Monday, August 31, 2009

Opposition landslide in Japan will jangle nerves of incumbent Asian governments

When I picked up my copy of Singapore's Straits Times this morning, I was shocked to see on the front page the following pull-out quote under the title "Time for change":

"It's too long for a single party to dominate national politics."

The story went on to describe a country with a rapidly-ageing population and low birth rate that has been hit hard by the global economic crisis.

The article gave details of a "historic win" which has "rang down the curtain on over 50 years of almost uninterrupted rule" by the governing party.

The government was apparently defeated by a relatively inexperienced opposition because voters were "weary of a government whose pro-business policies had widened the income gap in recent years".

The opposition campaigned on a reform platform that "promised to end wasteful government spending, remove cushy jobs for retired bureaucrats and provide more money for childcare and education".

I was extremely surprised to read such sentiments in the Straits Times, until I realised that they were of course talking about Japan.

On a serious note, though, unlike the turbulence that followed the 1997 financial crisis, there have been very few political repercussions in Asia so far this time.

Up until the drubbing dealt out to the LDP in Japan, most incumbent Asian governments probably felt that, with no major banking crises in the region, they would not face the voters' wrath at the ballot box.

Now, other long-time governing parties in Asia (not least in Singapore and Malaysia), will surely be sitting up and taking notice.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Kartika caning reveals deep irony of Malaysia

Today's Straits Times has a great quote from Clive Kessler, the veteran Australian sociologist, about one of the fundamental ironies of Malaysia, which seems particularly insightful given the Kartika caning furore.

"If you're not a Malay or Muslim, you've diminished rights but a great deal of freedom. If you're on the Malay side of the equation, you've got lots of rights but very little freedom." (A version of the interview is online here.)

So poor old Kartika can get a guaranteed place at university and a scholarship to boot, buy a cheap condo and nab a seat on the board of a government-linked company but she can't crack open a beer in peace.

Meanwhile, her fellow citizens of Indian and Chinese origin can drink to their heart's content but have to go overseas to get a place at university (perhaps not such a bad thing, after all...), shell out more for property and pay off Malays in order to get ahead in business.

In the interview, Kessler also suggests that UMNO, the Malaysian ruling party, has been slow to change because "it has wanted to keep the political world of deference, obedience, favour-seeking and gratitude".

He's right, of course. Furthermore, I'd argue that even those within UMNO who want change are unable to deliver it because, as another academic put it to me recently, "UMNO is corrupted to its core, like India's Congress Party".

Friday, August 28, 2009

Timor-Leste ten years on: counting the cost of independence?

In the decade since Timor-Leste (East Timor) voted to become independent from Indonesia, the former mother country has gone from strength to strength while the tiny new nation has struggled with violence, political uncertainty, corruption and a stagnant economy.

An interesting article in The Economist this week argues that many Timorese, particularly in the countryside, are "nostalgic for the benefits of Indonesian rule" and that the highlight of the 10-year independence celebrations in run-down Dili will be a performance by an Indonesian pop star.

Given the violence, repression and lack of development prior to independence, it's not surprising that Timor-Leste has struggled to pull itself up. What's been more surprising is the re-invention of Indonesia following the fall of Suharto and the Asian financial crisis - something that few predicted back in 1999.

The Economist still concludes that most Timorese are happier as an independent nation. But freedom has not come cheap.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Monocle's eye on Singapore

For those of you who feel I can be relentlessly negative about this little red dot, you may want to check out the survey of Singapore in the latest edition of Monocle.

I am one of the major contributors to the pull-out supplement, which profiles the best Singapore has to offer from business to tourism and culture to architecture.

Unfortunately, Monocle is one of those anachronistic publications that believe they should make money out of their content, so you'll have to buy a copy or subscribe to see the survey online.

You can however check out a quirky little trailer online here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Harvard management guru's Singapore tribute backfires

UPDATE: Perhaps rather predictably, the Straits Times has re-published Davenport's blog as the main piece in its comment section today (Thursday) under the headline "Not perfect, but still a role model". It's ironic that the piece probably came to their attention because of Singaporeans criticising it.

Tom Davenport is an American management guru who has written books such as The Attention Economy, What's the big idea? and Thinking for a living and writes a rather self-elevated blog called The Next Big Thing for Harvard's business publishing unit.

After a recent trip to Singapore he penned a laudatory post about the city-state, suggesting in typical management speak that it could be a "model of judgement" for the US.

He praised Singapore for being hardworking, disciplined, obsessed with education and ethnically diverse with good infrastructure and a strong economy.

So you'd think his comments would go down well with Singaporeans, right? Well, think again. Of the more than 20 reactions all but one or two are highly critical of his rose-tinted view of Singapore.

The commenters seem to take particular umbrage at Davenport's suggestion that "many of the seemingly autocratic regulations might be justified by the ethnic diversity and high population density of the country".

It's interesting that while China's online rabble tend to target blogs that make negative comments about their country, Singapore's internet community tend to go after anyone who is too positive about their nation.

Hat-tip to The Online Citizen.

How I inadvertently launched a global kidney trading exchange

"I am 22 years old, male, married, Indonesia, healthy, want to donate the one of my kidney. My blood group is O+, I'm not drink, not use drugs, and never have any kidney deseases. I want to donate my kidney for the exchange just for US$15,000.00 for my kidney, because I have a financial problem and I must gift lived for my wife and my daughter for they further."

Back in January, I wrote a story for Asia Sentinel about Singapore's decision to legalise the payment of compensation to organ donors - a controversial move that critics argue will allow de facto organ trading.

I didn't think much about the story until last week, when I was alerted to the fact that the comments section had been overtaken by people from all over the world (like our Indonesian friend above) seemingly trying to flog their kidneys for cash.

There's no way of knowing if these people are merely scamsters but their adverts appear genuine, with some showing serious knowledge about the transplant health screening process.

Interestingly, there's quite a wide price differential, suggesting that the current global market for kidneys is extremely inefficient.

While Ageng, our Indonesian seller, wants US$15,000 for his O+ organ and some others want as much as US$25,000, Rajravi, from Hyderabad, India, is happy to sell his for just US$7,000 (or 3.25-3.5 lakh rupees). Interested parties can contact Ageng on or +62 838 5838 199 and Rajravi on 09346596588.

Of the 13 offerors, many seem to be based in Asia. Four are from India, two from Indonesia and one from the Philippines. But there is a representative from East Africa, Kenney from Kenya who is healthy and has "never used any drug due to religion", and, perhaps surprisingly, one from Germany.

All of which got me thinking that there must be a lot of money to be made by starting up a proper global organ trading exchange, a concept which has been suggested by some maverick transplant surgeons in the past (see article here).

There's clearly no shortage of willing sellers around the world and there are many ailing businessmen too unhealthy or old to qualify for a transplant through the usual channels that would be willing buyers.

Before the green ink brigade (or their online equivalent, the caps-lock brigade) burst any blood vessels, I should emphasise that I'm not condoning (or criticising) the practice of organ trading.

Just explaining that it could be a very profitable business for someone with the cojones and legal nous to set up a global organ exchange.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Foreign media's "love" for Anwar Ibrahim on the wane

Critics of Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic Malaysian opposition figure, often argue that he is "loved" by the foreign media - as if popularity among Western journalists is some sort of damning indictment of his credentials.

Well poor old Anwar doesn't seem as loved as he once was. First, The Economist eased the knife in with an extended column suggesting he was something of a chameleon. Now Philip Bowring in the New York Times suggests that Anwar has been "unable to shake off the perception that he is an opportunist telling different groups what they want to hear" (hat-tip to Reme Ahmad).

One UMNO loyalist even suggested to me (semi-jokingly) that Anwar is so concerned about his deteriorating image that he would rather be convicted for sodomy in his upcoming trial so as to give him extra martyrdom points and more support in the West.

It's true to say that Anwar has lost some momentum since the "political tsunami" of 2008, when his loose coalition helped to cut down the government's two-thirds majority. But, in a democracy (albeit an imperfect one), it is inevitable that the opposition struggles to make an impact in the electoral no-man's land between polls.

More than anything else, I think the critical analyses of Anwar penned by The Economist and the NYT are a sign of the plurality of views entertained in the Western media - something that cannot be said for Malaysia's government-controlled press.

Monday, August 24, 2009

UPDATE: Beer-drinking Malayisan mother spared the cane...for now

UPDATED - Apparently it's just a delay for Ramadan and the sentence will still be carried out.

So, as predicted, the saga still has some way to run.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Caning of beer-drinking model a sign of true equality in Malaysia

Now that the Malaysian government has retained the services of a global PR firm, APCO, surely the spinners will be able to come up with some innovative communication strategies to limit the damage to the country's international reputation caused by the decision to cane Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarno, a woman who was caught drinking?

Here are some suggested approaches to assuage the outrage of the international media:

1. "It's part of our new equal opportunities drive". Men are routinely caned in Malaysia for a variety of criminal and religious offences so, in a forward-thinking, egalitarian society such as this, why shouldn't women have the same opportunity? 1Malaysia, 1Cane.

2. "It's part of our crack-down on binge drinking". International journalists, particularly those in Britain, will know what a scourge binge drinking can be, wreaking havoc in town centres every weekend.

As part of Malaysia's responsible drinking framework, there will be fewer happy hours, higher tax on alcohol, a ban on alco-pops and, of course, caning for any women caught drinking.

3. "It's proof that Malaysia is a truly multi-racial society". The government is keen to ensure that racist (sorry, I mean racial) harmony is maintained in the cultural melting pot that is Malaysia. And it understands racial sensitivities.

Therefore, Chinese or Indians are free to drink until their livers pack up, as alcoholism is a fundamental part of their wanton cultures. But in order to uphold the dignity of the true sons and daughters of this nation, Malays cannot drink (unless they are rich enough to do it in private clubs and/or pay off the religious police).

4. "Kartika is actually being treated very leniently in a sign of Malaysia's deep compassion". While judicial canings are pretty brutal, as this video (not for the faint hearted) shows, Kartika is getting off pretty lightly.

She will be caned while fully clothed and kneeling down, using a thin little stick that's just designed to cause a mildly unpleasant sensation - akin to being tickled, some say.

As Harussani Zakaria, one of Malaysia's most-eminent religious scholars put it, this caning is just designed to "shame her and educate her", rather than tear her flesh irreparably to pieces like normal caning sessions.

"Even if a person is caned 40 times, it won't cause death," he explained. And if that doesn't reassure you about Malaysian compassion, then nothing will.

Welcome to Malaysia, Truly Asia.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

ASEAN to ask junta to let Suu Kyi take part in elections?

ASEAN's much-hyped letter to the Myanmar junta may call on the generals to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to take part in next year's elections, according to diplomatic sources.

The wording of the letter, which marks a departure from ASEAN's usual policy of non-interference in domestic matters, has yet to be finalised. But it is likely to call on the junta to give clemency to Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 18 months house arrest for allowing American oddball John Yettaw to stay at her house without permission.

However, the letter, which is being pushed by Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya and backed by Singaporean foreign minister George Yeo, is not likely to call for the release of all political prisoners, diplomatic sources said.

Instead, ASEAN is more likely to take a softer line, asking the junta merely to respect the judicial process and urging national reconciliation between the ruling generals and opposition politicians.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Taxi tales: From molecular biologist to cab driver

No, this isn't a historical tale about some Eastern European dissident academic forced out of his job in the days of Communist rule.

It's a story about a veteran researcher at Singapore's government-funded Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), who lost his job in bitter circumstances last year and has been forced to become a cab driver for lack of any other work.

Dr Cai Ming Jie, who described taxi driving as "the last resort to be reserved for Singaporeans when all other jobs shut them out", set up an insightful blog describing his enforced career change earlier this year.

It's definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More on loan sharks in Singapore

I've got a more in-depth story on the loan shark problem in Singapore in the Asia Sentinel (extract below), which looks at why Singaporeans are turning to illegal money-lenders and what can be done to fight the surging intimidation and violence.

When the Singapore police nailed four suspected members of a loan-sharking syndicate on July 21, they seized the usual paraphernalia: mobile phones and prepaid SIM cards and the time-honored tools of intimidation such as paint to be splashed on the doors of bad debtors and superglue to lock them inside their apartments.

But while loan sharks – or Ah Longs as they are known – have long been a ubiquitous presence on Singapore's sprawling public housing estates, this gang is one of a growing number taking bully-boy tactics to the next level.

One of the members, according to the police, had been sending bullets to borrowers in an attempt to scare them into paying up. The syndicate, which police said was responsible for more than 600 harassment cases, were said to have also been terrorizing the wider community by starting fires outside the apartments of bad debtors.

Cynthia Phua, an MP from the ruling People's Action Party, told local media in a recent interview that the level of harassment in her constituency in eastern Singapore has surged. "It is also more violent," she said. "We are seeing things we did not see before, like petrol bombs and innocent neighbors being harassed."

In a city-state that proudly boasts one of the lowest crime rates in Asia, such violence was once rare. But, worryingly for the government and the vast majority of the population who live in the public housing estates, it is becoming increasingly widespread as the economic crisis forces more people to turn to loan sharks.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How transcendental meditation can solve Afghan violence

On the eve of the Afghan elections, violence has predictably erupted in Kabul.

The Afghan government has asked local and foreign journalists not to report on the violence during election day so as not to put voters off casting their ballots.

But there appears to be a much more effective way to solve the problem. All you need is 580 people (the square root of 1% of the population) thinking positive thoughts and practicing transcendental meditation and all the violence in Afghanistan can be beaten.

I'm serious - or at least the oddballs from the Center for Advanced Military Science at the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy, which is part of the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa, are.

John Berthelsen has the full story over at the Asia Sentinel (which I write for).

You could not make this up.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Camping not so happy for homeless Singaporeans

Unlike most city centres, if you walk around downtown Singapore, you almost certainly won't come across any homeless people.

That's largely because vigorous policing in the showpiece city centre ensures that the homeless are shunted out to the suburbs.

One such man, Noor Mohammad Yassin Ismail, has been jailed for four days after being found camping without a permit in Singapore's East Coast Park, a pleasant 6km stretch of beach.

He was fined S$800 but then jailed because he was unable to pay. At least he'll have a roof over his head for a few days...

I'd always presumed that all the people camping on the East Coast, at Changi beach and Sembawang Park were there for a night out until I met a social worker last week who told me otherwise.

Apparently some homeless Singaporeans are forced to live in tents on a permanent basis. Unlike Noor, who was apprehended by eagle-eyed park rangers, the wiser campers take down their tents every morning so as not to arouse suspicions.

Why I wish I was working in China

China appears to be opening up to foreign journalists, with a senior official from the State Council Information Office announcing that government ministries should adopt a "zero refusal" policy with foreign correspondents.

"Zero refusal means that the ministries must designate people to deal with calls and interview requests from foreign media and that they have to give a response within 24 hours or the period they prescribed, no matter what the result is," Guo Weimin, director of the SCIO press department, told China Daily, the government's main English language mouthpiece.

If (and it's a big if) upheld, this new policy from the cautious, censorious Chinese authorities contrasts sharply with the approach from many government ministries in open Singapore.

It may be one of the easiest places to do business in the world, but it is perhaps one of the hardest to do journalism.

Government spokespeople here rarely return calls before a deadline, perhaps hoping that journalists (representing both domestic and foreign publications) will not chase them and they will be spared the precarious task of actually speaking to a journalist.

Another favourite practice is not to invite foreign correspondents to any important government press conferences, perhaps because they are concerned that the news will be mis-interpreted.

To illustrate, earlier this week, I contacted the press office of the Singapore Police Force to speak to them about the rising rate of loan shark crime.

After claiming initially that I was not an accredited journalist in Singapore (I am, of course, a bona fide foreign media representative) I was eventually told that they would not speak to me, answer any questions or even provide me with any statistics because the publication I was working for on this story, the Asia Sentinel, was "not accredited".

Thanks a lot guys. Oh to be in press-friendly China...

Monday, August 17, 2009

Singaporean businesses "spunking in the face of recession"

The National Day Rally speech by the Prime Minister is one of the most important set-pieces in the Singaporean political calendar.

So there must be red faces this morning on the sub-editing benches at the Straits Times, the government-owned daily newspaper, after someone penned the following headline for a story based on PM Lee Hsien Loong's comments about how resilient Singapore's small-and-medium-sized businesses are:

"SMEs show spunk in the face of recession"

That's enough lowering of the tone for one day...

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Malaysian government brings in PR firm, will need all the help it can get

The Malaysian government has appointed APCO, a global PR firm, to advise it on how to engage with the public and the media.

When I covered the stock market in London, the appointment of a new PR firm by a troubled company was usually the equivalent of the band on the Titanic striking up a new cheerful tune: they may be hoping to lighten the mood but ultimately the ship's still going down.

Amusingly, the men and women in suits who are being shipped out to Kuala Lumpur reckon they can help strengthen "the government’s online and other strategic communication capabilities" by deploying "seasoned professionals...who are on the cutting edge of new media".

Do these spin doctors know anything about Malaysian politics? The government and the ruling party have been completely outflanked by the rise of the internet in Malaysia, as shown by this week's humiliating climbdown over the planned new firewall.

It's not that the government doesn't understand the internet but, like so many incumbent Asian governments with authoritarian instincts, they are both scornful and fearful of engagement.

Although companies like APCO like to pitch themselves as "public affairs consultants" their main business is spinning, judging by the comments of APCO chief executive Margery Kraus, as reported by trade magazine PublicAffairsAsia [comments in square brackets are mine]:

“Malaysia continues to demonstrate that it is a major player in Asia [a major player like India, China and Indonesia or a major player like Thailand and the Philippines?], one of the great manufacturing nations for electronics [an industry that's beset by low margins and has been hit hard by the economic crisis] and a sophisticated participant in global markets across many sectors [presumably you're referring to cross-border deals like the failed buyout of ailing British lorry maker LDV],” said Kraus.

“APCO’s ability to leverage strategic communication capabilities across borders mirrors the kind of leverage Malaysia has achieved in its approach to business and trade [ah by leverage, I presume you mean corruption, cronyism and rent-seeking], making this a natural location for our expansion [i.e. we go where the money is]."

Hat-tip to Unspun.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Micro-credit bubbling over in South Asia?

Microfinance has been the in thing in the development world for quite some time, with Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for setting up Grameen Bank, the man of the moment.

But an interesting piece in today's Wall Street Journal suggests that a microfinance bubble could be forming in India (the story is behind a paywall here but I've pasted the intro below).

The WSJ story seems to tally with what I heard when I was in Bangladesh back in June. One businessman who ran a charitable foundation told me that his organisation was having to move away from micro-credit provision because the market was so saturated.

While the idea behind microfinance was that it would provide poor entrepreneurs with access to much needed funding, in reality the rapid expansion of credit was driven by consumer spending on new TVs and mobile phones.

It's hard to argue that individual Bangladeshi or Indian farmers shouldn't be lent money to buy things that make their lives more enjoyable but we all know the risks of rapidly expanding credit to fund additional consumer spending.

RAMANAGARAM, India -- A credit crisis is brewing in "microfinance," the business of making the tiniest loans in the world.

Microlending fights poverty by helping poor people finance small businesses -- snack stalls, fruit trees, milk-producing buffaloes -- in slums and other places where it's tough to get a normal loan. But what began as a social experiment to aid the world's poorest has also shown it can turn a profit.

That has attracted private-equity funds and other foreign investors, who've poured billions of dollars over the past few years into microfinance world-wide. (See related article "For Global Investors, 'Microfinance' Funds Pay Off -- So Far" -- WSJ August 13, 2009.)

The result: Today in India, some poor neighborhoods are being "carpet-bombed" with loans, says Rajalaxmi Kamath, a researcher at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore who studies the issue. In India, microloans outstanding grew 72% in the year ended March 31, 2008, totaling $1.24 billion, according to Sa-Dhan, an industry association in New Delhi.

"We fear a bubble," says Jacques Grivel of the Luxembourg-based Finethic, a $100 million investment fund that focuses on Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia, though it has no exposure to India. "Too much money is chasing too few good candidates."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rise of loan sharks sparks wave of violent crime in Singapore

The Daily Telegraph - By Ben Bland in Singapore

Singapore is facing a rare violent crime wave driven by a surge in harassment by loan sharks since the global financial crisis hit the strictly-governed city-state last year.

The number of people arrested for loan shark activities and harassment doubled to more than 417 in the first half of 2009, with more than 9,000 reported cases of loan shark lending or intimidation reported to the Singapore Police Force.

Contraband smuggling has also hit a six-year high, with an 80 per cent increase in the number of weapons brought into Singapore illegally, including the knuckle-dusters, replica guns and knives that are often carried by loan shark gangs.

The heightened level of violence is a major concern for the government, particularly because of the growing involvement of teenagers in loan shark gangs. One in five of those arrested for loanshark offences between January and June were under 19.

The police have pledged to clamp down hard on the gangs, who often end up targeting the wrong people.

"We would like to emphasise that the penalties for loan sharking and loan shark-related offences are heavy," said Ng Boon Gay, director of Singapore Police Force's criminal investigation department. "Loan sharks who direct harassment or harassers who carry out acts resulting in damage to property or hurt to persons will also be caned."

The government is also considering making it a criminal offence to borrow from loan sharks but social workers say it would be unfair to penalise hard-up Singaporeans in these tough economic times, as many have no other alternative sources of unsecured credit.

Loan sharks – or Ah Longs as they are known locally - are a firm fixture on Singapore's sprawling public housing estates, where more than 80 per cent of the population live.

The loan sharks usually lend small amounts of money – often the equivalent of just a few hundred pounds – but charge extremely high interest rates and are quick to resort to intimidation and violence if their customers do not pay up.

They typically splash red paint near the home of defaulting borrowers as an initial warning before moving on to more serious acts of vandalism, violence and theft. Younger defaulters are often coerced into joining the gangs themselves as runners.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Iain Dale is wrong about Subhas Chandra Bose

Iain Dale is a prominent right-of-centre British political blogger whose musings I generally respect.

But he is wrong to condemn Labour MP Virendra Sharma purely for praising Subhas Chandra Bose, the leader of the Indian National Army, which fought alongside the Japanese and against the British in the Second World War.

Bose's legacy is clearly problematic but it is unfair to compare him to Nazi collaborators in Europe. He was an Indian nationalist at a time when his country remained under the colonial yoke of the British, not an anti-semitic, power-hungry Frenchman or Lithuanian desperate to jump into bed with Hitler and his murderous cohorts.

Bose's decision to join up with the Japanese appears to have been largely a pragmatic (if ultimately unsuccessful) one based on his estimation of the quickest path to independence for India.

Upon learning of Bose's death, Gandhi said that he was "undoubtedly a patriot, though misguided".

Iain serves up terms like "treachery" and "disgrace" but I think he would do well to get a more nuanced understanding of the INA and Bose (rather than just citing Wikipedia) before making such sweeping judgements.

Remember that many British officers and other officials abandoned the sinking ship that was colonial Malaya and Singapore as the Japanese advanced down the peninsula.

What loyalty did poorly-paid colonial troops who were the subject of institutional and personal racism of the most unpleasant kind owe to their colonial masters who had fled and left them at the mercy of the Japanese?

Many Indians held Bose and the INA in extremely high regard and the mass movement that coalesced around opposition to the post-war trials of INA officers undoubtedly helped to precipitate the British departure from India.

It is worth noting that even in Singapore, where the majority Chinese population suffered brutal treatment and massacres aplenty at the hands of the Japanese, there is a memorial to the dead of the INA in the old colonial centre of town.

History can be a powerful political tool but I feel that Iain does himself no favours by trying to generate Daily Mail-esque moral outrage over such a complex issue.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Does resurgent terrorism threaten Indonesia's bright prospects?

Up until the deadly suicide bomb attacks on two upmarket Jakarta hotels last month, the discourse surrounding Indonesia was all about the country's bright prospects.

From investment bankers to academics and journalists, everyone was talking about the remarkable transition to peacecful democracy and how Indonesia's economy, freed from reliance on exports to the West, was set to be the next emerging market success story.

The hotel attacks and the subsequent mopping up operations against Noordin Top and his Jemaah Islamiyah henchmen have changed the tone of the debate.

Reme Ahmad, who works on the foreign desk of the Straits Times, is one of many who has warned that "every bullet and bomb they use could destroy Indonesia in the eyes of investors and tourists".

But, as I have noted before when writing about Sri Lanka, terrorism tends to put fewer investors off than you might think. Sure, tourists are scared away in the initial aftermath of any major attack, but for the rest of the country it's business as usual.

The real danger comes from a sustained campaign of violence. With Noordin and many of the other key JI leaders now reportedly dead or under lock and key, this seems less likely.

But as with Al-Qaeda, even though JI appers to be becoming a more splintered grouping, autonomous, individual cells still remain a serious, if less co-ordinated, threat.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Why Washington Post journalists shouldn't fucking write about swearing

We British hacks love to mock our American counterparts for being rigid and uptight, a sport that I believe is largely without justification having worked alongside several fine Yankee scribblers.

But Karla Adam of the Washington Post has restored my lack of faith in American journalism with a truly painful piece on the prevalence of swearing in Britain.

Picking up on Conservative leader David Cameron's recent use of the words "twat" and "pissed" on British radio, she goes on to argue that, unlike Americans, Brits have a high tolerance for swearing.

Fair point but the problem is that, as she's writing for an American newspaper with a delicate American readership, poor Karla isn't allowed to use swear words in her article, forcing her to deploy some very bizarre side-stepping techniques.

Cameron, she writes, "then played on the word twit, inventing a past tense of the term that some people here regard as a swear word".

You mean he said "TWAT", I think Karla.

She also refers obliquely to the incident when Dick Cheney told another Senator to "go fuck yourself".

Or, as Karla puts it, "Vice President Richard Cheney stunned the nation by telling a senator, in public, what he could do to himself". Hmmmm.

While this foreign correspondent is desperate not to offend the sensibilities of her American readers, she seems happy to offend large swathes of the British public.

When she writes about the C-word - yes Karla, that's "cunt" - she claims that "it can be heard reverberating throughout soccer stadiums where it is mindlessly chanted, choruslike, by thousands of fans for several minutes at a time".

I'm not sure if our interpid reporter has ever been to a "soccer" match but, as a keen football fan, I have to say that I've never heard such a moronic chant before.

Although, I'm so frustrated by Karla's euphemistic meanderings, that I almost feel like starting such a chant now.

If you want to write about swearing, then swear. If the very though sends shivers down your moralistic spine, then write about something else that won't put your prissy readers out of joint, like Church fairs or organic farming.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Rupert Murdoch and Financial Times playing expectations management over news paywalls

Normally when shrewd businessmen come up with brave and innovative ideas to make money, they don't advertise the plans long before they are ready to go.

Which makes it seem all the more strange that a wily old fox like Rupert Murdoch and his counterparts at the Financial Times and the Guardian Media Group have telegraphed their supposed plans to start charging for online content so far in advance.

Like Labour ministers insisting long before a by-election that they have no chance of winning just so they can tell David Dimbleby on election night that the result doesn't matter as everyone knew they would lose, I think Murdoch, the FT and the Guardian are trying to play a little game of expectations management.

If they keep repeating ad infinitum that they are going to start charging for content, the hope is that if/when they do eventually put up their paywall, consumers will have dispensed with the misguided perception that news should be free and will be willing to stump up to read a match report on The Times' website or to check out the latest celeb upskirt shot on The Sun's website.

Other struggling newspapers (i.e. all newspapers) have willingly jumped onto the bandwagon in the hope that they too can bring the public round to the idea that they will have to start paying. For example, check out this piece by Ian Burrell in The Independent which appears at first to be an ordinary media news story but in fact reads like a desperate plea from a dying newspaper for paywalls to save the day.

I tend to agree with Roy Greenslade that Murdoch has failed to understand the way in which technology has fundamentally changed the journalism works. But I think many commentators have over-stated the significance of Murdoch's statements.

I think Murdoch is dipping his toe in the water and trying to influence public perceptions of the value of online news. I would be very surprised if, in a year's time, all the online content across his media empire is behind a paywall.

Any current/reformed loan sharks in Singapore want to talk?

No I don't need to borrow any money, thank you very much. But I am looking into a story about the worrying rise in loanshark lending, harrasment and violence that is plaguing normally low-crime Singapore.

Am trying to track down some current/reformed loan sharks so if you want to talk, drop me an email at Confidentiality assured - I protect my sources.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Has the Philippines fallen victim to too much democracy?

That is one of the major questions posed by David Pilling, the Financial Times' Asia editor, in an editorial examining the ambiguous legacy of Cory Aquino and the outlook for the Philippines.

In east Asia, a region "with too few compelling examples of successful democracies", the Philippines adds grist to the mill of those who argue that democracy and individual liberties are not conducive to economic development, Pilling argues.

As he puts it, "those who seek to equate Asia’s strong growth record with authoritarian governments – conveniently forgetting the economic wreckage stemming from dictatorships in Burma, Cambodia and pre-Deng Xiaoping China – routinely offer the Philippines as an example of the alleged economic costs inherent to democracy".

Pilling's concludes that the dominance of patronage politics (or cacique democracy as it is also known) has undermined economic development and that, rather depressingly, there is little hope for change in the immediate future.

The Philippines is left with all the trappings of democracy – an argumentative press, free elections and regular transfers of power. Yet it has broken less decisively with the past than many other Asian countries. That has left it, rather like many Latin American countries that lurch from one caudillo to another, too reliant on what Raul Pangalangan, a law professor, calls “raw politics”. Today, in the eyes of a nation in mourning, the only thing that could truly redeem Philippine democracy would be another Cory Aquino. Yet, if truth be told, even she was not able to do that.

But it seems to me that any generalisation about the success of the Philippines will ultimately depend on how highly you value what Pilling calls "the trappings of democracy". Some would argue that an argumentative press, free elections and regular transfers of power are the essence of democracy, rather than mere "trappings".

UN fund kowtows to China press restrictions

The Common Fund for Commodities is a little-known inter-governmental financial organisation, set up under the auspices of the United Nations to help fund the exploitation of commodities from bananas to bamboo in developing countries.

The Common Fund is holding a big international conference in China later this month on "the importance of commodities in economic development of Asian countries and on the role the Common Fund can play in assisting countries in the region to make full use of their commodity-related potential".

As part of the Common Fund's drive to reach out and explain its work to the wider world, it initially announced that it would sponsor journalists to cover the conference, paying either for their flight to China or hotel costs.

I was one of the few who contacted the Common Fund about this opportunity and they seemed keen to get me to come along, promising to set up interviews with all the head honchos so that their work could be better understood.

However, having submitted all the necessary registration documents, I was surprised to receive the following email yesterday from Charles Jama in the Common Fund's communications department in Amsterdam:

I regret to inform you that we have reconsidered the media sponsorship program for the China meeting and will not be extending the offer to journalists NOT based or credentialled by the Press Bureau in the MoFA in Beijing.

The call for journalists to apply for sponsorship on the Common Fund's homepage was removed yesterday.

When I asked Guy Sneyers, the chief operating officer of the Common Fund, if he wanted to provide an official explanation for this sudden change of heart, he replied with a one-word answer: "no".

It is very disappointing (if not entirely surprising) to see an inter-governmental organisation with 107 member states that was set up under the UN framework caving in to Chinese press controls in such a meak fashion.

Without any proper explanation from the Common Fund, I can only guess at the reasons for their rapid about-turn. It was quite possibly simply because they could not be bothered to deal with the voluminous paperwork and bureaucracy necessary to procure a visa for a visiting journalist in China.

If that's the case, they are playing straight into the hands of the Chinese government which, like other authoritarian regimes, makes it very complicated for journalists to get visas precisely because they want to put foreign reporters off coming in the first place.

So that's Chinese censorship 1, UN 0.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Anwar Ibrahim: chameleon or just a good communicator?

The Economist's Banyan column has penned a rather critical profile of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, which suggests that he is something of a chameleon figure, having undergone a remarkable transition from Islamist student leader to acolyte of the Mahathir regime before his latest re-invention as an opposition icon.

I must say that when Anwar addressed the Foreign Correspondents Association in Singapore in May, I was struck by a similar feeling that Anwar was trying too hard to be all things to all men. His performance was very slick, perhaps too slick, and left me feeling slightly uneasy.

I doubt, for example, that he would have made jokes about which Hollywood celebrities he finds attractive if he had been addressing a group of activists from PAS, the Islamic party that is a key ally in Anwar's opposition alliance, rather than a meeting of mostly Western journalists.

When I raised my concerns about Anwar's smooth-talking style with a Malaysian friend who is a big supporter, she insisted that I was being unfair and that Anwar should not be penalised for having the ablitity to communicate with such a wide range of audiences. His message, that Malaysia needs to embrace democratic, multi-ethnic politics without forgetting the need to help the poor Malay majority, stayed the same even if the manner of delivery differed depending on who he was talking to, she said.

The Economist piece, which differs markedly in its tone from the usual fawning accounts of Anwar produced in the West (see Ian Buruma's recent love-in in The New Yorker), has sparked quite a bit of interest in the Malaysian blogosphere (see here, here, and here, for example).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Malaysia the real beneficiary from Singapore National Day

Even though Singapore was unceremoniously booted out of its short-lived union with Malaysia, it is ironically Malaysia that could be the major beneficiary of Singapore's heavily-orchestrated National Day celebrations this weekend.

Singaporeans like to joke that the annual National Day holiday is a great opportunity to get away to Malaysia and, according to the Straits Times, they are not wrong.

The newspaper of record is warning of heavy traffic this weekend at the Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints, which connect Singapore to Malaysia over the straits of Johor, as Singaporeans exit en masse.

As if to ram the point home, the Straits Times explains that departing traffic will be at its worst on Thursday, while arrivals will peak on Sunday (National Day) and Monday.

While many Singaporeans may prefer to see their relatives in Malaysia or chow down on some cheap seafood at an idyllic Malaysia beach, I for one will be staying in town, admiring the might of the Singapore military on display.

Ten challenges for Singapore in the next 50 years

With Singapore celebrating 50 years since independence, the government has begun the usual round of self-congratulatory tributes.

Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong gave a very interesting speech at the weekend, which while paying the necessary dues to the leagacy of Lee Kwan Yew (and himself), also outlined ten major challenges facing Singapore.

It's well worth reading and, no doubt, deserves a good fisking as well. I've extracted the ten main challenges:

1. Can you maintain Singapore’s high economic growth and keep on improving on our standard of living?

2. How do you convince Singaporeans that their lives will get better when they are already living in good-quality public and private housing?

3. How do you satisfy the transport demands of the next generation for comfort, convenience, congestion-free travel and punctuality of services and their expectation of affordable fares, ERP and parking charges?

4. Can you stamp out these diseases [cancer, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure] the way we did with infectious diseases like TB, malaria, typhoid and polio? Can you keep health care costs down and affordable?

5. Can you design a new training programme, Workfare and Job Credit Scheme for grandparents and maybe even great-grandparents?

6. What will get our young to marry and have children? Any creative ideas on procreation?

7. How do we support so many senior citizens? How will we look after our parents and grandparents? Will you build more community hospitals, nursing and old folk homes, and keep them affordable?

8. How much more land can we reclaim over the next 50 years? As our population and economy continue to grow, how will we deal with the challenge of limited land for economic expansion while preserving sufficient space for housing and recreational needs? Will Singapore be over crowded?

9. We have to accept that more Singaporeans will study and work overseas and that some may settle abroad. But how do we bond them to Singapore, physically if possible, and if not, at least emotionally. How do we ensure that most will return home and contribute to Singapore which gave them the foundation for their success? How do we ensure that there will always be a core of honest, able and dedicated Singaporeans to look after the country and their fellowmen?

10. How do we ensure that Singaporeans of different faiths will continue to mix with one another and respect one another’s faith?

Normal service to be resumed

Apologies for the blogging hiatus. I was back in Blighty on holiday for three weeks. Normal service will be resumed from today onwards.