Saturday, December 31, 2011

Full of Crap – But Encouraging Non the Less

This has been something of a funny little year. If I were to look back and analyse my decade in Singapore, I could say that it was largely dissapointing and filled with crap. Yet, despite of all of that, it was also a year filled with optimism and as this year comes to an end, I find myself writing my yearly summery with a sense that I might have at least one more decent year in me to do something interesting.

Much to those worry of those who love me most, I have come to except that I am meant to life in a world of uncertainty and turmoil. In a funny way, the world is moving to suite people like me. In the Middle East there was the Arab Spring, which saw huge people-power demonstrations brining down long standing autocrates like Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Qaddafi in Libya. These were men who had an 'iron-grip' on power for decades thanks through a combination of ruthlessness with domestic opponents and convincing outside powers (Westen ones) that it was in their interest to keep them in power. However, when their people.....simple ordinary people, had enough – these rullers had no choice but to flee.

In a curious way, what happened in the Middle East was a catalyst for things to happen elsewhere. In the Western world, people had enough of being screwed by powerful elites and occupied Wall Street. Even Singapore wasn't spared. We had two-elections and suddenly our normally politically apathetic public discovered our love to our country at the ballot box.

Something amazing happened on this little island that usually accepts being browbeaten as a necessary fact of life. The people forced the government to listen. The Ruling Party lost an unprecdented six-seats in the General Election and its prefered candidate barely squeaked home in the Presidential election despite every concievable advantage. The much maligned Singapore electorate showed an incredible amount of wisdom by returning a government with a good track record but at the same time giving legitimacy to the one opposition party that had the hunger and know-how to form an alternative government – the Workers Party. Opposition politics in Singapore has moved from being about disgruntled ego-maniacs to being about an intelligent alternative.

All these changes might not necessarily be better from the point of material gain. However, its a wonder from the point of view of the human spirit. For me, I discovered that my only hobby has become my only asset. This blog has doubled in size and I've had people tell me that I've managed to strike a chord with them.

I still haven't figured out how to make blogging pay and I'm not the only one. My fellow intelligent bloggers tell me that they haven't either. However, we will continue to do what we do – which is to put across different views from the mainstream and to get people thinking.

Gone are the days when Singapore could survive as a robotics factory for the Western World. We on this little island need to think and debate. We need to find our own solutions instead of relying on the government to be the almighty and all knowing guide. I do what I do in the full knowledge that I may risk offending someone but I pray that even when I offend, I am able to provoke a thought. I take the view that as a patriotic Singaporean it is my obligation to put forth my views about what it is good and what is not good about this nation from this nation.

On the professional/personal front things moved in interesting directions. For once I had to live without a monthly retainer. Having to worry about my next meal was rough....Thankfully, I have Huong back in my life and I am starting to appreciate what my Dad once said about having a woman with ambition in your life. Thanks to Huong I am now helping Vietnamese in Singapore learn English. It's not making me rich but it pays bills.

In a way, you could say that whatever “teaching” I've been doing has been starting to pay off. My first and final professional strikes of the year came courtesy of Mr Glenn Lim, Director of 20Twenty Pr. I met Glenn for a brief period in 2005 when I worked at BANG PR. He was my intern and when he returned to BANG after I left, we continued our friendship. I will not hessitate to keep stressing that he has become a far better PR consultant than me. He has proven that small one-man-agencies can win in both online and off line PR. He blessed me with work on New Zealand Natural and with the Family Business Network. I look forward to more collaborations with him.

I also need to thank Ms Kavita Balakrishnan and her brother Venkat for their friendship. I met Kavita two years ago when she worked for one of my business partners. It was she who ensured that I had the warmth of friendship on my birthday and at Christmas.

In a funny way, I also bless this year for blessing someone else. Joyce, the love of my life has just got herself a job paying a decent salary. I thank God for giving her a chance to do what she needs to do – to look after Yooga.

Life had a few promises. I was approached by a headhunter online trying to recruite me for Accenture. I also had the good fortune to work on a project with former Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Mussa Hitam. Unfortunately, the relationship with Edleman Malaysia proved to be based on something other than mutual respect – a fact that I was to discover five months after the job was done.

As always, I am greatful to Mr PN Balji, former Editor-in-Chief of the Today Newspaper. It was thanks to Balji that I managed to work on one of the most interesting projects I've worked on.

However, I am more greatful for his introduction to a man who has given me hope for Singapore – Mr Philip Wong. Mr Wong has dedicated his life to inventions and at the time of writing he may have something that could change the way the human race does things.

Through my work with Mr Wong, I have had the privillege of meeting Ms Elaina Olivia Chong, the CEO of Real Kaiten. Ms Chong, a leading member of the ruling party's youth wing has has founded a company that sees opportunity in a part of the world that nobody looks at. She sees profit in making sure that people have a chance to live properly.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bring Back the CHRIST in Christmas

Christmas has now departed into Boxing Day and so I thought I would try and write a few words about what it was like to spend Christmas in Singapore instead of heading back to Germany. Although I had a pretty good Christmas with friends and family, I find myself agreeing with Pope Benedict. It’s time to bring CHRIST back to Christmas.

Everyday of walking down Orchard Road (Singapore’s main shopping district) was a nightmare. Not only was the place crowded with shoppers, one couldn’t help but be bombarded with endless, meaningless promotions to get you to buy things that you don’t really want or need. Yes, I am well aware that Christmas is supposed to have gone beyond its Christian roots and become a “universal” festival. However, a trip down Orchard Road has confirmed my belief that we’ve merely moved away from the Gospel of Christ to the Gospel of Mindless Consumerism.

OK, let’s clarrify, I am not against business. Of all people, I should be very pro-business and I should be greatful when people like retailers do well. I am also not against gift giving or having a good meal (though I should probably have a lot less of those). What I can’t take is how all of this has over shadowed the most significant part of Christmas – Christ.

I’ve not been confirmed in Church so you can’t call me a Christian in the truest sense of the word. However, I believe in the divinity of Christ and his message. If you read the Gospels and try to understand what the man was saying, you’ll find that he was preaching a simply put powerful message. This message is revered by everyone or at it least in should be.

Let’s face it, everyone agrees that Jesus is Holy. Christians see him as “God, the Son.” The Muslims revere him as one of God’s greatest prophets (Fact – the Koran mentions Jesus more often than it mentions Mohammed and it talks about Jesus’s return to fight the Anti-Christ). There is a sect of Hinduism that recognises Jesus as a Saint and the Dalai Lama has described Jesus as a Bodhisatva. Everyone agrees the man was Holy – we merely disagree with the extent of how holy he was.

So let’s start with our common ground – Jesus was Holy and what he said and did was sacred. From here we need to look at why he was so.

I think the answer is fairly simple – he taught us that life was about something greater than ourselves. Life, if you are merely focused on “Me, Myself and I” is pretty pointless. As I get older, I also realise that when people become so focused on themselves at the cost of everything else – they also don’t get very far.

I don’t believe that Christ was advocating being a doormat for every mercenary shit on the planet. My former half’s former pastor said it best – “Meek does not mean stupid.” There are times when one has to be firm about certain things. However, I believe that Christ did teach people that it was important to be driven by something other than the need to feed yourself.

If you study the Gospel, Christ talks about the willingness to “carry ones cross” to follow him. He urges rich men to sell their posessions and distribute it to the poor so that they could become followers of his. One of his best sound bites was “Man cannot serve two masters.” You serve money or God not both.

Once again, I don’t believe he was being “anti-business.” I don’t think Christ ever argued that one cannot make a profit. What I believe he said was that ones motive had to be about more than just making money.

Business should make money. However, that money has to benefit humanity rather than encourage greed. Businesses need not necessarily be philanthropic but at the very least they should create benefits – ie they should provide people with a means of making a living as well as making life better through the products or services that they provided. Businesses that encourage greed and thrived because of it would eventually fail.

There may be a point to this argument. Look at the banking system, which moved from being about lending money to people to being about creating financial products based on some fantasy to create vast sums of money for a few people. When you are focused on lending money, you remember things like risk and return. When you are focused on creating money out of thin air, you forget basic laws of physics.

I look at the people who have topped the Forbes Rich List consistently over the last two decades. Two names stick out – Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. Both are highly decent men who were driven by something more than just personal enrichment. I know the technies will hate me for saying it but Bill Gates did do something good when he made computers useable to the average person. Sure Microsoft PC is dull when compared to Apple Mac but serves a purpose and it gives people a chance to do more that what they ever dreamed of before. Bill Gates has created vast wealth for ordinary people – Seattle is filled with ordinary people who did the ordinary thing of taking a job with Microsoft for normal wages but ended up becoming millionaires through their stock options.

Warren Buffet only invest in “real” businesses (those with a genuine product or service) . He avoids things that are complicated and don’t make sense even to the chaps who created them. Buffet avoided investing in “Dot.Com” because it was too complicated and he realised the valuations were created by funny money rather than something real. What’s the result of this – Mr Buffet has created wealth for people and his AGM (Annual General Meetings) are constantly packed. Mr Buffet does not need to hide behind “National Security” and “Libel” laws to show that he’s making money.

Messers Gates and Buffet have made legendary fortunes by not being obsessed with personal enrichment. Their focus has been on doing something else and by doing their something else well, they’ve made their fortunes. Warren Buffet says it best, “I am more interested in processes than proceeds – though I’ve learnt to live with those too.”

The Gospel of Christ is in people like Gates and Buffet. The Gospel of Mindless Consumerism is in the people who gave us the Sub-Prime Crisis. Both have created wealth but only one has been sustainable.

People should give gifts at Christmas and they should spend time with friends and family. What we should not do is to see Christmas as an exercise in buying things we don’t need and stuffing ourselves into something unrecognisable.

Christ taught us to look at life as something greater than ourselves. Its tough doing it but when people find the strength to do good, they become better people. When they don’t the worst in them takes over.

In the last few years, the world has gone through something of an economic downturn. This has been brought about largely by a culture that encourages people to behave at their worst. This is the type of culture where Christmas is celebrated by excessive spending driven by the need to own more for the sake of owning. This is the state where we talkbout “Xmas” and other variations of the festival because the Christ has been forgotten.

Given the economic downturn that we’ve been living in, isn’t time we brought back the CHRIST to Christmas and worked on having a culture that encourages us to bring out the best in each other?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Who Gives a Shit At Christmas about Plebs?

You have to hand it to Singapore's Mass Rapid Transport (SMRT) for their ability to demonstrate a tin-ear to the demands of the public and the worst possible time. The disruption of the North-South Line on Thursday 15 December 2011 was a slap in the face of a nation that takes so much pride in the fact that it has a “World Class” transport system. While the disruption on its own was bad, the company proceeded to make matters worse by its inept handling of the situation – the infamous “income opportunity” message it flashed to all its taxis is currently competing with Whitley Detention Centre's lack of a window grill as a symbol of incompetence.

The only saving grace of this whole afair was the fact that the Singapore Government acted like it cared. The Prime Minister cut short a holiday and called for a public enquirey while the transport minister proceeded to become very vocal. Thanks to the pressure ontop, the management of SMRT proceeded to run a series of checks on the rail system and what did we find? It turned out that there were a mere 61 faults in the rails and 13 trains were found to be deffective.

I don't think this is acceptable by anyone's standards, let alone for a nation that takes so much pride in how it has climbed to the top of the world in just about everything. It brings me to the last days of my national service, when the powers-that-be could happily tell us that five out of every hundred fuzes were deffective and they only bothered to discover this after two people died and this wasn't the fault of the all caring defense procurement companies.

Its been a decade over since the incident in New Zealand took place and although I like my contemporaries have managed to move on from the emotional trauma of the incident, I still get irked whenever I read about incidents in Singapore that were caused by disregard by upper echelons for the people below them. I don't blame my commanders for the incident. Looking back at the incident, I can accept that my bosses did the best that they could in the circumstances that we were thrown in.

What I cannot and I should not accept is the way the Committee of Inquirey found a host of safety lapses between the people who were supposed to buy the ammunition and the people who were supposed to receive it on our (The people who fire the gun) behalf and then out of the blue the story that came out of this was how they were dupped by greedy Americans who outsourced it to shoddy Chinese Manufacturing. Nobody was persecuted for what can only be described as criminal negligence. This was an eye-opener to the way the world worked – too many of the “right” people were making money from defense procurement to allow this incident to blow a hole into the system even if it cost two lives and countless of injuries. I suppose you could say my batch got lucky – Ronnie and Yin Tit paid for one faulty fuze. I hate to think what the battalion would have been like with if we got all five out a hundred faulty fuzes (We fire around 400 plus rounds per exercise – at that rates, we'd all have come home in body bags).

Nearly a decade and a half later, I'm no longer reading about fuzes for an artillery round but trains. Sure, nobody died when the train service got disrupted but whoes to say that it wouldn't happen the next time. In a way, the faults from this incidents are more unforgivable than the fault that caused the explosion in New Zealand all those years ago in the sense that these are faults that could easily have been detected.

The train system shuts down every single night by midnight and it only reopens five and a half hours later. A basic inspection of the system is supposed to detect faults like this. Sure, I can except that you can repair all the faults immediately but surely in that time, you can repair some of the more serious ones?

So one has to ask – how is it possible that we're now finding 61 faults to the rail system? More seriously – how the hell are we finding out that we have 13 defective trains running across the system. Surely one could have repaired at least one of those trains in a basic nightly inspection. Why are we running 13 defective trains on the system?

What's worse for SMRT is the fact that it has asked for and received the right to increase the rates it charges consumers. Thanks to the Young Muslim Politician who Supports the 2008 bombing of the Gaza Strip from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek, I knew what the transport opperators were claiming (he was trying to hawk it) - “They were not making money from providing transport at the current fares they were charging.” They were of course making enough money to pay the CEO of SMRT her S$1.6 million annual salary as well as dividends for the shareholders (largest one being Temasek Holdings).

Well, I'm not going to go into the financial statements of the transport opperators but what's clear is that the money which seemed to flow to the senior management and majority shareholders didn't flow into simple routine checks that could have saved people a lot of agravation and trauma.

I lived in London for three-years as a student. I used the tube regularly enough. The tunnel system was built in the Victorian era and in many ways, the fact that the system works is a miracle. When you compare the facilities we have to what London has, we're way ahead in terms of modernity and the latest technology.

Yet, despite this, I never heard of a massive train disruption on the tube system in the three-years I lived there nor in the subsequent years since then. By contrast, Singapore's much younger and much more modern system has produced 61 faults and 13 deffective trains within a space of two decades.

For all its faults, the London Underground understands that it needs to do basic things. The tube user is at the centre of the system. Sure, its not glitzy or comfy to travel by tube but the system doesn't get broken down by basic faults. Money is spent on doing basic things to ensure the system runs.

By contrast Singapore has a system that lavishes money on the glitz and the glam and somehow neglects basics. Swanky stations make Ministers feel good when they brag to the world about how great we are. Opperator CEOs look good when they buy swanky gadgets. Nobody except the end user suffers when basic things are not taken care of.

I couldn't except being on the receiving end of this disregard for the small man when I was in National Service. I don't see why I should stand for it now that I'm older and way past military liability. These are not things I receive as part of someone elses generosity but things I pay for as a consumer and a tax payer.

Acountability is not a wishy-washy Western liberal dream that is unsuitable for Singapore's “Asian” society. Demanding it is the most practical and patriotic obligation of every citizen.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Jobs for Sale

If you are worried about looking for a job or keeping your existing job, do not fear for there is an industry that will gladly take you up – it’s called “Jobs for Sale.” This isn’t exactly a new industry but its been gaining a bit of publicity thanks to pesky people on the Internet who don’t understand business and the importance of economic growth.

The concept behind “Jobs for Sale” is wonderfully simple. All you have to do is to find someone who wants a job and get them to pay you for giving them a job. Like many industries, “Jobs for Sale” is particularly hot in Asia. This region has lots of poor saps who are desparate for work that they’ll happily get their home villages to mortgage themselves and they’ll pay you to get a less than minimal wage in your country.

If you’re from the USA, the figure can get as high as US$10,000 per person and the price lowers if its near by. Singapore, for example isn’t a bad place to opperate your own “Jobs for Sale” business. Its smack-bang in the centre of a region filled with desparate and poor people who will some find the money to get a job into Singapore. The rates are not bad – you can make about S$6,000 per person per year. So, imagine if you could get 10 clowns into the country. You’d earn something like S$60,000 a year without having to do to much.

The downside of this business is also liveable. The key is to stay on the right side of the immigration authorities. You need to pay off a “workers levy” which will cost about S$3000 a year. The second most important thing to do is to ensure that the people you sell a job to happen to be “Darkies” from other parts of Asia or Africa. “Darkies” unlike “Pink Blotchies” do not have annoying things like embassies that complain about wishy-washy things like “Human Rights.” You should also make it a point to house the “Darkies” in a place far away from rich residents who might complain about the “smell” coming from the “Darkies.”

You don’t have to spend money on housing “darkies” either. If your cards correctly, you can actually make money – enough to pay off the money you spent in levy payments. All you need is something like $10 a day for a bed space.

The nice thing about Singapore is that the infrastructure for this business is in place. For example, if you don’t pay the “Darkies” who you employ business, you can always let refer the case to the Ministry of Manpower. The Ministry will take about two months to investigate and that should give you enough time to look for “specialist” to help you remove the pesky workers who actually have to gall to do something as UnSingaporean as expected to get paid. We have people called “Repatriation” specialist who will happily help you to help you get your problem to disappear.

Do the maths and you’ll realise that this is a growth area and it’s a good time to get onto the bandwagon. Sell enough jobs and before you know – you may even get the opportunity to claim an award for contributing so much to the nation’s economic growth.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The Rot and Hope

Just read a story by Alex Au who is one of Singapore's most prominent bloggers that confirms one of my biggest heart breaks – there's something rotten in the state of Singapore. The story was about a boss who brought over 600 foreign workers from Bangladesh and housed them in cage. Instead of paying them, the boss in question allowed them to rot there and as expected, one of them actually died. As a result of this, the boss was – wait till you hear this – 4 weeks in jail and served a $36,000 fine. You can get the details of the story at: http://yawningbread.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/jail-for-bosses-who-mistreat-workers-says-judge/

I don't know what it is but I'm shocked. I shouldn't be – I've lived here for over a decade. This isn't the only time I've read about how badly people can be treated especially if they have the misfortune of being born dark skinned and from another Asian country. As far as an alarming number of Singapore's educated professionals are concerned, the proverbial “Darkies” from the rest of Asia are blessed enough to clean our shit.

What's more worrying is that there have been too many times when the system, which prides itself in being above the petty prejudices of people, sometimes accepts and supports the prejudices. In this case the system showed itself to be as rotten as the people who committed the crime. Let's look at this case. The man conned the vulnerable into the country on the promise that they would have a job. The people that he conned flocked to Singapore in the hope that they'd have the chance of supporting their families. Instead they ended up living in a cage with no job and no money. He fed them two insignificant meals. One of the men ended up getting chicken pox and died as a result.

For cheating and dare I say causing the death of one of them, he was finned $36,000 a sentenced to four weeks in jail. Now, let's compare this to what you will get if you suggest that the powers that be in this little island are less than perfectly clean or if you damage property but not human life?

Let's start with Michael Faye, the American Teenager who caused one of our bigger diplomatic rows with the USA. Mr Faye decided that it was fun to damage other people's property and for that he got a few strokes of the cane. Since the US President of the day complained, we made the mistake of reducing his strokes by two instead of increasing them (Mr Faye is a Pink Blotchy and therefore considered above human in Singapore Speak).

While I may have agreed with Mr Faye's punishment – let's compare this to what this man got. Mr Faye was a brat and showed no consideration for someone else's property. As an expat child Mr Faye was enjoying the good life in Singapore but when the time came for him to face the music for his misdeeds he ran squealing to the US Embassy claiming he was somehow special. I remain unsympathetic towards Mr Faye and I am disgusted every time the Singapore Government lightens the sentence of someone from a Blotchy Country because the Blotchy Head of Government says something. I personally feel that if Pink Blotchies can get away every time their governments squeal, we the people have an obligation to delivering the extra-sentence that our government reduced.

Having said that, let's compare Mr Faye's crimes to Mr Paul Lee's. Mr Faye was a brat but he never took a life or even caused a physical injury. Yet he will now be scared for life. Mr Lee on the other hand brought people to Singapore on false promises and housed people in conditions that caused the death of someone. If Mr Faye's damage of property is worth several of the best, surely Mr Lee's damage to human life has to be worth something similar?

Now, let's look at what you get if you suggest that the people ruling Singapore are a shade less than squeaky? Well, in November 1995, the International Herald Tribune had to pay a mere $214,285 to settle a libel case against the powers-that-be. In 2008, a blogger called Gopalan Nair was arrested for accusing a judge of being a “Prostitute,” in a libel case that involved one of the powers-that-be and sentenced to three-months in jail.

I do agree that there should be laws against slandering people. Calling people names that damage their reputations should have a price. However, did International Herald Tribune and Gopalan Nair kill people? Did they cheat anyone, especially the vulnerable? No, they didn't. In fact they took on the most powerful people in the land and rightly or wrongly they paid the price.

Let's look at the price of calling someone in power a name and the price is either a few months in jail or a hefty fine or even both. However, if you cheat a couple of hundred darkies and place them in conditions that causes the death of one of them, your financial penalty is six times less than slandering the powerful and the jail time is three times less.

I'm sorry, but isn't there something wrong here. We are supposed to be a country that prides itself in its justice system. We make it a point of telling foreign investors that they can deal with a somewhat fair legal system when they invest in Singapore. We are a country that announces to the world that we practice this thing called “Equality of all before the law.” We claim that we are “Ruled by Law.”

So since we're making all these claims, where exactly is the equality of the law here. It seems clear that there is one law for Pink Blotchies and Posh Singaporeans and another law for Darkies and poor Singaporeans. Are we ruled by law or are we ruled by the whims of the man on top?

The lesson from these cases here is that as long as you live in Singapore you better bow-down and kiss the feet of every impotent Pink Blotchy but you are perfectly entitled to kick the shit out of any Darkie. If you tell the Blotchies that you don't wish to donate your hard earned money to their scam, they are entitled to complain to their embassy and our government will rush to defend their right to rob you blind. On the other hand you are entitled to kick the shit out of Darkies – even if you end up killing one of the buggers the law will slap you on the wrist with a fine that you can always pay in installments (Mr Lee incidentally had more than enough cash to pay people off) and you may get housed in jail at the tax payers expense.

The saddest thing about this whole affair is that it could have been prevented. As Alex Au's report points to – the police were called several times and somehow they couldn't find anything wrong. They merely had a glance at the premises and saw that everything was OK.

Seriously, what's the point of having police officers if the only idea of investigation is to make a phone call or just have a quick look at things?

Just observe the way the police take an active role in questioning Darkies who happen to be sitting at the corridor minding their own business. A darkie who has the misfortune of wanting to stroll at night will undoubtedly be questioned by police.

However, if Pink Blotchies want to get drunk and display their culture by singing their folk songs (Ere' we Go, Ere' we go is a Blotchy Folk Song that's played during football matches), nobody seems inclined to say anything. When youth gangs start loitering, the police are equally blind to the problems they may cause.

Seriously, there's something so rotten in Singapore and with Singaporeans that it's gone beyond the state of funny. How can we as a society tolerate and accept this as being part of our natural landscape?

Well, there is hope. I think the first ray of hope comes from people like Alex Au who report the things that the mainstream media don't. We need more people like Alex Au and Andrew Loh the former Editor of the Online Citizen and now Public House, who are willing to look for the voices.

The internet provides people like these men to organise voices together. They help remind Singaporeans that they have an active role in creating the community that they want. My only regret is that being a good person is financially crap. Neither Alex or Andrew is racking it in from the advertisers nor do they have the privilege of having people willing to pay for the content that they provide. Both Alex and Andrew are better patriots than say – The Young Muslim Politician who Supports Israel's Blockade of Gaza from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek. Both have accepted that they're going to be struggling to pay bills to do what they do but yet they continue. This is genuine love for the country. So at the ground you have the Alex Au's and Andrew Loh's who will get people thinking and hopefully standing up for themselves.

There is hope from the top too. Mr Lee had the audacity to try and appeal his already light sentence and ran into Justice VK Rajah. Thank God Singapore still has judges like this man who understands what justice is. He rightfully rejected Mr Lee's appeal and proceeded to chide the lower courts for giving him such a ridiculously light sentence.

There is something rotten in the state of Singapore but there's also hope. As an ordinary citizen struggling to make a living, its tough to deal with the rot but when you know there's hope life becomes a little lighter.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Beautiful Racist

I'm so grateful to the Prime Minister for making the point that there must be no compromise on the issue of multi-racialism and multi-culturalism. Singapore has always taken pride in the fact that it's a multi-racial and multi-cultural society. Yet, if you believe media reports, our so called tolerance for racial and cultural diversity has taken something of a knock. It seems people have been flocking to cyberspace to revel in being ugly racist and its necessary for the government to get involved in legislating away our racist tendencies.

So, here's an interesting question – exactly how racist are Singaporeans? Do we really need the government to teach us how to be nice, tolerant people? Like everything in Singapore you have to look beneath what you see to get the real answer. If you ask me, I would say that after a decade of living in Singapore, the answer is – it depends on who you are talking about. If you talk about “official” Singapore or the Singapore that the powers-that-be you would like you to see, the answer is that Singapore talks a good talk but manipulates racism to suite its political needs.

Let's look at the “official” position. As far as officialdom is concerned, Singapore is a harmonious society that has somehow managed to keep people of different races living and working together in peace and harmony. All our senior government officials make the right noises about race and religion. How can you argue against the Prime Minister when he says that we will NEVER compromise on the fact that we are a multi-racial and multi-cultural society? I personally think the Prime Minister is right when he says that we need to be open to people from all over the world. Singapore does need skilled and hungry people to keep things moving.

The powers-that-be have reacted well in managing race-relations on many of the key occasions. Our most recent example came when a member of the ruling party's youth-wing posted a rather crude but provocative poster about young Muslim Children on his Facebook account. The young man was made to resign and he issued a public apology. The government has on a few occasions clamped down on bloggers who have written disturbing things about “other” communities.

The government also uses “carrot” measures as well as “stick” ones when it comes to the management of race-relations. I remember attending a conference on crime and terrorism prevention. One of the speakers couldn't stop praising the way Singapore's government worked with the Muslim community in rooting out terrorism suspects and avoided creating the “us-versus-them” atmosphere that became common in the West after September 11, 2001.

So, on the surface of things you can't fault the Singapore government for its management of race-relations. Or has it?

If you scratch beneath the surface, things are not as rosy as they look. Let's start with the fact that there are policies that are exceedingly questionable. The most obvious example can be found in the armed forces. Everyone knows that being Malay is a handicap if you want to have a career in the military. If you are a non-Malay and you want to kill off a promising military career, all you need to do is to date a Muslim girl and habour thoughts of marrying her and converting to Islam.

Perhaps this policy had a use in the early days of independence when our most likely opponent in a military conflict were predominantly Malay-Muslim nation states. However, as we move away from the possibility that future conflicts will be against nation states but “non-state” actors, we need to ask ourselves if this policy is justified. One might even argue that open discrimination against promoting Malay-Muslim's in the uniformed services is detrimental to National Security as our security focus shifts from a potential conflict with predominantly Malay-Muslim Nation States to working with Malay-Muslim Nation states to defeat the “non-state” actors like terrorist groups.

The most ridiculous example of this open discrimination against the Malay-Muslim community can be seen whenever a production-house is selected to shoot a commercial for the armed forces. My Dad used to lose out on this business because his crew were local Malay who had served National Service. My father remains a respected director and in his day was considered the best within the region (excluding India and China). Leaving aside the fact that he was and in many ways remains pricy, you would imagine that the Singapore government would have given the job to a regionally recognized local director who hired local Singaporeans who served their National Service. Despite my father's contributions to Singapore, he and his film crew were denied entry into military facilities while foreign directors with on many occasions a lesser reputation than my father and their foreign film crews (usually Hong Kong) were given open access to military bases.

That is unfortunately not the only example of “official” racism. My favourite comparison is in the police presence in Orchard Towers (Pink Blotchies contributing to the economy by selling things to Darkies) and Geylang (Darkies sponging off the economy and Pink Blotchies by working for Pink Blotchies and buying things from them). If you look at the way the police behave in these areas, you'd get the impression that a group of darkies sitting by the roadside having a cup of tea constitute a greater threat to the peace than a group drunken Pink Blotchies. I'm not sure how they worked that one out?

Wait for the season when the government decides it needs to do something about the vice-trade. The police will round up a group of girls from a “darkie” country and deport them. The press will then announce with great fan-fare about how the government is cracking down on vice. There's only one problem – the Blotchies who are contributing the most money to the trade and therefore the reason why “Darkie” girls from other parts of Asia are the trade are left untouched by the law. As such, the vice-trade in Singapore remains a highly lucrative business.

Officialdom doesn't see anything wrong with being obviously racist. I like my White South-African friend who only got his employment-pass when he visited Immigration and showed that he was obviously a Pink Blotchy. My friend was asked “What do they call you?” The question was asked several times and he finally got what they were alluding to when the guy asked the question and pointed to his skin. You got to laugh at the situation here. My friend is from South-Africa, a country that was officially racist and proud of it. Yet when the country decided that it didn't want to be racist, everyone came out and said they saw themselves as “South African.” By contrast you have Singapore, a country that talks about “regardless of race or religion” yet sees nothing wrong in having its government officials rubbing their skin while asking, “What do they call you?”

The law as they say is colour-blind – that is if you have the misfortune of being a darkie who has a employer who decided to hire a “repatriation company” to send you back home at you expense when you get injured on the work site. Its somehow not illegal for the “repatriation company” to hold you against your will in what can only be described as a cell and then bundle you out of the country and then send you the bill.

So, let's ask ourselves, how serious is the government about multi-racialism? It might be worth asking ourselves how “un-racist” we are since we don't seem terribly disturbed by this.

I suspect that the government knows it can allow certain things to happen because the public is oblivious to certain things and lives in fear of darkies from other parts of Asia.

If you talk to the average Singaporean, you'd be shocked by some of the attitudes that they hold. My ex-wife comes to mind. This “graduate” Singapore Chinese girl couldn't bear the thought of me having Malay and Indian friends. Despite being on the generous end of a local Indian crook, she once declared, “I can't work for Indians for the rest of my life.” The woman had been to school long enough to get a degree. She had obviously worked with people from other races and yet she couldn't accept that I might friends beyond my own race. I remember she objected my interactions with a sales girl because I was “Flirting with a MALAY.”

I suspect the blame lies somewhere in the teaching of languages in Singapore. Gina's father, Yong Koon, the egg seller wasn't immune from bouts of chauvinism. However, he belonged to a generation when people of different cultures mingled together and somehow had to find a way of getting along. The end result was everyone had to pick up everyone else s languages.

Anthropology teaches that language is culture. So if you work on this idea, you'll see that when you have a situation where people pick-up each others languages they also pick up each other. While the pre-independence generation had its prejudices their unity was more natural. They worked together and understood each other because they could relate to cultures beyond their own.

Then some bright spark in the Ministry of Education decided that they would reorder people's ethnic identity. People were told – if you are Indian you learn English and Tamil, if you are Malay you learn English and Malay and if you are Chinese it's English and Mandarin. The government got especially stringent on eradicating Chinese dialects. According to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding Prime Minister – the human brain isn't large enough to learn Chinese dialects in addition to English and Mandarin (though its OK to learn Arabic and Hindi).

The result of this policy was an end to natural integration. The only language people had in common was English, the language of to coloniser. Having English was a good move in the sense that it allowed Singapore to connect to the rest of the world. However, having English as the ONLY language people had in common reduced the things people had in common. Instead of creating a situation where everyone has a bit of everyone elses culture it was you have your own culture and an imposed culture and the only means of communication was through the imposed culture.

One only needs to go across the Causeway to Malaysia, a country that has laws that discriminates against one ethnic group in favour of another. Officially there is a preferred race. Yet race-relations in Malaysia seem to work more naturally. Malaysian politics is messy when compared to Singapore's and race does play a role in politics. Yet when you interact with Malaysians, you'll find they're race-relations work better than in Singapore.

How is this possible in a “racist” country? Answer – the minority Indians and Chinese accept that the majority Malay-Muslim population gets certain perks but by and large people are left alone. People have to mingle and pick up various languages between various communities as well as various cultures.

On paper Singapore has done a better job of managing race-relations than Malaysia. However, Singaporeans are struggling to reconcile their national and cultural identities because its been defined for them. By contrast people are comfortable with their National and Cultural identities because it's grown from the ground up. Integration is a natural process rather than an enforced process.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Arena

I attended a conference organised by the Institute of South Asian Studies (isas) today. The general theme of the conference was about how South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka) could better engage with South East Asia (Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Laos, Timor Leste, Myanmar, Cambodia and Brunei). Since the conference was held in Singapore, the main thrust of the conversation was about improving economic ties, particularly with India -Asia's “Other” Giant.

However, another important discussion was discussed – the issue of security. South Asia has flash points – particularly the India-Pakistan rivalry. However, there was also the issue of the growing possibility of growing competition between Asia's two giants – China and India. One of the plenniary discussion involved the issue of security in the Bay of Bengal. The discussion panel had a former Vice-Admiral from the Indian Navy and an adviser to the Chinese government discussing the security issues of their particular nations in the area.

This topic of rivalries got me thinking. Why isn't Singapore offering itself as a meeting point for rivals to thrash out issues far away from the pressures of their domestic audience. We've talked about being a “hub” for nearly everything else so why can't we be a hub for “sports diplomacy?” Singapore is what you could call an ideal arena for all the great rivals of the world to play out their rivalries on the sports field.

They sports is a substitute for war. Nations play sports against each other to release national tensions that might otherwise go towards fighting wars. Look at Europe. When the British Isles were brought together into the United Kingdom the wars the various Kingdoms had were replaced by sporting rivalries – think of the England vs Scotland football match or the England vs Wales Rugby Match. Further afield the English have stopped going to war with the Germans. During the Cold War the only real fight between the Superpowers was at the Olympics when they would duke it out to see who emerged top of the medal table.

The more nations play together the less likely they are to fight wars against each other. It's a bit hard to shoot and kill someone you're meeting on the sports field.

So, creating opportunities for people to play together is a good thing and Singapore is in the unique position to doing this. We try to be friends with nearly everyone and just about everyone likes us. We're a wonderful neutral venue.

Creating sports events will provide a boost to the economy. Sports is big business in terms of television and tourist receipts. Why else to countries try so hard to host events like World Cups and Olympic Games?

Imagine this! Singapore could host an annual football match between Israel and Palestine. Like Israel, Singapore is a small non-Muslim state surrounded by larger Muslim neighbours. We have, however, a significant Muslim population. In other words, we have something in common with both sides.

The Israelis and Palestinians like football. They're passionate about it and they should be made to play together.

We could also host an annual cricket tournament between India and Pakistan. Both nations are cricket mad and instead of living out their rivalry through nuclear bombs they should live it out to cricket. Singapore provides a wonderful neutral venue. We have a significant Hindu and Muslim community for both sides to feel at home and we have the facilities to cater to their various needs.

Let's not forget about China and Taiwan. The majority of Singaporeans are descended from Fuji an Immigrants as are the Taiwanese. Our majority Chinese population speaks Mandarin, the language of both sides.

Singapore has played a deft hand with both Chinas. We have followed the official line of recognising the People's Republic as the only China but we've also kept our relationship with the Republic of China (As Taiwan is officially known) good enough for them to allow us to use their facilities for our military exercises.

So why can't we provide the two China's with a venue to live out their rivalry. Let both them meet annually for a game of something or other.

The government had a point in bringing great sporting events like F1 and the Youth Olympics to Singapore. It should be more whole hearted in its efforts to get Singapore to be an arena for the world's sporting events. Doesn't have to be on a global scale – just large enough to get two large nations focused on Singapore. The economic benefits are there. The political and security benefits are there.

So what are we waiting for? Isn't it time the bright sparks in our various ministries start working out how we can turn Singapore into the world's greatest sporting arena?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Strong Government or Strong Society?

Whenever one wants to compare the two emerging powers of Asia the most usual place that they start at is the difference between the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

The Games in Beijing was superbly organised. The Chinese government knew that world would be focused on Beijing and it wanted to put on a show. Beijing's normally toxic areas were made green, slums and the beggars were removed. Residents were given a crash course in English so that they could be more helpful to international visitors.

By contrast the games in New Delhi could only be charitably described as a mess. Corruption reached such a ridiculous level that toilet paper supplied to the organisers ended costing as much as a bar of gold. Conditions in the village where the athletes were staying looked like some Delhi's slums and instead of removing the existing slums from public eye – the slums grew worse.

Simply put – China has a government that knows what needs to be done and does it while India has a government that does everything wrong. As the head honcho of an Indian multinational in Singapore once said, “You come to India with US$10million promising to create several hundred jobs and the Indian investment authorities will snarl and ask you 'why?' So you go to China and the Chinese have a grin on their face and say 'when!?' ” When you have this comparison you cannot help but feel that China's rise to the top is inevitable while India will somehow remain swimming in the shit despite its vast source of talent.

Democracy is blamed for this disparity. The Indians will point out that China is a Communist State where the government will simply bulldoze its way to get things done. If you need roads and railway tracks built it will be done with a blink of an eye. The Indian Government by contrast has to contend with democracy and a population used to things like human rights. You cannot bulldoze people out of their homes just like that in the name of economic development. As far as many well to do Indians are concerned, India needs a government like China's to grab the nation by the scruff of its neck pull it, kicking an screaming into the prosperous age.

However, there is a counter point that both Fareed Zakharia and Guruchandran Das have pointed to. Both men have argued while China has a far stronger government than India – India has a “strong society.” While the Indian government is helplessly inefficient, India has certain infrastructure advantages that China and other authoritarian states lack. These advantages are found mainly in the “soft” skills of its people. Places with “strong government” have superb physical infrastructure. However, places that have a “strong society” have people who are creative and resilient and will succeed and create the solutions that the governments aren't able to. I think of one of the opening lines of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga - “Apparently, you Chinese are ahead of us in every way except you don't have entrepreneurs.”

There is a certain truism in this. India for its lack of physical infrastructure has a system that has allowed brilliant individuals to come up and somehow create fortunes out of nothing. While India has lost the race for foreign investment to China, India has been breeding small successful enterprises that have succeeded in spite of the Indian State. The most famous example is in IT. I'll always remember Arun Jain, Polaris's CEO telling CNBC Asia in 2004 - “Indian IT has succeeded because the Indian Government has stayed out of it and as long as it leaves us alone we shall be fine.” Funnily enough IT is only one area that has thrived in spite of the Indian government. India has also produced top quality bio-tech firms and let's not forget Bollywood too. If you look at the areas where India excels, you'll find that they're in the same areas where America excels. The USA is like India – a strong society rather than a strong government.

Not only does India produce world-class firms in high end industries, India has also provided the people to run corporations from the developed world. The prime-example that comes to mind is Citigroup which is Vikram Pandit as its CEO and Deepak Sharma as Chairman of its Private Bank. Singapore's DBS bank which is consciously trying to model itself on Citibank hired Piyush Gupta another Indian National as its CEO.

Let's face it – the Indian government may have bungled organising the Commonwealth Games but India is not just providing the people to do cheap things for Western firms – it's providing the people to run those firms too. Just think about it – the FDA is approving an increasing number of drugs based on research and clinical trials done in India.

How is India, the land of dreadful infrastructure producing world-class firms in high tech industries as well as corporate CEOs while China is not?

One argument is that India's physical infrastructure and government system is SO BAD that all the Indians with brains leave. The Chinese with brains and drive are too busy milking the opportunities in China to think of leaving. If you look at Singapore as an example, you'll see that there's a certain truism to this. The Indian Nationals who come to Singapore are highly educated while the Chinese are peasants.

However, let's not ignore other factors too. English speakers has been one major language that India has. India is the second largest English speaking nation after the USA (and given the influx of Hispanic Immigration into the USA let's not rule out the possibility that India may well become the world's largest English speaking nation one day). India's advantage with the English Language is that multinationals find it easier to get the right people from India than they do from China.

There's also a case to be made for India's democracy as well its legal system. While the Indian Legal system is mired in corruption and notoriously slow it has a legal system based on the rule of law. By contrast China has a system based on the rule of personality. As bad as the practice of law may be in India, there are rules to settle commercial disputes as well as to protect intellectual rights. In China things work like clock work as long as you keep the right fractions happy. Intellectual rights don't exist in China.

It's not just “fluffy” artist who get uptight over copyright. If you were in software or anything involving scientific research, you will also need your intangibles protected if you want to commercialise things.

China is thriving on a “brawn” economy while India has a “brain” economy. While Chinese “Brawn” is ahead in the development race the argument is that India's “brain” economy will be more enduring. In a way China is lucky in that its only used a small percentage of its “brawn” and it can tap on a vast source of “brawn” in the way that the Arabian Gulf States can tap on their oil for years to come. However, cheap brawn becomes less cheap and other cheaper places rise up. Vietnam comes to mind as a place that is grabbing the “cheap labour” work from China. Brain economies by contrast can last longer and command a higher price. Getting the right idea and the right execution takes brain and you can't do it on the cheap.

Strong societies can survive with awful government. It's questionable whether weak societies with strong governments can hold if that government ever becomes weak. One only needs to look at places like the former Yugoslavia or Saddam's Iraq to see what happens when you remove the strong man.

Both Tito and Saddam held their respective nations together. They were simply more powerful than everyone else in their own countries and so everyone else was united in fear and hatred for them. Once they left the scene the various ethnic groups realised that they hated each other as much as they hated the strong man so they ended up killing each other.

India is as if not more culturally diverse than Yugoslavia or Iraq were. Yet India has held together for over 50-years. Say what you like but India could only have done this by keeping its democracy. New Delhi sets the tone for certain things like defense and foreign affairs. Outside those broad perimeters the Tamil Speakers of Tamil Nadu can live their own separate lives from the Hindi Speakers in the north. English has helped provide the necessary glue whenever the different people have needed to come together. If you look at Indian IT companies, you'll find that they're usually based in Bangalore (Southern Indians are traditionally good at numbers) but run by Hindi or Gujurati entrepreneurs (Northern India produces the business people)

Can China last without the Communist Party? As far as the Communist Party is concerned the answer would be no. However, the party has been on a desperate quest to find a reason for continued success. Since China has long ceased to be a Communist Country in all but name, they need something else to hold the nation together. The alternate answer seems to be drawn from Singapore – the ability to deliver high rates of economic growth. So far so good. However, what happens when the party can no longer deliver the growth? Tienanmen in 1989 was incidentally a time of rampant inflation. Back then the army was willing to shoot. Its questionable whether today's PLA will follow the order to shoot its own people.

In a way, that's a sign for optimism. It shows that people have become so used to certain things that it will be impossible to put a lid on certain desires. While the economic boom has yet to hit the vast majority of Chinese, the Communist Party will simply never be able to revert things to be the way they were during the days of Mao. There are far too many people in China who have tasted the “good life” and had international exposure to accept the country living under a system where all but one percent are eeking a living.

The Communist Party has the luxury of playing the growth card for a while. There's also Nationalism, though one would argue that this may eventually lost credibility as politics gives way to economics (to all intents and purposes China and Taiwan have been unified by economics).

However, the party, if it wants to maintain stability will eventually have to consider devolving power to regions in the way that reduces Beijing's role to that of New Delhi or Washington DC.

If you look at development theories, you can draw a comparison with growing up. “Strong Government” is like coming from a family that can provide you with contacts and education. It gives you a good start in life. “Strong Society” is rather like self-reliance. Ultimately you need self-reliance to endure. In an ideal world one will have both or at least you start with one that leads to another.

There is a case for optimism in both China and India. If you look at both Asian Giants, they're strengths and weaknesses mirror each other. On the economic front the popular image is that China does manufacturing while India does software. However, not only is Sino-Indian trade increasing there's been “cross-pollination.” The Indians are getting manufacturing and the Chinese do get software and services.

On the social front things have the potential to get interesting. Both nations are resurgent. For Indians who see their nation as a “great power,” it is no longer acceptable to have incompetent and blatantly corrupt government. The comparison with China is galling and Indian governments will have to contend with an insistence by the up and coming class to get its act together.

For China there is a growing realisation of how the rest of the world works. The nation has understood that isolation doesn’t work. A growing number of people have seen how the rest of the world works and will not accept anything else. This won't necessarily lead to Western style two-party democracy. There is a chance that the Chinese Communist Party will evolve into something like Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (which was as liberal and democratic as China's Communist are Communist.)

What will be interesting for China will be how returning Chinese workers will shape Chinese society. Chinese workers outside of China have found an ability to develop habits of cooperation in order to survive. I think of the way Chinese workers grouped together and sat outside Singapore's Ministry of Manpower when they got cheated. They're ability to get together and stick together was admirable – it was the stuff that builds societies. It will be a blessing if this spirit of cooperation continues.......



Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Problem with Size

The Problem with Size

A significant moment passed by on Friday at 11am. There was the magic 11.11.11.11 (11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the 11th year) and lots of people in Asia decided that it was an auspicious time to get married. The next time we're going to have a magic date will be at 12 noon on the 12th of December next year and then we'll have to wait another century the series of magic dates to go by.

I've always found the 11th of November to be significant. It was Armistice day – the day when the first World War ended. While World War II gets more press, in many ways, World War I was the more terrible conflict. The entire European continent which had given birth to the modern era had descended into a brutal war that bankrupted countries that were centres of empires. World War I ended the reigns of several monarchies and broke apart empires that had lasted centuries (Austria-Hungry and the Ottomans in Turkey were broken apart). The global centre of gravity shifted from Europe to the USA. The British Prime Minister who had administered an empire that the sun never set on became increasingly dependent on the American President for support.

Funnily enough, not very much seems to have changed in a century. Europe is once again in the proverbial shit house. America, the world's remaining super power is tottering on the verge of bankruptcy thanks to misguided military adventures. The world is now looking for an emerging super power to bail it out – this time it's China, which was derided as being the “Sick Man of Asia” a century ago.

The new emergence of China and the very visible decline of Western power is traumatic for Westerners – especially Americans. You just have to listen to the number of times senior American Administration officials complain about “Unfair” Chinese trade practices to get a sense of how traumatised the Americans are by China's rise. There is no other way to describe American complaints about Chinese buying of certain companies as - “Scared Shitless.”

While the fear of no longer being top dog may be understandable, giving into it would be a mistake. The lesson of history have shown that size is a vastly overrated experience. One only has to look at the great powers of the day to see that an obsession with size is usually the undoing of the great power.

China was by far and away the world's leading economy. The Chinese were the most innovative people around. They invented things like gun powder, paper and printing. The Chinese knew about things like decent roads and lived in cities while the Europeans were still struggling to get out of their caves. Then all of a sudden in 1500, the Chinese stopped inventing things and innovation moved to Europe. Suddenly Europe became superior to China. As an ethnic Chinese educated in the British Isles, I can safely say that the biggest shock to the Chinese psyche came during the Opium War. The Chinese had grown up thinking they were the centre of the earth. Then they got their butts kicked by this little dinky island on the North Western Corner of Europe.

The Europeans remained the world's top dogs until World War I. From 1500 until 1914, the Europeans became empire builders. The British were the most successful but they were not the only ones in the game of building empires. The French and Dutch were equally enthusiastic about acquiring colonies. When Bismark unified the German Princely States at the end of the 1800s, the Germans also entered the game. As well as being a family feud between the Royal Families of Europe, World War I was also a conflict of empires.

While America is not an “empire” in the conventional sense, it's become top-dog because its a huge place. America simply had more resources than Europe and so it could play the role of “King Maker” in Europe and later on in Asia. Today America remains the world's super power because it is the only nation that has the ability to deploy the greater number of resources to any single point on the globe.

Let's face it, being big helps. God as they say, is on the side of “Big Battalions.” In a fist fight, the advantage is always with the big guy because he can take more damage and each hit he delivers does more damage.

Size does matter. As such, big nations like China and India will have vast advantages over places like Hong Kong and Singapore. The two emerging Asian giants can deploy and develop resources in ways that smaller nations will never be able to. In Singapore we have to accept that China will always be able to make things cheaper than we can and India will always be able to do the back office stuff cheaper. They simply have more people and space.

Having said that, size is not necessarily everything and an obsession with being big can be a handicap. Why did China fall behind Europe when it had been so much more advanced for so many years?

Simply put, the Chinese got obsessed with size. China as far as the Chinese were concerned, was the centre of the earth, the largest and most advanced place on earth. China was not helped by Confucius who argued that people should place their trust in a strong central government that knew better than anyone else. The so called wise men of their day argued that China was the top dog because it was the biggest block on the street and could easily win by using size. Adventure and innovation were discouraged and then it stopped altogether.

By contrast, Europe was a collection of small states that had no choice but to innovate and focus on doing things well. The collection of states had to either cooperate or compete to survive and to grow their societies. The British ended up building the empire that they did because they had no choice but to venture abroad to grow. While adventurers and innovators in China were regarded as the shit you scrape off the bottom of the shoe, in Europe they became part of folklore – buccaneers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir Richard Grenville (My former school house was named after the man) were heroes in their day and revered long after their death for their daring to take on the conventional wisdom of the day.

These people made Europe great and then the Europeans fell into the same trap as the Chinese did. They believed they were the centre of the world and instead of working together and finding ways to expand and so on – the Europeans decided to kill each other in the competition to be the biggest guy on the block.

The Americans it seems are falling into the same trap as the Chinese and the Europeans before them. We all know that America and Americans have been focused on being bigger and better than anyone else. However, the focus in the last decade seemed to be on being bigger rather than better. Flick through magazines like Forbes and you'd find glowing references to how America had the “biggest” banks, oil companies, manufacturing plants etc. Follow the American media and you'll get the sense of trauma whenever someone has something bigger than can be found in America. Life for America and Americans was comfortable when the nearest rivals were Germany and Japan – which had economic but not military clout. Things are different now that the “rivals” are China and India, which are not only becoming wealthy but they are militarily independent of the American military umbrella.

I think the Americans should take a leaf from Europe and lose the obsession with size. Europe had lots of giant empires that thought they were the centre of the world. They became so obsessed with size that they forgot about everything else. The crowned heads that ran Europe fell out and we got World War I. The rulers of Europe didn't learn their lesson and we got World War II. It was only with the trauma of two World Wars that the Europeans decided to focus on being good and today, Europe is home of some of the best things that the world has to offer.

Look at Germany as an example. The Kaiser wanted to catch-up in the quest for Empire building and so he ran into opposition from the established Empires in Britain and France. The result was World War I. The Hitler decided that Germany needed more “Lebensraum” (living space – he needed to be bigger) and we got World War II. Then all of a sudden the Germans got partitioned into West and East. The world would not allow the Germans to be big and so they focused on being good.

Today Germany makes the best cars in the world (Mercedes, BMW, Porche, Volkswagen) and despite the high cost of doing business in Germany, the country is funnily enough the world's largest exporter (ahead of China, which is the workshop of the world). How does Germany with the highest labour cost in the world out export China with its advantages in cheap labour and land? Germany has a sector of small companies that happen to be the best in the fields they're in.

The same is true of France and Britain. London no longer controls an Empire where the sun never sets. It is however, a world city in things like finance. Like the Germans, the British and French have become less obsessed with size and more focused with being good.

The EU is admittedly in deep shit – however, let's look at the area of where Europe has fallen into the toilet bowl. The answer is simple – these were the areas where the Europeans returned to being obsessed with size. I believe that the EU is on balance a force of good. However, the Europeans became so obsessed with having the world's largest trading block they admitted countries that were simply not ready. Greece never had the fiscal discipline of its Northern European neighbours before it joined and it should be no surprise that it has become the nation that will pull the entire frame work down.

The idea behind the EU was to create the USA on Europe. In theory this is good. America has thrived for so long because it was successful at combining the advantages of being small and big at the same time. America is a big monolith in International affairs. However, most Americans are free to act as small individuals living in their small towns. In the corporate world it has been shown that the most innovative companies are usually small clusters. America is a collection of small clusters.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, American culture lost this ethos of being about small but clever groups. Suddenly, it was all about size and being big. Look at General Motors, which was for so many years the world's largest corporation. The company was all about being 'big,' that it forgot about being good. Even when its finances were being pulverized by competition from the likes of Toyota and Volkswagen, the company was obsessed with size – ie we make more cars than anyone else haha – erm what's the point in making lots of cars if nobody wants to buy them.

The reemerging China and India should draw lessons from this. China has been especially guilty of promoting state-owned giants to drive its economy and presence on the world stage. The Chinese Government seems to have forgotten that the “real” success of the Chinese economy is to be found in villages and cities. These small companies lack the resources of the state owned giants and so they have become remarkably efficient. China needs to stop focusing on “big” and look at finding ways at bringing up the guys who are “good.”

India has been blessed with rotten government and this has helped the development of its dynamic IT sector. While the IT sector has produced some giants like Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys and Wipro, the industry is in fact driven by many small dynamic companies. I think of companies like Polaris, Nucleus and MphasiS that have found a niche for themselves. These companies focus on being good rather than on being big.

Being big helps but being obsessed by size is a problem. The most successful companies and countries are usually those that find ways of being big without being obsessed by size. The best 'business model' is the 'cooperation' model rather than the “top-down monoblock.”

Look at the UK as an example. You have London, which is a collection of village. There are the Oxbridge Universities which are in reality a collection of small specilialised colleges working together. The British may not run an empire but London is a “world-capital” and the Oxbridge Universities are constantly amongst the world's best.

America endured over the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact were a huge monoblock controlled by Moscow. The USA is a collection of states working for a common purpose . In the end the USA prevailed because its people and its allies believed in the system that allowed them enough room to be individuals but gave them the security that size brings.

America has prospered for so long because its been about being a good place that happens to be big rather than about being a big place. As Americans worry about being overtaken as the biggest dog on the block by China and India, they should remember that what made America was not its size but the fact that it was a good nation.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Shangri-La on Earth?

My favourite litigator once made the point that Singapore is the “Celestial Kingdom.” He had mentioned this as a strategy of a trial we were going to hold for the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who supports the Israeli blockade of Gaza aka Thambi Pundek. He made the point that if you think about things logically, Singapore has nearly everything that you could possibly want.

He's right. If you think about things rationally, Singapore is everything a city should be. We are rich, green and clean. It's not just the Vietnamese, Chinese and Nepalese singing our praises. Americans, Brits and Continental Europeans also make the point that Singapore is “wonderful.” The US navy boy says it best, “If you think Geylang is your worst area – come to the USA.” I've often said this and I'll say it again, we must be the only nation on the planet that is better loved by foreigners than it is by the locals.

Well, if you ask our Minister for National Development, Mr Khaw Boon Wan, he'll argue that Singaporeans are exceptionally happy. When an opposition member of parliament (yes, we know have those), made the brief point that we should follow the Bhutanese example of looking at happiness – Mr Khaw proceeded to tell the world that as far as he was concerned, Bhutan is NOT Shangri-La on earth. In fact, its filled with poor, ignorant and unhappy people who are worried about their next meal. The next day the national news paper proceeded to come up with a survey telling the population that we the locals are exceedingly happy with the state of things.

I'm not exactly sure which Singaporeans Mr Khaw was referring to. Perhaps he was thinking of the ones living in S$35 million penthouses or the ones of super scale scholarships. If he's thinking of this group as being “Happy” he may have a point. However, if Mr Khaw were to travel outside Sentosa Cove, he might be surprised with the reality on the ground.

It's not just grouses on the internet. Sit in the coffee shops and you'll find that online chatter is only a public reaction to the feelings vented in coffee shops. Singaporeans from all walks of life are frustrated with the way things are going. The Minister might point out that his party did win 60 percent of the popular vote and 81 seats in an 87 parliament is pretty darn good by any ones standards. However, I would caution the minister not to get complacent.

As far as the average Singaporean is concerned, life has become harder and to make matters worse, there seems to be a protected minority who seem to be getting richer. What is especially hard for the people to take is that the protected minority sounds like it is more interested in protecting the status-qua than it is about increasing and working to a more equitable distribution of the pie.

Not all the criticisms against the powers-that-be are fair. I still believe that our Ministers are on the whole decent chaps. However, not all is well in paradise and we need to look at why the locals feel like shit despite statistically having one of the most decent lifestyles on the planet.

I suspect part of the problem is presentation. The powers-that-be have been fed stories by the toadies on the ground like the Young Muslim Politician who supports the Israeli Blockade on Gaza aka Thambi Pundek about the real situation on the ground. I pray that the desire for the truth by the Ministers last longer than the after-effects of the last election.

However, I think the problem here is that you have a government that has grown so used to getting its own way based on economic statistics that it has failed to see that life is about a little more than just about growth figures.

Let's get it clear. I am not criticising the focus on economic growth and fiscal prudence. You need to have money to get things moving and you can only do that in an economy that is growing. If you look at the USA and Europe, you'll also realise that there is a lot to be said about fiscal prudence. A government that can pay its bills is also a government that can look after the people when the chips are down. I remember my Dad being upset with me when I quit the teaching job because he pointed out that I had, “Quit working for the only people in the market with money.”

Money is necessary to survive. As has been pointed out, not even death solves money worries. As one lawyer I knew said, “The difference between a lawyer and a prostitute is the prostitute stops screwing you when you die.” If your financial problems are bad enough, the lawyers will be there to hound your heirs.

So I'm not anti-growth. I think all right thinking people should be pro-growth. However, if growth and having money were the main thing, Singapore's ruling party would not have lost seats in the last election. If I am not wrong, in 2010 we were the fastest growing economy on earth with an astonishing 15 percent annual growth rate. By right, people in 2011 should have been way too busy trying to make a fortune and we'd be dying to keep the government doing more of the same. That wasn't the case.

We are one of the few nations with money. We are part of a lucky few with this thing called “economic growth,” and yet we have lots of very pissed off people. There has to be a reason for it.

The logical place to start is to follow the money trail. Singapore has a lot of money but it is concentrated in the hands of the very few. If you follow the Gini coefficient, which the world's main yardstick for measuring dispersion of wealth, Singapore is one of the most unequal societies on the planet. If you follow the statistics of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, you'll find that two-thirds of Singaporeans earn less than the national average of S$4,000 a month. Back in the days when I was working on the Ministry of Manpower Learning Festival, I had the shock of discovering that the average graduate in a “real” industry (hard core things like engineering – not wish wasy things like writing) in a sizeable company could expect to finish his career on a salary of a shade under S$5,000 a month.

OK, this sounds like a lot of money if you converted it to Thai Bhat or Vietnamese Dong. However, Singapore has long ceased to be a “third-world” country in terms of its infrastructure and its cost. Our march into the first-world has come along with the fact that your average family needs two incomes to survive.

As poor as he was, my father's father refused to allow my grandmother to do anything vaguely commercial. Her presence in the work force would have been a slap on his face. Now, I have my father reminding me to only get involved with women who can earn a living.

By contrast, Singapore has the world's highest paid ministers. Our Prime Minister earns more four times more than the US President for a country that isn't even a suburb of LA. We also have very highly paid officials. One of the few people I know who has the luxury of a housewife is my former army commander. He's a super-scale military scholar who was on the promotion fast track and became a full colonel before his 40th birthday.

Generally, Singaporeans do accept this situation. Good government has to have a price. There's no reason why politicians should be badly paid. It is better to have smart people in the bureaucracy than idiots and as everyone from the rest of ASEAN will point out, its nice to deal with bureaucrats that you don't have to bribe.

However, this difference becomes harder to swallow when government is less than what it makes itself out to be. Mistakes can be forgiven. However, when salt is rubbed into a wound it becomes a different issue.

I don't begrudge the Ministers their salaries. Sure, the guy earns in a month more than what I and my closest friends make in a year – but as long as he does the job reasonably well, I don't care what he makes. If he goofs up, I may get cross that my taxes have gone into “less than perfect” performance – but then again, I've not always been perfect on the job.

What becomes unforgivable is when the powers-that-be start treating their perks as an entitlement and expect you to continue buying their reasoning. To put it crudely, they do it because they can and people don't like being screwed by the people who are supposed to look after them, especially when times are tough.

When it comes to foreign competition, the people to have to accept that this is “globalisation”. The power-that-be don't – it's called “National Interest.” When government controlled businesses rise prices it is called “earning more to give you more.” When a small business man tries the same thing it is called “profiteering.” When the cleaning lady needs 10 cents a month extra, it is called “inflationary unless she learns how to be more productive.” When the managing partner of a big law firm becomes a member of parliament with an allowance three times the national average wage to supplement his already generous salary it is called “attracting talent.” When a blogger says you should sentence physical abuse harsher than slander it is called “Criminal-Libel.” However, when the Attorney-General's Chambers changes a rule in the middle of a judicial enquiry that affects the rights of the accused, it is called “Creating efficiency.”

The list goes on. However, the list in itself isn't bad on its own. What becomes bad is when the powers-that-be start defending it. It shows that their interest is not with the people paying for their perks but with continuing their hold on the perks. Lee Kuan Yew, our founding father and revered elder statesman promptly lost his status as such in the eyes of many when he started accusing the public of being complacent when the public started complaining about the former home-affairs minister's performance when a limping man strolled out of jail. Despite the boo-boo, the cabinet spent more time and focus on defending its performance than it did on finding the man, despite the fact that he was billed as the worst terrorist in our history.

Now, after having had its nose bopped in an election, we're hearing a lot of talk from the rulers about how we cannot have a “full-democracy.” Apparently there is not enough talent to field two “A-class” teams in our political system. The increased opposition presence is tolerated because it is “constructive” or “consultative” opposition. Having an opposition that thinks it could be a government is called “pressure to be populist,” and that is a codeword for Domesday. In short, you need to keep the current rulers in place forever at the rates they're being paid because it is good for you as a citizen of the nation to keep the powerful, powerful.

Now, let's look at Bhutan, the small Himalayan Kingdom that came up with this idea of “GHP” or “Gross Happiness Product.”

In a way Bhutan's situation is unique. People remain happy because – well, for the large part they don't know any other way of life from what they've known for thousands of years. Internet and television are restricted. Much as one might like to keep the place in “isolation” away from the big bad world, it is impossible. Sooner or later, the modern age will have catch-up with Bhutan.

Bhutan has a fault line in that it did try and impose its ethnic identity in some pretty draconian ways. Ethnic “Druk” people have to wear national costume by law when they are on home soil.

Mr Khaw is not wrong when he makes the point that Bhutan is not the “idealistic” paradise that the more romantic amongst us would like to believe it is.

The fact that Bhutan has faults should be no surprise and these faults need to be taken into consideration when assessing the place. In a way, Bhutan is doing something about this and you can only wish them well for it.

While Mr Khaw was not wrong in pointing out that Bhutan has its faults, he was wrong in condemning it wholesale. His condemnation of the country has allowed him to gloss over one of the most important things that Bhutan has done in recent years – it has been one of the few societies where democracy has been imposed on its people instead of being imposed by the people.

Bhutan's “King-Father” Jigme Singye Wangchuck who ruled until his abdication in 2006, was an absolute monarch. When he declared his abdication, he also “ordered” a general election and divested most of the monarchy's powers into the post of an elected Prime-Minister.

Unlike the scenes of jubilation in the streets of places like Egypt and Tunisia when an autocrat was removed from power, the people in Thimpu were in tears when the monarch of the day decided to surrender his powers.

However, the “King-Father” stuck to his guns. His argument was simple - “Democracy is the only way to protect the long term interest of the people.” He's looked at his own record and argued rightly that while he has not been a bad king, he cannot guarantee that his successors won't be.

The “King-Father” also decided to abdicate to give his son the chance to grow into the job and to guide him. However, what guidance the “King-Father” gives is strictly a family affair. Since his abdication, the “King-Father” has done precisely that – he's been a father to the king and nothing else. He's not travelled abroad as Head of Government and Head of State. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Bhutan has a Head of State who is the King and a Head of Government who is the Prime Minister. The “King-Father” is respected but both the people of Bhutan and the rest of the world know that he no longer has a role to play in affairs of state.

How is it that an “Absolute Monarch” running a country that people think of as being as far away from modernity as you can get can give up power so easily while a group of democratically elected and very clever politicians on an island that is proudly plugged into the modern world cannot?

Seriously, if you listen to the way Singapore's politicians speak, you can't help but get the impression that they seriously believe that Singapore can only be run by PAP candidates for all eternity. The talk about the possibility of a “non-PAP” government is spoken of in terms of bette noire science fiction terms – 'One day(in the dark gloomy future) if the PAP fails.....' In the mean time institutions which are meant to be a counter to a possible rogue government are crippled. Think of the Elected Presidency which was supposed to be a check on the government. The Elected President can only act on advice of the Prime Minister and when he doesn't have to he acts of advice of people the Prime Minister has a hold over.

It took the loss of four-seats, including three ministers in an election for two former Prime Ministers to finally retire from cabinet. Lee Kuan Yew set the precedent of becoming a “senior minister” in Goh Chok Tongs government and a “Minister Mentor” in Lee Hsien Loong's. Old Prime Ministers don't die , they just get consultancy jobs that allow them to travel round the world as if they were still in charge. The old joke was that Singapore was a Christian country – we had “The Father,” “The Son,” and “The Holy Goh.” It took the shock of the election to break the possibility of former Prime Ministers continuing in cabinet on multi-million tax-payer funded salaries after retirement.

Both the elder Mr Lee and Mr Goh have damaged their legacies by refusing to hand over properly. Mr Lee lead the team that built Singapore. He was the one who said no to corruption in public service and stressed the importance of ensuring leadership renewal. Yet his refusal to step aside until he was pushed has ruined this. Mr Goh was a very good Prime Minister who will now remain in our memories as the man who's wife made some unfortunate remark about “Peanuts” as well as the man who tried to bribe the residents of Potong Pasir and Hougang with public funds in the 2006 election. How sad!

As Prime Minister, the younger Mr Lee will now have to find the proverbial “mojo.” He's suffered one of the “worst” election results in Singapore's history and his preferred candidate for President barely scrapped by and was effectively rejected by two-thirds of the electorate. As the election of 2011 showed, talking about economic growth and dolling out a wad of cash to the electorate is not going to work.

Many of us (myself included), voted for the PAP because on the whole they haven't been bad. I speak for myself but I don't think I'm alone in this but I also voted for the PAP because I wanted to have an MP who could bring home the bacon. The opposition managed to contest every ward bar one which is in itself an achievement. However, they were scattered amongst different parties and voting for them would be a protest vote more than anything else. However, this election has thrown up the very real possibility that a credible alternative in the shape of the Workers Party is emerging. The Prime Minister will have to struggle to keep people like me loyal to his party.

Personally, I worry for Singapore beyond elections. Even if another party were to take power, all our politicians have been so used to a system that allows those in power to behave as if they had divine rights.

While an alternative voice is welcome, what is needed is stronger institutions that go beyond personalities. So far Singapore has been OK because Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and Lee Hsien Loong have been good guys (when you balance everything). We have to move to a stage where we have more than just blind faith in ensuring that our leaders are somewhat decent and honest.

At the end of the day Singapore is a decent place to be. However, it is a society living in the hope that its top men will always be good and wise. It has few institutions in place to ensure that those in authority will behave. It's not difficult for a clever rogue to gain power and rob the people blind.

Bhutan's King-Father had the foresight to work towards creating a system that would depend on more than the personality and character of the man in charge. Democracy doesn't always produce the best government or the best leaders. However, it has proven that it provides the most efficient way of removing bad government (which is in many ways more important than producing effective government) and it gives people a stake in society – thus ensuring a strong society takes root.

Bhutan may not be the paradise that the romantics make it out to be. However, thanks to the wisdom of the King-Father, it will has a better chance of continuing its hold on claim to be Shangri-La on earth than Singapore in the long run.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Where the West still Wins

Like all good Western Educated Asians, I am an “Anti-Colonial.” I never saw the “White Man” as my savior. When I was a small child I refused to cheer for the British whenever there were documentaries about the Japanese Invasion of Singapore in the 1940s. Even when I learned history and knew about the awful deeds of the Japanese (and the comparatively benign deeds of the Crown Colonizers), I could not accept the “White Man” in Asia as the good guy and the savior of the “natives.” The political heroes of my childhood were people like Mao (Mad Communist Fucker that he was) and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Much as I disagree with Communism and admire the Jeffersonian ideals that made America, I held up Mao and Ho as people who didn't capitulate to the American lead world. Thanks to them I do not see the ideal as being part of the bigger, better Western World. I want to be the small weakling who beats the bigger stronger man on his day.

That does not mean to say that I am “Anti-Caucasian,” or “Anti-Anyone-in Particular.” I made my friends in the West. I love my American and British family. I have good memories of my time in the UK. I even have good friends who happen to be Caucasians who have made Asia their home. I am merely unable to “bow-down” to the “Gwei Lo” on a personal basis and I cannot accept that educated Asians continue to have the mentality that is good to do so. I cannot accept that the Western View of the world is necessarily the right one either. I've seen Orchard Towers at night on more than one occasion to realise that after a few beers, your average Pink Blotchy is exactly the same as your Bangladeshi Worker – he only pays more for his vices.

Having said what I've just said, I do believe that there is one area where the West and the Caucasian part of the West still rules the world – namely the area of human decency. The West, for all its problems, has a culture that provides room for people to grow. Asia, for all our recent triumphs has one major cultural flaw – we cannot help screwing ourselves in the race for better things. As I get older and see more of this disparity between East and West, I believe that human decency will save the West and the lack of it will hold Asia down.

This was brought home to me most recently by two letters in the local press about why it was a bad idea to extend training opportunities to foreign workers. The letter writers felt that the idea was bad because it would be expensive and what money we had should go to training Singaporeans. They also argued that uneducated foreign workers if educated would come and steal jobs from Singaporeans and cause all sorts of problems. They argued that it was better to redesign jobs to make them “noble” and “appealing” to Singaporeans instead of allowing “uneducated” foreigners to come in and do the jobs.

OK, I understand the sentiment. In the past few years Singapore has seen a dramatic demographic shift and our ideas of ethnicity and culture have been forced open. Such changes are traumatic. The entry of highly educated Indian Nationals who don't look on their Singaporean cousins as the “lucky” ones has been like a bucket of cold water on the local Indian Community. For the Singaporean Chinese, meeting fellow Yellow Skins who think them as nothing more than richer but less pure versions of themselves has also been something of a shock. It easy to blame the outsiders whenever the world you know starts to crumble around you.

Where I fail to sympathise with the writers is their view that keeping “uneducated” people down and out somehow helps them. The argument runs like this – an uneducated man who becomes educated will become a threat to us and therefore there will be less good things for us.

I guess in Singapore we call this “Kiasu” or “Afraid to Lose.” We like to think of this as a virtue. We are afraid to lose, so we work hard and earn more etc. However, there is a flaw in the idea of “Kiasuism.” It assumes that there is only so many good things and if I can't get the good things, I must ensure that you cannot get the good things too. It is “Everyman” for himself.

Kiasuism when taken to the extreme would be funny if didn't affect you. Think of the typical Asian school, which is highly competitive. As the “Tiger Mum” points out – the ideal of kids being free to play and discover themselves at school is a wishy washy Western invention. School in the Asian context is all about studying to get the top exams. Western Universities are filled with Asians who kick ass (I wasn't one of them) when it comes to exams. Simply put, the Westerners are busy in the pub while the Asians are busy swotting (Conversely the Asians suck at thinking and people skills).

You have great Asian students who study hard. The “A” grade means more to the average Asian student than the Western one. You could say the Asian kid is driven by the “Kiasu” mentality. However, the kiasu Asian is also the shit that feels scared that you might get a better mark than him – so he hides reference books in the library to ensure you do not have access to the materials you need. I kid you not, Singaporean and Hong Kong schools have found missing library books because people have hidden them. The idea is simple – I know I can't get an “A” so I make sure that you can't too.

Now, you apply this to the work place. I am an educated man. Therefore I am entitled to a high paying job in a big company. You by contrast are a lowly educated pleb and so all you are entitled to clean my shit for $300 a month. It is not in my interest to see you become educated because you might become a competitor for my high paying job in the company.

When people think like this, they become obsessed with screwing each other instead of being excellent at their jobs. Resources, as they say are finite and if we don't get them we also have to ensure the other guy does not get them because there will less for ….me, myself and I.

OK, the West isn't immune to this. When you listen to successive American administrations talk about unfair Japanese and now Chinese trade practices, you can't help but feel that the Americans cannot accept that other people can fight back and be big dogs too. This is also true whenever the Americans talk about oil in the Middle East. Its almost as if only the USA is entitled to have a secure energy supply.

Leaving aside trade and energy policy, Americans and other Westerners are not afflicted by this symptom. Let's not kid ourselves – racism is rife in parts of America. However, Americans suddenly find the ability to overcome their racial prejudices when someone succeeds. Look at the number of revered sporting heroes in America. Being “black” is usually a handicap in the US but if a black man excels at something people forget the color and see the excellence.

Being an immigrant is also tough in the USA. However, when an immigrant finds a way of excelling, he or she becomes a folk hero and the good deeds of the immigrant cause laws to become more flexible and humane.

In Europe, people are less obsessed by success. However, if you are willing to work hard and don't disturb the natives, you will be left alone to do pretty much as you want. Chinese migrant communities in the West are generally respected because they don't encourage their kids to go on welfare and they work hard and set up businesses which benefit the natives too.

I can understand when Europeans complain that they are being exploited. They do have migrants who come and live off social services that are funded by local tax payers. My stepfather works in a hospital filled with people from outside Germany. They only German they've picked up is the word for “Welfare Office.” Why bother working in your own country when you can go to someone elses and live off their tax payers? This isn't the situation in Singapore.

Say what you like about the West and Westerners but this ability to allow good deeds and contributions to overcome personal prejudices is a strength. America is currently in the shit. However, it has a culture where it will find enough people to start its proverbial engine again. Europe has its problems too but somehow the Europeans will find a way of working together to get things moving.

Look at the British and the way they treat foreigners. When an Indian actress was abused on TV by a native born British girl, the British public was incensed ….not with the Indian girl but with the British one for behaving “indecently.” White British People could not take another one of their own behaving indecently to an Indian girl.

I think of my stint on an English jury. In the first case I was on, a group of 12-White English Working class people were on the side of a Lebanese boy against white Anglo-Saxon policemen.

This innate sense of decency amongst the British is their salvation. For all the faults of the nation and the people – they have decency and although there's no hard evidence for it – Britain has benefited from this. I look at the way in which your average Briton stood up for Shillpa Shetty and the way Indian Conglomerates have gone shopping in the UK (Jaguar for example is now part of the Tata Group).

The British have not had mass demonstrations about this. They're happy to accept Indian money and understand that this may save Britain and your average Brit from being flushed down the toilet that the bankers would have the country in. Think about this – you are an average Indian industrialist thinking of a place to invest in. Would you invest in a place where even when you give them your money and create jobs they'll complain that you are taking over. Or will you chose to be in a place where the natives will stand up for people like you whenever you have been treated indecently?

By contrast, we in Asia and in Singapore in particular have a nasty habit of not being able to tolerate the well being and success of anyone we deem not one of us.

I take the example of the story of a Chinaman who snuck into Singapore not once but twice, illegally. What did this Chinaman do? Well, he ended up starting up three, thriving noodle shops – thus creating prosperity for Singapore and dare I say, Singaporeans.

So, how did we reward him. We caught him and gave him 12 of the best. Point being – he broke the law on immigration and that was somehow so bad that he had to be canned 12 times.

What's particularly interesting about this case is the fact that I seem to be the only person who remembers it. When it first happened, a few intellectual journalist bitched about this – but then everyone lost interest in this. As far as the general public was concerned, this Chinaman got what he deserved – he came here by breaking our law and then proceeded to exploit Singaporeans by setting up a business that was profitable.

In the US, the General Public would have fought his case and spoke highly enough of the guy and somehow they would have found a way of creating an amnesty to allow people like this to thrive and bring the country up with them.

I say again, America is in deep shit but somehow it allows little migrants to climb in and turn the place around based on their sheer hunger alone. Hispanic Immigrants to the USA are going to be the salvation of the USA. You can live in the shit but there is a system to allow you to rise beyond it.

Here in Singapore, we somehow can't bring ourselves to look at deeds and actions instead of where people come from. Huong, the lady in my life has a record for “vice-activities.” When I go with her to deal with immigration officials, I get constant remarks like, “Do you know she has record with us etc.” I think they get shocked when I say, “Yes,” I am aware of her record and I wish they'd stop giving her a hard time and check “real” crooks. For all her faults, Huong is clever and enterprising. She is constantly looking for opportunities for business to help friends and family. She is simply the type of person we need. Yet, officialdom cannot look beyond her passport.

Huong is better for the economy and well being of the nation than people like the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek who is questioning the loyalty of Mainland Chinese who volunteered to serve National Service from the comfort of his Commanding Officer's Office.

Somehow, we, as a people cannot accept the idea of prospering together. Its like the only acceptable person is a government scholar “guiding” the economy or an employee of a giant “multinational” that creates instant jobs.

Unfortunately governments need tax payers and multinationals can relocate as and where they chose to go. You cannot build a sustainable economy on government dictate and multinational investment alone (though both are good). You need people who are willing to find ways of making a living beyond gifts from the MNCs and Government. If your local population won't – you have to encourage people like Huong or the C hinaman who set up his noodle shops. They may have a bit of shade but on the whole they more good than harm to the nation.

A wise man once made the distinction between strong government and strong society. Places with strong societies can survive weak governments. Places with strong governments but weak societies are only as good as good as the government of the day.

For all the lousy governments that have plagued the Western World, Western Societies have survived and even thrived. Can places like Singapore survive if we had anything less than the government that we have today?