Sunday, 25 March 2012

Events show power of individuals to make history

Mar 25, 2012

STOCKHOLM (AP) - In France a motorcycle gunman throws a presidential campaign into turmoil. In Afghanistan, one United States (US) soldier's slaughter of civilians shifts the narrative of the Afghan war more than any policy conceived by the Obama administration.

The past month exposes the limits of leaders who try to shape the world - and how unexpected actions by individuals can influence the course of history.

'The drama of a singular event can supersede years of policymaking,' says Mr Philip Seib, director of the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy.

And in the information age, there is more space for individuals who are not in positions of power to make a footprint in history, by design or by accident. Consider how the Arab awakening started: a Tunisian fruit seller's self-immolation following a public humiliation by police triggered protests that spread across the Arab World, fueled in part by social media.

And how many people knew of African warlord Joseph Kony before an online video about him went viral this month? Or Pastor Terry Jones of a tiny church in Florida, who stole the global spotlight in 2010 by threatening to burn Muslim holy books?

'If you talk about burning a Quran, and you have access to the Internet, all of a sudden you can inflate your importance in a way that would have been much harder in the age of broadcast and print media,' says Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, a former head of the National Intelligence Council.

The biggest of all such wildcard events, however, happened long before Facebook or YouTube.

Mr Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old Serb nationalist, was a nobody until June 28, 1914, when he shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, triggering the clash of alliances that became World War I.

Historians still argue over whether history would have been different had the archduke's car turned a different corner. Some say there's a tendency to exaggerate the importance of individuals. Who lit the match, the argument goes, may be less important than who placed the firewood.

The underlying pressures that can foment major changes in society are typically building up long before an unpredictable event provides the trigger, says Professor Michael Oppenheimer of New York University's Center for Global Affairs.

'It's a surprise because people haven't really been paying attention. Then suddenly a spark sets off these forces that have been gathering below the surface of reality, and there's a sea change,' he says.

Sometimes that sea change is catastrophic, like in World War I, and other times it spins the world in a more positive direction.

Ms Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Alabama, and set in motion a chain of events that ended racial segregation in the American South.

Individuals who stood up to oppression have a special place in history: The unknown Chinese man who stood before a tank at Tiananmen Square in 1989 or Nobel Peace Prize winners like Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar or Lech Walesa in Cold War-era Poland.

Mr Geir Lundestad, a Norwegian historian and the non-voting secretary of the peace prize committee, says that when individuals tap into 'deeper forces' in society they can have major impact on the world. Major changes are almost always driven by local events, he says, and people tend to 'overestimate' the ability of policymakers - especially in Washington - to chart the world's direction.

'There is an assumption, particularly in America but also other countries, that because the US is clearly the most powerful country in the world it can in a major way influence developments everywhere,' Mr Lundestad says.

No doubt, political leaders of major countries still play a huge role in world affairs; wars were started in Afghanistan and Iraq because of policy decisions in Washington, reacting to the terror attacks of 9/11. But the 19th century 'Great Man' theory, stipulating that history is written by kings and generals, no longer holds true in today's inter-connected world.

Since 9/11, the relationship between the West and the Muslim world has been fraught by wild cards that forced policymakers on both sides to react to random acts by individuals.

Before Muslim holy books were burned in a trash pit at a US base in Afghanistan this year, and before Pastor Jones threatened to light his own Quran bonfire, there was Europe's cartoon crisis.

Twelve Danish newspaper caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad went largely unnoticed for nearly half a year. Then in early 2006, after the drawings filtered to Muslim countries, Danish and other Western embassies and consulates were torched and scores of people were killed in riots from Libya to Indonesia.

Denmark - the country that gave the world fairy tales about mermaids and ugly ducklings - was thrust into the cross-hairs of Al-Qaeda. It took months of diplomacy to soothe the crisis, but Denmark's relations with the Muslim world have not fully recovered.

This month, Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales allegedly slaughtered 16 Afghan civilians, including nine children, in a night-time shooting rampage outside Kandahar.

Military officials say he crept from his base to two villages, shooting his victims and setting some of them on fire. The killings sparked outrage in Afghanistan, and could ultimately do more to hasten the return of other US troops than any negotiation.

In France, the fallout of the attacks on French soldiers and a Jewish school by a suspected Islamist extremist is still unclear. But they have given an unexpected bounce to tough-talking President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been trailing badly in polls and widely expected to be heading into defeat.

A Norwegian's rampage last July, massacring 77 people - mostly teenagers - in the name of an anti-Muslim revolution, underscored that the threat of solo raids by individuals can come from any direction.

Many say Norway's response to that event deserves recognition.

Instead of a knee-jerk response - tightening laws or clamping down on civil liberties - Norwegian policymakers decided that the best way to defy individuals bent on changing society by deadly force is to change as little as possible.

Says Mr Lundestad of the peace prize panel: 'I do think there's something the world can learn.'


Friday, 23 March 2012

Staying at the top in a global economy

Mar 23, 2012
Singapore recently emerged as Asia's most competitive city and the third-most competitive worldwide in a ranking of 120 cities. But for how long more can the city-state sustain its standing, even as it unfurls policies for its people that blunt its competitive edge, and with other young cities in the developing world snapping at its heels?
By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Correspondent & Phua Mei Pin, Senior Correspondent

THERE are two views on where Singapore is headed in global city rankings.

The first is that it is likely to slip, in the face of super-charged competition from emerging Asian cities.

The second is that it has a good chance to stay among the front runners, along with established players like New York and London.

One thing Singapore has going for it is that it never stands still, so observes New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a visit here this week.

'Every time I visit it, it has new land, new buildings and new industries,' he says. Mr Bloomberg and his city officials are the winners of this year's Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.

The prize was announced just a week after the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) released its ranking of 120 global cities, in which the Big Apple also emerged tops.

Singapore was not far behind, emerging third overall, just a spot behind London. Its final score was a mere 1.4 points behind New York's.

But going forward, two big questions hang over Singapore's prospects.

The first is whether its economic growth can keep pace with that of developing cities that are galloping along with growth rates in the double digits.

The second is whether it can improve its scores for the less tangible aspects of city living, which include cultural character and entrepreneurial verve.

The answers to those questions could influence the extent to which Singapore remains attractive to capital, business, talent and visitors - the prize catches that all cities worldwide are wooing.

The odds against Singapore

MR MANOJ Vohra, the EIU's director for Asia-Pacific, says Singapore's ranking might well have been lower if the survey had not been based on growth rates for 2010 - the year its economy grew by an astounding 15 per cent.

'Singapore got lucky with 15 per cent growth in 2010,' Mr Vohra says. 'If not for that, it would likely have dropped a couple of notches.'

The EIU's ranking is based on a Global City Competitiveness Index it developed. The index measures cities across eight distinct categories of competitiveness: economic strength, human capital, institutional effectiveness, financial maturity, global appeal, physical capital, social and cultural character, and environment and natural hazards.

The EIU, the business analysis offshoot of The Economist news magazine, gave the most weight to a city's gross domestic product (GDP) growth.

It accounts for 45 per cent of the score in the economic strength category, which in turn accounts for a third of the final score.

Mr Vohra believes 'the odds are against Singapore in the future'. The EIU's assessment is that developed cities like Singapore will enjoy modest growth yearly at best.

That is consistent with the Singapore Government's own forecast of GDP growth of 3 per cent to 5 per cent a year over the medium term.

Mr Sudhir Vadaketh, EIU's senior editor for Asia, notes that a 'middle tier' of mid-sized cities is emerging as a key driver of global growth.

The EIU survey found that the fastest overall growth came from cities with populations of two to five million. These include Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, Bandung and Surabaya in Indonesia, Pune in India, Hanoi in Vietnam, and three second-tier cities in China, namely Dalian, Hangzhou and Qingdao.

The EIU forecasts that these mid-tier cities will grow at 8.7 per cent a year overall, from 2010 to 2016. Double-digit growth rates are likely in many Chinese cities during this period.

Of course, the EIU index, though more comprehensive than most, is but one of several indices that have been drawn up to measure cities.

Singapore's own Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) has its own index, for which Associate Professor Tan Khee Giap is the lead investigator.

The CLC's Global Liveable Cities Index uses five equally weighted measures: economic vibrancy and competitiveness; domestic security and stability; good governance and effective leadership; quality of life and diversity; and environmental friendliness and sustainability.

A more important difference is in approach. Prof Tan, an economist at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, says his focus is not ranking per se but finding ways to help poorer performers improve.

As he puts it: 'Rankings are like beauty contests and I'm here to give the uglier contestants some make-up so they can improve enough to attract investors.'

Mr Khoo Teng Chye, the CLC's executive director, also stressed that while economic strength is important, what makes Singapore stand out is its 'balanced approach to development'.

'The physical environment (clean air, water, greenery) and quality of life (including quality of education, housing, transport, safety and security) play equally important roles in determining a city's competitiveness, and that has always been Singapore's comparative advantage,' Mr Khoo tells Insight via e-mail.

Beyond balanced development, Singapore has to grapple with how best to achieve balanced or inclusive growth. That is a huge challenge in a globalised world where a disproportionate share of the benefits of growth accrues to those who are skilled and rich, while wages of the low-skilled lag behind.

The stakes are far higher for a city like Singapore, which is also a country.

As Mr Vadaketh notes, many of the highest-ranking cities, including Hong Kong, London, New York and Singapore, have high levels of income inequality that could threaten social stability, and thus hurt different aspects of competitiveness.

'Singapore's situation is arguably more precarious because it is a city-state, and hence has no natural hinterland to which people can choose to move,' he says.

Singapore is now in the midst of limiting the inflow of foreign workers to its shores, a move aimed at alleviating pressures on its citizens but which could compromise its attractiveness in the eyes of some foreign investors and talent.

Dr Chua Hak Bin, director of global research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, says these are trade-offs that need to be managed.

'Singapore has to balance the needs of those who can plug into a globalised world and those who can't. Those who can't, cannot go anywhere else because we have no hinterland, and yet they have to make a living,' he says.

It is Singapore's fate, as a small, resource-constrained city-state, to be always confronted with new challenges, be these economic, social or environmental, says Mr Khoo.

But he, for one, is confident that 'as long as we remain open to new ideas, to talent, to capital and continue to innovate our urban systems, we will be able to maintain our competitiveness and ranking' among cities.

Doing even better?

WITH emerging cities snapping at its heels, Singapore cannot afford to stand still.

In the EIU survey, Singapore did extremely well in six of the eight categories of competitiveness.

The six were economic strength, institutional effectiveness, financial maturity, global appeal, physical capital, and environment and natural hazards.

The two categories it fared least well in were human capital and social and cultural character.

In the human capital category, Singapore excelled when it came to the quality of its education and health-care systems, but fell flat on population growth and fostering an entrepreneurial and risk-taking mindset.

Overall, Singapore ranked No. 36 for human capital, behind even Chile's capital, Santiago.

The rub is, Singapore has been working on improving itself in these areas for years, with no solution in sight.

One worrying possibility is that Singapore has picked the low-hanging fruit in its push to be a leading global city.

If it wants to move further up the rankings, it needs to find new ways to tackle problems that it has so far found intractable.

With Singapore's total fertility rate now among the lowest in the world, the Government has population as a top item on its agenda this year.

The challenge is both to find ways to encourage its citizens to have more children, and to spur acceptance of significant inflows of new arrivals to top up the local population.

These are issues that the Government plans to deal with in its White Paper on a sustainable population strategy, which is likely to be debated in Parliament and could form the basis for legislation.

As for entrepreneurial verve, it is not yet part of the Singapore DNA but hopefully can be cultivated over time.

Professor Gerhard Schmitt is the director of the research laboratory at the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability.

He is a professor at ETH, a Swiss science and technology university with an outstanding research record.

When it launched a technopark 10 years ago to encourage risk-taking, its students were risk-averse and would launch only two to four spin-off businesses a year, Prof Schmitt recalls.

Now, they launch two to four such spin-offs a month.

'Singapore is wonderfully wired as well as wireless so it's in a good position to make such an impact,' he says.

The category that Singapore fared least well in was social and cultural character, in which it ranked 42nd.

The category encompasses a wide range of indicators, from freedom of expression, human rights and ethnic diversity to quality of restaurants and the presence of international book fairs. But the category counts for just 5 per cent of the final competitiveness score for cities, since the EIU itself acknowledges that these factors probably matter less to investors than business opportunities.

Unsurprisingly, Singapore's weak link is freedom of expression and human rights. Any improvement on this score is likely to be gradual as it concerns social and political norms which evolve over time.

Still, Mr Vadaketh points out that 'there are ancillary benefits to the economy of having more freedom of expression'.

'It could foster more entrepreneurship and a risk-taking mindset,' he says.

Looking ahead

SINGAPORE'S ambition is not just to remain a leading global city but to position itself as a thought leader in the field.

That is why it set up the Centre for Liveable Cities and launched the biennial World Cities Summit. The latter is a platform for debate and exchange of solutions on the challenges cities face.

Observing that today, many cities are grappling with a resource crunch that Singapore has had to tackle from Day 1 of its existence, Mr Khoo, the CLC chief, says: 'Singapore has developed a high-density and high-liveability model that is resource-efficient and supports sustained economic growth.'

Mayors of many cities are keen to learn from its experience, he adds.

Perhaps this push to be a hub for the best ideas and best practices in city leadership and management will be a factor in helping Singapore stay at the top of its game.

As for Mayor Bloomberg who led New York City to the No. 1 spot this year, he too gives his vote of confidence to Singapore.

'It's always had a desire to win, to change with the times, to be open,' he says.

As for competition from established players and emerging rivals, that is par for the course.

'Singapore will have to fight every single day with them and that's good,' says Mr Bloomberg.

'Competition is Singapore's ray of hope, which keeps it going.'

New York wins LKYWorld City Prize

Mar 22, 2012

In 10 years, officials lifted city from post-9/11 gloom and gave it new life
By Robin Chan

IN 10 YEARS, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his team of city officials raised New York City from post-9/11 gloom to new life as a vibrant global city.

Their efforts have won them this year's Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, awarded by Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Centre for Liveable Cities.

In a lecture to mark the occasion, Mr Bloomberg recalled that on the day after the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001, the conventional wisdom was that no one would want to live in New York City, most businesses would want to move people out and that the city's economic future was not bright at all.

'In fact, the exact reverse has happened,' he told an audience of government and industry leaders yesterday at the Raffles Hotel.

'In the last 10 years, we have redone all the infrastructure downtown... We used this opportunity to dig up every street downtown... when companies did move, to convert the old office buildings into apartments.

'So today, downtown, double the number of people live in lower Manhattan than they did before 9/11. Today, you see baby carriages on the streets, at night and on weekends.'

The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize honours outstanding contributions to the creation of vibrant, liveable and sustainable urban communities. This is the second time it has been given out. In 2010, the prize went to the Spanish city of Bilbao.

This year, the New York team beat competition from 62 other cities after two rounds of reviews by 12 high-profile panel members. They included Temasek Holdings chairman S. Dhanabalan and Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy dean Kishore Mahbubani.

The citation for Mr Bloomberg and New York City's Departments of Transportation, City Planning and Parks and Recreation, noted the remarkable transformation they led over 10 years.

Their achievements include the planting of more than half a million trees, the creation of 450km of bicycle lanes, the building of 283ha of parks and open spaces and a 35 per cent reduction in the crime rate.

Professor Mahbubani described New York, a city of 8.4 million people, as an 'inspiring story of rejuvenation' that came about through 'bold vision, strong leadership, sheer determination and excellent partnership between government and citizens'.

In his lecture, Mr Bloomberg highlighted three projects that showed how he and his team injected fresh zest into the city by reclaiming derelict infrastructure for new uses.

They redesigned roadways to reclaim space for pedestrians and cyclists. They built the Brooklyn Bridge Park at the site of six abandoned piers along the East River. They redeveloped the West Chelsea High Line - an abandoned, elevated railway line slated for demolition - into an aerial park that has attracted US$2 billion (S$2.5 billion) of private investment into the city's former meat packing district.

In the process, they experimented with ideas, including one that Mr Bloomberg himself initially found 'crazy'. That idea came from the city's commissioner for transportation Janette Sadik-Khan. She wanted to close 10 blocks of Broadway, the major roadway through Times Square, to cars. The idea worked and has helped Times Square emerge as one of the world's top 10 retail locations.

Mr Bloomberg has also drafted a blueprint to take the city up to 2030, well beyond his own mayorship. It addresses challenges such as accommodating another one million residents and preparing for climate change.

In accepting the prize, Mr Bloomberg, 70, said Singapore and New York are alike in many ways.

'Both are crossroads of commerce and homes to many cultures. Both are energetic, restless and forward-looking, constantly in motion, and constantly rebuilding themselves,' he said.

He also praised the man for whom the prize is named.

'There are people in the world that you're going to look back and say they were those transformative people that really changed not just their country, but changed society, and Lee Kuan Yew is one of those,' he said.

Mr Bloomberg said he had dinner with Mr Lee three or four months ago in the home of former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

The billionaire businessman, who was first elected mayor in 2001, said he would not try for a fourth term.

'I'll never have another job in government that will... be anywhere near as exciting as the one I have,' he said, but added that '12 years is enough in government'.

Before being mayor, he worked in Salomon Brothers and then founded Bloomberg LP, now a global media company.

'I've looked forward to going in to work every single day, in every job I've ever had. I'll find something else to do,' he added.

Air pockets ahead for Changi

Mar 22, 2012
Airport's future rests on how well regulator and operator fly together

By Karamjit Kaur

CHANGI'S quest to stay at the top of the world airports league is about to hit some air pockets. And just as a smooth touchdown depends on a match of skill and chemistry between the pilot and the control tower, the key to Changi's continued success will be how well Singapore's aviation regulator and the airport operator fly together.

The challenge for Changi is how to keep up with the rise in passenger numbers and expectations.

Earlier this month, the Transport Ministry set up an 11-member working group helmed by Minister of State Josephine Teo to assess Changi's infrastructure and other requirements in the coming decades. Recommendations will be made within a year.

Plans have meanwhile been unveiled to close down the Budget Terminal in September to make way for a newer, bigger facility slated for opening by 2017.

Until then, life is going to get busier at Terminal 2, which will absorb the budget traveller traffic. The terminal which handled 13 million passengers last year will see the traffic swell overnight to about 18 million.

Still, that is not as bad as it might seem. T2 can take up to 23 million passengers a year. In 2007 - the year before T3 opened - it handled 21.5 million passengers.

What this episode does highlight, though, are concerns about Changi's long-term capacity - the focus of the Transport Ministry's working group.

The Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation (Capa), an industry think-tank, said recently that if Changi continues to grow its traffic by 8 per cent a year - the average since 2004 - the airport will hit full capacity by the time the new terminal opens.

Singapore needs not one but two new terminals by the end of this decade, Capa said, and a third runway as well, to cope with increasing flights.

The team planning Changi's future has a tough job, for two reasons.

One is the sheer logistics. The next phase of Changi's expansion will go beyond the current airport boundary. There is no space for another terminal on existing airport land.

The next big terminal is likely to be erected next to Runway 3, more familiar as the venue for the biennial Singapore Airshow.

If cleared for take-off, the project will be massive and costly. Not only is there a main road - Changi Coast Road - separating the area from existing airport land, Runway 3 is not connected to the other two runways.

Planners will have to find a way to move aircraft, travellers, bags and cargo between the two locations. This is a formidable, but essentially a design, challenge. Options include flyovers as well as underground links.

The second issue, which might call for even more heavy lifting by the Transport Ministry's panel, is how to reconcile the divergence in the interests of the two stakeholders - the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Changi Airport Group (CAG).

In 2009 when CAAS was split into two arms - one to regulate the industry and the other to run the airport - the rationale was to ensure Singapore remained a premier aviation hub.

As a corporate entity, the airport would be more independent and able to react nimbly to increasing competition, the Government said then.

But it would not be focused solely on the bottom line and the assurance to travellers was that the change would not affect the level of service they had come to associate with Changi.

Three years later, aviation insiders say the regulator and the operator do not always see eye to eye.

The ends remain the same - more airlines and flights, and happy travellers - but the means sometimes differ. And this is especially so when it comes to capacity issues.

For more than three decades, Changi's mantra - now that of the CAAS - has been to build ahead of capacity.

When T3 opened in 2008, some travellers described it as a 'ghost town' because it was so empty. Airport retailers were not happy either. Four years later, the terminal is utilising just 57 per cent of its annual passenger handling ability.

Overall, Changi's total traffic takes up 64 per cent of available capacity now.

Travellers don't like crowded terminals. They want room to move around and enough chairs to sit on while waiting for flights.

But even as it is important to please the customer, airport operators are also mindful of the need to ensure the efficient use of assets and resources so they can run viable - and more importantly, profitable - operations.

The question for Changi Airport Group then, is whether it is cost-effective to operate the airport at such low capacity levels, as is the present case, or whether it should pack more people into the terminals.

Other major airport hubs in Hong Kong, South Korea and London reportedly run at more than 80 per cent of total capacity, and are profitable.

The same goes for runways.

Even as calls are being made for Changi to operate a third runway - in line with the 'build ahead of capacity' mentality - an observer with CAG's hat on would point out that while Changi Airport handled 302,000 take-offs and landings last year, Heathrow, which also has two runways, did 476,197.

So instead of rushing to invest in a third runway, perhaps the focus could be on improving efficiency with the current two.

At the end of the day, even if there are some flight delays and terminals become more crowded, would it really hurt Changi's image that much?

The team planning Changi's future will have to tackle the differences between CAAS and CAG when deciding when to build the new terminal and who will pay for it and the related infrastructure works. All these issues will have to be considered carefully, with one eye on the need to ensure the airport's continued success and the other on Changi Airport Group's business interests.

Where the line is drawn will determine the Changi Airport that will greet travellers 10 to 15 years from now.