Wednesday, 29 September 2010

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

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

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

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

Friday, 24 September 2010

‘Brand India’ and (yet another) Commonwealth Games rant (with a Pakistani twist)!

Yes, I confess, I cannot resist writing about the Indian Commonwealth Games saga! The whole affair just reveals so much about India that it is worth incurring the risk of being labelled 'biased' by readers.

Nehru and Gandhi - independent India's first Prime Minister and founder (left and right respectively)

India successfully bid for the right to host the Commonwealth Games in November 2003, a good seven years ago. Seven years is normally long enough for good marriages to turn sour. One would think it's also a sufficient period of time to prepare for a reasonably sized international event.
The Commonwealth Games are not the Olympic Games or the Football World Cup. The 2006 Commonwealth Games held in Australia boasted 5,766 athletes and officials. By contrast, Beijing hosted over 11,000 athletes (not including non-athlete delegates) for the 2008 Olympics.
Now, I could write profusely about the mismanagement of the Delhi Commonwealth Games but everyone reads the papers.
We all know about the brand new bridge collapsing, the ceiling at an indoor stadium falling and an Australian journalist walking past several layers of security with an oversized suitcase containing a bomb detonation kit!
All delegates are aware of the security risks, especially after the shooting of a couple of Taiwanese tourists. The 'different' hygiene standards to which the athlete villages have been constructed are irking to some and dengue fever breeding grounds  to others.
But I will not belabour the point simply because as a 'Pakistani-Singaporean' or 'Singaporean-Pakistani,' I tread cautiously in all matters Indian. I don't want readers to just 'switch off' because they believe what I say is a part of the ongoing (often childish) bickering between the two nations.
Yes, from time to time I touch upon Indian politics. It is practically impossible to write about Pakistan without referring to its giant eastern neighbour. Oddly enough, one can write encyclopaedias about Iran, Pakistan's western neighbour, and make only passing references to Pakistan. (I imagine that has something to do with the map of 'Mother India' carved out by sixteenth century Moghul emperors.)
In Pakistan, most know that to get something done the military is the only option. The mission may be the Engineering Corps building a (non-collapsing) bridge, or the Special Services Group clearing out militants from a red brick mosque complex in Islamabad – the objective itself is irrelevant.
If the task is to be completed then the civilian bureaucracy is not the answer! If the desire is to issue press releases and make a lot of noise then the civilian bureaucracy is ideal.
Seven years, many cost overruns and project delays later, the bureaucracy will feed itself some more by creating a 'High Powered Commission' to investigate why the project was not completed in the first place; fodder for academics that will read and study the commission's findings.
Books will be written, the blogosphere will buzz and seminars will be held – but nothing will be accomplished.
But I digress. That's Pakistan, the thirtieth most food insecure nation in the world. The state the world kicks around and blames for all international terrorism.

Percentage of world's population living on less than USD 1 per day (2007-2008)

Source: United Nations, retrieved from Wikipedia

Not India. India is the thirty-first most food insecure state in the world. But it's a vibrant democracy with a robust legal system. A land full of billionaires named Tatas and Ambanis, of Bollywood and class mobility.
Not a country blighted with regularly scheduled racial and religious riots. Not a soft state grappling with multiple insurgencies, Maoist and otherwise.
Caste systems no longer exist – they were legislated away subsequent to Nehru's tryst with destiny.
No, India is a world power worthy of a United Nations Security Council seat, a state at peace with each and every one of its many neighbours. Like the United States, India should have the right to veto Security Council resolutions condemning its future military incursions into neighbouring states to uphold its right of self defense.
I suspect Gandhi would not be happy. Gandhi would certainly be spending more time at his spinning wheel on a hunger strike, publicising the plight of the country's forgotten one billion.
But I must make another confession before concluding.
It's true, if my late father was a Kashmiri Hindu pandit I too would be revelling in the glory of 'Brand India.' I would not need to regularly defend Pakistan's track record against terrorism.
But my father was a Kashmiri Muslim who migrated to Pakistan at partition. Had my father remained in India, in all likelihood I would be dodging Indian military bullets while protesting on Srinagar's burning streets.
Not blogging from a clinically secure Singapore.   
Post Script: It's important to note that the Commonwealth Games are yet to be held. None should prejudge the outcome before they occur – they may still be the most successful Commonwealth Games to date. Let us hope so.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Continuing to save Singapore from Singaporeans - and Singaporeans from themselves

Barring the occasional flood on Orchard Road, Singapore is a well functioning city. The credit for the country's development must be shared between the country's obedient, hard working citizens and the efficient governments which have ruled the city-state since independence.
Having achieved First World status, contemporary Singaporeans have different aspirations from the previous generation. Specifically, Singapore's 'adulthood' adds greater impetus to the debate about a patriarchal state and the extent to which Singaporeans must be 'saved from themselves.'
Today's Singaporeans are better educated and wealthier than most people on this planet. As such, Singaporeans are arguably well equipped to tackle thorny social issues.
Surely, like any national government, Singapore's leaders must play a guiding role.
Take cigarettes; if governments' do not discourage the smoking habit the number of smokers would certainly be much higher. Or wearing seat belts and motorcycle helmets; both are mandated by law to save humans from their 'Death Instinct.'
Bread and butter issues like investing Central Provident Fund (CPF) moneys also come into play. Should individuals be encouraged to invest (their own) CPF cash into high risk mutual funds or equities in an attempt to keep pace with inflation or are such investments a recipe for retirement misery? Individual investors generally have a terrible investing track record and tend to purchase at market tops and sell at market lows.

The question takes on a slightly different tone when applied to seemingly mundane issues such as complimentary buses for Singaporean heartlanders to local casinos. Do citizens who comply with the law by paying the entry fee have the unhindered right to gamble away their hard earned cash (and generate employment for other Singaporeans)? Is the government right to restrict such inducements?
The subject becomes even more acute when a local university, Nanyang Technological University, drops 101 places following 'greater weight on research influence and teaching quality.'
Many suggest the real reason for the drop in rankings is the lack of academic freedom and teaching methods which possibly shy away from debating thorny subjects. Similar reservations were expressed by some Yale University academics about Yale's tie-up with the National University of Singapore (NUS) in order to establish a liberal arts college in the Republic. Perhaps that's why the liberal arts degrees will be issued by NUS and not Yale, despite the fact that the college will bear Yale's name.

Although Singapore's straight laced system served the city-state well historically, a newer and more open Singapore is being shaped by the next generation. Undoubtedly, the society's inherent social conservatism will remain a powerful force.
Even so, many current 'sacrosanct' beliefs will be sacrificed along the way. Especially when one considers that most Singaporeans polled in the 1990s would have laughed at the idea of Singapore becoming a thriving gambling hub in 2010!

Friday, 17 September 2010

Suggestions, improvements and SingPost

Keep an open mind and no suggestion is too trivial to be made or considered.
Ostensibly, a recommendation may amount to nothing. However, by virtue of coming out in the open the proposal may change the nature of a debate. By receiving the advice, relevant persons may alter their future behaviour becoming more sensitive to certain thoughts.  
But before any behaviour modification may occur, the ideas must be pushed into the bureaucracy. Until someone speaks their mind, bureaucracies are typically not nudged in a particular direction.
Hence, my occasional letters to the Straits Times.

Facilitate greater usage of SAM
RECENTLY, some tourists requested my assistance in purchasing postage stamps using a self-service automated machine (SAM). Such machines require Nets cards for transactions to be processed and, as visitors to Singapore, the tourists did not have a Nets card.
One can appreciate that for transactions of small values, the use of credit cards at these machines is not cost-effective. However, in order to facilitate greater usage of existing SAM facilities, SingPost may consider two improvements.
First, accept credit cards for payments above a minimum threshold of say $10. Second, accept payments in cash and coins, subject to exact change being tendered by the purchaser.
Encouraging greater use of SAM facilities will go a long way in reducing waiting times at otherwise busy post offices.
Imran Ahmed
As published in the Straits Times, September 15, 2010.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Muslim? Please move to the line on the left, Sir

It's difficult to stay away from the Islamic Center controversy at New York's ground zero, especially when a loony (is there a better word?) Floridian pastor inflames the situation by threatening to burn Islam's holy book.
Nevertheless, a discussion of American Islamophobia cannot be avoided. It is real and felt by many Muslims each and every day. That there are fierce debates about the construction of an Islamic Center in an area where a synagogue and churches are already present itself reflects a breakdown of American ideals.

Yes, Americans can soothe their conscience by suggesting that building churches in Muslim countries is difficult. And that 9/11 was carried out by a small group of misguided Muslims in the name of Islam.
I cannot argue with those sentiments. They are true.
However, it is also true that the United States (US) sets higher moral standards for itself than the average nation. American 'manifest destiny' involved a well publicized moral righteousness. American self-perceptions are inextricably linked with the notions of freedom and equality.
Countries, like humans, must walk the walk if they talk the talk. Any Iraqi will tell you the US talks constantly of freedom, democracy and human rights.
Thus, when a delegation of eight Pakistani military generals invited to meet with their US Central Command counterparts in Florida is offloaded and detained at Washington D.C.'s Dulles airport on suspicions of terrorism, serious questions are raised about the way Americans implement their world view.
The Pakistani Brigadiers cancelled their meetings and took the next flight home as soon as the 'controversy' was resolved. But not every Pakistani, or Muslim for that matter, has a star on their lapel. The Pentagon will not intervene, or apologize, to assist ordinary Muslims detained for being 'suspicious.'
Globally speaking US soldiers are more likely to be the ones doing the detaining!
"American Progress" painted in 1872 by John Gast. It depicts the 'civilizing' move of American settlers towards the Western shores

Individuals with Muslim sounding names, especially if they happen to be brown in complexion, are best advised to travel the US quietly. It also helps to leave Self-Respect behind at the check-in counter. Once the Transport and Safety Board has rummaged through Self-Respect, then one may collected it at the destination – not always intact.  
It is a self-evident truth that constitutionally ordained civil rights are malleable depending on race, culture and religion. Non-whites including 'Asiatics' and black people know about these 'flexible' interpretations only too well. For economic migrants, America may still be the Promised Land but lately it has been losing some of its sheen lately.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

NTU bloggers go underground

Nano Technological University (NTU), one of the city's premier universities, recently issued a circular to all students stating that "those who create web pages or blogs containing information regarding politics and religion must acquire proper licences from the Media Development Authority and the university's written approval."
University students waiting to receive blog registration forms

Not surprisingly, the edict has created controversy among NTU students. It is learnt that bloggers have started 'going underground' to avoid detection. Safe houses have spontaneously sprouted across the city.
A safe house typically comes equipped with 'anonymous' computers, i.e. untraceable IP addresses. At such venues, bloggers create and publish posts to their hearts content, regardless of the topic.
In a bizarre twist, bloggers are congregating based on subject matter. Religious bloggers are collecting in neighbourhoods on the Western shores of the Republic, while political bloggers are massing in the East.
Moreover, the crackdown on bloggers has resulted in an unprecedented show of solidarity.  Bloggers are joining hands across party and religious lines.
Safe houses are being shared by atheists and fundamentalists. City Harvest Church (CHC) supporters take cover behind IP addresses normally reserved for CHC detractors.
On the East Coast, the picture is no different. Pro-foreign talent and anti-immigration Singaporeans have buried differences and issued joint statements condemning the registration requirements.
Unfortunately, the otherwise peaceful student civil disobedience movement has a more sinister side. Residents of many neighbourhoods have reported an alarming increase in the number of suspicious persons carrying laptops.
The new threat has prompted wi-fi hotspots to upgrade security. Many are hiring specialized security guards while others have ordered a fresh examination of existing corporate security policies.
A spokesperson for Moonbucks, a popular coffee chain, stated, "Management is alert to the increased risks of illicit use of Moonbucks hotspots. We have recently hired several security experts who are empowered to monitor all wireless devices used on our premises. Any suspicious keyboard activity will be reported immediately to the authorities. Patrons should know Moonbucks operates a zero tolerance policy. Genuine customers must feel safe while enjoying their usual aromatic blends in our comfortable, relaxing environment."
SK, the owner-operator of a franchise of cafes, stated that all customers between the ages of 17-25 will be voluntarily requested to certify that cafe facilities will not be used for any political or religious discussions. Within a few weeks, the written declaration will be replaced by an irrevocable 'opt-in' clause automatically carried on all receipts issued by the establishment.
Meanwhile, printers report that a large order for website registration forms was placed recently. The document will not be ready for some days as revisions required deletion of the telex information item and inclusion of a 'cell phone number' column. Cellular phones were not in widespread use when the original form was drafted.
It is believed the document was last used in 1991. Students of Singapore's modern history are ascertaining the exact date through a combination of scientific dating methods, including modern DNA technology.
TK, a prominent blogger, speaking from an undisclosed location said, "I have established contact with bloggers in Cuba and North Korea. Bloggers in those environments are familiar with such rules. In Singapore, we will adopt best-practice methods for dealing with the new perils facing NTU student bloggers."
Unconfirmed reports suggest that TK has since moved to a safe house in a neighbouring country, in order to avoid detection.
The above article first appeared in "The Singapore Fictional Times," September 10, 2010. The article and the daily are figments of the author's imagination.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Hollywood versus Iraq: a battle for American prestige?

Specific events often signal the beginning or end of long periods in history. The inception of a new phase is not always recognized in the heat of the moment, only recorded as such by future historians.
Is the American troop withdrawal from Iraq one of these historic instances?
The world has seen such events before: the humbling of the 'white invincibility' myth by Japanese forces during World War II, India's partition and independence in 1947 and the degradation of Soviet military might in Afghanistan are a few recent examples.
Initial Japanese successes during World War II led to the intensification of the decolonization movement against European colonial powers. The independence of Britain's 'jewel in the crown' sounded the death knell of 'Pax Britannica.' Gorbachev's bleeding wound in Afghanistan precipitated the unravelling of the Soviet Union, ultimately resulting in the demise of Eastern Europe's communist bloc and the independence of the Central Asian Republics.

After seven years of combat in Iraq, the Americans have withdrawn a large portion of their troops from the country. The remaining 50,000 troops will provide only support functions, principally training. (By most measures, a force of 50,000 foreign troops in an alien country still qualifies as an occupation force, but why questions the official line?)
Some argue the withdrawal indicates America's achievement of its post-war objectives following the success of the surge strategy. Others suggest the withdrawal is a humiliating defeat similar to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988. Undoubtedly, the debate will continue for many decades.
Nevertheless, the damage to international American prestige is severe. The erosion of American goodwill among Muslims is especially acute.
Most everyone associated the Iraq war with a search for the stockpiles of Iraq's infamous WMD, or weapons of mass destruction - the elusive store of illicit weapons which the United Nations representative Hans Blix spoke about regularly in 2003. To date, no such destructive weapons have been found and American credibility took a body blow.
Consequently, many now perceive the US mission as an oil grab or a settling of old scores by the Bush clan.
Additionally, the US occupation of Iraq not only created a new front in the 'War on Terror' but also acts as a powerful recruiting tool for Islamic extremists from Kashmir to Algeria.
As for Iraq itself, an objective balance sheet of US occupation must include several negatives. These include the dismemberment of an already fractured nation state, with Kurdish areas effectively independent of Baghdad's control. Revolutionary Iran's influence is all pervasive in a country which was once a bastion of secularist Arab nationalism. Iraqi democratic freedoms are nominal in nature - anyone exercising the 'wrong' freedoms has a limited life expectancy.
Economic freedoms, despite large oil revenues, have not resulted in any broad based economic renaissance. Controversially, it is easy to advocate the view that Iraq's physical and social infrastructure, from electricity generation to women's rights, is fundamentally poorer than during the later Saddam years.
It takes decades for empires to wither and wane. Yet, unless there is a miraculous revival of fortunes in the next few decades, America's influence in global affairs is decidedly on the wane.
The signs are everywhere.
The US Dollar as a percentage of global reserves has decreased significantly. Global economic recovery relies more upon newer emerging markets like China, not the US playing its traditional role as the international locomotive of growth. An inevitable US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be the next step in the inexorable decline of US military power.
Of course, a middle class Kurd walking the relatively safe streets of Kirkuk, listening to his American made iPod anticipating the next Hollywood movie may argue with this author's views. At an extreme, a Kurdish militia man may even use his brand new American made and supplied rifles to prove his point!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Singapore’s social media comes of age

Virtually everyone is wired in Singapore. Or wireless as the case may be. The trains are full of people watching television shows on portable wi-fi instruments, while cafes are monopolized by customers surfing on their laptops.
However, the true sign that social media in the region has come of age is not determined by the numbers. Rather, its importance has been indicated by the spate of recent news articles surrounding the New Media.
A reservist policeman was questioned by the police about a blog post. Singaporeans also became aware that some food bloggers consider themselves worthy of free meals and tantrums, both at the same time. Another blogger was arrested for inciting violence through a post calling for 'direct action' against a Member of Parliament.
Meanwhile, at least one marriage in the city-state fell apart as a result of evidence gathered online. A Singaporean man juggling two wives, from Malaysia and a Hong Kong, left no doubt of his two lives when one wife came across pictures of his second wife on his Facebook account.
Clearly, the impact of the New Media has sometimes been underestimated by individual Singaporean users.
Careless choice of words and unproven allegations can land people in serious trouble. It is one thing to be accused of being a non-Muslim in the court of public opinion, it's quite another to be arrested for a crime by the authorities.
Most likely, the majority of netizens are incensed by the recent actions by the authorities as an infringement of personal freedoms. Whether that is true or not, users of social media will certainly be more careful about what they write in the future.
Such an outcome is no bad thing, a sign of maturity.
A more pragmatic approach, with less emotional ranting, can only be good for social debate. Constant raving against the 'Powers that Be' without any meaningful addition to the debate may attract a large volume of daily hits but is it anything more than a cathartic waste of time?
Maybe if the Grand Moofti spoke about subjects of more interest to Singaporeans his readership would increase too – most Singaporeans are least interested in Pakistan, Islam or Singapore's own version of Sharia.
Now, if I were to write about money, the stock market or Temasek maybe my future as a blogger would be brighter!