Tuesday, July 31, 2007

S'pore's bubbly property market, part 2

Singapore's Minister of National Development Mah Bow Tan has said that the government will not interfere in the sizzling property market.

According to The Straits Times, Mr Mah said 'there's no reason to be alarmed.' Referring to sub-sale figures which indicate the level of speculation, he said: 'If you look at the numbers, it's quite a distance away from what we have in the mid 90s, particularly in 1996.'

'I think we try to avoid interfering in the market if we can and that's the reason why we continue to depend on broad dissemination of information even sometimes persuading various parties to come up with more accurate information and then collating them and getting URA and HDB to push out this info in a very timely and very comprehensive manner,' he said.

But he declined to say if the government will introduce more measures to cool the property sector.

This is pretty much in line with what Sophie argued yesterday. Sophie had said that the Singapore government will continue to allow the private property market function through market forces. But it may step in should prices hit the roof again.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Updated: S'pore's bubbly property market

The Singapore private property market is experiencing its biggest boom, after the 1996 crash that pulled the market down for a decade. Prices of private apartments and condominiums have since recovered strongly in the last two years. Public housing is not spared either.

Prices of many private homes in high-end areas such as Districts 9, 10 and 11 have surpassed the previous records with headline prices generally ranging from S$2,500 per square foot to as much as S$4,000 per square foot. The previous record of about S$2,400 per square foot for a posh apartment in the Orchard Road area looks like a steal.

Prices of apartments in less prime areas have also shot up but many are still priced below their peak in 1996. Check out the graph, based on statistics from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, showing recovering prices that are still below the 1996 high.

Such runaway prices have prompted endless speculation that the government is set to step in to cool the sizzling property market.

The speculation was partly triggered by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's earlier comments that Singapore must check property prices to help maintain the country's overall competitiveness.

"We must check this spike in rents for office and residential space or we will lose our competitiveness," he was quoted as saying on July 9 by The Sunday Times.

The recent hike in the development charge (a charge levied by the government when a developer proposes to enhance the usage of the land) and the government move to step up land sales to help increase supply have lent credence to the view that the government is determined to rein in the property market. Such measures are not likely to cause the market to collapse as property deals will still be market driven.

A bigger concern is whether the government will introduce drastic fiscal measures such as a capital gains tax, which was slapped on property transactions in 1996. The tax and other financing restrictions sent the property market into a tailspin and caused many to suffer negative equity in their property purchases. Instead of cooling it, the government measures sent the property market into a prolonged slumber.

But there is also the view that the government will not unveil drastic measures this time around. The government won't want to be accused of causing the property market to collapse again. After all, it has done so much to help nurture the recovery of the Singapore economy through many new projects and measures to attract foreign capital in the last few years.

While the government is stepping up the supply side to help moderate prices, there is a possibility that it may still press the eject button should things get out of control.

Kuan Yew has again provided the hint that the government may have something up its sleeves. While in Indonesia, he was asked whether the government was planning any regulatory moves to curb prices in the Singapore property market.

His response, reported in BT today: "This is market-sensitive information...surely we are not going to discuss with the newspapers. But I think we also know that there are certain market forces at work, and we just let it run its course."

Instead of an outright denial, his comment about market-sensitive information suggests that there could be some measures in the pipeline. But he also qualified it by saying that the government should let the market run its course, suggesting no government interference.

So the overall message seems to be: The Singapore government will continue to allow the private property market function through market forces. But it may step in should prices hit the roof again.

Disclosure: Sophie lives in a private condominium in a not-so-prime part of the city that has also seen a sharp spike in property prices. Agents have been knocking on our door, offering some 40 per cent more than the purchase price earlier this year.

Latest: Housing rentals in Singapore are still lower than those in other major cities, according to The Sunday Times on July 29. According to a report cited by the newspaper, Singapore is ranked 15th in terms of rentals in the world -- below major cities like Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York. But a recent ST report also noted the trend of expatriates relocating to cheaper areas in Singapore due to fast rising rentals. I guess prices or rentals are all relative.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Maverick sons, part 2

The Li Hongyi incident is no laughing matter but it's good to have a good sense of humour, especially in straight-laced Singapore.

Famous blogger mrbrown and BT writer Jamie Ee have not lost their sense of humour despite the intense public debate on the merits of what Hongyi did recently.

mrbrown's podcast entitled 'Swordsman' is quite funny.
Jamie's sarcasm is equally funny as the letter is obviously a spoof on Hongyi's famous letter, which was mentioned in an earlier posting.

Harry Potter and the Letter of Complaint

TO: The Ministry of Magic, Department of the Dark Arts.

CC: All in Hogwarts; All in centaur colony in the Dark Forest; All the giants (at least the ones who can read English).

Re: A complaint about the quality control of Wizarding Officers

Dear Sirs and All,

I am about to disrupt my education at Hogwarts in order to find the Deathly Hallows and launch into a fight to the finish with You-Know-Who, so this may well be my last e-mail sent to you, depending on my fate, which will not be known until tomorrow morning at Borders at 7:01 am. Hopefully, I will come away with only a stern warning.

I am using this last opportunity to issue a letter of complaint about the quality of officers in the wizarding department, especially over the control of He-Who- Must-Not-Be-Named, who has gone missing for 14 years and whose method of transportation during those incidents has yet to be ascertained. Some say he travels by portkey, but others say he uses a Mitsubishi Lancer.

Anyway, I have reported many times that he has gone missing - and sometimes I think he does it to annoy me because he always sneaks back and tries to kill me - but the officials in charge do not seem to want to do anything about it.

In fact, they do not even want to find him and seem to me to be almost afraid of bringing him to justice. This leads some to believe that he is a half-blood princeling who is able to come and go whenever he pleases.

Unfortunately, because I have brought this issue to light, I am accused of being a tattle-tale taking full advantage of the fact that I am Hogwarts principal Dumbledore's favourite student ever.

Because of their ill-feeling towards my perceived hallowed status, they have run gleeful stories about me in the Daily Prophet, implying that I am a hoity-toity smug know-it-all. I feel that this is not fair, especially considering that I am being named while You-Know-Who remains blissfully unexposed. He is a danger to us, and threatens the very foundation upon which our society is built on.

He wants power, which in itself is really not a bad thing if you ask me, but he does it in a rather sneaky way which reminds me of other developing countries which-shall- not-be-named, but that's another story.

So, you leave me no choice but to go after him on my own, on my Nimbus 2000 broomstick. And when I find him I am going to take him down, even if it leads to the death of more than two people whose identities again will not be known until after tomorrow.

Of course, all this leads to the inevitable question of what happens to me. Will I be killed? Will I kill You-Know-Who before he gets a chance to run off without permission again? Because I really feel like killing him. Will he take my car this time? Will my loyal followers be killed too? Will I ride off into the sunset on the back of a centaur? Will I return many years later, appointed to the wizards' council? Will I spend my retirement years investigating letters of complaint like this?

Be patient. Come this time tomorrow, all will be revealed. Chances are the anticipation will be more exciting than the actual result but never mind. I'm not complaining.

Sincerely yours,

Harry Potter

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Different strokes

It's quite amazing that the caning of criminals in Singapore can sometimes hog the headlines and blogosphere.

According to media reports today, a Singapore judge has been punished for mistakenly sentencing a prisoner to an extra three strokes of the cane. As a result of the error, Dickson Tan -- who was found guilty of helping an illegal moneylender and sentenced to nine months in prison -- was caned eight times instead of five, according to reports.

Caning is a judicial practice in Singapore and is meted out for offences ranging from vandalism to illegal possession of drugs. Law Minister S Jayakumar reportedly said the error arose after a court clerk entered the wrong sentence. Dickson's mother is in talks with the government to seek compensation of up to S$3 million over the mistake, according to local media.

This translates into S$1 million for each wrongful stroke! Not bad if Dickson's family wins the case. :-)

Of course, the most famous caning case in Singapore was the Michael Fay incident back in the early 1990s that even involved former US President Bill Clinton.

Although the American boy was convicted of vandalism and ordered to be caned six times, he only received four strokes in the end. This came after Clinton and the US government argued that the Singapore punishment was too extreme.

According to a Wikipedia entry, the Singapore government felt that if the US viewed caning of juveniles as a human rights issue, then it should actively try to stop the caning of other juvenile offenders in Singapore other than Michael.

That's the right position but why did Singapore still give a discount to Michael? Did anyone else -- local or foreign -- ever get a caning discount in Singapore?

Although the two caning cases are totally unrelated, it's ironic that a foreign white boy got a caning discount, while a Singapore Chinese boy got three extra strokes in his own backyard.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Singapore's sixth richest man?

Both The Straits Times and The Business Times have an interesting profile of a man dubbed the remisier king in Singapore. BT estimated Peter Lim to be worth S$2 billion. The bulk of his wealth is a stake of under 5 per cent in plantation play Wilmar International, which has a market capitalisation of over S$22 billion.

That would easily put him in the league of the top ten richest men in Singapore. Oddly, I don't recall Forbes ranking him as one of the richest men in Singapore. The latest Forbes survey put the family of the late Khoo Teck Puat as the richest people in Singapore with a total wealth of US$5 billion. Other old money folks in the Forbes list in Singapore include property developers Ng Teng Fong and Kwek Leng Beng, and bank owners Wee Cho Yaw and Lee Seng Wee.

At S$2 billion, Peter is easily ranked the sixth richest man in Singapore. Not bad for a remisier-cum-deal maker, who made it big in the 1990s, according to ST, with clients
such as then Indonesian president Suharto's son, Bambang, and then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad's son, Mokhzani.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Malaysian maverick blogger arrested

While Singapore has been abuzz over the Li Hongyi incident, the Malaysian blogosphere has been spooked by the arrest of a maverick blogger.

The blogger is Nathaniel Tan (left in the pix on polytikus (right), who is his close friend). He is known to be an aide of Parti Keadilan Rakyat Anwar Ibrahim and the man in charge of the Opposition party's website.

The Star said the arrest was believed to be in connection with a doctored picture of Deputy Prime Minister which was posted on the Internet.

Malaysian bloggers have launched a petition urging the release of Nat.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Maverick sons

The sons of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong are mavericks.

Writers and bloggers have had field day dissecting the chain of events following Li Hongyi's long letter of complaint against a fellow officer in the Singapore Armed Forces for being absent without leave or AWOL on two occasions. He had sent the letter to the Defence Minister, senior governments officials and broadcast the letter to many fellow servicemen who were not involved in the case.

To cut the long story short, Lee's son (pix from Simple is the Reason of My Heart) earned a reprimand for not following the proper channel in lodging his complaint. The other officer was also court martialed and reprimanded.

Public reaction has been mixed. Many praised him for blowing the whistle, but some lambasted him for his brash act.

Another son of Hsien Loong and second wife Ho Ching of Temasek Holdings also came into the limelight during the last elections in 2006. Hsien Loong disclosed that his youngest son Haoyi had attended the rally of the Opposition during the hustings.

The young sons of Hsien Loong appear to be quite independent minded. They are willing to speak up, quite different from many Singaporeans who simply toe the official line. Maybe, they can afford to be different due to their privileged background. To be sure, they are not above the law as shown in the Hongyi case.

There's no doubt that they will go far in the Singapore society, due to their ability and pedigree. But will the third generation of Lees be able to follow the footstep of their PM father and their grandfather -- former PM Lee Kuan Yew?

The jury is still out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Distressed Johor straits

New Straits Times has an interesting article and pix today about the distressed Straits of Johor separating Malaysia and Singapore.

The picture shows a rare and recent phenomenon of shoals of fish leaping into the air due to unknown reasons.

The article hazarded a guess that the phenomenon could be due to the increase in the pollution levels in the straits, which is noted for its high levels of lead, mercury and e-coli bacteria.

The newspaper cited Malaysian Nature Society Johor branch bio-diversity researcher Vincent Chow as saying that it is possible that the water is warming up as a direct result of global warming, causing marine parasites to multiply faster than normal and attack the fish.

"When these parasites attach themselves to the body of the fish, the discomfort causes them to dart about in an effort to dislodge the parasite," Chow said.

Well, it doesn't come as a total surprise that marine life in the straits is distressed. The article didn't give the reason for the high pollution levels in the straits.

As mentioned in a previous post, the straits of Johor is extremely dirty due to two reasons -- continued discharge of waste by Johor rivers into the straits, and the retarded flow of water due to the land-based causeway linking Malaysia and Singapore.

Malaysia and Johor must step up efforts to clean up the rivers and relocate industries and squatters along the dirty rivers.

An overhead bridge to replace the causeway will definitely help water circulate more freely in the straits and flush the toxic water. An overhead bridge project was first mooted in 1996 by Malaysia but sadly, the Malaysian and Singapore governments have not been able to agree to proceed with the project.

Concerted efforts are needed to clean up the dirty straits and help the distressed fish and marine life breathe a little easier.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Updated: Can check in, cannot check out

Another sad case of religion has come to light in Malaysia. The latest heart-wrenching story is about a Muslim-born woman who has not been allowed to leave the religion despite her stated wish to do so following her marriage to a Hindu man.

She told a harrowing tale of detention in an Islamic rehabilitation centre that sounded more like a jail sentence as it included solitary confinement and forced religious 'counseling'.

"Although I served 180 days, I still cannot convert out of Islam," said 29-year-old Revathi Masoosai (NST pix), who has vowed to remain a Hindu. "I wasted my time."

Under Malaysian laws, Muslims cannot marry non-Muslims unless they convert to Islam. This has become a social norm in Malaysia although it doesn't sound entirely fair.

But is it reasonable to make it near impossible for Muslims who wish to check out of the religion? Under the laws, a Muslim will be considered a criminal should he leave the religion although freedom of religions is enshrined in the Constitution.

This is not the first time the Malaysian authorities have made it near impossible for Muslims who wish to convert to other religions. One will never forget the Lina Joy case. There are other pending cases, including that of a Chinese man who grew up as a Muslim due to a baby mix-up in a hospital nearly three decades ago. He's now trying to change his religious status but don't hold your breath.

It's therefore not an understatement to say that Malaysia enjoys limited religious freedom. Sigh.

PS: The Islamic moral guardian has also become more zealous in telling Muslims what they can or cannot wear. Sigh

Update (11 July 2007): Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has vowed
to look into politically sensitive cases of Muslims seeking to renounce Islam in favor of other religions. "We have to be ready to listen and to solve the problems," he told reporters. "This is not about something that cannot be done. For those who don't want to be Muslims anymore, what can you do?"

It remains to be seen whether the Malaysian premier can do anything to redress the problem and help ensure real freedom of religion in the country. This is because Islamic religious issues come under the jurisdiction of state governments, which generally have a different view from the federal government on the political hot potato.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Did Aussie university do homework?

The recent decision by the University of New South Wales Asia (UNSW Asia) to close its Singapore operations and half-built campus has definitely taken a toll on the Republic's aspiration to be an education hub.

There's been plenty of public debate and soul searching on what went wrong. The latest salvo came from Singapore's Economic Development Board, which blasted UNSW's chief Fred Hilmer's claim that he had a 'workable plan' for the Asian campus which was rejected by the board.

There's merit in EDB's argument. It's just unimaginable that EDB would simply pull the life line from the university project without valid reasons.

"By this you sought to lay the blame for the closure of the Singapore campus of UNSW on the EDB, rather than acknowledge that it was a business decision taken by UNSW after concluding that you would not be able to meet the deliverables expected under the support package from the EDB,' said EDB in its letter," the EDB letter said.

The EDB added it had 'always been keen' for UNSW's presence in Singapore as a 'comprehensive university on a permanent campus'.

It's only fair to demand certain deliverables in order to grant the support package to UNSW as taxpayer's money is involved.

It's also unfathomable that the university will call it a day so soon -- even before its campus is ready. Wasn't there a back-up plan? Isn't the university aware of the plethora of financing instruments available in the market?

Did UNSW bail out too soon? In fact, EDB was earlier cited as saying that UNSW became concerned when student intake in March 2007 turned out to be 150 instead of the target 300 in UNSW's business plan.

It's amazing that the university made the closure decision due partly to the relatively small student shortfall, which could have been met with an aggressive recruiting campaign.

Did the university do proper homework for the project, taking into account the worst case scenario? Or did it expect overnight success?

Whatever the real excuse, I definitely won't enroll myself for the university's business degree or its MBA.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Kicking the habit, finally,

Dad has finally quit smoking, after over two decades of intense smoking, due to health concerns. He will save plenty of money, which can be used to buy cookies and other munchies for me. I’m so happy that he’s no longer addicted to the poison churned out by the big tobacco companies.

But dad is not entirely happy with the big tobacco companies in Singapore. They have generally raised cigarette prices by 40 cents or 3.6 per cent to S$11.60, although the government has increased the Goods and Services Tax by only 2 percentage points to 7 per cent. Yet, nobody has accused the tobacco companies of profiteering.

It’s not easy to wean one from cigarettes even though Singapore has one of the most expensive cigarettes in the world. Perhaps, the government should use this opportunity to ban cigarettes in Singapore completely following the higher-than-expected price hike.

The steep rise in cigarette price in Singapore has also unwittingly spawned a huge underground industry – smuggling by Singaporeans and foreigners.

According to The Straits Times today, the quantity of duty-unpaid cigarettes seized in the first five months this year has surpassed that for the whole of last year. Between January and May, the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority seized a record 1.17 million packs of these cigarettes, compared to the 1.12 million packs confiscated through last year.

A pack of cigarettes now cost Singapore S$11.60 or a staggering RM25, which is more than three times the price tag of RM8 after the 60 sen increase in Malaysia. ST reckoned that black-market cigarettes in Johor Baru cost just RM$4 (S$1.80) a pack, against S$5 that illegal touts here charge.

Well, it’s all academic to dad now who is determined to stop smoking. Mom and I hope dad will succeed in kicking the disgusting habit. We will burn down the tobacco companies should he fail to stop consuming their drug. Woof woof :-)