Sunday, 26 February 2012

Defamation versus transparency – Singapore’s fine balancing act

Singapore's defamation laws are back in the news. Recently, the public has seen a couple of instances of a popular, anti-PAP website receiving notices under the Defamation Act.
Perhaps the Act has no place in a free, democratic society. However, is it likely Singapore's defamation laws will be meaningfully amended anytime soon? Not really. So, should opposition groups and politicians spend massive amounts of time, energy and political capital campaigning against the Act? Probably not.
Certainly, the end objective of almost all Singaporeans' is greater political transparency so as to increase fairness, and a whole host of other good wholesome things.
But rather than focus on libel laws, other tangible and more realistic steps towards transparency can be the focus of civil society and opposition groups.
For starters an open debate about the use of Singapore's massive wealth as represented by holdings of Temasek Holdings and the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) is in order. Inevitably, such a discussion cannot skirt critical issues such as transparency and accountability (see my letters published in the Straits Times Forum about Temasek's Board of Directors in November 2009 and sharing returns with Singaporeans' in July 2010). 
As published in The Economist magazine

One model for Singapore to examine is found in Norway, specifically Norway's Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG). Like Singapore, Norway has a small population (approximately five million citizens), but is a wealthy nation.
Norway's GPFG is valued at over USD 600 billion. The Fund is an integral part of the country's fiscal policy. In other words, depending on the GPFG's returns and domestic economic considerations the government may draw upon the GPFG for budgetary support. Conversely, in good times, the government transfers funds to grow the GPFG.
[The Fund] also served as a tool to manage the financial challenges of an ageing population ... The fund is an integrated part of the government's annual budget. This means the fund is fully integrated with the state budget and that net allocations to the fund reflect the total budget surplus, including petroleum revenue. Fiscal policy is based on the guideline that over time the structural, non-oil budget deficit shall correspond to the real return on the fund, estimated at 4 percent. The so-called spending rule that no more than 4 percent of the fund's return should over time be spent on the annual national budget [emphasis added by author] was first established in 2001.
Perhaps it is time for the government to legislate clear policy guidelines about the use of investment returns from the country's wealth funds. Such a policy will have far reaching implications for many facets of Singapore's governance:
  1. The President's guardianship of the nation's foreign exchange reserves may need to be formalized and tightened;
  2. Long term investment return guidelines and benchmarks will be made explicitly available. The entire process of transferring wealth 'to and from' Singaporeans' rests on defining prudent return parameters  - Singapore's own version of a 'spending rule;'
  3. Accountability to the nation will require reasonable transparency before Parliament or, at the very least, some sort of appropriately structured Parliamentary committee.
At its most basic level, politics is about the distribution of wealth. Fortunately, over the past several decades, Singaporeans have worked hard to accumulate a hefty national bank account (Temasek Holdings and GIC). While it is important national finances are prudently managed, it is not a crime to spend from savings now and then – within predefined strictures.
Surely, Singapore's national bank balance is now large enough for Singaporeans' to directly draw upon a part of Temasek and GIC's long term investment returns.  
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, 19 February 2012

Post-Karzai Afghanistan – some possible scenarios

As the Afghan end game gets closer, major stakeholders continue to jockey for position. US policymakers are conscious of the country's weak bargaining position in Afghanistan. The fragility of the US position was highlighted in a recent article in the US Armed Forces Journal.
"Entering this deployment, I was sincerely hoping to learn that the claims were true: that conditions in Afghanistan were improving, that the local government and military were progressing toward self-sufficiency. I did not need to witness dramatic improvements to be reassured, but merely hoped to see evidence of positive trends, to see companies or battalions produce even minimal but sustainable progress.
Instead, I witnessed the absence of success on virtually every level."
Lt. Col. Daniell L. Davis, "Truth, Lies and Afghanistan." Armed Forces Journal, February 2012.
Not surprisingly, US pressure on Pakistan increases almost in proportion to US failures in achieving its objectives in Afghanistan. After all, there is no better scapegoat than blaming a discredited and weak nation: Pakistan, Bin Laden's host of many years. 
The Afghan National Army (ANA) - more than just a ceremonial force?
Nevertheless, the western community is aware time and money are running out. There is even talk of a reduction in numbers of indigenous Afghan security forces trained by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). It seems Afghanistan National Army (ANA) commandoes capturing the odd insurgent here and there is not a sufficient return for current training levels to be maintained.

So what happens after US forces leave and a 'free, independent and non-occupied' Afghanistan fends for itself? Karzai and his coterie of officials maintain their hold on power; the Taliban retakes power; the Taliban and the Northern Alliance reach a political compromise; or the country descends into chaos.
Karzai retains power
Karzai was a compromise leader foisted on the Afghans following the Taliban's fall. Karzai's two greatest strengths for the presidential position were being an ethnic Pashtun and not having his own political constituency. (Pashtuns form the largest ethnic community in Afghanistan.)
Without support from US and NATO forces, Karzai's ability to dispense largesse will erode over time. Neither will he be able to rely upon the Afghan National Army (ANA) to shore up his position.  
Karzai's days will be numbered following the withdrawal of international troops. Karzai's best course of action will be to make sure his passport is valid for the next few years, preferably containing a valid visa for the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Returning to his former 'home in exile,' i.e. Quetta, Pakistan, will not be possible.
The Taliban Return to Power
The Taliban retains much popular support from segments of the Pashtun community, especially in the Southeast of the country. However, the war has damaged the Taliban's military capabilities and organizational infrastructure.
Most importantly, future patronage from the Pakistani security establishment will at best be lukewarm. The reason: Pakistan's military is rightfully concerned about increasing the strength of the Taliban's Pakistani offshoot, the Pakistani Tehreek-e-Taliban.  
Without active Pakistani support it is unlikely the Taliban can militarily subdue Afghanistan, such as during its 1996-2001 regime. However, Pakistan's attitude towards the Taliban will ultimately be determined by the level of US and Indian activity in a post Karzai Afghanistan.
Many western analysts might suggest a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan is imminent following America's departure. However, the likelihood of such an occurrence is low.
A coalition between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance
These two political groupings – it is difficult to call the Taliban and Northern Alliance anything more than groups - represent the largest two indigenous forces on the Afghan political horizon. To be sure, other personalities like Uzbek leader Rashid Dostum or Herati Tajik Ismail Khan will play a supporting role in any future political structure. But, in all probability, the minor cast members will take pick a side between the two larger forces.
Afghan school children
Theoretically, a coalition government is the best way forward for the country. Nevertheless, a sustainable coalition between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban is next to impossible. There is too much bad blood – literally - between the two groups. Hardliners in both camps will sabotage any attempt at forming a working relationship.

A descent to pre-Taliban chaos
A 'legitimate' successor to Karzai may rule Kabul for some years. The same way Najibullah lasted following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The same ruler may also claim nominal sovereignty over the rest of Afghanistan. However, any such ruler's power will likely not extend beyond Kabul's presidential palace.
By the end of this decade, the probability of Afghanistan becoming a nation of regional fiefdoms controlled by various leaders (aka warlords) is high. In this scenario, Pakistan will be happy to secure a sphere of influence in the regions near its North-western border. Likewise, Iran will attempt to maintain its influence in Western Afghanistan while the Central Asian Republics will dominate provinces along its borders. Meanwhile, the US and India will try hard to preserve the Northern Alliance as an effective counterbalance to the Taliban.
To what extent these outside countries are successful in pursuing their own narrow agendas – and at what cost to Afghanistan – is open to debate.
After ten years of war, US authorities are loathe to admit that a bunch of 'rag tag' militants, i.e. the Taliban, remain a viable political and military force in Afghanistan. While the Taliban cannot take over Kabul within weeks of a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban will certainly not make life easy for Karzai's regime. 
A female contingent of the Pakistan Army at a recent parade
In the next few years, political change is coming to Afghanistan. Let's hope that after ten years of 'nation building' courtesy of western military intervention, the west will leave Afghanistan with at least one good legacy– the granting of fundamental rights to Afghan women.
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, 12 February 2012

Singapore – time to get your ‘Mojo’ back!

It happens to the best in every field. Musicians don't dominate the charts forever. Sportspeople falter. Actors lose audiences.
Blame biorhythms, immune systems or simply a lack of concentration but the fact is clear: it takes effort to stay at the top. Unfortunately, it seems as if Singapore's time as the poster child for development and clinical efficiency is up.
Singapore, time to move over – it's someone else's turn now.
Not so fast. Sure, suddenly there are floods, murders, loan sharks, litter, crowded trains and even foreigners parading around public places in undergarments but are these terminal issues? Not really. Most if not all these issues can be addressed with a healthy dose of Singapore's historical bureaucratic efficiency.
Alas, the bureaucracy may be exactly where the roots of the current problem rest. As long as Singapore's bureaucrats could copy and replicate progress, the country leapfrogged from the Third World straight to the First World.
However, Singapore's future development script is unique and unwritten. The city's revered mandarins cannot merely look elsewhere and copy. To move forward requires creative thinking exclusive to Singapore's particular conditions.
Undoubtedly, learning from 'best practices' overseas is a prerequisite for future success, e.g. flood management. However, the best solutions will most likely be 'home grown' based on a deep understanding of the city's social environment and psychological make-up.
Fortunately, Singapore's recent mishaps notwithstanding, the city has a lot going for it.
Public participation in civic affairs has dramatically increased. Consequently, newer ideas enter mainstream debate easier than in the past.
The bureaucracy remains strong. Implementing policies is not problematic.
Most importantly, there is no shortage of funds. The last few decades of fiscally responsible policies permits the government to invest surplus moneys into problem areas, e.g. improve public transport infrastructure. If anything, the government currently rakes in too much revenue for the level of social services it provides.
Presently, Singapore is in a bit of a bad patch. But so are most parts of the world. Following Singapore's own 'Arab Spring' in 2011, it is time for bureaucrats to take ownership of the city's problems. The alternative is a continued slow but inevitable deterioration of everything that has come to symbolize Brand Singapore: public sector efficiency, low crime and a high quality of life.
Singapore, it's time to reclaim your mojo!
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

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Pakistani cities, suicide bombers and the US war on terror

Most Pakistanis have noticed the marked decrease in violence in the nation's urban areas. Analysts find it hard not to link the relative peace in Pakistani cities with the government's new found strength at confronting America regional anti-terrorism policies (aka the US led war in Afghanistan).
Surely, Pakistani law enforcement agencies, military operations and even US sponsored drone strikes in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have dented the Pakistani Taliban's ability to operate in the Pakistani mainland. However, scores of idle NATO supply trucks dot Pakistan's landscape; sitting ducks for opponents of Pakistan's collaboration with Afghan based NATO forces. Observers may recall the severity and frequency of attacks on Pakistani trucks heading towards Afghanistan each time the Khyber Pass was closed in the past.
Pakistani container trucks normally carrying supplies for US led forces in Afghanistan parked near Peshawar

That there have been few, if any, attacks on US and NATO supply convoys stranded on Pakistan's territory since the closure of US supply routes in late November 2011 supports the notion that Pakistani militants are consciously limiting violence. The diminished violence may allow the government to return to its primary purpose: economic and social development.
Unfortunately, Pakistani politics are never so simple. The tag team wrestling match between the military, parliament and the Supreme Court dominates the current political agenda. Certainly, power dynamics within the Pakistani political establishment have to be resolved for a smoothly functioning political system to emerge.
Each of the three state pillars, i.e. the military, parliament and the Supreme Court, must have their operational scope and relationships circumscribed. In corporate speak, detailed 'Job Descriptions' of the Prime Minister, Chief of Army Staff and Chief Justice must be reviewed, debated, amended and approved.
So, while the political elite plays its power games in Islamabad (and its twin city, Rawalpindi) ordinary Pakistanis wonder about power closer to home: electricity. Countrywide electricity shortages typify the stupor and malaise of the Pakistani political establishment. The national grid's ability to meet electricity demand has deteriorated progressively during the last two decades.
There can be little progress without uninterrupted and stable electricity supplies. Sure, industrial establishments may have back-up electricity sources but can generators power economic development in a nation of 180 million.  
Pakistan's future is a debate about priorities. Which subjects deserve the state's limited resources? Engendering a compliant Afghanistan to create so-called strategic depth; becoming a US lapdog in return for the odd bone thrown by the US Congress; strengthening state institutions to improve policy implementation; developing physical infrastructure which enables economic development; or a well thought out combination of all of the above.
To build a successful Pakistan requires a reordering of the country's existing priorities. To be sure, a consensus among the country's military, parliament and Supreme Court is a prerequisite. Nonetheless, a prosperous Pakistan requires good governance of the sort only provided by sincere and committed individuals.
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