The Ghost of Christmas Past

24 January 2017

Author: Kun Yang | English Year 1

In light of recent world events, I thought it might be interesting to look at certain historical parallels with our present time …

1914: The German Empire is the rising power that seeks to displace the dominant power of the time, the UK, investing heavily in naval armaments to challenge the might of the British navy, then the best in the world, spurring an arms race. Diplomatically, it formed an alliance of what would become the Central Powers against the Western Allies, including the UK, France and later the US. World War 1 erupts with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary by the Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip.

A poster from the period that reflects the reality of the naval arms race as a risky game of cards.


1939: A resurgent Germany seeks to recreate the German Reich, or empire, bringing it into conflict with the UK and eventually the United States, taking advantage of the US retreat into isolationism. With Germany hungry for lebensraum, or living space, and natural resources, and seeking to avenge the humiliation of the treaty of Versailles, it joins hands with Japan, and Italy, which share the same concerns to form the Axis. World War 2 erupts with the invasion of Poland by Germany, triggering a French and British declaration of war.

An illustration of how Germany felt threatened and vulnerable after the humiliation of Versailles, which limited its army to 100,000 men.


2016: A rising China seeks to challenge American global dominance, investing heavily in regions like Southeast Asia and Africa, and even in Latin America, where the Monroe Doctrine (enshrining US dominance and resistance to outside intervention in the Americas since 1823) is losing relevance as America turns inward. China seeks to dominate the strategic shipping lanes of the South China Sea, with regional players like Duterte’s Philippines openly pivoting towards China, upending the long-standing alliance between the Philippines and the United States.

From Singaporean cartoonist Heng Kim Song, published in the New York Times.


Russia seeks to reassert itself on the global stage, to regain some of the ‘greatness’ of the Soviet Union. In Vladimir Putin’s own words, the breakup of the Soviet Union was ‘the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century’. To that end, it is intervening directly and indirectly in Syria, the Baltics, and Ukraine, taking advantage of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) with a US that is retreating into isolationism. Russian maneuvering in the Baltics, which are NATO members, ratchets up tensions to levels not seen since the Cold War, increasing the risk of a spark that could lead to global war, as an attack on one member of NATO will be treated as an attack on all.

The Russian bear turns towards the Baltic states. Interestingly, the tank that is supposed to demonstrate NATO protection is merely a picture with civilians cowering behind it.

With liberal democracy in retreat in most of the Western world this year, as demonstrated by Brexit, the shock election of Donald Trump, and perhaps the election of Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultraconservative Front National in France, the era of the ‘end of history’ and the triumph of liberalism as described by the noted scholar Francis Fukuyama after the Cold War seems to be coming to an end. Indeed, it seems to be a redux of the 1930s prior to World War 2, where far-right parties captured power in Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan. The potent combination of old powers seeking a return to the limelight, and new powers seeking to displace the old, shows how ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes’. (Mark Twain)


On This Day (5 Feb 2017)

1941: Hitler tells Mussolini to pull his own weight

As Italian forces in Libya are continuously pushed back by British troops in the North African theatre of the Second World War, Hitler demands that Mussolini, or Il Duce (The Leader) as he is known in Italy, command his troops to resist. However, British troops continue to push westward, even threatening to break into Tunisia, forcing Mussolini to seek assistance from Hitler. Despite Hitler’s reluctant assistance, 20,000 men are killed or wounded and another 130,000 are taken prisoner in three months.

A contemporary image of British troops in Libya during the North African Campaign.

1975: North Vietnamese prepare for the final offensive

North Vietnamese Gen. Van Tien Dung leaves for South Vietnam to take charge of communist troops in preparation for a new offensive that will bring an end to the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese wanted to observe how South Vietnam and the United States would react to a major assault near Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, as the United States had recently promised to defend South Vietnam against any such attack. Saigon would fall on April 30 that year, marking the conclusion of the Vietnam War.

An iconic picture of the frenzied evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon, shortly before it fell.

1988: Manuel Noriega, the leader of Panama, is formally charged in court by the United States

Noriega, who was the de facto strongman of Panama since 1983, is charged with helping Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel to traffic cocaine and smuggling marijuana into the United States, as well as laundering millions of U.S. dollars. He denies the charges and threatens to expel 10,000 U.S. service personnel and their families who are stationed at the Panama Canal. As tensions continue to mount, the United States invades Panama in 1989, and Noriega is forcefully removed from power.

The smoldering ruins of a building during the fall of Panama to US invasion in 1989.

1989: Last Soviet forces depart Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan

A final withdrawal of Soviet troops from Kabul is conducted, marking the end of the decade-long Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, that began barely four years after the United States left Vietnam in defeat. Soviet losses number 13,000 dead and 22,000 wounded, in addition to massive financial costs that could no longer be endured by a state that was on the brink of collapse, suffering from immense social upheaval and economic turmoil. Within three years, the Soviet Union would cease to exist.

The last Soviet troops leave Afghanistan.–Soviet-Troops-Leave-Afghanistan/news/0/image.jpg

On This Day 12 Feb 2017

On This Day Feb 12 2017

2002 – Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia, goes on trial at The Hague in the Netherlands.

On June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia and Milosevic sent tanks to the Slovenian border, sparking a brief war that ended in Slovenia’s secession. In Croatia, fighting broke out between Croats and ethnic Serbs. Serbia, the dominant entity in Yugoslavia, aided the Serbian rebels in Croatia. Croatian forces clashed with the Serb-led Yugoslav army troops and their Serb supporters. An estimated 10,000 people were killed before a U.N. cease-fire in January 1992. In March, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence, and Milosevic funded the subsequent Bosnian Serb rebellion, starting a war that killed an estimated 200,000 people, before a U.S.-brokered peace agreement was reached at Dayton, Ohio, in 1995. It was the worst conflict in Europe since the Second World War.

A Bosnian special forces soldier returns fire in downtown Sarajevo as he and civilians come under fire from Serbian snipers, on April 6, 1992.




1912 – The last emperor of China, Aisin Gioro Puyi, abdicates.

Puyi was enthroned as emperor in 1908 after his uncle, the Guangxu emperor, died. He reigned under a regency and underwent training to prepare him for his coming rule. However, in October 1911, his dynasty fell to Sun Yat-sen’s revolution, and four months later he abdicated. His abdication would mark the end of the Manchu Qing dynasty in China, and the approximately 2000-year-old feudal system of government, signaling the beginning of the modern Republican era in China.

After 1925, he lived in Japanese-occupied Tianjin, and in 1932 Japan created the puppet state of Manchukuo in Manchuria under his rule. In 1934, Henry Pu Yi was enthroned as emperor of Manchukuo. Despite guerrilla resistance against his puppet regime, he held the emperor’s title until 1945, when Soviet troops captured him.

Puyi’s throne in the Forbidden City in Beijing.





1999 – President Bill Clinton is acquitted

On February 12, 1999, the five-week impeachment trial of Bill Clinton ends, with the Senate voting to acquit the president on both articles of impeachment: lying under oath and obstruction of justice.

In November 1995, Clinton began an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a 21-year-old unpaid intern. Over the course of a year and a half, the president and Lewinsky had nearly a dozen sexual encounters in the White House. Congress would later approve two articles of impeachment, but the Senate would vote to acquit him of both charges.

The vote in Congress to determine whether President Clinton should be impeached.










On This Day Jan 29

On This Day 29 Jan

2002 The “Axis of Evil” speech by George W. Bush

George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States, makes his famous axis of evil speech during his annual State of the Union address, in which he denounces Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as threats to global peace and stability. Iraq would be invaded in 2003 without UN approval, the repercussions of which are still evident even today, in terms of the anarchy in Iraq after the invasion, which created a golden opportunity for the rise of ISIS.

Still relevant today.

1979 Deng Xiaoping visits Washington DC

Following the death of Mao in 1976, Deng Xiaoping makes his first official visit to the US as paramount leader of China, marking a major shift away from the confrontational relationship of the past under Mao Zedong. His visits to the headquarters Coca-Cola and Boeing indicate the focus on economic technological and development that the new regime will have, paving the way for China’s subsequent breakneck economic growth and rise as an economic colossus in the 21st century.

Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter during the signing of a major Sino-American treaty in the United States.

1991 Gulf War: the first major ground engagement of the war, the battle of Khafiji, begins

Saddam Hussein’s attempt to seize Kuwait in 1990 would result in an armed intervention by an American-led coalition with UN approval, sparking the first Gulf War. This battle would see Iraqi forces driven from the Saudi city of Khafiji, a testament to the importance of American air power in combat, and the weakness of the Iraqi military despite its large numbers.

A burnt-out military vehicle in front of the Saudi city of Khafiji after the battle of Khafiji.

2005 the first direct commercial flights between Taiwan and Mainland China since 1949 begin.

In the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War that ended in 1949, mutual distrust between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China in Taiwan meant that flights between both sides had to be routed towards a third city like Hong Kong. However, warming ties between both sides, and the proposal by the PRC to establish Three Links (postal, transportation and trade), meant that these restrictions were gradually loosened, culminating in the launch of direct commercial flights between Taiwan and Mainland China.

An Air China plane lands in Taipei after more than 4 hours of nonstop flight from Beijing January 29, 2005.


The Digital Revolution

A Case to Strengthen Singapore’s Social Safety Net

24 January 2017

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 2

Singapore’s embracement of the Digital Revolution

Singapore has topped the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s network readiness index 2 years in a row for the past 2 years. The index analyses how prepared countries are to benefit from emerging technologies and opportunities created by digital innovation, which the WEF calls the fourth industrial revolution. With the recent Smart Nation vision laid out in the iN2015 Master Plan, as well as Committee for Future Economy’s preparation for the digital age, it is evident that Singapore is embracing the shift to a Digital Economy.

The Digital Economy refers to the production and consumption of digital products (e.g. sensors, data), services (e.g. Uber, PayLah), and platforms (e.g. Netflix, Carousell), and any business activity that is enabled by such technologies.

A 2016 paper by the World Bank showed that that 57% of jobs in the OECD are at risk of technological displacement. Similarly, the nature of jobs in Singapore will change and workers with obsolete skillsets must upgrade or be displaced. We must anticipate these problems and mitigate them to foster a more socially just outcome or at the very minimum, prevent an increase in social inequality across the digital divide.

Risk of Alienating Vulnerable Marginalized Workers, and Wider Implication of Rising Social Inequality across the Digital Divide

Herein lies the challenge.

Technological cycles are becoming shorter and shorter, and skills are becoming obsolete at an ever faster rate. People who are hardworking, but fails to catch up due to lack of individual talent or social facts such as family circumstances, initial poverty, etc., will fall behind in the socioeconomic spectrum.

In this rapidly changing technological environment, it becomes ever more true that one’s talent and willingness to work hard is no guarantee that one will succeed in our competitive social system. Consider that sociologists’ findings that most of the social mobility that look place in the 20th century can be accounted by increases in good jobs. Conversely, most of tomorrow’s workers falling into poverty could also be caused by changes in occupational and wage structures.

In my grandfather’s generation, one become an apprentice, master a skillset, and hold a job for life. In my father’s generation, if one gets a good degree, one could probably hold a job for life and earn enough for retirement. In our generation, our degree could just become obsolete over the next one or two decade.

According to 2015 government statistics, currently, 21% of adults aged above 50 years have not used a computer over the past year. In contrast, among Singaporeans aged 15 – 50 years, a maximum of 3% have not used a computer over the past year. Considering that 35% of Singaporeans are more than 50 years old (based on 2015 population figures), a minimum of 7.35% of Singaporeans will fall behind in the digital divide as they do not possess basic computer literacy. The actual proportion of Singaporeans falling behind will actually be higher as even basic computer literacy skills may no longer become sufficient if one wants to succeed in the economy.

We have an entire generation of persons aged 50 and above who have worked hard for all their lives. We can agree that most of them, especially those who belong to poorer families do not have computer literacy to the extent the younger people do; nor do older adults enjoy the same level of fluid intelligence and freedom from social responsibilities needed to pick up new skills as fast as youngsters do. These people will fall behind through no fault of their own, by circumstances largely outside of their control.

Social Safety Nets must be strengthened

Given this reality, it is necessary for us to strengthen and widen our social safety nets, to give these vulnerable workers the breathing space needed to upgrade and match against their younger Singaporeans.

SkillsFuture is one step in the right direction as it helps to defray the costs of upgrading. However, $500 may not be sufficient. Take the subject of Data Analytics as example, a typical online modular course by Coursera costs around $79, while a full-fledged post-diploma course on advanced data analytics costs more than $500. In this case, learners would only be able to mostly afford online modular courses. Consider that for a person with only basic computing skills, to match younger professionals would require them to spend far beyond their SkillsFuture credit allowance and pay from their own pocket. The alternative is to remain disadvantaged. And for older workers with little savings, there is no alternative.

Even if the government decides to grant free education programmes to upgrade displaced workers, the time and effort spent undergoing upgrading trainings poses an implicit cost as they remain underemployed or unemployed.

In addition, despite extensive Professional Conversion Programmes and Work-Trial programmes seeking to improve horizontal labor mobility in Singapore, these programmes are dependent on the willingness of private companies to host these convertees; thereby reducing the effectiveness of these support programmes in the event of economic downturn.

Considering this, I suggest for the institution of unemployment insurance as a stop-gap measure. It will cover unemployed workers above the age of 50 and whose 12-months moving average gross income falls below 40th percentile of household expenditure per person; a standard adapted from the upper ceiling of “2nd quintile retiree household expenditure per person” standard CPF uses to calculate the Basic Retirement Sum. This would translate to about a cap of $942 (in 2013 dollars), or $943.75 (in August 2015 Dollars) payout based on the latest 2013 Household Expenditure Survey. The payout will be the difference between the cap payout and their 12-month moving average gross income.

A 12-month average income threshold is used instead of immediate income. This is to ensure that persons who had lower income over the medium term would receive assistance ahead of persons who had higher income. The unemployment insurance payouts should not last for more than 12 months from the date of unemployment, as it should have provided the recipients with sufficient breathing space to upgrade their skills.

We Must Act

While one may argue that most unemployment in Singapore is short-term in nature, and long-term unemployment rates is at a low of 0.6%, these statistics does not account for underemployment experienced by workers, or discouraged workers who have been dropped out of the labor force measurements all together. These hidden-statistics will grow as the risk of structural unemployment increases.

Also considering that productivity in Singapore has stagnated since 2012, with productivity growth hovering at around 1%, it will come to a point where companies will be pressured to retrench workers as we lose cost-competitiveness.

Considering the negative effects of unemployment on one’s personality, intellectual abilities, psychological well-being as well as wider social effects of crime, or burden to family members, we must act.

Hence, a strong social safety net is timely and necessary to ease Singapore through the transition into a digitalized economy. Benefits to our nation-state should not come at the unreasonable expense of any parties. As humans tend to hold self-serving, egocentric bias and fundamental attribution bias, we must be mindful not to be blissfully ignorant or be dismissive of the plight of people who are left behind. As sociologists would agree, our success is not merely a product of our individual efforts but more of a result of social factors.

All in all, I’m heartened that the Singapore government have the right intentions and sufficient political will to capitalize on the digital revolution for the greater good despite the aforementioned challenges. Indeed, we should disrupt ourselves, be prepared for it, before we get disrupted unprepared. Singapore’s economic pie must grow before we talk about inclusive growth: for people on both sides of the digital divide.

With this, one suggestion: Never stop learning, keep moving forward. I hope you readers will always stay ahead of the technological change, and if you do succeed, whether by individual effort, or by favourable social conditions, don’t forget to help those who are left behind.

On This Day : 19 Feb


British navy shells Dardanelles, in prelude to invasion of Turkey

During the First World War, the British War Office approved a plan to shell the Turkish positions at the Dardanelles, the narrow strait separating Europe from Asia, and the only waterway linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea. They hoped the initial bombardments would pave the way for British and French forces to march on Istanbul, knock Turkey out of the war and open a path to Russia, which was allied with the British. However, the campaign would end in abject failure, with Allied forces in retreat, having sustained nearly 180,000 casualties.

An illustration of the grand scale of the campaign.


President Roosevelt signs order allowing detention of Japanese Americans

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, allowing the removal of any or all people from military areas “as deemed necessary or desirable.” The military then defined the entire West Coast, home to most Americans of Japanese ancestry, as a military area. By June, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to remote internment camps built by the U.S. military around the country.

A poster with the wartime instructions for the Japanese American community.



US Marines invade Iwo Jima

On this day, Operation Detachment, the U.S. Marines’ invasion of Iwo Jima, is launched. Iwo Jima was a barren Pacific island guarded by Japanese artillery, but to the US military, it was real estate on which to build airfields where bombing raids against Japan could be launched. Japan was only 660 miles away. This marked the beginning of the final chapter of the Pacific theatre in World War Two, where the fight was taken directly to the Japanese homeland, and which would culminate in the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

US Marines land on Iwo Jima, under the cover of US battleships.×9.jpg