Sunday, September 30, 2007

In Defense of Boring Farts

Am back to housesitting for my friend with cable TV, which means I actually get to watch Rugby World Cup and last night I managed to watch two games that gave me an interesting insight into how life is lived.

The first game I managed to catch a glimpse of was the Wales-Fiji Game. The Fijians are natural 7-a-side players but have somehow never managed to translate their 7s success into the 15-a-side game. Although each Fijian is physically well endowed for the game, they somehow lacked the discipline and cohesivness to make it as a formidable team. As for the Welsh, they have traditionally been known to play the most 'beautiful' rugby on the British Isles. True, Wales have not done as well as they should have in the past decade but Welsh Rugby is at the core - wonderful to watch and since this was the Fijians you would have imagined them comming out ontop.

The game was a stunner. Lots of tries were scored. Both sides played some attractive rugby. When I caught onto the game, the Fijians were leading31-29. Then the Welsh came out of nowhere (Welsh Magic) to score a try that put them ahead. You would have imagined that with four miniutes left all would have been lost but the Fijians came right back and scored a try, which was duely converted. In the end it was the Fijians who came out ontop.

The Scotland-Italy game, was a less exciting affair. Both sides had billed this as their do-or-die match (both new losing to the All Blacks was inevitable as thrashing Romania and Portugal). The Scots started out well by racing to a 6-0 lead thanks to two penalities. The Italians to their credit fought back and got the only try of the game and lead for a while at 10-6. Howeer, thanks to making less mistakes and having a kicker who was on form - the Scots emerged 18-16 winners.

What lessons can be drawn from both games? I think the first one is about discipline. The Scots for the most part were not the better team when they played against Italy. Yet, they were awarded more penalities and made less mistakes than the Italians.

In a world obsessed with how much you make, we often forget that the winners in life often concentrate on how much they keep rather than how much they earn. People with sky high incomes don't often live well because - well, they forgot that they had to keep a portion of what they made. Success as they say is about self-discipline and self-control and it's quite true in sports.

Last night's Scotish team was boring and defensive but they had supperior discipline to their opponents. Scotish Rugby is often defensive - remember their most famous Grand Slam win in 1990 when they faced a supperior Enland Squad that had blown away all the teams that the Scots had struggled to beat. Wade. The Scots somehow hunkered down and dennied the English scoring opportunities and emerged winners.

South of the Border, the same proved to be true. The England Rugby Team lead by Will Carling managed to win back-to-back Grand Slams by being better disciplined than their opponents. English Rugby was slammed as being "Boring" but it worked! Sure, there was a formula to it - get the penalty and let Simon Hodgkinson or Johnathan Webb kick the points. When the England team promptly abandoned the formula in the final of the 1991 World Cup against Australia - they lost. By 2003, they had learnt their lesson and stuck to their discipline and methodical approach.

Of course one should also be prepared to abandon formulas when they stop working and one should also realise that certain situations require different tactics. Discipline and forumla can only get you so far. Will Carling's double-grand-slam winning team promptly feel to unfancied Irish men 1993 and they promptly got blown away by the All Blacks in 1995. Both the Irish and All Blacks played inspired rugby when they needed to. They knew the English Formula and its weaknesses. They were willing to take risk.

The All Blacks have remained the rugby team with the world's best record (even if their World Cup record is dissapointing) because they are willing to adapt to their opponents. True, they went through a patch when everything evolved around Jonah Lomu, the Giant Wing. Against obviously inferior sides, they play expansive rugby. They are willing to make mistakes in the handling of the ball. But they get the practice. By the time they meet competition - which in the Rugbyverse means South African, Austrlia, England and France, they are able to tighten up and match flair and inspiration with discipline.

Knowing when to mix flair and discipline is probably the key to success. In sort it's about knowing when to play offensive and defensive. In business its the same. Hong Kong businessmen often trump their Singapore counterparts because they are able to mix imagination with discipline. In Singapore business success is simple - ride on the government's coat tails or better still be a government enterprise. Resources are thrown into a project to make it succeed (A case of God being on the side of the Big Battalions). In Hong Kong, businessmen have to fend for themselves. They learn how to take risk and act on them but at the same time they become good at taking care of themselves. - Although the Singapore approach looks more ordered, nine out of ten times, the Hong Kon business is usually more productive.

This was an observation by a top Prudential sales manager in Singapore. He noted that Singapore restaurants are always neat and orderly. Hong Kong restaurants look chaotic and messy by comparison. However, its the Hong Kong restaurant that's more efficient and effective. The trick as they say is in organising the chaos.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Every Now and Then I get a Little ...bye bye

It’s been a fairly useless and unproductive but an enjoyable day. I managed to spend Monday night in the Conrad Hotel thanks to a good friend of mine who had booked it for some fun and then passed the room to me. Love sleeping in good hotels. Managed to get a wonderful shower, or rather two good showers and slept in a big fluffy bed. Also managed to get my fill of cable TV, something I've not really watched since Dad moved off to Thailand and the family unit went its separate ways. - Was kind of anti-climatic - was trying to watch rugby but had to settle for a French movie about a nymphomaniac without the interesting details of being a nymphomaniac.

After get-up time, the day was spent with Han Li, who had just come back from Vietnam. She's looking really good and we got to have lunch together. We talked and I took her on a short shopping trip - mainly groceries. Talked a bit and I guess I really have to cobble together the money to go to Vietnam.

Highlight of the day was speaking to Thui. Felt really good. I have not spoken to the little tyke for quite a while and had been surviving on watching silly videos I had shot of her on my phone. HL tells me that she asks about me and when I'm coming over to Vietnam. OK, I guess its my turn to make the return journey, this was something we had talked about a while back and I just got to get out of my way and do it.

Besides, I'm told that Vietnam is very up and coming. This is SEA's second largest population with 76 million people and if Han Li is anything to go by - they are hungry to go places and they have an incredible sense of optimism about the future. I think its rightly pointed out that the Vietnamese are the people who held of the French, Americans and Mainland Chinese in major military conflicts and yet today, the Vietnamese have welcomed all their former enemies with open arms (well, not quite with the Chinese).

My mother and Aunt do worry about my relationship with Han Li. To quote my mother, "Your Aunt has lived in Vietnam and she knows the people, they're all survivors and ruthless." Funnily enough, I know HL is a tough cookie and a hustler of the highest order, but that's what I like best about her. If HL is representative of the Vietnamese people, I think we should all find a way to invest in the place. Give the Vietnamese (particularly those with Chinese Blood - as I think HL has) a piece of shit and they'll turn it into a thriving business. Give a Singaporean with ten times the education and the working capital the same piece of shit and they'll whine allot about it, bitch about the government being mean to them and then expect someone in the government to plan their destiny for them.

Meet two guys from New Zealand over dinner. Talked about rugby - All Blacks are great and Singapore TV channels are royally screwing people who enjoy a good game by not showing any games on TV. Mentioned I was part of a batch that was meant to go out to New Zealand to do live firing and one of the guys actually remembered Exercise Swift Lion. He was in the NZ Army and knew where the accident happened.

It's been ten-years since Ronnie and Yin Tit were killed when their FH2000 blew-up. It's amazing how time has passed. I think I've gotten used to the idea that someone I was close to and knew to be as good a person as you can get was robbed of his life. I mean, for the most part, most of us have moved on. We don't visit Ronnie's grave to commemorate his death (9 March, 1997) the way we used to. For the most part, the living have continued to live. Every time I run into an army colleague, they're already married and on their second child. I like to think that the two guys who were killed in that incident would want us to carry on living our lives.

But for me, at least, that incident said allot about the institution I was serving. For those of us who were close to the guys who were killed, we managed to pull together in our time of grief. For the powers that be, you got to see those who genuinely cared about the welfare of their soldiers and those who paid lip-service to idea of welfare for the troops but were in actual fact more interested in gaining political capital out of the tragedy.

A decade after the incident, I’m now catching glimpses of the society that I live in. For Singaporeans, Swift Lion has passed into the pages of the classified documents to be shelved away by some mindless bureaucrat. It’s an incident that mentally scared kids don’t want to talk about but we know what happened. These days, if you ask certain people about the incident, they’ll be quick to tell you that it wasn’t the fault of Singapore made technology – it was guess what – shoddy Mainland Chinese manufacturing that some careless American firm had, unbeknown to the Singapore arms industry, outsourced the manufacturing. (This is why I say, all credit to Mattel owning-up to their stupidity after blaming their subcontractors.).

I mean for crying out loud – two guys were killed in the line of duty and all that the institution seems to remember is – “It wasn’t our fault.” Seriously, human lives were lost and we don’t talk about it because – it does not reflect well on the institution and the nation and so on and so on and besides, it’s not our fault because someone else used a shoddy subcontractor!

New Zealanders are very different from us. You mention to a New Zealander that you were in the Singapore Artillery and they’ll remember an incident where two people died and they will express regret that two people died. That touches me. New Zealanders have no reason to care about two foreign troopers who died and yet those who know of the incident can somehow express the tragedy of the whole situation whilst Singaporeans are so self-absorbed they would rather blame everyone else for the incident.

It really doesn’t say very much about the nation when it encourages and supports a culture that denies accountability who give their lives to the nation.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Yex Again

It must definately be that time of the year again but I'm down with yet another gastric problem. Its a case of regular burbing and the runs and that really makes me feel depressed because it limits my movements to somewhat comfortable places with useable toilets. Yech! The Eggy Burps make me feel like I'm an overblown ballon that was blown up by a drunken clown who pucked up after one too many good ones.

Anyway, the good side to being down with something is that I get to sleep. Yes, I am well and truely sounding like my good friend the naan maker who works a 12-hour shift and has become obsessed with going home to get his beauty rest. Life seems too short to be spent sleeping at night - especially during the weekdays when I have clients to call, events to attend to and am busy trying to turn my click empire into something that might actually pay off my pension liabilities one of these days.

It helps that I am housitting for a friend of mine who is overseas with his wife. He's got a cute little place near the Ministry of Defence. The place is fairly self-contained and next to the swimming pool. Gives me plenty of scope to do things like...read and surf the net and watch sattilite TV (just finished the Samoa-Tonga Rugby World-Cup Match). Good to be able to meditate a bit and enjoy a bit of tranquility. However, this place is out of the way and the strategy with being here is that I don't go to many places because by the time I do....I might as well have flown. Anyway, his pet cat and I get along and I guess that's the most important thing.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Coast City Clean Up and a Truely Tacky Week

It's the weekend and I started it by getting to work for Fabulous Tan, an indoor sun taning salon started by an old friend of Mun Loong's. Everytime I work for Fab Tan, I think I'm working for a genious or a mad man. This is Singapore, the land of excess sunshine, our Chinese population is around 76% of the total population and as everyone knows, the Chinese or at least the women are obsessed with getting whiter not more tan!

Having said that, Fabulous Tan has been a rip roaring success - within a year of establishment, the company now has two branches (in prime locations - Bugis and Orchard) and expanded into the oxygen and teeth whitening business. And every success for Fabulous Tan has to add to ones credentials - a case of - if you can sell a sun tan studio in a country with more than enough sun ...you can sell anything.

Anyway, the project was about cleaning up the coast on International Coastal Clean Up Day. Quite tiring trying to run around through a park and getting sound bites for the cameras but rewarding enough to see one of my former journalism students covering the story for her school newspaper and pleasing on the eye in as much as Mr Tan decided to bring along his FHM Best Smile Chick and a long legged babe from the show "Deal or No Deal,' sponsored by Terry O' Connor's Courts. Long Legged Babes - ah, always good for pleasing the eye and stiring the lust .... but this being Singapore, attractive bodies have an unfortunate habit ..... they feel obliged to speak and thus ruining ones fantasies.

Since I've lived in Singapore, I'm comming to the conclusion that certain cultures should stick to certain things. Mainland Chinese and Vietnamese women easily have the best grooming in Singapore. You'd be surprised by the fact that we're talking about people from nominally communist countries here. I remember Angela from Crush would deliberately dress down and dowdy and would still look better than all the rest of the wanna be girls dressing for the kill. Han Li manages to look presentable even if she shops cheap at City Plaza and avoids expensive brand names.

When it comes to conversation, the Filipinos and Indians come-up trumps. Indian women are exceptionally articulate and very sharp. As for the Filipinos, they have this amazing ability to enjoy life and music. It's like you can give a Filipino a guitar and he or she will somehow be able to string a decent tune together just like that. You give a Singaporean a musical instrument and they'll have to check with the PAP Central Comittee about getting a schoolarship to a top class music academy on a government funds before they condecend to pretend to whistle along with you.

As for gentleness, I'm with the Thais and Indonesians. I think it has something to do with the culture but people from this part of Asia seem so content and happy with life. I remember going to Thailand when I was with the army. Hated the excercise but came back to Singapore feeling very empty. When you hit the Thai countryside, you know you are in the third world. You know why every Thai girl selling her body is doing what she's doing. And yet, and yet, you can't help feeling that these people who have so much less than we do have something very important that we lost along time ago.

This was kind of a funnish week. Went in for National Service Duty but discharged on medical grounds. Attended the Saudi National Day Celebration where I managed to touch base with HE and the team at the Embassy and Saudi Aramco. Went through September 11 without a political thought in my mind and somehow managed to get a few interviews for clients set-up. Insh Allah, GECF project will finally get to see some results next week and I can get the ball rolling into other things - Alcon trugs along as usual, Asiamedic could continue to feed me and 3M has its usual projects - all of which will feed and God Willing put me in profit this year.

Life is seemingly improving as the Seventh Month draws to a close and Ramadan gets underway. Can't go out on the daily chomping sessions with Muslim friends so I guess its a case of either concentrating on slimming down or finding non-Muslims to hang out with. This being Singapore - we all get fat regardless of race, language or religion. Anyway, the Muslim Holy Month should help improve things - I guess having a few people say prayers on your behalf should be exceedingly helpful for the Karmic Game.

Or perhaps I was just too obsessed with the wrong things in the Seventh Month. A friend of mine reminds me that I was very focused on cheque collection from GECF rather than on the work process and doing the work that I love to do. Somehow, I got poked in the wrong places by Murphy - the world's favourite Jink Meister.

Proceeds seems to be a national obsession. Everyone becomes so focused on the end results they usually end up making themselves unhappy. I like Warren Buffet, one of the world's richest men who says, " I'm more interested in processes than proceeds, though I've leant to be happy with them too." Being broke is no fun but I'm realising that what I dislike about being broke is that I tend to focus on the cash instead of the job on hand. May be this month, I'll be able to focus on the right things and life and go to better places.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Where does betrayal begin?

Managed to get a bit of relief today. Was paid for last month's Asiamedic retainer and I managed to pay down some of the bills I ran up. Really have not liked the delays in payment but now that the money is coming in, its time to settle accounts and keep moving on and work on the big jobs that will put me into the profit zone next year.

It's been quite an interesting week in International affairs. The British have reduced their presence in Basra and two of Britain's top soldiers have actually come out and condemned the US handling of the war in Iraq. One of them, General Sir Mike Jackson described US policy as "Intellectually Bankrupt." Thank goodness someone has the courage to speak honestly. Sir Mike is a genuine solider, he lead the troops into Bosnia in the late 90s. He is a former member of the Paras - a man who has seen action and knows what he's talking about when it comes to war.

Perhaps I'm prejudiced in favour of the British Armed Forces especially when it comes to comparisons with their American counterparts. I went to a school where the armed forces where highly respected and many of my friends had fathers who are high ranking British officers. I grew up reading biographies of British Generals like General Sir Peter de la Billere, British Commander during the first Gulf War.

British officers or at least those I knew and read were all professionals. Men who are tough and yet compassionate. Perhaps its because they lacked the resources of their American counterparts but the British Armed forces tend to be better at enlisting the help of the locals and winning 'hearts and minds.' Just study the Malayan Campaign...the SAS were sent in to do good for the locals and this helped win local support against the Communist. Compare that to the American campaign in Vietnam and what do you think of.....Napalm.

I know I sound cheap here, comparing American servicemen in an unfair light to other soldiers. American soldiers have given their lives for millions of people to throughout the world. However, the US military has often ended up doing badly in situations where it should not have been.

I believe that this has been caused by political leadership or the lack of it. In recent years, the British have not been betrayed by their political leaders. Say what you like of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War but she had respect for the brass. She gave them an objective and let them get on with it. When they needed resources and political support, the government supported them. Even in the current situation in Iraq, the British political leadership has shown respect for its military. Before Sir Mike, CGS, General Sir Richard Datton spoke critically about the Iraq War to the media. Blair Babble tried to spin his comments but didn't try to reprimand him for speaking up for his troops and he remains in office.

Compare that situation in the USA. Rumsfeld refused to listen to his Generals - he even made a point of public ally humiliating them. As a result, the USA, as the senior partner in the occupation of Iraq has continued to have a lack of necessary troops in Iraq and American troops have been caught in the worst of situations - see Abu Gharib. At best, the American leadership has indulged in shows of grand showmanship but shown little sensitivity to the local population. - The difference was already clear in Gulf War One - Schwarzkopf could barely speak English - Sir Peter speaks Arabic - a qualification that one would imagine would be essential when dealing in the Arab world.

It's funny, every time you read comments from the extreme right in the USA, they keep going on about how the media is exaggerating how bad the situation is in Iraq and anyone who suggests that the US mission in Iraq is anything short of a holy God-Given Crusade is an anti-Semitic racist leftie.

But I wonder why these people are always quick to talk about other people as being the traitors. It should be easy to realise who are bigger traitors between those who are now calling for a troop withdrawal and those who sent the troops into a strategically pointless war based on lies.

Why isn't anyone calling Bush a traitor? Here is a man who allowed an incompetent to overrule the qualified experts and then allowed proceeded to lie and fabricate evidence to delude the American people into justifying a war that had no obvious strategic value for American interest. At best, this is incompetence. At worst……this is treachery – sending troops to die in a conflict with no purpose.

It’s become something of a Hollywood Drama to see Generals and military people are power-mad threats to democratic freedoms. The truth is rather more complicated. Generals, who have earned their stars, tend to understand the horrors of war and as a result, they are the last people to send their troops into a combat situation for the sake of it. The culture of the military having no say in the operations the political leadership ask them to get involved in has gone a bit too far.

Surely, every General should be morally obliged to protect their troops and have the right to speak out in public whenever the politicians try and send troops into wars based on lies and deception. Every General should have the right to speak out in public whenever a Defence Secretary insist on running a military campaign against all advice of the military experts.

Let’s stop the betrayal of the soldiers by the political leadership!

I must be really awful

Well it must be something to do with me. I'm not sure what I did but I think it has to be pretty awful for me to be out here, broke and waiting for cheques that are slowly eeeking their way before me while my bills pile up like an avalanche. GECF was particularly heart breaking, this was the job that was supposed to launch me to better things but ....things seem to have fallen apart and I'm now trying to revive things - the delay of funds is painful - but the fact that the client/prospect was let down is even more painful.

Anyway, I'm here, waiting around for someone to transfer funds so that I can get on with the job on hand. This is another long delayed cheque that has to go through several parties. Should be getting another bunch of money tomorrow and by Friday there should be even more funds coming in - High Bloody Time .

Well, I guess this is part and parcel of the world we live in today. Credit terms are a reality of doing business - the bean counters exist for a reason and one has to live with them - hell, I even dated a girl who was trained to be a bean counter.

I also have to note that being broke is actually not the worst of things to be. On Friday, while I was absorbed with my bad run of luck, a family with a young boy who could not walk bumped into me on the bus. I guess, everything is relative here. I may be broke for the moment but that can be solved. Whatever situation I am in, I have functioning arms, legs, ears and eyes - at the end of the day, I really can't ask for more than that.

Life may seem frustrating but just as there's always someone out there with something better, there are also tonnes of people who have it worse than you. In Singapore we bitch about Reservist. But unlike the USA we don't have a political leadership that stabs the troops in the back by lying to send to send them into a pointless war. As a Singaporean, I may bith about excessive government salaries, but at least the man ontop does not make it a habit to send his "War Veterans" into my home to take it away from me as happens in Zimbabwe.

So there you have it. Life has a way of placing you in the shitty pits from time to time but I guess one has to look at things in perspective. I didn't have cash on me, but I could go home and have a meal. There are sadly too many people who cannot do that. There are times when I've scrambled for bus fare but I can also walk from point-to-point. There are people who can't do that. Life isn't that bad after all.....

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Zoellick Sees Asia's Clear and Present Danger: by William Pesek

Aug. 31 (Bloomberg) -- ``I plan to listen to our people in the field and then we'll talk.'' That's how Robert Zoellick responded when I asked what the World Bank's priorities will be in Asia under his leadership.

That was on Aug. 2 in Coolum, Australia. From there, Zoellick headed to Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan. On Aug. 8, I caught up with Zoellick again in Tokyo to pick his brain on what Asia needs to do to avoid a repeat of the 1997 crisis. The short answer: Asia has come a long way, but has lots to do.

While Zoellick has been in the job just two months now, it's hard not to be impressed by the poverty-fighting agency's new leader. Granted, after the debacle that was Paul Wolfowitz's two years in the job, Zoellick hardly has big shoes to fill. Yet his take on Asia thus far seems refreshing.

Zoellick's focus on debt is a case in point. The former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. vice chairman understands two things about Asia's markets that are often overlooked. One, they are far less developed than the ones Asia's leaders pledged to create 10 years ago. Two, liquid bond markets aren't just about investors, but also reducing poverty.

``My experience, and this is as much from my prior job as this one, is that the securities markets still have a lot of work to do,'' Zoellick said. ``If you look at the depth and liquidity of bond markets here, it's pretty weak compared to what you have elsewhere in the world. That leads to a natural agenda, there needs to be things to do to get better information: that's corporate governance, accounting information.''

Big Vulnerability

Zoellick continued that ``there are things you could do to reduce the transaction costs and some of this is including having a greater variety of financial instruments that in more developed markets you can use to manage risk and diversify your position.''

Herein lies one of Asia's biggest vulnerabilities as a global surge in borrowing costs shakes up markets. The region's high growth rates are marred by the lack of the shock-absorbing mechanism provided by bond markets.

It's among the lessons from 1997 that Asia hasn't learned very well. Back then, when asset prices plunged, investors who wanted to stay in Indonesia, Thailand or the Philippines didn't have the choice of moving their money from stocks to bonds. So, they fled the region.

A decade after the crisis, Asia is experiencing a new financial contagion -- from the U.S. It started with a crisis in the subprime-mortgage market and has since morphed into broader problems in credit markets. Zoellick sees increasing capital flows as a ``clear and present danger'' if Asia doesn't raise its game in bond markets.

Risks Abound

Risks to Asia's outlook abound. They include a surge in oil prices, a collapse in the dollar and a reversal of trades involving investors borrowing cheaply in yen and moving the funds into higher-yielding assets overseas, even a terrorist attack.

An overheating China is another. China's Finance Minister Jin Renqing resigned yesterday for ``personal reasons.'' That didn't stop markets from buzzing about whether he was forced out for failing to keep inflation from accelerating in Asia's No. 2 economy.

Given all the liquidity flowing to Asia these last few years, it's time governments got more serious about developing deeper debt markets. Along with offering investors more places to put their money, well-functioning bond markets would help Asia keep more of its vast household savings at home, as opposed to watching it flow to the West.

Desperate Need

Such a dynamic would lower borrowing costs and offer more financing opportunities. Small- and medium-size enterprises would be among the biggest beneficiaries. They often go hungry for investment capital because banks are too preoccupied with larger businesses to lend to less established upstarts. More financing options would mean more entrepreneurship and job creation.

That's desperately needed in Asia. Amid the region's economic boom, it's easy to forget Asia is home to two-thirds of the world's poor. Better capital markets might help change things.

There's also the U.S.'s subprime troubles, which could increasingly affect emerging markets through three different channels, says Nouriel Roubini, chairman of Roubini Global Economics LLC in New York. They include increased risk aversion, the growing odds emerging-market investors have direct exposure to the U.S. housing market and financial turmoil deepening a slump in the U.S.

Bonding Experience

There are plenty of other reasons why Asia needs a bonding experience. China, for example, lacks a liquid secondary debt market. It needs one to help clear bad loans from banks and corporate balance sheets -- especially given all the debt being amassed to prepare for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. China also needs to breathe life into the private sector. It's all about economic maturity.

The relative immaturity of Asian debt markets will be a bigger problem if today's market turmoil worsens. It's great that the World Bank's new president is focused on the issue. It's even more important for Asian leaders to do the same.

To contact the writer of this column: William Pesek in Mexico City, or through the Tokyo newsroom at wpesek@bloomberg.net