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the world beyond four walls

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Critics call Singapore an autocracy. But I never felt more free than when I lived there.

By Sahana Singh/March 25 2015/The Washington Post

Between my early life in India and my current life in the United States, I spent 14 years in paradise: Singapore. From clean water and crime-free streets to reliable public transportation and easy access to libraries, the state government anticipates all the basic needs to provide its residents a good quality of life and eliminate the stresses that can impede personal progress. But in the coverage that followed the death of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on Monday, Western media has painted a very different picture. They describe a crushing autocrat that chained his people and stripped them of basic freedoms. My experience was quite the contrary. Outside of this tiny island utopia, I never felt more free.

My husband whisked me and our baby away to Singapore in 1998 after landing a job there, despite my fears about adapting to an unfamiliar culture. When we first arrived and checked into a hotel, I called room service and asked for a jug of filtered water – a standard health precaution. The hotel employee dismissed my concerns: “You can drink water from the tap in your bathroom.” At first, I was horrified by the suggestion. In India, water filters were as common as TVs and refrigerators in middle- and upper-class homes. But here, I soon discovered, the state maintained a high-quality water treatment process that delivered purified water nationwide. Not only was Singapore’s water drinkable straight from the tap, but it always gushed with good pressure, even on the top floors of the tallest buildings. It was my first introduction to a government that works.

In my first days in Singapore, I worried about safely getting around town, especially with a baby. I had never used local trains and feared ending up in a dangerous neighborhood. But what would be reasonable fears for a newcomer in most countries were gratuitous in Singapore. Everywhere were street signs and directions in English, clearly marked and intelligently placed, as if invisible planners were anticipating your next question. On my first try, I navigated to Orchard Road, the nation’s retail hub, and back to my hotel without having to ask anyone for directions.

There was no litter in Singapore’s streets. Every building looked clean and every walkway looked newly washed. The national library had numerous branches, stocked with wonderful books. With my baby in a stroller, I could go practically anywhere. It was like an India I had always dreamed of: clean, green and hassle-free.

How was this possible? Singapore gained its independence nearly 20 years after India, and yet, the island nation now boasts a remarkably diverse economy, the world’s top airline, clean river, and a thriving trade port – all achieved in just a few decades. Certainly, Singapore benefits from being a fraction of India’s size, with a population of 5.5 million people covering just 275 square miles. But by any measure, it developed at a staggering speed. The engine behind that transformation was the governance of Lee Kuan Yew, the man whose vision took this little dot of a city-state “from third-world to first.” Read More

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Singapore is 2nd best spot in Asia, 12th best in the world to die

By Janice Tai/Oct 6 2015/The Straits Times

SINGAPORE- Singapore has been ranked the 12th best place to die in the world, up from 18th in 2010, a global ranking on palliative care has found.

The improvement was largely due to the drafting and implementation of a national strategy on palliative care in recent years, including the training of more health-care professionals to provide such care.

Similar to the first Quality of Death Index done five years ago, Britain topped the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Index, followed by Australia and New Zealand.

Taiwan is the leader among Asian territories and Singapore, second.

The index, which was commissioned by local philanthropic organisation Lien Foundation, ranked 80 countries on end-of-life care, up from just 40 countries in 2010.

It is scored by 20 indicators across five categories: palliative and health-care environment, human resources, affordability of care, quality of care and community engagement.

The EIU’s 2010 index has sparked a series of policy debates over the provision of palliative care around the world. Since then, countries such as Finland, Japan and Sweden have established or updated guidelines, laws or national programmes.

In Singapore, the first index led to the Government tasking the Lien Centre to develop a coordinated national strategy for palliative care, which was released in 2012. New national guidelines on end-of-life care were also unveiled last year.

On top of the index, a new area that the report assesses is the demand for palliative care. Singapore was placed 23rd in this aspect, because of its greying population.

“Palliative care has to be a fundamental pillar of a humane healthcare system, guided by the duty to relieve suffering,” said Mr Lee Poh Wah, Lien Foundation’s chief executive.

“It is incumbent upon each of us to dig deeper and remove the barriers buried in our healthcare systems, institutions and cultural practies as well as demand greater accountability from our governments to improve care for the dying.”

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Singapore must be prepared to handle nuclear developments: Experts

By Monica Kotwani/CNA/27 Sept 2015

SINGAPORE: As the region increasingly looks to nuclear power plants to solve its energy woes, experts say it is critical for Singapore to be adequately prepared.

While Singapore has kept its own nuclear plans on the back-burner, authorities need to engage the public and educate them on nuclear developments in the region.

For decades more than 30 countries have been generating power in some 400 nuclear plants. In 2012, about 10 per cent of the world’s electricity was generated from nuclear energy, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute website.

But the shock of the Fukushima disaster in 2011 reverberated across the world and prompted countries with nuclear power to take stock of the safety of their plants.

Some European countries like Germany are taking their plants off the grid, instead importing nuclear-powered electricity from France. In Asia, plans have been delayed but not derailed. China and India, between them, have almost 50 nuclear plants in operation and are building even more.

In Southeast Asia, Vietnam could have its first power reactors by 2020. Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have also made plans.

“Southeast Asia is quasi-completely dependent on fossil fuels,” said Professor Arnoud De Meyer, President of Singapore Management University. “There are a few exceptions of windmill-generated or other forms of energy but practically all electricity generation is based on fossil fuels, which makes this part of the world very dependent on supply from elsewhere.”

Nuclear-based energy can add security and stability to the region’s source of energy. For Singapore, 95 per cent of its electricity comes from natural gas powered plants. Its cost is tied to oil prices. Read More

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Bruneians unfazed by ‘sensationalism’ of Sharia law

By Sumisha Naidu/www.channelnewsasia.com/10th Jun 2015

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN: Every Friday at 12pm, Brunei’s capital city of Bandar Seri Begawan becomes a ghost town.

Muslims in the capital observe Friday prayers and for the next two hours, every business – from restaurants to entertainment outlets – must remain closed by law.

During the fasting month, a similar scenario occurs. In 2014, the government declared that restaurants will not be able to serve dine-in food between sunrise and sunset, regardless of the owners’ or customers’ religion.

These are just some of the effects of the deep Islamic roots that run through the nation of about 420,000 people. In 2014, the Sultan announced the rollout of a strict Islamic penal code, a first for a Southeast Asian country. Some of the harsher penalties include flogging, severing of limbs and death by stoning.

While Islam is Brunei’s official religion, government figures state about 34 per cent of the population are of different religions, including Buddhism and Christianity.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs said the minorities are free to practice their faiths, but only among themselves. Public displays of non-Muslim festivities are prohibited as this could be construed as attempts to propagate religions other than Islam.

The laws sound restrictive but many non-Muslims appear unfazed.

“This is a Muslim country so we have to follow Muslim laws right?” said Jessica, a retiree.

“I think because I grew up here in Brunei, I’m used to the life here so I think everything is fine,” added Shar Pay, a teacher.

Professor James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said: “Being a minority in Brunei, they’ve always lived under restrictions, even before the Sharia law was imposed. So I think they are used to living with restrictions. They have a coping mechanism built in. The Chinese population has been there since the 15th century.” Read More

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We could end famine if we cut food waste by a quarter – so why don’t we?

By Jonathan Kent/The Guardian

As Miss Piggy once sagely advised: “Never eat more than you can lift.” The trouble is that we seem to buy food as though we intend to do just this and as a result a huge amount goes to waste.

According to the UN, developed countries throw away around 30-40% of all food purchased. And if food waste was cut by a quarter, world famine could be solved. Here in the UK, of the 41m tonnes of food that is bought each year, 15m is wasted.

Supermarkets have an interest in avoiding waste because margins on fresh produce tend to be quite tight. If you make 25p for every £1 of broccoli sold you have to sell three pieces to make up for the loss from one gone bad. So if you have noticed fewer items with reduced stickers, it’s because they’re getting a grip. What waste remains is at least partly driven by consumers expecting fresh food items to be constantly available and stacked in attractive displays – both factors pushing food retailers to order more than they can sell.

The biggest contributor to our food-waste shame is household rubbish, which accounts for almost half the food thrown away in the UK. Of course many of us make bad decisions about food, especially when we’re hungry, over-ordering in restaurants and over-buying in shops. The most primitive parts of our brains, faced with feast, react as though famine were just around the corner.

And yet the game seems to be stacked against consumers. Supermarkets may strive to eliminate spoilage while food is in their supply chain, but once you’ve paid for something it’s not their problem. They’d argue, not unfairly, that they have tried to ensure the food you buy is as fresh as possible to give you the best possible chance to consume it before it goes bad. Back in 2010 Tesco even briefly experimented with a “buy one, get one free later” scheme to help reduce waste. But for the most part, food retail is structured and incentivised to get us to buy as much as possible, regardless of whether we actually need it.

In the developing world only 6-15% of food gets thrown out despite poorer infrastructure, less reliable logistics, hotter climates and inferior refrigeration. Indeed weight for weight, in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and south and south-east Asia, people waste only around a tenth of what we do. The overwhelming differentiator seems to be the value that we attach to food. Having a full fridge to cater to our every whim and those of our families seems more important than not having a full bin.

Until we truly know what it is like not to have enough (and while too many people in this wealthy country of ours have been finding out, few of us really know what it’s like to go without) we’ll continue to throw away food in obscene quantities. And neither technology nor the sight of people leaving lands of not enough for places of plenty is likely to change that.

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Things that could make the Singapore crockpot boil over

By Ho Kwon Ping for The Straits Times/20th July 2015

The most dramatic, almost rhetorical question posed by pundits about Singapore’s next 50 years is the apocalyptic one: Will there even be a Singapore?

This intentional provocation leads to inescapable conclusions: Singapore’s prosperity is not pre-ordained, this improbable island nation was almost stillborn, national service must remain a survival imperative, and the basic principles of governance from meritocracy to multiracialism, must never be compromised.

But other than as a justification for the useful dictum that only the paranoid survive, the question is not a very useful guide for conceiving of all the things which could go wrong besides an apocalyptic demise.

After all, simple survival, though not guaranteed, is not very much in doubt. Singapore’s military capabilities can deter any adventurist tendencies by unfriendly neighbours.

Even if tensions in the South China Sea flare into actual hostilities, Singapore, as one of the few non-claimant Asian states, is an observer rather than participant in the disputes.

As for a replay of 1963-style integration into a larger Malaysian federation, I would put the likelihood as lower than the statistics for divorced couples re-marrying.

What of catastrophic threats to existence? Perhaps drastic climate change might conceivably turn Singapore into an underwater Atlantis – but even then, to engineer a Dutch-style protection system is not beyond our technical or financial reach.

The way I see it, Singapore in the next 50 years is almost certainly going to remain a sovereign nation. But escaping an apocalyptic demise only to suffer a more mundane descent into mediocrity is no reason to be jubilant. After all, that is precisely the most realistically possible danger: There are enough disturbing trends to reasonably conceive of a future where we languish in the ranks of second- or even third-tier city-economies, bordering on irrelevance in a global economy, surviving but not necessarily thriving.

The fundamental cause of this slow-motion demise will be, simply, complacency and hubris: Like the proverbial frog which unwittingly boils to a slow death, we may have no clue of what is happening to us and around us.

As we become an irrevocably ageing and elderly society, so too may we stagnate economically, and be riven by more socio-political acrimony and angst than a common aspiration. But we may also be so buffered from any sense of crisis by sucking upon the riches of the past – which can certainly last another 50 years before running out – that we think the good times can last forever.

The Singapore frog should be aware of slowly rising temperatures in three corners of the crockpot – economic, social and political.

HIGH-COST TRAP

First, the economic challenge is to overcome the risk of being stuck in the high-cost, low-productivity trap now afflicting older, developed economies in the world. The entire economic future of Singapore, from higher real wages to reducing foreign workers to enhancing income equality, is predicated on breaking through this developed-economy trap.

Economics 101 teaches that more education and skills training and more sophisticated technology, yield higher incomes and productivity, in a virtuous cycle.

But for a variety of reasons, almost all developed economies are seeing technology replacing labour, without real gains in productivity or higher real incomes.

A year after painful but necessary measures to reduce the inflow of lower-skilled, lower-income foreign workers, Singapore’s overall productivity has not merely stagnated but, for three consecutive years, continued to decline.

If, in the next few years, the productivity drive does not gain momentum, and disruptive technology displaces more people than creates new jobs, Singapore’s journey towards sustainable, balanced prosperity may stall and we may get stuck in a high-cost, low-productivity limbo.

TESTING THE LIMITS OF THE LAW

Second, will more social and ethnic diversity lead to a more cohesive or more fractious, fractured national identity?

While many people recognise theoretically that freedom of action and expression must have limits, what were once accepted as

“OB (out-of-bound) markers” may in future be intentionally challenged, with no consensus on new markers that delineate the limits of free speech. What could start as dissent by a few individuals can become dissonance at a much broader social level.

A single teenager posting outrageous videos on YouTube has opened a Pandora’s Box. By refusing to accept social sanctions against clearly insulting remarks to persons and religion, and insisting on being prosecuted, Amos Yee has forced both civil society and government to confront a vexing question: What exactly can be prosecuted as clearly defined illegal actions, rather than very offensive but not illegal behaviour? Exactly how offensive and outrageous must expression become before it can be considered illegal? And what should punishments consist of?

Singapore may well see the rise of a new breed of assertive, in-your-face social provocateurs – Charlie Hebdo wannabes – who seek not just to push, but to destroy the boundaries on many socially tense issues.

Electoral or party politics may be of less interest to this new generation than breaking the rules on socio-ethnic-religious taboos of the past 50 years.

The politics of intentional confrontation, much favoured in the West, may become prevalent in the Singapore of tomorrow.

Gay activists may no longer organise just aspirational and inclusive events for the whole community, such as the Pink Dot gatherings; instead, a gay couple may confront the police with clear statements that they are engaging in sex in violation of Section 377A and insisting that they be arrested and prosecuted.

It will be a tense time ahead as individuals intentionally push beyond the limits of the law to provoke a harsh reaction, while the authorities try not to fall into the trap of being forced to clamp down.

Government will need to have the Goldilocks touch – not too hard, not too soft, but just right – in navigating a very emotionally laden terrain with disparate groups all clamouring for their own cause.

Genuine tripartism in civil society-government-private sector relations will be very needed and sorely tested.

POLITICS AS USUAL?

The third and final dilemma is political. While Singaporeans widely applauded Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s articulation

at the St Gallen Symposium that Singapore will have to forge its own answers to its challenges and that the West should have the humility to recognise that its norms are hardly universal, his assertion begs the next question: How is Singapore actually going to create its own uncharted political future?

The history of good governance in Asian politics has not been encouraging. That the People’s Action Party (PAP) has bucked historical trends so that, 50 years after independence, Singapore is the only country in Asia which has not witnessed widespread corruption up to the highest levels of governance, is both hopeful and worrying.

Hopeful because, perhaps, a culture of incorruptibility and not just fear of Mr Lee Kuan Yew has now taken root in the political culture; and worrying for precisely the same reason: that incorruptibility may have been due only to the exemplary conduct of Mr Lee, his peers and immediate successors, and that over time, we will regress to the more prevalent Asian – and indeed global – norms of political self-gratification and cronyism.

History has not been kind to the longevity of founding political parties. The PAP will soon be the most long-lived, democratically elected political party in the world. Its continuing history of incorruptibility and continual leadership succession even after 50 years should, however, give it an edge against its historical counterparts which, by the age of 50, were already corrupt and disunited.

A pendulum two-party system, while considered the acme of political maturity by advocates of Western liberal democracy, can occur only if the PAP has an internal split or if an opposition party actually wins an election outright. There are few issues so fundamentally divisive as to cause either scenario to be realistically possible within the next handful of elections.

More likely is the continuation of a dominant-party state, but with the share of opposition parliamentary seats continuing to rise until an equilibrium is reached at say, a quarter or one-third of Parliament occupied by opposition parties.

The irony is that the electorate – always more savvy than given credit for – has learnt from the past election that government is more responsive to them when there is a threat of losing more seats to the opposition.

The likelihood, therefore, is that Singaporeans will want their cake and eat it too – to continue to have the PAP run the country, but to have a substantial and entrenched opposition to ensure that the PAP needs to woo, rather than admonish, the electorate.

The battle lines, therefore, will be not so much over ideological issues or even the necessity for a strong opposition – they will in fact be over the competency of the opposition.

If voters believe that competency is not the main differentiator between the PAP and the main opposition party – whichever it may be – the groundwork will be laid for a pendulum two-party system.

Whether the Singaporeans of 2065 will be spiritually exhausted, geriatrically challenged and chronically disagreeable; or whether the sense of common purpose and destiny which inhabited the hearts and minds of the earlier generations will still pulse strongly within them, is difficult to predict.

Whether a truly participatory democracy and inclusively diverse society will be graciously integrated or riven by contradictory impulses, will be determined by people like my first grandson, born just a few weeks ago, and who shall be precisely 50 years old when we celebrate our 100th anniversary.

May he live in interesting times…

Ho Kwon Ping is the executive chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, a Singapore-based leisure business group. Educated in Taiwan, the United States and Singapore, he was a journalist before entering business.

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Publicly funded arts bolster the UK economy, study finds

By Mark Brown/The Guardian/13th July 2015

Public spending on the arts brings significant growth to the commercial creative industries, which in turn boosts the wider UK economy, a report backed by business leaders argues.

The Creative Industries Federation published a report on Monday setting out in detail the importance of public investment in the arts, whether that is by national government or local authorities.

John Kampfner, the chief executive of the federation, said spending public money on the arts was crucial, “not just for the good of society, but to nurture some of the best talent for our creative industries”.

He added: “There is nothing ‘nice to have’ about the arts and the creative industries, there is nothing tangential, nothing ‘soft’. They are central to our economy, our public life and our nation’s health.”

The report was published alongside one commissioned by Arts Council England analysing in fine detail the macroeconomic contribution arts and culture make to the national economy. Read More

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The most unsayable truth: museums are not the NHS – they should charge us

By Jonathan Jones/The Guardian/23rd July 2015

It may be time for museums in Britain to begin charging for entry. I do not say this lightly. The British – and it is distinctively British, with few equivalents elsewhere – belief that all museums should be free is a remarkable piece of idealism. It means that any of us can walk into our local gallery whenever we like and look at a Turner or even a Leonardo for nothing.

Sometimes you have to think the unthinkable. If we want museums to prosper and thrive in a harsh economic climate with central government talking about 40% cuts, an entrance fee may be the best way forward.

And it may have a good side.

The news that many councils are thinking about charging for the museums they run may seem like shocking news. In reality it is much less shocking than some of the other solutions councils have come up with to fund shortfalls. I am not upset by this proposal. No – what upset me was Northampton Council selling its statue of Sekhemka, a 4,000-year-old ancient Egyptian masterpiece it was lucky enough to own. This week the council said it would gladly sell it again. It ought to be ashamed. Selling this statue – for £16m – was a betrayal of every Northamptonshire child’s education, as well as an insult to the intelligence of everyone who lives there.

So wait. What if, instead of selling off great works of art, councils charged for admission? What harm would that do to education and public access? None. People would pay the entrance. School trips would go on, as they do now.

To be clear, charging must never replace public funding: it should be a supplement to it, and in no way is an excuse for cuts. Smaller museums around the country may always have to remain free because they simply don’t have the numbers to make entrance fees useful. But as I say this is about enhancing public funding and not replacing it – France both charges for museums and proudly gives them public money. Read More

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How you are killing your IQ every day

By India Sturgia/The Daily Telegraph/!st August 2015

Are you taking Thomas Piketty’s Capital on holiday with you? Do you do sudoku for the promised brain workout it provides? Have you forced yourself to sit through improving documentaries when you would rather have been watching MasterChef? Bad news: it may all be for nothing.
According to experts, everything from our gadgets to our eating habits and ultimately modern life itself are eroding our brains, chipping away at neural pathways and making us slower, denser and less capable of original thought.
Most recently, a study by the University of Montreal, published this month, found that eating large quantities of saturated fat can have a significant effect on brain function, damaging the neural circuits that govern motivation and even leading to a sort of addiction.
Since the 1930s IQs across the world have largely increased thanks to better living conditions, improved nutrition and education. But scientists are now raising concerns that for the last decade, IQ scores have not just been levelling out but declining, and our collective intelligence has dropped by one IQ point in the last 50 years.
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As well as learning new things you need to protect the home front, it seems. So, if you want to salvage what damp tissue you have left, here are some of the surprising ways you could be ruining your brain.
1 Tucking into a full English breakfast
Consuming large amounts of soggy saturated fats (bacon, buttery toast and fried eggs) hamper the brain’s dopamine function, a vital neurotransmitter responsible for motivation. Studies show that fatty diets impair cognitive flexibility, slow reaction times, damage memory and bring on feelings of depression in rats and other animals. The University of Montreal study found that high-fat feeding can cause “impairments in the functioning of the brain circuitry profoundly implicated in mood disorders, drug addiction, and overeating”. Read More

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Coordinated support for vulnerable groups among MSF priorities: Tan Chuan-Jin