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.
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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 imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com. 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 imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com. 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 imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com. Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

No Muslims in the US, no Pakistanis in Singapore?


Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Singapore General Elections 2015: ten key takeaway...": 

I read through your entire blog and I've got to honestly admit - as a Singaporean of Indian descent - that I was surprised to find out that you were granted Singapore citizenship. Didn't the PAP promise us that they'd carefully monitor the intake of new citizens and select citizens from backgrounds that are least likely to cause conflict with actual Singaporeans? The fact that they're now naturalising Pakistanis, many of whom irrationally hate Indians and non-Muslims to the core, kind of flies in the face of their promise. It is disappointing. You are intelligent, progressive, and I have nothing against you, but I wouldn't feel safe in my country if many of your countrymen (or should I say ex-countrymen) were to come here and take up citizenship. I doubt many of them would be able to leave their petty cross-border mindset behind and would probably cause a lot of problems by insulting third and fourth-gen local Indians, many of whom have nothing to do with that nonsense in the first place.


-Excerpt from a comment posted by an anonymous reader. The full comment is reproduced at the end of this article.  

I was upset – but not surprised – to read the above comment from a self-proclaimed Indian-Singaporean. Effectively, the reader has called for banning Pakistanis from living in Singapore. (A lawyer friend suggested I file a police report as in his opinion there is enough 'irrational hatred' for the police to investigate the author for inciting hatred under Singapore's strict laws.)

The Pakistan Monument, located on hills on the outskirts of the federal capital Islamabad, represents the nation's four provinces and three territories
The comment betrays a lack of understanding of Singaporean values. Where was the reader during the daily recital of (Rajaretnam's) Singapore pledge? And the standard daily exhortations of Singapore's multi-religious and multi-cultural mantra? Clearly, the reader is infected with the irrationality and narrow mindedness of which he accuses the 160 million or so Pakistanis.

Not surprising really; because 'Pakistaniphobia' is a much more virulent strain of the Islamophobia currently sweeping the world.

Islamophobia is best exemplified by Trump's call to ban the entry of Muslims into the United States (like that is going to stop mass shootings in a country drowning under a sea of weapons!). However, anyone of Pakistani origin will tell you Pakistaniphobia has a much longer history.

Large doses of Pakistaniphobia are regularly fed by the mainstream media to the general public. Consider the portrayal of Pakistan in an average media diet consisting of shows such as 'Homeland,' 'Zero Dark Thirty' or indeed the pre-9/11 'Black Hawk Down' and one begins to see the extent of sensationalism surrounding the nation. Typically, these ideas are gorged as if they are a juicy pepper steak cooked by a Michelin starred chef.

Indeed, a few years ago when a US military officer sneezed inside the Pentagon building, within minutes a television commentator citing 'authoritative intelligence sources' could trace the sneeze directly to a bio-terrorist plot hatched in Pakistan's badlands and, of course, supported by the country's military intelligence agency. More recently, retired US military officials have suggested the disappeared Malaysian MH 370 airliner was hijacked and flown to a Taliban air base in Pakistan!

A map representing the overseas Pakistani diaspora. Countries in red have a Pakistani population between 100,000 - 1,000,000 while the pink have up to 100,000 Pakistani origin residents (source: Wikipedia)
Fear and hatred of Pakistanis runs deep all over the world, including among segments in Singapore. Pakistanis live with these emotions daily. But as people nurtured under the shadows of ancient civilizations cultivated by the waters of the mighty Indus River, Pakistanis will not just survive but thrive. Pakistan and Pakistanis will continue to contribute to the progress of ideas globally and, especially, in Singapore – despite the efforts of bigots everywhere!

________________________________

Below is the entire unedited comment by the reader.

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Singapore General Elections 2015: ten key takeaway...": 


I read through your entire blog and I've got to honestly admit - as a Singaporean of Indian descent - that I was surprised to find out that you were granted Singapore citizenship. Didn't the PAP promise us that they'd carefully monitor the intake of new citizens and select citizens from backgrounds that are least likely to cause conflict with actual Singaporeans? The fact that they're now naturalising Pakistanis, many of whom irrationally hate Indians and non-Muslims to the core, kind of flies in the face of their promise. It is disappointing. You are intelligent, progressive, and I have nothing against you, but I wouldn't feel safe in my country if many of your countrymen (or should I say ex-countrymen) were to come here and take up citizenship. I doubt many of them would be able to leave their petty cross-border mindset behind and would probably cause a lot of problems by insulting third and fourth-gen local Indians, many of whom have nothing to do with that nonsense in the first place. 


I'm a staunch supporter of the CMIO model. Singapore can never be like the United States, and this country is a lot more insular than most people think it really is. There's nothing wrong with that at all, and the fact that we have four official languages enshrined in the constitution whilst the U.S. has none is proof that the CMIO model is not going anywhere and will be here to stay for the forseeable future. Of course, there are people who call for it to be abolished but those are mostly outside voices who feel out of place in a country that they aren't historically connected to in the first place. In that case, the U.S. or Australia would be a much better option for them. 

Posted by Anonymous to
 The Grand Moofti Speaks at 09 November, 2015 08:13

__________________
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 imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com. Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg.

Friday, 13 November 2015

The adventures of an Intrepid Immortal Explorer in Ayutthuya, Thailand!


Bangkok: an old fashioned 'authentic' city?

For someone living in Singapore's pristine and orderly (and recently haze infested!) environment, the chaos, color and confusion of Bangkok is a welcome respite. Walking on broken pavements, exchanging smiles with strangers, crossing roads without waiting for the 'Green Man' and at great peril to one's life just feels wonderful!

Then there is the Thai rail system. Not the subway or overhead BTS Skytrains, but good old fashioned 1970s style trains going 'clickety-clack' as they take you - mostly at excruciatingly slow speeds - from one city to another.

Recently I boarded one such train at Bangkok's main station to take me to Ayutthuya.

No bullet trains in Thailand - the State Railways of Thailand operates comfortable, old fashioned trains of the sort novelists love to write about!

The main hall at Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway Station, first opened in 1916. The station has a separate counter for foreigners where staff speak English. The station is accessible by Bangkok's subway system. 
Regal Ayutthaya

Ayutthuya is a historic Siamese (Thai) city. It was the capital of the Kingdom of Ayutthuya (1351-1767). Despite almost constant warring with Burma (now known as Myanmar), the Ayutthuya Kingdom was a regional economic powerhouse. The city was home to a multitude of foreign traders, some from as far as Europe.

As the train pulled into Ayutthuya, I only had a vague idea of my action plan. I knew I must see the magnificent temples and ruins sprinkled across the city but I had no idea how to get to them. As I was alone I decided would 'improvise' as I went along: no need for any detailed Grand Master Plan!

A view of Ayutthaya Railway Station. It was raining when my train arrived and the middle platforms had no canopies protecting passengers from the rain or sun. 
The adventure takes shape

At the Ayutthuya train station, a suburban size station with perhaps four lines running through, I paused to gather my thoughts. Luckily, there was a tourist guide map posted at the station. After taking a look at the map, I realized most of the sites were concentrated in one area of the city across the river. The map was not drawn to scale so I couldn't gauge how far the ruins were from the railway station. Nonetheless, I decided I had time and could walk the distance.

A self-guided walking tour meant I must diplomatically extricate myself from the clutches of the umpteen 'Tuk Tuk' drivers offering their services as expert guides. Their sales pitch included statements intended to create fear such as, "The temples are many kilometers away from here" and "the river is very wide, cannot cross!"

Being the Intrepid Immortal Explorer I ignored the scare tactics and decided to try my luck anyway.

I ventured out of the station – there is only one direction to exit the station. Upon leaving the station, I walked towards the area where Thai food stalls - of the usual sort found all across Thailand - were located and found myself at the mouth of a small street.

With the railway station behind me there was only one way to go: forward!

A few hundred meters and several small hotels later I came across a sign for a boat crossing across the river.

The jetty for the boat across the river. 
Across the river and into Ayutthaya's deserted streets

After paying my five Baht - about USD 0.15 - I boarded a small boat at a wooden jetty to cross the river. Accompanying me on the boat were a few other travelers along with some locals going about their daily business. Based on my cursory reading of the city map at the train station (I was distracted by the tuk tuk drivers harassing me) after crossing the river I must continue to head 'forward' until 'a visible sign' indicating otherwise.

So, once on the other bank of the river, I headed 'forward' hoping for a sign it was the right direction.

As the glaring Thai sun burnt a hole in the top of my head, I started doubting my initial bravado thinking, "What an idiot?! Wouldn't it have been easier (and wiser) to have hired a tuk tuk driver, see the sights and not walk around like a crazy 'farangi' in a foreign land?!" Another part of me said, "Relax. The only way to see a country is on foot. I have time. Walking is the best way to experience a foreign land. If I get lost I can always pay an extortionate fee to the next tuk tuk driver and get myself back to the Ayuttuya Railway station. Besides, no one ever got good photographs sitting in the back of a tuk tuk!"

In an age before Google Maps led pedestrians to destinations, there were pagodas! The tall structures act as landmarks for fearless travelers.

Pagodas from heaven

Then it happened, as if I had stolen a glance at heaven I saw the pinnacle of a stupa! After spotting the pagoda, all doubts quickly receded and the Intrepid Immortal Explorer in me was revived!


Based on my precise calculations, the stupa which was hidden behind buildings, was located up ahead (forward, forward, it's always forward!) and slightly to the left. So I walked in a slightly forward leftish direction towards the pagoda.

Success was not long in coming.

Behold Ayutthaya's glory?

This is it? No, it couldn't be. Yes, it's ornate and historical … but, it's one temple, slightly small and certainly not as majestic as I expected in the grand, wealthy, regal capital city of Ayutthaya!


Two views of the first historical structure I came across. It was outside of the main excavation site. 
I soon realized this temple was an appetizer. It is a secondary site and not a part of Ayutthaya's major excavations. Despite the disappointment I took as many photographs as possible. After all, if I didn't find the city's major sites I should at the very least have something to show for my trip?!

Hope keeps humanity alive. After tasting minor success, major success must be around the corner! So onwards I went. In the only direction I know: forward.

Those who don't believe in an Omniscient Power should enlist as soldiers to fight in the latest global war. (There are no atheists in trenches.) If the thought of death in uniform doesn't quite take your fancy, then the next best thing is a walk around the deserted streets of Ayutthuya with neither an online nor a paper map. Either experience is enough to make a person believer!

Then providence smiled for me once more.

I saw another, this time more imposing, pagoda like structure in the distance! Again, my choice was clear: forward, forward towards the pagoda.

Behold Ayutthaya's glory part II!

As I got closer to the site I noticed a few visitors milling around the area. There were ruins spread out over a large area. The main structure was undergoing restoration. I was encouraged by the sight of a ticket office collecting an entrance fee from all visitors. The ticketing booth was a sign I was getting closer to the main event.

I paid my fee, went inside and explored. The overcast lighting was not supportive for photography but I went crazy anyway. This might be the best set of ruins I come across today. So I explored every ruin, pagoda, broken Buddha sculpture and anything else I could find at the site.

At the time I was unaware this site was Wat Ratchaburana, one of Ayutthaya's main Buddhist temples. After I climbed atop the main structure I observed multiple pagoda and stupa like structures to my left. My 'go it alone and leave the tuk tuk behind' decision was being vindicated with each passing minute!




Several views of a major excavation in Ayutthaya from the heyday of the city as capital of a flourishing Buddhist Kingdom. It is alleged the heads of many Buddha statues were decapitated by Burmese invaders when they ransacked the city in the eighteenth century.
After completing my methodical review of Wat Ratchaburana, I scurried across the road to the area of the multiple pagodas. It was an enclosed location and I couldn't find the entrance. There weren't many people around. 

Success comes to those who sweat (and walk the lonely road)!

After walking a little farther the whole world suddenly seemed to open. There were tourist buses, traders manning little stalls and tourists everywhere.

This has to be the place. The average tourist is not bussed to any old historical attraction – only significant ones. Tourists are on a busy schedule, taking 'selfies' at multiple locations requires using time efficiently!

I bought my entrance ticket and proceeded inside.

The temples were amazing. Surely, Ayutthaya's temples will give Angkor Wat a run for its money. (I recently learned Angkor Wat once was part of the Siamese Empire and, in case Cambodians forget the fact, there exists a scale model of Angkor's temple complex inside the Bangkok palace.)






Inside the Ayutthaya Historical Park: scene of the majority of remains associated with the Kingdom of Ayutthaya.
A short while later, I found myself staring at the famous 'Buddha Head in Tree Roots' and several other 'vintage' Ayutthaya structures. It is easy to understand why the ruins enclosed inside the Ayutthaya Historical Park were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.



The Buddha Head in Tree Roots, a landmark Ayutthaya attraction.
By the time I started my walk back to the railway station I was a content traveler.

To experience a foreign land travel like a peasant not a prince

At the railway station I bought my ticket and waited for the train. Only this time I decided to travel in a non-air conditioned, third class carriage without a reserved seat.  After my success in navigating Ayutthaya, traveling 'like a local' seemed the most fitting way to cap my day.

I was not mistaken.



Once the train pulled into Ayutthaya Station I scrambled aboard the Third Class carriage. It was not easy finding a seat but I squeezed onto one across from a Thai gentleman who epitomized an ageing rock star of yesteryear. He had the tattoos and pony tail to prove it. On the other side of the aisle was a mother with her young five-six year old daughter.

The rest of the carriage was crammed with all variety of goods and people. One woman seemed to be travelling to Bangkok with enough items to fill up an entire shop. (I suspect she was traveling to the big city to do exactly that, i.e. set up shop.) Occasionally, a man or woman would walk through the carriage offering food for sale. The carriage was a veritable Thai village on wheels!

Over the course of the ninety minute journey I got a few nice smiles from the little girl across the aisle – enough to liven up an otherwise lethargic journey. Though I didn't have the nerve to ask the rock star for his autograph!

A happy ending!

Despite the poor light conditions for photography, my Ayutthaya experience was thoroughly enjoyable. A return visit is definitely on the cards. Although on my next visit I may hire a bicycle to help me move around. The roads are not busy and the city is compact enough to conveniently cycle between the main sights.

For visitors to Bangkok, Ayutthaya is an easy and convenient day trip out of the city's urban sprawl. Taken holistically, Ayutthaya is a worthwhile escape especially as it gives a glimpse into 'non-Bangkok' Thailand. Bangkok is another country altogether ….
__________________
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 imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com. Follow Imran on twitter at @grandmoofti and Instragram at imranahmedsg.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Europe can accept large numbers of immigrants – a lesson learnt in yesterday's Malaya!


Recently, television screens are filled with pictures of a stream of mostly Arab refugees wandering into Europe. Many Europeans are disturbed at the images of sheer desperation but are also worried about the future impact of accepting these refugees.

One may argue these refugees are simply 'collateral damage' from the various invasions and wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria) waged by Western powers in the name of freedom and democracy. One may also pontificate about the moral obligation Europe, particularly NATO member states, have towards refugees from war torn regions of the Middle East.

Note the countries accepting the largest refugee populations in the world, based on UN data, are not wealthy, e.g. Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey.
Let us not do either and, instead, take a look at a few numbers.

According to the CIA, Iraq has an estimated population of 37 million people and Syria 17 million. Simple mathematics suggests that if Europe hypothetically accepts and relocates the entire living populations of both Syria and Iraq, i.e. 54 million souls, they will Europeans will still account for just about ten percent of Europe's current population of over 500 million people. In other words, 'existing' European residents will comprise 90 percent of the population even after such a large (and unrealistic) dislocation of populations.

Undoubtedly, there are issues of geographic concentrations, etc. but then these refugees are 'Yuppie Migrants.' They are better educated than the average economic migrant of the last few centuries.

Refugees march through Hungary in August 2015
Now take a look at some historic numbers from Southeast Asia.

Singapore and the broader Malaya region (today's Malaysia) was virtually exclusively inhabited by various Malay speaking peoples from the region in 1819. Then in 1819 the British East India Company established its presence and colonized the island for king and country. Subsequently, British colonial authorities opened up the floodgates to new arrivals (this is not the place to analyze the reasons for such a policy).

Immigration from China and India was so intense that Malays are a minority in Singapore. Malays now account for less than fifteen percent of Singapore's population. In Malaysia, non-Malays constitute approximately forty percent of the country's population. The demographics of Singapore and Malaya have changed indescribably since the advent of colonialism.

Here is an account of events from Singapore published in 1846. It reads much like events pertaining to the European Refugee Crisis of today.

Incessant Chinese migrant arrivals stretch colony's infrastructure

Singapore's authorities are overwhelmed by the daily arrival of thousands of economic migrants from China and India. The wave of immigrants, primarily from China's southern Fujian province, arrive at a make-shift jetty on Telok Ayer Street. Thence, the fortunate souls who survive the perilous weeks long sea journey immediately proceed to the nearby Thian Hock Keng Temple to give thanks to the Goddess of the Seas – Ma Zhu. Most Chinese immigrants believe their safe arrival is due in large part to Ma Zhu's helping hand.

While speaking to this correspondent about the difficulties of accommodating such a large number of immigrants, social worker John Doe said, "To add to our problems, a steady stream of migrants from the Tamil speaking Coromandel coast of India are also arriving in large numbers. Both groups are fleeing instability and poverty in their homelands and believe Singapore to be the new Promised Land."

Authorities are concerned at the impact the newcomers will have on the ethnic mix of the predominantly Malay-Muslim population of Singapore. Already, some Malays have expressed discomfort at the changing racial and ethnic mix on the island. The disgruntlement about the changing character of the island is compounded by the religious and cultural traditions of most new migrants. These Malays suggest the large influx of idol worshipping foreigners will create tensions among an otherwise harmonious complex of diverse Malay communities.

Authorities have established cells to register the migrants, though most simply make their way to the nearest Chinese clan association for assistance. The lucky ones knock on the doors of a distant relative or friend who is already residing in Singapore.

Medical practitioners are alarmed at the crowded conditions in streets surrounding South Bridge Road and are urging authorities to designate special buildings as refugee camps for the wary, hungry and often sick refugees.

Excerpt from "Incessant Chinese migrant arrivals stretch colony's infrastructure." The Straights Times, August 14, 1846.*

First port of call for many Chinese refugees arriving in Singapore was the Thian Hock Keng Temple, now a popular tourist attraction
Singapore not only survived the onslaught of migrants from foreign lands but perhaps the island thrived as a result of the new migrants!

Europe, too, has an opportunity to reinvent itself and emerge a stronger and more dynamic continent. European nations may either do this willingly by helping integrate the current wave of refugees or, alternately, these nations may swim against the tide of history by erecting physical and psychological barriers against the new entrants.

Let us see whether European values extend beyond the continent's own borders.

* Please note this article is a fictional account of events written by the blogger in 2015. It is not a genuine excerpt from any newspaper of other publication.

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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.