Friday, December 31, 2004

Closing time
Every new beginning
comes from some other beginning's end

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Lush 99.5FM begins transmission at 0725h, Singapore time, on New Year's Eve. That's odd -- thought they'd have a big party or something at night.

Kung Fu Hustle (Gong Fu) is good for laughs. Much of the movie really focuses on stars from kungfu flicks of yesteryear (the official website has cast bios) and Yuen Wo-Ping's choreography lets them strut their stuff while adding heft to the Matrix spoofs.

As expected in action flicks these days, there was lots of CG but thankfully used mostly to enhance rather than impress. It also packed plenty of film and wuxia references to please enthusiasts. I'm personally getting tired of Matrix spoofs though.

A love of violence and martial arts (Chow is a diehard Bruce Lee fan). Actors who made their careers in films of the 70s and 80s, particularly kungfu stars. Lots of references to other films, usually parodies. I'm surprised more people aren't comparing Chow's latest with Tarantino's Kill Bill.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

I delivered myself unto The Machine for the second time, and for the second time I have been found lacking, and thusly chewed and spat out like gristle. This time it only took them 10 minutes.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Nah, haven't been feeling like blogging for a long while now. Still don't feel like blogging actually.

Here're some short cuts:

Ocean's Twelve tries to cram too much into one sitting at the expense of the style and panache that made its predecessor cool. The lines are still witty, and the camerawork is pretty, but the plot is even thinner than the first and the denouement is anticlimactic.

Finally managed to catch The Incredibles. Excellent stuff.

Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai) created a bit of a stir at Cannes when its 14-year old male lead won the Best Actor award. I didn't think Yagira Yuuya's acting was exceptional (although there is no doubt that he will grow into a Japanese hearthrob for thousands of young Japanese/Taiwanese/Singaporean Chinese girls), and considering that Fahrenheit 911 won Best Film at the same awards I can't help but wonder, well, what QT and Co. were thinking.

(And no, I don't think Tony Leung deserved the Best Actor award either. Shame on him for that infamous comment too!)

But that's a done debate. It's not a bad film.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Had a close-up look at the Nintendo DS today. Utada Hikaru on the ads was what first caught my attention, but with double screens, a stylus, an in-built microphone and wireless communication capabilities this little machine looks very cool.

Moreover, the launch game for the DS is the quirky Kimi no Tame Nara Shineru (which translates to I would Die for You). Another quality title from Sonic Team. Visually unique, fun to play, showcases what the DS is capable of and hints at the great potential embodied in this package.

Monday, December 20, 2004

All the talk by the Government about raising the retirement age is pointless when no-one will hire older people to begin with. Is this not obvious?

Friday, December 17, 2004

Finally, a voice of reason! And from the Director of Economics and Strategy at the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) and Vice-President of the Economic Society of Singapore (ESS), no less.

The Straits Times, Dec 17, 2004

Casinos: Economic costs as big as any benefits

By Yeoh Lam Keong
For The Straits Times

THE integrated casino resort project (ICR) has been proposed principally to re-energise Singapore's flagging tourism industry.

On its surface, the model looks seductive. Only 30 to 50 per cent of the project is supposed to be centred on gaming. The bulk of the revenues from the $2 billion investment, we are told, should, as in Atlantis or Las Vegas, come from an alluring infrastructure of high-end hotels, world-class entertainment, restaurants and convention facilities that would also synergistically benefit tourism as a whole.

Surely, the argument goes, if through ingenious regulation we can contain the worst excesses of the ICR's acknowledged social ills, we should be willing to step outside the box of our traditional caution and give it a spin?

The fact that Thailand, Korea and Macau are all planning to deregulate and/or further attract investment in this area gives added urgency to the project. Do we want to be left behind? Should we not, as Associate Professor Winston Koh of SMU, and others, have argued, also establish ourselves as serious players in the mega gaming/tourism sector?


LIKE its high rolling namesake, the ICR project looks tempting. A much darker picture, however, emerges if one looks at its economic costs.

First, while the benefits are potentially large (Prof Koh estimates the ICR can add 0.3 to 1 per cent of GDP), the costs are equally big. Cost benefit studies of Australia's experience in gaming estimate a sum of between A$1.8 billion (S$2.3 billion) and A$5.6 billion on both the benefits and costs sides of the ledger.

Australian Productivity Commission (APC) listed the following among the main costs: Bankruptcy, loss of work productivity, job losses, police incidents, court cases, divorce and violence. The impact on family dysfunction and breakdown is obvious.

The APC found that 96 per cent of problem gamblers suffered from depression, 58 per cent have considered suicide and 14 per cent had attempted it. Half spent over 50 per cent of their income on their vice.

Problem gamblers may constitute only a tiny minority - typically, 1 per cent to 2 per cent of any population, according to Australian and American studies. But the multiplier effects of their pathology can be large. In Singapore, potentially 40,000 to 60,000 people may become problem gamblers. But between 120,000 and 180,000 family members may be indirectly harmed by their vice.

Economist call such impact 'negative externality'. The market is ill-suited in valuing 'non-price goods' or in regulating the negative social effects of certain kinds of economic activity. We know, for example, that it cannot satisfactorily price the benefits of 'clean air' or a 'green environment' or prevent pollution reaching excessive levels without regulation.

Similarly, the market cannot adequately price or limit the impact of gambling-related depression, poverty or suicide on a family. What is the true cost of family dysfunction and breakdown? The counselling charges paid by pathological gamblers hardly captures the full cost.

For this reason, economists who have done cost-benefit analyses of gaming have argued that its costs have been badly understated. Most analyses, using conservative estimates, have found the costs outweigh the benefits.

Can regulation reduce these costs? Can limiting access to casinos to high-rolling tourists or to rich citizens, for example, reduce the number of problem gamblers? Can't Singapore have its cake and eat it too?

Unfortunately, the economics of the gaming industry work against this.

To begin with, the bulk of most casinos' clientele tend to be local residents - usually 70 per cent to 80 per cent even in tourist-intensive locations like Australia or Genting, in Malaysia. Atlantis and Las Vegas, which rely principally on non-residents or foreign tourists, are not at all typical examples.

In Singapore's case, the greater the regulation of locals, the greater will be the implicit 'tax' on its ICR as compared to less regulated regional gaming establishments. Over time, the more intense the regional competition gets, the more financially unviable will local regulation become. After sinking more than $2 billion into such a project, there is likely to be increasing pressure to relax or dilute restrictions on local clientele so the ICR can be competitive with other casinos in the region, subject to fewer restrictions. The financial viability of the local casino may require the acceptance of high levels of local misery.

Unseen threat

IN ADDITION, the ICR, by its very nature, will pose an unseen threat to the very tourism infrastructure it is designed to energise. This is because ICR-type operations typically subsidise the hotel, entertainment and other facilities attached to the casino. Often, such facilities barely break even or may even lose money, but the project as a whole is supported by the gaming profits from the clientele that such facilities draw.

If the ICR is extremely successful, there may be a positive spillover into nearby hotels, restaurants, pubs or entertainment venues. But this would be the rare and lucky case. Statistically, 30 to 40 per cent of gaming facilities fail, with a large proportion surviving, but not very well.

It is in these more common cases that the ICR could become a Trojan horse, with a potentially destructive impact on the local hospitality industry because of its massive non-gaming infrastructure. Being heavily subsidised, these facilities could damage surrounding hotels, entertainment venues or convention places. Around Sky City, Auckland, for example, hotel rates have fallen around 10 per cent due to competition from the casino's cheap subsidised hotels.

In a booming hospitality industry with already high occupancy rates, this negative impact might be small. But with significant excess capacity, flagging tourist arrivals and already thin profit margins, the effect could be a harmful diversion of trade, loss of existing jobs and bankruptcies. Unfortunately, this is likely to be the situation we face today.

More worryingly, the subsidised infrastructure of the ICR could act as a distorting barrier to entry and investment in the high-end segment of the hospitality and convention industry that Singapore is seeking to develop further.

Such potential negative impacts typically do not feature in standard cost-benefit analyses. They are, rather, hidden financial and economic risks that are inherent in the nature of the ICR project itself.

Given these risks, to describe the ICR as an 'option' that Singapore might like to buy, as some of its defenders have described it, may be misleading. Instead, the project is perhaps more accurately characterised, in financial market parlance, as the selling of an 'uncovered option'. Besides the certain social costs and the big initial investment involved in purchasing this 'option', the total losses to the economy as a whole could be unexpectedly large, open-ended and extend over an indefinite time horizon, as in the case of the sale of an 'uncovered option' gone wrong.

Considering these risks, the question of whether there are alternative projects that could fulfil the same tourism objectives as the ICR naturally arise.

Here, one cannot help but feel that Hong Kong has chosen a better direction with its West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) development project.

The proposed mega development will cost $5 billion and is designed to enhance Hong Kong's position as Asia's premiere centre for the arts, culture and entertainment. The WKCD is also expected to generate 8,500 permanent new jobs.

That is better than the 1,500 to 4,000 jobs that the Singapore ICR is estimated to provide, with positive rather than negative social effects and genuine benefit to related service industries.

Just as importantly, together with Disneyworld, the WKCD could help brand Hong Kong as the leading family-friendly, sophisticated Asian international tourist destination. By comparison, what impact on Singapore's branding would the ICR have?

Would we not be diluting our tourism branding by moving closer to the niches occupied by gaming cities like Las Vegas and Macau? Is this what we want as a key part of our tourism strategy, let alone in setting the tone for Singapore's social policy?

ICR proponents argue that gambling of all sorts is already rampant in Singapore. Professor Peter Collins, Director of the Centre for the Study of Commercial Gaming in Britain, estimates that gambling per capita in Singapore is already among the highest in the world.

Establishing an ICR, its proponents argue, could capture some of the business now lost to cruises and foreign casinos, and raise tax revenues that can be used for social good as well as to rehabilitate the worst effects of problem gambling.


FRANKLY, I find this argument rather weak. The existing scale of gambling is primarily determined by social policy and regulation rather than dictated by local consumer taste.

In regulated France, for example, spending on gaming forms only 1.3 per cent of GDP. Compare this to a similarly rich, but less regulated country like Japan, where 'pachinko' gaming turnover alone forms a whopping 6.7 per cent of GDP.

Unlike Japan, Singapore is not desperate for alternative fiscal revenues.

To my mind, the admittedly high existing per capita spending on gambling in Singapore is not an argument for establishing yet another gaming venue in the form of a legal high-end casino.

Rather, it is a much stronger argument for a careful review of regulation of existing gaming facilities - including legal 4D, 'football clubs' with their gaming machines and illegal gambling - as well as of the adequacy of counselling, education and community support for existing problem gamblers.

Although superficially compelling, the ICR project, with its dark and hidden costs, is a Faustian bargain. And as with most such bargains, the devil lurks in the details.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Do I want my children to grow up learning it's OK to gamble? Of course not; that's why I'm going to try my hardest to be a responsible parent and teach them that it's not OK. Which is a point these well-meaning but slightly silly people seem to have missed.

On the one hand, I approve of the Enlightenment-derived idea that people should have the opportunity to decide for themselves if they want to gamble or not, and that the Government should not shield its people forever from vices. On the other, I personally believe that the social cost of the casino will far outweigh any financial benefits it would bring to our little island. In way of empirical proof, I'm afraid all I can offer are the multitude of sociological observations that point out the harmful effects of casinos on the surrounding communities versus the pittance of reports on the benefits of casinos.

Let me try and approach this from another angle, with the aim of finding more solid ground. I don't think anyone will deny that with a casino at our doorstep, the number of people who will become gambling addicts will increase. So perhaps the real question should be: are our social services ready to handle more broken families, more troubled kids and more bankruptcies?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The front page of this morning's edition of Today out STs the ST. Hope it's not a precedent.

Here're more ways to waste time at work -- The Best Webcomics of 2004.

What they're playing now as test transmission is fun to listen to, but when's Lush 99.5FM actually broadcasting for real? I can't wait.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Not too many people know that Rich Dad Poor Dad is trash, and that Robert Kiyosaki is a shill. This is why. Some of John T. Reed's points aren't as relevant as others, but he builds a sensible and convincing case against this so-called guru.

As my brother and I agreed over prata, teh and deep-fried tofu on Sunday morning, some people just want to believe something. Anything.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Love is the answer, but while you're waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty interesting questions.

-- Woody Allen

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Kafka writes, for instance, of officials who revel in their despotic power over petitioners, 'against their own will [loving] the scent of wild game like that'. Though he was the least ideological of writers, Kafka had an acute feel for the obscene intimacies of power. Hinted at in his striking metaphor [The Castle] is a bestial, predatory appetite in the officials, sometimes submerged, sometimes baring itself.

-- J.M. Coetzee, "Translating Kafka"

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

No, I didn't know Grace Chow before today. Even if she were still alive, I don't think I'd ever meet her though but that's a moot point now.

She wrote a book, and she blogged the last 10 days of her life as a cancer slowly claimed her.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Speaking of dead authors, Goh Sin Tub's last book Walk Like A Dragon has somehow popped into my hands. I respect Goh for carving his own historical niche in the development of what passes for "Singaporean literature". He wrote concisely and clearly - in fact I studied his stories as models for English compositions in secondary school.

However, his work is too amiable and sedate to be memorable. Goh's historicity is one filtered through rose-coloured glasses thicker than glass Coca-Cola bottles. The plethora of praises from Government ministers and religious leaders that adorn the first few pages of the book are not simply an advertiser's gimmick. By being so uncontroversial, Goh has unfortunately become inconsequential.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Godzilla has a surprisingly distinguished pedigree. Sharing the Toho stable with the big green monster was famed director Akira Kurosawa, who at the time was producing some of his most acclaimed films. Toho's other big release of 1954 was Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai), and the studio regularly rotated actors and crew among its projects. The director of the original Gojira, Ishiro Honda, was a lifelong Kurosawa collaborator, and the film's haunting martial theme was scored by the eminent composer Akira Ifukube. "This is the period of the great Japanese film," says Mark Schilling, film critic of The Japan Times and the author of The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture.

Godzilla: Final Wars, just opened in Japan, is the famous monster's last hurrah. "Final Conflict" discusses the reasons for stopping the franchise, the possibilities for a resurrection (who knows?) and the significance of the very first Gojira.
Indeed, the first film, when viewed today after decades of lighter monster-movie fare, is shockingly brutal and unafraid to heap scorn on the Americans. The blame for Godzilla awakening from his ancient slumber is laid squarely on US nuclear weapons testing. Scientists investigating a Godzilla attack visit a hospital and take a Geiger counter reading of a healthy-looking girl in pigtails, and a grim knowledge passes between them - she's doomed to a slow death by radiation poisoning.

Monday, December 06, 2004

It's a welcome gesture that the Singapore Literature Prize is now awarded in 4 languages. I wonder how the organisers will cough up the cash though.

What I don't understand is how "Hwee Hwee Tan" could have possibly won. Mammon Inc is complete crap. I stated my reasons earlier, so if anyone wants to show me how that trash has more literary merit than the others on the shortlist, please, by all means.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

I don't think I did well in my JLPT at all :(

I take no pleasure at all in saying I can now go back to reading without as much guilt.

One Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1955, when I was fifteen years old, I was mooning around our back garden in the suburbs of Cape Town, wondering what to do, boredom being the main problem of existence in those days, when from the house next door I heard music. As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to by the music as music had never spoken to me before.

What I was listening to was a recording of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, played on the harpsichord [...]

-- J.M. Coetzee, "What is a Classic? A Lecture"
Really, this year's Asian Media Festival Film Showcase had paltry publicity. Maybe next year's will be better publicised at the very least.

Incidentally, it ended last Friday with Puteri Gunung Ledang.

Like any other legend, the one about the Fairy Princess of Gunung Ledang has quite a few variants, but the one used in Puteri Gunung Ledang is really a synthesis of elements from the main legend and others concerning Hang Tuah. It seems that the driving force behind the new fusion was a desire to suffuse the film with a universal appeal. There's nothing wrong with that, and this is not one of the Puteri Gunung Ledang's flaws.

The film is badly in need of more editing. It moves slower than a lame tortoise and many scenes could have been culled without affecting any narrative or character development. The acting is decent -- in fact Tiara Jacquelina is the main reason why I ultimately found the film watchable -- but the leads have zero chemistry whatsoever. The reunion scene was especially painful to watch. As for action, considering that this is the first time anyone in Malaysia is making something as big as this, the fights are good if slightly cheesy. The costuming is quite impressive as well.

I have to admit that the novelty of the whole thing was probably what kept me in my seat the whole time. Well, that and Tiara Jacquelina. Still, the film is a breath of fresh air in our Hollywood-saturated cinemas, and I think it's a pity no-one's picked this up for general release here yet. Besides, nature's sacrifice has already been made.
Remember the Sega Saturn?

Segata Sanshiro was a fictional character and parody of Sugata Sanshiro, a legendary judo fighter. He appeared in two dozen commercials by SEGA to advertise the Sega Saturn in Japan between 1997 and 1998.

Sanshiro was a Judo master that tracked down and beat up people who were not playing the Sega Saturn. His name sounds similar to the phrase "Sega Saturn shiro!" meaning roughly "You must play Sega Saturn!"

The ads are over the top, but are funny and entertaining. Watch some of them here.

Hmm... not quite how I should be preparing for JLPT, is it?

Friday, December 03, 2004

Oops. Guangzhou is a city. Guangdong is a province.

So much for my uni education.
Now that the rest of Marina Square is due for renovation, most of the shops still open there are having clearance sales of one sort or another. Discovered a small but decently-stocked book fair there, but they were closing up for the day so I couldn't truly browse. I did manage to grab the Vintage Classics edition of The Tin Drum that I've been ogling at Kinokuniya for ages. It was a steal at $6, even with a creased spine.

There were others that caught my eye; I'll definitely be going back.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

There is no better evidence for the adage: "Fools and their money are soon parted" than the recently-concluded Singapore Idol.

As Ken Lim once pointed out, you don't need talent to be a successful pop star. I don't mean to detract from Taufik Batisah's win; only to help place it in perspective. Glitz and glamour are driven by equally illusory impressions of democracy and talent. For truth, look to the money.
But any trace of spontaneity from the public in official broadcasting is controlled and absorbed by talent scouts, studio competitions and official programs of every kind selected by professionals. Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favours the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it.

-- Adorno and Horkheimer, "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception"