Friday, February 25, 2011

Seismic shift as the wave washes in

For the first time in perhaps a millennium, the Arab people are taking charge of their own affairs. Since the 11th century, after conquests by Mongol, Persian and Turkish armies, Arab lands have been controlled by foreign powers. Most of these lands were ruled by the Ottoman empire for centuries. By the late 18th century, as Ottoman power was waning, the era of European expansion began and for the next 150 years, the Middle East fell under its sway. In the aftermath of World War I, Britain and France carved up the remnants of the Ottoman empire, creating most of the modern Middle Eastern states.

WE ARE in the midst of a revolution in the Middle East, one that has unleashed long-suppressed forces that will continue to send shock waves across an arc of countries from Morocco to Iran. We are all looking at each crisis individually, as it breaks out. But, if we step back, we can see that this is really a seismic shift, and will in time reverberate throughout the entire region.

After World War II, as Europe's empires collapsed, the Middle East became a region of intense superpower rivalry. Moscow and Washington lined up a set of allies, to whom they each promised military protection and aid. Then, the Soviet empire crumbled and the United States became the sole outside power. Most Arab countries had to make their peace with Washington - Libya's renunciation of its nuclear programme being a vivid example. Iran has tried to set itself up as the alternative power balancing American hegemony, but it has had limited success outside of Lebanon.

Throughout these almost 1,000 years of foreign domination, the Arabs always had local rulers. But these sheikhs, kings and generals were appointed or supported by the outside imperial powers. Most of the Middle East's monarchies were created out of whole cloth by the British - Saudi Arabia being the important exception.

These local rulers were more skilled at negotiating up - with the imperial authorities - than they were at negotiating down - with their people. They ruled their people not through negotiations but force and bribery (once the oil money began to flow).

Over the last few years, two major American shifts have opened up the Middle East. The first was Washington's recognition that American support for the region's dictators has bred a vicious strain of Islamic opposition - violent and deeply anti-American. Since then, Washington has been publicly and privately more ambivalent in its support for the Middle East's rulers, pushing them towards reform. (This is well documented by the WikiLeaks cables from the Middle East.)

The second has been the waning of American power itself. The Iraq war and its bloody aftermath, a still chaotic Afghanistan, an Israeli-Palestinian deal that seems as far away as ever, all highlight the limits of American power.

Both Mr George W. Bush and Mr Barack Obama deserve some credit for what has happened. Mr Bush put the problem of the Middle East's politics at the centre of American foreign policy. His articulation of a 'freedom agenda' for the Middle East was a powerful and essential shift in American foreign policy. But because so many of Mr Bush's policies were unpopular in the region, and seen by many Arabs as 'anti-Arab', it became easy to discredit democracy as an imperial plot. In 2005, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak effectively silenced a vigorous pro-democracy movement in his country by linking it to Mr Bush.

Mr Obama has had a more quiet approach, supporting freedom but insisting that the US does not intend to impose it on anyone. As unsatisfying as this might have been as public rhetoric, it has had the effect of allowing the Arab revolts of 2011 to be wholly owned by Arabs. This is no small matter because the success of these protests hinges on whether they will be seen as organic, indigenous, national movements.

So far, the Obama administration has handled each crisis as it has erupted, balancing the interests and opportunities presented in each country. That is understandable in a fast-moving, fluid situation.

Bahrain is a close ally, hosting a US naval base, with a somewhat reformist monarch. Libya is a repressive, rogue state with a cruel and crazy man at its helm - and Washington should move far more forcefully against him. But at some point, the Obama administration will have to step back and think about a new American strategy for a Middle East that is in the midst of this world historic change.

By Fareed Zakaria


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Is China the new World Bank?

THE Chinese are everywhere. Or, more accurately, Chinese money is everywhere, thanks particularly to the China Development Bank (CDB) and the China Export-Import Bank. As the two institutions responsible for all Chinese overseas financing, they are making waves around the world.

According to The Financial Times, Chinese lending in 2008-2010 surpassed World Bank assistance by approximately US$10 billion (S$13 billion). By the end of last year, the CDB's reach had extended to more than 90 countries, whose total indebtedness reached US$141.3 billion.

So is China reshaping the landscape of development assistance? In a nutshell, yes.

Consider the following: Chinese investment in Zambia's rich copper and coal reserves accounts for 7.7 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. In Saudi Arabia, the state-owned China Railway Construction Corporation built the Al-Mashaaer Al-Mugaddassah light-rail project to ease traffic pressure during the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. There are even said to be plans for an Arctic highway to facilitate trade throughout the polar region.

Closer to home, a Himalayan railway project to link Tibet to Khasa, at the border with Nepal, is under construction, with plans to extend the line all the way to Kathmandu, the Nepalese capital. In Cambodia, China contributed US$260 million in assistance in 2009, replacing Japan as the country's largest aid provider and overtaking both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank's lending portfolios. Last year, China signed 14 bilateral agreements with Cambodia, totalling US$1.2 billion, to finance every conceivable item, from irrigation canals to uniforms for the Cambodian military.

Recipient governments are reportedly pleased with China's aid approach. For one thing, there is a notable absence of expensive consultants folded into so-called 'technical assistance' packages, a practice that has been a key focus of criticism directed at many funding agencies.

Second, Chinese aid does not require pre-project 'missions' by bureaucrats who arrive from distant headquarters for a sort of development tourism that wreaks havoc on the routines of the local counterparts who must accompany them on their poverty excursions.

Third, Chinese aid is dispensed rather quickly and unceremoniously, lacking the burdensome fanfare of lengthy negotiations and voluminous project documents, a practice many scholars and practitioners term 'chequebook diplomacy'.

Fourth, China dispenses aid without compliance conditions such as environmental protection measures or community-participation exercises. Excruciatingly laborious 'stakeholder' consultations - of the type that lasted nearly 10 years to construct the World Bank-funded Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric power plant in Laos - are not required of Chinese aid.

China's unique aid model is one of the main pillars of what the Chinese scholar Sheng Ding calls the country's 'soft power' strategy. Beyond the provision of cheap credit and concessional loans is the global export of China's way of doing business.

As economic relations deepen, cultural relationships develop. Confucius Institutes are sprouting from Sri Lanka to Nigeria to promote the study of Mandarin. Alongside these linguistic programmes are seasonal performances by touring Chinese acrobats. Call it global courtship by an avid Chinese suitor.

But worrying signs about China's seemingly benign lending practices are emerging. Chinese financial assistance is tied to the extraction of natural resources, particularly oil and minerals. Environmentalists worry that without a more conscientious 'green' component to Chinese lending, unchecked exploitation could lead to resource depletion.

Moreover, Chinese assistance packages often come with Chinese technology and labourers, implying limited employment opportunities and capacity building for local people. For example, 750 Chinese workers were shipped to Indonesia, along with 630,000 tonnes of steel, to construct the 5km Suramadu bridge linking Surabaya to Madura.

The need for disclosure and transparency mechanisms has been emphasised time and again. There is no Chinese counterpart to the Development Assistance Committee, which publishes annual reports on global aid flows from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries. Nor is there an overarching mechanism, as called for in the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, that would align Chinese aid with national development strategies, or establish a forum for coordination with other bilateral and multilateral donors. Fears abound that Chinese aid is beginning to run amok.

Concerns such as these are likely to increase as China emerges as a formidable development player. Yet, by and large, Chinese assistance is welcomed rather than feared.

Those who promote equitable and inclusive development wish to see Chinese aid as part of an integrated international community of providers that is governed by responsible co-ownership. This entails fair and open rules, mutual accountability practices, and sustainable development objectives, all of which require active Chinese participation.

In a world weary of the limited effectiveness of most development programmes in curtailing endemic poverty, China's growing role in countries around the world provides ample opportunity to reconstruct the landscape of economic aid and financing. But reaching that goal requires a plan, and China must play its part in formulating it.

Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is a visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Phillie Wang Runfei is a research assistant at the same school.

By Teresita Cruz-del Rosario & Phillie Wang Runfei


The tsunami of Arab awakening

WHAT'S unfolding in the Arab world today is the mother of all wake-up calls. And what the voice on the other end of the line is telling us is clear as a bell.

'America, you have built your house at the foot of a volcano. That volcano is now spewing lava from different cracks and is rumbling like it's going to blow. Move your house!'

In this case, 'move your house' means 'end your addiction to oil'.

No one is rooting harder for the democracy movements in the Arab world to succeed than I am. But even if things go well, this will be a long and rocky road. The smart thing for the US to do right now is to impose a US$1-a-gallon (S$1.28 per 3.8 litres) petrol tax, to be phased in at 5 US cents a month beginning next year, with all the money going to pay down the deficit. Legislating a higher energy price today that takes effect in the future, notes the Princeton economist Alan Blinder, would trigger a shift in buying and investment well before the tax kicks in. With one little petrol tax, Americans can make themselves more economically and strategically secure, and free themselves to openly push for democratic values in the Middle East without worrying anymore that it will harm their oil interests. Yes, it will mean higher petrol prices, but prices are going up anyway, folks. Let's capture some of it for ourselves.

It is about time. For the past 50 years, America (and Europe and Asia) have treated the Middle East as if it were just a collection of big petrol stations: Saudi station, Iran station, Kuwait station, Bahrain station, Egypt station, Libya station, Iraq station, United Arab Emirates station, etc.

Our message to the region has been very consistent: 'Guys (it was only guys we spoke with), here's the deal. Keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don't bother the Israelis too much and, as far as we're concerned, you can do whatever you want out back. You can deprive your people of whatever civil rights you like. You can engage in however much corruption you like. You can preach whatever intolerance from your mosques that you like. You can print whatever conspiracy theories about us in your newspapers that you like. You can keep your women as illiterate as you like. You can create whatever vast welfare-state economies, without any innovative capacity, that you like. You can undereducate your youth as much as you like. Just keep your pumps open, your oil prices low, don't hassle the Jews too much - and you can do whatever you want out back.'

It was that attitude that enabled the Arab world to be insulated from history for the past 50 years - to be ruled for decades by the same kings and dictators. Well, history is back. The combination of rising food prices, huge bulges of unemployed youth and social networks that are enabling those youths to organise against their leaders is breaking down all the barriers of fear that kept these kleptocracies in power.

But fasten your seat belts. This is not going to be a joyride because the lid is being blown off an entire region with frail institutions, scant civil society and virtually no democratic traditions or culture of innovation. The UN's Arab Human Development Report 2002 warned us about all of this, but the Arab League made sure the report was ignored in the Arab world and the West turned a blind eye. But that report - compiled by a group of Arab intellectuals led by Egyptian statistician Nader Fergany - was prophetic. It merits re-reading today to appreciate just how hard this democratic transition will be.

The report stated that the Arab world is suffering from three huge deficits: a deficit of education, a deficit of freedom and a deficit of women's empowerment. A summary of the report in Middle East Quarterly in the fall of 2002 detailed the key evidence: the gross domestic product of the entire Arab world combined was less than that of Spain. Per capita expenditure on education in Arab countries fell from 20 per cent of that in industrialised countries in 1980 to 10 per cent in the mid-1990s. In terms of the number of scientific papers per unit of population, the average output of the Arab world per million inhabitants was roughly 2 per cent of that of an industrialised country.

When the report was compiled, the Arab world translated about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece did. Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries had the lowest freedom score in the late 1990s in the rankings of Freedom House. At the dawn of the 21st century, the Arab world had more than 60 million illiterate adults, the majority of whom were women. Yemen could be the first country in the world to run out of water within 10 years.

This is the vaunted 'stability' all these dictators provided - the stability of societies frozen in time.

Seeing the democracy movements in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world succeed in modernising their countries would be hugely beneficial to them and to the world. We must do whatever we can to help. But no one should have any illusions about how difficult and convulsive the Arabs' return to history is going to be. Let's root for it, without being in the middle of it.

Thomas Friedman

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hard Truths debunk misconceptions

MANY residents of this famous and successful city state doubt that the new book, Hard Truths, offers true full disclosure. The political system here is not open in the breezy (even sloppy) manner of a Western democracy, and so such wonder about this new runaway bestseller spotlighting the wide-ranging views of Singapore's founder Lee Kuan Yew is no surprise.

But is it warranted?

The soft truth is that I have been coming here on reporting trips virtually every year since 1996 and I can't answer their question, either. But what must be said about this extraordinarily skilled 458-page compendium of interviews and commentary about the venerable Singaporean legend LKY is that it gives the lie to the notion that this place is some sort of totalitarian society.

Call it a 'soft' authoritarian political system or even call it a Singapore Inc economic system, if you like. In fact, label it almost anything you want - but do not call it totalitarian.

No such totally closed society - the abject totality of the closure being the essence of the definition of the term - could have supported a culture that could have produced so broad and deep and in fact so free-wheeling a national self-examination.

The book's formal title is Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. It's based on a mountain of interviews with Minister Mentor Lee, conducted with almost Jesuitical thoroughness by a crack team of editors and reporters from The Straits Times. This is the island state's leading daily newspaper and (easily) one of Asia's most comprehensive and professional.

I have been scratching my head for days now trying to recall a comparable tome from America's political culture. I think there is none.

In this book, Mr Lee does his thing in his usual inimitable way - and this engaging and entertaining act is almost always worth the price of admission.

He tosses off deep political insights like a contemporary Asian sage and lobs out politically incorrect bombshells like an irreverent (but think very high-end) nightclub satirist. You laugh almost as much as you marvel over the guy's amazing brain. I always tell my university students that anyone interviewing Mr Lee who leaves with a flat story is a failed journalist who belongs in another business - like accounting.

But let's be honest: there is a stern and relentlessly old-fashioned side to Mr Lee, however widely admired among world leaders for the quality of his geopolitical analysis and of course for the astonishing achievements of his beloved Singapore (its most recent recorded growth rate hovers at 14 per cent).

The fact is he can be pretty starchy and unyielding, and so maybe the best chapter in this superb volume is Not Your Average Granddad. It was conducted and written by Ms Rachel Lin - at 25 years of age, the youngest of The Straits Times team of seven. May it be true of allegedly starchy Singapore that more like her roam the island with such a free spirit.

The brave and hip Ms Lin peppers the elder statesman with queries about homosexuality, love-at-first-sight, fave films, gothic rock bands and body tattoos. At times Mr Lee admits he has little idea what the young woman is talking about. Undeterred, she says at one point, almost instructionally: 'This may be a bit shocking but many young Singaporeans are specifically getting yakuza-inspired tattoos now...'

You can almost imagine seeing the Minister Mentor's jaw drop: for while he is in no way out of his depth with the Kissingers of the world, he is hilariously no match for this young un-fearing with-it journalist.

In fact, it will take absolutely nothing away from Mr Lee's many insightful contributions if we walk away from the book in admiration of the concise and highly informative commentary sections provided by The Straits Times' editors and reporters, sandwiched between the lengthy chapter conversations.

Many of them bring a level of self-examination and critical awareness about national progress and the political system that easily rivals the depth of the ongoing political self-examination in the United States. The journalists ask themselves whether the country's economic progress is sustainable and its present course correct. Their evaluation is as penetrating as it is subtle.

No closed society could yield such open-minded self-review. This is an astonishing book well worth reading beyond the narrow confines of Singapore, the tiny non-totalitarian city state. Anyone concerned about the quality of governance and the state of the world will learn from it.

By Tom Plate
The writer is a Los Angeles-based columnist.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Japan digs at site linked to wartime germ unit

A pink tape is marked on the ground on Monday at the site of a former medical school in Tokyo as Japan has started to excavate the site of the former school linked to Unit 731, a germ and biological warfare outfit during the war. -- PHOTO: AP

TOKYO - JAPAN on Monday started excavating a Tokyo site that has been linked to the notorious World War II covert biological and chemical warfare Unit 731, searching for human remains.

The plot once housed an army medical college and research centre of the unit and is near a location where the skulls and bones of some 100 people were dug up in 1989 during a construction project.

A former World War II nurse, Toyo Ishii, in 2006 testified she had helped bury corpses to hide them as US troops marched to Tokyo after Japan's surrender and said more human remains were buried nearby. The fresh search that started Monday was ordered the same year by then-health minister Jiro Kawasaki after he met Ishii.

The dig at the 3,000-square-metre property in Shinjuku ward was finally able to get under way once local residents had been relocated and apartment buildings and parking lots had been demolished.

Japan has not officially acknowledged the atrocities Unit 731 is accused of having committed. Historians say the unit, based in occupied China, conducted bacterial weapons research and lethal experiments on prisoners of war.

According to some historians and veterans, victims were deliberately infected with diseases such as cholera and plague, subjected to live vivisections and hanged upside down, electrocuted or frozen to death. -- AFP

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Growing worry of social immobility

MINISTER Mentor Lee Kuan Yew observed recently that more than half the students at top schools like Raffles Institution had fathers who were university-educated. In contrast, among the four neighbourhood schools he had obtained data on, the highest percentage was only 13.1 per cent, at Chai Chee Secondary.

Top schools had more 'frills' and better teachers, he said, though he emphasised that neighbourhood school teachers were 'equally competent'. Earlier, MM Lee had acknowledged that admission to primary school was based on parents' social class, not merit.

Mr Lee's observations resonate with what my co-researchers and I have found in studies we have done using the National Youth Survey in 2002 and 2005. In one study, we correlated young people's earnings with their parents' earnings. We standardised our statistical method and data with an American data set widely used for studies on 'intergenerational mobility', or the extent to which children's economic status depends on their parents'. If the children of rich parents grow up to be rich, while the children of poor parents stay poor, then intergenerational mobility is low.

We found that Singapore's intergenerational mobility was similar to that of the United States, which is low compared with other developed countries.

Though there has been a significant jump in the earnings and educational status of later generations relative to earlier ones in Singapore, low intergenerational mobility implies that those whose parents were at the bottom tend to also remain at the bottom, while those whose parents were at the top tend to stay there.

Recent research on intergenerational mobility has found that the type of education system has an impact on mobility.

Countries with private and varied education systems tend to have low mobility, while countries with public and universal education systems tend to have high mobility. Also, low mobility is related to expensive tertiary education, and high mobility to low-cost tertiary education.

Though conducted in the West, these studies have implications for Singapore, since our education system has moved from a universal system with a standardised curriculum to one where there are differentially priced schools offering varied curricula. Subsidies for tertiary education are also gradually decreasing.

In another study, Dr Ho Kong Weng, Dr Ho Kong Chong and I examined various factors influencing the participation of 14- to 19-year-olds in social groups. We found that parents' education was the most significant factor determining active participation and leadership in formal groups - such as in sports, the arts and uniformed groups - even after controlling for other factors such as ethnicity, gender, age and family environment.

The explanations for our findings are as follows:

First, entry into the more prestigious primary schools is not based on merit, but on factors such as the location of the family home and parents' connections to the school. Second, education in Singapore is differentiated and increasingly so.

Education is a channel through which parents invest in the human capital of their children. Parents' efforts to ensure academic success through such means as gaining entry into better - and in many cases, more expensive - schools, extra tuition, and social groups that enhance status, also depend on the family's income.

Social immobility, coupled with worsening income inequality, poses a disconcerting challenge. Our leaders are keenly aware of the challenge, and have put in place several measures to overcome it.

Various educational innovations for the less academically inclined include the Institute of Technical Education and alternative schools for students who fail their Primary School Leaving Examination - for example, NorthLight School and Assumption Pathlight School. These innovative education alternatives have become brand names themselves.

Still, the system remains differentiated, putting students of different academic calibre into different tracks in different kinds of schools where their social lives do not mix. When translated into earnings, the greater the wage premium placed on the qualifications of the 'skilled' versus the 'technical', the further behind the earnings of the lower-skilled will trail.

These tensions are difficult knots to disentangle. Singapore's small and vulnerable economy necessitates a competitive education system to produce a competitive workforce. We need an education system that stimulates and challenges the top students, which a standardised system will not provide. Unfortunately, such a system also has detrimental effects on mobility.

At the current stage of Singapore's development, we have reached economic maturity and we have become increasingly concerned about inequality. Our findings that Singapore's educational system may be perpetuating social immobility suggest that tackling the inequality problem head on requires some rethinking of educational policy, as well as economic policy.

By Irene Ng for the Straits Times

The writer is an assistant professor at the department of social work, National University of Singapore.

We need an education system that stimulates and challenges the top students, which a standardised system will not provide. Unfortunately, such a system also has detrimental effects on mobility.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Remaking 'Home' for Total Defence

MALAY rock legend Papa Rock, entertainer Dick Lee and up-and-coming singing sensation Olivia Ong may not be the faces usually associated with Total Defence.

But they were among 39 home-grown artists who came together to sing the song Home, picked to jazz up this year's campaign.

The song, which has been rearranged to give it a new spin, made its debut yesterday to mark Total Defence Day. The annual drive aims to remind Singaporeans of their role in defending the country. This year, the campaign, which started in 1984, is taglined 'Home - keeping it together'.

Song producer Kit Chan said getting the singers together to record it and to film the video was a Herculean task, as some are based overseas. She first sang the song, written by Dick Lee, at the 1998 National Day Parade.

'I feel as if my baby is born... there is very good energy and I feel the love,' said the 38-year-old, who started working on the project last year.

Marked every year on Feb 15, Total Defence Day is an annual reminder of a small country's vulnerability. On that date in 1942, Singapore fell to the Japanese. Other events held yesterday included a memorial service at the War Memorial Park on Beach Road (see story 'Remembering those who died in Occupation').

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who launched the campaign at the Drama Centre in the National Library Building, urged Singaporeans to commit themselves to Singapore's defence, like they did during the 2003 Sars outbreak and the recent economic crisis. This is all the more important, given the terrorism threat, and race and religion being exploited to 'sow discord' in society, said DPM Teo, who is also the Defence Minister.

'Our forefathers knew they had to make it, and did. We enjoy the Singapore that they built. The next generation, and future generations, can enjoy an even better Singapore. It's now up to all of us.'

DPM Teo also presented prizes to the winners of N.E.mation, an inter-school contest to produce animation clips on the Total Defence theme. National Junior College's entry beat 603 others to the top prize - a trip to the Dreamworks animation studio in the United States.

This year's Total Defence campaign is also doing its bit for charity. To raise funds, Internet users need only download the music video of Home, which is being shown on the Total Defence campaign website,

For every download, $1 will be pledged to the Community Chest's beneficiaries by five organisations and firms - Lee Foundation, Sembcorp Industries, Aurigin Technology, Singapore Turf Club and Tote Board.

Community Chest chairman Jennie Chua said she hopes to raise $200,000 by next month. The funds will go to the elderly and less fortunate families.

Papa Rock, 58, whose real name is Ramli Sarip, said: 'No matter how different the skyline or country looks every time I come back, I can still feel Singapore spirit here.'


Reflections on the revolution in Egypt

REVOLUTIONS happen for a reason. In the case of Egypt, there are several reasons: more than 30 years of one-man rule; Mr Hosni Mubarak's plans to pass the presidency to his son; widespread corruption, patronage and nepotism; and economic reform that did not benefit most Egyptians.

The net result was that many Egyptians felt not just alienated, but also humiliated. Humiliation is a powerful motivator. Egypt was ripe for revolution; dramatic change would have come at some point in the next few years, even absent the spark of Tunisia or the existence of social media.

Indeed, social media is a significant factor, but its role has been exaggerated. It is hardly the first disruptive technology to come along: the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television and cassettes all posed challenges to the existing order of their day. And like these earlier technologies, social media is not decisive: it can be repressed by governments as well as employed by governments to motivate their supporters.

Timing counts for a lot in politics. Mr Mubarak's announcement that he would not seek re-election would likely have averted a crisis had he issued it last December. But by the time he did say it, the mood of the street had evolved to the point that he could no longer placate it.

The initial success of revolutions is determined less by the strength of the protesters than by the will of the regime. Tunisia's collapse came quickly because its president lost his nerve and the army was weak and unwilling to stand by him. Egypt's establishment and its military are demonstrating far greater resolve.

Mr Mubarak's departure is a significant but not decisive development. To be sure, it closes a prolonged era of Egyptian politics. It also marks the end of the first phase of Egypt's revolution. But it is only the end of the beginning. What begins now is the struggle for Egypt's future.

The objective must be to slow the political clock. Egyptians need time to build a civil society and open a political spectrum that has been mostly closed for decades. A hybrid, caretaker government, including military and civilian elements, may be the best way forward. To slow the clock is not to stop it, however. A genuine political transition needs to move ahead, albeit at a measured pace.

Early elections should be avoided, lest those (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) who have been able to organise over the years enjoy an unfair advantage. The Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in the political process so long as it accepts the legitimacy of that process, the rule of law and the Constitution. The history and political culture of Egypt suggest a natural limit to the Brotherhood's appeal if Egyptians can bridge their most important differences, maintain order and restore economic growth.

Constitutional reform is critical. Egypt needs a charter that enjoys broad support - and that includes checks and balances that make it difficult for minorities to rule majorities.

Revolutionary movements invariably split into factions. Their sole common objective is the ouster of the existing regime. As soon as this goal comes close to being achieved, elements begin to position themselves for the second phase of the struggle and the coming competition for power. We are already beginning to see signs of this in Egypt and will see more in the days and weeks to come.

Some in Egypt will be satisfied only with full democracy; others (probably a majority) will care most about public order, greater official accountability, a degree of political participation and economic improvement. It is never possible to satisfy the demands of all protesters, and regimes should not try.

Egypt will face enormous economic difficulties, exacerbated by recent events, which have frightened off tourists, deterred investment and kept many from working. The challenges of a fast-growing population, inadequate education, insufficient jobs, corruption, bureaucracy and rising global competition constitute the greatest threat to the country's future.

Outsiders have had and will have only limited influence over the course of events. Over the past 30 years, intermittent calls by the United States for limited political reform were largely rebuffed. Once the crisis began, the people in the streets, Mr Mubarak himself, and above all the army have been the principal protagonists. Moving forward, it will again be Egyptians who will largely determine their own path.

In this vein, outsiders should be careful of intervening too much, especially in public. It is up to Egyptians to define for themselves how much and what kind of democracy is established. Outsiders can assist - for example, with ideas for constitutional reform or voting procedures - but this should be done privately and as suggestions, not demands.

Developments in Egypt will have uneven consequences in the region. Not every country will be affected equally. True monarchies, like Jordan, have a legitimacy and stability that the leaders of faux monarchies (Syria, Libya and Yemen), as well as the Iranian regime, do not. Much will depend on what transpires and how.

Change in Iraq was imposed from the outside by force, whereas change in Egypt has come from within and has largely been accomplished by consent rather than coercion. But it is too soon to know whether change in Egypt will be far- reaching and lasting, much less positive, and thus too soon to assess its historic impact.

By Richard N. Haass

The writer, formerly director of policy planning in the US State Department, is president of the Council on Foreign Relations.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

The mystery of the Karmapa Lama

The seizure by police of large sums of Chinese currency from the Indian monastery of the Karmapa Lama - one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism - has revived old suspicions about his continuing links with China and forced him to deny that he is an 'agent of Beijing'.

The Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama and the Karmapa Lama are the three highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism, representing parallel institutions that have intermittently been at odds with each other throughout their history.

And China, seeking to tighten its grip on Tibet, has worked to control the traditional process of finding the reincarnation of any senior lama who passes away.

Thus, in 1992, China helped select the seven-year-old Ogyen Trinley Dorje as the 17th Karmapa Lama, installing him in Tibet's Tsurphu monastery - the Karmapas' ancestral abode, which was almost destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. He became the first reincarnated 'living Buddha' to be recognised and ratified by communist China.

But then, in 1999, Dorje staged a stunning escape to India via Nepal, attracting the world's attention, but also deep suspicion because of the apparent ease with which he and his entourage managed to flee. The Dalai Lama has hosted him at the Gyuto monastery in Dharamsala, India, ever since.

Earlier, in 1995, China installed its own Panchen Lama after its security services abducted the Tibetans' six-year-old appointee, who has simply disappeared, along with his family.

Now, China is waiting for the current Dalai Lama - who is over 75 and has had bouts of ill health in recent years - to pass away, so that it can anoint his successor, too. But the exiled Dalai Lama, the charismatic face of the Tibetan movement, has made it clear that his successor will come from the 'free world', thereby excluding Chinese-ruled Tibet. This has set the stage for the emergence of two rival Dalai Lamas, one chosen by China and the other by the Tibetan exile movement.

In fact, the Chinese-appointed Karmapa Lama has a doppelg├»¿½nger Karmapa, who has set up shop in New Delhi. With both the Karmapas in India, the Indian government has sought to maintain peace by barring the contenders from the sacred Rumtek monastery in the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim.

Against this background, the discovery last month of 1.1 million yuan (S$214,000) and large sums of other foreign currency has ignited a fresh controversy over Dorje. While his supporters have staged protests against the police raid and interrogation of their leader, Indian officials have expressed concerns that China may be funding Dorje as part of a plan to influence the Karmapa's Kagyu sect, which controls important monasteries along the militarised Indo-Tibetan border.

According to Xu Zhitao, an official at the Chinese Communist Party central committee's United Front Work Department, the allegation that 'the Karmapa (may be) a Chinese agent or spy shows that India is keeping its mistrustful attitude towards China'.

But such an attitude seems warranted: Xu's Tibet division is tasked with overseeing monastic institutions, inculcating 'patriotic' norms among monks and nuns - through re-education when necessary - and infiltrating the Tibetan resistance movement and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries on both sides of the Indo-Tibetan frontier.

Communities in the Himalayan region have historically been closely integrated. But, with Tibet locked behind an iron curtain since the 1951 Chinese annexation, the economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have weakened. Tibetan Buddhism, however, still serves as the common link, with the Karmapa's Kagyu sect a powerful force on the Indian side.

The cash haul has reopened the question that arose in 1999: Was China behind Dorje's flight to India, or is he a genuine defector who simply got fed up with living in a gilded Chinese cage?

China had several possible motives for staging his 'escape', including a desire to strengthen his claim to the title at a time when the rival contender (backed by important interests in India, Bhutan and Taiwan) appeared to be gaining ground. Had Dorje remained in Tibet, he could have lost out to his rival, because the 280-year-old Rumtek monastery, the Kagyu school's holiest institution, is where the sect's all-powerful 'black hat', the symbolic crown of the Karmapa - believed to be woven from the hair of female deities - is located.

China would also have drawn comfort from the fact that, within the murky world of intra-Tibetan politics, its anointed Karmapa, oddly, had the Dalai Lama's backing. Historically, the Dalai Lamas and Karmapa Lamas vied with each other for influence until the Dalai Lama's Gelug school gained ascendancy over the Kagyu order. According to Tibetan tradition, however, the Dalai Lama has no role in selecting or endorsing a Karmapa. The Dalai Lama in this case gave his approval for purely political reasons.

The previous Karmapa Lama died in 1981, and the controversy over his successor that has raged ever since also epitomises a struggle for control of the US$1.5 billion (S$1.9 billion) in assets held by the Kagyu order, the richest in Tibetan Buddhism. With control of the Rumtek monastery embroiled in rival lawsuits, the New Delhi-based Karmapa has, not surprisingly, greeted the recent cash seizure as 'exposing' his Chinese-appointed rival.

Significantly, in contrast to its increasingly vituperative attacks on the Dalai Lama, China has not denounced (or de-recognised) its Karmapa, although his flight to India signalled its failure to retain the loyalty of a supposed puppet.

The Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley Dorje, now 25, occasionally criticises the Chinese government, including for its efforts 'to create this ethnic conflict' in Tibet. Nevertheless, China has refrained from attacking him, making clear that it wants him to return eventually.

And the ongoing Karmapa saga, with its shadowy politics and intrigue, could turn out to be only the opening act - a foretaste of what may come when two duelling Dalai Lamas emerge after the incumbent passes from the scene.

By Brahma Chellaney

The writer is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of Asian Juggernaut: The Rise Of China, India And Japan and of Water: Asia's New Battlefield.

Project Syndicate

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Moving in tune with the engine of change

ANYONE who's long followed the Middle East knows that the six most dangerous words after any cataclysmic event in this region are: 'Things will never be the same.' After all, this region absorbed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Google without a ripple.

But travelling through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan to measure the shock waves from Egypt, I'm convinced that the forces that were upholding the status quo for so long - oil, autocracy, the distraction of Israel and a fear of the chaos that could come with change - have finally met an engine of change that is even more powerful: China, Twitter and 20-year-olds

ANYONE who's long followed the Middle East knows that the six most dangerous words after any cataclysmic event in this region are: 'Things will never be the same.' After all, this region absorbed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of Google without a ripple.

But travelling through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan to measure the shock waves from Egypt, I'm convinced that the forces that were upholding the status quo for so long - oil, autocracy, the distraction of Israel and a fear of the chaos that could come with change - have finally met an engine of change that is even more powerful: China, Twitter and 20-year-olds.

Of course, China per se is not fuelling the revolt in the region - but China and the whole Asian-led developing world's rising consumption of meat, corn, sugar, wheat and oil certainly is. The rise in food and oil prices that slammed into this region in the last six months clearly sharpened discontent with the illegitimate regimes - particularly among the young, poor and unemployed.

This is why every government out here is now rushing to increase subsidies and boost wages - even without knowing how to pay for it, or worse, taking it from budgets to build schools and infrastructure. King Abdullah II of Jordan just gave every soldier and civil servant a pay rise of US$30 (S$38) a month, along with new food and petrol subsidies. Kuwait's government has announced a 'gift' of about US$3,500 to each of the country's 1.1 million citizens and about US$850 million in food subsidies.

But China is a challenge for Egypt and Jordan in other ways. Several years ago, I wrote about Egyptian entrepreneurs who were importing traditional lanterns for Ramadan - with microchips in them that played Egyptian folk songs - from China. When China can make Egyptian Ramadan toys more cheaply and appealingly than low-wage Egyptians, you know there is a problem of competitiveness.

Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Tunisia today are overflowing with the most frustrated cohort in the world - 'the educated unemployables'. They have college degrees on paper but really don't have the skills to make them globally competitive. I was just in Singapore. Its government is obsessed with things as small as how to better teach fractions to third graders. That has not been Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak's obsession.

I look at the young protesters gathered in downtown Amman, and the thousands who gathered in Egypt and Tunis, and my heart aches for them. So much human potential, but they have no idea how far behind they are - or maybe they do and that's why they're revolting. Egypt's government has wasted the last 30 years plying them with the soft bigotry of low expectations: 'Be patient. Egypt moves at its own pace, like the Nile.' Well, great. Singapore also moves at its own pace - like the Internet.

The Arab world has 100 million young people today between the ages of 15 and 29, many of them males who do not have the education to get a good job, buy an apartment and get married. That is trouble. Add in rising food prices, and the diffusion of Twitter, Facebook and texting, which finally gives them a voice to talk back to their leaders and directly to each other, and you have a very powerful change engine.

I have not been to Jordan for a while, but my ears are ringing with complaints about corruption, frustration with the king and queen, and disgust at the enormous gaps between rich and poor. King Abdullah, who has just sacked his Cabinet and promised real reform and real political parties, has his work cut out for him. And given some of the blogs that my friends in the region have shared with me, the people are not going to settle for the same-old, same-old. They say so directly now, dropping the old pretence of signing anti-government blog posts as 'Mohammed living in Sweden'.

Jordan is not going to blow up - today. The country is balanced between East Bank Bedouin tribes and West Bank Palestinians, who fought a civil war in 1970. 'There is no way that the East Bankers would join with the Palestinians to topple the Hashemite monarchy,' a retired Jordanian general remarked to me. But this balance also makes reform difficult. The East Bankers overwhelmingly staff the army and government jobs. They prefer the welfare state, and hate both 'privatisation' and what they call 'the digitals', the young Jordanian techies pushing for reform. The Palestinians dominate commerce but also greatly value the stability the Hashemite monarchy provides.

Egypt was definitely a wake-up call for Jordan's monarchy. The king's challenge is to convince his people that 'their voices are going to be louder in the voting booth than in the street', said Mr Salah Eddin al-Bashir, a member of Jordan's Senate.

As for Cairo, the real story in Egypt today is the 1952 revolution, led from the top by the military, versus the 2011 revolution, led from below by the people. The Egyptian Army has become a huge patronage system, with business interests and vast perks for its leaders. For Egypt to have a happy ending, the army has to give up some of its power and set up a fair political transition process that gives the Egyptian centre the space to build precisely what Mr Mubarak refused to permit - legitimate, independent, modernising, secular parties - that can compete in free elections against the Muslim Brotherhood, now the only authentic party.

If that happens, I am not the least bit worried about the Muslim Brotherhoods in Jordan or Egypt hijacking the future. Actually, they should be worried. The Brotherhoods have had it easy in a way. They had no legitimate secular political opponents. The regimes prevented that so they could tell the world it is either 'us or the Islamists'. As a result, I think, the Islamists have gotten intellectually lazy. All they had to say was 'Islam is the answer' or 'Hosni Mubarak is a Zionist' and they could win 20 per cent of the vote. Now, if Egypt and Jordan can build a new politics, the Muslim Brotherhood will, for the first time, have real competition from the moderate centre in both countries - and they know it.

'If leaders don't think in new ways, there are vacancies for them in museums,' said Mr Zaki Bani Rsheid, political director of Jordan's Islamic Action Front, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm. When I asked Mr Rsheid if his own party was up for this competition, he stopped speaking in Arabic and said to me in English, with a little twinkle in his eye: 'Yes we can.'

I hope so, and I also hope that events in Egypt and Jordan finally create a chance for legitimate modern Arab democratic parties to test him.

Thomas Friedman

Brave new chapter for the Arab world

THE jury is still out. But whatever the outcome, the 'Jasmine Revolution' in Tunisia and the uprisings in Egypt have already written a chapter of history. They have sent shivers of fear down the spines of many rulers in the Arab world and beyond.

Many Arab regimes dwell on a fading post-colonial legitimacy or on their role as the only reliable bulwark against Islamism. Some have drifted towards a model of a rentier state, rife with crony capitalism. They seek to perpetuate their grip on power through 'dynastic' successions. This model can only thrive under the conditions of a police state.

What is amazing is that the model has not come under fire earlier. But the events since mid-December portend powerful trends in the Arab world.

One is the compelling role that information and communication technologies have played in propagating the outcry in Tunisia and Egypt. Without doubt this is being closely monitored in China.

Another lesson pertains to the spell that freedom and democracy can cast on peoples still deprived of them. To set this trend in historical perspective, we must recall June 4, 1989 - that pivotal Sunday when the Poles voted the communists out of power and, at the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese Communist Party crushed a blossoming democratic movement on Tiananmen Square.

In retrospect, that day looks like a fork in the road of history. One path led to the demise of communism and a new birth of freedom and democracy; the other traced another course, with China remaining under the grip of its ruling party but delivering prosperity to its impoverished masses.

As the revolutionary year of 1989 unfolded, Francis Fukuyama pondered whether the path chosen in Europe heralded the 'end of history'. But while a widespread consensus continued to hold that communism was a dead end, China's economic success, and the authoritarian backlash in Russia, prompted a more pessimistic analysis. Theories of 'democratic rollback' and of a resurgence of 'authoritarian great powers' surfaced.

Some argued that authoritarian rule provided a surer and safer path to welfare than democracy. Others extolled the virtues of 'Asian values', and still others warned that democracy in the Arab/Muslim world would pave the way for Islamic fundamentalists to take power. Not surprisingly, autocrats everywhere embraced such views.

But the message of the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt is clear: democracy - and the liberal political order in which it is rooted - is not merely a Western concept, but holds universal attraction. Moreover, it can be accessed at an early stage of a country's modernisation.

To be sure, authoritarian rule can manage the early stages of industrialisation. But a 'knowledge economy' cannot operate with muzzled minds. Even the smartest authoritarian rulers are unable to manage its complexity - not to mention the corruption that inevitably breeds in the protected shadows of autocracy.

Challenging the 'myth of the autocratic revival', American political scientists Daniel Deudney and John Ikenberry have examined China and Russia, finding 'little evidence for the emergence of a stable equilibrium between capitalism and autocracy such that this combination could be dignified as a new model of modernity'.

While neither country qualifies as a liberal democracy, both 'are much more liberal and democratic than they have ever been, and many of the crucial foundations for sustainable liberal democracy are emerging'.

Many countries have, quietly or spectacularly, rallied to the liberal order in recent decades. South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have done so without being hampered by their 'Asian values'. Similarly, Latin America, once the playground of myriad juntas, is now largely anchored in political liberalism. Turkey is ruled by a mildly Islamist party that plays by the rules of democracy.

The paths differ. Islamism is definitely a risk in Muslim countries; setbacks are not uncommon. It can take decades, but the leap to democracy occurs when the circumstances are ripe - as we are witnessing today.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt embody all the tenets of a liberal political order: a yearning for freedom, opportunity and the rule of law. Whatever the final outcome, those who believe that democracy, to paraphrase Woodrow Wilson, makes the world a safe place have every reason to rejoice at this development.

By Pierre Buhler

The writer, a former French ambassador to Singapore, was an associate professor at Sciences Po, Paris.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Uncontacted tribes

Food prices likely to continue rising

WASHINGTON: From McDonald's burgers in the United States to sugar in Bolivia and chillies in Indonesia, food prices across the globe are soaring.

But consumers and governments should brace themselves for even higher prices, experts warn, as demand in populous emerging economies will put pressure on supplies for years to come.

A 'perfect storm' of bad weather, rapid growth in emerging economies - with people eating more higher-value, resource-intense food - and low interest rates has sent prices for a broad range of farm and non-farm commodities climbing, often at double-digit rates: from wheat, corn and cotton to rubber and oil.

And while it resembles the sharp spike in food and oil prices in 2007-2008, analysts say the current trend is less speculative in nature and not likely to end with a price collapse, as it did two years ago.

'Things were quite different in 2008... You had price spikes, it was a couple of food grains,' said Mr Chris Delgado, an agriculture specialist at the World Bank. 'What is going on now is more broad-based... It's not led by grains.'

And it is widespread and feeding into political worries, not just in the Middle East.

In Indonesia, where even the price of chillies has soared, the government suspended import duties on key food items after inflation hit an annual rate of 7 per cent last month.

In Bolivia, sugar is being rationed despite a 64 per cent price hike.

In the US, much higher meat prices are forcing restaurants from fancy steakhouses to McDonald's to hike their prices, even though the pocketbooks of consumers remain tight.

Last Thursday, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said food prices have reached their highest level since it began measuring them in 1990, and pointed to the political problems that could arise.

'Not only is there a risk, but there have already been riots in some parts of the world because of rising prices,' FAO chief Jacques Diouf said.

There is little relief in sight, say experts.

'I think commodity prices are going to be trending higher,' said Mr Gerard Lyons, chief economist for Standard Chartered Bank.

'What's interesting is that even commodities that aren't heavily traded are rising in price... That suggests this is fundamental, not speculators,' he told Agence France-Presse.

The 2008 commodity spike involved only a handful of food grains plus oil, and was driven in large part by political decisions amounting to hoarding and heavy trader speculation.

This year, the problem is more fundamental: Prices are being driven by growing demand from huge emerging economies like China, India, Russia and Brazil, which is unlikely to slacken until prices get much higher, say analysts.

Mr Delgado said supply shocks are exacerbating the price hikes: weather and policy moves that have cut grain supplies from Russia, Argentina and Australia, among others.

But the trend is rooted in the fundamentals of soaring demand, say economists.

'More and more people are moving up the scale of income, so they tend to have higher-value food,' said Mr Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

Mr Lyons said there is not much relief on the horizon because of the time it takes farmers to expand acreage and production.

'It takes a long time, two to three years, for new supply to come onstream,' he added. 'I think commodity prices are going to be trending higher.'

Commodity traders are saying the same thing.

Last month, Morgan Stanley commodities specialist Hussein Allidina said key items like corn, soya beans and wheat still face strong upward price pressure - with corn possibly going up another 20 per cent from the current level of US$6.60 a bushel before demand weakens.

'We see record tightness across the agriculture complex and believe that higher prices will be necessary to ration demand and incentivise acreage,' he said in a report.

Mr Behravesh said he thinks the problem is mainly a short-term one, more like 2008, and will have limited economic impact overall.

But policy-wise, he said governments do not have many tools to bring down the cost of food and other commodities, especially if they are import-dependent.

Aside from pushing up interest rates to slow growth, he said, 'there's not much central bankers can do about food prices'.


See Review


'I think commodity prices are going to be trending higher. What's interesting is that even commodities that aren't heavily traded are rising in price... That suggests this is fundamental, not speculators.'

Mr Gerard Lyons, chief economist for Standard Chartered Bank

Saturday, February 05, 2011

That predatory hunger for shark's fin

EVERY Chinese New Year, campaigns by conservation groups ask diners to stop eating shark's fin.

But recent figures show that Singapore's imports of the delicacy have nearly doubled since 2003. The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which supplied the numbers, said nearly 2,500 tonnes were imported last year, up from 1,300 tonnes eight years ago.

The figures include dried, salted and canned fins, and refer to those meant for both domestic consumption and export.

And last week, conservation group Traffic delivered more alarming news: a report that a decade-long United Nations shark conservation scheme has failed.

Shark's fin importers here say that demand is rebounding, after a small dip due to 2009's economic crisis.

The price of shark's fin goes up 10 to 15 per cent a year, but demand is rising even quicker thanks to growing affluence in East Asia.

Mr Melvin Foo, managing director of seafood importer and exporter Sineurope, explained that 95 per cent of what he imports goes to places like Japan and China. Just two to three tonnes, or less than 5 per cent of his imports, are sold here.

All imports of sharks and shark's fin are regulated through an AVA licensing scheme. According to Mr Foo, shark's fins sold here must be landed along with the body of the shark, to prevent a practice known as live shark finning, where fishermen slice the fin off the fish and dump it back into the water. And, he says, demand for shark meat actually comes from Europe, where it is more valued and fins are considered waste.

The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) wildlife conservation group would prefer sharks not to be eaten at all. In its Singapore Seafood Guide published in February last year, WWF Singapore advised people to choose seafood from sustainable sources and to avoid all shark products.

Its website,, states it is not aware of any shark fisheries that are sustainably managed.

A Singapore-tailored online campaign was also launched by the group last week: the 'Say No to Shark Fin' pledge.

Sharks are typically either caught deliberately or as accidental bycatch.

When overfished, their populations are slow to recover as they take a long time to reproduce and mature. And according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of endangered species, six species of shark are considered critically endangered, meaning their populations have declined by as much as 90 per cent in the past couple of decades.

But campaigns here are soldiering on.

The latest, by Project: FIN on social networking site Facebook, asks people to change their profile pictures to an image which reads: Celebrate Chinese New Year with no shark's fin soup.

A year ago, the WWF launched its Sustainable Seafood Guide for Singapore, in which it noted that most shark fisheries were unregulated and many species were overfished.

And posts on government feedback site Reach have asked for all government functions not to serve shark's fin.

Already, some hotels like those at Resorts World Sentosa do not serve the dish. The Fairmont Singapore has removed not only shark's fin, but also Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna - which are also overfished - from its menu.

Other hotels like the Marriott are moving away from it. A spokesman said: 'We have made a conscious decision to substantially reduce the number of shark's fin dishes available on our a la carte menu.'

But the Marriott continues to serve shark's fin when guests ask for it, out of respect for local culture and guest preferences, she added.

Still, hotels like the Marriott and Mandarin Orchard say more couples are asking for shark's fin alternatives for their wedding banquets.

WWF Singapore's managing director, Ms Amy Ho, said the practice of eating shark's fin will stop only when the customers choose to stop.

She said sharks play an important role as top predators in the marine ecosystem, adding: 'All these ecosystems are very important to preserve nature for future generations to come.'

Thursday, February 03, 2011

One man's delicacy, another's poison pill

IN THIS age of a new Opec - the Organisation of Politically Engaged Celebrities - George Clooney hires satellites to monitor Sudanese troop movements during a referendum on partition; Daniel Craig, Kate Winslet and Paul McCartney lead successful campaigns to remove foie gras from high-end department stores; Angelina Jolie is a United Nations goodwill ambassador.

Now, into this 'celebocracy' steps British uber chef Gordon Ramsay campaigning to save the world's shark population from ending up as soup. His recent TV special 'Shark Bait' investigated finning, the method used to source the key ingredient for the dish. During finning, a shark's fins are removed after it is caught but often while the fish is still alive. The carcass, which is worth a fraction of the value of the fins, is then discarded at sea.

In his infamous foul-mouthed style but acting as a moral caped crusader, Ramsay and his film crew barge unannounced into shops in London's Chinatown trying to find the perfectly legal fins as though on the trail of contraband.

He quizzes Costa Rican dock workers unloading fish, demanding to know the location of the source of harvested fins. He interrogates restaurant diners as to their ethics over eating such 'beautiful creatures'. One wonders how long a journalist would last in one of Ramsay's restaurants if they asked his customers to justify what they had on their plates.

Ramsay also visits Imperial, a high-end restaurant in Taiwan, tasting shark's fin soup for the first time. Clearly believing that his Western pallet is the universal arbiter of good taste, he declares: 'It's really actually tastes of nothing.'

Food is a matter of personal taste, and Ramsay can have his opinion. I tasted shark's fin soup once, and that will be the only time. However, members of this new Opec use their status to do more than opine. They reduce complex issues to black and white morality tales and demand immediate action to support their causes.

Shark's fin soup is supposedly a delicacy that was traditionally reserved for the wealthy on special occasions and it has been part of Chinese culture for centuries. For years, only rich Chinese - mostly in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore - consumed it. However, China has seen a dramatic rises in standards of living in recent decades, especially among the middle classes. This has put shark's fin soup within touch of many more people. To satisfy this demand, fishermen traverse the oceans in search of sharks.

Space is limited on fishing vessels. Fins can sell for US$700 (S$890) per kg, 70 times the value of a kilo of tuna. The bodies of sharks are bulky and worth almost nothing as there is little or no demand for the meat. Finning is also carried out when sharks are caught as 'by catch' when fishing for tuna and swordfish.

Conservationists believe finning is exacerbating a crisis in the global shark populations. Ramsay claims 'sharks will be extinct by the end of the century'.

There are over 400 species of shark. To claim they are on the verge of extinction is headline grabbing, but an inaccurate generalisation, equivalent to claiming that all fish are endangered. As with the treatment of geese in the production of foie gras, exaggeration is common place for those who cannot tolerate the cultural habits of others.

The UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wildlife Fauna and Flora (Cites) lists only three shark species whose consumption is subject to regulation - the great white, basking and whale shark. Dr Giam Choo Hoo, the longest-serving member of Cites, has said: 'The perception that it is common practice to kill sharks for only their fins - and to cut them off whilst the sharks are still alive - is wrong... The vast majority of fins in the market are taken from sharks after their death.'

Predictably, Ramsay's show led to an explosion of chatter on the Internet. Culinary culture warriors condemned Chinese food traditions and bemoaned the rapid economic growth that means more members of the middle class can afford this luxury dish. Online petitions against finning have been launched. There are plans to organise protests in London's Chinatown during Chinese New Year.

Ramsay has drawn vehement criticism from animal rights activists for hypocrisy: 'persuading' restaurants not to sell shark's fin soup, while his restaurants continue to serve an endangered eel and foie gras - whose production requires geese to be force-fed to enlarge their livers. A case of the pot calling the kettle black?

Finning may be uncomfortable to watch, but is the production of foie gras any different? Even if one doesn't like the taste or idea of shark's fin soup, what's at stake is the individual's right to choose what to eat within the confines of the law, regardless of what some celebrities may believe or espouse.

By Kirk Leech, For The Straits Times

The writer is a former senior project manager at Understanding Animal Research, a London-based non-profit organisation.

The Cairo conundrum

BY 3PM last Friday, the protesters in central Cairo were chanting: 'Where is the army? Come and see what the police are doing to us. We want the army.' And that was the main question, really: Where is the Egyptian army in all this?

Like armies everywhere, even in dictatorships, the Egyptian army does not like to use violence against its own people. It would much rather leave that sort of thing to the police, who are generally quite willing to do it. But in Alexandria, by mid-afternoon last Friday, the police had stopped fighting the protesters and had started talking to them.

This is how regimes end.

First, the police realise they face a genuinely popular movement, involving all classes and all walks of life, rather than extremist agitators the regime's propaganda says they are fighting. They realise it would be wrong - and also very unwise - to go on bashing heads in the service of a regime that is likely to disappear soon. It is best to change sides before it is too late.

Then the army, seeing that the game is up, tells the dictator it is time to get on a plane and go abroad to live with his money.

Egypt's ruler, Mr Hosni Mubarak, was a general before he became President, and he has always made sure that the military is at the head of the queue for money and privileges, but there is no gratitude in politics. The military will not want to be dragged down with him.

All this could happen quite fast, or it could occur over the next few weeks, but it is probably going to happen. Even autocratic and repressive regimes must have some sort of popular consent, because one cannot hire enough police to compel everybody to obey. They extort that consent through fear: the ordinary citizens' fear of losing their jobs, their freedom, or even their lives. So when people lose their fear, the regime is toast.

It would require a truly horrendous massacre to re-instill fear in Egyptians now, and at this stage, neither the police nor the army are likely to be willing to do that. So what happens once Mr Mubarak leaves? Nobody knows, because nobody is in charge of this revolution.

The first people out on the streets were young university graduates facing a lifetime of unemployment. Only days later, however, the demonstrations swelled to include people of every social class and walk of life.

They have no programme, just a conviction that it is high time for a change - Kifaya! 'Enough is enough', as the nickname of an Egyptian opposition party, which flourished in the middle of the last decade, put it.

Two-thirds of the 80 million Egyptians were born after Mr Mubarak came to power, and they are not grateful for the poverty, corruption and repression that define and confine their lives. But who can fix it all?

Washington and the other Western capitals that had supported Mr Mubarak for the past three decades are praying that the revolution will choose Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as its leader. He flew back into Egypt last Thursday, and the regime took him seriously enough to even put him under house arrest. But he is probably not the Chosen One.

Mr ElBaradei is a diplomat who has spent half of his life abroad. He is seen by Western governments as a 'safe pair of hands'. He would be at best a figurehead, but a figurehead for what?

Since it would be the army that will finally tell Mr Mubarak to leave, the military would dominate the interim regime. They would not want to put yet another general out front, so they might decide that Mr ElBaradei is the right candidate for the job as interim leader, precisely because he has no independent power base. But there would then be a need to have elections, and Mr ElBaradei would not even come close to winning.

The likely winner of a genuinely free Egyptian election, according to most opinion polls, would be the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers are not particularly radical, as Islamists go, but the first thing they have promised to do if they win power is to hold a referendum on Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. And most Egyptians, according to the same polls, would vote to cancel it.

That would end the flow of official aid from the United States and private foreign investment that now keep the Egyptian economy more or less afloat, even though it would probably not lead to an actual war. And there is no reason to believe that an Islamic government could make the Egyptian economy grow any faster, although it would distribute poverty more fairly.

These longer-term considerations, however, will have no impact on the events of the next few weeks, when Egypt's example may ignite similar revolts against decrepit regimes elsewhere in the Arab world - or not, as the case may be. But it is not just Tunisia anymore. Egypt is the biggest Arab country by far, and culturally the most influential. What happens there really matters.

By Gwynne Dyer

The writer is a London-based independent journalist.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Raid on monastery bares India's fears

NEW DELHI: Ever since he came to India from Tibet 11 years ago, the authorities here have kept a wary eye on the Karmapa, one of four key religious figures under the Dalai Lama, fearing he is a Chinese agent.

Over the weekend, sleuths from India's external intelligence agency and other spy departments grilled the monk and his key associates, after vast amounts of money that were unaccounted for were found in their possession.

Police and income tax officials said they recovered more than 80 million rupees (S$2.2 million) in various currencies from the Gyuto monastery used by Mr Ugyen Trinley Dorje, 25, who may one day succeed the ailing 75-year-old Dalai Lama.

A large part of the money seized on Thursday was in Chinese yuan, and officials speculated that the cash was being stored for a real estate transaction that was to have been clinched last Saturday.

A local businessman has been arrested and Gyuto associates questioned. The police said the Karmapa himself has not been held, but acknowledged 'some restrictions on his movements'.

The raid on the monastery and the questioning of the Karmapa underscore Indian nervousness over what it fears could have been a move to set up Buddhist centres along the China border, a factor that could influence future negotiations on the undemarcated boundary.

While India has not, thus far, restricted Mr Dorje's movements within the country, New Delhi has not allowed him to move his residence to Rumtek monastery in Sikkim state, the traditional seat of the Karmapa.

Intelligence sources said that while it is not uncommon for popular religious figures to attract large amounts of cash in donations, their worry is that a substantial part of the yuan recovered had running serial numbers, which they described as 'unusual'.

'One thing is certain - it is illegal to keep such large amounts of foreign money in cash,' said China watcher Sujit Dutta.

Gyuto monastery is located in the Himalayan hill town of Dharamsala, which is in northern India's Himachal Pradesh state. It is the headquarters of the Dalai Lama's so-called government-in-exile.

The Indian government does not officially recognise the government-in-exile, choosing instead to refer to it as the 'Dalai Lama's Bureau'.

The head of Tibetan Buddhism has reacted cautiously to the raids, as well as the frenzied speculation in the Indian media.

'The Karmapa has many devotees, including those from China,' the Dalai Lama, who was in Bangalore, told reporters on Sunday. 'Some money would naturally have been received by him. There has been some negligence. It is better to have a thorough investigation.'

The Karmapa said the yuan unearthed in the raids came from followers in Tibet. 'All our dealings are honest and completely transparent - anything else would be contrary to the Buddhist principles that we live by,' said a statement from his office.

Beijing has not been amused by the developments, which come after three Chinese tourists, who strayed into India across the open border with Nepal, were picked up by the police during the middle of last month on suspicions of spying.

'The speculation by India's media shows that India keeps its mistrustful attitude towards China,' the Global Times quoted United Front Work Department official Xu Zhitao of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee as saying.