Monday, September 26, 2011

The Rat Finds his Groove

It’s easy to feel sorry for Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority. Ever since he was elected to succeed the charismatic Yasser Arafat in 2004, Mr Abbas has been living like a rat that is caught in between an angry gorilla and a drunken elephant on one hand and a swarm of very irate hornets on the other. As far as Israel and the US are concerned, Mr Abbas has been totally ineffectual in keeping violent Islamic extremist under control and so he’s failed to guarantee Israeli security. As far the Islamist in Hamas are concerned, Mr Abbas has sold the people out to Israel and the West. Both sides have made it a point to place Mr Abbas at the sticky point between the fire and the frying pan. When he allowed Hamas to stand for an election, they had the audacity to win it in a fair electoral contest. As such, Israel and America decided to punish him by withholding taxes which the Palestinian Authority rises on Palestinians but is collected by Israel. When he tried to pacify the Israelis and Americans by sacking Hamas from the unity government that the Saudi’s helped him negotiate, they promptly took over the Gaza Strip by force and despite Israeli sanctions and invasion in 2008, they’ve actually succeeded in running something resembling a viable state. To be fair to Mr Abbas, the job of running the Palestinian Authority was never an easy one. Compared to his predecessor, Mr Abbas is dull and uninspiring. Say what you like about Mr Arafat but when he spoke he could get the people up in arms or to lay down his arms. By contrast Mr Abbas only seems able to get people to mock him. It also hasn’t helped that his Israeli and American counterparts have shown him less than zero respect. Israeli Prime Ministers, Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Nethanyahu have made it a point to humiliate Mr Abbas whenever they have had the chance. Mr Abbas says he’ll negotiate for peace in return for land – the Israeli’s promptly move more settlers into the West Bank as they sit down to negotiate. Not everything that Mr Abbas does can be blamed on someone else. Let’s face it, Hamas have gained a foothold with the Palestinian people because they have been everything that Mr Abbas has been unable to be. Hamas, as most neutral observers have pointed out, won elections in January 2006 because they ran honest and competent administrations in the Palestinian territories. By contrast, the areas run by Mr Abbas’s Fattah party were rife with corruption. The Western world may condemn Hamas for refusing to acknowledge the “right of Israel to exist,” but as far as a good many Palestinians are concerned, Hamas fights for Palestinian interest rather than Israeli and American interest. Sure, Israel did bomb the living daylights out of the Gaza strip in 2008 but as far as most Palestinians are concerned, that’s no worse than what happens in the West Bank – Israel merely takes the land that everyone else regards as Palestinian. Mr Abbas has nobody to blame except himself in this respect. Had his party been a bit more honest and a bit more inclined to the welfare of the Palestinian people, the threat he faces from Hamas would be a lot less severe. You would think that Mr Abbas would have merely slunk away into a hole to escape these pressures. Nobody would blame him if he did. However, he’s recently seems to have found his groove much to the annoyance of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Nethanyahu and the Islamist in Hamas. Mr Abbas’s decision to go straight to the UN to make the case for Palestinian Statehood is a brilliant strategic move. It’s clear that he’s going to lose in Security Council. The Americans have already announced that they’ll veto such a move. However, that is precisely the point. Mr Abbas will lose in the Security Council but he has the votes or at least enough votes to scare Israel and the USA in the General Assembly. At the time of writing, the Economist has argued that at the very least, Mr Abbas will see an upgrade from being a mere ‘entity.’ This won’t translate into much change on the ground but Mr Abbas will ensure that his existence is more than just an amusing fact for Israeli and American right wing politicians. The Palestinians will have to be treated as a nation – even if it is one without viable land. More importantly, Mr Abbas will be justified in having an armed force. More importantly, this is the first time that Mr Abbas has been able to project himself as “fighting” for the people. Any defeat in the Security Council through the expected American veto will prove that it is not Mr Abbas that has been a stumbling block to peace but Israel and America. If Mr Abbas gets the votes in the General Assembly as he is expected to – it will become very clear to the world that American and Israeli insistence for negotiations without preconditions is the insistence of a school yard bully rather than someone interested in making peace. Mr Abbas will also be able to show the Palestinians that he’s found a way of fighting for them without incurring violent retaliation from Israel. Suddenly Mr Abbas can portray himself as a clever fighter as opposed to the guys from Hamas. Now, the international community needs to act to support Mr Abbas’s move. There is no moral or logical reason for the Palestinian people not to have “statehood.” Both Palestinians and Israeli’s agree that they need a “two-state” solution. However, this won’t happen as long as only one side is regarded as a state. The main onus is on Israel. The Israeli nation has argued that it wants to be left alone by its ‘hostile’ Arab neighbours. Perhaps this was true in the 1960s, however, this increasingly less so. In 2002 and 2006, Saudi Abdullah proposed that Israel withdraw to its 1967 borders in return for diplomatic recognition by all 22 members of the Arab league. Israel has refused to even consider this – this is despite calls by US President Obama to use 1967 borders as the basis of negotiations. The settlements are illegal and building them on territories recognised as Palestinian as effectively an invasion. If Israel wants to stop terrorism against its citizens, she should stop building settlements and bring new Jewish Immigrants into Israel’s 1967 borders. The Sharm El-Sheikh report chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell found that there was a direct correlation between settlements building and suicide bombings. Stop settlement building and you stop the suicide bombers. As one Jewish currency trader I met said, “Of course the Palestinians are throwing rockets at us – we’ve locked them up in cages – what do you expect them to do.” If Israel were willing to stop settlement buildings and move back to its 1967 borders, it would make it easier for Mr Abbas and other Palestinian leaders to sell the idea that the Palestinian people have to give up their right to return to the homes they were turned out off and more importantly to accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish State. Even Hamas has agreed to recognise the “Reality of Israel,” so there is hope if Israel shows a willingness to give back land it has taken. On the other hand, the Palestinians need leadership that takes responsibility for its own actions. Arafat had charisma but as an Algerian friend of mine pointed out – “That Bastard, stole everything.” Palestinians need to find a way of making what little they have work for them. They have the mercy of the Muslim world to provide them with the money and trade routes. Palestinians speak Arabic, the universal language of more than 100 million people. They have education and they are ironically near enough Israel to take advantage of a working economy that is well plugged into the Western world. The West also needs to help Palestine turn into something like Turkey – a strong democratic state where the majority of people happen to be Muslim. Mr Abbas has found his groove – let’s hope he stays on a roll – it could lead to something spectacular and unprecedented – peace and prosperity in a region known for violence.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How powerful is the Pen?

Monday, September 19, 2011 will be a very special day for me. It was the day I had the first hand experience of the changing media landscape. At around 1500 on that day I was described by someone as a “Useless blogger with no credibility and not read by anyone.” Half an hour later, I received a sms telling me that I was “Quick to sell people off.” I replied that I would only do so if the price was right or if I was doing a public service at about 1700. Two hours later, the same person sent me a note saying, “I beg off you…” and that was followed by a phone call, imploring me to edit one of my postings because it had just come up on a Google search and he feared his misdeeds would become easily available. I edited the post in return for undertaking that the person in question promised to be become a nice person to his family. However, that really got me thinking about the new communications world that we live in today. Thanks to the internet, information has become readily available. For better or worse, information is so easy to get hold off that professional censors have been on the retreating end of the battle. This has been especially visible in the politics of totalitarian regimes that had a heavy hand in censoring the media. The internet and “smart phones,” have made it easy for people to organise demonstrations efficiently and effectively. One has to look at the General and Presidential Elections of 2011 in Singapore to get an idea of how the internet has been changing politics. Singapore politics is traditionally boring. There are usually so many uncontested seats in a General Election that the ruling party is returned to power before the first vote is cast. Presidential elections are even more predictable – the person that the government praises somehow ends up walking into the Istana without any contest. This time things were different. There was a contest in all but one constituency and the presidential election was won by the ruling party’s preferred candidate but only by the skin of his teeth. A few members of the ruling party, including an independent political analyst have argued that the talk about the internet changing things was pure hype. After all the ruling party did win 81 out of a possible 87 seats in parliament and the preferred candidate did win the Presidential Election. Their argument runs like this – the internet postings gives an impression that Singapore is highly polarised and people are going to vote out the ruling party in a landslide causing a revolution similar to the Arab Spring that ousted long time rulers like Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. That didn’t happen and so the argument runs – this proved that the internet chatter is purely hot air for a disgruntled minority. As appealing as this argument might be, it is misleading and dare I say delusional. This argument assumes that the internet is a magic wand that you can wave to make things happen. This attitude is similar to the idea that advertising invents product advantages and the right lawyer can convince judges and juries about things that don’t exist. Bill Burnbach, the legendary founder of DDB once made the point that, “Advertising cannot invent a product advantage that doesn’t exist.” Advertising is a method of communication and not a product advantage. The same is true for the internet. It is a forum for communications and not a magic wand. Singapore’s 2011 elections were like all other elections before it – they were about issues. Votes were won and lost based on how the public viewed certain issues. Generally speaking, life in Singapore remains fairly liveable and a large part is due to good governance. Then, there was the issue of the opposition. While the opposition fielded more attractive candidates than they had before, they remained fragmented and fought for the sake of fighting rather than on forming the next government. These were old fashioned reasons for voting. You have to consider the fact that Singaporeans may not be happy about certain issues and let off steam on the internet – but on the overall scheme of things they want the PAP government – it’s done a fabulous job. I know, I am one of them – I’ve been a critic of certain policies and of the presentation of policies but I believe that this is a government that has generally done what I want it to do. I also voted for Tony Tan because I thought he was the best person for this primarily ceremonial role. I simply didn’t feel angry enough to try to kick the party in the gonads… Effective communications can make the difference between success and failure. It cannot alter ground realities. Like many voters, I know whether my buses run on time and whether my bus ride is going to bankrupt me, regardless of what is being said in the main stream or on the net. What the internet did do in the election was to allow alternative view points and it gives us a different way of communicating. Things were easy in the day when the mainstream media was the only way of getting messages out there. The person who controlled the media could simply pump messages out to the masses who would passively accept them. As the governing party, the PAP has the levers of control of the media, which they used to their advantage. What the internet does is that it allows more voices to have their say. To all intents and purposes, this is the only forum available for opposition politics. Thanks to the internet, the PAP is not the ONLY voice around. Think of Tin Pei Ling who was caught stomping her foot online like a petulant child and posing like a na├»ve girl with her Kate Spade Handbags. In the mainstream media such videos would have been edited out by an editor. Now, people merely upload pictures and videos onto sites like Youtube and hey presto, your worst party pictures are known to the world. On a more serious note, there was the issue of Dr Tony Tan’s son’s lack of national service. This story broke on the internet and the main stream media had to react by giving more coverage to the issue. Simply put, control of the agenda was no longer in the ruling party’s hands. If there was only mainstream media they could talk about all their good deeds and expose the follies of their opponents. Thanks to the internet, they found that their follies being exposed. So how did the internet change things? It gave the opposition a chance to fight back. As a consumer of messages, I heard both arguments and I could make up my mind, which one I liked better. Like it or not, the PAP won because the opposition was merely a better prepared opposition rather than a credible alternative government. The margin of victory is by most standards very respectable and the number of seats held remains commanding. However, much of this has to do with the system of electoral boundaries. If one analyses the results, the PAP is in danger of losing its dominance thanks to the internet. The reason is simple; the PAP is so accustomed to fighting as if it was a gorilla with a baseball bat going into a boxing ring against a Yorkshire terrier that has had three of its hind legs broken and its teeth removed and its been given a lobotomy the night before and being cheered on by the crowd. If you follow this analogy the internet is a magic tool for the Yorkshire terrier. No, it doesn’t give him super strength to take on the gorilla. However, this is the magic tool that allows the terrier to heal his legs so he can run around rather than wait to get beaten up. It is also the tool that puts his teeth back in so that he can nip the gorilla (which won’t hurt initially but if done enough times….) and more importantly it allows the Yorkshire terrier to even the odds by inviting a untold number of Yorkshire terriers into the fray (think of bees – one is small and insignificant – if the swarm comes after you – run). In this round, the gorilla wins because it’s still the biggest animal and the army of Yorkshire terriers hasn’t learnt to fight as a single unit. However, the little nip from the Yorkshire terrier has shocked the living day lights out of the gorilla. Suddenly the gorilla is crying that life is unfair because the Yorkshire terrier isn’t sitting around to clobbered on the head and finds a way of nipping back at the gorilla – which if you listen to the comments about how Singapore cannot afford a ‘two-party’ system is precisely what’s happening. In five years time, the Yorkshire terrier and his very large family will learn to work together. Furthermore, this magic tool, which healed the Yorkshire terrier’s wounds, might be able to give the gorilla food poisoning on the day of the fight. Suddenly the odds have shifted in favour of the Yorkshire terrier. The good news for the gorilla is that the same magic tool that has helped the Yorkshire terrier can also help the gorilla. How? This has to do with the fact that the internet is an active form of communication. It is two parties talking to each other and not one party giving dictation to another. This was precisely where the PAP failed. Look at the way the Prime Minister was left apologising for mistakes a few days before polling day. Look at the way the Prime Minister devoted one day of an election campaign to address concerns of the people on the net only a few days before. He looked miserable – in short, he was the gorilla with a club getting the shock of his life because the Yorkshire terrier didn’t wait to get clobbered and actually nipped back and the crowd cheered for the Yorkshire terrier instead. The internet is not going to magic away certain ground realities which have thus far been in favour of the ruling party or if you like, the gorilla with a club. However, the rules are changing to neutralise the advantages of the gorilla. The Yorkshire terriers suddenly realise they can hurt the gorilla and the idea that they can take down the gorilla has entered their heads. It’s up to the gorilla to realise that the rules have changed and his game plan must follow suite.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Harry's Legacy..............

Singapore’s Founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew turned 88 a few days ago. The man who once dominated (and in many ways still dominates) Singapore by his mere presences has become noticeably more frail in his old age but as his performance in a dialogue hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy showed, his mind is still sharp.

One of the most prominent moments in this dialogue was the final question. Someone asked him what his vision was and he replied that it was not important what his vision was but what the questioners was. He was, as he said, “walking off into the sunset – he may even stumble.” That reply was vintage Mr Lee. In that statement, he showed that he was already thinking about the one question that nobody else seemed to want to talk about – what happens after he leaves the stage. Let’s face it, Mr Lee is 88, an age where everyday you have is something of a bonus. Like it or not, Singapore has to accept the reality that Mr Lee can drop dead anytime soon and life has to continue.

Say what you like about Mr Lee but he’s been a driving force in making modern Singapore what it is today – the thriving, clean, green and very efficient international metropolis. When Singapore was ejected from the Malayan Federation back in 1965, Mr Lee had the foresight to provide a vision and to surround himself with brilliant people like Dr Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam. He was wise enough to allow these brilliant men to get on with the task at hand.

If you look at his obsessions, you’d realise that Mr Lee was for the most part right in what he wanted for Singapore. How can anyone argue against things like honesty in public service or equality of all before the law? In his years as Prime Minister, Mr Lee was obsessive in not only creating prosperity for Singapore but in making life in Singapore pleasant. The Singapore today compares very well to countries in the developed world of the USA and Europe – I was reminded of this by a young US navy boy in Geylang who said, “If this is your worst area, come to the US and I’ll show you a bad area.”

Mr Lee’s achievements are internationally recognised. I remember Sanjiv Misra, former head of Citigroup’s Asia-Pacific Commercial Banking saying, “It’s not just Singaporeans who are enthralled by him.”

I don’t believe I’d be exaggerating to say that everything in Singapore today is as a result of Mr Lee’s vision. Two Prime Ministers later, we are still living in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s era and despite holding no official position today, Mr Lee’s presence within Singapore is commanding enough for him to need to mention that he is “no longer in charge.”

So, it’s all the more important for us to ask what life is going to be like without Mr Lee. His presence in our lives has been so prominent for so long that its departure might cause a shock to the system.

In one sense, there is a case for optimism. Singaporeans are used to having a decent lifestyle and are not about to give it up. Simply put, we take things like drinking from a tap as a given and so any government that changes any of these things will face a public revolt.

Even if you look at the ‘hot button’ issues in this election, you’ll see that they have their roots in Mr Lee’s policies. Mr Lee argued that it was necessary to pay top dollar to get top talent and to keep it honest. When the government slipped up – most noticeably in the case of Mas Selamat’s stroll out of Whitley Detention Centre, we got upset because this was not top talent in action. Thanks to Mr Lee, we expect a certain standard from government that is higher than in other countries. To Indians, Italians and the French may shrug if their ministers are less than competent – Singaporeans cannot accept it. If you look at the PAP’s loss in the recent election – much of it has to do with a perceived moving away from Mr Lee’s original vision.

Alcon had it right – “Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s expectation.” In the 60s an honest and competent public service was a new thing – today this is the least we expect from the public service.

However, there is a case for pessimism and in this case its best summed up by the person of the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek. In short, the good life that Mr Lee has provided Singaporeans has produced a young generation who have become spoilt and are unable to deal with a world outside of Singapore or in a world where the need to exercise brain power is a given.

On one level, the case for pessimism is harmless. Take the question of what is India’s national language. If you have read a little bit, the answer is obviously Hindi. Ask someone like the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feast during Ramadan and the answer is Tamil. The reason is simple; Singaporeans have been preconditioned into thinking that an Indian is automatically someone descended from Tamil Nadu. The conditioning is so strong that the richness and variety of what India is has been lost on the likes of this young man. If you are not from Tamil Nadu – how can you be Indian? The lack of knowledge goes beyond basic geography – you’d think a 21-year old with a normal sex drive would know one of the woman’s sweet spots – the clitoris. Unfortunately for him – he never heard of that part of the female anatomy. I repeat, it’s not that he couldn’t find it – he didn’t know this part of the female anatomy existed and this is in a country that prides itself in teaching basic biology.

He is unfortunately not alone in this level of ignorance. When Saudi Aramco had a cultural display up in Marina Square in 2006, members of the public would ask the Saudi delegates, “Which part of Dubai are you from?’ I know Dubai has been much better at publicising itself than the other parts of the Gulf but surely anyone who has looked at a map will know that Saudi Arabia is way bigger than Dubai.

Is Singapore’s education system lacking so badly? Well, I wouldn’t want to say it is but somehow the students who come out of the system lack basic curiosity or at least the desire to find out about the world beyond their HDB block. As long as the facts are told to them by a single trusted source – why question? I remember Andy Mukherjee, the former Bloomberg Columnist describing a group of NTU journalist he had just given a lecture to as being ‘Curiously uncurious.”

Basic alack of curiosity is amusing when it’s the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramdan aka Thambi Pundek tries to show off his loyalty to the system through his ignorance about general affairs. It’s downright worrying when this ignorance is translated into the national level. Ironically, one of the biggest culprits of this is Mr Lee himself. In the early 1990s he arrogantly flew up to Beijing to lecture the Chinese on how to get things done. The result was the Shuzhou Industrial Park – which was a White Elephant for Singapore until the Chinese became majority shareholders. Several billion dollars later, Mr Lee decided to trample round the Middle East trying to lecture the Gulf Arabs on the virtues of George Bush II’s Middle East policies that were obviously failing the Middle East and more worryingly he started writing articles in Forbes to berate Lebanese for not helping Israel to bomb them back to the Stone Age.

Unfortunately all of Mr Lee’s comments are treated as revered wisdom and because of that Singaporeans swallow what he says as gospel and they to view the world in the same way that Mr Lee does. How do you do business with someone when all you know about their country is based on an old man’s prejudices.

Let’s look at Mr Lee’s other big achievement – multi-racialism. Up until recently, Singapore was a proud multi-racial society. However, thanks to Mr Lee’s comments about Muslims, its questionable if Singapore’s racial harmony can be taken for granted. As far as he was concerned, Singapore’s Muslim’s need to be less strict about integrating with the rest of the public. What exactly did he mean by that? Singapore’s Muslims are amongst the most liberal in their outlook? A good portion of them drink and dare I say gamble. How much more do you want them to abandon a faith that is the centre of their culture and how much more do you want them to get trampled by your views when you’ve already trampled them of their birthright in land that was technically theirs?

Most worryingly for Singapore is that there is a lack of honesty amongst certain people. I remember the Young Muslim Politician from Paris Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek, proudly telling a former editor that he was told by his seniors that if he told the Minister the feelings on the ground, he would be told off for not selling government policies. It was only the shock of the last election that the Minister has insisted that he’s told the truth.

In not so many words – we have a culture where everyone is only concerned about sucking up to the top and sugar coats things to avoid trouble. Sucking up becomes one of the key characteristics to advance in life or at least save you from being told off. Yes, I agree that it is necessary to know how to manage superiors. However, it is another story when sucking up to the top hides them from the truth of what’s going on. As I remember my Dad telling me when I delayed bad news “You don’t want to tell me because you don’t want to upset me, but do you know how much time you delayed from me finding a solution.”

This is probably Singapore’s biggest failing. Mr Lee has to bear responsibility for playing a key role in creating this culture. After his initial cabinet stepped down in the early eighties, Mr Lee stopped being “Primus Inter Pares,” the leader who listened, set a vision and allowed people to get on with it. He became “God” or should I say “Minister Mentor,” a character with no official designation other than to teach people what to do. He had the wisdom to step aside when he left the Premiership in 1991 but ironically consolidated more power and people became afraid to engage him in an honest manner.

By doing this, Mr Lee created the very notion that power should last forever. Mr Lee has a done a brilliant job in ensuring that there is no money corruption in the public service. However, his consolidation of power and removal from the ground has helped to accentuate a culture of “power corruption.” I take the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek as a prime example. He cannot help bragging to you about how close he is to certain members of the government.

What does he gain from this? He’s not in it for the money. He just gets the thrill that people who served the nation might respect his worm like mind for having power. Unfortunately this isn’t limited to him.

In the trial of Zim Integrated Shipping versus Igal Dafni in 2009, you had the example of a former CEO of Port of Authority of Singapore telling the former Area President of Zim Integrated Shipping how he could get round loopholes in getting Singapore Citizenship. Her intentions were admittedly good in that she wanted Zim to come to Singapore. However, telling rich people who to get round the laws sounds fishy when you have relatives in the immigration department.

Then again, let’s look at the various Dr Susan Lim versus the Singapore Medical Council. You had the Director of Medical Services at the Ministry of Health who was also the Secretary of the Singapore of the Medical Council acting as complainant and judge at the same time. As expected, the judge couldn’t rule against this and questioning this could be contempt of court. However, any rational mind will tell you that something is grossly wrong with the system.

The biggest example is the “White Horse” system in the Ministry of Defence. Contrary to what the former Minister of State for Defence might tell you – the sons of prominent people somehow get “different treatment” from the rest. Just think of Dr Patrick Tan’s 12-year deferment when his father was Minister of Defence.

The beauty of this system is that the people top remain honest to a fault. It’s just that somehow, somewhere along the line; the minions felt that they’d get into trouble if they didn’t create privileges for their masters. The masters never objected to this and so they have to have some responsibility for this.

Mr Lee in his early days was a wonderful example of this. Both his sons went through National Service and served in combat units. He’s made it such that being his son is more difficult than not being his son. Our Prime Minister, who is his son, has earned his success.

Has this happened down the line? The Prime Minister has done it. He made sure that when his son broke MINDEF protocol, his reprimand was public. However, what happens at the pinnacle doesn’t filter down.

Mr Lee was right in insisting that we have no money corruption. He has however; allowed power corruption to foster and this will be the undoing of Singapore if it is not kept in check.

It’s easy to fight money corruption. If immigration demands a bribe at the Causeway, you pay and then lodge a complaint. You can be rest assured; the offender will pray to be at the gallows. In this aspect, we the public will never allow this to happen because it affects our lives in an immediate sense.

Power corruption is tricky in that it’s often legal and it’s virtually impossible to prove. As former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mohammed Mahathir said, “You say everything in Malaysia is under the table, well in Singapore it is just over the table.”

However, it doesn’t make any better than the type done for money. Basically what happens in power corruption is the bottom and top lose the connection. As anyone stroke patient can tell you when the brain and legs lose the connection you get a situation where you simply can’t move – the brain can send out the signals and the leg muscles can be strong but when there’s no connection, nothing happens.

With a country, the rot doesn’t set in so immediately. It takes a bit of time to set in but eventually the rot takes effect.

So far, Singaporeans have shown the ability to stop some of the rot through the ballot box. The question is, would the opposition politicians prove to be made of sterner stuff when it comes to holding power. The case for pessimism is there. As one former writer says, “The Government types are actually fairly decent – it’s the liberals who can be really vicious.” Let’s just pray that the public’s tolerance is lower than the likes of the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek when it comes to tolerating nonsense of those in power.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

If Only Osama had listened to Vito Corleone

Now that the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the USA has gone by, it is time to make the politically incorrect point that Osama Bin Ladin one fatal error – he forgot to watch the Godfather. If he had, he may have come across the advice that the Godfather, Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) gave to his godson, Tom (played by Robert Duval) – “A lawyer with a briefcase steals more than a gangster with a gun.” The Old Don knew what he was talking about. The last decade has been marked by two traumatic man-made events. The first is the September 11 attacks, which left a powerful psychological impression on the world. The second event is the Sub-Prime crisis. While the attacks of September 11 were by far the more physically dramatic of the two-events, the sub-prime crisis is in many ways more insidious and more damaging. Let’s make no mistake – damage was done during the September 11 attacks. Nearly three thousand innocent people lost their lives, the Twin Towers were destroyed and the Pentagon was damaged. Then you have to take into account the fact that September 11 was the springboard for military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have cost several thousand lives more. However, while the effects of the attacks were dramatic, they can’t exactly be called strategic victories. Instead of weakening the US National Fabric, the attacks proved to be a focal point for the nation. In terms of international diplomacy, the US gained tremendous amounts of sympathy and goodwill from around the world. The French went as far as to invoke a NATO resolution declaring that an attack on one NATO member was an attack on the entire alliance. Osama became the most convenient “villain” for the US government to focus on. Prior to going into Iraq, the US government was in a position of strength. It was only the Bush Administration’s blatant disregard for international law and mishandling of international opinion that cost it goodwill. The Sub-Prime crisis of 2008 has been far less dramatic than the attacks of September 2011. There was no crashing building and there have been no reports of death caused directly by the Sub-Prime crisis. However, this does not mean that the Sub-Prime crisis has been victimless. An untold number of small businesses have been forced into bankruptcy and an even greater number of people have lost their homes. In the case of Iceland, an entire nation has gone bankrupt, ruining thousands of people through no fault of their own. What makes the Sub-Prime crisis so much more difficult to deal with is that unlike September 11, there’s no particular villain to focus on. American Foreign and Cultural Policy could be defined by being everything the Soviet Union was not. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed there was Saddam Hussein. After Saddam there was Osama bin Ladin. These characters provided Western policy makers with an easy narrative. All they had to do was to deal with the “Bad Guys.” Reacting to September 11 was easy – all that was to needed was to “Hunt down Osama and the terrorist.” In the case of the Sub-Prime Crisis, there was no Osama. Yes, bankers were blamed for being a little greedy. However, the bankers could not be blamed for everything and more importantly the bankers were not doing anything illegal. While many people complained that bankers like Stan O’Neal of Merill Lynch and Chuck Prince of Citigroup were paid hundreds of millions of dollars after being sacked for running up losses in the billions, the fact is the severance payment they received was perfectly legal. It is not an exaggeration to say that the bankers who played a key role in the Sub-Prime Crisis did more damage to the economy of America and the Western World than Osama did when he decided to order the crashing of the planes into the Twin Towers. The image of the crashing planes and the collapsing towers was dramatic. However, the American nation regrouped and there was no economic melt down. No big names had to file for bankruptcy. By contrast the Sub-Prime has lead to trillions of dollars being lost in the effort to recover bad debts created by reckless lending. Even more money has gone into prop up institutions like AIG and Citigroup, which played a leading role in creating the crisis but cleverly positioned themselves as being “Too Big to fall.” Institutions like Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers have gone bankrupt, throwing thousands of people out of work and leaving thousands of investors in financial ruin. Ordinary people have been kicked out of their homes. You can buy decent houses in places like St Louis for US 7,000 dollars. Both the US Dollar and the British Pound have collapsed against their major competitors. It was big news when the Australian Dollar was parity with the US Dollar. Nobody batted and eye lid when the Australian Unit became stronger. The Hindustan Times recently reported a story on how the Indian Table Tennis Federation failed to hire a Swedish coach because they were going to pay him in US Dollars instead of Indian Rupees. The collapse of the British Pound has been equally dramatic. In the “Sterling Crisis” of 1992, when Sterling was rejected from the ERM, it took two and a half Singapore dollars to buy one pound. That was an all time low. Today the rate hovers slightly above two Singapore dollars to a pound. The economic damage is not just American and British. The Euro Zone is also in crisis. Countries like Greece are deeply in debt and holding onto the hope of bailout from larger nations. A generation of people in Spain have never held a steady job in their lives for the simple fact – there are no steady jobs. The Sub-Prime crisis has done more damage to the economies of the Western World than September 11 ever did. Unlike the September 11, 2001, nobody has called for the ‘hunting down’ of the perpetrators. How many ‘prominent’ names have gone to jail for doing so much damage to the economy? Not only has nobody gone to jail but many of the big banks CEOs have retired on very high severance packages. Don Vito Corleone had a point and Osama should have taken his advice. Instead of trying to bring down the Western World’s economic system through death and destruction, he should have worked with a team of bankers and lawyers to perpetrate the culture of greed. The lynchpins of the systems he sought to destroy have done a far better job of it than he did.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

I’m On the Way

I am, as my mother once said, “On the wrong side of my thirties” and if you look at things carefully, the life I’ve been living is pretty miserable. I’ve never held a job in a decent organisation for more than a year (so much so that when I left my last job, PN Balji advised me, “Be an income man – you’ll never explain why you’ve never worked in an organisation for long – it will be tough if not impossible to get hired”) and I’ve spent the last six-years living in a hovel. As for my personal life, the less said the better (unless you’re writing drama scripts). However, it looks like there may be hope, even for the likes of me. I can’t quite say that I have arrived but at least I can say that I am on the way. The message was delivered by the most unusual and unlikely of all messengers – “The Young Politician from Pasir Ris GRC aka Thambi Pundek.” (He’s just informed me that he would rather be referred to as Thambi Pundek than the Young Politician from Pasir Ris GRC). It all started out with an SMS. I told him that it was time to stop spreading fear and panic about the losing candidate in Saturday’s Presidential Election (Dr Tan Cheng Bok – former MP for Ayer Rajah GRC) and to start concentrating on healing the party (PAP). He decided that I was seeing things the wrong way and he needed to meet with me to “rebut” my beliefs and offered to buy me a decent lunch. Well, I’m not one to argue with someone who is offering to buy me lunch and so I met up with him to listen to his intellectual analysis of politics in Singapore. He had fun telling me that the Presidential Election was a grand endorsement of PAP policies – “Over 70 percent of the electorate voted for PAP men,” he said. His argument was simple – both Dr Tony Tan and Dr Tan Cheng Bok were PAP men and so a vote for both of them was a vote for the PAP. Not sure how he worked that one out – if you follow the logic the PAP won 100 percent of all the votes cast since every one of them was a former government/PAP man – Dr Tony Tan is former Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tan Cheng Bok is a former MP, Mr Tan Jee Say is a former senior civil servant and Mr Tan Kin Lian ran NTUC Income Cooperative (A government controlled organisation). Anyway, half way through his monologue, YPPRGRCTP (Young Politician from Pasir Ris GRC Thambi Pundek) said, “Hey, your blog is being monitored by ISD – you know they can call you up anytime – just like that.” He then went onto announce to me that “I know the person monitoring your blog and I’m one of the point people.” This was the news that made my day. If I haven’t arrived, this was the sign to say that I am at the very least on the way to somewhere. Seriously, how many of my former school, army, university and work mates can possibly claim to be important enough to be monitored by the State? Singapore is small state. However, we’re a small state that takes pride in being exceedingly stable in a region known for instability. Our politics, until recently was a fairly predictable affair. Elections were never a question of who would win but a question of the winning margin. Law suites are also predictable – you simply had to follow whose interest was at stake. If you were a foreign publication in a libel suite against a senior member of the government, you’d know the outcome – the only unpredictable element would be the amount awarded in favour of your opponent. To keep this happy situation going, Singapore has a very strong security service. Like our former Colonial Masters, the British, we have an “official secrets act,” and while we may have gotten rid of colonial rule, we’ve maintained some of the laws of colonial administration – namely the right of the government to hold you for a period of 60-days without trial. Thanks to Osama and his gang, these laws have been tightened. Our little Red Dot of a nation has an extensive spy network. OK, it’s not the CIA or Mosad or dare I say the KGB – but our Internal Security Department (ISD) is well funded and its network is extensive. OK, I’ve been aware that I’ve been monitored or at least my published writings have been. Anyone is consistently published in the media is monitored. The Ministry of Information and the Arts (MICA) not only has an efficient system of distributing information; it has an equally extensive system of monitoring information. The chaps, who do this, don’t just monitor mainstream publications. Cyberspace, particularly blogs are monitored. So, it’s not a surprise to me that ISD has glanced at my blog as well as the various publications I’ve written for in the past. However, I have to admit that I was especially pleased with the way the YPPRGRCTP great pride in telling me that I was being monitored and he knew the people doing it. Obviously, he thinks I’ve become important enough for the powers that be to monitor me closely and he is happily trying to find ways for me to admit to doing something awfully salacious so that he can score some brownie points by denouncing me to the powers that be. So, now that I’m officially being marked out as being important enough for the powers that be to place me under surveillance and to let me know – I need to think of ways to help the YPPRGRCTP get ahead in his career as a worm and find something that will remove any shadow of doubt that I have officially arrived. Wait for the next instalment of what I have to say next – it could be a grovelling apology and promise to remove myself from cyberspace – in which case you know why – I’ve arrived and will be joining the likes of Alan Shadrake in the list of millionaire authors created by the Singapore government – wish me luck and do find ways of contributing to my welfare.