Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Sufism – a Quest for Eternal Truth

All are invited to a free talk on Islam's Sufi traditions in the context of other faiths, particularly Buddhism, organized by the Asian Classics Institute (Singapore).

Date:          July 1, 2013 (Monday)
Time:          7.30 – 9.00 pm
Venue:       #02-45 Shaw Tower, 100 Beach Road, Singapore

For more details and registration, please visit Asian Classics Institute.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Singapore punches above its weight diplomatically - really?

The haze is an 'externality,' a phenomenon ostensibly beyond the control of Singapore's government. A result of burning forests and peat, commonly attributed to 'slash and burn' farming techniques employed in nearby Indonesian islands. However, never during the last two decades has the haze affected behaviour as severely as during the last few days. Sure, the haze was bad a few times in the late 1990s but it probably did not reach 'hazardous' levels on the Pollutants Standards Index (PSI) measure. During the last few days, the PSI seems to have breached the 400 number a few times.

The haze places more than just the health of Singapore's greatest asset – its people – at stake. Its economic implications are significant.

Indonesia: hear the roar of Singapore's mighty Merlion?
Absent and unhealthy workers affect productivity. Retail sales are affected by people staying indoors as much as possible. Tourism takes a hit as people cancel or shorten pleasure and business trips. For those brave individuals who visit Singapore anyway, they may not leave with happy memories and will most certainly not spend as much time in indulging in outdoors activity (e.g. Sentosa, Orchard Road, alfresco dining).

Despite being a problem with roots in Indonesia, Singapore has diplomatic options to help alleviate – if not completely redress – the annual haze dilemma. To be sure, Singapore must balance the 'carrot and stick' effectively to ensure the Republic's relations with Indonesia are not irrevocably damaged.
Diplomacy is a delicate art requiring the virtuous use of many different soft and hard levers in an optimal combination. Results are never guaranteed and unintended consequences may also arise from using any number of diplomatic tools.

Singaporeans are often told, Singapore is a small country but due to hard work and progress, the country punches above its weight. The present is as good a time as any to demonstrate Singapore's regional clout by pushing for a sustainable solution to an ongoing problem. To remain hostage year after year to the same problem is not an option.

Singapore's politicians and civil servants, including diplomats, are well paid and highly trained. Ordinary Singaporeans will be happy to see them earn their keep by continuing current efforts to address the crisis. Surely, Singapore's otherwise wise and masterful civil service scholars and policy makers can come up with lasting solutions to vexing questions such as the haze?
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 June 2013

Another protest rally in Singapore – what else is new?

Not so long ago, criticisms of Singapore's ruling party figures were typically voiced only in hushed tones. For good reason: critics feared defamation law suits which often ended only once the defendant declared bankruptcy. Soon enough, some of Singapore's fiercest opposition activists were either bankrupt or preoccupied with trying to keep their heads afloat. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens were too busy pursuing the coveted 'Five C's,' leaving little spare time for any political activism.

That was the last century. Much has changed in Singapore since the dawn of the new Millennium. The River Safari, Esplanade, Singapore Flyer, Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands now grace Singapore's limited land mass.

A view of Singapore's skyline in the new Millennium
However, the real changes have been in the Singaporean's psyche.

The list of subtle though significant changes in Singapore is endless. Corruption cases originating in the public sector elicit no more than shrug – although if sex is involved then all details must be made public in the name of 'transparency!' Crime, including loan sharking, is more common than at any time in recent memory. And, horror of all horrors, even labour unrest and strikes have resurfaced in Singapore.

One of the most apparent changes is a willingness to challenge official government policies openly. Today, Ex-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's famous 'Out of Bounds' markers are slowly but surely becoming obsolete.

There is no more hiding behind anonymous social media monikers or whispering behind closed doors. Instead, opposition is expressed directly at the ballot box and, more surprisingly, through regular demonstrations at Singapore's own Speakers' Corner located at Hong Lim Park. (The Hong Lim Park 'haven' of free speech was itself an innovation of the new Millennium, inaugurated in the year 2000.)

During the last few months, Speakers' Corner has been the venue for several rallies. A couple were directed at the government's immigration policies while the most recent gathering expressed participants' disapproval at the government's new media regulations which came into force a few days ago.

Humans are fascinated by new and original activities, especially if they include an element of 'shock value.' This certainly seemed the case with the recent string of protests at Singapore's Speakers' Corner. Many joined the demonstrations not only to express displeasure but also to experience something novel.

However, humans also get bored easily. People tend to move on to the next new thing quickly – unless there is a glue to make the activity stick sustainable. The Singapore government must wait to see if there is any glue binding Singapore's social activists together; particularly once the novelty of raising anti-government placard and slogans fades away.

Nevertheless, recent events have established one fact: protest rallies at Hong Lim Park are no longer the exclusive domain of political activists. In fact, protest gatherings may soon become just another Saturday afternoon bonding activity for Singaporean families wishing to visit a park.
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, 3 June 2013

Reflections from Pakistan XI: Islamabad is a foreign city

Islamabad is Pakistan's custom built capital. A city built on an empty piece of land during the 1960s. Until recently, Pakistanis were not 'from' Islamabad – they just happened to live in Islamabad. (Until recently, only bureaucrats and diplomats lived in Islamabad.) However, today a new generation of 'Islamabadis,' with their own culture and lifestyle has emerged.

Islamabad's location on the Potohar Plateau surrounded by the Margalla Hills was no accident. Despite sitting astride an earthquake fault line, President Ayub Khan selected the location due to its proximity with Rawalpindi, Lahore and Peshawar. As a bonus, nearby hill stations like Murree, standing at a comfortable 2,300 meters above sea level, are just about one hour drive north. From the capital, Lahore is several hours drive south while Peshawar is a road journey of a couple of hours northwest.

Daman-e-Koh park in the Margalla Hills which surround Islamabad
Islamabad is home to Pakistan's Parliament and civil bureaucratic leadership. The country's lawmakers and senior mandarins live in nice, leafy neighbourhoods dotted across the city's 900 square kilometer area. Despite being the country's capital, many Pakistanis feel Islamabad is a foreign city; not a part of the 'real' Pakistan. It is easy to understand why such a belief is so widespread.

Islamabad has a sense of order and logic absent from Pakistan's other cities. The 'grid' design of Islamabad city streets helps reinforce the perception of order. In stark contrast, Pakistan's other cities have developed with little or no urban planning. Cities like Karachi and Lahore are breaking under the weight of the country's ever expanding population.

Islamabad's order is far removed from the problems of 'real' Pakistan. Thus, by residing in Islamabad, Pakistani lawmakers and senior mandarins have little practical understanding of the life experienced by most Pakistanis.

Given Pakistan's multitude of serious problems, it is easy to understand why the Pakistani political elite might wish to insulate itself from the rest of the nation by sticking its head inside Islamabad's hallowed ground.

Unfortunately, Pakistan's problems are compounding to the extent that Islamabadis cannot hide from them any longer. Islamabad has electricity rationing like the rest of the country. Extremist mullahs make noise in Islamabad – even violently such as during the 2007 Lal Masjid incident, 2008 attack on Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, or most recently during protests in September 2012 against an allegedly blasphemous film – as in the rest of the country. Other ills plaguing Pakistan, including crime, inflation and unemployment, ultimately find themselves seeping through Islamabad's sterilized door.

Certainly, Islamabad is a nice showcase for Pakistan. But Islamabad is a foreign country. Pakistanis can only hope Prime Minister designate Nawaz Sharif's government will remember there is more to Pakistan than Islamabad (and Lahore).
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