Thursday, July 11, 2013

Party political battle or question of integrity?

From the Gallery
Jul 10, 2013 1

Minister Vivian Balakrishnan used the phrase "honourable man" twice in the House yesterday to describe not a People's Action Party (PAP) colleague but Workers' Party (WP) chief Low Thia Khiang.

He had far harsher words for WP chairman Sylvia Lim and her fellow Aljunied GRC MP Pritam Singh, who are also chairman and vice-chairman of Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council Council (AHPETC) respectively.

The Environment and Water Resources Minister criticised their conduct in a long drawn-out dispute among AHPETC, hawkers and the National Environment Agency (NEA), over the cleaning of food centres in Bedok North.

The hawkers involved said AHPETC property manager Tai Vie Shun demanded extra payment for the cleaning of the food centres' high areas, even though the NEA requires town councils to carry out and pay for such cleaning.

Ms Lim and Mr Singh's public denials of town council wrongdoing were "false and untruthful", Dr Balakrishnan charged yesterday, adding that the real issue was one of "integrity".

The exchange between the minister, Ms Lim and Mr Low took place during Question Time, thanks to a question filed by Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC).

It lasted just over half an hour, during which Mr Singh said not a word.

The exchange was significant in two ways.

First, it was a display of the PAP going on the attack. That was also in evidence on Monday when Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim took aim at "prominent bloggers" for contributing to confusion during the recent haze crisis.

Yesterday was also not the first time the WP came up against a PAP offensive in Parliament.

Back in May, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan came down hard on AHPETC's ties to its managing agent and the fees it paid.

Yet the WP seemed decidedly unprepared yesterday, while the PAP side came all set for a robust exchange.

Dr Balakrishnan not only marshalled arguments but also produced a dossier of documentary evidence against AHPETC.

The Prime Minister, two Deputy Prime Ministers and the Law and Foreign Minister were also present, listening intently to the exchange.

Throughout, the WP remained on the defensive, lacking fresh arguments to rebut the PAP charges.

Ms Lim and Mr Low's main defence was that it was all a misunderstanding between the town council, hawkers and NEA over quarterly spring cleaning versus annual cleaning.

Town councils are required to clean food centres' high areas only during the latter.

Ms Lim stuck to her guns, saying "it is still the consistent position of our town council that Mr Tai at no time said that the hawkers had to pay extra to fulfil the town council's annual obligation to clean the high areas.

"At no time was this said, I don't think these documents show it either," she said, of the Government's dossier.

The minister, though, would have none of that. Whatever the case, the crux of the issue was that the WP's official had sought higher payments from hawkers, contrary to what the two MPs had asserted, he insisted.

Yesterday's exchange was also significant for the way Dr Balakrishnan attempted to divide and conquer - by casting Mr Low as an honourable politician who does right by those he represents, including hawkers; and contrasting that with the approach of Ms Lim and Mr Singh, whose integrity he called into question repeatedly.

He pressed his point, with some no-holds-barred rhetoric: "Politics is a contest for power. But you know, the key principle when you have power is - don't take advantage of people under your charge, and always be honest and upfront with your people... When a mistake is made, just come clean and say so. But don't cover up. That's why I have not let this go. Because it is not about cleanliness of the ceiling, it is about clean politics."

Turning to Mr Low, he added: "I appeal to you, because I know you to be an honourable man, I appeal to you, go back, do a thorough investigation of what's gone on and what's gone wrong in your town council and put it right."

Whether Mr Low takes up his suggestion remains to be seen. There was no word from him on this last night. But given the WP's internal discipline, its leaders may well close ranks under fire from the PAP, which could also win it some sympathy. Personal attacks on opposition politicians have rarely gone down well with the Singaporean public.

How the public responds will also depend on whether they buy the minister's argument that at the crux of the whole sorry episode is a question of "clean politics" and integrity.

[This "battle" solves nothing. 

Those who are pro-WP, will see this as WP-bashing on the part of PAP to score political points. 

Those who are pro-PAP will be glad to see the PAP on the offensive, and wonder how the WP supporters can be so blind.

The true "battle" is for the minds of the swing voters - those who in the last two elections (GE and BE) gave enough votes to the WP for them to win.

But it is not clear that WP has suffered a knock-out punch. The case against them is... subject to interpretation. There is no incontrovertible "smoking gun", however much PAP may wish to point to smoke, and the loud explosion heard, and bullet holes. The gun has not been placed in WP's hands, so to speak.

The PAP should have held back. But that's just my opinion. ]

Egypt casts long shadow on global security

Jul 10, 2013


With their leader's toppling, how the members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood will react over time is an open question. Just as salient is how other Islamist movements, from Morocco to Indonesia, will respond.

By Farish A. Noor, For The Straits Times

THE tumultuous developments in Egypt continue, but their impact will extend well beyond the country itself, for what happens in Cairo does not necessarily remain in Cairo. With the fall of President Mohamed Mursi and his Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Islamist parties and movements the world over have begun to ask an obvious question.

Why should Islamist parties even bother to enter the democratic arena and take the trouble to contest elections if they can ultimately be deposed by other non-political actors?

In the immediate aftermath of Mr Mursi's fall, this was the question raised by some of the more radical Islamist groups across Asia, including the Hizbut Tahrir, which has always maintained the line that democracy is a sham and that it can never lead to real changes in society.

Feeling vindicated by the events in Egypt, movements such as these have repeated their call to boycott the democratic process further. Some have gone further by arguing that they can come to power only by force rather than via the ballot box.

That such a position can be assumed by some of the more radical groups in the Muslim world today is disheartening to say the least, but it does raise serious questions about the rationale and justification behind Mr Mursi's toppling. By the 1990s, other Islamist leaders and intellectuals such as Mr Rachid Ghannouchi had already argued that political Islam has to be adapted to a legitimate and constitutional process, and that Islamist parties have to accept and play by the rules of the democratic game.

Ballot box: Mixed results

TO THAT end, he argued that Islamists should abandon the path of radical confrontational politics and accept their being voted out of power should they fail in their task as elected representatives. In countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Tunisia, we have seen how Islamist parties have attempted to capture the state not by the gun but by the ballot box - with mixed results.

Political Islam's engagement with the democratic process has been seen as generally positive by most analysts; it was argued that this was the best and perhaps only way to ensure that such religious communitarian movements would be brought within the ambit of established socio-political norms.

The scholar Olivier Roy was among the ones who insisted that by contesting elections and playing the democratic game, Islamist movements would gradually moderate and reform themselves as they would have to appeal to a wider electorate that may also include non-Muslims and Muslims who did not agree with their Islamist ambitions.

By and large, Professor Roy argued, the democratic process was a positive one that would eventually normalise religiously inspired politics and open the way for the emergence of a more conciliatory, accommodating and pragmatic form of political Islam.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mr Mursi belongs, was among the Islamist movements that eventually created their own political party and took the opportunity to offer themselves at the polls.

A huge step forward

THEIR victory, marginal though it was, suggested to some that the Islamists of Egypt were at least able to make the necessary concessions in order to become part of the public political domain. This was, it has to be remembered, a huge step forward from the days when Egypt was confronted by more violent Islamist groups, such as the Takfir Wa'l-Hijrah and the Tanzim al-Jihad, that opposed all forms of democratic politics in toto.

Though many among Egypt's cosmopolitan and liberal circles were not too pleased to see the Muslim Brotherhood contest at the elections (and even more alarmed by its subsequent victory), it could be argued that this was a better alternative to radical militant groups setting off bombs in public places and threatening to wage war against the state.

But Mr Mursi's fall has cast these developments in a negative light, and Islamist parties the world over now feel that they may share the same fate if they were to come to power some day.

For some of the leaders of Malaysia's Islamist party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), for instance, the toppling of Mr Mursi has caused them to doubt the validity of the democratic process as a whole.

In the words of one senior PAS leader: "Islamists are now in a bind. Though they were a little late in adopting democracy as a means to come to power, they eventually took it up wholeheartedly. But now they have been punished in a way that leaves many of them disillusioned."

The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is therefore something that will inevitably have consequences well beyond North Africa and the Arab world.

Notwithstanding the failure of Mr Mursi's own administration and the accusations against his own heavy-handed approach to leadership, it cannot be denied that the Muslim Brotherhood also happens to be one of the biggest mass movements of the country and that it remains well organised and united in its ambition.

How the Brotherhood's mass following will react in the weeks and months to come is an open question, but related to this is the question of how other Islamist movements - from Morocco to Indonesia - will respond as well. Islamists have to understand that in any democratic system, any party can be removed if it has clearly failed to live up to its mandate. But the Brotherhood insists that it was not given the time to prove itself and that the toppling of Mr Mursi was problematic too.

The larger concern, however, is that if the Islamists of Egypt and elsewhere no longer feel that the democratic process can ever be fair to them, which path will they take in the future?

The choice they make will determine not only the long-term security of Egypt, which has been in a state of crisis for three years now, but also the rest of the world by extension.

The writer is associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

By Invitation features expert views from opinion leaders in the region and Singapore. 


Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The feeding frenzy on BP oil spill

Jul 10, 2013

By Joe Nocera

YOU can actually pinpoint the moment when the oil company BP began to get hosed in Louisiana: March 2012.

By then, BP had paid out around US$6.3 billion (S$8 billion) to some 220,000 people and businesses in the Gulf Coast region for damages suffered as a result of the 2010 oil spill. The money was distributed by Mr Kenneth Feinberg, who had parcelled out the Sept 11 fund, and subsequently managed other victim compensation schemes.

But in return for the payouts, Mr Feinberg had insisted that the victims sign documents agreeing not to sue BP - a main goal for the company, which was hoping to avoid the kind of drawn-out litigation in the wake of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill.

He had also insisted that the claims be for real, documented harm. Mr Feinberg spent almost as much time turning down bogus claims as he did approving payments to victims.

It almost goes without saying that the Louisiana plaintiffs' bar found such a scheme offensive. No litigation, after all, meant no lawyers' fees. Plus, the idea that you could have this giant company, so ripe for the plucking... and then not pluck? So a group of lawyers - known as the Plaintiffs' Steering Committee - persuaded their clients to skip the Feinberg process and sue BP. In March last year, BP settled with those lawyers. As a condition for settling, the plaintiffs' lawyers insisted that Mr Feinberg be replaced by Mr Patrick Juneau, a good-ol'-boy plaintiffs' lawyer himself.

BP also agreed to expand the potential universe of claimants, knowing full well this would likely mean that people whose economic losses had no connection to the spill would receive "compensation". It estimated that the settlement would cost it an additional US$7.8 billion.

On Monday, however, before a federal appeals court in New Orleans, BP finally said "enough". The company had come to realise that Mr Juneau's interpretation of such concepts as "revenue" and "earnings" was, er, unique. So unique, in fact, that businesses that not only weren't affected by the BP disaster but hadn't even suffered losses were getting millions of dollars. Some had seen increased profits during the oil spill - and still got money. Lawyers started trolling for new clients, trumpeting the fact that claims didn't have to have any connection to the disaster. Suddenly, BP was facing the prospect of paying tens of billions of additional dollars to people who had no justifiable claim on the money.

When BP, which is based in London, complained to Judge Carl Barbier, who is overseeing all of the BP litigation in New Orleans, it got nowhere. Do I need to mention that Mr Barbier is himself a former Louisiana plaintiffs' lawyer? In fact, he was once the president of Louisiana Trial Lawyers Association. How cosy is that? I realise that many people don't much care that a multinational corporation responsible for a huge oil spill is being fleeced in Louisiana. But they should, for two reasons.

First, although BP's negligence was unquestionably a significant reason for the spill, its response has been the opposite of the unfeeling corporation. It waived the US$75 million liability cap that federal law allows. It has spent, so far, US$14 billion cleaning up the Gulf and a further US$11 billion settling claims of various sorts.

It has taken its medicine willingly. Yet its efforts to do right by the Gulf region have only emboldened those who view it as a cash machine.

The next time a big company has an industrial accident, its board of directors is likely to question whether it really makes sense to "do the right thing" the way BP has tried to.

Any board comparing BP's response to the Gulf oil spill with Exxon-Mobil's response to the Exxon- Valdez spill is going to come to the obvious conclusion: Exxon-Mobil's litigation-to-the-death strategy - which ultimately cost it US$4 billion rather than the potential US$40 billion liability BP is now facing - was the right one.

Is that really what Americans want as a country? There is one other point. I've written a number of columns about the importance of rule of law, especially in Russia, where it is so lacking, and where that lack is so detrimental to the Russian economy.

A real rule of law gives businesses the confidence they need to make investments. If gives both parties faith that disputes will be settled fairly. It creates certainty.

We like to talk in the United States about our belief in the rule of law, but the truth is that what is going in Louisiana today is not all that different than when a corrupt Russian official creates a fake tax liability to line his pockets at the expense of some hapless company operating in Russia.

"This is Louisiana, after all," a local plaintiffs' lawyer told Bloomberg BusinessWeek recently. "A big foreign company with deep pockets, and you're surprised there's a feeding frenzy? Come on, man."

President Vladimir Putin of Russia couldn't have put it better himself.

[As I was halfway through the article, I wondered, is the writer paid by BP? I googled Joe Nocera. He's legit. Which makes this article important.]

Democrats Plan Challenge to G.O.P.’s Filibuster Use

July 8, 2013

WASHINGTON — In a move that could bring to a head six months of smoldering tensions over a Republican blockade of certain presidential nominees, Senate Democrats are preparing to force confirmation votes on a series of President Obama’s most contentious appointments as early as this week.
If Republicans object, Democrats plan to threaten to use the impasse to change the Senate rules that allow the minority party wide latitude to stymie action.
Through the filibuster and other delaying tactics, Republicans have slowed the confirmation process as the president tries to install the team that will carry him through his second term. But Democrats and their majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, now say they have reached the point where they believe that the only way to break the logjam is to escalate the fight.
Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, one of the most outspoken members of his party in calling for new limits on the filibuster, said, “They’ve essentially said they are going to disable the executive branch if a minority of the Senate disagrees with or dislikes the president the people elect.” He added, “It’s come into a realm where it’s just unacceptable because if the executive branch can’t function, then the nation can’t respond to the big challenges it faces.”
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, is so alarmed by the threat of a filibuster rule change that he has gone on the Senate floor nearly every day the chamber is in session for the last month to warn of the consequences.
“Majorities are fleeting, but changes to the rules are not,” Mr. McConnell said recently. “And breaking the rules to change the rules would fundamentally change this Senate.”
Mr. Reid has held off on forcing the issue until now, worried that a fight over the filibuster would disrupt the delicate negotiations over immigration legislation. It is also uncertain whether at least 51 Democrats would go along with a rules revision given how cautiously senators weigh even the slightest change to how their body functions.
But with the Senate now clear of the immigration debate, having passed a comprehensive bill before its July 4 recess, Democratic leaders have said they see no reason to wait any longer.
Their plans represent a shift in strategy. Instead of picking fights over judges nominated by the president, where much of the tension has arisen this year, Democrats are likely to focus only on agency appointees. For example, they would line up a series of votes on nominees to run the Environmental Protection Agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Labor Department and a politically important labor oversight board.
The rule change they would seek is intended to be limited. It would allow senators to continue to filibuster legislation and judges, but not appointments to federal agencies or cabinet posts.
Democrats believe that their argument — that a president has the right to assemble his own team of like-minded cabinet officials and other high-level policy makers — is more persuasive in the court of public opinion. They also believe that this fight could have fewer consequences for them should their political fortunes reverse and they find themselves in the minority trying to block judicial nominees from a Republican White House.
Democrats are still strategizing over how best to proceed, but the nominees they have talked about putting forward first are those for vacant seats on the National Labor Relations Board, the government entity that has become a major source of contention in the fight over confirmations between the White House and Senate Republicans.
The others are also divisive: Richard Cordray as director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Thomas E. Perez as secretary of labor and Gina McCarthy as director of the E.P.A.
“What’s particularly galling to us is there are certain vacancies that haven’t been filled not because the Republicans have anything against the nominee,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Senate Democrat. “But rather because they just dislike the agencies and they don’t want them to function.”
Republicans contend that Mr. Obama has been too heavy-handed in making some of his appointments, which have drawn scrutiny by the courts. Mr. Cordray and three of the five National Labor Relations Board nominees are, in fact, already serving because the president installed them using a backdoor maneuver known as a recess appointment, allowing him to bypass the Senate. The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Mr. Obama violated the Constitution last year when he made the three labor board recess appointments. Mr. McConnell has called those appointments an “unprecedented power grab.”
Because of the doubt the courts have cast on the legitimacy of the labor board appointments, the legality of the board’s decisions in the year and a half since Mr. Obama went around the Senate and named them is in question. So to clear up any legal ambiguities, the president has asked the Senate to confirm all five members of the board, which rules on matters like disputed collective bargaining agreements.
The potential ramifications for both parties are significant. For Democrats, filling those positions will allow the Obama administration greater certainty in enforcing labor law. And it will satisfy their supporters in organized labor who are concerned about the legal limbo clouding the labor board’s decisions.
Republicans have refused to confirm the board’s nominees on the grounds that the president never should have appointed them in the first place.
But Republicans also see a broader battle they hope will force changes from other government bodies that they believe are deeply flawed.
In the case of the watchdog Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which many Republicans voted against establishing as part of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street legislation, conservatives have called for an overhaul of its structure that would replace the single director with a bipartisan panel. Forty-three Republican senators have signed a letter saying they would refuse to confirm any nominee, regardless of political affiliation, as the bureau’s director.
In many ways the fight over nominees and the filibuster echoes battles in the mid-2000s when Republicans controlled the Senate and were threatening to limit the filibuster. In recent weeks, Mr. McConnell’s office has been sending around excerpts from comments made then by outraged Democrats.
“If they choose to change the rules and put an end to democratic debate, then the fighting, the bitterness, and the gridlock will only get worse,” said one. The speaker? Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The great salary debate

Jul 07, 2013


In his commentary (“Do S’porean workers deserve their wages?”) last Sunday, managing editor Han Fook Kwang quoted a reader who wrote to him questioning the capabilities of Singaporean workers and if they deserved the wages they were paid. Some business owners – both local and foreign – feel the same way as they think workers here lack drive and skills, said Mr Han. And there are no quick fixes or easy solutions to this issue, which will require fundamental changes both in the economy and in the education and training of Singaporeans. The article elicited more than 20 responses, with some readers bemoaning Singaporean workers’ poor grasp of English, their attitude and lack of thinking skills. Others said the comparisons were unfair, and that workers here deserved to be paid more. Here are some of the responses.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The price of not raising social workers' pay

Jul 06, 2013

By Ang Bee Lian For the Straits Times

READING the reports about raising the pay for social workers brought to my mind an incident from the late 1970s when I was a young social worker.

I had helped a mamasan or a madam in a brothel, in a case involving child protection.

When she found out I was then paid the princely sum of $625 a month as a social worker, she said sympathetically that I was to call her any time when I needed help.

Get ready for the Next China

Jul 05, 2013

It's time for the US and China, the world's two largest economies, to get re-acquainted with each other.

By Stephen S. Roach

THE Next China is now at hand. Yet the United States remains fixated on the Old China, unprepared for major transformation in the world's second largest economy.

The US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, slated for July 8 to 12 in Washington, provides a major opportunity for both nations to recast what could well be the most vital economic relationship of the 21st century.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Why it's good to have a nanny state

Jul 04, 2013
By Simon Chapman

IN AUSTRALIA, anyone who supports rules and regulations that make products safer or improve public health can expect to come under attack from critics arguing they're restricting freedom and turning the country into a "nanny state".

These "nanny state" critics are everywhere and they're superficially persuasive.

After all, who wants government to tell them how to live their lives? But scratch the surface and you'll discover nanny state critics are frequently backed by powerful vested interests, like the tobacco industry arguing against plain packaging on cigarettes, or the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) arguing against government per se.

Nanny state critics are almost always self-interested. They're rarely motivated by the freedoms they purport to defend. And invariably their arguments crumble under scrutiny.

Sophisticated Singapore

Jul 03, 2013


The 'S' in Singapore also stands for sophistication. There is so much this vibrant city-state can showcase beyond the Sentosa-Orchard Road-Night Safari offering.

By Parag Khanna, For The Straits Times

PRECISELY one year since my family's arrival in Singapore, the honeymoon seems far from over. In my last column, I had written about Singapore's many hidden virtues and how such traits can help reboot the country's international brand. I continue to wonder why, of the many adjectives that Singapore is associated with - wealthy, efficient, smart, clean, strict - one does not hear the word "sophisticated" mentioned often.

No doubt, one should heed the cautionary aphorism of my first boss Les Gelb, emeritus president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who quipped: "If you have to say you're tough, you're not".

Still, a good reputation is earned through actions and is spread by word of mouth.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bhutan is no Shangri-La

Jul 02, 2013

By Vidhyapati Mishra

BEFORE my family was expelled from Bhutan in 1992, I lived with my parents and seven siblings in the south of the country. This region is the most fertile part of that tiny kingdom perched between Tibet and India, a tapestry of mountains, plains and alpine meadows. Our house sat in a small village on terraced land flourishing with maize, millet and buckwheat, a cardamom garden, beehives and enough pasture for cows, oxen, sheep and buffaloes. That was the only home we had known.

After tightening its citizenship laws in the mid-1980s, Bhutan conducted a special census in the south and then proceeded to cast out nearly 100,000 people - about one-sixth of its population, nearly all of them of Nepalese origin, including my family. It declared us illegal immigrants, even though many of us went back several generations in Bhutan. It hasn't let any of us move back.

Environmental politics, diplomacy and stability

Jul 02, 2013


By Yang Razali Kassim For The Straits Times

IF INDONESIA'S President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's unilateral apology last week to Singapore and Malaysia over the haze came as a surprise, the domestic criticism he provoked for doing so was equally unexpected. Fortunately for Asean, the regional foreign ministers' meeting that was coming up in Brunei around the same time saw environmental politics shifting quickly to become environmental diplomacy.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Getting to the heart of the CoQ10 drug test

Jul 01, 2013

By Andy Ho Senior Writer

A READER whose father suffers from chronic heart failure sent me several media reports about a supplement called co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10).

What heart failure entails is the heart failing as a pump: it no longer pumps blood around the body as well as it used to. This is usually caused by damage to the organ from a heart attack or untreated hypertension. The patient is breathless, exhausted and coughing a lot, while his ankles or even the belly may be swollen.

A report of a trial first begun in 2003 was presented at the European Society of Cardiology conference last month that showed CoQ10 improving heart failure survival rates dramatically.

Abe's '3 arrows' to revive Japan struggling to hit target

Jul 01, 2013

The Japanese Prime Minister is facing a lacklustre economy, political apathy and strained ties with neighbours as he bids to turn the country around.

By Kwan Weng Kin

IF THERE is one word that characterises Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's first six months in office, it is Abenomics.

A portmanteau of Abe and economics, it refers to the Prime Minister's potpourri of policies aimed at ending two decades of deflation and revitalising the economy.

In the past six months, Mr Abe has also sought to actively raise Japan's diminished profile, visiting 13 countries and attending a Group of Eight industrialised nations (G-8) summit.

Even after half a year, the Abe administration still enjoys relatively high popularity ratings, in the 60 per cent range, something not seen in recent years for Japanese governments.

But it is Abenomics that stamped the leader's comeback after a disastrous 12 months as premier six years ago that many thought had killed his political career.

It will be the efficacy of Abenomics - or the lack thereof - that will define the rest of his tenure, which could last at least till the next general election in 2016.

Putting the Japanese economy back on its feet is not the only aim of Abenomics.

Mr Abe realises that Japan needs to become economically vibrant again in order to regain its rightful place as a leading power in the region, especially as it has been pushed by China from second to third place in the world economic rankings.

Last December, when his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) recaptured the reins of power from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), Japan was struggling to cast off "two lost decades".

The first was triggered by the asset bubble collapse in the early 1990s. From 2003, the economy was weighed down by both the decline of Japan's workforce due to the rapid greying of its population and the shrinking domestic demand due to a falling population.

Economic turnaround was further delayed by the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster while a high yen, dampening exports, added to Japan's woes.

Soon after Mr Abe took office, Abenomics became his byword.

It is composed, to use Mr Abe's parlance, of "three arrows".

The first two, bold monetary easing by the Bank of Japan (BOJ) and heavy government spending, aim for a quick fix. The third, structural reforms, is needed for longer-term growth.

Skyrocketing stock prices and rapid weakening of the yen ensued when the BOJ went to work in early April, but the initial euphoria is now over.

In early May, the economy saw wild swings in stock prices and the yen rate.

The latest survey by the influential Nikkei business daily found that only 55 per cent of Japanese thought well of Abenomics.

Said Nikkei in its June 17 editorial: "Since coming to power last December, Abe and his team have continuously promised to reduce regulatory burdens and improve the business climate. So far, they have not delivered."

The much-hyped "third arrow" turned out to be nothing more than a set of lofty numerical targets such as boosting private capital investment to 70 trillion yen (S$895 billion) in the next three years.

As for much-needed tax and other reforms, Mr Abe is presumed to be keeping painful measures under wraps until after the July Upper House polls.

In foreign policy, two major problems have so far eluded him.

Dialogue with South Korea has been suspended since last August when then South Korean president Lee Myung Bak paid a sudden visit to the disputed Takeshima (Dokdo to the Koreans) Island.

Ties with China cooled after Japan nationalised the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu to the Chinese) islands last September.

Mr Abe's nationalistic streak is not helping things. Asian victims of Japan's wartime aggression are alarmed by his contention that aggression has not been universally defined.

These issues must, however, take a back seat to the Upper House polls, an important electoral and psychological hurdle for Mr Abe. Judging from the LDP's victory in the recent Tokyo assembly elections, it is likely to win the Upper House polls easily, ending the present divided Parliament.

Following the Upper House polls, and barring an early general election, there are no nationwide elections on the cards until 2016, raising expectations that his administration will be longer-lived than those of the past six years.

Economics is likely to remain his highest priority for some time to come.

He has promised to flesh out some of his Abenomics targets after the July elections, and also hinted at acceding to corporate and other tax cut demands by Japanese companies to make them more competitive globally.

But how far will Mr Abe be able to go? The LDP does not have a good reform track record. Plus, two hikes in the sales tax due next year and in 2015, bringing it to 10 per cent, will inevitably discourage personal consumption.

Meanwhile, Mr Abe is out to strengthen ties with as many regional friends as he can.

Later this month, he is said to be planning to visit Asean countries such as Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, skipping Laos and Cambodia, which are Chinese allies. He visited Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia in January and Myanmar in May.

He is also seeking to catch up with China in Africa,
promising 3.2 trillion yen in aid and private investment funds for countries in the emerging continent where China has a huge lead.

A lacklustre economy, political apathy and annual changes in Japan's top leadership in the past six years have combined not only to erode Japan's regional presence but also to allow China to widen the gap internationally.

Still, even if Abenomics were to produce a reinvigorated Japan, without patching up its ties with South Korea and China, there is little chance of Japan becoming a major regional actor again.

Mr Abe cannot be unaware of that.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Do S'porean workers deserve their wages?

Jun 30, 2013

By Han Fook Kwang Managing Editor

Do Singaporeans deserve the salaries they are paid?

That was the pointed question posed by a reader responding to a piece I wrote on how median wages had stagnated in recent years despite a growing economy (The Sunday Times, June 16).

He didn't think it was surprising because, to put it bluntly, that's what they deserve.