Friday, 29 January 2010

Malaysia joins Islam’s ideological fray – Singapore beware!

Islam's identity crisis has found a new battleground in Malaysia.
Malaysia's encounter with radical Islam has not been altogether unpredictable. It has been brewing for many years.

First the overtly Islamist political party PAS established itself as a mainstream political party. Subsequently, the parameters of social debate shifted. The discussion is no longer secular versus Shariah or freedom of choice versus Islamic. It is now a question of defining 'Islamic' behaviour.
Practically speaking, the legal niceties may not matter soon. Islam will be delineated by goons through violence and the threat of violence.
Several years ago I visited Kuala Lumpur (KL) regularly during Ramadan. It never occurred to me that I may get in trouble for (discreetly) eating during the holy month.
KL is not Malaysia. KL represents modern, liberal and cosmopolitan Malaysia. A Malaysia where I can sip a cocktail at an outdoor cafe while listening to the Muezzin's call to prayer.
Ironically, in today's environment I prefer covering my Allah pendant while eating in a Chinese restaurant lest some fanatic lecture me for eating non-halal food.
Visit KL during Ramadan in 2010? Unlikely. I don't need to prove a point to anyone. Nor do I wish to (possibly) waste my time explaining the concept of Free Will to the religious police. Especially not while locked up in a cell.
The social cleavages did not appear just yesterday. Generally when churches are vandalized or pig heads find their way into mosque courtyards, they are the result of years of pressures hitting boiling point.

The trend started with a few provinces tightening up on Islamic laws such as female dress codes. Laws on alcohol and khalwat were brushed up and implemented. A general air of religiosity, as defined by the Islamist ruling party, descended onto the areas.
Once political Islam is bandied about then it is virtually impossible to control. Islam takes on a political life of its own. (I am not sure Frankenstein is an apt comparison in the circumstances?)
Ask UMNO, Malaysia's ruling party. Wishing to pander to the Islamic constituency, the authorities began raiding hotels and arresting Muslims for drinking alcohol and male-female proximity. UMNO opposed the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims. Oddly enough Malaysia's Islamic party, PAS, has issued statements saying it is acceptable for non-Muslims to use Allah to describe God.
I have not painted an optimistic picture of Malaysia's future. But I have not given you all the facts. Malaysian civil society is gearing up for a long slog against radical Islam's onslaught.
The courts have not disappointed. It was a court decision granting Catholics the right to use Allah during sermons which ignited the Allah controversy. Today, the KL High Court overturned a government ban on a controversial book, "Muslim Women and the Challenge of Islamic Extremism." The book is published by a Malaysian women's advocacy group named Sisters in Islam.
I fear for Malaysia. Sadly, I have seen this script performed before. In many ways, Malaysia's scenario is an 'instant replay' of Pakistan during the last two decades.
Civil society tends not to be forceful enough to resist the aggressive offensives undertaken by militant Islam. It is difficult for ordinary Muslims to stand up and say, "Mr. Mullah, that's not the Islam I know. You are wrong." The stigma of being branded 'anti-Islam' is real.
Most average Muslims neither have the desire nor the courage to complicate their lives by opposing extremist ideas. It may be passive complacency or simply a wish to get on with a normal life. Either way, the broad social inertia helps militant ideas take root.
If there is ever a time for the Malaysian government to lead from the front, it is today. While invoking the Internal Security Act to clamp down hard on troublemakers attacking churches and mosques may be extreme, the government must send a clear message to extremists that it means business. Delay only emboldens them.
My concerns do not end with Malaysia. In Singapore, Muslim and Malay are synonymous.
As Islamist pressures increase in Malaysia the atmosphere for Singaporean Malays (read Muslims) changes. How will Singapore react if the Singaporean Malay community demands similar concessions, e.g. no alcohol for Muslims, no serving of food for Muslims during Ramadan, no Muslims permitted to enter casinos, or enforcing the tudung (scarf head covering) as mandatory for women?
Many will scoff at my suggestions believing they are impossible in Singapore. My friends used to say the same thing about Malaysia a decade ago. "Malaysian Islam is different and there are too many Chinese in Malaysia." Many Singaporeans also believed that local Muslims were somehow immune to radicalization. Remember Mas Selamat and the Singapore cells of Jemaah Islamiah?
Some of us remember when the streets of Teheran and Kabul were filled with mini-skirts; When Kabul's buses were often driven by women or when Karachi's nightclubs were famous for Lebanese and Syrian cabaret dancers.
Will I one day be writing about KL's nightclubs in past tense?

Historically, Islam has often existed with parallel legal systems: the Millet system. Malaysia's dual tracked system is evolving naturally. Singapore's is already partially in place, i.e. the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA).
AMLA is a parallel legal framework based on a combination of Malay and Islamic traditions. Under Singapore law, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) is empowered to advise the President on all matters pertaining to Malays (read Muslims).
I just hope the Singapore President remembers that Muslims, Malay or not, have civil rights too. Even if those rights do not include writing a Will they certainly include the right to sin at our own discretion.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

OCBC, prudent banking and Madam Hwang Cheng Tsu Hsu

Once upon a time banking was a respectable profession. A reference from a banker carried such weight that it transformed itself into letters of credit and bankers acceptances. Two papers which form the basis for modern trade finance.
Respect for bankers may have been grudging but it was earned fair and square. Bankers were frugal with their signature. Loans relied not only upon mortgaged security but the character of the borrower.
Similarly, a banker was himself a person of integrity; the bedrock of the local financial community. He was an informal advisor on all financial matters for the entire community.

Alas, after having been a banker for all my adult life it is apparent that bankers are not a loved lot anymore! Between the global economic crisis and perceptions of bankers pay (I certainly didn't benefit from Wall Street type obscene salary packages!) bankers are generally a reviled lot.
For their part, bankers are no longer bankers. They are financial professionals.
A financial professional scours gullible masses and corporations for fees and commissions, payable or at least accrued here and now. His aim is pocketing an annual cash bonus. The faceless bank shareholder may worry about the quality of the transaction but for the banker compensation matters more.  
In structuring transactions, stay within the letter of the law and forget the spirit. The only spirit required is Black Label whisky drunk upon execution of the transaction (and accrual of the fees).
In the past, banks didn't even have legal departments. Bankers just used the principles of common sense to guide their behaviour. Today, bank CEOs are often lawyers. Citigroup's former CEO was a lawyer and Bank of America's newly appointed CEO being prime examples.
Hence, when I read that OCBC is defending its behaviour over the account of 94 year old Madam Hwang, a wave of nostalgia went through me.
OCBC's actions evoke images of 'old-school' responsible banking. Banking the way it used to be, in line with fiduciary principles of protecting a client's interests.
In essence, OCBC refused to convert the singly operated account of the elderly Madam Hwang into a joint account with her 44 year old adopted daughter. Following some meetings with Madam Hwang, the bank was not satisfied that Madam Hwang was capable of making sound financial decisions. It wished to satisfy itself further, especially as the instructions to alter the account came directly from the daughter.
Sounds like prudent behaviour to me. Of course, the matter is sub-judice and not all facts are available to me. Thus, my comments and judgement is based on publicly available information.
Singapore is not normally a trigger happy legal environment (thank God). In a perverse way, Madam Hwang's adopted daughter's decision to sue OCBC is good for Singapore's status as a financial centre.
The court's judgement should enhance Singapore's reputation as private banking centre; a city-state with a legal system where financial disputes will be settled in a quick and equitable manner. The case will define 'due diligence' standards for banks in accepting potentially contentious client instructions.

I suspect the court will err on the side of caution. The court should endorse OCBC's desire to obtain independent verification of the instructions from the customer. It is unreasonable to expect a bank to accept orders, signed or not, from a third party. Especially for a transaction which changes the ownership of the money.
OCBC: I may not agree with your recent purchase of ING's Private Bank but in this case I stand firmly behind you. In return, I expect a nice cake (cheesecake preferably) from one of your branch manager's on my birthday!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

What doors reveal about us

The little things matter. Big things are just small things threaded together. A series of events, seemingly random, but actually directed towards a certain goal.
Life and humans are no different.
We are defined by the small things we do. After all, significant accomplishments like, say, ending the global war on terror (yea, right!) are an agglomeration of many individual acts.

Unfortunately, humans are often defined by the negatives and based on relatively few experiences. When someone enters a room and doesn't shut the door behind them, I form a negative judgement.
Over the weekend, I sat in an air conditioned family owned restaurant. Not all patrons were considerate enough to shut the door each time they entered or left the establishment. In fact, most left it ajar.  
It's been really hot these last few days. It doesn't take long for rooms to warm up with a door left open.
I examined the diners who didn't close the door after entering. They seemed like normal, decent persons. Yet, one part of me screamed, "Ill mannered and selfish brute!" Another said, "Calm down, it's not their fault. They were not taught any better."
Teachers and parents make the difference, though we can train ourselves for most anything at any stage of our life.
There are some phrases which play in my mind all the time. Amongst others, three regulars are:
  1. Shut the door, you're not entering a barn!
  2. It's rude to wear a cap indoors;
  3. Don't be afraid of anything except God.
And, no, imagining such voices doesn't make me psychotic!
I enjoyed the meal. The food was good. Despite the problems with the door, the room's temperature remained bearable.

If I were a restaurateur (of an air conditioned establishment) all doors must have automatic shutting mechanisms. Why fight a losing battle – or risk annoying patrons because one is teed off by their 'door closing etiquette?' It's unreasonable to assume everyone values the same behaviours as me.
Sometimes, shutting a door is as important as walking through another one.  

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

“Singapore a listening society,” says Ronald McDonald

Weeks after the uproar began, McDonald's Singapore decided to reinstate the pig Doraemon in its Chinese New Year collection. In a society where the pig potentially invokes fervent emotion, McDonald's symbolic reversal is big news.

The exclusion of the pig stirred mostly predictable responses and some unpredictable ones too. Most noticeably, many ethnic Chinese were visibly disturbed by a perception they were slighted by the local McDonald's franchise. Some went so far as to demand a public apology from the corporation.
All individuals take pride in their heritage. A little bit of chauvinism is natural. We saw that in the local media and internet forums.
As China's star rises so does the pride of the international Chinese diaspora. The Beijing Olympics marked a high point in prestige for the People's Republic. A point not lost on most Chinese Singaporeans.
What can Singapore learn from a seemingly innocuous incident about stuffed toys?
For starters, Singaporeans are too sensitive about racial issues. Way too sensitive. Sensitive is good. Common sense and common space are better.
McDonald's had the right idea but implemented it clumsily.

It's a fact that we live in a multi-religious society. It's also a fact that Singapore is a reasonably compact little island. Corporate decisions have an impact in all our neighbourhoods.
Hence, McDonald's was rightfully conscious of Muslim sentiment when planning the promotion. Life is rarely a zero-sum game, unless we chose to make it so.
Yet, McDonald's pursued a 'black or white' policy; an exclusive 'either-or' approach. Nothing in life is that simple. All life's excitement happens in the undefined grey zone– not in the predictable black or white.
Spare some sympathy for McDonald's. Had they included the pig in the initial set, in all likelihood some Muslims would have objected. Because the pig was excluded Singaporeans indulged in a rare public debate on religion, identity and collective social values.
In this instance, race and religion were transformed into a uniting factor.
Sensitivities to race and religion should not be allowed to move into the realm of the absurd. Viewing individuals purely from the perspective of race demeans individuality.
Common sense and common space, it's the way of the future.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Modern day Crusades in Babylon and Iskandria (aka Kandahar*)?

Since 2001 the trust deficit between segments of the Islamic world and the West has grown wider with each passing year.
September 11, 2001 was a wake-up call for the Islamic world. Until then most Muslims scoffed at the notion of an 'Islamic lunatic fringe' as represented by Sunni Wahabi ideals. There was no Al-Qaeeda and suicide bombers were an unknown commodity.

US troops in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom

The introspection and reform of the Islamic world is painful and ongoing. It becomes hard when Muslim misgivings are frequently undermined by American behaviour.
When the US declared Afghanistan's Taliban regime as the enemy in 2001, there was not much debate within the Islamic world. Most Islamic nations supported the US 'invasion' of Afghanistan, either actively or passively.
The first US misstep occurred even before the US operation began. Nine years later, a fairly regular occurrence of such blunders forms a continuous chain. The virtually systematic bungles emasculate Muslim leaders trying to chip away at increasing fundamentalism within their nations.
In mid-September 2001, President Bush stated on the lawns of the White House, "This crusade [emphasis added], this war on terrorism, is going to take a while." Shortly afterwards, the US military operation in Afghanistan was named 'Operation Infinite Justice;' a controversial name given Islamic precepts that final justice emanates only from God.
Many Muslims may give the US the benefit of the doubt on the operation's name.  However, following statements about crusades by a President readying his armies to invade a Muslim nation all statements are bound to be closely scrutinized. **
To Muslims, as also to many devout Christians such as Bush himself, the Crusades are about Muslim-Christian wars for control of specific tracts of land.
The world moved on. The Taliban were routed in late 2001. The phrases 'Al-Qaeeda' and the 'War on Terror' entered our daily language.

With US troops still searching for Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, suddenly a new front opened in March 2003. After months of canvassing about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, the US invaded Iraq.
Uncertain about the implications for the region, most Muslim nations stayed low-key in their views on the Iraq War. On the contrary, the 'Arab Street' saw the invasion merely as an extension of Bush senior's war against Iraq (in Kuwait). The invasion viewed as part of a personal agenda of unfinished business against Saddam by the Bush clan.
Following the Iraq war, the disillusionment with the US within the Islamic world gathered momentum. The disappointment increased as the so-called weapons of mass destruction became as elusive as peaceful Iraqi democracy.
Fast forward to 2010.
Afghanistan's war has spread to Pakistan. A fiercely secular Iraqi regime has been replaced by, well, constitutional democracy. Al-Qaeeda, an erstwhile enemy of Saddam, is well entrenched in Iraq. Iraq is a wonderful playground for them. Iran's influence in both Iraq and Afghanistan is greater than most periods of modern history.
The world has no idea where the next major suicide bombing may take place. No city is safe. Many Muslims have all but stopped travelling to the US following the stringent measures imposed by the US Department of Homeland Security.
If Osama and his henchmen need a public relations agency to encourage recruits the US authorities must be near the top as far as track record and credentials are concerned?

The Siege of Antioch during the First Crusade (1097-98)

Let's head back to the Crusades for a moment.
We now hear that the US has supplied rifles to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan with coded Bible passages. Not surprising as the manufacturer, Trijicon corporation, prides itself on a definition of morality which states, "We believe that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals."
It is easy to criticize. It is more difficult to address the chasm of distrust between the Islamic world and the West. Just as Osama painted Islam and Muslims for many Americans, many Muslims also selectively view US policy objectives and behaviours to stereotype their American counterparts.
There is no easy fix. Obama can say what he wants in Cairo; or Hillary Clinton in Lahore. Unfortunately, it seems that the 'lunatic fringe' is not exclusive to Muslim populations.
Islamophobia and Islamic extremism represent two sides of the same coin. Most Muslims are not hostile to the West innately. Mistrust is a learned behaviour.
Next time a gunman kills eight people in Virginia or 33 students at a Virginia university be reminded that violent crimes come in many forms. Muslims have as much a monopoly on deranged killers as Christians have on World Wars.

* Kandahar is believed to be a Pashto distortion of Alexandria or Iskandria. Kandahar, therefore, is a city named after Alexander the Great, the Macedonian conqueror whose empire stretched to the banks of the Indus River located in modern day Pakistan.
** The name of the Afghan operation was changed to Operation Enduring Freedom.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Poets, writers, artists and the money trap

It is common to picture writers and artists living from hand to mouth. In some way, the lack of money is inextricably linked with being an artist.
The internet changed many things but many artists, or content creators, still can't make a decent living selling their work.

Newspapers are ahead of the curve. Many regional dailies, including Singapore's Straits Times, charge for access to their online editions. Specialized newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times also require fees for unlimited access.
More newspapers are getting in on the act. After deliberating for the good part of a year, the New York Times will start charging for content from 2011. Surely, other prominent newspapers with large circulation numbers will not be far behind.
At least media corporations are adapting their structures to the New Economy. Of more interest to budding artists, especially writers and filmmakers, are changes proposed by You Tube and Amazon.
People will soon have the facility of renting videos from You Tube. Ultimately, any producer can place a video on You Tube, decide (and instruct) You Tube of the viewing charge. You Tube will do the rest.
You Tube implements a pilot run with a selection of movies from the Sundance Film Festival soon.
Amazon's experiment with electronic books changes the model for self-publishing. An e-book is "an electronic version of a printed book which can be read on a personal computer or hand-held device designed specifically for this purpose."
An e-book requires minimal up-front costs. There is no requirement to publish 1,000 copies in advance, no need for a distributor. E-books can be delivered to buyers electronically or printed as orders flow, one at a time. (Amazon already operates printing facilities for e-books at many of its book warehouses.)
Anyone can be an author. The only requirement is a manuscript.
Amazon will pay a royalty of 70% to authors of e-books selling between three and ten US Dollars. The 70% is in contrast to the 20-30% which a publisher typically pays a writer in the current model.
In 2009, it is estimated that e-books accounted for only four percent of all publishing revenue. That number should grow rapidly as Electronic Reading devices become more widespread.

Still, unless someone is named Dan Brown or JK Rowling it's best to ensure other means of income, or find a wealthy patron. Best of all, keep your needs simple.
Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) is one of Pakistan's most celebrated Urdu poets. During the later stages of his life he moved between the homes of several wealthy patrons. He lived simply.
Faiz only had one non-negotiable request from his patrons. A daily supply of scotch whiskey!

Ku'ch Ishaq Ki'ya Ku'ch Kaam Ki'ya.

Who Log Bohat Khush Qismat Th'ay,
Jo Ishaq Ko Kam Samujhty Th'ay,
Ya Kam Say Aashqi Karty Th'ay,
Hum Jeety Jee Masroof Ra'hay,
Kuch Ishaq Kiya Kuch Kam Kiya,
Kam Ishaq Kay Aary Aata Ra'ha,
Or Ishaq Say Kam Uljh'ta Ra'ha,
Ph'ir Aakh'er Tang Aaker Hum Nay,
Dono Ko Adhoora Cho'd  Diya'.

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Loved a little, Worked a little…

Those were very fortunate people,
Who considered Love an obligation,
Or they just loved their task,
I remained busy all my life,
Loved a little, worked a little,
Sometimes love was a snag in the way of my work,
While sometimes duty didn't allow me to love with passion,
Ultimately I got upset of the situation,
And left both my love and my work incomplete

Translated by Qazi Muhammad Ahkam

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Singapore Management University and question time outside Parliament?

Thinking requires academic training distinct from memorizing facts.
"A liberal [arts] education programme is broad-based and rigorous and will nurture critical and creative thinking, with a strong focus on values and ethics," said Singapore Management University (SMU) President Professor Howard Hunter.

I am fascinated by the implications of SMU offering liberal arts programmes. As a liberal arts graduate ('do you want fries with that?!'), I am a believer in a holistic educational approach.
In the early 2000s, Singaporean finance professionals proudly claimed that the city-state has the highest number of Chartered Financial Analysts (CFAs) per-capita in the world. Even if not true, Singapore certainly must be near the top.
Undoubtedly, the number of CFAs in Singapore is a proud distinction for the city. It feeds the growth of the domestic financial services industry.
However, the needs of a modern knowledge economy are varied. Knowledge itself is not scarce. On the contrary, information is plentiful, cheap and easily accessible.
It's how facts are applied and converted to economic opportunity which is critical. Conversion requires creative thinking. It requires confidence. It requires communication skills.

Ask a CFA to calculate the risk of an investment portfolio and more than likely you will get a correct answer. The CFA who stands out will suggest how to adjust the portfolio to reduce the risk, without waiting to be asked.
I speculate when stating that there is link between Hong Kongers' appetite for risk and its position as a larger financial centre than Singapore. After all, Singapore has an ample pool of savings and a government committed to developing the financial infrastructure.
Singapore got left behind in the league of financial capitals.
Singapore has developed a successful high technology manufacturing and research base. Going by anecdotal evidence, much of the research is conducted by foreign academics.
There are significant debates surrounding Singapore's educational system, including the study of mandarin.  Much has been achieved to create a more open system. The domestic arts scene is a beneficiary.
More must be done. Greater academic freedom translates into successes in the modern economy. It encourages entrepreneurship. A sceptical mind pushes the limits of progress and opens social barriers in a constructive manner.
The multinational corporation, a bedrock of Singapore's economy, will find more reason to establish regional headquarters and recruit in the republic, i.e. employment.

A more open educational system does have side effects. Singaporeans will ask difficult questions outside of the scripted dialogue spoken in Parliament.
Some might even expect answers to awkward questions!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Singaporean Chinese, Beijingers, Hainanese – one and the same?

"I believe Muslims in South-east Asia in general are peace-loving ... it is probably due to an influx of ... radicals from the Arab countries that our region has become filled with Middle Eastern style philosophy and low tolerance ..."
kennyticks2010 (as quoted by the Straits Times, January 11, 2010)
I am not an Arab. Nor am I a South-east Asian by birth. But I was disturbed when I read the above statement.
There may be some truth in the comment. But if an Arab passed the following remark, it will also contain some truth.
"Singaporeans are an insulated and nannied people, living in a bubble environment, who have limited street smarts when dealing with the real world [outside Singapore]. Without the government holding their hand and telling them what to do Singaporeans are hopelessly lost."
Both statements demonstrate a degree of ignorance divorced from ground realities. They are virtually insults.
Such beliefs perpetuate a stereotype which contains strands of the truth. Weave the strands together to examine the big picture and you see a much more complicated tapestry.

The Saint Simon Church in Aleppo, Syria is one of the oldest known church structures still in existence

The Arab world is not homogenous.
A country like Syria is worlds apart from a Gulf state like Saudi Arabia. Then throw in North African Arab nations like Morocco and Tunisia into the mix. Let's not forget the Sudanese – are they Arabs? Well, they do speak Arabic. What about the Lebanese?
Take a flight from Dubai to Jeddah; are you in cities which have the same world vision. Then hop on a plane and travel to Cairo. Travel north from Cairo to Amman. While in Jordan drive across to Israel – are the Israelis Arabs? Maybe just the 30% who speak Arabic as their mother tongue.
I think you get the point. Culture plays a significant role in defining religious traditions. Arab culture and religion should not be equated with Saudi Wahabi Islam.
There is more to the Arab world than face veils and Islam. Like any geography of the world, the Arabs have their share of culture. In fact, the transmission of arts and knowledge via the Arab land of Andalusia played a key role in the European Renaissance.

The Court of the Lions at the Alhambra Palace in Granada. A part of Spain's Moorish legacy

Ok, that's history. Talk about today as that is more relevant.
Define the Arab world as any geography where Arabic is widely spoken and travel around. Take the journeys I described above and note the varying cultural practices and religious traditions.
Soak in the history of Damascus, the oldest continually inhabited urban area in the world. Enjoy the nightlife of Beirut. Examine the engineering wonders in Dubai. Marvel at the Pyramids in Egypt. See the Roman ruins in Jordan. Drink Algerian wine in the Casbah. Be daring and visit a topless beach in Tunisia. View the exhibits at the Islamic Arts Museum in Doha.
Try to get permission to enter Saudi Arabia. Once in, locate the grave of their last few kings. It's impossible. Saudi kings are buried in unmarked graves in the desert. No mausoleum, no markings. Agree or disagree, the Saudis also have a culture.
I could go on.
But there is only one final thing to add. If you are a Christian and visit some of the many Churches in countries with significant indigenous Christian minorities (e.g. Egypt, Syria) feel free to use the word Allah to proclaim God.
The Arabs are fine with that.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Allah, Malaysia, Copts, printing presses and the war within

Let's be brave and acknowledge that the Islamic world requires some serious introspection and reform. Muslims can blame the Zionists, the US, the CIA, or even aliens from outer space but the problems are largely internal.

Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror receives the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinopole, Gennadius II Scholarius (1454 - 1464) after the fall of the city to the Ottomans in 1453

Egyptian Coptic Christians can't hold a Christmas mass in peace. Malaysia, once a beacon of tolerance, is venting frustration over the use of specific Arabic words (in a Malay speaking country) by non-Muslims.
Yemen has graduated from the periphery of the 'war on terror' to full membership. Africa, already a participant through the Somali contingent, has increased its voice as Nigeria and Mali join Somalia, Algeria and Morocco as 'Jihadi' incubators.
The less said about Pakistan the better.
The Islamic world lost its way several centuries ago. While Europe was busy laying the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th Centuries, Islam was decaying.

One of the many military insignias used by the military of the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Turks were symbolically halted in their westward push with the failure of the 1683 siege of Vienna. The British won their first major victory against Muslim ruled India in 1757. The British victory at the Battle of Plassey gave the East India Company a foothold in Bengal.
During the same period, Western scientists invented the steam engine, the printing press and several other key processes. It took several centuries for the Islamic world to accept these products.
Islam's 'enlightened clergy' tenaciously resisted change. Change was seen as a threat to Islam, especially when the ideas originated from non-Muslim countries.
Take the printing press. The printing press was widely used in Europe by the 1700s.
Printing machines remained largely absent from the Ottoman Empire pursuant to a 1485 decree by Sultan Beyazit II. The reason: religious scholars claimed it was sacrilegious to print the Arabic word by machine. (It should be noted that Christian and Jewish subjects of the Ottoman Empire legally operated printing presses in non-Arabic languages at Saloniki, Bursa, Belgrade and Smyrna.)
In Mogul ruled India, the Jesuits established the first printing press in Goa in 1550. When Napoleon entered Cairo in 1798 the city still had no printing press. (Maybe Islam's prestigious Al-Azhar University, located in Cairo, did not produce any knowledge worth publishing at the time?)
In 1720, Islam's first printing press was established in Istanbul. Ironically, it was founded by a Hungarian convert to Islam (Ibrahim Muteferrika). Muteferrika convinced the reigning Ottoman Sultan to overturn the earlier ban. The press was used primarily for scientific and secular material.
Islam's tortured route to recognize the printing press as a positive influence underscores why much of Islam remains mired in ignorance and poverty. To this day, Islam's clergy battles modernity with varied intensity.
The Information Age, including mass media and the internet revolution, has brought the collision into sharper focus.

Islamic scholars deliberated for several centuries on the legality of printing Islamic holy literature by machine. Calligraphy artists might have been the only beneficiaries of the delayed approval!

The village mullah cannot stop 'alien' ideas from entering the homes of the faithful. Yet, the mullah is using every trick in the book to stall progress. At the extreme, brute force to impose Taliban like regimes on defenceless populations is witnessed.
The Islamic world suffers from a vacuum of genuine religious scholars. There is little meaningful debate filtering through to the bulk of Muslim society. The chattering classes, including bloggers like myself, effect limited change. Until the broader Muslim society is educated with a more accurate interpretation of Islam the problems will linger.
Osama Bin Laden and the tragic events of 9/11 awoke a slumbering Islamic civilization. Currently, the Islamic world finds itself in the throes of a severe identity crisis. Unfortunately, the crisis is not being played out through printing presses. It is being settled with guns and intimidation on the streets of Muslim cities.
The prevailing darkness must not discourage brave souls from reordering the priorities of the Islamic world. For the believer there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I believe in God; I just don't trust anyone who works for Him.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Martin Luther King, an inspiring soldier for justice

Today is Martin Luther King Day in the United States. Martin Luther King (MLK) is a hero. In fact, MLK is a hero among heroes. He continues to inspire until today.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have many heroes. Each hero is on my 'hero list' for different reasons.
All my heroes are human. Hence, each comes with particular faults. However, heroes are not about faults. They are about the human spirit and our capacity to accomplish against all odds.
MLK fought against an entrenched legal and moral system. His weaponry consisted only of courage and words. He moved people with speeches. (Anyone aspiring to be a public speaker will do well to listen to his public addresses.)
During his life, he influenced an evolving black civil rights movement to stay largely non-violent and respect the confines of an unjust legal system. At the time, there were many other competing power centres within the black civil rights community. Several professed violence as a means to achieve a just end.  
On April 4, 1968 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. paid the ultimate price for his beliefs. He was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

MLK reminds us that to achieve anything substantial is impossible without discipline and perseverance. A lesson we lesser mortals often forget. We wish to attain our goals quickly and without any risk of failure.
Life is seldom easy. Winning a lottery is virtually impossible.
MLK was a pacifist. He abhorred violence even at the price of suffering police brutality.
I shudder to think what MLK would say about the way in which violence has entered contemporary life. Violence is almost acceptable as a legitimate method to precipitate change (regime change anyone?) by state and non-state actors alike. Still, not all change has been negative during the last four decades.
We must not forget that President Obama is black.
"Man is man because he is free to operate within the framework of his destiny. He is free to deliberate, to make decisions, and to choose between alternatives. He is distinguished from animals by his freedom to do evil or to do good and to walk the high road of beauty or tread the low road of ugly degeneracy."
Martin Luther King, Jr., The Measures of Man, 1959.

The famous "I have a dream" speech delivered at the March on Washington (1963)

Friday, 15 January 2010

Google, China and the lure of one billion internet users

Google has fired the first salvo. China has yet to respond. A war of wills has begun.
In a blog post Google claimed that China is responsible for systematic attempts to hack into confidential data stored by the internet giant. The implication is that China tried to obtain data on individual email and internet users who are considered 'dissidents' by the Chinese state.

The episode underlines the changing balance of power in today's world.
Red China was non-existent in the international economic system only a few decades ago. Today China is an economic powerhouse with several trillion US Dollars in reserves. Financial markets don't listen to statements made by the Bundesbank; it is the People's Bank of China that moves markets.
Google, the company or the word, also did not exist a few decades ago. Today, the definition of the word 'google' can be found in many respectable dictionaries. It is a part of the English language.
Like China, Google is a powerhouse in today's world. Amongst other things, Google's global market share for internet searches is estimated to be in the vicinity of 70%. Consider the amount of internet searches that take place daily.
Google is responsible for a tremendous amount of physical infrastructure. Google's servers and related equipment consume so much electricity that the company has applied for a US government license to distribute electricity. The license will allow it to more efficiently manage electricity loads among its various sites.
So, what's with the clash of the modern day Titans?
China is relatively new to the game of international commerce. The government's walks a fine line in balancing economic freedoms with social freedoms. Often the balance is found after overshooting in one direction or the other.
Google is a product of the new wave of 'jeans and t-shirt' entrepreneurship. For the management and founders, business is not only about dollars and cents. It is a way to make the world a better place.

It seems there is a complex and finely nuanced negotiation taking place between Google and China. Already incensed by being forced to censor their Chinese language search engine, Google seems to have let some pent up frustration colour its thinking (and statement).
To the Chinese state, Google represents Western values and influence which they have long controlled successfully. To Google and Western businesses in general, China represents the new Holy Grail. China is a huge consumer market where affluence is growing by leaps and bounds each year.
It is unlikely that Google will completely abandon China. Just as unlikely is China's desire to alienate the international business community by reacting hastily to Google's threat. Yes, it is a threat.
In the next few weeks, China will be forced to confront the reality of the Internet Age. Pravda and Izvestia died many years ago. This decade may see the Beijing Review breathe its last.
When Google issued shares to the investing public its founders said, "we [the founders] may do things that we believe have a positive impact on the world, even if the near-term financial returns are not obvious."
This seems to be one of those occasions. The near term financial returns are not obvious to most investors.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Muslims boycott McDonald’s in Singapore

McDonald's latest toy promotion to commemorate Chinese New Year has caused a stir among the Muslim community. The promotion set comprises soft toys depicting the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, including a pig.
"McDonald's is a certified Halal restaurant. It has no right to give away soft toys which could portray a pig in positive light," said Mullah Halal. "I have formally requested the Singapore government to remove pig meat from all food courts and live pigs from the zoo. The Infocomm Development Authority is evaluating censoring the word 'pig' from the internet while schools are waiting for guidance from the Ministry of Education regarding removing the word from all approved texts," continued Mullah Halal.
"Once the p** has been dealt with then we will turn our sights on alcohol and alcoholic beverages. Such items are haram and have no place in our society."
The Singapore Fictional Times, January 14, 2010
Thankfully, the above is a figment of my imagination.

But what exactly was McDonald's thinking when it omitted the pig from the twelve characters Doraemon set? A boycott by the local Muslim community to protest the inclusion of a pig in the set!
(For the uninitiated, Doraemon is a Japanese manga series. Doraemon is a robotic cat from the twenty second century who travels back in time to help a schoolboy named Nobita Nobi.)
The incident is a 'political correctness gone wild' situation. McDonald's has exceeded the limits of sanity and entered the realms of the absurd.
All animals, including pigs, are part of God's ecosystem.  
Pigs, alcohol and other 'haram' items are plentiful in Singapore. Shall we expect that hotels and bars stop serving alcohol out of deference to the sensitivities of the Muslim community?
Why leave out the Hindu community? Like McDonald's in India, maybe McDonald's Singapore should stop serving beef products. The cow is as holy as the pig is haram.

In any society there is an element of give and take. There may be some red lines for the sake of respect and tolerance. In all other areas, common sense and reason are the guiding principles. We slay our own demons and create our own good deeds through exercising our Free Will.
If Singaporean Muslims are perturbed by pig soft toys then the Singapore system has failed to establish a genuinely tolerant, multi-cultural society. The government and the Islamic Religious Council (MUIS) may find it easy to enforce laws, but common sense is slightly harder to implement by decree.