Wednesday, 30 September 2009

US Cabernet Wines and the Global Economic Crisis

It is not only homes that have fallen in price during the global economic crisis.
People are looking for bargains in almost anything – art, holidays and even bottles of decent wine. According to two wine critics, US cabernet wines from the 2005 vintage are 'okay' but not necessarily a give-away (at today's reduced prices).
If you do look around and are willing to spend some money then some 'special occasion' wines are available.
View a 3:48 minute video here.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Singapore: GIC’s Turn Under the Microscope

The Government of Singapore's Investment Corporation (GIC) released its latest 'annual report' yesterday. As GIC manages the country's reserves, the results are of interest to all Singaporeans.

The Government of Singapore's Investment Corporation (GIC) yesterday released its results for its financial year ended March 31, 2009

GIC must be lauded for making voluntary disclosures of selective information. Certainly many analysts will be reviewing the information in the coming days and weeks and one can expect a fair degree of scrutiny.
However, here are some preliminary questions that come to my mind.
1.   Given that the information released is general in nature there is no reason why it should not be released (say) two months after the end of the financial year.
2.   Yes, the global markets suffered and GIC's portfolio will inevitably suffer too. Yet, there is no comparative information provided by either the GIC report or the Straits Times article. Comparative perfo to place the GIC performance in context;
3.   Comparative performance of the MSCI World Index will help to place the GIC returns in context and help to assess the performance of GIC investment managers;
4.   The wording of GIC's risk-return objectives raise similar concerns as with Temasek, i.e. what specifically is a 'reasonable rate of return above global inflation, with due regard for risks, over an investment horizon of 20 years.' A clearly defined investment objective is indispensable.
Certainly, one can appreciate the government's desire to put a positive spin on GIC's investment performance. Nonetheless, having taken the decision to disclose a basic level of information it is necessary that the information be at least minimally useful to the general public.
The story should not end with the revelation of a SGD 59 billion dollar loss during the financial year ended March 31, 2009. The performance must be further dissected based on publicly available facts and figures.

Note to Malaysian Judge Datuk Yunos: Whipping Muslims for Alcohol Related Offences is Un-Islamic

Pakistan's Federal Shariah Court (FSC) has declared whipping as a punishment for drinking alcohol by Muslims to be un-Islamic.

The FSC is Pakistan's highest Islamic court. The court's remit is to examine laws promulgated within the Pakistani federation to ensure they are consistent with Islamic law.
In May 2009, a full bench of the FSC decreed that whipping for Muslims drinking alcohol is contradictory to the laws of Islam.
The FSC ruled that the Koran has not prescribed any specific punishment for drinking. The judgement went on to state that drinking alcohol is not a heinous crime, i.e. Hadd.
Heinous crimes include murder, rape, etc. and drinking alcohol does not fall into that category. (You think?)
Alcohol is mentioned in several verses in the Koran (see below). One verse states that drinking alcohol has both benefits and harm for humans but the harm outweighs the benefits. Therefore alcohol should be avoided.
Perhaps Judge Datok Yunos will review the Pakistani court judgement and reassess his personal fondness for whipping.
Passages from the Koran dealing with alcohol – please feel free to share your own personal interpretation of the language.
The Cow. Surah 2, Verse 219:
Concerning wine and gambling, Say: "In them is great sin, and some profit, for men; But the sin is greater than the profit."
Women. Surah 4, Verse 43:
Approach not prayers with a mind befogged [intoxicated].
The Table. Surah 5, Verse 90:
Intoxicants and gambling, (dedication of) stones, and (divination by) arrows, are an abomination –of Satan's handiwork; eschew such (abomination), that ye may prosper.
The Table. Surah 5, Verse 91:
Satan's plan is (but) to excite enmity and hatred between you, with intoxicants and gambling, and hinder you from the remembrance of Allah, and from prayer: will ye not then abstain?
The Bee. Surah 16, Verse 67:
And from the fruit of the date palm and the vine, ye get out wholesome drink, and food: behold in this also is a sign for those who are wise.
All passages quoted from the Holy Koran as translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Singapore’s Human Rights Debate: Not Just about Gay Rights

The human rights debate in Singapore tends to focus on the issue of homosexuality and the decriminalization of gay sex between consenting adults.
The 'Rainbow Debate' is important and forms part of the evolution of Singapore's social structure. However, practically speaking the gay sex debate concerns a small minority of Singaporeans.

Gender equality, on the contrary, is a mainstream issue and meaningfully impacts the lives of many Singaporean men and women.
Since 1965 Singapore has made great strides in ensuring equal rights for women. The constitution enshrines equal political, economic and social rights to women.
The combination of a Women's Charter and universal literacy has meant women are well integrated into Singapore's labour force. Women's rights are generally well respected and applicable laws suitably enforced in modern Singapore.
Based on a 2009 survey of 102 non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, Singapore ranked 21 out of 102 nations in the organization's Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). The SIGI "is a new composite measure of gender equality based on the OECD's [comprehensive] database."
In spite of the rapid progress, there is a need for Singapore to revisit the current situation.
Singapore's social conditions in 2009 are a far cry from those of 1961, the year that the Women's Charter was promulgated. The fact that countries like the Philippines (7) and Kazakhstan (3) score higher than Singapore also indicate that more needs to be done.
Today, Singaporean women are participating in occupations which were traditionally restricted to men. Women are involved in physically demanding work, including serving in the armed forces.

Women are successful in these vocations despite explicit legislation outlawing discrimination in the workplace.
In a letter to the Straits Times, Ms. Jaapar writes that she applied for a building site supervisor job at seven construction companies. She was informed by each company that they do not entertain females for the position of site supervisors. There was not even any pretence to disguise the real reason for not considering her application.
Such behaviour constitutes sexual discrimination and is a violation of a woman's civil rights.
Does Ms. Jaapar's episode suggest the need for lawmakers to pass specific workplace gender equality legislation? Or does she have the right to allege discrimination on the basis of the relevant Constitutional provisions?
I am unaware of either the government or any women's rights organization taking ownership of this particular incident and pursuing it through the legal system. Clearly, something is amiss here and the matter should not conclude with the publication of a letter in the newspaper.
Setting a correct legal precedent for this case will deter other employers from discriminatory practices in the future.

Friday, 25 September 2009

China and the New World Economic Order

Immediately following World War II a new world order arose. The economic structure was symbolized by the 1946 Bretton Woods Agreement which established the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
The torch of global economic leadership was passed by Britain to a newly confident and idealistic United States. Although it took another few decades before the US Dollar supplanted the British Sterling as the world's reserve currency the momentum was already clear by the late 1940s.

The world is seeing another major systemic shift today.
Much has been written about China's influential role as a trading nation. However, it is sometimes forgotten how important a role the country plays in the stability of the international monetary system.
When you have over two trillion dollars of currency reserves to invest it is difficult not to be noticed. In June 2009 China held USD 776 billion worth of US Treasury securities.
China's investment patterns move markets and even the hint of action by China has an impact. The Chinese have made their long term intentions clear but they are aware that their short term behaviour must be responsible.
China is vexed by its reliance on the USD and the government is gradually implementing policies to diversify its currency options. On the contrary, the US understands its dependency on China for funding its deficit.
The US administration sent Treasury Secretary Geithner to Beijing in June. Geithner's brief was to assure the Chinese that the USD is a stable currency and a good store of value.
Like any good banker he went to his major depositor and pledged that the US economy is sound and the client need not worry about their deposit.

Subsequent to the visit the Chinese have upped the ante.
They subscribed to USD 50 billion of notes issued by the IMF. The notes were not denominated in USD but instead used the IMF's Special Drawing Rights (SDR).
According to the IMF "the value [of the SDR] is based on a basket of four key international currencies, and SDRs can be exchanged for freely usable currencies."  The SDR is backed by the good faith of the Japanese Yen, the Pound Sterling, the Euro and the US Dollar.
The SDR and the USD are both paper currencies that lack the backing of any hard assets (e.g. gold).
The IMF transaction was a clever and calculated move by China. 
By providing fresh funding to the IMF the PRC has increased its influence in an essential supranational entity.  Additionally, the use of the SDR signals that China is keen to reduce the international role played by the USD.
There are other indications of China's intent to diversify out of the USD.
China's Central Bank it has suggested that the SDR be considered as an alternative currency for managing trade flows. Recent press reports point to China negotiating with the IMF to purchase some (or all) of the 403 metric tons of gold the Fund is selling.
For a communist nation the PRC has quickly learnt one of the fundamental principles of capitalist investing, diversification. Some bankers suggest putting all of your eggs in one basket and then watching the basket like a hawk. The more prudent strategy is to diversify and place your eggs in several baskets.

The Chinese economic structure is not yet sophisticated enough to allow the 'internationalization' of the Yuan

The global economic system is in a period of transition. It may even be the beginning of the end for the Bretton Woods system. Investment managers are paid not only to manage risks but also to generate returns.
Periods of great uncertainty such as the current Global Economic Crisis offer ample doses of both risk and opportunity. Sometimes it is easy to miss the forest for the trees.
Simply diversifying currency exposures may help protect a portfolio of reserves more than the use of the most sophisticated proprietary risk management tool available to institutional investment managers.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Justice, ‘Fen Fu’ and the Singapore Judiciary

One basic foundation of social stability is justice.

Justice is the fair and transparent implementation of equitable and just laws. As is commonly stated, justice must not only be done but it must be seen to be done.
Apparently, in the People's Republic of China (PRC) there is a fierce debate taking place about the ability of wealth to buy justice. There is a sense that human life is available at the right price and the legal system looks the other way.
The grievance is a symptom of the increasing gap between the rich and poor in a society raised on a staple of Mao's communist ideology. There do appear to be real reasons for concern.
Take the case of Hu Bin and Tan Zhou, a 25 year old telecom engineer. Both lived in Hangzhou but came from divergent backgrounds.
Hu is the 20 year old son of wealthy parents and a member of the 'fu er dai' or China's rich second generation. On the contrary, Tan hails from a small town in Hunan. He supported his parents through his job in Hangzhou city.
On May 7, 2009 Hu collided with Tan at a pedestrian zebra crossing while driving his modified Mitsubishi car. Hu is well known among the city's amateur road racing circuit.
The police conducted an initial investigation and released a statement suggesting that the driver was not speeding and the car had not been illegally modified. The general public seemed not to agree with the police and Tan's case quickly snowballed into a cause celebre'.
Following a public outcry the police admitted that the car was indeed travelling much faster than earlier believed. Additionally, they concurred that the vehicle's engine had been illegally adjusted to make it more powerful.
Hu's family reached a compensation deal with Tan's parents and paid the equivalent to USD 165,000. Following the payment Hu was given a 3 year prison sentence in mid-July.
Apparently, the compensation agreement affected the length of the prison sentence.
The story does not end there. Many members of the public are now convinced that the family has 'bought' a stand-in for Hu. It is widely believed that the person serving out the sentence is not Hu but an imposter. Critics provide support for their 'imposter' claim based on photographic evidence.
Whatever the truth, the incident underscores the importance of a credible justice system for maintaining social harmony.

Singapore has a functioning and transparent judiciary. Normal criminal and civil cases are generally settled without much fanfare. Controversies are rare and normally follow only the 'political' cases.
In the larger context, the 'political' cases are few and far between. They do not impact the ordinary Singaporean in any meaningful manner.
As Singapore becomes more open to foreign influences the importance of preserving the credibility of the legal system is paramount.
The Singapore brand cannot be compromised.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

A Pakistani in Malay-Muslim Singapore

In some awful, strange, paradoxical way, atheists tend to take religion more seriously than the practitioners.
Jonathan Miller (British artist, intellectual and director)
I am not an atheist but I am not a religious practitioner either. Nevertheless, I am as much a Muslim as those who practice.
I may not be as good a Muslim.
It seems that some fellow Muslims consider some of my views to be slightly unorthodox (even for 'secular' Singapore).
I make no apologies for my opinions.
Religion is an intensely personal matter. It cannot be mandated. The Taliban model of having bearded police with sticks beating people into mosques at prayer time does not resonate well with me.
Unfortunately, the model of legislating one particular interpretation of Islamic law is gathering pace across the entire Islamic world. Most dangerously for Singapore (and me!) it is spreading into an otherwise 'safe zone' right here in our neighbourhood, i.e. Malaysia.

I am not absolutely certain why and how I developed my 'Kemalist' tendencies but there are some factors which have helped. The influence of both the 'local' and the 'global' environment must have played a key role in framing my world view.
For those who may not be familiar with Kemalism and its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he was the father of modern, secular Turkey. In the late 1920s, he instituted radical social reforms to bring the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into the modern world in the form of the Republic of Turkey.
Locally, it is easy to point to the greatest contributors to Islam's spread in India, the Mogul dynasty. It was during the Mogul Empire (1526 – 1857) that Islam finally set firm roots in South Asia.
The irony is that the Mogul Emperors who helped solidify Islam in the subcontinent make me look like a pious and devout Muslim!
Babur, the founder of the Mogul Empire, was pushed out of his traditional home in Andijan, Uzbekistan. Continually pushed south by his enemies, Babur finally reached India.
In 1526 at the famous Battle of Panipat, a town outside of Delhi, Babur and his heavily outnumbered supporters defeated the 'infidels' and conquered Delhi (in the name of Islam).
The Mogul dynasty ruled India until the British formally annexed the region after the 1857 uprising.
The Moguls were great patrons of the arts, literature and culture. They were practical worldly rulers – and typically alcoholics too. I give only two examples from many to illustrate.

Emperor Humayun's tomb in Delhi

Emperor Humayun (1508 – 1556), Babur's son and successor died by falling down a flight of stairs. Historians often neglect to mention that he was drunk at the time of the accident.
Emperor Jahangir's two decade rule (1605 – 1627) is often divided into two eras. The first when his mother managed affairs of state and the second when his preferred wife managed affairs of state. The reason is that Jahangir himself was generally indulging in his two favourite pastimes, the study of nature and drinking alcohol.
Jinnah, the Father of modern Pakistan, shared some traits with the Moguls. Among them was the Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah's fondness for whiskey (and reputedly ham sandwiches).

Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah - the founder of the state of Pakistan

Today, the Mogul dynasty is as 'Indian' as Bollywood. And, some may argue, Pakistan is the 'truncated' piece of real estate that the Muslims could salvage from the dying embers of the British Empire.
I don't even want to get started on the services of the Ottoman Sultans for Islam.
The Ottomans were much like their Mogul cousins in their personal religiosity and behaviour. Suffice it to say that the Ottomans ruled Mecca for several centuries and not one Ottoman Emperor deemed it worth his while to undertake the Haj pilgrimage during that period.
In the global context, when I was growing up the world was divided into two camps. It was the Free World versus the Communist world. At the time, Islamic holy warriors were at the forefront of the battle against Soviet Communism.

I was a left wing socialist as a young rebellious teenager. I lapped up Marx and Engels. I subscribed to and read any piece of Soviet propaganda that any 'Friendship House' was willing to hand out. Had I known Russian I would surely have been quoting Pravda and Izvestia.
Subsequently, I ended up studying at a liberal arts college where almost every professor was a communist, feminist, humanist and any other left wing 'ism' that you can think off. In the late 1980s that was what campus life was all about.
To be honest, the romanticism and intellectual depth of left wing thought is so much more alluring than capitalism.
Still, my idealistic notion of a Marxist utopia was discarded as soon as I entered the real world. Converting to free market capitalism is surprisingly easy when one is paid a decent salary.
Religion was no longer an opiate. It was the mullah in the mosque down the road.
There are some things which will stay with us our entire lives.

My father often said that in life one should only be afraid of God and nothing else. So I lead the life I wish and hope that in the end all will be well.
No doubt, I often violate certain Islamic injunctions but am I less of a believer than someone who fasts and abstains from alcohol? The fact is that neither I nor anyone else is in any position to judge and give a definitive answer.
We are, after all, mere mortals.

The Mogul dynasty traces its heritage to the Ferghana Valley in Uzbekistan (where this photo was taken)

So, if in 10 years times you find me toying with a flowing white beard and counting prayer beads with my right hand at least you will know I reached my destination after a deep soul searching journey.
Not because someone was standing over me with a cane ready to whip me each time I touched a beer.
God bless those Pagans – Homer Simpson

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Singaporean Behaviour – Not So Bizarre After All

A few days ago I received an email titled 'the Bizarre Behaviour of Singaporeans.' In all likelihood the text was originally a letter published in the Straits Times Forum (which I missed).

The letter is an interesting read. The observations of the long time German expatriate deserve an appraisal.
The writer suggests Singaporeans spend millions to buy a house and then spend the majority of their time working outside the home.
Difficult to evaluate but Singaporeans are no more into the 'rat race' than most other societies. That most Singaporeans (probably around 85%) live in government subsidized HDB housing indicates that the writer is generalizing using the small portion of Singaporeans who live in private condominiums.
They pay exorbitant amounts to purchase a car only to park it at home. Too expensive to drive, too many ERPs and car park charges to pay.
With the exception of bicycles, Singapore has had the luxury of taking an integrated approach to public transportation. Unlike most European cities, it did not have any legacy issues (e.g. cobbled and narrow streets) to deal with during the planning and construction process.
Due to the efficiency of public transport car ownership is (correctly) positioned as a luxury.
The concept of 'user charges' for motor vehicles has had multiple positive benefits both for road users (e.g. reducing congestion) and society at large. Electronic Road Pricing, an idea pioneered by Singapore, is now accepted as a standard traffic management tool by international urban planners.
The private motor vehicle is just one aspect of the whole transport equation and is certainly not one that a forward looking society should unduly encourage.

Singapore's Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) has helped to control traffic congestion

Having lived in Dubai for many years I am not a big fan of planning my schedule around daily traffic flows (in a city with less than a third of Singapore's population).
The writer suggests that Singaporeans travel only to go shopping (for bargains) and miss out in seeing any standard touristic sights.
It is difficult to argue with individual personal tastes and freedoms. I would suggest that shopping (and bargaining where culturally acceptable) is a normal part of any vacation.
Personally, I don't enjoy walking around Bangkok, Phuket or Bali while being surrounded by rowdy and often drunk European men (or boys). If their idea of a vacation is finding bargains in the Patpong district then who am I to judge the behaviour.  
As an aside, Singaporeans do enjoy trying all sorts of food while travelling – not just shopping.

The writer suggests that the wealthy are preparing for an escape from Singapore while the heartlanders are suffering and forced to 'bear with it.'
Wealthy Singaporeans are no different from wealthy individuals anywhere.
They evaluate their options and make a choice. Many don't want their sons to have to undergo National Service. Others prefer their kids to have a different sort of education, not the sort instituted by Singapore's Ministry of Education.
Singapore's wealthy do what the wealthy in any nation do – decide which environment is best for them to perpetuate their wealth.
The writer suggests that many Singaporeans are ready to 'jump ship' and emigrate while many others are ready to take their place.
Singapore is a free society and emigration is the right of any human.
The reasons why people emigrate are many and I have alluded to two above: National Service requirements for males and a perception that Singapore's education system is 'rigid.' 
Some may be interested to note that in 2007 as many as 340,000 British citizens migrated to other countries. In the same year, 502,000 non-British (including EU nationals) persons arrived in the UK.
The leavers had their reasons for moving to the US, Australia and New Zealand while the Poles, the French (even Germans?) must have had their reasons for arriving in the UK.
Singapore is a developed society in a region afflicted by various instabilities and even poverty. Why should it surprise anyone that people will want to settle down in Singapore?
The writer suggests that despite all their complaints, Singaporeans keep voting the People's Action Party back into power at every election.
The People's Action Party has a record of delivering progress during its 44 year reign of Singapore. I could quote all manner of statistics to support my claim but the practical reality is what matters.
There is universal literacy and public schooling is available to everyone in Singapore. Everyone has a well maintained roof over their head. No one starves, even though life may be tough for some. Health care is world class. Physical infrastructure is good. And so on and so forth.
After 9 years in Singapore it does not appear like our German friend is leaving our island anytime soon.
That fact must surely be the strongest argument of all.
PS – My apologies to the gentleman who authored the letter. I wish to give him credit by name for the thought provoking letter. I am also keen to find the publication where the letter first appeared. If anyone has any details on the author or its original publication, please forward them to me. I would like to publish the letter in its entirety but hesitate due to copyright reasons. Thank you.

PPS - Thank you very much to CH (see comment below). The real article was first published in another blog and can be accessed here. Apparently, the author is not a German expat but a Singaporean - so much for my parting punch!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Orchard Road: Where Gucci Bags and Clean Toilets Meet!

In many countries public toilets are avoided like the plague. In Singapore, they are often clean enough to eat in.

Other than Singapore's strict laws on chewing gum the city is also known for its clean environment. Public toilets get special attention, as they rightly should.

Tourists wandering around Orchard Road are as spoilt for choice with toilets as they are with branded goods.
The Restroom Association of Singapore (RAS) seems to have been busy since it was established in 1998. Yes, there is an organization in Singapore focused specifically on the hygiene standards of public toilets!
As the RAS website suggests:
The challenge for RAS is to meet the rising expectations of users and elevate the standards of design and cleanliness. We must investigate and find out the root cause of dirty toilets. We must identify the needs of various users including tourists and foreign workers so as to promote better designed toilets that cater to these needs. We must constantly source for the best practices in cleanliness, design and maintenance of public toilets and review our local standards.
It's probably not too difficult to determine the root cause of dirty toilets but let's not take anything away from the valuable public service RAS performs.
The cleanliness of public restrooms is serious business. It is a simple way of measuring a society's progress and provides clues about an individual's respect for communal spaces. A public toilet is the most basic type of common space.

Many of us intuitively measure the attractiveness of a particular public area, by the quality of its toilet. Airport transit lounges, shopping malls and even airlines are preferred or avoided based on a subjective 'toilet ranking' exercise we undertake, consciously or subconsciously.

To many, knowing there is a clean toilet nearby provides tremendous peace of mind. To some, perhaps even more than a good night's sleep.
The science and art of loo management is Greek to me.
A liberal arts college education had me reading the classics but studies like "Ascending the Loo Ladder" and "A Guide to Better Public Toilet Design and Maintenance" did not make the grade as required reading.
Toilet management is a certifiable skill! For those who enjoy displaying certificates on office walls please consider the Certified Volunteer Eco-Assessor Programme. They "play a vital role toward the sustainability of clean public toilets."
Getting certified and reading the correct literature will help any individual aspiring to win the annual Loo Award. The Loo Award, which was launched in 2009, is designed to "recognise any organisations or individuals who have contributed to help Singapore achieve a world recognised standard of restroom cleanliness."
I have no idea what the Loo Award trophy looks like.
Happy toilets are what the RAS is all about. The RAS publishes a Singapore map based on the Happy Toilet Programme. The Happy Toilet programme uses a 3, 4 and 5 stars grading system to rank public toilets.

It is all part of their efforts to ensure that 70% or more of Singapore's public toilets are (certifiably) clean by 2010.
Toilets don't just become happy. They are made happy by the people maintaining them. Next time you walk into a clean toilet please spare a thought for those who help keep them happy.
The RAS 2010 goal of achieving 70% clean toilets may not be as lofty as Malaysia's Vision 2020 but it is surely attainable.
And for Singaporeans just as important.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Singapore Citizenship – Make English Language Tests Compulsory

The government is actively considering proposals to help facilitate the integration of new immigrants into Singapore. It is not a moment too soon.
The government has established a SGD 10 million fund which will be available to support social activities such as cultural gatherings and seminars. The other key recommendations of the Government led panel include encouraging immigrants to learn basic English and a Singapore 'orientation' program.

There is a large pool of potential immigrants for Singapore to choose from. The large number of Permanent Residents attests to that fact.
The government should make passing a simple English exam mandatory for all new Singapore citizens.
Citizenship tests and point systems for new immigrants have already been implemented in several countries, e.g. UK and Australia. Basic comprehension of English, also the main language in both countries, is part of the naturalization process.
English is the lingua franca of Singapore (and most of the world). It has taken over four decades for Singapore to create its brand image – English is an integral part of the brand.

The Wall Street Journal Taunts Temasek - Again

Anyone who reads the Wall Street Journal's Heard on the Street column entitled, "As Temasek Plays it Safe, CIC Dives In" will realize that there really is a long standing feud between the Wall Street Journal and the Singapore government, in which Temasek always becomes a pawn.
I guess being sued does that to someone – the Asian WSJ editor in this case?
Peter Stein writes in the article that, "it's difficult to be inspired by Temasek's current strategy -- seemingly a holding pattern that has the fund focusing on its Asian holdings and warning of "medium-term risks" that justify caution. The surprisingly vocal criticism Temasek faced in Singapore over its losses in Western banks may have reinforced this conservatism."  
The article contains no new information, only a brief analysis of previous missteps by Temasek and China Investment Corporation's recent decision to dole out large sums to global hedge funds and its activities in purchasing global real estate.
The author ends with the following lines:

Which of these two state-owned players ultimately does better in a post-Lehman world won't be known for some time. What's certain, though, is that one of them has already shown itself a gutsier player on the global stage.

Any guesses about which investor Mr. Stein is referring to as the timid one? And what are the odds that Singapore will take the bait and send a new rejoinder to the newspaper?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Malaysia’s Own Judge Judy Show, aka the Judge ARM Yunos Show!

The Malaysian state of Pahang has convicted an Indonesian Muslim to jail for one year and six strokes of the cane for drinking alcohol.

Nazarudin Kamaruddin was found drinking on August 27, during the month of Ramadan. Although he is an Indonesian citizen, Mr. Kamaruddin is also a permanent resident of Malaysia.
News reports indicate the sentence was handed down by the same judge who presided over the case of the Malaysian woman drinking caned for drinking beer.
Judge Datuk Abdul Rahman Mohd Yunos needs a restraining order – is there no other judge in the state of Pahang?
Can the federal government please step in and bring judge ARM Yunos under control! Use coercion and blackmail if necessary, we all know Malaysian politics works via backroom deals.
The honourable judge has already tarnished Malaysia's reputation enough.
I was a frequent visitor to Kuala Lumpur (KL) and one of my preferred activities was to enjoy the nightlife. I must admit that the recent news flow has shaken me up a little.
I don't think I will be travelling to KL anytime soon.
Pahang is the largest state in West Malaysia. It contains several spots popular with international tourists, including the hill stations of Genting Highlands, Cameron Highlands, Bukit Tinggi and Cameron Highlands.
The state is struggling with its social identity.
Does the key to understanding Pahang's dilemma lie in the fact that the state capital, Kuantan, is physically close to Terengganu? Perhaps the social links between the PAS ruled (Islamic Kingdom) state of Terengganu is allowing the gradual spread of conservative Islam in Pahang.

A mosque in Kuantan, the administrative capital of the Malaysian state of Pahang
Intuitively one will not expect this to be the case given that Kuantan's population is about 36% Chinese and Tamil. In other words, non-Muslims are a significant number in the state capital. The state's overall population mix is approximately 79:21 with 21% being Chinese / Indians. By contrast, the combined Chinese and Tamil population of Terengganu is 3%.
According to a statement by the Indonesian Embassy in KL, Malaysia's Shariah law applies only to 'locals' (defined as citizens and permanent residents) and not to 'tourists.'
It is fine for an individual with diplomatic immunity to be so casual about the consequences of jail time and caning. As for me, a 'Half-Muslim' tourist, I am unwilling to argue with members of the Malaysian vice brigade about the distinctions between Muslim tourists and Muslim residents.
(Please see 'Singapore's Secularism – Regional Dangers Abound' for another view on the subject.)

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Property Prices, New Singaporeans and the PAP’s Social Contract

The Singapore social contract is at work again. The influx of foreigners is being slowed down and measures have been implemented to cool off the exploding property market.
A few days ago some nominal measures to reduce the attractiveness of investing in property were announced. Yesterday, the Prime Minister stated that the influx of foreigners into Singapore will be slowed down.
New condominiums under construction in Singapore's Marina Bay area
Of course, given the depressed economic environment no real policy measures are required (nor were announced) to slow the influx of foreigners. The slowdown is a natural consequence of fewer jobs available these days.
It is not the entire foreign population that Singaporeans are concerned about. They are mainly concerned about the number of newly naturalized citizens and Permanent Residents (PRs) and the allocation of state resources in the form of education and health to the new entrants.
A question that may be partially addressed through greater integration measures.
Despite the headlines, there does not seem to be any modification of the long term policy of attracting 'Foreign Talent' into Singapore. It is highly likely that once the economy improves it will be back to 'business as usual' as far as PRs and citizenship applications are concerned.
However, once jobs are back then the 'true blue' Singaporean has less to grumble about. He will not be so concerned about 'New Singaporeans' in a buoyant environment. He will be more concerned about participating in the new stock and property market bubble!
Until the economy fully revives the government will just bide its time and absorb the displeasure of its citizens.
Singapore's social contract with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is predicated upon a continued improvement in the standard and quality of life of average Singaporeans
The Singapore system works pretty well.
Initially, Singaporeans collectively grumble sotto voce (softly). Then a few brave souls start writing about the grievance, both in the official print media and the 'New Media' such as online news sites and blogs.
At some point, the many letters to the editor and the constant grumblings in online forums catches the eye of the official media. (Essentially, the entire Singapore media is connected with the Establishment given that it is managed by the government.)
The Straits Times, Singapore's main English language daily, is no Pravda but neither is it the Washington Post. It is unlikely that any high ranking official will lose his / her job due to a 'revelation' by a locally printed newspaper.
Once popular discontent starts to seep into the official media then it is time for the policy making establishment to pay attention. A breakthrough into the official media via editorial nibbles at the edges of the (unofficially) imposed 'boundary markers' signal that the topic is worthy of a national debate.
The government policy making instruments and the PAP then do their business of running the government. To be sure, any issue that remains bubbling around the surface for a sufficient period of time ultimately begins to seep into official corridors.
This is a key part of the Singapore Social Contract. Arguably, it is a decentralized form of direct 'kampong' governance which can only be practiced in a small city state.
Whether Singaporeans will still be able to maintain a sufficiently responsive system of governance ten years from now is an open question. Perhaps it is time to consider formalizing a Swiss style referendum system for Singapore – with the first issue put to the vote being cycling on footpaths?

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Singapore’s Karung Guni Men and the Case of the Missing Sehri Drummer

The month of Ramadan is almost as much a part of Singapore's culture as in any Muslim country.
Food courts fill up at iftar time with expectant faithful waiting patiently for the signal to break their fast. Smokers congregate outside buildings to savour their first puff of the day. Traditional Malay garb is more frequently visible as many get dressed for evening get-togethers.
Ramly burgers being prepared at Singapore's Geylang Serai Ramadan night market
Respectable people have an excuse to visit Geylang and view it all decked up for the Hari Raya celebrations. (Geylang is often exclusively associated with Singapore's historical red light district.)
For Muslims, fasting from dawn to dusk during the month of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a mandatory activity for practising Muslims.
Some exceptions from fasting are permitted, generally pertaining to travellers, the elderly and the sick. The exemptions are not a blanket waiver. The deviation from the path must be 'paid for' through other ways, e.g. alms.
Going through an entire day without food or drink is not a casual act. It requires planning and preparation, not least because ending up in a hospital due to dehydration is not the preferred religious outcome!
The practise of an early morning meal or sehri before sunrise is conventional (and practical) wisdom. During sehri, people planning to fast load up on all sorts of healthy (and unhealthy) foods in order to help them last the entire day without food and water.
To help believers practice their faith, many Islamic societies have hung on to traditions from the days that preceded alarm clocks and electricity.
Among the many uses of the traditional dhol is as an alarm clock during the fasting month of Ramadan
For example, modern day Pakistanis are used to hearing the loud noise of a traditional dhol drummer walking through their neighbourhoods at (say) 3.30 AM reminding residents of their duty to fast. The drummer 'moonlights' at his drumming job and receives the gratitude of his neighbourhood not just in prayers but also often in cash.
It is a reasonable guess that maybe 20% or so of the residents in my neighbourhood are Muslim. I believe a high percentage of them fast daily.
I wonder if Pakistanis will be more welcome in Singapore if we start beating drums during Ramadan! I figure if some Pakistani immigrant in New York can take it upon himself to act as a timepiece for his New York neighbourhood at 3.30 AM then why not me in Singapore?
After all, Singapore is a tolerant society. It encourages us to cherish cultural idiosyncrasies.
Nonetheless, I have a sneaking suspicion that many of my neighbours will not welcome the idea of me zealously banging on a drum so early each morning.
Political correctness, even in a race based polity, has its limits.
Only Singapore's many karung guni men may appreciate my efforts. People may complain less of the small horn they blow to announce their daily arrival.