The Truth About Sovereign Wealth Funds; UBS Sub-Prime Losses Mount, Bank Deep In Red Wednesday, Jan 30 2008 

The Truth About Sovereign Wealth Funds by Anders Aslund, Foreign Policy, Dec 2007

Worried about oil-rich foreigners taking over your economy? You shouldn’t be. In reality, it is citizens of unaccountable, paternalistic regimes who stand to lose most when rulers play games with their national wealth.

The Arabs, the Chinese, and the Russians are about to buy up large swathes of Western economies. Or so the scare story goes. A frenzy of recent activity, including Dubai’s purchase of an undisclosed amount of Sony shares, Abu Dhabi’s acquisition of $7.5 billion worth of Citigroup, and China’s $3 billion stake in private-equity firm Blackstone, has many commentators fretting about so-called “sovereign wealth funds”—investment entities set up by governments to manage their surplus savings. According to an estimate by Morgan Stanley, sovereign wealth funds have poured some $37 billion since April into (mostly Western) financial institutions. One hyperventilating observer of these developments even bemoaned the onset of a “sharecropper economy” in the United States.

In truth, such funds are nothing for Americans or Europeans to fear. If anyone should worry about them, it’s the people whose governments are amassing them. That’s because governments tend to be terrible at managing money that is best left in the hands of private citizens. And locking away billions of dollars in wealth can have pernicious economic side effects. Maybe that’s why sovereign wealth funds are popular with dictators and semi-authoritarian regimes, which don’t have to answer for the consequences when they make poor economic gambles.

Sovereign wealth funds are nothing new, but they are growing larger. They emerged in the 1970s in oil-producing emirates, such as Kuwait and Abu Dhabi, as a way to accumulate current account and budget surpluses during the oil boom. Now, Abu Dhabi boasts the largest fund, sized at $600-700 billion, and other countries have followed its lead. Norway established a fund for its excess oil incomes in 1990. Singapore has accumulated two large funds that, unusually, are not based on oil income. And more recently, China and Russia have instituted large sovereign wealth funds of their own. Today, such funds hold as much as $2.5 trillion in assets, according to Ted Truman, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Some economists forecast they will grow to $12 trillion by 2015, an amount that roughly corresponds to the size of the entire U.S. economy.

The motives of the funds vary, and they don’t always make sense. Consider Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, which wanted to save their oil endowment for future generations, an admirable goal. But today these two bureaucratized emirates look like poor cousins in comparison with freewheeling Dubai, which has much less oil. Because the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Kuwait centralized their nations’ wealth in the hands of the state, their state sectors stifled their economies. Abu Dhabi’s fund may be impressive, but the entrepreneurial emir of Dubai has done a far better job of putting sustainable wealth in the hands of his citizens.

Another motive for the rise of sovereign wealth funds is to form a buffer against volatile commodity prices. In the 1970s, major oil exporters adjusted their expenditures to their enlarged oil revenues, but after 1980 the international oil prices plummeted, landing them in crisis. Learning this lesson, oil producers such as Russia have established “stabilization funds.” It may sound like a good idea, but the Russian deputy minister of finance responsible for foreign assets has just been arrested and accused of embezzling $43 million. Why trust the state with your money if the risk of theft is excessive?

A separate but related trend is the enormous currency reserves that Russia and especially China are amassing thanks to persistent large current-account surpluses. After the Asian and Russian financial crises of 1997-98, these governments realized that they could not rely upon the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to bail them out but needed sufficient reserves of their own. These reserves have since reached $450 billion in Russia and $1.44 trillion in China, corresponding to one third of Russia’s GDP and half of China’s.

But the low returns on international reserves make this arrangement costly. It is much more economical to reinforce the multilateral financial regime led by the IMF. Ballooning reserves, moreover, are a result of undervalued exchange rates, which are only tenable in the medium term. In the long run, inflation will eat up the competitive advantage. By purchasing foreign currencies and issuing domestic currency, central banks are boosting the money supply and inflation, which is becoming a major concern in China and Russia. Both countries would be better off letting their exchange rates appreciate to reduce inflation, which would slow their accumulation of reserves.

In short, sovereign wealth funds are often a lousy bargain for the countries that have them. That may explain why they have been developed mostly by authoritarian regimes in semi-developed countries, where citizens don’t have a chance to demand smarter economic policies. Take Singapore, whose economy depends on trade rather than a declining resource such as oil, and yet has locked up billions of dollars of its wealth in a fund since 1960. The government there has exceptionally managed to maintain its authoritarianism after the country became wealthy, but authoritarian regimes are more vulnerable to economic downturns than democratic systems. Singapore’s autocratic rulers need a reserve to pay off dissatisfied subjects to maintain power when economic times get tough.

In democracies, the politics work differently. The only democratic country with a large sovereign wealth fund is Norway. Since the Norwegian fund was established in 1990, every incumbent government has lost elections because the opposition has promised all kinds of popular expenditures from the abundant fund. Democratically, it is difficult to defend an excessive public reserve fund.

Certain international reserves are always needed, and exporters of commodities with highly fluctuating prices require larger reserves as a safety net. However, sovereign wealth funds are something different. They reflect a paternalistic—and economically illiterate—notion that the ruler knows best while citizens are so irresponsible that they cannot be entrusted with their own savings. It would be more economical and democratic to cut taxes and let citizens save and invest themselves.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article characterized Singapore’s rulers as “unelected.” Technically speaking, they are elected, but neither freely nor fairly. Freedom House rates Singapore as only “partly free.”

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UBS subprime losses mount, bank deep in red by Thomas Atkins, Reuters, 30 Jan 2008

ZURICH (Reuters) – Subprime-related problems at UBS AG mounted on Wednesday as the Swiss bank unveiled $4 billion in new write-downs in a surprise statement and sank deep into the red for the year.

The latest disclosure lifted the bank’s total write-downs from the subprime debacle to $18.4 billion and will likely increase pressure on chairman Marcel Ospel, at the UBS helm during its push into risky U.S. investments, to resign.

UBS, world banking’s leading wealth manager, posted a 12.5 billion Swiss franc ($11.45 billion) loss for the last three months of 2007 and a full-year loss of 4.4 billion francs, a grim closure to its worst performance in history.

UBS shares fell 1.7 percent in early trading as analysts puzzled over the new losses, but later pared most losses.

“One could become very emotional about UBS — continuously behind the curve in write-downs and hence always topping-up, exposure disclosure is poor to new write-downs, and management leadership vacuum,” said analysts at investment bank J.P.Morgan.

“This is certainly not good,” said analyst Georg Kanders at bank WestLB. “I had expected less.”

UBS is one of the hardest-hit banks worldwide from the credit crisis that has caused around $130 billion in losses, mangled balance sheets and forced some of the proudest institutions like UBS, Citigroup and Merrill Lynch into emergency capital-raising measures.

The surprise announcement adds to the sense of chaos in Western banking after Societe Generale last week shocked with a $7 billion loss it blamed on a lone trader — the worst trading loss in history by far.

UBS last month announced a 13 billion franc capital injection from Singapore and an unidentified Middle East investor and hopes to convince shareholders to approve the plan at an extraordinary meeting on February 27.

Resistance Mounting

But shareholder resistance to the capital increase is growing, with shareholder groups Actares, Profond and Ethos plus several pension funds urging others to oppose the move.

UBS is now struggling to restructure its investment bank and repair its credibility after the staggering losses, which have pushed its shares 40 percent lower over the past year.

UBS said in a statement the results reflect $12 billion in losses from the U.S. subprime market, plus $2 billion in losses from other U.S. residential mortgages and that weak trading income dragged performance lower as well.

UBS had been scheduled to report results on February 14.

The group said it managed to reduced its balance sheet and risk weighted assets during the quarter, which resulted in a loss, and that it will report a BIS Tier 1 ratio — a measure of capital safety — of 8.8 percent as of December 31.

The Swiss bank’s huge losses, which have prompted calls for it to spin off its investment banking business and concentrate on its highly successful wealth management activities, stem from a disastrous hedge fund venture into subprime mortgages.

In a sign that the subprime disaster may drag out for some time, the FBI this week said it is investigating 14 corporations over possible accounting fraud and insider trading violations in a crackdown on subprime lending. The companies were not named.

Switzerland’s banking regulator said last month it would probe major subprime losses at UBS while Merrill Lynch disclosed in November that the SEC was investigating matters related to its subprime business.

(Reporting by Thomas Atkins; Editing by David Cowell and Jason Neely)

VIDEO: Complaints Choir of Singapore – Live Monday, Jan 28 2008 

This is unedited live footage of one of the private performances of the Complaints Choir of Singapore. All public performances had to be cancelled. The finished video will follow soon!
Check back at
www.complaintschoir.org

Related post: Complaints Choir Cancels Public Performances Due To Government Pressure

The Complaints Choir Singapore Lyrics (Source: TOC)

We get fined for almost anything
Drivers won’t giver chance when you want to change land
The indoors are cold, the outdoors are hot;
And the humid air, it wrecks my hair
Those answering machines always make you hold
Only to hang up on you

When a pregnant lady gets on the train
Everyone pretends to be asleep
I’m stuck with my parents till I’m 35
Cause I can’t apply for HDB
We don’t recycle any plastic bags
But we purify our pee

*chorus:

What’s wrong with Singapore?
Losing always makes me feel so sore
Cuase ifyou’re not the best
Then you’re just one of the rest
My oh my Singapore
What exactly are we voting for?
What’s not expressly permitted
Is prohibited

When I’m hungry at the food court, I see
People chope seats with their tissue paper
To the lady staying upstairs:
Your laundry’s dripping on my bed sheets
Please don’t squat on the toilet seats
And don’t clip your nails on MRT

Stray cats get into noisy affairs
At night my neighbor makes weird animal sounds
People put on fake accents to sound posh
And queue up three hours for donuts
Will I ever I live till eighty five
To collect my CPF?”

*chorus

Singaporeans too kiasu!
Singaporeans too kiasi!
Singaporeans too kiabor!
Maybe we’re just too stressed out!

Old National Library was replaced by an ugly tunnel
Singaporean men can’t take independent women
People blow their nose into the swimming pool
And fall asleep on my shoulder in the train

Singapore’s national bird is the crane (the one with yellow steel girders)
Real estate agents’ leaflets clogging up my mailbox (en bloc, en bloc, en bloc, en bloc)
Why can’t we be buried when we die?
No one wants to climb Bukit Timah with me

*chorus

There are not enough public holidays
My neighbour sings KTV all night
Wedding dinners never start on time
My hair is always cut shorter than I want
Channel 5 commercials are way too long
Why do men turn bald?

At first it was to speak more mandarin
Then it was to speak proper English
What’s wrong with my powderful Singlish?

People sit down during rock concerts
We have to pay for tap water at restaurants

ERP gantries are everywhere
But I can still see traffic jams on the road
All the bus stops have tilted benches
Cannot access playboy.com

Complaints Choir Cancels Public Performances Due To Government Pressure Sunday, Jan 27 2008 

From Complaints Choir….

All public performances of the Complaints Choir of Singapore have been cancelled. The Singaporean police did not want to issue a permission to perform public if foreign choir members don´t step out from the choir. The choir has few members who are permanently living in Singapore but who are not Citizens. The Malaysian born conductor of the Complaints Choir and the artists Kalleinen & Kochta-Kalleinen would also not be allowed to perform..

The choir decided that they did not want to perform under these circumstances and all the public performances have been cancelled.

“We are disappointed that our prejudices against Singapore have been affirmed. We see the symptoms of a neurotic society. We find it irritating that foreigners – people that built this city, nurse Singaporean kids and bring in their knowledge – are not allowed to complain. In the case of the Complaints Choir the situation is particularly silly, because removing the foreigners from the performances does not change the song at all. When MM LKY talks about the reinvention of Singapore as a Renaissance City, it seems that there is a long way to go.” – Tellervo + Oliver Kalleinen

From Sunday 27th January view the Singapore Complaints Choir performing just for video on this site.

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Complaints Choir Project URGENT UPDATE, 26 Jan 2008

“We’ve just gotten news about our license application for THE COMPLAINTS CHOIR PROJECT (performances at various public spaces today). While we were given a license, this is a conditional one – no foreigners (i.e. a handful of the participants, the artists themselves and our conductor) are allowed to perform with the Choir. This is across the board and not only applicable for Speaker’s Corner (which has a regulation that states that non-Singaporeans aren’t allowed to perform there).

Naturally, this comes as a total shock to us, but we have discussed this amongst ourselves, with the artists and Choir. It is clear that we all do not want the Choir to be split up in any way.

As such, a few decisions have been made:

1) All public performances will be cancelled. We will put signages at the venues to inform people of this.

2) Instead, we will have private invite-only performances of the full Singapore Complaints Choir on both Sat 26th Jan and Sun 27th Jan, 3pm and 6.30pm at The Chamber at The Arts House.

3) Please help us spread the word to your friends, families and anyone else who is keen to watch the free performances.

4) To obtain invites, interested audience members can email info@singaporefringe.com or call The Complaints Choir Hotline at 9690 7453. Alternatively, if you turn up at the venue prior to the show, please let one of us know (we will be at The Chamber). We will issue private-event invitations for the special performances.”

Pseudonymity: Government bans choir performance at Speakers’ Corner, Singapore Democrats

VIDEO & REPORT: Human Rights Torch Relay Reaches Police State Wednesday, Jan 23 2008 

Singapore Welcomes the Global Human Rights Torch Relay, George Fu, Epoch Times, 22 Jan 2008

The Global Human Rights Torch Relay (HRTR) arrived in Singapore this Saturday, 19 January, following a receptive welcome of over 200 supporters in Batam last week. A ceremony to welcome the torch was held at Changi, on the east coast of Singapore.

HRTR relay in SingaporeLocal politicians, lawyers and representatives of the “SG Human Rights Organisation” were among the citizens who came to support the torch and its worthy message: “The Olympics and Crimes against Humanity Cannot Coexist in China”.

President of The Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China (CIPFG), Singapore Branch, human rights lawyer Mr. M. Ravi, welcomed the arrival of the torch, “This is an immensely important event as there has never been a human rights torch that has arrived in Singapore in this fashion.”

Veteran politician and lawyer JB Jayaretnam and John Tan, Assistant Secretary General of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) both expressed their deep concern for and disappointment at the human rights abuses committed against various groups in China, especially Falun Gong – the most severely persecuted group in China today.

“This event for me is most symbolic above anything else. I hope it is going to have real pressure on the Chinese regime. They are not doing the right thing in terms of their abuse and they ought to stop the persecution,” said Mr Tan.

“If they want friendship of the world and if they want the participation of the Olympics in Beijing, they have to stop the abuse… not because they want business and cooperation, but it’s all part of being human and not to abuse the rights of other human beings”, he added.

Shortly after the human rights torch was ignited, a pick-up bearing the HRTR banner chauffeured two torch-bearing Olympic maidens, dressed in flowing white ancient Greek-style dresses, directly into the heart of the city and later to the Chinese embassy.

The sight was greeted with thumbs-ups and cheers by surprised weekend crowds and tourists along Orchard Road and City Hall. Motorists passing by the Chinese embassy looked on as a statement was read aloud, detailing the Chinese Communist Party’s various crimes committed against the Chinese people and humanity.

The statement closed with a demand that the crimes cease before the scheduled Beijing Olympics in August, especially the crime of harvesting organs from Falun Gong practitioners, while still alive, for profit. The statement was then handed over to a guard at the Embassy, who promised to pass it on to Embassy leaders.

“The torch turns on the spotlight on China’s atrocity against Falun Gong. We hope that at least today this torch will receive a given attention to all Singaporeans who would come to know that this torch has come to Singapore,” said Ravi.

The Global Human Rights Torch will be relayed through a total of 37 countries and more than 100 cities around the world until August this year. It is next scheduled to visit Sri Lanka, India and Africa.

Local Police Seize Human Rights Torch ‘For Investigation’

Shortly after the HRTR activities ended at Singapore’s landmark hill and frequent tourist spot, Mount Faber, six police officers, tagged by a cameraman, seized two Human Rights Torches and two HRTR banners from CIPFG members.

Categorizing the event as “illegal assembly”, the investigation officer said the torches and banners were needed to facilitate their “investigation”, and repeatedly demanded HRTR event participants to reveal their names and personal particulars, on the pretext of returning the props to the rightful owner after their investigation.

When the police were questioned about the purpose of the investigation and who would be held accountable for the confiscation of the items, no direct answer was given.

Some HRTR event participants told the police to arrest them if they had committed a crime, rather than take away the symbolic items. The police officers were hesitant and seemed uncertain. When the event participants walked away the police did not take any action.

The Human Rights Torch, gaining international attention from dignitaries and citizens around the world, is a symbol of justice and peace, standing for the sacredness of humanity’s fundamental rights.

The banners, which were also confiscated, read ‘Human Rights before Olympics’ and ‘Olympic Games and crimes against humanity cannot coexist in China’.

“The word ‘human rights’ has become a dirty word because of the government’s propaganda. There is no such thing as human rights, only until recent years, the notion of human rights at least,” said John Tan, who was at the scene.

“What is really significant is that Singaporeans are now vocal and daring enough to come out and say ‘hey, this is human rights, contrary to what the government has been telling us. Human rights do not belong to just the West. We want human rights too and we deserve human rights as well.”

VIDEO: Montage of Seelan’s 5-Day Hunger Strike Sunday, Jan 13 2008 

Related posts:

Singaporean Activist On Hunger Strike To Support Malaysian Hindus

VIDEOS: First Day Of Singaporean Activist’s Hunger Strike

VIDEO: Seelan Palay Ends Hunger Strike For Hindraf 5

International Campaign to Stop Drug Executions Gearing Up Friday, Jan 11 2008 

Drug War Chronicle, 11 Jan 2008

The notices generally appear as brief blips on the news wires, or perhaps as one-paragraph summaries in the international sections of newspapers: “Iran Hangs Three for Heroin Smuggling,” “Vietnam Sentences 12 to Death for Drugs,” “Malaysia to Execute Man For Five Pounds of Cannabis.” The notices may be brief, but there is a steady drumbeat of them. In just the past week came news that Iran had handed over the body of a Pakistani man executed for drug trafficking and that Malaysia had sentenced a bill collector to death for drug trafficking.

Despite the steadily rising toll, the use of the death penalty as a tool in the war on drugs rarely receives much attention, let alone sustained analysis. But that could be beginning to change as harm reduction and human rights organizations gear up to put the state-sanctioned killing of drug offenders in the international spotlight. The opening volley in that effort took place last month, when the International Harm Reduction Association released a report on the use of the death penalty for drug offenses that both details the extent of the problem and qualifies it as a violation of international human rights law.

The report, The Death Penalty for Drug Offences: A Violation of International Human Rights Law, authored by IHRA analyst Rick Lines, finds that some 32 countries have drug offense death penalty provisions on their books, mostly in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. While the death penalty is typically reserved for drug sales, trafficking, or manufacture, that is not always the case, and in some countries, mere possession can warrant a death sentence.

The number of people executed for drug offenses easily runs into the hundreds, perhaps even more, each year. In the last month, Vietnam alone has sentenced more than 40 people to death for drug offenses, while from Iran comes a steady drumbeat of notices from the state news agency that another trafficker or two or three has been hanged. China has been known to hold mass public executions of drug offenders, while in Singapore, dozens of drug offenders face the executioner each year.

Still, the exact number of executions is unknowable. That’s because countries either do not provide details on the number of executions or do not provide breakdowns of why people were executed.

“Because some countries — China, for instance — do not release details of the number of executions they carry out each year, it is impossible to arrive at an accurate yearly total of drug war executions,” said Lines. “While we can’t arrive at an accurate number, suffice it to say that in some countries, as detailed in the report, drug offenders constitute a significant percentage of all executions each year, so this is a major issue in some countries.”

Those killings violate international human rights law, the report argues. While international law does not ban capital punishment, it does limit it in significant ways. The report notes that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says the death penalty may be applied only for the “most serious crimes.” Both the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions have found that drug offenses do not constitute “most serious crimes,” which makes executing drug offenders a violation of international law.

“Capital punishment for drug offences is but one illustration of how human rights have been sacrificed in the name of the ‘war on drugs,'” said Professor Gerry Stimson, the IHRA’s executive director. “Unfortunately, the death penalty is not the only example of such abuses worldwide. Repressive law enforcement practices, the denial of health services to drug users and the spread of HIV infection among people who inject drugs, due to lack of access to harm reduction programs, are far too common in many countries across the globe.”

While the IHRA is working all these issues, it is now preparing to bring the death penalty issue to the forefront as part of a broader campaign to tie harm reduction and human rights together. “This report is the first research report from our new HR2 — harm reduction and human rights — program, and one of our main emphases in this new program is research and advocacy on human rights issues related to drug policy and human rights abuses against people who use drugs,” said Lines. “The death penalty is an obvious issue in that regard, and an important one to highlight with our first publication. This is part of a broader campaign, and we will be using the research in various ways to highlight the issue at the international level in 2008.”

The emerging campaign against the death penalty for drug offenders is part of a broader effort to bring more attention to human rights abuses against people involved with drugs, said Lines. “Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been very supportive of our work on this issue and have provided important advice and information along the way,” he said. “This is an important link for us. We hope the issue of the death penalty for drugs is one that might be used to raise the issue of human rights abuses and drug policy more generally within the mainstream human rights movement.”

IHRA will be working with human rights groups as well as its international network of regional harm reduction groups to put the issue in the spotlight this year. In the US, that means groups like the Harm Reduction Coalition will be joining the fight.

“Our general feeling is that the more repressive the legal environment, the less room for implementing harm reduction measures around HIV prevention, overdose prevention, and related issues,” said Daniel Raymond, the coalition’s policy director, “We see a direct correlation in places like Thailand,” he said.

The Harm Reduction Coalition has already been working the issue to a limited degree and plans to do more, Raymond said. “We’ve done a little work around China and its tendency to celebrate the international day against drugs by executing people, and we’ve been involved in the discussions between the IHRA and the regional harm reduction networks on this,” he said. “We will be involved again as this campaign begins to gear up. We’re very interested in pressure to bear and in bringing the harm reduction community in the US into this issue.”

Lines said it is time to act. “As I did the research for this report, I was surprised how little attention this issue has received, despite the fact that executions for drug offenses clearly violate international law. There was much less literature on the topic than I assumed there would be when I started,” he noted. “I was also surprised to see that while the worldwide trend is clearly toward the abolition of the capital punishment — the number of countries with the death penalty has steadily decreased over the past 20 years — at the same time, the number of countries with laws allowing the death penalty for drugs has increased,” Lines continued. “That’s completely opposite to the general trend away from capital punishment. I think this is an issue where we can almost empirically measure the negative effects of the war on drugs on human rights.”

The campaign against the death penalty for drug offenses got a boost last month when the UN General Assembly called for a moratorium on the death penalty for all offenses. Now, the IHRA, its regional network, and mainstream human rights organizations are ready to bring on the pressure.

“We will begin to initiate more direct lobbying and campaigning this year,” Lines promised. “I can’t go into any more detail at the moment, but you have not heard the last from us on this issue.”

Joseph Stiglitz Says GDP May Be Poor Indicator Of Economy Thursday, Jan 10 2008 

Normally, the economic well being of a nation is measured by its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP assumes that if there were more goods in circulation, general welfare would automatically follow. At a conference in Cleveland, a recent survey of citizen’s perceptions of well being across countries by Gallop, surprisingly, revealed that Singapore, which is the richest country in Asia, after Japan, and one of the most efficient and least corrupt societies in the world, scores the lowest in the Well-being Index. Surprisingly, people in Singapore are less satisfied with their lives than much poorer and less efficient countries. Evidently, according to the survey, to be respected as a free human being and to have the freedom to make personal choices– parameters on which Singaporeans give their society a low score–contribute much more to people’s feelings of well being than economics – click here for full article

Stiglitz says GDP may be poor indicator of economy, AFP, 8 Jan 2007

WASHINGTON (AFP) – Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist tapped to head a new French study, said Tuesday he sees gross domestic product (GDP), the most often cited yardstick, as an imperfect indicator.

Stiglitz, named by French President Nicolas Sarkozy to head a panel to find a new method of economic calculation that will include quality-of-life factors, said the current yardsticks “only reward governments if they increase materialistic production.”

“If you improve the quality of life, but it doesn’t show up in more material consumption, it doesn’t show up in GDP, and you’ll be criticized,” the US economist told AFP in a phone interview.

Sarkozy earlier announced in Paris that Stiglitz and a fellow Nobel economics laureate, Amartya Sen of India, will participate in the project.

The 64-year-old winner of the Nobel economics prize in 2001 and currently a professor at Columbia University in New York, is to chair the panel.

Stiglitz, known for his outspokenness and criticism of globalization, said the French president had given him “a broad-ranging mandate trying to put together a commission study on the broad questions of how do you measure well-being.”

“Among the economics profession there has been a strong sense for a long while that gross domestic product is not a good measure. It doesn’t measure changes in well-being, it doesn’t measure comparisons of well-being across countries,” he said.

Thus, if political leaders “are trying to maximize GDP and GDP is not a good measure, you are maximizing the wrong thing and it can be counterproductive,” he said.

The former chief economist at the World Bank, who resigned in 1999 after accusing rich countries of not doing enough to help the poor, said he hoped the panel’s findings would go beyond the French framework.

“Hopefully this will have global consequence,” he said.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a replacement of current measures, but maybe a construction of complementary measures,” he said.

He said there was some discussion about the possible participation of other countries in the project.

“Whether we will do it just under the auspices of the French government or whether there will be other partners is a question that is still open,” he said.

For him, measuring growth is a global issue made even more urgent by the problems caused by global warming.

“The standard measures of GDP do not measure the degradation of the environment, the depreciation of natural resources.”

And GDP growth can mask a sharp decline in individuals’ quality of life, he argued.

“It’s been particularly true in the US where GDP has been going up but actually most people not only feel worse off, their measure of income is actually going down,” he said.

Stiglitz said he had agreed to take on the project only after the French government assured him the new panel “will have complete liberty” to define the problem and to analyze it.

“I think that on all sides of the political spectrum there is a recognition of these deficiencies, and a recognition that it is important that we develop better metrics, no matter whether you are on the left or the right.”

Stiglitz said he had spoken with Sen, who would be a member of the panel and an adviser. Sen won the Nobel economics prize in 1998 for work on developing economies and on well-being in India.

Stiglitz said the timeframe for the project had not yet been determined, but he was aiming for a result in the “medium term,” or within the next 18-24 months.

Pia Muzaffar Dawson Did The Unthinkable Last November Wednesday, Jan 9 2008 

Exclusive interview with student protestor by Michael Wan, The Campus Observer, Jan. 9, 2008

NUS exchange student Pia Muzaffar Dawson did the unthinkable last November.

Along with two exchange students, the 22-year-old took her chances with Singapore’s tough laws against public protests by marching down Orchard Road into an area guarded by about 1,000 armed police and soldiers.

Together with Daniel Babiak and Mark (who did not want to reveal his last name), Dawson entered the city area where the Association of South East Asian Nations leaders’ summit was being held.

The trio, dressed in red T-shirts and holding lighted candles, were protesting against Asean’s inaction toward Burma’s junta after the country’s bloody military crackdown on demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

In an e-mail interview with The Observer on Jan. 08, Dawson spoke about her experience with the university administrators that called to warn her against protesting and about what she thinks of NUS students.

She has since completed her semester as an exchange student at NUS and returned to England, where she is studying international relations and development studies at the University of Sussex.

Campus Observer: Have you ever protested in England before?

Dawson: Yes, but not very much. I don’t have much history of activism. It’s only recently that I’ve been inspired to participate in protests, specifically regarding education in the UK, anti-war, the occupation of Palestine, and the gradual erosion of our civil liberties in England.

Campus Observer: What inspired you to protest that day?

Dawson: First and foremost, the continuing political repression in Burma, the strong links between Singaporean elites and Burmese military rulers and drug barons, and the relative silence in Singaporean media on both these issues.

It would have been awful if the Burmese junta could be seen to just turn up in Singapore and not be held accountable for their actions — especially given the recent violent crackdown on monks and others.

Secondly, the repressive environment in Singapore, which restricts free speech, free assembly and free press. With the government silent and civil society groups facing massive restrictions, we thought that we could use our status as international students to highlight this issue.

Thirdly – and I am speaking for myself here — it is becoming increasingly clear to me that protest and political participation are vital to maintaining any semblance of democracy and political accountability. This is something that one generation of Singaporeans knew well, but has been stifled in contemporary Singapore. Knowing full well that a public assembly of more than four people does not necessarily degenerate into violence and chaos, we wanted to demonstrate this in Singapore.

Campus Observer: It was reported that administrators from NUS called to warn you of Singapore’s laws. What exactly did they tell you?

Dawson: The provost and dean of students spoke to some of us. They had managed to print out our Facebook event details and explained that the wording of our appeal made it clear that there was intent to hold an assembly of more than four people, even if the protest was conducted in smaller groups.

They didn’t want us to unwittingly break the law and were concerned that as foreign students we were not aware of local law. They even offered us the Central Forum as an alternative venue to stage a vigil.

Campus Observer: Why did you still decide to go ahead with the protests?

Dawson: Because our reasons for protesting remained the same, and we were concerned that this kind of muting of our plans would have much less of an impact and carry our message much less far.

We were also lucky because we knew that any sort of legal action or arrest would not affect us in the same way that it would affect a Singaporean student and their future career prospects (unless we want to work in Singapore, that is).

Campus Observer: Were you afraid when security officials and the police stopped your group of protesters?

Dawson: I wasn’t afraid, because we had expected to encounter police in that area, and we knew that we hadn’t broken any law. We also knew that the police would not mistreat us in the presence of so many international journalists. The main reason I wasn’t afraid, however, was that a successful protest usually relies on good planning, and our group had collectively decided that we would not confront the police or try to defy their warnings. So when the moment came, we were all prepared to disperse peacefully.

Campus Observer: I see that you were using your handphone in one of the photos. Who were you calling?

Dawson: Journalists from all over the world had been calling me non-stop that day.

Campus Observer: Were there any friends, well-meaning or otherwise, who tried to dissuade you from joining the protests? Could you recount one such experience?

Dawson: Yes, one law-student friend tried to dissuade us and managed to dissuade some others. One other friend was not comfortable with the fact that we would have no control over how our protest would be represented in the media, and he was very worried that we would be cast as troublemakers, or that reporters would focus on us and not on the issues that we were trying to publicise. He didn’t come, in the end. Luckily, his fears didn’t come true.

However, I had no problem with the fact that some people didn’t want to participate, because it’s not right to do those things without being comfortable with your actions. Also, other people’s criticisms were totally legitimate and meant we had many excellent discussions in the days before the protest, which ultimately prepared us much better for the day.

Campus Observer: Daniel was quoted by Bloomberg: “A lot of people wanted to come, but they were afraid of the repercussions.” What were these people’s reactions after the protests?

Dawson: They were relieved, I think, that no harm came to us. But I think their fears were totally valid, especially given the way the university, police and local media attempted to scare us out of participating. Hopefully, people will be more encouraged the next time such an opportunity arises.

Campus Observer: What do you think has been the effect of the protests on Singapore’s political scene?

Dawson: I don’t know. I think it’s important to highlight that the next day, 40-50 Burmese residents of Singapore were able to stage a rally, even holding banners and placards. I hope this will encourage even more Singaporeans to become active in civil society. I know that there are many Singaporeans who feel disillusioned with politics, seeing it as a sphere outside and above their control. For me, politics is something everyday and ubiquitous, and I believe we can empower ourselves without the permission of those who are supposedly in authority.

Campus Observer: Describe your opinion of NUS students in three words.

Dawson: Overworked, competitive, and de-politicised!

15 Mar 08: A Rally As Part Of Campaign Against PAP’s Greed And Exploitation Of Singaporeans Tuesday, Jan 8 2008 

SDP applies for protest rally on World Consumer Rights Day, Singapore Democrats, 7 Jan 08

The Singapore Democrats have applied to hold a rally on 15 Mar 08 to protest against the alarming escalation in prices of basic goods and services in Singapore.

The event will take place on World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) and will be held outside Parliament House by the Singapore River.

WCRD is an event commemorated by Consumer International (CI) and is an annual occasion for “promoting the basic rights of all consumers, for demanding that those rights are respected and protected, and for protesting the market abuses and social injustices which undermine them.”

Interestingly the Consumer Association of Singapore or CASE, headed by PAP MP Yeo Guat Kwang, is a member of CI. In 2007 CASE held a rally outside Parliament House by the Singapore River to celebrate WCRD.

CASE - 18 Mar 2007
Click the photo to read about Singapore’s One country, Two systems

According to the CI website, thousands of people had taken part in the CASE event held last year – complete with placards, t-shirts and speeches.

Seeing that CASE held this public event last year, the SDP has put in an application to the police for a permit to hold a similar event this year at the same place for the same occasion.

The application was made on 28 Dec 07 but the police have yet to reply.

The rally will be an occasion for Singaporeans to protest against the exploitation of consumers who have had to endure a rash of price increases over the last few months while the businesses owned by the Government continue to register fat profits and greedy ministers line the pockets with out-of-this-world salaries.

by sei-ji rakugaki of my sketchbook
Cartoon by sei-ji rakugaki of My sketchbook

As a result, the inflation rate has shot past 4 percent and looks set to rise even further, heaping yet more misery and hardship on the people especially those in the lower-income group.

The Singapore Government being landlord, employer, and everything in between needs to be held accountable by consumer-citizens.

The protest is part of the SDP’s campaign against the PAP’s greed and exploitation of Singaporeans.

Singapore Libel Case A Test For Murdoch Monday, Jan 7 2008 

2006 CNN report

Eric Ellis, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Jan 2008

THE TIMES asked readers recently “Is libel dead?” The number of defamation writs issued in British courts last year was about an eighth of the 457 writs 10 years earlier.

The downward trends are similar in other Western jurisdictions such as Australia and North America, suggesting those who willingly stand in the public eye are becoming thicker-skinned in withstanding the decade’s avalanche of media forms.

Or perhaps the media are more careful about who they traduce, and how.

But one place where libel remains a legal growth industry is in a tiny country desperate to become part of the developed world: among the sensitive political and business petals of Singapore. As Rupert Murdoch is himself finding out.

That is because of a long-running case concerning Singapore’s premier political family, the Lees; a case Murdoch’s News Corporation inherited via its recently completed $US6 billion ($6.8 billion) purchase of Dow Jones.

Lee family members include, of course, Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew and his son, the Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong.

The Lees have a long history of libel stoushes with foreign media, battles they have never lost when heard in Singapore’s own courts, which grants them damages payouts that set world records. The (pre-Murdoch) Asian Wall Street Journal, Time, The International Herald Tribune, Businessweek, Bloomberg and the Financial Times are among other international names respected for their accuracy and authority that have been hit with the Lees’ libel broadsides. And lost.

The Lees have used similar tactics in seeking to silence political opponents.

Remarks that might be regarded as just part of the rough-and-tumble of competitive political or business culture in Australia often head to the libel courts when aired in Singapore.

However, it is one-way traffic. Opponents have never won an action against the Lees. Singapore is in effect a one-party state, and that party is the Lee party.

Such is the presumption of a libel loss that most media companies now do not even take the fight to trial, instead promptly settling. They know that history says they will not win, and management usually decides that a quick settlement limits expensive legal bills – and possible even higher damages when Lee lawyers insist mid-trial that publicly heard evidence has further harmed sensitive reputations, which prevents airing of issues that may be germane to the case.

It is not just the media. In 2001 what seemed to many bankers to be a normal tactical paper was prepared by Goldman Sachs on behalf of its local client DBS Bank. Goldman-DBS criticised the merits of a rival bid for a bank DBS was seeking to take over.

Target and rival were miffed, complaining to the central bank, and each board soon pocketed $US1 million in damages from DBS, which did not get the deal.

But the case Murdoch has inherited is different. It stems from a profile of the Singapore opposition figure Chee Soon Juan published in the Dow Jones-owned monthly The Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2006.

In it Chee criticises the Government’s handling of a local charity scandal.

But Lees’s lawyers saw a reputational attack and sued the Review on behalf of Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong.

But on this occasion the magazine refused to roll over and settle. Much to Singaporean annoyance, the offending article remains posted on the Review website (alongside a link to human rights press awards). There are front-page pointers to all legal exchanges on the matter and an editor’s letter explaining why the Review is taking the battle to the Lees.

The Review’s arguments are mostly about transparency and the rule of law, the very principles on which Singapore prides itself but many say does not practise with quite the gusto it claims.

It is a case that poses particular issues for all protagonists.

It will be the first time News and the Lees have crossed swords in a libel matter, which has become a perverse kind of rite of passage for other international media proprietors.

The Lees have been the dominant political family in Singapore since the 1950s, about the same time Murdoch has been in charge of News Corp. Both have helped build institutions about the same size; News Corp’s market worth approaches $US100 billion, Singapore’s GDP a bit bigger. Both are expert at projecting power, and neither brook any challenge to their authority.

The Review had argued, pre-Murdoch, that since it did not have an office or staff in Singapore, it should not be subject to Singapore law.

It wanted the matter heard in Hong Kong, where it is based, and where it feels it would get a fairer hearing. The Lees have never won a case outside Singapore.

In a letter to Singapore’s Information Ministry, which has sought a bond from the Review in lieu of presumed damages and Singaporean jurisdiction over the Review, Dow Jones’s lawyers argue “its imposition on the Review, merely for the sake of making it easier for senior ministers of the Singapore Government to recover personal damages in a libel action, would be deeply regretted by all who care for the rule of law in your country.

“It is an exorbitant and unlawful demand that even totalitarian states have never sought to impose on media.”

And that is the way the matter has largely stayed since mid-2006, largely an exchange of testy lawyers’ letters as Singapore throws out the Review’s effort to end the action in Singapore.

But then came Murdoch’s successful bid for Dow Jones last year. The management that previously backed the Review’s feistier approach to Singapore no longer runs the company, after Murdoch put in a new team.

The status of the case is unclear. Outwardly, it seems as if nothing has changed, and a Murdoch-owned Review is still taking on the Singaporeans. The articles and letters remain posted at the Review.com and the Review editors say it is still alive, referring the matter to Dow Jones lawyers, who do not respond.

The matter is pregnant with the notion of what constitutes credibility – Singapore’s own sense of it and News’s in the court of public opinion after the reputational shellacking it received en route to the Dow Jones win.

Singapore’s legal system is also under scrutiny. The US embassy in Singapore has frequently expressed concern about “the ruling party’s use of the court system to intimidate political opponents”. The Australian lawyer Stuart Littlemore, who has observed Singapore libel cases for the International Commission of Jurists, says “the Singapore leadership has a long-standing record of using the High Court as a mechanism for silencing its opponents – by suing them for statements that, in any comparable jurisdiction, would be seen as part of a robust political debate inseparable from democratic freedoms, and by being awarded such unconscionably high damages and costs as to bankrupt the defendants, forcing them out of parliament”.

Credibility was at the heart of the Murdoch bid for Dow Jones. There were numerous critics of his Dow Jones tilt – notably in its own newsrooms, and including some members of the publisher’s controlling Bancroft family (which quickly put aside its gripes in accepting News’s generous offer). The critics said Murdoch and News had insufficient credibility to be custodians of venerable media assets like The Wall Street Journal and The Far Eastern Economic Review.

News Corporation prevailed after a searing battle in which Murdoch’s personal and corporate reputation was assailed, almost to the point of him pulling out. Murdoch himself said bitterly that he was treated like a “genocidal tyrant”.

A significant aspect of the appeal of Dow Jones to Murdoch is its under-played assets in booming Asia, a region where Singapore interests are hugely influential, both politically and commercially, and where Murdoch thinks he can add much value absorbing Dow Jones into the rest of the News empire.

But just as Murdoch has been cited as providing the type of media Asia does not want, notably by China, wealthy Singapore is often cited as a regional development model, particularly in effective one-party states like China and through Central Asia.

It is an important, if sometimes self-serving, voice in the so-called Asian Values debate.

Unlike many of his competitors, Murdoch’s titles have never experienced a Singapore libel action. The city-state has rather been seen by News as a place to raise money and do business – notably in 2001 when Murdoch briefly entered a joint venture with Singapore’s state-owned telecom (then run by a son of Lee Kuan Yew) in an unsuccessful bid for Hong Kong’s leading telecom.

But with this libel headache now on Murdoch’s desk, Singapore faces a media company run by a dominant individual who is an archly pragmatic dealmaker when it suits him. That could mean wiggle room for legal negotiation except that, with libel, the Lees famously are not much for turning. Absolute victory is their goal. It will be fascinating to see how the battle plays out, mindful of the messages it could send around a democratising region where state control of media is evolving and where libel clearly is not yet dead.

Eric Ellis is South-East Asian Correspondent for Fortune Magazine.

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