Sunday, June 28, 2009
Friday, June 26, 2009
Thursday, June 25, 2009
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
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Monday, June 22, 2009
Friday, June 19, 2009
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.