Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Of Things to Come

How does one sum up a year? For me, this practice of summing up the year has usually been taken in the form of recounting the highlights of what went on and what I think will happen in the years to come. So I guess I’ll have to stick with a tried and tested formula.

On the Professional Front

It was a surprisingly decent year for me on the professional front for both my jobs. The PR front proved to be surprisingly good.

The most prominent of feature on the PR consultancy front was IIMPact 2013: New Frontiers, the bi-annual gathering of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Alumni in Singapore. The event was exceedingly high-profile – as with the previous year’s IIT event, the patron was Singapore’s former President, Mr SR Nathan.
Press coverage was glorious. As well as hitting the local press, I managed to get coverage in the main Indian Dailies as well as in places like the Huffington Post. What success I did achieve was through the good work of journalists like Gautam Srinivasan of Reuters TV, Gurdip Singh of Press Trust India (PTI), Anand Menon of Bloomberg and Sharanjit Leyl of the BBC.

 As with all PR events, IIMPact was very much about the newsmakers, of which the most important was Dr Raghuram Rajan, who was then Chief Economic Advisor to the Indian Government and before the year was out he would become Governor of the Reserve Bank of India. It was my privilege to serve Dr Rajan and for that day I had the honour of witnessing his sharp intellect and wisdom

One of the best things about work is its social aspects. I got the IIMPact job in the same way I got PAN IIT before it – on the recommendation of Supriyo Sircar the SBU Head of Polaris Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa Business for Polaris Financial Technologies. Supriyo has been a good friend and his advocacy of my behalf has been one of the few assets that I’ve had.

I also had the privilege of working with Anu Stamtani. Anu is a dream to work with. Her energy and charm have a way of working magic when it comes to events. She is a good friend who always finds ways of making life easy for other people. It was she who made my job at IIMPact easy in terms of logistics support.
As well as renewing old friendships, I managed to make new friends. I am currently working with Suresh Shankar and Hari Haran, two entrepreneurs who are looking at ways to create a different and better world. Suresh has is set on simplifying the world of big data with her new firm, Crayon Data and Hari is set to help the poorer parts of world deal with one of their key problems – lack of energy.

The most important friendship that I gained from IIMPact 2013 is probably that of its Organising Committee Chairman, Girija Pande, the Chairman of Apex-Avalon and the former Chairman of Tata Consultancy Services Asia-Pacific. At IIMPact 2013, Girija provided encouragement and reminded me of a lesson that few of us seem to understand – bosses and clients are an asset to be utlised. Girija was generous in his time and effort to throw contacts behind me. I will also never forget his main encouragement to me – “Don’t wait for things – you are as good as anyone of us.”

In a funny way, the other main professional highlight was for a job that I didn’t get to work on – the South Asian Diaspora Conference (SADC 2013), which was organized by the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS).

I didn’t get the job – it went to an international agency – Webber Shandwick. But funnily enough, I was actually in the running for it. ISAS, is a part of the National University of Singapore, a government body, which normally doesn’t entertain one-man operations. Yet, the Chairman of ISAS, Ambassador Gopinath Pillai took the time out to listen to me.

A source tells me that I owe this honour of being a one-man show being allowed to present a case to the government body to Girija Pande, who sits on the board of ISAS.

My blue collar persona at Bruno’s had a good year too. I was made the acting manager of the Pizzeria and Grill for a week in early February when the manager of the day went on leave. The success (or the lack of a disaster) was thanks to the team, particularly my service team who provided me with the support that I needed – including watching my back and reminding me that I needed to do things like ensure wines were ordered and we would well supplied for the Chinese New Year season.

I’ve now moved to the quieter Bistrot on Telok Kurau Road, where I’ve had the chance to help boost the turn over. In this year, the team has managed to double revenue from the year before and we are looking forward to doing better next year.

On the Personal Front.

No big trips this year, other than a short family holiday in August. My mother, the perpetual mastermind of family affairs managed to get all of us from various parts of the world galvanized into traveling between Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand.
Cambodia was perhaps the most interesting of the three countries. It was the glory of the Angkor Wat followed by the horror of Tul Salang Genocide Museum – a visit that made the vast human energy of Vietnam all the more welcoming.

It’s good to touch base with family and the people who love you no matter what stupid things you do.
My Dad went through his hernia operation at the end of August and has since recovered. Took me out for lunch for my birthday.

The other key moment on the personal front has been the chance to get to know Thuy as a growing woman much better. I often joke with friends that Thuy is God’s way of making me pay for my previous misdeeds with the opposite sex. Thuy retorts that she’s too sensible to get into trouble – I do worry.
She starts a new chapter of her life on the second when she enrolls into Outram Secondary School. I’ve told her that she needs to get her academics right – it will make life easier. Mother is always in the background ready to enforce regular tuition.

It’s challenging managing a growing teen, who is still a child but an adult with ideas of what she wants. However, the challenges of having a child (I use that term loosely – she tells me that she protects me) in your life has a way of giving it purpose. Whenever I find work annoying I’m reminded that while I can live with the consequences of my follies, there’s someone out there who needs me to stay sane. So sane (Once again, that word has to be used lightly) I remain.

Hopes for 2014

More and better work coming in. More importantly, I need to make moves to have another country to provide me with things. Singapore has been home for a decade but life is such that it is becoming a place where all but the very rich seem to enjoy. It’s a particularly demanding place for someone who has survived as a one-man operation. So it looks like 2014 should be a year for me to branch into other places within a region that is growing and has much to offer the world. 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Would Jesus Have Gone to Jail in Modern Singapore?

Yesterday was Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the founder and inspiration of the Christian faith. As usual the world his birthday was celebrated by the conspicuous amounts of shopping and consuming lots of food and alcohol. The great and good who “plan” and “comment” on our economy got their moment to discuss the possibility of whether the “Christmas” factor would help to spur the economy to greater heights and create prosperity for everyone.

Since I live in Singapore and spent my second Christmas in a row over here, I had to ask what Christ would have thought of the consumption in his name. Why is it such that we become obsessed with consumption for the birthday of a man who became God in the eyes of over a billion people by preaching the value of poverty and suffering?

The Christmas of 2013 should also prove significant in as much as it comes after the riots of December 8, 2013 in Little India – an event that involved 400 foreign workers from the Subcontinent. This was Singapore’s first riot in 40-years. It involved what society calls the “lowest-of-the-low.” The great and the good who run the show were quick to denounce the “barbarous” behavior of the rioters. The official stance was that there was “no excuse” to become “violent” and cause “damage to poverty.”

While I like to think that Jesus would never have approved of violent behavior, I do believe that Jesus would have decried and condemned the basic treatment of the conditions that foreign workers live in. My knowledge of Christian theology is 20-years rusty but the Christ that I read about would have deplored the way in which the society I live in for ignoring the fact that our prosperity was built on the back of exploiting the poor and desperate.

In a way I have the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC Who Drinks in the Middle of Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek to thank. He tries to toss out ideas like, “Oi, we’re giving the Indian labourers a better life,” and “Wah – the Bangla go onto the MRT – so smelly.” Apparently there is also something called “inbuilt migrant resentment to the host society.” He tells me that this is what people tell him about life in Singapore with so many foreign workers.

Well, our local residents might not realize it but these smelly and poor people doing the lowest of the low jobs were precisely the people that Christ stood for. The reality for a labourer from the Subcontinent is that he not only works long hours for low wages (S$1 an hour for a 12-hour day), he lives in conditions that a damp and dirty and expensive. It’s not just the pay and the living conditions but the way in which people look at him – like a bad smell personified (I had to make the point the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who Eats Pork during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek that if he spent 12-hours in the tropical sun he wouldn’t smell too good either). Whenever labourers get screwed by their employers, the laws are such that they remain under the mercy of the very employers who have cheated them.

These are the people without a voice in society. These are the people who Christ stood up for. Whatever you may believe about his divinity, Jesus of Nazareth was a man who told the world that God lived in the pits.

Unfortunately this is a message that governments regard as highly provocative. I can imagine Jesus in today’s Singapore. The Christ that I got to read about in his scriptures all those years ago would have been hanging around places like Geylang or Little India. He would have done things like publically admonish the powers-that-be for allowing people to go hungry. He would have told the labourers and the prostitutes that they had rights to be treated as people and not as mere digits for the greater good of the well to do.

This would be the type of character our society would have jailed and denounced in the media. How dare he tell the voiceless that God spoke for them?

Unfortunately our perceptions of the world have shown us that we have grown to love money and things more than God. Isn’t that just too bad for us that we, for the most part, would fail to see God if he appeared before us and lived amongst us…..  

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Of Class and Race

I’ve just written an article for the Independent Singapore, the latest hot news website, launched by my former boss, Mr PN Balji, the former editor-in-chief of the Today Newspaper. The Independent Singapore’s premise is that it is, “Responsible, Intelligent and Robust.” Hence, unlike the usual websites, the Independent Singapore is not “anti-establishment” for the sake of it but it won’t be afraid to take on the government’s point of view.

Thanks to a survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which found that while Singaporeans were quite willing to accept a colleague of another race, they were less so when it came to having a spouse of a different race; I was asked to write an article on “race relations.”

Given my family background, I guess I was the natural person to write this article. Both my parents remarried Caucasians and had children with them. A cousin on my Dad’s side is married to an African-American and I had a relationship with one too. My sister dated someone of Bengali decent and my aunt on my mother’s side married a Jew.

One of the most prominent parts of my family is that we’ve lived very comfortably in Western Societies. I spent my formative years in England and the article that got published outlined my unusual experience of having to adjust to being part of the “ethnic majority” when I came back to serve National Service. More details can be found at - http://theindependent.sg/race-relations-2/

Reactions to the article were positive. I had a few mates from my school days remind me that I was “one” of the good guys. My mother’s best friend has been off promoting the article. I even got a comment from someone on Facebook to tell me he agreed with me.

While it’s exceedingly gratifying to know that people liked what I wrote, I feel that one of most crucial elements in the debate interracial relationships is sorely lacking – namely the issue of class and economic status. As ‘heart-warming’ as my personal story of being a ‘liked’ member of the ‘ethnic minority’ may be, I don’t think my situation can be used as a reference point.

Let’s start with the obvious – I am from an ‘educated’ family. In my mother’s words – “We are professional middle class.” As such, English was the language that was spoken at home. I grew up in a household where it was understood that one would eventually head off to university and take on a “career.”

Although I went to school in a different country and in a place where everyone else was racially differently from me, we all similar backgrounds and aspirations. I spoke the same language as everyone else. Hence it was not issue for me to be able to join in. If anything, I was probably a bit of a “let-down” to my school mates who were probably expecting to meet someone a bit less like them.

By comparison, entering a Singapore Army camp was like landing on Mars. I had spent the first two-decades with people who were expected to have some form of higher education. Suddenly I got thrown into an environment where people considered it a privilege to finish school. I didn’t speak “Hokkien” (the dialect of Fujian Province in China and the majority dialect of Singapore and Taiwan), which was what everyone else spoke and even when we did speak English – people found my English a “bit-funny.” Although my Dad tried to tell me not to think of it – I was “The Rich Kid” in the camp – my address was in a private condominium and not an HDB block.

So, while I was an “ethnic” minority at school, I was part of the cultural and social majority. By comparison, I was only part of the majority in looks – I was in a very strange cultural and social minority when I joined the army.

So, if you look at things in this way, it was only ‘natural’ for me to fit into “English Middle Class” Society and to struggle when dealing with the “average” Singaporean.

The question that should be asked is whether my experiences in both the UK and Singapore had been different if I were a different person. In the UK, I was a “rich” foreigner – Daddy earned his money elsewhere. Would things have been different if my Dad and I had been “fresh of the boat” and he had struggled to make ends meet by setting up a “Chinese take-away.” More importantly, my command of English is good – would I have had the same experiences if I had to struggle with English because the language we spoke at home was something else?

Likewise, the same question should be asked about settling into the army. Would it have been any different for me if I started life out in Singapore and spoke the expected array of dialects?

Issues of race and inevitably tied up with issues of class and economics. I take the social status of Singapore Tamils as an example. The stereotype of South Indian in Singapore and Malaysia is that of a drunk or as a former senior reporter said, “Show me an Indian who does not like to drink.” By contrast, the stereotype of a South Indian in India is that of a “Nerd.” What accounts for this difference? Simple – the South Indians who came settle in Singapore and Malaysia were from lowest rung of the social order.

Something similar can be said of “Negros” in the USA. Bill Cosby is funnily enough disliked in many “African-American” communities because his portrayal of a “Black Professional” family is considered pandering to “White” society.

When an ethnic community improves its fortunes, it also improves its social standing. Suddenly people no longer notice the colour of your skin when you start to sound like them and can afford the things that they do. Once again, let’s look at the way the South Indian are viewed in Singapore and Malaysia. For many South Indian men, one of the greatest social achievements is to marry a Chinese girl – or in the case of our Finance Minister, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a girl of Chinese-Japanese ancestry. One of the key reasons for this can be seen in one of the common points raised by Singapore Chinese on this topic – “Those who marry Chinese girls – they’re thinking is very different – mor

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Beyond the Sleaze and the Wealth

I’ve finished a family holiday through IndoChina and made an interesting discovery. I’ve gone out of my way to get a rub in Siem Reap (Cambodia), Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon as it was known and Bangkok. Of the three cities, the only city where I was required to take off my cloths was in Bangkok, the most “developed” of all the cities.

OK, it was a family holiday and I wasn’t going out of my way to look for “special” massages. However, when you live in Asia for long enough, you become sensitive to the availability of certain things.

I mean, I’ve lived in Singapore for the better part of the last decade and I have in many ways become immune to the obvious signs of ‘sleaze.’ While Singapore’s public image is one of “sterility,” the place has obvious “sleaze” spots that have become tourist attractions. When you live in a city with such contradictions, you tend to become very matter of fact about certain things.

One of the ways in which “moral” Singapore deals with “sleazy” Singapore is by telling itself that the workers from the “sleaze” industry are from “other parts” of Asia. This happens to be a true fact. The majority of sex workers in Singapore are from elsewhere.

While this is true, it often gives us a rather misguided view of “other” Asians, particularly the women. Mention that you know a girl from China or Vietnam or Thailand and your average Singaporean has a wonderful orgasmic moment of moral outrage – “Oh women from China/Vietnam/Thailand, they’re just prostitutes,” being the usual remark.

So, you could say that when you are surrounded by this attitude, you’re going to be inclined to expect every massage joint outside of Singapore to be a front for a ‘fuck shop.’ Yet, I didn’t find this to be the case in either Siem Reap (tourist hot spot) or Ho Chi Minh (we’ve heard more than enough of what the GI’s used to get up to.) This was true, even in a place called “Virginy Massage” in Siem Reap. The girls in the ‘beauty’ parlours of Ho Chi Minh City were scantily clad but that was always a case of a uniform rather than an indication of what was to come – it was, dare I say it, pretty much like the SIA uniform.

If anything, after a few days in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok, I’m inclined to believe that the sleaziest city in Southeast Asia is …….Singapore. My mum tried to point out at that we were staying in “nice” parts of these cities. Well, guess what – you have pretty sleazy bits of Singapore right smack bang in the middle of prime property. Then there’s the argument that there are no street walkers in the less developed parts of Asia because they’re all in Singapore.

While this argument might make sense from a logistical point of view – it’s kind of sad. If I take my few days in IndoChina as an example, I don’t believe that “other” Asian women are any more inclined towards prostitution than women from anywhere else. I was in enough situations where it was easy to be tempted. Yet, in both Siem Reap and Saigon, nobody tried to tempt me to do ‘extra’ for a bit ‘extra.’ By contrast it’s almost expected in certain parts of Singapore.

Could it be something to do with what we’re about? I mean, is Singapore just a place where people come here because there is “free” and “easy” money available. I mean, I often look at the crap that the Manpower Ministry and Immigration Department throw at people who happen to be a bit on the dark side of pale and wonder why they do it. Then I think of the bits of rural Asia that I’ve seen and I realize that it’s usually a no brainer for them - $350 a month as a maid versus $25 a month on the farms.

Then you look at what the “vice” trade pays versus what salaries for manual labour pay and once again, it is a no brainer as to why people do what they do. Think about it, an Orchard Towers hooker can make S$4,000 in a bad month while a maid earns $350 a month.

Let’s face it – there is money to be made in Singapore and you can’t blame people for wanting to claim it. However, it’s kind of sad to think that this is literally all that we have to offer both the foreigners and ourselves.

I mean at least the girls from China/Vietnam and Thailand end up doing things like supporting families back home. They do put younger siblings through to school. In short, they’re doing what dutiful people do for their families on limited resources.

By contrast, what do we have in Singapore beyond all the trappings? No wonder why we get so upset with people who dare do things that better their lives. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Year Zero

I’m currently with the mother, stepfather, aunt and siblings in Ho Chi Minh City. We’re on a family holiday in IndoChina. Mum decided that after many years and with all of us “growing-up” it was time for us to have a family reunion of sorts.
The trip started in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The place is something of a tourist haven thanks to its biggest asset – the Angkor Wat. We spent three days visiting temples and trying to discover the Khemer culture and for me, it was a few moments of being able to offer some prayers.
Then it was off to Phnom Penh, the capital city. I don’t know why but it seemed necessary to visit Tuol Sleng Genocide museum. The experience was depressing. As my sister says, “There’s some seriously bad ju-ju in here.”
Unlike the more sophisticated tourist industries of Greece or Italy or even Thailand, Cambodia’s industry is fairly raw. Yes, there is some restoration work going on at the Angkor site but by and large things are left pretty much as they’ve been for the last few centuries. If you look at the Acropolis in Athens you can’t tell the restored stuff from the originals. You’ll get to see lots of reenactments of people in ancient costume. You don’t get any of that in Cambodia. Things are as they are.
I guess that made Tuol Sleng all the more harrowing. There were no sophisticated audio visuals or wax works depicting things. There was just an old building, filled with empty iron beds. There were a few signs telling you what went on and boards of a few faces, telling a few stories.
Somehow, this lack of sophistication created a realistic connection with the ghost of people who had been murdered because some mad man they never met decided that they were people he didn’t like.
I’m not going to retell the story of the Cambodian civil war. Plenty has been said about it. What I will say is that history only hits home and becomes relevant to you, when you feel the ghost of the lives that history has claimed. Tuol Sleng is inhabited by spirits who cannot rest.
The events that took place in Cambodia were not that far away. They’re a little under 40-years ago. They’re about my age. For all the complaints I have about Singapore, I bless the fact that I was born there. Say what you like but I grew up in a place that there is a peace of sorts. I could have been born a few hundred kilometers north – in a place that gave us the Killing Fields. That little accident of history gives me the opportunity to bitch about the things I haven’t done as I approach my 40th birthday. Had I been born in Cambodia instead, I might be blessing the fact that I’m going to see my 40th birthday.
However, I’ve not gotten over the fact that Singapore was opposed to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the invasion that removed Pol Pot and his goons from committing possibly the worst genocide in human history. For years, we cheered on the US and China in the UN for recognizing Pol Pot’s regime and the legal government of Cambodia.
I guess our political leaders at the time felt that it was the lesser of two evils. Perhaps it was the right decision in some sense of keeping the two big powers of the day (USA and China) on our side.
However, on a personal level, there’s something very wrong about this. Pol Pot wasn’t exactly secretive about his activities. Unlike today’s politicians who are all competing to create “economic growth” and “investment opportunity,” Pol Pot was very clear that all he was interested in was turning the clock back to the “Year Zero.” Whatever progress Cambodia had made from the moment he came to power was reversed.
Let’s leave the economics aside and think of the human cost. Sure, he killed less in absolute numbers than Hitler, Stalin and let’s not forget his patron in China – Mao. However, if you look at the total population of Cambodia (13 million according to the 2008 census), he killed a far higher percentage of his own people than any of the previous gentlemen.
I’ll give Western civilization this much – they’ve made it a point to try and remember their sins. The Germans have been exceedingly cautious not to let history repeat itself and the Western world won’t let them.
By contrast, we in Asia tend to ignore those sins. The Japanese, for example, don’t bother to appologise for their crimes and the rest of Asia never did much about it (with the exception of a few protests whenever some official visits the Yausukuni War Shrine). The reason was simple – Japan had the cash and we wanted her investment to “bring us into the modern age.”
Well we’re not going to shed any tears over Cambodia too. I guess you could say its all part of this thing called ASEAN unity. I’m glad we have it and I do think its better to move forward than back. However, I worry that in our mad rush to become rich and successful, we forget the human horrors that were inflicted on a people.
The Germans became prosperous and peaceful despite Auschwitz. Europe has not allowed them to forget that moment but it’s also allowed them to prosper.
What can be said for Cambodia? I entered Vietnam relieved. The Vietnamese are a more aggressive group of people. They are more pushy and in a way less given to the spiritual. Like the Chinese, they tend to pray for luck rather preparation for the afterlife. However, they are a people who have hope and a pride in the ability that future is theirs for the taking.
By contrast, I fear that the Cambodians are going to be in for a rough ride. The rest of Asia (lead by China) will prosper out of Cambodia’s official corruption. Western “do-gooders” in NGO’s will revel in their ability to help poor “brown people” and Western Business interest will compete with the Asian counterparts to screw the people. In the mean time, Cambodia is left with nothing much other than hope that the world will continue to have an interest in an ancient culture that once stood on their soil.
I think of the faces on the Bayon Temple and remember someone telling me that it reflected the spirit of the Cambodian People – smiling despite the horrors that ravaged their land. I only wish that the smile won’t have to hide the tinge of tragedy one day.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Language of Hunger

I am currently in Siem Reap, Cambodia with my mother and her side of the family. It’s what you’d call a long awaited family reunion. We usually gather at Christmas but during the past few years, Christmas meetings have become a little elusive.

Anyway, the purpose of meeting in Siem Reap is simple – we’re here to view the world heritage site known as the Angkor Wat. The building is amazing and as you walk through the place, you can’t help but be struck with the intricacies of the artwork that decorate the place. In the two days that I have been climbing up the temples, I’ve come to see the Angkor Wat as a symbol of the Cambodian or more precisely the Cambodian people. – This was the center of a great civilization that was allowed to decay. It has seen the best and the worst in human nature.  Ironically, it is probably the thing that will revive Cambodia or at least this part of the nation – Siem Reap is poor but you get the sense of an up and coming place.

The economy is being driven by tourist heading to the Angkor – the place is filled with all sorts of things a good tourist could want. This place is ideal for anyone on a budget – food and booze is incredibly cheap (drinking beer at $2.5 a mug)

One of the things that I’ve been impressed with about this visit is the linguistic talents of the tour guides in the Angkor Wat. As well as English, I’ve heard guides speak fluent Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish and Russian. You could say that they seem to have found a guide for every nationality that may visit the Angkor.

OK, speaking English isn’t special. English has become the ‘universal’language for the world (so much so that a Finnish friend of mine made the point that speaking English and your mother tongue doesn’t count as being bilingual). I guess French shouldn’t be such a surprise either, since Cambodia was a former French colony. Given the Chinese presence in Cambodia, you could say that some of them should speak the language. However, as my brother, Christopher points out – “How many Polish speakers do you expect in Cambodia?”

This ability to communicate is even more impressive when you consider Cambodia’s state of development – this is a developing country that has spent the last 40-years struggling to recover from a brutal civil war and a dictatorship that saw its government literally go to war against its own people. Pol Pot,the Khemer Rouge dictator killed a greater percentage of the total Cambodian population than Hitler or Stalin in their hey day. While Germany at the end World War II had Marshal Aid – Cambodia had nothing....

In a way, it puts Singapore’s inability to master languages into perspective. We are by far and away the most developed nation in Southeast Asia and yet we still need a endless of “Speak Good ....English, Mandarin and Malay”Campaigns.

Seriously – if people who are poor and struggling can learn different languages – why can’t we? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Can Singapore Produce a Home Grown Leader?

Although my fellow bloggers would stone me for saying it, there are journalist from the main stream media who have been writing some pretty good stuff. One of those journalist who has been writing “explosive” commentaries is Han Fook Kwang, the current managing editor of the Straits Times. Mr Han has developed a habit of spelling out home truths. Despite his senior position in the Straits Times, Mr Han has gone as far to describe the relationship between transport regulators and operators as being “cozy” and suggested that Singapore’s public transport system needed a good dose of competition. By the more cautious standards of Singapore journalism – this is explosive stuff.

Mr Han’s latest article that has caused a bit of a stir was published on July 1, 2013. The article had a simple headline – “Do S'porean workers deserve their wages?” The answer to this headline was a tragic no. His argument was simple – Singaporean workers are not as analytical, articulate, creative, innovative and productive as their Asian counterparts, let alone the workers from Switzerland or Germany.

Unfortunately, during the last decade, I’ve seen plenty examples that prove Mr Han to be correct. Just look at Singapore’s economic landscape. The top jobs are more often than not filled by someone from elsewhere. In the old days it meant Caucasian expatriates from the West. People accepted this as part of the natural order of things. After all, the multinationals were inevitably based out of places like New York or London.
However, the top jobs are also going to people from India and other parts of the world. Not only do you have Indian expatriates running Indian companies but they are playing senior roles in Western ones and even in Singapore government owned companies.

Unfortunately, the Indians are not hired because they are significantly cheaper than the local Singaporeans. Piyush Gupta, the CEO of DBS made a good nine million dollars last year. While not every Indian expatriate makes what Mr Gupta makes, a good portion of them make enough to live quite comfortably.

It’s quite hard for your average Singaporean to get his head and heart around the situation. It was one thing when the boss was a white man. It’s quite different when the bosses come from the parts of Asia that we were conditioned to think of as third-world backwaters that our ancestors were fortunate to run away from.
So what’s going on? How is that Singapore, for all its advances in education and development, been so bad at producing the people that we need to run today’s companies? Think about it, not only are the guys running are economy from elsewhere, the guys running the government are trained elsewhere?

The question has to be asked – can we produce a “home grown” leader? The answer to this question is going to be increasingly important in that Singapore needs leaders who understand local situations and are able to develop solutions rather than those import someone else’s model.

Singapore’s education system usually comes under attack whenever this question is debated. The most prominent point here is that while the system produces people who can read and write, it’s failed to produce people who can think. Despite out small population, we have an increasing number of universities. Yet despite the high ratio of universities per person, we have produced no Nobel Prize contenders let alone Nobel Prize winners and I can’t think of a local business school graduate who has gone onto run a Western Multinational. By contrast, India has very few institutions per person and yet we have Indra Nooyi running Pepsico and Ajay Banga running Master Card.

To be fair to the Singapore’s authorities, they seem to recognize that there is an issue here. Moves are being made to make the education system less “exam” focused. The world knows that we “kick Arse” when it comes to taking exams but beyond that we don’t seem able to do much. In his article, Mr Han gave examples of graduates who couldn’t string a sentence together and yet expected to become marketing managers in multinationals. In any other country, people would question how an articulate chap could become a graduate. In Singapore we know – the guy couldn’t speak but he was an ace at exams. This has got to change and thankfully there’s some recognition of the issue from the powers-that-be.

While I applaud the education authorities for recognizing that something needs to be done, I think the main issue facing Singapore is deeper. The system has become such that the best and the brightest do not face competition.

Let’s face it, leaders and leadership material is developed when it is placed under challenging situations. For example, military commanders develop their skills from combat experience and leading men under combat situations. Military academies like West Point or Sandhurst can only teach one so much. The real learning is out in the field. The American and British armies are highly regarded because their senior leaders have seen some form of action sometime during their careers.

By contrast, the Singapore military favours book learning over actual combat experience. Yes, unlike the American and British armies we don’t go to war but we are also a nation that is obsessed with defense. We spend the largest percentage of our GDP in this region on defense. We do send people to UN Peace Keeping missions to give them a bit of exposure (technically peace keeping and war are two different things). You would imagine that we’d want our Generals to be a bit more seasoned rather than text-book soldiers. Unfortunately we don’t. When we had a general who acquired the closest thing to combat experience and was praised by the international community for his leadership, we demoted him and pushed him into retirement as fast we could. We promoted younger, less experienced but more book smart people over him.

There seems to be a cultural aversion to exposing bright people to challenges. Instead of testing out people under stress, the system seems to allow the chosen to avoid it and it gives them power over those who don’t have the luxury of avoiding hardship. Should it surprise anyone that Singapore fails to produce people with leadership qualities?

Just American soldiers are expected to face war before reaching the general ranks, American workers are judged on their current performance rather than on what their careers are meant to be as decided by some bureaucrat. The former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welsh had a policy of firing the bottom ten percent of performers – regardless of their qualifications. What mattered is the here and now rather than the glorious past of the university fields. GE has remained one of the biggest companies in the world for over a century.

Something needs to be done. 

Singapore should probably start by removing government support from businesses and deregulate more aggressively. Our workers will develop the necessary skills more quickly if they face greater competition. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Regret of Having Nelson

South Africa’s former President, Mr Nelson Mandela is in critical condition. Mr Mandela had been hospitalized with a lung infection on the 8th of June, 2013. By the 23rd of this month, Mr Mandela had slipped into a coma and his condition was described as being “critical.” While there are reports of Mr Mandela taking a turn for the better since then, it looks quite likely that Mr Mandela’s time is up.
Mr Mandela’s passing is be an event that unites the world in mourning for one of its few political heroes. Mr Mandela spent 27-years in prison for his struggle against the “apartheid” regime that ruled South Africa. Despite suffering at the hands of his oppressors, Mr Mandela emerged from prison to negotiate a ‘peaceful’ end of apartheid and preached forgiveness and reconciliation between the various peoples who inhabit South Africa.

There’s no doubting Mr Mandela’s greatness and his passing should be mourned. This man stood for everything that humanity considers to be good. He was, as they say, a moral compass for the world.
However, as saintly as Mr Mandela has been, it’s probably a good idea to look at his failures as well as his success when we examine his legacy. What was Mr Mandela’s greatest failure? I’m going to argue that his greatest failure was that he failed to prepare his political party, the ANC and the South African Nation to live beyond him.

Let’s put it very bluntly, Mr Mandela has reached an age where dying any moment should be expected. The man is 94 and despite the good health he’s enjoyed since being released from prison nearly 20-years ago, Mr Mandela has gone way beyond his three score-year and ten. The world, South Africa and the ANC should have been preparing for his passing during the last twenty-years.

Let’s start with the African National Congress or the ANC, the party that Mr Mandela ran for so long. When Mr Mandela was in prison, the ANC was a by word for a wonderful independence movement that embraced all sections of South Africa’s diverse society. It was a movement that had blacks (Zulu, Xhosa and so on) and whites (English and Afrikaners). When the ANC won South Africa’s first ever multiracial election in 1994, there was a sense that the good guys had finally won.

To be fair to the ANC, it’s not the only party that has had a difficult transition from being an independence movement to a normal political party. If you look at election results, the ANC is an exceedingly successful political party – it has overwhelmed everyone else in elections since 1994.

While the current President of South Africa, Mr Jacob Zuma has apparently made remarks that the ANC’s continuous rule is ordained by God, political parties that don’t face opposition usually suffer from the very human malaise of stagnation. After a while, the people who run the party forget that there is a line that separates government and party.

One of the closest examples can be found next door in neighboring Zimbabwe, run by the ANC’s fellow freedom movement – the ZANUPF. Today we think of ZANUPF and its leader, Mr Robert Mugabe as by words for tyranny and abuse. Think of Zimbabwe and you have the instant picture of a country going from bad to worse. However, there was a time when ZANUPF was a party of hope and Mr Mugabe was once regarded as a saint, pretty much like Mr Mandela.

To be fair to Mr Mandela, he has recognized his own frailty while Mr Mugabe has not. Mr Mandela saw to it that he served only one term as President (1994-1999). Even during his presidency, Mr Mandela made it a point to leave the day-to-day running to his duty, Mr Thabo Meki. The way he played out his role as President has been described as being more like a constitutional monarch than a politician – one only has to remember the image of Mr Mandela in a Springbok Jersey (South Africa’s National Rugby Team – a symbol of “White Afrikaner” Pride) handing the Rugby World Cup to Francois Piennar, the captain of the world cup winning Springbok team in 1997.  

You could say that Mr Mandela saw to it that he would never get the chance to indulge and become addicted to institutionalized power of political office. To his credit, Mr Mandela preferred to use his “moral authority” rather than the powers of political office.

While Mr Mandela was exemplary in his ability to give up political office (something few politicians are good at and African ones being particularly bad at it), his two successors proved to be quite different. If anything Messers Mbeki and Zuma have proved to be more like “anti-Mandela’s” in their behavior. Both men have been accused of being intolerant of dissent and of using the powers of office to silence critics. While both men have been relatively benign when compared to many of their counterparts on the continent, their behavior has been contradictory to the “hope” given out during the Mandela era.

One of the worst examples of how Mr Mandela’s successors have behaved can be seen on the stance both men have taken against HIV/AIDS, which afflicts a good portion of South Africa. Mr Mbeki was quite public in his quest to prove that there was no link between HIV and AIDS. He went as far as to delay the distribution of anti-retroviral drugs to public hospitals. While Mr Zuma has yet to officially harm AIDS patients, his public example hasn’t been much better. We’re talking about a man who takes precautions like having a shower after he has sex with a woman he knows to be HIV Positive (he allegedly rapped her).  
What went wrong here? It seems quite obvious that the politicians that succeeded Mr Mandela didn’t have his passion for working for the people. There is a sense that Mr Mandela could have done more to sell his vision to his followers in the ANC and gone as far as to institutionalize non-corruption and power abuse in both the ANC and South Africa. Mr Mandela, as they say, had both the institutional and moral power to do so.

There’s no doubt about the good things that Mr Mandela has done. It’s just such a pity that he didn’t get his party or nation ready to go beyond the “founding father” 

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Inspiration is in the Compassion

Ever since I graduated from Mount House (Churcher’s College’s junior boarding house in the days when Churcher’s had a small boarding community), I’ve not been much of a church goer. I’m afraid to say that despite my record as a decent student of Christian theology, my reasons for entering a church have been limited (usually to listen to a good choir – though I did attend for a while when I had other-halves who were trying to be Christian).

Unfortunately, life in Singapore doesn’t make it easier to be inspired by the church. It could be me but the few church visits that I’ve made in the last few decades have been closer to being at a combination of a rock concert mixed with a real life case study in marketing. I was getting used to the idea that Church was becoming the last place where you’d hear Godly words being spoken.

Thanks to the tough-half’s mother (this 70 plus year-old lady is a devout Catholic and the highlight of her visits to Singapore are my bringing her to Sunday mass) being in town, I actually found a service where Godly words were spoken. The priest at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd announced to his flock that the inspiration to worship God did not come from, “The Glamour of our Church buildings or the beauty of the liturgy but from the compassion that we show.”

This struck me as being the most amazing thing that I’ve heard in a long time. You could say that I’ve become a little jaded by a decade of being a PR man in Singapore. Life in the past decade has been about the constant search for more and in my case, I’ve been a very active participant in the process of telling people to buy more than what they may actually need or want. When you operate in a business that’s all about creating needs, you tend to get the idea that everything is all about packaging – God, is unfortunately not immune from this.

Singapore is littered with religious institutions that cater to various segments of the market. The Churches have been one of the most aggressive and slickest marketers. They have become so successful in the marketing department that Christianity has become personified by the likes of Joseph Prince, a young man who was destined to live life as an IT consultant until Jesus told (since I don’t speak to Jesus, I can’t verify this) that it was his mission to be a TV personality, wealth coach and author.

If you follow “Give me Your Money” school of Christianity, you’d be inclined to believe that Jesus died on the cross so that you would be entitled to live a wonderful life that would be free of sickness, worry and poverty. As my ex-girlfriend’s pastor said so eloquently, “Pagans chase good things – but good things just come to us naturally.”

Now, it goes without saying that faith is always easier to inspire when you look like the message. Think of how we’re all enamored by the wealth of Donald Trump, always seems to be living in the swankiest homes in the swankiest places on earth. Mr Trump personifies wealth and success despite the fact that the banks are consistently after him.

What is true of Donald Trump has been true of some of our church leaders. I think of the Rev Kong Hee and his wife Sun Ho, who currently facing charges of embezzling money. Despite the obvious evidence that is mounting against them, their followers continue to believe in the good pastor and his wife – I mean how can anyone who finances his wife’s singing career in Beverly Hills to the tune of $28,000 a week be anything but God’s one true representative on earth?

The problem with all these wonderful ideas about God being the source of prosperity, is the fact that Jesus (the Son persona of God) had a habit of blessing and bestowing kindness on social outcast like the poor, prostitutes, tax collectors and so on. Scripture clearly quotes him as saying, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Every available record of Jesus’s life show that this was a man who encouraged us to “love your enemies,” and to “bless those who curse you.”

The records show that Jesus was born into poverty. There are no records to show him owning anything more than the cloths on his back (a topic that even some dispute). Here was a man who told us that God was to be found in the dregs of society. It could be the fact that my theology is nearly two-decades rusty but I don’t recall scripture talking about an entitlement to prosperity and health by being a follower.

If anything, Jesus wasn’t into mass followings. I think he made it quite clear that being a follower could be a nasty and brutish experience. He told people to sell ALL their possessions to become his followers. All four Gospels quote him as saying that a follower had to carry their cross.

So, if you were to follow the evidence that’s laid out by Christian scripture, you’d realize that Jesus was, materially speaking, a pauper and his message was all about things like alleviating suffering of the down trodden.  

This fact goes onto beg the question of what Christ would have thought of the effort of Churches to out-do each other in the effort to build bigger and more glamorous buildings? What he have thought of Pastors who pay themselves salaries that are comparable to those paid to corporate CEO’s?

Ironically the one Church that is starting to answer these questions is the Catholic Church itself. While the Catholic Church has been noticeably quiet in its efforts to raise funds when compared to its more “charismatic” counterparts, it has several centuries before to raise funds. Popes have traditionally lived like monarchs. The Pope is regarded by international law as a “Head of State,” and has to be given the privileges of one.

The current Pope, has now began to challenge these by example. His Holiness dines with ordinary people and instead of conducting services in the beauty of the Vatican, goes and brings the word of God to such charming and acceptable people like prisoners.

Now, wouldn’t be nice if more of today’s self-appointed agents of God, thought of devoting more of their time to bringing compassion to the down and out?  

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

We Need Human Interest as Well as Business Interest

I generally don’t like “reality TV.” However, I make an exception for “Undercover Boss,” a show that follows the experiences of a “boss” who goes undercover in his (they’re mostly men) company. What makes this show so gripping is the fact that the “boss,” without fail gets something of a wake-up call to the realities on the ground. When the “boss” summons his employees to HQ, he ends up doing “nice” things for them. The “boss” in the most recent episode that I watched came up with a wonderful sound bite that summed up his experiences of being “undercover” – “We need to human interest as well as business interest.”

This little nugget has touched me. I’m currently operating in a business environment where the pressure to deliver financial results is greater than ever. At the same time, there is an increasing amount of pressure to ensure that workers are properly treated.

This is particularly so in Singapore, the place where I’ve been based for the better part of the decade. Despite producing lots of “economic” growth, the Singapore government finds itself highly unpopular. Despite breaking its own taboos of not giving handouts (back in the ‘old’ days the Singapore government subsidized housing and healthcare but that was about it – these days, the government actually gives out cash on certain occasions), a government that has been used to total dominance has seen a steady erosion of its parliamentary seats in a two-year period. What’s going on?

Plenty has been said about the problems that modern Singapore faces. However, I think nobody has summed up the key problem as well as that particular boss in “Undercover Boss.” The powers-that-be, need to realize that ‘human’ interest are as important as ‘business’ interest. More importantly, human interest and business interest are not in conflict – if anything, they are good for each other.  

Let’s start with the obvious point – Singapore has prospered by looking after business interest. Our ‘honest’ and ‘business-friendly’ bureaucracy has encouraged foreign investors to create industries that have helped our population prosper. Say what you like about Singapore, but it’s a pretty darn good place to live. Infrastructure is comparable to anything in the ‘developed’ world and you can never underestimate the value of things like safety, especially for your children.

However, there’s a mood of discontent amongst the people these days. Go to any coffee shop in your average housing estate and you’ll find plenty of people grumbling about the way things are falling apart. Talk to enough people and you’ll get the impression that jobs have become a scarce commodity and for those with jobs will give you the impression that the word “job” is a polite term for slave labour.

The question arises on whether the government has become overtly business friendly to the extent that human interest become secondary. I would argue that the problem right now is that powers that be have become obsessed with the wrong type of business – namely spread sheet business.

Once again, I’m knocking spread sheets and figures. You need spreadsheets and such devices to control cost and to increase revenue. At the end of the day, a business has to make money. Having money enables a business to pay staff and contractors as well as shareholder. A business that cannot do any of these things is of no benefit to society.

However, money is just the byproduct of a business. At its very core, a business is an organization of people who are brought together for the common purpose of making money. Think of a restaurant as an example. The business is a restaurant is to bring someone who can cook and someone who can deal with customers together so that they can make money by selling a meal. The restaurant as a business is supposed to make money but it needs the activity of the cook and the waiter to do so. A restaurant needs to look after cook and waiter in order to look after its interest of making money.

If you look at things this way, the argument here is that the Singapore government has forgotten the basic premises of how things work. It has become obsessed with the “paper” of business. As such, the bureaucratic machine becomes obsessed with chasing “economic growth” figures without understanding how those figures translate something real. A government department can trumpet attracting so many dollars in foreign investment without understanding how it was created or what it means to the man on the ground.
What we need is not a neglect of business interest but a reminder that ‘human’ interest is an essential part of business interest. If you watch ‘Undercover Boss’ you will notice that the bosses are always surprised by how much employees are willing to give back to the company in terms of things like new ideas to improve process once they feel they are valued by the company.

Unfortunately these are things that can’t quantified in a spreadsheet and hence they get ignored during the board meeting. However, these are the things that are essential to helping the business thrive. Companies that look after “human interest” are the ones that have innovation and productivity and therefore prosperity – think of companies like 3M and Google as good examples. These companies are known for doing things like providing day care and allowing employees to devote 15 percent of their office time to a personal project.

Now apply this to the national economy. A country that makes its citizens feel like cogs to multinational companies can only so far. Countries that have a culture of making every citizen feel valuable tend to prosper in a more sustained manner. America, for all its current problems, has a culture where people feel valued and are rewarded in some way or another when they contribute.

Perhaps this might be a time for some of our leaders to go ‘undercover’ 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Remembering the Decency in a Race - Thanks to Bollywood's Lagan

I’m in a foul mood. You could say that I am at my bigoted worst. It all started with a boo-boo by the restaurant. We served a customer his main course while he was still on his starters. He wasn’t happy and his remark to me was, “You got to be joking – this isn’t the hawker centre!”

Unfortunately for both of us, this customer happened to be a Caucasian (French, I believe.) So, when he said what he did – something inside me snapped (I have the reverse Pinkerton Syndrome). However, he was the customer and since Thuy is back in my life – I bit my lip and resolved the issue. My poor colleagues got an earful of what I thought of the said customer’s ethnicity in the few Chinese dialects that I can curse in.

I was pretty offended but pulled through. Then two of my colleagues on the service team had a run in with the French kitchen help. Apparently this kitchen helper forgot his place in the scheme of things and thought it was OK to have a minor temper tantrum in the hope of intimidating them. It took self-control not to make an issue of it and the restaurant manager told me that the said Kitchen Helper is protected by the restaurant owner. Didn’t help my mood.

Anyway, I’ve placed my heart on my Facebook status and decided to listen to music on Youtube and then I decided to watch the last few moments of one of my favourite Hindi Movies – “Lagan,” which stars Amir Khan.

The story line of the movie is simple. The dastardly British in British India have decided to screw the poor Indian villagers, who are struggling to make ends meet because the monsoons have not arrived. The Brits make a bet with the villagers – if they can beat them in a game of cricket, they will have their taxes erased. However, if the villagers lose (which was the most likely outcome), their taxes would be tripled. The climax of the movie is of course – the cricket game, which against all odds, the villagers win.

This movie or at least the last twenty minutes were exactly what I needed. Let’s face it, I am by instinct, an anti-colonial. When I was young, I used to cheer for the Japanese side whenever they showed documentaries on the “Fall of Singapore.” There was always something very appealing about watching the White Boys get marched into POW camps (hey – you never hear little Yellow people talk about it being good for you when they do it – it’s a different story when the White man does it). When it came to the Vietnam War, I would always feel very excited whenever the little Yellow People in black pajamas took the US army.

Mum and I think most of my family have NEVER understood this hidden aspect about me. Every time my poor mother suggest that it might be time for me to join a multi-national PR agency, I shudder – there’s something repulsive in the idea that I only become a respectable person if my livelihood is dependent on someone taking orders from New York or London. I know I’ve suffered for it financially but the work I’m proudest of is whenever I’ve been in opposition as a one-man show to a big multinational agency run by some Pink Blotchy in London or New York.

Having said that, I have Caucasian family and friends whom I love dearly. One of my best friends asked if I missed London and my reply was and remains, “I don’t miss London – I miss you.” Having said everything that I’ve just said, my short f&b career, which runs alongside my media relations one, has been by most accounts fairly successful because I’ve managed to develop a good relationship with Caucasian customers (helps that I speak English and German)

I like to think that the few success I’ve enjoyed in life have come from an ability to see people as people rather than as a particular ethnicity or religion.

However, tonight wasn’t really one of those nights where I was in the frame of mind to see people for what they are. I was seeing things through ethnic lenses and I guess I felt angry.

Anyway, Lagan on a superficial basis, is a wonderful movie if you’re in the mood to watch Pink Blotchies get their just deserts. The Dastardly British tried to screw poor people and received justice.

However, if you look at it at a deeper level, the movie provides you with a wonderful platform to remember a decency of a people.

The two characters in this unfolding drama who remind you about the decency of the British people are the sister of the villain (who falls for the hero, played by Amir Khan) and the umpires of the final cricket game.
What both show very clearly is that very British characteristic of believing in fairness. 

You could argue that the sister is doing what she does because she wants to be with the hero. However, she’s also motivated by a sense of fairness. She goes out of her way to teach the villagers the basics of cricket – so making sure that they know what they’re doing at the end. She’s a decent woman who tries to do what is right. Her heart guides to see people beyond ethnicity or social status.

This is seen most clearly at the end of the movie when the British Garrison is dissolved and the troops are leaving. She steps out of her carriage and offers to touch the feet of the hero’s mother (unheard of in 1893 when the movie is set), embraces the girl (her rival in love) and speaks a smattering of Hindi (which is more than what most modern Brits can do). Her love is unconditional and it brings her to take risk to ensure that there is fairness in the equation.

The umpires in the final cricket game would, under normal circumstances, be uninteresting and unimportant. They are nothing more than cricket umpires. However, the fact that they remain cricket umpires despite the political undertones of the game, makes them exceedingly important.

They are fair to a fault. They make the most crucial decision towards the end of the game, namely to rule that there was a “no ball” – hence the hero and his batting companion remain in the game for the final ball. When the British protest, the umpires reply is, “It’s a no ball and I’m not discussing this any further, SIR.” The Umpire remains emotionless and signals that the hero has a hit a six (thus winning the game for the villagers) without a hint of emotion.

Although it’s an Indian movie depicting the Brits at their worst, Lagan managed to remind me of the decency of a people who, on the whole were kind to me. After watching the scene several times, I remembered that I was better than my own prejudices.

Say what you like about Bollywood but there are moments when the often simplistic storylines have a way of making you remember the good things in life. Towards the end, I felt less angry with the world and grateful for the friends and family that have touched my life. 

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Two General Elections

Malaysia has just finished its General Election. Like the election in Singapore two-years ago, there was plenty of euphoria and hope that things would change. Like its Singapore counterpart, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition held onto power but with its “worst-ever” election result. Like his Singapore counterpart, Malaysia’s Prime Minister had to acknowledge that despite his victory, he had received a proverbial slapping.

Things as they say, are getting interesting in the politics of Southeast Asian countries. There was a time when politics in Southeast Asia was boringly predictable. Western commentators went as far as describing ASEAN, the regional body, as a cozy dictators club. To a certain extent it was. The rulers of the various Southeast Asian Nations ruled for so long that they became synonymous with their countries. Mahathir was Malaysia as much as Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore and Suharto was Indonesia.

ASEAN’s strongmen attributed their longevity to things like culture and values (Asian culture instils a desire for strong leadership) and most importantly spectacular economic success. Singapore’s success story is so well known that it gave Lee Kuan Yew a nearly two-decade career as a “must-have” speaker to countries wanting to go from the Dark Ages into the Space Age in less than a decade. While Singapore’s development story takes the front pages, the rest of the region also saw economic growth that raised millions out of poverty. So, given the economic growth and the spectacular raise in wealth of the people, why have people in Southeast Asia become so angry with the systems that have brought them so much?

Well, the most logical place to start, would be with the 1997 economic crisis. People across the region found that the hot air lifting the balloon of economies was just that – hot air. The biggest casualty of the regional crisis was Suharto, the strongest man in the biggest country in the region. Mr Suharto, a former army general who had ruled as a Javanese emperor for 30 over years was ousted by student protest (children of the middle class he had helped create).

As many have pointed out – people were tolerant of abuses and corruption from the top as long as they were getting richer. When the economy collapsed, the poor and the newly created poor (formerly known as the Middle Class) would not tolerate wide-scale corruption amongst the elite.

Neither Singapore nor Malaysia have seen the type of collapse that happened to Indonesia. The conditions in Malaysia and Singapore are far milder than what hit Indonesia in 1997, yet the populations in both nations are reacting and not waiting for things to happen. Why?

I suppose you could say that there are two-key factors, namely communications technology and the size of the middle class.

Communications technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, it’s not just about the mobile phone and the internet but about the internet being received on the mobile phone. People can pick up all sorts of information delivered into their palms in an instant. Officials can no longer censor information the way they use to and the official version of the truth is not the ONLY truth. Thanks to “Smart Phones” – everyone is a news reporter. At the time of writing, one of the most prominent stories coming out of Malaysia is the deluge of videos “allegedly” showing trucks bringing in “fake” ballot papers to various polling stations and “phantom” voters from Bangladesh.

Such videos will make it imperative for Mr Najib to distance his government from the ‘corruption’ that his party has been accused of. The public will pounce on every perceived injustice that the government tries to ‘cover up.’

Economic success also created a large middle class. In Singapore one can argue that the majority of the population can be considered middle class. Unlike the poor, the middle class will not wait for an economic collapse before taking to the streets. The moment this group feels its basic aspirations (sending kids to college and good jobs) it starts to act.

So what can the political elite do? The most obvious is to recognize that times have changed. Both the BN and PAP have remained in power through the votes of older voters who remember the good things they did. Both have used the powers of incumbruancy and the power of patronage to shamelessly.

However, these things will not work on their own forever. It’s perhaps time that the ruling elite in Singapore and Malaysia recognize that business is no longer going to be as usual.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Good Bye Mrs Thatcher – You Put the GREAT back into Britain

One of the most prominent figures of my childhood has died. Mrs Margaret Thatcher, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990 died of a stroke at the age of 87 on the 8th of April, 2013.

By the time of her death, Baroness Thatcher (as she was officially known) had become something of a recluse in her final years. You might say calling her senile was an act of kindness.

The Margaret Thatcher that died was far removed from the Margaret Thatcher I grew up with in the early years that I lived in the UK. Mrs Thatcher, as she was then known, was THE dominant figure in British politics and she made her presence felt in European Union (then known as the EEC) and global meetings.
As a leader, she became known for holding onto positions that were vastly unpopular at the time. She was loathed in liberal establishments for appearing ‘unsympathetic’ to the plight of the poor, though she was revered in business circles for cutting taxes and deregulating things. She was unafraid to speak her mind – something which a few attributed to the downfall of her successor.

You could say the extreme feelings that she generated, made her one of the last politicians to be driven by ideology. The Economist Newspaper described her as the “Last Victorian,” a politician from an era that had long gone by.

As the tributes pour in for the departed, “Iron Lady,” there will undoubtedly be a flurry of editorials about her legacy. I would say that Baroness Thatcher was responsible for putting the “Great” back into “Great Britain.”

Let’s start with the obvious. When Mrs Thatcher took over the UK in 1979, the country was going through a period of social disruption. The unions, particularly the miners’ union (NUM) lead by Arthur Scargill were particularly militant (enough to bring down governments). The state controlled vast chunks that mattered and public services were a mess. The situation was such that it was impossible to run a small business let alone get rich (one of the reasons why the second most infamous member of the OCC made a dash to Africa).

Within a decade of her premiership, Mrs Thatcher had faced down the unions, slashed taxes and regulations. Entrepreneurs like Lord’s Hanson and White of Hanson PLC and Sir James Goldsmith became household names both in the UK and the USA. The disruption that such men caused to the established order helped unleash a bout of entrepreneurial activity on both sides of the Atlantic.

The best part about Mrs Thatcher’s creation of prosperity was the fact that it came from creating greater social mobility. In the words of Uncle Nick (A Brit who married my mother’s cousin, Auntie Terresa), “Thatcherism has made people in England work harder.” If you study the Sunday Times rich list of people in Britain, the number of ‘self-made’ men is growing and crowding out the Old Money of the aristocracy.

The Thatcher era for the UK was not just about economics or social change. It was about the victory of a set of ideas. The idea that individuals were responsible for their own lives rather than the state triumphed over the idea that the State knew best. This is most visible in the fact that the Labour Party under Tony Blair only became electable after they moved towards the Thatcherite point of view. The idea of privitisation has become nearly universal.

Mrs Thatcher did have her faults. Towards the end she seemed a bit too comfortable in her position of power and cut off from reality. She used the royal “We” in public – “WE are a grandmother.” She lied in public about the resignation of her chancellor, Nigel Lawson. Like her American contemporary, Ronald Regan, Mrs Thatcher had a way of being cozy with dictators (Suharto comes to mind).

You could even say that the current mess that the UK is in, is Mrs Thatcher’s belief that free markets are the answer to everything. The “Big Bang” in the 1980s made the City of London a global financial centre. This created jobs and wealth. However, you could argue that things were brought to an extreme. The UK became so dependent on finance that everything else was lost and there was very little to the UK other than the dreams of financiers to make more money out of nothing.

While there is a case for all of these arguments, Mrs Thatcher’s legacy should, on the whole, be considered a decent one. Under her leadership, Britain went from being a poor country run by a group of blind bureaucrats to a country that encourages innovation and rewards entrepreneurship from wherever you may come from. Surely that has to be considered progress. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Blah-Blopi-Boo

It was a very good, Good Friday today. Spent most of the day with Thuy at the movies. Between chasing the press coverage for IIMPact 2013: New Frontiers, which is taking place April 5 – 6, 2013 and the night job, I’ve not really had the time to spend with her and to do my bit to ensure that her English is up to scratch.
Anyway, we decided to treat ourselves to two-movies. Morning movie was a good old fashioned Chinese slap stick. Then we decided to see “Oz, the Great and Powerful.” I enjoyed this movie because it was the “prequel” to the well-loved story I had grown-up with – “The Wizard of Oz.” This was the story of how the “Wizard” got to “Oz” in the first place.  

It turns out that the “Wizard” is an unpleasant character. He is a small-time circus magician who is a con-artist. He cheats and abuses his ‘business-partner’ and seduces women with nothing more than a few cheap gimmicks. When it looks like he’s going to get his just deserts, he does a runner – which is precisely how he ends up in Oz. Once in Oz, he continues as he did in Kansas and has some pretty close encounters, until he decides to use his skills as a ‘con-man’ for the greater good of the people of Oz.

I think one of the reasons why this movie spoke to me was the fact that it showed that despite being a shit of the highest order, you ended up cheering for the “wizard.” The reason was simple – after a while, you realized that it ended up saying more about the people who got taken in by him than it did about him.

Upon arrival he meets the first witch (who will end up becoming the wicked witch that Dorothy had to melt), he actually convinces her that he’s got genuine magic powers. What does he do? His hot air balloon falls out of the sky and he pulls out gimmick flowers for her (she is at this stage a very hot chick – character played by Mila Kunis). Did he ever suggest to her that he was a wizard? No, she’s the one who tells him that he’s a wizard and he merely does what every con-artist does – takes advantage of the situation.

I know this is a fairy tale of sorts but the beauty here is that a charlatan with no magic powers to speak of manages to convince someone with real magic power (and she does have potent powers) that he has powers that exceed hers.

If you look at the movie closely, you’ll realize that the “Wizard” has several things going for him. They are:

His Looks

The very first thing that one should note about the “Wizard” (played by James Franco) is that he’s a good looking guy. Despite the situations that he gets involved in, he is immaculately groomed and is always with his hat. When you look at him, you can believe that young women – even ones with magical powers, would be attracted to him.

Let’s face it, we love looking at attractive people. We will give them the time of the day. I am guilty of this. I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve allowed myself to remain engaged in a conversation with women who bored me into shitting my pants or parting with money I could have used more wisely. If I look back at those moments, I realize that I only myself to do things against my better judgment was because I found the chick in question “hot.”

It works the other way too. Women are as guilty as men of being easily lead astray by good looking men. One of my best friends in the UK had the luxury of being very pretty – women would offer him their number out of the blue. He also had plenty of admirers from the homosexual community too.

I think back to what my Uncle Jeffery said to me when I went to work for him at Asher Communications – “Cosmetics Count.”

If you look at the world’s con-artist, you’ll realize that they’re all exceedingly well groomed…….

Charm and the Ability to Make Others Feel Special

One of the “wizard’s” most popular tools is a series of “musical boxes,” (movie is set in the 1900s, musical boxes were today’s iPhones) which he gives away to women he plans to seduce. His line is always the same – it was his grandmother’s musical box and she left it to him and now he wants to give it to the lady in question.

The line is corny. It is obvious. It works. The ladies fall for him because he makes them feel special. He makes them feel as if they are the only one for him.

We all like to feel special. Relationships always seem better when they are exclusive. I think of journalist who have asked me for “exclusives” and I think of how I’ve valued certain relationships over others because some just seemed more “special” than others.

When you make someone feel special and good – you are more likely to get them to do things for you.

The Willingness to be Lucky or Understanding the Situation

Say what you like about the “Wizard” but he understands situations and is able to tailor his actions according to the situation. When people at the circus claim that they see a wire in his levitation act, ‘cuts’ the wires. Then in Oz, he knows when to rescue and heal people and when to run……In short, he is a survivor.

These are simple facets to his character and if we applied them to our daily lives, we may be surprised with the results.