Tag Archive | "fang shihan"

Bitcoins: Currency for the drug lords

Bitcoins: Currency for the drug lords

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No central bank, no inflation, untraceable. Are they for real?

By Fang Shihan

Illegal services available online - payable by bitcoin only.

BITCOINS are every anarchist’s fantasy. Digital, untraceable, lacking a central authority to screw things up and oh, accepted as payment for the Amazon.coms of the illicit drug industry. So you can get high and stick it to the man at the same time with low probability of getting caught. And that’s why New Nation Man loves it.

But more than just an oddity, Bitcoins have the potential to be a viable currency. Here’s why.

All currencies in the world have value only by government decree. Like bitcoins which are essentially just lines of code, paper money has no intrinsic value and are viable as a medium of exchange only when a large entity (the treasury for example) gives it credibility by ensuring the currency will never collapse.

It may be difficult to visualize how codes and coins can be utilized in the same manner – but it can be. Each dollar coin for example, comes with a unique serial number and can only be used for one transaction before it ‘belongs’ to someone else. LIkewise, each bitcoin transaction must be verified and therefore witnessed by 6 other bitcoin users before it gets approved, ensuring that each bitcoin can only be used once.

And since bitcoins have no central administration, it uses a central database spread over a peer-to-peer network to track transactions. Supply is limited to 21 million bitcoins. There are 6.5 million in existence now and three-quarters of all bitcoins would be mined by 2017. Bitcoins are also divisible down to 8 decimal places, ensuring finer granularity [1] of the currency.

Technicalities aside, the question is: who guarantees the viability of the bitcoin?

To quote one blogger, “bitcoin value is entirely virtual—a Bitcoin is only worth what another person thinks its worth”.

Doesn’t exactly instill tons of credibility to any would-be Bitcoin adopter. But Bitcoin bears are missing the one key comparative advantage: Bitcoins are untraceable and thus, a potential safe haven for the gangs, drug lords and the like.

There is already in fact an online store selling drugs from weed to acid pills. All payable by bitcoins and delivered to your doorstep with minimum purchase. Another bitcoin-friendly site offers assassination services.

Unfortunately, it takes more than a just a little technical expertise to get to the sites at the moment. The fun stuff is accessible only via the anonymising network TOR, which took this author a few hours to figure out.

But the potential’s still there. Drugs are recession proof – depressed, jobless people turn to drugs for relief while the nouveau riche in the emerging markets have more purchasing power for lifestyle drugs – and if traded with bitcoins, could provide some serious credibility for the longevity of the system.

Drugs, pornography, assassination services, prostitution and the like will forever exist. With constant demand comes a constant supply of supporting economies. Who’s to say bitcoins could truly replace the greenback in the illicit industries?

Think about it. If a heroin trader from Afghanistan wanted to replenish his cocaine stock from Peru, he’d have to buy a stash using cash now. But Bitcoins make business transactions so much easier and (more emphasis here) untraceable.

Obviously the bitcoin system comes with its flaws as well.

Bitcoins were much easier to mine previously, requiring no more than extra processing power from one’s CPU. But mining rigs (consisting of some hardcore computing power) are now required to generate the same amount of currency. As supply is fixed, bitcoins can only grow in smaller denominations as they’re adopted by more people, creating an unfair advantage for hoarders.

For example, geeks who donated their CPUs early in the mining game would have enjoyed the price spike from $0.40/btc to $17/btc. Hoard it until the supply maxes out and and they would enjoy an even higher purchasing power at $34/btc for instance.

Next, assuming the system is easily replicable, there’s no stopping the Chinese or even Russians from creating their equivalent of the bitcoin system. With US authorities clamping down on illicit activities in the bitcoin system, it’s only a matter of time before the very people backing up the bitcoin credibility (drug lords) would move to a similar space with friendlier governments.

The bitcoin system exists on a contradictory duality of principals – being absolutely anonymous yet absolutely transparent. So while it would be feasible for smalltime gangs to launder their money via bitcoins, “attempting major illicit transactions with Bitcoin”, in the words of Bitcoin developer Jeff Garzik, “is pretty damned dumb”. An account transferring a million dollars in bitcoins would stick out even worse than a bruised vein. In any case each account has a $1000/day withdrawal limit, hardly the cashflow volume of drug lords.

Lastly, security is an issue: a surprise hack of the largest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox is only the beginning of what could turn into a burgeoning security problem. Bitcoins are largely used within the more security-conscious geek community. But if Bitcoins truly become more attractive to the casual investor, or casual entrepreneur, security breaches could occur faster than a script kiddie typing “db_autopwn”. A security breach of Mt. Gox, or even the bitcoin system itself is more akin to a hijacking of the currency printing factory than a measly bank robbery.

So can the bitcoin ever replace the greenback?

Probably not, but it could potentially be a very good alternative currency for transactions deemed less-than-legal in mainstream society.

Let’s face it: drugs, pornography, assassination services, prostitution and the like will forever exist. With constant demand comes a constant supply of supporting economies. Who’s to say bitcoins could truly replace the greenback in the illicit industries? And having said that, what’s stopping the casual forex investor from riding on the illicit wave and buying some bitcoins?

Global niches

Global niches

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Solely focusing on hyperlocal content, in some cases, is the sure way to journalism hell.

Terence Lee

When New Nation first began, we envisioned it as a hyperlocal website — much in the vein of established Singapore players like The Online Citizen, Temasek Review, and Yawning Bread.

Heck, Shihan and I graduated from TOC, which is pretty much the most recognised independent current affairs group blog around today. Belmont had online journalism experience too, serving in an online campus paper where he met the love of his life.

With such a crowded field (since then many others — Satay Club, VFC etc — have spawned), we needed to differentiate ourselves, so we decided to go with an off-beat, tongue-in-cheek, rude and raunchy style — current affairs for the not-so-interested, the apathetic, and restless. We decided also to feature more lifestyle and finance content.

Well, we got flamed for it — by the folks at TOC no less. But that’s not the important point. For us, it was a matter of necessity: Being a TOC clone was a sure way to hell. In a crowded pond, the surest way to draw attention is to be different.

Fast forward to today. Our readership is almost double now post General Election than pre, although growth is slow.

And something else dawned upon me: Hyperlocal no longer seemed to make sense.

Hyperlocal works if you are the first-mover, a pioneer in a community underserved (or, if you have shitloads of money, like Yahoo!). When TOC went online, it was a wide open field: All the other fish had died or were still eggs. Now, there are too many publications and too little time: People have only 24 hours to spare.

When Shihan gamely approached Derek Sivers, founder of CD Baby, for advice on whether New Nation will work, he said no.

Reason? Singapore is too small a market. Amen to that. Of course, he said other things too, but that is for us to know.

I think Sivers made a very good point. Before the Internet existed, publications were limited by geographical boundaries. To be trans-national, you had to be rich enough to pay for shipping to get magazine into newsstands worldwide.

Today, the cost of starting and distributing content is much cheaper: You can even do it at zero monetary cost.

While this creates the problem of a long tail of Internet content that varies in quality, it creates another opportunity: The ability to distribute content to previously untapped niche areas that are unbounded by geographical limits.

They are what I call ‘global niches’.

Think goth culture. Or cosplayers. Or Little Monsters. These subcultures transcend nationality, because what they represent are values, ideas, and personalities, things which are easily transferable from one country to another.

Globalisation creates two phenomena: Homogenisation, where cultures melt into one, and heterogenisation, where cultures absorb elements from other cultures to form new ones. Both are happening at the same time.

And I believe this presents an untapped potential for publishers and content producers like ourselves: It is possible for a Singaporean to write something with global appeal without losing his/her local audience.

I suggested this to my fellow editors. I think broadly speaking, we embrace the idea of going international. But ideas are free, what matters is how we execute it. There are many challenges: How many global niches should we aim for, without losing ourselves? How do we retain reader loyalty with such a diverse crowd? How do we ensure our content gets picked up by the people we want to reach?

As a baseline, we still hope to reach out to Singaporean readers. We have amazing content planned that will continue to appeal to them. But starring at our naval isn’t going to get us anywhere in terms of readership and ultimately revenue. We need to aim higher.

Will the name New Nation continue to be relevant? When we began, I took the word ‘nation’ in its 20th Century meaning, that of a ‘nation-state’. We took the name from an old Singapore newspaper that no longer existed. That newspaper went defunct before the age of the Internet.

But perhaps our usage of the word has to evolve as well.

Does race, language, geographical distance, still matter today?

Yes, certainly. But their significance is diminishing.

Perhaps ‘New Nation’ can be a rallying call, a vision of an ideal future governed less by the colour of one’s skin than by the beliefs one holds.

In a connected world, that is certainly possible.

Our views on MM Lee and SM Goh’s exit

Our views on MM Lee and SM Goh’s exit

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Let’s be frank: We’re skeptical about their departure from The Cabinet.

By the editors of New Nation

Lovingly captioned from www.news.gov.sg

MM Lee Kuan Yew and SM Goh Chok Tong called it a day as cabinet ministers on 14th May, 2011.

This is a momentous day, no? Honestly, we don’t know and we have yet to find out.

So does this mean both ex-PMs can no longer go around beating the other parliamentarians over their heads anymore? Or can they?

We can only wait to find out.

We have heard quite a bit from the mainstream media about what old, stuffy foggies have to say about this occasion.

Here at New Nation, the three editors with a combined age of 77 years old (which is only 10 years older than an average Straits Times reader), pick each others’ brains for the answer.

Here are our responses to four basic questions:

1. Where was I when I heard the news?
2. What does it mean to me?
3. Why now?
4. Is there an alternative meaning?

Lovingly captioned from www.asiaone.com

Terence’s response:

1. I was at home minding my own business. The first thing I remember doing after hearing the news was telling my dad about it.

2. I hope the move is just the first of many changes they’ll make. I think it’s an effective move, a sure crowd-pleaser for a population hungry for change. But the PAP cannot stop there; they need to dig deeper into existing policies and address issues Singaporeans are concerned about. Like skyrocketing HDB prices. Otherwise Singaporeans will move to JB.

3. I don’t find the timing at all surprising. The move is an admission that the two giants have lost touch with the ground. It’s just a pity they didn’t recognise this earlier; it’s like they have finally woken up from their slumber after being bitch slapped by a legion of Singaporeans.

4. The pressure is now on our Prime Minister to deliver change. Tactically, the move by the two Guardians of Singapura would force the government in a different direction. That’s because if Xiao Lee doesn’t deliver, the dramatic gesture would then look like mere tokenism, which wouldn’t sit well with the electorate. This is a moment that could define his legacy.

Belmont’s response:

1. I was in the car when my girlfriend got on and alerted me about it. That was about 630 p.m. (a bit late, I know) because I am usually woefully ignorant of anything earth-shattering as I still refuse to carry a smartphone.

2. The surprise of the announcement turned into skepticism in about three seconds. Why now? That’s the major question still bugging me since Saturday! Because does it really make a difference if both ex-PMs operated from outside the Cabinet? If Hu Jintao showed up next week bringing tea looking for His Leeness, it will still be official but in an unofficial manner, no? Business as usual in all aspects but title, right? Up till now, I’m still considering the shrewdness of such a move. This is politics so no one can ever take anything at face value.

3. The timing of such moves are always suspect because almost nothing in politics is not deliberate. Yes, the ground sentiment towards the PAP has turned foul in recent years, but both men could have ride it out, no? Reading the speculations online and the official explanation from the joint press statement released by both ex-PMs did not do much in sensing something else is brewing. Maybe I’m just paranoid.

4. I feel that His Leeness simply cannot exit this life holding onto the title of Minister Mentor because it just does not look good in his biography. What would historians say? They’ll say he is a tyrant. Or something like that.

Instead of controlling his people, SM Goh can now focus on controlling his weight.

Shihan’s response:

1. I stepped out of the shower and was watching a Taiwanese variety show while letting my hair dry. Partner’s mum broke the news to me and compared MM Lee stepping down to Japanese Ministers quitting after something goes wrong.

2. It means leadership renewal. Like really, instead of merely paying lip service. It also means that the PAP is finally taking voter sentiment seriously. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean anything much in terms of concrete change because the two fellas will still be serving as MPs, and will still command a sense of influence within the echelons of the elite. But a symbolic change is still better than no change at all.

3. Nao, because GE is just over and change just gave the PAP a big tight slap in the face. They have finally woken up their idea after a shocking 60% win and they’ve realised they somehow need to appease the masses. The online media has been building up MM Lee as demon without par so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he’s the first sacrifice. Also probably because he’s been making inchoate remarks to the international press the past few years and the foreign ministry’s tired of cleaning up his piss.

4. An alternative meaning to the retirement of MM Lee and SM Goh? Maybe MM Lee just wanted to retire and the cabinet didn’t want SM Goh to be promoted to MM. Might as well retire the both at once.

What are your thoughts on their exit from The Cabinet? Do share with us!

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Post coitus care: What happens after the climax?

Post coitus care: What happens after the climax?

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Now that Aljunied GRC has turned blue, the real test lies in making the relationship a long lasting one.

By Fang Shihan

Worker's Party voters in ecstasy. Photo: TERENCE LEE

THAT wasn’t such a big deal was it? For nine days the Worker’s Party campaigned hard and rallied the masses to a climax on 7th May when the 140,000 voters cast their votes. Result? Worker’s Party wins by 54% but a fine Foreign Minister was lost in the crossfire between the PAP and an electorate that’s grown frustrated enough to want to… spank them.

Aljunied voters are satisfied and satiated with Low and team’s tireless effort, so what’s left of the deal is the aftercare – they need to know the WP is in for a long-term relationship. Of course the cuddles will have to wait until they recover from campaigning exhaustion. Case in point? Hougang MP Yaw Shin Leong fell asleep at the wheel the day after.

Brace yourselves and moderate your expectations people, your caretakers – Sylvia, Uncle Low, God, Chewbacca and Faisal have only just embarked on the beginning of a long five-year ride with you.

Remember all those complaints Chiam and Low had about the lack of funding from their Town Councils? That’s going to happen to you. Or being pushed all the way back in the queue for HDB upgrading? That too. Or being told every now and then that you live in a slum? Most likely.

Infrastructure repairs are a luxury and not a right when you live in an opposition ward.

As for all those promises about pegging HDB prices to the national median income? Better moderate your expectations.

Obama swept into power in 2008 with the promise of healthcare reform. Though the Big Plan did materialize eventually, it was severely compromised and led to a sharp drop in Obama’s approval ratings.

Likewise for the WP team in Aljunied: HDB honcho Mah Bow Tan called their housing plan ‘irresponsible’ while PM Lee has accused them of wanting to run a ‘welfare’ system. In other words, spending without a credit limit. Nevermind that he wants to build 7 new MRT lines each year for the next 7 years.

The WP team will not get a friendly reception to their ideas in parliament, to say the least, though all 6 of them will get to vote on bills this time.

While the PAP and its electorate had a consumer-service relationship, the voters in Aljunied voted with no expectation of a multi-million dollar town upgrade plan.

Furthermore, unlike the PAP which has tacit support from the People’s Association, the WP team in Aljunied have close to no organized grassroots support locally. Low hopes to take over the Aljunied Town Council but it remains to be seen if his reception will be as frosty as the one Sitoh Yih Pin received in Potong Pasir.

But problems aside, the WP has an edge over the PAP in one key area – popular support. How popular? Enough to fill an entire stadium full plus 10,000 stragglers outside.

Now that’s what I call political participation. While the PAP and its electorate had a consumer-service relationship, the voters in Aljunied voted with no expectation of a multi-million dollar town upgrade plan.

While the PAP would get faulted for even the most minor of details (like the a tile sticking out from the floor of a void deck), chances are, the WP will get away with it because..they were elected as representatives of their voters and not the chief janitors of the estate.

In return for increased self-reliance in the constituency, the WP will be expected to bring sweeping change into parliament. Though that’s unlikely to happen, you can be sure that the PAP will be reminded by their co-driver time and again that they need to get back on track.

Better than nothing? I guess so. Better than the last bunch in power? Most definitely. But moderate your expectations because change comes with a significant amount of resistance.

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Confessions of the Virgin Voters

Confessions of the Virgin Voters

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New Nation presents a unique way of covering the elections.

By Terence Lee

Here's our first Virgin Voter graphic - the Schoolgirl Virgin Voter! Put this up on Facebook and make your confession.

THIS year, I will be voting for the first time, and so will my fellow editors (except Belmont, who’s an old timer). There are about 100,000 people like us; maiden voters who are about to catch the excitement of the polls.

While one of our writers has said that voting is like having sex, I disagree.

Voting is better than sex. Or chocolate. Why? Because while an average person is likely to do the dance countless times, contingent on the fact that he or she has the EQ to get laid, that same person may reach 80 and never get a chance to vote. Ever.

That’s especially true if you live in a constituency where no opposition dare to tread.

For the luckier ones, assuming we live till a 100 and the elections happen once every five years, we’d get at most 16 shots at the voting booth.

If I were you, I’d be super invigorated.

Therefore, we folks at New Nation want to celebrate the fact that we’ll be Virgin Voters. From today onwards, you’ll be hearing from many first-timers about their thoughts towards the elections, the candidates, and the proceedings.

Some of us will even be providing coverage of our respective constituencies, speaking to MPs, candidates, and voters. We’ll be attending rallies and walkabouts, giving you our unique take on the elections, through the eyes and dirty minds of a virgin voter.

Now, as you know, it takes two to tango.

While, we, the editors and writers of this humble online magazine, are eager to get off the starting block, we are counting on you, the reader, to contribute with us. Whether you are a virgin voter or a second timer, it doesn’t matter. And if you’re 60 and doing it for the first time, there’s no shame in that.

And we don’t care whether you’re pro-PAP, or anti-PAP, lesbian or straight, passionate or blah. Here’s how you can help:

1) Write for us. Or help with photography and making videos. Share your thoughts about the elections, and we’ll publish them. If you’d like to take this one step further and cover the elections in your constituency, do let us know too. Email us at [email protected] if you’re interested.

2) Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and share the gospel of the Virgin Voters with your heathen friends.

3) Share the pride of being a Virgin Voter using one of our unique Facebook display pics. We will be launching new ones every week on our Facebook page. Don’t like them? Why not create your own, and share it with your friends, and us?

Together, let’s make our first time a less scary one!

Who values online privacy anymore?

Who values online privacy anymore?

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Corporations can mine data all they want – so long as it doesn’t affect the user experience.

By Fang Shihan

Photo: JASON / Creative Commons

WHEN Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Christopher Poole of 4chan last thrashed out the ethics of anonymity in cyberspace, the former said “not putting down your real name is tantamount to lying”, while the latter responded “well… people are shy”.

I’m paraphrasing. 4chan is better known as the crazy forum that incubated celebrated ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous and judging by some of the content posted there, it does make sense for some users to stay anonymous.

4chan has 12 million unique visitors per month while Facebook has 500 million users. Facebook, last valued at $89 billion clearly makes truckloads more from advertising revenue due to their more reliable user data.

Of course, both Facebook and 4chan are right in addressing the privacy concerns of their respective users. But the two social media giants are missing out a quickly evolving characteristic of internet users – they don’t care about anonymity or privacy anymore.

Aside from a minority of high profile individuals, most people don’t feel the need to guard their data trail. Partly because they feel that they’re not significant enough to warrant notice and partly because they’re likely to post updates only once every few days and don’t have much of a trail. While public figures like George Yeo or Paris Hilton probably have to worry about stalkers finding their home addresses, the majority of online users are average, less than average, and may even look like this.

Under normal circumstances, no one would bother digging up all the online rubbish left behind by Tan Ah Lian. Unless you’re a victim of overenthusiastic sedition enforcement like Abdul Malik.

Even the ‘dangers’ of behavioral advertising registers hardly a bleep on the minds of internet users. Behavioral advertising selects advertisements for users based on their preferences. It saves advertisers time and money by increasing the probability of their ad having an impact. At the same time, privacy advocacy groups such as this one argue that companies have no right to use users’ surfing patterns for their purposes.

The thrust of the privacy argument now isn’t about the sanctity of privacy per se, but because companies can profit from your data without giving a cent to you. Facebook and Facebook app developers came under fire in October last year for leaking user information. Aside from some minor embarrassment quickly corrected by promises by both companies to protect their user IDs, nothing much came of the incident.

Users really don’t care much about their privacy, or even the fact that companies are profiting from user data, unless of course, they could potentially make a substantial amount by letting companies monitor each click, ‘LOL’ or online search. Data mining requires economies of scale – a database is worth a lot, but a single click is not.

Critics of behavioral advertising also overestimate the impact of online advertising on online users. As I’m writing this while surfing Facebook, there are four ads on the right column – skincare, iphone printer, forex and a dining cashback card. Nothing I’d be upset about and also nothing I’ll pay much attention to. The one and only Facebook ad I ever clicked on was about the NUS Masters program. Again, it’s not something I’d mind lurking around at the side of my screen.

if you’ve been consistently using the same pseudonym for a few years, then you’re not really anonymous either. The only difference between an account profile names Tan Ah Lian, or MissFlower82, is the name.

While privacy may be overrated, online exhibitionism is underrated. The advent of blogging, tweeting and other platforms that enable anyone to communicate to many has created a class of everyday celebrities broadcasting anything from food to fashion to politics. This phenomenon of a one-way communication directed at a following or a two-way dialogue within a community of friends, has made privacy more of an obstacle than a necessity.

People want to be heard. More so for people who seek to find like-minded souls. Subcultures especially, flourish in cyberspace due to the ease of finding someone halfway across the world with almost identical tastes, habits and sense of humor. A private person has few friends online and let’s face it, we all get a kick from seeing the number of unique visitors rise on our blogs.

Then again, privacy advocates may argue that one can blog, tweet and Facebook under a pseudonym to remain anonymous. And it’s true, there’s a large group of online users that do just that. But as with all other consumer-oriented platforms, convenience is key to retaining usage. It’s too difficult to maintain different usernames and passwords all the time.

In any case, if you’ve been consistently using the same pseudonym for a few years, then you’re not really anonymous either. The only difference between an account profile names Tan Ah Lian, or MissFlower82, is the name. Behavioural advertising works on the basis on online habits. Unless you’ve been religiously using a VPN, the ads will get to you too.

Aside from big evil corporations out to bombard your liberty with ads they want you to see, governments have also been accused of infringing onto the privacy rights of online users. While the U.S. is still debating about how the patriot act would infringe on citizens’ civil rights, governments on this side of the globe never had to worry about citizens demanding privacy rights. Don’t like what they say? Throw em’ in jail. Period. The debate about privacy laws is nascent, to say the least.

In such a situation, yes, privacy and anonymity are valued for security reasons. But governments rarely utilize user data except for internal security reasons as well. Furthermore, politically-charged sites pale in comparison with commercial ones in terms of the number of users. This is in no small part due to a lack of advertising revenue for the former.

So while it is unethical to sell user information to advertisers without notifying the user, and it’s somewhat an infringement of privacy when companies monitor user behaviour via targeted advertising; the very painful reality is, none of these sites can survive without advertising.

Piping hot candidates roll off the PAP assembly line

Piping hot candidates roll off the PAP assembly line

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Men in White maintain consistency and quality control with new products politicians.

By Fang Shihan

Photo: Straits Times, PAP

THE stale smell of pre-election fever wafts in the air. Voters stand patiently in line for their turn at the menu while the state propaganda machine revs into motion.

“Desmond Choo! Ong Ye Kung! Janil Puthucheary! New! Fresh! Hot! Just out of the fryer! Only 1 serving each, special offer!”

Like any self-respecting McDonald’s outlet, the PAP takes great pride in maintaining consistency and quality control in terms of policies, ideology and of course, its politicians. Order a pack of fries anywhere around the world and chances are, they’ll look, taste and smell exactly the same.

A winning formula that must be replicated repeatedly. Because customers return only for the exact same experience they’ve had before. As the old PAP adage goes: “You must love us. Otherwise why would we get re-elected time and time again?”

How about: “We don’t really like you that much, but you’re the lesser of two evils”.

Fast food outlets dominate the F&B industry in lower-income neighbourhoods because it’s relatively inexpensive and satiates hungry workers quickly, giving a temporary energy high.

Likewise, the 45-year reign of the PAP has been based upon a guarantee that the PAP candidate will be the safer, less politically expensive choice (he won’t take risks with policy or potentially give you a suckerpunch out of the blue). The intentionally designed 9-day campaigning period also provides a temporary rush of free choice or even chaos, satiating a growing call for freedom of expression.

Such long reigns, especially with a quickly evolving population and landscape such as Singapore, are usually difficult to maintain. However the PAP has done it remarkably well. Not by oppression or by quickly adapting to a changing environment, but by having a good marketing department.

The ruling party claims that the new candidates offer new voices and more diversity. It also claims a willingness to adapt to the times.

McDonald’s supports a healthy lifestyle too.

Let’s see how much diversity the three newbies provide.

Desmond Choo, Ong Ye Kung and Janil Puthucheary have emerged from labour, labour, and in labour respectively. Maybe give Janil extra labour points for working in KK women’s hospital, in addition to being the son of a formerly detained Barisan Sosialis politician.

The PAP’s merely maintaining the stuff that got them elected in the first place. It was a winning formula after all.

They all score points for being more leftist than the current PAP.

And boy does the Straits Times know how to play it up.

“In what is believed to be the first, two are sons of former leftist politicians… They were keen to stress that despite being on the wrong side of history, their fathers supported them fully in joining the PAP”. Ye Kung is the other second-gen leftist.

Pray tell. How does this make them different from any other pseudo-leftist PAP politician? Oh wait. They’re hardcore labour because they have a bloodline to boast about. Really?

Let’s do a quick comparison with the PAP man most criticised for being overly ‘capitalist’ – Mr Mah you-made-HDBs-unaffordable Bow Tan. Mah started his career at the Singapore Bus Service and was also formerly Chairman of NTUC Comfort (1983–86) and Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Singapore Institute of Labour Studies (1990–2002). Oh dear, it seems that even the most ‘right’ of the ruling party is… left!

Perhaps in the event of factionalism, the PAP would split into: left, lefterer and lefterest.

To be fair, there are some differences between these 3 guys and the rest of Team White. Desmond Choo, clearly playing in response to opposition accusations that the PAP doesn’t care for the poor, plays Santa Claus by advocating more help for the underprivileged. Unlike previous brave men who have ventured into Hougang and emerged pants down, he attempts to out-teochew, out-chinese-ed Low This Khiang.

Oh, and he tears up during the interview with ST too. What a nice boy and what a drastic change to the cold uncompassionate image of the PAP.

It’s all about the image. The product doesn’t ever change. Like how McDonald’s claims it’s adding diversity and nutrition into its meals by selling apple slices with caramel dip. Or worse, the revolutionary chipotle shaker fries.

As the old saying goes: All the same kuan one (kuan can be replaced with ‘pattern’).

Some food for thought: should consistency, quality control and replication be condemned? Voters at the ballot box need to choose between clearly differentiated parties with different identities and values. The PAP’s merely maintaining the stuff that got them elected in the first place. It was a winning formula after all.

More New Nation content on GE2011 here.

Low birth rate? Don’t discriminate against children from single parent families

Low birth rate? Don’t discriminate against children from single parent families

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Wong can sing, can dance, and can tell you to make more babies. By Fang Shihan

Photo: Swerz / Creative Commons

IN AN interview published in TODAY last Saturday, DPM Wong Kan Seng commented that the high fertility rate in Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway were due to many people having babies out of wedlock.

He was responding to calls for more government spending on family support. Sweden spends 3% of its GDP on baby-inducing schemes and ‘enjoys’ a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.9.

The article goes on to blame the low TFR in Singapore (1.16) on the rising trend of singlehood. Because married couples in Singapore have an average of 2.1 children each.

And the solution? Getting more people hitched, married and *poof!* babies are supposed to appear magically.

The government now spends $1.6 billion on the Marriage and Parenthood package. However, Wong does not see the need to increase the budget because  it does not guarantee a higher TFR.

Instead, the Government would continue to provide opportunities for singles to get hitched, and hopefully married before getting laid.

If this move sounds odd or even slightly embarrassing, you’re probably in the minority.

The Straits Times quoted an operations officer, aged 35, two weeks back, commenting that the whopping budget could also be used to subsidize attendance in dating agencies. There has been no article yet articulating the tragedy that we’ve become so dependent on the gahmen that we even need help from them to get some.

I’d like to propose a more elegant solution to fixing our TFR problem. Instead of beating around the bush and getting picky singles to lower unrealistic expectations or increasing incentives for Singaporean to produce babies within an archaic institution, why not just support babies emerging from alternative families?

But no. Apparently unlike the Nordics, society here still views babies being born outside of marriages, negatively. And the government doesn’t want to lead social trends in these value-loaded issues.

Start a large-scale propaganda campaign (and don’t deny that it doesn’t ever happen) to engender positive perceptions of single parent families, and then reform current population policies to be in tune with an increasing number of nontraditional families.

So here we find a problem:

1) There’s been a trend of babies popping up outside of marriages, in countries that are considered more developed.

2) Babies outside of marriage are not condoned by society

3) Government policy cannot support babies outside of marriage…until (2) changes.

So we end up throwing $1.6 billion to encourage people to get married, even though this can neither guarantee more babies nor can it guarantee the more important component for the production of a sensible thinking citizen – a good childhood.

It’s a chicken and eggless situation. The government expects more babies (from single parents) to be born, before policy changes are made. At the same time, fertility policies have to change first because its the main obstacle preventing the conception, or adoption of babies in non-traditional families.

Here’s a great solution:

Start a large-scale propaganda campaign (and don’t deny that it doesn’t ever happen) to engender positive perceptions of single parent families, and then reform current population policies to be in tune with an increasing number of nontraditional families.

There! Fixes the problem of political feasibility and TFR. It all depends on how badly the government feels the TFR problem needs to be solved.

After all, the regime never seemed to have a problem with politically unpopular moves. If crazy policies like the Graduate Mother Scheme were actually implemented to increase the number of smart people in the Singaporean gene pool, why not the Single Parent Scheme, or Cohabitating Couples Scheme, or even kids from Homosexual Parent Families Scheme?

Oh wait. But that could harm the delicate constitutions of our picture perfect political elite.

Do we have an MP that’s a single parent? Or homosexual? Nope.

But we did have a hard-core, gay-hating Christian-fundamentalist NMP at one point. Go figure.

Society frowns upon things nontraditional. Big deal. Society used to frown upon oral sex not too long ago as well.

But if we really do have an activist government that prides itself on implementing regular policies to pragmatically fix problems in society, they need to live up to their own name. There is a solution to fixing the low TFR, it’s all about how badly you want it.

Is HDB a good investment?

Is HDB a good investment?

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No income, no insurance

No income, no insurance

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The middle class nightmare

The middle class nightmare

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The government can do more to reduce the price of property in Singapore, alleviating the financial challenges faced by a large middle class.

By Fang Shihan

The outlook for average Singaporeans can be scary, especially considering the high cost of living. Photo: WILLIAM CHO / Creative Commons

IT’S probably a universal phenomenon. Fresh graduate comes out into the working world, draws his first paycheck, and wakes up one day a few months later breaking out in cold sweat.

It’s the middle class nightmare. You know, the one where you’re taking a photo at the main door, spouse in arm, kids running around at knee level. You flash a hugeass smile as you look proudly into the camera feeling like your life is absolutely perfect.

And you wake up feeling horrified at how you’ve transformed into a mindless automaton in the economic machine. You also feel ashamed at desiring the perfect middle class life because you’ve been taught in school that it’s all a damn construct.

We all have the same nightmare. But here on the island it’s a little different. See, friends in Australia or countries with a larger land mass feel their skin crawl at the sight of a house with a lawn, a dog and…. a white picket fence. Here we dream about a three-room flat in Punggol with a steel gate, a view hopefully not of the neighbour’s kitchen and…. a maid.

I remember growing up in the 90s listening to the debate about Singaporeans and their 5Cs- cash, car, condo, credit card and country club. Fast forward 20 years later, we’re not even dreaming of the condo anymore. We’re dreaming of a flat. Friggin little cubicles built so close together that you become paranoid about your neighbours eavesdropping while you have sex at home.

Were we ever supposed to aspire to public housing?

MP Mah “Your Assets will Appreciate!” Bow Tan wrote a piece sometime last year reiterating that “the Government’s basic principle… is to provide affordable public housing for the vast majority of Singaporeans – not just for 10 or 20 per cent, like most countries, but up to 80 per cent of the population.”

The government has obviously forgotten about the initial proposal of ‘public housing’ and above all, what constitutes as ‘affordable housing’.

The logic to co-opt Singaporeans under the public housing umbrella undeniably made sense back in 1960, where slums and squatter settlements were aplenty. After all, a housed, clothed and fed worker was a more productive worker. Public housing also made for a good social control mechanism but.. let’s not get into that.

But the past is the past. As the saying goes: “Last time policemen wore shorts”.

There are no slums now save for a small group of happy campers at various beaches and parks. However there’s a large middle class with aspirations for social mobility.

Does it make sense for the government to co-opt these aspirations into the public housing system? More importantly, SHOULD the government even try to cater to the middle class family with a household income of $10,000?

Thanks, but I’d rather not the HDB have a monopoly of the housing market on the pretext of housing provision.

When I describe the HDB to my friends abroad, they’re usually in awe of the efficiency of the system. Homeless rates are close to zilch, that’s quite a feat. Then I tell them about how much an average flat costs and almost certainly, jaws drop in shock. $300,000 for a tiny 3 room flat??? Yes Siree, and I haven’t even gotten to COE prices yet.

Here’s my take on why housing HAS to be increasingly expensive: To keep 80% of the population within the arms of the nanny state and to a lesser extent, to keep the upper middle income class politically subservient. Imagine being within the $10,000 income bracket. Too rich for public housing yet too poor to afford a million-dollar condo. Would you be pissed? I would.

And the solution? Executive HDBs. Because that’s considered ‘affordable housing’ for a family that’s not-quite-there-yet.

Just to prove that this is not just a gigantic conspiracy theory, think about this. In a situation such as this, would the logical solution be to reduce the percentage of those living in public housing, and to free up more land for private development?

Condos are obviously more expensive than HDBs, in large part because of land prices. But instead of passing policies to reduce the prices in the private market, what’s happened is that the public sector trying it’s darndest to match the private sector. And everything goes up up up.

The government has obviously forgotten about the initial proposal of ‘public housing’ and above all, what constitutes as ‘affordable housing’.

Should undergraduates buy insurance from their friends?

Should undergraduates buy insurance from their friends?

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FINANCE 1-ON-1: Catch independent financial advisor Wilfred Ling give his take on the important questions about financial planning and wealth management.

Hosted by Fang Shihan

Cooling the risen dragon – not so easy

Cooling the risen dragon – not so easy

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Monetary policy looks good on paper, but may have little effect on the ground.

Fang Shihan reports.

  • The first storey of a warehouse in the outskirts of Kunming. Yang Bo(see story) purchased a similar unit in another neighbouring building. With the subway system to be completed in two years time, investors are expecting these properties more accessible and to be fully occupied. Picture by FANG SHIHAN.
  • Rows of warehouses occupy the outskirts of Kunming. Picture by FANG SHIHAN.
  • Kunming Central. While it used to be a sleepy town 10 years ago, Kunming now is a bustling metropolis. Picture by FANG SHIHAN.

“THE RICH people buy up so many houses here that they’re driving up inflation!” remarks Hao Fei, 27, an English teacher at the Henderson Foreign Language school in Kunming, Yunnan.

Property is hot in China. Not only because social norms dictate that a male must own his a house before he’s deemed worthy enough to take a bride, but also because of rampant speculation.

Hao Fei bought his apartment 4 months back for 400,000 yuan (S$78,000). He reckons that he could sell it off for 500,000 yuan now. With a middle class salary of 6,000 (S$1,175) a month, he’ll take 30 years to pay off his bank mortgage.

He’s unhappy, however, that he is living in an asset worth half-a-million.

“Of course I can sell my house and earn a profit. But where will I live? Houses everywhere are getting more expensive as well!”

Nearer to the heart of Kunming, where the likes of KFC, the Big M and yes, even Breadtalk have sprouted within walking distance of each other, apartments owners literally live in million-yuan homes.

Little wonder then, that cash-rich Chinese are riding the bubble by buying their second and third houses. After all, what’s a million-yuan when the returns could potentially amount to 1.5 million yuan.

Government measures to cool the property market have been effective, but inflation is still rampant. Overall inflation remains high at 5.1% while food inflation stands at 10%.

According to Professor Zhang Jian Hua at Yunnan University, the crux of the problem lies in China’s lax monetary policy.

As a reaction towards the flood of liquidity unleashed by US’s own loose monetary policy during the recent depression, the Chinese government is now taking measures to rein in easy money, partly to curb property speculation.

“Property is not so easy to buy if you don’t have guanxi. The bulk of the warehouses in this estate have been reserved for friends and family of the developer. Outsiders like us have to pick from the leftovers.” – Yang Bo, business developer

Previously, homebuyers only had to pay 20 to 30% of the sum upfront and take a bank loan for the remainder. This now only applies to first-time buyers. Individuals looking to buy their second house now foot 50% upfront while third-timers pay the full sum in cash. But that’s only for housing. Speculation is still rampant in the commercial sector.

Yang Bo, 32, owns a chain of music schools in and around Kunming. He’s just bought the first floor of a 6-storey warehouse, intending to use the space as a warehouse retail outlet for his pianos.

“The developers wanted me to foot an additional 300,000 yuan when they agreed on 5 million yuan a few days ago. Now everyone’s holding back on their sales, hoping for the prices to increase.”

Still, he says the terms are good. With a 16% cashback incentive payable over two years, he says that by jumping in early, he’s saved himself 814,400 yuan.

“Property is not so easy to buy if you don’t have guanxi. The bulk of the warehouses in this estate have been reserved for friends and family of the developer. Outsiders like us have to pick from the leftovers. But it’s still a good deal because the area is near the distributorship cluster.”

An oversupply of liquidity over the past two years has also led to rising food prices, indicative by the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which stands at a 28-month high.

Lowering the logistical costs of agricultural produce and releasing some state food reserves, the government has managed to stabilise the prices of grain and cooking oil. Wholesale prices of vegetables have even gone down, according to Xinhua.

“That’s still not addressing the problem” says Professor Zhang.

With price controls in place, the Chinese farmers working with already low profit margins have even less incentive to be productive. He insists that there should be more investment in the agricultural sector instead. But such a policy would not have an immediate effect.

Remarking rather pessimistically, he mentions that it would also be half a year before current monetary policies have a tangible impact on the daily lives of the ordinary Chinese.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has hiked the reserve rate ratio (RRR) for the sixth time this year. Banks now have to park 18.5 percent of their reserves with the central bank. This decreases the level of liquidity or put simply, gives banks less money to lend.

Speculators may now find it more costly, or even impossible to get a loan because the banks are, well, short of money.

Other policies such as the oil price hike (in anticipation of rising demand) and gradual appreciation of the Yuan (to fight imported inflation), and the recent rise in interest rates (leading to less incentive to borrow and more incentive to park one’s cash in the bank) too may look to be effective in combating inflation, but could in fact make little difference on the ground in the short run.

Can China sustain this rate of economic growth while keeping inflation at bay? While the authorities insist that existing monetary policies should serve to slow down speculation while maintaining fiscal growth, reality seems to suggest otherwise.

The liquidity crunch unfortunately still does not address problems such as the one Yang Bo is facing. Developers are hoarding property in the hope of future price increases – this has little to do with how easy or difficult it is to obtain loans.