Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Faith, hope, miracles and the free market

I believe in the free market of ideas. Even if some of these ideas are ludicrous, the ‘magic of the marketplace’ will discredit them over time. Or so I hope.

Nonetheless, often it seems that my faith in humans is misplaced. Rationality is trumped a human being’s desire to believe irrational thoughts, mostly because these thoughts provide hope.

Hope is the foundation for so many positives in so many lives. Hope helps us achieve in ways which cannot be quantified. And how can I begrudge anyone who provides Hope (with a capital ‘H’)?


Sometimes, though, hope plays to the frailty of the human spirit. Hope often makes us believe things which fly in the face of logic.

Sometimes that’s good but other times it’s bad. It’s good to believe we all can achieve our dreams during our lifetime. But how about believing illnesses like diabetes can be cured through prayer?

Hmmm ... I am a little sceptical. Maybe the Scientific Revolution is so much a part of our modern lifestyle that it is difficult to fathom the miracles Faith (with a capital ‘F’) can wrought upon us?


So how does a person who believes in freedom of thought square the circle of allowing free thought but yet controlling harmful thought? Not easily, if at all! Squares, after all, cannot also be circles.

The only Hope (there’s that word again!) lies in education.

The Scientific Method  – teach people to be rational and we won’t be fooled again! Unfortunately, at times even education fails us ... so we are left with other harsher methods such as censorship through a criminal code. There again, someone has to play God and define morality?

So perhaps it is best to let people attempt to cure diabetes through miraculous prayer ... and let them figure out the truth for themselves!
__________________
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Monday, 17 March 2014

Singapore's future: a miserable and expensive (though global!) city-state?


Singapore’s image has taken a beating in recent times. Not only is it the most expensive city in the world but it has also been labelled a ‘City of Misery.’ A city where everything, perhaps even happiness, must be mandated or authorized by the government!

It’s easy to pick on Singapore? It’s a small city-state whose name is synonymous with efficiency, practicality, authoritarianism and success. At least if success is measured by average per capita income.

The gradual appreciation of the Singapore Dollar is one factor in Singapore's jump in global cost of living indices
As successful people are aware, success come at a price. Envy and jealousy are the most obvious though not the most useful. More important is the analytical discourse surrounding achievements, such as Singapore’s progress from Third World to First World.  

In this vein, Singapore’s newest accolade as the world’s most expensive city is a wake-up call for the city-state.

Like most societies, Singapore’s economic progress is a significant factor in maintaining social cohesion. If Singaporeans’ perceptions about economic progress and social mobility suffer then the impact on the country’s broader social structure may be considerable.

Statements by parliamentarians notwithstanding, during the last few years Singapore has become an expensive city.

Part of the reason is down to conscious policy decisions, e.g. the exorbitant cost of owning a car as a result of the government’s Certificate of Entitlement (COE) system. However, there are factors other than the vehicle COE system affecting Singapore’s cost competitiveness. Certainly, the recent focus on foreigners has added to inflationary pressures. As lower paid foreign workers from nations like China, the Philippines and Myanmar are replaced with better paid Singaporeans, increased wage cost are ultimately borne by consumers. Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are the hardest hit.

Singapore’s foreign exchange rate policy also plays a part. The gradual appreciation of the Singapore Dollar against the US Dollar makes the city seem more expensive to expats, particularly when placed in the regional context. Neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia sport depreciating currencies.

Singapore may well yet morph into Switzerland or Australia, countries with rigid labor markets and high levels of government provided social welfare. Call a plumber and pay a handsome sum just for the tradesperson to step into your home - and schedule the visit on a future date to suit only his convenience. In such a world, costs are high and efficiency suffers; though society leaves no one behind as a result of an a comprehensive and far reaching social safety.

In Singapore, an all pervasive social safety – coupled with a rigid labour market - net may be ours too ... if we are ready for Goods and Services Tax (GST) rates to gradually move to fifteen percent; and personal income tax rates towards 50 percent!

Is it worth the cost? It’s your choice Singapore.
__________________
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Friday, 28 February 2014

Pakistan's bearded brigade, bombs and cricket


Pakistan's Bearded Brigade, as represented by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), recently lost their best shot at establishing a new foothold in the state's corridors of power. By shunning the opportunity to negotiate with Pakistan's elected government by indulging in non-stop violence during the talks, the mullahs have further alienated popular opinion away from the Taliban. The Taliban will never find a negotiating partner as willing to make 'Islamist' concessions as Sharif!

The battle between one set of Islamic Holy Warriors (Pakistan Army)
and another set of self-proclaimed Islamic warriors (the Tehrik-e-Taliban) continues
 
Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party, which won the most seats in Pakistan's May 2013 general elections, is well known to have Islamist ideological tendencies. In May 1991, during one of Sharif's earlier (disastrous) tenures as Prime Minister, he tried to enforce a Sharia Bill in order to impose a version of Islamic law in the country. Sharif's second tenure in 1998 saw him nominate former Justice Rafiq Tarrar, as President of the Republic. Tarar's nomination as head of state revealed  Sharif's  politico-religious underpinnings.

The recent botched negotiations between the government and the mullahs underscore some realities within the Pakistani political landscape.

1.   Much like Al-Qaeeda, its ideological cousin, the TTP is not a unified, monolithic entity. Instead, the TTP is a loose coalition of forces which either oppose the legitimacy of the Pakistani government and / or desire the enforcement of a strict version of Sunni Islamic law across the country. Hence, the TTP's 'leadership' exercises limited control over the various militant factions which fall under its umbrella.

2.   The Pakistani state, at least in its present format, and the TTP cannot coexist. Several of the TTP's fundamental demands fly in the face of the (already Islamic!) Pakistani Constitution, including curbing women's rights and other basic freedoms.

3.   Despite being religiously conservative, Pakistani Muslims are unable and unwilling to wholeheartedly accept Salafi Islam. Several influences, such as Barelvi thought, Sufi tendencies, inculcation of Hindu practices / beliefs into local culture, differentiate Pakistanis from Saudi religious reactionaries. Not to mention the considerable influence of Pakistan's combined 25-30 percent Shia and non-Muslim minority population. Importantly, the Shia minority is prominently represented within the country's armed forces.

Now that talks between the Taliban and the Pakistani government have broken down, one hopes the authorities will again get serious in battling the militants. The recent violence inflicted by the TTP and its partners on Pakistan's security forces and civilians signals the lack of intent on the TTP's part to compromise. Frankly, one hopes there is also no desire by the authorities to compromise the personal freedoms of Pakistanis.

After all, can a nation obsessed with cricket ever accept a Taliban leadership which has unreservedly expressed its abhorrence for the nation's one unifying force! "These [the government] secular people want to distance our youth from jihad and Islamic teachings through cricket. We are strongly against cricket and dislike it."

Source: Taliban refuse Pakistani minister's cricket match peace offer. February 25, 2014. AFP. Emphasis added by author.
____________
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of regional businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Friday, 21 February 2014

Karachi, history and Pakistan's mighty Indus River


In Pakistan the mighty Indus River historically nourishes life around the country. To Singaporeans, the river may not be important enough to include in the menu of the zoo's River Safari attractions but it was important enough to spawn the Indus Valley civilization during 3300 - 1300 BC. At its peak, the civilization may have cradled up to five million people - a phenomenal number for its day.

A tributary of the Indus River in Pakistan's norther Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province
However, unlike Singapore where the Singapore River is never far from view, the Indus River is not normally visible from Pakistan's largest city, Karachi. (But then Pakistan is not a kampong, city and nation-state rolled into one entity!)

Fortunately, the Indus River cannot be blamed for the historical aberration, i.e. development of a large metropolis built away from the river's banks.

Karachi is a new city. The city's present population of twenty-three million is a far cry from the Karachi's 500,000 residents in 1947, the year of Pakistan's creation. Sindhis and Baloch, the historical inhabitants of Sindh province of which Karachi is the capital, are now virtually a minority in the province. Surely, this has created tensions between the city's 'old' and the 'new' (sound familiar Singapore?). These stresses will be worked out naturally over time, as a national 'Pakistani' consciousness develops over the course of a few more generations.

But a region's history stays with its people irrespective of their rulers or the color of its passport. Since the 1500s, Pakistan's territories have seen the Mughals, the British and umpteen 'independent' dynasties rule different areas for varying periods of time. Unfortunately for Pakistanis, many parts of Pakistan have historically been 'frontier' regions with violent warfare between different parties almost a part of the cultural landscape. Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province, formerly known as the Northwest Frontier Province, and Balochistan are cases in point. Both zones were frequently contested between Delhi and the Afghan / Persian kingdoms respectively.

Some of the warring continues to this day. The ideological battle between militant, bearded Islam and ordinary Pakistanis has spilt much blood during the last decade. While Pakistan's Fashion Week takes place in one part of Karachi, the 'jahil' mullahs' self proclaimed 'enforcers of civilization' attack polio vaccination teams in other parts of the city and country!

The good news: forces of progress and moderation are in the ascendancy while the religious bigots are desperately seeking to hang on to the limited space made available to them through intimidation and threats. The bad news: the physical and ideological battle will continue for years to come. The soil around the Indus River will soak in much more innocent - and not so innocent - blood before the war ends.

The banks of the river Indus are hazy with clouds and dust
Added to it is the fire of war
Kindled by us, we burnt each other
Now that it has spread far and wide
We are too weary to put it out

Poem by Mir Bijar, a 16th century Balochi poet.

Translated from Balochi by Parveen Talpur. 'Footnotes: Selected Verses of Great Poets,' Parveen Talpur. Ferozsons, 2006.
__________________
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of regional businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Singapore's Women's Charter and reverse discrimination


The emancipation of women is a critical pillar of modern society. Without a solid foundation built upon women's rights, it is virtually impossible to build a just and equitable society.

In Singapore, the Women's Charter is a seminal piece of legislation designed to protect women's rights. The only serious shortcoming with the Charter is that it does not apply to all segments of Singapore's female population. Currently, significant parts of the Charter do not apply to persons married under Singapore's Sharia or Muslim law.

But that is altogether another debate.

Today I write about one aspect of 'reverse discrimination.' I am not talking about claims that Singapore's courts favor females in harassment or 'outrage of modesty' cases. Instead, I refer to hiring practices by some employers.

As a member of a minority group (actually, a minority within a minority!), I am well aware of the pitfalls of not speaking Mandarin Chinese and the implicit and explicit advantages being Chinese brings in Chinese majority Singapore. However, this post is about employer(s) who discriminate against a particular sex in their employment practices (see photo below).

Advertisement posted on shop door in Singapore. (Photo taken in February 2014.)
Excluding men from any job is unfair. It is as unfair as excluding women from certain occupations. Surely, this is not a controversial statement? Nonetheless, it seems an employer of a retail outlet in Toa Payoh does not agree. For reasons known only to themselves, the shop does not wish to employ men - only women!

It bothers me to know there is no debate about such hiring practices. I can only imagine the furor over an ad stating 'women need not apply?' Undoubtedly,  umpteen women's rights groups will (rightly) turn the company's hiring policies into a national debate on female rights.

To date, Singapore's authorities have taken a 'laissez-faire' approach towards discrimination in the labor market - more often than not by practically addressing specific cases brought to their attention. So far, the approach has proved sufficient. However, with a more sophisticated labor force and an economy moving higher up the value chain, it is time the authorities consider studying the need for legislation to address specific issues, including age and sex discrimination.
__________________

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of regional businesses. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com. 

Friday, 24 January 2014

Singapore: police powers and the Little India riot


I am a 'Law and Order' man. Generally, Singapore's tough laws are fine with me. Want to hang convicted drug traffickers? Be my guest. Wish to cane criminals convicted of vandalism? Carry on. If anything, I find the punishments for certain crimes, e.g. drink driving, too lenient. Nonetheless, I cannot get myself to support the proposal to enhance police powers in Singapore's new 'Special Zone,' i.e. Little India.

The proposal will permit the police to strip search individuals to look for alcohol. Additionally, police officers ranking Sergeant and above may raid any establishment within the Special Zone without a warrant, in case of suspicion that an offence is taking place. Individuals may also be banned from entering the Special Zone for up to 30 days if their presence is deemed detrimental to maintaining order.


Certainly, Singapore's police must have adequate authority to ensure there is no repeat of December 2013's Little India riot. Hence, having a more stringent alcohol licensing regime makes eminent sense. Particularly, as seems likely, alcohol was a contributing factor to the Little India violence.

However, don't the police already have enough powers to control 'miscreants' all over the island? Of course they do. Act in a 'suspicious' manner and see if the police present you with a warrant before carting you off to the nearest police station! Better still, walk around with a can of spray paint near an MRT subway train depot and see how long it takes for the police to 'interview' you? This is not just about a car entering Singapore illegally from Malaysia but preempting a serious act of vandalism!

Surely, Singapore's first riot in decades requires a drastic response from the authorities but I cannot see more policing taking Singapore to a better place. Already, some analysts suggest unskilled and semi-skilled foreign labor (as opposed to foreign talent) felt persecuted and intimidated by police measures in place prior to the December 2013 riot.

The answer lies in taking a more balanced approach. For example, by providing greater recreational facilities and outlets for Singapore's hordes of semi-skilled workers, while at the same time ensuring wrong doers are dealt with harshly (under existing laws). Needless to say, unless Singapore stops functioning, the thousands of foreign laborers on our island are not going anywhere. (Do we have any locals prepared to act as sanitation workers?)  

Giving the police a freer hand to stop, question, strip search and detain individuals – foreign or local – creates a dangerous precedent which can only lead Singapore down a slippery slope ... particularly when it will inevitably result in racial profiling of persons belonging to non-majority races (Caucasians exempted?). How long before individuals from minority backgrounds (like me) are asked to justify their presence in 'Special Zones' around Singapore?

Singapore is ahead of its time in many aspects of urban organization. I hope Orwellian style '1984' policing does not become one of these areas.
__________________
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. Please contact Imran if you wish to arrange personalized tours of Singapore, including walking tours of historic districts such as Little India, Chinatown and Kampong Glam. Imran can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com or +65 9786 7210. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Singapore’s historic Botanic Gardens: UNESCO Heritage site in waiting?


Botanic gardens are not in short supply. Many cities around the world lay claim to having beautiful gardens and parks. However, there is no doubt Singapore's Botanic Gardens competes well with the best parks from around the world.

Singapore's Botanic Gardens (SBG) has a history few competitors can boast.

The gardens have been in the present location since 1859, over 150 years. During this century and a half the SBG has developed the National Orchid Garden – a wonderful collection of one of the most beautiful plants in the world: the orchid.

The Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, Singapore National Flower since 1981
Certainly, it is fitting for Singapore to host a collection of over 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids given that the city-state's national flower is the Vanda 'Miss Joaquim' orchid. Additionally, Robert Holttum, Director of the SBG from 1925-49, was instrumental in technological advancements related to orchid breeding and 'hybridization.' (Hybridization is the process of crossing different orchid species to come up with a new 'combination' hybrid orchid.) To date, the SBG has registered more than 400 types of hybrid orchids in the international orchid register.

Other than orchids, the SBG contributed strongly to the development of the region's rubber industry. It was 'Rubber Ridley,' the SBG's first Director (1888-1911), who perfected a tapping method to harvest commercial quantities of latex without harming or killing rubber trees. 'Mad Ridley's' obsessive promotion of the rubber crop was one critical factor in the establishment of Malaya's rubber industry, a major source of wealth for Singapore and the region in the 1900s.

The gardens are also home to one of Singapore's best kept secrets: the Rain Forest. A six hectare patch of rain forest can be found smack-bang in the center of Singapore, a city better known as an urban concrete jungle. The SBG's rain forest retains the original vegetation which once covered most of Singapore – and made the island a prime playground for tigers!

A view of the Saraca Stream inside Singapore's Botanic Gardens
Though the Singapore Botanic Gardens continues to play a major role in research of the region's botany, it is the serene beauty of the landscaped gardens which charms the average visitor. Whether it is the Ginger Garden, the Healing Garden, the Evolution Garden, the many Heritage Trees or the public art spread out across the 74 hectares of green space, Singapore's Botanic Gardens is Singapore's nominee as a UNESCO Heritage site for good reason.
__________________
Imran is a licensed Singapore Tour Guide. Please contact Imran if you wish to arrange personalized tours of Singapore, including 'Green Tours' encompassing the Botanic Gardens, Gardens by the Bay and Marina Barrage at imran@deodaradvisors.com or +65 9786 7210. Imran also leads walking tours around the city, e.g. Singapore's Civic District Heritage Trail and Orchard Arts Trail.