Friday, December 02, 2005

Phil Taylor: Casualties of our secret war

New Zealand is one of the most secretive democracies regarding SAS activity. It guards information far more tightly than the United States, Australia or Britain.

Critics, including the Herald, say this is unnecessary. Although Prime Minister Helen Clark may feel obliged to maintain strict secrecy to protect the lives and operations of special forces, other countries kept their citizens reasonably briefed without putting them at risk.

Investigative journalist and researcher Nicky Hager believes New Zealand could be open about where they operated, what went on and how many people were killed without compromising the safety of the soldiers or the effectiveness of their mission. He concludes it serves the Government's purpose not to have the debate that such information might spark.

Last month, the Government announced that the third rotation of 50 SAS soldiers had returned home and it was unlikely further war-making troops would be sent.

But even a question mark hangs over this. Reports suggest that Britain wants New Zealand input for a counter-insurgency force it is planning for Afghanistan to replace 4000 US troops planned to be withdrawn early next year. Canada and Australia were also being asked to help.

The Prime Minister subsequently confirmed an informal approach was made to defence officials.

The refusal to confirm New Zealand's activities in Afghanistan is in marked contrast to Australia's approach, where its Prime Minister John Howard has been a cheerleader for Operation Enduring Freedom, code name for the offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

Australia announced and publicly celebrated the medal-winning efforts in Afghanistan by its special forces, while New Zealand found out via reports in the US that two of its contingent were nominated for the US bronze star medal, awarded for meritorious service in direct support of combat operations.

Hager says there is no doubt many people have been killed because of the actions of our SAS troops and he suspects that is why the Government prefers to shut down debate. While Howard publicly farewelled and welcomed home Australia's SAS troops, Clark did so in private, taking the precaution of not travelling to the unit's base in her usual parliamentary limousine.

So what was the role of New Zealand's SAS troops in the Afghan chapter of US President George W. Bush's "war on terror"?

Though the New Zealanders are respected for their ability as long-range trackers they are likely to have been well down the pecking order. US special forces Navy seals, Army Delta Force commandos and Green Berets, US Rangers and the CIA's Special Operations Group competed among themselves for the prime jobs in a crowded field.

The war in Afghanistan was a war of special forces rather than regular divisions. Other special forces in Afghanistan included Canada's Joint Task Force Two, the German KSK and operators from Poland, Denmark, France, Italy, Lithuania and Norway.

Relationships with the US counted and New Zealand's anti-nuclear policy and the consequent demise of ANZUS put it down the order. Australian commanding officer Gus Gilmore lobbied hard for good jobs for his SAS contingent, Ian McPhedran reveals in his book on that country's special force, The Amazing SAS.

"The politics of the Coalition operation," writes McPhedran, "meant that niche units such as the SAS had to convince the Americans that they could offer not only a unique but useful capability.

Fortunately, the Australians had already built up solid relationships with their US counterparts through various special forces exchanges and appointments to key offices in various US commands."

McPhedran, chief defence writer for News Ltd, told the Herald he suspects the New Zealand SAS worked in self-contained units on more routine jobs.

"I don't think they have been at the pointy end of the job as much as the Aussies because the Aussies had managed to do all that liaison work with the [Americans] early on to get those really good jobs."

Hager agrees: "We shouldn't assume that they [the SAS] are doing high-powered stuff, or even that they are doing very important stuff."

There might have been times when the United States planners wanted New Zealanders for key tasks because of such things as their tracking expertise but generally he believes they were getting the low-priority jobs.

"At least in the first year or two there was a strong sense among them [SAS troops] that they were there for diplomatic purposes rather than eyeball-to-eyeball with Osama bin Laden, because they were not being used very well. They were kicking around," he says.

Weekend Herald inquiries indicate they have operated out of Bagram, north of Kabul, and Kandahar, near the Pakistan border.

Their work has involved long-range tracking operations, in which groups of four or five, each with a specialist skill such as medicine, signalling or explosives, go on information-gathering missions which may lead to arms caches or insurgents.

This involves observation of "hot areas", monitoring movements, and searching travellers, the bread-and-butter work of special forces.

Their orders, whether on stand-alone missions or joint operations, came from US commanders.

They did play a significant strategic role in one of the biggest battles, Operation Anaconda, in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002. Though few bodies were discovered, the US estimated more than 1000 al Qaeda and Taleban fighters were killed.

It was for intelligence work during this battle and its aftermath that two New Zealanders, Mike Hickman and Darby Allen, were nominated for bronze stars.

They operated from Coalition Task Headquarters at Bagram air base, tracking enemy forces and identifying targets, buildings, roads and bridges.

Jets from distant aircraft carriers are then sent to destroy them with precision-guided missiles.

In an article in the Sunday Star-Times, Hager said SAS soldiers stationed in the mountains directed air attacks during the assault in the Shahi Khot valley by "illuminating" targets with pulsing infrared marker beams.

"The objective of Anaconda was extermination rather than taking prisoners. Other special forces, including the Australian SAS, were deployed to cut off escape routes."

The Defence Force rated the prospect of fatalities among New Zealand troops as "moderate to high" but it appears none lost their lives.

Two SAS soldiers were injured last year, one shot, one hit by shrapnel, and another was injured in a vehicle accident.

Of the combat injuries, the Defence Force said the soldiers were involved in "direct action missions" but refused to give further information, other than the two men were recovering.

Media reports at the time, quoting unofficial sources, said they were wounded during a "fire-fight" with insurgents.


Casualties of our secret war

* Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers. Third rotation of 50 soldiers returned home last month with no plan of a fourth rotation. Believed to have operated mainly in the east and south, near the Pakistan border. Two were injured in a battle in June last year, a third in a vehicle accident.

* 100-plus defence staff based in Bamyan as part of a reconstruction team working in the province of Bamyan, northwest of Kabul.

Sideswipe

Can anyone help identify this machine that was found in High St. We'd like to know its real purpose ... turning the wheel presses the screw down on to a blade at the bottom. Any ideas?

By Ana Samways

Ted Dewan was tired of cars zooming down his street in Oxford, England, so he designed a series of "DIY traffic-calming happenings", including setting up a living room in the middle of the road. These "happenings" are described by their creator as "roadwitches" and have also included a 3m-high rabbit, a big bed (for a sleeping policeman) and a fake crash scene for Halloween. "There's an element of fun and mischief, but underneath is the ambition to encourage people to re-examine how roads are used," says Mr Dewan. "With the living room, it was the most direct way of saying 'We live here. This is our living space'." As expected, some road users weren't happy at being inconvenienced. "A driver of a 4x4 seemed to be made psychotic by the idea that roads could exist for anything other than him to drive on," he says. (Source: BBC Online)

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A reader writes: "We noticed that while visiting our house in Mt Roskill this week you took all our holiday money, $5000 in Japanese yen, and some precious pounamu crafted by my own dear father. So much for our holiday, and the pounamu can never be replaced. We conclude that our guard dog was of little use in deterring you. You should be aware that she was labelled a menacing dog by the Auckland City Council after being accused of biting someone, falsely, earlier in the year. By the way, you left your sunglasses behind. If you want to call by and collect them I am sure we can negotiate a deal. We all hope you have a merry old Christmas. Signed Rob & Mitsuko."

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In a September road-rage incident in Salt Lake City, a woman sped by in a blocked-off lane to get around a 25-year-old motorist on the motorway, then rolled down her window and screamed at him. The man, according to the Deseret Morning News, made an "obscene hand gesture", and the woman responded by pulling out a .357-calibre revolver and shooting off the tip of his middle finger. She sped away but later crashed into a barricade.

Editorial: Executions abhorrent and futile

In his own twisted and sickening way, Darshan Singh has done a valuable public service. Singapore's chief executioner has pulled back a veil to reveal the true barbarity of hanging, a practice which, he says, leads to the condemned man struggling "like chickens, like fish out of water" if it is not done efficiently. Singh's account meant that Singaporeans have had to confront the brutal reality of the execution of drug-trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van.

It should cause them, and residents of other countries that retain the death penalty, to demand an end to the practice.

Capital punishment is deeply objectionable on many levels other than its cruelty and grotesque nature. Most fundamentally, nobody has the right to take a human life, even in revenge. Most practically, it is ineffectual. The 3500-plus men and women on death row in the United States prove it is no deterrent. As does the case of Nguyen.

The 25-year-old Australian was arrested at Changi Airport in 2002 while flying from Cambodia to Melbourne with 396g of heroin strapped to his back and in his carry-on luggage. Under Singapore law, anyone possessing more than 15g of heroin is presumed to be trafficking and receives a mandatory death sentence.

Nguyen never sought to deny the offence. He told Singapore's High Court that he was lured by a Sydney drug syndicate to act as a "mule" to repay A$25,000 in debts owed by his twin brother. Effectively, he was taking a huge, and foolish, gamble. He was fully aware of, but undeterred by, the penalty if he was apprehended.

There is no question that Nguyen deserves a lengthy prison sentence. Probably, he spared little, if any, thought to the ruinous consequences of his trafficking. He paid no heed to the cost of addiction, both to the individual and to society. Singapore sees the death penalty as a crucial safeguard against such damage being wreaked on its citizens. Thus, it deals with traffickers in a summary manner, and is unrelenting in the face of pleas for clemency.

In reality, however, the penalty is an admission of societal weakness. Singapore is saying it has no faith in the ability of its citizens, or its institutional framework, to cope with illegal drugs. Therefore, in a forlorn attempt to deter drug syndicates, it has chosen to impose a sentence that has no place in a civilised society.

The upshot is Singapore's possession of the world's highest per capita execution rate. A nation of 4 million has witnessed the hanging of about 420 people since 1991. The vast majority of these, of course, were not drug syndicate kingpins but minor players in the trade.

The death penalty is also worthy of odium for a factor that does not apply in Nguyen's case. The increased use of DNA evidence in the United States has exonerated too many condemned prisoners for comfort. It suggests that innocent men and women have been put to death. With the number of executions in the US since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 reaching 1000, there is dwindling support for the practice among Americans, even if a nationwide consensus to abolish it seems a long way off.

Today, as, barring a last-minute act of clemency, Nguyen goes to the gallows, Singaporeans should be having similar qualms. Their chief executioner has revealed the horror of a practice that belongs in only the most benighted societies. For that, and for reasons of sacrilege and ineffectiveness, they should want nothing more to do with it.

Chris Barton: Cunliffe could be the minister who slew the giant

Can Cunliffe cut the mustard? So many before have failed, you have to wonder whether this Minister of Communications will do any better.

The trouble started with Richard Prebble who orchestrated the sale of Telecom to foreigners without thinking about the damage he would create.

Even though he wrote a book called I've Been Thinking, he'll be remembered as the minister who didn't think and sold us down the drain. Then there was Maurice Williamson - the champion of light-handed regulation which was a euphemism for "I'm Telecom's friend". He'll be remembered as the minister who loved monopoly.

Next was the well meaning but ineffectual Paul Swain - the minister who promised so much, delivered so little and dropped a bundle. Under his watch we got a quagmire of unworkable legislation (the Telecommunications Act), a referee without a whistle (the telecommunications commissioner) and a farce (the "Unbundling the Local Loop" ministerial inquiry). Swain will be remembered as the minister who couldn't.

And so the baton is passed to David Cunliffe. On the face of it, the man has all the credentials - a Fulbright scholar, a diplomat in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, a business economist and strategy consultant with the Boston Consulting Group. And apparently, he has a healthy ego. Lately he's been making threatening noises about getting tough with Telecom. But we've heard such talk from politicians before and already Cunliffe's words leave plenty of room for a backdoor escape.

In the past Cunliffe has always taken the path of least resistance. I remember asking him when he was chair of the select committee considering the telecommunications bill why he rejected "component wholesaling" - a clause that would have forced Telecom to wholesale all the bits of its network allowing "new entrant" competitors to put together innovative packages for customers. He said it was a close call: that the committee was advised that component wholesaling would drop prices and stimulate innovation in value-added services, but that it may be difficult to implement in practice. Yes, David, everything is difficult in telecommunications - especially as you struggle to put right now what you didn't then.

Cunliffe was similarly timid about local loop unbundling - the removal of Telecom's monopoly on home lines. He showed his floppiness early, asking both Clear and Tuanz "what would be a fallback position" if the designation of local loop unbundling "was too rich a fodder" to be considered by the committee.

The encouraging aspect of Cunliffe's recent comments about improving the Telecommunications Act is that at last we have a minster looking at the market from a consumer's point of view. But it's disappointing that he wants a benchmarking study first to tell us what we already know - broadband here sucks. It's even more disappointing he's yet to be convinced there is market failure in telecommunications in New Zealand.

Cunliffe seems very wedded to the underlying purpose of the act - to promote competition in telecommunications services for the long-term benefit of consumers. The problem here is the phrase "long-term" which Telecom has been able to use as stick to beat back regulation - arguing that any inroads into its monopoly control will threaten investment. Cunliffe seems to understand this argument for what it is - a crock. He has pointed out that there's evidence to show increased regulation often has the opposite effect - forcing lazy incumbent telcos to invest more to protect their position.

The other problem with the act which Cunliffe shows no signs of addressing is the way voice and data services are treated separately. Anyone who is using Skype to make international calls via the net for next to nothing knows voice is just a another form of data. And that the costs to deliver it are measured in fractions of cents per minute. But rather then let consumers enjoy the benefits of this, our Telecommunications Act sanctions Telecom forcing residential users to buy both a phone and a data (internet) service when they could be financially much better off getting voice and data via just one internet connection. There is only one party getting long term benefit from this - Telecom.

So will David live up to the legacy of his first name and be a champion of the people to bravely fell the Telecom Goliath? Or will he tinker and fiddle while Telecom continues to deprive its customers? The signs point to the latter. In a recent interview he said he was aware "there is a lot of impatience in the sector" but that he was not going to rush any decisions.

The future is yours David. Do you want to be remembered as another who couldn't cut it, or as the minister who slew the giant?

Te Radar: Political correctness and the traditional art of execution

For the last few years, whenever I flew alone, I have done so dressed as a small boy. That way I am invariably offered the chance to meet women flying unaccompanied.

I am sure drug smuggler Nguyen Tuong Van would not have minded being moved to sit anywhere on a plane, so long as the aircraft was leaving Singapore, where this morning he will be exterminated. By who is at this stage unclear.

The former executioner, 73-year-old Darshin Singh, claims to have been sacked, and that he is the only one capable of performing the execution without having the condemned end up "struggling like chickens, [or] like fish out of water". He has a point. Hanging someone is an art. That was proved here on 5 October 1866.

On that day in Nelson, three men were executed for the so-called Maungatapu murders. Of the three, Thomas Kelly was the most unfortunate.

He and his two conspirators had spent a few weeks listening to the construction of the gallows outside their cells, and on the scheduled morning were walked the short distance to the scaffold.

Kelly was asked the obligatory "any last words" question, whereupon he proceeded to deliver what may be this country's longest "any last words" speech, halted only when the crowd realised he was drunk and intent on proclaiming his innocence.

On the scaffold, as the noose was drawn tight around his neck, Kelly was reported to have exclaimed, "Don't choke me!"

Then the fearful Kelly somehow managed to bounce himself off the drop-board, and had to be bounced back on again.

Finally, the lever was pulled, and his two accomplices plummeted to their immediate deaths.

Kelly, however, hung wriggling for quite some time.

After a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, broken only by his muffled grunting, the executioner was required to leap up on to Kelly's body and swing off him three times before Kelly was finally still, and justice was seen to be done.

Some say executions function as a deterrent. Sadly, in this instance, this was not really the case. The executioner, a prisoner from Wellington - granted freedom, paid a small amount and allowed all of the clothes of the condemned men for his efforts - was later hanged in Hobart.

It is a shame Nguyen wasn't imprisoned here. Not only would his life have been rightly spared, he may not have even been incarcerated for too long, given the apparent ease with which inmates escape.

Prisoners in Wellington recently escaped by breaking through a cell wall made from chipboard, which came as a great surprise to me, for I had no idea that chipboard was even on the list of recommended materials to construct cells from.

Jim Hopkins: Uncle Norm has a flash of true enlightenment for men

It all happened in a nano-second, as these things often do. One minute I was lost in the cosmic calm of a mystic Eastern healing ritual and then: Crash! My office door burst savagely open.

"Cindy Kiro is a b@*&@y idiot!"

"Uncle Norm!" I gasped, torn rudely from my therapeutic reverie. "You can't come barging in here like this. Not when I'm getting my chakras balanced!"

"Stuff your effing chakboots," roared Norm, whose hearing has been getting quite bad lately.

"Don't worry about balancing them, Sonny Jim. Start balancing your effing airlines!"

"Now, look here, Uncle Norm," I replied, quickly dismissing my balancer before she became unbalanced. "For a start, they're not my ... umm, what you said airlines, and, secondly, we do have a no-swearing policy here at the Victims' Enhancement and Restorative Equity Centre - alongside our no-smoking, no-drinking, no-bullying, no-sexism, no-racism and and no-mentioning-anybody's-testicles-under-any-circumstances-whatsoever policies too, of course."

I was quite proud I could remember them all, particularly since I was still reeling from the shock of this unexpected workplace invasion.

As you're aware, it's usually me who visits Norm. But not on this intemperate occasion.

Well, it turned out that Norm had been listening to talkback - which I've told him not to do because it's full of people who haven't been properly re-educated - and, as a result, he had, "blown a b@*&@y gasket when I heard about this man ban on the planes!"

"You'll have to help me here, Uncle," I replied calmly. "See, I've been at a compulsory non-compulsory Treaty Studies course for the past two days so I'm not totally au fait with the issues, but I presume you're talking about this entirely appropriate move to move all male passengers away from unaccompanied minors."

"You bet I b@*& ..."

"Careful, Norm!"

"Sorry. You bet I am, son. And not only the ban but also this Children's Commissioner trout sayin' she supports it!"

"And rightly so," I responded, finally realising why my aged relative had so colourfully denounced the tireless Ms Kiro. "She's absolutely obliged to support this enlightened and precautionary policy. If you'd been to university, Norm, and had the opportunity to do Colonialism and Feminist Studies - as I have - you'd realise that men are, unfortunately, the root of all evil."

"Like when they win the Grand Slam, you mean?" snarled Norm. "Or stick it to the Aussies at league?"

"Of course not," I smiled indulgently, "but putting aside such ephemeral examples of brute force and aggression, it's well known that men are responsible for all the crime in society ... that isn't committed by women. I think that pretty much sums it up, don't you?"

"No, I don't!" the old codger bellowed. "What about those sheila school teachers who seduced their pupils? I seen one on TV the other night! Doesn't that mean all women teachers should be banned too?"

"Certainly not!" I snapped. "That would be a retrograde and discriminatory step which no compassionate person could sanction."

"Okay," sighed Norm, obviously bamboozled by my argument, "but we can't have CYF's workers sitting beside unaccompanied minors, can we? It said in the paper that nine kids died in their care last year. On that basis, the airlines should be making them fly with the luggage!"

"Don't be ridiculous," I shouted. "You can't condemn an entire group of dedicated and overworked professionals because of a few unfortunate incidents. And besides, the Employment Court would never sanction such a humiliating and stressful practice. There're laws against that sort of thing. The point is, Norm, whatever this situation, child safety must always be paramount."

"Is that why we've got abortions?" he asked.

"Oh, for heaven's sake," I fumed. "That's a separate issue. Abortions don't involve children, they involve foetuses ... "

"Who never get the chance to be children, accompanied or unaccompanied," he interrupted rudely. There was a pause, then he continued.

"I think I get it now," Norm said quietly. "This 'child safety' business only applies after they're born. Before that, they're disposable. But after that, half the human race can't be allowed to sit beside them on an aeroplane in case something traumatic occurs?"

"Exactly," I beamed, thrilled that the reactionary old curmudgeon had finally grasped the essence of our rational and consistent policy settings. "I couldn't put it better myself."

"Tell you what," said Norm, with a sly grin, "I reckon the airlines should go further. I reckon they should have a special section for men at the back of the plane - you know, to keep them away from all the other passengers."

"Brilliant, Norm!" I replied, astonished by the transformation in his thinking.

"Yeah, but the trouble is," Norm pondered, "If we did that, then these bloomin' uppity blokes would start having civil rights marches and everything, wouldn't they?"

"Not at all," I countered, anxious that he didn't stray from the path of true enlightenment. "Such actions can only be undertaken by real victims, like women and indigenous people and similar oppressed minorities. Men simply don't qualify!"

"You're right, boy," he said happily and left, a changed man.

I wouldn't be surprised next time I see him, if he doesn't tell me that he's gone and had his chakras balanced!

Brian Rudman: Why not shift the art gallery to the waterfront?

I suspect I've already been removed from the Auckland Art Gallery's Christmas card list following the Khartoum Place fiasco so I might as well get right off side and question the proposed $90 million gallery extensions as well.

But given the importance to the success of the expanded gallery that the art establishment put on their plan to replace the suffragist memorial with a grand sweeping stairway, maybe they're now having second thoughts.

Their vision had been that passers-by would catch a glimpse of the improved gallery up the hill and be miraculously sucked up the stairs to commune with the art works. But now that the magic is off, and visitors will have to struggle up the existing stairway past the unaesthetic suffrage tiles, the nightmare for the gallery must be that people will wander past, oblivious to the treats above.

In that case, why not rehouse the art collection in a destination in its own right, down on the waterfront?

This is not an original thought, for sure. Heart of the City chief executive Alex Swney floated it a while back, suggesting that if the grand plans for the redevelopment of Auckland's waterfront were to succeed, what was needed was an iconic crowd-puller or two, a landmark exhibition centre perhaps, or a relocated art gallery.

With Ports of Auckland pushing its vision for the waterfront in one corner, and the art establishment busy closeted with redevelopment plans for its baby, Mr Swney's proposal rather sank for want of a seconder.

But I'm warming to it, particularly after seeing the futuristic, eye-arresting concept design by Amsterdam-based UN Studio, for a "gallery space" or some similar public-use facility, revealed earlier this week for the Wellington waterfront.

The design reminded me of Auckland gallery director Chris Saines' comments in July when he launched his $90 million renovation plans. "We want to make the gallery friendlier to families, more relevant to young people and more inviting to the community. With this in mind, we wanted a design that made the gallery feel as transparent and inviting as possible."

One look at the Wellington concept and I'm dying to visit it - and I'm not even exactly within Mr Saines' target age bracket. I can't say the Auckland gallery extension plans have had the same effect on me.

The worry about the gallery expansion scheme is the limited horizons adopted. The decision was made to try and grow on the tiny existing site, bound on two sides by roads, and the rest by Albert Park. This could only be done by filling in all the possible spaces between and around the charming existing 1887 French-style structure. The architect has managed to expand the display area by 50 per cent, but at the cost of severely compromising the historic old building.

Because of the limited footprint available on the existing site, there was no room to provide, for example, more on-site storage. That's been brushed aside as not essential. But I'm guessing it would not have been left out if starting from scratch.

Then there's an alternative. Instead of being scrunched up on the existing site, there's a wider, more attractive horizon down by the harbour. All told there's 18 hectares of publicly owned land about to be redeveloped along the waterfront.

Mayor Dick Hubbard was proud of the "outside the square" project he set up to consider options for Aotea Square, following the discovery of structural problems in the underground carpark. One idea was to move the public library a few blocks. If we can consider moving the library, then why not the art gallery?

With the Aotea visioning session in full swing, and the next stage of the waterfront visioning about to get under way - on Tuesday, Auckland City and the Auckland Regional Council are to launch their latest waterfront plans - isn't it sensible to add the art gallery plans to the mix?

The result could be the iconic structural drawcard that everyone seems agreed is necessary for the waterfront development, plus lots more space for Mr Saines and peace at last for the bicycling woman of the suffragist memorial in Khartoum Place.

Marc Alexander: Penalty seen as fitting response

Many opinions have been expressed about the hanging in Singapore of Nguyen Tuong Van. There is a universal view that drug dealing is a vile business, one that takes advantage of, and condemns many to, the antithesis of a life worth living.

There is a view too that the death penalty should never be tolerated. Singapore's death penalty regime has been called barbaric on the grounds that no government should carry out an act that in law is defined as a criminal offence for the individual citizen.

I do not generally support the death penalty but in this case, the arguments miss the point.

Nguyen was caught with 396g of heroin, and pleaded guilty. His reasons for committing the offence are irrelevant even when skewed as a story of misplaced family loyalty. Hollywood scriptwriters will be keen to put the story on the big screen. Unfortunately the only casualty will be the truth.

It is understandable that Australians have been lobbying to reduce the sentence. Had the tactics worked, a selective choice of alternative punishment would have undermined the Singaporean criminal justice system and the principle of one law for all relegated to the dustbin. The effect would be to give foreigners a legal advantage based on the lobbying skills of the country of origin, rather than individual culpability.

Critics have been quick to condemn the lack of public debate about the death penalty in Singapore. Nothing could be further from the truth. The dialogue is muted by tradition but nevertheless ongoing. Subhas Anandan, for example, one of Singapore's top criminal defence lawyers, said the city-state should abandon its use of the mandatory aspect of the death penalty. What Subhas has said - and many Singaporeans are of like mind - is that if Singapore's courts had more discretion, the Melbourne man may have avoided death row. There is also a petition doing the rounds to save the life of other death row inmates.

Since 1991 more than 420 people have been hanged in Singapore, (the majority for drug related offences), and it's a safe bet that anyone contemplating drug trafficking knows the risks of being caught.

Singapore is a sovereign state grappling with the drug problem in a way that makes sense to them. It does not have to make sense to us or conform to any arbitrary standards of human rights our criminal justice system upholds - there is plenty of disagreement about those matters, anyway.

The Singapore Government has consistently maintained that the death penalty is not an issue of human rights. Their perspective has received scant media attention in this country; the debate on the issue has been severely biased and prone to a knee-jerk sentimentalism based on our world view rather than theirs.

The Singaporean justice system does not see the issue in terms of revenge, retribution or even deterrence. There is much research that shows none works, anyway.

The rationale for the death penalty, from the Singapore perspective, is that drug dealing is an act of terrorism indistinguishable from crimes of mass murder. The death penalty therefore is seen as a fitting response for the natural consequences of the distribution of drugs like heroin.

They view all those in the chain of delivery to be blameworthy of mass slaughter just as Tim McVeigh was executed after he brought down a whole building with the appalling loss of life in Oklahoma.

The Singaporean rationale makes sense. Had Nguyen, and others like him, succeeded in bringing the vast quantities of heroin into Australia, how many lives would have been destroyed, families ripped apart, how many deaths? How many habits would have been fed, how much crime ensued as a result, how much profit from misery - going into the pockets of the drug barons?

We can be indignant about the death penalty, we can even feel sorry for the likes of Nguyen who must have rued the day he chose to risk his life for his brother; but before we condemn the Singaporean justice system, we should be mindful of two salient facts.

Whether we care to admit it or not, Singapore has done the dirty work in dispatching another cog in the illicit drug industry and we are the beneficiaries with less heroin on sale.

Furthermore, we have a salutary lesson that those who risk their necks (literally), knowing the laws of Singapore, do so willingly. Their fate is in their hands.

* Marc Alexander is a former Member of Parliament and victims' advocate and a total fuckwit.

Jenny Ruth: Ryman Healthcare rise makes mouths water

Retirement village operator Ryman Healthcare seldom commands headlines but its share price performance is enough to make any investor's mouth water.

Over the past two years, the NZX Top 50 index, which Ryman joined in September 2003, has not disappointed investors, gaining about 40 per cent.

But Ryman's shares have risen about 160 per cent from $2.10 to $5.50 in those same two years.

The stock's earlier years as a listed company showed a less spectacular but still solid performance. It listed in July 1999 after a $1.35 a share float.

Backing the share's performance is a solid record of profitability. Ryman reported a $6.2 million net profit for the year ended March 1999 ahead of its listing. In the year ended March this year, the firm chalked up a 28 per cent jump in net profit to $23.5 million, or just under 27 per cent compound annual growth since the list.

Last month, the company reported a 54 per cent rise in first-half profit to $17 million and said it would probably do the same again in the second half.

And this is in a sector where many of the other players have struggled. Certainly, all the listed players, Abano, formerly Eldercare, Metlifecare and Calan, have had chequered careers to the extent that Metlifecare is in the process of being taken over by a Macquarie Bank unit and the other two have exited the sector.

Ryman's record isn't perfect: in the year ended March 2002, net profit dropped 21.5 per cent to $11.1 million.

One reason profitability is so strong at present is the impact of the housing market boom and, since the housing market was still rather depressed in early 2002, you might attribute that profit drop to the state of the market.

Not so, says co-founder and managing director Kevin Hickman. That profit drop was the result of timing differences, with units in the company's villages selling slower than expected combined with delays in new units becoming available for sale.

The average age of occupants of Ryman's villages, which provide the entire gamut of care from independent units through serviced apartments, resthome beds and hospital care, is 84 years. He says when people decide to move into one of its villages, it's because of need, "things going wrong in their lives", and that decision does not have much to do with the state of the housing market.

The main impact on Ryman of a housing market slowdown is that the number of days it takes to sell houses increases, which impacts on cashflow.

The company has yet to see much of the benefits of the present boom. Its residents usually stay until they die and Ryman is entitled to a set percentage of the resale value of their units. At March 31, the company had $77.6 million in its asset revaluation reserve which should be gradually realised over the next few years and that's assuming no further increase in house prices.

Hickman says that, by and large, Ryman's villages aren't located in the hot spots or "flash end" of the property market but in "the middle market" in the suburbs where most people live.

The typical cycle in such areas is for house prices to leap ahead every seven years or so and then stagnate until the next boom. Rarely do prices ease much in such areas.

Hickman says he and former partner John Ryder - the company's name is a combination of their family names (Hickman jokes it could have been Hicker) - got involved in the industry after investigating a fire in an old people's home.

"We looked at how poorly it was done in those days. You don't want your parents going back to boarding school and there wasn't a hell of a lot of choice in those days. We felt the elderly should have the choice."

Anyone who has visited Ryman's villages, which are named after famous New Zealand women including Malvina Major, Frances Hodgkins and Ngaio Marsh, can attest to their quality. But even Hickman acknowledges that his industry is in trouble, largely because residents are dependent on Government funding, which hasn't kept pace with costs.

He describes the industry as "under siege" and that it will be in crisis within three years. Backing those statements is the evidence of so many charitable organisations leaving or threatening to leave the industry.

Some might point to Ryman's profitability as giving the lie to arguments about under-funding. Partly, Ryman makes the economics work due to its scale. Its Invercargill village has 157 care beds.

It's evident the company's profits don't come from its resthome and hospital beds but from the integrated nature of its villages and the fact that Ryman is involved from the pre-development stage. As Hickman says: "We're not supermarket shoppers".

Because Ryman develops its own villages, rather than contracting that work out, it gets to bank the development profits. That means its starting costs are lower than if it had ready-built facilities.

Michelle Perkins, an analyst at ABN Amro Craigs, says Ryman also benefits from being able to spread the costs of services from its kitchen operations to nursing care across an entire village.

High occupancy rates also help: she notes that Eldercare's occupancy rates are below 90 per cent while it is at near capacity at Ryman.

Demand for Ryman's facilities is certainly strong and demographics suggest it will only get stronger as the baby boomers age.

Another benefit of Ryman's business model is that it appears to get ever stronger as the business gets larger. Each year, it becomes less dependent on sales of new units, which in 2000 accounted for 41.5 per cent of total sales but were down to 29.7 per cent in the first half of this year.

Ryman is in the process of stepping up its development rate from about 150 new apartments to 250 a year.

The company operates 14 villages throughout New Zealand, is in the process of developing five more and enlarging some existing ones and is continuing to negotiate other sites.

The large number of sites means it has greater flexibility. A slowdown in one area can be matched by scaling back construction there to concentrate on a better-performing area.

Perkins says Ryman is one of her firms' top investment picks, particularly at a time when the economy is likely to at least cool.

John Cairns, an analyst at Forsyth Barr, also rates the stock a buy. Perkins forecasts that Ryman's net profit will rise to $39.1 million in 2007. Cairns puts it higher at $39.4 million.


Who, what, where

* Ryman Healthcare headquarters: Christchurch.
* Profile: The company builds and runs retirement villages all over New Zealand providing care from independent units to hospital beds.
* Market capitalisation: $546 million.
* Latest results: Ryman reported a 54 per cent rise in net profit to $17.1 million for the six months ended September.
* Management: Managing director Kevin Hickman, chief financial officer Simon Challies, operations manager and director of nursing Barbara Reynen, development manager Ray Versey, sales manager Debbie Jarratt, property and purchasing manager Philip Mealings and design chief Taylor Allison.
* Major shareholders: Emerald Capital 16 per cent, Hickman family trust 15.2 per cent, Ngai Tahu 12.5 per cent and Fisher Funds Management 10.9 per cent.