Wednesday, January 25, 2017

American Incompetence May be Good for the World

I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to be nice about the new US President for a change. No, I haven’t become a rabid dog of the Republican Party’s worst aspects but I think its high time that I sit back and try and say something nice about a public figure I can’t stand.

Mr. Trump has shown that he has a talent for bringing out the worst in people. He campaigned on platform of racism, homophobia, sexism and hypocrisy. While he indulged in calling every one of his opponents “corrupt,” he himself was indulging in practices that would make his opponents looks saintly (think about it, the Clinton Foundation isn’t perfect but at least some of the money goes to causes – the Trump Foundation raises money for the good cause of buying more portraits of Mr. Trump to be placed in properties owned by Mr. Trump.) Once in office, Mr. Trump has not disappointed those who despise him and those who loved him.

 In a Presidency, less than a week old, he’s already picked fights with the media over the size of the crowds at his inauguration, made moves to criminalise abortion and to increase trade protectionism by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership or TPP.

Coming from a small trading nation in the Asia-Pacific region, Mr. Trump’s speed in killing the TPP has been viewed a major worry. We, the small Asia-Pacific nations are terrified at the implications. We grew our economies on American investment. Our prosperity for the most part depends on the willingness of the American consumer to buy the goods made in our part of the world. Suddenly, Mr. Trump has thrown a spanner in the works. What do we do?

While the prospect of a more protectionist America may seem gloomy, the rest of the world actually has an important opportunity to do something very important – develop independence. In just about every way, America has been the “vital” nation that underpinned everybody’s social and economic well-being. America was not only the crucial market for many companies, it was also the “policeman” of the world, ensuring that neighborhoods stayed safe. US troops have kept the ASEAN region stable and Singapore, my home remains a safe and prosperous haven for the world to do business and prosper because of it.

So, without America or American involvement in world affairs, what can the rest of us do? I believe the answer would probably be to increase trade and cooperation with other people. The Chinese for one have relished Mr. Trump’s rants about protecting America from the forces of globalization. While Mr. Trump ranted on about the size of the crowds at his inauguration, China’s President Xi Jinping was making the right noises about avoiding a trade war (nobody wins) and how globalization for all its faults has in actual fact been a force of good to the world’s most prominent investors at Davos. The comparison could not be more stark. Mr. Trump looked like a petulant child begging to the smacked while President Xi looked like a statesman.

There’s no doubt that China is a “must-be” in market for businesses around the world. It’s not just the number of consumers in China but their spending power is increasing. One only needs to look at where luxury items are being sold these days to understand the power of the Chinese consumer.

However, as many of us in the small Asian nations can testify to, the increasingly powerful China plays by its own rules. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas ruled against China and in favor of the Philippines. The Filipino’s found that their victory was hollow – nobody was going to enforce it on China. More recently, Singapore learnt the same lesson – we sent military vehicles from Taiwan via Hong Kong and hey presto, the said vehicles got held up in Hong Kong customs.  The Chinese hadn’t forgotten how our Prime Minister decided to crack jokes about the pollution in Beijing to an American audience. We trumpeted our “legal” rights over the terrex vehicles and the Chinese gave us the middle finger.

The realities of big power politics will become starker. The Americans like the British before them made a pretense of playing by some sort of rules. The Chinese have shown that the only laws that matter are the jungle variety. Think of what happens in the jungle when the elephants decide they’re going to throw their weight around – there’s not much anyone else can do.

The world will need to accept China’s rise and adapt to it. The most sensible way would be to trade heavily with China and to offer the Chinese the things they don’t have (clean air would be a good start), but to look for and build up alternative markets.

In Asia, the most sensible alternative would be to build up India. The Bloomberg Columnist, Andy Mukherjee argues that Japan should use its technology and wealth to invest in India – something that seems to be possible given the close ties between Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe.

However, as many business people can attest to, dealing in the India market makes dealing with the Chinese look like a walk in the park.

Still, this is something that needs to be done. The admittedly few parts of India that work, work exceedingly well and what sensible business person does not want to be in two-billion consumer markets.

Asians, Africans and even Europeans need to understand that dependence on one particular market is no longer enough. China and India are two exciting possibilities but there are others. Eastern Europe and Latin America come to mind as do places like the Middle East.
Aside from trade, America has also been the source or the inspiration of ideas and innovation. First it was manufacturing, then it was in IT. America comes up with the revolutionary ideas and the rest of the world eventually gets a share of the pie by trying to do it cheaper. This has especially been true in Asia where we’ve prospered by taking American ideas and doing them cheaper – Chinese manufacturing and Indian IT come to mind.

With Mr. Trump actively making America more isolationist, the world can no longer depend on America as the hot bed of revolutionary ideas. Innovation must come from within the various countries of the world. It’s time to build up our people at home and at world class levels.

I remember explaining the Singapore Scholarship system to an Englishman. He said that he was surprised that we sent our best to the West instead of building up our own institutions to challenge the West. Well, I guess it was easier and quicker to send someone to Cambridge in those days than to build Cambridge or Harvard, but now thanks to Mr. Trump, we need to build our Cambridge’s here.

There are some encouraging signs. Pollution in China is pushing China to do more to move away from heavy manufacturing. In fact, China’s wealth is increasingly being built Silicon Valley style – While the State Own Companies have the size, its companies like Xiaome and Alibaba that excite the world. Chinese innovations like WeChat may have yet to reach beyond the China but as the Economist pointed out, they are beating the likes to Uber and WhatApp in the products and services that they offer.

The smaller Indian Companies are also recognizing that doing things cheaper than the West will not be enough to ensure their survivability. I remember 3i-Infotech and Polaris stressed that they were “product” companies (so much so that Polaris’s service business got sold off to Virtusa and the products remain under a Company called Intellect Design Arena). Raymond, who was my main supporter at Polaris explained it this way – “Services means we think like an IT guy helping make the certain functions for the banks cheaper – Products means we think like bankers and use IT to improve banking.”

The signs of hope are there but Asians, Africans, Arabs and so on, need to effectively grow up and fly the nest provided for by the All Powerful American parent. Mr. Trump has made it clear, he’s not interested in supporting the world. It’s time that the world took the bold step and tried to support itself.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Be like an Ape In Heels

In less than a week’s time, the world will see the end of the Obama Era and welcome the Trump Era, when Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th President of the USA. Much has been said about the difference between the two men. The rabid right wing of American politics is celebrating the end of what they have termed the “worst” presidency in history, while the rest of us are left, perplexed by how the American public ended up voting for a man who found a genius in bringing out the worst in people.

Much has been said about the contrasting character of the two men and nothing better illustrates the contrast in character between the two than in their families. Even discounting the presidency, the Obama’s are exceedingly successful professionals (he was Professor of Constitutional Law and she was a partner in a law firm) with very quiet personal lives. The Trumps by contrast are exceedingly colourful. Donald is on his third marriage as is his first wife, Ivana.

You could say that my sympathies should be with the Trump’s. Most of my friends would describe my family as being colourful. My late theology teacher once told me, “Dear boy, you collect fathers like most people collect postage stamps.” He had a point. My mother is on husband number three. I’ve also collected mothers in a similar fashion, my dad got married two years ago to his third wife. My siblings and I have not escaped the “curse” of unusual relationships. I am on marriage number two (I am also on husband number two to my wife.) and my sister has a same-sex relationship. The only one of my siblings who seems to have something resembling a “normal” relationship, is my brother Max, who got engaged to his long-term girlfriend, over the Christmas holidays.

My family is a “patch-work” family and as my sister wisely said so many years ago, “I wouldn’t swop it for anything in the world.” Despite all the various breaks and reattaching of relationships, I like to think that all of us have turned out quite alright (My sister and I used to get very impatient whenever the excuse of he/she is from divorced parents so he/she behaves like this because we were from ‘broken’ homes and were nice). Likewise, you could say the same for Eric, Donald Junior and Ivanka. Despite the very public divorce of their parents, the three eldest Trump children look like normal guys who actually had to work for a living.

While, I should have every sympathy with the patchwork nature of the Trump family, I have one very serious objection to the Trump family – his choice in wife number three, Mrs. Melania Trump.
Let’s make it clear, I have no right to be judgmental about a person’s private life as my own is far from perfect. However, when that person becomes a public figure, like the President of the Most Powerful country in the world, then it’s a different story because that person’s life story becomes a story for everyone else to emulate.

On a very personal note, I’m all for being a lad. If the Donald at the age of 70 has the means of getting a much younger woman with the “assets” that all men seem to value in a woman to want to bed him, then I’d say good for him or I think – hey, when I’m 70 and a young girl wants to jump into my bed, I’d be very happy.

But as my mother reminded me this holiday, I’m not just me anymore. There’s a teenage girl, whom I have chosen to take responsibility for. The job of father is an interesting one in that it contains two elements. There’s the basic every day element of making sure there’s some food on the table. Then, there’s the element of what you want your child to be. It’s easy job when you are father of a son – you want the little bugger to be an improved version of yourself. When you’re a father to a girl, things become a little more complicated, because you want her to be better than you and probably to end up with someone not like you (especially if you happen to be a rascal.) You want to be able to look at her and tell her to be like so and so and not like so and so.

In the case of the Obama’s, there was an exceptional role model for what every woman should want to be in the First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Let’s start with the most commonly said thing about Mrs. Obama – were she not First Lady, she would be an exceedingly successful corporate lawyer in her own right. She is a graduate of Princeton University (not the easiest place to get into let alone graduate from) and Harvard Law School. By the time the young Barak Obama went to work for Sidley Austin, the sixth largest corporate law firm in America, as a Summer Associate, certain Michelle had become a full-time associate (guess who reported to who?). Mrs. Obama was also an Assistant Dean at the University of Chicago.
In the 8-years of the Obama Presidency, Mrs. Obama found herself become a champion of a variety of causes that people cared about without becoming obviously politically ambitious in the way that Hillary Clinton did. Michelle was the champion of this cause and that cause without shoving it down to the public that you were getting two for the price of one.

There were no scandals in the Obama White House. The President came back to his wife every night. Somehow, they made sure that the camera caught them giving each other loving glances. The woman also protected the family by doing what she could to keep the kids grounded – it seems Sasha Obama had to get a Summer job.

Let’s leave out the fact that Michelle always took care of her appearance. She never made it obvious to be the stuff of ones’ “wank fantasies.” Instead, she made it a point to be presentable and to ensure that any man would be proud to bring her out and present her to the people he cares about. In short, this is the woman who makes a man.

It’s easy to raise a daughter with Michelle Obama as First Lady. You can just say be like her – smart, beautiful and happy. She’s got enough in life to be with a man for the sake of love. She’s with Barak Obama because she wants to be with him not because he’s the source of her fortune.
Different story with the current Mrs. Trump. I have to confess, she is the stuff of “wank fantasies,” in as much as she’s good a well-endowed chest and a “come f** me look that appeals to men in a “wow, here’s an easy lay,” way.

But here’s the problem with fantasies, particularly “wank” ones – if there’s nothing beyond the “come f** me” looks, the reality is rather disappointing. I ask every male reader to think back to the time they’ve lost all interest (including doing the deed) with the girl you admired from afar, then got turned off when you finally spoke to her.

Apparently, the current Mrs. Trump worked as a model and there have been plenty of her half nude photos going around the place. During the campaign, Mr. Trump said that there was nothing to be ashamed about. He’s right, she looks nice on the covers of a “Man’s Magazine.”

However, her inability to come up with anything original to say during the presidential campaign leads one to ask – do you want her off the pages of the mens mags? It’s all very well to have a tart that the lads will be jealous of but there has to be more to the woman by your side when you are arguably the most powerful man in the democratic world. American elections are brutal on the spouses of presidential candidates because we want to know who the guy we’re trusting our lives to has as a bedrock of emotional and intellectual safety, not because we want to jack off over her. Nancy protected Ronald and took care of the finer touches in the White House, Both Michelle and Hillary were smart enough to challenge their husbands intellectually. Barbara and Laura Bush provided stable homes for the family. Hard to see Melania providing any of the above.

Perhaps Mrs. Trump does offer something to Mr. Trump that we’re not aware of. However, even that doesn’t seem likely. Mrs. Trump is not moving into the White House, while daughter Ivanka and husband are moving to DC. It’s most likely that Mr. Trump will use daughter as the woman by his side rather than wife, which really doesn’t say her much about the wife.

Now that Melania is going to be the First Lady, I suspect that father’s of teenage girls are going to be in for a tough time. Try telling her that going to school is important. Try telling her that its important to achieve things on her own? Why bother when all you have to do to ensure you have a lifestyle few could dream about is to look good enough to get onto the cover of a wank mag and hope that one of the reading wankers old enough to be your grandpa but with plenty of money will marry you. The main role model has done precisely that.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The World’s Biggest Shopping Mall – Boring Sia….

The Evil Teen and I just returned from a holiday in Germany, where she got to meet her new grandma, auntie and uncle. It was her first experience of life in Europe and as things would have it, she ended up getting a bonus experience of the Middle East when we had a 20-hour layover in Dubai.
Personally, I like Dubai in as much as it’s as close as I’ve gotten to the Middle East region since I worked for the Saudi’s in 2006. I like hearing the sound of the Arabic language and there’s something special about seeing people wearing their traditional robes amongst the ultra-modernity of an airport. 

I don’t feel alien when I deal with the Middle East and dropping the various Arabic terms for the Almighty in everyday conversation come fairly naturally.  I believe that if anything decent is going to happen to me, it will probably involve the Middle East and Arabs (the group that will do me a good term is likely to be Indian).

You should say Dubai fits nicely into my world view. It’s easily the most “open” place in the Middle East. When I first went to Dubai in 1994 to visit my stepdad who was living there, everybody outside the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman) needed a visa if they were to move beyond the baggage claim in the airport. The GCC has remained fairly closed to the outside world. In 2006, the Saudi government even insisted that those traveling on United Nations passports had to apply for a visa before entering Saudi soil.

So, my first experience of the new Dubai on this recent trip was a wonderful change. Dubai has become the shinning exception of openness in a region known for being closed. They have a “smart gate” system, where people from certain countries (namely those countries that may produce tourist) may waltz in and out of the city as and when they feel like it. Thankfully, Singapore is on that list and so, instead of spending my day in the airport, I actually had the chance to visit Dubai properly. The immigration officer, who was a UAE National, was the friendliest one I’ve encountered – ever. So, much so that I believe that the USA needs to send its immigration officers to Dubai for training.

The day was spent in the Dubai Mall, which is attached to the Burj Khalifa. The Dubai Mall is probably an expression of Dubai’s ambitions. This four-story mall is the world’s largest by gross area, covering an area of some 500,000 square meters and doesn’t include the hotel complex next to it. There’s an ice rink and a four-story high aquarium that has proudly been named as an “underwater zoo.” Despite the various economic calamities, the Mall has seen a steady increase of visitors since it opened in 2009. The mall even has its own train station (I actually had to double check that the stop for the Dubai Mall was called – Dubai Mall.)

You could say that the Dubai Mall is a microcosm of Dubai itself, which is pretty much Singapore on steroids. I come from Singapore, which is practically a giant shopping mall of a nation and it’s got to say something when someone coming from Singapore is actually impressed by shopping mall.
If one takes the Dubai Mall as an extension of Dubai itself, you’ll end saluting the Al-Maktum family of Dubai for creating prosperity without oil in a region where oil is pretty much the only economic activity around.

How did they do it? Well, for a start, Dubai is exceedingly open to foreigners. If you hang around the Dubai Mall, you’ll realise that its exceedingly cosmopolitan. The work is done by Filipino’s and Indians with a sprinkling of Caucasians from the West. The customers come from all over the place. You’ll see Westerners mingling with Indians and Orientals in the shops. Apart from the men and women in Thobe and Abaya’s, the only sign that you’re in the Middle East are the odd announcements in Arabic and the call to prayer.

The Dubai Mall provides a home away from home for the well to do. Well to do visitors at the Burj and the adjoining hotel come to shop at the mall. Likewise, visitors at the mall can visit the Burj and stay in the hotel. Dubai as a nation tries to be pretty much the same to the neighborhood. Two of the largest investors are Saudis and Iranians, who also treat Dubai as the place to go to for fun or the things they can’t do at home.

The mall isn’t cheap either. I guess you could call it a case of prosperity breading prosperity. Well to do tourist and shoppers are supposed to spend money to keep the local economy ticking. Cheap back packers need to visit. I changed 70 Euros thinking I’d had more than enough and ended up worrying that I might end the day without – when I heard the price of a travel adaptor, the Evil Teen decided that we could do without charging our phones….

There’s much to like about the Dubai and the Dubai Mall. It’s capitalism at its best and everyone around the place is happy making money. You’re not going to get an Arab Spring in Dubai because as far as Dubai is concerned, it’s already summer.

And yet, I can’t get the feeling that there’s something lacking in Dubai in the same way that there’s something lacking in Singapore. I think of my first encounter with my former editor-in-chief, Mr. Khaleed Al-Maeena, who told me, “You in Singapore, stop being an ape to the West and start respecting your own culture.” I probably say those words were most apt when it comes to Dubai. Nearly every brand known to man is in Dubai. Short of starting an Islamist plot against the government, you can probably do pretty much what you want. Yet, and yet, I’m do ask myself – what is there especially unique to Dubai. I often ask the same question about Singapore.

In Singapore, the answer for most people is to head to the food court and to grab a prata or a plate of char kway teow – which are incidentally not unique to Singapore, you can get it in Malaysia too but these are things that remind you that there is perhaps something in Singapore that isn’t an imitation of somewhere else.

In Dubai, I didn’t get anything that was authentic to Dubai or the Arab world’s culture. There was a food court with plenty of burgers or fried chicken but I didn’t see “Kapsa Rice” or “hamoor” (fish unique to the Arab/Persian Gulf waters). One can only take so much of shopping and big brands (and that’s coming from someone who spent a good portion of his life building brands). In the words of the Evil Teen, after we couldn’t find a local version of the kway teow – “Borings – sia”

I understand the drive to modernity and I applaud places like Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore for prospering in tough regions. These places have made it by being open to the world – you could say they true meritocracies.

Yet, there’s something missing when the drive to modernity comes at the expense of your own soul so to speak. Hong Kong has a special culture. Wan Chai is as much a part of Hong Kong as the Peak. I feel a sense of culture when I speak Cantonese to people from Hong Kong. Apart from street food, Singapore has that special version of English – Singlish.

To be fair, I didn’t have a chance to get to know Dubai the way I know Singapore and to a lesser extent, Hong Kong. So, I hope Dubai, in its hyper drive to modernity remembers that it needs to keep something of itself. The thobes and abayas are probably the greatest relief I see on the streets of Dubai – it’s a sign that people In Dubai and the rest of the Middle East keep their culture and show that their culture can exist alongside the “international” global order. Contrary to what Donald Trump will tell you, you can be unique and global at the same time.