Friday, November 10, 2006

What Ails Biomedical Research in Singapore

I read with interest Dr Lee Wei Ling’s Straits Times comments on “What Ails Biomedical Research in Singapore” while having coffee on a Sunday morning. I was fascinated by her consistent suggestions to research on medical areas such as hepatits B and head injuries which were “relevant to Singaporeans” and where we had a “competitive advantage”. The move to carve a niche in the bio-medical industry was clearly a well-calculated business-positioning and branding project and I was fascinated by her arguments, especially on the pitfalls of chasing the international spotlight, on how best to augment the corporate ethic in this bio-medical project.

To belabour a truism, Singapore is a developed country situated in a region that has been designated by everyone else (i.e. the UN for simplicity) as developing. This makes us visibly different and obvious. Ask any Indonesian businessperson and they’ll tell you that they knew someone who flew into Singapore for surgical procedure. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you the last time they were here for surgery and recommend you the doctor. Foreign patients have been flocking to Singapore in the last 10-15yrs when their numbers encouraged the privatisation of hospitals like Mount Elizabeth. Happily, they liked our services and between 2004 and 2005, there was an increase in 39%. Raffles Medical Group posted an increase of S$11.4 million in profits at the end of 2005, boosted no doubt by foreign patients.

Our geo-political position qualifies us with a strategic leverage on both secondary and tertiary healthcare; the very stuff of specialist consultancy for your liver or vanity, as well as surgical work. (see Indonesian businessman). And our geographical position warrants urgent expertise in pandemic diseases, bacteria and viruses. Though there have been no confirmed reports of human-to-human transfer of the bird flu virus, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia have reported human fatalities. SARS was our case in point. This more than doubles the urgent need for top-notch research in infectious diseases. Add to this the prospect of another natural disaster in the region and the potential for cross-border consequences are naturally there.

It is disheartening to see that at the heart of Dr Lee’s argument, lies a cautious mindset steeped in an untenable conservatism. It was even more surprising to see her use of British medical researcher Simon Schorvon as an example of the dangers of foreign talent coming in with their own sneaky agenda. Simon Schorvon previously held medical appointments in Singapore. During his stint in Singapore, he manipulated patient records in order to conduct unauthorized research and it was said, according to Dr Lee, that he “treated Singaporeans as subjects from a Third World country”. Though his prejudice is sadly misplaced, it is not the issue and most certainly was not responsible for his manipulation and gross medical misconduct. In fact, her example does not suggest a strategic oversight in the poaching of foreign talent, but an administrative one. Simon Schorvon did what he did because he thought and was indeed able to get away with it up to a certain point, and not because he saw Singaporeans as “subjects from a Third World” and thought to himself “why the hell not.” The two are separate; one to do with vision, and the other to do with implementation and regulation. To use Simon Schorvon as reason for casting aspersions on foreign talent would also be, ironically, a foolhardy oversight.

By investing millions of dollars in bio-medical research, one is preparing the foundations for medical discoveries and innovations that will ultimately be “relevant to Singaporeans” and more. Like Dr Lee, the returns are very uncertain but its success will be directly dependant on the mindset of the medical researchers and the creative environment available. Afterall, a gamble for a prominent scholar in the ‘hard sciences’ seems to me a better bet than in political theory. One gets more money and happy people in return.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

On Haze, Al Gore, and Green Cars

I have been highly irritable for the past month, as the Pollution Standards Index (PSI) crept towards the unhealthy zone. “Runny nose, eye irritation, sore throat, dry cough…”, my doctor read out. And delivering the final blow, “stay indoors!”, he bellowed.

Woe, adieu to my usual outdoor activities, with all credit to the haze.

There’s indeed some truth in the so oft-heard dictum that we only treasure something when it’s gone. One can’t help but agree to the suggestion that Singaporeans have taken the clean and green environment here for granted.

It is during this time each year that we are reminded of the need to do the environmentally-friendly right stuff.

So when former US Vice President Al Gore’s award-winning documentary premiered in Singapore, I thought it was so fitting and timely to catch “An Inconvenient Truth”. Not that I was convinced by the documentary’s anti-Bush bashing (subtle or otherwise), but the ‘go green’ messages resonated well, especially as the haze reminded how the quality of my life is dependent on Mother Nature.

I read that Singapore’s level of particulate mater less than 2.5 microns in size (PM2.5) has exceeded standards set by the US Environmental Protection Agency. The message is clear: what you can’t see doesn’t mean that it’s not there! Apparently, high levels of PM2.5 pose health risks as the particles can penetrate deep into the respiratory system. And all this is not due to the forest fires in Indonesia alone.

Instead, diesel vehicles here reportedly contribute half of the PM2.5 in the air.

Hence, the initiatives by the Singapore Government to have more ‘green’ cars are laudable. Diesel vehicles with 70% less PM2.5 are now readily available in the market. Car makers are also promoting more ‘hybrid’ cars. More people are encouraged to car pool or take public transport. And the Transport Minister, Raymond Lim recently came out to say that “my other car is a bus”.

To quote Tabitha Wang, “I’d assumed that breathing clean air was my right but I was wrong; it was a privilege”. Well, the sunshine seems to be back, let’s keep it that way…

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Bumi Equity – (don’t) Show me the money!

I have hesitated to comment on the recent hullabaloo over the discrepancy between the findings by ASLI and the EPU-reported figures on bumi corporate equity.

This is because my understanding of accounting issues is limited to what I have in my wallet (which unfortunately is not very much). Hence, I was very happy to come across the equivalent of a Dummies’ Guide at Screenshots which has an explanation for the difference between market and par values that anyone can understand.

This issue is clearly quite divisive. ASLI’s figures suggest that bumis own nearly half of Msian equity. If this is true, what need is there for NEP or affirmative action?

The Abdullah administration will either have to come up with a really convincing explanation (even if the EPU’s methodology was probably inherited from the previous administration), or apologize and start making some serious changes and concessions.

More importantly, however, does that mean that there are no poor Malays in Malaysia? Obviously not.

There are not only poor Malays, but also poor Chinese and poor Indians. Whether bumis own 20% of 45% of equity is not important to them (or me). Do we really care whether the towkay sitting behind the tinted windows of that S-class outside Bukit Bintang is Malay, Chinese or Indian.

What is important is that all our children have ample educational opportunities, and that each of us earns a fair living wage. Social infrastructure must also be put in place to ensure that no one goes hungry or in need of medical aid. It is critical that we bring pressure to bear on our Government to ensure that such a framework exists.

Having them be upfront about other things (like market and par values) would be a nice plus, but really, it is not that important.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Straits Times Interactive - Prime News
Sept 28, 2006 Thu

By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur and Azhar Ghani, Indonesia Bureau Chief In Jakarta

MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has written to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew seeking an explanation for his recent comment that Malaysia and Indonesia marginalised their Chinese citizens.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar told The Straits Times yesterday that the letter was sent a few days ago, through the two countries' foreign ministries.

'It seeks an explanation, and pointed out that this sort of statement is not welcome. It is sensitive and dangerous. We are very unhappy,' he said.

Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia T. Jasudasen will be summoned today, and will meet the foreign ministry's secretary-general, he added.

In Jakarta, Singapore's Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri was asked for an explanation by the foreign ministry on Tuesday.

The foreign ministry has also instructed its embassy in Singapore to lodge a protest, said its director for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Mr Yuri Thamrin, yesterday. He said: 'The ambassador was called in to help clear the matter.

'It's an old story. We are seeking clarification from the Singaporean side and we are still waiting for it.'

An official with the Singapore Embassy in Jakarta said yesterday that the Republic would respond to Indonesia through appropriate channels in due course.

MM Lee had made the comments while answering a question at a dialogue for good governance in Singapore on Sept 15.

He said that the attitude of Indonesia and Malaysia, which 'systematically marginalised' their ethnic Chinese minorities, shaped the way they treated ties with the Republic.

He added that the two countries 'want Singapore, to put it simply, to be like their Chinese - compliant'.

Over the past week, leaders in Malaysia, including the prime minister, have spoken out against the comments.

In Indonesia, the issue surfaced on Tuesday after The Jakarta Post ran a report on two legislators criticising MM Lee and demanding an apology.

The paper also noted that almost 10 years after the passage of anti-discrimination laws, there were still
reports of minorities experiencing difficulties in obtaining birth certificates, identity cards, family cards and citizenship certificates.

Yesterday, the Koran Tempo daily ran an editorial which said Indonesia had got rid of many discriminatory laws and regulations since Mr Suharto stepped down in 1998.

It cited the new citizenship law passed in July this year, which exempts Indonesian Chinese from having to produce proof of citizenship or undergo the naturalisation process if they were born to Indonesian parents.

The editorial also noted that while there are still some 60 laws and regulations that are racially biased, this did not mean that Indonesia would continue to 'systematically oppress' its Chinese citizens.

This comes as no surprise.

My win-win scenario was that Lee would explain/apologize without being asked (wishful thinking I know) and that Malaysian government would take the opportunity to engage the population in an open, honest and fruitful debate on the issue (which is even more wishful). (Can’t comment on Jakarta’s reaction as I know precious little about the Indonesian angle).

That the Malaysian government is seeking an “explanation” only suggests that they are in denial. Politically, however, one can see how they are left with little choice, what with the ongoing rift (and hence competition for support) within UMNO.

Seah Chiang Nee provides an interesting take on Lee’s comments, suggesting that Lee wants to remind the new (Singapore) generation that being small doesn’t mean Singapore must be compliant to its bigger neighbours.

Given that the Lee’s remarks were apparently made off-the-cuff during a Q&A session, Seah may be giving Lee a little more credit than is due, but the logic is sound nonetheless. Singapore political and economic survival does require a careful balance of amity and rivalry with its neighbours.

But back in Malaysia, Lee’s remarks could be seen as:

A wake-up call which in the longer term might lead to debate and reform which ultimately brings Malaysians of all races closer (wishful thinking again); or
A “naughty” statement (as DPM Najib puts it) which is divisive, and causes (further) unhappiness amongst the minorities in Malaysia.

Lee would have his own interests and agenda with regards to what he wants to tell Singaporeans and the international community. But it is up to the Malaysian government and media to decide how his remarks are viewed, and will impact upon Malaysia.

I think it is time we all did some wishful thinking.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lee Kuan Yew’s remarks – A painful truth?

Looks like MM Lee has shot his mouth off again. Some years ago in 1997, he mentioned in an affidavit (against opposition politician Tang Liang Hong) that Johor had a high crime rate. Just recently, he was quoted at an IMF/WB sidelines forum that Malaysia and Indonesia had marginalized their Chinese populations, drawing reactions, including from PM Abdullah and DPM Najib (discussed in Jeff Ooi’s Screenshots).

Media reports suggest that Malaysia is likely to send a formal protest note, possibly seeking an apology or explanation. Should Lee apologize? An elder statesman such as he should know better. No doubt about it, Lee should apologize for making statements which are:

Undiplomatic? Perhaps.

Insensitive? Probably.

Honest? Definitely.

Let’s face it. Lee’s remarks/observations are not a secret to anyone living in this part of the world. Any honest commentator on socio-politics in Malaysia or Indonesia would have said the same. But that’s a long story for another day.

In 1997, after his Johor crime remarks were publicized, Lee made a public apology (and explaining that the remarks in the affidavit were not intended for the public).

Yet now – almost ten years later – if the reports in recent years of snatch robberies and car thefts in Johor are anything to go by, Lee’s comment “that place is notorious for shootings, muggings and carjackings” does not seem so libelous after all. To the residents and visitors of Johor, the apology is of little value.

What is important here is that we Malaysians must prove Lee is wrong this time. Apology or no apology, let’s not kid ourselves. Failure to redress our discriminatory policies will have an even greater impact on our future than the crime situation in Johor.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Global Malaysian or Ultra Malay?

There have been a few interesting developments since I briefly discussed Khairy Jamaluddin’s ambitions to become PM.

First, Khairy was featured in the media, wearing an arm sling, leading a large crowd, protesting to Condi Rice on the Israeli-Lebanon conflict. This is the sign of a true politician … or politician wannabe. Broken arm or not, he would be with his people on the ground. No ivory tower career for this Oxbridge grad!

Personally, as a Chinese Malaysian, I was happy to see someone like Khairy appear on the political scene. I know that we will not see a minority-race Malaysian PM in my lifetime, and a global, intellectual and moderate Malay is just what we needed. So what if he is young? He’ll have more time to learn about his people, and about leadership.

Then it was reported that Khairy had been given a multi-million-dollar “loan” to buy stock in ECM Libra, where he is a director. So what? As long as the money did not come from tax payers dollars or corruption, he can go ahead. After all, if the stock price should fall (and it did), he would lose money.

As Jerry Seinfeld once suggested, you don’t want to get onto a plane where the pilot is making minimum wage and worrying about making ends meet. Likewise, we don’t want the people piloting your economy to be broke! The amount we pay our politicians is probably less than what the average tout-taxi driver plying the KLCC-KLIA route gets. (At RM500 a pop, it is not hard to see why).

But I digress. Back to Khairy. I am no longer a fan.

Khairy’s recent remarks have disappointed me tremendously. He is reported as saying at an UMNO Youth branch meeting (in the context of stressing the importance of party unity) that non-Malays would take advantage of a weak UMNO. MCA and Gerakan have responded, but Khairy has refused to apologise. His reason is that “we need not apologise to anyone in our struggle for our religion, race and country.”

Maybe he does not owe anyone an apology. But I think the least he could do is explain. Malaysia’s fight for independence, development and excellence is fought by all its component races and religions.

So when he refers to “our” struggle, I hope he is not only referring to Malays and Muslims. Otherwise, I would never want him to be our PM.

It is a good thing he is so young … he still has a lot to learn.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Singapore's Pro-Immigration Policy - We have to reach outward to build within

Here's my 2-cents worth on PM Lee's National Day Rally speech about the importance of a pro-immigration policy to boost the talent pool here.

Well, the Government's valid point of view is to augment our country's competitiveness especially when we need to stay relevant to the burgeoning economies in China and India and to stay ahead of fast-growing competitors in our neighbourhood. What is critical in this push to attract foreigners to take up Singapore citizenship is that these immigrants will "top up" the talent pool here.

PM Lee mentioned Mustafa's Mr Mustaq Ahmad in his rally speech. Surely, more Mustafa shopping centres in Singapore will be nice. =)

The net gain of increasing the foreign talent pool to the well-being of our economy is said to be beneficial. (Top economists In the US have contended that immigration has been a net gain for American citizens. See the Independent Institutean "Open Letter on Immigration" signed by top economists and addressed to George Bush and members of Congress)

At the end of the day, the Government's intention is benign - It’s about making sure Singapore grows bigger, be it in terms of population or economic size. (see Kway Teow Man's thoughtful discussion at Singapore Angle)

Yet, whether it's packaged as 'pro-immigration', 'attracting foreign talents', or 'immigrants - not enough', any suggestion that Singapore needs to be more open to immigration have drawn and will continue to attract much flak.

The concern here appears to be simple and clear - attracting more foreigners will have serious implications on one's rice-bowl (livelihood), thus increasing the fear of retrenchment. To quote a concerned Singaporean who expressed his views on ST Forum, "the lesson to be learnt here is that Singaporeans have to compete with foreign talents in their quest for a job and the competition will intensify with more foreign talents". (ST Forum Online 29 Aug 2006) The opposition political party National Solidarity Party (NSP) has also jumped into the fray and argued for strict quotas on the number of talented foreign professionals allowed into Singapore. (See NSP press release on 22 Aug 2006)

Certainly, the concerns are not unique to Singaporeans. Around the world, immigration has become a hot political potato for politicians and voters in oft-said advanced democracies. In the US, critics are arguing for stricter immigration regulations to curb the rising influx of illegal immigrants. In Germany, millions of Turks continued to be called 'Gastarbeiters' or 'guest workers' without citizenship, despite many of them were born and bred in Germany. In the UK, public fears of migration are putting pressure on the government to impose control amid revelation that almost 600,000 Eastern Europeans have moved to the country to look for work. Furthermore, British authorities are realising the pitfalls of immigration laxity and are taking action against preachers of religious hatred who have not only fail to integrate into the local community, but have made use of years of lenient immigration and asylum policies to advocate racial-religious strife and violence against the nation-state.

Here's how I see it - the problem do not just boil down to jobs / bread-and-butter issues. There are serious nation-building considerations to be mindful of.

On one level, while Singapore celebrates ethnic and cultural diversity, the task of helping 'new citizens' integrate into the local community is an arduous challenge.

I stand corrected that no quantifier can accurately measure something as abstract as assimilation and patriotism. As top civil servant Chiang Chie Foo puts it, "there isn't a programme where you go through and you become transformed and integrated". For sure, how the 'new citizens' perceive events in their 'motherland' would have considerable implications for their successful assimilation into Singapore's local community.

On another level, anti-immigration views expressing the insecurities of the people cannot be ignored but has to be carefully managed. Xenophobia directed at foreigners or (in general) at people different from one’s self, can result in political campaigns for cultural purification and worse, aggression against the aliens (both 'new citizens' or otherwise).

Around the world, the anti-immigrant populist message of far right political parties continue to find resonance among the electorate, notwithstanding that it's more than half a century since the fascists inflicted much bloodshed with their murderous deeds during WWII.

Here in Singapore, we can ill-afford to have the Jean-Marie Le Pens and Pauline Hansons to tear the social fabric of our society that we have painstakingly nurtured over the 40 odd years of nationhood.

Undoubtedly, it takes more than a stroke of luck for the pro-immigration policy to work. Instead, the cohesion of our nation is a deliberate man-made endeavour. I understand that there are existing organisations such as the Hua Yuan Association which was set up to help new immigrants from China, to adapt to the nuances of local community.

Yet, while we demand new immigrants to blend in with society, Singaporeans have to also adopt an open heart to accept these new immigrants. The importance of grassroots activities cannot be overstated.

Indeed, while we reach outward to attract more 'new citizens', it must be noted that the task of 'building within' is an important ongoing challenge.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

It’s my party and I’ll keep it dry if I want to …

"Dissent off the agenda in Singapore" in Singabloodypore...

16,000 delegates from 184 countries will converge on Singapore to attend the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings next month. Held outside Washington once every 3 years, the meetings are usually held against the background of noisy (sometimes violent) protests and street demonstrations.

Singapore authorities, however, have indicated that they would not brook such actions. In February, the Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng warned that public protest may attract severe punishment, including caning and imprisonment. In March, a group of civil society activists wrote to PM Lee Hsien Loong to ask the government to permit the "traditional" protests. (Apparently, they have yet to receive a reply). On the other hand, Peter Stephens of the World Bank (Singapore office?) has assured activists that it is working with the IMF and the Singapore government "to ensure that civil society voices are very much heard."

In July, the Straits Times reported that accredited activists would be permitted to express their views in a special area within the convention centre, and must abide by police regulations which include bans on wooden/metal poles to hold up placards.

Not much of a party there.

Have you ever thrown a party? The kind where people dance, drink alcohol, and sometimes mess up the bathroom? It can be argued that if you did not wish to have let people have drink and have fun, you have no business hosting a party in the first place.

I'm sure the Singapore government must have had *some* idea of what happens at IMF/WB meetings. Then why offer to host it? Against the glitz and glamour, publicity, tourism dollars, and golden opportunity to position Singapore as the premier MICE destination of Asia, the cost of security measures and rubbing some civil society groups (who already do not like them) is probably a very small price for the Singapore government to pay.

But the question is: does Singapore have any business throwing this IMF/WB party if it is going to insist on such stringent rules? Invite your friends and tell them to check in the beer at the door?

This is subjective, but it can also be said that it is the responsibility of the host to look after his guests' protection in addition to their palates. If someone in the party is getting rowdy, you need to calm him down and make sure he does not hurt anyone else (and your belongings!). If you *know* someone has a tendency to become rowdy, it is probably a better idea not to invite him in the first place.

In this context, perhaps, Singapore’s rules for the IMF/WB meetings make sense.

It should be noted that the IMF/WB organizers -- who must likewise also have been aware of Singapore authorities' tolerance for protests, demonstrations, strikes, and illegal (and other non-productive) gatherings, or lack thereof - had given their blessings. Perhaps they too harbor a secret desire to meet and for once not have beer bottles thrown at them?

LTTE Crises

For many and for some, the revival of the conflict in Sri Lanaka harks a sad but unsurprising moment for those familiar with ideas of how nation-states are formed. For others who have travelled to Sri Lanka, the names of towns like Trincomalee, Jaffna and Kilinochi must resonate somewhat all too familiar.

In the period after the 2002 Norweigian-brokered ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lanaka government and the LTTE rebels, I travelled to Sri Lanka. Motivated by stories of unspoilt beachs and Kandyan kings, and a school-boy curiosity in seeing the effects of a country plagued by civil war, the 'pearl of the Indian Ocean' was undeniably in gestation.

During a bus journey to the histroical town of Polonnarumwa, and in-between qeustions of whether I was was a journalist (apparently being one gets you everywhere), I was asked by a school teacher if there would be peace in Sri Lanka. He begged to differ with my answer and said with a smile, "Do you believe me, the LTTE are preparing for another war". One would have thought that the interim ceasefire in 2002 could have provided political space for Sri Lanka to negotiate the incommensurability of the Sinhalese and Tamil national projects. With the recent revival of Sri Lanka's war, I was sadly reminded of what the school teacher said. It seemed that the only space opened up was a military one to re-arm, re-supply, and re-consolidate.

One reason why the Sri Lankan conflict has dragged on for so long is that ethnic nationalism has become so embedded in the political thinking of the Sinhalese-majority and the Tamil-minority that their claims to statehood and nation-building cannot move beyond categories of ethnicity. To some extent, racialisation of politics in Sri Lanka was an inheritance of the governing institutions and mechanisms laid down by her British colonial masters since the mid-1700s. The British, and not the Dutch, were afterall the last arbitars of Sri Lanka's colonial heritage. In their efforts to devolve governance, the British were also mindful of the necessity to protect the interests of the minority Tamils for fear of violence in her colonies. India, at that time, was also undergoing her own transformation led by Ghandi. Many commentators have observed that, not surprisingly, these conditions further reinforced whatever perceived notions the Sinhalese had of the Tamils as the "favoured group of the colonial masters".

As a consequence, ethnicity became and has become the only framework in the process of Sri Lankan nation-building. And in this framework, all other factors crucial to nation-building had to fit in. One such factor is how nation-building processes demarcate boundaries within and between its people. How should the line be drawn for Tamils living in Sinhalese regions and vice versa? When the pieces don't fit, the nation-building process becomes increasingly convoluted for both the Sinhalese and the Tamil national projects. In Mar 2004, led by Colonel Karuna, commander of the LTTE's Eastern province, the LTTE factionalised in front of the world. Why? According to Colonel Karuna, the LTTE cadres living in the East had been neglected, and significantly, there were no LTTE cadres from the East who could count among the ranks of the main LTTE leadership. Colonel Karuna evidently believed that the main LTTE Tamil leadership was neglecting the LTTE Tamils in the East. How should the line be dranw for Tamils living in the East and Tamils living in the North? According to media reports in Jul 2006, Colonel Karuna has formed his own group called the "Tamil Freedom Panthers" and he is very much a part of the current conflict.

In her book "On Violence", political philosopher Hannah Arendt (1969) observed that power and violence were two qualitatively distinct entities. She pointed out that it was not violence, but power that formed the essence of governments. Violence can destroy the old power, she said, but it can never create the authority to legitimate the new. In a sense, the LTTE movement is not so much a violence to legitimate the new, as it is a violence to 'restore' Tamil rights and institutions, something not so new. The very same rights and institutions which were there from the time of the British, and also the very same rights and institutions which were contested and fought over with the Sinhalese since the time of the Indian epic the Ramayana, which tells the story of the conquest of Lanka in 3000BC by Rama, an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Let us hope that the Sri Lankan government's willingness to resume peace negotiations resume hold of the tiger's gaze.

Straits Times Interactive - Asia

Aug 14, 2006 Mon


COLOMBO - SRI Lanka's northern Jaffna peninsula has been cut off from the rest of the island as hundreds of residents try to flee heavy fighting in the area, military officials have said.

A senior Tamil Tiger rebel official denied government claims that the rebels had offered to renew peace talks, saying negotiations were impossible amid increased military attacks and the most intense fighting in four years.

Fighting that started on Friday and continued over the weekend has cut off the main road connecting government-held regions of the peninsula with the mainland.

The Defence Ministry said 36 troops and 150 Tamil rebels have been killed in the fighting on the peninsula and near Jaffna city, which the rebels controlled as their capital from 1990 to 1995.

The main airfield of Palaly has also been shut down, with private airlines ordered to halt flights there after the area took several artillery hits on Friday.

'There is a daytime curfew in Jaffna in addition to the night curfew in the high-security zones,'' a military official said. 'But we have reports of civilians moving out of their homes and taking shelter in public buildings.''

The bulk of supplies and troops to Jaffna are sent by sea from the north-east port of Trincomalee, which also came under artillery attacks.

'The army pulled back from some of the defensive positions because of heavy artillery attacks,'' a military source said. 'Troops are now in the process of re-establishing the bunkers they lost on Friday.'

The pro-rebel website said the guerillas had breached military defences in the Muhamalai area at the southern entrance to the government-held area of Jaffna.

The Tigers said they launched the latest attacks in defence against a government military onslaught. The Defence Ministry, however, denied the charge and blamed the rebels for initiating the latest fighting.

The upsurge in violence came amid reports of an offer of talks by Tamil Tiger rebels. The government said it received a message from the Tigers through ceasefire monitors on Friday, hours before fighting erupted on the Jaffna peninsula.

But Seevarathnam Puleedevan, a senior rebel official has denied making any peace overtures. He demanded the government stop their military offensives to allow some 50,000 displaced people to return home before considering a return to peace talks.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Justice is Very Much Alive in Singapore – The Case of M. Ravi Versus Justice Woo

Not so much a ‘Hallelujah’ but a big ‘Huh?’ was my first reaction to Justice Woo Bih Li’s eyebrow-raising act of disqualifying himself from presiding over defamation suits against Opposition politicians, Chee Soon Juan and Chee Siok Chin, who are represented by counsel, M. Ravi.

This must be the first time that a judge in Singapore disqualified himself from a case, moreover one with such political undertones. (Refer to Vignes Mourthi case in 2003 for background to Ravi’s claims of bias). It is usually the case that the application for the judge to be disqualified is based on bias against the litigant, not the solicitor. Justice Woo’s move thus comes as a surprise.

Ravi’s allegation of perceived bias is, in my opinion, a mere sideshow to a more fundamental concern. What is underlying the legal case is a far more disconcerting question of whether the Singapore Judiciary is at all independent.

For sure, the Judiciary in Singapore is not without its critics.

Asia Forum for Human Rights and Democracy, for one, censures the “use of the Judiciary by the government to repeatedly constrict opposition politicians by imposing heavy fines and jail terms”. (See Asia Forum for Human Rights and Development, “A Shadow on Singapore’s Judiciary: Use of Defamation and Contempt of Court on Government Critics”) Former Opposition politician, Francis Seow has also made condemning remarks about the ‘politics of judicial institutions’ in Singapore. (See article, “The Politics of Judicial Institutions in Singapore”) The US State Department had in Mar 2006 questioned the independence of the Judiciary in defamation cases targeting opposition leaders. In Jun 2006, the Singapore courts came under scrutiny in a case in Canada (EnerNorth Industries asked the Ontario Court of Appeal if legal decisions made in Singapore are fair and impartial enough to meet Canadian standards of justice; the appeals court reserved judgement after hearing the case.) In its Jul/Aug 2006 publication, FEER carried a write-up “Singapore’s Martyr, Chee Soon Juan”. FEER alleges that “Singaporean officials have a remarkable record of success in winning libel suits against their critics”. It questions, “How many other libel suits have Singapore’s great and good wrongly won, resulting in the cover-up of real misdeeds?”

Despite the criticisms, Singapore has, for long, pride itself on having an independent and impartial Judiciary. The Chief Justice and other judges of the High Court are appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister. They are appointed for life and transcend the political fortunes of the government-of-the-day.

I do not doubt that justice is very much alive in Singapore. One recent case best exemplifies this – Opposition politician James Gomez was hauled up by the police after his election form fiasco in May 2006 and the buzz was that the ruling government would once again employ scare tactics against the Opposition and Gomez would be charged in court. This would have happened if the Judiciary was under the direct control of the executive.

However, as it turned out, Gomez was only rapped with a “stern warning” for using “threatening words” against a civil servant and allowed to return to work in Sweden. One may quibble over whether Gomez was liable of wrongdoing. But I am certain that the decision was the right one, in view of evidence in the case and taking into consideration mitigating factors. Justice is certainly not blind to anyone who is deemed to be an adversary of the incumbent government. As the declaration in the Magna Carta dictates, “to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice”.

My understanding is that the Judiciary is an important bulwark of democracy and bastion of civil liberties. It checks and balances other pillars of state power, namely executive and legislature (trias politica or separation of powers as coined by Montesquieu). But in order for the Judiciary to perform its role as the protector of the people against any abuse of state powers, judges must conduct themselves and be seen to conduct themselves to deserve the trust of the people.

The personal backgrounds, opinions and attitudes of judges will increasingly come under public scrutiny even as people’s understanding of the judges’ role does not correspondingly increase. All this makes it more likely for people to believe that judges are not as impartial as they are supposed to be, especially when it comes to decisions on controversial issues. One way to remove this misperception is for judges to explain their decisions.

Indeed, Justice Woo’s act in the interests of justice is, without doubt, laudable. He had come forth to explain his decision regarding Ravi’s claims of bias - he had performed the necessary to assure Ravi that he would not be biased against the lawyer but also accepted that the public’s perception had to be taken into consideration. Such transparency can only bolster the impartiality of the judicial system in Singapore.

At the end of the day, ‘justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done’.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Light at the End of the Tunnel

It looks at there will be some light at the end of the tunnel (or along in pathway in this instance) for Potong Pasir residents after all. MP Chiam See Tong is now trying to build a lighted covered walkway.

This comes after some weeks of darkness, and a few days during which the spotlight (metaphorically speaking) was put on Chiam and defeated PAP candidate Sitoh Yih Pin as to who would fix the lights which the latter had installed.

Sitoh had leased the land from LTA in early 2005 to set up the 8 solar-powered lights costing $20,000. Recently, six lights had been vandalized and the fixing them would cost about $5,000 according to Sitoh. Sitoh put the onus of providing amenities on the elected town council (headed by Chiam) while Chiam noted that the lights were Sitoh’s baby, and it was illegal for the town council to fix the lights as it (the leased land) was not under his control.

Now that elections are over, Potong Pasir residents no longer have $2 abalone porridge and extra meet-the-people (with a PAP representative no less!). However, they should be grateful to Sitoh – and not just for the abalone porridge consumed previously – for several months of free lighting, and more importantly, for keeping Chiam on his feet and paying attention to his constituents.

Sitoh never had any obligations to the people of Potong Pasir and has no obligation now. Call him a sore loser, but it was and continues to be Chiam’s job to ensure that Potong Pasir residents have the amenities they need. As the MP for over two decades, Chiam should be aware of his residents’ needs, and proactive in trying to meet them. He is now trying to build a covered walkway. Would this have happened if Sitoh had not put up the lights in this first place?

Conversely, it must be said that the same argument should also apply in the PAP wards. In this regard, I wonder if $2 abalone porridge will be on the menu for Aljunied’s residents soon.


Straits Times Interactive – Singapore

AUG 8, 2006 TUE

SOLUTION UNCOVERED?: The question of who should repair the damaged lights will become redundant if the town council gets approval to build a covered walkway, said Mr Chiam

THE saga of who is to repair some damaged solar lights along a pathway in Potong Pasir constituency took a new turn last night.

Its MP, Mr Chiam See Tong, is now seeking to build a covered walkway with lights for residents walking home from the Potong Pasir MRT station.

He told The Straits Times that he applied to the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) last week for permission to build the linkway to connect the MRT station to the town centre in Potong Pasir Avenue 2.

This new development follows a dispute between Mr Chiam and the People's Action Party candidate, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin, who lost the contest for the ward in the May General Election.

Earlier, before the election, Mr Sitoh had installed eight solar lights along a concrete pathway from the MRT station to Block 147, Potong Pasir Avenue 1. He had obtained the lease of the land from the SLA.

Six lights were vandalised. Mr Sitoh declined to repair them, saying the land's lease would run out on Oct 31. Mr Chiam, on the other hand, said it was illegal for his town council to use its funds for the repairs because the land in question was not under the council's jurisdiction.

He said in an e-mail last night: 'In the case of building a covered linkway, we shall have to apply for permission before we can...construct a facility. We are now applying to the SLA to do that.'

His town council will also apply to use its sinking funds to pay for the covered walkway, he said. Mr Chiam also rebutted a comment made over the weekend by Mr Lim Boon Heng, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. Mr Lim had said that as MP for Potong Pasir, Mr Chiam was responsible for repairing the lights.

Said Mr Chiam: 'Mr Lim Boon Heng should know that permission was granted to Mr Sitoh to build the solar lamps. Therefore, it is his duty to repair the lamps.'' He added the issue would become redundant if the town council was allowed to construct the covered walkway.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Israel-Lebanon Crisis – Is there justice in war?

'War is the continuation of policy by other means' – Carl von Clausewitz

What autrocity. That was the first thought that flashed through my mind as I read, with distress, news of an Israeli attack in the Lebanese village of Qana that killed over 50 people and more than half of them were children.

I was left thinking... What plausible reason can justify the shelling of residential buildings in Qana? Does not international law and conventions attempt to protect the innocent young lives that were cruelly cut short in the Qana attack?

For sure, war is a brutal enterprise that has remained central to human society, for all its humanity. Is war not a barbaric slaughter, an act of violence (to quote von Clausewitz) intended to compel the enemy to fulfill one’s will? Or can war be fair, sensible and rational? Is war just? Is Israel waging a just war?

‘Just war’ tradition has a long distinguished pedigree, including the likes of St. Augustine, Cicero, Hugo Grotius… (Refer to bbc’s discussion on the ethics of war) There are three key considerations in a ‘just war’: jus ad bellum – the justice of resorting to war in the first place; jus in bello – the justice of conduct within war; and jus post bellum – the justice of peace agreements and termination phase of war. (Refer to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

I do not doubt that the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizbollah or by Palestinian militants is an act of aggression against the Israeli society. It necessitates an act of self defence. International law indeed guarantees the right of political sovereignty and territorial integrity. An aggression that violates this right permits a violent resistance from the Israeli forces.

The question, however, is whether Israel’s conduct is ‘right’ (‘just’) in the midst of battle when it has responded to the kidnappings with much ferocity. Clearly, what has become a point of contention are the attacks on civilian infrastructure in Lebanon, whether accidental or intended. The Beirut airport was closed by Israeli attacks, and similarly bridges, roads, power stations and ports are shut down under Israeli firepower. Some 400 people, including civilians, have been killed in Lebanon and the death toll is expected to rise.

What’s for sure, the easy criticism is to say what cannot rightly be done – i.e., direct attacks against civilian targets. However, it can be expected that the Israeli forces will over time exhaust the set of targets in Lebanon that are clearly linked to Hizbollah. This is especially so when Hizbollah elements hide amongst civilian populace in Lebanon. One fears that Israel may well fall prey to ‘agitprop’ methods employed by Hizbollah and overreact with excessive force. This may lead to the portrayal of the Israeli-Lebanon conflict as a “Zionist-crusader conspiracy” and fuel further escalation of the conflict, especially when each attack generates a collateral damage in civilian deaths.

Well, the challenge therefore is how then Israel can conduct its offensive against Hizbollah without further escalating the conflict. My take is that Israel may want to consider making the ‘prevention of war’ rather than ‘winning the war’ its defence doctrine. Surely, fire-power alone does not guarantee lasting peace in the long term. It is important to note that dislodging Hizbollah from its stronghold in southern Lebanon does not annihilate the threat of terrorism posed by Hizbollah (or other like-minded groups) to Israel and Israeli interests. Surely, there are other Hizbollah elements that will emerge elsewhere like a hydra-headed monster. Paul Rogers’ “Lebanon: the world’s choice” argues how the first two weeks of August will be decisive in determining whether Lebanon war escalates further or can be contained. A cease-fire is necessary and perhaps also the involvement of international peacekeepers. But the role of international community to affirm strongly the importance of peaceful solutions cannot be understated.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Looking for the Next Better Player

The ongoing rift between Tun Mahathir and PM Abdullah has all the ingredients needed to keep conspiracy theorists awake a little longer each night. Aside from the two key actors, we have three PMs-in-waiting (Najib, Anwar and Khairy), and four Malaysian corporations (Proton, Petronas, MAS and Gerbang Perdana) against a backdrop of issues ranging from approved permits, sale of MV Augusta, the (non) bridge and sale of sand to Singapore.

The cover story is that Mahathir and Abdullah have differing visions for Malaysia. Looking into the past, many observers uncover clues as so why this rift was inevitable -- different approach to fiscal policies, different groups of loyalists within UMNO. The less polite would simply point out that Mahathir was unhappy that Abdullah's failure to continue with the mega projects meant that Mahathir's biggest fans would suffer financially.

I think we should look forward instead. This is the window during which the future premier of Malaysia will be decided. Until recently, Najib was the heir apparent. Anwar was out of jail, but also mostly out of town. Khairy -- for all his apparent intellect and oratorical skills -- is still way too young.

The traditional view was that Najib belonged to Mahathir's camp. (Actually, the traditional view was that Mahathir and Abdullah were in the same camp ... but look how things have changed). Now Najib -- and the rest of the Cabinet and anyone else who matters -- has to take sides. Najib, albeit not vigorously, has publicly sided with Abdullah. Not surprising since there is very little that Mahathir can do for him now.

Anwar has apparently been back in town and taking pot shots at both sides, so much the better to bolster his image of being independent and uncorrupted. There was little doubt that he had enough charm left in him to make a re-entry into UMNO when he wanted -- Opposition politics is never an option if you want to be PM -- but the ongoing exercise in (re-) alignment of loyalties by UMNO members might provide an even more promising context for Anwar.

Khairy may stand a chance of being PM if Abdullah were to serve two terms; he would still be rather young, being slightly south of 40, but it is not unthinkable if his stars are in alignment. However, Abdullah may not serve out two full terms. If media appearances are anything to go by, he seems rather unenergetic since the death of his wife, Endon. It might well be that his response of ""elegant silence"" to Mahathir's remarks reflect a lack of fight rather than strategic spin control. If this is so, Khairy will need to build an alliance with either Anwar or Najib if he harbours the big office in Putrajaya someday.

Straits Times
July 22, 2006 Sat
Big welcome expected at airport; ex-PM to give public talk in opposition-held Kelantan next Friday

KUALA LUMPUR - AFTER a three-week vacation, Tun Dr
Mahathir Mohamad will return home this morning amid
widespread expectations that he will pick up from where
he left off in attacking the Abdullah administration.

The 80-year-old former prime minister is slated to give
a public talk in Kelantan next Friday in a move that
will set tongues wagging because he is following in the
footsteps of rebel politicians who head to the east
coast state to gain support.

Kelantan is the only Malaysian state that is ruled by
the opposition and is often used as a test bed when
trying to gain the hearts and minds of Malays in times
of political trouble.

In 1998, after then Prime Minister Mahathir sacked his
then deputy, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the latter went
to Kelantan. There, he received an indication of the
popularity of his cause when more than 30,000 people
listened to his speech at the Kota Baru stadium and
shouts of 'reformasi' were heard.

'Kelantan is where Umno is weakest and the Malays are
more willing to hear alternative views. The culture of
rebellion is strong,' said a leader of Parti Islam
SeMalaysia (PAS), which rules the state.

The return of Tun Dr Mahathir today is expected to bring
on a show of force by his supporters.

A group calling itself Gen M, or Generasi Mahathir, is
organising the homecoming via SMS and e-mail. It said it
expects between 300 and 500 people to be at the airport
in Subang.

Some expect even more people to turn up.
'I heard a lot of Umno guys are going on their own as
obviously this is not sanctioned by the party,' said an
Umno Youth official.

A rough indicator of how hot the issue has become is
this: A Gen M leader said its website, which advertised
free 'I support Dr M' T-shirts, has received 9,000
requests. It has sent out 300 T-shirts and will give out
another 300 today.

Holding welcome ceremonies at airports is a long-held
Umno tradition for top leaders who return from abroad.
In times of crisis, these are often turned into a show
of force.

Supporters of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi turned out
in force when he returned from Australia last Saturday.
More than 2,000 thronged the Subang air force base in
Selangor with banners and buntings showing they were
behind him.

Many will therefore be watching how big a crowd will
gather for Tun Dr Mahathir's return today.

But more than this, his plan to speak in Kelantan is
worrying Umno leaders as it could expand his views of
current issues outside Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs.
Besides the public talk at a hall that can hold 700
people organised by a group of Umno veterans, several
hundred people are said to have been invited to attend a
dinner that same night.

Tun Dr Mahathir has claimed the mainstream media was
selective in giving him coverage or had portrayed him as
an angry old man when it did report on him.

So, the Kelantan visit makes sense as he wants people
there to be able to listen directly to his views.

Helping him circumvent the mainstream media are several
bloggers, who have been at the forefront of giving his
views maximum publicity.

Additionally, VCDs of his talk at a private club in
Selangor last month have started appearing. The two-set
VCDs do not have a broadcast permit, usually found on
political speeches given by opposition leaders.

'The talk gave interesting insights into what the media
left out,' said one Madam Nor, who bought the RM10
(S$4.30) VCD titled Krisis at a stall outside a mosque
in Kuala Lumpur last week.

Such views worry the government. Especially since there
is talk that if the Kelantan visit goes down well, more
Mahathir road shows may be held in other states.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

More good money chasing bad?

New NKF seeks over S$12m in damages from Durai, four others
By Rita Zahara, Channel NewsAsia
Posted: 22 May 2006 1659 hrs

SINGAPORE : The new National Kidney Foundation (NKF) management is seeking more than S$12 million in damages in a civil suit against its former chief, three former directors, and a business associate.

Lawyers explain that several unquantifiable claims, upon assessment before the courts, could tip the scales beyond S$12 million.

All the claims were detailed in an 85-page statement to the High Court on April 24, and NKF lawyers Allen & Gledhill say unquantifiable ones make up a substantial portion of it.

The new NKF claims it suffered losses not only through improper payments, but also in its credibility, resulting in a drop in donations and support from volunteers and agencies.

The charity alleges that the loss of its reputation and goodwill in the eyes of the public has resulted in a drop in donations from existing donors as well as those who had cancelled regular donations.

Projects such as the charity shows were also affected and there has been a drop in the number of volunteers and support from medical, government agencies and corporations, both within Singapore and abroad.

It was therefore seeking compensation for breach of duty from the five defendants, TT Durai, Richard Yong, Matilda Chua, Loo Say San, and Pharis Aboobacker.

Said defence lawyer K Shanmugam, "Part of it is quantified; part of it is unquantified. Some parts of it, NKF has put a dollar claim -- what is the claim amount -- and some part of it is a matter for the court to make an assessment after hearing evidence as to how much is the damages."

The quantifiable claims alone amount to:
- S$2.1 million in salaries, bonuses and other benefits "improperly" paid to Durai;
- S$4.08 million for loss of donations in the form of Lifedrops income;
- Over S$556,000 in legal costs incurred when Durai and the old NKF brought a defamation suit against Singapore Press Holdings;
- And S$5.28 million paid to three companies linked to Pharis Aboobacker.

Mr Pharis, a friend of Durai, is in
India where relevant authorities are in the process of serving him the writ of summons.

He is the last of the five defendants to be informed that he is being sued by the new NKF.

Durai has been given additional two weeks, till May 31, to file his defence.

Richard Yong and Loo Say San filed their defence last Friday while Matilda Chua filed hers late Monday.

Failure to file by the stipulated time would allow lawyers for the new NKF to apply for judgment against the relevant defendants.

Channel NewsAsia understands the trial is expected to begin in six to nine months.

Meantime, the criminal cases against Durai, Yong, Chua, Loo, and former NKF staff Ragini Vijayalingam will be mentioned again on June 19 at the Subordinate Courts.

At the pre-trial conference on Monday, the defence asked the prosecution for more documents pertaining to the charges.

The New NKF is suing Durai and the old NKF team for over $12 million. This includes:
(a) $2.1 mil in salaries/bonuses/benefits
(b) $4.08 mil for loss of donations
(c) $556k in legal costs incurred when Durai tried to sue SPH; and
(d) $5.28 mil paid to companies owned by Pharis Aroobacker, a friend of Durai who is in India.

I have no sympathy for anyone who would fly 1st class (even at biz class prices) or install gold taps using money from primary school kids hawking donation cards who thought that their endeavours were meant to help kidney patients.

Still, I'd doubt it is possible (or even logical) to sue for donations lost because of the scandal, which I'm sure Durai really, really didn't want either! Salaries and benefits? Well, unless he took the money via illegal means, how can you justify asking for money back from an employee? Football players don't return salaries paid out earlier just cos they don't score. At worse, they lose any extra monies that are forthcoming. Even seeking the $556k in legal costs may be tough. Durai would probably argue that the costs were incurred in trying to defend the (old) NKF's reputation. And indeed it was. It just didn't work out the way Durai had hoped!

The most convincing portion of the claim is probably the $5+ million paid to Durai's pal. If it can be proven that the goods and services were not delivered, one can make a case for the $$$ to be returned. However, this Aroobacker is in India, and short of him writing the new NKF's lawyers a cheque, I wonder if anything can be done to get the money back even if our courts agree that he should.

So is this a case of more good money chasing bad? Perhaps not.

Perhaps the strategy is go for the sky, and this might motivate Durai to return some of the money. (I understand from my lawyer/police friends that this is a common approach). Perhaps the new NKF's lawyers are working pro-bono (or will only claim fees if the claims are actually paid). Or perhaps it is just part of the continuing exercise to appease (ex?) NKF donors who feel they have yet to extract their pound of flesh unless Durai and co are either bankrupted or imprisoned.

Let the chase begin (again).

Monday, May 22, 2006

Is the vote secret?

Siew Kum Hong's article in Today "Voting must be seen to be secret" appears to suggest that while votes are secret, serialised ballot slips, recording of serial numbers and allocated voting lanes (perhaps in tandem?) create the impression that they are not secret. And this fear had in the past caused his civil servant friend to vote against her conscience (presumably this means for the PAP).

Is the vote secret? There are two ways to look at it.

First, I think it is safe to assume that your INDIVIDUAL vote is secret. Your ballot slip (with serial numbers) get put in a box together with (probably) hundreds others. The boxes are unsealed and counted on polling night, with agents from both parties present. Theoretically, there's a tiny window of opportunity for someone present who knows your serial number to look out for your number, but this is not realistic. Now, after the results are out, the ballots get sealed in the boxes again and put with the Courts for 6 months, after which they are incinerated. So in these 6 months, someone could conceivably take out the boxes and sift out your ballot slip (assuming again he knows your serial number, which I believe most voters themselves would not remember unless they were planning to buy 4D). For this to happen, however, we would also need some level of corruption in the system (may be a low-level guard to take the box out; or at a higher level, some court/government official to authorize access to the boxes. It just seems like too much trouble in any case. If I wanted to know how person A voted, I could ask his friends, his family (or even person A himself) and probably get a pretty clear idea.

However, it is well known that politicians know how specific precincts or smaller parts of estates (possibly a block?) have voted, since each group is allocated a voting lane (and hence their votes go into the same box). So conceivably, an observant counting agent could tell what percentage of Blk 123X voted. So, your COLLECTIVE vote is not secret.

So why not get rid of serial numbers and voting lanes and make voting more fuss (and fear) free for all? The simple answer is that it is not in the interests of the ruling party. Why? Amongst the voters would be some who (a) would vote for the Opposition but are fearful that their vote may be found out and it would impact their job, HDB application etc; and (b) some who would vote PAP but want to make a statement against this not-so-seemingly-secret voting process. Everyone else -- lets call them group (c) -- is indifferent to the voting procedure, as long as the number in group (a) outnumbers those in group (b), it is in the interests of the PAP to maintain the status quo. Doing anything else simply benefits the Opposition.

Unfair? Probably. But why would they want to do otherwise? Hence, it fell to Opposition figure such as Low Thai Khiang to use their air time assure everyone that their vote was secret (or secret enough, anyway).

The Da Vinci Fallout – Much ado about nothing?

Christians should be infuriated after watching the movie, the Da Vinci Code. That’s what a forumer so strongly urged. Because it’s about all lies and it’s “insulting to Christianity”.

Well, the highly controversial movie opened in Singapore against a backdrop of protests. The Catholic Church has written a strongly worded letter to the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA) about the film ban. The National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), which represents the Protestant denominations, has also requested MICA to ban the film. Despite these attempts, the authorities in Singapore decided that it’s okay to pass the unedited version of the movie but restrict its audience to those at least 16 years in age.

It’s clear that Dan Brown’s novel contained historical fallacies and should be read as an intriguing fiction. Everyone loves a piece of conspiracy theory, don’t you?

So what’s all the fuss about? Especially when the movie falls short of the hype it had generated in my opinion.

Rather, Da Vinci Code brings to mind religious sensitivities that have to be handled with much care.

I generally agree with the Media Development Authority (MDA)’s explanation that the film “can be shown but at a higher rating as only a mature audience will be able to discern and differentiate between fact and fiction”. Note, the key word here is ‘discern’.

What is especially worrying however are the callous references made by forumers and bloggers that should such insults be made to other religions, the response of the believers would not be just “talking”. We have some forumers referring to the “Salman Rushdie” t(h)reatment and the burning of flags. Hey, the ensuing verbal dog-fights and inflammatory expletives against another religious faith could very well undermine the harmony of our society.

The Da Vinci saga is worrying because inflammatory postings on the Net can be the beginning of worse things to come. We may well be riding the slippery slope towards religious tension and conflict.

IMHO, we should have a low tolerance threshold for religious bigots. Equally important is maintaining a certain decorum in our postings and replies in cyberspace and steer clear of callous remarks that ridicules another’s sacred beliefs.


Da Vinci Coded at Tomorrow

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Bilahari Email

I think the exchange between Gayle Goh and MFA Perm Sec Bilahari Kausikan will mark an important juncture in how the government engages the public, and young Singaporeans in particular. More important than the issues raised (which -- at the risk oversimplification -- boils down to whether Singapore should take a nicer and less selfish approach in its foreign policy) is the fact that a senior government officer is willing and able to have a candid exchange with a JC student, and to have these views published for public scrutiny. The much-touted "e-government" should be about such exchanges ... and not just whether you can renew your road tax online.

In Bilahari's email to Gayle, he says that he prefers disagreement to indifference, and that "those who have advised you (Gayle) to 'be careful,' tone down your criticisms or lie low have given you bad advice and do yourself, the government and Singapore no favours."

Such words are comforting (esp for bloggers), but one must also realise that the people/context Gayle describes do exist in Singapore. I believe that Singaporeans don't want to write to the government only to receive a cookie cutter reply, or worse, mildly-disguised criticism (or even worse, a lawsuit). It's good to see a 17-year-old with the cojones (figuratively speaking), intellect and writing ability to engage a prominent government official. It is even better to see said government official reply in a forthcoming and sincere manner.

IMHO, Singapore could benefit from a few more Gayle Gohs, and more than a few more Bilahari Kausikans.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Singaporeans should not be alarmed in JB?

The New Paper, 10 APRIL 2006


It was interesting that on 2 Apr, The Sunday Times and The New Paper on Sunday simultaneously carried lengthy reports and an editorial (The Sunday Times) on car thefts in Johor.

It was unfortunate that these reports over-exaggerated the actual situation on the ground and at the same time portrayed four major shopping malls in Johor Bahru (Holiday Plaza, Plaza Pelangi, Aeon Tebrau City and Giant Plentong) in a rather bad light.

The immediate and strong reaction to these reports could certainly have been anticipated.

The Johor State Government, the Johor Police authorities, the Johor Bahru Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Malaysia Shopping Complex Management Association (Southern Region), among others, were swift in their response.

State Tourism and Environment Committee Chairman, Mr Freddie Long, in a press conference convened on 3 Apr, clearly articulated the serious concerns of the state, including the repercussions that such adverse reports might have on the state's economy, tourism flows from Singapore to Johor, as well as on the image of the State.

Questions were also raised on whether there was a 'hidden agenda' behind these reports. It would be useful first to establish the facts. From statistics compiled by the Johor Police authorities, in recent years car thefts involving Singapore-registered cars have been negligible.

In 2004, of the 1,381 cars reported stolen in Johor, only 33 (2.39 per cent) were Singapore-registered cars. In 2005, of the 1,394 cars reported stolen, 52 (3.7 per cent) were Singapore-registered cars. In January and February 2006, of the 264 car thefts reported, only 3 were from Singapore.

Looking at these statistics, the outcry in the Singapore media that Singapore cars are targets of car thieves in Johor really does not make sense. It only serves to fuel unnecessary speculation that there is more to these reports than meets the eye.

Singaporeans should rest assured that the Johor state government is constantly taking steps to reduce criminal activities, including car thefts, and improve public safety, both for its people as well as for visitors to the state, including our neighbours from Singapore.

To deter robberies and car thefts, the police authorities in Johor have just announced that an additional 100 men and 45 patrol cars would be deployed. Closed-circuit TV cameras linked to the state police headquarters are also being installed at strategic locations. The Johor state government would also soon hold discussions with the Inspector-General of Police, Tan Sri Bakri Omar, to look into measures to further improve security in the state.

Johor-bashing should stop. The sooner, the better. We should not stand in the way of forging more and even closer interactions between Johor and Singapore in the days ahead.

Dato' N Parameswaran
High Commissioner of Malaysia to Singapore


I have just read an excellent book titled Freakonomics. It basically shows how available data can be used to logically disprove commonly-held assumptions. Let me try to apply some of its precepts to a current bilateral bone of contention -- how Malaysian car thieves appear to be targeting Singapore-registered cars.

It was alleged in a Singapore media article that Singapore cars were preferred targets because of their comparatively low mileage and generally better condition. The Malaysian High Commissioner, has rebutted that the outcry does not make sense, citing (probably official) statistics that only 3.7% (or 52) of the cars reported stolen in Johor last year were from Singapore.

To put things into proper perspective, we would need to know (or guess) what proportion of cars in Johor (at any given hour) were from Singapore. A NST article dated 5 Apr 2006 quotes traffic consultant Dr Tai Tuck Leong as saying that about 20,000 foreign cars drive into Johor each day. I think we can assume that almost all the non-Malaysian cars in Johor would be from Singapore -- the number from Thailand is probably not significant. Let's further assume that each Singapore car would typically remain for about 6 hours on average. If so, we can induce that at any given time, the number of Singapore cars somewhere on Johor roads (or car parks) would be about 5,000.

I couldn't find any direct reference to the number of cars in Johor, but various sources suggest that Malaysians have 1 car for every 2 people, Johor's population of 2.8 million would suggest that there are about 1,400,000 cars in the state (not too surprising given that Johor covers an areas of almost 20,000 sq km).

Based on these assumptions, there are about Singapore cars 5,000 cars sharing Johor's roads with 1.4 million local cars at any given time. In other words, Singapore cars make up just under 0.36% of Johor's car population.

Since 3.7% of the cars stolen in Johor were from Singapore, this indicates that a Singapore car is about 10 times as likely to be a target of a car thief in Johor as compared to a Johor/Msian car.

Perhaps someone (like Dr Tai perhaps?) would like to do a more rigorous study to support or dispute this?

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Women in Politics: Hear Us Roar Soon

Straits Times

April 8, 2006 Sat


By Li Xueying

HUMAN resource manager S.H. Lee is 'intrigued' by Workers' Party (WP) chairman Sylvia Lim.

'She is a woman and an opposition leader to boot,' says Miss Lee, 26. 'That makes it doubly hard, doubly brave and doubly foolhardy.'

While Miss Lee, who lives in Aljunied GRC where Miss Lim is expected to contest in the coming election, has not decided who she will vote for, she adds: 'I'm more willing to listen to what she has to say.'

With such attitudes, it is perhaps not surprising that the People's Action Party's (PAP's) Mrs Lim Hwee Hua has been spotted working the ground there too.

Pundits observe that it is a canny electioneering strategy: for the PAP to pit its highest-ranking woman against Miss Lim, to counter any gender appeal Miss Lim may have with women.

This year's general election is shaping up to be one in which gender plays a role.

Institute of Policy Studies research fellow Jeanne Conceicao says that women candidates - especially new ones - have an edge in bringing in women's votes. So far, on the PAP side, six new women candidates have been made public so far. As for the WP, expect two or three women candidates, Miss Lim says. This is a change indeed. For 14 years in the 1970s and 1980s, there were no women in Parliament.

Why is there a bumper crop of women candidates this time? Will the coming election be a milestone for women in politics? And will a woman finally become a full minister?

I was told that the Miss Singapore Universe beauty pageant this year had, among its midst, contestants with remarkable education qualifications - degree holders, Master’s students, and an aspiring PhD candidate (not at all surprising, given the academic excellence that we ladies have achieved). Beauty pageants are increasing a celebration of the females’ beauty and brains. Or are they?

The age-long debate will continue on how beauty is subjective and that academic excellence does not guarantee one successes in life. What I wish to instead highlight here is that the highly educated and (presumably) beautiful females are stepping forward to represent the country as its ambassador at the world stage.

But can the same be said about women entering politics?

Regrettably, despite the reported increase in the number of female members of parliament (see Straits Times article, More Women Willing To Enter Politics, 3 Apr 06), I’m afraid the situation is far from ideal.

To highlight the dire situation, the percentage of women in parliament in Singapore is 16% (15 out of 94) which places the country at joint 66 out of 187 countries (as of 28 Feb 06; statistics and ranking by Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU): Women in National Parliaments).

Sadly, the percentage of women in government and politics does not correspond to our percentage of the population and falls short of the 30 to 35 % that the UN deems necessary for women to make an impact in policies.

Astoundingly, there are hitherto no female ministers in Singapore. The highest ranked female politician in the history of Singapore, I stand corrected, was former Acting Minister Seet Ai Mee.

So why the miserable 16% female representation in Singapore’s parliamentary process?

OnlineWomen offers its explanation that the low representation of women in Singaporean politics “reflects the highly Confucian nature of the Singaporean society, which is very paternalistic”. It echoes the view of local NGO, Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) that the “patriarchal system puts pressure on men to perform regardless of their ability and circumstance, and limits the potential of women regardless of our ability and circumstance”.

Also, the arduous balance between work and family led to many women to choose the latter, according to a Miss Singapore Universe contestant who was asked for her opinion on whether women found it difficult to become CEOs and Presidents of companies.

I do not agree that systemic factors (real or perceived) prevent the participation of women in politics. Indeed, there is no legal bar to the participation of women in politics. Women in Singapore enjoy the same legal rights as men in most areas, including political representation.

What matters, however, is the courage for women to step forward to serve society and the belief that we can make a difference. We women can only take it upon ourselves to represent women’s issues and interests.

Ministers of State Lim Hwee Hua and Yu-Foo Yee Shoon are currently among the more prominent female parliamentarians. Several women are also Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP, ie not elected) and they too are playing an important role in policy formulation and review. In addition, a law lecturer at a local polytechnic is chairperson of the opposition party, the Workers’ Party. Outside of politics, Chief Executive of local Temasek Holdings, Ho Ching ranks 30th in Forbes’ list of most influential or “powerful” women in the world.

They are role models for other women. They demonstrate that the efficient and capable can do many things (career, family and national duties) and gender is in no way an obstacle to their achievements.

This forthcoming election in Singapore promises more women politicians. I applaud the ruling political party, the People’s Action Party which has named 6 new women candidates, on top of the 10 existing female MPs so far. The opposition is also likely to field several women candidates.

The signs are indeed encouraging…

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Vote for ‘No-Vote’ - People Power or Mob Rule in Thailand?

Democracy in Asia
Financial Times
April 4 2006

It is tempting for Asian authoritarians to point to the confusion in Thailand after Sunday's election, as well as the instability in the Philippines, and dismiss democracy as a risky and supposedly western concept that should no longer be """"exported"""" to east Asia.

This analysis is self-serving and wrong. Most east Asian democracies - with the exception of the system successfully imposed on post-war Japan by the US - have arisen naturally, if fitfully, over the past 30 years as a result of increasing wealth and sophistication among citizens no longer impressed by dictators or military rulers.

Flawed individuals and constitutions, not inappropriate political philosophies, are to blame for the latest crises afflicting the democracies of south-east Asia. The problem with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Philippine president, is not democracy but the way she subverted it by secretly talking to an election official during the vote-counting in 2004 and then refusing to explain herself when damning recordings of her telephone calls were leaked.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister who called this week's snap election in an attempt to bolster his legitimacy, is an authoritarian leader, not an instinctive democrat. Chastened by what turned out to be only a half-hearted endorsement from the voters, he deserves some credit for suggesting last night that he might stand down if asked to do so by a committee of eminent persons, even if there are justifiable suspicions about how such a committee might be formed. Until now, Mr Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire proud of his "CEO-style" of government, has relentlessly exploited the weaknesses of the Thai political system without honouring the spirit of the home-grown democratic constitution.

His opponents, led by the Democrat party, took a big risk in boycotting the poll. They arguably betrayed their democratic ideals by ignoring the popular vote and relying instead on street protests, appeals to the hereditary king and the constitutional niceties that will delay the opening of parliament following a largely uncontested election.

Mr Thaksin's critics, however, are right about one thing: for liberal democracy to succeed, citizens must enjoy not only the right to vote but also the broader benefits of a free society, including an impartial justice system and a free flow of information.

On these issues, Mr Thaksin's rule has been disastrous. His government has favoured the businesses of his family and friends, harassed the media and undermined supposedly independent bodies, such as the National Counter Corruption Commission, designed to monitor the executive.

For Asian democrats, the one good result to emerge from this otherwise inconclusive election is Mr Thaksin's admission that he was not as indispensable as people thought. Now it is up to both sides to avoid violence as the political wrangling continues.


I’m undecided whether to view Thaksin Shinawatra’s shock decision on April 4th to step down from power as an end to the political saga in Thailand or the beginning of worse things to follow...

His stepping down from power may be good riddance for the Bangkok folks who were becoming increasingly frustrated over Thaksin’s misrule, particularly his blatant use of power for personal profit (read his family’s not liable for tax on the Bt73 billion profit from the Temasek-Shincorp deal; For more details on the deal, see Straits Times, “Thai tycoon pumps in $112M for stake in Shin Corp”, 16 Mar 2006).

I understand that the Temasek-Shincorp deal was restructured to ensure that the Shinawatras would not be liable to any tax payment at all. While they did not, in fact, violate securities laws over the sale, the avoidance of tax payment from Temasek-Shincorp deal was probably political foolhardy on Thaksin’s part. The family’s deliberateness to avoid tax liability was portrayed by Thaksin’s opponents as a clear selling out of national interests for personal profits, which easily found resonance among the tax paying populace. (I shall not bore you with the technical details of the deal. Those interested may wish to refer to The Nation, “Book outlines key issues in Shin takeover scandal”.)

Apparently, it was ‘people power’ that brought about the political change in Thailand. They came in tens of thousands - the young, the old and the families. They gathered at Bangkok’s main shopping district, Siam Square and its upscale malls. Their message was clear enough - “Thaksin, get out!” It was a vivid demonstration of the return of power to the people. Or was it?

Although I am no fan of his populist agenda, Thaksin has undeniably his set of staunch supporters who were won over by his 30-baht healthcare scheme, One Tambon, One Product (OTOP) program and other debt relief packages for the rural folk. Thaksin promised and delivered real benefits to the common citizen who had not gotten much out of politics in the past.

Notwithstanding his personal failings (critics cited his lack of moral legitimacy), one cannot deny that Thaksin is genuinely popular in Thailand. While the lenses of international media focused on anti-Thaksin demonstrations at Bangkok’s Siam Square (including at the new Paragon!?), one should not forget that there were also over 30,000 Thaksin supporters, including those that came from the villages outside of Bangkok, who had camped at Chatuchak (famous for its weekend flea market?) to cheer Thaksin on.

Hey, the fact is that Thaksin is a democratically elected leader. Although the opposition parties took no part in the election over the weekend (slamming it as a sham), Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (literally, Thai love Thai) party won Sunday’s ballot as a matter of fact, with a majority of 57% of the vote. Look, while he may be unpopular among the Bangkok city folks and the southern Thai populace, Sunday’s ballot results showed that Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party have the popular mandate of the electorate in all other parts of Thailand.

I am therefore uneasy that it was mob rule that returned triumphant in the latest saga in Thailand and sadly so. Regrettably, democracy proved no contest for the might of Bangkok’s street justice…

Well, it is without a doubt that democracy is more than just elections. It is about the rule of law, legitimacy, transparency and accountability. That combination, I feel, can only be achieved through an evolution of institutional democratic habits and not spectacular revolutions by the motley masses. And surely, a respect of the polling results (ie the choice of Thai people from all parts of Thailand, not just Bangkok) is the very basis of democratic principles.

What next for the anti-Thaksin opposition and what constitutional role will they perform now they are not represented in the next parliament? Will Thailand degenerate into ‘mob-o-cracy’ (mob rule aka ‘ochlocracy’)?

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Something to add to this.

Well, I think we need a parliament that is functional, that offers constructive views on policy decision-making. Certainly, the danger of having so many dissenting views is that the parliament becomes dysfunctional and operates as a mere debating shop. But hey, there are clear examples in the world that opposition parties provide viable shadow governments and constructive policy alternatives to those proposed by incumbent governments (eg. Australia's opposition Labor Party & UK's Conservative Party). To be fair, countries like UK and Australia have come a long way, both politically and socially.

IMHO, what really matters when it comes to elections is that the principle of (free & fair) contest be upheld. Surely, elections are about allowing the populace to exercise their choice (ie having alternatives) than making a deliberate attempt to ensure the presence of opposition politicians in parliament. Hey, this means that there must be alternatives for the people to choose from... No walkovers, pls!!! Just look at the recent political saga in Thailand. Well, Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra may have declared himself victor in snap polls held over the weekend, but the results will sadly bear the stain of the electoral boycott by Thailand's opposition parties, which has robbed the election of legitimacy...