarks — offering an unprompted declaration about the Chinese economy’s underlying strength: “There will be no hard landing,” he exclaimed.

The all-clear sign from Mr Li was in sync with official data in the first two months of 2017: Solid strength in retail sales, industrial output, electricity consumption, steel production, fixed investment and service sector activity (the latter signalled by a new monthly indicator developed by China’s National Bureau of Statistics). Meanwhile, foreign exchange reserves rebounded in February for the first time in eight months, pointing to an easing of capital outflows.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why is everyone mean and stupid — and getting worse?


MARCH 28, 2017

The most pressing question of our age is not what will happen when the computers outsmart us. Nor is it the future of globalisation, or how to stop climate change.

It is much more fundamental than these: Why is everyone so mean and stupid, and why is it getting worse?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trump won’t allow you to use iPads or laptops on certain airlines. Here’s why.

By Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman

March 21

Britain joined the U.S. in creating new restrictions for passengers traveling on flights from airports in several Muslim-majority countries. Here's what you need to know. (Monica Akhtar, Dani Player/The Washington Post)

From Tuesday on, passengers traveling to the U.S. from 10 airports in eight Muslim-majority countries will not be allowed to have iPads, laptops or any communications device larger than a smartphone in the cabin of the plane. If you are traveling from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, or the UAE on Egypt Air, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Kuwait Airways, Qatar Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Royal Jordanian Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, or Turkish Airlines, and you want to use your laptop on the flight, you are probably out of luck.

US Politics: The balance of power between POTUS, SCOTUS, and Congress

["Check and Balance" is a philosophy of US Democracy. Their inherent and historic ambivalence and distrust of government led to the separation of powers and the ability of each branch of government to check on the other so that there can never be a dictator. Hence, the President of the United States (POTUS) may make executive orders, but the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) can check that, and stay the order. Congress can make the laws, but POTUS need to assent, and SCOTUS needs to uphold or rule on cases brought before them.

All well and good and it seems to be fine. Every 4 years, POTUS faces an election, and need the mandate of the people. Every 2 years, 1/3 of the Senators and some Representatives face elections to be affirmed, re-affirmed, or rejected by the people.

But appointment to SCOTUS is for life. And in that "longevity" lies the means to influence the lives of US citizens.

Gorsuch’s big fat lie

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Opinion writer

March 22 2017

With a shrewdly calculated innocence, Judge Neil Gorsuch told a big fat lie at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday. Because it was a lie everyone expected, nobody called it that.

“There’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge,” Gorsuch said.

Gorsuch, the amiable veteran of many Republican campaigns, is well-placed to know how serious a fib that was. As Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) noted, President Trump’s nominee for Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court seat actually received a citation for helping win confirmation for Republican-appointed judges.

We now have an ideological judiciary. To pretend otherwise is naive and also recklessly irresponsible because it tries to wish away the real stakes in confirmation battles.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Creating an ecosystem to win a non-conventional war


MARCH 22, 2017

The concept of battle is changing. The recent announcements by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen during the Committee of Supply debates represent important acknowledgements that the Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) thinking on cyber issues and information warfare, as well as the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF) doctrine, are moving in step with global developments.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

World War II started in 1937 in Asia, not 1939 in Europe, says Oxford historian

Professor Rana Mitter tells Conversation With why the war began with Japan’s conflict with China, not when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the date most history books use. 
By Lin Xueling

16 Mar 2017

OXFORD - Many history texts use 1939 as the date marking the start of the Second World War. More America-centric accounts use 1941, the year Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

However, using recently-released documentation, Oxford University professor of history Rana Mitter argues that the real start of the global conflict was 1937 - when Japan attacked China in what has been called the Marco Polo Bridge incident, outside of Beijing.

Prof Mitter’s book, The Forgotten Ally, points out that the terrible eight-year-long conflict took a massive toll on China, with more than 14 million Chinese dead.

By comparison, military and civilian casualties for the US and United Kingdom combined totaled around 900,000.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Kim Jong-nam killing spawns intriguing conspiracy theories

MARCH 2, 2017

BEIJING — The sensational assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un’s estranged half-brother in a Kuala Lumpur airport two weeks ago is incomprehensible to most people.

To begin to understand this apparent act of fratricide, one needs to recognise that North Korea is essentially a medieval absolute monarchy ruled by an insecure and tyrannical 33-year-old.

For all its modern twists — the use of VX nerve agent, the suspected assassins’ professed belief they were part of a reality TV show, the “LOL” (“laugh out loud”) acronym across a T-shirt worn by one of the accused women — this was murder in the mode of a Plantagenet or Ottoman Sultan.

The “young marshal”, as Kim Jong-un insists on being called, was fearful that his 46-year-old half-brother Jong-nam had a better claim to the throne and that he might one day usurp him with the help of China or the West.

Time for Singapore to embrace a freelance, contract workforce


Miranda Lee

February 15, 2017

Contingent labour is on the rise. According to the Manpower Ministry’s 2015 Labour Force Report, there were 202,400 contract employees in Singapore, forming 11.3 per cent of the resident workforce.

The rising numbers of contract workers and self-employed persons are forcing employers and regulators to refocus their efforts on work reorganisation.

In 2016, a total of 19,000 people were retrenched or had their contracts terminated, up from 15,580 the year before.

Last week, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say announced that annual job growth had stabilised, and is expected to range between 25,000 and 40,000, down from 100,000 to 120,000 in times of robust economic growth.

Why paying people for not having jobs is a bad idea

Jonathan Eyal
Europe Correspondent

Mar 13 2017

Support for a universal basic income is growing but the idea is as ill-conceived as communism

LONDON • Would you like to live in a country where the government pays you a salary from the moment you're born and continues to transfer into your bank account each month a sum of money sufficient to cover all your necessary expenses for the rest of your life, regardless of whether you work or not?

Some would no doubt view such an arrangement as the nearest thing to paradise, while others would recoil with horror, dismissing such a vision as a classic example of the welfare state gone mad. But the idea of providing everyone with a "universal basic income" (or UBI as it is now known) has already gone beyond utopia, and is now all the rage among politicians.

It is touted by Mr Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate in France's presidential elections. It is also a central plank in the electoral campaign of Mr Lee Jae Myung, one of South Korea's three leading presidential candidates.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Singapore SMEs are very fortunate: Helene Raudaschl, EY Entrepreneur of the Year

In our Hong Kong business, we had to drastically retrench because we couldn't afford the expenses. In Singapore, we retrenched zero. Because the Government said, “I'm going to help you with your payroll.” We were able to go through those bad times and look forward to the good ones. The Government’s message was don’t retrench people because if you retrench people, these people will have nothing for the next whatever number of months or however long the crisis lasts. If people don't have a job, they don't spend money, they don't take the bus, they don't have lunch and the economy stops. 

By Bharati Jagdish 

26 Nov 2016

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Shale billionaire Harold Hamm says US production binge can 'kill' oil market

Mar 9 2017

Straits Times

HOUSTON (BLOOMBERG) - Harold Hamm, the billionaire shale oilman, said the US industry could "kill" the oil market if it embarks into another spending binge, a rare warning in a business focused on fast growth to compete with Opec.

The statement, at an energy conference in Houston on Wednesday (March 9), comes as top shale companies announce large increases in spending for this year, and the US government says domestic oil output next year will surpass the record high set in 1970. Opec ministers have said they are keeping a close watch on shale production to decide in late May whether to extend their oil-supply cuts into the second half of the year.

Oil prices plunged 5 per cent on Wednesday to their lowest level this year, falling just above US$50 a barrel, on investor concerns about unbridled growth in America's shale basins swelling US inventories.

$90m fund lined up to boost hawker trade

Mar 9 2017
Straits Times

Money to support suggestions by Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee

Samantha Boh

A $90 million kitty will be set up to breathe new life into the hawker sector, which is dogged by an ageing workforce and a shortage of fresh blood.

The money will help pay for initiatives such as centralised dishwashing services and cashless payment systems, which will be rolled out at existing hawker centres.

A productivity grant will also be introduced in the third quarter of this year to spur hawkers to adopt kitchen automation equipment by co-funding such purchases.

These are some ways the $90 million fund will be used to support recommendations put forth by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee last month.

Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources Amy Khor yesterday said her ministry has accepted the suggestions of the committee, which she chaired.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Are we becoming slaves to computer algorithms?


MARCH 8, 2017

As an experiment, Mr Tunde Olanrewaju messed around one day with the Wikipedia entry of his employer, McKinsey. He edited the page to say that he had founded the consultancy firm.

A friend took a screenshot to preserve the revised record. Within minutes, Mr Olanrewaju received an email from Wikipedia saying that his edit had been rejected and that the true founder’s name had been restored.

Almost certainly, one of Wikipedia’s computer bots that police the site’s 40 million articles had spotted, checked and corrected his entry. It is reassuring to know that an army of such clever algorithms is patrolling the frontline of truthfulness — and can outsmart a senior partner in McKinsey’s digital practice.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Salary threshold for local workers to be raised


MARCH 7, 2017

SINGAPORE — The threshold of the full-time equivalent (FTE) salary — used to determine the number of local workers a company has, and to calculate their foreign worker quota — will be raised by S$200 to S$1,200 in two phases from July 1.

This is to ensure that local workers are employed meaningfully, instead of being hired on token salaries to allow the employer access to foreign workers.

“We review this salary threshold regularly to stay in line with income trends. If not, it means that we are gradually loosening our foreign worker controls simply due to rising nominal wages,” said Minister of State (Manpower) Sam Tan in Parliament yesterday.

[Although the govt has always rejected nominally the idea of minimum wage, we do have de facto minimum wages (such as this), that gives "incentives" to Employers to meet these "minimum wages". These may work better in practice. Of course because it is not nominally "minimum wage", it is not compulsory, and so not universal.]

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Global Megacities - the 7 types

Megacity Economy: How Seven Types of Global Cities Stack Up

[Click on the link above for the visual presentation.]

Back in 1950, close to 30% of the global population lived in cities.
That since has shifted dramatically. By 2050, a whopping 70% of people will live in urban areas – some of which will be megacities housing tens of millions of people.
This trend of urbanization has been a boon to global growth and the economy. In fact, it is estimated today by McKinsey that the 600 top urban centers contribute a whopping 60% to the world’s total GDP.

Seven Types of Global Cities

With so many people moving to urban metropolitan areas, the complexion of cities and their economies change each day.

The Brookings Institute has a new way of classifying these megacities, using various economic indicators.

According to their analysis, here’s what differentiates the seven types of global cities:

Important note: This isn’t intended to be a “ranking” of cities. However, on the infographic, cities are sorted by GDP per capita within each typology, and given a number based on where they stand in terms of this metric. This is just intended to show how wealthy the average citizen is per city, and is not a broader indicator relating to the success or overall ranking of a city.

1. Global Giants
These six cities are the world’s leading economic and financial centers. They are hubs for financial markets and are characterized by large populations and a high concentration of wealth and talent.
Examples: New York City, Tokyo, London

2. Asian Anchors
The six Asian Anchor cities are not as wealthy as the Global Giants, however they leverage attributes such as infrastructure connectivity and talented workforces to attract the most Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) out of any other metro grouping.
Examples: Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore

3. Emerging Gateways
These 28 cities are large business and transportation hubs for major national and regional markets in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. While they have grown to reach middle-income status, they fall behind other global cities on many key competitiveness factors such as GDP and FDI.
Examples: Mumbai, Cape Town, Mexico City, Hangzhou

4. Factory China
There are 22 second and third-tier Chinese cities reliant on export manufacturing to power economic growth and international engagement. Although Factory China displays a GDP growth rate that is well above average, it fails to reach average levels of innovation, talent, and connectivity.
Examples: Shenyang, Changchun, Chengdu

5. Knowledge Capitals
These are 19 mid-sized cities in the U.S. and Europe that are considered centers of innovation, with elite research universities producing talented workforces.
Examples: San Francisco, Boston, Zurich

6. American Middleweights
These 16 mid-sized U.S. metro areas are relatively wealthy and house strong universities, as well as other anchor institutions.
Examples: Orlando, Sacramento, Phoenix

7. International Middleweights
These 26 cities span across several continents, internationally connected by human and investment capital flow. Like their American middleweight counterparts, growth has slowed for these cities since the 2008 recession.

Examples: Vancouver, Melbourne, Brussels, Tel Aviv

The question of policing or defending a Megacity.

At 2:57, the scenario is in a city of 10 million, with 99% support of the government, the remaining 1% represents 100,000 potential aggressors, rebels or terrorists.

Throwing more money at the military won’t make it stronger

By Fareed Zakaria 
Opinion writer 
March 2, 2017

The first time I met Gen. David Petraeus, he said something that surprised me. It was the early days of the Iraq War and, although things were not going well, he had directed his region in the north skillfully and effectively. I asked him whether he wished he had more troops. Petraeus was too politically savvy to criticize the Donald Rumsfeld “light footprint” strategy, so he deflected the question, answering it a different way. “I wish we had more Foreign Service officers, aid professionals and other kinds of non-military specialists,” he said. The heart of the problem the United States was facing in Iraq, he noted presciently, was a deep sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni, Arab and Kurd. “We need help on those issues. Otherwise, we’re relying on 22-year-old sergeants to handle them. Now, they are great kids, but they really don’t know the history, the language, the politics.”

I thought of that exchange when reading reports that President Trump is proposing a $54 billion increase for the Defense Department, which would be offset by large cuts in the State Department, foreign aid and other civilian agencies. Trump says he wants to do this so that “nobody will dare question our military might again.” But no one does. The U.S. military remains in a league of its own. The U.S. defense budget in 2015 was nine times the size of Russia’s and three times that of China’s.

None of the difficulties the United States has faced over the past 25 years has been in any way because its military was too small or weak. As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in a 2007 lecture, “One of the most important lessons of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that military success is not sufficient to win.” To achieve “long-term success,” he explained, requires “economic development, institution-building . . . [and] good governance.” Therefore, he called for “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security,” including “diplomacy” and “foreign assistance.”

Consider the strategy that brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2013. It required intense diplomatic work to get Russia and China to agree to U.N. measures and to isolate Iran from neighbors such as Turkey. It took clever and tough sanctions devised by the Treasury Department that leveraged U.S. financial power. This is how power works in the modern world.

“We must do a lot more with less,” Trump said recently, adding that government needs to reform its ways. But the obvious target for this effort should be the Pentagon, which is the poster child for waste in government. The Pentagon is now the world’s largest bureaucracy, running a cradle-to-grave quasi-socialist system of employment, housing, health care and pensions for its 3 million employees. A recent report from its Defense Business Board concluded that it could easily save $125 billion over five years by removing operational inefficiencies. (Senior officials quickly buried the report .) Those savings would fund the entire State Department plus all foreign aid programs for two and a half years. Gates used to quip, “We have more people in military bands than we have Foreign Service officers.” The total numbers are worth noting. There are only 13,000 employees in the whole Foreign Service, compared with 742,000 civilians in the Defense Department.

Trump railed in his address to Congress, as he has in the past, about the $6 trillion that the United States has spent in the Middle East. That figure is exaggerated, but he’s right that when the Pentagon goes to war, costs go through the stratosphere. In just one example, ProPublica tallied up the audits of the special inspector general for Afghanistan and found that the military had wasted at least $17 billion on a variety of projects.

Rosa Brooks, who served as a civilian adviser at the Pentagon under President Barack Obama, has written a fascinating book, “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything,” that describes how U.S. policy has been contorted by a military that keeps expanding while all other agencies wither. One of the blurbs on the back of the book says, “One of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. It’s as if we have been sleepwalking into this new world and Rosa has turned on a flashlight.” The commendation comes from Jim Mattis, now the secretary of defense. Perhaps he should give the book to his boss.

March 1

Michèle Flournoy, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, was undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012.

In his address Tuesday to Congress, President Trump promised to make sure that the U.S. military gets what it needs to carry out its mission by securing “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” More funding would surely be a good thing, although the issues of how much and what for are complicated. No one should be under any illusions that a higher Defense Department top line guarantees a more capable armed forces.

Trump is reportedly seeking $54 billion over the sequester caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which would bring 2018 defense spending to $603 billion. While Trump may view this proposal as historic, it’s only 3 percent more than President Barack Obama’s final budget request. Meanwhile, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee has called for a much larger increase — to nearly $640 billion.

And as the post-9/11 defense buildup taught us, throwing more money at the Pentagon is not a panacea. What matters is how the money is spent. So what should we look for in the president’s budget request?

First, how is spending allocated across readiness, force structure and modernization?

There is broad consensus in the Pentagon and Congress that the most urgent priority is addressing readiness shortfalls that affect the military’s ability to respond quickly to crises and other near-term demands. Every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has highlighted readiness problems — such as inadequate training time and maintenance and replacement of equipment — as a source of accumulating risk. While Congress’s willingness to provide war funding — “overseas contingency operations” funds — above baseline defense spending has helped, it has not solved the problem.

The larger challenge will be striking the right balance between building a bigger force and building a better one. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has rightly defined his priority as building a “larger, more capable, and more lethal joint force” to contend with a more challenging international security environment and increasingly capable adversaries. But there are tradeoffs between paying for additional personnel and force structure vs. investing in the technology and capabilities necessary to prevail in more contested air, land, maritime, cyber and space domains. Although some increases in force size may be warranted, such as a larger Navy fleet and modest increases elsewhere, the dramatic across-the-board hikes in force structure that Trump proposed during his campaign are both unaffordable and unwise.

The bulk of any additional defense investment must focus on maintaining and extending our technological and warfighting edge, including in cyber, electronic and anti-submarine arenas, unmanned systems, automation, long-range striking and protected communications. U.S. military leaders should moderate their appetite for a bigger force today to protect critical investments in cutting-edge capabilities that will determine whether we succeed on the battlefield tomorrow.

Second, are deterrence and alliance capabilities being strengthened?

Critical to the United States’ ability to deter aggression and prevent conflict in regions where we have vital interests is deploying U.S. military forces forward and helping allies and partners build their own defense capacity. Some of these costs, such as those associated with routinely deploying naval forces around the world, reside in the base defense budget. Others, such as the European Reassurance Initiative, will be covered by annual overseas contingency funding. Still others, such as helping Israel field more robust missile defense systems, are enabled by the State Department’s foreign military financing. These investments, although relatively small in dollars, are disproportionately important to reducing the risk of more costly U.S. military engagements.

Third, does the budget keep faith with the men and women who serve? Any budget that claims to strengthen the U.S. military must put people first. Doing so requires reform. For example, does the budget adopt sensible reforms to military health care to improve quality while reining in costs? Does it improve education and professional development? Does it enable more flexible career paths to retain the best and brightest? Does it include a round of Base Realignment and Closure to shed the 30 percent of infrastructure the service chiefs say they no longer need, enabling savings to be reinvested in better training and equipment for those we send into harm’s way?

Fourth, how will we pay for the increased defense spending? The Trump administration has promised dollar-for-dollar cuts in non-defense programs, reportedly targeting the State Department and USAID for cuts of 30percent or more. This would create an even more imbalanced national security toolkit, limiting our ability to prevent crises through diplomacy and development and result in an overreliance on the military. As Mattis said while head of the U.S. Central Command, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” This approach also is unlikely to fly in Congress. Absent a larger budget deal that includes tax reform and reins in non-discretionary spending on Social Security and Medicare, the most likely result is a larger deficit.

Finally, if this defense spending increase isn’t part of a larger budget deal providing predictable spending levels for the next several years, it won’t have the desired impact. If the Pentagon is forced to operate under the threat of sequestration, it will not have the predictability necessary to make smart multiyear investments in the capabilities on which our security will hinge.

Trump is right to raise the need for more defense dollars, but Congress should scrub his request carefully to ensure that the money is spent wisely and not at the expense of non-defense programs that are critical to U.S. national security.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Warren Buffett says this simple mistake has cost investors more than $100 billion

By Jonnelle Marte
February 27

Billionaire Warren Buffett has some wise words for investors: Stop throwing money away on bad advice.

In his annual letter to shareholders released over the weekend, the Berkshire Hathaway chief executive bashed active fund managers who charge higher fees on the promise that they can do better than the broader market. Buffett said most savers would be better off putting their money in low-cost index funds over the long term, and he estimated that investors wasted roughly $100 billion over the past decade on unnecessary fees.

The “massive fees” charged by active fund managers — who often promise to outperform the broader market — can leave savers worse off than if they had simply used a low-cost index fund that tracks a stock-market index, Buffett warned.

Imagining the future

Two Future Visions. The first is on the Household of Tomorrow. The second considers the security issues of a vertical city.

What would Singapore be like in 2030

What would the Singapore of tomorrow be like for an HDB household, if the recommendations by the Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) bear fruit? Insight takes a leap forward to 2030.

FEB 19, 2017

Royston Sim
Assistant Political Editor

Looking out of the window of his 15-storey HDB flat, businessman and father-of-two Alex Chin marvels at the scene before him.

Thirteen years ago, when he was 20, this flat located at Tengah, a former military training area in Singapore's west and ringed by a 100m-wide, 5km-long forest corridor, did not exist.

But if it did, he would have been looking out over a typical multistorey HDB carpark, full of a mix of sedans, SUVs, motorbikes, vans and pick-up trucks. Gantry bars would be rising and falling as the electronic parking system deducted payment from in-vehicle units.

Elderly residents would be making their way painstakingly across the road to get to the coffee shop for a bite.

Children would be getting off the bus from school.