Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Some Notes to End the Year

It's now that time of the year again when I try to make an intelligent statement about how the year ended and some more hopeful ones about how the new year will begin. End of year statements at their best should contain a gem or two of wisdom but since I'm doing the writing, I leave the wisdom to others. I also write from a different location this year. Instead of the tropical warmth of Bangkok or Singapore I now write from frosty Hamburg where it is now a nippy minus seven.

This year marks a special turning point in global affairs. As I write, the world is bracing for one of the most severe economic downturns and the Israeli's are up to their favourite activity - beating the crap out of the Gaza Strip. In Singapore the once infalliable government was caught making some serious blunders such as its investments in Citigroup and UBS and more seriously we saw Mas Selamat, a limping threat stroll out of a prison. Citizens and government bitched at each other and we reverted to the status quo.

Despite all of that, I managed to end the year in reasonable shape. I didn't strike the lottery but I made enough to sustain myself. I remain greatful to Mr Kuntal Joshi, General Manager of Alcon Singapore and Regional Director Alcon SEA for his continued support. Thanks to Kuntal and his team, I've worked with some of Singapore's leading eye care professionals and have been able to continue in the noble task of helping people learn more about one of their most precious organs while I get paid.

Despite the global economic slowdown, I am also greatful to Mr Ed Ng and his team from GE Commercial Finance. GE remains one of the greatest companies in the world and hanging out at GE's premises has allowed me to learn more about the intrcacies of running a business.

Speaking of business, this year marks the first of year I have moved from being a mere free-lance consultant to being a registered business. Tang-Asia Consultancy has had a respectable year in its first year thanks to the support of friends in the Indian IT industry.

There were also some sad moments, which should, God Willing, be an opportunity to develop new relationships. The main movement was of course the departure of HE Dr Amin Kurdi as Saudi Ambassador. His departure leaves me without a dear and more importantly honourable friend. Dr Kurdi provided me with the honour of working with him during Crown Prince Sultan's visit two years ago and during that visit he showed me the value of personal integrity at its best. Thanks to Dr Kurdi I believe that its important that we remember that integrity is not just a contractual obligation but a personal one. Still, I am glad His Excellency has moved onto better things, namely to his new ambassadorship in Brazil. As for me in Singapore, I look forward to growing my relationship with the new leadership in the Saudi Embassy, which will, God willing be established soon.

This year I was privlleged to meet Mr Mark Goh of Mark Goh and Associates. Mark has become a good friend in the time that we've worked together and just as I have introduced him to the media world in Singapore, he's helped me to take a glimpse of the justice system in Singapore. I hope our friendship will strengthen in 09 and many of this blogs readers will engage him in debates that sometimes take place on this blog.

On the personal front, this was also a significant year. If 06 was a year of playing Papa and 07 was a year of getting to know my brother, this year was a year I got to see Lee, my first stepfather for the first time in a decade. It's been good to renew my relationship with a man who has been so pivotal in making me who I am today.

Monday, December 15, 2008

It Wasn't Me

If there is anything that the Singapore government has failed to do in a miserable fashion, it has been to develop a sense of responsability amongst Singaporeans. The government has been undoubtedly authoritarian in its outlook, but its been a most benign authoritarianism. Unlike other authoritarian regimes, Singaporeans live comfortably and for the most part without fear.

However, years of benign authoritarianism has created what Shaggy appropriately calls, "It wasn't ME," culture. As far as Singaporeans are concerned, it's vital that you pass off responsability for all actions to someone else. Americans are proud of the legend of how their first President, George Washington declared, "Father, I cannot tell a lie, it was me," at the moment the old man screamed at the kids for cutting down his favourite tree. In Singapore, George would have died a slow and agonising death....his buddies would have realised that this was the sucker to pin everything on. George would have been punished for telling the truth, while the rest of them would have lied and got out of trouble. 

You will hear Singaporeans bitch and moan about how the government is restrictive and how they are made powerless by the system. But the truth is, being powerles is a wonderful experience. Personal power over your personal life is a vastly overrated experience - it means you actually have to answer for your own actions instead of pinning it on the government. 

Of course, the government has to take responsability for some of this. It's been so super efficient, that people have, as my young politician has reminded me on so many occasions, "Have FAITH," in the government. - Note, this is a democratically elected and secular government we're speaking of, not a theocratic one annointed from above. 

Singaporeans, for all their sophistication have become so used to not taking any personal responsability and having "Faith" in all sorts of authorities have made Singapore a haven for conmen. We may be educated and have the best legal infrastructure in the region but as long as you can carry yourself and speak with confidence, even the most sophisticated of Singaporeans will give you anything you want. Americans and Austrlians have been particularly good at exposing this side of Singaporeans. 

How does this, "It wasn't ME," culture come into play? The year 2008 will be a year where we got to see both ends of it. Early in the year we had the escape of Mas Selamat, the limping terrorist who hobbled out of a secured facility and remains at large even as we speak. In most nations, there would be calls for a ministerial head. Most rational people would ask, "How the hell did an unarmed limping man stroll out of a secure facility, which apparently has the latest technology?" When the Committee released its findings, nobody asked,"How the hell could a facility meant to hold the worst-of-the-worst, lack a simple window grill?" Instead, the people who should have been responsible for the fiasco turned around and blammed the rest of us for expecting them to do their job.

Now, as the year draws to an end, we're being treated to a spectacle of how the population at large, has afflicted by the "It wasn't ME," culture. The incident is of course the DBS High Notes Five - a case of a group of people losing money in an investment product sold by the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), and secured by the now defunct Lehman Brothers. 

The investors are up in arms, claiming that they've been "Missold" by the banks and former NTUC Income Chief Executive Officer, Mr Tan Kin Lian has become the champion of the "people," as he claims to try and force the banks into refunding the money of the investors. If the old hero of Singapore is Mr Lee Kuan Yew, today's hero, it seems is Mr Tan.

I hate to be a party pooper here, but what exactly is Mr Tan a hero of? If anything, Mr Tan is championing a greater encouragement of - "It wasn't ME." Look at what he is telling the world - "You got screwed by the bastards in the bank," "You had no choice excpet to hand over your cash," "Follow me." 

OK, I am no fan of the banks in Singapore. As far as I'm concerned, I only use a bank because I need to recieve cheques and one does not always want to carry too much cash around. Other than that, the banking services here does not offer me much. I also can accept that the banks use high pressure techniques to get products sold. Then again, are the banks doing anything that most businesses don't do? 

Mr Tan is a charismatic figure and he's hitting against a group that's easy to dislike. Having said all that, is Mr Tan and his motley crew actually doing anything of use. So far, the banks are being accused of:

a - Selling people products they didn't understand. 

If the banks and the relationship managers are guilty of selling products to people that they didn't understand, why did the people buy them? Surely, if you are somewhat rational, you would not put $50,000 into something you had no idea about? 

Sad truth is that people are easily seduced by charts heading north and the banks will provide plenty of charts to show you just that. However, all financial products are legally obliged to come with a disclaimer to remind you that - "What goes up can go down," and "Just because things have gone up, it doesn't mean they always will." So, if the RM does not remind you of this, there's always the prospectus, which one would assume you have looked at, at least once. Appealing to your greed is not crime, it's not even unethical. 

One of the conversations I had online on this topic went as far as to remind me that we don't understand the medicine our doctor gives us, but we take it anyway. Erm, I wonder if this person simply takes his medicine blind? Surely, if the doctor gave him an explination he didn't understand, he'd have the cow sense to get a doctor who could. Likewise wouldn't you do the same if your financial advisor started speaking gobbldygook to you? 

b - DBS is a trusted bank

DBS has its reputation but I can only go back to the point about reading the fine print. As any busines would do, DBS will sell the products that it believes will make it the most money and while a bank of DBS's stature will do what it can to ensure the products it provides a legitimate, the same basic rules of investing your money should apply:

i - Read the fine print - what goes up can come down
ii - Want greater rewards? Prepare for Greater risk. 
iii- Past performance is no guanrentee of the future. 

High Notes Five was a high reward but high risk product. The minimum requirement was at least S$50,000 - not the sum that most poor simpletons would have at their disposal. So, given the liklihood that most of the buyers of these notes had the capability to assess risk independently and get other information independent of their RM's - why the hell are they screaming that they've been conned. 

Mr Tan is creating the stuff that news-scarce Singapore is dying to read about. It's a good story. "Ex-Big Shot helps the People against the Big Bad Banks."

But read beyond the headlines that Mr Tan wants you to read and it will become clear that this is a story of educated and capable people indulging in their "It wasn't ME," tendencies being egged on by a man who has seen better days. 


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Asian STUDS inc

Call it a series of unfortunate coincidences but after having dinner with Zen, I had to come home and turn on the television to "Love Actually," which amidst its galaxy of stars from Britain's cinema scene, involved a shot of the sexy Brazilian male model, Rodrigo Santoro. I am a herterosexual guy and men unlike women are not given to "checking out" members of the same sex, unless they're really striking. So, take it from me that Mr Santoro is a striking looking man when a heterosexual man says he is.

Anyway, what made this interesting is that in one of life's lighter moments, it was suggested that I could set up my very own shop for "Male Giggalo's," imported from places like Nepal, Bangladesh and all over South America. The twist to this, would be hiring Zen as the "Quality Control" officer. We'd all crack up at the idea of a line of good looking guys trying to keep a "Sexually Intense" expression as Zen waddles towards them - taunting their manhood. That image has stuck so firmly in my mind that I can't look at good looking guys and take them seriously. 

To the more astute amongst us, my reactions to the idea of Zen and Mr Santoro is very telling of the way we percieve beauty. When it comes to the concept of beauty and sexual attraction, most of us are male chauvanist pigs. We expect women to be stunning but give plenty of allowances to men to look far away from perfect. How many of us expect male sex symbols like Ricky Martin, Rodrigo Santoro and closer to home, Shah Rukh Khan to be with anything other than a really gorgeous woman. On the other hand, nobody seems terribly bothered by the fact that Kristin Scott-Thomas, the original English Rose, is married to a French Gynacologist who is short, tubby and starting to shine ontop? Does anyone pass comments by the fact that Rene Dion, husband of Celine is 30-years older, fat and bald? 

When it comes to matching beautiful specimens, the society and even nature is decidedly unfair. An ugly man is lauded for his ability to hook the most attractive woman around. On the other side of the table, women are programmed to judge men by a host of criteria other than looks. An attractive woman will be congratulated if she attracts a man who is physically ugly but well-to-do. Good looking but poor simply does not cut it for a guy. Ugly and rich on the other hand does work. 

Seriously, look at Holywood. Did any of us cringe when we saw Michael Douglas's wrinkly bottom pump away in Basic Instinct? Chances are most of us (guys at least) thought, "Lucky Bastard," and the guys amongst us would have little trouble wishing we'd be well loved by a sexy 20-year old when we're in our sixties. 

Now, let's look at what happens when a good looking guy seems attracted to a woman who is way bellow attractive? The poor guy ends up being the butt of jokes. Amongst my friends, we're still making fun of poor old Bijay, the handsome cook, who looked at Zen's photo and exclaimed, "Who is she brother - She is Chubby but VERY PRETTY." On the grander scale of things, the meaner mouths can't help making comments about the Prime Minister's wife's obvious lack of looks. Nobody seems to speak of the obvious achievement in our Prime Minister - he's a man who clearly values brains in a woman over beauty.

Why do we hold such discrepencies when it comes to looks amongst men and women. Nobody congratulates a man for marrying a woman with more brain, money or success than him but we sing his praises if he comes home with  a woman that makes heads turn. No wonder why Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew is so worried about Graduate Singapore men not being interested in Graduate Singapore women. As my mother often reminds me - "Brains and character come from mummy." Yet, and yet, what hot blooded man will instinctivly go for that dowdy looking NUS graduate when there's the sexy girl from China in a slinky night dress. 

I remember one of my Finnish friends confessing that he married his very FAT wife because - "She's NOT STUPID," and he pointed out, "I am a man, l love good asses and pretty faces but I can't spend the rest of my life with a stupid woman even if she has a pretty face and a nice ass." Unfortunately, as much as we may admire him for standing by his wife, most of us red-hot-blooded men are not about to follow in his actions. 

So what's there to do? I guess there's nothing that can be done, it's in human nature, after all and instead of grumbling about it, I should be wondering how I could profit from this. Just read this space for more.....Asian STUDS inc may just become a reality ;) or should I just settle for Booters, a restaurant for male hunks to induldge in thier virility ala Hooters for Girls. 

Friday, December 12, 2008

Non Nobis Domine et Te Deum to dua Gloria

I'm not exactly what you would call a terribly religious person. I find claims to hold the exclusive truth of be distasteful and as I get older, I find that the more people claim that they have exclusive franchise to the devine usually don't. 

I am probably as multifaithed as it gets. I make it a point to cross myself everytime I pass a church, touch my hand against the heart everytime I pass a mosque and clasp my hands together and bow evertime I pass a temple. This is I suppose the cynical Chinese in me doing what is commonly called "Paying Insurance," when it comes to the devine. For me, I like to think I am just aknowledging that the devine and what is holy is everywhere. I mean, the look of serenity of a Buddhist monk is Godly. Then again, so is a Christian Choir at full blast and the recital of the Koran (this is especially true when you stand 300 metres above sea level when the call to prayer sounds). 

God, for want of a better name has a funny way with human beings. There is probably no subject that causes more bitter division than religion. Just look at the Middle East. Back in the 1200's we had the Crusades and today, you have conflict between three religions claiming to worship the same God. Pradoxically, there is no other subject that has inspired humanity to its best - just look at the music and litterature that is produced in the world today - God was the inspiration. 

For me, I'm not sure about dealing with God. I mean, I cannot claim to speak to him or to have met the devine in person. As such I am not about to gointo the business of distributing "God" business. I leave that to the likes of my ex-wife's pastor, Fred who seemed to live quite comfortably on a mere 10 percent of his followers daily salary. I'll always remember him telling people, "Isn't it great, we've claimed one back from Buddhism/Hinduism/Islam and we're growing everyday." What he really meant was,"Isn't it great, I'm getting 10 percent of an extra person's salary instead of it going to Buddhism/Hinduism/Islam." 

Seriously, I think we need to look beyond the difference between people who claim to have God and God's actual glory. I'm inclined to think of the Shakespear's Henry V, who insisted that glory would goto God after his understaffed English Army crushed the French at the Battle of Agincourt. 

Ok, most of us don't have the opportunity to win a battle against a larger foe with a small force, but I think there's a way for us to experience God's glory, which on the face of things is not terribly gloroius - namely giving back to the less fortunate. 

If you look through the religious text of the main religions, you'll find a universal truism, a call for the fortunate to help those who are less so. It is therefore not unreasonable to suspect that the devine exist within the actions of helping the less fortunate.

I remember my father telling me that part of his good fortune was having someone from somewhere give him a job whenever it looked like funds were drying up. It was, he believed a result of looking after people other than himself and in fairness to my father, the man has helped friends and family. Likewise, Mark, my favourite littigator proves to point when he matches his high paying clients with pro-bono work (zen being one of them). 

Let's look to the global scene. Who is the richest man in the world? For the better part of nearly two decades it's been Bill Gates, the Chairman of Microsoft. Say what you like of Mr Gates but he's not only made money for himself but he's made many other people rich and better off. Now, the second question here is, who is the world's biggest giver of money? The answer is once again Bill Gates. Not only is Mr Gates head of the world's largest foundation, he's actually giving his time to ensure that his giving is effective. How is it possible that Bill Gates continues to have pots of money while he tries very hard to give it away? 

Green Day has a point when it tells us that "Nice Guys Finish Last." If you are too nice you can get taken advantage of and there are times when you need to be ruthless. I usually end up being too nice to short and fat things that have baby sized hands and feet. I often tell Zen that she should bless the day she was born the opposite of sexy.

But is being a good person a disaster in being a success. I think not. In fact, I'm inclined to agree with Vinod when he says that, "Good Guys Always Win." The guys who get ahead by foul means usually end up being pulled down by those very same means. The guys who keep their humanity and remember to give back usually achieve success, which is admitedly not always material - a case of "What does a man gain if he gains the world at the cost of his eternal soul." 

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

It Must Have been Love But It's Over Now - And I Feel Fine

I finally broke my self imposed rule not to contact Carra and wished her a Happy 40th birthday. The message was I hope not mushy but allowed me to get things that I've been feeling out of the way. I like to think that she'll spare me the possible torture of giving me her two cents worth, delete the message and move on with life. This is a woman who was meant for good things in life and while I'll always feel a sense of dispair that the relationship never moved into something meaningful, I'm glad she moved away from the turmoil that has been part of mine ever since the year 2001. 

I'm not sure how many of us end up with the first person we fall in love with. Carra wasn't the first to touch my life but I think she was the first one who made me understand that having a life with someone else was ...something to be desired. I suppose it was clear that we were not meant to be quite early into things, but I think, at least on my part, my memory of her became somewhat imortalised and idealised. I think it became particularly prominent when things became really bad between Gina and I - so much so that when my mother found out that Carra still dropped me the odd email from time to time, she remarked, "Isn't this what you should be pursuing instead?"

So, there you have it. The girl who touched my life for a few brief months, at a time when I was thinking I was on the way up in the world, is now a mature woman of 40. Like a good wine, she's become better, or at least that's the impression I get from the photos of her on the net. That's how I'll always think of her.  

Monday, December 08, 2008

In Praise of Discomfort

It's been a long weekend and now there's only a week left before I fly off to Germany for a long holiday. It's going to take some getting used to. On one hand I need time away from my daily routine. On the other, I'm probably going to suffer from withdrawl symptoms of internet and mobile phone calls, wondering what the hell is going on with life if the world is not trying to contact me. I guess it is a case of getting so used to a certain lifestyle that you get withdrawl symptoms when you are away from it. I suspect my mother is going to do her darndest to ensure I have something close to what she considers normal. 

Looks like I am going to have to postpone my trip to Vietnam once again. The schedule looks packed and I don't think I am going to have the available resources to be able to manage two trips so close to each other. I don't know, but it feels really shitty that I can't even get this one thing right. I suspect friends and family are secretly delighted, a sign that I am being distanced from Han Li and her rougher associations. Then again, it's more than Han Li that I'd like to see. 

Vietnam is a country with potential and dynamism - it's a country I'd like to see. I've spent all my life in closseted sections of the world and I'm eager to see something more. A Brit I know once described the Vietnamese as "Rough," while my aunt reminds me from time to time that the Vietnamese are the "Southern Barbarians" described by Chinese history. From my relationship with Han Li, I am inclined to agree with concept of the Vietnamese being rough.  

Then again, if you look at modern history, that roughness is an exceedinly admirable quality. While Singapore and Malaysia had a colonial power that was ready to give them their independence, the French had to be forced out of Vietnam and a few years later, you had the Vietnam War. If you thought kicking out the French and Americans wasn't enough, the Vietnamese then had to contend with Mao and the People's Republic of China. OK, their run military victories came to a screetching halt when they tried to invade Cambodia in the name of stopping Pol Pot's insanity, but the fact that they stood up to three of the five permenant members of the UN Security Council should be admired. 

When you compare the Vietnamese to the their counterparts in Southeast Asia, are the prime example of how giving too much comfort to people corrupts them. Using comfort to corrupt the enemy lies at the heart of Chinese culture. Look at the people who invaded China. First it was the Mongols and then the Maunchus. These hardy steep nomads kicked the crap out of the softer Chinese on the battle field. Then, the hardy nomads realised that it was more fun to have eunachs lick your balls than to heard sheep. The Chinese, in the mean time continued to pile the women and eunachs onto them and moved into their countries by stealth. Eventually the Mongol and Manchu dynasties were replaced by Chinese ones and today, Manchuria has all but dissapeared and Mongolia looks like its heading the same way - (Inner Mongolia is China and Outer Mongolia is precariously hanging in between Russia and China). 

In Southeast Asia, this aspect of Chinese history tends to be glossed over. After all, if you look at the economic development of the region, you'll find that it was the Chinese that built up the economy - the Chinese control of the economy in Indonesia and Thailand became so obvious that the Indonesian and Thai governments had to force the Chinese to adapt Indonesian and Thai names. The Chinese, needless to say, have complied when at home - Mr Riady of Lippo Bank in Jakarta quickly becomes Mr Li whenever he's elsewhere. 

I suspect that the reason why the Chinese could succeed overseas in ways that they couldn't when they were back in China was simple - they were no longer number one and where often at the wrong end of the sticky stick. With the exception of Singapore, Chinese in Southeast Asia remain in the minority and often a discriminated against one. Even the superrich Indonesian Chinese are well aware of their vulnerability. It was not long ago when even the very wealthy feared for their lives.

Singapore stands out in Southeast Asia as an interesting test case on the human reaction to comfort. Officialdome will never admit it, but Singapore was built by the rough illiterate Chinese businessman. These were men who came off the boat from China with very little except the desire to succeed. Lee Kuan Yew himself, admited that it was the Chinese educated that caused revolutions. The English Educated, of which he was part of, simply had no incentive to cause a revolution. So, the man who reffused to learn a Chinese language in his youth and insisted that he spoke "English" (As spoken by Englishmen and not Singlish) forced himself to learn Mandarin and more importantly Hokkien in the space of six-months. 

If you talk to Westerners and Singaporeans alike, many will place Lee Kuan Yew's genius in the way he built up Singapore. While I am greatful to his success and have benefited from it, I believe his real genious was in his ability to know people. He came to power because he promoted an ideal that a driven and self-reliant people could resonate with. However, he realised that the very thing that brought him to power was the very same thing that would drive him out. So, what did he do, but corrupted the local Chinese by making life so comfortable that they'd never revolt. Thank goodness! Life in Singapore is wonderfully comfortable, so much so that Singaporeans have become contemptuous of people who fight for their beliefs. Just ask a randome Singaporean what they think of Tibet or Palestine and chances are they'll tell you that the Tibetans and Palestinians should stop killing themselves for a lost cause accept their assimilation into China and Israel, respectively. - Gene Rodenbery, creator of Star Treck could not have writen a world for the Borg (Resistence is futile) better. 
But there's a propblem here. How do you keep the population comfortable enough not to rebel but not so comfortable that they stop chasing the almighty dollar? 

The answer thus far has been to create a "One-Cheque" economy. To foreigners, Singapore remains wonderfully open to foreign investment. As one Indian expat said, "Dealing with EDB is a dream, especially after you've dealt with the Indian version." To Singaporeans, life is good, provided you work for the government, a Temasek Listed corporation or a mutlinational dependent on government contracts. The encouragement of self-starter entrepreneurs stops at Ministerial statements on the benefits of SME's to the economy. 

How does this "One Cheque" economy work? It's simple. The government finds a pet project, writes a cheque and then watches the cheque trickle down to the common man. If the common man has spare cash, it is quickly soaked up by an increase in a tax or tarrif, thus ensuring all money remains with the government. Furthermore, keeping spare cash to become financially free is subtly disincentivised - the interest rates for a basic savings account have yet to climb above 2 percent per annum (Standard rate 0.25% pa) 

Ah Seng "The Dustbinman" will have enough to eat and a roof over his head. However, he'll only be allowed to earn enough to keep body and soul together - GST for example, subtly creeps up along with wages. So, when you earn more, you'll find yourself spending more just to stay in the game.

What happens to those who have the audacity to think they can get a living outside the official cheque? To a certain extent, we allow them to stay around as long as they don't inconvenience officialdome. Hence, an SME will never get access to credit, especially when it comes in competition with a multinational. An SME will also never be able to look to the law courts to protect them from monopolistic behaviour - the market is after all "too small" for competition (A line usually uttered by those holding the monopoly.) 

The "One-Cheque" economy has made life comfortable and forigners, particularly those with a pale complextion are usually suitably impressed. But as a member of an investment authority from the Arabian Gulf quickly discovered about Singaporean companies - "They have NO MONEY." 

So, how long can this situation last? Can the government continue to guide the economy from strength to strength? Only the insane would suggest that this government is infalliable - one only has to look at GIC's investment in Citigroup and UBS to realise this. Anyone with sanity will realise that senior GIC officials stating that they are investing for the "Long Term" or government officials stating that the mistakes they make must be taken in light of their wonderful track record is complacent. Anyone who accepts statements like, "The Minister says," reduces himself to a eunach and while eunachs did live a comfortable life in the Forbidden City, they served no real purpose outside of it. 

If Singaporeans had the self-reliance of their counterparts in Hong Kong, this might not matter so much. People would find alternative cheques to live on. Unfortunately, this isn't the case, we're still waiting for the top men to finish getting their arses cleaned by the eunachs. 

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Can Square Pegs Hit into Round Holes?

Singapore is probably as close as most people will ever get to Utopia. My little city-state really is everything a city should be - it is clean, green and rich. If you carry on with your daily life, you'll never realise that we are water scarce (every household has fresh drinking water) or overcrowded (4 million on 600 sq km but with plenty of park space to spare). Unlike cities in the developed and developing world, I can genuinely say that this is the ONLY place I've lived in where it feels safe to walk around late at night, even if you are a girl in a short skirt.

This has been achieved by the establishment of many admirably efficient and effective systems. Unlike our neighbours, you will never have to bribe a policeman or a judge for permission to cross a road. We have a legal and economic system that allows both citizens and residents of all shapes and sizes to prosper, regardless of race or religion. All you have to do is to find a nice little system to fit in.

Despite the grumblings on the internet, Singaporeans are actually quite content with the system or systems. As one former student radical who joined the government said,"I realised there's no point changing the system, it changes you," and he's done very well by it. 

But what happens when you don't fit into the system? No matter how good a system is, there will always be some who don't fit in and I believe the strength of every system is how it allows people who don't fit into the system to survive. 

Then again, I might be looking at things from the wrong angle. I mean, I am a misfit..I've always been a misfit. When I was at school in England, I was always the token Chink around the place. I always stood out as the one person who went to passport control on his own during school excursions. Then, when I came home for National Service, I was looked upon as a "Chao Kantang" (smelly potato - as opposed to clean rice eating Oriental). It's been like this ever since. In the banking sector I was always looked upon as a freak the media business, but when I was in agency, people looked at me as the freak from corporate finance. 

It's been tough at times but I think I've come to accept that nobody will ever accept me and I consider myself blessed for that. Although I don't get wonderfully regular prestigeous jobs, I think my "wierdness" has helped me. It's allowed me to see things from perspectives that few would have thought of. It's helpful to feel at home with the Ambassadors and CEOs as it is to be with cooks, pimps and coffee shop waiters - as my more enlightened clients would point out - such disreables are customers too. 

My friend, Mark, the one man show lawyer is another misfit in his own way, though he is admitedly allot more successful than I am. Here is a 41-year old man working from a small little office, taking on a range of clients, doing their paper work as well as respresenting them in criminal courts. He's failed to join the system - ie no swanky office of a big law firm doing plush paper work. Mark glides comfortably between the Justices on the bench and the often lowly educated "criminals" that end up in our court system. Here is another case of a misfit who's managed to use his "misfit" genes to fill a niche.

So, there are misfits who can benefit from being misfits. Both Mark and I are blessed enough to be born into families that valued us for who we are and went to schools that may not have encouraged a devotion to academics but equipped us to deal with people. 

But what happens to people who not blessed misfits? What do we do about them? The failed misfit in my life is usually Zen, who carries on despite being everything a woman should not be (physically commical as well as prone to intellectual sillyness) 

Well, my soft spot for Zen brought both Mark and I into an interesting place. Zen's most recent boyfriend, Eric became Mark's client. The stupid bugger allowed a aquaintaince to use his name in a massive cigarett smuggling opperation. 

If Mark and I are blessed misfits who accepted we were square pegs on a board of round holes, Eric is the round hole that the system has been trying to force a square peg into. This guy has  a primary school education, failed in business and for a good part of a decade (he's 41), has been a regular guest of the Singapore government. 

I think Eric because he's everything I might have been, except I was luckier in the genetic lottery. If you look at his life story,  it reads worse than a comedy of errors. He has been kicked by the system so often, that he's probably become one of those people who is happier in prison, which, when you think about it, is a failing of our system and it's so called belief in rehabilitating people and making them useful to society.

I knew Eric in July 08. He had been out of prison for 7-months and hey, guess what, he was actually trying to be a useful contributing member of society. Unfortunately between his age, prison record and education level, nobody would pay more than $500 a month - which was my National Service Allowance back in 1996 - and even then nobody expected me to make a living from that. 

Call him stupid if you like, but he actually wanted to provide for Zen on his limited means. Needless to say it was a failure, but the point is, he was the first "Boyfriend" she ever had who wanted to feed her instead of being fed by her. 

I think the guy really had no intention to get involved with the smuggling syndicate but then did he have a choice? It's easy to say no to naughty things when you have a roof over your head, your meals are taken care of and Daddy provides you with loads of money. But when you've barely earned $500 a month for the last 3 months and take on a significant other, the lure of an easy $1,500 a month cash (which he never saw) sounds deliriously wonderful. 

Poor bastard never had a chance to make it. He was arrested on the day he was going for an interview for a job at PSA. I mean how sad is it, he got arrested on the day he was heading to the first break he had in the last few years.

The police and customes officials celebrated. Eric was just a statistic in the wheels of our efficient criminal justice system. He no legal counsel (That would have impeeded the police extracting a confession) and Zen was told, "Don't hire a lawyer, we'll send him to jail for 3-years and let him out in 2. If you do and lose, we'll sentence him to 6-years and release him in 4. 

What would have happned had Mark not appeared in his life? The police and customes officials would have seen him locked up for 40 over months and they would have celebrated the triumph of an SPF over a major international smuggling ring - yea, dosen't this make you feel safe? Well, the truth is, had I not known Eric personally, I would probably agree with that idea. 

But I know Eric. Anyone who speaks to Eric for more than 10-seconds will realise that he simply does not have the requirements to be a smuggler of nearly a tonne of cigaretts. Then again, who gives a shit? Eric on the scale of things is less than insignificant and who really cares if policework was shoddy as long as it removes a "useless" person from our sight. 

I don't buy that. We are supposed to live in a land of laws. We are supposed to have a criminal justice system that requires both sides of the story to be heard. Singapore talks about people being our only resource. However, when you are more interested in processing numbers (Yea, we got our civil service bonus's because we locked up our quota of clowns for the year), than in dealing with human beings, then we shouldn't talk about how we're brilliantly using our people resources at all.   

Eric and Zen may be what we call part of the dregs of society. Allot of their situation is deserved. But we can't just sit there and hope they'll go away just because they have "no value." If we think of them like that, we demonstrate how little value we have. Yes, Eric did something illegal, but his treatment at the hands of the authorities showed that our system was not all that it was cracked up to be. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Why Change?

Say what  you like about America, but the American people have an incredible ability to surprise. After eight-years of incompetence of the Bush Administration, the American public stood up and voted in a candidate who looks competent and determined to change a course of action that was obviously a disaster. Barak Obama, America's first "African-American" President-Elect was elected on a simple but powerful message -"Change, YES WE CAN." 

Mr Obama's election into the world's most powerful office has been electrifying. Nations that had once been mortified by Mr Bush's America are now celebrating the election of man who seems determined to tackle the world's problems. Mr Bush's "Old" Europe for one celebrates the election of a President who is a "Change" in more ways than one, while in Malaysia, my old friend, Vinod Shekar went as far as to hijack "Change, YES WE CAN," by pointing out that Malaysia had - "MALAYSIA BOLLEH," long before Mr Obama came onto the limelight.

While I believe Mr Obama will have to dissapoint many of his supporters, I believe the efficiency of his transition augers well - we have a signs of a President who will be competent, one who is not afriad to surround himself with people with perhaps bigger brand names and records for competence. He's already invited former rivals Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson to high profile cabinate post at the State and Commerce department's respectively.

Unfortunately, the powers that be in Singapore seem to have drawn tragically short sighted lessons from the Obama victory. A few weeks ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the nation that while the world was elated by the Obama victory, the two-party system was not appropriate for Singapore and that while change was an attractive slogan, it was not always beneficial. What was Mr Lee's rationale for his argument? It was simple, Singapore does not have the necessary political talent to field an "A" grade government and therefore could not afford to have a viable opposition.

It's easy to lambast Mr Lee for being myopic. His sentiments reflect a misunderstanding of the Obama victory, which in many ways were the very reasons why the party he leads has been so successful. Instead of focusing on the words of "Change" he should asked himself and his party why the words 'change' had been so attractive to the American electorate. 

The answer is simple - the reason why "Change" was such an attractive slogan was because most Americans felt that the current course the nation was on, was a disaster. Who can blame them? The nation that former British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd once described as the "Most Benevolent Superpower in History," is in the worst economic slump in history and despite having the most advanced military mashine in history, the nation is stuck in two wars where victory is nowhere in sight. When placed in such a situation, most rational human beings would chose to change their situation. Yes, sometimes change may not be necessarily better in the initial stages but why stay on a course that is clearly a disaster.

For the PAP government, things are less bleak. While the Singapore economy is in a recession, most Singaporeans are as of writing not worrying about having their homes reposessed. Furthermore, the nation's sons remain far away from global conflicts. So what exactly does the Prime Minister have against the idea of "Change" 

One could argue that the Prime Minister is preparing for "snap" election before the global financial meltdown seriously affects Singapore. Then again, why does the Prime Minister need to bother warning Singaporeans against "Change" if he's preparing the nation for an election? Perhaps he's read a few too many postings on the internet where the great and good go to grumble. 

That would silly. Depsite their grumblings, Singaporeans like having the PAP in charge, and why not. In the 40 odd years we've an indepenent nation, we have only known peace, prosperity and PAP. Even in the down times, Singaporeans have trusted the PAP governments to lead them into better times, and the Prime Minister has already assured electorate that assistance will be provided for. Surely, stressing its record for delivering constant improvements to the value of lives is a better strategy than lecturing the electorate on not changing the status quo? 

The attractivness of change is very subjective. If one feels that ones situation could be better, they will want change but if one is by and large content, they will not want it. If anything, Singapore's capitalist economy should encourage people to want to change their lives for the better. People who are content with the status quo have no incentive to improve it. 

Then again, that might be precisely the point and if it is, Singapore needs an urgent cultural paradigm shift. Singapore is dangerously addicted to monopoly power. Start with the PAP as a political party. Why has it been successful? The reason is simple, it's managed to deliver a better life for most of its citizens and it has been right in most of its intellectual arguments. 

But what it has failed to realise is that the party is not entitled to rule in perpetuity. The electorate is entitled to chose and every time the PAP lambast the oppostition for having the audacity to fight for a bigger voice, it encourages the electorate to sympathise with the opposition. What makes opposition members of the house, Low Kah Khiang and Chiam See Tong electable - the answer is simple - they have have looked after their constituents despite the PAP's bribes and insistance that ONLY it can deliver for the people.

To be fair, the PAP does remember from time to time that it's success depends on the customer - the electorate. Other institutions in the nation seem to have forgotten this. Look at the media industry as an example. Prior to 2004, there was some form of competition in the media industry. Consumers had a choice of programms and advertisers had a choice of platforms. Unfortunately, the media houses could not make the money they thought they were entitled to and so, instead adapting to their customers - they ran to the government. 

What has been the result of this? Singapore has a media industry that is stunted and prone to arguing with itself over meaningless statistics. In the mean time, the industry players peddle the myth of the market being too small - oblivious to the fact that places like Hong Kong, which are no larger than Singapore have developed  media industries that generate untold benefits for the domestic economy in the form of export dollars.  

Media is just one example of how "Not Changing" is stunting Singapore. It's disturbing that the government seems content with dwarfism and even encourages it. Imagine if the Singaporeans of the 1950s had today's aversion to change? Then again, I suppose life in a fashing village is quite peaceful. 

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Victory in Court, Our Court

It's now official, the Wall Street Journal is now one of the best financial newspapers, particularly in the Asia-Pacific Region. The journal, which has traditionally been regarded by people in business as one of the best newspapers on the subject has now been lablled a "Repeat Offender" in efforts to malign the "integrity" of the Singapore judiciary. The case against the journal was lead by no less a distinguished person than the Attorney-General, Mr Walter Woon. In the end, the Singaporean government emerged triuphant in its own courts against a dastardly Western medium that had waged a "30-Year Campaign" against the Singapore government. The Journal was finned some S$25,000. 

Personally, I think S$25,000 is a relatively good price to pay, especially when you know the end result is a vindication of your credibility. The Journal had the audacity to do something irresponsible - it printed out a criticism of the Singapore judiciary by the International Bar Association (IBA), and then it printed out the rebutal from the Government. If I'm not wrong, the Journal also had the audacity to print a letter by Ball-in-Chief, Chee Soon Juan and the rebutal by the Singapore government. This was, I suppose iresponsible Western journalism at its worst.

In Singapore, we don't go for this type of journalism. It's simply a waste of time to print or broadcast anything that may have two sides to it and so, we concentrate on something else - making money and boy have our local papers been good at it. As newspapers around the world fade into irrelevance thanks to drying advertising revenue, Singapore's newspapers, lead by the National Paper, the Straits Times, have been booming. Singapore Press Holdings, protected by its duopoly in the print medium, controls some 40 percent of all money spent on advertising space in the land. 

How has the newspaper business thrived in Singapore? It has done so by a very clever two prongged strategy. Both Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) and MediaCorp have defended their duopoly of the Singapore media scene with great vigour - constantly siting that they're profits are high, unlike the days when there was competition (never mind the fact that the consumers had a choice - they're only ordinary Singaporeans.)

The other strategy was summed up by a senior journalist that I often see in one of my favourite pubs. When I asked him how life was in Special Projects, he replied, "Great, we're making all the money - NEWS is nothing." When I tried to say something about NEWS being less impostant than advertising in a NEWSpaper, he replied,"Of course." (He was quite indignant that I was suggesting otherwise.)  

So there you have it. Singapore has a model of journalism that is responsible (as opposed to Western Media.) NEWS in a NEWSpaper is not a priority at all - no wonder why I read the wire services everyday. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Ties-Ties-Ties and what they mean.

Advertising in some form or other has been part of the family ever since I could remember. My immediate family has been involved in the business at some stage or another. Lee, my mother's second husband was once the leading creative director in Lintas (now called Lowe in most parts of the world), and my father was the premium advertising film director in South East Asia for many years. Not to be outdone, my mother worked as copywriter at Batey Ads for a while, and her sister's huband was considered one of the most talented copy writers in town. In the tradition of how everyone in the same industry ends up related to each other, I have the distinction of calling some of the most prominent names in the South East Asian Advertising Scene "Uncle" or "Aunty."

So what can you do if you're family is this embeded in the industry? At one stage, I thought I'd avoid it. But then, I realised there were things about the industry that I liked and so tried to join it. I didn't make it, so I just skirt around it. I was admitedly a lousy accounts servicing person and never developed a "respectable book" to make it as a copywriter. I have, however, writen enough respectable commentaries for the trade press and been interviewed to call myself intelligent enough to talk about the topic of advertising. So, where does this trumpet blowing leave me. I get to talk about an family friend, my Dad's pal and my mum's childhood friend - Mr Tham Khai Meng, currently Ogilvy & Mather's regional creative director (Asia-Pacific) and Co-Chairman of Ogilvy in Asia-Pacific. 

Mr Tham, is undoubtedly a success as far as Singapore's advertising industry is concerned. Advertising, particularly in Asia, is considered, for the most part to be a "White Man's" game. This has been particularly true when it comes to the creative department - one only has to think of the Ba Kua tycoon in Jack Neo's movie,"I not Stupid," telling his employee's, "Ang Moh's idea is always special, I will always pay more for it." Perhaps there was something in our local education system that desparaged "artisitic" subjects in favour of more "serious" topics - but for the most part, this was true. 

One can accuse Western multinationals of being intrinsically biased against the "Asian" idea. There have been certain examples of failed White Men landing jobs in local agencies at creative directors because, well it looked good to have a white man in the creative department. However, there was a darn good reason for this. In the multinationals, only the white men had the vision for global brands. I take, Lee, my stepfather as the prime example of this. The man could make a dull product like a detergent interesting to housewives in Hamburg (Germany), New York (USA) and Karachi (Pakistan). My early childhood years were spent in various countries because his job required him to travel every two years, to make sure that the creative departments at Lintas did what they were supposed to do. 

I think, for the most part, Western culture proved to be able to dominate the industry because, it allowed for a certain flexability in thinking that is so necessary in being good at advertising. The Americans and Brits in particular have dominated the industry because they've valued "life's experiences" rather than just academic records or technical expertise, the tangibles that Asian's are most comfortable with. Lee did goto art school, but had a wide variation of experiences like selling vegitables, digging ditches and working as a janitor before that. Neil French, perhaps one of the most famous creative directors of his generation, was a bull fighter and a pornographer. It sounds undisciplined or unpolished to the Asian mind. But as Frank Young, Managing Director (a creative guy) of Crush Singapore said, "That's what makes them so good." Both my stepfather and Mr French had lived life and they could apply what they had known into something useful - selling of basic products to people accross culture. 

Asians have caught up in terms of their artistic creativity. Today, in Singapore's market, there are several prominent Asian Creative Directors. My ex-boss, Lim Sau Hong, the CEO and Executive Creative Director of 10AM Communications comes to mind. Her understanding of the Chinese language and Chinese culture allowed her to develop a Singapore based agency that made an impact on the China market. 

There are others. David Tang is a Singaporean who has become CEO of DDB in Singapore. Then there is Pillany Pillay and Kelvin Periera who built made Crush Advertising and the TNBT Group into a regional presence. 

However, Singaporeans and Asians in advertising have generally stayed within the Asia-Pacific Region. Why is that so? Perhaps it's cultural. I hear of many Singaporeans who turn down promotions in multinationals because it means "travelling to an extent you don't know when you'll come home." The only time Singapore became known as a centre for global advertising was when Neil French, former WPP Creative Head (Previously Ogilvy Global Creative Head), planted his feet in Singapore. 

But now, this has changed. Mr Tham Khai Meng has assumed the appointment as Ogilvy's Global Creative Head and Chairman of it's Global Creative Council. How significant is Mr Tham's role?  Managing Directors run the business in advertising agencies. However, businesses need a product to sell, and in the case of the advertising agency, this is the creative work, created by the creative department, run by a creative director. So there you have it, we now have a Singaporean in ultimate charge of the creative work produced by the world's third largest advertising agency. It's quite an achievement when you think that Mr Tham comes from a country that is allergic to anything out of the ordinary.  

Allot of Mr Tham's success will depend on the people that he hires. Most of his personal creativity will be devoted to hiring the right people and making sure they perform. Mr Tham's work in the Asia-Pacific has proven that he's such a man. 

But what does Mr Tham's appointment mean beyond the fact that it is possible for Asians and Singaporeans in particular to develop the qualities of running a global creative department in a global ad agency? 

I think what's significant is that Mr Tham's appointment to the global creative position at Ogilvy co-incides with his Asia-Pacific Co-Chairman, Miles Young's appointment to be the CEO of Ogilvy's Global Opperation. 

This is significant because its a statement of where the agency believes most of the world's economic focus will be in. Traditionally, New York and London were always the main headquarters for advertising agencies. Most agency-client relationships are forged at the global level, with the regions and country's executing policies. The focus of advertising has always been where the consumers are - which has for the most part been in the West. 

Politically speaking, the appointment of Messers Young and Tham doesn't change a thing. Mr Tham will relocate to New York to take up his appointment. But the focus of the global advertising industry is shifting and the appointment of Messers Young and Tham shows it. 

Back in the old days, the consumers were in the West. So, it was only logical for people who developed careers in the West to run the global agencies. This is changing and most of it is due to the rise of China and the rest of Asia. Why else would one of the world's largest advertising agencies as well as one of the most visionary make two of its most significant appointees from the Asia-Pacific region. 

As the economic crisis in the West bites, one may find more "protectionist" calls from the public against competition. This is something to expected. However, rational heads should prevail and Messers Young and Tham have a tremendous opportunity to persuade the West that Asia's rise is something that will benefit them and that they should - rejoice!  

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Snooty Indians and Rough Chinese

Anyone who has followed the media in the last decade will know that the biggest story in the last decade has been the spectacular econmic rise of China and then India. The two Asian Giants contain two fiths of the human race and even at current levels form a formidable economic block. China has been taking over much of the world's manufacturing and this Summer, a proud, resurgent China hosted one of the most spectacular Olympic Games in living memory and as an Asian, it was exhilerating to see China top the gold medal table. The question is no longer whether China becomes the world's biggest economy but when. Despite protest by unfortunate Tibetans, 2008 has been pretty much China's year and as America and Europe fall deeper into the economic doldrums, the world is looking nervously to China as a new engine. 

India has also been interesting. While China has become the world's factory, India with it's vast, educated and English speaking population is becoming the back office of the world. Call centres, the job of last resort for those in the developed world is a serious career option for bright, MBA's in India. Then there's software. Western multinationls these days cannot afford to get along without Indian software programmers, doing not just work the multinationls disdain, but also creating programms that run entire opperations. First it was giant companies like Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Infosys, Satyam and Wipro that hit the world. But now you also have a wave of smaller, niche market players like Polaris, 3i-infotech and i-cell (part of Oracle) Software creating highly specialised systems for particular industries. These small companies are highly cash rich and although they don't make the headlines that they're larger cousins do, the software they produce helps to run many of the basic functions we take for granted.

Perhaps it's because I've moved back to Asia for the last 8-years but I think the rise of the Asian giants is probably the most hopeful thing in human history. As much as Westerners may bitch about outsourcing stealing jobs and Singaporeans may complain about snooty Indian nationals and rough China hookers, there is no reason why two fiths of humanity should be mired in poverty. Furthermore, the growth of prosperity in the world's two largest population centres benefits the West and it's allies. Poor and unstable countries do not make good allies, but strong and confident ones do. Look at the way the Indian Navy has taken a lead in dealing with piracy in the Gulf of Aden, a role you once only expected of the Western Powers.  

How has this happened? I remember a talk I attened by the Secratery General of the Commonwealth, HE Mr Kamalesh Sharma. He mentioned that it was found that the only thing countries that developed quickly, such as the Asian Tigers, had in common was heavy investment in education and healthcare. He noted that, "All policy is ultimately social policy." I write from Singapore, a country that has benefited from heavy investment in education and whose government understands that the nation's future is in how it adjusts its education. 

This point on education was brought home to me by Mr Rajendra Kumar Srivastava, Provost and Vice President Academic Affairs at Singapore's Management University (SMU). Mr Srivastava, who was chairman of a pannel discussion at the Indian Institute of Technology's (IIT) Alumni Association meeting (one I had the honour of attending), compared the situation in Indian States that had invested in education and those that did not - Kerela is highly litterate and although not rich, life is good for its residents. Bihar by contrast has a low rate of litteracy and a high rate of poverty and corruption. 

What was even more interesting about his comments and comparisons was the fact that he brought a direct comparison between India and China. It's an enlightening comparison. You can understand why the Asian giants have taken the development path they've taken if you understand the different approaches to education.

India has excelled in high-end services like software development, pharmaceuticals and movies. In Singapore, we've seen a concerted government effort to woo the growing class of professional Indian workers. Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sport, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan told the gathering of IITians, "You are welcome and You ARE NEEDED." The Indian Nationals that I've had the honour of working with in Singapore are amongst the most educated and well brought up people I've encountered, though there are admitedly grumblings from Singapore's Indians that the Indian Nationals are snooty and snub them. The Indian Nationals argue that it's not about looking down on people - they merely point to the fact that Singaporean Indians do not have India as a refference point - it seems to me that the Indian Nationals are educated to a level where they no longer use race as a reference point in the same way our Singaporean Indians do. 

How has this come about? The answer is simple, India has focused on higher education for its elite. The result is world class university campus's. Both the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Institute of Management (IIM) compete with the likes of MIT and Harvard Business School in international surveys. The guest at the IIT gathering read like a who's who. You had prominent speakers like Mr Jeet Binda, President of Global Manufacturing at Chevron and Mr Rajat Nag, Managing Director-General of the Asian Development Bank amongst others. Obviously the organisation has done something right to produce people who climb to such positions. 

Of course, India has had the advantage of a sizeable educated class. The 300 odd million Indians who make up the Middle Class can read and write in English - they can work in the international market. However, if you upgrade their education at the university education, you can upgrade the type of work they do in the international market. 

Another sign of India's success in this area can be seen in Forbes's list of billionaires. Asia's richest people are no longer in Japan, they're in India. Until recent deterioration in the economy, four of the top ten richest men in the world, were Indian.

But the down side of India's emphasis on university education has been its failure to lift the masses out of poverty. India does badly in litteracy rates against China and while there may be more Indian billionaires than Chinese ones (The fact that there are billionaires in a Communist country is an achievement), China's GDP per capita is higher than India's. 

China, by contrast has placed emphasis on primary and secondary education and it excells in manufacturing. You don't need people to work in the international market for manufacturing, you just need to provide labour at a competative rate. As a result, the Chinese education system has produced skilled workers for manufacturing jobs. Other nations that try to compete with China simply can't because the Chinese engineers and technicians who are often as good as those in more developed places and cheaper and harder working or more suited to rough but skilled work.

I look at who from China comes to Singapore. It's quite often construction workers who are willing to do the jobs Singaporean Chinese disdain and yes, many of the girls that do make it here work as hookers. But all of them share one common trait - hunger and supperior street smarts that local Singaporeans lack. If local Indians complain about snooty Indian nationals, Singaporean Chinese complain about the coarse loud voices of China workers and China girls who sell themselves to the highest bidder. What the locals don't see is their determination to succeed - the workers are working in a way we won't and the girls make it a point to ensure our local men are enchanted by their presenation. 

Where China's system fails is in the fact that it does not encourage innovation. China's growth is based on its ability to make things cheaper than other people but as the experiences of Southeast Asia has shown, this edge wears out. Vietnam for example, is capable of giving China a run for its money and Indonesia and the Phillipines could too if they stabilised their political systems. 

The respective strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese and Indian systems complement each other. Both aknowledge their weaknesses and are looking to solve them. One of the deans of the IIT's admited that they need a stronger support system lower down the education system. China is sending students to develop their minds in the best universities in the West. Furthermore trade links between the two nations are growing and instead of seeing China as purely being about manufacturing and India as about services, there is a growing cross pollination of strengths. China is gaining in the software and services business. India has some competative manufactures - look at Birla motors as an example.  

So, where does that leave us in the rest of the world and in tinny Singapore. I'm with the government when it says we need to be open. Educated Indians with money to spend like spending it in Singapore. Nearly all the Indian Nationals I know have taken up permenant residency in Singapore and letting them trickle down their good fortune benefits Singapore.

But I also think the Chinese labourers need to be welcomed. Although less educated than the Indians, the Chinese have shown themselves to be hungry. Look at all the $20 dollar buffets spreeding around to cater to China nationals. These small businesses cater benefit the economy. So as well as letting the wealthy Indian's trickle their wealth down to us, we should also allow the Chinese to build it from the ground up. 

This will undoubtedly cause some social tensions but since when was integrating people ever easy. I'm of the belief that we should welcome people as citizens provided they're willing to pay the price of citizenship - which in the case of men is national service. You simply cannot expect Singaporean citizens to take up arms to defend Indians and Chinese for the sake of it. However, if a Singaporean serves next to a China or India National, chances of successful integration are higher. 

People are the best asset a nation can have. As a small nation, Singapore cannot afford to indulge in isolationst policies. A constant flow of people means a constant flow of money, ideas and opportunities. Yes, sometimes you also get the crooks in, but creating and increasing the flow people does not mean we need to sacrifice law and order. Keeping out people would be a mistake - educated Indians and rough Chinamen could well be anchors for our future. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Midnight Blah

Well, it's officially past the witching hour and instead of doing what most sensible people would do (goto bed), I've taken to bashing out blog entries, emails and other silly things at this hour. I have, as they say, discovered a peculiar sort of heaven on earth - I've downloaded Google's webbrowser "Chrome," which is highly quick and I've discovered YouTube. So, for the last few nights, I've been getting my fix of music from music videos off the net - the usual rock bands, classical orchestras added to the odd opening tracks of Star Treck serieses. Yes, I admit it, I love the series, particular the DS9 one - I think it had something to do with the fact that the leader of the Federation outpost is a single father. Needless to say my fantasies of being a single father in the military died out with my lack of military achievement during National service and of course marriage - where I managed to get a special deal - 12 for the price of one (Gina being wife, kids, dogs and rats in one). 

Economic recession is slowly but surely making its way to this part of the world. Anyone who thinks the economy is doing fine and dandy is probably a liquidator, lawyer, government minister or on pot. Zen, my usual basket case tells me that PSA has been cutting back on her hours because less big vessels are coming in. It's also visible in the airport where you notice a smaller number of big jumbo jets. 

Then, of course there is the proverbial view of the economy in the red light district. You get girls at the high end of the business telling you that the "White Man" no longer seems willing to pay - one Thai girl outside Orchard Towers (Four Floors of Whores) says, "I think it must be because of the economy." And true enough, if you take a trip down to Geylang Lorong 6, the hang out for old ladies from Batam and office peons, you'll find that it's filled with Caucasians. If ever there was a sign of the times. 

I, in the mean time continue to struggle to find a living. Grand new projects are coming to a standstill but then again, I suppose this calls for one to discover a bit of creativity in how one creates income. This has, for example, been a year when I've discovered barter trade. I'm surprised that I've not resorted to this earlier - cash is a very scarce commodity in Singapore's "One Cheque" economy (there is actually no money in Singapore - everyone awaits the government to write out a cheque for some project or other) and so there have to be other ways of getting by. 

Will be heading off to Hamburg for Christmas. Going on the 18th of December and won't be back til the 9th of January 09. It's always nice to pay Europe a visit and spend time with the family. This trip will be particularly important because Lee, my first step-father, will be in Germany too. It's been 10-years since I last saw him and I'm looking forward to spending time with him. It's because of him that I learnt that the qualifications of fatherhood are not necessarily biological. I won't go as far as a business partner of mine who calls his dog his child, I think it's Lee's example in my life that makes me try to give love and affection to the little fart in Vietnam . Yes, this trip to see a man who has made so much difference to my life is a long time over due and I look forward to it.  

Monday, November 17, 2008

Crevaet Emperator and Emperator's Creveat and I'm not sure why I like to Blab so I'll just do it to P You Off

It's easy to hit out at big organisations like multinational corporations and governments. Organisations like these tend to be bureauractic, inhuman, dehumanising and seem to serve the sole purpose of hurting the individual and the small businesses. Governments seem to enjoy nothing better than creating means of taxing hard working citizens and multinationals like the tobacoo and alcohol companies actually make a profit by selling you things that kill you. In Singapore it's especially easy to vent your frustrations at such organisations because the system seems especially prone to supporting "Big" government and business against everyone else.

While there's allot of be said about the evils of big government and big business, I do think that this image can go a little too far. The "Little" guy, as Saddam Hussein often showed in his struggles against the USA can be pretty brutal too. OK, perhaps it's a stretch to call the guys protesting at Hong Lim Park, Saddam, but I think we've now reached a stage where government has become so much a part of our lives that we've lost the ability to take personal responsability for our own actions.

It's sad to see and read about old ladies who have lost their life savings when they've invested in financial products and it is certainly a clever PR move by the financial institutions to offer to refund "Vulnerable" investors who lost their shirts on certain financial products. No bank chief wants to be summoned by the financial regulators who got screwed because the politicians realised that stories of little old ladies being screwed of their life savings can cost them votes. Pay off the vulnerable and you appease allot of angry people. Then you can carry on as before.

However, is this good for the actual economy, the financial system and even the nation at large. I believe that clever crisis management on the part of the financial insitutions here has cost the nation dear and if we carry on like this, we're not going to learn anything. Sure, learning is going to be painful but then again, don't the best of life's lesson's involve a little bit of loss and sacrifice?

What allot of peolpe forget is there is a clear definition between a creditor and an investor. A creditor provides money with the expectation of getting back that money regardless of the situation of the company. An investor on the other hand expects a share of returns but also assumes a share of the risk. Creditors can only expect their principle (what they loaned out) with perhaps a bit of interest in return. An investor can expect to reap rewards of an investment but if that investment goes sour, then he or she has to expect a loss.

If you look at things in this light, you'll understand why creditors get paid off first during a bankruptcy and investors (shareholders) are usually the last to get their money back. However, a creditor does not expect to get rich while an investor does.

Banks and financial institutions are obliged to provide a leagl warning that investments can go down as well as up. True, this warning is usually in print so fine that you can go blind reading it, but surely common sense should prevail here and one should know that when buying into a financial product, one should be prepared to lose as well as gain.

So, when you look at it this way, what are the protestors talking about when they ask for a "refund" on their investments losing money? Did the bank promise them that they were 'guarenteed' to make money for an indefinate period? If this is what the bank promissed, the banks should be shot for lying and decieving their clients. But doesn't the client also have a responsability to ensure that he or she knows what he or she is getting into? If a client claims that everything was left to the bank, the client deserves to lose money.

But what if the client is a little old lady who does not know left from right? Well, it is sad when old ladies get burnt and I have to aknowledge that not every old lady was like my late grandmother who was exceedingly sharp when it came to counting her pennies. My grandmother was incidentally very sharp with money because she had next to no inheritance from my grandfather and her kids and grandkids didn't rush to keep her in style. But even then, do simple old ladies rush out to buy 'advanced' financial products on their own? Perhaps there are, but common sense tells me that many of these 'vulnerable' investors had relatives who helped pushed them into it. It's the relatives and friends who should be compensating the old ladies not the financial institutions.

Of course, the financial institutions and the government are not blameless either. The Financial Institutions thrive on sending out "high-pressure" sales people to "push-products." Sales people are paid on comission so it's in their interest to push the products which pay the best commision, regardless of whether the product is best for the customers needs. The financial regulator should be sued for allowing the financial institutions to name their sales peolpe as "Advisors" or "Planners." In true Singapore style, the government merely insisted that those selling financial products take exams but then left the financial institutions for allowing their 'advisors' and 'planners' to push products.

You might call this a matter of semantics. You could say it's just a name, so what? Well, there's allot of significance in a name. An 'advisor' provides you with 'advice' while a 'planner' actually get's involved with 'planning.' By these definitions the value comes from 'advice,' and in the 'planning,' and not in the product sale. However, most financial institutions bundle the planning and advice into the product sale. The "Financial Advisor" or the "Planner" gets rewarded only when you guy the product. I can't think of another industry that allows this to happen. Do you get "Auto-Advisors" working for Honda to advise you on which car to buy? I believe Honda is very clear that its staff are there to "Sell" you a car.

I'm sorry people have lost their life savings. I'm thankful that I've never had enough money to tempt me into playing with some of the financial world's more risky investments. But a situation where you have investors behaving like gamblers and being compensated when things go sour when they lose is unsustainable. And a system that only places a value on product sales rather than on knowledge is equally unsustainable.

Yes, it's nice to compensate the old lady who lost her savings but is it the right thing to do. I think in this case, we've only helped perpetuate the unsustainable and if the government and leaders of the financial system had a real intention of doing right, they'd look into how to fix the real issues rather than buying off a few angry voices.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Last Post to the First Amongst Us

It's been a rather hectic 72 hours, where I should probably be dropping like a fly, half drunk on cheap brandy. Had to facilitate a client interview on Tuesday before rushing up to KL for an event at Vinod's. Was a good adventure to ride up to KL and discover a bit of Malaysia. Thanks to Vinod, I actually got spend a bit more time in KL than planned, but ended up rushing down to facilitate another interview with Bloomberg at quite an early hour. Everything went well, but I've decided, for some strange reason to stay up.

It's a fairly significant three days. On Tuesday, the 11th of November, it was Armristice Day, the day that officially ended World War One, which is in many ways one of the worst wars in history but one that tends to get burried by World War Two. I've become less observant of this day since I moved back. I think it has something to do with the fact that in this part of the world, we weren't really touched by it - a case of this being an affair of our colonial masters in Europe. World War Two is a little different - Singapore became a Japanese colony and I think that brought the reality of the wars back home to us in the colonies.

But I think, having once served in uniform, even if it was for an army that will thankfully never see combat, and having attened the funerals of two colleagues while in uniform, I believe its worth the effort to remember the soldiers who end up getting killed in wars. Soliders often get a bad rep in the halls of universities and in movies. That's a shame and its a demonstration of the shit that fills the minds of our young in places where they're supposed to learn. If you look at countries with armies that actually fight wars, you'll find that it's those who have been in the military that are the least blood thirsty. Look at the Bush Administration - an Administration that claims to have fought wars to make people safe. The only decent person who understood that war was not a game was Colin Powel, former Secratery of State and a full general. He alone saw combat and did not support the war in Iraq (though he did try to sell it to the UN) and as a result was removed from an adminstration filled with callous cowards.

War, as the good war poets have often reminded us, is a game played with the lives of young men by old men. Contrary to what film producers may light to tell you, war is for the most part a brutal experience that brings out the worst in humanity. Look at Africa, a continent that continues to see most of the world's wars and other nasties like poverty, disease and malnutrition. What's noticeable is that Africa is also the continent with most of the world's precious resources like diamonds, forrest, gold, oil and so on. The men ontop simply cannot resist the lure of trying to grab hold of the goodies and they're not terribly bothered by who they screw up in the process.

Let's face it, lives get lost during any armed conflict and those that live usually end up getting scared by the experience. As such, it beats me why anyone with intellegence and up bringing can support armed conflict when there are other alternatives to resolve disputes. Look at World War One, millions died in what was essentially a family squable between the Royal Families of Europe. What did the men who sacrificed their lives in places like the Somme get - a world order that would lead to another war that killed even more people

So, let's give the Europeans some credit. The experience of World War Two so shocked them that they created the EU, a super national institution that has become a by word for peace and prosperity. OK, the EU is not perfect - there are genuine cases of corruption amongst the Eurotocracy and there are riddiculous bureacratic rules that get imposed on ordinary people with no purpose. The EU also looks powerless and irrelevant when you think of its lack of military muscle against the USA. However, when you think of the original aims of the EU, namely to eliminate the possibility of war on the continent, it's succeed brilliantly. Within 50-years, we can now speak of a Franco-German alliance as a force of good rather than a worry of conflict (European history is a long story of Franco-German conflict). States that once suffered under the terror of Communism can now find a source of security and prosperity under the EU. It's something worth thinking about.

But it's taken a million lives, lives that never got a chance to live their full potential to get the developed world to a stage where the young have a luxury of worrying about the latest handphone trends instead of getting blown to bits in a family squable before their 25th birthday.

Sure, there are times when it is necessary to fight. If the nation state is invaded, it is only natural for the citizens to take up arms. But there is utterly no excuse for wars of agression or wars that are fought incompetently. A President or Prime Minister who sends the troops in without a clear objective or objectives based on greed is sacrificing human life for the sake of it and does not deserve office - although it's not often wise to advocate military coups, I think the miltary is entitled to remove a head of state or government if that head of state or government sends the military into a situation with no clear objectives. I'm with General Danton, the British Army's Chief of Staff when he says that soldiers who are willing to take the Queen's shilling should be ready to go where Her Majesty sends them.

However, I believe that leadership cannot expect loyalty without being loyal in return. A leader cannot expect people to sacrifice their lives for him or her if he or she is unable to show they care for the lives of their troops and will ask the troops to make that sacrifice unless necessary. A leader who sends the troops into combat for the fun of it is traitor and just as we expect the harshest of penalties when the troops break that trust, we should apply the same to the top when they betray that trust - Bush and the neoCONS come to mind! Seriously, the President of the USA has to defend the nation against "Enemies both forign and domestic," not "Be the enemy." - If you do not call sending young men and women to die in a war based on lies and deception as treason, what else can you call it?

For the most part, we live a good life, but that's only because the people before us have fought for it. It's a fact worth remembering and worth paying tribute to. Call me wierd but one of the things that pisses me off about Young Brits is how they've become obsessed "Cool Britania" and have no time for a moment of silence on Armristice Day. It's like the Australian Song "And the Band Played Waltzin Matilda" (not to be confused with Waltzin Matila) - the old troopers are dying off and the young ask what they're marching for. Between a politician who plans and a soldier who gives his life, I salute the soldier and despise the politician. Colin Powel tells a story of how one of his commanding generals made all the officers about face and salute their soldiers.

And so, there you have it. All that is good in our lives today came as a result of someone's sacrifice. I'm all for moving on and living life but its always important to remember that people have given their lives for us. At the very least - be greatful that it was not you who died.

For me, I was privilleged this week to speak to Thui. It was her birthday today (13 November). She was having a party with her friends and took the time out to tell me that she was fine and she misses me. It felt good to speak to her on her birthday and I'm greatful to Han Li for allowing me the small mercy of being able to speak to the little girl.

I have to accept that it's not my destiny to play a more significant role in her life. All I can be is thankful for the small moments when she's able to touch my rather dreary existence. Funny how a little child holds so much power in her to remind me that its actually a joy to have something more in life than yourself.