Tuesday, October 31, 2006

More Singapore media changes

More changes are taking place in the Singapore media scene.

Today newspaper, which is owned by TV group MediaCorp (60 per cent) and Singapore Press Holdings (40 per cent), will undergo a major revamp. Editor Mano Sabnani (left) has resigned, paving the way for former editor PN Balji (right) to return as Editorial Director reporting to Shaun Seow, Deputy CEO (News, Radio, Print). Please click on full announcement.

The changes have come in the wake of the revamp at monopolistic newspaper group SPH. Earlier this month, SPH announced the retirement of newspaper doyen Cheong Yip Seng, making way for Patrick Daniel to be the new Editor-in-Chief.

There are many reasons for the changes, apart from the ostensible reason for rejuvenation. One thing is clear: All the changes are taking place less than six months after the elections in May, which saw the ruling party People's Action Party garner a lower-than-expected winning margin of 66.6 per cent.

Don't rule out more changes in the two media groups.

Asean doublespeak

It's hilarious that Asean leaders, save for former Malaysian PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, still engage in old-world doublespeak.

The latest example is the meeting between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his new Thai counterpart -- interim PM Surayud Chulanont (pix) -- on the sidelines of the Asean-China meet in China.

According to media reports, Surayud told Hsien Loong that he did not see the Shin Corp deal affecting relations between the two countries. The Thai general also reportedly said bilateral relations remained 'excellent'.

Er, which Shin deal are they talking about? The one with Singapore investment arm Temasek Holdings that led to the military coup that ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra? The one that led to widespread protest and the unprecedented burning of effigies of Hsien Loong and wife Ho Ching, who is also the head of Temasek? The one that led to the royal rebuke of Temasek's Thai adviser for its new Thai office?

Singapore-Thai relations are obviously at the nadir in recent history. Any attempt at positive doublespeak won't change that.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Is there any similarity between the two couples? Probably not. One is a union between well-known personalities -- artistic director Beatrice Chia and hubby actor and former DJ Mark Richmond. The pix on the right is quite glam in the Life! section today.

The couple on the left are of less well-known Tan Swee and his late wife, who was not even named in the ST report dated Oct 29. They made the headline when 103-year-old Mr Tan finally died -- 98 days after the death of his wife of 80 years in July. Their death ends the story of what may be Singapore's longest marriage, according to the newspaper.

Which couple are more memorable?

According to Life!, Beatrice Chia-Richmond, who has been married for seven months, is now pregnant with their first baby who was conceived while they were on their delayed honeymoon in Madrid last month.

"That boy don't fire no blanks, man," she proclaims proudly of her husband. Funny and memorable quote.

The report also said he was married to radio DJ Vernetta Lopez, but they filed for separation in 2001. Chia and Richmond started dating shortly after, amid rumours that the former had been the third party, although both have denied it.

The Tans are more low-key in their love that has withstood time, a long time.

The report said the old couple were inseparable when they were alive. The little things they did showed how much each meant to the other. When Mrs Tan went down to the void deck to chat with other elderly women in the neighbourhood, Mr Tan would accompany her but would sit at another table.

"Every day after my grandma passed away, he would look at the photograph of my grandma, touch her face, and start to cry," his granddaughter Geannie Chan said, adding that it is more likely that he died of a broken heart.

Wow, where's my handkerchief?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Temasek's blunder, part 2

Another blunder by Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings, whose choice of a Thai adviser received what is seen as a sharpest rebuke from the Thai crown prince.

It seems that Temasek can do no right in Thailand.

Temasek has been blamed of effectively triggering the coup that led to the downfall of PM Thaksin Shinawatra following the badly structured Shin Corp deal earlier this year. Please see earlier posting.

Will Temasek still set up an office in Thailand? Will it appoint a new adviser? Or will it simply write off everything in the country?

Oct 29, 2006
Thailand's Crown Prince rebukes official

MR TONGNOI Tongyai, an official in Thai Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn's office, was yesterday given a harsh public dressing-down by the prince, apparently over Temasek Holdings' approach to him to be its adviser.

On Oct 19, it was reported that Temasek would be appointing Mr Tongnoi, who is in his 70s and holds the royal title Mom Rajawongse, as an adviser for Shin Corp. But less than a week later, Temasek said he would not be joining after all.

Yesterday morning, the Crown Prince's office released a statement saying that Mr Tongnoi had abused power for his own benefit.

The statement said: 'Some press reports stated that Temasek Holdings had approached Mr Tongnoi Tongyai to be an adviser for their office that would be set up in Thailand.

'They mentioned that Mr Tongnoi Tongyai was personal secretary and adviser to HRH Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn and was assigned to take care of the royal properties since 2000.

'HRH Crown Prince's personal office would like to announce that the reports have caused misunderstanding and confusion as the claims were false and were used as a means to establish influence for his own business benefit. The claims have caused damage not only to the country but also instability for international investment in Thailand.'

It added: 'HRH Crown Prince had enough mercy to employ him. He was assigned to work according to his profession - which means translating and drafting English documents and occasionally writing letters.

'However, he has been tricky and cunning. He took advantage and made false claims for his own benefit by setting up positions which led him to be approached to be an adviser to Temasek Holdings.

'HRH Crown Prince's personal office considered Mr Tongnoi Tongyai not right, improper and abusive of power for his own benefit. His acts have caused misunderstanding among the public and caused damage to the HRH Crown Prince's personal office. The office thus has decided to explain and announce these facts to the public.'

The Nation newspaper, on its website, carried a report on the latest development and the statement from the Crown Prince's office.

The public slap in the face is seen as one of the harshest rebukes possible in Thailand, and without doubt has destroyed Mr Tongnoi's reputation, analysts said.

Malaysian Sultans

It's rather interesting that Malaysian Sultans should behave as moral guardians of the country.

First, the Sultan of Johor essentially told former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to shut up in his bickering with PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

"If one has already been pensioned, just behave like a pensioner, what is the use of making more noise?," Bernama cited a source as quoting the Sultan as saying recently. The Sultan is seen in this recent pix showing off his baby crocodiles to his Singapore guests during Hari Raya.

And today, the Sultan of Selangor urged Port Klang state assemblyman Datuk Zakaria Md Deros to voluntarily relinquish his Klang municipal councillor post and mend his “wayward” ways, or risk being stripped of his Datukship. This came after the press highlighted the construction of his palatial mansion in Kampung Idaman dubbed “Istana Idaman” without obtaining approval from the local council.

Why should the Sultans lend their voice in certain public issues? What influence do they still enjoy?

One thing for sure, Malaysian Sultans no longer enjoy the power they used to wield, thanks to Dr Mahathir.

In 1993, the Malaysian parliament, which was then led by Dr Mahathir and his Barisan Nasional ruling coalition colleagues, approved constitutional amendments that stripped the country's nine Sultans of their immunity from the law. Incidentally, the watershed move was sparked by the alleged thrashing of a hockey coach by the Sultan of Johor.

The legislation reduced the Sultans to ceremonial roles. And Malaysian Sultans definitely don't enjoy the same stature as the Thai King, who is widely loved and respected.

From Wikipedia on the Sultan of Johor:
A controversial figure in Malaysia, Sultan Iskandar has led a chequered life. Appointed Tunku Mahkota or Crown Prince in 1959, he was dismissed from that post in 1961 by his father after being found guilty of assault in the Malaysian courts and sentenced to imprisonment. However, Sultan Ismail relented on his deathbed and restored Tunku Mahmood Iskandar to the succession ten days before the former died.

A keen soldier, Sultan Iskandar was often at loggerheads with the then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad while he was Sultan of Johor. However, in 1984, upon election as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Iskandar warmed to his Prime Minister and relationships between the two reached dizzying heights when Mahathir was invested with the first class family order of the crown of Johor, a previously unheard of honour for a commoner.

While he was Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Iskandar created further controversy by assaulting a golf caddy. A soldier, the brother of the caddy who was badly injured, subsequently ran amok in Kuala Lumpur causing a security scare. The soldier was later arrested and sent to a mental hospital.

His assault on a hockey coach and teacher, Mr Douglas Gomez (d.1999) sparked a constitutional crisis between the government and the Malay Rulers which culminated in the removal of the legal immunity from prosecution of all the rulers in March 1993.

Sultan Iskandar, however, continues to be immune from prosecution for his previous offences as the law which provides for the rulers to be stripped of their legal immunity was not made retroactive.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Train accident

KUALA LUMPUR: A light rail transit train overshot the end of its tracks and ended up dangling about 25m above the ground near the Sentul Timur station here. The train, belonging to the Ampang Line (formerly known as Star-LRT) was empty save for the driver when the incident occurred at 7.11am yesterday.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Doses of venom

The gloves are completely off in Malaysia. There is now little room for reconciliation following PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's description of predecessor Dr Mahathir Mohamad's criticisms as "doses of venom".

This is probably the strongest language ever used by Badawi.

Abridged Bernama report:
PM Describes As Doses Of Venom Dr M's Remark To Continue Attacks
KEPALA BATAS, Oct 26 (Bernama) -- Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi Thursday described as "doses of venom" the remark by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to continue criticising the government.

"He repeated again with a stronger doses of venom... what else can be done? he wants to continue", he told reporters at his Hari Raya open house.

"Also Dr Mahathir's claim that my son was given a project despite not having the capacity was not true.

He said Dr Mahathir claimed Scomi Bhd was awarded TNB's contract to transport coal but did not have a ship but actually the company owned 180 ships for its operations.

"Not having ships... that's not true, actually, the company has ships... 180 ships owned by another company which was acquired by Scomi... his children (Dr Mahathir's) also received contracts, only it was not highlighted.

"The projects awarded to Dr Mahathir's children were far bigger from what Scomi received," he said.

"I said all that is not true (Dr Mahathir's claims). All Umno members now feel at ease under my leadership as they are relieved they can talk... democracy... this is expressed by Umno leaders themselves," he said.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Cry freedom

Singapore Falls To 146th In World Press Freedom Index SINGAPORE (Dow Jones)--Singapore's world press freedom ranking slipped in 2006 after the city-state took new punitive steps against foreign media, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Singapore was ranked 146 out of 168 nations in the annual world press freedom index released Monday, putting this wealthy island state behind countries such as Somalia, Zimbabwe and Kazakhstan. Singapore was ranked 140 in 2005.

"Singapore slipped six places because of new legal action by the government against foreign media," Reporters Without Borders said in a statement on its Web site.

The press freedom watchdog has previously attributed Singapore's low ranking to the complete absence of independent media, prison sentences for press offenses, media self-censorship and the opposition's lack of access to the state media.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, are suing Far Eastern Economic Review magazine, owned by Dow Jones & Co Inc. (DJ), over an article about opposition politician Chee Soon Juan. The publication was banned in October after refusing to appoint a legal representative in Singapore and pay a S$200,000 bond to the government.

Ruling party leaders have successfully sued several opposition politicians and publications for defamation over the years. They say they sue to protect their reputations. But domestic and international critics - including the U.S. State Department and London-based rights group Amnesty International - have accused Singapore's rulers of using defamation lawsuits to stifle opponents.

Mainland babies

By Uncle C
Guest Writer

Last week I went to a pharmaceutical shop in North Point. There was a queue which included a number of pregnant women all chattering in Fukienese. There was something about their speech and behaviour that left me with no doubt whatsoever that they had come to Hong Kong for the purpose of giving birth. I overheard them as they exchanged information about which part of Fujian province they came from, how long they had been in Hong Kong, and where they planned to have their babies. Almost without exception they were shopping for just those items one expects women in their stage of very advanced pregnancy to buy.

There is little doubt in my mind that the issue of mainland women having their babies delivered here in Hong Kong will develop into a major social and economic problem. I cannot foresee that the problem will become a political matter here unless of course Beijing makes a big issue out of it, which seems unlikely for many reasons. In any case no political party will dare to make a political issue out of this issue. My concern is not political.

There are a number of principles that may make this a tricky issue for Hong Kong. First of all, the obvious primary advantage of having a baby born here is to claim the right of Hong Kong abode for the rest of the child’s life. The law concerning the right of abode can of course be changed but it would be unethical and unfair to change the law because babies clearly have no choice as to where they are born. And in any case who can blame a loving mother who wishes to ensure the best possible future for her child.

There have been suggestions that it should be made more difficult for pregnant women to enter Hong Kong and, if they give birth here, to charge them higher medical fees. But it is obviously difficult to discriminate against pregnant women if they wish to come here as tourists. It would be against the law and against our international legal obligations.

Personally, I am against the idea of increased fees which are designed to discourage the poor from coming to Hong Kong. Why should the rich only benefit? How much should the hospitals charge? Even if they increase their charge to, say, $100,000 per mainland baby, the effect might be to encourage rich mothers from other parts of China to give birth here. Hong Kong might become a brand name for producing babies. On the other hand if the present trend continues it is bound in my view to create many economic and social problems for Hong Kong.

It is a very difficult matter to handle, and one which will cause passionate feelings. I do not know what the answer is going to be but first of all I think we need a public debate about Hong Kong’s response. Hopefully, the government think-tank is putting their minds to this question and will seek to involve the public in its thinking. Or do we have to rely on Mrs. Anson Chan’s core-group to come out with the solution?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Raw energy

Tale of two leaders

The elder statesmen of Singapore and Malaysia have had very different fate since they gave up power willingly.

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, 83, continues to be a dominant figure in the tiny island. He has retained a portfolio in the cabinet to help oversee the development of the country although he stepped down as Singapore's longest-serving PM in 1990.

He has just wrapped up his trip of Europe and the United States, becoming the first Southeast Asian leader to be conferred the Woodrow Wilson Award for public service.

Kuan Yew also toured gaming capital Las Vegas and met with US President George Bush at the White House.

In short, Kuan Yew continues to be feted.

Across the causeway, the story is rather different.

Former Malaysian PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 81, has been a lonelier figure since he stepped down as the country's longest-serving leader in 2003.

After keeping relatively quiet in the first two years, he shocked many when he unleashed his full fury on successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi six months ago.

Badawi's decision, among other things, to shelve the bridge project to replace the Causeway to Singapore was the proverbial last straw for Dr M. Although some of his criticisms are valid, many feel he should have kept quiet after his retirement. Or he should not have given up all his political and government posts in order to provide a better check on the government.

The bickering culminated in a so-called peace talk over the weekend. But Dr M continued to chastise Badawi soon after the meeting. Nobody knows how the political drama in Malaysia will unfold.

Kuan Yew and Dr M are both strong personalities. They have helped their respective countries progress beyond the call of duty. They both relish being the Asian voice in their straight-talking manner. They have both secured their place in history, although Dr M's legacy is being unraveled.

Despite their stature, it is sad that the two leaders have not been able to work together to resolve all the differences between the two governments.

Malaysia will continue to sell cheap water to Singapore until 2061, Malaysian railway land in Singapore will remain undeveloped, Singapore is barred from using Malaysian airspace or buying Malaysian sand for reclamation, and the 83-year-old causeway continues to be the umbilical cord connecting the two countries.

After the 'peace talks'

Editorial in Singapore's BT today.

After the 'peace talks' in Malaysia

FORMER Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad met his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in closed-door 'peace-talks' over the weekend to help resolve their differences. While nobody has the full transcript of their two-hour discussion, Dr Mahathir described the meeting as 'worthwhile' in that it gave him the opportunity to pour out his grievances, after having criticised his successor in public for many months.

However, he added that he will continue to criticise Mr Abdullah if he finds something is done that does not benefit the country. Mr Abdullah has not made any official statement on the meeting yet. So what can we surmise from the meeting? Does it suggest continued acrimony between the two leaders? More importantly, will Mr Abdullah change course now to placate the influential Dr Mahathir ahead of the crucial national assembly of the ruling party United Malays National Organisation next month? Some of Dr Mahathir's complaints can be addressed without too much difficulty.

For example, Mr Abdullah can speed up the award of government contracts under the Ninth Malaysian Plan. Many politicians and businessmen have complained that the pace of government spending is too slow.

Another pet peeve of Dr Mahathir is the lack of support for national carmaker Proton and the abuse of the car import quota system, which seems to have benefited a small group of Malay businessmen. Mr Abdullah can fix the problem by making the distribution of the so-called Approved Permits more equitable - although finding a foreign partner for Proton might be more difficult.

Dr Mahathir has also been critical of Malaysia's free trade pact with Japan and the on-going talks with the United States. While it is too late for Mr Abdullah to roll back the agreement with Japan, which took effect in July this year, he could fine-tune the draft of the trade pact with the US to ensure a greater balance of benefits. But Mr Abdullah may not find it so easy to deal with some of Dr Mahathir's other grievances, such as his incessant complaints about the premier's influential son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin, his allegations of nepotism, and the postponement of some major projects that were awarded on the eve of Dr Mahathir's retirement in 2003.

Mr Abdullah's shelving of the bridge project to replace the Causeway to Singapore has drawn particularly strong criticism from Dr Mahathir, who said he had hoped that the project would help boost Johor Baru as the country's southern gateway. It won't be easy for Mr Abdullah to jumpstart the bridge project as that would require the agreement of Singapore, which owns half of the Causeway. There is little prospect of Singapore agreeing as yet.

With so many unresolved issues, Mr Abdullah has his work cut out. The premier's future course of action will determine whether his predecessor will re-emerge as his political backer or continue to undermine him from the sidelines. The next act in Malaysia's long-running political drama will be closely watched, including by investors.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Tussle for Stanchart?

Will there be another major tussle for a prized asset between the investment arms of Singapore and Dubai?

The scenario has arisen again following Dubai investment company Istithmar's purchase of a 2.7 per cent stake in Standard Chartered Bank, in which Singapore investment arm Temasek Holdings is the biggest shareholder with nearly 12 per cent.

Dubai Ports World had trounced Singapore port operator PSA International, which is part of Temasek, for the coveted Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co or P&O earlier this year.

LONDON (Reuters) - Standard Chartered shares hit a six-month high on Monday on speculation that Dubai and Singapore might compete to build stakes, stoked by a newspaper report that Dubai's investment arm wanted to lift its holding to 20 percent.

Sunday's Observer said Istithmar, the Gulf emirate's investment arm which bought a 2.7 percent stake in Standard Chartered earlier this month, might buy up to a one-fifth holding, worth about 4 billion pounds.

Such a move would pit Istithmar against Singapore investor Temasek, which is the biggest shareholder in the Asia-focused bank after buying 12 percent last year for about $4 billion (from the estate of the late Singapore tycoon Khoo Teck Puat).

Dubai outbid Temasek last year in a hard-fought battle to buy ports operator P&O for $6.8 billion.

Or will Temasek and Istithmar work together to gain greater control of Stanchart?

After all, they had worked together to jointly buy a substantial stake in Bangkok-listed Bumrungrad Hospital in January this year as a springboard to healthcare ventures in Asia and the Middle East.

Looking for the moon in Malaysia

Malaysian cartoonist Lat is really funny. The latest cartoon suggests that the squabble between former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad and successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is taking centrestage although Muslims in the country should be thinking more about the Hari Raya celebrations.

Muslim astronomers would try to sight the moon before declaring the actual day of Hari Raya. In this cartoon, they see the squabbling leaders instead of the moon!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Malaysia peace talks

Malaysia PM meets Mahathir in bid to mend rift
Sunday, October 22, 2006; 11:05 AM

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's two most powerful politicians held two hours of talks on Sunday in an attempt to patch up a months-long quarrel that has gripped the nation, alarmed their political party, and dismayed investors.

But the talks were cordial, said former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has fired volleys of criticism at Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi over his decision to shelve major state projects planned before Mahathir retired in 2003.

"My intention was to convey my views and we will wait and see if there will be changes or not," Mahathir, 81, Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister, told reporters after meeting Abdullah, his handpicked successor.

The shelved plans include a new bridge to neighboring Singapore and a major rail project. The development of Mahathir's biggest single state project, the new administrative capital of Putrajaya, has also been slowed down.

"I brought ... up the bridge issue but there was no comment from him," added Mahathir, who said he spoke for an hour-and-a-half while Abdullah listened and took notes.

"Many other issues I brought up were not touched on but he noted everything in his little black book. All the time I was talking he was jotting. I hope following this meeting there will be some kind of action taken."

Mahathir did not say what specific action he expected.


Mahathir's barrage of criticism had unnerved foreign investors and upset the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the key party in Malaysia's ruling coalition, which is led by Abdullah, but which also esteems Mahathir.

Abdullah called an emergency meeting of the party's key decision making body on Sunday night, a government source told Reuters, but the prime minister's spokesman could not be reached for comment.

Malaysian opposition parties had benefited from the quarrel, Mahathir quoted Abdullah as saying.

"He also told me that since I have done this I have become very unpopular and that he has lost popularity because of my criticism and the people that have benefited are Anwar Ibrahim and Nik Aziz," Mahathir said, referring to opposition leaders.

Mahathir had sworn to carry his campaign to the heart of UMNO's annual assembly next month but his plan was frustrated after a humiliating failure in September to win enough votes in his home state to be elected a party delegate to the council.

The man who led UMNO to five straight general election victories, and ruled for 22 years, polled just 227 votes, short of the 240 he needed.

On Sunday, Mahathir said he would continue to speak his mind if the need arose.

"If I find that anything done is not good for the country, I will continue with my criticism," he said. "I did explain that this block against my speaking to UMNO is not good, not right."

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sarawak businesses

It's amazing how business and politics are so intertwined in Malaysia, east or west.

Last week, a junior minister in Sarawak married the daughter of one of the richest men in the eastern Malaysian state.

The Star Sunday
October 15, 2006
Asst minister weds tycoon’s daughter

KUCHING: It was more than a marriage of a couple in love; it was a union of two of the most powerful families in Sarawak.

When Sarawak's youngest assistant minister Larry Sng Wei Shien, 27, married May Ting, 29, it was also a union of business and politics. Larry is the son of businessman-politician Sng Chee Hua while May is the eldest daughter of top Sarawak businessman Ting Pek Khiing.

The couple were at the Kuching Marriage Registry yesterday to register their marriage. Wedding receptions here and in Miri will be held later.

Larry, who studied at the London School of Economics, is the Parti Rakyat Sarawak state assemblyman for Pelagus (taking over from his father), assistant minister in the Chief Minister's Office, and Industrial Development and Economic Planning assistant minister. His wife has a Master's in commerce from an Australian university.

Of course, they are not the first well-connected couple in Sarawak, which is effectively the fiefdom of Chief Minister Taib Mahmud in the last two decades.

It's a well-known fact that Sarawak's finance minister George Chan Hong Nam's daughter is married to one of Taib's sons.

With strong lobbying by the chief minister and his finance minister (also his in-law) back in 2001 and 2002, the chief minister's family managed to retain the family's smallish Utama Banking Group despite the wave of consolidation then.

So far, the powerful families in Sarawak have maintained a harmoniuos existence. But the situation may change overnight when Taib leaves the political and business scene.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Drink to earn

By Uncle C
Guest Writer

Have you noticed the increasing tendency of office workers in Hong Kong to drink alcohol after they finish work in the evening? Come six o’clock or so it is now a very widespread habit for workers to congregate in bars and spend an hour or two downing beer or wine. Short drinks based on spirits like whisky, brandy and gin seem to have gone out of fashion, though vodka has retained a loyal following.

Social drinking at the “magic hour” of six o’clock has become a mainstream daily event but what are its origins? One possibility is that drinking after work has been made more popular by Hong Kong’s very large number of American and European bankers, brokers and financial dealers for whom after-hours drinks are a rite of passage. Just visit Lan Kwai Fong any evening after work and you will see what I mean.

But now academic researchers have come up with a new and very tantalising explanation for the six o’clock drinking phenomenon. They have found that workers who go straight home to their spouse and kids after work earn lower salaries than they colleagues who indulge in social drinking. This is certainly intriguing. The academics even put a figure on how much more the drinkers earn than their tee-total colleagues — 10 percent more for men and 14 percent more for women.

The apparent explanation is that employees who are partial to an after-work pint of beer have an advantage in the workplace because they are more outgoing and gregarious and use their ability to mix well to greater effect at work. When they are drinking outside the office they are also more likely to socialise with their managers, colleagues and clients, building contacts and relationships as a result. Meanwhile those workers who abstain from alcohol completely and are tee-total will not build up the same “social capital” and therefore put themselves at a comparative disadvantage.

The message for office workers seems to be that while excessive drinking is of course unhealthy and can ruin a person’s employment prospects, moderate social drinking can contribute to a more successful working career. When you go social drinking after work, you build up social capital, establish relationships, and keep on adding more names to your mobile’s phone book. The end result is you earn more income.

That leads to the awkward question whether drinkers are more sociable than tee-totallers? The evidence evidently shows that drinkers are indeed more effective socialisers than non-drinkers.

It may well be therefore that the growing number of Hong Kong workers who head to a bar for a drink at the “magic hour”, are without realising it responding intuitively to their instinctive desire to earn that extra dollar. Certainly, both incomes and alcohol consumption have increased a lot in Hong Kong in recent years.

How long will it be before the drink manufacturers start advertising their concoctions with slogans like “Drink this and get richer!”.

Bribery in Singapore

Former Singapore air freight forwarder Airocean chief Thomas Tay was found guilty of trying to bribe a Jetstar Asia official last April.

According to the prosecution in newspaper reports, Thomas had asked his employee Simon Ang of Airline GSA to offer a form of gratification to Jetstar's head of commercial Chooi Yee-Choong to induce Mr Chooi to assist Airline GSA to secure a cargo-handling contract from Jetstar.

What was the gratification? The so-called gratification was based on, among other things, what Mr Ang said.

When Mr Chooi said he wasn't the main decision-maker for this bidding process, Mr Ang said: 'I fully understand. No obligation. If you can help us, please help us.'

Mr Ang also testified that he said at some point in the conversation: 'My boss said please help us. And if you need help, please call us."

No money or other form of gratification changed hands.

The defence lawyer argued that such an offer was completely proper by today's business standards. 'It is the very basis of networking in Singapore,' he said.

But the deputy public prosecutor argued that it was Tay's motive behind this offer of help that made it improper.

Based on that grey yardstick, many Singapore businessmen should have been thrown in jail. Only the holy civil servants will be left to run the entire island.

National reconciliation?

Will former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad (right in a 2003 file pix) patch up with successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (left) after months of stinging attacks?

Some intermediaries have been hard at work to reconcile them, possibly by this weekend during the holy month of Ramadan. Please see below the abridged version of Malaysia's The Star report today.

Some believe that the spirit of giving and forgiving during the holy Islamic month will be conducive for a reconciliation.

But any reconciliation must not come at the expense of national interest.

The Star
October 20, 2006
Dr M-PM pow-wow this weekend
BY Joceline Tan

PUTRAJAYA: The highly awaited meeting between the Prime Minister and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is likely to take place over the weekend although the actual day and time have yet to be finalised.

However, it was learnt that the Prime Minister's office has kept Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's diary clear of appointments through the weekend as well as Monday. He has not committed even to any buka puasa function during the three days.

Sources said it showed that the Prime Minister was sincere in wanting to accommodate Dr Mahathir's choice of date because the former Premier had asked for at least two days' notice when expressing his willingness to meet.

The two men are scheduled to meet before Hari Raya, which is expected to fall on Tuesday. The meeting is likely to take place in Putrajaya.

"But don't worry, we are determined to see it happen, even if it has to take place on a hill or in a tunnel," the source said.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Separation of power

Former New Straits Times group editor-in-chief A Kadir Jasin has some interesting points in his latest posting on the political drama in Malaysia.

At the very least Dr Mahathir’s mention of Tengku Razaleigh should set the people, especially Umno members, thinking that there is more than one person that can take over from Abdullah sooner or later.

Another possibility is it could set Umno members thinking about the wisdom of separating the post of party President and the Prime Minister. A future Umno President may not necessarily become the Prime Minister or want to assume the post.

Will members of the United Malays National Organisation take it seriously as it sounds like a good idea to decentralise power in Malaysia?

Don't bet on it.

Umno has not been able to change much since it was set up in 1946. It's still controlled by the 2,000-odd warlords who effectively pick the country's PM through their choice of party president. By convention, Umno president becomes PM.

Sentosa IR race

The remaining players for the Sentosa casino bid have shown their hands, and it could be down to either consortium -- Genting International-Star Cruises-Universal Studios; or Kerzner International-CapitaLand. Eighth Wonder is still seen as a long shot.

The market is still favouring frontrunner Genting, which is the sole casino group in Malaysia for the last four decades. But some believe that Kerzner-CapitaLand could steal the show with its Atlantis concept. Furthermore, some believe that there could be a sympathy factor for Kerzner -- CEO Butch Kerzner, son of founder Sol Kerzner, died in a helicopter crash last week on the eve of the bid submissions.

Will the panel of Singapore ministers take that into account, consciously or subconsciously? Or will it be strictly business based on the criteria -- tourism allure (45 per cent), design (25 per cent), investment amount (20 per cent), and investors' track records (10 per cent).

We will know by the end of this year.

Well-designed and informative graphics in Singapore's BT today:

Monday, October 16, 2006

Old map

This is quite a nice German map in 1888 of Singapore and the Malay archipelago. Map shows southern Malaya (which included Singapore in the pre-independence days) to the north of Singapore, and the Riau islands of Indonesia to the south.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Life and death in Malaysia

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has said that he canned the "crooked bridge" project because it was not a "matter of life and death" for the country, according to Singapore's The Sunday Times report on his interview with Cable News Network that was aired yesterday.

"We are very practical about our approach, and the bridge has nothing to do with life and death of Malaysia," he said.

Badawi is correct as no projects are absolutely necessary, or have anything to do with life and death in Malaysia. They include:

1. Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Alternative: People can continue to use the Third-World Subang Airport, which looks more ancient than Low-Cost Terminals in KL or Singapore;

2. North-South Highway. Alternative: People can still use the old accident-prone trunk road network;

3. Penang bridge. Alternative: People can still use the snail-pace ferry service;

4. Monorail and urban rail transportation projects. Alternative: People can still wait for smoky buses and taxi drivers who refuse to use the meter;

5. Petronas Twin Towers and Kuala Lumpur City Centre. Alternative: Punters can continue to go to the old turf club on the site and create a massive traffic jam in the heart of the city every weekend;

6. The Smart tunnel to divert torrential flood water in KL. Alternative: People can still enjoy boat rides in the city whenever it rains incessantly;

7. New universities. Alternative: Malaysia can continue to send students overseas on government scholarships that are based on its own definition of merit;

8. Multimedia Super Corridor. Alternative: Malaysians can continue to buy pirated software at pasar malam instead of climbing the technology ladder;

9. New rubbish incinerator for Klang Valley. Alternative: People can continue to burn rubbish in their backyard or simply throw it into rivers;

10. Modern hospitals. Alternative: People can continue to go to Malay Bomohs or Chinese Sinsehs.

Political suicide?

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (right in pix) has said that he has not committed "political suicide" by overturning some of his predecessor Dr Mahathir Mohamad's (left) decisions, according to Bernama's report of his interview with CNN aired earlier today.

Badawi also said that he still commands majority support in the country, and he will still try to achieve Dr M's Vision 2020 to become a developed nation.

Will Badawi's latest overtures placate Dr M?

Unlikely, Dr M will continue to criticise Badawi until he overturns his own decisions in overturning Dr M's decisions.

Why? Simply because they had a gentleman's agreement to undertake projects that were dished out on the eve of Dr M's retirement in 2003.

The gentleman's agreement may have even been one of the conditions for Dr M to step down after 22 years in office.

PM Dismisses "Political Suicide" By Reversing Dr M's Decisions
October 14, 2006 18:09 PM

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 14 (Bernama) -- Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has dismissed the notion that he may be committing "political suicide" by reversing some of the decisions made by his predecessor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and be seen as rolling back on everything the latter had put in place.

Admitting that Dr Mahathir is still being held in the highest regard by many people after 22 years leading the country, the prime minister said he too commanded majority support.

"No, no, no, I don't think it's a political suicide. He has been saying a lot of things, I've decided to keep quiet and to go on doing what I want to do.

"And the people want me to do what I want to do. And I have and I still command majority support today," he said in an interview with Anjali Rao in the "Talk Asia" programme aired by Cable News Network Saturday.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Changes at SPH

Singapore Press Holdings will finally see the passing of the baton of its top editorial post after nearly two decades.

Newspaper doyen Cheong Yip Seng (left) will step down in January after 43 years with the group, and 19 years as the Editor-in-Chief of the English and Malay Newspapers Division or EMND. EMND covers the flagship The Straits Times, The Business Times and Berita Harian.

Mr Cheong's retirement was expected. But the choice of his successor -- Patrick Daniel (right), Managing Editor of EMND and former BT Editor -- was somewhat of a surprise. Some had expected ST Editor Han Fook Kwang to be elevated to the top post.

Will there be more changes further down the road? Nobody knows for sure but one sign came from Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who had publicly noted that many journalists rooted for the Opposition in the previous election in May.

'So it's not bad. It's a strong mandate, considering how strongly people wanted an opposition, some young people, and how strongly many journalists rooted for the Opposition.'
MM Lee said on 4 May 2006 after the People's Action Party secured a winning margin of 66.6 per cent

Resorts World at Sentosa?

It's down to a three-horse race for the second casino licence in Singapore. The three remaining contenders for the Sentosa Integrated Resort site are Genting International-Star Cruises-Universal Studios; Kerzner International-CapitaLand; and Eighth Wonder. As expected, Harrah's and partner Keppel Land dropped out of the race after they failed to clinch the Marina Bay site.

Dad is betting on frontrunner Genting to win the tender with its S$5-billion bid and concept. Dad had correctly picked underdog Las Vegas Sands to clinch the first casino site at Marina Bay.

Genting founder Lim Goh Tong (inset) during his younger days and the hill-top resort, which straddles the border of the Malaysian states of Selangor and Pahang

But dad doesn't quite like the proposed name of Resorts World at Sentosa, which is based on the name of its highland resorts in Malaysia. Why? Simply because few will see Resorts World in Malaysia as a classy place.

The Malaysian casino, built in the 1960s, was designed to draw the mass market. Last year, the Malaysian casino attracted nearly 19 million visitors. In comparison, the Sentosa casino is designed to woo 10 million people by 2015.

The Singapore model has to be different, as Genting has teamed up with a big name like Universal Studios. In other words, the Singapore branding has to be more upmarket lah!

PS: Winner of the project will be announced by the end of the year.

Friday, October 13, 2006

King and students

Uncle has written another piece on Thailand. Happy reading!

Last week I commented on Thailand’s recent military coup without mentioning the most important reason why the coup has succeeded, at least so far --- the seeming endorsement of the coup by the country’s revered demi-god King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whose very name means "strength of the land, incomparable power".

The fact that the king said nothing against the coup was indication enough that it met with his approval.

The fact is that nearly every Thai sees the hand of the King behind the recent dramatic events. And everyone knows that the coup leader General Sonthi is an avid royalist, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting at the royal palace.

This explains the paradox that such a popular Prime Minister as Thaksin could be so easily turned out of his office. When it comes to adulation, the people have more affection for their king than for any politician.

When King Bhumibol ascended the throne in 1946, aged 18, the Thai monarchy was in a very weakened state, and his elder brother had just been mysteriously murdered. Through hard work, visits to the rural poor, and his personal virtue, the young king accumulated great public goodwill.

Today he is the world’s longest serving monarch and such is his authority that his words are taken as royal commands.

He often communicates with the people through parables, stories and signs and adheres to deeply religious rituals with himself as a Buddhist dhammaraja or selfless king following a complex code of morality.

Unlike the British royal family, whose life is open to tabloid newspaper inspection, the Thai king’s private life is little known. Thai royalty has had no equivalent of Princess Diana, and no exposure of adulterous affairs.

This is partly because of Thailand strict lese-majeste laws which make it an offence punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment to offend the dignity of the king.

Therefore, it has come as a pleasant surprise that this year two books have been published (in English) about the king. One book, by the head of the royal court police is particularly interesting and describes the king’s close ties with the military establishment.

The book, In His Majesty’s Footsteps – A Personal Memoir, relates in respectful detail some strange personal matters about the king. For example, it describes the addiction of the royal family to jogging and comments that "His Majesty had a way of jogging that appeared as though he was floating in the air, with his long steps and each foot touching the ground ever so lightly."

What caught my attention especially is the book’s account (albeit very brief) of the political crisis of 1973. It was almost precisely 23 years ago, in October 1973, that over 250,000 people, many of them agitated students, massed on the streets of Bangkok to demand democracy. The Thai army opened fire on the massive crowd, leaving some 75 to 80 people dead.

It was the darkest chapter in modern Thai history.

But according to In His Majesty’s Footsteps, before that infamous October 1973 incident, the king took the initiative to invite the student leaders to talk to him and at that meeting he personally promised that a new constitution would be in place within eighteen months.

After the army had gunned down the demonstrators, the king intervened and appointed a new prime minister and within two months the king had personally appointed 2,346 people to a National Convention which in turn appointed 293 representatives to a new National Legislative Assembly.

Therefore, even back in 1973 when Thailand took its first steps toward democracy, it was accepted that the king played a pivotal role in politics. No important appointment could be made without his consent.

Which brings me back to the present crisis and what role the king may have played. The historical record clearly suggests that when the chips are down, no-one in Thailand can reject political appointments made, suggested or even hinted at by the King.

The absolute power of the Thai monarchy in a supposedly democratic nation is extraordinary and perhaps unique in our 21st century world.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Bumiputra equity, Part 2

In an about turn, think tank Asli has retracted its controversial report on the state of Bumiputra wealth in Malaysia. Malaysian blogger jeffooi has captured the latest twist quite well.

The person who crafted the report -- Dr Lim Teck Ghee (pix) -- has resigned in the wake of the retraction. Asli is seen to have caved in to pressure from Malay politicians, including PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and nemesis Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who questioned the veracity of the report. Incidentally, Asli is run by Mirzan Mahathir, the eldest son of Dr Mahathir.

The government dismissed the report as it has always used par value, instead of current market prices, to calculate the level of Malay ownership in the corporate sector and the economy since the Bumiputra policy kicked off in 1971 to redress the country's wealth imbalance.

While Dr Lim's figure of 45 per cent seems a tad high (it is above the policy target of setting aside 30 per cent of the economic wealth for Bumiputra), the government's own tabulation of 18.9 per cent seems to be way too low.

Dr Lim has done the honourable thing, but it's truly sad that there is no room for true intellectual debate or discourse in Malaysia without politics getting into the way.

One should always remember Dr Lim's parting words:

I hope the public space opened up by the Centre’s work on this particular, as well as other important, issues will be expanded on and vigorously defended by others. It is the fundamental right of the Malaysian public to question all government statistics and policies, more so when these are not transparent or defensible.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bumiputra equity?

Another race issue has cropped up in Malaysia even though many people are still seething over Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's remarks about compliant Chinese in Malaysia, and Malaysian PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's son-in-law's remarks about non-Malays taking advantage of Malays when they are disunited.

This time, The Star dated 6 Oct 2006 cited a report by think tank Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute (Asli) as saying that Bumiputra equity of the corporate sector is a lot higher than the target of 30 per cent. Badawi immediately rejected it as wrong.

Is it really wrong? Has the policy surpassed its goal to help redress the wealth imbalance in the country?

To recap, the Asli report, citing statistics from the Bursa Malaysia Corporate Equity’s 2005, estimated the amount of Bumiputra equity ownership at 45 per cent of the RM715.4 billion worth of stocks on the stock exchange, or RM325.1 billion. The survey is based on a sample of 1,000 listed companies.

The government's reasoning on why the Asli report is wrong:
1. The Government’s estimate of Bumiputra equity ownership in the Ninth Malaysia Plan is only 18.9 per cent based on Bumiputra holding in 600,000 companies. The value is computed based on the par value of the company's shares.
2. Government-linked companies are not Bumiputra companies.

Let's tackle the second point first. Yes, not all GLCs are Bumiputra companies. But it is not wrong to calculate the level of Bumiputra holdings in all listed companies.

Take the example of MMC Corporation, which is majority held by businessman Syed Mokhtar Al-Bukhary (51.75 per cent) and government agencies such as Skim Amanah Saham Bumiputra (24.42 per cent) and the Employees Provident Fund (3.78 per cent).

Of course, Syed Mokhtar's stake held through Seaport Terminal (Johore) must be accounted as Bumiputra equity as he is a Bumiputra businessman. The stake held by Skim Amanah Saham Bumiputra must also be classified as Bumiputra equity although it is part of the government because the funds will only accrue to Bumiputras. But the stake held by the EPF cannot be classified as Bumiputra equity as it is a national agency.

So, the argument depends on the methodology.

The first point is more contentious. Even though the government uses a bigger sample to calculate the level of Bumiputra corporate ownership, it is totally misleading to use the par value of their holdings.

Of course, the level of Bumiputra will always remain suppressed and stay below the target of 30 per cent if par value is used as the computation. This is because the par value is equivalent to the issue price of the shares.

Take the example of Maybank, the biggest bank in the country. Based on the government's definition, the entire Maybank is only capitalised at RM3.8 billion based on its share capital of 3.8 billion shares at its par value of RM1 per share. Hence, a Bumiputra shareholder such as Skim Amanah Saham Bumiputra (the biggest shareholder of Maybank with a stake of 36.5 per cent) is deemed to be holding Maybank equity worth only about RM1.4 billion.

But the picture is completely different if one uses current price instead of par value in the computation. Based on Maybank's last traded price of RM11.30, the bank is capitalised at RM42.9 billion. And Skim Amanah Saham Bumiputra's 36.5 per cent stake in Maybank is therefore worth RM15.7 billion -- more than ten times the value based on par value!!!

Using current price is definitely more realistic in ascertaining the actual level of Bumiputra ownership in the corporate sector or the economy. The government must also take account the continuous disposal of assets by Bumiputra to raise funds -- especially in IPOs as pointed out by the Asli report -- over the years when it analyses the actual level of Bumiputra ownership.

But such suggestions won't please defenders of the Bumiputra policy, which should have expired in 1990.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Temasek's Thai blunder

The commentary in Singapore's Business Times below is rather courageous in the Singapore context, considering that few can afford to offend the powerful Temasek Holdings.

Why is Temasek powerful? First, it is effectively the investment arm of the Singapore government although it keeps saying that it is a commercial entity. Temasek is fully owned by Singapore's Finance Ministry. It is therefore the investment arm of the Singapore government. Period.

Second, Temasek wields tremendous commercial and political clout even if it has no such intention. Apart from having stakes in some of the biggest companies in Singapore such as Singapore Telecommunications, DBS Bank and Neptune Orient Lines, it is run by a powerful lady called Ho Ching.

The Lee family (clockwise from top right hand corner) -- Mr and Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, Ho Ching, Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew

She's been ranked by numerous publications as one of the top women in the region and in the world. Of course, everybody knows that the sharp woman is the wife of PM Lee Hsien Loong, who is also the Finance Minister of Singapore overseeing Temasek. Ho Ching is also the daughter-in-law of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who is the founding father of modern Singapore.

Such connections help open doors for Temasek. Which central banker or bank owner would not want to meet the wife or daughter-in-law of the two most powerful men in Singapore? Which businessmen in the region would not want to do business with Temasek?

Back to the BT commentary. It is essentially a criticism of what Temasek did wrong in Thailand, without saying it so blatantly. The key to the current mess in the Shin Corp deal in Thailand is the review by the Thai authorities as to whether Temasek and partners did indeed breach the foreign ownership rule.

Will the commentary and other growing criticisms of Temasek lead to changes in the Singapore government investment arm?

Maybe, but don't bet on a Thai-style military coup at Temasek.

Business Times - 06 Oct 2006
Lessons from Temasek's Shin acquisition

TEMASEK Holdings has built an enviable track record in its overseas acquisitions. Its acquisition of Shin Corp in Thailand, despite its controversial nature, may prove to be a shrewd investment too in the long term. However, all investments - good and bad - offer lessons. And what happened at Shin is especially instructive.

Few acquisitions anywhere have had such a far-reaching impact. Temasek's purchase of telecom conglomerate Shin from the family of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra unwittingly contributed to a prolonged political crisis which finally led to Mr Thaksin's removal in a military coup two weeks ago. In the process, Temasek's investment in Shin has been sharply de-valued, although the losses are on paper. Temasek's reputation, and Singapore's image in Thailand, have unfortunately also taken a knock.

So what are the lessons from Shin?

The first is that political risk can never be underestimated, especially in large, cross-border transactions. This is particularly so for Temasek, given its parentage, the size of its investments, and the fact that many of its targets are often the largest and best-connected companies in their home countries. To many observers, Shin had political risk written all over right from the start. Even before the Shin sale, Mr Thaksin's business dealings were already a major political issue in Thailand. Buying Shin from the family of a prime minister openly accused of corruption clearly carried a significant political risk.

Temasek has rightly reiterated that it undertakes political risk analysis as part of a detailed analysis that includes industry and country risks, and that it invests purely on commercial grounds. The fallout from Shin, however, suggests that Temasek may have to relook the way it assesses political risk. More emphasis may have to be given to independent, expert opinion to complement the inhouse view. It's almost a certainty that Temasek will increasingly have to deal with political issues as it steps up its investments overseas.

The second lesson is that you need to know the full details of the deal in an investment like Shin. An interview with Temasek managing director for strategic development Jimmy Phoon published last week by the online edition of US magazine Newsweek brought up an interesting point. Mr Phoon said Temasek took advice on its part of the deal and was not aware that the sale was structured in such a way that Mr Thaksin's family would avoid taxes. That was an information gap that perhaps should have been plugged, given the sensitivities already surrounding Mr Thaksin's business dealings. As it turned out, the tax loophole was the critical issue that sparked off public outrage against Mr Thaksin.

The third lesson is that complex deal structures often create their own problems. When a deal is structured in complicated ways, such as this one, it provides opponents with ammunition to make political hay out of specific parts of the transaction. Complicated structures also risk appearing unclear and opaque, or worse still, arouse suspicion even if unjustified.

This is the situation Temasek finds itself in. The structure of the Shin deal is now under scrutiny, and the subject of police investigations. While Temasek has maintained that it has complied with all the laws and regulations in Thailand, Thailand's Ministry of Commerce has decided that Temasek may have overstepped Thai laws on foreign ownership and has sent the results of an initial probe to the police for further action. The probe is centred on Kularb Kaew, a holding company set up as part of Temasek's purchase of Shin.

Shareholding structure

At the heart of the matter lies the question of whether Kularb Kaew, which is controlled by a Malaysia-based Thai who was a partner in the Shin deal, is a Thai company or a Temasek nominee under the law. Under a complex shareholding structure, Temasek currently holds 41.7 per cent of Shin directly through Aspen Holdings, while another 54.6 per cent is held by Cedar Holdings, a joint venture by Temasek's Cypress Holdings, Siam Commercial Bank and Kularb Kaew.

The fourth lesson is the need to counter negative perceptions. To its credit, Temasek has taken the first step last week in giving a public glimpse into its investment in Shin. But its silence until recently - through months of political upheaval in Thailand - has created the impression, unfairly perhaps, that it has been less than forthcoming. While Temasek is legally accountable only to the government, it may have to be prepared to publicly defend its track record in Thailand in this case. It is not only the Thai authorities who need to know; Singaporeans, many of whom hold Temasek in high regard, need to be reassured that Temasek is doing it right. It is the Singapore flag, after all, that Temasek flies in its ventures abroad.

The last lesson is not a new one: more impetus has to be given to the issue of de-linking Temasek from the state. The rise of economic nationalism and fashioning a response to it is a major challenge facing Temasek. Wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance and therefore viewed as the government itself when it moves to buy banks, telcos and infrastructure companies overseas, its assertion that it operates as a private enterprise independent of the government is not always accepted. This can prove troublesome in an era of rising economic nationalism - one reason why the Shin deal fanned anti-Singapore sentiment was also because it was seen as a sale of a national asset to a foreign government.

There have been suggestions to dilute the government's ownership of Temasek, or even list the company, with institutions, the public, as well as the government holding shares. Making structural changes to Temasek may be something that has to be contemplated, sooner rather than later.

What happened at Shin should not deter Temasek from making bold forays overseas. But at the same time, Shin clearly is a watershed in the investment history of Temasek, providing an invaluable point of reflection for the Singapore investment company even as it plots its next move to widen Singapore's footprint across the globe.

Letter from Bangkok

Uncle's latest article on Thailand. Dad has also written a little bit on Thailand -- Thai conundrum and Thai coup. And a bonus item is a forwarded e-mail -- political asylum to Thai leader. :-)

Uncle's letter from Bangkok:

I think it is quite safe to assume that most of my readers have been to Bangkok if not to other parts of Thailand. The rich and not so rich, and even I dare say the poor have always found Thailand to be an exotic place. Apart from the “mainland” (and Macao is part of the “mainland”) Thailand must be the most popular place for Hong Kong people to visit partly because it is still an extremely inexpensive country.

So, many of us were no doubt greatly surprised to learn of the military coup in Bangkok. My friends who were in Bangkok when the coup struck tell me that they hardly noticed any changes in the hours and days following the coup.

By the standards of previous coups in Thailand and in other countries this coup must rank as one of the smoothest and gentlest coups ever experienced. And by the standards of a coup in a developing country it must rank as one of the most successful coups because no western democracy, let alone any totalitarian state, has condemned it in strong terms. Protests by Australia and the United States were notable for their gentleness which bordered on feebleness.

There are two questions which bother me? First, in a democracy how can it ever be right for a democratically elected leader, as Thaksin Shinawatra surely was, to be so easily thrown out of office by the say-so of an unelected army general and in contravention of Thailand’s rule of law?

Secondly, why have the countries that so ardently preach the supposed massive advantages of democracy been so silent and reluctant to condemn the Thai generals?

Just imagine for a moment that the military coup had occurred not in Thailand but in another country which was not on such friendly terms with the western democracies. What would have been the reaction of those same western democracies? They would have protested loudly, condemned the leaders of the coup, possibly threatened economic sanctions and perhaps advised against tourism to that country.

Please do not misunderstand me! I am not for one moment recommending sanctions against Thailand or saying we should cancel our holidays visits to Patpong. I just want to point out the hypocrisy and double-standards of the western democracies.

Meantime, we all no doubt wish the Thai people a very happy and democratic future. It will be interesting to see if this coup marks a brief interruption on Thailand’s march to a fully stable democratic system, or if it marks a return to less stable times. After all King Bhumibol’s reign has experienced 18 military coups, 15 different constitutions, and 21 prime ministers.

Most important of all, if a new future prime minister wins a big popular mandate (such as the one Mr Thaksin enjoyed), will the events of the last few weeks come to be seen as the beginning of the end of the monarchy’s constitutional role? The coming months are crucial for the futures of both the monarchy and democratic government not only in Thailand but also possibly in the Philippines and Indonesia whose democratic systems are also at a formative stage.

Finally, what of Mr Thaksin himself? He may be politically neutralized but he remains financially very secure since he sold most of his telecom empire to the Singapore state investment company Temasek for nearly HK$15 billion in a clever tax-free deal. Temasek itself must be less happy as it has seen the value of its purchase drop by nearly 50 percent or more than HK$6 billion.

Mr Thaksin is famously very intolerant of criticism, and maybe his greatest mistake was to have shown the king insufficient respect. But if he wishes he can watch events in Thailand from the safe distance of his home in London and enjoy an unexpected, early and luxurious retirement.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Hazy again

The haze has become a tiring story. It's become an annual event since the 1990s. The main culprit is, of course, Indonesia.

Haze cuts visibility from 10 km to 2 km in Singapore
Oct 5, 2006

The worsening smoke haze coming in from Sumatra has cut visibility from 10 km to 2 to 3 km in Singapore.

The latest satellite picture detected 228 hotspots in Sumatra, mainly in Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra. Dense smoke plumes from the hotspots were also observed.

But it forecasts that the south-southwesterly winds will strengthen tomorrow morning and the winds will again bring smoke haze from Sumatra to Singapore.

NEA will monitor the haze situation in the region closely and will issue the health advisories if the situation warrants it, it said.

But Asean must also share the blame. All the Asean initiatives since the 1990s to combat the haze have come to naught. Dad has lost track as to how many Asean agreements have been sealed. But government officials of the ten Asean governments will continue to have regular meetings to help draft another agreement.

Mommy has suggested that Asean countries penalise Indonesia in some way to help ensure that it takes enough steps to prevent another environmental disaster. How can it be done? We shall leave it to the politicians and civil servants to sort it out.

Dad simply hopes the worst haze -- which coincided with the regional financial crisis of 1997 and 1998 -- doesn't return to envelop the entire region again.

Singapore Swing

Former outspoken Morgan Stanley economist Andy Xie has hit the headlines for the wrong reason, again. His disparaging email on Singapore has surfaced following his unexplained resignation. Please see Finance Asia story for the context of the email, if it indeed came from him.

Everybody was struck by one particular para in his email:

"Actually, Singapore’s success came mainly from being the money laundering centre for corrupt Indonesian businessmen and government officials. Indonesia has no money. So Singapore isn’t doing well. To sustain its economy, Singapore is building casinos to attract corrupt money from China.”

This is a very careless statement, especially the term 'money laundering'. Singapore is known for its tough stance against money laundering from illicit activities such as drug trafficking or terrorist money.

He may not be in hot soup today if he had said something like Singapore’s success came partly from being a safe haven for the wealth of Indonesian and Chinese businessmen and government officials.

But that would not be Andy!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Rogue wave

Readers of the The Straits Times were introduced to a fairly new term today -- rogue wave.

Rogue wave kills S'porean off Perth, another missing
By Teh Joo Lin
Oct 04, 2006

A MASSIVE rogue wave turned a weekend fishing trip off Perth by four Singaporean buddies into a tragedy, leaving one man dead, another missing and two injured.

It's a rather unusual way to describe a wave, which is lifeless. One tends to associate rogue with a person -- such as 'rogue trader' or dishonest trader.

Shouldn't the wave be described as 'freak wave' or 'raging wave' instead of 'rogue wave'? A wave can't be dishonest.

Oh well, I'm not a language expert. But I feel sorry for the person who was killed by the big wave.

Thai conundrum

It's rather odd to a layman that a government should endorse a military-backed leader after having condemned a military coup that overthrew the previous leader. The oddity came into play in Thailand recently.

Like all foreign governments, the Singapore government condemned the military coup that overthrew former democratically elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last month.

The chorus of global condemnation itself was highly questionable. This is because many Thais, especially in Bangkok, appear to support the removal of Thaksin. But many kampung folks seem to still support him. Regardless of the level of support, Thaksin has resigned from the former ruling party Thai Rak Thai (pix), marking the beginning of the end of the party he founded.

Perhaps, the most important socio-political indicator in Thailand is the support of King Bhumibol Adulyadej -- the paramount moral leader of the country -- for the coup to overthrow a leader who has been besieged by allegations of corruption and improper behaviour. The allegations surfaced when he structured the sale of his family flagship Shin Corporation to Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings to avoid paying tax.

The military-led government has since appointed former general Surayud Chulanont as the country's interim PM. The Singapore government has been one of the first foreign governments to endorse the new Thai premier. Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong said he is glad that Surayud has the endorsement of the King, and is confident that the Thai premier will also have the support of the Thai people in exercising his responsibilities.

Isn't the endorsement of the military-backed PM inconsistent with the condemnation of the military coup in the first place? If the blessing of the King was a key factor as seen in the endorsement of the new Thai PM, did Singapore and other countries jump the gun in condemning the military coup that had the blessing of the King as well?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Vintage Kuan Yew

Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is in his element. He has written a long letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi over his remarks about compliant Chinese in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Is he really sorry over the remarks that created a ruckus in Malaysia and Indonesia? The letter gives the impression of an apology at first glance. But an apology is probably far from his mind upon closer reading of the letter and his careful nuances.

To put it bluntly, Kuan Yew is merely saying that he was sorry that what he said created 'a great deal of discomfort' for Badawi. The bulk of the letter was a justification of his words.

Kuan Yew said he has not said anything more than what he has said many times before. In fact, he correctly pointed out that he has said less than what he had written in his memoirs, which was published in 1998.

As further justification, he pointed out that "on numerous occasions Umno leaders, including Dr Mahathir and many others, have publicly warned Malaysian Malays that if they ever lose power, they risk the same fate as Malays in Singapore, whom they allege are marginalised and discriminated against."

Kuan Yew even attached an annex to show the other occasions when Malaysian guys openly criticised the state of the Malay community in Singapore. Yet Singapore maintained its silence.

Surprisingly, Kuan Yew even took the opportunity to whack former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

"I am sorry that what I said has caused you a great deal of discomfort. After a decade of troubled relations with your predecessor, it is the last thing I wanted," Kuan Yew wrote.

Badawi declined to say if he accepted the qualified apology. To his credit though, he stuck to his gun in his rather controlled reply to Kuan Yew's letter.

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia's prime minister gave an icy response on Tuesday to an apology by former Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew, who had upset the country by criticising its race relations.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said he had received Lee's written apology but declined to say whether he accepted it and instead repeated his objections to Lee's original comments.

"I have received the letter and I understand the contents," Abdullah told reporters at his office in the administrative capital of Putrajaya. "I have taken note of it.

"The statement by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore is uncalled for and not appreciated ... I certainly reject the premise upon which he made the statement in Singapore. I believe such a statement cannot contribute to good neighbourly relations."

"Such a statement can incite the feelings of Malaysians and I think it is important we have to ensure such a statement should not be made again," he added.

Well, what's next? We just have to wait for Dr M to open his mouth again, with guns blazing.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Wag the dog

Kalimullah Hassan, former editor-in-chief of New Straits Times in Malaysia, has come up with a new theory in his column on why Singapore Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew made the remarks about Chinese in Singapore's neighbours.

According to Lord Kali (Dr Mahathir's nickname for Kalimullah), Kuan Yew made those remarks to help divert attention from the bad press on Singapore. The tactic is widely known as Wag the dog -- popularised by the movie in which a spin doctor creates a situation to distract the public from the President's scandalous affairs.

But are political analysts reading too much into Kuan Yew's intention in those remarks?

Whatever Kuan Yew's real intention was, it is obvious that both sides have not been able to discard their historical baggage -- the need to paint their respective political and social systems as superior ever since they split in 1965.

See also Rocky's Bru and Paddie Bowie's take on the latest Kuan Yew issue.

Extract of Lord Kali's column: There were many theories on why Lee would have wanted to make such profoundly inaccurate observation about Malaysia, especially when relations between Singapore and both Malaysia and Indonesia had taken on a better turn in the last few years. "Wag the dog" — that was the common consensus at our table of Chinese, Indians and Malays.

Here was Singapore being criticised for reneging on a promise to allow non-governmental organisation protesters at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Singapore and foreign officials wondering aloud whether it would be in the greater interests of freedom not to have such high-level conferences in the island republic in future.

In Thailand, a coup was fermenting against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra which centred around the sale of his telecommunictions company to Singapore’s Temasek which is run by Lee’s daughter- in-law, Ho Ching.

The unbridled Thai Press has been at it for months, questioning Temasek’s purchase, and alleging and alluding all kinds of opaqueness in the deal. Temasek has, of course, denied the charges.

So what better way to divert the attention of fellow Singaporeans and seek the sympathy of the international audience by reverting to the age-old and tested formula of the "big brothers" from Indonesia and Malaysia trying to bully "poor, little Singapore"?

Today, both countries’ leaders often speak about the need to leave past emotional baggage behind and work towards a new era of friendship and co-operation as two sovereign nations should. But, it appears, Lee’s baggage is still in tow.