the world beyond four walls


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


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.”


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Government reviewing benefits for unwed mothers

By Kok XIng Hui/The Straits Times/280715

SINGAPORE – Unwed mothers could, in the future, have the same benefits as married mums.

The Government is reviewing some of the discrepancies in benefits, such as how unwed mothers are given eight weeks of paid maternity leave, instead of the 16 weeks received by married mothers.

This was disclosed by Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin in an interview on Monday (July 27).

 Mr Tan said he had asked his colleagues to review the policies when he joined the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) in April, and that he hopes to make announcements on it before the Budget next year.

“I’ve a great deal of sympathy for single unwed mothers,” he said. “Some of the differentiation that exists, could we harmonise it? So that’s being reviewed.”

Unwed mothers also do not get perks such as the Baby Bonus cash gift and parenthood tax rebates, and have to wait till they are 35 years old to buy a HDB flat under the singles scheme.

While these differences have been raised many times, including in Parliament, the answer has always been that the Government can only move as far as society is prepared to.

Just in March, then Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing had said that Singapore needs to find a balance between supporting unwed mothers as well as the policy to support parenthood within marriages.

When asked if he thought Singapore society is now prepared to change its stance, Mr Tan said: “My sense is that the public understands and sympathises with single unwed mothers.”

He added that there is more support available for unwed mothers than maternity leave and baby bonuses. “It’s about healthcare availability, it’s about education opportunities and the support that comes with it.”

When probed about how extensive the review will be, he said the issues – such as housing, education, health, employment – are being discussed from a “whole-of-government perspective”.


More patients choosing C-class wards for subsidies

By Salma Khalik/The Straits Times/18th July 2015

atients are increasingly turning to C-class wards, which offer the highest subsidy levels of 65 to 80 per cent of the hospitalisation bill.

In 2000, 26 per cent of all public hospital patients opted for C class. Last year, 46 per cent did so.

Combined with B2 class, the proportion of public hospital patients choosing subsidised care went up from 70 per cent of the total number in 2000, or 194,000 patients, to 80 per cent last year, or 272,000 patients.

Mr Lo Chun Meng, 84, who was admitted to Changi General Hospital when he fainted while shopping in Bedok, said he opted for C class because it was the cheapest. He added: “The place is very nice.”

The high demand for subsidised care comes despite most people having insurance for treatment in private wards or hospitals.

Health economist Phua Kai Hong of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said: “Many Singaporeans are risk-averse – kiasu – and buy more insurance than necessary, for peace of mind.

Read More


Singapore not ready for same-sex marriage as society is still conservative: PM Lee

The Straits Times/June 5 2015/By Wong Siew Ying

SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not think Singapore is ready for same-sex marriage because the society is still conservative although it is changing gradually.

But the gay community have the space to live their lives in Singapore, he added. “We do not harass them or discriminate against them,” he said when replying to a Filipino journalist who was interviewing him with other visiting Asean journalists on Thursday.

Mr Lee noted that same-sex marriage is gaining acceptance in some developed countries such as Britain and some states in the United States.

But, he added: “Even in America, there is very strong pushback from conservative groups.”

Similarly, the range of views on gays in Singapore include those of “religious groups who push back”, he added. “And it is completely understandable.”

His comments reflect the government position expressed in the past several years. In the 2011 book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, said he believed homosexuality is in a person’s genes: “Some people are that way and just leave them be.”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had also said homosexuality will eventually be accepted. “It’s already accepted in China. It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.”

On Thursday, PM Lee told the Asean journalists: “Where we are I think is not a bad place to be.”

He also said that if asked, most Singaporeans would not want the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community to set the tone for Singapore society.

“There is space for the gay community but they should not push the agenda too hard because if they push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback,” Mr Lee said.

“And this is not an issue where there is a possibility that the two sides can discuss and eventually come to a consensus. Now, these are very entrenched views and the more you discuss, the angrier people get,” he added.



Grant withdrawn, but Sonny Liew comic sells out and goes for reprint

The Straits Times/4 June 2015/By Akshita Nanda

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew is published by Epigram Books and sold about 300 copies at Books Kinokuniya alone on Saturday.

The graphic novel, which tells the story of a Singapore artist who represents 60-odd years of local history through his satirical comics, was awarded a publishing grant of $8,000 from the arts council. This grant was revoked when the book reached stores last month. The publisher has to return the $6,400 disbursed and has printed stickers to cover the arts council’s logo in the 1,000 copies printed for sale.

All 1,000 copies sold out last week, after news broke in The Straits Times about the grant being withdrawn.

Epigram Books’ founder Edmund Wee says he appealed last week against the arts council’s decision, but the appeal was rejected this week. He is printing up to 2,000 copies more of the graphic novel to meet demand and says he would need to sell 3,000 copies to break even after the withdrawal of the grant.

The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is the fastest selling and most successful graphic novel of the half-dozen Epigram Books has published.

“For most graphic novels, we print about 1,000 on average and these take two years to sell out,” Mr Wee says, citing titles such as the award-winning Ten Sticks And One Rice by Oh Yong Hwee and Koh Hong Teng, which won a rare bronze medal last year at the 7th International Manga Awards in Japan.

In response to earlier queries from Life!, the arts council said the graphic novel’s “sensitive content, depicted in visuals and text, did not meet our funding conditions”. Mr Khor Kok Wah, the council’s senior director, literary arts sector, added to this yesterday, saying: “The retelling of Singapore’s history in the work potentially undermines the authority or legitimacy of the government and its public institutions, and thus breaches our funding guidelines. The council’s funding guidelines are published online and well known among the arts community.”

He added: “Applications are assessed on their artistic merit, but it is clear any proposed content should not infringe funding guidelines. A grant withdrawal happens very infrequently and we always make extra efforts to explain to affected parties.”

In 2011, a collection of plays by Chong Tze Chien published by Epigram Books also had its funding by the council revoked – but before its publication. The book included Charged, a controversial drama about race relations and national service.

Both artist and publisher say a representative manuscript of The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was sent to the arts council when applying for funding.

In the first chapter, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his political rival Lim Chin Siong face off in cartoon form. Later in the book, the 1987 Operation Spectrum, in which 16 people were detained allegedly over a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the Government, is turned into a plot to replace all music in Singapore with the melodies of American singer Richard Marx.

The comic has scored a publishing deal with American publisher Pantheon for an international edition next year.

Malaysia-born Liew, who became a Singapore citizen while working on The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, told Life! he was initially disappointed about the grant being withdrawn because it would make it harder for the publisher to break even. He added that he did not think his comic subverted the state and “the criteria for deciding are a bigger issue worth looking at”.

Expanding on this in a Facebook post, he thanked the arts council for its support of his other projects but added: “What remains are questions over the role of a national arts organisation, the role of public money, who decides how and why they’re spent. Should the NAC be more focused on artistic considerations and be less bound by political constraints? What is the criteria for deciding if a work crosses unacceptable boundaries?

“These are wider, longer term concerns, though perhaps there’s never a better time than the present to consider them, and I’d be glad if The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye plays some small role in all of it.”



US President Obama praises Singapore’s economic success, racial integration

WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama has lauded Singapore’s economic success and racial integration, saying the two are linked.

Speaking to a group of young leaders from Southeast Asia at the White House, he addressed a question on discrimination against the Rohingya. About 1.3 million of them live in Myanmar, but are mostly denied citizenship. Their plight has come under scrutiny as a migrant crisis unfurls in the region.

 Mr Obama said how countries deal with such issues will decide their prospects, citing Singapore as an example of a prosperous and well-integrated socity.

“There are more than 600 million people who live in ASEAN countries, and you reflect an incredible diversity of faiths and ethnic groups and background and culture. And that diversity has to be celebrated and it has to be protected,” he said.

“We have incredible economic engines like Singapore, and growing economies like the Philippines and Vietnam and Malaysia. Ultimately, this is going to be a great test for the democracy of the future – not just in Myanmar but in areas all throughout the country.

“And the truth of the matter is that one of the reasons that Singapore, as I mentioned earlier, has been successful, is that it has been able to bring together people who may look different, but they all think of themselves as part of Singapore. And that has to be a strength, not a weakness, but that requires leadership and government being true to those principles.”