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.





Friday, November 07, 2008

Best and Worst 08

The USA has had a historic election. After 200-years the country that has done more than any other in history to preach the idea of "Opportunity for All," finally elected a man who was not a White Anglo Saxon and had a name that rhymed a bit too closely with two men they had gone to war with.

Allot is being said about President-Elect Obama and his victory. The usual questions of who will he pick for this and that post and what will his policy on this and that be like, are being asked. Everyone is talking about his fabulous victory speech and the many other great speeches he made.

These are important discussion points and there is no doubt that President-Elect Obama deserves his victory. Let's leave aside the reasons of why he should have won anyway, namely the incompetence of the current Bush Administration. The President-Elect ran a strategically brilliant campaign. His team mastered the art of keeping the money flowing, which meant he could promote his message more agressively. His message was focused. He kept his cool even when his opponents seemed to have ammunition to be used against him. His two challengers, Hillary Clinton and John McCain started out with better brand names and a wealth of contacts and dare I say it, experience. However, once the campaigning began, President-Elect Obama somehow managed to make his older and more experienced opponents look like 60-year olds trying to relive their sophmore years.

So, despite the obvious economic gloom and the military situation in the Middle East, the election of President-Elect Obama has created a seed of a sense of optimism. This is vastly important because if the world's biggest power has confidence in its leadership, it gives the rest of us hope.

For me, I am pleasently surprised that the American public has done what I never expected it to do - vote someone a darker shade of pink into power. However, I think something has to be said about the losing candidate, John McCain. The 2008 Presidential Campaign was as much about the lneptitude of John McCain's Campaign as much as it was about the brilliance of the Obama Campaign.

It was actually quite sad. I remember liking John McCain in the 2000 election. The man was refreshingly principled in that election. He took responsability for the failure of his first marriage and after Clinton's lack of a military record and Bush's avoidance of one, McCain's mere presence in Vietnam made him such a credible candidate. My respect for John McCain increased when, in the Senate, he took on causes that he believed in, despite his party. The McCain-Feingold (Sponsored with Democrat Senator Russ Feingold) act on campaign finance is one such act that showed his ability to cross party lines. My respect for him increased even more when he took a principled stance against torture, even when his President and party were advocating it.

But something happened within the 8-years of the Bush Administration. The Pincipled Maverick of 2000 became an inept self-opportunistic old fart. Allot will be made of the way Senator McCain chose the even more inexperienced (Than then Senator Obama) Sarah Palin as his running mate. However, for me, the saddest thing about Senator McCain's campaign was the way in which he reversed his stance on torture. The "War Veteran" who had been "Tortured" and knew that torture is ineffective, suddenly decided that torture was OK, provided it was applied to Arabs....oopps, I mean terrorists. This transformation was pathetic. Instead of sounding like a leader of high-principles, Senator McCain sounded like what his opponent described him as - George W Bush Mark 2. Thanks to his about-face, all the then Senator Obama had to do was to point out the obvious - vote for McCain and you'd get more years of the same (faggoty mismanagement of the military and economy). Once this happened, it all went wrong for the McCain campaign. When he talked about his military heroism in Vietnam, people saw a sad old man who's only achievement was to marry his money - not exactly the type of man you want telling you to buckle your economic belt while you're keeping the recievers at bay.

So thank goodness for his concession speech. Suddenly we had a glimpse of the 2000 McCain. While his supporters booed Obama's victory, Senator McCain took one hundred percent responsability for the failure of the campaign. He made a call for unity to match Mr Obama's victory speech and stopped his attacks against the man who had just become his President. It was a magnificent speech and credit must go to a fantastic speech writer but let's give Mr McCain his due - he delivered it in a way that probably only he could have done.

To the rest of us, the US Presidential system might seem to be expensive and bitchy. It's chaotic and throughout the campaign, you often see the worst in political leaders. However, once it was all over, you could actually see the best in leaders. It's worth having a system that puts strain on people - the heat of competition is good for everyone. It's something the rest of the world can learn from. No system is perfect and the American system has more faults than one could care to name - but listening to Messers Obama and McCain, I get the feeling that this is as close as humanity will get to testing leaders properly before they are given the levers of power.