Saturday, October 30, 2010

Beware of Burmese bearing gifts

This morning, I was skulking around the depths of Hanoi's National Convention Centre, which is hosting the Asean and East Asian Summits, when I saw an intriguing sight.

A very well presented woman in a traditional Burmese longyi, was trying to gain access to the office of the United Nations delegation, with a large package.

The woman, escorted by a rather less well presented male Burmese diplomat, had a present for Ban Ki Moon, it transpired.

She told me it was a "painting made out of precious stones".

Unfortunately, the UN had already left the building.

Presuming the painting is eventually passed on to Mr Ban, I wonder what he will do with it, given that Burma's gem trade is reliant on forced labour, child labour and land confiscation, according to NGOs such as Human Rights Watch.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

US academic in Singapore casts doubt on Yale tie-up

Over the last year, I've hosted a reasonably robust debate on this blog about academic freedom in Singapore. This has generated some very interesting feedback from readers and others.

An anonymous reader, who says they are an American academic in Singapore, has posted an insightful and balanced comment on the prospects for Yale's proposed tie-up with the National University of Singapore. I have no way of knowing if they are who they say they are but they seem to know what they are talking about.

I will leave you to decide. Here's the comment in full:

I am an American academic who has lived and taught in Singapore for well over a decade, in both local universities and in an American college program here that went under about 10 years back. The latter experience left those of us faculty members who taught in the program and had to be let go severely demoralized. I have serious doubts about the Yale initiative in Singapore for four reasons:

1. An intellectual/psychic time sink: I agree with James Scott that over time, it's likely that the Yale constituency will have to make more and more compromises in order to carry on here. As the situation intensifies, you can bet that at least 50% of the staff/students will spend at least 50% of their time focused on the negativities of this situation, and it will only get worse. The "Yale in NUS" prospect is a potential waste of both faculty and student resources that could better be put towards other kinds of cross-cultural and experiential learning. And if/when Yale pulls out, it will be a very depressing, frustrating experience for all concerned.

2. An inherently status-limiting pursuit for people who are invested in achieving higher and higher status: both the faculty and students involved in the Yale initiative will no doubt have ambitious plans for achieving all that is embodied in the Yale name. They will find out that in Singapore, the humanities and social sciences simply cannot achieve the kind of social recognition and financial reward associated with the science and business spheres. This may be happening everywhere, but it’s particularly acute in Singapore.

3. An uncongenial environment for the personal downtime and reflection that go along with a liberal arts education: try to find somewhere peaceful and quiet to ruminate on the big questions in life in Singapore, away from campus. Good luck. Over the decade-and-a-half that I’ve lived here, I’ve seen the opportunities to go for long, thoughtful walks diminish as space becomes increasingly chopped up and commercialized, and it’s even hard to find a relatively quiet place just to read or discuss off-campus where you don’t have to pay through the nose. These days I think I'm living in a glitzy-glam corporate park, alternating with feeling like a lab rat in a social engineering experiment (well, Singapore has always had that lab-rat feeling, I must admit).

4. An unnecessary reduplication of effort: NUS is already doing as good of a job as Yale probably ever could in the social sciences and humanities sphere for this particular setting, and the other major universities here have much to offer as well. Singapore students can go out, and non-Singaporean students can come in. Really, Yale, what’s the point?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Will Alan Shadrake verdict affect Yale's plan to set up a college in Singapore?

Singaporean prosecutors on Wednesday wrapped up their case against Alan Shadrake, the 75-year-old British writer charged with contempt of court after publishing a book critical of the use of the death penalty in the city-state.

Judge Quentin Loh is expected to issue his verdict next week and, if found guilty, Shadrake could be facing a jail sentence as well as a fine.

The case has been followed closely by the small community of civil society activists in Singapore, as evidenced by the extensive reports on The Online Citizen, a popular citizen journalism website.

But international eyes are also on Singapore.

Yale University is in the final stages of discussions with the National University of Singapore to set up a "liberal arts college" in a state not exactly famed for its promotion of academic freedom.

A number of Yale academics have kicked up a stink about the deal, which they fear will boost the university's coffers at the expense of its reputation for independent academic inquiry.

In a prospectus designed to reassure weary dons, Yale's president and provost say they were "greatly concerned" by the arrest of Shadrake.

"This gave us reason to inquire even more deeply to understand how free faculty and students would be to express themselves in scholarly publications, in the classroom and on campus," they wrote.

Presumably, they will be eager to see what transpires next week before concluding their talks.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Facebook fights back against Vietnam block

Facebook is battling back against the Vietnamese government's block on the social networking website by looking to recruit a Policy and Growth Manager for Vietnam who will "lead the company’s interactions with policymakers and will be responsible for ensuring the site’s accessibility".

The successful candidate, who will be based in Hanoi, "will be able to communicate effectively in both English and Vietnamese and have experience in government relations work and navigating government agencies along with an extensive network of contacts in the government and the technology space."

One of their key responsibilities will be to "monitor legislation and regulatory matters in states affecting Facebook and advise company with respect to policy challenges."

Although the Vietnamese Facebook block is relatively easy for those with a little nous to circumvent, here's the full text of the job ad on the Facebook website for those who can't access it:

Manager, Policy and Growth – Contract (Vietnam)
Facebook is seeking a Policy & Growth Manager for Vietnam, who is passionate about Facebook and has a background in technology or social media, business strategy and legislative and regulatory matters. The ideal candidate will be able to communicate effectively in both English and Vietnamese and have experience in government relations work and navigating government agencies along with an extensive network of contacts in the government and the technology space. The candidate should have experience in developing a growth strategy that involves creating coalitions and communicating with policymakers across the government. The position will require someone to be entrepreneurial in nature, resourceful, flexible and bring an intensity of focus to the project. The Growth Managers at Facebook and will lead the company’s interactions with policymakers and will be responsible for ensuring the site’s accessibility as well as driving user acquisition programs, identifying growth opportunities that help with the distribution of the Facebook brand online and offline and adding value to the Facebook user experience. The position will be based in Hanoi but some travel around Vietnam will be required as needed. This is a 12 months based contract position.

• Lead outreach to data protection authorities, other regulators and policy makers
• Monitor legislation and regulatory matters in states affecting Facebook and advise company with respect to policy challenges
• Represent Facebook in meetings with the national government and elected officials
• Explore, identify and evaluate strategic growth opportunities
• Influence and improve the Facebook experience of users in Vietnam by identifying product / market fit gaps
• Provide market insights – identify and monitor strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats relevant for Facebook’s adoption in Vietnam
• Be an advocate for developers and users in Vietnam

• Fluent in English and Vietnamese
• Interest in emerging technologies and public policy issues
• Superb written and oral communications skills
• Strategic thinker and planner
• Performance driven
• Self motivated , entrepreneurial in nature and comfortable in ambiguous situations
• Proven track record with high standards of professionalism Exceptional interpersonal skills and ability to develop strong working relationships inside and outside Facebook
• Creative, resourceful, detail-oriented, and highly organized
• Ability to meet multiple objectives in an entrepreneurial environment with little supervision
• Extensive experience dealing with policymakers and industry groups
• Prior experience working in a high-growth or startup technology company preferred

Warning: You must be over 160cm to enter this diplomatic service

In many diplomatic services around the world, women meet a glass ceiling as they climb the departmental ladder. In Vietnam, it's more like a glass ruler.

Two very able female graduates of Vietnam's  Diplomatic Academy told me they were unable to join the foreign ministry because they were under the 160cm minimum height requirement.

Vietnam's diplomacy has certainly risen in stature over the last year, with the government deftly using its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to force the South China Sea disputes onto the international agenda.

But, I'm not convinced that the best way to ensure that Vietnam continues to grow on the world stage is to exclude women under 160cm, who make up no small proportion of the population.

Given that Vietnam always provides a cohort of smiling, ao dai-clad dolly birds to impress foreign officials at international events, why is the ministry so concerned about the height of its female diplomats?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

US defence secretary Robert Gates gets a military welcome in Hanoi

While traveling around Hanoi with US defence secretary Robert Gates' entourage on Monday, I took the following video of the Vietnamese army welcoming him to a meeting at the Ministry of National Defence with his Vietnamese counterpart, General Phung Quang Thanh.

It was quite something to see Vietnamese soldiers playing the Star-Spangled Banner and to watch Gates inspecting the honour guard escorted by a goose-stepping officer.  

Gates was in town for the a big meeting of Asia Pacific defence ministers.



Sunday, October 10, 2010

A low key protest by banned group in Hanoi

UPDATE - Monday 08:00 - Viet Tan says that the Australian Vietnamese woman mentioned below, who seemed to be leading the protest, was arrested on Sunday evening. I have no independent confirmation of this. There is now a DPA story on the arrest.

Yesterday, I observed a protest in Hanoi by the banned Viet Tan group - or Vietnam Reform Party - which was low key in terms of the number of participants and the immediate police response.

A handful of overseas Vietnamese Viet Tan members gave out t-shirts and caps in a central Hanoi park, while calling on the government to stand up to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. (See reports by DPA, the German press agency, and AP)

There were several dozen local onlookers but it was unclear who were supporters of Viet Tan and who were simply bemused Hanoians - it's not everyday that you see political protests in a country where little dissent is tolerated. For obvious reasons, Hong Vu, the Australian Vietnamese who seemed to be doing most of the talking, was reluctant to say how many local supporters were present.

The Vietnamese government calls the US-based group a terrorist organisation, although Viet Tan insists it only believes in promoting peaceful change.

Although the surrounding area was amply supplied with police - the protest took place just behind one of the main stages were Hanoi's millennial celebrations have been taking place - there was no immediate reaction.

Once the blue t-shirt-clad Viet Tan members had headed off in a hurry and the small crowd has dispersed, a policeman did come around looking to confiscate some of the t-shirts they had given out.

Apparently, a similar unauthorised Viet Tan event earlier this year, when overseas Vietnamese gave out t-shirts and caps to an obliging Vietnamese public (if only because they like free gear rather than because they share the political messages), was also met with a relatively hands-off response.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The universality of terrible customer service

I have been scouting around Hanoi for my first smartphone and have been very disappointed with the level of customer service.

Given that most of these phones sell for more than the average monthly wage, it ought to take some pretty good sales advice to convince people to part with their hard-earned cash.

But not a bit of it. Having visited about 15 mobile phone shops, not one assistant could explain the pros and cons of different makes/models.

A Vietnamese friend, who was helping me to translate (my Vietnamese is still more, erm, conversational than technical), noted that these shops were effectively pushing eager customers away.

Just as my frustration began to boil over - and I started wondering if the ineffectual customer service was linked to the fact that Vietnam has yet to really open its retail sector up to foreign competition despite its World Trade Organization obligations - I realised that the Vietnamese mobile phone shopping experience was not particularly exceptional.

You get the same muppets working in these shops everywhere.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Asian casinos: What's in a name?

Across Asia, from Japan to Vietnam via Taiwan and Singapore, governments are experimenting with the legalisation of casinos in order to tap into the massive pent-up demand for gambling in the region.

But with many of Asia's governments professing some form of socially conservative credentials, the legalisation and promotion of casino gambling is, to put it mildly, a thorny issue.

Hence, in Singapore, those huge complexes that you see in Marina Bay and on Sentosa island, and which are generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, are not casinos but, to use the official terminology, "integrated resorts".

Likewise I learn courtesy of a job advertisement in the Viet Nam News that the massive Ho Tram strip development on the southern coast, which is backed by MGM Grand, will not include regular casinos but merely "a prized entertainment and amusement area reserved for foreigners".

A free casino licence in the Asian nation of your choice is on offer to the reader who can come up with the best new euphemism.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Government takes on Facebook in Vietnam

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story today about the Vietnamese government's attempt to launch a sanitised alternative to Facebook, which has been blocked on and off here since the end of last year.

The site, called, failed to capture the imagination of Vietnam's tech-savvy youth with initial articles about Ho Chi Minh and other revolutionary leaders and is now being spiced up. The WSJ reports:

The team has added online English tests and several state-approved videogames, including a a violent multiplayer contest featuring a band of militants bent on stopping the spread of global capitalism. The stream of news on the home page recently included an item on local beauty queens, news of a South Carolina fisherman who caught a fish that had human-like teeth, and word that British intelligence services once experimented with semen as an invisible ink.

Mr. Hop, the information minister, predicted will sign up more than 40 million people— about half the country's 85 million people—by 2015.

But the apetite for Facebook and other uncensored global social networking sites seems unlikely to fade quickly, particularly given the ease with which the Vietnamese restrictions can be circumvented.

As Global Post puts it in an article on the ineffectiveness of Vietnam's Facebook block: "Vietnam’s answer to China’s Great Firewall is more of a smoldering bamboo fence — an inconvenience more than an outright prohibition." (For the record, Facebook is currently accesbile in my hotel room.)

At first sight, it appears hard to understand why the government would waste its time with such lacklustre censorship. Part of the problem is that the Vietnamese media police do not have the same resources or know-how as China's army of technologically-advanced censors.

I suspect that the government is also aware that it cannot completely control access to the internet without damaging prospects for economic growth.

The Facebook block will not stop even the mildly determined. But it sends out a clear message that the government is watching what you do online and that using state-sanctioned social media is a safer path to tread.