Friday, 30 October 2009

Singapore: Progress, History and the Wet Market Controversy

When a nation is just 45 years old then some of the oddest pieces of real estate become national treasures. Singaporeans have been indulging in some heated debate about whether several existing wet markets should be preserved or demolished to make way for air conditioned supermarket type markets.

A wet market is an open air market where fresh produce, including vegetables, fruit, poultry, fish and even livestock are sold. The floors are regularly hosed down with water. Hence the term 'wet market.'
The debate to turn the traditional markets into modern air conditioned centres is often couched in terms of progress and jobs. After all, the newer style of market fits in well with Singapore's ultra-modern image, the home of electronic road pricing and e-government. Arguments have also been made about family businesses losing their livelihood to 'Wal-Mart' style progress.
In 2004, Singapore sacrificed it old National Library building in the name of progress. That caused an outcry, rare in the city-state at the time. The dissent was unable to affect the outcome. The red brick national library building is no longer standing. Policy makers and urban planners won the day.
Fast forward to 2009 and the wet markets story has a similar plot – on the surface.
Dig deeper and there are two crucial differences. The land is not required for 'rezoning' by the state to make way for projects of 'national importance.' Secondly, the popular discontent seems to be louder in this instance. (A tad ironical as the National Library building is conceivably more important national heritage.)
The real issue at stake in the controversy is not the loss of jobs. At its heart, the matter is about Singapore's heritage and an attempt to define Singaporean history. Do we want the next generation of Singaporeans to have the 'wet market' experience or is it passé in ultra-chic Singapore?

History is preserved not only in museums but also in the streets

As such, the wet market controversy brings to light the conflict between modernity and tradition. What constitutes modern Singapore's heritage and how is that heritage protected? Of course, there is no definitive answer but some 'top down' protection of historic cultural traditions will help until a greater national consciousness develops a consensus answer.
As for the wet markets, maybe it is time the government designate a particular market as a protected site and ensure that it is not broken down to make way for progress. At the very least, we may give future students the chance to get out of school for a day under the pretext of visiting an important symbol of Singapore's history!
Wet markets: love 'em or hate 'em, they're an undeniably pungent part of Singapore's heritage. They're exactly as they sound – open-air markets that have perpetually wet floors for a variety of ice-melting, fish-cleaning, vegetable-washing reasons. They kind of smell, and they're not for everyone.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Singapore’s Opposition Parties – Time for Some Backward Integration?

Is it any surprise that Singaporeans keep voting the People's Action Party (PAP) back into government at each general election? Even for those who may oppose the PAP there are no credible alternatives available.
The PAP has a demonstrated leadership track record which must surely make corporate giants like Warren Buffett or Jack Welch envious. The Little Red Dot's move from third world to first world is not a random event.
It was predicated on a motivated population guided by a first rate leadership.

After four decades in power the PAP is firmly entrenched within the state system. It is often difficult to differentiate between the state and its political leadership. Like any political party with an unbroken chain of governance, the PAP has perfected the ability to pursue 'self-preservation' politics.
One of the PAP's strategies is to invite in non-political or non-establishment members into the party. The party's history is replete with such examples. Some may see these individuals as 'sell outs.' Others see them as smart people who appreciate that in order to make a difference they must join the system. Only by working with the establishment in a responsible manner can they have a positive impact on society.
One result of the PAP policy has been to starve the opposition parties of much needed talent to grow their political franchises. The paucity of political capacity outside of the PAP has focused the opposition on a few dissenting personalities.
To be successful, political parties require more than just candidates and supporters willing to be jailed for the party cause. A research infrastructure supporting policy making is a necessary prerequisite. One may list many other such requirements.
All such infrastructure entails money and talent. Both factors are available in abundance to the PAP – controlling the levers of state attracts cash and people. The virtuous cycle perpetuates the existing system.

Singapore's opposition political parties face a formidable and entrenched foe in the People's Action Party

Singapore's opposition parties face many obstacles in their drive to win public support. One can sympathize with their plight. However, it is not apparent to the public that the opposition parties are serious in their efforts to create a viable alternative to the PAP.
That a senior member of the opposition Reform Party has a US arrest warrant issued in his name for allegedly supporting a foreign terrorist group (apparently the Tamil Tigers) will do nothing to help the opposition's moral authority with the general public.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Singapore – Penalize Passengers of Drink Driving Vehicles?

Driving under the influence of alcohol is an inconsiderate and selfish act. It is an abuse of freedoms and the honour code in a free society.
Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests drink driving is fairly common in Singapore. It seems to be an accepted practice in Singapore. There is seldom any peer pressure from friends or colleagues to refrain from driving after a few drinks.
Singaporean public figures often set a bad example. In the last few years, many have been arrested for the offence.

Most drivers justify their behaviour by claiming that they are 'in control' despite their drinks. I have heard some drivers tell me that eating a slab of butter or drinking one cup of coffee and a twenty minute nap is sufficient for the effects of a night out to wear off!
Driving under the influence has consequences. In the event of accidents, it can destroy people's lives. Speak to any family member who has suffered due to an alcohol related driving accident and they will inform you of the tragic consequences of driving under the influence. Unfortunately, the cost is all too often borne by innocent victims and not by the intoxicated driver.
The Singapore Traffic Police asserts that drink driving is a serious problem. In 2008, there were 3,586 drink driving arrests while 235 individuals were injured and / or killed in drink driving accidents. The incidence of fatalities increased in 2008 versus 2007.
Responsible adults can play a valuable role in curbing the hazards of driving under the influence. The time honoured tradition of appointing a 'designated driver' for a night out is an easy solution.
Being tough with friends who are clearly over the alcohol limit by restraining them from driving is a trickier decision. Nevertheless, you may save your friend from a life long criminal record by being tough with them.

A more radical scheme is for the authorities to consider penalizing passengers in vehicles driven by persons above the legal alcohol limit. A criminal record may be too harsh but maybe a hefty fine for the passengers? It will certainly act as a deterrent to the anti-social vice of driving under the influence.
If a passenger can be fined for sitting in a car without fastening her seatbelt then why not implement a fine for a potentially more dangerous offense – abetting dangerous driving? We may be surprised to note how quickly such a penalty alters the behaviour of otherwise complacent Singaporeans.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Gulf Petrodollars – Buying More than Banks and Football Clubs!

It requires more than cash to create a lively arts scene. Few, however, will deny that money helps to kick start the process. That is exactly what the Gulf countries are attempting to do.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are spending large amounts of cash in an attempt to establish themselves as regional arts hubs. It is unclear whether either or both will succeed.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE (and often overshadowed by its glamorous neighbour Dubai), has ambitious plans. The city entered into a 30 year agreement with the French Louvre museum in 2007. Under the terms of the deal Abu Dhabi is reputed to have agreed to pay approximately USD 1.2 for the exclusive use of the Louvre name, borrowing art works and management advice from the Paris museum.
Construction of Abu Dhabi's 24,000 square metres Louvre Museum began in May 2009. The museum is expected to open in 2012. Once the building is complete, the final cost is estimated to be in the range of USD 150 million.
The museum is part of Abu Dhabi's master plan to develop itself as a cultural and tourism center. The USD 27 billion plan includes other museums and attractions, including the Guggenheim Museum and an annual Abu Dhabi International Film Festival.
Abu Dhabi is not alone is channelling its petrodollars into 'buying' culture. Qatar made a splash on the scene last year with the inauguration of its Museum of Islamic Art. The museum has an area of 45,000 square metres and was designed by architect Leoh Ming Pei to be an iconic structure. The museum sits on the edge of Doha's harbour.

The Corniche in Doha (Qatar) with the Museum of Islamic Art building on the left

Like Abu Dhabi, Doha has also put itself forward for hosting an annual film festival. The Doha Tribeca Film Festival hosts the premier of the film Amelia on October 29. The 2009 Doha Festival is testing the waters with some fairly aggressive films, in the Gulf context. They include films about underground Iranian rock stars and frustrated Jewish men.
The Gulf countries have been successful in buying various forms of physical infrastructure in the last few decades. They are still building – the new Dubai metro was inaugurated only a few months ago. Whether culture and the arts are something one can purchase 'off the shelf' is a question yet to be answered.
It is unclear how the national conscience in the two countries will react to artists pushing the boundaries of free speech, especially where religious sensitivities are concerned. The question of a museum displaying nude portraits is just one among a host of other obvious ones.
Singapore started its journey down the arts road more than a decade ago. The effort includes the Esplanade, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and a gradual loosening of the government's strict social mores in a conservative society. Even today Singapore's arts scene remains very much a work in progress.
Permitting homosexual themed plays and a performing centre (the Esplanade) are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a flourishing artistic sub-culture.
Many centuries ago a Moorish kingdom in Spain's Granada was a global cultural and artistic leader amongst its contemporaries. One can only hope that the petrodollars now flowing into the Gulf kingdoms will precipitate a similar cultural revival within the Islamic world.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Sweet as a ... Dessert Wine

I know there are red and white wines. I also know that port, sherry and some other 'after dinner' wines are, well, essentially wines.
I can pronounce the names of a few grapes. Cabernet, merlot, pinot noir and so on.

Some port wines have a beautiful ruby color

However, the bulk of my wine knowledge is made up on the spur of the moment! "This wine tastes rather fruity with a hint of chocolate – can you not taste the oak flavour? 2001 was a good year wasn't it?!"
Making things up and having the odd glass of wine helps to keep the creative juices flowing.
Having tried a Muscato sweet wine recently and being a lukewarm fan of Rieslings (I didn't make up the name) I thought the time to better understand dessert wines has arrived.
Among the best known of dessert wines are port. Like most dessert wines, port is a fortified wine. 
"Fortified wine is wine to which a distilled beverage (usually brandy) has been added. When added to wine before the fermentation process is complete, the alcohol in the distilled beverage kills the yeast and leaves residual sugar behind."
Port is a fortified, sweet red wine. It is made from grapes grown in a northern province of Portugal, the Douro Valley. It typically has an alcohol content of 20%.
Port is not made using brandy but a neutral grape spirit known as Aguardente (literally meaning firewater). It received its name from the seaport city of Porto, the city from where the wine was exported and marketed to the rest of the world.

There are many varieties of port. Below, I describe two varieties, 'Vintage Port' and 'Tawny.'
As the name implies, Vintage Ports are made from good vintages and bottled after a few years in a cask. Vintage Port generally requires ageing before it can be enjoyed.
Tawny port has been aged for a long time in wooden barrels. Generally, the longer Tawny is fermented the lighter it becomes. The Colheitas are an especially popular variety of Tawny Port in Portugal. Colheitas are often aged up to twenty years.
Port is a classic after dinner drink (combined with cheese) which is just as delicious on its own. I can't remember when I last had a glass of port but I am looking forward to my next glass – just so I can show off my 'genuine' knowledge of the drink to my friends!
PS - If you have any recommendations of particular port varieties or bottles please do share the specifics with the rest of us ... or any combination of food and port which is particularly enjoyable.
PPS – In future posts, I will examine Sherry and other dessert wines.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Is there any Humour in Singapore’s Politics?

Cartoonists touch nerves which political commentators cannot – often raw nerves.
They visualize situations which writers struggle to convey in words. Well crafted political satire makes subtle political insinuations that can shake the most hardened of authoritarian regimes.
In South East Asia cartoonists are a rare breed. The Malaysian Mohammad Nor Khalid or Lat, is possibly the best known cartoonist from this region.
His humorous depiction of life in Malaysia is incisive. It is required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the complexities of Malaysian society and culture, including the relationship between the three main races (Malays, Chinese and Tamils) living in Malaysia.
Much of his work revolves around life in a kampong (village or hamlet in Malay). Reading his cartoons one is reminded of how quickly Singapore has transformed itself from a fishing village kampong into an urban metropolis. (Gratefully, not a concrete jungle like Hong Kong.)
The art of the political cartoon requires an enabling environment. Circumstances which encourage poking fun at authority in a deprecating manner coupled with a thriving media industry.

Is Singapore ready for political satire? ('Attack Iran' by Carlos Lutuff)

Singapore is stuck in the past – an 'obedient' citizenry has meant few questioned authority until recently. The local media industry is controlled entirely by the state and, at least to the naked eye, appears to operate under unwritten rules of self-censorship.
Times have changed. The arts scene is blossoming. Singaporeans are willing to indulge in political satire, at least online. Hopefully, it should not be too long before we start seeing political cartoons with local content in Singapore's daily newspapers.
If not in the newspapers then perhaps a daily cartoon website – there is an appetite for satirical humour which a talented artist can fill. Foreigners welcome?
PS  - If anyone knows of any good Singaporean (English language) cartoon websites I will be grateful if you can send me the link. Thanks!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Singapore: Sunshine’s Empire Spreads Only Rays of Gloom

Singapore's reputation as a 'police state' must certainly be under question as a result of the Sunshine Empire fiasco.
The trial of a trio charged with running a 'Ponzi' scheme in Singapore lays bare some weaknesses in the Singapore financial regulatory regime. Under the guise of a corporate business named 'Sunshine Empire' the trio was able to amass approximately SGD 180 million by promising high returns.

Not surprisingly, like any classic Ponzi scheme, the Sunshine Empire ultimately collapsed when new funds flow dried up. What is surprising is how openly and long Sunshine Empire was allowed to solicit funds in Singapore without being shut down or prosecuted by the authorities.
Ponzi schemes are supposed to happen in other countries – not Singapore.
Singapore is a reasonably compact financial environment. Information flows are effective within a homogenous financial community. It is difficult to believe that Sunshine Empire can solicit money for fifteen months in such an environment without coming to the attention of the authorities.
The internet is flush with videos of presentations being delivered by Sunshine Empire representatives offering high returns. The explanations for the source of the returns can be called flimsy, at best.
It is all too easy to prey upon the greed of retail investors. Ponzi schemes feed on greed. Hence the many laws to protect the general public from fraudulent activities and save greedy investors from themselves.
Many months ago, at the height of the 'epidemic' I was asked for my opinion about the scheme. I am a conservative investor by nature and believe in common sense investing.
Prudence suggests that if something is too good to be true then it is generally false. If nothing else, warning lights should come in and one should investigate the investment proposal thoroughly or consult experts.
The whole episode reeked of a scam from the moment I heard of it. Anyone familiar with financial transactions will have noticed the red flags immediately. The sea of red would have encouraged bulls from Pamplona to find their way to Singapore!
Where were the authorities during the fifteen months when Sunshine Empire was raising money openly? They surely must have received information about the company's seminars and marketing efforts during this time.
The Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) ... safeguards Singapore's integrity as a world-class financial and commercial centre through vigilant and professional enforcement of the laws. It ... is an outfit with its own investigative and intelligence resources in the Singapore Police Force.
The Sunshine Empire saga is a serious lapse of enforcement and intelligence gathering by the CAD. The affair has affected many Singaporean lives. SGD 180 million is not a small sum. It is not clear how many individuals lost some or all of their savings but the number must be large.
The case is sub judice and the legal outcome is not yet known. However, what is known raises legitimate questions about the robustness of Singapore's financial enforcement mechanisms.
The law enforcement machinery has to answer not just for illegal littering and bicycling on pavements but also for the disappearance of millions by the Sunshine Empire business partners.

Trust is the bedrock of a successful financial system

A light sentence will send the wrong signal to financial market participants.
The legal framework provides the trust on which a financial centre rests. The Sunshine Empire episode has damaged the trust. A harsh punishment against the perpetrators of the fraud will go some way to restore trust.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Singapore’s Healthcare – Plastic Surgeons, Sedatives and Sheep

Singapore has aspirations to be a premier destination for medical tourism. It projects itself as a low cost though high quality alternative to other hopefuls, including Thailand and Malaysia.
Quality, of course, is an ongoing and subjective matter. Ethical practices and enforcement of the highest medical standards is important in creating a reputation of excellence.
A few recent incidents have brought to light the importance of maintaining medical standards.

A prominent plastic surgeon injected animal foetal cells into his patients (to retard the ageing process) in violation of Singapore Medical Council (SMC) rules. In another instance, three family doctors inappropriately prescribed potentially addictive medicines to their patients.
The plastic surgeon, Martin Huang, was fined SGD 5,000 for his lapse. He was also 'censured' but allowed to continue his practice unhindered.
A SGD 5,000 fine for a plastic surgeon catering to the region's rich and famous! Call me a sceptic but it seems a little on the light side? The surgeon will recoup the fine in one sitting.
The only thing the fine has achieved is give his business free publicity.
The three family physicians have been fined and suspended from practicing for between 3 and thirty months. I imagine the reasoning has to do with the nature and type of patients a general practitioner receives. SMC is right to deter doctors from improper practices, especially when the general public's welfare is at stake.
However, I can't help believing that there is some sort of a disconnect between the two punishments. It is unlikely that a SGD 5,000 fine on a successful plastic surgeon will act as any sort of a deterrent.
On the contrary, it sends the wrong signal to Huang and his colleagues in the industry.
Is the punishment so light because a plastic surgeon's patients are specialized and aware of the risks of such medication? I don't think even medical professionals know the long term implications of injecting sheep foetal cells into a human.
And where exactly does one even buy sheep foetal cells - I don't think they are available at the local Guardian outlet!
I am a firm believer in self-regulation, especially by professional associations. However, in this event, the SMC will do well to explain its 'punishment' of Martin Huang. A small fine for the premeditated breach of medical ethics seems too much like a nominal slap on the wrist.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Spend Nine Years in Singapore and Earn $3.5 Million Dollars!

An annual salary of SGD 390, 000 (USD 280,000) is a nice sum.
One need not worry about the top-up charge on the new subway fare cards or whether the prices for 'mass market' homes are in record territory or not. Such miniscule facts will not affect your quality of life.
Assume that you were given nine years salary in advance in return for 'giving up' the good part of the coming decade. Is the amount worth nine years of freedom – will SGD 3.5 million buy enough freedom for the 'post nine year' era?

That may be the exact calculation undertaken by Jerry Ee. The 36 year old former supervisor at a Cortina Watch outlet in Singapore walked off with watches and cufflinks worth SGD 8.2 million (USD 5.9 million) in December 2008.
Three months after committing the Christmas Day (2008) crime, Ee gave himself up to authorities in Thailand.
Since surrendering, Ee returned 230 watches and cash amounting to SGD 4.6 million. Approximately SGD 3.5 million still remains missing, probably stashed away somewhere waiting for his release in 2018.
Earlier this month, Ee was convicted to nine years in jail for his crime. Another bad guy pays his debt to society and the system wins again?
Singapore's Changi prison is not a Turkish prison (a la the Midnight Express). Dropping your soap in the shower is unlikely to be a life threatening experience at Changi. Who knows Ee might even be able to 'upgrade' his skill set by attending vocational and educational courses while in prison?
Undeniably, jail time must be a psychologically harrowing event. Not an ordinary occurrence for an average human. An experience which may leave lifetime scars on any person, even a person with a prior criminal record.
Ee has two earlier convictions, one for theft and another for abetting his father in defrauding an electronics retailer. (How Cortina does their hiring and conducts background checks on potential employees are questions which only Cortina's management can answer.)
While Ee may have SGD 3.6 million to look forward to in 2018, there are many a slip between the cup and the lips. Can he safely hide his stash of watches and / or cash, untouched for nine years? Can he trust anyone to keep the booty safe, unspent and away from the prying eyes of private detectives and the law?

Once out of jail, Ee will probably rush to Thailand to start a 'new' life with his hard earned retirement nest egg. He will get definitive answers to the two questions only then.
It is difficult to know what may be going through the mind of a criminal. Jail time is a tricky affair at best. But if someone offered me a Christmas gift of SGD 3.6 million, admittedly I will be tempted to give the terms of any proposal serious consideration.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Outliving Elvis – Five More Tips

Outliving Elvis' 42 years is not really setting the bar very high. However, let's take each year one at a time. In eight years, at age 51, I can write about how to outlive Michael Jackson?

Five more of my secrets for surviving in today's dangerous world.
1.   Don't travel by Indonesian budget airlines, especially avoid flying in Soviet era passenger planes no matter which airline operates them;
2.   When writing about conflict zones (Swat) do so from the comfort of your own living room. Be an armchair general - real generals have thousands of troops to protect them in the Zone. I don't;
3.   Restrict your intake of fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches. It helps keep your cholesterol in check;
4.   Obey mundane traffic rules like speed limits and red lights, especially when living in Dubai. Dubai has one of the highest per capita traffic accident fatality rates in the world;
5.   Don't mess with Singapore's drug laws (or chewing gum restrictions)!
Humans have a tendency to try and measure stuff, including life, by quantifying. The 'quant' approach did not work in the world of finance – witness the mathematical risk management systems which failed the world's banks so spectacularly.
What are the odds a 'probable scenario' tactic will work in real life?

How to Outlive Elvis and Continue Blogging

I celebrated my 43rd birthday a few days ago. Having gone through the psychological '40' barrier a few years ago the day itself was a non-event.
There were the congratulatory phone and email wishes from friends and family, even a few birthday cards I received via snail mail.
Death can strike humans at any time and far be it for me to question my departure time. Still, stay with me as I speculate based on probabilities and statistics.

A Singaporean male's life expectancy is 75 years while a Pakistani male is expected to live a decade less (65). Average the two and I have another 27 years to go – until I hit the ripe old age of 70.
It's a sobering thought to know that more than half my life is now behind me.
Elvis had been accused of satanic behaviour and helped change pop culture before he hit twenty. Napoleon's first attempt to take over France occurred before his 30th birthday.
Yes, I can talk about some serious professional achievements during my twenty plus years of toiling and grovelling for the Gods of the corporate world. But do I want to be remembered for having led a team which launched the first Shariah compliant local currency bond or a Middle Eastern asset management business?
I really don't think so. But I can't claim to have changed pop culture or attempted to overthrow a government, at least not yet.
My aims are far more modest - being remembered as the 'Grand Moofti' will be rewarding enough for me!
PS - For those still look for an answer on how to outlive Elvis (who died at age 42) in 1977: don't overdose on prescription drugs while going to the toilet!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Singapore - the Last Bastion of Irrational Exuberance?

The music is back on for private bankers. Their favourite pastime of musical chairs has started. If activity in Asia's private banking sector is any gauge then the global financial crisis is over – at least in Asia.
It is reported that at least one quarter of RBS Coutts Singapore staff have resigned and joined a Swiss outfit, BSI. Recent media reports indicate that OCBC, another local lender, is interested in purchasing the Asian private banking business of ING. What competitive advantage OCBC may have in executing such a purchase is a question OCBC shareholders must be asking themselves. Shareholders must also be hoping that the management will not overpay for any acquisition.

Certainly, the market to serve wealthy individuals in Asia is a 'rich' market. By some estimates, wealthy individuals in Asia have approximately USD 7.4 trillion in assets. The Asia (ex-Japan) wealth totals approximately USD 4.5 trillion with China's amounting to USD 1.7 trillion.
The sums are large and the incentive to operate a successful private banking business is significant. Think of the potential fees private bankers can extract from such a large pie - at 0.5% the number is in the range of USD 22.2 billion! Most calculators don't permit so many zeros.
By hiring the RBS Coutts staff, BSI believes it is paying reasonable money for a part of this USD 22 billion. Or it is actually providing evidence that Singapore was spared a banking crisis during the recent downturn?
The global financial crisis affected the Singapore economy severely. The country's GDP has contracted for several quarters now. However, the banking sector was left unscathed.
Banking profitability was certainly affected but the capital structure and loan to deposit ratios remain relatively healthy. There was no hint of any Singapore registered bank needing government support to stay afloat.
Perhaps as a result of being bypassed by the global banking crisis Asian senior managers have reverted to 'exuberant' behaviour before their international counterparts. They are surely willing to pay large amounts to pursue the holy grail of a private banking business.
Certainly, Swiss banks like BSI have an incentive to strengthen their foothold in Asia given that their US and European franchises have been battered by allegations of tax evasion. The cracks in Switzerland's legal code governing banking secrecy have also not helped growth in their traditional markets.
A Swiss bank diversifying its revenue stream away from Europe and towards Asia is good, but only if a reasonable price is paid?
The Asian private banking industry does not operate in a vacuum. Any premiums paid by employers to 'talent' will 'reimbursed' by clients. Any bank will demand at least a 3:1cost to income ratio from these highly paid employees.
The environment is not conducive for collecting fees.

A wide gulf has recently emerged between clients and financial advisors. Lawsuits against the private banking arms of banks have become more common in the last few years. Even the regulators such as the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the Monetary Authority of Singapore have been forced to step in to mediate disputes between investors and financial institutions.
At least two major forces are at work which will force a reduction in wealth management fees over the coming years. Client behaviour has changed and the regulatory atmosphere is tightening up.
Clients' are far less trusting of private bankers. Suspicion, especially of complex and hard to understand structured products, runs high. Few clients believe that private bankers are looking out for their interests, instead accepting that bankers are only pushing product to generate revenue.
The regulatory framework for investment products and financial advisors is slowly evolving to keep pace with the arrival of new products. Financial advisors are constrained in their ability to create and market complicated products with rich fee structures. The veil of opaqueness has been replaced by the glare of enforced transparency.
The traditional business model for private banking has crumbled, much like many of the institutions who were touting a few years ago. Tomorrow's successful wealth manager will look different from the financial supermarket of yesterday.
Will someone please educate Singapore's private bankers about the lessons learnt from the global banking crisis?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Kampong Siglap Mosque and Fire Safety Regulations

The recent tragic fire at the Kampong Siglap Mosque is an eye opener for the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS). The event calls for a re-evaluation of Singapore's fire safety regulations.
It is reported that as a result of the fire MUIS is considering mandatory fire insurance for all mosques. MUIS must go further and install sprinklers in all of Singapore's mosques. Sprinklers will reduce the annual fire insurance premiums and may lower the possible 'out of pocket' cost of repairing buildings damaged in any future fire.

Many mosques, such as this one in Little India, are part of Singapore's architectural and cultural heritage

Subsequent to the Siglap Mosque fire, it is appropriate to conduct an in-depth review in order to make it mandatory to fit fire sprinklers in all public buildings where large groups of people gather from time to time, including mosques, churches, etc.
Existing fire safety measures and practices certainly helped to avert a human tragedy at the Kampong Siglap Mosque but we may not be so lucky in the future.

Singapore’s Doctors as Big Brother: Electronic Health Records

George Orwell's 1984 is a distant memory for most of us. Human emotion is not yet illegal but in many respects the Information Age is closer to Orwell's vision than we may wish to admit.

The ubiquitous closed circuit television (CCTV) camera is a part of modern life. Most modern gadgets, including the cell phone, computer and each swipe of a credit card leave a unique electronic signature which can be used to piece together our life.
The news is not all bad.
Take the case of health care records. The Singapore government has revealed that by November 2010 a national electronic health record (EHR) database will go live. The EHR will contain health data for each individual from birth to death, including doctor's visits, use of medication, previously diagnosed ailments and laboratory test results.
Next year's initial rollout will be limited to two public hospitals, two community hospitals, and some polyclinics and GPs. By 2014, the system will be available to all healthcare facilities island wide.
The impact on the efficiency of health care delivery will be enormous. Irrespective of which clinic or doctor a patient consults their complete medical history will be accessible in real time. For starters, the information will reduce the likelihood of being incorrectly diagnosed or given inappropriate medication.
The possibilities for future enhancements to the delivery of health care services are endless. The dangers associated with such a database are also very real.
Imagine your entire medical records, including personal medical matters falling into the wrong hands. The data is highly confidential and unauthorized disclosure is a violation of personal privacy.
One may argue that consolidating the data will help policy makers and health care researchers make more informed decisions. True, but at that level the data can be used anonymously and need not be connected with specific individuals.

Singapore's Ministry of Health has assured Singaporeans that an adequate 'audit trail' will be created for all viewings and uses of the information. The Ministry is implementing sufficient safeguards regarding what category of persons, i.e. doctors, specialists or Ministry, can access what level of detailed information.
The issue of personal privacy and data protection is broader than just electronic health records. It gets to the heart of a wired society in the Information Age.
Singapore is a leader in e-government and e-services. Most basic government services are available online to all residents. Buried in the e-government assumption is that a multitude of data is floating around the internet and is made available to anyone authorized to view it.
Undoubtedly, the Singapore government has control mechanisms in place to see that the data is secure.
Are the existing methods sufficient for a constantly evolving online environment? It may be time to review personal privacy laws to ensure that the penalties associated with the unauthorized distribution and use of personal data is severely punished.
Singapore's attractiveness as a regional business hub is to a large degree dependent on its transparency and respect for rule of law. The laws for the next decade will be different from those that got us this far.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The US Dollar, Human Rights and Capital Punishment in China

New reports suggest that the People's Republic of China (PRC) has sentenced six persons to death for instigating the riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang in July 2009.

Xinjiang, located in China's southwest, has a large indigenous Turkic speaking Muslim population

To many it may seem strange that within five months of the act such harsh penalties are meted out – and that too in a relatively unpublicized trial that probably lacked any courtroom drama (and much evidence beyond a few state witnesses).
The PRC is a large geographic area populated by approximately 1.4 billion people. If Beijing wishes to continue to control the country its behaviour must play to the population at large. The Emperor, whether of royal descent or head of the Communist Party, must be responsive to his citizenry's outcry.
This is not a case of a rich young man running over a peasant in his car. It is about the delicate relations between the Han and Uighur ethnic groups. A swift, intimidating response is how Beijing perceives its interests to be best served.
One may criticize and scream 'human rights violations' but it is the Chinese way. Executions will certainly stop anyone marginally predisposed to fomenting ethnic trouble to think twice before doing so.
At a time when the US economy is being kept afloat by PRC wealth it is difficult for anyone to speak too loudly about fundamental rights – or carry a big stick at the same time.

‘Khalwat’ on Singapore’s Subway

It started just like any other journey on the MRT. I boarded the train and sat on the nearest available empty seat.
A pretty young woman was sitting on my left. She was tired and dozed off intermittently. As she nodded to sleep, her head kept slumping to her right until she jerked herself awake.

Subway, 1934. Oil on canvas by Lily Furedi

The routine continued for a few stations until she finally feel asleep with her head resting on my shoulder. I evaluated my options:
1.   Wake her up and suggest that my bed might be a more comfortable place for her to nap if she would just like to accompany me there!
2.   Wake her up and ask for her telephone number.
3.   Ignore her and pretend nothing unusual was happening (the correct answer is always the most boring).
Being a shy type I took little time in deciding that doing nothing until she wakes up is the best course of action. I had several more stations to travel anyway.
The incident is an innocent tale of 'business as usual' in a normal social setting. Yet, in some societies interaction between the sexes is severely curtailed and civil rights are often infringed by religious zealots.
Consider the law of 'khalwat' in Malaysia. The law is not atypical in the Islamic world and similar versions can be found on the statute books of many Islamic nations. However, the level of enforcement varies considerably within different jurisdictions.
Malaysia's Shariah Criminal Provisions Act (Federal Territories), Section 27, states: "Any man who is found together with one or more women, not being his wife or mahram [family member or close relative]; or any woman who is found together with one or more men, not being her husband or mahram, in any secluded place or in a house or room under circumstances which may give rise to suspicion that they were engaged in immoral acts shall be guilty for an offence and shall on conviction be liable to a fine not exceeding three thousand ringgit or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both."
It may be surprising to note that even the otherwise liberal metropolis of Kuala Lumpur has its fair share of khalwat cases, including instances of dating couples holding hands or kissing in the gardens of the Petronas Twin Towers. (Some will suggest that the police seem to be more interested in such cases around Hari Raya when household expenses increase due to exchanging of gifts.)
As one will expect, khalwat is most actively enforced in the states controlled by Malaysia's Islamist party, PAS. In Terengganu the PAS Youth wing has reportedly mobilized members of the Youth Welfare Association to create vigilante squads to 'discourage' the spread of khalwat.
In many other nations the legal framework is not as relevant as social practices. The existence of an organization like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) does little to change the ground reality for women in most parts of the country, despite the assertions of equality under Afghanistan's post-Taliban Constitution.
The battle lines are drawn within mainstream Islam.

The niqab, or the full veil is most commonly found in Arab societies

The extreme right is represented by clerics who want to make the niqab (the full veil) 'one eyed.' The Saudi cleric, Sheikh Muhammad al-Habadan, suggested that revealing both eyes encourages the use eye make-up to make females look seductive.
The progressive strand of Islam is personified by the spiritual leader of the world's Sunni Muslims, the Grand Mufti of al-Azhar University, Egypt. He recently suggested that trousers are acceptable dress for Muslim women and there is no requirement for a Muslim woman to cover her face via a full face veil.
To be sure, a subway carriage is not a secluded place and my circumstances were hardly suspicious. Still, enforcing a legal system based on imprecise and controversial religious moralities is a recipe for social disaster.
The right to eat freely during Ramadan should be available to all 1.57 billion Muslims. Whether any Muslim chooses to exercise that right is a personal choice – not an obligation enforceable by the state.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Nobel Peace Prize: Reserved Exclusively for Politicians?

I don't like to be a naysayer but Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize - what's that about?
Ok, so he broke the 'glass ceiling' that may have existed for black Americans, or other minorities who complained about discrimination, but isn't awarding the Peace Prize taking these achievements too far?
The peace prize is now as political as the United Nations General Assembly. In the last decade it has been awarded to Al Gore, Mohammad Al Baradei, Shirin Ebadi and Kofi Annan among others. I am not suggesting they are not worthy recipients.
Just that they are politicians and not 'old school' humanitarians.

Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. Read his Acceptance Speech here

Obama is now in the august company of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. Those are the sort of names that I associate with making a difference to the dispossessed and weak – not politicians.
I am not an expert on US politics but I am aware that Obama's mercurial rise within the US Democratic Party was in no small way dependent on the Chicago Democratic Party machinery. I cannot imagine he managed the Chicago Democratic Party apparatus without dirtying his hands somewhere along the way.
Obama has been given a bonus for 'effort' and the revenue has yet to come. Let us hope he delivers on the promises he has made along the way.

Singapore’s Underworld – Turning Sharks into Nemos

Many minor but significant changes are taking place in the Singapore political landscape. The political culture is rapidly evolving and public debate among citizens about important national issues is more commonplace.

However, currently much of the debate is confrontational and 'anti-establishment' in nature. Much of the online debate often reflects a sense of helplessness and frustration by the participants. This is a result of the domain in which the discussions are taking place, the cyber world.
Cyberspace is a parallel world. In Singapore, the overlapping space shared by the New Media and the traditional media is small.
The tone and nature of the online discussions suggest that political efficacy among Singaporeans is low. A seemingly illogical idea, as in democratic countries with small populations citizens generally feel more empowered and able to influence change.  
Political efficacy refers "generally to citizens' beliefs in their ability to influence the political system ... political efficacy refer[s] to the feeling that political actions taken by individuals' can have an impact on the political process. Contemporary views ... conceptualize political efficacy as having two dimensions: internal efficacy, which reflects a personal sense of political competence, and external efficacy, the belief that the political system is democratic."
A simple search of articles on subjects dear to the Singapore citizenry such as HDB prices, Temasek Holdings, and immigration brings several points to the fore.
  1. Singaporeans are far more confident and vocal in their opinions, including criticisms, compared to a few years ago;
  2. Singaporeans wish to have a greater voice in the future of their society and are lacking in legitimate non-government / non-state associated avenues to channel their opinions;
  3. Thus, people are pushed into the only avenues available, the New Media. The nature of the New Media increases the tendency of people to make extreme and unrealistic judgements. This naturally diminishes the quality of the dialogue;
  4. There is a communication gap between segments of the population and the state;
  5. Many equate the state with the government and the People's Action Party (PAP). A notion buttressed by the feeling that the state's judicial and law enforcement system has traditionally supported the incumbents in maintaining control of the levers of state;
  6. The governments 'out of bound markers' have shifted – either by choice or force of circumstance. The recent acquittal of five opposition politicians for leading a procession in 2007 reflects that even officialdom is getting bolder in asserting freedoms and civil rights.
All of the above characteristics are positive. They exhibit a vested interest and a stake in the system, albeit with a desire for change.  In some respects, the traits are a natural corollary of a more affluent and educated population.

The question before policy makers is how to marry the idealism and energy of Singapore's younger generation with the practicality of the real world. One response may be the phased deregulation of Singapore's media sector.
A regulated and liberalized media sector is an important social safety valve. It will absorb some of the pent up pressure that is currently clogging up the 'underground' system.