30 December 2004

Twiddledum and Twiddledee are now one!

As 2004 ends, the Singapore media market enters into a phase of rationalisation.

The orthodox line, as proclaimed by the authorities and the media players, is that there is too little space in this tiny city of 4 million for even 2 media/news networks. The decision to remerge Twiddledum and Twiddledee is a rational, economically-justified one. In other words, it's yet another one of Singapore's "done deals" that the authorities hope the populace won't analyse too deeply and start picking on the flaws.

Instead of asking whether the merger was inevitable, we should be questioning: under what circumstances and actions would this outcome be considered inevitable?

I will forgo the details of the Prisoner's Dilemma, and instead treat the Twiddledum and Twiddledee situation as a similar game.

Picture, if you will, the situation in June 2000. Dum and Dee, the state-owned monopolists of the print and tv media, have been granted licenses to operate in each other's domains. There are two strategies open to both players, namely, S1: Beggar thy neighbour by lowering advertising prices in your papers, magazines and broadcasts below fair prices, in order to bankrupt the competitor out of the market; and S2: Grow the pie by innovating and introducing new, different programmes and formats.

Here's the table of outcomes:

Dee (S1)

Dee (S2)

Dum (S1)

-50, -50

100, -50

Dum (S2)

-50, 100

50, 50

Evidently, if one player adopts the nice-guy strategy, he'll be competed out of the market (and possibly his previous dominant position) if the competitor plays the beggar thy neighbour cards. The "win-win" outcome is achieved if both players in the media market had adopted S2. Both would have some gains, as advertisers would buy airtime in two tv networks with very different programming.

And if both players adopt S1? Both of them might go bust. There would be a mediated outcome, courtesy of the government, to return both players to their previous monopoly decisions, rescind the market liberalisation, and declare the experiment a failure.. And it's not the most optimum outcome, given the wastage of resources from both sides when they employ the beggar-thy-neighbour strategy.

However, this is the most likely outcome. The Nash Equilibrium. Both players, not knowing the strategy of the other, will rationally pick the strategy that pays off the most for itself (S1). Nash Equilibrium refers to the strategies where "no
player can benefit any more by changing her strategy while the other players keep their strategies unchanged", and the corresponding outcomes or payoffs. And here, the Nash Equilibrium is the lose-lose outcome, as with the Prisoner's Dilemma, where both players get heavy jail sentences because they both choose to confess.

We should note that mutual cooperation (S2, S2) is not an equilibrium point: a player can obtain better results for himself by playing mean while the other still cooperates...

Sometimes rational decisions aren't sensible.

Notes: it is a fact that is acknowledged, but rarely discussed - Twiddledum and Twiddledee had record year-on-year increases in advertising volume in the period June 2000 - present, yet their advertising revenue had plumetted completely in the same period. Beggar thy neighbour indeed.

If they had been less rational, both media players could've walked away with spanking profits, just that they wouldn't be the sole players on the hill.

28 December 2004


A national survey in China reveals that barely half of the population can communicate in Mandarin Chinese.

So much for Singapore's Speak Mandarin Campaign slogan, "Chinese language for Chinese people"?

The China Daily even says:

"A standard, commonly used spoken language is also in the interests of the country as it helps promote national identity and cohesion..."

"Promotion of putonghua should not necessarily mean stifling other spoken languages. We must respect dialects. This is the unswerving policy of the country. Dialects carry culture."

And so much for Singapore's "Chinese language carry Chinese Culture" or even its "More Chinese, less dialects" slogans as well.

In fact, Singaporean businessmen will find that dialects and local knowledge would go a longer way to seal a deal than speaking Mandarin and having an understanding of elite Chinese customs.

23 December 2004

Where oh where is the honest debate?

The final post

Singapore inches inexorably towards the casino. Don't let the 'thorough deliberation' in Parliament fool you.

Let those who have eyes, see. Let those who have ears, hear. And those who have patience, read.

The casino debate is anything but honest. We have mentioned that the only 2 sides, the only 2 mentionable positions sanctioned for public consumption, are the economic pro-casino and the moral anti-casino views. There is no reconciliation between the two (and would be very dangerous if a researcher manages to reconcile both considerations logically, like the NTU economic professors), and that just suits the theatricity of the debate fine.

What happens when you have two irreconcilable sides to a dilemma? You argue the hell out of each other, drive everyone to sleep while repeating the same points and making no concessions or improvements to the debate. Then everyone who the casino affects will lose attention and stop thinking about it. And that just serves the theatricity of the debate fine.

The decision's been made anyway

It's plain for people to see. Which side has to make a case for its views? Which side has to defend its assertions?

I don't see the economic pro-casino side having to give actual figures to justify the "positive economic returns" of the casino. They've been given a free pass. It's the anti-casino side that has to prove its case that the outcome is negative on the balance, that the social costs outweigh the social benefits. And of course, commentors in the press and media are muzzled from pointing out that it's possible to object to the casino on econometric calculations instead of pure morality.

Which side is so guaranteed of victory that it's making (lame) promises and concessions (that won't be upheld) as part of the normal debate, instead of arguing on the merits of the casino?

Let's look at the promises and concessions and laugh at them

1. "We'll just let the top 10% of Singaporeans enter the casino. It'll be for the rich and the foreigners."

The recognition here is that almost all casinos are bad for the lower classes; they are a tax on the poor. It is the poor and the middle classes that are more easily hooked and lose more (as a proportion of their earnings) at the gambling table.

Hence the concession: make the casino ultra-exclusive.

We predict the concession will be dropped the moment the casino is approved. It's a no-brainer that the majority of casino revenues come from the everyday low/middle classes who have the compulsion to spend 3 nights of every week just gambling.

Take away the bottom 90% earners. You have a nearly empty casino, devoid of the hustle and bustle. And who would go there?

2. "We'll run a referendum on the issue"

We predict they never will. A very slim majority of the Singaporean public is against the casino, and the only way to push it through is in Parliament.

But it creates a believable illusion of choice, doesn't it? A freedom to choose for the casino (of course, not against it, preferably).

It's as palpable as the lifting of the party whip so the 97% PAP-dominated Parliament is free to vote their conscience instead of pushing it through using sheer numbers.

Behind all this freedom is this implication: the casino deal can be forced down the throats, against the will of Singaporeans. However it will be so unpopular that it may jeapordise the ruling party.

Hence the need to let this be a 'free debate'. What we should look out for is whether the pro-economic side will take the hardline stand that this casino concerns the economic survival of Singapore, therefore making the vote subject to the party whip. While the cabinet realises the self-defeating essence of this strategy, it is nonetheless inching towards it, with its refusal to justify the economic returns and insistence to just say the casino is economically necessary.

All bets are off if there is a referendum at all. The last time we had one, the issue was a union with Malaysia, and the wise pro-merger leaders decided to count all blank and spoilt votes as Yes votes.

3. "We'll make the casino as inconspicuous as possible."

No kidding. In his National Day Rally speech, MiniLee said it would be possible to develop Sentosa as a family-focused destination with all kinds of educational, leisure and entertainment activities and installations... just that in the middle of it will be, well, you know... that inconspicuous thing that really, is just a small, tiny part of the overall family-oriented Sentosa.


An inconspicuous casino! Trust Singapore's leaders to seriously consider that, and trust Singaporeans not to snigger or call him out on that one. It's a no-brainer, but the free pass the media and the public gave MiniLee on that lamest excuse is worse than a no-brainer.

Our prediction

The casino idea will just - and only just pass with a tiny majority, with a 'strong' dissenting vote from PAP's backbenchers.

Taking the dissenters into consideration, Parliament approves the plan, but authorises Temasek to take a substantial or even controlling stake in the casino (which of course will be a monopoly. You think they'd want 2 or more casinos?).

MiniLee will swear it's all so Temasek can exercise social control and oversight to rein in possible excesses of the casino. It's not in it for the money, really.


21 December 2004

After one too many walks down Orchard Rd

've been to Orchard Rd five times this month already. And that means walking down the entire stretch, from Plaza Singapura to Borders or Tanglin Mall.

I see lots of traffic jams on the road, and wonder why the passengers won't get off their buses and walk - they look pissed enough staring out of their windows, to think "I can walk faster than this bus goes!"

I also see the very weird street performers our wise, arts-supporting civil servants have approved this year to grace our streets. Lots of stiltwalkers, carnivallers, heavily-made-up women (or men - it's hard to tell), acrobats... It just looks like our Very Wise Civil Servants were thinking more of "Mardi Gras" than "Christmas" when they selected all these people? I don't see any Santas around, surprisingly.

I see lots of human jams on the walkways of Orchard Rd, and wonder why some crowds gather at certain spots and just stand there, staring at spaces that are cordoned off by tape... in the totally opposite direction from the performer/street person walking past them. Pathetic.

Directly across the road, some crowds gather and stare at the people here who are staring at nothing, thinking if they stayed long enough, they'd find out what the other people were staring at. Even more pathetic.

It must be my rotten luck: I don't see any squads of grim-faced, semiautomatic machinegun-wielding policemen ("elite squads") marching down Orchard Rd at all. I'd feel much safer in the crowds if they're here...

Question: aside from that very famous photograph in the newspapers and the news on TV, has ANYONE seen these squads of grim-faced, heavily-armed policemen anywhere on Orchard Rd this month?

20 December 2004

A different type of test

Yes, the gweilos always complain that we Asians - Chinese, Japanese, Korean - all look the same.

Sometimes that comes across as racism, arrogance, or pure indifference. However, I urge all of you to take this test to find out if it's true.

Can Asians tell the difference between themselves?

18 December 2004

We interrupt this series on God with a breaking announcement

From the Associated Press:
Secret Iraqi Prisoner Died of Torture

SAN DIEGO - An Iraqi whose corpse was photographed with grinning U.S. soldiers at Abu Ghraib died under CIA (news - web sites) interrogation while in a position condemned by human rights groups as torture — suspended by his wrists, with his hands cuffed behind his back, according to reports reviewed by The Associated Press

The death of the prisoner, Manadel al-Jamadi, became known last year when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke. The U.S. military said back then that the death had been ruled a homicide. But the exact circumstances under which the man died were not disclosed at the time.

The prisoner died in a position known as "Palestinian hanging," the documents reviewed by The AP show. It is unclear whether that position was approved by the Bush administration for use in CIA interrogations.

The spy agency, which faces congressional scrutiny over its detention and interrogation of terror suspects at the Baghdad prison and elsewhere, declined to comment for this story, as did the Justice Department (news - web sites).

Al-Jamadi was one of the CIA's "ghost" detainees at Abu Ghraib — prisoners being held secretly by the agency.

His death in November 2003 became public with the release of photos of Abu Ghraib guards giving a thumbs-up over his bruised and puffy-faced corpse, which had been packed in ice. One of those guards was Pvt. Charles Graner, who last month received 10 years in a military prison for abusing detainees.

Al-Jamadi died in a prison shower room during about a half-hour of questioning, before interrogators could extract any information, according to the documents, which consist of statements from Army prison guards to investigators with the military and the CIA's Inspector General's office.

One Army guard, Sgt. Jeffery Frost, said the prisoner's arms were stretched behind him in a way he had never before seen. Frost told investigators he was surprised al-Jamadi's arms "didn't pop out of their sockets," according to a summary of his interview.

Frost and other guards had been summoned to reposition al-Jamadi, who an interrogator said was not cooperating. As the guards released the shackles and lowered al-Jamadi, blood gushed from his mouth "as if a faucet had been turned on," according to the interview summary.

The military pathologist who ruled the case a homicide found several broken ribs and concluded al-Jamadi died from pressure to the chest and difficulty breathing.

Dr. Michael Baden, a distinguished civilian pathologist who reviewed the autopsy for a defense attorney in the case, agreed in an interview that the position in which al-Jamadi was suspended could have contributed to his death.

Dr. Vincent Iacopino, director of research for Physicians for Human Rights, called the hyper-extension of the arms behind the back "clear and simple torture." The European Court of Human Rights found Turkey guilty of torture in 1996 in a case of Palestinian hanging — a technique Iacopino said is used worldwide but named for its alleged use by Israel in the Palestinian territories.

The Washington Post reported last year that after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, the CIA suspended the use of its "enhanced interrogation techniques," including stress positions, because of fears that the agency could be accused of unsanctioned and illegal activity. The newspaper said the White House had approved the tactics.

Navy SEALs apprehended al-Jamadi as a suspect in the Oct. 27, 2003, bombing of Red Cross offices in Baghdad that killed 12 people. His alleged role in the bombing is unclear. According to court documents and testimony, the SEALs punched, kicked and struck al-Jamadi with their rifles before handing him over to the CIA early on Nov. 4. By 7 a.m., al-Jamadi was dead.

Navy prosecutors in San Diego have charged nine SEALs and one sailor with abusing al-Jamadi and others. All but two lieutenants have received nonjudicial punishment; one lieutenant is scheduled for court-martial in March, the other is awaiting a hearing before the Navy's top SEAL.

The statements from five of Abu Ghraib's Army guards were shown to The AP by an attorney for one of the SEALs, who said they offered a more balanced picture of what happened. The lawyer asked not to be identified, saying he feared repercussions for his client.

According to the statements:

Al-Jamadi was brought naked below the waist to the prison with a CIA interrogator and translator. A green plastic bag covered his head, and plastic cuffs tightly bound his wrists. Guards dressed al-Jamadi in an orange jumpsuit, slapped on metal handcuffs and escorted him to the shower room, a common CIA interrogation spot.

There, the interrogator instructed guards to attach shackles from the prisoner's handcuffs to a barred window. That would let al-Jamadi stand without pain, but if he tried to lower himself, his arms would be stretched above and behind him.

The documents do not make clear what happened after guards left. After about a half-hour, the interrogator called for the guards to reposition the prisoner, who was slouching with his arms stretched behind him.

The interrogator told guards that al-Jamadi was "playing possum" — faking it — and then watched as guards struggled to get him on his feet. But the guards realized it was useless.

"After we found out he was dead, they were nervous," Spc. Dennis E. Stevanus said of the CIA interrogator and translator. "They didn't know what the hell to do."

10 December 2004

Casino Royale

It's hard work compiling logs of icq conversations between Alvarny and myself. And very tiring to read the pseudo-debate rage in the Singaporean press and so-called media, where they skip around the issue.

Part III, where we bitch about the absence of actual analysis in the debate

A public violation of an unstated rule goes a long way in establishing or reiterating to spectators the existence of the rule and the deviant status of the act and the person performing the act. In short, this is what happens when someone speaks out of his place.

Exhibit A: NTU adjunct economics professor, as reported in the Today newspaper and the Business Times on 2 December.

2 NTU professors release an abstract or a literature review saying US studies that show casinos will bring more costs than benefits. And quantified it in concrete terms as well: for every dollar of tax revenue gained from the casino, 3 dollars of state or community programmes were required to address the negative social problems from the casino.

There's something about NTU economics professors. They don't play by the rules of responsible academia as typified by NUS dons: never present evidence that contradicts policy directions of the government.

But the statement from the NTU professors really show what's missing from the entire pseudo-debate on the casinos. If there are economic benefits and social costs that cannot be separated at all from a casino, then where are the studies showing that there is a positive balance? And better yet, showing that in monetary terms?

Now in order to present a figure that will close the casino debate, you have to calculate the estimated economic benefit from the casino. Somehow, the MiniLee cabinet has neglected to provide the figures, or even commission unbiased studies to produce the figures. Yet we read in the papers about the gaggle of casino operators preparing papers or presenting preliminary plans to the Government...

Exhibit B: The fait accompli

In any pseudo-debate, there are facts that must be taken for granted as a matter of faith. There are questions that should be left alone, issues that a responsible critic should pass over.

In this case, the fait accompli is the economic success of setting up the casino in Singapore. No voice in the debate has asked for proof, because its success is a foregone conclusion.

Yet responsible economists in the US and UK show that several things have to be considered.

Does the casino draw its main customers from the locality or from abroad?
Does it divert revenue from competing overseas casinos or does it divert from domestic spending?
Does it make the economy grow, or will people just end up substituting normal economic consumption with gambling?

It is not a foregone conclusion, and we are very much in peril for thinking it so.

And of course, it does bring home the question: Where are the grown-up researchers? Where is the responsible debate?

03 December 2004


This time round, I'll be trying something different. The following entry is co-written with Alvarny in a series of discussions over the week.

Casino Royale

Part the First, where I bitch about the responsibilities of intellectuals; or
Where are the grown-up philosophers?

There's this debate going on for several weeks now in Singapore's policymaking circles about the wisdom of granting a casino license. The positions are getting entrenched between the Economic pro-casino legislators apparently headed by the Prime Minister and his cabinet, and the Moralistic anti-gambling coalition of some backbenchers and the general public.

On 18 November, just months after Mini-Lee tried to float the casino idea in his National Day address and subsequent flogging (or yes-manning) of the issue on the pro-side by the Straits Times and then debates in parliament, finally an academic spoke out on the issue. And it was the head of the Philosophy department in NUS too.

At the Institute of Policy Studies forum, Prof. Ten Chin Liew said:

"Individuals freely choose to gamble, it is no business of others to interfere with how they spend their legitimately acquired money."

"Freedom to gamble can thus be seen like freedom to engage in religious practices - as in a tolerant society, a majority does not impose its practices on a minority."

"Otherwise, many public projects of great value, such as expressways, would have been condemned right from the start because they affect some people adversely."

That's the head of philosophy from Singapore's national university for you, channelling the ghost of John Stuart Mill.

And e-props to all of you who went "WTF" reading the don's third paragraph.

Yes, someone along the line, the professor switches from an argument on absolute freedom to... public projects??? We are unable to discern the logic here, since the defense of public projects (for the greater good, but will inconvenience some people) is clearly a utilitarian argument.

It's an inept, toss everything into the salad bowl and mix and hope no-one notices the ingredients don't go together argument. From the head of the Philosophy department, nonetheless. And since the don hasn't bothered to write to the press demanding corrections, it's not a case of a paper hastily truncating a reasonable argument into something very incoherent (which it does occasionally).

Part the Second, where we bitch about the usefulness of intellectuals

What is galls us so is the complete irrelevance of this don and his argument. For starters, the issue is not about gambling. Gambling is already a legal activity via Singapore Pools, the Stock Exchange, and the donate to a TV charity show and stand to win prizes scheme).

No, the issue is about whether there should be a casino. And Prof Ten's "freedom to gamble" argument doesn't even address it. Although he does serve the function of a state-sponsored intellectual doing the noble service of public miseducation (or disinformation) for his masters.

The real issue is whether having a casino would generate greater negative externalities than Singapore Pools.

The concept of externalities is simple enough: any activity generates externalities. A conversation with my friend over the cellphone drives other passengers in the same train compartment nuts even though the social transaction is solely between my friend and me. Laying cables to expand the national cable TV grid generates externalities by depriving drivers of an optimal road, for instance.

In a casino where individuals 'freely choose to gamble', their actions have knock-on effects on their family budgets should they lose more than what they can really afford. That's just one of the tamer negative externalities for you.

Again: the real issue is whether having a casino would generate greater negative externalities than Singapore Pools. Where are the grown-up intellectuals who will actually discuss it?