Sunday, 27 January 2013

Punggol East: Workers’ Party victory or PAP’s loss?

Singapore's blogosphere must certainly be buzzing with news of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) loss in the Punggol East by-election. The Workers' Party (WP) victory is significant in several ways. However, first one must decide if the result is primarily a victory for the WP or a defeat for the PAP. The distinction is a fine but important one.

Were Punggol East voters expressing discontent against the PAP and was the WP the only alternative available? Or do Singaporeans' voters genuinely believe the WP fielded the better candidate? The answer is a combination of both factors.

The electorate is tired of being taken for granted by the political elite and the PAP is finding it difficult to reinvent itself in line with the aspirations of a changed citizenry. Take the AIM controversy – voters smelt a rat. There may not be any criminal or legal wrongdoing on the part of AIM but in the court of public opinion the PAP fights an uphill battle to justify its behaviour. The AIM transaction may have been acceptable to voters several elections ago but not today.

The 'New Singapore' demands greater transparency.

Even if the Punggol vote was a protest vote against the PAP, the WP gains much from the results of the Punggol East by-election. WP has established itself as Singapore's only opposition party of note. Over time, other parties will most likely fade away as opposition supporters consolidate around the WP.

Success breeds success and the taste of victory is infectious. The WP's triumph in Punggol East is a positive booster shot for WP supporters. The resolve of parliamentarians, party workers, donors and supporters alike will harden. Moreover, the WP will likely find it easier to attract talent. Supporting the opposition is no longer a lost cause – a significant perception change from just a few years ago.

To its credit, the WP has played its cards reasonably well during the last few years. Understanding its limitations as a minnow in Singapore's political arena, the WP has acted responsibly to date. It has not bitten off more than it can chew.
The Punggol East by-election is one more step in the maturing of Singapore's politics. Just as the PAP is fumbling around to teach itself how to live with a parliamentary opposition, the WP is discovering the intricacies of operating within a parliamentary democracy - a process of 'self-discovery' for Singapore at the national level.

The PAP may not be in danger of losing its parliamentary majority at the next general elections. However, the seeds of a two party parliamentary system in Singapore have been planted. It only remains to be seen if these seeds will grow into a healthy plant. We will only know the answer to that question once Singapore goes through a few more general election cycles.
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, 20 January 2013

Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Mali: still more interventions to come?

Over a decade ago, the United States reacted to the 9/11 attacks with military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan's Taliban and Iraq's Saddam Hussein may be history but Islamic extremism is anything but weakened. So, while another attack on the US mainland may not have occurred in the intervening years, US foreign policy successes have been limited at best. Particular if curbing the growth of austere, extremist Islam is defined as a key US policy objective.

A balance sheet of events in the Islamic world since the turn of the century makes poor reading. In the years since America started to proactively (aka militarily) 'defend' its overseas interests, much bad stuff has happened. At the same time and just as important, positive events within the Islamic world have been in short supply.

Afghanistan: The war is winding down and the US seems only interested in making sure Pakistan releases all the Taliban captives held in its custody. Afghanistan may not be another Vietnam but it is hard to argue for a clear-cut American victory. In fact, Islamic radicalism in Pakistan has increased partly due to the effects of the US intervention in Afghanistan.

Islamic terrorism nearly brought Pakistan to its knees a few years ago, with the Pakistani Taliban attempting to move out of its traditional havens in the tribal areas and into 'settled' areas of Pakistan like the Swat Valley and Peshawar's outlying districts. The immediate danger may be past for Pakistan but political instability and Taliban inspired violence will negatively affect the country for some years to come.

Iraq: Saddam's gone and in its place is a nation divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. The Kurds have their piece. Sunni – Shia bloodletting continues with alarming frequency. Iraq's minority Christian community, a beneficiary of Saddam's secular nationalism, is struggling to maintain its freedoms.

The real winner in Iraq is former president Bush's arch-enemy: Iran. Shia politicians have taken over Iraqi state institutions and provide Iran a potent platform through which to play the centuries old Persian – Arab rivalry. The heightened Shia – Sunni tensions in the Arab Gulf, particularly Bahrain, can be attributed partly to Iran's greater presence within the Arab world.

Egypt: It seems Egyptians wanted democracy as much as their Iraqi brothers. Egypt did not wait for American troops to bring them democratic freedoms. Instead, following Tunisia's lead, Egyptians took to the streets and brought down longstanding dictator, Mubarak. Subsequently, Mubarak's nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood has assumed control of the Egyptian state.

The 'legitimization' of the Muslim Brotherhood through the formation of Egypt's government is significant. Arguably, the Brotherhood is the spiritual Godfather of Al-Qaeeda and other Islamic extremist offshoots. How the Brotherhood's leadership uses its new found powers, prestige and organs of the Egyptian state may be decisive in the battle for Islam's silent majority.

Syria: Another bastion of secular Arab nationalism is tottering and on the verge of collapse. In Syria, Western intervention has been crucial in allowing Islamic extremists to create another battleground and, possibly, ultimately control the reins of a recognized nation- state. Islam's historic Sunni - Shia rivalry will most certainly be exacerbated by events in the Levant as Syria's civil war deepens. As in Iraq and Egypt, Syrian Christians will be big losers as Islamist influence further pervades the country.

Africa: Africa has been an unfortunate continent in so many ways for so long. Islamic extremism can now be added to the woes of the African continent.
From Nigeria in the west to Somalia in the east, there is no denying radical Islam has found itself a new playground. Lest one wishes to give Africa the benefit of the doubt, one can throw Mali into the mix for good measure. Oh and there are also thousands of unaccounted weapons and trained jobless Tuareg fighters – formerly part of Libyan leader Gaddafi's military – looking for a piece of land to settle.

Libya itself is not handling the transition to democracy too well. Essentially the country is divided into fiefdoms controlled by different tribes and groupings, with the active participation of Sunni extremists.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): The GCC is mentioned not because several Islamists have been arrested in the normally sedate United Arab Emirates (UAE). Or the troubles in Bahrain continue and threaten to spill over into Saudi Arabia. No, the GCC is important because of Saudi Arabia's influence (and cash) within the wider Islamic world.

In Saudi Arabia, the most pertinent issue is the pace of social reforms and the development of civil society. Surely, reforms are proceeding apace. Women have been nominated into the country's consultative assembly. Nonetheless, real reforms in empowering women and co-opting females into mainstream society are still missing from the agenda. Separate but equal is not only expensive but does not work.

9/11 is understood primarily as an act of war against the US and western interests – and it most certainly was such an attack. However, it is the Islamic world which has suffered the greatest repercussions since September. The show of aggression not only prompted western military interventions in a host of Muslim countries – the list appears to grow annually – but has resulted in introspective soul searching by the Islamic world. During this intellectual exercise, Muslims have killed each other in large numbers with both randomness and precision. Undoubtedly, all the blame cannot be placed at Washington's door. However, the US might better serve international security by nudging reforms in the Saudi kingdom rather than sending troops to foreign shores at the first hint of trouble. The ripple effects from a reforming Saudi society will be positively felt far and wide in the Islamic world.
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, 16 January 2013

'Singapore, Islam and Multiculturalism,' Monday, January 21 at the Asian Civilizations Museum

Have you ever wondered why Singapore is one of the few countries of the world where holy days of several religions are public holidays? Christmas, Deepavali, Hari Raya to name a few.

Did you know Singapore law requires Muslim citizens to abide by certain aspects of Sharia Islamic law?

Interested in taking a peek inside the prism of Singapore's 'Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others' or CMIO way of seeing the world?

Come hear me speak on 'Singapore, Islam and Multiculturalism' at the Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore.

The presentation is part of the Friends of the Museums, Monday Morning Lecture Series.

Date / Time:           January 21, 2013, 11 AM
Title:                     Singapore, Islam and Multiculturalism
Venue:                   Asian Civilizations Museum, Ngee Ann Auditorium

For more details please visit the Friends of the Museum website.

See you there!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Singapore: leadership, democracy and media liberalization

No, that is not a statement by a medieval European King. Actually, it was said by former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in a 1987 newspaper interview (as recently quoted in a news article). Fortunately for Singaporeans, times have changed since LKY made that comment over a quarter of a century ago. More and more, Singaporeans are influencing behaviours and responses of the government, particularly over issues related to information disclosure and government transparency.

To be sure, much of the media remains firmly in the grip of government controlled corporations. Nonetheless, Singapore's social media has carved out a powerful space for itself in the republic's intellectual landscape. Political analysts of all hues air opinions which may not have seen the light of day in the past. Even ordinary citizens chime in with their two pennies worth – and not only through officially sanctioned programs such as 'Our Singapore Conversation.'

Politicians cannot take positive coverage for granted any longer. They must calculate moves to ensure 'blowback' from the social media will not be excessively negative – surely a good thing. Still, the limits of internet freedom are a 'work in progress.' Following threats of legal action by members of parliament several bloggers have apologized for writings on the internet.

Undoubtedly, public apologies are less severe than being sued for damages which often left opposition politicians bankrupt. Of course, these present voices are frequently not those of politicians. These views come directly from members of the electorate – voters who might swing election results every five years. Moreover, some of these opinions seem to represent beliefs widely held by many 'silent' Singaporeans. Clamping down hard on the 'messengers' will most certainly backfire politically.

Nevertheless, leaders should lead and not follow. That is the definition of leadership. Leading through persuasion and inspiration, not through wielding a big stick, is the new order of things in Singapore. After all, Singapore's past successes were not achieved by following populist policies. If Singapore is to get its mojo back then the level of public debate about governance must continue to improve.

Perhaps it is time for the authorities to initiate deliberate and conscious steps towards liberalizing the country's print media? Counterintuitive it may seem, but a controlled, deregulated traditional print media might serve national interests better than an uncontrolled social media – albeit with pockets of excellence in the form of a few committed bloggers and social analysts.
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, 6 January 2013

Reflections from my stay in Pakistan VIII: Multan’s beauty

The beauty of Multan lies in the city's ability to manipulate time. Time simply moves slower in the City of Saints. Sometimes it appears as if time is suspended for periods. It is almost like Multan is exempt from the laws of physics and motion. Perhaps it is the summer heat which pervades the atmosphere? Or maybe it is my western notions of time, i.e. measured in minutes and seconds not by seasons and crop harvests. After all, Multan is in Pakistan's agricultural heartland.

Time may move slowly in Multan, but it has not completely stopped. During the premiership of now former Prime Minister Gilani, Multan received a large dose of funds meant to bring the city into the modern world. Nonetheless, despite the present government's largesse, Multan cannot divorce itself from the broader issues plaguing Pakistan.

Electricity is top of the list. Electricity comes and goes like the mood swings of a psychotic patient - one moment there is electricity and the next moment darkness.

Then there is poor governance. Roads are built to suit the civilian government's personalities. If a road benefits from the 'sponsorship' of any of the government's 'leading lights,' it will be built quick time. On the contrary, a general public works project will crawl from the sanctioning stage to actual construction. Pakistan's bureaucracy not just manipulates time but actually succeeds in suppressing time.

Multan: a city where rural and urban worlds collide routinely, including finding farm animals in the garden!
The absence of electricity and good governance has created problems for Multan's traditionally strong agricultural industry.

Water pumps and tube wells are essential prerequisites for maintaining stable water supplies at any farm. Because both items require electricity, crops suffer due to 'artificial' shortages of water, i.e. available water cannot be extracted from the ground and / or delivered to crops. Consequently, Pakistani farmers are experiencing low crop yields or reducing farmed acreage to cope with lower water supplies.

But the civilian government is more concerned with maintaining its hold on power - implementing a cohesive national agricultural policy is not a priority. Surprisingly, most Multanis also seem more preoccupied with the politics of patronage or scandals surrounding the (former) First Family and not the difficulties of the city's farming business.

Maybe I do not understand democracy? All evidence from Pakistan points to democracy being a system focused on the short term, which sacrifices all at the altar of political expediency. Or maybe I do not understand President Zardari and his ruling party's priorities (does he even have any)? Or maybe I just don't get Multan and its near rural outlook on life? Nevertheless, Multan is a beautiful city operating at its own tempo.

I, for one, am looking forward to my next visit to the City of Saints.
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