Friday, December 07, 2007

Great Expectations

Much has been said in recent days about the rising cost of living in Singapore.

Still, I think a new graduate today is far more fortunate as compared to when my peers and I when we drew our first paychecks about 10 years ago.

Food in general has become more expensive, while computers and electronics are far cheaper (and of course, better) then those we had when. Spa treatments were pretty unheard of, and while regional trips were quite affordable, we did not have the option to traveling on budget airlines.

A fresh graduate with an Arts degree could expect about $1,700 in 1996. Today, I think he can expect around $2,400 (up 40%).

In 1996, the only new car most new graduates could afford (if at all) was the Fiat Uno, a 1-litre hatchback with a dodgy reputation for reliability. It cost around $65,000. A 1.6 litre Japanese sedan was much pricier, at about $90,000. Today, the latter comes for about $70,000 (down 30%)

In 1996, a friend bought a new two-bedroom leasehold condo in Upper East Coast for nearly $700,000. I imagine that the same could be had for less then $600,000 today, even following the recent property boom (down 15%). A 5-room flat in Tampines was going for over $500,000.

Simply put, most young couples could not afford a car. A HDB flat application usually meant a 4-year wait for a unit at Sengkang or Punggol 21 – which did not have MRT at the time – unless you were willing to pay the premium for a resale flat.

The cost of living may be going up, but young graduates really have very little to complain about.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Past Careless Talk, Now New Finance Minister

In 1994, Tharman Shanmugaratnam was charged under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) for endangering the secrecy of classified documents and was fined $1,500. Then AG Chan Sek Keong, now the Chief Justice, was the man tasked to make a point about the OSA, MAS high flier or not. Tharman was then MAS' economics director and he disclosed to the Business Times the official flash estimates of the economic growth of 2nd quarter 1992. Among the five in that OSA case, Tharman got off the lightest as the other four received a $2,000 fine in the leak. Very odd, I should think, that the person who leaked official information actually did not shoulder the most responsibility while the journalists who received the information and subsequently published the information were held more accountable. The other four probably assumed that the information given to them was fit for public release or why else would it be shared with them?

A person prosecuted for leaking official information to the media is now Singapore's Finance Minister. What do you make out of it?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Will you be there in the morning?

At times, it can be an intolerable experience to follow politics and current affairs (International or otherwise). Weeding through thick layers of political doublespeak and maneuvering through layers upon layers of hypocrisy can be trying. These accumulated frustrations, and the particularly galling behaviour of clueless individuals, has sparked this blog entry.

The individuals in question are a group of international students from NUS who have announced their intentions to hold a protest outside the venue of the ASEAN summit on 19 Nov.

Before I look at their intentions, allow me to postulate the likely outcome of their actions. Police officers at the site will advise them to disperse as their actions could possibly pose a public order threat within stipulated “protected areas”. They will naturally refuse (what self-respecting “activist” wouldn’t?). This could lead to their arrest, which would be lapped up by international media representatives.

This is of course where the real ideological onslaught begins. Critics will have more fodder to label us as authoritarian, no better than the Junta. Singapore official will scramble their spin doctors to emphasis security trumps freedom of expression. Ultimately, we become audience to a dance where both parties are cognizant of each others steps and take turns to lead. And the Junta cracks a wry smile and gains some desperately needed respite.

Wind back the clock a year or so and you will see what I mean.

I vividly remember Paul Wolfowitz, former President of the World Bank, criticising Singapore as “authoritarian” and asserted that “enormous damage” had been done to Singapore’s image. for restrictions on activists during the IMF/WB meetings in Sep 06.

Alas, we all are familiar with the embarrassing revelations that subsequently transpired. Perhaps more troubling than Wolfowitz’s public denial of running such an important international institution as his personal fiefdom (isn’t that the very definition of authoritarianism?), was the fact that the Bank’s thumb-twiddling board was only jolted into action by media exposure of their inaction. Ironically, these events have tarnished the reputation of his former organization that so aggressively promoted personal integrity and clean government in the developing world.

And what about accusations of our handling of the event like a police state. Naturally, the image of thick wire fencing surrounding Suntec City comes to mind. But wait a minute, have we forgotten the “Great Wall of APEC”? In fact, security was so high that a 3 German tourists were asked by police to delete digital photographs of the fence that placed Sydney in near total lockdown.

These serve as a poignant reminder of the swelling amounts of hypocrisy that permeates much of what we see and read from international governments, bodies and groups. Who appointed these people as agents of progress anyway? And what entitles them to pontificate in so shameless a way when there are injustices and rights abuses in their own country?

In light of the political wrangling over the crisis in Myanmar, it is remarkably disingenuous for embodiments of the one-world system, a system that has artfully glazed economic and cultural hegemony as democracy, to claim moral authority over atrocities that they are to an extent culpable for perpetuating.

That brings us back to the planned protest by International students from NUS, whom in my opinion embody all the above traits of hypocrisy and self-righteousness.

I know it comes across as a harsh dismissal, but how else am I to understand their actions which are designed to derail processes (albeit baby steps, but steps nonetheless) in order to:

1) Peacefully demonstrate their solidarity with the Burmese people --- While the thought is rather sweet, we have reached a juncture where concrete actions or processes are far more urgent. The Myanmese already know the world, at least most of it, is united in solidarity in condemning the current situation. Candle vigils are fashionable these days. But like all fashion statements, they are seasonal. What we need is organized institutions or groups that can engage the Junta in dialogue. They already know what Ms Suu Kyi looks like.

2) Respond to recent violent crackdowns and the subsequent lapse in international media attention. --- This statement implies that the majority of the world is unaware of the authorities and is indebted to this groups for highlighting them. They must have had their heads buried in the sand all this while. Awareness has already reached saturation point, what we need know is political action.

3) Respond to the news that the member states will be signing the ASEAN Charter which is to include clauses on human rights. –-- This threw me off for a bit. Are they upset that ASEAN members are engaging the Junta? Are they dissatisfied with the drafting of the charter?

While the Singapore government’s position with regards to regime change in Myanmar can be at times confusing, it is apparent to me that the Humans Rights Charter that ASEAN member states are embarking on is an integral piece of a larger strategy to that effect. While “constructive engagement” has almost become a dirty word, the alternatives are far less appealing.

Or is it as plain as it reads: the cameras are on, we will be there.

But will they be there after the smoke has cleared? Probably not.

International students are notorious for exploiting scholarship loopholes to absolve themselves from serving out their local bonds; an uncomfortable truth that is exacerbated by recent debates over foreign student numbers and how more resources meant for locals are channeled to them.

One of the basic tenants of human rights is the right to life and liberty, freedom of thought and expression. Perhaps in this case, these international students are being wasteful with their freedoms and privileged lives.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Why Deny HDB Windfall?

Donald Aw lamented in the Young PAP Blog that the prices of HDB flats in some matured estates were "absurd" and asserted that "if the purpose of the HDB housing programme is to provide affordable public housing, then there is a need to re-look at the way the resale market is structured."  Donald concluded that "we should send a clear signal that those who stay in these public housing in mature estate are privileged and not that only those who are financially privileged can stay in these public housing."

I agree with Donald that a key tenet of HDB would be to provide affordable public housing.  But aside from being a roof over our heads, the HDB flat is also, for many Singaporean families, a major component of their financial assets.  The value of the HDB flat can be realized only if it is sold on the resale market (although more recently, it can also be used as collateral for the reverse mortgage/annuity schemes).

As with all assets, prices sometimes rise, and they sometimes fall.  Traditionally, no resale flat would be priced lower than the amount for which it was purchased from the HDB.  In the past 10-15 years, however, with the economic swings, rising HDB direct-sale prices etc, there are people who have lost money (whether on paper or otherwise) even if they had bought their units directly from HDB.  This would apply to a greater proportion of those who bought resale units.

Now that prices have risen (in the mature estates at least), some HDB flat owners have chosen to cash-out, whether to upgrade to private property or realize some profit.  They are generally not speculators; direct-sale or 1st time buyers who used the CPF grant would have stayed in their home for a minimum of 5 years before selling – one of the many anti-speculation measures in place for HDB flat buyers.  Is it so undesirable that some lucky ones are able to enjoy a windfall?

To be fair, Donald's concern appears to be focused on young couples who cannot afford to live near their parents.  

But the simple matter is that location (and distance to amenities etc) and flat type/size are the major price determinants.  Other factos include the floor/level, view and facing (west sun is generally a no-no), whether it is on a lift landing floor, whether there is "O$P$" splashed on the walls of the block etc.

It is inevitable that some flats will command a premium over others.  When times are good and buyers are flush with cash (whether from en bloc sales or Toto winnings), this premium will increase; and the gap will narrow when times are bad.  Just because a buyer has the means and is willing to pay a premium for a HDB unit does not make him any less a "genuine buyer."  

After all, if *all* HDB flats are only for meant for the less financially privileged, then HDB should start evicting all residents whose household incomes have risen above $6,000 or $8,000 or whatever the cap for that flat size may be.  Judging from the marques I see at many HDB car parks these days, there will be a lot of people pushed to the streets … and quite possibly living in expensive cars  ;-)

HDB does provide affordable public housing, done primarily via the direct sales channel.  Some units (albeit limited) are in mature estates and others are in very nice (if somewhat ulu) new estates.  Young couples who buy a resale unit near have an added incentive of a larger CPF grant.  

But ultimately, resale HDB flat prices should be determined by market forces.  Why deny HDB flat owners the occasional windfall?

Monday, October 15, 2007

Is Singapore FOR or AGAINST?

I am puzzled.

Is the Singapore Government for or against the movement to change the junta regime in Myanmar?

Some signs that suggest that they are FOR:
1. Issued statement as ASEAN Chair expressing revulsion at the protests in Myanmar
2. MM says "dumb" Myanmar generals will not last indefinitely; Singapore ambassador says Myanmar should be suspended from ASEAN
3. Allowed "peace for Burma" activities organized by students at the universities; allowed a gathering of Myanmar nationals at a hotel

Signs that suggest they are AGAINST:
1. Police presence to discourage petition/vigil organized by SDP outside Myanmar Embassy; arrest of 5 SDP members for protesting outside the Istana
2. PM says that sanctions against Myanmar won't help; Singapore allegedly provides Myanmar with arms etc.
3. PM defends providing junta leaders with medical treatment; otherwise Singapore would be doing "petty indignities"

Some observers suggest that with the tide of international opinion rising against the junta, Singapore authorities are finding the cost of siding with them too high and are thus moving away.  

But I would posit that these "mixed" signals existed from almost Day one of the Myanmar crisis.  If anything, several of the AGAINST signs actually came later.  

MM's comments to Tom Plate were made on 27th September.  I think the "revulsion" statement came out the same day.  On the other hand, the enforcement activities against SDP and PM's remarks on the sanctions only came later in early October.

I guess the diplomats call this sort of positioning "nuanced."  I call it "confusing."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Protestors or Pedestrians?

Somewhere in the midst of all the reports on protest activity (yes! Even in Singapore!) was this picture of expatriate women in Singapore wearing red. Supposedly, they were wearing red as part of global action Friday to support the Myanmar protests.

Some bloggers are questioning if the Singapore authorities were practicing double standards, especially since 5 SDP were arrested yesterday recently for protesting outside the Istana.

Taking sides on this issue will either make one looks like an apologist for the boys in blue, or a die-hard government critic. So I will do neither.

What I did, however, was take a closer look at the picture, and I found several clues to suggest that the ang moh ladies may not have been protestors at all.

At least four of the ladies appear to be wearing name tags. One of them is carrying a bottle of water while another – the Asian woman in the center – has a small camera in a pouch. More important perhaps is what they are *not* carrying. I don’t see any placards or flyers.

The “leader” appears to be reading from a text while the rest listen passively. Nobody appears to be chanting or saying anything.

I am not sure of the location but it is likely to be somewhere in Singapore since that looks like a HDB block in the background, and the building in the foreground in reminiscent of restored heritage buildings that have become quite common. If one were to protest against the Myanmar or Singapore governments, surely there would be better places e.g. along Orchard Road, in front of City Hall, outside the Embassy or Istana?

My guess is that the ladies were members of a tour group. If so, why were they decked in red/pink/orange? It is plausible that some of them decided to wear red(dish) as a sign of solidarity with the Burmese (assuming the picture is recent), but there could be other explanations as well.

Just goes to show that we can’t take what we see at face value … even if it comes the jpeg format.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Dear Transport Minister

I take cognizance of your urging Singaporeans not to link politicize issue of bus fare hikes.

However, it goes without saying that any cost of living issue *is* a political issue. The populace votes for a party or candidate in the hope that their choice will help improve (or at least not reduce) their standard of living, which includes issues like security and safety, how much they earn, and have to spend.

I will grant that your point about transport fares and operators' costs going "full circle" makes sense. We get what we (tax payers or users) pay for.

But the suggestion by the unnamed Thomson Division resident is a valid one.

Allowing such transport fare increases once every 4 years is not unthinkable. I seriously doubt if our transport operators are operating on a hand-to-mouth basis (a scenario which applies to some of their users). Moreover, when costs are reduced (e.g. when fuel prices fall, more efficient buses are used, better route planning etc), we also don't see fares coming down. Obviously, there must be some surplus which operators enjoy.

Now, the unnamed Thomson Division resident has actually gone a step further to ask that the price increases (if any, presumably) be made *before* the general election.

I imagine that this would be a tough pill for the ruling PAP to swallow. It takes some chutzpah for a politician to increase prices, taxes etc (i.e. essentially screw them), and then ask voters for their support. (And I have earlier admitted that cost of living is a political issue).

A fairer solution would be to allow public transport fare increases on a fixed date only once every three years, say on 1 Oct. If there incredible circumstances (e.g. doubling or tripling of fuel prices) which really require intervention to save transport companies from going under, the government should step in with some help from our carefully guarded coffers. Fares for public transport should not be allowed to rise willy nilly.

This way, price hikes might sometimes happen before an election, and sometimes after. In any case, we would have somewhat divorced the issue from politics from bus fare hikes.

October 8, 2007 Monday
By Yeo Ghim Lay

Transport Minister Raymond Lim yesterday commented for the first time on the bus fare hike this month, urging Singaporeans not to politicise the issue.

Doing so would over time, cause the service standard to suffer, he said at a dialogue.

A resident of Thomson Division suggested that fares be reviewed every four years before the general election.

He was highlighting the latest bus fare hike of 1 to 2 cents on Oct 1, just a year after the last increase when fares of buses and trains were raised by 1 to 3 cents.

Replying, Mr Lim said if fares were frozen for four years, people tend to ask for it to be extended again.

Other countries' experiences have shown that when governments succumb to such pressure, service standards would deteriorate.

The reason: bus companies, unable to afford new buses, will have a shrinking fleet, resulting in overcrowding.

As the situation worsens, people will complain to the government, which will feel compelled to raise fares.

'But the people say: 'How can you raise the fare if the buses are so crowded, so lousy the service?'

'It goes one full circle,' said the minister.

So while, politically, the freezing of fares would be a popular move, that would not be a responsible thing to do, he added.

The resident had also asked why public transport companies like SBS and SMRT are publicly listed, resulting in them looking out for the interests of their shareholders, not commuters.

Mr Lim said experience elsewhere shows that if government were to take over, costs will still rise eventually. Fares then have to rise. But if commuters resist, fares have to
subsidised and this subsidy has to be borne by taxpayers. So, either the user or tax- payer pays, he noted.

The minister also defended the Public Transport Council (PTC), noting that its decision to disallow train fares to rise was ignored by people.

Arguing that fare charges was best left to the independent PTC, he said it was unfair to brand it pro-public transport operators.

'They are doing a very difficult job, (it is) very easy to say these things but they're already trying to take into account the public interest to ensure that at the end of the day, you have a public transport service that is good,' he said.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Political Opportunity amidst the Human Tragedy

What is happening in Burma/Myanmar is a tragedy. Unofficial reports suggest that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protestors – including many Buddhist monks – have paid the ultimate price in their fight for freedom from Myanmar’s military regime.

The news, pictures and videos of the atrocities in Myanmar which appeared on the Internet quite liberally in the first few days appears to have slowed to a trickle. Other reports are more disturbing (but perhaps not too surprising) i.e. that soldiers are arresting those recording these images with cameras and handphones.

In the absence of corroborative information, we can only pray that our fellow netizens who have bravely shared these images and stories with us are safe from harm.

Indeed, many groups here in Singapore have turned to the divine for intervention. Buddhist worshippers have reportedly gathered by the thousands at a temple near Balestier, and I understand that some Catholics also held a service to pray for peace.

The less religiously inclined have resorted to petitions and some even – heaven forbid here in Singapore – protests!

It was reported that the Singapore Democratic Party staged a protest in front of the Myanmar embassy. A youtube video features some rather hapless plain-clothes policemen advising the protestors – who had stuck notes on the embassy’s gate – to leave, and subsequently being jeered.

Personally, I find it appalling that Dr Chee and company are leveraging on the situation in Myanmar to bring attention to their own vendetta against the Singapore government.

Sure, all is fair in love and war (and some say politics) but getting Myanmar nationals – who are genuinely worried for their own relatives and friends back home – involved as proxy participants in issues what fall between SDP and PAP, is unfair to them, and also belittles the cause for which the Burmese people are fighting for.

Pray, petition and protest but please, leave out the politicking.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Otto – 1; MOE – 0

I found RI science teacher Otto Fong’scoming out’ blog touching and well-written. Unsurprisingly, it has attracted support from several netizens, including former students.

Most of them agree that there is nothing wrong with having a gay teacher. Being gay does not equate to being promiscuous, or a pedophile. Yet, the general assumption is that Otto is risking his teaching career with his post.

There are already indications that such fears may be realized. Otto was asked by MOE to take his post down, and he has compiled.

One question is whether MOE will be taking further action against Otto. Will he be fired? How will his career be affected?

A more important question, however, is what Otto really hope to achieve with his ‘coming out’ post.

It is not a personal announcement, since Otto had already ‘come out’ to his family and friends. Instead, the post seems calculated to force MOE to shows its hand – i.e. if you fire me, it shows you have an anti-gay policy (despite what MM Lee has said); if you don’t fire me, it means you condone having teachers who are openly gay.

Coming as it does in the wake of the Alfian Sa’at case – and coupled with other information from some bloggers that Otto may already have been planning to leave teaching – it is quite clear that Otto has a deeper agenda.

At this point, it would seem that Otto has come out ahead. His post will arguably attract far more eyeballs now that MOE has asked him to take it down (and since his post has also been replicated on sites such as Tomorrow and Fridae which have a much larger following).

As with the Alfian case, MOE is stuck between a rock and a hard place. I don’t think MOE has any issue with gay teachers per se. The problem, from MOE’s perspective, would be gay teachers who decide to push the envelope.

You see, MOE also has the unenviable task of accounting to parents. Responses to Otto’s post suggest that some parents have no problems with their children being taught by gay teachers, but we cannot assume that 100% of parents feel this way. So, while the trait of honesty is to be admired, when a teacher openly declares that he/she is homosexual, he/she leaves MOE with a PR headache.

(Lest I be misconstrued as an anti-gay, pls see this earlier post)

My own guess is that Otto will soon leave the teaching service on his own accord, and this is probably something that he has been preparing for. His post was meant to gather maximum mileage to sensationalize the gay issue and put pressure on the establishment, and we should see it in this light.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Why Johor, Pak Lah?

There has been talk in the media and blogosphere that Malaysian PM Abdullah may call for early elections, possibly later this year.

For Abdullah, the Iskandar Development Region (IDR) will serve as his political power tool for the upcoming election, much as Mathathir had his mega-projects in the 1990s.  It is ideal in a sense that the first fruits can only be seen long after the votes have been counted.    

One questions, however, why Abdullah picked Johor as the site for his own "mega project" (and possible swan song).  

Wasn't it not so long ago that he was caught between a rock and a hard place (i.e. the Singapore govt and Johor UMNO), and left with little option but to backtrack on his earlier comments and cancel the controversial bridge project?

With the IDR still in its shrink-wrap stage, Abdullah is already facing heat from the Johor ground over the proposed Malaysia-Singapore joint ministerial committee and the concessions to non-bumis.  

On one hand, the anti-Singapore sentiment on the Johor ground is justified.  

Underneath the rhetoric about win-win situations is the fact that the IDR would, in reality, compete with Singapore.  Some argue that it is not a zero-sum game, and that both countries stand to benefit symbiotically from cooperation and joint projects in the IDR.  But at this point, it is obvious that if the IDR is anywhere as successful as touted, there will be a significant downside for Singapore.  

The IDR is not meant to be another Vietnam or Cambodia, whose manufacturing industries would complement, even boost, Singapore's status as a financial, services and trading hub.  The IDR aims to build a medical hub, an education hub, a logistics hub etc i.e. pretty much similar to Singapore's own blueprint.  But really, how many hubs can really survive (and thrive) within a radius of less than 100km?  Is there really enough talent in this region to drive world-class projects in both Singapore and the IDR?  Are there enough customers?  It would be na├»ve to think that the powers-that-be in Singapore sincerely want the IDR to succeed.

But back to Pak Lah and Johor.  

The political pundit's view is that the support of the Johor constituency, an UMNO-stronghold, is critical to his political survival.  From a development perspective, it is possible that some research indicated that Johor's infrastructure and population etc provided the best chance of success as compared to the other states.

The fact is, no matter how much money and political support the federal government invests in the IDR, it will come to naught if the people on the ground do not want it for themselves.  The IDR would fail miserably and at tremendous cost, and go down in history as a pipe-dream which won Abdullah a second term.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Does Singapore gain from America’s pain?

Scholarboy and Astroboy have at The Intelligent Singaporean discussed what went wrong with the US-led war in Iraq, prefacing with a recent statement from PM Lee espousing Singapore's support for US efforts in Iraq.

Many a book (and blog) has been written on the US' decision to invade Iraq and continued engagement.  One can blame CIA's intelligence failures, Bush's personal or political motives, but ultimately, it appears that any rational reasons for going to war (if they exist) probably remain hidden deep within the archives of an intelligence agency somewhere.  Supporting the continuation of the US campaign in Iraq has done is also challenging and hugely unpopular.   

Yet PM Lee did.  Why?  

Less charitable commentators attribute this to simple diplomatic bootlicking.  

Scholarboy and Astroboy claimed their piece would "explore what long and disturbing shadows the Iraqi campaign will cast against countries in South East Asia" (although I see no such discussion).  

Perhaps they are concerned that Singapore's support for US foreign policy could one day hurt Singapore.  We may be ostracised by our Muslim neighbours, or attacked by Islamic militants.  

One could also argue that the democrats, who have taken over Congress, would also soon take over the White House, and such posturing would then count for naught.

Perhaps.  But does US' continued engagement in Iraq hold any benefits for Singapore?

One. Security.  As PM Lee mentioned, Southeast Asia's security will be affected if if US were to leave Iraq.  The reason is simple.  One extra jihadist in Iraq or the Middle East means one less in Southeast Asia.  Some would argue that the Iraqi campaign *breeds* extremists but we should remember that it was *success* in driving the Russians from Afghanistan that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and his cohort of terrorists.   The Iranian revolution in the late 1970s also won new converts the Shii cause.  Basically, if the extremists *fail* in Iraq, no one would join their cause; if they succeed, we are doomed.   

Two. Oil.  US interest in the Middle East provides a geo-political check-and-balance in the region and beyond.  Peace does not come easily to the Middle East and some stability is needed to ensure that the rest of the world is able to get the black gold that is fuelling development everywhere else.  As a net importer, the Singapore economy gets screwed every time the price of oil increases.  Until feasible alternative energy sources are available, we have a vested interest in the US' continued presence in Iraq & the ME.

Three. ASEAN.  US foreign policy is currently low on the popularity stakes even amongst it traditional allies.  But this provides a window of opportunity where new friends will find easier acceptance.  I'm not just talking about Singapore, but more of ASEAN as a whole.  PM Lee's efforts in engaging US interest in the region and Southeast Asia betrays a diplomatic marketing strategy that Singapore Inc. planners know only too well.  US' continued interest – politically and economically – in this region is a prerequisite for ASEAN countries' development, and for Singapore's survival within and outside this region.

The lesson to be learnt is that everyone says (and does) what is in their own best interests, not just because something sounds morally right or clever.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Right to be Gay

Yvonne Lee has posited that “Decriminalising homosexual acts would be an error”. She argues that laws criminalizing homosexual acts are not unconstitutional because the right to equality does not apply if it impairs community interests and violates the rights of others. Lee also explains that the Singapore Constitution does not prohibit all forms of discrimination.

On the latter point, I have no disagreement. There is (and always will be) discrimination in our society. Men, but not women, have to do national service. Chinese restaurants hire more (or all) Chinese waiters. Lingerie chains prefer to hire as sales personnel attractive 20-somethings as opposed on my 68-year-old uncle. Our Constitution and laws can only do so much.

But does this mean that we cannot decriminalize homosexual acts?

Under Penal Code Section 377A, oral and anal sex (aka unnatural sex) acts between heterosexuals and lesbians will be allowed while the same acts between two males would remain an offence.

Lee gives several reasons for supporting this stand, which I understand as follows: One, homosexual acts are inherently unhealthy and threaten public health. Two, it would clash with “fundamental liberties” such as free speech and religious liberty. Three, homosexuality would become an “alternative lifestyle.” Homosexual activists would campaign to alter the public mindset and to gain legal and social endorsement of a gay lifestyle. Four, homosexuality is offensive to the majority of citizens.

Homosexual acts are inherently unhealthy and threatens public health – There might be truth in this although I think that a medical doctor (preferably one who is dealing with sexual diseases) would be better qualified to make this claim. One would also need to control for the number of partners (unless another assumption is that homosexuals are by nature more promiscuous). If it is indeed true, we should also consider if these same acts amongst heterosexuals and lesbians are any less unhealthy. Otherwise, this is no basis for opposing the decriminalization of homosexual acts.

Homosexuality clashes with “fundamental liberties” such as free speech and religious liberty – This argument simply does not make sense. Religions clash with one another, almost by definition. Each purports to have its own way to heaven. But that does not mean that different religions cannot co-exist, or that we cannot allow new religions. The proviso, of course, is that the practice of religion must not cross certain boundaries. For example, a Christian is free to proselytize – provided he does not do so in a manner which offends other religions. I don’t foresee homosexuals going around asking others to be gay, just because homosexuality is decriminalized. Unless you are telling me that I can no longer go around making gay jokes, how does homosexuality curtail my fundamental liberties?

Homosexuality as an “alternative lifestyle” and homosexual activists campaigning to gain legal and social endorsement of a gay lifestyle – This is exactly what is happening now. But how does it impair community interests or violate the rights of others? Perhaps seeing gay couples give some the “ee-urh” feeling, but others might feel the same way seeing a young-old couple or a mixed couple, but that is not a sufficient excuse for something to be made criminal. There are already obscenity laws that are in place to guard against displays of affection that are too public, and these (I believe) apply to all regardless of sexual orientation.

Homosexuality is offensive to the majority of citizens – This is Lee’s strongest argument. Yet, she does not provide any figures or survey data. Can we say with certainty that more than 50% of our population find homosexuality offensive? If this is to be the only basis on which we want to continue the criminalization of homosexual acts, there should be at least a statistically rigorous poll done to ensure that we are not unnecessarily curtailing the freedoms of a minority.

To paraphrase Voltaire, I am not gay, but I would fight for your right to gay (but only if you really want it).

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Conundrum of Money

Dai Kor’s reference to NMP Siew Kum Hong’s distinction between Ministers who “lead” and civil servants (Administrative officers too) who “manage”, got me thinking about the ruckus regarding Ministerial and Administrative officer’s salaries.

“Sorry ah, dun mind if I ownself add 400K to my paycheck can?”

To be honest, such issues are never easy. PM too got emotional while talking about his moment of truth today. Inspirational? Maybe. But in reality, hey, not everyone cherishes nor strives for such awareness. We’ve never heard of a CEO asking his thousands of employees and shareholders for permission to raise his paycheck, but, we know of the CEO whose pay check is decided and voted by his Board of Directors (BODs). There are BODs who are from the company’s top echelon, and there are BODs who are independent of the company but are appointed by the company. The Government is like the former and that’s how they appear to have conducted their decision-making mechanism regarding their paycheck.

It seems to me that most in the blogosphere (and beyond) feel a little tired and let down by the whole debate that has been going on in Parliament. Debating Ministerial pay hikes, the benchmarking to top earners in the private sector and the lot was not really an opportunity for us to give feedback. It was, as Minister Teo Chee Hean rebutted, an opportunity for the Government to show the people some semblance of transparency in its decision to increase its own paycheck. Question is, was it just that? A motley parade of opinions for an already foregone conclusion.

I think many people share Low Thia Kiang’s sentiments that the emotional roller-coaster is too much of a high and has run the risk of becoming a circus show to “pacify the people”. As a result, there have been many criticisms. For one, I do not think that having and publicising higher salaries for our Ministers and Administrative officers is an invitation for more “unsuitable” people to step forward. I’m reminded of a forum letter (I apologise for not being able to find an online copy of it) a while ago asking if there was a “pathway” that one could take to become an MP. By asking such a question, was he demonstrating his insincerity? Or merely highlighting the fact that political talent is always identified and groomed by others and requires time and continuity. If at all our political leaders were “unsuitable” mercenaries, the fault lies in individual judgement and in the criteria used in identifying a ‘political leader’.

While I agree that entry-level civil service salaries should be increased, I also sympathise with KTM that the Government has not provided compelling reasons to justify higher salaries for Ministers and Administrative Officers. For brevity, lets assume that only scholars are allowed into the Administrative Service (which is not the case) and an average service term of 4yrs in a high-office Government appointment. With some 250 scholarships given out every year, and some 78 high-office appointments (total number of Ministries and Statutory Boards) with service terms of 4yrs, that works out to 1,000 scholars competing for 78 positions. On top of that, with the emphasis on leadership renewal in the civil service, one can naturally expect a decent resignation rate from our scholars. I can only suspect that the crucial junction of 30-something is not enough to ascertain the potential contribution a scholar can make to the civil service. So how? We lose them just like that after their bond? But this is only an analogy whose subjects are scholars. Yet it is perplexing that the mechanisms for identifying talent pool in the civil service have evolved into such a precarious state.

“My mudder always say is right under your nose”

Back to the point. I disagree that the circus show is all we have to console ourselves with. One thing that has emerged out of this salary ruckus has been the suggestions on ways to refine the decision-making process of Ministerial and Administrative officers paychecks. In particular, the idea by MPS Alvin Yeo and Ho Geok Choo to have an independent panel review the benchmark that pegs our Ministers salaries to the pay of top earners in the private sector. Such an idea may be new in Southeast Asia, but its not among some Commonwealth countries. The UK has a Review Body on Senior Salaries which provides advice on the remuneration of salaries to Ministers, senior civil servants, judicial office holders and other public appointment holders. So to do the Australians with their Remuneration Tribunal. Not too surprisingly, both are staffed by civil servants and/or appointed by the Executive and are at liberty to engage professional consultants in their evaluations.

Such a suggestion can go a very long way in taking off from the starting line redrawn by PM Lee’s question of what kind of government Singaporeans want.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Managers vs Leaders

NMP Siew Kum Hong made an excellent speech in Parliament regarding civil service salary revisions. He made the distinction between Ministers and other civil servants (including Administrative Services officers) by saying that the former *leads* Singapore while the latter *manages* the country. For the most part, Siew appeared to suggest that open-ended salary benchmarks for Ministers would erode the moral authority they require.

Therein lies the dilemma. The Government’s point is that if being a Minister paid too little, not enough of the able would step forward. Siew (and I believe many of the rational in the blogosphere) are making the point that if Ministers are paid too much, unsuitable candidates (i.e. those who are materialistic etc) would step forward. They would probably also be further out of touch with the populace given the lifestyles they can afford.

PM Lee announced today that he would donate his pay increment for the next 5 years to charity. This is an adroit political solution, since 5 years will bring him past the next election, and Singaporeans could vote him out then if the pay issue is so critical. I suspect that some other senior Ministers (e.g. MM and SM) may follow suit.

While this side-steps the current we-just-vote-you-in-now-you-go-pay-yourself-more dilemma, it will not address Siew’s point that those who serve need to do so more for love of country than love of money. Benchmarking against the top earners is simply not the way to do. I would reiterate my earlier suggestion that Ministers’ salaries be pegged to the median income.

As for other civil servants, I agree with Siew that they would essentially view the public and private sectors as alternative career paths, and they can work for whoever offers a better package, whether in pay/pensions, stability, career prospects or other intangibles. The government, on the other hand, should also view its employees in this light. Just pay what you need to get who you need. Do you need an Administrative Services scholar at $360,000 for the job? Or can a regular graduate at a fraction of the cost perform the same role? Admittedly, there will be some roles which have greater requirements than others. So just find the right person for each role and pay them accordingly.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Buy low, sell high – Building links with Iran

A few weeks ago, Saikor wrote a piece on Iran. The latest UNSC sanctions and Iran’s capture of 15 British soldiers lately brings the scenario he painted about the possibility of war in Iran a couple of steps closer to reality.

At this time when Iran is increasingly being portrayed as a pariah nation, it is interesting to note that Singapore is building up links with Iran, as SM Goh Chok Tong’s recent visit would indicate. As a former PM and Chairman of MAS, the signature of SM Goh’s visit demonstrates Singapore’s economic interest in Iran.

And why not? While per capita income may be low, Iran is a wealthy country (ranked abt 19th in GDP terms) thanks mainly to rich oil resources. With the government trying to diversify the economy and stem unemployment, there is much that a recently rapidly developing economy like Singapore could offer in terms of consulting services and trade.

This brings to mind the scenario in the 1960s, when Singapore sought Israel’s help in building up its defence capability. I was not around then, but it must have been a edgy decision. Israel was embroiled in its own difficulties in its part of the world (and perhaps very much still is). Singapore was surrounded by stronger and much larger Muslim countries, who might have responded with economic sanctions or worse. As it turned out, it was a fortuitous decision.

At this point, Iran’s stock is low. There are relatively few competitors for Singapore businesses, although Japan, China and several other countries have long-standing economic links with Iran. As per the adage to “buy low and sell high,” Singapore is clearly looking to invest – economically and/or politically – in Iran at a low point, and hopefully cash out at a high. It might seem to go against better judgment to be seen hobnobbing with the Iranians at this point, but Singapore clearly has a history of abhorring diplomatic common sense in favor of national interests when the two collide.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Ministers' Salary Brouhaha

Ministerial salaries are in the news again. The PAP government has the practical problem of paying (themselves) enough to attract the best talent without (further) removing themselves from the plight of the everyman. The Opposition can be expected to (again) take advantage of the situation to accrue some political mileage and pour a little cold water on the PAP’s fire of popularity.

After all, to the Singaporean resident who earned a *median* monthly income of $2,410 in 2005, the amount a Minister gets is simply mind-boggling, and probably contributed to pushing the *average* income to $3,500. (The gap between the average and median incomes illustrates the income gap, which is a topic for another day).

A recent ST article pointed out a suggestion from Workers Party’s Low Thia Kiang (prior to 2006 GE if I recall correctly) that ministers be paid a multiplier of 100 times the average income of the lowest 20%. The idea was that this was approximately already what Ministers were making, but would motivate them to ensure that the poorest 20% did not get left behind.

Politically, this was a very astute move. With one fell swoop, Low made himself the champion of the poor while clearly illustrating the wide gap between the (PAP) ministers and the lower classes.

Politics aside, this idea of pegging Ministers’ salaries to the income of the everyman does merit consideration. The current formula pegs Ministers’ salaries to the top earners in various professions like law and banking.

Fair enough, one can buy the argument that Ministers should be well paid. Using either staff strength or budget as a guide, a typical Minister would bear responsibilities greater than most CEOs and managing directors.

We can contest, however, what Minister’s salaries should be pegged against. Top earners have income from various sources – aside from earned income, most would have stock gains & dividends, overseas assets, rental income and other financial instruments etc. PM Lee has taken some pains to explain clearly how the formula has been adjusted to deal with some of these elements. The fact remains, however, that the average Singaporean enjoys a far less exciting remuneration package, but one that can go up and down nonetheless.

My suggestion is this: To motivate our Ministers to work the best interests (financially anyway) of the people, we should consider pegging their salaries – not to the top few or the bottom 20%, but to the median or average wage earners in Singapore. It would be a fairer approach.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Why War with Iran is an Increasing Reality

The relationship between the US and Iran has grown increasingly weary and tense over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iranians are generally supportive of it, but the US doesn’t like it. On top of that, the war in Iraq has led the US down further suspicion that Iran is either providing assistance to Iraqi Shia insurgents, or is blithely ignorant to the flow of assistance to Iraqi insurgents from/through Iran. A spiral of attacks in Iraq culminating in the January 2007 attacks in Karbala, Iraq, definitely did not help. Several US dead soldiers later and allegations began flying that Iranian agents had trained the perpetrators. US President Bush has ordered a 2nd aircraft carrier group to be deployed in the Persian Gulf and according to the February edition of Newsweek, a 3rd carrier group is also scheduled for gulf duties soon. That’s a lot of ships steaming Iran’s way.

In addition, a strategic map of offensive (defensive?) bombing sorties has been planned out by the US and the UK, just in case. The option for military action is definitely on the table and surprise, a poll conducted by the LA Times in January this year found that 57% of US citizens favoured military action if Iran continued with its nuclear development programmes.

Like most people living outside of Iran and the US, I do not want to see a 3rd protracted conflict emerge in the Middle East; Iraq and the Palestinian territories suffice for the moment. But the indications are clear that Bush is sending in the military muscle for another round of ‘shock and awe’. While many people do not want to believe it, the Bush administration is not going to give up on the Middle East. With Afghanistan largely in NATO’s hands, Iraq is the US’s only other major on-going conflict theatre. Simplistically, that means more resources and more time.

But apart from its military exhibition in the Gulf, has the US laid the groundwork for/in Iran? The Bush administration has poured money on direct broadcasts of Iranian exiled dissidents into Iran in an attempt to rouse the lay Iranian spirit. According to BBC News, one such fellow is Ahmad Baharloo, who has been quaintly dubbed “The Iranian Larry King”. Another Iranian academic, Abbas Milani, has also been busy ‘advising’ senior Bush officials from his base in Stanford University. It is also publicly known that the US has been funding (for how long?) militant ethnic separatist groups within iran to raise the domestic pressure. The official Washington response has been denial, but at least one former US State Department official has admitted to US efforts in supplying and training Iran’s ethnic minorities to destabilize the regime. Even worse, there are suspicions that other Iranian groups and terrorist groups with an anti-Iranian agenda might be roped in. We may see more of the Mujahidin al-Kaqh. Sound familiar?

That’s because the hands laying the pre-emptive groundwork in Iran now, are the same hands that laid the foundations for regime change in Iran 54 years ago. Back then, the US and the UK orchestrated a covert geo-political ops to oust then Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh. Known as ‘Ops TPAJAX’, influential Iranian figures were bribed, ‘strategic’ reports were planted in newspapers, and undercover agents incited street violence in Iran (Stephen Kizner’s “All the Shah’s Men” is worth a read)

Lets pause for a moment. I don’t believe in conspiracy theories since linking events separated by half a century amounts to just that. But the evidence is sometimes just too good (no thanks to the buffet of memoirs by former XXX agents). When Bush bravely announced during his State of Union address (and to the world) in 2002 the ‘who’s who’ of the ‘Axis of Evil’, he must have had his reasons, and more importantly, a plan for doing so. Saddam Hussein is out of the picture and US bases are firmly in Iraq. With this, the US is ideally positioned to further its goals in the Middle East. Next, North Korea has finally capitulated. Chris Hill is set to resume talks with the North Koreans who had indicated that they will cease all nuclear development activities at Yongbyon plant within 60 dsya starting 13 Feb this year. Whether they go the 1990 way of German reunification will be another interesting development worth any front row seat. (with kimchi)

Bush would surely like to bring his trilogy of evil axes to a close and Iran is the final act. The North Korean development will no doubt pile on the pressure for Iran. For if Kim can see the light, the US is one step close to Iran and Ahmadinejad will need more than national pride to resist mounting global pressure. Though the EU nations have been consistent in pressing for a diplomatic solution with Iran, they have also been equally firm in backing UN Security Council resolutions for further sanctions. US and Israeli officials have begun talks to discuss ways of cutting Iran’s business ties to the world and key European financial institutions are feeling the pinch and have re-evaluated their business relationships with Iranian banks and companies. When such efforts gather momentum, an isolated Iran may force the US and the world to confront another North Korean debacle. Only this time, no more sneaky underground nuclear tests for Ahmadinejad. It is certain that the US and the world is painfully aware that this is a tune nobody wants to sing again.

Ultimately, US military action in Iran will be shaped by events in the Iraq, as it is in Iraq that the US will find reasons for a protracted war, as opposed to a bombing campaign to knock out nuclear facilities for a simple violation of UN resolutions. As it is, members of the Non-Aligned Movement have publicly supported Iran’s nuclear programme and have asked the UN Security Council to remove the nuclear bit from its agenda. The US will need Iraq to supply reasons for military action against Iran if it wants to mitigate condemnation. For if there is evidence (and there are certainly indications) that Iran is involved in supplying or aiding the conflict in Iraq, you can be very sure that the entire gamut of state-sponsored terrorism-Hizbollah-Lebanon charges will be thrown at Iran. Top this off with a suspicious nuclear ambition and a leader who wants to wipe Israel off the map, there will be little left to stop the war machine. I’m sure Ahmadinejad would have been piqued at George Bernard Shaw’s wry observation that we learn from history that we never learn anything from history.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Why pity older workers?

Seah Chiang Nee wrote an interesting piece about growing old in Singapore. He notes that “despite economic prosperity, more and more elderly Singaporeans past retirement age are working as cleaner or toilet attendants, instead of playing with grandchildren.”

The anecdotal examples from Seah’s column suggest that many elderly Singaporeans are working because (1) the cost of living in Singapore is too high and (2) they have not saved enough to retire. It is easy to jump in and agree with Seah’s conclusion, but a more objective study suggests otherwise.

A 2005 cost of living survey puts Singapore as (only?) the 34th most expensive out of 144 cities. (Admittedly, in other countries, if you find the city expensive, you have the option of retiring in the countryside). Data from ADB indicate that Singapore actually enjoys one of lowest inflation rates amongst Asian countries. (Here, you would have to factor in that Singapore, as a city-state country with no significant oil/agriculture resources, would actually be more prone to inflationary costs than most other Asian countries). So when put into context, the argument that the cost of living in Singapore is high is actually quite weak.

I would agree with the second point. For whatever reasons, there are definitely a group of elderly Singaporeans who have not saved enough for retirement. There are individuals who have not saved enough for their retirement. It may be because they are low-skilled workers who had always found it difficult to make ends meet. They could include the middle classes who sought short-term gratification (car, private property etc) at the expense of their retirement plans. There might also be some who have fallen victim to addictions (like gambling) or illnesses.

Hence, unless they have savings or children to provide for them, many will have to go on working.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? I am of the view that working keeps one healthy. Seah himself, from his picture in The Star, appears to be well into his 60s and still maintains his column and blog. I hope to be like him when I am at his age.

However, not everyone has Seah’s talent for writing. Some will be taxi drivers, some will be tour guides, and some will be toilet cleaners (restroom enhancement specialists if you like). There is no shame in any of these jobs.

I come across elderly cleaners around my home and at my work place. I have spoken to them. The work is not always easy or pleasant, and the pay is meager. Some work is made easier with the right tools (carts and extensions – so they don’t need to bend, vacuums, cleaning aids etc). When I greet them, they reply with smiles and the usual jiak pa buay (have you eaten)?

Elderly workers need not be pitied. With a little help from their employers and the rest of us, working past 62 can be enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Singapore in Thailand – enemy or victim?

Singapore and Thailand have enjoyed close ties for many years. Bangkok, Phuket, Koh Samui and Chang Mai are popular vacation destinations for many Singaporeans. In the 2004-2006 period, Singapore was Thailand’s third largest foreign investor (and the biggest amongst ASEAN countries). Government-to-government ties were excellent – Singapore NSmen train in Kanchanaburi, and Singapore and Thai civil servants had an exchange programme.

Thai-Singapore ties first began to sour in March 2006 after it was reported that Singapore’s Temasek Holdings had bought a large share of Shin Corp which was owned by then-PM Thaksin’s family. Some politicians (predominantly from the anti-Thaksin camp) and media complained that Thaksin was selling away a strategic asset. The September 2006 military coup which displaced Thaksin put in place a military government which – while not necessarily predisposed against Singapore, since they had welcomed Singapore’s soldiers for many years – realized that, politically, they would have to keep Singapore at arms length.

So when Thaksin visited Singapore in January 2007 and met with DPM Jayakumar (who was apparently an old friend), the Thai junta went ballistic. Aside from canceling the bilateral civil service exchange programme and rescinding an invitation to Singapore’s foreign minister, the Thai government (notably coup leader Gen Sonthi) has more recently issued statements that Singapore was eavesdropping on calls between Thai military leaders made through the AIS network (which is owned by Shin Corp). Singapore and Shin Corp officials have both denied this.

Beneath the bluster, I have tried to analyze why some Thais are angry with Singapore. So far, I have come up with:
  1. Temasek should not have purchased Shin Corp shares. It should have realized that the sale of such an asset to foreign owners would be cause for instability in Thailand.
  2. Singapore is out to spy on Thailand, and had bought into Shin Corp for this reason.
  3. Singapore showed no respect for Thailand by allowing Thaksin to visit, meet with DPM Jayakumar, and give interviews to CNN.

On 1, I agree. I think we can assume that the shares are worth less today than what was paid for them. Thaksin’s political troubles, the military coup, actions against AIS by the Thai government and their recent economic faux pas etc are all reasons why Temasek should not have purchased Shin Corp shares. Someone in Temasek had probably underestimated the political reaction and felt it was worth the risk. It was a bad investment, period.

I can understand claims that Singapore is out to spy on Thailand; after all, all countries are interested in acquisitions by other military services. But to suggest that Singapore has bought Shin Corp in order to listen to Thai military secrets is ludicrous. I can almost hear the conversation between the Singapore military chief and the PM*.

“Sir, we can get access to Thai military secrets if we buy over Shin Corp.”

“That’s a great idea. How much would it cost?”

“Just US$1.88 billion, sir. I guess we’ll just have to hold off buying our aircraft carrier until next year.”

* Pls note that this is absolutely a figment of my imagination. My SingTel shares do not give me access to these conversations.

Reason 3: Thaksin, as an enemy of the Thai state (or of the Thai junta at least), should also be persona non grata in Thailand’s friends, and some Thai media pundits have alleged that Singapore showed no respect for Thailand by allowing Thaksin to meet DPM Jayakumar and also give interviews to CNN.

However, Thaksin, who has not been charged for any crime, has the same rights as any other Thai national visiting Singapore. He can meet who he wants and go where he wants. These pundits, often the same who harp on Singapore’s lack of press (and other) freedoms, must at least be consistent. Maybe DPM Jayakumar should not have agreed to meet Thaksin. Would you meet an old friend who lost his job (and probably has a lot of colouful tales to share), or yield to the prevailing sentiment in Thailand. That was for him to decide.

It is obvious that the Thai junta is using Singapore as a convenient distraction to avert the attention of the Thai people from the very real economic and security challenges they face. Thaksin’s visit to Singapore came shortly after economic policy announcements had stirred up insecurities amongst foreign investors, and the New Year’s Eve bombings in Bangkok. While Temasek only has itself to blame for making a bad investment in Shin Corp, the current rift in bilateral ties is clearly a result of the Thai junta’s domestic agenda.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Terrorism in 2006

2006 has turned out to be a pretty eventful year for terrorism. While Indonesia took a well-deserved respite since the killing of Azahari, the rest of the world (and its terrorists) has gone on with their business of bombing anything and anyone it doesn’t like.

The religion of peace has been a keen compiler of the 2006 statistics on terror. According to them, in 2006, there were 2,281 terror attacks all over the world and if one excludes Afghanistan and Iraq, the number is almost halved to 1,102 attacks. If we suspend our disbelief and skepticism on how the numbers were compiled for one moment, 2006 actually saw a 5-fold decrease on global attacks from 2005. The latter, according to the US State Department, saw 11,111 attacks.

Again according to the US State Department, if we subtract the 2005 number of non-fatal attacks, the number would be about 5,500. This still augurs well for the 2006 statistic, but sadly, doesn’t translate as automatic progress for the world nor the men and women involved in fighting terrorism. Why? Because despite the 5-fold drop in attacks in 2006, 15,235 people died compared with 14,600 in 2005. A lot less attacks, but still more deaths.

In February 2006, terrorists unsuccessfully attacked the Abqaiq oil facility in Saudi Arabia. And the oil industry in the Muiddle Eats gained worldwide attention as a target of attack by Islamist terrorist. Though Iraqi oil pipelines had been attacked as early as 2004, and though oil companies and staff members had been the victim of earlier terrorist attacks, the Abqaiq attack was indicative of a bold attempt to attack a major centre of the global oil industry. A successful attack would have had profound economic and symbolic impact on the world. Some say that they have heeded Osama bin Ladin’s call to bleed them (the West) till bankruptcy. Yet Osama had earlier cautioned against the targeting of oil, believing that the resource would bring much benefit to the Muslim ummah. It seems he has changed his mind and in December 2004, called on aspiring terrorists to “stop the greatest theft in history” and to focus their attacks on oil productions in Iraq and the Gulf region.

Public transport in 2006 also took continued beating as terrorists sought “maximum kill” on human lives. The Mumbai train bombings in July 2006 which killed 180 people was followed by another train bombing in West Bengal in November 2006. Some attacks in 2006 were foiled and publicly announced. Their targets were varied but all were planned with a vision comparable to September 11. For example, the UK airline plot uncovered in August 2006 envisioned exploding 10 airplanes in mid-air. The Manhattan/NY subway plot envisaged blowing up subway trains while traveling under the Hudson River in the hopes that the explosions below would cause the river to flow into the tunnels and unleash an flood in Lower Manhattan and Wall Street. In Southeast Asia, Azahari’s compatriot Noordin Mohd Top had planned to attack a power plant in Indonesia. But that was in late-2005 and the plan was foiled not by the authorities, but apparently due to a lack of resources.

Away from the high-profile nature of these foiled and successful attacks, innocent people, soldiers and militants continue their mutual destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each soldier that the “Baghdad sniper” kills will contribute in local legend to as the Iraqis (the terrorists at least) hastily construct their own Vassilli Zaitsev.

Against the publicity of ‘home-grown’ terrorism, terrorist manuals circulating on the internet and fragile race and religious relations in most of the world, the latest announcement by US President George Bush to beef up troop strength in Iraq must have caught some by surprise; especially the outline of his faith in the willingness of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to shoulder responsibility (and success) for the Iraqi 2007 plan. It certainly did with most Democrats and they will be trying their hardest to block funding in Congress. Pelosi has already made it very clear that Bush’s Iraq war account will face very harsh scrutiny in Congress.

Well, I believe that Bush is doing the right thing since to pull out from Iraq in 2007 would be both irresponsible (for the mess at least) and politically premature. Looking at the way terrorism has turned out in 2006, there doesn’t seem to be compelling reasons that US presence in Iraq is the major contributor of global terrorism. Aspiring terrorists will go anywhere to chalk up experience (remember Ambon? And the fears of south Thailand?) While terrorists cite US/Iraq as their reason for attacks, they also cite other reasons, some of which are tied to the domestic policies of their own governments. Afterall Ayman Zawahiri was an Egyptian and had started out in the Egytian Islamic Jihad fighting against the Egyptian government (no doubt against its pro-Western foreign policies and corruption scandals of Anwar Sadat, who in turn, had earlier fought against British colonial rule and was duly imprisoned).

But that’s another story. I hope that Bush’s 2007 Iraq plan will in some way trickle down into positive awareness that after one takes away the guns, the bullets, the turbans, the uniforms and the manuals, you still have to talk to one another. All this in 2006.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blogs 2006 - Citizen Journalism or Dystopia

Blogosphere in 2006 – One man’s brave new world of citizen journalism is another’s dystopia?

Congratulations! ‘You’ have been picked by Time magazine as its Person of the Year. ‘You’, the “digital native” (as coined by Marc Prensky), have made Internet an integral part of life.

Indeed, one can’t live without the marvels of new media. The disruption to communications (as a result of the Taiwan earthquake) at the end of December 2006 was a timely reminder on the extent of reliance on the Internet that I have grown to be.

I enjoy my online shopping, gaming, and of course, YouTube. (Remember Funtwo, the Korean guitarist and Hong Kong’s Bus Uncle, and many other characters made famous / notorious by YouTube.)

And I love the blogosphere as an avenue to share my thoughts on issues, trivial or otherwise.

There are already millions of bloggers on the Internet, and the number is fast rising. Apparently, Technorati keeps track of at least 50 million blogs worldwide. and one more blog is born every half a second.

Is the burgeoning number of blogs a positive sign of citizen journalism?

Undoubtedly, there are a lot of frivolous chatter, half-truths and misinformation in the Internet and we bloggers have been criticised for making a magnum opus out of our mundane life events.

A study by Pew Internet & American Life Project released in July 2006 found that 37% of American bloggers (that’s about 12 million of them) only writes about life experiences. Only 11% cites politics and government as a primary topic. In Singapore, a survey of international bloggers by Singapore Internet Research Centre (SIRC) at Nanyang Technological University in 2004 found that 73% of blogs are online diaries or personal journals.

Yet, there are some shining examples of citizen journalism that have embraced the importance of ordinary citizens taking part in the news-gathering and reporting process.

In the US, Gawker Stalker collects sightings of celebrities around Manhattan reported via email and instant messages by its readers. OhMyNews in South Korea has performed commendably, combining both professional and amateur reporting. China’s is popular with those working in media.

In Singapore, the General Election (GE) in May 2006 was the first since blogs exploded on to the scene. During the nine-day election campaign, blog articles reportedly averaged over 190. Although a post-GE survey done by the Institute of Police Studies (IPS) in Singapore found that only 33% of the electorate cited the alternative Internet media as important in shaping their decision, the indications are clear that the Internet discourse will grow more powerful politically in time to come.
(Singapore Patriot’s thoughtful review of the significant events in ‘The Politics of Singapore’s New Media in 2006’ is a recommended read. See also Clarissa’s ‘GE 2006 & The Internet’.)

But as blogosphere flourishes, there are also signs that it faces challenging times ahead.

Some government authorities have expressed their alarm at the potential of blogosphere to shape opinions and have attempted to challenge the sanctity of free expression on the Internet.

China is a case in point. While the country jumps on the Internet bandwagon (China has reportedly over 17.5 million bloggers and is the world’s second-largest Internet user population after the US), its government appears to be trying to tame Internet activities almost at its onset. In 2000, Beijing introduced State Council Order No 292, barring nine types of content from websites, online bulletin boards and chat-rooms that might “harm state interests” and “disturb social order”. In February 2006, Google, Yahoo and other prominent Internet companies were accused of alleged complicity in human-rights abused by the Chinese government. More recently, Beijing announced in October 2006 its intention to make registration of bloggers’ real names mandatory.

In India, Internet regulators reportedly blocked several websites in July 2006 following the Mumbai train bombings and heavily restricted the flow of online information. The Department of Telecommunications was reported to have ordered Internet Service Providers to close more than 15 sites (mistakenly or otherwise) that purportedly published hate speech against Muslims, Hindus and the caste system in India.

In Malaysia, a recent Microsoft MSN survey found that only 3% of respondents were involved in citizen journalism but this small group is highly visible because it dares to discuss sensitive issues avoided by mainstream media. This trend has forced the Information Ministry to issue warnings on crackdowns on divisive sites (reportedly two cases in the past three years) and to consider compulsory registration.

In Singapore, there are evidently regulations governing Internet activities. I understand that any website/blog that promotes or discusses domestic politics must be registered with the Media Development Authority; and any discussion that might subvert racial-religious harmony crosses the OB markers.

However, the approach of late in Singapore has somewhat been one of constructive engagement.

In his National Day Rally speech in August 2006, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong underscored his government’s commitment to adopt a ‘lighter touch approach’ and to ride the digital wave to get its message across.

Foreign Minister George Yeo began blogging on his encounters, both overseas and in Singapore. (Catch his interview with Channel News Asia blogtvsg on his thoughts about blogging.) And a group of new People’s Action Party Members of Parliament (MPs), born after Singapore’s independence, came up with their P65 blog to share their personal side.

Clearly, the way forward for governments around the world in response to the digital age has to be one of engagement than heavy-handed control – and the Singapore government appears to be getting it right. The best one to deal with half-truths and distortions in the Internet is to counter them with truths and facts rather than blacking them out.

As the populace becomes more informed and technology-savvy, the new media is a growing sphere and an important avenue to reach out to the people.

The future augurs well for blogosphere in 2007, I’m sure…