Friday, May 30, 2014

Sultan of Johor seeks to reopen Pedra Branca case

May 30, 2014

By Yong Yen Nie Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur

THE Sultan of Johor has ordered the state government to look into filing an appeal against the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) decision six years ago to award Pedra Branca to Singapore.

Pedra Branca - which Malaysia refers to as Pulau Batu Puteh - belonged to Johor and should remain a part of it, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail was quoted by the online portals of Malay-language dailies Utusan Malaysia and Sinar Harian as saying yesterday.

He said he was following the wishes of his father, the late Sultan Iskandar Ismail.

Sultan Ibrahim, who was speaking at the opening of the state legislative assembly session, noted that while foreign affairs came under the jurisdiction of the federal government, it was unwise for Johor not to be consulted on the matter.

"Don't the Johor people understand their neighbours better than those in Putrajaya? How would the federal government know of the state's needs or that of its people?" he said.

Pedra Branca, an island the size of a football field located some 40km east of Singapore and home to Horsburgh Lighthouse, was at the centre of a territorial dispute between Singapore and Malaysia that lasted almost three decades.

In 2003, the two countries signed a Special Agreement referring the dispute to the ICJ at The Hague, in the Netherlands.

For three weeks in 2007, legal teams from both sides argued their case before the court. In a ruling that it said was "final, binding and without appeal" in May 2008, the ICJ awarded Pedra Branca to Singapore and outcrops called Middle Rocks to Malaysia.

Of Sultan Ibrahim's order to appeal against the ruling, Dr Azmi Sharom of Universiti Malaya told The Straits Times that he does not have the authority.

"The ICJ has jurisdiction over disputes presented only by nations or governments. He may request it (an appeal), but it is the government that presents the case to the ICJ."

[Here's my suggestion. Enlarge it and put a football field on it. Every year, organise the Pedra Branca football match. Between SG and Johor, or even M'sia. Winner gets to administer the island for one year. Until the next Pedra Branca Cup. Winner of the previous year is responsible for maintaining the pitch for the next match. No audience. Just camera crews to broadcast the match to SG and MY. That will raise the stakes better than a Malaysia Cup.]

Realistic ways to raise CPF returns

May 30, 2014

The CPF Investment Scheme can be modified to help financially illiterate members make better investment decisions

By Benedict Koh For The Straits Times

SINGAPORE is a fast-ageing nation due to declining fertility rates and the increasing life expectancy of its citizens. The impending ageing tsunami places a heavy burden on the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to be the primary vehicle to prepare citizens for retirement.

But is the system working in the best possible manner?

There have been gripes in social media recently about the inadequacy of CPF's compulsory savings scheme. From 2005 to 2012, the percentage of CPF members attaining the required minimum sum for old age ranged from 33.8 per cent to 48.7 per cent. In other words, less than half of CPF members have the minimum sum.

This minimum sum is essentially a retirement account. It is created by transferring savings from other accounts (often used for housing and education of children) held by CPF members when a citizen or permanent resident turns 55. Intended to be sufficient to support a subsistence level of living in old age, this minimum sum can only be accessed at age 65. Increased regularly to keep pace with inflation, it currently stands at $148,000. In July, it will be raised to $155,000.

The key reason many do not have the minimum sum in their retirement accounts is that Singaporeans have committed the bulk of their retirement savings to housing. A study by the author and others, published in the Journal of Pension Economics and Finance in 2008, found that 44 per cent of cumulative CPF savings has been invested in properties.

Little wonder that home ownership in Singapore was remarkably high at 90.5 per cent in 2013, much higher than developed nations such as the United States (66 per cent), the United Kingdom (64 per cent) and Germany (44 per cent).

If these CPF patterns are indicative, it is little wonder Singaporeans feel asset-rich but cash-poor.

A key solution to achieving retirement adequacy in Singapore is therefore to develop a market mechanism to unlock home equity. The announcement in March by the Ministry of National Development to look seriously at a reverse mortgage scheme is certainly the right direction to go.

Another solution is to help CPF members grow their cash savings more rapidly through higher-yielding investment instruments.

CPF Investment Scheme

CURRENTLY, CPF members who are willing to take risks to earn a higher return on the CPF savings can invest their money through the CPF Investment Scheme (CPFIS). This scheme allows them to invest part of their savings in a wide variety of financial instruments that could potentially earn a higher yield than the default CPF interest rates.

While the CPFIS is open to all members, the 2008 study found that only 12 per cent of Ordinary Account (OA) savings and 20 per cent of Special Account (SA) savings were committed to investment. These statistics indicate that the participation rate in CPFIS is low.

Possible reasons for leaving money in the SA include the relatively high guaranteed annual interest rate of 4 per cent, and an unwillingness to risk retirement savings. However, these may not be the only reasons. The research indicated that the reasons for the low investment in professionally managed unit trusts also include poor investment performance, the high fees and transaction costs charged by funds, and a lack of financial literacy on the part of CPF members.

So far, those CPF members who have risked their savings have not done very well. Almost half of CPFIS-OA investors (47 per cent) incurred losses on their investments between 2004 and 2013, while 35 per cent obtained net profits equal to or less than the default OA rate of 2.5 per cent. Only 18 per cent made net profits in excess of the OA interest rate.

Allowing a free rein for CPF members to invest their savings may therefore not help those who lack financial literacy and investment skills. What would help them is professional advice and easy access to financial instruments such as indexed portfolios, life-cycle funds and inflation-protection instruments that do not require much specialised knowledge.

Vulnerable groups

THE 2008 study also used aggregated CPF data to look at the asset allocation decisions of CPF investors. It found that men were more proactive in investing their savings compared to women.

They also tend to invest more in shares and unit trusts than women, who tend to put the bulk of savings in insurance products.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom that investment in risky products should decrease with age, the more mature CPF members (aged 56 and above) tend to invest a higher proportion of their savings in individual stocks compared to those in younger age groups. In addition, younger working adults are more likely to delegate their investments to professional fund managers.

The study also revealed that lower-income earners were less likely to hold risky investments. At least 70 per cent of their investments were committed to insurance products. As salary levels rise, the fraction invested in risky instruments also rises.

The research identified three vulnerable groups of investors requiring special attention. They are women, the aged and low-income CPF members. Women and low-income members need more guidance to select the right financial products to grow their retirement savings. Older members need advice on portfolio rebalancing so that as they age, they reduce their exposure to risky financial instruments, thereby preserving their savings.

Of the numerous funds on offer in the CPFIS, very few are low-cost passively managed index-linked funds.

There are also no target maturity-date life-cycle funds or inflation-protected instruments. Life-cycle funds may appeal to financially less savvy members as these funds automatically rebalance asset allocations between investments such as bonds, shares and fixed deposits as an investor ages.

One possible reason for the low investment in actively managed unit trusts is that CPF members do not know how to evaluate funds for investment. Without guidance from the CPF Board, these members simply leave their savings in the OA or SA accounts.

Apart from CPF deposits, CPF members do not have access to default portfolios. The latter are diversified investments with low transaction costs in which CPF members can automatically invest their monthly contributions without the need for specific purchase instructions.

One reform that the CPF Board could consider is to invite a few large low-cost privately managed life-cycle funds to participate in the CPFIS.

Life-cycle funds are those which reduce investments in risky assets as an investor ages. Inexperienced investors can reap the benefits without having to master the intricacies of finance.

The introduction of diversified low-cost life-cycle funds as well as inflation-protected investment instruments may appeal to many financially illiterate members, thus helping them grow their savings more rapidly.

By pooling members' savings for investments, the CPF board can also help them enjoy lower institutional transaction costs.

The writer is professor of finance at the Singapore Management University.


Irrational to expect both low risk and high returns

THE low interest paid on Central Provident Fund (CPF) balances when compared with the relatively high returns earned by government investment entities such as Temasek Holdings and GIC is a common gripe.

CPF members currently have a choice of either investing the savings themselves or leaving them with the CPF Board.

For the former, they can invest in a rich menu of instruments from the CPF Investment Scheme. The latter earns guaranteed interest income.

Since the CPF has a duty to safeguard members' savings, it is prudent for it to purchase low-risk instruments that generate stable cash flows.

The safest instrument without an exchange-rate risk is Singapore government bonds which are rated "AAA". This allows the CPF Board to guarantee interest payments to its members.

When the Government issues bonds, it borrows from the CPF Board. The borrowed funds are then used to finance government expenditures such as building infrastructure, investing in financial markets or some other purpose.

No it does not.
No CPF monies go towards Government spending. Government borrowings, whether via SGS or SSGS, cannot be used to fund expenditures. Under the reserves protection framework enacted in 1990 in the Constitution and the Government Securities Act (enacted in 1992), the monies raised from government borrowings cannot be spent.
I think it is worrying that a professor of Finance is not aware of what the the funds raised for the SSGS can be used for. HOWEVER, I believe (and this is pure speculation) that he is speaking in a general sense. Generally, government issues bonds to borrow money to fund government expenditure. BUT in SG govt case where the govt generally run a budget surplus, and can draw upon savings and reserves in the rare instance when it runs a deficit, the SSGS is issued specifically to "borrow" CPF money (or from the other perspective, to allow the CPFB to invest in the SG Govt), and to repay the loan with higher interest so the CPFB can in turn provide the members with higher interests.

They cannot demand the returns earned by banks because they are not the ones putting capital at risk. Similarly, CPF members who leave savings in default accounts consciously choose not to take risk but rather receive tax-free guaranteed interest instead.

Even if it is possible for them to purchase equity shares in GIC and Temasek through the CPF Investment Scheme as postulated by some, they need to ask themselves if they are prepared to risk losing a substantial portion of their life-time savings in a market downturn.

To be fair, CPF members deem these risks to be very very small. And it is not likely that they would lose "a substantial portion" of their CPF in normal circumstances. A 1997 Asian Financial Crisis or a 2008 Sub-prime mortgage crisis occurs relatively infrequently.

For example, during the global financial crisis in 2008, almost all professionally managed funds and sovereign wealth funds lost money. Such an investment strategy is certainly not prudent for CPF members, especially when market crashes can occur in the year in which they retire.

What about those who insist on having guaranteed safety of CPF savings as well as the high returns that come with risk taking?

Well, they are simply being irrational. No financial investments can deliver what they desire.


What's a degree worth now?

May 30, 2014


MY DAYS in university were marred by an existential crisis.

It wasn't so much because I was imbibing works - as a literature student - that made me question my own state of being, but more because I wasn't sure where my degree was going to take me.

Lecture halls were nearly always filled by the hundred, each student trying to best the other. I was just another digit among some 13,000 other graduates from my cohort, and an arts student at that.

It seemed like my degree wasn't going to give me that edge over other jobseekers any more, as it had promised when I was younger.

Back in primary school, life was a simple equation: Study hard and get into university, and a great career awaits you.

This was the Singapore Dream, one that had come true for many people of older generations - but perhaps not one that will hold true for the generations to come.

Singapore has changed. Where once, only a select few went to university and then saw their careers fall easily into place, we are now approaching a situation where almost one in two Singaporeans will be degree holders.

Come 2020, Singapore would see a 40 per cent cohort participation in its local universities, in addition to many pursuing private or overseas degrees.

If not managed well, this could lead to a graduate glut here, with too many graduates competing for too few good jobs.

The problem is that many young Singaporeans don't seem to have realised this. They are still conditioned by their parents' mindset that a degree must spell a good career. Armed with this piece of paper, they demand a good starting salary, almost as if it were a birthright.

Given the sheer numbers of degree holders coming our way, and applying the law of supply and demand, this simply cannot be the case. Starting salaries will fall, unless you have managed to specialise in an area where the economy is crying out for more people.

But the free market is a strange animal. Those who, in the past, might not have qualified for university, now chase general degrees that will give them no obvious advantage in the workplace.

And those who specialise in sought-after fields like engineering often branch out into unrelated industries such as finance and banking and make their money, while the shortage of engineers continues.

So, should graduates temper their expectations and settle for a smaller pay cheque or a less fulfilling role?

This is easier said than done, especially when so many Singaporeans have been brought up with about 16 years of formal education, thinking that pursuing a degree is the way to go.

Settling for less could also lead to job dissatisfaction - a phenomenon that is already at hand for the country.

According to a recent survey conducted by recruitment firm Randstad, employees in Singapore are ranked as some of the unhappiest in Asia Pacific, with 23 per cent of them feeling unmotivated in their jobs and that their skills are not being used effectively.

A friend, a business graduate from a reputable local university who is miserable in her current job, said: "The curriculum encourages us to be transformational thinkers, but companies expect their junior staff to be plodders.

"So we go in thinking we can make a difference, only to end up feeling depressed because we're just doing data entry, photocopying and filing half the time."

Perhaps it is time that we, as a society, as teachers, parents and friends, re-look the idea of pursuing a degree.

For me, it was four years' worth of exposure to a myriad of ideas, which eventually shaped the way I think and look at things.

For those who pursue it simply for the sake of their careers, it may be worthwhile to consider alternative routes. Instead of rushing straight to grab that degree, they might want to get some work experience first, which could burnish the worth of that degree.

For a degree can no longer be looked to as a passport to a good job and a good life; it has become more an enabler than a guarantee, more a necessary condition than one that is sufficient.

And this is a reality that everyone needs to accept.

America must always lead on world stage, because no one else will

President Barack Obama articulated his vision of America’s role in the world on Wednesday, telling graduating cadets at the United States Military Academy that the nation they were being called to serve would seek to avoid military misadventures abroad, while it confronts a new set of terrorist threats from the Middle East to Africa. Below is an excerpt of his commencement speech at West Point.

Housing an important part of CPF system: Chuan-Jin


MAY 30

SINGAPORE — Ensuring that the Central Provident Fund (CPF) system caters to Singaporeans’ housing needs is an “important component” of the scheme, said Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin yesterday, in response to parliamentarians’ suggestions to tweak the system such that less CPF monies are spent on housing, leaving more for healthcare and retirement needs.

Speaking in Parliament during the debate on the President’s Address, Mr Tan also noted that higher CPF interest rates — which Members of Parliament (MPs) also called for — could mean greater risk, and explained why the use of the CPF monies should not be made more flexible.

Heated debate between PM Lee and WP’s Low in parliament

May 28

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and the Workers’ Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang engaged in a heated debate in Parliament today (May 28), tackling issues such as whether the WP flip-flopped on issues, constructive politics as well as the WP’s performance in parliament. Here is the dialogue between Mr Lee and Mr Low:

Mr Low: Mdm, I wish to clarify a few points. First of all, the reason why I decided to focus my speech on constructive politics: Because I thought that was an important issue that we should look at. As what I say in my speech, Singapore is becoming more diversified, there will be different views, and moving forward, how the Government will deal and accommodate different views and different perspectives of Singapore. It’s important for us to move forward together as one united people.
The other MPs from the WP will be talking about different issues; they will cover ranging from social issues, social safety net to foreign workers, national security. They will cover the full range of areas. Thereby we split our jobs. I will focus on constructive politics. I thought it was an important issue and of course, it’s important to also understand what is the perspective of the PAP, in terms of constructive politics.
And from what the PM has said, it seems to me that it is more constructive debated on the terms of the PAP, rather than constructive politics in terms of the society that is moving forward and I had affirmed my endorsement of what the president has said, that we should look at the outcome of constructive politics, that is, that we should be able to move forward together despite the differences.
Next, talking about the WP flip-flopping on foreign workers issue. I say again, I don’t think we have flip-flopped. I have explained, in this House, of some misunderstanding of the speeches (that have been) made. In any case, I also noted that when the PAP has to make a policy U-turn, they call it policy shift. I don’t know whether that is a shift or it’s a flip-flop.

Mr Lee: Mdm speaker, I think the record will speak for itself, when we make a shift we acknowledge a shift. When the WP changes position they pretend they haven’t – that is the difference.
As for delegating responsibility for different parts of the Budget speech to different MPs, that’s entirely within Mr Low Thia Khiang’s prerogative. It’s not for me to suggest how he should conduct his affairs in the WP.
But as a leader, you do have a responsibility to state where does the party stand on the big issues. Somebody can look after healthcare, somebody can take care of transport, somebody can spend all his time marking Minister Heng Swee Keat on education, but where you stand on what the Government is doing? Is the Government doing right, is it doing wrong, do you agree with the Government, do you have a better view, or do you abstain or do you abstain from abstaining?

Mr Low: I think our position is quite clear on many of these issues. If the Prime Minister wanted my view on what the Government has been doing and whether he has done well. I’d say, well you’ve solved some of the problems – what the PM has mentioned – and the WP MPs also acknowledged this in their speech but also pointed out there are things that are still work in progress and the Government will have to focus on and to make it better and to improve. That is (the) position. I don’t see the need for me to totally sum up. I think the MP should be able to do in their own view, and to give their view and their assessment and at the same time, wherever possible offer certain views and alternative suggestions to improve the policies.

Mr Lee: Mdm Speaker, I’m very grateful for the extremely reasonable explanation from the member. I hope he takes an equally reasonable approach when it comes to election rallies because the WP approach has been to be extremely reasonable – indeed low profile – in Parliament but come election time to turn into tigers and heroes.

Mr Low: Mdm Speaker, I thank the PM for praising the WP’s ability to fight in the elections. We have no intention to hide ourselves in parliament. We seek the mandate from people to come to parliament to check against the Government. We have done it honestly and sincerely, we have not turned this place into a theatre. That shows we are responsible and we will behave continuously as a rational and responsible party and if members would – I believe members will agree, that the WP has been rational. We have not come here with some wild polices or wild suggestions. We debate the policies, we came up with some suggestions but these are not bankrupting the Government coffer or suggesting to use the reserves.

Elections — I think we are also rational. We don’t accuse the PAP of something we cannot substantiate or I know we’d get sued. I think we’re fair. Elections are elections and I thank the PM for noting that we can fight an election, I’m sure the PAP can too. You are the Government, you have been the governing party for 50 years and you’ve got (much more) talented people than the WP. How can you say we are tiger and we are something else in Parliament? I’m sure the PAP equally can be tiger or lions.

Mr Lee: It’s an eloquent explanation for why the WP has been inarticulate, about many things. In a serious parliament, the Government presents its policies. The Opposition presents its alternatives. The WP may not have alternatives on every issue; it may not have a full range of all the complexities of designing an HDB scheme or MediShield scheme. You do have a responsibility to say which direction are we going. And that direction has to be set clearly – not to explain to the PAP, but to explain to Singaporeans what you stand for.

And what you stand for cannot be what the PAP is doing, and a little bit better. That means you have no stand. Where-ever the PAP is standing, ask them to do better. That’s easy, I can do that too. But where do you stand? Where are we totally wrong? Where do you think this is a completely different way to do things better? Where do you think, in principle, we do not want Singapore to be like this. These are big issues which deserve to be debated and not be lidded over and avoided in the house. And that is what a first world parliament should be about.

Mr Low: Mdm speaker, again I’d like to say the PM is reasonable to say that the WP may not be able to come up with all the alternative policies. That’s true. But to say that the WP has no position on major issues, that’s not true. I think we did state our position in parliament. We debated major policies vigorously. We don’t oppose all the policies but where we think that there is a need for us to oppose and it concerns the future of Singapore, like the Population White Paper, we did so. So we state our position on important issues and we didn’t oppose for things that we think are doing right. Is that not enough?

Mr Lee: I think it is useful to bring it down to something very specific. Let’s come back to the Population White Paper. During the debate, the position taken by the WP is that enough is enough, zero growth. We have continued to grow; I have not heard the WP demand zero growth today. Do you still demand that or do you now think that we should allow SMEs to survive in Singapore?

Mr Low: We had made a calculation at that point in time while debating the Population White Paper and that if you continue to allow the foreign workers to grow it will be untenable in the future population growth and thereby we decided that we need to keep the population number in check and one way of doing it, of course, is to freeze the foreign workers’ growth in numbers.

Our calculation was that probably within the existing number of foreign workers, you can still move (them) around in some sectors that don’t need so much of FWs thereby you can still get by with the zero foreign workers’ growth.

We understand perfectly the possibility and the trade-off. That is our position at that point in time. We have not objected subsequently, or grilled the Government, for why are (they) not doing it because that is our view, that it should have zero (foreign worker) growth, but the Government decided otherwise that’s their way of doing it. We have said our piece but we have to respect the decision of the Government to move on. But our message has got across. We cannot sustain continuously the kind of population growth plan the Government is planning and I’m glad to hear today that PM is saying that the Government is taking a very serious view the about tightening and watching the growth of population.

Mr Lee: Mdm speaker, after all this complicated explanation, I don’t know whether Mr Low Thia Khiang still stands by what was said in Parliament in the White Paper debate last year. Because if he really does, after all the explanation, he should say, we have too many foreign workers now, send home 70,000. Then we will know where he stands. But after telling me you can massage this and some people can do (with) less and others will need more – that’s easy to say, who’s going to do the massaging? Of course, the Government. And that, is the mark of a sub-standard Opposition.

Mr Low: Mdm speaker, I disagree. This is not the mark of a sub-standard Opposition. This is the mark of a responsible Opposition not to jam up the Government; allowing the Government - after giving our view, debating it – allowing the Government to move forward, not to jam up the Government. It is a mark of a responsible Government and a mark of first world Parliament.

Mr Lee: Mdm speaker. We have to call a spade a spade. If we have changed position and your previous position was wrong, say so. If you hold by your position, have your guts to reaffirm it and take the consequences. But to weasel away, play with words, avoid the issue and then claim to be responsible, that is what we fear can drive Singapore’s politics into the same place where many other countries have gone.

[I have no idea what they are arguing about. I really do not think it is important. I do not think the people are interested. I don't think anyone understands how this is important. I think the PM should have chosen his battles more carefully. This is a waste of time.]

Can Confucianism save the world?

Sunday, May 25, 2014 - 03:00

Joseph Chan

The Straits Times

Confucianism needs saving because it is a very old tradition of thought that can no longer speak effectively to the modern world without systematic reconstruction.

Confucianism also needs saving because of the chronic gap between its political ideals and the reality of societal circumstances. But to save Confucianism and to let it save the world, we must first learn from its profound insights - and its profound failures.

Confucius set about his (doomed) mission to save the world in response to the decay of feudalistic social and political order that started in the Spring and Autumn period (772BC-475BC).

At that time, the political elite were motivated more by self-interest than by virtue, and played by the rules of power rather than the rules of rituals designed to ensure good governance. Confucius' solution was to revitalise rituals, based not on earthly power or heavenly sanction but on the deepest and noblest parts of human beings - their humanity (ren) and inner moral selves.

Why it’s so hard for S’poreans to understand CPF

May 28

Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin has published a lengthy blog post on the Central Provident Fund (CPF) to dispel some misconceptions about it.

Mr Tan points out that as the lifespans of Singaporeans lengthen, our retirement needs will grow, and hence the need to raise the CPF Minimum Sum and retirement age. He also reminds us that CPF monies are commonly used for housing needs.

The debate over CPF is not only an issue about Singaporeans' retirement but more deeply a matter of retiring an outdated social compact ... Every political party, including the incumbent, should put forward to Singaporeans a future social compact that is practical, durable and suited to the times. Then the discussion will not just be about 'constructive politics' but more significantly about what it is that politics can construct for the people.

Yet, his well-intentioned effort at communicating a complex phenomenon that is the CPF model may not have silenced the critics or comforted the anxious. Why is this so? Primarily because of some complications that make the CPF model difficult to understand. And what does the angst over CPF say about Singapore’s political system? Maybe it is time to rethink the social compact.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Civil society groups 'alarmed' by surge of racism and xenophobia

MAY 28, 2014


SINGAPORE - Twelve civil society groups and 20 other people, including well-known activists Constance Singam and Vincent Wijeysingha, have signed a statement to raise concerns about "the recent surge of racism and xenophobia in Singapore".

The groups include the Association of Women for Action and Research, Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and Maruah.

They said they were "alarmed" by the surge of such sentiments recently, in the statement sent to the media on Wednesday.

"We see the widespread use of racist, aggressive and militarised rhetoric on social media, as well as a trend of blaming foreigners for social ills," they said in the statement.

"Ordinary people have been threatened in public spaces with nationalist or anti-foreigner language."

Monday, May 26, 2014

Is Singapore the Perfect Country for Our Times?

The Island Nation Has Mastered the Art of Profiting Off Globalization—Even At the Cost of Authenticity and a Sense of Place 

by Andrés Martinez

May 19, 2014

You land at Changi Airport after flying for what seems a lifetime, and you’re naturally disoriented, even before you hit the customs booths that feature bowls of mints, dire warnings about the death penalty for those bringing in drugs, and digital comment cards asking if the service was to your liking. Duck into a public restroom and you’ll be exhorted to aim carefully and to “flush with oomph” for the sake of cleanliness. Outside, it’s tropical sticky but impeccably clean, in a city inhabited by Chinese, Malays, Indians, and a multiplicity of guest workers from around the world—all speaking English.

Singapore is an assault on one’s preconceptions.

Singapore calls itself the Lion City, but it would be more accurate to call it the Canary City—the canary in globalization’s gold mine. Arguably no other place on earth has so engineered itself to prosper from globalization—and succeeded at it. The small island nation of 5 million people (it’s really just a city, but that’s part of what’s disorienting) boasts the world’s second-busiest seaport, a far higher per-capita income than its former British overlord, and a raft of number-one rankings on lists ranging from least-corrupt to most-business-friendly countries. On the eve of celebrating its 50th anniversary as an independent nation, Singapore is proof that free trade can and does work for multinationals and ordinary citizens alike. So long as globalization continues apace, the place thrives.

Why this Thai coup matters more


MAY 26

Thaksin Shinawatra is living proof that leaders get the popularity thing all wrong. From United States President Barack Obama to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, they try governing well, articulating a vision and inspiring — and their approval ratings plummet.

Thailand’s Thaksin tried a different approach. From 2001 to 2006, the tycoon broke laws, lined his pockets, neutered courts and was even accused of crimes against humanity in a war against drugs, then fled overseas in 2008 to avoid prison. However, nearly eight years after being ousted as Prime Minister, he could not be more popular among his Red Shirt supporters from the country’s poorer north-east. And that is what makes this latest Thai coup arguably more dangerous than the 11 earlier military takeovers in the past eight decades.

In territorial disputes, China follows Japan’s prewar steps

By James Gibney

May 24

For all China’s stern injunctions to Japan to remember wartime history, its bumbling aggression in Southeast Asia suggests it also could use a refresher course.

The arrival of a Chinese oil rig in waters claimed by both China and Vietnam is a case in point. Demonstrations in Vietnam over China’s bullying deteriorated into a series of attacks by Vietnamese on foreign businesses, many run by Taiwanese with Chinese workers, that resulted in two dead and scores injured.

China, of all countries, should know better. In the decades before World War II, it suffered territorial incursions and economic depredations at the hands of Japan. These, in turn, sparked widespread popular protests and economic boycotts.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Post-Cold War, a tripolar paradigm is emerging

May 20, 2014

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

AS NEVER before seen, the United States, Russia and China - representing three different world views and practices - are competing head-on to shape the norms and values of the modern international system that has been operating since the end of World War II.

Never mind the old practices that have kept the world at peace or at bay - sometimes on a political precipice - as currently we are living in the real world where actions, tough actions in particular, speak loudest and are likely to determine the outcome and overall situation on the ground. The United Nations, for the past six decades, has done well to save the world, but it is still unable to stop superpowers from engaging in wars.

Tinkering with the machinery of death

May 24, 2014

The death penalty is being reassessed in the three industrialised countries that continue to impose it, including Singapore.

IN CENTURIES past, the death penalty was a spectacle for the masses.

Four hundred years ago, those involved in the Gunpowder Plot - still merrily celebrated as Guy Fawkes Night - failed in their attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament. The culprits were dragged through London's streets to St Paul's churchyard where they were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes himself managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck. He was lucky. His co-conspirators remained conscious through much of the ordeal, which included disembowelment and castration, their genitalia burned before the watching crowd.

Today's executions are meant to be more civilised, either carried out with clinical formality as in the United States, or in relative secrecy as in Japan and Singapore.

HDB to test social linkway and neighbourhood incubator concept: Khaw

May 24

By Olivia Siong

SINGAPORE - The Housing and Development Board (HDB) is planning to study and test using the linkway in the neighbourhood as a place for residents to interact, as well as having a one-stop community hub for residents to come up with ideas to strengthen community bonds, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan said this morning (May 24).

They will be tried out in Tampines Central for a year starting this month.

Mr Khaw said if successful, such design strategies could be part of the HDB’s plans for new development areas like Bidadari and Tampines North.

This follows a study by the HDB and the National University of Singapore (NUS) on the impact of the built environment on community bonding. It looked into the past design efforts of the HDB, and uncovered new design strategies that met this objective.

One of its findings, Mr Khaw noted, is that residents met incidentally and unplanned at places like lift lobbies and linkways during peak hours in the morning or evening, even though these places have a transitional purpose.

Thus, the social linkway concept aims to deepen interactions, with more seating or even exhibits along it to make it a node of interest.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Asia in 20 years: PM paints two scenarios

May 23

The next two decades present a historic opportunity for Asia, if the dominant regional powers — the United States, China and Japan — can work together peacefully, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. But there are uncertainties and challenges that could lead to tensions and disputes. Mr Lee made these points in a keynote address on Scenarios For Asia In The Next 20 Years at the 20th Nikkei International Conference in Tokyo yesterday. Below is the transcript of his speech.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Asia, SE Asia, East Asia - Two Scenarios over the next 20 years

Two reports on PM Lee's speech at the Nikkei Conference


 May 22, 2014

Two scenarios for Asia in 20 years' time: PM Lee

By Fiona Chan Senior Economics Correspondent in Tokyo

What will Asia look like in 20 years? The United States will continue to be the world's top superpower, while China's economy will be three to four times larger with commensurate growth in its political and military might, and Japan will remain a force in the region to be reckoned with, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Thursday.

How to reassure Ah Pek on the Pioneer Package

May 21, 2014

By Jeremy Lim For The Straits Times

AMID the euphoria of the Pioneer Generation Package (PGP) announcements, it is hard to be a wet blanket. In fact, it seems almost churlish to question the package of medical subsidies the Government has committed to giving the "pioneer generation", or those aged 65 and above.

But before the headlong rush into implementing the package, it would be timely to step back and ask whether there are aspects that can be done differently. I do not doubt the Government's sincerity and commitment. At the same time, one cannot help but wonder whether the package will fully achieve its twin objectives of providing our pioneers with not only lifelong medical care but also financial peace of mind.

The great artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci elegantly articulated: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication". For the PGP, simplicity is vital. The scheme targets citizens who are educationally, linguistically and socially diverse. Policymakers have to deliver messages simple enough to be understood and yet powerful enough to resonate.

If one does not understand, it is difficult to feel reassured.

The three kingmakers in Indonesia's presidential election

May 22, 2014


By Yang Razali Kassim, For The Straits Times

INDONESIA'S campaign to elect its next president has officially begun.

Over the next two months or so, 185 million voters will be gripped by the fifth presidential election in post-Suharto Indonesia but the third one in which voters can directly elect their preferred leader.

It will be a head-to-head contest between two new political players - Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), and former special forces general Prabowo Subianto.

China's English paradox shows up flaws in college entrance exams

May 22, 2014

By Adam Minter

NO CHINESE student can hope to attend a decent Chinese university without the ability to test well in the English language, if not necessarily to speak it well.

The distinction frustrates Chinese educational reformers. They have long pushed to do away with the country's exam-oriented education system, especially the notorious national college entrance exam, or gaokao.

But despite occasional, highly incremental changes meant to dissuade China's teachers from teaching to the test, English education - and education in general in China - remains nearly as regimented today as it was in the 1980s.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

CPF system shouldn’t be loaded with too many objectives: observers

By Imelda Saad

20 May 2014


SINGAPORE: The CPF system should not be loaded with too many objectives at any one time, said observers in response to the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) addenda to President Tony Tan Keng Yam’s address in Parliament.

In its addenda, MOM pledged to continue improving the CPF system with retirement adequacy in mind, and also said it would look into the possibility of extending the re-employment age beyond 65.

The number of citizens aged 65 and above will triple to 900,000 by 2030.

The question is how can the country ensure Singaporeans will continue to lead meaningful lives in their twilight years?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rail Financing


SMRT business outlook will improve after selling rail assets to Govt: CEO


SINGAPORE — With its once-lucrative rail business battered by escalating costs, SMRT’s business outlook will improve after it sells its rail assets to the Government, its chief executive Desmond Kuek said yesterday.

However, Mr Kuek, who was speaking at a media briefing on SMRT’s financial results, said he was in the dark on whether the Government would agree to the operator’s proposals — the latest one of which was submitted early last month. On whether there is a time-frame for the Government to give an answer, Mr Kuek said: “I wish I knew.”

He confirmed that SMRT had been in talks with the Government for some time on extending the new rail-financing framework — which was introduced in 2010 and applies to new MRT lines — to existing lines. Under this framework, the Government will pay for and own rail assets on the lines, such as the trains and signalling systems, which will be leased to operators.

Prepare for a political crisis

May 10, 2014

Singapore's public intellectual continues his series on Big Ideas to shape the country's future.

By Kishore Mahbubani, For The Straits Times

BIG Idea No. 4 is a difficult one: Prepare for a political crisis. To avoid causing any unnecessary alarm, let me emphasise at the outset that I am not suggesting that a political crisis is imminent. Indeed, given Singapore's recent track record, it is probable that Singapore will not have a political crisis any time in the near future.

Yet there is another equally important track record we have to bear in mind. Any political scientist will tell you that it is "normal" for most states in the world to have a political crisis every few decades. By not having a political crisis for several decades, Singapore has demonstrated that it is not keeping within statistical norms. If over time we conform to statistical norms, the laws of statistical probability will kick in and we will inevitably have a political crisis.

Let me share a good recent example of the laws of statistical probability to drive home this point. A few weeks before the Little India riot on Dec 8 last year, one of my colleagues at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Dr Paul Cheung (who was also the former chief statistician of Singapore and of the United Nations), told a senior member of the Singapore establishment that when groups of foreign workers congregate together in big crowds in a confined space with easy access to alcohol, there is a high statistical probability of a riot happening (not unlike football hooliganism in England).

Dr Cheung did not know it was going to happen in a few weeks. He only knew of the statistical probability and likelihood. Similarly, there is a statistical probability that normal states go through political crisis every few decades. This is the reason why we should prepare for one, even if none appears imminent at this stage.

Monday, May 19, 2014

'There's nothing uniquely S'porean about inequality'

[FROM THE ARCHIVE: Featuring an old news article from Sep 2011. And no, we don't have an archive. But with almost 2000 posts going back to 2008, sometimes I find news that are still news. Or at least relevant.]

Sep 14, 2011

It's a global trend, but the Republic needs policies to tackle growing wealth gap, says expert

By Radha Basu

AS OF June last year, some 4.2 per cent - or 83,400 - of employed Singaporeans and residents still earned less than $500 a month, the same as they did way back in 1999.

And in a nation that prides itself on home ownership, 45,000 households are renting subsidised one- and two-room flats now, up from around 40,500 in 2008.

Meanwhile, the number of those who earn $10,000 a month or more has soared fourfold to 121,700 in a decade. And Singapore has the highest proportion of millionaires in the world, with one in six households on that gilded rich list.

Reel off these statistics - gleaned from recent newspaper reports and government data sheets - to Associate Professor Aneel Karnani and he does not seem the least bit surprised.

Income inequality is an inevitable by-product of free market economies, says the Harvard-educated academic, who has spent nearly a decade researching how society can strike the right balance between private profit and public welfare.

'Singapore likes to think it is unique but there is nothing uniquely Singaporean about inequality. That's increasing in practically all affluent countries.'

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The four-letter word at the heart of politics

May 18, 2014

By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

'Tis the season for love in politics, it seems.

On Friday, President Tony Tan Keng Yam opened the second session of the 12th Parliament with a speech that startled folks like me (whose job it is to track such stuff) with its touchy-feely tone.

Singaporeans, he said, should embrace one another as fellow citizens working together to make this an endearing home. Yes, endearing.

And we should treat immigrants and foreigners in our midst with graciousness and fellowship. Yes, fellowship.

Singaporeans form the heart and strength of the nation, he said.

Watching Dr Tan deliver the address as it was broadcast live, I swear his serious demeanour softened and his voice dipped at some of these words.

It was enough for my colleague, Political Editor Lydia Lim, to liken that address to an invitation from a man to his wife to renew wedding vows.

And yesterday, Professor Chan Heng Chee wrote about the need for love in politics. Yes, love.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

It's time for love in politics

May 17, 2014

The debate about Singapore's population growth needs more than just good arguments. As citizens feel marginalised in their own home, they need a dose of empathy - even love - from political leaders.

By Chan Heng Chee, For The Straits Times

On a recent trip to Japan I heard a great deal about the country's ageing and declining population. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications reported that the nation's population had fallen by 217,000 to 127,298,000 as of Oct 1, 2013, marking a third straight year of decline.

A Japanese think-tank which works closely with one of the ministries projected that Japan's population will drop to 87 million by the year 2060 and 50 million by 2100.

Early this year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said immigration and bringing women into the workforce would be at the core of his growth strategy for Japan.

Historically, Japan's workforce has mainly consisted of men. But now measures are being discussed to promote the advancement of women. On immigration, Japan traditionally resisted diluting its population with foreign immigrants and is globally regarded as a closed society.

That the country is considering the change is a minor revolution in Japanese terms. Even so, the change will be limited.

Singapore must be a home, not just a marketplace, says President

May 17

SINGAPORE — To provide an environment for people to thrive, the Government will continue to upgrade Housing and Development Board estates and connect them to a more extensive and convenient transport network. It will also continue to integrate the heartlands with green corridors and waterways, as well as sports and leisure facilities, said President Tony Tan yesterday, reiterating that the Republic must be a home to its people and cannot be only a marketplace in the global economy.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Understanding China



MAY 2, 2014

China is a phenomenon that has and continues to receive considerable worldwide attention. This can only increase as its economic share of global gross domestic product grows and it flexes its political and military muscles.

In this context of a rising China it is conventional to perceive China as a modern state with the institutions and norms that are the standard in Europe and North America. After all, it has been a long-standing member of the United Nations Security Council and was accepted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.

As China’s presence makes itself increasingly felt on multiple dimensions, there is a growing preoccupation with the future of China and its ambitions. It is conventional for institutions, corporations and governments to try to explain this with what may happen to China or what it will do under varying conditions. But these conventions are misguided.

First, China’s future is best understood with reference to its past and not with hypotheses about future conditions from merely present terms.

Second, using a history-based approach, it is possible to make the case that modern China is actually continuing its past.

Third, far from being an economy best at routine and duplication, it has the capability of becoming an economy powered by innovation and that this will be transformative of its economy.

MFA summons Viet envoy after anti-China riots

China unlikely to yield to public anger in Vietnam

By Valarie Tan

14 May 2014

SHANGHAI: Hundreds of people were arrested in Vietnam on Wednesday, accused of looting and setting fire to dozens of factories near Ho Chi Minh City, as anger over an oil rig that a Chinese state-run company placed in disputed South China Sea waters became violent.

Relations between China and Vietnam faced daunting challenges when China parked its giant oil rig close to the Paracel Islands (known as Xisha Islands in Chinese) between May 2 and 7, an area which is also claimed by Vietnam, and ships from both sides collided in the disputed part of the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, thousands of Vietnamese staged large anti-China protests at an industrial park in southern Vietnam over China's move.

It was also reported that the demonstrators attacked offices and torched several Chinese factories.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Thawing of Antarctic ice prompts warnings of rising sea levels


MAY 14, 2014

WASHINGTON — The collapse of the Western Antarctica ice sheet is already underway and is unstoppable, two separate teams of scientists have said.

The loss of the entire Western Antarctica ice sheet could eventually cause sea levels to increase by up to 4m, devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world. The rise in sea levels may be unavoidable in coming centuries, the scientists said.

As a low-lying island, Singapore is vulnerable to rising sea levels.

Can ASEAN unite for security?



MAY 15

The 24th Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, fortuitously occurred as Vietnam and the Philippines were engaged in maritime disputes with China.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and Philippine President Benigno Aquino headed to Myanmar with a central item on their agendas — forging a collective ASEAN voice and course of action to ward off what they see as a darkening Chinese shadow over the entire region.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

More Chopsticks, Please

MAY 10, 2014

Thomas L. Friedman

HANOI, Vietnam — BY an accident of scheduling, I’ve visited Kiev and Hanoi in the last couple weeks, and it’s been accidentally extremely revealing. Ukraine is a middle power living next to a giant bear, and Vietnam is a middle power living next to a giant tiger. Ukraine is struggling with how to deal with a declining Russia that is looking for dignity in all the wrong places — like in Crimea — and Vietnam is struggling with how to deal with a rising China that is looking for oil in all the wrong places — like in Vietnam’s territorial waters. Russia’s attitude toward Ukraine has been: “Marry me, or I’ll kill you.” And China’s toward Vietnam has been a variation of that line from “There Will Be Blood”: “I have a long straw, so I think I’ll drink my milkshake and yours.”

Meanwhile, America is trying to figure out how to buttress both Vietnam and Ukraine in their struggles with their giant neighbors without getting entangled in either dispute. And in my jet-lagged torpor, all I’ve been trying to do is make sure I don’t order Chicken Kiev in Hanoi and Chicken Spring Rolls in Kiev.

Beijing sees Manila as a troublemaker

May 13, 2014

Rival claimant states interpret developments in the South China Sea very differently. Here are two points of view.
By Liu Qiang

ON TUESDAY last week, the Philippines again created trouble in the South China Sea by illegally detaining 11 Chinese fishermen and seizing a boat in the waters off China's Half Moon Shoal in the Nansha Islands. On the same day, the Philippine military announced a so-called South China Sea defence plan, and said that in order to protect the Philippines' "national interest", it will resist "China's increasingly assertive behaviour in the South China Sea".

The Philippines has recently been creating trouble in the South China Sea. It sent a supply ship to the Ren'ai Reef off China's Nansha Islands; held joint military exercises with the United States; and illegally detained Chinese fishermen and boats. Its defence plan highlights its increasingly aggressive stance on the South China Sea issue.

China has long advocated the use of peaceful means to resolve international disputes and remains committed to resolving the South China Sea issue on the basis of universally accepted maritime laws, for which it has even put forward the idea of "shelving disputes and carrying out common development".

Some countries involved in South China Sea disputes, including the Philippines, have taken China's tolerance as cowardice and are acting aggressively. The Philippines' provocative actions challenge China's ability to safeguard its national sovereignty.

Since the Philippines does not measure up to China either in economic or military strength, why does it dare to repeatedly create trouble in the South China Sea?

The answer lies in the US-Philippine alliance. The Philippines is not alone in thinking that it will become invincible because of its alliance with the US; some other Asian countries think so too. And the US is taking advantage of these countries to implement its strategic rebalancing to Asia to weave a new Asia-Pacific security pattern.

This has given the Philippines an opportunity to fish in troubled waters. The US believes China's rapid rise has broken the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific, so it has to implement its "pivot to Asia" strategy.

Manila believes the main goal of Washington's rebalancing strategy is to prevent China from replacing the US as the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific. Encouraged by this assumption, the Philippines is using the US' muscle to "legitimise" its illegal occupation of China's islands and reefs. The fact is, the US' rebalancing strategy has failed to restore peace and stability in the region.

On the contrary, it has disrupted the relatively stable strategic situation and raised the risk of conflicts and clashes. Given such a situation, the US should persuade its allies not to create trouble in the South China Sea.

Besides, the collusion among some countries locked in disputes with China over the South China Sea has also prompted Manila to take provocative actions against China. The Philippines and Vietnam illegally occupy many of China's islands and reefs in the South China Sea. Therefore, the two countries usually act in collusion over the South China Sea issue.

Just a day after Manila detained the 11 Chinese fishermen, Vietnamese vessels intentionally collided with Chinese vessels in order to disrupt normal drilling operations by the China side in its waters. The incident reflects how Hanoi and Manila have joined hands to hype up the South China Sea issue to illegally seize China's islands and reefs.

However, Manila's actions will be opposed by countries eager to maintain peace and stability in the region. And ultimately, the Philippine people will protest against the US' strengthened military presence in their country because of the painful memories of US colonial rule in the Philippines.

Given the progress of a "new type of major-power relationship" between China and the US, Washington might eventually disappoint its Asian allies when it comes to their disputes with Beijing. After all, US foreign policy has always given priority to its own interests. Also, it is doubtful whether the US will enter into full confrontation with China and seriously damage its interests, just to humour its allies.

Above all, the Philippines should stop creating trouble in the South China Sea and testing Beijing's patience because even with the US' help, it cannot win an all-out confrontation with China. It is time the Philippines realised that the countries occupying Chinese territory will end up paying a heavy price. Also, the South China Sea disputes are between China and some South-east Asian countries. So, the involvement of other parties will only complicate the matter further.

China has always advocated friendly negotiations with disputing countries to resolve the disputes because it believes that they can properly handle the issue to maintain peace and stability in the region. If the Philippines (and other disputing countries) share this belief, Manila must release the Chinese fishermen as soon as possible, instead of complicating the matter further.


The writer is professor and director of the International Security Research Centre, affiliated to People's Liberation Army International Relations University.

China 'sending mixed signals to Asean'

Rival claimant states interpret developments in the South China Sea very differently. Here are two points of view.

MAY 13, 2014


IN PREPARING for the 24th Asean Summit in Myanmar, member states studied ways to respond positively to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's October 2013 proposal for an Asean-China Treaty on Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation. They also looked at his proposal for the joint construction of a peaceful "Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century".

Then, just before the summit, China demonstrated its "friendliness" to Asean with the silkiest present of all. It sent a billion-dollar floating oil drilling platform deep into Vietnam's exclusive economic zone and continental shelf. It also rammed Vietnamese surveillance vessels and fired at them with high-powered water cannon, severely injuring several crew members. At the same time, the Chinese media called on China to teach Vietnam a lesson if it dared to protest.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Death Penalty, Execution, Texas


Facing Challenge to Execution, Texas Calls Its Process the Gold Standard


MAY 12, 2014

[The writing is different from ST's clinical style - a lot more views and opinions, unfiltered, unexplained, unsubstantiated. It is almost a blog piece rather than a news article. ]

HUNTSVILLE, Tex. — If Texas executes Robert James Campbell as planned on Tuesday, for raping and murdering a woman, it will be the nation’s first execution since Oklahoma’s bungled attempt at lethal injection two weeks ago left a convicted murderer writhing and moaning before he died.

Lawyers for Mr. Campbell are trying to use the Oklahoma debacle to stop the execution here. But many in this state and in this East Texas town north of Houston, where hundreds have been executed in the nation’s busiest death chamber, like to say they do things right.

For two years now, Texas has used a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug regimen used in neighboring Oklahoma. Prison administrators from other states often travel here to learn how Texas performs lethal injections and to observe executions. Texas officials have provided guidance and, on at least a few occasions, carried out executions for other states.

Even the protesters and TV cameras that used to accompany executions here have largely dissipated. “It’s kind of business as usual,” said Tommy Oates, 62, a longtime resident who was eating lunch at McKenzie’s Barbeque last week, about one mile from the prison known as the Walls Unit. “That sounds cold, I know. But they’re not in prison for singing too loud at church.”

More than any other place in the United States, Huntsville is the capital of capital punishment. All of the 515 men and women Texas has executed since 1982 by lethal injection and all of the 361 inmates it electrocuted from 1924 to 1964 were killed here in the same prison in the same town, at the redbrick Walls Unit. Over all, Texas accounts for nearly 40 percent of the nation’s executions.

So many people have been put to death and so often — in January 2000, seven people were executed in 15 days — that people here take little notice.

Gov. Rick Perry is a staunch defender of the state’s record, saying that “in Texas for a substantially long period of time, our citizens have decided that if you kill our children, if you kill our police officers, for those very heinous crimes, that the appropriate punishment is the death penalty.” On “Meet the Press” recently, he added, “I’m confident that the way that the executions are taken care of in the state of Texas are appropriate.”

Some of those who condemn the state grudgingly agree that it kills with efficiency — from initial slumber into cessation of breathing — even though a prisoner who died of lethal injection in April was reported to have said, “It does kind of burn.”

“Texas’s death chamber is a well-honed machine,” said Robert Perkinson, the author of “Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire,” a critical history of the Texas prison system.

David R. Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston who has represented more than 100 death row inmates during their appeals, explained the state’s record of seeming success simply. “When you do something a lot, you get good at it,” he said, adding archly, “I think Texas probably does it as well as Iran.”

In Huntsville, a city of 40,000 that cuts through pine forests along Interstate 45, the Walls prison sits like a fortress in the heart of town, roughly half a mile from City Hall, the county courthouse and the campus of Sam Houston State University. Huntsville is part college town, part prison town — there are seven state prisons, including the Walls, in the Huntsville area, as well as the headquarters of the state prison agency, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

But many residents do not dwell on the pace of executions at the Walls. “Unless the high-profile cases are going on, you don’t really know until you read about it the next day in the paper or you hear it on the news that an execution was going on,” said Heike Ness, 48, an insurance agent.

Some of those who work in the system are proud of their expertise. Jim Willett, who was the warden at the Walls prison from 1998 to 2001, oversaw 89 executions. Staff members who prepare prisoners for execution are trained and skilled, he said. The “tie-down team” that straps the prisoners onto the table, “can take that man back there and put those straps on perfectly and easily in 30 seconds. This may sound odd to an outsider, but they take pride in what they do.” He added, “They’ve done it so often that it’s almost second nature to them.”

Mr. Willett, now retired from the prison, is director of the Texas Prison Museum, about three miles from the Walls prison, which celebrates the institution and, to an extent, its history of execution. It received 31,280 visitors last year.

It was built to resemble a state prison and has a replica guard tower in one corner of the building. The electric chair that was used until 1964 is there, displayed behind a protective glass barrier with a sign that reads, “Attention: Please do not enter past the rope or attempt to touch ‘Ol’ Sparky.’ An alarm will sound if you do try to enter.”

Mr. Willett said he was not haunted by his time supervising executions, but he was touched by it and drained by it.

Since 1976, Texas has carried out more executions than six other states combined — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma and Virginia — all of which have some of the busiest death chambers.

On Monday, an appeal by Mr. Campbell's lawyers to stop the execution reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans. The lawyers cited the execution in Oklahoma, where Clayton D. Lockett writhed and moaned on the table until prison officials halted the procedure. Mr. Lockett died 43 minutes after the delivery of drugs into a vein in his groin began. Oklahoma has declared a six-month stay of the next execution.

The argument in the original complaint in the Campbell case, filed in federal court in Houston, tracks arguments in several current lawsuits challenging Texas’ execution process. It focuses on efforts by Texas, Oklahoma and other states to restrict information about the source of the drugs.

Texas has declined to disclose such information as how its drug is tested for potency and purity, among other details of the process. The lawyers for Mr. Campbell argue that “to permit this execution to proceed in light of the eye-opening events in Oklahoma should not be countenanced by a civilized society, nor tolerated by the constitutional principles that form the basis of our democracy.”

State officials say Texas is not like Oklahoma partly because it uses a single drug, the barbiturate pentobarbital, instead of the three-drug series employed north of the Red River. This approach, along with other protections for prisoners in the process, was favored by a new report on the death penalty from The Constitution Project, a group that includes supporters and opponents of capital punishment.

Maurie Levin, a lawyer who has worked on many Texas death penalty cases and who is one of Mr. Campbell’s lawyers, countered in an interview that “Texas doesn’t have some kind of magic touch. There’s nothing that says we can’t trust Oklahoma, but we can trust Texas.” The risk of mistakes, she said, “are exponentially greater when executions are carried out in secret.” In fact, she noted, Oklahoma’s publicly available protocol is far more detailed than the one provided upon request from Texas.

Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general, has opposed the request to stop the execution, stating that “recent problems in another state following an entirely different execution procedure do nothing to change this fact.” The state argued that pentobarbital has been used successfully in 33 executions in Texas, and that testing showed the batch of the drug to be used, which came from a compounding pharmacy, was potent and “free of contaminants.”

Still, an execution in April has raised questions. Jose Villegas, 39, who was convicted of fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend, her young son and her mother, reportedly complained of a burning sensation as a lethal injection began to take effect. Texas argued that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Constitution “does not require the elimination of all risk of pain,” only that the method not be “sure or very likely to cause serious illness and needless suffering.” The state’s filing noted that frequently, the action cited before pentobarbital-induced death in articles by Michael Graczyk, the Associated Press reporter who has covered hundreds of Texas executions, is snoring.

In Mr. Campbell’s case, Judge Keith P. Ellison of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas on Friday denied the request for the injunction. He noted that the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit “does not permit” a ruling in Mr. Campbell’s favor. Anticipating an appeal, however, Judge Ellison urged the higher court “to reconsider its jurisprudence that seems to shield crucial elements of the execution process from open inquiry.”

Opponents of the death penalty question Texas’ reputation for trouble-free execution. Austin D. Sarat, a professor at Amherst College who has studied the death penalty, put the state’s rate of mishaps at about 4 percent, slightly higher than Oklahoma’s, if difficulty in finding a vein is included in the calculation.

One of the botched executions was that of Raymond Landry Sr. in December 1988. Two minutes after prison officials began administering the drugs, a tube attached to a needle inside Mr. Landry’s right arm began leaking and shooting the drugs across the death chamber toward the witness room. The warden then pulled a curtain to block the view. When the curtain reopened 14 minutes later after prison officials had apparently reinserted the needle, Mr. Landry was motionless with his eyes half-closed, according to The Associated Press. Three minutes later, two doctors arrived and declared him dead.

Texas’ 10-page execution protocol requires each “drug team” to have “at least one medically trained individual,” whether a certified medical assistant, emergency medical technician, phlebotomist, paramedic or military corpsman.

Rick Halperin, the director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and the former president of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, said he is tormented by the attitudes in Texas. “If you do raise the questions as to the morality of this,” he said, “you are immediately painted as if you are unsympathetic to the plight of the families who lost loved ones and sympathetic to violent felons.”

Support for the death penalty in Texas runs higher than in the rest of the country; a May 2012 University of Texas-Texas Tribune online poll showed that 53 percent of Texas voters said they supported the death penalty for murder over life imprisonment without the chance for parole. A Quinnipiac University telephone poll conducted in May 2013 found that 48 percent of American voters favored the death penalty over a life term for people convicted of murder.

In the late 1990s, 40 to 50 death sentences a year were being handed down in Texas; since 2010 the number has fallen below 10 a year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group that opposes the death penalty.

Part of the reluctance to sentence people to death springs from the more than 140 high-profile exonerations in the state in recent years, including a dozen death row inmates. And there have also been questions about the guilt of some executed prisoners. The State Legislature allowed juries to impose sentences of life without parole for capital crimes in 2005. Even in the greater Houston area, which is first in the state in death sentences, support for alternatives to the death penalty has grown to 69 percent in 2014 from 54 percent in 2010, according to a new survey by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University.

One person who has no qualms about seeing Mr. Campbell die is Israel Santana, a cousin of Alexandra Rendon. Mr. Santana is a criminal defense lawyer in Houston and has defended people on capital murder charges.

But not in this case. In 1991, Mr. Campbell and his co-defendant, Leroy Lewis, kidnapped Ms. Rendon, raped her, then took her out into a field and told her to run for her life, the state said. Mr. Campbell tried to shoot her in the head but missed; he then shot her in the back and left her for dead.

“She had her whole future ahead of her,” Mr. Santana said, “and this guy took it away without a second thought.”

He plans to drive to Huntsville on Tuesday to be a witness at the execution. “I’m a deacon in my church,” he said. “I’m taught I must forgive.” Still, he allowed, “I will not lie and say there’s not a battle within me.”

He added, “I’m sure in my heart, before the needle is put in, I’ll forgive him.”

Sunday, May 11, 2014

What solution to China-Japan maritime dispute?

May 09, 2014

Neither Beijing nor Tokyo has a clear claim to the disputed islands in the East China Sea

By Andy Ho, Senior Writer

US President Barack Obama recently declared that a 1960 defence treaty obligates his country to defend Japan if disputed islands in the East China Sea are attacked.

Called Diaoyu in Chinese or Senkaku in Japanese, the islands are "under Japan's administration", Mr Obama noted. It is their ownership that China, the potential attacker, disputes. Making up a total of under 7 sq km in area, the five uninhabited islets and three barren rocks lie slightly on Japan's side of the median in the East China Sea, about 120 nautical miles east of Fuzhou, China, 90 nautical miles north-east of Taiwan and 90 nautical miles from the Japanese Ryukyu islands.

Their value lies below, in "the most prolific oil and gas reservoirs in the world, possibly comparing favourably with the Persian Gulf area", according to a 1968 US Naval Oceanographic Office study. This study sparked the dispute, as whoever owns the islands owns the oil and gas.

London cabbies plan to put brakes on app

May 10, 2014

LONDON - About 10,000 of London's professional taxi drivers plan to bring "chaos, congestion and confusion" in a protest against the growing presence of smartphone taxi app Uber.

London's black cab drivers argue that the apps used by Uber's drivers to find passengers and calculate their fares should be considered taximeters - which are illegal if installed in private vehicles.

But their argument has been rejected by London transport authorities, which said that Uber's vehicles are not "equipped" with taximeters since there was no "connection between the device and the vehicle".

"All we're saying is if you want to come to London and operate the business model you're operating, you should operate within our laws," Mr Steve McNamara, the Licensed Taxi Drivers' Association general secretary, said.

America's enduring global leadership

May 10, 2014

By Bruce Jones

MANY observers have cited the crisis in Ukraine as yet another example of American retrenchment and declining global influence.

Some have also interpreted it as evidence of a Russian-led effort to mobilise the major emerging economies - Brazil, India and China - against the West. While there is a kernel of truth in both narratives, each is a gross exaggeration, as is the notion that America's capacity to shape a secure and prosperous international system is in decline.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

China asserts right to drill in disputed sea as stand-off mounts


May 9

BEIJING — China insisted yesterday it had every right to drill for oil off Vietnam’s coast and warned its neighbour to immediately leave the area around the deep-sea rig where Chinese and Vietnamese ships are engaged in a tense stand-off.

With the ships jostling each other since China deployed the rig last weekend in disputed South China Sea waters, the United States warned both sides to de-escalate tensions and urged China to clarify its claims to the territory.

The stalemate underlines the apparently intractable nature of many of China’s territorial disputes with its neighbours. The ship stand-off — with both sides accusing the other of ramming ships — has raised the possibility of a conflict in the South China Sea’s most serious incident in years.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Report card on Asean economic integration

May 08, 2014


By Razeen Sally For The Straits Times

IS ASEAN'S economic integration encouraging the region to become a more distinctive collective entity in the global economy? The answer is yes, although with important reservations.

South-east Asia is an area of extreme economic diversity. The gap in living standards between the richest and poorest countries (Singapore and Myanmar respectively) is 40 to 1. But this is only one dimension.

Singapore is a services-based economy; Brunei is oil-based; Malaysia and Thailand are fast industrialisers; Thailand and Vietnam are big agricultural exporters; Indonesia and the Philippines are net food importers; and Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are still agrarian societies.

GDP still relevant in assessing well-being

May 08, 2014


By Suresh De Mel For The Straits Times

How do you assess the well-being of a country?

THERE are many measures and rankings of well-being in circulation. For example, Singapore ranks among the top six economies of the world in terms of income per capita. And according to the 2013 Human Development Report and the 2013 World Happiness Report, both published by the United Nations, Singapore is placed 18th and 30th respectively.

What do these different measures mean? Let us begin with the economic dimension. Within the field of economics, gross domestic product (GDP) has become the standard metric of economic well-being. GDP measures the total value of goods and services produced within a country during a specified period. It also indicates the total income earned within a country's borders.

To compare across countries, GDP is usually expressed in purchasing power parity dollars (to take into account price differences across countries) and in per capita terms (to reflect an average standard of living in a country). The sister measure, gross national product (GNP), is the total value of goods and services produced in a specified period by the nationals of a country. Unlike GDP, which defines production based on geographical location, GNP accounts for production based on ownership of the production inputs.

The twin measures of GDP and GNP arose out of the work of economists Simon Kuznets and Richard Stone, who developed the system of national accounting in the 1930s. These were formally adopted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the 1940s. Although the initial emphasis was on GNP, the focus shifted to GDP in the 1980s.

GDP and GNP, as measures of success and well-being, have several limitations. They leave out non-market transactions (for example, unpaid household work or child care), do not distinguish between market transactions that increase versus decrease well-being (for instance, building schools versus prisons) and ignore sustainability issues (for example, cutting down forests). The measures do not adequately capture other important aspects of well-being either, such as education, health, the rule of law and freedom.

The most widely accepted alternative measure, to date, is the Human Development Index (HDI) developed by economists Mahbub Ul Haq and Amartya Sen for the UN Development Programme in 1990. The HDI was developed as a composite indicator of human development incorporating education outcomes, health outcomes and income.

Broadly speaking, there is a positive relationship between income levels and HDI scores. However, the relationship is not always clear-cut. There are some countries with low HDI scores despite relatively high income levels (such as Kuwait and Oman), and also countries with similar HDI scores but quite different income levels (like Indonesia and South Africa).

"Green GDP" has been proposed as a measure which would take into account the depletion of natural resources and the cost of environmental degradation. These environmental costs are monetised and deducted from traditional GDP. Economist Joseph Stiglitz has been a key proponent of this concept. China's first green GDP accounting exercise revealed that the economic loss caused by environmental pollution alone (ignoring costs of natural resource depletion and ecological damage) amounted to 511.8 billion yuan or 3 per cent of GDP in 2004.

The search for alternatives continues. The Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, led by three economists - Professor Sen, Professor Stiglitz and Professor Jean-Paul Fitoussi - identified eight dimensions of well-being as indicators of social progress, of which material living standards was only one.

Similarly, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development developed the Better Life Index in 2011. It incorporated three dimensions of material living conditions and eight dimensions of quality of life. And the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network released the first World Happiness Report in 2012, based on subjective measures of well-being from nationally conducted surveys.

So does all this make GDP irrelevant? Not quite. Income is still a vital and necessary aspect of well-being. And what is measurable is more manageable. But it is certainly not all-sufficient.

So the current call to action would be to: first, improve upon the methodologies of alternative measures; and second, consider a variety of measures which capture different aspects of well-being, rather than focusing on a single metric.

The writer is a Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Economics, National University of Singapore.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Tackling South Korea’s age boom




As Singapore looks at how to care for an ageing population and keep the seniors gainfully employed, here is a look at how South Korea has moved to tackle the issue

Creating more jobs — the goal was 49,000 last year — and campaigning hard to woo senior citizens back to the workforce. Setting up more community facilities like day care centres so that the seniors have a space to socialise.

In a country where life expectancy is 81 years and rising while the number of centenarians continues to grow, these are some of the steps taken by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to prepare its ageing population, especially, the baby boomers, for their “second life”.

But as efforts to create jobs gather pace, the country is facing resistance from its seniors, who find jobs such as cleaning and security guards meaningless, while others face age discrimination.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Piketty Is Right: These Wealthy Men Make Billions For Basically Doing Nothing

Mark Gongloff

May 06, 2014

In the future foretold by French economist Thomas Piketty, the rich will keep getting richer by doing basically nothing, living off the income generated by their already massive wealth.

For many hedge-fund managers, that future is now.

The world's 25 best-paid hedge-fund managers took home more than $21 billion in 2013, mostly for charging enormous fees for keeping an eye on huge piles of money, according to a new tally by Institutional Investor's Alpha magazine.

It's a job most hedge funds do quite badly: The industry returned just 7.4 percent last year, according to Bloomberg, badly lagging the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, which gained 30 percent.

But such poor performance doesn't come cheaply to investors, with hedge funds typically charging fees of 2 percent of total assets under management and 20 percent of profits. Last year was the fifth straight year that hedge funds trailed the S&P 500, by Bloomberg's tally. But fund managers probably don't give a damn one way or another: They get their significant cut whether they beat the market or not.

Monday, May 5, 2014

S'pore in top list for rich property deals

May 05, 2014



SINGAPORE, long seen as a real-estate haven for the ultra-rich, has joined the league of top five cities in wooing the rich into putting their money into brick and mortar.

The biggest magnet is Hong Kong, which has attracted US$798 billion (S$1 trillion) in real estate holdings from ultra high net worth individuals (UHNWIs). London is second with US$676 billion, followed by Moscow (US$263 billion), Singapore (US$217 billion) and New York (US$164 billion).

Together, these cities account for 40 per cent or US$2.2 trillion of all global real-estate investments by UHNWIs, said a joint report by Savills, global interior design house Candy & Candy and Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management.

Real estate has begun to look more attractive amid increased under-performance of the fixed-income markets and a prevailing caution towards equities, said the report.

Of course, there could be short-term fluctuations in real-estate prices in these mature locations, but the ultra-rich are undeterred from staying invested in them, said Yolande Barnes, the London-based director for world research at Savills.

Residential properties remain the preferred choice of the world's 200,000 UHNWIs, said Savills in a separate report; if these individuals own commercial properties, they do so indirectly through companies or other investment entities.

Carlos Arrizurieta, managing director at Deutsche Asset & Wealth Management's Florida office, said that his clients dedicate as much as three quarters of their investment portfolio to direct real estate.

In Hong Kong, real-estate holdings have been bolstered by the influx of mainland Chinese investors and the city's extremely high property values, said the joint report. Moscow, on the other hand, has a disproportionately high number of domestic ultra-rich individuals propping up its real-estate market.

The report does not, however, offer an exact breakdown of investments by domestic and overseas UHNWIs. Corporate and institutions show markedly different investing behaviour from ultra-rich individuals; the most active investment markets for them in the 12 months to February were New York and London; Hong Kong came in only at 10th place.

A Savills analysis has found that a small number of countries tend to dominate global real-estate markets. The world's top-tier global urban centres - the so-called "alpha cities" - have been key magnets, drawing investments from ultra-rich individuals.

Nearly half of all UHNWI wealth is tied up in real estate in these 45 alpha cities, which account for just 5 per cent of the world's population.

Similarly, a few countries dominate as sources of wealth streaming into real estate: Germany, Japan and the United States account for 39 per cent.

The report projects, however, that the number of Asia's ultra-rich and their aggregate wealth will grow faster than in any other region in the next five years. China, India and Hong Kong are poised to climb up the list of top 10 real-estate investing nations.

A dozen cities across the globe which do not have world city status were named in the report as having the potential to rake in strong residential price increases. These rising stars range from the well-established, such as Melbourne in Australia and Chicago in the US, to the upcoming, such as Chennai in India.

[Support for Piketty's hypothesis "Capital in the 21st Century"?]

One missing jet, one sunken ferry, two responses



There are no ideologues in a financial crisis, former United States Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke once said. Clearly the same does not hold true for political crises, as a comparison of Malaysia and South Korea very quickly reveals.

Tragedy has struck both nations in recent weeks, their travails played out in horrifying detail on the world’s television screens.

Fairly or unfairly, the hunt for a missing Malaysian airliner and the desperate attempt to rescue and now recover victims from the sunken Sewol ferry are being viewed as tests of the governments in Putrajaya and Seoul, if not of Malaysian and South Korean societies.

The grades so far? I would give South Korea an A-, Malaysia a D.

In the two weeks since the Sewol tipped over and sank — almost certainly killing 302 passengers, most of them high school students — South Korea has been gripped by a paroxysm of self-questioning, shame and official penitence.

President Park Geun-hye issued a dramatic and heartfelt apology. Her No 2, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, resigned outright. Prosecutors hauled in the ship’s entire crew and raided the offices of its owners and shipping regulators. Citizens and the media are demanding speedy convictions and long-term reforms.

And Malaysia, almost two months after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished? Nothing. No officials have quit. Prime Minister Najib Razak seems more defiant than contrite. The docile local news media has focused more on international criticism of Malaysia’s leaders rather than on any missteps by those leaders themselves.

Both countries are democracies — Malaysia’s even older than South Korea’s. The key difference, though, is the relative openness of their political systems. One party has dominated Malaysia since independence, while South Korea, for all its growing pains and occasional tumultuousness, has seen several peaceful transfers of power over the past quarter-century.

Unused to having to answer critics, Malaysia’s government has responded defensively. Korean officials, on the other hand, are reflecting, addressing the anger of citizens and delving into what went wrong with the shipping industry’s regulatory checks and balances.

That is why South Korea is likely to come out of this crisis stronger than ever, unlike Malaysia.

The two nations responded similarly after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, too. Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sought to prove Mr Bernanke’s axiom wrong, bizarrely blaming some shadowy Jewish cabal headed by Mr George Soros for the ringgit’s plunge.

Malaysia did not internalise what had gone wrong or look in the mirror. It did not admit it had been using capital inflows unproductively and that coddling state champions — including Malaysia Airlines — was killing competitiveness. Never did the ruling United Malays National Organisation consider it might be part of the problem.

Contrast that with South Korea’s response to 1997. The government forced weak companies and banks to fail, accepting tens of thousands of job losses. The authorities clamped down on reckless investing and lending and addressed moral hazard head-on. South Koreans felt such shame that millions lined up to donate gold, jewellery, art and other heirlooms to the national treasury.

South Korea’s response was not perfect. I worry, for example, that the family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, that helped precipitate the crisis are still too dominant a decade and a half later. But the country’s economic performance since then speaks for itself.

Now as then, South Korea’s open and accountable system is forcing its leaders to look beyond an immediate crisis. Ordinary Koreans are calling for a national catharsis that will reshape their society and its attitude towards safety. Ms Park’s government has no choice but to respond.

Malaysia’s government, on the other hand, appears to be lost in its own propaganda. To the outside world, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein performed dismally as a government spokesman: He was combative, defensive and so opaque that even China complained.

However, Mr Hishammuddin is now seen as Prime Minister material for standing up to pesky foreign journalists and their rude questions. The government seems intent on ensuring that nothing changes as a result of this tragedy. As hard as it seems now, South Korea will move past this tragedy, rejuvenated. Malaysia? I am not so sure.



William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo who writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

[I don't completely agree with this assessment, but I can't muster the facts to disagree. So I shall let it stand as it is. Certainly, I agree with the description of MY's response to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and it is telling that responses in both cases have been similar... and similarly unsatisfactory.]