Sunday, 25 March 2012

Judas Priest, Sufis, Singapore's Esplanade and interreligious harmony

In Singapore and globally, interreligious harmony days come and go. Global forums, international organizations and even local politicians organize such harmony days often – or at least when it serves their political objectives.
For musicians, such events serve a different function. They permit artists from different musical traditions to fuse diverse conventions into a synchronized whole. In this context, the word 'harmony' takes on special meaning.
Pakistan's Sufi musician Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a frequent collaborator with western artists. Following Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's example, many Pakistani Sufi musicians continue to team up with artistes from different backgrounds. One of the younger breed of such Pakistani religious musicians is Faiz Ali Faiz.

Pakistan's Sufi musician, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
I became aware of Faiz just a few days ago when I learnt he is performing at Singapore's Esplanade in April. I confess to knowing little about Faiz. In fact, initially I mistook his name for that of Pakistan's preeminent Urdu poet, the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz.
In today's wired world, there is little reason for ignorant people to remain uninformed for long.
I began my search for information on Faiz at the Fountain of All Knowledge – Wikipedia! (It's so much easier visiting Wikipedia compared to a local library?) Subsequently, I ended up watching several videos of Faiz Ali Faiz qawwalis.
Surely, his 'hard core' devotional Sufi music is not for everyone. (Certainly not for most orthodox mullahs who shirk at the notion of mixing music with religion.)
However, Faiz has some fascinating pieces which appeal to a broader audience. Specifically, Faiz has two performances which stand out: one playing with a Christian gospel group singing praises to God (Amen-Amin) and a second with a Spanish Flamenco ensemble. Faiz and his counterparts blend the diverse oral and instrumental traditions magnificently.
Versus veteran Rocker, Alice Cooper
I am looking forward to Faiz's Singapore concert next month. If nothing else, Faiz Ali Faiz will make a nice change from my recent two concerts by Alice Cooper and Judas Priest.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Greek Zorbas, Western outlaws and the Arandora Star

Good authors generally write about subjects they know, have personally experienced or researched in depth. This familiarity with their subjects is what makes well researched fiction a pleasurable read.
I can slip into the badlands of the Wild West courtesy of Louis L'Amour's westerns; or the controversies surrounding the sinking of the Arandora Star during World War Two; or slither into the mind of a Greek subject during the dying days of the Turkish Ottoman Empire through the (translated) words of Nikos Kazantzakis.
In fact, good fiction is often a better teacher than research itself. For students of modern piracy in the Indian Ocean, Elmore Leonard's 'Djibouti' must rank up there with any scholarly text authored by Professor [insert name here], Department Head, Maritime Security at the National University of [insert city name here].  
I don't wish to take away from historians or nonfiction books.
A well written history book is a novel in itself: the heroes, villains, conspiracies, suspense, excitement and so on but with the added bonus that the story is real (a little 'poetic license' by the historian aside). History, at the personal and collective level, makes all us individuals.
Nevertheless, for most, nonfiction tends to be too dry; a way to induce sleep rather than to curl up and relax on a sofa with a nice cup of coffee and an entertaining book to read.
Reading is one of life's greatest pleasures – up there with drinking wine, eating mangoes or durians (depending on your cultural background!).
Reading virtually anything is better than reading nothing. There is no substitute for the written word. It is powerful, final and immutable.
Yet, good writing can almost never be interpreted the same way more than once. It is different each time.
All of us learn valuable life lessons from fictional characters, such as the (Great) Zorba the Greek?
"This is true happiness: to have no ambition and to work like a horse as if you had every ambition. To live far from men, not to need them and yet to love them. To have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right and to realize of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale."
- Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Afghanistan: more about American ‘nation building’ efforts

After more than ten years of blood, money and guts, American policy makers must be fretting at their lack of progress in Afghanistan. Between burning copies of the Koran to being shot by soldiers assigned to protect the 'new' Afghanistan, NATO has it tough these days.
Certainly, the following events are not positive harbingers for US interests in the Central Asian country.
In July 2011, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction issued a blistering report about the use of US aid in the country. The report "found that untold amounts of American taxpayer dollars are vulnerable to winding up in the pockets of insurgents." Considering that billions of dollars in cash literally 'disappeared' during the US occupation of Iraq, such fears should not come as a surprise to regional security analysts.
If the possibility of funnelling cash towards the insurgency is alarming, the prospect of US supplied equipment being used to assist insurgents fighting NATO is positively distressing.
Allegedly, the US trained and funded Afghan Air Force (AAF) has routinely used air force planes to ferry weapons and drugs around the country. A US investigation into the AAF activity has made little progress in the face of resistance from Afghan authorities. In fact, it is believed that the 2011 killing of eight US officials at Kabul airport by an AAF officer is linked to ongoing investigations into the AAF trafficking network.
American missteps are not restricted to money and corruption. As befits the antics of the stereotypical 'Ugly American,' American soldiers have burned copies of the Koran in a country well known for emotional reactions to religious slights. The incident led to days of rioting and many deaths.
However, few will be shocked by such behaviour if they are aware that America's premier domestic law enforcement agency, the FBI, formally recommended texts such as 'The Truth about Mohammed: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion' in its quest to keep America safe. Robert Spencer's bigoted book was an inspiration for Norwegian mass murderer Anders Brevik, who quoted from the text frequently in his white supremacist manifesto.
Not surprisingly, Americans are tired of the war in Afghanistan.
Negotiations with the Taliban appear to be gaining momentum. Americans look ready to transfer Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay to Qatar, although no deal has yet been finalized. In return, the Taliban are expected to agree to talk seriously about terms for an American withdrawal.
Karzai too is positioning for his American protectors leaving him to his own devices. The clearest indication of this fact is his new found friendliness with Taliban style Islam at the expense of women's rights.  
Karzai has come out in support of a set of retrogressive edicts recently issued by the Afghan Ulema Council, a group of religious 'scholars.' The council's guidelines include statements such as "men are fundamental and women are secondary ... [and women should avoid] mingling with strange men in various social activities such as education, in bazaars, in offices and other aspects of life."
Translation: women have limited, if any, rights and should avoid moving around in public places (as men are sure to be present in such areas). Arguably, female education becomes neither necessary nor possible in such circumstances.
As the fog of war lifts and Afghan ground realities become more clearly visible, the effects of long term western intervention in Afghanistan seem even more contentious.
Pakistanis watch events in Afghanistan with concern, waiting for the inevitable accusations from Pakistan's western 'friends:' western failure in Afghanistan is a result of lack of Pakistani cooperation in stabilizing the country.  
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Ah Longs and Singapore’s social fabric

In the many years I have lived in Singapore, I never knew of 'loan sharking' to be as much of a problem as it is today. Newspapers carry news of the problem daily. Not one day passes without another sweep against loan sharks or their associates.
Far be it for me to suggest that the sudden proliferation of loan sharks can be directly attributed to the government's decision to legalize gambling 
Flyers from money lenders are now a common sight

Nevertheless, the recent rise of loan sharking raises many questions.
Why do Singaporeans suddenly feel the need to take out loans at prohibitive interest rates? Has the banking sector seized up and is unable to grant sufficient loans to keep the economy going? Have Singaporeans taken to entrepreneurialism so spectacularly that the need for funds is acute, such that the local 'Ah Long' is the only answer?

Undoubtedly, loan sharking is an emerging problem.

Loan sharking activities cannot simply be treated as a 'law and order' or administrative matter. Merely putting loan sharks and their colleagues in jail will not make the troubles go away. Jailed persons will simply be replaced.
Loan sharking is symptomatic of a wider social problem. There are reasons for the increased demand for high interest rate loans.
These reasons may include easy access to gambling facilities, i.e. casinos; many more licensed moneylenders operating on the island today – a case of supply creating its own demand. Or is a high cost of living squeezing Singapore's low and middle income segments so severely that loan sharks are necessary for survival.
These (and more) are valid questions. Singaporeans deserve an answer.
The authorities must consider forming an interagency commission comprising of social scientists, law enforcement officials and other experts to study the subject and make appropriate recommendations. Singapore's loan sharking problem is a symptom of deeper social issues plaguing 'New and Improved' Singapore. These issues must be dealt with in a holistic manner.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at