Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Singapore the city of unfair trade

This is just a random one.

I used to do some volunteer work with Fairtrade in Ireland, and today I got an email update on some of their events happening in Dublin.

I did a quick search for Fairtrade in Singapore and the only hits I got were "Trade shows in Singapore", "Singapore Trade Fair" etc.

To be sure there were a hand full of links that actually mentions Fairtrade in Singapore, but there isn't a Fairtrade branch in Singapore. Apparently I'd missed the first Fairtrade Day in Singapore in May this year.

Trade is like the blood that runs through the veins of this city, and the substance that keeps it alive and functioning. Especially in these harsh economic times, people are particularly afraid of losing "blood".

But like our bodies, we always have more than what we need so that we can donate some to those who need it to live. Our own lives are so much the better for it when we do too.

I personally find it such a struggle not to live selfishly in this city. The work life here makes it practically impossible to do volunteer work without feeling like it's costing you that few hours of extra sleep or that few precious hours you could have to yourself to do your own things, read, write, surf - anything to not think about work.

Yes. Singapore is a city of trade, but certainly not fair trade. We have traded our lives quite unfairly in fact, for a stable income, and a strong daily dose of sedatives called "work" to our blighted consciences.

I've had a strong dose today. I will sleep deep, not necessarily well.

Friday, November 28, 2008

India's 27/11 - Time to reflect on the real issues

The month of November has come to be a month of mourning for people across the world.

Whether it's carefully timed to create a deep hole of grief before the Christmas season or some other symbolic meaning to the perpetuators, it has once again shaken many of us watching from around the world.

The Straits Times today (or should I say yesterday) devoted more than half of its prime pages to it. And yes, it's all blood and gore that captures the readers.

But only one article really addressed the significance of this event. Has the face of conflict in India changed?

Conflict in the country has been a part of the everyday workings of the nation. If it's not the BJP against the congress party, it's the far left Marxist party or one of many smaller sectarian parties.

Then there's the Hindus versus the Muslims, and occasionally the Christians, not to mention the countless clashes between different ethnic communal groups within its volatile states like Assam and Orissa.

Last but not least, it has the caste system to ensure a large majority of oppressed will deliver a constant supply of poor, uneducated and devoutly religious zealots to fill the ranks of rioters or voters come election time.

India is a chaotic country with a highly fragmented social fabric filled with fault-lines that could be easily exploited by terrorists and activists alike to start conflict.

But after this week's attacks, one may argue that the face of conflict in India has changed. For the first time, India has come face to face with the same kind of transnational terrorism the US encountered in the 9/11 attacks.

This is no longer caste-based or ethnicity-based conflict India has seen the last couple of decades. This is an enemy of a truly transnational character. And at the core of it is the problem of poverty and unequal development and a lingering resentment against the prevailing world powers - the US and Europe.

With no wood, there can be no fire. The globalisation that has brought wealth and prosperity to so many of us in the developed world has provided international terrorism the wood they needed to start their fire. Lingering poverty - in fact widening wealth disparity - is feeding these terror cells with plenty of willing and eager young men and women with nothing to lose from blowing themselves up or taking the lives of those they see as responsible for their life of oppression and poverty.

It's time to mourn for Mumbai, yes. But it's also time we wake up to the real pressing need for more equitable development. The Indian government may be putting out small fires here and there by eliminating these terrorists in this instance. But if they take away the wood altogether, the terrorist will have nothing to burn with.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

DBS blaming the wrong people

I'm sorry, but is it me who's missing the point here or the DBS bank (Singapore's largest bank)?

The front pager on The Straits Times on Wednesday said "DBS overhauls sales tactics" - "CUSTOMERS will be asked tough questions before investing".

Should not the customers be the ones asking the tough questions? And since many of the banks investors are pensioners who don't know two cents about how the financial market works, shouldn't the bank's buddies in these failed financial companies be the ones getting asked the tough questions?

The bank is shifting the blame on the customers for "ignorant" investment? Hello, but this is their hard earned savings you're talking about, which the bank just lost thanks to some great decision making.

The customers didn't lose their money because they made the wrong decision to trust Singapore's biggest and most reliable bank. They lost their money because THE BANK made the wrong decisions.

So why is the bank saying now that investors will be scrutinised for wanting to invest? It just doesn't make sense.

And given DBS's strict regulation, the source of investor's money is hardly a problem in this country. One could hardly spit in the streets without getting fined, much less invest money obtained by illegal means with the biggest bank of Singapore.

I'm thoroughly disappointed with the way the bank is handling this. And more so with The Straits Times for reporting this without any critical voices. The only people quoted in the article were DBS chairman and the chief executive officer of the securities investors association of Singapore - all in favour of the new "sales tactics".

Did the paper not think it necessary to get sentiments from 'the investor'?

I think we're putting the blame on the wrong people here and also asking the wrong questions. It's no use making sure customers read the summary sheet before they say yes they want to invest because reading it doesn't mean they understand what they are reading. And all this while, they've been trusting the bank sales personnel to be implicitly honest with them when explaining the returns and the risks of investing.

It's bad enough that the bank's gone and lost their customers' savings. The least they could do is not blame them for a mistake they didn't commit.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Obama: Now we believe

This entry has been long overdue.

It's been a little over a month since my last entry and America has changed, so it seems, over night. Obama has gone and swept through the elections to be America's next President, and America's first Black President.

Who would have thought? Many a Singaporean hoped America would vote for a black president, but deep down didn't believe it would actually happen. To many of us, America is a country of big talkers who will
say many things to please, but do quite the opposite come crunch time.
But on the 4th of Nov, America proved us wrong. And I believe it also shocked many Americans too. This time, the polls were right.

It was an emotional time for me too. I was at the American Club as the elections unfolded and I have to say, my heart skipped a few beats and the hairs on the back of my neck stood as the screen flashed: "Ohio for Obama", "Virginia for Obama", "Pennsylvania for Obama", "FLORIDA for Obama"!!! [See
Realclearpolitics for the final tally]

I was nearly in tears. I was praying to God, let Obama win like it was a matter of life and death to me. I was screaming and jumping each time Obama won a state. My hands were sweaty and I was constantly at the edge of my seat.

I'm not American. This is not a vote for my president. Why was I so emotional? I would hardly be a fraction so anxious at my own country's elections.

Obama has come to represent all the western ideals that I grew up reading in history books and bedtime story books of how with conviction, one can achieve justice; that with courage, the good people can stand up against tyranny and achieve truth, justice, equality and victory.

The 4th of November was momentous for me because right there and then, I felt like I was part of a historic moment. This day would be a watershed moment in history and decades later, I can tell my children and grandchildren that I was there when America voted it's first Black President, and I was there to see the Americans cheer, scream, cry and embrace each other when Obama was made President.

I had so many Americans tell me that for the first time in 8 years, they don't feel ashamed of being American. For the first time in 8 years, they are not embarrassed to tell people they are American. And for the first time in 8 years, they feel proud of their country.

For me, for the first time in over 20 years, I actually believe democracy works. And for the first time in a long time, I actually believe that justice exists in this world. That good occasionally triumphs over evil (not to say that McCain is evil. In fact I quite like the guy), and that there is hope for a better world.

There are very few people who can make you sit up, stop what you're doing, wherever you are in the world, to listen to him speak. And when he speaks he musters a stirring in your heart to want to get up and do something about all the ills of society, to right the wrong, and to stand up to the injustices of the world. Obama is one of them.

I just wish I could feel this way about politics in my own country. Pity such a personality will be a long time coming...if ever.

Monday, September 29, 2008

It's a Political Circus

So I've been following the US elections the last couple of weeks, months even, and it strikes me like it's one big circus. The voters come to watch, the more sponsors the troop gets the more extravagant the display, the crowd either gets entertained or riled, and at the end of the performance, they go home and nothing changes.

That was nothing but a moment of suspended reality, where they toy with the idea of doing something crazy like voting for the opposite camp.

A republican (American) I spoke to recently agreed that at the end of the day, people vote on emotions, and candidates don't follow through with their campaign promises anyway. Sure the Democrats may be more pro-environment, pro-welfare type intervention for sectors like health and education, and anti-war, but in essence they won't change economic policies and the big businesses will continue to run the show they were before. Which means the same economic and social inequalities that are endemic in the current system (that, by the way, has endured since the 19th century) will persist and possibly widen with the added pressure of migration (both legal and illegal).

When Karl Marx spoke of the "Lumpen Proletariat" in 1848, he had no idea of the global scale it would take in modern civilisation. Our low-skilled migrant is the 21st century's Lumpen Proletariat

But let's not get carried away. Looking again at the Republican vs. Democratic candidate's stand on the rescue package for Wall Street to avert complete collapse of the US financial system, BOTH said they would support it. Both say that they have proposed different changes to is and different approaches. I've been digging deep to understand what this difference is, and the only difference I can really find is the rhetoric.

The theatrics of politics is something that never fails to amuse, maybe because we are so starved of it here in Singapore. Here we skip to the chase. We know nothing's going to change anyway so why bother with the performance?

But what's even scarier is the prevalence ideology has over the choices an individual makes. We may call ourselves republicans or democrats, liberals or conservatives, but if we dig deep into what these ideological groups really represent, you'll encounter many overlaps, and these groups we claim allegiance to suddenly spread into a spectrum of conservatives and liberals within each group.

Should we then be so quick to claim allegiance to a euphemism that is a social construct born out of selective understanding?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

'Tis the season to resign

Last weekend, two countries forced their leaders to step down - South Africa's ANC called for the resignation of their President Mbeki, and Israel asked their PM Olmert to step down.

In fact, the last couple of months have seen a call for the change of leadership across the world. Everywhere, people are calling for change. But what exactly? It's all too easy to say we don't like what we see today. But to come up with a concrete vision for tomorrow, is quite a different task altogether.
In Malaysia, the saga has been going on for a good while now. PM Abdullah Badawi has been ask by senior members of his own party to quit soon to save the Barisan Nasional from its battered political position. The Barisan Nasional has seen a crisis of credibility across the board, not only in the eyes of its minorities but also the poor Malays who continue to languish in poverty despite the governments affirmative action such as the Bumiputra law.

In Thailand, the PAD (opposition party) sit-out at the Government House in Bangkok has gone on with quite a stamina, leading to the ouster of then PM Samak. He's now been replaced by a much less assertive figure Somchai Wongsawat, brother-in-law of ousted premier Thaksin. Not quite the change the PAD and their supporters were looking for. Still, Somchai may not have the metal of his predecessor, but he did do some good work as minister of education, making education free and more accessible for people living in the rural areas.

The PAD wants change. But not the change that is good for Thailand or its enshrined democracy. The PAD leadership is neither liberal nor democractic and the change they seek is in fact a regression to old-style authoritarian rule with a mostly appointed parliament and powers for the army to step in when it chooses.

Skipping over to the African continent, in South Africa, Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign over corruption charges. A high court judge accused Mbeki and senior justice officials of being part of an illegal conspiracy to charge Zuma (his political rival) with corruption for political ends.

But Mbeki has been good for South Africa's economy. He has been responsible for the emergence of a "Black" middle class in South Africa and his pro-business policies saw the country rise as one of the largest recipients of foreign direct investments in the developing world. Yet, growth has only trickled down to a small minority and Zuma claims to have the solution to South Africa's widening income and social inequality. Though he claims that he will not reverse Mbeki's economic policies, it is hard to see how he will be able to create an economy that is both pro-business and pro-union (from which his main support comes from) at the same time.

Over to Israel, PM Olmert was asked to resign on Saturday over corruption charges and did so promptly the next day. Foreign minister Tzipi Livni is poised to succeed him if she manages to form a new government within 42 days.

With Israel, it's hard say what change they could be looking for, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. But it is heartening to know that Livni supports a two-state system, which would facilitate peace with Palestine, far better than the position of the opposition party, Likud, which is Ultra-nationalist and anti-Palestine.

With all this change in the winds sweeping across the globe, it's now time for us to watch and wait to see if this really brings a storm of change, or if it is just a light breeze of reprieve from the old stink of corruption, war and politicking.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Are we desensitising our readers?

It can be quite dehumanising working in the newsroom, where the availability of news - often the more harrowing the better - determines whether you have a good front page or not.

When I made the decision to choose journalism as a career over research, I had in mind the idea that I could make a difference by what I write and by joining the newsroom, I will have greater impact. But after being here for just a couple of months, I begin to realise that news today, not just in Singapore, is rife with macabre reports.

Are we as journalists, desensitising our readers with our constant flow of negative reports. Are we creating a humanitarian fatigue among our readers to the point where they no longer want to read about starvation in Africa or human rights abuse in Myanmar, or protests against forced evictions in China?

I was reading a book review by Stephen Wolgast on a book called "My Brother's Keeper" which tracks the emergence of human rights photography. Wolgast brought up the same issues - What is the function of photographs and what is the role of photographers?

Wolgast sited examples of photographers whose work "shocked audience[s] and led to social reform".

Should that not be what us journalists aspire to as well?

Susie Linfield, photography scholar, also brought up a dilema faced by photographers that we reporters also encounter - how to show suffering without demeaning the subject. For reporters, how do we write about someone's plight without taking away his/her dignity as a human being, with a God given right to be seen as a person and not an object of pity?

In the end, Wolgast contends that "instead of making us immune to the suffering of others, the proliferation of images has made us more aware of inequality in the world".

I hope he's right. And I hope it's the same for news. It is at least heartening to see that the youth in Singapore are at least more active in overseas volunteer activities today. But whether it springs from a genuine desire to make a difference, or the glam factor of being a do-gooder in a third world country, is another story altogether.

For the most part, Singaporeans are happy to observe and acknowledge poverty from a distance. We feel sorry for a moment, shed a tear or two, and then proceed to shed many more dollars at a spa, restaurant or boutique to soothe our aching conscience. After all, if we're not buying these products, those poor child labourers will be out of a job.

Picture source: http://www.ac-nancy-metz.fr/enseign/languesLP/anglais/dr_hom_child_work.htm

Monday, September 15, 2008

9/11: Questions that remain

A few interesting points brought up in this clip:
  1. Osama bin Laden is not officially held responsible for the 9/11 attacks because there isn't enough evidence to prove the connection.
  2. There is enough evidence to prove that the official reasons for why the twin towers collapsed after the 2 planes crashed into the towers were false.
Have a watch....

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Holy terrorism in the name of Democracy

Source: http://miss-information.net/blog/archives/images/bush_finger_29_10_04.jpg

It is highly disturbing to hear someone like Sarah Palin say that this war on elusive "terrorism" is the will God because terrorists threaten everything humanity and the US stands for - i.e. democracy, human rights and freedom.

"that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending [U.S. soldiers] out on a task that is from God."

But hold on a second. The US has become a much less free nation since Bush declared war on "terrorism" and civilian freedoms, and the enshrined right to fair trial has come undone by the very people who claim they are fighting for the world's freedom and human rights.

An article by Hesham Hassaballa in the Islamica Magazine says that secret prisons have been set up across the world where CIA can interrogate SUSPECTED terrorists with "techniques tantamount to torture (read Washington Post 2005).

In Afghanistan, the largest CIA covert prison was code-named the Salt Pit, at center left above. Source: Washington Post

The Bush administration also sought to prevent detainees from revealing details of the "alternative interrogation methods" used in these secret prisons in federal court (read Washington Post 2006).

To be fair, the US supreme court did strike down these acts and opposed the unilateral establishment of a military commission to try terror suspects. But President Bush later signed a Military Commissions Act of 2006 which made the latter legal:

"[It] establishes procedures governing the use of military commissions to try alien unlawful enemy combatants engaged in hostilities against the United States for violations of the law of war and other offenses triable by military commission."

Note - No definition for "alien unlawful enemy combatant" was given, so practically anyone who looks alien, speaks arabic, is mulsim and has a glazed over look could potentially wind up in one of their special secret cells in Guantanamo or Cuba. The lucky ones get to go to Thailand.

Hesham's article calls for a rethinking of the strategy in the war on terror. The US, not least western media should stop spreading Islamaphobia, and stop framing this war with religious lexicon.

This war is not a holy war and certainly not a war of religions. It's a symptom of oppression and economic inequality. God knows this war is keeping America's "defense" industry awash with profits. How about redirecting some of that money to creating jobs and educating people instead?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Religion is more than just the 'opium of a nation'


Marx called religion the "opium of a nation", he left out how religion is equally potent as an instrument of war and belligerence.

Here's a comparison of 2 articles from The Economist on how religious sites have been the source of conflict:

Note: some parts of the original article have been omitted here. Click on link for the full article.

Places apart

Aug 28th 2008
From The Economist print edition
A plan to turn sites of conflict into beacons of peace

WHEN an army wants to dishearten a defeated foe, few things are more effective than desecrating his holiest shrines. And when a demagogue or warlord wants to make peaceful folk take up arms, nothing works better than telling them that their faith’s holiest site needs reclaiming.

And in modern times, fighting over holy places—from India to Jerusalem to the Balkans—seems almost as common as it was in the Middle Ages. During the Bosnian war, over 3,000 religious buildings were destroyed or damaged, including Catholic and Orthodox churches, and above all mosques. In Kosovo, the minority Serbs say scores of Orthodox churches or monasteries have been wrecked by ethnic-Albanian nationalists.

But holy places, even those that are claimed by more than one religion, are not always a source of conflict; there are plenty of cases where a shared holy place has led to a bond between people of different faiths who have divergent beliefs about the site but still rub along.

Hence a plan that was unveiled in Norway this summer to establish a code of conduct for holy sites on which all governments could agree. The code would protect the right of one or more communities to worship at a sacred site and the right of individuals and groups to manifest their faith at holy places.

Temple temptations

Aug 14th 2008 JERUSALEM
From The Economist print edition
The issue of Jerusalem’s holiest site may again be dividing Jews

After the 1967 war, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s then defence minister, ruled that the Temple Mount where the golden Dome of the Rock has stood since the seventh century after Christ, would remain an exclusively Muslim place of worship, administered by the Waqf, or Muslim religious trust. Jews and Christians could visit but not worship there. Rabbis of all religious and political stripes agreed.

This arrangement broadly endured, between periodic bursts of violence. But it never allayed Arab fears that the Jews had designs on the mount.

In 1984, the Israeli authorities arrested a group of fanatical Jewish settlers for plotting to fire rockets into the mosque. Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, infuriated Bill Clinton and Israeli negotiators by repeatedly denying there ever was a Jewish temple on the site and rejecting proposals to share sovereignty over it.

In September 2000, a walk on the mount by Israel’s then opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, prompted bloody clashes which turned into a six-year Palestinian intifada (uprising).


The negotiation of Jerusalem has also split the Jews. The Nationalist-orthodox close to Jews who have settled on the Palestinian West Bank are permitting—even encouraging—their followers to visit the mount.

The larger, ultra-Orthodox community remains ostensibly unaffected. Its rabbis still forbid even walking on the mount and are content to wait for the Messiah without spurring him on.

But between the two groups there is a theological overlap that translates into a tough brand of politics. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a pivotal part of the government’s coalition, has given notice that it will walk out if there is any negotiation over Jerusalem. Sure enough, in leaked draft proposals put by Israel’s prime minister, Ehud Olmert, to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, the question of Jerusalem is postponed indefinitely. Or until the Messiah comes?

Sunday, August 31, 2008

US, Nato air strikes at civilian targets

Source: https://zone.artizans.com/cartoon/n/NATO.html#

On 2 August, The Economist ran a story that said "Afghan soldiers are better trained and happy to fight".

22 days later, on 24 August, Afghanistan
President Hamid Karzai fired an Afghan Army general and another officer for their roll in a US air strike on civilian targets and for concealing information about the deaths.

Tensions continue to escalate with new reports everyday of civilian deaths by US air strikes. The Guardian, Voice of America and the AFP reported that the Afghan government is demanding a review of foreign military activities because Nato and US troops have been launching air strikes at civilian and conducting "uncoordinated house searches and illegal detention of Afghan civilians".

US officials said that they killed 25 militants and only 5 civilians, but a United Nations investigation into the casuality says the U.S. air strike on Friday (22 Aug) killed 90 civilians - 60 of whom were children.

Nato's response?

NATO and U.S. military officials insist they take great care in targeting air strikes, but militants frequently hide in civilian areas. - Voice of America

Now, even if they did kill 25 militants in that air strike would that justify killing 90 other civilians or even 5? Where do we draw the line?

This is not an isolated incident. In
July 11, a US missile that misfired wiped out a Afghan wedding killing 47 civilians, including the bride.

Source: https://zone.artizans.com/cartoon/a/Afghan_war.html

As a reader abstract from the reality of this 'war on terror', civilian deaths have come to mean nothing more than just a statistic in a news report.

But the July incident should really make us realise the reality in Afghanistan - that normal people live and celebrate their happiest moments literally in the midst of war and death.

Killing innocent civilians will do nothing to help the fight against terrorism. It will only fuel resentment among the Afghan locals which will in turn drive regular, non-radical Afghans to support the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Can the world then blame these so-called terrorists for blowing themselves up in crowded markets or fighting their own government, which is in alliance with a nation that fires missiles at innocent people and feel justified in it?

It is difficult enough to live in poverty and not resent it. But to expect them to see their innocent children and loved ones get killed and detained indiscriminately by the people who claim to be fight for their freedom and not resent it, is really asking for a magnanimity that is beyond human capacity.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Content to stay mute

Source: http://www.cartoonstock.com/

The Straits Times today wrote:

"Speakers' Corner...has been around for nine years. It never made an impact on the public imagination, possibly because many Singaporeans have been conditioned to not express raucous dissent or even contrarian views. They are content."

Are we really content? And is 'content' really the reason why Singaporeans are not using the speaker's corner?

We are content economically no doubt. But speak to any informed Singaporean about politics and you'll certainly get the sense of restlessness and resignation. Even I write this with slight trepidation and the knowledge that Big Brother is watching.

The opportunity cost for speak out is far too great in this country because there seems so little to gain and so much more to lose from it.

Indeed the potential loss of wealth and social stigma has been far more effective than any overt coercion to ensure Singaporeans remain mute on politics, or at least keep it to bed time talk.

The straits times article then goes on to say:

"Law and order worries could recede as Singapore gets ever more sophisticated and rich."

Are we assuming too much by saying sophistication and wealth leads to law and order?

South Africa for example has seen exponential growth rates in the last decade and still its crime rates have been increasing. China saw GDP growth rates of 11.1% in 2006 and 11.4% in 2007, and still crime rates are more than double that of the 1990s - China reported 4.75 million criminal cases in 2007 compared to about 2 million in the 1990s.

If we probe further, you'll also find crime rates in urban areas, which are more affluent than rural areas, have higher crime rates.

So where is the logic in saying greater wealth equals lower crime? Often greater wealth comes with greater inequality which leads to higher crime and gated societies that are ever more segregated.

But here's the best part of the article:

"Rallies can be in support of state policies and actions, not reflexively assumed to be challenges to the Government. If Singaporeans want to make a moral stand against war and hunger in solidarity with street marchers in other cities, it might be the beginning of the end to their famous parochialism."

The day Singaporeans are allowed to go to the streets to protest human rights in Tibet or the war in Iraq, would be the day when the Singaporean economy is on the brink of collapse and the government has run out of ideas to stay in power.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Only Fruitcakes demonstrate

Hong Lim Park is to be (once again) the oasis of public political expression here in Singapore.

According to the
PM's recent National Day Rally, Singaporeans will now be allowed to demonstrate publicly, but only at the the Speaker's Corner, located at Hong Lim Park.

I spoke to some of my peers and the sense I got from them is that there is huge skepticism. Simply changing the legislation will do little to encourage Singaporeans to engage in political activities in public.

A professor from NUS said that demonstrating is still stigmatized in the country and the real protesters will not choose this as an avenue for political expression because they immediately lose credibility by going to the speaker's corner.

Demonstrations are in essence anti-establishment activities. To then obediently follow the rules that are aimed at controlling scope and nature of such activities revolts against every notion of a demonstration.

It's like taking the venom out of a snake's bite. It not only takes the kick out of demonstrating, it presents the impression that the whole affair is simply staged.

Take a step back. How many political speeches have ever been made at the speakers corner since its inauguration in 2000?

In 2003, the Agence France-Presse reported that the speaker's corner attracted fewer than four speakers a week, and only 140 speeches were held between October 2002 and June 2003

In 2004, the London Telegraph quoted an officer describing the general interest in the facility as "less than zero".

Consider the Singaporean lifestyle, where people either work or study or shop 90% of their waking hours a day. Who would travel all the way to Hong Lim Park in the heat of the afternoon, or even the cool of the evenings to listen to random people rant and rave about the dismal state of politics in Singapore, when they could simply click away on google and immediately have access to an array of political views from blogs to news websites?

You've got to be either inordinately naive or simply a fruitcake to go demonstrating at the speaker's corner...unless you've got your party crew ready, with a DJ, good speakers and a bunch of fun loving friends, up for a good party in the park.

And if things get a bit boring, there's always Boat Quay to hop over to.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Babies are not a money issue

Last week The Straits Times published a few articles comparing fertility rates in Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, the UK and Singapore (see: Baby Perks: Do they really work?)

There is no doubt that finance is a key concern among young couples today when considering whether to set up a family. Like in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, the Singaporean government has dangled carrot after carrot in front of couples to procreate to very little effect.

The question here is not whether these financial perks are too small to lure couples into a life time of monetary responsibility, but WHY are we even thinking about babies in financial terms. Is the decision to have a baby a rational choice? And can we really measure the opportunity costs to having a child?

Paulin Straughn, Sociology professor at NUS told me that it is a fairly recent trend that Singaporeans started thinking about children in financial terms. She says we are being bombarded by ads everywhere by banks and various financial institutions about how responsible parents should start planning and saving for their childrens' education. This has reinforced the notion of cost consequences of having a child.

A colleague of mine also told me that when a couple applies to the bank for a house loan, they ask how many children they have and vary the size of the loan accordingly, creating a competition for financial resources between the parents and their children.

At the end of the day, having children is not a rational choice, and simply cannot be one. How does one measure the happiness a child brings to a parent by a simple hug or chuckle? How does one measure the pride a parent feels when his/her child wins an award?

There can be no matrix to measure the costs and benefits, much less the opportunity costs of having a child.

Maybe the government is dangling the wrong carrots in front of its young couples.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Who are we calling terrorists?

Source: http://www.hanini.org/pictures.html

"One man's terrorist and another man's freedom fighter" - How often have we heard this phrase, and yet how little do we empathise with it?

I've been attending a reporting course the last couple of days and today's session really struck a chord. One of the speakers spoke (among other things) about his reporting experience in Palestine and for once, I heard someone put a "human face" to this 2000 year old conflict.

He spoke of a family which had one brother in Hamas, the second one in Fatah (which is a rival Palestinian faction), the third brother was a suicide bomber (obviously dead) and the father who works for the UN.

For once, I heard someone speak with a much deeper understanding of the root of this whole war on terrorism. Palestinians have been living under siege for decades, at least since the 1967 war and even before that.

Source: http://www.hanini.org/pictures.html

The people we call terrorists today are the children of that generation. They've grown up in an environment of not only constant war and chronic poverty, but worse, they've grown up under constant humiliation and ignominy.

Source: http://www.studentorg.vcu.edu/fpn/palestinepictures.html

The Palestinian economy is entirely under the control of Israel and they have done well to ensure that the Palestinian's unemployment rates are kept high and their economy remains in the shambles. Simple example is Israel controls the supply of fuel to Palestine. With no fuel, there can be no industry, much less basic utilities for the civilians.

With absolutely no hope or prospect for a decent life, an opportunity to even carve out a career with one's own hard work, what are the young and the future generation to do?

The west, the US in particular and Israel themselves are responsible for this crazy "war on terrorism". They have created the perfect conditions that feed such acts and groups of terrorism. They have fostered an environment where the youth grow up frustrated, hopeless, angry, oppressed, and worst of all, with nothing to lose, because everything, especially their future, has been taken from them.

It is not difficult to see why they would be happy to blow themselves up, along with a few of those perceived to be responsible for their destitution. If this world has been cruel to them, and God promises a better world in the after life, why should they stick around and show us sympathy?

Is that not what our God promise us too? Only, for us, it's easier to like this current life too because we have it good, and we at least have an opportunity to make good in life, have a good career, have family, and be able to provide for it.

It's shocking here in Singapore, how easily we categorise Palestinians as the antagonists and terrorists. We secretly or subconsciously treat Islam and terrorism as synonymous to each other, or we are at least quite convinced that the religion perpetuates and promotes acts of terrorism.

And this perception is not surprising considering how often we hear the terms "Muslim terrorists" and "muslim fundamentalists" in the same breath on the news or in the papers all the time. We forget that terrorism is not an issue of religion, but of social, political and economic inequality.

Why do we not consider Israel or the US as terrorists? Just because they went in with conventional war crafts and bull dosed their way into other people's homes with soldiers wearing uniform, are their acts of aggression not considered acts of terrorism as well?

I'm not saying that we should label Israel and the US as terrorists. But maybe we should pause to think about who we really are calling terrorists. And WHY after so many years, are we still fighting "terrorism"? Perhaps we've gotten this whole terrorism thing all wrong, and it's time we deal with it differently.

Pump money into the Palestinian economy to create jobs and schools, instead of funding Israel's military arsenal for a start.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Touch increases generosity - Not so in Asia I think

Touch me and I'll like you more...IF I was American. Touch me and I'll tell all my friends you're a pervert...BECAUSE I'm Asian.

Apparently a new study done by Vera Morhenn of the University of California, San Diego, shows that touching a person in the US could earn you more trust and magnanimity. The Economist reporting on the study says:

"the level of hormone appears to rise in people who are trusted. And more of it seems to inspire greater generosity towards strangers...the hormone rose in those who were massaged [in the experiment] and fell slightly in those who were not...[and] women appear more susceptible than men to tactile manipulation."

No surprise with the gender difference here, but I'm curious to know if that study was done here in Asia, would the results be the same?

I remember having this discussion with my friends before. They are Asians, who have spent a long time living and studying in the US and Europe, and there was unanimous consensus that Asians do have a different concept of the function of touch.

When I left Singapore to do study in Germany, I was first very uncomfortable with the physical contact my European friends were making with me. The hug (and I mean a proper hug, like a proper handshake should be), the hand on the shoulder, or the hand on the arm when having a conversation, all that made me very uncomfortable at first.

But that did make a difference to how fast I warmed up to a person, and how sincere I could gauge a person to be. Over time, that human touch came to be a natural order of my interpersonal interaction.

Now that I'm back in Singapore, it's the complete opposite. I remember how my friends did find it a bit strange that I was kissing and hugging them more when I got back. And I did feel that the level of affection I had shared with my long-time old friends had somehow diminished, perhaps as a result of my extended absence, but also partly because of the lack of touch. The connection wasn't as strong as it was before, for various reasons I admit, but also because I had grown accustom to touch as a measure of affection, trust and affinity.

People say Singapore is a very cold society. I agree. For all the communal values we preach as an Asian society, we are a people quite protective over our personal space, and the accepted proximity rule.

We're not quite as communal as we'd like to be.