Thursday, April 26, 2007

Eugene Chua

May Eugene Chua, an affable manager at Que Pasa wine bar along Orchard Road, rest in peace.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Crossing mighty Yangtze

By Uncle Fatso in China

There are two great rivers in China, namely Huang He/Hwang Ho (Yellow River or 黄河) and Yangtze River. The latter, which is also known as Chang Jiang (长江), flows from the highlands of Tibet in western China generally eastward through central China and emptying into the East China Sea at Shanghai (上海).

The size of the rivers is just incredible.

For example, the Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world, stretching nearly 3,900 miles. The river has been an important trade and transportation route since ancient times.

One of the new highlights of Chang Jiang is the Three Gorges Dam -- the world's largest dam project, which will eventually bring many changes to this dynamic region when it is fully operational by 2009.

Several large cities -- including Shanghai, Nanjing (南京), Wuhan (武汉) and Chongqing (重庆) -- lie in the river's basin. Large ships can sail to Wuhan and smaller vessels can reach Yichang.

The river is also one of the widest in the world.

It took more than half an hour in a ferry just to cross the southern bank in Changshu (常熟) to the opposite northern bank in Nantong (南通), few hundred kilometres from the River Delta.

That is the only crossing available at this juncture as the 32.4-km Sutong Bridge, which will connect Nantong and Changshu in the east of the Jiangsu (江苏) province, will only be ready by 2009.

It is indeed a mighty river.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Updated: Brothers again?

Singapore is suddenly back on good terms with its two immediate neighbours -- Indonesia and Malaysia.

The Straits Times ran a page one story today on Singapore striking a deal with Indonesia to resolve the protracted extradition treaty. The paper also ran a picture of Singapore Foreign Minister George Yeo (back to camera in the ST pix) hugging his Indonesian counterpart Hassan Wirajuda after the agreement was announced.

The signing of the extradition and defence pacts will take place in the Indonesian island of Bali. Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will witness the actual signing of the agreements.

This will definitely come as a relief to the two countries after two long years of negotiation. But details of the two agreements have not been disclosed yet.

ST said Indonesia has said previously that an extradition pact is crucial in its fight against corruption and would pave the way for going after Indonesians allegedly involved in graft cases who fled the country. The Defence Cooperation Agreement was proposed to restore defence cooperation after Indonesia froze the use of a joint military training area in 2003.

And there are signs of warming ties between Singapore and Malaysia. Hsien Loong and several ministers will visit Malaysia next month. Earlier this month, the National University of Singapore awarded an honorary doctorate to the Sultan of Johor.

Is the rapprochement real and lasting? Will it translate into real balance of benefits for Singapore and its two close neighbours? Can Singapore also resume strong ties with Thailand following the Shin-Temasek debacle? Will Singapore resolve its myriad outstanding bilateral problems, especially with Malaysia?

Will big brothers Indonesia and Malaysia finally resume the sale of sand to Singapore?

Update (17 November 2007): The proposed extradition and defence pacts between Indonesia and Singapore have since been unraveled.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Dutch connection

Singapore is really visionary when it comes to the management of its water resources.

Its Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew reportedly said that Singapore is tapping Dutch expertise in building dykes to help prevent the island from being submerged due to rising sea levels 50 to 100 years from now.

"We start learning now, because by the time the waters have risen (and) we want to start learning, that is too late," The Straits Times quoted Kuan Yew as saying today.

"So we have already got in touch with the Dutch, who know how to make dykes," Kuan Yew said on Sunday during talks with 400 young people.

The Dutch are experts in building dykes and are inolved in Singapore's Marina Barrage project -- a clever idea by Kuan Yew to turn Marina Bay and Singapore River into a fresh-water reservoir. The barrage also acts as a flood-control mechanism.

Maybe the Dutch should also take a look at the causeway (pix taken from Both Sides of the Johor Straits) linking Singapore and the southern Malaysian city of Johor Baru. The land-based causeway has been blocking the natural flow of water in the Straits of Johor separating the two countries since it was built by the British more than 80 years ago.

Will the causeway help prevent or exacerbate rising waters surrounding Singapore in the next 50 to 100 years?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Updated: Rich Malaysians

Some Malaysian politicians and their cronies must be very, very rich. At least, this is what I gather when I look at the pix on Umno Reform showing the fierce campaigning during the by-election in the small area called Ijok in Selangor.

The placards hoisted by members of the opposition Keadilan party are obviously alluding to the huge amount of money pocketed by unnamed politicians of the Barisan National ruling coalition. Keadilan, which is led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, is jostling with Barisan Nasional for the Ijok seat.

The placard suggests that the commission for some fighter jet or defence deal was RM410 million, which is equivalent to more than US$110 million. Of course, the number may not be true or correct. For example, one F/A-18 Hornet, which is part of the Malaysian air force, costs about US$35 million.

Maybe, the placard is referring to a total contract for a bunch of fighter jets. Maybe the alleged commission has to be discounted.

The number may not be quite right, but there is always deep-rooted suspicion that politicians in Malaysia earn big bucks from defence contracts.

How the money from any defence deal is divided remains a mystery. But defence contract money has been linked to the sensational murder of Mongolian model Altantuya Shaariibuu. You can get a more complete picture of the Mongolian saga at Susan Loone.

I'm just simply amazed that there are so many rich Malaysians out there.

Note: The Malaysian Defence Ministry has issued a three-page statement to rebut claims of huge commissions paid to middlemen in defence contracts.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Consummate trader

An interesting profile of a well-known businessman in Singapore under Raffles Conversation in Singapore's Business Times. Peter Kwee seems to be quite adept in trading car businesses, thanks probably to his first job as a trader in flour and and plastics in Indonesia when he was 18.

Business Times - 21 Apr 2007
For the love of cars and golf
The two passions of Group Exklusiv chairman Peter Kwee are also his money-making ventures, reports CONRAD RAJ

NOTHING brings out the passion, or even the ire, in Peter Kwee, executive chairman of car seller Group Exklusiv, than the subject of Volkswagen. This normally mild-mannered man breathes fire when the subject of Germany's largest vehicle maker is raised or even when the name is mentioned.

'He is trying hard to get it off his chest,' says his son Kevin.

After eight years, his partnership with Volkswagen, which began in 1999, broke up after the German manufacturer changed its business model and decided to import its vehicles for the Singapore market directly. Mr Kwee's Cars & Cars, part of Group Exklusiv, then became a mere dealer, one of several.

As a result margins eroded - to Mr Kwee they were little more than paper thin. 'The margins were in importing and distributorship, but we were left out of the most lucrative part,' he says with more than a hint of anger.

'All that hard work in raising the profile of the brand just came to nought,' he notes. 'Prior to Cars & Cars taking over the Volkswagen distributorship, the brand was selling fewer than 160 cars annually. In our first year we sold over 500 cars, despite the fact that although we took over the dealership in January 1999 we could only start selling the cars in the middle of the year.'

In the following years Cars & Cars sold between 750 and 1,000 cars. Things were going so well that Mr Kwee decided to invest $24 million in a brand-new showroom in Alexandra Road, which opened in 2004.

Before Cars & Cars, Volkswagen vehicles were sold first by Auto GTI and then Inchcape.

The relationship between Mr Kwee and Volkswagen began to sour about two years ago when a new set of German-led managers under managing director Olaf Duebal took charge of the Singapore office.

Recently Volkswagen decided to go into the retail business itself. While Volkswagen claims most of the issues with Cars & Cars have been settled, Mr Kwee claims there are still some matters outstanding.

Although Mr Kwee is passionate about cars, he started his working life as a trader.

Born in the hill resort town of Bandung on the island of Java, Indonesia, in 1947 of parents who came from Fujian, South China, Mr Kwee started a trading business in flour and plastics when he was 18.

The venture was fairly successful, with Mr Kwee importing 50 to 100 truckloads of flour and 200 to 300 tonnes of plastic on each shipment.

'I had no choice but to forgo further studies as I was the eldest of 11 children - eight sisters and three brothers,' he said. 'The need to make money became more urgent after my father passed away in 1966.'

He then joined his brother-in-law to move into textiles. But the partnership was short-lived and he branched out on his own, travelling extensively to Taiwan and Japan to bring in the textile machinery to Indonesia to sell to the mills that were starting out then in the country.

Then came the anti-Chinese demonstrations and riots in Indonesia in the mid-70s. Fearing for the safety of his family, he decided to move to Singapore. By 1978, the entire family - comprising himself, his wife, son Kevin and daughter Karen - arrived in Singapore. 'I have always felt that Singapore was a better place to bring up your family as it has a solid government and the streets are safe,' he says. 'The education here was also better. It's among the three best cities to live in. The others being Vancouver in Canada and Perth in Western Australia.'

But Mr Kwee still retains a trading business in Indonesia.

However, being unfamiliar with the business environment, his initial Singapore investment was in property. He bought a 45,000 sq ft piece of land in Nassim Road from the Cheng family of Wing Tai Holdings. Today his land holdings amount to some 200,000 sq ft, amost all in or around Nassim Road, Dalvey Estate and Ridley Park.

'Property, as the old saying goes, is all about location, location and location,' Mr Kwee, who lives in Tanglin Hill, says. With property prices hitting the roof and a recent transaction in the area fetching over $950 per sq ft, a conservative estimate of $750 a sq ft will place his property fortune alone at $150 million.

'By coincidence, the Renault distributorship then was up for grabs and I decided to go for it,' he recalled. He teamed up with the distributor of the sports car Porsche (which by the way is the major shareholder of Volkswagen) to take over the Renault marque.

But the partnership soon split and Mr Kwee went on to take over the distributorship of Renault himself. The Porsche distributorship went to Karsono Kwee, another Indonesian but no relation to Peter. 'In fact Karsono was a customer of mine,' Mr Kwee said.

'When we took over Renault, the brand sold only 50 cars a year. Although we lost money in the first seven years, we were able to grow the brand to over 2,000 cars a year,' Mr Kwee said proudly, adding that no one else in Asia sells that many Renault cars.

Then after 25 years Mr Kwee decided to sell the distributorship to Wearnes International, which also sells Jaguars and Bentleys. 'The manufacturers were setting impossible targets, but still the parting was on amicable terms,' he noted, contrasting it with his split with Volkswagen.

Despite losing his two main distributorships, Mr Kwee remains very much in the car business. He continues to sell Skoda cars, which are built by the Czech subsidiary of Volkswagen.

'For our Skoda business, we have found a niche market in the taxi segment. We have negotiated and sold more than 300 Skodas to taxi operators. And we have a contract to put more than 1,000 Skoda taxis on the road every year.'

While Mr Kwee is not saying anything, somehow one gets the feeling that right at the back of mind there is some fear that he might lose the Skoda franchise too. That is perhaps one reason that he is now an avid fan of China-manufactured cars. So now he wants to be the king of China-made cars in Singapore.

To those still wondering why he gave up Volkswagen and Renault for China-made cars Mr Kwee comes up with some observations and a few interesting statistics: 'The European market has been quite stagnant here for over 10 years. Market share has been hovering around 10-15 per cent.

'Do you know that the two Korean brands here sell more cars than the over 25 European brands in Singapore? Between January and September last year, there were 11,800 Korean cars sold here. In that same time period, 9,200 European cars were sold, shared between 25 brands.

'The figures are clear for all to see. Consumers are looking for competitively priced cars. That is why, some six years ago, we started looking to bring in reasonably priced, reliable Chinese cars to Singapore.

'Since we started with Geely in November, we have collected more than 300 orders. Not bad for a new brand with only a single model. But not only are we going to bring in more Geely models, including an automatic version, but also other Chinese brands. Geely is only the beginning.'

Mr Kwee hopes to sell between 1,500 and 2,000 Geelys within a couple of years. Despite being cheap, the Geelys come with a three-year warranty and have met all the tests, even impressing members of the Land Transport Authority here who have visited the manufacturing plant in China.

Together with Skoda and two other Chinese brands, Dung Fung and Soyat, that Exklusiv plans to introduce to the market here soon, Mr Kwee hopes to sell around a total of 3,000 cars this year.

Since 1990, Mr Kwee has ventured into the leisure business. 'It's fortunate that I'm in the two businesses that I'm passionate about - cars and golf. I believe that in life, you should do something you like in order to succeed. For me, I love cars, that is why I went into the car business. Then I discovered golf. I see greenery and open space on the fairways and I forget my worries. Work solutions come up unexpectedly in the midst of a game,' he says.

His enthusiasm for cars has led him to accumulate a fleet of more than 20, including a couple of Bentleys, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari and a Jaguar. Although he is a tycoon worth at least $250 million, Mr Kwee prefers being at the wheel to being chauffeured around by his driver.

He says: 'We at Group Exklusiv are always looking for new opportunities in cars and in our leisure business. We are well known in Singapore for being in the car business for a long time now. Many are less aware that we are also serious players in the lifestyle and golf business.'

The leisure business began in 1990 with a golfing trip to Perth where Mr Kwee was persuaded to take an initial 24.5 per cent stake in Joondalup Country Club. Today with other partners selling out, he and Singaporean TK Low each own 49 per cent of the club.

Ten years later he and Mr Low bought the Meadow Springs Golf & Country Club, also in Perth. Both are favourites with Singapore golfers going to Perth, many of whom have also bought residences in Joondalup developed by the club.

In 2001, Mr Kwee bought over the Laguna National Golf & Country Club from NatSteel for a reported $100 million, including absorbing the club's considerable debts. NatSteel had invested some $230 million in developing the club. Despite recent problems with NatSteel over some payments, Mr Kwee claims that Laguna with its 3,000 members is profitable. Members also have reciprocal rights with Mr Kwee's clubs in Western Australia.

He also assures me that The Pines, formerly the Pinetree Town & Country Club in Stevens Road, which was purchased soon after Laguna for over $100 million, has started turning around. That purchase and its one-time dwindling membership - from a peak of 4,700 members to just over 1,400 - and some subsequent sale of a couple of properties led to some speculation that he was in some kind of financial bind. But he dismissed the rumours, pointing out that his debts were less than a third of the worth of his properties, which have continued to rise in value.

He also thinks that building a hotel on the club site for members and their guests will help with the cash flow. Both Laguna and The Pines are seen as long-term investments, but then as any businessman will tell you, 'everything has its price'. But for the present Mr Kwee says he intends to buy even more clubs to provide members with better value.

He also notes that more and more world-class sports events are taking place in Singapore and the region. 'The Singapore Masters is not the only world-class sporting event here. We have the Lexus Ladies PGA also played at Laguna, and there are ongoing talks to bring in A1 and F1 races. The world's spotlight is on Singapore. We are building our reputation as a world class sporting and leisure destination. The plans that we at Group Exklusiv have, for our lifestyle business, will focus on building this reputation.'

As to how he runs things, he says: 'In business you have to have perseverance and stamina and you must be focused. Nothing comes instantly. High profits come with high risk. One must therefore not be too greedy.'

The man has also had his share of failures, including the Old Melbourne Club, which had to be sold off at a 'big loss'. However, his biggest failure resulted 'from trusting people too much'. His faith in a couple of 'friends' who persuaded him to invest in several projects led to a loss of more than $20 million. 'How to consider them friends?'

As to taking his company public, Mr Kwee says: 'Not for the time being. Anyway it's too much of a hassle and I have to deal with too many shareholders.' Perhaps this comes from his experience in sometimes having to deal with disgruntled club members.

However, at 60 Mr Kwee is now beginning to feel the strain of his hectic life. So he has begun to pass on more responsibilities to his son Kevin, 37, and his daughter Karen, 35, to run an empire with a turnover of over $300 million and more than 600 employees.

Both his children have recently become parents themselves - and guess who dotes on their kids?

'Besides my golf, me and my wife now spend more time with our grandchildren. We love bringing them around,' Mr Kwee says like any proud grandparent.

London Resurgent

By Uncle Cheng

Did you read the recent news item that one of a set of four penthouse flats in central London has been sold off-plan for a staggering £85 million (HK$1,300,000,000)? A few weeks earlier came the news that New Year bonuses paid out by financial institutions in the City of London topped a staggering £9 billion (HK$138,000,000,000). London, to put it mildly, is riding the crest of a wave of wealth.

Quite why London has suddenly boomed now is a bit of mystery. Experts say that New York shot itself in the foot with over-regulation after some corporate scandals and has made itself unattractive to foreigners because of excessively tough visa rules. Even the Mayor of New York is warning that New York’s very future is threatened by London. Mainland Chinese and Russian companies are choosing to issue their shares in London rather than New York.

This is all very strange because only a few years ago Britain was being warned that if it did not adopt the new European currency, the Euro, London would lose out as a financial centre and be replaced by Frankfurt. Well, Britain did not join the Euro and today by far the biggest trading centre for Euros is London, not Frankfurt. Then Germany’s biggest bank Deutsche Bank moved its investment banking headquarters from Frankfurt to London.

You might ask why what happens in London interests me so much? There are many reasons, and reasons that Hong Kong should pay attention to. First of all, I did law pupillage there and one of the reasons for London’s present pre-eminence is the city’s concentration of legal talent. Hong Kong is also home to a pool of legal talent and we must ensure it stays here. Secondly, London, and New York before it, benefited hugely by being cultural melting pots. A staggering forty percent of Londoners are foreign-born and they speak an incredible 300 languages. Of course, there is no way Hong Kong can compete with such figures but we must keep our economy open to talent from anywhere in the world, not just from the mainland.

London, like Hong Kong, does not tax rich foreigners on their overseas income and this has proved a huge magnet to the world’s new billionaires. There are said to be 23 Pound billionaire residents in London, and of those 11 are foreigners such as the Indian Lakshmi Mittal (worth £14.8 billion) and the Russian Roman Abramovich (worth £9.1 billion), owner of Chelsea football club.

Then there is London’s population, which after decades of decline, has been rising very steeply mainly due to immigration from eastern Europe. Even the UK’s Chinese population has risen fast recently and now totals about 600,000.

Perhaps I should add that I do have a selfish interest in London’s economic well-being because I own a house there which must rank as the best investment I ever made in my entire life. In not that many years it has appreciated by over 600 percent and by an extraordinary 35 percent in 2006 alone. A lot of the demand has come from foreign buyers and I have heard that native Londoners wanting to buy residential property are complaining that they can no longer compete with super-rich foreigners who think nothing of upping a bid by a million Pounds.

So for the moment at least London is again the capital of capitals. The city is abundantly confident, the restaurant bills have gone stratospheric, there is creativity and dynamism everywhere. The sceptics say even Athens and Rome fell in the end as confidence lapsed into decadence.

Yet I see no sign of London losing its grip just yet. Indeed London’s affluence and its dominance of international finance seems likely to strengthen further. Even the French, who as you will know have fought many wars with the British, have had to acknowledge London’s success. Nicolas Sarkozy, campaigning as a candidate to succeed Chirac as President of France, went to London recently to address London’s 350,000 French residents.

London, you see, has become the seventh largest French city in the world.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Genting still a sure bet?

This piece of news is not expected to derail Genting's casino plan in Singapore. Genting International, which is part of the Malaysian Genting group, would not have proceeded to hold its ground-breaking ceremony for the integrated resort and casino project on Sentosa earlier this week if it wasn't sure of the regulatory requirements by now.

In fact, the Singapore government's clarification sounds more like a reminder that Genting must still comply with the probity checks even after the casino licence is issued further down the road. Please see earlier posting for context.

© 2007 The Associated Press

SINGAPORE — Singapore's Trade Ministry on Tuesday said reports that it had resolved its concerns about casino operator Genting International were inaccurate, saying the minister's comments were misunderstood by some media.

The Associated Press and other media reported Monday that Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang had said Singapore was no longer concerned about Genting's business integrity after company took measures to clear its links to a Macau tycoon.

"Resorts World at Sentosa understands our need to maintain these probity checks and there is no issue now," Lim said Monday at the groundbreaking ceremony for Genting's US$3.4 billion casino project casino resort.

But a ministry spokeswoman on Tuesday said Lim meant that Genting understood its responsibility with regard to the suitability checks, which are necessary before winning a casino license, not that the company had been cleared to operate the casino.

The government was apparently concerned over Genting's Macau business tie-up with casino baron Stanley Ho, one of the most powerful men in Hong Kong and Macau, a gambling enclave that has a reputation as an organized crime stronghold.

In response, Genting sold its share of the Macau investment to its partner, Star Cruises, and then bought Star Cruises' stake in the Singapore resort.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Updated: Double joy for Goh Tong

Malaysian casino founder Lim Goh Tong (The Star pix) has plenty to celebrate although he now looks very frail. On Sunday, he celebrated his 90th birthday. Although he is now in a wheelchair, there is still plenty of public display of filial piety.

According to New Straits Times, second son Kok Thay, who is now the chief of the casino group, helped the father to receive a congratulatory call from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. And his 28-year-old grandson Justin Leong, who is Genting’s youngest director, reportedly pledged to donate his salary to charity and receive a token pay of RM1 for one year as a tribute to the old man.

Another sweet piece of news to Goh Tong is the ground-breaking for the Singapore casino project, which was mired in controversy following the deal with Macau casino king Stanley Ho earlier this year. Genting held its ground-breaking ceremony at Sentosa today.

Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Lim Hng Kiang reportedly said that the probity check over Genting's partnership with Stanley is no longer an issue. Regulatory alarm bell went off when Genting tied up with Stanley, who is apparently linked to the triads in Macau, in the Sentosa resort and casino project. Genting has since severed its link to Stanley in the Sentosa project. But probity check on any new casino project in Singapore is still needed going forward as the actual casino licence will only be issued when the integrated resort project is substantially completed.

Can the new Genting generation be as steady as the old man? The Stanley Ho episode shows that Genting’s younger generation will still need to tread carefully although its Singapore casino project is now back on track.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Dr Johor Sultan

It's rather surprising that there has been little public debate on the merits of Singapore's move in conferring an honorary doctorate to the controversial Sultan of Johor (left in pix from NUS).

The National University of Singapore conferred the Honorary Doctor of Laws on the Sultan of Johor, Sultan Iskandar Sultan Ismail, in Singapore tonight.

NUS said it was given in recognition of his "integral and unique role in nurturing the development and prosperity of the State of Johor, Singapore's closest neighbour and strategic partner; as well as his enduring contribution to the longstanding bilateral relations between Singapore and Malaysia and those of Singapore and Johor."

Sounds great, but many people will remember his rather mixed track record. Could there be other reasons in giving the Sultan the award? Whatever the other reasons are, Singapore didn't give away too much.

The Sultan's ancestor gave Singapore away for a song. Singapore gave the current Sultan an honorary title.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Hong Kong election

Sophie is still speechless over the BIG JUMP in the salary of Singapore ministers. She has taken a vow of silence for another day.

In the meantime, let Uncle Cheng do the talking, not about Singapore but about the recent election in Hong Kong. Hong Kong may not have such highly paid government officials compared to Singapore but universal suffrage is still an alien concept in the special administrative region of China.

By Uncle Cheng

Last Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day weather wise if nothing else. It also happened to be election day and it obviously came as no surprise that our Chief Executive (Xinhua Photo: Hong Kong chief executive Donald Tsang Yam Kuen waves hands in Hong Kong, south China, March 25, 2007) was elected by a large margin. Indeed, it would have been a massive shock to the system if the result had been otherwise.

Like most of Hong Kong’s population I watched the electioneering process during the past few weeks. Even though the eventual result was totally predictable, I believe this election marks a very healthy and pivotal stage in Hong Kong’s constitutional development. As one impartial observer remarked to me, this first-ever semi-contested election has demonstrated just what a fully contested election might be like. It was like a maiden flight of a new aeroplane to demonstrate its airworthiness.

The big question in my mind remains where in the world can you find a truly contested election where the result is totally unpredictable? Unexpected election results are exceedingly rare events. Perhaps the presidential election in the United States that brought George Bush to power counts as an unexpected result in the sense that, after weeks of delay and procrastination, it was not the people of the United States who made the final decision but the nine judges of the Supreme Court of the United States — none of whom is democratically elected.

Those nine justices are in fact appointed by Presidents and it is common knowledge that Republican Presidents usually nominate Republican judges and Democratic Presidents choose fellow Democrats.

Returning to Asia I find it hard to recall any election in recent years which has delivered an unexpected result. Wherever opinion polls are used election results become even more predictable because opinion polls have become a highly refined science able to predict both voter turnout and voting intentions with scientific accuracy. You could even argue that opinion polls could replace actual elections!

Hong Kong’s election last Sunday fits into this pattern. Everyone knew what the election result was going to be. It was simply impossible for Donald Tsang to be denied victory. Why then all the fuss from the democratic camp that the election was a farce? The democrats make it sound as if the result surprised them.

For myself I see the election very differently. It was a part, an important part as well, in the process of Hong Kong’s constitutional development. I did not witness anything farcical or surprising. The results was predictable as any elections anywhere. Like all elections the result was known beforehand.

Of course, the true basis of the bitter democratic condemnation of the election is disappointment that universal suffrage is taking such a long time to arrive. Democratic campaigners are disappointed that they could not stand as candidates at the election, but where were their voices before 1st July 1997?

The big question is whether this exercise in political predictability was good or bad for democratic development. Was Alan Leong's quixotic challenge a sign of progress? Were the more extreme democrats right to scorn what they called Leong's hopeless candidacy?

It was interesting that the protest march by the Civil Human Rights Front could only muster less than 5,000 supporters. Universal suffrage hardly seems to be a burning issue for Hong Kong's citizens. Perhaps the population at large take the sensible view that the existing system has served Hong Kong well. Society and the economy are in a good condition.

I also suspect that the public have been pleasantly surprised by Donald Tsang electioneering performance --- "Bow Tie versus Pocket Square". Increasingly, as the weeks went by the Chief Executive appeared more and more in charge of his brief and confident.

A fully democratic election under universal suffrage would have returned the same result!

The truth is Hong Kong constitutional system remains a work in progress. Stay tuned!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Speechless Sophie

Sophie is speechless over the big hike in Singapore ministers' salary announced today. So she shall keep quiet today. :-(

Readers can read this little exchange instead.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Of fast cars and slow trains

Pix source: Formula One at Sepang (top) courtesy of Malaysia's Shukor Janis of Shuk Photo, and KTM (bottom) from Wikipedia

The race is on for Singapore to narrow the gap with Malaysia in the Formula One arena. Singapore is set to sign a deal to host F1 in a couple of weeks -- some eight years after Malaysia joined the F1 circuit.

Many people, including some commentators in Singapore, had criticised former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad's decision to build a first-class track in the middle of the jungle. The Sepang track was conveniently billed as one of his wasteful mega projects.

But many people have come around to accept the wisdom of hosting the F1 event as a necessary tourist magnet.

Unlike many competitive areas between the two countries due to their proximity, there is room to host the big event in the two nearby capitals. As pointed out by Dr Mahathir's second son Mokhzani Mahathir in The Straits Times today, the races in Malaysia must not be held back to back. Mokhzani, who was instrumental in bringing F1 to Malaysia together with his father, said the races in Singapore and Malaysia must be held at different ends of the eight-month racing calendar. Malaysia at the start and Singapore at the end, he said.

Sounds reasonable to make it more appealing to fans who won't want to be under the equatorial sun for two straight races. And there two other key aspects to differentiate the two racing venues -- Singapore is likely to have street racing versus a closed circuit in Malaysia; and night racing in Singapore versus day racing in Sepang.

While the two countries are likely to see cars going at more than 300 km an hour outside Kuala Lumpur and in Singapore, we will have to wait for some time before we can see a fast train zipping from Singapore to KL at over 300 km. The two governments are still studying the proposal by
YTL to build a bullet train from KL to Singapore, cutting travel time to just 90 minutes from the current 8-hour snail ride provided by Keretapi Tanah Melayu (KTM).

According to Malaysia's
The Business Times today, German engineering expert Siemens is keen to be the technology provider for the proposed high-speed train project linking the capitals of Malaysia and Singapore.

Tim Hunter, Siemens' new head of rail for Malaysia, painted an interesting route the proposed train service could take.

"Ideally, it would begin from KL Sentral, linking the airport and Johor Baru and Changi Airport - that would make sense to me because inter-modal exchanges are most important."

What a great route! One can hop from one airport to another in 90 minutes or so.

But he also noted a complication. He said the existing KTM routes would have to be upgraded significantly, as would the causeway crossing. The existing causeway linking JB and Singapore could well be the deciding factor for the entire project. There are many
complications in the cross-border fast train link.

While we continue to wait for a faster train service linking KL and Singapore, we can get a taste of speed at 300 km from watching Formula One cars on Singapore's streets one day.

PS: Interesting trivia in the ST report today: When Dr Mahathir and Mokhzani met F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone in 1995, Mokhzani said his father offered to build a circuit to host the Malaysian leg. Mr Ecclestone stood up and offered his hand.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Malaysian bloggers united

Malaysian bloggers are rejoicing over their establishment of the first association for bloggers following the lawsuit against two household names. The so-called National Alliance of Bloggers is led by President Ahirudin Attan or better known as Rocky, Vice President Jeff Ooi, and Secretary Nuraina A. Samad.

They have many supporters such as the artistic kickdefella (who created the poster of Rocky) and prolific Susan Loone. The popular bloggers Rocky and Jeff are embroiled in a landmark suit with New Straits Times and associates.

According to Rocky, the Alliance will not exist just in cyberspace or blogosphere. It will have a physical premise, office bearers, and subscription-paying members, just like any other registered societies.

Its main objectives will be to help protect bloggers and promote blogging.

It's definitely a right move to set up such an institution, which will add more clout to bloggers in Malaysia although the outcome of the defamation suit is still pending.

I wonder whether there's room for a Singapore chapter or a completely new club for the fast growing number of bloggers in Singapore.

Bloggers in Singapore may also face more lawsuits one day.

Still need passport

Malaysia has scrapped the plan for two passport-free zones in the southern Johor state (Photo from VnExpress) next to Singapore, according to reports. The move followed criticism by former Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad that such zones could compromise the country's sovereignty. Please see excerpt of ST report below:

The two zones - one was to be set up on each side of the Causeway - would have allowed Singaporeans and other foreigners to move in and out without having to get their passports stamped.

The idea aimed to attract Singaporeans and other Singapore-based foreigners who were in the market for cheaper housing, dining and entertainment.

But the issue turned out to be a political hot potato. Some Malaysians feared such zones would reduce Malaysia's control over its territory.

Dr Mahathir went even further.

Responding to a question on the plan for a passport-free zone in the South Johor Economic Region, he said the idea was like giving up sovereignty to other countries.

'If we allow this...then it means it is not our territory any more. Many types of people enter Singapore,' he said at that time. 'They have an Israeli Embassy there. It means even Jews can come in.'

Malaysia does not have diplomatic ties with Israel as it is a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, so such statements stirred up anger.

Hints of trouble surfaced when Dr Mahathir played the nationalist and anti-Singapore card in January this year. The passport-free zone is just one component of the grand plan called Iskandar to develop southern Johor. With or without the passport-free zones, the entire development blueprint is still fraught with difficulties despite the grand vision.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Updated: Blood Sand?

Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo calling on State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) Secretary-1 Lieutenant-General (LG) Thein Sein in Nay Pyi Taw on 3 April 2007.
(Pix source: Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Singapore is truly pragmatic in its foreign policy. The Straits Times on April 3 played up the story that Myanmar is offering to be a long-term supplier of sand and other key building materials to Singapore.

But what has not been analysed is the expected balance of benefits in such a deal with a rogue state like Myanmar. Sand is no basic commodity in Singapore. Singapore needs plenty of land sand for its construction sector and an equally substantial amount of sea sand for its on-going land reclamation works to enlarge the physical island. But it is in short supply in Singapore following the ban on the sale of land and sea sand to Singapore by traditional suppliers Malaysia and Indonesia in the last decade. Please see earlier postings.

Therefore, Singapore is likely to take up the Myanmar offer, which is likely to come at a premium. It's probably a done deal. Diplomats don't make such announcements unless they are quite certain of the outcome.

What will Myanmar want in return? According to the Singapore MFA statement, Lieutenant-General Thein Sein, First Secretary of Myanmar's ruling State Peace and Development Council, "encouraged" more Singapore companies to invest in Myanmar.

We can definitely expect some big Singapore investments flowing to Myanmar as part of the quid pro quo with the junta regime. What is conspicuously absent in the short news report is Myanmar's status as a pariah state and the political implications of the sand deal. Singapore Patriot has mentioned some of the things I wanted to say.

Will the Myanmar sand deal be awkward for Asean? The deal with Myanmar is also coming at a time when Singapore will assume the Asean chairmanship in August this year. The grouping still can't agree on a right approach to deal with junta regime, which has hijacked democracy and refused to free iconic leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Is Singapore acting purely on its self interest, or will it be enlightened enough to use the opportunity to convince the Myanmar generals to release Aung with promises of a balance of benefits?

If successful, Singapore will earn plenty of brownie points in the international arena. It would achieve what former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and others failed to accomplish.