Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Cautious Captain Who Got the Ship Between the Rock and Hard Place

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died last Friday (23 January 2015) of old age. The desert monarch had ruled the desert kingdom for a better of a decade and had found himself playing a very unique role in what is one of the most turbulent regions of the world. World leaders like US President Barak Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel paid tribute to him as leader with vision, courage of conviction and a reformer who supported women’s rights. At the other end of the spectrum human rights groups lambasted the man for keeping women’s rights down and there were those who called him an “A Zionist Agent who kept his fellow Muslims poor.” (Didn’t help that one of the tributes came from Israel’s president).

The demise of King Abdullah comes at an “interesting” time for Saudi Arabia. At the time of writing, the price of oil has dropped tremendously and after years of budgetary surplus, the Kingdom now faces a few years of deficit. The world media has made much of the fact that the Kingdome faces the fanatics of ISIS on its northern border with Iraq and a resurgent Al Qaeda in the southern border with Yemen. Youth employment remains stubbornly high. King Abdullah’s legacy will perhaps be judged by the way Saudi Arabia deals with these issues.

I personally hope that Saudi Arabia makes it through and that the new King Salman finds the wisdom and ability to do what needs to be done. For all that it said of Saudi Arabia, it remains the country that gave me my proudest moment as a PR professional when I assisted Dr. Amin Kurdi, the former Saudi Ambassador to Singapore in the smooth running of the visit of the late Prince Sultan to Singapore in 2006.

I remember that job as being one of the most of the most challenging for the very fact that I stood in between a host of conflicting interest. There was a cultural clash between the Saudi and Singapore side. Add to that, there were a host of other conflicts that needed to be managed. The two ministries I had to deal with on the Singapore side had a private turf war. On the Saudi side, you had something similar. The 40 odd journalist who had come along the ride didn’t exactly enjoy the presence of the chaps from the Ministry of Information (“Ministry of Misinformation” – as one of the more prominent Saudi editors called them). Yet, somehow, I managed to get things done and at the end of the day, when I spoke to the words “Insha Allah – we will meet again,” to the departing Saudi Party, I meant it.

You could say that what I faced on that job was merely a microcosm of Saudi society at large. For the most part, Saudi society is conservative and traditional. However, the majority of young people are young. The royal family draws legitimacy from its alliance with the Wahabi Sect, one of the strictest versions of Sunni Islam (the Saudi King’s most important title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque”) and yet, the same royal family understands not only the need to be part of the modern world but enjoys aspects of the modern world. You are talking about a society where women are required to dress from head to toe in black robes to “reduce the lust of men” but at the same time, Saudi women are one of the biggest buyers of lacy underwear.

It takes skill to manage a society with that many contradictions and while Abdullah may not have lived up to the billing he initially received in the Western Media (“reformer”), the man did get things done without disrupting the system.

I guess you could say Abdullah ranks somewhere between Gorbachev and Deng Xiao Peng. I’m old enough to have lived through the Gorbachev era when we hailed him as the reforming visionary who would end the Cold War. The man suddenly opened up the once closed Soviet System and we hailed him as a great hero, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, events proved otherwise. Mr. Gorbachev underestimated a genie that had been bottled up for long. Political openness unleased pent up emotions that Mr. Gorbachev didn’t know how to handle.
By contrast, Mr. Deng knew how to tinker with the system. First a zone here and zone there was given a bit of freedom and slowly but surely parts of China prospered. While China remains a Communist Dictatorship, it’s a very prosperous one. What freedoms that people have come from the fact that the masses have tasted the good life and won’t allow the turning of the clock back to the old days of Maoist absolutes and the Cultural Revolution.

King Abdullah, may well be a milder version of Mr. Deng. Like Mr. Deng, King Abdullah has maneuvered a minefield of special interest.  Like Mr. Deng, the King has shown his ability to be ruthless. Who can forget that it was the “Great Reformer” in Mr. Deng who authorized the killing of Tiananmen Square in 1989? It’s the “reformer” Saudi King Abdullah who sent troops into neighbouring Bahrain to crush an uprising and sent money to back rebel forces against Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad, many of the groups of which formed part of the notorious Islamic State.

However, like Mr. Deng, King Abdullah did take risk that have touched parts of Saudi society. I remember filming women in Al-Faisaliyah Mall in Riyadh in 2006. The assigned tour guide commented on how much things had changed under Abdullah – young Saudi’s worked at Starbucks like coffee joints and women were fairly happy to be filmed.

Doesn’t sound like much to anyone outside Saudi Arabia but if you look at my guide’s comments, the Abdullah reforms had brought about some release for the people. There was some form of progress.
On the economic front, King Abdullah should also be given credit for recognizing that the Saudi economy needs to run on something other than oil. While the economy remains heavily dependent on oil, the Saudi’s have started to court foreign investment in the ‘non-oil’ sector via it’s agency “TheSaudi Arabian General Investment Authority’ or SAGIA, which is staffed by young, bright and Western Educated people like its Asia Pacific Director General, Meshari Al Khaled.

Furthermore, King Abdullah’s reforms have to be seen in the context of his contemporaries. While the Saudi System may not be perfect, many of the comparisons in the region aren’t much better – one only has to think of IS. Saudi Arabia may not be a bastion of women’s rights but Saudi women do go to school. Doesn't happen in the IS run parts of Syria and Iraq.  

Perhaps the most significant initiative that King Abdullah came up with was his 2002 and 2007 plan for peace in the Middle East. The offer was simple – Israel would withdraw to its legally recognized borders of 1967 in return for diplomatic recognition from all 22 members of the Arab league. This was an “Arab” idea made public. The man called for the US or Europeans to support him. Unfortunately, he was effectively screwed by his American ally who proceeded to encourage Israel not to even consider this. I will always remember Dr. Amin Kurdi’s reaction when he was asked by Clement Mesenas who interviewed him for the Today Newspaper what the Arabs felt about Israel’s need for security. He said, “We gave them a way out of their security problem and they rejected it.”

History has a way of judging rulers. Abdullah promised reform but many of his reforms were only delivered at a glacial pace. It should be no surprise that the youth are impatient for change and the more conservative fractions of Saudi Society have not forgiven him for the mild reforms of appointing a woman as deputy minister of education. Some Western papers have called him a “failed reformer.”

I believe that you need to look at the man in the context of his society and what he faced. The fact that he managed to get the few things he got done without a major revolution that is common elsewhere around him should speak volumes of his skills as a leader. Let’s pray that the King Salman, his successor finds the same skill to bring the Kingdom into the new world in the same manner that his predecessor started to do. 

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Man Who Gave Made the Law Just.

Singapore lost one of its most prominent criminal lawyers on 7 January 2015. Mr. Subhas Anandan, Senior Partner of RHTLaw Taylor Wessing died of heart failure at the age of 67. In more than three decades, “Subhas” as he was known, defended some of Singapore’s most notorious criminals like Antony Ler, the man who paid teenagers to kill his wife and Took Leng How, a retarded man who was accused of killing the China-born toddler Hwang Na back in 2004. Subhas was known as a man who would happily defend some of the “worst” criminals free of charge (back when it wasn’t common practice for lawyers to do pro-bono work).

The tributes are pouring in and one of the most common points about the man was that he was someone who stood up for people. The act of taking on scum bags and defending them in a court of law was a reminder that justice is only done when even the scum bags have the chance to present a case in court and they get convicted on evidence rather than political convenience or popular opinion.

All these things about Subhas are true. However, to me, Subhas was more than just an advocate for scum bags. He was an important figure in my childhood, who would remain in the shadows of the life is lived like some mysterious guardian spirit.

Subhas was my mother’s university mate and they remained good friends for over four decades. Her friendship was such that when I first moved back to Singapore for National Service, her first words to be were, “If you’re in any trouble – give Uncle Subhas a call – he’ll defend you. He won’t do it for the money – he’ll do it because you’re my son.”

Well, thankfully, I never had to call on “Uncle Subhas” to get me out of a sticky situation. The closest I ever got was needing legal advice when I was planning to get out of a very troubled marriage to Gina. Uncle Subhas wasn’t a divorce lawyer but he got me over an hour with two of his colleagues from Harry Elias Partnership free of charge (An hour with a junior associate with a big law firm is usually enough to bankrupt most people). That very crucial meeting set me on the path of getting out of a relationship that would have been disastrous.

Many years later, I’d run into Uncle Subhas at MediaCorp studio. He was the legal advisor on a show that was talking about domestic violence, while I was one of the interview subjects. Half way through, he actually said,”A man who hits a woman is a coward.”

This was him at his vintage best. While Uncle Subhas was a great lawyer, he was also a man of the people and he stuck to his principles, even when it was worse for him (he served a prison term). The law for him was about seeing that some form of justice was done and yet at the end of the day he never became blinded by his beliefs. I guess you could say that he was an idealist and a realist at the same time.

With the exception of a few encounters of the street, I never saw Uncle Subhas again. Mum would take pains to visit him and his family whenever she was in town but somehow, I never visited. As such, I can’t claim to really to have known the man in his final years.

However, he was an important character in my life. He was Mum’s divorce lawyer, even though he didn’t really believe in divorce. Yet, the way my parent’s ended their marriage was perhaps a blessing for me in that they did it with minimal harm to me and I think he had an influence in that respect.

I also think of the role he played in mine. I think the two instances I’ve had with him, was his way of showing me that there is a right way of doing things. By some fluke, Gina and I ended it legally and cleanly and I think he had a role to play in that.

I can’t say I’ll mourn him the way my Mum will. However, I can say that I’ll miss him. Although, I never really saw much of him other than what I got to see on TV or through reading his book or hearing my Mum talk about him, he was a presence that made a difference to me.

I wish I had made a more prominent effort to keep in touch when I first moved back to Singapore. The little I got of him, helped me at crucial junctures in my life. I wish I had the chance to know him better. He was the man who believed in justice in the law. His life touched so many and it was my privilege that my Mum insisted I call “Uncle.”

Monday, January 05, 2015

You May Not Like the Presence of Darkies from Other Parts of Asia ...But .....

The New Year is barely five-days-old and Singapore’s patch of cyberspace is once again ablaze with self-righteous indignation.

Apparently, a Filipino radiographer at Tan Tock Seng Hospital “tweeted” something unfortunate about how the Filipino’s were taking jobs away from Singaporeans and were going to take away our promised land from the wimps that we are.

Singapore’s so called guardians of national pride are up in arms. The general refrain is that “how dare this Pinoy whom we gave his cushy job to insult us – fuck off back to Pinoy land if you don’t respect us.” The usual complaints about how the Filipino’s and other dark skinned Asians don’t know how lucky we Singaporeans are has allowed them to come in and work at wages that they could only dream off.

The comments that were made, were indeed rude. They were insulting to Singaporeans and let’s face it, no host likes being insulted.

Having said that, they were stupid remarks and should probably be left there. You could say the guy is an arsehole and leave it at that.

What we should not do is to try and get ourselves worked up over the presence of the Filipino community in Singapore, which is the community responsible for helping us enjoy the cushy things that we do. Whatever one may think of the Singapore government, one has to admit that our physical infrastructure is pretty darn good – it’s actually comparable to anything you get in the developed nations of Western Europe or the USA. What we should remember is that someone has to maintain it and keep things going and that task falls heavily on the Filipino Community.

I’ve worked in a restaurant for the past two years. The restaurant business is great place to see how things function in Singapore. We, as a well to do nation enjoy the fine things in life. Singapore’s national pastime as they say is having a good meal. As we become more affluent, we start to appreciate finer dining establishments, serving things like good steak and a nice bottle of wine. If I take a look at who the big spenders at the restaurant are, I’d say that there is an increasing number of local Singaporeans. Yes, the Expats spend more on average but local Singaporeans can no longer be counted as bread and butter customers.

Unfortunately, you need people to keep things moving. The restaurant business is a people business and despite the technological advances we’ve made, you still need people to serve you, cook the food and wash the plates. This is a business that is notorious for long hours and low pay (As stated a few times before, I’ve made more from writing a single press release than I have in a month of working in the restaurant).

Herein lies the rub – there’s work to be done but it is physically demanding and the pay is nothing to shout about. You live with the fact that your busiest hours are everyone else’s rest periods. This combination makes the job terribly unappealing to Singaporeans with more than two brain cells.

So, who steps in to do the work? In the case of Singapore’s restaurants it’s usually the Filipinos. The community has become essential to the backbone of Singapore’s food and beverage industry. Go into any dinning establishment and chances are you will be severed by a Filipino.
What you won’t see is the fact that the Filipino chap will often be the most overworked and underpaid person in the establishment. If you think of small establishments, you’ll find that the Filipino is often the chap who has worked in both the kitchen and the service line. As well as working as the waiter and kitchen helper, he will also have to double up as electrician, plumber and general repair man. This is the chap who works 12 hours a day, six days a week and does so without much complaint.

By contrast, you have the Singaporeans who won’t take on fifty percent of the jobs that are available. I’m not talking about people with pots of money who shun these jobs. The people who shun the jobs on offer, are the very people who could do with the money. In Singapore’s rather strange definition of “pride,” these are the people who are too proud to be seen to scrub dishes in the kitchen but are proud enough to ask you to top up their bus cards and buy them a few beers.

The most common excuse that these chaps give for not wanting to do jobs that are done by the Pinoys and other Asians is the fact that they can’t afford to work them. Wages are too low for them and apparently you can’t support a family on the wages that are on offer. However, the guys who make these statements are the guys who haven’t supported their families in years and somehow they’ve got the idea that no pay is better than low pay
That’s at the most extreme. If you get Singaporeans entering the industry, you’ll find that they’re the least inclined to work properly. I think of my Christmas in 2014. I wasn’t scheduled to work the lunch shift. However, I got a call begging me to come down to help out. The reason was simple, the Italian and Pinoy that I work with were overwhelmed with customers. Their assistant was Jie-Jie-Ka-Ni-Na (Hokkien for Older Sister Motherfucker). Jie-Jie’s idea of help was sit by the cash register and avoid trying to push buttons in the cash register. After two attempts at pushing buttons, the young lady in question was about to go into cardiac arrest from overwork. My presence in the restaurant helped boost morale or rather it was the fact that I showed up, carried three dishes and reminded Jie-Jie-Ka-Ni-Na that there is no such job title as “Bosses Wife.”

Sad to say, what I’ve seen doesn’t stay in the restaurant business. It applies to many crucial industries. Take nursing as an example. Everyone wants to be a hot shot doctor. Nobody wants to be a nurse and so, where do we get the nurses from? We got to get them from elsewhere.
Like it or not, we’re an island filled with “Proud” people who won’t lower themselves to do “menial” work, no matter how bad their personal situation. As such, the reality is that we do need to get people from elsewhere to do basic jobs.

You might not like the presence of Pinoy’s, Bangla’s, PRC Chinese at al in Singapore but unless you’re willing to do the jobs, they’re here to stay.