Sunday, 29 July 2012

Singapore’s corruption: only the taker pays?

Commerce relies on personal relationships. It is a fact of human interaction that commercial relationships frequently become friendships. I can attest to having met many people I now count as friends, initially through professional interactions. Nonetheless, there are certain ‘red lines’ which demarcate appropriate and inappropriate relationships within a commercial relationship.
Mostly, these factors pertain to conflicts of interests between the two parties. Often there is no black and white clarity about where / when the line is crossed. Instead, it normally relies on following one’s own conscience and judgement. However, other instances fall plainly on weak ground, legally and ethically.
Take the case of a National University of Singapore (NUS) Law Professor allegedly receiving sexual and material gratification from a student in consideration for improved course grades; or senior Singapore government officers allegedly obtaining sexual fulfilment in return for preferential treatment of a particular company’s bid to provide services.
I must point out that these cases are still before the courts. As of today, neither an innocent or guilty verdict has been pronounced.

Still, one thing bothers me about these cases. In neither case has the ‘bribe giver’ been charged with a crime. In other words, the NUS student who supposedly gave a Mont Blanc pen, had sex or paid her law professor’s bill remains free as a bird. Only her reputation has been sullied by the turn of events. Likewise, the marketing persons who had sex with senior government civil servants purportedly to facilitate sales to government agencies also continue to be untouched by the law.
The situation baffles me because were an individual to bribe a government servant (or professor) with cash in return for certain treatment both parties will face the courts, i.e. the person giving the bribe and the person receiving the bribe. Try bribing a policewoman handing you a parking a ticket and see whether you get hauled off to court?
After all, does it matter whether the bribe was paid in cash or kind? What matters more is that consideration was illegally received by one party in return for inappropriately using his influence to benefit the ‘bribe giver.’ Even if a lawyer can explain to me the legal niceties allowing these ‘bribe givers’ to get away scot free, the situation does not pass my ‘smell test.’ The circumstances stink of rottenness. At the very least, justice is not seen to be done.
To top it all off, the general public receives a mixed message. It is illegal to receive bribes but acceptable to offer bribes. Surely, that is not the signal Singaporeans should be receiving from the law enforcement authorities?
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, 22 July 2012

Islam’s civil war and the post 9/11 dialectic

Near term, it's difficult to be optimistic about the Islamic world. Virtually all corners of this diverse grouping face issues of some sort. The latest entrant to the a-list of Muslim problem countries is Syria.

Syria has slowly but surely descended into a chaotic civil war.
The sad fact is that Syria, along with Tunisia and Iraq were relative success stories for the Islamic world. These were reasonably integrated nations with high percentages of non-Muslim minorities living peaceably in their midst. Women's rights were well respected. Physical infrastructure was, if not good, at least passable; certainly, at 'Second World' standards and at par with many parts of Eastern Europe.

Our Lady of Dormition Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchal Cathedral, Damascus, Syria.
Unfortunately, bad politics makes for bad economics. And when politics deteriorates into wars and endemic civil unrest then economics becomes a subservient part of the national development equation.
Syria must be analyzed within the wider context of the Saudi – Iranian rivalry for regional dominance. Whatever comes next in Syria, one fact is clear: reactionary Islamists will increase their influence in an otherwise socially progressive part of the Arab world. That Saudis bankroll a large part of the rebel Syrian army should be a good indicator of future influence in Damascus.
For its part, Iraq may be on the mend following the US inspired Iraq war. However, if things get ugly in Iran, Iraq cannot escape its geography. Iraq's large Shia population will ensure the country pays a price for any Israeli - US intervention in Iraq's eastern neighbour, Iran.
The drama unfolding in Tunisia and Egypt foreshadows similar encroachments by Islamists in other parts of the Islamic world. More religious interference, formal and informal, in state affairs is a certainty in most Muslim countries.
Few will escape Islam's 'new normal.' Gone are the old post-colonial westernized political elites. These cast members have long been replaced by home grown, often petrodollar sponsored, religious conservatives fed on a staple of Muslim Brotherhood style ideology.
Amongst the most dangerous recent developments, the dialectic between Muslim and Non-Muslim nations has dramatically changed since 9/11. All western actions are put through an Islamic 'religious' paradigm. Likewise, the western world also tends to think in terms of a monolithic Islamic world. Islamic extremists from geographies as diverse as Algeria, Somalia, Afghanistan and Indonesia are unceremoniously lumped into the same 'dronable' problem. As far as Islamists are concerned, the maxim that 'all politics is local' has been conveniently discarded.

Statue of Saladin in Damascus, Syria.
Undoubtedly, the Islamic world is in a mess – and Muslim pride and egos are at low ebb. Muslims themselves must accept a large portion of the blame for the current state of affairs.
Nevertheless, it is darkest before the dawn. Given the depths to which parts of the Islamic world have recently plummeted I presume it can only get better from here.
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, 15 July 2012

Leadership, paradigms and the Reagan-Thatcher-Mitterand Era

Political leaders are born. Then they are created. Leaders create themselves.

Although leaders are not divorced from wider social trends, a leader by definition influences the direction of these trends. As I look around the world today, I see a world largely bereft of strong leadership.
Obama may be a rock star president to some though on the global stage the US leadership star keeps slipping. PM David Cameron – David who? What - you don't know the name of Britain's prime minister? And President Hollande of France? Yes, Holland is the name of a small Northern European country and Hollande is the name of the recently installed French president.
(Perhaps some social activists may know of Hollande because he is the first French president to move into Paris' Elysee Palace with a 'partner,' not a wife.)
Maybe my concept of political leadership was formed by personalities from the 1980s - a decade of real leadership? Leadership which ultimately led to the demise of the great evil of the day: communism.
Recognize the leaders?
The Brits had Thatcher, the Americans Reagan and the French Mitterand.
All three had presence, aura and a few other things which many leaders of today lack. Sure, there were illegitimate children (Mitterand), the Iran-Contra Scandal (Reagan) but these leaders didn't waffle. They went for the jugular despite social upheavals or negative reactions from the opponents like Arthur Scargill, Galtieri or Brezhnev.  
Look at us today. More than decade into the War on Terror and the world still lives in terror. Aircraft carriers, soldiers and anti-aircraft guns are deployed in the heart of London to stave of terror attacks during the Olympic Games. Granted, OBL was killed in a dramatic commando raid but most everything else is still in a mess.
And, don't try to tell me the global economy's dire straits are not linked to the War on Terror – of which the Iraq occupation was a major part!
It is with mixed emotions that I suggest the world will stay off an even keel for some years to come. Maybe it's that progress is always slightly anarchic – or so I have been told. It's only during periods of stagnation that things stay orderly.
Or maybe, just maybe, I have reached a tipping point in my life - that point at which everything seemed so much better 'back in the day.'
Amidst all this confusion, there is one undisputable fact of which I am certain: music was way better in my day! No debate.
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, 8 July 2012

The ‘God Particle’ and Allah’s students

The world is apparently on the cusp of a significant scientific breakthrough. Scientists in Switzerland have discovered evidence of the 'God Particle,' a breakthrough which might lead to deciphering some of the mysteries surrounding the world's creation.

The road named after Pakistani Nobel Prize physicist Dr. Abdus Salam in CERN, Geneva.
Pakistani Nobel Prize winning physicist, Dr. Abdus Salam, may have played a role in critical early research on the subject but that fact only underscores the pathetic state of learning in the Islamic world today.
Islam's knowledge deficit has its roots in history. Despite the rich tradition of scientific enquiry of earlier Islamic societies, the Islamic world slept through the Scientific Revolution. Mostly, the arrival of steam engines and cotton ginning machines into Muslim territories - from Istanbul, Cairo to Delhi - had to wait until respective colonial masters saw fit to introduce these technologies. Or, as in the case of the Ottoman Turks, the knowledge was bought with borrowed money, many decades later.
Unfortunately, things have changed little in the Islamic world during the last few centuries. The Islamic world still has demons to exorcise.
The conservative religious clergy with its reactionary world view is alive and well. Women in Saudi Arabia cannot drive for a reason. Even with all the oil wealth at its disposal, the Saudi state is not powerful enough to directly challenge such anachronistic religious edicts. Sadly, reactionary religious conservatism of sorts has permeated all corners of the Islamic world
However, the situation is not all bad. 'International' secular, scientific knowledge is being soaked up by Islamic societies in a big way. The catch-up process is underway. There are umpteen universities and research institutes established in the post colonial era. Wealthy Islamic states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are collaborating with global educational centers of excellence to improve research standards.
Surely, there is little, if any, genuine secular knowledge creation in contemporary Muslim societies. Nevertheless, the seeds for a future knowledge revolution are being planted. It is not by chance that a new generation of Arabs wishes to rid itself of authoritarian rulers. The new generation is an educated, worldly wise population seeking to move into modernity, including in governance standards.

Unfortunately, Islam's knowledge revolution is decades away. Debates about hijab, consumption of alcohol or the role of women in an Islamic society are apparently more important than acquisition of knowledge. Consequently, for the next few decades headlines such as 'New God Particle Discovered' are more likely to be followed by 'Historical Timbuktu Shrines Burnt by Muslims Acting in the Name of God.' Articles with sentences such as the following will only be found in the fantasy world of optimistic bloggers.
"Scientists working at the Institute of Particle Research in [insert Islamic city name / country here] held a press conference to highlight the latest advancements in the field of particle physics."

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, 1 July 2012

The Sun Sets on City Harvest Church?

Two years ago I published a post (reproduced below) suggesting financial transparency for charities like the City Harvest Church (CHC) must be improved. Unfortunately, it seems my concerns were warranted.

Recently, several senior members of CHC, including founder Kong Hee, have been arrested by Singapore's authorities on charges of misusing CHC funds to promote the singing career of Kong Hee's wife (Sun Ho).

"The COC's Inquiry revealed misconduct and mismanagement in the administration of the Charity, particularly in relation to the funds that were in the Building Fund which had been raised and earmarked for specific purposes. Financial irregularities of at least $23 million from the Charity's funds have been discovered. These funds were used with the purported intention to finance Ho Yeow Sun's secular music career to connect with people. There was a concerted effort to conceal this movement of funds from its stakeholders." (COC Statement.)
I am encouraged by the Singaporean authorities desire to make the management of CHC charity accountable for their alleged breach of public trust. In the event that wrongdoing is established, it is essential that exemplary punishments be handed out to those responsible for the serious misdeeds.
I await the legal proceedings with baited breath! 

Singapore's City Harvest Church, a few spiritual and material lessons

I am not surprised that the City Harvest Church (CHC) saga is back in the news. Modern religious leaders who combine worldly enterprises with spiritual undertakings always raise my suspicions.
Singaporeans should be glad that the authorities are investigating possible misuse of funds by the church and some of its leaders. If CHC has nothing to hide then the investigation becomes a routine affair. On the other hand, if wrong doing is uncovered then the government must send a clear signal to all charities that the exploitation of public trust is a serious offense.
No doubt, all religious undertakings must have worldly trappings to survive: places of worship, salaries for staff and so on. But it is hard for me to believe that a church which commits SGD 2.9 million towards charitable work on donations of SGD 86 million is fully committed to its community roots. CHC spent more on 'Christian Television Broadcast and Mass Media, Church Television Ministry and Internet Broadcasting' in 2008 - 2009.
There are two issues that demand further analysis: the scope of allowable relationships between non-profit entities and allied profit making entities, and the moral problem regarding the involvement of a 'spiritual' leader in business enterprises.
The CHC is involved in several business transactions, including the purchase of Suntec City. The Suntec transaction brings up many questions.
  1. Is the purchase of commercially oriented convention centres in line with CHC's approved purposes?
  2. Are there independent checks to ensure that public donations are not channelled to finance commercial ventures, whether indirectly through special purpose vehicles or directly through CHC?
  3. How are profits distributed to stakeholders, i.e. will Reverend Kong Hee and his close associates receive an unreasonably large amount of the profits?
  4. What percentage of the revenue will accrue to CHC and for what activities will the money be used, e.g. to purchase more churches and establish television channels?
Clearly, many questions about CHC's activities remain unanswered. Only a thorough investigation will satisfy a public legitimately hungry for answers.
I hope the Singapore authorities will not only be transparent with their findings but also act on them. If changes to regulations governing religiously inspired organizations are necessary, they must be made urgently.
The moral issues raised by the CHC episode are more personal in nature.
I do not believe that a man of religion should be so blatantly involved in commercial enterprises. Yes, devoting one's life to religion does not automatically mean leading a monk's life but accumulating (and not spending) excessive wealth also raises serious questions about the person's commitment to social welfare.
Does seeking out profits for commercial purposes – managing television stations or buying convention centres – falls in the realm of legitimate CHC activity? Now, if the CHC were managing shelters for the homeless or providing social welfare services then few will question the legitimacy of the CHC.  
As things stand, there are hardly any positive signs of CHC activities visible to the ordinary Singaporean. People are right to be sceptical.
The issues are complex and require an independent and empowered commission to make recommendations for strengthening legislation surrounding non-profit entities. If harsh measures, including the forfeiture of illegally obtained assets, are implemented few will be sympathetic towards lawbreakers.
A review of the rules is no longer optional, it is a requirement.
If I were a contributing member of the CHC, I would certainly want to know whether my money is used to fund the Reverend's lifestyle or the CHC's legitimate activities.
Article originally published on June 9, 2010

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