Saturday, 30 April 2011

Gambling: nurturing Singapore’s home grown talent

Singapore is no stranger to multinational corporations. The city has been a safe haven for foreign capital since independence in 1965. Many large firms house their regional headquarters in Singapore. However, it is only recently that Singapore has seen the arrival of international gaming companies.
The 'integrated resorts' have changed Singapore's urban landscape, physically and otherwise. The Esplanade's 'durians' are passé. The Marina Bay Sands roof garden is a 'newer and better' representation of Singapore.
I am no moralist. If individuals wish to gamble, let them. Nevertheless, I do recall official exhortations that Singapore's casinos were geared towards foreign visitors.
Various strategies were implemented to discourage Singaporeans from risking their hard earned money at the roulette wheel. Significantly amongst these rules is a 'locals' surcharge. Singaporeans must pay SGD 100 before entering the casinos.
A recent report highlights the success of Singapore's 'gaming strategy.'
In 2011, Singapore is expected to overtake Las Vegas as the second largest gambling city. Singapore's gaming industry should rake in USD 6.4 billion versus USD 6.2 billion for the Las Vegas Strip. Macau retains its top spot.
Importantly, approximately 60 percent of all gamblers at Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa are Singaporeans.
Perhaps Singapore's casinos have been too successful - at least as measured by the number of locals visiting the casinos. Surely, the government did not envisage that a majority of casino patrons would be local citizens. This fact alone suggests it is time to revisit policies designed to discourage Singaporeans from frequenting local casinos.
Singapore's integrated resorts have reinvigorated sectors of the city's economy and real estate market. As an added bonus, the establishments have provided hours of pleasure to gamers; gamblers who otherwise might have travelled to Genting or Macau.
Slowly but surely, Singapore's reputation as a 'sterile' city which imposes fines for everything from chewing gum to littering is being shed. The liberalization of gambling laws is a step in that direction.
A few more steps and, in a few years, there may be little to distinguish the Little Red Dot from Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok 

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Dollars anyone ... Err, prefer Yuan if available?

The one hundred US dollar bill, fondly known as the 'Benjamin,' remains universally accepted legal tender. More and more, the reason for such widespread acceptance relies more upon quantity – the number of Benjamin notes floating around – and not quality. (Of late, the US dollar has been a poor store of value against most currencies.)
At one time, any self respecting international gangster cherished the feel of large wads of one hundred dollar bills. No more.
The Chinese triad likely prefers the Yuan. Maybe even the Singapore dollar, exchange controls permitting. The Japanese Yakuza's loyalty stays with the Emperor and his Yen. Russian and East European organized crime syndicates probably prefer doing business in the Euro.
All is not yet lost for the US dollar. The Latin American drug kingpin and Mexican human trafficker still revel in Benjamin's glow. Moreover, gangsters in many Asian and African countries still yearn for the US dollar.
Organized crime syndicates may not be the only people shunning US dollars. Central bankers are also diversifying their reserves into other currencies.
The global move away from the US dollar is confirmed by the percentage of international reserves held in US dollars by central banks. The US dollar's share of reserves has been in steady decline for many years.
Thus, rating agency Standard and Poor's recent announcement placing the US credit rating on negative watch should not come as a surprise to many. Statistically, being added to the negative watch list implies that the odds of a US debt rating downgrade within the next three years are 33 percent.
Two major wars and an 'out of control' financial sector have taken a toll on the US economy. Not even the world's sole superpower can afford overseas military deployments measured in decades.
International military adventurism costs money.
Unfortunately for the US, China (as America's lead banker) seems to have run out of patience with the world's biggest debtor nation. China is no longer willing to write blank checks. Consequently, China is cutting back on its ongoing US Treasury bill purchases.
Fortunately for the US, there are few credible alternatives to the US dollar.

Nevertheless, China is trying hard to elicit other options. The country is buying 'real' assets in any country such assets are available. Even gold and other precious metals have regained respectability among central bankers.
Importantly, the People's Bank of China is making slow but steady progress in 'internationalizing' the Yuan; moving towards one elegant solution to China's foreign exchange reserves dilemma: gaining seigniorage for the Renminbi.
The United States is still the world's sole superpower. America's operating flexibilities, soft and hard power, are superior to any other nation in the world. That is a fact.
Nonetheless, America's role as the exclusive lead actor on the international stage is nearing its final act. The country's unwillingness (or is it inability?) to decisively affect events in Libya is clear evidence of America's declining global influence.
Some years ago, America's politicians would not have shied away from another overseas military engagement, especially if the conflict could be couched in the rhetoric surrounding the global war on terror. In 2011, there is little appetite to expand America's 'greatness and idealism.'
American financial, military and psychological energies have been sapped by internal problems. Surely, all nations have the ability to revitalize themselves over time. The US is no exception. None should write off the US as a global power.
Nevertheless, there is a transformation of roles occurring on the world's stage. Soon, the US will not be eligible for 'Best Lead Actor' nominations, but merely for the 'Best Supporting Actor.' The 'Lead Actor' position must be shared with an ancient civilization comprised of young dragons.
Over time, the US must learn to share the global spotlight.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Singapore’s Muslim leaders, Islam, music and symbolism

There was a fascinating concert of Sufi music by the Al-Kindi Ensemble at Singapore's Esplanade concert hall this past weekend. Those lucky enough to witness the show were enthralled by the spectacle of a black turbaned Taliban like Syrian male screaming prayers to Allah as melodically as Steven Tyler and the Aerosmith of old.
If Islam had rock stars then Sheikh Ahmed Habboush would be in the Rock Hall of Fame. The good sheikh may even find himself in multiple halls, as a religious scholar in his own right he may also find himself inducted into the Ulema Hall of Fame.
Accompanying the Sheikh on vocals was the Grand Imam of the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul. A total of twelve performers, dervish dancers and musicians (percussion and string) rounded off the ensemble. In case Muslim religious zealots did not already have enough to fume about, throw in the ensemble's colourfully dressed female percussionist and a radical online sermon by a jihadist mullah is virtually guaranteed.

The Fatih Mosque located in Istanbul, was completed in 1470
Sufism is not a sect within Islam. The reach of Sufi philosophies cuts across geographies and sects (Sunni and Shia Islam). Many of Islam's great theologians have been drawn to its mystic appeal, including Al-Ghazzali,  Bayazid Bastami and Abul Hasan al-Shadhili.
Ibn Khaldun, a respected fourteenth century Islamic historian, described Sufism as "... dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone."
Sufism unifies and purifies. Sufi philosophy assumes a personal spiritual path to God – not a collective path forcibly imposed by the state through laws.
In this respect, it would have been nice if the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) or Singapore's Minister for Muslim Affairs had graced the concert in a high profile manner. (Perhaps they did attend the event, though without any fanfare, there was no political symbolism attached.)
The reason: attendance by either 'state religious representative' symbolically denotes acceptance of the heterogeneous nature of Islam in Singapore. An announced presence will have legitimated the notion that Malay Sunni Islam is not the only Islam 'certified' in Singapore. And that Singapore embraces, at least in theory, more than only the Shafi school of Islamic law. 

The mausoleum (gongbei) of Chinese Sufi Ma Laichi, also known as Abu 'l-Futūh Ma Laichi in Linxia City, China
Despite Sufism's significant role in spreading Islam across the world, orthodox Islam's aversion to Sufi practices is deep rooted. Two centuries after Islam's birth in the early 900s, Sufi saint Mansur al-Hallaj was imprisoned eleven years for heresy. Ultimately, Al-Hallaj faced a gruesome death engineered by Islamic orthodoxy: torture and finally death by dismemberment.
Wahabi (or Shafi) Islam has as much a monopoly on righteousness as a rose controls the market for beauty. Undoubtedly, Sufism will continue to inspire Muslims around the world as they search for their unique identity in today's troubled world.
"O Lord! You are the guide of those who are passing through the Valley of Bewilderment. If I am a heretic, enlarge my heresy." 
- Mansur al-Hallaj

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Musings on God, Allah, Deities, Evil and Che Guevara

All the recent controversies about God, Allah or whatever name one wishes to ascribe to the Deity, get one thinking personal thoughts. For the purpose of this article, let's just call Him God. God is a sufficiently neutral name, implying neither a particular religion nor (for the hardcore feminists) gender.
God means different things to different people. But to everyone He implies hope. Hope that the future will be better than the past; hope that we win the lottery; hope that good health does not desert us ... and so on and so forth.
Alas, God is also no stranger to controversy and evil.
God, in various manifestations and forms, has been the cause of much bloodshed. God's name is used by us to kill each other. Soldiers, rebels, ideologues of many sorts use His name to kill.
Bullets speak only the language of death. Bullets do not require a translator. Nor do bullets have to couch their point in flowery terms. Bullets make their point without asking questions or looking for answers.
Perhaps killing is part of what it means to be God.
The problem of evil has led many to question the nature and even the existence of God. The most common answer to this vexing question: free will.
Humans have the freedom to sin. And many take these freedoms seriously. But how does one account for natural disasters? Humans do not indulge in floods, earthquakes or tsunamis to exercise their free will.
Undoubtedly, these natural disasters are Acts of God. One can understand humans committing evil deeds but evil acts ascribed to God is another thing altogether.
It comes back to faith and the ability to believe in an idea. The way communists believed in a Godless system, Christian Crusaders in the Pope, Jews in the Holy Land and Islamic Jihadis in their desire to impose Islamic law.
Hope embodied in such ideas is so powerful that revolutionaries like Che Guevara fight entrenched systems, or German leftists took up the communist cause  in the 1970s and 1980s. Clearly, the absence of God can be as intoxicating an idea as the existence of God.
Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara during a light moment
Despite the odd leftist attack in Europe, Godless violence has dissipated in today's world. Islamic revolutionaries (yes, let's call them revolutionaries) seem to have taken over where communists left off.
Islamic revolutionaries have more in common with their Godless counterparts than is often acknowledged. They operate in secretive cells (mainly because they are illegal)! They believe in a 'higher, universal' goal which justifies violence, even against civilians. Their end objective is to overthrow the existing social order and replace it with a 'pure' society.
Incidentally, there was no tolerance of dissent by either the communist terror cells of the 1980s or the Islamic terror cells of today.
The world has moved to a black and white conception of God. A rigid interpretation of God has implications for the world in which we live. Free will loses in such an environment.
The freedom to call God 'Allah' by non-Muslims disappears, as does the freedom to build minarets in Christian lands. Within the Muslim world, the space to practice 'deviant' faiths, whether Islamic or otherwise, diminishes. Within the non-Muslim world, Muslims have come to accept a sort of global pariah status, often singled out by name alone.
Muslim states providing safe havens to persecuted Christians and Jews by bigoted religious authorities are a distant memory.
Despite all the killing, maiming and intimidation in His name, God remains a powerful force for many. One of the few extant forces which often motivates people to commit crimes against humanity.
It is not important which God one believes in - or does not believe in. Believers and unbelievers alike are capable of tremendous acts of good or evil.