Monday, 8 June 2020

The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester: a book review



“For in war the character and personality of the leader is decisive in events much more than questions of material.”

The Good Shepherd is a naval military classic - perhaps slightly dated for contemporary readers as it revolves around a group of naval vessels protecting numerous merchant ships in convoy transporting cargo from the US to its World War Two allies in Europe. Ships from several allied navies under the command of a young US naval officer, George Krause, are assigned to guard a convoy from marauding German submarine predators.


Forester’s novel is about character and leadership. The fast paced action and naval duelling are simply the containers through which the author reveals his insights.

Forester does an amazing job getting the reader inside Krause’s head. We know Krause loves black coffee and can guzzle an entire jug – hot or cold - without flinching. We also know he is a religious man whose decision making is influenced by his notion of Christian ethics.

Lives hang in the balance as the captain makes life and death decisions instantaneously, sometimes literally as whether to pick up enemy survivors drifting in the open sea. In these split second decisions, Krause must reach urgent compromises between husbanding convoy resources, cultural / political factors given the presence of ships from navies like Poland, etc., attack versus defence, maintaining moral leadership over his crew and inspiring the other crews.

Sometimes his decisions are explained while at other times these choices seem almost random flips of a coin. (Luck as a crucial element in leadership?)

More often than not, war literature is associated with armies and land based warfare. The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester is a pleasant change. It brings to life the hopes, fears and desperations of a generation of seafarers who fought on earth’s vast oceans. The work is not only an adventure novel but also wanders into the realms of psychology. Though first published in 1955, Forester’s work has not lost any of its allure during the ensuing six decades.
__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.


Saturday, 16 May 2020

Singapore's Achilles heel: foreign workers?


Singapore's foreign workforce has been in the news lately. It seems to happen every so often – generally for the wrong reasons.

The last time Singapore's foreign worker presence hit the headlines was in December 2013 with the infamous Little India Riot. (Yes, riots in Singapore and that too within the last decade!)

Today I would like to shed some light on Singapore's foreign worker presence and put forward some ideas for managing the situation in the coming years.

Let's start by putting the situation in context.

Modern Singapore's skyline (Photo: Wikipedia)
Size wise Singapore is about ten percent smaller than New York City at approx. 720 square kilometers versus NY's 780 sq. kms.

Singapore – though small in size – is an economic powerhouse. According to the recent estimates by the IMF, Singapore's GDP per capita on a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) basis is equivalent to USD 105,700 which makes Singaporeans the third wealthiest people on earth.

In 2019, the World Bank also ranked Singapore at number three with a GDP per capital on a PPP basis of USD 101,500.

In case you are not aware, Purchasing Power Parity is a method which converts a country's local currency using "a theoretical exchange rate that allows you to buy the same amount of goods and services in every country." In other words, PPP allows one to measure and compare a citizen's ability to purchase goods and services across different countries using the same yardstick.

Because of its wealth Singapore has been a magnet for foreign labor – at least in during the last few decades. Consider the island's population.

In 2019, Singapore's population was 5.7 million with 1.7 million people or almost 30 percent being foreigners. By contrast, in 1990, Singapore's total population was three million of which 300,000 or ten percent were foreigners. By 2010, Singapore's total population was 5.1 million with a full one quarter or 1.3 million being foreign residents.

In other words, we've seen Singapore's population grow from 3.0 million (three million) with a ten percent foreign participation rate in 1990 to 5.7 million with a 30 percent foreign participation rate today.

It was in the 1990s that total population and foreigner numbers increased dramatically.

These are staggering numbers and come at a time when Singapore's own fertility rate has been falling from approx. 1.8 in 1990 to 1.14 in 2019. Only 35,300 babies were born in Singapore versus 49,800 in 1990. 

Singapore had more natural deaths than live births in 2019.

Singapore's subway system built with extensive participation of foreign workers (Photo: WIkipedia)
Unlike many other developed countries, Singapore's foreign worker population does not for the most part comprise of illegal immigrants. Foreign workers are tightly controlled by the government based on a complex quota system.

Singapore's system works well because employers of illegal workers face a fine of SGD 5,000 – SGD 30,000, or twelve months imprisonment, or both.

As at 2019, there were a total of 999,000 foreign workers on Work Permits in Singapore. Included in this one million number are 262,000 Foreign Domestic Workers or maids and 293,000 construction workers. Add in approximately 300,000 foreign professionals, management and other higher skilled foreign employees from the Employment and S-Pass permit categories and one gets a clearer picture.

Singapore has approximately 1.3 million foreign residents, including 300,000 foreign construction workers (Photo: Wikipedia)
Foreign workers are not only tightly controlled but also a healthy source of revenue for the government by means of an employment tax called the Foreign Workers Levy (FWL). 

For each foreigner employed in Singapore, employers must pay a Foreign Worker Levy. The amount of the levy varies depending on the skill level and category of the employee but generally ranges between SGD 300 – 700.

While it is not possible to obtain an exact revenue number for the FWL, Singapore's 2017 budget data stated SGD six billion (or USD 4.2 billion at present exchange rates) was raised under the following four heads: Foreign Workers Levy, Annual Tonnage Tax, Water Conservation Tax and (land) Development Surcharge.

Using only the figure of 293,000 construction workers one may guesstimate the amount raised (only for construction workers) to be in the range of SGD 1 – 2.5 billion (or USD 700 million – 1.8 billion); one billion if the levy was to be SGD 300 on each worker or SGD 2.5 billion if the levy was SGD 700 per worker.

Once levies from the other one million foreign workers are included it is safe to conclude the FWL is a nice source of income for the state – possibly SGD 3 billion or more annually (USD 2.1 billion).

By comparison, in the same year (2017) Singapore raised SGD 1.8 billion in liquor and tobacco taxes; SGD 2.7 billion in betting taxes from the local casinos; SGD 4.4 billion in property taxes; and 10.7 billion in personal income taxes.

Singapore's foreign workers are here voluntarily. Most will speak positively of their experiences in Singapore. Nonetheless, low skilled foreign workers are not paid generously.

Based on data collected in 2018 by a Singaporean NGO, Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2), the average monthly starting salary for a Bangladeshi or Indian foreign worker was SGD 400 – 465 (USD 282 – 328) versus the average Singapore monthly salary of SGD 3,100 (USD 2,200). To be sure, foreign workers are provided with basic accommodation and medical coverage by their local employers.

To be sure, one is not suggesting a cleaner be paid the same as bank manager. However, there are dangers to keeping the foreign worker community on the margins of Singapore's society – not marginalized but on the margins.

Presently, foreign workers are seen but not heard. They do but cannot say.

The quality of life of Singaporeans is dependent on the continued stable supply of cheap labor. As the Singapore Minister Minister for Home Affairs recently said, "They clean Singapore, they build our HDB flats ... they handle our waste management... they are helping us build our prosperity."

In other words, Singapore's wealth and competitive advantage are to some degree based on the availability of a steady and uninterrupted supply of cheap labor. For example, high quality public housing -  85 percent of Singaporeans live in owner occupied public housing – are not only constructed but also maintained on an ongoing basis by foreign workers.

Likewise, Singapore's world class public transport subway system is constructed by foreign workers. Additionally, some of those qualities which we tout as being intrinsic to Singapore's identity, e.g. clean public spaces and well maintained green spaces are in reality a result of foreign labor.

The dangers of dependency on foreign workers came to the fore in 2013 during the Little India riot and again during the present Covid-19 pandemic crisis.

Singapore's iconic structures such as the Marina Bay Sands rely heavily on foreign construction workers (Photo: Wikipedia)
During the present crisis, the authorities were so focused on maintaining the health of Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents that the almost one million foreigners on Work Passes were virtually overlooked.

It was a costly oversight which has affected the Singapore brand which prides itself on good governance and typically places the country on the top of most ranking lists. Additionally, it has set back the island's efforts to restart and normalize its economy by at least several weeks.

As an aside, by publicizing Singapore's one of Singapore's not normally talked about open secrets, its large foreign worker community, there is a feeling Singapore's dirty laundry is being aired in public!

Surely, Singapore has at least partly redeemed itself by ensuring there is sufficient testing available for all foreign workers. Additionally, the government has committed and continues to provide quality health care to all foreign workers in need, including world class Intensive Care health facilities all at taxpayer expense.

Singapore's dependence on foreign labor is at best an irritant and at worst a national security risk. Hence, there is ample reason to reduce the country's reliance on this demographic (dare one call labor a commodity?).

Innovation and adoption of new technologies are two ways forward; replacing human activity with robots and / or artificial intelligence makes a difference. For example, consider certain factory production lines where humans have been replaced with robots for many functions.

Simultaneously, Singapore must improve living conditions of foreign workers. Improving living conditions is a social responsibility. It cannot simply be left to the authorities by building new and better dormitories, etc. It requires a broad understanding by Singaporeans of the critical role foreign workers play in keeping the city-state functioning.

Implicit in this understanding is the need to more equitably compensate foreign workers. Surely, higher pay will necessitate a general increase in Singapore's price level as the cost of construction, waste disposal, cleaning, gardening, etc. (the list is long!) is directly linked to foreign workers wage levels. Pay more and Singaporeans must pick up the bill. No escaping that fact.

Singapore's treatment of foreign workers is a reflection of Singapore society and its people's values. Singapore must do better for its foreign worker community in the coming months and years. The country's excuses for not doing so are wearing thin.

__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Sunday, 12 April 2020

The Ladies Paradise by Emile Zola: a book review

French author Emile Zola (1840 – 1902) was above all a social observer. His works provide a window into the nineteenth century. The Ladies Paradise, first published in 1883, is a sociological study of the time disguised within an exceptional novel. 
The novel uses the lives of two principal characters – Mouret and Denise – to illustrate societal dislocations as a new order slowly destroys the old order. This includes the suffering of people unable to adjust and make way for the new and the hold outs hanging on to the past as if their entire being depended on it. 
Mouret is a new breed of businessman (entrepreneur?) radically transforming retail trade in Paris. He is powerful, focused and hard working. He is also used to getting what he wants out of life, including women. Few obstacles were strong enough to challenge the march of Mouret's vision in creating an universal department store selling all manner of things; that in an age of shops specializing in individual trades. For example,  one shop sold lace while another sold velvet and yet a third sold knick-knacks. None sold all three under one roof – that is until Mouret's store, The Ladies Paradise.
Denise is a poor, country girl who finds herself not only struggling to survive in the big city but also in the politics and chicanery of employees at Mouret's store. With a little help from Mouret, Denise survives a brutal initiation at the Ladies Paradise and starts to make her presence felt. (Mouret simply wants to add Denise to his list of conquests.) 
Life of course never moves in a straight line. Neither does a good novel. 
Over time, along with his obsession of growing his department store, Mouret's develops an unhealthy obsession with conquering Denise. Meanwhile, Denise has gathered all the wiles of any Parisian noblewoman and innocently uses Mouret's infatuation to influence the evolution of the Ladies Paradise. 
Zola is a master in symbolism and the novel contains notable use of the tool. The novel is written in rich, descriptive prose very different from the brief 'no extras included' copy writing in fashion today. While The Ladies Paradise will appeal to the analytical reader looking to obtain insights into the human psyche and society it is also a simple story of a young country girl out to survive in the glittering big city. 
__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Corona Covid-19 pandemic: death knell for the post-war world order?


Once upon a time the world – or at least the Free World - was led by Reagan, Thatcher and Mitterand. Leaders with presence, standing and most important of all, respect. They were even respected by opponents.
British Prime Minister Thatcher, US President Reagan, French President Mitterrand and
West German Chancellor Schmidt at an international summit meeting (L to R)
During those times the US and its likeminded 'friends,' e.g. Britain and France, ran the world using a combination of bribery and force. They lorded over other lesser nations through a series of interlocking multilateral security arrangements and an economic institutional framework comprising of entities like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.  
In a nutshell, that was the post World War Two world order.
But those were different times. The developed world had money and delivered on promises. Other countries believed them.
The US, as the undisputed leader of the 'Free World,' provided a security blanket for its satellite states. In return for ceding a part of their national sovereignty to the US, the US provided clear leadership, especially in times of crisis.  
That was the 1980s. Much has changed in the ensuing four decades.
The Berlin Wall - the symbolic Iron Curtain dividing the world's two Superpowers (the US and the Soviet Union) - came down in 1991. That same year the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) morphed – nay collapsed – and became the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). (The CIS structure was a graceful way for the USSR to exit the Russian Empire's historic obligations and focus on saving Russia itself.)
Socialism all but died with the Soviet Union. Today all countries engage in private enterprise and global trade. Meanwhile Socialism has been discredited though significant parts of socialist philosophy have made their way into mainstream thought, e.g. public healthcare and social safety nets.
China's Belt and Road Initiative reflects China's aspirations as a global trading power
As for the global economy, the US is no longer the undisputed master. To be sure, the US Dollar remains king but its throne is a little shaky.
In the past it was said, "If the US sneezes then the world catches a cold." Today, if the US sneezes, the rest of the world simply says, "Bless You" and moves on. The risk of catching a cold is remote – at least not an intense life threatening cold resulting in mass unemployment.
In 2020 the communist party managed People's Republic of China (PRC) has the world's largest economy. Based on data released by the IMF, World Bank and the CIA, China's economy is significantly larger than its closest rival. Indeed, China's gross domestic product (GDP) surpasses the GDP of the combined European Union (EU) nations.
The deterioration in the US position has not been only in the economic domain.
Extraordinary leaders create and husband prestige. Prestige is an invisible halo which adds to the 'je ne sais quoi' aura of rulers. It is built up over decades but can be lost quickly. 

American prestige reached its peak during the first Iraq war with Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Powell's 'Shock and Awe' tactics of overwhelming force. Since 1991 a series of events have diminished US global standing.
Militarily, the downtrend started with the 1993 failed US intervention in Somalia, Operation Restore Hope and the casualties suffered in the Battle of Mogadishu. Then came the 9/11 attack, which taking place on US domestic soil was a watershed moment. The subsequent War on Terror, especially the Iraq war and the present scramble to exit Afghanistan, did little to help stem the dissipation of US prestige.
Simultaneously a succession of other minor events, though not as individually significant as the 9/11 attack, cumulatively resulted in tarnishing America's sheen. These include the US federal government shutdown in 2018 – 2019 (35 days) and 1995 – 1996 (26 days) and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.
Despite the signs of decay, many still placed the mantle of leadership squarely on the US and its small coterie of European friends. However, with recent events surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic it has become increasingly clear the US and its 'friends' no longer rule the roost.
In its management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world has seen the US's dysfunctional soul. While state governors are at loggerheads with the federal government over steps to contain the crisis the US Covid-19 death toll and infection numbers rise uncontrollably. As of April 2, 2020 US deaths attributed to Covid-19 have surpassed China, the original epicentre of the virus.
Through an unending sea of social media content, the world has witnessed the complete disarray in the US (and most of Western Europe) caused by the pandemic. Most revealing are not the lack of resources available to these governments' in tackling the virus but more so the lack of national leadership and policy implementation through state bureaucracies.
The world is used to headlines decrying poor governance, weak infrastructure; limited resources, etc. Such news headlines are common across large swathes of the world. However, they are more normally reserved for parts of Africa or developing Asia than for the US or Europe.
The Covid-19 pandemic has hastened post war global structural changes. The US and Europe, though still powerful, are less relevant international players. 

Following a steady erosion of economic and military power the irreparable loss of reputational prestige due to the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, neither the US nor Europe are able to provide global leadership. For example, there will be no Group of Seven summit resulting in a Baker Plan or issuance of Brady Bonds to save the world's economy from the ravages of the Covid-19 catastrophe. It's every nation for herself.
Until further notice, the world suffers a leadership vacuum.
China may vie to fill the position but it's not ready yet - perhaps in a few decades. More likely, second tier regional powers like India, Russia and Turkey will temporarily fill the void in their respective neighborhoods until a more stable arrangement is reached. 
No matter what the coming new world order looks like, one fact is clear: Trump, Boris and Macron cannot fill the shoes of Reagan, Thatcher or Mitterrand.
__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.

Monday, 6 January 2020

The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works by David Crystal – a book review



Anyone who presents regularly understands eloquence is not innate. It is a learned skill requiring much practice. Indeed, it can be compared to acting in that public speaking requires rehearsing and even choreography.


The Gift of the Gab: How Eloquence Works by David Crystal is a useful reminder of some of the things to get right for public speakers. While the book is comprised of many short chapters making it easier to read, it is also filled with complex technical advice about eloquence. In other words, Crystal uses his background as a linguist to good use during the book.

It’s not only about the language but also delivery. Delivery includes pauses, hand motions, posture, tones and a whole lot more. Crystal touches on all of them in his book.

Crystal also uses examples to highlight every section of the book. To be sure, the book is US centric in that the prime example of an ideal speech which recurs throughout is former president Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ speech in Chicago, USA. Obama’s speech, along with Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, are even added to the appendix for reference.

The Gift of the Gab is not the best place for a newbie to start learning about presentation skills – a mite technical for that. However, it will certainly help anyone improve who makes an effort to implement Crystal’s advice.
__________________
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, especially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He is available on Instagram (@imranahmedsg); twitter (@grandmoofti) and can be contacted at imran.ahmed.sg@gmail.com.