Thursday, October 26, 2017

Is Race Important to Your Success?

It’s often described as the worst of the “isms” and so, whenever someone prominent appears to practice it, we all get very upset. That “ism” is of course, racism – the concept where people either believe they are superior to others by mere fact that they were born into a particular ethnicity or the feeling that people are awful because of the colour of their skin.

I’m not going to try and discuss the ins and outs of racism but I will make the point that many of us get upset by racism because there’s a bit of a racist in all of us and its one of those things that we don’t realise we are until it actually happens. The little racist in us gets particularly ugly when it comes to explain socio-economics of various societies.

So, you can imagine the storm that took place when the famed investor, Dr. Marc Faber said words to the effect that “America prospered because it was colonized by White People instead of Black People.” At the time of writing Dr. Faber has been unceremoniously booted off various boards and been barred from being a speaker in several conferences. You can follow the story at 

While Dr. Faber’s comments may sound crass, I know off a few people who would agree with him. I know people who would argue that Dr. Faber is being a victim of political correctness. Ironically, many of them are people of colour.

I think of my young Muslim politician from Pasir Ris GRC who likes to drink during Ramadan (AKA Thambi Pundek), who proudly told me of his professor in Monash who told the Asian students (i.e. the ones who study and pay real fees) that the rest of the world should bow down to the White Man for giving prosperity, democracy and so on and so on. Thambi Pundek seems very proud of being told that by the learned professor (note that this is what I was told by Thambi – I didn’t actually hear those words spoken by the professor). Thambi isn’t the only one who thinks this is wisdom. I think of the Trump Campaign, where you had people of colour thanking Trump for shitting on them.
This brigade points out to several facts:

  1. 1.      America was a field of plants and animals until the White Man came along and built cities, factories etc etc and made America the superpower that it is today.

  2. 2.      The White Man has made the world prosperous, while the black man has screwed it up. Since colonialism, the Americans and Europeans have prospered and Africa has become a byword for corruption, war and all sorts of nasty things. They will further point out that the only country that has anything approaching a standard of living is South Africa and even then – the wealth is held by the White Minority. The examples go on – in Western cities, the White Neighborhoods are nice and the black ones are not.

I’m not going to try and argue these points for the simple fact that they are true. America really was a nature reserve until Europeans brought industrialization. I’m also going to stress that I always preferred the idea of living in South Kensington in London to Brixton. I hate to say it but in Soho, London the black community were predominantly pimps or drug dealers while the party goers were white. Now that I live in Singapore, the vagabonds are inevitably Tamil i.e. dark skinned.
So, if you look at everything I’ve just said, you might be forgiven for thinking that Dr. Faber is merely a victim of the dictatorship of political correctness. There are those who would argue that he’s correct – there’s a correlation between the colour of your skin and levels of prosperity and development.

While the argument has an appeal (especially if you’re not dark), its grossly oversimplified. Dr. Faber, for all his brilliance as a financial investor, has seriously failed to understand the secret of success. The key to prosperity is not so much skin colour but culture and our perceptions of what constitutes success and prosperity.

Let’s start with perceptions of success. Yes, it was the European settlers who brought the idea of industrialization to the New World, which became the bedrock of American wealth. However, one could argue that the European settlers probably screwed it up to. The “Red Indians” didn’t have industrialization and money but they had a system that was close to nature and other than the odd tribal skirmish, there were no real wars. European settlers brought wealth but they also brought gross income inequality. The Red Indians may not have had industrial wealth but there was a system where ordinary people had a means of survival (you can always hunt, fish and gather crops).

Then, there’s the fact that the Europeans who went to America were not ordinary people from Europe. They were the people who were driven out of their homelands a special set of circumstances, rather like the Mexicans and Latin Americans today. Life couldn’t work for them in their so-called home lands and so they left and had no choice but to make the new place work. They were people with a certain amount of hunger to achieve things. Just as it is today, Americans and Europeans back then were different.

America has had the good fortune of being the place to go to for people who need to leave their homes and are forced to make it work in the place that they move to. These people were initially European but they’re no longer only ones. Today’s America is the place to go to for the hungry from Asia and Latin America, who are all doing their bit to drive America forward. Another investment guru, Jim Rodgers says that if given a chance, he’d hire the Cubans who risk life and limb to cross the Caribbean Sea just to get into America because these are the people with the drive to make things work.

The guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence were White and did do things like own slaves who happened to be black. However, their ideas, when put into practice helped people off all colours and creeds to prosper.

What were these ideas? The groundwork for American success has been the idea that everyone, if given the same chance, can succeed if they put in enough work. There’s also the concept that nobody is above the law. As much as my American friends might complain about there being too many lawyers, America prospered because it was founded on the idea of the “Rule of Law.” Circumstances more important than race.

I live in a part of the world where this could not be clearer. In Southeast Asia, the Chinese have shown a magical ability to build prosperous communities. By contrast, the Chinese in China have only started to enjoy prosperity in the last 40-years. The people in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan are the same skin tone as the people from the People’s Republic of China but how did the first lot prosper so much while the later didn’t. The answer was the system -there was rule of law in Singapore and Hong Kong but not in China.  

Then there’s a question of openness. China remained closed to the world for more than half a century. Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan were open for business. We dealt with the world and learnt from the world. We prospered as a result. By contrast, China built a Great Wall and refused to trade with the world until they were forced to. It was only in 1979, when Deng Xia Peng took over, did the PRC open up. It was only then, when the country started to prosper.

Closed societies inevitably screw themselves. Until recently, most African countries were hell for foreign investors and they traded with nobody. Hence, they rotted away. It wasn’t because they were filled with black people.  

Dr. Faber is free to speak his mind but in this instance, he’s shown that he doesn’t get it. America prospered because it had the right people and the right ideas – the fact that they happened to be White is beside the point. Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan prospered because we had the right people and the right ideas. The People’s Republic and India only started to prosper when it got the ideas – this was never clearer when the two Asian Giants were stuffed with poor people going nowhere but the rest of the world had plenty of prosperous Indian and Chinese communities.

Don’t invest in black or white – invest in the rule of law, in open societies and people with hunger. The returns are better. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

How Much More Education Do We Need?

I couldn’t agree more with Chia Kee Seng’s letter “Singapore should aim to be smoke-free, not just smoke-lite,” (5 October 2017). Smoking is a vile habit that is not only socially unacceptable but has fatal consequences. Even the tobacco companies no longer deny the fact that their products kill. Governments around the world are right to make life exceedingly difficult for the tobacco companies.

Having said that, I believe the Dr. Chia’s approach may not necessarily work in the way that he hopes. The strict “parent-knows-best” approach has the potential to make an unpleasant habit “cool” or “edgy” with the youth. Bans, while popular with politicians needing to look tough, have a way of making things more encouraging for smugglers. As for the suggestion of increasing public awareness, the point remains – the danger caused by smoking is a well-known fact that has been drilled into the public throughout the years and the literature on the ill effects of smoking is more readily available than ever. The question is “what else can you tell people” remains a prominent one.

Just as it’s been popular to talk about being “tough on crime and the causes of crime,” perhaps the time is right to look at being the same on smoking. Governments around the world are tough on smoking but are they tough on the causes of smoking? Surely the answer to reduce rates of smoking is to look at why people smoke and offer them alternatives. In a modern economy, the most obvious answer to a social ill is to offer alternatives.

Dr. Chia has argued that alternative smoking products like e-cigarettes are just as bad as actual tobacco products and applauds banning them. I believe that the better approach is to challenge the tobacco industry to prove that the alternative products are better. Philip Morris, the world’s largest tobacco firm talks about a “Smoke-Free Future” and surely the best way to deal with the likes of Philip Morris is to challenge them to be as good as their word. They should be made to prove that the products are not dangerous. If the alternative tobacco products are as bad as the actual tobacco, challenge them to develop a product that isn’t so. This will encourage more R&D, which means high paying jobs. The idea is to get the tobacco companies to use their “ill-gotten gains” to do some good for the wider social scene.

Another alternative is to look at encouraging more physical/outdoor activities. There is enough science to show that exercise reduces the harmful effects of smoking. Earlier this year, the Independent Newspaper in the UK reported that Iceland had found a way to reduce teenage drinking, smoking and substance abuse by making physical activity more available – i.e getting kids to go for the “natural high” from physical activity. This is something worth doing and the government should look into increasing opportunities for the youth to do more exercise.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Drawing the Line Somewhere.

Life has been a little strange to be me because I usually have more sympathy for migrants than I do for the native-born. You could say that I was privileged to live the “expat” lifestyle in places like Spain, Germany and England, so I had a very coloured view of being a foreigner in someone else’s land.  Even when I started boarding at the age of 15, I was to all intents a “privileged” person.

Even when I lost the privileges of the “expat” background and Daddy’s backing (also known as growing up in the real world), I remained sympathetic to migrants, especially the Muslim variety. I grew up in England, where I ended up sympathizing with the South Asian chaps over the Anglo-Saxons. I grew up with jokes like “Why did the Romans build straight roads? – The stop the Paki’s from building corner shops.” Jokes like this came from a truism – Paki Muslim migrants built corner shops while the locals collected the dole.” When I returned to Singapore, it was the Indians and the Arab Muslims who gave me big breaks, while my own people wondered why I wasn’t good enough to become a servant of the government or a multinational run out of New York or London.

With all this being said of my background, you could say that it’s no surprise that my internal reactions towards the likes of Trump, Le Pen and the other right-wing populist popping up all over the world, are intrinsically violent. I look at someone like Donald Trump and his rhetoric against Mexicans and Muslims and his half-hearted condemnation of Neo-Nazi’s and I see the enemy of the people who cared for me. If Donald Trump were in Asia, he’d be the typical overbearing White Executive who can’t help beating the natives about how their livelihoods depend on his benevolence. For me, I’ve been fortunate to never run into that type because the alternative to dealing with such a person is to resign or get fired before you do violence to that thing.

I know a few people who’ve suggested that my intrinsic hatred for the “anti-immigrant” overwhelming white supremacist might have something to do with the fact that I’ve lived a “sheltered” life. For example, I’ve never had “cheaper” labour from elsewhere displace me. Just as I realise that it’s my good fortune to be born with the mentality not to go to government whenever I’m down, it also my good fortune to be born with the ability to imagine that whatever my misfortunes, it never occurred to me to think of it as the fault of someone else born elsewhere.

So, am I unusual and confined to an “ivory tower” when I am physically unable to sympathise with the call of far-right populist? I like to think not and I was recently relieved to find out that its actually natural to think of right-wing populist as disgusting, when I spoke to Thomas, my step-dad during the German elections.

Image result for ghetto
However bad this may look.......

Unlike me, Thomas has deals with the worst stereotype of the struggling Muslim migrant. For past two decades or more, he’s worked in a hospital that serves the lowest of the low. He once mentioned that the joy of delivering a baby is often ruined with the realization that the baby is bound to grow up with a shit life because the parents are often shit (drug using louts etc).

Amongst his worst clients are usually members of Germany’s Muslim migrants. These are the type that come to Germany and the only word of German they understand is the word for the “welfare office.” In short, his clients are living and breeding off the taxes that he pays. He also deals with incidents of women who are victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence (often but always at the hands of family members).

You would imagine that someone with his experiences might be more inclined to listen to the voice of the far-right xenophobes. Yet, when I spoke to him about the results of the German elections, his only comment on the rise of the far right “Alternative fur Deutschland” (“AfD) was “Simply Disgusting.”
For all that is wrong with the Muslim Migrant community in Germany, my stepfather, is like many good people in Germany – there’s worse – the philosophy of the far right extremist.

Image result for Concentration Camps
This is inevitably worse

You could say that in many ways, we are shaped by the experiences of our parents before us as much as we are shaped by our own. In my stepdad’s case, it was growing up with a father who fought of the Russian front and got scared fighting for a regime that the likes of the AfD seem to romanticize.
As bad as the migrants may be, as bad as a backward version of Islam may be, it should be clear to any level-headed person that the solutions preached by the extreme right are not solutions that any decent people should stand for.

Germany was ruled by the Nazi’s who blamed everything on the Jews. The killed lots of Jews, Gypsies and so on.  Instead of a stronger Germany, there was a weakened Germany that needed the rest of the Western World, particularly the USA, to bail her out with Marshal Aid. The economic dynamo in the centre of Europe that is modern Germany, is because modern Germany became a society that allowed different people to flourish and it was a society that took responsibility for its mistakes. Germany continues to pay for the Holocaust and it will continue to do so. No right-minded person in Germany would be caught dead chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

Migrants bring problems as well as benefits and policy makers need to figure out how to minimize the problems while maximizing the benefits. The answer, as history and the state of the current US administration, has shown, is not in being singling out and pinning life’s woes on any particular group of people.