Monday, May 30, 2011

Rare glimpse into life of a terrorist

NEW YORK: When the authorities arrested the Pakistani-American who plotted the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, they confiscated two items essential for his next plot: a book titled How To Pray Like A Jew and a lemon-yellow notepad.

David Coleman Headley said he got the book because the target of his surveillance - the editor of a Danish newspaper that had published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad - was Jewish. So to get close to the target, Headley was preparing to visit a synagogue.

And he kept a notepad for reasons familiar to anyone who travels a lot, including to-do lists with reminders to buy maps and to check where to go for decent lodging and food.

Naturally, a terrorist's to-do list reads differently from a tourist's.

Headley, for example, included coded items like 'magic eye', so he would not forget to check whether a target area was covered by security cameras, and 'mixed fruit dish', which was his way of contemplating whether a particular attack would involve a car bomb or gunfire, or both.

'Terrorists and spies have to have to-do lists just like housewives - otherwise they'd forget something,' said Mr Bruce Riedel, an expert on Islamic militant groups at the Brookings Institution and a former Central Intelligence Agency officer.

'But generally, you're supposed to destroy them,' he added.

In other words, the lists are not supposed to end up, as Headley's have, in court.

Mr Riedel said the public has had almost no opportunity to hear an actual terrorist talk at length and in perfect English about terrorism since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks shook the world.

Headley's revelations, made during hours of testimony last week, therefore provide a rare glimpse into the clandestine world of Islamic extremists.

The son of a Pakistani diplomat and a Philadelphia socialite, Headley spoke almost non-stop for four days in a federal court in the trial of Chicago businessman Tahawwur Hussain Rana, who is accused of supporting the Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

Journalists from around the world have pored over Headley's every word for evidence of geopolitical significance.

And there has been plenty of that, including comments about Headley's work as an informant for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and as a spy for Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate while he was training with terrorists.

There have also been chilling moments involving everyday details, like Headley's description of a simple text message he received on Nov 26, 2008: 'Turn on your television.'

He spent the next three days glued to it, watching the siege in Mumbai that he had helped to plan.

When a prosecutor, Mr Daniel Collins, asked Headley how the scenes made him feel, he said dryly: 'I was pleased.'

In his low monotone, Headley also described the day-to-day life of a terrorist.

There were months of guerilla training and lots of secret meetings in remote corners of Pakistan's tribal areas. But more of it seems to have involved mundane tasks like monitoring several e-mail accounts.

He also talked of establishing a believable cover complete with offices and business cards, obtaining the proper travel documents and getting to know every nook and cranny of a location to be attacked, largely by filming hours of video so the terrorists back home could be familiar with those places as well.

According to his testimony, terrorists' code words included 'making investments', which means planning an attack, and taking a 'stronghold position', which refers to fighting to the death.

And someone who has 'gotten married' has been killed. It is a term that Headley may have come up with himself, since he has been married three times, and his plotting was nearly discovered when two of his wives separately reported him to the authorities.

At the top of one of Headley's lists was a note reminding him to call a good friend who was planning to visit Mumbai in November 2008, when the attacks took place. The note was straightforward. It listed the friend's name and the words: 'Don't come.'


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Here's how to raise a genius

Stress is stupid. 'Tiger Mum Amy Chua is wrong. The more stress you produce in children, the more likely they are to not mobilise their IQ.' Dr John Medina

By Irene Tham

Parent alert: Turn off the TV set and computer if you want to raise smart children.

Far-fetched? Not compared with this: Fathers, if you want to get your children into Harvard, start cleaning the toilet.

These suggestions from University of Washington molecular biologist John Medina, 55, may sound radical or, as some would put it, absurd.

This is because most parents have little scientific knowledge about how babies' brains work, said Dr Medina, who specialises in the genetics of psychiatric disorders.

Applying the understanding of brain sciences to early childhood education is his lifelong interest.

Dr Medina was the founding director of the Seattle-based Talaris Institute, which was established in 2000 and supports early childhood research projects as well as developing parenting programmes for caregivers. And he is director of the Brain Centre for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

Dr Medina is adamant about this one rule: 'Get the blue light out of their eyes.'

He is referring to exposing children to television and computer screens before they are two years old.

It is a no-no because blue light emanating from electronic media keeps them awake, and can lead to attention deficit disorders later in life.

'Exposure to electronic media of any kind can be very dangerous in the first couple of years of life,' he stressed.

The conservative scientist also believes that children above two years old - if allowed to be glued to digital screens - will be robbed of the opportunity to form competent human relationships, thus affecting their 'theory of mind'.

A psychiatric term, theory of mind refers to the ability to shift perspectives - a trait lacking in children with autism or those experiencing severe pain.

The ability to shift perspective reflects a child's quantitative reasoning and therefore his ability to do maths, he said.

His lifelong interest in how brain sciences influence the way children learn has been captured in his latest book, Brain Rules For Baby: How To Raise A Smart And Happy Child From Zero To Five, published last October.

He spoke to The Sunday Times recently, when he was here at the invitation of early childhood training institute Asian International College.

Over two days here, he spoke to more than 100 early childhood educators from global education group Knowledge Universe, which operates the Learning Vision, Pat's Schoolhouse and Odyssey, The Global Preschool brands.

Dr Medina spoke with conviction and passion about how parents and educators should 'start over' if they want to raise smart, happy and moral children.

And the answer is not teaching children to read French by the time they are three, or do differential equations by the time they are six.

'The single greatest predictor of academic performance that exists is the emotional stability of the home in which the kid is being raised,' he said.

Breaking what may be bad news to fathers, he said that men should do more housework for the sake of their children.

The second biggest source of conflict in the United States - the first being sleep deprivation once the baby arrives - is the inequity of household chores, with women doing 70 per cent of the housework. The numbers may not be very much different in Singapore.

'Guys, get a clue,' he said in a thunderous voice.

'If you want to stop the source of conflict, stop the World Of Warcraft and fix dinner.'

How a child's parents get along at home affects his 'executive function' score - a measure of impulse control and the ability to do well in maths, said Dr Medina.

'It is only with emotional stability that the kid can mobilise whatever IQ he already has,' he added.

Because babies' brains are highly stimulated, they can sniff out parental conflict.

And perceived unresolved conflicts can 'rewire their nervous systems in a way that hobbles their ability to do maths, language arts and certain motor skills', he said.

The human brain is designed to 'solve problems related to surviving', so the child will feel threatened by unresolved conflicts and will grow up particularly scared, and not creative or bright, he explained.

'It doesn't matter how much calculus maths you give them.'

Conversely, a child's nervous system will be fine if the amount of fighting and resolution is equal.

'They will also learn that conflict and its resolution are a normal part of life,' said Dr Medina.

His earlier book, Brain Rules: 12 Principles For Surviving And Thriving At Work, Home And School, was a New York Times bestseller for nine months in 2008.

Although it was his first visit here, he had heard about Singapore's stressful education system and would like parents to hear this: 'Education is not a race.

'Tiger Mum Amy Chua is wrong. The more stress you produce in children, the more likely they are to not mobilise their IQ.'

He was referring to the Yale law professor whose book Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother recently created a stir and became a bestseller.

Stress, in particular, stubs out creativity, or what Dr Medina describes as 'fluid intelligence'.

Fluid intelligence is the ability to improvise as soon as something is learnt - a skill employed by jazz musicians.

It is as important to the process of learning as 'crystallised intelligence', which is characterised by memory work or repetition.

The interview was peppered with lots of laughter as he explained how an over-emphasis on either of the two forms of intelligence will create either a robot - which does not win Nobel Prizes - or an air guitarist, who does not have knowledge.

Drills are important, but just as crucial is playtime, which unlocks the creativity in children, he added.

It is for the same reason that he thinks that an accelerated syllabus is bad.

'Make education a race and the learning is destroyed.'

Students exploited as cheap labour

Students of a shipping vocational institute in Hubei province are required to prove their strength by doing press ups before being hired by Foxconn. -- PHOTO: CHINA FOTO PRESS

Beijing: As a student at a vocational school in the southern Chinese province of Guizhou, Mr Li Shiwei, 19, spent more time standing in an assembly line than sitting in a classroom.

For most of his four-year course, he was sent to work in various factories in coastal Guangdong province, with his school taking a cut of his wages.

His plight is not uncommon: Some vocational institutes in China act like manpower agencies procuring workers for labour-hungry factories, according to a recent study by scholars from Peking and Tsinghua universities.

Such practices have become more prevalent in the past three years, with many regions in China hit by a shortage of young workers, said academic Pun Ngai, one of the study's authors.

Student workers have become a form of 'cheap, docile and flexible manpower' in China, the team wrote.

They are usually 16- to 18-year-olds who pay several thousand yuan a year to attend vocational schools after junior high.

The trend is especially evident at leading contract manufacturer Foxconn, a major employer which hires about a million Chinese to make gadgets such as iPads.

Surveys done last year showed that 30 per cent of the workers at the Taiwanese firm's Shenzhen operations are students, said Associate Professor Pun, who is deputy director of the Peking University-Hong Kong Polytechnic University social service research centre.

They found the ratio even higher in Foxconn's new factories in central and western China.

Teenagers get sent to production lines under the guise of internships. But then they are placed in jobs unrelated to what they are studying, the scholars said.

They cite examples such as that of Guizhou student Xiao Hui, who studied hotel management but was made to work as a line worker in an electronics factory by her school instead.

They are assigned tasks that can be mastered in hours and do not require one to attend a vocational school.

Some are even sent to work despite being minors aged below 16.

Mr Li, for instance, recounted how his school placed him and his schoolmates in a factory when they were just 15.

They were asked to leave when they were found to be underage, but that did not deter the school.

'The school falsified the ages on our identity cards and sent us to another factory,' he told The Sunday Times.

Student workers are attractive to employers because they are paid less than regulars despite shouldering the same workload. Many also work long hours and have few rest days.

Mr Li, for one, went for a month without any days off in his first factory stint.

These young labourers also do not get to enjoy the same protection and benefits as regular workers, noted Prof Pun.

In some cases, local authorities eager to secure hefty investment projects have a hand in pushing vocational students into production lines.

Last year, Henan education officials ordered job schools in the province in central China to send second- and third-year students to work in Foxconn.

In south-western Chongqing city, about 120 of these schools signed deals to supply Foxconn with students in 2009.

Despite the team's reports on student workers, little has been done so far to address the problem, said Prof Pun.

If left unchecked, conflicts between student workers and employers would grow, she added.

As the report surmised: 'This represents not just a major ill in vocational education in China but is a new phenomenon that reflects the unbridled excesses of capital and power and will lead to social problems.'

For victims like Mr Li, the 30,000 yuan (S$5,750) he paid to his school has brought little in return. He graduated early this year only to find that employers don't recognise his qualification, which was in logistics.

'I feel that vocational schools are very fu bai,' he said, using the Chinese word for corrupt.

In any case, the people behind his school have decided to be up front: From naming it Long March and later Huahai Vocational School, they now call it Huahai Manpower Private Limited.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

After a god dies

Questions remain about Sai Baba's multi-billion-dollar empire and the future of Puttaparthi, the city built on his spiritual prowess. -- PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Puttaparthi, India - His face adorns the yellow motorised rickshaws zipping down the streets. Billboards bear his simple motto, Love All, Serve All. His portrait hangs in almost every shop: a tiny man with a gravity-defying crown of curly hair regarded by millions of worldwide devotees as a god.

Sri Sathya Sai Baba, who declared himself a 'living god' as a teenager and spent decades assembling a spiritual empire, permeates every corner of this small Indian city. He transformed it from a village of mud huts into a faith centre with a private airport, a university, two major hospitals, rising condominium towers and a stadium - a legacy now forcing a question upon his followers: What happens when a god dies?

India can sometimes seem overrun with gurus, spiritualists and competing godmen (as they are sometimes called). But when Sai Baba died last month at the age of 84, the nation paused in respect and reverence, if blended with scepticism, too. An estimated 900,000 people, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, paid respects at his ornate wake and funeral, which was televised live across the country. Critics labelled him a fraud and bemoaned the Indian predisposition for religious entrepreneurs.

Now, though, as the shock is starting to wear off here in Puttaparthi, people are grappling with what comes next. Sai Baba was a spiritual leader but also an economic engine. Business owners are wondering whether adherents will keep coming; construction abruptly stopped on several half-built residential towers. Sai Baba's medical, educational and philanthropic institutions are suddenly without a leader. And for believers, there is the question of when, and in what form, he will be reincarnated.

'We don't feel he has left us,' said Mr Poonam Khialani, 52, a devotee visiting last week from Singapore. 'We just feel his physical form is not here.' Many of Sai Baba's advisers and adherents apparently were shocked by his death, even though his health had been steadily weakening. For several days after his death, the trustees overseeing his organisation remained silent as the Indian news media speculated on possible infighting over an empire valued in the billions of dollars, or about the possible existence of a secret will.

'The running of these institutions has been well provided for by Baba,' said Mr V. Srinivasan, one of the trustees, in an interview, dismissing the speculation about a secret will or a government takeover.

'The trustees' responsibility is to ensure that these institutions continue to function as they were functioning before. The material resources for that have been provided.'

Last week, people in Puttaparthi still seemed in a daze, if also cautiously optimistic that their city will continue to thrive as a pilgrimage site. In 1940, Sai Baba, then 14, declared himself the reincarnation of an earlier Hindu holy man, the Sai Baba of Shirdi, who died in 1918. He reportedly realised his godliness after surviving the bite of a scorpion. As word began to spread about this diminutive guru with kinky hair, believers began trickling into Puttaparthi, which gradually evolved into a small but bustling city.

Across India, various gurus operate extensive networks of ashrams, but Sai Baba's organisation was unsurpassed in scale, with service groups in every Indian state and major city, along with ashrams in more than 126 countries. His main ashram, Prasanthi Nilayam, or Temple of Peace, operates like a self-contained small city, with offices for 'overseas devotees', blocks of dormitories, bookstalls, cafeterias offering regional and international fare and a central, open-air temple where Sai Baba held audiences with as many as 30,000 people every day.

As with other self-proclaimed godmen, he was denounced as a fraud by many sceptics, who disparaged as sleight of hand the 'miracles' he performed - producing sacred ash from his fingers or Rolex watches from his hair. Controversy also arose about claims of paedophilia towards teenage boys, accusations denied by his organisation. No charges were ever filed.

What separated him from some other gurus was the scale of his philanthropic work. He built major hospitals for the poor, including the ornate pink structure in Puttaparthi that provides free healthcare, including heart surgery. He oversaw major water projects in response to shortages and drought. To many devotees, his appeal was that he accepted all religions and never asked people to discard their faith, only to practise it better.

In his absence, though, the challenge will be maintaining the dedication and support of his followers. His schools, hospitals and ashrams depend on huge numbers of volunteers who come to Puttaparthi to perform free services, and also on a steady stream of donations. His trustees say the annual organisational budget is about US$25 million (S$31.1 million), equally divided between interest from investments and donations.

In Puttaparthi, business owners are already seeing changes. If devotees once came for weeks or months to spend time near Sai Baba, now they are coming for short trips to pay homage at his burial site. Nearly the entire local economy depended on him: About 10,000 labourers from surrounding villages worked on construction sites and hundreds of other villagers sell fruits and vegetables to visitors.

Yet most devotees are certain Sai Baba's appeal will only broaden. Among believers, stories are circulating about 'miracles' witnessed around the world since his death: sacred ashes appearing on a photo of Sai Baba in Uganda; ashes coming out of the nose of a Sai Baba statue in Russia; and devotees who have seen him materialise before them.

Sai Baba described himself as the second incarnation in a trinity and predicted that the third would be born in the neighbouring Indian state of Karnataka. Yet many believe that Sai Baba will be coming back as himself.

'Even in this form, we think he will come back,' said Mr Sai Prakash, a devotee raised in the ashram. 'There are signs.'

New York Times

The audacity of Chinese frauds

NEW YORK: To pull off a fraud that humiliates the cream of the global financial elite, you need to have some friends. And where better to have them than at the local bank?
Wall Street-listed Chinese firms like Longtop churn out lies with the help of local banks. Fraud in Chinese stocks is not new. But it had seemed that the worst problems were in small companies without Wall Street pedigrees. What is stunning about Longtop and some other recent disasters is the list of smart people who were fooled.

The fraud at Longtop Financial Technologies, a Chinese financial software company, was exposed this week in an amazing letter from its auditors, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. It appears to be a tale of corrupt bankers and their threats to auditors who had learnt of the lies.

Deloitte, which had given clean audit opinions to Longtop for six consecutive years, apparently was well on its way to providing a seventh, for the fiscal year that ended March 31.

But for some reason - Deloitte did not say why - the auditor went back to Longtop's banks last week to again seek confirmation of cash balances.

It appears Deloitte sought confirmations from bank headquarters, rather than the local branches that had previously verified that Longtop's cash really was on deposit. And that set off panic at the software firm.

'Within hours' of beginning the new round of confirmations on May 17, the confirmation process was stopped, Deloitte stated in its letter of resignation, the result of 'intervention by the company's officials including the chief operating officer'.

The company told banks that Deloitte was not really the auditor. It seized documents, Deloitte wrote, and made 'threats to stop our staff leaving the company premises unless they allowed the company to retain our audit files'.

Despite the company's efforts, Deloitte learnt that Longtop did not have the cash it claimed and that there were 'significant bank borrowings' not reflected in the company's books.

A few days later, Deloitte said, Longtop chairman Jia Xiao Gong told a Deloitte partner that there was 'fake cash recorded on the books' because there had been 'fake revenue in the past'.

The stock has not traded since that confrontation. The final trade on the New York Stock Exchange was for US$18.93, a price that valued the company at US$1.1 billion (S$1.4 billion).

At its peak in November, it had a market capitalisation of US$2.4 billion.

It now seems likely that the stock is worthless. It is a real company, but its revenue and profits probably were a small fraction of the amounts reported.

The existence of the 'significant' debt means that whatever assets are left are likely to be owned by the banks, not the investors.

Deloitte may have decided to check the numbers again because it knew a growing group of bears on the stock had been challenging the Longtop story as too good to be true, questioning both its financial statements and the claims it made for its software.

A month earlier, Deloitte resigned as the auditor of another Chinese company, China MediaExpress, in part because of questions about bank confirmations.

It is never good for an auditor to have certified a fraud, but Deloitte seems to have acted properly.

It got bank confirmations, and it got them directly from the banks rather than relying on the company to provide them, as PricewaterhouseCoopers had done when it failed to notice a huge fraud at Satyam, an Indian technology company.

But the confirmations were lies.

'This means the Chinese banks were in on the fraud, at least at branch level,' said Mr John Hempton, chief investment officer of Bronte Capital, an Australian hedge fund. He was one of the bears who questioned Longtop's claims and now stands to profit from the stock's collapse.

'This is no longer a story about Longtop, and it is not a story about Deloitte,' he added.

'Given the centrality of Chinese banks to the global economy, it's a story much bigger than Deloitte or Longtop.'

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has started an investigation, and no doubt more details will emerge, including the names of the banks involved.

Just what, if anything, Chinese officials choose to do could provide an indication about whether defrauding foreign investors is deemed to be a serious crime in China.

Fraud in Chinese stocks is not new. But it had seemed that the worst problems were in small companies without Wall Street pedigrees.

Many of the fraudulent companies went public in the United States by the reverse-merger shell route, a course long favoured by shady stock promoters. That route allowed companies to start trading without going though a formal underwriting process or having its prospectus reviewed by the SEC.

And many used tiny audit firms based in the US that seemingly did little if any work.

What is stunning about Longtop and some other recent disasters is the list of smart people who were fooled. Longtop did not go public through a reverse merger. Its initial public offering, in 2007, was underwritten by Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank. Morgan Stanley was a lead manager in a 2009 offering of more shares.

Major owners of the stock included hedge funds run by people known as 'tiger cubs' because they got their start at Julian Robertson's Tiger Fund.

But the audacity of this and other frauds, as well as the efforts to intimidate auditors, stands out.

If investors such as Goldman cannot fend for themselves, something more needs to be done if Chinese companies are to continue to trade in American markets.


Friday, May 27, 2011

3 Ps behind PAP's image problem

The men and women in white are members of the People's Action Party, but some have accused them of being proud, arrogant politicians. Why? And what can the PAP do about it?
THEY seem a breed apart, dwelling in a pristine bubble far from the madding crowd.

That, at least, is the stereotypical view of a People's Action Party (PAP) politician. He or she is likely to cruise around in a luxury car, never having to take public transport.

When he goes to the ground, the PAP MP tends to arrive after everyone else, speaks mainly to grassroots leaders and then makes a quick exit.

Undergraduate Elly Mohamad, 24, says these politicians are 'atas', a Malay word to describe people who think they are above everyone else. That image is at odds with the PAP ethos of being 'servants of the people' - as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reminded party members at a Young PAP event last month.

'Never forget we're servants of the people, not their masters,' he said then. 'Always maintain a sense of humility and service. Never lord it over the people we're looking after and serving.'


THE May 7 elections saw the PAP's historic loss of six seats, its worst performance since Independence.

Among other things, the 6.5 percentage point vote swing - from 66.6 per cent in 2006 to 60.1 per cent this year - has been blamed on a widespread perception that the ruling party, in power for 52 years, has become arrogant.

It was first surfaced during the hustings by former foreign minister George Yeo, who said the PAP has to take a 'very hard look' at itself and review the way it governs. He identified the problem on two levels: It has to listen harder; and it should not dismiss people's unease over the pace of change driven by globalisation.

'We need a transformed PAP,' he concluded.

That has to go beyond just rhetoric. The PAP has to acknowledge the grievances, he said.

He recounted how he told Mr Lee during the campaign: 'It's not enough to just say, we're servants, you're masters, because that's just one line. Until people are convinced that you've heard, they are not sure that you have.'

The next day, Mr Lee apologised for his government's mistakes and after the elections, promised that the ruling party would evolve to accommodate more views and participation.

But what really is it about the PAP that has led people to think of it as arrogant?

It can be drilled down to three Ps: poor public relations, personalities and policies.

Poor PR

MANY take umbrage at the way the PAP handles people's concerns - at least, publicly.

Housewife Annie Ang, 60, said: 'They have been in power for too long; they have forgotten to listen to the hearts of the people.'

For instance, many Singaporeans were unhappy that they had to wait three years for an unqualified apology from the Government on the escape of terrorist detainee Mas Selamat Kastari. Mr Lee apologised for it during a lunchtime rally at UOB Plaza during the recent campaign.

Retiree Saleem Akhtar, 59, said: 'They need to change their style. When they are wrong, they just try to argue and explain their way out. If you made a mistake, just come out and admit it. What we want is accountability. You acknowledge, and we move on.'

Mrs Ho Jong Lin, 55, an assistant general manager of a manufacturing company, pointed to another instance of ministers brushing people off when they voice their worries.

'When we talk about rising health- care costs, the PAP will compare us to other countries to tell us we are better off. But that's such a turn-off.'


FOR others, the problem lies with individual MPs and ministers.

Mr C.T. Lingam, 77, a retired technical officer, said he has written letters of feedback to five or six different ministers. Only one replied. 'I'm very hurt,' he said. 'Good ideas are submitted but not being looked into.'

Mr Timothy Lim, 48, a sales director, was disappointed his former MP in Aljunied GRC did not follow through on his case after he went to her at a Meet-the-People session.

He added that he had not seen his MP before the elections, saying if 'after five years they do not feel like your MP, then the personal touch is missing'.

The perception of arrogance is exacerbated by instances of MPs arriving late for community events.

Worse, some speak only with grassroots leaders before exiting quickly. They not only leave a bad impression, but also leave without a good sense of what moves ordinary Singaporeans.

Observed a grassroots leader from Moulmein-Kallang GRC: 'So they are close to only a limited pool of people, hear from only the limited (group of) people what's happening, and they don't really know what's happening to other people, those on the buses or trains.'

In 2004, then-party whip Lim Boon Heng had to issue a reminder to MPs to be punctual.


WHEN it comes to policies, one source of tension seems to be between the PAP's aversion to being viewed as populist and yet, at the same time, reassuring people that they are being heard and their concerns will be addressed.

The ruling party prides itself on being able to push through necessary but unpopular policies, which will yield results only years down the road.

For instance, as noted by Pioneer MP Cedric Foo, it cashed the political chips it gained after successfully managing the Sars crisis in 2003, to restructure the Central Provident Fund (CPF) and cut contribution rates - 'a problem that needed fixing though we knew it was unpopular'.

But has it swung too far in the direction of tough love, such that people feel PAP politicians care little for them?

Procurement manager Beni Ong, 52, believes so.

In the past, PAP MPs 'know what it's like to fight for every vote', he said. But today's MPs are 'more like technocrats, recruited to run and administer policies, but not to look into the problems of residents'.

He added: 'They think they can let the grassroots organisations do the job. But they forget that the grassroots are often feeding them false information, because they are always very positive.

'All they think about is policies and not the people.'

Number of 'left-behind kids' raises alarm in China

The Chinese government estimates that there are now 58 million so-called 'left-behind children' (liu shou er tong in Chinese) - or almost one in five children in China. In the countryside, they make up half of all children. Of these, more than half are aged 14 or younger.

More families separated as parents seek work in cities
By Sim Chi Yin, For The Straits Times

DAMEN VILLAGE (Yunnan): Sprawled across the bed, You Shenpu stretched his sinewy arm lazily and waved the remote control in the direction of the TV set.

This sanctuary of his aunt's spartan house on the hill is where Shenpu, 15, comes for a mid-afternoon break from farm chores and for most of his meals.

His own home, a short walk away, sits largely empty these days. His mother left home to work in a factory in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen more than a year ago. Three months ago, his father left too, leaving Shenpu and his 12-year-old brother on their own.

Sadly, their plight is getting more common across the Chinese countryside, raising concerns that these children - which the local press calls 'orphans of our time' - may end up bearing the psychological brunt of China's headlong rush to economic prosperity.

This side effect of the largest tide of domestic migration in the world has been apparent since the start of China's market reforms in the 1980s. But with ever-greater numbers of migrant workers in recent years, the problem of 'left-behind children' is sounding alarm bells even among officials.

China's once-a-decade census released last month showed the number of 'floating' migrants in the country had surged 82.9 per cent to 221.4 million.

Higher urban incomes, along with better roads and shorter journeys, are leading ever more people even in this mountainous area to head out to more prosperous towns and cities - with some locals here seeing what they termed an 'exodus' of villagers after this Chinese New Year in February. In some homes, either the mother or father has left. In others, both have taken off and left the children with relatives or grandparents.

The Chinese government estimates that there are now 58 million so-called 'left-behind children' (liu shou er tong in Chinese) - or almost one in five children in China. In the countryside, they make up half of all children.

Of these, more than half are aged 14 or younger. About 30 per cent have parents who are away for five years or longer, reported the official Xinhua news agency last year, citing a national study.

Observers worry aloud that these children, growing up without their parents, will have higher rates of delinquency, and in the longer term, be social misfits.

Even populist Premier Wen Jiabao has called for more attention to these children, cautioning that they should not become the price China pays in its all-out pursuit to become what the government has termed a 'moderately prosperous society' (xiao kang she hui).

In a study last year of 1,000 'left-behind children' in Henan, the populous central China province which exports the largest number of migrant workers, 57 per cent were found to have emotional problems.

Forty-nine per cent felt people around them did not care for them; 35 per cent said they worried about being bullied; 53 per cent said no one helped them when they had problems with their school work; and 24 per cent said they rarely contacted their parents.

Tellingly, almost 80 per cent said their idea of a 'happy family' was to be with their parents.

If that was what Shenpu - who recently dropped out of school - thought too, he did not wear that on his sleeve.

'I miss them, but that's how it is. What can I do?' he said, flashing a weak smile, his eyes watering a little. 'My younger brother asks me when mum and dad are coming back. I'm silent. I don't know what to say.'

Left-behind children are not unique to China, noted Professor Ye Jingzhong, of the China Agricultural University, a leading scholar on this topic. Studies have shown such issues to be common in the Philippines and Mexico, for instance, both leading exporters of labour. But the impact of the phenomenon within a vast country like China is just starting to be studied.

Prof Ye, a development sociologist, told The Straits Times: 'What's unique in China's case too, is the scale of it all, and secondly, the fact that with the hukou system, the children cannot easily follow the parents to the city or town where they work.'

The hukou, or household registration, system in China logs every citizen according to where they were born and distributes social services such as health care and education based on that.

Prof Ye added: 'The Chinese have a saying, 'By age three, you can tell how the child will be when he's an adult. By age eight, you can see how he is when he's old.' So with the parents not by these children's side, to guide and shape them, of course there will be a big impact. They can't be the same as children from an intact family.'

The broader issue is one of the country's chosen model of development, where economic development comes before social issues, argued Prof Ye.

'When there is a contradiction between economics and social or family life,' he asked, 'which do we choose?'

In the villages, people earn on average around 2,000 to 3,000 yuan (S$380 to S$570) a year. In the cities, that can be a month's wages. For many, heading out to work can feel like the only choice.

In Damen village, lodged in Yunnan's Nu River valley, about half of the 70 households - mostly of the local Lisu minority tribe - have at least one parent away as a migrant worker, leaving relatives to stand in.

Farmer Ah Puxiang, 55, has to make a two-hour trek downhill to his son's home to look after his two grandchildren, aged eight and nine.

His son and daughter-in-law left home in January to become factory workers in a southern city whose name he does not even know. The family had fallen into debt and the couple felt the only way they could make money was to leave.

He said: 'We wish they could stay here, but we know they feel leaving was their only choice. It's all about making a living somehow.'

'The children don't tell us they miss their parents. But when their parents phone, they do tell them that.'

Out in rural China, local officials sometimes encourage the trend, convinced that their villages are too poor or remote to spur economic development.

In a village a half-hour ride away by motorbike from Damen, local officials give 250 yuan to each villager willing to be a migrant worker - enough to cover the bus fare to the provincial capital of Kunming.

Li Xuehua's husband did not get the handout, but still, in early March, he left her and their three children, including a two-month-old girl, and took off for the northern province of Shandong to work packaging fish.

The 30-year-old, who now works the fields with her baby strapped to her back, said: 'I feel sad that my husband is not here... I think more villagers are going because they saw those who left earlier come back and build new houses and they want the same. It is true we need money to buy more cement to complete our house...'

She said: 'I can only hope that he will come back maybe after one or two years and not go out again.

'Money is important but it is not No. 1. I think it's more important to have the whole family together, to bring up our children together.'

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Flimsy bag a tough adversary in China

BEIJING: They swirl in the wind, stick around as rubbish for 200 years, and despite the efforts of the Chinese government to reduce their use, are as popular as ever. Three years after Beijing banned shops from offering plastic bags for free, the flimsy carriers are proving an indestructible adversary to government rules.

After early success, efforts to cut plastic bag use stumble as shops offer them free again
By Ho Ai Li, China Correspondent

Checks by green groups showed that more shops are offering free plastic bags than in the past, instead of asking customers to pay, as mandated by the authorities.

'Supermarkets are enforcing this with less zeal now. This policy was best implemented in the first six months, especially during the Olympics,' said Mr Yang Weihe, a waste project manager from non-profit group Enviro Friends.

On June 1, 2008, China tried to bolster its green credentials by stopping shops from offering free plastic bags as the nation geared up for the Olympics. Bags thinner than 0.025mm were also banned, as they tear easily and cannot be re-used as much.

The new rules worked well initially. In 2009, a survey of six cities by Enviro Friends found that eight in 10 supermarkets charged for bags.

This led to supermarkets cutting their use of plastic carriers by two-thirds, according to figures given out by China's National Development and Reform Commission. It meant a saving of at least 24 billion plastic bags a year, the top economic planning body said at a meeting to take stock of the policy over the weekend.

But this is just 2 per cent of the estimated one trillion bags China uses a year, and even this is dropping, as bit by bit, retailers have started to backslide in their vigilance.

Last year, only six in 10 supermarkets were found to be obeying the law.

In smaller cities and remote areas, retailers tend to offer free plastic bags to better compete for customers, said Mr Yang.

'You can't not provide free bags. People come empty-handed, where do they put their vegetables?' said vegetable hawker Wang Fang, 35, in Beijing. 'If I charge for plastic bags, I fear people will complain.'

Consumers usually have to pay 10 to 50 fen (two to 10 Singapore cents) for the bags, but it costs retailers very little to buy them in bulk.

Ms Wang said 50 of them cost just 70 fen, so she will continue to give away the red, blue or white flimsy plastic bags that are a common sight in any vegetable market in Beijing.

Fruit seller Wu Caiyun, 38, said: 'You can't possibly let people go back clutching a heap of fruit in their hands. No one fines me for giving out plastic bags anyway, so why not do so?'

In Shanghai, it is common to see these bags given out freely, reported the Shanghai Daily.

The practice is also returning to wholesale farm produce markets, where the use of plastic bags fell by half when the policy first started. 'In the beginning, there were people checking on this,' Mr Dong Jinshi of China's international food packaging association told The People's Daily. 'But now there aren't any, so we are continuing to use them.'

The government is now chewing over whether to extend the ban to places like hospitals and restaurants, but some observers said it would do better to first enforce the current rules. Public awareness can be stepped up and incentives offered to consumers who do not buy plastic carriers, they added.

Still, despite the setback, the three-year-old policy has made some headway.

Last year, a poll showed that four in 10 people were taking their own bags to the shops, up from one in 10 before the policy started, said Mr Yang.

Some did so because they simply did not want to pay, like retiree Xiao Weiping, 56. He said: 'I don't want to waste money buying a plastic bag. I haven't thought of environmental protection.'

Others said they were happy to do so for a larger cause. Retiree Meng Zhen, 58, said: 'Our environment is already very bad; if we don't help to protect it, it will be too late.'

Additional reporting by Lina Mia

Power struggle fuels China's power crunch

YIYANG (China): In Yiyang, a town of 360,000 people in the south-central province of Hunan, power shortages have been so severe this spring that many homes and businesses receive electricity only one day in three.

Tussle between utilities and govt comes at time of surging demand

Many petrol stations have closed and the water taps often run dry because the pumps lack electricity, forcing residents to haul water from wells - as they used to do long before China's economy surged.

The multi-day blackouts have ruined small businesses like Mr Xu Zhanyun's tiny restaurant. He now cooks meals over coal lumps instead of an electric stove. 'I had so much food in my refrigerators that all went bad,' he said.

And it is not just Hunan - China is facing its worst power shortage in years as a combination of insufficient supply and soaring demand takes hold.

And what is causing the power shortages, ironically, is a power struggle.

Baulking at the high price of coal that fuels much of the electricity grid, China's state-owned utility companies are defying government economic planners by deliberately reducing the amount of electricity they produce.

The power companies say they face financial ruin if the government continues to limit the prices they can charge customers, even as strong demand is sending coal prices to record levels.

One giant utility, China Power International, recently warned that a fifth of the country's 436 coal-fired power plants could face bankruptcy.

The tussle could not come at a worse time: China is grappling with its worst power crunch since 2004, as a drought has hit hydroelectric generation just as the hot summer is seeing many people rush to their air-conditioners.

The shortage is not only hitting the country's energy-starved industries, but is also threatening to slow China's mighty economic growth engine.

At the core of the battle between the utilities and the authorities are the prices of coal and electricity.

Deregulated since 2008, coal prices have been rising partly because of floods in Australia and Indonesia's coal fields and partly because Japan is buying more from the global market to offset its lower nuclear power output.

This has put the squeeze on China's utility companies, three-quarters of which depend on coal to generate power. But they cannot raise electricity prices because the government holds utility rates essentially flat as part of a growing array of price controls to insulate the Chinese public from inflation.

Residential users in China's cities pay the equivalent of 10.25 Singapore cents a kilowatt-hour - less than half the 25.5 cents that homes in Singapore pay.

So the utilities have resorted to go-slow tactics, such as curtailing expansion and construction of power plants, and running plants for fewer hours a day. In a notable act of passive defiance, many have also scheduled an unusually large number of plants to close for maintenance.

While there have been no public confrontations between Beijing officials and utility executives so far, the power struggle is showing up cracks in China's unique marriage of government oversight and market competition, which has helped build three decades of phenomenal economic success.

The country's electric utilities are majority-owned by the government but are also profit-motivated, accountable to other holders of their publicly traded stock.

'The Chinese electricity companies are firing a shot across the bow, and essentially saying they're not going to just sit there and take massive losses,' said Mr Jeremy Carl, a Stanford University researcher on Chinese energy issues.

The Chinese government is now putting pressure on local mines to continue supplying coal at below-market prices - though these profit-oriented operations have responded with their own form of passive resistance by sending their cheapest, lowest-quality coal.

The blackouts, meanwhile, are starting to threaten China's burgeoning growth - and could have an impact on the world's economy.

As energy-intensive industries such as steel, cement and chemicals slow down, hitting the nation's production, their reduced demand for raw materials is also rippling around the world, hitting China's suppliers and contributing to 10 per cent declines in global prices for commodities like iron ore and copper.

Back at Hunan and other provinces, homes and businesses are still struggling to adapt to the constant blackouts.

'They shut down the electricity for a day every three days,' said Mr Jin Jianping, manager of an umbrella factory in Ningbo, in east-central China. 'We just arrange night shifts for everyone. We all have to work at night every three days now.'


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When free markets fail

THREE years ago, the world narrowly averted an economic meltdown resulting from the United States sub-prime home loans crisis. Today, the euro zone is struggling with the massive sovereign debts of seve-ral of its weaker members


Economics writer John Cassidy wonders whether the world has truly understood the roots of the 2008 crisis, or is simply biding its time until The Next Big One.

The 48-year-old staff writer from The New Yorker magazine, who was in town recently to give a talk at the Civil Service College, told The Straits Times: 'Governments have learnt some lessons, but perhaps not enough of them.'

Governments now know, for example, that free markets are not fail-safe, and 'active government intervention can forestall a global economic collapse'.

However, he fears they have not quite grasped the underlying dynamics.

At play is what he calls 'rational irrationality', where actions taken by people may be rational on an individual scale but completely irrational when taken collectively.

The financial crisis, he argues, was not singularly the result of greed, fraud or a failed government policy, but of all the individuals in the food chain pursuing their rational self-interest.

Low-income Americans, for example, were acting rationally when they bought homes with 100 per cent loans because it amounted to a cost-free way to make money from the housing bubble. The banks were similarly rational in dishing out such loans as they received commissions on the loans. They did not have to worry about repayments as they palmed these mortgages off to Wall Street firms.

'As long as the market holds up, it's a perfectly rational strategy, so rational that if you don't do it, you lose out.'

While many of Wall Street's head honchos were fingered for the disaster, Mr Cassidy calls them 'cogs in this machine'.

'They can't really opt out even if they wanted to,' he says.

He adds: 'Most traders don't have a long-term basis because they are judged every quarter... The best thing to do is to try and mimic everybody else.'

In the financial market, it does not pay to be a contrarian. Traders are not punished for doing badly when everybody else is doing badly. But they can lose their shirts for hanging back while their peers are busy chasing profit, however dubious the circumstances.

'It's sort of sensible to be stupid, sensible to follow the crowd,' he says.

Someone working in a financial magazine or institution would feel immense pressure against taking a bearish stance on a speculative boom because that is against the interests of his employer.

'The guys who warn against it early, most of them are fired by the time the bust comes.'

In fact, even those not in the financial trade will find it easy to get caught up in the 'self-fulfilling' bubble.

It is in everybody's interests to keep the good times coming. Advertisers bank on sales made when sentiments are good, while the media industry enjoys higher advertising revenue. Even governments cherish such bursts of activity as they look like economic booms and generate tax revenue.

What all this means is that the financial industry needs to be kept on a tight leash, says Mr Cassidy.

He cites a little-known fact that even the 18th-century economist Adam Smith, who introduced the world to the idea that the 'invisible hand' of the free market allocates society's resources efficiently, had advocated the idea that banks be regulated to stop them from lending too much.

Centuries later, the world has been reminded that banks are 'like nuclear power stations' that can cause 'enormous damage' when they go wrong.

They provide essential services as intermediaries between savers and borrowers but have spawned an industry that may be too bloated for society's good, according to Mr Cassidy.

'People are overcompensated,' he says. 'The great mystery is how it sustains itself.'

He poses a puzzler: Microsoft founder Bill Gates is a billionaire because of the software he created, while Apple founder Steve Jobs earned his fortune from computers and related products. But bankers earning millions of dollars do not seem to create anything of genuine social value.

'In the financial industry, a lot of things which seem to be creating real value are ultimately just seeking rent.' Traders can create what look like profits on a short-term basis and be able to walk away with huge stock options and bonuses before the losses from the failed investments are realised, Mr Cassidy contends.

In essence, the financial world is a key example of an industry where the laws of the free market fail. The usual supply and demand pressures do not create the best allocation of resources because most financial products are opaque by nature.

Then again, the idea that the completely free market has always driven global growth is a 'myth', says Mr Cassidy. The 'mechanism which delivers wealth and freedom and opportunity and works by itself' has never existed.

In almost all economically successful countries, the state has played a leading role in the early stages of development.

'That's true of the United Kingdom, it's true of the US, and now in the late 20th century, it's been true of India and China.'

Leading American aviation companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin got their edge with technological advances developed together with the US Department of Defence, he notes. Britain and the US sponsored authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to gain access to cheap oil, and this strategy is being similarly deployed by China in Africa.

Still, he frowns on 'making underhand deals with African dictators'. China is 'big enough, powerful enough and financially strong enough' to be more transparent in its deals and is also rapidly approaching a stage in its development where it has a lot to gain by falling in line with international trade rules.

'Once you become a successful exporter of goods and services... and once you move into higher-value industries, then things like intellectual property rights start to work for you too.

'The Chinese won't want everybody else stealing their technology.'

Closer to home, the nature of state involvement in Singapore's economy also needs to be calibrated according to the level of development.

Singapore has a tiny domestic market - just five million people - so the state has a role to play in building up the capability of domestic companies.

'If you are just relying on pure market forces, local businessmen, there is an issue of whether they can build sufficient scale to be able to compete with international companies.'

The role of the state, however, diminishes as a country gets richer and local companies gain market traction.

This is because 'economic success is based on innovation' after a certain stage. State-led economies have generally fallen down on this front as they are too far removed from the commercial discipline that market conditions can mete out.

Still, he reiterates that there will always be some sectors that require keen regulation because the market will not keep them in check.

'The financial sector obviously is a big one.'

Be happy! It's not all about economic growth

PARIS: Perhaps a country's success is not just a matter of economic growth after all.

The tacit acknowledgement came from no less than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which yesterday launched a so-called 'happiness index' to better measure the quality of life.

IT WAS Bhutan that started it all, with its famous Gross National Happiness which measured the country's progress and well-being in terms of happiness rather than in dollars and cents.

Coined in 1972, the index eschewed Gross Domestic Product and other economic numbers for more intangible indicators such as psychological well-being, culture and health.

Few people took it seriously until several countries in recent years started to embrace the wisdom of measuring success similarly. Fans note that 'happynomics' can help guide governments in policymaking.

Last year, Britain said it will introduce a 'happiness index' to gauge its populace's psychological and environmental well-being, and could thus become the first Western country to officially monitor general happiness.

France and Canada are reportedly considering similar initiatives, while China this year included a happiness index in its annual competitiveness study of the country's cities.

Bhutan's index has nine indicators to reflect the components of happiness: ecology, psychological well-being, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's 'better life initiative' - launched yesterday - has 11: housing, incomes, employment, social relationships, education, the environment, the administration of institutions, health, general satisfaction, security and the balance between work and family.

Deviating from its focus on hard economic figures - such as gross domestic product - for the first time in 50 years, it announced its 'better life initiative', which measures more qualitative factors such as general satisfaction, security and work-life balance.

The new index marks a significant change for the OECD, which for half a century has been known for its orthodox approach to economics and its promotion of structural reforms to boost GDP growth. Consisting of 34 member nations, the economic organisation was founded in 1961 with an aim to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

Yesterday, it said it was time to move beyond GDP when measuring the success of societies.

'This index encapsulates the OECD at 50, pushing the boundaries of knowledge and understanding in a pioneering and innovative manner,' said OECD secretary- general Angel Gurria.

'People around the world have wanted to go beyond GDP for some time. This index is designed for them. It has extraordinary potential to help us deliver better policies for better lives.'

The new index not only has 11 indicators that go beyond hard economic numbers, but is also meant to be flexible: Users can assign different weights to the indicators according to their own preferences.

This means that people in the OECD's 34 member states can compare their countries according to criteria which they think are important.

A Financial Times report noted that altering the weights of the 11 indicators could change significantly the rankings of the OECD's member countries in a league table of success.

Luxembourg, it noted, scores on GDP per capita, but drops down the list significantly if equal weight is given to other indicators. Mexico, on the other hand, scores poorly due to its relatively low level of development, but has a 'happy' population.

The OECD, which launched the new index to mark its 50th anniversary, hopes it will represent a better way of presenting comparative data that it already collects, as well as redefine what 'progress' and 'well-being' means in this century.

Its initiative also comes in the wake of concerns expressed in many countries that national accounts and GDP figures are inadequate, and follows efforts by several nations to measure happiness.

Critics have long held that using GDP to summarise a country's total economic output measures only quantitative change while ignoring qualitative improvements.

The index is the first concrete result of a report by former Nobel economics prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, as well as the result of efforts by the OECD to come up with ways of calculating a well-being index to complement the GDP and other indicators.

Much of the OECD's work, however, will still focus on GDP and efforts to boost prosperity through structural reforms, the FT reported, noting that money was still needed to provide access to good education, health care and housing.

The newspaper cited the organisation as saying: 'While money may not buy happiness, it is an important means to achieving higher living standards and thus greater well-being.'


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When money is not the key to happiness

THE people of Shijiazhuang, capital of northern Hebei province and an industrial hub, have reason to cheer. This month, the city with a population of about 11 million was named China's happiest city.

By Grace Ng, China Correspondent

It beat more than 290 Chinese cities to the title in an annual competitiveness study by a government think-tank.

The news was greeted with both shock and envy - that this relatively poor city could grab such a coveted position and score major political points with the top leadership, whose new campaign is to make people happy.

This was the first time that the closely watched annual survey included a 'happiness index', as the Chinese Communist Party strives to maintain social stability by showing that it cares about the people's well-being.

Linyi in Shandong province and Yangzhou in Jiangsu province were placed second and third. Beijing squeezed into the top 10 at No. 9.

What the survey showed, like several other studies before it, is that becoming the world's second largest economy has not made the vast majority of China's 1.3 billion population happier.

Last month, China was ranked 92nd out of 124 countries in a Gallup poll in which people evaluated their own well-being. In March, 94 per cent of 1,350 people surveyed by the state media said they were 'unhappy' or felt only 'so-so'.

The latest study, which came amid fresh reports of record inflation and rising housing prices, showed that the richest mainland cities were also among the unhappiest.

Shanghai, for instance, was ranked the second most competitive city after Hong Kong, but came in a dismal 205th in the 'happiness index'.

The Pearl of the Orient scored high in terms of economic strength and also boasted the largest number of billionaires in China. But the city's residents railed against its air pollution, traffic and stress levels - some of the happiness indicators.

In contrast, Shijiazhuang fell five places to 46th in competitiveness terms.

But its people, whose average income level is less than half of that in Shanghai, scored high in contentment.

Not bad for a place whose most recent claim to fame was as the epicentre of the 2008 tainted milk crisis that sickened some 300,000 people.

As the headquarters of dairy giant Sanlu Group, found to have produced melamine-laced milk, the city became a hotbed of controversy regarding corrupt officials and food safety - two of the top causes of mass discontent often cited in nationwide polls.

Not surprisingly, Shijiazhuang these days is flooded with local media, officials and tourists all seeking its secret to happiness.

Some local residents interviewed cited security - Shijiazhuang is the base for military troops whose task is to defend nearby Beijing, the national capital.

Others attributed it to the rising standard of living as average local incomes rose 10 per cent last year.

But one Shijiazhuang native, who moved to Beijing two years ago in search of a better life - and has yet to find it, offered another explanation.

'I don't think life is that great here. It's just that people in Shijiazhuang, despite their problems, feel less unhappy than those people in the big cities who have more to be unhappy about,' said Ms Zhang Shangxia, 22, who works in a hair salon and sends money back to her family in Shijiazhuang.

Having seen property prices skyrocket and experienced stress at work and horrid jams in Beijing, Ms Zhang admits she is tempted to go home where 'there are fewer factors that could drive one into depression'.

However, she added: 'In the coming years, when Shijiazhuang becomes a much bigger, richer industrial city, the same problems may appear too.'

Indeed, Chinese people's feelings of happiness may be based more on their expectations of a better life than their actual environment.

'Chinese people like to compare themselves with others, so those in richer cities will feel more discontent,' said psychology scholar Feng Lei.

For now, at least, Shijiazhuang can bask in the limelight of being a model city for China's future development, much like Chinese coastal cities that were lauded in the 1980s for their rapid reform and prosperity.

Not to be outdone, Chongqing and Guangdong have unveiled their own five-year economic blueprints which outline strategies to raise happiness levels.

The moves are in line with the national five-year economic masterplan, which lowers the economic growth target to 7 per cent and aims for more social equity.

Premier Wen Jiabao, who unveiled this plan in March, said at the time: 'Everything we do is aimed at letting people live more happily and with more dignity.'

He also said provincial officials' performance should be based not just on economic results, but on how they improve welfare services such as health and education.

But many people are not holding their breath about the success of this official happiness campaign.

'This competition to be China's happiest city benefits only the officials who make up the results, not the people,' said one netizen on a popular forum,

'It's good that the government advocates improving people's well-being, but it's just too difficult,' said Beijing-based hotel manager Guan Ming, 40.

'The old mindset of putting public interest first is gone. Now it's just power and money (driving things). If this does not change, society will not improve, and people's happiness will not rise.'

Additional reporting by Lina Miao

Media biased, says one in two

ABOUT half of Singaporeans polled last year by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) were of the view that 'there is too much government control of newspapers and television'.

Younger respondents aged 21 to 39 years old agreed with the statement in larger numbers - over six in 10 - as compared to five in 10 of those aged over 60.

About 49 per cent of those aged below 60 agreed with the statement that 'newspapers and television are biased when they report on Singapore politics, political parties and elections', slightly higher than the 42 per cent among those aged 60 and above.

Despite these reservations, respondents still revealed above-average trust in newspapers, TV and radio.

Asked to measure the trustworthiness of media channels as outlets for political news from a scale of 1 (untrustworthy) to 5 (very trustworthy), newspapers received 3.58 on average, the highest.

TV received a 3.55 score, while the Internet received 2.82 on average.

Younger respondents were slightly more inclined to see the Internet as trustworthy. Mr Wong Liangyuan, 25, an undergraduate, describes himself as 'equally cynical and wary' of both mainstream and online media.

The mainstream media may display a bias towards the incumbent People's Action Party, but online sources display one towards opposition parties, he said. Hence, when consuming news online, he focuses on the facts and figures.

The IPS survey also showed that despite its perceived influence among the younger generation of Singaporeans, the penetration of online political content through the electorate as a whole is not overwhelming.

When asked if they have seen two specific instances of 'viral media', only about one in five said they had.

The two examples were popular blogger Mr Brown's 'bak chor mee' podcast mocking the PAP's handling of opposition candidate James Gomez in the 2006 General Election, and a Stomp video of beauty queen Ris Low discussing her fashion preferences.

Some 20 per cent had come across Mr Brown's podcast, while 25.6 per cent had seen the video of Ms Low.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lao Tzu says..

To lead people, walk beside them … As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate … When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Apocalypse almost: Rapture has world on tenterhooks

WASHINGTON - WARNINGS by a US fundamentalist preacher that Saturday is Judgment Day have sent some people into hiding or scrambling to repent, while others are planning parties to wave off good Christians as they are beamed up to heaven.

Eighty-nine-year-old tele-evangelist Harold Camping's prophecy says the Rapture will begin with powerful earthquakes at 6:00 pm local time in each of the world's regions, after which the good will be beamed up to heaven.
The not-so-good will suffer through hell on earth until October 21, when God will pull the plug on the planet once and for all, he predicts.
In the United States, where Camping's evangelizing organization is based, some people have been quitting their jobs and hitting the road to urge others to repent before it's too late.
Gregory LeCorps left his job "in a medical facility" weeks ago to take his wife and five young children on the road and warn others that the Rapture is really nigh, the Journal News in New York wrote.
"We're in the final days," LeCorps, who said he hopes to be on a beach in South Carolina by Saturday, was quoted by the lower Hudson valley newspaper as saying as he handed out leaflets.
In Vietnam, thousands of ethnic Hmong converged on northwestern Dien Bien province a few weeks ago after hearing broadcasts on Camping's global religious broadcasting network, Family Radio, that Jesus was coming on May 21.
Hundreds are believed hiding in forests after security forces dispersed those who were awaiting the supposed return of Jesus Christ on Saturday, a resident told AFP.
The Vietnamese government said extremists used the gathering to advocate for a Hmong kingdom but the resident said he was unaware of such talk.
In Ciudad Juarez, one of the hardest hit cities in Mexico's drug wars, huge billboards proclaim that "Christ is coming back on May 21."
According to the authorities, the apocalyptic message hasn't provoked panic or hoarding, but one resident, Rosy Alderete, said she was "worried by the coincidence" that big earthquakes have rocked Japan and New Zealand this year.
The London-based Guardian newspaper described the looming Rapture as "the fundamentalist Christian equivalent of the last helicopter out of Saigon," referring to the US pull-out after the long Vietnam war in 1975.
The fact that Camping wrongly predicted the end of the world once before, in 1994, has left others willing to make fun of him.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who is Jewish and therefore, according to Camping's prophecy, unlikely to be beamed up to sit alongside Jesus and God in heaven -- said on his weekly radio show Friday that he would suspend alternate-side parking in New York if the world ends on Saturday.
The much-reviled parking rule requires New Yorkers to move their cars from one side of the street to the other to allow street cleaning to be carried out.
And some are cashing in on money-making opportunities.
Craigslist was running tens of thousands of ads from non-believers offering to buy the worldly goods of those who think they're going to heaven, while a group of US atheists has sold hundreds of contracts to rescue people's pets.
A group of Christians, who think Camping's prophecy is bunk, will be tracking the Rapture and posting reports on the Internet each time it doesn't happen.
One of the first places to be hit, according to Camping, would be New Zealand, where 6:00 pm happens at 0600 GMT, but the prophecy received little local media attention.
Mark Vrankovich, director of the Christian organisation Cultwatch, said he was not aware of any New Zealanders preparing for the end of the world.
"Do not sell your house and give the money away, do not stop paying bills, do not say anything you will regret to friends and family, don't quit your job, don't leave your loved ones," the Cultwatch website advises.
If Camping's prediction does not pan out, one idea is gathering steam on Twitter to create an ersatz Rapture.
A tweet suggests laying out old clothing and shoes on pavements and lawns on Saturday to give the impression that someone has indeed been beamed up. yahoo

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Pensions: Tell it exactly like it is

THE reply by the Prime Minister's Office ('PMO on pensions for political office and MPs') last Saturday - which appeared together with a related report ('Pension about a tenth of minister's pay') - was in response to cyberspace speculation that ministers receive million-dollar pensions.

The Government should have been more transparent in its reply by specifically rebutting the speculation.
Statements such as '10 per cent of his annual salary'; 'pensionable component has been frozen since 1994'; and 'a minister qualifies for the maximum pension of two-thirds of this pensionable component only after having served as an office-holder for 18 years', tend to confuse ordinary Singaporeans.
All the Government needed to do was to quantify its clarification into dollars and state how much Mr George Yeo, Mrs Lim Hwee Hua and Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed will receive each month as pension.
The Government should also have stated whether all ministers aged 55 and older - and who have the minimum eight years of service - are being paid pension in addition to their salaries and, if so, how much.
In other words, the PMO's reply should have explained pensions for public office-holders and MPs in absolute dollar terms.
Now that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong are leaving the Cabinet, the pension amounts they will receive could also be made known to the public.
If the Government does not respond in a clear manner, the high figures speculated online will be taken as true by many people, casting further doubts and raising more questions on the subject.
Krishnan Harihara Kasthuri Rangan

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Whither EU? Angry Birds soar as Nokia goes sour

FINLAND, the home of Santa Claus and Nokia, is not a regular news hot spot. But two recent developments - the rise of an anti-European Union, ultra right-wing political party, and the blow suffered by the mobile phone market leader - have propelled the country into the spotlight. Though apparently unrelated, these political and business developments have raised questions about the impact of globalisation on a modern economy like Finland's, and the future of European unity.

By Nayan Chanda, For The Straits Times

The unsurprising victory of the anti-immigrant party, True Finns - which is also hostile to the euro zone - has delivered a jolt, reinforcing a trend seen in recent right-wing victories in Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden. In France, Ms Marine Le Pen, daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, has also made surprising gains in opinion polls against the established parties, sending them scrambling ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.

The common ideologies uniting these right-wing parties are their isolationist, anti-immigrant and anti-globalisation postures, and their deep hostility to the euro zone. The right's victory in Finland, which brings them closer to power as a coalition partner, raises for the first time the possibility of a right-wing party affecting the future of the euro.

Under euro zone rules, all 17 members must approve bailout packages for member countries. The European Union (EU) plan to bail out debt-strapped Portugal to the tune of €80 billion (S$142 billion) will be the first such case where the right's clout may be tested.

Long opposed to the EU, the Finnish party grabbed the issue of aid to Portugal to score electoral points with a population weary of serial bailouts - starting with Greece and Ireland. There is increasingly less sympathy for countries that lived beyond their means, hiding their debts and allowing banks to act recklessly.

The Finnish share of the proposed Portuguese bailout would amount to €7.9 billion. Even if, as a member of a coalition, the True Finns do not succeed in vetoing a bailout, they could block the funding, negatively impacting the euro.

The rise of the True Finns is not solely the product of frustration with the EU's coddling of laggards. A particular source of anger is the Schengen border-free travel regime, which allows immigration from poorer members. Although immigrants constitute barely 2.5 per cent of the Finnish population, they are blamed for rising unemployment and social ills. The True Finns call them 'parasites on taxpayers' money'.

The party's rise has tracked the downturn in the Finnish economy and rising unemployment, which currently stands at 8.4 per cent. Long reliant on forestry, paper and manufacturing, Finland has seen its export market eaten away by foreign competition.

Things were different in the 1990s, when Finland's high-quality education and open economy set it up for rapid growth. The rise of mobile phone giant Nokia, which brought large revenues and jobs, turned Finland into a poster child of globalisation. At its peak about a decade ago, Nokia accounted for 4 per cent of Finland's gross domestic product and 21 per cent of its corporate tax revenues - a rare single enterprise with a huge impact on the national economy. With the world's cellphone market exploding, Nokia came to command a 34 per cent share.

But Nokia had failed to keep up with technology that turned a cellphone into a mini computer and music player with a camera. Assailed by agile competitors with newer technologies, especially Apple's cool iPhone, Nokia lost its top spot. It has forced the company to junk its own Symbian software, which failed to keep pace with changing consumer demands, and join forces with the Windows mobile system to do battle with Apple and Google.

Only time will tell if this late move will save Nokia, which has already been forced to lay off 4,000 and move 3,000 employees from Symbian. To the critics of globalisation, this provides further proof of the fickleness of the globalised economy and reinforces the appeal of isolationism.

There is of course, another side. Angry Birds, an addictive game, has been a global hit, boosting the valuation of its Finnish creator Rovio Mobile 200-fold, and laying the grounds for an initial public offering on Wall Street. As Finland adjusts to its changing fortunes, hopefully the angry Finns who voted for True Finns will note that globalisation does reward innovators, even as it punishes complacent winners like Nokia.

The writer is director of publications at the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation, and Editor of YaleGlobal Online.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Controversy over burial could have been avoided

NEWS about the killing of Osama bin Laden in a United States commando raid deep inside Pakistan earlier this month surprised many across the world. While it was widely welcomed by political leaders and the people in the West, the reception in the Muslim world has been mixed.

By Muhammad Haniff Hassan & Zulkifli Mohamed Sultan , FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Many Muslims patiently waited in the initial hours for details of the killing, including solid evidence that would confirm the death of Osama, but they were taken aback by reports that his body had been buried in the Arabian Sea at an unidentified location.

The US justified the speedy burial by arguing that Muslim tradition required burial within 24 hours of death. It was also suggested that the choice of location was to avoid creating a shrine for Osama that could act as a rallying point for his followers.

Muslims at large were perplexed by the rationale for the speedy sea burial. The world expected some form of proof from the US of Osama's death, given the grave importance and sensitivity of the issue, lest it give rise to sinister conspiracy theories that would undermine the US war against terror.

The quick disposal of the body without providing evidence, compounded by the absence of verification by independent parties, does not sit well with the maxim that 'justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done'. It is standard legal and judicial procedure for a person killed in a gun battle to be subjected to an autopsy and examination by a coroner or the equivalent, and identification by family members.

Negative comments quickly emerged from Muslims around the world questioning the way the body had been disposed of.

Muslim religious establishments, such as the Indonesian Ulama Council, believed many questions were unanswered while academics such as Islamic studies professor Mahmoud Ayoub, from the Hartford Seminary in the US, felt that the 'burial at sea gives the whole story an air of incredulity'.

The US' rationale of a burial within 24 hours proved to be theologically unsound. It is true that Islamic law requires the dead to be given a quick burial.

However, an exception can be made when there is a legitimate necessity, such as for the purpose of criminal and judicial investigation. This exception is practised in all Muslim countries. In the case of Osama, the wide public interest provides a legitimate reason to delay the burial.

In Islamic history, it is noted that even the burial of Prophet Muhammad was delayed for a few days to allow Muslims then to emotionally accept his demise and to decide on the appointment of his successor, the Caliph.

It was stated in a fatwa of the late Sheikh Abdul Aziz Baz, the former Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, that burial can be delayed for a day for a less important reason, such as to allow the deceased's relatives an opportunity to see the body for the last time. The delay in the Prophet's burial was cited as a precedent.

Another point of contention that could have been avoided was the choice of a sea burial. Commenting on this, Dubai Grand Mufti Mohammed al-Qubaisi said: 'If the family does not want him, it's really simple in Islam - you dig a grave anywhere, even on a remote island, you say the prayers and that's it... Sea burials are permissible for Muslims (only) in extraordinary circumstances.' Indeed, a small unidentified plot on any of the US island territories in the Pacific Ocean or the Caribbean could have been used.

One exemplary practice in handling the body of a terrorist killed in a raid is the Indonesian authorities' treatment of bomb expert Azahari Hussin in Batu city, East Java. The Indonesian police went through the process of identifying the body. After proper identification and evaluation by the authorities, his family members were flown in from Malaysia to further confirm the identity of the deceased. The body was later flown back to Malaysia for a proper burial.

While there may be operational constraints and other reasons known only to the US authorities to justify their controversial sea burial of Osama's body, the negative perception arising from it cannot be simply dismissed. It is imprudent to ignore the sensitivities of the Muslim masses, as the key to the struggle against Al-Qaeda is in winning hearts and minds.

President Barack Obama has decided that no image of Osama's body will be publicly displayed for fear of it being used to arouse sympathisers in a manner that could jeopardise US national security. Nevertheless, the controversy is not limited to just the absence of visual proof. Rather, it encompasses a wide range of issues involving the entire process, from the handling of the body and the speedy sea burial to the lack of independent verification and the non-involvement of relatives in the matter.

It must be emphasised that the fight against terrorism is not just about the killing and capturing of terrorists. Equally important is winning the hearts and minds of the Muslim masses, which could have been served by a proper handling of Osama's body.

Muhammad Haniff Hassan is an associate research fellow and Zulkifli Mohamed Sultan is a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Osama was a US prisoner before being killed: Iran

TEHERAN - AL-QAEDA founder Osama bin Laden was a prisoner in US custody for 'sometime' before he was killed by the American military, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Sunday.

'I have exact information that bin Laden was held by the American military for sometime... until the day they killed him he was a prisoner held by them,' the hardline president said in a live interview on Iranian state television.

'Please pay attention. This is important. He was held by them for sometime. They made him sick and while he was sick they killed him,' Dr Ahmadinejad added.

He accused US President Barack Obama for announcing the Al-Qaeda leader's death for 'political gain.' 'What the US president has done is for domestic political gain. In other words, they killed him for Mr Obama's election and now they are seeking to replace him with someone else,' Dr Ahmadinejad said without elaborating.

Osama was shot dead on May 2 in a US commando raid on a heavily fortified compound near Islamabad, Pakistan. On May 4, Iranian Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi too had cast doubt on Osama's death, saying there were 'ambiguities' over the way he was killed.

The Americans 'said they threw his body in the sea. Why did they not allowed an independent expert to examine the body to say if it was bin Laden or not?' Mr Vahidi said. -- AFP

Saturday, May 14, 2011

What signals did 2 million voters send in GE 2011?

As the dust settles on a watershed general election which saw an unprecedented six-seat win by the opposition since independence, Insight takes a closer look at the results: What were the 2.06 million voters signalling to the ruling party and the opposition? How were their aspirations and expectations reflected in the ballot box?

By Zakir Hussain, Political Correspondent

S THE final tally of counted votes emerged in the wee hours of Sunday, a new chapter in Singapore's political history unfolded.

The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) was returned to power with 60.1 per cent of the popular vote, a low never seen since Independence. It won 76 out of 82 seats that were contested, giving it a total of 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament.

But for the first time since group representation constituencies (GRCs) were introduced in 1988, the opposition Workers' Party (WP) secured one - the five-seat Aljunied GRC - while entrenching its presence in stronghold Hougang.

At the post-results press conference, two lines in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's remarks summed up what many would consider to be the chief takeaway from General Election 2011.

Mr Lee said: 'All Singaporeans of different strata and groups have higher aspirations and expectations, and many of them wish for the Government to adopt a different style and approach to government, in keeping with a new generation and a new era which we're living in.

'And I think many of them desire to see more opposition voices in Parliament to check the PAP Government.'

How did citizens vote across the 26 contested electoral divisions? What were they telling the Government - and the opposition? How did their different aspirations and expectations coalesce at the ballot box?

Signal in Aljunied

ONE unmistakable signal is that voters want an elected opposition in Parliament, and that if a strong team emerges, they are prepared to vote it in even at the expense of losing a heavyweight minister and other office-holders.

In Aljunied GRC, a convincing 54.7per cent of voters elected the opposition's strongest team led by WP chief Low Thia Khiang in what observers called a 'major psychological breakthrough' for the opposition.

In doing so, voters ousted Foreign Minister George Yeo, Second Minister for Finance and Transport Lim Hwee Hua, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zainul Abidin Rasheed, town council chairman Cynthia Phua and potential fourth-generation minister Ong Ye Kung.

To WP's credit, its members have been walking the ground there over the past eight years, making themselves known to residents and hearing their grievances. During the nine-day campaign, the party focused on the national issue of opposition representation in Parliament as the PAP team tried to pin it down on its local plans.

But the WP's efforts to woo voters paid handsome dividends. GE 2011 saw a 10.8 percentage point vote swing towards the WP from the 43.9 per cent it got in Aljunied in 2006.

Political scientist Lam Peng Er describes the election outcome as 'a calibrated and considered response from sophisticated voters'.

The senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) East Asian Institute says the WP's emphatic victory in Aljunied was a clear signal by the electorate that it values alternative voices in Parliament.

'The voters prefer opposition MPs with full voting rights rather than toothless Non-Constituency MPs (NCMPs) to check a hegemonic ruling party,' Dr Lam tells Insight.

Last year, the law was amended to guarantee a minimum of nine opposition candidates in Parliament through the NCMP scheme. PAP leaders told voters that this move would ensure that alternative voices would be aired.

The appeal of this liberalisation, it now appears, has been mixed.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin points out that voters in Aljunied did not vote for the WP because they found the PAP candidates wanting.

Rather, he says: 'They voted ideologically, not on local issues: They carried the hopes of people from the rest of Singapore who wanted an alternative voice. That can only happen with the WP.'

The WP's win in Aljunied capped the nationwide trend of a decline in vote share of 6.5 percentage points for the PAP, which had scored 66.6 per cent of the popular vote in 2006.

Signal in Ang Mo Kio

AT THE other extreme to Aljunied, voters sent a crystal clear signal in the Prime Minister's constituency: They are willing to support him even if their neighbours in adjoining constituencies are less than warm towards the ruling party.

In Ang Mo Kio GRC, which shares a border with Aljunied, voters bucked the national trend by giving the six-member PAP team led by Mr Lee a strong mandate of 69.3 per cent.

It was more than 3 percentage points above the GRC's showing against a young WP team in 2006, and more than 9 percentage points higher than the PAP's national average.

Observers view this as a strong endorsement of Mr Lee, especially after his apology for the PAP's mistakes midway through the campaign.

Responding to ground discontent over policy shortfalls in areas like housing and transport, the PM had admitted that the Government could have moved faster to address these. He said he was sorry for these mistakes, and added that he and his team were doing their best to fix the problems.

As Dr Lam sees it, Ang Mo Kio GRC's voters were 'not prepared to dent his standing at the polls and his credibility to lead the country'.

What also worked in Mr Lee's favour was that the opposing Reform Party (RP) team was cobbled together at the last minute, led by an unknown human resources supervisor and comprising members 'on loan' from other small parties.

Only one other GRC team saw a vote share higher than 2006's national average of 66.6 per cent: the Jurong GRC slate led by Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, which faced a weak National Solidarity Party (NSP) team led by fourth-time opposition candidate Christopher Neo.

Signal in hot seats

A THIRD signal is that voters will not hesitate to vote against ministers whom they hold responsible for policy shortcomings, and for entire teams with members of whom they disapprove.

In East Coast GRC, Transport Minister Raymond Lim came under fire for overcrowding on public transport, while in Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng saw a dent in votes, which could be partly due to dissatisfaction over security lapses when he was minister for home affairs.

Tampines GRC, in particular, saw an 11.3 percentage point vote swing against the PAP team led by National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan.

A not-so-prominent NSP team led by secretary-general Goh Meng Seng secured a sizeable chunk of protest votes in the wake of anger over rapidly rising HDB flat prices and a shortage of supply of new flats in recent years.

In Marine Parade GRC, which had not been contested for close to 20 years, another NSP team won 43.4 per cent of the votes against the PAP team led by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

The NSP criticised Mr Goh for policies under his watch when he was prime minister - such as the introduction of the goods and services tax and the use of upgrading as an election carrot.

All four were among the 11 ministers who received less than 60 per cent of the votes in their GRCs.

In Marine Parade, the NSP also rode on a groundswell of discontent over the suitability of the PAP's youngest candidate, 27-year-old Tin Pei Ling, to be a parliamentarian.

Criticisms were also levelled at the GRC system, which assured inexperienced candidates like Ms Tin of a seat as they rode on the coat-tails of ministers.

NSP secretary-general Goh Meng Seng said this week that he felt the party's 'minister-specific strategy' of targeting ministers for mistakes under their watch had worked somewhat as its teams in Tampines and Marine Parade yielded better results percentage-wise.

'However, (an) issue-based minister-specific strategy is just (a) necessary but insufficient strategy for parties without strong branding to win the elections,' he adds.

Or, as Mr Zulkifli puts it: 'You cannot be a very serious party if you vote against the other person, rather than for what the party stands for.'

Personality over party?

MAYBE, but not always. A fourth signal that voters sent is that they are willing to vote for candidates who appeal to them, but party affiliation may make all the difference.

Take Marine Parade GRC, where the NSP's eloquent 24-year-old candidate Nicole Seah was pitted against Ms Tin, and her NSP team secured 43.4 per cent of the votes, the highest score an opposition party got in a GRC after Aljunied and East Coast.

It is not possible to tell how much of these are votes that express anger against the GRC system that allows untested candidates an easy ride into Parliament, and how much of these are votes drawn by Ms Seah's appeal.

But would Ms Seah have been even more appealing were she with the WP?

A closer look at the results across constituencies shows that the non-WP high-calibre candidates did not do as well as the WP's weaker ones did, whether in single member constituencies (SMCs) or GRCs.

Take former government scholarship holders Hazel Poa and Tony Tan Lay Thiam of the NSP in Chua Chu Kang GRC and former senior public servants Tan Jee Say and Ang Yong Guan of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC.

Granted, both their teams began working the ground in their respective constituencies much later in the day, but many voters on the ground still did not know enough about their parties to want to give them their votes.

The stark difference a party brand makes can be best seen in the election's only three-way fight in Punggol East SMC, where Singapore Democratic Alliance (SDA) candidate Desmond Lim won just 4.5 per cent of the vote despite having worked the ground in the area for several months and proposing an upgrading plan for the ward.

After his defeat, Mr Lim lamented that voters chose a 'brand name' party - 'the WP parachuting in without a proper five-year plan being offered'. The WP's candidate was a young female newcomer, Ms Lee Li Lian.

The SDA team in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC next door obtained 35.2 per cent of the vote - just above the minimum one-third that is usually in the bag for most opposition parties, even though its activists had been walking the ground there for several years.

Likewise, the new - and weak - RP received just 33.4 per cent of the votes in West Coast GRC, even though it had been on weekly walkabouts in the area for two years.

The rise and rise of WP

THAT the WP was uniformly able to clinch above 41 per cent of the vote in constituencies it was new to signals that a significant number of voters are prepared to vote in a credible opposition party with a strong slate of candidates.

Even as its GRC teams and SMC candidates campaigned door-to-door and in markets, the party hammered home the key message that it wanted a First World Parliament with a critical mass of opposition MPs to check the Government.

Where the PAP had posters of PM Lee all across the island, the WP had huge banners with pictures of party leaders Mr Low and Sylvia Lim flanking its campaign slogan: Vote WP - Towards A First World Parliament.

Observers believe the party will continue to build on its strong showing, with supporters optimistic of winning another GRC or two come 2016.

Political risk consultant Azhar Ghani says the WP has to step up its game if it wants to make further gains so that 'most of the vote that goes to the opposition is for them, not against the PAP'.

Referring to the WP's campaign platform that it wants to be a co-driver alongside the PAP should it falter, he adds: 'They should be able to show they are not just a co-driver, but can potentially take over the wheel.'

Did class matter?

AlLJUNIED aside, the WP came close to taking over in Joo Chiat and East Coast, where there is a higher concentration of private property dwellers who feel more strongly about the need for an alternative voice in Parliament.

Even in Aljunied, private property dwellers in Serangoon appeared to turn against the PAP. Some might have been unhappy that they do not get as much as HDB dwellers from government giveaways and rebates.

But by and large, these upper middle class voters who are better informed and well-travelled sent a strong signal that they wanted more diverse views and checks, contrary to conventional wisdom that they tend to be solidly pro-PAP.

Dr Lam notes that according to psychologist Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, once a person's basic needs are met, he often aspires to higher, intangible things like self-actualisation - which may include greater voice and participation.

But he thinks the upper middle class voters of Holland-Bukit Timah might have voted for the SDP in greater numbers if the party did not have what he terms an 'anti-rich' manifesto, which included reintroducing estate duty, imposing a tax on luxury goods and raising personal income tax from 20 to 30 per cent.

NUS sociologist Tan Ern Ser believes that the upper class probably voted PAP, while the middle class was more ambivalent, straddling between fearing it may lose what it has and wanting a strong opposition to provide checks and balances, partly to address the 'middle class squeeze'.

A large chunk of this broad middle class lives in the HDB heartland, where votes seem tilted in favour of the PAP. Many are as concerned about their estates as much as they are about the future of their children and political stability.

Associate Professor Tan says that the middle class feels squeezed because it experiences the anxieties of job and income insecurity, while being affected most by means-testing. Within this group, some face a double whammy, he points out.

They form a sandwiched generation, who has to look after school-going adolescents and medically uninsured elderly folk at the same time, with the attendant cost pressures.

While cost of living is a mounting concern, many of these voters feel that the PAP still offers the best strategy to tackle this problem. If not, there is always the next election, they reckon.

Did age matter?

STRIKINGLY, the areas with a larger share of older residents tended to be more supportive of the PAP, such as the ageing estates in Radin Mas and Whampoa.

Opposition veterans in their 60s, like Mr Yip Yew Weng and Mr Ken Sun from the NSP, who were drawn to these wards believing that they stood a better chance there, were proven wrong.

They received only a little over 30 per cent of the votes. Could this be a signal that it is time for these warhorses to ride into the sunset, when even voters of their age whom they wanted to represent turn their backs on them?

It is true the SMCs they stood in were newly carved out. But younger WP candidates in similarly new areas were able to get some 10 percentage points higher than these old-timers.

On the other hand, the impact of younger voters is harder to determine as they are more evenly spread out across the island.

Candidates and their helpers from various parties feel that perhaps young voters were leaning a little more towards the opposition camp than the rest of the electorate, but not overwhelmingly so either.

The spike in support for the opposition came from across the board, they note.

Did race and sex matter?

IN SIMILAR fashion, the increase in support for the opposition parties also appears to have cut across ethnic lines.

The evidence is anecdotal at best: a larger number of Malays and Indians at opposition rallies and walkabouts than in previous years, and the swing to the WP in Aljunied, Moulmein-Kallang and Nee Soon GRCs, where the proportion of minorities is slightly above the national average.

But the Malay vote, which many believe had disproportionately gone to the PAP in recent elections, may have been split this time.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said on Sunday he did not think Malay-Muslim support for the PAP at the ballot box had been affected by comments he made in his latest book, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, questioning the Malay community's commitment to integration.

But Mr Zainul differed, saying this week: 'You need only ask the Malays and Muslims in Singapore - many were hurt by those remarks and remain so.'

Taken together, these suggest that minority voters may no longer be a safe vote bank for the PAP, even though it fields minority candidates with better credentials than those from the opposition parties.

Some observers, however, welcome this trend as a sign that minority voters are increasingly voting along national rather than ethnic lines.

Mr Zulkifli notes that there were attempts by WP candidates to raise the underperformance of Malays at rallies. But this did not become an election issue, because Malays face the same issues as other voters, he says.

There is, however, one niggling point.

Other than Aljunied, Potong Pasir and Joo Chiat, the PAP's next lowest vote share was in Punggol East, where the first minority candidate in an SMC since 1988 secured just 54.5 per cent of the vote.

Mr Michael Palmer, a Eurasian who could speak Mandarin, was in a three-cornered fight against SDA's Mr Desmond Lim, who lost his deposit, and WP's Ms Lee Li Lian, a female Chinese candidate.

Had Mr Lim not entered the race and assuming all his votes went to her, Ms Lee would have scored 45.5 per cent and been an NCMP.

Did race matter, or did it not matter, to a small but sizeable number of voters - especially as Mr Palmer was a one-term MP for the ward and the ruling party was confident of his chances there?

On the other hand, gender does not seem to be a factor, with the PAP's two women standing in SMCs pulling in a high share of votes: Mayor Amy Khor in Hong Kah North with 70.6 per cent and Senior Minister of State (National Development and Education) Grace Fu in Yuhua with 66.9per cent.

Incidentally, both have been spending a lot of time walking the ground and have gained a reputation as hands-on MPs.

Did the middle ground shift?

NO MATTER how good a PAP MP is, most observers believe there will be a core 30 per cent of voters in a constituency who will vote for the opposition.

One theory is that this threshold is slowly edging upwards in the light of unpopular policies of recent years. But the branding of some parties and the quality of their candidates leave much to be desired, and so the pool of PAP votes remains at just above 60 per cent.

Dr Lam argues that this can be interpreted as 'voters' preference for evolutionary rather than radical change'.

The across-the-board tide against the PAP has led to party leaders pledging to change the party and make it better.

But on that same note, opposition leaders have to rethink what they are offering voters beyond an alternative voice.

Noting the swing towards the opposition, Prof Tan says: 'Voters want the PAP to show empathy and understanding, and the opposition to provide alternative voices, checks and balances. The latter can be addressed only by an effective opposition.'

At a TV forum with various political parties last month, Mr Tharman agreed that a strong opposition was good for Singapore.

The next election may not be due until 2016 but the questions that will keep coming back are: How is the PAP gearing up to be more responsive to voters? And how are opposition parties gearing up to play the role that voters have signalled they are willing to vote for?

How these questions are tackled in the coming months and years will be awaited with bated breath by a politically awakened electorate who have discovered the power of the ballot box.