Monday, 30 November 2009

Swiss democracy, mosques, minarets and keeping the Faith

The Swiss people are voting in a referendum today. It's not a normal referendum about widening roads or spending money. Rather, it's to decide whether mosque minarets should be banned from Swiss skylines.

The Swiss form of democracy is unique. The referendum is a normal feature of Swiss political life. Issues of national importance are resolved via a national referendum.
The present Swiss government is opposed to the ban. Supporting the ban is the right wing Swiss People's Party. Unfortunately, 'Islamophobia' is a reality in many parts of the world today so the outcome of the referendum is uncertain.
The result will help define relations between Muslim minorities and non-Muslims in European countries other than just Switzerland.
The minaret debate is a necessary intellectual process in the journey of Islam – Christian relations. Muslims and non-Muslims alike need to discuss and agree upon the role of Islam in societies with strong Christian traditions.
All nations live with a historical reality foisted upon them by their geography.
The destruction of the centuries old Babri Masjid in India in 1992 had nothing to do with the global war on terror or 9/11. It was the result of an ongoing complex Hindu-Muslim relationship which started centuries ago.
Similarly in Europe, the relationship with Islam must be placed in the context of Europe's notion of encroachments all the way to Vienna in 1683 by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The Battle of Vienna by Juliusz Kossak Sobieski

If there was true secularism in Switzerland (or any other society) then the referendum will not be taking place. In secular society mosques, churches, temples and other places of worship will freely coexist.
Yet, it is a legitimate debate. 95% of the Swiss people are non-Muslim. In a free society they are masters of their own fate. If the Swiss do not like the look, shape, and symbolism of the minaret, then foreigners cannot tell them otherwise.
Islam teaches that a place of worship is anywhere a Muslim wishes it to be. Travellers to the Islamic world will notice people saying their prayers on the side of a road, inside offices, on roofs of houses (it is cooler outdoors!), pretty much anywhere handy.
For the faithful a mosque is nice to have, especially for the Friday sermon. But a living room is just as acceptable. As long as Swiss Muslims are not denied the right to practice their religion it is hard to argue that a serious miscarriage of justice has occurred.
In Switzerland, Muslims have the ability to fast, abstain from alcohol, eat halal food and pursue their religious faith with the intensity they desire. Piety may not be as convenient in societies where pubs are more accessible than mosques but religion is not a matter of convenience.
While there are many Muslim countries where sizeable Christian minorities live peaceably, it will be foolhardy to suggest that Christians can freely build churches wherever they desire. A church in a Muslim country is just as contentious as a mosque in a Christian nation.

A silhouette of one of Istanbul's many mosques - and minarets

In the final analysis, I doubt if Lake Geneva's skyline will look like Istanbul's anytime soon whatever the outcome of Switzerland's referendum.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Selamat Hari Raya and Eid Mubarik to all my Muslim friends!

The Badshahi Masjid in Lahore, Pakistan. The mosque was built during the reign of Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb in 1673. It can accomodate over 100,000 worshippers for prayers. The mosque courtyard is so large that the main platform of the Taj Mahal can be comfortably placed inside the courtyard.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Singapore vs. Jamaica – is the Rasta to blame?

It is true that Singapore's leadership has benefited from the island's small size and population. Surely, it is easier to develop a small republic which can be easily controlled and policed.
However, there is more to the story than just size.

In an interesting article entitled, "Jamaica vs. Singapore" Josh Lerner points out the different paths taken by the two countries. Mr. Lerner is a professor of Investment Banking at Harvard Business School.
Comparing Singapore with Jamaica makes sense for many reasons. Both are small countries. Both had populations below five million at independence in 1962 (Jamaica) and 1965 (Singapore). The per capita incomes for Jamaica and Singapore were also similar at independence, USD 2,850 and USD 2,650 respectively.
A few other factors are mentioned by the author.
Both nations had a centrally located port, a tradition of British colonial rule, and governments with a strong capitalist orientation. (Jamaica, in addition, had plentiful natural resources and a robust tourist industry.)
In 2009, the disparities in wealth and standard of living are glaring. Singapore's per capita income is USD 56,000 while Jamaica's stands at USD 9,000. One can cite many other statistics to demonstrate the contrast between the two nations today.
The reasons for the divergent growth rates are many. The author suggests that Singapore's emphasis on education, heavy investment in infrastructure, an open and corruption free economy are key to Singapore's success.
Undoubtedly, all of the above played a part.
The rule of law and the resulting security of capital also played a pivotal role. Capital is a coward. It travels where it feels least afraid. Within the region, Singapore provides the most security.
Many fault the ruling People's Actions Party for their often harsh and draconian approach to development. Yes, it's now time to take a lighter touch in many areas. However, it was necessary to lay a solid foundation in the first few decades after Singapore's independence.
These days 'true blue' Singaporeans complain about a foreign invasion. The reason for the invasion is straightforward. Within Singapore's 'catchment' area, the city affords the best overall quality of life. Therefore, it is a magnet for many of the three billion Chinese and Indian (and the odd Pakistani!) citizens.
Historians and economists can dissect Singapore's policy making initiatives in the decades to come. However, it's always hard to argue with success.

As for Jamaica, its lack of relative success may simply be due to Bob Marley, Rastafarians and the ganja culture. Who needs the '5 Cs' when life's mysteries can be solved by one puff of magical smoke – ask any believer in the Church of Jah?!
Had I a Harvard degree perhaps my speculative observations will be taken more seriously.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Is SISTIC the only ticketing agent in Singapore?

I am a big fan of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). The SSO's transition from a 'small town orchestra' based at Victoria Concert Hall to today's world class entity at the Esplanade is very much a personal journey for me.
Victoria Concert Hall is not quite a school auditorium but it is close. The concerts were cheap and tickets easily available. One could generally buy tickets for a show performed the same evening.
Today I have to book weeks in advance and I may not get my preferred seats.

The Esplanade - the new home of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra

I guess the Esplanade experience is a special one. The auditorium exudes the feel of a real classical concert. Many members of the audience are dressed in formal attire. Late-comers are not entertained.
The SSO is not an 'in training' outfit anymore. It hosts international musicians and has a few critically acclaimed recordings to its name.
However, one constant is the role of SISTIC in the ticketing process. I marvel at SISTIC's business model. SISTIC has a license to print money.
Founded in 1991, SISTIC is Singapore's largest ticket selling agency. Its website states that it sells 90% of tickets for all cultural, arts and sports events held in Singapore.
Of course that is not surprising given that there is normally no other way to buy tickets for most events!
There seems to be an unwritten rule that all events at government linked facilities are exclusively sold through SISTIC. Just being the sole distributor for all events at the Esplanade gives SISTIC a big slice of the pie.

How did SISTIC get its business? Why are there no competitors? I have no answers.
I can state that there is little chance to avoid paying SISTIC booking fees (SGD one per ticket) or collection charges (SGD 0.20 – 8.00 depending on method of collection).
All the facts fit right in with what I refer to as 'the Singapore Paradox.' Despite being one of the most open and liberal economies in the world, the Singaporean state remains the biggest owner of businesses and assets in the domestic economy. Typically, the state enjoys a monopoly position in the businesses where it operates.
SISTIC is a private limited company. (I don't know what the acronym stands for.) I could not find any information on SISTIC's ownership or financial status on its website.
Although I could be wrong, I will wager decent money that SISTIC is directly or indirectly owned by the government.
There is no doubt that the government plays a critical role in encouraging the arts and culture scene in Singapore. It cost serious money to build the Esplanade and host the annual Formula-One race. The government spends lots of money to brand Singapore and promote the city as a regional arts hub.
I am sure the SISTIC revenue aids these efforts but the various government ministries' budgets are healthy enough for the purpose.
Now that a large part of the branding journey has been completed, maybe event organizers can encourage the development of new ticketing agencies by allowing newcomers to sell tickets for major events.
In other words, make SISTIC a non-exclusive agent for ticket sales. A monopoly is no longer necessary. The consumer may see benefits through lower (or zero) booking fees.
SISTIC's mission is to "... connect people to entertainment through the provision of innovative systems and best practice services."  For the patron of, well pretty much any high profile event in Singapore, SISTIC is the only way to connect.
Presently, all roads lead to SISTIC. There are no detours.
PS - If someone can point me in the direction of financial and ownership information about SISTIC I will greatly appreciate it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Counterfeits, pirates, procreation and the Pirate Party

Illegal manufacturing is the scourge of the branded world and creators of intellectual property. From Gucci bags, Hollywood movies to music compact discs, all are illegally available in large quantities in many countries.
Before completely dismissing the notion of 'illegal' products consider instances where it may have some benefits. The controversy over the provision of HIV medication at reasonable prices in sub-Saharan Africa is one case.

The branded pharmaceutical companies spent millions developing the formulas. But can a starving HIV positive patient in Ethiopia afford to pay the price? Should the same patient be denied access to the medication because she cannot pay 'market' rates?
How about the case of celebrities – should anyone buying a pirate DVD really need to feel guilty about denying Hollywood actors a few dollars? Likewise is the case with the music industry and the illegal downloading of music by consumers. Does a multi-million dollar artist really need that extra 50 cents?
The implications of piracy are far more serious for the world than many may believe.
The intellectual debate is just beginning. The paradigm governing copyright laws is at an inflection point. The 'piracy movement' has christened a new political party in Sweden.
The Piratpartiet or Pirate Party, established in 2006, is now the third largest political party in Sweden. The party received 7% of Sweden's popular vote for the 2009 European elections and won two seats in Brussels.
The goals of the Pirate Party may seem wacky to us today but they are setting tomorrow's agenda. Without any doubt, the music industry and Hollywood are watching the rise of a pan-European Pirate Party quite closely.
The official aim of the copyright system has always been to find a balance in order to promote culture being created and spread. Today that balance has been completely lost, to a point where the copyright laws severely restrict the very thing they are supposed to promote. The Pirate Party wants to restore the balance in the copyright legislation.
All non-commercial copying and use should be completely free. File sharing and p2p networking should be encouraged rather than criminalized. Culture and knowledge are good things, that increase in value the more they are shared. The Internet could become the greatest public library ever created.
In the 1980s, the West German Green Party was a radical fringe party of 'tree huggers' and liberal radicals. The Green Party's agenda is now firmly main stream.

"Tonight your colleague will be sharing files on the Internet. Us too!" The Pirate Party

Given the popularity of the Pirate Party agenda, it will be co-opted into the mainstream soon enough.
For the individual, copyright law is a complicated issue governed by personal conscience. However, the law (as it now stands) is not complicated at all – piracy is illegal.
There is also a distinction between 'piracy' and counterfeit manufacturing.
Counterfeiting is illegal for good reason. The Chinese authorities recently unearthed a fake condom factory in central Hunan province. Employees were using vegetable oil to lubricate the condoms!
I imagine even the Pirate Party full of 'believers in free sex' Swedes will surely draw the line at fake vegetable oil flavoured condoms.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Foreign talent, taxation and Eastern family values

Singapore is a tiny speck on the world map. Many online maps don't bother to even label the island. Yet, billionaires like Bhupendra Kumar Modi are choosing to live in Singapore and not London or New York.
As an international financial centre the city-state has already made its mark.
Daily trading in the foreign exchange markets puts the city in the top five globally. Singapore is a confident new entrant into the big league of private banking centres, propelled by the republic's efficient legal framework and banking privacy laws.

But billionaires don't pick their homes on the basis of FX trading activities or public transport systems. For today's wealthy and globally mobile individuals taxation is a key factor in their choice of legal domicile.
Individuals like Bhupendra Kumar Modi (or Jet Li) scrutinize tax systems carefully before buying penthouses and luxury homes.
Singapore's taxation regime is not often thought off as a competitive strength. But it is.
Yes, the goods and services tax (GST) rate is high but the direct income tax rate is reasonable. Importantly, Singapore's tax regime is liberal in assessing international income.  
Complement the attractive direct taxation regime with world class physical infrastructure, high quality of life and Singapore has the potential of becoming a regional Monte Carlo for the ultra-wealthy.
Wealthy billionaires spend money and pay GST. They hire people and set up offices to manage their global enterprises. Sometimes, as in the case of Mr. Modi, they invest directly in Singapore and the Southeast Asia region.

A Singapore government poster from the 1970s

However, in attracting the ultra-wealthy to Singapore, the city's trump card is its natural embrace of Eastern and Western cultural traditions.
The city has an active nightlife but no drug problem. It has a Hooters restaurant but raunchy cabarets went out of business due to lack of clientele. Homosexuality is tolerated but acceptance of gay marriage is light years away. Public displays of affection are rare but prostitution legal.
Singapore is no longer a city with Victorian values 'recommended' by the government. Nor is it Las Vegas.
Singapore is a city where 'Westernized Easterners' feel comfortable. It is no surprise that many, though not all, of the wealthy who opt to live in Singapore are Asians (Chinese, Indians).
Arguable, Hong Kong has a more attractive taxation regime. It has a more vibrant nightlife. Socially, it is a freer city – one can even join protest marches if that's your thing!
But for most the choice of Singapore (over Hong Kong) is driven by an old fashioned preference for sensible family values. A conservatism which understands that incremental change is typically sustainable and less socially disruptive.
Singapore's foreign talent comes in many forms. Some foreigners build luxury hotels while others pay for the hotels to be built. The people that pay to live in Singapore remind us that Singapore is firmly anchored in the East.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Welcome to Disneyland la!

Upon my arrival in Singapore in the 1990s I was often met with the refrain, 'Welcome to Disneyland.'
Disneyland is a magical kingdom where many delightful events occur. However, Disneyland is an artificial construct with little semblance to the real world.

Expats may live in Disneyland but Singaporeans live in the real world. In fact, Singaporeans have a reputation for complaining. From the cost of living, immigration to cycling on pavements it's all on the Singaporean conversation agenda.
Several factors contribute to Singapore's characterization as a real world Disneyland.
There is the 'nanny state' perception. The idea that the government can and does manage social behaviour closely, witness the ban on chewing gum. Complement social controls with new and well planned physical infrastructure on a small island and you have an 'urban village.'
Village life is nice. Everyone knows each other. There is an order maintained by traditional authority but also by socially sanctioned peer pressure. Most importantly, people in villages generally trust each other because they are not transients. They are permanent.
To the many heads of state that gathered in Singapore for the recent APEC summit the city-state must have appeared like a Fantasyland. The government always makes sure of that for visiting dignitaries.
Nevertheless, to an urban cynic, villagers are naive country bumpkins. And from time to time, the clash between the real world 'doubting Thomas' and Disneyland's fairy tale figures is visible.
Consider the letter in the Straits Times comparing the APEC summit to the Happy Families card game. (I am unfamiliar with the card game but the title is self-explanatory.)
The letter is well written. It demonstrates knowledge of topical global issues. It is optimistic about the future. It celebrates the progress made by Singapore in the last four decades.
Yet, it is self-laudatory about Singapore and its leadership. It is deferential towards authority. It addresses issues superficially at best. At times, the sentiments expressed are naively optimistic.
Of course, in order to have a letter published in the Straits Times it must be all of these things. I reread the content of any letter I submit to the Straits Times many times before hitting the send button.  
It is important that I not get sued for defamation or sedition by the state apparatus!
I guess you can call it social intimidation. Although when one compares it to outright physical assaults for expressing ideas in certain other countries Singapore is really not that bad.
But I digress from the letter to the Straits Times. The letter subtly reminds us we live in a Disneyland of our own making. The social contract is sacred. Each of us has our stations in society. The leadership leads and villagers follow. The distinction is clear.

Of course, Disneyland has modernized itself to survive in the new world. 'Red China' is getting its own Disneyland located in Shanghai. Lilo and Stitch have emerged as new Disney characters.
In order to survive, even Disney's Fantasyland has to change with the times.
The entire text of Mr. Clinton Lim's letter has been reprinted as the previous post.

Apec Summit shows how far we have come

I WAS proud and gratified that Singapore, an impoverished economy just 50 years ago, and a strong advocate of world free trade ever since, fittingly hosted the 20th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit as a First World country.
At the summit, it was like one big happy family sitting down and playing the popular card game Happy Families.
To move forward and make progress, each family member needs to obtain from a fellow member cards he does not have, in exchange for his cards he does not need. In the process, all parties benefit, so they are encouraged to play again.
Apec is a shining example of what can be achieved by world leaders, given the dare, the resolve, the commitment and the belief that economic cooperation and free and freer trade, not protectionism, are the path to recovery from the economic downturn, and to prosperity.
It was magical to see leaders from four of the most powerful world economies - United States President Barack Obama, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev - stand shoulder to shoulder with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the same room, as they deliberated, chatted freely, moving the region to freer trade. And I hope, they will be the catalyst for the rest of the world to move in the same direction.
Just about every enabler for economic growth and cooperation was addressed in one way or another - boosting domestic demand, balancing short-term pressure with long-term economic stability and infrastructure building, climate change, combating money laundering, fiscal strategies, and regulatory frameworks conducive to support private enterprise, investments and innovation.
Better governance, including and especially ensuring transparency and preventing corruption (a scourge of economic growth), as mentioned briefly by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Mr Medvedev respectively, deserve greater attention than mere lip service.
Perhaps this can be a key topic, which Singapore, given its exemplary track record, will have much to share, the next time Apec leaders play Happy Families again in Yokohama, Japan in November next year.
Clinton Lim

Chinese bloggers conference in Lianzhou, Guangdong province

Thursday, 19 November 2009

An Elegy for the Singapore Expat

A news report suggests that foreigners in Singapore are now buying property in areas outside the prime districts. This is more evidence that the species classified as the 'Singapore Expat' (SE) is evolving to meet the challenges of the new age.

In the 1990s, the SE was a privileged animal. He had his crib, his car, children's education and many other family expenses paid for by Headquarters.
His kids went to international schools. The school bills went to HR for processing. The Filipino maid did the grocery shopping.
Typically, he was paid in US Dollars.
At the time, the US Dollar was a strong currency.  China was just opening up and had not assumed the role of Central Banker to the US.
The SE was indifferent to the value of a car's Certificate of Entitlement (COE). Whether the COE was SGD 10,000 or SGD 50,000, he bought the car he pleased. Why bother with COE details when the bill was sent to Human Resources (HR) for processing anyway.
To top it all, the SE's job and compensation was not entirely dependent on his own efforts. The SE had a regional job.
The rain makers who generated the cash to pay his salary were spread out over the region. His was mainly a 'supervisory' role.
Some of his best supervision was done immediately after work at Harry's or Penny Black. Carnegie's and Brix were reserved for the weekends, especially when the wife and kids were away on one of their thrice yearly visits home.
The SE had it good until the Asian Crisis. The paradigm started to shift around him quickly. His 'value added' suddenly came into focus.
The current economic downturn is the final nail in the coffin.
Today's SE has a new face. Often he lives in an HDB unit in the Singapore heartland. He is seen travelling by subway or bus. Air travel is often on budget airlines. Mommy's afternoon school run is not always in a SUV.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the New SE is buying property in non-prime districts. The SE is no longer special. He is another professional who happens to live and work in Singapore. No more, no less.
The new Singapore Expat is a welcome addition to the city's environment.
However, the loss of the Sarong Party Girl (SPG), a constant companion of the Singapore Expat, saddens me. As the natural habitat of the SPG diminished the colourful sarong clad species could not adapt habits quickly enough to survive another generation.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Google’s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward

Modern society has 'broad based' almost everything.
Broad basing does not necessarily mean 'cheapening.' However, it has resulted in the exclusive aura associated with prestigious items such as Swiss watches, platinum credit cards or air travel being diluted.

Of course, it is nice that air travel is now accessible to many households. Budget airlines have made weekend shopping trips a privilege for the middle class. Maybe not flying visits to Milan or Paris but at least short hops to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur (KL) are within reach.
Commuting by train is passé. Today's businessman takes day trips by plane to attend urgent meetings. All the while breathing that fresh tasting aeroplane air and eating that finely prepared designer airline food!
The airport is much like a bus stop or community center. Finding a seat in a Business Class lounge is harder than locating a seat at La Pau Sat food court during lunchtime.
That's how commonplace air travel is nowadays.
How do these people pay for all this travel and shopping? A platinum (or is it titanium now?) credit card of course. Normal coloured credit cards are not issued any more.
It's not the 'democratization' of platinum credit cards, the Rolex watches or the air travel that bothers me. Those are all good things. They reflect the general affluence which much of the world now takes for granted.
It is the transformation of the written word which gives me pause for thought.
Email and the internet make everyone into an author. Many new authors have little regard for grammar or often even spelling. The new 'hip' writing style, including text messaging, is on its way to becoming mainstream. Today's New Media author is busy writing tomorrow's classic novel.
Don't get me wrong. I am not opposed to the trend.
The internet is a free medium. People may write whatever they like. It is up to readers to decide what they wish to read.  
I grew up in an age of long hand letter writing. As a college student I wrote a weekly 'round up' letter to my family. It was the only economical form of communication with loved ones. Long distance phone calls were a luxury.
The written word was sacred. A letter created its own contract between the sender and the recipient. A letter is definitive, final and lasting. It can be referred to in the future and be reread so often it becomes a part of one's memory.
Today we are creating written content faster than burning a hole in the ozone layer. There are millions of new daily blog posts.
What is so sacred about a mass produced product like a 250 word blog post. Yet the words keep flowing. On this blog and the thousands of new ones started daily.
I don't know what keeps me going. Maybe it's holding a conversation with unknown people that keeps me writing. Perhaps it has more to do with a desire to create my own personal Speakers Corner.

Welcome to the New Cultural Revolution as led by Google.
Google's Cultural Revolution is all about freeing up the written word from the shackles of conventional grammar and spelling.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Pepper Crabs in JB, no white card required

The APEC Summit winds down with calls for everything from a new free trade area to a reordering of the world economy. In the context of increasing integration, Singapore - Malaysia relations are worth revisiting.
Despite the tumultuous start to Singapore's nationhood, practical considerations have been paramount in dictating the friendship between the two neighbours.

The Tuas Singapore - Malaysia Second Link was opened in 1978 to ease traffic flows between the two countries

Of course, spats between the two countries erupt from time to time. The causeway, the immigration checkpoints, Pedra Branca islets and the cost of water all have their place in the relationship. They are real issues which bureaucrats must ultimately resolve.
Still, the Pedra Branca dispute resolution underlines the 'matter of fact' ties between the two countries. In a businesslike manner, the territorial disagreement was taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague, Netherlands.
Since the ICJ's decision in early 2008 both nations have responded positively to the judgement and termed the verdict a 'win-win' for both. Quite rightly, neither side wishes to turn the territorial dispute into a protracted issue.
Geography has mandated that the fate of Singapore and Malaysia is connected.
Malaysia is Singapore's largest trading partner, both as a source of goods (imports) and a destination (exports). The value of total trade between the two sides has been above SGD 100 billion since 2006.
Trade is one side of the story. Family, work and leisure linkages complete the picture.
Almost every Singaporean has travelled to Johor Bahru (JB) for food and shopping at some point in their life. To Singaporeans, Johor Bahru is better known by its affectionate nickname, JB. Singaporeans crossing into JB constitute almost 50% of Malaysia's annual tourist flows.

Many Malaysians work in Singapore and commute into the country on a daily basis. It is estimated 300,000 Malaysians work in Singapore, of which approximately 150,000 commute from JB every day.
The Causeway is used by about 60,000 vehicles daily, with additional weekend traffic to cater to Singaporean searching for sea food and shopping bargains.
Undoubtedly, JB's economy is tightly connected to Singapore's growth.
APEC and the region's mandarins are mulling how to deepen regional cooperation and further liberalize trade flows.
Singapore and Malaysia can blaze a trail for others to follow by reducing travel formalities between the two countries. Like crossing a border between two continental European nations, Singapore and Malaysia should gradually do away with the need to fill out forms and have mandatory entry / exit stamps on passports.
Passport checking should be random. Some may argue that illegal immigration or smuggling will increase if the borders were deregulated.
Customs and immigration are two entirely different arrangements. Customs formalities should remain as stringent as presently.
Given the strict punishments imposed on employers for hiring undocumented workers in Singapore, the crime should remain in check. In Singapore, illegal employment is not merely a matter of sneaking into the country. It is more about finding a criminally wilful employer willing to risk fines and jail time for employing illegal workers.
Earlier this decade, during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis the Singapore and Malaysian Ministries of Health (MOH) treated the two nations as 'One Unit' for the purposes of controlling the spread of the disease. With the extent of travel and trade between the two countries it was impossible to do otherwise.
It is time the Home Teams' of Singapore and Malaysia take a leaf from the MOH book. Increased integration between the two nations is more about easing practical bureaucratic considerations at the Causeway than about photo shoots at APEC Summits.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Temasek Holdings: transparency and accountability

Temasek's transparency won the organisation a perfect score on the Linaburg-Maduell Transparency Index and this is good news.

Transparency, however, is only one aspect of accountability. Corporate accountability calls for an independent board of directors which asks management tough questions about investment strategy and performance.
In Temasek's case, the board of directors comprises nine members, seven of whom have some nature of linkage with the Government. This is not necessarily a flaw per se.
Yet, others may argue that it inhibits their independence as directors. Consequently, the board's contribution to improving Temasek's corporate governance is reduced.
Certainly, one is conscious of the Government's desire to retain control over a strategic organisation such as Temasek. Nonetheless, there are approaches that may satisfy both board independence and government control.
The Ministry of Finance, Temasek's sole shareholder, should consider the structure of the California Public Employees' Retirement System (Calpers) board of directors.
Calpers, a body established by the state of California, has a 13-member board. Seven are appointed by the California government and six are elected independently. Thus, a board majority is retained by the Government.
Perhaps the Temasek board can be expanded in a similar manner. Seven directors appointed by the Government and six nominated by appropriate private sector bodies such as the Securities Investors Association (Singapore), Singapore Investment Banking Association and Association of Banks in Singapore.
It is useful to remember that all board members require the President's concurrence so any unacceptable nominees can be screened out.
Inducting significantly more independent private sector expertise into Temasek's board may not only improve its performance, but also sends a strong signal to Singaporeans that the Government and the people are in Temasek's investment journey together.
The above is the text of my letter published in the Straits Times on November 11, 2009 under the title, "Kudos to Temasek for transparency award - let's take it to next level."

Temasek's response - board members are independent

Temasek Holdings published a response in the Straits Times on November 14, 2009 under the title, "Temasek board members are independent."
The full text of the letter is reproduced below. No name was attached to the letter.
I THANK Mr Imran Ahmed for his letter on Wednesday, 'Kudos to Temasek for transparency award - let's take it to next level'.
Temasek Holdings is a commercial investor. Although the Singapore Government is our sole shareholder, it does not direct or influence our investment or divestment decisions.
Eighteen years ago, the Government initiated and put in place constitutional safeguards to protect the integrity of important Singapore institutions like Temasek. Thus, the appointment, removal and renewal of Temasek board members are subject to the concurrence of the President of Singapore.
Mr Imran's concerns that 'seven' out of nine Temasek board members 'have some nature of linkage with the Government' are also misplaced.
Our board members, comprising reputable Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, are appointed on the basis of their relevant experience, integrity and the independence of mind they bring to our board deliberations.
A considered examination of their backgrounds would show that they are well qualified in their own right with a majority having independent non-government business or corporate leadership track records.
While the Government may have tapped them for government committees or boards of public institutions, such pro-bono 'linkages' do not make them any less independent or suitable as Temasek board members.
Ultimately, our board has the responsibility to discharge its fiduciary duty with care, integrity and wisdom, and to act in the best interest of Temasek and its stakeholders to deliver sustainable long-term returns.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Of Steve Tyler, grandparents and healthcare

The great Islamic theologian and founder of scepticism Al-Ghazali said that the best way to live is to always have death as the foremost thought in our mind. Death brings life back into perspective. It helps us decide the important from the not so important.
A friend's grandfather passed away recently.

The news got me thinking of my own childhood and recollections of my grandparents. Unfortunately, I never really had the privilege of getting familiar with any of my four grandparents.
I remember my maternal grandmother as a frail old lady who hardly moved from her bed. I could not have been more than a few years old at the time of her death. My family lived in a different city from her and hardly interacted. When she passed away her death was not a major tragedy for me.
My paternal grandmother's passing away was my first exposure to death.
I remember wondering why everyone in our house was crying. Someone told me that grandmother had gone to heaven and we will not be seeing her anymore. Pray for her.
As a child, the death of both grandmothers' did not seem important.
Having seen grandparents 'at play' with their progeny, I now understand that I missed a precious experience. Unconditional love coupled with patience that is sometimes absent even from parents. (I guess parents are concerned with discipline.)
Age and experience does equate to greater wisdom.
Children surely benefit from being around older people. It is not that young parents are unskilled at parenting. Child rearing is an innate talent which humans have genetically developed over centuries. But there must be a difference between a mother in her 20s handling a child and an older woman who has done it all before?
There is a reality attached with being a developing nation, poverty and poor health care. Anyone who has visited South Asia will understand that reality. Despite significant economic progress in the last few decades, life expectancies are still low.
Singaporeans can legitimately complain about many things. One thing that they cannot complain about (or at least not too loudly) is the quality of domestic healthcare. It has pushed life expectancies up to first world levels within one generation.
Living into your seventies and eighties means that kids get a chance to play with healthy grandparents. To me that is important news.
Steve Tyler quitting Aerosmith is also news, but perhaps only important to Liv Tyler and her four year old son Milo!

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Applied for your Singapore blogging license yet?

Blogging is a hapless business. Content is served up free for anyone who visits the site, either by chance or intentionally. Often, hours of work is summed up in a few moments by busy readers.
That is, unless you happen to court controversy. Then you pay the price, good and bad, for doing so.

Blogging is part of today's media. It is still finding a viable corner for itself in the media landscape but it is trying hard. Just as the word has entered our dictionary for good, bloggers are here to stay.
Blogging will not go away anytime soon.
Courting controversy as a blogging 'marketing' strategy is dangerous business, especially in strictly controlled societies. Consider the example of 'celebrity' Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez.
Last week Ms. Sanchez and a colleague were allegedly assaulted by Cuban security agents while walking to a rally. It is believed the objective is to intimidate Ms. Sanchez and fellow bloggers from criticizing the Cuban government.
If you want to help spread an idea then arrest someone. I am sure visitors to Ms. Sanchez's blog have skyrocketed since the assault.
Singapore, of course, is a more civilized society. There is no need to assault anyone. The recourse is via legal means and will uphold the rule of law. Exactly the approach one would expect in any enlightened society.
Singapore's famous Internal Security Act (1963) and laws pertaining to defamation are the weapons which bloggers should fear. Ask the Wall Street Journal or the now defunct Far Eastern Economic review about the efficacies and intricacies surrounding Singapore's defamation laws.
Still, I seem to have missed some dramatic changes in Singapore in the last five years. Singapore's blogosphere is not just vibrant but at time venomously hostile to the establishment. To date, I am unaware of any person sued into bankruptcy for their writings.

My apprehension is that some irresponsible site will cross the government's (unknown) line in the sand. Subsequently, Singapore's super efficient state apparatus will initiate close supervision of even the most obscure domestic sites.
No doubt a licensing regime of some sort will be implemented.
Once that happens many Singaporean bloggers may have to find another pastime. Their raison d'ĂȘtre is habitual government and PAP bashing. Surely, the axe will fall on many bloggers.
Me, I like to think that I can look MM Lee in the eye if he questions me about this site's content. We may not agree on some of my opinions but that is healthy, I hope!
MM Lee talked about the necessity of US engagement in SE Asia. The balance of power has to be maintained in Singapore's blogosphere too. At the very least, we can rely on the US State Department condemning the arrest of an 'innocent' blogger, on human rights grounds.
Still, I wouldn't stand around waiting for citizen journalism to be rescued by US diplomacy; Free trade and APEC diplomacy might just be more important to the US-Singapore relationship?

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Locally manufactured versus imported Muslims: Malay-Muslims and ‘other’ Muslims

The life of an idea is never dull. At least the life of those ideas that survive. Many die a natural death. Some linger and transform our lives, often after a charismatic public figure adopts and propagates the philosophy. Like Marx or Mao.
And if you want to spread the word quickly, arrest the person who is preaching the gospel. A fine idea will surely mushroom when forcibly repressed.

That is exactly what happened to the former Mufti of Malaysia's Perlis state. Earlier this month, Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin was arrested by the Selangor Islamic Department for preaching without authorisation.
The Straits Times headline read 'Maverick cleric arrested for preaching.' Headlines are bait for any reader and I am a sucker for 'maverick Islamic clerics!'  
An unorthodox Islamic cleric has got to be good news for modern Islam. When orthodoxy means whipping a woman for drinking beer then any 'maverick Islamic cleric' fascinates me.
The cleric's arrest appears to be a political ploy to pressure him in one direction.  
Dr. Asri is wanted on both sides of the political aisle in Malaysia, the ruling party and the opposition. The reason for Dr. Asri's popularity is clear. His Islamic pronouncements combine modern realities with the spirit of the religion.
His popularity with me increases the more I read about him.
After all, Dr. Asri is a credible Islamic scholar who lends support to at least one view which is dear to me. That being Muslim does not equate with being Malay – a belief fairly common in Singapore.
Dr. Asri believes a decoupling of being Malay and Muslim is necessary. According to Dr. Asri, Malays have not been 'Islamized' but instead they have been "meMelayukan (to influence with Malay) Islam." While speaking about Malay rights (in Malaysia) he stated, "Do not in your efforts to defend Malay rights relate it to Islam. Islam was not sent down by God to protect Malays but all of humanity."
The statement unambiguously advises against using the terms Malay and Muslims either synonymously or even together, i.e. Malay-Muslims. Of course, one can be a Malay-Muslim but to categorize all Singaporean Muslims as such is incorrect.

Any non-Malay who happens to be Muslim occupies a no-man's land. In my case, is my mandatory contribution to the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) or to the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS)? By law SINDA gets my money. But maybe I have more in common with MUIS than I do with Singapore's Tamil community?
It is time to drop the racial prefixes and suffixes which are all too common in Singapore. I am simply a Singaporean Muslim (who sometimes has views not shared by MUIS).
The reality is that if I really wish to understand Dr. Asri's Islamic philosophy I must learn Malay – he is a Malay-Muslim!