Friday, December 18, 2009

The Joys and Sorrow of Going Ex-Patria

It's the slow season now and not much new business is coming my way, so I thought, what the heck - might as well spend a bit of time trying to rant a bit. I get the feeling that I need to rant more because, well after I've gone the way of the dinosaur, my rantings may be the only left of me and the thoughts that I leave may be the only thing left to irritate people for generations to come.

Anyway, I noticed an article in the papers on how Singapore continues to be a favoured destination for the Expatriate community and I have to say my initial reaction was - Well, why shouldn't it be? If you're a Caucasian, Singapore is a tropical heaven where you get your colonial fetishes indulged by well educated people as opposed to menial workers in other colonies. For the Indian and other Asian professional, Singapore is a bastion of stability and peace - neatness and order when compared to home. Speaking as a Singaporean, there seems to be an official policy to make the place so good for the expat worker that sometimes one wonders why the citizen bothers being a citizen at all.

It's easy to be a rather pissed-off Singaporean when it comes to the topic of expats living here. First the gripe was about the White Man - "Bastards come here and think they can lord it over us...." and now similar gripes are being heard about the new expats from other parts of Asia - "What the F***, these guys are pricing us out of the market..." The expats will always be better paid and live in swankier accommodation. The only thing that we, the locals don't envy them for is when they pick up local women - I remember a Malay friend of mine saying, "I'm happy for the girls who meet Ang Moh guys....they are from POOR families."

But let's leave aside the government's policy on "foreign talent" and the swank lifestyle offered to expats and try and see if we can understand things from the expats point of view. Is expat lifestyle everything that it's cracked up to be. And although my blog may give the impression dislike expats, the truth is I don't dislike anyone in particular. I'm merely unusual in the sense that I don't find expats (Particularly the Caucasian variety) particularly interesting or stimulating for being expats and I'm not afraid to make my views public. Some of my favourite drinking buddies are Caucasian and my favourite business associates are more often than not Indian Nationals or Arabs.

Further more, my mother will remind me that I was once an expat kid. My stepfather, Lee, a high ranking creative director of what was then called Lintas but is now Lowe, had the type of job that moved the family around every two years. It was thanks to him that I ended up living in Spain and then Germany and then the UK. Thanks to his job moving him all over the place, I got to spend time in Milan and Dubai.

My childhood was an exceedingly comfortable one and I hung out with kids who were from equally comfortable backgrounds (I only started becoming a street prostitute once I left the nest so to speak). International schools were fun and the houses we lived in were exceedingly cozy.

But let's look beyond the material benefits of being an expat. Life as an expat can be lonely. It's not for everyone - you somehow have to get used to the idea that you need to move around every so often. Unfortunately, expat contracts are always designed to move you around just when you've settled in (2-5 years). Just when you think you have settled down into the community .....oooppps, it's time to get going.

For some adults, this is necessary. My stepfather was one of them. The man could not settle down and for him the constant moving helped keep his mind much so that he was a 60-year old that was more productive than many 20 year-olds in his department. But some people cannot take the uncertainty of never knowing when you get home. Moving around is fun when you are young but once you settle it becomes tougher. Kids need to be moved and the wife who may have sacrificed a career for you needs to be pacified. I've known top-level bankers in Singapore who were from Citigroup who moved to the local banks (though in higher positions) because the upward ladder meant going international at Citi.

For kids, this lifestyle can be particularly tough. You settle into a school and then you leave and you need to make a new set of friends. You tell yourself you'll keep in touch with old ones but in the pre-Facebook era, somehow things fade away. The moving was fun and it always made me a talking point at school because I was one of these weired people from elsewhere who had a life outside Hampshire. But on the flip side, I'm probably the only one who has never had a life before Public School. If you look through my Facebook profile, my earliest friends come from Public School era (11+) for the simple fact that I actually stayed at Public School beyond more than 2-years. By contrast, life at International Schools was all about moving every so often and losing touch with your friends.

Furthermore, you also change systems. When the family was in Spain, I was a British Prep-School. In Hamburg, I was at the International School (which had some of the best chicks) which was supposed to be a mixture of the Anglo-American system (Brit American not South African ;) It's not just the social life that gets screwed but you have to adapt to a different culture. After Public School, my next cultural adjustment was the army but I was over 18 by then and that's a different story from doing it at 10.

The there's the fact that the locals will never really like you. It's not just in Asia where they look at you as an outsider but even in Western Europe. It's easier in Europe in the sense that for the most part people are usually not at that much of an economic disadvantage but you still feel it. So, guess what, you got to work harder to make friends amongst the locals.

So there you have it. Life as an expat is not always what it's cracked up to be.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Say What You Like About Terrorist.......

The Other Half is fed up with living in Singapore. This morning she proclaimed, "I want to move back to China, where there is freedom of speech." To my Western or Western trained readers this might come as something of a surprise. China, despite the rapid economic growth and social advances of the last decade remains a communist dictatorship (the world's largest since the collapse of the Soviet Union) So given this fact, how can anyone describe China as having,"Freedom of Speech?" Leaving aside the fact that I'm talking about my other half, I believe the girl.

Leaving aside the Western expatriates and the Indian Nationals, one will find, more often than not, that Singaporeans are a fairly docile lot when compared to their brethren from Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar and China. Things are changing, the AWARE saga was a case in point. However, chances are, if you read about protest these days, you'll find that it usually involves a group labourers from China protesting outside the Ministry of Manpower over unpaid wages. Singaporeans as a group don't do things like protest or set-up noodle stalls. Why is this so?

To be fair to Singaporeans, there's actually not too much need to think, protest or even speak. As a friend of mine often says to me,"Does it concern you? Why bother, the majority is happy and so leave it be?" He's right. Life in Singapore many not always be good but it's fairly comfortable. There's no need to think or to question why things are the way they are. Singapore is Confucius's wet dream, a place where the bureaucrat rules. The path to success is simple. Study hard, get good grades and a government scholarship to one of the world's best universities. Within ten-years you'll be without fail an exceedingly senior civil servant, paid an enviable amount of money to run the life of the nation. Of course, if you can't get a plum scholarship, at least get yourself into university and into a secure job in the civil service or a multinational company.

With the exception of street hookers like myself, everyone is exceedingly happy with the system. The people are happy because they are comfortable (no one starts a revolution of a full tummy.) The foreigners, particularly the Western Expatriates are happy - leaving aside company perks, they live in a society where the local population reveres them for being, well Western and therefore better (which to be fair, is true to a certain extent - they're allowed to do some thinking - which is in favour of the powers that be). The government likes it because the foreigners keep investing and the population remains docile. Like I've said, when you hear a Singaporean grumble about this and that, there will be a foreigner (ranging from the Bangladeshi construction worker to the well paid American Expatriate) to tell the Singaporean that they're sheltered and don't know how good life is in Singapore. As one US Navy boy said to me,"If Geylang is your worst area, wait till you see an American Inner City."

If you think about it, Singapore is the Celestial Kingdome in just about every way you can think of. If you don't like it, you can just bugger off - and guess what, there are those who bugger off but come back - I should know I was one of them. Why does anyone need to think or even speak out?

The truth is, this happy situation won't last forever. The day of large cohesive structures like governments and multinational corporations coming in and giving prosperity to the obedient masses is long over. Just look at the world's geopolitical situation today. In the old days, there were two big superpowers (USA and USSR) and everyone belonged to one camp or the other. Today, you have a big hyperpower that is bigger, stronger and richer than everyone else (USA) versus terrorist who are for the most part a group of individuals with nothing in common except an ideology. In the good old days, there were pitched battles with two opposing armies. These days, you can bomb a country to oblivion only to have one nut case stroll into your country and cause the same damage in one of your cities.

What's happened on the battle field is taking place in the business world. You have a big corporation that "owns" the market. Suddenly a few loan individuals from the big corporation leave and do their own thing and before you know it, the "big" corporation is facing extinction because the market it thought it owned is either obsolete or it turned out to be bigger than the single corporation. Remember, the computer market was all about IBM and it's hard wear. Today, IBM has sold off the hardware to Lenovo from China and is trying to compete in IT services.

Let's return to the ideology of terrorist versus soldiers. Singapore is a nation of conventional soldiers. We await for "Opps Orders" from our HQ and then we execute as we have been trained to do. We've been drilled into doing things in certain ways and that's how we'll do them. You don't question because, well that's how it's always been.

A terrorist on the other hand is a lone individual linked to a group of other individuals. The only thing uniting the people is an ideology. A terrorist gets an objective from HQ but the execution is up to him or her. He or she has to get creative to get past highly advanced security systems, while the person in question has limited resources. Much to the horror of law enforcement agencies throughout the world, terrorist are amongst the most effective users of the internet for their purposes. Like it or not, the effective terrorist are quite ingenious in their execution of their activities.

Now apply the terrorist analogy to the entrepreneur and you get the situation that you do in the USA and dare I say Communist China. In America the ideal is not to become an established politician or keg in corporate America. Americans have always worshiped the loan individual taking on the big boys and winning. The same thing is happening in China - hence the irony that the most capitalistic nation today is in fact a communist dictatorship. America is actually quite messy and China is worse but individual Americans and Chinese are highly effective thinkers. The Chinese government is quickly understanding that it can no longer control individual Chinese like it once used to. The people have tasted a certain way of life and removing it will cause a revolution. The Communist Party is searching for an ideology that it can share with the people.

Say what you like of terrorist groups but they've proven to be very effective at doing what they do. The Israeli Army crushed the combined might of several Arab armies in the 60s. Today, a more highly trained IDF has problems taking on groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. The organisation structure of these groups allows them to activate resources at the most unusual of times and it's hard to cripple them. Bomb this place and they'll pop up at that place. It takes brains to come up with such a structure and it takes emotional intelligence to get people to gladly do something that will get them killed.

Now apply that to business. Loan individuals and companies can only do so much. But when they unite and form alliances the results are amazing. You can do multinational business without spending a multinational's budget. The Chinese diaspora in South East Asia has prospered precisely because of this system. You help your clansmen and they help you. Wealth is shared and everyone benefits.

An effective businessman needs to think and that's the same for artist and scientist. Brilliant artist and scientist are constantly thinking about their objectives and thinking about how to create.

In Singapore we are very comfortable. There is no need to think, which is why we can only operate in Singapore and we can only go abroad if it's under the umbrella of the government or a multinational. Hong Kong Chinese by contrast can travel and settle overseas and thrive. Why? In Hong Kong, thinking is a necessary part of life. Communist China produces internationally sell able writers in English, a langue China is not known for being proficient in. Singapore has yet to produce a writer Singaporeans find readable.

Does this matter? Well, let's put it this way, more and more of us need to go overseas to seek a living let alone become a winner in life. The rules of the game change when you don't have big brother to think for you and throw resources your way whenever you just call for it. Then look at what happens at home. You lose to either an Indian or Caucasian at the higher end of the market or to China born labourer at the other. Why do we end up losing at home? The answer is simple - the other guy thinks and can see things we are drilled not to see. The other acts, we don't because we've been drilled into understanding that acting without permission is bad for you.

Yes, I get irritated with foreigners coming into Singapore and somehow getting jobs just like that. A lot of them are shit people. But instead of asking for a government - lead solution, let's look at why these guys can beat us on our own ground and let's see if we can work together as lone individuals united by shared ideas and a willingness to cooperate when we need to. My favourite litigator, has done something for the small law firm community in Singapore. He's set up something called Open Law, where Singapore's 600 plus small law firms can share resources and expertise to take larger cases. The idea is based on the analogy of bee-hive where small bees and can gather together and make a bear run. So, 600 plus lawyers can unite accordingly and share cases that were traditionally only available to the big boys. Everyone wins.

Thinking and cooperating individuals are good for society. Sometimes thinking individuals get out-spoken but surely this is worth nurturing if the society is means that society can prosper?

Friday, December 11, 2009

What Exactly is Governance?

Singapore's Law Minister mentioned in a speech to Harvard Alumni that "Good Governance" had helped Singapore weather the economic storm and would provide for an optimistic future for Singapore. That got me thinking - what exactly did the Law Minister mean when he talked about good governance?

Say what you like about the Singapore government but it's exceedingly efficient and for the most part effective at doing it's job. You have to give credit where credit is due. Singapore is not just an economic miracle but a social one too. The streets are clean, the atmosphere is green and you can walk along streets that are mercifully free of beggars. Most of the population lives in decent accommodation and you can do very un-third world like things like drink from the tap. Singapore does not feel like the Isle of Weight with four million people - it feels more like a pleasant suburb of London or New York. Ironically, Singapore seems to be the only place I've lived in where the foreigners are happier than the locals. We, the local population are constantly grumbling about this and that. It's the foreigners who tell us that there's no reason to complain, life is pretty darn good here as compared to elsewhere - and I'm talking about Bangladeshi construction workers, highly paid senior executives from the US and Europe are the ones expressing these sentiments.

Infrastructure is not the only thing the government gets right. By and large, you can do a lot of government transactions online. You cannot just bribe officials and the government acts pretty quickly during crisis. During the SARS period, the government had an emergency plan, which it unfolded when H1N1 came into play. It was also quick to announce a host of measures to ensure the vulnerable were able to bear the worst of the economic crisis. I agree with the basic idea the government has when it comes to helping people - helping them help themselves rather than giving out right cash donations.

Having said all of that, I'm still wondering what exactly the Law Minister meant when he talked about governance. Yes, the government of the day runs exceedingly well, baring that incident of not having a basic window grill to keep number one terrorist in jail. However, one has to ask if he's implying that this government is going to be hanging around for all eternity?

Let's live in the real world here. The government of the day will only last as long as it's ministers and civil servants are somewhat capable. This will not be forever and although the system is seemingly so well designed to get people of a similar calibre into parliament, there is no guarantee that the governments of the future will be as capable as the one we have today. So the question remains, can Singapore deal with an "incompetent," let alone "rogue" government?

In this respect, the answer would have to be a depressing no. Singaporeans are dependent on government decisions to get moving. The civil service is a large employer as are the Temasek Linked companies. You get young Singaporeans like my favourite Young Politician who says,"You need the government to PLAN the economy." - He's not wrong. Singapore's government actually gets involved in selecting "economic winners" for the economy. The situation has been a case of so far so good. But what happens if the government were ever to make a mistake?

There is a frightening lack of checks on government power. The Elected President in theory has the ability to say no when it comes to unlocking the reserves but the theory falls short when the Elected President is a consistently unopposed government servant who does as he is told. Furthermore, the government always has the option of going to the people should the President say no (government has a machinery, the point of having the elected President is that he does not).

The less said about the press to act as an independent watch dog on government power, the better. Editors for the most part are political appointees and part of their function is "knowing" what is "acceptable" news about the powers that be.

Once again, this situation is acceptable as long as the government gets at least eighty percent of things right. But then again, is it getting as much of it right as we like to assume. I mean so far things work so why should complain right? I mean does it really affect me if the top terrorist in Singapore waltzes out of jail and the government's main holding company loses money in dubious investments?

Well, perhaps these things don't matter in as much as they have yet to hit the pocket of the average Joe? However, one has to look at the government's response to these events and if you look at them carefully, there are worrying signs of arrogance and complacency? During the Mas Selamat incident, there was actually a feeling that the Home Affairs Minister should have offered his resignation as a sign of accountability from the top. He didn't and funnily enough the tax paying and voting public got scolded for being complacent for expecting the government to do a job it was elected and paid to do. Then when it comes to the performance of our Soverign Wealth Funds, you find the Finance Minister coming up with spectacular accounting ideas on how the funds actually made money even though a primary school kid can calculate the value of the shares when the government bought into the companies and the shares today.

Surely as a member of the public I have every right to expect honest answers from the government that I help elect and pay for? If the government does not think that it has an obligation to be honest to it's voting public, what does that it say about the government - do they have something to hide and if they do have something to hide can it be a sign of competence? If this how the competent and honest government of the day behaves when it comes to accountability, who knows how future governments will behave, particularly they have the current role model.

Then you have the obvious fact that governments cannot control everything. This is the day and age of the internet. Technology has made top-down, we know it all systems obsolete. It was former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan who said it best, "Our choice was liberalise or die." Back in the 60, it was easy to build economic prosperity. All one had to do was to create the conditions for multinationals to set up shop and employ the masses.

But these days, Singapore is fighting in a different market. China will always be able to make things cheaper and India will always do the outsourcing work better. So what is there left for places like Singapore? Even the edge of physical infrastructure is not what it used to be. Cross to Causeway and you may find, contrary to what the Singapore media may tell you, a place that is fairly modern and slick too. I have never felt unsafe in Johor.

Is there a top-down solution to all of this? I think the best top-down approach is to prepare the people to think for themselves. Singaporeans live relatively well because there are decent enough paying jobs from the government and multinationals - all you have to do is to accept a foreigner as your superior. We accept foreigners here because they seem to have the skills we don't have. But then again, why don't we have the skills necessary for the modern economy? It's a question that good governance needs to answer for.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

What You Say Matters!

It's often said of people who've worked in advertising for long enough that after a while you tend to believe your own advertising. As my favourite littigator often tells me,"What is it about you PR people, don't you do anything real?"

I can sympathise with these sentiments. I've spent the better part of my life in the marketing communications industry - 8-years of work experience, many years of family members in the industry and now, to make matters worse, I've started something with a girl in the ad sales business. All I can say is that it's hard to know what's grounded in the business because you're constantly dealing with trying to invenet new realities for other people and if you do enough of something it becomes real to you. In a way, the industry is about inventing value for yourself. You know a lawyers value because you really need him or her in court. You know an accountants value because the books need to be done. But how do you know that you know the value of the marketing communications professional? We as an industry are good for the image but how do you know we're enhancing your image (by the end of month report we write you.)

One of the ways in which we invent value for ourselves, is by telling you that, it's not about what you say but how you say it. We can say it right for you and that can make things go so much more smoothly for you. Which to a certain extent is true. I like to think of a Mad Magazine sketch, where daughter comes home and says, "I'm pregnant." Everyone screams. However in the next scene she says, "You guys will be the envy of your friends - everyone will say you're SO YOUNG to be grandparents." Everyone smiles.

All this is true when things are going well. Nobody likes bad news and the last thing the product development people who have spent the last year or so in R&D want to hear is they're product sucks. We, the marketing communications people have developed a somewhat dangerous understanding with the clients that we can somehow, through some magic find a way to make your product or service shine and sales soar.

It's taken a military man, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen to cut through the myth when he criticised a comunique on the "war on terror." The Good Admiral pointed out that, "Too much energy is spent on communicating our actions and not enough on considering what our actions communicate." The admiral is right. Communications is a powerful tool and communicating correctly makes allot of difference to getting things done. However, you cannot communicate lousy things into good things.

Let's apply Admiral Mullen's logic to the Middle East conflicts. The politcians of the Obama administration want to "communicate better" with the Muslim world after so many years of "miscommunication" by the Bush Administration. On paper this is fine rethoric and a welcome change. In reality this is pointless. You cannot communicate a bombing that killed a few civilians into a happy event. You have to look at the bombing itself and act from there.

Likewise with marketing communications. Advertising as both David Ogilvy and Bill Burnbach pointed out, "Cannot invenet a prodcut advantage." In fact advertising can ruin a bad product faster because more people will know about it.

So, what do we, as industry professionals need to do? I think GE's former CEO, Jack Welsh said it best - discover "Candour" when we deal with our clients. We should fight to be part of the product development process rather than just communicators of the prodcut itself.

What you say does matter! You cannot create product advantages that don't exist through communications. Marketing communications professsionals will never know the client's business as well as the client and one cannot expect an outsider to know the brand as well as the brand owner.

However, one needs to be able to look at clients and tell them honestly that they're approach or their product will have problems in the market. Clients don't pay for fancy drawings and ideas. They pay solutions to problems and if one finds that there is a problem in product or service, one should not be afraid to say so. A client that cannot accept this, is not a client worth handling.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Glory: Glory: A Few Less Ayrabs, Spicks and All That for the Bush Administration

Am currently in the slow but steady process of recovering from spraining my back. The pain has been excrutiating and it limits my mobility. Although I only had to walk with the help of a cane for a single day, I'm not as sprightly as I should be.

However, life is such that there are things to write about and thanks to two more Americans in Asia, I have another topic - Obama versus Bush. As with all things political, opinions on the subject can be very devisive and the journalistic/legal ideal always says that one should be "Objective," and able to separate the personalities from the jobs. Lawyers for example often defend people they personally find repulsive because they are bound by a higher ideal namely the idea that even the most repulsive criminal needs a voice in court. Journalist are bound by ethical considerations to hear ALL sides of the story.

I am not a journalist or a lawyer, though I deal both groups on a frequent basis and while I admire the ability to remain "Objective" in situations that require you to get emotionally involved, I'm thankfull that I don't have to be objective in allot of what I do. Opinions may be like arseholes (everyone has one) and like arseholes, you can tell allot about a persons level of education by their opions, especially in the area of politics.

This is especially clear when you deal with people who think that "Obama is MUCH WORSE than Bush II." Let's be clear, this is an opion and people are entitled to hold their opions but when such a statement is made, we have to wonder what forms the basis of this opinion.

For the record, I think President Obama has dissapointed. Part of it had to be expected, the expectations people had of him on inaugural day were unrealistic and bound to happen. However, the President has to be responsible for the dissapointment he's caused. He acted fast to order the closing of Guantanamo Bay for example, but ordering it and seeing that it gets done are two different things. Somehow, actually removing this insult to America seems less interesting than telling people you want it done.

Then there's the Middle East. He gave a fabulous speech explaining America's position to the Muslim World. There were plenty of quotes from the Koran, which touched his Arab host. He even made some right sounding noises about making peace between Israel and Palestine. However, rethoric is meaningless if not turned into reality.

Since that wonderful speech in Cairo, Israel's Ethically-Challenged Prime Minister, Binyamin Nethanyahu has ordered even more constrution of settlements in the West Bank - a direct violation of every peace treaty signed (The 2001 Sharm Al-Shiek Report headed by Former Senator Mitchel found that there was a direct link between suicide bombings and the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip). The World's "MOST POWERFUL" Man has merely been "concerned." By contrast, Egypt has lost the opportunity to lead UNESCO because some of it's diplomats made "Anti-Israeli" remarks. Is anyone surprised that the Muslim world is saying "F* O" to American rethoric on the subject of making peace in the Middle East - It's merely worrying that Israel is actively provoking confrontation but something is actually done if the Muslim and Arab world say that Israel is less than perfect.

President Obama will have plenty more opportunities to screw-up. The American government is already in gigantic deficits trying to support wars and stimulate its capital starved economy. The President is also opening a can of worms with healthcare (though he is right to try to do something about a system that's clearly failing most Americans), that traditionally screws up American politicians.

So, yes, Obama has dissapointed and has plenty of opportunity to really fuck up the nation and the rest of the world. But not exactly sure how anyone can even suggest that the "House Nigger" in the White House is doing a worse job than the "Fag" before him.

Seriously, what did the Bush II Administration do for America and Americans. We got a few trade deals signed, I suppose and few African nations got to play host to the Cheerleader. I suppose you could say that you got more "safety" from terrorism because America invaded and occupied a country based on lies and deception.

Does anyone really care about American troops? I can't see how a sane person can say that their former Commander-in-Chief, George W did. I don't call fabricating evidence to send young men to die caring for them. How can you call sending troops into a possible life-endangering situation with inadequate support, care for your troops? I guess Donald Rusfeld and Dick Chenney thought it was acceptable but then again, I don't them or their loved ones near the front line.

How much did the Iraq War, the key legacy of the second Bush Administration cost America. Let's see - 4,000 troops and many more crippled and scared for life, and a couple trillion dollars of American Tax Payer's money - not that the American tax payer gets a bonus if the war turns into an economic success.

But then again, who really gives a shit about the American tax payer? According to George Bush II, the only ones that mattered were nice honest guys like Ken Lay of Enron, which is why they got tax cuts and breaks. Really, who gives a shit about a couple of Niggers in the slums or Spiks crossing the Rio Grande?

I mean, we could all see the real value of American tax payers to the Bush II Administration when Hurrican Katrina hit. A few wops, niggas and hicks drowned and "Brownie was doing Heck of a Job."

Or should we talk about the Patriot Act, which allows the government to spy on citizens and arrest people at randome for "Un-American" remarks. Why is it that when the Thai's have Le Majeste Laws to prevent criticism of King Bhuminphol (Who actually cares about his people), we call it a violation of freedom of speech but when the Patriot Act prevents criticism of the way the "war on terror" is fought, we call it safety.

Forgive me for being ignorant but I'm not sure how fucking up American people by sending their sons to a war with no justification worse than trying to reform healthcare? Yes, Obama is spending lots of money but it's aimed at trying to keep Americans in jobs, which is a darn sight different from spending it on a war with no direct benefit to the people who voted for you?

Then again, I suppose the crowd that think "Obama is MUCH WORSE THAN BUSH II," don't mind the loss of human life and the violation of their precious civil liberties if it means the world will have a few less Ayrabs, Spiks and what nots.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Could I have been harsh?

The subject of my recent blog entry told me that he had checked out this blog and found it to be cool and suggested that we might have lunch. Therefore, I've had to ask myself if I was harsh and perhaps unfair on him in my last blog entry. Being a failure of a human being, I'm not yet inclined to be maganamous and conceed that I might have been wrong about him, only time will tell.

However, I have to make it clear to readers of this blog that I am not against America and Americans or any Caucasians per se. My life was blessed by the presence of an American who was an Asia - my stepfather, Lee, who played a vital role in my formative years. Thanks to him, I managed to see Europe and many parts of the States. I've grown-up as one of the few of my generation of Singaporeans who appreciates the fact that places like America and even Briton are not one country but many with, each with their own unique culture and heritage.

Leaving aside the travel, I bless Lee for showing me that fatherhood was not just a biological process. I grew up with basking in his fatherly love, which is something that I've come to realise, particularly in my dealings with the former PGFNB is a precious commodity. My natural father wasn't a regular presence in my life during my formative years but thanks to Lee, I never felt the poorer for it.

Another American that I have to thank for making my life better is the late Granny Joan, mother of my former stepmother, Nora. Unfortunately, Joan had to die young (in her early 70s) but for the brief moments she was a part of my life, she blessed it with her tremendous capacity to love. Joan even extended her "Grandmotherhood" to my friend Joe when he was a student in Indiana. I think having a place in Chicago that would welcome him, made life in Indiana so much better for Joe.

Americans for the most part are wonderful and kind hearted people. Their innocent belief that the rest of the world wants to be like them is born out of a desire to share something, which for the most part is good.

The same can be said of the Brits or at least the Brits of the older generation, the generation that won a world war that they were not expected to win. I'm with Lee Kuan Yew when he describes the British of the 1940s as one of the most civilised people on earth. Unfortunately, that generation is dying out and what you get are holigans, though I must give my British friends credit for making me see the demise of this decency has yet to die off completly. My Indian readers should note that the average Brit has decency - it was the average Briton who protested against the reality TV show "Big Brother" when they saw the late Jade Goody engaging in "Racist Bullying" against Shilppa Shetty.

I also salute the British Military. Modern Britain functions primarily on forign labour - so much so that one of the worst insults has to be, "You Work Like an Englishman." While that may be true of the rest of the country, it is definately not true of the British Military. You have Generals like Richard Danton who speak up against their political masters in favour of their men and you have formations like the SAS and SBS that win military conflicts by winning over the local people. The Malayan Campaign is classic example. SAS troopers won over the local population and stopped the communist from taking over through a "hearts and minds" campaign. They brought medicines to remote communities and helped the local people discover a better life. The locals in turn helped them route out the communist.

Hearts and Minds was not an overnight success but it proved to be more cost efficient and placed the Brits in a better position to negotiate the peace. Compare that with American military campaigns - you get lots of fire power thrown at the most remote of areas in the hope that the other side gets the idea that it's just easier to lie down and die. Iraq is a good example - they steamrollered Sadamm's army thinking they'd be welcomed with open arms. The locals cheered them for getting rid of Saddam and then proceeded to pick of GI's one at a time and the most awkward times.

Today, I have no desire to go back to either the USA or UK or to visit Australia. I cringe whenever someone suggest going to London for a holiday. I've had enough of shoddy but very expensive infrastructure. I mean, I used to live in swanky Soho, which stank of piss - not something you'd find in Geylang. I also shudder when any of the three groups suggest business meetings or offer jobs - it's usually a session for mental masturbation and for you to do the work (including the thinking) and they take the money.

As such, my entries give the impression that I am dead set against Caucasians, particularly the Americans, Brits and Australians. This is not true, I am aware of the innate decency of Americans, Brits and Ausies - I merely don't show my appreciation to the good guys as often as I vent against the crap that ends up in the rest of the world.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Dieu Dieu Dieu and it's Whatch Fuckin Doing Motha Fucka

Had quite an interesting evening, where I think I actually got to let my baser instincts shine through. No I didn't get laid, in fact the lady who was my host felt quite hurt by the reactions towards two of her friends who were "Citizens of Caucasia." I remember correctly, one of them was from Boston and the other was not quite from a hick town but somewhere which escapes me.

Actually I was OK with the two guys until the lady host decided that we should all go to a Karaoke lounge that she had a free gift to. Suddenly you got to see the true colours of the two gentlemen, who were supposedly educated but decided to act like spoilt teens waiting to get laid from a five and dime hooker. I'm actually OK with that type of behavoiur if it comes from the navy boys. These guys do put their lives on the line everytime some faggot in the White House decides to look for his testicles in the Middle East. If they want to get laid, I'm all for them having their fun.

What I can't stand are young executives who think they're there to actually improve the lives of the Yellow and Brown People. OK, if you want to pick up a few Sarong Party Girls, that's your busieness, someone has to take care of the slums but for God's sake, please don't even pretend you've got anything to offer me.

I should even be fair to one of the boys. He actually found the balls (a rare commodity in an American Expat) to sing in Mandarin and he actually read a few Chinese words, which is a bit more than what I can do when it comes to what should be my mother tounge (My folks speak to me in English and my Dad's mother tounge is actually Cantonese)

But then after a while, he got irritating and so I proceeded to treat him like....well shit. He'd try and say something to me in Mandarin to impress the ladies and so I just insulted him in Cantonese to which my host "felt hurt," and decided that I had hurt in my hurt.

That may be the case but I was proved right. The Gentleman in question decided to leave quietly and stick the ladies with his tab. Well done....another sign of how Asia has a habit of importing bad rubbish from the West.

Was I boorish? Perhaps I was but if you asked me to do it again, I would, only this time, I would do it in English so the bugger would understand every word of what I was saying.

I don't know but I think it's reaching a silly state of affairs when Singapore Chinese girls are taken back when I tell them I have allot of Muslim and Indian friends. The lady who felt hurt by what I said of her White American friend was shocked by the fact that I told her I have Muslim friends, whom I make it a point of following their fasting rituals when I'm in their presence (I don't fast during Ramadan but if I'm with any of my Muslim friends I won't eat or drink unless they do).

My Muslim friends are for the most part fun to be around and reasonably educated. Most importantly collecting payment from Muslim clients has never been an issue. I'll always remember being told of former Saudi Ambassador to Singapore, Dr Amin Kurdi - "If Kurdi SAYS you will be paid, then you have nothing to worry about. " That took place three-years ago but I remember that. I mean I think it speaks volumes about a man when those smaller than him revere his words. Say what you like of Saudi Arabia and the Arab and Islamic world but working with Dr Kurdi showed me a world that believes in the concept of honour.

Likewise, the same has been true of my Malay and Pakistani friends. Sure, they don't have the pockets of the Saudi government but even then, I am properly taken care of when I deal with them. Again, this gives me a powerful impression of what it's like to deal with the Muslim world. One Irishman who had lived in the Middle East remarked, "The Koran is a guide to morality and honour."

So I am taken back when modern, educated Singaporeans look at me with shock that I would have Muslim friends. I seriously wonder if the lady who was hurt by my remarks about her Caucasian friend would have felt the same way if I had spoken about a Malay or an Indian.

Yet the same people who are surprised that I have Muslim and Indian friends get hurt or suspect I'm wierd when I don't give Caucasians (particularly Americans and Brits) any respect. Why should it be so? Are these people beyond the rules of normal behaviour? I think not. The American fellow didn't even have the decency to say goodbye to the group that treated with more than his fair share of respect. He may not have liked me personally but the very least he could have made an effort to say good bye to the ladies who had treated nay even revered him. But then again, what do you expect from the nation that voted for Bush and Chenney not once but TWICE.

But then again, I'm wrong to say that because the Americans I know are not like that. I remember being lost in San Francisco and people were rushing out of their homes to help me. So, it's not correct to say that I don't like Americans. I can't help but be touched by Americans when I think of the people who opened their doors to me.

So it's probably something about Caucasians who come to Asia and the developing world that turns them into grade A shit? I'm wondering what it is because the Americans are I know are not like what you see here - lots of hot air but money (or balls to back up their actions)

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Quick Ends

It's been two days since I came back from the land of smiles and I'm currently sitting in the bedroom being highly unproductive. I'm typing this post and listening to cheesy pop songs on Youtube. For a man who has sunk the better part of his meger savings into high-end sound equipment, I get my musical fixes off Youtube. Fun to listen to all the tracks that you want to, good for helping the brain rot.

It's not been a bad 48-hours. Managed to get Richard Sng, Singapore's Sun Tan entrepreneur interviewed in the Straits Times Money section. Yes, Singapore has several solariums and Richard has actually expanded across the causeway. You have to hand it to the guy. I remember thinking that the idea of a sun tan studio in Singapore was nuts. Used to write press materials thinking...."Jee,,,,this is nuts." But hey, the guy has proven his sceptics wrong and found a niche market in this part of the world.

I am also enjoying being sacked by the former PGFNB. I remember the world was laughing at the Malaysians a few years back when they implemented "SMS Divorce," (All you need to do is to SMS your wife 'Talak, Talak,Talak' - which is Sharia compliaent.) but I agree with it. I mean, having been through one divorce, I think it's a good idea to have sms divorce.

Seriously, when things are over, you should allow for a quick and easy end and let people move on. All Gina and I did to get married was to book a date on a website, show up at a place and say a few soppy words to each other. This cost us some S$200, including the price of a ring. With this we were legally bound to each other - call it a lifelong contract. However, when it was clear to the world that we were not meant to be, we had to look for a lawyer, show up in court and this cost us a grand total of $3,000 plus - the process took over a year, which means we both a had a year less of not being allowed to see other people.

It's quiet wierd in the world of corporations too. If you want to set up a business in Singapore it's easy. Just drop by the Acounting and Regulatory Authority (ACRA), fil out a form and pay a fee (not more than $350). By contrast, if you want to disolve a company, you need to do things like call in the service of a liquidator and a lawyer and professional fees can run into the thousands. Once again, this could take forever.

So, I'm often wondering why let people rush into marriage but make it so difficult to get out of. Marriage is supposed to be a lifelong comittment and making it easy makes it cheap. In the crudest terms, I got married because I was getting a regular lay and so when she put the conditions in front of me (I abort, you sign ROM doccuments), my brain was in between my legs and so I said yes and stuck to it. Neither of us had time to work through the initial hormonal surcharge of new relations. My mother always puts it simply - "There's more to a relationship than fucking and when the desire for constant fucking ends, there's got to be something to keep you together."

Much as I hate to admit it, Mother did know best on this occasion. Gina and I had great bonks for the first year. For men we love getting laid regularly. For women, love and lust become confused. If the bonking was going to be a constant, we might have lasted longer but beyond the bonks we actually had shockingly little in comon. As my favourite rogue says,"She had fireplace writen all over her place and you want to get out and do things."

Will both of us make the same mistake? I can't speak for her but I know I could. Zen always reminds me that my best fortune in the past few months was the fact that the former PGF was not offering sex. She's right.

If the former PGFNB had been offering me mind-blowing sex on a regular enough basis, I would have convinced myself that there was something real and before you know it I would have signed away my life. Men are particularly vulnerable when it comes to a regular source of sex and I would have convinced myself that her self-description as a vulnerable person putting on a tough exterior was the right one and then walked into Registry of Marriages to tie myself to a self-aborbed, lazy nut case with a violent temper and no sense of morals.

If that had happened, I'd be swimming in shit. It would take several years to extracate myself and unlike the ending with Gina, there would be children involved - in short I would be guilty of hurting Marcus and Nicollette.

OK, I got lucky this time but who's I won't lose myself if I get picked up by another nut job. Who's to say that I'm the only person who has a shit track record when it comes to crazy women. In Singapore, you don't need to have a trouser snake bigger than your brain to get married. Allot of people get married because they want to move out of parental home. Housing laws are such that affordable housing is easily available to married couple. Singapore men don't say, "let's get married," they say, "Let's get a flat together."

This is wrong. You should make marriage a little bit more challenging. If it's more challenging, people will treasure it more. Under Singapore divorce law, you need to be married for three-years before you get a divorce. Why? Who are you protecting? Trying to keep people together when they've decided that they no longer want to be together only leads to keeping them miserable.

But imagine if you ensure that entry point to marriage is more stringent. Instead of saying, you have to be married for three-years before you get divorced, why not say, you should date for three-years before you get married. This will allow couples to really get to know each other.

My favourite littigator told me that fakes are usually the ones who want to rush things through. Genuine cases will wait for you to do your due dilligence. If what he says of business is true, surely it should be even more true of personal affairs like marriage. I chose to ignore the fact that Gina was pushing to get married fast but imagine if I had to wait for three years before taking the plunge into marriage.

For a lifelong comittment, marriage is surprisingly easy to enter into. OK, you can't equate it with business thanks to the heavy emotional baggage involved but surely some common sense laws should apply. I mean if people married each other for more than a flat or more than a regular supply of sex, you'd find that less people would want to get divorced.

We live in a topsy-turvey world where it becomes easy to say "I do" but surprisingly difficult to deal with the consquences. Surely making a lifelong comittment should be something that people value or are made to value. Surely when people find they've made a mistake, they should be allowed to end things quickly.

Friday, August 28, 2009

It's the End of the World as We Know It and Yipppyyyyy

Just Come back from a family vacation in Bangkok, an industry function and now I can't sleep. So, I guess this means that those of you who enjoy rantings of the depraved will get another treat -another one of my early morning insomniac blahs.

I always enjoy visiting other Southeast Asian countries, its always refreshing to be in a real country as a opposed to a city-state on steroids. According to the world of the Singapore media when it comes to reporting events in the region, you'd get the impression that you're living in Heaven in Hell or if you prefer a more accurate Biblical analogy - Paradise dropped in the Middle of Armageddon.

Statistically speaking, there's some truth to this. I can't keep pointing out that you get most of the basics in Singapore - it's clean, green and safe. Our GDP per capita is on par with the industrial nations of Europe and we "kick ass" when you talk about things like government efficiency and transparency (which means don't try and bribe customes). Our Ministers are highly paid but hey, they're only earning "peanuts" when compared some of Wall Streets heroes and doing a better job and spending other people's money.

What do statistics actually mean? For me, I make the odd trip across the Causeway just to find out what it means from time-to-time. I've been shaken down for a bribe once in the last 3-years that I've been visiting the other side. OK, this is a little new to me, such things don't happen on this side of the Causeway.

I also don't drink tap water in Malaysia and in the last three days of staying in Bangkok, I stuck to drinking tea and wine. So far, so good - Singapore still kicks ass. Max did remind me that Thailand had a recent scandal where tourist would be offered free-gifts, then stopped by the police for stealing - the gift giver and the cops would then split the bribe......This sort of thing will NEVER happen in Singapore.

Having said all of that, I don't see much of a desire for Thai's, Indonesians, Malaysians etc to become Singaporean. I mean they don't mind coming to Singapore to earn Singapore dollars - which puts them in the same catagory as Americans, Austrlians, Brits and other desireables. A good deal of the less educated ones don't mind a passport but even then, they don't seem to want to "Beome" Singaporean in the truest sense of the word - which puts them on par with Americans, Australians and Brits (who presume they're educated?)

Surely, you'd imagine that the Thai's, Malaysians etc would be rushing to become us when we have all the things that they don't have. We clearly have better infrastructure as well as a cleaner and safer environment - so why the hell don't they want to become us?

It could be something to do with our personality and our values. For example, you get the likes of the former PGFNB (I got sacked as her PBFNC while on holiday ;) who is not officially a prostitute (goes to Church) but has a shap eye for other people's credit card, car and condo and can't stop talking about the barrow boys who want to poke them. I suppose this type of behaviour is charming if you're a barrow boy living of someone elses money.

By contrast you have the girls in the massage parlours who have the decency not to look through the contents of your wallet after you've paid for one round and don't jabber on about how talented they are.

Thanks to the former PGFNB, I understand why the third world does not always want to ape paradise. What our neighbours have are basically problems that can be solved with money. By contrast, Singaporeans seem to have psychological issues - it could be the inbreeding but more likely it's the way we live our lives. We're a curious lot. The chosen elite a protected from real life as long as they can string a sentence together. When you don't get the thrill and hunger - you get bored and that's a form of stress. The rest of the mice are kept on a treadmill and pushed to get bigger and better things that they can't really afford but need otherwise they're sex organs shrink (though occasionally you get the odd balls who twig that the size of their sex organs are not connected to owning things - but these are highly discouraged)

Being supposedly supperior makes us forget that we're not the centre of the earth. I love the creature comforts of being in Singapore but from time-to-time, a trip across the Causeway helps bring one back down to reality. Sure, it's not as swanky as what we have but somehow people get by and are quite happy. It's especially noticeable when you see the chicks cross over. Suddenly they look prettier - they smile - you'd be surprised how much a smile can do for a woman.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What Makes a Dad?

I've never fathered a child before and so I suppose this is a rather strange posting for me. My only biological experiment with fatherhood ended up in the dustbins of Thompson Medical Centre and the result of that was a three-year legal bind with Gina. I've dabbled in the topic a little. Thui was the first but thanks to Han Li's relationship with immigration that ended within a few short months. Now, it's PGF's kid's - Nicolette and Marcus who give me the odd glimpse into the joys of fathterhood - as things would have it, the only enjoyable times with the PGF are when the kids are around. But I can't call myself a Dad (though Thui has aknowledged me as Papa on a few odd moments) because I've taken on the job full time.

However, I can comment on being on the recieving end of what fatherhood should be about. My mother was married to three fairly decent men who provided me with a fairly set notion of what a father should be. Both Lee and Thomas (Mum's second and third husbands) helped me to understand that being a Dad is not necessarily a biological process. Lee in particular deserves credit for showing me that a man can love a child that's not necessarily his biological one. I've been lousy in the pay-back department in as much as I can't do for him what he did for me - ie take care of the old boy. But I do what I can to offer my heart to the children of the various ladies who have entered my life.

I'm an unusual freak in the sense that not only was I blessed with two (not just one) spectacular stepfather, but I had a pretty darn good natural father, who when I think about it, doesn't always recieve the credit he deserves. My father is a wonderful mix of East meets West. His casual in a very Western way. He's not into ceremony or the "I'm your father so..." type of thing that most Chinese father's are supposed to be into. Yet, he's Chinese enough (Cantonese remains his first language) - my Dad is not a cuddley type of Dad. I guess because of that, I don't open up to him the way I usually open up to my mum or dare I say to my stepfathers.

Like all things in recent months, it takes my PGFNB to make me understand how lucky I've been in the parent department. Today I had the misfortune of following PGFNB and following her into Family Court for one of her battles with the Ex. After months of hearing so much about him, I finally put a face to the name.

True enough, he's utter gutter scum and the fact that PGF could be married to him for 10-years means she's not much better - but then to be fair, a notch above shit, is still a notch above. Perhaps looks are decieving but he looks melevolent. - Sue for me for slander if you will but I'll say this in court about him.

OK, let's give credit where credit is due - I wouldn't want to be married to the PGFNB too. His new wife is younger and probably hell of allot nicer to live with. I can even give him credit for being genuinely in-love with the new wife. PGFNB is not a person who invites you to fall in love with's quite the opposite.

I'll concede to the point where her financial demands might be excessive. She's currently demanding $1,600 a month - which is the equivalent of a salary for a company recetionist.

Where I have bad vibes about the guy is the fact that he has no interest in his kids. Both Nicolette and Marcus have somehow developed into wonderful people despite their parents. I think it's privillege for anyone to be their parent. Both a funny, intelligent and loving despite their parents who are spiteful.

This man is particularly vile. He's never sent a single birthday card nor has he made an effort to ask how they're getting on. His only association with his children is when he's telling the courts that they don't need him. To me, that show's a lack of human decency. Like I said, PGFNG is not much fun to handle but in my mind, there are certain responsabilities that go with the job of being a Dad.

OK, my Mum let's lose from time-to-time that it wasn't always fun collecting child support from the old man and my Dad wasn't much good with the birthday cards. But after meeting PGF's ex-husband, I realise more deeply that my Dad what a Dad should do - he provided the financial means to ensure that I would have the basic tools in life. If anything, the Old Man provided for me a little too well - I was one of the few students who didn't need to look for a part-time job - Daddy's gold card solved allot of issues.

My father has had his business ups and downs. When he was doing well, he spreed the money widely. When he was not, he still ensured that school fees were paid. I am sitting here in Singapore as a Public School educated, university graduate because my father ensured that I had the means to be.

Then there was medical health care. When I developed a lymphoma in my left thigh, I had to come back to Singapore to get it removed. My doctor was Dr Susan Lim, one of Singapore's leading surgeons and the bill was over $2,000 for a day surgery. Was reluctant to do it because he had just flown me home, got me a job at one of the hardest banks in the world to enter and then there was this.----He told me to do the surgery. Yes, he could afford it but he could also have dennied that it was too expensive. To him, it was something that needed to be done and do he got me to do it.

He's also done the same for Max. Both of us have been well taken care of by the old man and although he's lousy at expressing certain things, he does like to feel involved in our lives, though he'd loath to admit it.

So thanks to my Dad, I believe that a father is obliged to take care of certain basic things for a child. When it comes to your financial status, you can suffer but somehow you have to find a way to make sure that your kids don't worry about the basics. I'm against giving kids a free ride. I had too much pocket money and a credit card - the result was I didn't need to discover the school of hard knocks until I started trying to earn a living. But basics need to be taken care of. A father has to see his kids have food and education.

Sure, you cannot be unrealistic in what you ask a man to provide. PGF's ex is legally a bankrupt (though a very talented one - he has savings). It's pointless to ask him to house his previous family in the Istana. But he must provide his kids with the basics. If he thinks the maintainance is too high, he can make alternative arangements to ensure that education and health care are provided for. He doesn't do it.

A friends have suggested that he's only acting naturally ie - PGF only wants matainance money for her lifestyle and not the kids and so, he's decided why bother? To my mind that logic does not work. If you have kids, you jolly well make sure they're taken care of. If you think the ex is going to blow it all, find an alternative to make sure the money goes to where it's needed.

I remember another friend telling me that most men don't bother fighting for custody. To an extent there's some sense there. Mother's are usually better able to nurture children and so courts usually give custody to mum's with visitation rights to Dads. But there are cases where Mum's are unsuited to take custody and a responsible father should recognise this. I put it this way, if Gina and I had kids, I would have fought for custody in a divorce hearing. PGF's ex filled for divorce based on her "Bad Temper" (which she has), claming she was violent and yet, he made no move to obtain sole custody.

I don't know how Nicolette and Marcus cope with this. How they ended up OK is beyond me. They're father is gutter trash and their mother ain't great either.

I've told PGF that after seeing her ex, she's not allowed to be attracted to me for whatever reason. I fear there's something about her that might turn me into this gutter trash that she married. Miserable failure of a father, a miserable failure of a human being.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

The Meaning of Patriotism

National Day just ended about an hour ago and the news about how great and wonderful we are continues to play. In case you missed it, the parade will be broadcast again - sometime next week. For me, I was at the PGFNB's trying to deknot her back with my knuckles and Marcus was probably the most excited person in the room when it came to saying the pledge - which was, for once set a peculiar time and the local media took delight in reporting on how people stopped their daily activities to say the pledge.

Do I sound bitchy here? Perhaps I do. I mean this with no disrespect to the guys who participated in the parade, I know the personal effort that was invested in making sure that this was a good show. The parade has also become an institution that the nation looks forward to. As such, despite the dollars spent on the parade, I don't hold anything against the parade.

What I do question is the annual chest thumping. Yes, Singapore has achieved allot and I can say that Singapore is a pretty darn good place to live in, even when compared to many cities in the developed world. I'm always reminded of a US Navy boy telling me, "If you think Geylang is your worst area, you haven't seen an American city." Being known as a "boring" place is better than being known as a place where people get stabbed every three seconds or a place where people can spend years in school and emerge not knowing how to read or write.

I lived in the "Wonderful" West for my formative years and I came home to Singapore quite happily. After nine years of living here, I have no overwhelming desire to go back to live in the West. Other than visiting a few friends and relatives, there's no reason for me to look West. Let's face it, life in Singapore is exceedingly comfortable. There's allot to say for streets that don't stink of piss and having to look a whingy but able bodied guy asking you for spare change at every corner on the streets of your somewhat exclusive neighbourhood (In my case it was in London's Soho.)

Yes, Singapore has achieved allot in 44-years, which on the scale of things is not allot. We have allot to be proud of and let's give credit where credit is due, the PAP governments that have run the place have delivered the goodies. Say what you like about the PAP's constant electoral success, but it's a political party that has delivered consistently.

Having said all of that, I have ask myself if all of this chest thumping is actually patriotism or real love for the country. Chat to enough people and you'll find that Singapore is heaven on earth if you talk to a foreigner. The Straits Times even went as far as having a Canadian tell us to be greatful for Singapore. Talk to a native born Singaporean and what you'll here are grumbles. Life is Singapore is comfortable but its expensive and getting more so. Talk to enough native born Singaporeans and you'll find complaints about how this is a country that no longer cares about its people.

Is this true? Well, to an extent I would disagree. Yes, the government is very money minded but because it is money minded it has accumilitated enough money to benefit the people.

However, what I do disagree with is the idea that the future is only capable of being decided by a select few. Without fail, National Day turns out to be an occasion for the powers that be to remind the Plebs who's boss. One year it was Ministers deciding that it was better for the Nation to increase their high salaries than to assist the least able. In the last two-years we've seen worse examples of this - namely the escape of Mas Selamat and the Minister in question's lack of remorse for the lapses in competence by his ministry and the continued presence of the Prime Minister's wife as CEO of the company set up to invest the money of the people after her company has invested incompetently.

In both instances, the public is only told that "shit happens," and the only people who defend these actions are usually the people who are only good for pissing on - ie people who talk about values but when it comes to sacrificing their time for the nation, they run away.

People who ask valid questions are quickly discouraged and discredited. I'm told by a senior editor that this is not true about the Singapore establishment and quite often it's the people trying to get close to the establishment that choak the efforts to create a discussion. You become lablled unpatriotic.

That's not patriotism, that's parotism - and the two are distinctly different. The Parot waves his flag on national day and may be attends a few grassroots sessions to tell the poor to stop being poor and contribute to the nation by giving more money to the rich, but when it comes to doing anything real for the people or for the country, they quickly run away. In National Service, you'll find that they usually end up working in Manpower base as clerks.

A patriot is something differnet. He recognises the good and the bad of his country but makes a choice to be in his or her country. He or she is open to dicussion when it comes to talking about flaws. Usually, you find patriots serving National Service in a combat unit, in a combat role.

It's fun to have a public holiday but I think we need to look beyond the hype of what exactly National Day is and ask our selves if the love we feel for the country is based on something more than the Ministry of Community Development's advertising campaign.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Different Strokes for Different Folks

Temasek Holdings, one of Singapore's Soverign Wealth Funds has been a major feature in the news during the past two weeks. First, it's CEO-designate, Mr Charles "Chip" Goodyear decided not to take up his post due to "strategic" differences between himself and the board. Then news leaked out that Temasek had lost a staggering amount of money and finally, Ms Ho Ching, the current CEO (and wife of the Prime Minister) decided to announce that Temasek would invite the public to invest alongside it.

Even the most devoted columnist could claim that this has been a good month for Temasek. The internet chat rooms and forums were abuzz with scathing remarks about Temasek and it's major shareholder - the Ministry of Finance. Just as Temasek tried to put a spin onto things, the usual detractions about the "lack of transparency" were being thrown all about cyberspace.

Both sides may have a point but I believe that they miss the "bigger" picture. At the heart of all of this is the question of whether politicians necessarily make good business people and visa-versa. This question becomes especially prominent in the Singapore context in as much as our top politicians and civil servants usually become heads of the large local corporations that dominate the local economy.

There is a certain logic to this. The Singapore government invest heavily in developing people. The schoolars selected by the government do end up in the world's best educational institutions. Look at any major change of command parade in the military and you'll find that both incoming and outgoing generals got into Cambridge and graduated with a first and then proceeded to do their MBA in places like Harvard Business School or Cornell. Top civil servants and politicians have glowing academic credentials and one would imagine that such people would have no problem switching between government and business.

To some extent it's worked. I happily use government subsidised health care. I dreaded the idea of being in an NHS hospital in the UK. For British Airways, profitability only came with Thatcherism and being sliced out of State Hands and placed into the care of the business people. By contrast, SIA has been profitable from day one - even with a high level of government ownership and several former Chief of Air Force on the board of directors.

So, it's not necessarily true that State ownership is bad for busienss. The Singapore government is exceedingly business minded. In international survey after international survey, Singapore is ranked as one of THE best places in the world to do business. In the past year, I've dealt with the Economic Development Board for the opening of a plant for both 3M and Alcon. As one representative from an Indian Multi-national says, "If you think your EDB is awful - try dealing with the Indian version."

A good businessman can be a good civil servant and that applies in other parts of the world too. Saudi Arabia's SAGIA (Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority) is a prime example. Mr Amr Al-Dabbagh, SAGIA's Chairman and Governor was a former businessman before he took over the investment authority and that's not all. SAGIA recruits from people with business experience. Meshari Al-Khaled, SAGIA's Country-Director in the ASEAN region is a former ABN Amro banker. Thanks to the international and commercial experiences of its key people, SAGIA is regarded as highly efficient and effective in what it does.

However, the very concept that a good civil servant or politician automatically making a good business person is flawed. Generally speaking, these three groups are good when they stick to being what they are and not when they cross into different turfs. In the Singapore context, this is somewhat of heresy but if one has spent a day or two in the real world, one will realise the fallacy of civil servants and politicians making good business people - even in an economic crisis where the business community has run to the government for help.

It's so simple - government and business are two different games and the people who are good at the respective games have different skill sets meant to deal with their respective games. Perhaps sports offers the best analogy. How many world class soccer players do you know who managed to become world class rugby players. Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players in history but he tried to play baseball - he didn't get very far. Ivan Lendel was one of the great tennis players in his time. He tried to take up golf as an alternative career - it didn't work out.

In business, the focus is on profits and business organisations are geared towards that. Everything that a business man does goes towards trying to make a profit. A businessman will hire and fire according to the needs of the business. Fancy degrees will only get you so far, if you don't deliver. A head of a mid-sized accounting firm put it best, "I simply ask, am I making money from you?" Business by its very nature is not meant to be charitable, even if good social affects come out of it - things like jobs for people, better technologies for society are the by product of a good business.

How do business people stay focused? The answer is simple - competition. As long as a businessman has to face competition, he'll be forced to think of ways to hire more effectivly and come up with better products and services for the customers. Once competition is eliminated, the business person has no incentive to give you "good-stuff" if he can make the same amount of money giving you "crap."

Business and markets are good at creating jobs and wealth but if in checked problems start. One of the usual problems comes when businesses become too cozy with each other. Look at the current financial crisis. Business people were cozy with banks, which didn't always lend with the strictest financial criteria in mind. Wise governments recognise this and generally let businesses run themselves and only step in when it looks like a dominant business is about to eliminate all competition.

Government is a different ball game. A politician needs to consider many factors in decision he makes. To a businessman, firing people makes sense becomes it's less headcount and therefore wages to pay. To a politician, firing people is very difficult because these people either become dissillusioned enough to vote against you or worse - start a revolution. For the civil servant, life is about ensuring that the political mashine runs. Business heros are people like Jack Welsh who value candour and make swift (and sometimes harsh) decisions. Politics by contrast is a game of compromise.

It's clear that the skill sets are different and assuming and putting people who are good at one game to play another usually end up in dissapointment. Yes, many of the Temasek Linked companies are cash rich and many have established overseas branches. With the exception of SIA, this usually has nothing to do with common business skills let alone managerial talent and everything to do with near monopoly powers in the domestic market.

One ingenious way of promoting a general's skills in business is to talk about how he ran Chartered Industries or Singapore Technologies Pte Ltd. Yes, tecnically the organisation in question is a private company but you can hardly call it a real business when the only business the company has is to sell products to one customer - the Singapore government. Shifting army generals into Chartered Industries is not sharing talent to increase value to society - it's simply moving someone from one branch of the government to another.

How many people on Temasek or GIC's board of directors faced "competition" and the idea that they could go "bankrupt" if they screwed up. Mr Goodyear comes to mind and by now, we should all know what happened to him. I just hope for his sake that his parachute was made of solid gold and he's now making Crosus blush

Personally, I think the best thing to do is to float Temasek on the stock exchange. Everyone will win. The public will feel a sense of ownership as shareholders. The government will no longer have to spend time writing letters to the foreign media explaining that the CEO's position has nothing to do with her position as the Prime Minister's wife - something which not even Singaporeans believe. Most importantly, Temasek will honestly be able to say that it makes decisions purely on commercial grounds.

One example where this has worked is in Israel. Given that Singapore borrows allot of its ideas from Israel (SAF was created by instructors from the IDF), let's borrow another good idea - make the State holding company a commercial venture. Israel Corp is run by business people rather than former civil servants. It is listed on the Tel Aviv exchange and most importantly, its been highly profitable. When Israel Corp claims it's made money, nobody tries to hide in a corner and mumble - it's financial claims are open to public scrutiny.

Israel's culture is notoriously secrative and yet it allows it's national holding company to be run by business people. The results are there for all to see.

Yes, the Singapore government has been good to business but it's been good to business as a government. As government's go, Singapore is exceedingly lucky to the have the government that it has.

But being good at being a government does not mean that the government is good at running businesses. The results of the government in business are mediocre at best. Just look at Temasek. Surely, we should heed the words of our transport minister, Mr Raymond Lim who says,"We should not be in business found in the Yellow Pages."