Sunday, 25 December 2011

Seasons greetings

Merry Christmas and best wishes for 2012 to all my readers. Thank you for visiting the Grand Moofti Speaks!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Singapore’s mid-life crisis and the ‘deterioration by complacency’ syndrome

There was a time not too long ago that the phrase, "It can't happen in Singapore" was applicable to most any situation. After all, Singapore was clinically efficient. The city and its leadership had the Midas touch. The republic went from Third World to First World in one generation.
Notwithstanding his authoritarian tendencies, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) gave the world lessons on economic development using Singapore as an example. The city-state and LKY's clean government were models emulated across the entire developing world.
Yet, some of Singapore's lustre has worn off recently. Reports of violent crime, including murders, are more commonplace. Heavy rains cause routine disruptions, even floods. Orchard Road, Singapore's shopping showcase for tourists, seems particularly prone to flooding. The city's hitherto pristine infrastructure has aged. Litter is taken for granted. On some pavements, pedestrians walk at their own risk – cyclists brazenly flout the law banning bicycles from sidewalks.

The most recent atypical sign to find its way into Singaporean consciousness: problems on the subway system. 
Ong Teng Cheong, then Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, inaugurating the Toa Payoh MRT station in November 1987
Machines, including subway trains, no matter how well maintained will breakdown from time to time. Singapore's two older subway lines, the 'red' and 'green' lines, have operated for over two decades so occasional stoppages are to be expected.

However, all is not well in Singapore if the subway system breaks down three times in as many days. Add in the other recent 'surprising' occurrences in Singapore and a case for 'deterioration by complacency' can be made.
So much for the "it can't happen in Singapore" principle.
Singapore 2011 is not 1970s Singapore. In 2011, economic growth is no longer sufficient to keep the Little Red Dot's population satisfied. More and more, quality of life issues will determine the longevity of government ministers.
All is not yet lost. Singapore's finances are in good shape. Large cash reserves are available for targeted spending on problem areas, such as public infrastructure.
Moreover, unlike most international state owned enterprises, Singapore's public sector corporations like subway operator SMRT are not reliant on government handouts for survival or growth. SMRT is self-financing and has the means to spend its way out of short term problems, like recent train breakdowns.
Singapore is no longer young. The republic has reached middle age.
Coming to terms with middle age is not easy for most. The body starts to creak and groan. The body also does not have the same physical vitality of the past.
Singapore's mid-life crisis may not be extreme but it has arrived.
Perhaps it is time for Singapore to start popping some vitamin pills and exercise more? With additional hard work the city might just be able to maintain its competitive edge for another few decades.
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Monday, 12 December 2011

History’s new era: the Dollar, Euro and the Age of Revolution

Singapore authorities like to compartmentalize Singaporeans into four basic categories: Chinese, Malay, Indian and others. Consequently, all Singaporean individuals are subsumed into one of the four racial groupings. Such cataloguing helps make order out of seeming incoherence. 
Historians resemble policymakers in the area of 'convenient labelling.' Historians tend to break history down into periods, e.g. the Middle Ages, the Age of Industrialization, etc. Additionally, historians are forced to pick out specific events as turning points – that time when the old disappeared and the new entered.
The world has reached a turning point in history. The post-World War Two period is over and a new era has begun.
Following the defeat of the Axis (Germany and Japan) by the Allies [United States and the Soviet Union (USSR)], in 1945, the world settled into a rhythm dominated by the US and the USSR. The US was ably supported by its client states in the 'Free World.' The USSR was supported by Soviet client states particularly in Eastern Europe.
The post-war time was an age of decolonization and optimism. Individuals, revolutionary and otherwise, fought to change the world. Revolutionaries like Che Guevara spawned during these years. Red terror pitted itself against white terror in many parts of the world, especially Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa. Martin Luther King's  civil rights movement had its day.  
USSR stamp demanding freedom for African nations and peoples (1961)
Surely, there were some appalling moments in the post-war era.
The world came close to destruction during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Conventional wars and insurgencies were commonplace. Deaths from disease, famine and natural calamities make contemporary disasters seem almost merciful by comparison.
Nevertheless, for historians and the 'powers that be' the world was sane and for the most part politically predictable. The rules attached to the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction were respected by both the USSR and the US.
The world remained balanced on its axis.
Then the economic inefficiencies of communism came to the fore. Soviet military power surrendered to a virtually bankrupt economy, tipped over the edge by the decade long Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979 – 1989).
Consequently, the post World War Two Russian Empire collapsed. Communist regimes and Soviet dependencies broke away from Moscow's rule and created independent nation states. The United States revelled in the glow of victory. The Cold War was over and the US became an unrivalled global power.
Unfortunately for the US, the nation's unsurpassed global dominance is decaying. By many metrics, the US economy's global dominance is not nearly as sharp as a few decades ago. The US Dollar's status as reserve currency is in decline. Moreover, the Global War on Terror, along with its two major 'subplots' in Iraq and Afghanistan, has taken a toll in the US economy.
The world is changing in many other ways.
Much has been written about Asia's ascendancy. The term 'Asia's Century' has gained currency.
The Islamic world is in political chaos. Secular nationalists have been discredited after decades in power. Islamic ideologues have stepped in to fill the ideological void. Even Turkey with its powerful military jealously guarding Kemalist principles could not prevent the dilution of its secularist republic.
Europe has come a long way from Monnet's European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s. However, the continent has reached a new defining moment in the form of the European debt and Euro currency crisis. Europe's immediate future threatens to unravel its recent post-war history.
Economically, the Bretton-Woods system is dead. The International Monetary Fund exercises limited influence over the world's economy at just the time such control is most required. Economic power centers are gravitating away from traditional post-war geographies.
The Post World War Two era is over. A new era is in the works. What exactly will characterize the new era is difficult to state with certainty. However, several decades from now historians will surely be searching for an appropriate label. For some reason, the Age of Revolution comes to mind.
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Islam’s modernization, ‘Arabization’ and contemporary challenges

The 'Arabization' of Islam is not a new concept. Tensions between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims have existed since Islam's earliest days. During the eigth century Umayyad Caliphate non-Arab Muslims (Mawali) were often seen as inferior to their Arab counterparts. 
World's Muslims by percentage of total population (source: Wikipedia)

The reasons for this view are complex. Politically, early Arabs who founded the Islamic Caliphate preferred not to share power with non-Arabs. Essentially, this was a mechanism to keep control of the empire's wealth.
Additionally, the Koran is in Arabic. Hence, Arab speakers had a distinct advantage in understanding and interpreting the Koran. This permitted Arab speakers to influence and control debates, political and spiritual.
It was not until recently that the Koran was made widely available in translation form. Conservative clerics argued that it was heresy to publish the Koran in any language other than Arabic. It was in order to counter such ideas that Turkey's Kemal Ataturk famously remarked, "The Arabic alphabet had not been revealed by [the angel] Gabriel."*

A copy of the first publication of a Turkish translation of the Koran (1935)
In the last few decades, frictions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims have increased as both groups vie for dominance amongst the faithful. Importantly, neither the Arab nor the non-Arab camp can point to unrivalled leadership.
Leadership of the Arab nations includes the obvious contenders: Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Non-Arab countries are more mixed in their outlook with 'domestic' Islam manifesting its own character. These 'local versions' of Islam make it harder to identify clear leaders. Nevertheless, Turkey star shines bright. Malaysia's economic progress notwithstanding, the country is too far removed from Islam's mainstream to be a serious leadership contender.
Pakistan has the potential to be a leadership contender. However, given Pakistan's weak socio-economic environment the country is out of the running, at least for the time being. Nonetheless, because of Pakistan's extensive interaction with Peninsula Arabs, the South Asian nation will play an important role in the strategic evolution of Islam's character.  
Then there is Persian Iran, the leader of Islam's Shia community. Iran plays a central role, either as a spoiler or enabler, within the wider Islamic world. It is estimated that between 10-20 percent of the world's Muslims are Shiite.
Not surprisingly, in a divided Islamic world, clerics, theologians and politicians cannot to agree on very much, leave alone Islam's role in a Muslim society. That Saudi clerics argue granting women the right to drive leads to sexual promiscuity, the Pakistan Air Force has female pilots flying fighter jets and some Turkish clerics argue Islam only requires three prayers daily (not the traditional  five) reveals the depth of the divide.
Islam's strengths and weaknesses rest on the religion's lack of unitary enforceable leadership. A noisy debate amongst Islam's culturally diverse members provides the best way to modernize Islam to face contemporary social challenges.
* Ataturk: An Intellectual Biography. M. Sukru Hanioglu. Princeton University Press. P. 217.
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Pakistanis in 1900s Singapore

Pakistan existed neither as a concept nor a nation-state until the 1940s. Singapore, on the contrary, has been a flourishing port city with a diverse population for many centuries.
It is easy to point to the impact of Chinese, Malays and Indians on Singapore's history. That Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, along with English, are Singapore's official languages is testament to that fact. However, within these larger groups there are 'subdivisions' which too have added to the rich flavours of modern Singapore.
The initial impact of 'Pakistanis' on 1900s Singapore occurred primarily through the British Indian army. Soldiering seems to come naturally to many Muslims from Northwest India, today's Pakistan.
Pari (Fairy) Lake located in the Swat Valley of Pakistan's Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province

Among the military contingents located in Singapore at the time was the Fifth Light Infantry Regiment. The Fifth Light Infantry Regiment contained mainly Muslim soldiers from Punjab and the Northwest Frontier Province. These same two provinces, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the Northwest Frontier province) provide the bulk of the troops and officers for present day Pakistan's military.
The regiment arrived in Singapore in October 1914, in the midst of Europe's first 'world' war. The 1914-18 war saw the Ottoman Empire, the precursor to modern Turkey, side with Germany against the British. Until its disbandment in 1924, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire had for many centuries also held the title of Islam's Caliph. The Caliph is the spiritual and moral leader of all Muslims.
Consequently, when soldiers of the Fifth Light Infantry fell prey to rumours that the regiment was being shipped to Europe to fight against the Sultan's (Caliph's) troops, half of the regiment's troops mutinied against the British. The other half of the regiment scattered across the island. Eight hundred mutineers roamed the island looking for British targets. Order was not fully restored for approximately ten days.
In the aftermath of the 1915 Mutiny, colonial authorities passed the 'Reserve Force and Civil Guard Ordinance' imposing compulsory military training for all male subjects aged between 18–55; Singapore's first experience with National Service. 
Indian Muslim Soldiers of the Fifth Light Infantry being executed at Outram Road
Additionally, British administrators required all Indians in Singapore to register themselves with the authorities. The registration requirement did not sit well with most Indians, who had little to do with the mutineers or their cause.
Singaporean academics tend to couch the 1915 Mutiny in the context of Muslim soldiers unwilling to fight other Muslims. History refutes this argument.
Muslims routinely fought for the British (and other colonial powers) against other Muslims, e.g. Afghanistan. At times, Indian Muslim soldiers even fought against troops loyal to the Mughal Empire. The fact that Malay Muslim soldiers under the command of the Sultan of Johor assisted British colonial authorities in capturing mutineers from the Fifth Light Infantry regiment also puts paid to the 'pan-Islamist' argument.
Whatever one's views on pan-Islamism, one fact is clear: Pakistanis have been making waves in Singapore for almost a century now!
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Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of small and medium sized businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Singapore’s casinos, crime, money lending and the case for ‘National Referendums’

Some years ago the Singapore government announced its decision to permit casinos in the hitherto straitlaced city-state. It was time to reinvent Singapore.   The government was searching for new ways to keep economic growth chugging along at the high rates Singaporeans took for granted.
At the time, it seemed that I was a minority voice opposed to the introduction of legalized gambling in our own backyard. My argument against casinos was not a moral one. If people wish to gamble that is their choice. Even without the casinos there were enough opportunities for Singaporeans to gamble away their wealth.
I felt that Singapore's brand image as a clean, friendly, though fun, place to live would be irreparably diluted.
Surely, the pros and cons of Singapore's casinos are contentious. Different analysts will reach opposing conclusion. However, the case against legalizing casinos in Singapore is supported by several recent developments.
Loan sharking activity has reached epidemic proportions. Moreover, based on anecdotal evidence, money lending (legal or otherwise) must be one of Singapore's fastest growing industries. Many observers cite circumstantial evidence linking gambling to increased prostitution, theft and other petty crimes.

Surely, the casinos have also had a positive impact on economic growth and real estate prices. Ask any real estate agent. Certainly, the average Singaporean real-estate punter had a field day deciding which locations would benefit most from the integrated resorts (aka casinos). However, the casinos' impact on Singapore's economic growth is hard to isolate from broader trends within the economy.
However, Singapore cannot rewrite history. The decision has been made and Singapore must move forward. Singaporeans must live with the consequences of having casinos within its borders.
One discussion point from the casino experience pertains to the process through which Singapore resolves potentially divisive national issues in the future.
Democratic governments, including Singapore's, derive political legitimacy through the electoral process. Legally, the Singapore government is empowered through successive parliamentary elections to make difficult decisions on behalf of the population. The government has used these same powers to create a modern, vibrant and thriving republic.
However, these last few years have seen a sea change in Singapore's political atmosphere. Citizens are clamouring for a greater voice in their future. In turn, the government is actively seeking ways to increase engagement with the population.
One solution for resolving issues of national importance is devolving decision making powers to citizens through National Referendums.
A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. Particularly for smaller nations, referendums are a useful tool to generate public debate with a view to achieving a decision all citizens can respect.
Switzerland, a role model for Singapore in so many ways, places great emphasis on referendums. Referendums are an important part of Swiss political life. In Switzerland, referendums may be forced upon the nation by popular consensus and referendum results are legally binding upon the government.
For Singapore's educated and increasingly politicized population, the National Referendum is an attractive option. It is an idea whose time has arrived in Singapore.
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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.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Singapore’s cost of living and global business competitiveness

Several different currents flow through today's Singapore. Some of these must be cause for consternation to policymakers. They ebb and flow at a differing pace but all combine to form a torrent as ordinary citizens vent frustration at the government.
Ensuring Singapore's economic competitiveness is one of the most vexing issues for policymakers, especially in light of increasing costs. Some analysts believe travel to Singapore has suffered lately due to the city's high cost structure. Surely, some of the higher costs are due to the appreciation of the Singapore Dollar (SGD) versus the US Dollar (USD).
Increasing the value of the SGD is an explicit tool in the government's fight against inflation.
Singapore's increasing cost of living threatens to impact the city-states international competitiveness
There is more than a kernel of truth in the idea that Singapore is becoming an increasingly expensive city. According to Mercer's Worldwide Cost of Living Survey conducted in March 2011, Singapore joined the top ten most expensive cities of the world for the first time in the country's history. In 2010, Singapore ranked eleventh.
Undoubtedly, enlisting in the ranks of the world's most expensive cities is not in itself cause for concern. That is, as long as the Republic's economic activity continues to move up the value chain, i.e. towards sophisticated manufacturing, research and technology, etc.
However, if placed in the context of Singapore's regional competitors then Singapore's soaring cost base is reason to worry.
Singapore has prided itself on being a more cost-effective business environment than Hong Kong. In 2011, again according to the Mercer survey, Hong Kong became a cheaper city than Singapore. The change is significant.

Additionally, none of Singapore's Southeast Asian regional competitors made it into the top 50 list of most expensive global cities. Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Jakarta are all absent.
Of course, there is more to evaluating a business environment than simply the cost of living, that too for expatriates. Issues such as quality of life, taxation, legal system, size of domestic market and regional connectivity all must be considered.

Clearly, Singapore has competitive strengths in several of these other factors. To date, few businesspersons have abandoned Singapore for Melbourne solely on the basis of Melbourne ranking number twenty-one in the Mercer cost of living index.
Singapore's test lies in reducing costs without affecting earnings growth for its residents. Arguably, the short term answer is cutting taxation. Longer term, focusing on developing clusters of value added industries might prove to be the answer.
The government's focus on establishing Singapore as a medical and life sciences research and development hub seem to be having some success. Singapore's emphasis on positioning itself as a broader knowledge / education hub feeds into this effort. If successful, these types of initiatives will catalyze the city-state into creating higher paid, value added jobs.
Short term, cutting taxes may be economically difficult in an atmosphere where populist pressure to increase expenditure on social welfare programs is rampant. However, given Singapore's historically prudent fiscal management and high level of reserves the taxation option deserves greater study.

Decades of painstaking efforts resulted in Singapore transforming itself as Southeast Asia's commercial hub. It is naive to believe Singapore's relevance as a regional hub will disappear anytime soon. However, policymakers are faced with difficult choices ahead.  
Singapore's financial managers must ensure the city's higher cost of living does not eclipse other positive factors (e.g. transparency, low taxation, English speaking). Regional cities like Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and even Jakarta are attractive options in their own way. During the last decade, the trio has improved their physical infrastructure. Moreover, these cities have the added advantage of large domestic markets. Singapore must quickly adapt to the newer, more sophisticated regional environment if it is to retain its appeal as a regional business center.
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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.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Singapore’s first world problems: quality of life and social security

One significant factor in Singapore's economic growth of the last few decades has been quantity: a much larger quantity of people. Singapore's population grew by approximately two million during the last two decades.
Adding two million consumers, or a growth rate of approximately 67 percent over Singapore's 1990 population of three million, is a powerful driver of growth.
Singapore's new residents did all the things that residents do. They paid rent, bought from local shops and used the entire host of goods and services that ordinary people do in an ordinary life. In the process, government coffers filled up with taxes, including through the (regressive) Goods and Services Tax (GST).
Until recently most, if not all, Singaporeans benefitted from the influx.
A few years ago things started to go awry. Some sort of a tipping point was reached. Singapore's normally immaculate infrastructure started to show signs of age.
Perhaps it began with the collapse of Nicholl Highway. However, most observers shrugged off the tunnel collapse as a onetime event. 
Singapore's normally immaculate infrastructure shows signs of age (and complacency?)

Then Orchard Road began flooding ... regularly. And Singapore's public transport system began to creak and groan under the weight of human traffic. Litter, conspicuously absent until this century, started appearing. Bicycles came to dominate footpaths. In some neighborhoods walking became a dangerous pastime. Loan sharking became an epidemic. Murdered dead bodies were not front page news anymore. 
Suddenly, rising property prices were no longer a 'feel good' factor for increasing spending and wealth. Property affordability moved out of reach from the average Singaporean.
FT no longer stood for 'foreign talent' but for 'foreign trash' instead. For most Singaporeans, littering, crime and various other social ills ultimately found their origin with the influx of foreigners.
The ruling People's Action Party (PAP) finally realized that convincing Singaporeans' about the importance of foreign talent was not doing the PAP vote bank any favors. Consequently, popular discontent was reflected not only by netizens but also by voters in Singapore's presidential and general elections.
Slightly late, the PAP decided to change gears on its immigration policy. At the same time, Singapore's double digit economic growth rates vanished due to the global financial crisis which began in 2008.
Undoubtedly, Singapore's traditional social contract 'give me economic growth and I will ask no questions' is in transition. What should come next for this young and successful city-state is debatable.
However, Singapore's historical singular focus on GDP growth rates and other quantitative analytical tools to manage the island must be balanced with a qualitative, judgemental approach. The debate is particularly pressing as Ministry of Manpower recently revealed that pay levels of Singapore's low wage earners stagnated during the last decade.
Singapore's transition to a developed state is virtually complete. Modern Singapore's problems reflect the country's newly found developed status. The challenges now relate to 'quality of life' issues and constructing a sensible social safety net.
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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.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Singapore’s Internal Security Act, opposition politics and financial transparency

Malaysia's proposal to repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA) has obvious repercussions for Singapore. Many Singaporean social activists and opposition workers have jumped on the 'repeal ISA' bandwagon. Former ISA detainees and their family members will surely make cogent arguments for the ISA's repeal.
Undoubtedly, the ISA is draconian in nature. The legislation provides the government with a reasonably free hand in attending to 'national security' threats. Nevertheless, despite the desirability of repealing Singapore's ISA, there are several reasons for Singapore's opposition politicians to focus on other areas for reform, specifically financial transparency.
Singapore society is more open today than during the 1980s and 1990s. In today's Singapore, it is difficult for the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to use the ISA in a heavy handed manner against opposition politicians. The ISA is much too blunt an instrument for today's complex society. Unjustifiable unilaterally action will certainly evoke a sharp response from Singaporeans.
Surely, Singapore's government controls virtually the entire local media, print and broadcast. However, media accountability has increased with the proliferation of alternative news sites. In many instances, the expression of discontent on contentious issues through nonmainstream media, including public transport and immigration policies, have forced policy makers to revisit unpopular policies.
Moreover, Singaporeans themselves have changed. The nanny state is slowly fading into history. The Singapore voter cannot be taken for granted any more. While the People's Action Party (PAP) may not be in danger of losing the next general elections, the PAP's critical two thirds majority may be at stake. In such a charged environment, jailing opposition leaders for all but the gravest of reasons will most certainly be counterproductive for PAP's vote bank.
However, the most obvious reason for the opposition to focus on issues of financial transparency over repealing the ISA is utilitarian.
Most Singaporeans are least concerned by the ISA. The ISA does not touch the lives of ordinary citizens. Average Singaporeans are more anxious about 'bread and butter' issues. Thus, if one interpretation of democracy is 'the greatest good for the greatest number,' then concentrating on financial transparency will be the wiser choice.
Many Singaporeans will relate to an opposition shining the spotlight on Temasek Holdings and Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). Evolving more transparent rules for utilizing national wealth managed by Temasek and GIC will strike a chord with many.
The government will be foolhardy to use the ISA for short term political gains in contemporary Singapore. Likewise, only a misguided opposition will turn the ISA into a bogeyman 'us versus them' issue with the government. Instead, Singapore's opposition is better advised to raise its voice to encourage greater transparency in the use of Singapore's national wealth. Given a weak and divided opposition, opponents of the PAP must draw their battle lines carefully.
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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 

Monday, 3 October 2011

Islam’s perverse time machine: welcome to the nineteenth century!

For many women in parts of the Islamic world time travel is a daily affair. Beyond the confines of their own home, women remain non-entities with limited legal status. Outside their house, these women find themselves back in the nineteenth century.
I am not referring to social discrimination against women. Unfortunately, much of the discrimination is state sanctioned and enforced by law courts. Take the case of a Saudi Arabian woman sentenced to ten lashes for driving in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Taliban style edicts prohibit Saudi women from working alongside men, driving or travelling without permission from a male guardian. To be sure, the King pardoned the Saudi woman driver but consider the implications for a society in which women are denied basic fundamental rights such as freedom of movement and association. There are no school runs by mothers, no gainful employment opportunities for women (barring a few vocations such as doctors, teachers, etc.), simply sitting at home idling away time cooking and cleaning.
Normally, I prefer not to make judgements about how foreign societies order themselves. A society may divide occupations through a hereditary caste system, ban the construction of minarets or legalize marijuana based on its own specific cultural context.
However, the Saudi situation is different. Theoretically, all Saudi legal edicts are based upon Islamic law. Consequently, the presumption is that all Muslim women, irrespective of location, should not be permitted to drive. Or work alongside men. Or travel alone without being accompanied by a male guardian.
Saudi Arabia, due to the location of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina in the country, is special for many Muslims. It is no coincidence that the Saudi Monarch refers to himself as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Events in Saudi Arabia influence conservative Islamic thought across the entire Islamic world. Militant ideologues from Pakistan to Morocco seek moral authority from Saudi decrees and behaviour.
Islamic law is not a static concept. Islamic law is dynamic. It caters to evolving societies. Societies are living creatures, always progressing and evolving. Perhaps there were historical reasons for such strictures on women in the eight century. Perhaps these ideas came into being to protect women.
Whatever the reason, such thinking is obsolete in contemporary societies, Muslim or not.
Genuine social reform in Saudi Arabia, especially pertaining to the rights of women, will provide an enormous boost to Islamic progress. Muslim women will shed a millstone from around their neck. Even amongst the Gulf Arab nations, Saudi Arabia's system is anachronistic. Neighbouring Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates and Oman boast female cabinet ministers and more complete rights for women.
The King's recent announcement permitting women to participate and vote in the country's next municipal elections is encouraging. Any progress is good. At this rate, the entire Islamic world will have joined the twenty-first century by 2215!
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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 

Monday, 26 September 2011

Singapore’s ‘one million a decade’ population growth rate

In reality, the MRT's service quality has not declined. Trains still run regularly. Breakdowns or delays are rare. It is simply that MRT trains have become extremely crowded. During peak hours, it is not unusual for commuters to wait for the third or fourth train before boarding.
Deterioration, in other words, is a euphemism for crowded. 
Job creation Japan style: SMRT 'carriage management agents'

Singapore's MRT trains do not operate in a vacuum. Crowded trains reflect the increasing numbers of people inhabiting this small island of 687 square kilometres, slightly more than 3.5 times the size of Washington D.C.
Washington, D.C. has a 'weekday' population of over one million and a resident population of approximately 600,000. Singapore's total population is 5.1 million.
The five years from 2005 to 2010 saw Singapore's population grow by 800,000 inhabitants, from 4.3 million to 5.1 million. The country's population has increased by almost exactly one million persons in each of the last two decades. Government statistics show a population of 3.0 million, 4.0 million and 5.1 million in 1990, 2000 and 2010 respectively.
In other words, the number of people living on the island has increased by almost 70 percent since 1990. (I am pretty sure my math is correct!)
The impact of population on Singapore's trains is noticeable. During 2003, the MRT's monthly ridership was 32.4 million. In 2011, the MRT's average monthly ridership is 52.3 million (data for January – August 2011), an increase of just over 60 percent.
Surely, Singapore's train network also expanded during the last few years. Many Circle Line stations opened in May 2009 and some extensions to other lines were implemented. Hence, the comparison of average monthly train travellers is not 'like for like.' However, MRT trains are visibly crowded.
The numbers do not lie, ask any commuter.
Unfortunately, train travellers should not expect any respite in the next decade. Notwithstanding Minister's 'experiencing' MRT travel first hand there is little planned which will make a dramatic difference to overcrowding in the short term.
Longer term, the Downtown, Thomson and Eastern Region lines will open between 2017 and 2020. Signal improvements over the next eight years will allow trains to run at intervals of below 100 seconds versus the current 120 seconds. In due course, these 'systemic' enhancements should have a positive impact on train travel.
Like the rest of Singapore's infrastructure, the country's MRT system is feeling the effects of dramatic population growth during the last few decades. Sadly, train travellers cannot expect the quality of subway journeys to improve dramatically anytime soon – if ever.
Perhaps the real issue at hand is not the government's immigration policies but the perceived benefits of a trade-off between economic growth and quality of life.
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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 

Monday, 19 September 2011

New Ottomans, Persian Iran and diminishing American influence

In the sixteenth century the Mediterranean Sea was an Ottoman lake. From their capital Istanbul, the Ottomans held sway over lands including Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Syria. Perhaps as a result of Ottoman suzerainty of Arab lands, Arabs have traditionally not held sympathetic views about Turks.
Like most modern Turks, the Ottomans identified themselves as a European power with a constant desire to modernize in the footsteps of industrializing Western Europe. However, controlling Islam's Holy cities of Mecca, Medina and other vast areas of the Arab world granted Ottoman's political legitimacy as Defenders of the Faith.
A map of the Ottoman Empire during various periods (source: Wikipedia)
The Ottoman Empire may no longer exist but Turkish influence in the region is seeing a renaissance of sorts. Turkey's renewed regional role is predicated on a confluence of events. It is a reminder of days former Ottoman governorates took orders from Istanbul's Topkapi Palace before making key policy decisions.
After decades of watching non-Muslim Eastern European nations waltz into Brussels, the Turks finally decided European Union (EU) need not be the raison d'etre of Turkish foreign policy. To Turks, the EU looks more and more like an exclusive Christian Club with which Muslims are only permitted 'association agreements.'
The Turkish political elite have finally tired of being humiliated by Brussels.
Consequently, as the snubs by Europe became more frequent, Turkey adopted a less 'western-centric' foreign policy. One facet of Turkey's new approach is greater economic and diplomatic ties with the Arab world.
The Arabs, fearing greater Irani encroachment into the Sunni Islamic world, grudgingly reciprocated Turkey's outreach. The fear of Iran feeds into Arab acceptance of Turkey in more ways. When the US invasion of Iraq unwittingly opened the door for aggressive Iranian influence, Sunni Arab nations calculate that Turkey can act as a possible counterweight to Iran.
Arab nations have other reasons to be fearful of a power vacuum in the region. US credibility has suffered with its inability to score an outright win in Iraq or Afghanistan even after ten years of fighting. Moreover, traditional Arab monarchies were aghast with the ease with which the Americans dropped long time ally and client, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. The more vulnerable monarchies have decided that reliance on US support for survival is dangerous. America cannot be trusted.
Turkey's increasing economic power plays a vital part in Turkey's revival of fortunes. Based on 2010 data, the Turkish economy is the seventeenth largest in the world. That puts Turkey ahead of nations like Australia, Switzerland and long time rival Greece. 
The Ottoman Navy fleet during its eight month 'wintering' in the French port of Toulon in 1543
Turkish private sector corporations have demonstrated tremendous capacity to expand overseas in support of Turkish diplomacy. Large Turkish companies, having sewn up markets in recently independent Central Asian and Caucasus states, have moved aggressively into Arab countries to undertake a variety of projects.
Money has a way of increasing influence and Turkey has been pumping Liras into its neighbourhood.
Politics is not a zero sum game but Turkey's shift towards the Islamic world has not gone unnoticed with erstwhile ally, Israel. A Turkey more confident of its leadership role within the Islamic world has taken a harder line against Israel's Palestine policies.
Turkey's rise to prominence amongst the Arab nations has not occurred overnight. Al-Qaeeda's 9/11 attacks set off a series of global political realignments, many of which are still in motion. Introspection and a reassessment of political Islam are occurring across the Islamic world. Turkey is no exception. The NATO member's historical post World War II tilt towards the west is being recalibrated in line with new realities.
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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.