Eric Clapton, feel free in Singapore

Eric ClaptonEric Clapton begins his Asia and Middle East tour in Tokyo on February 18 and will perform at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on March 4. Ready to rock? Fans can buy and sell tickets on

Clapton, who first performed in Singapore during his Journeyman tour in 1990, has played at the Singapore Indoor Stadium twice before — in 2007 and 2011 — but this will be a special occasion for Clapton fans.

The legendary guitarist, the only artiste inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame three times, has just completed 50 years in the limelight.

In October 1963, Clapton was invited by singer Keith Relf and bassist Paul Samwell-Smith to join the Yardbirds and catapulted to fame.

Clapton left the Yardbirds after they scored their first hit, For Your Love, in 1965 and joined John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers.

I love For Your Love and enjoyed every minute of the Yardbirds’ gig shown in the Antonioni movie, Blowup. You can see the sequence on YouTube. It was as a Yardbird that Clapton was first inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But Clapton, for me, will be always be associated with the band he joined after leaving the Bluesbreakers.

In 1966, Clapton was invited by drummer Ginger Baker to join him and bassist Jack Bruce, another Bluesbreaker veteran, in his band, Cream, and the rest is history. [Read more...]

North Indian temples in Kolkata and Singapore

A temple in Kolkata

I loved this temple in Kolkata. Quiet, well-maintained, it’s a welcome refuge from the world outside. Located on busy Diamond Harbour Road in Kidderpore, it’s an island of tranquillity. There is complete peace as you walk up the long flight of steps from the gate to the interior of the temple.

I was reminded of the Shree Lakshminarayan Temple at Chander Road in Singapore. It is bigger than the Lakshminarayan Temple and the architecture is different too. While the Lakshminarayan Temple is an ordinary-looking house standing on a quiet lane, this temple with its long flight of steps and high dome is clearly a Hindu religious building.

So why did it remind me of the Singapore temple? [Read more...]

New Year greetings from Kolkata

A lane in Kolkata

Here’s wishing everyone a happy New Year from Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta). Kolkata is a world removed from Singapore though only four and a half hours away by plane. There are still plenty of old buildings in the lanes and streets of Kolkata. Public buses and trains are overcrowded. So people want their own cars. And that adds to the congestion. Home to nearly five million people, Kolkata is almost as populous as Singapore, but with very little greenery, narrow, congested roads, it seems even more overcrowded. [Read more...]

Singaporeans among earliest bloggers

Singaporeans were among the earliest bloggers. I just found that Alex Au launched Yawning Bread in 1996.

Justin Hall

Justin Hall: Blogging since January 1994

That was only two years after Justin Hall, then a Swarthmore College student, created Justin’s Links from the Underground ( in January 1994. It’s considered the very first blog. But he called it his personal homepage. [Read more...]

Hackers triumph, property prices fall: Singapore getting less rich and secure

Prime Minister’s Office website hacked

The Prime Minister’s Office and Istana (the President’s office) websites are not safe from hackers.

Debt levels are rising and home values are falling. Cash-over-valuation premiums on Housing Board resale flats are down to a four-year low and, according to a real estate agency chief, resale flat prices may drop by as much as 10 per cent before 2016.

Suddenly, Singapore no longer seems as rich and secure as it used to be. [Read more...]

Hacked for the ‘sin’ of synecdoche

Poor Irene Tham. The Straits Times journalist’s only sin seems to have been a synecdoche. A figure of speech in which “a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa” (Concise Oxford English Dictionary).  Anonymous  had threatened war on Singapore, she wrote. What the group had actually done was threaten to declare war on the Singapore government.

She omitted that one word, “government”, and the aftershock made headlines from India to America.

Hacked site

Hacked site

The Straits Times website was hacked by The Messiah, who claimed the newspaper was misleading the people and demanded an apology from the journalist or her resignation.

But what she did is common practice both in written and spoken language. We say China when we mean the Chinese government and the English football team is just called England.

China, however, maintained a rigid distinction back in the days of Chairman Mao. Radio Beijing used to rant against the “running dogs” of US “imperialism” while professing solidarity with the American people.

This distinction between the government and the people seemed funny, coming from what was then – and still is – the People’s Republic of China.

Back to yesterday: The Straits Times has made a police report about the hacking, so silence is golden while the investigation proceeds.

What started all the brouhaha was a YouTube video – since removed — in which Anonymous  threatened to “go to war” against the government unless it shelved new licensing rules for websites in Singapore, which the group claimed “deprive the citizens of the freedom of information”.

Anonymous wants freedom of information but is galled by a bad press. The media has “misled our intentions”, claimed The Messiah.

But how objective and impartial can journalists be anywhere in the world?

The New York Times columnist Bill Keller recently discussed it with Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is the journalist who broke the story of Edward Snowden about how the National Security Agency spied on people round the world.

Reporters should just state the facts; journalists should give their opinions only on the opinion pages, said Keller.

Greenwald did not agree. “Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms,” he said. Accuracy and reliability matter, but “all journalism is subjective”, he added.

He had a point. When did The New York Times last endorse a Republican presidential candidate, or The Wall Street Journal a Democrat? They are partisan, but that has not stopped them from being good – or even great – newspapers. They have to be partisan to attract readers, I guess, because when did people ever agree on anything?

Singapore population growth rate lowest in nine yearrs

Singapore’s population grew to 5.4 million in June this year, a 1.6 per cent annual increase that was the slowest in nine years, the government announced yesterday. It has not been this low since 2004, when the population grew by only 1.3 per cent.

Singapore Population in Brief 2013

Singapore Population in Brief 2013

The number of citizens rose to 3.31 million from 3.29 million a year ago, going up by just 0.9 per cent, as in the previous year.

“The permanent resident population remained stable at 0.53 million,” said the Population in Brief 2013 report released by the National Population and Talent Division under the Prime Minister’s Office.

The non-resident population went up to 1.55 million from 1.49 million a year ago. That was a 4 per cent increase, down from 7 per cent the previous year.

Because the non-resident population grew more slowly, that dragged down the growth rate. For there was no change in the growth rate of citizens and the permanent resident population “remained stable”.

The government plans to continue to take in 15,000 to 25,000 new citizens and 30,000 permanent residents each year to replenish the citizen population.

Singapore Population in Brief 2013

Singapore GDP and population growth rates

A handshake with Josephine Teo

We saw Singapore’s senior minister of state for transport and finance, Josephine Teo, today. She came and shook hands with us.

My wife and I were sitting at the Bishan Park this evening. We watched families gather outside the McDonald’s restaurant. Little children held colourful lanterns in the dark.

Suddenly, we saw a woman accompanied by a few men draw near. They were walking past us towards the restaurant when a man said something to the woman. She turned back and came up to us with the men.

Of course, we recognized her as she extended her hand to my wife.

And there we were shaking hands with Ms Teo!

It was only for a moment, but it felt good, shaking hands with a minister. She was there for the lantern festival. She had no airs about her but looked chic and beautiful. The men with her were dressed informally. They did not look like a ministerial entourage at all.

My wife was in a sari. I wish I had the presence of mind to take a picture with my phone.

My wife had spoken to her a few days ago at another event.

I was not there. But I had shaken hands with Ms Teo at a hawker stall during the Chinese New Year.  She was distributing oranges then. I got one, too.

We liked the grace and practised ease with which she shook our hands today. She did not stay to chat with us, but we appreciate her handshake. It was nice of her, reaching out and sparing us a moment. How many people do that?

As my wife said, we can’t even imagine a minister walking about and reaching out to people like that in India. They travel in motorcades, with heavy security and a large entourage.

It’s different in Singapore. May it always be like this.

PM Lee moved to tears touches hearts

PM Lee at National Day Rally 2013

PM Lee at National Day Rally 2013

We know he as a leader needs vision.  What we also saw were his passion and emotion. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong broke down as he spoke of math maven Dr Yeo Sze Ling, who overcame her blindness and became an  A*star researcher.

“Sze Ling proves that you can do well if you try hard, no matter what your circumstances, and that is also how we can contribute back to society, to keep the system fair for all,” PM Lee said and broke down in tears during his National Day Rally speech.

He recovered swiftly to speak about his plans for Singapore. But that moment will linger in memory. We saw the Prime Minister moved to tears. It showed how strongly he feels about fighting adversity, succeeding in life and giving back to society.

He had spoken of meritocracy and contributing to society on other occasions, too. But now he was talking about a genius at maths (his own subject, in which he has a first class from Cambridge) who had overcome her disability. PM Lee knows what that is like, having battled cancer and coped with other personal tragedies. Maybe that was why he was moved to tears. He is not just the PM, the leader, but also human – a man who wants your support and what he thinks is best for Singapore.

We also saw PM the reformer, PM the planner, PM the salesman and PM the proud Singaporean.

The proud Singaporean

Singapore is not perfect, but its housing, health care and education are excellent by international standards, said the PM.

Even the poor in Singapore are not poor by international standards, he pointed out. The bottom 20 per cent income group have an average of S$200,000 in net equity in their HDB flats.

The salesman

Speaking as “your housing agent”, the PM showed how a family with a monthly income of S$4,000 – with government financial assistance – could buy a S$285,000 public Housing Board flat on a 25-year mortgage with a cash outlay of just $67 a month.

The reformer

“We cannot have a closed, self-perpetuating elite,” he said.

The poor but talented will get help to move up in life.

Top schools will admit not only academic high-flyers, but also those who show character, resilience, drive and leadership. Good students from poor families will get more generous financial assistance to go to top schools.

The Prime Minister had his Obama moments too.

He wants universal health care.

Medishield will be transformed into Medishield Life to provide health care for all.

If all this seems too good to be true, well, they are not going to happen overnight.

One of the few changes coming soon: from next year primary schools will have to set aside at least 40 places for students with no connections to the school.

Other proposed changes will be discussed, fine-tuned and take time to implement.

The planner

PM outlined plans to shift the Paya Lebar air base to Changi and build a new port in Tuas where all container ports will be moved from 2027, freeing up prime land in Tanjong Pagar.

“Very few countries or cities can think or plan over such a long term. But Singapore has been able to do it. In a deeper sense, these are not merely plans; these are acts of faith – in Singapore and in ourselves,” he said.

Yes, Singapore can think long-term – more than other countries, maybe, where power changes hands from one party to another with a different ideology. The People’s Action Party has been in power since independence 48 years ago. It won 60 per cent in the last general election in 2011 and still holds 80 of the 87 elected seats in Parliament.

Obama and Prospero

The PM was like Obama not only in advocating universal health care.

He was eloquent, too.

“We are not done building Singapore; we never will be done,” he concluded. “Work with me, and with one another . Together, let us forge our new way forward. Together, let us create a better future for all Singaporeans.”

It was exciting what he said: his plans and visions for the future.

While he gave a stirring speech like Obama, as he unfolded his plans, he also reminded me of Prospero.

Prospero also ruled his island unchallenged. There were murmurs of discontent, but he reigned supreme with his magic powers.

The Singapore story has also been remarkable, the island transformed from a Third World to a First World nation under the PAP’s unbroken rule since independence.

“We must have a democracy of deeds and not just a democracy of words,” the PM said, quoting his father’s lieutenant, the late S Rajaratnam.

One regret

The Prime Minister’s Office and the mainstream media fell short in one respect. I am yet to see any complete transcript of the speech. I have seen the New York Times give simultaneous transcripts during live coverage of important speeches. The White House website publishes pictures, videos and transcripts. I haven’t seen anything like that yet on the Prime Minister’s Office website or the Singapore mainstream media. There are differences.

National Day Rallies: PM Lee on immigration

Singapore is eagerly awaiting Prime Minister Lee Hsien’s National Day Rally speech today. He is expected to announce new policies. He has made important announcements in this annual speech in the past, communicating changes in government policies and thinking.

Immigration has been a key issue. Singaporean unhappiness at the influx of foreigners is said to have hurt the government in the May 2011 general election. The government responded to the people and began curbing the inflow of foreign workers.

Here is what the prime minister said  supporting immigration in his 2010 National Day Rally speech — and favouring restrictions in his 2011 National Day Rally speech just three months after the election held on May 7.

Supporting immigration, August 29, 2010

This year, with the booming economy, we will definitely need more foreign workers so that we can create more jobs in Singapore. A few months ago, I mentioned to the press that we could need more than 100,000 foreign workers more this year. There was a big ooh which you could almost hear. Well, since then, we have recalculated. Maybe, we will get by with a few less, perhaps 80,000 workers. But I said this to highlight the trade-off which we face and which we cannot avoid. You want higher growth which will benefit our workers, that also means accepting more foreign workers to come and work in Singapore. You choke off the foreign workers, the economy is stifled, growth is not there, our workers will suffer.

Favouring restrictions, August 14, 2011

All Singaporeans, nearly every Singaporean is working. Unemployment is only about 2.2 per cent overall but still I know that Singaporeans worry about competition from foreigners…

I understand those feelings but we need some non-Singaporeans to complement the Singaporeans and to make up our shortfall. But at the same time, we also realise that it is important that Singaporeans remain the core of our workforce. We cannot become like the Gulf states where 80 per cent of the people who are working are foreigners and if you go there, whether it is the person in the hotel, whether it is the bank, whether it is the airport counter, or any of the jobs, it is foreigners working and we cannot be like that. We have tightened up on foreigners progressively. We have tightened up the foreign workers levy, we have tightened up on the dependency ratios… But we also have to be mindful of the impact on companies, especially local SMEs, because they need the foreign workers the most and if we squeeze out the foreign workers too drastically, we are going to kill the SMEs…

The prime minister spoke on relations between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans in his 2012 National Day Rally speech.

Singaporeans vs foreigners, August 26,2012

There is one particularly difficult area where we need to be big hearted and that is in relations between Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans. I think most Singaporeans understand the need for immigrants for foreign workers and accept them but many Singaporeans have concerns because the influx has caused some real problems and I completely understand this and I think it is fair enough for people to express concern or to disagree with our immigration trends or oppose our immigration policy. That is part of the democratic debate. But I am worried by some of the nasty views which are expressed, especially online and especially anonymously, which brings out the worst in people. When the foreigners say or do something wrong, especially to Singaporeans, the response is overwhelming. But when a Singaporean does something wrong, which I think we all have to admit once in a while does happen, very often the behaviour is un-criticised. And when a foreigner does a good deed, very often that goes unnoticed.