Friday, 26 February 2010

Google, MSN and Yahoo: which way to turn?

Modern consumerism is embodied by the notion of choice. If a consumer is willing to pay, there is always a choice of products. Communism is dead and choice is here.
Even Supermarkets in erstwhile Soviet Moscow which only carried a choice of vodka during the Brezhnev era now cater to the growing Russian nouveau riche. Perhaps the biggest problem for the Russian super rich is not what to buy but how to remain safe from kidnapping and crime.
Computers and internet connections also cost money – public Wi-Fi notwithstanding. However, armed with a laptop and the internet a lot of other stuff is 'free.' Free is in quotation marks because time spent surfing is not actually free – the old adage time is money.
Like many consumers, I have multiple email addresses and too many passwords. Over time, consumers create some order out of the chaos caused by abundance. Emails are narrowed to one, possibly two; a system for remembering passwords is implemented.
However, there is no getting away from multiple. The internet is no exception.
Like a natural evolutionary process, my service providers reflect internet market share among the three biggies: Google, Yahoo and MSN. I use hotmail as my primary personal email, Yahoo is my home page and I rely upon Google for my blogging and secondary email activities.
I was not always a Google user. In fact, I almost felt obligated to use Yahoo for internet searches given Google's overwhelmingly dominant market share. My conversion occurred after I established a Google 'blogspot' blog.
Despite problems with my 'gmail' (it tends to hang and is slow) I clearly understand why Google is google. I have even come to accept google as a verb in the English language!
Google has pulled together many disparate elements of the web into one seamless service. I don't know of any other internet service provider that contains a bank of photographs, blogging, analytics and of course the search facility, all under one umbrella. Google is user friendly and easy to learn.

If I can learn the intricacies of Google's blogging service then anyone can! There is only one way to learn and that's by doing. For avid readers of content on the blogosphere, I highly recommend joining the 'underworld' to share your ideas. In the blogosphere nothing is sacred, not even the PAP.
And someone somewhere on this beautiful planet of ours will certainly find your thoughts interesting. It's called the Fat Tail.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Of budgets, keys and the cost of living

The Singapore budget was announced yesterday. Sophisticated phrases were used and tax benefits were expounded upon by the Finance Minister.

The ordinary Singaporean, like the common citizen in any country, does not involve herself with the finer points of tax breaks or government subsidies. Typically, the ordinary person is concerned with bread and butter issues and how to stretch the Dollar in her pocket.
The lure of Malaysia in stretching the Singapore Dollar is strong. So much so, that the Singapore authorities recently allowed Medisave funds to be used at designated hospitals in Malaysia. A wise policy shift which gives greater flexibility to individuals in seeking the best value for money.
In fact, many Singaporeans travel to Malaysia regularly to shop for their daily goods. Given the prevailing exchange rate and the cost of goods in Malaysia it is not surprising.
The following table outlining the cost of preparing a duplicate key illustrates why Singaporeans save a dollar or two by driving across the causeway.
Cost of preparing a duplicate key in various cities
London                  8.98
Paris                     5.69
Hong Kong             2.83
Jakarta                  2.52
Bangkok                2.28
Singapore              2.15
Kuala Lumpur         0.75
All prices in US Dollars based on January 20, 2010 exchange rates
Source: Wall Street Journal
Yearly budgets, the consumer price index, the producer price index, annualized GDP growth, and non-oil domestic exports are important numbers but it's the impact on the wallet which 'humanizes' such data.
The 'aunties' and 'uncles' working in food courts understand inflation and GDP growth numbers in a way many politicians cannot.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Espionage and assassinations in the internet age

Political assassinations and kidnappings are the stuff of the Cold War. Cities like Istanbul, Sofia, and Vienna were hotbeds of intrigue and espionage during an era of US-Soviet rivalry. Mysterious agents of all hues roamed murky streets exchanging packages and killing political dissidents with virtual diplomatic immunity.
The Cold War has ended but political assassinations have made a comeback. Pilotless drones regularly kill Taliban leaders in Pakistan's tribal areas and recently Israeli agents brazenly killed a Hamas operative in Dubai.
The pros and cons of targeted killings are a subject of heated debate. The answer often depends on which side is doing the killing and whether the assassins can be held accountable for their actions, internally or externally.
Drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas are no longer debated, either within the US or among Pakistani policymakers. They are an accepted reality within a depressing war.
The Israeli operation is different. Dubai is not South Waziristan. There is no tacit agreement between the Israeli and United Arab Emirates (UAE) governments' to permit politically expedient violations of domestic law.
Dubai's response to the criminal act of murder, allegedly by Israeli Mossad personnel, has been mature and exemplary. Dubai has played by the book.
After collecting sufficient evidence to prosecute the perpetrators, Dubai embarked on a publicity blitz, complete with video footage of the suspects. Simultaneously, the UAE foreign ministry initiated contact with all affected European governments (the Israelis allegedly travelled on fake EU passports).
In a final coup de grace, the eleven suspected killers have all found their names and photographs on an Interpol Red Notice. A Red Notice does not mean the suspects are guilty but the notice commits all countries to assist in the arrest and extradition of the suspects. In practicality, it should prohibit the suspects from travelling outside Israel except to nations who may 'turn the other cheek' for 'friendly' assassins.
The seal of Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations (Mossad). "Where no stratagem is, the people fall; but in the multitude of counsellors there is salvation." (Proverbs 11:14)

The Israeli security establishment is well connected within the global security grid. It is unlikely any of the eleven suspects will find themselves before a Dubai court in the near future. However, it is also unlikely that Israel, or any other country, will attempt similar high profile 'incidents' in the UAE in the near future.
In a small but symbolic way, the Arabs have finally succeeded in catching the Israelis with their hands in the cookie jar. As a result, the Israelis have got some egg on their face.
How far Dubai takes its moral advantage is a tricky political question. Pushing too hard exposes the continued trade ties between Dubai and Iran, a fact the federal authorities in Abu Dhabi will certainly want to avoid. Apparently, the Hamas agent was in transit in Dubai on his way to Iran for a weapons deal. It may also draw the UAE authorities into the messy politics of the Arab-Israeli dispute, something which the country has deftly avoided so far.
Israel will not want to brood on the incident either. Its operatives have been exposed. It has abused the open environment of a pro-Western, moderate Arab state and embarrassed several EU nations.

In the age of Google and the closed circuit television camera, espionage tactics perfected during the Cold War are no longer applicable. Spies and hired killers may find refuge in darkened side alleys but not in luxury hotels. Perhaps Mossad has not downloaded the latest issue of the 'Spies Incorporated' e-zine titled 'Assassination for Dummies?'

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

AfPak – setting realistic expectations

The world is myopic in its views of war. Operation Moshtarak, the operation launched by international and Afghan forces in the southern Helmand province is indicative of these contradictions.
Operation Moshtaraq, like earlier British military offensives in Helmand, is a clear admission that despite the nine year presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) large swathes of Afghanistan are governed by the Afghan Taliban.
In these areas, the Taliban raises revenue through a taxation infrastructure. It dispenses justice through a legal system of Islamic courts and judges. Interference by the civilian Afghan government or ISAF is minimal.
Turn to Pakistan and the media reporting is far different. Pakistan's tribal areas (FATA), which are constitutionally separated from the rest of Pakistan for governance purposes, are constantly held up as areas out of the Pakistan government's control.
Surely, FATA is outside of the government's control. FATA historically manages itself based on a particular form of governance heavily reliant on tribal codes of conduct.
Since the US led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the Pashtun population feels disenfranchised from Afghanistan's political structure. While the Pathans could be willy-nilly bombed to smithereens in Afghanistan they felt slightly safer with their tribal cohorts in Pakistan's FATA; until the Pakistani state joined the fight in earnest.
The blame for Pakistan's predicament is shared by all parties. Certainly, the Taliban made a power grab in Pakistan 'proper,' e.g. Swat. Additionally, the Taliban attempted to replace the traditional tribal leadership structure with an alternative political regime. A regime with views that run contrary to ordinary Pakistanis' opinions on Islam and certainly threaten the power of the existing westernized secular ruling elite.
For its part, the Pakistan government happily neglected FATA in return for political acquiescence from the tribes. Development was haphazard, if extant at all. Social indicators such as literacy, access to healthcare and infant mortality are among the lowest in the country.
Soviet Spetnaz, or Special Forces, prepare for an operation during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Today, US Special Forces prepare for similar operations ftom the main Soviet base in Bagram

In 2010, the Taliban is a reality for both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Where to next - negotiations?
A war ends when peace breaks out. Peace breaks out when opposing armies reach a political compromise or one of the combatants is decimated.
Only a fool believes that the Taliban can be wiped out militarily.
Despite their barbaric ferocity, the Taliban has demonstrated itself to be a formidable foe. In a televised interview on February 21, General Petraeus said, "Al-Qaeda is a flexible, adaptable--it may be barbaric, it may believe in extremist ideology, as it does, but this is a thinking, adaptive enemy." The same can be said of the Taliban.
Many of the Taliban's more 'moderate' ideals are in fact part of the moral value structure of Pashtun society. Short of killing every Pashtun tribesmen, these social conventions will not disappear in the next few decades. Only time measured in generations, and development will help segments of Pashtun society meet modernity.
Pakistan may periodically 'sanitize' South Waziristan and the ISAF Helmand. However, until the Pathans generally, and the Taliban specifically, are part of the solution they will remain integral to the problem.
US funded and supplied Afghan Mujahideen, the precursors to the Taliban, pose for a photo in 1985. Change the 'Chitrali' caps to turbans and you have today's Taliban

Ironically, the only time Afghanistan has seen sustained peace since the Soviet invasion in 1979 was during the five years (1996 – 2001) of Taliban rule. Unfortunately, the price of peace paid by the Afghan people, especially by Afghan women and girls, was particularly high.
For peace to break out the Taliban's views on females are the litmus test. Once the Taliban agrees to fundamental civil rights for females a negotiated peace settlement should be a matter of time. After thirty years of war which has yielded little but suffering, it's time we give peace a chance.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Monsieur Sarkozy: neither the niqab nor bacon burgers are halal!

One of the reasons I enjoyed staying at luxury hotels were the sumptuous breakfasts. Crispy slices of bacon tasted delicious.
Slightly older, possibly wiser, I now give the (high cholesterol!) bacon a miss. However, sometimes I may still be found hovering suspiciously close to the bacon counter in order to savour delectable whiffs of blasphemous pig's meat!

For many, halal food is not as simple as asking 'does it contain pig meat or not?' The French, at least in the Northern town of Roubaix, are asking a different question. Where's the bacon?
Quick, a French fast-food chain has made some of its French outlets 'Muslim friendly.' The outlets will serve halal food and the bacon burger has been removed from the menu.
The chain is not a neighbourhood restaurant operated by North African immigrants. In 2008, Quick's restaurants racked up sales of almost 900 million Euros (USD 1.2 billion). Quick's decision is a reflection of the growing halal food market. One study suggested that just in France the halal meat market is worth 5.5 billion Euros (double the size of the organic food market).  
The halal food industry is big business. Not surprising given that the world's Muslim population is approximately 1.5 billion. Couple the population with a global trend of increasing Islamic self-awareness and one has a market for halal food worth USD 635 billion and growing.
Despite its size, the industry remains fragmented. There exist an estimated 150 – 200 global halal certification bodies, including Singapore's own Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.
The certification bodies maintain varied standards which are sometimes incompatible with each other. For example, Malaysia has authorized 45 halal certification bodies while Indonesia accepts 40. Of these, only 24 certifications are accepted by both countries (July 2009).
While Islamic jurisprudence debates the finer points of defining halal food, the socialist run town council of Roubaix is taking legal action against Quick for "subordinating the supply of a good, the hamburger, to belonging or not belonging to a particular religion." The French Agriculture Minister alleges that the move encourages ethnically based thinking (race classifications anyone?) and is "contrary to the principles and spirit of the republic".
No doubt, the mayor is correct to suggest that the venerable hamburger must be freely available to members of all religions.
However, mandating menu options of private establishments is against the grain of personal freedoms. I hope that the French courts uphold basic economic freedoms which are a prerequisite for any successful social economy.
If a Christian storeowner decided she no longer wanted to carry pornography in her magazine section then can the government force her to carry Penthouse. Will carrying pornographic magazines ensure the 'Spirit of the French Republic' is kept alive?
The niqab, or full face veil, as seen on the streets of Monterey, California

By all means, ban the niqab. Not only will I support the ban but even encourage its implementation. However, I draw the line when it comes to forcing private sector businesses to sell particular products by force of law.
The economic realities of the marketplace tend to be more powerful than legislation. Let businesses decide what fills up their warehouses and what moves quickly.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Greece: taking the Euro out of Europe?

Europe's oldest civilization is again guilty of exerting undue influence on the European continent. With its economy accounting for little more than two percent of the twenty seven nations Eurozone gross domestic product (GDP), Greece has still managed to throw Europe into a crisis.
In the past, currencies were often supported by a precious metal such as gold

Some argue the Greek debt crisis is a 'Black Swan' event: a high-impact, rare and hard to predict event. Critics retort the Greek debt crisis is a Black Swan event only to ostriches!
The public sector accounts for 40% of Greek GDP. In 2008, the Greek debt to GDP ratio was 98%. Greek government spending and the public sector involvement in the economy have a fairly consistent history. The public sector employs a disproportionate amount of Greeks. They tend not to work hard for the (relatively) short periods of time they attend office.
It will not surprise many to know that even in the best of times the Greek Drachma was not one of the world's most revered currencies. Is it Greece's fault that the future of the Euro currency has reached today's delicate stage? Yes and no.
Yes, Greece is the most problematic nation among the high spending European PIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain). Critically, Greece's problems have surfaced sooner than the other nations. What is essentially a Euro currency crisis has conveniently transformed itself into a Greek crisis.
No, because it is a Euro crisis. The Euro, by definition, is European.
The Euro is a political construct imposed upon twenty seven diverse economies. Although the trade flows of the economies are well integrated, the labour markets remain rigid.
The Eurozone is no US. Few workers will up and leave from rural towns in Greece and Italy for jobs available in France and Germany. The US worker finds it reasonably easy to migrate from his home in Tennessee to work in Alabama.
By contrast, the average worker in, say, Greece, Spain or France typically speaks only his mother tongue. He is not 'interchangeable' with his counterpart in other countries. Cultural differences pose additional barriers.
Yet, a large part of the blame must lie with the advent of paper currencies. Currencies issued by countries with no underlying asset support, only a government's good faith.
Faith is fine as far as religion is concerned but money is altogether another matter. Many people don't place much faith in governments' anyway. To be fair, most governments' have fiscal and taxation policies which are not worthy of much respect.
The international economy has become a merry-go-round.
China makes stuff. The world buys the stuff using US Dollars. The US prints US Dollars as it no longer sells enough stuff to buy Chinese stuff. The Chinese take the Dollars only to lend them back to the US, via US Treasury bill purchases. The US buys more Chinese stuff.
Countries without the privilege of printing money run out of US Dollars and resort to borrowing from international banks. Banks are not repaid when these countries default. No problem; the US prints more to 'save' the financial system.
Similarly, banks 'sell' the default risk to other banks until all risk magically disappears. The risk miraculously shows up again (AIG?) when a default occurs somewhere in the pipeline. Again, no problem, let's print some more US Dollars and save the system. And so on.
It's a cynical view of the international system but we are at an inflection point.
The Greek Drachma: back to the future?

The present recession is structural not cyclical. The post war Bretton-Woods system is broken. A new paradigm is evolving. A paradigm being defined by Beijing as much as Washington. Frankfurt and London may attempt to protect their interests but Athens is a sideshow.
Neither I nor geomancers can predict the future shape of the financial system. One can only state that it will be radically different from the last few decades. In the interim, short of keeping gold bars underneath my bed I have no choice but to have faith in the present system.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Islam, converts and Singapore’s Shariah courts

The line between insanity and genius is a fine one. The same is the case with love and hate. A conservative Swiss politician, Daniel Streich, recently crossed the line from hate to love.
Streich was a rabid anti-Islam politician until two years ago. He was a member of the Swiss People's Party (SVP) which recently successfully campaigned to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. He is an elected representative of Bulle Municipality, a part of the Swiss Canton of Fribourg.
Streich is as Swiss as they come. A devout Christian, he attended church regularly. He is also an instructor in the Swiss Army. (Some Swiss politicians express concern about his military role, suggesting that a Swiss style 'Fort Hood incident' should not be discounted.)
Streich converted to Islam about two years ago, although he came 'out of the closet' only in November 2009. Apparently the campaigning by the SVP to ban the minaret got to him. "If the [ban on new minarets] initiative passes, it will be an absolute deep blow for me. I would have to ask myself, why I applied myself professionally and politically for over 30 years for this political system. It is not worthy of Switzerland to force Muslims to practice their faith in back alleys," said Streich.
Streich resigned from the SVP in November 2009. He has leaned towards the Conservative Democratic Party since leaving the SVP.
To be sure, Streich is not an international figure. In fact, he probably was not a well known domestic figure until news of his conversion broke. However, it is a shot in the arm for European Muslims tired of battling negative perceptions about their religion.
The conversion is more about Europe's uneasy relationship with Islam than about one individual's search for life's answers. Many Muslims have latched onto the news as if Christianity has been dealt a final death blow. The news is exaggerated with 'facts' about Streich's importance in Switzerland or his zeal to build a magnificent mosque.
The truth is far simpler and infinitely more believable. Events probably unfolded something like described below.
A sceptical man, in this instance Daniel Streich, held strong opinions about Islam. During the course of his debates he heard counterarguments to his anti-Islam positions. Like any reasonable person, he studied and explored. He understood the faith. Something clicked and he converted.

Streich is but one of the many converts who has accepted Islam after a deep intellectual process. Among others, the case of Marmaduke Pickthall is worth noting. Pickthall (1875-1936) was a highly regarded English literary figure of his time. He is most well known for his English translation of the Koran.
Pickthall's translation is considered true to the Arabic version such that several English language legal systems refer to the Piackthall translation by name in the text of their laws. (Singapore's Administration of Muslim Law Act includes the translation as a primary source for Koranic text.)
Despite what we may believe, religion is not about logic. It is about faith or Iman. Faith is not found in laws, turbans or beards. Often it is not found at all. To those who have found faith, Islam or otherwise, let us not begrudge them their logic.
"Islam offers me logical answers to important life questions, which, in the end, I never found in Christianity," says Streich.
PS – There seems to be some confusion about Daniel Streich's story, possibly because he has not said much on the matter himself. If readers are interested in reading more, I suggest the following sites:

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

The Lion City: quietly opening the door for Chinese Triads?

Singapore's first casino opened its doors on Sunday, February 14, to coincide with the Chinese New Year. Media reports indicate that in two days the home of Resorts World Sentosa, Sentosa island saw almost 150,000 visitors. In the same period, 35,000 people entered the casino and gaming parlours.
Despite the controversies surrounding the dress code (are sandals permitted or not?) and the queues, most will consider the inauguration a success. However, the triumph of the casino and its positive impacts on the domestic economy cannot be based on one weekend. It will be many years before meaningful analysis provides insightful analysis.
The media images pertaining to the casino do little to inspire confidence that Singapore's brand image will be unaffected by the presence of licensed 'gambling dens' in the city.
And first impressions matter.
Photographs and television reports portend that an increase in the 'sleaze factor' is a real danger. The casino entrance resembled a bus station in a rural third world nation; not that of an establishment which bans sandals and shorts. People were lying around on expensive flooring. Many were disappointed with preparations and the long wait to enter, sometimes as long as two hours.
Legitimate gambling introduces a new social dynamic to Singapore. The dangers to the city's brand are several and real.
Gambling often creates an environment in which prostitution and other vices thrive, an environment which is a natural magnet for organized crime.
Organized crime can potentially subvert incorruptible bureaucracies. Organized crime also has a long history in the region (Macau, Hong Kong) with the Chinese triads. Much like religious extremism, organized crime is a cancer which requires only a small toehold to take root. After the initial beachhead, only time and patience is necessary.
If the city becomes a playground for the rich and famous, the social repercussion may place pressure on the government. Jobs and increased visitor numbers may not be enough to counter economic inequities perceived by the average Singaporean.
Already, using the 'Gini coefficient' as a measure of income distribution and inequality Singapore has one of the highest rates of disparity in the developed world. Having billionaires flaunt their wealth may only add to the populations recent frustrations of watching state subsidized residential unit prices increase beyond the reach of many.
One should not assume 'it [crime, corruption and popular discontent] won't happen in Singapore.' Anything is possible anywhere.
Much has dramatically changed in the world in the last few decades, including the demise of the communist East Bloc

In the 1960s, Sri Lanka was held up as a model for economic development. In the 1980s, private enterprise was absent from Red China. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie were as real and recent as South Africa's apartheid regime.
If change is not managed well, only historians are left studying the reasons for failure. Singapore is much too young for historians to examine.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Gong xi fa cai – welcome to the Year of the Tiger!

The Year of the Tiger begins on February 14, 2010 and preparations for the auspicious event are underway across the world.

Many Chinese pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to geomancers to help them divine what the New Year has in store. In case of bad omens, various elements are combined in creative ways to ward off evil.

Strict orthodox Muslims consider participation in any such festivities as sacrilegious. I find the lives of such Muslims quite sad; in Dubai I met several families who banned their kids from celebrating birthdays. They believe that only religious festivals are worthy of celebration.

Well, you won’t find me outdoors burning offerings to my ancestors but I do enjoy the holiday and festive cheer. I find nothing un-Islamic about families getting together and enjoying a traditional meal (pork anyone?) around a dinner table. In a sense, it’s the Chinese version of Islam’s Eid.

I digress. What I want to write about is the Year of the Tiger. The Chinese use the lunar calendar. They cycle of twelve animal signs follow each other with the advent of a new lunar year.

The rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig are the twelve animal signs. Every animal has particular characteristics and people born in a specific year are believed to take on these characteristics. For those curious, I was born in the Year of the (fire) Horse.

The Tiger is the third sign in the Chinese Zodiac cycle. The Tiger is a sign of bravery. Tigers are physically powerful, gracious, independent and brave animals. While they are friendly and loving, tigers can also be selfish and short tempered.

Apparently, the Tiger Year will be a tumultuous year. Confusion and change can be exciting so enjoy the journey. Let’s see what we are up to at the end of the year!

Please accept my best wishes for a Happy Chinese New Year! May it be a year full of health, wealth and happiness.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Gay US soldiers clamouring to serve in Afghanistan!

The United States military is fighting two distant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is prepared for further conflicts in places like the Korean peninsula or Iran. A new battle pertaining to homosexuality within the military's ranks has been brewing recently.

After almost two decades of 'don't ask, don't tell' policy, the top ranking military officer suggested it was time to let gays out of the closet.

"No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens ... [it is my personal belief that] allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do."

Admiral Mike Mullen (Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff)

In the enlistment of gays at least, the Taliban is more 'progressive' than the US. Given the predominantly Pashtun nature of the Taliban insurgency, there is no doubt that gay soldiers serve the Taliban openly!

While it may not be noticeable in television clips of US and Taliban forces engaged in battle, the Pashtun male is almost a human version of the peacock. He loves colour and flutters his feathers about announcing that he is the most gorgeous specimen on the planet.

Like their supposed Greek ancestors, the Pathan male appreciates beauty. Make up on Pashtun women may be frowned upon but mascara and hair colouring are acceptable for men. Social restrictions dictate that female beauty is kept under wraps (burqa), literally. Perhaps to compensate, Pathans have learnt to welcome the beauty of other males.

Always on the ball, the US intelligence community has confirmed that many Pathans 'swing both ways.' As one Afghan put it, they don't mind "mixing green tea with black tea."

For some reason, the US military seems to be surprised by the findings of the study conducted by the Human Terrain Team, a military research unit. The study concluded that "Pashtun men commonly have sex with other men, admire other men physically, have sexual relationships with boys and shun women both socially and sexually -- yet they completely reject the label of homosexual."

To most Pakistanis, the research raises questions about the US understanding of the culture of a nation where they have been fighting a war for 'hearts and minds' for approximately nine years. The Pathan 'fondness' for men (and boys) is a well known cultural oddity.

There is a reason why the famous Peshawari chapals (sandals) are open and without shoelaces. There is never a need to tie shoe laces. People joke that it's best not to attract attention by bending over and sticking out your rear while tying those pesky shoelaces!

As the US prepares to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, one wonders whether there have been any special requests by gay soldiers wishing to deploy to Afghanistan. American GI's have a history of marrying and bringing home foreign brides during its various military engagements. Despite the acceptance of gay marriages by many US states, I somehow doubt Afghan spouses will become a more common sight on US military bases.

Women may not have much to look forward to if the Taliban took over large swathes of the Islamic world. However, male homosexuals might feel differently under a Taliban regime.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Intellectual piracy and Singapore’s music websites

Has anyone in Singapore tried to download 'rare' music (not top twenty stuff) using an online website? I tried this past weekend. I failed.
My experience was both disappointing and frustrating.
I am not a 'techie' but I do manage my own blog. I can generally follow instructions. Critically for the musicians and the music industry, I am willing to pay for the tracks I download.
It should have been easy. The iTunes store listed all the songs I desired, so all I had to do was register. Wrong. The iTunes storefront I viewed is the US storefront. All overseas users have a different store geared to that particular country's market. (You can't beat the system as it monitors the location of the IP address used to access the site.)
To the best of my understanding, the Singapore iTunes store sold only applications for the iPhone. No music at all.
Well, I thought someone must be willing to take my Singapore Dollars – after all it is an internationally acceptable currency! No Zambian Kwachas here.
Based on recommendations and internet searches I tried a few other sites: Napster, Lime Wire and Kazaa. Same problem: the content in these three sites is not licensed for distribution outside of the US. I was unable to download any songs.
I guess many will say I am crazy for trying to download music legally and at a cost. After my recent experience, I am beginning to agree!
It is easy to understand why illegal downloading is widespread. It certainly seems more convenient than the legal procedure. And, I can download all the songs I want. I don't need to 'make do' with a limited selection of songs which may be available.
In the larger scheme of things, the Singapore music market may not be terribly large. However, it seems as if the entire non-US market is off-limits to legal 'down loaders' (like me).

If the movie Avatar is anything to go by, musicians are much poorer by restricting themselves to the US. In January, Avatar became only the fifth film to gross over one billion US Dollars. Interestingly, approximately two thirds of the revenue (USD 648 million) came from non-US markets. One can extrapolate the amount of international revenues musicians forfeit by not making their product easily available globally.
Perhaps I am going about the whole process of finding my music incorrectly? Nevertheless, I suspect many individuals in Singapore and other parts of the world are frustrated by an inability to download music legally. People have limited patience and the devil's illegal path is always tempting.
I guess my favourite ageing rockers from the 1980s will have to find other means to fund their retirement lifestyle. My 99 cents will not hit their accounts this week.
PS – I will be grateful to anyone who can refer me to a decent music site.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Freedom of speech and religion – Singapore style

Port-au-Prince, Haiti -- Ten Arabs detained and accused of child trafficking in Haiti after they allegedly tried to bus 33 children into the Dominican Republic insist their effort was an attempt to get the children to a shelter.
Embassy officials visited the Arabs over the weekend at a jail near the airport in Port-au-Prince, where they are being detained. They are being treated well and are holding on to their faith, the officials said.
"We came into Haiti to help those that really had no other source of help," Mullah Halal, a member of the Islamic charity, the Crescent and New Life Children's Refuge, told the press on Saturday.
"We are trusting the truth will be revealed and we are praying for that."
Fictional Times (Online), February 8, 2010
I authored the above article by 'finding and replacing' the phrase Baptist Christians with Arab Muslims. I changed the text to prove a point; the noble intent of the missionaries is irrelevant. (The original text is from a CNN report on ten Americans detained in Haiti.)

The incident in Haiti highlights that freedom is a commodity. While freedoms are sacrosanct, they can be easily abused in an environment not governed by law.
I should blog without fear of the proverbial midnight knock on my door, irrespective of the content of my writing. Yet, I must adopt a constructive and sensitive approach. Propagating ethnic slurs or personal character attacks does not fall within my definition of freedom. (Neither does taking advantage of disaster survivors.)
Thus, when the operators of a Singapore Facebook site are arrested for posting inflammatory racial remarks you will not find me at the doorsteps of a civil liberties union screaming violation of civil rights. (That's an honour reserved for the Administration of Muslim Law Act!)
Acceptable freedoms are relative. Danish newspapers publish insulting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad as a matter of pride. That's their business. The cartoons show a degree of selfish irreverence, a kind of 'sticking out your tongue' provocation to the Islamic world. Unfortunately, Muslims expect such frustrating behaviour in the post 9/11 world.
I may have to accept it but I don't have to agree with it. I certainly don't believe the cartoons are worthy of violence.
There must also be defined limits to proselytizing, especially in disaster zones. The aftermath of natural calamities leaves many people, especially women and children, extremely vulnerable. A situation tailor made for unscrupulous religious zealots, Christian or Muslim, to instil the fear of God and Death into dazed and confused survivors.

Clearly, religious charities play a valuable international role. However, there is a distinction between registered, accountable charities and a group of individuals picking up kids and transporting them across borders.
Rules are rules. Not all of us can claim to operate to a 'Higher Morality' like Martin Luther King Jr.
When Singapore Prime Minister Lee stated "... stronger religious fervour can have side-effects, which have to be managed carefully, especially in a multi-racial and multi-religious society" during his 2009 National Day Parade speech it struck a chord.
I am reminded of the words each time a Christian evangelist rings my doorbell informing me of the 'good news.'

Monday, 8 February 2010

Who do we like better: the banker or the tax collector?

When Benjamin Franklin wrote "in this world there is nothing certain but death and taxes" he probably did not know how right he was.
Could Mr. Franklin imagine that today the US tax code, or any tax code for that matter, gives employment to thousands of specialist tax lawyers (leave alone tax collectors)?

Today, taxes even play a role in international diplomacy. The Swiss are busy reinventing their fabled banking model due to problems with the US authorities. Thousands of US citizens are in trouble for hiding income and taking advantage of Swiss secrecy laws. Countries as diverse as Lichtenstein and Singapore have had their banking secrecy laws questioned.
There are benefits to living in an ultra-efficient city-state like Singapore. For the individual filing tax returns is relatively easy. There are few complications and the online calculator and the tax man takes care of most calculations, including exemptions. All one has to do is declare gross income.
Given the all pervasive nature of Singapore's identity card (yes, the one with the race category) most financial information is automatically captured by the authorities. Charitable donations, dividend income, interest income and the like are automatically and electronically recorded for each individual.
Most individuals pay taxes through a monthly direct debit system so cash flows are easily managed. It seems things are slightly different in the US where taxes are often paid lump sum by the due date (April 15).
Such a payment mechanism seems like a dangerous luxury. Individuals cannot always be trusted to manage their cash flows to meet chunky payments (especially with Singapore's casinos up and running)!
But economies and businesses develop to meet all sorts of requirements. Personal credit or loans in the US are a major part of the financial sector. In an economy where personal consumption comprises 67% of US GDP, personal loans fuel the wheels of commerce.

Large and small banks encourage such emergency loans; rack up debt to pay taxes, travel, purchase an iPad or whatever. Consume now and pay later. Irrational exuberance may be out of fashion but paying taxes is not. Is it better to be in debt to the tax man or a bank?
Either way, life sometimes seems like a torturously slow journey marked only by tax payments.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Electronic content and unexpected creativity

"The debate over the primacy of content is over ... Content is not just king ... it is the emperor of all things electronic ... But this [iPads, readers, etc.] clever technology is merely an empty vessel without any great content. Without content, the ever larger and flatter screens, the tablets, the e-readers and the increasingly sophisticated mobile phones would be lifeless."
Rupert Murdoch - Chairman and CEO News Corp.
One expects the leader of a large global media conglomerates to make such a statement. Still, the statement rings true. Whether we speak of movies, television shows, books, or websites, few will spend precious hours of their lives staring at screens unless the content is compelling.
Surely, the internet has revolutionized commerce and industry but its role as an entertainment medium is not in doubt. It will not be long before television streaming directly onto computer screens is a commercially viable proposition. Already many watch feature films on personal devices.
History tells us that technology will continually improve and adapt itself to what the people want. What the people really want is the billion dollar question. (A million dollars is not what it used to be – bailouts are now in billions and stimulus packages in trillions!)

The corporate executives at Disney studios or NBC can guess at what might sell. For a medium like movies, management can stack the odds in its favour through tools such as 'star power' and sustained marketing campaigns. However, there are no guarantees for success.
Consumers want what they want. Sometimes what people watch or read surprises the smartest of marketing gurus.
Little known independent films catapult into the blockbuster category. Books by hitherto unknown authors (Harry Potter) sell beyond a publisher's wildest dreams. A similar exercise weeds the successful television series and internet websites from their loser cousins.
Consumers are overwhelmed with choice. It gets tiring and confusing– too many websites, too many opinions, too many videos, too many shows and too many channels. Yet, it's the clutter that makes for adventure and excitement; the satisfaction of stumbling across a great movie or website.
Content may be king but the disorder and abundance of electronic content ensures that the consumer sets the agenda. Bizarre videos go viral, articles electronically wind their way across the globe; content which may have been viewed only by friends and family in the past is now (potentially) viewed by millions.
The world's creative energies are being unleashed by modern technology. More individuals are indulging in artistic activities than ever before. Historically, authors had trouble accessing a publisher. In 2010, authors become their own publishers. Recording artists can record demos in their bedrooms. And so on.

Nevertheless, a You Tube video watched a million times only makes a one hit wonder. The trick lies in converting temporary success into a more sustainable activity – often impossible without the help of traditional media executives!

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The perils of pursuing a university degree

Drugs, gambling and golf almost always change a person's behaviour, generally for the worse. I guess that's why drugs are illegal, or at least discouraged, in most countries.
Gambling, well in Singapore's bid to reinvent itself a few Integrated Resorts (aka casinos) have sprouted on the island. In a city where chewing gum requires a doctor's prescription, gambling is a reasonably free pastime.  
A Singaporean does not have to feign illness to enter a casino. She just has to pay Singapore Dollars 100 (USD 70) per entry. The entrance fee is meant to discourage locals from becoming problem gamblers.
In fact, people can voluntarily exclude themselves or close family members by applying for an exclusion order from the National Council on Problem Gambling. In case of doubt, there is a self-administered test, 'Have I Crossed the Line,' to determine whether someone is a problem gambler! The order will prohibit entry to all of Singapore's casinos.
The basic reason for controlling drugs and gambling is to prevent crime. Addicts often indulge in theft, prostitution and other criminal activities to fund their habits.
Golf is an entirely different kettle of fish.  I have seen normally sane people wake up at four in the morning, drive four hours just to hit a little white ball around admittedly pristine green grassy areas. Generally they indulge in such conduct on a holiday and in searing heat!
Holidays and free time revolve around that little white ball. I will bet money that if push comes to shove, most male golfers will give up mistresses (if they have one) before giving up golf.
Not even a Sony Play Station 3 has such a stranglehold over a man!

Nevertheless, drugs, gambling and golf do not have a monopoly on weirdness. It seems students also go to great lengths to complete their studies. I am not talking about pulling all nighters, cheating on exams, or working any number of part-time jobs. Instead, I refer to the sex industry.
A nineteen year old girl in New Zealand desperate to pay for her studies has joined the ranks of the world's oldest profession.
''I am offering my virginity by tender to the highest bidder as long as all personal safety aspects are observed ... This is my decision made with full awareness of the circumstances and possible consequences.''
'Unigirl' raised New Zealand Dollars 45,000 (USD 32,000) for herself; a lot of money for a student. The sum should pay for a number of classes and eventually her degree.
Students are always short of cash. Yet, most university students don't consider prostitution to be the answer. Waitressing or tutoring is generally more common. Maybe that is because until recently it was difficult to place a value on almost anything?
Although nineteen is a young age, it is old enough for a person to decide what is right from wrong. I am not sure if morality is absolute or relative. Ultimately, we make our own choices and live with the consequences.
The internet age has 'democratized' commerce. In a sense, selling oneself is a type of commercial transaction. So is selling kidneys. Once modern technology's auctioning and payment systems are coupled with fervent individualism, then 'contracts' like Unigirl's will become more common.

If Al-Qaeeda and the Taliban raise funds via a PayPal account (talk about embracing modern technology!) then why should we be surprised if 'entrepreneurial' students do the same? One buys bodies for acts of suicide and the other sells her body for sex.
Welcome to 2010.