Monday, 31 August, 2009
Sunday, 30 August, 2009
Saturday, 29 August, 2009
That the South Korean government is finally contemplating regulating the activity of the SKMCA is welcome. It may be too late for those who lost their lives in Afghanistan but it might just temper the future folly of some Church leaders.
Friday, 28 August, 2009
Based on August 19 exchange rates Singapore is by far one of the world's most expensive cities to indulge in a pint of quality ice cream.
Thursday, 27 August, 2009
Forget the 2006 Bordeaux vintage at USD 600 per bottle.
Wednesday, 26 August, 2009
Monday, 24 August, 2009
Like the underwater marine world, there are all sorts of fascinating life forms in this particular universe. One can find sharks, whales, pretty, purple, yellow and just boring old 'catch of the day' fish swimming around.
We all want Singapore to be a better place. There are millions of opinions on how to improve life in the city. Debates are about issues and not personalities.
Although often anonymous, internet communication still requires respect for traditional rules of etiquette
Young idealists beware. Everything is recorded on the internet. Nothing is private anymore. Choose your words carefully or you could land yourself in trouble, if not today then maybe tomorrow.
Sunday, 23 August, 2009
During Singapore's move from Third World to First World it has amassed huge foreign exchange reserves
It is true that Singaporean's desire greater disclosure from the organization. No can argue with the following words written by the paper, "Temasek has taken baby steps toward more transparency under Ms. Ho. The questions raised in parliament Tuesday show the Singaporean people support those efforts, and want more."
In fact, it will be nice if other Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWFs) such as from the wealthy Gulf countries and China also reveal more information.
Singaporean women seeking good fortune by touching a statue of the Laughing Buddha
The real question then is what is the basis of oversight undertaken by the Board? What powers does the Board exercise during this oversight exercise and have they fulfilled their fiduciary obligations by ensuring management is kept on its toes. It may have been due to the new CEO's proposed Board changes that his appointment was rescinded.
Thursday, 20 August, 2009
Pakistan is a conservative Muslim society. Despite my own wishful thinking it is no Turkey. (I promise a Pakistani Ataturk will be born one-day!)
Thankfully, however, Pakistan is also no Saudi Arabia.
In the large urban areas women are reasonably well integrated into the work force. The head to toe burqa (veil) is typically only worn by Pathan women in the ultra-conservative Northwest Frontier Province. Alcohol is quite easily available – legally to non-Muslims and 'quasi-legally' to Muslims.
This story is about another unusual part of Pakistan's heritage.
Murree Brewery Company Limited is one of Pakistan's oldest publicly listed companies and is involved in the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic beverages.
It was established in 1860 near the hill station town of Murree, approximately 30 kilometres northwest of Islamabad. (Islamabad, of course, did not exist at the time.) The company expanded in the late 1800s by establishing breweries in Rawalpindi and Quetta.
Murree Brewery beer is historically of a high quality and maintains those standards even today. Its first international award was secured for product excellence at the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876.
The company is known not just for its beer but also makes whiskey, gin and vodka. In fact, the company has the distinction of being the first Muslim manufacturer of 12 and 8 year old single malt Scotch whiskeys. A limited 6,000 bottles of a'rare' 20 year malt was also produced a few years ago.
Whiskey aficionados may note what Jim Murray, author of the annual 'Whiskey Bible' said of the 8 year old malt, "Not only does Murree's 8 years old Single Matured Malts compare favourably, it is much better than a lesser Scotch malt, which comes nowhere near matching this Whisky's crisp and delicate maltiness".
It may be some time for the international beer and whiskey drinking world to appreciate the company's products – the company reported annual sales of just (approx.) USD 23 million in its 2008 financial year.
While exporting alcohol from Pakistan is illegal, it is said that the smuggling trade in the lawless Pak-Afghan border region is not limited to weapons and terrorists.
Meanwhile, I can tell you that as you read this article a Pakistani (or Afghani maybe?) is enjoying a cool glass of Murree's beer distinctively brewed from Pakistani six row barley, malts and Bavarian hop products.
Wednesday, 19 August, 2009
Singapore's pedal cab - some things should never change!
A cricket match between the 'Sanam (Beloved) XI' and the 'Olympians XI' took place in Sukkur, Sindh recently. The Sanam team, captained by Sanam Khan, was formed entirely of transvestites.The match was played in front of a full house at the local sports stadium.
To date, cricket mad Pakistan has been represented at the international level by a men's and women's team.
Not only did the 'Sanam XI' win their inaugural cricket match but the 'Man of the Match' came from their 'Sanam (Beloved) XI' team.Perhaps the transvestites can translate their success on the cricket field into the political arena and make another run for the Prime Minister's post in the next general elections?
Tuesday, 18 August, 2009
Modern day Afghanistan is a loose conferedaration of tribes
The international media is giving due attention to the forthcoming Afghan Presidential elections.
On August 20 Afghani citizens will go to the polls in approximately 6,000 polling booths across the country to choose among 41 candidates for the Presidency. Insecurity fuelled by Taliban inspired violence has plagued these elections (see BBC video here).Excuse me if I am slightly cynical about the elections. It is not that I doubt the intent and the impartiality of the polls.
But what exactly will the new President govern? The country has no bureaucratic infrastructure to implement any policies. The state apparatus has no revenue of its own and is almost entirely dependent on foreign sources to meet even basic operating costs.
A US Blackhawk helicopter flies near Kabul's Bagram Airbase
Security is primarily provided by foreign troops. It has been reported that the Taliban now operate a parallel judiciary in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city.
If a road is being built then the work crew requires NATO protection and foreign aid money is paid to foreign contractors. Nevertheless, it is the local Afghanis receiving subsistence wages who must brave the Taliban threats to actually build the road - when they are not being kidnapped or killed.The poor have no choice but to try and make a living. Joining the Taliban war machine or becoming opium farmers suddenly seems attractive.
An Afghani man carries some 'nan' in a city street
What are some options that are available to improve the complex situation in the battle scarred nation?
Afghanistan has never been a unitary state. It has been a confederation comprising the various tribes and ethnic groups that inhabit the region. The Pashtuns (aka Pathans or Pakhtuns), which straddle both sides of the Pak-Afghan border, are the largest single group.
King Ahmad Shah Durrani, who unified the various Afghan tribes in the 1700s
The Taliban is mainly a Pashtun organization. Since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001, the Northern Alliance movement, in alliance with the US, has effectively been in control of Kabul. The control has come largely at the expense of the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns form 42% of the Afghan population and the Tajiks 27%.
The international community must recognize the tribal nature of traditional Afghan society. It is the tribal structure that holds the key to minimizing Taliban violence and influence. It is a local form of democracy somewhat comparable to the Swiss cantonal approach.
The Pashtun tribes and their leaders must be supported politically through direct access to funds and development assistance.
The tribal leaders are responsive to their own constituencies, members of their tribes. They have a vested interest in seeing roads, schools and markets built in their hamlets and villages. More importantly, if the tribes are consulted and included in the development process they will take ownership of the infrastructure, i.e. they will physically defend the improvements to their neighbourhood.
Central military force is important in the context of providing a security umbrella to the friendly and 'borderline' tribes. Military force effectively used will make the cost of joining the Taliban prohibitive. Becoming a Taliban fighter should not be seen as an easy way to earn a living by disaffected Pashtuns. Potential fighters must think twice and consider the price (death) before joining.
An ISAF soldier in an Afghan poppy fieldBut the primary weapon is negotiation. By using a combination of threats and bribes, the nominal loyalty of tribes can be weaned away from the Taliban.
There will always be an element of the Taliban who will not give up arms until either the foreigners have left or their austere version of Islamic law has been implemented. The impact of this extreme element on mainstream Afghan society can be minimized through social marginalization.
A second necessary condition is the inclusion of the Pashtuns in the Kabul political establishment. Since the fall of the Taliban an attempt has been made to placate Pashtun sensitivities by pointing to current President Hamid Karzai as their representative.Karzai has no natural tribal constituency. He spent the Soviet occupation years in exile in Quetta, Pakistan. His impotence as a guardian of Pashtun interests became clear when the first post Taliban era Afghan cabinet appointed Northern Alliance leaders to every key ministry.
The Pashtuns were marginalized and the effect was to strengthen their sympathies towards the Taliban.
NATO / US pressure on the Kabul elite to bring in key Pashtun leaders with important tribal constituencies into the regime will go a long way in reducing the pull of the Taliban. There are several members of the Taliban who are (or already have) renounced violence and joined the political mainstream. Some are even running for President in these elections.
Afghanistan is not a nation state in the same mould as European or Latin American nations. Even in the best of times, Afghanistan has been a loose confederation with some control exercised by political authorities in Kabul over the larger urban areas and road infrastructure. The loyalty and pacification of tribes through judicious use of cash and intimidation is what appears to have worked in the past.
To try and impose a 'top-down' unitary state structure is failure writ large. Instead, a return to the loose tribal based arrangement of the past is the best bet to restore stability to a nation destroyed by 30 years of fighting.
Women walk the streets in Parwan province, Afghanistan
But for now, the Presidential elections give the international community a reason to spend their generous budgets and NATO troops some ballot boxes to stop from being stuffed.
Monday, 17 August, 2009
Singapore has recently seen an influx of immigrants from the People's Republic of China
As typically happens during recessions, there is a sense that 'foreign talent' is taking away jobs from indigenous Singaporeans. However, the debate is not always restricted to the economic sphere and often slips into the realm of race and ethnicity.
Race and ethnicity are sensitive issues here in Singapore. Government policies are implemented with a focus on increasing the 'common space' and fostering a tolerant and multi-cultural environment.
Citizens can only attend Singaporean schools where the curriculum is tightly controlled. International schools with their own individual courses of study are the preserve of the expatriate population. Government subsidized housing is assigned on the basis of 'race' to ensure that ethnic enclaves are not formed. Public holidays are allocated to the various communities as a result of which all Singaporeans celebrate Christmas, Hari Raya (Eid), Deepavali and Chinese New Year as public holidays. An individual's race is even mentioned on their identity card (and yes my race is Pakistani!).
Singapore's subsidized public housing is managed by the Housing Development Board
Immigration into Singapore takes the form of those who have 'Permanent Resident' (PR) status and those who have become naturalized Singapore citizens. Male children of all citizens must participate in the military for two years (National Service) under the Enlistment Act. While it is optional for male children of PRs, applications for Singapore citizenship from PR kids who did not partake in National Service are not entertained.
Many perceive the recent wave of immigrants, mainly from the People's Republic of China and India, as being 'opportunists' who have a limited commitment to Singapore. Some believe they are only here to take advantage of government subsidies, especially housing grants and baby bonuses. (To address Singapore's problem of an ageing population cash subsidies and tax credits are provided by the government as inducements to citizens to have babies.)
Additionally, it is commonly thought the new immigrants have scant regard for the rules which have slowly transformed 'Singapore Inc.' into a powerful brand. Many have imported social habits and customs (e.g. littering, spitting) which Singaporeans have painstakingly moved away from during the last four decades.
Language is another contentious issue. Singapore has four official languages (Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English) but everyone learns and speaks English (see also 'Singlish'). Many of the fresh Chinese immigrants speak only Mandarin. This irks those Singaporeans who rely on English as the lingua franca of the island.
Signage in Singapore's four official languages is a common sight across the city
I do not wish to pontificate about the pros and cons of immigration as a necessity for maintaining economic growth and, hence, social stability in the island. I will leave that to the country's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who can argue the case much more persuasively than me. (He does have a track record of delivering results which any corporate or political leader can only dream off!)
What I do wish to say is that the issue of integrating Singapore's diverse population is more than just about making certain everyone can speak English.
It is about the ability to speak Mandarin in a Chinese society.
The teaching of Mandarin must be made compulsory for all Singaporeans, irrespective of their race. The academic curriculum should be revised to ensure that Singapore's kids are functionally fluent in three languages: English, Mandarin, and their mother tongue (Malay or Tamil).
Make Mandarin a compulsory subject for the next generation of Singaporeans
Some may suggest that such an action can be deemed to be domineering by the majority race. Or whether Singapore’s already overburdened students can manage another serious subject.
Learning Mandarin is a practical matter and one that should be motivated by self-interest. If I could speak Mandarin my employability and market value will increase tremendously. The nature of jobs and occupations available to me multiply exponentially.
It is not unusual for small nations to be multi-lingual. Most residents of the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland speak three languages. To be sure, the national curriculum will need to be adequately adjusted to ensure that space is created for teaching Mandarin. A major change in the curriculum cannot happen overnight and should be preceded by adequate research and debate.
Friday, 14 August, 2009
Pakistan's geography has placed it at the crossroads between India and Central Asia.
The Karakoram Highway and the Khunjerab Pass, at an elevation of 4,800 metres above sea level, link Pakistan with China on an ancient trade route.
An ancient bridge between China and India
At independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited more than just disputes with India. The country became responsible for preserving a rich Buddhist heritage that is best symbolized by the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Taxila, a city approximately 32 kilometres west of Islamabad.
A meditating Buddha carving in a monument located at Taxila
The city of Takshashila, as it was originally known, had the distinction of being an ancient center of Buddhist learning. It is described in some detail in the 'Jataka Tales,' an ancient Buddhist text. Several Chinese monks, including Faxian (337-422) and Xuanzang (602-664), described the city in their respective travelogues.
The Jaulian excavation at Taxila
(See a fascinating 4 minute documentary about the ancient remains at Taxila here.)
The city's history is over 3,000 years old. Its influence spread across India via the many nobles and royalty educated at Taxila University. Greek influence arrived along with Alexander the Great and his troops in 326 BC. The city flourished under the Mauryan dynasty and especially during Asoka's reign. Buddhism established itself around 2 BC and flourished in Taxila (and Swat) for the next 1,000 years.
The Gandharan Period came to an end in the tenth century AD. While it lasted, the Gandharan period saw prolific construction of monasteries, stupas and other monuments. The famous depiction of the fasting Buddha and many other valuable artifacts can be found in the magnificent Central Museum, Lahore.
Buddha stone carvings at Taxila
The practice of Islam in Pakistan is the product of many contradictory and opposing historical forces. These influences have given Islam a form unique to the subcontinent.
Ordinary Pakistanis routinely visit the shrines of (supposedly) Hindu holy men and remember medieval Mughal rulers (e.g. Babur and Akbar) who fought holy wars to expand an Islamic empire. A Muslim Empire which grew to rely on the contribution of Hindu and Sikh ministers and generals for its preservation and longevity.
It is no wonder that Pakistani Muslims are challenging the onslaught of an austere and alien version of Islam which has its origins in the harsh Arabian Desert and not in the fertile plains of Punjab.
Thursday, 13 August, 2009
Singapore’s public transport system is extremely efficient. But you probably already knew that, or took it for granted.
In 2008 an average of 2.2 million daily trips were recorded by both the bus and train network. The train (or MRT) network accounted for almost two thirds of the journeys while the buses account for the remaining third. For a resident population of 4.8 million that is an impressive number.
Fines for violating SMRT's strict rules on food and drink consumption keep the system clean
SMRT Corporation, a publicly listed corporation since 2000, is responsible for bringing together various modes of transport on the island. Primarily, it operates rail, light rail and bus services.
Unlike many of its global counterparts, SMRT makes a profit while providing an efficient public service. It has increased its revenue from approximately SGD 497 million in 2002 to SGD 879 million in 2009. In the same period, after tax profitability has almost tripled from SGD 57 million to SGD 163 million.
The network has also been considerably expanded and many new MRT stations and bus interchanges have been added. Upgrades of many existing facilities have been carried out.
By now you must be wondering why I am singing the praises of a public transport company. It is not because I am a model railway enthusiast (which I am).
The reason is because anyone who contemplates how such a network is operated so seamlessly and hassle-free will realize that it is a gargantuan operation. It requires meticulous planning to make sure that all the disparate moving parts don’t grind on each other at any point in time. (If you don’t believe me try being a ‘Railroad Tycoon’ on one of the many such computer games available!)
Just go and watch how the buses operate at a major interchange like Boon Lay. Or maybe you prefer to stand and watch in one of the newer air conditioned bus interchanges? Remember the buses feed into the MRT and vice versa – as does the cashless payment mechanism, the Ez-Link Card.
And spare a thought for the front line staff, the bus driver or train driver, who seems to be getting short shrift these days.
I can assure you that you will not be complaining about bus engine noise levels affecting the comfort of your trip.