Monday, 30 August 2010

Youth Olympics: done and dusted! Time to host the ‘real’ Olympic Games?

Singapore's international reputation as an efficient and 'liveable' city went up a few notches following the successful hosting of the inaugural Youth Olympic Games. If nothing else, at least the foreign participants will appreciate there is more to Singapore than fines and prohibitions on chewing gum!
Merly and Lyo, the mascots of the Singapore Youth Olympic Games (2010)

Singapore's standing as a global centre of meetings, incentives travel, conventions and exhibitions (MICE) was firmly established in 2006 with the hosting of the World Bank – International Monetary Fund annual meeting.
Today, with the integrated resorts (casinos) up and running, the attractiveness of the lion city as a MICE destination has improved.
Nevertheless, with over one million monthly foreign visitors can the authorities afford to complacently bask in the glory of their recent triumphs, i.e. what's the next step for 'Brand Singapore?'
For starters, some immediate investment in physical infrastructure is required. Surely, it will be nice to know that Orchard Road will not suffer from flooding each time the city reels from a thunderstorm. Or that Singapore's subway system will soon need to employ professional 'pushers' to make people fit into carriages before train doors are shut, like in Tokyo.
Longer term, Singapore must build upon the success of the Youth Olympics.
It's time to start preparing a bid to host the 'real' Olympic Games sometime in the next decade! However, for practical and political reasons, let's share the Olympic glory with neighbouring Malaysia. Singapore's infrastructure maybe world class but size does impose certain limitations.
A joint bid with Malaysia has many advantages – it underscores the close relations between the two neighbours; helps brand the two countries as a collective tourist destination; increases the breadth of the games by adding cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Malacca as event venues.
Bilaterally, a joint Singapore-Malaysia bid will force the two nations to increase cooperation at the nuts and bolts level even more than is the case presently. Perhaps residents of both countries may see an improvement in transport infrastructure linking the two nations, fewer traffic jams on the Causeway!
Obviously, such an idea cannot succeed without a proper cost-benefit analysis. Instituting a joint Singapore-Malaysian bilateral commission to study the feasibility of a joint Olympic Games bid might be a good place to start.

If 'Brand Singapore' is not to get tired during the 2020s, Singapore must consider fresh ways to project the city-state internationally. Sceptics of the idea may note that if adversaries such as Pakistan and India could work together to jointly host the 1996 Cricket World Cup (granted it's a smaller event) then surely Singapore-Malaysia can overcome obstacles to jointly organizing a winning bid for the Olympic Games.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Some Yuan for Ringgit please - China’s economic muscle expands

Watch a corporate big-wig on financial television and she is certain to mention China as the key growth market for the future. At best, the United States (US) is a footnote or, at worst, a drag on sales growth.
A few days ago, the world formalized China's new status as an economic powerhouse: China was declared the second largest global economy. Some commentators suggest China will overtake the US as the premier international economy sometime during the next decade.
A Chinese Yuan coin minted in 1924

Surely, such statements are true but they hide other facts.
Much of China's population still lives in primitive conditions. Social problems caused by unchecked industrial growth, including pollution, are worrying. Nevertheless, China's economic transformation since the late 1980s is nothing short of miraculous.
The stability of the US Dollar and, hence, much of the international economy rests upon China. The deployment of China's USD 2.6 trillion reserves is a key determinant of currency exchange rates.
It used to be said that when the US sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold. Now that the entire world is down with flu, the only healthy country left standing is China. If China succumbs to the US flu, then the already weakened world may catch pneumonia!
For its part, China does all it can to maintain economic growth – for domestic reasons. Of preeminent concern to Chinese policymakers are not US politicians growling about the USD-Yuan exchange rate but the need to keep the enormous Chinese population gainfully employed and out of trouble. Gangs of desperate unemployed people are not as easily deterred by the death penalty as protesting urbanized college students.
Among China's initiatives are various policies designed to reduce its dependence on the US economy and the US Dollar. China has established domestic commodity exchanges and is slowly diversifying its reserves away from the US Dollar. A few days ago, China announced it had purchased several billion dollars of South Korean bonds.
The long term implications of China's financial policies are far reaching.
Hong Kong's role as a conduit for China will diminish as Shanghai establishes itself as a more logical financial centre serving the mainland. Financial services are not a zero sum game, but Singapore will benefit at Hong Kong's expense. Singapore and Hong Kong's compete for the title of financial hub in Southeast Asia.
Slowly but surely, the Chinese Renminbi is becoming an international currency, a natural corollary of China's international trading status. Here too, Chinese policy makers are smoothening the Yuan's path. The most recent step permits onshore trading of the Yuan-Ringgit currency pair. Small, incremental but steady steps by China's Central Bank.

In the 1980s, it was believed that corporate Japan would soon own the world. After two decades of slow to no growth, Japan has been replaced by China. Is China poised to take over the world in the next few decades?
The US Dollar or US influence will not be replaced by China anytime soon. It takes decades, if not centuries, for imperial domination to wither. Neither will the Yuan replace the US Dollar anytime soon nor will China's international influence overtake the US.
However, as the world moves to construct a post-Bretton Woods economic order, betting on China does seem a higher probability trade than betting on the US.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

‘Noble savages,’ the Ground Zero mosque and Christian ideals

Countries have every right to govern themselves in accordance with the wishes of their population. Switzerland can ban minarets, France the niqab, tightly fitting clothes in Aceh, Indonesia and so on. And, yes, the United States (US) can disallow a mosque from being constructed two blocks from New York's 'Ground Zero.'
Most countries, however, do not stand on judgement about the rest of the world (at least not anymore).
The US is different. It proclaims for itself the right to propagate freedom and democracy throughout the world. It claims to defend religious freedoms and the rights of the oppressed the world over.
In the post war era, the US has invaded tiny countries like Grenada and Panama. It has engineered coups in countries like Iran. It has hatched assassination plots against several world leaders, including Castro and Gaddafi. More recently, the US invaded and 'liberated' Iraq. There is not enough space to summarize America's interventions in Latin America.
Now, no one is naive enough to assume that countries pursue interests on the basis of morality; it's only diplomats who couch interests in terms of morality. Yet, the US debate about the Ground Zero mosque reveals a seamier side of the American population: people are free, within certain social constraints, but 'not in my back yard.'
The Americans have painted themselves into a corner. By continually lecturing the world about the rights of free peoples they have strutted about on a moral high horse for years. Although this moral reputation was hurt by supporting oppressive dictatorial regimes it took a serious body blow during the recent 'Easter egg hunt for weapons of mass destruction' war in Iraq.
The Americans are mortals just like the rest of us. Humans, by nature, often find it difficult to rise above prejudices when directly confronted with them. (Many of the same American founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, who wrote eloquently about freedoms and human dignity in the constitution, owned Negro slaves.)
America is a nation founded on Christian ideals – the early pilgrims were escaping religious persecution. No one, Muslims included, begrudges America's Christian heritage. It is a part of their country's history.
Few will be surprised if the Ground Zero mosque project will be abandoned. Contemporary Americans are a product of their environment and history. The events of 9/11 are recent history. To many Americans, Islam is the new enemy; Muslims the harbingers of terrorism.  
Now if Switzerland suddenly started invading nations in the name of freedom and democracy, the world might have a problem with Switzerland banning mosque minarets. Surely, the Americans must realize that hypocrisy raises questions about American political intentions, at least amongst the world's Noble Savages.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Ramzan mubarik, Ramadan kareem or simply ‘God Bless’

Muslims all over the world are marking the beginning of the holy month of Ramzan. It's a month not only of fasting, but also introspection.
The interpretation of Ramzan's philosophy varies between individuals. However, most will agree it's a time to reflect about the conditions of those less fortunate and to be on one's best behaviour (so that hopefully better behaviour sticks for the rest of the year).
Zakat, another one of the five compulsory pillars of Islam, is typically paid on the first day of Ramzan. Simply put, zakat is a form of alms paid annually by Muslims amounting of 2.5% of an individual's net assets. (The place of zakat in modern societies which use taxation to redistribute wealth among citizens is a subject for another post.)
Ramzan is also the time when most predominantly Muslim societies 'slow down,' often courtesy of sympathetic legislation. Entire populations become nocturnal species for this one month!
Restaurants open around Iftar (sunset) time and don't close until the early morning hours. Shops, too, adjust timings to reflect the night time nature of their buyers. Courtesy of their respective central banks, financial institutions have reduced working hours – even those banks indulging in un-Islamic interest based banking enjoy shorter working hours!
Foreign businessmen with dealings with the Islamic world tend to 'write off' the month, similar to the Christmas season in most parts of the Western world. They try not to 'disturb' their Muslim clients during Ramzan.
In Singapore, where one is on the periphery of the Islamic world, the Ramzan spirit is available to those who seek it. The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) redoubles its fund raising efforts; the Azan is heard in certain food courts at iftar time; and, as we get closer to Eid, Geylang will start to wear a more festive look.
Singaporean Muslims may be subject to Sharia intrusions into their private lives in inheritance and marriage matters. Thankfully, however, the incursions don't extend to mandatory fasting. Muslims who choose not to fast will be held accountable only in God's court – not the local branch of a Sharia court.
Ramzan mubarik to all my Muslim readers – fasters, feasters and half-Muslims included!

Friday, 13 August 2010

The Crescent, the Cross and the State: healthy competition?

I am not certain whether the Islamist spin machine wrote about Christian charities allegedly abducting children from earthquake struck Haiti. Or squeal about claims that Christian missionaries in many parts of the world 'bribe' the poor with meals in order to convert to Christianity.
Nevertheless, Islamist charities operating in flood affected areas of Pakistan are being portrayed as a renewed threat to the state by the mainstream media. Similar reporting was spurred by the October 2005 earthquake. At the time, President Musharraf faced stern calls from sections of the international community to ban several Islamist charities working in the earthquake zones. He resisted.
I might be wrong but charitable work is normally associated with religious devotion. It is a positive aspect of almost every religion, Islam and Christianity included. There must be many of Christian charities doing good work all over the world. (I myself entered the world at Karachi's Holy Family Hospital. A hospital established in 1948 by the Medical Mission Sisters, a Roman Catholic religious order for women based in the United Stated.)
Islamic charities too have a place in the world, not just in Muslim countries. Compassion and kindness, like art and science, knows no artificially constructed borders.
A canal on the Indus River, in more normal times

For people made destitute by the flooding of the Indus River, any help is worthwhile. Most families are more concerned with rebuilding their lives, less interested in determining whether the cash came from a Christian charity (many are active in Pakistan), a multilateral organization, the Pakistan government or an Islamic charity. Pakistani Rupees have no ideological colour per se.
For commentators to harp on about Islamic charities allegedly associated with this or that 'terrorist' group focuses on details at the expense of the real issue.
Firstly, why is the Pakistan government infrastructure unable to provide sufficient relief to the affected areas, thus creating a breach which 'dubious' charities eagerly fill? Secondly, if these charities are indeed associated with 'anti-state' elements then where do they receive their funding?
The long term solution lies in improving the Pakistani state's machinery to respond to disasters and, simultaneously, implementing preventive policies such as sustainable water management measures; and, of course, in regulating charities through a robust, enforceable legal framework.
A 'Red Crescent' stamp issued by Turkey in 1928

For the international media to focus on the work of religious charities is an insult to the people affected by the tragedy. Viewing personal tragedy through an ideological prism only furthers a 'Clash of Civilizations' mentality.
Few will argue that a flag flying the Crescent or the Cross looks best guiding an army of charitable workers – not inspiring soldiers marching off to war. The volunteers of East London's Christian Mission, known today as the Salvation Army, know this fact only too well.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Pakistan: a national army, a ‘gora’ president and the New Raj

At Pakistan's independence in 1947, the officer class of the newly formed Pakistan army were as anglicized as they come. Orders were issued in English, whisky was drunk in the officer's mess and orderlies and privates were just that: ordinary people.
Officers were privileged and came from the landed gentry. The reasons for this condition are complex but suffice it to say that the British colonial master found it easier to rule by cultivating a group of loyal benefactors.

Anyone examining today's Pakistan Army sees a different demographic altogether. Along with the rise of the middle class, the army has also lost its 'elite' quality.
The change in the character of the military's officer class reflects the social changes within Pakistan. The 'awami' or national army is a reality. Surely, there are military families with three or more generations of soldiers but being a 'gentleman' is no longer a prerequisite to becoming an army officer. (Nor is the ability to imbibe whisky without showing signs of inebriation!)
The army draws soldiers from ordinary Pakistanis. These same Pakistanis are then provided an institutional character, through training and educational programs.
Pakistan's politicians, however, seemed to have missed the train. They are drawn from the same pot as their forebears 60 years ago.
Unfortunately, the pot is as black today as it was in Pakistan's early days.
With some exceptions, the average politician still represents the lands granted to them by the British in return for loyalty to the Crown. Only that the Crown has been replaced by the Pakistani state.
Here's the problem: the British were colonial rulers explicitly pursuing selfish national interests with little regard for the 'natives,' except to the extent the natives adversely affected governance. Pakistan, however, is a free post-colonial nation and its politicians, theoretically, have interests intertwined with the population.
If Zardari, Pakistan's accidental President, is representative of the broader class Pakistanis call politicians then something is terribly wrong.
Zardari's recent behaviour has been disgraceful.
First, contrary to the advice of many in Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, he refused to cancel his state visit to Britain. That would have been the normal reaction to Pakistan being unceremoniously slapped in the face by the new British leader during a state visit to India. Subsequently, when the extent of the disastrous flooding became known Zardari still refused to adjust his official schedule and return to Pakistan. (Let's not even bring up the many allegations of his corruption.)

In reality, Zardari reflects the 'New Raj:' a class of politicians who view themselves as the Rulers and the huddled, dirty masses as the Ruled. The New Raj does not identify itself with national problems – they are 'above' such petty matters. Even worse, the New Raj does not care about the Ruled.
Is it any wonder that the Ruled are slowly turning to Islamic parties for salvation?
Frustrated desperation leads people to do silly things. And silly is exactly what support for Taliban inspired ideological tyrants means for a population used to praying at Sufi shrines and living peacefully with Shias and other 'deviants' in their midst. A population which enjoys colours, music, singing and dancing, not forced to remove all enjoyment from daily lives.
When the gap between the Ruler and the Ruled is wider than an overflowing Indus River it is hard to stem the tide of nature. Even the 'Awami Army' appears to be getting tired of playing house and cleaning up after the politicians once every decade.
Now if I were General Kayani, the humble son of a Junior Commissioned Officer, I surely would not be too upset that people are throwing shoes at Zardari. Nor that the motorcades of Parliamentarians visiting flood affected areas are being pelted with stones by ordinary citizens.
The people of Pakistan deserve better than the New Raj and I don't mean the Mullahs.
NB – 'Gora' is a slang Urdu term for white people. In some ways, it can be likened to 'ang moh' as used in Singapore. 'Awami,' loosely translated, means national.

Friday, 6 August 2010

Israeli grapes and Singapore’s economic nationalism

I recently purchased some grapes from my local supermarket. As the grapes were of Israeli origin, I got to thinking about the conflict between nationalism and economic liberalism.
In the Gulf Arab states where the economic boycott of Israeli goods remains strong, I would never have found Israeli grapes. A cynic might say, "Not true. The same grapes would have been described as being of Jordanian origin." Yes, it's rumoured that a large quantity of fruits in the Arab world are Israeli but listed as Jordanian to appease local sensibilities.

The underlying question is the extent to which a 'principled stand' should affect quality of life. Should I have given up on the grapes just because they were Israeli? I could have easily picked up some other variety of fruit.
It is a complicated question with no definitive answer. From time to time, I try and force fruit upon myself for health reasons and I do enjoy grapes. I was tired of eating bananas. Hence, I decided to go ahead and support the Israeli economy. (Yes, I can ease my conscience by the notion that the bulk of farm labour in Israel is provided by poor Arabs.)
In principle, I will not sacrifice my quality of life for purely ideological reasons. If there is an acceptable substitute then fine. Otherwise, if necessary, there is nothing wrong with 'dancing with the devil.'
Pragmatism and common sense trump ideology.
Admittedly, I open myself up to accusations of hypocrisy by even raising the subject of not purchasing Israeli produce. After all, the Singapore-Israel security relationship is no secret. Singapore's military conscription system is partially modelled on the Israeli framework – although unlike in Israel females are exempt from service in Singapore.
A 'Singapore – Israel' internet search hints at the nature of the bilateral relationship by placing in focus the presence of various Israeli defense companies operating in the republic. Then there is the Singapore Israel Industrial R and D Foundation, sponsored by Singapore's Economic Development Board and Israel's Office of the Chief Scientist (yes, even science can be monolithic and state controlled!), "to promote, facilitate and support joint industrial R&D projects, between companies from Israel and Singapore, which would lead to successful commercialization."

Begin, Carter and Sadat at the signing of the Camp David peace agreement in 1978
In the final analysis, there is no contradiction between nationalism and economic prosperity. A state's obligations are to improve the quality of life for its people. Learning from the 'best in class' service providers, even if that be the Israeli defense establishment, is no bad thing.
Science, like art, recognizes no borders and attempting to impose artificial boundaries on cultural and scientific exchanges is a disservice to humanity.

*Perhaps Pakistan has something to learn from all of Israel's 'hostile' Arab neighbours who recognize Israel. When Arab nations can enter into peace agreements with Israel and maintain embassies in Tel Aviv then why not Pakistan? That's a subject for another day.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Singapore’s ‘foreign talent’ debate and the Temasek dilemma

Media reports suggest that Temasek has started hunting for a new Chief Executive Officer. After last year's Goodyear controversy, I suspect the authorities will proceed more cautiously this time around.
Already, a debate about the ideal CEO's nationality has begun to simmer. Not surprising as the debate is part of a long standing discussion about immigration and the role of 'foreign talent' in Singapore.

As far back as 2008, Ministers were addressing the issue in Parliament. Minister Mah Bow Tan said, "If we want more foreign workers, we must collectively make adjustments to resolve the social problems. If we want fewer foreign workers, we must be prepared for slower growth, higher costs, lower service levels and delays in the completion of our flats, our roads, our rail lines."
There are two separate issues at play.
Firstly, there is the import of unskilled labour for menial and semi-skilled jobs which adds numbers (but not necessarily skills) of people and fills a genuine gap. Singaporeans generally refer to this pool when complaining about rising crime rates, littering or poor English language skills.
Secondly, there is the category referred to as 'foreign talent.' Ostensibly, these are qualified professionals who arrive in Singapore to fill specialized jobs which the domestic labour force cannot satisfy. Bankers, scientists and researchers fall into this category – as will the new CEO of Temasek if she is a foreigner.
The second category sometimes establishes new businesses and creates demand and jobs within the Singapore economy. It is members of this category that occasionally make Singapore a permanent home and bring with them different cultural, even religious, norms which potentially cause social dislocations.
It is easy to blur the lines between the two categories, as many Singaporeans do.
Broadly speaking, the great mass of immigrants; the ones that fill up trains and buses, litter the streets, indulge in petty crime and cannot speak English are part of the unskilled labour pool necessary for the normal functioning of Singapore. They deal with the city's garbage; maintain the roads, cut the grass and so on.

Singaporean unhappiness with the second (skilled) category is of a different nature. At times, it is believed that incoming 'foreign talent' has no special skills and the jobs they 'take' can easily be filled by locals. This feeds into the view that permanent residency (PRs) and citizenship criteria are too lax and most new Singaporeans are not committed to the city-state.
On the contrary, many believe that these immigrants either use Singapore as a 'half-way house' for greener pastures in the west or as a way to enrich themselves through subsidies provided by the Singaporean state, e.g. HDB housing grants.
The truth, of course, is always found in the shades of grey.
Surely, there are many foreigners who have little short term commitment to Singapore while others have planted deep roots within their community. Some 'foreigners' try to extract subsidies from the state while others pay more to the treasury in taxes in one year than many Singaporeans will pay during their entire working lives, a 'reverse subsidy.'
It is hard to generalize. However, within the debate, a few facts are apparent.
Singaporeans must distinguish between the two categories of foreigners within their midst. One is a temporary group with social skills that are typically a product of the poor economic environment from their home countries. While that does not give such foreigners a license to litter or spit one must be sensitive to their backgrounds and implement policies accordingly.
Also, 'true-blue' Singaporeans deserve more transparency regarding long term immigration policies. A Singaporean's stake in her society extends beyond just her state subsidized HDB apartment - her involvement must permeate debates surrounding contentious social issues such as immigration, race, etc.
Discussions surrounding the choice for Temasek's CEO has implications far beyond the management of Singapore's sovereign wealth: it may help determine the framework for the role of foreign talent in Singapore's future.


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, 2 August 2010

American GIs and the little told Japanese-American war story

Within any society, members of the majority community have many explicit and implicit advantages. While self-perception has much to do with individual behaviour and how society is embraced, certain conditions are beyond such powers.
Is it a coincidence that Hollywood created World War Two (WW II) movies often have Italian-American soldiers fighting the enemy but never Japanese-Americans? Yes, some Americans of German and Italian origin faced discrimination during the Second World War but it pales in comparison to the Japanese immigrant's experience during the 1900s.

Under Presidential Order 9066 of February 1942, the United States government forced all Japanese-Americans and Japanese residing on the west coast of the US mainland to relocate to 'War Relocation Camps.' Approximately 110,000 Japanese-Americans were 'imprisoned' in such camps – if one is permitted to use that term.
It is relevant to note that Japanese immigrants were concentrated mainly in the California region. In 1941, of the 127,000 recorded Japanese immigrants, almost 90% lived in California and 80,000 were American citizens by birth.
While it was the war against Japan which sparked the internment of Japanese-Americans, the legal frictions did not arise overnight. A discriminatory trend had been in place for many years prior to the attack on Pearl Harbour.
In 1905, California outlawed marriages between Caucasians and 'Mongolians.' Mongolians being the contemporary term used to characterize all persons of East Asian origin. A year later San Francisco barred Japanese Americans from attending 'Caucasian' public schools. Instead, Japanese students attended schools in the city's Chinatown.
(Many outside of South Asia cannot see the distinction between Pakistanis and Indians, while many outside East Asia cannot distinguish the difference between the Chinese and Japanese.)
With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, immigration into the US from Asia was effectively outlawed. Building upon the provisions or the Immigration Act of 1790, the 1924 Act barred all 'non-white' emigrants to the US as non-whites were ineligible to be naturalized as US citizens (solely on the basis of their skin colour).
The owner of the store, a US citizen and graduate of the University of California system, was subsequently rounded up and relocated to a camp. He spent the entire war years in detention

German and Italian Americans suffered much less hardship during WW II. A few thousand were detained and interned but given the size of their respective communities it was virtually impossible to implement 'Japanese' policies with them. Among other factors, it helps to be physically and culturally similar to the majority community.
In the post 9/11 environment, the world is once again seeing shades of behaviour based on racial and religious heritage. US war mentality, as epitomized by certain provisions of the Patriot Act, is dangerously close to war hysteria.
Sometimes the world needs reminding that injustices, here and now, are hard to unravel through Congressional resolutions in future decades.

NB – It is necessary to point out that in 1988, the US government apologized to Japanese Americans for its behaviour during WW II. The formal legislation stated that US government actions were based on "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership."