Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Electricity mad Hong Kong

By Uncle Cheng

Is air pollution shaping up to be the biggest threat to Hong Kong’s continued prosperity? I think so. On the Mainland the pollution problem is different because it includes contamination of drinking water and chemical poisoning of the earth. We in Hong Kong are in a sense lucky because our pollution is overwhelmingly a matter of air pollution.

Even better news for us is that a few simple steps will greatly reduce existing air pollution. Top of the list of things that the government must do is to scrap the present incentives which encourage our two electricity generating companies to overbuild and over-produce power. Secondly, we urgently need tough laws to enforce energy saving throughout society.

Up to now the two power generators have enjoyed an almost utopian existence. According to their agreements with the government they are allowed to earn an incredible 13.5 percent return on their investments in fixed assets. The result is that Hong Kong has an abundance of electricity but at too high a price. It is an insane arrangement which turns normal economic rules upside down.

When did you hear of CLP or Hongkong Electric encouraging the power-saving strategies that are common in other advanced economies? Never, because they can maximise their profits by massive overbuilding. CLP’s proposed multi-billion dollar natural gas terminal on Soko Island is a perfect example. It is unnecessary because gas can be piped from the Yacheng field on Hainan Island much more cheaply.

Our power companies are on a constant investment binge which results in an overproduction of electricity. They can get rid of some of the excess power by offering huge discounts to the biggest users while small users have to pay the full whack. CLP can also get rid of a fifth of its power by selling it to the Mainland.

Quite how the Government got itself into this mess has its origins in the old colonial days. The scheme of control is a massive intervention in what should be a free market. For example, in every other country I know of, electricity is priced according to the time of day. So power at night is cheaper than daytime power, which encourages people to switch on at night and switch off during the day. But not in Hong Kong because such pricing might reduce demand, and less demand would mean less opportunity to build more generating capacity and thus less profit (remember that tantalising 13.5 percent return on fixed assets).

Back to our horrible air pollution. Nobody denies that burning fossil fuels to make our electricity is a major contributor to our murky skies. Why does the government not do something about it?

I believe that the government is way behind public opinion on this issue, as it is on many environmental questions. There is a growing groundswell of opinion throughout society that demands the government must do whatever is necessary to roll back the clouds of pollution and reveal the hidden blue skies of yesteryear. Opening up electricity generation to the normal laws of supply and demand would be a promising first step.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


This must one of the most interesting building designs in Singapore. It's a project at the junction of Cairnhill and Scott Road by Ng Teng Fong's Far East Organisation. They look like floating towers.

Another interesting design in Singapore is Keppel Land's Reflections at Keppel Bay. The apartment blocks look like they are bending.

The buildings will definitely add greater vibrancy to the Singapore skyline. But will they cause vertigo to occupants?

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bullet Train, Part 2

Malaysia says it will soon talk to Singapore on a private sector plan to build a bullet train between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore on Wednesday, commissioning a study of the proposal, state news agency Bernama said on Wednesday.

According to reports, Malaysian property and utility firm YTL Corp Bhd has proposed to build and run an 8-billion-ringgit (US$2.2 billion) bullet train between KL and Singapore. No other details are available.

The YTL plan, which first surfaced last year, has generated the usual debate about the need for such a service, as evidenced by the responses to a news article posted on Malaysia Today.

There is definitely a need for a fast train service between the two capitals. Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM service as seen in this pix) can take more than eight hours to connect KL and Singapore. Driving takes half the time. Perhaps, the old KTM train service should be dedicated to ferrying non-perishable goods like fertiliser.

The two countries must see a faster train service -- that can cut travel time to between 90 minutes and 2 hours between the two capitals -- as beneficial to the PEOPLE of the two countries and not be sidetracked by smaller and technical issues or "balance of benefits".

Although a faster train project is necessary, there will be many complications as mentioned in an earlier posting.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

How to live in JB with so much crime!!!!

The southern Malaysian city of Johor Baru is just next to Singapore but they are definitely worlds apart. Unlike Singapore that is very safe, the crime level in JB doesn't seem to be abating despite efforts to beef up security in the state.

Former Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew was definitely correct when he said in a defamation suit in 1997 that the Malaysian state was "notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings". Although Kuan Yew had expunged the remarks in order to maintain friendly relations between Singapore and Malaysia, the remarks still strike a chord among residents in the state.

Third Aunt was robbed recently. Sixth Aunt was also robbed recently by a knife-wielding man in front of her house behind the popular Holiday Plaza mall. She highlighted this story in The Star on March 19 in which a businessman -- Low Ee Chong (as shown in The Star pix) who is the brother of Pengkalan Rinting state assemblyman Low Teh Hian -- was badly injured and robbed in front of his house.

The headline of Sixth Aunt's e-mail: How to live in JB with so much crime!!!! Indeed. There are many other horror stories.

But it's not time to talk anymore. It's time to go on a massive anti-crime blitz in the MSC state -- not the Multimedia Super Corridor but Mugging, Shooting and Car-jacking state.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cheers to NEWater

A few days ago, Singapore trumpeted the achievement of its target of having NEWater or recycled water satisfy 15 percent of current needs and is now aiming for 30 percent by 2011.

Singapore said this when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (centre in ST pix) opened the Keppel Seghers Ulu Pandan NEWater plant on March 15. The new plant, Singapore’s fourth and largest NEWater plant, has a capacity of 32 million gallons of NEWater per day (mgd). And the price of NEWater will be slashed to $1 a cubic metre from $1.15 from April 1.

It sounds like a big jump in the proportion of NEWater in Singapore's national water equation. Probably true.

But what was left unsaid is the expiry of the first Malaysian contract to sell raw water to Singapore in 2011. Of course, the ratio of NEWater and other local sources in the total water pie will go up when the first Malaysian contract lapses.

The contract is quite sizeable as Singapore is allowed to draw some 100 mgd from Johor -- equivalent to the capacity of more than three NEWater plants.

Another Malaysia-Singapore contract, which will expire in 2061, has a provision for 250 mgd. Although Singapore doesn't use up the entire entitlement as Johor River cannot yield the required amount, the two contracts account for more than 40 per cent of Singapore's estimated current water needs.

Singapore has been ramping up production of its own water to cut its reliance on Malaysian water ever since the two countries had a major tiff over the water issue in the late 1990s.

While Singapore is spending more to build new water treatment plants and enlarge its water catchment areas, it will continue to pay 3 Malaysian sen per thousand gallons for the next 54 years under the second water contract.

The price of 250 mgd under the second contract works out to a mere RM7,500 per day or RM2.7 million per year or RM148 million (about S$66 million) for the next half a century. Of course, this does not include the capital expenditure of more than S$1 billion by Singapore for water projects in Johor over the years. For the purpose of comparison, the first desalination plant in Singapore, which generates only 30 mgd, costs S$250 million.

Technological advancement will continue to drive down the price of recycled water in Singapore but will it ever bring it down to as low as 3 sen per thousand gallons in the next 54 years?

Highly unlikely.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Separation Agreement

The Singapore government's Internet resource is wonderful. You can find almost everything online, except, of course, classified government material.

Anyway, dad has been searching high and low for the divorce agreement between Malaysia and Singapore that was signed in 1965. He finally found the Separation Agreement, which is one of the most important documents to govern the tiny country since it was booted out of Malaysia.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

New Malaysian First Lady? Part 2

The rumour about Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi getting married to a Eurasian lady called Jean Danker or Jean Abdullah is growing stronger. The Malaysian premier has apparently told certain state leaders that the wedding is on.

According to Wikipedia, Jean Danker was married to Osman Mahmud, who was Endon Mahmood's brother. Endon was Badawi's late wife.

As mentioned in an earlier post, time will tell whether the rumour is indeed true, but we will probably never find out for sure if Badawi's late wife had indeed endorsed the union before her death from cancer last year. Did she ask Jean to take care of her husband or to marry him or both?

Downsides of Democracy

By Uncle Cheng

As we know, Hong Kong's fascination with democracy was launched by our last colonial governor Fat Pang. Before his 'reign' the word 'politics' had almost been a taboo word in polite Hong Kong society. Fat Pang politicised Hong Kong and we are still not sure where it will all end.

But perhaps this is as good a moment as any to consider democracy's record around the world. I must warn you that the picture is not a pleasant one. Far from it. In fact, I would say that democracy as a system of government is going through a very bad patch and is in retreat in many countries.

You might imagine that one benefit of a democratic system would be more openness and less corruption. But that does not seem to the case at all. Just take a look at endemic corruption in democratic South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines ... I could go on but I think you get the picture.

Then you might think a democratic government would be more stable because it supposedly reflects the popular will. How then do you explain the military coup in Thailand where the introduction of a democratic system was supposed to have stopped such an event. The same happened in Pakistan some years back when a lengthy period of popular democratic government was suddenly swept aside by army generals.

The experience of the former Soviet Union is also revealing. There was great excitement in the west, especially in the U.S., when Boris Yeltsin won a landslide election to rule a democratic Russia . But what of that democracy today? Russia has kept its name but the government has become increasingly autocratic under President Putin and democracy is having a very rough time.

And what of Iraq whose people were trampled on by that vile dictator Saddam Hussein. The Iraqis, so the Americans thought, would be delighted to embrace democracy? Today, not only are democratic ideals in ruins in Iraq, but the Iraqi example has sent democratic dreams into retreat in neighbouring countries.

But by far the most compelling and worrying example of democracy in action is to be found in Britain. But isn't Britain meant to be the ultimate example of a functioning democracy that works without blemishes? Not now it isn't! The British Prime Minister has been interviewed twice by police investigating allegations of corruption and attempts to pervert the course of justice. A member of his staff was arrested early one morning at her home. A close colleague and member of the House of Lords was also arrested.

And it gets worse. Tony Blair went to an elite public school, became a barrister, and is a devout Christian. You expect him to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. But his opponents are compiling a long list of things he has said in his career that have proved to be untrue. In the early days it was minor untruths such as when he first entered politics he said he had written articles for the Guardian newspaper but no such articles have ever been found. More recently in 2002, he famously claimed that "the intelligence community had established beyond doubt" that Saddam Hussein was making chemical and biological weapons and was on his way to making nuclear weapons. It was all untrue.

Do they really believe that democracy will cure all known ills? Would you prefer to be ruled over by a benevolent dictatorship instead? The only problem is that benevolent dictators are in very short supply.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Wishing Buddha

Uncle Fatso seems to be making the best of his prolonged business trip to China. I think he's been there for more than four months. Hope he got his wish!

By Uncle Fatso

On the 15th day of Chinese New Year - Yuan Xiao Festival -- I went to Ling Shan (Mountain) Buddha, Ma Shan Island, Taihu Lake, Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.

With Wuxi being the pearl of the Taihu Lake, the Ling Shan Fo (Ling Mountain Buddha) is perceived as the brilliance of the pearl. The Ling Shan Fo, being the pride of Wuxi and Chinese Buddhism as a whole, is the tallest standing Buddha in the world at 88m high.

This giant bronze-plated Buddha is situated on Ma Shan Island, the second-largest island in the Taihu Lake. It is believed to stand watching over the Taihu Lake in its front view, surrounded by mountains on its right and left, and the small Ling Mountain (of which the Buddha is named after) at its back.

The brilliance of the Wuxi pearl, the gigantic Ling Shan Mountain Buddha stands at the end of the long pathway, with an additional 218 flights of steps up to the base of the statue!

Even from the foot of the seemingly long and high steps up the mountain, the Buddha statue looks simply magnificent and breathtaking. The Buddha statue has a serene look, with both palms held wide open, displaying the word "wish" – for a happy and peaceful life to all living things.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Shed Sarong Party Girl Image

It's now clear that Singapore Airlines has no intention to change the image of its stewardesses despite the recent intense debate. The national airline said yesterday that the image of the Singapore Girl will remain although it has appointed a new marketing agency to handle its fat advertising campaign.

It's truly disappointing to leave the image intact although the Singapore Girl has been successful in personifying the image of the airline and the country. In fact, many continue to support the image although it has been subject to ridicule as well.

It doesn’t help, of course, that the Singapore Girl was created by a white man– British-born, Australian-bred adman Ian Batey – in 1972, forever sealing her fate as a Sarong Party Girl par excellence. Subservient, demure and bound by the feminine constrictions of her sarong kebaya, she promised a feast for the eyes in the skies. No wonder she took off.


The common perception that all Caucasians here, no matter where they come from, are overpaid booze-loving sex maniacs out to plunder our land and steal our women is partially the result of our own colonial panderings in the 1970s, when we willingly played ourselves up as creatures of the exotic East.

While our iconic maidens in sarong kebaya were whispering that they were “a great way to fly”, Singapore itself was luring tourists with brochures and ads of doe-eyed women sitting amid lush vegetation and holding baskets of fruit. In both cases, the sell was aimed at the white man, then the aspirational exemplar of big business.
The Straits Times writer Ong Soh Chin, 4 Feb 2007.

Whatever the argument, the kebaya image is no longer fresh. In fact, it looks rather similar to the kebaya uniform of the stewardesses of Malaysia Airlines.

But SIA didn't copy the Malaysian uniform. This is because the Singapore Girl was born in 1972, while the Malaysia Girl came into being in 1986.

Like their similar kebayas, the two airlines shared a common history. The two airlines came under the flag of Malaysia-Singapore Airlines for some five years before they split in 1971 due to irreconcilable differences. The airline merger lasted longer than the brief union of the two countries between 1963 and 1965.

While the two airlines have experienced vastly different fortunes since the split, it is important to maintain a unique image.

If Singapore Airlines is unwilling to tinker with its old image, perhaps Malaysia Airlines should take the bold step to do away with the outdated image of the Sarong Party Girl.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Li and Lee

Why is Hong Kong tycoon Li-Ka-shing pouring so much resources into Singapore?

Today, his foundation and listed companies pumped a record S$100 million into the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. The school is, of course, named after his good friend -- Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, who was also Singapore's longest-serving Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990.

They also have great things to say:

“Globalization posts new complexities for governments worldwide. Policymakers everywhere need to develop policies that embrace the importance of diversity and integrate it within a structure of unity. This is certainly an important task and a formidable challenge. By bringing together policymakers from different countries to think about these issues together, I hope the scholarships might sow seeds of perpetual prosperity and peace.”
Li Ka-shing

"Dr Li Ka-shing and I are old friends. By his generous donation of S$100 million to the LKYSPP, I am happy that his name will be on one of the three blocks of buildings on the campus of the school that is named after me."
Lee Kuan Yew

Apart from the generous donation, the Hong Kong tycoon has given S$20 million to another university in Singapore, and is part of the consortium that is spearheading the development of the New Downtown in Singapore.

Of course, Li's port business has forged close ties with PSA International, which is part of Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings.

Last year, PSA paid US$4.4 billion for a "20% equity and loan interest in Hutchison Whampoa Limited’s portfolio of ports." The deal, which was PSA's biggest investment, came shortly after it failed in the bidding war for UK's P&O Ports, which was snapped up by Dubai's DP World for an even more staggering US$6.8 billion.

Will we see more partnerships between Singapore and Li's empire?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Konfrontasi Again

While Singapore is sorting out its problems in the region, its two immediate neighbours -- Indonesia and Malaysia -- are having bigger headaches.

They have yet to fully resolve the competing claims over an oil-rich area off Borneo and were almost on the brink of a war.

According to The Straits Times this week, the Indonesian Parliament has called for a tough line on reported Malaysian military incursions, with two MPs saying Malaysians on the wrong side of a disputed border should be shot. This is definitely an escalation of earlier rhetoric.

'Once in a while we need to shoot them,' said Mr Soeripto, a member of the parliamentary commission on defence and foreign affairs at a hearing with Defence Minister Juwono Sudarsono and armed forces chiefs at the House of Representatives yesterday.

'Don't be afraid if something escalates from the shooting. We have four million volunteers who are prepared to die,' he was quoted as saying by news portal Detikcom.

The meeting was called to discuss the latest flare up in the border spat with Malaysia over the disputed oil-rich region which the Indonesians call Ambalat, in the sea off Borneo.

He said that he deployed warships to drive the intruders out, but added that the Malaysian navy also entered Indonesian waters around Ambalat 35 times last year.

The dispute over Ambalat took a turn for the worse two years ago, when Malaysia's state oil company Petronas awarded an oil concession to a subsidiary of oil giant Shell in an area where Indonesia had been granting oil concessions.

There was a standoff in the disputed area a month later, almost pushing both sides to the brink of war but tensions eased after they agreed to settle the dispute diplomatically.

We can definitely see Konfrontasi all over again should Indonesia lose its claim over Ambalat. Indonesia is still seething over the loss of two tiny islands near Ambalat in the Celebes Sea -- Sipadan and Ligitan -- to Malaysia in a legal battle in 2002.

No wonder Indonesia is so protective of its territory and its sand although it has over 17,000 islands.

PS: The Malaysia-Indonesia border dispute had translated into cyber warfare, according to this interesting article. The Indonesian phrase "Ganyang Malaysia" or "Crush Malaysia" -- used during Indonesia's resistance towards the creation of Malaysia in the 1960s -- had been used to deface some Malaysian websites. So far, there's no known instance of "Ganyang Singapura" in Singapore cyberspace.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Chinese Treasures

By Uncle Cheng

From now until March 25th if you wish to see some of the rarest Chinese works of arts, which were taken to Taiwan on the eve of Communist rule in China, you must go to Taipei. The National Palace Museum in the city has just completed a massive programme of renovation which has transformed the museum and enables much more of the priceless collection to be displayed.

So it is worth recalling how it happened that provincial Taiwan came to be the repository of so much of the priceless imperial collection. It is a tale of huge intrigue and great heroism which exemplifies the bitter disputes that raged between two divergent ideologies, Nationalism and Communism, as they battled to be guardian of the Chinese nation’s cultural heritage and hence its very legitimacy.

Incredible as it was given the vicissitudes of much of Chinese history nearly all the great imperial art collection, which had been mainly amassed during the early years of the Qing dynasty, had remained virtually intact and undamaged right up to the Republican era. It is also worth recalling the great irony that most important parts of the collection were assembled, not by the Han Chinese as we might suppose, but by the Manchu emperors, who were most anxious to establish and prove how loyally Chinese they were.

As is well known both Beijing and Taipei now boast their own palace museums although the Taipei one is called the National Palace Museum while the one in Beijing is known simply as the Palace Museum.

It was in 1925 that the Palace Museum in the Chinese capital first opened its doors to the public but at the time most of the items in the collection were without any inventory and it is thought that in those troubled times some items, though not many, were stolen by corrupt officials and made their way to collections outside China. Perhaps the last complete inventory before the modern era was the one conducted in 1816 which documented about 15,000 items of calligraphy and paintings alone that had been collected by the highly cultured Emperor Qianlong.

A major crisis for Beijing collection came in 1911 when the Emperor Puyi was forced to abdicate. When Puyi then became a puppet emperor of Manchukuo he took a substantial amount of the imperial art collection with him.

The collection faced further travails when civil war broke out across China in the 1930s. Worried curators then embarked on an extraordinary endeavour that saved the collection for the nation. They hurriedly packed the bulk of the Palace Museum’s collection into a staggering 20,000 wooden crates. These crates contained just about everything that could be lifted and easily moved. There were bronzes, jades, porcelain, paintings, calligraphy and rare books.

At first the crates were set off on a dangerous journey towards Shanghai from where it was intended to take them on to Nanjing, all the time closely guarded by the dutiful museum curators from Beijing. But as the civil war moved south towards Nanjing the bulk of the 20,000 crates had to be diverted for safekeeping to the nationalist capital of Chungking. Ultimately, only about a fifth of the 20,000 crates, that is some 4,000 crates, were taken by the Nationalists to their final base in Taiwan. It is the contents of those 4,000 crates which now form the nucleus of the Taipei collection.

Although the Taipei museum is home to only a fifth of the collection which the Nationalists took from Beijing, the curators and Chiang Kai-shek were careful to select some of the best artifacts for shipment to Taiwan, which is why many art experts maintain the National Palace Museum houses the cream of the imperial collection such as the large paintings of the early Tang and Sung dynasties.

However, if you go to the renovated Taipei museum, do not expect that you will be able to view the entire collection. For conservation reasons the museum never displays all its treasures at one time. This is because some objects, especially the early paintings are so fragile that they are only displayed for forty days every three years. To see everything you must return to Taipei every three years!

Another celebrated moment in the history of that part of the imperial collection which was left behind by the Nationalists came during the height of the cultural revolution. A group of Red Guards had broken their way into the Palace Museum raising fears that the art collection would be destroyed. In the very nick of time the then Premier Chou En-lai issued his famous directive “the Gugong belongs to the nation and to the people and must be protected”. Both the Forbidden City and the objects it contained were rescued.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that we owe the preservation of our nation’s imperial art collection both to the Nationalist Chiang Kai Shek and his ideological enemy Chou En-lai. The unhappy result is that the collection continues to be split between Beijing and Taipei.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Trade Sanction on Little Red Dot?

Relationship between Singapore and Indonesia has definitely taken a turn for the worse.

First, Indonesia has banned the sale of land sand to Singapore. Second, Indonesia has disrupted the supply of granite to Singapore. The two ingredients are crucial to Singapore's booming construction sector.

Is Indonesia effectively imposing a selective trade sanction on Singapore due to its unhappiness with the little red dot? The answer seems to be yes, without judging the merits of the two countries' cases due to lack of information.

A major thorn in the bilateral relationship is their inability to sign a protracted extradition treaty that may have a big impact on Singapore should it favour Indonesia.

According to earlier reports, Indonesia has been pushing for such a treaty with Singapore in a bid to nab what it regards as criminal fugitives. But Singapore finds it difficult to accede, according to CNA.

What's next? A total ban on trade and the flow of Indonesian capital to Singapore?

Such a scenario is extremely unlikely and is difficult to implement. But any disruption on the flow of Indonesian trade and capital to Singapore could have a crippling effect on the little red dot.

Indonesia is Singapore's sixth largest trading partner with bilateral trade exceeding $30 billion, according to data disclosed in 2004 -- the first time in three decades -- following the end of the Malaysia-Indonesia Konfrontasi in the 1960s.

Indonesians are also the single biggest group of foreign buyers of private homes in Singapore. Many rich Indonesian businessmen obviously see Singapore as a safe haven for their capital.

Singapore will therefore do its level best to safeguard its safe haven status.