Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Enforced hibernation

Posting will be light to non-existent for the next few weeks as I've just found out that the Singapore government has refused to renew my work visa.

The Ministry of Manpower has refused to give me any reason for this decision.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information has rejected my application to cover the upcoming APEC summit for The Daily Telegraph, the UK's best-selling serious daily newspaper. They have also given me no explanation.

Having been in Singapore for a year, I now need to leave the city-state within a month and am reassessing my options with urgency. I plan to continue working in Southeast Asia.

Any offers of employment or freelance journalistic safe haven as well as messages of support or general abuse can be sent to me at theasiafile@gmail.com.

I'd like to thank all my readers and assure you that I will be back blogging with a vengeance once my involuntary departure is complete.

I'll also have more to say on my predicament at a later date.

At least I've now got some time to re-read the novels of Franz Kafka and George Orwell.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Singapore maintains secrecy over death penalty stats

At a recent forum organised by opponents of the death penalty in Singapore, a number of activists, including human rights lawyer M. Ravi, suggested that the government was perhaps becoming more open to providing information on how many people it hangs and for what crimes.


I've been researching a story on capital punishment in Singapore and after hearing their comments, I decided to try my luck with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and asked for stats on the number of executions in the last five years.

But the press officer refused to provide this information, pointing me instead to a five-year old press release on the Ministry's website.

"The information on the MHA website is what is available for your reporting," I was told.

The information provided in the January 2004 press release was issued as a rebuttal to a Amnesty International report on the "hidden tool of executions" in Singapore.

The government accused Amnesty of "grave errors of facts and misrepresentations, which seriously calls into question the credibility of its Report".

But if the government is not willing to release this information in the first place, then how are people supposed to research the issue in a credible and accurate manner?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user limeydog.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Singapore's hidden heartland - full version now available on WSJ website

The full version of my piece on Singapore's little-known farming heartlands, which was published in October's Far Eastern Economic Review, is now available for free on the Wall Street Journal website here.

Below is the intro:
The car weaves along the winding country lane, cutting a narrow path through the lush tropical vegetation. As well as the occasional dog ambling sleepily down the roadside, we pass farm after farm producing everything from vegetables to goat's milk and even crocodiles. We reach the summit of a short incline from where the gently-undulating landscape stretches out in front of us, punctuated only by farm buildings and electricity pylons.

Briefly, it's almost possible to imagine that I'm in one of Asia's expansive agricultural heartlands such as Malaysia's Cameron Highlands or Vietnam's Mekong Delta. But the frequent road signs warning people away from state land and urging trespassers not to enter "protected areas" at risk of being shot give the plot away.

Welcome to Singapore's last remaining slice of rural life: the Kranji countryside. The Southeast Asian city-state may be better known for its banks, shopping malls and sprawling public housing estates but here, in the northwestern corner of the island, Singapore's hardy farmers struggle on, producing 18,000 tons of vegetables, 47 million chickens, millions of eggs and 5,000 tons of fish each year.

"There's no PAP up here -- we're not prim and proper," quips Ivy Singh-Lim, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), as she pokes fun at Singapore's ruling People's Action Party, which has maintained a tight and, critics say, stifling grip on power since Britain granted self-rule in 1959.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Quote of the week

"If you want to do journalism, don’t do it in Singapore."

The sage advice of a Singaporean journalism professor (yes they do exist) to Lin Junjie, an eager student hack at Nanyang Technological University.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

New Asian citizen journalism website set to launch

A new pan-Asian citizen journalism website that claims to have found a sustainable web publishing model is launching on Monday.


Asian Correspondent has managed to attract some of the region’s top online scribes thanks to its rare pledge to pay “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work”.

(Those signed up include blogger-turned-MP Jeff Ooi and former editor Ahirudin Attan (aka Rocky’s Bru) from Malaysia, Danny Arao and Tonyo Cruz from the Philippines and Atanu Dey and Sriram Vadlamani from India.)

The new site, which is going live on Monday and will launch officially in November, will combine content from 50 socio-political and lifestyle bloggers across Asia with syndicated news and pictures and Associated Press, the American newswire.

I was initially rather skeptical when I found out that the Asian Correspondent was founded by an Australian business-to-business media executive based in Bristol, in the west of England.

But when I spoke to 35-year-old James Craven, who was formerly chief executive of a business publisher called GDS International, it was clear that he had the determination and business nous to give it a good go.

“The challenge is to monetise content online,” he said. “Rupert Murdoch thinks you can sell it and Arianna Huffington thinks she can rely on the charity of the blogosphere but I don’t think either approach will work.”

“I’ve got a unique business model in the blogosphere – paying all our writers a monthly fee based on the quality of their content, its appropriateness to the site and the number of followers they have.”

At present, even Asia’s most successful bloggers can only earn peanuts from placing Google adverts on their sites – an approach that Craven described as “highway robbery”.

“There’s a huge disparity between the traffic a blogger can generate and their ability to monetise that traffic,” he explained. “In the business-to-business publishing world, 30,000-40,000 readers is a strong audience. But in the fragmented world of blogging, single authors are receiving 40,000-50,000 viewers a month and are only getting $100-$200 a month.”

While he accepted that blogging for Asian Correspondent will still be just a “part-time income”, he said that his bloggers can expect to earn between $2,500 and $10,000 a year, which is 5-15 times what Google is paying them.

But how will Craven make any money?

It’s simple, he claimed. He’ll bypass Google and sell online advertising space to companies and media agencies himself.

Other pan-Asian news websites such as Asia Sentinel (which I contribute to) and Asia Times Online, which have tried to replace the gap left by the closure of print publications such as the Far Eastern Economic Review and Asiaweek, have struggled more with the commercial than the journalistic side of the business.

So perhaps this is where Craven’s business background will come in useful. He said that he has signed up “an experienced sales team” based in the New York office of Hybrid News, his UK registered company.

“Our audience will be defined by the content we run,” he added. “We’re targeting a demographic of hard-working Asian people looking for progressive viewpoints from this progressive newspaper.”

He is hoping to break even by the middle of next year but was well aware that targets don’t mean much in a start-up business.

Craven has put in £250,000 of his own to cash and has some funding in place from HSBC. His operation seems pretty professional – he has recruited 12 full-time staff and is relying on a team of almost 60 freelance writers, programmers and web developers.

With most traditional newspaper business models failing dismally, a number of people have suggested setting up a professional news website where the content is produced by low-budget bloggers and citizen journalists rather than expensive journalists.

Asian Correspondent seems to be the first such initiative in Asia. As with any new publication – particularly a new online publication – it will be very difficult to attract decent first-time advertisers without offering them massive discounts.

But I wish Craven and his team all the best. It’s only by trying out new approaches such as this that a solution to the seemingly inexorable demise of proper reporting in Asia and elsewhere will be found.

P.S. For anyone who's read this far, an 'alpha' version of the site is currently visible here. For the view of a Thai blogger who turned down Craven's advances, see here.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Singapore's sand shortage: the hourglass effect

My piece from this week's edition of The Economist:

Seven maids with seven mops might fail, but Singapore gets close

“LOOKING for sea-sand for reclamation project in Singapore. Prompt reply is greatly appreciated.” Many such pleas can be found on Alibaba.com, a popular Chinese trading-website. Malaysia banned sand exports as long ago as 1997. Indonesia followed suit in 2007 on environmental and, some say, political grounds. Ever since, it has become harder for Singapore to secure supplies for its booming construction industry and sea-fill plans.

The ban by Indonesia, its biggest supplier, led to a surge in the price of sand, used in both concrete and land-reclamation. The government averted a short-term crisis by releasing sand from its stockpile and helping contractors find new sources. However, Indonesia’s embargo, followed swiftly by a Chinese ban on sales of sand to Taiwan, set in train a domino effect.

Environmentalists argue that large-scale sand-dredging can deplete fish stocks and cause erosion, risking landslides and flooding. So Singaporean contractors turned to Cambodia, where prices are low and environmental standards almost non-existent. But this May Hun Sen, Cambodia’s prime minister, outlawed exports of sand. Again, environmental pressures were cited, but there may also have been a political motive.

After the Cambodian ban Vietnam’s sand exports surged, achieving volumes seven times as big as last year, with Singapore the main customer. Then last month Vietnam’s construction ministry called for a temporary halt to the trade, to assess its impact on the environment and the local building industry. NGOs in Thailand and Bangladesh have also pressed their governments to reject recent requests to allow sales of sand to Singapore.
 
Sand prices, which peaked at over S$60 ($43) a tonne in 2007, have fallen during the slowdown. Simon Lee, of the Singapore Contractors’ Association, believes a new regulation requiring sand importers to have alternative back-up supplies will help insulate his members from further turbulence.

A spokesman for Singapore’s national-development ministry adds that construction companies have been importing sand from “various” regional countries and claims that “recent restrictions on sand exports have not affected the supply of construction sand to Singapore.”

But global demand for dwindling supplies of sand and other materials is mounting. Critics say that Singapore needs to shift faster from building cheap but resource-intensive concrete structures towards more expensive construction techniques that use, say, more steel and glass.

Relying as it does on low-wage, low-skilled migrant workers from South Asia, Singapore’s construction industry is not yet ready for such a high-tech transformation.

And in the short term there are still plenty of willing suppliers. Tim Sintop, an American whose trading company wants to export sand from Myanmar and has already secured several contracts in Singapore, is upbeat: “The more bans there are elsewhere, the better for us.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Time for Anwar Ibrahim to become a benevolent dictator?

Raja Petra Kamarudin, the outspoken Malaysian blogger and fugitive, argues in his latest blog posting from wherever in the world he's hiding that Malaysia's disparate opposition coalition needs to develop some discipline if it is to have any hope of winning power.


Since last year's surprise election result, when the ruling Barisan Nasional lost its two-thirds majority, the Pakatan Rakyat grouping - composed of a Chinese pro-democracy party, an Islamic party and a multi-racial party led by former deputy PM Anwar Ibrahim - has spent as much time fighting internal battles as it has taking on the government.

RPK thinks Anwar needs to firm up the loose coalition into an official party and stamp some authority on the party members if it is to beat Prime Minister Najib Razak - noted for his authoritarian streak - at its own game.
I always said there are times when we need a dictator to lead us. But then, what kind of dictator are we talking about? There are malevolent dictators and there are benevolent dictators. Malevolent is bad. Benevolent is good. So, while dictators are normally seen in a negative light, we can’t just discount all dictators as bad. We have good dictators and we have bad dictators.

I would take a benevolent dictator any time over someone who stands by and does nothing. More damage and injustice is done when someone takes no action. When there is racism and racial skirmishes resulting in the deaths of many innocent women and children, doing nothing is worse than clamping down with a heavy hand.
He concludes:
Yes, it is time Pakatan Rakyat not only registers as a legal entity but also crack the whip. We need discipline in the opposition. Sit down and agree on the policies. Bang tables if need be. But once a consensus has been reached and the three opposition parties have agreed on an unanimous decision, let no party leader try to torpedo all this by going off tangent. Rule ruthlessly, with a dictator’s hand, but a benevolent dictator at that.
Interesting view. The major problem is that any attempt to instill conformity on a rather uncomfortable rainbow coalition composed of Islamists, liberal democracy activists and assorted anti-government types may lead to the break-up of said grouping.

That, I presume, is what has prevented Anwar from cracking the whip thus far.

Anwar's critics would say, of course, that his dictatorial instincts are not buried too deep beneath the surface so shouldn't be that difficult to recover.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user KamalSell.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Quote of the week

Welcome to a new regular Friday feature, designed to showcase some of Asia's more pithy, controversial or just downright bizarre orators (from politicians to hawkers)...while also giving me the time to do some proper work before the weekend.

"All things being equal we have always put the PAP wards first."

Mah Bow Tan, Singapore's minister of national development, restating the ruling People's Action Party's long-held policy of bypassing opposition-run constituencies when it comes to much-needed lift upgrading programmes on the city-state's older housing estates.

This week, the PAP finally announced that the government would release the funds to upgrade lifts in Hougang and Potong Pasir, the only constituencies in Singapore that returned opposition MPs in the last election.

For a view on the problems with this policy, see this piece by charity worker Ravi Philemon at The Online Citizen.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thanks ADB but it will take more than $2.8m to solve Asia's worsening transport crisis

Ambling through the narrow streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter a few weeks ago, I pondered how pleasant it was that Vietnam's capital was yet to be afflicted by the kind of traffic gridlock that blights most other developing Asian cities (take your pick from Bangkok, Dhaka, KL, Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai) .


But, reading a story in the Viet Nam News about the resilience of the latest car sales figures, I wondered what would happen if just 5 out of 100 motorbike users upgrade to a car in the next few years - with hardly any proper on or off-street parking and no major bypasses, traffic flow in Hanoi would be paralysed.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has just released a new report, which argues that "rapid urbanization and an unprecedented increase in private motorized transport, with some cities in the region experiencing a doubling of their fleets every two to three years, is creating an urban crisis".

The ADB is encouraging Asian governments to take the sort of approach used in Singapore, Hong Kong or Seoul, fostering "access" rather than just "mobility" by making it more expensive for people to own private vehicles and easier and more efficient for them to use public transport.

The ADB's lofty aim is to "develop energy-efficient, clean, and inclusive urban transport systems that ensure accessibility for all".

That's great rhetoric. But how much money is the caring, sharing ADB willing to put behind this ambitious new strategy?

A measly $2.8m.

Yes, that's not a typo, that's $2.8m. Better get ready for more traffic jams, then.

Pic of Dhaka jam courtesy of Flickr user joiseyshowaa.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

All hail the Myanmar development miracle

Although it is the poorest country in Southeast Asia and is often described as one of the most miserable places on earth, Myanmar appears to have made good progress in improving the quality of life for its people, according to the latest UN Human Development Report.


An analysis of the UN stats by The Economist (disclosure: I sometimes contribute to it) shows that the quality of life in Myanmar (measured in terms of health, education and wealth) has improved at a faster rate since 1990 than in other nations such as Indonesia, South Korea, Brazil, Russia and South Africa.

Myanmar also fares better than you might expect in the UN's overall league table of human development, coming in at 138, ahead of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya and Ghana (download PDF of full report here).

It is often said by Burma watchers that, unlike almost any other government in the world, the junta have zero interest in improving the quality of life of their own people (see this editorial, for example, by Alison Vicary and Sean Turnell on why the West should retain sanctions).

So what's going on then? Is the UN data merely a statistical outlier?

Firstly, Myanmar has advanced from a pretty low base in 1990 so the improvement needs to be put in that context. Also, there may be question marks over the reliability of the Myanmar data.

Regardless, it's an interesting anomaly. Anyone care to proffer any alternative theories?

Hat-tip to New Mandala for the sanctions piece. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tianyake.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Bipolar Singapore Beauty Trips on 'Singlish' Slip

My latest piece for Asia Sentinel, on the implications of the Ris Low saga, has just been posted online:

When 19-year-old student Ris Low stepped forward to receive the Miss Singapore World crown in the Island ballroom of the Shangri-la Hotel back in July, she was blissfully unaware that it would turn out to be a garland of thorns.

Having made it through the rigors of the evening-wear round, the nervous tension of the bikini parade and the feared Q&A with the judges, Low's biggest ordeal was yet to come.

In strait-laced, technocratic Singapore, beauty pageants rarely make the headlines but Low came to public attention after a video interview in which she demonstrated her beauty rather than her brains started circulating on the internet.

Low's great hope – "to show the world that beauty has its own purpose and that not all beautiful people are bimbotic" – was thus sadly undermined from the start.

Once the sacrificial celebrity lamb had been exposed, it wasn't long before the online hordes were dragging her off to the slaughter. Bloggers and internet forum denizens pilloried Low for her strong Singaporean accent, her use of Singlish diction and her strange preference for long pauses before answering basic questions.

In a country where the government has long championed the use of proper English and criticized the creole spoken by the vast majority of the people, surely such a woman was the wrong choice to represent Singapore at the Miss World pageant in South Africa, they said.

Would Low's selection as Singapore's belle not send out the wrong message to the youth of Singapore about the importance of good English and cast doubt upon the quality of the city-state's highly-regarded education system?

Always happy to cover a story that endorses a key government policy, it wasn't too long before Singapore's state-owned media cottoned on and the Ris Low saga became a truly national issue, condemning stories about the dangers of another housing bubble and the latest losses at sovereign wealth fund GIC to the limbo of the middle pages.

Unfortunately for Low, in August, the government's Good English Movement had decided to focus its energies this year on improving the grammar and pronunciation of Singapore's youth, and so she was easily cast in the role of the linguistic anti-hero.

Although she had been exposed to the invective of the anonymous online commentariat and the quasi-professorial disdain of the government-backed press, Low still had her crown, her ticket to South Africa and some remaining semblance of dignity.

But, with Singapore's newspapers unwilling or unable to dig up any dirt on the powerful (government politicians, the dominant state-owned enterprises and establishment entertainers), they tend to send their muck-rakers after the meek and hapless. Low was now firmly in their sights.

As well their vital statistics, when submitting their entry forms, the Miss Singapore World contestants had been asked to declare any criminal convictions. Low had made no such declaration.

However, My Paper, one of Singapore's shallow but nasty tabloids, soon revealed that Low had been sentenced to two years' probation in May for credit card fraud after going on an S$8,000 lingerie, jewelry and fine dining spending spree with cards taken from patients at a clinic where she worked.

If bad diction and youth-speak had been a concern, then the revelation of the credit card fraud sealed the beauty queen's fate. Unlike with many other controversial socio-political issues, for once no government minister proffered the verdict of the all-knowing state.

But Lee Bee Wah, an MP from the ruling People's Action Party, did speak out, noting that credit card theft was a "very serious offence" and highlighting the importance of "honesty and integrity".

With her back against the wall, Low made a final and desperate plea for forgiveness, insisting in an interview that her crime had been committed in a "moment of folly" and that she had been suffering from bi-polar disorder.

Alas, the gushing last-stand was to no avail and the organizers of the pageant showed Low the level of clemency practiced by Singapore's government in capital punishment cases: none.

Dethroned but defiant, Low says she will be back to fight another round and has already embroiled herself in an unseemly spat with runner-up Claire Lee, who could yet replace her on the stage in South Africa.

Having been briefly dragged up beyond the mediocrity of everyday existence by the fickle beast that is 21st Century fame, Low's future in the beauty pageant industry looks uncertain to say the least.

The government does run a Yellow Ribbon campaign that offers a second chance to those less serious ex-offenders who have not been led to the hangman's noose.

But, sadly for Low, Singapore does not currently have any equivalent of the Siberian prison service's "Miss Spring" contest when female convicts get to strut their stuff in the hope that a good showing can win them a reprieve.

Though her wounds were partly self-inflicted, Low's harsh treatment reveals the divide in Singapore between the foreign-educated, westernized elite and the vast majority of people who use Singlish - a mix of English, Malay and Chinese words and grammar - to communicate with each other on a daily basis.

The government has long insisted that a failure to jettison the local dialect in favor of standard English will jeopardize Singapore's position as a hub for multinational companies and retard the nation's economic development.

But, at a time when the nations of the Southeast Asian archipelago are fighting it out over ownership of their shared cultural heritage (Indonesia is claiming batik and the pendet dance, while Malaysia is claiming chili crab and laksa), perhaps Singapore should be staking more of a claim for its most eminent cultural contribution: Singlish, lah.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hossan Leong: Singapore’s latter-day court jester

Though it’s hard to believe, there are some places in Singapore where people openly mock their rulers, who retain strict controls over the media and have shown a tendency to use the libel law against those who do them down.



On Saturday, I watched Singaporean comic Hossan Leong gently poking fun at Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his family and briefly mocking the government’s economic and racial policies and the failure to prevent terrorist Mas Selamat from escaping last year.

In the West, such ribbing would be considered tame in the extreme. But in Singapore, this was pushing the boundaries of political humour about as far as they can go or at least as far as most people are willing to push them.

The vast majority of Hossan Leong’s performance, which was set up as a spoof chat show, was decidedly non-political. But, still, he was only allowed to get away with breaking such taboos because of two reasons:

1. He was performing in a theatre – While the government censors take a very strict view of what can be shown/written about in the mass media, they are much more relaxed about a medium that plays to a limited and largely elite audience. Only 615 people can fit in to the National Library Drama Centre, where Leong’s show was playing, so at best fewer than 10,000 will be get to see it during this ten-day run. More importantly, most theatre-goers come from the upper echelons of the middle class and the government is more relaxed about allowing this narrow elite a bit more personal freedom.

2. The political humour was interspersed by copious amounts of cross-dressing, stupid songs and all-round pantomime silliness. Thus any hard message behind the political humour was diluted and deliberately deprived of any semblance of legitimacy.

To put it another way, Leong is adopting the role played by court jesters in England during the Middle Ages.

While the people were forbidden from speaking ill of the monarchy – sometimes on pain of death – the jesters were allowed free reign to mock and parody because it was accepted that anything they said was “in jest” and that they were merely the court fool.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Singapore's hidden heartland - a story you can't read in the Lion City

I've written an extended piece on the joys of Singapore's little-known farming hinterlands in the October edition of the soon-to-be-closed Far Eastern Economic Review.



But, in a Kafkaesque twist, FEER says it is unable to send me a copy of my own story because of the restrictions enforced by the Singapore government on foreign publications in 2006 after FEER was accused of "engaging in domestic politics" by the government.

Meanwhile, in the letters pages of this week's edition of The Economist, Singapore's high commissioner in London insists that FEER is not and has never been banned in Singapore.

Michael Eng Cheng Teo says that FEER "voluntarily discontinued circulating in Singapore" after refusing to comply with the requirement to put up a security bond [of S$200,000] and appoint a representative in Singapore upon whom legal notice could be served.

Anyway - here's a taster of the story:

The car weaves along the winding country lane, cutting a narrow path through the lush tropical vegetation. As well as the occasional dog ambling sleepily down the roadside, we pass farm after farm producing everything from vegetables to goat’s milk and even crocodiles. We reach the summit of a short incline from where the gently-undulating landscape stretches out in front of us, punctuated only by farm buildings and electricity pylons.

Briefly, it’s almost possible to imagine that I’m in one of Asia’s expansive agricultural heartlands such as Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands or Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. But the frequent road signs warning people away from state land and urging trespassers not to enter “protected areas” at risk of being shot give the plot away.

Welcome to Singapore’s last remaining slice of rural life: the Kranji countryside. The Southeast Asian city-state may be better known for its banks, shopping malls and sprawling public housing estates but here, in the northwestern corner of the island, Singapore’s hardy farmers struggle on, producing 18,000 tons of vegetables, 47 million chickens, millions of eggs and 5,000 tons of fish each year.

“There’s no PAP up here—we’re not prim and proper,” quips Ivy Singh-Lim, president of the Kranji Countryside Association (KCA), as she pokes fun at Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, which has maintained a tight and, critics say, stifling grip on power since Britain granted self-rule in 1959.

“Singapore should not try to become a global city because we will bloody implode,” she continues. “We need to put aside our progress and prosperity model and look at Singapore as a country with a hinterland.”

“Back in the 1960s, all of our chickens, eggs, pigs and fish and 40% of our vegetables were grown locally,” Ms. Singh-Lim laments. “But the land here was neglected and this place almost became a lost valley because of the focus on urbanization.”

Ms. Singh-Lim believes that Singapore lost much of its “kampong spirit” as villages and farms were bulldozed and their residents moved into the towering government apartments that now house more than 80% of the population. But, as the 60-year-old sips a whiskey on the rocks at 3:30 in the afternoon in the cafĂ© that adjoins Bollywood Veggies, her farm, she insists that Singapore’s countryside can still offer “solace to a weary soul.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr user pixculture.

Armed with short skirts and leather boots, China's Women's Liberation Army make its debut

Was anyone else watching China's national day parade surprised to see the massed ranks of short skirt and leather boot-clad female soldiers goose-stepping through Tiananmen Square?


For a brief second, I though I was watching an Austin Powers or Carry On film - come to think of it, Carry On People's Liberation Army has a certain ring to it.

Obviously women soldiers have played a key role in previous military parades in China but for this year's extravaganza, the requirements for female participants were altered from just being "brave" to being "brave, beautiful and elegant", according to state TV channel CCTV.

Presumably, the powers that be thought that the best way to honour Mao's legacy and pay tribute to China's transformation was to get some lovely ladies showing a bit of leg.

Given exclusive access to the women's preparations, a CCTV reporter found that "the female soldiers on the training ground are as good as the male soldiers in doing leg lifts and other movements".

But, unlike the lads, the ladies have some additional equipment they are required to carry on top of their weapons.

"We consider sun cream and other skin care products necessities," the leader of the female soldiers Chang Donghua told CCTV.

Photo from Xinhua. More photos here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ten career options for foreign correspondents

At 27, I don't quite feel over the hill yet but given the parlous state of serious journalism around the world, it probably makes sense to think ahead.

In this video interview by Hong Kong blogger and online strategist Thomas Crampton, former foreign correspondent and author Eric Weiner outlines 10 options for foreign correspondents who are forced to leave the field for various reasons.

My favourite option is number 8: Death.

As Weiner puts it, "it's not an option you choose so much as it chooses you".

"It is not the preferred option but it does have certain advantages. If you were to die in the line of duty, people will remember you very fondly. They will remember you for being the kind of person that in reality you never were. A kind, generous person who was all about telling the story and not about ego."

"The downside of the death option," he adds, "is that, well, you're dead."