Tuesday, December 27, 2011

North Korean birds still mourn late leader

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea on Tuesday reported more grieving by Mother Nature for the death of Kim Jong Il, with a dove-like bird reportedly brushing the snow off a statue of the late leader.

The latest avian intervention was reported by Radio Pyongyang, which said the bird's behaviour last week was 'breaking the hearts of many people' who heard the story.

'As I was unable to calm my heart from a guilty conscience, a white bird larger than a dove suddenly brushed off the snow from the shoulders of the leader's statue,' the radio quoted a witness as saying, according to the South's Yonhap news agency which monitors the North's state media.

The media and other propaganda organs built a vast personality cult around the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its creation in 1948. They are sometimes credited with near-supernatural powers.

The North announced on Dec 19 that the 69-year-old leader had died of a heart attack during a train trip two days earlier. It has proclaimed his son Jong Un as 'great successor' amid apparent scenes of mass grief.

Ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said on Monday that owls had been grieving at the Dec 5 Youth Mine daily since Kim's death.

'Owls flew in through the windows of the condolence venue and added to the commemorating feelings of the grieving people,' it said.

Last week official media reported the case of a Manchurian crane that bowed its head in grief, and said ice cracked around Kim's supposed birthplace at the revered Mount Paekdu with a thunderous sound.

A glow was also seen atop the mountain's Jong Il Peak, it added.

Village revolt could be a harbinger for China - my humanities class

BEIJING: China's state media has been all but mute on Occupy Wukan; on why 13,000 citizens, furious over repeated rip-offs by their village elite, sent their leaders fleeing to safety and repulsed efforts by the police to retake the village in Guangdong province.

But the takeover can be ignored only at Beijing's peril: There are at least 625,000 potential Wukans across China - all small, locally run villages that frequently suffer the same sorts of injustices that prompted the outburst this month in Wukan.

Analyst Li Fan estimated in an interview that 50 to 60 per cent of Chinese villages suffered governance and accountability problems of the sort that apparently beset Wukan, albeit not so severe. Mr Li leads the World and China Institute, a private non-profit research centre based in Beijing that has extensively studied local election and governance issues.

On paper, the Wukan protests should never have happened: China's village committees should be the most responsive bodies in the nation because they are elected by the villagers themselves. Moreover, the central government has built safeguards into the village administration process to ensure that money is properly spent.

Village self-administration, as the central government calls it, is seen by many foreigners as China's democratic laboratory - and while elections can be rigged and otherwise swayed, many political scientists say they are, on balance, a good development.

But running the villages, however, is another matter. Village committees must provide many of the services offered by governments, such as sanitation and social welfare, but they cannot tax their residents or collect many fees. Any effort to raise extra money, for things like economic development, usually needs approval from the Communist Party-controlled township or county seats above them.

In practice, the combination of the villages' need for cash and their dependence on higher-ups has bred back-scratching and corruption between village officials and their overseers. China's boom in land prices has only broadened the opportunity for siphoning off money from village accounts.

And the checks and balances - a village legislature to sign off on major decisions, a citizens' accounting committee to keep watch over the village books - have turned out, in practice, to be easily manipulated by those who really hold the power.

'Land sales are where the big money is,' said political science professor Edward Friedman, who is also a China scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 'Every level can see how much better the level above it is doing. And each one wants to live at least that well. The system has within it a dynamic which makes people feel it's only fair that they get their share of the wealth.'

The opportunities to get that share are vast, apparently. In 2003, a candidate for village committee chairman in Laojiaotou village, in northern Shanxi province, spent 2 million yuan (S$408,000) to campaign for an office that paid 347 yuan a month, the Chinese journal Legal News reported at the time.

In interviews this month, leaders of the Wukan protests said it was common knowledge that local government and Communist Party officials had spent millions of yuan to buy potentially lucrative posts. They maintained that Wukan's village committee stayed in power in part by threatening any challenges to its continued rule.

None of those allegations could be quickly confirmed. One verified statistic, however, is compelling. Of the nine members of Wukan's village committee, five had held their posts since the committee system itself was set up under Mao Zedong's successor, Deng Xiaoping.

The same was true of the village's Communist Party secretary, Mr Xue Chang, who had held office since 1970 before being replaced amid Wukan resident protests in September.

Although a village in legal terms, Wukan is bigger than most such entities. It sits in urban Guangdong province, abutting a natural harbour on the Pacific Ocean that is ideal for development.

Even before the residents chased their village committee leaders from town on Dec 11, the committee's accounting ledger had been taken away, ostensibly for an audit.

Leaders of the protest contend, however, that the village committee systematically sold off or granted long-term leases to nearly 60 per cent of the village's 28.5 sq km over an 18-year period beginning in 1993. The sales were said to include roughly four-fifths of the village's 3.9 sq km of farmland and much of its forests.

The land went to hotels, homes, factories, power companies and even private funerary temples. One wealthy villager, Mr Chen Wenqing, gained a business interest in Wukan's harbour and a 50-year lease on a large tract of land used as a pig farm.

A plan this year to sell Mr Chen's farm and an equal amount of villagers' farmland to developers of a luxury housing and retail project was the final straw though, mobilising villagers to protest against the move. Beyond seeking a public accounting of that project and others like it, angry residents have called for democratic elections to replace village officials, many of whom have been in power for decades.

Villagers say they have no idea where the proceeds from any of the sales or rentals went.

One recent academic study concluded that three in four residents of villages that had been surveyed had no information about village finances.

In Wukan, villagers did sense that something was wrong, and had complained vigorously between July 2009 and March this year, seven times to Guangdong province officials and five times to officials of Lufeng, the county seat. But none of those complaints appeared to have been addressed.

It took a de facto revolt by Wukan's residents to force Guangdong province officials to step into the crisis, calling the villagers' grievances legitimate and promising to address them. Wukan's village committee chief and its party secretary are under investigation, a move that probably will end in stiff punishment.

The state-run press has hailed the Guangdong response as a model of government responsiveness and a template for handling public grievances in the future.

Yet some observers of Chinese governance are less sanguine. In their view, the uprising in Wukan highlighted systemic defects in China's local governments, and only a house cleaning - not an isolated slap on the wrist - will address them.

The trouble, they say, is that almost nobody benefits from a house cleaning - not village leaders or township and county officials enriched by land sales and other corrupt deals. And not higher officials whose influence is only diminished if they get rid of lower-level supplicants.

'What will change things is if you change the incentives by which you make your money,' said Professor Friedman. Allowing peasants to own and sell their land - and not a village committee - would suggest a serious effort to break the corruption cycle, he said.


The Dear Leader is dead, again - my humanities class

WATCHING the outpouring of grief over North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's death on YouTube transported me back to China in September 1976, when Mao Zedong, whom we revered as the Great Leader, died.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Israeli girl's plight shows up extremism

Ultra-Orthodox Jews' bullying of child sparks outrage, with plans for a protest in her honour

JERUSALEM: A shy eight-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel's latest religious war.

Naama Margolese is a pony-tailed, bespectacled second-grader who is afraid of walking to her religious Jewish girls school for fear of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have spat on her and called her a whore for dressing 'immodestly'.

Her plight has drawn fresh attention to the simmering issue of religious coercion in Israel, and the increasing brazenness of extremists in the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

'When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared... that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting,' the pale, blue-eyed girl said softly in an interview. 'They were scary. They don't want us to go to the school.'

The school that Naama attends in the city of Beit Shemesh, to the west of Jerusalem, is on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood and a community of modern Orthodox Jewish residents, many of them American immigrants.

The ultra-Orthodox consider the school, which moved to its present site at the beginning of the school year, an encroachment on their territory.

Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily, claiming their presence is a provocation.

Beit Shemesh has long experienced friction between the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about half the city's population, and other residents. And residents say the attacks at the school, attended by about 400 girls, have been going on for months. Last week, after a local TV channel reported about the school and interviewed Naama's family, a national uproar ensued.

The televised images of Naama sobbing as she walked to school shocked many Israelis, elicited statements of outrage from the country's leadership, sparked a Facebook page with nearly 10,000 followers dedicated to 'protecting little Naama' and plans for a demonstration late yesterday in her honour.

On Monday, a police officer was injured and several black-robed protesters taken into custody after clashes flared over demands to crack down on zealots.

Beit Shemesh's growing ultra-Orthodox population has erected street signs calling for the separation of sexes on the sidewalks, and dispatched 'modesty patrols' to enforce a chaste female appearance. Walls of the neighbourhood are plastered with signs exhorting women to dress modestly in closed-necked, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.

Naama's case has been especially shocking because of her young age and because she attends a religious school and wears long sleeves and a skirt. Extremists, however, consider even that outfit, standard in mainstream Jewish religious schools, to be immodest.

Thousands of people were expected at yesterday's demonstration. Ahead of the gathering, President Shimon Peres urged the public to attend.

'The demonstration... is a test for the people and not just the police,' he said. 'All of us... must defend the image of the state of Israel from a minority that is destroying national solidarity and expressing itself in an infuriating way.'

The ultra-Orthodox are perennial king- makers in Israeli coalition politics - two such parties serve as key members of the ruling coalition.

In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighbourhoods. But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Economists: givers or Grinches?

THE stereotypes about economists are well known: that we're selfish Grinches; that we don't read human interest stories because they don't interest us; that the only reason we don't sell our children is that we think they'll be worth more later.

But are the stereotypes true? And if so is the cause nature or nurture? In other words, are selfish people disproportionately likely to become economists? Or is there something about being an economist (or being on the receiving end of an economics education) that makes people selfish?

Academic research suggests there's a good deal of truth to the stereotype. Many studies have looked at how economists behave in what are called public goods situations. A key feature of these situations is that you can benefit from public goods even if you don't contribute to them. You can watch PBS without making a donation; you can enjoy clean air even if you drive a car that pollutes. But such goods give rise to the so-called free-rider problem: acting selfishly makes sense for each individual (why sacrifice if you don't have to?) but as more and more people choose to act selfishly, the good disappears and everyone loses.

Public goods run counter to Adam Smith's 'invisible hand' theory in that self-interested behaviour by individuals does not, as the theory would have it, lead to good outcomes for society as a whole. These situations flummox just about everybody - look at all the trouble that nations and individuals are having in dealing with climate change - but economists and economics students appear to be especially likely to free-ride and act in ways that are 'anti-social' rather than 'pro-social'.

My recent research with the economist Elaina Rose, published in August in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, has looked at a real-life public goods situation faced by students at the University of Washington. During our study period (1999 to 2002), when students went online to register for classes each quarter, they were asked if they wanted to donate US$3 to support WashPIRG, a left- leaning activist group. Students were also asked if they wanted to donate US$3 to Affordable Tuition Now (ATN), a group that lobbied for 'sensible tuition rates, quality financial aid and adequate funding'.

You may question whether these groups really serve the common good, but that's mostly beside the point. Regardless of the groups' actual social value, a purely self-interested individual would choose to free-ride rather than contribute; after all, a single US$3 donation is not going to make a noticeable difference in tuition rates.

Our data showed that each group received donations from about 10 per cent of the students each quarter. Although students remained anonymous, we could look at all of the 8,743 members of our data set and determine what their majors were, when they took economics classes (if at all) and whether or not they donated to ATN or WashPIRG during each quarter of our study period.

In line with previous research, what we found supported the Grinch stereotype. About 5 per cent of economics majors donated to WashPIRG in a given quarter, compared with 8 per cent for other arts and sciences majors. A similar divide - 10 per cent versus almost 15 per cent - occurred with respect to donations to ATN.

We also found evidence that the giving behaviour of students who became economics majors was driven by nature, not nurture: taking economics classes did not have a significant negative effect on later giving by economics majors.

But taking economics classes did have a significant negative effect on later giving by students who did not become economics majors. One interpretation of these results is that students who were not economics majors suffered a 'loss of innocence' after taking an economics class, presumably because of exposure to certain ideas (like the invisible hand) or certain people (like economics teachers).

In contrast, students who became economics majors did not suffer a loss of innocence. This may be because they lost their innocence in high school - other research suggests that pre-university exposure to economics reduces giving - or perhaps even because economics majors were 'born guilty'.

Our research suggests that economics education could do a better job of providing balance. Learning about the shortcomings as well as the successes of free markets is at the heart of any good economics education, and students - especially those who are not destined to major in the field - deserve to hear both sides of the story.

The writer, a co-author of The Cartoon Introduction To Economics, is an environmental economist at the University of Washington.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kim Jong Il's North Korea

A personality cult like no other
By Elizabeth Law
ENTERING the Choryu-gwan Cold Noodle Restaurant in downtown Pyongyang, it was immediately apparent that something was going on.

Locals packed the place, waiting for a table, with more queuing outside, despite the 2 deg C cold.

'Today is the 30th anniversary of this restaurant and President Kim Il Sung is giving the people a treat,' said our official guide, Mr Kim Mum Chol.

Noticing our surprised looks, he explained quickly: 'It's what he would have done if he were still alive, to celebrate the culture of our city.'

Everywhere the visitor is shown in the capital, there are reminders of the late founder who died in 1994, and his son, Kim Jong Il, who died on Saturday.

From the tops of buildings and apartment blocks, bright red slogans declare the great work of the party and the leaders.

Despite a lack of electricity to light streets or heat buildings, powerful spotlights are trained on monuments, official pictures and statues of Kim Il Sung.

He inspired his own personality cult while he was president of North Korea. Paintings and murals featuring him were commissioned in bulk and every citizen wears a badge with his image on it.

And when they speak to visitors, North Koreans pepper what they say with references to the two Kims.

We lost count, the day we tried to keep track of the number of times 'Kim Il Sung' and 'Kim Jong Il' were mentioned by those we met - well over 150 times in a single day.

What we kept hearing over and over again was the phrase 'immediate on-the-spot field guidance'.

This refers to instant advice given by the Kims wherever they went, and officials never failed to stress what good advice it was too.

For example, at the Grand People Study House - essentially a library - height-adjustable tables were fitted after Kim Il Sung dropped in and observed that people should be comfortable while reading.

Every room the Kims entered in public buildings is marked by red plaques above the doors to show when they were there.

Museum displays have little red signs to indicate that father or son paused to lay eyes on the artefacts.

Even computers and books have stickers that say they are gifts from Kim Jong Il.

The apparent reverence overflows at the Kumsusan Memorial Palace where Kim Il Sung's embalmed body lies in a glass casket for public viewing.

Here, an endless stream of men and women dressed in their best file past to pay their respects. Many are seen with tears in their eyes, and some sob uncontrollably.

I was in secondary school when I first learnt about the North Korean cult of personality, and was sceptical that such a thing could work.

Seeing it close-up brought home to me starkly that an entire population could indeed be indoctrinated to the point of self-delusion.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Lessons in cognitive bias from the 'day of infamy'

LAST week, the United States commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941.

By William Choong, Senior Writer

To many outsiders, the country-wide commemorations so long after the event, and an expression of 'deep emotion' by Japan's Foreign Minister, might seem a tad overdone.

On a working visit to the Pearl Harbor last year, however, I had a first-hand experience of the significance of the event. At Hickam airbase, bullet holes made by Japanese bombers were not patched up at the headquarters building - an apt reminder that the passage of time has not fully healed the emotional scars left by the attacks. The hulk of the battleship USS Arizona, which was sunk with 1,177 sailors on board, still lies at the bottom of the harbour and leaks 2.2 litres of oil daily.

The so-called 'day of infamy' is significant because of two ironies. For one thing, senior US officials knew about Japanese intentions to attack, thanks to a code-breaking system called Magic. But they refused to accept the data, since arousing American anger would have been suicidal (it was). Second, the Japanese knew that attacking Pearl Harbor would only buy time before the US retaliated in force.

The burden of this irony fell on Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Typically portrayed in the US as a yellow-skinned warmonger, the Harvard-trained admiral warned his government against fighting the US. He admitted that the Pearl Harbor operation was 'conceived in desperation'.

Through history, there have been many other nameless and faceless Yamamotos who had to contend with the follies of their political superiors. This either led to major intelligence failures or financial crises.

Writing in The March To Folly, Pulitzer-winning historian Barbara Tuchman argues that such follies stem from 'wooden-headedness'. A common phenomenon through history are policies of governments that ran contrary to their national interests, she adds.

The rulers of Troy dragged the 'suspicious looking wooden horse' inside their walls; Charles XII, Napoleon and Hitler invaded Russia despite the disasters suffered by their predecessors, King George III opted to coerce rather than conciliate with the American colonies.

Indeed, the 20th century is replete with similar follies. Every major intelligence failure in the 20th century - China's intervention in the Korean War in 1950, Egypt's surprise attack on Israel in 1973 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 - was due to rampant failures to 'connect the dots'.

Wooden-headedness - or stubbornness to accept the facts - was largely to blame. In 1950, General Douglas MacArthur was too full of hubris to accept the fact that the Chinese would take on the American military machine. On Nov 9, 1989, CIA specialists were telling then US President George H.W. Bush why the Berlin Wall would not fall any time soon; at that point, another staff member asked the President to turn on the television, which was broadcasting the fall of the Wall.

By the 1990s, one would have thought that wooden-headedness in policymaking would have been eradicated, given decades of research by behavioural economists and psychologists into less-than-rational modes of decision-making. Their conclusions: man is not a computer-like utility maximiser who makes fully rational decisions. This is the result of cognitive biases (a fancy term for wooden-headedness).

For example, people selectively use information that confirms their prejudices (confirmation bias); put a heavy weightage on recent events when predicting future probabilities (availability bias) and overvalue their own skills (overconfidence bias).

Such biases played a major role at the start of the 21st century.

Prior to the Sept 11 attacks, American officials were not unaware of plots to fly hijacked planes into buildings. But confirmation bias - the refusal to accept such a possibility - led to a 'failure of imagination', as the 9-11 Commission pointed out.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the result of availability bias - US officials affected by the trauma of Sept 11 sought to avoid a similar intelligence failure. In turn, this led to the overestimation of Iraq's weapons programmes.

Confirmation bias could well afflict American policymakers on the issue of Iran's nuclear programme. They could well be shrugging off disturbing information about Teheran's intentions - say, the repeated threat to use nukes against Israel - and as a result be underestimating the threat.

This does not mean that cognitive biases are altogether bad. After all, they are mental short cuts to help people make faster decisions. Mr Donald Rumsfeld, the former US defence secretary, had the commentariat in stitches when he cited the need to distinguish between the 'known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns'.

At the very least, it is useful to be aware of what one doesn't know.

In the end, it is worth noting that for all the powers of artificial intelligence, Google and Apple's Siri, the quality of policy decisions of fallible men remains largely unchanged through the ages. As America's second president John Adams said: 'While all other sciences have advanced, government is at a stand; little better practised than three or four thousand years ago.'


Finnish school system ticks all the right boxes

PASI Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, had a simple question for the high school seniors he was speaking to one morning last week in Manhattan: 'Who here wants to be a teacher?'
By Jenny Anderson

Out of a class of 15, two hands went up - one a little reluctantly.

'In my country, that would be 25 per cent of people,' he said.

'And,' he added, thrusting his hand in the air with enthusiasm, 'it would be more like this.'

In his country, Dr Sahlberg said later in an interview, teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the fully subsidised master's programme for schoolteachers.

'It's more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,' he said.

He puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland's education success story which, as it happens, has become a personal success story of sorts, part of an American obsession with all things Finnish when it comes to schools.

Take last week. On Monday, Dr Sahlberg was the keynote speaker at an education conference in Chicago. On Tuesday, he had to return to Helsinki for an Independence Day party held by Finland's president - a coveted invitation to an event that much of the country watches on television.

On Wednesday, it was Washington, to a party for the release of his latest book, Finnish Lessons: What Can The World Learn From Educational Change In Finland?, that drew staff members from the White House and Congress.

Thursday brought him to the Upper West Side, for a day-long visit to Dwight School, a for-profit school that prides itself on internationalism.

Ever since Finland - a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age seven and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years - was placed at the top of a well-respected international test in 2001 in maths, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among American educators and policymakers.

Finlandophilia picked up when the nation placed close to the top again in 2009, while the United States ranked 15th in reading, 19th in maths and 27th in science.

The Finnish Embassy in Washington hosts brunch seminars with titles like 'Why are Finnish kids so smart?', and organises trips to Finland for education journalists eager to see for themselves.

In Helsinki, the Education Ministry has had 100 official delegations from about 45 countries visit each year since 2005. Schools there used to love the attention, making cakes and doing folk dances for the foreigners, Dr Sahlberg said, but now the crush of observers is considered a national distraction.

Critics say that Finland is an irrelevant laboratory for the United States. It has a tiny economy, a low poverty rate, a homogeneous population - 5 per cent are foreign-born - and socialist underpinnings (speeding tickets are calculated according to income).

Its school system has roughly the same number of teachers as New York City's but far fewer students - 600,000 compared with New York's 1.1 million. Finnish students speak Finnish and Swedish, and usually English.

Mr Patrick Bassett, head of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Schools, and a fan of what Finland has been doing, said one of the things he learnt on his own pilgrimage to the country was that the average resident checks out 17 books a year from the library.

'There are things they do right,' said Prof Mark Schneider, vice-president of the American Institutes for Research, 'but I'm not sure how many lessons we get are portable.'

Dr Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said Finlandophilia was 'totally deified' and 'blown out of proportion'.

But Prof Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford, said Finland could be an excellent model for individual states, noting that it is about the size of Kentucky.

'The fact that we have more race, ethnicity and economic heterogeneity, and we have this huge problem of poverty, should not mean we don't want qualified teachers. The strategies become even more important,' she said.

'Thirty years ago, Finland's education system was a mess. It was quite mediocre, very inequitable. It had a lot of features our system has: very top-down testing, extensive tracking, highly variable teachers, and they managed to reboot the whole system.'

Both Prof Darling-Hammond and Dr Sahlberg said a turning point was a government decision in the 1970s to require all teachers to have master's degrees - and to pay for their acquisition. The starting salary for school teachers in Finland, 96 per cent of whom are unionised, was about US$29,000 (S$38,000) in 2008, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared to about US$36,000 in the US.

More bear than tiger, Finland scorns almost all standardised testing before age 16 and discourages homework, and it is seen as a violation of children's right to be children for them to start school any sooner than 7am, Dr Sahlberg said during his day at Dwight.

He spoke to seniors taking a Theory of Knowledge class, then met administrators and faculty members.

'The first six years of education are not about academic success,' he said. 'We don't measure children at all. It's about being ready to learn and finding your passion.'

Dr Sahlberg, 52, an Education Ministry official and a former maths teacher, is the author of 15 books. He said he wrote the latest one, which sold out its first print run in a week, in response to the overwhelming interest in his country's educational system.

It was not meant to claim that Finland's way was the best way, he said, and he was quick to caution against countries trying to import ideas a la carte and then expecting results.

'Don't try to apply anything,' he told the Dwight teachers. 'It won't work because education is a very complex system.'

Besides high-quality teachers, he pointed to Finland's Lutheran leanings, almost religious belief in equality of opportunity, and a decision in 1957 to require subtitles on foreign television as key ingredients to the success story.

He emphasised that Finland's success is one of basic education, from age seven until 16, at which point 95 per cent of the country go on to vocational or academic high schools.

'The primary aim of education is to serve as an equalising instrument for society,' he said.

Dr Sahlberg said another reason the system had succeeded was that 'only dead fish follow the stream' - a Finnish expression.

Finland is going against the tide of the 'global education reform movement', which is based on core subjects, competition, standardisation, test-based accountability, control.

'Education policies (in the US) are always written to be 'the best' or 'the top this or that',' he said. 'We're not like that. We want to be better than the Swedes. That's enough for us.'


To restore or not to restore palace?

BEIJING: Three emperors, two revolutions and a century and a half later, a debate of palatial proportions is still raging in China.
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief

Some 150 years after the Yuanmingyuan was razed to the ground by British and French forces, the Chinese remain undecided on whether to rebuild the imperial Old Summer Palace. A new round of pro and con arguments has emerged since the Beijing municipal legislature proposed last month to take yet another look at the issue.

In one corner, the restorationists argue that rebuilding the Yuanmingyuan, which means Garden of Perfect Brightness, would showcase China's glory to the world. 'Our Yuanmingyuan is far more famous than Disneyland. Once it is fully developed, it will surely attract visitors from all over the world,' a Chinese scholar once said.



'Many people believe that the burning of the Yuanmingyuan was a national humiliation. I think the building of the Yuanmingyuan by the Qing was an even greater national humiliation... If they didn't construct such a luxurious imperial garden, every county in this country could have had a decent college then.'

Analyst Wu Zuolai in The Beijing News

In the opposite corner, however, the 'ruins faction' counters that only by retaining the current 'ruinscape' can the people be reminded of China's suffering at the hands of Western colonial powers.

Such passionate discussions are a result of the Yuanmingyuan's unique role in China's modern history narrative as a symbol of nationalism.

The palace, which was built in the 17th and 18th centuries in north-western Beijing for Qing emperors, was a sprawling summer complex of gardens, villas, lakes, pavilions and hills.

It was like an ancient precursor to today's miniature world theme parks, featuring in its grounds architectural wonders from not only China but also Europe. It housed a vast collection of treasures as well.

But after the Qing court tortured and killed British and French emissaries during the Second Opium War in 1860, the European forces retaliated by looting and torching the palace, which burned for three days.

The order came from the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, whose father had removed ancient sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens and shipped them back to London.

Yuanmingyuan was sacked again in 1900, when the Eight-Power Alliance of mostly Western powers invaded China to quell the Boxer Rebellion.

The Chinese-style palaces built with timber that survived the 1860 fire, or were restored after, were completely destroyed. The only structures left standing were a cluster of European-style stone pillars, now called xiyanglou (European palaces), which are the main tourist attraction in the gardens today. This twist of tragedy lent Yuanmingyuan its current unique status.

Stanford University's Chinese literature and history professor Lee Haiyan explained in an essay: 'Without the xiyanglou pillars, Yuanmingyuan might have long fallen into historical oblivion, sharing the fate of earlier architectural wonders in Chinese history whose existence is now purely textual.'

But its survival means a long, tortured debate. Since the Tongzhi emperor, China's third last monarch, ascended the throne in 1861, Beijing has struggled with the ruins.

'The successive Manchu rulers did want to restore the gardens but for want of financial resources. Cixi's appropriation of state funds to build Yiheyuan did not sit well with many officials,' said Prof Lee, referring to the infamous Empress Dowager and her new, much-smaller Summer Palace.

Even with the 1911 Revolution and the 1949 communist revolution, the Yuanmingyuan remained on the agenda, the debate intensifying after 1980 with the emergence of the three 'isms' of nationalism, capitalism and tourism.

The restorationists are motivated by the draw of tourist dollars. Only about 25,000 tourists visit the Yuanmingyuan daily on national holidays compared with 120,000 who throng the Forbidden City.

In the past two decades, the restorationists succeeded in restoring or building a temple, a few pavilions and bridges. But each step was accompanied by loud howls of protests from the 'ruins faction', which regards any rebuilding as a 'Disney-fication' of the original complex.

Most Beijing residents think so too. A survey by The Beijing News to the latest government proposal saw 51.6 per cent of respondents opposing restoration.

Analyst Wu Zuolai argued in the paper: 'The craftsmen today do not have the skills of those from the past. If we really try to restore the palace, it would be akin to trying to draw a tiger, but ending up with a dog instead.'


The slow and steady way to grow

With many signs pointing to slower economic growth not just next year but over the longer term, Insight examines the implications of this trend.
By Aaron Low & Melissa Tan
LIKE many Singaporeans, Mr Tan See Keong, 41, works long hours to support his family.

He is a driver and earns $1,500 a month. His wife is a supermarket cashier and earns $900 a month. They live in a three-room flat with their son, aged eight.

Most of their income goes to paying off bills but they manage to save $200 a month.

They eat out three times a week but with the economy expected to hit a rough patch next year, Mr Tan expects to cut down on such treats.

'We will cook more at home. My wife can also take food to work. Now, in one week, we go out for dinner three times, but we can cut it to maybe one time,' he says.

Like Mr Tan, many Singaporeans are bracing themselves for a downturn next year.

Last month, the Trade and Industry Ministry forecast that Singapore's economic growth would slow to a crawl of between 1 per cent and 3 per cent next year, largely due to problems in Europe and the United States.

More worryingly, the downbeat assessment may last longer than just a year.

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned that growth of 1 per cent to 3 per cent 'will not be too uncommon' in the years ahead.

For Singapore, which has been growing at an average annual rate of more than 8 per cent since its independence in 1965, this much slower pace of growth is both unfamiliar and unsettling.

In recent years, growth has been volatile - bouncing back from the 2008-2009 recession to hit 14.5 per cent last year before slowing to about 5 per cent this year.

Some analysts say the slower pace of future growth is to be expected as the economy matures. Others, however, warn that slow growth will be painful for both individuals and companies.

What do the numbers mean for wages, jobs and prices? How will it affect the drive for more inclusive growth?

Wages, jobs and prices

IN THE short term, the reasons for the slowdown in growth are clear.

Next year, the global economy is expected to grow by 4 per cent, weighed down by weak growth in all three of the world's largest markets - Europe, the US and Japan.

Singapore Management University (SMU) Assistant Professor Davin Chor does not see any easy solutions to the global economy's current funk.

'A lot, then, depends on how long a slowdown the developed countries will go through; namely, whether there will be a sharp rebound or whether we are looking more at a scenario akin to Japan's 'lost decade',' says Prof Chor.

The pain of a cyclical downturn will hurt both companies and workers.

Business confidence, which underpins firms' investment and hiring decisions, has fallen sharply in recent months, according to several surveys.

Wages and jobs are also likely to be hit.

Retrenchment is rising in sectors buffeted by the global downturn, such as electronics. The labour union has warned of more pain to come next year.

Associate Professor Randolph Tan, of SIM University (UniSim), forecasts a slowdown in job creation and a small rise in unemployment next year.

He expects between 70,000 and 85,000 jobs to be created next year, fewer than the expected 100,000 to be created this year.

At the same time, however, inflation will continue to be high, fuelled by persistently high prices of commodities, as well as higher prices of cars and housing.

This year's inflation rate is estimated to be around 5 per cent. The central bank has said that next year, prices should continue to rise between 2.5 per cent and 3.5 per cent.

There is a real worry that inflation might completely eat away any potential wage gains, especially for lower-income earners such as stall assistant Fadilah Ismail.

Madam Fadilah, 47, who earns $900 working in a coffee shop, is seeing more of her wage go towards basic necessities, such as rice and milk.

'I used to be able to save a bit of money together with my husband's salary. But now I am paying more for rice even though I buy cheaper brands, and I can't save any more,' she says.

Analysts say that managing inflation will be all the more critical during periods of slow growth, as high prices will hit low-income earners that much harder.

In Singapore's case, the main tool to fight inflation is the exchange rate policy, as imported inflation through food and electricity directly affects families.

But strengthening the exchange rate will also hurt Singapore's exporters, making the use of exchange rate policy a tricky one during a time of slow growth.

Beyond the regular economic and business cycles, Singapore's economy is also going through a structural change that will affect its ability to grow as fast as it did previously.

Despite its status as a developed economy, Singapore managed to grow at an average of 6per cent from 2000 to last year.

Singapore's most recent experience with protracted slower growth of less than 5 per cent was between 2001 and 2003.

After a sharp recession in 2001, due to the downturn in the global electronics cycle, the economy grew by an average of 4.3 per cent a year for the next two years.

That period sparked intense soul-searching and the formation of the Economic Review Committee. New ways to grow the economy were looked at, culminating in the controversial decision to build the two integrated resorts and to bring Formula One motor racing here.

As Singapore looks ahead to slow growth being a more permanent state of affairs, experts like DBS economist Irvin Seah say it is an inevitable part of development.

'Every economy and country has physical limits, especially for a small economy like Singapore,' says Mr Seah.

'There is only so much that good policy, technological innovation and the Internet can do to push Singapore's production frontiers,' he adds.

Back in 2009, the Economic Strategies Committee had already signalled the onset of slower growth.

It noted that the long-term potential growth rate for Singapore was between 3 per cent and 5 per cent, a rate much lower than the historical average annual rate of 8 per cent.

In one simulation of the future of Singapore's economy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Associate Professor Tan Khee Giap set out three growth scenarios.

The base scenario is for Singapore to grow at about 4 per cent for the next 10 years, assuming the Republic manages to raise workers' productivity.

The optimistic scenario is for Singapore to grow at about 5 per cent, closer to what it achieved in the past decade.

But if it does not manage to raise the productivity of its capital and labour inputs, Singapore could grow at just 1.78 per cent a year for the next decade.

Slow growth is not bad growth

SLOW growth over the long term, in Singapore's context, is not necessarily bad growth, say some economists.

What matters more for Singapore's economy is the quality of growth. In other words, it is not how big the pie gets but how nice it tastes and whether everyone gets a bite of it.

Mr Manu Bhaskaran, chief executive of Centennial Asia Advisers, notes that Singapore is already, in per capita terms, one of the richest countries in the world.

'As you approach the existing frontiers of economic potential, growth will inevitably slow down,' he says.

He points out that many successful northern European economies grow at around 2 per cent and still deliver 'very high citizen welfare, enviable public services and continued economic dynamism, so we should not be fixated by our growth coming down to 3 per cent or thereabouts'.

Instead, he says that the aim of economic policy should no longer be to maximise gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

'It should be explicitly to maximise citizen welfare, which might include such factors as per capita consumption,' he says.

OCBC economist Selena Ling says the Government will have to focus more on maintaining high standards of living, while ensuring the lower-income are well supported.

'I think if the economy, which is already at full employment, manages inflation well, there is less to worry about with slow growth,' she says.

She points out that one of the main criticisms of the previous mode of economic growth, which was to grow as fast as the economy allowed, was that it generated huge inflationary pressures.

'So, even if you grew fast, it was unsustainable growth. It might be better to grow slowly but keep prices stable, so that wage increases are kept as real gains,' she says.

Another criticism of the 'grow as fast as we can' paradigm was that it widened the income gap. This is borne out by the latest wage figures from the Department of Statistics, which show that average household income per household member last year for the top 10 per cent was $9,174.

By comparison, the lowest 10 per cent of households had average per capita income of just $354, while the next 10 per cent had per capita income of $675.

Says DBS' Mr Seah: 'Slow growth may not be bad, especially if it allows the Government to tackle the issue of the wage gap in a more effective manner.'

Inclusive growth?

RECOGNISING that the income gap has widened significantly over the years, the Government has said it will focus on growth that is inclusive, instead of simply chasing growth.

It has set a target of raising real median incomes by 30 per cent over the next decade. The Government has also pledged to spend more on education, social safety nets and public transport.

But with growth slowing, economists such as SMU's Prof Chor warn that it will be more difficult to achieve inclusive growth.

'It becomes much harder to generate a rise in the share of wages in GDP when economic conditions are slowing and the size of the overall economic pie is roughly constant,' he says.

But National Trades Union Congress deputy secretary-general Ong Ye Kung disagrees. He admits that a slow growth era may mean companies cutting back on investment and reducing training for their workers.

At the same time, more time is freed up for training.

'In Singapore, the Government is able to support upgrading in a big way. We can take the opportunity to upgrade skills - not just generic skills, but dive deep to build expertise in workers,' he says.

'The Government's message for productivity and inclusive growth must be even louder and clearer in a downturn.'

If there is one thing that all analysts agree on, it is that future growth must be powered by productivity, though the road is hard and long.

The Government has set a target of raising productivity by between 2 per cent and 3 per cent over the next decade, rolling out plans to help different industries achieve this.

Says UniSim's Prof Tan: 'We have to focus on strengthening productivity improvements because this is the one thing that appears to have eluded us. Part of the way forward, I feel, involves realising there is no other way.'

Inclusive growth is also about making sure workers get a share of productivity gains. Firms have in recent years been taking a larger slice of the gains from profits, leaving less for workers' wages.

Singapore workers' share of the national income declined from 47 per cent in 2001 to 41 per cent in 2006. That is lower than the 60 per cent or more that their counterparts in other developed economies enjoy.

To counter this trend, the labour movement launched its own $40 million Inclusive Growth Programme in August last year, which aims to help companies raise productivity. In return, the firm has to share the gains with workers.

But the wage gap has grown so large that it will be difficult to claim success at inclusive growth without spending more on the social safety net and subsidies, some analysts say.

To this end, a greater burden will fall on the Government and its ability to generate strong returns on its investments, to supplement its revenue from taxes.

Prof Tan of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy says: 'Slow growth means we have to count on Net Investment Returns to top up special transfers.' In fact, special transfers allocated per year have more than doubled to about $7billion over the past three years, from an average of $2.6 billion a year between 2000 and 2008.

DBS' Mr Seah identifies the Workfare Income Supplement (WIS) as one major area that needs to be beefed up. Started in 2007, the scheme tops up the incomes of older workers who earn below a certain threshold.

Likewise, the need to continually ensure social mobility in the system will also mean large investments in education, he adds.

For stall assistant Madam Fadilah, she sees education for her children as the passport out of her current plight.

She hopes that her younger daughter, now in Secondary3, makes it to junior college (JC). Her oldest son is with the Institute of Technical Education, while her youngest daughter is still in primary school.

'I will work till I drop. But if she can make it to JC, she can go to university, get a good job. Then it will be all worth it.'



Thursday, December 15, 2011

Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak Questions Singapore’s Creativity - Yahoo! Singapore Finance

A stab in the heart for Singapore nationalists. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak isn’t a fan of Singapore when it comes to creative thinking. Speaking to BBC, Wozniak questions where are the creative souls in Singapore.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The runaway IP train

NINE-YEAR-OLD Ian Lim spends three evenings a week with a private tutor on mathematics, English and Chinese. Next year, when he enters Primary 4, he will spend four evenings a week, including his Saturdays, on tuition.
By Sandra Davie, Senior Writer

His manager father and housewife mum admit that their son is stressed out from all the studying. They know the $1,100 spent on providing tuition for him is a lot of money.

Not that Ian is at risk of failing. He is already top of his class. His parents just want him to score good enough grades at the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) to get into an Integrated Programme (IP), preferably at Raffles Institution, where the cut-off point for admission is above 260.

If he does not get into an IP school, where he is assured of a place in a junior college, they fear he would have scant chance of getting into a good junior college for his A levels.

The Lims are typical of an increasing number of parents piling the pressure on their young children early, in the hopes of getting them into the elite IP programme.

Their concern is that their children cannot get a place in a premier secondary school or junior college because many top institutions now reserve the bulk of their places for students in the IP.

The IP started in 2004 at eight schools, including the Raffles and Hwa Chong family of schools. It was targeted at the top 10 per cent of the PSLE cohort, who were clearly university-bound.

The idea was to allow these students to skip the O levels and go straight to the A levels or International Baccalaureate (IB). This way, their learning would not be stifled by having to prepare for two major examinations in six years. Instead, the seamless secondary and junior college education would develop their intellectual curiosity and other talents.

The IP - called the 'through-train' programme for skipping the O levels - became so popular that pupils and parents clamoured to get on board. More schools responded by offering the IP.

By 2013, 18 - or just about all the premier secondary schools and junior colleges - will be offering the programme.

This has created a fear among parents that there will be even fewer places in top junior colleges for those not in the IP, who hope to get in after the O levels.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) has assured parents repeatedly that the IP junior colleges are offering just as many places as before to those coming in via the O-level route. But in the absence of hard numbers, parents have resorted to doing their own checks, and cite figures to explain why they worry.

Hwa Chong Institution and Raffles Institution, for example, each give out only 250 places a year to those from the non-IP track. The remainder of the 1,200 places at each of these two colleges go to the IP students from their own institutions.

The through-train that started out as a niche programme for a small elite group risks becoming a runaway train. Some fixes are needed to reduce undue pressure on students racing to be admitted to the IP at Secondary 1.

Right now, students can be admitted into the IP at Secondary 1, Secondary 3 and JC1 after the O levels. MOE can ensure that there are multiple entry points into IP schools, and that a good number of places are given out at each level.

Another simple fix is for schools and MOE to release admission figures.

Schools should make public their admission figures to the IP, giving the number of students who enter at Secondary 1, Secondary 3 and at JC1 after the O levels. This gives parents the assurance that their students can get another chance if they fail to do so at Secondary 1.

Schools should also publish data comparing the performance of their IP students to those who join them after the O levels. The two top junior colleges, Raffles Institution and Hwa Chong Institution, say the performance of students who joined them at JC1 is on a par with those who were on their IP track earlier.

On a more macro level, MOE should consider whether it is good for the education system as a whole if so many top secondary schools should convert to the IP. Some parents and alumni of IP schools have already questioned this.

One of them is an old girl of the popular Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS). She remembers that the school principal then, Ms Rosalind Heng, steadfastly stood by the tried and tested O-level route. When other top schools were debating whether to offer the IP through-train, Ms Heng said that SCGS prepared its students well for the O levels, and it was going to continue that tradition.

But SCGS is among the latest list of schools to announce that it will offer the IP. Laments the SCGS alumna, a mother of two who went on to the elite Raffles JC: 'What is wrong with the O levels? Is there no value in it any more? It prepared me well for the A levels.'

Another issue to consider is whether more schools which offer the IP can do so in parallel with the O levels. After all, some students even at top schools benefit from the more structured O-level track. And there is a small number who fail to get an A-level certificate or IB diploma after six years in the IP.

Without O levels, their highest formal qualification is only their PSLE certificate. There may thus be benefits for schools to retain the O levels and allow students to switch tracks from the IP to the O levels.

Students who entered the IP schools with their O levels and aced the A levels do not regret having sat for the O levels. They say the examination was good practice for the A levels.

The Integrated Programme began as a niche programme for very bright children expected to make it to university, who thus do not have to sit for the O-level sorting examination. But with so many schools jumping on board, is it becoming a default programme, resulting in parents pushing their average kids to get in?

Seven years on, it is time to review the IP experiment and consider the effects it is having on students and parents' behaviour. It might be time to put the brakes on the IP and return it to its original purpose - a programme for a very small minority - and restore the place of the O levels for the rest.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Cultural Revolution memories under threat

SHANTOU (Guangdong): After a night of rain, a light mist hangs over the green slopes of Mount Ta, shrouding the quiet hills with a cloak of mystique and secrecy that it could probably do without.
By Peh Shing Huei, China Bureau Chief

A pagoda stands near the summit, flanked by a circular temple-like building and inscribed tombstones, silent amid the wild banana trees.

The mountain shares the isolation and serenity of a Taoist enclave, but has neither the harmony nor the balance of the ancient Chinese way.


Torture and shaming methods

New corpse bride

After beating and killing a man and a woman, the naked male corpse is placed on top of the female body to simulate sexual intercourse. The pair may not necessarily be married or related.

Plucking pubic hair

The victim is stripped naked and bound, and tormentors aggressively pull out his pubic hair by hand. It is designed to humiliate.

Begging for forgiveness

The victim is made to kneel for long periods in front of Chairman Mao Zedong's statue to ask for forgiveness. He is beaten mercilessly if he makes the slightest movement.

Stone on corpse

Even after being beaten to death, the victim is not left alone. A giant stone is placed on his body so that even in the afterlife, he will not be able to flip around and start anew.


As home to China's only Cultural Revolution museum, the desolate hills make for a depressing time capsule for one of the country's most painful tragedies - way too much yin rather than yang; more negative than positive.

Its grief goes beyond the gruesome memories it exhibits. The six-year-old museum, which is almost an hour's drive from the heart of Teochew port city Shantou - more familiar to Singaporeans as 'Swatow' - has been facing official pressure to shut down.

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been happily encouraging the people to sing revolutionary 'red songs' of the Maoist era, it wants few public reminders of the uglier works from those times.

'A lot of people want to snuff out our tiny flame,' said museum co-founder Peng Qi'an, on the 35th anniversary of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, which started in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong encouraged chaos under the guise of class struggle, killing millions in the pro-cess.

The museum was built without official approval and support, the result of a brave project on a taboo subject.

Mr Peng, who is now 80 and a former vice-mayor of Shantou, has with some like-minded friends been gathering private donations since 1997, including 300,000 yuan (S$60,000) from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, who hails from Shantou.

'He would like to give more, but this is very politically sensitive,' said Mr Peng of the high-profile donor.

In 2009, the museum was forced to shut down for more than a month, and officials posted four guards at its doors to turn visitors away. It is believed that the nervousness was tied to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square incident.

Guangdong authorities also muzzle Mr Peng every now and then, banning him from speaking to foreign media.

Cultural Revolution historian Yin Hongbiao from Peking University explained: 'The CCP has decided to 'cold storage' the topic because if people keep talking about how bad it was, it will affect how they view Mao and the party.'

Most of the time, the CCP chooses to simply ignore the museum.

'They could support us, punish us or just pretend we do not exist. But the party has already said the Cultural Revolution is wrong. So if they punish us, it would be like punching themselves,' Mr Peng explained.

'Yet, they do not want to support us. So they choose to ignore.'

All domestic Chinese media has been banned from reporting on the museum, and there are no road signs directing visitors.

'Even some locals do not know there is this museum here,' he said.

What they miss is an impressive display spread across the hills of Mount Ta, capturing the Cultural Revolution's crude violence.

The indoor section of the museum contains about 1,100 photographs chiselled into granite slabs, including images of Mao inspecting the Red Guards, as well as sessions where victims were tortured and humiliated.

Outside the museum stands a giant sculpture of a pen and an open book, a reminder that history of the turmoil has to be recorded.

Curators also etched on stone the 304 labels used to insult class enemies, like 'dog-head advisers' and 'cow'; the 48 political campaigns the CCP waged since taking power in 1949; and the torture methods used during the Cultural Revolution.

A rare giant statue of former CCP leader Liu Shaoqi, who was Mao's main target during the Cultural Revolution and died in prison, marks the spot where annual memorial services take place.

Mr Peng, a Communist Party member, insists the museum is not meant to challenge the CCP's authority. He and his friends merely want China to remember its mistakes and not repeat such tragedies.

The tragedy left him with lifelong personal scars. A brother was tortured to death, while Mr Peng himself was locked up for years before he was placed second on a list of officials to be executed by a firing squad.

He was removed from the list at the last minute - for reasons he has yet to find out - but the trauma from those years left him determined to ensure China never forgets the tragic decade.

He decided to house the museum in Shantou's Chenghai district, where Mount Ta is, because the area saw particularly vicious and bloody struggles during the Cultural Revolution, with more than 400 dead. Some are buried in mass graves in the hills.

Their remains, and the museum, may not be taken care of for much longer.

Said Professor Yin: 'The museum would struggle to find successors. Young Chinese don't know much about the Cultural Revolution and so are not interested. Even here in Peking University, I've found that the students do not know more than foreigners.'

Such succession problems worry Mr Peng.

'No local officials dare to take over this place. No one wants to help out. We struggle for funding and information gathering,' he said.

'The Communist Party is supporting the singing of old red songs, but it wants people to forget the past. Is it possible? I don't think so.'


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pushing the US govt for plainspeak

IF YOU want to understand Americans' frustration with Washington, you might start with the very words the government uses to communicate with them.
By Suzy Khimm

Take the Labour Department's explanation of health insurance subsidies for laid-off workers under the 2009 stimulus legislation: 'Generally, the maximum period of continuation coverage is measured from the date of the original qualifying event (for federal Cobra, this is generally 18 months). However, ARRA, as amended, provides that the 15-month premium reduction period begins on the first day of the first period of coverage for which an individual is 'assistance eligible'. This is of particular importance to individuals who experience an involuntary termination following a reduction of hours. Only individuals who have additional periods of Cobra (or state continuation) coverage remaining after they become assistance eligible are entitled to the premium reduction.'

What does that mean? Cobra stands for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, ARRA is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Essentially, it explains that certain laid-off or downsized workers can get special subsidies for 15 months after losing their employer-sponsored health coverage.

It is complicated information to absorb. But does it have to be so complex to read?

Anti-jargon warriors don't think so. A small but growing band of civil servants, lawmakers and consultants is leading the charge against bureaucratic legalese. Their mission isn't just to cut down on government forms in triplicate. They believe that Washington is dysfunctional on a more basic level, and that to fix it, the public must understand what the government is telling them.

It's a movement that's deeply populist in spirit, with its aim to bring the government closer to the people. Ultimately, proponents believe they are protecting the sanctity of not only the English language, but the republic itself.

'How can you trust anyone if you don't understand what they're saying?' asked Dr Annetta Cheek, a 25-year government veteran who now runs the non- profit Centre For Plain Language. 'When you're supposed to be a democracy, and people don't even understand what government is doing, that's a problem.'

Plain-language advocates acknowledge that slaying jargon within the federal bureaucracy often seems impossible. But their ranks are growing in Washington, and officials loyal to the cause are embedded in the highest levels of all three branches of government.

Complaints have made their way to the White House.

'We hear from small businesses in particular that government documents are too unruly and long,' said Mr Cass Sunstein, head of President Barack Obama's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. 'It does breed a kind of frustration that isn't good for anybody.'

Under the Obama administration, this populist push to keep legalese from getting between the government and the people has gained ground. Late last year, Mr Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, which mandates that all publicly available government documents be written in a 'clear, concise' manner, requiring all agencies to push new writing standards.

The law converges with Mr Obama's pledge to create a more open, transparent government, Mr Sunstein said. It also builds on a longstanding battle against jargon in Washington. People have been railing against bureaucratic legalese for half a century. But as the government's responsibilities have grown, so have its rules and regulations, plus all the exceptions and carve-outs that interest groups have lobbied to include. Ensuring that all these provisions are technically and legally correct means it's often easier for the government to produce documents that are complicated, and hard for the public to understand, than ones that are simple.

According to the federal government's primer on plain language at www.plain language.gov, the father of the movement was John O'Hayre, an employee of the Bureau of Land Management, who resolved that convoluted prose had made government documents impossible to read.

His 1966 book Gobbledygook Has Gotta Go helped launch the movement. A few years later, then President Richard Nixon required the Federal Register to be written in 'layman's terms' rather than 'government-ese', followed by an executive order from the president after next, Mr Jimmy Carter, which told federal agencies to solicit information 'in a simple, straightforward fashion'.

Though the following president Ronald Reagan rescinded Mr Carter's order, Mr Bill Clinton issued an executive order in 1998 when he was president, requiring all federal employees to use short sentences, the active voice and 'common, everyday words'. But such executive actions haven't stemmed the bureaucratic jargon.

The Plain Writing Act has no penalties for complex writing, and the federal government has yet to appoint its own editor-in-chief to monitor agencies' efforts.

Connecting good governance with plain language has been a long struggle. In his famous 1946 essay, Politics And The English Language, George Orwell argued that the government's 'lifeless, imitative style' produced groupthink. 'One can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy,' he wrote.

But, left to their own devices, agencies tend to develop inscrutably dense vocabularies. Representative Bruce Braley, the House's point man for plainspeak, said: 'Smart people with great educations feel they have to demonstrate that they know what they're doing by writing in complex, impossible-to-understand language with lots of clauses and subparagraphs.'

He singled out lawyers as the movement's most stubborn foe. 'Anything that grew out of legal training that has 'wherefores', 'hereinafter', 'party of the first part, party of the second part', 'as referenced in subclauses A, B and C'. Those types of things are impossible to follow,' said Mr Braley, himself a lawyer.

Often, Dr Cheek said, it's possible to use plain language in such documents without diluting or diminishing their legal meaning. 'It's a very common excuse. Some people try to tell you that it's dumbing down.' A few departments and agencies have taken the early lead in the war against bureaucrat-speak. The Department of Veterans Affairs began a massive effort to rewrite its benefits rules in the early 2000s after an internal review and more than a dozen court decisions cited the need to clarify its confusing, ponderous style, as two officials wrote in a 2004 report. Its Regulation Rewrite Project has taken years, but preliminary feedback has been positive: After recasting one benefits form in plain language, the response rate to it rose from 35 per cent to more than 55 per cent, saving the agency millions of dollars.

Convincing the rest of the government to follow suit may seem like its own bureaucratic nightmare: Every agency must appoint plain-language 'officers', post guides and issue reports to comply with the 2010 Act.

One agency to have openly embraced the movement is among the most loathed institutions in Washington: the Internal Revenue Service. This year, the IRS won the Centre for Plain Language's top prize for intelligible writing in public life, the 2011 ClearMark Award.

Receiving the award in May, Ms Jodi Patterson, who runs the IRS' Office of Taxpayer Correspondence, gave a speech that distilled the essence of the plain-language movement. 'They may not want to hear from us,' she said. 'But at least they'll understand what it is we want them to do.'

The writer is an economic policy reporter for The Washington Post.


Friday, December 09, 2011

What makes you happy?

One by one, developed countries are drawing up happiness indices. Their governments realise GDP growth figures alone are a poor measure of people's well-being.
By Andrea Ong
LAST year, Ms J.H Lim, 23, started her first job as a tax associate at an accounting firm.

She quit after seven months, giving up prospects of good pay and career progression to become a physical education teacher at a secondary school.

'I didn't find value or meaning in what I was doing,' she says.

She is now much happier. 'I like sports, I like interacting with the students and I see meaning in encouraging them to enjoy sports and lead a healthy lifestyle at a young age,' says the fitness buff, who ran the Standard Chartered marathon on Sunday.

Several developed countries are going through a soul-search akin to Ms Lim's. They are asking their citizens: Are you happy? What makes you happy?

And they are coming up with indices to measure and track people's happiness levels.

Earlier this week, Japan unveiled a set of draft indicators. The 132 indices put numbers to areas like women's satisfaction with men's participation in childcare, the number of young people who live in isolation, and people's sense of whether they are living as happily as others in the community, reported the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

By doing so, Japan has become the latest to join the ranks of countries such as Australia, Britain and France, which have acknowledged the need to look beyond pure economic indicators like gross domestic product in assessing their people's well-being.

Two months ago, the topic of happiness came up in Singapore's Parliament when Workers' Party MP Sylvia Lim raised the example of Bhutan, which has a Gross National Happiness index.

She pointed out that Singapore was one of 66 nations to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution initiated by Bhutan in July entitled Happiness: Towards A Holistic Approach To Development.

Ms Lim asked how the Government intended to introduce indicators of happiness, and how these would guide its policies over the next five years.

This sparked a lively debate among MPs about Singaporeans' well-being and the importance of GDP growth.

It also raised two big questions: What is the link between GDP and happiness? Is there a need for Singapore to start measuring its people's happiness?

The happiness paradox

THERE is a growing body of research which suggests that growth in GDP, which adds up all that is produced and consumed in an economy, does not lead to greater happiness.

The paradox was highlighted in 1974 by American economist Richard Easterlin, who found that happiness levels of societies tend to stagnate after a point, even as national wealth continues to rise.

He reviewed his findings last year and concluded that the paradox is usually seen in countries which are developed or rapidly developing. For instance, income per capita has doubled over 20 years in Chile, China and South Korea, but happiness in these places has not kept pace.

The 'Easterlin paradox' appears to be at work in Singapore too, according to research by two National University of Singapore (NUS) business school dons.

Based on three surveys on Singaporeans' well-being and quality of life, conducted over the past seven years, Dr Tambyah Siok Kuan and Associate Professor Tan Soo Jiuan found that happiness levels did not vary much even though GDP grew by an average of 7 per cent each year.

'Despite the quick rebound from the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2009 and the blistering growth rate of 14.5per cent in 2010, Singaporeans are not necessarily happier,' Dr Tambyah and Prof Tan tell Insight.

In fact, the happiness level this year fell by 3.5 points from 72.5 per cent in 2006.

One reason behind the Easterlin paradox is that GDP figures do not capture the stresses and strains in society caused by income inequality and other side-effects of growth.

Dr Tambyah and Prof Tan note that Singapore's 'euphoric economic growth' was accompanied by growing pains, such as a higher cost of living and the strain caused by a foreign worker influx on housing, transport and social ties.

'Singapore citizens perceived that the spoils of success were not adequately shared with them as they felt slighted in the intense competition for jobs, housing and other opportunities,' they add.

A book containing their analyses and findings from this year's survey of 1,500 Singaporeans will be published next year.

Other areas not reflected in GDP measures include work-life balance and satisfaction with life.

Just ask financial analyst Brian Tan, 26. He earns over $110,000 a year - much more than many others his age.

But there is a price. A typical work day for him starts at 8am and ends late at night, with no time for dinner, because Mr Tan has to handle overseas clients. Even on holiday, he is constantly checking e-mail messages on his BlackBerry.

While he enjoys the intellectual challenge and excitement of his job, the lack of a work-life balance takes its toll.

'Sometimes it's very hard to find reasons to be happy when I'm in the office at 2am and I know I have to come back in at 8am,' he says. The bachelor adds wryly that his relationship status on Facebook should say, simply: 'I'm very busy.'

Mr Tan's high income gives him greater purchasing power, but that does not translate into happiness. 'I've felt that I'm spending money just to justify why I'm working so hard,' he says.

'I know I can subsist on much less and still be very happy.'

Economist Nattavudh Powdthavee of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has another explanation for the Easterlin paradox.

'Human beings care a lot about status. Many people would rather be the second richest person in a poor area, than to live in a rich area where many are better off than them,' says Dr Powdthavee.

Hence, as incomes rise across the board in advanced countries like Singapore, it becomes increasingly harder to improve one's status in relation to others.

Dr Powdthavee offers an example: 'If you tell someone who earns a lot of money to slow down and work less because it's bad for his health, chances are he won't stop unless someone else does. He won't want to fall behind his peers with the same education and income level.'

He adds: 'Money only buys you happiness if it buys you rank and status, but there's not so much rank to go around.'

Measuring happiness

DR TAMBYAH believes 'the time is ripe' for Singapore to introduce national indicators of happiness and quality of life.

Bhutan has tracked its Gross National Happiness since 1972, when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the term. The index has 33 indicators, including equality, literacy, pollution, corruption and time spent with family.

Happiness indices have gained ground since 2008, when French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy tasked a group of economists and social scientists with studying how economic and social progress can be measured in modern economies.

Led by Nobel Prize-winning economists Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, the group's 2009 report called for measures of well-being and sustainability on top of traditional economic indicators.

Mr Sarkozy declared that France would include happiness and well-being in its measures of progress. Other countries have since followed suit, including Britain, which released the results of its first nation-wide survey on well-being last week.

Earlier this year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released an index called Your Better Life. It applies 11 indicators of well-being to the OECD's 34 member countries. These are a mix of subjective and objective factors like health, work-life balance, housing, income and social capital.

In October, OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria said such measures are important, as promoting growth 'as usual' is no longer an option in the current climate of slowing growth and a looming financial meltdown.

Introducing a similar index in Singapore would come with its own set of challenges, as well-being is subjective.

Still, researchers say Singapore can take a leaf from the 11 OECD indicators and build on existing research.

Psychologist Christie Scollon of the Singapore Management University suggests the Government may be interested in specific areas, such as work satisfaction, finances, leisure time, family and commuting.

'These seem to be hot topics in public debate these days,' she notes. Research also shows that these factors might play a 'a particularly important role in Singaporean conceptions of the good life'.

A snapshot of Singapore

ONE old bugbear is why Singapore tends to do badly in global surveys on happiness, such as the Gallup World Poll on life satisfaction and the Happy Planet Index.

Cultural differences could play a part, says Professor Scollon. Asian countries usually score lower than North America and Western Europe in many world surveys, she notes.

In a study she carried out which compared Singaporeans and Americans, she found that Singaporeans emphasise wealth more in their conception of the good life than Americans. 'Too much emphasis on wealth has been shown to be detrimental to well-being,' she says.

Different cultures also have different norms about what is considered good and desirable. 'Americans strongly value feeling good and being happy. In Asian societies, pleasant emotions are also desirable but less so,' adds Prof Scollon.

But Dr Powdthavee of NTU cautions that international happiness rankings should be taken in context.

The main purpose of happiness indicators is to track how people within a country fare across time and demographic groups, he argues. The information should also be made publicly available for academics and policymakers to study.

Within Singapore, Dr Tambyah would like to see greater collaboration among academics studying happiness.

'There are many research scholars interested in the study of happiness. If we could pool all our resources, along with funding from the government, we might be able to come up with a sustained programme of research that we can track over time,' she says.

But studies like those she and Prof Tan have conducted already serve to provide a snapshot of Singaporeans' happiness. And with a happiness level which has hovered around 70 per cent for the last seven years, it seems Singaporeans may not be that unhappy after all.

Some factors like satisfaction with family life and national pride also keep cropping up when Singaporeans are asked what makes them happy.

For instance, a survey by Grey Singapore marketing agency, released in October, found that Singaporeans were happiest about these two factors, as well as their religion and spirituality.

'Religion provides you with an outlet and gives answers to things that modern science and modern life cannot give answers to,' says Inter-Religious Organisation president Ashvin Desai, 55.

While the Grey Singapore survey's sample size of 200 is not large enough to be statistically representative, its findings on how happiness varies across age groups squares with global trends.

Singaporeans aged 18 to 29 reported the greatest net unhappiness, while the most number of people who said they were very unhappy came from the 30 to 44 age group.

On the other hand, Singaporeans aged 45 to 59 were the happiest.

Research has shown that happiness levels form a U-shape across the ages, typically rising after middle age, says Dr Powdthavee.

Mr Desai, who falls into the happiest age group of Singaporeans, is not surprised by the finding. 'When you are young, you have a lot of aspirations. But when you reach my age, you tend to accept things as they are and be satisfied with what you have.'

Happiness - a work in progress

TO TAKE happiness seriously is not to neglect economic growth.

Psychologist Ng Wei Ting of UniSIM, who has studied the connection between wealth and happiness, says that income remains a moderately strong predictor of life satisfaction.

Factors linked to poor economic growth - such as unemployment - could also make people unhappy.

Some economists have argued that the Easterlin paradox is flawed as within each country, people with higher income tend to report higher satisfaction with life.

Dr Ng and Prof Scollon explain that income could relate differently to various aspects of well-being. Income tends to have a stronger link to people's satisfaction with life as a whole but weaker links to positive and negative feelings.

'Both well-being and economic indicators are important,' says Dr Ng. 'The issue is how to integrate these well-being indicators such that they can supplement traditional economic indicators, and not to replace the latter.'

Singapore's national pledge enshrines the words 'happiness, prosperity and progress'.

In a 1998 interview with The Straits Times, then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew said those words were chosen because 'we wished for a state of well-being opposite to the one we were then in. We were down in the dumps with communal riots, the economy was in bad shape and there was no progress with industrialisation. These words represented our aspirations for the well-being of a people.'

Singapore's circumstances have changed dramatically since then. Perhaps it is time to think anew about how to match those aspirations to the nuts and bolts of policymaking.

Getting to grips with the nebulous idea of happiness is a first step.

As Professor Stiglitz said when unveiling his 2009 well-being report for France: 'What you measure affects what you do. If you don't measure the right thing, you don't do the right thing.'


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Tough decisions ahead for S'pore

POLICYMAKERS in Singapore will face tough decisions on monetary and fiscal policies, as economic growth slows but inflation, while easing, stays fairly high, according to a new report.
By Magdalen Ng

Citigroup economist Kit Wei Zheng notes in the report that inflationary pressures can be curbed with a strong Singdollar, as this holds down import prices.

However, with the economy in the doldrums, a weaker Singdollar may be preferred by businesses and manufacturers, for example, as their exports become cheaper and more competitive, he said.

With these two opposing constraints, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), which uses the exchange rate as its monetary policy tool, will have a close call to make on whether to let the Singdollar continue to strengthen.

Mr Kit said in the report that Singapore's economy faces challenges from weakened demand in the advanced economies.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry has estimated that economic growth will slow markedly next year to come in between 1 and 3 per cent.

Inflation is expected to moderate from recent high levels, and is forecast at 2.5 to 3.5 per cent, but that is still above historical averages. Core inflation, which excludes accommodation and private transport costs, is projected to be 1.5 to 2 per cent.

Still, said Mr Kit, factors such as labour shortages will put upward pressure on inflation next year.

As unit labour costs continue to rise, profit margins of labour-intensive sectors will come under pressure, and it may only be a matter of time before firms pass on higher wage costs to consumers.

Monetary policy has been tightened - with the Singdollar allowed to appreciate - since last April. The central bank eased the policy in October, so the Singdollar could continue to strengthen but at a more gradual pace than before.

The general consensus among economists seems to be that given the downside risks to growth, the MAS is likely to be more biased towards further easing to neutral.

OCBC economist Selena Ling said: 'Given that they already eased monetary policy in October, and the dovish 2012 growth forecasts, the message is quite clear where the risk lies. What we want to do is to skirt a recession, so it will have to be a fine balance to tread.'

However, Mr Kit added that it will be a tough decision: 'If core inflation remains stable but non-core inflation remains sticky, and if gross domestic product growth in the next two quarters shows sign of bottoming, the odds of easing to neutral would recede.'

In the event that GDP growth continues to slide well into the first quarter of next year, with few signs of turning around, the case for an easing to neutral would be strongest.

A similar story can be told throughout Asia, as the troubled euro zone is Asia's largest trading partner, accounting for 5.2 per cent of Asia's GDP.

Europe is Singapore's largest non-oil domestic export market, and the largest foreign direct investor here.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin expects central banks in Asia to step up monetary and fiscal easing next year, as growth concerns will outweigh inflation risks. Other than Singapore, only Thailand and Indonesia have eased monetary policy.

It is possible that the Singapore Government may choose to run a smaller surplus, or even a deficit next year, but the hurdles for a fiscal response on the scale of that seen in 2009 are high.

Mr Kit believes the thrust of fiscal policy for Singapore next year will likely be to keep business costs manageable through a variety of tax rebates and reliefs.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Judges 'should spell out reason for decisions', say experts - my humanities class

Court judgments do not always have to be lengthy, as long as the reasons behind the decisions are explained clearly.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

S'pore can do better than Hong Kong

THE Housing Board stated that the shrinking sizes of flats over the years are due to the need to maximise Singapore's limited land space and adapt to shrinking household sizes. And according to HDB, this does not mean a lower quality of life since the living space per person has actually improved ('Sizes of HDB flats are shrinking. Sizes of households shrinking too'; last Saturday).

Why smaller isn't the way to go

BY MAKING flats smaller ('Sizes of HDB flats are shrinking'; last Saturday), the Housing Board is working against several government initiatives: encouraging married couples to have kids; encouraging children to live with their parents; and encouraging more women to return to the workforce.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why have auditors at all?

SIX months ago, accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) said MF Global and its units 'maintained, in all material respects, effective internal control over financial reporting as of March 31, 2011'. A lot of people who relied on that opinion lost a lot of money.
By Jonathan Weil

MF Global filed for bankruptcy on Oct 31. Last week, the trustee in the liquidation of its United States brokerage unit said as much as US$1.2 billion (S$1.6 billion) of customer money is missing, perhaps more. Those deposits should have been kept segregated from company funds. It seems they were not.

What is the point of having auditors make reports like this? And are they worth the cost?

When an auditor certifies that a client's internal controls are effective, that is supposed to mean the company can do basic functions like maintain accurate financial records, detect unauthorised transactions, and keep track of its receipts and expenditures. We know MF could not do these things during the final days before its bankruptcy filing, when former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine was still its chief executive officer.

'Their books are a disaster,' Mr Scott O'Malia, a commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), told the Wall Street Journal in an interview.

The newspaper also quoted Interactive Brokers Group CEO Thomas Peterffy as saying: 'I always knew the records were in shambles, but I didn't know to what extent.' Interactive Brokers backed out of a potential deal to buy MF last month after finding discrepancies in its financial reports.

So, to believe PwC got it right when it blessed MF's controls in May, you would have to accept the notion that MF's controls were effective in March, and did not start going bad until some time later.

Although we should not rule out anything, this scenario seems implausible. One lesson from the 1980s savings-and-loan crisis is that when a financial institution fails, it is almost always true its internal controls were poor - and had been so for a long time. Otherwise, it would not have failed.

There is more at stake here than the missing US$1.2 billion. Besides MF, other companies that use PwC's New York office as their auditor include Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase. Both banks presumably are too big to fail, meaning taxpayers would be on the hook if they ever blew up. If PwC cannot spot control weaknesses at a relatively small shop like MF, which had US$41 billion of assets, it is a bit much to expect it would catch anything materially amiss at Goldman, which has US$949 billion of assets, or at a serial acquirer such as JPMorgan, with US$2.3 trillion of assets.

Fortunately for PwC, there is no better alternative. What can Goldman or JPMorgan do? Switch to KPMG? Ernst & Young? Deloitte & Touche? Their track records are no better.

The reason MF had to get an outside audit report on its internal controls was that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act requires it. That law was enacted in 2002 in response to a wave of audit failures at big companies such as WorldCom and Enron.

Thanks in part to the new workload, audit fees at the Big Four accounting firms skyrocketed. So, too, did the number of financial restatements by public companies, which seemed to show the auditors were drilling down and catching lots of errors. For a while, it looked like the new rules were working.

Then a backlash hit. Corporate executives, lawmakers and even Securities and Exchange Commission officials complained the auditors were too strict. The number of restatements plunged. Audit fees stopped soaring, and overall have been little changed since 2007, according to a July report by Analyst's Accounting Observer editor Jack Ciesielski.

Many companies' audit fees plunged, suggesting auditors there were doing less work. In 2007, MF Global paid PwC US$17.1 million in audit fees. By this year, that had fallen to US$10.9 million, as warning signs about MF's internal controls were surfacing publicly.

In 2007, MF and one of its executives paid a combined US$77 million to settle CFTC allegations of mishandling hedge-fund clients' accounts, as well as supervisory and record-keeping violations. In 2009, the commission fined MF US$10 million for four instances of risk-supervision failures, including one that resulted in US$141 million of trading losses on wheat futures.

Suffice it to say, PwC should have been on high alert.

On top of that, PwC's main regulator, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board, released a nasty report this week on PwC's audit performance. The agency cited deficiencies in 28 audits, out of 75 it inspected last year.

The tally included 13 clients where the board said the firm had botched its internal-control audits. The report did not name the companies. One could have been MF, for all we know.

In a response letter to the board, PwC's US chairman Bob Moritz and US audit practice head Tim Ryan said the firm is taking steps to improve its audit quality.

But the point of having a report by an independent auditor is to assure the public that what a company says is true. If the reports are not reliable, they are worse than worthless, because they sucker the public with false promises.

Maybe, just maybe, we should stop requiring them altogether.