Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Toh I miss you, your friend Mark"

This was a drawing done by Mark Malloy, a dear friend of Eddie in his Notre Dame days. Below is a summary of his email to me few months ago, explaining the drawing and photo taken then. Mark, thank you for your email and the potraits. I finally have the courage to post this.

Toh's roommate at Notre Dame from 1987-1990 and his friend forever.

One is the original sketch that I did of Toh many years ago ( we were sitting in our dorm room and he was working on a paper or writing a letter home). The other is a self-portrait photograph that Toh took in 1987. This photo is really great and is well-remembered by his friends from Notre Dame. He gave me the photo as a parting gift when we left college.

While you are getting the originals in the mail, for the blog I have attached the two images below and if you have trouble with the attached files, you (or anyone) may find the images at my website--you can save them to your computer from there :

To tell you the truth I have not wanted to mail these things to you. As it turns out, mailing them confirms that he is gone and I just do not want that to be true. However, you are the one who should be comforted by them and not me. They have been on our family's mantle since April 1st.

I could not help focusing on the fact that the photo was the work of his hand. He made the print. He mounted it. He signed it: "Liberty, Toh Wei Chee, May 1, 1987"

About the drawing: I drew it in the now-embarrassingly generous time that we had in our room together. He was there in front of me and I could not have known how precious that time would be.

"Toh I miss you, your friend Mark"

Friday, May 23, 2008

Happy Anniversary, Darling....

'Can't Help Falling In Love' by Elvis Presley was played on air.
You chose to sing this very same song to me on our wedding day

Happy anniversary, darling

Love Always,

Monday, April 07, 2008

Till we meet again...

Eddie Toh, the author of this blog, died suddenly on Sunday, March 30, 2008, just two days before what would have been his 41st birthday. His funeral took place on Thursday, April 3, 2008 at Singapore's Mandai crematorium. This is an extract of a tribute read to the service by his beloved wife Linda Goh.

The first time I met Eddie was about 15 years ago. I was 18 and he was 27. He had come to check me out after his colleagues told him to take a look at who his secretary was having lunch with. I must say I was quite disappointed to learn that "this" irritating guy was Nina's boss.

He pretended to be disinterested. You know Eddie, always trying to be cool. Women did not affect him - or not that let he let on. It just as well, because I was seeing someone else at the time. In fact, I could have easily forgotten Eddie. But he would not let me. He would continue to make himself a nuisance by wise-cracking whenever our paths crossed. It would not occur to me until much later that he was actually interested in me.

Yes, first impressions can be misleading. Never could I have imagined that such a forgettable encounter would mark the start of an incredible journey with a man who was able to make me feel I was the most special woman in the world.

Today, as I look back, I smile to myself at how silly he was all those times he tried to get to know me better. I remember vividly how he held my hand the first time. I had challenged him to "ponteng" - steal a day - from work, which he told me he had never done before. He accepted the challenge and took me to a movie.

While I was pretending to watch the show, waiting for him to make his move, he was obviously plotting. First, he manoeuvred his hand around his lap until it was next to my thigh. Then he pressed that hand into my hand. And then he drew both our hands to his side.

Naturally, I gave not the slightest hint that I had noticed anything was going on. But inside, it was the most warm and wonderful feeling. It was the start of a beautiful life together - a life I wish with all my heart had gone on so much longer.

Honey, you meant everything to me. You gave me love, you gave me laughter. You tickled me, you taught me. You brought me joy, you made me cry. But when I cried you would end up crying with me. And with each tear that fell, we grew closer. Because that is what true love is: Accepting each other for the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, the perfect and the imperfect.

Didi, we had great times and some sad times. But before we knew it, we had become each other's second nature. Every day I would see you working at your computer, typing furiously as you made funny faces at me. Yes, you were always there. Supporting me and guiding me. Cuddling me with your arms - and your eyes. No one ever made me feel so comfortable. No one touched me more. No one ever could. I miss you so much….

Your friends tell me I was the best thing that happened to you. I refuse to believe this. Because let me tell you - and everyone - that you are the best thing that ever happened to me. Didi, you are my soul mate.

As I bid you farewell today, let me say again: Darling, this is not goodbye - not for me. I do not pretend to understand why you are continuing your journey alone. But I know you are in good hands, because I saw you coming close to the Lord in the final months of your life. I know He has guided you home. And when my time comes, I pray that I will have done enough to join you in heaven, so we can make up for all the time we did not share on earth. Knowing you, I know you would have made plans for me too.

As surely as love conquers all, you conquered my heart, Didi. I thank you for the past 15 years. I thank you for all you did for my family, for all you did for our friends. But most of all, my love, I thank you for all you did for me.

You did well, Didi. So rest well. You will always be a part of me and I will always love you.

Till we meet again for ‘mee-pok’ and ‘koay-teow-teng’.

Missing you dearly,

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Did bloggers really create the Malaysian tsunami?

This is a well-written commentary by a former journalist in Singapore's TODAY newspaper today. Cherian George looks at the role of the Internet and blogs during the watershed elections in Malaysia this month.

It's a timely reminder that bloggers only play one part in the big scheme of things. Bloggers on both sides of the causeway will never replace mainstream media, despite general unhappiness with the two governments' mouthpieces on certain key issues.

But ultimately, editors and writers -- whether they are in the mainstream media or blogosphere -- must be credible. Both platforms also need to engage each other more frequently to give a more complete picture to people in Singapore and Malaysia.

Did bloggers really create the tsunami?
Cherian George
March 29, 2008

MALAYSIAN Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's admission this week that his government did not pay enough attention to the Internet is one of the sexiest explanations yet for its shock defeats in the recent elections.

Perhaps bloggers will now replace bomohs as the suspects of choice behind bizarre political phenomena like those witnessed on March 8.

Some of the hype around this admittedly magical technology is justified. By dramatically lowering the barriers to entry for wide communication and collaboration, the Internet is quite simply the most powerful platform for innovation — including political innovation — in the history of civilisation.

However, every sober analysis of its impact since the Internet's mid-1990s "big bang" has come to the same conclusion: The technology is not powerful in isolation; the World Wide Web weaves its wonders only in concert with other old-fashioned forces.

Thus, the vibrancy of Internet politics in Malaysia is very much a reflection of an offline environment of lively opposition politics and civil society activism.
Mr Jeff Ooi — Malaysia's mr brown — could transition from blogger to victorious parliamentary candidate because the Democratic Action Party was well placed to harness his popularity.

Similarly, aliran.com was able to churn out influential reports because it is backed by the established Penang-based human rights non-governmental organisation, Aliran.
Less savoury attributes of Malaysian cyberspace, such as its poison pen practices, are also rooted in the country's offline traditions.

Internet power should also be seen in the context of the wider media environment. While media companies are often wedded to one medium or another, most users are promiscuous by instinct.

They flit between media, each promising its own uses and gratifications — perhaps a newspaper for comprehensive news, television news for its pictures, a blog for personal insight, an activist's website for biting commentary, SMS for the latest gossip or joke, coffeeshop talk to share their own views, rally attendance for a sense of community, and so on.

If people suddenly gravitate towards one medium, it is often because another has failed to meet their expectations. This is certainly the case in Malaysia, where the crippling of the mainstream media by government control is the main reason why Malaysians have flocked online.

Even the editors of the leading independent site Malaysiakini humbly concede that their success isn't because they are so great — they are still resource-poor by news organisation standards — but because their mainstream rivals are found wanting.

Therefore, the government's fundamental mistake was not that it neglected cyberspace, as claimed by the Prime Minister, but that it failed to address offline problems — which were then exposed and exploited by Internet-empowered opponents.

Officials should have learnt from the Reformasi protests of almost a decade ago, when its mainstream media stranglehold resulted in media coverage out of sync with the public mood, with massive losses in newspaper circulation and a windfall for alternative websites such as Malaysiakini and Harakah Daily.

Now, officials are talking of courting independent bloggers or investing in their own. But this will not fix the real problem of inadequate respect for freedom of expression, resulting in a lack of credibility for all media linked to the state.
Comparisons with Singapore — Malaysia's fraternal twin — are irresistible.

If even the Malaysian Prime Minister has acknowledged the political impact of the Internet, does that not make Singapore — with its far greater Internet penetration levels — ripe for its own electoral tsunami? Only if one imagines the Internet to be some kind of magical force, which it isn't.

Distilling more thoughtful analyses of the Malaysian elections, 2008 appears to mark a tipping point at which voters decided that poor governance was no longer tolerable. The ruling alliance — and practically everyone else — had expected racial loyalties and a controlled mass media to compensate for its failures and inefficiencies.

But a threshold appears to have been reached, indicating that ideological advantages are finite, while good governance is all.
Like Malaysia, Singapore is run by a dominant political party that believes that the media's role is not to set the political, social and economic agenda. That is to be left to the elected leaders of the day. Instead, the media is seen as a partner in nation building.

The People's Action Party has generally not used its ideological control as a substitute for performance, but rather to give policy-makers a buffer against interference by interest groups and dissenting voices, allowing them to frame the agenda and manage public opinion in the short term.

Long-term legitimacy has been built on the tangible success of its policies. The drift from the controlled mainstream to freer alternative media has therefore been much less evident in Singapore than in Malaysia.

Another major difference is that Singapore's alternative media doesn't have the thick soil that their Malaysian counterparts thrive in. The political environment in Singapore is more predictable and sanitised in a way that Malaysia's never was.

This is reflected in the two societies' alternative media: Malaysia's are more organised, mobilised and committed.
Malaysia shows that determined activists can amplify their impact with the Internet. But Singapore shows that the Internet cannot electroshock an otherwise quiescent public into action, no matter how well wired it is.

Cherian George is an Assistant Professor at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, NTU, and the author of Contentious Journalism and the Internet: Towards Democratic Discourse in Malaysia and Singapore (Singapore University Press, 2006).

Another good commentary: Hope spreads from tsunami, The Star (

A good Act?

The latest Raffles Conversation in Singapore's The Business Times profiles the co-author of the controversial Sarbanes-Oxley Act to help contain corporate scandals in the US.

Will we see the end of big corporate scandals in the decadent US? Don't bet on it.

Business Times - 29 Mar 2008
In defence of Sarbanes-Oxley
Paul Sarbanes, co-author of the ground-breaking securities law which bears his name, tells WONG WEI KONG why corporate America is far better off with it

FEW political careers can count the removal of the US President and the passing of one of the most important securities legislations in history as highlights, but Paul Sarbanes is a man for times of impeachment and scandals. In three decades in the US Senate, Mr Sarbanes earned a reputation for working quietly behind the scenes on complex issues before announcing his retirement in 2006. The Democrat was Maryland's longest-serving senator, called by some as 'the man who cannot be removed'.

But what thrust the low-profile Mr Sarbanes into the glare of world scrutiny was the ground-breaking securities law he co-authored as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee with House Representative Michael Oxley in 2002 and which bears his name - the Sarbanes-Oxley Act or SOX.

As the retired senator recounted in a recent interview with BT, President George W Bush called SOX 'the most far-reaching reforms of American business practices since the time of Franklin D Roosevelt' when he signed it into law.

Despite its fierce critics, Mr Sarbanes' assessment of SOX is unequivocal: corporate America is far better off with it.

'The system is in place and working. I think it has made a substantial difference for the better,' he says. Mr Sarbanes was in Singapore at the invitation of The Asian Banker to speak to a gathering of business leaders, where he predictably found himself addressing some of the criticism against SOX.

SOX came into being as a response to a number of major corporate and accounting scandals in the US, including Enron and WorldCom. The scandals cost investors billions of dollars when the share prices of the affected companies collapsed, and shook public confidence in the nation's securities markets.

The legislation, which does not apply to privately held companies, aimed at creating a strong independent oversight board to oversee the auditors of public companies. It addressed conflicts of interest, ensured auditor independence, required corporate leaders to be personally responsible for the accuracy of their company's financial reports, and established safeguards to protect against conflicts of interests involving investment analysts. The Act also established a new quasi-public agency, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board or PCAOB, which is charged with overseeing, regulating, inspecting, and disciplining accounting firms in their roles as auditors of public companies.

Debate, however, has continued over the perceived benefits and costs of SOX. Supporters contend that the legislation was necessary and has played a useful role in restoring public confidence in the nation's capital markets. Critics charged that it was too burdensome and costly, especially for smaller firms, with US companies spending a total of US$6 billion last year on SOX compliance. It also made US exchanges less attractive to foreign companies.

Internal controls

To Mr Sarbanes, it all comes down to a simple question. 'Every public company should have an acceptable system of internal financial controls. I think that's part of being a public company. For most people, if someone came up to them and wanted them to invest money in a company and they ask, how good is your system of financial controls? - If the person says we don't have a system of financial controls, we don't believe in having such a thing, we think it's a burden, I doubt people would put their money in such a company. You wouldn't put your money in a company like that.'

Asked if a code of best practices - using a 'comply or explain' approach - would be a better way to good corporate governance than an overarching legislation like SOX, Mr Sarbanes says different markets need different approaches. 'I think it depends very much on the circumstances of particular markets and the culture of those markets. I didn't think 'comply and explain' will work in the US because I think you will have 'all explain and no comply'.' He notes, too, that in markets like Singapore, where 'comply and explain' applies to certain aspects of corporate governance, there are other requirements which are law. 'Generally, worldwide, there has been a movement towards the standards of SOX. Regulators around the world either independently through their own analysis or with reference to SOX have put into place many of the provisions regarding best practices.'

Moves by US regulators to extend the deadline for smaller companies to comply with SOX while deciding how the law should apply to these firms do not undermine the legislation in any way, Mr Sarbanes says. 'When we drew up SOX, we left a lot of discretion with the regulators to fine-tune these requirements. That's how the system was supposed to work. You adapt the protocol to make it less burdensome and yet at the same time provide investor protection, and I think that's all to the good.'

In reply to critics who charge that good corporate ethics are better brought about by education than tough laws, Mr Sarbanes says the two are not contradictory. 'The temptation to depart from high standards can be very great because, often, it seems that you can make a lot of money in a very short time. So you need to have a monitoring system to check people from departing from proper practices and you also need to be constantly emphasising to people the importance of following proper practices out of their own decision and their own choice.'

Mr Sarbanes also disagrees with claims that SOX has made US markets less competitive against other exchanges. 'Let me put that into context with two general observations. For decades, countries around the world have been urged to develop the capitals markets and that's what they've been doing. Secondly, you have significant economic growth elsewhere, with Asia as the prime example. So there is capital available and liquidity to underwrite these capital markets. You have significant financial centres in Singapore and elsewhere so in effect, you're getting a globalisation of the financial services industry. You have a more competitive situation so I don't think it squares with current developments that New York would dominate in the way it used to.'

'Having said that, I think it can still compete effectively and it has been doing that. The figures go up and down but studies have shown that foreign issuers who list on the New York capital market get a premium from investors who are prepared to pay more because they are sure that if these firms meet the listing standards there, it says something about the level of corporate governance of the firm.'

Recalling the days after the Enron scandal, Mr Sarbanes says pushing SOX through in the first place was also not as easy as it later seemed. 'In restrospect, you look at it and think it was easy because it was passed with overwhelming margins in both houses of Congress. But getting there wasn't easy. My first task was to get it past the banking committee and we worked on that for many months and made some adjustments and some compromises. In the end, we had a 17-4 vote within the committee. All the Democrats and the majority of the Republicans voted for it and it was truly a bi-partisan judgement.'

'Four days after that, the Worldcom scandal broke. Once that happened, it gave a tremendous momentum to the legislation and that just help pushed it through because the scandal was a very large and stark reminder of the need to have such legislation.' When it went to Congress, SOX was approved by the House of Representatives by a vote of 423-3 and by the Senate by 99-0.

Asked if more could have been included in SOX - such as checks against excesses in top executive pay - given the strong political and public support at the time, Mr Sarbanes says he did not think so. 'I'm not sure we would have succeeded with putting in a lot more. It's like a train leaving the station. If you put too much weight on the train, it wouldn't be able to make it out of the station. So we had to be very careful.'

'And compensation is a very complex issue. It's not clear that it's an issue one deals with legislation. You need to have a clear understanding of the inner workings of the corporation. I don't think you can get government into setting the salaries and the compensation of executives. But we now require the full disclosure of compensation and the expensing of stock options.'

Turning to the present sub-prime crisis, Mr Sarbanes says it is a very different situation from what SOX dealt with. 'SOX dealt with corporate governance, audit requirements and the requirement that companies honestly report their financials. It didn't deal with bad economic or business decisions. That's part of the economic decision process and some people make good judgements and some people make bad judgements.'

'The current crisis comes from obviously bad economic decisions. A number of people operated on the premise that everything would go up, they were highly leveraged and they were developing more and more exotic mortgage products and now they are paying the consequences for it.'

'Overall, the risk management system has been inadequate. I think the supervision by regulatory authorities has fallen short. A lot of what was going on in the sub-prime mortgage market shouldn't have been allowed. They were giving mortgages to people without documentation of income to show that they are able to pay. They had products which gave you a very low teaser interest rates for a couple of years and then the rates would jump up and the mortgage payments jump up substantially and there is nothing to show that these people with such mortgages would be able to hang on to the monthly payments. The consequences of all of this is to create a crisis of confidence. The part of the total market that the sub-prime loans occupy is relatively small but the spill-over from it led to the seize-up in credit.'

Mr Sarbanes says policy-makers now face a dilemma which he and his colleagues did not have to grapple with in the days after Enron. 'We didn't have the same counter-prevailing conditions. The current situation is more complex.'

'On the one hand, the people who made these bad judgements, many of whom had engaged in speculative activity, should bear the consequences of their actions. Unless punished by market forces, the danger is that others would repeat the process in the future. On the other hand, as much as they should bear the consequences, if that ends up throwing the economy into a down-spin and you have a broad negative economic impact, that creates quite a huge problem in your hands. People totally unconnected with these issues will be impacted.'

'I think the Fed and other economic policy-makers are trying to work their way through these competing considerations ... so we just have to see how it develops.'

For Mr Sarbanes, SOX capped a long and distinguished career. Born to Greek immigrants, he grew up in Maryland's Eastern Shore in the city of Salisbury. Mr Sarbanes attended Princeton University, earning a bachelor's degree in 1954. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship that brought him to Balliol College of the University of Oxford in Oxford, England, graduating with a First Class degree in 1957. He then returned to the US and attended Harvard Law School.

After graduating in 1960, he clerked for Federal Judge Morris A Soper before entering private practice with two Baltimore, Maryland law firms. In 1966, Sarbanes ran for the Maryland House of Delegates in Baltimore City and won. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1970 and was re-elected in 1972 and 1974. In 1976, Mr Sarbanes became a US Senator and was re-elected in 1982, 1988, 1994, and 2000.

It was during his service in the House, in August 1974, that Mr Sarbanes was selected by his Democratic colleagues on the House Watergate Committee to introduce the first Article of Impeachment, for obstruction of justice, against President Richard Nixon. President Nixon later resigned before the impeachment proceedings were brought to bear.

Other weighty issues followed for Mr Sarbanes over the years. He helped lead the successful 22-day debate on the Senate floor to ratify the Panama Canal treaty, earning him the enmity of conservative groups. He served on the committee investigating the Iran-contra scandal, where he criticised President Ronald Reagan for allowing a 'junta in the White House'. He also served as ranking Democrat on the Senate Whitewater Committee which investigated President Bill Clinton's real estate dealings in the Whitewater scandal and the suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W Foster Jr.

'It's interesting that at the beginning of my career in Congress I was involved in the very large issue of impeachment and at the end of my career in the Senate, I had the opportunity to be involved in SOX. There have been other issues in between but those two stand out,' he says.

'In terms of gravity, I think nothing is comparable to impeachment proceedings. After all, you are removing an elected president chosen by the people directly. You are removing the president from office. That was a very big step to take. That was a very momentous issue to be involved in. I was very mindful of that at the time and have remained so.'

'On the other hand, I think SOX will have a lasting impact and a lasting history. I think it would be an impact for the good.'

Still adjusting to life after retirement, Mr Sarbanes, just past his 75th birthday, does 'a little speaking and teaching'. The torch, though, has been passed on. His son, John Sarbanes, won the election for Maryland's Third congressional district in 2006, the district that Mr Sarbanes represented prior to his election as Senator. 'The moment I left Congress, my son entered Congress. That's really very satisfying.'

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Wanted: New Malaysian PM, Part 3

The noose is tightening. Embattled Malaysian PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has lost another tussle in the wake of the disastrous national elections on Mar 8.

He's decided to call a party poll at this end of this year, although one of his strongest supporters had tried to push it to next year to avoid another bloodbath. He also lost the fight with the Malaysian king over the appointment of the chief minister of the oil-rich state of Terengganu.

He's losing grip of his own party, the United Malays National Organisation, his cabinet, and the national ruling coalition Barisan Nasional over a spate of issues.

He has not endeared himself to many Malaysians despite having taken over the country in good shape from former PM Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2003.

As pointed out by the AFP report, Badawi claimed a mandate to rule despite the election losses, but observers say he is on borrowed time as calls for his resignation persist.

The report added that he won a landslide victory in 2004 elections, but was punished in the latest polls over high inflation, rising crime rates and ethnic tensions in the multicultural nation.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Wanted: New Malaysian PM, Part 2

Which former Malaysian Finance Minister will succeed in toppling embattled Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi?

In one corner is Anwar Ibrahim, who was the Finance Minister between 1991 and 1998. He was once tipped to be the next premier but his ascent was cut short by former Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad.

Anwar has since emerged as the de facto leader of the much-stronger Opposition coalition. The Opposition managed to deny the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional the two-thirds majority it had held since 1969.

And Anwar could still become the new premier. But he must win in an upcoming by-election after April 15 -- he can only run for public office after the expiry of his 5-year ban following his release from jail -- and secure 30 BN defections. Some BN parliamentarians are said to be ready to hop over to the Opposition bandwagon.

The Opposition will end the reign of BN and form the new government should it secure just 30 defections.

In the other corner is Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who was Finance Minister during the 1980s. He offered himself for the presidency of the United Malays National Organization (Umno). The president of Umno has traditionally been the Prime Minister of the country. So far, there is resonance to his clarion call although it's still unclear whether he will eventually get a shot at the Umno presidency again.

Of course, one cannot dismiss the ever-so-slick Deputy PM Najib Razak, who has been waiting patiently for his 'heavenly mandate' to run the country like his late father -- the country's second PM, Tun Abdul Razak.

Whatever the scenario, the likelihood of Badawi's political demise is no longer unthinkable since the watershed elections on Mar 8.

The challenges came after BN, which is led by Umno, lost its long-held two-thirds majority in parliament, lost five states to the Opposition, and saw the casualties of many heavyweights. BN and Umno seem to be disarray with the departure of so many disgruntled political bigwigs. Other component parties of BN -- Malaysian Chinese Association, Malaysian Indian Congress and Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia -- are also in a soul-searching mode.

And it doesn't help that two other strong forces are against Badawi. Dr Mahathir has backed Tengku Razaleigh's call for a party post-mortem, while two royal families have openly rebuffed Badawi in his choice of Chief Ministers in BN-controlled Perlis and Terengganu.

It will take a real miracle for the besieged Malaysian premier and his son-in-law to cling on to power.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Causeway blues again, Part 3

Note: Image from Intelligent Transport Systems Center, LTA (28 Mar 2008, 9:50am)

Recent reports, including The Straits Times article below, about the massive traffic jam at the causeway tell only half the story. The gridlock at the causeway, as a result of the search for a missing terrorist in Singapore, has merely highlighted current problems faced at the bridge linking Singapore and Malaysia.

Even without the stepped-up security in the search for Mas Selamat Kastari, many people have had to suffer from the daily crawl at the causeway. Sophie's World has long highlighted the less-than-deal situation at the causeway. See early postings such as Missing MRT link, Causeway blues again, Part 2, and Malaysian bullet train going to Singapore?

Will Singapore and Malaysia work together to resolve the traffic woes at the causeway once they manage to nab the terrorist? Or will they think that things will go back to 'normal'?

March 22, 2008
Tighter immigration checks hit JB businesses
Takings dip by up to 75% as S'poreans avoid massive Causeway jams
By Arlina Arshad

ON A typical weekend, many Singapore cars can be seen at the Mobil petrol station close to the Johor Baru immigration checkpoint or heading for the town's malls.

Yesterday, the petrol station was serving more J-plate vehicles than S-plate ones. The town's restaurant owners, retailers and cabbies have also noticed slacker business over the past few weekends.

Three words explain this: Mas Selamat Kastari.

Petrol station cashier Rozana Mohd Din, 33, is certain that the heightened security following the escape of the 48-year-old Jemaah Islamiah terrorist is responsible for this.

The more thorough checks on travellers and vehicles passing through the Woodlands Checkpoint are keeping Singaporeans away.

Ms Rozana noted that the petrol station usually serves 100 Singapore cars on weekdays and 150 on weekends. She is seeing only half of that number now. 'It's so unfair that businesses here have to suffer because of one man,' she said.

Other JB businesses complained that takings had fallen by 20 to 75per cent. All expect this month to go down as one of the worst sales months in recent times.

When The Straits Times visited JB town centre yesterday, business at the food stalls appeared brisk. But stallholders said the customers were not quite as free spending as Singaporeans.

Hawker Ahmed Abdullah, 45, who sells Indian food, said: 'Singapore customers may come only once a week, but they spend a lot. They come with friends and order whatever they fancy on the menu.

'They can spend RM30 (S$13) in one sitting. Malaysian customers take a long time to decide - and when they do, they spend RM3.'

At City Square, cash registers were not ringing despite the ongoing sale. Boutique assistant Lim Kim Moi, 35, whose boss had chided her for the poor sales, said: 'Now, I am forced to be pushy and get the Malaysian customers to buy.'

Taxi drivers, too, were cooling their heels in a long line of cabs outside the JB checkpoint yesterday.

Cabby Masdan Rudin, 35, said: 'On weekends, I usually take 15 Singaporeans to Senai airport and bus terminals. Now, it's down to 10.'

The worst thing for these businesses is not knowing when the jams will ease and the crowds return.

DVD seller W.Y. Tan, who has suffered a 75 per cent drop in takings, said: 'If it's going to be like this for the next two months, I might have to start selling char kway teow.'

Monday, March 17, 2008

A new beginning for Malaysia

The dust has yet to fully settle in Malaysia following the shocking election results on March 8.

Many pundits, analysts and investors are still digesting the news and grappling with the most surreal political landscape since the country’s independence in 1957. They are still coming to terms with the reality that the national ruling coalition Barisan Nasional, which has ruled the roost since 1974, scraped through with its smallest parliamentary majority ever.

And there were many collateral damages that were unprecedented since the watershed year of 1969, which saw bloody racial riots. BN or the National Front lost five state legislatures to the Opposition – the coalition of the Democratic Action Party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat and Parti Islam SeMalaysia. BN also failed to retain the crucial two-thirds mandate needed to amend the constitution.

Political heavyweights – such as Malaysian Indian Congress president S Samy Vellu, Penang chief minister Koh Tsu Koon and Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin – had to make way to political newbies. And the elections saw the political debut of Jeff Ooi, the first blogger to make it to Parliament in Malaysia and possibly Asia. Former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim has emerged as the kingpin in the opposition camp.

Political pundits correctly described the outcome as ‘revolutionary’, a ‘sea-change’ in Malaysian politics and a ‘political tsunami’. The Malaysian stock market was quick to react too. The stock market barometer tumbled over 10 per cent and triggered a trading halt when trading resumed.

It’s obviously not business as usual in Malaysia.

But is the new political landscape bad for Malaysia? Should foreign investors give Malaysia a wide berth now?

The answer is no, but investors should wait for the dust to settle first.

Many investors are naturally concerned that the new political landscape will result in policy paralysis due to expected political squabbles at both the federal and state levels. This is inevitable as both the establishment and the resurgent Opposition will clash on many key issues and policies.

In particular, as pointed out by academic Yang Razali Kassim in The Straits Times today, Malaysian politics will be in a state of flux. This is based on the writer's valid concern that the Opposition's attempt at undoing the New Economic Policy will be a tricky task. The NEP is the country's affirmative action programme to help the predominant Malay community following the racial riots of 13 May 1969.

"How the NEP is handled - or mishandled - can unravel the peace that we now see," the writer said.

The political drama is still unfolding. According to The Malaysian Insider tonight, de-facto Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told Singapore’s Berita Harian that the Opposition will formalise their alliance in a few days and will then replace the NEP with a landmark Malaysian Economic Agenda, a new initiative aimed at lifting the fortunes of all Malaysians.

There is also growing talk that Anwar may eventually become the new PM, should he succeed in securing the cross-over of over 30 BN lawmakers to the Opposition camp. He must also secure a seat in Parliament via a by-election.

While the political landscape is still evolving in Malaysia, the Opposition clearly has the upper hand in five states. They are Selangor (the richest state in the country) Penang (the Silicon Valley of Malaysia), Perak (resource rich state), Kedah (the rice bowl of the country) and Kelantan (the de facto Islamic state in Malaysia).

Decisions made at the state legislatures will have serious ramifications for both local and foreign corporations in the longer term. This is because the state governments have the final say on major issues such as land matters, apart from religious issues and water resources.

This means that the state governments can decide the fate of many development projects, licenses and even manufacturing outfits in their backyard. But the Opposition must tread gingerly as well. They have to downplay the rhetoric to remove the entire NEP as it is a politically and emotionally charged issue in Malaysia.

Instead, it will be politically wiser for them to call for the removal of certain components of NEP. For instance, the DAP has said that it will resort to an open tender system for all government procurements and contracts following its takeover of the state government in Penang.

If implemented correctly, an open tender system will gradually inject greater meritocracy in the Malaysian business sector. Many Malaysian companies have long thrived on the political patronage system: Many contracts were negotiated in the opaque and so-called closed tender exercise or even awarded to politically well-connected companies that didn’t have the necessary track record.

The election outcome has therefore given Malaysia the rare opportunity to chip away the deep-rooted patronage system. This could be the first step to wipe out widespread corruption, cronyism and nepotism in Malaysia.

Even the embattled PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi could not push through the open tender system on a wide scale since he came into power in 2003. The patronage system was too entrenched. Hence, any attempt to resort to more a competitive and market-driven government tender system will be good for the business climate of the country in the long run.

But investors should also note that state governments are highly dependent on funding from the Federal Government, which is led by BN, as they cannot collect taxes.

Will the Federal Government turn off funding to Opposition-controlled states as part of the new power play? The scenario is not unfathomable, as seen in BN’s attempt to deprive the state of Terangganu from the oil revenue of national oil giant Petronas Nasional following the loss of the state to the theocratic PAS in 1999.

But it will be foolhardy to do so in the current climate. Such an attempt will further alienate voters in the next general election. All parties in the political divide will need to work hard and show that they are friendly to businesses and the population. And both sides must not play the race card so frequently.

Malaysia will emerge stronger, but only when the current political sandstorm blows over.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Selamat caught at Causeway? Part 2

The satire continues. According to a frequent visitor to Sophie's World, a joke is circulating as to why escaped Singapore terrorist Mas Selamat Kastari is likely to be in Malaysia and Indonesia.

The two neighbours of Singapore have clear signs that say "Selamat Datang" to welcome visitors. Selamat Datang is the common Malay phrase for "Welcome" or "Selamat is Coming" in this context.

Of course, there is a clear sign at the causeway that says "Selamat Datang" to all visitors -- legal and illegal -- from Singapore. :-)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Wanted: New Malaysian PM

Malaysian cartoonist Lat is so funny, always capturing the mood well with his endearing and offbeat touch. These are just some of the old cartoons painted by Lat. They show the former Malaysian boss -- Mahathir Mohamad -- in past elections. Love him or hate him, he was the best Prime Minister Malaysia ever had.

Malaysia obviously needs a new leader following the disastrous showing of the leadership of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He lost the two-thirds majority and four more states -- Selangor, Penang, Perak and Kedah -- to the Opposition. Barisan Nasional has not had such a political rebuke in the entire history of modern Malaysia.

Unfortunately, Dr Mahathir may not have the energy to make a political comeback.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Revolution in Malaysia

Sophie's World is still surprised but glad with the totally unprecedented electoral outcome in Malaysia. Sophie's World is digesting the latest news and views, and and will provide a more detailed analysis soon.

But the signs are very clear. It's a revolution.

9 March 2008
Malaysia's BN suffers worst upset in national polls
KUALA LUMPUR - MALAYSIA'S ruling party faced its biggest electoral debacle on Sunday, as the opposition won five of 13 states, putting a dark cloud on the prime minister's political future.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's multi-racial National Front coalition managed to win just a simple majority in parliament and will form the government at the federal level.

But it lost a crucial two-thirds parliamentary majority it has held for most of its 50-year-long rule, the election body said. That level is needed to change the constitution.

Mr Abdullah dismissed suggestions by a reporter that he would now face pressure from party members to step down.

'I don't know who would pressure me. There is nothing at this time,' he said. 'We suffered a lot of losses tonight,' Mr Abdullah's son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin told reporters. 'But we are going to fight on. We are not going to quit. It is not the end of the world and we are going to get through this.'

The leftist Chinese-backed Democratic Action Party (DAP) won Penang state, which houses many multinational firms.

The opposition Islamist party PAS scored shock victories in the northern heartland states of Kedah and Perak and easily retained power in its stronghold in northeastern Kelantan state.

DAP and PAS also joined the People's Justice Party, or Parti Keadilan, to take control of the industrial state of Selangor and almost all the seats in capital Kuala Lumpur.

'Tomorrow we will start building a brighter future,' opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, whose wife heads Parti Keadilan, told reporters. 'This is a new dawn for Malaysia.'

The shock defeat in Penang stirred memories of the last time the ruling coalition failed to win a two-thirds majority, in 1969, when deadly race riots erupted between majority ethnic Malays and minority Chinese.

'This is the biggest defeat ever since our party's founding 40 years ago,' Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon said.

'I feel sad and surprised. I urge all National Front members to stay calm and not to take any action that could jeopardise peace and security in the state.'

Police vowed to use tough internal security laws against anyone spreading rumours and banned victory processions, one of which had triggered the 1969 violence.

Results from the elections commission as of 2145 GMT (5.45am Singapore time) showed the National Front with 137 seats in the 222-seat parliament versus 82 for the opposition, with 3 seats still being tallied.

Referendum on Abdullah
'This looks like a revolution,' PAS Vice-President Husam Musa said. 'The people have risen and are united. The message to government is, 'Enough is enough.'' The poll, called before it was due in May 2009, was widely seen as a referendum on Mr Abdullah's rule, and Malaysians took the opportunity to administer a stinging rebuke over price rises, religious disputes and concerns over corruption .

'I think the PM will potentially have to resign,' said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. 'This is unprecedented. The only other time this happened was in 1969 and that's why everybody is very nervous now because of the uncertainty.'

Works Minister Samy Vellu, chief of the Malaysian Indian Congress, one of the National Front parties, lost the seat he had held for nearly 30 years, because many Indians thought he was out of touch with their concerns.

Two other cabinet ministers, both ethnic Malays, also lost.

Detained ethnic Indian activist and lawyer M. Manoharan delivered another slap in the face of the government, winning a parliamentary seat despite being held under internal security laws for organising a major anti-government protest last year.

Chinese and Indians account for a third of the population of 26 million and many complain the government discriminates in favour of Malays when it comes to education, jobs, business and religious policy.

About 70 per cent of Malaysia's 10.9 million eligible voters had cast ballots, the country's top poll official said.

Opposition rallies drew big crowds, especially Chinese and Indian voters unhappy with Mr Abdullah's Malay-dominated coalition.

First-time voter Michael Lim said he voted for an opposition party.

'They have not taken care of the people,' he said in Kuala Lumpur, referring to the ruling coalition. 'A lot of promises were made, but nothing was fulfilled.'

'This is a defining moment, unprecedented in our nation's history,' said opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. 'The people have voted decisively for a new era where the government must be truly inclusive and recognise that all Malaysians, regardless of race and colour, culture and religion, are a nation of one,' Mr Anwar said.

'This clearly shows Malaysians want an alternative. Going forward Malays, Indians and Chinese all have to work together and make a formidable pact.'

A key issue in the elections was the disillusionment among Malaysia's minority ethnic Chinese and Indian population who have long complained about discrimination, particularly an affirmative action system that gives the majority Muslim Malays preference in jobs, business and education.

The programme was designed 37 years ago to help the Malays catch up with the wealthier Chinese. But minorities complain the programme continues despite rising standards of livings for Malays.

The National Front held 90 per cent of the seats in the outgoing federal parliament. Political experts had predicted Mr Abdullah's continued leadership could be in jeopardy if his majority fell back below 80 per cent, or around 178 seats, in the new 222-seat parliament.

The economy grew 6 per cent last year but inflation and a likely US economic slowdown have fueled worries. -- REUTERS, AP

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Guardian of Singapore's food supply

The Raffles Conversation series in Singapore's The Business Times today featured a Singapore government official, who is the 'guardian' of Singapore's food supply as aptly described in its headline.

The article mentioned the well-known fact of Singapore's move to diversify its food sources as a response to rising costs of food in the world.

"In response to the rising costs of food, the agency has been diversifying its food supply sources, such as chickens from Brazil, vegetables from Vietnam and Indonesia, frozen ducks from Taiwan and seafood from Namibia. With the exception of eggs, all the key food items in Singapore have less than 50 per cent of their supply coming from a single country," the article stated.

While it is not explicitly stated, the move is presumably a long-term attempt to reduce dependence on any country as a strategic move to safeguard its national interest. While it is not overtly stated, the move is probably also aimed at cutting dependence on food supply from Malaysia as its traditional source.

Why? Singapore knows the danger of being overly dependent on any country, especially its close neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, for key supplies. We have seen it in the case of the water squabble with Malaysia and the ban of the sale of sand to Singapore by the two neighbours.

As a result of bilateral skirmishes with its two neighbours, Singapore has had to resort to some innovative measures to assert its independence and sovereignty.

In the case of water, Singapore started developing alternative water sources -- such as NEWater and enlarging its water catchment areas -- following their tiff over the renewal of the water contracts with Malaysia in the late 1990s. We also learnt that Singapore has been stockpiling sand on the island following the ban by Indonesia.

While it is good to reduce its dependence on any country, Singapore cannot cut its dependence on them completely. All countries are dependent on each other.

Today, Singapore is a lot richer than its neighbours. But fortunes can also change overnight.

Guardian of Singapore's food supply

As head of the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, Chua Sin Bin has the monumental task of overseeing the Republic's sources of food, upholding food safety standards and safeguarding animal and plant health. CHEN HUIFEN reports

CEOs tend to be an impatient lot. Once they sit down to meet the press, they can't wait for the interview to start and be done with it, so that they can get on with the next engagement.

But not so Chua Sin Bin, 60, CEO of the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore, the key agency responsible for making sure that Singaporeans can enjoy their favourite foods with peace of mind and that the well-being of Singapore's plants and animals is being managed properly.

Before getting down to the formal part of our interview, Dr Chua spends a good half an hour sharing snippets of his personal life.

As his corporate communications assistant director prepares a cup of tea for the man, he speaks of his ambivalent attitude to the other hot drink associated with hospitality. 'I like the smell of coffee,' said Dr Chua. 'I always offer to make my wife coffee because I like the aroma, but I don't quite like the taste of it.'

Very soon, one learns that the man is a tea connoisseur and the former chairman of the Technical Committee for Tea, which was charged with setting the Singapore standard for teas, with a view to establish a tea auction centre here. 'But the auction centre never really took off,' he said with a wry laugh. 'So we wasted all our efforts.'

He knows his teas by type and origin, as well as the processes that go into their making. His favourite is Zhejiang's unfermented Longjing tea.

'It's the nicest of all,' said Dr Chua, who is also chief veterinary officer. 'Because it is green tea and hasn't gone to oven to dry. It's dried in the wok, by hand. So you can see the gentle treatment which the tea leaves have been given. The heat is not hot enough to burn your hand, so it is a very tedious process. As for Japanese tea, it tends to have a little bit of a burnt taste. So I always go for Longjing.'

Perhaps his youthful complexion has something to do with his tea drinking habit. Or his eating preferences. He proclaims that he is not adventurous when it comes to food, and will avoid anything with MSG or raw ingredients such as sashimi. 'My wife hardly fries,' he added. 'Most of the foods we eat at home, I think, are blanched.'

Spotlight on AVA

It is hard to pinpoint whether such habits are driven by health reasons or simply an extension of his professional undertaking. After all, food safety is part of his responsibility. And with food scares, import bans and rising food prices headlining the news recently, the spotlight has been cast on AVA to come up with measures and solutions.

In response to the rising costs of food, the agency has been diversifying its food supply sources, such as chickens from Brazil, vegetables from Vietnam and Indonesia, frozen ducks from Taiwan and seafood from Namibia. With the exception of eggs, all the key food items in Singapore have less than 50 per cent of their supply coming from a single country. Even so, Dr Chua concedes that food prices will continue their rising trend, owing to the supply crunch and growing demand from emerging economies in the region.

'When oil prices go up, food prices will go up because it's a knock-on effect,' he explained. 'Agricultural inputs, fertilisers, pesticides - a lot of these are derived from fuel. And you need energy to produce them. The logistics, the cost of transportation also increases, so that will contribute (to rising prices).'

Adding to the pressure is the worldwide hunt for alternative, green energy using food crops such as corn oil and palm oil. 'Perhaps it is also market failure in a way, because when farmers see that corn, palm oil are getting good prices, of course they want to grow corn and palm oil.' As a result, less of the earth's finite arable land is allocated for food crops.

For a longer term solution, science would have to come into play - either by achieving a better yield for crop production, or through a more efficient use of non-food crops such as jatropha for biofuel. Dr Chua is hopeful that the 'world will wake up' one day to its folly of diverting wholesome food crops towards fuel production.

Until then, more and more people could look toward genetically modified (GM) foods as a solution. Genetic modification involves taking DNA from one organism, modifying it and injecting it into a target plant in order to improve productivity or enrich it with a certain quality. GM corn products and soya beans are already available in Singapore.

'We have tested them, done the risk assessment, and the Genetic Modification Advisory Committee has also evaluated,' said Dr Chua. 'And we both agree that these products are safe and therefore they are in the marketplace.'

While food prices in Singapore is something which the AVA can help manage but not control, the authority can however claim credit for the standard of food safety here. Based on 2006 data, the number of food poisoning cases in Singapore is 35.93 per 100,000 population, lower than New Zealand's record of more than 400 cases per 100,000 and way better than the record of more than 2,000 cases in the US. Even taking into account the Prima Deli incident, last year's figure came to 36.67 per 100,000, within AVA's target of under 60 a year.

The consistent performance is achieved through stringent controls at source. For example, the AVA accredits sources, carries out checks and tests on food products at the point of import before making them available to consumers. In managing food poisoning outbreaks, the agency is also noted for its speedy and decisive response, as seen in the shutdown order on Prima Deli last year, after more than 100 people were infected with the salmonella enteritidis bacterium after eating the bakery's cakes.

'People may think we are hard on the industry, but the public is more important,' said Dr Chua. 'To us there's nothing more important than making sure that our public is protected.'

Even in the area of disease outbreak management, Dr Chua ensures that the same fastidious approach is applied. Multiple layers of defence are in place to prevent a bird flu outbreak, including netted cages to cut off contact with local poultry by wild birds. Farms are also discouraged from sharing equipment and allowing casual visitors to their premises. Vaccinations are carried out at the zoos and the bird park and surveillance at slaughterhouses and immigration check points has been stepped up.

'On top of that, we have already mapped out our contingency plan to get rid of bird flu in the event that it actually comes in,' he said. 'Various scenarios have been thought out.'

The AVA also holds regular training exercises and culling operations. 'I don't think we can totally eradicate the disease because of the wildlife reservoir. So what every country needs to do is make sure that they have a good system in which they can move in straight away and stop it from spreading.'The system should be based on comprehensive risk assessment.

'Because we have finite amount of resources, we cannot squander that resource away by going everywhere trying to look for problems. No, we do our risk profiling. Every country, we risk-profile them. Also the sources, we risk-profile.'

As human beings continue to encroach further into the natural habitats of animals, exotic diseases such as bird flu and mad cow disease are unlikely to go away. The good thing that came out of the trend is that relevant agencies in each country have become more vigilant and more collaborative.

While the AVA can do all the forward planning and carry out preventive medicine initiatives, Dr Chua stresses that food safety and disease control should not be the sole responsibility of a single agency. The industry and the public must also play their role in paying attention to their consumption and surroundings, keeping in mind that there are groups of vulnerable people amongst us.

'There's a group of vulnerable population, people who are immunology-compromised, such as transplant patients, people who have diabetes, who have gone through chemotherapy,' he said.

'They are most susceptible to outbreak of diseases and food poisoning.'

Proactive role

Dr Chua himself takes a proactive role, too. As he admits, he may be a terrible cook, but he enjoys accompanying his wife on her marketing rounds to help choose ingredients. At this point, he readily debunks the popular supposition that supplies from wet markets are fresher than those from the supermarkets.

'I think both are the same,' he said. 'What's important is how they handle it without breaking the cold chain - that is critical to keeping the freshness of the food.'

Of course, it helps that he has a rough idea of where the supplies come from, and how they are managed in the logistical process. He also talks to the traders frequently to get their input.

'Take for example, vegetables from China. It's a long distance to come. But the post-harvest handling of vegetables, using uninterrupted cold chain, gives you very good products at the end of it.

'You must remember that vegetables ... when they are harvested, they continue to breath. So if we slow down the metabolism process, then actually you will keep the freshness and quality. And refrigeration is the way.

'If you lower the temperature, they almost go to sleep - hibernate and not metabolise so fast. So the freshness is preserved, and they can travel for a long distance, for a long time and keep so much better in the fridge when you take them home.'

Spoken like a specialist.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Selamat caught at causeway?

Hooray!!! Talkingcock (which also designed the funny pix above) has published another piece of satire by Sophie's World. :-)

Do take note that the article below is pure satire. Sophie's World hopes that the authorities will soon nab the real fugitive! The authorities have already stepped up security at the causeway, as reported by The Straits Times today.

Selamat Caught at Causeway
Posted on Thursday, March 06, 2008
by Sophie's World

Singaporean fugitive Tak Selamat has finally been nabbed when he tried to sneak into the notorious Malaysian city of Johor Baru via the congested causeway over the weekend.

This has ended the massive manhunt for the limping Islamic militant, thanks to the tip-off of Woodlands resident and contractor Ker Mit Seng who was in a pirated taxi with Tak Selamat.

Mr Seng felt something was amiss when he chatted with Tak Selamat during a normal three-hour traffic gridlock on the mile-long causeway linking Malaysia and Singapore.

"He not very interested to talk about cheap prostitutes and pirated DVDs in JB. Damn strange. So I SMS police lor," Mr Seng said.

He also disclosed that Tak Selamat was incensed as he was hauled away by security forces of the two countries, ending the nationwide dragnet in 72 hours.

"Pukimak (fucking) causeway. So fucking jam all the time," Mr Seng cited Tak Selamat as saying.

Security forces of Malaysia and Singapore were ecstatic with their joint efforts in nabbing the alleged militant, who was in heavy disguise as an Arab businessman in a flowing robe.

"This shows our wisdom in keeping the causeway as a strategic bottleneck to prevent fugitives from crossing over to Malaysia so easily," crowed Singapore top security man Chin Tuah Kee.

He said Singaporeans and Malaysians should be grateful that Tak Selamat and friends didn't manage to blow up the causeway and other key facilities in Singapore a few years ago.

The increasingly heavy traffic at the causeway has worked to the advantage of the security forces, who were embarrassed by the escape of a string of well-known fugitives via the causeway in the past.

Well-known figures who had fled Singapore to Malaysia via the causeway included the Malaysian murderer of a China girl in Singapore, a Singapore Chinese gangster called One-Eyed Dragon and a former senior executive of the National Kidney Foundation.

Malaysian chief police Ayam Besar joined in the crowing.

"Ya, betul (correct). The causeway is very good despite the traffic jam lah. It would have been susah (difficult) for us to catch Tak Selamat if he had tried to swim across the Johor Straits," Ayam Besar said.

He added: "He may have escaped a toilet, but the Johor Straits has a lot more shit, and Tak Selamat would have drowned in it. We would not have caught him alive."

Hong Kong sex scandals

By Uncle Cheng

hen I say that in my thirty years in Hong Kong there has never been such a sensational scandal as this one, I think you will know which one I am referring to.

This super-sized sex scandal
(Note: AP Photo) has captivated not only Hong Kong but the entire Chinese diaspora worldwide. Society’s prurient gaze has been entranced by the story of the nude bodies of famous celebrities from the entertainment world.

What is extraordinary is that thanks to the internet the most intimate sexual acts (which incidentally must be occurring many times a second somewhere or other) have been almost forced on the public. It feels as if these photographs have somehow invaded our own homes, so pervasive has the internet become.

Is this a kind of watershed or tuning point in history, where in the twinkling of an eye, just about everyone, at all levels of society from my building’s security guard to the taxi driver I took to Central to the typical housewife in Shaukiwan, has been confronted by the most intimate sexual photos of hugely famous people? If this is the internet, do we want it?

The power of the internet to destroy privacy is now self-evident. It behaves like a starved lion let loose on a chicken farm.
Of course, as a mere lawyer I am interested by the legal side of things. Especially perplexing is how the Obscene Articles Tribunal (O.A.T.) will react.

What can it do? How effective can its rulings be? The internet may be like an untamed beast but can the O.A.T. tame the print media?

Quite a number of publications have reproduced a few of the hundreds of offending photographs, though always suitably blurred in all the required places to stay within the law. Despite the careful blurring, the question remains ‘Can the published photographs, despite their censoring blurs, be classified as obscene or indecent?’

Of course, newspapers and news magazines can argue that by the nature of their trade they have a public duty to publish news. And if nothing else these photographs are certainly news. That after all is how the media makes its money.

In a free and democratic society the press, as we all know, has important duties to perform. We also know that the dividing line between press censorship and freedom of the press can be difficult to define.

This is why the O.A.T. always has a problematic task to perform. Sadly, though, its performance to date has been erratic and its rationale hard to follow. I have myself represented a well-known publishing company for many years and dealt with cases involving the O.A.T. and from my limited experience I would say that the decisions of the O.A.T. are sometimes bizarre and often unpredictable.

I heard of an O.A.T. case, which was quite obviously a borderline case, where something in one publication was considered by the O.A.T. and yet an almost identical item in another publication was not brought to the attention of the O.A.T. at all. In the event the O.A.T. presiding officer, who was a trained lawyer, managed somehow to convince the other two laymen sitting with him that the photograph in question should be classified as indecent.

However, it is not fair to blame the O.A.T. totally for the present unsatisfactory state of affairs. The prosecution authorities (TELA) have a greater responsibility and heavier burden to bear. It is well-known in the publishing world that prosecutions are often very selective and similar articles or photographs may be classified to be indecent by one tribunal but not necessarily by another.

When such disparities occur it becomes difficult for the tribunals decision to be treated with respect.

The O.A.T. will no doubt be inundated with requests for classification regarding the ongoing sex scandal. Just how the O.A.T. deals with the publications may well decide the O.A.T.’s own future.
There is also the bigger question whether the Control of Obscene and Indecent Articles Ordinance needs to be amended. One thing is certain, however. After what has happened certain aspects of life will never be quite the same again.

I will say no more.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Thai political drama continues

The Thai political drama has resumed with the sudden return of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra and the lifting of the country's badly-implemented capital controls.

The two developments may seem unrelated but they have the combined effect of showing the continued influence of the man who was embroiled in the controversial deal with Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings in 2006.

Despite criticisms against Thaksin over a host of issues, the Thai strongman had run the country better than a bunch of generals.

Although the Thai election has concluded, Thaksin could still play a significant role in the national political theater through his proxies. He's got strong and interesting ideas like owning Manchester City Football Club, where he is the chairman. And he has plenty of money, especially from the Temasek deal, to bankroll any fresh campaign.

While the Thai saga continues, some of the basic questions about the Shin deal may re-surface. Why did Temasek buy Shin in the first place? Although Singapore politicians had said ad nauseam that it was simply a commercial deal, nobody was convinced.

As mentioned earlier, there was one sexy theory that could help explain the whole saga. According to the theory, the payment of S$3 billion by Temasek and partners to Thaksin for his holding company was part of a quid pro quo to abandon Thailand's long-cherished dream to build the Kra Canal.

According to one wit, Thaksin had wanted to build the canal and resolve two issues at one go -- turn Thailand into a major shipping hub, and isolate the Islamic separatist movement in southern Thailand. A canal will literally divide Thailand into two distinct regions.

Will Thaksin stick to the purported deal? Or will the Kra Canal idea resurface? Any such deal would have been conditional on Thaksin remaining in power.

But Thaksin the civilian businessman can now theoretically push for the construction of the canal, which will enable ships to bypass Singapore and sail from South China Sea to Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean.

After all, nobody expected a 'commercial' deal to trigger a military coup that toppled the country's leader.

Note: The p
ix from the website of Singapore's BT showing Thaksin paying homage to his country outside the airport in Bangkok on Feb 28.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Selamat* Asean?

The escape of militant suspect Mas Selamat Kastari (The Straits Times pix) from a top security facility in Singapore has been hogging the headlines in the country for the past few days.

The news has raised plenty of eyebrows in Singapore. Many people wonder how the limping leader of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic militant network Jemaah Islamiah's Singapore cell could have walked out of the toilet of a detention centre in security-conscious Singapore.

The mystery is still being solved. In the meantime, it is heartening to read that Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia are working together to recapture the fugitive who had wanted to blow up the Changi Airport and hijack a Singapore plane.

It is heartening to see the cooperation of the three littoral states of Asean in tracking the fugitive despite many bilateral problems among them.

Sophie's World hopes that the three countries could apply the same urgency to resolve all their outstanding bilateral problems.

* Selamat means save or safety in Malay, obviously a little pun on the name of the fugitive. :-)

Monday, February 25, 2008

Inflationary Asia

Inflation is creeping up across Asia. The headline figure in Singapore has hit a 25-year high with inflation hitting 6.6%.

The figure seems to be higher than expected but the Ministry of Trade and Industry said the January inflation figure was 'consistent' with the government's official inflation forecast.

As pointed out by the AP report, the Singapore government recently raised its inflation forecast for the year to 4.5-5.5%, faster than the 3.5-4.5% announced in November. The Straits Times today said that inflation in Singapore could hit levels not seen since the oil crisis of the late 1970s.

The Singapore government will no doubt think of more ways to contain inflation. An even stronger Singapore dollar is definitely a certain policy option at this stage.

While Singapore's inflation rate seems higher than expected, the Consumer Price Index across the causeway seems too tame in the current environment. According to Bloomberg, Malaysia's inflation is set to hit a 10-month high of 2.9% this year.

Like Singapore, Malaysia has a very open economy. As a result, the two countries do pay the price for imported inflation.

Sophie's World has always had a nagging feeling that the inflation rate in Malaysia is understated. Prices of some items, especially imported goods, in Malaysia seem to be rising more rapidly than those in Singapore.

In many cases, prices of certain items in Malaysia are higher than or equivalent to those in Singapore. This is just Sophie's World unscientific observation. :-)

Even the threat of higher inflation has become an election issue in Malaysia. Check out the Democratic Action Party's campaign song (youtube video above), which includes a pledge to tame inflation in the country. Is there a need to tame it if it is rising at less than 3%?

While inflationary pressure is rising across Asia, the fast-growing region is not expected to see hyperinflation. Asia is still expected to see healthy, albeit slower, growth despite the increasing likelihood of a recession in the United States due to the sub-prime woes.

Earlier postings:
Rising cost of crime, 1 June 2007
Rising cost of living in Malaysia
, 16 Nov 2006
Rising cost of living in Singapore
, 16 Nov 2006