Friday, September 30, 2011

Must Chinese S'poreans support China's rise?

AS A journalist who writes on military and geopolitical affairs, I have written many commentaries on the implications of China's growth and concurrent military development. These draw responses - sometimes angry ones - from readers and Chinese officials.
By William Choong, Senior Writer

Earlier this month, I wrote about the United States' so-called AirSea Battle concept that would offset China's military power. I argued that if such a strategy resulted in the US reducing its presence in Asia, it would be bad news for many Asian countries, given growing Chinese assertiveness.

An irate reader berated me: 'Who are you? Are you an Angst Mor (sic) or what? Are you not born to Chinese parents? Do you not have Chinese roots?'

Earlier this year, at a seminar in Beijing on arms control, I asked a Chinese academic to explain just what China understood by the phrase 'military transparency'. A Chinese diplomat took umbrage at this and asked: 'Whose question is this? I wonder (about) his identity. This question should have come from North America or Western Europe.'

Should a writer on world issues who happens to be ethnically Chinese, think along racial lines? To cut to the chase, should he be more welcoming and less questioning about China's rise?

The answer is clearly 'no'.

Beijing at various times in its history may choose to celebrate the kinship and ethnic links between mainland Chinese and their global diaspora estimated to number 50 million, termed huaqiao or overseas Chinese. Much was made, for example, of the new US ambassador to China Gary Locke's Chinese origin, even though he was born in the US and is an American citizen. No one except the naive would assume from his ethnicity that he would be less likely to be a vigorous champion of American interests vis-a-vis China.

China itself practises a double standard when it comes to treating huaqiao. Initially, Beijing warmed to the idea of Mr Gao Xingjian winning the 2000 Nobel Prize in literature. But its reception turned frosty when Mr Gao, who became a French national in 1997, was described as a Chinese political dissident.

Huaqiao should not expect to get any special treatment in China. China scholars note that two prominent huaqiao - Australian mining executive Stern Hu and American geologist Xue Feng - were detained for various reasons in China, and their treatment was less than ideal.

China - and modern nations - may not have been party to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. But China and Singapore, and most countries today, understand that in a global order founded on the nation-state, national interest trumps ethnicity.

Two years ago, netizens in China chose to be unhappy with remarks made by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, when he said the US should remain engaged in Asia to 'strike a balance' vis-a-vis China.

Speaking to Asahi Shimbun newspaper later, Mr Lee said: 'I am saying what I am saying not because I am Chinese or because I am anti-China, but because I represent Singapore, and this is in my national interest - that there should be a balance in the Pacific.'

In the book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, he stressed that there was a clear distinction between mainland Chinese and their Singaporean cousins. 'Are we Chinese? Yes, ethnically. Can we sit down with the Chinese and really feel part of them? Not possible. Because you speak Chinese? No. Your major premises are in your mind.'

This is not to say that ethnic Chinese should not feel a sense of kinship with China. Beijing's success in hosting the 2008 Olympics for example, was celebrated by many Chinese of all nationalities worldwide. Many ethnic Chinese also want to go to China, if only to see for themselves what the land of their ancestors has become.

But sentiments aside, it would be a foolish diplomat or trade negotiator, who lets race colour his view of just what is in the national interest.

And it would be a very foolish - and not credible - journalist who lets his race shape his assessment of global trends.

Al-Qaeda slams Iran PM's 9/11 conspiracy theories

NEW YORK: Al-Qaeda has a message for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran: Enough with the conspiracy theories about the Sept 11 attacks.

In an article in the current issue of its English-language magazine, Inspire, the terror network lashed out at Mr Ahmadinejad over his claim that the United States government, and not Al-Qaeda, was responsible for the attacks.

The Iranian leader repeated the claim during his address to the UN General Assembly last week.

'The Iranian government has professed on the tongue of its president Ahmadinejad that it does not believe that Al-Qaeda was behind 9/11 but rather, the US government,' said the article, published under the byline Abu Suhail. 'So we may ask the question: Why would Iran ascribe to such a ridiculous belief that stands in the face of all logic and evidence?'

The article demands that Mr Ahmadinejad stop his efforts 'to discredit 9/11' with conspiracy theories, accusing him and the rest of his country's leadership of exploiting anti-American sentiment for political gain and engaging only in 'lip-service jihad'.

Labelled as opinion, the article appeared in the seventh issue of the magazine, a so-called special issue commemorating the 10th anniversary of the attacks. The magazine, a graphics-heavy production aimed at English-speaking Muslims online, takes a starkly different view of the last decade than that seen in US publications.

The cover superimposes a rendering of the World Trade Center's twin towers - one made from dollar signs, the other from ones and zeros - against a cloud-filled sky. The headline reads: 'The Greatest Special Operation of all time.'

Another article, said to have been written by terrorist leader Osama bin Laden before his death, was more characteristic of the Al-Qaeda publication, which is believed to be the work of Saudi-born American Samir Khan, who moved to Yemen in 2009. It urges readers not to let the US and its troops 'seem hard and become great in your eyes'.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Hurtling down Afghanistan's road to perdition

I WAS taking tea with a former mujahideen fighter pilot in the Safi Landmark hotel in Kabul when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the lobby. My companion remained unperturbed as guests rushed for cover. When a guard said three more bombers were loose in the building, he barely blinked.
By Matthew Green

Such sangfroid is a feature of a city that has endured years of violence. But behind the brave face there is fear - fear for what the withdrawal of foreign troops might mean; fear for what the Taleban will do next; and fear that the country is headed inexorably for a new round of civil war.

The killing of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani last week brought that prospect a step closer. In the best traditions of Afghan hierarchies, he was both elder statesman and warlord, a vainglorious politician and Islamic scholar. His hilltop grave now stands as a milestone on Afghanistan's march towards the next instalment in 30 years of fratricidal bloodshed.

To understand what is happening, it is important to tune out what Nato politicians and generals are saying. Yes, United States special forces are netting Taleban commanders by bursting into Afghan homes. It is true that the army and police are expanding in numbers and scope, quickly, if unevenly. Also, the US will not abandon Afghanistan again, at least not in the way it did after the departure of the Red Army - the Pentagon will have bases long beyond the withdrawal date of 2014.

None of this will stop the coming showdown. With the Obama administration's successive troop surges already starting to recede, it is Afghan and Pakistani players who are increasingly making the key decisions. And, to be clear, there is no chance at all of a peace deal between the government of President Hamid Karzai and the Taleban in the near future. The killing of Mr Rabbani, who was in charge of putting out feelers to insurgents, destroyed once and for all the idea that reconciliation was feasible in the coming months.

The ease with which suicide bombers can infiltrate the Kabul police's so-called ring of steel to attack hotels, lob rocket-propelled grenades at the US embassy or kill prominent Afghans intensifies the increasing impression that this is a city up for grabs. The situation is far worse in provincial towns where senior officials keep being assassinated.

Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai, the President's brother, who once improbably described himself to me as the 'Nancy Pelosi' of Kandahar, was shot dead in July. General Daoud Daoud, a wily police general who with a conspiratorial grin would share his suspicions that Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai was involved in drug trafficking, was blown up in May. Mr Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar, who always cheerfully assured me that security was improving, was also killed in July.

This slow-motion implosion of administration has made the situation even more febrile. Many in Kabul will say that the Taleban is containable and that it is their own government that is out of control. President Karzai has presided over a system of crony capitalism symbolised by the scandal at Kabul Bank: a US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) Ponzi scheme implicating a roster of the city's elite.

Oligarchs who have flourished on Nato contracts careen around the city in convoys of pick-up trucks with masked gunmen clinging to the back. Even these entrepreneurs of the war economy are afraid: One told me his five-year-old son had advised him to stop working with Americans and join the Taleban.

In the vacuum, old loyalties have become primary. Mr Rabbani was a titan of the Northern Alliance of warlords from the ethnic Tajik community. Its leaders have prospered since the ousting of the Taleban, which hails from the Pashtun south. His killing has deepened civil war fault-lines - accelerating a growing polarisation between northerners and Pashtuns.

The trend suits Pakistan's generals, who are stoking the fire by backing the Taleban. A weak Afghanistan is more appealing to them than a pro-Indian Afghanistan. Unbowed by US pressure, Pakistan's spies will continue to back Afghan proxies such as the Haqqani network to protect their interests.

Can the slide to civil war be stopped? Nato has failed. There was nothing more striking about a three-week stint I spent embedded with US 'surge' forces last summer than watching three men with spades, AK-47s and fertiliser calmly plant a roadside bomb while an F-18 Hornet circled overhead. Armoured vehicles were scrambled, but to no avail - the men vanished.

The insurgency cannot be beaten on the battlefield. Nor can the Taleban be forced into a deal. The only hope is that the changes in Afghan society in the past decade can provide an incentive for moderation ultimately to prevail. In Kabul at least, a younger generation is long since disillusioned with the politics of the gun. But as the calls for revenge at Mr Rabbani's funeral showed, Afghan politics is now ruled by fear.

The writer is the Financial Times' Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent.


Developers go all out to woo Chinese home buyers

BEIJING: Ever since Mr Jacky Zhang visited a few Singapore booths at an international property fair two weeks ago, his iPhone has been ringing with invitations to join special property-viewing group tours in the city-state.
By Grace Ng, China Correspondent

'These (Chinese) agents made it sound like a first-class holiday: My wife and I would stay at a five-star serviced residence in Singapore, be chauffeured around in a BMW to view condos and then shop to our hearts' content,' said Mr Zhang, 34, who works in the finance sector.

Although his original intention at the fair was to check out Australian home prices, he quickly got distracted by the enthusiastic sales pitches of companies such as Far East Organization, United Overseas Bank, Credo Real Estate and Chinese consultancy Shuangcheng, which claims to represent small Singapore developers.

'They offered me advice and attractive rates on everything from Singapore's rental yield to mortgages,' he said.

Mainland Chinese have become the top foreign buyers of Singapore property, which is seen as a good investment even amid fears of another global recession.

'A strong, stable Singapore dollar appeals to these Chinese buyers as they seek to diversify their funds. The absence of capital gains tax... and plentiful property information available also appeals to them,' said Knight Frank Knight Frank research head Png Poh Soon.

Other factors include Singapore's economic stability, its proximity to China - a six-hour flight from Beijing - and an excellent bilingual education system, added Ms Sara Zhang, who heads Far East Organization's Beijing office.

The number of private property deals sealed by foreigners and permanent residents in the second quarter made up 30 per cent of all private home sales in Singapore, according to a report by DTZ Research.

Chinese nationals accounted for just over a quarter - 26 per cent - of such purchases. Other foreigners include Indonesians and Malaysians.

And despite tougher Singapore immigration procedures and climbing property prices this year, Chinese buyer interest remains strong, say agents and developers.

No wonder then that many agents and developers from Singapore are rushing to China to woo well-heeled investors.

They face a huge market - China has more than a million millionaires - but also stiff competition from other popular investment destinations like the United States and Australia.

So Singapore players are coming up with ways to make their potential customers feel special.

For one thing, they are spicing up the traditional property talks in dingy conference rooms with monthly 'Wealth Enhancement Seminars' at fancy five-star hotels.

Here, snazzy power-point presentations are sometimes accompanied by a buffet spread, which may even include durian puffs, to whet investors' appetites for apartments selling for as much as $2,500 per sq ft.

To attract attendees to these events, agents send out mass text messages.

One reads: '15 per cent discounts on Singapore property; first three people to sign up for seminar will get free round-trip airfare to Singapore!'

Another way to pamper Chinese investors is through property-viewing tours. Major developers like Far East and CapitaLand organise such three-day trips once or twice a month.

Tour groups, which depart from major metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai but often include rich families from smaller cities, typically have 10 to 15 people.

'We intentionally keep the group small to ensure more personalised service,' said a CapitaLand spokesman, adding that these tours will cover four or five properties that best fit the prospective buyers' needs.

Popular CapitaLand projects include D'Leedon - located near Nanyang Primary School - and Latitude and Urban Resort, which are close to mainlanders' favourite brand-name goods boutiques in Orchard Road.

Tour participants have to pay for their own airfare and hotel, sometimes at discounted group rates. But developers could pick up the tab for those who put a down payment on a property, said Mr Eric Chau of Colliers International in Beijing.

This incentive - along with lavish seafood dinners - is said to have helped clinch a good number of purchases, although developers are coy about revealing the numbers.

'Take-up (of properties) has been positive' was all a Far East spokesman would say.

To get even more up close and personal with potential buyers, more Singapore players are setting up their own offices or expanding in China.

CapitaLand Residential will open a showroom in China early next year. Far East's Beijing office has moved to larger premises in the business district.

Meanwhile, consultancy OrangeTee is in the process of setting up a Shanghai office and has also partnered China's largest online property portal Soufun to handle its queries on Singapore property purchases.

'This is a good time to set up our own office in China. We see an opportunity to serve Chinese customers who are looking overseas now that they are restricted from buying more than two properties in China, due to government rules introduced this year to cool the property market,' said OrangeTee executive director Steven Tan.

The company has helped a number of Chinese buyers with their purchases, including one man who bought 19 units, each priced between $2.2 million and $6.3 million, at one go near Orchard Road.

After hearing so much about Singapore's hot property scene, Mr Zhang is considering taking up tour offers to the Garden City.

'I'd like to be treated like a VIP too.'

Additional reporting by Carol Feng

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

'MOE wants to build character while parents are going back to school to help their children with school work.'

MS EUN-YOUNG YEO: 'It is ironic that the Ministry of Education (MOE) wants the schools to build character and instil values in young students while parents are going back to school to help their children with school work ('Parental guidance'; Sunday). It is a very strange reversal of roles.'

Germany's love for Greek culture

GREECE is broke and broken. Its budget deficit bulges near 10 per cent of gross domestic product, while the Germans choke theirs down to just 1.5 per cent. Ask a typical German why and he'll say: 'They drink and dance during the day. We wait for sunset.' That's the image. The hardworking, disciplined, punch-the-clock-on-time German stays solvent and sober. In contrast, the Mediterranean neighbour lolls around in fertile fields of lemons and olives.
By Todd G. Buchholz

And yet most Germans go along, if grudgingly, with bailouts. Recent elections show the Social Democrats and Greens picking up votes, even though they are even more euro-friendly than Chancellor Angela Merkel's government. Why are Germans willing to reach deep into their pockets for many billions of euros to bail out Zorba the Greek and his lackadaisical neighbours?

The standard answer: to safeguard the German economy. But this is flabby reasoning. Despite the Great Recession, the German economy has been bouncing along at a decent pace with a 7 per cent unemployment rate, and it even racks up a trade surplus with China. Sure, adopting the euro in 1999 sliced border-crossing costs for German companies, but European monetary union was never chiefly about money. If money was the biggest concern, Germany would never have surrendered the gilded Deutsche mark, controlled by the austere, trusted Bundesbank, for a euro that might someday be twisted by a rabble of politicians baying for votes from Slovenians.

No, Germany's real motivation to help Greece is not cash; it's culture. Germans struggle with a national envy. For more than 200 years, they have been searching for a missing part of their soul: passion. They find it in the south and covet the loosey-goosey, sun-filled days of their free-wheeling Mediterranean neighbours.

In the early 1800s, Goethe reported that his travels to Italy charged him up with new creative energy. Later, Heinrich Heine made the pilgrimage, writing to his uncle: 'Here, nature is beautiful and man lovable. In the high mountain air that you breathe in here, you forget instantly your troubles and the soul expands.'

Nietzsche claimed that the staid German psyche was stunted and needed more than a beer stein of passion. He was fascinated by ancient Greece and famously juxtaposed sober Apollo with that reckless, wine-drinking southerner, Dionysus. A dose of Dionysus might not be so bad, he figured.

Today, Germany still looks too Apollonian. Companies like BMW and Siemens conquer industrial markets by manufacturing flawless, perfectly timed motors. But when do Germans experience the fun of Dionysus? Only when vacationing in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Even then, they struggle to find the right balance. In Thomas Mann's novella Death In Venice, the humourless, authoritarian protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach loses his regal bearing and becomes infatuated while in Italy, letting go of his strait-laced ways. Aschenbach lurches from overly repressed to overly sensualised, dyeing his hair, rouging his cheeks and stuffing his mouth with overripe strawberries.

And then there's Sigmund Freud, an Austrian whose Germanic surname translates as 'joy'. If only. Freud, too, thought that Italy and the south offered a tantalising 'softness and beauty' that could save the Teutonic psyche. Instead of Nietzsche's Apollo and Dionysus, Freud poses superego and id. The id hosts a wild imagination and ecstasy. The superego is that German librarian-frau with her hair tied up in the bun telling you to 'shush!'

On the map of Germany you can find quite a few towns with my family name of Buchholz. My wife once scolded me for acting too uptight, saying: 'You take all the fun out of everything.'

Wow, I felt both powerful and bad. I could take all of the fun out of everything. Forget Apollo - even Zeus didn't have that much power! But a starchier-than-thou power sickens the soul.

So today Germany has the power and the discipline and yet still feels bad for its neighbours. Germans are simply unwilling to sever the emotional bond they feel with their unhurried but passionate brothers and sisters to the south.

During Oktoberfest, Germans in 'biergartens' will lift a glass and sway arm in arm to a popular, schmaltzy German tune called Griechischer Wein (Greek Wine). Haunting and rousing, the lyrics compare Greek wine to the 'earth's blood'. The German narrator spies a group of Greek men drinking together and longs to be with them. He doesn't even have to ask, for the dark-eyed men stand up and invite him to join them.

Despite a history of proclaiming their superiority, deep down Germans are not sure they've got it right, after all.

The writer is the author of Rush: Why You Need And Love The Rat Race.


Woes in hunt for Yamashita's gold

MANILA: For decades, treasure hunters have been searching the Philippines for a vast trove of war loot believed to have been hidden in caves and secret tunnels by Japanese troops before their surrender in World War II.

Fact or fanciful legend, Yamashita's gold - named after the Japanese general who led a desperate last stand in the Philippines - still casts an unbreakable spell.

So residents in the hilly coastal town of Mauban, long rumoured to contain a trove of Yamashita's gold, were not surprised when treasure hunters arrived in February to excavate a plot of private land.


'The search has been the cause of a lot of illegal activity. It's responsible for damaging archaeological sites in caves dating back to the Stone Age, and areas of historical importance.'

Mr Angel Bautista, head of the National Museum of the Philippines' cultural property division

This month, scores of angry locals marched to Mauban's municipal hall demanding the digging be stopped. The Sept 14 protest highlighted how the obsessive search for long-ago treasure has caused modern-day problems.

Unlike many digs and wreck dives for Yamashita's gold, this one was legal. Cabanisas Credit Corp, the Manila-based company doing the excavations, had a government permit to hunt for treasure.

Mauban's Mayor Fernando Llamas told The Straits Times: 'We heard they had a map belonging to a Japanese guy, who was with them from time to time.'

The bayside town on Luzon Island's Quezon province was one of the main landing points of the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in December 1941; and published sources and locals say tunnels were built there during the occupation.

Residents complained about noise from the digging, and said it disrupted their water supply.

Mr Llamas said matters came to a head when night-time blasting jolted residents awake. The locals also feared the excavations could trigger a landslide.

Last month, illegal treasure hunters digging for Yamashita's gold outside Olongapo City were blamed for a rock slide that affected houses killing two people and injuring seven.

The diggings have now stopped at Mauban. Local officials visited the site last Wednesday and found numerous permit violations, including horizontal tunnelling.

Cabanisas is believed to have found nothing of value in its seven-month search. The firm could not be reached for comment.

'A lot of Filipinos and foreigners are still losing money investing in the hunt for Yamashita's gold,' said Mr Angel Bautista, head of the National Museum of the Philippines' cultural property division, which issues permits for treasure hunting.

Treasure hunters believe that bullion, gems and other valuables looted during Japan's wartime occupation of South-east Asia were stashed in the Philippines after the Allied submarine offensive made it too risky to ship them to Japan. The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos even used the Philippine army to search for the gold.

One post-war estimate puts the amount of bullion at between 4,000 and 6,000 tonnes, making it potentially worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

The National Museum says not a single bar of bullion has been verified as Yamashita's gold.

'But the search has been the cause of a lot of illegal activity,' said Mr Bautista. 'It's responsible for damaging archaeological sites in caves dating back to the Stone Age, and areas of historical importance.'

The National Museum - which was given the main mandate to supervise treasure hunting last year - has received information on 60 illegal digs for Yamashita's gold this year. Of the 40 applications it received in the past eight months, only five were granted.

Under the law, the government gets a 70 per cent cut of treasure found on public land, and 50 per cent on private property.

Not surprisingly, the legend of Yamashita's gold has created a cottage industry of fake treasure maps and bogus investments.

Just in January, airport officials in Manila inspecting the bags of a Chinese couple bound for Hong Kong found a 5kg 'gold' bar bearing the stamp 'Yamashita Gold 999'. At any rate, they were allowed to board their flight, but had to leave the bar behind. It was later found to have been made of bronze.

Monday, September 26, 2011

2,000 Lankan Tamil rebels likely to stand trial

NEW YORK: Sri Lanka's foreign minister said up to 2,000 hardcore Tamil rebels are likely to be prosecuted on charges including mass murder for crimes committed during the island's quarter-century civil war.

The rebels are among some 11,500 Tamil fighters who were captured or surrendered after the war's bloody end in 2009.

In comments to the Associated Press, Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris said all but about 3,000 of them had already been released from military-run rehabilitation camps and were reintegrating into society.

Interviewed in New York where he attended the UN General Assembly opening session, Mr Peiris said that of those remaining, 'less than 2,000' hardcore rebels were expected to be indicted, and that court proceedings were likely to start next year.

Responding to accusations that the government is overlooking allegations of rights violations by its own forces, Mr Peiris denied that troops targeted civilians during the conflict.

But he said it was within the mandate of a reconciliation commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa last year to review the conflict and learn lessons from it, and to also look into allegations of rights violations.

'They (the commission) cannot fulfil their mandate if they exclude from consideration these issues.'

The commission is due to submit its final report by November this year. Rights groups have questioned its impartiality and whether it investigated allegations that tens of thousands of minority Tamils were killed, primarily by government forces, as they closed in on retreating Tamil Tiger rebels during the final five months of the war.

Mr Peiris accused several Western nations, including Britain, Australia and Canada of being unduly critical of Sri Lanka's efforts to recover from the war and using the island nation as a 'political football'.

'Sri Lanka has to be given the time and space to resolve its issues. It's premature for any kind of intervention by the international community,' the minister said.

A documentary aired by Britain's Channel 4 in June included graphic video showing soldiers shooting bound, blindfolded prisoners and abusing corpses. The British government subsequently demanded progress by Sri Lanka in investigating alleged war crimes by year's end.

Colombo has said the video was fake, but the UN independent investigator on extrajudicial killings who reviewed it with a team of technical and forensic specialists said it provided definitive evidence to warrant a war crimes prosecution.


Debate hots up over 'skewed' history syllabus in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR: After stirring up a heated public debate here this month, the subject of Malaysia's history is set to take centre stage again.
By Teo Cheng Wee, Regional Correspondent

A secondary school history syllabus review is being closely watched by some academics and activists, who have raised concerns that textbooks today have become Malay- and Islam-centric. That allegation recalls similar accusations of bias levelled at the establishment recently.

Opposition politicians here accused Umno of overstating its leaders' role in the fight for independence whenever Malaysia celebrates Independence Day on Aug 31, while downplaying that of other activists, such as writers and leftists.


Undermining unity

'You're also putting another wedge into an already fractured society.'

Former bank employee Abu Bakar Sulaiman, on a syllabus with a narrow perspective of history

Contributions of minorities downplayed

Critics say textbooks used to mention the role of the Chinese and Indians inthe development of tin mining and rubber industries. Now, it is given scant attention. The same goes for pioneers from the minority communities.


Critics say five out of 10 chapters in the Secondary 4 textbook cover Islamic history and civilisation. The previous version had only one such chapter.

One senior opposition politician, the deputy president of Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), Mr Mohamad Sabu, has been charged with defaming policemen killed by communists during the fight for independence. Mr Mohamad had allegedly described the communists as the real heroes of independence.

The spirited public debate on history coincides with a syllabus review on the subject that is overseen by a government-appointed panel, which was formed in May. It is supposed to complete the task by the end of the year.

Its chief and Malaysian Historical Society chairman Omar Hashim said they had been busy gathering feedback.

'We've been talking to parents, teachers and university lecturers,' said Datuk Omar, a former education deputy director-general.

'Interest in history has declined worldwide, so we're trying to stimulate student interest.'

But some Malaysians believe student interest is only one of the issues that need to be addressed in the new syllabus, which will be used in schools from 2014.

The charge of a 'skewed' history syllabus has cropped up on occasion in the past few years, but has now escalated with the review. Critics say the syllabus has downplayed the contributions of Malaysia's minorities. Textbooks used to mention the role of the Chinese and Indians in the development of tin mining and rubber industries, said historian Ranjit Singh Malhi.

'Now, it is given scant attention,' said Dr Ranjit, who was a schools history textbook writer himself in the 1980s.

The same goes for pioneers from the minority communities. Dr Ranjit said Chinese leader Yap Ah Loy, who oversaw a critical growth period of Kuala Lumpur in the late 19th century, has been reduced to just one sentence in the current Secondary2 textbook.

Gurchan Singh and Sybil Karthigesu - two prominent Indian resistance fighters here during World War II - have no mention whatsoever.

Others have criticised the textbooks for being Islam-centric: Five out of 10 chapters in the Secondary4 textbook cover Islamic history and civilisation. The previous version had only one such chapter.

This perceived prejudice has led to the formation of the Campaign for a Truly Malaysian History (KSMS), whose 18-member committee consists of parents, academics and representatives of non-governmental organisations.

'It was felt that unless we got together and highlighted this issue, we'd be presented with another unbalanced syllabus,' said Dr Lim Teck Ghee, one of the key members of the group. 'These are our roots. Which community won't be concerned about them, or what is being taught?'

KSMS has gathered close to 10,000 signatures on a petition on its cause. It also plans to hand over a memorandum to Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in the next few months, detailing recommendations on a more objective syllabus.

The issue has some Malays concerned as well. Former bank employee Abu Bakar Sulaiman, 68, feels a narrow perspective of history will 'hamper the intellectual development of youngsters', regardless of race.

'You're also putting another wedge into an already fractured society,' said Mr Abu Bakar, who is also in KSMS.

Incidentally, forging greater unity was why the government has decided to make history a must-pass subject in the local equivalent of the O-level examinations by 2013.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin made this announcement last year. But the venue where he did it - Umno's general assembly - raised concerns about a political agenda.

Arguing for an objective narrative, an editorial in Chinese daily Nanyang Siang Pau said: 'In Malaysia's short history, people's memories are still fresh... tampering with history will only raise the ire of the public and affect the country's unity.'

A commentary in the New Straits Times agreed, saying that such worries are 'legitimate and require attention'.

Other Barisan Nasional component parties have said they will watch this issue closely. The Malaysian Chinese Association has set up a committee to monitor the syllabus review.

Its president, Dr Chua Soi Lek, said the current textbook gives 'a lot of predominance to one particular race'.

But the government has insisted that it has no political motive. It pointed out that the committee led by Mr Omar consists of experts of all races.

Mr Muhyiddin urged Malaysians not to be prejudiced, and said the government 'cannot concoct' history.

'I don't think any party should feel suspicious or worried,' he said, 'because history is based on historical facts.'

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Shrinking population, growing problems

IN A mere nine years' time, Singapore's funeral parlours will see more business than hospital maternity wards, if the country closes its doors to immigrants.

Without them, there will be more deaths than births among Singapore citizens and permanent residents (PRs) from 2020.

By 2050, the resident population will have shrunk to 3.03 million, from today's 3.77 million.



'Singapore's population policy is a matter of life and death. Faced with a low and declining fertility rate, an overly restrictive immigration policy will threaten Singapore's growth, survival and existence.'

Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin


'If our population keeps on increasing, there might be increased pressure on our limited land resources, leading possibly to increased congestion, higher housing prices and so on. If we can maintain a population strength of five to 5.5 million, and ensure it does not decline, then productivity growth can ensure continued growth in living standards.'

NUS economist Basant Kapur


Population 2010

Total population: 5.08m

Citizens: 3.23m

Permanent residents: 541,000

Non-residents: 1.31m

Total fertility rate: 1.15

Source: Department of Statistics

This was one of 48 scenarios that think-tank Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) generated of Singapore's future population, based on different TFRs and migration levels.

TFR or total fertility rate refers to the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime.

The numbers do not include transient workers here on work permits or employment passes.

Another scenario assumes the TFR, now at 1.15, can be boosted gradually to 1.85 by 2025 before stabilising, and that net migration - the inflow of migrants minus those who leave - is zero. The outcome: a decline in the resident population to 3.37 million in 2050.

With this, IPS director Janadas Devan concluded: 'What it shows is there is no way you can keep your population from declining without migration.'

But so what if Singapore's population declines? Does that spell disaster?

These are questions that several readers raised online after the release of the IPS study on Sept 7.

'So what?'

MANY Singaporeans who have had to compete with newcomers for spaces in buses, trains, schools and offices seem, if anything, sanguine about the prospect of having fewer people on this island.

On The Straits Times' Facebook page, one reader asked: 'What's wrong with a declining population if it makes people more happy and causes less stress?'

Another wrote: 'We're over-populated, aren't we? We could do better with some 'decline'.'

Can Singapore afford such shrinkage?

Interviews with economists and demographers yield a mixed bag of answers.

Says Professor Euston Quah, president of the Singapore Economics Society and an economist from Nanyang Technological University: 'There is no right or wrong answer here.'

National University of Singapore (NUS) demographer Gavin Jones jokes that MRT commuters can easily give a reason for why slow population decline may not be a bad thing.

Mr Phillip Overmyer, Singapore International Chamber of Commerce chief executive, says that if Singaporeans want curbs on immigration, the country will have to 'redesign itself into something smaller and less dynamic in Asia'.

'When I'm caught in a traffic jam, I sometimes think: Wouldn't that be nice?' he adds with a laugh.

A declining population may also empower more vulnerable workers, such as the elderly and women.

Companies will have to train the unskilled, provide family-friendly policies to retain women and entice the elderly to stay on.

The trade-off is that Singapore may well become less cost-competitive, as Singaporeans replace lower-paid foreigners in jobs.

Some may welcome such a change but statistician Paul Cheung remains sceptical: 'People who think you can turn economic growth on and off; which planet do they come from?'

Says Dr Cheung, formerly Singapore's chief statistician and now director of the United Nations statistics division: 'The economy is dynamic and evolving. We have always been one or two steps ahead of competitors and we are able to transform our economy to fit the modern, globalised world. That, in turn, depends on the talents we can attract.'

Population and the economy

WHEN a population declines, there are broadly speaking two main effects. One, economic growth may also decline. Two, the population ages and there are fewer working-age adults to support more elderly folk.

The question is whether Singapore can mitigate these two effects.

One country that has experienced population decline for a number of years is Japan.

Last year, its population shrank by a record 183,000. Yet the country of 127.5 million people remains wealthy and is the world's third largest economy.

It has dealt well with the ageing aspect, says Dr Cheung. Despite a large elderly population, 'its total health-care expenditure is just 8 per cent of its GDP, compared to the United States, which spends 18 per cent of its GDP.'

But look at its economic growth, and the numbers are dismal. Mr Ong Ye Kung, deputy secretary-general of labour movement NTUC, believes demographic change is to blame.

'I believe this is one reason the Japanese economy has been structurally sluggish for over two decades,' he says. 'Japan is losing out in innovation, technological advancement, enterprise.'

Economists and demographers agree that a shortage of manpower is the 'most important implication of a declining population', as NUS' Prof Jones puts it.

Singapore Management University (SMU) economist Hoon Hian Teck says 'a shrinking population most directly slows down economic growth by shrinking the size of the labour force'.

Can that be offset by other factors?

One way to cope with population decline is to boost productivity, so one worker can do a job that previously required two - or three, or more, says economist Hui Weng Tat of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

The Government aims to increase productivity by 2 per cent to 3 per cent a year over the next 10 years.

Another way is to accelerate Singapore's move into capital-intensive sectors that substitute manpower with technology, argues Prof Quah, citing industries such as life sciences, high-level manufacturing and pharmaceuticals.

'Singapore can then have a shrinking population without detrimental effects on our economy,' he says.

This was the strategy in Singapore in the 1970s when it strove to dampen population growth.

But such measures may be easier said than done today, warn some.

Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin says: 'Policymakers and economists have often found productivity gains to be rather elusive and difficult to engineer.'

Meanwhile, Singapore still needs

lower-end manufacturing and services sectors to provide jobs for less-skilled workers.

They also provide ballast to the more volatile capital-intensive industries.

And the road is tougher ahead, as the lowest-hanging technology fruit were plucked during the 'catch-up phase' of Singapore's earlier development, notes Prof Hoon.

That said, sectors such as the construction industry can still move up the chain. So can many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), says Mr Lawrence Leow of the Association of SMEs.

Yet there is ultimately a limit to how much machinery can replace manpower.

Argues United Overseas Bank economist Alvin Liew: 'There are industries where you just can't shed that much.'

All in all, will a shrinking population mean a shrinking economy? 'I think the answer is 'most likely',' says Prof Hoon.

Not just numbers but talent

POPULATION decline is not just about numbers, but also about the age structure of society.

Singapore needs innovation to thrive. And innovation is more likely with a growing - and youthful - society.

Says Dr Cheung: 'For the future growth of the economy, the best element is a smart individual and that is what everybody is fighting for. You get a smart guy in, he will grow the business, and determine the businesses that come to Singapore. What better way of spurring higher productivity than getting a smart person like this?'

Singaporeans have expressed dissatisfaction at the liberal immigration policies of earlier years, and the competition and crowding that have resulted. There are also worries about immigration's effects on social cohesion and national identity.

To Dr Cheung, however, immigration remains crucial.

He makes a distinction between foreigners who become citizens or PRs, and those here on employment passes, saying the latter group is more critical.

He says: 'We must control the inflow of foreigners who become citizens and PRs.

'But with the Singapore economy growing bigger and more diversified, it requires talents from many fields.'

This is especially important for Singapore, as it is a city state.

Cities are 'hubs of innovation and ideas', says Dr Chua. 'Capitalising on the advantages from bringing talented folk from all walks together is what produces new ideas and economic gains.'

Singapore is unusual in being both a global city and a country, he observes. 'The Government as a result needs to balance the twin demands of city and country, but not at the expense of hurting the dynamism that the economy gains from being an open global city.'

Ageing gracefully

THE economic effects of a changing age structure are not confined to issues of dynamism. An ageing population will put pressure on the Government to increase spending on health and social programmes - and on citizens, since there will be fewer workers to support each retiree.

'This will clearly put a strain on those who are in their working age years, both in terms of their finances and time,' says SMU economist Davin Chor.

Government finances may also be strained, as the tax base will shrink as the economically active population shrinks.

This raises the question of how increased public spending will be funded. Singapore may see higher income tax rates, or higher corporate taxes.

Mr Overmyer thinks the Government will have no real choice but to raise the retirement age. With longer lifespans, people will need more savings.

'We have to push people to stay employed for as long as they can possibly stay employed - it's either that or a welfare system,' he says.

At the same time, new industries may spring up to tap the silver dollar; existing ones, such as the care industry, will flourish; and medical research could benefit from increased investment.

Singapore might also see changes in the tenor of its society.

NUS sociologist Angelique Chan suggests that with increased longevity and ageing, 'society as a whole will be much more cognisant of the ageing process and end-of-life issues like palliative care'.

This could mean greater understanding of issues such as dementia.

And longer lives could be more fulfilling ones. People might gain 'an appreciation of a longer life course and the ability to do many different things in one's life', says Prof Chan.

'Right now, people think about getting into higher education and then work. That's as far as people tend to think. But with a longer life course and a focus on active ageing, there's more you can do.'

All this assumes that retirees or their families will be affluent enough for such consumption, so economic growth remains important.

Size matters

WHEN it comes to population matters, most people who live here have a view on the size that best suits them.

Some like it smaller; others prefer it bigger.

The issue is likely to remain contentious as it goes to the heart of Singapore's existence as a nation.

'Singapore's population policy,' says Dr Chua, 'is a matter of life and death.'

He argues that Singapore must remain open to immigrants.

'Faced with a low and declining fertility rate, an overly restrictive immigration policy will threaten Singapore's growth, survival and existence,' he says.

But, like others, NUS economist Basant Kapur says: 'If our population keeps on increasing, there might be increased pressure on our limited land resources, leading possibly to increased congestion, higher housing prices and so on.

'If we can maintain a population strength of five to 5.5 million, and ensure it does not decline, then productivity growth can ensure continued growth in living standards.'

Singapore does not have to resign itself to a shrinking population. The question is how far it wishes to go in the opposite direction.

At one level, the question of how big Singapore can - and should - be is a matter of space and infrastructure.

Dr Cheung expects that with 'proper infrastructure', Singapore could easily sustain a population of 6.5 million.

But the limits on Singapore's population size are not just technological or physical.

As Mr Ong puts it: 'The limit to our population is not infrastructure, but our desire to hold on and build up our own unique identity developed over the past 46 years, and not wanting that to be overwhelmed by immigrants.'

The answer, says Dr Chua, depends on what Singaporeans want, and whether they perceive a larger population as enriching or hurting their living standards.

'The Government will have to make the case that growing Singapore and the population base can make Singaporeans richer, happier and healthier over the long haul.'

Until that case has been made and accepted, some - like the disgruntled netizens reacting to the IPS findings - may continue to welcome a smaller Singapore and the trade-offs it entails.

Population policies through the years

SINGAPORE'S population trends have been a source of worry for decades. But the fear was not always one of population decline.


AIM: Zero population growth

As announced at the 1974 World Population Conference, government policy was 'to achieve zero population growth as soon as possible'.

Zero population growth occurs when the number of births and number of deaths is the same over a given period of time.

METHOD: Lowering the total fertility rate

(TFR) from 2.37 to the replacement level of 2.1 by 1980, and keeping it there.

Singapore's age structure - with more than half the population younger than 21 - meant that zero population growth would be reached only 50 to 60 years after the TFR reached replacement level.

RATIONALE: The Government feared that

further growth and development could be 'diminished or even negated by an ever-increasing population'.

Uncontrolled population growth would mean excessive demand for schools, hospitals and public services, 'bringing about a heavy burden on the State and a dilution of standards'.

The quality of life could be adversely affected if overpopulation meant overcrowding, noise, environmental pollution and even social unrest.


TFR turning point

The TFR fell below replacement level for the first time to 2.08 - five years ahead of schedule.


3.5 million steady-state projection

A Ministry of Health publication estimates that zero population growth will be reached in 2030, with a steady-state total population of 3.5 million.


AIM: Reversing fertility trends

The continued TFR decline became a worry. From the mid-1980s, the Government began pursuing pro-natalist policies and relaxing anti-natalist ones.

In 1987, the New Population Policy was officially introduced: a move away from the 1972 'stop at two' policy, and towards encouraging women to have two or more children if they can afford it.

Then Minister for Trade and Industry Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore was aiming for the same target as before: for the population to replace itself.

Early 2000s

AIM: Preventing population decline

The Baby Bonus scheme is announced in 2000, and extended in 2004. It gives financial incentives to encourage women to have more children.

The focus remains on boosting fertility and preventing population decline.


AIM: Population growth

A growing population is explicitly identified as important for growth in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's 2006 National Day Rally speech.

'If we want our economy to grow, if we want to be strong internationally, then we need a growing population and not just numbers but also talents in every field in Singapore,' he said.

Sources: The Straits Times, Parliament Library

No merit in single-sex learning: Study

NEW YORK: Single-sex education is ineffective, misguided and may actually increase gender stereotyping, according to a team of psychologists in a new report.

The report, The Pseudoscience Of Single Sex Schooling, is likely to ignite a new round of debates and legal wrangling about the effects of single-sex education.

Due to be published in the latest edition of Science magazine by eight social scientists who are founders of the non-profit American Council for CoEducational Schooling, it asserts that 'sex-segregated education is deeply misguided and often justified by weak, cherry-picked or misconstrued scientific claims rather than by valid scientific evidence'.



'It's simply not true that boys and girls learn differently... Advocates for single-sex education don't like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there. We used to believe that the races learnt differently, too.'

The study's lead author Diane F. Halpern


'We are not asserting that every child should be in a single-sex classroom; we are simply saying that there should be a choice.'

National Association of Single Sex Public Education executive director Leonard Sax

But the strongest argument against single-sex education, the article said, is that it reduces boys' and girls' opportunities to work together, and reinforces sex stereotypes.

'Boys who spend more time with other boys become increasingly aggressive,' the article said. 'Similarly, girls who spend more time with other girls become more sex-typed.'

Lead author Diane F. Halpern is a past president of the American Psychological Association and holds a named chair in psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California. She is an expert witness in litigation in which the American Civil Liberties Union is challenging single-sex classes - which have been suspended - at a school in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana.

Arguing that no scientific evidence supports the idea that single-sex schooling results in better academic outcomes, the article calls on the United States Education Department to rescind its 2006 regulations weakening the Title IX prohibition against sex discrimination in education.

Under those rules, single-sex schooling was permitted as long as it was voluntary, students were provided a substantially equal co-educational option and the separation of the sexes substantially furthered an important governmental objective.

Ms Russlyn H. Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the Education Department, said it was reviewing the research in the area.

'There are case studies that have been done that show some benefit of single-sex, but like lots of other educational research, it's mixed,' she said.

The article comes at a time when single-sex education is on the rise. There were only two single- sex public schools in the US in the mid-1990s; today, there are more than 500 public schools in 40 states that are either entirely for one sex or offer some single-sex academic classes.

Many of them did so because of a belief that boys and girls should be taught differently, which grew out of popular books, speeches and workshops by Mr Michael Gurian, author of The Minds Of Boys and Boys And Girls Learn Differently, and Dr Leonard Sax, who wrote Why Gender Matters.

Dr Sax, executive director of the National Association of Single Sex Public Education, was singled out for criticism in the article, for his teachings that boys respond better to loud, energetic, confrontational classrooms while girls need a gentler touch.

'A loud, cold classroom where you toss balls around, like Sax thinks boys should have, might be great for some boys, and for some girls, but for some boys, it would be living hell,' Ms Halpern said in an interview.

She said that while girls are better readers and get better grades in school, and boys are more likely to have reading disabilities, that does not mean that educators should use the group average to design different classrooms for the two sexes.

'It's simply not true that boys and girls learn differently,' she said. 'Advocates for single-sex education don't like the parallel with racial segregation, but the parallels are there. We used to believe that the races learnt differently, too.'

Dr Sax criticised the article on many counts, and said it did not fairly reflect his views. He vehemently rejected the comparison to racial segregation, and the use of the term 'sex segregation'. Legally, he said, race is a suspect category, while sex is not.

'We are not asserting that every child should be in a single-sex classroom; we are simply saying that there should be a choice,' Dr Sax said.

The authors of the article, though, say that because there is no good scientific research backing such a choice, the government cannot lawfully offer single-sex education in public schools.


Some schools give report card on character too

Teachers assess passion for learning, capacity for empathy and resilience

By Amelia Tan
IN SOME schools here, students get more than a report card on their progress in their classroom subjects - they get one that goes right to the heart of who they are, their character.

Their teachers assess their ability to get along with others, their personal qualities, passion for learning, resilience and capacity for empathy, based on classroom observations throughout the year.

It is these schools' way of signalling the importance they place on character education and values.

To be sure, these reports are qualitative and do not indicate A, B or C grades. Schools such as North Vista Primary and Swiss Cottage Secondary give their teachers checklists of personal attributes they are supposed to look out for in students.

These schools would be considered pioneers, given that the Ministry of Education intends to bring a renewed emphasis to character and values education, as announced by Education Minister Heng Swee Keat at his ministry's workplan seminar on Thursday.

He had called on schools to reaffirm the central place values and character development should have in education, and said 'student-centric, values-driven education' was now necessary because globally, traditional social structures were breaking down.

In North Vista Primary in Sengkang, report cards called 'Individualised Learning Plans' show pupils' performance in social and emotional, moral, physical, aesthetics and academic areas. Meetings are held with pupils and their parents at the start of the year, to set goals, and at the end of the year, to review progress.

At the year-end, for example, pupils would have met expectations in the social and emotional aspect if they had shown themselves to be friendly, considerate and committed to group activities; they are deemed to be moving towards meeting expectations if they needed to be prompted to help others or needed help to iron out conflicts.

Pupils also assess themselves and set goals for the next year.

Swiss Cottage's approach is to focus on its five school values of passion for learning, resilience, integrity, having the daring to try and empathy.

The schools say giving reports on character development gives students a clear idea of how they are faring, and also tells parents that the school is serious about moulding character and instilling values.

As North Vista principal Phua Kia Wang put it: 'We see the importance of shifting the focus to other aspects so pupils are developed as whole individuals.'

A Primary 4 pupil from the school, Shen Jia Cheng, 10, said: 'My teacher told me I sometimes lose my temper too easily and this is not good. Now, I count to 10 when I'm angry, and apologise. I make friends more easily now.'

His mother Shen Mo Jun, 49, a research scientist, was surprised to hear about this side of her son and has since taught him about the virtue of patience.

Schools which do not have character development report cards use other means. Students in Woodlands Secondary, for example, put their thoughts into 'reflection journals'. Its principal Julia Woo said: 'We may consider including character development in report cards, as it's a way to keep parents involved.'

Friday, September 23, 2011

Should opposition MPs be grassroots advisers?

The practice of appointing PAP candidates as grassroots advisers in opposition wards has been in the news of late due to disputes in Workers' Party-held Aljunied GRC and Hougang. Insight digs up the history of this controversial practice.
By Janice Heng
ON OCT 31, 1981, Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam won a by-election in Anson and became the first opposition Member of Parliament to be elected since 1963.

It was a historic win, for the then Workers' Party chief had broken the 13-year monopoly of Parliament by the People's Action Party (PAP).

A peculiar question arose in the aftermath of his victory: Who would be made adviser to Anson's grassroots organisations?



'...the grassroots adviser has to be somebody

who can work with the Government and help the Government achieve its goals on the ground. I think that's necessary.'

PM Lee Hsien Loong (above). He was responding to media queries on the recent spat between the People's Association and Workers' Party MPs.


'A change is long overdue. If it doesn't happen, it will be bad for the Government and bad for the PAP - the people can see the unfairness.'

Mr Chiam See Tong, former MP for Potong Pasir for 27 years, who thinks opposition MPs should be allowed to be grassroots advisers

Uncertainty in Anson

BETWEEN 1968 - the year the last Barisan Sosialis MPs walked out of the House - and 1981, Parliament was an all-PAP affair.

Every elected MP automatically became his ward's grassroots adviser.

Shortly before the 1981 by-election, however, there was a rule change. The adviser no longer had to be the MP. Instead, he would be chosen by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO).

Mr Jeyaretnam observed then that as these rules were not gazetted, one could not tell exactly when changes were made.

For almost two months after the by- election, whom Anson's adviser would be remained a mystery - at least to the public.

Mr Lee Khoon Choy was then a senior minister of state in the PMO and deputy chairman of the People's Association (PA), a post he held from 1977 to 1984.

Mr Lee tells Insight that even then, he thought the elected MP should be appointed grassroots adviser.

'I was in favour of allowing all elected MPs to be active in the centres,' Mr Lee says, referring to community centres and others that come under the PA's grassroots network.

'They should be allowed to do so - after all, they were elected,' he adds.

But as chairman of the PA, then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew objected to allowing opposition involvement, he says.A line had been drawn on the matter.

On Nov 8, 1981, Mr Goh Chok Tong, then Health Minister, Second Defence Minister and deputy chairman of the residents' committee (RC) steering committee, said RCs came under the PMO and would 'continue to report to the PMO'.

Asked how Anson RC members should respond to Mr Jeyaretnam's requests for help, Mr Goh said: 'If the requests coincide with the efforts of RC members, which comply with what the PMO would like them to do, then I think they are legitimate requests. And I think RC members will comply.'

In his first post-election press conference, on Nov 13, Mr Jeyaretnam said he was unsure if he would accept the advisory role even if it was offered to him.

But he later said he would have to give such an offer serious consideration as he did not want any confrontation with the authorities.

A civil servant as adviser

ON DEC 23, the PMO finally announced its decision. Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had appointed PMO director Ong Kok Min as the adviser to Anson's six grassroots organisations: three RCs, the citizens' consultative committee (CCC), and two community centre management committees.

In response to the news, Mr Jeyaretnam told reporters that he intended to form his own grassroots committee.

'I intend to get in a committee that will represent the residents and not the Prime Minister,' he said.

Before the announcement, he had expressed his intention to make grassroots committees elected, rather than appointed by the Government.

In its statement, the PMO observed that since the PA's formation in 1960, no opposition MP had been included in its committees and activities.

Advisers to grassroots organisations - which were government agencies under the PMO's authority - were chosen for 'their commitment to government policies', said the PMO.

As an opposition MP, Mr Jeyaretnam was not expected to work for the success of the Government's policies, it added.

The Government has not wavered from that line since. In PAP-held wards, it appoints MPs as grassroots advisers but in opposition-held wards, it gives PAP candidates that role.

Politics and the PA

IN PARLIAMENT in 1983, Mr Jeyaretnam disputed the neutrality of grassroots organisations - a topic which would recur in the House for the next three decades.

He claimed that the PA and its organisations had been put to use 'in promoting the fortunes of a political party' - namely, the PAP.

As an example, he noted that PAP candidates at election time were accompanied by officials of CCCs and RCs.

In contrast, he said, the RCs in his constituency had shunned him.

Then PM Lee Kuan Yew retorted that Mr Jeyaretnam had 'disqualified himself' from being made adviser by disdaining the unelected nature of RCs.

As for the PA, it was 'an unusual association to meet an unusual set of circumstances', he said.

When the PAP came to power in 1959, it wished to combat the communist threat, said Mr Lee. But one problem was that people preferred not to be involved in politics, out of fear of communist reprisal.

'We therefore came out with this proposition which enabled community leaders not to identify themselves with a political party but to identify themselves with the Government of the day. There is a clear distinction,' said Mr Lee.

That proposition was the PA, conceived as a non-partisan body.

Speaking to Insight this week, Mr Lee Khoon Choy regrets how the PA and its organisations came to be embroiled in political controversy.

'The PA should concentrate not on politics, but on culture, and how to bring the people together,' he says.

His views have not changed from 1981: 'The PA is for everybody,' he says. That includes the opposition, he adds later.

Opposition objections

GOVERNMENT explanations have failed to satisfy the opposition.

In the 16 years from 1981 to 1997, issues relating to the role of grassroots advisers were raised in Parliament no fewer than 10 times.

Mr Jeyaretnam raised them again in 1985, this time supported by Mr Chiam See Tong, who became MP for Potong Pasir in the 1984 General Election.

In an interview with Insight this week, Mr Chiam says his constituents were 'very disappointed' when he was not made adviser.

'It was a slap in their faces. They elected me as their MP, and here came the PAP to take me away from them.'

Mr Chiam pursued the topic through the 1980s and 1990s. After the 1991 General Election saw more opposition MPs in Parliament, his complaints were joined by those of Mr Low Thia Khiang, then MP for Hougang, and Mr Cheo Chai Chen, then MP for Nee Soon Central.

The opposition MPs asked why they could not be made advisers to grassroots bodies; disputed the neutrality of the PA; complained about being denied the use of community facilities; and took issue with the process of applying for public funds.

The Government's response remained the same through the years: grassroots advisers must help advance government policy, and opposition MPs cannot be expected to do so.

When Mr Chiam protested in 1987, then Minister for National Development S. Dhanabalan noted that any PAP MP who did not help to advance government policy would be removed as adviser.

If Mr Chiam could state that he was able to advance government policy, then the PA would be prepared to consider him as an adviser, he added.

Then PA deputy chairman Lee Yock Suan echoed that sentiment in 1989.

But opposition MPs said that stance painted too obstructionist a portrait of them.

In 1995, Mr Cheo said that opposition MPs like him support and promote government policies that are good.

'But if the policy is no good, then we have a duty to point it out,' he added.

Mr Chiam tells Insight this week: 'We are all Singaporeans. If it's good for Singapore, we will put our full backing behind government policy.'

Members of the public have recently made the same point.

In a letter to The Straits Times on Aug 31 this year, the PA noted that grassroots advisers have to 'help promote government policies and programmes such as anti-dengue and active ageing'.

Opposition MPs could not be expected to play this role well, it added.

In response, a flurry of forum letters expressed scepticism that opposition MPs would not promote such policies.

And on its Facebook page, the Singapore People's Party - of which Mr Chiam is secretary-general - posted photographs of Mr Chiam's efforts in those exact two areas: serving senior citizens at a 'durian party', and holding an anti-dengue campaign when he was the MP for Potong Pasir.

Gaining a political edge?

ONE consequence of opposition MPs not being grassroots advisers is that their town councils' access to public funds becomes more difficult.

Applications for Community Improvement Projects Committee (CIPC) funds must get the approval of the CCC.

In opposition constituencies, the CCC adviser is usually a PAP member - often the defeated candidate at the previous election, or the candidate intending to contest the next election.

Projects by opposition-held town councils are hence unlikely to be approved, Mr Chiam and Mr Low have said.

Both have called for the town council to be allowed to apply directly for funds.

In 1995, Mr Chiam noted in Parliament that before Mr Low was elected, the Hougang CCC had supported several recommendations for CIPC funds.

But this support was withdrawn after the PAP lost Hougang, said Mr Chiam.

The next year, noting that defeated PAP candidate Andy Gan was adviser to Potong Pasir CCC, he said: 'How do you think the defeated candidate will advise the CCC? To give support to the opposition's application? Naturally not.'

He noted that his own town council's applications had been rejected by the Potong Pasir CCC.

The defeated PAP candidate is elevated 'to a higher status' than the elected MP and 'given all the facilities to win back the seat', said Mr Chiam.

Meanwhile, Mr Low noted that potential PAP candidates were often brought into the constituency as second advisers to the grassroots organisations, allowing them to 'work the ground in the constituency and gain political capital'.

Ill-fated advisers

EVEN if this was the PAP strategy, it does not seem to have paid off.

Before the 1984 General Election, Mr Ng Pock Too - then political secretary to the prime minister - was made adviser to the Anson CCC. He ran against Mr Jeyaretnam that year and lost.

The Anson seat disappeared after the electoral boundaries were redrawn ahead of the 1988 General Election.

In Potong Pasir, a string of PAP candidates became grassroots advisers - but electoral victory remained Mr Chiam's.

Mr Mah Bow Tan became adviser to the Potong Pasir grassroots organisations after his defeat by Mr Chiam in 1984, but handed over the position to Mr Kenneth Chen in 1988.

Mr Chen ran in Potong Pasir that year, but was defeated. Two weeks before the polls in 1991, Mr Andy Gan became adviser. He ran and lost in 1991 and 1997.

In early 2001, Mr Sitoh Yih Pin took on the role. He ran and lost in 2001 and 2006, but finally won the seat this year, after Mr Chiam left to contest in Bishan- Toa Payoh GRC.

The story was similar in Hougang, where defeated PAP candidate Tang Guan Seng became a grassroots adviser after the 1981 polls.

He was followed by Mr Heng Chee How, who lost in the 1997 election; Mr Eric Low, who lost in 2001 and 2006; and Mr Desmond Choo, who lost this year.

Many of the defeated candidates later entered Parliament by contesting in other seats and GRCs.

Changing times?

MR CHIAM, in 1987, warned that excluding opposition MPs from grassroots bodies might divide the nation.

'We cannot have two worlds in Singapore - one who is supportive of the ruling party and the other who appears not to be supportive,' he said.

And if there are more opposition members in the future, 'the difference will be greater', he said.

Today, there are six opposition MPs in Parliament. An alternative grassroots body has been set up in Aljunied GRC, which is held by the Workers' Party.

Some have suggested that this duplication is unnecessary, and a result of the exclusion of opposition MPs from grassroots bodies.

'It's unnecessary and a waste of energy,' says Mr Lee Khoon Choy, who thinks the Workers' Party MPs should be involved in the PA organisations. He adds that 'our society needs more harmony'.

Others have turned the question around and asked: Why should PAP MPs themselves be grassroots advisers?

Having PAP members on the ground to explain the party's policies was crucial in the volatile decade of the 1960s, when ideological battles were being waged.

But the justification for having a party member as grassroots adviser, rather than a grassroots leader with no political affiliation, may seem less strong today.

As members of the opposition - and of the public - continue asking these questions, the three-decade-old response might eventually have to be reconsidered.

Monday, September 19, 2011

China censors survey of officials' luxury watches

BEIJING: The Chinese authorities are said to have censored a survey of luxury watches worn by government officials published online by a private citizen whose investigation had been lauded by the official media.

Internet user 'Huaguoshanzongshuji' told Agence France-Presse yesterday that his research had been erased last Saturday night from his account on the microblogging site Weibo, a Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

He blamed the move on 'pressure from the propaganda department', AFP reported.

The man, who identified himself to AFP as 'Daniel Wu', had been posting pictures of Chinese officials stating the brand and the value of their wristwatches ever since he noticed Railways Minister Sheng Guangzu wearing a 70,000-yuan (S$13,700) Rolex and one of his deputies, Mr Lu Dongfu, sporting a 50,000-yuan model.

That was when Mr Sheng appeared frequently before the media in late July following a deadly high-speed rail crash in eastern China.

Since then, Mr Sheng was found to also possess an Altiplano, a Glashutte Original, a Senator Automatic, and an Omega Constellation Chronometer, with a total value of at least 400,000 yuan, the Radio France Internationale reported, quoting from the 'watch watcher'.

The survey was subsequently extended to more officials, including Mr Sun Jingmiao, a senior official in the eastern province of Zhejiang, who was spotted wearing a Rolex worth 70,000 yuan.

Another was Mr Zhou Wenzhang, vice- president of the China National School of Administration, who was found wearing a Piaget Emperador estimated to be worth 100,000 yuan.

According to Hong Kong's Ming Pao Daily News, 'Huaguoshanzongshuji' is a watch aficionado and the executive director of a joint venture company.

The official Xinhua news agency paid tribute to the 'watch watcher' in a comment last Saturday, saying the fight against corruption 'should follow' his method.

'A simple watch can reveal the hidden corruption of some greedy officials and it shows that corruption leaves its mark,' it warned.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The fallacy of planning

WHEN Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman was a young man, he led a committee to write a new part of the curriculum for Israeli high schools. The committee worked for a year, and Dr Kahneman asked his colleagues how long they thought the rest of the project would take. Their estimates were around two years.
By David Brooks

Dr Kahneman then asked the most experienced among them how long such work took other curriculum committees. The gentleman pointed out that roughly 40 per cent of the committees never finished their work at all.

But what about those that did finish? The gentleman reported that he had never seen a committee finish in less than seven years and never in more than 10.

This was bad news. They might fail to finish a task that they thought would be done in three years. At best, the project might consume eight or nine years. Yet this information didn't affect those on the team at all. They carried on, assuming that though others might fail or dally, surely they wouldn't.

As it turned out, their project took eight years to finish. By the time it was done, the Education Ministry had lost interest, and the curriculum was never used.

In his forthcoming book, Thinking, Fast And Slow, Dr Kahneman calls this the planning fallacy. Most people overrate their own abilities and exaggerate their capacity to shape the future. That's fine. Optimistic people rise in this world. The problem comes when these optimists don't look at themselves objectively from the outside.

The planning fallacy is failing to think realistically about where you fit in the distribution of people like you. As Dr Kahneman puts it: 'People who have information about an individual case rarely feel the need to know the statistics of the class to which the case belongs.'

Over the past three years, the United States has been committing the planning fallacy on stilts. The world economy has been slammed by a financial crisis. Countries that are afflicted with these crises typically experience several years of high unemployment. They go deep into debt to end the stagnation, but the turnaround takes a while.

This historical pattern has been universally acknowledged and universally ignored. Instead, leaders in both parties have clung to the analogy that the economy is like a sick patient who can be healed by the right treatment.

The Democrats, besotted by the myth that the New Deal ended the Great Depression, have consistently overestimated their ability to turn the economy around. They regard the Greek crack-up as a freakish, unlucky break, even though this sort of thing is a typical feature of a financial crisis.

Republicans, who should know better, also have an inflated sense of the power of government. In the presidential debates, Mr Rick Perry, Mr Mitt Romney and Mr Jon Huntsman argue about which one oversaw the most job creation during his term as governor, as if governors have an immediate and definable impact on employers' hiring decisions.

The reality, of course, is that the economy is not a patient. It is a zillion, zillion interactions. Government is not a doctor. Most of the time, it is a clashing collective enterprise that is occasionally able to produce marginal change, for good and for ill.

Democrats should be learning about the limits of social policy. As in the war on poverty, as in the effort to transform American schools, as in the effort to create prosperity in the developing world, it is really hard to turn around complex systems.

Republicans should be reflecting on the fact that if a Republican president were in office right now, and even if he or she did sensible things, the economy would still be in the dumps. It would be Republicans losing 'safe' congressional seats in special elections.

The key to wisdom in these circumstances is to make the distinction between discrete good and systemic good. When you are in the grip of a big, complex mess, you have the power to do discrete good but probably not systemic good.

When you are the president in a financial crisis, you have the power to pave roads and hire teachers. That will reduce the suffering of real people who would otherwise be jobless. You have the power to streamline regulations and reduce tax burdens. That will induce a bit more hiring and activity. These are real contributions.

But you don't have the power to transform the whole situation. Your discrete goods might contribute to an overall turnaround, but that turnaround will be beyond your comprehension and control.

Over the past decades, Americans have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can't.



Top general's son detained for assault

BEIJING: The 15-year-old son of a well-known Chinese army general will be detained for a year for beating a couple in an incident that sparked public outrage, state media reported.

The move came after hundreds of thousands of people went online to express their outrage at the actions of Li Tianyi, the latest in a series of scandals involving the children of high-ranking Chinese officials.

According to the reports, the younger Li and another person were attempting to exit a driveway in a residential section of Beijing when they found the couple's car blocking their way. Witnesses said he and an older friend beat the couple for three minutes in what appeared to be an act of road rage, while the couple's five-year-old son looked on.

'Who will dare call the police?' they shouted to stunned onlookers before trying to flee the scene. They were stopped by residents, the report said.

A lawyer had earlier told the English-language Global Times that Li would not be charged because he was not yet 16.

Children under that age cannot be tried in Chinese courts, and are instead detained in correctional facilities for minors for up to three years at the government's discretion.

The younger Li was sent to a government correctional facility for one year after confessing under police interrogation, Xinhua news agency said, adding that the boy's father, General Li Shuangjiang, had offered compensation to the couple.

'I have been a soldier 50 years, I never thought my son could do something like this,' local media quoted the general as saying. 'They will be dealt with by the police - I won't interfere.' General Li is also a popular singer and household name in China.

Police said that the younger Li was 'found to have physically assaulted a couple and damaged their car' on Sept 6.

Li, who at 15 is too young to get a driving licence in China, had been driving a customised BMW just before the incident occurred.

The friend drove a car with number plates that indicated it had high-level privileges. Police are often reluctant to confront cars with such official plates, although these turned out to be fake, according to some news reports.

The latest case recalls a scandal last year in which a senior police officer's son tried to use his father's status to evade punishment for a deadly car accident he had caused.

Twenty-two-year-old Li Qiming ran over a student in the northern province of Hebei, famously shouting: 'Sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!' He was later sentenced to six years in prison.

Both Li Qiming and Li Tianyi have quickly become targets of public disdain as members of the 'fu er dai', or 'rich second generation'.

The increasing speed with which information travels on the Chinese Internet, particularly though microblogging services such as Sina's Weibo, has helped turn the transgressions of the elite into a national obsession, according to The Wall Street Journal.

'Second-generation rich, second-generation officials, second-generation celebrities... before you learn to make money, you should probably learn how to be human,' wrote a Weibo user, Xiaowang Tiankong888.


Tuesday, September 13, 2011

History debate in KL turns political

KUALA LUMPUR: A heated debate has broken out in Malaysian political circles over the country's history, with ruling party Umno being accused of sidelining non-Umno players in the official account of independence.

By Teo Cheng Wee, Regional Correspondent

Politicians have been exchanging barbs, newspapers have been running commentaries, and netizens have filled blogs and forums with arguments over who played what roles in the road to independence.

Minority communities have complained before that their contributions have been underplayed. But critics are taking it further this time, questioning Umno's dominance of the Malay narrative as well.

Some allege that last month's celebration of Merdeka Day had inadvertently turned into an 'Umno celebration' that highlighted only the party's leaders for their efforts. Others say Umno is taking more credit than it deserves, and maintain that many non-Umno Malays had lost their lives in the campaign to drive out the British colonialists. Malaysia gained its independence on Aug 31, 1957.

More than a mere debate over history, this challenge strikes at the heart of Umno's identity as the party that united Malays and acted as the key to achieving independence. That is why, said political analyst Shaharuddin Badaruddin, it has continued for weeks and gone far beyond academic circles.

Political analyst Wong Chin Huat pointed out that not all Malays supported Umno during the independence movement. 'Some Malays saw Umno as a sell-out working together with the British,' he was quoted as saying by an online news website.

The spat, mostly between Umno and the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), first arose in the days leading up to Aug 31, when PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu charged at a rally that independence day had become monopolised by Umno.

It sparked an intense debate online and in the media, with reactions mushrooming and even branching off into different and seemingly off-tangent issues, such as the country's colonial history and the governing role of the British.

But PAS has also drawn fire. Umno and its supporters accuse it of twisting facts for political gain, while others slam Mr Mohamad for hailing a Malay communist leader as an independence 'hero'.

Mat Indera led more than 200 guerilla fighters in a siege on a police station in Johor in 1950, and over 20 Malay constables and their families died defending it. Mr Mohamad's comments triggered angry responses from former servicemen. He later said he supported Mat Indera's fight, but not communism.

The debate has seen Prime Minister Najib Razak and former premier Mahathir Mohamad weighing in with their opinions. On Sunday, Datuk Seri Najib said people should not be 'changing historical facts or glorifying the communist terrorists'.

Yesterday, Tun Dr Mahathir chided those who 'invent history'. He had earlier suggested that history textbooks be updated to include more on Malaysia's struggle for independence by leaders such as its first premier, Tunku Abdul Rahman. 'The government needs to focus on what really transpired so that writings on the country's history would not be influenced by current political interests,' he said.

But PAS is not letting up. It has made it a 'top priority' to push the government to set up a committee to review the pre-independence history. 'If the government is sincere, PM Najib should form a committee and we will send our historians... to participate,' said its vice-president Salahuddin Ayub.

With the history topic taking on a political slant, analysts said the protracted debate has confounded many. Political analyst Ooi Kee Beng said: 'Official Malaysian history is radically simplified, but what Mohamad Sabu purportedly said was unwise too and oversimplified matters in its own way.'

Monday, September 12, 2011

The trouble with homework

WHEN you think of America's students, do you picture overworked, stressed-out children bent under backpacks stuffed with textbooks and worksheets? Or do you call to mind glassy-eyed, empty-headed teenagers sitting before computer screens, consumed by video games and social networking sites, even as their counterparts in China prepare to ace yet another round of academic exams?
By Annie Murphy Paul

The first view dominates a series of recent books and movies, including the much-discussed film Race To Nowhere. The second image has been put forth by other books, with titles like The Dumbest Generation: How The Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans And Jeopardises Our Future.

Divergent though they are, these characterisations share a common emphasis: homework. The studying that middle school and high school students do after the dismissal bell rings is either an unreasonable burden or a crucial activity that needs beefing up.


Do American students have too much homework or too little? Neither, I'd say. We ought to be asking a different question altogether. What should matter to parents and educators is this: How effectively do children's after-school assignments advance learning?

Which is it? Do American students have too much homework or too little?

Neither, I'd say. We ought to be asking a different question altogether. What should matter to parents and educators is this: How effectively do children's after-school assignments advance learning?

The quantity of students' homework is a lot less important than its quality. And evidence suggests that as of now, homework isn't making the grade. Although surveys show that the amount of time America's children spend on homework has risen over the past three decades, American students are mired in the middle of international academic rankings: 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in maths, according to results from the Programme For International Student Assessment released in December last year.

In a 2008 survey, one-third of parents polled rated the quality of their children's homework assignments as fair or poor, and four in 10 said they believed that some or a great deal of homework was busywork (work or assignments that are time consuming, but not useful). A new study, coming in the Economics Of Education Review, reports that homework in science, English and history has 'little to no impact' on student test scores. (The authors did note a positive effect with maths homework.) Enriching children's classroom learning requires that homework be made not shorter or longer, but smarter.

Fortunately, research is available to help parents, teachers and school administrators do just that.

In recent years, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists and educational psycho-logists have made a series of remarkable discoveries about how the human brain learns. They have founded a new discipline, known as Mind, Brain and Education, that is devoted to understanding and improving the ways in which children absorb, retain and apply knowledge.

American educators have begun to implement these methods in classrooms around the country and have enjoyed measured success. A collaboration between psychologists at Washington University in St Louis and teachers at nearby Columbia Middle School, for example, lifted seventh- and eighth-grade students' science and social studies test scores by 13 to 25 per cent.

But the innovations have not yet been applied to homework. Mind, Brain and Education methods may seem unfamiliar and even counterintuitive, but they are simple to understand and easy to carry out. And after-school assignments are ripe for the kind of improvements the new science offers.

'Spaced repetition' is one example of the kind of evidence-based techniques that researchers have found have a positive impact on learning. Here's how it works:

Instead of concentrating the study of information in single blocks, as many homework assignments currently do - reading about, say, the American Civil War one evening and Reconstruction the next - learners encounter the same material in briefer sessions spread over a longer period of time. With this approach, students are re-exposed to information about the Civil War and Reconstruction throughout the term.

It sounds unassuming, but spaced repetition produces impressive results. Eighth-grade history students who relied on a spaced approach to learning had nearly double the retention rate of students who studied the same material in a consolidated unit, reported researchers from the University of California-San Diego in 2007.

The reason the method works so well goes back to the brain: When we first acquire memories, they are volatile, subject to change or likely to disappear. Exposing ourselves to information repeatedly over time fixes it more permanently in our minds, by strengthening the representation of the information that is embedded in our neural networks.

A second learning technique, known as 'retrieval practice', employs a familiar tool - the test - in a new way: not to assess what students know, but to reinforce it. We often conceive of memory as something like a storage tank and a test as a kind of dipstick that measures how much information we've put in there. But that's not how the brain works. Every time we pull up a memory, we make it stronger and more lasting, so that testing doesn't just measure, it changes learning. Simply reading over material to be learnt, or even taking notes and making outlines, as many homework assignments require, doesn't have this effect.

According to one experiment, language learners who employed the retrieval practice strategy to study vocabulary words remembered 80 per cent of the words they studied, while learners who used conventional study methods remembered only about a third of them.

Students who used retrieval practice to learn science retained about 50 per cent more of the material than students who studied in traditional ways, researchers from Purdue University reported this year. Students - and parents - may groan at the prospect of more tests, but the self-quizzing involved in retrieval practice need not provoke any anxiety. It's simply an effective way to focus less on the input of knowledge (passively reading over textbooks and notes) and more on its output (calling up that same information from one's own brain).

Another common misconception about how we learn holds that if information feels easy to absorb, we've learnt it well. In fact, the opposite is true. When we work hard to understand information, we recall it better; the extra effort signals the brain that this knowledge is worth keeping. This phenomenon, known as cognitive disfluency, promotes learning so effectively that psychologists have devised all manner of 'desirable difficulties' to introduce into the learning process: for example, sprinkling a passage with punctuation mistakes, deliberately leaving out letters, shrinking font size until it's tiny or wiggling a document while it's being copied so words come out blurry.

Teachers are unlikely to start sending students home with smudged or error-filled worksheets, but there is another kind of desirable difficulty - called interleaving - that can readily be applied to homework. An interleaved assignment mixes up different kinds of situations or problems to be practised, instead of grouping them by type. When students can't tell in advance what kind of know-ledge or problem-solving strategy will be required to answer a question, their brains have to work harder to come up with the solution, and the result is that students learn the material more thoroughly.

Researchers at California Polytechnic State University conducted a study of interleaving in sports that illustrates why the tactic is so effective. When baseball players practised hitting, interleaving different kinds of pitches improved their performance on a later test in which the batters did not know the type of pitch in advance (as would be the case, of course, in a real game).

Interleaving produces the same sort of improvement in academic learning. A study published last year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology asked fourth-graders (nine- to 10-year-olds) to work on solving four types of maths problems and then take a test evaluating how well they had learnt. The scores of those whose practice problems were mixed up were more than double the scores of those students who had practised one kind of problem at a time.

The application of such research-based strategies to homework is a yet-untapped opportunity to raise student achievement. Science has shown us how to turn homework into a potent catalyst for learning. Our assignment now is to make it happen.

The writer is the author of Origins and is at work on a new book about the science of learning.