Saturday, March 01, 2003

EPF: Brace for letdowns... now and in years ahead

LOWEST EPF DIVIDEND IN HISTORY? I noticed The Star Business has been apologetically preparing a soft-landing for EPF's pending announcement on 2002 performance and dividend. Editor Wong Sulong took the lead after a breaking news by senior reporter M. Krishnamoorthy.

Feb 22: EPF payout of at least 4.5%: "The Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) is expected to declare a dividend ranging between 4.5% and 4.8% for 2002. Last year, the fund declared a 5% dividend, which was the lowest since 1967."

Feb 27: EPF keeps a steady course in sea of uncertainty: "IF you are a member of the Employees Provident Fund (EPF), be prepared to get a lower dividend for your contributions this year. And, possibly, the same low dividend for a few more years."

"It will be the first time in 40 years that the EPF dividend has dipped below 5%... Understandably, the 10.5 million EPF members would be disappointed with the declining payout. After all, it was not that long ago that the fund was paying out dividends of 7% or 8%... So what’s the reason/s for this sharp fall in the dividend payout? (Note that I am saying a sharp fall in, not a poor, payout.)"

Wong said the government's decision to allow the EPF to invest in local equities has been a baptism of fire.

"There are several reasons for the losses suffered. First, the EPF entered the stock market at the wrong time – in 1996/97, just before the Asian financial crisis. Also, quite a number of its investments were ill-advised. And then there is the meltdown of the world’s stock markets, including the KLSE."

But whatever the reasons, the losses suffered by the EPF are unacceptable – more so when the majority of EPF members are lower income workers.

Feb 28: EPF contributions grossly insufficient for retirement needs: Grounding for returns to EPF contributors: "Three quarters, or RM150bil, of EPF funds are placed in fixed-income instruments (mainly government securities, bank deposits and loans) and the remaining 25%, or RM50bil, invested in the KLSE... On paper, the EPF has suffered a loss of RM10bil from its equity investments, and for the first time, it is making provisions for such losses. A sum of RM500mil is provided for this in the 2002 accounts. This is a prudent decision." The end-results: I quote:
"But looking at the statistics, I am concerned that many EPF members may be living with their heads in the clouds.

"Currently, the average contributor on reaching 55 years of age has about RM77,000 in his/her EPF account. If you take out the big contributors (the CEOs and senior corporate executives), this figure drops to RM33,000.

"Also, an EPF survey conducted in 1995 showed that almost 70% of members who withdrew their contributions on reaching 55 spent all their EPF savings within three years.

"The EPF estimates that a person who retires at 55, and wishes to get a monthly income of RM500 for his/her needs, would require to have RM150,000 in a fixed deposit.

"The under-provision for retirement is a very serious issue for Malaysia in the years to come as more and more Malaysians reach retirement."

Possible mitigation approaches? According to Wong: "One possibility is to have a multi-tiered contribution system where lower income members and their employers would have to pay higher contributions than the present rate. But this would mean lower income workers would have to tighten their belts...The best way, of course, is to ensure that EPF contributions are invested in a manner that gives the best returns with the best security."

In a separate story: Low-wage EPF members may pay more to meet retirement needs, Wong and Krishnamoorthy said: "To answer critics who feel that they can do better with their EPF money, the board is also considering allowing members to withdraw a bigger percentage of their contributions to purchase property, unit trusts and shares, but with certain safeguards."

Are there alternative investments for EPF management? Star BizWeek story: The fund's (EPF) conundrum by Anita Gabriel: “What else is there (for new avenues of investments)? It's in stocks, bonds and cash,” asks a market observer. “It's hands are tied. The domestic market is too limiting for the EPF... While overseas investments have long beckoned the fund, the timing has never quite worked in its favour... Investing overseas would result in a depletion in the country's reserves, something the country cannot afford during uncertain times such as this."

Read excerpts from an interview with the EPF's CEO Datuk Azlan Zainol here.

* * *

The Edge has examined the EPF's equity investments in October 2002. Read these:
( 1 ) That sinking feeling
( 2 ) Questions over EPF's RM40 bil equity investments

The agony is this: If your fund managers do not perform, you fire them and get new ones. With EPF, you can't. You have to put (almost) all your eggs in one basket. And Star Bizweek warns: "That problem looks set to reach mega proportions. By 2020, EPF will have funds exceeding RM500 billion based on the fund's current growth rate."

Your fate? “I'm just glad I won't be the CEO when that happens...“ quips your EPF moneykeeper, Datuk Azlan Zainol. So much for corporate visionary and insights.

Utusan: NAM is 'Mahathir's Show'

NUMBED WITH NAM? I received emails asking why I did not comment on NAM XIII, before and after. Must I when I have nothing better to say?

Dr Mahathir gets better press in US and Europe than NAM itself, concedes Utusan Malaysia. Bisik-Bisik Awang Selamat, March 2: Bila Awang ditanya tentang kemuncak itu, inilah jawapan yang Awang berikan - Dr. Mahathir membuatnya menjadi lain. Tanpa memperkecilkan kemajuan yang dicapai oleh NAM, kemuncak itu boleh disimpulkan sebagai Dr. Mahathir's show. (When Awang was asked about the summit, this was his reply: Dr Mahathir has turned it into something else. Not intending to downplay the progress achieved by NAM, the summit can be concluded as Dr Mahathir's Show.)

Bangkok-based Yoke May put me on email alert: Bangkok Post: Summit marks beginning of end. "If you were to read the local Malaysian newspapers last week, you could be forgiven for thinking the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Kuala Lumpur was a big thing. The truth is, it was anything but. The rest of the world, certainly the developed world, largely ignored it. NAM is, for all intents and purposes, a dead movement... Once considered a serious mechanism, the Non-Aligned Movement has now been reduced to being little more than a talk shop - a pow-wow for leaders from developing countries to air grievances about the West." Oon Yeoh wrote the piece.

Malaysia oh Malaysia!

SORRY, NO BBQ FOR YOU: Malaysiakini: Keadilan Shah Alam deputy chief, Raja Kamaruddin Raja Wahid was arrested Saturday evening when more than 100 police officers, including those from the Federal Reserve Unit, stopped a group of the party members from holding a barbeque gathering at the house of Keadilan Selangor Youth chief SD Mohd Johari Yassin in Shah Alam. Party supreme council member Dr A Xavier Jayakumar was quoted as saying the police stopped the planned barbeque session as "they were informed we were going to hold a big assembly and ceramah (political speech)". Xavier said it was a private function with about 15 people around when the police came.

NST print version quoted Shah Alam district police chief ACP A. Paramasivam as saying Raja Kamaruddin a.k.a. Raja Komando was detained after he argued with police officers, and for obstructing the police from carrying out their duties. | UPDATE: Click here for online version. |

SORRY, NO DOGS FOR YOU IF... Straits Times: Dog owners in Johor Baru whose immediate neighbours are Muslims are now required to seek their written permission when renewing or applying for a dog licence. The Johor Baru City Council introduced the new rule from Jan 1, saying it was meant to respect the interests and feelings of Muslim neighbours in order to avoid racial disharmony.

The China Press interviewed several people who felt that the new ruling was unreasonable, and urged the city council to consider amending it.

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Disarming Iraq: Dead man tells no lies?

STAR WITNESS (now dead) said Iraq's WMD were all destroyed. NEWSWEEK (March 3, US Edition): Hussein Kamel (picture), the highest-ranking Iraqi official ever to defect from Saddam Hussein’s inner circle, told CIA and British intelligence officers and U.N. inspectors in the summer of 1995 that after the Gulf War, Iraq destroyed all its chemical and biological weapons stocks and the missiles to launch-deliver them. Iraq was said to have but retained the design and engineering details of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the forms of "hidden blueprints, computer disks, microfiches" and production molds.

Who is Hussein Kamel? According to Newsweek, he was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law who claimed to have direct knowledge of running Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programs for 10 years. Kamel defected, hoping his revelations would trigger Saddam’s overthrow. But after six months in exile in Jordan, Kamel realized the US would not support his dream of becoming Iraq’s ruler after Saddam’s demise. He chose to return to Iraq - where he was promptly killed (1996).

How reliable is the source?

Feb 24: Newsweek's John Barry - who has covered Iraqi weapons inspections for more than a decade - broke the news that he obtained the transcript of Kamel's 1995 debriefing by officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the U.N. inspections team known as UNSCOM.

The same day, CIA spokesperson Bill Harlow angrily denied the Newsweek report, telling Reuters: "It is incorrect, bogus, wrong, untrue."

Feb 26: A complete copy of the Kamel transcript - a document stamped "sensitive" by IAEA - UNSCOM - was obtained by Glen Rangwala, the Cambridge University analyst who in early February revealed that Tony Blair's "intelligence dossier" was plagiarized from a student thesis.

This Kamel transcript, in PDF, can be downloaded here. Glen Rangwala's analysis of the transcript can be downloaded here.

US media watch-dog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) hailed this as possibly "the biggest story of the Iraq crisis", and the revelation "raises questions about whether the WMD stockpiles attributed to Iraq still exist".

In particular, FAIR said it casts doubt on the credibility of Powell's February 5 presentation to the U.N., which was widely hailed at the time for its persuasiveness. It said:

"Kamel's defection has been cited repeatedly by George W. Bush and leading administration officials as evidence that 1) Iraq has not disarmed; 2) inspections cannot disarm it; and 3) defectors such as Kamel are the most reliable source of information on Iraq's weapons."

To clear up the issue, FAIR urged journalists to ask the CIA to release the transcripts of its own conversations with Kamel.

Friday, February 28, 2003

New tenants in tech graveyard Press: Red Herring joins The Industry Standard and Upside in the tech mag graveyard. Red Herring announced Friday that it would close, and the March issue was the last. Founded in 1993, by focusing on the venture capital industry, and with a circulation of 275,000, it became influential during the late 1990s dot-com surge. Owner RHC, formed last year after the venture capital firm Broadview Capital bought the magazine, will liquidate its assets, including the Red Herring Web site.

New media DeathWatch: Online media Salon is said to be the next tenant.


US misinformation on Gulf War 1: Thanks saudara Fahmi Fadzil for pointing me to the original 1991 story by Pulitzer award-winning journalist Jean Heller (St Petersburg Times). Earlier I said the URL has expired. Here's the URL after the search-engine filter.

US is omnipresent: Saudara Joe Fernandez, whose letters to Malaysiakini I read regularly, emailed me a thought-provoking point. I am still pondering over the state of affairs at "the undemocratic, repressive and so-called Islamic monarchies" in the Arab World that may continue to happily exist because "it suits the interests of America the Omnipresent."

I am paranoid that CIA and NSA have the capacity to tap all Internet data flowing in and out of Malaysia. I have no doubt of their intelligence networks. Because of this, I thought we could email and write to public fora like Malaysiakini and other media. Let them eavedrop and let them hear. That the Arabs are mere mice in the wake of US hegemony over their brethren.

Read Robert Fisk: Facing disaster, the Arabs are like mice, David Hirst: Arab states paralysed by fear of their people and the US, and Gerald Butt: Newspapers attack 'impotent' (Arab) leaders.

So long as the dynasties/regimes at present day Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and even Iran and Iraq, are not democratised and the pseudo-theologist rule displaced/replaced, flashpoints shall remain and the US will be too willing to flaunt its omnipresence for as long as it can.

On the other hand, I thought by allowing US/UK to prise Iraq in the name of "disarmament of weapons of mass destruction", and ridding off Saddam to perpetuate peace in Middle-East (and the world) has serious fundamental flaw. That sovereignty can be compromised so easily and effortlessly is a recipe for total chaos.

About Streamyx's quality of service

MY STREAMYX problem has been fixed for now. Many thanks to Oon Yeoh for getting his vendor Victor Chong of ProxUs (I have not been his customer) who in turn got his technical contacts at TM Net to sort out my problems on a case-to-case basis. I pray Streamyx will not stand me up again.

Meanwhile, my email to Streamyx Support yesterday (08.09am Feb 28), with cc to the CEO and senior GM for corporate strategy and planning, received a reply within two-and-a-half hours. It said:

"There was a nationwide breakdown yesterday but it has been rectified last night. May we ask if your DSL/link light blinking or not, and what error number or message are you getting when you get disconnected (error 678/718/629). This will aid our technician in responding to your case."

I had complied with all the inquiries, of which I have described in detail in my blog yesterday. None of my 5 voice messages left at the Streamyx Customer Interactive Centre (1300-88-9515) got replied.

Thanks saudara Norman Salleh for your email. We are in the same boat as you experienced the exact difficulties I faced, and I hear you aloud:
"Can we sue them for not delivering the service as advertised? I really hate their advertisement in media and saying things like their service is "as fast as bullet"... I felt like cheated by a big corporate predator, and today's news they make profit close to 1 billion!"

The fact that I have to depend on the kindness of my contacts who sympathise with my predicament, and to resort to arm-twisting Streamyx's senior management to get a problem fixed simply reflects the blatant weakness at Streamyx. What about those who don't have such privileged access? Customer grouses on service quality cannot be managed on an ad-hoc basis. It requires systemic overhaul. Today!

Click here to read what Streamyx users say in The Star TechCentral.
( 1 ) STREAMYX is more frustrating than rewarding (30 replies)
( 2 ) Tmnet.....anyone suffering as i am? (426 replies)

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Thursday, February 27, 2003

A crude (oil) awakening

New York Times: Oil prices surged to nearly $40 a barrel, their highest point since Iraq invaded Kuwait 12 years ago, and then retreated.

Independent UK: The price of a gallon of fuel on British forecourts exceeded the £3.50 mark yesterday. Government urged to cut fuel tax as oil price soars to 13-year high

Thanks to Farouk for your email. I hear you say:

"... The CEO (of Wal-Mart: Fortune 500, revenue US$219 billion) had disclosed that approximately 25% of (his) business comes from people who are living paycheque to paycheque, without bank accounts, etc. He expressed concern that any upward shift in oil prices would take away the money these customers would perhaps spend at Wal-Mart."

Oil is a hopeless Old Economy? Newsweek Feb 17 quotes Daniel Yergin, chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates:
"The International Monetary Fund estimates that a $15 increase in oil prices over a year would directly cut world economic growth by 1 percent—a loss of more than $300 billion from world GDP.

"... Also particularly at risk are developing countries, which see their import bills go up, and their ability to pay decline, as high oil prices also weaken the markets for their own exports."

Screenshots of a pending war

GOOD CATCH of the day at Guardian UK:

Protagonists: If not war then what?

Antagonists: Disarm, Moral Ground, Exile, Democracy After Saddam

Short takes; My Streamyx is unstable

I BEGIN to distrust those TM Net - Streamyx guys who answered my feedbacks on their service quality.

Incidents of stranded packets while logged on had been happening the past one month or so. Two days ago, the problem got compounded as my ADSL link became unstable. It got auto disconnected every few minutes. If I didn't save as I type, my web-based blog updates would be gone. It's very painful as I type at mind speed, with a scribe's juices flowing in orgasm.

Every time I faced any connectivity problems with Streamyx - which had been plentiful - I would always check my Customer Premises Equipment (CPE), my PC, all cables and connections, and even time manager for my NIC, before I complained. Any faults beyond the last mile to the Internet gateway would be Streamyx's baby. This time round, I am satisfied my properties are functioning perfectly well.

My office Streamyx (I Mbps) has been slow for months and it went down for several hours yesterday. This morning, I had to make 6 calls to the so-called Customer Interactive Centre before someone answered to tell me Streamyx was still down - central server problems the guy said - and it's nation-wide. "Nationwide problem" has conveniently become a new mantra for Streamyx guys to cover their arse for not knowing what to do with the micro-management of specific problems.

But this morning's "nationwide problem" isn't true. My home broadband in USJ Subang Jaya is still down this morning. But my office Streamyx was already up since 4.30pm yesterday, and it's still up and running right now as I blog this. Oon Yeoh, who lives on the other side away from my town, has good Streamyx last night. Though he, like me, keeps his fingers crossed every night he goes back home, praying that Streamyx won't screw us up when we blog.

These Streamyx guys really wasted my time. They should have learned after 18 months in the business of brandband. From their CEO to the janitor should know I don't give a f*ck if their NOC got burned down. You have a contract with me, you take my money that you dictated, you just need to get my problems fixed.

Beware! You are made to pay for every second while you wait for the other end of 1300-88-9515 to finally decide to take your call, because the CustCare line is not using toll-free 1800 number. And they have the cheek to tell you "Please hold on, you call is important to us..."

I suggest if TM Net can't outsource a good Customer Call Centre operator, the board of directors had better start outsourcing their CEO, COO and CTO - before they themselves get outsourced. If not, we should each buy one lot of Telekom shares and f*ck the directors upside-down at every AGM.

Today, you are going to see very short blogs from me. Without always-on residential broadband, I can't surf, I can't exchange emails and I can't blog the way I wanted.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Blair gets bloody nose

GUARDIAN: Rebel vote stuns Blair: Tony Blair's Iraqi war strategy was shaken to the core last night. 121 Labour backbenchers voted against war, defying a three-line whip to join a cross-party revolt - the biggest rebellion ever against a British government in a century. Timely Tory support led by Duncan Smith helped save the PM.

BBC News: Blair presses on for a second UN resolution for now.

The superlative race

CNN/Associated Press: The replacement to the Osama-hit World Trade Centre (WTC) in New York will be the tallest building in the world. It takes the shape of angular buildings with a 1,776-foot spire. Click here to view the design. The original WTC tower once stood at 1,350 feet, while Malaysia's Petronas Twin Towers stands at 1,483 feet.

Will Dr Mahathir's successor be obsessed with the superlative race?

Excellent! Is her scholarship on the way?

Yap Sui Lin of SM (P) Kuen Cheng created history yesterday by scoring 16As in the 2002 SPM examination.

She had fifteen 1As in all the subjects she took except for Bahasa Melayu, for which she got 2A. Her 15 1As came from English, Chinese, Mathematics, Additional Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Moral Education, History, Art, English Literature, Commerce, Economics, Accounting and English 1119.

No, she is definitely not a nerd.

She lost her father when she was 10 years old. She was a slow starter who began to speak only after three (Guangming Daily). She has a string of awards and achievements from co-curricular activities, she helps coach orphaned students at Rumah Hope.

Her mother, Dr Gan Lay Chin, left her job as a geologist after her husband’s death and devoted her time to looking after Sui Lin, living off her husband’s pension. Her husband had served with Jabatan Telekom for 21 years.

Sui Lin studied both arts and science as she aspires to be a financial engineer, a profession which demands a combination of knowledge in both science and commerce. She will apply for scholarships, mindful that her mother is a single parent. I hope she gets many offers and may she succeed all the way.

2002 SPM exam produced 663 candidates who obtained 1A for all subjects, and 2,732 candidates obtaining a combination of 1A and 2As, an improvement over the previous year's results. Syabas Malaysia!

Rising Sun

MAGIC FIGURES! Circulation: Audited Average Net Distribution of 142,966 copies per day. Readership: 80% are below 40 years old, 63% are white collar, and 100% from urban.

The Sun is now effectively Malaysia's second largest English daily in terms of distribution by strategic locations. I learned this when I attended The Sun's presentation on its readership profile yesterday.

A free newspaper with a controlled circulation (Weekdays 150,000 copies, Saturday 110,000), The Sun has to get its circulation audited and endorsed by the Audit Bureau of Circulation Malaysia (ABC) before its membership into the authoritative trade body is accepted. The Sun became an ABC member last month.

According to ABC's audit for the period July through December, here are the stats for average daily circulation of the three leading English papers:

Caveat: The comparison is limited to where The Sun targets its audience, i.e. PMEB's in market centres and key cities that cover Kuala Lumpur, Selangor (PJ, Shah Alam, Klang), Penang, Johor (JB), Perak (Ipoh), Melaka (Malacca) and Negri Sembilan (Seremban). It must be recognised that these are essentially the areas where English newspapers have the best outreach to readers.

I understand the readership data based on The Sun's weekday market penetration of 150,000 copies will only mature in June, the management has commissioned A.C. Nielsen to do a survey to determine the readership profile. This provides the premises to entice advertisers and advertising agencies to put their adspend on papers that give the best CPM (Cost Per Thousand).

Snapshots of The Sun's readership profile:
  • Distribution Channels: 72% picked up, 19% delivered by vendors

  • Reading Habit: Over 80% of readers spend not less than 15 minutes (50% of total read between 16 - 30 minutes)

  • Time of Day: Over 50% of the readers read it before 10.00am (New prime time for ad exposures), 38% after 2.00pm

  • Gender: Male dominant (62.9%)

  • Race: Balanced (Malay 38.8%, Chinese 35.5%, Others 25.7%)

  • Age: Young (20 - 29 yrs old 40.5%, 30 - 39 group 18%, 40 - 49 group 20.8%, 50 and above 11.4%)

  • Occupation: 72.7% are working adults (PMEBs 33.6%, other white collar 28.8%)

  • Household Income: 36.8% live in households with income of over RM4,000 monthly.

Something to ponder: Urban household income of RM4,000 per month is reflective of the financial health of a "stuck-in-the-middle" working class. Many are people who would have the first car, first wife/husband (oops!), first house, first kid after entering the job market. Their income will easily evaporate in daily subsistence like housing loans, car loans, credit card loans, child education and overall cost of living.

My take: The Sun now has the reach to an urban readership, advertising money may not be enticing as yet. It may have captured a young, urban audience with dismal disposal income, hence weak buying power for non-daily essential products and services.

It's doubtful whether the BMWs among the advertisers will move their cheese for now.

The Sun has a turbulent path since its inception in the mid 90's (in terms of marketshare, editorial and corporate manouevres). It changed to the "free business model" on April 8 last year. I hope The Sun succeeds as a leading publisher of free newspaper, much like the Metro Group (started in Sweden now in major Europe and Hong Kong). I would like to take it as Malaysia's best bet to break the duopoly in the English newspapers scene.

Meanwhile, the New Straits Times is targeting to increase its circulation to its previous peak of 180,000 from the existing average of 145,000 copies. "Give us another year," said NST Group Editor-in-Chief cum NSTP executive director Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Swearing on morality, but you lied!

Dr Peter Zimmerman accepts apology from US embassy

A RECENT story in Guardian UK, quoted by Malaysiakini, has US Embassy Kuala Lumpur in a snafu (situation normal, all f*cked-up).

Feb 5: This is the story by Maggie O'Kane, published by Guardian:

"In 1990 as the US prepared for its first war with Iraq there was heavy reliance on the use of "classified" satellite photographs purporting to show that in September 1990 - a month after the invasion of Kuwait - 265,000 Iraqi soldiers and 1,500 tanks were massing on the border to gear up to invade Saudi Arabia. The threat of Saddam aggressively expanding his empire to Saudi Arabia was crucial to the decision to go to war, but the satellite pictures were never made public... (for security reasons, according to Brent Scowcroft, President Bush senior's national security advisor).

"Jean Heller, an investigative reporter on the St Petersburg Times, persuaded her newspaper to buy the same independently commissioned satellite photos from a commercial satellite - the Soyuz Karta - to verify the Pentagon's line, she saw no sign of a quarter of a million troops or their tanks.

"(To verify the facts), she took the photographs for analysis to two experts, including Dr Peter Zimmerman, a satellite expert at George Washington University.

"'The satellite pictures were so clear that at Riyadh airport in Saudi Arabia you could see American planes sitting wingtip to wingtip,' Heller says. (But the Iraqi troops weren't there).

"...A year later, Powell would admit to getting the numbers wrong. There was no massive build-up. But by then, the war had been fought."

Let me hasten to highlight that both Jean Heller and Dr Zimmerman are no ordinary people. Heller is a five-times nominated Pulitzer prize-winning journalist while Dr Zimmerman has served with the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Ronald Reagan administration.

Here's what Dr Zimmerman was quoted as saying in the 1991 report by Heller:
"The Pentagon kept saying the bad guys were there, but we don't see anything to indicate an Iraqi force in Kuwait of even 20 percent the size the administration claimed."

"...We could see five C-141s, o­ne C-5A and four smaller transport aircraft, probably C-130s."

Jean Heller's story "Photos don't show buildup" was originally published on January 6, 1991, unfortunately the URL has expired (UPDATED 05.40PM FEB 27: and thanks to Fahmi Fadzil, it can be read in toto here.) However, Associated Press, solicited by her newspaper, refused to put it on wire. But this article: How Washington manufactured a war crisis and another one by captured good excerpts.

Building on Heller's story, Maggie O'Kane's No casus belli? Invent one! exposed how George Bush senior used misinformation to stage Gulf War I (1990), a guilt hitherto undenied by the White House. It also exposed how Bush junior is now aping his father to set up the premises for a Gulf War II.

Before this, December 5 last year, O'Kane wrote on the same subject: This time I'm scared, but it received relatively less exposure. Subhead of the story was: "US propaganda fuelled the first Gulf war. It will fuel this one too - and the risks are even greater".

And this was how Malaysiakini ambushed the US Embassador on her country's dark history.

Feb 10: Malaysiakini interviewed US Ambassador to Malaysia Marie Huhtala to get information on her country’s case for war o­n Iraq. That was after Secretary of State Colin Powell had presented “irrefutable and undeniable” evidence gathered from intelligence reports to the UN Security Council in New York (Feb 5). The Embassador ducked the question, saying she was unprepared for it to be raised.

She also went on record to tell Malaysiakini: "Of course, our country (the US) has never been involved in disinformation."

Feb 17: Frank J Whitaker, Press Officer of US Embassy Kuala Lumpur wrote to Malaysiakini, claiming that the reports by St Petersburg Times and Guardian UK were not anchored on verified sources, and casting implied doubts on the credibility of journalist Jean Heller and her expert referee Dr Zimmerman. In fact, the press officer claimed that Dr Zimmerman has changed his stand.

In short, it was a state of denial as Whitaker hoped Malaysiakini "will take the opportunity to set the record straight o­n the inaccuracies in The Guardian article, now that its false accusations have been disseminated in Malaysia as well."

Feb 24: Whitaker wrote again to Malaysiakini, this time offering an apology:
In the process of trying to condense a great volume of information into a short letter to you, I made the mistake of suggesting that in the years following the Gulf War, Dr Peter Zimmerman of the US had changed his original analysis of the Iraqi troop levels o­n the Saudi border.

Dr Zimmerman stands by his original statements, as reported in the St Petersburg Times article (Photos don't show buildup) and re-reported in the Guardian (No casus belli? Invent o­ne!). I apologise to him and to malaysiakini for any mischaracterisation of his remarks.

Feb 25: Malaysiakini editor Steven Gan wrote a story saying that Jean Heller was contacted and she defended her report against claims by the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur that it was ‘false’.

She said in her email to Malaysiakini:
"Let me state this as unequivocally as I can. The St Petersburg Times stands by the original story. As its author, I stand by it. And the two satellite imaging specialists who examined the Soviet satellite photos for us stand by it more strongly than ever."

Feb 26: Dr Zimmerman wrote to Malaysiakini:
"I am happy to accept (press officer of the US embassy in Malaysia) Mr Frank Whitaker's apology for mischaracterising my position o­n the interpretation of satellite photos of Kuwait."

I will read more on this argument on "a war justified in the name of morality". But I am more than convinced those US buggers lied.

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Monday, February 24, 2003

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting

I find Pentagon's Recipe For Propaganda by Carol Brightman enlightening.

There is no doubt print and electronic media with international outreach has helped disseminate Bush's war propaganda far and wide. The way CNN, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal dismissed the Feb 15 world-wide mass anti-war protests is a good evidence of how public opinion can be shaped with spin-doctoring.

Inundated with daily messages of war-mongering, I turned to US media watch-dog FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) for advisory, to discern information from misinformation. I think you should do the same.

In Media Advisory (Feb 4): Iraq's Hidden Weapons: From Allegation to Fact, FAIR noted the media's intensive coverage of the U.N. inspections has repeatedly glided from reporting the allegation that Iraq is hiding banned weapons materials to repeating it as a statement of fact. It said:

Through constant repetition of phrases like "the search for Iraq's weapons of mass destruction," the media convey to the public the impression that the alleged banned weapons on which the Bush administration rests its case for war are known to exist and that the question is simply whether inspectors are skillful enough to find them.

In fact, whether or not Iraq possesses banned weapons is very much an open question, one which no publicly available evidence can answer one way or the other. As they routinely do in other cases, journalists should make a habit of using the modifier "alleged" when referring to Iraq's alleged hidden weapons.

The media FAIR found faulting the line includes Washington Post, NBC, Time, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, CBS and CNN.

In Media Advisory (Feb 10): A Failure of Skepticism in Powell Coverage: Disproof of previous claims underlines need for scrutiny, FAIR repeated:
In reporting on Secretary of State Colin Powell's February 5 presentation to the United Nations Security Council, many journalists treated allegations made by Powell as though they were facts.

Reporters at several major outlets neglected to observe the journalistic rule of prefacing unverified assertions with words like "claimed" or "alleged."

The media FAIR found faulting on this occasion includes New York Daily News, NBC Nightly News, CNN, St Petersburg, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, Independent UK, The Mirror UK.

FAIR urged that "Responsible journalists should avoid playing a part in such a conversion by making a clear distinction between what has been alleged by the U.S. government and what has been independently verified."

Admittedly, there are still many good journalists who are holding on to their virtues. Carl Bernstein, who shared fame with Bob Woodward in breaking the Watergate story three decades ago in Washington Post, criticized Bush for being very selective in whom he names among evil-doers.

But Bernstein reserved his most stinging criticism for none others than his fellow journalists - accusing them of abandoning the search for the best obtainable version of the truth for news that sells. He cited American media's coverage of worldwide peace demonstrations last weekend as an example of news without proper context.
"Our stake in maintaining the myth and the attendant self-image that we are doing a great job is every bit as great a fiction as that of the American Congress serving the people...The gravest threat to the truth today may well be within our own profession."

"Whether we agree with those demonstrations or whether we believe they were out of line or wrong headed, these were huge events that are helping to shape what is happening in the United Nations and whether we go to war... Yet on television those demonstrations . . . were treated dismissively, condescendingly and patronizingly as if they were not important news."

Bernstein said journalists must be willing to go after the hard stories, digging to find all of the facts and presenting them in broad context. "But reporters can't do it alone," he said. "We need courage, we need willingness on the part of publishers to commit to finding the best obtainable version of the truth, however difficult that might be."

In this context, what fellow blogger Oon Yeoh wrote in Transition yesterday is an awakening call to media owners and journalists in Malaysia. He said:
The only way for Malaysia to progress in the information age is for its citizens to be exposed to a diversity of views. Unfortunately, we cannot get this in the mainstream press (quoting reporting on the Iraq standoff as an example of reality in Malaysian media)...

(What) a truly responsible news organisation should do (is to) Offer readers different viewpoints, so that they can make up their own minds on the various issues of the day. In this country, only Malaysiakini is committed to that principle.

Oon has attracted wide-ranging response for his anti-Anti-War stance, from people like a senior mainstream media editor, and readers who are either "with us or not with us". But they get published in Malaysiakini.

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Sunday, February 23, 2003

Soaring oil prices

BEHIND the war drums, so you say, the US is after Iraq's oil? Will a US-led victory over Saddam Hussein eventually result in a gusher of oil from a liberated Iraq, bringing down petroleum prices? It's anything but a mixed bag of views:

( 1 ) Iraq is the world's eighth biggest oil exporter, selling roughly two million barrels per day (bpd) into the international market.

( 2 ) The prized 64-year old Kirkuk field in Iraq has been showing a decline in the quality of the crude, an indication that output capacity may be waning.

( 3 ) The all-time high oil price after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 was about US$33 per barrel.

( 4 ) Dr Mahathir Mohamad, on the sideline of NAM Summit, warned oil prices could reach unprecedented levels -- perhaps as high as US$50 a barrel -- if U.S.-led forces attack Iraq. (Agreed, this M-speak is the least quantifed statement, but let's take it as the worst-case scenario.)

Impact of oil price gyration on US economy: About 40 percent of the retail cost of gasoline is attributed to the price of crude oil, which has risen 19 percent since the start of the year to $36.79 per barrel at one point. Immediate knee-jerk panic is triggered by the additional energy requirement due to abnormal snowy winter that struck mid-west and north-east.

Last week, the price of benchmark Brent North Sea crude oil for April delivery stood at US$32.28 a barrel from US$32.45 a week earlier. In New York, April-dated light sweet crude futures traded at US$35.45 from US$35.36 the previous week.

The world responds, direction unclear:
IslamOnline: Oil prices gyrated after news of a massive blast at an oil and gas facility off Staten Island in New York sparked panic on a market already nervous about the threat of war in Iraq.

BBC: Oil prices are being driven by war nerves, responding to every twist in the United Nations' deliberations on whether to back a war on Iraq led by the United States. They peaked at $36.80 in New York as Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, delivered his report to the UN Security Council on 14 February.

Times: Oil fears prompt Putin to send envoy to Baghdad shortly before speaking to Tony Blair by telephone Sunday.

New York Times: Iraq is a strategic issue for oil giants, too.

Traders fear war could disrupt supplies from other producers in the Middle East, which supply 40% of world exports. No one can predict the magnitude of oil price volatility in the event of a war, and during its aftermath.

Oil prices go up, all prices go up. Parties immersed in squabbles over the morality of War on Iraq had better save a breath for mundane issues of bare-bone economics.

With the premises for war articulated in heightened intensity, I am convinced it's Bush's war. Not mine nor my family's.

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ONLINE version of my opinion piece in Star In-Tech Feb 20: War could hit industry from many sides is now available here.

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