Sunday, December 31, 2006

Saddam the Martyr?

It won't be the end of conflict in the Middle East although the United States and allies have effectively 'silenced' former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

Saddam was executed yesterday following a decision by the court of the US-backed regime. CNN and Reuters reports are quite extensive, plus very troubling footage from Iraqi TV on the noose being placed around Saddam's neck.

He has been hanged and is now buried next to his sons. What a tragic symbol of the end of the despot.

What is indeed troubling is that Saddam may go down in history as a victim rather than a tyrant. He was defiant, refusing to be hooded, yet subdued as he was led by the hangman to his final moments. His apparent courage in his final moments may elevate him to the status of martyr by his supporters. Even UK and Australia -- the two deputy sheriffs to US President George Bush in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- have condemned the hanging as they don't support capital punishment.

Yes, Saddam was a tyrant when he was in power. He has been hanged for giving orders to wipe out 148 men and boys following an assassination attempt on him.

What about successive Israeli leadership's role in killing thousands of Palestinians and flattening countless Palestinian villages following each suicide bombing by desperate Palestinians on hapless Israelis? Will the US invade Israel one day and put its leaders on trial for crime against humanity?

Or will the world put President Bush on trial for crime against humanity one day? He issued the orders for the wrongful invasion of Iraq that led to the death of more than 650,000 Iraqis.

Impeachment is too light a punishment.

Note: Earlier postings on Saddam Hussein.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Thai Touch

A nice read about a Thai hospital that is making waves in the region, captured in the Raffles Conversation in The Business Times, Singapore, 30 Dec 2006.

Thai hospitality
Curtis Schroeder, the American Group CEO of Bumrungrad International, may be credited with turning the Bangkok hospital into an icon of medical tourism. But he tells ANNA TEO that the service and quality standards that set it apart are quintessentially Thai in origin

HIS early days as the new CEO of Bumrungrad International Hospital - indeed its first non-Thai employee - were a little disconcerting, to say the least. Whenever Curtis Schroeder stepped into the elevator to get to his office, everyone else would scramble out. Nobody would ride with him.

'Because they didn't want to inconvenience the CEO by having to stop at five different floors, I found out later. I thought maybe I had some sort of problem, I didn't know what it was,' he recalls with a soft chuckle. That was his introduction to the Thais' deference to authority. Coming from a background of US hospitals where nurses have no problem unloading on the CEO over lunch in the cafeteria about problems at work, and 'doctors pound on your door and tell you what's wrong', it was perhaps culture shock in reverse.

'In Thailand that's considered very rude. So the doctors never pound on your door, and the nurses - if you try and sit down and have lunch with them, they'd panic. And so it's very difficult to get feedback.'

But it has been 14 years since Mr Schroeder - a veteran hospital administrator of over 30 years who has opened and run hospitals in Saudi Arabia and in the United States, New Orleans and Los Angeles - first arrived in Bumrungrad, and the American has embraced the land, its people and its culture. Thailand is where his two daughters, now 21 and 18 years, grew up, and where he and his wife have built their retirement home.

'It's a great place, good people, and it's been a lot of fun working there,' he tells BT during a recent business trip here. 'My wife said now I can never work in a hospital in the United States again, because the nurses would never treat me like that,' he laughs.

Business tenets

Bumrumgrad is today, of course, one of Thailand's best-known export successes - its opulent setting, plush amenities and legendary turnaround having been featured in stories about the rise of medical tourism in umpteen newspapers and magazines such as Newsweek, Time and Conde Nast Traveller. The statistics are well-touted: It treats more than one million patients a year, of whom about 400,000 come from some 190 countries. Turnover for the listed hospital in 2005 amounted to US$170 million. And Mr Schroeder is credited with having led the hospital on its breakthrough path as an international medical destination - and probably pioneering the way in the region. But ask him about it and he wants to set the record straight.

Bumrungrad opened as a 200-bed facility in 1980, went public on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in 1989, and by the early 1990s, the owners (then mainly Bangkok Bank) were looking to take it further.

'They went out and looked at other hospitals, in Singapore, in the United States; they were looking for models on size and scope and design and look and feel. They discovered that running very large hospitals is quite different from running medium or small-sized hospitals.

'At that time Bumrungrad was a relatively small, family-run hospital, and it had done exceptionally well in the market. It had ridden the wave of the rise in demand by the middle class for private health care in Thailand, and had established a very strong brand name, serving mostly the domestic and local expatriate population, very little fly-in. Thailand was not known in any way in 1990 as a hub destination. I think they had actually done an exceptional job of building a very good-quality product on the basis that it's a service industry, so we have to provide good service, and we have to attract and retain the best doctors we can find.

'I think those two business tenets were what established Bumrungrad in 1980, and to a large extent is still our philosophy today. Health care is a service business, you have to be really good at service. We're not a technology business, we don't make widgets, we don't sell cars, we provide service. And the second is attracting and retaining the best possible medical talent we can. That stays with us today, and that was established long before I came.'

Mr Schroeder was then with National Medical Enterprises, which owned at that time Mount Elizabeth and Eastshore hospitals in Singapore, and which Bumrungrad's owners turned to in its growth venture.

'So they did something that's not terribly normal in Asian family-run businesses - basically back off and say, you hire good people and let them do their jobs. And that's when I came on board in late-1992, and my job initially was to take the first vision, if you will, from a 200-bed, essentially family-run, good brand name hospital and put it on an international standard both in facility, standard operating procedures, accreditation, and make it something that had the potential for further reach.'

But there was no intention to become any medical hub. 'That was not the business plan in 1992, it's not supposed to be a hub of international care,' he says.

The 200-bed facility was torn down and a new one million square feet building came up next to it. 'We opened the hospital in early 1997. Six months later, we were hit by the economic downturn.'

It was the turning point. Subsequently, often asked what led to Bumrungrad's pioneering breakthrough strategy in 1997, Mr Schroeder says he would like to say it was a bunch of MBA-types sitting around a room looking at possible futures of health care.

'But it was much more pragmatic than that. What happened was - the crisis of 1997 put us in a position of having a brand new US$110 million hospital with about $60 million in US dollar loans in an economy that was suddenly in crisis, where local demand at best would be stagnant and probably decline, and we were a business that buys mostly in dollars, Deutsche marks and guilders, but we sell in baht. So our margins got squeezed, our market was shrinking, the paying ability of our customers was slashed, and the cost of our loans doubled overnight,' he now recalls with a wry laugh.

'That's a very, very tough situation to wake up to in the middle of July in 1997. At that time about 9 per cent of our business was international, 91 per cent was Thai. And at that time we said we got to do something very, very different here. I literally in August of 1997 walked into the boardroom and took our well planned-out, neatly typed and tabbed 1997 business plan, and I threw it in the trash, in front of the administrative team to make a point.

'The concept that we had planned, thought out and done all that important MBA-type stuff you should do, was useless. Because the landscape had completely changed. And where we were going to get our growth had changed. I've often said that we would not be the company we are today if we didn't have the crisis in 1997. It fundamentally changed and opened up new things, it forced us, it was a catalyst that was irreversible, we had to go after it, we had to find another way to survive. Because the alternative was bankruptcy. It would have been a very tough time, our shareholders would have wound up, giving up an awful lot of their equity to the banks and the others if we had not found a new market to go after. That new market was international.'

Not that Bumrungrad began to abandon its local patients. 'As a matter of fact, they continued to grow quite nicely through this period. But we needed a much larger playing field. So we looked at ourselves and found - what do we have? We have a new million square feet, internationally designed facility, we had an international management team which at that time in Thailand was unique, that had success in opening proprietary hospitals from Australia to China. We had a very strong, multinationally educated staff, all Thai, and over 200 US board-certified physicians. We were in the centre of a big city. So we said we'd better go and see if we can get patients to come from outside Thailand. And at least the one thing that happens in a devaluation of your currency - at least your exports become more attractive to people outside your country.'

Change of mindset

What was needed, it is now evident, was a mindset shift to begin to look at health care as an export product, which no one had done then, including the Thai government.

Mr Schroeder recalls an exports roadshow with the government in the early days in 1998 to introduce Thai health care along with other products.

'They weren't quite sure what to do with us, because we'd go on these roadshows and there would be people selling Thai jasmine rice and milk powder and fruit and commodities and steel, and we were there, this health-care group. And I remember sitting in the middle of a dirty parking lot in the rain with the dust on the floor in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, and we were sitting there selling, you know, cardiac catherisations, next to people selling milk powder . . . I said, what are we doing here? Those early days were very much about trying to figure out how to define health care as an export product. And ultimately, I think, we figured out that there was a demand, because the cost had come down so much.

'Bangkok had always been cheaper, but for the first time it dropped much further against world currencies than, for instance, the Sing dollar did. So it widened that gap.

'At the same time we had a brand new fantastic physical plan, we had time for two to three years to get the operations up, and we were ready to rock and roll. And we just hit the market at the right time at the right price. At the same time, all the surrounding Indochinese economies were also hit by the slowdown, so the people in those countries who had traditionally left their countries for health care - I'm talking about Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and also Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan - they were looking for alternatives. They had a catalyst, they had a reason to look elsewhere. Because they had been going to Singapore, a little bit less to Hong Kong, some to UK, and they were suddenly looking at a very small purse. And Singapore was starting to look pretty expensive. And suddenly here is this other alternative - and it's a third of the price and when they got there, it was pretty good. They liked the service and they liked the people, they liked the facility, and they came.'

From an initial six countries, Bumrungrad expanded its network of overseas offices to 12, and now 18. It receives on its website, set up back in 1997, more than 700 international email enquiries every day, seven days a week, and has a staff of people who do nothing but respond in 17 different languages to the emails, Mr Schroeder says. Its doctors speak as many languages 'on a fluent basis', and there are also some 60 full-time interpreters covering everything from Arabic to Greek and Hebrew.

The Thai doctors tell him that 'it's so much more interesting when you have a Nigerian patient, followed by a Bhutanese, followed by a sheikh from Oman, then you get a Thai from up the street, and next you know, someone comes in from Cambodia'.

It is the most international hospital in the world, and 'if you walk through the lobby it takes you just five seconds to figure it out', he notes. 'The lobby just looks like the United Nations - every kind of dress from Nigeria to Oman to Bhutan to Thai to all the various African dresses and things. They're milling around, they're at Starbucks, they're having sushi. It's fascinating, there's just nothing like it.'

And while its foreign patients - 40 per cent of the total - account for 53 per cent of revenue, Mr Schroeder says Bumrungrad charges everyone, foreign or local, the same rates. 'The foreigners buy more because they are more intense when they come,' he says. 'We charge exactly the same whether you're the Queen of Bhutan or a sheikh in Oman.' Or a businessman in Krabi. 'It's the same price. That's a matter of ethics.'

Service ethic

At the end of the day, Bumrungrad's success stems fundamentally from the Thais' own ethic, he emphasises. Indeed the Thais were worried when he first came on board, wondering how 'Americanised' things would become.

'In fact, there was fundamentally very little to change. It was not a clean-up issue. It was taking what they'd done and moving it to the next level, and systematise it a lot so we could replicate it on a much larger scale.' The hospital was, since its early days, already revolutionary from a service perspective, he says.

'When I was first asked to interview for the job back in 1991, I came to Thailand and I did what most people would do - you ask other people what they think about the hospital without saying what I was there for. And I asked everyone from taxi drivers to hotel managers what they thought of Bumrungrad. The interesting part was - the first thing they said was - it's really good in service. Now I had been in health care for 30 years and I've never ever heard the first things out of a person's mouth when you talk about a hospital, is good service. They could say - good doctors, good equipment or good marketing even, but never 'good service'. I'd never heard that in operating hospitals on four different continents.

'And that, to me, said that they're doing something very, very different in how they approached it. And I think that foundation is what enabled us to do what we could do in later years. Yes, we gave them a nicer building; yes, we gave them lots of policies and procedures; yes, we systematised what they had been doing and formalised it. But the fundamental Thai service ethic, the fundamental approach to understanding medical care as a service business, was Thai from the beginning and is Thai today.

'This isn't some American concept,' he laughs. 'Matter of fact, Americans are very bad at service. Every time I go back to the US, I remind myself how lucky I am to live in Asia, from a service perspective.'

Pie is huge, so don't worry about competition
BUMRUNGRAD is a huge success story and hospitals across the region, including Singapore, are hot on its heels. Or at least are pulling out all stops to get a firm foothold in the medical tourism market. But Curtis Schroeder, Bumrungrad's group CEO, is quite unfazed by any notion of competition.

To begin with, the pie is getting bigger by 20-30 per cent a year, he says. 'In other words, the people travelling outside the borders (for medical care) by most estimates is growing 20-30 per cent a year. This pie is much larger than either Bumrungrad or Thailand can deal with alone. This is a worldwide phenomenon, not a South-east Asian, Indochinese or Asian phenomenon. It's happening in South America, it's happening in Eastern Europe, it's happening in Africa.'

Trends in economic growth, individual affluence and lifestyles, and in how healthcare is reimbursed, is increasingly placing the decision authority back on the patient, Mr Schroeder says. For years, the insurance companies had been the main drivers. But now, 'when people get money in their pockets, when they become discerning shoppers, they shop', he adds. And their shopping is no longer confined to a 20-mile radius of home - they will search and go for value where they find it.

'So the pie is getting much larger. And I've never been concerned about the issue of competition,' he maintains.

Apart from Bangkok, the Bumrungrad group also runs the Asian Hospital and Medical Center in Manila, and is building another in Dubai. The plan is to have between six and 10 hospitals in major markets in the next five years, Mr Schroeder says.

'But these hospitals are not necessarily built on the concept of medical tourism. They may be an element, but to some degree, the ability to be successful on a global basis may depend on where the hospital is. In Dubai, the cost structure is extremely high. I can't really give a quality-value combination that would hit people from Cambodia willing to fly to Dubai, because the cost is going to be too high. I think Thailand will always be around the same pricing as Malaysia; I think Malaysia and Thailand are slightly higher than India by about 10 per cent by most measures.

'Singapore is now closer to about two times Thailand's (prices), it was about three times. A lot of the prices have actually come down. The cost of getting open heart surgery in Singapore is lower than it was five years ago. Competition is good to some degree,' he quips.

But basically he doesn't see any need to worry about competition between Singapore and Thailand in the healthcare arena, he suggests. 'Where Singapore's strength has been is the fact that it has a highly educated workforce, it has a very strong infrastructure, and it has a very strong ethic in terms of investing in research and teaching on the academic side. What people are learning about healthcare is that 95-99 per cent of the healthcare being delivered in any country can be done by any competent operator of a hospital.

'You don't have to be the Mayo Clinic to do an appendectomy, you don't have to be the Mayo Clinic to do open heart quintuple bypass - any one of 10,000 hospitals in the world are competent in doing that. There's been a feeling that there's this whole chunk of medicine that only the top end can do, but with technology, the playing field has levelled substantially over the last 10 to 15 years, and hospitals with competent access to management and medical talent can do 95 per cent of what the average person in the population needs on a day-to-day basis.

'The small eclectic group is usually the purview of large teaching hosps - places like Mayo Clinic and SGH, National University Hospital. These are access to resources in teaching and research that give them a special edge on that top 5 per cent. I think also that Singapore has a strong advantage when it comes to biotechnology development, bringing new products to the market, developing new intellectual property - Singapore has a strong leg up on that.'

So Singapore will find it difficult to compete in the 95 per cent 'mass market' of hospital procedures 'because the price difference - it's not like it's 10 per cent different; it's a hundred per cent, and it's not something you can do by just performing better, you can't just get better at it'.

The fact of the matter is - salaries make up probably half of hospital revenues in Singapore, he reckons. 'In Thailand it's 16 per cent. In our hospitals in Manila, it's 12 per cent. You can't change that.'

He adds: 'I think a lot of people worry about Singapore and Thailand competing, (but) the pie is so big I don't think it's a question of how to beat Bumrungrad or how to beat Apollo in India. I think it's a question of making sure that all of our systems are aligned to respond to the needs of our customers wherever they are coming from, and they're coming from very different backgrounds. What an American is looking for is vastly different than a Bangladeshi or a Bhutanese. Some markets may have more success with those than others.

'And there is an awful lot of business out there, certainly more than we can probably gobble up. So it's a wide open market - a four, five or six billion dollar business sitting out there per year. I'm only doing a couple hundred million a year. So . . .'

Bushwhacked Saddam Hussein Hanged

Latest news from AFP -- Saddam Hussein has been hanged.

Saddam Hussein executed in Baghdad: Iraqi official
30/12/2006 04h02
Saddam Hussein©AFP/Pool/File - Stefan Zaklin

BAGHDAD (AFP) - Ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and two former allies have been hanged as Iraq braced itself nervously for possible reprisals by his remaining supporters, officials said.

"The execution of Saddam Hussein is complete," state television said in a text headline broadcast against a background of Koranic verses.

"Saddam Hussein was hanged until death ensued. A black page in the history of Iraq has been turned," it added in a second news flash, as joyful popular music filled the airwaves.

Mariam al-Rayis, an official in the foreign ministry who attended the execution, said in an interview on state television news that the three men were hanged one after the other.

"It was between 5.30am and 6.30am," she said. "The whole thing was filmed."

Bush More Popular than Christ!

America is an odd country with such a dichotomy of views. At the end of one spectrum, US President George W Bush was named as villain of the year in a survey. In the same survey, he was hailed as hero of the year, beating even Jesus Christ in the ranking.

Bush was named as a hero although he had earned the wrath of many for ordering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The unprovoked war led to the downfall of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who has since been tried and sentenced to hang. According to AFP, Saddam may be hanged as early as today to help stem any further insurgency that has rocked Iraq in recent days following the verdict.

Despite his chequered past, Saddam put up a brave front and offered to sacrifice himself when he got the death sentence earlier this week. Jesus, of course, had sacrificed himself as well for humanity.

What's Bush's sacrifice?

Villains and Heroes
AP Poll By The Associated Press

Demographics and details from the AP-AOL News poll on Americans' attitudes about who were the biggest heroes and villains of the past year. The poll was conducted by Ipsos, an international polling firm.

OVERALL: In a testament to how divided Americans are about their president and how strongly held those opinions are, George W. Bush earns two titles in the latest AP-AOL News poll: villain of the year and hero of the year. The poll asked adults to name a famous person to be named the biggest villain of the year, and allowed respondents to pick any name. 25 percent of adults picked George W. Bush as the biggest villain of the year. The poll also asked a similar question asking respondents to name a famous person as the biggest hero of the year, and Bush received the largest number of mentions, at 13 percent of all respondents.

VILLAIN OF YEAR: Bush was the choice of 43 percent of Democrats for villain of the year, higher than the 27 percent of Republicans who chose Bush as their hero. Bush was far ahead of any other figure in the race for villain of the year. The runners-up were Osama bin Laden, who earned just 8 percent of mentions, Saddam Hussein, at 6 percent, and the president of Iran with 5 percent of mentions. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il rounded out the top five with just 2 percent of all mentions.

HERO OF YEAR: In the race for hero of the year, Bush won by a smaller margin, with the troops in Iraq coming in second place with 6 percent of mentions. Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama and Jesus Christ rounded out the top five with 3 percent of mentions each. Older adults were more likely to name Bush as hero than younger adults. Those 35 and older, 16 percent, were twice as likely as those under 35, 7 percent, to name Bush as hero. Fully a quarter of white evangelical Christians named Bush as hero, more than all Protestants, 18 percent, and Catholics, 12 percent.

Analysis by AP Manager of News Surveys Trevor Tompson

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Hang Saddam, Bush

The world press is flooded with articles on the expected hanging of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein for crimes against humanity. There is no doubt that he deserves some form of punishment for the death of 148 Iraqis and other crimes he committed as president before the country was invaded by the order of US President George Bush in 2003.

But if the Saddam verdict was right, former Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad had correctly said that Bush should also be tried for a bigger crime -- death of 650,000 Iraqis and the brutal torture of thousands of innocent men, women and children. But Bush is still the President of the most powerful nation.

Will such injustice turn an evil man like Saddam into a martyr? Saddam definitely thinks so.

Extract of Saddam's rather poignant farewell on Aljazeera.

I call on you not to hate because hate does not leave space for a person to be fair and it makes you blind and closes all doors of thinking.

I also call on you not to hate the people of the other countries that attacked us.

I sacrifice myself. If God wills it, he will place me among the true men and martyrs.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Updated: Malay Land Railway

The massive rains have caused havoc to southern and eastern Malaysia. The country is still cleaning up the mess.

As widely reported, the rail service from Singapore to certain parts of Malaysia has been disrupted due to the floods. The service disruption is aptly captured in this rather interesting picture in New Straits Times. Several observations can be made about the disruption of the train service in Malaysia:

1. First, the current single track system operated by the anachronistically named Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malay Land Railway or Malayan Railway instead of Malaysian Railway) is obviously inadequate. Malaysia needs a double-tracking system to allow two-way traffic. The second line can still be used in the event of disruption to the first line. How can Malaysia move goods and people fast using a rail network that was built by the British in the late 19th century?

2. It's perhaps better to embark on a fast train service project in Malaysia that will require a stronger foundation for the tracks. Such tracks won't be as easily dislodged as the old gravel system to support the single track.

MMC and Gamuda had proposed a double-tracking railway system for a fast train service but the RM14.5-billion project was shelved by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi three years ago. Malaysian tycoon Francis Yeoh of YTL is now proposing a bullet train service between KL and Singapore but it's not known if the train service will materialise as well.

3. The disruption of the rail service has raised an interesting academic conundrum for bilateral ties between Malaysia and Singapore.

It is well known that Malaysia has legal title to the railway land in Singapore to operate a railway service through KTM. However, under the terms of the lease, should Malaysia stop operating its railway service to Singapore, the Malaysian railway land in Singapore reverts to Singapore (That is why KTM had been runing the shabby train service to Singapore although it was probably losing money from carrying so few passengers on each trip!)

The point is probably moot because Malaysia and Singapore had signed the so-called Points of Agreement to jointly re-develop the Malaysian railway land in Singapore in 1990. However, the two governments have not been able to come to terms on basic points in the POA in the past 16 years.

In fact, Malaysia's former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad didn't quite recognise the POA, saying it was not ratified by the Malaysian Parliament -- eight years after it was signed by former Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew and ex-Malaysian Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin.

So what will happen to the Malaysian railway land in Singapore if Malaysia uses the damage caused by the flood as an excuse to stop its unpopular* train service to Singapore indefinitely?

*The train service is not the most popular mode of transport between Singapore and KL as it takes more than seven hours on the current single track. Furthermore, it's faster to travel by highway (4 hours) and planes (45 minutes). The KTM service will become even more anachronistic once the Asean open-skies pact takes effect in 2008, a move that will allow budget airlines to fly more freely between KL and Singapore and other Asean cities.

Latest: KTM has resumed train service since Christmas Eve, according to Singapore TV channel Channel NewsAsia. But KTM is still a shabby service!

Updated: More Malaysia Flood Pix

More pix of floods in the town of Segamat in the southern Malaysian state of Johor, courtesy of Denise's friend.

It's heartwarming to read that some non-governmental organisations from Singapore have started work in Malaysia to help flood victims there on Christmas Eve. But more help is needed to help the Malaysians cope with the disaster.

From Channelnewsasia:
Non-governmental organisations from Singapore started work in Malaysia on Sunday to help flood victims there.

More than 80,000 people have been displaced in the worst flooding Malaysia has faced in a century. Five days after the flood, villagers in Johor are still being evacuated to dry ground. There are still areas which are cut off by the road and are accessible only by boat or helicopter.

One of the worst hit areas in the Johor state is Muar, where close to 19 000 people were affected. Villagers in the area have set up makeshift homes in schools and stadiums. One sports hall, for example, has been home to over 1,800 people in the last few days.

Dr Jemilah Mahmood, President, Mercy Malaysia, said: "The local authorities and their local government have actually done quite well to ensure they get enough food and the basic needs but the critical area is water because a lot of the pumps are now flooded and therefore they have no proper piped-in water being supplied."

To alleviate the situation, Mercy Relief Singapore is working with Mercy Malaysia to distribute 100 water filtration systems.

Mercy Relief Singapore has also distributed 2,000 hygiene kits, which includes items like toothbrush and shampoo.

Helping to transport the items were Land Rover enthusiasts from Singapore.

Frederick Foo, Executive Director, Mercy Relief, said: "We have a team of six men on the ground here and they are here to support Mercy Malaysia. The team leader will also be conducting assessments and he will be giving us daily seed wraps, from there we'll decide on how the situation has either improved or requires more help."

The Singapore Red Cross has also sent a team of nine volunteers and over S$10,000 worth of food and relief items to flood victims.

The situation on the ground is improving everyday and it is believed that the flood waters will subside in about a week's time as long as it does not rain. - CNA/ch

Donations can be made to Mercy Malaysia in the form of crossed cheques:

Malaysian Medical Relief Society
(MERCY Malaysia) - Reg. no. 1155No.
45B Jalan Mamanda 9
Ampang Point
68000 Ampang Selangor
Tel: +603 4256 9999

Friday, December 22, 2006

Malaysia SOS?

(Pix source: New Straits Times)

The floods in southern and eastern Malaysia have turned out to be worse than expected. There were reports of massive evacuation of more than 60,000 people, stoppage of train service from Singapore to southern Malaysia, and even looting in Johor.

Although the calamity is not on the same scale as the tsunami that ravaged Indonesia and Thailand during Christmas two years ago, Malaysia could still use a helping hand from some of its Asean neighbours now.

Malaysia had helped its neighbours and other countries in times of crisis. Malaysia had sent money, food, relief and even troops to tsunami-hit or war-stricken countries. Singapore had also done the same to help others in the past.

But how come Malaysia's immediate neighbours -- Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia -- have not come to the aid of Malaysia during this disaster? When do neighbours decide to help without being accused of interfering? What is the diplomatic protocol? Wait for the number of casualties to rise?

There are no hard and fast rules. One thing is clear: Malaysia, or any stricken country, is unlikely to reject any humanitarian assistance that comes without any strings attached.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Floods on Both Sides of the Causeway

(Pix source: The Straits Times)

IT rained cats and dogs in Singapore and in the border Malaysian town of Johor Baru yesterday. Singapore's Met Dept said it was the heaviest rainfall in 75 years, while Johor Menteri Besar Abdul Ghani Othman described it as a 'once in 100 years' occurrence.

Parts of Singapore were submerged in water but the damage didn't appear to be too widespread in the developed island nation.

However, the situation was more serious in Third World town of JB. More than 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes after floods hit most parts of Johor.

The flood is a rare phenomenon in Singapore since the flood alleviation programme in the 1980s and 1990s. And such events will be event rarer in Singapore once the Marina Barrage is completed next year to help turn Marina Bay into a fresh water bay and helps regulate tidal flows to stem flooding of inland low-lying areas. Must say it's a simple and brilliant idea.

But the same cannot be said about JB, which will continue to experience massive floods in the future -- definitely more than once in every 100 years. See earlier postings on Johor's woes.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Updated: Capital Controls

It's indeed ironic that Thailand today introduced curbs to stop currency speculators and prevent the baht from appreciating too much -- some 9 years after it tried in vain to prop up the Thai currency against currency traders and hedge fund players like George Soros (Right in the pix. Pix Source: Screenshots).

Dec. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Thailand's regulators required banks to lock up 30 percent of new foreign exchange deposits for a year to curb currency speculation, causing the baht to slump by the most in almost three months.

Overseas investors buying baht starting tomorrow will only be able to invest 70 percent of what they transfer, and only recoup all of their funds if they keep the money in Thailand for more than a year, central bank Governor Tarisa Watanagase told a briefing in Bangkok today. Those who withdraw the reserved amount in less than a year will be penalized 33 percent of that 30 percent portion, she said.

The baht had risen about 16 percent this year to a nine-year high as the economy accelerated and a Sept. 19 coup broke a political stalemate. Exporters including Thai Union Frozen Products Pcl, the world's second-biggest tuna canner, on Nov. 16 asked the central bank to stem baht gains that are undermining their competitiveness.

The Thai move may remind some of what former Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad (left in the pix) did to insulate the economy with capital controls in the wake of the Thai baht crisis in 1997 but the schemes are completely different.

While Thailand seeks to prevent too much inflow of money today, Dr Mahathir had erected controls to bar local and foreign capital from fleeing the country in 1998 following the collapse of the Malaysian currency. Almost all the controls, including the freeze on foreign capital from fleeing the country for one year, have since been lifted except for the continued ban on the offshore trading of ringgit.

The controls are longer a hindrance to Malaysia, which has undergone substantial structural changes in the economy since 1998.

Even Dr Mahathir and his former foe -- hedge fund king George Soros -- have patched up, as shown in the pix of the newsworthy meeting last week.

It's well known that Dr Mahathir had called Soros a 'moron' at the height of the regional financial and currency crisis in 1998. In return, Soros had called Dr Mahathir, who looked fine in the pix after his recent heart attack, a 'menace to his country'.

PS: Read Marina Mahathir for her interesting account of the meeting between her dad and Soros.

PS2: Thailand did an about turn on its capital controls hours after they were rolled out. It's highly embarrassing. The damage done will be etched in the minds of investors for a long time, perhaps longer than Dr Mahathir's arguably more well-crafted system of capital controls for Malaysia in 1998.

ST, 20 Dec 2006:
On Monday afternoon, the Bank of Thailand (BOT) - the central bank - announced a 30 per cent reserve requirement on short-term inflows as part of measures to put a lid on the speculative buying of the baht.

This meant a foreign investor planning to invest $100 in Thai assets would have had to bring in $130 - $30 of which had to be deposited with the central bank for zero returns for one year. Selling the $100 investment within a year would have incurred a $10 penalty.

Yesterday, economists, brokers and investors watched in horror as the Thai stock market plummeted as much as 20 per cent in response to the measures. It is estimated that foreign investors sold a whopping US$700 million (S$1.1 billion) worth of Thai shares, Reuters reported.

Then, in an equally stunning reversal, the Thai government abandoned the controls late last night, but only for stock investments.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Thirty Years Ago

By Uncle Cheng

An anniversary approaches and I take a glance in my rear view mirror. Thirty years ago I was called to the Bar in Hong Kong. So I hope you will forgive me if I indulge in a bit of nostalgia for times past on this occasion.

The exact day was 20th December 1976. On that Saturday morning Sir Geoffrey Briggs admitted me to be a barrister in the High Court. Apart from being the Chief Justice he was widely well-known for his great fascination in everything possibly associated with frogs. He was in a sense a frog freak. His home and his Chambers were covered with frog collectibles of every description and size.

In those days the Hong Kong bar was a very small world. There were just over 100 barristers and about 500 or 600 solicitors. Surprisingly the ratio between barristers and practising solicitors has always to this day remained in the region of one to six. What was certain was that back in 1976 the Chief Justice had far more frogs in his collection than there lawyers.

The High Court was at that time housed in what is now the Legislative Council building. In fact the building had originally been built as a High Court and it had that old world colonial gravitas — dark wood panelling, low lighting, ineffectual air conditioning, echoing voices, the sound of traffic passing by. It was a big contrast to the courts we barristers must work in today with their bright lights, pale wood decor, microphones, sometimes too chilly air and total noise insulation which cuts off the courtroom from the real world outside.

Over the subsequent years the High Court was shifted from place to place. At one time it even moved to temporary, and very inadequate, dingy colonial quarters in the old Western Magistracy building in Arbuthnot Road in Central. It was in that historical building, now hopefully to be preserved along with the old police station complex, that I vividly remember defending the King Fuk double murder case. The jury in that case was slow to decide its verdict and it was not until 2:30 a.m. that the foreman of the jury said the magic words “not guilty”.

The contrast with today could not be greater. The point is that in those days the jury was actually allowed to continue deliberating until 2:30 a.m. Nowadays, of course, it is considered to be a material irregularity if a jury deliberates beyond 8 p.m..

Another difference was that in those days there was no overnight accommodation for jurors. I also recall that when jurors sat through the evening, swarms of waiting lawyers would descend on the famous, and still much missed, Dragon Boat bar in the Hilton Hotel (now the site of the Cheong Kong Centre). Many members of the Hong Kong Bar spent many happy hours at that particular bar.

Some things of course never change. Hong Kong then and as now was a big construction site with new buildings and road works everywhere. A standard joke was to say “Hong Kong will be a nice place when it is finished”. Traffic congestion was already bad and getting across the harbour by ferry in those days before tunnels and the MTR was a major adventure.

But that does not mean the situation today constitutes much of an improvement. The congestion is worse than ever and the traffic seems to increase much faster than roads can be built. Super skyscrapers dot the horizon. Even thirty years on Hong Kong still is not finished.

The one major change is the pollution we now must endure. In 1976, especially at this autumnal time of year, the climate was idyllic and the British colonialists used to state that Hong Kong in November and December was like a good English summer. Sadly the clear blue skies have become a rarity.

Also, in 1976 life moved at a much slower pace and the Star Ferry took longer to traverse a wider and more beautiful harbour. Telex machines were all the rage, IBM golf-ball typewriters were replacing manual typewriters, and overseas phone calls were frighteningly expensive. Fax machines and computers were blinks on the horizon.

It was a standard joke among those living and working on the island, that we needed a passport to cross to Kowloon because any trip to Kowloon had to imply you were most probably on your way to Kai Tak airport.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Temasek's Thai Blunder, Part 3

Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings has suffered another setback in Thailand following its disastrous foray in acquiring Shin Corp from former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra this year.

The highest court in Thailand today ordered iTV, which is under Shin, to pay unspecified fines that could lead to the bankruptcy of the country's sole private TV station.

From the website of Bangkok Post today:
iTV loses case - faces fine, bankruptcy
(dpa) - The Supreme Administrative Court this afternoon ruled against iTV - the country's sole private TV channel - in forcing the now Singapore-owned company to pay a higher concession fee and fines. The ruling is likely to bankrupt the operation.

The verdict upheld a decision by the Central Administrative Court of May 9, 2006, that forces iTV to change the news content to 70 per cent, up from 65 per cent, and pay a higher concession fee to the government.

The decision, which was not appealed by iTV, could force the company to pay a fine of up to 94 billion baht ($2.6 billion), effectively bankrupting the company which is now majority-owned by Temasek Holdings, the investment arm of the Singapore government.

ITV was previously owned by Shin Corp, the family-held business conglomerate of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, which sold its 49 per cent holding in Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings for 1.9 billion dollars, tax free, on January 23 of this year.

The purchase outraged many Thais who saw the Shin Corp sale as handing over sensitive nationals assets to a foreign company. Besides iTV, Shin Corp also ran the country's largest mobile phone service and the national satellite network.

Four months after the Temasek purchase of Shin Corp, when the political tide was moving against Thaksin, Thailand's Central Administrative Court overturned an arbitration panel's 2004 decision to lower iTV's concession fee and its news content to 65 per cent. Entertainment shows earn higher advertisement revenue in Thailand.

The iTV saga is rich in recent Thai political history. The channel was intended to be an independent news station providing the public with unbiased reporting. All other TV stations in Thailand are owned by the state.

However, after running into financial difficulties in the wake of the 1997 economic crisis iTV was snapped up by Shin Corp and turned into a pro-government station when Thaksin came to power in 2001.

Please see earlier postings on Temasek's blunders in Thailand. Some observers reckon that the series of missteps in Thailand may have cost Temasek's top deal maker his job.

The Straits Times, 7 Dec 2006
Temasek changes chief investment officer

TEMASEK Holdings has replaced its all-important chief investment officer, who oversees all of the Singapore firm’s investment decisions.

A check by The Straits Times on Temasek’s corporate website shows that senior managing director Jimmy Phoon has taken the reins from Mr Charles Ong. Mr Ong, also a senior managing director, has assumed the newly-created role of chief strategist.

The move comes as Temasek continues to grapple with its controversy-hit US$3.8 billion (S$5.87 billion) takeover of Thailand’s Shin Corp earlier this year.

It led a group of Thai investors to buy a 50 per cent stake in the telecoms company from the family of former Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The transaction eventually led to a mandatory general offer which saw Temasek and its partners emerge with 96 per cent of Shin.

The acquisition, seen by many Thais as a sell-out of strategic national assets to foreigners, was at the heart of widespread protests in the country. These culminated in a September military coup that toppled Mr Thaksin.

Temasek said yesterday that the senior management moves were not related at all to the Shin deal but were “part of regular and ongoing corporate development efforts”.

The iTV problem is definitely not the end of Temasek's woes in Thailand although Singapore politicians have been trying to defend Temasek and mend fences with Thailand following the Shin debacle.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Sizzling Red Dot

A very useful map in The Straits Times of what's hot and what's not in the Singapore private residential property market.

Although only a small part of the island is currently in red to show the hot property interest, it won't take too long before the property fever spreads to the rest of the island.

The little red dot is definitely sizzling with the massive inflow of funds into property and private wealth sector. And the two upcoming integrated resorts and casinos -- Las Vegas Sands at Marina Bay and Genting-Universal at Sentosa -- will definitely add more sizzle to the island's already hot economy.

Singapore is definitely fast becoming Asia's Switzerland, or even more in the next five to ten years.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Hangzhou Vegetables

A montage of another batch of lovely pix from dad's brother Fatso, who is in Hangzhou, China, for a business trip. The vegetables look so fresh and beautiful, almost too good to eat. Haha.

Anyway, the last pix on the bottom right hand corner shows the right way to cook thinly sliced lamb in a steamboat dinner in China. Hmmm, I feel hungry already. I only eat Science Diet's processed lamb meal and rice food. I have not tasted real lamb yet.

Please see earlier posting of excellent pix by Uncle Fatso.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Genting Bags Sentosa Casino and Resort

(Picture Source: The Business Times, Singapore)

It didn't come as a surprise. Genting-Universal has bagged the integrated resort project with casino at Sentosa. Dad picked the IR winner again, as predicted in an earlier posting. Other postings on Sentosa IR race.

What came as a surprise was the revelation that Genting has a 30-year exclusivity arrangement with theme park giant Universal in Southeast Asia, which has a combined population size of 500 million people.

This means Universal cannot build another theme park in Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, or Malaysia, which has been courting Universal for some time, in the next three decades.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Google Eats YouTube

By Uncle Cheng

Imagine the scene. A group of young executives wearing jeans and short-sleeve T-shirts working from a converted garage littered with empty Starbucks polystyrene cups and Big Mac wrappers. All of a sudden they find that their start-up business, which has little or no revenue, is worth HK$13 billion. Is this another 2000-style dotcom madness? I am of course referring to YouTube. If you don’t know what YouTube is, ask any kid.

I must admit that when it comes to the internet I am a happy novice and spend more hours with legal textbooks like Archbold (a sort of bible of the criminal law) than surfing the web. But ideas like Google and YouTube still intrigue me.

In the old days companies grew slowly and steadily and you could follow their progress year by year, even decade by decade. But the internet has changed all that. Firms like Google arrive like a meteor from heaven, their valuation exploding like someone with a massive nosebleed.

The experts in Silicon Valley seem to think the YouTube phenomenon marks the internet’s second stage, or what they call “Web 2". The old “Web 1" was just getting online and looking up stuff. The difference is that “Web 2" puts the user in control.

This is what YouTube does. It puts you the user in control. You make your home movie, upload it to YouTube, and then anyone anywhere can see it for free. You don’t get paid a cent but you can at least feel like Chen Kaige or John Woo. In this way YouTube overnight acquired a viewer population of hundreds of millions.

Now why didn’t I think of that? In fact, I nearly did. Well, I am almost sure I did. Anyway the YouTube phenomenon is a message for us all. Here was another huge new business set up in a Californian garage. The solution is simple. I am going to set up an internet business selling Californian garages, and then I will sell it to Google for billions.

Thinking about YouTube may numb your mind but consider this. Former US Vice President Al Gore has started something called Current TV which promises to “democratise television” by allowing viewers to produce and broadcast their own films, programmes, or whatever they want. Where will this all end? Will viewers be able to make their own news?

All this reminds me of the old worry in newspaper offices that the best material is written by the readers and appears on the letters page. Similarly, phone-in radio shows have proved so successful because they are user-generated. The same phenomenon is coming to television, which has been trying to get close to its viewers for years via reality shows, soap operas, quizzes, talent shows and “send in your funniest video” programmes.

So was Google mad to fork out such a vast sum for profitless YouTube? When you think about in terms of the democratisation of information and entertainment, my answer is no. This was a clever strategic investment. On the other hand Google has been behaving very oddly recently. It has threatened publishers with destruction by putting entire books online for nothing, and sending out lawyers' letters to anyone who uses `google' as a verb.

The truth is the more you think about Google, the more it leaves you feeling, well, googled. Just think of it. Google is still only eight years old. It ranks as the 31st biggest company in the world. Its capitalisation is HK$975 billion. It is bigger than Coca-Cola.

Is Google a corporate monster or the ultimate ultra-cool start-up?

Big Singapore Tourism Bet

The Singapore tourism engine will be firing on all cylinders in the next few years as part of the plan to boost tourist arrivals to 17 million from 9 million in less than a decade. The 9-million mark was reached yesterday amidst much fanfare, according to the ST report today.

(Picture Source: The Straits Times, Singapore)

Dec 7, 2006 Tourism booms as arrivals hit nine million
By Krist Boo & Lim Wei Chean
BLEARY-EYED Russian tourist Elena Vladykina was taken aback by the orchid garlands and noisy drumming and dancing that greeted her on her 6am arrival at Changi Airport yesterday.

Then she realised she was being welcomed as Singapore's nine-millionth visitor -- a sweet ground-breaking number that caps a year of new records for Singapore's tourism industry. Last year, the island received 8.9 million visitors.

Yesterday, there was much to celebrate for the Singapore Tourism Board (STB), whose senior executives turned up at the airport to welcome Dr Vladykina, 29, after her 14-hour flight from Moscow. She was whisked off in a limousine with $35,000 worth of hotel, shopping and other vouchers.

It took Singapore just two years to leap from eight million to nine million visitors, said STB's assistant chief executive for leisure, Dr Chan Tat Hon.

The seven-millionth visitor was welcomed in 1995, but it took almost another 10 years before the eight-millionth showed up in 2004.

The tourism Singapore target now seems a tad conservative if the two integrated resorts and casinos -- Las Vegas Sands' Marina Bay and Sentosa -- can achieve their targets.

The next big news will be the decision on the winner of the Sentosa project -- widely expected to be made tomorrow -- to help achieve the Singapore tourism goal. All three bidders -- Genting-Universal, CapitaLand-Kerzner and Eighth Wonder -- have each promised to deliver more than 10 million extra visitors to Singapore.

And there is still last-minute lobbying, as seen in two letters published in ST today, by fans of the two front-runners for the Sentosa IR project -- Genting-Universal and CapitaLand-Kerzner.

A Genting win will benefit Singapore
I REFER to the articles, 'Harry's Island at cinemas worldwide?' (ST, Nov 30) and 'Free nightly show, says Eighth Wonder' (ST, Dec 1).

Having resided on both sides of the US continent for seven years, I wonder if Eighth Wonder or, for that matter, Kerzner-CapitaLand can attract the tourist numbers that Singapore wants.

Very often, visitors would want me to spend time with them at Disney or Universal Studios and, to a lesser extent, Six Flags or Sea World. Hardly anyone would care to visit Getty Center, Guggenheim, Atlantis or, for that matter, the Volcano at Las Vegas.

Most would want to have a fun day for themselves and their families at Disney and Universal Studios. Not many would want to get wet. Hardly anyone would want to gawk at architecture.

At Disney and Universal Studios, you can see their smiling faces, and feel their excitement. Universal Studios is a very recognisable name.

Genting's partner, Star Cruises, the third largest in the world, could use Singapore as a hub for their guests.

The other two contenders lack this and an attraction like Universal Studios. Can you imagine Universal Studios and the cruise business going to one of our immediate neighbours? Disney may or may not come in later.

If Genting wins, Singapore wins - if tourism is what Singapore values.

Lau Chee Kian

Go for the iconic, avoid the insipid
I REFER to the article, 'Sentosa IR race: Who will win?'' (The Sunday Times, Dec 3). I find the writer's take on which bidder will be selected to develop the Sentosa integrated resort very economical and safe.

No doubt, this approach has worked well in Singapore many times. It will give us a resort that is packed with features, economically optimised, comfortable to most, but insipid and hardly iconic.

The decision this time round is like no other. In our quest to be a truly global city and our search for the 'wow' factor, we can afford a little risk, trade a little function for aesthetics, economics for uniqueness, and familiarity for icons.

Hence, my choice would be Kerzner/CapitaLand's bid. Where else in Asia can one find another Frank Gehry work and a robotic wonderland?

This is not only 'magical' but will also appeal to a wider group of people and be more sustainable in the long run than a football school, a cooking school when we are hardly a culinary capital, a marine research institute far away from the ocean, maritime museum or another ultra-large hall.

To attract the tourist numbers the Singapore Tourism Board hopes to achieve, we need more than just the Sentosa IR.

We can have the 'usual' theme park at Marina East, collections of boutique hotels at the Southern Islands, celebrated chefs /restaurants doting the city and perhaps another Request for Proposal for the central promontory.

Let's see the Sentosa bid not as a single commercial decision, but with the perspective of recreating Singapore.

We need to seek for Sentosa what we could not have done in another site in Singapore, and bearing in mind that an offering like Frank Gehry's is available only this time round.

Ong Phui Luong

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

JB-Singapore MRT?

A new Malaysian company is toying with the idea of building a monorail network in Johor Baru and linking it to Singapore. According to Malaysia's BT today, little-known Jalur Mudra is having talks with Singapore's SMRT Corporation, which operates the Mass Rapid Transit network in Singapore, for a joint venture.

The project definitely sounds useful to help cater to the massive human traffic flowing between Singapore and southern Malaysia. Nearly 10 million Singaporeans entered Malaysia, mainly through JB, last year. This is more than the 8-odd million tourists to Singapore last year.

But can such a project take off? Will it help resolve traffic and straits woes?

Don't bet on it. There are just too many complications surrounding such a project. And even if it does take off, it won't be the ideal solution.

1. The project will most likely need a new link across the Straits of Johor to Singapore as there is simply no room on the causeway for a monorail track, no matter how slim it is.

2. Will Singapore agree to a monorail track from JB to Singapore via the Straits of Johor when the two governments could not even agree on a new bridge to replace the causeway that links JB and Singapore?

3. Will there be complications for immigration clearance? Or will travellers from Singapore zip to JB without passports under the proposed immigration-free zone in JB?

A more ideal solution is for Malaysia and Singapore to jointly agree on a new and wider bridge to replace the causeway, which retards the flow of water in the filthy Straits of Johor.

1. Singapore and Malaysia planners can then allocate space for the monorail project from JB to Singapore on the new bridge.

2. Planners on both sides of the causeway can also discuss the possibility of setting aside space on the new bridge for the bullet train service -- proposed by Malaysian tycoon Francis Yeoh -- from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur.

3. Channelling the human traffic through the current custom and immigration facilities in JB and Singapore will be a neater solution, than possibly building new facilities just to cater to the monorail track.

Building a new bridge to replace the causeway will solve many problems in one fell swoop.

Malaysia and Singapore can make provision for wider roads and space for useful projects such as the monorail and bullet train service to cater to the massive cross-border flow of people. And an overhead bridge will also allow water to flow freely in the Straits of Johor after more than 80 years.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Singaporeans First

(Picture Source: The Straits Times, Singapore)

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong definitely got it right when he said Singaporeans must come first although the country has to treat permanent residents and foreigners well. To make his point, he announced plans to charge non-citizens more for education and health care -- two areas where there has been little distinction between citizens and foreigners.

It is definitely a step in the right direction. Singaporeans must not feel left out in the government's relentless drive to woo foreign talents to help develop Singapore. Dad feels strongly about this although he is a permanent resident -- not a citizen -- on this beautiful island.

Addressing members of the ruling party People's Action Party, Hsien Loong also extolled the need to safeguard another Singapore bedrock -- meritocracy.

So, 'we're talking about equal opportunities, not equal outcomes,' he said, when he identified the four ideals that will continue to guide the PAP in its efforts to take Singapore forward, according to The Straits Times. The other ideals are racial and religious harmony, enterprise and inclusiveness.

It is not easy to practise true meritocracy as there will always be rumblings among certain quarters that certain jobs should go to Singaporeans. But meritocracy should be the main driving force at the workplace.

Only then shall the spirit of truth prevail in Singapore.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Images of China

Dad's elder brother is quite a talented pixman. Here's a montage of some fresh pix during his China business trip. He can bring statues and buildings to life, and see interesting angles that many people can't see. He should become a professional photographer.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Genting Story

Raffles Conversation in The Business Times, Singapore, today:

New Genting chief Lim Kok Thay tells EDDIE TOH why it is necessary for him to raise the ante since he took over control of the group from his father

LIM Kok Thay has clearly emerged from the shadow of his famous father, Lim Goh Tong, who founded the sole casino group in predominantly Muslim Malaysia four decades ago.

The younger Lim has shed his shy persona and is firmly in charge of the sprawling Genting group, which will make its biggest investment ever in Singapore should it clinch the licence to develop the second integrated resort with casino on Sentosa at a cost of more than $5 billion.

His new-found confidence is reflected in his markedly different management style from his 89-year-old father, who passed the baton to his second son four years ago. The younger Mr Lim is also ready to talk more about his family - one of the richest in Malaysia - whose wealth tops US$2 billion.

For a start, Mr Lim, 54, is less averse to resorting to borrowing to help the Genting group expand in the global arena, quite the opposite of his father, whose distaste for bank loans is well-known.

'He started from scratch and built a local business and gave us a good platform to springboard from,' the younger Mr Lim tells BT during a three-hour conversation in his Singapore office at Park Mall last week.

'Going global needs a different set of skills and mindset - one of which is more risk.'

'You need to gear up more. My father would be dead against not just over-gearing, even gearing,' he explains.

He quips: 'He's losing more sleep than I, worrying about my gearing!'

But Mr. Lim's company is nowhere near over-geared. Although borrowings of once debt-free KL-listed Genting Bhd have more than doubled to RM2.5 billion (S$1.1 billion) since he took over full control from his father, its gearing ratio is low at less than one-third of its shareholders' equity. The only exception is capital-intensive Star Cruises, which is still going through a rapid expansion phase.

Such is the confidence of the new casino kingpin, who learnt the ropes in the casino business quite early on. He was about 17 when his father clinched the casino licence against all odds in the mid-1960s.

Being closely involved with his father's business for the last three decades, he has naturally honed his business acumen. Like his father, Mr Lim is a visionary businessman with big business ideas and the same never-say-die trait.

He wants Genting to be one of the three gaming giants in terms of revenue with a global, rather than regional, footprint. 'We can achieve our vision even without Singapore. Of course, with Singapore, it becomes an even stronger network,' he declares.

A strong foundation in the family business has helped Mr Lim oversee Malaysia's most popular tourist destination ever since he graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Civil Engineering) from University of London in 1975. He obtained a management degree from Harvard Graduate Business School in 1979.

One of his early tasks was the migration of the casino from the basement of a small hotel to a bigger hotel at the Genting Highlands resort, which is located 58 km from the Malaysian capital.

The father of three doesn't hold back when discussing the fortunes of the group, which has a total market capitalisation exceeding RM50 billion, with assets in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

They include the Malaysian casino and resort business under Resorts World; regional cruise business under Star Cruises; newly acquired UK gaming and casino business under Stanley Leisure and Maxims; Malaysian plantation under Asiatic Development; power generators in Malaysia, India and China; and oil and gas exploration ventures.

Two common themes are still present in all the group's new business considerations - high capital expenditure to ensure high barriers to entry, and an expected internal rate of return of at least 15 per cent for each business segment. Mr Lim says he won't look at projects that generate returns of less than 15 per cent.

One of his biggest bets was Star Cruises. He convinced his father to take the plunge into the cruise business in the early 1990s, instead of ploughing the group's earnings into their hotel business. The senior Lim agreed after they witnessed the tourism appeal of cruise liners in the Bahamas and Miami. The Lims felt more Asians would turn to cruises as a form of recreation as their income rose.

Their bet turned out to be correct. From an initial pair of small ships acquired from a troubled Swedish ferry operator, Star Cruises has emerged as the third largest cruise operator in the world with a combined fleet of 20 ships.

But the rapid expansion has come at a hefty cost. Star Cruises, which is listed in Hong Kong and quoted on Singapore's Clob International, has seen its borrowings balloon to nine times its Ebitda (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), according to rating agency Standard & Poor's.

S&P has given Star Cruises a BB- rating, which is considered junk status due to its risky credit profile. Ratings of BB and below are considered junk or risky to credit rating companies, which assign ratings of BBB and above to healthier borrowers.

Star Cruises' highly leveraged position has naturally raised questions about its ability to partner sister company Genting International for the Sentosa project, which will require fresh borrowings of at least $3 billion.

But Mr Lim is unperturbed, citing Star Cruises' continued ability to service its debts. High gearing is necessary to help the young company keep up with more established rivals such as Royal Caribbean and Carnival, he argues. 'I don't set the pace in the cruise business. If I don't follow I will be left far behind,' he says.

He is proud of the group's overall financial strength despite the borrowing weight on Star Cruises, saying that bankers are quite happy with the core business of the group.

For instance, Genting Bhd - the ultimate holding company of the conglomerate - is accorded a strong rating of BBB+ by S&P. 'All gaming companies are junk except Genting,' Mr Lim declares.

And Mr Lim pooh-poohs nagging perception that Genting is a third-rate resort owner in Malaysia. 'People say we are a Third World gaming facility but how come we have first-class rating?' he argues.

He is also banking on the group's impeccable track record to help clinch the Sentosa IR project. 'We believe we have presented an iconic bid,' he says, heaping praises on its world-class partners and renowned American architect Michael Graves.

Mr Lim believes he has two trump cards - the partnership with movie and theme park icon Universal Studios and DreamWorks, a movie animation company co-founded by legendary Hollywood director Steven Spielberg.

He says Genting would not have been able to team up with such big names if it had remained a domestic business. 'If you had not gone global, people like Universal and Spielberg will say: 'Who are you?'' he says.

Mr Lim says DreamWorks - responsible for blockbusters such as Madagascar, Shark Tale and Shrek 2 - will be a 'catalyst' in the Genting-Universal blueprint for the 49-ha Sentosa IR project.

In a statement to BT, DreamWorks disclosed that its digital animation studios - with a floor area of 1,400 square metres - will 'give visitors a peek 'behind the scenes' to learn how film animators are using state-of-the-art computer technology to create some of today's most popular films.'

More importantly, the new Genting chief feels that it will be a breeze for his consortium to make good the promise to deliver up to 10 million people to Sentosa to help Singapore exceed its tourism target of 17 million visitors by 2015. Under 10 million tourists visit Singapore currently.

'I don't think anyone else can boast about such actual numbers,' he says, adding, as an example, that Singapore will almost achieve its tourism target overnight should Genting and partners shift a mere 10 per cent of their current customer base to Singapore.

Genting, Stanley Leisure and Star Cruises catered to nearly 25 million local and foreign visitors last year - more than the 17 million tourists to Malaysia last year. Universal's theme parks in Orlando, Los Angeles, Japan and Spain collectively attracted more than 46 million visitors last year.

But Mr Lim is not interested in simply shifting the cards around. He says he wants to create a brand new world-class destination that will compete with the best resorts in the world for new visitors.

The odds are in his favour. Analysts have touted Genting as the front-runner for the Sentosa project despite stiff competition from CapitaLand-Kerzner and Eighth Wonder. Genting and CapitaLand both failed to clinch the Marina Bay IR project earlier this year.

Clinching Sentosa will definitely be a boost to Genting although it may affect its own highlands casino on the border of the Malaysian states of Selangor and Pahang, analysts say.

But it may be no bad thing if its highlands casino is affected. Perhaps mindful of the perennial call by some Muslim politicians to shut down the sole legal casino in the country, Mr Lim says the group plans to reduce its dependence on its Malaysian gaming business over time by constantly diversifying into other businesses.

Although he has played a key role in turning Genting into a global player, he still sticks to his father's simple philosophy in life. 'Reputation and trust are more important than money,' he says.

The new casino tycoon adds: 'We cannot create the wrong impression. Once we create the wrong impression, it will continue to haunt us.'

The savvy gambler

THE second son of Malaysian casino tycoon Lim Goh Tong readily admits that he is a gambler.

'Life is full of gambles but I'm not a hard-core gambler,' quipped Lim Kok Thay (right in the pix), who took over the helm of the Genting group following his father's retirement four years ago. Instead, the social gambler has turned the Malaysian gaming business into a fine art due to his passion for the business.

Kok Thay, 54, is the only child of the patriarch who has remained in the huge group. A relative in the group is Justin Leong, who is the son of Kok Thay's sister Siew Lian. Mr Leong is head of the group's strategic investments and corporate affairs.

Younger brother Chee Wah, who was once the joint managing director of Genting with their father in the early 1990s, is now running Hong Kong-listed property investment and financial services company VXL Capital.

Chee Wah apparently quit Genting due to differences with their father but Kok Thay dismisses the rumour, saying his brother preferred to dabble in other businesses.

Eldest brother Tee Keong quit as Genting director in the late 1990s. He was subsequently embroiled in a messy suit with two partners over personal stock market losses of over RM38 million (S$16.3 million).

There are also three girls in the family. One of them, Siew Kim, controls listed property company Metroplex, which has been mired in debt since the late 1990s. Genting did not bail out Metroplex despite the family ties.

Genting's success story must be partly attributed to Kok Thay although the empire was founded by his father four decades ago when he clinched a casino licence unexpectedly.

Analysts like the well-run and professionally managed company. The stock has breached RM30 from a low of RM6.40 during the stock market meltdown in 1998.

While Genting has taken correct bets under Kok Thay, his personal bets have been riskier. For example, Kok Thay gave out US$80 million in personal loans at a high interest rate to the Seneca Indian tribe to build a casino in Niagara Falls and acquired a substantial stake in troubled Malaysian lottery operator Mycom.

But Kok Thay is not taking any unnecessary risk with his listed group or its prized Malaysian casino licence, which has to be renewed quarterly by the Finance Ministry. He refuses to disclose the actual fee for each quarterly renewal of the licence but admits that it is now a 'substantial' amount.

But he does not see it as a hindrance, saying that it helps the group's cashflow to pay the government every three months instead of paying one big lump sum at the end of each year.

Nevertheless, he is constantly scouting for fresh businesses to help cut the group's over-dependence on the Malaysian gaming business, which generates two-thirds of its revenue.

'I gamble socially. But I only take calculated risks in business,' Kok Thay adds.

The Lim Family of Genting

In The Business Times, Singapore, today.

The savvy gambler

THE second son of Malaysian casino tycoon Lim Goh Tong (left in the pix from his autobiography) readily admits that he is a gambler.

'Life is full of gambles but I'm not a hard-core gambler,' quipped Lim Kok Thay (right in the pix), who took over the helm of the Genting group following his father's retirement four years ago. Instead, the social gambler has turned the Malaysian gaming business into a fine art due to his passion for the business.

Kok Thay, 54, is the only child of the patriarch who has remained in the huge group. A relative in the group is Justin Leong, who is the son of Kok Thay's sister Siew Lian. Mr Leong is head of the group's strategic investments and corporate affairs.

Younger brother Chee Wah, who was once the joint managing director of Genting with their father in the early 1990s, is now running Hong Kong-listed property investment and financial services company VXL Capital.

Chee Wah apparently quit Genting due to differences with their father but Kok Thay dismisses the rumour, saying his brother preferred to dabble in other businesses.

Eldest brother Tee Keong quit as Genting director in the late 1990s. He was subsequently embroiled in a messy suit with two partners over personal stock market losses of over RM38 million (S$16.3 million).

There are also three girls in the family. One of them, Siew Kim, controls listed property company Metroplex, which has been mired in debt since the late 1990s. Genting did not bail out Metroplex despite the family ties.

Genting's success story must be partly attributed to Kok Thay although the empire was founded by his father four decades ago when he clinched a casino licence unexpectedly.

Analysts like the well-run and professionally managed company. The stock has breached RM30 from a low of RM6.40 during the stock market meltdown in 1998.

While Genting has taken correct bets under Kok Thay, his personal bets have been riskier. For example, Kok Thay gave out US$80 million in personal loans at a high interest rate to the Seneca Indian tribe to build a casino in Niagara Falls and acquired a substantial stake in troubled Malaysian lottery operator Mycom.

But Kok Thay is not taking any unnecessary risk with his listed group or its prized Malaysian casino licence, which has to be renewed quarterly by the Finance Ministry. He refuses to disclose the actual fee for each quarterly renewal of the licence but admits that it is now a 'substantial' amount.

But he does not see it as a hindrance, saying that it helps the group's cashflow to pay the government every three months instead of paying one big lump sum at the end of each year. Nevertheless, he is constantly scouting for fresh businesses to help cut the group's over-dependence on the Malaysian gaming business, which generates two-thirds of its revenue. 'I gamble socially. But I only take calculated risks in business,' Kok Thay adds.