Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Christmas in Babylon

There is cruel irony in the reality that Iraqi Christians have probably never felt as persecuted or under threat as they are following the country's liberation by 100,000 American troops. An invasion billed as a liberating event for the Iraqi people has become the noose around the neck of many ordinary Iraqis.
Detail from he Ishtar Gate at Babylon

Press reports about the subdued Christmas celebrations, especially following an earlier attack on a Syrian Orthodox Christian church tend not to highlight Christian-Muslim amity prior to the US invasion. Today, Christian-Muslim harmony takes a back seat to almost daily outbreaks of intra-Muslim Sunni-Shia violence.
Several years after the demise of Saddam Hussein, ordinary Iraqis must be wondering whether the price paid to become a 'beacon of democracy' was worthwhile.
The average Iraqi may not have felt stifled by the inability to speak freely or criticize Saddam's ruthless government. However, Iraqis were generally safe walking the streets and leading a simple life.
Following the US invasion, all segments of society, women in particular, have been hard hit by the rise of political violence.
Winners have emerged from the new Iraq. The Shia community is one.
Previously discouraged from indulging in certain practices and barred from the corridors of power (as were Sunni extremists), Shias are now a free people. They only need protect themselves from bombs and violence perpetrated by Sunni foes, including Al-Qaeeda types.

Does anyone really know what the Iraq war was about: oil? Saddam Hussein? Weapons of mass destruction?
The cause may not be clear but at least one outcome is certain. The Iraq invasion has done more to solidify a distinct Muslim consciousness and a collective feeling of 'persecution' by the world at large.
The radicalization of European youth, including the London and Madrid bombings, has more to do with Iraq than Afghanistan. The Iraq war fits neatly within Osama's Pan-Islamist ideology. Al-Qaeeda could not have asked for a better publicity stunt.
Unfortunately, the damage from the Iraq war is done. It is time to move forward and advance an agenda of reconciliation. World nations must shift away from playing into Al-Qaeeda's divisive global agenda.  The US withdrawal from (a shattered and divided) Iraq is a step in the right direction.
But that is not enough.
Muslims must confront the radical ideologies which have infused themselves into mainstream Islam. Without introspection, Islam will continue to blame external powers such as Israel and the US as the source of all evil. Muslim scholars have a duty to restore the Islamic faith; a responsibility to enlighten.
Surely, the devil does not only reside in Tel Aviv and Washington. The devil also finds a home within each one of us.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

The five rules of life

While reviewing some of my Sufi literature (normally gathering dust on my bookshelves) I came across the following quotation. It made an impression on me and I wished to share it with my readers. I hope you find it as insightful as I do.
Take advantage of five things before five others occur: your youth before your old age, your health before your sickness, your wealth before your poverty, your leisure before your work, and your life before your death.
The Prophet Mohammad as quoted by Ibn Said in 'The Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife' written by Al-Ghazali.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Singaporean Pirs, Sufism and the myth of monolithic Islam

Singapore's declaration of the Naghore Durgha sufi shrine as a listed property is part of an effort to protect the island's history. The shrine is under the custody of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS).
Singapore's Naghore Durgha shrine in 2005, in dire need of restoration
The world may associate Sufism with Rumi's poetry or Konya's whirling dervishes, but Sufi Islam is much more.
Sufi holy men were instrumental in synthesizing Islam with the local cultures that Islam came into contact with around the world. Consequently, Sufis often made Islam acceptable to local cultural traditions. Theirs is perceived to be a less austere form of Islam, relative to the wahabi beliefs propagated by certain national religious authorities.
Through their travels and 'everyman' practices Sufis saints were critical in spreading Islam in areas as diverse as Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. To this day, many Sufi orders exist as dynamic centres of theological learning.

The tomb of Khoja Afaq near Kasghar, Xinjiang, China
Not surprisingly, Islamic extremists have begun to view Sufi orders as a key threat to their version of Islam. The Pakistan Taliban has set its sights on intimidating ordinary Pakistanis steeped in the traditions of Pirs and Fakirs. Just as it is difficult for modern India to legislate away centuries of the Hindu caste system, it is almost impossible for Pakistani Islamic extremists to paint sufi practices as un-Islamic.  
The importance of Sufism cuts both ways.
Following the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic by Ataturk, he immediately set about outlawing the many Sufi establishments sprinkled around the Anatolian peninsula. Like today's extremists, Ataturk understood the importance Sufi traditions play in perpetuating Islamic beliefs.
Despite bearing the full force of the Turkish state since 1926, Turkish Sufi orders continue to thrive to this day.
The real battle for Islam is not being fought in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan or North Waziristan but around the many Sufi mazaars or shrines found in every nook and cranny of Pakistan. If extremist Islam is to be defeated then, by definition, the rich traditions of Sufi Islam must prosper. 
Sufi saint Shah Rukhn-e-Alam's shrine built between 1320-24 in Multan, Pakistan
Now, if the Islamic world were defined as strictly as wahabis would have us, then at the stroke of a pen, many Indonesian Muslims would become unbelievers. To strict wahabis, there is no place for many Indonesian cultural traditions within Islam.
There is little place for religious or cultural arrogance within Islam.
The restoration of a Sufi shrine in Singapore is recognition of the country's diverse Muslim community, a recognition not granted by the state's strait jacketed Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). It is time the Singapore authorities review the relevance of legislation drafted in the 1960s for contemporary Singapore.
AMLA, by accident or design, imposes by fiat Malay cultural traditions upon a heterogeneous Muslim population.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Mullahs, Iqbal, idol worshipping and renouncing the faith

During the last few centuries the Islamic world lost its way; sometime, somewhere, somehow.
Like a traveller who takes one wrong turn and then a series of unknown turns to 'correct' her course but ultimately finds hopelessly lost, the Islamic world appears to have no clue where it is heading.
However, a road map is available. There are streets signs, street maps and even friends available to help. What is important is that a direction be chosen so that the desired objective can be achieved.
And so begins the first crucial debate for the Islamic world, what is the objective, divinely ordained or otherwise?
Revivalists wish to return to the glory age of the Islamic world, when only the French Pyrenees protected Catholic France from turning green. Or to the golden age of the Ottoman Empire, when hordes of the faithful were besieging the gates of Vienna and Austrian bakers warned their fellow citizens by baking crescent shaped bread, the croissant.
Revivalists are interested in exercising power in the material world, especially to enforce their particular versions of sharia.
On the other hand, Modernists are keen to adopt all the trappings of 'westernization' and stand ready to discard almost all aspects of their historical traditions, religious or cultural. Modernists equate progress with western practices, which are seen as the key to worldly success.
In reality, the majority of Muslims fall squarely in between the two extreme poles of revivalism and modernism.
The average Muslim, be they Malay, Syrian, Pakistani or Sri Lankan, is simply concerned about the welfare of his family. The annihilation of Israel or flying a Muslim flag over Spain are not high on his agenda.
Why is this subject suddenly of interest to me? Well, I am rereading a fascinating book I first read in 1985, 'Iqbal – a Critical Study.' The book examines Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal's (1877 – 1938) philosophy as enunciated in his many poems and other scholarly works. 
Allama Dr. Iqbal's tomb located near the Lahore Fort complex in Lahore, Pakistan

Iqbal makes refreshing reading, especially at a time when there is philosophical chaos within the Islamic world. Dr. Iqbal was a real Islamic scholar, the sort whose voice is currently threatened by exploding bombs and screaming jihadis.
Real Islamic scholars are humanists in the broader sense of the word. Just as Goethe or Milton's writings touch not only Christians but anyone who appreciates good writing, Iqbal speaks to more than just Muslims.
 "An unbeliever before his idol with a waking heart is better than the religious man asleep in his mosque."
It is no wonder that today's semi-literate mullahs find Iqbal's ideas threatening. It is for the same reason that Muslims must return to the vision of thinkers such as Iqbal. For if we do not then we may as well consider renouncing our faith!
"If to be a Muslim in these days means to quarrel with one another, I shall then convert the Muslims into non-Muslims."**
* Academics may (and do) debate characterizations of revivalists and modernists constantly. My objective is to encourage readers to contemplate the ideas for themselves, not to define clearly demarcated boxes in which both sets of Muslims can neatly be placed. As always, the real world never conforms to easy categorizations. 
** Iqbal as quoted in 'Iqbal – a Critical Study,' Farhan Publishers, Lahore. 1977. p. 169.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Intelligence, eyes in the sky, shopkeepers and the Afghan war

Shopkeepers and conspiracy theories normally do not go hand in hand. But in Afghanistan anything is possible. So when the west's favourite Afghan son, president Karzai, decided it was time to indulge in that oldest of Afghan survival tactics, i.e. switching allegiances, an unlikely story came together.
Surely, when one of the world's most xenophobic and least understood parts of the world, i.e. Afghanistan, suddenly comes to dominate the international community's security agenda, accidents are bound to happen.
This particular accident has been nine years in the making.
The foundation was laid in late 2001 when US troops supported the Afghan Northern Alliance forces in overthrowing the then Afghan Taliban government. Many will rightly argue that in actual fact the groundwork was laid in December 1979, the date the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to support the Afghan wing of the global communist movement, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan.
Soviet spetsnaz (special forces) prepare for an Afghani mission in the 1980s

After approximately ten years of increasing involvement and ever changing military tactics, Soviet leader Gorbachev decided it was time to bandage the Soviet Union's 'bleeding wound.' Ten years after the US invasion and more than a hundred thousand soldiers later, US forces are also preparing for a phased withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the popular wisdom of history repeating itself, history never repeats itself perfectly. However, history does teach us that for wars to end there are just two options: an annihilation of one of the combatants; or some form of negotiated compromise between the two main protagonists.
Ten years and fighting, the annihilation of the Taliban seems unlikely.
For a multitude of reasons, Washington's modern centurions and their mighty war machines are unable to subdue marauding bands of bearded barbarians (aka the Taliban).
Discipline, training, laser guided weaponry and an unlimited budget have not been enough to win the war. Consequently, 'back-channel' negotiations between the two forces have been ongoing for some months.
Observers may wonder who speaks for the Afghan republic, i.e. Karzai, the US, or the various NATO generals operating around the country. The Taliban, on the other hand, as a 'rag-tag bunch of bearded bandits' may propose any number of mullahs to negotiate on their behalf.
And so it was that one of the Afghan Taliban's top leaders, Mullah Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, spoke words of peace with Afghan leaders recently. It is alleged the Taliban's former civil aviation minister even met with Afghan president Karzai.
From his 'base' in Quetta, Pakistan, Mullah Mansour was flown to Afghanistan by a specially arranged NATO airplane. Additionally, in the true spirit of peace talks, Afghan authorities 'donated' hundreds of thousands of US dollars to the mullah to help him decide how enthusiastically to proceed with the negotiations.
All security analysts are aware that billions of dollars are spent annually by the US and other western nations on their sophisticated and extensive intelligence establishments.
Undoubtedly, the intelligence dollars represent money well spent. The best and brightest Pashto and Balochi speaking agents keep the US homeland safe.
If there is ever any doubt about an intelligence operation, then employ the failsafe tactic of shooting off a few drones into Pakistan. If the drones do not work, then implement the accepted and internationally popular strategy of blaming the Pakistani security establishment for clandestinely supporting Islamic militants.
Spot the difference - Soviet soldier in the 1980s or American in the 2000s?

With all the money, men and hardware behind the western operation in Afghanistan, one can rest easy that the US and western intelligence knew the man they were speaking with to be Mullah Mansour. Surely, the mullah's screening was at least as rigorous as required for a Muslim from a 'high risk' country obtaining a visit visa to a western nation?
Months into the negotiations, and probably a few million dollars too, it turns out that our man Mullah Mansour was not a senior Taliban member after all. It seems all the 'intelligence signatures' collated by the CIA, MI6 and the Afghan authorities were 'misinterpreted.'
The good mullah posing as a top Taliban leader is merely a shopkeeper in Quetta, Pakistan.
The Grand Moofti speculates that 'Pretender Mullah Mansour' has recently sold his Quetta shop. Most likely, he is now leading a quiet retired life in his home village located somewhere in Eastern Afghanistan. A few dollars go a long way in eastern Afghanistan.
Clearly, this particular mullah is no longer a member of the so-called Quetta Shura.  
In the land of the blind, the Taliban's one-eyed Mullah Omar remains the King. And no matter how many remotely controlled electric eyes the west may have focused on Afghanistan, a good old fashioned charlatan with a beard and a turban is all that was required to fool the best and the brightest.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Singapore’s madrassas: another ‘exception’ to the secular state?

Singaporean Muslims ought to be alarmed with reports that students from the Madrasah Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah did not meet the Ministry of Education's (MOE) minimum Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) standards. (For Singaporean Muslims read Malays, non-Malay speaking Muslims will have a hard time gaining admission into religious schools with a curriculum administered primarily in Malay.)
As a result of the madrassa's poor non-religious educational standards, it has been disallowed from admitting new Primary One students for the academic years 2012 – 2014. A second madrassa, Madrassa Al-Arabiah ceased its Primary One intake in 2009 for similar reasons.
Falling short of the PSLE benchmark is surprising given the lax standards applied by the MOE to the Republic's six madrassas. The religious schools are required to meet a minimum benchmark at least twice during every three year assessment period. The minimum benchmark "is pegged at the average PSLE aggregate score of Malay pupils who took four standard-level subjects in the six lowest performing national schools, ranked according to the performance of the Malay pupils ... of the same year." (Ministry of Education Information Sheet, November 2010. Emphasis added by author.)
Clearly, the MOE's flaccid yardstick does not push Singapore's madrassas far enough in raising educational standards to national levels.

Critics may counter that a madrassa's role in society is distinct from that of a 'normal' school. Certainly, Madrasah Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah stated objectives point in that direction.  
"Mastering of the Arabic language is a pre-requisite for the understanding of the Al-Quran and Hadiths (Prophetic Traditions), the two fundamental sources of Islamic jurisprudence, less in importance, is the acquisition of knowledge in the secular sciences." (Madrasah Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah website. Emphasis added by author.)
What exactly is the role of Islamic schools in contemporary Singaporean society - to provide Islamic education to Malay-Muslims who wish to pursue specialized religious knowledge? To teach Arabic so Malay-Muslims may interpret the Koran 'correctly' by comprehending the holy book in its original form? Or, as stated by the Madrasah Wak Tanjong Al-Islamiah website, simply "moulding students to become Islamic scholars who excel religiously as well as academically."
Surely, religious education can form an important part of character building for children. But is it necessary to impart such training on a full time basis, especially through schools with an overtly religious character?
Religious training is better left as a private 'extra-curricular' activity.
Undoubtedly, there are examples of madrassa graduates who have excelled in mainstream society. Yet, there are many legitimate reasons to question the role of a religiously inspired educational establishment within a secular state.
For starters, Singapore's English educated labour force is arguably one of the country's core competitive strengths. Singapore continues to move up the economic value chain based largely on the quality of its human capital.
Is it just for society to deny one segment of Singaporean students' access to the country's conventional educational system from a young age, perhaps because the child's parents believe they are fulfilling a religious obligation? I think not.
Certainly, a fine balance between individual liberties and state responsibility must be struck. However, validating religious education, Islamic or otherwise, within a secular, multi-ethnic society is not the best solution. The MOE must continue to tighten its grip on Singapore's religious educational establishments in the coming years.
Other than in higher education, it is hard to justify the existence of full time religious schools in contemporary, theoretically secular, Singapore.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Chairman Mao’s new and improved People’s Republic of China

China's emergence as a global actor on the world's stage has become conventional wisdom. The evidence supporting the notion is overwhelming.
The People's Bank of China, China's central bank, moves global financial markets with interest rate moves. Chinese finance ministry officials roil foreign currency markets with statements on China's foreign exchange reserve management policies. US and Japanese defense officials fret about the Chinese military threat to disputed Pacific islands. India worries about China's 'string of pearls' naval strategy. 
Chairman Mao proclaims the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949

Like any successful nation state, China is not satisfied stagnating at the lower end of the production spectrum. Making textiles or footwear is not enough to move up in the world. Vietnam and Bangladesh can make such crude products too.
Pick up almost any manufactured item today and it's a good bet that somewhere there will be a sticker proclaiming, 'Made in China.' Consumers owe the Chinese a debt of gratitude for transforming luxury items, e.g. electronics, into affordable basics of everyday life.
China may be the factory of the world, a deflationary force in global economics, but there is more to China's than merely economics. In fact, it is the less noticeable aspects of the country's advance which has the established powers, especially the US, deeply concerned.
Take the supercomputer, that seminal symbol of modern technology.
As of October 2010, China operates the fastest supercomputer in the world. Located at the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin, the 'Milky Way Number One' supercomputer is a supercomputer capable of an Rmax of 2.566 petaFLOPS or over 2½ quadrillion floating point operations per second (whatever that means!).
American spooks at the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency must be scrambling to evaluate the implications of the Milky Way within the global intelligence galaxy.
The Chinese are not stopping at supercomputers. The apogee of contemporary military technology, the unmanned aerial vehicle or drone, is part of China's military arsenal.
"The 'Dark Sword' [drone] is an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) concept which was displayed as a model at the 2006 Zhuhai air show. It is obviously designed for high manoeuvrability at supersonic speeds ... a staff member called the aircraft the "future of Chinese unmanned combat aviation", emphasizing its projected ability to evade enemy radar and to engage in air-to-air combat." (Source: Real Military Network website.
Surely, China still operates like the Japan of yesteryear. The country copies foreign technologies until it has reached a sustainable technological base of its own. That day is not far away.
The first quantitative sign of China's indigenous collective brainpower came in 2007. 2007 was the year China overtook Germany in the number of new patent applications. A year later in 2008, the number of doctorates (PhDs) produced by Chinese universities exceeded that of the US. Undoubtedly, the quality of many Chinese PhDs may not yet be globally competitive but that too is changing.
One can only expect both numbers to rise in the coming years.
In the late 1960s, Pakistan's late President Ayub Khan wrote a political autobiography describing Pakistan's (client state) relationship with the United States titled 'Friends not Masters.' In 2010, with China being the largest owner of US government debt, it might be time for US treasury secretary Geithner to consider writing a sequel focusing on the Sino-US relationship, i.e. Friends not Masters (Part II).
Late Pakistani President Ayub Khan with First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Sardar (the Pakistan President's horse) in 1961

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Eid al Mubarik and the Festival of the Egg

Cultural ethnocentricity takes many forms. We all have it embedded within us.
Readers of my blog realize that much of my writing about Pakistan glosses over the country's very real problems. Instead my 'Pakistan Centric' writings focus on the country's under reported positives.
At times, cultural ethnocentricity borders on arrogance and even intolerance. Maybe I am just too sensitive about some things – including my name.
Undoubtedly, Imran is a Muslim name which is found extensively in the Koran. The Koran's third sura (chapter) is called titled, "The Family of Imran." According to the Koran, Imran was the name of the Virgin Mary's father – a woodcutter by profession.
A Chinese translation of a portion of the Koran

Imran's origins aside, a recent incident in the Gulf still disappointed me.
I arrived for a meeting and gave my particulars to the Arab receptionist. "Ah, Omran," she said. I smiled and repeated, "No, Imran." "We say Omran," and called my contact and pointedly said, "I have an Omran here for you." All the while looking at me with eyes suggesting 'Imran's an Arab name and learn how to write and pronounce it properly.'
As I have said before, if there is one thing I have a firm copyright on it is my name. I write, pronounce and use it the way I like. I do not need to justify its spelling or pronunciation to anyone.
No particular group holds a monopoly on my name, or indeed any name.  
Tell a Jacob his name is Yacoob, or a Moses he is Musa; tell a Turk that Sultan Ahmet mosque (the Blue Mosque) ought to be renamed Sultan Ahmed mosque. The list is endless.
There are many tell tale signs of individuals not paying attention to small details.
Receiving Arabic language newspapers at a hotel each morning because hotel staff assumes I am proficient in Arabic because I have an Arab name. Similarly, obtaining notifications in Malay from MUIS or other Malay organizations because a Singaporean Muslim is assumed to be proficient in Malay also resonates of a mono-cultural view of the world.
Not surprisingly, journalists make similar mistakes. A few days ago a CNBC newscaster reporting from Dubai repeatedly referred to the Muslim festival of 'Eid al Mubarik.'
Yes, as Muslims we describe Easter as the Festival of the Egg! Am I asking too much for reporters to do some homework before reporting to a global audience?
In the real world, it's the little things that give us away. Everyone can get the really big stuff right – the tiny stuff requires serious effort.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Dubai: the tale of the Ferrari and the Metro

Having spent the last few days circulating in Dubai, I am more convinced than ever the city continues on its path towards becoming a global metropolis. Surely, the fat from the boom days has been sliced, almost to the bone.
Today, Dubai's skeleton is visible and the skeleton looks pretty solid. That is good news not just for Dubai's debt holders but for the entire region.
For good or bad, Dubai had come to symbolize the Gulf region. When Dubai's name became synonymous with excess, the city's development model came into question.

Dubai's trappings as a global city are in place. The sight of overhead metro trains running parallel to the city's main thoroughfares adds to the public transport piece of the puzzle.
After many years of persistence, even the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) is showing signs of life. The DIFC is no Canary Wharf or even Raffles Place but undoubtedly a financial cluster has emerged.
Size, unfortunately, remains a systemic weakness for the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hence, the DIFC's modest buzz around cafes and bars is symptomatic of the region's size.
Dubai's role as a regional hub has only been underscored by the recent air cargo security scare. That the packages flowed through Dubai towards their final destination seems as natural a combination as wine and cheese.
Yes, many who sneered at some of the city's more outrageous grandiose schemes have been proven right. There is little talk of having the biggest and best of everything. The talk now centers on the federation and closer cooperation especially with their partners on the other side of Sheikh Zayed Road: Abu Dhabi.

So, while I do not believe the Dubai has any plans to extend its new metro system to Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi is not too worried. Abu Dhabi is doing just fine focusing on Ferrari theme parks 

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Singapore and Australian exchanges: learning to play the SAX?

Price and protectionism aside, the acquisition proposal between the Australian and Singapore exchanges is a potential winning stroke for both countries.
While Australian nationalism (read protectionism) may force politicians to veto the deal, the Singapore exchange (SGX) had to try something to force its way back onto the international stage. Granted the price being paid by Singapore might be a tad too much but it might just be a price worth paying.
The Singapore exchange had all but lost the regional race to Hong Kong some years ago. Hong Kong basks in the sunshine of being a political territory of the fastest growing economy in the world – the People's Republic of China!*
Recently, the financial race has added a new dimension, a shift from the capital markets to the currency markets. Offshore Yuan trading will be the next big thing. Once a freely tradable / convertible Yuan becomes established, then Yuan based tradable securities are merely a hop, skip and jump away.
Yuan denominated transactions, fixed income, equities and derivatives, will happen first and foremost in Hong Kong. Singapore may get some crumbs but Hong Kong will win the prize ... again.  
Hong Kong's natural advantage, geographically and politically will practically ensure the city the right of first refusal for most major future transactions (which will be liberally sprinkled with Chinese government owned entities).
Australia faces other issues. The country's geographic isolation is its best friend and enemy.
Australia is the first major capital market traders can access. It's a natural stop for businesses from Oceania. The capital markets benefit from a steady supply of resource linked companies. The Australian institutional investment community familiarity with resource based companies is an added advantage.
Yet, for companies beyond a certain size Australia loses much of its relevance. Also, after a certain time trading shifts to Europe and the US. In a sense, Australia is an important market by default – its importance diminishes as the rest of the world wakes up.
Put two 'losers' together and one may just get a bigger loser. But the stakes for the SGX and the Australian exchange (ASX) are high. A merger gamble is better than sitting around waiting for the situation to improve.
There are ways in which a 'joint' exchange can synergize a winner. Imagine if stocks were dual listed on both the ASX and the SGX, meaning investors had two time zones to trade the same security. The resultant liquidity boost may just galvanize more listings on a merged SAX, exactly the medicine required to revive the SGX.
Operational constraints are real, including managing pricing in two floating currencies. Related settlement matters will also need to be addressed. However, over time such teething issues can be overcome with adequate investment.
Many observers question the wisdom of the SGX bid for the ASX. The strategy does raise legitimate questions about the SGX's future strategic direction. Nevertheless, without a radical departure from the past the SGX would only continue its slow march into the sunset.
Sometimes, shaking things up is a prudent strategy – even if the end result is unknown. It stirs corporate entities from a complacent slumber.
* I wrote a post titled 'Has Singapore lost the race to Hong Kong' in October 2009.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Of mothers, spouses and Singapore’s sharia

Last week, I attended an Association of Muslim Professionals seminar on the subject of Islamic Estate Planning. Sitting in a room filled with Muslims theoretically at the 'cutting edge' of Islamic thought has somewhat of a nineteenth century feel – it was as if I was an anti-imperialist activist at a session addressed by the likes of Indian Muslim Modernists like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan or Dr. Allama Mohammad Iqbal.
Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's study about the causes of the 1857 uprising against colonial rule

Modern Singapore is a far cry from British India. But some positive vestiges remain – the English language and Common Law.
The seminar was interesting in many ways. Without exception, each individual speaker, including a scholar associated with the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), extolled the virtues of individual financial planning. Each stated it is perfectly Islamic to make post-death arrangements to secure the future of loved ones, even if the plan contravenes the binding inheritance principles of Singapore's Application of Muslim Law Act (AMLA).
The audience was told about the flexibility that Islam provides believers. Listeners received an introduction to various Sharia compliant financial instruments available to Muslims to dispose of an estate.   
In other words, I learnt how best to circumvent the inheritance restrictions laid down by AMLA.
The entire event has me confused. If it is perfectly Islamic for an individual to wish to deliver his estate to his spouse, parents or others who he financially supports then what is the purpose of making the law of Faraid legally binding? Why not make things easier for ordinary Muslims by empowering them to write a Will under normal civil law?
In the current set-up, any Muslim wishing to bequeath his estate based on his freewill must enter into all sorts of extraneous paperwork associated with gifts (hibah), trusts or other sharia compliant instruments recognized by Singapore's sharia law.
I am a believer in Islamic scholarship.
Surely, there is a place in the world for Sharia compliant financial products. During my professional career I have worked to develop Islamic products. However, for sharia compliant products to be successful they must be simple, cost efficient and true to the spirit of Islam. Not merely intelligent ways to dodge usury recognized by prevalent legal codes.
Islamic finance has come a long way during the last few decades. Plain vanilla banking products like loans, credit cards and mortgages are available in Sharia compliant form in standardized form, thus making them competitive with their interest based counterparts.
Unfortunately, that is not yet the case with Islamic estate planning.* Ordinary Singaporean Muslims cannot order their personal financial affairs to their own liking due to legal restrictions enforced by AMLA.
It is all well and good to outline options available to academically inclined or wealthy Muslims. Nevertheless, for ordinary Muslims with a modest financial asset base, these choices are complicated and costly.
Pakistan's Founder, Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah's left his entire estate to three educational institutions - an action not permissible under certain interpretations of Islamic law - via a simple Will

Muslims have been granted free will to make personal decisions on worldly matters, including matters of inheritance. In contemporary Singapore, individuals have even been granted the freedom to commit certain 'innocent' sins; sins which do not harm other members of society or the public good.
It is almost impossible to argue that securing the future of one's parents, spouse and family is a sin, under Islamic or secular law.
Undoubtedly, the decolonization of Singapore was a liberating experience. Yet, for some Singaporeans the enactment of AMLA in 1968 took away a few important financial freedoms previously available under colonial rule.
*I became aware of one Sharia specific legal provision pertaining to Muslim beneficiaries of insurance policies under Singapore's Insurance Act which is unusual and somewhat alarming. I hesitate to comment on the subject until I am certain of the correctness of my understanding. 

Monday, 18 October 2010

Taunting China Norwegian style – the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize

By awarding the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to a hitherto unknown Chinese human rights activist the Nobel Committee has achieved at least one objective: focusing global attention towards the state of human rights in China. However, inadvertently or not, the Committee has also divided the world into pro and anti-China camps.
I don't blame either side, but place myself squarely in the 'back to basics' Peace Prize camp. Back to basics means honouring the Will of Alfred Nobel, the founder of the award.
The Will reads, "[The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded annually] to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."
The peace prize is not meant as an overtly political statement.
Jean Henri Dunant: Swiss businessman and founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross was the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1901

One may stretch the meaning of 'peace congresses' so as to permit granting of the prize to human rights activists such as Shireen Ebadi, Liu Xiaobo or Aung San Suu Kyi. Undoubtedly, all three activists struggle for a noble cause at great personal risk. No one can argue with their passionate idealism for achieving social justice.
However, at another level, awarding prizes to such personalities seem very much an attempt to irritate the domestic regimes of countries 'out of favour' with Western nations; not surprising given that the Nobel Committee's five members are appointed by the Norwegian parliament and broadly represent national parliament's political make up.
The Kingdom of Norway is a founding member of the US-led security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). While the country is not a formal member of the European Union, it maintains strong European ties through various treaties. Norway is a member of the European Economic Area.
Surely, the Norwegians have played an admirable role in engendering peace in the Middle East (the Oslo Accords) as well as other war ravaged areas. Yet, is it not possible for the Nobel Committee to find less politicized recipients for the Peace Prize? There are several billion people in the world.

Governance and international representative systems are not divorced from a nation's ground realities. For example, pursuing democratic ideals in Somalia, China, Denmark or the United States requires modifications to suit local political cultures. Somalia's parliament meets in Kenya, when it can. In the United States and Denmark, burning the Koran or caricaturizing Islam's final Prophet is a legitimate democratic pursuit.
To an outsider, the fine legal niceties legitimizing water boarding, acts of rendition, assassinations using unmanned drones and Guantanamo are not so different from China's policies designed to ensure social stability within its own borders. Arguably, China pursues vigorous economic development as a way of granting greater freedoms to its people – freedom from hunger versus freedom to protest.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to less divisive personalities such as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Medicins Sans Frontieres and Mohammad Yunus seems a better way to achieve Alfred Nobel's goal of 'building fraternity between nations.'

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Half Muslim – maybe? Half child – I think not

I was speaking with a stranger a few days ago. The gentleman was in the service industry and ran a family business with his wife. The subject turned to his family and he said he had 3.5 (three and one half) kids.
Okay, that's an unusual number. Children normally come in whole numbers – unlike Muslims who are sometimes half-Muslims!
Maybe his wife was pregnant and baby number four was on its way? Hesitatingly I enquired about the 'half child,' fearing that perhaps I was getting too personal. It turns out his wife and he had adopted a boy and referred to the boy as a 'half-child.'

It's not for me to tell people how to speak of their children. Yet, it seems somewhat odd, if not wrong, that a son is referred to as a 'half.' Adopted or not, a son is a son.
A bloodline is a unique feature. It's not surprising that modern DNA testing can match identities among distant relatives, probably by isolating the one unique chromosome an individual carries. (I am no scientist, nor do I watch CSI to know enough about DNA testing to speak authoritatively on the subject.)
Nevertheless, to the Grand Moofti, an adopted child does not deserve to be singled out from her (biological) siblings. The way an adoptee is spoken about reflects how she is seen by her adopted parents, as a full member of the family or as an outsider.
Kids are kids. They soak in their environment without adults even noticing the process. A child's self-confidence and self-perceptions are largely based on acceptance by their immediate family. Adopt a child and then forget she was adopted. Adoption becomes a secret that travels to the grave.
There are no 'half-kids' in the world.
Of course, readers may legitimately question the Grand Moofti's qualifications to speak about kids. It's true, his credentials are restricted to periodic interactions with nephews, nieces and other kids who fondly refer to him as 'uncle.'  

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Gillette’s miracle razors, ‘nais’ and the Ottoman Sultan

Every so often, Gillette releases a new razor with a 'new, improved' blade. The Sensor and the Sensor Excel are pass̩ Рit's the Mach 3 and other 'supersonic' blades which are now in vogue.
These sophisticated razors can shave against the grain, sideways, up, down and any way which takes your fancy. Shave while doing handstands or one handed push ups, it's all good, the Mach range can handle it.
Like many, I enjoy a close shave. It makes me feel brand new!

Hence, I revel in the technological breakthroughs made by Gillette's hard working research scientists. Five blades make a nice change from the disposable blades used by screw-top razors – you know the type of razors sold today by shops with fancy English names and the quaint smell of aristocracy!
For me, the old fashioned razors coupled with shaving cream squeezed from toothpaste like tube made it impossible to shave without nicking myself almost daily.
My ability to grow a beard or moustache is just one more feature which makes me a 'fake' minority Singaporean. Chinese men can typically only grow one, maybe two, beards during a lifetime of not shaving. (By unusual coincidence, the majority of Chinese tend to have an aversion to facial hair.)
Me, I could become a contemporary version of Captain Caveman if I skip my daily shave for a few weeks. What's worse is that my facial hair is almost entirely white – not even salt and pepper but white!
White hair aside, all the advancements in shaving techniques and technology make me yearn for the good old fashioned Pakistani street side barber or nai! (Surely, there must be a Gillette sponsored university campus somewhere handing out degrees on the art and science of shaving for aspiring nais?!)
In the mid-1990s, I spent a couple of weeks with a friend in the central Pakistani city of Bahawalpur. Like many second tier Pakistani cities, Bahawalpur seemed frozen in a wonderful time warp.
The Darbar Mahal, a former palace of the Nawabs of Bahawalpur

For me, the best part of Bahawalpur was not visiting the former Nawab's White Palace or travelling to various shrines in the City of Saints (nearby Multan) but my vacation from shaving.
Shaving became the barber's job, not mine. Every day, the nai set up a chair on the porch and yours truly felt like a right Nawab himself while he ruthlessly dealt with my facial hair!
Ask me how traditional barbers get such a close shave without even a tiny cut and I plead ignorance. Maybe it has something to do with that Gillette University certification the Bahawalpuri nais are obligated to receiving before establishing their practice? Or just maybe it has to do with the distinction of being one of the few humans permitted to use a razor near a stranger's neck without any repercussions?
For good reason, the barber has a special place in the erstwhile Turkish Ottoman Sultan's entourage: the barber was the only person allowed to use a blade on the Ottoman rulers face without losing his own head in the process.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Is Singapore’s Ministry of Law listening? But I have so much more to say!

Just as no sensible politician would normally like to tie her fate to one particular issue, I also do not wish to be classified as a 'one trick pony.' Yet, it would almost be negligent of me if I did not comment on recent changes to Singapore's Central Provident Fund (CPF) nomination rules for Muslims.
The Grand Moofti's regular readers are aware that Shariah law governs inheritance procedures for Singaporean Muslims. Consequently, under the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), a deceased Muslim's estate is divided on the basis of a formula prescribed by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) interpretation of Islamic law.

CPF accounts are now exempt from a Muslim's estate for the purpose of compulsory distribution under Islamic inheritance law as required by AMLA. Recently MUIS issued a fatwa (in Malay – my comments below*) permitting Singaporean Muslims to nominate beneficiaries who will inherit their CPF monies following death.
Certainly, the move is an encouraging step in granting Singaporean Muslims full rights over the use of their assets. One can only applaud the decision.
However, the real test comes over time as the intent of Singapore's lawmakers becomes apparent. Is the move to exempt CPF accounts merely a one off measure designed to appease a certain segment of Muslims or does it represent the first in a series of steps towards dismantling a restrictive, religiously inspired parallel legal system which exists in an otherwise nominally secular state?
Let's be optimistic and assume that Singapore's Ministry of Law has recognized the potential disruptions posed by maintaining a parallel legal system. If that is the case, then the next logical step in rolling back AMLA will be to exempt Housing Development Board (HDB) apartments from a Singaporean Muslims estate. That is allow, Muslims to nominate beneficiaries of their HDB apartments following death.
Like me, I am sure many Muslims see a glimmer of hope in the increased flexibility now available to us in bequeathing CPF money. Undoubtedly, gradual evolutionary change is a more orderly approach to implementing reform. Let us hope that more such reform steps are in the works.

Below is the text of a letter sent to the Straits Times Forum on September 25, 2010. The letter has not been published (at least not yet). Perhaps the paper is uncomfortable pushing the subject at this time.
To the Editor:
Many Muslims will be encouraged by the authorities' recent decision to exclude CPF accounts from the list of assets included under the purview of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). Consequently, like all other Singaporeans, Muslims now have the flexibility to nominate beneficiaries to inherit their CPF account balances following death.
The move goes some way in addressing the inequities faced by Muslims in managing their personal financial assets. However, there still remains a need for greater reform to bring Muslim financial freedoms in line with the flexibilities enjoyed by non-Muslim Singaporeans. 
As a next step, the authorities may consider exempting HDB units from a Muslim's financial asset base which, under AMLA's provisions, is forcibly distributed based on specific principles of the Shariah. Muslim Singaporeans should be granted the right to nominate individual family members as inheritors of apartments following their death.
Currently, HDB has no such 'nomination' system and legacy arrangements for HDB units must be a part of a comprehensive Will – an option restricted for Muslims by the Administration of Muslim Law Act.
Imran Ahmed
* It is important to emphasize that the MUIS fatwa was issued in Malay. One understands that the majority of Singapore's Muslims speak Malay. However, Singapore's lingua franca is English. Surely, MUIS can consider issuing the original document in bilingual form – English and Malay – for non-Malay speaking Muslims.