Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Remarkably Unremarkable Year

It’s now close to the end of 2015 and it’s time to bash out the usual musings of the year. The immediate thought that comes to mind is the fact that I’ve got no major highlights to talk about in the way I used to, which in itself is probably the most remarkable thing.

For most of my thirties, I was actually a man without a steady job. I lived mainly on freelance work that I could pick up and I dated a few unusual women. Now that I have hit my early forties, I’ve gone from being a man with no steady job to a man working two steady jobs concurrently. The last two-years of financial stability come at a time when I’ve become a bit more stable in my personal life too.

I’m coming to the end of my second year as an insolvency executive at Wong Mann & Associates PAC. The job isn’t one that I’m naturally qualified to do in as much as I don’t have the training in accountancy and sitting in an office at a desk have never been my strong points.

However, the experience has been enriching and been a good study of human nature at its worst. I’ve met people who were decent enough to do what was needed to do to ensure those who once looked up to them would not suffer when they flattered and I also had the dubious honour of dealing with people who thought nothing of cheating those at the bottom of the ladder. In a funny way, the insolvency game is a good training ground for any potential entrepreneur – life is filled with examples of not what to do in the course of running a business.

I also continue to work at Bruno’s Bistrot in Telok Kurau. We’ve managed to build a decent relationship with a good group of customers and the revenue stream looks reasonably stable. I’m also glad to mention that my old colleague, Andy Ting, the former chef of the Pizzeria & Grill has now moved down to the Bistrot as the main chef there, so our staff meals have become exceedingly good. Andy is a passionate chef who takes great pride in his work. Each meal he prepares is a work of art.

In between working full time on both jobs, I continue to provide publicity and brand building support for Apex-Avalon, the venture between Mr. Girija Pande’s Apex Consultants and Avalon consulting. The year proved to be a good one in as much as Mr. Pande was invited onto Bloomberg and CNBC Asia to discuss Sino-Indian business relations, a topic which will provide businesses around the world with their greatest challenge and opportunities.

It was also good to reconnect with the team from Polaris. Although the project didn’t produce the desired results, reconnecting with Polaris comes at a time when the Company moves into a new phase of its existence. The products business has been hived off into a different Company and the service business looks set to prepare for new management and the development of new working cultures will hopefully lead to better things for a Company and brand that looked after me so well and opened the doors to many of the moments that have blessed my life. A friend of mine says he believes that if my moment comes it will probably be dealing with India, something which Polaris introduced me to.

On the family front, we lost my Auntie Siok Liang, wife of my mother’s cousin, Alan. Auntie Siok Liang had battled cancer for over 14-years and she took great pains to record her battle and yet my last memory of her was as someone who was joyful and happy. Somehow, whenever you were in her presence, she always made it a point to create a happy atmosphere around her. I pray that this woman who created joy despite her suffering is now at peace and her family will have comfort.

On a happier note, my Dad married his long time girlfriend, Judy. It’s nice to have another stepmother and its good to know that my father has a companion in life who loves and accepts him. I believe my stepmother will ensure that my father will enjoy his twilight years.

Just as my father settles down, it looks like the decision I made to get Huong to become my life partner all those years ago has proven to be a wise one.  The woman has a knack for creating opportunities out of nothing and to her credit she’s constantly reminded me that success comes from working with other people.
Our most precious “project” remains a 16-year old girl…our daughter (yes, legally she’s mine) Ngyuen Thu Thuy, who now goes by the name of Jennifer Tang or simply Jenny. Now, I get called “Daddy” whenever she wants something. She’s a smart girl and although she hates to admit it, quite likes having Daddy around.

For me, fatherhood to a teenager has been challenging. She’s going through a phase where she wants her freedom and to set her own rules. In many ways, she’s a grown woman but yet she remains a child. Not sure how I can convince her that school isn’t an invention of parents to screw up their kids. I’ve told her that I don’t intend to be an eighty year old man struggling at McDonalds to feed a grown daughter.


Yet, in her own way, she admits that I’ve been good for her life and in her own way, she does what she can to look out for me. My family, especially my mom has come to accept that there is an instant granddaughter and want to make bring her into the family. I guess there’s nothing more to ask for.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Problem with Peace

The recent Paris bombings have reminded me of a friend of mine who once made the point that in ones daily work life, it’s often the “client” who is the most dangerous person. His line of thinking was simple – we spend so much time focusing on the opposition that we forget that the people who are supposed to be our backers don’t always have our interest at heart.

I think this friends remarks because nothing has been more true when it comes to the long and elusive search for anything resembling a peace plan. Both the democratically elected Israeli officials and the autocratic Arab leaders on the other side have worked hard to avoid it. Why have they done so when poll after poll has shown that what their people want is peace?

The reason is simple – making peace takes courage and peace makers die. What’s more important is that the peace makers are always killed by their own people. The late Anwar Sadat of Egypt was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood not long after he became the first leader in the Arab World to sign a peace treaty with Israel. The late Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist who didn’t like the fact that Rabin had returned land that Israel had taken by military force in order to secure peace.

We have to remember that war and violence may be horrible and costly but there are beneficiaries. The beneficiaries are more often than not, the people with power and money. In the Middle East, Israel remains a convenient bogyman for leaders in the Arab World as at allows the leaders of the Arab world to blame social issues faced in the Arab World on something else other than the failings of government.

Much as my fundamentalist Christian friends may beg to differ, the same is true on the Israeli end. Peace, as far as most Israeli leaders are concerned, is very bad. If you look at Israeli society, you’ll find that Israel is the best living example of “totemism” at work. People identify themselves by what they are not. The “common enemy” is the nation’s best friend because this gives the nation shared values.

Think of it this way – in 2002 and 2006, the late Saudi King Abdullah provided a brilliant solution to the problems of the region. Israel would have to give up its occupied territories and return to its I966 Borders in return for diplomatic recognition by all 22 members of the Arab League. Both Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Nethanyahu (who has built a career shredding the Oslo Peace Process) described the plan as a “Non-Starter.”

Why did they do that? Well, a part of it is due to who were their backers. Mr. Nethanyahu has built his career on the premises that it is impossible to make peace with the Arab world. This has won him allies on the far right of the Israeli political spectrum and more importantly, it allows him to control the religious right in the USA, which provides American funding for the Israeli establishment.

Then you have to look at the fact that much of the Israeli “myth” has been built on the fact that Israel is a plucky bastion of sanity in an insane region. As far as most Westerners are concerned, Israel is an oasis in a desert filled with nasty Arab Muslims who have an irrational hatred of Israel. Imagine what would happen to that core myth if the said Arabs started behaving like nice peace loving people.

Let’s put it this way, the pain and misery of the Middle Eastern conflict makes people happy. Terrorist groups like IS and Al Qaeda are happy because it gives them a “just cause” to fight for. Right wing anti-migrant parties in the West are happy because it gives them something to talk about and makes them relevant to voters. Security forces love conflict because governments throw money at them. Politicians who never served a day in the military want the conflicts to go on because they can pretend to be men at someone elses expense. Movie makers love conflict because it gives them powerful stories to sell tickets and banks love conflict because they loan money to high browning customers who will pay whatever interest rates you charge them.

If one follows the money trail, it is very clear that peace is very bad and war is very good. Therefore, politicians and the people who count tend to talk peace but do very little about brining it about because peace would screw up a working system.

However, as the late Yitzhak Rabin once said, “We must think differently, look at things in a different way. Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.”

Mr. Rabin, a former military man, was right. He had the courage to understand that Israel would only get peace if it returned land it had taken by military force. He had the courage to ignore the “Zionist” nut jobs in AIPAC. He took decisions for Israel rather than for Zionist lobby groups and he could give the Israeli public what it needed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Rabin’s assassination by the very people he was trying to protect (Jewish migrants to Israel), taught every player in the Middle East conflict a lesson – the fact that trying to change the status quo had a personal cost.


For a brief moment, the Middle East had hope. That was thanks to the likes of Mr. Rabin who had the courage to go down the path regardless of the personal cost. The world is a poor place without the likes of Mr. Rabin. May he rest in peace. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Farewell to the Big Man

Many of my friends in Asia are often surprised by the fact that although I’ve lived in England for most of my formative years, I’m not much of an “Anglophile.” However, there is one aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture that I’ve adopted and grown to love – that it the game of rugby. For me, rugby union as a game, embodies many of the values of the British and their rougher cousins, the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans – namely the ability to tack a few knocks, get up again and somehow play a good game. As I get older, I appreciate the game all the more because, it seems to me that the guys playing rugby union have stayed far more true to the values of what sport should be – namely friendly free flowing competition that brings out the best in people. Although rugby union has become a professional sport, you hear allot less of the “gamesmanship,” “money politics” and “steroid abuse” in rugby union than you get in soccer or American football.

So, it was really sad to read about the demise of Jonah Lomu last weekend (November 18, 2015). Jonah Lomu was, as they say ‘rugby’s first superstar.’ Mr. Lomu was what nice people would call a “freak of nature.” He was physically imposing (6.5 feet tall and over kg). Yet, despite being huge, he was quick and agile. The man could run the 100 metre sprint in less than 11 seconds (pretty darn good for a non-Olympian and bloody amazing for a man that size.)

When Mr. Lomu broke onto the scene in the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, he became an overnight sensation. His ability to cut through defences and score tries was sensational. Much as it pains most Englishmen to admit it, nobody can forget the way the English national team got blown away by Mr. Lomu in their semi-final encounter. The images of him leaving Mike Catt and Tony Underwood (English rugby players who are by no means puny characters) sprawling on the ground as they tried to stop the rampaging Mr. Lomu are etched in minds of ever rugby purist.

What made Lomu’s prominence so significant was the fact that he game at a time when Rugby Union was an amateur game. The laws of the game were such that the superstars of the game were simply not allowed to earn a penny from playing rugby. The laws on amateurism were such that the ruby players weren’t even supposed to make money from endorsements through the fame of playing rugby. At best, one could use rugby union was a means of getting into the semi-pro code of Rugby League or even American Football.

Jonah Lomu’s performance of the ruby union world cup in 1995 helped to bring rugby to the world and attracted commercial opportunities. The Dallas Cowboys, one of the NFL’s most famous sides, offered him $10 million. He was also offered an opportunity to commercialise and profit from the try that he scored against England.

Jonah Lomu turned down the money. He wouldn’t change codes even though the money offered by the Cowboys was far more than what he could have earned in a lifetime of playing ruby (even today, rugby salaries don’t even come close). He said quite openly that he was there to be part of the All Blacks.

Most interestingly, he turned down the opportunity to commercialise on the image of him running through the English line during the 1995 World Cup – his reason was simple, he didn’t want to cause pain to Mike Catt, the English player that he ran over on the way to scoring that try.

Many celebrities including sports stars to charity work and support causes. Jonah Lomu was more than that. He was a man who turned down greater commercial opportunities for the love of his game and his respect for his fellow players.

Mr. Lomu was a big man in every sense of the word. Not only was he physically imposing but he had a big heart, which made him a gem of a character. He will be missed by the rug

Friday, November 06, 2015

The Dominance of a Small Obscure Island Nation.

Last Saturday, New Zealand’s legendary All Black team created history by defending their rugby world cup title. The historic win has put the island nation into a “party mode” and there is a sense of vindication for the nation that regarded its national team as the world’s best but had to wait 24-years between their first and second world cup wins.

What makes the All Black win more interesting is the fact that this is a national team from a small country of around 4.71 million people tucked away at the furthest end of the Pacific Ocean. New Zealand does not rank as an emerging superpower let alone a superpower. While prosperous, New Zealand rarely ranks on a top ten of any global listing. By way of a comparison, New Zealand with a population of 4.71 million has as estimated GDP of $170 billion plus whereas Singapore, a nation that developed later than New Zealand, with a comparable population has a estimated GDP of $308 billion (source – Wikipedia).

So, how did New Zealand become so dominant in rugby when it lacks the key attributes (a large population and money) of other sporting powerhouses?  An examination of what makes the New Zealand All Blacks so successful is a worthy study for small organizations hopping to succeed.

The best place to start is probably the obvious – rugby union in New Zealand is a national religion and the country’s entire national pride is invested in the national rugby team. As such, the nation’s economic and emotional resources are thrown into the game. By comparison, if you look at New Zealand’s closest rivals; rugby union is only the third most popular game in Australia (after Australian Rules and Rugby League) and in South Africa rugby union is only the game of the white minority.

This means that every All Black player who steps onto the pitch does so with the understanding that he’s not playing for himself but for the entire nation. A loss, no matter how narrow is regarded as a national disaster. One only has to look to former Prime Minister, Jim Bolger’s remarks after their 16-6 defeat at the hands of Australia in the 1991 World Cup semi-finals; he was willing to talk about war and natural disaster – anything but rugby. There is also the increase in visits to the psychiatrist after defeats in 1999, 2003 and 2007.
The All Blacks start every game with the psychological advantage of knowing that victory and defeat mean more to them than it does to anyone else.

Then there is the superb grassroots organization that has ensured that the New Zealand All Blacks have a source of talent to draw on. Clubs like the Aukland Rugby Union organize school competitions, which allow them to identify and draw on talent at a young stage. Then there are several layers of national teams that provide international experience to players, which prepare the lucky few for entry into the exclusive national team. Teams like the Maori All Blacks (comprises mainly of players of Maori decent), the Heartland XV and Junior All Blacks are training grounds to identify the best in a similar way to the way the Royal Marine Commandos provide a training ground to the Special Boat Squadron.

Not only does the New Zealand Rugby Union’s system allow it to maximise the resources that it has at hand, there is also a system where promising players from outside New Zealand, particularly in the Pacific Island Nations to become All Blacks. Michael Jones, one of the most respected players in All Black history made his international debut for Samoa before becoming an All Black (there was also the converse – Va’aiga Tuigamala had a second international career playing for Samoa after his career as an All Black.) The interchangeability between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands got one of my school friends to state that “Western Samoa is effectively the New Zealand B Team” during the 1991 World Cup.

The only two comparable grassroots organization in sport that are perhaps Germany’s football system, which was developed after a decline of the national team in the early 1990s and the NFL’s draft system. These are two systems that have far more resources at their disposal than the New Zealand Rugby Union.

Developing talent internally has given New Zealand a ready source of talent to tap on and having rugby as a national religion gives the All Blacks an edge when they step onto the pitch.

There is also the issue of the culture within the team. While New Zealand has its share of superstars like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, every All Black player is reminded that this is a team sport and nobody becomes bigger than the team.

There is the unifying Maori dance – the hakka which every All Black player performs regardless of ethnic religion. I’ve always been amazed by the way obviously ethnic Caucasians like Jeff Wilson used to perform this obviously Maori ritual with intensity.

There is however more than just a war dance to keep the players unified. A list of the cultural building exercises can be found at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/10427619/The-All-Blacks-guide-to-being-successful-off-the-field.html.

One of the most notable interesting factors in this list is the fact that the players have to clean up after themselves. This helps keep them humble in the face of things and when people see the superstars of the team picking up after themselves, they remember that this is a team game.

When you get people to gel together successfully, you create a situation where everyone is successful, despite whatever may happen to a superstar. The All Blacks can still win without Dan Carter.

Other teams have fallen short when their superstars have fallen. The most glaring comparison can be found in the 2014 World Cup when Brazil, the host nation and a nation with an abundance of talent and regards the World Cup as its birthright, were humiliated by Germany in the semi-finals. Brazil is supposed to be to soccer what New Zealand is to rugby union.

What happened was simple – Brazil became dependent on a single superstar called Neymar, who’s brilliance was often enough to cover up the flaws in the Brazilian Football Federation (CBF). Neymar had to be carried off on a stretcher and that was the end of Brazil as a football team.

Generally speaking, the guy with the abundance of talent and money has the advantage. However, the success of the All Blacks has shown that money and size are not everything. Knowing what to do with what you have can be far more important. 

The statistics speak for themselves. The All Blacks have a 75 percent winning streak against all opponents. When you look at their winning rate, it is even more impressive. The only two teams where the winning rate is less than 70 percent are against the Australian Wallabies (68 percent) and the South African Springboks ( 58 percent). The only top Northern Hemisphere teams to have ever beaten the All Blacks are France (76 percent win rate against France), England (80 percent win rate against England) and Wales (90 percent win rate against Wales). The only team to beat the All Blacks in 2015 was Australia.


These are statistics that no other sports teams have come close to achieving. So, surely its worth studying what this team from this small island nation has been doing right. 

Monday, November 02, 2015

More than the Mollah!

Rugby World Cup 2015 has finished with a bang. As expected, New Zealand’s legendary All Blacks have defended their title and they did it in style with a 34-17 win against their greatest rivals, the Australian Wallabies. The All Blacks have played a level where nobody, including their defeated rivals can argue that they did not deserve to win.

One of the stories gong around social media and focusing on the All Black player, Sonny Bill Williams and gesture of sportsmanship. While the All Blacks were on their tour of triumph, a young boy ran across the pitch towards him and was rugby tackled by a security guard. Mr. Williams handled the matter and ended up giving the boy his winners medal (read more at: http://www.smh.com.au/rugby-union/rugby-world-cup/rugby-world-cup-final-2015-sonny-bill-williams-amazing-postgame-gesture-receives-universal-praise-20151101-gknw91.html)

Mr. Williams won universal praise. The story has been going around social media and everyone has talked about what a great sportsman Mr. Williams is. One of my school friends made the comment that this would simply never have happened in football (Soccer to my American and Australian readers). Unfortunately, my friend is right. As Rugby World Cup 2015 was going on, FIFA (Soccer’s world governing body) was being investigated for corruption. Watch any football match and you’ll find that footballs megastar players rolling on the floor at the slightest tap. By comparison, the players in 2015 were happily getting bashed and with very little complaint and the guys who got yellow and red cards did so for events that were seriously life threatening.

If one were to bring down the comparison to national level, things would be even more interesting, especially if you are English. In England, you have what many people call the best football league in the world. English Premier League clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea are global brand icons.  The fame of English players like David Beckham and Wayne Rooney are universal. Yet, despite all of that, England has yet to produce a National team of any significance on the global stage.

By comparison, England’s Rugby players usually do a decent job on the world stage. England has won the World Cup once and been runner up twice. Despite being knocked out at the early stages of this World Cup (losing to traditional rivals Australia and Wales), England’s record in the Rugby World Cup is nothing to be sniffed at. By comparison, England’s football players have yet to get beyond the quarter finals since their semi-final appearance in 1990.

Why is there such a high level of passion and decency from the rugby boys, which seems to be lacking for the boys playing football?

I suspect the reason for this is due to money. The levels of money flowing into soccer are at levels where everyone is forced to try and win whatever the costs. Sponsors and television producers are only willing to put money into clubs that win consistently and clubs need to make more and more money because the players are demanding higher and higher salaries. The players in turn are demanding higher salaries as the increased physicality o the game means bodies wear out faster and careers are shorter.

By comparison there is less money floating around in rugby for it to be corrupting. There was a stage when rugby union’s rules were simply ridiculous. Players were prevented from being paid by the laws of the game. 

However, things have changed with professionalism. Rugby Players can earn a decent salary to do what they want to do – play rugby. Salaries for the top rugby players are not be sniffed at. A good rugby player can earn a couple of hundred thousand Euros a month at top European club (see list at: http://www.therichest.com/sports/other-sports/top-10-highest-paid-rugby-players-in-the-world/?view=all)

However, while the rugby salaires are good, they are nowhere near what their counterparts in soccer get. If an international superstar can earn a few hundred thousand a year, a good soccer player will earn millions in a year. (Look at: http://sporteology.com/top-10-highest-paid-soccer-players-2015/11/)

There’s nothing wrong with being well paid. Sports stars, as my uncle once said, train on average two hours more per day than the average person works. Why shouldn’t the likes of Christiano Ronaldo earn pots of money for being very good at sports, when you have the likes of the Khardasian sisters earnings pots of money by wasting ink in the tabloids?

However, there comes a point when money obscures other things that make the game worth playing. I go back to the comparison to England’s Rugby Players who can give the best in the world a run for their money and the English football team that consist of highly paid brats? What happened?
You could say that the rugby players actually listened when the country called while the football players did not.


It’s something many of us should remember. Money is important and having lots of it is better than not having it at all. However, money isn’t everything and there is such a thing as having too much to extent that you forget everything else that makes life worthwhile. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Mandate to Stay the Same

Singapore has just finished a General Election and as expected the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been returned to power. What was nobody expected was the way in which they won it. Despite having smaller crowds at rallies than the opposition and the talk about how many seats they’d concede, the ruling party managed to increase their share of the popular vote by nearly 10 percent and they retook a seat from the Worker’s Party (WP), the main opposition party. Our finance minister even went as far as claiming some 70 plus percent in his constituency.

In a way, this shouldn’t have been unexpected. The truism in politics is that elections are not won by opposition parties but by lost by governments. Despite the opposition putting up a somewhat credible fight with the help of social media, the government simply had not done enough to lose the election.
The facts are as simple as this, in the Westminster System, the government has every advantage. The ruling party can call an election at any time within a 5-year period. The ruling party has every right to redraw electoral boundaries and most importantly, it’s always the ruling party that has the power of patronage. Singapore’s government has shown that it is willing and able to use every advantage it has just to stay in power. The Prime Minister timed it perfectly – we had an election after one month of our biggest birthday bash and several months after the nation had finished lionizing his departed father.

The government was helped by the fact that the opposition has yet to get its act together and some of the more colourful characters decided to remain just that. One of them started by starting that his opponent from the ruling party would be hampered by being a mother thus ensuring that a nation filled with working mothers would be turned against him. Then there was Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the Secretary General of the Reform Party who promptly chided the electorate for not voting him in – not exactly a smart move from a man who is smart enough to get a double first from Cambridge University and has ambitions to sit in parliament.

So where does this leave Singapore? The answer is pretty much where it was prior to the election. The ruling party will continue as it has. The main danger it faces is complacency – hence the electorate has kept the WP where it was before the election (With 6 seats out of 89). The other danger facing the ruling party is that it has learnt the wrong lessons from its resounding victory. Yes, it was right to “listen” to the people but it also needs to push through necessary reforms that will hurt the general population in the short run but are important. One of the key issues remains the questions of labour. Singapore needs labour and given that we have an influx of Ka-Ni-Na’s and Pundeks who would rather beg than work, we need to get our labour from elsewhere. The need for darkies from the rest of Asia is greater than ever – they should be allowed in and be given the chance to better themselves.

For the opposition, in particular the WP, the lesson remains this – prove yourself with what you have and build up slowly. The WP had the right strategy in winning it one seat at a time and proving that they would run something. Low Thia Kiang was MP for Hougang for nearly two-decades before the party took the Group Representative Constituency (GRC) of Aljunied in the 2011 Election. 

Unfortunately, they made the mistake of allowing the ruling party to attack their accounting practices. While no serious charges were brought against them in court, the electorate questioned their basic competence and integrity. Fact remains, the WP held onto Aljunied GRC by the skin of their teeth.
The second lesson for the opposition is that, it needs to consolidate, preferably under the umbrella of the WP, which at the time of writing, seems to be the only opposition party that recognizes that good speeches are pointless unless you have seats in parliament. It’s hard to see the Old Carthusian (I must confess that Charterhouse where my rivals in schools karate championship) and Cambridge Educated Mr. Jeyaretanam subordinating himself to Mr. Low, but this is what he and others like him need to do if they hope to smell a seat in parliament. Mr. Jeyaretnam risk becoming the Singapore version of the Monster Raving Loony Party chaired by the late Screaming Lord Sutch.


Opposition politics in Singapore is a thankless task but someone has to do it and eventually, the ruling party will slip. When it does, the nation will need another party to take up the mantle of government. Patience and consolidation are the two virtues that the opposition parties need to work on. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I Know Your Boss and I am from a Government Department

August has been party month for Singapore. We have officially made to 50-years as an independent nation. Not only did we survive, we’ve actually thrived. While our neighbours struggle through Third World issues, we’re basking in the admiring eye of nearly every country of the world. Singapore, is pretty much a model for the rest of the world, and its’ not the third world backwaters in Asia and Africa that look to us as a model of development but even the developed nations of the West have started to look to us – think of the way former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair started talked about the “Stakeholder” society after a visit to Singapore prior to winning his historical election in 1997. London’s former mayor, Ken Livingston has even gone as far as to try and implement things like road pricing.

It also helped that as we were busy sprucing up for the big party, our neighbours had the misfortune to suffer from rather visible mishaps. An Indonesian plane crashed, thus highlighting that Indonesia, our biggest neighbor is still a third world country with dubious infrastructure. Malaysia, our closest neighbor went one better, their Prime Minister was caught in an embarrassing position of trying to justify how some 700 million US Dollars ended up in his personal bank account – a position no politician in Singapore would ever be caught in. These incidents made our virtues stand out all the more. We remain a clean, well to do and honest nation in a sea of third world filth, poverty and corruption.

While I’m happy to enjoy all the good things that Singapore and being Singaporean has offered, I’m inclined to think that we shouldn’t get too smug about our success. Yes, we’ve done well but we shouldn’t get too smug about our place in the world.

One of the areas that we need to be particularly careful about is the area of “corruption.” We’ve been lucky thus far in that our political leaders have been men of high integrity. Say what you like about the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew but he held himself to high standards and demanded the same of his ministers. The late Mr. Lee also held his own children to high standards. If our Prime Minister has benefited from being Mr. Lee’s son, he deserves it – Mr. Lee by every account was a man who expected the best, even from his own flesh and blood.

Singapore also remains a place where you do not bribe public officials. A few bucks to the traffic cop in other parts of the region gets you off a parking ticket – in Singapore, you end up in jail.

While Singapore remains “corruption free” in nearly every aspect of the word, there’s one form of “corruption” that we are not free of – power corruption. While people don’t try and bribe you, they’ll try to intimidate or impress you by how close they are to certain people in certain positions. Furthermore, the system seems to perpetuate itself. Take a close enough look at the companies that make up the stock exchange and you’ll find that sooner or later the same names keep cropping up. I think of SIA, our world-class airline, which has started to be retirement village for former air force chiefs.

Singapore is not the only country where power influence gets you places. In China they have “Guanxi” and children of Communist Apparatchiks do very well as board members of companies hoping to get places.  In the Western World, you have Old School Ties. Where you went to school usually determines who you know and that can often be the factor that decides whether you make or not.

What is unique about the Singapore system is that it blends the best of East and West. Like the Western Democracies, our elite have come from the nation’s best schools. These elite schools are “elite” because by and large they manage to get their students to achieve good academic results. Like the Confucian ideal, we select our top civil servants by a rigorous process of scholarship
The idea behind the Singapore system is that we do our best to make sure the best and brightest rise to the top and since they’re in government, they work for the nation rather than some profit driven private company. There are however, two key problems.

Firstly, there is the issue of “cookie-cutter” perpetuation. The good schools are good because they produce kids who get good grades. To get the kids who get good grades, they have vigerous entrance exams. More often than not, it’s the kids from the families that can afford to provide their kids with extra tuition to get past the exams. Kids from these families do not have to worry about taking part-time jobs to help support the family – they worry about passing exams to get into the right school and into the right government job. So while the idea is to find the best and brightest, what you usually find is that the same people end up rising through to the top and staying there. The chances of fresh blood breaking through is slim.

It goes without saying that the people at the top don’t want to lose the top spot and after a certain period of time, the system tends perpetuate itself for the same people. Instead of making good people better by exposing them to more problems, the system protects them from problems. Like any muscle, the brain tends to rot when it’s not challenged.

Then there’s the problem where the elite tends to think that it is entitled to be the elite. After all they have succeeded so brilliantly in the system for so long. While you can argue that much of the success is deserved, this type of thinking closes one from the many possibilities that life can throw up. One can be successful in one scenario but not in another. 

The second problem concerns the chaps who aren’t quite in the elite but want to get ahead. For them, the easiest way is to trade on their proximity to the elite and by crushing those beneath them. The system states that we, the underlings need to know our place in the scheme of things.

One of the organisations, which was supposed to be the great equalizer is the army. Everyone, regardless of family background is supposed to serve two-years in the army and to be treated the same. Well, that might have been the case in the early years but by the time I joined in the mid 1990s, there was this thing called the “White Horse” system. If you were related to someone or perhaps a selected scholar, you were somehow ….treated differently.

I remember one senior government official trying to justify this as a system of ensuring that the sons of the well to do did not get special privileges. His efforts in trying that explanation launched his career as a stand-up comic.

The worst case was during guard duty, when you were a junior commander trying to enforce the rules. Mid ranking officers (captain and below) would be offended when you insisted on seeing their ID. I remember asking a group of reservist for ID when they tried to book in after mid-night, the RSM of the group stuck his military ID in front of my face so that I could see his rank. I am ashamed to admit that I caved in and let them in – it was the easiest thing to do. It was a way of avoiding trouble. To be fair to my era in the army, I actually had good senior officers who applauded me when I stood firm on insisting on seeing ID, even from senior officers driving in and out of the camp.

This goes beyond the army. I remember working on a trial where one of the sides in the trial actually produced evidence showing a prominent government official who was at the time, CEO of our port telling someone the short cuts to get citizenship. It helped that her father was Comptroller of Immigration.

I think of the restaurant where I work at. I remember taking a reservation for someone who kept insisting that her brother knew the boss very well and would justify giving her special dishes. I remember telling the restaurant owner that he seemed to have lots of friends. He told me that many of those friends didn’t recognize him.


I don’t think the problem is going to go away as long as people are easily impressed with name dropping and don’t question. When they’re easily intimidated, they are easily influenced. Not something we as a society should look forward to. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Confessions of a Nicotine Addict

http://www.establishmentpost.com/confessions-nicotine-addict/

“Hello, my name is Jude, and I’m a nicotine addict.”

I’ve been addicted to cigarettes ever since it was legal for me to light up, which in Singapore is 18 years old.
“One puff and you’re hooked,” warned an old Singapore anti-smoking campaign. And it was not far from the truth. It’s a pity I was never too good at listening to authorities.

While serving in the army, cigarettes were a prized commodity that even money couldn’t buy. Indeed, “smoking is a privilege”, the instructors often reminded my fellow smokers and I – the preamble to us grovelling for a smoking break, often at the cost of extra duties, which we would gladly sacrifice for a puff.

When it was time for jungle survival training, where we were dropped individually in remote locations to fend for ourselves and live off the land, more than one of my compatriots smuggled Snickers bars to keep from starving. I smuggled in a pack of Marlboro, carefully implanted into my First Aid Dressing kit with near-surgical precision to keep from getting discovered.

“I could probably catch a fish or two, or find some edible plant roots,” I reasoned. “But what are the odds I could find a tobacco plant I could roll up and smoke?”

For years, cigarettes were my closest companions: I never left home without them; no matter if I was sad, or happy, or tired, or high, or just bored, there was always a reason to break one out of the box and light up.
Long-haul flights were my greatest fear. On a 16-hour journey to Barcelona via London, I found myself shivering from nicotine withdrawal. My face went numb, my fingers were tingling, and I could not keep awake even to enjoy the delicious inflight fare.

You could imagine my horror as I stumbled off the plane in transit, desperate to rekindle the fire of my relationship with my best friends, only to discover that London Heathrow Airport was a smoke-free facility.
Let me be clear: I did not smoke because it was cool. And I would never encourage anyone to pick up the habit. If you do not smoke, you should not start. Never mind that I smelled like an ashtray (I could hardly smell anyway, years of smoking a pack or two a day had decimated my olfactory senses), had yellowed teeth and fingers, and alternated between coughing and clearing my throat every 15 seconds.

I smoked for one simple reason: I was dependent on it. I was – and still am – a nicotine addict.

Getting Through the Vape Tape

At the nagging of the G (that’s Girlfriend, not Government), I quit smoking last year. But the nicotine withdrawal proved too much to handle, and I picked up vaping.


“What’s the damn difference?” you ask, rolling your eyes.
Well, a whole lot.

Electronic cigarettes (or vapourisers, as they are commonly known), typically use a battery-operated mod which fires up an atomiser unit. E-liquid – commonly comprising propylene glycol, glycerin, nicotine, and assorted flavourings – is heated by the atomiser to release a nicotine-laced vapour that is inhaled into the lungs, not unlike with conventional cigarettes.

But without the burning as with conventional cigarettes, there is no carbon monoxide and tar. The absence of burning also means there is no choking smell of smoke, which clings to your clothes and hair. It also reduces the number of cancer-causing carcinogens and toxic chemicals that are released through burning in a cigarette. Because that is just science.

But let me be clear: vaping is certainly neither healthy nor harm-free. Nicotine is still inhaled through e-cigarettes, potentially causing addiction and vascular damage, among other side effects and risks.
And there are insufficient studies to determine the possible adverse effects vaping of chemicals such as propylene glycol has on health, let alone other unknown chemicals that could be added by e-liquid manufacturers because of a lack of government regulation.

Indeed, technological and medical advances have brought the tobacco industry to a crossroad.

Stubbing Out Conventional Cigarettes

According to media reports, the global e-cigarette market is expected to be worth some US$3.5 billion by 2015.
E-cigarette use among American high school students jumped almost tenfold from 2011-2014. Over the same period, the proportion of high schoolers who reported smoking cigarettes dropped from 15.8 per cent to 9.2 per cent, US-based public health institute Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April.
Already, Big Tobacco has made its entry into the fast-growing e-cigarette market.
Key vendors in the e-cigarette currently include tobacco giants Altria Group, British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco Group, and Reynolds American.

At the same time, the tobacco industry is moving towards the creation of alternative products that purport to be less harmful than conventional cigarettes.
Philip Morris International (PMI), for example, recently launched in Milan and Nagoya a new type of cigarette, which heats tobacco rather than burning it. According to PMI’s team of research scientists, such heat-not-burn cigarettes could deliver fewer toxins than conventional sticks and more pleasure than mere vapour found in e-cigarettes.

But regardless of the science and possibility of reduced health risks for smokers, e-cigarettes and other “cancer stick” alternatives will be stubbed out following Singapore’s announced blanket ban on emerging tobacco products from Dec 15, 2015.

In the face of possible reduced risk alternatives, the Republic’s impending emerging tobacco products ban is troubling. What is needed is not an outright ban, but stringent scientific testing and improved regulation put in place to ensure, for instance, that youths will not be allowed to buy these alternative tobacco products.
And yet, the G (that’s Government, not Girlfriend) has decided go for a blanket ban, and eventually move towards a smoke-free Singapore.
Meanwhile, those who choose to smoke but prefer a less harmful alternative are handed the short end of the stick: quit smoking, or continue smoking cancer-causing cigarettes – and die.


Read more: Confessions of a Nicotine Addict http://www.establishmentpost.com/confessions-nicotine-addict/#ixzz3hC3WksMt 


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Saturday, July 25, 2015

Officer – Gentleman – Champion of the Working Man

Singapore’s Generals have been getting a lot of flak lately. The reason for this was simple – a recent breakdown in the MRT, which involved the CEO of the SMRT Corporation (a former 3-Star General) and the Minister of Transport (a former 2-star Admiral). Everybody in cyberspace has been quick to criticize the fact that the former military men, while having impeccable academic credentials, have simply been plonked into highly paid and high profile positions – our generals, unlike places like the US or UK, can’t even claim to have “Combat Experience.” As most Singaporeans who have served national service will point out – being a general in Singapore is easy as long as you’ve got the right papers – your promotion is guaranteed and you are actually protected from the need to prove your professional competence.

Amidst all of this, there is a Singaporean General who’s bucked the trend of negative publicity and actually gained public recognition of sorts for being – well, a good leader. I am proud to say that the general in question is my former Battery Commander, Lam Sheau Kai, and the Current Commander of Combat Service Support (CSS). General Lam, who was newly promoted this year was caught on camera doing something SAF Generals are not known for doing – sweating alongside his men – the full story can be found at http://www.allsingaporestuff.com/article/garang-saf-one-star-general-packs-countless-ndp-goodie-bags-together-his-men.

On a personal level, I’m happy that General Lam is getting the recognition he deserves. The man is a genuine walking advert for Singapore Military Leadership – he actually believes in leading by example and communicating with the men. I remember when he took over Alpha Battery of 23 SA back in 1996/97. He started using Hokkien (main dialect of Singapore’s Chinese population). For the officers and specialist of the battery, he ended the practice is pointless endurance meetings – he meant it when he stated that he believed that any meeting above an hour was unproductive. More importantly, he took made it a point of knowing us on a personal level. Interviewed me several times when I asked him to be my referee for university.

I know the man well enough to say that the online story that’s boosting his image is not one that he created. I know him well enough to know that he started helping the men pack the NDP Fun Packs (over 1 million packs that need to be packed before August) because he genuinely believes he needs to work with the men to lead the men.
Other that, I’m not going to publicise General Lam as I believe he’d be most horrified by my efforts to sing his praises. Instead, I believe there’s a happier picture in the sudden boost to his online fame.
The fact is, General Lam is leading the least glamourous and therefore the most overlooked side of the army. Combat Support Services involves the guys like store men, drivers and cooks. These are the guys who work hard to ensure that the frontline troops get to where they need to, are well fed and have the right equipment. In short, they provide the necessary services but the ones nobody wants to do.

The army isn’t the only place where such people exist. Just think of the medical profession where everyone wants to become a doctor but nobody wants to become a nurse. The doctors get the glory for curing the patient but it’s the nurses who take care of the patient from the point of entry into the hospital or clinic and doctors often work on the information provided by the nurses. Healthcare, as they say, is actually run by the nurses.

In the media business there is something similar. Everyone wants to be a reporter and to be the character that breaks the story and gets his or her name mentioned. What nobody talks about is the fact that it is sub-editors who bring the paper out by acting as final check of facts, grammar and so on. It’s the subs who come up with the headlines that we all read but they never get the recognition for it.

Life is filled with people who do tough and menial jobs that are essential to keep things going. Yet, more often than not, everyone forgets about them.

I see General Lam’s online praise as something that goes beyond the man himself. It’s like – finally, the people behind the scenes getting praised.

Think of it, we’re going to be having a huge National Day Parade this year to celebrate our 50 Years as an Independent Nation. Much will be made of the fireworks display and the exhibits. The parade commander will be the centre of National Attention and everyone will be watching the Guard of Honour. Nobody will think of the guys who made it all happen behind the scene.


Well, it looks like that might change thanks to General Lam and his team. Thank goodness some attention will be focused on the people who made it happen. It’s about time someone remembered the people who make things happen behind the scenes. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

It just takes a match

There is a video going round cyberspace, which has proven to be a very instructive guide into the state of race relations in Singapore. The video was taken on an MRT and it shows an elderly Caucasian man behaving in an abusive manner towards an unseen Singaporean teenager. Finally another commuter has had enough and tells the old geezer where to get off. The police then get involved and the old man and the commuter who stood up for the victim are called off the train. The video of the incident can be seen at http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/07/abusive-man-on-train-told-off-by-commuter/.

What has been encouraging about this incident has been the fact that is has created a new hero for the people. The man who confronted the abusive passenger appears to be Malay, while the victim of the abuse appears to be Chinese. In the 14-years since I’ve moved back, 

I’ve found very little imagery of Malays in Singapore being portrayed as heroes for the majority Chinese population. September 11 didn’t help either. If you read official statements on “Malay-Muslims” you’ll often find that there’s an underlying message – “Ditch the religion – get with the program.” Talk to enough Singaporean Chinese and you’ll find that there’s still a huge misunderstanding of the Malay Community – whatever the PAP government may tell you.

So, this situation being broadcast all over the social media couldn’t come at a better time. Singapore needs to see the Malay community as being part of the wider community. The majority, especially the Western Educated need to see that Malays and Indians are on the same side as everyone else. The best part about the whole situation was the fact that the young man was humble enough to point out that he was merely standing up for someone else’s rights as a citizen.

It didn’t help that the abusive Old Man was a White Englishman, thus adding to the potentially combustible situation of race relations. You could say that this man was a yob and would probably have been an abusive arsehole in England too.

However, he wasn’t caught being abusive in England, he was caught being abusive in Singapore, which as much as many Singaporeans may not like to admit, is part of Asia and in Asia, the colour of your skin does determine where people fit in.

Generally speaking, Singaporeans, like other Asian tend to give Caucasians plenty of leeway. I remember a publisher of a series of magazines describing a good friend of mine as being, “The living example of the sad fact that Asians simply cannot see beyond White Skin.” Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that we were once a colony. As the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew said in his biography, “The superiority of the White Man was a fact of life.”
Our economic miracle also enforced the position that White people were the natural leaders in culture and economics. While the majority of post-colonial societies screwed themselves by being culturally proud, we in Singapore sold ourselves to White Colonial multinationals and prospered.

While the majority of White Expatriates are decent and hardworking people, Singaporeans have been trained from birth to think of them as the bringers of all things good. We are prosperous because they made us so goes the rationale. Ironically, this rationale has grown stronger among Asians as it has dwindled among Caucasians.

So, while the majority of Caucasians in Asia are decent people (including many of my friends), the system does encourage the week minded among the community to develop superiority complexes.

Doesn’t help that the law of the land tends to be applied differently when it comes to people of the fairer complexion. I know of an Afrikaner who got his employment pass approved the moment the immigration authorities understood that South African did not necessarily mean the man was black. Think of how quickly the police work to corner Indian and Bangladeshi workers sitting in a corner minding their own business and by comparison seem powerless to do anything when Caucasians physically assault Singaporeans (they are less powerless when Singaporeans assault Caucasians.).

This incident proved that things might be changing. If cyberspace is an indication of things, the public is getting loss tolerant of yob like behavior – even from Caucasians.

Which leads to a more worrying point. The crowd on the MRT remind silent while the old man hurled abuse and threatened the young man. It was as if they were cowed. Then when it someone took the step of standing up to the bully, the entire train erupted – you could actually hear people yelling, ”Go back to you own country.”

This type of emotion is dangerous. It’s the type of thing that skillful demagogues thrive on. A mob, as one author described, is not a collection of people but a single entity. Logic and reason do not exist within the mob.

It took one guy to be different and suddenly the crowd which was passive became emotional. In this case it didn’t go beyond a few shouts – but what if it did?


This video has remained largely confined to cyberspace but Singapore’s social planners need to look at this incident more carefully. There are pent up emotions and there needs to be a way of letting these emotions subside or be released. If they are ignored, who knows what will set them off into something more drastic. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Shouldn't Adam and Steve Tie the Knot?

Last week’s hottest news item was the historical decision by the United States Supreme Court to declare the concept of Gay Marriage constitutional. In that decision, the nine justices who make up the Supreme Court declared that homosexual people were legally allowed to wed and to live in holy matrimony.

As expected, the decision provoked intense feelings on both sides of the debate. The liberals celebrated this as a victory of constitutional liberation. The religious right claimed this was a sign that God’s wrath was about to descend on earth. The extremely religious in America even went as far as to leave Tweet in cyberspace declaring that they would immigrate to Australia, while the more liberal parts of Australia was aghast that such “hateful” people were about to descend upon them.

Here in Singapore, we tried to ignore the issue and to follow the Prime Minister’s advice that for now, “legal ambiguity is best.” The official stance is that Singapore remains too conservative a society to grant the homosexuals such freedoms but we’ll wait and see how things turn out.

Personally, I don’t see how secular societies can deny homosexuals the right to marry. One doesn’t need to be a “Champion” of Gay causes to see that there is no rational or legally defensible argument against allowing members of the “LGBT” community to tie the knot.

Ironically, the person who best makes the case for homosexual marriage is Professor Thio Li-Ann, Singapore’s most famous “homophobe.” In her 2007 speech in Singapore’s Parliament, Professor Thio declared that, “Homosexuals are not entitled to special rights, they are only entitled to the rights that the rest of us enjoy.”

Let’s think about this, every heterosexual has the right to sign a piece of paper and in many cases, go through a ceremony to tell the world that they want to spend the rest of their lives with a particular person.
Now, if this is an “ordinary” right for heterosexual people, why should it be any different for homosexual people? If you strip marriage down to its basics, you’d realise that what the homosexual community is asking for is merely the right to legally live with a single person for the rest of their lives.

In her 2007 speech, Professor Thio went on to cement the case for “Gay Marriage” when she declared that homosexuals tended to be more promiscuous than heterosexuals.

Professor Thio’s comments are probably a sweeping generalization about the homosexual community (there are at the time of writing no statistics to prove the point), but she has a point. If homosexuals, as Professor Thio says, more likely to promiscuous than heterosexuals and therefore more likely to endanger public health, isn’t the obvious course of action to encourage homosexuals to be less promiscuous?

The record of “marriage” as an institution is not good when it comes to keeping people sexually loyal to each other. However, it is currently the only institution that human societies have that encourages sexual fidelity. So, what is stopping us from expanding this institution to encourage greater sexual fidelity?

Then there are the economic benefits of “Gay Marriage.” Heterosexual marriages are big enough business and if we were able to throw in the homosexual variety, think of how many more times we can expand the industry?


Saying that we should ban something just because it is “not natural” or that “people disapprove” is short sighted. When you think of the social and economic benefits that allowing gay marriages would bring, there’s n reason why we shouldn’t have it around. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

When the Problem isn't the Unelected but the Elected.....

For those who know me, this might come as something of an unusual piece to bash together. Everyone who knows me well enough often complains that I have a peculiar aversion to authority and established norms. You could say that my natural inclinations are towards street fighters and other hot heads. I went to school in England and instead of becoming an Anglophile, I became more enamored of the Yellow and Brown people who got rid their native lands of colonial rule. Although a good portion of the good things I enjoy are as a result of being born into Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, the South East Asian I admire most was never Mr. Lee; it was Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Mr. Lee was merely a British colonial administrator of a different colour. By contrast, Mr. Ho was something I could look up to – he overthrew the established orders on the battlefield. He was the little Asian man in black pajamas who drove out the French colonial order and ensured that both the USA and PRC got a bloody nose for trying to invade Vietnam.

So, for someone who has a natural tendency towards figures who smash up establish orders, it may come as something as shock that I’ve always been sympathetic to monarchies and monarchs. While every logical cell in the brain tells me that the monarchy is something of an outdated concept of governance, there’s also something very compelling about it. Let’s put it this way, a “King” sounds more impressive than a “President.” I don’t think I’m the only individual to be fascinated by “Kings” and “Monarchy.” Just listen to the way Americans, the people who came into being by getting rid of a “Royal Family,” speak of how families like the “Kennedy’s” are their version of the “Royal Family.”

Generally speaking, nobody in the Western world would probably go back to the concept of “Absolute Monarchy.” The system of “democracy” has proven to be a decent enough system of allowing talented people to rise to the top and more importantly, it has provided the only effective system of removing incompetent government in a bloodless manner (losing an election is more peaceful than say a coup).

Having said all that, there’s something to be said for the unelected silver tea spoons that countries call monarchies. I look at the British monarchy as an example. You could say that the monarchy gives the people a sense of stability that the elected politicians fail to deliver.

You look at people like Prince Charles and you end up having more admiration for them than many of the politicians that get voted in. Prince Charles may have terrible taste in women (the man who threw out a beautiful blonde for an old hag,) but he’s also stood for principles that the people so admire. I take his refusal to attend State Dinners of visiting Chinese dignitaries and deploring them as “dreadful wax works” at the moment when every British politician is “kissing arse” in Beijing. He’s Princes Trust has put an untold number of homeless people to work and you got to give it to him for handing over a portion of his income to the treasury when he didn’t have to.

Prince Charles or at least the reports I read of him, is a man of principle. My mother thinks he’s the best reason to restore the absolute monarchy – her argument is that whoever is in power is going to screw it up anyway, so you might as well go for the guy whose heart is in the right place.
Here in Southeast Asia, the monarchs have actually been essential in protecting the people from their elected representatives.

The most prominent example is that of Thailand’s King Bhumibol. Under the Thai constitution, the King has no formal powers. Yet, the King has behaved in a way that has given him tremendous moral power (OK, Thailand has strict Les Majeste laws that make criticism of the King a crime and nobody doubts that there’s been a good amount of media/ image manipulation but by and large nobody doubts that the people’s love for the king is genuine.)

I think of 1992 when the then military government decided to gun down protestors in public view. It was the King who stepped in and saw to it that democracy was restored.

I also think of the way in which the King berated Thailand’s judges for allowing Thai Rak Thai to run in a snap election in 2006 where it was the only party running (the others boycotted it thinking it was a Thakshin trick). His exact words were, “How can there be an election with ONLY ONE party – that IS NOT DEMOCRATIC.” Ironically, the unelected monarch’s views would be spoken a few months before Singapore’s elected politicians proceeded to explain how their version of democracy with only one party running was special and uniquely Asian.

Further South, in Malaysia, the institution of the monarchy has achieved a similar feet with the spat between Johor’s Crown Prince Tunku Ismail questioned the Prime Minister for not showing up at event that questioned a corruption scandal. When a Minister berated the Crown Prince for meddling in politics, the Prince replied that the Minister was a Minister and NOT GOD and should remember that he was there to serve the people – this has drawn the masses to the palace shouting “Dauluat Tuanku.”(I think the closest translation is “Long Live the King.”)

This is not to say that Southeast Asia’s royals are saints. The Malaysian Royals used to be known for abusing their status of being above the law. Something which was eventually removed. Just as Thailand’s king is revered, the Crown Prince is known as something of a crook.

However, as far as a good number in Southeast Asia are concerned, the problem in Southeast Asia is not so much unelected Royals but politicians that nobody can get rid of.

So here lies an interesting question? Why is it that various royals have found themselves being thrust in the role of guardians of democracy? 

I like to think that elite (What is a Royal except the pinnacle of elite) upbringing does involve instilling a sense that privilege involves care for the less fortunate rather than being something that one is entitled to. I think of my own upbringing in a minor Public School in the UK. We were told that we were privileged to attend the school that we went to and we had to work to justify the said privilege. As another person who had been to a similar school to mine said, “The Public School system trains you to get along with people of all backgrounds.”

One of Asia’s most ancient text is the Ramayana. The young Rama who is groomed to be a king is told that, “A King is greater than a normal man – therefore his responsibilities are greater.” The Ramayana latter tells of how Rama has to send his much loved wife Siti away because he overhears one of his citizens complaining that the king is effectively living with an adulteress.

This is of course an ideal. History has shown that Kingship has produced a series of horrible leaders who have screwed up the nations they were meant to lead for their personal gain. The Romans had to get rid of their kings because they guys were a useless bunch who thought it was quite acceptable to plunder the city they were supposed to rule.

So, ironically, the removal of political power from monarchs might actually have been good for them. Once they were without power, the Royals had to find a reason to exist. The ones who were thrust into the lime light had to find something to do and new purpose. If money is no object, what better way can one create a purpose for oneself than to “care for the people.”
By contrast, the elected politicians succumbed to the same problem that monarchs used to have – entitlement to wealth and power. In Malaysia, the ruling party has remained in the same hands for over fifty years. While Singapore’s government has a better track record of governance, there are people in Singapore who would argue that our politicians something forget that their jobs are not an entitlement.

Let’s look at India as another example. India had Maharajah’s who had untold wealth and power. When they stripped of their wealth and power, they had to reinvent themselves. Many became businessmen renting out palaces and a few of them actually did good things. The new “Royals” became people like the “Gandhi-Nehru” dynasty, which an Indian friend of mine described as the biggest curse to India.

Or let’s go further north to the Himalayas. In Bhutan, it was an absolute monarch who brought in democracy and rule by the people to guarantee their wellbeing. The Dalai Lama, by tradition and belief did the same for the Tibetan people in exile. Contrast that to Nepal’s royals who thought they could seize absolute power, screwed up the people and were abolished accordingly. Incidentally, Nepal’s politicians haven’t done much better.


While one may not always appreciate monarchies for what they do, its perhaps time for us to acknowledge that they can be institutions for good.  Unchecked power in perpetuity for any particular group has never been known to be healthy. This has been true of whether its Royals or politicians. While one has to applaud the way in which the reinvented Royal Families have stood for the people against the tyranny of entitled politicians, it would nice if Asia as continent could find ways of strengthening institutions and establishing better rules of law that go beyond particular individuals.