Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why opposition MPs can't be advisers to grassroots bodies

WE REFER to Mr Muhammad Yusuf Osman's letter yesterday ('Advisers to grassroots bodies should be elected MPs').
The mission of the People's Association (PA) and its grassroots organisations (GROs) is to bond the community and connect people with the Government. PA and its GROs serve all residents regardless of their political affiliations in fulfilling their role.

Grassroots advisers are appointed by PA, a statutory board. Besides connecting people to people, grassroots advisers are required to help the Government connect with people and help promote government policies and programmes such as anti-dengue and active ageing.

Hence, the Government has to appoint grassroots advisers who support its programmes and can play this role well. Opposition MPs cannot be expected to do this and thus cannot become advisers to GROs.

Ooi Hui Mei (Ms)
Corporate and Marketing Communications
For Chief Executive Director
People's Association

Advisers to grassroots bodies should be elected MPs

MANAGING the spat between the People's Association (PA) and the Aljunied-Hougang Town Council over the use of sites for community activities requires concrete and real effort from the Government, which has to be clear and consistent in applying its rules to all constituencies regardless of their local governance ('Curbs lifted on events at PA sites'; last Wednesday).

In the latest dispute, the PA and Ministry of National Development (MND) do not seem to see the issue as one of politicking, but rather as one of practicality as they want to facilitate the organisation of community events within the neighbourhood.

However, the PA as an institution is itself political. In a joint statement, the PA and MND stated that the former had no difficulty getting access to sites managed by the People's Action Party (PAP) town councils. They had omitted the fact that in all PAP town councils, the party's MPs are the advisers to the grassroots organisations. This arrangement is not found in opposition-held wards, where the defeated PAP candidates are the grassroots advisers. This results in the PA being seen as an arm of the PAP, when it is supposed to be a statutory board funded by taxpayers.

As a government body, the PA should serve all residents regardless of their political affiliations.

The perception that the PA is equated with the PAP is inevitable as long as the current practice of appointing PAP MPs and defeated candidates as grassroots advisers is continued.

Hougang grassroots adviser Desmond Choo is wrong when he argued that the PA's arrangement does not put the Workers' Party at a disadvantage politically ('PAP's Desmond Choo asks PA to lease six sites'; last Wednesday).

While Mr Choo and other defeated PAP candidates have the platform to negotiate with the Housing Board and do more for the residents, thus earning political mileage, the opposition candidates cannot do the same in wards where they were defeated.

I hope the PA will stick to its aims of bringing people together based on national rather than partisan interest. Advisers to grassroots organisations should be elected MPs because they have the mandate of the residents to govern their constituencies.

Muhammad Yusuf Osman

Grassroots advisers are not accountable either |

This was a letter I sent to the Straits Times on 28 October, which the paper declined to publish.
I refer to the letter, “Advisers and MPs have different roles” (Straits Times, Oct 27), by Mr Lim Yuin Chien, press secretary to the Minister for National Development.

Mr Lim stated that “Opposition MPs cannot be appointed advisers, because they do not answer to the ruling party”.
The adviser to grassroots organisations is appointed by the People’s Association (PA), a statutory board under the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. The adviser therefore does not answer to the ruling party but to PA. It appears Mr Lim has confused a political party with a non-partisan statutory board.
Furthermore, nowhere in the People’s Association Act nor the PA’s rules and regulations does it state that “opposition MPs cannot be appointed advisers”. I am therefore confused as to how Mr Lim arrived at this conclusion.
Mr Lim further wrote that opposition MPs have no constitutional or legal obligation to carry out national programmes on the Government’s behalf. I would point out that neither do the grassroots advisers, since they are just volunteers, and not paid officers of the Government.
On the other hand, elected MPs are accountable to their constituents. If they mismanage the Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP), they risk being voted out of office at the next elections, losing all the benefits that come with the job.
It would therefore be reasonable to conclude that the MPs have a far greater incentive than the advisers to manage the LUP well, for the benefit of residents. Furthermore, given their chairmanship of the town council, MPs would be more familiar with the estates under their charge, and in a better position to advise the Housing and Development Board (HDB) on how the LUP can best meet the needs of their residents.
It is unfortunate that the HDB has overlooked this reality and has chosen to work primarily with the advisers instead of the elected MPs to implement the LUP in opposition wards.
Gerald Giam

1961 water pact with Johor expires today

THROUGHOUT the term of the 1961 Water Agreement, which expires today, the Johor water authorities and Public Utilities Board (PUB) enjoyed a 'good and cordial' working relationship, both sides said last night when announcing the handover of waterworks and other facilities to Johor.

They also noted in a statement last night that at the Singapore-Malaysia Leaders' Retreat in May last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong informed his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak that on expiry of the pact, Singapore would hand over the waterworks under the agreement to the Johor water authorities free of charge and in good working order.

Since then, a Joint Technical Committee and Joint Working Group of officials from the PUB and Johor state government worked on the transfer of the waterworks and facilities. This includes training employees who will take over its operations from tomorrow.

The handover today involves the Skudai and Gunung Pulai water treatment plants, which were built and managed by PUB for 50 years, as well as two pump houses in Pontian and Tebrau.

After this, PUB will still operate the Linggiu dam and Johor River water treatment plant in the state.

The handover marks the end of the 1961 Water Agreement that Singapore and Johor signed. Two other agreements, inked in 1962 and 1990, expire in 2061.

The handover ceremony at the Gunung Pulai Waterworks will be witnessed by Johor Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, Singapore Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman.

The statement said the expiry of the 1961 pact will not have any impact on water supply for Singapore and Johor. Singapore has said previously that going forward, desalinated water will play a larger role in water supply. It is one of four sources of water supply. The others are local reservoirs, imports and Newater.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

What an awful time to run out of ideas

IN JANUARY 2000, a Princeton University economist presented a paper in Boston, lambasting the Bank of Japan (BoJ) for not doing more to pull the stagnant Japanese economy out of its morass.
By Andy Mukherjee, Senior Writer

Be experimental, he said. Just because you have interest rates at zero doesn't mean that you are powerless to do more, he told the policymakers.

One of the tools the professor recommended to the Japanese central bank to battle deflation was 'cheap talk': Just tell the market that you're going to keep interest rates at zero until inflation is between 3 per cent and 4 per cent, he urged the BoJ.

Another measure he suggested was a 'helicopter drop' of cash: Finance a tax cut with newly printed money rather than government borrowings; the current generation will have more to spend, but future generations won't have to foot the bill. The economy will surely perk up.

If these tricks don't work, the BoJ could always engineer a steep depreciation in the yen or buy government bonds from the market at fair value, he said. Both steps will be expansionary.

Almost 12 years later, life has come full circle for the former Princeton academic, Mr Ben Bernanke. As chairman of the United States Federal Reserve, he now has some very similar challenges at hand in his own home economy. And when it comes to finding solutions to them, he is clearly sticking to his own operating manual.

The Fed has already completed two rounds of bond purchases, totalling almost US$2.3 trillion (S$2.8 trillion). It has also allowed the US dollar to depreciate by about 20 per cent against a basket of other currencies since March 2009.

Finally, in promising to keep the Fed's target for overnight interbank interest rates at near zero, Mr Bernanke has already tried cheap talk.

So are there any other manoeuvres left in his playbook?

Speaking at the Kansas City Fed's annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, yesterday, Mr Bernanke gave no indication of any new tools that will be put to work. 'The Federal Reserve will certainly do all that it can to help restore high rates of growth and employment in a context of price stability,' he said.

Nervous global markets were expecting a lifeline from Mr Bernanke. They didn't find it, or at least that is what the initial reaction of US and European equity markets to Mr Bernanke's speech seemed to suggest.

The US Commerce Department yesterday pared its estimate of economic growth in the second quarter to an annualised rate of 1 per cent, after just 0.4 per cent expansion in the first three months of this year. The US economy hardly ever re-accelerates from such low rates of growth without first suffering a recession.

Mr Bernanke seems to have run out of ideas at an awful time. Consumers are scared because they cannot see a future in which everyone will have well-paying jobs again, while US businesses sitting on cash would rather buy their own stock than invest in new machinery.

Since economists can never really agree on anything, it may be decades before we know with any degree of certainty just why the Fed failed to create inflation with its asset purchases, currency debasement and cheap talk.

By then, the Great Recession of our times will be of little interest to people outside the academia where Mr Bernanke's playbook - full of unworkable ideas - really belongs.

Harder for China's poor to enter university

BEIJING: When his iPad-toting schoolmates at Tsinghua University chatter about the foreign cities they have visited, undergraduate Wu Yanlin, 22, is silent. He has never been on a plane. The scholarship student from a village in south-western Guizhou province often feels out of place among his peers at the elite Chinese university.


Different folks, different strokes

HOW social class matters in determining the sort of classrooms children end up in:

Rich: Children of wealthy entrepreneurs and senior officials. Many of them avoid the scrum for places in China's top universities by going abroad for their studies.
Middle class: Children of professionals like teachers or engineers who live in cities. Their parents eye elite universities like Tsinghua and Peking for them as soon as they are born; they have tuition, extra-curricular lessons and the like.
Poor: Children of farmers or migrant workers. They hail from the countryside, where tuition and kindergartens are often unheard of. Some children go to the cities with their migrant worker parents but find it hard to attend regular public schools.
'They may be talking about where they flew to for leisure. We can't do the same,' he said with a rueful laugh.

But at least he made it to Tsinghua.

Fewer children from China's poorer, rural areas are making it to the country's top universities, sparking worries of slowing social mobility in the world's second- largest economy.

Though China has equal numbers of urban and rural youth, university students hailing from the city outnumber those from the country by almost five to one.

That ratio was two to one in 1980, according to figures compiled by Guangdong province's Academy of Social Sciences.

Scholars say social class is becoming more ossified, after the euphoria of the 1980s when many people became rich overnight from China's economic reforms.

The rising odds against children of humble backgrounds in higher education reflect deeper problems in Chinese society, where money and social connections - or the lack thereof - have given rise to labels such as second-generation rich (fu er dai) or second-generation poor (qiong er dai).

'Previously, those born in the 1950s and 1960s could make use of education to improve their chances (of social advancement). But for those born in the 1980s and 1990s, it's harder now,' said Peking University Graduate School of Education researcher Liu Yunshan.

Other countries ahead on the development arc have managed to progress without leaving so many behind, said Tsinghua sociologist Guo Yuhua.

'Today, a lot of people in America still hold the American dream,' she said. 'We don't even know what is the Chinese dream.'

While rural children used to make up about a third of students at the elite Peking University from 1978 to 1998, they accounted for just 10 per cent of the student body from 2000 to 2005, a study by Dr Liu found.

A Tsinghua survey showed that students from villages accounted for only 17 per cent of its intake last year, though they made up 62 per cent of the 9.57 million candidates who took the gaokao, or national college-entry exams.

Even at China Agricultural University, which would presumably have more students from rural households, only three in 10 of its incoming cohort are from farming communities.

In China, it is compulsory for children to have nine years of education from primary to junior high, with local governments bearing responsibility for implementing and funding this.

The Chinese central government's investment in education remains below 4 per cent of its gross domestic product. By comparison, the United States, Japan, South Korea and India all spend above 7 per cent of their GDP on education.

Cash-strapped rural governments simply cannot match their city cousins when it comes to spending on schools. In 2007, an average primary school pupil from a rural area received 403 yuan (S$76) of public funds for the year, while a Beijing pupil got more than seven times as much.

Many rural schools have to make do with shoddy buildings and underpaid teachers. Meanwhile, many brand-name public secondary schools in provincial capitals and big cities set up private branches and charge all kinds of fees. This often means that only the affluent can afford the 30,000 to 45,000 yuan admission fees that these schools charge.

Dubbed 'super secondary schools', they get the best teachers and students, noted Dr Jin Jun, a Tsinghua sociologist.

'They have teachers who can correctly predict which questions will come out in the gaokao,' he said.

'Students are known to shout, 'Long live teacher so-and-so' after coming out of the exam.'

Two such schools in Xi'an City alone account for up to 62 per cent of the 230 students from north-western Shaanxi province accepted by Peking and Tsinghua last year, according to a study by undergraduates at Tsinghua.

In recent years, moves to admit students based on talent and not gaokao results have also benefited children from privileged backgrounds who can afford art, music or sports lessons.

Most kids from the rural areas do not even attend preschool.

Many are also what are called liu shou er tong, or children left behind in the care of grandparents and other kin, as parents move to cities to eke out a living.

Guizhou native Wu Yanlin, for example, attended five different primary schools as he moved from one set of relatives to another while his parents worked in Beijing.

The differences between city and countryside are still stark: The middle class is gradually forming in the cities, but they are hardly seen in the countryside. Last year, urban residents had an average annual disposable income of 19,109 yuan, three times that of rural folk.

The hukou, or household registration system dating from the Maoist period, has continued to keep migrant workers on the fringes of the cities where they work. Children who follow their parents to the cities end up in ramshackle private schools as they cannot get into local public schools without the right papers.

Even if they do somehow make it to university, the value of a degree has depreciated. Back in the 1980s, children from poor families with a degree were assured of a good job a few rungs up the social ladder.

Then China expanded its university places from nearly five million in 1999 to 21.5 million in 2008.

'Because the job market is not prepared for so many graduates, competition has become very fierce,' said Dr Jin. 'You are competitive only if you are from the top universities.'

Ultimately, young people may lose all hope after realising they cannot achieve their dreams of a better life no matter how capable or hard-working they are, said Dr Jin.

'If their avenues to move up socially get blocked, they may become very angry.'

Ms Miao (back row, left) with her sister (in front) and cousins. -- PHOTO: MIAO XINGYUE

Poor start, uncertain prospects

MS Miao Xingyue, 19, loves the sea. She wanted badly to get a place in a university in Qingdao, which would give her the opportunity to live in the scenic coastal city in China's eastern Shandong province.

But she did not do well enough in the college exams and has to settle for Inner Mongolia University of Science & Technology, set up only in 2003 and based in Baotou City, in her native Inner Mongolia region.

She is going to study logistics, but is not too sure what kind of jobs she can get after graduation.

'My classmates helped me decide... they feel it may be a little easier to learn,' she said.

Unlike her richer city peers, Ms Miao, the older of two girls, did not have tuition classes or even attend kindergarten.

As her father Miao Xidong, 45, said: 'There was no kindergarten in the countryside then, though now there is one.'

The family of four gets by on about 1,500 yuan (S$280) a month, income that comes from their minimart in a township of about 200 households.

Ms Miao hardly travels outside her hometown during the school holidays. Her help is needed with household chores or at the family store. Whatever free time she has is spent on reading or listening to music.

Her parents say they do not really have time to supervise her when it comes to school work.

'We'd just remind her to study well and go to a good university,' said Mr Miao, who had three years of secondary school education.

When Ms Miao went away to a high school outside the township and had to live on her own, he called her every now and then to make sure she was doing fine.

Mr Miao is proud that his daughter is a disciplined child but acknowledges that, given their circumstances, she does not have a strong academic foundation.

'Very few rural kids make it to good universities,' he said. 'It's not easy.'

Ms Xu, 22, with mum Wang Jihong, 47, who is in the wine business. -- ST PHOTO: LINA MIAO

Studying overseas to gain edge

WHILE many Chinese students struggle with English, Chongqing native Xu Weijin, 22, is already on to her third language, French, and is good enough to pursue a degree in it.

The only child of entrepreneurs, she said she has an affinity for languages, and was drawn to France due to the romantic images it evokes.

More pragmatically, she added: 'It is advantageous to know a less common language, and this would improve my future job prospects.'

Ms Xu will be into her final year at the University of Saint Etienne in central France this autumn, and plans to stay on there to pursue her master's before returning to China to work in a finance-related field.

She considers the French system more innovative than the one back in China, with its focus on mugging and passing exams.

She estimated that her living and travelling expenses added up to around 100,000 yuan (S$18,900) last year, as she toured France as well as Spain. She does not have to pay tuition fees at her university which, like other French public universities, does not charge for tuition.

As a comparison, her yearly expenses are nearly five times as much as what an average factory worker with a monthly wage of 2,000 yuan makes in a year.

Ms Xu plans to see Italy next.

Said her mother, Madam Wang Jihong, 47, who runs a wine trading business in Chongqing city, south-west China: 'We let her go overseas to study so that she can broaden her horizons and also get used to Western culture.'

She said she sees a difference in her daughter, who has grown in self-confidence since leaving home for her studies abroad. 'We were quite worried at first about whether she could cope, but she has done well and is among the top students.'

She has never pushed her daughter too hard, and has made it a point to let her choose what she wants to do.

'We don't want her to be like other children in China, who have to go learn so many things. It's so dreadful,' she added.

Chui Hechen's parents send him for extra classes, plus coaching in English with a foreign teacher.

Eye on good college from a young age

FROM as early as primary school, Harbin native Chui Hechen, 23, was clear about his goal in life. 'I just aimed to finish the gaokao and go to a good university. That was the ultimate aim,' he said, referring to China's college entrance examination.

He got what he wanted: a place at Tsinghua, China's equivalent of the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, where he completed a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, and is now reading for a master's.

His parents, both engineers, saw to it that he had a good start in the race for a place in the top colleges of the land.

'We have provided him with the best of what we can afford,' said his mother Zhang Li, of her only child.

They got him into the best kindergarten in Harbin, capital of north-eastern Heilongjiang province; they also saw to it that he had calligraphy, harmonica and English classes outside school.

Calligraphy lessons helped instil calm and focus in Hechen, said his mother.

Worried about his verbal command of English, she hired a wai jiao (foreign teacher) to coach him in the language when he was in junior high.

She would also help him with his homework whenever she had time to spare.

One set of extra-curricular classes that really paid off, she reckoned, is the maths olympiad classes that she signed him up for when he was in primary school.

'I feel that it helped stimulate the development of his intellect,' she said.

But there is more to it. In China, classes which prepare children for maths olympiads have become de rigeur for many middle-class families. Aceing these competitions means getting bonus points or even direct entry into top universities.<

Friday, August 26, 2011

Fasting for 10 years but jailed and forgotten

NEW DELHI: Irom Sharmila has been on hunger strike for 10 years to protest against military abuses, force-fed by tubes through her nose. But the tragedy for the world's longest hunger strike is that she is on the wrong side of India's digital divide.

Twitter, Facebook and aggressive private TV have helped rally India's biggest protests in decades to support civil activist Anna Hazare.

But Ms Sharmila, who has been on a hunger strike in the northeastern Manipur state to demand an end to the army's sweeping emergency powers there, has only managed a small following, a footnote in media coverage.

'We also once tried to take our fight to New Delhi... but we did not get support from the rest of the nation,' Ms Sharmila, 37, told Tehelka magazine. She was arrested soon after she began her fast in 2000, and has been kept in the jail ward of a hospital where she is force-fed.

She must be frustrated. The Hazare phenomenon has rallied Indians from the start with social media. Hazare's India Against Corruption website says it has had 13 million phone calls of support. Its Facebook page has nearly 500,000 'likes'.

Its leaders have tweeted each step of the whirlwind crisis, whether describing their arrests in real time or negotiations with the government, outmanoeuvring Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his ministers at every step.

Cases like that of Ms Sharmila expose the digital divide of Asia's third largest economy and underscore how a growing urban middle class may be getting its political voice heard while millions of poor remain off the digital protest map.

'This is the first time digital social media has resonated with such a large number of people,' said Mr Nishant Shah, head of research at the Centre for Internet and Society think-tank. 'But this is far more of a middle class, urban movement than a national movement. Many people in India are excluded from it.'

Twitter and Facebook are barely used in many of India's social causes, including battles over land rights that are one of India's most pressing problems, involving millions of farmers.

India's Internet users have grown 1,400 per cent between 2000 and 2010, behind only China and Vietnam among Asian countries, according to a report by Burson-Marsteller, a consulting firm.

But that masks India's low base. Internet penetration is around 8 per cent in India, the lowest among major Asian countries. That compares with nearly 40 per cent in China.

But some activists are already criticising Hazare as a hype of an elitist social media.

'Those thronging the Ramlila grounds or marching in support of Anna in the metros are not necessarily 'the people' of the country, and it is dangerous to take the two as identical,' academic Prabhat Patnaik wrote in The Hindu newspaper.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Bye, Steve

SAN FRANCISCO: Mr Steve Jobs, whose insistent vision that he knew what consumers wanted made Apple one of the world's most valuable and influential companies, is stepping down as chief executive.

'I have always said that if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple's CEO, I would be the first to let you know,' Mr Jobs said in a letter released by the company.

'Unfortunately, that day has come.'


Mr Jobs, 56, has been on medical leave since January, his third such absence. He underwent surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004 and received a liver transplant in 2009. As recently as a few weeks ago, however, he was negotiating business issues with another Silicon Valley executive.

Mr Jobs will become chairman, a position that did not exist before. Apple named Mr Tim Cook, its chief operating officer, to succeed Mr Jobs as CEO.

Rarely has a major company and industry been so dominated by a single individual, and so successful. His influence went far beyond the iconic personal computers that were Apple's principal product for its first 20 years.

In the past decade, Apple has re-defined the music business through the iPod, the cellphone business through the iPhone, and the entertainment and media world through the iPad.

Again and again, Mr Jobs gambled that he knew what the customer would want, and again and again he was right.

'The big thing about Steve Jobs is not his genius or his charisma but his extra-ordinary risk-taking,' said Mr Alan Deutschman, who wrote a biography of Mr Jobs.

'Apple has been so innovative because Jobs takes major risks, which is rare in corporate America. He doesn't market-test anything. It's all his own judgment and perfectionism and gut.'

Mr Tim Bajarin, president of the technology research firm Creative Strategies, said the news about Mr Jobs was 'a shock because it's abrupt'.

He stressed, however, that 'while there's definitely concern for Steve as a person', he had little concern for the company.

'Steve has built a very deep bench of managers, including the leadership of Tim Cook, who clearly understands Steve's vision, goals and direction,' said Mr Bajarin, who has followed Apple for 30 years.

Others were not so sure.

'You could make the case that Steve has injected so much of his DNA into Apple that Apple will continue,' said Mr Guy Kawasaki, who was an Apple executive in the late 1980s.

'Or you can make the case that without Steve, Apple will flounder. But you cannot make the case that Apple without Steve Jobs will be better. Hard to conceive of that.'

The technology world has never been short of strong-willed leaders (think Mr Bill Gates at Microsoft or Mr Larry Ellison at Oracle). But even in this select group, Mr Jobs was noted for the control he exerted and the loyalty he commanded. Without him, his devoted team might soon fracture.

'I think the key question is whether the Apple team will continue to work as effectively as a collaborative without the single person to rely on for the final decision,' said Mr Charles Golvin, a Forrester Research analyst.

The news of Mr Jobs' resignation came after the market closed on Wednesday. Last night, Apple fell as much as 3 per cent in opening trade on worries Mr Jobs' health had deteriorated further.

The early years of Apple long ago passed into legend: the two young hippie-ish founders, Mr Jobs and Mr Steve Wozniak; the introduction of the first Macintosh computer in 1984, which stretched the boundaries of what these devices could do; Mr Jobs' abrupt exit the next year in a power struggle.

It was his return to Apple as an adviser in 1996, however, that started a winning streak that raised the company from the near-dead to its current unmatched position.

When Mr Jobs returned, Apple had run up US$1.86 billion in losses over two years. It was 90 days away from bankruptcy, Mr Jobs would later say.

Apple stock surged 9,020 per cent since July 29, 1997, the day before the San Francisco Chronicle broke news that Mr Jobs would be interim CEO. Over that period, the market value rose to US$348.7 billion from $2.06 billion.

More than 314 million iPods, 129 million iPhones and 29 million iPads have been sold, according to Bernstein Research analyst A.M. Sacconaghi Jr.

This summer, Apple briefly exceeded Exxon Mobil as the most valuable US company.

Mr Jobs' resignation opens the door for rivals Samsung Electronics and HTC to battle for smartphone supremacy in salesrooms and courtrooms globally.

Taiwanese group HTC, led by another well-known industry figure, Mr Peter Chou, is seen by many as the most direct competitor to Apple. It has seen sales surge in the past few quarters and has a reputation for innovative flair.

Samsung's fortunes are most tied to Apple, both as a competitor and supplier of components. The group also has a scale and an ability to react quickly that is rare in the sector.

'The game is really now Samsung's to lose,' said Mr Mark Newman, a former director of strategy at Samsung, where he worked for six years.


The Anna Hazare phenomenon

WEEK ago, the name Anna Hazare would not have rung a bell with most people outside India. But since his arrest on Aug 16 - a day after India's independence day - and his ongoing, indefinite hunger strike in New Delhi demanding a strong anti-corruption authority in India, Mr Hazare has become a global name.

The controversy over a strong anti-corruption agency - or Lokpal as it is being called in India - has been brewing since April this year. That was when Mr Hazare, a former soldier turned activist, and his supporters staged a hunger strike for four days forcing the government to draft new legislation for a Lokpal, an idea that was mooted as far back as 1968 but had been shelved since. Mr Hazare and key members of his team were taken on board by the government to draft the new legislation, but they later walked out over some of the provisions of the Bill.

As the situation stands today, the government has placed a draft Lokpal Bill in Parliament which is being vetted by a parliamentary committee. But Mr Hazare and his team have disagreements with the version before Parliament. Some of their main objections are towards keeping the Indian Prime Minister, the conduct of MPs inside Parliament and the senior judiciary outside the ambit of the Lokpal.

Though corruption is widespread in India and can be traced back to the very first years of independent India, the magnitude of recent corruption scandals has brought the issue to centre stage. What began with allegations of corruption against the organisers of last year's Commonwealth Games in New Delhi was dwarfed by one of the biggest scams in independent India's history involving allotment of spectrum for wireless telephone services, which is estimated to have cost the Indian exchequer as much as US$40 billion (S$48 billion). Three Members of Parliament, including a federal minister, are in jail for their alleged involvement in the scams.

Mr Hazare's anti-graft campaign has tapped into the deep resentment among India's growing middle class against corruption and politicians, whom they see as venal and self-serving. For large numbers of India's middle class, Mr Hazare has emerged as a crusader on whom they have pinned their hopes of checking corruption. Though the anti-corruption protests have been concentrated mostly in metropolitan cities, the response in New Delhi has hardly been matched in other parts of India.

The scale of protests over the last few days has something to do with the Indian government's poor handling of the issue. The right to protest is fundamental to any democracy, and the government's decision to arrest Mr Hazare even before he began his hunger strike boomeranged. More people came out into the streets to protest than might have been the case had the hunger strike been allowed to proceed normally. The opposition parties, too, found it a handy stick with which to beat the government.

Several questions remain about Mr Hazare's movement and its solutions to tackle corruption. One is his method of resorting to a fast-unto-death to achieve his goal. Fasting to achieve political goals has a long history in India, going back to Mahatma Gandhi's numerous hunger strikes against colonial rule. But one needs to make a distinction between a hunger strike against a democratically elected government and one against an oppressive, foreign regime. Indeed, this distinction was made by the man who is known as the father of the Indian Constitution, Mr Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who believed that the Gandhian methods of fasts and civil obedience had no place in a constitutional democracy. Besides, the belief of Mr Hazare and his followers that they are the true representatives of India's more than 1.2 billion people and that they can dictate terms to an elected Parliament is very disturbing.

Second, it is unclear whether the sort of anti-corruption body with sweeping powers that Mr Hazare and his followers are proposing is desirable. In the name of tackling corruption, it would mean vesting incredible power into one institution, which has the potential of destroying the checks and balances of a democracy and undermining the very institutions that have struggled to strike root in India. The talk now is about corruption in high places and multibillion-dollar scams. What is much more difficult to tackle is the daily, endemic corruption that the average Indian faces - and is often complicit with - in dealing with government institutions and bureaucrats.

Third, the nature of Mr Hazare's movement is such - backed mostly by the middle class and relentlessly covered by the media - that it demands immediate solutions to the problem of corruption. It has no patience for the institutions, which despite many problems, are at the heart of Indian democracy.

Mr Hazare's movement was responsible for bringing back corruption to top of the agenda in India. It has also galvanised a large number of people, waving flags and spouting patriotic slogans, who are not known to take to the streets for political causes. But their belief that the Lokpal will be a one-time panacea for corruption in India is naive to say the least.

The writer is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ensuring health care is affordable for all

How do we determine if health care here is affordable for all? How can we keep it affordable in the future?
By Phua Kai Hong, For The Straits Times

THERE are several ways to measure the affordability of health care. These include tracking the inflation rates of medical expenditure through the consumer price index and monitoring household expenditure across different income groups, with particular attention paid to low-income households.

However, such surveys usually pick up only the average amount that families fork out for primary care. The population samples used may not capture the rarer and larger expenses for catastrophic illness and chronic care.


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Singapore has an impressive track record when it comes to keeping health expenditure low despite high economic growth. Health spending has been held at around 3 per cent to 4 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

But this will not be possible as the population ages and Singapore develops further as a medical hub providing high-quality and specialised services. It will be necessary to raise the national health expenditure to at least 5 per cent of GDP, and even more in the future.

To make sure that health care here stays affordable, adjustments will have to be made to keep up with inflation. But attention should also be paid to the schemes that finance health care, as well as subsidies and the transparency of the medical fee structure.

The Government on Monday announced an expansion in subsidies for outpatient care and some medication. This is a good start. In addition, the basic financing framework also needs updating.

While too frequent changes to the 3M - Medisave, MediShield and Medifund - and ElderShield schemes may confuse Singaporeans trying to work out which scheme will help them pay for what, these schemes should be tweaked more regularly to reflect changing medical practices and rising prices.

Take ElderShield, for instance. The scheme is meant to give basic financial protection to those who need long-term care. But increasing the monthly payouts from $300 to $400 will not help the severely disabled and their families much, when average nursing home costs in Singapore today range from over $1,000 to $5,000 a month.

The large out-of-pocket payments should gradually be reduced by strengthening the 3M system, especially the insurance components in MediShield and ElderShield. It may not be efficient to accumulate too much savings in Medisave. Perhaps the funds in Medisave could be used to pay higher premiums to boost ElderShield and MediShield, which helps to cover the expenses from major illnesses and disabilities.

Another area to consider is subsidies for the low-income group. This is achieved through heavily subsidised C-class beds and Medifund, which helps needy Singaporeans pay their medical bills.

The current system tempts hospitals into pushing patients into the higher-class, more expensive wards as this increases their revenue. But this may end up depleting patients' Medisave accounts.

There needs to be better allocative efficiency: correct pricing and subsidy levels for all bed classes, and an improved balance between paying and subsidised beds.

As for Medifund, the Government announced in February that it would raise the target size of the fund's endowment from $2 billion to $3 billion. However, it would be better to reduce the need for larger Medifund spending by focusing more on Medisave, MediShield and other parts of the health-care system.

The safety net is also widened by community hospitals and voluntary welfare organisations that provide step-down care. But they will increasingly need greater government subsidies as scarce labour and increasing demand push costs up.

Developing the health-care industry and medical tourism may bring economic benefits, but it also leads to higher prices. Thus, more social protection and financial aid programmes that help Singaporeans without creating a culture of welfare dependency may be needed.

Another way to ensure that health care stays affordable is to make the fee structure transparent.

Physician charges in the private sector can be rather arbitrary, especially after the Singapore Medical Association's schedule of fees was discarded in 2007.

How is the public to know the relative costs of complex medical procedures and judge the quality of clinical services? Are charges by doctors in the private sector monitored and reported like the average bill sizes of public hospitals are?

As the health-care industry develops, more may have to be done to protect the vulnerable members of society from its vagaries. Perhaps doctors should be required by law to declare their fees, with a display of prices as done in many developed countries, and censured for unreasonably high bills. But if this is too intrusive and difficult to administer, there may be a case for bringing back the old fee schedule that served us well in the past.

The writer teaches health and social policy at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, the National University of Singapore.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Gorbachev 'unhappy' with Russia, 20 years on

MOSCOW (AFP) - The Soviet Union's last leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Wednesday expressed sadness that Russia was 'going backwards', two decades after the coup that precipitated the collapse of the USSR. In a clear attack on the dominant political grouping of Vladimir Putin, Mr Gorbachev, 80, also warned that Russia should not repeat the mistake of the Soviet Union in being ruled by a monopoly. Russia on Friday marks 20 years since the Aug 19, 1991 coup by Soviet hardliners against Gorbachev's policy of reform which ended up hastening the demise of the entire USSR in December that year. 'In short, I am unhappy,' said Mr Gorbachev. 'We are ranked lowest, together with African countries' in terms of mortality rate, and 'half the numbers of people receive education compared with the post-war years,' Mr Gorbachev lamented. 'There must be rotation in the higher ranks,' he said in response to a question of who should be the next president. The 20th anniversary of the USSR's dissolution is set against an increasingly anxious atmosphere of uncertainty over who will be Russia's president for the next six years after polls next spring. Mr Gorbachev regularly criticises Vladimir Putin, who served as president after Boris Yeltsin from 2000, and is currently prime minister. However Mr Putin is the main decision maker in the country even after giving up the Kremlin seat to his protege Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. 'The renewal is not limited to Mr Putin or Mr Medvedev, there need to be honest elections,' Mr Gorbachev continued, but instead, 'we use administrative resources' and regions are ordered to provide a certain percentage for the right candidates. 'If the regime is doing everything to strengthen its power, these are signs of authoritarianism,' he said. Analysts have increasingly speculated that Mr Putin intends to return in the Kremlin and the prime minister has launched a broad-based United Civic Front to bring in supporters for his ruling United Russia party. 'The monopoly needs to be given up, we cannot repeat the Soviet Union's worst forms,' Mr Gorbachev said, calling the Front 'unacceptable'. Observers have compared the United Russia party with the Communist Party which had a complete monopoly over policy making in the Soviet Union for 80 years until it was outlawed by Yeltsin.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Stop coddling America's super-rich

OUR leaders have asked for 'shared sacrifice'. But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

By Warren E. Buffett

While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labours but are allowed to classify our income as 'carried interest', thereby getting a bargain 15 per cent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 per cent of their gain taxed at 15 per cent, as if they'd been long-term investors.

These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It's nice to have friends in high places.

Last year, my federal tax bill - the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf - was US$6,938,744 (S$8,379,500). That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 per cent of my taxable income - and that's a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 per cent to 41 per cent, and averaged 36 per cent.

If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine - most likely by a lot.

To understand why, you need to examine the sources of government revenue. Last year, about 80 per cent of these revenues came from personal income taxes and payroll taxes. The mega-rich pay income taxes at a rate of 15 per cent on most of their earnings, but pay practically nothing in payroll taxes. It's a different story for the middle class: Typically, they fall into the 15 per cent and 25 per cent income tax brackets, and then are hit with heavy payroll taxes to boot.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn't refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone - not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 per cent in 1976-77 - shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what's happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Since 1992, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of US$16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 per cent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to US$90.9 billion - a staggering US$227.4 million on average - but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 per cent.

The taxes I refer to here include only federal income tax, but you can be sure that any payroll tax for the 400 was inconsequential compared with income. In fact, 88 of the 400 in 2008 reported no wages at all, though every one of them reported capital gains. Some of my brethren may shun work, but they all like to invest. (I can relate to that.)

I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Many have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. Most wouldn't mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.

Twelve members of Congress will soon take on the crucial job of rearranging our country's finances. They've been instructed to devise a plan that reduces the 10-year deficit by at least US$1.5 trillion. It's vital, however, that they achieve far more than that. Americans are rapidly losing faith in the ability of Congress to deal with our country's fiscal problems. Only action that is immediate, real and very substantial will prevent that doubt from morphing into hopelessness. That feeling can create its own reality.

Job One for the 12 is to pare down some future promises that even a rich America can't fulfil. Big money must be saved here. The 12 should then turn to the issue of revenues. I would leave rates for 99.7 per cent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2 percentage point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.

But for those making more than US$1 million - there were 236,883 such households in 2009 - I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of US$1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more - there were 8,274 in 2009 - I would suggest an additional increase in rate.

My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It's time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.

The writer is chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Last hurrah for China's microblogs?

BEIJING: News of last month's deadly high-speed train collision in Wenzhou first broke on China's Twitter-like microblogs. The first 'reports', in fact, came from the passengers themselves. The accounts, which became increasingly emotional and angry as they spread through the microblogging community, intensified public criticism of the government and emboldened the traditional media to write hard-hitting reports. The July 23 rail crash marked a high point for these social media tools which are used by 195 million Chinese - or two-fifths of China's 485 million netizens - and are becoming a force for setting the news agenda. HO AI LI There are about half a dozen microblog providers in China, with Sina being the most influential, followed by Tencent. But will this be the last hurrah for microblogs, or weibo as they are called in Chinese? Already, there are signs that control over these services may be tightened; the less optimistic fear that they may even be shut down. Ten days after the crash, Sina started deleting posts related to the accident, causing terms like 'Railway Ministry' or 'victims' to disappear overnight from its list of most commonly cited words, noted Shanghai-based consultancy RedTech Advisors in its latest report. Last week, state broadcaster CCTV ran a news item that looked at untruths and rumours on weibo. 'What is the moral bottom line of microblogs?' it asked. The broadcaster cited cases in which people went on weibo pretending to be accident victims to ask for donations and also highlighted the work of an online watchdog group called the 'anti-rumour league' or piyao lianmeng. The issue of rumours on weibo has been discussed prominently in the past few days in state newspapers like People's Daily and China Youth Daily. Observers say there are certainly legitimate concerns about the accuracy of information shared on microblogs. 'But the recent language in official media attacking microblogs as a source of rumour is largely politically driven, a reflection of the insecurity some Chinese leaders feel about the implications of social media,' said media expert David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong. 'If the real concern was truth and accuracy, the answer would be to open up coverage of stories like the Wenzhou collision, allowing increasingly professionally minded Chinese media to report without restrictions,' he added. Commentators and investigative journalists reported receiving calls from Sina weibo asking them to censor their posts during this sensitive period, blogger Beifeng told German radio Deutsche Welle. He compared CCTV's attack against weibo to its diatribe against Google last year and saw it as a clear sign that Beijing was planning to clamp down on microblogs. If Sina weibo, the most popular and influential microblogging site in China, is closed down, it will not be the first. In 2009, a Chinese Facebook clone, fanfou, was shut down after it was found to have been used by activists to spread information about riots in Xinjiang in north-west China. The Chinese authorities have blocked the use of foreign social media like Facebook and Twitter in the country for fear that these might be used to organise protests. Still, most analysts do not think the chances of a shutdown are high, though a tightening of controls seems inevitable. 'The government won't be stupid enough to do so. Cancelling weibo is equal to cancelling the right of the people to monitor officials, which means corruption will worsen,' said Professor Hu Xingdou of Beijing Institute of Technology. Microblogs are a tool for monitoring officials' behaviour and stem corruption. It would bring Beijing only harm and no benefit to shut them down, Prof Hu added. Not that the officials themselves are necessarily agreed on what to do about weibo, according to analysts. 'The possibility (of a shutdown) is not big, with officials from different departments having differing views,' Professor Zhan Jiang of the Beijing Foreign Studies University told The Straits Times. Some departments are conservative, others are liberal. Even within departments, there are differences, Prof Zhan said. Indeed, CCTV launched its broadside against weibo just as a commentary in state newspaper People's Daily urged officials to embrace new media and learn to speak the lingo of netizens. The popularity of microblogging sites also means that there is likely to be a strong backlash if they are closed down. The backlash may go beyond borders, as the weibo community grows more globalised and plays host to foreign embassies and celebrities as well as the likes of the United Nations. Beijing is also unlikely to jettison the commercial success of its Internet sector by forcing the closure of weibo. For instance, Internet portal Sina has seen its stock and traffic rise on the strength of its weibo. In Sina's case, its strong political connections will ensure that the weibo continues to operate. 'Sina is one of the most trusted Internet companies in China, if not the most trusted by the Chinese government,' said Mr Bill Bishop, a Beijing-based Internet investor and analyst. So much so that its executive vice- president Chen Tong could boast in February that the chances of Sina weibo being closed down would be zero for the next 20 years. Analysts say that tightening control is a more likely scenario. For instance, the Chinese authorities could make it compulsory for microbloggers to register using their real names, noted Prof Hu. Chinese search giant Baidu initially required users of its microblog service to use their real names, but stopped doing so after failing to attract users. Others say the authorities may go after vocal opinion leaders and delay the transmission of their sensitive posts to curb their influence and reach. As the number of weibo users continues to balloon, it would be difficult for the authorities to beef up controls beyond getting state media to wage an anti-rumour war against weibo, said Prof Zhan. What the authorities definitely will not do is sit around and do nothing. 'Since so many people are scared, doing nothing is not possible,' said Prof Hu. With additional reporting by Carol Feng

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Indonesian 'was paid to kick cow for footage'

SYDNEY: An Indonesian abattoir worker was paid to kick a cow in the head to provide footage of animal cruelty that helped to stop the live animal trade with Australia in June, a politician said yesterday. Animal rights activists rejected the allegation, which was made as a shipment of cattle prepared to leave port for Indonesia for the first time since the graphic images were shown in late May. Liberal Senator Chris Back, previously a veterinary surgeon for 40 years, said in a Senate hearing in Canberra that a worker accepted money to brutalise the cow. He said a reliable source who had visited the abattoir in Sumatra in western Indonesia told him that a foreign man and woman and a taxi driver had gone to the abattoir and offered the worker 150,000 rupiah (S$21) to kick the beast. He added that the driver was used by Animals Australia, which obtained the footage, the Brisbane Times news site reported. 'He kicked it a number of times and then stopped. They asked him to keep going and he did,' he said. Australia suspended the live animal trade to Indonesia after footage of the cruelty was broadcast on state television. Mr Back said the worker was beaten and his wife raped for the loss of work. But Animals Australia, an animal protection group, dismissed the allegations as 'very offensive'. 'The story you told about payment for deliberate cruelty is just so outrageous that the further suggestions that he's been ostracised, beaten, and his wife raped should be taken in the same sense,' its communications director Lyn White told the hearing. Mr Back later said he accepted that Ms White had no knowledge of any payments, but told reporters he understood the driver paid money to slaughtermen in at least two abattoirs 'so that the footage would be obtained'. The first shipment of cattle approved under a strict new licensing scheme was due to leave the northern port of Darwin in Australia for Indonesia yesterday. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Status symbol for China's rich: (fake) Mistresses

BEIJING: Mr Jian, a 42-year-old property developer in the booming southern metropolis of Shenzhen, had acquired just about everything men of his socio-economic class covet: a Mercedes-Benz, a sprawling antique jade collection and a lavishly appointed duplex for his wife and daughter. It was only natural then, he said, that two years ago he took up another costly pastime: a beguiling 20-year-old art major whose affections cost him about US$6,000 (S$7,300) a month. Mr Jian, who asked that his full name be withheld lest it endanger his 20-year marriage, cavorts with his young co-ed in a secret apartment he owns, a price he willingly pays for the modern equivalent of a concubine. 'Keeping a mistress is just like playing golf,' he said. 'Both are expensive hobbies.' BACKGROUND STORY PRICE OF PLEASURE 'Keeping a mistress is just like playing golf... Both are expensive hobbies.' Mr Jian, a 42-year-old property developer in Shenzhen who has a 20-year-old mistress As China sheds its chaste communist mores for the wealth and indulgences of a market-oriented economy, the boom has bred a generation of nouveau-riche lotharios yearning to rival the sexual conquests of their imperial ancestors. Even the Chinese term for mistress - er nai, or second wife - harks back to that polygamous tradition of yore. Judging from the embarrassing revelations that have emerged in recent months, such arrangements appear to be commonplace among corporate titans, rags-to-riches entrepreneurs and government officials whose inordinate and sometimes ill-gotten gains can maintain one or more lovers - many of whom are sustained through stipends, furnished apartments and luxury sports cars. But these relationships - and their sometimes messy devolutions - have ignited a growing backlash as the public stews over the incessant tales of morally compromised officials, greedy lovers and vengeful wives regularly splashed across newspapers and published on the Internet - unless censors get to them first. Last month, Xu Maiyong, the former vice-mayor of the capital of Zhejiang province, Hangzhou, was executed for bribery and embezzlement worth more than US$30 million. Nicknaming him 'Plenty Xu', the Chinese press reported that he had kept dozens of mistresses. A few weeks before, a Jiangsu province official and his mistress were caught making detailed plans for a hotel rendezvous on microblog Sina Weibo, mistakenly believing their messages were private. In February, former railway minister Liu Zhijun, 58, was removed from his post after news reports said he had embezzled US$152 million over the years. But a leaked directive from the Central Propaganda Bureau revealed a more salacious side: 'All media are not to report or hype the news that Liu Zhijun had 18 mistresses.' A month earlier, the mistress of a party official in Guangdong province sentenced to death in a US$4.5 million bribery scandal was herself jailed over the Land Rover and property she had received from him. And in one of the most shocking cases, an official in Hubei province was detained in December on suspicion of strangling his mistress - then pregnant with twins - and dumping her body in a river after she demanded he marry her or pay US$300,000, according to media reports. The phenomenon has been an official concern for some time now. In 2007, China's top prosecutor's office said that 90 per cent of the country's most senior officials felled by corruption scandals in previous years had kept mistresses. Faced with a spate of legal disputes between mistresses and their lovers over money, and with growing public disgust, the Communist Party is trying to staunch the mistress tide through carrots and sticks aimed at men and women alike. The Supreme People's Court has considered a draft interpretation of the country's marriage law that would for the first time acknowledge mistresses, stating that they have no legal right to their patron's money, property and expensive trinkets, legal experts said. Likewise, married men would not be able to use the courts to regain the cash and other niceties they had lavished in affairs gone bad. To combat the growing lure of the sugar daddy, some local governments have preached against moral turpitude and encouraged young women to rely on less carnal skills to survive. To that end, officials in Guangdong announced in March that from later this year, girls in elementary and middle school will have to take a new course in 'self-esteem, self-confidence, self-reliance and self-improvement'. Such efforts are inspired by what many see as a ballooning moral crisis. Indeed, an entire industry has sprung up luring young women with promises of sexually oriented shortcuts to success. In April, Beijing police broke up a 'college concubine agency' that claimed to connect university students with wealthy admirers for up to US$100,000 a year. 'Walk around Beijing and what do you see? 'Buy a new Audi, look at this Rolex, you need some clothes from Gucci,'' said law professor Zhou Guanquan from Tsinghua University. 'Such things are simply unaffordable, but becoming a mistress can solve this problem.' NEW YORK TIMES

First fake branded bags, now fake vintage wines

BEIJING: Long known for fake designer handbags and watches, China is now battling a flood of counterfeit vintage wine amid growing zest for bottles from famed wineries as a sign of social standing. With average consumption of just one litre per citizen per year, China may not have an age-old wine tradition, but it is catching up fast and is expected to become the world's sixth-largest wine consumer by 2014. 'A good wine shows a person has a high social status,' said Mr Wang Li, who is learning wine tasting in Beijing. Wine from France is considered top-notch. Last year, China and Hong Kong became the largest consumers of Bordeaux wines, while Chinese investors have bought several wineries in the area over the past three years. Many rich Chinese are willing to pay as much as 50,000 yuan (S$9,500) for a bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1982, from the Bordeaux winery of the same name, which is hugely popular in China. Counterfeiters have jumped into this lucrative market and French wine has become one of the main victims of China's growing love for a tipple. Fakes are 'everywhere, from bottom-to top-of-the-range', Mr Romain Vandevoorde, head of wine importer Le Baron, told Agence France-Presse. 'There is more Lafite '82 in China than was produced in France. So you really have to be wary if you find any of that in China.' Experts say it is difficult to estimate the impact of counterfeits on China's wine sector. The price range in fake wine varies from 90 yuan to as much as 35,000 yuan for an exceptional vintage. At wine fairs in China, some merchants have no qualms about openly exhibiting counterfeit wine bottles. Supermarkets and shops - where most Chinese go to buy wine due to a lack of specialist wine cellars - are also full of fakes. Counterfeits include bottles of Bordeaux wine that have been diluted with sugared water and had colouring agents and artificial flavourings added, before being sold for exorbitant prices. Good vintage wines going for unusually low prices with brand-new labels are a warning sign, as are bottles marked 'La-ffite' or 'Lafitte' - mispellings of the famous Bordeaux winery. But 'there are much more upmarket copies, much better made, generally by re-using Grand Cru bottles', said Mr Vandevoorde. Empty bottles have also sparked a roaring trade, and are available online in China. He said people fill the bottles with lower-quality wine from Bordeaux that is more or less the same vintage as that advertised on the label. 'There are also troubling mixtures that mislead even the best wine tasters - they're very good copies,' he added. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MP sorry for using phone during Anthem

MEMBER of Parliament Penny Low apologised yesterday after she was caught on camera fiddling with her mobile phone while the National Anthem was being sung. The Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP explained that she had merely 'wanted to capture that moment of pride'. She has been criticised after screenshots of her using her phone at the National Day Parade were recorded in a live telecast and later circulated online. By Huang Lijie Many Internet users were disappointed that she did not stand to attention during the Anthem, saying she set a poor example as a parliamentarian. There was also speculation about why she was using her phone during the Anthem and netizens who defended her suggested she might have had to attend to an extremely urgent matter. The furore spilled onto her Facebook account, where she posted the apology. She wrote: 'I was so caught up in the wonderful NDP 2011 and felt so proud of being a Singaporean, that I wanted to capture that moment of pride, at the very tail end of the Anthem, to share on Facebook with my residents. If in my enthusiasm I offended anyone, please accept my apologies. NDP is a time to unite not divide. Majulah Singapura!' Her apology attracted more than 290 comments on her Facebook page. Some were sympathetic, while others questioned her sincerity. The National Anthem was sung twice during the parade - once at 7.03pm when the Chinook helicopter flew the state flag across The Float@Marina Bay and again at 8.13pm during the finale where fireworks lit up the sky. Ms Low was shown using her phone during the finale and her Facebook account has a picture of the fireworks display posted around that time. The Singapore Arms and Flag and National Anthem Rules state that when the National Anthem is performed or sung, everyone present shall stand up as a mark of respect. Civil servant K.H. Ang, 37, who was at the parade ground, was sympathetic to Ms Low. He said: 'I can understand why she did it because I also snapped a picture or two during the Anthem. In fact, many others around me did the same because it was such an exciting moment. 'And it doesn't mean that because we snapped a photo during the Anthem, we don't love or respect the country.' Despite Ms Low's apology, some remain unhappy about her behaviour. Staff nurse Vasanthi Velu, 41, who was a spectator at The Float@Marina Bay, said: 'I saw other people snapping away during the Anthem but they are members of the public, not people we look up to as role models.' Public relations consultant S.K. Ho said: 'Her intention may have been good, I wouldn't doubt it. But what she did was not appropriate for a figure in the public eye.' The 47-year-old added: 'I was at home watching the parade with friends and even we stood at attention during the Anthem.' But safety office Suppiah Anba, 44, is ready to forgive and forget. He said: 'It was a small mistake and I believe her apology is sincere. People need to move on.'

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Berlin keen to preserve once hated wall

BERLIN: Fifty years after its loathed wall went up, Berlin is gripped by a renewed desire to preserve the few remaining traces of the dark chapter of its division and bring history to life for visitors. Of the 155km of wall which made East Berliners prisoners of their own country, there is little more than 3km left - a heritage the authorities are now keen to protect. 'In the early 1990s, 90 per cent of Berliners were desperate to get rid of the wall,' Mr Rainer Klemke, a city government cultural affairs officer, said ahead of the 50th anniversary of its construction on Saturday. He recalls that initial euphoria drove much of the destruction, as well as a fear that the border could be closed again if the wall was still there. 'Then in the 2000s, Berliners began asking what happened,' he said. This gave rise to the Berlin Wall Plan. 'The idea was to divide up the wall sites in a thematic way,' Mr Klemke, who piloted the project said. These included Checkpoint Charlie, the famous Cold War border crossing that saw a stand-off of Soviet and American tanks in October 1961; the Brandenburg Gate, which stands for national unity; and Bernauer Strasse, the site of several dramatic escapes from the communist state. Since 2006, pedestrians have been able to trace the former border along a demarcated path called the Mauerweg. A Berlin Wall smartphone application to guide history enthusiasts has also been developed. Mr Klemke is upbeat about the prospects for keeping memories alive. 'It remains a symbol of hope for all oppressed peoples that translates around the world.' AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Monday, August 08, 2011

Kashgar's changing, but scars remain

KASHGAR: The call to prayer echoes across the old Silk Road city of Kashgar, drawing believers into the main mosque under the watchful eyes of armed police, as building cranes loom in the distance. It is the end of a day of fasting in this old trading post between the East and the West - a remote city in north-western China's Xinjiang region that is reeling from recent deadly attacks that laid bare long-standing ethnic tensions. Undaunted, the authorities are pressing ahead with plans to turn the restive city into a modern economic powerhouse - to the dismay of many of the mainly Muslim Uighur minority, who fear it will have serious repercussions for them. 'This Kashgar is a new Kashgar. It is no longer an old city. Our culture is gone,' said a 24-year-old Uighur shopkeeper who refused to be named. The Chinese communist government said the 7 billion yuan (S$1.3 billion) project aims to improve the living standards of inhabitants of the old city, where it said many of the insalubrious houses would topple in an earthquake. 'Kashgar is located in a seismic zone, so it is important that all houses are earthquake-safe. Our (new) houses can withstand an 8-magnitude earthquake,' said Mr Aysajan Ahat, an official in charge of the project. But Uighurs who live there pointed out that the old buildings have stood firm for hundreds of years. Elsewhere in the city, high-rise buildings are springing up everywhere. A scale model of what planners want the city to look like - on display at an exhibition - shows the old town surrounded by a sea of modern tower blocks. Last year, the government designated Kashgar as a special economic zone, keen to boost investment in a city that stands at the crossroads of central and southern Asia. It wants to push the city's annual gross domestic product growth rate, which already exceeds 20 per cent, to 25 per cent over the next nine years, and plans to increase the population from the current 600,000 to a million by 2030. Already, migrants from other parts of China - many of them members of the majority Han ethnic group - have moved to Kashgar, lured by the prospect of making money in the fast-growing city. Mr Wu Shushuang, 26, who sells steel products, is originally from the eastern province of Anhui, but ended up in Kashgar this year after making his way west from Shanghai. 'I make 20,000 yuan a month compared with just 2,000 yuan before,' he said. But this influx has fuelled resentment among Xinjiang's roughly eight million Uighurs, many of whom complain that Han Chinese get better jobs and pay. They also say that traditional Uighur culture is being diluted deliberately. 'Some Uighurs go to university, they graduate, come back and can't find jobs. These all go to the Han. And even when they do find jobs, their salaries are low,' one Uighur man said. This resentment has spilled over into bloody violence, almost always directed at Han Chinese or security forces. In July 2009, mobs of Uighurs attacked Han Chinese in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, and Han Chinese retaliated. Nearly 200 died. And on July 30-31, ethnic tensions once again burst to the fore when at least 20 people were killed in two attacks in Kashgar, which is about 90 minutes' flying time from Urumqi. The Chinese government blames much of the violence in Xinjiang on separatist forces, but some experts said there is little evidence that organised terrorist groups operate in the region, adding that unrest stems from economic frustrations. Many Uighurs do not speak Mandarin and have low levels of education. Two of the suspects allegedly involved in the recent attacks in Kashgar, for instance, did not get past primary school. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Saturday, August 06, 2011

When 'an eye for an eye' is best justice

Polls suggest that most people around the world support the death penalty, especially for those deemed the 'worst of the worst', like Norwegian killer Anders Behring Breivik. By Thane Rosenbaum NORWAY, a nation far removed from the wickedness of the world, is now facing one of its greatest moral challenges: what to do with Anders Behring Breivik, the man who has confessed to massacring 76 people, many of them children. Norway does not allow for capital punishment, and the longest prison sentence he can receive there is 21 years. A country of such otherwise good fortune and peaceful intention is now unprepared - legally and morally - to deal with such a monstrous atrocity. The United States, unfortunately, is much more familiar with this problem. Americans have spent several recent weeks in a vengeful fury over the acquittal of Casey Anthony, who partied for an entire month while her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, was supposedly missing but might have actually been murdered - by Anthony. Many believe that Caylee was denied justice; her mother, meanwhile, has been released from prison and remains hidden in an undisclosed location, largely to protect her from vigilante justice. The inadequacy of legal justice is one thing, its outright failure is quite another. But in both cases the attraction of a non-legal alternative is a powerful one. Are these vengeful feelings morally appropriate? The answer is yes - because the actual difference between vengeance and justice is not as great as people think. It's difficult to have honest conversations about revenge. Seeing someone receive his just deserts often feels righteous and richly deserved, and yet society regards vengeance as primitive and barbaric. Governments warn citizens not to take justice into their own hands, insisting that the state alone has the duty and right to punish wrongdoers - pursuant to the social contract. As a result, most people hesitate to frame their anguish in terms of revenge. Some, however, are more forthright, proclaiming a moral duty to avenge, especially when the law fails and breaches its part of the social contract. Next month, Michael Woodmansee, who in 1975 gruesomely murdered Jason Foreman, a five-year-old, is scheduled to be released from prison after serving only 28 years of a 40-year sentence. Rhode Island, where he was convicted and sentenced, has an 'earned time' law, which shortens prison sentences for criminals like Woodmansee who work prison jobs while incarcerated. Mr John Foreman, the boy's father, now faces the prospect of bumping into his son's murderer in their small town. On learning of Woodmansee's impending parole, Mr Foreman said: 'If this man is released anywhere in my vicinity, or if I can find him after the fact, I do intend to kill this man.' Such statements of unvarnished revenge make many uncomfortable. But how different is revenge from justice, really? Every legal system, however dispassionate and procedural, must still pass the gut test of seeming morally just; and revenge must always be just and proportionate. That is what the biblical phrase 'eye for an eye' means. Justice requires that no less than an eye can be taken in retaliation for a lost eye, but no more than an eye either. Despite the stigma of vengeance, it's as natural to the human species as love and sex. In art and culture, everyone roots for the avenger, and audiences will settle for nothing less than a proper payback - whether it comes from Hamlet, or from the emotionally wounded avengers in Gladiator, Braveheart or Unforgiven. Recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have claimed that human beings are hard-wired for vengeance. In threatening the man who slaughtered his son, Mr Foreman is saying that he doesn't believe that the debt Woodmansee owes to society, and to him personally, has been satisfied. The wrongdoer has grossly underpaid for his crime and the score remains unsettled. There are cases, of course, when a parent's grief is, though not assuaged, more satisfyingly addressed. A doctor in Connecticut, Dr William A. Petit Jr, experienced this when one of the men who raped and strangled his wife, and then sexually assaulted one of his daughters before setting fire to the house with Dr Petit's two daughters tied to their beds, was sentenced to death. After the jury's verdict, Dr Petit said: 'I'm glad for the girls that there was justice.' Make no mistake: When he speaks of justice here, he means that his daughters have been avenged. Many believe that in such cases, capital punishment is appropriate because it comes closest to avenging victims. Norwegians may be contemplating this very idea. Polls suggest that the majority of people around the world support the death penalty, especially for wrongdoers deemed the 'worst of the worst'. Certainly Breivik qualifies for that distinction. Legal systems should punish the guilty commensurate with their crimes and recognise a moral duty to satisfy the needs of victims to feel avenged. Plea bargains invariably shortchange this settling of scores - which is why, practical difficulties aside, they should be used only sparingly (and always with the victim's participation). And allowing the guilty to walk free because of procedural errors - or because of the ambiguities of 'reasonable doubt', as in the case of Casey Anthony - invites vigilante justice. Neither justice nor revenge is negotiable. Getting even is not complicated arithmetic. A just outcome in Norway, however, given the number of young lives taken, will doubtless be unsatisfying. Casey Anthony watchers will resign themselves to accepting the jury's verdict and await the next celebrity trial. And Mr John Foreman, the aggrieved father with the anguish of a debt still unpaid, is left to count the days. The writer is a law professor at Fordham University in the United States, and author of The Myth Of Moral Justice. NEW YORK TIMES

Friday, August 05, 2011

Mother bear kills cub and then itself

The Chinese media has reported on an extraordinary account of a mother bear saving her cub from a life of torture by strangling it and then killing itself. The bears were kept in a farm located in a remote area in the North-West of China. The bears on the farm had their gall bladders milked daily for 'bear bile,' which is used as a remedy in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). It was reported that the bears are kept in tiny cages known as 'crush cages', as the bears have no room to manoeuvre and are literally crushed. The bile is harvested by making a permanent hole or fistula in the bears' abdomen and gall bladder. As the hole is never closed, the animals are suspect to various infections and diseases including tumours, cancers and death from peritonitis. The bears are fitted with an iron vest, as they often try to kill themselves by hitting their stomach as they are unable to bear the pain. A person who was on the farm in place of a friend witnessed the procedures and told that they were inhumane. The witness also claimed that a mother bear broke out its cage when it heard its cub howl in fear before a worker punctured its stomach to milk the bile. The workers ran away in fear when they saw the mother bear rushing to its cub's side. Unable to free the cub from its restraints, the mother hugged the cub and eventually strangled it. It then dropped the cub and ran head-first into a wall, killing itself. Many TCM practitioners have denounced the use of bear bile in their treatment as there are cheaper herbs and synthetics that can be used in its place. Bear bile is traditionally used to remove 'heat' from the body as well as treat high fever, liver ailments and sore eyes.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Understanding the paradox of capitalism

What is meant by the 'cultural contradictions of capitalism', or the 'paradox of capitalism'?

THESE two themes are related, but not identical. The Cultural Contradictions Of Capitalism is the title of a celebrated 1976 book by American scholar Daniel Bell. One of its key insights has been concisely summarised by author Eric Liu in a Sept 24, 2010 article in The Atlantic magazine. This is the view that 'a self-denying work ethic leads to the affluence that gives rise to self-gratifying play ethic that ends up corroding the affluence'.
Another writer, Tracy Mehan III, writes that 'work, sobriety, frugality and sexual restraint' are some values that have come under assault from the 'play ethic'.
The notion of a paradox in capitalist systems is summed up well by University of Illinois economist Salim Rashid: 'The paradox of capitalism is that it is a system ostensibly based on self-interest yet wholly dependent on non-economic morals and values for its success.'
Referring to the enforcement of property rights, for example, he points out that 'before capitalism - a system of greedy individuals pursuing their self-interest - is to function, we need a set of judges who are individuals not motivated by greed'.
One common theme in both ideas of the contradiction or paradox of capitalism is that self-interest may generate economic activity, but that society needs limits to self-interested behaviour in order to function optimally.
The pursuit of greed, or self-interest, can become especially unhealthy in situations of 'asymmetric information', in which one party to a transaction has superior information to the other.
Such situations are pervasive in modern economies. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals, for example, are generally much better-informed about their respective areas of work than are their lay clients. If motivated by greed, they could well use their superior information to their advantage.
So also are chief executive officers of large firms vis-a-vis their shareholders (especially if the latter are many and dispersed), politicians vis-a-vis their constituents, regulators vis-a-vis the general public, principals and teachers vis-a-vis their students, and so on.
The previously stated discussion points to the dangers of seeking to run a society, including its economy, largely through the use of material incentives, which inherently appeals to self-interest.
Self-interest, applied in social engineering, may well become progressively accentuated over time. This will inevitably end up corroding the social and moral fabric of society, undermining its social and economic health over the long term.
But there is an alternative point of view. This states that self-interest need not play a significant role even in narrowly 'economic' transactions. The great Japanese entrepreneur Konosuke Matsushita once observed that profits 'should not be a reflection of corporate greed', but rather are useful as 'a vote of confidence from society that what is offered by the firm is valued'.
Some will argue that companies with community values beyond profit-seeking motives will do better over the long run than companies narrowly focused on the bottom line.
These days, a more active citizenry and civil society, expressing themselves through a wide range of media outlets, can help to identify and keep in check the unhealthy and extreme pursuit of self-interest across a wide range of activities in modern societies.
There is also a need for education and awareness of the limits of the prevailing capitalist system. Schools, religious bodies, enlightened political parties and the media all have fundamental responsibilities in this regard.
The writer is a professor of economics and director of the Singapore Centre for Applied and Policy Economics, Department of Economics, at the National University of Singapore.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Is Beijing losing patience with Pakistan?

NEW DELHI: China's recent complaint that the unrest in Xinjiang was perpetrated by terrorists trained in Pakistan underscores the public manifestation of a nightmare whose origins go back to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, more than 20 years ago.

China concerned about lack of action taken against Uighur terrorists

By Ravi Velloor, South Asia Bureau Chief

At the time, Uighur nationalists trained in Pakistan and funded by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency using Saudi money were part of the mujahideen resistance that ultimately won in the vital landlocked nation straddling Central and South Asia.
Extremism has been on the rise in central Asia since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, two years after the Russian army was forced out of Afghanistan. Ever since then, the key Central Asian states that gained independence as a result have witnessed a revival of their Islamic roots.
It is little wonder then that Xinjiang, home to the Uighurs, is also affected. And it doesn't help Beijing that these restless souls, mostly all Muslim, can draw upon a Uighur diaspora outside China.
Mr Ahmed Rashid, one of the foremost scholars of the region, says Uighurs have trained and fought with Afghan mujahideen since 1986. He points out that in the past, Chinese officials have said that arms and explosives used by the rebels against Chinese security forces have come from Afghanistan. Beijing's response was to keep a wary eye on the phenomenon and hope for the best. It stayed clear of the Afghan civil war until 12 years ago, when it began making approaches to the Taleban in order to get its help to control the Afghan heroin flowing into Xinjiang, where money from the illicit trade was fuelling extremism among Muslims.
Uighurs have been showing up on the terrorists' map for more than a decade, with some featuring in the list of those held by the US at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba after the Sept 11 attacks.
According to South Asian intelligence specialists, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (Etim), now in the spotlight over Xinjiang, is believed to have ties with Al-Qaeda.
Etim cadres sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, whose numbers are placed at anywhere between 100 and 1,000 men, are said to receive training in the North Waziristan area of Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or Fata.
Beijing has given Pakistan more than US$300 million (S$360 million) to beef up its counter-terrorism capability. While Islamabad has tried to accommodate Chinese concerns and hunt down Etim elements, it has not always been successful. One reason is that in areas such as the Fata, tribal leaders often have more influence than the state, and their protection gives terrorist elements a near-invincible shield.
Besides, in some areas of the Pakistan-Afghan border, the terrain is so hostile that no expeditionary force can possibly hunt down a band of determined guerillas holed out there. Even so, two years ago, Pakistan managed to track down 10 Etim figures and hand them to China.
As recently as May, Beijing was still patient with its 'all-weather friend' Pakistan. When US Navy Seals hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden, there was much finger-pointing around the world and talk of Pakistani perfidy. Many were asking: How could the most wanted terrorist have lived on the doorstep of a military cantonment without coming to notice?
At the time, China stood up to defend Pakistan. But, of late, its misgivings have clearly mounted. It may also be worried that the Pakistani state is far too weakened by the multiplicity of challenges it is faced with. By going public about terrorists trained on Pakistani soil, Beijing was signalling two things this week. First, it showed how sensitive it had become on Xinjiang and, perhaps, how worried it now is.
Second, Beijing seems to be past caring that Pakistan maintains close ties with the Afghan Taleban as a deliberate strategy to influence events in Kabul and as counter pressure against Indian influence in Afghanistan. It now wants Islamabad to act, and to act now against any group with links to Etim, and has conveyed the depth of its feelings in unambiguous terms.
Pakistan can possibly live without the US, but it cannot risk its China relationship catching a cold. Little wonder that Lieutenant-General Shuja Pasha, head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, reportedly travelled to China over the weekend.