Monday, May 28, 2007

Johor a safe haven?

The Malaysian government has been going on the offensive to show that it's determined to fight crimes in the country, especially in crime-infested Johor which is next to Singapore.

According to reports, the southern state of Johor actually saw a drop of 8.9 per cent so far this year in serious crimes such as murders, muggings and extortion. Property crimes such as carjackings and burglaries dropped by 6.73 per cent in the same period.

Well, dad and I are not totally convinced that the crime rate in the state is on a real downward trend. Not when crime rates in the state had gone up by double-digit rates in the past. Even the fuming Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum (NST Pix) accused the police of manipulating crime rate figures to confuse the public, according to New Straits Times last month.

A report even said that the crime rate in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur shot up by a mind-boggling 40 per cent in the first three months of this year. And KL seems like a safer place than Johor Baru as there are more transient residents and visitors in the latter.

No doubt, Malaysia is trying to contain the crime situation in Johor as the federal and state governments step up efforts to woo Singapore and other foreign investors to the Iskandar Development Region.

But as mentioned in an earlier posting, former Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew was definitely correct when he said in a defamation suit in 1997 that Johor was "notorious for shootings, muggings and car-jackings".

So dad will remain sceptical about the current blitz against crime until he is certain that he can drive in JB, KL or elsewhere in Malaysia without having to lock his car, like in Singapore.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Dr M out of hospital

Former Malaysian leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad has been discharged from hospital after another heart attack, according to Reuters report on Gulf Times and pix.

Sophie is happy and relieved.

Updated: Singapore twister

The water sprout off the east coast of Singapore yesterday captured the attention and imagination of many office workers in the central business district. Many became instant citizen journalists and sent their mobile phone pix and video clips to local media organisations. Some of the footage emerged at ST Interactive. A better video clip can be seen on LiveLeak via mr brown.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Memories of old Sikkim and Tibet

By Uncle Cheng

Last week a good friend of mine in Hong Kong sent me the obituary of Mrs Eleanor Hopkinson. I very much doubt any of my readers have ever heard of Mrs Hopkinson but my friend knew I would be interested as it brought back many happy and sad memories of the time when Sikkim was an independent state and I was the last house guest in the royal palace there before India brutally annexed the tiny kingdom in 1975. Sikkim then became India’s 22nd federal state.

Mrs Hopkinson, who has died aged 101, was the wife of the last British colonial Political Officer and Resident for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. She was the last link with a now distant past. Her husband was like a colonial Governor atop the high Himalaya mountains. Through his office the British exerted powerful influence without needing actually to annexe the mountain territories. In those imperial days British policy was to preserve Tibet as an autonomous buffer between the Soviet Union, China, and British India.

Luckily for posterity the Hopkinsons were keen photographers and kept a wonderful photographic record of their extensive travels in the most remote areas of Tibet. Their photographic archive, including some very early and rare colour slides, were given to the British Museum by Mrs Hopkinson and many of the photographs can be viewed online at Tibet Album. No doubt quite a few of my readers have visited Tibet and I strongly recommend you to take a look at those online photographs, which reveal just how much Tibet has changed in the last 70 years.

These historic photographs also brought back memories for me of the days when I travelled with the then Crown Prince of Sikkim from the capital Gangtok up to the border with Chinese Tibet. It is an area of extraordinary majestic beauty with landscapes on a vast scale.

One historical irony is that the British protected Sikkim from its powerful neighbours in the past when Sikkim was considered to be an important trading route from India to Tibet because it controls almost the only north-south mountain pass in the area. Today Sikkim has again become a strategic border and trade route between India and China. A new highway has been constructed so that the once arduous and very slow journey into Tibet Mrs Hopkinson once had to make on horseback can now be done in the luxurious high-speed comfort of a Toyota Landcruiser.

Mrs Hopkinson’s death brings down the final curtain on a forgotten era.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sophie's Choice Today

Former Malaysian strongman Dr Mahathir Mohamad looks good despite his heart attack last week, based on news reports and this AFP picture carried in the online version of The Straits Times today.

According to wire reports, the National Heart Institute said Dr Mahathir has been transferred out of the cardiac care unit to a regular ward after doctors were happy with his progress. But he will continue to be warded for continued monitoring and to start "cardiac rehabilitation".

National news agency Bernama cited Dr Mahathir as saying that he was feeling much better, but he acknowledged that he would have to ease up on his schedule on doctors' advice.

Sophie agrees! It's unfortunate he has to ease up due to health concerns although he has plenty of unfinished business as an Asian statesman.

On a separate matter, Sophie will start a new section called Sophie's Choice Today to highlight some interesting news reports or postings of the day by other bloggers to supplement her own postings. It's not a scientific process, just based on Sophie's nose for news and interesting features on both sides of the causeway, or elsewhere.

The external postings do not necessarily represent the views of Sophie. Readers are free to forward stuff to Sophie ( for consideration.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Dr M recovering, part 2

Former Malaysian premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad did suffer a heart attack earlier this week when he complained of breathing difficulties, which led to his hospitalisation. This is his second heart attack in six months and his third since 1989.

But he feels much better now, according to his aide Sufi Yusoff and press reports.

In an e-mail reply to Sophie today, Sufi said:

Dear Sophie,

I apologise for not replying to the mail earlier. Things were just zooming by and I just got swept by events the last few days.

Dr M is progressing really well now. The National Heart Institute confirms that he had a heart attack and the breathing difficulty was caused by that and a chest infection, both ailments of which are not new to him.

We had Bernama take some pictures of him today on the road to recovery. Hopefully the papers will pick it up.

Again I apologise, and thank you for your concern on Dr M.


P/s I managed to tell him that a poodle called Sophie from Singapore sent her regards... :-)

Sophie is glad that Dr Mahathir -- the longest-serving leader of Malaysia before he stepped down in 2003 -- is ok. He can walk around his room and even cracked jokes, according to the AFP report below. Hope his laughter is related to Sufi's remark about a poodle called Sophie. I ain't a poodle, I'm a schnauzer! :-)

Mahathir feels much better
Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Friday he was feeling better after suffering a heart attack earlier this week.

Mahathir said he could now walk around his room at the National Heart Institute, where he is warded, and was not feeling dizzy or having difficulty breathing, the state Bernama news agency reported.

"I feel much better now," Mahathir told Bernama. "I also have no dietary restrictions," he added.

Bernama described his mood as jovial, with the 81-year-old outspoken ex-premier cracking jokes and reading the newspaper.

Mahathir was admitted after having breathing difficulties, which doctors said on Thursday was due to lung congestion caused by a heart attack.

Mahathir said he would ease up on his schedule on the advice of his personal physician as well as the consulting cardiologist, Nasir Muda, Bernama reported.

"Dr Mahathir still needs to undergo chest physiotherapy daily and must be under doctors' observation," Nasir said, adding he would remain at the institute for a few more days. - AFP

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Vanishing islands

A couple of days ago Reuters carried an interesting report that Indonesia has so many islands it has not been able to count them all and is having a hard time finding names for them.

Officially there are about 17,000 islands, but the report said that number may drop as one minister fears hundreds of islands might vanish because of rising sea levels from global warming.

The report said the issue has become a hot topic after Indonesia upset neighbouring Singapore recently by banning sand exports to the city state, blaming sand mining for literally wiping some of its islands off the map.

Another way to capitalise on the problem is to sell some of the islands, most of which are uninhabited any way. Land-scarce but cash-rich Singapore will almost definitely be a keen buyer if Indonesian nationalism doesn't get into the way. Of course, most Indonesians will object to such a proposition due to nationalist sentiments.

But Indonesia should have sold some of the less strategic islands at the height of the regional financial crisis, instead of turning to the International Monetary Fund for help. The IMF bailout probably cost more to national pride than the loss of a few atolls.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Durian diplomacy

As expected, Malaysia and Singapore didn't resolve any outstanding bilateral problems during the first-ever retreat of the countries' leaders earlier this week.

Instead, the two leaders -- Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (left in The Straits Times pix) and Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong -- held long four-eye chats on a wide range of issues that were not fully disclosed to the public.

They had meals, rode in a buggy together and shared durians, leading Badawi to quip they were enjoying durian diplomacy!

What eventually emerged was their agreement to set up a joint ministerial committee to discuss issues related to Singapore's involvement in the Iskandar Development Region in southern Johor. According to media reports on both sides of the causeway, among the issues that will be discussed is a smart-card access system that will cut down on immigration clearance time when travelling to the IDR. Another issue is how Singapore's expertise in cleaning up rivers can be used in Johor.

That was probably the strongest news point as the two governments didn't make any headway on the bilateral front, at least not publicly.

According to The Star, Hsien Loong hinted that outstanding bilateral issues with Malaysia will be resolved through international arbitration.

Maybe, but he may have also meant that the two governments will seek an international arbiter should current efforts fail to resolve all the issues after a certain time. It's definitely unclear at this juncture if the two governments will go straight to the international court to help unwind all the long outstanding problems. It will seem a bit odd if the two governments decided to go to court immediately over the old bilateral issues after such a cordial public meeting, infused with durian diplomacy.

What is clear is that they will remain thorny problems for some time (pun intended!).

Dr M recovering

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad must surely take it easy from now on.

He's been hospitalised three times in six months. He is now recovering at the National Heart Institute in Kuala Lumpur after another worrying episode, according to a Reuters report some three hours ago.

Sophie wishes Dr M another speedy recovery.

Malaysia's former PM Mahathir recovering - son
Tue May 15, 2007 6:28 PM IST

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is recovering well at a specialist heart hospital in the capital, a day after he was taken ill with breathing difficulties, his son said on Tuesday.

Mahathir, 81, was on Tuesday flown in a private jet from the northern island of Langkawi, where he was holidaying, to the National Heart Institute for treatment.

"His condition has improved. He is cheerful and he can talk," Mahathir's youngest son, Mukhriz Mahathir, told Reuters.

He said his father might be discharged on Thursday or Friday.

The National Heart Institute said Mahathir was "awake and conscious", and had porridge for lunch.

"He remained stable with no breathing difficulties," the hospital said in a statement.

Mahathir, who ruled Malaysia for 22 years until late 2003, had suffered a mild heart attack in November last year, about six months after he launched a withering political attack on the new administration, accusing it of scrapping important state projects he had approved before retiring from office.

Mahathir, who kept a hectic schedule despite his retirement, has a history of heart trouble. He had bypass surgery in 1989.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The way of the prince

A colourful profile of Prince Alwaleed in The Raffles Conversation of The Business Times. The profile shows a shrewd and dynamic businessman, who also happens to be a prince.

But could he have made such spectacular investments without his family wealth, political partronage, and his bevy of highly paid advisors?

Business Times - 12 May 2007
The way of the prince

Legendary investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal talks to VIKRAM KHANNA about his investment philosophy and his view of risks

WHEN I enter the lobby of the Raffles Hotel at the appointed time, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is already there, seated on a sofa outside the Tiffin Room, in rapt conversation with what looks like a group of corporate executives. On the table in front of him are some papers and a laptop. On his left, there is a small flat-screen TV beaming business news. The rest of the lobby is scattered with members of his entourage, as well as some foreign television crews.

Presently, I am introduced to His Highness. He explains that he will be back in a few minutes - he wants to change out of his business suit before he heads for the airport - and meanwhile, I should talk to members of his team.

As an investor, US-educated Prince Alwaleed has a legendary reputation. Forbes magazine lists him as the world's 13th richest man, with a net worth of US$20.3 billion in 2007. He is also one of the world's most generous philanthropists, giving away at least US$100 million a year.

Although a member of the Saudi royal family (he is a nephew of the current monarch, King Abdullah), his fortune is derived from savvy investing, rather than oil wealth. Over the last decade and a half, there have been regular reports of his investments - invariably big, bold bets: US$590 million in 1991 in Citicorp, of which he is the single largest shareholder; US$600 million in News Corp over 1997-99, which made him the second largest shareholder in the global media giant after the Murdoch family; more than US$1 billion in what is now Time Warner; a major stake in the Walt Disney Company; a US$115 million (5 per cent) stake in Apple Computer in 1997, when analysts had a 'sell' rating on the company; major stakes in HP, Kodak and Motorola - to name but a few. Time magazine once described him as 'the Arabian Warren Buffett'.

In the hotel industry, the prince is the largest shareholder in the Four Seasons, Movenpick and Fairmont chains. Thanks to his holdings in Fairmont (together with Colony Capital) which was combined with Raffles Hotels and Resorts, the prince has effectively become the controlling shareholder of the Raffles Hotel. In Singapore alone, Prince Alwaleed's companies own or manage eight major hotels. He has a special eye for iconic hotels around the world: he also owns the George V Hotel in downtown Paris, the Plaza in New York, the Savoy in London and the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo.

Tim Hansing, an affable Englishman who is senior vice-president for acquisitions and development at Kingdom Hotel Investments (the prince's hotel arm), tells me they plan to take the Raffles brand far and wide - to Danang in Vietnam, Manila in the Philippines and Phang Na in Thailand. 'And that will be just a beginning,' he says. 'We're only taxiing now, the plane has yet to take off.'

Mr Hansing also tells me something of Prince Alwaleed's working style. 'His Highness is open for business twenty-four seven,' he says. He does not interfere in the management of the companies or hotels he acquires. 'If there's a problem, our approach is - helicopter in, fix the problem and helicopter out.'

The prince is also both a big-picture person and someone with an eye for detail. He is a devout Muslim, but also liberal and 'gender blind'. His personal pilot is a woman. So is his chief of corporate communications and the head of his charitable foundation.

When it comes to making acquisitions, says Mr Hansing, 'we don't look for good deals'. 'Good deals are for brokers. We look for extraordinary deals.'

Presently, the prince arrives. Trim and fit, dressed in a casual shirt and slacks, he looks younger than his 52 years. His speech is rapid, impassioned, peppered with facts and figures. While he talks, he holds a sobha, or rosary, between his fingers.

We are doing the interview with about a dozen people huddled around and listening intently: his aides, some of his top executives, and other media people. Behind me, television cameras start to roll. The prince seems unperturbed and fully focused.

I start with a general question about how this latest oil boom has changed the Middle East. What is different this time, compared with previous booms?

'Let me talk about Saudi Arabia,' he says. 'In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia accumulated a lot of debt. The total debt reached 660 million riyals. So, right now, when Saudi Arabia is reaping surpluses in the budget, the bulk of the money is going to pay down the debt. It's now 45 per cent of GDP. At its peak, it was 120 per cent of GDP.

'Also, more money is being spent on infrastructure projects - human infrastructure, like training, schools, universities. They have learned many lessons: during the oil boom of the 1970s, there was a lot of waste. But in this oil boom, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries are really spending their money more prudently and in areas that need attention.'

I ask the prince - who is known for his politically liberal views in his own country - why Saudi Arabia's economic prosperity does not seem to have led to greater political liberalisation, as one might expect.

'There are political reforms for sure,' he says. 'But the yardstick for the movement of reforms should not be the same as for other nations. Saudi Arabia is in a unique situation. Just like Singapore is in a unique situation. The democracy you have in Singapore is in no way comparable to the democracy you have in the United States and Europe.

'And the kind of liberalisation that is taking place on the political, economic and business front in Saudi Arabia is moving pretty rapidly, although in international terms, it may not be as quick as needed. But by Saudi norms, it's moving very well. Saudi Arabia is a very conservative society, so it takes time for the king and the ruling family to make changes that can trickle down to society and have them approved, accepted and implemented.'

'King Abdullah is a reformer,' he continues. 'If you look at the history of King Abdullah, he has always been reform-minded. I sit down with him and I know how he thinks. I am happy with what he is doing. But what he is implementing has to be in parallel with what the conservative society that prevails in Saudi Arabia can absorb.'

Our conversation turns to the prince's investments. I ask him first how he defines an 'extraordinary investment' of the sort Mr Hansing has mentioned. He nods, as if agreeing that it's exactly what he looks for. 'It means that the company we are looking at has an edge, the entry barriers are very high, and that it can withstand cyclical events or economic downturns,' he says. 'Let's take our holding in Citigroup. It is in 103 countries. It has equity of about US$100 billion. It has assets of US$1.5 trillion. It yields more than US$25 billion of profits every year. Where can you find another bank which can replicate that? It's almost impossible. The entry barrier is so high. The second biggest bank is not even half-way towards Citibank.

'Or let's take the media industry, and News Corp. I am the second biggest holder in News Corp with around 8 per cent equity. There are many localised media companies. But there is no one global media company in the world that matches News Corp. It's in North America, South America, Europe, the Far East and Australia. So, the entry barrier is again too high for anyone to compete.

'Now, take hotels. The Four Seasons. It is the No 1 brand in the world. It is present in five continents. Where can you find another company which, after 50 years, has built such a reputation?

'The George V in Paris, the Plaza in New York, the Raffles in Singapore: Where can you have another Raffles? Even if someone builds one, how can they compete with the history and the heritage? Where can you get another George V? Where can you get another Plaza? It's not going to happen. Not in our lifetime, not in a generation. So these are unique properties. That's what I mean. I look for unique opportunities.

'And these companies, they can also withstand a lot of heat. For example, Citigroup went through a lot of turbulence and bad publicity, but it's still there. It can withstand problems and take off again.'

Unlike a regular fund manager, Prince Alwaleed is renowned for holding on to his investments for a long time rather than taking profit - even when big profits are there for the taking. I ask him why.

'If I had sold my shares in the Four Seasons or Citigroup or News Corp or if I had sold George V Hotel four years ago, I would not be able to reap the full benefits,' he explains. 'These are assets that grow with time. It's not that they've fully matured.

'I do have a trading portfolio as well. I do buy and sell hotels in the United States, for example. But assets like George V and the Raffles, they are unique, they can't be duplicated.'

Attracted as he is to unique, iconic assets, the prince stresses that he's an investor first and foremost. 'It isn't just sentiment; we also look for them to be profitable,' he says. 'The George V, when I bought it about seven years ago, was a three-star hotel from the service point of view. It was not even among the top 1,000 hotels in the world. After we bought it, we shut it down. Then we brought in the management company of Four Seasons. And after a year, George V was ranked the best hotel in the world, and it has remained the best for the next six years. And guess what? It's now valued at about 10 times more - 1,000 per cent more - than the price we bought it at. And we haven't seen the best yet.'

About the Raffles, Prince Alwaleed says: 'We own about 60 per cent. And to the people of Singapore, I would like to say, we are proud to have this jewel of Singapore as part of our portfolio. I compare this hotel to the George V in downtown Paris, the Plaza in downtown New York, and the Savoy in London.'

'Earlier today, I met the President, the Prime Minister and the Senior Minister of Singapore, and I said, rest assured, the Raffles is in very safe hands. And they said, we're happy to have it in safe hands, and Saudi Arabian hands.

'We will develop it further. We have the basic infrastructure here - the name, the reputation, the heritage, the history, the culture. Maybe we need to fine-tune a few things, but I think the basics are in place. And this asset, it is not for sale.'

We turn to the general economic investment landscape. Prince Alwaleed says he is optimistic about the global economy. 'Yes, you are going to have clashes here and there. But in general, there's a lot of tailwind, a lot of competition between nations to grow their economies.'

Where does he see the most interesting investment opportunities in the next three years? 'In Africa, the Middle East and the Far East,' he says. 'That's where my emphasis is now. Selectively, there are opportunities in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and North America - like hotel George V - and not all opportunities in the Far East are good; you have to be selective.'
'But if you set an IRR (internal rate of return) threshold of 20 per cent and above, this automatically eliminates many investments, it takes a lot of the risky and scary ones out.'

On the main risks facing investors, Prince Alwaleed says: 'The world is abundant in cash. There is excess cash, especially in the Far East - some two trillion dollars. So, the big risk is you may have bubbles. There is also the risk of a terrorist attack, God forbid.

'And with globalisation, any small issue can have wider implications. The world has become very small, so a ripple effect can happen with a financial catastrophe or a national catastrophe, like a tsunami, for example, or a terrorist attack. We are not risk-free at all. But when you make an investment, you have to make sure that risks are mitigated or controlled as much as possible.'

Finally, I ask whether he will be making further investments in Singapore. 'For sure, I would not rule out potential investments here,' he says. 'You have all the ingredients for a successful investment - safety, security, freedom of capital, a liberal economy.

'But we already have many assets here. The Raffles, we own. The Four Seasons, we manage; the Regent, we manage; we have two Swissotels, my company Kingdom Holdings International has its office here . . . I was told today by the Prime Minister that I should have honorary citizenship here.'

''But he doesn't know I already have it,' he says with a smile. 'I have it in my heart.'

All in a day's work

AS with his investments, so too with his daily routine. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is driven, disciplined, precise. Whether at home in Riyadh, or on the road, he lives his life like someone who has little time to waste. Apart from time spent with his family, which is precious, he allows himself little, if any, leisure.

His average day goes like this, he says:

'I wake up every day at 10 am. I read for one hour, watch the news. Then, I go to the office for five hours. After that, I have a break for three hours, which is the time I spend with my family - my family is very sacred to me.

'I go back to the office in the evening, for another four to five hours. Then, I return home around 1am and I immediately go for my exercise - walking, swimming or jogging - for one hour. After I have my shower, I read some more, watch the news again, and write all my reports - political reports, economic reports. And I read my papers, and decide what I will do the next day. All that is for two hours.

'Dinner? Usually, I have only a salad in the evening, but I have a big lunch. I sleep after my fajr prayers (the first of the five daily prayers recited by Muslims). I sleep from 5am to 10 am. So basically, I work around 13-14 hours a day.'

When the prince travels, every hour is accounted for. He asks one of his aides to show me the schedule of his current trip, which is circulated to every member of his entourage. 'As you can see, our travelling schedule is very tight, very disciplined,' he points out. 'We do one month's work in one week. For example, on this trip, we are covering the Maldives, Bali, Jakarta, Singapore, Langkawi, Phuket, Philippines, Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai and Beijing. Eleven places. My trip to these places is a blend of business, politics and finance. And some leisure.'

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Day and night

Singapore has scored a big coup in the Formula One arena although it's a latecomer in the game.

The government announced yesterday that Singapore will host the F1 race for five years from 2008 onwards, pitching it as the first-ever night race in the world. The race will be based on a street circuit as seen in the map in The Business Times today.

But there is also a sense that all the parties have not ironed out all the kinks in the rush to wrap up the deal. For instance, maverick businessman and race promoter Ong Beng Seng was cited in BT as saying there are problems related to 'the money part' -- the street circuit and leakages from buildings around the route. Leakages refer to the problem of people who don't buy a ticket but instead watch the race from a hotel room or even from the many offices overlooking the city circuit.

Another big headache could be the timing of the race. All the race promoters have so far positioned the Singapore F1 as the first-ever night race.

But Singapore's Minister of State for Trade and Industry S. Iswaran has added a qualifier that could prove problematic to the F1 calendar.

"We will proceed with a night race only if the safety and operational requirements of all parties are fully met. If not, we will revert to a day race."

Formula One Management boss Bernie Ecclestone was quick to dismiss the possibility of day race.

"I think we can stop discussing the possibility of the race during the day. I've spoken to the people who have been checking things out and we have no doubt that there has been no problem at all with the safety."

Why is Bernie so adamant in having night racing despite valid concerns about safety?

At the same time, nearby Malaysia is also exploring the possibility of night racing at its closed circuit in Sepang when its current contract expires in 2010. Malaysia, which has been hosting F1 since 1999, will sign its new contract in the next few weeks.

While Singapore has clinched the right to host the prestigious event, it's still unclear if Singapore will indeed clinch the honour of being the first venue to have night racing for cars zooming at 300km per hour.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Free Economy

By Uncle Cheng

“Nothing in life is free”. We have all heard people say that. Yet I am beginning to wonder if it is still true. Nowadays so many things seem to be free. It is a perplexing phenomenon of the modern world.

Evidently it is a strict law of economics that somebody somewhere always has to pick up the bill — i.e. nothing is ever free of charge. But how to explain then the free newspapers and free telephone calls that are thrown at us? It seems the public are being showered with goods and information for which we are not being asked to pay a cent. We are living in an amazing economy full of freebies.

Wherever you look goods and information, which we once had to pay for, are now available for free. It is not just free newspapers on the MTR. When did you last have to buy a ballpoint pen, a diary or a calendar? DVDs are given to us as promotional items or we can buy them for virtually nothing.

Of course the internet is the biggest driver of this free economy. It is an odd paradox that in this age when intellectual property matters more than ever before in history, digital information is increasingly free. The internet is full of free articles, videos, and vast archives of data. Dictionaries, books, images and just about anything imaginable are legally available for free on the internet. Why buy a dictionary when it can be sourced free on the web?

Then there is something called “open-source” free software like Linux which means computer users no longer have to buy expensive Microsoft software. Email addresses, which used to be charged for, are now free. Computer memory is now available for free from Yahoo and Google.

These changes are happening at an astonishing speed. Not many years ago it could cost HK$20 a minute to phone overseas. Such a cost today is unimaginable. In fact we can now use the internet to make phone calls free of charge. Google’s CEO, who should know about such things, says mobile phones will be complimentary items financed by advertisers. An American professor predicts phone calls to any destination worldwide will cost the same minimal price, which in the case of the U.S. means between 1 and 2 US cents a minute. That would mean the cost of calling Guangzhou from Hong Kong would be the same to Buenos Aires.

I also read that even food is being given away. Tesco supermarkets in Europe have been distributing free tins of beans. Websites enable consumers to check where food is free (freesite or ourfreestuff).

Where the free economy is having by far the biggest effect is in the world of intellectual property. The cost of distributing information has quite simply crashed. Think of it like this. If you read a publication on the internet it does not matter to the publisher if you are one of 1,000 readers or one of 1 million readers — the cost is the same. Maybe it is only a matter of time before all intellectual property is free of charge.

Old accounting methods are being turned upside down. Financial institutions used to sell investment analysis but give it away free. An internet user who prints a newspaper article bears the cost that was once borne by the publisher. A whole new business world is being created at record speed. A new invention is the “freemium,” which is a marketing ploy to tempt consumers with free items before selling then extras at premium high prices. The phone website Skype has a neat trick — members call one another for nothing but must pay to call non-members. Publishers have learnt that readers of their free-to-view websites can be made to pay for special interest items like football games.

Unfortunately there are some prices that are immune to the internet. Restaurants for example. The cost of eating out just goes up and up. I will be horrified when a meal in my favourite restaurant costs $1,000 a head and it will be little consolation that the cost of a hour-long phone call to San Francisco is only $10.

Sophie's note: Sigh, Sophie has been blogging for free. Sophie has not earned any money to buy dog biscuits, which are not free in the real or virtual world.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Slave on a mission

It's quite heartening to see more young people increasingly involved in social work.

The pix shows a former "slave" of dad and a little girl as part of her recent church mission to Colombia. Slave has obviously brought joy to the little girl and many other kids during the mission.

Dad should do some volunteer work too.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Malaysia's brain drain or trouble drain?

There's nothing new about Malaysia's massive brain drain woes, especially to neighbouring Singapore. Malaysia's Tony Pua (pix from his blog) wrote about it eloquently in an article that was first published in the country's New Straits Times. The article subsequently appeared in Singapore's The Straits Times.

What Tony said is true. He lamented at how the Malaysian economy is marginally bigger than resource-scarce Singapore although the island is 480 times smaller than Malaysia. He pointed out that while Malaysia’s economy of US$130 billion is still larger than Singapore’s US$117 billion, the latter is only smaller by some 11 per cent.

"And if the rate of growth currently experienced in both countries persists for the next decade, then our tiny neighbour could soon boast a larger economy than Malaysia," Tony wrote.

He said that it all boils down to one simple single factor — human capital. Or more precisely, Singapore's "near compulsive obsession" with human capital, both in terms of enhancing its local citizenry as well as attracting the best foreign talent. This, Tony said, has probably resulted in Singapore having the highest concentration of top brains per square foot in the region, if not the world.

Tony should know Singapore well. He founded Singapore-listed IT company Cyber Village and is now the economic adviser to Lim Guan Eng, who is the secretary-general of Malaysia's opposition party Democratic Action Party.

But what was not mentioned explicitly in the article was Malaysia's race-based policy known as the bumiputra policy. The point was probably left out deliberately to help avoid stirring the hornet's nest in Malaysia, which is always emotionally charged when it comes to racial and religious issues.

The bumiputra policy, which was aimed at improving the livelihood of the predominant Malay community after the racial riots in 1969, has simply alienated many non-Malays in the country. The policy has persisted until today although the social re-engineering policy was supposed to have a shelf life of twenty years.

It's therefore unsurprising that many Malaysians -- especially Chinese and Indians -- have moved to Singapore and elsewhere. Some have given up their Malaysian citizenship, as mentioned in Tony's article.

Tony -- who has a degree in Philosophy, Politics & Economics from Oxford University --correctly pointed out that Malaysia must do more to boost the "all-important qualitative element of uncompromising search for the best-qualified educators and an education policy which rewards academic rigour, critical thinking and analytical intelligence."

But will the Malaysian government do so? I doubt it despite all the rhetoric.

After so many years, there is still a lingering feeling that the Malay political leadership sees the outflow of Chinese and Indians to Singapore and elsewhere not as a brain drain.

The outflow of well-educated non-Malays is probably still seen as a "trouble drain; it drains trouble out of Malaysia," as quipped by the late Malaysian PM Tun Razak in the 1970s. The quote was captured in former Singapore PM Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Grand old Shanghai

Uncle Fatso has reached Shanghai and is waxing lyrical about the city. Hope he can send more pix to show the people in the bustling city, and the grandeur of the city and the Bund.

By Uncle Fatso in Shanghai

Shanghai, with a population of more than 18.8 million people, is one of the most populous and developed cities in the People's Republic of China.

The city -- situated on the estuary of Yangtze River or Chang Jiang -- had an early start. It was already the largest and most prosperous city in Asia by the 1930s.

Known as "the Oriental Paris", Shanghai is a shopper's paradise. It has also emerged as the financial capital of China. In the early 1990s, the Shanghai government launched a series of new strategies to attract foreign investments. The biggest move was to open up Pudong, once a rural area of Shanghai. The strategies succeeded, and now Pudong has become the financial district of Shanghai, with a lot of skyscrapers.

But Shanghai has become one of the the most polluted cities in the world due to rapid and unbridled industrial development in the past few years.

Nevertheless, Shanghai is still a fascinating mix of East and West. It has one of the richest collections of art deco buildings in the world, thanks to its legacy as a Western concession at the turn of the 20th century.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Cuti-Cuti Singapura*

(Pix: Singapore's main shopping thoroughfare Orchard Road during a Christmas light-up in 2005. Source: Wikipedia). *Cuti-Cuti means holiday in Malay. The title of this post is a little play on words on Malaysia's tourism drive called Cuti-Cuti Malaysia. Singapura is, of course, the Malay name of Singapore.

Will we ever see the reversal in the flow of tourists between Singapore and Malaysia?

Traditionally, more Singaporeans visit Malaysia than vice versa due to many reasons. One reason is the mighty Singapore dollar, which stretches the spending power of Singaporeans across the causeway at the current exchange rate of more than RM2.20 for each S$1. Apart from the strong Sing dollar, many Malaysians have been deterred from shopping in Singapore over the years due to the rapid development of its own shopping landscape.

But Singapore has come up with a creative way to target visitors from its closest neighbour, with a foreign exchange angle.

According to an advertisement and news reports, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) said Malaysians could enjoy selected tourist destinations in Singapore at half price between May 25 and June 30.

The selected attractions include the Singapore Zoo, Sentosa island and even a ride on the big DHL balloon in the middle of the city, according to a full-page ad placed in Malaysian newspapers over the weekend.

STB Southern Malaysia area director Alfred Poon said Malaysians who wanted to take a ride on the Singapore River, for example, would pay RM12 (S$5.30) instead of S$12, according to The Star. To qualify for the offer, Malaysians will have to produce their passports with valid embarkation cards. Malaysians can either pay discounted fares in RM or the equivalent in S$.

The trick may just work in the short term. But in the longer term, Singapore and Malaysia must make it even easier for greater cross-border movement of people in order to generate more tourist activities on both sides of the causeway.

Will Singapore scrap the vehicle entry fee for Malaysian cars entering Singapore? Will Singapore eventually allow a less restrictive and direct bus service from Senai Airport in Johor to Singapore? Will Singapore and Malaysia scrap the toll rates at the causeway and the Second Link?

Will the proposed bullet train service between the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and Singapore take off? Will the proposed MRT network in the southern Malaysian city of Johor Baru be connected to Singapore?

Will budget airlines be allowed to compete freely with Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines when the popular KL-Singapore route is liberalised next year?

Will yachts and ships be allowed to sail more freely between the two countries without being delayed by immigration checks in the middle of the seas by coast guards in patrol boats?

Apart from better infrastructure, both sides must improve immigration clearance at the causeway, the clogged artery linking Singapore and Malaysia.

And lastly, will Singapore and Malaysia jumpstart the bridge project to replace the ageing causeway?