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posted Mar 15, 2016, 8:00 AM by Mizz Abe

Why Is Change So Hard for China?

14 Mar 2016
Bloomberg View
By Christopher Balding
Economic reforms are much like New Year’s diet resolutions: easily announced and easily forgotten. So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the pronouncements that have emerged from China’s National People’s Congress -- pledges to slash overcapacity, open up the financial system, accept lower growth -- echo unfulfilled promises from previous Party gatherings.

Still, China prides itself on being different. The country can seemingly create new industries overnight, and has waged an anti-corruption campaign that reportedly punished 300,000 officials in 2015. Why does a state that holds so much power have so much trouble following through on its reform pledges?

Part of the answer is perception. Observers tend to hear more than is intended in China’s declarations. This year, for instance, many pundits have welcomed the shift from a hard GDP growth target to a supposedly more realistic range -- between 6.5 percent and 7 percent. The real growth rate is almost certainly lower than that already, however. The numbers themselves tell us little: Since 2010, the government has missed its target by only 0.16 percent on average every quarter. We should expect similarly unbelievable consistency this year, regardless of what’s happening in the economy.

In other cases, Chinese officials pursue reforms in ways that actually reinforce the status quo. To stimulate consumption and thus reduce the economy’s reliance on credit-fueled investment, the government plans to increase investment this year -- in part to keep workers at failing state companies employed. Authorities say they also want to support companies in more vibrant emerging industries with tax cuts. But they plan to make up for the loss in revenue by issuing new bonds, thus giving local governments more resources to coddle so-called zombie companies. The contradictions become clear in the way Chinese officials talk about reform. In a recent interview, respected central banker Zhou Xiaochuan was quoted as saying, “Because our country is moving from a centrally planned economy to a market economy … the government should play a bigger and better role.”

The regime’s focus on control gives the impression that authorities can micromanage most parts of the economy. In fact, China’s central government has less sway than one might imagine over local governments, and not just because of the vast distances involved. Local officials are responsible for around 85 percent of government spending. Though central authorities do control roughly 40 percent of the revenue local governments receive, Beijing officials mostly have to rely on the bully pulpit, appeals to party unity and the threat of corruption investigations in order to get their priorities implemented.

Perhaps more important are the cultural barriers to reform. Within the bureaucracy, there’s little reward for overseeing failure. Top officials may say they want to slash the overcapacity that’s dragging down the economy, but subordinates know the best way to get ahead is by meeting growth targets. Provinces that depend on steel, shipbuilding and coal companies for public revenue are already pushing back against plans to shrink those industries. Entrepreneurs don’t want to admit failure any more than officials do. Even in good years, the U.S. economy sees something in the range of 50,000 bankruptcies annually. China had barely 41,000 in the decade between 2003 and 2012, according to one study. Such numbers hardly suggest a system that actively addresses problems.

None of this means that the government is powerless. Leaders can take a number of steps, both technical and cultural, to ensure reforms gain more traction. First, they can do a better job of creating incentives for cadres to follow through. Rather than demanding that local officials provide video evidence that they’ve shut down unprofitable factories, for instance, central leaders can base promotions in part on reducing overcapacity.

Similarly, the government could reward reformers who seek to highlight key problems, such as pollution, rather than trying to silence them. If the only avenue for success or advancement is to agree with a superior, bureaucrats will only impart the information their bosses want to hear.

Finally, China is going to have to encourage more market-based risk-taking. If authorities want Chinese companies to innovate, they have to tolerate some spectacular failures along with resounding successes. Investors will have to lose money, rather than relying on state-owned banks or governments to prop up failed ventures in perpetuity. Otherwise, change will remain little more than a slogan.


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posted Oct 9, 2015, 8:17 PM by Mizz Abe

Outside powers will be burnt by Syria’s fire

8 Oct 2015

In the 1930s, the Spanish civil war sucked in outsiders, with Nazi Germany backing the nationalists, the Soviet Union backing the Republicans and foreign idealists flocking to the country to fight on either side of the conflict. A similar proxy war is under way in Syria today — with both the Russian and United States air forces bombing targets in the country, and foreign fighters pouring into Syria.

The mutation of a civil war into a “proxy war” between outside powers is almost invariably a tragic and dangerous development.

In Syria, it has made the war longer, bloodier, more dangerous to the rest of the world and harder to end. After four years, a conventional civil war might already have burnt out — giving the Syrians some chance of rebuilding their lives and their country. But with outside powers pouring petrol on to the flames of the conflict, it is clear that only some kind of international settlement can offer any hope of ending the conflict.

Unfortunately, we still seem to be in the escalation phase, as outside powers increase their efforts on the battlefield, hoping either for victory for “their” side or to increase their leverage in eventual peace talks. Iran, Russia and the Hezbollah militia have intervened on behalf of President Bashar Assad’s regime. The US, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom have supported opposition forces.

Meanwhile, foreign jihadis continue to travel to Syria to fight as part of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Proxy wars are disastrous for the countries on whose soil they are fought out. But they can also be very dangerous for the powers that are fuelling the conflict. The most obvious risk is that a war fought initially through proxies leads eventually to a direct conflict.

The countries that were backing opposite sides in Spain in the 1930s were fighting each other directly by the 1940s. The risk of the Syrian conflict leading to a direct clash between the Iranians and the Saudis, or even the Russians and the Americans, cannot be discounted — particularly when rival air forces are operating in proximity.

But the dangers of proxy war extend beyond the risk of direct conflict. The fires of war are hard to control once they have been deliberately fanned. Pakistan and the US, for example, fought a proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but later suffered grievously from “blowback” from the Islamist militants they had supported in the country.

It is not hard to see how the Syrian conflict could generate similar blowback for some of the nations involved in the conflict. The government of Saudi Arabia is clearly threatened by some of the militant Islamist groups it has encouraged and supported in Syria. Russia also risks inflaming its domestic Muslim population and being drawn deeper into another war, even as the conflict in Ukraine festers.

Fuelled by fear

Despite these risks, outside powers continue to become involved in the Syrian conflict — fearing that their security and status will weaken if they allow other nations or creeds to seize the initiative. The most obvious instance is the fight between the forces of Sunni and Shia Islam. The Assad regime is supported by the Shia-dominated states — above all, Iran and Iraq. The anti-Assad forces are supported by the Sunni countries: Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Turkey.

Overlaid on this contest between regional powers is a struggle between the US and Russia — with Russia backing Mr Assad and the US continuing to call for his removal. The Russia-US struggle is partly about influence in the Middle East. But it also has broader geopolitical and ideological elements.

Russia and the West are already waging a proxy war over the future of Ukraine. They are also at loggerheads over the broader concept of support for “regime change” against undemocratic or oppressive governments.

The Islamic State adds a further layer of complication. In theory, the threat from the militant jihadis could unite all the outside powers. In practice, the Western powers have accused Russia of largely ignoring the Islamic State and instead targeting the more moderate groups fighting the Assad regime, some of which receive Western support.

There is a similar but less high-profile argument going on between the US and Turkey. The US welcomed Turkey’s willingness to join in bombing strikes against the Islamic State, but have been dismayed to discover the Turks are keener on attacking the Kurdish militias that are among the few effective, non-jihadist forces fighting Mr Assad.

All the nations that have intervened in Syria are motivated, to a large extent, by fear. The Saudis fear the rise of Iran and the Iranians fear the replacement of an allied government in Syria with another hostile Sunni-dominated state. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — faced with a shrinking economy and a stalemate in Ukraine — wants to prevent further Western-sponsored “regime change”. The US feels compelled to respond, lest the Obama administration is once again accused of accepting a decline in US power — a perception that risks becoming self-fulfilling.

All of these nations fear that their weakness will be exposed or accentuated, if their side is seen to “lose” in Syria. All of them seem incapable of acting on their mutual interest in ending a conflict that threatens them all. Until they decide to cooperate, the misery of the Syrian people will continue. FINANCIAL TIMES


Gideon Rachman is the Financial Times’ chief foreign affairs commentator.


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posted Oct 9, 2015, 8:13 PM by Mizz Abe   [ updated Oct 9, 2015, 8:13 PM ]

How climate change will affect transboundary haze
6 Oct 2015

Discussions about the ongoing transboundary haze focus mainly on local and immediate causes. Topics include which agencies on Sumatra and Kalimantan are responsible for the fires directly causing the smoke, what can be done to punish transgressors and the transnational help offered within the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN) to assist Indonesian authorities in putting out the hot spots.

Something that has not featured prominently in the debate, however, is whether a changing climate influences the likelihood of future regional haze occurrences. Would future weather and climate over South-east Asia favour conditions that could lead to more frequent haze episodes? The latest climate research by regional scientists make for disquieting reading.

In our current climate, the haze often coincides with the dry Southwest monsoon season. This occurs from June to September, and the dry surface conditions enable local residents from provinces in Sumatra and Kalimantan to rapidly clear land either for subsistence farming, or for commercial palm oil and timber plantations. The prevailing winds then move the smoke over towards Singapore and Malaysia.

How would climate change caused by increased emissions of greenhouse gases affect the monsoon, in particular future temperature and rainfall patterns?

Average annual temperatures are all but certain to increase in all climate model simulations until 2100, but future average annual rainfall patterns throughout South-east Asia do not show a similar strong increasing trend.

However, seasonal changes in rainfall patterns are likely in the future because of projected increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere over the next century. Climate model simulations recently utilised and reported by the Centre for Climate Research Singapore indicate that less Southwest monsoon rainfall is expected. Worryingly, the projected future decrease in rainfall is clear over regions in Sumatra and Borneo where current hot spots are located, meaning these areas are likely to be drier.


There are two “natural” climate phenomena affecting South-east Asia — El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) —that may also be influenced by climate change, and these could consequently influence haze development.

A short primer: ENSO and IOD are periodic oscillations of sea surface temperature occurring in the equatorial Pacific and Indian Oceans, respectively. Under El Nino (or positive ENSO) conditions, historical rainfall over the Indonesian archipelago is decreased substantially. Likewise, positive IOD conditions, characterised by warmer-than-normal water in the western Indian Ocean, often results in a decrease of rainfall over Sumatra and Java.

The timing of these oscillations is important. In particular, the co-occurrence of these two during their positive phases during the Southwest monsoon could make already dry surface conditions even drier.

Research by Indonesia’s National Institute of Aeronautics and Space showed that both El Nino and positive IOD conditions simultaneously developed in 1997 and 2006. Both were years in which significantly drier-than-average conditions occurred over most parts of Indonesia during the Southwest monsoon. Unsurprisingly, significant haze that blanketed Malaysia and Singapore resulted during these periods.

Of note is that the current haze event also coincides with strengthening El Nino and positive IOD phases, and monthly rainfall in the associated Indonesian hot spot areas has significantly been lower than average for the past two months.

Therefore, the important question is, would future ENSO and IOD events be affected by climate change? Last year, two modelling studies by Australian-based researchers published in the academic journal Nature appear to indicate that occurrences of both phenomena are affected by global greenhouse gas warming.

The probability of these events occurring is considerably increased; the likelihood is doubled from one in 20 to one in 10 for the occurrence of strong ENSO, and trebled from one in 18 to one in six for strong IOD events occurring in the future.

Given the clear association of these phenomena with overall dry regional conditions, these are changing odds that could — and should — be of concern when considering transboundary haze development.


Thus, while we rightfully are concerned with the causes and impacts of the ongoing haze, let’s not neglect the elephant in the room that is climate change. There is evidence indicative of a future climate favouring more frequent transboundary haze episodes.

Stakeholders in ASEAN should tap this knowledge and adopt two approaches towards reducing the negative impact of haze. First, increase societal capacity in adapting to future haze events. For instance, authoritative and accurate health advisories can educate and inform affected people of the appropriate courses of action when air-quality thresholds are exceeded. Greater resources should also be devoted to treating heart- and lung-related illnesses that will increase with the onset of haze episodes, especially for people predisposed towards these ailments.

Second, the knowledge that business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions can factor in more transboundary haze episodes must be considered by ASEAN governments at the forthcoming Climate Change Conference in Paris. Pledging carbon-curbing actions that limit global temperature increases would definitely help in mitigating the effects of climate change on the haze.

Hopes of stopping land burning — the root cause of the ASEAN transboundary haze — are hamstrung by political and cultural issues that engender no easy solutions. This situation is complicated by climate change. Instead, anticipating likely increases in future haze events and adapting accordingly could be a sensible, complementary and effective option for all affected stakeholders in the long run.

Lastly, there is a temptation to solely accuse climate change for a presumptive increase in haze events. This would be a mistake; it shows a misunderstanding of how regional climate change only promotes the ambient conditions enabling the haze, rather than being the root cause.


Dr Winston Chow is an urban climatologist working as an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. The views and opinions expressed in this essay are solely his own and do not express the views or opinions of his employer.


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posted Oct 5, 2014, 8:23 PM by Mizz Abe

Why HK, China must end the protest well

OCTOBER 3, 2014

The protests that have rocked Hong Kong for the past week have sparked understandable fears of a Tiananmen-style crackdown. The more likely worst-case scenario is that the unrest will peter out, having done nothing to ease people’s many frustrations with their government. Both sides would be wise to work towards a better en

While Hong Kong officials and their superiors in Beijing want to get the Umbrella Revolution off the world’s TV screens, protesters must know that time is not on their side.

Large crowds were expected on Wednesday and last night, both holidays in China.

However, many demonstrators will inevitably drift back to their offices and universities, and sympathy for the idealistic young core of protesters will be replaced by frustration with blocked roads and lost sales.


The authorities, for their part, should not think it will be enough to simply wait out the demonstrators. The tens of thousands of Hong Kongers who have flooded the streets are expressing anger not only at China’s decision to restrict candidates for the city’s top political post in 2017.

They are driven also by frustrations over soaring inequality, unaffordable housing and a general sense that the local administration caters to the city’s tycoons rather than its struggling middle class.

A government that disregards these concerns will find its legitimacy under constant challenge.

At home, ironically, the Chinese regime seems to understand this perfectly well.

In recent years, Chinese leaders have sought to peacefully resolve most of the estimated 180,000 “mass incidents” (demonstrations involving more than 500 people) that take place on the mainland every year.

In most of these cases, of course, the protests have to do with local grievances and the ill deeds of petty officials. By showing themselves to be responsive, the higher-level authorities have enhanced the legitimacy and popularity of the Communist Party and central government.

In Hong Kong, in contrast, the activists are challenging decisions made by top Chinese leadership, in full view of the world.

China’s President Xi Jinping seems less inclined than his predecessors to pacify such opposition. He has made it clear that he believes a tougher leader — a “real man,” in his phrase — might have been able to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union.

And Mr Xi has displayed no tolerance for criticism — whether from microbloggers or constitutional lawyers and professors.

Still, even if the party never admits its mistakes, it often tries to correct them.

In Hong Kong, a huge march in 2003 prompted the authorities to withdraw a draconian security law. In 2012, protests pushed the government to roll back plans to introduce pro-China “patriotic education” to local schools.

Mr Xi, who took power soon afterwards, reportedly disagreed with the latter decision.

However, he has not publicly ruled out replacing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, who is a focus of protesters’ ire.

Although that may not happen for a while, officials could find other ways to ease public frustration.

At the least, Mr Leung’s administration could commission an independent investigation into police use of tear gas and pepper spray over the weekend.

That action, more than anything else, infuriated ordinary Hong Kongers and the government has every reason to show concern for the feelings of this moderate majority.

Officials could also work harder to start a conversation on ways to improve the electoral system after 2017, including by making the legislature fully elected and the candidate-nominating committee more representative.

This falls far short of protesters’ demands, but would at least demonstrate some degree of flexibility.

Mr Xi is unlikely to push any of these measures on his own.

However, the Hong Kong tycoons who recently met the Chinese President should recognise that an uncompromising line will only fuel future tensions.

That will erode Hong Kong’s still-critical reputation for stability and the rule of law — and further alienate the Taiwanese, who are growing more wary of China’s embrace.

The possibility should give the authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing alike reason to see that the Umbrella Revolution ends well.


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posted Jul 19, 2014, 9:57 AM by Mizz Abe

Putting on ‘veil of ignorance’ for a just society
JULY 18, 2014

We live in a diverse world — one that always has been, and always will be diverse. Today, communities are made up of people with different cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs and value systems.

How do we negotiate our differences so that everyone can live with respect and equality, and is valued as individuals free to make informed and responsible choices about their lives?

Going with the majority is not always a wise approach. In ancient Rome, some Christians were executed as common criminals — some were fed to the lions in the Colosseum to much delight and amusement of the crowd — for refusing to revere the Roman gods.

If we were to live during ancient Roman times, no doubt we would want to be able to practise a faith different from the majority, should we choose to, without being persecuted.

Minorities in all shapes and forms exists in our society, be they ethnic or religious minorities, people who are physically or mentally challenged, homes with single or divorced parents, sexual minorities.

Whether it is through circumstance or by choice, in a fair and inclusive society that Singapore aspires to be, those who find themselves being the minority should not be made to feel marginalised, discriminated against, or oppressed.

According everyone the right to live with respect and equality is not only the just and moral thing to do, it is also a good thing to do because it increases the well-being of the entire community. Nobody is better off in “a feuding, fragmented society soaked in tension”, in the words of Magdelene Sim, in her letter “Preserve common space or regress to a feuding society” to TODAY on July 12.

Numerous studies have shown that if a society is oppressive, or if there is a big discrepancy between incomes, the people are on the whole less happy than those living in an open, relaxed and equitable society.

One such study is by Dr Ed Diener, professor emeritus of psychology, and his colleagues at the University of Illinois. Among other things, they found that “people have higher life evaluations when others in society also have their needs fulfilled”. This indicates that happiness is not only an individual affair, but depends on the quality of life in our community.


How then do we ensure that we have an open, relaxed and equitable society? American philosopher John Rawls proposed this moral framework. To ensure justice for all, the social contract that governs our collective life should be arrived at under a “veil of ignorance”.

It is a mental exercise that requires us to come up with a social contract on the assumption that we do not know our class or gender, our race or ethnicity or our religious convictions. Neither do we know their advantages or disadvantages in life — whether we are frail or healthy, young or old, highly educated or a school drop-out, born to a supportive family or to a broken family.

Under those conditions, as rational, self-interested persons, what kind of social contract would we come up with?

We definitely would not choose to go with the majority rules, because we may end up as a minority and get fed to the lions. We may not want to have a purely laissez-faire system where there is no social welfare because we may be born with disability to a poor family.

Rawls believes two principles of justice would emerge from this exercise. The first provides equal basic liberties for all, such as freedom to religion, freedom of thought, freedom to make informed and responsible choices, freedom to love etc.

The second principle concerns social and economic equality, where inequality is permitted only if it works to the advantage of the least-well-off members of the society. One example is, we can pay doctors more than plumbers, if by doing so we attract more people to become doctors so more poor people can get access to affordable healthcare.

Harvard law professor Michael Sandel, who presented this idea in his book, Justice: What is the Right Thing To Do?, thinks Rawl’s proposal “represents the most compelling case for a more equal society that American political philosophy has yet to produce”.

That, I think, would be an ideal approach to negotiate differences in all civilised societies, Singapore included. After all, human beings aspire to happiness and shun suffering. We do not want to be oppressed, neither do we want to see others oppressed. There is evidence to suggest that one clear path towards happiness is through pro-social behaviours, for example, voluntary behaviour to help ease the suffering of others and to bring happiness to them. This ties in with the research mentioned above that says we are happier when others in our community are happy.

As one of the greatest minds, Albert Einstein, puts it: “But without deeper reflection, one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.”


Teh Hooi Ling, a partner in a Singapore-based boutique fund management company, was an award-winning investment columnist with The Business Times.

Source: http://www.todayonline.com/singapore/putting-veil-ignorance-just-society?singlepage=true

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posted Feb 13, 2014, 5:48 PM by Mizz Abe

Is Singapore truly multicultural?
14 FEBRUARY 2014

The passing of cultural theorist Stuart Hall on Monday may not have garnered as much media attention as that of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, but it is an event that should prod Singaporeans to take stock.

Hall has been hailed as the “godfather of multiculturalism”, and Singapore has often prided itself on being a good example of multiculturalism at work. Would Hall have agreed?

If Singapore epitomises multiculturalism, it is one with limited inclusivity. Our multiculturalism is premised on respecting differences that conform to neat categories of race and religion.

Yet human “cultures” are much more complex. First, not everyone professes race or religion as his or her primary identity marker. Second, members of a certain racial or religious group will have varied wants and behaviours, making it hard for anyone to speak on behalf of a community.

Given these, Singapore’s multiculturalism should not be seen as a national strength. In fact, it is a trait unbecoming of a self-professed global city. If we wish to stay sustainable, then we need to rethink our monolithic multiculturalism.

To be clear, multiculturalism here does not refer to an airy-fairy concept to be debated by academics, or a government buzzword to shape policies. Rather, I am talking about multiculturalism as it is lived out as an everyday reality in Singapore.

Consider the recent row over the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) online brochure on sexuality.

The brochure, which recognises multiple sexual orientations, has come under fire because some believe it “dangerously promotes homosexuality”. Indeed, Singapore’s lived multiculturalism denotes that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) folks cannot be considered a viable minority in the same manner as Malay-Muslims, a category that checks both the race and religion boxes.

This is not to say that our version of multiculturalism is the sole cause of the HPB row. There are other motivations behind it, probably the most cited being that the teachings of Christianity and Islam forbid it. But even here, Singapore’s lived multiculturalism falls short.

According to a recent Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey, more than three-quarters of Singaporeans are iffy about sexual relations between adults of the same sex and gay marriages.

With Muslims and Christians collectively making up less than a quarter of Singaporeans aged 15 and over, according to the 2010 census, the IPS survey suggests that opposition to same-sex relationships must have also come from believers of supposedly more inclusive religions such as Buddhism and Taoism.

This means that religious identity does not have an essentialised nature, as assumed by our lived multiculturalism. In the same way, it is ridiculous to assume all Malay-Muslims are against LGBTs, or agree that the hijab is a compulsory Muslim practice.

Addressing the importance of multiple identities, Hall writes that the “multicultural question” for any society must be how it envisages the future of “peoples from very different backgrounds, cultures, contexts, experiences and positions”. This question is especially valid for Singapore.

Perhaps the way forward is to live according to another ideal — cosmopolitanism. Unlike multiculturalism, there is no need to uphold neat categories or essentialised natures. According to Hall, cities are the best place in which cosmopolitanism can naturally occur because they “bring elements together and establish relations of interchange and exchange”. Singapore as a global trade and travel hub qualifies as such a city.

To be fair, cosmopolitanism has had its detractors. Some say only the rich, who have the means to travel the world, can afford to be cosmopolitan. To this, one can counter that cosmopolitanism should not be an ideal defined by the number of places one has visited. Rather, it is the spirit of being open to someone or something vastly different from oneself.

The Indonesian author Andrea Hirata’s semi-autobiographical novel The Rainbow Troops (2005) best demonstrates this. Recounting the childhood experiences of poor children from Belitung Island, the novel outlines countless instances in which these children were able to connect with foreign and local influences without even leaving town.

Singaporeans can be just as inclusive. The pervasiveness of the Internet and global media here can facilitate a cosmopolitan existence without our having to leave home. Now that is something to be celebrated.


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posted Jan 1, 2014, 1:58 AM by Mizz Abe

The secret of happiness
27 Dec 2013

The head of the think-tank where I work believes he has discovered the secret of happiness and he wants to share it with everyone.

Mr Arthur Brooks is President of the American Enterprise Institute and also a social scientist who has written a book on happiness. His research has shed light on who is happy and why.

Some of the results are what you would expect: Genes have a lot to do with a happy disposition. Poverty reduces happiness, but past a certain point, higher income does not do much to raise it. Mr Brooks notes that the decline in global poverty over the last few decades, especially in China and India, has thus meant a happier world.

Once basic material needs are met, though, satisfying work matters more than money. What people want is not only success, but also “earned success” — the feeling that one’s efforts have paid off.

In general, people overestimate the importance of “one-off” events to their future happiness. Even after personal tragedies, people within months revert to their baseline level of happiness. Other patterns were surprising, at least to me. Women in the United States have long reported greater levels of happiness than men. Their advantage has, however, been shrinking, and for an unhappy reason: Falling happiness among women.

Women also rebound more quickly than men from the death of a spouse — perhaps, Mr Brooks speculates, because they have more close friends.

Over the last 40 years, women who describe themselves as “conservative” have been more likely than women to their left to say they are “very happy”. Over the same period, conservatives, in general, have held the same pattern: Righty men, too, have been happier than their more liberal counterparts.

Most Americans — 89 per cent — are either satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs. Among those who want to “lean out”: A plurality of mothers, who say they would prefer part-time employment. Women who say they have turned down a promotion or made some other work sacrifice for the sake of their families report high happiness levels; it does not seem to make much difference for men.

Mr Brooks’ read is that the four great sources of happiness within human control are faith, family, friends and work. Married people are happier than singles. Those engaged in religious practices are happier than the unchurched.

He draws some public-policy conclusions, too. A safety net provided by the government is morally imperative and politically inevitable; it also raises the sum of human happiness.

Mr Brooks thinks conservatives need to make their peace with its existence. They should reform the safety net, and other policies, to enable more people to achieve earned success. That is, he argues, the ultimate reason for a focus on promoting economic growth and reducing dependency on the government. Policies that discourage work — aid programmes that phase out steeply as poor people move ahead in their jobs, for example — reduce happiness, not only economic efficiency.

Mr Brooks is an optimist, a happy warrior for free markets. There is, however, a heavy lump of coal amid the numbers. All four sources of happiness he identifies are in retreat in the US — especially among men, and even more especially among men without college degrees. They are less likely to be working or looking for work; less likely to get married and stay married; less likely to belong to a faith community; and less likely to report that they have close friends.

The low point for male happiness comes at age 45, on average, Mr Brooks reports.

It is not easy to see how any of these deep-seated cultural trends, which have been underway for decades, could be reversed. Unless we do, however, the US could be in for a future with a lot more sadness. BLOOMBERG


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posted Dec 14, 2013, 9:52 PM by Mizz Abe   [ updated Jan 1, 2014, 1:54 AM ]

Craving genuine leaders with moral authority
13 Dec 2013

The global outpouring of respect for Nelson Mandela suggests that we are not just saying goodbye to the man at his death, but that we are losing a certain kind of leader, unique on the world stage today, and we are mourning that just as much.

Mandela had an extraordinary amount of “moral authority”. Why? And how did he get it?

Much of the answer can be deduced from one scene in a movie about Mandela, Invictus. It tells the story of Mandela’s one and only term as President of South Africa, when he enlists the country’s famed rugby team, the Springboks, on a mission to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup and, through that, to start the healing of that apartheid-torn land. Before the games, though, the sports committee in the post-apartheid, newly black-led South Africa tells Mandela that it wants to change the name and colours of the almost all-white Springboks to something more reflective of black African identity.

But Mandela refuses. He tells his black sports officials that an essential part of making whites feel at home in a black-led South Africa was not uprooting all their cherished symbols. “That is selfish thinking,” Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, says in the movie. “It does not serve the nation.” Then speaking of South Africa’s whites, Mandela adds: “We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.”


There are many big leadership lessons in this scene. The first is that one way leaders generate moral authority is by being willing to challenge their own base at times — and not just the other side. It is easy to lead by telling your own base what it wants to hear. It is easy to lead when things are going well.

But what’s really difficult is getting your society to do something big and hard and together. And the only way to do that is by not only asking the other side’s base to do something hard — in South Africa’s case, asking whites to cede power to black majority rule — but to challenge your own base to do hard things, too: In South Africa’s case, asking blacks to avoid revenge after years of brutal, entrenched, white rule.


Mr Dov Seidman, whose company LRN advises CEOs on governance and who is the author of the book, How, argues that another source of Mandela’s moral authority derived from the fact that “he trusted his people with the truth” rather than just telling them what they wanted to hear.

“Leaders who trust people with the hard truths are trusted back,” said Mr Seidman. Leaders who don’t, generate anxiety and uncertainty in their followers, who usually, deep down, know the truth and are not really relieved by having it ignored or disguised.


Finally, said Mr Seidman, Mandela “did big things by making himself small”. “Through his uncommon humility and willingness to trust his people with the truth,” he said, “Mandela created a hopeful space where enough South Africans trusted each other, so they could unite and do the hard work of transition together.”

What is so inspiring about Mandela, explained Mr Seidman, “is that he did not make the moment of South Africa’s transition about himself. It was not about his being in jail for 27 years. It was not about his need for retribution.”

It was about seizing a really big moment, to go from racism to pluralism without stopping for revenge. “Mandela did not make himself the hope,” added Mr Seidman. “He saw his leadership challenge as inspiring hope in others so they would do the hard work of reconciliation. It was in that sense that he accomplished big things by making himself smaller than the moment.”


To put it another way, Mandela and his partner, South African President FW de Klerk, got enough of their people to transcend their past rather than wallow in it. So much of American politics today, noted Mr Seidman, is about “shifting, not elevating, people”. So much of American politics today is about how I narrowcast to this poll-tested demographic in this ZIP code to get enough voters to shift to my side to give me 50.1 per cent — just enough to win office, but not to govern or do anything big and hard.

Mandela’s leadership genius was his ability to enlist a critical mass of South Africans to elevate, to go to a new place, not just shift a few votes at the margin. It is precisely the absence of such leadership in so many countries today that has motivated millions of individuals in the last four years — from Iran to Egypt to Tunisia to Turkey to Ukraine — to flock to public squares. What is striking, though, is the fact that none of these “Tahrir Square movements” have built sustainable democratic alternatives yet.

That is a big, hard project, and it can only be done together. And it turns out that generating that unity of purpose still requires a leader, but the right kind of leader. “People are rejecting leaders who rule by the formal authority of their position and command by hierarchical power,” said Mr Seidman, but they are “craving genuine leadership — leaders who lead by their moral authority to inspire and to enlist us in a shared journey.” THE NEW YORK TIMES


Read and learn new words!

posted Dec 14, 2013, 9:47 PM by Mizz Abe   [ updated Dec 14, 2013, 9:48 PM ]

From Western liberal learning to fusion education
11 Dec 2013

American academics like to comment on the fact that just as liberal learning is undergoing a great challenge in the United States, it has become the country’s educational export, particularly to key parts of Asia — China, India and Singapore, to name a few.

Many Chinese universities in the last decade have begun to turn away from a Soviet system to a more analytical general learning in the early years of university. (They tend to call it “general education” or tongshi—“interconnected knowledge”.)

The University of Hong Kong is switching from a three-year to a four-year model. The University of Delhi is in the midst of a tumultuous debate about the same kind of transition. A recent conference at the Seoul National University’s College of Liberal Studies focused on “The Renaissance of Liberal Studies in Asian Universities”.

The National University of Singapore is partnering with Yale University to create a new liberal arts college, based on both old and new models of liberal learning.

Yet, the recent attention to liberal learning is at risk of becoming one-sided. Much of the conversation is about moving towards the more American model whereby broad learning and critical thinking is at the heart of education.

Rather than engaging with a wide variety of perspectives and thinking about effective curricula for global citizens from the “ground up”, participants in the debate tend to focus instead on the Western source of the change. Liberal curricula are then characterised as one of two extremes: Either the best of the educational systems in America — or educational neo-imperialism thinly disguised as something else.


This way of thinking proceeds in only one direction, from the West to the East, and ignores the fact that many different kinds of Asian cultures have their own histories and literatures, which feature self-critique, critical thinking and interdisciplinary learning.

Are these traditions born of the European enlightenment? Of course not. But they nonetheless have become classics because they are meant to shape a person and, like all forms of liberal learning at their best, can nurture a kind of intellectual purpose, life long curiosity and critical, committed citizenship.

Just read, for instance, the debates among early Chinese philosophers of the Warring States period on the role of language and the nature of good governance. Or peruse the early Indian Upanishads, where characters argue passionately about the relationship between the force that inspires the self and the force that inspires the universe and about whether kings or priests have the right knowledge.

Look up early Asian versions of statecraft, whether the fourth century BCE Arthashastra’s use of ministers and spies in early India, or Mencius’ view of the ethical person’s relationship to government. And there are many more texts now being admitted (or re-admitted) to classical status in many different curricula, from Indian, Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism to Taoism to secular classics and so on.

These are also the works that have made it into Western curricula on Asian civilisations, in Asian Classics programmes.

And it is a little-known fact in many Western countries that Chinese students have been reading Western philosophical and political texts regularly, particularly in the early years of university study.

Both traditions are comprised of “great books” that are meant to animate the intellect and ignite passionate participation in society. While it would be unwise to read these texts as “blueprints” for a 21st century global world, they can still be powerful texts that can inform our thinking today.


What is needed in all parts of the world is not an exportation of liberal learning from the “West” to the “East”. What is needed is fusion education — a slow, patient blending of both traditions where students from all these cultures, sitting in the same classroom, consider as many options in liberal learning as possible.

What is more, this practice cannot be a single model conceived behind closed doors and then “implemented” in a vacuum. Rather, it needs to be a model evolving out of educational efforts on the ground.

Western and Asian universities need to embark on a number of curricular experiments on their campuses, analyse learning outcomes and, in this way, develop a set of best practices.

The role and weight of particular classics will differ in each country — Singapore’s educational history will look different from that of Bangalore or Shanghai, and curricular will vary accordingly.

But this more mutual exchange of educational goods will allow a new form of liberal learning to emerge.


Laurie L Patton is the Durden Professor of Religion and Dean of Arts and Sciences at Duke University.


Read and learn new words!

posted Jul 8, 2013, 11:33 PM by Mizz Abe

Somebody's watching me
The Straits Times
6 July 2013

Does US-style Prism surveillance of citizens' online outpourings happen here? Insight's Tessa Wong looks at the issue.

SHOULD Singaporeans e-mailing friends, or clicking "like" on anything from a cat photo to Pink Dot's page, think twice about what they are doing?

Just how private your communications and online interactions are is giving cause for pause, when even in the United States - champion of democracy and human rights - no text message is sacred now.

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden, a former employee of a private contractor working for the National Security Agency, last month revealed a government surveillance system codenamed Prism that snooped on citizens' e-mail, video chats and more, in the name of homeland security.

It came hot on the heels of news that the agency was also obtaining phone logs from Verizon, one of America's largest telecommunications providers, thanks to a secret court order.

Both programmes were defended by President Barack Obama as having deterred at least 50 terror threats to the US.

Would such unfettered snooping by the Singapore Government be warranted in the interests of national security here, too?

Indeed, is there a Big Brother, Prism-like data surveillance system here? And what about the right to privacy, something Singaporeans may not have given much thought to until recently?

Should someone be watching the watchers, to curb any potential abuse of this mining of online outpourings?

Broad access

ASKED whether it conducts any form of cyber surveillance, and how frequently it gathers individuals' private information, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman would say only that "as part of the evidence-gathering process provided for under the law, law enforcement agencies in Singapore may request from persons or organisations information that will help in their investigations into criminal cases".

Still, unlike the US, Singapore is quite clear that it emphasises keeping the nation safe over individual rights to privacy.

Legal and communications experts whom Insight spoke to said the Singapore Government is clearly positioned on one end of the spectrum. "There is little question that the Singapore position is to tilt the balance in favour of security," said Professor Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre.

In Singapore, there are broadly phrased laws that give the Government wide access to data and communications such as SMSes, e-mail, call logs and websites you have accessed. It does not need a court order as laws allow it to directly obtain such information from firms.

You may not even know that your information has been given away, as telecommunications providers are bound to secrecy by their licence agreements signed with the Government.

January's amendment to the Computer Misuse and Cybersecurity Act has also opened the possibility of the Government being able to compel organisations to do pre-emptive surveillance.

In the US, domestic surveillance requires a warrant obtained under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa), which came into effect in 1978. A secret court set up under the Act grants these warrants. Following the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration began a secret warrantless surveillance programme of calls and e-mail going in and out of the US. In 2007, the Fisa court ordered that the programme had to obtain its approval to continue.

In Singapore, the state has not needed court orders to authorise obtaining data for decades. For instance, the broadly worded provision in the Criminal Procedure Code that allows the police to obtain anything deemed related to an investigation has been on the books since the code was enacted in 1955.

Striking the right note

CERTAINLY, in a post-9/11 world where terrorism is a top concern, the case for governments to have increasingly wider access to private data has grown stronger.

Australian lawmakers have recently proposed to force phone and Internet companies to hold up to two years' worth of phone calls and e-mail data to track potential criminal activity. Meanwhile, the Indian government plans to roll out a surveillance programme by next month called the Central Monitoring System that will monitor texts, social media engagement and phone calls.

In Singapore, potential threats by terrorists have been identified partly from tracking websites they visited and their e-mail. Singapore has also been the target of cyber attacks, with at least seven waves of malicious e-mail attacks directed at delegates at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting in 2009.

But some citizens may worry that such invasive powers can be used for purposes other than national security. There have already been recorded instances of individuals abusing their access to citizens' private information.

In 2009, a police officer was convicted of accessing his office database to get the addresses and criminal records of several individuals, including former girlfriends. The year before, a senior officer with the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority was jailed for assisting his foreign mistress to enter Singapore with a fake identity, and one of the charges was related to accessing the authority's computer system for personal use.

Lawyer Gilbert Leong, who has spoken on data protection before, pointed out that in large-scale cyber surveillance, the privacy of a great number of individuals who have done nothing wrong is sacrificed for an uncertain payoff. He said: "It is not certain if such surveillance would yield anything at all. But what is certain is that many innocent people would have had their data traffic monitored."

Ironically, people now make it easy to collect data about them as they blithely share information on social media sites. Companies such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo already track users' e-mail, searches and other online activity, for the purpose of earning money from targeted advertisements.

"Many citizens willingly give up vast amounts of information to telecommunications companies, and yet are reluctant to share the same data with their government. In reality, of course, such companies must comply with lawful government requests to hand over that data," said National University of Singapore's law faculty dean Simon Chesterman.

Yet, some find nothing wrong in the Government monitoring their online data, precisely because they are innocent. "I've never done anything wrong, so what do I have to fear? It would be even worse if we don't monitor and end up not catching criminals in time," said cabby Koh K.M.

Observers feel this attitude is shared by most Singaporeans, given that concerns about surveillance here have been muted, even after the Prism revelations. Prof Ang noted that so far there has been no evidence of "widespread and systematic abuse of privacy by our Government. So that is reassuring to people. And yes, people feel they have nothing to hide and be private about".

Singapore did not have any laws protecting the privacy of data until last year, when Parliament passed the Personal Data Protection Act. Still, it is aimed more at restricting companies' use of private data, as public agencies are exempted from most part of the Act.

Nominated MP Eugene Tan, who called for greater safeguarding of privacy in January's amendment debate, said: "There is, at one level, trust that legitimate surveillance is conducted. And, perhaps, at another level, ignorance over the surveillance we have in Singapore."

Americans themselves are divided on the issue. In a poll early last month by the Washington Post and Pew Research Centre, 62 per cent felt it was more important for the government to investigate possible terrorist threats even if it intrudes on personal privacy. Only 34 per cent felt it should not intrude even if it limits the ability to investigate threats. The rest had no opinion.

Checks and balances

IF MOST people believe the Government should have the right to do widespread monitoring, perhaps the issue should be whether societies need greater safeguards against abuse of power.

Prism involved gathering metadata involving patterns found from data collected, according to President Obama, rather than delving into the minutiae of individual information. It is this area where the issue of privacy can become especially murky, and where more checks would be needed.

Singapore's laws giving the Government wide access to personal communications come with some safeguard to prevent such abuse - access can be exercised only in certain circumstances, such as when it is needed in an investigation, or for national security purposes. And in the January amendment debate, Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran also gave the assurance that the Government would exercise such powers "judiciously".

But that has not stopped growing concerns that there need to be stronger checks and balances, and greater transparency of how the Government exercises its powers. During January's debate, several MPs called for the Government to clarify further the thresholds that must be met and the factors it will consider before exercising its powers.

Prof Chesterman suggested there could be regular reports on the nature and purpose of surveillance, why and how it is analysed, and for what purposes it is used.

Said teacher Hazlina A. Rahman: "The Government should be upfront with its own citizens, so that at least we know if it is doing this to us."

Another suggestion is for external checks on the Government, such as an independent panel staffed with trusted members of society and the judiciary. Mr Hri Kumar Nair, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) for Home Affairs and Law, suggested this in the January debate. "An independent panel sends the message that someone will be reviewing what you do, so you must be diligent," he said.

Other safeguards suggested by Mr Tan and Prof Chesterman include: higher penalties to deter abuse of power; ensuring that surveillance is done only by public bodies and not outsourced to private contractors; and ensuring individuals harmed by surveillance can claim compensation.

But more transparency and safeguards may even defeat the point of having such surveillance.

"It's hard to be transparent about how the Government exercises such a power. The whole point is that you have to be covert," said Home Affairs and Law GPC deputy chair Edwin Tong.

He pointed out that it would be difficult to determine how much information to disclose. If it is too much, it would risk tipping off wrongdoers. Too little, and such information may not be meaningful to the public.

Safeguards such as an independent panel may also "slow down the efficacy of regulation", said Mr Tong.

In time, he added, there may be a high degree of acceptance of cyber surveillance as a norm, just as the public has accepted invasive practices like pre-flight frisking.

But Mr Nair noted that in such cases, people know their privacy is being infringed: "In cyber surveillance, you don't even know the Government is doing it." Though it may be hard to decide how much to disclose, and safeguards may slow processes, this does not mean there should be no checks on Government, he said.

Balances could be struck - for example, an independent panel would not need to approve every decision to extract private data, but review periodically past decisions, in an in-camera setting to preserve security.

Mr Nair pointed out that police powers are not unfettered, as the courts still have oversight over any abuse of power and authority.

"Why should cyber surveillance and security be any different? The public must have confidence that things are being done properly, and that no matter who is in Government, there are checks in place to protect their interests," he said.

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