The Man Machine

June 25, 2009

Having read the Kraftwerk interview on The Guardian a few days ago, I felt I had to pen my own piece of wisdom. The Man Machine, of course, stayed it’s course in the musical consciousness of those who grew up in the 80s- like myself. Curiously, it was launched in my infancy and it could have only been the pirated cassette network(Free School Street, Calcutta) which brought it to us so late. However, it was another piece of work-The Model-which became synonymous with the group-and it came from an earlier album. An ironic tribute to the consumerist industry of beauty, it provides a glimpse into desire in a tradition that goes back to Josef Von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel.  The Model is a medium inside a medium inside a medium- the stage show, the camera, the magazine, the television, the music and finally the music video-and now, the music video on Youtube. By 1977, Europe and America were slipping into the post 60s intellectual desert . There was a lingering whiff of critique in the air but Duran Duran wasn’t far away with it’s 1980s pap. The atmosphere in the video crawls with foreboding behind the upbeat music-desire is manifested in the phallic camera and the clawlike chandelier hanging over the model’s head. The model is human but also an image-the media is what creates her and the desire for her- without the media and the industry of fashion, she is nothing -she is not there and the music itself has no purpose. The desire to meet her is heart-rendering in it’s futility- the singer knows this creation is always so out of reach. By the 1980s, the winter of discontent had been irrevocably banished and you could listen to “True” and “Relax”. Arthur Penn summed up the despair of creativity with his “Dead of Winter” and films like Red Dawn were coming through. The turn back to intellectual provocation, curiously would come with the Terminator, which despite all else I hail as a great work of critique(admittedly reductionist in it’s approach) but also from SiliconValley(1984, Apple-anyone?). But for a number of years,the Man Machine and The Model would stand at  the peak of what continued critique could have brought us in creative excellence. What we did get was La Isla Bonita. Well, you can’t always win.


Cleaning things up or exporting pollution?

May 28, 2009

At Professor Newman’s lecture today, an economics specialist raised the interesting question-would the US export it’s legacy cars to India and China and continue encouraging them to build and buy more cars, while it cleaned up back home? Well, this is not the question verbatim but you get the drift. He further clarified matters by comparing this possibility with the export of cigarettes to the third world-we all know THAT one.

This is my question as well and I am afraid we do not have a satisfactory answer yet. It is incomprehensible that the US would just dump all the cars it has made so far(where? the everglades?) and the chances of lots of Americans buying lots of these even at basement bargain rates would be a bit of a stretch. I am sure they will find a market to dump these and perhaps even continue making more of these guzzlers, “out there”.  After all, India just celebrated the creation of the Tata Nano. This brings up the old issue of dominance of discourse. Everyone keeps talking about how Phoenix is recreating itself and Frieberg’s cute tram system and so on. Where I think we need more people like Dr Newman is on the  Asia side of the discourse. Where are the integrated transport plans for the 20 largest cities in India, China, Indonesia and Vietnam? Are India and China going to bother about the glaciers, almost all of which are in Tibet? These and many others are inescapable questions and they matter more to the world than (sorry folks) Phoenix, Arizona. The battle for the environment gets the flashbulbs in USA but it will be won or lost in the emerging world.  I am writing on this and many other topics in my papers published on

Peter Newman, in the flesh

May 27, 2009

Tommorow, I will have the rare opportunity of hearing Peter Newman speak at our School of Design and Environment.Unlike many other academician speakers who carry a bit of a halo, Prof Newman is not widely known in the lay management-a-minute community. That and the venue should keep the pop-management followers at bay.

Prof Newman is one of the most influential urban thinkers of our time and I believe he should rank up there with Anthony Geddes and Lewis Mumford, among others. His concept of automobile dependency may sound quite sane today but less than 10 years ago or even three years ago, people might have thought it to be another ivory-tower abstraction. Yet in his observations of the impact of cars on social life(and not just the oft-cited fossil fuel argument), he has touched the critical aspect of urban human ecology. The study of the environment from a sociological or cross-disciplinary standpoint is often ignored, as has often been the field of communications.  Peter Newman, Thorsten Velbein, James Carey-these are the men who point to a more inclusive paradigm of scholarly thought.

From the stormy seas, a clear and present warning

May 26, 2009

Cyclones are not new to Bengal. It’s history is replete with storms of extreme violence, some of which make excellent, if terrifying reading. Ashapurna Devi refers to one such super-cyclone in her short and little-known classic about the Portugese of the Sunderbans, “Bhoot Jodi Bhokto Hoi”(If the Ghost were to be Devout). But we have short memories.

The great escape for Calcutta yesterday does not take away the fact that coastal Bengal has become heavily overpopulated and has a sagging infrastructure. Both the Tsunami and Cyclone Nargis showed us how a single incident in a heavily populated region can have devastating consequences. Nargis especially holds lessons for Bengal-it, too, occured in a heavily populated delta region, the people there were also by and large desperately poor and you have to account for a backdraft up a massive river. The question is not, however, whether Bengal has infrastructure(it does) but whether it has the right kind of infrastructure. It is, perhaps, quite pointless to build a world class refinery and an expressway if you cannot call in an emergency service in real time. An expressway has no meaning , other than of empty symbolism, if it takes away tillable land and cuts villages into half.  A refinery that is built by clearing mangroves has makes itself it’s own victim. The salt floods which would have inevitably followed the cyclone would make it amply clear what may be expected if the scale does tip in favour of global warming.  We are looking at the possibility of irreversible economic decline, which Keynesian interventions cannot stop. Keynesian economics,after all, was built on the basis of a functioning biosphere-how can you drive a car whose engine has burnt out and for which there are no spares?

It is a sign of our times that even as policymakers condemned other countries for not adhering to the Kyoto principles, they were busy approving a factory to build more and cheaper cars of the type which should never be built. It shows a dichotomy inside the political economy of India-unless the old schism between environmentalism and classical anthropocentric development is not reconciled, development can only take place at the cost of the environment. That is a cruel paradox, for such development cannot climb up the curve-by assaulting it’s own natural assets, it is condemning itself well in advance.

The shop round the corner

April 16, 2009

The last time I was in a bad sort of way, I dreamt of opening a grocery store. The musty smell of dry goods, the slight whiff of sundried chillis, the oily movement of the ..uh…oil through the funnel into the bottle..I could wet-eyed with nostalgia. Still, I am impressed that despite the organisation of retail, the local grocer pretty much holds his own even in Singapore. Of course, it’s much more regimented in way because you don’t have these shops popping up wherever they like. But they are an integral part of the neighbourhood and people like spending time wandering down the goods-laden dim corridor.  So when people like myself and others go headlong towards seventh heaven thinking of mobile commerce, it sometimes behoves us to come down to earth.

So here’s the question- will people buy goods using their mobile phone? Yes, they do something like that in parts of Africa already. Why? The prime concern is lack of safety in carrying cash but there’s also the distance of travel and a host of other factors. But will this succeed in Singapore? Frankly, I don’t see people falling over one another in Singapore, KL and Hongkong to use their mobiles to buy cans of coke or petrol or burgers. The fear and inconvenience motivations are not there. But I do see this happening in almost every country’s rural heartland, although more on the wholesale side than the retail side. This will work in the humdrum of institutional trade though it will also work on the consumer side in banking and remittance. Will it work in the cities? Maybe, but I see a 85:15 in favour of small towns and semi-rural areas. Still, you never know. It could be a hit in Patna, Jaipur and Guwahati but not in Bangalore and Bombay where flashing cash is not that big a deal. So that’s the mobile wallet for you-the ATM around the corner for the shop around the corner. Will we start using airtime as a global currency, then? Well, for that, you need to read my thesis.

The Magic of Cooperative Banks

April 15, 2009

Sometime back, I sat with one of my colleagues in the industry and over a tumbler of the very strong, gizzard-cooking whisky available, we worked out a plan to pursue cooperative banks. Of course, that never quite happened-I went to university to study policy and my friend went onto another assignment. But the idea has never quite left me.

India, Phillipines and Malaysia are three large Asian economies with big cooperative banking sectors. If you go to Ahmedabad, one of India’s richest cities and where I took my first graduate degree many years ago, the locals bank with cooperatives. So did I.

I was an outsider, a scrappy looking student speaking Hindi in a bad accent that belonged really nowhere, looking for a bank account with a small bit of money. No problem, Jose- line up with a letter from your school.The bank was small and rustic but efficient(as are Gujaratis by nature) and extremely helpful. My chequebook was printed in Gujarati but what the heck- I could navigate it by dead reckoning. These are banks which stay very close to their communities and are flush with cash. They do not bother their customers with saccharine smiles or glossy brochures- but if you walk into your branch, the teller calls you by name and he knows all the banking rules. He will help you. That is a huge relief from the assault on the senses that goes for marketing nowadays.

I have been surprised, therefore, when I see most mbanking companies not lining up to serve this sector. This is a difficult one to crack, no  doubt, but if it was easy, we would all be dead anyway(to take a bit of a quote from Keynes). By bypassing large segments of the financial sector which are solvent and have large customer bases, the technology sector is doing harm only to itself. I know this is being taken care of to some extent in the Phillipines where the carriers and others are pushing the envelope all the time. But it would be nice to see the same level of enthusiasm in India, Malaysia and Indonesia. The ability of these banks to use SMS and USSD to extend their reach and sell the mobile wallet concept would be phenomenal. Yes it would be time consuming- but if you want to go about building value, lets look back to the ethos of Hewlett and Packard and take a few pages from their book- high time someone did that.

The Challenge of the Indian market

April 15, 2009

It always was the rupee to dollar exchange rate. Then, it was the revenue per message. Then, it was the bad debts. Then, it was(and still is) the sales cycle. That’s India in a nutshell- a market that excites and tantalises. You can do very well or dig a hole for yourself. But having worked elsewhere in Asia, it is not all that different. The sales cycles are long everywhere and not all countries have a strong exchange rate.  The revenue per message-well, I hope they still don’t keep talking about it past midnight. The market size and growth is astounding. But here’s the secret- if you are in for the short haul, don’t bother. Look at the success stories in India-Suzuki, Unilever, Pepsi, Vodafone.You need to invest in the market and you can forget about those quarters for sometime. But from personal experience, I can tell you that hard work and persistence can be rewarded with stunning growth.

All that being said, do not assume the Indian consumers suffer fools gladly. They march to their own, many beats. Their recognition of brand  and value is quirky, fuzzy, brilliant. They will bargain till death over a minute of airtime and then blow a lot of money on a strange looking thing no one has heard of. Merchants will rig up some contraption in the middle of nowhere and sell it as the next wonder. The Indian consumer leads a hard life but few give him/her what he/she really wants. Those who  bother to find out, get a market of several lifetimes. The rest can find their way out.

That’s India-and therefore, when you hit the market running, make sure it’s not the only one. India with Asia and Asia with India. Never one and not the other.

Market Failures and Ghost Towns

April 14, 2009

Often, the deeds of our own speculative selves come back to haunt us. Enough has been written about neighbourhoods in the US becoming deserted as people lose their mortgages and foreclosures mount. For many years, there has been a debate about the revitalisation of the inner city and the docklands and the brownfields. In places like Canary Wharf, it has actually happened. But then again, what was the basis for that? The cumulative paper wealth of a speculative City?

Obviously, compared to many wretched places on earth, London is a wealthy city and the financial crisis will not change that. But it is my submission that there are two victims of this crisis- one, the renewed inner cities and brownfields and the second, the new suburbs. The latter become ghost towns. But what happens, if say, Canary Wharf really, really collapses? Will the inner city creep back with a vengeance? Will this process of urban renewal be reversed or morph into some kind of blackfield development, a phase of twilight where entire zones are emptied, dominated by gangs and civic services break down? Certainly, across the centuries, economic and political upheaveal has seen the urban (and rural ) landscape reshaped. It would be very short-sighted of us to suggest this may not be the case again, in our lifetime. The other question is- once the recovery comes,how much of business as usual will be restored? Will the real estate industry get  back on it’s feet fast, racking in the money of the newly speculative? Or will a generation have been so burnt by this episode that speculation will come back only with the next historical cycle?

Until next time.

The Power of A Peso, A Rupee, A Taka

April 13, 2009

Migrant labour should be the biggest source of microfinance in the world today. Even as microfinance companies seek to mobilise millions into becoming customers, partners and viable businesspeople, the equally large worker population in the Gulf, Southeast Asia and Canada should be allowed to invest directly into business units of their own choice. It is debatable,but if they were to send all their money home, no one could be very sure how much of that would be saved, spent and invested. If a worker sends 1000 Taka home every month, let him have the option of sending 100 more into a safeguarded bank account or financial instrument that invests it in a company of his choice. Let him have the liberty of topping this up with 10 Taka whenever he pleases. This is his own, very own nest egg, rainy day wallet, future dream and fallback plan. Let these masses be co-owners in real businesses and help build sustainability bottom up. Can this be done by the private sector alone? Yes and no. The government should be the watchdog, referee and non-participating captain of this programme. The private sector should run it but the funds should not be allowed to used for speculative purposes-there have to be very ironclad curbs built around these. Can it works? No harm in trying. Better still. Can we open a microfinance scheme in Singapore, Malaysia and other countries where foreigners, PRs and citizens can get together to invest in such local companies? Is this viable or just a windmill to tilt at? Perhaps it would be a good way to generate jobs and businesses in an economic crisis. But first, can we please, please allow people to open mobile wallets and remit money into those countries that do not allow it? Like India? That would be a starting point. I look forward to it.

The African Revolution

April 8, 2009

Africa is now a leader in mobile commerce. How things change over time! Last year, when we used to discuss mobile money, we were of the opinion that the Middle East-Asia corridor was the real deal. Unfortunately, regulatory issues got in the way and with the singular exception of GCash+Smart Money and perhaps a number of smaller upcoming deals, things have not moved. The other kinds of money transfers we know about are really airtime transfers-highly innovative but again questionable for the long term.

There is no doubt that the GSM Association would be lobbying the governments heavily,but to what extent is that effective despite all the good intentions? Governments have their own priorities and we saw how long it took for the rule book in India to get into place for mbanking. It is my argument that the industry has to change tack and point out that mobile money transfer can become a policy instrument for sustainable development. Shifting the argument for a business proposition to a policy platform may just be what the doctor ordered.

Remit and we shall re-inherit the earth

April 8, 2009

I recently spent a lot of time wading through books on economics and urban planning. It is perhaps not well known, but urban planning has followed economic cycles over years as well as economic traditions. And economics tends to mirror history and make it as well. My studies involve looking at developing societies, especially those which are riverine or seaboard, and see how global warming may impact them and how these societies may respond. Of course, Keynes said we would all be dead long term anyway-but then, as I pointed out to some friends, let’s try some living meantime.

I believe the key lies not in more taxes-though people should indeed by penalised for smokestacks and empty forestland-but in growing nature back into the cities. The difference between land, nature and man, within reason, has to go and we need to thrive together with nature. A huge step in that direction could be the re-direction of remittances. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Phillipines, Indonesia-all of these countries earn considerably from overseas remittances. Now, most of us don’t seem to know where all this money goes. Certainly it is taxed-and of course some folks save it or build a house and so on.


So, if you ask a chap in the Gulf whether he would like to be an investor in a small green business with his family, and remit maybe 20 dollars or dhirams a month into an account as his stake, would that be attractive?Yes probably- if the government guarantees the safety of his investment. That’s what I think we should be doing- get small green businesses, farms and pico-power generation units to thrive. Revive old building traditions and help villagers live cheek to cheek with nature, not slum it out in some sunless hell in Bombay. Decentralise, redistribute, reclaim the commons-for everyone. At the risk of generalisation, use this cash flow to build a sustainable future.

The Fire Next Time

March 6, 2009

This morning, I read a shockingly racist rant on a popular technology blog, by one of the readers. He was responding to the various claims over the last few years that Indians are taking over America. I have also noted with some concern the global obsession with Slumdog Millionaire. Last I knew, we are by and large neither dogs nor millionaires- so with due apologies to the real canines, I take a mild form of offence at that.

It was important, I thought, that the world or at any rate those who read this blog, read about Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, before we are reduced to being called thieves, dogs and worse. The world has forgotten Derozio. He lies marked but uncelebrated and unmourned, just outside the Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta. A radical and apostate, he was denied a proper burial by his own community.He had been expelled from his job as a lecturer at Presidency College(then Hindu College). Yet in his brief tenure there, he rang up a roll call of the finest minds in India as his students and irreversibly shaped the Bengali intellect. Derozio’s modus operandi was simple-he taught his students to question and question hard. He was a master of critique long before US universities made it fashionable among Indian journeymen. Still, he was harking back to an older tradition, lost to the world through ages of dogma. Curiously, almost no record remains of the man other than  Shivnath Shastri’s “Ramtanu Lahiri and the Contemporary Bengali society.” It is in the lives and works of his disciples that we must know about him. And what a group they were-Peary Chand Mitra, Ramtanu Lahiri, Sib Chandra Deb, Dakshinaranjan Mukherjee, Radhanath Sikdar, etc etc. This core group and it’s followers would go on to shape Bengali-and Indian-intellect and consciousness for many years to come. Some of their achievements remain astonishing even by modern standards and their great personal courage in breaking with tradition cannot be matched by card-carrying members of the Left in Delhi’s Habitat Centre.

Ironically, Derozio’s Young Bengal movement could succeed only under British patronage. It remained an outside influence, inimical to the regressive orthodoxy that prevails till this day. And after independence, as Bengal withered and India turned in on itself, Young Bengal lay in ruins. The legacy of Gandhi and Bose left little room for anyone else to be acclaimed. It is telling that the real disciples of Derozio today are to be found in members of the diaspora-Lord Bhattacharya, Amartya Sen, Amar Gopal Bose, Ketaki Kushari Dyson and Gayatri Spivak Chakarvarti, among others. And one man in Dhaka who has changed the face of economics.But his lasting legacy can still be seen in the minds and hearts of the many Indian students and scholars who excel across the world. India may have turned it’s back on critical thought and reason in the quest for material wealth- but Indians continue to carry the flag for Derozio wherever they are and serve their communities, adopted countries and their alma mater. Till the fire next time.

Slumdogs and the Indian Middle Class.

February 21, 2009

Given the amount of chatter we are seeing about SDM(Slum Dog Millionaire to you) and the article today in on why it’s upsetting Indians, I think it’s time to write on this again.

First of all, SDM can and should be enjoyed on it’s own accord as a film, just like any other. Some may choose to like it and others may not and there is nothing wrong with that. Secondly, just because it is about India, does not oblige Indians to take sides. One can simply be indifferent to it. Thirdly, as a potential Oscar winner, it deserves some credit and you can still not want to like it- like Forrest Gump was a Oscar winner and in my opinion, most undeservedly so.

Now, to the part about Indians getting upset about it. Of course, people can choose to get upset about a movie for different reasons. I can only speak for mine. For many years, Indian movies and movies about Indians have been fantasies about the filthy rich and the desperately poor and how the latter become the former. With some exceptions, this has been the dominant discourse of Indian cinema and cinema about India. Indian cinema is also predominantly patriarchial, lingustically and culturally extremely biased and waxes eloquent about a medieval, feudal India that is every Indian’s calling. It is Bollywood, which means it is Hindi and despite a thin veneer of multi-culturalism, it excludes large swathes of the Indian population and culture from it’s discourse. Thus, the films of Kerala, Bengal and Assam and others find little or no recognition- though filmmakers from those parts do, if they use Hindi as their language. But as we have often seen, the rest of the world with the notable exception of France, continues to see Hindi Bollywood as India.  This is a studied ignorance of India’s complexity where many nations-including many First Nations- exist side by side in often uneasy harmony. In ignoring India, filmmakers who pretend to make cinema about India insult India and Indians. Bombay and Bollywood are a  part of India and not India in themselves-and are unrepresentative largely of India. And so we come to the discourse of poverty. India is by and large shockingly poor but the poverty is more than economic. It extends among all of us as a kind of practised living form. Our water is not clean, our electricity largely absent, you pay a bribe at some point in your life and from birth to death, we are queuing up for everything. I would say all Indians will always be poor till the day they  cannot be assured of clean piped water, regular electricity, sustainable growth and good governance. There is a strong “middle class” which is the brains trust of India- and it struggles every day. I have seen that struggle in my parent’s eyes and I see it in the eyes of my fellow students in NUS. This middle class is largely what contributes to the global Indian intellectual success. Their story remains untold. In telling the story of slum dwellers who can achieve a better life only through a game show, Bollywood and the makers of this movie collaborate in perpetuating the idea that no other form  of success and life in India is possible. This is what one needs to be aware of , even as  the India middle class churns out grey matter for the rest of the world. The stories of India’s very rich and very poor have been told umpteen times- it is enough. Hollywood must let Indians and Asians know if only these stories are deserving of a tell.

Where is the story of Amar Gopal Bose? Or CV Raman? Or even Kumar Bhattacharya? Who will tell the fascinating tale of Periyar or of Ram Mohun Roy and William Bentinck? Why does Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, radical, scholar and romantic, not deserve a film? Many of them came from impoverished or at best, ordinary backgrounds. Still, this will not be enough. Slumdog Millionaire is not the story of India-it is an Indian story that does India a great disservice. Let us move on from here.

Man, Woman and the Wreckage

February 15, 2009

I opened up my laptop this morning and read with some interest a debate in the Guardian on machismo in the City and the view of women on the current financial crisis. It is, of course, striking that the Guardian should be the first one to look at the issue from a female-if not feminist- perspective and television channels with their bevy of women presenters would not.  Still, this is to be expected-in the years ahead, the crisis will be examined from at least three angles- political economy, cultural and gender. Thus for all crises on earth. Naturally, we will have our own version of the Grapes of Wrath, too.

I found the opinions voiced by the ladies at the debate quite thoughtful and insightful, compared to the belated breast-beating going in other parts of the media. I agree with the machismo part, at least partly. I have been associated with financial technology for sometime now and it remains a fact that it is a alpha male dominated domain. It is also, regrettably,  a world which may have drifted away from it’s intellectual moorings. After all, does not finance trace it’s origins back to economics and mathematics, and therefore to the finest minds and institutions all over the world? Yet the level of thoughtfulness and discourse is shocking in it’s absence. Alcohol, gymming and rugby dominate conversations as do boastful accounts of expense statements. This has been a culture of excess which has nothing in common with the origins of Silicon Valley which would eventually give rise to the internet, mobile technology and mobile banking. The hard quest for better technology, better delivery systems and consumer insights is simply not there. I am not sure whether the gender debate is justified till we see adequate female representation in decision making areas- but then I have also seen outstanding women play subordinate roles. Of neccesity, this has to change.

So what do we need to do? There has to be a fundamental return to the culture of learning. I saw a documentary on CNBC last night where the anchor expressed surprise that a leading finance entrpreneur in the USA was not even an MBA-well, guess what, it’s not just finance you need to worry about. And an MBA by itself is not an answer- look for people whose graduate qualifications have honed their wisdom.

Secondly, I believe risk taking should and always will be there. But one has to make a distinction between studying markets and taking calculated plunges, and throwing oneself into deadzones in a clueless manner. Thirdly, the ascent of Barack Obama also should send out a signal that merit has less to do with playing a particular sport or haunting a particular pub than being a person with brains. I see no reason why a member of the Harvard Club should not be proud of his or her membership-but the road to that membership starts from the cerebrum and not from the beer tap. It must also be understood that some of the best talents are to be found in government- and in Asia, when you do business, you do business with the government mostly. People who work for government are not only eminently qualified, they hold the fortunes of a nation in their hands-such formidable counterparts cannot and must not be underestimated and must be given their due respect.

Over time, we will see much more debate-but it is within ourselves, the people who worked in and with the financial sector, that the debate needs to be the greatest. The domination of impulse, the lack of knowledge and the ignorance of history have brought us to this pass- in our lifetime, we cannot afford this again.

Sidelanes, Bylanes and Shortcuts.

February 8, 2009

I grew up and lived for around 18 years or thereabouts in a sprawling industrial town. One of my greatest joys was walking through the small lanes which linked the rows of neatly ordered bungalows and quarters to one another. You did not need to drive-well, you did not have a choice. You cycled to the market three kilometres away or walked. Despite the amount of ash our power plant belched out onto pretty much everything, the green held it’s own and there was no end to the birds, bees and butterflies we could see up close. There was also the occasional snake and once, a rather fat monitor lizard which decided to come up our drive during a heavy downpour.

After many years, I have walked, bussed and cycled through a number of bylanes in Singapore itself. I am happy to see the amount of greenery left around for birdlife and small animal life to thrive. Of course, you don’t see much animal life-but the birds are there. What also pleases me is that there are enough tracks and short cuts which allow people to move through the housing estates and reach their destinations quickly. Shortcuts are fascinating. Their functionality of allowing people to reduce walking time is indisputable-but in the process, they create openings for pedestrians to catch  glimpses of neighbourhoods, courtyards, shops and so on. A shortcut creates the opportunity for the senses to interact with new points of contact and lead to greater social exchange. Of course, in Singapore you do not have the concept of open courtyards-still, you can pass a void hdb deck  and see life unfolding. Once in a while, a friendly soul will nod to you. Take the same path every week-and you will join a conversation. One of the major challenges for migrants is assimilation- at my age, it gets more difficult. But instead of driving your car to Mustafa, the Global Indian School or the latest Diwali bash, try and take a walk through a neighbourhood. You will not make friends easily. But it’s a start -and it’s good for your health.

Share a bit of your heaven

February 8, 2009

I am a voracious, if somewhat sloppy, reader of the New York Times. In the middle of what has been an intellectual desert for many years now, along with the Guardian Online- and now my library at NUS- have provided some relief. There is a place for intellect and taste, after all. So, I was not surprised to dig up an article about a seafront commune of architects in California who built their own sustainable colony and shared agricultural produce-and apparently, are still at it. In fact, I shared it with my colleagues and teachers at the school of design and environment. I loved it.
Yet, I always have a nagging feeling about such concepts and the way they come about. Firstly, it is quite obvious to me now that such housing-if I am call it- is a privilege of the well-off. I have not heard of middle class or poor folks living in eco-friendly colonies- if they do, I stand corrected and I would like to know where such colonies are. Singapore does have some pretty good public housing by the way-adn if you are tenacious enough, you can land up with a lovely little flat open to the sea or a reservoir. Still, Singapore is an exception in so many ways, and in any case it is public housing. So is experimental, good-for-body and soul kind of housing going to remain the domain of the affluent? The larger question locked up in that is- will it ever be replicated on a scale that makes it available to many more people and hence creates a new paradigm of eco-friendly, affordable housing? I see no issue with millionaire architects weeding communal plots on their version of the Hamptons- they earned their money, worked hard for it and probably spent years in cold water flats and dorms earning their degrees. I am doing a bit of that now. The argument I want to hear is that such models can be replicated on a larger scale and move from the exhibition of the possible to the implementation of the real. The answer probably lies in re-engineering the way mass housing is carried out. Right now,bottomline considerations and other less wholesome considerations do result in pretty sloppy housing all around. For example, in urban India, you pay top dollar for some very shoddy concretescape that comes apart in less than five years. A few patches of green with a couple of swings-we are green. A pit in the ground-and hey, we are recycling water. This attitude has to go. I do not see it going everywhere and it will take time. But the new generation of sustainable planners and architects will hopefully bring in elements of their own version of paradise into mass housing. It could reduce energy consumption, make life better and create homes that return a good dollar. It is this downstream effect that I look forward to.


January 30, 2009

The great Indian Metro trundles on- now after Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore, we come to Madras. Of course, as a concept, no one can doubt that an integrated MRT system can only be a blessing for Indian cities -and hopefully draw people away from their cars and scooters. Indian cities, most of which were built a century or three ago, were not made for the automobile. The broad roads thrown around them and the flyovers vaulting across their skylines, do not solve any traffic problem. It’s like moving water from one flooded room to another and finding no other place to pour it in. Anyone who has been to Bombay 10 years ago and now will, without doubt, agree that the infrastructure has gotten worse and the roads are unweildy. Which begs the question- where is the electricity going to come from? It is an open secret that India is facing a power generation crisis. Whose electricity has to be taken away for the Metro in each city to be provided the power it needs? Once the generation capacity does improve, will the Metro be using green power or engender the use of more fossil fuels? 


The work done on the Delhi Metro and the controversies surrounding the routes have amply demonstrated that planning leaves much to be desired- often, in the dash to complete a politically symbolic project, urban aesthetics and the importance of history, culture and community are overlooked. It is unfortunate, but it does appear that much of this kind of planning is still a throwback to the socialist era when dams were India’s temples. We have come  a long way since but the battle which had to be fought to avoid the Metro going in front of the Qutab speaks volumes for how little has been learnt. In any case, with the extension to Gurgaon, this was probably a futile gesture anyway. The Meharauli Gurgaon road could have evolved into a quality drive. That is history. It can only be hoped that the Metro projects coming up now get the interchange concept right. It is pointless giving a worldclass product to people and then asking them to step out and board crowded buses that are hell bent on mowing down passers by. Worse, it is impossible for a modern MRT system to flourish without the precautions of accounting for the local socio-economic situation. Urban India is not the safest place to be in after 9 pm. The increase in crimes against women needs no telling.

The infrastructure overhaul of urban India will require major re-engineering at many levels. It’s nice to have your very own MRT but the litmus test for that is-would your family ride it?

Posterity will judge.

January 30, 2009

Valkyrie is due to release and already some seem to be questioning the real roles played by the different characters in the movie. This might be partly spurred on by the role of Tom Cruise-Mr Cruise seems to be an extremely divisive figure in Hollywood for one reason or the other. I would have preferred a young Christopher Plummer but then we are in a different age.

It is well known of course, that the role of the Germany army in the Third Reich was always controversial. It’s leaders plotted and collaborated against and with Hitler till the very end. The moral dilemmas facing many generals did not prevent them from condoning or even participating in various kinds of atrocities. With the probable exception of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, there was hardly any army unit which escaped unsmeared. Perhaps it was Hitler’s intent anyway. Yet, it cannot be doubted that a number of German officers and men fought back with unquestionable bravery. The shadow of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris lies in wait at every turn of the officers plot and the tales surrounding his doings are legion. Hans Oster tipped off the Allies about the exact date of the start of the western invasion. Most of the officers died horrible deaths, tortured and strung up by piano wire. The decimation of an entire officer corps in this manner, post the Stalinist purges and the Tukachevsky episode, is without precedent.

Without the benefit of having seen the movie yet, I am confident Hollywood will have found ways to airbrush over the more unacceptable epsiodes and attach simple labels to the leading players. That, in itself, is not undesirable or without virtue. Still, one would be curious to know why many of the plotting generals did not take more active help from the Western Allies when they could have. After all, many of them were not far away from Allied frontlines and could have simply walked into the hands of their enemies. Perhaps the extension of treason decrees to their families led to their being hostages. Perhaps they could not abandon their men. Who can say?

At any rate, the facts are straightforward. The enemity between Hitler and the Prussian officer corps is well known.  That social democrats, churchmen, disilluisoned Nazis and even the underground Communist party joined hands in the effort to displace Hitler, is also documented. Numerous plots were planned and all failed. Stauffenberg came the closest. Curiously, neither Rommel nor Stauffenberg were really Prussian, though Stauffenberg came from a distinguished background. Being descended from both Scarnhorst and Gneisenau was as storied a lineage as you could get. The debates over the degree of involvement of the German people and army officers at the time, in Hitler’s atrocities, never quite goes away. William Shirer, himself a longtime resident of Germany, expressed loathing in his famous eye-witness account of Bergen-Belsen. Yet, even he could find no fault in Stauffenberg. Later historians may well disagree, but Stauffenberg was a myth before the movie tried to accquire him. His physical handicaps, which were enough to make the toughest soldier quail, his undoubted handsomeness(which places Mr Cruise a distant second) and his tantalizing  closeness to creating history, place a halo around him. Whether that halo is misplaced or unjustified, is for posterity to determine. There is no doubt that whatever his motivations, he tried to kill evil and came within an inch of doing so. He failed and faced death with great bravery, as did many of his comrades. Let us leave it at that.

From Chicago to Washington, Hope of Deliverance.

January 27, 2009

I sat in front of the telly and watched Barack Obama sign executive orders that formally kickstarted the green revolution. I listened to him saying he hoped India and China(well maybe not in that order, but let’s not quibble) would do their part.  I witnessed history.

Nothing will be the same again. California and 13 other states will  now have the right to impose their own emission laws, fundamentally altering not only the auto industry in the States but also setting new benchmarks for global emission and carbon control. The moral pressure on those who wish to continue turning a blind eye to belching diesel and kerosene driven claptraps in the name of bringing wheels to the third world,will be enormous. The US auto industry is going green. It will take time to happen and there will be many hurdles along the way-but it will happen. The Japanese can only be delighted because for a start, more people will buy Priuses(at least, whenever they have money). Still, the Japanese auto industry is warned. It may ignore the ability of Michigan to bring about the next big auto revolution after the model-T at it’s own peril. This is going to be a knowledge based drive to excel, and the investments in technology, testing and marketing will be enormous. The upstream and downstream effects can only be guessed. The new President of the US has promised 460,000 jobs in the energy sector. That promise alone will send green stocks through the roof.

One of the big things that Obama is also doing-and delighting people like me-is promising more money for colleges and arts endownments. We can expect US universities to come back to life and attract more overseas talent again. The intellectual fervour for which they were known-and which seemed to have become history-looks set to make a comeback. But we also expect more investments in areas like cultural research, architecture and related fields, debates on  policy and planning. The energy markets should be studied from economic, political economy and critical standpoints. Hopefully, the cardinal mistakes made by extremists on both sides of the spectrum that there is no truth but what they say will not hobble academia and blind industry. There  no other truth but the truth and that is not absolute-the economic crisis has taught us that.

How can Singapore benefit? Obama is now focussed on India and China-his references to the two in tonight’s press briefing was very deliberate from a very obviously deliberate man. He will demand stricter emission and fossil fuel control of them-but it can also be expected he will make deals with them that everyone can live with. Singapore offers an unique opportunity, as the gateway for US green industries to do business in Asia. It offers a world class environment to test the efficacy of new ideas in an Asian urban milieu. As others have for many years now, it can be a jumping off point for US green companies to work the Chinese and Indian markets-and the Indonesian and Vietnamese ones too.

This is an exciting time for the green industry and everyone else. The New Deal has begun.

From Singapore to Calcutta, Green Power

January 19, 2009

As we all eagerly wait for Barack Obama’s inauguration and the second coming of alternative energy, a new play has been spinning through my mind. In the wastes of the Tata Nano debacle, there is a new opportunity for West Bengal,India. Despite it’s reputation for militant trade unionism and long years of communist rule(and the stereotype that all Bengalis are Red), Bengal has a number of things going for it which may yet raise it from the economic dead.

Firstly, it has land that is not productive from an agricultural perspective,  secondly it has a coastline and thirdly it has a strong base of education. But above all, in CESC, it has an established player in the power sector which has shown the way to success in the utility business-not many others in India can claim that. In the districts of Bankura, Birbhum and Purulia, the land remains largely barren and the population is spread thinly. This can be ideal for windfarm creation. The moment you move away from the crowded areas of the 24-Parganas, Midnapore and Nadia, you have plenty of land and some people, mainly poor. I see no reason why these people would mind extra money in terms of employment and downstream ancillary services and industries. Secondly, around Midnapore and other seaboard areas, it is a well known fact that saltwalter floods and erosion are gradually making land unarable. This is anecdotal evidence-I am sure any researcher will bear me out. Is it possible to look at putting wind turbines offshore and harvesting the power? Thirdly, the use of thermal solar should be seriously contemplated in a state that is, well, sunny for so many months. Fourth, CESC and DVC between the two of them have a base of knowledge, experience and well-established power grids which can be used to ship  this power. How long will we see fossil fuel being used and mega hydel projects killing off rivers ? India is a energy hungry market and there is no reason for Bengal not to export green power.

So who would invest in all of these? I see Singapore’s thrust in the area of green energy and it’s uniquely Asian perspective coming in handy here. There has already been an indication of closer cooperation through the Durgapur Aeropolis. Maybe it is time to start thinking ahead to a deeper engagement.

Slumdogs and the Indian Wasteland

January 18, 2009

Before we all get carried away by Slumdog glory, let us pause for a moment and assess a few facts.

This article, for instance, points out that  the  number of Indians living in slums rose from 27.9 Million in 1981 to 61.8 Million in 2001. That was a 100% plus rise and by the time the next census happens in 2011, that number should then be more than 120 Million. Numbers apart, we who have lived in India for most of our lives, know the reality on the ground. Let us not be politically correct and hide our heads in the sand. Slums provide the most abject kind of living known to man. Not far from the posh hotels of Mumbai and the financial centre at Bandra-Kurla, children defecate by the roadside. This is true in various degrees for most Indian cities. Slums also breed crime and harbour crime-surely it does not need a sociologist to tell us that. It is said that Dharavi, Asia’s biggest slum, may be replaced with mass housing. There are arguments for and against it. Without doubt, Dharavi is a thriving centre of entrepreneurship and has an industrial ecology of sorts. Yet it is filthy, polluting and a standing testament to what a global city should not look like.

But then the heart of the problem lies not in the slum itself, but what led to the slum in the first place. My early schooling is replete with memories of family planning posters. I do not see those anymore. The agenda of population control, once a cornerstone of Indian planning, seems to have gone out of the window. If the population keeps growing and land and infrastructure cannot keep pace with it, then where are we going to find solutions to problems like Dharavi?

Let us take another example- the city of Dwarka, ambitiously built as Delhi’s great planned middle class abode. Dwarka has beautifully laid out roads, absolutely no signage, almost zero internal public transport and extremely shoddy buildings.Yet, people have paid with their life savings to buy apartments, many of which would shock one with their interiors.

The third example I have in mind is Rajarhat, on the outskirts of Calcutta. Built on and near the city’s natural drain-off area and green belt, Rajarhat has concertised what could have been Calcutta’s sponge. Remember that almost alone among  India’s great cities, Calcutta has an unique market garden, with it’s food supply raised on the waste run-off from the city. It will be interesting to see what happens to Rajarhat and Calcutta in another 10 years. Indian housing seems to have a talent to go to seed rapidly and add to the surrounding wasteland very quickly. Anyone who has seen Gurgaon over the last five years will surely agree.

So while Indian talent goes off writing fantasies and celebrating improbable rags-to-riches stories, it might help if some of that talent were used in critiquing India’s urban landscape and habitation. My limited experience in media, such as the pollution watch, show enough evidence that both citizenry and the decision making elite are swayed by facts well presented. It could be a story of an architect trying to plan a new Dwarka-who can say?  But at least creative muscle would be put to use for common good instead of picking up individual glory at the cost of a decimated urban wasteland.

All Aboard!

January 18, 2009

The train is the industrial world’s forgotten metaphor, the last great symbol of progress that captured public imagination the world over. Not even the aircraft could come close in terms of gripping people’s minds in terms of possibilities. Trains have a special place in the British Empire and therefore, in India. The writings of Bill Atiken, the intrepid Scotsman who made India his home, echo all our childhood fantasies. Which boy did not want to ride the footplate of a locomotive? I did too, clambering aboard a shunting engine in our industrial town, the driver indulgently letting me toot the horn. We would wake up everyday to the sound of the first train(the 6:00 local to Burdwan), as must have many others across the world. We are perhaps the last generation to remember steam, the giant Canadian and Pacific class locos that thundered across the landscape, their drivers looking impossibly heroic in their soot stained dungarees and piratical headscarves. But hopefully, we are not the last generation to ride trains everyday. For, in deciding to take a whistle-stop ride to his inaguration, President-elect Obama has decided to send a powerful message to a gas-guzzling, bankrupt world. The age of alternative energy is upon us and public transport is back with a vengeance.

It is incredible to think that the train as a mode of cross-country transport has been made almost redundant in a nation as vast as the US. Whatever the reasons-and surely those are very complex-this is the best form of new age transport. After all, you do not need to build things from scratch. The cars, the engines, the rolling stock  are all there. All you need to do is get the people back into the trains and improve service. That’s all? Yes. For far too long during the last 15 years or so, there has been- with some exceptions- an almost universal aversion to radical thinking. It is as if mankind had turned upon itself and decided to do some reckless spending but not much more. The spirit of enterprise which characterised much of the 19th century and parts of the 20th, seems to have largely evaporated. One may argue that the dotcom and telecom revolutions were impressive-but much as they were, they did not bring about fundamental civilizational change like the Edison bulb, the Davy lamp and the steam train did. It was as if all questions had been asked and all answers provided. Well, we know now that  this was not the case and we are in a historic attempt to pull back from the brink.

I believe President-elect Obama and many leaders around the world(most notably, in Singapore) are trying to revive that spirit of enterprise. Filling in quarterly quotas and sandbagging bottomlines may be part of the commercial process, but those can hardly be worthwhile pursuits for furthering ourselves. Intellect has to win again and take prime position. Let us begin with the thrusting energy of the locomotive. It is not only a symbol of progress, it is an enduring symbol of progress. And it pollutes a lot less. All aboard!

Berry my heart below the Judas Tree

January 17, 2009

The Blackberry has been an integral part of our lives for sometime now. Of course, there is the ongoing debate about whether President-elect Obama will keep his Blackberry with him in the White House- like Churchill’s cigar, it may well become his trademark. I take no issue with whether President-elect Obama is going to carry his Blackberry into the White House-it’s his personal business and perhaps that of his voters anyway.  I do take issue with the way the Blackberry is being reshaped as an icon by the media in a time of extreme economic distress. It is, without doubt, a delight for a journalist to wax eloquent on the coolness of the Berries being carried by so many high-flying executives and entrepreneurs around the world. Just like the filterless Gitanes of a bygone era and the fliptop phone in the hands of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, the media construction of the Blackberry as an extension of a person’s charisma and reflection of his or her success, is perhaps now complete.

The media may do well to reflect on the fact that thousands of those who carried these Berries not very long ago-who knows, maybe hundreds of thousands could be a  better statistic-are no longer employed. Many of them are staring down a black hole. A blackberry would be farthest from their minds- they might be thinking where their children’s school fees would come from next month. Some, like myself, left the corporate world out of choice and without regret. We needed other spaces to grow, such as academia. But there are many more who were not given that choice and left knowing the fault was not theirs. It is this Darwinian aspect of life in our times(and I say this with no disrespect to the scientist for whom I only have admiration), and it’s fast-paced amoral elements, that are manifested in the Blackberry. It created a demand for email for it’s own sake, one might argue-and what was supposed to be a tool of convenience and productivity, became a weapon for intrusion into people’s most private moments. Through it, untenable demands were made on honest workers, with little basis-as we have seen in the last few months-in real commerce. I look back upon my road-warrior days and think in bewilderment- so all this was for nothing? And in those days of speculative growth, much of what happened will haunt our generation for a long time- false promises were made, compassion was jettisoned, friendships broken, an extreme version of short-term memory adopted and intellect banished. Perhaps you never needed to go to college at all-all you needed was a silver tongue and an absence of ethics.  It will be a long, long time before we find our moorings again and regain normalcy. The price to pay along the way may well be horrendous.

I do not think there is anything wrong with the Blackberry-it’s a great device, and a wonder of design. I loved using it. I may use it again. I also no longer miss it. It may be in the spirit of the times to think of it as such- a well-made device of modern enterprise, design and convenience-rather than accord it a mythical status over the broken spirits of a betrayed generation that had coveted it so much.

The Surprisingly Serene Kent Ridge Terminus

January 17, 2009

Almost every morning, afternoon and evening, like the many other NUS students, I pass through Kent Ridge Terminus. I seem to spend a lot more time there than others, as I prefer reading at home- a preference I must put to rest soon, given our workload. When I first saw the SBS terminus, my immediate impression was-tranquility. I use this rather heavy word lightly but this is the quietest bust terminus in Singapore, I am sure. None of the hustle and bustle that you see at Bukit Batok or the frenetic rush at Bedok. Kent Ridge basks happily in the peculiarity of it’s own circumstance.  It is possibly the only terminus dedicated to  a learning community. The staff,too, seem to have absorbed the serendipity of their surroundings. They lounge on old and comfortable looking furniture, their buses just a footfall away. Kent Ridge is home to one of the longest bus routes in Singapore-number 10, dwelling of bleary eyed undergrads who make the journey from faraway Tampines. I would have loved to see the bus station building with a little more character, though. Perhaps it could have blended in with the terraced cottages across the road or Eusoff Hall at it’s back- with a feel of a charming old post office where the postmaster lives overhead and can hear the whistle of his tea kettle from his desk. Some flower pots or a tiny garden could have done wonders as well. There is a lot of space going empty for such a small terminal. Still, it is uniquely charming with the university students in their element, realising the terminus belongs to them alone. Early in the morning, the air is nippy and as you walk towards the campus, you hear the birds, the rustle of the leaves and for the most part, silence. The stream of cars is yet to start. For some reason, it reminds me of a terminus in a village by the banks of the river Ajoy. Across the river is Joydeb Kenduli, legendary home of the Bauls, beloved of Mick Jagger. The bus is meant, almost entirely, for the bunch of schoochildren who ford the mighty river and take the bus back home on the fringes of industrial Durgapur. Unlike at Kent Ridge, the children wear no shoes and the bus is not likely to have functional headlights. The terminus is a shack where silence envelopes ghostly old men sipping tepid tea. Still, between affluent Kent Ridge and forgotten Joydeb, there are similarities. There is tranquility here and there, there are young people eager to learn here and there, there are buses here and there. In one, the students climb a hill, in the other, the students cross a river. People  separated by thousands of miles make journeys that are so similar, and so different. In the rarest of instances, someone makes both journeys and says “I made it.”  That, of course, is a different story.

Turning a new page in television narrative

January 14, 2009

It would be fair to say that with The Little Nyonya, Mediacorp has opened a new chapter in television drama. Of course, it proved to be commercially hugely succesful- and already is on a re-run. It seems 5000 DVDs have been sold and there is a Peranakan revival. But let us also understand the larger significance. The Little Nyonya has been, without any restraint, pro-woman in it’s narrative. A woman and her strengths are at the centre of the story. The woman’s right to choose the way she leads her life and determines her destiny are not exactly endearing to purveyors of popular drama in Asia. In India, for example, the woman is a submissive figure, clothed in jewellery, regression and enslavement to her husband and in-laws. The feminism of the early days of Doordarshan has been conveniently buried as social progress continues to slide in India along with a rise in material prosperity. ‘

The men in The Little Nyonyawho come out in a positive light are those who back their women all the way. Dominant father figures fall by the wayside and are found to be weaklings, at the end of the day. Preserving tradition and stepping into modernity are seen to be symbiotic- a people who lie mired in supersitition and backwardness are unable to save their past as they find their present gone. This is a key lesson for migrant communities everywhere-look back to your past with pride but know what you should be proud of and move forward into the future.

I am also impressed by the treatment of the prickly topic of the Japanese occupation. The drama rises above stereotypes to show that there were-possibly- individual Japanese who were decent men and whose involvement in the war was not their choice. Yueniang’s father is as much a victim of the war as her mother, forced into a bitter and eternal separation from the woman he loved. It is also commendable that the serial does not lapse into sonorous political correctness. It holds up the facts of the times and shows how people were swept away by circumstance and how they had to make difficult choices to survive.

But it the acting of the entire cast which makes the serial stand out, of course. To a member, the cast plays brilliantly together. The Little Nyonya deserves to be made into a full-length feature film. Hopefully, an enterprising filmmaker will try his or her hand at that.

Slumdog Yes, but Millionaire?

January 12, 2009

I have a confession to make. I have not seen Slumdog Millionaire yet. I did not see Friends when it was fashionable, so that’s a habit of sorts, I guess. No doubt the posh khadi set in Delhi and other winter-blessed cities are waxing eloquent over it, as we speak, between their white spirits and canapes. Actually, i have little doubt i will enjoy seeing it- if only to watch Anil Kapoor, a superb, underrated actor who exudes a lot of sincerity. A generation may not remember him from Tezaab and Zindagi Ek Jua- but hey, quarter by quarter, memories die, yes?

All the best to everyone who is enjoying the fruits of their labour and there is, by the way, nothing wrong with making a movie and still more, nothing wrong in enjoying it. I wish, though, that someone- SOMEONE- would make a realistic movie about the middle class India- the REAL ONE, for Pete’s sake. We either have to up with stilted absurdities like Bhowani Junction or Passage to India, or moan through that British triumph Gandhi or worse, watch a perfectly nice novel like The Namesake slaughtered on screen. I mean, they could not get a pair of Bengalis to act in the whole movie? The Namesake and Sashi Kapoor’s now forgotten Junoon come the closest to multi-lingual examinations of Indian identity and conflict in it’s many selves. I would also like to add Trikaal,  but it was largely a Hindi movie and we could have done with some Portugese actors instead of Indians passing off as Portugese. India’s middle class is complex, has no one identity and is torn between many conflicts- it’s admiration and desire for America, it’s nostalgic yearning for the Soviet Union(and the tenuous predictability of MAD), it’s drive to excel in academics and blind beliefs in complex myths and rituals. This is fascinating territory for anthropologists, sociologists and yes, half-decent filmmakers. This is, after all, the engine of India’s intellectual global growth, removed from the Oxford Maharajas of the early 1900s and the urchins glorified in Western narratives in 2008. There are a thousand million stories to be told here- find one and tell it to the world, so that everyone enjoys it and knows a India-and an Asia- that is different from the one on contemporary celluloid.

From the master of the political thriller, a masterpiece on Rome

January 11, 2009

Robert Harris has pursued political-military legends in his novels, skilfully and with a masterful turn of phrase that is difficult to maintain in such books. Reading him, one gets a sense of a F1 driver negotiating hairpins, U-turns and the occasional ledge over the sea with calm assurance. He has a dry sense of humour laced with a lot of irony. The centrepiece of Mr Harris’s work has been, to my mind, political power and it’s practice. He has no time for the tear-shedding heroism into which a number of American authors and Hollywood pictures have descended from time to time- they have their place of course, but Mr Harris prowls the jungles of realpolitik and pursues his characters from with cold analysis. It is with these formidable skills that he enters the world of ancient, Republican Rome and one of it’s most famous characters, Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Cicero is one of the most familiar names handed down to us through history, from the Roman chronicles. He stands along Ceasar, Cato, Pliny and perhaps Nero as one of those who names are almost always associated with Rome.  Cicero was famously mentioned by Shakespeare in his play Julius Ceasar (“he spoke Greek”) as a shadowy but influential figure who falls an unwitting victim to the proscriptions after Ceasar’ murder. Brutus mourns his death. But it is also evident from his brief appearance that Cicero was a fence-sitter, someone who wanted to commit to neither party in the war over Ceasar and his legacy. It is through the eyes of his faithful slave, Tiro, that Mr Harris brings alive the intrigues of the Roman Republic. For those who know their Ceasar, this is an intriguing tale, for it provides the backdrop for the rise of Julius Ceasar and his ultimate demise- and the leading actors around Ceasar are all here as well.

Cicero, a lawyer from a landed but provincial family, wanted to become a leading politician, with the highest seat-the consul-always on his mind. Cicero worshipped the Roman republic and starts his career as an idealist. But along the way, he picked up important lessons on realpolitik and is ready to make some strange but convenient bedfellows to reach his goals. He aligned himself with Pompey,thereby turning against the aristocrats related to him by marriage. Yet, even as he married well, Cicero was the consummate  outsider, a man from the provinces, known to the powers that be in Rome only for his radical kinsman who was brutally murdered by the patricians in the bloodbath that followed the end of the Gracchi. Yet for all his popularity, and populism, Cicero remained uncomfortable with Pompey. He resented his high-handedness, his simplistic deductions of complicated civilian issues and his naked ambition. Still, he only resented Pompey but hated Crassus. But then we all remember Crassus, even from our dim gleanings of history- his greed was so well-known that when he was killed by the Parthians, his skull was used that evening in a Greek play, filled with gold-as a prop. Yet, if he resented Pompey and hated Crassus, he feared Julius Ceaser. It is Ceaser who appears as the ghost of the novel- shimmering in and out of the story, tantalizingly close and yet untouchable. It is in this complicated narration of Ceaser’s teflon touch and his effecient disguise of his true ambitions, that Mr Harris exceeds his already considerable talents. It is not easy at all to deal with such a historically important figure- after all,was it not Goethe who called his murder the most senseless act in civilization? We studied literature through our teens and youth under the orthodoxy of Ceaser being a well-meaning victim. Mr Harris offers us the argument that Ceaser brought his own demise upon himself-as the master manipulator behind the scenes, he sought power through a complex plot that would rip the heart out of the republic. In hindsight, given the conflict and bloodletting of the years under Marius, The Gracchi and Sulla, there could have been only one ending. Still, the interaction between Ceaser and Cicero is poignant with dashed possibilities. Both evidently genuinely admired each other. Both were outsiders in the political framework and Ceaser came from an ancient family on hard times- a worse fate than Cicero who at least lived well. What the Roman Republic might have been if both had survived and worked together is hard to imagine-but surely the world would have been very different with these two prodigious genuinses putting their heads together.   At the end of the story, Cicero unmasks Ceaser’s(and Crassus’s) plot to seize complete power and exposes them to the patrician lobby. Hating him almost to a man, the patricians back Cicero for the consulship but with one key concession- he must agree to a public triumph for Lucius Lucullus, Pompey’s great military rival. Curiously, it is his enemy in court-for Cicero was a brilliant lawyer first- Hortensius, who comes out as the one person who backs him against the will of every other aristocrat-and swings things decisively in his favour. In achieving his personal victory, Cicero also fatally wounds himself- he is now cast out from Pompey’s camp, is an enemy of Ceaser and is barely tolerated by the patricians. An outsider first, he will be an outsider always. Still, Mr Harris shows us how a man of great talents but also immense grit, can make it to the top in almost any system- however fleeting his reign might be.

History was not kind to Marcus Tullius Cicero-he was hunted down and killed on the orders of Mark Antony- it is said Octavious fought for three days to keep his name off the proscription list. It is said that Cicero’s death would haunt Octavious into his old age. The republic he had loved so much and tried so desperately to defend was finished with Octavious becoming emperor Augustus. We all know our Rome from Shakespeare, the occasional Gibbon(I failed to tackle this formidable work) and the various movies(Gladiator. et al). We are indebted to Mr Harris for bringing Republican Rome(an almost forgotten concept) to our generation in terms of a highly entertaining and illuminating story.

Green transport made and unmade by planning

January 5, 2009

Phoenix, Arizona and the surrounding cities (Tempe and Mesa), have just been gifted a light railway project(read article link above from the Huffington Post quoting this Yahoo story). It will target 4 Million people living in the tri-city metropolitan area. It is significant as the first prominent mass rapid transit system to start, post the Detroit Three debacle. Of course, light railways, tramways, monorails and the like are all solutions urban planners have dabbled with, trying to look for the magic formula that reduces cars, reduces emissions and congestions and improves urban transport experiences. However, a contrast between 2 towns where I have lived- Gurgaon in India and Bukit Batok in Singapore- also show how things can go very right when you plan well and how they can go very wrong when you do not.

Gurgaon is a sprawling city in it’s own right, with a population of over a million, just outside Delhi. It is a global centre for the outsourcing and IT industry, a 20 minute drive from the international airport. People had very high expectations of Gurgaon because it was built from scratch and hence had the space to allow planning. That did not happen. Roads were dug and re-dug. An extension of the Delhi Metro was planned AFTER the town was already well-established, leading to the lines having to be made on top of old roads, taking over and demolishing dwellings and generally adding to the traffic chaos already on hand. But the biggest failing one can see is the lack of what we call in Singapore as the interchange.

 This is where Bukit Batok, the town where I live, succeeds so well. You can take a train from anywhere in Singapore to Bukit Batok, walk out of the station, hop onto a bus and go home. When you leave home in the morning, you have a choice between taking the train and one of four or five different bus routes, depending on where you want to go. You have a loop bus every 5 minutes taking you to both Bukit Batok and Clementi train stations.  It is this onward connectivity as well as strategic junctions and switching points that continue to be non-existent- not only in Gurgaon but in Delhi as well. If I use the metro rail in Gurgaon, I will need to either have someone pick me up at the station or use derilict and crowded three wheelers to get to where I want. I cannot walk or cycle- unlike in Bukit Batok- because it is not very safe. And if it is late night, you can be guaranteed that trains will run empty.

This, then, is the way in which projects come of age or collapse-because they are not thought through. Who will change the crime-ridden culture of many years in Delhi and it’s suburbs? That will require law enforcement of a different kind and social engineering on a different scale. Will we ever see air-conditioned public transport in places where the average summer temperature is 42 degrees centigrade? No wonder people do not give up their cars- but keep adding more cars. It is also a lesson for green planners. A project to better people’s lives is worthwhile only when you change the fundamentals of the surrounding ecosystem for the better. Otherwise a feat of modern engineering will remain a white elephant.

In Pierre Png, The Little Nyonya finds it’s own Burton

December 31, 2008

What an amazing evolution.

I remember Pierre Png in Potrait Of A Home as an imbecile youngest son with the strange gift of smell and the harried, well-meaning suitor in Dear, Dear Son-In-Law. This is a superb actor. But the context he had always been seen in was contemporary, relatively easy to relate to.

In  The Little Nyonya, Mr Png is the love-struck, haunted uncle to Chen Xi,  who could not marry Yeuniang’s mother and forever regretted it. He is educated, open-minded and a great lover of the arts. He encourages his nephew to marry Yeuniang and cross social boundaries unheard of. He is also a drunkard and heglects his wife. Yet he has a clear idea of right and wrong and chafes at the barriers of convention that held him back all his life.

Where Mr Png makes his stagecraft reach new heights is the effortless ease in slipping into the skin of this complex man. It cannot have been easy. Chen Sheng is marginal to his family, regarded only for doing the business legwork of his elder brother and otherwise leading an existence on the fringes. The pursuit of drink and the arts would  not have gone down well with a industrious, hard-working business family, fighting to hold it’s own in the turmoil of post-war Malaya. Any of us who come from migratory people, can relate to that, for certain. Yet, it is within these people everywhere that there exists the beauty of mixed cultures. The strong influences of Portugese, Indian, Malay and other cultures are apparent in the songs sung by Chen Sheng. He slips effortlessly between Baba Malay, Chinese and English. Like so many other cross-cultural migrants, he is a man inhabiting many worlds- the aristocrat fallen from grace, the urbane westerner well-versed with British law, the beach bum who loves nothing better than swapping songs with his drinking companion. In his complex character lies the story of the migrant and the oscillating fortunes of his people.

Mr Png reminds me of Richard Burton- not the overblown muscular hyperman of Antony and Cleopatra, but the drunken husband of The VIPs, trying to stop his wife from running away with Louis Jourdan. But I also see in him traces of Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s own Burton. In Ray’s Nayak, Uttam Kumar superbly plays the drunken superstar conflicted by his inner loneliness, the fleeting adulation of his fans and the compromises he had to make to get to the top.  That is the kind of role Pierre Png is made for. If someone remade Nayak in a Singapore context, shot on the train to KL, with Pierre Png and Jeanette Aw in the lead roles, that would be delightful.

The Lay-Off in Popular Culture

December 30, 2008

I am surprised Hollywood has not made a lay-off into a movie yet. I would have hoped for some imagination at the fag end of a miserable year, much of which has been spent on tenterhooks. Or maybe they ran out of money, like everyone else- oh well!

I do remember Jerry Maguire  being taken out for lunch by his friend and boss and being fired. That may strike a chord with some. Though I doubt they take you out for lunch anymore. Still, despite not making Jerry Maguire-2(where Cuba Gooding’s son would have fired Jerry Maguire’s stepson and married his daughter), Tom Cruise did give us Valkyrie- which I am dying to see as it involves a head of state firing most of his military brass by stringing them up on pianowire. I am sure none of that is shown and it ends with Graf Stauffenberg being honourably shot by a firing squad-let me see it and I will surely blog about it.

The lay-off is not a popular theme in Asian popular culture- it is, by definition, a little alien. Asians went to work for employers in the Western sense only around 50 or 60 years ago and even then, it was usually in a managing agency or a plantation or a government factory. They did not lose people easily. But it is also more difficult to deal with because an unemployed person is considered to be a failure, a living insult to society. He or she brings shame to the family and community. I am not sure how Asian filmmakers will dwell on this subject, but I am sure they will-very soon. The traditional image of a boss who fired people was a villain with a pot belly, a leer and no education. Now you might have a well-educated, good-looking guy whose children go to school with your children. Or both of you went to school- then he went to Wharton. Life is no longer simple and the choices presented to us are both stark and complex at the same time. I remember a popular film option was for the hero to become a lone ranging hitman of some kind. I must add that’s not the smartest option nowadays. 

I would have wanted Ernest Hemingway to be around for the downturn. Would his protagonist have been someone like Jake, in The Sun Also Rises? -impotent, caring, unfeeling and compromised, all in one? A victim of circumstances, not of his own making, like so many today? Or should the ideal man today be Cicero-not the historical one, but the Cicero of Robert Harris’s Imperium- pugnacious, always ready to take on the world. Sometimes, as Cicero might have said, the best thing to do is to start a fight and see where it leads. Everyone will not win, of course, but at least you are doing something. Such as innovating. Such as starting your own business and doing what you love. Maybe a story like that would be an apt testament for the times.

To create mobile commerce, mobilise social networks

December 30, 2008

I had to write this, after all the Twitter articles coming out of my ears. I am delighted, of course, that Twitter happened- for it put some bounce(and much more) into what was a relatively stodgy social networking scene. At least, from the perceptual viewpoint.

Here’s the question- why is NO ONE talking about how we can harness social networking apps (such as Twitter) to build more interactive, realtime and effective mobile commerce platforms? A person with a facebook account should be able to order a movie ticket(for example), get a tweet that it is ready, and pay for it using his mobile wallet. He may or may not choose to do this, but there has to an option for people to use their social network accounts to buy and pay for goods and services- and largely in mobile scenarios at that. There will NOT be security compromises at this level- the secured layer comes later and the access keys required are only held by unique customers and not their online aliases. Also, why cannot a large bank with substantial investments in mobile marketing and mobile banking embed it’s brand into every social network? Makes sense during a dowturn? Take Twitter. Can we not have a scenario that every tweet is sponsored by a bank(ughh, ughh, there we go, selling innovation to Mammon). I mean, someone has to fund the platform, yes? I would think that social networks should be used far more effectively to create spaces where people can see a promo, click a link, transact, get their transaction tweeted to them(online and on mobile) and get one more opportunity for one more transaction. This is no longer traditional banner advertising- this is intimate interactivity in a person’s private space and brands need to enter that space. But the biggest boost from social networks should come through mobile and online remittances. If I am a Filipino worker overseas, I should be able to transfer funds Friendster account to Friendster account or to a Facebook account-and ensure monetisation down the chain, to the last mile. That’s when we are really putting social networks to use.

Lets get together and build a social networking commerce platform-the time of soc-com is here. I am happy to have a chat with anyone who is willing.

Twitter in Asia

December 30, 2008

In Asia, the Twitter phenomenon sounds a bit strange, once you start thinking about it. It’s great for those who access the Net a lot- but outside a clutch of markets, that is not a great success factor. Twitter is enabled for mobile as well, but if you are smsing one another all the time, what’s the big deal? Is Twitter a net apps being modified for the sms or a mobile friendly app also available on the Net? There is the aspect of following and being followed. Frankly, Twitter needs to do some work there. I am sure they are thinking about it all the time, but not being able to tap into it from Facebook, Linkedin and Friendster is a no-win. That’s where folks stock their friend IDs and thats the apps which should be talking to Twitter. I know   a lot of people are becoming very excited about new apps being built around Twitter. Great, but I don’t see those on the Twitter site. How many people will get really bothered about these apps and go looking for them?

Twitter has built a brilliant platform and it has a great future. But I suspect it will have to work hard for the Asian market. Here, the numbers don’t come from people who know about the Valley and dig Apple. Does anyone remember how many Iphones sold in Asia over the last 6 months? Yet Walkman was a success and I suspect, so has been Ipod-or rather it’s imitators. No one will buy a decently priced Swiss choco-pastry but will blow money stuffing themselves with Jollibean. The examples are legion. It does not make Asia an annoying market. It is, well, a different market. Ask Vodafone, Nokia, Unilever and Pepsi. 

The Asian consumer is very tricky and extremely elusive. Social structures and modes of interaction here are different and also vary country to country. Twitter has now achieved near-cult status in the early adopter world. But it needs to get out into the trenches where the masses are- over 600 Million of them. There’s plenty to go around, and in that blessing, lies a dangerous pitfall.

In a shrinking world, the struggle to keep a unique culture alive

December 27, 2008

Achipur near Budge Budge in Calcutta, is named after a local Chinese businessman named Ahtchew(called Acchu Babu by locals). He docked at Budge Budge 220 years ago and set up a sugar mill. Over 400 years before that, a giraffe was sent as a gift from Africa via Bengal to the Chinese court. In Bangalore, my former colleague, Darius Taraporevala took me to a Chinese restaurant run by a Calcuttan Chinese gentleman who had studied in Don Bosco, Liluah. In my hometown of Durgapur, we always went to a Chinese dentist who read a Bengali newspaper. Now there are less than  5000 Chinese left in India’s only Chinatown, as opposed to 20,000 not long ago. Check this blog out which I dug out recently.

The presence of a visible Chinese minority among Indians is as old as India’s existence as a unified political entity. Rather than get into a blame game about who who should be doing what, it is time to take some real action. Over the years, Calcutta and Bengal have lost their minorities. The Jews, Greeks, Armenians are almost all gone. The Anglo-Indians, ethnically related to us, providing us teachers, fighter pilots and sportspeople, have been leaving for decades now. Now, we hear about some belated action by the local government to preserve old heritage buildings of the Chinese in Calcutta. It is ironic that while we are all getting together and working together globally today, the unique structures and communities which herald an older, deeper collaboration, are vanishing. Not many know, for instance, that Calcutta still has a 100 year old Chinese newspaper, still typeset by hand. Is this not a heritage to be preserved by Asians, regardless of their ethnicity?

I like to believe that there may be people in Singapore, with it’s unique blend of harmonious living, who would be interested in keeping this unique heritage alive.  Maybe Singapore’s Chinatown can adopt Calcutta’s Chinatown. People such as myself can only write about this and look up to those with more resources to rescue a vanishing, unique culture.

On an epic setting, Jeanette Aw comes of age.

December 23, 2008

It has been sometime since I last watched a Chinese serial on Mediacorp. When I tuned into The Little Nyonya, I was already curious. This was clearly a story straddling the years of the Straits Settlements and moving into modern-day Singapore and Malaysia. I actually gave up watching midway, because I found the Japanese occupation episodes traumatic. As people who suffered upheaval not once but thrice in South Asia inside 40 years, the lore of women being abducted, property being seized and people forfeiting their lives, is common knowledge to us. Occupation and dislocation bring suffering and loss, in ways one cannot even imagine.

But post-war, Jeanette Aw in her second role as the daughter of the deaf-mute Huang Juxiang, blossoms.  I first saw Jeanette Aw in her “Chilli Crab ” role and it looked like she was specialising in playing hard-to-get young roles. But here, she is in her element as an unwanted woman- desired by a bandit, hated by her own family, ostracized because of her Japanese father. We are yet to see the more challenging episodes, but her star-crossed love affair with Chen Xi(superbly played by Qi Yuwu) is turning out to be very interesting indeed.

Still, this serial is clearly about much more than Jeanette Aw. It shows how Peranakan society changed gradually, first under British patronage, then under Japanese rule and further under the influx of new ideas in the wake of the second world war ending. War brings about change in many ways and one of those is socio-economic. The serial shows how the women of the Chen and Huang household start stepping out of their gilded boundaries and make decisions on their own. Someone runs away to marry an Englishman. Someone else turns into a dedicated feminist. In these senses, the story is pretty much the same almost everywhere. Whether it is Russian women becoming fighter pilots  or American housewives working in factories or the women of Bengal becoming politicians, turmoil does often land up providing a left-handed gift to women.

While I do not understand Mandarin yet and am limited in my understanding of Peranakan culture, the serial awakens one’s curiosity. Such stories find a common chord across nations. Yet Mediacorp creditably resists the temptation to airbrush the more uncomfortable aspects of those times. This can only help people come to terms with their past and put in perspective the progress they have made today. I look forward to Jeanette Aw delivering a tour de force.

At Yuletide, remembering the Jesuits

December 22, 2008

I spent almost a lifetime with the Jesuits. It’s not an exaggeration. It was the same for those who studied along with me, before me and after me. Our formative years were shaped by them. It would be an understatement to say that we are what we are because of them. Our school buses had the motto etched on them-“Discipline and Sincerity”. In our parent school, St Xavier’s Calcutta, the motto remains “Nihil Ultra”. If one sees among the graduates of missionary schools from India a certain amount of austere tenacity, you know where that came from. Even in our most hedonistic moments, that backbone of steel remained.

These were not, in the main, Irishmen or Americans. The Jesuits in our time  and place were almost entirely from Belgium, though Indian priests started taking over later. Their accents and names were oddities in a land long used to the English. They were not, at first glance, overtly men of the cloth. A few of them did wear a simple habit- but in a casually catchy manner, the long white jackets providing them a donnish air. Father Wautier wore grey, if I remember correctly, and he smoked a cheerot. He also carried a rifle. I am not sure where that rifle or shotgun has gone now. Father Gilson made us listen to Shakespeare plays on a turntable, ran the library and taught us about Schleswig Holstein. Soldier and scholar. I like to remember them like that. In that forested compound, they ruled our lives with compassion and made us think. There was no harsh routine imposed on us, no strict discipline. There was a Xaverian way. You were the elite of the elite, like some parachute regiment at the cutting edge of the intelligensia. It was enough.

I wonder what Father Gilson would have made of the way our world has come apart now. He taught us characterology and as a Greek scholar and historian, he would have been well aware of the  ups and downs of civilisation. He would have probably pondered and found some parallel for the sub-prime crisis. He might have talked about the telecom revolution in terms of Greek and Roman myths, describing Mecury and others in some detail. Some dry chuckles would have been passed around as he  slotted different bankers into different kinds of characters- the phlegmatic, the stoic, and so on.

When you see the turmoil around you, you tend to seek answers in faith. I like to believe these men who made us men would have wanted us to find our answers in the simple logic of learning and hard work. They would have wanted us to use this downturn to hone our intellects, sharpen them for the next battle. Soldiers and scholars. That is what they would have wanted us to be. Like they were. Like they will always be.

In depressing times, even the charts reflect life

December 22, 2008

We are heading for the darkest Christmas in living memory- at least for people of my generation. And it seems people are turning to gloomy choices for their music as well. How else do you explain Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah reaching the top of the British charts?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am an admirer and avid listener of Mr Cohen’s works. He is, without doubt, one of the greats of our time and an intellectual force in his own right.

But frankly, after doing 18 hours a day, spending anxious periods in turbulent aircraft and meeting difficult customers, I had to turn away from him. It is, of course, quite possible and understandable that some others would turn towards his music precisely for the same reasons. But you do not want a dim light, Bourbon and Cohen. You want beer, Motown, Bollywood and friends around you. The joke I made to my significant other was that we will have many more people willing to spend time at the bar as the economy tanks. Perhaps some of you already find that happening. Now, the driver of our condo shuttle is much more in tune with the times. He barely speaks English but he listens to the golden oldies on FM and every shuttle ride to Bukit Batok is wonderful. There’s a lot of Motown but Cohen is conspicuously absent.

As things stand, the one number of Mr Cohen’s that I would definitely want to be playing in these times is :”First we take Manhattan, then we take  Berlin.” That should be the Asian theme of the decade, especially for sovereign wealth funds, private equity players and industrialists. I am not sure how much is left to be taken of Manhattan, or Berlin for that matter. Perhaps if Mr Cohen had written this song with the benefit of foresight, he may have replaced these lines with  “First we get to Mumbai, then we move to Beijing.” How about that, now?


December 21, 2008

Given a rather enthusiastic response to some of my posts on eco-issues, I have started a “green” blog. Its called Greenbiz and you can find it at

In recognition of this next wave of technology, we need to share and propagate the business potential of making the earth a greener, cleaner place. The use of existing technologies such as mobile, blogs, podcasts will play a vital role in this matter.

Please take a look and I will be obliged to hear your comments, criticisms and suggestions for improvement.

The News about News

December 20, 2008

I refer to Amanda Natividad’s article in Contentsutra( on news websites(“Size does not matter….”). I must confess I have not read the report she refers to. I have, however, paid some attention to the highlighted conclusions of the said report.

A sampling of the conclusions in Lauren’s report:

“—Newspapers are doing their best to offer features online that consumers find compelling, but they’re still lagging many of the independent news and political sites.
—Small web site operations can be self-sustaining even at low CPM rates.
—Larger online news operations are still unproven in scalability, sustainability, and in generating an attractive return for institutional investors.
—The local-news niche is frightfully crowded, and there are fewer ad dollars to support those ventures.”

There is one fundamental issue I see here and that has nothing to do with the article per se or the report as such. It is, very simply, that Contentsutra is “India’s Digital News Monitor” , but it allocates considerable space to a US report which focusses on what is essentially a US story. This does not take away, per se, from the need to highlight thes story. However, from an innovation and entrepeneurship perspective, and also as much from a reportage perspective, Contentsutra could do well to highlight equally the online news industry in Asia. This is just a suggestion, and as eminent journalists in their own right, the Contentsutra team will no doubt make the right choices.

Coming back to Asia-and I have mentioned this in a couple of posts previously- the answers to the challenges faced by newspapers and the solutions offered by new media, are predictably more complicated.

Firstly, the newspaper industry may have the state as a key interested player.  There is nothing wrong in that- it is a matter of fact and one would do well to keep in mind the evolution and compulsions of countries and their press across Asia before passing judgement. Indeed, it would be ironic if much of the Western press were to go hat in hand to their own governments to bail them out. Secondly, Asia has by now a healthy blogging environment which continues to grow. This environment will once again differ from the West because the capability of the educated, empowered individual to run a self-sustaining news blog is limited by his/her need to find a job. There is a case here for universities to do this to an extent but just like college FM stations, their capabilities and focus will be limited. But, there is also a strong entreprenurial streak among Asians-so I do not see major newsblogs taking long to start making money. Thirdly, business families continue to play a significant role in the ownership of newspapers in a number of Asian countries(along with the government) and some of these families may be far less exposed to the global meltdown due to their businesses being heavily localised. That said, these family run institutions have found of late that they are sitting on intellectual properties of considerable worth. There have been stake sales to raise funds as well as attention to modernisation. We may not see among them an obsession with quarterly results- but there will always  be intense scrutiny of the bottomline. Fourthly, we will see the rise of mobile micro-blogging, micro-neighbourhood reportage and business advertising on SMS and key changes in news narrative to suit these upcoming developments. These will not replace mainstream media but become flanking channels that add substantial body to the newspaper that is opened with morning tea. There will be the continued need for discretionary influence by government, especially in multicultural societies, as well as the impact of the classical editorial and column pages. Lastly, the biggest impact will be the reportage of rural news. This may become key in countries like India, China, Indonesia, Phillipines and Vietnam, all of which have substantial rural populations. Here, it will be mobile, mobile, mobile all the way. The way in which all this will evolve, however, will radically differ from one country to another.

One key step taken by Singapore to be at the centre of all these developments is the upcoming Mediapolis. I believe the scope and need for news innovation in Singapore itself may not be as much as other larger markets. But being at the centre of things, so to speak, it can become an incubation centre for new news projects, especially those with VC funding. The Wee Kim Wee School of Communications, too, can play a key role in providing intellectual muscle and research backbone to such companies, as well as a stream of talent.  Let us look forward to a prosperous Mediapolis next year, then.

Textbook funding-an indication of a new wave of social capitalism?

December 19, 2008

It is well known, of course, that NTUC Singapore offers used textbooks for schoolchildren through it’a many outlets as part of a special programme. Knowing the cost of books just about anywhere in the world, I found it a great idea and one which can be built on. Now, it seems Kleiner Perkins has invested in a start-up in the US which offers used textbooks for sale. It is significant for a number of reasons.

 Obviously KP have done their homework and figured out a lot of Americans cannot afford first hand textbooks anymore. That says something about the impact this downturn is having on people. Secondly, there has been a latent demand and perhaps a mildly active market in this business for sometime now. Thirdly, that social-oriented, if not centred capitalism can have relevance and increasingly so, after years of unbridled greed and rather cavalier behaviour by custodians of public trust.

I am looking further abroad, wider than America. Consider the downturn’s downstream impact on funding and charity. Do we know how much money the Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, the Kaiser Foundation, the USAID and others have today? Is there enough to go around? Technology based innovation rises to create space for new social entrepreneurs. The downturn also opens up the possibilities of donors coming from elsewhere. Let us consider a few ideas.

One- what percentage of textbooks are printed on recycled paper? What is the cost of recycling and what materials other than discarded paper can be used? If a SGD 10 textbook can be sold at,say, SGD 8 by using recycled material, that’s a significant saving of 20%. The key here is to figure out- is there an adequate margin to be made from it? The larger issue here is- since Singapore has a efficient waste recycling industry, can the recycled materials from across Asia be brought here to be processed in order to make new books? If not,can Singapore companies with experience and track set up such outfits in countries such as India, Bangladesh and the Phillipines?

Second- Once we have cheaper textbooks, can those be distributed via  the Internet? Schools across Asia can be encouraged to tap this source to get textbooks and sell those cheap to their students. I do not see this being accepted everywhere. The publishing lobby has made inroads into private schools for many years. I do see this making a lot of difference among the lower income people across Asia who cannot afford school books on top of other expenses. The numbers are large enough to justify a business case. The cost of couriering inside Asia is still not very high, thanks to enterprising local agencies and also the presence of government owned parcel companies. Why Fedex when you can send a package across in 10 days?

Thirdly- Stop the waste. Do not recycle blindly. From childhood, we have dumped tons of books, papers and magazines. I say DO NOT send all of it to the recycle industry. If there is a book or magazine, donate it to a school and let them use it. Most schools will find use for these. These used books are already value added.

Fourthly-Perhaps it is time to step away from traditional donors and look to other sources- Arab donors, rich Straits philanthrophists, young entrepreneurs across Asia. The world of giving does not begin and end with a clutch of well-known names.

All of these can be woven together to build efforts of various sizes in various markets. Perhaps Singapore can adopt such an Asiawide effort as a intellectual and funding hub, at the same time ensuring it’s own people benefit from this.

In the Lion City, Mediacorp blazes a dramatic trail

December 18, 2008

I have been watching, or perhaps, enduring TV dramas as long as I can remember. Of course, most of that was done in India. Initially,I liked watching the serials. Some of them were cheeky comedies like Nukkad, others based on US serials such as Khandaan and then there were monster soaps like Buniyaad. But the tour de force for me was really Govind Nihalani’s Tamas, telling the story of partition in a dispassionate, very un-Indian way and mercilessly cutting very, very close to the heart of the matter.

Unfortunately, by the time we migrated to Singapore, the quality of Indian television had declined,with channels churning out absurd feudal melodramas. It was as if 50 years of social progress were being turned on their head in a mad scramble for TRPs.  It was then that I got hooked to Mediacorp’s Chinese serials. Of course, it was easy for us- subtitles are provided.  What I really, really like about these serials is that these are so rooted in the urban milieu of Singapore. There is a level of grit and an unabashed willingness to stare at the facts, warts and all, that I have not seen on Indian television. While Indian channels keep dealing with escapism, Mediacorp is finding new challenging themes like families dealing with AIDS. I do not remember all the serials, but the four which come to my mind are-This Is Singapore, Love Blossoms, The Little Nyonya and The Golden Path. There is a lot of humour, some of it self-aimed, clear storylines based around the challenges of urban living and the capability to unearth the complexities of human relationships.

One of the big issues I have faced with contemporary Indian television is the lack of a spatial centre around which a narrative revolves. This has not been a problem with the great Indian filmmakers, but the settings of today’s serials are completely artificial. This is a trap from which the Mediacorp serials have escaped. In a way, it was easy as Singapore is small and uniquely 100% urban(ok other than Lim Chu Kang and the islands). The narrative centres are flats, offices, shops, hawker centres and malls. Yet it is a tribute to their serial making that despite shooting in the same places, the serials do not look monotonous.

I would, however, like to see whether Mediacorp can shoot some serials overseas and bring in interesting stories. The Little Nyonya is a start but it is obviously on set and anyway Malaysia is next door. One of the most intriguing stories I know is of the Chinese KMT soldiers who were brought to Ramgarh in India to train and then sent back to fight in Burma. I have seen their fort on the banks of the Damodar as a kid and heard about them from my grandmother. Could it not be that some of they stayed behind  among the Chinese diaspora in India? And perhaps some of them have distant relatives in Singapore? Or what about the dentist in my hometown Durgapur who reads a Bengali newspaper and is as Chinese as you can be? The stories of the Chek Jawas and the early Indian communities in Singapore can also be the basis for interesting fiction. All of these can make up  a very interesting library and add to the legacy of Singapore.

The New Wave in Environment

December 17, 2008

I just started celebrating my admission into a masters course for environment management. If you see a dark looking Indian character sipping beer at Harry’s at Rail Mall this evening in a yellow Tshirt, you know what’s up.

Anway, if you go back to a recent blog of mine, I had asked for a collaborative effort to set up a pan-island cycling network in Singapore. It is important that people like us, with the hindsight of experience from other sectors, unlock value for this sector. This includes bringing in VC, private equity and philanthrophic funding for the sector. The Singapore government is way ahead of many others in the clean energy sector.

One of my pet ideas is to create a network of micro-hydro power stations in the hills of India. Each such  plant can power one village and export a bit to another village. Empower the grassroots, take people off the mega-grids. Small is beautiful. Often it is also profitable. I wish some of those chaps with chequebooks are listening. If you are, you know where to meet me-Harry’s at Railmall. I am the dark, Indian looking guy in the corner. More on the other ideas later.

Outposts for blogging, the new marketing tool for creativity.

December 15, 2008

I hit upon a new term “Outposts” for blog posts. Everytime I post something on this blog or on, I want more and more people to read these. Sure, there are RSS feeds, clicks from searches and so on. But what I figured out is the oldest trick in the advertising world. Place your “brand” -for want of a better word- into each and every social networking site you use. I have seen a reasonable response from Facebook. But I like Tumblr better. It is a blog site after all- though they refer to those as scrapbooks-and the people navigating through it are in all likelihood fellow bloggers- your early adopters anyway. Also, you can import and display links, put up a photo or 2 and so on. It’s easy to use. I wish they had a help email id visible because my outlook isn’t configured.

I believe you need to talk about your blogging brand/post as often as possible to as many people as possible, in as many places as possible. It’s a bit like sticking a car sticker on the back of every car that goes down mainstreet. Or for that matter, putting up a poster in your shopfront that’s visible 180 degrees. So, you should tweet about your blog, facebook about your blog, tumbl your blog and on and on. But do it smartly. Give people a reason to come and stay. Be a smart marketer, not a salesman. Nothing wrong with being a salesman-I have been one for sometime- but I believe in the age of blogs, sales should be replaced by marketing.  I have seen absolute strangers come and stay and some people write very kindly back to me, liking my work. These people are, in a way, the core of your creative franchise. It is around them that you will build up your property. They are your goodwill ambassadors. Why do you visit a restaurant the first time? More likely than not, bccause someone told you about it. Surely at least 5 times out of 1o.

If I didn’t start blogging, I wouldn’t have known all this, would I? But you do learn something new everyday.

In a dense city, a glimpse of hilly beauty

December 15, 2008

The Bukit Batok-Bukit Timah area becomes a different world with the rain and lower temperatures. As Christmas approaches, here are some photos for you to enjoy. Expect more essays and images in the coming days.

Your comments are eagerly awaited.

In an age of innovations, an old dream rears it’s head in the Baltics

December 14, 2008

I am sure quite  a few people know this, but for those that don’t-Estonia will allow voting by mobile phone. For those who worked at the intersection of news and technology for a number of years, this is one of those blue-sky thought streams coming true. But 10 years is a long time and the callow idealism of those years can harden into cynical practicality. I wish I had an empty pipe in my mouth like Captain Ahab’s mate(was it Flask or the ill-fated Starbuck?).

I hesitate to endorse this idea 100% because  there is a large issue peculiar to many places inside Asia. The issue of who IS  a voter? This, above all, is a massive problem in India. The voters ID drive has done well, but there are still large gaps. People like us, who were internal migrants for years, struggled to get a I-Card. We had a drive in between for a card linked to provident fund- that would have been excellent and solved the issues faced by young, white-collar migrants. But it strangely died out. Now, in cities like Gurgaon, the people who contribute to it’s growth, usually do not have a franchise. So these basic issues need to be tackled first and I am sure these are not restricted to India alone. Finding your voter, even if you want to enrol him, can be a massive challenge too- do you find him in some murky backlane where filth can stop polling officers from going? Or in a village which you may miss if you blink?

Where the Estonian model can be used effectively, is NOT in voting- but in the ENROLLMENT of voters. I should be able to sms my name and address to the local poll office and maybe even snap my photo and MMS it across. This can help enrol hundreds of thousands of voters in a few days. Is it perfect? There will be a significant struggle to fix the backend but people will eventually get there. In return, send me a message with my voter icard number so I can use it anywhere. Let people get this fundamental empowerement first.

What do you think?  I would be keen to hear from readers.

Bringing the Indian community closer

December 13, 2008

A few mates of mine and I have started this new blog

The idea is for global Indians and their families to come together virtually, swap stories, posts, gossips, info on great deals,etc. I also see not enough people connecting over drinks and BBQs. One key aim is to see how to bring Singaporeans and Indian expats closer. We are all part of the larger Asian community. Suggestions are welcome.

In any case, look out for my posts there and here on Christmas in Singapore. Off to East Coast Park and back later with more!

Cycle to a greener future.

December 12, 2008

Ok everyone. I am dropping my pseudo-literary stance and putting on my social entrepreneur hat. Here’s what I want to do:

1)Get people who can afford to, to donate their cycles.

2)Repair those cycles.

3)Stack these at cycle stands in different parts of Singapore. There’s a nice under-used one at Bukit Batok that  is just right, for example.

4)You can rent the cycle for 24 hours, paying 1 dollar per 24 hours. You need to register your IC and please do not keep the cycle permanently!

5)I call it the “Cycle everyday” movement. This does not compete with the chaps on East Coast Park.

6)Over time we will replicate the Paris model and hopefully get people to cycle in the CBD as well! Well, maybe a few!Also, very keen to extend this plan to KL, Delhi, and a few other Asian cities where it makes sense. People will be able to get high end cycles as well and pay via nets, cards and so on. Naturally, those will cost more. Right now, begin small and humble.

7)This will become a social enterprise, with underprivileged people manning the booths and maintaining the cycles. Stakeholders will get equity and earn a share of profits. The cycles will be used to build innovative transport solutions in places outside Singapore, such as eco-pushcarts, vehicles for the handicapped and so on. Sponsors will be invited to bankroll the “easy cycle” movement. Inside singapore, the destitute will be given free cycles, once we can find ways to sustain.

It is targetted at those who find buying a cycle too expensive and can use the same for commuting to and fro the MRT, your local grocery, school as well as for going around town. It focusses on popularising the use of bicycles across all socioeconomic strata. As a practical transport option, a fun vehicle and a exercise bike. Local govt will need to support to make this happen.

I can’t do it on my own-so I need support. Angel funding,cycle donations, volunteer manpower, civil servants-who’s interested? I am also keen to talk to people with ideas who can comment and add to my plan.

Like the man said, Stay hungry, stay foolish. (right quote?)

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There we go-Twitter again

December 11, 2008

If anyone has been surfing over yesterday and today, you would have seen the running commentary from people in the US. As they got laid off. I am not sure that’s good or bad. But yet again, Twitter has broken down existing norms and created new spaces. I am critical of the way people are twitting around on this and yet I am intrigued. You do not need to like something at first glance to look out for it and think about it.

People who write employment contracts will need to realise that technology has sort of outstripped them in some ways, though not in others. The contract between employer and employee-in more ways that just paper- may well need to be redefined. The first person to do this I believe, was a guy named Russel who went off and formed his own start-up. I took a peek at his site and a real neat one it is, too. The concept is cool as well. I am already thinking of writing to him for a partnership. People are beginning to branch off and do their own thing. The circumstances of lay-offs may well have persuaded a generation that there is much more to life than a corporate existence.

Which is not to say, you cannot have an un-corporate existence inside a corporate. I know people who manage that. I myself ride a low-end bicycle, commute by bus. go to the library and do not discuss rugby. I hate Starbucks(the coffee, not the brand). That made me a very un-corporate guy in the company I was in recently. But I believe it may be the younger folks who take the conscious decision of being the untethered experts of this new era. They will not be impacted by the lay-offs people of my generation and my father’s generation would be. They will not blow their money on extravagances that may have been corporate de rigeur sometime back(the crisis has put paid to that). They will telecommute and eco-commute. They will do community volunteering and look out for their friends and neighbours-and remind us that being pragmatic does not mean being heartless.  

And of course, they will twitter.

In these days of infamy, look beyond the familiar

December 10, 2008

I was reading the Alley Insider  and stumbled upon a very recent posting on the New York Times and it’s digital future. We have all been reading recently on how newspapers are under fire due to the pressures of ad revenues and obviously their digital versions can only be expected to be impacted likewise.

But the NYT is no ordinary newspaper. It is the veritable liberal voice of the American press(one would argue, along with the Washington Post and a few others), admired well beyond it’s borders and a pillar of the idea of America that has made it such an admirable concept to so many around the world. It has also been one of those old world institutions which created a successful and admirable new media property. Liberal or conservative, you cannot but look up to the kind of institution which has among it’s columnists William Safire(regrettably retired), Bob Herbert, Paul Krugman and Maureen Dowd. When I worked for a major Indian broadcaster, it’s brains trust told me in as many words that the website we were selling had to be like

But ill-fortune can bring about change for the better as well. And as I always argue, innovation. I do not believe the business of newspapers will die away, to be replaced by some digital objects floating in front of our spectacles. Newspapers have weathered greater storms, so has the printing industry- they will prevail. But the digital properties they own can be used to reach out to people beyond the US. For example, get inside your logs and find out how many of your visitors come from Asia and how long each session lasts. You may be surprised. American institutions such as have to recognise that their markets stretch well beyond their geographical boundaries, as people continue to admire, emulate and live their idea of America wherever they are. And besides, as one of the key voices of the most powerful nation on earth, will always be compulsively read by people around the world. I propose that more effort be put behind this. Find out your reader profile and if LVMH or Grey Goose sells better in Dubai and Shanghai, well, make sure their campaign includes you and their campaign narrative on your site focusses on Asia. With adserving that’s easy- after all, that’s why people do advertise on the Net. I have seen some work done with Linkedin- bang on profilewise, but I am afraid it does not seem to translate into any visibility on the Linkedin site. Why can’t a global jobsite be there on Or for that matter, a real estate agent selling US and European properties in Asia?

I would also like to see more on the mobile front. I am sure NYT can start a pretty compelling news service in a number of countries globally. For some reason, Indian and other Asian media organisations get this plot far better. Surely NYT on mobile is of significant value? Lastly, reach out to global audiences and encourage them to READ Nyt stands for NEW YORK- a staggering concept in the eyes of many people. It has been exported globally by Hollywood and television. If Hollywood can have a global audience, why can the same not be the case for NYT?

Of course, if anyone from NYT wants to talk to me, I am available at Harrys@railmall.  Now,that’s in Asia. On Upper Bukit Timah Road-in the city of possibilities.

Tapping diasporic needs, a breaking news business opportunity

December 7, 2008

The recent Bombay massacre highlights the need for people living and travelling overseas to get breaking news of what’s happening back home. This applies as much to people of other nationalities as to Indians. Say for example, a Thai or Indonesian businessman was in France when the tsunami had hit their countries. Or imagine the anxiety of a Bangladeshi worker in Singapore when his country is battered by cyclones. It is true, of course, that one can sms or call folks back home and check  on them. You can also tune into television and if you are so equipped, log onto the Net. But that is not enough. Firstly, a worker of any category may be away from TV most of the day. He or she may or may not have access to the Net. And above all, people have a thirst for news during crises. They want to know much more than what happened to their families. They rely on journalists for that because those are the people trained to deliver the goods. This need is very real, significantly high and should be treated as a clear opportunity. If anything, the Bombay tragedy should tell us how much it can mean to people. After all, if you cannot reach your loved ones, you need to rely entirely on news to track them as well.

I propose a simple solution-a breaking news alert service, starting with the countries from which most migrant workers come to Singapore-China, India, Bangladesh, Phillipines. Most of these folks have cellphones- their access to TV and Net is limited or not there at all. They remit money back home and often, are the only breadwinners for their families. Let them subscribe to a sms based breaking news alert which gets pushed onto their handsets. Someone like Western Union can sponsor the entire effort including allowing these folks to subscribe to the service at local Western Union outlets. Western Union in turn would integrate with the news provider for this. In return Western Union can be provided a tagline at the end of each message and the occasional ad sms as well. The share of mind and association value they will get will be tremendous and will work considerably well to guard against competition in their core remittance business. On a normal day, there may be 2 messages- during a crisis, it could be as it happens.

Who will run it? Mediacorp with it’s resources would be best placed to do so in Singapore. This would be a true combination of mcommerce and mnews working to the benefit of a highly mobile population.

In defence of everything else

October 9, 2011

It was not Steve Jobs who drove me towards design. It was, first, my designer wife with William Morris who thinks with some justification that I am a pretentious Left Bank aspirant who knows nothing and secondly,it was the masters programme in NUS where the classes on urban planning  opened my eyes to names and possibilities. Of course, William Morris, Steve Jobs and Jaime Lerner have more in common that one might first even begin to think. But I leave that for a later blog. As I sat with a hideous cup of coffee in the airport the other day(the day He died), I was thinking-why did we (and that meant everybody in my Jesuit school) get pushed to become engineers from childhood when everybody else seems to have done so well with everything else? After all, the collateral damage for this approach has been huge-in town afer town, you will meet a 40-something living off the meagre savings of aged parents or ekeing out a living and that victim of unnatural selection once went to a very good school, was reasonably alright in whatever he wanted to do and must have dreat of something. I know-because I came very, very close to being such a person. I still wake up in the middle of the night or on one of my endless flights and make myself realize how lucky I am and what a close shave it was.  I don’t think it is the West, contrary to what Mr Friedman says, which has to worry about math and science. As long as their doors are open to immigration, they will get the right mathematicians and scientists-if not from the East,then definitely from Russia. I fear I sound a bit glib. The bigger issue IS the relentless pursuit of math and science as the ultimate virtues to the exclusion of almost everything else, especially in many parts of Asia. Why do we not have a Steve Jobs? Why is IM Pei a product of the West as is Anish Kapoor? I know the answers are not uni-dimensional. After all, for many years,the domination of ideation processes and business funding has continued in exclusivist pockets of influence and affluence, entirely by-passing the East.It is difficult for many aspiring designers, entrepreneurs and ideas people at large to replicate what a Shawn Fanning or Jack Dorsey has done. And let’s face it, Mr Dorsey is not Steve Jobs. Even so, it is not irrelevant to say that we could do with a more well-rounded side to Asian technology than low cost, sweat shops, clever coders and  aggressive sales people. But for that, we need a new burst of creativity. The vaunted art of the East cannot be colonized in galleries, museums and tourism road shows. It has to show up in the next user interface, the next device, the next breakthrough process flow. It cannot happen if we continue to churn the privileged few who are so only because they crunch numbers well. The idle boy/girl at the back of the class, who wastes time reading obscure stuff or doodles on scratch paper-that’s the one we want to look out for. Our differentiators cannot continue to be only cost and speed, though those will continue to be relevant and hopefully formidable. We need to equally good at everything else.