Sunday, August 31, 2008

US, Nato air strikes at civilian targets


On 2 August, The Economist ran a story that said "Afghan soldiers are better trained and happy to fight".

22 days later, on 24 August, Afghanistan
President Hamid Karzai fired an Afghan Army general and another officer for their roll in a US air strike on civilian targets and for concealing information about the deaths.

Tensions continue to escalate with new reports everyday of civilian deaths by US air strikes. The Guardian, Voice of America and the AFP reported that the Afghan government is demanding a review of foreign military activities because Nato and US troops have been launching air strikes at civilian and conducting "uncoordinated house searches and illegal detention of Afghan civilians".

US officials said that they killed 25 militants and only 5 civilians, but a United Nations investigation into the casuality says the U.S. air strike on Friday (22 Aug) killed 90 civilians - 60 of whom were children.

Nato's response?

NATO and U.S. military officials insist they take great care in targeting air strikes, but militants frequently hide in civilian areas. - Voice of America

Now, even if they did kill 25 militants in that air strike would that justify killing 90 other civilians or even 5? Where do we draw the line?

This is not an isolated incident. In
July 11, a US missile that misfired wiped out a Afghan wedding killing 47 civilians, including the bride.


As a reader abstract from the reality of this 'war on terror', civilian deaths have come to mean nothing more than just a statistic in a news report.

But the July incident should really make us realise the reality in Afghanistan - that normal people live and celebrate their happiest moments literally in the midst of war and death.

Killing innocent civilians will do nothing to help the fight against terrorism. It will only fuel resentment among the Afghan locals which will in turn drive regular, non-radical Afghans to support the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Can the world then blame these so-called terrorists for blowing themselves up in crowded markets or fighting their own government, which is in alliance with a nation that fires missiles at innocent people and feel justified in it?

It is difficult enough to live in poverty and not resent it. But to expect them to see their innocent children and loved ones get killed and detained indiscriminately by the people who claim to be fight for their freedom and not resent it, is really asking for a magnanimity that is beyond human capacity.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Content to stay mute


The Straits Times today wrote:

"Speakers' Corner...has been around for nine years. It never made an impact on the public imagination, possibly because many Singaporeans have been conditioned to not express raucous dissent or even contrarian views. They are content."

Are we really content? And is 'content' really the reason why Singaporeans are not using the speaker's corner?

We are content economically no doubt. But speak to any informed Singaporean about politics and you'll certainly get the sense of restlessness and resignation. Even I write this with slight trepidation and the knowledge that Big Brother is watching.

The opportunity cost for speak out is far too great in this country because there seems so little to gain and so much more to lose from it.

Indeed the potential loss of wealth and social stigma has been far more effective than any overt coercion to ensure Singaporeans remain mute on politics, or at least keep it to bed time talk.

The straits times article then goes on to say:

"Law and order worries could recede as Singapore gets ever more sophisticated and rich."

Are we assuming too much by saying sophistication and wealth leads to law and order?

South Africa for example has seen exponential growth rates in the last decade and still its crime rates have been increasing. China saw GDP growth rates of 11.1% in 2006 and 11.4% in 2007, and still crime rates are more than double that of the 1990s - China reported 4.75 million criminal cases in 2007 compared to about 2 million in the 1990s.

If we probe further, you'll also find crime rates in urban areas, which are more affluent than rural areas, have higher crime rates.

So where is the logic in saying greater wealth equals lower crime? Often greater wealth comes with greater inequality which leads to higher crime and gated societies that are ever more segregated.

But here's the best part of the article:

"Rallies can be in support of state policies and actions, not reflexively assumed to be challenges to the Government. If Singaporeans want to make a moral stand against war and hunger in solidarity with street marchers in other cities, it might be the beginning of the end to their famous parochialism."

The day Singaporeans are allowed to go to the streets to protest human rights in Tibet or the war in Iraq, would be the day when the Singaporean economy is on the brink of collapse and the government has run out of ideas to stay in power.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Only Fruitcakes demonstrate

Hong Lim Park is to be (once again) the oasis of public political expression here in Singapore.

According to the
PM's recent National Day Rally, Singaporeans will now be allowed to demonstrate publicly, but only at the the Speaker's Corner, located at Hong Lim Park.

I spoke to some of my peers and the sense I got from them is that there is huge skepticism. Simply changing the legislation will do little to encourage Singaporeans to engage in political activities in public.

A professor from NUS said that demonstrating is still stigmatized in the country and the real protesters will not choose this as an avenue for political expression because they immediately lose credibility by going to the speaker's corner.

Demonstrations are in essence anti-establishment activities. To then obediently follow the rules that are aimed at controlling scope and nature of such activities revolts against every notion of a demonstration.

It's like taking the venom out of a snake's bite. It not only takes the kick out of demonstrating, it presents the impression that the whole affair is simply staged.

Take a step back. How many political speeches have ever been made at the speakers corner since its inauguration in 2000?

In 2003, the Agence France-Presse reported that the speaker's corner attracted fewer than four speakers a week, and only 140 speeches were held between October 2002 and June 2003

In 2004, the London Telegraph quoted an officer describing the general interest in the facility as "less than zero".

Consider the Singaporean lifestyle, where people either work or study or shop 90% of their waking hours a day. Who would travel all the way to Hong Lim Park in the heat of the afternoon, or even the cool of the evenings to listen to random people rant and rave about the dismal state of politics in Singapore, when they could simply click away on google and immediately have access to an array of political views from blogs to news websites?

You've got to be either inordinately naive or simply a fruitcake to go demonstrating at the speaker's corner...unless you've got your party crew ready, with a DJ, good speakers and a bunch of fun loving friends, up for a good party in the park.

And if things get a bit boring, there's always Boat Quay to hop over to.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Babies are not a money issue

Last week The Straits Times published a few articles comparing fertility rates in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the UK and Singapore (see: Baby Perks: Do they really work?)

There is no doubt that finance is a key concern among young couples today when considering whether to set up a family. Like in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, the Singaporean government has dangled carrot after carrot in front of couples to procreate to very little effect.

The question here is not whether these financial perks are too small to lure couples into a life time of monetary responsibility, but WHY are we even thinking about babies in financial terms. Is the decision to have a baby a rational choice? And can we really measure the opportunity costs to having a child?

Paulin Straughn, Sociology professor at NUS told me that it is a fairly recent trend that Singaporeans started thinking about children in financial terms. She says we are being bombarded by ads everywhere by banks and various financial institutions about how responsible parents should start planning and saving for their childrens' education. This has reinforced the notion of cost consequences of having a child.

A colleague of mine also told me that when a couple applies to the bank for a house loan, they ask how many children they have and vary the size of the loan accordingly, creating a competition for financial resources between the parents and their children.

At the end of the day, having children is not a rational choice, and simply cannot be one. How does one measure the happiness a child brings to a parent by a simple hug or chuckle? How does one measure the pride a parent feels when his/her child wins an award?

There can be no matrix to measure the costs and benefits, much less the opportunity costs of having a child.

Maybe the government is dangling the wrong carrots in front of its young couples.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Who are we calling terrorists?


"One man's terrorist and another man's freedom fighter" - How often have we heard this phrase, and yet how little do we empathise with it?

I've been attending a reporting course the last couple of days and today's session really struck a chord. One of the speakers spoke (among other things) about his reporting experience in Palestine and for once, I heard someone put a "human face" to this 2000 year old conflict.

He spoke of a family which had one brother in Hamas, the second one in Fatah (which is a rival Palestinian faction), the third brother was a suicide bomber (obviously dead) and the father who works for the UN.

For once, I heard someone speak with a much deeper understanding of the root of this whole war on terrorism. Palestinians have been living under siege for decades, at least since the 1967 war and even before that.


The people we call terrorists today are the children of that generation. They've grown up in an environment of not only constant war and chronic poverty, but worse, they've grown up under constant humiliation and ignominy.


The Palestinian economy is entirely under the control of Israel and they have done well to ensure that the Palestinian's unemployment rates are kept high and their economy remains in the shambles. Simple example is Israel controls the supply of fuel to Palestine. With no fuel, there can be no industry, much less basic utilities for the civilians.

With absolutely no hope or prospect for a decent life, an opportunity to even carve out a career with one's own hard work, what are the young and the future generation to do?

The west, the US in particular and Israel themselves are responsible for this crazy "war on terrorism". They have created the perfect conditions that feed such acts and groups of terrorism. They have fostered an environment where the youth grow up frustrated, hopeless, angry, oppressed, and worst of all, with nothing to lose, because everything, especially their future, has been taken from them.

It is not difficult to see why they would be happy to blow themselves up, along with a few of those perceived to be responsible for their destitution. If this world has been cruel to them, and God promises a better world in the after life, why should they stick around and show us sympathy?

Is that not what our God promise us too? Only, for us, it's easier to like this current life too because we have it good, and we at least have an opportunity to make good in life, have a good career, have family, and be able to provide for it.

It's shocking here in Singapore, how easily we categorise Palestinians as the antagonists and terrorists. We secretly or subconsciously treat Islam and terrorism as synonymous to each other, or we are at least quite convinced that the religion perpetuates and promotes acts of terrorism.

And this perception is not surprising considering how often we hear the terms "Muslim terrorists" and "muslim fundamentalists" in the same breath on the news or in the papers all the time. We forget that terrorism is not an issue of religion, but of social, political and economic inequality.

Why do we not consider Israel or the US as terrorists? Just because they went in with conventional war crafts and bull dosed their way into other people's homes with soldiers wearing uniform, are their acts of aggression not considered acts of terrorism as well?

I'm not saying that we should label Israel and the US as terrorists. But maybe we should pause to think about who we really are calling terrorists. And WHY after so many years, are we still fighting "terrorism"? Perhaps we've gotten this whole terrorism thing all wrong, and it's time we deal with it differently.

Pump money into the Palestinian economy to create jobs and schools, instead of funding Israel's military arsenal for a start.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Touch increases generosity - Not so in Asia I think

Touch me and I'll like you more...IF I was American. Touch me and I'll tell all my friends you're a pervert...BECAUSE I'm Asian.

Apparently a new study done by Vera Morhenn of the University of California, San Diego, shows that touching a person in the US could earn you more trust and magnanimity. The Economist reporting on the study says:

"the level of hormone appears to rise in people who are trusted. And more of it seems to inspire greater generosity towards strangers...the hormone rose in those who were massaged [in the experiment] and fell slightly in those who were not...[and] women appear more susceptible than men to tactile manipulation."

No surprise with the gender difference here, but I'm curious to know if that study was done here in Asia, would the results be the same?

I remember having this discussion with my friends before. They are Asians, who have spent a long time living and studying in the US and Europe, and there was unanimous consensus that Asians do have a different concept of the function of touch.

When I left Singapore to do study in Germany, I was first very uncomfortable with the physical contact my European friends were making with me. The hug (and I mean a proper hug, like a proper handshake should be), the hand on the shoulder, or the hand on the arm when having a conversation, all that made me very uncomfortable at first.

But that did make a difference to how fast I warmed up to a person, and how sincere I could gauge a person to be. Over time, that human touch came to be a natural order of my interpersonal interaction.

Now that I'm back in Singapore, it's the complete opposite. I remember how my friends did find it a bit strange that I was kissing and hugging them more when I got back. And I did feel that the level of affection I had shared with my long-time old friends had somehow diminished, perhaps as a result of my extended absence, but also partly because of the lack of touch. The connection wasn't as strong as it was before, for various reasons I admit, but also because I had grown accustom to touch as a measure of affection, trust and affinity.

People say Singapore is a very cold society. I agree. For all the communal values we preach as an Asian society, we are a people quite protective over our personal space, and the accepted proximity rule.

We're not quite as communal as we'd like to be.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It's war everywhere, but life as usual

Last week we saw Russia invade Georgia, continue to encroach upon Georgian territory despite signing a cease-fire agreement. The latest news today is that President Dmitry Medvedev promised France's Sarkozy that tomorrow Russian troops will start to withdraw to the pre-conflict territorial lines.

Now Ukraine is saying they are willing to make its early missile warning systems available to Europe in response to what's happening in Georgia, and the U.S. is sparing no words in censuring Russia for not playing by the rules and breaking its word.

Move further east and you'll read of more fighting in Afghanistan. 23 aid workers were killed in Afghanistan the first 8 months this year and the security situation has been deteriorating.

To the South, Pakistan is faring no better. The country has been hit by one crisis after another. This year alone, we saw the assassination of pro-democracy (whatever that means) Benazir Bhutto, followed by suicide bombings almost every month, not to mention the audacious attacks on the Indian embassy and popular restaurant in prominent part of Khabul where diplomats and expats are known to frequent. And there's the continued border disputes in Kashmir with India, that has led to clashes with Indian police.


Moving further east, we saw the Thais and Cambodians on the brink of a military face off over border disputes over the territory around the Priya Vihear temple.

In the Philippines, the Muslim separatist group MILF started armed conflict with government forces when the Christians influenced a supreme court ruling to suspend an agreement that would give them an autonomous muslim territory.

I could go on all night. But really...everyday, when I walk into the news room, and I look at the news schedule for the day, I marvel at how far removed we really are from all this chaos and suffering, as we cheered, squealed and squirmed while we watched Singapore get our asses kicked by China in the women's table tennis finals today.

Apparently the world goes on, war or no war, or precisely because of war

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Is Russia the real bully here? - Dedicated to Anna Nikolaeva

Things in Georgia are not looking good. This morning, BBC News reported Russian convoys are further encroaching into Georgian territory. Civilians were film packing into cars and buses with what little possessions they could take with them. There have been reports of looting and abduction of women in some parts. But most strikingly, fear is written on all their faces.

The question is why now?

Russia is reacting in the way it is now because it has been sidelined by the "West" for too long. Politically, Russia has been treated as a second class nation, not because it is poor, but precisely because it is a country rich in oil and gas but not beholden to the US or EU's demands.

In terms of resources, all the balls are in Russia's court. So to create an imaginary advantage, the "West" created the political court and added a whole new basket of balls in their court.

I'm not a fan of autocratic regimes, and most certainly not war. But I find that at the root of armed conflicted is really a very human factor - the sense of self-worth. On Tuesday, Jonathan Eyal wrote for The Straits Times:

"The world rejoiced, and Mr Gorbachev earned his Nobel Prize. But few paid much attention to the feelings of the ordinary Russians. Nobody defeated them in battle, yet their country was suddenly cut into pieces, apparently for no good reason. More importantly, the Russians were no longer either feared or admired; they just became a joke, the recipients of international charity."

It is easy to demonise Russia for being the bully with its superior military strength. But Jonathan Eyal makes a very good point. We often view Russia as a nemesis without realising that they are a nation which was once an empire. The shaming of Germany in post WWI led to the the rise of Hitler and WWII. I dare Russia's fared better in that sense. Russia's leaders that followed the end of the Cold War, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were pro-West and Putin hasn't gone off to declare war on the world.

We have been brought up to think in far too polemic terms and it's ok if Good (despite its bad streaks) has to do evil to remain more powerful than Evil. Whatever happened to the other principle of putting yourself in other people's shoes?

COMING UP: Russia-Georgia Conflict - Guest entry by Brenda Bolgaert

*Picture by PhotoNeil. For more see:

Some of you might know our beloved classmate Brenda from the good ole GSP (Global Studies Programme) days. She's now working in Georgia, but has recently been evacuated to Armenia because of the fight going on in Ossetia.

Hopefully she'll be able to tell us what's happening on the ground over there in a couple of days.

Read below for summary on the conflict.....

Source: BBC (

The fighting in Georgia started last Thursday (Aug 7) when Georgian troops threw the first punch at Russia by launching a surprise attack on (pro-Russia) separatist troops in South Ossetia.

Needless to say, Russia reacted in full force by sending in tanks and troops supported by air attacks on Georgia. Georgian troops were decisively defeated.

Today the two countries declared a truce, brokered by France, but Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says that Russian attacks on people are still happening and Russian tanks remain present in Gori (in Georgia). An AFP journalist reported that Russian tanks and military trucks are headed in the direction of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

The fighting has left an estimated 100,000 people displaced and scores dead.

Brenda...we're looking forward to hearing from you!!!! :)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Hidden havens in Singapore

I took this video last week when I decided to check out one of the "new" treetop walks that the government's built all over Singapore. I started at the bridge near Alexandra road and finished the walk at Habour Front, just behind the MRT station.

It was truly picturesque, tranquil and calming. It was a nice change to hear the sound of the crickets, smell the damp forest and watch the squirrels munch away at whatever it is they were munching on...

In this concrete jungle of ours, it's easy to forget that there are still little oases around where you can retreat to, take a breath, and listen to your own thoughts.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Is the Western media biased against China because it is a rising global power?

The Olympic's opening ceremony and the build up to the event has been shrouded in both praise and protests from the Western world (in particular).

While this major event has been China's chance to showcase its new prowess to the world, it has also opened China to significant criticism on issues ranging from human rights abuse to pollution.

But the West has been criticising China for decades. Why is this time so significant? And is this another case of western imperialism - an attempt by the West to impose its standards of freedom and democracy on a country that is not ready for such an order, which the Europeans and Anglo-Saxons themselves took centuries to establish?

Everyday I read the news from the region, the US and UK, there is an indelible "us-them" complex, with finger pointing on one side and blame shifting on the other. Yet, I have read other academic journals that have very convincingly argued that the rise of China is not necessarily a threat to the US and its allies, apart from their ego.

And the more they try to defend their egos, that have been failing along with their economies, the more they are actually fanning nationalistic pride in China, that has been rising and spreading like a bush fire, both to the detriment of China and the West.

Still, I think we, as Asians, are over reacting a little to all this criticism, which is good for China. If it were not the Olympics, I dare say we would be much more receptive to Western censure on China.

That said, I do agree with the stance that this is another case of the West trying to impose a one-size-fits-all definition of human rights and civic liberties on a country with a completely different historical path and socio-cultural context, not to mention political structure and ideology.

If history has taught us anything, a sudden change imposed from the top can be catastrophic, often resulting in the opposite of the desired outcome. Russia's Glasnost policy (1985) which opened up freedom of press fully and suddenly, contributed to Gobarchev's fall, and Russia today is none the freer.

China must and will open up freedom of press and civil liberties, but at its own pace, when its people are ready and matured enough to handle these new freedoms. Trying to impose the kind of freedoms and human rights standards that the West enjoys on a people who have not had any experience with such freedoms can only result in abuse, and ultimately a draconian backlash from the communist party and further clampdown on what little freedoms the Chinese people enjoy today.

*The Olympic cartoon is from:

Thursday, August 7, 2008

WE KILLED CHIVALRY! Now we want to bring it back...SOMETIMES

The Guardian reported:
Support for gender equality appears to be declining across Britain and America amid concern that women who play a full role in the workforce do so at the expense of family life.

The sociologist, Jacqueline Scott, who did the survey over the past 3 decades said that the "shine of the supermum" is losing its appeal. In Britain, more men and women now think family life suffers if the woman goes out to work, and that sentiment in the U.S. is even stronger.

Skipping through the boring technical bits of the study, it got me thinking about how I have so often heard my working professional female friends (myself included) lament that chivalry is dead. On the other hand, I've also heard my male friends complain that they're confused about what modern women want. If they open the door for a lady, he might risk coming across as patronising and if he doesn't, he's being a chauvinistic pig.

I think we quite live in a befuddled society today, where gender equality is sometimes taken a bit too far to the extent that women want to be treated like princesses but still call the shots like a king.

Are these roles mutually exclusive? Not always, but we seldom think about the greater implications of how we want to be treated. To be treated like a princess inexorably means you're in a position of weakness and vulnerability. To then suddenly switch to being the master, in the position of domination, brings a whole lot of confusion in the mode of interaction between the sexes.

We modern young women scoff at the idea of boxing the female role to that of a housewife. And yet women who are married and have children scoff at other married women who do not have the 'maternal instinct'. Are we women guilty of selectively interpreting the meaning of "housewife"? Is this more about a class complex than a gender issue?

At the end of the day, we women are run by our neurological swings. Some days we want to be princesses. Others we want to be the boss. I'm just glad I wasn't born a boy.

I think I'm about to be burned on the stake by feminists.

Gangs take over in Nigeria's Universities

When I was in university, gangsters were considered to be people from the bottom of the lot who'd usually never make it through high school, much less university. In high school I used to hear of gangsters pissing on the cars of teachers they didn't like and for a while there was a spate of students scratching the principals' or discipline masters' cars with keys.

In Nigeria though, gangs in university make what the "Ah Bengs" and "Ah Lians" here look like child's play. The Economist reported this week that Nigeria's universities are now festering with "student fraternities turned into powerful well-armed gangs". According to a lobby group called the Exams Ethics Project, inter-cult violence killed 115 students and teachers between 1993 and 2003. What started as harmless student groups in the 1980s and 90s became political and violent when military leaders started exploiting these groups to confront the leftist student unions, often aligned with pro-democracy movements.

The magazine says that Nigeria's university system used to be the finest in west Africa, but languishes in overcrowded classes, deteriorating facilities and an outdated curriculum that hasn't been changed for years. Yet money from politicians has been feeding these university fraternity with cash and arms.

We live in strange times when politicians finance violence instead of vocation in universities. But such is the intrinsic nature of politics and the selfish nature of politicians.