Wednesday, 30 June 2010

The Monster Raving Loony Party: coming soon to Singapore

Politics is serious business. And so it should be. Playing with people's lives and exercising power is no joke. Yet, there is a lighter side even to politics.
Take the Monster Raving Loony Party (MRLP), a fixture of British politics since 1983 when Screaming Lord Sutch established the political party. Lord Sutch, of course, was not officially a lord. That was a title popularized by the British media which almost never referred to him by his legal name, David Edward Sutch.

Rock musician David Sutch (1940-1999) founded the party as an alternative to mainstream politics. During his career Lord Sutch contested over 40 elections, often against heavy weight politicians such as Margaret Thatcher or Harold Wilson.
At the local town council level, the MRLP scored some electoral successes. In 1998, a MRLP candidate, Alan Hope, became the elected mayor of Ashburton Town Council, Devon. Hope had first been elected to the town council in 1987.
However, let no one suggest that the MRLP is not a serious party. It published a manifesto of its policy proposals in order to contest Britain's recent General Elections. The 'forward thinking and positive contributions to political life that the Loony party is famous for' were outlined in the manifesto.
Some of the MRLP's more innovative proposals are as follows:
1.    Needles: Due to the increasing number of children afraid of needles, I propose the destruction of the tedious, scary and often painful process of school vaccinations. Instead, I propose that highly trained nurses should be given free reign on the playground with specially modified tranquillizer rifles which apply vaccinations as well as a tranquillizer. This would have two main benefits: It would be less scary for the children as they will not know what hit them, also it will be more fun for the nurses
2.    One Sided Policy: It is proposed that The European Union end its discrimination by creating a "Court of Human Lefts" because their present policy is one sided.
3.    Political Colours: All politicians should paint them self's permanently head to toe in the colour of the party they represent - e.g. all Labour candidates in Red , all Conservatives in Blue ,etc., etc
4.    Animal fashions. It is proposed that: Pets, especially cats and dogs, may not be dressed in miniature human clothing for the purpose of human amusement, unless the animal in question can equip the clothing himself/herself. Punishable by dressing the owner of the animal in miniature human clothing.
5.    Isle of ? It is proposed that the Isle of Man be renamed to "The Isle of Men, Women, Children and some Animals" as not just men live there.
6.    Education: As well as using computers in schools, children should be taught to reed, rite, and appreciate rock.
In the Singapore context, perhaps it is only a raving loony party that can compete with the ultra-logical and efficient People's Action Party's - who else but a loony believes that they can break the PAP's electoral monopoly?
Yet, I fear that most Singaporean bureaucrats may not know how to deal with an application to register a 'loony' party in Singapore. A final decision on the fate of Singaporean 'loonies' will have to be made at a most senior level.
Lord Sutch, founder of Britain's Monster Raving Loony Party

Sometimes it's necessary for us to laugh at ourselves, if only to help us understand what we have become and in which direction we are heading.
NB – Tragically, Lord Sutch suffered from clinical depression and committed suicide in June 1999, following the death of his mother the previous year.

Monday, 28 June 2010

McChrystal and the US Afghan war gone awry

General McChrystal's departure from the US Afghan war effort has thrown the spotlight on Afghanistan once more. Although never far from the news, the resignation of the top US commander raises question about long term US strategy in the region.
Something is definitely brewing. Afghan President Karzai recently fired his Interior Minister and the Head of Afghan Intelligence. Both individuals were considered anti-Pakistan and anti-Taliban hard liners, unwilling to agree to even a hint of negotiations with Taliban leaders.
Simultaneously, Pakistan's military chief, General Kayani, and his head of intelligence have apparently travelled to Kabul for 'exclusive' discussions with Karzai several times in the last few weeks. In fact, Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera has even published a news report suggesting Karzai met with Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of a large anti-government insurgent group.  
While Kabul's rumour mill must be running on overdrive, some basic facts can be gleaned from these events.
Notwithstanding the much heralded US troop surge in Afghanistan, after almost nine years of propping up a Karzai regime, Karzai's confidence in the US appears to be receding quickly. He seems not just to be sending feelers but fighting for his political, and possibly physical, survival.
Pakistan, as the home of more Pashtuns than Afghanistan, has an integral stake in any Afghan peace process. The instability in Afghanistan is writ large on recent political events in Pakistan.
Additionally, after nine years of watching India make inroads into the Pakistani 'backyard,' the Pakistan military must be excited at the prospect of extracting itself from a two front 'assault' engineered by the Indian-Afghan politico-military axis.
The Americans can only be incensed at not being a part of the 'peace' process. Surely, the US must have expected to be in the driving seat for any Afghan peace formula? After all, it was the Americans who legitimized (cynics would say 'arranged') Karzai's re-election as President after controversial elections held less than a year ago.
Pakistan's decision to 'play its hand' in Afghanistan demonstrates that the Pakistani establishment also believes America's influence in its western neighbour is time barred. Not an outlandish notion given America's self-imposed time frame of August 2011 to begin a drawdown of its Afghan troop presence.
The Pakistanis are rightly worried that once Afghanistan is no longer a security obsession for the West, it will have to deal with the ensuing 'blowback.' The 1990s are a recent and fresh memory for all Pakistanis, especially within the security establishment.
Meanwhile, Karzai is probably more concerned about having his carcass hung on a Kabul telephone pole once his foreign patrons disappear. A similar fate befell Najibullah, Afghanistan's Soviet installed leader in 1996.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaking at a security conference in 2008

McChrystal's interview with the Rolling Stone seems a master stroke from a highly skilled tactician and strategist. Surely, the interview cannot be an isolated case of 'poor judgement' by a general who understands the power of the media? On the contrary, the article has revived debate about the future of Afghanistan: a debate which, like the previous 30 years of the Afghan war, may ensue for another 30 years.
Historians will determine whether Afghanistan will be a beacon for freedom and democracy by 2011, the year the Americans start to leave. Seth Jones choice of title for his of America's Afghan war, In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan is just as likely to be random as McChrystal's revelations to Rolling Stone magazine.

Friday, 25 June 2010

Sarkozy and the French Napoleonic tradition

I don't know if the Singapore government releases statistics on average heights for Singaporeans. The government probably collects the details and if I troll through the Department of Statistics website carefully enough, I may even find the numbers somewhere. Still, anecdotally speaking, it is safe for me to suggest that at six feet (1.83 meters) tall I am at the taller end of the local height spectrum.
Yes, it's nice to be able to stand tall in a crowd but is standing tall all about height? I don't think so. Maybe if I were 5'5" (1.53 meters) my answer might have been different.
Sarkozy sans the Sarkozy Step

For a President, Sarkozy is a tad touchy about his 5'5"stature. One would have thought being a ruler of so many different cheese and winemakers Sarkozy's self-confidence will be strong enough to absorb height related taunts. And, of course, with Sarkozy's alleged use of 'special' footwear to make himself appear taller is an unimportant detail.
However, I must admit some of the teases are pretty good. Take a French car rental company's advertisement slogan, "Be like Madame Bruni [Sarkozy's 5'10" wife], take a small French model." The ad urges customers to rent a small hatchback car as opposed to larger vehicles.
Then there's the 'Sarkozy Step.'
The step is not a new French ballroom dance but a small footstool used by Sarkozy when making public speeches from behind podiums. I guess it's easier to use a 'Sarkozy Step' than have smaller podiums. More recently, Sarkozy has taken to 'cull' tall people from his public appearances. That is, only short people can stand alongside or near Sarkozy! Who says autocratic traditions died in France with the 1787 French Revolution ousting the absolutist monarchy?
According to Dutch psychologist Professor Abraham Buunk of the University of Groningen, the 'short-man syndrome' is no laughing matter. His research suggests tall men have greater success with the opposite sex. (Despite being a Dutch researcher the good professor seems to have restricted his research to heterosexual couples!)
Most importantly for some, tall men have more eye contact with bar staff and thus are served drinks sooner than shorter men. Although I do notice that height is irrelevant to male bartenders as long as there are women to be served. There is a natural bias towards serving women – a bias which doctoral level university research is not required to authenticate.
French Emperor Napoleon (1769-1821) before the Sphinx as painted by Jean-Leon Gerome

Groningen is not the only academic with theories linking height with behaviour. The psychoanalyst Alfred Adler (1870-1937) talked about the 'Napoleon Complex,' named after the 5'2" French Emperor Napoleon. (Sarkozy follows in a long line of distinguished short French leaders.) The theory postulates that shorter men tend to be angrier and more aggressive than their taller counterparts.
Perhaps that's why the one exceptionally short banking professional I worked with was known to send highly aggressive emails, even for the most innocent of matters. Of course, anecdotal evidence does not help to fill textbooks, only stereotypes.
Then again, if Stalin (5'4") and Napoleon weren't short men maybe the world would have been a better place. To be fair, I must point out that Osama Bin Laden measures 6'4" or 1.93 meters. Or someone wishing to dominate the world, Osama's pretty tall.
Clearly, height doesn't seem to be a meaningful criterion for measuring an individual's impact on history.  

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Gulf Arab countries join the ‘real’ world of investing

It's not news until the global media reports it. An accident at a nuclear plant in a former Soviet Republic, killing of civilians by NATO soldiers in Afghanistan or oil leaks in the Nigeria delta are all absent from the agenda until the mainstream media decides they are newsworthy.
Of course, as news consumers all of us are guilty of wearing blinders when it comes to the content that interests us. Silly cat videos on the internet get more hits than articles on American citizens being kept out of America by the Department of Homeland Security.
As with most things, even the news is determined by the profit motive. So it is significant that the global media, in its infinite wisdom, has concluded that the Arab Gulf stock markets are ready to graduate into the 'real' world.
The flag of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a regional grouping combining Oman, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates

CNBC, the arbiter of important global financial news, has established a regional news bureau in Bahrain (no, not Dubai!). Performance of the Saudi, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Cairo stock exchanges is reported almost as regularly as news about the Seoul, Singapore and New Zealand exchanges.
For a region that spans many countries all the way from the Maghreb in North Africa to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the East it is surprising it took so long to join the 'elite CNBC Club.' Especially if one remembers that many of these countries have been amassing oil wealth since the 1980s. Some, like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, have long been active participants in the global capital markets through their respective sovereign wealth funds – even helping to capitalize some Western banks at the height of the global financial crisis.
After years of knocking on the doors of international investors, a few Arab stock exchanges are making some headway. Egypt, devoid of serious oil wealth but the recipient of years of American largesse due to Sadat's peace agreement with Israel, has always fluttered around the fringes of the Emerging Markets universe, never quite absent but never quite completely there either.
Saudi Arabia's exchange, the largest and most liquid in the Arab world, is arguably the most important for international investors evaluating the Arab world. It's a pity the news is mainly for informational purposes – despite joining the World Trade Organization several years ago direct purchases of Saudi stocks by non-GCC nationals is not permitted yet.
Most revealing is the inclusion of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai stock exchanges. Yes, there are two main exchanges in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – something which the authorities will be wise to 'arm twist' away via a merger. The two exchanges have different investing rules and an entirely different set of listed companies.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque located in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

While the inclusion of the two UAE exchanges demonstrates the importance of the UAE as a regional financial hub – Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain stock news is incidentals to the CNBC coverage – it also points to the obvious drawback of having two distinct exchanges competing in a small country. One larger, more cohesive exchange will not only raise the profile of the UAE but also make investing operationally much easier for all classes of investors.
Nevertheless, CNBC has started what hopefully will be the beginning of a trend within the financial news media: increased coverage of the Arab world's stock exchanges. If nothing else, the coverage will help to raise the disclosure and investor relations standards of Arab public listed companies.
How the global media will handle delicate news like financial scandals, especially those involving prominent personalities, still remains to be seen.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Germanic peoples, World War Two, one million dollars and one million years

A trader and God are speaking. The trader asks God, "What is a million years like to you?" "Like one second," answers God. The trader then asks, "What is a million dollars like to you?" God answers, "Like one penny." The trader then asks, "Can you spare a penny?" "Sure," says God, "give me a second."
Quoted from the book 'Trading without Gambling,' by Marcel Link.
One nation's freedom fighters is another's terrorist. America's Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, the Mujahideen, (remember Sylvester Stallone's film Rambo III?) were the Soviet Union's terrorists. Today's 'second generation Mujahideen' remain freedom fighters to many Afghans but are Taliban terrorists to the Americans.
Modest Islamic dress to some women is the all encompassing niqab. To others, it's simply covering the head during the Azan, or call to prayer.
A hedge fund manager managing ten billion dollars of other people's money thinks nothing of betting 100 million dollars on an individual trade. A normal retail investor may shudder at investing more than ten thousand dollars in one stock. Both the 100 million and the ten thousand dollars may represent an equal amount of one percent of their total assets.
It's all about the prism through which we see the same event. However, humans have the uncanny ability to think beyond our own limited experiences.
So, when an Indian whom I met for the first time nonchalantly informs me, "I hate the Pakistan government but I don't mind the Pakistani people" I know not to overreact. Or when a Singaporean states, without thinking, "Pakistan, isn't that a terrorist state? Are women allowed out in public?" I can shrug it off to ignorance. (Both experiences are real and, unfortunately, not extremely unusual either in Singapore or anywhere in the world.)
I find new and 'uncomfortable' experiences helps to minimize existing prejudices. Such experiences open up the mind to ways of seeing which we may not otherwise consider.
A 1945 photograph of a bombed out street in Berlin, Germany

For example, in the past I somehow got it into my head that the Germans are primarily to blame for starting two horrific world wars (1914–18 and 1939-45) due to inherent 'Germanic' traits. Therefore, I reasoned the Germans are responsible for terrible devastation wrought on two successive generations of humankind.
Who knows, maybe my opinion was a result of a staple diet of World War Two Hollywood films depicting the evil German military machine manned by cruel Nazi soldiers.
Nevertheless, my view of the Germans was nothing short of racial discrimination. I blamed an entire people, the Germans, for historical events which were caused due to a confluence of historical factors.
The Germans alone cannot take the entire blame for the world wars. Even if it were true, time has not stood still and contemporary Germans are not members of Hitler's youth, nor are they soaked in Nazi propaganda.
During 2008, I had the privilege of spending some time in several cities in Germany.
Through my interaction with the Germans I realized that my earlier thoughts were misplaced. The Germans are no different from any other group of people – they have biases and carry historical baggage like any other nation.
Childish as it may sound, it took my contact with Germany and its people to come to such an obvious conclusion.
The moral of the story – try everything you possibly can, at least once. Even if the experience is 'uncomfortable' for you, it will still add to your memory bank and affect you in ways which we will only understand later.
Of course, don't throw morality and ethics out of the window and consider this idea a license for all types of immoral behaviour! Although occasionally transgressing the rigid social mores associated with the Taliban's harsh world view may not be such a bad idea.

In other words, (if you're a Muslim) pick up the Bhagavad Gita and read it. Or step inside a Church and admire the stained glass windows. Simply put, do anything not on your usual routine, like, dare I say it, enter a vice-den (aka bar or club) and dance the night away – drinking optional.  
We may have to wait one million years for God to present us with one million dollars, but I find it inconceivable that God is so petty as to stay upset with us for constantly searching for positive life changing experiences – even in bars!

Friday, 18 June 2010

What’s your passport worth – get a second opinion from Yahya Wehelie before deciding?

'True blue' Singaporeans recently made a lot of noise about the relatively liberal naturalization policy pursued by the government. Yet, Singaporeans forget that those who take oath as Singaporeans must sacrifice their existing citizenship. Dual citizenships are not permissibly under Singapore law.

Ok, a Pakistani passport does not facilitate travel – one is immediately branded a terrorist suspect and selected for 'random' screening in most Western nations. (An experience which changes little even with a Singapore passport – it's the religion and place of birth which elicits the extra 'attention.')
The Pakistan government is poor so one gives up little in the form of government benefits. That is, unless you happen to be one of the many Pakistanis stranded in violence struck Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Then you benefit from a speedy repatriation arranged by the Pakistan government.
Yet, emotionally it is not easy giving up one's nationality. But my discord is mild compared to Yahya Wehelie's issues.
Wehelie was born and raised in the US. He is a 26 year old US citizen. Like most people, Wehelie does not have another passport. Nor can he call another nation home.
Wehelie's problem – the US government is not letting Wehelie set foot in the US. Following eighteen months outside the US, Wehelie was 'waylaid' in Egypt on May 5. 'Waylaid' includes being detained by Egyptian authorities.
No, he has not been charged with any crime. There is no outstanding arrest warrant in his name. So, what's the problem?
Well, Wehelie's Muslim. His parents were Somali – and we know all Somalis, or at least most, are terrorists. Most importantly, he spent the last eighteen months studying in Yemen. After all, there is nothing to study in Yemen except terrorism.
So, Wehelie's name was placed on the US 'no-fly' list. Hence, he is unable to return to the US – his place of birth and home country.

Surely, there are legitimate security constraints faced by US authorities. Islamic terrorism is a serious problem. Basic racial profiling techniques make Wehelie stand out like a sore thumb due to his background and studies in Yemen.
But can a nation keep a citizen out of her own country? Something is terribly wrong here. Where does Egypt deport Wehelie once his Egyptian visa expires?
If Wehelie is a known security threat the US authorities should arrest him and charge him in court - in the US. As a citizen he has rights. Those rights are being flouted ostensibly only on the basis of his religion and Somali background. Is there a better explanation?
If there is one overarching principle associated with Constitutional republics, it is the supremacy of law. Based on the Wehelie experience, US law is hopelessly failing any sort of 'due process' test. His fundamental rights as a US citizen have been conveniently discarded.
Citizens are citizens – theoretically at least. Clearly, it helps if you are part of the majority race and religion.
The trouble with human nature is no matter how hard we try to raise awareness some biases tend to stay with us. Such biases are often institutionalized into legal frameworks and societal norms.
Passports have real value in today's globalized world.
Many Somalis will go to great lengths to become American citizens. These Somalis assume becoming an American citizen confers upon you the fundamental freedoms and rights granted by the US constitution.
The same rights which Wehelie acquired at his birth in Fairfax, Virgina 26 years ago. Cynics might suggest, "In today's world, being Muslim means you have no rights. Only privileges which can be taken away at will, even in the land of motherhood and apple pie."
I didn't believe it a few years ago, but it's becoming harder to argue with the pessimistic notion that Muslims are the new 'blacks' in American society, i.e. subject to institutional and other subtle forms racism of the sort often faced by African-Americans until recently.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

'Socializing' the state: turning Singapore into Greece

The Greek debt crisis is the final nail in the coffin for the modern welfare state. The crisis is also a clarion call for those who encourage the state to unreservedly expand the provision of social services in other countries, including Singapore.
Greece has all the trappings of a welfare state: generous pensions, socialized health care, rigid labour laws and high taxes. Of course, the high taxes are merely an inconvenience as few Greeks pay them anyway!
For many decades, Greeks have enjoyed a high standard of living. Since Greece joined the Eurozone, Greeks have even had the privilege of earning in a 'real' currency (not the Drachma)!
The after effects of an extensive (and expensive) Greek state social welfare infrastructure

Recently, as a result of the debt crisis, the Greeks have realized that most ancient Greek materialist philosophers (Aristotle and Democritus?) were: humans cannot create something out of nothing. Printing reams of paper money does not produce social miracles.
In the real world, nothing is free.
Not even the 'free gifts' Singaporeans are used to receiving from nicely dressed sales promoters at high-end department stores. Buy a perfume and get a 'free' bag along with it. Buy two perfumes and get a 'free' bottle of skin lotion.
Think about it – a shopper spends and they get something 'free' in return. Spend more and receive more 'free' stuff.
The 'free gifts' are discounts priced into the economics of each sale. If Gucci or Chanel were losing money on each sale they would stop the 'free' gifts, or at least reduce the value of the items.
Companies are not in the business of losing money. Corporations who consistently lose money disappear. They are taken over by more profitable companies, they merge or declare bankruptcy.
Countries are slightly different. Countries cannot be take-over targets or declare bankruptcy, at least not with the same ease as a corporation. But can nations deny the laws of the real world forever? Not really.
Nations disappear, reappear, have borders redrawn and, in extreme cases, are even taken over. The forces at work are much the same as for corporations: economics, money and wealth. (National military strength is predicated on economics, money and wealth.)

Wealthy states tend to better maintain satisfied populations. Satisfied populations of well governed states are less likely to cause social unrest. Money pays for good governance, e.g. through an efficient bureaucracy and equitable justice system.
In many ways, Singapore occupies a unique place among nations. The government is wealthy and has large amounts of accumulated capital (reserves) at its disposal, as evidenced by Temasek and GIC. Singapore has accumulated these savings by spending less than it earns through taxes in a typical financial year.
Arguably, either Singaporeans pay too much tax or Singaporeans do not receive enough in services from the government in return for those taxes.
Consider an individual who has earned 10,000 annually for forty years. During the same period she has spent 8,000 annually. Without taking into account any returns on her savings, she has accumulated 80,000 in forty years, enough to pay for ten years of 'bad times.'
Now Singapore is not an individual with a retirement age. Singapore does not have a finite life. Theoretically, Singapore will continue to receive tax revenue as long as it exists. In the course of a complete economic cycle, Singapore's budget will turn in an operating surplus (operating expenses are lower than operating revenue).
The government also earns considerable revenue from the various government owned commercial businesses, including Singapore Press Holdings, SMRT, Singapore Airlines, SATS and so on (the list is long!). It is also fair to assume that the highly paid minds at GIC and Temasek obtain an above market rate of return on Singaporean savings.
Hence, the assumption that Singapore can afford to spend more money on its citizens. The state can afford to socialize some health services, house the homeless, increase interest rates on CPF savings or increase many other subsidies for the population.
Alternately, the government can ease the burden on Singaporeans by reducing taxes. Clearly, the Greek example illustrates the perils of going down the welfare state road.

Government spending tends to take a life of its own, fed by the bureaucracies which control the purse strings. Taking away popular entitlements is never an easy task.
History teaches us that defying the laws of nature is not possible for individuals, at least not over a long period of time. So why should large collections of individuals, i.e. nations, be exempt from these same laws of nature? They are not.
At a time when many 'wealthy' nations are attempting to roll back 'free' health care and generous pensions, the lack of an inefficient and potentially unaffordable welfare state infrastructure in Singapore is a blessing.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Muslim pork lovers, beer drinkers and Hell raisers

I'm not surprised by your comments.
I kind of guessed that the only people with Muslim sounding names that hated the dress of the wives of the Prophet pbh were pork lovers.
My blog posts don't always elicit such fierce comments from readers. Mostly, the comments are more constructive and force me to revisit the assumptions underlying my article.
A Chinese style 'minaret' at the Grand Mosque of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China. The mosque was constructed during the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (685 - 762) of the Tang Dynasty. The mosque remains in use until today.

The above (anonymous) comment disturbed me. The tone and the use of the phrase, 'Muslim sounding name,' imply the commentator does not believe I am a Muslim.
Further, the comments invoked the Prophet Mohammad and suggested I showed disrespect to his beliefs – an extreme accusation in Islam. The Muslim world did not unexpectedly erupt into rioting following the Danish cartoon saga - it was almost a natural corollary to a perceived act of disrespect against the Prophet. As God's last messenger, the Prophet Mohammad has a special place in Islamic tradition.
Islam is a part of my identity. So are my Pakistani heritage and the values taught to me by my parents. As are those beliefs I adopt following reflection on personal experiences during the course of my life. No one aspect of my personality defines me entirely, they are complementary and fuse together to form the whole.
Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to react to the 'pork lover' comments in more detail. (Islam, of course, is much larger than the views of one misguided individual.)
In Islamic theology, 'takfir' is the act of calling a Muslim a kafir or an un-believer. Let there be no doubt, such an accusation is a grave sin in Islam.
Whoever attributes kufr [unbelief] to a believer, he is like his murderer.
Tirmizi, ch. Iman (Faith); vol. ii, p. 213. See also Bukhari, Book of Ethics; Book 78, ch. 44
Not one to normally quote from 'fundamentalist' literature, but sometimes one has to fight fire with fire! Maulana Maudoodi (1903 – 1979)*, a respected Islamic 'revivalist' figure amongst 'fundamentalist' circles wrote the following about takfir:
As to the question of a person being in fact a believer or not, it is not the task of any human being to decide it. This matter is directly to do with God, and it is He Who shall decide it on the day of Judgment ... In neither case are we empowered to judge what is in the heart [the two cases being those who practice the outward Islamic rituals, e.g. prayer, fasting, etc. versus those who do not].  
At its heart, the real question is how one defines a Muslim. In its broadest sense, a Muslim is an individual who submits to the Will of God and the finality of the Prophethood, i.e. as expressed in the recitation of the kalma or there is no God but Allah, and the Prophet Mohammed is his last and final messenger.
Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi school of Islamic law, stated, "Nothing expels a man from faith except the denial of that which made him enter it." (Rad al-Mukhtar, vol. iii, p. 310). Muslims enter Islam by professing faith in Allah and the finality of the Prophethood. Subsequently, Muslims may practice the faith to varying degrees but they remain Muslims in the eyes of God.
The day's prayer times indicated at a mosque in Turkey

So, a Muslim may enjoy bacon and eggs for breakfast, red wine with lunch, beer with dinner and a brandy nightcap before retiring to bed each day but those acts in themselves do not make him a non-Muslim. A sinner, yes.
But enough of a sinner to burn in hell-fire for eternity, I certainly don't know.
Now, if I grow a beard, wear a turban, fast each Ramadan, pray five times a day, give Zakat annually, make the Haj pilgrimage and profess my belief in the unity of Allah daily, I still will not know with any certainty whether the pork loving, beer drinking Muslim enters heaven or hell.
But I do know he remains a Muslim.
Withhold [your tongues] from those who say `There is no god but Allah' --- do not call them kafir. Whoever calls a reciter of `There is no god but Allah' as a kafir, is nearer to being a kafir himself.
* I would have preferred to quote from Maulana Kausar Niazi (1934 – 1994), if for no other reason than his nickname was 'Maulana Whiskey' - no medals for guessing the reason for the moniker!

Friday, 11 June 2010

Pigeons, Khalistan and the Rothschild dynasty

For a Pakistani citizen travel to India is a complicated matter. Visas are practically impossible to obtain. Additionally, visas restrict visits to two or three specified cities where daily reports to the local police station are required.
That is, unless the Pakistani 'citizen' happens to be a pigeon. (Yes, pigeons have nationalities too!)
Indian paranoia, justified or not, stems in part from the unique capabilities ascribed to Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the country's largest intelligence agency.
With precision matched only by Swiss watches, any act of terrorism in India is routinely blamed on the machinations of the ISI by the Indian establishment. Many Pakistani security analysts are currently speculating how much longer before the Naxalite insurgency engulfing much of Eastern India will be placed on the ISI's doorsteps.

In the past, India's problems with the Nagaland, Mizoram, and Assamese separatist movements were said to have been exacerbated by militant training camps run by the ISI on Bangladeshi soil – with the connivance of Bangladeshi intelligence agencies.
However, it was the movement to create a separate Sikh state of Khalistan in East Punjab in the 1980s that rattled the Indian establishment, possibly as much as the Kashmiri separatist movement. Needless to say, the Indian security establishment saw Pakistan's hand in stoking Sikh separatism.
In June 1984, the Indian military's Operation Blue Star used tanks against separatists holed up in Sikhism's holiest shrine, Amritsar's Golden Temple. Until today, the leader of the Sikh separatist movement, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, remains a controversial figure within the Sikh community. Many Sikhs consider Bhindranwale to be a martyr.
What is undisputed is that the repercussions of Operation Blue Star were severe. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984. The assassination precipitated severe anti-Sikh riots across India.

It is estimated that at least 3,000 Sikhs were killed in just three days following Indira Gandhi's assassination.

In this historical context, when a 'Pakistani' pigeon strays across the international border into India it is serious business.
Ramdas (Amritsar) A pigeon from Pakistan suspected to be on a "spying mission" was caught on Thursday near the Indo-Pak border here, police said here. The white pigeon carrying a Pakistani phone number and address on its body besides a rubber ring in its feet ... Police suspect that the pigeon, which landed in Indian territory, may be on "special mission of spying" and might have been pushed by Pakistan intelligence agency ISI.
The pigeon is being kept in an air conditioned room which is being guarded by policemen.
The Rothschild brothers used pigeons as a means of express communication in the 1800s. With the help of carrier pigeons, the Rothschilds' made serious money trading British financial assets on the basis of 'advance information' about the Battle of Waterloo. (Such trading is referred to as insider trading today.)
But in 2010, an era of nanotechnology which makes advancements first seen in the Star Wars movie seem almost real, the use of spying pigeons sounds absurd. Especially when the pigeon carries a return address and telephone number!
Who needs 'humint,' or human intelligence, when 'pigint' is available?

PS - Perhaps a reader in Pakistan will be kind enough to telephone the pigeon's ISI handler on her cellphone at +92 303 628 4620 to inform her that the pigeon needs legal assistance from the Pakistan Embassy in New Delhi? (The number was painted on the pigeon's wing feathers so it must be bona-fide.)

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Singapore’s City Harvest Church, a few spiritual and material lessons

I am not surprised that the City Harvest Church (CHC) saga is back in the news. Modern religious leaders who combine worldly enterprises with spiritual undertakings always raise my suspicions.  

Singaporeans should be glad that the authorities are investigating possible misuse of funds by the church and some of its leaders. If CHC has nothing to hide then the investigation becomes a routine affair. On the other hand, if wrong doing is uncovered then the government must send a clear signal to all charities that the exploitation of public trust is a serious offense.
No doubt, all religious undertakings must have worldly trappings to survive: places of worship, salaries for staff and so on. But it is hard for me to believe that a church which commits SGD 2.9 million towards charitable work on donations of SGD 86 million is fully committed to its community roots. CHC spent more on 'Christian Television Broadcast and Mass Media, Church Television Ministry and Internet Broadcasting' in 2008 - 2009.
There are two issues that demand further analysis: the scope of allowable relationships between non-profit entities and allied profit making entities, and the moral problem regarding the involvement of a 'spiritual' leader in business enterprises.
The CHC is involved in several business transactions, including the purchase of Suntec City. The Suntec transaction brings up many questions.
  1. Is the purchase of commercially oriented convention centres in line with CHC's approved purposes?
  2. Are there independent checks to ensure that public donations are not channelled to finance commercial ventures, whether indirectly through special purpose vehicles or directly through CHC?
  3. How are profits distributed to stakeholders, i.e. will Reverend Kong Hee and his close associates receive an unreasonably large amount of the profits?
  4. What percentage of the revenue will accrue to CHC and for what activities will the money be used, e.g. to purchase more churches and establish television channels?
Clearly, many questions about CHC's activities remain unanswered. Only a thorough investigation will satisfy a public legitimately hungry for answers.
I hope the Singapore authorities will not only be transparent with their findings but also act on them. If changes to regulations governing religiously inspired organizations are necessary, they must be made urgently.
The moral issues raised by the CHC episode are more personal in nature.
I do not believe that a man of religion should be so blatantly involved in commercial enterprises. Yes, devoting one's life to religion does not automatically mean leading a monk's life but accumulating (and not spending) excessive wealth also raises serious questions about the person's commitment to social welfare.
Does seeking out profits for commercial purposes – managing television stations or buying convention centres – falls in the realm of legitimate CHC activity? Now, if the CHC were managing shelters for the homeless or providing social welfare services then few will question the legitimacy of the CHC.

As things stand, there are hardly any positive signs of CHC activities visible to the ordinary Singaporean. People are right to be sceptical.
The issues are complex and require an independent and empowered commission to make recommendations for strengthening legislation surrounding non-profit entities. If harsh measures, including the forfeiture of illegally obtained assets, are implemented few will be sympathetic towards lawbreakers.
A review of the rules is no longer optional, it is a requirement.
If I were a contributing member of the CHC, I would certainly want to know whether my money is used to fund the Reverend's lifestyle or the CHC's legitimate activities.


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses. He can be reached at

Monday, 7 June 2010

Of sovereign diplomatic immunity and Swiss vandals

Singapore's recent arrest of a Swiss national for breaking and entering a subway train depot with the purpose of vandalizing a train may become a lesson in the universal application of the rule of law. If thirty two year old Oliver Fricker is found guilty of the offenses, in all likelihood, he will be subject to caning.
Surely, Fricker's cause will be held up by global critics of Singapore's penal code as an example of the disproportionately harsh punishments meted out to offenders, including capital punishment for smuggling drugs. However, the nature of the punishments is a debate for another day.
More important is the notion that the law acts as an effective deterrent to potential culprits and that wrongdoers are conducted in an impartial manner. After all, Fricker broke into a 'secure zone' train depot protected by fences and barbed wire. Tomorrow, terrorists break into another train depot not to spray paint carriages but to plant explosives.
In Fricker's case the law will take its natural cause. Swiss authorities have consular access and are providing assistance. The case will be tried in an open court.
Controversially, there are several 'versions' of the universality of the rule of law.

Consider that about a week ago, pirates boarded a ship sailing in international waters off the coast of Somalia. The ship was carrying aid and aid workers with the objective of delivering humanitarian aid to war ravaged Somalia. In the process, the aid workers hoped to raise publicity for their cause.
In their attempt to commandeer the ship, the pirates killed at least nine aid workers. Once in their control, the ship was towed to Kismayu where its crew and cargo was 'processed' by the pirates.
Ok, so the incident narrated above actually occurred in international waters between Cyprus and Israel. And the ship was a Turkish vessel trying to break the blockade of Gaza. There were no pirates, only Israeli Naval Commandos.
However, the events are real. Only the names of the participants have been changed.
Few would argue that Somali pirates repeatedly violate international law by hijacking ships and holding them to ransom. (Recognizing the threat to international commerce, the international community established the Combined Task Force 151 (CT 150) to counter piracy around the waters of Somalia.) Whether efforts to control Somali piracy are successful is debatable but there is a clear consensus the pirates operate outside of the law and should be brought to justice.
Meanwhile, the Israelis forcibly boarded an internationally flagged vessel in international waters. Killed some passengers and then towed the ship to Israel where all passengers were processed before being released. (Yes, the Israelis did not demand a ransom so there is no 'hijacking for ransom' offense.)

Unfortunately, there will be no legal repercussions faced by Israel for flouting international maritime convention. Similarly, there have been no serious consequences for Israeli assassination in third countries aided by providing fake passports to intelligence operatives.  
If Israel were an (American?) offspring, it would be referred to as a spoilt brat. Israel is immune to international laws and conventions. It can attack and sink US naval vessels, the USS Liberty, and still remain the largest recipient of US aid in the world.
Frankly, one has to admire Israeli policymakers for making the US-Israeli strategic relationship an article of faith for the American government. Israel is the proverbial Holy Cow, untouchable. If the Arabs want peace in Palestine they must devise a new strategy keeping Israel's sacrosanct status in mind.