Thursday, 2 April 2020

Corona Covid-19 pandemic: death knell for the post-war world order?


Once upon a time the world – or at least the Free World - was led by Reagan, Thatcher and Mitterand. Leaders with presence, standing and most important of all, respect. They were even respected by opponents.
British Prime Minister Thatcher, US President Reagan, French President Mitterrand and
West German Chancellor Schmidt at an international summit meeting (L to R)
During those times the US and its likeminded 'friends,' e.g. Britain and France, ran the world using a combination of bribery and force. They lorded over other lesser nations through a series of interlocking multilateral security arrangements and an economic institutional framework comprising of entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.  
In a nutshell, that was the post World War Two world order.
But those were different times. The developed world had money and delivered on promises. Other countries believed them.
The US, as the undisputed leader of the 'Free World,' provided a security blanket for its satellite states. In return for ceding a part of their national sovereignty to the US, the US provided clear leadership, especially in times of crisis.  
That was the 1980s. Much has changed in the ensuing four decades.
The Berlin Wall - the symbolic Iron Curtain dividing the world's two Superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union) - came down in 1991. That same year the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) morphed – nay collapsed – and became the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). (The CIS structure was a graceful way for the USSR to exit the Russian Empire's historic obligations and focus on saving Russia itself.)
Socialism all but died with the Soviet Union. Today all countries engage in private enterprise and global trade. Meanwhile Socialism has been discredited though significant parts of socialist philosophy have made their way into mainstream thought, e.g. public healthcare and social safety nets.
China's Belt and Road Initiative reflects China's aspirations as a global trading power
As for the global economy, the US is no longer the undisputed master. To be sure, the US Dollar remains king but its throne is a little shaky.
In the past it was said, "If the US sneezes then the world catches a cold." Today, if the US sneezes, the rest of the world simply says, "Bless You" and moves on. The risk of catching a cold is remote – at least not an intense life threatening cold resulting in mass unemployment.
In 2020 the communist party managed People's Republic of China (PRC) has the world's largest economy. Based on data released by the IMF, World Bank and the CIA, China's economy is significantly larger than its closest rival. Indeed, China's gross domestic product (GDP) surpasses the GDP of the combined European Union (EU) nations.
The deterioration in the US position has not been only in the economic domain.
Extraordinary leaders create and husband prestige. Prestige is an invisible halo which adds to the 'je ne sais quoi' aura of rulers. It is built up over decades but can be lost quickly. 

American prestige reached its peak during the first Iraq war with Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Powell's 'Shock and Awe' tactics of overwhelming force. Since 1991 a series of events have diminished US global standing.
Militarily, the downtrend started with the 1993 failed US intervention in Somalia, Operation Restore Hope and the casualties suffered in the Battle of Mogadishu. Then came the 9/11 attack, which taking place on US domestic soil was a watershed moment. The subsequent War on Terror, especially the Iraq war and the present scramble to exit Afghanistan, did little to help stem the dissipation of US prestige.
Simultaneously a succession of other minor events, though not as individually significant as the 9/11 attack, cumulatively resulted in tarnishing America's sheen. These include the US federal government shutdown in 2018 – 2019 (35 days) and 1995 – 1996 (26 days) and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Despite the signs of decay, many still placed the mantle of leadership squarely on the US and its small coterie of European friends. However, with recent events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic it has become increasingly clear the US and its 'friends' no longer rule the roost.
In its management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has seen the US's dysfunctional soul. While state governors are at loggerheads with the federal government over steps to contain the crisis the US Covid-19 death toll and infection numbers rise uncontrollably. As of April 2, 2020 US deaths attributed to Covid-19 have surpassed China, the original epicentre of the virus.
Through an unending sea of social media content, the world has witnessed the complete disarray in the US (and most of Western Europe) caused by the pandemic. Most revealing are not the lack of resources available to these governments' in tackling the virus but more so the lack of national leadership and policy implementation through state bureaucracies.
The world is used to headlines decrying poor governance, weak infrastructure; limited resources, etc. Such news headlines are common across large swathes of the world. However, they are more normally reserved for parts of Africa or developing Asia than for the US or Europe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has hastened post war global structural changes. The US and Europe, though still powerful, are less relevant international players. 

Following a steady erosion of economic and military power the irreparable loss of reputational prestige due to the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, neither the US nor Europe are able to provide global leadership. For example, there will be no Group of Seven summit resulting in a Baker Plan or issuance of Brady Bonds to save the world's economy from the ravages of the Covid-19 catastrophe. It's every nation for herself.
Until further notice, the world suffers a leadership vacuum.
China may vie to fill the position but it's not ready yet - perhaps in a few decades. More likely, second tier regional powers like India, Russia and Turkey will temporarily fill the void in their respective neighborhoods until a more stable arrangement is reached. 
No matter what the coming new world order looks like, one fact is clear: Trump, Boris and Macron cannot fill the shoes of Reagan, Thatcher or Mitterrand.
__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Monday, 6 January 2020

The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works by David Crystal – a book review



Anyone who presents regularly understands eloquence is not innate. It is a learned skill requiring much practice. Indeed, it can be compared to acting in that public speaking requires rehearsing and even choreography.


The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works by David Crystal is a useful reminder of some of the things to get right for public speakers. While the book is comprised of many short chapters making it easier to read, it is also filled with complex technical advice about eloquence. In other words, Crystal uses his background as a linguist to good use during the book.

It’s not only about the language but also delivery. Delivery includes pauses, hand motions, posture, tones and a whole lot more. Crystal touches on all of them in his book.

Crystal also uses examples to highlight every section of the book. To be sure, the book is US centric in that the prime example of an ideal speech which recurs throughout is former president Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ speech in Chicago, USA. Obama’s speech, along with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, are even added to the appendix for reference.

The Gift of the Gab is not the best place for a newbie to start learning about presentation skills – a mite technical for that. However, it will certainly help anyone improve who makes an effort to implement Crystal’s advice.
__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Book review: The China-Pakistan Axis by Andrew Small



Over the years the China-Pakistan relationship has become a virtual constant in foreign policy matters pertaining to South Asia. Yet it is a relationship about which little is known. That is partly by design – the two nations like to keep the exact nature of the relationship out of the spotlight – but also because few experts have taken the time to dissect it.

Source: Wikipedia
The China – Pakistan Axis by Andrew Small is a worthy attempt to shine light on the longstanding linkages between the two nations.

The book chronicles the development of the relationship over the decades since the 1960s in a changing geopolitical environment. Indeed, the author brackets the relationship into easy to understand ‘bite size’ segments based on underlying themes during particular periods.

By the end of Small’s work, the reader has a good understanding of the main tenets of the Pak – China relationship. Nonetheless, the book is at best an introduction and not an in depth analysis. To be sure, it is an entertaining and worthy introduction.

However, the subject warrants more detailed analyses including in individual aspects of the China – Pakistan relationship, e.g. foreign policy coordination; counter terror cooperation especially with regard to Uygur separatism; economic cooperation; and even military industrial production.

One hopes Small’s book will be the first in a series – by different authors - on what is until now an enigmatic relationship between two very different nations.
__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imran_traveller); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.


Sunday, 22 September 2019

Pakistan's Kashmir obsession: unhealthy and unrealistic?


As the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan arrives in New York for the latest session of the United Nations General Assembly it's necessary for Pakistanis to ask exactly what the country can do about Indian Kashmir.

Muzaffarabad is the largest city and capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. It is located near the confluence of the Jhelum and Neelum Rivers and is a four hour drive from Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. (Source: Wikipedia: Obaid 747) 
The country's economic managers are walking around with a begging bowl because the country cannot pay its bills leave alone spend money on national development. The Pakistan Banao (Bachao?) Certificates launched with great fanfare early in Khan's term and designed to raise Pakistan's foreign currency reserves have done little to strengthen reserves.

The economy is in the midst of a serious downturn with no recovery in sight for at least the coming 18-24 months. Large scale manufacturing is shrinking while small and medium sized enterprises labor under the effects of increased taxation, a sharp drop in the value of the Rupee and an emasculated consumer struggling to make ends meet while losing more discretionary income with each passing day given an official inflation rate above thirteen percent.

The country is running out of water but has no money to build dams. Despite arm twisting and 'forced donations' (e.g. via each Pakistan Railways ticket sold) the Supreme Court's Dam Fund is nowhere near numbers required to seriously assist with the urgent building of dams across the country. Indeed, the much hyped Dam Fund has become a hazy memory for most and an embarrassing one for those promoting crowdfunding as an alternate means to pay for massive national infrastructural projects. 

The electricity situation is no better. Despite suffering shortages and brownouts for the last several decades, Pakistan has been unable to fix its electricity load shedding problem until today. Much of the country suffers hours without electricity daily in both Winter and Summer months. Even when electricity is available it is not stable with voltage fluctuations playing havoc with machinery; a disincentive for manufacturing concerns requiring stable, uninterrupted electricity for normal operations.

The country has no proper waste management systems. Without a drastic betterment in urban sanitation levels improvements in preventive healthcare will remain wanting. (Picking up litter from urban areas and dumping it on the outskirts of cities so it is out of sight does not constitute proper waste management.) It's not surprising Pakistan is one of the only countries where polio still afflicts children. 

The air quality in Pakistan's cities is rapidly deteriorating due to pollution. Indeed, Lahore is blanketed by haze virtually on a daily basis with air quality moving into the healthy range an exception to the daily norm. Islamabad and Karachi are not far behind. This is the air Pakistan's infants breathe daily – and there is no shortage of infants given the country's fertility rate.

Pakistan cannot provide adequate food, housing, education or medical care to the majority of Pakistanis. In many households, animals are more precious than women, who have few effective social or economic freedoms. 
All these problems are compounded by Pakistan's unbridled population growth with its population increasing exponentially every few decades.

So as PM Khan travels back to Pakistan in a few days on on a borrowed Saudi luxury jet he may wish to ask himself what's more important for Pakistan's two hundred million plus citizens: ratcheting up Kashmir hysteria a few more notches or implementing a national development agenda on a war footing?

Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Hong Kong: heading towards irrelevance?


A few days ago a friend in the United States asked for my opinion on recent events in Hong Kong (HK). He prefaced his question with Chinese claims about international (read ‘Western’) involvement in stoking the unrest.

Admittedly, my response is not an essay worthy of Foreign Policy magazine. Nonetheless, for interested readers I have reproduced my response below.

Surely, there are 'agent provocateurs' within the HK protest scene. Intelligence agencies directly or at least indirectly are involved with the unrest. There is also a cyber war underway and both parties are pushing their respective narrative through social media.

However, the scale, depth and duration - it's been three months now - suggest genuine underlying grievances garnering popular support from a broad segment of the Hong Kong population.

A view of the protest demonstration in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019 (source: Wikipedia)
HK has historically been a society divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ so perhaps the fear of being left behind among those not in the civil or business elite, especially in light of recent increases in property prices is one major factor?

However, in a general sense Hong Kongers have not mentally accepted their accession to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That psychological transformation from a British colony to a Special Administrative Region(SAR) of the PRC has not yet been made.

The reality for Hong Kongers is there is no going back to the previous status quo.

There is virtually no possibility of HK being given significantly more autonomy leave alone independence. That parts of the international community are providing 'hope' to protesters suggests, at least to some extent, these protesters are being used by segments of the international community to further their political agendas.

HK had lost its privileged position as a gateway financial hub for the PRC some years ago. PRC 2019 is not the PRC which (re)acquired HK in 1997. 

In the larger context, these protests are accelerating HK’s irrelevance. Within a decade or so HK will simply be another Chinese regional city, like Nanjing, Tianjin, Xian, etc. Surely, like all these smaller Chinese cities, HK will maintain a unique identity based on its own history.

But will HK remain a global, regional or international financial powerhouse and privileged gateway to mainland China? No. HK will become merely another wealthy, entrepreneurial Chinese coastal city.

Ideally, Hong Kongers should embrace their fate (some might even suggest good fortune?) as an SAR within the largest - and still growing - economy in the world. Subsequently, HK can consolidate its competitive strengths within the PRC context to secure a brighter future. 

However, time is fast running out for Hong Kongers to change the current trajectory.


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram (@imran_traveller) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com

Monday, 20 May 2019

Of Mardin's monasteries, wine and stone houses


From Gaziantep it was onwards to Mardin. Mardin was high on my visit list as it is at the confluence of several religious and cultural inflection points. Among others, Mardin is a cocktail of Arab, Armenian, Syrian Orthodox Christian and Turkish influences.

The narrow stone streets and houses
of Mardin's old city (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Mardin is so close to the Iraqi and Syrian borders that kite flying may easily turn into a crossborder activity if one is not careful! Arabic is widely spoken in the city. Historic Armenian, Greek and Syrian Orthodox monasteries and churches dot the region.

Inside one of the many historic
churches found across Mardin (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Like many cities in Turkey, Mardin has an old and a new section. 

For travelers the stone houses and narrow lanes of the old city hold more charm than the new, high rise buildings and supermarkets of Yenisehir or New City. Walking around the old city there is always a chance of running into an ancient place of worship or monument, e.g. Mor Behnam Kırklar Kilisesi, Zinciriye Medresesi or the Mardin Museum. Not to mention the Protestant Church, Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque) or the Mardin Evleri.

The courtyard of the historic
Syrian Orthodox Church in Mardin (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
While in Mardin, there are some worthwhile day trips to consider, e.g. to nearby monasteries – functioning monasteries with entrance fees and guided tours! 

There is also the historic town of Hassankeyf - which may be underwater by the time you read this post. Hassankeyf is expected to be submerged by June 2019 as a large dam has been built close by. Once the dam's reservoir is filled then the existing town will be underwater. It's worth noting some historic monuments and the town's entire population have been moved to the 'New' Hassankeyf located not far from the 'original' town.

The 'new' Hassankeyf town on the
Tigris River in the Batman province near Mardin (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Wine is another attraction in Mardin. Remember the monasteries mentioned above? Well, these monks and their friends ferment wine from local grapes in large quantities. It's reasonably priced (or cheap if you're buying wine in a highly taxed environment like Singapore) and easy drinking. The wine is readily available in shops dotted on the main street of the old city.

Grapes from the Midyat valley produces decent
wine which is easily available across Mardin city (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Mardin is about architecture and history. It's about soap (yes, there's a lot of good locally produced soap around) and wine. It's about narrow lanes and stone houses. It's about keeping alive Christian monuments and practices in a country which is 99.8% Muslim (according to Turkish government sources). For travelers heading to Turkey's east, Mardin is a necessary stop.
______________________________________________________

Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Presently, Imran is spending ten weeks (March – May 2019) in Turkey exploring the country. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Gaziantep or Antep: it's still mosaics, castles, pistachios and coffee


It's a short bus journey from Adana to Gaziantep. Antep, as the city is informally known, is almost 200 kilometers east of Adana and not far from the Syrian border - Aleppo is less than 100 kilometers drive south.


Antep Castle (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Antep's history stretches back to the Stone Age - remember the Stone Age from your history classes?!. That means the city has been continuously inhabited for over a million years with various powers, i.e. the Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines and finally the Turks (Seljuk and Ottoman) in control of the area.

Though it is Ataturk and the later Ottoman period which drives me to Turkey, the country also houses some amazing historical artefacts. A taste of this history is available at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Antep. The museum houses a diverse and breathtaking collection of mosaics. 

One of the most famous mosaics on display
at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, Antep, Turkey (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
Much of the art focuses on the ancient city of Zeugma, a city believed to have been founded by Alexander's army in 300 BC. Zeugma, which literally means “bridge” or “crossing” in ancient Greek, gets its name as it was located at a major ancient crossing point on the river Euphrates. The archaelogical site of Zeugma is on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List.

Other than the Mosaic Museum, Antep is home to a Hamam Museum. The Hamam – or Turkish bath – is an integral part of Turkish culture. The museum is compact but provides a great introduction to the multifacted hamam culture found across the Ottoman Turkish empire.

The Hamam Museum is conveniently located next to the well preserved Antep Castle

So what, you say? Every Turkish city has an old castle and they all look and feel the same. Well, yes, but there is one difference in Antep. To get to the top of the castle visitors walk through a well constructed tunnel outlining the history of the Turkish War of Independence, specifically Antep's role in the War. Unfortunately the commentary is in Turkish so non-Turkish speakers can only view the visuals and guess at the commentary!

Menengic or pistachio coffee as served in one of Antep's many coffee shops (Photo: Imran Ahmed)
If history is not your thing then focus on the word 'fistik!' Fistik is the Turkish word for pistachio and there are a lot of pistachios in the region. 

The Antep fistik is famous throughout Turkey. It's plentiful and it's cheap. Try these nuts (technically pistachios arer drupes - a type of fruit – and not nuts!) straight from the shell, in baclava sweets or even in a type of pistachio coffee called menengic.

Antep has an unique place in Turkish history. No travels to Turkey's east are complete without at least a brief stopover in Gaziantep. From Alexander's general who started the Zeugma settlement, to the city's heroic defense during the War of Independence, Antep has it's own story to tell. Undoubtedly, Antep's story is incomplete without mentioning the word fistik. Taste it for yourself! 


Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. Presently, Imran is spending ten weeks (March – May 2019) in Turkey exploring the country. He is available on twitter (@grandmoofti); Instagram(@imranahmedsg) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.