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.