Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Singapore's glittering Autobahn

Wikipedia pix of the German Autobahn or freeway for illustration purpose only

Highways in land-scarce Singapore are incredibly expensive. According to Singapore's Transport Ministry today, the new 21-km North-South Expressway will cost S$8 billion when completed by 2020.

This works out to an eye-popping S$381 million per km or S$381,000 per metre!!! And it seems to be more than double the price of the 12-km Kallang-Paya Lebar Expressway and tunnel that was built at a cost of S$150 million per km, or a total of S$1.8 billion, last year.

Of course, the cost of Singapore's latest Autobahn could include massive compensation for land acquisition for the new highway, tunnels and difficult engineering feat.

Whatever the real scope of the new highway is, the NSE must be one of the most expensive stretches of road in the region.

For example, Malaysia's North-South Expressway -- the 772 km highway stretching from southern Thailand to the border of Singapore -- cost over RM6 billion when completed in the early 1990s.

The price tag for the Malaysian 'mega' project, which caused a political furore then due to a massive cost overrun and charges of corruption, worked out to about RM7.8 million per km. This is equivalent to about S$5 million per km based on the exchange rate then.

This means the NSE in Singapore costs more than 75 times the NSE in Malaysia on a per km basis. Of course, the cost of building materials and labour has gone up substantially since the 1990s. And the landscapes are completely different although the two countries are close neighbours.

But the question remains: Is Singapore's latest Autobahn paved with gold?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Missing MRT link

Source: The Straits Times

Singapore will one day have the most extensive rail and subway network for any country in the world. The forward-thinking Singapore government has announced plans to spend S$40 billion to double the MRT network by 2020.

According to The Straits Times on Jan 25, Singapore will have 278km of rail link, from 138km today. Its network density will rise from 31km per million residents today to 51km per million - surpassing that of major cities like Hong Kong and Tokyo, and comparable to current densities in cities like New York and London.

Will the Singapore MRT blueprint be completed by then? Unlikely. There's always room for Singapore to create an even more extensive network as the population grows.

A missing link could be a MRT rail track from Singapore to the southern Malaysian city of Johor Baru. It's not a radical idea. In fact, businessmen on both sides of the causeway are toying with the idea.

Such a link will definitely be useful to help ease the massive traffic at the causeway, the land-based bridge that links Singapore and Malaysia.

ST had estimated about 250,000 people enter Malaysia via the causeway every day. This works out to more than 90 million people each year. This is a staggering number as it is nearly 20 times the population of Singapore. The number of people using the causeway is almost one-fifth the 414 million riders who used Singapore's MRT in 2007.

Of course, there is no certainty that Malaysia and Singapore will agree to the proposed JB-Singapore MRT link. There are simply too many complications at the government-to-government level although it is a desirable project. The two governments can't even agree to build a new overhead bridge to replace the aging causeway and resolve a host of other bilateral problems.

And can they agree to a common ticketing system even if they manage to build a MRT link between Singapore and JB? Don't bet on it!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Suharto dies with chequered legacy

Former Indonesian President Suharto has finally succumbed to his illnesses, according to AP and BBC. According to an AP report, he died at 2.10pm (Singapore and Malaysia time) today. He was 86.

JAKARTA (Indonesia)
: Former Indonesian president Suharto, an army general who crushed Indonesia's communist movement and pushed aside the country's founding father to usher in 32 years of tough rule that saw up to a million political opponents killed, died Sunday. He was 86.

"He has died,'' Dr Christian Johannes told The Associated Press, adding that he died at 1.10pm (2.10pm Malaysian time).

Dozens of doctors on Suharto's medical team had been rushed to the Pertamina Hospital in the capital, Jakarta, after his blood pressure fell suddenly Saturday night. Suharto had slipped out of consciousness for the first time in more than three weeks of treatment, doctors said.

Suharto, had been in intensive care with lung, heart and kidney failure since he was admitted to the hospital on Jan 4. Over the past week his physicians had spoken of a recovery, but by Sunday that had changed dramatically. - AP

Suharto's downfall was triggered by the turmoil during the Asian financial crisis in 1997/1998. Indonesia fell like a house of cards, and he agreed to a bail-out package by the International Monetary Fund.

The strict IMF-mandated fuel price hikes led to riots and deaths in Jakarta, and culminated in the political end of the Indonesian strongman, who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for three decades.

Former IMF managing director Michel Camdessus acknowledged that IMF was the root cause for the fall of Suharto in an interview with New York Times when he resigned in Nov 1999.

"We created the conditions that obliged President Suharto to leave his job," Mr Camdessus said. "That was not our intention."

Whether the change in the political scene in Indonesia was by chance or design, nobody will forget the chaos in the country.

And nobody will forget the famous picture of Mr Camdessus, with his arms crossed in what was seen as an arrogant gesture, overseeing Suharto signing the agreement for an IMF bailout package worth nearly US$50 billion. The picture was widely used to personify Asia's loss of its independence.

Suharto's funeral will probably be well attended as part of international diplomatic and state protocol.

But in reality, he had few friends left during his dying days. Among them were the former PMs of Malaysia and Singapore -- Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew respectively -- and the Sultan of Brunei.

His few friends will always remember the man who ended Konfrontasi, which was a euphemism for the war started by former Indonesian president Sukarno against the creation of an enlarged Malaysia during the 1960s.

But Suharto will not be remembered fondly by the new generation of Indonesians and Asians who despise his regime of corruption, cronyism and nepotism, despite the obvious national economic development during his rule.

No Swimming

THE Urban Redevelopment Authority has unveiled plans to create a coastal promenade and a park in Woodlands, which is on the northern side of Singapore.

According to The Straits Times, residents and those living in nearby residential estates can look forward to a new waterfront recreational playground, right at their doorsteps.

The newspaper said URA will be building a 1.5-km long promenade and a nine hectare park along a tranquil stretch of coastline in Woodlands to improve accessibility to the area and to open up the scenic waterfront. The report added that the promenade, in the form of boardwalk will be built over the seawall to bring visitors closer to the water's edge.

Although it's not clearly stated in the ST report, Sophie's World assumes that the Woodlands coastline promenade will be along the Johor Straits as it is located on the northern side of Singapore.

The narrow strip of water separating Singapore and Malaysia is one of the filthiest bodies of water in the region. It's partly due to the land-based causeway, which prevents the natural flow of water in the distressed straits, as mentioned in an earlier posting.

Unfortunately, the two governments have not been able to come to terms to build a new overhead bridge to replace the old causeway. An overhead bridge will allow the dirty water to flow more naturally to the open seas.

In the meantime, the Singapore planning authorities must do the following to help ensure public safety and hygiene along the proposed Woodlands promenade:

1. Fence up the Woodlands coastline promenade. This will stop any person or dog from taking a dip in the giant cesspool and contract any skin disease;

2. Put up 'No Swimming' sign-board clearly along the promenade;

3. Ban fishing as fish in the Johor Straits are probably toxic due to the high levels of lead, mercury and e-coli bacteria;

4. Ban water sporting activities such as kayaking as exposure to the toxic straits could be a health hazard; and

5. Ban all flying objects such as kites or toy planes as they could well infringe the Malaysian airspace and start a new bilateral row!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Indonesian with the Midas touch

Singapore's The Business Times has a profile of a relatively unknown Indonesian tycoon Chairul Tanjung, who is a banker and media owner. What is interesting is that while many bigger Indonesian names collapsed during the Asian financial crisis in 1997/1998, he emerged as a new kid on the block then.

Of course, business in Indonesia is deeply intertwined with politics. And political fortunes can often change suddenly and make a big difference in the land of volcanoes.

Man with the Midas touch

Among business circles in Indonesia, he is hailed as one of the fastest-rising stars, with close links to the new political elite. Yet little is known about the media-elusive tycoon. In his first extensive interview in any media, Chairul Tanjung grants LAUREL TEO a rare glimpse

THERE is no such thing as second-best for Chairul Tanjung. His six-year-old Trans TV station may not boast Indonesia's biggest market share nor the highest ratings, but it claims the heftiest profits.

Likewise, his Bank Mega is not the largest, but its earnings growth is among the handsomest in the financial industry. Last year, Indonesia's No. 12 bank, with assets of US$4 billion, raked in US$63.7 million in pre-tax income for the first nine months, nearly three times as much as in the previous year.

The bank also boasts one of the most sought-after credit cards in town. 'All the top bankers carry a Bank Mega card in their wallets,' he proffers this morsel of information with pride.

It's an open secret that the card offers some of the best discounts for an assortment of top-end fashion and dining outlets, a number of them managed under the lifestyle arm of Mr Chairul's sprawling CT Corporation, previously known as the Para Group of companies.

In just over two and a half decades, he has amassed a wealth estimated at US$450 million to US$565 million, catapulting him into the 18th spot in the 2007 rankings of Indonesia's richest by Forbes Asia magazine, and 15th in Globe Asia's rankings.

No wonder the local media dub him the Golden Boy. Just 45, his knack for making profit is near legendary.

As he folds his lanky 1.83 metre frame into an armchair in his office, he tells BT over a two-hour interview how he learnt to turn dust into gold.

Despite his perpetually tight schedule, he appears relaxed, speaking in his characteristically affable manner as he takes his time delving into details. But for all his languid charm and easy manner, he is methodical in his narration, hardly brooking any interruptions.

'I'll tell you later,' is his firm response, should you jump ahead of his narrative or try to veer off course with premature questions.

He had a humble start. Born on June 18, 1962, he was the second of six sons. A seventh child - a girl - died while still a child.

His journalist father, a Batak from North Sumatra, had migrated to Jakarta early in life and married a Sundanese of West Java origins. While life for the young Chairul was not the harshest, neither was it a bed of roses.

By the time he enrolled in a dentistry course at the University of Indonesia in 1981, his father's meagre salary could stretch no further, and the teenager had to figure out how to pay his own way through school. Thus was launched a career in business. 'Actually, at that time I didn't see it as business at all. It was not to make money, just to survive,' he recounts matter-of-factly.

Out of sheer desperation, the college freshman hit upon an idea. 'One study guide cost 500 rupiah at the photocopy shop. But I knew a friend with a hand printing press that could do it for 150 rupiah. See, networking is very important in business,' he exhorts with a merry chortle.

The pair teamed up to sell copies at 300 rupiah each, double the cost price, but still cheaper than the market rate.

The young Chairul made his first 15,000 rupiah - a paltry sum no more than a couple of dollars, but priceless in terms of a mental boost. 'That was when I realised: it's much harder to make your first dollar than your second million. With the confidence of that first dollar, it's much easier to continue,' he muses.

From manuals, he progressed to hawking T-shirts, stickers, bags and even materials for practicals. By his fourth year, he was the envy of his class. He had purchased his first car - an eight-year-old Honda Civic.

'Oh, at that time, I was very proud of it. I drove all my friends to Pasar Baru - something like your Orchard Road in the old days,' he says with a wry chuckle. 'Most important rule, they must wear sunglasses . Young man, want to look cool,' he quips, showing he is not above poking fun at himself.

Along the way, he found time to run for and win the student government presidency. In 1984, the competitive overachiever also beat hundreds of thousands across the country to pick up a prestigious national award as the top all-round college student.

When he graduated in 1987, Mr Chairul was faced with two choices. 'I could practise dentistry in government service. The salary won't be high, but I'd get a house and a comfortable living. But it won't be enough to support my parents and four younger brothers. They were still studying. So I continued with business.'

In this and many other decisions, it becomes clear that he is guided by a ruthlessly pragmatic maxim: 'What I like or dislike is irrelevant. There's no meaning 'like'. It's about what needs to be done.'

Going solo

He set up a shoe manufacturing business with two friends and was soon churning a tidy profit. But by 1994, he was hungry for new challenges. He sold his shares to his partners to venture solo into finance.

'At that time, I was still a nobody. But that was the happiest time of my life. I was not so busy, had enough money, and still had my privacy,' he recalls almost ruefully.

A chance came up a year later to buy over Bank Karman - a relatively modest outfit. Still only in his mid-30s at that time, he grabbed it and renamed it Bank Mega.

Then came the Asian financial crisis, which finally thrust his business into the big league. While even once indomitable conglomerates began collapsing one by one, Bank Mega not only weathered the storm, but chalked up a record profit in 1998. It multiplied earnings by a staggering 20 times to 240 billion rupiah - a sum that could have bought out Indonesia's No. 1 car-maker Astra at that time, Mr Chairul recounts gleefully.

'But I didn't take a single rupiah of the money. Everything was injected back into the bank to enlarge the capital base. That's how I grew the bank,' he says.

He credits the financial crisis with freeing up Indonesia's business sector. 'Before the crisis, Indonesia's business map was fixed. At the very top, you had a layer of the largest conglomerates. Nobody could touch them. Nobody had any hope of catching up. There was simply no opportunity.'

But the fatal combination of the crisis and Suharto's downfall dissolved the old patronage system between the political elite and their business cronies. As monopolies crumbled and the former business bigwigs retreated to lick their wounds, the field lay open for newcomers. 'It was an extraordinary opportunity for us to grow,' recalls Mr Chairul.

One major sector thrown open was TV broadcast, previously dominated by the Suharto family.

Mr Chairul secured a licence and introduced a new business model. 'When I first built my TV station in 2001, everyone said I was crazy. Because I constructed all the production facilities and put everything in one building,' he says. The convention in the Indonesian TV industry is for stations to buy external programmes and make money from selling ad-time. Mr Chairul insisted, however, on having most of his Trans TV programmes produced in-house, allowing him to control the content and cost structure.

He has the last laugh. Trans TV is now peerless in the earnings chart. Its profit, reveals its proud owner, is more than double that of runner-up RCTI, even though the latter claims the largest audience share.

In 2006, Mr Chairul's media empire expanded with the acquisition of 55 per cent of the loss-making TV 7, previously controlled fully by Jakob Oetama's Gramedia group.

'Five years they managed, five years of losses. Pak Jakob had to pump in 200 to 300 billion rupiah every year,' he says. 'Pak' is a respectful Indonesian term of address for men.

Within a year of the takeover, TV 7 - now renamed Trans 7 - leapt into the black for the first time. 'The profit is big enough, something like a reversal of the losses. Just change the 'minus' to 'plus',' says Mr Chairul with a grin.

On the political front his links are impeccable. He is widely known to be in an ambitious joint venture with Vice-President Jusuf Kalla. Both clans are developing a 12.7-ha integrated mega theme park, resort and shopping haven in Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi and the hometown of Mr Jusuf.

Just on Tuesday, Mr Chairul and his wife joined the VP on a three-day umrah or minor pilgrimage to Mecca. The trip came at the personal invitation of the Saudi King. Earlier in October, Mr Chairul reportedly shuttled to East Java with the President to visit a village under threat from a volcanic eruption.

His stunning success and new political links stand in stark contrast to his modest beginnings, which has led to mutterings in some circles. Another man of clout is now sometimes spotted by his side - Anthony Salim, who heads the powerful Salim Group. Mr Chairul is clearly aware of the gossiping about him, and confronts the issue good naturedly. 'It's OK, no problem,' he says in his easy drawl.

Both the VP and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono got chummy with him long before they became political top brass. As fellow businessmen, he and Mr Jusuf had hobnobbed for years on the commercial circuit, he explains. Dr Yudhoyono became a friend when he sat on the board of advisers for the National Badminton Association while Mr Chairul was heading the sports body several years ago.

No government dealings

'We are just friends. Up until now, I have not done a single business with the government. Not a single contract,' he asserts, in an attempt to register that he was not in the habit of seeking or receiving political kickbacks.

Neither does he harbour any political ambition. Sweeping aside rumours of a Golkar affiliation, he says he is not a member of any political party.

Turning to the Salim rumours, he clarifies that he is a partner with, rather than proxy for, Anthony Salim. The pair are 50-50 co-investors in Grandiflora, a vehicle that controls more than a quarter of the shares in Singapore-listed healthcare company Asiamedic.

Their ties go back to the Asian financial crisis. When the Salims' flagship Bank Central Asia (BCA) ran into trouble a decade ago, it was Mr Chairul's Bank Mega that bailed out BCA with some crucial lending, he says, adding that he also lent funds to a couple of other Salim outfits.

The secret to Mr Chairul's near-perfect track record harks back to the solid grounding from his days in the shoe business, what he calls his industrial training.

He works hard, runs a tight ship in operations, and takes an extremely patient and long-term view in investment. 'In industry, you cannot collect profit immediately, but must always invest it back into your business, upgrade technology,' he says.

The self-confessed workaholic is stumped when asked to list his hobbies. Outside of work, he spends what free time he has with his wife, 11-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.

What about golf? 'Too many holes, too many balls, too many sticks.' His business associate translates this later as 'No time.'

But lest you pigeonhole him as someone who is driven purely by money-making, Mr Chairul reveals an idealistic core that reminds you of the reasons he became a student leader.

It was his faith in his country that kept him here during the financial crisis, a faith that was ultimately rewarded, he says.'For me, I'm always optimistic about this country. That's why I never left.'

Other bank owners panicked and fled to places like Singapore or Hong Kong, leaving bank managers and ground-level staff rudderless. Their panic sparked a mass exodus of customers.

At Bank Mega, however, Mr Chairul as head honcho rallied the troops and got the staff to work doubly hard at drawing customers and collecting deposits. 'Other banks were drained, but our bank kept collecting. And we had no competition at that time,' he recounts.

His nationalistic passion has led him to chair the Indonesia Forum Foundation (YIF), a grouping of the nation's top academics, bureaucrats and business leaders. Last year the YIF produced a Vision 2030 for Indonesia. Among the targets: Indonesia is to become a top five economies by the year 2030, and there will be at least 30 local companies in the Fortune 500 list.

While some critics have panned this as an ambitious pipedream, Mr Chairul prefers to see it as idealistic goal-setting. In fact, by May this year, the YIF is following up with an action plan for the mission.

For he lives by this creed: 'We have to be the best player. Otherwise, there's no need to play.'

Next stop, Singapore

CHAIRUL Tanjung has earmarked Singapore as the regional hub for the expansion of his CT Corporation. Teaming up with the Economic Development Board, he will start by introducing a series of luxury furnishing and accessories brands to Singapore.

The Trans Living group has about 10 brands currently, holding their distribution rights for the whole of Asia, not just Indonesia. It has already set up a showroom in Singapore for Baker furniture, an exclusive top-of-the-line handcrafted collection with clients drawn from the world's jet-setting crowd. Familiar names include Cindy Crawford and Tom Cruise. Other upcoming brands include Armani Casa, Molteni & C, as well as Donald Trump.

Trans Living falls under Trans Corpora, one of the three distinct arms of parent company CT Corporation. A second arm is CT Global Resources, a new venture started just last year to explore palm oil cultivation and agribusiness research.

The final arm, Mega Corpora, groups together all the financial services, such as Bank Mega, Bank Syariah Mega, and insurance and motorcycle-financing units.

Of the three arms, Trans Corpora is the most complex, as it covers a broad range of media, fashion, F&B, travel and property interests grouped into three divisions. Upcoming projects in Indonesia include a fully air-conditioned theme park the size of five football stadiums, as well as a luxury airline. Mr Chairul says fashion and F&B will follow the furnishing business soon in coming to Singapore. The idea is to grow these from Singapore to Hong Kong, China and other major Asian destinations.

Business aside, Mr Chairul is also planning to move his children to Singapore next year for their studies. He and his family are already permanent residents here, says the 45-year-old, who recently purchased a property in the Nassim Road area.

Ever the far-sighted man, he has already started his 11-year-old daughter and five-year-old son on Chinese lessons. Word is that he is eschewing the usual Ivy League route for his elder child, aiming instead to send her to the University of Beijing.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Lingam defence

The latest Off the Cuff column in the lifestyle section of Singapore's Business Times is hilarious. I'm sure many Malaysians and Singaporeans can relate to it. Enjoy and forward it! :-)

Looks like I wrote this - did I?


MY fellow lawyers, citizens and other distinguished friends who may have been caught in an incriminating video or two - greetings. Welcome to our workshop titled: 'Never Say Die Even When Your Face Is Staring At You From The Video - henceforth known as the Lingam Defence.'

Now, this is a very interesting strategy, inspired not by a famous brand of chilli sauce, but by a well-known lawyer of the same name across the Causeway currently caught in a judge-fixing scandal. Upon watching a video allegedly of him talking on the phone and being asked to confirm his identity, he told the court, 'It looks like me, and the voice sounds like me,' but would not say if it was him, or not him, or even possibly him in the video.

Now, any armchair litigator or court kaypoh would pooh-pooh him for trying to pull a fast one. But, my friends, we who live by the mantra 'open to interpretation' have found this to be a ground-breaking defence that, with some modifications, can be used not just in court but in all manner of situations that require deflection of blame.

The focus of this workshop then, is to show you how to use the Lingam Defence in almost any scenario. For example, in the original case, it could subsequently be argued that if one does not look at oneself in the mirror all the time, it is entirely possible to look at a video and think 'that can't be me', especially if one's mental picture of oneself is 20kg lighter and with a more trendy hairstyle. Alternatively, one could also be struggling with philosophical issues, hence he could be referring to himself in the metaphysical sense as in 'Is that really me in the mirror? Or is that just someone else with the same face?'

Similarly, depending on what situation you find yourself in, the same principles can apply. Say, for example, you are presented with a video of yourself having sex with a florist-cum-personal friend. You could delay a public resignation by arguing, 'It looks like me and uh, sounds like me, wait a minute, oh wow, is that really me? Am I that athletic? I didn't know I could do that . . . no no that definitely can't be me. But you know, if it was me, I think I'm pretty hot. But I'm not saying it's me.'

Or, in another scenario where you are caught feeding monkeys in the nature reserve and are being fined $4,000. 'Sir, it may look like me and sound like I was feeding the monkeys, but have you considered the possibility that I was minding my own business when a monkey which did not like the bread someone else gave him, came and shoved it in my hand just before I was filmed? It sounds like I was saying 'here, monkey, have some bread', I was actually saying, 'Eee, monkey, loathsome breed'. Hence, I feel that you should send this tape to an overseas expert for verification and to prove that it was a human who taped it and not another monkey.'

Or, in the case of a chikungunya-carrying mosquito mistaken for a dengue-causing one: 'It looks like me and sounds like me, the resemblance is so uncanny that when I look in the mirror I try to swat myself.'

And there you have it. The Lingam Defence workshop - it looks and sounds like a workshop, but it may or may not have been one. We might offer more, but I can't confirm or deny it.

Snow Jade Mountain

Uncle Fatso has been in China for 400 days on a prolonged business trip. He seems to love the place so much that I wonder whether he will ever return to Malaysia for good.

He's totally enchanted with the country, especially Yunnan. In fact, the picture of the wooden pathway leading to Yulong Mountain or Snow Jade Mountain looks rather picturesque and surreal.

I hope he knows what he's doing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

One less piece of red tape

It's definitely a welcome sign by Malaysia to do away with the need to fill up the white immigration entry form at the causeway and the Second Link as part of a quiet trial run, according to The Straits Times.

While the Malaysian move may help ease the bottleneck on its end, there is another bottleneck at the Singapore immigration.

The two governments must do something more drastic to help ease the heavy traffic at the overused and congested causeway.

ST estimated about 250,000 people enter Malaysia via the causeway every day, and another 30,000 use the Second Link.

This works out to more than 100 million people a year, which is a staggering number as it is over 3 times the combined population of the two countries.

One solution could be a common immigration system, as Malaysia's earlier plan for a passport-free zone in Johor Baru didn't take off.

A common or joint immigration clearance will help ease the flow of people and goods in cars, lorries, buses and trains that use the causeway.

It's extremely unproductive for millions of people to open their car boots for immigration inspection twice, hand over their passports to unfriendly immigration officials twice, bring their luggage up and down from buses or trains twice, and pay toll twice.

But it's a tall order to expect the two governments to work together for the common good of people on both sides of the causeway.

This is because the two governments can't even agree to build a new overhead bridge to replace the causeway and clean up the filthy straits, and resolve a host of other bilateral problems.

In the meantime, many long-suffering travelers just have to think twice about using the causeway!

Thursday, January 17, 2008


By Uncle Cheng

The local economic boom continues despite the volatility in the stock market, which has been behaving like a see-saw in the children’s playground. Walking about Hong Kong I see evidence of a tremendous increase in new retail businesses.

In Central district the sky-high rents make it impossible for poorer newcomers to obtain retail space. Only the big international companies with their famous brand names can afford to exist.

Occasionally you see a new shop taken up by a struggling small-scale entrepreneur but their window displays are usually no match for the extravagance of windows at places like Louis Vuitton and Hermes. Go inside these high-end boutiques, pass the black-suited security guards with their intercom earpieces, and it is another world — the world of the mainland shopper. In one luxury boutique I spotted one mainland businessmen who was escorting six pretty young girls and paying for all their many purchases.

In Causeway Bay there is also evidence of boom times but there the new businesses are different — cheaper products and fast-food outlets for those in a hurry between their shopping expeditions.
As for the shopping malls I suppose it was the huge success of Pacific Place that changed Hong Kong for ever. I recall when Pacific Place first opened its doors, there was much scepticism — ‘the location is not convenient’ was a frequent comment. Of course, the sceptics were not just wrong, they were hugely wrong.

Then came the even bigger shopping extravaganza of the IFC mall. Again I heard people express scepticism about the location. Yet IFC’s first years have been if anything even more successful than Pacific Place was in its early days. The massive, iconic skyscraper above the IFC with its thousands of well-paid workers, has transformed the entire area.

The big question now is if the MTRC can repeat the success of the IFC development with its even bigger venture in West Kowloon called Elements. The International Commerce Centre (ICC) above Elements is going to be even taller than IFC at 118 floors. There will also be new boutique hotels and the entire area is surrounded by luxury apartment blocks. Banks like Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche, are flocking to the ICC, attracted by rents only a quarter of those at the IFC.

What makes the ICC venture especially fascinating is that this is the first time a property developer has tried to attract businesses, like banks, away from their traditional bases on the Island to Kowloon. Massive changes are underway and I suspect that Central is going to be transformed in the process.

I have an interest to declare. Many months ago my entrepreneurial godson Xuan conceived the idea to open a restaurant in Elements. My experience of the catering business is almost zero. About fifteen years ago I did invest a tiny sum in a brasserie-type restaurant called D&D in Wyndham Street. D&D was way ahead of its time, too minimalist for those days.

Anyway I like what the MTRC is doing at Elements and gave Xuan my blessing. If Elements succeeds, I guess his new restaurant will succeed as well -- until the first rent review comes along.

This is Hong Kong after all.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Malaysia, Singapore in New Cockfight Over Water Pact

The satirical TalkingCock has published another article by Sophie's World. Enjoy!!!

by Sophie's World

In a shocking move, the Malaysian government has issued a statement to demand billions of dollars for the water it sold to Singapore for a song by mistake.

Malaysian gahmen spokesman Mr. Cakap bin Ayam said it now has a sound legal case to pursue the contentious matter, which has remained unresolved since the 1990s.

"We have found a new way to deal with the legalistic Singapore gahmen. It's called the law of mistakes," he said with a straight face.

When prodded, Mr Ayam cited the current case of a poor hawker in Singapore who had to repay Singapore's Housing Done Badly (HDB) S$18,000 for wrongful compensation by the gahmen agency more than four years ago. The HDB issued a notice this week to Madam Lee Ah Yam over a contract that was signed nearly 12 years ago, according to Singapore gahmen-controlled The States Times on 12 January 2008.

The Malaysian spokesman said: "How can suka suka (simply) ask for money back one? She has already spent the money, lah!"

"We shall use the same principle and demand the money for the cheap water we sold to Singapore by mistake since the 1960s. We had wanted to exercise our right to review the price of the water in the mid-1980s but we forgot lah. I admit it was our mistake."

"But tak apa (never mind). They can ask for money back based on their mistake. We also can," Mr Ayam added.

In a swift rebuttal, Singapore gahmen spokesman Ms Ban Vanity dismissed the fresh claim by Malaysia.

"This is utter nonsense. A deal is a deal. How can the Malaysian gahmen act retroactively?" she thundered.

Ms Vanity dismissed the suggestion that Singapore's own HDB had acted retroactively in claiming the money from Madam Lee.

"The circumstances are completely different. Malaysia didn't act within their right to do so after more than 10 years. We acted against Madam Lee in just four years after the mistake was made.

"Therefore, there's a fundamental difference in the two cases. We realised our mistake earlier and acted against the hawker. Malaysia never even realised that they had made a mistake in the water pact," Ms Vanity added.

Furthermore, she pointed out that it's impossible to trace the flow of the water Singapore bought from Malaysia at 3 Malaysian sen per thousand gallons, unlike the Singapore gahmen's payout to Madam Lee.

"We have recycled the Malaysian water so many times, and some became NEWater. How can they claim we are now drinking cheap Malaysian water? I rest my case," Ms Vanity said triumphantly.

Old friends

It's gratifying to see two of Asia's greatest leaders and former premiers -- Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Dr Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia -- rushing to the deathbed of former Indonesian president Suharto.

All three former statesmen, who are already in their 80s, were the longest-serving leaders of their countries respectively.

Dr Mahathir served 22 years before stepping down in 2003. Kuan Yew served 31 years and quit in 1990. Former Indonesian strongman Suharto ruled for 31 years as well before he was unceremoniously booted out of office following massive street demonstrations in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s.

It's heart warming to see that both Dr Mahathir and Kuan Yew regard Suharto as a close friend. Dr M reportedly shed tears but didn't say anything publicly in Jakarta, while Kuan Yew defended Suharto's legacy.

In an almost eulogy-like statement, Kuan Yew reportedly said: "In 1965, he acted decisively. He saved Indonesia from further going down that slippery road. From 1967, when he became president, right up to 1997, the economy grew and Indonesia was on the point of taking off."

He added: "And then when confidence was lost after the Thai baht crisis, people wanted to pull their money out, and the whole thing collapsed. It was not his fault. Yes, there was corruption. Yes, he gave favours to his family and his friends. But there was real growth, real progress."

It's unlikely that Suharto will survive as his vital organs have failed. He's not likely to be remembered fondly by the new generation of Indonesians who despise his regime of corruption, cronyism and nepotism despite the obvious national economic development during his rule.

But the grand old men of Malaysia and Singapore will continue to pray for Suharto.

One question remains about the two leaders of Singapore and Malaysia: Will Kuan Yew rush to visit Dr Mahathir or vice versa?

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Giant cesspools

The Straits Times had a comprehensive report yesterday about the Three Gorges Dam project along the mighty Yangtze River in China -- the biggest dam in the world when completed in less than a year.

Despite the obvious potential of a clean source of energy via the hydroelectric dam, the report noted the tremendous cost associated with the project. One major worry, according to the report, is the long-term accumulation of pollutants in the vast 660km-long dam reservoir. The newspaper said sewage, fertiliser run-off and other domestic waste washed down from populated areas will be locked in instead of being flushed out to the sea.

Someone should do a similar study on major bodies of water in Singapore and Malaysia.

One major project is the Bakun Dam in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. The project will flood an area three times the size of Singapore when it is completed. The project, which will be the biggest hydroelectric dam in Asia ex-China, is still on track despite massive environmental outcry in the last two decades or so.

The most polluted body of water in the region is undoubtedly the distressed Straits of Johor. Flow of water in the narrow strip of water separating the two countries has been blocked for more than eight decades by the land-based causeway that connects southern Malaysia and Singapore.

Massive amount of pollutants continue to be discharged into the straits by drains and rivers at the Malaysian end. A Malaysian newspaper report had earlier said that the straits has high levels of lead, mercury and e-coli bacteria.

Water in the straits has been stagnant as the causeway does not allow water to flow freely. Water in the cesspool will remain stagnant for a long, long time.

This is because the governments of Singapore and Malaysia have not been able to reach an agreement ever since Malaysia mooted an overhead bridge project in 1996 to replace the causeway. That's 12 years ago!

Singapore has always maintained that there is no need to spend extra money as the causeway is still useful. But there is also suspicion that its reluctance is due to fears of opening up the straits to ships. Small ships and barges could theoretically bypass Singapore, which is the major shipping hub in the region, and sail from the South China Sea to the Straits of Malacca via the Straits of Johor.

Such a concern is not entirely valid. There is little time or cost saving from using the Straits of Johor as the new sea lane as the water is shallow and the straits meandering.

But as noted in an earlier posting, there is tremendous benefit from cleaning up the Straits of Johor for people on both sides of the causeway.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Eric Khoo up close and impersonal

There's plenty of stuff about his movies but very little about Eric Khoo the man and his family in the latest Raffles Conversation in The Business Times today.

There was a glimpse about his personal life: He did not look to his family to fund his films, how he got interested in films and his colourful description of his children. But it's hazy in this article as to what inspired the cinematic style of one of the richest men in Singapore.

According to a Wikipedia entry, Khoo's films explore a set of hard-hitting themes, including a sense of alienation in contemporary Singapore, nostalgia for a humane past, and the centrality and complexity of human sexuality.

"Influenced by Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Khoo often features a complex anti-hero as the protagonist of his films: the lonely old man who commits suicide on his birthday in Symphony 92.4, the pork-seller in Carcass who takes comfort in television dramas and regular sex with a prostitute, the outcast necrophilic hawker in Mee Pok Man, the model citizen who breaks down in 12 Storeys - all dysfunctional individuals struggling to cope in a rigid and yet fast-paced society administered by harsh norms."

And why was the rich man so engrossed with marginalised characters in society? There's plenty of interesting characters in the upper crust of society too.

For instance, the Khoo family history is as colourful as Eric's movies. Eric was said to have inherited the lion's share of his family fortune following the death of Khoo Teck Puat, who was the richest man in Singapore, in 2004.

The bulk of the family wealth probably came from the sale of its 12% stake in Standard Chartered Bank to Singapore government investment arm for an undisclosed sum in 2006. The stake was estimated to be worth US$4 billion then. In addition, the family controls Singapore landmarks such as Goodwood Park Hotel.

Will Eric make a movie about the rich in Singapore as well?

Eric Khoo's movie magic
Award-winning filmmaker tells PARVATHI NAYAR why his movies are personal and always about Singapore

'I WOULD love my films to travel and all that, but why not keep it as something about ourselves, keep it local? We are, after all, a nation filled with 'tasty' characters,' says Singapore's celebrated filmmaker Eric Khoo, explaining why all his movies are personal, are centred on Singapore, and are filled with intriguing Singaporean protagonists, including his latest, in Tamil, titled My Magic.

As a director, Khoo is credited with jumpstarting the Singapore film renaissance in the mid-90s with his first feature film, Mee Pok Man (1995). He is also credited, as a producer, with helping keep alive Singapore's nascent film industry, by encouraging new Singapore talent such as Royston Tan.

Khoo's contributions to Singaporean cinema have not gone unnoticed. Born in 1965, Khoo was the first recipient of the Young Artist's Award for Film in 1997. Ten years later, he was awarded the nation's highest arts honour, the Cultural Medallion in 2007.

Talking about it makes him nostalgic. 'When I was told I had got the award, of course I was very happy. As someone who always looks at dates, timelines, and reflects on the past, it brought to mind the time when Haresh Sharma and I won the Young Artist's Award. The Cultural Medallion winners then seemed pretty old to me. I remember wondering whether we would have to wait so long to receive that honour, if we would ever receive it, and if we would still keep at our craft. As passionate as I am about film, you never really know if you can carry on. So the really important thing is that 10 years later, touchwood, we are still at it.'

In Khoo's books, it is first, foremost and finally, 'all about the work'. 'Making a film is like a father-and-son relationship, you do the best you can for your 'child', then it has to go out into the world, where you hope it will inspire people. So you don't make films to win awards, but, of course, it's great when you get them.'

From director to producer

Receiving the Cultural Medallion doesn't bring with it the burden of 'responsibility' - a word many creative people find anathema anyway - still, it is a validation that 'I've been on the right track'.

The cinematic track that Khoo has travelled has been somewhat unusual. He switched from direction to production despite his films doing well - his second feature, 12 Storeys (1997), picked up a clutch of awards, including the FIPRESCI Award, and was invited officially to participate in the 50th Cannes Film Festival.

'I took a backseat after that and turned to film production. Why? Because I was interested in the work of other Singapore filmmakers. I wanted to 'feel' what the younger crop here had, and how I could help them. As a producer, you have an interesting aerial perspective rather than being on the ground level, at the shoot.'

Through his company, Zhao Wei Films, founded in 1995, Khoo was executive producer for well received TV series like Drive (1998) and Seventh Month (2004); he was also the producer for a range of successful films such as Jack Neo's Liang Po Po (1999), One Leg Kicking (2001) and Royston Tan's 15 (2003) and 881 (2007).

Still, 'after an absence, you miss directing', he says. 'I was writing and looking at film projects in those seven years, but didn't want to direct them just yet.'

Khoo emerged from his director hiatus in 2004 with his third feature Be With Me. Friends and colleagues in the cinematic world such as film critic Tony Raynes were supportive. 'It was nice to have people on your side, a little group somewhere that wanted you to make another film,' says Khoo, but admits to feeling 'rusty' and not a little nervous at the time.

He needn't have worried. Be With Me received lots of positive reviews, awards and foreign distribution deals. Impressively, it was selected as the opening film for the Directors' Fortnight Cannes 2005. Khoo may not have been a prolific filmmaker, but all his films have made lasting impressions.

Be With Me weaves together three separate stories that interlock only through a desire shared by the different protagonists - to be with the one each loves. The stories are fictitious, except for that of Theresa Chan.

'The person who nagged me the most to make Be With Me was Theresa Chan, whom I met in the summer of 2003 at a wedding dinner. I could tell that she couldn't hear and see, but she was very animated and I thought, 'What an inspiring lady'. She asked who else was seated at the table and when it came to my turn, she was told I was a filmmaker. She had heard of me; then she looked towards me and said, 'you have to make a film about me'.'

Khoo said to the person who was 'translating' for Ms Chan: 'Tell her I'll make the film if she agrees to act in it. He writes this on her hand, right; within a second, she lifts her glass, points it in my direction and says 'Cheers, we're on'.'

It was an extraordinary moment. Before this incident Khoo had been thinking about silent movies; suddenly, an appropriate subject for such a film had fallen, unsought, into his lap.

Khoo shares with obvious affection Ms Chan's tenacity in pursuing the film. Eventually, 'her life story was so inspiring that I decided to make it, documentary style, and fit it with the two fictional strands I had in mind'.

'The actual inspiration for Be With Me came from a short conversation I had with my 13-year-old nephew from Paris, who told me how much he was in love. I thought it was so cute. I was a bit drunk at the time and it got me going, thinking about first loves - and of a story about love in youth, middle and old age, made as a silent film, to venture back to the style of my short films, which were basically silent.'

Khoo likes to follow the rhythm of the script, but, he laughs: 'I am quite lazy, I don't like writing dialogue. What I enjoy is coming up with the skeleton, and then let someone else flesh it out for me.'

A lot of the 'dialogue' in Be With Me is informed by the Singaporean passion for communicating via SMS, 'which means we can keep in touch easily, but as easily cut someone out of our lives'.

The success of Be With Me prompted an endless round of queries about Khoo's next film, on different occasions over the past few years, such as in South Korea during the release of Be With Me there, or at the retrospective of his films staged by the Seoul Independent Film Festival, or the Jeonju Digital Film Festival for which he made No Day Off, the story of an Indonesian maid.

Khoo decided he would first 'make a food film that revolved around three stories, including that of a food critic'. 'One night, when I was talking about my concept in my kitchen, my eldest son, 13-year-old Zhao Wei, walked in and overheard the conversation. He said, 'You are doing another three-story film like Be With Me. Dad, have you run out of ideas? You have to re-invent yourself.' Then he walked out.'

Khoo heeded the advice; appropriately enough, he went back to another story he had in mind, about the love between a father and son, about magic and fire-eaters.

My Magic, the film that Khoo is now working on, is based on a real person, a fire-eater named Francis Bosco. 'I met him some 10 years ago at a free booze party at Mohamed Sultan Road. I remember this mountain of a man coming through, eating fire; when he passed by us, I could feel the heat.'

Intrigued, Khoo bought him a drink, and kept in touch over the occasional beer. When Khoo brought him to Wagon Wheel - the noisy bar where we are talking - five years ago, 'he scared the patrons by eating glass and making a piece of paper fly; everyone asked me whether he had a toyol or tame ghost with him'.

When we first talked about the film, at the end of November last year, Khoo was getting ready to shoot in early December 'and the script is not yet done', he chuckled. As My Magic's dialogue is in Tamil, he says: 'I won't know what's going on, so I've told Francis and Jathis - who acts as his son - you better get it right.'

Khoo has always trusted the actors with the actual dialogue. 'We do some workshopping, but after that, as long as the actors get the point of what is happening in that scene, you must leave them to say it in their way. It turns out so much better.'

Fast forward to the end of December and he shares: 'It was my fastest shoot to date - we wrapped in eight days and will shoot one more day in January for the magical ending scene. It was a joy working on my first Tamil language film.'

As to why he is in the movies at all, he says: 'I blame it on my mother! Every week, she'd watch two or three movies, and drag me along to them, even though I was just two years old. My childhood was all about genre films such as James Bond, horror and spaghetti Westerns. A pivotal movie in my teens was Taxi Driver - I then realised cinema was more than just monsters or dinosaurs!

'As a little boy, I would draw comics, make up stories. One day, when I was looking around for my mum's old comics, I came across her Super8 camera. The camera still had a cartridge of film, so I just put in batteries and started to film.'

A breakthrough moment came when young Eric read about stop motion photography in a magazine. He decided to enlist the services of his fully articulated action figure GI Joe. 'I'd spend afternoons just tweaking the figure and filming it, to make a stop motion animation film where my GI Joe came alive. I'd show it to the old folks who would say 'How do you do it?' It was like my magic.'

Much later, all grown up, he pursued his story-telling passions through 'shooting commercials, and doing cartoons of a character called Condom Boy for Philip Cheah's Big O magazine. My cinematic career owes a lot to him and the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF); without the Singapore Short Film Competition, I don't think there would be any of us filmmakers. All of us started by making shorts that won awards there. Importantly, foreign film festival programmers would attend and see our stuff. '

Khoo's Barbie Digs Joe became the first Singapore short to travel to festivals abroad, but the short that gained him instant headlines, a ban in Singapore, and a Special Achievement Award at the 1994 SIFF was Pain (1994), about a sado-masochist. The award came with a sponsorship deal for his next film. Rather than a short, he convinced his sponsors to let him make Mee Pok Man. Such incident-chains of cause and effect convince Khoo that 'there's such a thing as God and fate and destiny, things happen for a reason, and one thing does lead to another'.

Though born into a wealthy family - Khoo is the son of the late billionaire Khoo Teck Puat - he did not look to his family to fund his films. 'I could never get money from someone who did not believe in the medium, in my film project. That would be totally wrong,' he says, adding with a grin: 'I did ask my father for some money to make a film once, and he offered me $2,000!'

Khoo has always worked on tight budgets, thanks to short shoots and limited locations. Mee Pok Man was done for under $100,000; though investors were interested after its success, Khoo nevertheless made 12 Storeys in 14 days at a single apartment block for $280,000. Be With Me was about $300,000 and while My Magic is not finished, it is unlikely to exceed those figures.

As for the future, it sure looks busy. Last year, Khoo was appointed a board member of the Media Development Authority and the NYU Tisch School of Arts Asia. Projects beyond My Magic include a new comic called The Table, a series of vignettes - with a twist - based on an old coffee shop marble table, as well as plans to produce films for Royston Tan and Brian Gothong Tan.

'We will always support emerging directors of Singapore, but going forward, Zhao Wei films will also work collaboratively, with filmmakers outside Singapore as well.'

As to his own next film, perhaps horror is a genre he will try his hand at. 'I'm a real horror junkie,' he admits. In a nicely Singaporean blend of old and new, Khoo is both superstitious and a state-of-the-art techie. So, 'I wouldn't do a film with ghosts and spirits - I'm too scared. My biggest superstition is that it's too dangerous to direct a supernatural film, you never know what will go wrong with it.' But equally, 'I embrace technology', says the director who is a known advocate of digital film. 'For me, it's going to be high definition from now on.'

Leisure pursuits

Movies, music, visits to toy shops with his sons, cooking at the weekends - these are some of the ways Khoo unwinds. 'I love cooking,' says the director, who enjoys playing with sauces, stocks, soups, eggs. One Khoo special is a nutritious pasta with tomatoes, bacon, chillies, garlic and anchovies; another favourite is the perfect soft-boiled egg: 'I know how to make that, a lot of people don't,' he says with obvious relish.

Khoo has four sons, and he's very involved in their lives. 'They are gorgeous and I love being a Dad. My sons actually inspire me a lot. They are just like the Beatles - the eldest is like Paul McCartney and he is already making short films on his computer; the second, James is like John Lennon, the rebel; the third one, Christopher, is the dark horse like George Harrison; and Lucas is the joker who can get away with murder, just like Ringo Starr.'

Khoo's love for the movies is a passion he seeks to share with his kids: 'When my kids were small, I'd show them movies that made an impact on me, like Saving Private Ryan, and ask them to watch it for style and cinematic expression. And play Beach Boys music to it, so it was not scary.'

As his three older kids are into magic, they were the perfect sounding board for his newest film about real bonds and fake illusions. Khoo shares with pride how 10-year-old Christopher read the My Magic script, then 'before going to sleep, he came trotting in and said 'I like it. I can't describe why, Papa, but there's really something there.' Thanks to what he said, you know, I slept really well.'

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Causeway blues again, Part 2

As mentioned earlier, policy makers can be real small-minded, failing to take into account the broader interest.

According to The Straits Times tonight, motorists using the Second Link bridge, which connects Singapore and Malaysia on the western side of Singapore, will have to pay more in tolls from next month.

The report cited Singapore's Land Transport Authority as saying that the higher rates are 'pegged to those set by Malaysia'.

At the Second Link, charges will go up by as much as 30 per cent. Tolls for motorcycles, cars and light commercial vehicles will be 70 Singapore cents, S$4.60 and S$10.50 respectively from Feb 1. They were previously 60 Singapore cents, S$3.70 and S$8.30. For big lorries, buses and taxis, Second Link charges will be S$21, S$5.60 and S$3.50 respectively - from S$16.60, S$4.40 and S$2.70. And that's only the toll payable at the Singapore end!

The ST report said "those who opt to use the slightly more congested Causeway will mostly see no change."

Er, slightly more congested? The causeway is way, way more congested than the Second Link. Check out the live webcam provided by one.motoring at the two bridges if you don't believe me, especially in the mornings, evenings, and during weekends.

As argued in an earlier posting, it doesn't quite make sense for Singapore to match the toll imposed by Malaysia simply because the two countries built the second link bridge jointly in the late 1990s.

It also doesn't make sense to increase toll at the under-utilised Second Link as it would merely drive traffic to the already over-utilised and cheaper causeway. Both sides should be lowering toll at the Second Link to encourage more people to use the Second Link, which is not as well located as the causeway for residents of the two countries.

Policy makers of the two countries have obviously failed to take into account the massive cross-border flow of people and goods via the causeway. Both sides have simply acted in their governments' narrow interest without taking into account the hardship imposed on people on both sides of the causeway. The time and productivity wasted as a result of being stuck in the traffic gridlock on the causeway far outweighs the gains to the government in the form of higher toll collection.

Malaysian and Singapore transport officials have obviously not made much headway in easing traffic at the causeway. Malaysian lorries continue to enter Singapore via the causeway although there was a plan to divert them to the Second Link temporarily to facilitate construction work of the immigration complex at the Malaysian end.

Why should we all pay for the two governments' failure to ensure a smooth lane for motorists traveling between the two countries?

Archived posts:
Causeway blues again (1 December 2007)
Causeway blues (20 January 2007)
Cleaning up Johor Straits good for Singapore too (7 September 2007)