Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Mexico, drug wars and the use of lethal force

Compared to the 'war on terror,' the deadly Mexican war on drugs gets little media attention. The war is not a proverbial 'just say no' war but a real battle being fought on Mexican streets with daily deaths. Since conscripting the military into law enforcement duties, almost all of Mexico's 100,000 man army are now deployed across the country.
The Ixtlan de Juarez Church

By some estimates, the war has cost Mexico over 18,000 lives since it began a few years ago. The deaths are not restricted to law enforcement personnel or members of the drug cartels.
Yesterday, ten teenagers who refused to stop at an illegal roadblock were killed. Earlier this month, two US diplomats attached to the consulate at Juarez were killed. In January fifteen teenagers attending a party were shot. Even graduate students at Mexico's most prestigious university, the Technological Institute of Higher Learning of Monterrey, have suffered. In a fatal mistake on March 19, Mexican soldiers chasing drug criminals shot and killed the students.
In the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez, official records confirm the deaths of 2,660 people in drug related violence in 2009. Ciudad Juarez, a city of approximately 1.5 million on the Rio Grande River, lies directly across the border from the Texan city of El Paso.
The city has the dubious distinction of being a leading 'Murder Capital of the World,' beating out contestants Caracas, New Orleans, Cape Town and Moscow for the title. Allegedly, the city is the most violent zone outside of a declared war zone. (Of course, there are no real wars anymore, nor are there any rules to war.)
Ironically, Mexico fights its drug war at a time when pressure to legalize marijuana in the US is growing. The first legal marijuana cafe opened in Portland, Oregon in November 2009. The moves to legalize cannabis are related to its medicinal properties but surely once the Pandora's Box is opened recreational users also benefit?
At end 2009, Los Angeles housed more than 1,000 legal marijuana 'medical dispensaries.' It is hard to believe such a large number is needed for the city's glaucoma sufferers. A California state analysis on taxing the plant claims the state can conceivably raise one billion dollars annually.
Crosses erected to mark the victims of female homicide in Ciudad Juarez

With twenty-one people killed in drug related violence this past weekend in Mexico, many ordinary Mexicans must be wondering what the war is all about. In many ways, the sufferings in the badlands straddling the US-Mexican border area are no different from the sufferings of the Pashtuns in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Wars are about power, money and the ability to levy taxes. If the Americans can't get their way through the Mexican army, will we see Predator drones start flying over Ciudad Juarez in 2010?

Watch a fascinating five minute New York Times video about a female American charity worker's daily trips to Ciudad Juarez from El Paso, Texas.
 

Monday, 29 March 2010

Euthanasia, Singapore and the human rights debate

Let there be no doubt, suicide is a morally untenable position. However, that does not mean euthanasia should be illegal.

The euthanasia debate has recently found its way into the columns of Singapore's newspapers. Since, no opinion of substance can be considered complete without an interjection by the Grand Moofti, here are my two cents!!
Let's first consider whether euthanasia is suicide.  
Merriam-Webster defines suicide as "the act or an instance of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally especially by a person of years of discretion and of sound mind." Euthanasia, on the other hand, is "the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy."
Clearly, there is a fine distinction between the two behaviours.
Euthanasia is morally and religiously difficult to justify. But then so is gambling and gambling is legal in many jurisdictions, including Singapore.
It is wrong to legislate away a person's right to act on the basis of their own conscience unless there are reasonable grounds to suspect it will affect the well being of others. Other than the emotional trauma of those near and dear to the intended victims, it is difficult to suggest that euthanasia harms others.

Hence, the real debate about euthanasia should centre on the situation in which it is permissible, i.e. the delineation of a 'hopelessly sick' individual and the extent to which the authorities may determine the same. Is someone who can be kept alive indefinitely on a hospital bed an eligible candidate for euthanasia? Can close family members and relatives decide to pull the plug on elderly parents?
There are a host of other issues which must be addressed by any cohesive legal framework permitting euthanasia. But legalizing assisted suicide (let's call it suicide just to complicate matters!) should not be avoided just because it is complicated or morally disagreeable to many. It can easily be argues that euthanasia is a humane behaviour both for the 'victim' and his family.   
Freewill must be a guiding principle for legislation, even if it leads to validating extreme actions like euthanasia. Let individuals be accountable for their own behaviours to their own conscience.
Which side plays God in the debate is questionable: those who suggest suicide is immoral and wish to impose their views on others, or those who wish to end their own lives peaceably under medical supervision?
Being mortal myself, I cannot answer the question.
Watch a video of John Elliot's voluntary euthanasia in Switzerland, includes a brief summary of Swiss law on the subject.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Mogul Emperor Babur and the Asian Civilizations Museum ‘Treasury of the World’ exhibit

As governing systems, monarchies tend to have limitations. Meritocratic traditions often suffer due to personal considerations. Policy decisions may be based on expediencies associated with dynastic loyalties or personal whims. Individual preferences are paramount, especially without a system of checks and balances.
However, monarchies sometimes represent the pinnacle of human achievements in various fields. A wealthy empire generates cash faster than Bernanke's Fed prints US Dollars. This copious amount of imperial cash is concentrated in a few influential hands.
The last Mogul Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar II who nominally presided over the Empire from 1837-1857

If the King or a close member of his Court is artistically inclined then the result is a historical artistic legacy of monumental proportions. Since royals' are far up Maslow's triangular hierarchy of needs, much money finds itself supporting the creative arts.
The Mogul Empire provides a rich example of royal patronage at work. The Mogul dynasty was founded in 1526 by Babur, an exiled Muslim warrior prince from Andijan, Uzbekistan. The dynasty formally ended with Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar being sent into unceremonious exile by British colonials in 1858, after the failed 1857 mutiny.
During the 331 years of unbroken rule by Emperor Babar's progeny, the Moguls gave the world more than just the word 'Mogul.' (The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Mogul as 'a great personage or magnate.') Perhaps the most famous gift is the Taj Mahal, completed in 1653 during the reign of Shah Jahan (aka the Great Builder).
A small part of the Mogul heritage is currently on display at the 'Treasury of the World' exhibit at Singapore's Asian Civilizations Museum. The exhibit brings to Singapore a small collection of Mogul items from the al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. The House of al-Sabah family is the ruling family of Kuwait.
Miniature painting depicting Emperor Jahangir (1605- 1627) preferring Sufi saint to waiting kings at his Court

The scope of the exhibition is small; there are not many items on display. The bulk of the pieces comprise of jewellery, knives and daggers. Do not be misled, the knives and daggers are formal and bedecked with precious stones. Mogul workmanship of the highest quality is on display.
However, the exhibition does not do justice the broad array of arts patronized by Mogul Emperors during the dynasty. Of course, much of the beauty is contained within structures that are themselves a part of the Mogul artistic heritage, including mausoleums and mosques.
Painting of Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan (1628 - 1658), builder of the Taj Mahal

The exhibition is a brief introduction to one of history's greatest empires. It manifests the power of official patronage as a source of creativity.
It reminds one of the beauty and splendours of Courtly life, of the benevolence of an invading Central Asian Muslim conqueror's dynasty now accepted by most Indians as 'sons of the soil,' Babur's destroyed Babri Masjid notwithstanding.
NB – The official museum literature has a proud stamp across the front stating, 'First Time in Asia.' Asian Civilizations Museum curators may do well to examine a map and guess which continent the state of Kuwait resides within – I don't believe Kuwait is located in Europe.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Of Singapore’s casino, Red China and freedom fighters

The world has witnessed profound change in the last few decades. Not all of it has been as momentous as the events of 9/11 or the demise of the Berlin Wall. No region of the world has been left out: the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa are all part of the equation.
In some instances, yesterday's world has been turned onto its head. Consider the following events.

Capitalism continues to consolidate its gains in former communist nations such as Russia, China and Vietnam. In fact, Chinese and Russian capitalists are now some of the wealthiest billionaires in the world. On the contrary, the market economies of Western Europe and the United States are headed towards greater state control and influence over private enterprise.
The fate of the US Dollar, the world's reserve currency, is as susceptible to statements coming out of Beijing as to comments from policy makers in Washington. In fact, from being the global patron of free trade, accusations of protectionism are today most commonly directed against the US itself.
India's appointment as the US Deputy Sheriff for freedom and democracy in South Asia is testament to India's transformation from a Soviet bloc socialist nation to a stalwart of global capitalism. The transition has been remarkable in its swiftness.
Meanwhile, America's former 'most allied of allies,' i.e. Pakistan, is more often found in the doghouse than in the White House.
Turkey demonstrates superior macro-economic credentials to join the Euro currency union than existing member Greece. A noteworthy shift for an economy often found knocking on the doors of the International Monetary Fund for assistance.
In fact, Turkey's economic statistics may be better than other members of the Euro PIGS, i.e. Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain.
After being feted at the Reagan White House in the 1980s, Afghan leader Gulbudin Hekmatyar has gone from being a hero of freedom and democracy to one of America's most wanted persons. Like Osama Bin Laden and other members of the Afghan Mujahideen, Hekmatyar was a beneficiary of US largesse, including materiel and training, during the Afghan resistance to the 1980s Soviet occupation ('Charlie Wilson's War').

For Singaporeans, perhaps the oddest event is the opening of state sanctioned gambling dens in the Republic. Ok, let's call the vice dens 'Integrated Resorts' (IR). IR sounds better and less offensive!

But seriously, until recently few older generation Singaporeans would have believed that casinos will exist in Singapore, especially during Lee Kuan Yew's lifetime!
Today's billionaire is tomorrow's bankrupt. Tomorrow's superpower is yesterday's impoverished nation, and the cycle never stops.
Truly, there is no greater power than Life itself!

Monday, 22 March 2010

Wild Singaporean tigers still roam the Malayan jungle?

"You can take the tiger out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the tiger."
Calvin and Hobbes

It is often said that Singapore is a First World nation with a Third World citizenry. Given the type of behaviour often demonstrated in parts of the First World, the statement is unfair.
However, there are quirks within Singaporean society that do crawl under my skin. Below I have described five of them, listed in no apparent order.
Escalators
Why don't people stand on the left while riding escalators? It only takes one inconsiderate person to clog up an entire trainload of subway travellers who are in a hurry or simply wish to exercise their legs! Anecdotally, I can state with high conviction that the majority of the time escalators in Singapore are impassable due to people standing on both the left and right.
People, please be gracious and stand to one side of an escalator.

Cycling on pavements
Cycling on the pavement is illegal. The issue is not debatable.
Please be informed that Rule 28 of the RTR prohibits cycling on footways: No vehicle to be driven, parked or ridden on footway of road; 28. No vehicle, except perambulators, shall be driven, parked or ridden on the footway of a road.
Singapore Police.
Pedestrians own the pavement. Ringing a bell does not magically confer ownership of the footpath to bicyclists. Bicyclists should have the confidence to pedal on the road. Otherwise relearn to walk.
We have all seen the fear in the eyes of mothers with young kids or senior citizens as bicyclists approach.
I notice the especially sad plight of one old man in my neighbourhood who is visibly recovering from a stroke. He walks with a cane and stops walking when a bicycle is many feet away, fearing an accident. Even the slightest accident can set his physical health back years.
Bicyclists: I don't care how polite you are on the pavement, get on the roads or get off your bike. Obey the law.
Let people alight from trains first
The subway system brings hordes of people together daily at regular times. Not surprisingly, two of my pet peeves pertain to the train.
I don't enjoy walking into people standing in front of train doors as they open. However, when waiting for a train, if you don't stand outside of the designated lines painted on station platforms I will not hesitate to 'rugby tackle' into you if necessary.
People, please listen to the announcements and obey the myriad signs: let passengers alight before making a determined beeline for the closest empty train seat!
Give up seats on trains
Old and infirm people travel on the subway regularly. Yet, seats assigned for the elderly are regularly occupied by teenagers, healthy middle aged persons and just about everyone.
Of course, this is no big deal on empty trains or when no one deserving is standing. However, be polite and give up your seat when necessary. Don't wait to be asked, no one will ask you. And, don't shirk the guilt by avoiding eye contact with senior citizens. Even if you don't see them, the senior citizens are there and still standing.
People, please do the right thing and give up your train seat when necessary. We all age. In a few decades it may well be us searching for a seat after a gruelling day at work.
A little gratitude goes a long way
Am I the only person who gets upset when people take things for granted?
Give up your train seat or hold the door open for a stranger and they don't acknowledge the gesture is aggravating. A formal diplomatic note is not required. A smile is just as powerful and disarms anger like a charm. Use your smile when someone does a good turn. It really works.
Racking up good karma by doing kind deeds is no fun if the recipient is ungrateful. Be a good sport and encourage decency by accepting it graciously. A thank you is nice but a smile is good enough.

Humans are a complicated species. Despite my Hobbesian tendencies, it's hard not to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind. Hobbes view of the State of Nature is best captured in the following statement.
"During the time men live without a common power [government] to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war; and such a war as is of every man against every man [the law of the jungle or survival of the fittest]." Leviathan. Chapter XIII.
Leviathan was written in 1651, over three centuries ago. Human society has evolved significantly since then.
Humans live far better lives in the twenty first century. We eat better, die older and recover quicker from illnesses. Generally, we live in societies where some semblance of the rule of law prevails. The laws of the jungle are no longer pertinent. They are superseded by sophisticated legal codes.
Human strength is an abstract concept. It cannot be measured by the kilos bench pressed at the gym. It is better gauged by small compassionate gestures accrued over a lifetime.

However, in a crowd we often forget that Singapore is no longer a jungle and we are not prowling Malayan tigers.
NB: Attributing quotations is a tricky business. In this instance, I took the easy way out and gave credit to Calvin and Hobbes for the opening statement, even if credit is due elsewhere.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The madness of mullahs and the distortion of Islam

As a religion, Islam does not believe in a formal clergy to interpret its value system. Islam's teachings are kept fresh through constant debate by the Ulema and evolving practice by the Muslim community.

Islamic law derives from four basic concepts, including Qiyas and Ijma. Ijma originates through a consensus among the Muslim community whereas Qiyas uses analogical reasoning to address contemporary issues facing the Ummah or Muslim community.
As Islam undergoes its internal struggles, many aspects of the religion have been hijacked by extremists. They routinely use violence and compulsion to further their deviant ideology.
Coupled with these dubious interpretations is the often unjustifiable behaviour of some Muslims. Although the list can be much longer, below are just five suspect areas:
1.  Suicide is a sin. How 'Holy Warriors' can see suicide bombings as a legitimate weapon is incredulous, especially when unarmed civilians are specifically targeted. (See verse 4:29)

2.  Hypocrisy manifests itself in several forms. Many Muslims have a 'holier than the Pope' attitude to alcohol. They will publicly deny consuming alcohol but will imbibe secretly. (It should be noted that the Pakistan Army recovered several bottles of vodka from the home of senior Taliban commander during their recent operation in Swat.)

3.  Similar to drinking, instances of Muslims 'pretending' to fast during the holy month of Ramadan are common in certain environments. Whether it is due to peer pressure or social norms, in a sense it is tantamount to fraud.

4.  Women who cover their heads and behave religiously but then enter into sexually active relationships with multiple men over time.

5.  The notion that women should be economically inactive in a Muslim society is plain wrong. The Prophet's first wife, Khatija, was a successful businesswoman and merchant. She remained economically active throughout her life, even after her marriage. (The second basis of Islamic law is the Sunnah or the example set by the Prophet through his behaviour and sayings.)
When an individual indulges in particular behaviour systematically then it is consciously thought out. The behaviour itself may not necessarily be questionable. More often, it is the hypocrisy associated with the actions which is more perturbing. After all, for the truly religious it may be easy to deceive the world and even oneself, but to deceive God is another matter altogether.
There is a dire need for a suicide prevention hotline specifically aimed at potential suicide bomber recruits!

As mortals, we all sin. We sin with a regularity we would not like to admit. However, let's not add religious arrogance to our list of sins. Keep religious personal, truth is a relative concept to individuals.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Singapore, Temasek, good governance and the Linaburg-Maduell Transparency Index

The prominence of sovereign wealth funds (SWF) like Singapore's Temasek and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) will only increase in the coming years. It is estimated that the top fifteen SWF control approximately USD 3.4 trillion in assets, with the top five accounting for USD 2.1 trillion.
Singapore's Temasek and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) are in the top fifteen with assets estimated at USD 370 billion. Singapore, like China, is the only nation to have amassed such wealth without the obvious benefit of a natural resource like petroleum.
The post World War Two era saw the establishment of the Bretton-Woods system. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were created to maintain economic order and discipline.
The IMF's standard medicine for weak developing economies may not have been ideal but it kept crises contained and manageable. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the various 'Structural Adjustment Programmes' and managing diverse foreign exchange rate regimes were all 'successes' for the IMF.
Arguably, the Bretton Woods regime worked well, until recently.
There was no IMF working with the US in forging a response to the global debt crisis. Similarly, the European Union (EU) attempts to solve the Greek debt problems do not involve the IMF.
Certainly pride plays a part in the US and EU behaviour. After all, the IMF was established to keep errant developing nations in check; yesterday's banana republics with triple digit inflation rates and horrendous fiscal and trade deficits.
Great Powers like the US and UK don't play by the rules. They make the rules.
In 2010, it's difficult for the Western nations to implement international trading rules. When nations such as the US and UK have the financial strength of a 1980s Brazil or Turkey few listen.
Inflation ravaged the currencies of many countries in the 1980s

Yesterday's tail is wagging the dog. The tail resides in Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. Decisions to lend cash to Western nations are made by the authorities in Abu Dhabi and Beijing.
In the absence of a functioning global economic rule setting regime does one just sit back and wait for the next crisis to appear? US financial reform efforts, although bogged down in party politics, address only domestic US systemic issues. There are other large pools of capital, including hedge funds and SWFs, which add another dimension to the international financial system.
Surely, regulatory overkill is not the right way forward. Neither is ignoring the issue. International cooperation is required to ensure the new evolving financial system is manageable.
A good place to start is by strengthening voluntary codes of conduct and disclosure requirements applicable to SWFs.
SWFs exert an inordinate impact on the global financial system. If the China Investment Corporation reviews purchases of US treasury debt the implications are manifold. ADIA and Temasek helped stabilize the financial system by committing equity, perhaps prematurely, to several weakened global banks (UBS and Citicorp) during the early stages of the crisis.
A step has been made by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute developed Linaburg-Maduell Transparency Index. The Index awards points for adherence to ten basic principles of transparency. Among the principles are:
  1. Fund manages its own web site;
  2. Fund provides main office location address and contact information such as telephone and fax;
  3. Fund provides history including reason for creation, origins of wealth, and government ownership structure;
Any fund complying with the above three basic rules starts with three points! The index demonstrates how far the world has to go in achieving real disclosure by SWFs.

For Singapore's Temasek to be ranked third by the Linaburg-Maduell Transparency Index is good PR but overrates success. Given Singapore's commitment to transparency and good governance, the Republic should act as a catalyst for greater openness by SWFs. Voluntary disclosure by GIC and Temasek beyond that required by the index will boldly challenge other SWFs.  
Singapore's future is intertwined with the health of the global economy. Global financial instability impacts Singapore more than most nations. Any means by which potential negative external shocks may be reduced should be vigorously explored by Temasek and GIC.

__________________


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 imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Uniquely Singapore, Your Singapore or simply My Singapore?

Cultural biases are relative. An 'Asian' in Britain generally refers to someone from South Asia, i.e. Bangladesh, India or Pakistan. To Singaporeans, being Asian typically means Chinese.
1925 map of Asia

In fact, many are surprised to note that Gulf Arabs, Jordanians, Syrians, Iranis and many others are also Asians. Asia is the largest of the seven continents and comprises a large land mass. Hence, the diverse population mix.
Part of the issue is branding. Branding is the "entire process involved in creating a unique name and image for a product (good or service) in the consumers' mind, through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme. Branding aims to establish a significant and differentiated presence in the market that attracts and retains loyal customers."
Branding is important. A brand is a promise to the customer. It informs customers what to expect from your products and services. One expects the same taste from a McDonald's Big Mac in Tokyo, Cairo or Rome. A brand also differentiates your offering from that of your competitors.  
Countries are no different. Brand Singapore has evolved during the last few decades. To most foreigners, Singapore evokes a positive image of efficiency, security, family friendly and, of course, cleanliness. Part of the vision has been consciously shaped by the authorities but, to a large extent, brands are a natural outgrowth of the product.
Until recently, the Singapore Tourist Board's (STB) promoted the city with the tagline 'Uniquely Singapore.' A few days ago 'Your Singapore' was adopted by the STB.
Singapore's civil servants are efficient mandarins and must have evaluated the change methodically. Highly paid Coca Cola executives also systematically analyzed a brand change prior to launching 'New Coke' in 1985.

The 'New Coke' campaign was a flop. Coke was forced to reintroduce 'Classic Coke' shortly thereafter. It seems consumers were wedded to the original brand.
Consistent, strategic branding helps create strong brand equity. A catchy tagline is a must (anyone familiar with 'Malaysia, truly Asia?'). 'Your Singapore' does not grab my attention, at least not yet. Perhaps a multi-million (tax dollars) media marketing campaign will change my mind?!
After all, Singapore, Inc's brand has evolved from a puritanical, sleepy city to a mildly sleazy, litter infested, pavements overrun by cyclists, home of gamblers and casinos. Taglines have to keep pace with the ground realities.
Uniquely Singapore, Your Singapore, My Singapore but, in the final analysis, it's still Singapore!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Singapore’s netizens and the Internal Security Act

Warning: the text below may be considered objectionable by some. Please skip the post if you feel you may be offended.

Trash the religion of pigs [Islam] and go back to your root Pakistani - you would be better off. If you adopt this cult [Islam] in some form or the other this [terrorism] would be result - Its a matter of time. Think about the agony of torture, conversion, killing of Nonmuslims in your land. 'Dharma' and 'Karma' always prevails everywhere. This looks like your 'dharma' is the antithesis of other 'dharma'. Rathindra Ghosh
Hmm. perhaps we should give the muslims free strap on bombs that look powerful but will only blow up the wearer.. The way I see it, we'd know who the terrorists were within a few weeks.. Tyler Nelson
Islam is a magnet for the mentally unstable. John Sattefield
Apparently this whacko ['Jihad Jane' et. al.] is a masochist. Any woman who would subject themselves to a religion [Islam] that holds women as inferior to men, and in marriage, little more than slaves and sex objects has to be insane. Ron Cee
As soon as she converts to Islam, she thinks of terrorism. Must be something in Islam. Juhan Singha
Why would a western woman, educated, with a decent job, take up with a guy whose culture [Islam] oppresses women on a regular basis along with all the other negative aspects of this religion [Islam]? i have to assume she has some screwed up 'wiring' in her head. Bruce Benedon
Who knows if they [civilians killed by ISAF forces in Afghanistan] were really "civilians". Frankly, it doesn't matter. Rahul Sharma
NB - Sample quotations from comments on various articles by regular netizens at the Wall Street Journal community site. All comments are drawn from articles published within the last few weeks.

The Singapore Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, Mr. Lui Tuck Yew recently praised Singapore's netizens for acting responsibly over a hoax blog posting concerning MM Lee.

Indeed, the Singapore blogosphere is tame relative to some international jurisdictions. Surely, Singapore's stringent racial harmony laws play a key role in 'moderating' language and subjects. However, that Singapore's print media is virtually fully controlled by the authorities means that debating in online forums often touches controversial subjects shunned by the mainstream media.
Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal (WSJ) is a highly regarded international business daily. The WSJ is a gated website; much of the WSJ content is available only to paid online subscribers. Additionally, given the specialized business nature of the WSJ news content it is safe to assume that most readers are better informed than the average citizen.
However, that fact is difficult to believe if one enters a WSJ forum on a subject even remotely associated with Islam, terrorism, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Muslims. The sample quotations at the outset of this article are not outliers. Such comments are routine and anyone accessing a (relevant) article can experience the hatred directly.
Undoubtedly, terrorism is a scourge in today's world. And, yes, unfortunately much of the terrorism is inspired by extreme Muslim ideology. But to have one's religion and national identity insulted habitually without any intellectual basis is counterproductive.
It feeds the cycle of hatred and violence. It plays into the hands of the radical cleric enticing into jihad the unemployed Muslim engineering graduate surfing the net in Algiers or London.
It's easier to walk the path of detestation than tolerance. Belief systems predicated on hate produce quicker results and require limited intellectual energy.
The world is complicated. Killing all Muslims or constantly blaming and berating Islam is no panacea for the world's problems. The US unemployment rate will still be 10%, the deficit will not disappear and the US healthcare and Social Security systems will not become high quality!

Much has been written about the negative effect of anonymity among netizens. As such, there is little wrong with instilling the fear of God, or the law, among bloggers.
Freedom of expression has boundaries imposed by common sense. Singapore's freedom of expression environment may leave much to be desired. However, in some instances the interests of a paternal state and extreme devotees of the Gods of Freedom converge. Ensuring that the language of disrespectful hurt stays out of the system is such an instance.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Civilization, parking and the modern Gulf

It's the little things that define a society. Respect for disabled parking spots or community cats say more about a people than spanking new buildings or gleaming infrastructure.
So it is with Singapore. When a resident disregards parking rules and parks illegally he informs the world, "I am selfish and don't care at all for other members of my community."  
Thus, when I read about a foreign diplomat involved in a scuffle over a disabled parking spot, it reminded me of Dubai.
At least until I left, parking rules were rarely enforced. Four wheel drives parked on the pavement, luxury sports cars driven by healthy persons in disabled spots and small cars parked so as to take up two parking spots. Some of the violations were due to necessity – there is a shortage of parking spaces in a city where many families own more than two vehicles. However, the majority of the infringements were due to a selfish disregard for the larger community.
Driving on the Gulf's highways is a similar experience. Save your own vehicle from accidents and don't assume speed limits, turning indicators or any other driving norm will be respected. In other words, be as selfish a driver as possible as few drivers care for the rules. Ironical, given that tests for driving licenses are rigorous and religiously enforced in the region.
Maybe the Gulf mindset is due to the individualist nature of the society?
The Gulf has no personal income taxes. The business environment is as laissez faire as the Wild West prior to the arrival of the US cavalry. The community is defined along tribal and clan lines, not along state or civil lines. I imagine the Bedouin tribesmen valued a communal lifestyle while travelling from oasis to oasis in the vast Arabian desert.

However, today the desert is connected by modern highways and shiny skyscrapers. Neighbours do not know each other and Bedouins have adjusted to air conditioned apartment blocks. Yet, disabled parking spots are a reminder that modern Gulf society still has some adjustments to incorporate.
Dubai, like many other Gulf cities, may have skyscrapers and indoor ski slopes but civilization is about the little things. For the needy, finding an empty disabled parking spot in Dubai must be as hard as finding water in the desert.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Understanding Islam and burning mosques in Singapore

As punishment for starting a fire at the Kampong Siglap Mosque, a Singapore juvenile court sent a fourteen year Muslim boy to a religious welfare home for two years. While the incident is an aberration in an otherwise calm Singapore, a few facts about the case deserve further exploration.

What prompts a civil juvenile court to send the boy to a religious welfare home, the Muhammidiyah Welfare Home? Surely, judges must take a practical view while determining sentences. Reform, when achievable, not punishment is the objective of the judicial system. One can appreciate that the boy is Muslim by birth and the Malay community wishes to resolve the matter 'internally.'
However, it seems that the culprit requires psychological treatment more than religious lectures.
For someone to burn a mosque, or any establishment for that matter, requires great animosity. Arson is not normal behaviour.
According to the Straits Times, the parents of the teenager are both religious teachers. Additionally, the teen has a below-average IQ of 50. The article states, "The next day, frustrated with how his father had berated him for being stupid and unable to memorize the Quran, he ... set two books on fire [in the mosque] with a cigarette lighter."
Unfortunately, Islamic education obsesses with rote memorization of the Koran. Memorization is standard fare at madressas. A 'Hafiz,' or an individual who can recite the entire Koran from memory, are highly revered Muslims.
Undoubtedly, memorizing the Koran is a noble undertaking. However, it makes more sense to understand the content and message of the Koran rather than memorizing misunderstood (or not understood at all) verses.
The Koran is in Arabic. Non-Arabic speakers cannot get closer to the Koran's message by committing the sounds of an alien language to memory. The idea is to create enlightened Muslims, not merely individuals who can recite the Koran on demand (in a foreign language).
An Islamic Madressa in Aurangabad, India

We are all humans, but one naturally expects higher standards from religious teachers; especially in a religion where the concept of 'Sabr' is an integral part of the faith. Muslims endeavour to make Sabr or patience an essential part of their character.
Thus, when a religious teacher scolds his mentally challenged son harshly something is amiss. Obviously, the resentment created by the severe reprimand was enough to motivate the boy to burn a mosque a day later.
Legal systems the world over have historically evolved from religious values. Religion provides a moral foundation for society. Religious education is as serious a matter as physics or mathematics. Degrading religious education to rote memorization insults both the religion and the student.
NB – My views are based solely on publicly available information about the incident. In case the punishment includes professional psychological counselling in addition to religious, moral education, then I stand corrected.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Announcement


The Grand Moofti will not be delivering any new sermons until Thursday, March 11.

Please enjoy your week!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Women’s liberation: burning bras in Pakistan?

The reasons for integrating women into society are well known. From the economic to the simple moral argument, there is little debate about the benefits of equal rights. As part of fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human rights, discrimination against women is outlawed.
Lofty ideals are great but putting them into practice is not easy. The effectiveness of public policies varies in different nations. Additionally, the suitability of certain policies is questionable in diverging social environments.
Kemalist Turks may consider banning the headscarf an act of women's liberation but try doing that in Afghanistan! In the 1980s, the Soviets paid a heavy price for implementing 'progressive' women's liberation policies; the measures only fuelled the US supported Islamist insurgency.
Female integration is relative. Singaporean women may focus on the gender pay gap, i.e. ensuring the same pay for the same work. However, in Afghanistan female activists are better off campaigning for better access to educational and career opportunities.
Role models are important. That Pakistan has had a female Prime Minister, no matter how corrupt or incompetent, energizes women to believe leadership positions are with reach. The fact that 22% of Pakistan's members of Parliament are women is also important. (For comparison purposes, the percentage of female parliamentarians in Germany, Singapore, and India is 33%, 23% and 11% respectively.)
Role models are important across the entire spectrum of society. Corporate leaders, entrepreneurs, professionals and even sportswomen are necessary.
It can be a tough fight. Pakistan's religiously inclined Bearded Brigade fights to protect its male privileges with ferocity that makes Stalin seem civilized.
It took many years of struggles for the Pakistani women's cricket team to obtain official support. Given the dismal performance of the men's cricket team, the women's team may be Pakistan's only hope in the near term!
The Pakistani Women's cricket team participating in the 2009 women's cricket World Cup

For women to achieve in Pakistan's social environment requires bravery. Social conditions are not always conducive to female participation. Yet, Pakistani women continue to come forward – both out of economic necessity and pursuit of dreams. Even the Pakistani military, formerly a preserve of males has female combat troops and fighter pilots (see video below).
Former President Musharraf may not be liked by Pakistan's superior judiciary but female warriors only have him to thank for a cultural shift which grants women a foothold in the most respected national institution.
Opportunity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for female emancipation. Patronage and will is also required.
When a young twenty-two year old female runner from a slum district in Karachi became South Asia's fastest woman at February's South Asian Games in Dacca, the accolades were fast and sweet. Between President Zardari, the Federal Sports Ministry, Karachi's mayor and the Pakistan's Athletics Federation the runner, Nasim Hamid, was rewarded with Pakistani Rupees 2.3 million. (USD 30,000 may not sound like a lot but on a Purchasing Power Parity basis and to a girl from Karachi's slums it certainly helps to pull her family out of poverty.)
It is significant that Nasim referred to another Pakistani female athletes gold medal wins at an earlier South Asian Games for providing her inspiration. Other females will be encouraged by not just the cash but also the official recognition.
Clearly, winning equal rights for women is an incremental and gradualist process. It requires changing social attitudes. Cash also helps. Now if the religious Bearded Brigade would either see the light or keep their archaic views to themselves then we may even start to see real progress.
Some interesting videos on Pakistan's women's cricket team and women fighter pilots: