Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! May 2010 bring good health, happiness and prosperity to all.
Kind regards,

Feminist drivers, parking spaces and angry men

Saudi readers will be amused to read recent press reports that a shopping center in China has established exclusive parking spaces for women drivers. When Saudi women are finally allowed to drive an entire infrastructure around their new found freedom will have to be established.
Female licensing staff will be required to test drivers and issue licenses. A professional all female traffic police force to deal with accidents and maintain order on the roads will cruise Saudi city streets.

Perhaps the only thing missing may be routine road blocks on the eve of public holidays. Breathalyzer tests seem unnecessary in a nation where consumption of alcohol is severely punished.
Saudi women have some liberating, and employment opportunities, to look forward to in the years to come.
The Chinese problem is more familiar to most drivers, traffic accidents. That is, normal accidents on roads and (not so normal) accidents inside parking lots. It is estimated that almost 74,000 people were killed by road accidents in China in 2008. Granted, that is not a lot for a population of over one billion people but it is still over 200 deaths a day.
Traffic does not normally make the news. This article did because of the female only parking spaces.
The spaces are special and cater to women's "strong sense of colour and different sense of distance," said an official for the shopping center. In layman terms, the shopping center does not want lady drivers to damage parked cars. Hence, it has provided them with lots which are "one meter wider than normal parking spaces."
I know that women and women have different bone structures. Even mental thought patterns are allegedly different; the men are from Mars and women from Venus syndrome. Still, I was unaware that women have a different sense of distance!
I guess women should be happy about the special treatment from the shopping center. Or will the feminists be screaming blue murder at another slight from a male dominated world?
Given the problems of parking in most cities of the world, maybe it's the men who should feel angry about the arrangement. It is the men who have fewer parking spots at their disposal.

How long before freelance women drivers stand at the mall entrance 'renting' their services for 'valet' parking? The Chinese are an entrepreneurial lot and there are precedents in other cities.
Drivers in Jakarta, Indonesia routinely 'rent' passengers so they may avoid traffic congestion and drive in the designated car pool lane.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Message for the Pope: try new ways to deliver your message

Your Holiness, I was disappointed by remarks you made as a Cardinal in 2002 about Turkey's ineligibility to join the European Union (EU). You suggested Turkey, as a Muslim country, has a history which stands "in permanent contrast to Europe."
I reconciled myself to the notion that (Christian) Eastern European nations like Romania and Bulgaria, with economic indicators resembling Turkey's, can waltz into the EU a few years after their initial application. However, predominantly Muslim Turkey remains a European outcaste after several decades.

In line with the Christmas spirit, I discarded the grudge and entered one of your homes on Christmas Eve. I note you did something similar in November 2006 by visiting Turkey and making a 'vague' statement about the nation's EU ambitions.
I thought long and hard about whether to write about my experience in your place of worship. I did not wish to be misunderstood or seen to be interfering.
As always, my emotions got the better of my reason. If I can be critical of the torch bearers of my own faith then why pause at the Cross's doorstep? Both faiths preach the unity of God. 
The Christmas Eve mass was interesting but long. Way too long.
In today's internet age normal people are afflicted with attention deficit disorder. Any presenter knows that twenty minutes is about the maximum one can push an audience.
Throw in fancy costumes, incense, candlelight and deeply ritualistic behaviour and maybe, just maybe, one can stretch the delivery out to 45 minutes. But not two hours!
Two hours is an invitation to nap. Throughout the service many faithful were dozing intermittently. When your audience sleeps they don't hear the message.
The modern world is all about sound bites, buzz and viral marketing. What I witnessed on Christmas Eve was a confusing cocktail of pageantry, noise and unfocused preaching.
I left with only one clear message. The Church recommends 15-16 year old pregnant Singaporean schoolgirls keep the baby at all costs. Single motherhood is preferred to abortion.
Having no fundamental disagreements with an individual's right to abortion, I disagree with the content of the message. Nevertheless, unlike the rest of the sermon this message was delivered (and received) loud and clear.

Another message concerning material goods was buried deep within the sermon. Consequently, it got lost among the verbiage of the Gospel and the drowsiness of the flock.
It seems that the Church and Islam have something to learn from each other.
Today's Church is unable to maintain interest in its religious philosophy among existing and new Catholics. Christianity has lost much of its significance since the advent of the Scientific Revolution.
On the contrary, Islam has recently seen a resurgence of interest. Not all aspects of Islam's revival have been positive. Narrow and obscure views of Islam hog the limelight. Violence in Islam's name is endemic.
Islam's true message is lost amidst the noise of suicide bombings.
Herein lays the paradox. Send a Muslim to a mosque each Friday for a year and, at worst, he is ready to commit suicide for the cause. At best, he will become a fine outstanding member of his community and faith.
Send a Catholic to Church for a year and I suspect he will stop attending on day 366; the weekly sermons typically infuse little enthusiasm to practice the faith.
Church rituals have great potential. A drama created by candles, costumes and burning sweet smelling incense is enough to capture anyone's senses. Yet, what I saw was an underwhelming performance.
Some may object to my treating religion as a 'saleable commodity.'
Religion is a saleable commodity. In the marketplace for ideas, a religion is a set of beliefs for individuals to comprehend, process and finally accept or discard.
For any religion to thrive its philosophy must be packaged well. It must capture the energies of the spirit and the imagination.

The Christmas Eve mass is the Church's Grand Finale performance for the calendar year. It's a sold out show with a receptive audience. Somehow, I don't think anyone left the venue speaking excitedly about the virtues of Catholicism. They were too busy checking the time.
Then again, I am neither a Catholic nor a Turk so what do I know.
They [People of the Book: Christians and Jews] believe in Allah [God] and the Last Day; They [People of the Book] enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong; And they [People of the Book] hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: They [People of the Book] are in the ranks of the righteous.
Surah Al-Imran (3:114)
PS – I really should attend (and write about) a Hari Raya sermon, but I am afraid that it will be in Malay (or Tamil possibly) so I may not understand much of it!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Picks, shovels and the internet

As measured in US Dollars, the internet is projected to be the fourth largest advertising medium in 2010. At current rates of growth, internet advertising will overtake print newspapers in a decade or so; quite an achievement for a new medium battling an industry that has been around for several centuries.

Before getting bloggers too excited, we must consider the full picture.
The Pareto Principle, i.e. the 80:20 Rule is as applicable to the internet as anywhere else. A small handful of websites dominate the internet landscape and, hence, the advertising revenue.
Additionally, traditional media providers have moved into the New Media quite seamlessly. (It helps to have a viable content creating infrastructure.) Singapore's Online Citizen and Temasek Review website garner a fraction of the hits that the Singapore Press Holding sites receive daily.
Based on their Alexa rankings, the top fifteen news providers include nine names which predate the New Media (see list at end of article).
I am sure the story for the advertising agencies is similar. Well established advertising agencies which predate the internet boom have a stranglehold on the ads created for the internet.
The internet has made business easier for individuals and small enterprises. But where are these small businesses?
Well, that is just the point: the small businesses are not big enough to be visible to normal internet users. They cater to niche markets which are specialized but narrow.

It is worth remembering that Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and many other names were small high-tech start-ups not so long ago. They have become dominant players in their respective areas. Consequently, they have corporatized their business to achieve scalability.
Not every internet business can be a Yahoo. It may be difficult for start-ups and individuals to compete effectively with established bricks and mortar businesses.
But the internet ecosystem has plenty of uses for the entrepreneur. It does allow start-ups at low cost, no bricks and mortars required.
If the business fits into the New Internet Age well then it can really take off. Witness the likes of E-bay, PayPal, Etsy and many other successful web based businesses. If it fails then the consolation is that the cash lost is not high relative to an orthodox business. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of the internet for entrepreneurs is to create a brand around their persona. Personal websites are an extension of an individual's personality and can effectively complement their personal 'brand.'

The internet is a relatively easy medium to communicate views to a large group of persons. These views can be professional or personal. For example, a financial professional can share opinions on the US economy and currency. Alternately, someone can write about visiting a Church on Christmas Eve, as a Muslim.
Opinions will get both detractors and supporters but they will define a 'brand.' The brand will assist in other endeavours – it is not an end in itself.
In an oft quoted study by AC Nielsen in 2006, the firm suggested that 1.3 million people make a living transacting on E-bay. It is said that the only people who make money during a gold rush are those that sell picks and shovels. Who do you think makes the real money during the internet boom?

Top fifteen news sites as ranked by Alexa
  1. Yahoo News
  2. BBC News (International)
  3. CNN - Cable News Network
  4. BBC News (UK)
  5. Google News
  6. The New York Times
  8. My Yahoo
  9. The Huffington Post
  10. MSNBC News
  11. Fox News Channel
  12. The Guardian
  13. Wall Street Journal
  14. Reuters
  15. Yahoo Weather

Monday, 28 December 2009

If I was a gay ‘Paki’

Remember the days when calling someone a 'homo' was a serious insult. Today, with the advent of politically correct language, no one dares use 'homo' in a derogatory manner.
In Dubai, a few years ago a mutual acquaintance asked a friend of mine whether I was gay [a homo].

I don't know what the enquirer was thinking. Maybe it was a polite way to enquire whether I was 'available' and looking to settle down (at least I like to think so!). After all, Dubai is a conservative society and the person asking was an Arab. In Arab society, it is unusual for a man to be unmarried in his forties.
For the record, I am a straight male. However, I am not homophobic. In fact, I enjoy the company of gay men. I even take pleasure in the occasional night out at gay bars.
Before you jump to any conclusions, let me explain. Consider the characteristics one normally associates with gay men. They dress well, keep themselves in decent physical shape and are good conversationalists. Most importantly, they always have lots of pretty women around them! What's not to hang around with as long as they know not to cross the line with me?
As for gay bars, well, sometimes it's nice to be offered a drink by a stranger. No one likes a tease so best not to accept any offers! It does make a pleasant change to be asked rather than doing the asking.
In reality, being mistaken for a gay man is not such a bad thing. It suggests that I have all those positive characteristics described above. Who doesn't wish to be seen as a good dresser and good conversationalist?
Undoubtedly, language colours the way we see the world. It can be a positive or a negative hue. Political correctness, when seen in this context, is a positive development.

Language plays an important part in how we see the world

Occasionally being called a 'Paki' while at school in England in the early 1980s, I can tell you language has immense power to evoke harmful feelings. The word precipitates a negativity which is hard to describe.
Suddenly, I am no longer acceptable by mainstream society. I am different from everyone else. It does not matter how I dress or speak English. I am unlike all around me, but in a negative way. Remember, the 1980s were the decade of 'Paki bashing' as a pastime by white racists in Britain.
At times it's important to sacrifice political correctness in order to speak honestly. In the long run, society can only benefit by honesty. In some situations, it helps to 'shock the system' by tossing political correctness out the window. 
Honesty and the 'shock value' of some behaviour forces persons to question existing perceptions. Without introspection improving contemporary state of affairs is almost impossible.
Personally, I enjoy making people question their assumptions. Sometimes, in order to do this, one has to indulge in behaviours which run contradictory to the grain of my personality. (Anyone who believes human personalities are not contradictory by nature is deluding herself.)
However, there are some universal truths in life. It's an indisputable fact that if I were gay I would own many more pairs of shoes and also have countless more female friends!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Happy holidays, merry Christmas and happy new year to all!

O come all ye faithful, Muslims welcome too

Normally I will enter a house of worship only if I am dragged inside kicking and screaming. Ask me to listen to a khutba (or religious sermon) and it's an open invitation to either suicide or homicide!
It may sound odd, but not entering a mosque is actually a sane reaction to what many ill-informed mullahs in Pakistan (and many other countries) preach. The product of these sermons, religious fanaticism, is apparent to anyone who watches the news.

Mosques come in all shapes and sizes. This is the Larabanga Mosque near Mole, Ghana

I still enter mosques, mostly as a tourist or as a tourist guide. In fact, I have had the privilege of visiting Mecca and Medina as a child. I have clear memories of conducting Umra. (Since I was only about ten years old at the time I don't get any 'brownie' points for the experience!)
Nowadays, while in a mosque, I generally silently recite some personal prayers seeking His guidance and forgiveness. I count on the fact that my God is all-knowing and all-merciful.
Certain rituals are important, nay mandatory, in Islam. I am not at that point in my religious journey. I will wait and see how He deals with my disregard for orthodox practices when we meet.
Despite all of the above, I will attend a Catholic mass on Christmas Eve. The visit is not under the threat of a gun to my head either.
I am excited about the experience. In the past, I have gone to wedding receptions at Church, but Christmas is an infectiously 'magical' time. It will be nice to participate in a community event and be a part of the festivities.
More seriously, it's a possibility to be a bigger and better person.

A clash of civilizations is not inevitable

Islam does not have a monopoly on religion, religious practices, or God. Islam believes in Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Surely, there are differences between Islam and the other monotheistic faiths. Jesus is considered a mortal – although as a prophet he is attributed with many more miracles than the prophet Mohammed.
Religion is a personal journey for me. I have covered a fair distance since my days as a sceptic (Marxist atheist!) during my teenage days. I don't think my God will disagree with my partaking in a Christian ceremony.
If some believe in the Original Sin and the Son of God so be it. I am not qualified enough to question their thinking. I don't wish to be like those who question my religious philosophy and status as a Muslim or half-Muslim.
Tomorrow I listen to a Catholic clergyman tell me about good and evil. I will let you know if his interpretation is radically different from mine.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Kashmiri chai and the roots of this bloggers narcissism

Narcissism is a sin. Except for bloggers for whom narcissism is an absolute necessity. Writing personal stories day after day for an audience of a few hundred (out of a possible few billion) readers requires a self-absorbed egoist at the helm.
In my case, it is also part of a complex procedure to process my life experiences into a coherent whole.
Regular readers are used to a fare of mildly provocative Singapore related issues with some proselytising about Pakistan thrown in for good measure. This post may seem a tad soppy for such readers.
It is about my father.

My father was a Kashmiri who never set foot in Kashmir (as far as I know). I don't remember him enjoying Kashmiri tea (pink tea with a salty taste). He said he spoke Kashmiri but we never knew for certain. The only Kashmiri certainty about him was his fair complexion.
His family was from a small village in Kashmir. The village, Wachi, is located (somewhere) in Indian Kashmir. It is thought that most people in Wachi were (are) craftsmen, generally woodcutters. I don't know if the village still exists.
My father was born and received his schooling in Calcutta. My paternal grandfather was a police constable (enforcing 'His Majesty's Writ') in Calcutta.
He attended Lahore's Forman Christian College where he became an activist for the All-India Muslim League. He recounted with great pleasure the instances when he heard Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah  speak.
I don't wish to bore you with my father's achievements during his adult life, although they were plenty. It is sufficient to suggest that our family's story only began after the birth of Shafiq Ahmed in 1926.
The Pakistani legacy is one of wanderers. You squat in Pakistan long enough and you become a Pakistani. No need for a pink or blue identity card.
Ask NATO, they seem to think Al-Qaeeda types have been squatting in the Pashtun tribal areas for the last twenty years! Given that three million Afghans never left the region after the First Afghan War it is not surprising.
One cousin is convinced that if we trace our family history back far enough, we are actually Balochis who carried the surname 'Miran.'
Balochistan, as you know, is Pakistan's largest province from where the Quetta Shura allegedly directs the war against the infidel invaders of Afghanistan! Balochis also tend to rebel against the Pakistani state every twenty years or so. (Couple a rebellious Balochi streak with a Punjabi penchant for arguing and you have uncovered a part of me.)

Balochistan, Pakistan's largest and most sparsely populated province, comprises primarily of desert and rugged mountainous terrain

How, why and when my father's family came to adopt the surname 'Ahmed' and drop 'Miran' is a mystery. Many strange things occurred during the partition of the subcontinent, changing names and places of birth among them.
Whether the narrative began in Balochistan, Kashmir, Bengal or Sind it is difficult to say. Even harder still, is to know where the wandering will end.
But his four grandchildren, who roam the world's streets as young adults, know that their grandfather's principles remain true whether they adopt 'Mullahism' (God forbid) or 'Kemalism' (Praise be to Allah).

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Singapore, home of private bankers, minarets and Danish beer

Historically, wealthy Arabs have seen Switzerland as a friendly country. Many members of the Gulf elite, including the late president of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Zayed, maintain lavish summer residences in the Swiss Alps.
The Swiss decision to ban the construction of new mosque minarets has lost Switzerland serious goodwill in the Islamic world.

Swiss companies such as Nestle may see a temporary drop in sales of their products in Arab Gulf countries following the recent Swiss referendum on mosque minarets

The reaction is not as severe as it was following the Danish cartoon incident. Nevertheless, the Swiss referendum result has not gone completely unnoticed.
After the publication of the cartoons, consumer groups organized boycotts of Danish products. For a while, the import and sales of Danish dairy products into the Gulf countries fell by over 50%. (Still, I don't believe the Danish brewery Carlsberg's poor third quarter corporate results were due to a sudden shift to non-Danish beer in the Islamic world!)
Today wealthy Arabs are talking about relocating their bank accounts away from Switzerland, changing holiday patterns and boycotting Swiss products.
Bank accounts and holiday homes are 'sticky' products. It is easy to replace Danish butter or cream cheese with non-Danish brands. Likewise, Swiss yoghurts and jams may be in for a turbulent time in the next few months as emotions remain high.
However, selling a luxury home in Geneva or replacing a long standing relationship with a private banker is a painful and time consuming process, especially in the Arab world, where business opportunities are typically relationship driven.
Trying to 'buy' your way into a relationship is not necessarily the best strategy. Ask the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) which is saddled with USD 1.3 billion of debt to Dubai World. The loan will not win any favours from a cash strapped Dubai government.
Business relationships are built incrementally as mutual trust is earned. Singaporean banks have recently invested large sums in the area of private banking; most notably, OCBC's USD 1.5 billion purchase of ING's asset management business.

Singapore has all the attributes required to expand its role as a private banking center from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. It is time for Singaporean banks to leverage on their private banking franchises.
Additional investments to establish a presence in the Gulf may seem risky at a time when the banking sector in the Gulf is under stress. But asset management is not a lending business. It is a fee based annuity business with high upfront establishment costs and a long term gestation period. The payoff is in low risk revenues – few loans that may go bad.  
Arguably, the current competitive landscape in the Gulf is highly attractive. The local banks are not in expansion mode. They are conserving capital to shore up their balance sheets in light of expected loan losses from the local corporate sector. The Swiss banks, well, you know the story. The large international banks have suffered serious dents to their reputations due to questions concerning their solvency.
There is no reason why wealthy Arabs should not buy their Swiss Patek Philippe watches in Singapore and reside in luxury apartments around the Marina. Singapore is as good a private banking center as Geneva or Zurich, barring the weather.

One thing is for sure, Arab visitors to Singapore have a variety of mosques, complete with minarets, to visit for their Friday prayers.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Muftis, Grand Mooftis, Malays, Bengalis and the Umayyad Caliphate

I confess to being an imposter. Singapore's genuine Mufti is Syed Isa Semait. He is tasked with leading Singapore's faithful into the next decade.
Me, I only have my blog with which to pontificate. And, I am grateful that you take the time from your busy schedule to read my posts!

The Mufti and the Islamic Religious Council (MUIS) of Singapore have all the instruments of the state at their disposal, including imposing the Official Secrets Act on emails when they disagree with the content.
It is unlikely you will find the texts of any Friday sermons here. That is, unless a hacker breaks through Google's extensive security measures surrounding my blog and posts a few as a practical joke.
I may not be a genuine Mufti, but any Grand Moofti worth his salt must share observations on some recent news items.
A few days ago MUIS made a call to Muslim community leaders to be 'inclusive' in their approach towards non-Malay Muslims. "We have encouraged local Muslims to contemplate this matter and avoid taking a fanatical, dogmatic or intolerant attitude towards differences within the Muslim community," said the MUIS President.
By contrast, the Straits Times carried an article a day earlier (December 17) entitled, "New, young leaders for Muslim professionals grouping." The text of the article refers substantively and exclusively to the Malay community. The word 'Muslim' is essentially dropped from the article, after its use in the title.
"But getting more young Malay professionals to serve the community is an uphill struggle because many do not feel committed to the community, observed Mr. Mohd Nizam [New Chairman of the Association of Muslim Professionals]."
It is difficult to expect non-Malays to feel a part of such a professional grouping. By the sound of it, the organization may just as well be named the Association of Malay Professionals.

Mosques, large or small, play a pivotal role in Muslim communities. The picture depicts a small mosque in Mubarak Village, Sindh, Pakistan

Recent press reports indicate that twenty percent of Singapore's Muslims are 'newcomers.' (I assume that means non-Malay.) Twenty percent is a significant minority. It cannot be wished away.
It will take time for the Singaporean Muslim community to come to terms with the changing demographics. It took the Arabs several centuries before they accepted non-Arab Muslims into the fold. In fact, the schism between Arab and non-Arab Muslims or mawali was a key factor in the downfall of the Umayyad Caliphate in the eighth century.
The admission by MUIS that there exists a plurality within Singaporean Islam is a welcome step forward.
Nevertheless, Singaporean lawmakers must demonstrate the intellectual courage to revisit the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). In the context of the dynamic, civil society which Singapore has developed in the last four decades, a 'one-size fits all' religiously inspired legislative act is an anachronism.

The boundaries of the Republic's secularism are broached by the Administration of Muslim Law Act

As an open and tolerant society, Singapore's Muslims do not need reminding of Surah 2, verse 256, "Let there be no compulsion in religion." Religion depends upon faith and will.
Religious practices induced by legal coercion are meaningless. (Yes, I have informed the Taliban about verse 2:256 but they don't seem to listen. In fact, they don't much care for the rest of my blog either.)
As for me, I want to be able to write a Will; and know whether I should turn to MUIS or the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) for help in case of need!

Friday, 18 December 2009

SISTIC, blogging and delusions of grandeur

SISTIC has received a 'Proposed Infringement Decision' from the Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) on December 16. I want to believe that the CCS notice was sparked by the Grand Moofti's two posts on SISTIC (November 25 and December 4) which discussed the monopolistic nature of the SISTIC franchise.

After all, it does not take long to figure out that SISTIS's business is a monopolistic cash machine with consumers forced to feed the machine. The CCS can do that in a few days, especially with access to the legal agreements binding the Esplanade to use SISTIC.
Much as I like to feed my ego such delusions of grandeur, the CCS investigation probably started some months ago. Surprising as it may sound to us bloggers, achieving results in a transparent legal environment generally requires a little bit more homework than writing a blog post.
Still, allow me 'bloggers license' to take some credit for at least moving things along in the right direction!
Singapore's mandarins tend to be methodical and thorough, if somewhat risk averse, in their approach. They will not issue a notice hastily only to lose 'face' in the future.
The SISTIC saga, still ongoing, validates some personal notions about Singapore. The government is willing to address non-controversial and 'meritocratic' issues quickly through the system. Constructive debate can make a difference.
The above does not hold true for 'sensitive' issues. Race and religion are rightly deemed to be sensitive. Irresponsible behaviour or writings on the subject threaten the social fabric.

Nevertheless, I believe that if an idea passes a 'Reasonableness Test' it can be written, without fear of adverse repercussions, even in Singapore's self-regulated environment.  
My own 'Reasonableness Test' is a combination of a few assessments.
I should be able to defend my argument or hypothesis to my neighbours, friends and my local MP without feeling embarrassed or uneasy about supporting such a notion. If I am writing about a really touchy subject, like Islam or race relations, then I imagine how LKY will react if he read my posts!
If LKY listens to my argument and does not threaten to prosecute me afterwards then it has passed my self-imposed 'Reasonableness Test.' I figure that it is then safe to assume the Establishment will not take me to court and lock me up (and force me into bankruptcy for good measure) for expressing my beliefs.
The SISTIC saga shows that there are genuine issues which we face in daily life where a little publicity may go an unexpectedly long way. And, Pakistani-Singaporeans bloggers are passionate about many issues, not only the distinction between 'Malays' and 'Muslims!'
Please remember that next time you buy a concert ticket and pay a reduced SISTIC handling charge. Yes, I know it's only about a dollar per ticket but it's all about the Latte Effect.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Fact: Pakistan’s nukes are NOT safe!

After the launch of Pakistan's much 'encouraged' operation in South Waziristan, the international media is unusually quiet about Pakistan's efforts to combat terrorism. However, from time to time the international media continues to turn its attention to the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is not safe.

But neither are the US, British, French, Russian, Indian or Chinese arsenals. The arsenals are maintained, operated and protected by humans. Humans are fallible.
Based on admissions by the US Department of Defense at least 32 nuclear accidents occurred between 1950 and 1980. No data has been released by the US since 1980.
Among the nuclear accidents acknowledged by the US government is the following:
In January 1984, Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, recorded a message that one of its Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles was about to launch from its silo due to a computer malfunction. To prevent the possible launch, an armoured car was parked on top of the silo [emphasis added]. 
Does this sound like a secure arsenal?
It is worth restating the reason for Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It acts as a bulwark against a perceived desire by India to achieve regional hegemony in South Asia.
Historically, nuclear deterrence is a legitimate strategy to protect the international boundary of a member state of the United Nations. It was part of NATO doctrine to keep Western Europe safe from the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe. NATO's war tactics called for a vertical escalation to nuclear weapons as a counter to the Soviet numerical superiority in conventional weapons.
As a deterrent, there are several scenarios during which Pakistan may 'legitimately' threaten to use, or indeed use, nuclear weapons. Consider the following sequence of events.
A series of coordinated terrorist incidents across five major Indian cities, including Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Bangalore results in the deaths of almost 1,000 people. Nationalist hawks pressure the incumbent Indian government to take 'limited military' action against Pakistan.
During these actions, an Indian air force fighter is shot down while on a 'precision strike' mission against a 'terrorist' training camp in Pakistan. Separately, a squad of Indian commandoes are captured while trying to infiltrate Pakistani Kashmir.

Islamist terror cells indulge in another wave of operations across India. Separatist movements, encouraged by the Indian government focus on the western border, step up operations in Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland, and Mizoram (to name a few states).
Suddenly, a Baloch tribal leader emerges at a press conference organized by the Indian foreign ministry in Delhi. He demands independence from Pakistan (and Iran) for Balochistan.
Simultaneously, an Indian Sikh leader surfaces in Lahore. He demands the establishment of an independent Khalistan state in Indian Punjab and urges Sikhs to rebel against Delhi's authority. He appeals for Sikhs, including those in the Indian military, to remain neutral in the Indo-Pak conflict.   
Since World War I (1914-18) no nation has overtly declared war on its adversary. Wars just ensue after a series of unfortunate events.
And so it is on the Pakistan-India border. Suddenly the two armies are shooting bullets and lobbing artillery shells at each other. Air force planes are vying for supremacy over Amritsar and Rajasthan.
After approximately two weeks, the mobilization of additional Indian land forces confers India a numerical edge. After three weeks the Pakistani military feels severe pressure in the Lahore / Amritsar sector. The Pakistan military fear the tide may be turning against them.
At a specially convened session of the UN Security Council, Pakistan calls for an immediate ceasefire. The Pakistani foreign minister threatens India with a first strike unless India declares an unconditional ceasefire within twenty four hours.
Hopefully, the world will never be faced with a situation similar to the one described above. However, that is not what worries the world these days. The international community is simply interested in keeping Pakistan's nuclear arsenal out of the hands of the 'Islamists.'

Are Pakistan's nuclear assets safe from the Taliban? All indications suggest they are – for now. Will they stay safe from Islamic extremists in the future?
The only certainties in life are death and taxes. And, as the Americans say, stuff happens.
The impact on the Muslim psyche of incidents such as the Danish cartoons, the continued rebuff to Turkey's admission to the European Union, military impotence in face of 'invasions' of Iraq and Afghanistan and, of course, the lingering Arab-Israeli dispute is deep.
The reality is that Pakistan is a Muslim nation. The nuclear weapons are already in the hands of Muslims. Therefore, the more important question is whether the Pakistani state and military will feel compelled to use the nuclear weapons against perceived enemies of the state, for religious or nationalistic reasons.
The answer will be found in whether there is a 'clash of civilizations' between Islam and other parts of the world. If the Islamic world feels strongly alienated from the mainstream international community then the Pakistani military will not remain immune forever to increasing anti-US and anti-Western sentiment.
It is unlikely Pakistan will become a Saudi type theocratic state following a top-down revolution (like Iran after the fall of the Shah). It is far more likely that popular religiosity in Pakistan will increase as a result of perceived slights against Pakistan and Islam, a bottom-up 'Peoples Revolution.'
The result: Gulf Arab petrodollars, especially from Saudi Arabia, rush into Pakistan in amounts larger than is already the case. Pakistan's reliance on the US and the West is weakened. Pakistan becomes a 'client state' of Saudi Arabia and radical Islam.
The 'Islamic Bomb' is well and truly born.
There is only one way to ensure the 'security' of Pakistan's nuclear assets. The international community must reach a modus operandi with the Islamic world which ensures Pakistan and other Islamic nations feel a respected part of international community. Not merely nations which are potential threats or ongoing sources of terrorism.  
Until the Islamic world perceives itself to be a partner with the rest of the world the dangers of radical Islam will only increase. All Muslims, including those who serve as officers in the Pakistan army, are susceptible to the crosscurrents of radicalization over time.
As for nuclear arsenals, in the coming few years we are more likely to read about US B-52 bombers carrying unauthorized nuclear missiles flying across the continental US (September 2007) than about Pakistani nukes falling into the wrong hands. And, if a nuclear weapon is used in the near future, current trends and history both suggest it will more likely be a tactical strike in a Muslim nation like Afghanistan carried out by the US!
"Millions of Americans believe that these are the last days and that they will be raptured to heaven at the end of the world. You have a president who describes Jesus as his favourite philosopher, and one of the last remaining candidates in your presidential primaries is a preacher who doesn't believe in evolution. Many Pakistanis worry that the United States is being taken over by religious extremists who believe that a nuclear holocaust will just put the true believers on a fast track to heaven. We worry about a nutcase U.S. president destroying the world to save it."
US Humorist Hugh Gusterson writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (February 4, 2008)

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The Grand Moofti pulls out his flying carpet

Dear Friends,
The Grand Moofti is currently travelling. The next article will be posted on Thursday, December 17, 2009.
Thank you very much for taking the time from your busy schedules to visit the Grand Moofti Speaks. I hope to see you back later in the week.
Kind regards,

Monday, 14 December 2009

Whither Singapore’s Secularism? Note to the Ministry of Law

Singaporeans often speak dismissively about the legal privileges bestowed upon the Bumiputra population in Malaysia. Less is said about the denial of certain legal rights to Singapore's Muslim population by Singapore's own legal framework.
The Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) empowers the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) to interpret Islamic law or Sharia on behalf of all Singaporean Muslims.
Subsequently, all Muslims are compelled to adhere to the provisions of Sharia via AMLA. While there may be a (complicated) legal process for exempting Muslims who do not adhere to the Islamic school of law professed by MUIS, it is discouraged by MUIS. (Yes, I have been in contact with MUIS.)
It should be noted that there are several main schools of law within the Sharia. In Pakistan, the orthodox school of law is different from the school to which Malays generally subscribe. Additionally, AMLA is geared towards Sunni Muslims. Shia Muslims may have their own grievances with AMLA.
AMLA deals primarily with family law, including inheritance, marriage and divorce. Several provisions of AMLA contradict sections of Singapore civil law.
Muslims are not permitted to leave a Will. Upon a Muslim's death, his assets are distributed in accordance with AMLA's interpretation of the Sharia. Writing a Will is a simple right available to all non-Muslim Singaporeans.
AMLA permits polygamy and specifies guidelines for divorce. Polygamy blatantly contradicts the Singapore Women's Charter while the divorce guidelines are controversial. Feminists have issues reconciling AMLA with the Women's Charter.
Recently, the Straits Times had an opinion piece on the controversial Malaysian cleric Dr. Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin. The article provided a window for me to publicize my views on inheritance within AMLA to a broader audience.
After some deliberation, the Straits Times chose not to publish the letter. It was determined that a Muslim has several 'legally creative' ways, including establishing a trust, to manage the inheritance process to his liking.
Perhaps the decision has more to do with maintaining the status quo than with other considerations.
I respect the decision by the Straits Times but do not agree with their logic.
My logic is simple. Under civil law I should have the right to leave a Will. I should not be subject to religious law in a secular state governed by civil law.
Under civil law, I can follow a 'religiously guided' lifestyle if I so desire. Due to the provisions of AMLA, I am unable to excuse myself from their interpretations of Sharia unless I renounce my religion or go against the spirit of the law. Conversely, under religious law I am unable to follow my personal conscience.

The implementation of Sharia or Islamic law is controversial, especially in a religion which does not have a formal, institutionalized clergy structure

My original letter to the Straits Times and a discussion of possible alternatives is reproduced below.
To the Editor:
Mr. Farish Noor's article [November 20, 2009], "Cleric's case a test for moderate Malaysia" is a timely reminder of the benefits of Singapore's secular state structure.
The author writes, "... The heart of the matter is the question of who has the right to speak on Islam and Islamic matters ... Islam does not have a clergy or priestly class."
The same question is valid in the Singapore context.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) has ably guided Singapore's Muslims to integrate within a modern multi-religious society. However, in essence, MUIS is a religious clergy which claims to speak for all Singapore's Muslims. (MUIS adheres to a specific school of thought within Islamic law.)
Singaporean Muslims are bound to a parallel legal system created by the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). AMLA obliges Singaporean Muslims to order parts of their lives in line with the guidelines laid down by MUIS.
In effect, MUIS is empowered to compel Singaporean Muslims to adhere to its interpretations of Islamic law.
Take the matter of the distribution of a Muslim's estate following his death.
Singaporean Muslims are denied the freedom to write a Will for more than one third of their assets. Under AMLA, the remaining two thirds of a Muslim's assets are forcibly divided among inheritors based on MUIS' interpretation of Islamic law.
Practically speaking, this means that if a Muslim wishes to leave his entire wealth to a spouse, mother or charity that is not legally permissible.
Singaporean Muslims, as citizens of secular republic, should have the same rights and privileges as all Singaporeans. Singapore's legal framework should provide Muslims the freedoms to order personal affairs in accordance with their own conscience.
These entitlements include choosing heirs to bequeath one's wealth and life savings. Islamic religious traditions may provide recommended guidelines but should not be legally binding.
Singapore's Muslims deserve all rights due to them under the civil laws of the republic, without any exceptions.
Imran Ahmed
A discussion on the use of alternative legal routes to achieve the objective which a Will attains:
1. A trust structure is the cleanest and most reliable solution but creating a (reliable) Trust can be quite costly. A trust also required an annually recurring cost which can be in the SGD thousands each year. Costs and complications which non-Muslims do not have to bear;
2. Technically, one can avoid Singapore laws claim to assets by placing them in an offshore domicile, e.g. Jersey, Luxembourg, etc. Again a solution which is operationally intensive and with its own costs, especially for a normal middle class individual, who does not have assets numbering in the millions;
3. The 'either/or' or 'survivor' route for bank accounts and other assets has complications which a Will avoids. If I maintain a bank account jointly with proposed heirs there is no way I can decree what percentage of account's assets go to which survivor. The complexities increase when we refer to fixed assets which may be problematic in valuing. A Will allows specific allocations without any questions;
4. Operationally, establishing a bank account with joint owners in several domiciles (as in my case) poses other problems. It requires each party to undertake a painful process of account opening through notarization and attestations. Especially for a senior parent in her late 70s this is an unnecessary pain - a Will avoids the pain. Further, maintaining joint accounts with an individual subject to taxes in another jurisdiction (e.g. the United Kingdom) has serious tax implications for that individual which are best avoided. A Will avoids a possible increase in annual tax liability for a UK taxpayer;
5. Finally, one must always consider the possibility that an AMLA decreed heirs (e.g. a male first cousin) may dispute the ownership of assets that take place outside of Islamic law. While I am confident that Singapore civil law will ultimately prevail and the ownership may not be overturned, it may prove to be a costly, painful and lengthy legal process (especially for individuals / owners who do not normally reside in Singapore).
Legal creativity is an option, especially for the ultra-wealthy. For normal middle class individuals like me it may not be as easy. Contrived legal solutions have their own potential landmines.
Most importantly, to view the issue of AMLA and Wills in the above perspective misses the forest for the trees. The fact remains that Muslims are compelled to adhere to religious law in Singapore (of a specific school of thought); a fact which denies Muslims the right to bequeath assets through a simple, cheap and clean solution - a solution available to all non-Muslim Singaporeans.