Thursday, March 31, 2011

Plan to identify 'radical' students blasted

BEIJING: A controversial plan by Peking University to identify students with 'radical thoughts' has sparked outrage from academics and students.

Under the scheme, to be rolled out campus-wide in May, university administrators will screen students who fall under 10 categories that require 'special help'. These include those with radical mindsets, those who are 'psychologically vulnerable' and those who have breached campus rules.

Such students will then have to undergo consultations with teachers and university administrators.

Politics professor Zhang Ming from Renmin University was scathing in his response.

'It is going too far for a respected university to openly control radical minds,' Prof Zhang was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post.

'Aren't we going back to the days of the Cultural Revolution? This is hateful and terrible,' he added, referring to the period from 1966 to 1976 when any dissenter was purged.

Many also questioned the meaning of 'radical thoughts'.

Prominent scholar Yu Jianrong, director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' social issues research centre, openly mocked the policy on his microblog.

He wrote: 'I don't know how Peking University defines 'radical-minded'. May I request that the university's party committee publicise the standards so all colleges around the nation can learn from it?'

Other intellectuals claimed the spirit of the university is dead, with renowned Chinese writer Zhang Yihe saying it has become a 'madhouse'.

Peking University has long been a bastion of liberal thinking in China, having led the anti-imperialist May 4 revolution of 1919 and pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Mr Zha Jing, deputy director of the university's student work department, defended the policy, saying the focus is mainly on students who frequently fail examinations or encounter difficulties in their studies.

'We try to discover the reasons for students' poor academic performance in order to help them successfully complete their courses,' he told the Beijing Evening News.

He explained that students with 'radical thoughts' include those who are overly critical of the university's management.

'For instance, some students criticised the university just because the food price in the canteen was raised by a few cents,' he said.

In a separate interview posted on the Peking University website, Mr Zha said the university neither wants to control nor punish its students.

A trial run of the scheme has been carried out at the university's Yuanpei College and Health Science Centre since November last year. Mr Zha said there have been 'a series of successful examples'.

But many are unsure how it would be useful.

A Peking University undergraduate, who wanted to remain anonymous, told the China Daily: 'I don't believe you can actually improve a student's academic performance or change someone's personality by talking.'

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

China's vanity projects

BEIJING: Wangjiang is one of the poorer counties in China, with the local government taking in just 171 million yuan (S$33 million) in revenue in 2009. But that has not stopped the officials in central Anhui province from building a new government building for themselves, complete with al fresco cafes, fish ponds and even a musical fountain.

It takes up an area of 43,600 sq m, or as Xinhua news agency reported last weekend, about 8.5 times the size of the United States' White House. The price tag is 63 million yuan.

Such developments have been called 'image projects' or 'vanity projects' (xing xiang gong cheng), ordered by local officials who want to build up their image while ignoring the real needs of the people.

And there are plenty of such buildings in China. A survey by China Youth Daily last week of 1,600 people online showed a stunning 97.5 per cent who said that there were vanity projects in their cities.

They come in all shapes and sizes. There are the ostentatious government buildings like Wangjiang's, with many poor towns and counties in China opting for Washington's Capitol building design.

There are also the cultural image projects, from spectacular theatres to massive stadiums. Most of them are almost completely useless because the local populace lack the critical mass and interest to sustain them.

Funing in coastal Jiangsu province is among the most lampooned online, after building not only a copy of the World Expo's China Pavilion, but also a poor replica of the Sydney Opera House.

Many such projects are also incongruent with their location. Xian in north-western Shaanxi, for example, has spent 500 million yuan on a musical fountain, which it claims to be the largest in Asia, despite the serious water shortage in the province.

'If we compare it to the US, a lot of the local government offices there are no bigger than the size of a villa. There are also fewer bureaucrats at the local level in the US,' said observer Hu Xingdou from the Beijing Institute of Technology.

'China, on the other hand, has a lot of local officials and they all want to work in very impressive buildings.'

Most importantly, local officials persist in the vanity projects because they can siphon off large amounts of money from its construction.

'The 'rebates' which officials get from the developers are usually 15 per cent of the total bill,' said Prof Hu.

Top China officials have spoken out against the vanity projects.

Two weeks ago, Vice-President Xi Jinping urged local governments to stop such blind pursuits.

'These luxurious and superficial 'image projects' waste people's money and manpower... The officials' obsession with image projects seriously hurts the credibility of the party and government and affects their work. There is an urgent need for this to be rectified,' he wrote in Study Times, a publication of the Central Party School.

He was only the latest top leader to slam such ridiculous projects.

As far back as two years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao, in his work report to the legislature then, also warned local officials to shape up.

'We will prohibit image projects that waste human and financial resources and vanity projects that are divorced from reality,' he said.

But analysts believe that the exhortations alone will not work. A big factor behind such projects is that officials want to splurge so as to boost gross domestic product, since their promotions still depend heavily on economic growth.

Beijing's scoldings also come across as hypocritical because the central government has also authorised and built several large-scale vanity projects.

The most prominent is the Bird's Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics, a 90,000-seater arena which has been struggling to find a purpose since the Games.

'Vanity projects are a reflection of our society's flaws. They are not going to go away overnight,' said Prof Hu.


'We will prohibit image projects that waste human and financial resources and vanity projects that are divorced from reality.'

Premier Wen Jiabao, in a 2009 report

Extravagant and even 'useless' structures

Mini China Pavilion and Sydney Opera House
Funing, in an underdeveloped part of coastal Jiangsu province, stunned the country by splurging 3.5 million yuan (S$673,000) last year to build a copy of the 2010 Shanghai World Expo's iconic China Pavilion. Unlike the real pavilion, the 8,000 sq m replica cannot function as an exhibition hall. Netizens slammed it as a useless vase.

Reports of another vanity project in the county - a replica of the Sydney Opera House - surfaced later. Built earlier than the mini China Pavilion, at an even greater cost of 50 million yuan, the 420 sq m building houses meeting rooms, a restaurant and leisure facilities.Local officials said the aim of the projects was to boost the influence of the little-known county.

Faux Capitol building
Fuyang city in central Anhui province spent 30 million yuan for a district government building that resembled Washington's Capitol building. The marble steps of its entrance alone cost 500,000 yuan.

During construction, a primary school in its vicinity appealed to overseas aid agencies for funds to rebuild its school building after it was found to be structurally unsafe.

Little Bird's Nest
Puxian in central Shanxi province has just two main roads, a population of 100,000 and an annual government revenue of 300 million yuan. But it spent 100 million yuan to build a cultural centre shaped like Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium.

The centre was completed last year and now boasts a 1,195-seater theatre and meeting rooms which can fill a total of 4,000 people.

From the Straits Times

To Chernobyl hell and back

ON April 28, 1986, Dr Sergei Belyakov was enjoying a serene Saturday fishing by Ukraine's Dnipro River when he and his two friends noticed its water level plummeting.

As the area had been hit by a handful of industrial accidents before, the chemistry professor guessed that something was amiss, forcing the authorities to shut all dams to the river to avoid contaminating one of Ukraine's main waterways.

A keen scan of all the Soviet radio stations, however, drew a blank. Then he stumbled onto a Swedish channel.

'I couldn't understand a word of Swedish but the commentator seemed very excited, and every second sentence, he said the word 'Chernobyl'.

'That was when I knew something had happened at the nuclear power plant about 300km away,' he says.

Two days earlier, on April 26, Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 was split wide open when a series of powerful blasts blew off the reactor's lid, spreading radiation over a large swathe of the then Soviet Union and much of Europe. An area roughly half the size of Italy was contaminated, forcing the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Then a young professor at the Ukrainian University of Chemical Technology in the city of Dnepropetrovsk, the 30-year-old felt that his knowledge of radiation protection and decontamination, which he gained as an army reservist, would prove helpful in the clean-up efforts.

'I volunteered because I know how to work safely with radiation, and educate others on how to do it,' he says. And the fact that his father, a retired army officer and decorated war veteran, also wanted to volunteer steeled his resolve. He eventually worked at Chernobyl between July 31 and Sept 8. His father, then 64, was considered too old to participate.

'When I announced I was volunteering, people there looked at me as though I was crazy.'

He was among a reported 700,000 workers - many of them called up as army reservists under the Soviet government - who cleared a 30km area around the radiation-seeping plant in order to entomb it.

As Senior Lieutenant, commander of Reconnaissance Squad, 25th Brigade of Chemical Defence, USSR Army reserve, his job was to map and measure contaminated spots and to organise the clean-up.

But he also rolled up his sleeves with his men over the next five weeks.

He worked in all the 'hot' spots of the station, including six shifts on 'The Roof' - the damaged portion of the roof between reactors 3 and 4. The area was so badly contaminated that the actual allowed daily dose (2R, Roentgen - a measure of radiation exposure) had limited such shifts to a matter of minutes or even seconds. One day, he recalls, his shift up there lasted only 36 seconds.

When the explosion happened, the sheer heat of the fire and nuclear fission had melted the roughly 30cm-thick asphalt roof into a molten asphalt lake. Pieces of graphite and other radioactive fuel spat out from the core of reactor 4, adding to the toxic soup which had rehardened and had to be manually broken up and removed.

Radiation levels there reached levels of 1,500R and beyond in some places, he says. These levels led to the painful deaths of several firefighters who tackled the first fire on the roof.

Each shift, a production line of 900 men waited in the 27-storey-high darkened stairwell leading to the roof - sweltering in the summer heat exacerbated by the windowless tower - for their turn.

They were armed with axes welded to heavy metal rods and dressed in boots, respirators and heavy suits with pieces of lead strung together over their chests and back to offer some protection against radiation.

Then, when it was their turn, the teams leapt out through a door separating safety and danger, much like paratroopers from a plane, to do their shift.

It was a battle against time as they ran to their designated spot, struggling over debris kept constantly wet by helicopters, to chop up whatever asphalt they could, while a 'counter' shouted out how many seconds they had spent outside. Then they charged back into the stairwell.

'It was a never-ending conveyor belt of men who did this. It was the epitome of our work in Chernobyl,' he says. 'We had a saying, 'Who says the staircase to hell goes down?''

Other work involved cleaning the area in eight-hour shifts by digging up contaminated rubble, as well as building a barbed-wire fence around the whole station as a security measure. Amidst the drudgery, he was acutely aware of the importance of basic safety measures and tried to get his radioactivity levels tested whenever possible.

He points to a white spot on his neck the size of a five-cent coin where radiation had killed the pigment in his skin.

He and the others lived 50 to a tent and every morning when he awoke, he remembers seeing clumps of hair on his pillow, also the result of radiation exposure.

Other experts had also gathered there to study the effects of radiation.

'We were essentially lab rats in a living laboratory, because doctors and scientists had an unprecedented opportunity there.'

The signs of devastation were everywhere.

Near the plant, the pine forest turned red as the trees died, while other crops mutated and grew huge in the months after the accident.

'I saw watermelons the size of coffee tables, apples the size of a child's head. But we couldn't touch them.'

Cement plants also mushroomed in the aftermath of the disaster, spewing out tonnes and tonnes of concrete to entomb everything which had been contaminated and erect a concrete sarcophagus over reactor 4 by December that year.

But Dr Belyakov had to leave after just 40 days as he had, on paper, reached the maximum allowed exposure - 25R.

He believes his dose was at least three times higher. There were not enough dosimeters - instruments measuring radiation - for individuals. He estimates that each day he was in Chernobyl, he was hit with 50 years' worth of the daily dose of radiation an X-ray technician receives; or 600 times more in total than a uranium miner is allowed to receive within a year.

The former semi-professional basketball player lost 16kg and was unable to walk 100m without feeling exhausted. His kidneys and joints were affected, but he says he escaped more serious harm because he knew how to protect himself from accidental exposure, by making sure he got tested as often as possible, for instance, and discarding any contaminated clothing or items immediately. And he was back to playing sports after about 18 months.

'We were all advised not to have any children, because of what we could pass on to our children,' says Dr Belyakov, who had a six-year-old daughter at the time, his only child.

Thirty-one workers died in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Nobody knows how many have died of radiation-related illnesses since then, but studies by organisations such as the European Commission, International Atomic Energy Agency, World Health Organisation and United Nations estimate that 9,000 to 33,000 will die from radiation exposure due to the accident within the next 70 years.

In 1995, Dr Belyakov emigrated to the United States with his wife and daughter, and became an American citizen. He now works in Singapore as a section head in the medicinal chemistry department of AMRI (Albany Molecular Research Inc) Singapore Research Centre.

Although the memories remain painful, he says he wants to share his experiences to alleviate the fear and panic surrounding the current accident in Japan.

'It was the most intense memory of my life.

'I hope that by relating my experience, it may help people to understand the meaning and the place of nuclear energy in modern days and in the future.'

Asked if he still believes in nuclear power, he nods. 'As a scientist, I believe there is no other option for mankind. It is so efficient, so clean, so powerful. But plants must be well organised and run according to strict safety measures. That is really the only option.'

He adds: 'People need to educate themselves to separate fact from fiction, rather than panicking needlessly about the current situation in Japan when they are miles away.'

Q & A

What did being exposed to radiation feel like?
Well, it can't be seen, smelled or tasted, which is what makes it all the more dangerous. But after a while you develop a sense towards it. When I enter a radiation field, my eyes become sensitive to light and objects appear to glow. At higher ranges, I get a metallic taste in my mouth, and when I breathe, it feels almost as though I'm smoking. Then at extremely high levels, my nose gets clogged up as though I'm having an allergy attack. The moment you leave the area, these symptoms dissipate.

How did your participation in the clean-up efforts affect you?
A doctor specialising in radiation whom I met in Chernobyl said that anyone who set foot on the roof (the most contaminated spot on the site) would not live beyond 20 years. It's been almost 25 years now.

So for every day that I can wake up and walk around, I thank God for that. My memories are still as vivid as though it happened just yesterday. I saw a threat of planetary magnitude, a beast which caused so much harm and could have caused far more if not for the people who stood with me, shoulder to shoulder, to stop it.

If I tell you that I wasn't scared, it would be a lie. If I had known at the time it was going to be that bad, I would have thought twice. But I'd still have gone. I came back a mess, like a soldier from war. But it also made me a man. I can eat pressure for breakfast.

How did the man on the street react to the disaster?
The people in the Ukraine call it a war. They divide time into before, and after, the disaster. The liquidators were given benefits when they returned, such as free public transportation, better food and housing subsidies.

People soon forgot what we had done and seemed resentful of us, maybe because they found the accident so shameful. The looks they gave me were full of disgust and soon I stopped using my Chernobyl veteran's pass.

By By Chang Ai-Lien, Senior Correspondent
From the Straits Times

Saturday, March 26, 2011

New museum, new history

BEIJING: After four years of renovations, China is ready to unveil its new National Museum - and along with it, the country's latest version of its history.

The 2.5 billion yuan (S$480 million) makeover for what will now be the world's biggest museum, at nearly 200,000 sq m, has added an 800-seat theatre, a conference hall, and multimedia displays.

But the makeover is also notable for what it took away.

Gone are references to the Cultural Revolution. The Tiananmen incident is also completely omitted.

In their place are exhibits celebrating the reform of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the achievements the country has made since it opened up in the late 1970s.

The changes follow a pattern set previously by the museum, which has constantly chopped and changed its exhibits to reflect new sensitivities.

During the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, for example, it was renamed the 'China Revolutionary History Museum', with displays emphasising proletariat struggles and anti-imperialism battles.

At one point during the decade-long turbulence, the museum shut down, apparently because the shifting political winds changed so quickly that no one was certain which version of history to display.

Now, the disastrous Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward, which are believed to have killed some 40 million Chinese, are glossed over in the latest exhibits.

The omission of these disasters, which happened under Mao Zedong, could be a result of attempts by rising leaders like Vice-President Xi Jinping to revive Maoist values, said political analyst Willy Lam.

Historian Zhang Baijia noted that it is a challenge to write an objective account of China's recent history because of interference from those in power.

In a new exhibition titled The Road To Rejuvenation, top CCP leaders like President Hu Jintao are given extra prominence and, as befitting the current state emphasis on Confucianism, a newly erected statue of the ancient philosopher Confucius takes pride of place outside the building.

Politics has never been far from the museum, located across from Tiananmen Square at the political heart of the country.

It avoids any mention of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, despite boasting extensive historical photos dating from the late imperial period in the mid-1800s to today, and more than a million artefacts, including many from China's rich ancient past.

Ironically, the heart of the 1989 protests occurred at the doorstep of the museum. Bullets fired by Chinese soldiers during the crackdown reportedly cracked its windows.

But not all the building's changes are purely political. The museum has also finally managed to rectify an unfortunate aesthetic mistake.

Built in 1959 to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, a design flaw in the white building with slender columns was spotted only upon completion: It was a notch shorter than its counterpart on the other side of Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, venue of the country's legislative meetings.

Then Premier Zhou Enlai wanted to correct this for symmetry's sake, but the fledgling nation could not spare the funds.

As part of the museum's recent renovations, Beijing has given the building a 20m boost. It is hoped that this will give it a more auspicious future: It aims to be as popular as the Forbidden City next door and draw as many as 10 million visitors a year.

'It will display both history and culture and truly be in tandem with the world,' said museum chief Lu Shenzhang.

However, Fudan University museum studies expert Lu Jiansong said: 'It is there in terms of scale, but it still lags behind museums like the Louvre in professionalism and management.'

By Ho Aili
From the Straits Times

Chinese man in a pickle after $5,200 salt spree

BEIJING: A Chinese man who bought 6.5 tonnes of salt, hoping to profit from panic buying spurred by fears of radiation from Japan, is now stuck with 27,000 yuan (S$5,200) worth of the condiment, state media reported yesterday.

The man, surnamed Guo, bought the salt in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, when rumours spread across China last week that the iodine in salt could help ward off radiation sickness, the China Daily reported.

Salt prices jumped on the rumours, and, acting on a tip that there would be a supply shortage lasting at least six months, Guo bought 260 bags of salt, which he took back to his apartment in three trucks.

A few days later, the Chinese government urged consumers to stop the panic buying, saying residents will not be exposed to radiation from Japan's quake-damaged nuclear plant, causing a sharp drop in the price of salt.

The bulk buyer is now stuck with the salt, which the newspaper said takes up more than half his apartment.

The newspaper said Guo cannot resell the goods because he has no receipt, and also because he was told it was illegal to do so. He also cannot take it to another province, as the government strictly controls the transport of salt.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Why Singapore works: The Economist

WHEN people talk about Singapore's education miracle, they normally think of rows of clever young mathematicians.

The hair design and beauty therapy training centres at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) are rather different. The walls are covered with pouting models, L'Oreal adverts and television screens. There is a fully fitted-out spa and a hairdressing salon. It all seems rather more Sex And The City than Asian values, though the manicurists, pedicurists, cosmetologists and hairdressers toil diligently.

Asked whether he wants to go to university, the holy grail of most Asian families, a young barber called Noel replies that he would rather open a hairdressing salon. Mei Lien wants to set up her own beauty salon; Shuner would like to work in hotels abroad.

Until recently, the ITE - dubbed 'It's The End' by ambitious middle-class parents - was the dark side of Singaporean education. The city state streams pupils rigorously and is unashamedly elitist: One school claims to send more students to Ivy League universities than any other secondary school in the world. But such a system also produces losers - and many of the bottom third who do not make it to university come to the ITE.

Since the 1990s, the Government has worked hard to change the ITE's image. It has not only spent a lot of money on new facilities and better teachers, but also put a great deal of thought into it, scouring the West for best practice in vocational training. And it has encouraged students who are used to failure to take pride in their work. That has involved discipline (a list displays the names of class-shirkers) but also fun outside the classroom: The ITE has sports teams and concerts, just like any university.

This attention to detail has paid off. Many of the graduates have to compete with cheap migrant workers, especially in service jobs, but most of them are snapped up quickly. The hairdressers and beauty therapists are off to the new casinos, or 'integrated resorts', as they are prudishly known. Singapore, already near the top of most educational league tables, has created yet another centre of excellence that is beginning to attract foreign visitors.

Singapore is important to any study of government just now, both in the West and in Asia. That is partly because it does some things very well, in much the same way that some Scandinavian countries excel in certain fields. But it is also because there is an emerging theory about a superior Asian model of government, put forward by both despairing Western businessmen and hubristic Asian chroniclers. Simplified somewhat, it comes in four parts.

First, Singapore is good at government (which is largely true). Second, the secret of its success lies in an Asian mixture of authoritarian values and state-directed capitalism (largely myth). Third, China is trying to copy Singapore (certainly true). Last, China's government is already more efficient than the decadent West (mostly rubbish).

For all the insults hurled at 'Disneyland with the death penalty' (to use Neuromancer author William Gibson's gibe), Singapore provides better schools and hospitals and safer streets than most Western countries - and all with a state that consumes only 19 per cent of gross domestic product. Yes, that proportion is understated because it does not include the other fingers the Government has in the economic pie, such as its huge landholdings, the Central Provident Fund (a mandatory savings scheme) and Temasek (a government-linked investment company). Yes, it is easier to serve five million people on a tiny island than 309 million Americans on a vast landmass. Yes, it has relied on immigration, which is now creating strains (and will be the main topic in the next election). And yes, Singapore's bureaucrats can make mistakes, such as letting an Islamist terrorist escape in 2008. But its Government does pretty well.

The Chinese are fascinated by it. 'There is good social order in Singapore,' Mr Deng Xiaoping observed in 1992. 'We should draw from their experience, and do even better than them.' It sends streams of bureaucrats to visit Singapore. One of the first things that Mr Xi Jinping did after being anointed last year as China's next leader was to drop in (again) on Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who ran the island from 1959 to 1990, and his son Lee Hsien Loong, who has been Prime Minister since 2004. The Chinese are looking at other places, too - most obviously Hong Kong, another small-government haven. But it is hard to think of any rich-country leader whom China treats with as much respect as the elder Mr Lee.

So what lessons are the Chinese learning? There is an odd imbalance between the things that Singapore and others make so much noise about and the reasons why the place works. In particular, the 'Asian values' bits of Singapore - its authoritarianism and its industrial policy - that the Chinese seem to find especially congenial are less vital to its success than two more humdrum virtues: a good civil service and a competitively small state.

Singapore is certainly a fairly stern place. It has been run by the People's Action Party for half a century. The elder Mr Lee, a Cambridge-educated lawyer who was originally seen as a bit of a left-winger, set up a parliamentary system in which it has proved curiously difficult for the opposition to do well. From 1966 to 1981, Mr Lee's PAP won all the seats. It has opened up a bit, and in the most recent election in 2006 it won only 66 per cent of the votes and 82 of the 84 seats. The media, and particularly the Internet, have also gotten a little freer.

The Singaporeans argue that they have the perfect compromise between accountability and efficiency. Their politicians are regularly tested in elections and have to make themselves available to their constituents; but since the Government knows it is likely to win, it can take a long view. Fixing things like the ITE takes time. 'Our strength is that we are able to think strategically and look ahead,' says the Prime Minister. 'If the government changed every five years it would be harder.'

There is more truth in this than Western liberals would like to admit. Not many people in Washington are thinking beyond the 2012 presidential election. It is sometimes argued that an American administration operates strategically for only around six months, at the beginning of its second year - after it has gotten its staff confirmed by the Senate and before the mid-term campaign begins.

Yet even assuming that voters are happy to swop a little more efficiency for less democracy, Singapore still seems a difficult model to follow. Not only is it manageably small, but balancing authoritarianism and accountability comes down largely to personal skills (and even the opposition admits that the two Lees have been extremely good at it). More generally, Singapore's success as a planning state has a lot to do with the sort of people who run it.

One thing that stands out in Singapore is the quality of its civil service. Unlike the egalitarian Western public sector, Singapore follows an elitist model, paying those at the top $2 million a year or more. It spots talented youngsters early, lures them with scholarships, and keeps investing in them. People who don't make the grade are pushed out quickly.

Sitting around a table with its 30-something mandarins is more like meeting junior partners at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than the cast of 'Yes, Minister'. The person on your left is on secondment at a big oil company; on your right sits a woman who between spells at the finance and defence ministries has picked up degrees from the London School of Economics, Cambridge and Stanford. High-fliers pop in and out of the Civil Service College for more training; the Prime Minister has written case studies for them. But it is not a closed shop. Talent from the private sector is recruited into both the civil service and politics. The current Education Minister used to be a surgeon.

Western civil services often have pretty good people at the top, but in Singapore meritocracy reigns all the way down the system. Teachers, for instance, need to have finished in the top third of their class (as they do in Finland and South Korea, which also shine in the education rankings). Headmasters are often appointed in their 30s and rewarded with merit pay if they do well, but are moved on quickly if their schools underperform. Tests are endemic.

How much strategic intervention takes place in the economy? The Lees have dabbled in industrial policy, betting first on manufacturing and then on services. Temasek manages a portfolio of $190 billion. The country is now trying to push into creative industries, with limited success thus far, as ministers admit.

These attempts at dirigisme have made Singapore a more reserved, less entrepreneurial place than Hong Kong with its feverish laissez-faire. It certainly has far fewer larger-than-life billionaires. But it is hard to hail Singapore as a success of top-down economic management in the way some Chinese seem to think. Indeed, the core of Singapore's success - its ability to attract foreign multinationals - owes far more to laissez-faire than to industrial policy.

Rather than seeing foreign investment as a way to steal technology or to build up strategic industries, as China often does, Singapore has followed an open-door policy, building an environment where businesses want to be. The central message has remained much the same for decades: Come to us and you will get excellent infrastructure, a well-educated workforce, open trade routes, the rule of law, and low taxes.

In other words, Singapore's competitive advantage has been good, cheap government. It has worked hard to keep its state small; even education consumes only 3.3 per cent of GDP. But the real savings come from keeping down social transfers and especially from not indulging the middle class. The older Mr Lee thinks the West's mistake has been to set up 'all you can eat' welfare states: because everything at the buffet is free, it is consumed voraciously.

Singapore's approach, by contrast, is for the Government to provide people with assets that allow them to look after themselves. Good education for all is one big part of it. The other mainstay is the CPF. A fifth of everybody's salary goes into their account at the CPF, with the employer contributing another 15.5 per cent. That provides Singaporeans with the capital to pay for their own housing, pensions and health care and their children's tertiary education.

There is a small safety net to cover the very poor and the very sick. But people are expected to look after their parents and pay for government services, making co-payments for health care. The elder Mr Lee especially dislikes free universal benefits. Once you have given a subsidy, he says, it is always hard to withdraw it. He is convinced that if you want to help people, it is better to give them cash rather than provide a service, whose value nobody understands. China, he thinks, will eventually follow Singapore's model.

But arguably, the place that should be learning most from Singapore is the West. For all the talk about Asian values, Singapore is a pretty Western place. Its model, such as it is, combines elements of Victorian self-reliance and American management theory. The West could take in a lot of both without sacrificing any liberty. Why not sack poor teachers or pay good civil servants more? And do Western welfare states have to be quite so buffet-like?

By the same token, Singapore's Government could surely relax its grip somewhat without sacrificing efficiency. That might help it find a little more of the entrepreneurial vim it craves.

Why intervene in Libya but not Yemen and Bahrain?

WASHINGTON: As the US and European armed forces enter their first week of operations against Libya, many are asking: Why the double standard? Why intervene in Libya and not other Arab states like Bahrain or Yemen, where the governments are similarly putting down domestic uprisings with deadly force?

Senior US administration officials have rejected the comparison and charges of hypocrisy, pointing to the heightened level of violence in Libya and the UN resolution as justification for military action.

When asked at a briefing on Sunday why the US chose to act in one country and not another, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said: 'I would point to both the scale of violence being committed against civilians and the imminent potential for atrocities (in Libya).

'(Colonel Muammar Gaddafi) was essentially telling a city of 700,000 people that he would show no mercy. So we thought that we were on the precipice of what could be a truly humanitarian catastrophe. And that was what drove both the calls from the Arab League and others, and the action of the international community.'

Beleaguered Libyan leader Gaddafi warned rebels and their sympathisers in the eastern city of Benghazi last week that he would hunt them down from door to door and show 'no pity'. Hundreds of protesters are already dead from clashes with Libyan security forces since an uprising against the Gaddafi regime broke out last month.

Critics, however, point to the fact that the governments of Yemen and Bahrain have cracked down just as harshly on their own people.

Last week, Yemeni government snipers killed at least 40 people and injured scores of protesters who were staging the largest demonstration yet against President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The death toll appeared to be lower in Bahrain, though the government had signalled that it meant business by inviting troops from other Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia to help stamp out the rising dissent. Security forces also demolished a protest camp last week, and tore down a major monument that had been a symbol of the month-long uprising.

In both instances, the White House urged 'restraint', but gave no indication that it was considering any active intervention as in the case of Libya - a move that sparked considerable criticism in the American media and foreign policy circle.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked: 'What makes it any easier to watch other despots do the same thing (as Col Gaddafi)?'

Mr Leslie Gelb, a prominent foreign policy commentator who served in previous administrations, accused Washington of 'phony analogies and unabashed hypocrisy' in justifying its actions in Libya.

However, not everyone shares that stinging indictment of US intention. Mr Mark Quarterman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies wrote: 'Multilateral politics, like domestic politics, is the 'art of the possible'. The ability to reach a consensus on action in Libya, in the face of potential crimes against humanity, is not illegitimate simply because a similar consensus cannot be reached in other circumstances.'

Still, the vagueness surrounding the administration's strategy in Libya is likely to continue fuelling suspicion that it acted against Col Gaddafi, and not his Yemeni or Bahraini counterparts, because of oil and self-interests in the region.

Bahrain and Yemen have been hugely cooperative on the military front, and in the fight against Al-Qaeda.

Bahrain hosts the US Fifth Fleet, which patrols the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the east coast of Africa. It also keeps an eye on key oil shipping lanes in the region and Iran.

Yemen hosts no known American military assets, but Mr Saleh has been permitting US forces to conduct secret operations and unmanned aerial drone missile attacks against suspected terrorists in the country.

There have been growing fears in recent years that Yemen could be the launch pad for a new terror attack against the US. If the Yemeni government collapses as a result of internal unrest and US pressure, terror splinter groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula could gain an even stronger foothold in an already unstable country.

Libya, however, holds no comparable strategic interests for the US, though its 41 billion barrels of oil reserves give rise to conspiracy theories over American intentions. Analysts have generally dismissed talk that Washington is out to control Libyan oil, pointing to the complete lack of an alternative government that would be needed to bring the oil to market, even if the Gaddafi regime should collapse right away.

To the extent that oil is an issue in its decision- making process, the Obama administration is more likely to be concerned with global oil prices. By taking action to ensure a swifter end to the turmoil in Libya, Washington hopes that oil prices will not keep rising for weeks and months on end - a development that could derail the fragile economic recovery in the US.

Mr Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, noted: 'Aside from the humanitarian issues and the cost of maintaining the no-fly zone, there is also the cost to the world economy. We need to do what we can to end this crisis.'
By Chua Chin Hon
From the Straits Times

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Plastic: Too good to throw away

SINCE the 1930s, when the product first hit the market, there has been a plastic toothbrush in every bathroom. But if you are one of the growing number of people seeking to purge plastic from their lives, you can now buy a wooden toothbrush with boar's-hair bristles, along with other such back-to- the-future products as cloth sandwich wrappers, metal storage containers and leather fly swatters.

The urge to avoid plastic is understandable, given reports of toxic toys and baby bottles, seabirds choking on bottle caps and vast patches of ocean swirling with everlasting synthetic debris. Countless bloggers write about striving - in vain, most discover - to eradicate plastic from their lives.

'Eliminating plastic is one of the greenest actions you can do to lower your eco-footprint,' one noted while participating in a recent online challenge to be plastic-free. Is this true? Shunning plastic may seem key to the ethic of living lightly, but the environmental reality is more complex.

Originally, plastic was hailed for its potential to reduce humankind's heavy environmental footprint. The earliest plastics were invented as substitutes for dwindling supplies of natural materials like ivory or tortoise shell.

When the American John Wesley Hyatt patented celluloid in 1869, his company pledged that the new man-made material, used in jewellery, combs, buttons and other items, would bring 'respite' to the elephant and tortoise because it would 'no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer'.

Bakelite, the first true synthetic plastic, was developed decades later to replace shellac, then in high demand as an electrical insulator. The lac bugs that produced the sticky resin could not keep up with the country's rapid electrification.

Today, plastic is perceived as nature's nemesis. But a generic distaste for plastic can muddy our thinking about the trade-offs involved when we replace plastic with other materials.

Take plastic bags, the emblem for all bad things plastic. They clog storm drains, tangle up recycling equipment, litter parks and beaches and threaten wildlife on land and at sea.

A recent expedition researching plastic pollution in the South Atlantic reported that its ship had trouble setting anchor in one site off Brazil because the ocean floor was coated with plastic bags.

Such problems have fuelled bans on bags around the world and in more than a dozen American cities. Unfortunately, as the plastics industry incessantly points out, the bans typically lead to a huge increase in the use of paper bags, which also have environmental drawbacks. But the bigger issue is not what the bags are made from, but what they are made for. Both are designed, absurdly, for that brief one-time trip from the store to the front door. In other words, plastics are not necessarily bad for the environment: It is the way we tend to make and use them that is the problem.

It is estimated that half of the 270 billion kg of plastics produced each year go into single-use products. Some are indisputably valuable, like disposable syringes, which have been a great ally in preventing the spread of infectious diseases like HIV, and even plastic water bottles, which, after disasters like the Japanese tsunami, are critical to saving lives.

Yet many disposables, like the bags, drinking straws, packaging and lighters commonly found in beach cleanups, are essentially prefab litter with a heavy environmental cost.

And there is another cost. Pouring so much plastic into disposable conveniences has helped to diminish our view of a family of materials we once held in high esteem. Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless, when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet.

If we understood plastic's true worth, we would stop wasting it on trivial throwaways and take better advantage of what this versatile material can do for us.

In a world of nearly seven billion souls and counting, we are not going to feed, clothe and house ourselves solely from wood, ore and stone; we need plastics. And in an era when we are concerned about our carbon footprint, we can appreciate that lightweight plastics take less energy to produce and transport than many other materials. Plastics also make possible green technology like solar panels.

These 'unnatural' synthetics, intelligently deployed, could turn out be nature's best ally. Yet we cannot hope to achieve plastic's promise for the 21st century if we stick with wasteful 20th-century habits of plastic production and consumption.

We have the technology to make better, safer plastics - forged from renewable sources, rather than finite fossil fuels, using chemicals that inflict minimal or no harm on the planet and our health.

We have the public policy tools to build better recycling systems and to hold businesses accountable for the products they put into the market. We can also take a cue from the plastic purgers about how to cut wasteful plastic out of our daily lives. We need to rethink plastic. The boar's-hair toothbrush is not our only alternative.
By Susan Freinkel

Susan Freinkel is the author of the forthcoming Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.


A democratic uprising or tribal civil war?

TRIPOLI: The question has hovered over the Libyan uprising from the moment the first tank commander defected to join his cousins protesting in the streets of Benghazi: Is the battle for Libya the clash of a brutal dictator against a democratic opposition, or is it fundamentally a tribal civil war?

The answer could determine the course of both the Libyan uprising and the results of the Western intervention. In the West's preferred chain of events, air strikes enable the rebels to unite with the currently passive residents of the western region around the capital Tripoli, under the banner of an essentially democratic revolution that topples Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

He, however, has predicted the opposite: that the revolt is a tribal war of eastern Libya against the West that will end in either his triumph or a prolonged period of chaos.

'It is a very important question that is terribly near impossible to answer,' said Dr Paul Sullivan, a political scientist at Georgetown University who has studied Libya. 'It could be a very big surprise when Gaddafi leaves and we find out who we are really dealing with.'

The behaviour of the fledgling rebel government in Benghazi so far offers few clues to the rebels' true nature. Their governing council is composed of secular- minded professionals - lawyers, academics, businesspeople - who talk about democracy, transparency, human rights and the rule of law. But their commitment to those principles is just now being tested as they confront the spectre of potential Gaddafi spies in their midst, either with rough tribal justice or a more measured legal process.

Like the Gaddafi government, the operation around the rebel council is rife with family ties. And like the chiefs of the Libyan state media, the rebels feel no loyalty to the truth in shaping their propaganda, claiming non-existent battlefield victories, asserting they were still fighting in a key city days after it fell to Gaddafi forces, and making vastly inflated claims of his barbaric behaviour.

Sceptics of the rebels' commitment to democracy point to Libya's short and brutal history. Until Col Gaddafi's revolution in 1969, Libya could scarcely be considered a country, divided as it was under its former king into three provinces, each with myriad tribes of rural, semi-nomadic herders. Retaliatory tribal killings and violence were the main source of justice.

Although he worked hard to forge the provinces into a single state, Col Gaddafi did little to calm the culture of violence, among other things ordering his revolutionary committees to shoot the 'stray dogs' of the revolution and staging public hangings of his political opponents.

And, historians say, he has often sought to capitalise on the bellicose culture of many tribes.

In the neighbourhoods of the capital that have staged major peaceful protests against Col Gaddafi, many people have volunteered - speaking on the condition of anonymity - the fact that their demonstrations had been non-violent mainly because they could not obtain weapons fast enough.

Even one religious leader associated with Sufism - a traditionally pacifist sect - lamented his own tribe's lack of guns.

That stands in sharp contrast to the situation in Libya's neighbours, Tunisia and Egypt. In Egypt, in particular, the young leaders of the revolution were so seized with an ethic of non-violence that in the middle of winning a battle of thrown stones against a loyalist mob, two young protesters said that they believed they had lost, simply because they had resorted to violence.

Nor did Col Gaddafi's Libya ever do much more than place a veneer over the long-simmering tribal animosities. The eastern region around Benghazi had always been a hotbed of opposition to the colonel, while he in turn favoured the tribes of the central and western coast.

And when the uprising came, many of the most significant defectors - including General Abdul Fattah Younes, the rebel army head and a former interior minister - were members of the eastern tribes.

Now, after weeks of reprisals and propaganda, the allied air strikes so far do not appear to have emboldened any of opponents to take to the streets once again.

But on Monday night, the sound of air strikes echoed over the capital, as the Western allies placed another bet that it truly was a democratic impulse that kindled the uprising.


Libya: The motives for military action

Seldom has such a motley coalition, with such different initial aims, gone to war. What is at stake for its members as well as critics of the attack on Muammar Gaddafi's forces in Libya?

Securing uninterrupted access to Libya's energy resources is not the reason why Europeans have pushed for military action. For, although Libya's proven reserves are the biggest in Africa, it supplies only 2 per cent of global oil output, and Italy, its biggest single customer, was initially opposed to the operation.

Furthermore, if oil is what the Europeans are after, launching air attacks is just about the worst way to go about it: wells, refineries and pipelines are highly vulnerable targets which, once destroyed, take years to replace. Iraq's oil industry, for instance, has still not recovered from the last war.

The key to Europe's involvement is to be found in the domestic political calculations of Britain and France, the two nations championing the military offensive. Both were caught unprepared by the wave of Arab revolts, and both have struggled to regain the initiative.

A French foreign minister had to resign when it emerged that she had benefited from links with the former rulers of Tunisia. The resulting uproar dented the reputation of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron fared little better. His government committed a series of blunders, such as the shambolic airlift of its citizens from Libya and the botched 'spy' mission to help the rebels.

By pushing for military action, both leaders are hoping to divert public attention from their recent humiliations.

The tactic is working. Mr Cameron is now hailed as a visionary, while Mr Sarkozy's popularity ratings are bouncing back.

France and Britain have also been joined by a number of other Europeans such as Spain, Norway, Sweden and Denmark, for whom the protection of innocent civilians is the prime consideration.


The Obama administration initially dismissed intervention as 'loose talk', calculating that US national interests are not directly affected and that Washington can ill-afford to launch a third military adventure in the Muslim world, on top of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Matters changed last week, when it became clear that Libya's rebels faced certain defeat and that the West may stand accused of callously disregarding the inevitable massacre. A group of close advisers who regard themselves as 'liberal interventionists' - Ms Samantha Power, a senior aide at the National Security Council, Ms Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - convinced the President that dithering was no longer an option. Ms Rice's arguments were especially persuasive: She was responsible for US policies towards Africa during the 1990s, when the Rwanda genocide took place while the world stood idly by.

Still, President Barack Obama's commitment to Libya remains minimal. He told his military commanders that he expects operations to last 'days, not weeks'.

Meanwhile, the 'realists' who believe that the US should have as little to do with Libya as possible remain strong. They include Defence Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Mr John Brennan, Obama's counter-terrorism chief. America's military involvement could be terminated at a moment's notice.


Although no Arab regime would willingly associate itself with a Western-led military offensive, the Arab League has backed the imposition of a 'no-fly' zone over Libya.

The Arabs have their own reasons to move against Libya, not least their dislike for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his grand-standing at Arab League meetings, where he would proclaim himself 'the dean of the Arab rulers'.

His nickname in the Middle East is el Majnoon, or 'the mad one'. The Saudis have also not forgotten that he once ordered the assassination of King Abdullah when he was then Crown Prince.

By contributing to the operation, Arab governments can burnish their credentials as supporters of democracy, without doing very much.

Qatar's decision to deploy four of its jet fighters remains purely symbolic. Nevertheless, the Arabs' support is fragile. One false step - such as a rogue air raid which kills a large number of civilians - would be enough to see most Arab nations disengage from the operation.


The Russians have few strategic interests in this affair. Libya competes with Russian energy exports, and the Libyans have never been big buyers of Russian military equipment.

So, once the West asked Russia to refrain from imposing a veto in the UN Security Council, the only question for Moscow was what concessions it may obtain in return.

It got a good price for its acquiescence. This includes a US pledge to support Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organisation, as well as a promise to place a Chechen separatist leader on international terrorist blacklists.

The Chinese were more difficult to please, partly because of Beijing's objections to a military operation which violates a nation's sovereignty.

China also has big economic interests in Libya. Still, the Chinese were persuaded to avoid casting a veto by the fact that the Arab League supported intervention.

Both Russia and China can afford to sit on the sidelines, in the expectation that, whatever happens, they cannot lose. If Col Gaddafi survives the onslaught, they will be the only governments able to re-engage with him.

But, if he falls, both could claim to have contributed, albeit indirectly, to Libya's transformation.

Jonathan Eyal
From the Straits Times

Poor kids need aspiration

IN JANUARY, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew revealed statistics that showed a gulf in the educational background of parents of students in top secondary schools versus neighbourhood ones. The figures showed that an average of 50 per cent or more of those from brand-name schools had fathers who were university graduates. The corresponding figure hovered around 10 per cent for neighbourhood schools.

The question was whether students with less-educated parents were less likely to make it to the top schools. Put another way, was educational privilege now more entrenched, so that more-educated parents are able to pass on their advantages to their children, thus causing kids with less-educated parents to lose out?

Two weeks ago, Education Minister Ng Eng Hen released another set of data in Parliament, designed to reassure. Among them was the disclosure that 50 per cent of children from families in the bottom third socio-economic bracket actually score in the top two-thirds of their PSLE cohort.

Among those living in one- to three-room Housing Board (HDB) flats, four in 10 make it to polytechnic, and one in 10 to university. These figures are based on a study of the cohort entering Primary 1 in 1995, who will have reached the age for tertiary education now.

Dr Ng's conclusion was that the 'Singapore story', one defined by upward social mobility, is still unfolding for this generation. Still, the statistics do not erase the import of Mr Lee's figures.

For example, the fact that 50 per cent of the bottom third of kids score in the top two-thirds of their PSLE cohort, also means that 50 per cent of the bottom third of kids remain in the bottom third.

As for the figure that one in 10 students from smaller flats makes it to university - this is below the national average of one in four. This means children from one- to three-room flats are less likely than the average student to make it to university - to be precise, they have less than half the likelihood.

The two sets of statistics together give a picture of social mobility that is both reassuring, yet shows up areas of concern.

In a nutshell, the issue is this: While some children from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to do well, their chances of doing so are markedly slimmer than those from well-heeled families, and possibly getting slimmer with each passing generation.

The fact that kids from privileged homes - with parents who are better endowed educationally and materially to pass on advantages to their children - do better academically is one which cuts across societies.

As Dr Ng pointed out, this has been found to be true in cross-country studies; and the Government should not hold back the achievement of the brightest, who are increasingly also the offspring of the rich.

Singapore's slowing social mobility is an inevitable result of four decades of astonishingly rapid and broad-based socio- economic mobility. With so many poor but able people already having moved up, the rate of change for future generations will slow. This is part of the trend of development as a country moves from developing to developed phase.

But it is cold comfort to say Singapore is no worse than other countries. As Dr Ng eloquently pointed out, upward mobility is central to this country's idea of itself. It helped define our collective history, and still animates its promise.

Resting on the laurels of past and present achievement by the disadvantaged is not enough. To its credit, the Government is ploughing more money into providing bursaries and financial support for those from low-income families. It pledges that no child with ability will be held back by his or her circumstances in life. This is laudable.

But the danger is when children from less-privileged families get discouraged by the odds stacked against them, and stop striving to improve their lot.

Sociologists see aspiration - the belief that one can compete with, and triumph over, those born with more - as a key factor in sparking upward social mobility.

In older and more divided societies, theorists argue that those from less privileged backgrounds may, over time, internalise their disadvantages as overwhelming or worse, pre-destined, and simply accept their lot in life.

This can result in a learned disposition of inferiority, an unarticulated and hence insidious assumption that the top rungs of achievement are not theirs to ascend.

In a way, the 'working class' heroes heralded by politicians and the media are the exceptions which help prove the rule. They are praised for making it to the top educational or socio-economic rungs. There is an unspoken, but revealing, societal disposition which has the inadvertent implication: You're not supposed to be here by virtue of your birth and disadvantages, but you did it, and society salutes the way you overcame the odds to succeed.

It is precisely because such stories are becoming rarer in the 2010s that they draw such attention.

To prevent children from poor families from sliding into apathy or despair requires committed effort. One call worth considering is MP Lily Neo's for dedicated 'case officers' to be assigned to every child from the bottom 5 per cent of households.

Social workers can help the family get social and financial assistance. They can track a child through the formative years, and serve as a constant reminder, a beacon of hope, to a child in the midst of deprivation and dysfunction, that the way to a better life is theirs to reach out for.

For the worst thing that an income gap and disproportionate achievement in schools can breed is not resentment, but resignation. A permanent underclass in society is formed not just when those in the bottom third stay there; it ossifies when they believe that it is where they belong. That we must avoid at all cost.
By Rachel Chang
From the Straits Times

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Chinese schools go creative on fleecing parents

BEIJING: Chinese schools, from kindergarten to high schools, are coming up with creative ways to earn extra cash. Hapless parents find themselves forking out thousands of yuan every month for after-school enrichment classes, uniform fees, heating expenses and even milk orders.

While these items are optional, there is usually some sort of reprisal for those students who do not pay up - from being made to sit at the back of the classroom to the risk of falling behind in grades.

To ensure that students do not freeze during winter, some principals even ask parents for a 'heating fee' of about 200 yuan (S$39) per month to put radiators in unheated classrooms, said driver Zhang Zhihong, 46.

'My teenage daughter has to wear two thick jackets to school as I was unable to pay extra to buy her a seat closer to the heater,' he said.

Such fees are on top of the grey income that schools have long collected as a standard practice. Schools can get as much as 50,000 yuan per student from parents who want to secure a place for their only child.

Teachers also typically receive gifts like expensive jewellery or branded goods during Chinese New Year from students who want to get in their good books.

To give a student a seat in the front of the classroom, teachers in certain schools in smaller cities are said to accept hongbao of several hundred yuan each.

The authorities have turned a blind eye to such under-the-table payments, as it supposedly helps to supplement schools' administrative costs as well as teachers' modest salaries.

China promises a free education for children from age six to 15, but the government funds given to schools are usually not enough.

So 'sponsorship fees', which parents pay to register their child in their preferred primary or middle school, are a key source of funding for the schools.

But the problem of fleecing has become so serious in the past few years that a small number of parents are now up in arms.

Last Tuesday, Beijing Morning Post ran an article after several parents called in to complain about the private weekend tuition that teachers require their students to attend. The cost: 1,750 yuan for 10 eight-hour sessions.

One parent surnamed Zhang said: 'We appeal to the schools and give back our children their rest.'

On the same day, state news agency Xinhua ran a commentary on this issue, noting that such practices were against the Education Ministry's rules forbidding extra tuition during students' rest days.

Parents told The Straits Times that they also pay a hefty 200 yuan a month each for their children's catered lunches - more than twice the actual cost - and as much as 500 yuan a year for three sets of poorly made uniforms.

Most parents can stomach these smaller expenses. They are even willing to pay through the nose for extra-curricular 'Math Olympiad' classes, which teach kids as young as four to solve difficult problems including algorithms, presumably to give them an edge when applying for a top high school.

But Beijing-based driver Mu Shuhua, in his 40s, baulks at his five-year-old son's 'lost childhood'.

'My son usually likes to learn, but last week, he sighed, 'I am a child with no weekends',' he said.

He said he has no choice but to continue sending his son to the after-school and weekend enrichment classes. 'I fear my son will lose out if he does not attend.'

The same view was shared by 32-year-old secretary Liu Yun.

'I have only one precious child, so if paying more money means less trouble for her in school, I will pay even though I'm mad about being exploited.'

From The Straits Times

To ensure that students do not freeze during winter, some principals even ask parents for a 'heating fee' of about 200 yuan per month to put radiators in unheated classrooms, said driver Zhang Zhihong, 46.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why I lost in Bukit Gombak : Dr Seet Ai Mee

IF THE 1991 elections had happened during a severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis, everything would have been different, says Dr Seet Ai Mee.

Instead of being associated with a hand-washing incident which hounded her for three years of her political career, and contributed to her electoral loss to Singapore Democratic Party chief Ling How Doong in 1991, she would have been celebrated for the act.

'The Minister who knows how to wash her hands!' she quips, imagining what the headlines could have been.

But the feisty 68-year-old's rueful take on that controversy does not mask her irritation with a version - an untrue one, she says - that has become synonymous with her name.

In the 1988 elections, Dr Seet washed her hands during a visit to a wet market in Bukit Gombak.

Launching an attack, her opponent Mr Ling and his supporters said that she had done so after shaking hands with fishmongers, a vivid image which dovetailed with their characterisation of her as elitist and out-of-touch with the Chinese-speaking grassroots.

Still, she won that contest, if only by a margin of 7 percentage points. Three years later, as the 1991 polls loomed, the tale surfaced again, and this time she lost.

The irony, she tells Insight during an interview at HCA Hospice Care, where she is president, is that it was her own party leader, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who resurrected it in 1991 and propelled it into the national headlines.

At a rally in Bukit Gombak just two days before voters went to the polls, Mr Goh said that Dr Seet had a habit of washing her hands frequently, as she was a pharmacist, and that he had told her to stop as she was now a politician.

'After shaking hands with a fishmonger, she washed her hands. But she has not done this since,' he said.

He also characterised her as a 'Margaret Thatcher' type, referring to the former British prime minister who many felt tended to 'lecture' a little too much.

In the aftermath of the electoral defeat, one of Dr Seet's activists wrote to The Straits Times to clarify that she had seen Dr Seet wash her hands, but it was only after meeting pork sellers. She did not want to be disrespectful to any Muslims she might meet later, the writer explained.

Dr Seet herself did not clarify the issue until close to 20 years later, in 2009, when she was interviewed by Petir, the party's magazine.

Recalling the incident now, she says her supporters walked away from the rally at which Mr Goh had brought up the incident 'very upset'.

'They knew I was going to lose. I don't know why he did that. He kicked an own goal,' she says.

While Dr Seet was not the only PAP candidate to lose - three other seats were lost, in the party's worst showing in recent history - she was the most prominent, being acting minister for community development at the time.

She says her loss stemmed from a myriad of issues such as national unhappiness over the rising cost of living. Bukit Gombak itself had seen three bus routes taken away while fares were increased.

In hindsight, she believes that she was the wrong candidate for the ward, which is made up largely of blue-collar Mandarin- and dialect-speaking folk. She does not speak Mandarin; her second language is Malay.

'The man fielded after me was the right man,' she says, referring to veteran backbencher Ang Mong Seng, who wrested the seat from Mr Ling in 1997 with 65 per cent of the vote. He is Chinese-educated and speaks fluent dialect.

But given that Mr Ling had also played on gender prejudice during their contests, would a female Ang Mong Seng have held the ward?

Her verdict: 'Better than me!'


'I don't know why he did that. He kicked an own goal.'

Dr Seet Ai Mee, on then prime minister Goh Chok Tong's rehashing of the hand-washing incident before the 1991 election

From the Straits Times

Did Big Pharma trigger flu pandemic?

A study last June issued by the health committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe was equally critical of the WHO. It found that the pandemic declaration had been based on politics, not science. This had led to 'a waste of large sums of public money, and also unjustified scares and fears'.

LAST week, a panel of 27 experts 'found no evidence of malfeasance' in the World Health Organisation's handling of the last flu pandemic.

Set up to look into the application of the International Health Regulations during the pandemic, it said the world body did make crucial errors. But 'no critic... has produced any direct evidence of commercial influence on decision-making'.

However, the panel was commissioned by the WHO itself. Was it really independent? According to a study by the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, about half the panel's membership also sat on the International Health Regulations committee itself.

In addition, one of its members was even the Emergency Committee chairman. This body was set up during the crisis to advise the WHO director-general, Dr Margaret Chan, on when the scientific criteria for a flu pandemic had been met.

This would determine the precise timing of an official declaration of a pandemic. Since this advice was crucial, transparency about the identities of the scientists giving that advice was paramount.

However, the WHO insisted on keeping the committee membership secret during the pandemic, allegedly to shield these boffins from pressure being exerted by Big Pharma. It also refused to divulge any conflicts of interest involving the scientists.

Yet it was at their behest that the pandemic was declared at a specific point in time. This declaration, the BMJ argued in a report last June, was what 'triggered the (vaccine) contracts' many countries, including Britain, France and Belgium, had pre- signed with Big Pharma.

Indeed, Britain's Department of Health confirmed in a May 15, 2009 announcement that 'Advance Supply Agreements signed by the government with GSK and Baxter in July 2007 (for) 132 million doses of pandemic specific vaccine' would be triggered 'if a pandemic is declared'.

So the declaration did trigger such contracts. Big money was involved: Vaccine makers had reportedly invested US$4 billion (S$5.2 billion) to make the new flu shot.

Crucially, the BMJ was able to identify several key scientists on the Emergency Committee who had tight financial ties to Roche, the manufacturer of Tamiflu, and to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the maker of Relenza.

The BMJ asked if some committee members had 'put pressure on the WHO to declare a flu pandemic', the first in 40 years.

Worth billions of dollars, these shots and all the stockpiled Tamiflu and Relenza now lie unused in storehouses the world over.

The BMJ also reported how the studies establishing the efficacy of these antivirals had been carried out by some scientists on the committee. However, other experts have not been able to replicate their results. Thus, the effectiveness of the two drugs themselves remains in doubt.

Last August, the committee advised Dr Chan to declare the pandemic over. Only then was its membership revealed.

Apart from this lack of transparency over conflicts of interest, critics have also questioned why the WHO changed the way a pandemic was defined. The WHO decided that pandemics were to be declared based simply on how fast the virus involved was spreading. The severity of the illness caused was deemed unimportant.

Severity had been a factor in the definition of a pandemic for the last 15 years. Yet, late in April 2009, just after the new bug emerged in California and Mexico, the WHO dropped severity as a criterion.

In the original definition of a pandemic, many had to be very ill and/or die from the virus. When the WHO declared this a pandemic, there were about 30,000 patients in 74 countries, with 144 fatalities. That mortality rate of less than 0.5 per cent was even lower than that of the seasonal flu.

Throughout the crisis - and long after its projections of up to 7.4 million deaths in the worst-case scenario looked increasingly unlikely - the WHO continued to refuse to admit that the early waves were mild. Instead, it even insisted that the new bug 'rapidly crowded out other circulating influenza viruses, a phenomenon... distinctly seen during pandemics'.

However, scientists from Singapore's National University Hospital reported in the BMJ last July that the new bug had 'failed to completely displace the previously dominant circulating seasonal influenza H3 subtype (which) may argue against (it) being a truly pandemic virus'.

In fact, between May 2009 and last April, there were 'decreasing numbers of (the new bug) and increasing numbers of seasonal H3N2 viruses'.

The WHO's own panel of 27 experts agreed that it should have included severity in its definition of a pandemic. It also noted that the agency had changed some of its pandemic documents available online without highlighting the changes or offering any reason for them. This could only fuel suspicion, it demurred.

But had the WHO not declared a mild flu a pandemic, far fewer people would have rushed for the flu shots or stocked up on antivirals. So was the declaration of a pandemic influenced by financial ties to Big Pharma?

Just because Dr Chan has waved off all such talk as 'conspiracies' does not mean the questions BMJ and other authorities have raised do not need to be answered.

Andy Ho
in the Straits Times

Apart from this lack of transparency over conflicts of interest, critics have also questioned why the WHO changed the way a pandemic was defined. The WHO decided that pandemics were to be declared based simply on how fast the virus involved was spreading. The severity of the illness caused was deemed unimportant.

It's emotions that rule the day

THE nice thing about being human is that you never need to feel lonely. Human beings are engaged every second in all sorts of silent conversations - with the living and the dead, the near and the far.

Researchers have been looking into these subtle paraconversations, and in this column I'm going to pile up a sampling of their recent findings. For example, Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim wrote a fantastic book excerpt in Sports Illustrated explaining home-field advantage. Home teams win more than visiting teams in just about every sport, and the advantage is astoundingly stable over time. So what explains the phenomenon?

It is not because players perform better when their own fans are cheering them on. In basketball, free-throw percentages are the same home and away. In baseball, a pitcher's strike-to-ball ratio is the same home and away.

Neither is it the rigours of travel disadvantaging the away team. Teams from the same metro area lose at the same rate as teams from across the country when playing in their rival's stadium.

No, the real difference is the officiating. The referees and umpires don't like to get booed. So even if they are not aware of it, they call fewer fouls on home teams in crucial situations. They call more strikes on away batters in tight games in the late innings.

Moskowitz and Wertheim show that the larger, louder and closer a crowd is, the more the referees favour the home team. It is not a conscious decision. They just naturally conform a bit to the emotional vibes radiating from those around them.

They say you hurt only the ones you love. That may not be strictly true, but in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Drs Johanna Peetz and Lara Kammrath find that people are more likely to break promises made to people they love. That's because they are driven by affection to make lavish promises in the first place. They really mean it at the time, but lavish promises are the least likely to be kept.

If you want a person to work harder, you should offer to pay on the basis of individual performance, right? Not usually. A large body of research suggests it's best to motivate groups, not individuals. Organise your people into a group; reward everybody when the group achieves its goals. Drs Susan Helper, Morris Kleiner and Yingchun Wang confirm this insight in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research. They compared compensation schemes in different manufacturing settings and found that group incentive pay and hourly pay motivate workers more effectively than individual incentive pay.

Drs Joachim Huffmeier and Guido Hertel tried to figure out why groups magnify individual performance for a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They studied relay swim teams in the 2008 Summer Olympics. They found that swimmers on the first legs of a relay did about as well as they did when swimming in individual events. Swimmers on the later legs outperformed their individual event times. In the heat of a competition, it seems, later swimmers feel indispensable to their team's success and are more motivated than when swimming just for themselves.

Not all groups perform equally well, of course. Researchers led by Dr Thomas W. Malone at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management have found they can measure a group's IQ. This group IQ is not well predicted by the median IQ of the group members. Measures of motivation didn't predict group performance all that well either.

Instead, the groups that did well had members that were good at reading one another's emotions. They took turns when speaking. Participation in conversation was widely distributed. There was no overbearing leader dominating everything.

This leads to the question: What sorts of people are good at reading emotion? Age may play some role here. Dr Jamin Halberstadt has a paper coming out in the journal Psychology and Aging that suggests that the young may on average read emotional cues more sensitively than the old. Dr Halberstadt showed various people videos of someone committing a faux pas. Younger viewers were able to better discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. Older subjects also performed worse on emotion recognition tests.

Taste may play a role, too. For the journal Psychological Science, Drs Kendall Eskine, Natalie Kacinik and Jesse Prinz gave people sweet, bitter and neutral-tasting drinks and then asked them to rate a variety of moral transgressions. As expected, people who had tasted the bitter drink were more likely to register moral disgust, suggesting that having Cherry Coke in the jury room may be a smart move for good defence lawyers.

It's important to remember that one study is never dispositive. But if this stuff interests you, I have a newish blog - - in the Opinion section of The Times online celebrating odd and brilliant studies from researchers around the world.

By David Brooks


People are more likely to break promises made to people they love. That's because they are driven by affection to make lavish promises in the first place.

Friday, March 18, 2011

After the quake: What next for Japan?

Japan is, in fact, at a turning point. By galvanising public opinion, the disaster has given the government a chance to act boldly and responsibly. If successful in this regard, the DPJ might develop the internal discipline and leadership habits necessary finally to address the economic and financial problems that bulk so large on the horizon. But if Tokyo fails to address the crisis forcefully and effectively, Japan's outlook will grow even darker than it has been.

THE immediate effect of the Japanese catastrophe - the March 11 earthquake that unleashed a tsunami that damaged nuclear plants in Fukushima - has been to give new life to a government that was on the verge of collapse.

The ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) rose to power in the autumn of 2009 with a strong electoral mandate, ousting a Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that had long maintained a stranglehold on the Japanese political system. Soon, however, the DPJ's mistakes in managing alliance negotiations with the United States, maritime quarrels with China and feckless economic policies sent the party's approval ratings spiralling downwards. After a series of scandals within the upper reaches of the DPJ as well as the government's failure to pass in a timely fashion the enabling legislation necessary to effectuate the budget for fiscal 2011 (which begins in two weeks), Prime Minister Naoto Kan appeared doomed.

The current crisis has given the Prime Minister a second chance. With thousands of confirmed deaths, some 15,000 persons missing, hundreds of thousands displaced, and several nuclear reactors on the brink of meltdown, this is no time for a change of government. Mr Kan has made reasonably good use of this 'rally round the flag' moment, establishing a national crisis management centre and dispatching ministers and other staff to deal with various problems. It is still too early to say that he has done enough, but he seems to have improved upon his predecessors' performance after the Kobe earthquake that took more than 6,000 lives in 1995. Rather than proudly rejecting offers of foreign assistance, for example, he quickly accepted all offers of aid, mobilised the military for rescue operations, and appeared frequently on television to calm a nervous public.

Due both to the magnitude of the disaster and to Mr Kan's relatively firm leadership, the opposition has likewise adjusted its position, edging towards a more conciliatory stance on several major issues. Mr Sadakazu Tanigaki, the head of the LDP, and other opposition leaders have thus declared their desire to work together in the formulation and passage of an emergency spending package. The ambit of this new cooperation will probably expand to include the regular budget as well, enabling Mr Kan to obtain Diet approval for the aforementioned enabling legislation. The Prime Minister and his party may therefore succeed in gaining several more months of time in which to rebuild their reputation and power - assuming, naturally, that the trouble at the Fukushima nuclear facility ends without producing yet another catastrophe. But with that caveat, this second opportunity for the DPJ is the silver lining on a very dark cloud.

The economic effects of the disaster vary, depending on one's time horizon. As attested by the sharp falls in Japanese equity prices, the short-term impact is decidedly negative. Not only have vast tracts of real estate and productive capacity been lost, but much of the transport and energy infrastructure has been destroyed. The major car manufacturers have already curtailed their production levels, and, at the behest of the government, steel companies and electronics manufacturers have voluntarily reduced their operations in order to conserve energy.

Along with officially orchestrated rolling blackouts, these decisions will inevitably engender shortages of various goods and services. Depending on how severe the nuclear problem turns out to be, the rate of gross domestic product (GDP) growth could fall well into negative territory during the second and perhaps third quarters of 2011. Yen appreciation could exacerbate this dynamic as Japanese companies repatriate overseas investment capital in order to support domestic reconstruction, but the central bank has already loosened monetary policy so aggressively as to countervail this danger and could, in conjunction with the Ministry of Finance, intervene massively in the foreign exchange markets if necessary.

Over the longer term, however, the crisis could prove a boon. Recall that Japan has suffered more than two decades of low or no growth due primarily to excess savings and inadequate demand. The only time during this period in which the economy grew reasonably strongly was in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake, when the need to rebuild vast swathes of residential and industrial properties propelled government and corporate spending upward and produced a surge in GDP growth that lasted into early 1997. Assuming again that the nuclear element of the present crisis does not worsen much further, the exigencies of reconstruction should make a similarly big contribution to the economy in late 2011 and 2012.

Looking a bit further into the future, however, the disaster and reconstruction will almost certainly exercise a malign influence over Japan's national finances. With the gross national debt already approaching 200 per cent of GDP, ratings agencies concluded that the risk of a financial crisis was increasing substantially and therefore downgraded Japanese government debt. Even before the disaster in Sendai, Tokyo knew it must quickly address this problem by closing the budget deficit and beginning to pay down its obligations. A raise in the consumption tax and other duties thus was under consideration.

Now, however, fiscal reform will be impossible. The DPJ and the LDP are discussing the adoption of an emergency tax, but this would be only a temporary expedient and presumably not large enough to offset the greater expenditures on disaster relief and reconstruction. The net effect will be to delay significant progress on fiscal consolidation for at least another couple of years, leaving the country to resolve a bigger debt problem with an older workforce, less surplus capital, and a greater probability of failure.

In this sense, this natural disaster could ultimately contribute to a financial debacle comparable in scale to perhaps the 1997-1998 East Asian crisis or the implosion of the technology bubble a decade ago.

If the domestic implications of the disaster are mixed, its international import will be more uniformly negative. In the short run, the interruption of normal commercial activity in Japan will reduce global demand and hence tip the balance away from global price inflation and towards deflation. This effect may well be amplified by capital movements: Upward pressure on US interest rates due to the outflow of Japanese funds could be overwhelmed by inflows of money seeking a safe harbour in the present storms. The cost of capital in American markets could therefore fall rather than rise, effectively perpetuating the abnormal conditions that ensued from the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

Over time, however, the world will assuredly see greater inflationary momentum in the prices of specific goods and services. The decision by China and other developing countries in late 2008 and 2009 to expand public works spending in reaction to the global slowdown was already driving up the prices of concrete, ferrous metals, rare-earth elements, wood, simple electronics and the other goods required for infrastructure projects. Canada, Australia, parts of Africa and Latin America, and the oil-producing countries all benefited from these trends. The more forceful entry of Japan into these markets will reinforce this pattern over the medium term, underscoring the inflationary bias that was starting to unsettle central bankers in the months before the Japanese disasters.

A more extreme version of the same pattern will likely unfold in oil markets, where rapid growth in the largest developing markets and continuing instability in the Arab world caused prices to spike upward in late 2010 and early 2011. The trouble at the Fukushima reactors, which has discredited a source of energy to which the whole world was turning, will only accelerate this process.

Since the Sendai earthquake, France, Germany and Switzerland have announced their intentions to reconsider their nuclear energy plans; many other nations will likely follow suit. The problem is that at present, the only alternatives that are both economically feasible and capable of rapid expansion are hydrocarbons. In this sense, bad news for Japan is also bad news for the global environment.

The loss of so much Japanese wealth, productive capacity, financial resilience, and national confidence will, over the longer term, accelerate China's rise relative to Japan. Beijing's sagacious gestures of goodwill cannot obviate - and may be intended in part to conceal - this unnerving reality. Also worrisome is the greater influence that the world's disenchantment with nuclear power will bring to the oil-rich countries. A country so dependent on imported energy as Japan cannot look upon this development with equanimity; and the United States and Europe will surely regret anything that empowers such difficult interlocutors as Iran. Managing these profound changes in the global balance of power will require not just closer bilateral relations but stronger and more strategic leadership than either Washington or Tokyo have manifested in recent years.

Japan is, in fact, at a turning point. By galvanising public opinion, the disaster has given the government a chance to act boldly and responsibly. If successful in this regard, the DPJ might develop the internal discipline and leadership habits necessary finally to address the economic and financial problems that bulk so large on the horizon.

But if Tokyo fails to address the crisis forcefully and effectively, Japan's outlook will grow even darker than it has been. In that event, the country will emerge from this disaster with its international powers curtailed, its confidence impaired, and its finances further damaged. The tendency of the world to view Japan as a spent force would thus be confirmed and the country left to await the eventual onset of a financial crisis that finally resolves its fiscal and financial problems.

By Robert Madsen & Richard J. Samuels

The writers are respectively senior fellow and director at the Centre for International Studies at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Reproduced with permission from Foreign Policy,

© The Washington Post

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Will the trauma bring about historic change?

An 1855 earthquake that destroyed much of modern-day Tokyo bookmarked the twilight of the Tokugawa period, during which Japan was isolated for two centuries. Rebuilding efforts after the devastation of 1923 coincided with the rise of Japanese militarism. Kobe's 1995 tragedy dovetailed with the end of Japan's post-war industrial boom and the advent of deflation.

IT ALWAYS struck me as odd that Japanese bookstores have not just earthquake sections, but entire aisles of titles devoted to tectonic upheavals. After Friday's big one, I am now a believer in quake-ology.

Temblors have a complicated place in the Japanese psyche. There is a widely held belief, a local mythology, that tectonic-plate shifts can coincide with big ones above the ground, too.

Might this latest trauma also signal historic change?

Economist Nouriel Roubini has a point when he says the earthquake came at the 'worst time' as Japan struggles to reduce its massive debt. Let us go the other way for a moment, and explore three potential silver linings from this quake.

One, it is a wake-up call. Japan dithered for years as deflation deepened, wages stagnated and public debt exceeded gross domestic product. Even after China's economy blew past Japan last year and a Standard & Poor's downgrade in January, officials in Tokyo remained as paralysed as ever.

The days before Friday's quake saw Japanese politics at its worse. Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a 48-year-old who had been tipped to be the next prime minister, was browbeaten into resigning over a clerical error. His campaign had received US$3,053 since 2005 from a South Korean woman residing in Japan. By Friday morning, before the quake, the opposition was digging up similarly petty dirt on Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

Such complacency and distraction is no longer an option. Japan's leaders must now roll up their sleeves to rebuild after the strongest earthquake on record in Japan. And they must do so without the luxury of massive borrowing. As Professor Roubini, co-founder of Roubini Global Economics in New York, says, a 'shock like this' complicates reining in the world's biggest public debt.

Yet with a little political will, another kind of shock could befall Japan, author Naomi Klein explored in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine. Ms Klein's focus is on free-market ideologues who exploit crises to impose rapid and irreversible change in nations around the world. Fate may have just handed Japan a chance to unleash the doctrine on itself.

Japan might well benefit from any shakeup that encourages entrepreneurship from the ground up, increases competitiveness and imposes change on the decidedly change-resistant bureaucrats who really run the nation. For years, pundits said only a major crisis will bring about change in Japan. March 11 provided the shock; leaders just need to act accordingly.

Two, a chance to make up with China. The seemingly inexorable rise of 1.3 billion people and the competitive forces that come with such an economic event are bringing Japan and South Korea together, helping overcome hard feelings over a colonial past.

Now, China's rapid offer of help and condolences to Japan's earthquake victims could go a long way towards reducing tensions. It is the rare event that gets officials in Tokyo and Beijing to put aside prickly disagreements over economic, territorial, military and historical disputes. And here, we have one.

Three, a boost to Japanese confidence. In the days since the earthquake, editorials in Chinese newspapers shifted from bashing Japan to exploring what the Chinese can learn from Japan's speedy response and the orderliness of its people.

It is a valid point. While it is early days in the rescue effort, Japan has much to be proud of, from the way Tokyo's skyline withstood the tectonic assault to the lack of looting and social instability. The nation has shown itself to be a highly civil, stable and caring place.

Tough building codes, training and lessons from the 1995 Kobe earthquake that killed more than 6,000 people probably saved thousands of lives this time around.

Certainly, problems abound. The most immediate is containing the worst nuclear accident in at least 33 years, at a plant north of Tokyo. At a minimum, Japan must scrutinise the safety record of Tokyo Electric Power as never before.

Nor is the unpopular Mr Kan distinguishing himself. Information from his office has been lacking and downright contradictory at times. Mr Kan was basically on his way out before the earthquake, and how he handles things in the next few days will decide his political fate.

Yet, in this time of devastation and uncertainty, Japan has shown it runs well on many levels in spite of its government. This is a moment for sorrow and reflection, yes. It is also a time to look ahead to brighter days. They could indeed be on the way.
By William Pesek