Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Race & The Nation

A nation is made of many races, in any country. There is no country in the world that is absolutely homogenous. The homogeneity is usually borne out of symbiotic association.

The Chinese are a race of many different dialects, who have graduated from calling each dialect a race and consider all dialects to be Chinese, although one really cannot understand what the other is saying. If left to themselves, the Chinese would have fought among themselves over their dialects. And they did.

I am sure that this aggregation of convenience occurs among the other races in Malaysia, although I will not delve into them.

Except to mention that in Sarawak, it will do the indigenous people much good if they are willing to subsume their individual language under a larger agenda. But the way things are, given the education system, it will be that Malay will dominate as the national language and everyone else has to speak plus English. There is much to be said however about the preservation of ethnic cultures of all language/dialect groups in the nation, if only to remember the roots of where we all come from.

But looking ahead in forging the identity of the nation, it will do well that the Nation has an identity that is a composite of as many of the key and good elements of all of us.

We have already seen the successful amalgamation of religion with race, whether the key identity of the race is religion. But even then, with the religion, not all races are the same. In other races, we see of religions being practiced within a race. This integration of various elements in a race occurs naturally according to the fancy of each individual of each race and therefore cannot be stopped. To do so will be to ostracize an individual as an outsider and not be a member of the inner fold.

A political party therefore is no different from a club whereby membership requires a fee and there are benefits to be derived from being a member. How the nation has been and is being divided is that the holders of positions in the club stand to be elevated so that command by the club over the whole of society can be maintained, with the club imposing its values on everybody.

The club is as good as what it can deliver to its members. If the club fails to deliver to its members, its members will leave.

Other clubs will also rise looking for members, peddling probably the same old stuff of the old club but with a twist - that new members have a chance to be part of the core team. The community therefore splinters into different groups.

But what is the catch for everybody? It is nothing but money and wealth. It is telling that one old guard could declare since we have not managed to make everybody a millionaire, at least we have made a few people billionaire, including himself and his friend, of course. It is all about money.

It is of course true that everybody is in it for the money. You and I and everybody else, because this is the construct of our present society - that we need money to survive. But money for wealth sake is an entirely different kettle of fish - it is about greed and jealousy and domination.

So it is therefore no mystery why politics is couched in racial terms as a means to obtaining the monopoly on wealth. It is about the distribution of wealth. Wealth distributed through projects and it is not surprising that public projects are big projects financed by debt, and this debt is to be reduced by extracting as much as possible from the general public in terms of taxes and reduction in subsidies.

The distribution of wealth in this country is therefore a direct result of the government policy to redistribute wealth directly, at the expense of growth. This policy is leading the nation downhill. When an elite can be made rich and the rest should pay for it. Those who are poor will be given handouts in order to keep them quiet.

The key to economic prosperity is always through economic growth. Through savings and investments and hard work to make a success out of their ventures. It will be a combined effort of skills as well as acumen in business to know the business terrain and to compete. This is what makes a nation tough. But a government that looks jealously at the successful businessmen and say I must have a share of your success without your losses is a recipe for national failure.

Where is the entry point for young people into the economy when the government creates companies that dominate the economy. The structure of the economy is fixed by the politics. The rest, if they want to succeed, must go underground to create an alternative economy.

The obsession of wealth distribution over economic growth leads to the result that is to be expected. That wealth will be distributed and growth will decline.

It is a perverse strategy that to try to keep the economic growth up, the government brings in a foreign third force - foreign direct investments, after having stifled local direct investment. The success of local direct investment will be seen in the form of local physical assets and hence a display of wealth which jars the eyes of politicians. Foreign direct investments merely take their profits out, leaving behind a skeleton physical structure which they are always willing to let go. And the building of infrastructure for foreign direct investment is paid for by the general public in the form of taxes and reduction in subsidies.

With everybody now quite comfortable with handouts, small businesses suffer a shortage of manpower and the only solution seems to be to import foreign workers. There are now many foreign workers, which is leading to a second wave of immigration (issue of citizenship yet again). I should think this second wave is good for the nation, in terms of economic growth. Whether it is good for racial politics or not is something that is left to be seen. We really have to think seriously about our nation.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Friendship & Entrepreneurship

In this digital information age where information is a commodity and social networking is the new frontier for friendship, the question I have is this: Is it possible for this new form of friendship to be a major force in the new economy that we are trying to invent for this brave new digital world of ours?

The first thing about this digital world is that we can be instantly and constantly connected at all times - if we want to. Most of us imagine that this constant contact is the best thing that can happen to the modern person or to all modern persons. I can call you at any time and you can call me at any time. What can we possibly say to each other if we are constantly talking to each other, and not dedicating ourselves to doing something else so that we can report new stuff to each other. It is as if gossip can in itself generate new ideas (possibly) or information (possibly not).

Constant contact can generate new information only when we are simultaneously trawling the net which therefore means that we are then susceptible to be baited on the net, because we belief the net to be the best source of information.

I would not imagine any clever person using the net to deposit new ideas (not necessarily innovative ones) which no one has ever thought of before (except probably this blogger who, by definition, means he is not so clever after all). It is therefore foolhardy to therefore be on the net all at times in the hope that somehow, somewhere a gem will float out from the screen like a genie out of the bottle which then asks: What do you want me to do for you?

It is therefore likely that what you will get from the net is what economists call "arbitrage" - the opportunity to bridge values or prices in different places because of time difference or local knowledge gap. So the person who gets the information first will have the advantage of acting with "insider" information, so to speak. (Like what David Ricardo did using pigeons to bridge the information gap on stocks between UK and Europe.) But then if you are getting information from the net, so would everyone else on the net as well, and therefore you would have that first advantage. You have serious flaw in your networking and information system.

The way to play this information-as-commodity game is to take at least a first order differential on the basic information, if not a second order differential. You have to process the basic information. Processing requires theoretical knowledge, some hypothesis or theory, or an insight into how the reality actually works.

This is why we all have to go to school to learn the old ways of thinking, to learn how to think differently from the old ways and from others present, and to take leaps in our thinking and vision. We have to learn to stand on the edge and learn to have the courage to take a deep breath and dive into the unknown, oblivious of what the crowd at the back are saying how stupid you may be.

Courage is borne out of conviction and conviction comes from knowing what you know, and knowing what everyone else does know. Conviction is a lonely journey inside oneself which culminates in an act of determination and persistence. Conviction is the product of hard work and deep thought. It doesn't come from chitchatting.

But new ideas can come from chitchatting - with different minded people. You are comfortable only with your own kind, then you might as well talk to yourself; you are a comfort junkie. But if you want new ideas, talk to people with different ways of looking at things. These different people make you uncomfortable, because it is hard to listen to different ideas without wanting to shout them out first. But once you are comfortable with different ideas, you can't bear to listen to copycats (people who copy ideas learned from the net). You hear music from different notes.

I am apprehensive when I hear people say they want to be entrepreneurial but are unable to accept different views or see things in different ways. The problem is often comprehension. A statement can have multiple meanings in normal language, unless you have couched the whole statement in legalese which has covered all angles and tied up all loose ends. A common sentence is often ambiguous or imprecise - it requires a "you know, I know" kind of nod to affirm that we are on the same page and on the same line. Otherwise, it is easy to quarrel, if we are looking for acceptance. I would rather use this ambiguity as a source of inspiration for new ideas.

So, for this little piece, I merely want to make the point that by playing with your mobile the whole day every day until forever, you are not likely to become an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur makes and sells things. You on the mobile is a consumer.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Modern Guillotine

Now, we have a state in our great Nation that proposes to chop off offenders' limbs for crimes which are now considered minor by modern standard, such as stealing. I do not like people stealing from me, and I certainly do not like to see their hands chopped off for that either. For all I care, I could have also been inadvertently stealing from others, such as ideas, and I certainly do not like either to have my head chopped off.

Total elimination has always been the simplest method for solving problems by people with little ideas and no compassion. The cruelest punishments are devised by people with the more devious minds, those who cannot imagine why others can resort to desperate acts. It is unfortunate to have to live in a society where desperate acts are common, for it must mean life is very hard for many. It is the duty of the leader of the state or the nation to think of ways and means to lighten the burden of people who cannot help themselves except to do things that they know society despises them for.

I don't think it is ever possible for society to be homogeneous for long. Imagine a society that stays the same forever, doing the same thing day in and day in, year by year, decade by decade, century by century. Japan may immediately spring to mind. But Japan is last of the feudal states of the world, and look at what desperate acts it had chosen to undertake in the name of survival, not just of its neighbours but also of its own people. In the end, everything boils down to the preservation of an old institution which has refused to change in the face of change. Everything else must adjust to it.

Ancient philosophers had taught us that it is possible to build a society of civil people where stealing does not exist, not because people are not hungry but because people are honest. They may not have to beg, but people will give. In this world of economic exchange, the market is a devise constructed whereby it is encourage that people should exchange things which they have too much for what they want, even if among perfect strangers. But this thesis presumes that outside the market, people do exchange because of their kindness and their friendliness and their attempt to be nice to each other. In olden days, this friendly giving is called charity; now, it is called corruption.

In this world of polarity, we think in terms of black and white. This is how the world has been mostly explained, so far that my books tell me. Positive or negative, yes or no, male or female. One is unity; it is also stagnation. Two is the minimal that is required to exchange motion, dynamics, and hence the rest of the world with its myriad manifestations. I am more inclined to think in terms of spectrum and distribution, whereby everything exists, in all its infinite realities, but it varying quantities. Amidst this natural spectrum, we are not likely to see black overwhelming white, or light overwhelming dark. The world is as it is without domination; thereby without elimination or annihilation of others who are different from you.

It is of course for self development and self improvement that one chooses to cultivate oneself in a certain direction. While I think think of the good stuff that one can try to cultivate for oneself, I can also imagine situations where individuals simply mutilate themselves to look different. I have nothing to say to them except to have fun. To each his own. But be restrained, very restrained in doing it to others.

This great Nation has seen the modern guillotines operating in many spheres of our daily lives. You cannot be involved in this economic sector and hence cut off because you are of the wrong race or religion. You are cut off from government funding because you are of the wrong r&r. You are not allowed promotion because you are of the wrong r&r. You cannot think these thoughts because they are seditious, even though you are peaceful. It is therefore not a great surprise that we should come to this frame of mind, to think it is even now in this day and age quite all right to chop off someone's limbs, as a matter of rule. Is this law?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Creating Expectations

I wish to suggest that this government has finally managed to do what most economists feared most in realty - the creation of inflationary expectations and following close by expectations of handouts in the face of the policy of reducing or cutting subsidies.

It is a sign of poor policy formulation and implementation (in lieu of a more accurate single word which I think is not so polite to use in public disclose) that a simple idea that requires a clear decisive action is being dragged out along a long series of half-baked pronouncements which nobody in the world understands what they are all about.

At the root of the whole debacle is politics mixed up with bad economics.

The fundamental issue is that the oil money is running out, but how much and how fast is a question that needs to be properly answered. The days of roses are over. The old prime minister has resigned and is smiling. The fundamental economic policy is government mega projects to stimulate the economy (which is a junk idea) funded by borrowings which are now hitting their limits. The proposed solution is that there should be more mega projects, but the government deficit to be reduced by increased government revenue sourced from the GST and the reduction of subsidies. This is pure static analysis.

The dynamics of the reality is that increase fuel prices is working through the economy like wild fire. The transportation industry is the first hit, which quickly translated into all goods and services that have to be transported - which is everything. The Ministry of Domestic Trade, like a poor midwife as the baby's head is showing, tries to hold the head and all prices as long as possible, with danger being put on the life of the baby and the economy. The formal pricing system does not work and everybody tries to work around the formal system through the black market. Smuggling becomes rife, and the customs are now into the game to catch the smugglers, but not the culprits.

While all these are happening, the big announcement came that the 6% GST will be implemented on April Fool's Day in 2015. This is the straw that breaks the camel's back. There are now no holds barred. Everybody now comes out to say that they cannot hold on to the old prices any more. Price adjustments are proposed to be as large as 40%. These proposed price adjustments are what we read in the papers. In realty, these are price increases already happening on the ground. There is no way that any one government agency can supervise every nook and cranny of the country, unless we transform ourselves into an authoritarian state. The reality is that price adjustments have already taken place on the ground as a result of the multiple sequential announcements of price increases on inputs. It just requires so much time for the government to accept formally that these price increases have in fact taken place.

Against this series of announcements of price increases for inputs, the politics says that the poor must not be unduly affected. This brings forth a series of announcements on livelihood support entitlements for the poor. Everybody is poor if they are in the right constituents. The poor wake up every morning asking where is my next entitlement coming from. It is a full time job receiving entitlements, for you have to register yourself and your family, and you have to queue up to receive. You now cannot concentrate on working hard to survive. There is a greater certainty in receiving the handouts, as they are a steady flow. The creation of expectations of entitlement is always dangerous for it creates dependence.

I would suggest that the third force that is going to take this country out of the quagmire is for this government to create the expectations among the private sector that there are opportunities in this country for making money. The quality of the management of our financial system is debatable. We have no special qualities, and we justify everything here by saying that we are a small open economy which we cannot possibly insulate. So, as with the rest of the world, we enjoy asset inflation in real estate, we welcome foreigners to buy up properties and push up and hold property prices at high levels - thanks no doubt to our weak currency.

The property market now is at a stalemate. This is the clincher. Of course, local interest rates will rise, "in line with the rest of the world." The US and Europe are hesitant. But the US economy seems to be doing better, thanks to fracking. We are at the inflection point of the QE. How strong are our banks? As strong as their reserves. How much reserves. As much as their exposure to real estate.

The management of the loan books of the banks, no manner how big or small, depends on their ability to diversify them out of real estate and into entrepreneur activities. Where these entrepreneurial prospects lie is the problem and challenge for everyone, not just the ordinary citizens looking to a future at home, not just the bankers hoping to diversify their loan books, but also the government policymakers who are being entrusted with the responsibility of charting out the future of this country, "from middle income to high income."

The excessive focus of policy, and the media, on politics and religion and everything that is unhealthy and unsavory is detrimental to the future of this nation. There is simply too much politics in public life. There should be greater focus on economic and business opportunities in this country, and how these are being promoted for the general public. Instead, with very nice announcements, we are subjected to minions in government agencies acting big because their non-attention can be detrimental to you, and there is reward for doing bad jobs. You get bribed or you get promoted out.

The current focus of the government on its mega projects to get the economy out of its hole is only self-serving, with no benefit whatsoever to the general public on how to earn a living.

It should not be surprising that, in this tough environment, the desperate are reacting badly to their daily conditions in order just to survive the day.

There is much that the government must do for this great country of ours. But, first and foremost, the government must manage the expectations of society so that we can begin to invest in our future knowing that after all the hard work, there will be light at the end of the day. We have to contain our inflationary expectations, kill expectations of handouts and entitlements, and improve our expectations that there is a future for us through hard work, not playing politics and stealing from others.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Creativity & Dogma

I must say I am greatly pleased by the reprinting of this classic book by Edward de Bono on Lateral Thinking now entitled "An Introduction" after all the years of elaborating on the teaching of the concept, as opposed to the original title of "The Use of Lateral Thinking."

Lateral thinking is as opposed to vertical or logical thinking. In vertical or logical thinking, the whole argument is built upon a particular premise which, in a broad perspective, must be seen as arbitrarily came upon in the first place. From that one premise is built the whole gamut of logical conclusions of various types and eventually ending up with the ultimate extreme logical conclusion. Philosophers are familiar with the situation when logic, taken to extreme, is reduced to absurdity.

de Bono cited the case of the science of physics when physicists felt utter confident of themselves thinking that they really had attained the full knowledge of the physical laws of nature until Einstein came along which then threw the physicists into a tailspin and the realisation that the study of physics was only starting for real.

The same application of logic taken to extreme would apply to all branches of knowledge including branches of religion which claim to have a logical fundamental premise. The clinging onto a single basic premise and the building up of the whole infrastructure of logic to support ultimate conclusions must, in the extreme, lead to absurdity when the conclusions can no longer be supposed by facts and the observations of reality. This is pure dogma.

Lateral thinking seems to challenge the fundamental basic premise used in any branch of knowledge, and to explore alternative basic premises in the hope of discovery one that is most useful for explaining the world as we currently observe it to be, or the beginning of a better understanding of the world or where we as human beings are in the world. de Bono likens this search to the oilman who dig holes in different locations in the hope of discovery more oil, rather than digging deeper and wider a single hole. I would liken the exercise to the venture capitalist who is looking for projects that will give supernatural returns, and the venture capitalist must spread his investments among many projects in the hope that even a small handful of successful projects will be worth his troubles.

In Malaysia, we are fighting a hard and battle to stimulate some form of creativity in our cultural and living environment in the hope that this economy of ours can stand on each of our own two feet, before we finally run completely out of oil and gas to comfort us. There is now the changing climate in education where English is now slowly reclaiming some of its rightful ground as a medium of instruction so that our children can learn to read works of knowledge in their originally written language. There is still plenty of work to be done for creativity to reign in our society. Perhaps we need to think laterally as we fight age-old dogmas and rigidity of minds promulgated by the uneducated and unlearned and the ignorant.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Malaysian Budget 2015

1. The first question is whether the overall Budget 2015 is going to be expansionary or contractionary on the economy? Is the government sucking money out of the economy or is it putting money into the system? The answer is obvious since this is widely acclaimed in the local newspapers that Budget 2015 is good because the government is going to cut its overall deficit from RM37.3 billion in 2014 to RM35.7 billion in 2015, a reduction of RM1.6 billion. We can say that Budget 2015 will be contractionary on the overall economy by this amount of RM1.6 billion.

The government will be taking out from the general public RM10.1 billion in tax revenue while increasing its spending on operating expenditure by RM2.3 billion and development expenditure by RM6.2 billion.

2. Where is the critical assumption in the whole calculations in Budget 2015? The trick is in the GDP deflator. The government expects the headline inflation (the CPI) is expected to be 3.4% in 2014 and about 4% to 5% in 2015, because of the 6% GST and the cut in fuel subsidy. The GDP deflator is assumed at 4.2% in 2014 and 4% in 2015. With an economy that is expected to grow by 5% to 6% in real terms, it is not surprising that nominal GDP will grow by 10.2% in 2014 and 9.4% in 2015. All these inflationary effects are very good in lowering ratios of nominal debts in nominal GDP terms.

3. There is clearly a shift in direction from direct to indirect taxes. The attempt at avoiding the entrapment of average salary earners in obsolete income tax brackets is to be applauded, principally because salaries have been unable to keep up with rising costs of living and the escalation of property prices. Personal income taxes are reduced by 1% to 3% points to take into account contemporary income levels.

4. Corporate income tax is also reduced by 1% to 2% points. This may not have been necessary. Corporates are among the richest entities and foreign ones do not even have to pay tax.

5. Bumi Agenda. It is heartening to see the government's relentless pursuit of the bumi agenda. It is good to see help to the needy. But it is also strange for a government that is concerned with inclusiveness and private sector growth to neglect any section of society which may also be in want of assistance in entrepreneurs. The Budget even has encouragement for foreign start-ups in Malaysia with one year work pass. I hope I am wrong, but there seems to be a serious gap in economic thinking.

6. In general, I do not have much other complaints. There are lots of little smatterings of everything all over the place. In economics, these are considered marginal adjustments. The big item is the GST. Let's see whether that will bring the economy up to speed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Independence: Scotland The Great

The Scottish referendum on independence was a show of the greatness of the Scottish people.

No where on earth have we seen a referendum that was so intense and yet so peaceful, except for a few scuffles on the Friday evening of the counting. In an imperfect world, it was as ideal a demonstration of the proper practice of democracy as we can even imagine that a group of people can perform.

We saw people from both sides debating the pros and cons of independence for Scotland, with great emotion and with great restraint.

The argument for independence for Scotland, as with the argument for independence for any notion of nationhood, is a highly emotionally charged one. Who does not want to be independent, to be the master of oneself, not to be controlled by someone else? It is this very notion of being the master of one's own destiny that is so at once romantic and so compelling. It is this very notion that now drives many other states to try to split from a federation or a union, in order to again a sense of freedom and liberation.

The argument against independence and for Scotland to stay within the union of the United Kingdom is an argument of great economic practicality. It is the economic argument that has created the European Union, for example, and that is pulling more states in peripheral of the EU towards the union. Most people want to be part of a bigger economic bloc so that ordinary people can also find good jobs outside their homeland. This is economic freedom. Which also means that there are people in the homeland who do not find jobs, and therefore blames the union of their inability to find something decent to do at home. If creating good jobs at home is easy, jobs can also be created while within the union.

Unless, of course, we are talking about some macroeconomic policy changes, the biggest of which is the currency which must be devalued in order to make the homeland more competitiveness, which then of course devalues the wealth of the rest of the population and since the unemployed is only a small fraction of the population, there is overwhelming argument against independence because of the currency issue.

The pro-independence camp arguing that the economic uncertainties highlighted by the other camp is pure fear mongering, which is incorrect. The economic uncertainties are real, and I think it is the reality of the economic argument that finally won the day over the romanticism of the political argument.

This is true of almost every country on earth where democracy is properly practiced, that the prime concern of all citizens is the day-to-day reality of survival and earning a living, and with it the importance of proper education, and law and order. In any union, therefore, the pulling force lies in the soundness of national policies, their fairness or "social justice" as the Scots said recently. It must be this sense of fairness in the treatment of all citizens that people feel they truly belong to the place which they were born and not be rejected considered as weeds in a monoculture plantation.

The greatness of the Scottish people, as shown by the recent referendum on independence, is that they give confidence that level-headed and rationality can prevail even in a highly contentious situation. Bear in mind that the Scottish mind is probably one of the most enlightened of the human mind, which gave birth to the idea of independence of the French Revolution which the French then exported it to America. For economists, of course, the greatness name is Adam Smith who fought for economic freedom for all people and nations. And David Hume who gave the idea of rent and rent-seeking, as well as the marginal returns to land. There are many more.

The greatness of the Scottish people is their elevation of mind from the primitive and irrational to the rational and disciplined. May the whole world learn and follow.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Joan Rivers: Brute Honesty

What is wrong being yourself?

If you find a reality that is an upfront to polite society and you find that you can make a living out of it, then it is not a bad thing. Nor is it a wrong thing.

Of course, polite society will say you are being caustic, acidic, sharp tongue, abrasive, etc.

But there is another section of society who is with you. And if you are popular with the general public - and as a result, you are successful - then that is really not a bad thing.

The truth is that it is really hard to be really nice and popular with everybody. There are people who are jealous and hate to see you do well. There is no need to obtain general acceptance.

I am probably spending too much time with people who want you to endear to them. There is so much hypocrisy when people pretend to be nice but in reality hate your guts. There is so much pretense that you do not know the reality.

Equally, I would probably not want to live in an environment where everybody shouts at you in your face all the time, and wish you ill or death.

The bottomline is the ultimate intention of the person. If you know that the person is ultimately kind, may not be nice, doesn't really mean the words used, but merely describing things the way she sees it without mincing words, and to be brutally honest, then I suppose one would not take offense, if the blunt words are not directed at you or are directed at someone else.

It is really a fine line. And only a master can walk that fine line and not fall.

Not everybody likes the jokes by Joan Rivers, but she was a master that brute honesty.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Independence & Nationalism

Between the 31st August and the 16th September, Malaysia have more than two weeks to contemplate what this so-called independence of ours means. Whose independence, who should have the upper hand - or are these entirely silly questions.

Independence is a claim on self-government by all the people in a certain geographical area. This is as opposed to the government of the local area by some foreign powers such as the UK or Japan, or Holland, France, US or China. Independence is the government of the local people by the local people, in the best way they see fit.

The 31st August is significant because some 57 years ago the UK government had graciously agreed to allow the local people of Malaya to determine their own destiny. The 16th September is significant because some 51 years ago, the UK government has graciously agreed to allow the local peoples of the now three entities of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak to govern themselves and form a federation called Malaysia.

This idea of Malaysia was then as advanced as we have today of the idea of the European Union. The EU is a union at several levels. First, is the monetary union which uses the Euro among all EU members, except the UK. We have this in the ringgit. Second, there is the customs union where there are practically no barrier to trade among EU members. There is no barrier to trade among Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. Third is the removal of barriers to intra-EU migration. This is now a big problem among EU member states where weakness in the control of non-EU immigration in a remote corner of the EU can cause havoc in other member states. There is now a growing call among EU member states to review this feature. What is meant as good solution to unemployment in some states and high wages in others - which it still is - is now a contentious issue in individual EU-member sovereign nations. The tendency to look at the good side while underestimating the problems is a major problem when sovereign states come together to create a larger economic bloc, often at the expense of politics.

The idea that Sabah and Sarawak can come together with Malaya is form a bigger bloc - ostensibly to fight a potential neighbourly military threat - is now being increasingly questioned by the educated group as to the implications on the economics as well as culture and religion.Independence does not appear, to them, to be a case for self-governance by the local peoples but the dominance of the majority on the large minorities in all spheres of life - politics, economics, religion, culture - the name of nationalism.

The real problem is, of course, the drive towards monoculture as the saving grace for nationalism masquerading as unity. This is a dubious proposition. Unity is always about cohesion, not uniformity. The constant struggle for survival and betterment is the driving force for the national strength - on as level a playing field as any humans can provide for their fellow human beings. It is not about complete domination of oneself over others, not the complete annihilation of others. It is the varying quality of the fertility of the ground that will define the structure of economic activities and social practices and general sense of well-being of different sections of society.

Taken to extreme, the inflictions of pain and death on others seem to be the way to new ways of life through bloody revolutions in some parts of the world, enabled no doubt by the arms industries of dysfunctional economies. Extreme ideology is an extremely potent and dangerous stuff.

The response to extremism is not extremism - no matter how righteous - but alertness by being always alert and to be ready to respond to counteract whenever there is a need to. In this, we need discipline and training and expertise. We do not have anymore the luxury to allow incompetence to take leadership position and leading all critical parts of the economy and society into disarray. We have got to wake up if this independence of ours is to have any value to us who live in this great nation.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Subsidies & Taxes

There are subsidies because there are taxes. Or, put it the other way round, because there are taxes, therefore there must also be subsidies. After all, there are the opposites of each other and both are needed to strike a balance.

Of course, the current debate in public in our part of the world is that there should be an increase in taxes and there should absolutely be no subsidies.

The major argument against subsidies is that subsidies lead to economic inefficiency. This is from the argument that the economy, left it itself, is efficient. Or, rather, will be efficient. This is not a statement of fact; it is a value judgement from laissez faire economics. The statement may be less incorrect if we were to say that subsidies, if improperly introduced and implemented, may leave to economic inefficiency or make the economy less efficient or more inefficient. We do not know that; we have to find out.

But the economy, as it is, is not without interference - not least, taxes from the government. Why is it not argued that because the government taxes people for working through the income tax, the income tax is making the economy less efficient by making people less inclined to work harder. There is also the tax on consumption and this discourages people from consuming because they have to give a portion of their little income to the government (and what is the government going to do with that extra revenue) which the people would have spent feeding their families.

There are also taxes on imports so that imports which we cannot produce ourselves will be more expensive - if the hope (?) that we can make those imports ourselves. The best example must be cars and we are paying good money to drive lousily-made local cars. Whereas, there are things that we have - for example, oil and gas, which we would put to good use ourselves are exported so that we, the producers of oil and gas, have to pay for oil and gas just like other people in the world who do not have oil and gas in their backyard.

If we study the direction of the various taxes, we can see that they are piled up haphazardly by the government as a form of getting more and more revenue because they have been advised by some mediocre economists that the best way for the government to stimulate (whatever this means) the economy is for the government to spend more and more. But taking more and more money from the general public for the government to spend does not encourage the people to want to invest in their future here. They want to get out of the way of the government before the government steamrolled them to death. The government seems to have a life of its own, and it will try to survive at the expense of the people.

There is a need for subsidies. Subsidies are needed in areas which protect the traditional livelihood of the society which defines our traditional culture. As the economy advances, it is inevitable that land and resource based activities will be unable to catch up technologically compared with the other sectors. But the traditional sectors are the food sectors, the agriculture, which are the soul of the society. We are not an island economy which is confined by its size to be super efficient in a small space. We are big enough to have sufficient space for every person who want to continue with our traditional activities. It is something else to argue whether things like cars are essential to the livelihood of society, or that they are mere toys which contribute to the ego of certain leaders of ours - and cars are now the bane of our society.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams: Comedy - Life Is Not A Joke

Robin Williams, being the greatest comedian the world has seen, may have been the saddest man on earth.

He joked about cocaine was God's way of saying that you had too much money. But success has a way of isolating one from the rest of mankind. And out of that loneliness, one becomes an individual. When an individual connects with every individual at the same time, it is as if he could connect with the whole world, even when the whole world is not at one with itself.

No comedian ever intends to be funny. The comedian merely presents the world as it is not what everybody sees it to be, and as a result the situation seems funny to everybody - but not to the comedian. The comedian is dead serious in making a point about the reality of the world, and that reality is disbelieved and hence the comedian seems funny to the audience. Being laughed at, the comedian takes a bow and happily accepts the cash as the applause and duly blow that cash on cocaine. It completes the cycle of the madness of the world, and when the laughing stops, the comedian does not seem that funny anymore. Comedy is dead serious, and life is not a joke.

The world relishes comedy because the world is a sad place. That we can all laugh despite the meaninglessness of everything is that laughter is the only sane response to nervousness, to uncertainty, to ignore, to not knowing what is going to come next. Bit by bit, things happen all the time, sometimes to us but most of the time to everywhere else. Things are happening all the time and we don't know what they are. That's when we try to make sense of life. And when we can't make any sense of the life, that is when we think that life is a joke.

But to go on living, we cannot think that life is a joke. The next level down is that we think that life is funny. And we laugh life off and after the laughter, we get on with the drudgery of life again. And that is called living life.

It is therefore moment by moment that we prod along and when the next moment does not come, that is the end of the game for us.

The blip then goes on elsewhere, and life goes on regardless of us.

RIP, Robin Williams.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Extremism & Its Shades

The current fashion in social networking is to attack the extremism of the current Israeli government which is ultra-right in the sense that it is strongly in defense of the existence of the Israeli state and will do everything it can to eliminate its enemies, real or perceived.

The real culprit, in this case, is the current Israeli government. If they change government, then it may be an entirely different kettle of fish - we do not know yet.

The perceived culprits, in so far as the current fashion of the social network is concerned, is now everything that is Israeli or Jewish. This is a very dangerous generalisation - so dangerous that it is, in fact, the biggest plague in the current flash of human civilisation. So now, everything Jewish or Jewish-related is under attack - even companies doing business in Israel.

I do not agree with the editor of a local newspaper who said for once the local extreme racist group has got it right by shouting abuse, burning the Israeli flag and then went home - for they did not do stupid things like some neitizens who abused local workers of a targeted company by the extreme anti-Isreali gang. It is extreme groups with their mentality in holding to their own special need for survival at the expense of others not of their kind that is the root of social troubles which may simply boil over at the right time for violence against fellow human beings not of their kind to take place.

We cannot support extremism of any kind or in any shade.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Unfortunate Victims Of Unforeseen Circumstances

Misfortune is when something bad happens to us when we least expected it. Death in itself is not wholly unexpected. All humans are mortal. When when death arrives at a moment when we thought there is the next moment, that is tragic. When death is unexpected and sudden, those who died might have felt it for a moment and it is gone. Their last thoughts may not be death, but something pleasant - like looking forward to a holiday in the tropics or meeting up with loved ones. Or, it could also equally be the thought of trying to cheat death, but scurrying along alleyways ducking bullets and bombs which are being indiscriminately rained on an area which the other side is trying to remove a perceived threat or danger.

But to the loved ones who know of the death, their pain and sorrow will stay with them for the rest of their lives. The living mourns for the dead - never the dead for the living. Suddenly, life is not about the material luxury of life, but life itself - the absence of which deprives the living the company of those who are no more with them in this world. The pains or sorrows of mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, wives and husbands, grandmothers and grandfathers - images we now unfortunately have to witness on prime time TV nowadays - is a constant daily assault on our inner peace and quiet, on our perception and understanding of what reality is all about, on our faith in the humanness of human beings, on the need for the good to fight evil, on the vulnerability of the good to turn into evil, on the great risk that we all suffer when we do not watch ourselves lest we unwittingly becomes the very monsters that we would have condemned at leisure.

The reality of the world is that it is both good and evil, it be both light and dark in this world of duality where the two poles can switch from one to the other before our very eyes without us ever knowing it when that switch is taking place. Everybody deludes himself or herself to be good, no matter how evil he or she may have become. Good and evil is a value that arise when we are dealing with fellow human beings or fellow living things. Life goes on by the very force of survival, the constant craving for existence, that the very thought of death is appalling - even when one personally wills death because of the unbearable bodily pain one may unfortunately have to suffer. Death is often a respite to life. Some wise man has said the only way to fight pain and suffering is to deny life raising its head in the first place. To banish the thought of life. To focus on the present. Life until there is no more. But for those who are alive, fight pain and suffering through wisdom, wisdom of the truth of realty, and accept reality for what it is - both the fortunate and unfortunate things.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Urban Poor: Homeless, Jobless & Loveless

The homeless is a problem for the Federal Government as they try to bring Malaysia up to the First World level while being irked by the presence of dirty hungry men and women in the streets of the Golden Triangle in Kuala Lumpur.

Economists are fully aware that the economic model of growth they build are rest squarely on the energies and ingenuity of the clever and able-bodied people. The rest falls by the wayside of mainstream economic development - the disadvantaged, the very young, the very old, the very sick, the uneducated, single parents, the physically handicapped, the mentally handicapped. While the best solution is to help as many of these people to find stable jobs, it is most likely that they may have already failed the conventional social system and hence are being left out in the cold and therefore are difficult to rehabilitate back into the mainstream. There is therefore a need for society to act to help these people, at least, as a means for society to save its own soul so that it can think of itself as a caring society.

This moral obligation of society to itself could have been easier in the good old days of monoculturalism - whatever that may mean, but surely it exists when the whole society sees itself as one. This sense of monoculturism seems to break down when a section of society is seen as alien, and it is mostly likely to be recent immigrants whom the so-called locals feel uncomfortable with because they are unfamiliar with them. It means that the moral obligation of society is unlikely to be stretched to include foreigners in the country.

The response of the government of the day to the homeless is to provide a home for these people to stay, and to keep them off the streets. This follows logically from the idea that all that the homeless needs is a home, so the government provides a shelter and nothing else. We have the welfare minister saying that they provide shelter but no food. This is being typically government servant mentally - they do the barest minimum and justify that they have done their job.

The response of the NGOs is to provide first food and then shelter, in that order of priority. The biggest curse for human beings and all living creatures is that the ingestion of nutrient is a daily requirement, failing which we die. I am always amazed by the persistence of life to cling on to life - this must be a tautology, for without the clinging on to life, there is no life, by definition. (It is only politics and religions that make heroes of death, for it is so counter-intuitive.)

The most stupid argument I have read so far is for the minister to suggest the NGOs go and feed their people in the welfare homes, and not in the streets.

The now more acceptable approach to solve social problems is for the government to consult the affected people and communities to find out what their problems are and to listen to what these people have to say about how they would like to have their problems solved. It is most likely that well-fed politicians will have a different perspective from those who unwillingly have to go hungry when their circumstances are outside their control. These people may want to have a sense of dignity and self-respect and that can only be got from a sense of control of their situation rather than be caught in bureaucracy.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Perception Of Prosperity, Prosperity Of Perception

I am not too sure that I agree completely with the Bank Of England Governor who recently said that there is a structural problem in the UK housing industry in that not enough houses are being built every year.

There is certainly a need to build more houses every year in every country in order to accommodate more new people being born and new families being formed. The number of new houses that has to be built must be equal or proportional to the birth rate or the rate of household formation. This would be in the vein of classical economic analysis. Or in the mode of Marxian argument. But, in modern Keynesian-type analysis, that would called notional demand - the ideal situation when everybody who needs a house would be built a house, regardless of ability to support that notion with the ability to pay. The Keynesians are adamant that your demand is effective only when you have past or future savings to support your wish for a house - effective demand. (Students of economics wasted a substantial amount of time in college debating this point in the seventies.)

I am of course a bit apprehensive over the BOE Governor's recent statement because that statement could in principle be applied anywhere in the world today - if we that into consideration the globalising effect of the three decades of QE, starting with Japan which was then happily exported to the US by Greenspan. We know that the QE is now being tapered off, in the sense that the quantity of pumping cash into the US financial system - and then the global financial system - is now being gradually reduced. We are still talking about net injections, but net withdrawals of funds from the system. In old economics language, monetary policy is still said to be expansionary albeit at a reduced pace.

Under a sustained expansionary global monetary position, it is unlikely that global interest rates will rise. Downward pressure is still being put on interest rates as the system continues to be flooded with liquidity, albeit at a slower pace. The tropical storm is still on although you may feel that the rain is falling not as hard as before.

It is this global QE effect that, in the initial phase, drove the liquidity from the US to China which caused the latter economy to boom and now threatens to be the second largest economy in the world. When China has worn out its competitive advantage of super low wages, that liquidity which has since filtered from US hands to China hands then converted fertile farmlands into construction sites. Blocks and blocks of residential housing are built and left vacant so that speculators can sell as pristine properties for the next buyers who are afraid that they will be left out in the asset-inflation game. When the China authorities begin to curb that asset inflation, the speculators, having learned their tricks, now play their game of speculation outside China. London, among others, becomes the current favourite.

That speculative demand is now driving London properties prices is a truth that cannot be denied. But what to make of it. Of course, such waves of speculation on London properties are inevitable, starting with the Arabs in the 1970s and 1980s, the Japanese during their bubbles years in the 1990s, and now the Chinese. No doubt, London seems to be most precious jewel for the world, with its rich history and culture, or rather its history and cultural richly told to the whole world.

If the intention of the BOE statement is to suggest that foreign (Chinese) buyers are now competing with resident buyers for London properties and that there is a need to build more houses in London, then while more houses may be built it is unlikely that local buyers will be able to afford those houses as surely London property prices will rise according to the demand of the foreign speculative buyers. If the BOE statement is to say those who originally grew up in London will now have to move out of London because they cannot afford to stay in London any more, then there is very much a need to have a major structural plans to build new urban centres outside of London in a way that locals can afford to buy them. This will need a further integration of the public inter-city transport system.

The above analysis can apply to a place like Kuala Lumpur or the Klang Valley, but I am not too sure about Singapore or Hong Kong. Unless you bridges to connect the islands to the nearest mainland.

Now, the danger of all property speculative bubbles is that bubbles will burst. It's a question of whether you allow the bubbles to burst with a bang - which inevitably means banking bankruptcies- or you try to reduce the bubble with a deflation that can take decades to reach equilibrium and during which time incomes will fall faster than prices - and which means a slow and painful death.

The real danger for the BOE or any central bank with a hitherto vibrant real-estate sector is now engineer an adjustment of asset prices which are consistent with current incomes. Most residential properties in urban centres are beyond the reach of ordinary working professionals. Maybe the best thing is for the new potential buyers to hold out and what for sellers to be sensible and even cut losses.

You are king when you have cash in your pocket or a good credit rating. I think the speculators must bite their nails.

Having said that, though, prime is prime and future values are always held in prime locations - until the centre shifts.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Perception Of Poverty, Poverty Of Perception

We were just being told that some people, "to our naked eyes, look like poor people" or people who earn "small salaries but they can still send their children abroad" at their own expenses. "This means they could have under-declared their income." But the GST system "is more progressive as it depends on how much our expenses are."

I think it is dangerous when the Government make statements like this - based not on proper analysis but on impressions. One may be clever at making statements on isolated issues. But isolated issues may be the outcome of an error in the whole system

To my naked mind, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the person who dressed down and live a simple life so that he can save his salaries for the education of his children abroad. There is even something to be admired about such a person because he does not rely on the government for scholarships for his children's education as he knows they will never get the scholarships based on their ethnicity. He knows that, for the future of his children, an overseas education may be worth the money as the local education may not be good enough for his children. Of all persons, a salaried man is likely to be the only salaried man who is honestly paying his taxes. There is just so much ignorance in such a short statement.

The GST should be held up as a major contender against income tax. The debate is whether you tax effort or you tax expenditure. In the old world where money (capital) was scarce, there was the view that profit made out of capital should be taxed, and that incomes from salaries should be taxed to pay for pensions and healthcare and education, and other public services.

Then along came Keynes who said that spending is good for the economy, the more you spend the better the economy. Keynes was right to suggest that government spending should be used to smooth out a temporary cyclical glitch. But expansionary fiscal policy are now wrongly used to cover up the problems of slow growth of an economy with structural errors. Instead of correcting structures, the government continues to spend and it is looking for all kinds of ways to tax in order to keep feeding a badly managed economy.

If the currently thinking is that spending is good for the economy, then this is the wrong time to implement the GST which taxes spending.

If you think that GST is the better revenue generator, then you must let off the consumers by removing totally the taxes on personal incomes. You can keep the taxes on profits.

Just to think that the government will berate the poor citizen who has to live the life of a simple person so that he can rise above the wrongs that his government and his country is doing to him and his family...

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Visit, by Clarissa Tan

 This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Clarissa Tan, who wrote articles and TV reviews for The Spectator, has died of cancer aged 42. She came to London from Singapore after winning this magazine’s Shiva Naipaul prize for travel writing and over the next seven years wrote about a great many things: Asia, race and the East; also smartphones, Sienna and socks. Clarissa paid attention to prose and all her pieces were beautiful and funny but, perhaps most unusually, they rang true. She was much loved by all at The Spectator and we miss her. Here is her prize-winning piece. 

I wish to write about a place of which I know everything yet nothing, where everything is familiar yet strange, a place where I feel I go too often, but never quite enough. This place is the same for everyone, only different.
It is called, of course, Home — not the Home where you now live, but the Home where you were born and in which all things must start.
I used to live in Kuala Lumpur. That is, until I was 15 and my mother rode the Ekspres Rakyat with me to Singapore, where I was to continue my studies. ‘Be careful,’ were her last words to me as she got ready to hop on the next train back to Malaysia. My mother asks you to be careful about everything. You could be sitting quietly reading a book, and she would say: Be careful.
Nowadays, I fly. The KL-Singapore shuttle, as it is called, takes no longer than an hour. You leave an airport that touts itself as the Best in the World, to land in an airport that touts itself as the Best in the World. I can tell you this — the KLIA is bigger, but Changi International has the better coffee.
It is far more expensive to fly than to take the train or the bus, of course. Even I feel the pinch sometimes. I, with my swanky job that takes the pulse of the heart of the financial world, a job that no one really understands when I try to explain it to them. A job that in no way approaches what some of my friends earn, but still pays me more in a month than my mother ever earned in a year. I reel from that knowledge sometimes. It makes me feel both guilty and triumphant.
My mother has cancer. They detected it four months ago. She bent down to pick up something, and couldn’t get up again for the pain. My sister drove her to the hospital in the middle of the night — in fact, she drove her to many hospitals, as not all were equally hospitable — and the final diagnosis came after several weeks and a major operation: cancer in the colon, Stage 3. Cancer comes in phases, like a modern housing development.
So these days I fly home. It is faster, more convenient, more comfortable. I can make trips to Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, and be back at work in Singapore on Monday morning.
I know I must sound heartless. I am prepared to sound heartless, for if not I would sound heart-full, and what would be the point of that?
My niece picks me up at the airport. It is Christmas, so there is tinsel hanging here and there at Arrivals, and a Body Shop has wrapped all its soaps and scrubs in different-coloured packaging so that hurried and guilt-ridden travellers can pick up a gift right after Customs and just before Limousine Taxi.
‘Auntie Weng is at your home,’ my niece tells me, as we get into her SUV. ‘She has come with Fiona and Litta and little John-John and Grace.’ I raise my eyebrows, then shrug in reply.
The SUV guzzles the miles between the airport and the sprawling suburb of Puchong, where my parents live. Puchong is one of those satellite towns, as the property agents like to call them, that are supposed to contain all amenities and attractions, so their inhabitants don’t have to commute to central KL for everything, further clogging the capital’s arteries. In Malaysia, all amenities and attractions must necessarily include at least one cineplex, at least two hypermarkets, at least four shopping malls, a Fitness First, three Coffee Beans and three Kenny Rogers Roasters.
Sure enough, my parents’ house is full of guests. It is Christmas, after all, and my Aunt Weng has come to pay her eldest sister a visit.
‘Well, hello!’ they all say, beaming at me. ‘Isn’t that nice, she’s back.’
And then: ‘So when are you leaving?’
And then: ‘What, so soon?’
I heave my little overnight bag upstairs and feel everyone scrutinising me when I come back down. ‘Those are nice shoes that you have out there,’ my cousin Litta says, giving me a sidelong glance. ‘Are they Bonia?’
‘No,’ I reply curtly. Then, inexplicably and untruthfully: ‘They are Yves Saint Laurent.’
I don’t even know if YSL makes shoes.
There are raised eyebrows across the room. How can I, with an ailing mother, afford to spend so much on shoes?
‘Don’t worry,’ I hear myself say. ‘I’ve been saving money from all those tips I used to get as a karaoke hostess.’
Nervous giggles. Some foot-shuffling. My mother, sitting at the corner of the room, looks embarrassed.
‘Have you bought property?’ was Litta’s way of filling the subsequent silence.
The fact that, at 34, I have yet to buy a house must prove a source of consternation to my mother. Through the years, she has seen cousin after cousin of mine upgrade from terrace house to semi-detached double-storey to triple-decker bungalow with super-sensory lighting and imported crazy paving in the garden. ‘Betty has an antique railway track running by an artificial lake, you know,’ she told me on one of my trips home.
Perhaps I wasn’t the type to marry and settle down. Perhaps I would never have children. But a house? Surely even I could get a house. ‘I’m not interested in buying property,’ I say, this time truthfully. ‘Even if I was, I wouldn’t buy in Singapore or Malaysia. I just had a friend who bought one in New Zealand, and another one who’s just sold his house in Portugal.’
Why, oh why, do I say such things? Vulgar and vengeful, the words come out before I can stop them.
‘Oh,’ says Litta, lowering her eyes. ‘I have joined this club on the internet and I will be going to Italy and America to meet the other members.’

When my relatives finally get up to go, they leave behind a trail of paper plates and best wishes for the season. Also, Christmas presents for my mum, my dad, my two sisters and me. I hadn’t bought them any.
My mother was brought up a Buddhist but in her mid-fifties she became a Christian. In Malaysia, the ethnic Malays are predominantly Muslim, while those of Chinese origin, like my family, are either Buddhist, Taoist or, in growing numbers, Catholic and Protestant.
I used to go to church but I don’t anymore. At least, not to the ‘charismatic’, fundamentalist strain my mother and many of my aunts go to. I can no longer do that hand-raising, happy-clappy stuff.
More than wanting me to possess a husband and a house, my mother would love to see me go back to the church.
‘How are you, Ma?’
‘I am feeling fine. I am finishing the second cycle now of my chemotherapy tablets. The other day, I was combing my hair and a lot of it fell out. But the doctor said, you are not supposed to lose hair with this medication. I am very upset. I was supposed to do six cycles but now the doctor tells me there’s been a change and now everyone must do eight cycles. Sad, lah. I thought it would be over very soon. Eh. You cannot touch the chemo tablets, you know. The doctor said for people who do not have cancer, even touching the tablets will affect them in a very bad way. Funny, eh?’
My mother’s hands are shaking even more than usual. The plastic cup that she’s carrying clatters noisily as she holds it to her lips, the spoon inside jangling nervously. She offers me biscuits with her other tremulous hand.
If we travel even further back in time, to when Malaysia was not even a country yet, you will be able to see my mother, not as she is now, but as a girl. The oldest child of a family of 12, and a daughter, she had all the responsibilities and none of the rewards.
From the age of seven, whenever there was no food or money in the house, she was sent to beg for rice in the streets. When the Japanese came, she and the family had to run into the jungle and hide there for many years. They grew sweet potatoes and some people fell sick with beri-beri for lack of vitamins. When they came out again after the war, my mother quit school and became a secretary. The British were leaving. At that time, a flavoured ice-ball cost only one cent.
We have heard this, and other stories like it, many times. They have taken an air of familiarity and yet strangeness, as though the more you listen to them, the more of a foreigner you feel. And the stories become so faraway, so unlike your own, privileged, every-day experiences that listening to them starts to feel like an invasion. Only it hurts you, the invader, as much as the invaded.
The story of my sister is even stranger and more remote. My sister lives in a world of her own. Prone to epileptic fits as a child, she was struck by an intense seizure coupled with high fever when she was eight. After that, she was never the same again. At school, she was much slower than the others and finally dropped out when she failed every subject.
‘Red eggs,’ my mother used to say, describing this episode to me. ‘All she brought home was red eggs.’
In Chinese families, when a baby is 100 days old, we celebrate by handing out goodies including hard-boiled eggs that are dyed red. But children who bring back report cards full of zeroes marked in scarlet ink, like my sister, are also said to be presenting red eggs.
I speak of my Second Sister; my First, who lives three streets away from my parents, was the one who sent her daughter to pick me up at the airport.
I was born 14 years after Second Sister was born, six years after she started living in her new world. When I myself turned six and learnt to read, I tried to teach Second Sister all that I knew. I made her do maths and spelling; and everything my teacher taught me, I tried to transmit to her in turn. But the process was slow. It seemed as though Second Sister just didn’t want to catch up. One day, I threw a book at her.
Today, she is sitting on the sofa, singing a hymn to herself. She, at least, follows my mother to church.
‘How is your job?’ my father, sitting in the corner, suddenly asks.
‘It’s good, Pa, good.’
‘How many people work for your company?’
‘I dunno. A few hundred, I guess.’
‘Wah. Very big. Did you bring your business card?’
‘No, Pa. I forgot. But you won’t find my title or anything like that on it anyway, Pa. My company doesn’t believe in putting designations on business cards.’
‘Why? WHY?’ shrieked my dad.
Second Sister starts cackling with laughter, whether at or with my father, I cannot say.
‘So do they have a canteen for you in the office?’
‘Uh. Kind of, Pa.’
‘And what kind of food?’
‘All kinds of food, Pa.’
‘Wah, very good. And the building how many floors?’
‘Twenty floors. But my office only takes up one floor, Pa.’
‘Wah. Still very big.’
‘It’s time for dinner,’ my mother announces, getting up shakily from her chair. ‘I have made curry and sambal fish, I know you like. Tomorrow we will have big prawns, three ringgit each. Nowadays everything so expensive. Very hard to find.’
‘Yes, Ma,’ I say.

In my bedroom, on the dresser, there is a Christmas card waiting for me, written by Second Sister.
mErrY ChRIStmAs, it says. Hapy NeW yEARR to U. xXxx.

Yesterday, when you were young, you thought that everyone came from your country, understood your language and sang your music. But then, as you grew up and met more and more people from more and more places, you realised that everyone comes from a different land, where they do things in a different way.
You have to explain to them, sometimes very slowly, ‘My mother is this-and-this, my sister is that-and-that.’ And they, in their turn, will say in their tongue, ‘My father is such-and-such, and my brother does so-and-so.’ And you will say, ‘That’s funny, in my family, we do things like THIS, and when we are trying to achieve THIS, we will do THAT.’ And they in their turn will go, ‘No, no, no. In my family, when we say THIS, we mean THIS, and when we do THAT, we are trying to say THAT. And when we are angry, we do THIS. And when we are sad, we do THIS.’
And sometimes, when you are very lucky, you find people who understand what you are trying to say, without much effort. But at other times, both you and they are at a loss.

The day of my leaving is bright and clear. After several days of rain, a benign sun has come out to light the sky. Outside in the little square plot of garden, my parents’ clothes hang to dry, twisting in the wind.
In my bag, besides my clothes, I have my presents from all the family. My mother, as usual, has given me another carry-all, which she has filled with various-sized Tupperwares of cooked food — more big prawns, fried kangkong, achar, another curry. She has also stuffed the bag with oranges and large apples from China, ‘in case Singapore don’t have’.
The four of us stand awkwardly in the living-room, where there are still some unopened gifts from Auntie Weng and Litta. We wait for the sound of a car-horn, which would signal that First Sister, or one of her children, has arrived to take me to the airport.
Before I leave there is the cheque-signing ceremony. This is when I open my chequebook and ask my parents how much they need. I also write cheques for the coming few months, all dated for the beginning of the month so that they can withdraw the money at regular intervals and because I, too, receive my pay on a monthly basis.
My father, who used to be a cashier at the Chartered Bank, now Standard Chartered, scrutinises every cheque. He checks the date, the amount and the signature. He checks if I have crossed it correctly and if I have addressed it to the right person.
‘If you make any mistake, all you have to do is sign again next to your correction,’ he tells me, not for the first time.
How many families perform this ritual? Only all families who hail from the same land, I suppose. Or is each cheque-signing ceremony unique and therefore particular to each family? Do they all have their own weird little mannerisms and customs surrounding each signing?
Is this an increasingly foreign language that is dying?
The greedy roar of an SUV signals that First Sister has arrived. We say our goodbyes. I tell my mother that I will call her as soon as I land in Singapore, and that she must call me often and tell me how she is doing.
She says: ‘Remember, you must heat the food immediately when you get home or put it in the fridge.’
I count slowly in my head. My mother has six more chemotherapy cycles to go.
My farewells to my father and Second Sister are brief. It is not that we are distant or uncaring, you understand. In my family, this is how we do things.
I get in the car, and as it speeds off, I turn around to gaze at my father, mother and Second Sister, huddled against the gate, a little triangle waving at the disappearing vehicle. They look small and weak, and they get smaller and smaller and weaker.
I clutch at the handle of the window. I smile, I wave. My hand is shaking and I find I can no longer be still. My heart whispers the same thing again and again, familiarly and frantically. It is a mantra or a prayer, depending on where you come from.
‘Be careful, be careful. Oh god, please be careful.’

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Living With Risks & Uncertianty

We all live in constant fear of risks and uncertainty. The sole purpose of all our entire lives seems to be to remove those risks and uncertainty.

Well, risks cannot be entirely banished, as the recent unfortunate aviation incident demonstrates so clearly. However low the risk, so long as the risk exists, it will happen one day. To the general population, there may be, for example, one unfortunate person in a million. But to that one person, the probability is either zero or one - whether it will happen or not. The laws of probability is good for insurance companies or companies that profit from selling protection from risks. But probability has no meaning for a particular individual.

As individuals, we deal with uncertainty. Most of the time, either we know or we do not know - we do not have foreknowledge. If we know the future, there are many things which we will no do now - like eating and drinking excessively and working too hard. And there are quite a few things too that we will do - like making lots of money.

All our lives, the things we do are our responses to uncertainty. The native farmer prays to the god of heaven for rain, and the god of soil for fertility. The poor urban dwelling prays for good business, even if he or she is selling cakes for breakfast. Poor families produce many children as insurance against infant mortality and having sufficient food to eat everyday with more people scrounging to feed the parents. Resourceful poor parents work and save to send their children to good schools in the hope of better incomes in future. At work, employees play politics in order to secure their careers and to be at the top of the pack. Boys and girls, regardless of their looks, work hard to beautify themselves in order to be attractive so as to secure companionship or economies of scale.

Midlife crisis, which seems to hit those who are successful, arises when there is no more financial uncertainty. When people are financially independent, what do they do, apart from playing the stock market pretending to maximise their return on investment in a game of roulette and many theories are formed. Midlife crisis happens when all the things we have been taught and learned when we were young become useless information because they are not useful to us anymore. Now that I have enough money, what do I do next?

Those who find a second career survives. Those who do not die a lonely death.

Of all the things we are taught in life, there is one thing we are not taught - how to die. Maybe because death is not an uncertainty, death ceases to be a problem. Death ends all problems for the person who dies.

But if we are going to make the best of our lives - before we die, we must have death constantly in our mind, so that we do not forget that we may be dead in the next moment. This frame of mind, although seemingly sick, is a very healthy response to the problem of death. While death may be certain for every mortal, the time of death is still uncertain. Every moment is potentially the last moment, and hence we must live the moment as if it is the last moment. There is a growing movement on how to live the now. Our own simple reflection should be able to tell us how we should live.

Taking the world as a whole, uncertainty has been banished by knowledge and the result of knowledge is clarity - not cleverness. But human beings do not know everything, so there is still be scope for learning - until, I suppose, when our own minds become clear. We have also globally solved the  problem of wealth by printing money, now made easier by electronically generated numbers. We now live in a virtually secure environment, doing very little and playing with on-off lights or electrical pulses. The current flotation of the world with excessive cash is rearranging the wealth of societies and nations - those with money are happy, those with no money simply die. As the world becomes more conducive for procreation, as a result of success in healthcare which keep infants and the very old alive for a long long time. The greatest uncertainty in all these advancement is the natural environment without which humans cannot survive. The natural environment is the ultimate means of savings for human kind - if the survival of human beings is a concern. If not, we know that the cosmos will continue to evolve, and the age of humans will soon be gone - in universal time. Human beings are here on earth for the moment.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Living With Others

Having defined exactly what and who we are as individuals, how do we live with other individuals?

Most, if not all, individuals interact with others because they each have something in common with the others.

In the family, it is this idea of blood being the common and members of a family are compelled to take care of each other. In traditional societies, the extended family is the welfare state and the challenge of each family against another family is to see whose family will last the greatest number of generations. (There are also those who are quite happy to annihilate theirs right within the current generation because to them life is suffering and not worth keeping.) That is why some families leave behind commercial and political empires on earth.

In society in general, there is a tendency to pursue a uniform way of life. Traditionally, these have been dictated by folk festivities which surrounded the agrarian economy, as there is a season and time for work and a time for play. Eventually, these get supplanted by religious commands which tries to replace communal or tribal authorities. The struggle for power between the political and religious continues until today. So long as religious power overwhelms political power, there is a tendency for one religion to try to dominate the rest. If political power is in control, the tendency is for one race to dominate the others.

There is also a battle between political power and economic power. Political is often derived through the exploitation of economic power, as businessmen back politicians. Economic power can be pursued with economic power, as businessmen gain political power and re-configure the economy according to his or her advantage.

Against this confusing array of conflicts in human societies, Plato suggested the Philosopher-King or the Benevolent Dictator - one authority who knows what to do in the interests of all individuals and for society as a whole. For this to be plausible, there must be a common elements in all that is otherwise very messy among human colours.

Of course, the common element in all societies of human beings are human beings - and their right to exist on this earth. It is this protection of human lives and the assistance given to the poor and incapacitated that has influenced our thinking on how to live together with each other and with others. We may be look different, eat different, talk different, but we should be able to recognise ourselves as fellow human beings.

It is only when human societies are not properly organised and when some unfortunate ones who are left out of the mainstream that some troubles might start - such as stealing to feed oneself and one's family. The challenge is simply to find things for people to do to feed themselves and to keep themselves occupied, apart from being occupied by non-action as would be through meditation.

But the greatest wisdom could be that there is a place on earth for each and everyone and somehow one should be able to live, the degree of comfort or pleasure may be determined purely by our own expectations of ourselves. Living in confidence is probably an important first step for living well with others, so that one is always prepared to share with one's neighbours which can only be easy when one has no worries about tomorrow.

To be able to live happily in the here and now is critical for living well with others, no matter who they may be.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Living With Ourselves

Since we can't get away from ourselves - except through mind-altering substances or madness - I suppose we just have to learn to with with individual selves.

It is tempting to attribute all cleverness to ourselves and faults to others. It is the wisdom of all religious teachings to attribute all cleverness to others and faults to ourselves. By blaming others, there is nothing much you can do to change things, unless you are really madness and decide to decimate everyone else - this has been done many times before in recent history. By taking faults to be our own, we have to learn to cultivate ourselves so that we are at one with society and the rest of nature. Learning to cultivate ourselves is called the art of living.

The Taoist masters will tell you that the most versatile way of living is the natural course way, which is the way of the water which flows smoothly through all obstacles and in the end be at one with the mighty ocean. It is certainly true that human life is nothing but a series of downhill steps as far as the physical aspects of all creatures are concerned. We, of course, would like to think ourselves to be constant and undying and live forever, which gives us this idea, from all pagans, of the spirit and, from the ancient Greek, the idea of soul. It is this undying part of ourselves which we are trying to cultivate despite the frailty of the body.

The undying part, we will discover, consists of several layers. First, we have ideas - thoughts that we get from our parents, families, friends, teachers, and the media, and not excluding politicians and religious preachers. In our formative years, these ideas are important, as they help us to live with others in society by sharing common values and common expectations. These ideas are important also because they drive the modern prosperity, with new inventions and new ways of making use of the materials that we find around us, by remoulding and reshaping them into objects which we can fall in love with. In modern management teaching, these ideas are called creative ideas and by "thinking out of the box" we get more and more of different lines of thinking - and hurray, the world we live in is full of concepts and things, just like a supermarket. We can shout with joy, or we can live in despair as to how to choose in order to focus on what is good.

Second, we will discover that in a world without ideas and concepts, we have the mind - this vast expanse of the interior of ourselves which we can dwell in forever in peace and quiet, so long as we do not allow thoughts to arise and interfere with the calmness and clarity. While the most common way of achieving this state of mind is said to be through meditation - which is true - but it is not entirely by itself only. The way to a clear and calm mind is through wisdom - and understanding or what is and what is not, to be able to discern reality from fiction created by our forebears and ourselves, and to not run away from the certainty of our eventual demise.

Wisdom is achieved by reading and observation, which together is customarily called education. Education is to learn from those who have learned before us, by Mencius's definition. Therefore, we read to have conversation with dead poets and thinkers and wise men and women. We reflect in quiet solitude in order to realise their true meaning. We observe whether their sayings are true in reality.

Having had wisdom, the next step is to act wisely, meaning in accordance with our understanding of things as they are. Of course, everybody acts whether we consider he or she to be wise, for he or she may think himself or herself so, as others will think of us as being crazy. But the beauty of this is that everybody get to live the life that he or she thinks fit, so long as he or she does not prevent others from doing so as well. This is the great mantra of the freedom of speech and the freedom of the individual - which was a revolt from the control of whole societies in the past by religious elders and now by political despots.

Putting aside the world for the time being, the ultimate challenge for each one of us is to discover ourselves (i.e., our own truths) and then live accordingly. Simple, and it is.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part IV)

Our own standard of living is the product of our own doing - be it high or low according to some comparison with the past or with others today - and it is really up to us to achieve that standard.

At the most basic level, our standard of living is based on our own ability to acquire what we need or what we want - farm or hunt for food, weapons, housing, transportation, amusement, spiritual pursuits (usually to remove some form of uncertainty). We do it our own way, with the benefit of teachings from wise old men in the communities of long ago or recent past, with what we usually term as "our way of life" or our "culture."

These traditional cultures are very dear to most of us because they give us a sense of identify of ourselves and of our community. The purpose again is to remove uncertainty as to behaviour or acceptance, so that we can sleep sound together without fear of being harmed in the middle of the night.

The advancement of knowledge and technology in the last few hundred years have opened up a whole new world of standards, whereby we are able to create things that we all want to use or play with. The march of knowledge and technology is incessant - but whether it is always for the better is a subject for discussion.

Even with the availability of knowledge and technology at our disposal, whether we are able to enjoy them or not depends on our ability to absorb them and make use of them. For those who cannot do technology, they can still access it if they can do good in their area of specialisation and earn the means to acquire it. This indirect route of acquisition of knowledge and technology is by far the most efficient and hence prevalent today.

But there are societies today which are unable to enjoy the frontiers of technology because of their inability to absorb and to apply. We know societies which have spent a mass amount of cash to build sophisticated equipment which are left to rot because they are not being maintained properly or simply left unutilised. It is this waste of technology that is probably most pitiful especially when the drudgery of living can so much reduced with the aid of some simple machines.

The standard of living is therefore nothing but the state of our minds, as all inventions are the product of the imaginations of human beings. The world is so much richer for its multitude of gadgets and fiction.

It is inevitable that those who have an overdose of technology would yearn for the simpler life of the "past" which can always be found in some remote interiors or islands. But probably only for a respite. This is where "cultural" tourism comes in.

We decide how we want to live - except for those who are held in confinement against their will.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part III)

When politicians make the statement that they will improve the standard of living of the rural areas to that of the cities, the emphasis is on the word "improve". So, it will be a progressive process of efforts over many years to try to improve the livelihood, and that can go on forever as the cities also progress.

Equality is an ideal concept which we all try to pursue for society but which in practice is very difficult. No two persons can really be equal, as equal as they may be as twins. But it is possible to have equality at major points that those points can be established beforehand.

In the rural-urban divide, the key points will be livelihood (or opportunities for), public services (such as education, healthcare, water, electricity, roads), connectivity (such as airports, seaports, telecommunications), others such as public housing and public transport. It is doubtful whether the rural areas will get highrise buildings where land is plentiful and the people unused to unnatural heights. Nor do you get heavily regulated roads as in the inner cities.

It is in taking into consideration the whole situation together that one can make any sense of how to compare the rural with the urban or the islands with the mainland. It is a political ploy to pick one or two factors for emphasis as an expression of dissatisfaction or incompleteness.

I suppose at the end of the day, the ultimate objective must be to ensure that every member of our society, if we are to be proud of the society in which we live, enjoys a decent standard of living, no matter how poor. The key elements must be general cleanliness, health and education so that the individual is able to make the most for himself or herself instead of being a burden on the rest of society. This is where we must look back at the simpler and more rudimentary lives of our youth or of the past to appreciate that prosperity does not necessarily consist of an endless accumulation of material junk at home or elsewhere. It can just be a life simply lived in peace and quiet.

But we cannot stop human beings from being themselves, as they try to obtain assurances and reassurances from themselves or others that they will be alright in the future, that the future is going to be alright for them. If the society is small, there could be communal co-operation as in rural communities. In large urban settings where neighbours do not know each other, then all frustrations must be directed at useless public figures who can only make promises, whilst intelligent persons like the complainants themselves feel helpless. The level of comfort is different in the rural and urban areas. Some people call it stress, others call it drive.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Standard Of Living (Part II)

It may be said that generally the standard of living today is better than the standard of living in the past (however back we may want to go) especially in terms of material advancement, except for the poor for whom the earth does not seem to belong to them.

What I mean is that, if we are to reflect, what we are enjoying or could enjoy today is much better than what our parents or grandparents did enjoy or could have enjoyed in their times - in general of course. If we think that the smartphone is anywhere superior to the land-line or the post, then the statement is true. If we think of the benefits of clusters in towns compared with solitary isolation in remote villages, then the statement is true.

There will be those who argue that the world has gone wrong and going back to the simple life of days gone by is the best thing to do for mankind, and they will disagree with the statement. There will be families who used to have great fortunes and are now reduced to poverty, then they may be also disagree. But in general, I think it is fair to say that life today is much much better than before.

The point is that, regardless or where you are today, be it Washington or a far flung island on the South Seas, regardless of the size of your wallet or the number of vacant real estate that you have managed to amass around the world, as you sit quietly in your own home, you must surely feel that you are lucky to be alive today and have the opportunity to enjoy what the world today has to offer. I have often said that life is like a buffet lunch - you can choose what you want to consume.

The prosperity of the world today is the variety of goods and services that are in the market for anyone of us to consume or try to consume (like that Leica Monochrom whom most of us cannot really afford).  We may not in the end consume them, but to have that opportunity is a god-send.

As the markets grow and the world shrinks, it is really up to each of us to what we want to do in order to enjoy ourselves while we are alive in this world. There could be other worlds, but we do not know for sure - though we can imagine for sure. The certainty is now, and now is real.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Standard Of Living

The standard of living is different from the cost of living.

As a rule of thumb, they are inversely related: the higher the cost of living, the lower is the standard - all other things being equal, especially the level of income.

The problem is this: the higher the income, the higher are the prices. There are many factors involved. The quality of the goods and services consumed are generally higher, because you get to pay more for it. The place you eat is air-conditioned, the waitresses are pretty and well-costumed, the table cloth is nicer looking, the plates are gold-rimmed. If in general, you get what you pay for, higher prices would therefore means higher quality and hence a higher standard of the things you consume. That is, you have that level of income to pay for it.

But higher income also means that you really do have to work so much harder for it. You may get the same wage rate per hour but if you work very long hours, and you have a bit of profit share thrown in, then you could have a very income at the end of the year - compared to your friends who are having a good fun in the village socialising all day long.

The pursuit of wealth is a human flaw driven by a sense of uncertainty of the future, as if wealth can bring reassurance that our future is good when we suffer (work hard) to acquire it, eschewing all normal commual relationships, except those that deal with money. There is certainly a cost in the pursuit of high income, and it is often in human values, wholesomeness of being, peace of mind, calmness of nerves, and, if I may add, health as in gums and teeth and lungs and liver.

The world of high income is an artificial world, in the sense that it is a world that is disconnected with the natural reality - deliberately. It is a Matrix created where the pumping in of money, in whatever form, is meant to stimulate the residents inside, and they all run here and there full of activities and anxiety, and that high level of activity, to economists, is measured as GDP. The money pumped which then flooded everybody and everywhere is income. The valuation of piles of bricks and mortar is the value of real estate.

But in far flung places like Sarawak or Saipan, where man-made structures are few and far in between, man lives with nature in a spiritual connection in that there is fear and hence respect for the unknown, where human restraint and humbleness is the proper behaviour in life, each living on the barest minimal of materials which sustaining himself in high spirits, there is that sense of oneness with nature, a sense of being alive. The money income is low, the rate of consumption is low, but the rate of saving of the natural environment is huge, through abstinence.

The World Bank tries to measure the standard of living through the instrument of PPP - Purchasing Power Parity - by adjusting money with prices and other things (since a house is a house is a house, now matter how much it costs). There are debates.

For me, it is futile business to try to compare judgements and values. The highest standard of living lies in your preferred way of life, if you are already pursuing it. All other ways of life is therefore sub-optimal, and your goal is to go from sub-optimal to optimal.

My favourite quip is that most of us live only half a life - only the good life. But life is both good and bad which we should both if we want to live a full life. That's why artists live on the fringe and swing between jubilation and depression.