Sunday, June 28, 2009

R&R in Yogyakarta

Am on holiday in Yogyakarta so posting may be infrequent.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Dhaka Street View

A little video I took with my Creative Vado HD, while traveling through the bustling backstreets of Dhaka last week. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wireless hotspot has a different meaning in Mongolia

From Bangladesh, one of the world's most densely-populated countries, to Mongolia, one of the world's least, the mobile phone continues to change the way that poor people live.

In Mongolia, the World Bank has been subsidizing the construction of mobile phone masts in the vast countryside in the hope that once the physical infrastructure is in place, private companies will be able to offer mobile services on a commercial basis.

But according to David Dollar, the World Bank country director for China and Mongolia, the population of nomadic herders is so sparsely spread out that it would be impossible to offer full mobile phone coverage.

So the World Bank has instead focused on the development of a series of "hot zones", designed to ensure that every herder is within a 30 minute horse or motorbike ride from getting a phone signal.

For some reason, this conjures up the bizarre image in my mind of a nomad mounting his steed and galloping through the freezing cold for half an hour so he can use his iPhone to post his latest Twitter update.

Or, as the wonderfully-named Dollar, who had ventured into the Mongolian countryside on a World Bank "retreat", puts it rather more prosaically,"for a family with any kind of medical emergency, or simply a need for information, this connectivity significantly reduces their vulnerability".

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Myanmar boys on tour

In the West, Myanmar is often depicted as a hermit state, isolated from the rest of the world. That may be an accurate view in the US, the EU and Australia, where there are strict sanctions in force, but it is not the case in Asia, as this photograph shows.

This is the Myanmar boys football team doing some sightseeing in Singapore after being knocked out of the Asian Youth Games following a 5-1 thrashing by South Korea on Monday.

They seemed pretty relaxed until I got my camera out and started snapping, at which point a few of them turned away, reluctant to have their photo taken.

They were at City Hall MRT station, which is very close to Peninsula Plaza, the shopping centre of choice for Singapore's sizable Burmese community. There are some great Burmese food places there such as Inle, which most definitely gets the thumbs up from my Burmese friends.
Hopefully the lads were more successful at picking up souvenirs then they were on the football pitch.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Even 'green shoots' wither on the vine

If you believe today's newspapers, the much-heralded 'green shoots' are dead amid "uncertain prospects for a global recovery" and "growing pessimism about the prospects for a global economic recovery".

This type of reporting is, quite frankly, nonsense. Stock markets have fallen 2%-3% because investors have been selling shares to profit from the recent market bounce. They haven't had many opportunities to make money in the last 12 months and so they are taking advantage now.

Nothing - repeat, nothing - about the global economic outlook has changed substantively in the last 24 hours.

As a former stock market reporter for a daily newspaper, I know only too well the pressure that financial journalists come under to conjure up sweeping explanations for significant market moves.

During the volatile months between the collapse of Northern Rock and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, I often ended up writing the"markets tumble because of fears about the global economy" story one day, only to be forced into writing the "markets soar on hopes that world can avoid recession" story the next day, when stock markers inevitably bounced back following the sharp dip.

It's a thankless task.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Bangladesh's divided society writ large on the clogged streets of Dhaka

It used to be said that the British class system resembled that found on the country's trains: three distinct classes, open to all according to their ability to pay.
Similarly, Bangladesh's divided class system is replicated in the creaking Dhaka transport system.
The poor are forced to sweat it out on the city's 500,000 cycle-rickshaws and thousands of battered old buses, while the rich have their cars and jeeps, complete with a hardy driver able to negotiate the chaotic traffic.
Most people I spoke to in Dhaka, from businessmen to NGO workers and tuk-tuk drivers, agreed that their city was split between the very rich and the very poor, with a small middle class.
The motorbike, long the symbol of the growing middle class in countries like India, Indonesia and Vietnam, is hardly anywhere to be seen in Dhaka.
One by-product of this bizarre combination of large cars and buses and countless slow-moving rickshaws is total gridlock on the streets apart from on Friday morning, when people sleep in or go to the mosque.
It can easily take over an hour to travel a couple of miles so, on days when I had a number of meetings spread across this sprawling city, I probably spent half my time traveling.
There is, however, one up-side to this dire situation. As one entrepreneur told me, "you can't use the excuse that you're late because of the traffic, because it's always terrible".

Friday, June 19, 2009

What the papers say, Bangladesh-style

To give you a flavour of what’s going on in Bangladesh, I thought I’d highlight some of the more interesting stories from the New Age, a local English-language paper.

  • The clocks are going forward by one hour tonight in a move designed to ensure more daylight during business hours and reduce electricity – having experienced the incredibly frequent and frustrating rolling blackouts during my few days here, I agree that something needs to be done about the acute power shortage. However, I find it slightly disconcerting when governments start to mess with time.
  • There is increasing opposition from the business community in Dhaka to the government’s plan to “whiten black money”, allowing the crooked and the corrupt to avoid legal sanctions if they fess up and pay tax on their ill-gotten gains, albeit at a lower rate than the normal income tax. Rouf Chowdhury, the industrialist I spoke to earlier this week, is one of the few open supporters of the amnesty. His view was basically that everybody is a little bit corrupt so it’s pointless having absolute standards.
  • The New Age’s rather basic magazine supplement contained a good feature about a new extortion scam that is targeting Bangladesh’s many garment manufacturers. But, in a very Bangladeshi twist, instead of trying to force the manufacturers to hand over cash, the organized criminals are demanding jhoot, the material off-cuts that can be used to make mattresses and pillows. This is a serious business and those who refused to co-operate have received death-threats. It says a lot about a country when crime syndicates are willing to murder someone over a few bags of rags. The fact that there is a market for such products also says a lot about the resilience and ingenuity of the Bangladeshi people.
  • The other story that caught my eye was the death of a cattle trader who was shot by an Indian border patrol, presumably while crossing between the two neighbours illegally. He was one of many that have met such a fate this year, in a sign of the persistent suspicion between these two nations. It’s a pretty extreme response to illegal border trade, of the kind that you’d expect from North Korea, not India.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why Bangladesh doesn't want your pity

Bangladesh: land of desperation, starvation and floods of biblical proportions, beloved and pitied in equal measure by the legions of NGO workers who flock here. At least that’s how it’s normally portrayed.

Coming to Bangladesh for the first time, I’ve got a rather different view from many of the people I’ve spoken to. While poverty is ever-present and the country is hit by devastating natural disasters on an annual basis, many Bangladeshis are proud of the progress their country has made since independence in 1971 and are none too pleased with the perception that they are nation of pitiful wretches.

One senior public health expert I spoke to explained that during recent cyclones Sidr and Aila, Dhaka residents had taken it upon themselves to travel down to the affected regions in the south and give out food packages to those in need.

Rouf Chowdhury, an influential, Oxford-educated businessman, chided the West for failing to give Bangladesh credit where it was due.

“Our population has doubled to around 150 million since independence and yet, in a country the size of the state of Maryland, we have managed to become self-sufficient in food,” he explained in the scruffy boardroom of the Bangladesh Vegetable Oil Refiners Association, which is one of the many organizations he chairs.

“That’s a minor miracle and that makes me confident and optimistic about the future.”

For the official low-down on the comparative area, check out the invaluable CIA world factbook, which says that Bangladesh is slightly smaller than Iowa (and Cambodia, Oman and Suriname).

The pic shows fancy new lakeside apartments facing off against not-so-fancy lakeside slums in central Dhaka - although I'm told that these slums are of the comparatively upmarket variety.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Kampung spirit alive in Singapore

Last night, I was strolling in the East Coast Park, a breezy, six-kilometre stretch of palm-fringed beach that arcs all the way from just outside central Singapore to Changi Airport on the eastern tip of the island.

It’s frequented by joggers, roller-bladers and cyclists and is also a popular camping spot, especially among Singapore’s minority Malay community, who are generally less well-off than their countrymen of Chinese origin.

While washing my hands in one of the many public conveniences that are scattered along the beach, I was rather shocked to see the guy next to me, a young Malay Singaporean, gutting and disemboweling a Stingray.

Blood coursed down the sides of the gleaming white sink as he slit the fish down the middle and pulled out its innards, washing the Ray thoroughly once he’d removed its guts.

“I caught this one earlier,” he remarked after noticing my attentive gaze.

“There are some more fishes over there,” he added, pointing to the rest of his family, who were busily washing some other freshly-caught fish in another sink.

The fish were destined for the barbecue, after which the family would retire to their huddle of tents on the edge of the imported-sand beach.

So, despite the transformation of Singapore from a collection of sleepy villages or kampungs into an all-encompassing high-rise housing estate, the old way of life clings on to the coattails of economic development.

Hemmed in between the unending line of HDB flats just across the road from the beach and the scores of unemployed shipping tankers moored just offshore, the kampung spirit lives on.

This blog was brought to you courtesy of the free if unreliable Wifi at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, where I’m currently en route to Bangladesh

Friday, June 12, 2009

The desperate and the curious look to Singapore's new casinos

With foreign labourers working 24 hours a day in a race to finish the construction of Singapore's first-ever casinos by the end of the year, people are increasingly hopeful that the arrival of mass-market gambling will provide a big boost to the flagging economy.

It's not just the economists who are getting excited. Many ordinary Singaporeans are hoping to find a job in one of the two casino resorts. Below is the text of an article on the subject that I wrote back in March. It never saw the light of day for various reasons but, as it is interesting and still relevant, I am publishing it now:

They came in their thousands, armed with copies of their CVs and name cards: the old, the young, the unemployed and those who feared they were about to lose their job.

The global economic crisis has hit trade-dependent Singapore hard and with thousands of workers made redundant already, job-seekers flocked to Southeast Asia’s biggest careers fair back in March in the hope of landing a sought-after position in one of the city-state’s two new casinos.

While there were hundreds of engineering, healthcare and insurance jobs on offer, the main draw for many of the 400,000 people who visited the Career 2009 exhibition was the chance to become a croupier or cage cashier at the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World Sentosa casinos.

“It’s the first time there’s ever been a casino in Singapore so I’m very excited,” said Eng Choo Eng, a diminutive 57-year-old tai chi coach who was hoping to get a job as a blackjack dealer. “Being a dealer requires a lot of technique and tactility and I think that, with my tai chi, I have the right skills.”

Concerned about the island-nation’s over-reliance on exports, the Singaporean government legalised casino gambling in 2005 as part of a broader drive to diversify the economy.

The plan is to turn the straight-laced city-state into the Monaco of the east, with its own Formula One road-race, a growing wealth management industry and two multi-billion dollar casinos, which will begin opening from the end of this year.

The two sprawling casinos – or “integrated resorts” as the government rather euphemistically calls them - will incorporate hotels, theme parks and museums and they need to hire thousands of people as they prepare to open their doors. From the desperate to the curious, there was no shortage of takers at the job fair.

Having queuing up several hours before the doors of the cavernous Suntec convention centre opened, frenetic job seekers used every available inch of floor and wall space to fill out their application forms.

Resorts World, which is looking to hire 400 croupiers and 400 non-casino staff, received more than 1,000 applications in the first 90 minutes alone. By the end of the first day, 5,000 people had applied.

While the Singaporean government, which has been controlled by the People’s Action Party since independence from Britain in 1965, projects an image of the city-state as highly-developed and super-efficient, the country’s rapid economic development has, in reality, been rather uneven.

Unlike poorer neighbours such as Thailand and China, Singapore still has no unemployment insurance scheme.

So, with Singapore facing the worst recession in its history – founding father and current “minister mentor” Lee Kwan Yew warned that the economy could contract by 8pc this year – the need to find work is a pressing one, especially for those who have mortgages to pay and families to feed.

Jimmy Christanthio, a 33-year-old product manager, has worked at Motorola, the ailing US mobile phone maker, for 13 years but was recently told he is being made redundant as part of a restructuring drive. “I want to stay in the same line of work but the telecoms sector is really struggling so I’ll probably look to new avenues like the casino resorts,” he said. “These are challenging times and I need a job so I’m keeping an open mind.”

It’s a similar story for 29-year-old Kelvin Lim, who found himself unemployed after the shipping company he worked for closed down. “Everyone’s looking to Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World and I’ve applied for various roles on the corporate side of the business,” he noted.

As well as the out-of-work professionals eyeing management roles at the casinos, there were thousands of job hunters hoping to land entry-level positions as croupiers or waiters. Among them were many maids and restaurant workers from the Philippines and China who have lost their jobs.

However, those without strong CVs are likely to be disappointed. Both Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World have declared that they will give preference to Singaporean citizens, in line with the government’s recent move to subsidise employers who hire local workers.

The scores of curious old folks from Singapore’s suburban heartlands who eagerly applied for casino jobs should fare better. Singapore has one of the most rapidly ageing populations in the world and both casino operators have insisted that there is no upper age limit for recruitment.

Grenville Danker, a retired 75-year-old English teacher of Eurasian stock, was confident that his application would be treated fairly. “I like keeping busy and I’m hoping to get a position as an educational officer or tour host at the casinos,” he said.

But Eng, the 57-year-old tai chi teacher, was not so convinced. “My worry is that whatever they say they’ll aim for youth over experience,” she added ruefully. “But I’m very flexible about work so I’m sure I’ll be ok whatever happens.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Question marks over Newcastle United’s Profitable suitor

After much confusion over the last few days, Singapore-based Profitable Group has finally confirmed its interest in acquiring Newcastle United.

But, despite Profitable’s ambition to be “internationally recognised as a premier provider of Strategic Global Investment”, the group is arguably a long way off that goal.

Profitable is heavily involved in controversial real estate investment schemes that critics describe as “land-banking” and its Malaysian subsidiary (Profitable Plots Sdn Bhd) is currently under investigation by the Malaysian Companies Commission following a raid on its offices in October.

A UK subsidiary, The Profitable Plot Company, was voluntarily liquidated in 2007 after failing to “turn a penny”, according to the group’s chief executive John Gaunt.

However, he insisted that Profitable’s investment schemes do not amount to land-banking and denied any wrongdoing.

Land-banking schemes involve companies buying up greenfield sites in the UK, splitting up the land into small parcels and then selling them on to investors at a premium based on the hope that they can obtain planning permission for large-scale developments and eventually flog the land to developers for a substantial profit.

But councils very rarely grant planning permission for developments on Green Belt land and without this, it is very difficult for investors to recoup their initial outlay.

While Profitable’s approach appears very similar, Gaunt insisted that it was “not fair” to describe Profitable’s investment schemes as land-banking because their investors own the title to their real estate outright.

Land-banking is not illegal in the UK but the Financial Services Authority has warned that "there is a risk that many of these schemes are in breach of the financial regulation regime" and it launched a crackdown in 2007.

Like other such companies, Profitable targets investors in Singapore and Malaysia, many of whom view UK land as a prized asset, and often promises spectacular rates of return. An advert run by the Profitable Group on national TV in Singapore last October claimed that it could generate "estimated returns" of 250% over three years for investors who put in £8,000.

Regulators around the world have grown increasingly concerned about land-banking in recent years and Profitable Plots’ Kuala Lumpur office was raided by the Malaysia Companies Commission in October as part of a wider investigation into possible breaches of Malaysian corporate law by real estate investment companies.

An official from the Malaysian Companies Commission confirmed to me yesterday that Profitable is still under investigation following the raid. However, Gaunt told me last night that he had taken the Commission to court over its behaviour toward the company.

“They were of the opinion that we were a collective scheme – but we aren’t because we sold freehold title,” he claimed. “If you buy land from us, you get the title. We’ve had a court hearing and we’re awaiting judgement. We’ve had no contact with them for a sustained period of time.”

Although many of its land investment schemes are based in the UK – in places such as Hounslow and Colchester – Gaunt says that Profitable no longer takes on British investors after its UK subsidiary was voluntarily wound up.

“We don’t take UK business,” he said. “The business regulations in the UK and the manner in which the UK is structured are not conducive to doing business – it’s easier to do business elsewhere.”

A number of consumer websites (and The Guardian’s consumer champion Tony Levene) have warned investors against putting their money into schemes run by Profitable, but Gaunt claimed that “complaints are invariably made by some anonymous person writing under a nom de plume”.

“Show me one person that has lost money with us,” he added. “No-one has lost money. If there was anything illegal about our schemes, one of the most regulated societies in world, Singapore, would have closed us down long ago.”

How to "Upturn the Downturn"

It's all too easy to get disheartened in these tough times but this performance by Singapore's official 'trade union' lifted me from the depths of economic despair earlier this week.

It's not often that you get to hear a so-called union sing the praises of cost cutting, chanting unforgettable couplets such as "we are pro-workers oi oi, we are pro business oi oi". It's not exactly the Red Flag. Only in Singapore.

Hat-tip to The Online Citizen.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Welcome to The Asia File's new home

If you're reading this you'll most probably have followed the link from my old blog location at The Telegraph so thanks for the show of loyalty.

I've only recently set up this blog so the design/layout is still in its infant stages and may well change over the coming weeks and months.

Now I've been freed from my "Business" shackles at The Telegraph, I'm likely to cover a broader range of subjects as I travel around Asia.

In short, expect more politics.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Singapore’s population crisis in a nutshell

In 1959, when Singapore won independence from Britain, there were 62,464 births.

Last year, there were just 39,935, despite the fact that the population of the city-state has more than trebled from 1.58 million to 4.84 million in the intervening period.

That level of reproduction is simply not adequate to sustain strong economic growth, which is why Singapore is so dependent on bringing in foreign workers.

Hat-tip to the Straits Times Merdeka (Independence) supplement that was published over the weekend to commemorate the end of British rule.