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September 1st, 2010

04:25 pm - Germany and UAE.. and Malaysia
It just struck me that the Malaysian state was structured in a truly unique way, in that it is essentially a union of monarchies and non-monarchical states, with a federal head of state selected from among the Royal heads of the member states. No other country today is like ours, in that it is made up of states with hereditary rulers and those with heads appointed in the fashion of British dominions like Canada and Australia.

The closest analogue to our nation's structure would be the United Arab Emirates. Like ours, it is made up of constituent hereditary monarchies which select its head of state from among its rulers. Unlike ours, however, the head of state and the 'head of government' (Prime Minister) there are fixed while our head of state rotates among the various rulers. In UAE, there is no question that the Emir of Abu Dhabi takes primacy over all others, while the Emir of Dubai ranks second. In Malaysia, the Agong is the first among equals and is chosen in more or less a rotating fashion, largely based upon seniority and turn-taking. And of course, in our federation there are also those ruled by non-royal appointees, who resemble the viceroys and governors of colonial times except that they are constrained by the powers of democratically elected legislatures, who in turn elect the effective executives of the various states.

Historically, our structure has several analogues, in the form of the German Empire of 1871-1918 and British India. Imperial Germany was more like the UAE in that the King of Prussia was the permanent supreme ruler, or Kaiser, of the federation that the country was formed out of. Like the UAE, and unlike Malaysia, the German states retained a high degree of autonomy within the federation, even up to maintaining effective army units in the case of larger states like Bavaria. Both Germany and British India were somewhat similiar to Malaysia in that they included within them member states of varied constitutional structure. In Germany, there included both hereditary monarchies and republics such as the free cities. India was made up of princely states and provinces ruled directly by British administrators without any native figurehead.

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August 28th, 2010

01:13 pm - Talking does not cheapen oneself
The United States has plenty of reasons to maintain open lines of communications with North Korea. The peace of South Korea and Japan - countries that are American allies and cogs in the neo-liberal global economic system - depends upon a sedate DPRK. It is of course not in the U.S.' interest to see the DPRK expand their nuclear arsenal, nor to sell their technology overseas. And a peaceable Korean peninsula would at least ease one of the common tension points in relations with the People's Republic of China.

It isn't easy to actually continue engaging with the DPRK. They are unpredictable and still have the pre-modern notion of tributary-vassal diplomacy that characterized transactions in much of Asia until the middle of the 19th Century. That mode of relationships is utterly ridiculous in the DPRK's case given how impoverished and miserable their people are, but appearances need to be kept up nonetheless. But the U.S. isn't helping either by setting pre-conditions for any dialogue to proceed.

Barack Obama made a promise that he would seek communications with Iran without pre-conditions. That has not come to pass, sadly. The lack of progress must be a consequence of a fear of a backlash from conservative politicians who will be ever-ready to pounce upon any signs of alleged 'weakness' on the part of this first-term President. If Obama is really committed to being a really good one-term President over being a mediocre two-termer, then he should bite the bullet and do the needful things, regardless of the political blowback. Jimmy Carter, after all, achieved an Egyptian treaty with Israel despite being a one-termer.

Talking to North Korea is simply a matter of practical necessity. In the case of East Germany, for instance, the U.S. concluded diplomatic exchanges pretty early on in spite of the numerous points of awkwardness (such as the status of Berlin). For reasons of humanitarianism, and also to protect the South, there must be engagement. Engagement in itself need not automatically result in capitulation. If a country must maintain a tough posture, then it will find its own means to do so. However, open channels of communications would hopefully help resolve the original tensions while avoiding potential misunderstandings and the inadvertent ignition of flammable kindle.

nytimes article.

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August 27th, 2010

11:12 pm - Cyclists and the lonely life..
I've been following the news about the sensational death of British Intelligence worker Gareth Williams, and of course it has been sad and an utter waste of talent. As it so happened, the past couple of days, I surfed by the slowtwitch website and saw this feature of champion triathlete Rasmus Henning at home. I thought there was a striking resemblance between the two.

Well, apart from the fact that both men spent a lot of time riding their bikes and competing on them, there isn't much else in common, although I do suspect that this in itself does create some physical similarities. Riding a bike and running frequently gives one the lean, almost gaunt physique of an endurance athlete, and of course both seem to have a big set of chompers. Plus, both sport really short hair, which is extremely practical for sports that require hours under the sun.

I think the more interesting thing is that both appear to have dealt with a degree of loneliness in personal life very differently. Yes, it is true that Henning is married with children, while Williams was apparently totally single. But it is a truism that serious endurance athletes all cope with being alone and probably have a stronger tolerance - or tendency - towards loneliness. This is even more so for a professional like Henning. You have to spend hours on the bike, or on your feet (and in Henning's case in the pool and sea too) to remain in competitive form. A pro has to travel far away frequently for tournaments to earn his keep and maintain his rankings. Surely there must be a lot of single hotel rooms (even if the wife and kids can make the occasional trip along).

But as I noted, Henning's home life is one of married bliss. And Williams', unfortunately, was not. I'm not saying that William's being single had anything to do with his tragedy. What I am trying to say is that finding your way to a conjugal state of living is natural and good. And it does make a complete difference in your life outcome, eventually. Hence, even for people who have a natural tendency to be alone, or to be engaged in a lifestyle that goes towards that way, they should, in my opinion, make efforts to reach out and connect. I think that would usually be for the better.

That is not to say that being alone dooms one to isolated misery. Plenty are the men and women who have found their own happiness, or if not that, then at least contentedness, living on their own. But I do think that on a balance of probabilities, building a life together with a life partner offers the best means to a happy life. Even though that itself is fraught with risks and inevitable difficulties.

*no disrespect meant to Gareth Williams or Rasmus Henning for this. Just carving my thoughts out in a public space, as they struck.

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July 28th, 2010

05:45 pm - Dubai and Brunei
Consider the tale of two oil kingdoms. Similarities - both are basically small, Muslim monarchies which grew wealthy because of the discovery of oil on their territories. But then there are the differences. Dubai is part of a larger federation of monarchical states - the United Arab Emirates - and so they are not completely sovereign, unlike Brunei. More significantly, I think, Dubai has to a large extent, diversified its economy away from pure dependence upon oil while Brunei has largely remained underdeveloped in its non-oil economic aspects.

Right now, Dubai does not seem to have great press, having nearly defaulted on a major tranche of debts and been beset with swooning real estate prices as a result of the fallout from the global economic crisis. But by and large, the basic economic strategy for Dubai has been set and is still functioning. By building their economy around critical infrastructure such as ports and airports, and defining a foreign investment friendly business climate that promotes media, hi-tech and financial services, Dubai's future is still bright, though some doubts should now be cast upon the overall value of the emirate. Furthermore, with the rise of neighbouring powers such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar, and the potential resurgence of Bahrain and Kuwait, it might have to shout louder and work harder to get positive attention on the world stage. But many now consider the collapse to be a temporary setback and not the beginnings of a ghost town era.

Brunei is richer in oil than Dubai, but it is not at all clear what the economic prospects for its future would be like right now. The previous strategy appeared to be to concentrate its wealth in foreign investments handled largely from London. Most of these funds were put into real estate and hotels located in the developed world, but in recent years it has come to light that a huge portion of the wealth had been frittered away through mismanagement. The true extent of these losses are not fully known since the funds have been managed largely in private. Bits of information have leaked out into the public space as a result of the dispute between the Sultan and his brother, who had been charged with management of the funds from the 1980s onwards.

The Emir of Dubai has been known to have spent lavishly on his own country, creating the world's largest many things - the largest mall, the tallest building, man-made islands in the form of palm trees and the world map that are visible from space and the tallest and most opulent hotel. More practically, his government and its state-owned companies have built the largest artificial harbour and is in the process of building what will be the world's largest commercial airport. The Emirate's 'flag carrier' will soon operate the largest fleet of giant A 380 jets and it will hope to make Dubai the air transport hub of the entire world, taking advantage of its excellent location.

The Sultan of Brunei, on the other hand, has built grand buildings in his own country that are either off-limits to the public or of a non-commercial nature. The primary palace is said to be the largest in the world, and there is a grand mosque near the old water village. There is also a very opulent hotel - the Empire - but it is largely empty as a result of the place not being very popular with tourists. The large Jerudong Park, which was a free admissions amusement park, has apparently fallen to ruin. I'm pretty sure that neither Jerudong nor the Empire make money.

Bruneians are obviously pretty well-off, compared to their neighbours. However, it seems that they find their own country pretty boring and so they are often headed to the more metropolitan cities around the region, like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and probably Bangkok to enjoy a bit of shopping and nightlife. By comparison, Dubai is the shining beacon of the Persian Gulf, with no other real competitors as yet for the status of being a party town. It may be that Brunei being 'dry' might make it a lot less appealing compared to its neighbours, while Dubai's 'wet' reputation in a region that is mostly 'dry' probably has the opposite impact. Nevertheless, there are plenty of 'dry' travellers for whom this would not be a big issue. And then there are also families travelling that would probably appreciate destinations that do not focus on partying so much. But the fact remains that wet or dry, Brunei is not quite up there when it comes to tourism and shopping.

Which is the better national development strategy? Hard to say. Dubai's seems more fun, but it also appears to open up large social problems, such as the arrival of vices and a huge foreign labour force. The verdict is still out over whether this strategy is sustainable in the long run. Brunei's approach has allowed its society to maintain a high degree of homogeneity and public order, but it too may not be sustainable as oil revenues may either run out or be insufficient to maintain the operations of its public services - there being no income taxes there to date. I think that Brunei must at least look seriously at the successes (and failures) of Dubai and other similiar oil-rich countries and then re-assess their approach to doing business. They have made noises, apparently, about shifts, but I suspect that they are both complacent and concerned about great disruptions in the fabric of their stable society. As for Dubai, staying the course seems at the moment to be the only way forward, though they will probably need to look at how to boost profit-making activities while diversifying away from being too dependent upon real estate and shopping, which are probably over-saturated right now. Making movies, medical tourism, higher education, high value added manufacturing and financial services are probably the best such prospects. Brunei might want to look at the same areas for growth too.

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July 22nd, 2010

01:24 am - How do you know when you're dreaming?
I watched Inception today. While it was very good and I did like it very much, I am afraid I cannot say that it is the best I have ever seen. I guess this is partly due to having seen the Matrix before, and that one was much more of a ground-breaker. This one is original, but the earlier movie has already plowed the same field before.

The scene where Cobb explains how their dream-breaking works to the new crew member Ariadne looks and feels a lot like the one where Morpheus seats Neo in one of those big leather armchairs, and then proceeds to show the ropes around the Matrix. That alone probably demonstrates that there are certain approaches to telling this kind of story that are simply unavoidable. When the primary characters operate in a rich and obviously unreal environment and the story begins in medias res, a new character has to be brought in to be instructed about that world by someone else in the know, so that we the audience can follow the logic of the rest of the story more completely.

Naturally, the internet has already thrown up a variety of exegeses about the meaning of the whole thing. Salon's one is pretty comprehensive. Be that as it may, you take away whatever you want from movies like these. You can choose to go deep, or keep it simple and take things as they literally stand, instead of speculating.

More importantly, I think, Inception should make us think about our own dreams. Just the other day I was dreaming about driving and feeling desperately drowsy at the wheels. It felt utterly real, and it wasn't the first time that it had happened. In real life, I do tend to feel a little drowsy driving longer distances around 3pm, but never as badly as I do in my dreams. It seemed unreal actually. And yet, while I was in it, it never occured to me that I was actually in dreamland - I accepted the strangeness of it as it was. Then, also recently I met a Briton who had lost his fortune in Iran when the Shah was deposed, and he now sailed around the world. He had earlier lived in Dubai and would have been wealthy still had he not moved across the Gulf. Well, I could explain this story since I had just watched a documentary about an Iranian family that had lost a lot of wealth and status as a result of the regime change back in '79.

I think there is an element of control that we exercise in our dreamscapes. Have you felt, in your dreams, that you needed a car and lo, it just materialized? Or hoped that it would not rain and then got pelted with huge droplets from the sky right away? There is also something else that you never notice while you're there, but often note after awakening - the dream world is a lot fuzzier than the real one. Sure, the most important things that you are concentrating on - the path you are treading, the man you are conversing with and the car that you are driving - seem real enough. But the surroundings are often a little vague and just like in the movie they tend to be oddly maze-like, with doors that do not lead to the logical destination based on the reasonable layout. But you only notice this when you wake.

I have felt the 'kick' before, usually when I am real tired and just fallen into light sleep. I'd slip suddenly and awaken with a spasming leg. Now, that feels real. Writing this post has given me insights into places I have been in fairly recent dreams, such as large malls with many shops closed down, swimming pools that are either empty or filled with awful algae-infested water, dirty and smelly multi-level parking lots and hotels with strange lifts. I have crashed my car and have been nicked in the elbow by a car while running on the road. I recall elaborate toilets but no showers. I have been back in college before (except now it is a lot larger) and sat for exams that I had totally not studied for (because in real life I passed them almost two decades ago). Well, dreams are strange and totally unavoidable. And nothing like the ones in Inception (as far as mine are concerned).

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July 16th, 2010

04:20 pm - The conglomerate is dead
A little over 35 years ago, Motorola sold off its television business to Matsushita. That event has often been marked as a milestone in the decline of America's consumer electronics industry and the rise of Japan's. It is also somewhat striking that recently there have been news reports about the present continuation of the trends that we could see in that merger/divestment event so many years ago.

Panasonic - the modern name for the Matsushita group - has been criticized for its continuation of a very large and diversified product line, from fridges and rice cookers to cell phones and 3D plasma TVs. The reason for this is that an overly diversified company loses its management focus on the few key products that need to be nurtured to growth into stars. There was a time when diversification and the bigness that it led to were seen as virtues. Back in the seventies, there were all these American conglomerates that tended to make dog food and guided missiles all in one entity. The evidence since then has shown that bigness tends to create vulnerable goliaths and in itself is no security against the attack of nimble, fast moving innovators.

Motorola, which sold its TV brand Quasar to Matsushita way back, has been continuing with its divestment strategy from time to time. They spun off their much-vaunted semiconductor business as Freescale a while back. Today, with its back to the wall once again in the mobile phone business, it is considering an internal split between its cellphone and walkie-talkie businesses. The two would still be sort of together but will operate as separate entities. This is not the first time that Motorola's cell phone business has been in trouble before - before the MicroTAC came out, it had been feared that Japanese brands would wash out the Americans just as they had in TVs and cars. In that context, it is somewhat surprising that we don't live in a world dominated by NEC mobile phones and where even Sony has had to spin off its mobile products in a JV with Ericsson in order to survive in that market.

Maybe it shouldn't be too surprising if we look at it a bit closer. The same Japanese companies that were thought to be on the verge of mobile phone domination at the time were all highly diversified companies. Toshiba, for example, made phones, and also televisions, copiers and nuclear reactors. In that era, the far more streamlined Motorola was able to strike back with the pioneer clamshell phones of its era, that were the lightest and best designed in the market. We have since seen further evidence that less-is-more often holds true in business, especially the tech sector. Steve Jobs famously pruned the Mac product line down, ruthlessly, when he first took charge again. Today, there is basically one iPhone, and it is such an object of desire that on its own, it is good enough to be the one phone to rule them all.

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July 5th, 2010

12:53 am - Beauty and Melbourne
Melbourne is not an easily beautiful city. Unlike Sydney, it does not possess any truly 'iconic' landmarks on the order of the Opera House or the Harbour Bridge. It is not particularly well-endowed naturally, with beaches and harbour views that pale in comparison to its 'rival' Australian city. It isn't a very large city, but it is big enough to generate a sense of happening comparable, I guess, to the great metropolises of the world. And yet it clearly isn't a New York, or London, or Paris, or Tokyo. It probably struggles somewhat even to dominate towns like Hong Kong and, yet again, Sydney, although I would think that it does come out somewhat ahead in most Asia-Pac comparisons. As my uncle put it, Melbourne winters - and the weather in general - is shitty. I have not seen its winter before but I did experience my hottest and also my wettest days in Australia - over a single week.

And yet, it seems to be the one place in Oz that I can see myself at home with. There is a Petaling Jaya vibe to its suburbs, hard as it may be to believe. Maybe that's because of the large community of Malaysian and Singaporean Chinese who have settled there. Maybe its because of the car and landed property dominance that I saw, but much better than the Malaysian version because the roads were wider and there were parks spread all around. Chapel Street has a Desa Hartamas or (old) Bangsar atmosphere that I like.

Once you really get to know it, you might find yourself agreeing with me. To do that, you need to walk around. Or take the trams. When you walk, you will see the Yarra River up close. You will find the people relaxing along the river banks or going to the wedding parties at the Botanical Gardens. You can connect the Shrine of Remembrance and the National Gallery with the shopping district of Swanston Street in your head. And you can appreciate the people's personality - the slightly more formal dress and maybe a bit of its fuzzy funk (which I didn't actually catch when I was there in person).

It isn't quite glamorous, or spectacular. The sands of Brighton would never be mistaken for Bondi. There is a drabness to it that cannot quite be avoided. If you pay attention to the surroundings of Richmond Station you will find that it is still quite a rustbelt place, not quite all prettified through gentrification. Yet. But gritty and underwhelming scenically as it is, Melbourne probably has a right to boast about its livability. The rankings for the city may go up or down in any given year, but I am pretty sure that it does steady itself at a mean level that's distinctly higher that most places, in Australia, Asia-Pacific and the world. Take a walk down the narrow alleys lined with cafes and you can feel that this is a place where people live to enjoy life. And that, perhaps, is the source of this antipodean conurbation's charm. It comes from the people's appreciation of the good things in life and so they set out to make the best of things. Even if Port Phillip Bay is no Sydney Harbour, even if the West Gate Bridge will never win out over the Coathanger, even if a tall steel needle will never outshine a set of asymmetric white sails made of tiles for its main performing arts centre.

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July 4th, 2010

01:00 am - The 20 Year Old Car
If you had seen a 20 year old Morris Minor in 1980, you would very likely have described it as 'lau yah', or old and decrepit. If you take a look today at a 1991 E36 BMW 318, say, you would very likely not regard that as a lau yah car. Assuming both the Morris and the Beamer were / are in near-mint condition, I think that this is a very interesting development. In essence, it means that cars have achieved a qualitative jump, in aesthetics and technical aspects, that has made them generally more resilient in the light of changes to fashion and tastes over the past half century.

Cars up to the early 1970s were basic and not quite reliable. They tended to break down frequently, and leak oil. That was why people who drove in that era usually had to do more maintenance work themselves. For instance, my Dad would occasionally remove the spark plugs on his Volkswagen to polish the heads. I have never removed the plugs on my car before. As a matter of fact, it took me years to realise that my Kancil was actually a three-cyliner engined car!! Well, at least my Dad taught me to change the tyres when I was a kid - that is one essential car owner skill that all drivers must have.

Anyway, it would seem that sometime around 1979 or so, automotive design seems to have settled on a basic authoritative paradigm. This would generally be exemplified by the European saloon of the period. So, if you took a Ford Cortina or BMW 725 from that period, you would have a car that would seem to observers throughout the following thirty years to look just about right. There have been changes since then of course - there was the period circa 1990 or so when cars sported rounder fronts. But the basic language of car design seems to have settled firmly since at least 1979.

Hence, given the fact that cars are much more technically reliable and adhere to a style rule that has held steady for about thirty years, it seems to me that the very meaning of a '20 year old' car has evolved quite a bit in the intervening period. In the past, a two decade old vehicle could be said to be 'old' but today, something like a BMW that is 20 might actually still pass as a desirable car (provided as always that it is well-maintained, accident free and not a lemon). I guess it's just the same as how 45 year olds today can sometimes look a fair bit younger than their parents and grandparents did at that age. We come to use age as a proxy for characteristics such as strength, stamina, vitality, creativity, ability to learn and so on. The reality is that older things and older people are usually a lot 'better' than things of their age used to be. Hence we need to be a great deal more flexible when judging something or someone by age. We cannot take the lazy way out and condemn stuff of a certain vintage to being 'obsolete' or 'slow learner', without assessing them more subjectively.

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June 20th, 2010

12:26 am - Iceland - a country for the future
Right about now, it seems that Icelanders are having a change of heart about joining the EU and the Eurozone. Not surprising, given the fact that the immediate crisis for Iceland has passed and the trauma that Greece has had to go through. A couple of months ago, the Icelandic Krona had been completely wiped out. To many, though not necessarily all of them Vikings, the most obvious solution was to hitch on to a solid currency that would be willing to take them in. The thing is joining the Eurozone is a long term process. By the time the process is complete, the present crisis would probably be history. But the consequences of being a member of the Eurozone will be permanent. Clearly, one of the consequences will be the surrender of monetary policy sovereignty to Germany and the other stronger Euro powers. And as a consequence of that surrender, a tiny country like Iceland may, in a future crisis, be forced into austerity against the will of the people. There will no longer be a Krona to devalue as part of the monetary toolkit.

Despite the problems facing the Icelandic economy, I have a feeling that its future is exceptionally bright. This is a country with a high level of education generally, and many are working professionals. And then there is the thing about renewable energy. Iceland's hydro and geothermal energy is barely tapped to date. If oil prices go up significantly in the near future, there will likely be more investments in aluminium and steel production. This could also be instigated by any future follow-ups to the Kyoto Agreement, which might make carbon-intensive industrial processes uneconomical.

Iceland already sits on internet lines between the US and Europe, so professionals working there could service global markets from their homes. Given that they are generally conversant in English, Icelandic workers already have the capacity to service clients in a host of economic areas, such as medical, software or media technologies. In fact, if living standards continue to remain high, I would not be surprised to find more foreigners going over there to work, in order to take advantage of education, health and welfare services. That, of course, would depend on the vibrancy of its economy in the near future.

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June 10th, 2010

01:46 am - Iceland in the 1920s.

Compare with the previous post (Inspired By Iceland tourism ad).

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