Sunday, 23 December 2012

Singaporeans: please get a hobby and be happy!

Singaporeans are the unhappiest people on earth. True? Maybe, maybe not. Singaporeans are amongst the wealthiest humans living on our planet. True? Absolutely.

Measured by per capita income, Panama, the happiest country on the planet, is the 90th wealthiest country in the world. Using the same measure of wealth, Singapore ranks at number five. 

Singaporeans lead 'First World' livesSingaporeans travel the world, waste food, contribute to global warming, worry about things like the welfare of animals and indulge in all sorts of other behavior only available to people with lots of money.

Few will argue humans should live in abject poverty to pursue happiness. However, it does not necessarily follow that greater prosperity equals greater happiness.

But the bottom line is Singaporeans are wealthy. So why are the super wealthy residents of this super-efficient city-state so unhappy with life? It doesn't make any sense. Or does it?

At this point, I will step into some murky waters. Many of my comments below are based on anecdotal evidence and personal observations during my (almost) fifteen years of life on the Little Red Dot. (Hey, it's my blog and I am entitled to opinions.)

Let's talk about hobbies.  

Wikipedia, the source of all modern knowledge, defines hobby as "a regular activity or interest that is undertaken for pleasure, typically done during one's leisure time. Examples of hobbies include collecting, creative and artistic pursuits, making, tinkering, sports and adult education."

Leisure time – what's that? Does the concept exist in our super efficient 'kiasu' society? (We all know what 'kiasu' means, right?)

Singaporeans have little or no spare time. Or at least make little or no free time ('me time') from their otherwise busy lives. It's simply not possible to have any interests outside of work unless one has time.

Time requires the semblance of a 'work-life' balance. Such a balance requires Singaporeans to demonstrate strength of character. 

Character – huh? What does an individual's character have to do with 'work-life' balance? Well, as long as we chase the current equivalent of the 'Five C's' as the Holy Grail of existence there will be no balance in our lives. If our self-worth depends upon owning the latest electronic gadget, Louis Vitton handbag or other material possession then having to run faster and faster on the treadmill is inevitable. Splurging beyond one's means on big ticket items like cars and condominiums mean debt related stress permeating our entire life – and keeping us unhappy?

Make some time and get a hobby. Do something other than chase the dollar.

A hobby does not have to be expensive. It can be as simple as reading (borrow books from Singapore's great library system). Or spend some quiet moments in a green space every so often.

Surely, the pursuit of wealth is a legitimate life goal. Yet, becoming obsessive about materialism and allowing social pressures to dictate our wants is often a sure path to misery. Instead, it might be helpful to ask ourselves, 'How much money is required for me to be happy? Will the new phone [handbag, car, condo, etc.] bring me happiness?'

Reaching peace with our desires is one way to achieve happiness. Buddha figured that maxim out many centuries ago.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan VII: the Capital Market

In the mid-1990s, Pakistan's Corporate Law Authority (today's Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan) issued draft rules for the establishment of mutual funds in Pakistan. The proposed framework was clunky and financial market participants did not bite. Fast forward a couple of decades to 2012 and mutual funds are a major part of Pakistan's capital markets. Large domestic banks such as Habib Bank and United Bank have dedicated fund management companies with significant assets under management (AUMs).

Indeed, the asset management industry calculates its AUMs at approximately USD 4 billion as at November 2012. That may not sound like a lot but it certainly provides enough fees to support a nascent industry for an economy of approximately USD 500 billion (purchasing power parity terms). Additionally, the statistic points to significant growth potential in the coming years, especially as new products are introduced by innovative institutions.

To be sure, Pakistan's domestic capital market has made tremendous strides in several areas other than mutual funds. The bond market, also non-existent until the mid-1990s, has grown and achieved critical mass, allowing corporations to issue debt at market rates in short periods of time. In fact, many of these bonds are purchased by fixed income mutual funds catering to the needs of yield chasing savers.

The stock market's picture is decidedly more mixed. Undoubtedly, the Karachi Stock Exchange's (KSE) market capitalization has grown along with trading liquidity. However, on a relative basis the KSE has lost ground. The KSE is no longer in the MSCI Emerging Markets Index, having been relegated to a frontier market alongside countries such as Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Additionally, the quantum of new listings on the KSE has declined considerably, especially during the last few years, reflecting the broad slowdown in domestic large scale manufacturing.

Besides the traditional stock and bond markets, Pakistan's capital market has a new entrant: the Pakistan Mercantile Exchange (PMEX). In many ways, the PMEX is the most exciting development in the recent growth of Pakistan's capital market. The PMEX became operational in May 2007 with the purpose of introducing futures contracts into Pakistan. Presently, the underlying assets for the contracts include commodities, including agricultural products and interest rates although more contracts are in under development.

For an economy with a large agricultural base, the PMEX has the prospect of revolutionizing the lives of farmers and users of agricultural products. It will permit them to mitigate the risks associated with uncontrollable factors such as the weather. For example, farmers may sell cotton 'forward' and know in advance the sales revenue from the season's cotton crop. Similarly, textile units can lock in cotton prices in advance through the use of cotton futures; thus bringing predictability to production costs.

Notwithstanding these positive developments, the Pakistani economy remains weak due to mismanagement and corruption. Investment in new large scale manufacturing facilities has all but dried up, mainly due to the unreliability of domestic electricity supplies. Profitable corporations are holding back from fresh capital outlays until political risks diminish and / or interest rates moderate. Moreover, small and medium sized enterprises are also suffering as a result of inflation, sluggish macroeconomic growth and high interest rates.

Ultimately, Pakistan's capital market will only be as dynamic as the economy which it services. Unless steps are taken to increase economic growth, the country's debt and equity markets will continue to lag other emerging market nations.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Why Malaysian bus drivers should earn more than Chinese ... and get preference over other foreigners for Singapore's jobs

The recent strike by SMRT’s Chinese bus drivers has started a debate about wage levels and working conditions for foreign contract workers in Singapore. Yet a couple of questions remain untouched by the debate:

1. Should salaries vary based on a workers country of origin? Yes, absolutely, as long as the wage premium / discount is based on solid reasons.

2. Do Malaysian workers deserve a wage ‘premium’ relative to their Chinese counterparts? Yes, absolutely. Malaysia is Singapore’s neighbor and Malaysians integrate better than most into the Republic’s workforce.
Singapore's foreign labor pool encompasses the entire spectrum of jobs - from the low end street cleaner to the highly paid senior executive
Labor activists and human rights purists adhering to the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work’ might disagree. Certainly the principle applies to people working in their home country. However, when labor moves across national jurisdictions then different factors come into play. Amongst others, these factors include language, education levels and cultural norms. Collectively, these factors affect an individual’s ability to live and work within a foreign society.

Let’s call that concept integration.

During the last few years, Singapore has witnessed disruptive repercussions of varying degrees from foreign workers who are not easily fitting into local society. Yes, these foreign workers drive buses, clean streets or man stalls satisfactorily, in line with their employment contracts and job requirements. However, they also bring with them local customs and practices. Many of these behaviors: riding bicycles on pavements, spitting, not speaking English and sometimes indulging in (petty and serious) crimes to list a few, have created discontent within Singaporeans.

Moreover, as the numbers of a particular nationality grows to ‘critical mass’ levels, particularly within a specific occupation or organization, its citizens feel more emboldened to challenge the status quo in a manner detrimental to Singapore’s interests. That striking Chinese bus drivers’ have forced a political review of established labor management practices demonstrates the strength (and dangers) of such concentrations.

So, how does all this relate to paying Malaysian bus drivers more than their Chinese counterparts? The answer lies in Singapore’s recent history.

Malaysians have more in common with Singaporeans than the traumatic events of 1965 may suggest. Despite the obvious religious differences between certain segments of the two populations, being geographically contiguous and a part of the same ‘civilization’ for centuries has welded the two peoples into sharing many important cultural and social traits. Consider the continuing deep economic linkages between Singapore and Malaysia.
The commercial relationship is no accident. It is a byproduct of the cultural ease of carrying on business in either society as well as the geographical reality of being neighbors.

The two nations are not alien to each other. There is a natural cultural and social fit between the two nations. A large number of Malaysians already live and work in Singapore. They have done so for many years, and without the social disruptions associated with people of other nationalities. Likewise, droves of Singaporeans regularly visit, own properties, businesses and even retire in Malaysia.

It is this relatively seamless social integration of Malaysian workers into Singaporean society which justifies their wage premium. Maintaining social stability through a cohesive work force is worth that little bit extra.  

As a sovereign country, Singapore’s human resource policies must cater to the Republic’s unique characteristics. Political pressures from regional economic giants – an unintended consequence of hiring large numbers of people from one nation – can be minimized by pursuing a more balanced foreign labor policy. To this end, Singaporean businesses might benefit from additional government incentives to employ Malaysian citizens over other nationalities. Implementing policies to encourage a more balanced pool of foreign workers must be a strategic priority for public officials.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Labor strikes in Singapore: another psychological barrier falls

The fault line between locals and foreigners just got deeper. Almost 200 bus drivers from China working in Singapore recently protested working conditions and grievances over pay by striking from work for just over a day. Singapore has not seen such 'industrial action' for almost three decades. The action by Chinese bus drivers is significant in more ways than one.

For starters, the action highlights Singapore's dependence on low wage earning foreign labor. They are critical to maintaining Singapore's efficient and competitive economy operating smoothly. Additionally, the bus drivers strike signals to the government problems are afoot at both ends of the 'foreign talent' spectrum.
At the upper end, Singaporeans express concerns about recruiting highly skilled foreign talent. These well paid immigrants are routinely blamed for pushing up property prices, filling up subway trains and even taking away school seats from 'born and bred' Singaporeans.
At the other end of the wage spectrum, foreign low wage earners are blamed for crime and other forms of 'anti-social' behavior, including littering and riding bicycles on the pavement, besides also straining public transport infrastructure. To this list can now be added lack of respect for local law - the bus workers strike was illegal under Singapore law - and a sense of arrogance by bringing 'Chinese' ways of protest into Singapore.
Irrespective of the merits of worker claims of discrimination and the legality of the strike, one fact is undeniable: another feather from Singapore's 'aura' cap has been plucked. Singapore's reputation as a trouble free, well oiled machine is under siege from many fronts.
First came floods on Orchard Road; then murders and loan sharks; subsequently, regular breakdowns on the city's subway system. Now another 'halo' surrounding the 'Singapore Inc.' brand is at risk, i.e. an efficient and pliant labor market.

All eyes are on the government's handling of the strike. How hard will the judiciary be on the strikers, especially with the protest organizers and instigators? Will the work stoppage result in quiet, albeit delayed, concessions to bus drivers? Will revisions to existing methods of managing labor relations be implemented to make the process more responsive to changing conditions?
The strike has exposed one more 'foreign versus local' cleavage. If a clear message is not sent to illegal strikers, there is a real danger the strikes will spread to other sectors, not only among Chinese but other foreign workers. Subsequently, work disruptions will join the growing list of 'novelties' to which today's Singaporeans must adjust. The list already includes train delays, floods, litter, crime and even riding bicycles on the pavement.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Monday, 19 November 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan VI: Pakistan Railways

It is easy recognize the importance of trains as a means of transport by looking at an European railways map. The European rail grid is interconnected and supersedes national boundaries. Even 'peripheral' European countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey feed into the transnational rail grid. 
One assumes a geographically large and populous nation like Pakistan is ideal for the railways, especially as the country inherited a decent rail infrastructure at independence in 1947. Despite having the 27th largest railways network in the world, Pakistan Railways (PR) is a hopelessly underutilized institution. Still worse, PR is one more casualty in the list of mismanaged state institutions, particularly since the assumption of power by Zardari's Peoples Party government.

Pakistan Railways saw significant investment in new rolling stock and locomotives under Musharraf's regime. However, under the present government PR's financial and operational health has deteriorated to alarming proportions. Many trains have been cancelled; fuel is in short supply; functioning locomotives are scarce and staff demoralized.
Yet, there is a silver lining in these dark clouds.
The dire straits of PR has forced the authorities to involve the private sector in keeping the system alive. Presently, the Shalimar Express runs from Karachi to Lahore in the form of a public-private partnership. The train calls at various cities and towns en route. Additionally, the Business Express is a 'pure' private sector train also connecting Lahore and Karachi. Plans for another private sector train, the Jinnah Express, linking Karachi with Islamabad are being discussed.
I travelled the Shalimar Express from Karachi to Multan and the Business Express from Lahore to Karachi. Both experiences were a significant improvement over my journey on the Tezgam Express from Karachi to Multan in November 2011. Both trains also offered better service than the Karakoram Express on which I travelled from Lahore to Karachi in November 2011. In an environment where PR trains routinely arrive hours late, the Business Express kept to its schedule even reaching Karachi approximately fifteen minutes early.
To be sure, two train services cannot revive a flagging rail network. Nonetheless, the Shalimar and Business Express trains cast light on a brighter future for PR, i.e. a railway track network maintained by a central organization with many private sector companies operating trains 'leased' from PR. Just as there are several private airlines flying Pakistani skies, e.g. Shaheen Airlines, Air Blue, Pakistan International, etc., there may be many train companies offering competing passenger and goods services across the country. In due course, a complete privatization of PR may be the next step in revitalizing Pakistan's rail infrastructure.
Some say, "It is darkest before the dawn." I hope this is the case for PR. Not just because I enjoy train travel but also because a dynamic rail system acts as an enabler for economic growth. Pakistan Railways is an institution which should be a source of national pride for the country. I wish Pakistan Railways can reclaim its lost glory in the coming years. 

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan V: Karachi Central Jail

Pakistan's police forces are not generally thought to be at the forefront of social change. On the contrary, the ineptitude and corruption of the police are often seen to be a significant causal factor in the nation's poor justice system. Nevertheless, pockets of excellence can be found in the most unusual of places. Consider my amazement when I came across just such a phenomena within the Prisons Division of the Sindh Police.

Karachi Central Jail has a vibrant program to teach prisoners basic computer, English and other technical skills. All as a result of the efforts of a few dedicated police professionals. More surprisingly, the prison has a School of Art within its premises.
Your blogger (front right in white shirt) being shown around Karachi Jail. Note the two prisoners in tow.
Prisons Pakistan's jails, like jails anywhere, are not the friendliest of places. Thus, when I was asked to visit the Karachi Central Jail to witness firsthand the prison's School of Art project I had few expectations.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Initially, prisoner artists are put through a simple vetting procedure simply to ensure they are serious about learning art. Subsequently, the aspiring artists are given training by a qualified instructor at the school's dedicated facility within the Central Jail. The prison authorities are working with the Sindh Board of Technical Education to accredit the Karachi Central Jail's School of Art so as to authorize the entity to issue diplomas to graduates.
In fact, the 'prisoner artists' have become somewhat of a celebrity. Their work is regularly exhibited at some of Karachi's premier arts venues, including the Alliance Francaise. As an incentive to stay on track, prisoners are permitted to sell paintings at these displays and retain all earnings from sales.
Your blogger (front left) discussing art pieces with two aspiring artists
The aim is not only to create tomorrow's Sadequain or Gulgee but to provide inmates with a healthy outlet to consume their energies. It is the first step in a larger reform process designed to ease released convicts back into society.
Ok, education in jails is no biggie I guess. Such courses exist in many prisons. But a School of Art and that too in Pakistan's underfunded prison systems? Slightly more unusual.
Karachi Central Jail's School of Art is proof that individuals can make a difference. The challenges are many but the rewards even more. In altruistic ventures, patience and dedication are often adequate substitutes for seed capital. Philanthropic money sniffs out successful initiatives. Undoubtedly, the Karachi Jail's experiment with art will have repercussions beyond its own four walls.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan IV: Karachi's success story

There is no shortage of problems in the world. Pakistan too has its fair share of difficulties. Readers enjoy reading about the trouble of others - perhaps it makes one's own situation seem more bearable. However, the world is not all bad. There are success stories available for all to see, if only one chooses to see them.

Thus is the story of the Karachi Electric Supply Corporation (KESC).
In Pakistan, this is a time when megawatts of electricity are almost as valuable as gold. If electricity were easily traded, mothers would pawn their jewelry in exchange for a few hours of comfort for infant children. 
Outside of Karachi, electricity shortages are a part of daily life. Eight, ten, twelve hours, or even more, without electricity is not uncommon. I experienced this myself up country, i.e. Multan, Lahore and Islamabad.
The story in Karachi is slightly different.
To the Federal and Sindh provincial government, KESC was a valuable instrument for making political side payments to supporters. Under state control, KESC was forced to take employees onto its payroll at the wishes of successive governments. The organization was bloated and riddled with corruption.
Corrupt meter readers tampered with meters to slow them down; corrupt inspectors overlooked the slow meters; engineers fixed the system to channel electricity to 'preferred' customers. The privileged and powerful thrived while ordinary citizen paid bills. That is until KESC ran out of cash to buy supplies to generate electricity.
Corporations which produce but don't get paid for production not only lose money but also run out of cash required to sustain daily operations. In other words, KESC soon found itself flirting with bankruptcy. The state was unable to continue with subsidies and KESC was privatized, a process made easier by the fact that KESC was already listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange.
A new KESC management structure for the privatized entity was put in place in 2008. Since that time, the new owners have faced down political pressure from the Federal and Sindh government and downsized the company to levels more proportionate with KESC's size and production capacity. (Reasonable 'golden handshake' packages were offered to voluntary and involuntary redundancies.) Moreover, significant new investment in the company's transmission and distribution system have been made to improve KESC's management information systems.
KESC management can (at last!) match electricity usage with revenues received, thus isolating 'bill defaulters' more easily. After several decades of state owned neglect, KESC runs like a normal commercial entity, i.e. pay for the electricity you use. Default and live with candlelight or generators.
During my month long stay in Karachi, I came to take uninterrupted electricity for granted - as most of us are wont to do in 2012. Moreover, voltage fluctuations of the past were very much reduced. The new KESC management won me over with the company's vastly improved performance.
 KESC is a success story in many ways. It demonstrates the efficiency of private enterprise over state control. The KESC turnaround is inspiring, especially to Karachites. It suggests the city's fortunes can be revived by determination and discipline. The city's massive size and scale is not an insurmountable obstacle.
In Karachi, as in life, there is almost always a solution, even to the most seemingly intractable problems.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan III: Karachi is Pakistan

Karachi, the City of Pakistan's founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, has come a long way since Pakistan's independence in 1947. A population of approximately 400,000 citizens at Partition in 1947 has grown to an estimated 21 million people today. Contemporary Karachi is now home to over ten percent of Pakistan's population. Despite the development of other areas of Pakistan, Karachi remains Pakistan's economic and financial powerhouse.
Karachi is a city with its own culture and lifestyle, a melting pot of Pakistan's diversity. Other than the Urdu speaking migrants from India, the city boasts the largest population of Pashtuns of any city in the world. More Pashtuns live in Karachi than in Peshawar or Kabul.
The city is a magnet for economic immigrants from across the country. All Pakistanis have a stake in Karachi's future. Virtually every family has friends and relatives living in the city. An immigrant arrives in Karachi on Monday and becomes a Karachite by Tuesday. There are no socialization programs or cultural sensitivity classes for a 'New Karachite' to attend before proclaiming oneself a Karachite.
To some, Karachi is a 'free for all' city. Crime rates are high – though not nearly close to the levels associated with some African or Latin American cities such as Johannesburg or Rio. If there are racial tensions in any part of Pakistan, the stresses will certainly surface amongst Karachi's diverse communities. Add to this mix gangland style violence over gambling, narcotics and related crime syndicates and Karachi's reputation for violent crime is sealed.
Part of the problem is that the majority of Karachi's residents lack any roots in the city. These economic migrants are only in the city for economic reasons and perceive their stay as temporary. Of course, temporary sometimes stretches into a few generations. Nonetheless, people refer to their homes in villages and towns in other parts of Pakistan only being 'Karachites' for convenience.
Karachi has a buzz which can neither be replicated nor found in other Pakistani cities; a kind of 'creative chaos' which brings out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people. Financiers, conmen, professionals and the 'down and out' share the city's congested streets. Bearded mullahs throng the same streets which house restaurants where wine and liquor flow freely, albeit quietly. (I had my best steak in recent memory at just such a restaurant in South Karachi.)
Despite or because of the 'mess,' Karachi is Pakistan's most entrepreneurial city. If something can be done, made or copied, then rest assured somewhere in Karachi some Karachite is doing, making or copying. Small businesses thrive alongside the largest corporate multinational structures. The 'parallel' economy probably provides more employment than the 'organized' sector, i.e. the unregistered car workshop versus the detergent factory operated by a multinational corporation.  
Karachi is a mother to all Pakistanis, rich or poor. The poor arrive to set up stalls, shops or simply to commit crime. Rich businesspeople set up shop to milk the country's wealthiest and largest consumer market.
Nevertheless, like any good mother, Karachi accepts and loves her children no matter what shape or form they reach the city's shores. Karachi, in turn asks her children to be gracious about the city's faults. Once the relationship is thus established, then all falls into the boiling cauldron called Karachi.  
Karachi symbolizes the best and the worst of Pakistan. Class mobility is a given. Old money has been overrun by new money.  The city's civic infrastructure is bursting at the seams. Massive investment in roads or electricity does not come close to meeting the demands of the daily increasing population.
Like any Megacity in the developing world, problems are endless. To Punjabis, Lahore may be Lahore; to powerbrokers Islamabad may be the Federal capital; but there is no denying that to many Pakistanis, Karachi is Pakistan.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan II: Indus People look East or West?

Disembarking at Karachi airport in early August, one got a clear reminder of the changes wrought on Pakistan during the last twenty years. Pakistan was a 'normal' part of the international community during the last century. In fact, under the Cold War era's Reagan Doctrine (which called for the United States to support Islamic fundamentalist ideologies and Taliban style religious warriors with large amounts of cash) Pakistan was a veritable hero of the Free World. Pakistan's role as a 'front line state' in the war against communism gave the country prestige which has long since disappeared.
Today, most international flights from Karachi airport service the Gulf countries. Pakistan may have several airlines – versus just the one in the 1980s – but the list of international destinations directly served from Pakistan has fallen dramatically. Most of the world can be accessed only via connecting flights at airports like Dubai or Abu Dhabi, a phenomenon which fairly represents Pakistan's steady isolation from the capitalist democracies of Western Europe and the America's.
The reconstruction of the Swat Valley benefits tremendously from the generosity of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE flag is a frequent sight in the Swat Valley 
Instead, Pakistan's fate has been inexorably tied to the Arab world and, to a large measure, with 'Arab' Islam.
Pakistanis are not Arab but their extensive interaction with the Gulf Arab states, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, has rendered that distinction less meaningful since Prime Minister ZA Bhutto actively cultivated relations with the Islamic world from the 1970s as a matter of state policy.  Economically, the footprint of the Gulf Arab states in Pakistan is visible in virtually every sector of the domestic economy, from telecommunications, banking, energy, and even to hotels.
Linkages with India in the East, which fed Hindu and other polytheist philosophies, have eroded due to the onslaught of Wahabi Islam nurtured by Arab petrodollars. This 'non-Islamic, Indian' aspect of Pakistan's heritage acted as a natural 'moderator' to the more austere elements of Sunni Islam.
Nevertheless, just as India cannot legislate away centuries of practicing the caste system, neither can Pakistan's 'Indus People' shed their pre-Islamic customs so easily. The magnetism of 'ambidextrous' Sufi saints, i.e. venerated by Hindus and Muslims, remains strong. Almost every district has a story associated with a local 'Holy Man.' Often times these Holy Men may have been Hindus but given their saintly virtues, Muslims conveniently overlooked that fact as they flocked to the Pirs for protection and blessings.
Oil burning vessels at the grave of a Sufi Pir in Islamabad. The practice of burning oil lanterns at Sufi shrines is reminiscent of Hindu rituals, particularly at a festival like Diwali
For the Indus People, perhaps the pendulum is shifting away from its Western, Arab Islamic neighbours towards the Indian East again? Relations between Pakistan and India took a huge leap forward in November 2011 with the granting of Most Favoured Nation status to India by Pakistan. Subsequently, much of Lahore's business community is busy preparing for partnerships with an economically empowered India. Additionally, as NATO winds down its operations in Afghanistan, many logistics operators are getting ready for an active Pakistani role in facilitating India – Afghanistan trade by using Pakistan's road and rail links.
Like many post-colonial national constructs, Pakistan still searches for its identity. Undoubtedly, most Pakistanis associate Islam as a central part of Pakistan's national identity. However, Pakistan's history began a few millennia before Islam with the Indus Valley Civilization (e.g. Moenjodaro), not with the eighth century invasion of Sindh by Mohammad Bin Qasim. Unfortunately, the process of blending Pakistan's historical, cultural and religious characteristics into a seamless identity is proving anything but easy.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Friday, 5 October 2012

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan - I

It has been almost two months since I arrived at Karachi's Quaid-e-Azam International Airport. During my eight weeks in Pakistan, I travelled to five cities in three provinces and traversed over 3,600 kilometers by a combination of train and bus. (Air journeys are not a great way to experience a country so no domestic airplane flights on this trip.)

In Pakistan, I interacted with a cross-section of society, e.g. academics, artists, businesspersons, government officials, retired bureaucrats, military officials, professionals and, of course, 'ordinary' citizen encompassing various walks of life. The Pakistani lifestyle grew on me and I became as much a Pakistani as when I left my country of birth in 1996.
My travels took me from Karach to Multan (train), Multan - Lahore (bus), Lahore - Islamabad (bus), Islamabad - Swat (bus), and then back to Lahore via Islamabad (bus). From Lahore I took the train back to Karachi.
Today's Pakistan is different from a few years ago. for Pakistan, the post-Musharraf era has been a difficult one. Disillusionment with the civilian dispensation runs high. National institutions have decayed - some beyond repair.
To many, the nation sustains itself only on hope.
Hope for positive change. Hope the cricket team wins against India. Hope the electricity resumes again quickly. Hope the roads are repaired. Hope the government demonstrates good leadership soon... and so on.
Nevertheless, I also saw Pakistan's dynamic side.
A Pakistan brimming with positive energy - a private sector ably filling the void created by poorly managed national institutions. A country whose national institutions are administered by high quality bureaucrats fighting the odds and braving the system. A country crammed with dedicated citizens making a significant difference at the micro and macro level, through individual effort and collective voluntary organizations.
I witnessed a Pakistan which has rejected Taliban style Islamic conservatism. Surely, Pakistanis are generally conservative Muslims - this is no Indonesia socially speaking - but my observations in Swat tell me the worst of the Islamist ideological challenge is behind the country.
Pakistan may still fall to the mullahs, but only through violence and intimidation.
The mullahs know this fact only too well. Consequently, the religious ideologues are playing a long waiting game, attempting to infiltrate civil institutions while sustainable a low level campaign of violence against key sections of society. In particular, Muslim and Non-Muslim minorities are targeted by Islamist ideologues. Intimidation is the key weapon of the mullahs.
Civil society is fighting back. Arts are flourishing. Cultural activities are aplenty. Women are embedded in all aspects of the work force. The passing of the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, 2010 provides a legal basis for women activists to take their cause farther.
In short, Pakistan is a nation of contradictions, reflecting the country's cultural diversity but also its identity crisis
In the next few months, I will post several articles outlining my reflections about Pakistan's current situation and trends for the future.

Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Friday, 14 September 2012

Africa's radical Islam: Benghazi and Cairo as harbingers of the future

It is not easy to best the fury of Pakistan's mullahs but several post 'Arab Spring' nations have done so in the last few days. In normal times, Pakistan's radical clerics will be the first to rile up people to destroy public infrastructure whenever there is a 'threat' to Islam. So far, Pakistan's mullahs have been unusually quiet.

However, the furor over the anti-Islam film has caused widespread unrest within other parts of the Islamic world. The US ambassador to Libya was killed allegedly by an outraged mob in Benghazi. Additionally, the US embassy in Cairo was overrun by protestors who burnt the US flag and replaced it with an 'Islamic' flag. Protests have also spread to Tunisia and Sudan.
Clearly, Pakistan's radical clerics have other things on their mind these days. Either they are busy preparing for the forthcoming general election, due by March 2013. Or they have agreed a separate 'deal' with President Zardari to keep the peace. It is impossible to believe that Pakistan's clerics have changed their stripes. They must have calculated this not a politically opportune time to raise the heat in the country.

The new face of Egyptian state television
On the other hand, the politics of post 'regime change' Libya and Egypt have become clearer following the reaction to the film, "The Innocence of Muslims." Undoubtedly, the alleged identity of the key filmmaker being a Coptic Christian makes the issue more sensitive in Egypt, given the size of the country's Christian Coptic minority. Nevertheless, in Mubarak's Egypt the storming of the US embassy in Cairo would have been a remote possibility. Egyptian state's machinery was good not only for repression but also for maintaining order on the country's streets.
Likewise in Libya. Unless 'attacks' were intentionally orchestrated by Colonel Gaddafi own apparatus, foreign diplomatic missions in Libya were safe. In this instance, not only was the US consulate in Benghazi overrun but the US ambassador was also killed - an act of war in normal times.
As time progresses, the real face of the Arab Spring reveals itself. Egyptian state television news presenters donning scarves is simply the presentable face. The real danger lies in the unseen elements lurking behind the revolutions: these are the people who conspire to impose wahhabi Islam on all Muslims by force or threat of force.
The attacks on US interests in Libya and Egypt were neither random nor isolated. The world can expect more upheaval as radical Islam seeps into the mainstream political structure in African countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Mali, Nigeria and Libya.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Pakistan's half full glass

The Pakistani state is at a crossroads. Few can be faulted for assuming Pakistan is perpetually on the brink. The country faces a low level insurgency in on its border with Afghanistan. Sectarian killings, particularly in Balochistan are frequent. Electricity is in short supply, hobbling economic growth and investment. Irresponsible fiscal policies mean inflation is stubbornly high, eating away at the middle class. The list is endless - if one wishes to see the glass half empty.

However, there is more to Pakistan than news headlines suggest. Following the end of President Musharraf's  rule, Pakistanis are indulging in politics like never before. Ordinary people are not simply attending rallies but also preparing themselves for the next General Elections due by March 2013. Most everyone I meet plans to vote in the forthcoming elections - nearly all are making the effort for the first time.
For a change, government institutions play a role in encouraging voters to participate in the next elections. The Pakistan National Database Authority (NADRA) has computerized the electoral rolls. Citizens can check via sms whether they are registered to vote, or change their registered constituency easily.  
Politics is not the only change. The depth and breadth of quality educational institutions is clearly on the rise. To be sure, many of the new institutions are in the private sector with expensive fee structures, but there is no dearth of able and willing students to fill their registers. For example, the Karachi School for Business and Leadership (KSBL), established in strategic collaboration with Cambridge University, opens its doors this year.
Culture is another area seeing a renaissance. Literature, music, visual arts are also seeing a revival of sorts. Perhaps artists are generated in times of social transition when differing ideas are vying for ascendancy? Perhaps a more open, creative environment engineered by former President Musharraf is finally paying dividends. Nonetheless, Pakistani artists are producing more quality content today than any time in the recent past.
Economically, a bright light shines in the form of better trade relations with India. India is a huge market, but Pakistan is no minnow either. Already, Pakistan is amongst the top three international markets for Bollowood movies. (It was not for charity that Salman Khan wished to visit Pakistan to help his most recent film be cleared by the Pakistan Censorship Board.) Indian industrialists and businessmen are as eager to establish themselves in Pakistan as many Pakistani counterparts are to enter the Indian market.
The international media may continue to bash Pakistan every chance it gets - and the country certainly provides plenty of opportunities. However, Pakistan's dynamism has not disappeared. Neither has the country's optimism. Nor will the mullah's easily reverse gains made by Pakistani women.
Now if only the country had more electricity, Pakistan might return to the glory days of steady and high economic growth. Build, borrow or buy: Pakistan needs more electricity to sustain its historic vibrancy. Economic growth alone will help soothe many of Pakistan's current social issues.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at