Monday, 31 August 2009

Singapore’s got Cash and a New Extreme Skate Park!

The 'Y' generation has it good in Singapore.
But many young Singaporeans do not seem to recognize the fact.  They tend to complain a lot - on almost any subject.
Some may dismiss my sentiments as misguided by suggesting that with a Third World background I have low expectations. However, those Singaporeans who have lived in the First World will know that there is more than a grain of truth in what I say.
Like any society, Singapore has many imperfections.
Certainly, debates surrounding policies may be less vibrant than in more mature democracies. Yet, as is important in a relatively small society, consensus and consultation is a prime motivator underpinning significant policy shifts.
Singapore is more open today. Plays with openly gay themes are being reviewed in the Straits Times. The internet is amok with sentiments that would have got people sued and bankrupt less than a decade ago.
And, of course, skateboarders are no longer considered a curse on society.
In the past, many Singaporeans may have considered skateboarders and other 'urban sports people' as a public nuisance.
Today extreme sports are supported by the government.
Official patronage can make a difference when the government has cash. Singapore does have cash and can throw money at problems because of its legendary fiscal prudence.
Look a little further, say at the US and the UK, and you will notice that these governments' are unable to spend 'real' money. The only funds available to them are borrowed from China and the oil rich Arab countries.
After the recent bank bail outs, it is not outrageous to suggest both nations are technically bankrupt.
Meanwhile here in Singapore, the Prime Minister officially inaugurated a new extreme skate park facility. The park cost SGD 8 million to build and was the outcome of a consultation process with young Singaporeans.
Transforming a society is a slow process. Government bureaucracies and the proverbial 'Establishment' alter attitudes at a glacial pace. Implementation of change is even slower.
The 'Y' generation's feedback is essential in encouraging change but so is an awareness of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Change does not always take us to where we were hoping to go. 

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Singapore’s Secularism – Fast or Feast during Ramadan!

It's good to be a Muslim (or at least a half-Muslim) in Singapore.
During the fasting month of Ramadan, which began a few days ago, I can eat freely in public. If I wish, I can even join friends for a drink in the evening.
Perhaps if I had more (practising) Muslim friends the peer pressure on me to conform may be greater? Until then, I continue to enjoy the unfettered virtues of secularism offered by the Republic.
Like me, my co-religionists in Singapore can choose to fast or feast depending on their own personal inclination.
Unfortunately, the noose of religiosity is slowly tightening among our neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia. The freedom of choice is moving away from an individual's conscience to a blind enforcement of collective social values.
The Malaysian state of Selangor has now empowered mosque officials to detain and arrest Muslims caught drinking alcohol in public or eating, drinking and smoking during Ramadan. In Indonesia, under pressure from Islamic groups the police have dropped a plan to monitor Friday sermons despite evidence that some preach hatred and violence.
Let's be clear, religious clerics in the form of Imams have just been handed judicial powers by the Malaysian state of Selangor!
If Malaysia continues on this path then it is only a matter of time before a Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Discouragement of Vice (a la Saudi Arabia) comes into being.
The month of Ramadan is perhaps the greatest expression of the importance of secularism in a multi-religious society like Singapore.  
Singapore's legal framework must continue to ensure that civil liberties of all citizens are protected. This is especially crucial in light of the increasing religiosity that pervades the countries surrounding our Little Red Dot.
In due course, I will answer to Allah why I violated His edicts.
Until that day, I am not prepared to justify my behaviour to someone who feels they can appropriate God's role in this material world – no matter how long their beard.

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Korean Missionaries and the Afghan War

Proselytization by Christian evangelicals finds its way into the Singapore media from time to time. The general public normally complains about them. Sometimes the government even prosecutes the zealots for crossing a red line.
South Korea is different. Churches in that country seem to indulge in a 'dare game' with each other over the most dangerous places they can go and do good deeds.
There are an estimated 19,000 South Korean missionaries guided by Church leaders into countries like Yemen, Jordan, and Turkey (among others). Until 2007, busloads were traversing the roads of Afghanistan as well.
I really don't believe that Muslims ever seriously contemplate giving up their religion. It makes no difference whether they practice (e.g. pray, fast) or not. It's just one of those things.
Jews will understand what I am saying. If someone is born a Jew then I am almost certain they will die a Jew and be given a Jewish burial. This holds true even if they are named Bernie Madoff.
Of course there are exceptions and some Muslims do leave the faith. However, these are the exceptions which prove the rule.
Maybe it's part of the 'Islamic' socialization process and the obvious exposure to religious beliefs and rituals from birth.
The first thing a Muslim baby hears (yes, after they have been all cleaned up) is the 'Azan' or call to prayer. Not surprisingly, the Azan features prominently in the final rites of a Muslim.
It generally does not matter how pious the 'Good Muslim' is in-between the First and Last prayer. S/he will be buried as a Muslim and get all the 'privileges' due a Muslim soul.
Now, back to the subject of the 19,000 person South Korean Missionary Christian Army (let's call it the SKMCA). Like any army, the SKMCA must pick and choose its battles carefully. The privates will follow the generals anywhere – they are on a holy mission.
Afghans - a Muslim people ripe for conversion?
When a busload of SKCA troops was captured by the Afghan Taliban in August 2007 it demonstrated the complete and utter incompetence of the SKMCA generals and leadership structure.
One can only speculate about the mission briefing in the days prior to the departure of the SKMCA Afghanistan contingent.
'We are travelling to Afghanistan next week. The Afghan people are weak in their existing faith. They are ripe for conversion.
Don't worry about the Taliban insurgency. We will be perfectly safe there – God will protect us.
The landscape of the country is amazing. In order not to block our views of the scenery, our bus will not be guarded or escorted while we travel the most dangerous stretch of highway in the country (maybe the world), from Kandahar to Kabul.
That NATO soldiers and foreign diplomats only travel on the Kabul-Kandahar highway in armed convoys is irrelevant. They are there to wage war. We are there to spread love.'
A 42 year old pastor and a 29 year old IT professional were killed during the ordeal. It is believed that the South Korean government paid a ransom of between USD 2 – 30 million to secure the release of the remaining 19 hostages.
As an additional sweetener, the 200 South Korean troops based in Afghanistan were to be withdrawn by the end of 2007. Of course, the withdrawal was already planned prior to the kidnapping.
The Church leading the mission should be tried for wilful negligence leading to double murder.
The South Korean government should be investigated to determine whether it funded terrorism by payment of a ransom. Any such payment, if made, violates the stipulations of international accords such as the Financial Action Task Force Against Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing.
Any South Korean payment was certainly used to finance the Taliban infrastructure.  In other words, the money was employed to kill NATO / Afghan soldiers and civilians as well as spread extremist Islamic ideology in the region.

That the South Korean government is finally contemplating regulating the activity of the SKMCA is welcome. It may be too late for those who lost their lives in Afghanistan but it might just temper the future folly of some Church leaders.
The SKMCA is not going to win many battles in countries like Jordan, Turkey, or Yemen. It will be better advised to refocus its efforts among more receptive populations.

Friday, 28 August 2009

Singapore's Ben and Jerry's Problem - the Price!

A brand name is worth its weight in gold. Singapore's distributors of Ben and Jerry's ice cream certainly seem to agree.

Based on August 19 exchange rates Singapore is by far one of the world's most expensive cities to indulge in a pint of quality ice cream.
1.   Singapore:           10.28
2.   Paris:                    9.19
3.   Bangkok:               8.76
4.   Kuala Lumpur:        8.18
5.   London:                 6.60
6.   New York:              3.32
(Source: Wall Street Journal, 'Arbitrage'. All prices quoted in USD.)
Any guesses on how much McDonald's (one dollar) ice cream will retail for (in Singapore) if it were available in one pint containers?

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Bordeaux 2005 - Vintage of the Century?

Forget the 2006 Bordeaux vintage at USD 600 per bottle.
It is the mid-range 2005 Bordeaux bottles which may hold the best value for serious (but not so wealthy!) wine drinkers.
At least that is what wine reviewers John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter suggest in this short (3.42 minutes) video about some notable 2005 wines.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Temasek vs. Orchard Towers: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Orchard Towers is well known to both visitors and residents of Singapore. What cannot be resolved at ASEAN summits by our leaders is often resolved through 'people to people' contact among ASEAN citizens.
But the global economic crisis has caught up with Singapore's own venue for ASEAN mini-summits. 'Bonhomie' at Orchard Towers has hit a new low.
A recent article (August 23) published in the Straits Times outlined a peculiar problem associated with highly specialized 'Foreign Talent.'
Catfights between rival staff of newly opened massage parlours have become a regular daytime feature in Orchard Towers.
It seems even churchgoers are feeling the heat. (Church services are regularly held on the seventh floor of the building.)
Is this just one more example of squeaky clean Singapore's hard earned brand image slowly being squandered? Or am I missing the forest for the trees, i.e. this is all part of the 'New Pulsating' Singapore desired by the younger generation of Singaporeans.
Let's not forget the fine distinction between transparency and openness.
Disclosures (say) pertaining to national wealth, e.g. Temasek, is 'transparency' while licensing differing lifestyles is 'openness' and social progress.

Monday, 24 August 2009

In the Murky Depths of Singapore’s Blogosphere

My first snorkelling experience exposed me to the abundance of life in the sea. My recent experiences in the 'World of Blogging' have been just as revealing.
The profusion of life in Singapore's 'underwater internet world' is fascinating.

Like the underwater marine world, there are all sorts of fascinating life forms in this particular universe. One can find sharks, whales, pretty, purple, yellow and just boring old 'catch of the day' fish swimming around.
Some can be seen only at certain times of day and near their favourite sites. Others trawl the web almost randomly. Some lurk in disguise. Many are dangerous, more are friendly but all have one thing in common.
Take these creatures out of their underwater world and they will quickly perish. Like a fish out of water.
The ocean is a vast place and a sense of anonymity can be strangely comforting to some. They communicate freely and without any regard for normal rules of social interaction.
When you operate under a pen name then etiquette suddenly becomes optional.
Racist and ethnic slurs are commonplace. Protesting and 'anti-establishment' behaviour is worn as a badge of courage. Even when they are silly and ridiculous comments.

We all want Singapore to be a better place. There are millions of opinions on how to improve life in the city. Debates are about issues and not personalities.

Although often anonymous, internet communication still requires respect for traditional rules of etiquette

Young idealists beware. Everything is recorded on the internet. Nothing is private anymore. Choose your words carefully or you could land yourself in trouble, if not today then maybe tomorrow.
The blogosphere and the underwater world is a treacherous place.
You can drown in its depths or be eaten up by the many predators loitering around each corner. And, trust me, there are many predators hanging about.
For netizens, some basic self-regulation today is better than the implementation of a formal licensing regime in the future.
If chewing gum can be regulated then so can blogging. Don't assume today is any guide to tomorrow.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Singapore's Temasek and the Asian Wall Street Journal

The Wall Street journal chose its words carefully on August 20, 2009. There does not seem to be any reason to sue the newspaper this time around!
In an editorial entitled, 'Temasek and Transparency - III' the paper called for greater transparency. The opinion piece quoted extensively from Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam's recent statement on the controversy surrounding the appointment of Temasek's new CEO.

During Singapore's move from Third World to First World it has amassed huge foreign exchange reserves

It is true that Singaporean's desire greater disclosure from the organization. No can argue with the following words written by the paper, "Temasek has taken baby steps toward more transparency under Ms. Ho. The questions raised in parliament Tuesday show the Singaporean people support those efforts, and want more."

In fact, it will be nice if other Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) such as from the wealthy Gulf countries and China also reveal more information.
Singapore is not the only culprit in the dock on this matter.
Disclosures by SWF's are a complex matter. It is not only about providing more information to the public. Other factors must be considered.
The information may affect portfolio positioning and strategy. Stale or out of date portfolio information is perhaps less risky to divulge but questions arise about how to define 'out of date' for investors which have a 10 year or longer investment time horizon.
Performance data is different. Making performance data known in a prescribed format is not a portfolio risk. Without adequate performance data reasonable oversight can be problematic.

Singaporean women seeking good fortune by touching a statue of the Laughing Buddha

The real question then is what is the basis of oversight undertaken by the Board? What powers does the Board exercise during this oversight exercise and have they fulfilled their fiduciary obligations by ensuring management is kept on its toes. It may have been due to the new CEO's proposed Board changes that his appointment was rescinded.
In due course, I am sure the details will filter out. In the interim, at least the foreign media is learning how not to ruffle feathers in Singapore!

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Pakistan – Home of Fine Single Malt Whiskeys – No Kidding!

Interesting Fact II

Pakistan is a conservative Muslim society. Despite my own wishful thinking it is no Turkey. (I promise a Pakistani Ataturk will be born one-day!)

Thankfully, however, Pakistan is also no Saudi Arabia.

In the large urban areas women are reasonably well integrated into the work force. The head to toe burqa (veil) is typically only worn by Pathan women in the ultra-conservative Northwest Frontier Province. Alcohol is quite easily available – legally to non-Muslims and 'quasi-legally' to Muslims.

This story is about another unusual part of Pakistan's heritage.

Murree Brewery Company Limited is one of Pakistan's oldest publicly listed companies and is involved in the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages.

Murree, near Pakistan's capital Islamabad, is a popular domestic tourist destination

It was established in 1860 near the hill station town of Murree, approximately 30 kilometres northwest of Islamabad. (Islamabad, of course, did not exist at the time.) The company expanded in the late 1800s by establishing breweries in Rawalpindi and Quetta.

Murree Brewery beer is historically of a high quality and maintains those standards even today. Its first international award was secured for product excellence at the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876.

The company is known not just for its beer but also makes whiskey, gin and vodka. In fact, the company has the distinction of being the first Muslim manufacturer of 12 and 8 year old single malt Scotch whiskeys. A limited 6,000 bottles of a'rare' 20 year malt was also produced a few years ago.

Whiskey aficionados may note what Jim Murray, author of the annual 'Whiskey Bible' said of the 8 year old malt, "Not only does Murree's 8 years old Single Matured Malts compare favourably, it is much better than a lesser Scotch malt, which comes nowhere near matching this Whisky's crisp and delicate maltiness".

It may be some time for the international beer and whiskey drinking world to appreciate the company's products – the company reported annual sales of just (approx.) USD 23 million in its 2008 financial year.

While exporting alcohol from Pakistan is illegal, it is said that the smuggling trade in the lawless Pak-Afghan border region is not limited to weapons and terrorists.

It may not be Murree Beer but at least it's beer!

Meanwhile, I can tell you that as you read this article a Pakistani (or Afghani maybe?) is enjoying a cool glass of Murree's beer distinctively brewed from Pakistani six row barley, malts and Bavarian hop products.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Singapore - Time for a 'Peace Corps?'

Humans have short memories.

Take Singapore's case. In one generation the city-state has gone from Third World to First World. GDP per capita increased from USD 561 in 1966 to USD 37,597 in 2008. Physical infrastructure is now world class.
Has everyone forgotten this fact?

A 1959 advertisement from Singapore's Straits Times newspaper
There seems to be a propensity to complain among some sections of the Singaporean population. The complaints vary from the increasing cost of living, the quality of public transport, to the role of immigrants ('foreign talent') in Singaporean society.
Constructive intellectual debate is healthy. However, placing issues in their historical perspective is important and, ideally, suggestions to help mitigate the issues are always welcome.
Complaining for the sake of complaining is less welcome.
More often than not, what one senses in Singapore is a plea for intervention by the government to solve a particular grievance. Like a child running to her parent.
When in doubt, ask the government for 'top down' guidance because the government is omnipotent in all things. For example, the government can control the websites our kids can access or solve problems between neighbours in a public housing (HDB) estate.
In the past, the government may have encouraged such a paternal relationship but Singapore's political culture has matured considerably during the last decade. An overly protective or patronizing relationship between ruled and ruler is no longer relevant.
Singaporeans are taking greater control of their destiny. They are speaking their mind more confidently. Even sensitive issues concerning race and religion are beginning to filter to the surface.

A Singapore scene (1978)
The more open environment encouraged by Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong during his tenure as PM is paying dividends. An education system slightly tweaked to encourage a more holistic learning experience and move away from purely rote learning is also helping.
Maybe it is time to consider a 'Peace Corps' model of overseas service for all young adults in Singapore?
Under such a system Singaporeans of a certain age (say 21- 25) will be sent to a less developed country in the region for 3-6 months to engage in some form of social work. For the men, it can form a part of the National Service (NS) requirement (which was reduced from 2.5 years to 2 years recently). For women a new program will have to be developed.
The objective is to broaden the world view of young Singaporeans by having them come into contact with other cultures and people outside of their own comfort zone, i.e. Singapore.
By experiencing the realities of an emerging nation perhaps there will be a greater appreciation of today's Singapore.
A coeducational development program will have other positive side effects. It will increase integration among the races. It may even act as a stepping stone towards making NS a compulsory requirement for women (as in Israel).
Granted, a sweeping proposal such as the creation of a 'Civil Development Corps' is an unusual idea that requires further detailed analysis to determine its feasibility in the Singapore context. It is a scheme that deserves the attention of policy makers.

Singapore's pedal cab - some things should never change!

A graduate of the Civil Development Corps will be less likely to complain and more inclined to take action. Actions are required to keep Singapore competitive and thriving in a fast changing world.

Pakistani Transvestites Cashing in on their Rights

Following the recent announcement by the Supreme Court of Pakistan declaring that the government take immediate steps to stop discrimination against transvestites in the country, they seem to have won another victory.

A cricket match between the 'Sanam (Beloved) XI' and the 'Olympians XI' took place in Sukkur, Sindh recently. The Sanam team, captained by Sanam Khan, was formed entirely of transvestites.

The match was played in front of a full house at the local sports stadium.

To date, cricket mad Pakistan has been represented at the international level by a men's and women's team.

Not only did the 'Sanam XI' win their inaugural cricket match but the 'Man of the Match' came from their 'Sanam (Beloved) XI' team.

Perhaps the transvestites can translate their success on the cricket field into the political arena and make another run for the Prime Minister's post in the next general elections?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The Afghan President: King of (Only) His Castle?

Modern day Afghanistan is a loose conferedaration of tribes

The international media is giving due attention to the forthcoming Afghan Presidential elections.

On August 20 Afghani citizens will go to the polls in approximately 6,000 polling booths across the country to choose among 41 candidates for the Presidency. Insecurity fuelled by Taliban inspired violence has plagued these elections (see BBC video here).

Excuse me if I am slightly cynical about the elections. It is not that I doubt the intent and the impartiality of the polls.

But what exactly will the new President govern? The country has no bureaucratic infrastructure to implement any policies. The state apparatus has no revenue of its own and is almost entirely dependent on foreign sources to meet even basic operating costs.

A US Blackhawk helicopter flies near Kabul's Bagram Airbase

Security is primarily provided by foreign troops. It has been reported that the Taliban now operate a parallel judiciary in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city.

If a road is being built then the work crew requires NATO protection and foreign aid money is paid to foreign contractors. Nevertheless, it is the local Afghanis receiving subsistence wages who must brave the Taliban threats to actually build the road - when they are not being kidnapped or killed.

The poor have no choice but to try and make a living. Joining the Taliban war machine or becoming opium farmers suddenly seems attractive.

An Afghani man carries some 'nan' in a city street

What are some options that are available to improve the complex situation in the battle scarred nation?

Afghanistan has never been a unitary state. It has been a confederation comprising the various tribes and ethnic groups that inhabit the region. The Pashtuns (aka Pathans or Pakhtuns), which straddle both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, are the largest single group.

King Ahmad Shah Durrani, who unified the various Afghan tribes in the 1700s

The Taliban is mainly a Pashtun organization. Since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, the Northern Alliance movement, in alliance with the US, has effectively been in control of Kabul. The control has come largely at the expense of the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns form 42% of the Afghan population and the Tajiks 27%.

The international community must recognize the tribal nature of traditional Afghan society. It is the tribal structure that holds the key to minimizing Taliban violence and influence. It is a local form of democracy somewhat comparable to the Swiss cantonal approach.

The Pashtun tribes and their leaders must be supported politically through direct access to funds and development assistance.

Elders have a special place in Pashtun tribal culture

The tribal leaders are responsive to their own constituencies, members of their tribes. They have a vested interest in seeing roads, schools and markets built in their hamlets and villages. More importantly, if the tribes are consulted and included in the development process they will take ownership of the infrastructure, i.e. they will physically defend the improvements to their neighbourhood.

Central military force is important in the context of providing a security umbrella to the friendly and 'borderline' tribes. Military force effectively used will make the cost of joining the Taliban prohibitive. Becoming a Taliban fighter should not be seen as an easy way to earn a living by disaffected Pashtuns. Potential fighters must think twice and consider the price (death) before joining.

An ISAF soldier in an Afghan poppy field

But the primary weapon is negotiation. By using a combination of threats and bribes, the nominal loyalty of tribes can be weaned away from the Taliban.

There will always be an element of the Taliban who will not give up arms until either the foreigners have left or their austere version of Islamic law has been implemented. The impact of this extreme element on mainstream Afghan society can be minimized through social marginalization.

A second necessary condition is the inclusion of the Pashtuns in the Kabul political establishment. Since the fall of the Taliban an attempt has been made to placate Pashtun sensitivities by pointing to current President Hamid Karzai as their representative.

President Karzai with commanders of the NATO force in June 2009

Karzai has no natural tribal constituency. He spent the Soviet occupation years in exile in Quetta, Pakistan. His impotence as a guardian of Pashtun interests became clear when the first post Taliban era Afghan cabinet appointed Northern Alliance leaders to every key ministry.

The Pashtuns were marginalized and the effect was to strengthen their sympathies towards the Taliban.

NATO / US pressure on the Kabul elite to bring in key Pashtun leaders with important tribal constituencies into the regime will go a long way in reducing the pull of the Taliban. There are several members of the Taliban who are (or already have) renounced violence and joined the political mainstream. Some are even running for President in these elections.

Afghanistan is not a nation state in the same mould as European or Latin American nations. Even in the best of times, Afghanistan has been a loose confederation with some control exercised by political authorities in Kabul over the larger urban areas and road infrastructure. The loyalty and pacification of tribes through judicious use of cash and intimidation is what appears to have worked in the past.

To try and impose a 'top-down' unitary state structure is failure writ large. Instead, a return to the loose tribal based arrangement of the past is the best bet to restore stability to a nation destroyed by 30 years of fighting.

Women walk the streets in Parwan province, Afghanistan

But for now, the Presidential elections give the international community a reason to spend their generous budgets and NATO troops some ballot boxes to stop from being stuffed.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Singapore: Make Mandarin Compulsory for All Races

Immigration into Singapore has become a hot button issue among 'born and bred' Singaporeans.

Singapore has recently seen an influx of immigrants from the People's Republic of China

As typically happens during recessions, there is a sense that 'foreign talent' is taking away jobs from indigenous Singaporeans. However, the debate is not always restricted to the economic sphere and often slips into the realm of race and ethnicity.

Race and ethnicity are sensitive issues here in Singapore. Government policies are implemented with a focus on increasing the 'common space' and fostering a tolerant and multi-cultural environment.

Citizens can only attend Singaporean schools where the curriculum is tightly controlled. International schools with their own individual courses of study are the preserve of the expatriate population. Government subsidized housing is assigned on the basis of 'race' to ensure that ethnic enclaves are not formed. Public holidays are allocated to the various communities as a result of which all Singaporeans celebrate Christmas, Hari Raya (Eid), Deepavali and Chinese New Year as public holidays. An individual's race is even mentioned on their identity card (and yes my race is Pakistani!).

Singapore's subsidized public housing is managed by the Housing Development Board

Immigration into Singapore takes the form of those who have 'Permanent Resident' (PR) status and those who have become naturalized Singapore citizens. Male children of all citizens must participate in the military for two years (National Service) under the Enlistment Act. While it is optional for male children of PRs, applications for Singapore citizenship from PR kids who did not partake in National Service are not entertained.

Many perceive the recent wave of immigrants, mainly from the People's Republic of China and India, as being 'opportunists' who have a limited commitment to Singapore. Some believe they are only here to take advantage of government subsidies, especially housing grants and baby bonuses. (To address Singapore's problem of an ageing population cash subsidies and tax credits are provided by the government as inducements to citizens to have babies.)

Additionally, it is commonly thought the new immigrants have scant regard for the rules which have slowly transformed 'Singapore Inc.' into a powerful brand. Many have imported social habits and customs (e.g. littering, spitting) which Singaporeans have painstakingly moved away from during the last four decades.

Language is another contentious issue. Singapore has four official languages (Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English) but everyone learns and speaks English (see also 'Singlish'). Many of the fresh Chinese immigrants speak only Mandarin. This irks those Singaporeans who rely on English as the lingua franca of the island.

Signage in Singapore's four official languages is a common sight across the city

I do not wish to pontificate about the pros and cons of immigration as a necessity for maintaining economic growth and, hence, social stability in the island. I will leave that to the country's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who can argue the case much more persuasively than me. (He does have a track record of delivering results which any corporate or political leader can only dream off!)

What I do wish to say is that the issue of integrating Singapore's diverse population is more than just about making certain everyone can speak English.

It is about the ability to speak Mandarin in a Chinese society.

The teaching of Mandarin must be made compulsory for all Singaporeans, irrespective of their race. The academic curriculum should be revised to ensure that Singapore's kids are functionally fluent in three languages: English, Mandarin, and their mother tongue (Malay or Tamil).

Make Mandarin a compulsory subject for the next generation of Singaporeans

Some may suggest that such an action can be deemed to be domineering by the majority race. Or whether Singapore’s already overburdened students can manage another serious subject.

Learning Mandarin is a practical matter and one that should be motivated by self-interest. If I could speak Mandarin my employability and market value will increase tremendously. The nature of jobs and occupations available to me multiply exponentially.

Can a non-Mandarin speaker in Singapore truly integrate into Singaporean society? Despite the role of English as Singapore’s universal language an English speaker (like me) will always face limitations. The idea is not to supplant the supremacy of English but to take integration of all races in Singapore to the next level.

As for schoolchildren and whether they can mentally handle the stress of another major subject, examples from other parts of the world suggest that it is reasonable to assume that three languages can be taught at school.

All Singaporean schoolchildren are presently taught English along with their 'mother' tongue, either Mandarin, Malay or Tamil

It is not unusual for small nations to be multi-lingual. Most residents of the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland speak three languages. To be sure, the national curriculum will need to be adequately adjusted to ensure that space is created for teaching Mandarin. A major change in the curriculum cannot happen overnight and should be preceded by adequate research and debate.

Making the next generation of Singaporeans tri-lingual will increase social cohesion among all races and is an idea whose time has come. Ethnic and religious fault lines will decrease as inter-ethnic communication increases further. A small globally integrated economy like Singapore will reap the added bonus of enhancing the country's existing competitive advantages in trade and the service sector by catering more fully to the ever growing China market.

Our neighbours have got this one right - Malaysians of all races study Malay from their first day at school. Is it finally time for Singapore to learn a trick from its old partner and rival?

Friday, 14 August 2009

Taxila: Pakistan's Buddhist Legacy

Interesting Fact I

Pakistan's geography has placed it at the crossroads between India and Central Asia.

The Karakoram Highway and the Khunjerab Pass, at an elevation of 4,800 metres above sea level, link Pakistan with China on an ancient trade route.

An ancient bridge between China and India

At independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited more than just disputes with India. The country became responsible for preserving a rich Buddhist heritage that is best symbolized by the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Taxila, a city approximately 32 kilometres west of Islamabad.

A meditating Buddha carving in a monument located at Taxila

The city of Takshashila, as it was originally known, had the distinction of being an ancient center of Buddhist learning. It is described in some detail in the 'Jataka Tales,' an ancient Buddhist text. Several Chinese monks, including Faxian (337-422) and Xuanzang (602-664), described the city in their respective travelogues.

The Jaulian excavation at Taxila

(See a fascinating 4 minute documentary about the ancient remains at Taxila here.)

The city's history is over 3,000 years old. Its influence spread across India via the many nobles and royalty educated at Taxila University. Greek influence arrived along with Alexander the Great and his troops in 326 BC. The city flourished under the Mauryan dynasty and especially during Asoka's reign. Buddhism established itself around 2 BC and flourished in Taxila (and Swat) for the next 1,000 years.

The Gandharan Period came to an end in the tenth century AD. While it lasted, the Gandharan period saw prolific construction of monasteries, stupas and other monuments. The famous depiction of the fasting Buddha and many other valuable artifacts can be found in the magnificent Central Museum, Lahore.

Buddha stone carvings at Taxila

The practice of Islam in Pakistan is the product of many contradictory and opposing historical forces. These influences have given Islam a form unique to the subcontinent.

Ordinary Pakistanis routinely visit the shrines of (supposedly) Hindu holy men and remember medieval Mughal rulers (e.g. Babur and Akbar) who fought holy wars to expand an Islamic empire. A Muslim Empire which grew to rely on the contribution of Hindu and Sikh ministers and generals for its preservation and longevity.

t is no wonder that Pakistani Muslims are challenging the onslaught of an austere and alien version of Islam which has its origins in the harsh Arabian Desert and not in the fertile plains of Punjab.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Singapore's Buses and Trains: No Durians Allowed But It Could Be Much Worse!

Singapore’s public transport system is extremely efficient. But you probably already knew that, or took it for granted.

The bus and train system is clean, affordable, punctual and effectively coordinated to connect all parts of the 687 square kilometre island well.

In 2008 an average of 2.2 million daily trips were recorded by both the bus and train network. The train (or MRT) network accounted for almost two thirds of the journeys while the buses account for the remaining third. For a resident population of 4.8 million that is an impressive number.

Fines for violating SMRT's strict rules on food and drink consumption keep the system clean

SMRT Corporation, a publicly listed corporation since 2000, is responsible for bringing together various modes of transport on the island. Primarily, it operates rail, light rail and bus services.

Unlike many of its global counterparts, SMRT makes a profit while providing an efficient public service. It has increased its revenue from approximately SGD 497 million in 2002 to SGD 879 million in 2009. In the same period, after tax profitability has almost tripled from SGD 57 million to SGD 163 million.

The network has also been considerably expanded and many new MRT stations and bus interchanges have been added. Upgrades of many existing facilities have been carried out.

By now you must be wondering why I am singing the praises of a public transport company. It is not because I am a model railway enthusiast (which I am).

The reason is because anyone who contemplates how such a network is operated so seamlessly and hassle-free will realize that it is a gargantuan operation. It requires meticulous planning to make sure that all the disparate moving parts don’t grind on each other at any point in time. (If you don’t believe me try being a ‘Railroad Tycoon’ on one of the many such computer games available!)

Just go and watch how the buses operate at a major interchange like Boon Lay. Or maybe you prefer to stand and watch in one of the newer air conditioned bus interchanges? Remember the buses feed into the MRT and vice versa – as does the cashless payment mechanism, the Ez-Link Card.

And spare a thought for the front line staff, the bus driver or train driver, who seems to be getting short shrift these days.

If anyone has the opportunity to travel on the London Underground during peak rush hour you may find yourself thanking the SMRT bus and train Customer Service Charter.

I can assure you that you will not be complaining about bus engine noise levels affecting the comfort of your trip.