Monday, November 30, 2009

Blogging Break

Normally, I post a 'Blogging Break' notification only when I am out of town for a while. That however won't be until next week when I actually do go on vacation.

Still, this week happens to be a big week for me. I have to finish up some work at my regular day job before I go away, my 50% secondment for this year is ending and I have to tie up loose ends at that other job, the Singapore Marathon that I've been training for all year is this weekend, and lastly I have to finalize preparations for a major 3 week holiday in Nepal right after. I'm planning an independent activity-based trip, so it's not one of those package things where I'm bussed around and little or no preparation is needed.

So, I won't have spare time to blog in-depth on any issues or topics until probably next year. Indeed, I won't be back in Singapore until after Christmas. Check back next year for updates.

Oh, and happy holidays everyone!

Friday, November 20, 2009

"At Auction, the Secret Cache of an Icon"

An article on the late Robert Isabell's house.

Gorgeous, astonishing...genius...words fail when it comes to describing the impeccable taste that went into creating this fortress of solitude. The house is utterly art.

Needs to be seen to be believed.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The KK Chemo Misdosage Incident

I must confess: I had just about zero interest in the story of the chemo overdose.

Then Khaw Boon Wan made the comment on the similarity of the pumps, and someone ranted about it in their blog, specifically citing human factors.

I happen to work in a human factors laboratory. No, I don't design medical devices (despite having originally trained as a biomedical engineer).

Labelling the pump that dispenses in ml/hr in a different color from the pump that dispenses in ml/day would be an obvious remedy that would have addressed the KK incident. It's the common-sensical solution that anyone can think of.

Ah, but if you were an actual human factors professional, I can assure you that things would not be as simple as that.

Sometimes, design flaws like that really do occur because engineers can't see the wood for the trees. It never occurs to them that someone handling the pumps might actually make a mistake that could result in fatal consequences. That's when having a human factors professional as a member of the design team helps: by explicitly designating a person to consider human-centric issues.

But sometimes the team is aware of these issues and highlights them to management, but the manufacturer still proceeds as before. Why is that? Because in addition to design principles, one must be mindful that there are always business considerations at play as well. Manufacturing two (or more) separate designs for pumps incurs greater costs, eliminates the ability to standardize across pumps, increases holding inventory, and overall increases complexity of business and manufacturing processes, and decreases economies of scale. All this naturally reduces profitability.

It's not just pumps. Even medicines are typically sold in identical-looking vials with identically colored vial caps, with only the text on the vial labels differentiating them in both drug type and concentration. You can imagine what kinds of accidents can potentially happen there.

The point is, in both these cases, business considerations override human factors. Legally, the manufacturer has clearly labelled on the pump (in text) the appropriate dosing regime, or for a medicine vial, the type of drug and concentration. The manufacturer has hence fulfilled its duty. Therefore, if there are any mistakes in dosing, the liability for the error lies with the hospital and not the manufacturer of the product. The victim of such a dosing error can be said to be an "externalized cost"; the beneficiaries of the victim's suffering are the manufacturer, who enjoys greater profitability, the hospital, which enjoys greater cost-savings, and the public, who save on healthcare. 

Is it ethical of the manufacturer, to "pass on" liability to the hospital? To make it difficult (or at least not easy) for the hospital to administer the right dosage? Maybe the manufacturer is at fault, but IMHO, it's very hard to say. The reason why I am so ambivalent is because I am able to see the big picture. 

If you were the administrator of a public hospital, charged with keeping healthcare costs low, and you had a choice between more expensive but better designed equipment, and less expensive but poorly designed equipment which nonetheless gets the job done, which would you choose to purchase?

The pressure to keep costs low is immediate and apparent, but the fallout from a medical error only comes when an error does happen. Not to mention errors by nature rarely occur, and it's not like well-designed equipment eliminates errors; they only reduce the probability of occurrence.

Given this reasoning, a typical hospital administrator would probably (and not unthinkingly) choose the most cost-effective product that gets the job done. Repeat this scenario across the whole hospital sector and manufacturers that produce the better designed product simply cannot compete. So all manufacturers end up making the generic, not very well-designed product, and of course, it makes perfect business sense to do so, seeing as how manufacturers can reap the economies of scale.

And that's how we end up in the current situation.

When a chemo incident like the one that happened in KK occurs, there are cries of public remonstration, and the pendulum may swing the other way. Hospitals might make the decision to purchase more expensive and better designed pumps (that is, if they are available). Then years down the road, when a bureaucrat (or a management consultant) with an eye to trim costs looks through the hospital purchasing orders, they may make the suggestion that $XXX could be saved by buying the generic version of such-and-such a product, instead of the more expensive version. And they would not be wrong, just...myopic.

Then the cycle starts again.

Sometimes it's not only about human factors. It could be about policy, or human nature, or business fundamentals, or just the plain old, dysfunctional way the world works.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The increasing irrelevance of mainstream media in Singapore

This post was prompted by a article in the Straits Times describing how cable channels have eaten into free-to-air TV's share of the viewing pie in Singapore.

I wonder how our "nation-building" media is taking it now that they are sliding inexorably into irrelevance in an increasingly obvious and embarrassing way. If content is king, then our media must be a bevy of beggars, because locally produced content is appallingly bad. Normally, product differentiation is the standard prescription for businesses in a crowded business space, but frankly, if free-to-air produces more local productions to differentiate itself from cable TV, I'm not so sure it would help the current situation.

On a more serious note, it's common knowledge that despite exchange listing and corporatization, the Fourth Estate in Singapore is, for all practical intents and purposes, pwned by the government. It's one of the enablers of how the government effectively muzzles criticism and neuters effective and organized opposition to its policies.

But what happens when the population itself starts tuning out? Cable TV and the Internet are now viable alternatives to mainstream media. Sure, control of the mainstream media still ensures government hegemony in the broadcast space, but what happens when the broadcast space itself is being marginalized? Instead of broadcasting, what is on the ascendant now is narrowcasting, podcasts, customized content, ultralocal publishing, even customized algorithm-generated movie recommendations. Perhaps more astonishingly, the assymmetric nature of the Internet which allows user created content to be shared widely has given rise to the phenomenon of content 'going viral'.

I don't even watch TV anymore (I don't have cable TV at home). There are just so many better things to do with my time. Free-to-air TV is just mindless, and worse, awful. It's actually physically painful for me to have to wince sit through say, a stupid local production where the script is horrible, the acting pathetic, and even the voices of the (lousy) actors grate on me. I don't listen to the radio either; music's just not an important part of my life. As for newspapers, I only read them because my parents still buy them and they're just there on the coffee table. But when my parents are on vacation (which will happen next week), I won't be bothering to trudge down to the newspaper vendor in the morning to get a copy of the Straits Times. As for online reading, you couldn't pay me to read the Straits Times, much less make me pay for the privilege of reading ramblings by Chua Lee Hoong or the vaguely confessional musings of the Straits Times' resident angst-ridden spinster, Sumiko Tan.

True, I am atypical among Singaporeans, but the ranks of my type will only grow with time. My brother is a teacher and he tells me that the mainstream media is irrelevant to most of his students. [Their pet phrase when my brother asks them what they think of such-and-such a 'local celebrity' is "I care", said in that ultrasarcastic sneering tone that only disenchanted youth can muster].

In my own professional work, I have had the opportunity to speak with psychologists from the Home Affairs Ministry and even they tell me that when they interview troubled youth, mainstream media (and even some forms of alternative media) are irrelevant to these youth. The things that the cutting edge of today's youth are 'into' are wildly different from the drivel that is broadcast by our government-controlled nation-building media. As the psychologists told me, the websites these troubled youth surf to are "very interesting". [He didn't elaborate, and even if he had, I doubt I could have written about it here.]

The government's grip on the Fourth Estate may be ironclad, and they may dismiss what occurs in alternative media as inconsequential (e.g. blogs are only preaching to the choir, Internet audiences are self-selected) but the incontrovertible fact is that the power of mainstream media is diminishing everyday. I need only point out as evidence the ongoing offer of a twofer that the Straits Times is offering in an effort to boost its readership.

Even if the alternative media speaks only to a self-selected audience and is hence of limited reach, the waning power of mainstream media can only mean that the relative mindshare of the government's selected mouthpieces is shrinking.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be such a huge issue (although some proponents of a free and unshackled press in various democracies are hyperventilating over bankrupting newspapers).

But it is a critical issue for the Singapore government. This is a government that depends on control of the media to keep the population in line, perform damage control when times get bad (like now), go into a spin cycle overdrive whenever there's criticism that might even be remotely impactful (latest example: the Robert Amsterdam white paper), or keep pushing a line of argument that Singapore "needs" something (e.g. casinos, foreign talent, high ministerial salaries, CPF Life etc.). The media is also used as a platform for PAP politicians to portray certain ideas or policies or even themselves (through ghost writers of course) in as flattering a light as possible, or to do the opposite to opposition politicians and their proposals. And finally, perhaps most importantly, mainstream media is used to remind Singaporeans incessantly that without the esteemed leadership of the incumbent government, it would be TEOTWAWKI; you know, that famous speech about our women becoming maids.

Even the teensiest bit of idea-diversity in the public media consumption space, as is happening now, would be threatening as it would dilute or contradict the messages sent through the mainstream media. And the dilution is growing daily and inexorably, thanks to mainstream media's increasing irrelevance. Despite our government's well-known hypersensitivity to criticism, the truth is that the government-controlled media can handily manage criticism, particularly when it's carefully curated into little innocuous strawmen in its own Straits Times forum pages. It just needs to carpet bomb criticism with its own ... what is that favorite word of theirs, "rebuttals". Sometimes, the criticism even presents the government with helpful opportunities to showcase its superior attributes.

Indeed, what government-controlled media cannot endure is not criticism, but being ignored (or drowned out), because that would mean it has lost control of the conversation. For example, I don't consume much content from local media, but I am still intimately apprised of Singapore's problems and issues because, well, I live here. I know that public tranportation is atrocious, public hospitals are crowded, that there are beggars on the streets hawking tissue paper, too many foreigners here, and a visceral sense that income inequality is growing. Yet by not being able to engage me effectively through local media, the government loses control over how to shape my perceptions in a way favorable to the government's policies.

You might argue that even when government media is dominant, there will still be independent-minded people unswayed by government persuasion, for whom such persuasion is ineffective. I disagree, because I understand that the ability to frame a conversation is enormously powerful, and that for the longest time, the overwhelming dominance of mainstream media allowed government(s around the world) to control national conversation on their own terms. Even for the perpetually disgruntled segment of the population, it is difficult to find a coherent voice in a space dominated by government-controlled media.

So what happens when mainstream media loses its reach, its ability to continually whisper into people's ears that all is hunky-dory and that without the government, things would be disastrous? Well, people might actually be inclined to take a look around and judge for themselves how good (or bad) things are and how competent the government is at its job (which is, need I point it out, looking out for the best interests of all its citizens, and not just a narrow slice). Heavens, people might actually listen or read sources of information that confirm what they are seeing and hearing in their own lives rather than what is being selectively spoonfed to them.

And we know where that leads. From being not persuaded that the government is simply awesome, it's a short road to first doubting its competence, and then thinking that the government actually is incompetent (in some respects at least).

"Window Watchers in a Lonely City Familiar Strangers in the Big City"

From The New York Times
Published: November 11, 2009 

WHEN Suzi Jones and her husband purchased an apartment on the fourth floor of a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, two years ago, Ms. Jones, a freelance art director from Atlanta, thought what she would like most would be the hardwood floors, the tin ceilings and the renovated kitchen and bathroom. 

Soon after moving in, however, she discovered what she has come to think of as the apartment’s best feature: its view into the neighbors’ private lives. 

Ms. Jones, 41, was reading on the couch one afternoon when the Italian love song “Volare” began playing outside. Through the window, she could see what looked like a party being given by an elderly Italian woman and her husband in the garden of the brownstone directly behind her building. Charmed by the couple — who were celebrating the husband’s 80th birthday, she soon found out — and their happiness at being surrounded by what appeared to be family, Ms. Jones pulled up a chair to watch.

“She’s wearing a tight white jumpsuit and sunglasses and high heels,” she said. “He has completely black hair that’s swept into a pompadour. There’s all these little kids and other family members and they’re grilling.”

By the time someone turned down “That’s Amore” so the woman could toast her husband, Ms. Jones was smitten. “It’s part of the charm of the neighborhood,” she said. “There’s still a very old Italian contingent here that lives the way they lived 40 years ago. Nothing made me happier than getting to see inside their lives.” 

The ability to observe the private lives of strangers from the windows of our homes — and the knowledge that they can often watch us, as well — has long been a staple of city life, one that was immortalized in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film “Rear Window.” It has provided material for countless movies and books since then, most recently “The City Out My Window: 63 Views on New York,” a book of drawings by Matteo Pericoli that asks well-known New Yorkers to describe what they see from their windows, and is the subject of “Out My Window NYC,” a new series of photographs by Gail Albert Halaban. 

This often inadvertent voyeurism gives rise to relationships that can be deeply meaningful, although the people involved may never actually meet, said Ethel Sheffer, an urban planner and past president of the American Planning Association’s New York Metro Chapter. “One doesn’t always know their names, but it’s a connection of some sort and it becomes part of the fabric of your life,” Ms. Sheffer said. “The density and the closeness, even if it’s anonymous,” creates a sense of intimacy, she added, and “makes for an understanding that we’re all here” together.

Or as Ms. Halaban, a fine art photographer who spent more than three years on her project, put it: “In a large city where there’s a lot going on around you, it can feel very isolating and lonely. By having contact with these total strangers through the window, it’s a safe way of having a relationship without the hard part of a relationship.”

These anonymous connections are vital because they supply not just a sense of community but one of emotional stability, said Karen L. Fingerman, a psychologist at Purdue University and the author, with Melinda Blau, of “Consequential Strangers.” 

“In the modern world, where we spend so much time with people other than intimates,” Dr. Fingerman said, relationships with strangers “have implications for our well-being, how secure we feel in the world, and how stimulated we feel by our environment.” 

It’s a more intimate version of what Jane Jacobs called the ballet of sidewalk life, noted Calvin Morrill, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and an editor of “Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places.” “Simply looking out your apartment window and seeing other humans doing an activity in a consistent way and at a similar time can provide stability and support,” Dr. Morrill said. “People are making dinner, they’re sitting down with their families, or they’re alone watching the television — there’s a kind of reassurance there.” 

Moreover, in an age of reality TV, watching the neighbors can seem just like watching television. In some cases, it’s almost exactly the same thing.

Kerry Gaertner, 30, who lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, was watching one of the first episodes of “The Real Housewives of New York City” when she realized that one of the stars, Alex McCord, lived directly across the street. Fascinated, she began making mental notes every time she saw Ms. McCord and her husband coming or going.

“If their car is gone,” Ms. Gaertner said, “I wonder, are they in the Hamptons?”

Although their relationship consists mainly of “nodding hello in the morning,” she said, she now feels obliged to act as their defender, making sure acquaintances know that she seriously doubts their on-screen portrayal as “social climbers.”

“They’re perfectly nice,” she said. “If they weren’t on television, they would be totally unremarkable neighbors. And I mean that in the nicest way possible.”

Mark Morris, the choreographer and dancer, whose view is included in “The City Out My Window,” said he regards the building across from his home on Third Avenue in Manhattan, where people are constantly moving in and out, as something of a cineplex. “There’s an empty apartment, and I see the new people, some couple, come in,” Mr. Morris, 53, said. “Then they cover the windows. Then you can’t tell from across the street if they’re male or female — and they’re naked, which is always interesting. Then a few weeks later, it’s empty again.”

To satisfy his curiosity, Mr. Morris said he keeps a set of binoculars handy, and isn’t bothered if the neighbors watch him in return. “It’s kind of comforting,” he said. “Everyone is alone together in their own separate units, but everybody knows how together they are. I don’t think it’s creepy. It’s kind of nice. That’s why you live in a big city.”

Using strangers as a buffer against isolation is common. Lisa Rubisch, 39, a commercial director and mother of two, said that when she lived on West 85th Street in the mid-1990s, she used to watch a man across the street whenever she was unable to sleep.

“He would sew in the dark every night, except for a small desk light. His hands would flutter up like a moth to the light,” she said. “I found the image so lonely and sad, but somehow soothing. Maybe because I was lonely, too. It gave me comfort.”

But anonymous companionship that promises comfort can sometimes deliver the opposite.

After she and her husband moved into a third-floor loft in SoHo in the 1970s, Debrah Pearson Feinn, a painter, thought she had found the ideal companion for her nocturnal work sessions — the painter in the third-floor loft across the street.

“At night my lights would be on, and my man across the way, his lights would also be on,” Ms. Pearson Feinn said. “It always made me feel good — oh, he’s working; we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, making art.”

One night, after he had been keeping her company for about a year, the man’s lights did not go on. “Two weeks later, I found out he had committed suicide,” she said. “I was told he jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.”

For months, Ms. Pearson Feinn, now 62, said she felt a sense of loss whenever she saw the darkened room. “I didn’t even know his name,” she said. “But I missed him. It made me feel bad to see his studio empty.”

Richard V. Hamilton, a real estate agent with Halstead Property who lives in Chelsea, was confronted with an even more immediate experience of death one Thanksgiving a few years ago, when he glanced out his window while preparing hors d’oeuvres and saw what looked like an older woman’s body lying in a kitchen across the airshaft.

Mr. Hamilton called 911, and the police eventually gained access to the woman’s apartment. They discovered that she was indeed dead — and had been lying there, unnoticed, for at least two days.

“There was a very sad element to it,” said Mr. Hamilton, 48, who watched with his dinner guests as the emergency workers wrapped and removed the body. “It was a holiday weekend. Nobody was calling and checking, nobody knew,” he said. “She basically died alone.”

Later, he saw the woman’s furniture removed, the kitchen floors replaced and new tenants take up residency. The experience still haunts him, he said, because it reminds him of how fleeting life is. “It was the end of one person.”

For Mr. Hamilton, though, what is sometimes more disturbing than the things he has seen out his windows — including strangers in the heat of romance “so many times I don’t even watch anymore” — is the thought that others can observe him, even doing mundane things like taking out the garbage or watching television.

“I want privacy,” he said. “The home where I grew up in South Carolina was at least three miles to its nearest neighbor.”

When he is showing clients ground-floor apartments that face the street, he said, he warns them that living there “is a bit like being on display, like in a store.”

Ms. Pearson Feinn, the painter, said she long ago got used to the idea that neighbors can see into her loft, which has 16 enormous windows.

When she had one of her first dinner parties after months of remodeling, a neighbor who had watched the construction and was having his own dinner party that night stood up with his guests and applauded Ms. Pearson Feinn’s gathering.

“I thought it was a hoot,” she said, but one of her guests took offense, because he “felt his privacy was being invaded.”

Some people, in fact, claim to observe an unwritten code of looking away when they inadvertently observe something too private.

Ms. Rubisch, the commercial director, describes herself as “nearly obsessed with watching people,” but said she still makes a point of avoiding the windows directly across from her apartment near the Bowery, where the blinds are always open. The woman who lives there often wears nothing but underwear, Ms. Rubisch said, “so I try not to look. And the way the street is, we’re very close. You can really see every detail in the room.”

Even Suzanne Vega, a New Yorker who has made a career of chronicling the private lives of city dwellers in her songs, said that when it comes to actually watching a stranger in his or her own home, she feels uncomfortable. “Somehow the stark reality of seeing someone that I don’t know raiding their own refrigerator or doing other things, I’m, like, no thank you,” said Ms. Vega, 50. “I’m much more likely to look at someone on the subway and imagine what they’re doing.”

Those who don’t mind watching and being watched, though, sometimes find that good things can come of it.

Not long after losing her nighttime painting companion, Ms. Pearson Feinn noticed another painter across the street observing her at work. Their anonymous relationship continued for several months, she said, until finally he “called me and said ‘Hi, I wanted to introduce myself.’ ”

“We literally started a friendship,” she continued, “and he came over and had dinner with me and my husband.”

More than 30 years later, they’re still friends.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Singapore Inc.

Singapore Inc. is a derogatory moniker much bandied about these days to describe how the government has adopted a “growth-at-all-costs” mentality to economic growth. 

I have a more nuanced interpretation of Singapore Inc. I see Singapore Inc. as the governmental manifestation of a single-minded focus on value maximization and return on investment (ROI). One way of seeing this is how our government has adopted the just-in-time philosophy that is commonly held as conventional wisdom in the manufacturing business. Singapore Inc. is all about efficiency and no waste. We see this in public housing policy (notably the Build-to-Order Scheme), public transportation policy (MRT stations do not open until a critical mass is attained), and public healthcare policy.

On paper, a just-in-time approach seems smart. Frugal. Cost-effective. Government spending is frequently criticized as being wasteful (particularly by Republicans in American politics), but it would appear here that the Singapore government has managed the rare feat of achieving the opposite, that of fiscal balance while obtaining maximal value from public spending. 

So is there anything wrong with this seemingly rosy picture? Sure there is, if you’re caught on the wrong end of such policies (like say, being a disgruntled homebuyer unable to find…"affordable" housing). But in this post, I’m looking beyond the obvious…inconveniences endured by the (so-called picky) populace. I’m no highly paid urban planning consultant, but even I can see that efficiency comes with distinct costs of its own to society, just not measured in dollars and cents. 

Just as just-in-time manufacturing leaves factories vulnerable to supply shocks and the manufacturing economy subject to output volatility spikes (due to lack of redundancy and tight coupling), Singapore Inc. is subject to the same unintended consequences, some with potentially profound consequences. 

Let’s take public housing as an example. Notwithstanding recent announcements to release more land for housing (just-in-time to sooth the electorate), clearly, many people are unhappy with the housing situation, whether with the supply or affordability of housing. HDB, with the introduction of schemes that have made oversupply of flats a thing of the past, has ironically made the work of MCYS (which is concerned with national fertility) harder. Housing that is not readily available at affordable prices means that Singaporeans find it hard to marry and settle down -- and have kids, a stated national objective. Small expensive homes also don't exactly encourage large families. This leads in to the immigration issue, which stresses the housing situation further. See my posts “The solution … is the problem” and “Policy Schizophrenia”.

Public transport is also not working as well as it could be. The less tenable the public transportation option, the more people are inclined to buy cars (not exactly a plus for the environment). The government’s answer to this is to raise ERP rates and cut COE quotas, while being “just-in-time” with upgrades to the subway system. Singaporeans are in a no-win situation here. They either have to shell out, or double up like sardines in the trains and buses. Conversely, while MRT stations may be mothballed because of lack of development, it doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to postulate the opposite, that if MRT stations were un-mothballed, new town centers would develop much faster. That would go some way towards making the suburbs more livable.

To round up our discussion on the trifecta of public goods and services, in the public healthcare system, we have our perpetually crowded hospitals and polyclinics. Naturally, being just-in-time here affects waiting time, the quality of care and perhaps most importantly, our readiness for public health emergencies (such as H1N1). In addition, by being less generous with aid for the lower income (for fear of raising entitlement expectations), the lower income groups have less wherewithal to escape the poverty trap. [To be fair though, our healthcare system isn’t anywhere near as dysfunctional as the USA’s.]

Leaving aside just-in-time, Singapore Inc. is also all about investing. The government has no problems on losing money investing. There’s Micropolis, Suzhou Industrial Park, Bank of America/Merrill Lynch, Barclays and the latest, Stuyvesant. And those are only the ones I can remember offhand. Sure, in a big portfolio, some losses are to be expected, but a billion here, a billion there, soon you're talking real money. And the situation is even more egregious at the town council level, where town councils speculate in minibonds without having the foggiest idea that they are complex credit derivatives. 

It's not like the people in charge of the money are even remotely remorseful with losing/wasting money. Remember, these are the same folks who could tell us with an absolutely straight face that $400k was spent renaming "Marina Bay" to “Marina Bay”. Like a hedge fund manager, there’s no shame attached to losing other people’s money (OPM).

The government has no issue with investing in defence, economic development, seed funding for research, business infrastructure (the airport for instance), attracting foreign direct investment, immigration, and education (up to a point). All this spending is ultimately in service of ever higher rates of economic growth. It is always framed as a means to an end. No just-in-time here, thank you very much, in stark contrast to the spending on public goods. Even longevity planning is done ultimately with the intent of transferring retirement responsibility to the individual, as I have written in “On CPF Life”. There is an underlying hardnosed economic logic to that, and altruism or serving the public is not a prime objective there. 

While growth in the economy as measured by GDP is apparently high, it’s questionable whether high GDP growth has resulted in a better life, if we look at measures of income inequality, quality of life, even the desire to migrate. Not coincidentally, GDP growth is correlated with the pay of senior civil servants. One might wonder if there is a system of misplaced incentives here.

Instead of investing in the stock market or in GDP growth, why not invest in our society and our human capital? The government has spent considerably on primary and secondary education, nature parks, infrastructure and public works (such as the Marina Barrage). Why not spend more liberally, generously even, on public housing, public best of breed transport as I have written previously, tertiary and postgraduate education, healthcare, retirement and eldercare, and the environment? This would go a long way towards really helping make this island a better place to live. Then we could drop the Singapore Inc. moniker in the trashheap where it belongs.

Conversely, what I would like to see Singapore spend less on: market investments, perks and incentives for foreigners, especially non-PRs, money spent to attract high-rollers here (Formula 1, Sentosa Cove and Jetquay all irritate me, as they serve only to remind us that we are second class citizens in our own country). If these were private ventures, that’s perfectly ok. But should tax dollars really be providing the financing for these high-roller investments? And as for incentives for foreigners, if we're already spending generously to make Singapore a great place to live for Singaporeans, we should have no problems attracting foreigners at all in the first place. That we have to tack on extra incentives that Singaporeans are not entitled to gives the impression that foreigners need a hardship allowance to set up shop here. Which, in a manner of speaking, could be painfully close to the truth.  

As for high salaries and bonuses for senior civil servants, while egregious, I would be far less annoyed if their KPIs were measured less in terms of GDP growth but in broader terms such as quality of life and human development in Singapore. Otherwise, it would leave the impression that economic growth at all costs steamrolls all of us under its relentless path. I for one wouldn’t want to be hungry all the time. If I have to be hungry all the time anyway, then why should I choose to succeed here in Singapore, where the rewards are so lacking in substance and I can do so much better elsewhere? And I can indeed. If our leaders can be so coldly rational themselves, then they should not find unexpected that our own youth can discard the milksop sentiment of staying in one's country of birth for its own sake. Our youth will go wherever the opportunities and rewards are greatest, unfettered by bonds moral, patriotic, contractual or otherwise. Philip Yeo's own kids have done so (his son Gene is an assistant professor at UCSD), no doubt aided by his astronomical salary as a senior civil servant. If our leaders expect our youth to be perpetually hungry, then we certainly can be, and we will carry it to its logical, rational conclusion.

"Ecosystem in Peru Is Losing a Key Ally"

From The New York Times
Published: November 7, 2009 

ICA, Peru — A small grove of huarango, the storied Peruvian tree that can live over a millennium, rests like a mirage amid the sand dunes on this city’s edge. The tree has provided the inhabitants of this desert with food and timber since before the Nazca civilization etched geoglyphs into the empty plain south of here about 2,000 years ago. 
The huarango, a giant relative of the mesquite tree of the American Southwest, survived the rise and fall of Pre-Hispanic civilizations, and plunder by Spanish conquistadors, whose chroniclers were astounded by the abundance of huarango forests and the strange Andean camelids, like guanacos and llamas, that flourished there. 

Today, though, Peruvians pose what might be a final challenge to the fragile ecosystem supported by the huarango near the southwestern coast of Peru. Villagers are cutting down the remnants of these once vast forests. They covet the tree as a source of charcoal and firewood. 

The depletion of the huarango is raising alarm among ecologists and fostering a nascent effort to save it. 

“We don’t realize that we are cutting off one of our own limbs when we destroy a huarango,” said Consuelo Borda, 34, who helps direct a small reforestation project here, explaining how the tree’s pods can be ground into flour, sweetened into molasses or fermented into beer. 

But many Peruvians view the huarango as prime wood for charcoal to cook a signature chicken dish called “pollo broaster.” The long-burning huarango, a hardwood rivaling teak, outlasts other forms of charcoal. Villagers react to a prohibition by regional authorities on cutting down huarango with a shrug. 

“The woodcutters come at night, using handsaws instead of chainsaws to avoid detection,” said Reina Juárez, 66, a maize farmer in San Pedro, a village of about 24 families near a grove of huarango on the outskirts of Ica. “They remove the wood by donkey and then sell it.” 

That the huarango survives at all to be harvested may be something of a miracle. Following centuries of systematic deforestation, only about 1 percent of the original huarango woodlands that once existed in the Peruvian desert remain, according to archaeologists and ecologists. 

Few trees are as well suited to the hyperarid ecosystem of the Atacama-Sechura Desert, nestled between the Andes and the Pacific. The huarango captures moisture coming from the west as sea mist. Its roots are among the longest of any tree, extending more than 150 feet to tap subterranean water channels. 

The resilience of the huarango and its role in taming one of the world’s driest climates have long beguiled this country’s poets. Schoolchildren here, for instance, recite the words of José María Arguedas, a leading 20th-century writer: “The huarangos let in the sun, while keeping out the fire.” 

But poetry is one thing. The necessities of human civilizations, and their capacity to wreak havoc on the ecosystems on which they depend, are another. 

A team of British archaeologists described in a groundbreaking study this month how the Nazca, who etched their lines in the desert a thousand years before the arrival of the Spanish, induced an environmental catastrophe by clearing the huarango to plant crops like cotton and maize, exposing the landscape to desert winds, erosion and floods. 

David Beresford-Jones, an archaeologist at Cambridge University who was a co-author of the study, said that perhaps the only fragment of old-growth huarango woodland left is in Usaca, about a five-hour drive from Ica, where there are still some trees that were alive when the Incas conquered the southern coast of Peru in the 15th century. 

“It takes centuries for the huarango to be of substantial size, and only a few hours to fell it with a chainsaw,” Mr. Beresford-Jones said. “The tragedy is that this remnant is being chain-sawed by charcoal burners as we speak.” 

With support from Britain’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and Trees for Cities, a British charity promoting tree planting in urban areas, Ms. Borda’s reforestation project seeks to reverse the damage by the charcoal harvesters, whose mud ovens dot the desert landscape in villages around Ica. 

It is an uphill struggle in an impoverished desert. The black market for huarango in raw firewood form thrives. A carbonero, or charcoal seller, can sell a kilogram of charcoal made from the tree for about 50 cents, or a bushel of huarango as firewood for about $1 — bargains in a place where a gallon of natural gas costs more than $10. 

So far, Ms. Borda’s arduous project has planted about 20,000 huarangos in Ica and nearby areas. It also teaches schoolchildren about the history of the huarango in Peruvian culture and its significance as a keystone species for the desert, its roots fixing nitrogen in poor soil and its leaves and pods providing organic material as forage. 

But researchers say the project is a trifle of what must be done to reforest Peru’s deserts. 

“Peru needs a massive rethink about its development trajectory,” said Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a paleoecologist with the French Institute of Andean Studies who worked on the Nazca study with Mr. Beresford-Jones, the Cambridge University archaeologist, analyzing pollen that showed the transformation of Nazca lands from rich in huarango to fields of maize and cotton to the virtually lifeless desert that exists today. 

“With Peru’s glaciers predicted to disappear by 2050, the Andes need trees to capture the moisture coming from Amazonia, which is also the source of water going down to the coast,” said Mr. Chepstow-Lusty in an interview from Cuzco, in Peru’s highlands. “Hence a major program of reforestation is required, both in the Andes and on the coast.” 

Nothing on this scale is happening around Ica. Instead, the growth that one sees in poor villages are of shantytowns called pueblos jóvenes, where residents eke out a living as farmhands or in mining camps. 

Outside one village, Santa Luisa, the buzz of a chainsaw interrupted the silence of the desert next to an oven preparing charcoal. 

The chainsaw’s owner, a woodcutter from the highlands named Rolando Dávila, 48, swore that he no longer cut down huarango but focused instead on the espino, another hardy tree known as acacia macarantha. “But we all know huarango is the prize of the desert,” he said. “For many of us, the wood of the huarango is the only way to survive.”

Andrea Zárate contributed reporting from Lima, Peru.