Saturday, 19 August 2017

Singapore’s reserved Malay Presidential elections or 'Affirmative Action' in disguise?

Presidential elections are scheduled in Singapore for September 2017. As most are aware Singapore's next President must be ethnically Malay. The Parliament deemed it so through amendments to the Presidential Elections Act passed in February 2017. The changes also establish a mechanism for the state to determine the ethnic community to which each candidate belongs, i.e. Ms. Yacob and all other candidates for next month's elections must be certified 'Malay' before their candidacies are accepted.

To the relief of many Singaporeans Madam Halimah Yacob has decided to stand as a candidate for Singapore's next president. As a 50 percent Malay woman – her father was Indian and mother was Malay - it is likely Madam Yacob is 'sufficiently' Malay and will pass the government's 'Malayness' test. Hence, she is expected to be accepted as a Malay candidate. Indeed, it will be very inconvenient if she is deemed 'not sufficiently' Malay?

Race and ethnicity are nebulous concepts and categorizing people into defined boxes can be an imprecise organizational tool
The appropriateness of ethnicity criteria tests to evaluate an individual's race is one difficulty. However, for many the real problem is not determining a candidate's race; rather it is the idea that Singapore has seemingly sacrificed a long held belief in meritocracy at the altar of political expediency.

For the last five decades the government has preached the creed of meritocracy almost to the notion of fanaticism. Meritocracy trumped all else, including race based politics. The desire to maintain societal meritocracy was even a factor in Singapore's 1965 expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia.

Suddenly, however, meritocracy is no longer sacrosanct. On the contrary, the country's Constitution was amended to promote a 'race based' presidency.

To be sure, there are supporters of the government's policy of a 'reserved' (affirmative action?) presidency. Nonetheless, the policy does open the door for 'affirmative action' in other areas where minorities are proportionately underrepresented. 

For example, anecdotal evidence suggests Malays are proportionately underrepresented in Singapore's armed forces. Does the government's new policy stance indicate the government may soon start reserving places for Malay officers in the military? Does the government’s new policy stance indicate it may soon start reserving places for Malay officers in the military? If so, which ethnic community (ies) will have to sacrifice in the implementation of such a policy? Undoubtedly, there are many questions without any clear answers.

Is it possible to distill each human's DNA into race and ethnicity categories without fuzziness? 
The government's policy 'adjustments' to the presidential election system calling for candidates based on race contradicts the country's founding principle of meritocracy.  After 52 years of independence one would expect authorities to encourage deeper integration by gradually and incrementally dismantling the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) system – a colonial race based legacy – rather than strengthening an world-view filtered by ethnicity.

Meritocracy or allowing the most qualified to naturally filter upwards has served Singapore well since independence. One hopes the concept of 'ethnic fairness' will not further permeate the Singapore system through quotas and reserved seats but will cease exactly where it started: at the presidency.

Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at

Monday, 14 August 2017

Book review: The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide

A good book to learn more about an under-researched war: the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war which led to the creation of Bangladesh. 

The author puts the war /crisis in the context of global politics and the US - Soviet Cold War which was raging in the 1970s. He also attempts to provide a balanced view though he often fails. Indeed, the book focuses more on the crisis as it plays out on US domestic politics. 

The books adds to the academic literature on the short war but is aimed more at the student of US politics rather than those interested in the minutae of South Asian politics. 

Only for the very interested.

Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at

Book review: Fault Lines: Stories of 1971 [Pakistan - India war]

For those of us are old enough to know there once existed an East Pakistan but young enough to know little other than the nightly air raid blackouts there is a paucity of literature about the 1971 war, at least in the 'remaining' wing of Pakistan aka West Pakistan. 

Fault Lines is a collection of short stories from several authors: Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani. The stories help provide some color to the war experience from several perspectives. Most importantly, these are stories about the 'human' experience of what must have been a brutalizing period in South Asian history. 

To be sure, the authors paint good guys and bad guys but mostly through the eyes of the characters themselves. I imagine for many Pakistanis some of the stories make painful reading - perhaps why this critically important event in the country's history is papered over as if it didn't exist? 

Undoubtedly, the 1971 war and the creation of Bangladesh are two subjects screaming out for more literary examination. It's been almost five decades since the war ended - suitable time for at least the most painful wartime wounds to have healed; and the birth of a new generation searching for meaning in the country's historical evolution. 

Fault Lines is a valiant effort by the editors to collect short stories about the 1971 war. History and literature are not the only beneficiaries. The book adds one piece to the puzzle for those trying to unravel the mysteries of the 1971 war.

Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at

Monday, 31 July 2017

Singapore by way of Ipoh, Pattani and the Thar Desert

It has been ages since I updated my blog. No excuses, my bad.

It's not that I have nothing to report. Quite the contrary, my life has been full and the world has entered a new and more tumultuous state (who knew that was even possible).
Indeed, the last several months were full of new adventures and worthwhile happenings. Here's a list of some of my more interesting travel related activities during the period:
Karachi, Pakistan to China. Yes, I traversed the north-south axis of Pakistan all the way from the southern port city of Karachi to the 4,700 meters high Khunjerab Pass border between Pakistan and the People's Republic of China (PRC). The entire 2,400 kilometers long journey (and back) was done on land, i.e. railways and road. The journey took in many stops along the way, including Multan, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Naran, Hunza, Skardu, Gilgit and Abbottabad.

My journey from Karachi to the Khunjerab pass took my all the way from the shores of the Arabian Sea to the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges, including to the doorsteps of K-2 (the worlds second highest mountain at 8,600 meters).

The restored Khaplu Fort or Palace located in eastern Baltistan, Northern Pakistan. The palace was originally built in 1840 and now operates as a conserved luxury hotel. 

A view of a remote village located of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in Gilgit-Baltistan province. The KKH is the main road artery connecting Pakistan with the southwestern Chinese city of Kasghar, Xinjiang. The KKH is a central part of the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which runs from Kasghar, China in the north to Gwadar, Balochistan in the south.

The Pakistan Monument located in Islamabad's Shakarparian Hills. The complex contains a heritage museum and expansive gardens which are a popular picnic spot for visitors from Pakistan's federal capital. 

Pattani, Thailand. Ok, conventional wisdom suggests travellers stay away from Thailand's Muslim majority deep south because of the 'low level insurgency.' Nonsense! Pattani was about as laid back and peaceful a place to de-stress as an idyllic beach in Zanzibar. What's not to like about an area which blends the Malay and Thai culture into one! Even getting to Pattani is a happy adventure. Take the overnight train from Bangkok to Hat Yai. Rent a  car in Hat Yai – GPS required – and drive along the coast to Pattani. There is little doubt I will be back in Pattani as soon as I can fit it into my travel calendar!

The journey from Bangkok to Pattani is best done by overnight train to Hat Yai in Songkhla province. From Hat Yai to Pattani is a short drive of about two hours. 

The Pattani Central mosque in Pattani city (Pattani is also the name of a province). The mosque was completed in 1954 and has beautiful gardens and a pond in its complex. 
Pakistan's Thar Desert and interior Sindh. Few are aware that in many areas of Pakistan's Sindh province Muslims are a minority – these are Hindu majority regions. Towns (cities?) like Mithi, Umerkot and Islamkot are places where Hindus and Muslims have lived together side by side for centuries. As one (Hindu) resident put it to me, "We [Hindus and Muslims] share in each others' happiness and sorrows. We attend each others' weddings and funerals." As a result of the demographic mix one finds a unique cultural heritage not found anywhere else in the world. The two communities share graveyards (Hindus here often bury not cremate their dead) and worship together at colorful shrines of holy men. Restaurants offer vegetarian menus. It's a world where religious harmony and common space – albeit shrinking - still exist.

My travels around Sindh province took me right to Pakistan's eastern border with India. I covered many towns during y travels, including Mirpurkhas, Umerkot, Islamkot, Nagarparkar and Mithi.  

Hindu - Muslim bhai bhai! A Hindu religious symbol and an Islamic crescent and star symbolically tied together on a pole which hung outside a Hindu temple in the Tharparkar district of Sindh, Pakistan. The area has a large Hindu population, one which outnumbers Muslims in many regions.
Ipoh and Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. Some suggest Ipoh is Malaysia's next Melaka. Given how commercialized tourism has become in Melaka there is much truth in the statement. Until today, Ipoh exudes the authenticity of a Chinese city in the heart of Malaya. This means old Chinese neighborhoods, temples and even cemeteries. Additionally, Ipoh is a nice stopping point for the journey to Cameron Highlands. Cameron Highlands is more than simply the home of BOH tea. It is one of the few places on the Malayan peninsula where one may escape the searing heat and humidity of the tropics. Cameron Highlands has a cooler temperate climate relative to the typical heatstroke inducing temperatures of Singapore.

The colonial era Ipoh railway station stands majestically in the city's colonial district. Ipoh has a nice mixture of Malay, Chinese and colonial heritage all blended together into a compact city.
Nanjing, Tianjin and Beijing, China. China has a charm of its own. Unlike Singapore's history which is measured in decades, China's history is measured in centuries. So there is always something historic to experience in China, no matter which part. As former and current capitals of China, history flows from Nanjing and Beijing like sweat flows from one's body in the tropics of Malaya. Tianjin? As a port near Beijing it has a special place in China's history, especially in the country's more recent colonial history as symbolized by the Treaty of Tientsin 1858 which ended the first phase of the Second Opium War.

A Chinese guard near a beautifully manicured flower display in Beijing, China. 

A view of the Niujie Mosque courtyard and minarets located on Cow Street, Beijing. The mosque is Beijing's oldest and traces its origins to the year 996. A newly wed Hui Chinese Muslim couple are taking photographs in the mosque courtyard. Note the Han Chinese design and features so clearly visible in the mosque minarets (pagodas?) and roof designs. 
Now that I am back I hope not to be so lazy in the future. Fingers crossed. I will update my blog more often; I will share my thoughts more often; I will keep you informed of my travels (and opinions) more often. Trust me .... 

Imran is an adventurer, blogger, consultant, guide, photographer, speaker, traveler and a banker in his previous life. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); instagram (@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Of Mostar and Muslims seeking the grace of the Virgin Mary

I have had the privilege of visiting Islam’s holiest city Mecca a couple of times, admittedly as a young boy. I have prayed to holy men (and women) at mausoleums, including that of Singapore’s very own holy man Habib Noh. Beyond that, I have made offerings and given due respect to other deities located inside Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese temples all around the world.

In 2015, I added a new 'first' to my life. During my Eastern Europe adventures I climbed a mountain (alright, it was more like a hill!) to seek the Grace of Virgin Mary! Some may consider such a trek strange as I am a 'born and bred' Muslim. I don't agree. Islam encourages exploration, learning and understanding.

The statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of the hill at Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
And no, it's not that I have become a Christian. It's simply because a short distance from the historical city of Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina is the pilgrimage site of Medjugorje.

Medjugorje was an experience but first a little about Mostar.

The city straddles the Neretva River. As it straddles the river, it also occupies the space where Islam and Christianity meet. The Bosnian city has a mix of Muslims, Catholics and Serb Orthodox among its population of about 100,000. During the civil war which engulfed the former Yugoslav Republic in the early 1990s this ethnic mix proved to be a deadly tinderbox.

Indeed, Mostar was the scene of heavy fighting between Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks during 1992-95. Even Mostar's most famous structure, the Stari Most or Old Bridge, built in 1556 by the Ottoman Turks was not spared the fighting. The bridge was willfully destroyed by Croatian forces in November 1993. The bridge was reconstructed in 2004 and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site the following year.

Mostar is also blessed with natural beauty. Mountains, rivers and forested areas along with hospitable people are all nestled in one compact, medieval town. But it was Medjugorje's Virgin Mary who was the star attraction. Those familiar with Islam know the Virgin Mary is a blessed woman for Muslims too.

The Virgin Mary is the only woman mentioned by name in Islam's holy book, the Koran. Indeed, she is one of only eight humans who have a sura (chapter) named after them in the Koran. As if to emphasize Islam's belief of Mary being the most righteous of women, she is mentioned more often in the Koran than in the entire New Testament!

Thus, making the trip to the small town of Medjugorje about to witness the alleged miracle of Our Lady of Medjugorje was high on the agenda. The town is located about 25 kilometers southwest of Mostar.

The story begins in 1981, during a time Yugoslavia still respected Tito's memory, when six local children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Over time, the fame of the allaged apparitions spread amongst the Catholics and the town of about 2,000 started receiving pilgrimages from all over the world, Singapore included. Since 1981, over 30 million Catholics have visited the pilgrimage site – and that despite the negative official position of the Vatican bureaucracy on the Medjugorje apparitions.

Having climbed the hill on a rainy day in order to meet the Virgin Mary and immersed myself among Christian pilgrims, I felt a more complete Muslim. After all, the Islam with which I am familiar encourages tolerance and understanding – ideals lost to the adventure seeking extremist killers raised on a diet of violent video games and social despondency.

Mostar has a history all of its own. If Sarajevo fought Orthodox Christian Serbs for survival, Mostar fought Catholic Croats for its existence. Though, like Sarajevo, Mostar is fighting hard to maintain its pre-civil war mix of a religiously diverse population. For travelers, the medieval town is a blissful combination of nature, food and history.

No visit to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – the country's official name - is complete without experiencing Bosnia and Herzegovina individually. If Sarajevo is Bosnia then Mostar is Herzegovina.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries in his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Trump is good for Islam - no joke!

No, the title is not an error. Yes, the man who wishes to ban all non-resident Muslims from entering the United States is good for the Islamic world![i]

Why is it good for America's Republican party's presidential frontrunner to treat Muslims like a sub-human species? The answer is quite simple: disruption. Trump will give significantly disrupt the status quo, hopefully ushering in a new, better era.   

Trump - you the man! (Photo: Wikipedia)
Disruption is a concept more familiar to entrepreneurs and start-up entities: disruption. Disruption may be defined as a "disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity, or process." Industries ripe for disruptions are generally bloated, stagnant and slowly heading into oblivion.

Alright, no one argues Islam is heading towards extinction. Nonetheless, there is little doubt Islam requires a radical rethink about its place in the world and the religion's relevance to a globalized 'Digital Age' population.

Islam's traditional prism for viewing the world no longer works. By most measures, the Islamic world is isolated and backwards. The post-colonial Islamic world has desperately clung onto linkages, economic and military, with former colonial masters to maintain power and preserve the status quo. Hence, peacefully (yes, peacefully!) disrupting the present state of affairs will be no bad thing; peaceful disruption, not regime change engendered by American bombs and NATO soldiers.

The 2003 US led invasion of Iraq transformed one of the Islamic world's most secular and well integrated multi-religious societies into a war zone and crucible for Islamic extremists.
(Map: Wikipedia)
Theoretically, peaceful disruption provides more time for nations to adapt and modify – not creating vacuums for extremists like Daesh to conveniently step into. 

A Trump presidency will prompt some soul searching among political elites in most Islamic countries. Some might even be forced to dispense with the crutches of Western economic and military dependencies provided by Western nations.

In poorer Muslim nations such as Egypt and Pakistan, politicians will realize leadership comprises of more than receiving and dispensing financial aid from bilateral and multilateral agencies. For wealthier oil rich nations the choices will be more difficult. Oil riches and the lifestyle it engenders are predicated upon a dependency on Western nations. In fact, in several oil exporting Gulf states it is the US Federal Reserve Bank which dictates local monetary policy!

So the question vexing the Kings of oil rich Arab nations will be, "Shall we continue to sell oil to countries like the US in the face of ongoing humiliation and being treated as second class citizens of the world? We may have oodles of money and even property in the right zip codes but we pray in the wrong direction and to the crescent and not the cross."

It's not an easy question to answer when trillions of Dollars are at stake.

This is not the first wake-up call heeded by Islamic intellectuals. In the early post-colonial period, a group of left leaning secularists Muslim modernizers arose. People like Syria's Assad senior, Egypt's Nasser and Iraq's Saddam were ready to shun religion for socialist ideology. In the new millennium that era has been relegated to the annals of history.

The current environment appears ripe for a new wave of Muslim modernizers; for Islam's reinvigorated intelligentsia to address the problems faced by Muslims in the Internet Era. The new paradigm must emerge following meaningful debates about governance, transparency and civil rights.

Muslim faithful pray at the main mosque in snowbound Pristina, Kosovo. (Photo: Wikipedia)
1960s Westernizing secularists demonstrated that blindly aping Western liberal democratic societies is not an ideal solution for Muslim societies. Seamlessly synthesizing modernity and Islam will only work if the new structure respects the unique cultural traditions of different Muslim cultures and geographies.

A Trump presidency will call into question many of the assumptions about civil relations between many predominantly Muslim countries and the US dominated Western world. This reset may act as a catalyst for Islamic political and social elites to redraw their own social contract within their own nations.  

Many analysts argue the present status quo is sustainable due to inequitable wealth distribution and poor state delivered social services. The violence perpetrated by extremists, e.g. Daesh, Taliban and Al-Qaeeda, outside the established political structure suggests most Muslim countries are crying out for some form of change.  

A divided era reminiscent of the historic Crusades? (Illustration: Wikipedia) 
So, Mr Trump, your insensitive and racist rhetoric may actually be helping those against which you spew your hatred. The possible earthquake to the established 'business as usual' modus-operandi may force the Islamic world to stand on its own feet. For that, Mr Trump, the entire Muslim world thanks you and your multitudes of supporters disgorging your regular obscenities.

Now if I were an American Muslim living and working in America I may have a very different opinion of Trump's popularity!

[i] How such a blanket ban will work in practice is difficult to imagine. For example, will all Muslim crew members of a Singapore Airlines flight landing in the US be made to stay on the aircraft overnight? How will Muslim foreign diplomats and functionaries dealing with Washington go about their business? Ultimately, there may be so many exemptions that the ban becomes a mockery ... that is, of course, if any Muslims wish to visit the country voluntarily simply to be humiliated and possibly put themselves in harm's way. But that's a topic for another day.
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries in his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg. 

Monday, 1 February 2016

A winter’s day in Singapore

I was about to leave my apartment when I heard the wind howl. I walked to the window and brushed aside the curtains. There was frost on the trees outside. The occasional icicle was dripping water to the ground below. Not!

Living in the tropics a few degrees from the equator means we enjoy only two seasons in Singapore: wet and dry. Honestly, the dry season sometimes seems pretty wet too. Except perhaps last year when we coughed our lungs out due to the haze blowing across from Indonesia.

Come to think of it, in recent years we have added a new season to the Singapore calendar: the Haze Season!

But let's not dwell on embarrassing subjects – at least for Singapore and ASEAN diplomacy. Instead, let's focus on the monsoon season and its impact on the development of Singapore and the broader region.

Until the arrival of steamships in the mid-1800s all sea trade was dependent on the wind. Wind patterns dictated when and where sailors roamed. Without wind power a sailing ship was useless.

It was the monsoon wind which directed traffic to and from China and the spice rich islands of modern day Indonesia. Monsoon is derived from the Arabic word 'mawsim' or season. Not surprising as the Arabs had long mastered the art of seafaring and had built up extensive trade links with Southeast Asia several centuries before European explorers began mapping the region.

Spices such as nutmeg and clove depended on the Southwest and the Northeast Monsoon winds to move from Southeast Asia to other parts of the globe. The Southwest Monsoon, which typically lasts from May until October, helped ships sail from South Asia towards the East. The Northeast Monsoon from December to March blew in the opposite direction, allowing ships to return to South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula from farther East.

Singapore's strategic location near the Straits of Melaka helped transform Singapore into the trade hub it remains until this day. The spice trade, which revolved around the monsoon winds, necessitated sailing ships pass – if not dock – at Singapore during their often dangerous journeys. This traffic enabled Singapore to flourish as a commercial entrepot.

A view of ships in waters off the coast of Singapore
Being close to the equator defines not only Singapore's weather but also its identity. While I would love to be able to wear two (just two!) layers of clothing for a few weeks each year, I console myself by eating a few roti pratas instead. After all, it's due to the monsoon winds that we enjoy the rich multiplicities of food, culture and people on the island!   

Roti pratas, a quintessential Singaporean dish, alongside a bowl of curry. Singapore's food dishes represent the island's diverse ethnic and cultural mix
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries in his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Imran can be contacted at Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg.